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

~ ~ ~ ~

Dark Water (Japan 2002) (7): Pretty standard J-horror with beleaguered divorcée Yoshimi moving into a dingy apartment complex with her cute six-year old daughter Ikuko only to face off against a malevolent little waterlogged ghost haunting the flat upstairs. For reasons gradually revealed the wee, perpetually out-of-focus spectre has it in for Ikuko and in battling this mini-demon Yoshimi will also have to come to terms with some personal demons of her own. Predictable and lacking any real surprises, this moody campfire tale nevertheless comes with an impeccable peerage directed as it is by Hideo Nakata, the man whose Ringu movies elevated boring old VHS tapes into horror icons. And he still knows when to turn the screws and when to let his audience breathe, enhancing his creaky urban setting—a crumbling concrete building full of shadows—with multiple references to water, a common element which assumes malicious overtones as it drips from ceilings, spurts little grotesques from faucets, and puddles about a pair of phantom feet. Nakata’s capable cast is headed by Rio Kanno tugging heartstrings as the sweetly innocent Ikuku and Hitomi Kuroki as Yoshimi, her eyes often expressing more terror than the shrill cries of a hundred matinee scream queens. The jolts are mainly low-key and effectively backed by a spooky score, but when the grand finale arrives Nakata offsets the almost requisite supernatural showstopper (a wink and a nod to The Shining) with a sweetly melancholic coda as refreshing as it is unexpected. Definitely worth your time.

(Germany 1979) (5): In a small eastern European garrison town, private Woyzeck (a frighteningly intense Klaus Kinski) suffers slings and arrows on a daily basis. Useless as a soldier, inept as a husband, and suffering from mental aberrations that have him hearing underground voices and seeing harbingers of doom among the evening clouds, he is constantly berated by his commanding officer for his lack of virtue (“The poor can’t afford virtue” Woyzeck counters), cuckolded by his frustrated wife Marie, and viewed as little more than an interesting lab specimen by the local doctor who subjects him to humiliating tests. Thus beset by cruelties on every front plus the often sadistic regime of military life, Woyzeck reaches his breaking point when Marie’s indiscretion with a dashing young captain becomes public knowledge. In a world filled with increasingly dire portents and the crushing boot of authority, Woyzek resolves that if he can’t have Marie then no one will… Set in the early 19th century and based on Georg Büchner’s unfinished play (which was later interpreted for opera by Alban Berg) this is one of Werner Herzog’s more frustratingly enigmatic films dealing as it does with elements of earthbound brutality and spiritual misery. Kinski is practically a force of nature unto himself as he alternately glowers and flinches at fate’s injustices ultimately leading to one of arthouse cinema’s more jolting climaxes—a slow-motion binge of blood and rage set to a discordant adagio. But whereas an operatic performance lends itself to such dramatic excesses full of sound and fury, taking away the spectacle leaves audiences with a flat series of postcard backdrops (filming took place in the medieval Czech town of Telc) and curiously stilted dialogue which would probably have sounded better had the lines been sung throughout. Kinski basically plays himself as a tormented everyman cast into the abyss by madness and accumulated indignities, while Herzog maintains that clinical detachment which has become his signature approach whenever poking at life’s thornier issues. Worth a look if only as a one-man show (Kinski really is amazing and Herzog is Herzog) but the final analysis left me feeling cold and unmoved.

(USA 1988) (7): Los Angeles police officer Bob Hodges (Robert Duvall) is a veteran with the anti-gang squad where over the years he has managed to gain a grudging respect from gang members for his even temper and willingness to cut a guy some slack. But when he’s teamed up with overly zealous rookie Danny McGavin (Sean Penn) who believes in punching first and asking questions later, inevitable frictions develop as the old man tries to impart some street smarts into his young partner. Now, with a fatal drive-by shooting threatening to escalate into a full scale turf war, the two men must either come to trust one another or face potentially tragic consequences… In light of current attitudes toward policing, and given the fact Dennis Hopper directed this film back in ’88, it comes as something of a surprise that its decidedly touchy material is handled as sensitively as it is. Even though some gangland scenes look as if they could morph into a Michael Jackson video, Hopper avoids most of the clichéd stereotypes (here come the Bloods! here come the Crips!) and instead addresses both the root causes of gang violence and their sequelae. An incendiary neighbourhood meeting between police and frightened residents raises issues of poverty, joblessness, and the allure of easy money—a sentiment reflected in the film’s soundtrack of cynical rap—while cameras linger over the savage initiation of yet another demoralized youth hungry for a sense of community even if it means carrying a gun. Spray-painted graffiti wavers between inspirational platitudes, personal hubris, and open threats (painting over someone else’s initials is equivalent to a death warrant), and safe places are nowhere to be found, including church. Duvall and Penn are in perfect synch as the old guard and the new reaching for a sense of equilibrium amidst the busts, bullets, and vendettas, and they’re shored up by a strong supporting cast—some of whom were recruited from actual street gangs. Don Cheadle hits the mark as an ice cold killer, Randy Brooks breathes fire as a former gangbanger turned street-level advocate, and celebrated character actor Glenn Plummer brings depth to a conflicted street punk whose eyes show he knows all too well what his options really are. Hopper does hit something of a sour note with the character of barrio homegirl—and Penn’s love interest—Louisa (Maria Conchita Alonso) however, imbuing her role with strength and dignity only to snatch it away with a scandalous confrontation that comes across as tawdry and superfluous. Or was he merely taking a piss on our middle-class Hollywood expectations? A tightly paced policier which asks some tough questions only to answer them with a hardened silence punctuated by spates of gunfire.

Summer Storm
(USA 1944) (7): Based on Anton Chekhov’s novel, The Shooting Party, Douglas Sirk’s big screen adaptation straddles the Russian Revolution as it traces the waning fortunes of two stodgy aristocrats at the hands of a gold-digging peasant. The beautiful yet soulless Olga Urbenin (Linda Darnell all smoke and ice) is determined to rise above her lowly station as the daughter of a drunken serf and she doesn’t care who she has to use to get there. Casting aside her own humble yet loving husband she first sets her eyes on celebrated—and recently engaged—Judge Fedor Petroff (George Sanders) before realizing there are even bigger fish to fry in the form of effete landowner Count Vosky (Edward Everett Horton). But Olga’s insatiable appetite proves greater than her reach as her carefully laid traps all lead to ruin. Although filmed in B&W, Sirk’s technicolor flare is evident throughout with grand sets and bigger than life performances all around. Darnell smoulders as a desperate viper whose smile barely conceals the fangs beneath while Horton’s foppish foil—he can’t understand why the lower classes are so “low”—provides some ironic comedy relief. Sanders, for his part, gives a dapper but hollow performance as a member of the Russian gentry—his silk shirts and studied accent failing to make up for those scenes of feigned passion—yet he does manage to redeem himself in time for his tear-jerking finale. Never one to shy away from making a sociopolitical statement, Sirk punctuates his melodrama with some pithy observations on class dynamics when a wedding reception seats the Haves next to the Have-Nots and an increasingly agitated Count Vosky wonders why his drunken servants won’t snap to his command. A hunting party makes a lot of noise for very little gain, innocence gets thrown under the bus, and karma bides its time until the final reel.

Stop Making Sense
(USA 1984) (9): Recording a series of gigs by the iconic 80s group Talking Heads held at Hollywood’s Pantages theatre and then stitching them together into one (almost seamless) live performance, director Jonathan Demme created what many critics consider to be the definitive rock concert movie and I’m inclined to agree. Starting out on a bare stage with lead singer and creative dynamo David Byrne grinding out a one-man rendition of “Psycho Killer”, the road crew use each successive song to slowly introduce more props and more members—here comes Tina Weymouth on bass, followed by her husband Chris Frantz on an elevated set of drums with guitarist Jerry Harrison not far behind, followed by an impressive back-up team and a plain backdrop which suddenly descends for the show’s light and video component. Ninety minutes of sheer joy for fans of the group—or anyone who appreciates watching master musicians do what they do best—Byrne and company lead their increasingly animated audience through a series of outré hits including “Slippery People”, “Burning Down the House”, and “Once in a Lifetime”, all presented in ear-pleasing digital sound. But the party really gets started when Weymouth and Frantz kick out a high-energy rendition of “Genius of Love” from their own group, Tom Tom Club. Byrne vibrates and contorts as if his bones where made of jelly, jogging around the stage one minute, strutting out in an oversized zoot suit the next, while everyone else bops about without missing a note. In the end a combination of driving beats and flashy theatrics (who knew grandma’s floor lamp could rock it?!) proved infectious and left me tapping my toes right through the closing credits. Gawd I miss the 80s!

Die Hard 2
(USA 1990) (7): It’s Christmas Eve (again) and at Washington’s Dulles airport off-duty LAPD officer John McClane (Bruce! Willis!) is eagerly awaiting the arrival of his wife’s flight so they can celebrate the holidays together. But an encroaching blizzard proves to be the least of his worries for this is the night a crack team of mercenaries have decided to stage a violent takeover of Dulles, threatening mass destruction unless their demands—the handover of a deposed South American dictator currently en route to Washington on extradition orders plus a getaway jet—are met. Now with dozens of incoming flights, including his wife’s, getting low on fuel as they’re forced to maintain holding patterns, and an airport security team run by an incredulous bonehead (Dennis Franz) who’s more of a hindrance than an asset, McClane must once again singlehandedly save the day by any and all means possible or impossible… I’ve always maintained that the only time a movie offends me is when the director treats me like a gullible idiot willing to swallow any nonsense they throw my way. Considering this film’s patently ridiculous plot devices, not to mention complete disregard for everything from the laws of physics to airport protocol, I should roundly condemn Die Hard 2 as one of the most offensive things to come out of Hollywood. But Bruce Willis’ wisecracking one-man strike force is just so damn loveable, especially with that smug attitude, and the comic book action is so unapologetic as it dares us to roll our eyes at even the most egregious assaults on common sense, that I found myself having to stifle the occasional whoop and holler—much to my shame. So what if a dozen seasoned marksman firing machine guns from ten feet away fail to hit McClane? So what if an entire modern airport can be rendered helpless just by cutting a few wires? So what if a simple custodian just happens to have a treasure trove of classified documents? And forget depth, moral ambivalence is for wimps for these bad guys are slime personified and Willis’ good guy couldn’t be more glorious if he flew through the air with a cape (actually he does fly through the air a couple of times). Director Renny Harlin keeps things fast and furious as he alternates the action between cockpits and airport hallways, and an open-ended script manages a couple of twists while still allowing Willis ample opportunity to mug for the cameras and ad-lib a few good lines. “How does the same shit happen to the same guy twice?” his character ruminates while surveying an industrial setting just a little too similar to what he faced in the original Die Hard—one of many such in-jokes. It’s called “profit incentive” Officer McClane, and I for one am glad it was strong enough to produce this silly sequel. Bonnie Bedelia co-stars as the stoic Mrs. McClane, Sheila McCarthy is a determined reporter, and former U.S. senator Fred Thomson plays the tough airport manager.

Don’t Bother to Knock
(USA 1952) (7): Notable for being Ann Bancroft’s big screen debut, Roy Baker’s noirish psychodrama—based on Charlotte Armstrong’s novel—actually belongs to Marilyn Monroe whose riveting performance gave critics a glimpse of her formidable talent. During a layover at a New York City hotel, airline pilot Jed Towers (Richard Widmark) gets the boot from his girlfriend, lounge singer Lyn Lesley (Bancroft), who has grown tired of his lack of empathy and cavalier attitude. Dousing his self-pity with a bottle of rye, Jed retreats to his room where he spies sexy babysitter Nell Forbes (Monroe) in another room across the hotel courtyard. A game of window tag leads to a series of cryptic phone calls which eventually find Towers hooking up with Nell. But what started out as a not-so-innocent flirtation turns into something dark and dangerous when he discovers Nell is not exactly whom she appears to be. Remarkable in that it unfolds more or less in real time, Baker sets the tension to simmer as Nell, under Jed’s lascivious attentions, comes unstuck one cog at a time. Monroe’s tightly reined performance conveys so much with so little—a troubled glance, a nervous gesture, a voice that slides between sultry and strained—that she’s able to generate a pall of anxiety just by standing still making her piteous backstory, when it’s revealed, almost superfluous. Widmark’s good looks work well for him as his character’s ice cold cynicism takes a hammer blow, and although Bancroft is relegated to the role of unhappily determined romantic—a fact indicated by her repertoire of fluffy love songs—she still exudes that screen presence which will work so well for her in later films. The cast is rounded out by veteran actress Verna Felton as a wealthy busybody, Elisha Cook Jr. as the hotel elevator operator who knows more than he lets on, and 10-year old Donna Corcoran who, cast as Monroe’s little charge, screams and cries like a pro. And look for Joan Blondell’s younger sister Gloria in a bit part as a nightclub photographer.

A Fistful of Dollars
(Italy 1964) (7): This first instalment in Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” was roundly condemned by critics and the subject of a successful lawsuit filed by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa who felt it bore an uncanny resemblance to his 1961 film, Yojimbo. But time and reputation has nevertheless earned it a place in the pantheon of memorable Spaghetti Westerns where it remains an entertaining, if somewhat kitschy, Italian interpretation of America’s Wild Wild West (and Kurosawa’s Yojimbo). A drifter with no name (it’s Clint Eastwood) breezes into the Mexican border town of San Miguel—a haven for smugglers and bandits—where he become embroiled in an ongoing power struggle between the village’s two ruling clans: The Baxters, whose patriarch also doubles as sheriff; and the Rojos whose leader Don Benito has sired two bloodthirsty psychopaths for sons, Esteban and Ramón. Deciding to play both sides against each other in a deadly game of one-upmanship, the drifter uses the two families’ greed and hubris to line his own pockets. But as bodies pile up in the streets he risks becoming too clever for his own good, especially when he lays eyes on Marisol (German bombshell Marianne Koch), unwilling mistress to the insanely jealous Ramón. An opening credits sequence featuring animated silhouettes shooting it out to a haunting Ennio Morricone score (the whistles and minor chords foreshadowing later collaborations), sets the stage for the Wild West opera that follows which, while not nearly as polished as the trilogy’s capstone, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, still manages to incorporate some mythological elements into all that whisky and gunplay, including a symbolic sojourn in the Underworld. Upon entering San Miguel, Eastwood is met with various images of death—a corpse on horseback, an empty noose, a leering undertaker, the town “bell ringer” whose peals herald a fresh grave—and Leone wastes little time driving those portents home as one violent yet curiously bloodless showdown after another fills the undertaker’s coffins (while sending the British censors into a tizzy). Being his first major motion picture break, Eastwood wastes no time perfecting his soft-spoken sarcasm and squinty-eyed glare while Leone’s supporting cast—culled from Germany, Italy, and Spain—put forth convincingly mad performances despite the English dubbing (even Clint had to dub his own voice for the film’s American release). In the end, sub-par production values are made up for by a wickedly clever plot that sees Eastwood’s more or less ethical drifter stoking chaos for profit, and Morricone’s aforementioned score is beautiful as it wavers between funeral dirge and paean to Justice.

Babes in Arms
(USA 1939) (6): One of Busby Berkeley’s cornier musicals is this low-rent extravaganza meant to showcase the talents of teenagers Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. When the advent of talking pictures puts their Vaudevillian parents out of work, a group of talented kids under the tutelage of budding singer/songwriter Mickey Moran (Rooney) and his sweetheart Patsy Barton (Garland) decide to wow friends and neighbours by staging a show of their own. Renting an old barn and a couple of dusty costumes they set about making their Broadway dreams come true—but trouble is waiting in the wings in the form of town busybody Martha Steele (Margaret Hamilton playing yet another witch) who thinks the kids would be better off in trade school and intends to get a court order to that effect. Can Mickey, Patsy, and the gang manage to sway public opinion before the school buses arrive? Will youthful zeal win out over grownup cynicism? And will Patsy get the big break—and marriage proposal?—she’s been dreaming of or will talented upstart and new star of the show “Baby” Rosalie Essex (contortionist extraordinaire June Preisser) beat her to the punch? Rooney is hyper-manic as he mugs and cackles for the cameras (did he borrow a couple of Judy’s “diet pills”?) in a performance which earned him his very first Oscar nomination, Garland just seems preoccupied, and a cast of future Hollywood footnotes strut their wares through one insufferably cheerful musical routine after another. A bit of gravity is introduced with Mickey’s stage veteran father (Charles Winninger) sinking into a bitter depression over the unfair prejudice aimed at old theatrical “has beens” but even that is eventually given an ironic tug, at least to modern audiences, when the kids’ big opening number turns out to be an outlandish minstrel show with Rooney and Garland singing about “Ala-bammy” while shuffling around in nappy wigs and blackface. And with WWII just beginning it’s no surprise that this whole Great White Way fairy tale comes with a gaudy salute to Old Glory and Mom’s Apple Pie as the entire company gushes over “God’s country”, the land of opportunity and freedom!! Entertaining in a kitschy way with songs that are memorable if nothing else, my personal highlights include an awkward dinner date between lower middle-class Mickey and upper crust Rosalie (he fumbles over the silverware then chokes on a cigar), and Rooney giving amusing impersonations of Clark Gable and Lionel Barrymore.

Model Shop
(France 1968) (8): French director Jacques Demy journeys to Southern California and proves that his country’s Nouvelle Vague aesthetic is as much at home on the freeways of Los Angeles as it is on the boulevards of Paris. Disaffected 26-year old architect George Matthews (Gary Lockwood) feels that if he can’t start out on top he won’t start at all so rather than designing gas stations and other monuments to mediocrity he’d rather be unemployed. This overall lack of motivation doesn’t sit well with the wannabe model girlfriend Gloria (Alexandra Hay) with whom he lives causing the existing cracks in their relationship to split wide open. Now with the threat of his beloved GT convertible being repossessed for lack of payments, George hits the streets of L.A. in search of friends who can lend him the hundred dollars he needs to produce by the afternoon. Then a chance encounter with French ex-pat “Lola” (New Wave darling Anouk Aimée) so intrigues him that he forgets everything else and stalks her to the place where she works—a seedy sex shop where men can rent cameras and take snaps of their favourite model for a hefty price… Demy perfectly encapsulates the zeitgeist of the time with George’s restlessness reflected in L.A.’s gritty landscape of smog, monolithic edifices, and endless roadways that stretch from opulent Beverly Hills mansions to clapboard oceanside bungalows whose views are partially obscured by omnipresent oil derricks. And he adds extra depth with little metaphors that crop up in the background: a wall poster encourages you to “Unlock Your Mind”, street signs flash “Keep Right” or “Don’t Walk”, a newspaper headline gives a shout to drug culture. Whether it’s Gloria tittering over a potential commercial spot, George spending money he doesn’t have on a flashy car he doesn’t need, or Lola posing for a series of boudoir photos which show everything yet reveal nothing, Demy seems fascinated with the allure of shiny surfaces which more often than not cover something sad and hollow. Her past has left Lola unable to love, the very real threat of being drafted to Vietnam has George grasping for the beauty in life even as the fear of death begins to gnaw at him, and when the two of them finally do hook up (the entire film spans a single 24-hour period) their intimacy falls short of providing the emotional panacea George had been anguishing for. Demy takes a chance on scoring his film and it pays off beautifully with classical pieces from Bach, Schumann, and Rimsky-Korsakov providing counterpoint to the mod tunes of Los Angeles’ own “Spirit”—who also have a pivotal cameo playing friends of George. Unfortunately the film’s individual performances are wildly uneven ranging from the luminous Anouk Aimée’s soft-spoken, almost ethereal Lola to Hay whose prattling airhead could easily have been replaced by a wooden marionette. Lockwood, for his part, falls somewhere in between, his gloomy introspection and dejected monotone capturing the essence of his character despite those boyish good looks. Films of this type, so deeply rooted in a specific time and place, don’t always age well but with Model Shop Jacques Demy has captured a slice of SoCal Americana and preserved it in amber with all its psychedelic touches and free-spirit aspirations intact. Unexpectedly remarkable.

The Four of the Apocalypse
(Italy 1975) (6): Horror maven Lucio Fulci tries his hand at the Spaghetti Western and proves he is no Sergio Leone. In 1873 Utah (Spain), Card sharp Stubby Preston (Italian heartthrob Fabio Testi) is run out of town by an overzealous sheriff and slowly makes his way to the sin capital of San City (?) accompanied by three fellow outcasts: a prostitute, a drunkard, and an amiable crazy guy who sees dead people. On they way they are joined by Mexican gunslinger “Chaco” (Cuban-American heartthrob Tomas Milian looking like he just stepped off the set of Hair). At first content to ride along and show off his shooting skills, Chaco eventually reveals himself to be a sadistic psychopath intent on taking what he wants and leaving no witnesses…in true Fulci fashion there will be a bit of blood. Now lost in the wilderness, Stubby and his pals try to find their way back to civilization while at the same time avoiding Chaco who has taken to stalking them… Eastmancolor panoramas of mountains and scrubland are strangely enhanced by an anachronistic soundtrack of groovy ballads while a series of clapboard sets give the impression of an American frontier fallen into rot and disarray with corny dialogue (oh those death scenes!) and snatches of bad dubbing all around. But the international foursome—Testi is joined by England’s Lynne Frederick, New Jersey’s Michael J. Pollard, and British Guiana’s Harry Baird—work so well together that later scenes of heartbreak are actually moving in their own way, and when a visit to a village populated solely by sexist male braggarts brings about a sea change—an odd take on The Nativity—it really does seem plausible (unless you overthink it). Noteworthy spots aside however, it’s ultimately hamstrung by a derivative storyline rife with oater clichés and a forced pathos that leave your eyes resolutely dry. Was that final salute to High Plains Drifter a joke or an homage?

(USA 2016) (8): Trolls are little rainbow-coloured imps. Pathologically happy, they live for three things—singing, dancing, and hugging—plus they also like scrapbooking, throwing outrageous disco parties, and performing acrobatic feats with their mops of bright hair which can be used as a fifth appendage when needed. And forget toilets, these guys poop out glitter and cupcakes. Bergens, on the other hand, are dour clinically depressed ogres with crooked teeth and even crookeder dispositions. But when the Bergens discover that chewing on a Troll produces a state of joyful euphoria (like an adorable little tab of MDMA), the Trolls hightail it out of town. Eventually recaptured by the Bergens who are desperate for another hit of happiness, the Trolls must now rely on two of their members, the forever upbeat Poppy and oddly glum Branch (voices of Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake) to rescue them before they are consumed in the Bergen bacchanal known as “Trollstice”. If you can get through the ultra-treacly first moments of 20th Century Fox’s animated feature you are in for a treat for this is truly an impressive feat of wild CGI and songs that are actually memorable including Timberlake’s Oscar-nominated original “Can’t Stop the Feeling” and a host of retro mainstays from the likes of Diana Ross, Cyndi Lauper, and Kool & the Gang. Even in animated form Kendrick and Timberlake share an onscreen chemistry and they’re aided by, among other big names, John Cleese as the Bergen King, Christine Baranski as a ruthless chef with 101 recipes for a dead Troll, and Zooey Deschanel who towers over everyone else as a lovestruck scullery maid with Cinderella dreams. It’s the animation, however, which turns an otherwise decent kids’ cartoon into something amazing. With effects ranging from two-dimensional scrapbook cutouts to three-dimensional showstoppers that look like a cross between plush muppets and claymation, every frame is drenched in fluorescent psychedelia so intense it looks as if it could glow in the dark. And with a host of creatures ranging from sarcastic rainclouds and clockwork snakes to candy-striped worms and goggle-eyed bugaboos, the entire production resembles what a four-year old might hallucinate if they dropped LSD at a preschool rave. Adults will chuckle at the in-jokes and subtle spoofs, kids will swoon over a whole new generation of marketable toys, and everyone will leave the theatre with a smile (whether they manage to score a Troll or not).

Bon Cop, Bad Cop
(Canada 2006) (8): When the mutilated body of a Montreal lawyer is found sprawled across the Quebec/Ontario border both jurisdictions assign a detective to the case—brusque and slovenly Francophone David Bouchard (Patrick Huard), and fastidious anglophone Martin Ward (Colm Feore). At odds from the very beginning, the two officers must find a way to work together after more bodies begin showing up suggesting the work of a serial killer with a very precise vendetta. Director Erik Canuel has produced one of cinema’s rarer birds: a Canadian film that actually works on all levels. As a thriller the action unfolds with frantic editing backed by a growling soundtrack of heavy metal. As a policier the plot thickens just enough to be interesting. And as a bilingual comedy it plays directly to Canadian funny-bones with a wicked script that wrings humour out of French/English frictions (the two men often swapping languages in mid-sentence), the metric system, Americans, and, above all, HOCKEY!! Among the movie’s many delights are a CBC-style talk show hosted by Rick Mercer doing a Don Cherry imitation that spirals into an NFL brawl complete with sweater pulling and underhand punches, and a bad guy with a heavy French accent attempting Travis Bickle’s mirror monologue from Taxi Driver while wearing a giant beaver costume—who else but Canucks could appreciate the self-effacing humour in this? And it all starts with a scene of the two men play tug-of-war with the first body leading to side-splitting results (literally…yuck!) For their part Feore and Huard are (mis)matched perfectly and they mine their differences for all the comedy gold they can muster even after a potential tragedy galvanizes them into a cohesive unit. But it’s the little asides and in-jokes that had me smiling throughout, for this is not a mere attempt at mimicking stateside dramas but rather a purely Great White North production as loudly Canadian as poutine and a Molson Dry. And Kraft Dinner. Sarain Boylan spices up the plot as Feore’s sexually aggressive sister while Lucie Laurier and Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse round out the cast as Huard’s ex-wife and assertive teenaged daughter respectively.

Red Sparrow
(USA 2018) (6): The Cold War is served up hot and spicy—or at least lukewarm—in this clunky violent espionage thriller that tries to combine the twists of John le Carré with the steamier bits from a Harlequin romance. The result, while only moderately gripping, is at least watchable for its entire 180-minute running time. After an accident sidelines her career as a prima ballerina, Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence, all grown up) is recruited by her uncle, a low-level bureaucrat in Russian Intelligence, to help in a sting operation. But when she witnesses something she shouldn’t have she’s given a choice: either commit to the Intelligence Service herself or be killed. Deciding on the former, she’s sent to an isolated state school which specializes in turning runway models into sexy spies—dubbed “sparrows”—as adept at blow-jobs as they are at picking locks (apparently a real thing in Russia) from which she emerges an embittered seductress whose newly weaponized sexuality is both an asset and, ultimately, a vehicle for something else when her very first assignment goes askew. Tasked with seducing CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) in order to learn the name of a Russian mole working for the Americans, Dominika will have everything she’s been taught turned inside out after Nate produces a few unexpected moves of his own… The old East vs West clichés are on full display throughout as the evil Russkies growl and garrotte one another while the valiant Yanks defend Freedom and the American way. The State School itself is pure grindhouse daydream run by a severe matron (Charlotte Rampling?!) who encourages students to practice their carnal skills in front of the class while regaling them with Soviet platitudes on the decadent West and the glories of Mother Russia. Lawrence and Edgerton manage to generate a few sparks but the trajectory of their story seems forced and the sex perfunctory at best. However, the source novel was written by a CIA veteran so I’ll give some of the film’s more far-fetched elements a pass, and director Francis Lawrence never lets the pace lag as he jets his characters between London, Budapest, Vienna, and an ersatz Moscow (Slovakia). The mostly A-list cast is further rounded out by Ciaràn Hinds and Jeremy Irons as Russian Intelligence bigwigs, Mary-Louise Parker injecting a bit of bleak humour as a crooked senatorial aide, and hunky Putin lookalike Matthias Schoenaerts as Dominika’s sleazy uncle. Finally, the serpentine plot does have a nice sting at the end and the whole production goes down smoothly enough. It’s only when you think about it too much that you start to choke.

The Wrong Man
(USA 1956) (8): One of Alfred Hitchcock’s lesser known films is notable for two things: the fact it was actually based on a true story, and for the great lengths he went to in order to stick as close to the truth as possible. Thanks to the testimony of a few shaky eyewitnesses soft-spoken family man Christopher “Manny” Balestrero (superb performance by Henry Fonda) is mistakenly charged with several counts of armed robbery and assault. Now facing the possibility of a prison sentence Manny, aided by his increasingly neurotic wife Rose (Vera Miles speaking volumes with a simple frown) and an inexperienced crime attorney (Anthony Quayle), must find a way to clear his name. But as his leads dry up and Rose’s mental status deteriorates he realizes with sickening clarity that time has just about run out. Filming on location in and around New York City, Hitchcock brought his cameras to the actual places the real Balestrero haunted—the club where he worked as a musician, a country inn where Manny and Rose once stayed, and even the jail cell where he was held pending trial. The result is a feeling of authenticity which the director uses to ramp up the anxiety as we see Fonda’s bewildered character go from innocent disbelief to frightened desperation. Using extreme close-ups, incidental noise, and sharp shadows, Hitchcock once again proves to be a master at using spartan sets and oblique lighting to create a feeling of claustrophobia—walls and bars induce paranoia as Manny parses out his cell, a shattered mirror reflects a shattered mind, and a pair of handcuffs click shut with all the finality of certain doom. The nighttime scenes of New York, captured in harsh B&W, are pure film noir filled with wisps of fog and suspicious stares. For his part Fonda excels as an everyman caught up in a judicial spider web he can’t quite comprehend—scenes of his arraignment and trial are chilling for their sheer assembly-line execution (when a bored juror stifles a yawn our hearts drop)—and the actors playing his accusers are pitch perfect as they whisper among themselves while pointing defiantly. Esther Minciotti does a fine job as Manny’s doting Italian mother, and both Tuesday Weld and Werner Klemperer make uncredited appearances: she as a giggly schoolgirl and he as a dour psychiatrist. Perhaps Hitchcock left out a few key pieces of evidence for the sake of drama (he did), perhaps the film’s resolution is a tad rosier than what really happened (it is), and perhaps Manny’s religious faith takes an unjustified bow (it does), but these are small flaws for what proves to be an edgy and completely engrossing psychological thriller. Or in the words of the film’s closing caption, “…what happened to them seems like a nightmare—but it did happen.”

Animal Farm
(UK 1954) (8): Aside from the ending, Joy Batchelor and John Halas’ BAFTA-nominated piece of animation remains more or less true to George Orwell’s political satire about revolutionary idealism vs human nature. After years of suffering deprivation and indignity at the hands of an oppressive farmer, the livestock rise up in a workers’ revolt, send him packing, and claim the farm for themselves. But the manifesto that they lovingly hand-paint on the side of the barn (which includes such golden rules as “All Animals are Created Equal”, “Animal Shall Not Kill Animal”, and “Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad”) is gradually undermined by a cabal of scheming pigs led by the coldly ambitious boar Napoleon and his cowardly sycophant Squealer who believe that some animals are more equal than others and lolling about in a human house beats a sty any day. With the drunken farmer thus replaced by an elite porcine dictatorship—all of whom are learning to walk on two legs—the furred and feathered proletariat find their quality of life becoming more unbearable with each passing day. Despite a couple of adorably drawn characters (ooh that baby duck!) and a palette of dark pastels, this is a relentlessly bleak riff on the theme of “Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely” which doesn’t shy away from blood and death as when Napoleon calls upon his squad of vicious Storm Trooper dogs—which he perverted from the time they were puppies—to rid “his” farm of malcontents. Nor does he hesitate to exploit the less able animals in exchange for bartered human goods which he hogs (haha) to himself. However, whereas Orwell’s novel ended in a whimper rather than a bang, Batchelor and Halas rewrite it into something a bit more inspirational—apparently the American CIA owned the rights to the book and it’s rumoured they wanted to use the film to promote their anti-communist rhetoric. Either way it still packs quite an emotional punch for a cartoon so send the kids out to play because this ain’t Disney.

Story of G.I. Joe
(USA 1945) (10): Years before it became forever associated with an action figure toy, “G.I. Joe” was the collective nickname given to America’s ground infantry. And in William A. Wellman’s timeless film, one of the finest examples of the genre I’ve yet seen, it almost becomes a term of reverence. Employing an advisory team of army brass and war correspondents, not to mention a supporting cast of soldiers who were actively serving at the time, Wellman’s WWII drama is based largely on the published memoirs of Pulitzer winning journalist Ernie Pyle (ably portrayed by Burgess Meredith). Tagging along with a company of G.I.s as they fought their way up the coast of Italy towards Rome, Pyle tried to commit to paper the day-to-day ground level experiences of the soldiers he followed, most of them from small towns, and in doing so he (and Wellman) gave us something Hollywood was up til then unable to deliver—the truth. There is no John Wayne bravado here, no apple pie propaganda, no glorification of might and right, but rather long stretches of tedium in which good-natured ribbing shores up frayed nerves and a package from home is worth more than gold. And when fighting does break out it is brilliantly staged in all its manic horror to show audiences how real heroes behave. A young Robert Mitchum received his only Oscar nomination as the company’s Lieutenant, a man whose gruff veneer belies the vulnerability beneath. One particular scene in which he has to write letters to the families of men recently killed—aided by a sympathetic Pyle and a bottle of strong moonshine—wouldn’t have left a dry eye in the house when it was viewed in 1945. But it is the cast of real G.I. Joes that carry the film to the next level. With no actors’ training but a wealth of experience instead, you can see in their eyes that this was more than a film to them for they were living in real life what Wellman could only stage. Moonlight shines down on a temporary bivouac where men huddle two to a tent and dream of going home while “Axis Sally” croons over the radio, a whimpering puppy is passed from man to man like a little ray of hope, enemy soldiers play a loud and deadly game of cat & mouse amidst the ruins of a cathedral, and a ragtag group of survivors look upon a row of dead comrades with something transcending pain. With humorous off-colour banter—the more contentious content cleverly masked by the sound of exploding bombs—and an emphatically anti-romantic representation of warfare (mud and stench are everywhere, death is not choosy, and bodies are shown in full rigor mortis) it’s no wonder that this film was hailed as true to life by the servicemen who saw it, including future president Dwight D. Eisenhower. Sadly, many of the soldiers who appeared in G.I. Joe, and Ernie Pyle himself, were later killed in the Pacific without ever having a chance to see the finished film—but if you wait until the final credits are over there’s a clip of the real Pyle interviewing one of them.

The 3 Worlds of Gulliver
(UK 1960) (6): The good news is much of the wit from Jonathan Swift’s 18th century satire about a shipwrecked doctor alternately beset by truculent fingerlings and superstitious giants managed to make it to the screen. The not so good news is the production values did not withstand the test of time so well making all that stop-motion animation and primitive green screen wizardry seem “quaint”. Setting his novel in 1699 England, Swift—an Irishman—had a lot to say about British society and he did so in an amusingly fantastical way which director Jack Sher does his best to capture. Blown overboard during an ocean squall, Dr. Lemuel Gulliver (Kerwin Matthews) finds himself first a prisoner and then a feted celebrity in the little kingdom of Lilliput where the average citizen hovers around six inches in height. Currently involved in a protracted war against a neighbouring kingdom sparked, of all things, by a disagreement over the correct way to crack an egg, the Emperor of Lilliput insists the peace-loving Gulliver become his secret weapon and no amount of reasoning will dissuade him, “I hate justice…” the diminutive monarch bellows, “…but I love law!” Managing to escape, the hapless physician then finds himself in a land of giants whose own king views the tiny newcomer’s knowledge of modern science with irrational fear after his jealous court mystic starts spreading rumours of witchcraft. Now adrift in a sea of petty royal bickering, superstitious nonsense, and implacable decrees, it’s going to take a miracle for Gulliver to find his way back home. Sher has fun with perspective as Gulliver goes from towering colossus to tiny pipsqueak and even though the crude special effects never quite sell the illusion the film is not without it’s moments like when teams of harried Lilliputians struggle to fill a hungry Gulliver’s plate with heaps of toy-sized chickens and roast muttons via an elaborate wooden elevator. Visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen also contributes with animated scenes of little crocodiles and humongous squirrels through the miracle of “Super-Dynamation”—an impressive word for miniature models that don’t fool anyone as they shake and wobble across the screen. A lo-tech treat for kids not yet jaded by today’s CGI standards and a trove of pithy one-liners for adults who appreciate satire and irony. As an interesting aside, when star Kerwin Mathews died in 2007 at the age of 81 he and his partner Tom Nicoll had been together for 46 years.

The Zigzag Kid
(Netherlands 2012) (5): Twelve-year old Nono has always been content to live in in the shadow of his father, a highly decorated Interpol detective. In fact, under the old man’s tutelage he has become something of a sleuth himself. But there’s one subject on which his father refuses to budge—the identity and fate of Nono’s late mother who died shortly after he was born—and even dad’s live-in “secretary” can’t convince him to tell his son the uncomfortable truth. All that changes however when, two days before his 13th birthday, a puzzling note attached to a chocolate bar propels Nono into a grand mystery involving an international jewel thief and a world famous chanteuse (Isabella Rossellini?!), both of whom may just hold the answers to his many questions. But first he’s kidnapped… Based on David Grossman’s novel, director Vincent Bal’s film starts out promising enough with a nice little bit of slapstick involving Nono quite literally crashing his older cousin’s bar mitzvah, but it quickly simmers down into a tepid Disney-style thriller equal parts cloying road movie and sappy coming-of-age drama. As Nono commandeers a train, goes undercover in sloppy drag, and essentially follows in the posthumous footprints of his mysterious mother, child lead Thomas Simon alternates between vexed and preciously sanguine so often you don’t know whether to cheer him on or slap him across the head. And a supporting cast of adult cut-outs don’t help either with dad reduced to a clichéd hot-tempered cop, Rossellini all diamonds and sympathy, and the thief your typical irascible curmudgeon. And when Bal decides to flesh out Nono’s energetic imagination with stagey flashbacks—at one point he “watches” with his mind’s eye as his newlywed parents lay into each other—things just get messier. In the end a forced sense of wonder and too many plot stretches leaves that final message of “Just Be Happy to Be Yourself!” ringing as hollow as a bargain bin hallmark card.

The Strange Ones
(USA 2017) (6): Whether it’s physical, emotional, or both, trauma sends out seismic waves that can fracture one’s perceptions. With this in mind directors Christopher Radcliff and Lauren Wolkstein have stitched together a psychological road movie whose disjointed narrative leaves the distinctions between thought, memory, and reality deliberately opaqued. Flashbacks involving fire and blood tell us that pre-teen “Jeremiah” and brooding twenty-something hulk “Nick” (they claim to be brothers) are clearly running away from something—exactly what is only revealed in tiny unsettling increments. As expertly played by James Freedson-Jackson, Jeremiah is a withdrawn and troubled adolescent whose hesitant monotone and downcast gaze make him sound as if he’s constantly trying to wake-up from a nightmare. As Nick, Alex Pettyfer gives the impression of an intensely focused man eaten by….rage? paranoia? guilt?…or something else entirely? Sharing an odd ambivalence towards one another, the two traverse a middle America of rundown motels and greasy spoons strangely devoid of crowds as they make their way towards an unspecified destination. But what is their relationship and why do they appear to look over their shoulders every so often? And what’s behind the bruises and troubling dreams? Skirting these issues for most of their film’s eighty-minute running time, the directors invoke the mantra “reality is only as real as you want it to be” first spoken by Nick and later echoed by a counsellor at a camp for wayward kids—a sentiment expressed one evening by Jeremiah who confesses, “When I think I’m asleep it turns out I’m still awake…and then I kind of can’t tell.” Transcribing mental states onto celluloid is not an easy task and in attempting to do so Radcliff and Wolkstein make interesting use of mythological archetypes—a full moon foretells tragedy, a black cat becomes an accusing familiar, and a deep dark cave in the middle of a deep dark forest signifies a psychic shift—all of which point to a shocking incident which has left two people bobbing helplessly in its wake. A handful of background characters come across as mere sketches, probably intentional as they too are mere archetypes especially the intrusion of female energy in the form of a seductive hotel clerk, an adoring fellow high school student, and a skeptical police detective. The directors don’t always hit the mark which causes the film’s pace to wobble every now and then, and the finale is not so much a revelation as it is a discomfiting confirmation. But given the difficult task they assigned themselves and given this was their first big feature release, I look forward to future projects with great anticipation.