Movies, movies, movies!

Nurse Bob's film reviews

When rating a film I ask myself these three questions: What is the director’s goal or purpose? How does the director try to achieve it? Is the director successful? Hence a big box office hit may get a “5” while a Eurosleaze sexploitation flick gets a “7”. My rating system in a nutshell:

10 = Brilliant!
9 = Exceptional
8 = Very Good
7 = Good
6 = Average
5 = Forgettable
4 = Bad
3 = Dismal
2 = Dog Barf
1 = Beyond Awful


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Deadpool 2
(USA 2018) (8): The novelty of the first film may have worn off, but the in-jokes, double entendres, and celebration of gore are just as fresh as they ever were in this worthy sequel to the 2016 anti-superhero blockbuster—and this time around Brad Pitt, Hugh Jackman, Matt Damon, and Barbara Streisand (sort of) lend a few cameos. Still reeling from a personal tragedy, Wade Wilson, aka Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds as hilariously snarky as ever), finds he must use his superpowers to save a mutant child marked for death by a heavily armed soldier from the future (hunky Josh Brolin providing cyborg fantasy fodder). To this end he assembles a team of inept X-Men wannabes (one vomits acid, one simply saw the ad in a newspaper) and sets about tearing up the streets of Vancouver—I remember them filming this!—as the body count inexorably rises in various imaginatively disgusting ways. That’s pretty well all you need to know because if you loved the first instalment you’ll at least like this one with its barrage of colourful language and Reynolds’ endearing habit of breaking character to address the audience directly. The CGI department certainly stepped up their game as well—the mutant fight scenes provide brilliant examples of comic book choreography while the music director dusted off some old CDs to offset the annoying cacophony of dubstep shrieks. Don’t worry, things will blow up and blood will paint the walls. A supernatural side story involving Heaven threatens to derail the fun with an overdose of schmaltz but it’s quickly dispelled once the final credits begin to scroll. Of course if you didn’t appreciate part one you can always stay home and watch old reruns of Spiderman cartoons.

The Heineken Kidnapping
(Netherlands 2011) (6): In 1983 Heineken Brewery scion Alfred Heineken was kidnapped and the manhunt which ensued became a media sensation that tested the European legal system. The first half of Maarten Treurniet’s admittedly highly fictionalized account starts out as a genuine nail-biter with the determined bad guys—whose de facto leader, Rem, has a personal grudge to settle—trying to cover all bases as their painstaking plan comes to fruition. But once the deed is done the film’s tight direction begins to unravel and never quite manages to produce a satisfying conclusion. For one thing Treurniet can’t seem to make up his mind whether Rem (an intense but uneven performance from Reinout Scholten van Aschat) is an angry young man making bad decisions for good reasons or simply a sociopathic bastard. Likewise, Heineken ( a stone-faced Rutger Hauer) is a contradictory mix of middle-aged angst—a side story involving his estranged wife is pure Hallmark moments—and cold-blooded tycoon, especially once the tables are turned. And then there are the narrative gaps which make it appear as if the studio lost a vital reel en route to the theatre leaving you to wonder how the police managed to just suddenly show up one day. Lastly, Treurniet commits the one cinematic sin I can never forgive when he tries to strong-arm his audience into placing their sympathy where it is neither warranted nor deserved. The period details are nice, the acting is generally believable, and Treurniet knows how to ratchet up the suspense when he has to. But the film’s lack of believable human parts—Rem’s suffering parents, Heineken’s pining wife, and a problematic three-way all coming across as nothing more than props—ultimately brings the whole thing down.

2046
(Hong Kong 2004) (7): Wong Kar-Wai follows up his arthouse hit In The Mood for Love with yet another billowy meditation on man’s endless yearning for intimacy in the face of loneliness and isolation. While wasting his life in cheap hotels between Hong Kong and Singapore during the politically turbulent late 60s, hack journalist Chow (heartthrob Tony Leung) works on his big opus—an erotic sci-fi novel set in 2046. Both a destination and a time, 2046 is the place where people go to recapture lost memories because, “…in 2046 nothing ever changes. But nobody knows if that is true because no one has ever come back.” In Chow’s case those memories, both real and fictional, revolve around a series of women who take up residence in the suite next to his (can you guess the room number?) From the lovelorn daughter of the innkeeper who’s forbidden to see her Japanese boyfriend to the fiery escort (heartthrob Gong Li) who sells herself short to the lifelike android who can only feel emotions 24 hours after they occur, Chow’s women form a mosaic of lost opportunities and misguided affections as Wong’s story snakes languorously not only between time and place but between reality and fabrication as well. Of course, as with all of Wong’s productions, presentation is as vital as the story itself and 2046 definitely provides a master class in sight and sound. A score which includes Christmas carols, Latin beats, and pining opera arias underlines the onscreen melancholia while incidental sounds—a pair of clicking stilettos receding into the darkness, rain pinging off a rusted street lamp—lends it a sad familiarity. Visually stunning with long takes, slow motion pans, and a palette of three idealized colours: scarlet, gold, and emerald green, Wong focuses his camera through geometrical constructs with doorways and windows framing characters and often relegating them to a corner of the screen while the rest is shrouded in blackness. Rapturously poetic yet tediously repetitious at the same time, Wong doesn’t so much gaze into his own navel as give us cause to stare longingly into our own.

Pollyanna
(USA 1960) (7): When little orphaned Pollyanna (Golden Globe winner Hayley Mills) is sent to live with her wealthy aunt Polly (Jane Wyman) in Vermont she’s in for a bit of a culture shock. Used to the austere life of her missionary parents she is at first gobsmacked by the opulence of her new home until she gradually comes to realize there is not a lot of happiness in the small town of Harrington, especially within the walls of aunt Polly’s imposing mansion. She is one determined waif however and her unwavering belief that there is “always something to be glad about” eventually weaves a spell over the citizenry from cantankerous recluse Mr. Pendergast and bitter old hypochondriac Mrs. Snow (Adolphe Menjou, Agnes Moorehead) to the lonely and spinsterish Aunt Polly herself who rules the town with an iron fist. But when Pollyanna finds her own sunny disposition threatened, the people of Harrington stand poised to lose their newly found smiles… Not quite the Disney treacle-fest one would expect thanks in large part to Mills’ believable moppet and those meticulous 1913 set designs (oh that train!), David Swift’s screen adaptation of Eleanor H. Porter’s novel offsets its many “fluffy bunny” moments—I can still taste that cloyingly sweet ending—with some good old-fashioned family entertainment brimming with inoffensive childhood mischief (Pollyanna climbs a tree!) and a generous dollop of patriotic Americana in the form of a town square celebration. Karl Malden also adds some needed gravitas as a socially inept fire-and-brimstone preacher who discovers a gentler way to save souls thanks to Pollyanna’s sage advice. Veteran character actors Reta Shaw, Mary Grace Canfield, and Donald Crisp round out the cast with hunky Richard Egan providing a love interest and a very young Kevin Corcoran stumbling through his lines as a rambunctious inmate of the Harrington Orphanage. Even though Santa Rosa, California and Disney’s Burbank studios do not exactly conjure up a convincing New England, Pollyanna’s rose-tinted joie de vivre still proves infectious to the point I actually found a tear in the corner of one eye. Goddamn you Walt Disney!

How I Live Now
(UK 2013) (5): Armageddon becomes a sappy teen romance in Kevin MacDonald’s adaptation of Meg Rosoff’s novel which, despite some sobering moments of violence, is pretty much the same derivative dreck those Twilight crowds seem to lap up. Beset by OCD, anorexia, and annoying voiceovers in her head, fifteen-year old American brat Daisy (Saoirse Ronan making a bad career choice) is sent from Los Angeles to live with her aunt in rural England just as Europe is about to enter WWIII (why?!). Determined to resist the countryside’s rustic charms as well as the cloying goodness of her little cousins (Harley Bird stealing the show as the precocious ginger, Piper), Daisy’s bitchy defences are eventually breached when she meets older cousin Edmund (George MacKay). Quiet, gentle, and possessing a unique ability to read people and animals alike, “Eddie” provides the calm eye to Daisy’s emotional storm but the two barely have enough time to consummate their first kiss before Hell breaks loose and the family is split up by the military authorities. The rest of the film then becomes a slogging road movie as Daisy, with Piper in tow to provide dramatic balance thank gawd, tries to reconnect with her cousin-lover while the world burns around her… A gauzy, sun-dappled prelude clashes rather than contrasts with later scenes of gang rape and bullet-riddled corpses while a soundtrack of breathless ballads and drippy piano riffs makes you wonder what, exactly, you’re supposed to be feeling—oh no, that child’s been shot in the head, but ooh look there’s a bird in the sky! Add to that some quasi-supernatural nonsense as Daisy’s troubled dreams include Edmund calling to her from various locations and a nude body double traipsing through Eden and you have a decent premise turned into pure adolescent schmaltz. An unseen nuclear detonation is horrifying in its simplicity however and reminiscent of a similar scene from 1983’s Testament, but the whole production ultimately feels rushed and MacDonald glosses over too many unanswered questions making that final kiss mere window dressing rather than life-changing catharsis.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks
(USA 2013) (7): Whether you view him as a devout champion of free speech or a narcissistic sociopath bent on watching the world burn, Aussie computer whiz Julian Assange leaves very few people feeling neutral. The founder of Wikileaks—that now defunct cyber dumping ground of classified state secrets—caused quite a stir in the early part of the century when he began publishing sensitive and potentially compromising intel on U.S. actions in Iraq as well as memos which shed uncomfortable light on American diplomacy abroad. But chinks in his supposedly stalwart armour began to appear after two widely publicized incidents: the arrest and subsequent mistreatment of army whistleblower Bradley Manning (now Chelsea) who had ties with Wikileaks, and two charges of sexual assault lodged against Julian in Sweden. Alex Gibney’s even-handed documentary concentrates not so much on the muck Wikileaks managed to rake up but rather on Assange himself as he morphed from arrogant young warrior hellbent on holding governments accountable—at least the AMERICAN government—by publicly airing their dirty laundry online, to a modern day Messiah who could do no wrong (the Swedish women who lodged the assault complaints labeled “whores” and “CIA operatives” by Assange’s enraged fan base), to a Howard Hughes-type recluse holed up in the Ecuadorean embassy in London whose mounting paranoia—not entirely without reason—alienated him from former allies. Certainly he kicked the hornets’ nest leading to a PR nightmare as Washington fought back with epithets like “terrorist” and “traitor” levelled at him while newspapers who once fought on his side suddenly turned tail and Fox News hosts suggested assassination as a viable option. Using as much original footage as possible be it military surveillance videos, a bevy of talking heads from both sides of the aisle, or interviews and candid home movies, Gibney weaves a complicated, and at times contradictory, picture of a man who remains complicated and contradictory himself. “The Truth Will Set You Free” may be a comforting aphorism, but in the case of Julian Assange and Wikileaks “truth” can be a relative term and it always comes at a cost. Ironically, Gibney got the title for his documentary not from Assange but from a quote by former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden who was describing how governments operate.

In Fabric
(UK 2018) (5): Dowdy middle-aged divorcee Sheila tries to take one more stab at romance with a lonely hearts ad, a new do, and a fabulous crimson dress she got on sale at a swank London department store. The dress, however, has other plans for even though it turns heads it’s also possessed by a demonic presence which visits tragedy upon all who wear it—be they women or men. From cashiers who look like animated mannequins bedecked in sorceress drag and spouting seductive sales incantations to the glossy in-store catalogue which opens up like a book of spells (the dress only comes in “artery red” and it’s one size truly fits all), Peter Strickland’s horror comedy takes so many clever jabs at Western consumer culture it’s difficult to keep up. While one of the cursed garment’s owners has a nightmare in which her dress size increases exponentially even as she melts away into a skeleton, another finds out that “wash and wear” comes with dire consequences, and one rude shopper sparks a feeding frenzy when she dares to cut in line. There’s also deadpan send-ups of everything from political correctness (a pair of gay managers take nit-picking to a new level) to third world exploitation with a netherworld sweatshop providing the film’s highlight. Sadly, an otherwise engaging satire is mired down by such long stretches of tedium, repetitious scenes, and a barrage of bizarre affectations (menstruating mannequins?) that the message gets lost amidst all the hubris. Strickland doesn’t so much preach to the choir as harangue it with a bullhorn and that is one sales pitch that never goes over well with me.

Knife + Heart (France 2018) (6): A masked maniac is murdering gay porn stars and sleaze director Anne Parèze (Vanessa Paradis) must stop the killings before she runs out of actors. That pretty much sums up Yann Gonzalez’s surreal ode to Italian gialli, those softcore splatter films which made the grindhouse circuit so many years ago and turned the likes of Dario Argento and Joe D’Amato into underground icons. Set in Paris, 1979, Knife + Heart is a gender-bending study on how style and atmosphere can trump substance (although it’s underlying message of tolerance is still fresh, albeit a bit bloody) and for anyone who grew up with the genre its psychedelic tangents, theatrical performances, and outré score by French tech band M83 will seem comfortably familiar. The murders are kept tastefully grisly while the homo sex is deliberately hot and transgressive (Pareze’s latest hardcore opus playing real life tragedy for a kinky fuck), and Paradis—whose outspoken character is also a lovelorn lesbian, touché!—gives a performance strong enough to keep the film’s arty-farty conceits from flying off into space. Of course it’s all silly when you step back—the “resolution” is pure corn—but Gonzales proves adept at keeping things highly visual (at one point Paradis walks past a series of garish billboards featuring a leering mouth) and he leaves his audience with a haunting final scene steeped in lust and longing, equal parts wistful daydream and tacky exploitation.

Harpoon
(Canada 2019) (7): At a recent Q&A writer/director Rob Grant confessed that he liked stories where ordinary lives get all messed up in the end and this absurdist piece of Grand Guignol, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, certainly attests to that sentiment. Three friends—volatile Richard, slacker Jonah, and emotionally conflicted Sasha—find their uneasy friendship shattered when they embark on an afternoon pleasure cruise aboard Richard’s yacht. Once at sea things immediately head south when shameful secrets are suddenly laid bare and long held resentments begin to bubble up causing the trio’s already hostile shouting matches to become bloody showdowns (accent on the blood). And then the ship’s motor conks out leaving them drifting into the Atlantic with no food and no water—but plenty of rage… There’s not much depth to Grant’s dark deep sea comedy despite the spectacular marine locations and the seamless marriage of tropical Belize exteriors with interior shots filmed on a frosty Calgary soundstage. His three capable actors do manage to stay in character however as they waffle between hysterics and deadly focus while Grant’s jouncing script and broad direction revel in irony and gore—an unseen narrator adding just the right amount of sardonic frosting. Even a few technical missteps (people who have gone without sustenance for several days should not look as if they just got back from the gym) can be overlooked given the film’s sheer chutzpah. It’s Cinema of Cruelty whose sadistic touches arrive with tongue firmly embedded in bloodied cheek. Poe may not have been amused but I left the theatre oddly satiated.

The Cannibal Club (Brazil 2018) (5): “Kill the poor to feed the rich” is a sentiment Guto Parente’s blood-soaked satire takes to the extreme, and perhaps a little beyond. Wealthy snobs Otavio and Gilda have two overriding passions in life—satisfying Otavio’s cuckold fantasies using hunky hired hands, and then eating them afterwards. The two are certainly not alone in this for Otavio is also a member of a secret cabal of industrialists and government officials determined to rid Brazil of “scum and pederasts” even if they have to put every last favela on the menu. But the tables are turned when Gilda witnesses a prominent governor in flagrante delicto behind the tool shed and the two predators suddenly find themselves at the top of the quarry list. Sometimes a metaphor can be taken too far and Cannibal Club’s single running joke doesn’t carry it for long especially when Parente insists on grinding his “message” into the audience’s collective face—a rant focused on how the rich are inconvenienced by the lower classes is needless overkill. Emotive performances and predictable ironies turn what could have been a politically charged feast into little more than a modest midnight nosh.

Aniara
(Sweden 2018) (9): En route from a ravaged Earth to a new home on Mars the interplanetary ship Aniara—filled with thousands of colonists many of whom bear the scars of things more terrible than global warming—experiences a disaster which leaves it hurtling towards interstellar space. Now, with onboard fear turning into fatalistic malaise, all the old foibles of humanity begin to manifest themselves amongst passengers and crew alike as brushes with fascism and religious zealotry vie with rampant consumerism and a unique brand of hedonism thanks to bootleg drugs and MIMA, an AI virtual reality machine. But as weeks grind into years once pristine hallways become ghettos and recreation centres turn into shrines until the arrival of a mysterious object from space pushes Aniara’s small pocket of mankind towards its next iteration. With a timeline as big as its vision, Pella Kågerman’s existential space opera—based on Harry Martinson’s epic sci-fi poem—is a blend of impressive CGI and bleak psychodrama exploring what happens when people are stripped of all hope and life loses whatever meaning they may have once given it. With the blackness of space hovering just outside every viewport like an organic presence (kudos to the effects team for some breathtaking vistas) Kågerman’s endless night of the soul eventually extends beyond humans to infect MIMA with its own brand of mechanical melancholy. Told mainly through the eyes of a staff astronomer and her female lover, Aniara’s grit and drama unfolds like a Viking saga with flashes of violence and carnality interspersed with passages of austere grace and a final twist of brutal irony which provides the film with a perfect capstone. An eye-opener for those who still believe science-fiction to be the realm of little green men and wisecracking robots.

Project Nim
(UK 2011) (7): In 1974 a newborn chimpanzee at an Oklahoma primate compound was forcibly taken from its mother and whisked off to Columbia University as part of an ill-planned and poorly executed experiment. “Nim” was to be raised as a human child in the household of Stephanie and Wer LaFarge—presumably learning human interaction skills and picking up American Sign Language (ASL) in the process. The goal was to test the “Nature vs Nurture” hypothesis and see whether or not meaningful interspecies communication was even possible. Fraught with personal and academic conflicts almost from the start, “Project Nim” went through a series of upheavals until a combination of funding problems and Nim’s aggressively emerging adolescence derailed it altogether. Despite amassing an impressive ASL vocabulary which allowed him to carry on simple conversations with his handlers and despite the dedication of a few staff members, Nim never garnered much attention with the public aside from a Newsweek article and “interview” with Dr. David Suzuki. Now, with this documentary, James Marsh uses talking heads, film footage, and a few well staged re-enactments (à la Errol Morris) to finally tell the story of the little monkey who (almost) could, and the mixed bag it engenders ranges from cuddly youtube-like clips to heartbreak and outrage over the human egotism and myopic research models that plagued the years-long experiment. “We exploited Nim’s humanlike characteristics…” confesses one former staffer, “…while disregarding his chimpanzee nature.” A sad, perhaps cautionary tale of science overstepping ethical boundaries to garner results which were ultimately questionable at best, criminal at worst. As an ironic aside, human actor Peter Elliott donned a chimp costume for some of the re-enactments.

Operation Crossbow
(UK 1965) (7): A box office success in Europe, less so in America, Michael Anderson’s wartime thriller—partially penned by Emeric Pressburger—boasts an impressive cast and some top notch 1960s special effects. When the Allies uncover evidence that the Nazis are planning to attack England with flying bombs, they airdrop a trio of multilingual spies behind enemy lines with orders to infiltrate the factory making these “V2 rockets”. Assuming the identity of deceased collaborators, the three men (George Peppard, Tom Courtenay, Jeremy Kemp) find their dangerous mission made even more precarious when a traitor is uncovered and the ex-wife of one of the dead collaborators unexpectedly makes an appearance (Sophia Loren, then married to producer Carlo Ponti, making a brief cameo). Tightly edited despite a few dragging moments, Anderson relies as much on developing his characters as he does on explosions and his elaborate yet believable underground laboratory sets thankfully steer clear of any James Bond techie nonsense. Apparently he got permission to blow up some actual buildings which were slated for demolition anyway resulting in a few impressive air strike scenes—images of “buzz bombs” zooming past the cliffs of Dover en route to London are harrowing—but his attempts to blend movie action with stock footage from WWII is less successful as the switch from colour to B&W proves jarring and the grainy bits don’t quite meld with the smooth Panavision. To his credit however, he gave the production a further air of authenticity by insisting his Nazi characters speak German with English subtitles rather than relying on theatrical accents to distinguish the good guys from the bad. A decent espionage flick with a couple of unexpected twists and an ending that is as tragic as it is thrilling. Anthony Quayle, John Mills, and Trevor Howard co-star.

Miss Julie
(UK 1999) (8): Even though the emotional content is terribly dated, Mike Figgis’ screen adaptation of August Strindberg’s play still captivates with all the immediacy of a live stage production. Exploring the bitter antagonism between classes as well as the one-upmanship which exists between the sexes, Figgis’ production—alternately earthy, angry, and erotic—unfolds entirely within the walls of a manor house kitchen. It’s Midsummer’s Eve in northern Sweden circa 1894 and the Lord of the house is away on business leaving his neurotic daughter Julie (Saffron Burrows, cold as ice and just as fragile) in charge. With the servants outside dancing the night away Julie finds herself alone with Jean, her father’s footman (Peter Mullan, hot as fire and just as destructive), a man she’s been taunting and teasing for some time. Now, with Jean’s scullery maid fiancée Christine safely abed, taunts turn into incriminations, teasing turns into rough seduction, and class distinctions are turned on their ear—until the rising sun puts everything back into tragic perspective. Burrows and Mullan tear the screen apart as sheltered aristocrat and working class prole twisting knives in each other’s backs—his arrogant opportunism (is he attracted to her or her money?) locking horns with her privileged but shaky worldview—and Figgis uses Strindberg’s words to illuminate the inescapable social chasm yawning between them: while Julie has nightmares of falling from a fantastic pedestal, Jean dreams of ascending an impossibly tall tree, yet both find their assigned social status unbearable. Even physical characteristics reflect an inherent inequality with Burrows towering physically over Mullan, her occasional barked orders arriving as if from a great height while his enraged comebacks seem flung from a pit. Naturally, with passions set to incendiary it’s only a matter of time before verbal parries turn sexual, but the inevitable copulation itself unfolds like a shameful rutting as each partner stares angrily into the other’s eyes and each thrust arrives like a lunging sword. The ending, brimming with disgrace and self-loathing, might seem foreign to contemporary audiences in this era of hashtag-causes and the irony of Christine’s breakfast table musings on staying in one’s proper place outdated—a drunken mockery of upper class manners staged by revelling servants is almost too much—but given the play/film’s time and place in history it’s interesting to note what hasn’t changed in the intervening 100+ years. A beautifully made two-handed actor’s coup.

The Monster
(USA/Canada 2016) (6): Reimagining a horrible childhood as a horror movie is not new, in fact it was done with much greater aplomb than this tepid shocker in films such as Tideland and The Babadook. But what saves writer/director Bryan Bertino’s monster flick from sinking to the very bottom of the DVD bargain bin is the onscreen fireworks between its two leads. En route to daddy’s house, Lizzy (Ella Ballentine flushing out her tear ducts for all they’re worth) and her drunken, chain-smoking mother Kathy (Zoe Kazan working that husky voice and two-toned white trash hair) are waylaid by a blown tire in the middle of a deep dark forest—in the middle of a thunderstorm no less. While hunkered down waiting for the authorities to find them, mother and child come to the frightening realization that they are sharing their deserted stretch of highway with a growling, man-eating McGuffin that views cars as canned food. With every potential rescuer turning into fodder, it’ll be up to Lizzy and Kathy to survive the night on nothing but their own wits (and a few ridiculous plot stretches). Relying on too many flashbacks designed to show just how terrible mom is, The Monster mostly limps along with only the occasional jolt (Look out! Severed arm!) and frantic passage to remind us that we’re supposed to be scared. Ballentine and Kazan certainly pick up the slack as best they can with a simmering antagonism that ranges from shouted F-bombs to hysterical hugs all delivered with a sad believability. “Is this my blood or yours?” whimpers a contrite Kathy after the duo’s latest monstrous encounter and the import of those panicked words goes far deeper than a mere flesh wound. But personifying a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship with a slobbering Jurassic Park muppet (Bertino opted to tone down the CGI in favour of a stuntman in a creature suit) provides a clunky metaphor not aided much by the introduction of a few fairy tale archetypes, namely a helpful woodsman and a not-so-big, not-so-bad wolf. Ultimately it’s all about transitioning from pint-sized victim to tween warrior—at one point Lizzy abandons her stuffed doggie for a more practical weapon—and making peace with the past. A respectable premise which The Monster, despite its moments, never quite realizes.

’71
(UK 2014) (8): Northern Ireland circa 1971 becomes a hellish urban landscape straight from the mind of Hieronymus Bosch in Yann Demange’s tragic nail-biter. When a door-to-door search for weapons turns especially nasty, naïve British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell, brilliant) finds himself cut off from his retreating platoon. Suddenly alone in the hostile streets of Belfast and with an IRA vigilante group hunting him down, Hook must survive a night of violence, bloodshed, and—most horribly—betrayal, for the deeper he sinks into the dark heart of The Troubles, the murkier the line between good and evil becomes… Whether its handheld cameras following a breakneck chase through backyards and alleyways or sobering widescreen pans of a nighttime Belfast reflected in the infernal glow of a dozen raging fires, Demange keeps things tense and chaotic—an ongoing military subterfuge seems as if it could have been penned by John le Carré while a scene of Hook reeling from the fiery ruins of a blasted building is tinged with a nightmarish hysteria reminiscent of Gaspar Noé’s Climax. Lost on a brutal playing field filled with nothing but pawns and devils, Hook’s trek comes to resemble a Dantean odyssey straight through the gates of Hades wherein even a chipped statue of the Virgin is too busy looking the other way to intervene when a gunman, barely out of his teens, saunters by her makeshift shrine. But unlike Dante’s Comedy there is no Paradise waiting at the finish line for this is a manmade Hell which seems doomed to forever loop back upon itself.

The Robber
(Austria 2010) (5): The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner takes a turn for the sinister in Benjamin Heisenberg’s adaptation of Martin Prinz’s novel, itself based on the notorious real-life exploits of Johann Rettenberger. Fresh out of a Viennese prison after serving a six-year sentence, adrenaline junkie and all around sociopath Rettenberger immediately begins indulging in his twin addictions: training for marathons and armed robbery—the first garnering him a couple of national titles, the latter providing him with an intense rush worth more than the garbage bags full of euros hidden under his bed. Growing ever bolder—and deadlier—in his modus operandi, it doesn’t take long for the police, and his girlfriend, to catch on. Only this time Johann is determined not to go back to jail… Hailed by some as an “existential crime drama”, Heisenberg definitely favours minimalism in his approach with a spare script that relies more on incidental noise, stretches of silence, and facial tics to drag the story along. In the lead role, Andreas Lust has the gaunt features and lifeless eyes common to this type of villain (apparently the real Rettenberger was an even bigger prick) while Franziska Weisz dutifully mopes about as the requisite dumb chick blinded by love. But emotive performances and nice scenery aside, this is a shallow exercise in character building whose few forays into arthouse symbolism (a cross looms on a mountain top, a helicopter traverses the sky like an angry god, a hole in the ground provides refuge) come across as mere window dressing rather than germane plot devices. And if the character of Rettenberger was meant to stand for anything other than a despicable creep of a human being it was lost in translation. At least it has a happy ending.

My Joy
(Ukraine 2010) (7): Taciturn truck driver Georgi takes a wrong turn, literally and figuratively, when an old tramp hitches a ride at a roadside checkpoint thus turning his routine delivery run into a derisive odyssey straight through mother Russia’s blackened soul. Starting with the tramp’s tale of a wartime indignity which left him alone and without a name, Georgi’s meandering drive will provide the catalyst for several tangential tales involving whores and grifters, petty thieves and panhandlers, all grasping for whatever they can get against a wintry backdrop rife with crime and immorality. A young Lolita will give him a lecture on the hypocrisy of charity when he offers her a lift; an assortment of porcine traffic cops show just how deep official corruption can go; and in one sobering flashback to WWII, a naïve yet kindhearted pacifist falls prey to military zeal when he opens his home to a pair of ragged soldiers. Already a recognized documentarian, writer/director Sergey Loznitsa’s bleakly surreal polemic seems as unfocused as its protagonist, the director casting disparaging critiques haphazardly without feeling the need to tie anything together—or rather letting each sardonic chapter add its own voice to the film’s growing howl of outrage. Downplayed and coldly detached with a sparse score (a radio blares an ironically bitter war ballad) and cameras either poised on someone’s shoulder or else shifting from one corner into another, the director documents Georgi’s transformation from disengaged observer of the moral decay around him, to becoming its victim, to ultimately becoming one of its progenitors. Bookended by violence and murder (one hastily covered up, the others left for all to see), Loznitsa’s film is not so much a subjective snapshot of Russia’s contemporary zeitgeist but rather a series of denunciations which arrive like a hail of rocks thrown through a plate glass window. “Your stove is smoking, it needs to be rebuilt…” says a crusty old babushka to a younger woman trying to prepare a meagre meal, “…then again, fuck it…” she adds before exiting the kitchen. An offhand comment which perfectly encapsulates Loznitsa’s message of apathy and non-involvement.

Lancelot du Lac
(France 1974) (2): Robert Bresson’s anemic rip on the Arthurian legend starts out promising enough with knights being decapitated, castrated, hanged, and cremated, punctuated by gushing fountains of poster paint blood so absurd that the Monty Python gang spoofed it a year later in The Holy Grail. But alas, what follows is not even good enough to be considered bad community theatre. It’s been two years since the Knights of the Round Table left in search of the legendary grail, a doomed quest which left most of their company dead. Now, with the few survivors returned to a Camelot devoid of all magic, palace intrigue once again threatens to topple the kingdom for Queen Guinevere is anxious to resume her affair with a now chaste Lancelot and the cruel upstart Mordred is intent on wresting power from King Arthur. The resulting adultery, ambitions, and jealousies will ultimately lead to the death of an era. Actually they will lead to a lesson in bad production values from slapdash sets which look as if they were filmed inside a Medieval Times tourist trap (apparently the entire castle is composed of a hallway, a bedroom, and a hayloft) to fine examples of the Romero school of zombie acting as actors parrot lines leeched of any passion—or inflection or meaning for that matter. Characters are too often filmed from the waist down as if the camera crew were nodding off and the soundtrack consists almost entirely of neighing horses and an incessant cacophony of rattling pots and pans to accompany the ridiculous suits of armour which no one seems able to remove (do they sleep in them too?) This is the type of pseudo avant-garde tripe which has film school dilettantes grasping for terms like anti-cinema, deconstructed, minimalist, and the ever popular Brechtian. “It’s all about the inanity of war and destroying the romantic facade…” they may crow while clutching copies of Pipolo’s A Passion for Film as if it were a paperback grail unto itself. Well one can read anything into anything I suppose, but as for me this couldn’t have been any worse had they cast it with Muppets instead. Camelot is a very silly place indeed.

Rafiki
(Kenya 2018) (8): Kena and Ziki couldn’t be less alike if they tried. Dressed in drab tees and preferring the company of male friends, Kena is the embodiment of tomboy while Ziki is all rainbow braids and day-glow shifts. But when romantic sparks ignite between them—something strictly frowned upon in Kenyan society—they must decide whether to follow their hearts or their common sense, especially after once friendly neighbours decide to become judge and jury. And just to stir the pot a bit further, their fathers also happen to be political rivals. Influenced by director Wanuri Kahlu’s predilection for Afrobubblegum (a school of artistic expression which embraces a fun, frivolous, and fierce representation of African society) yet possessing all the gravitas of two women fighting for their right to exist, this bittersweet love story doesn’t have many new twists to add to the genre other than the fact it led to a supreme court case aimed at Kenya’s homophobic laws and that alone is cause enough to cheer it on. Beautifully filmed in vibrant colours that burst off the screen—a dance floor turns into a psychedelic celebration, Kena is willingly led into temptation past clotheslines draped with fantastically printed sheets—Kahlu makes excellent use of patterns and textures to further the film’s narrative whether it be a leopard print blanket covering Kena’s right-wing mother or her own transformation from jeans and t-shirts to coloured scarves and flowered blouses. Of course religion plays a heavy hand with “God’s Law” shown for the hateful patriarchal voodoo it actually is and scenes of delicate birds in flight (and one determined hawk) juxtaposed with a helicopter criss-crossing the Nairobi skyline like the angry, and ultimately impotent, eye of Yahweh. An exuberant movie buoyed by a pair of convincing leads (Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva) whose journeys take different paths only to lead to a common destination. And if Kahlu decides to end her rocky romance with a small spoonful of sugar, it's a bit of sweetness served with warmth and hope. The fact that her brave vision (an adaptation of Monica Arac de Nyeko’s short story) even made it onto African screens in the first place is a small miracle in itself.