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

~ ~ ~ ~

The Uninvited (USA 1944) (7): The special effects are primitive and the horror elements are softened by a lot of fluff and romance, but Lewis Allen’s haunted house mystery—touted as Hollywood’s first “serious” ghost story—certainly has enough moments to keep you watching. While vacationing along the rugged coast of England, brother and sister Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald (Ray Milland, Ruth Hussey) happen upon an abandoned manor house overlooking the sea. Falling in love with the place they manage to buy it from the owner, a gruff commander whose granddaughter, Stella, views the sale with a curious amount of anguish. Once settled in though, Rod and Pamela realize why the house came so cheap as candles blow themselves out, spectral sobs drift through the hallways, and a malevolent presence seems to emanate from an upstairs studio which always seems to be cold no matter what the outside weather. Something terrible happened in this house, something involving Stella and which still draws the young woman to the treacherous cliffs that run alongside it—and the Fitzgeralds must get to the bottom of the mystery before tragedy strikes yet again. Charles Lang’s Oscar-nominated cinematography never strays far from from crashing waves and rocky headlands as the film’s mood continually shifts between sunlit rationality and darkest night where phantoms prowl the staircase and a makeshift seance gets out of hand. His knack for achieving the perfect interplay between light and shadow goes a long way in creating the film’s rare moments of true tension. But with a pair of love stories tacked on—both brother and sister find their perfect matches—it becomes something of a spooky Harlequin Romance with very few scares and no real jolts to speak of. However it did garner a letter of rebuke from the Catholic Legion of Decency addressed to Hollywood censor Will Hays which decried the film’s “erotic and esoteric” elements. No doubt they were upset by the hint of homosexuality surrounding the character of Miss Holloway (Cornelia Otis Skinner) a dour-faced spinster who was once nursemaid to the house’s former mistress, now deceased, and who still seems to carry a psychotic lesbian torch for her memory. Oh my!

The Power of the Dog
(NZ 2021) (8): As sober as a Greek tragedy and just as outrageous, Jane Campion’s piece of Western Gothic—a heady mix of forbidden passion, sibling rivalry, and macabre retribution—slowly unfurls like a clap of divine thunder. In 1920s Montana brothers Phil and George have inherited the family’s highly lucrative cattle ranch, but even though they must work closely together they couldn’t be less alike. Taciturn and truculent, the older Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch, amazing) seems to take great delight in tormenting the younger George (a soft-spoken Jesse Plemons) and his new wife, the widowed Rose (Kirsten Dunst, a study in angst) as well as Rose’s awkwardly effeminate teenaged son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee, utterly convincing). Phil, however, has one huge Achilles’ heel and as his surly attacks on George’s new family intensify it could very well mark the beginning of his own downfall—from a most unexpected source. With the majestic peaks of New Zealand’s Otago region standing in for America’s midwest, Campion has fashioned a biblical parable in which an isolated farmstead becomes a world unto itself haunted by grief and chimeric visions and inhabited by dusty characters whose plain appearances belie their mythological roots. It’s a heady brew for sure, and one which welcomes favourable comparisons to her breakout feature, 1993’s The Piano.

The Humans (USA 2021) (9): Stephen Karam adapts his own stage play for the screen and the final product retains the former’s sense of confinement while taking advantage of the latter’s technical wizardry. Richard and Brigid are moving into their first place together—a rackety, mildewy New York apartment prone to peeling plaster, faulty lightbulbs, and very loud neighbours. With hardly a stick of furniture to sit on, the couple have nevertheless invited Brigid’s family (mom, dad, sis, and senile grandma) to Thanksgiving dinner, an evening Brigid is anticipating with some trepidation . As the clock ticks away and alcohol levels rise banal banter and good-natured ribbing slowly turn into sharper rebukes and hurtful confessions, for everyone has come to the banquet armed with a knife or two and some wounds never heal—even grandma’s confused outbursts uncannily reflect the mood of the room. And then one final bombshell is dropped. Dysfunctional Family Dinners have been providing cinema with fertile fodder for generations but Kramer takes this timeworn formula one amazing step further by framing his catty get-together within the trappings of a supernatural thriller. Mysterious bangs and rattlings punctuate the tension while half-seen shadows drift past the frosted windows and cameras focus on pipes, wallpaper, and dark corners in anticipation of a bogeyman who never seems to materialize. Often filming the action from doorways and hallways Kramer keeps us at arm’s length from his characters, accentuating the sense of alienation while at the same time making everyone seem smaller and more vulnerable. It’s a horror movie of sorts, but one in which the monsters hug and say grace together and terror comes from a guilty conscience and the harsh critiques of one’s own family. The stellar cast includes Richard Jenkins as dad, Jayne Houdyshell as mom (repeating her Tony Award-winning Broadway performance), June Squib as grandma (Bravo!) and Amy Schumer as Brigid’s heartbroken lesbian sister. And look for an ineffectual wooden cameo from the Virgin Mary.

(UK 2001) (9): Living in a dingy London apartment and eking out a living as a bartender, Jay has pretty much failed at everything: his musical career went nowhere, his ex-wife barely speaks to him, and his children are slowly forgetting who he is. Even his friends are more opportunistic acquaintances than confidantes. However, for a few hours every Wednesday afternoon he can forget where life has taken him when an anonymous woman comes to his flat for sex. They don’t really talk to one another—they don’t even know each other’s name—and it’s more fucking than lovemaking, but it’s the only thing he has. And then, driven by curiousity and something akin to fondness, Jay follows her one day and discovers the two of them have more in common than he thought. And thus a very volatile can of emotional worms is ripped open as Jay’s illusions of love and attachment are blown apart. Notable for its graphic sex—leads Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox actually have sexual intercourse on camera—Patrice Chéreau’s adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s short stories is an intensely depressing look at two broken people sticking pins into one another’s wounds even as they strive for an intimacy that never manifests. In fact everyone in Chéreau’s film seems to be going through the motions of intimacy driven by desperation or loneliness or the lies they’ve told themselves that everything is okay. Jay and “Claire’s” physical passion is downcast rather than erotic—at one point he quietly observes her sleeping body with a mixture of yearning and profound sadness—their rutting more an act of defiance against the darkness than any shared tenderness. In two of cinema’s more gripping performances, Rylance and Fox leave themselves completely vulnerable both physically and psychologically, their raw pain becoming a tangible presence. Timothy Spall co-stars as an embittered husband who can only lash out at life’s unfairness while Marianne Faithfull and Phillipe Calvario lend a dose of reality: she as a middle-aged spinster who sees more than she wants to; he as a youthful idealist who calls Jay on his self-pity. With shades of Tennessee Williams throughout, Chéreau has produced a modern day tragedy about two tortured people unable to distinguish between love and obsession and in whom desire has become an addiction.

Beau Père
(France 1981) (6): After her mother dies in a traffic accident, 14-year old Marion foregoes moving in with her alcoholic father and instead chooses to stay with her stepfather Rèmi, a somewhat irresponsible, sporadically employed nightclub pianist. But there is more behind the young girl’s decision than mutual grief, for fancying herself a full grown woman Marion has decided to take Rèmi as her lover. In Bertrand Blier’s erotic comedy—originally banned by Ontario’s squeamish censors—a wily young Lolita wages a game of seduction that the older object of her desire can’t hope to win. As Rèmi sputters and trips towards that inevitable first kiss and Marion demurely plays the innocent naïf—she always seems to be towering over him—complications will arise in the form of her biological dad who just won’t go away, and the beautiful single mother next door who plays on Rèmi’s guilty conscience (he’s hot for his stepdaughter, she’s a loving mom to her own 5-year old) while deepening his already considerable inferiority complex (he tinkers at the piano keys, she’s a virtuoso). And it doesn’t help that his apartment is filled with photographs of his late wife, a former model, which always seem to be staring at him. The humour is definitely low-key, a fact not helped by performances that are awkward and perfunctory—as Rèmi, Patrick Dewaere delivers all the emotional punch of someone waiting for a bus and 15-year old Ariel Besse’s Marion walks through her lines as if she just borrowed a couple of mom’s Ambiens. There is a certain envelope-pushing charm to the film however and that final scene in which the stage is set for a possible future transgression arrives like a sobering alarm bell.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool
(UK 2017) (8): As illness brings his passionate yet thorny May/December affair with faded American movie star Gloria Grahame to an end, aspiring Liverpool actor Peter Turner takes time to reflect upon the ups and downs of their two-year tryst. Thirty years his senior, Grahame was not an easy person to get close to. Prone to scandal and already divorced four times, she was a labile and needy middle-aged woman who couldn’t accept growing old—gracefully or otherwise. But Peter, aside from being initially starstruck, found something within her that resonated with his own free spirit no matter what emotional roadblocks she set up… Based on the real Peter Turner’s memoirs, Paul McGuigan’s bittersweet biopic covering the last few weeks of Grahame’s life when she showed up deathly ill on Peter's doorstep, augments its straightforward narrative with some clever conceits gleaned, appropriately enough, from stage and screen: flashbacks appear organically while turning a corner or opening a door; a romantic walk in front of a green screen sunset turns into a film loop; and life slowly ebbs away in a series of scratchy celluloid images. But the film’s ultimate strength lies in Annette Bening’s powerful performance. Her portrayal of Gloria Grahame as a conflicted force of nature who could go from docile lamb to haggard invalid to raging dragon with a single word is pure artistry. She is able to illuminate her complicated character without overshadowing anyone else’s performance, not that the rest of the cast are pushovers. Jamie Bell portrays Peter Turner as a young, somewhat naive young man discovering the agonies of love for the very first time; Julie Walters, as Peter’s mother, gives a fine turn as a working class woman whose gruff rebukes belie her inner warmth; and Vanessa Redgrave makes a brief appearance as Grahame’s eccentric mother. A complex film with one foot firmly rooted in old school melodrama while the other makes a bold statement on one of the many forms love can take.

(UK 2018) (8): In the mountainous hinterland of 19th century Wales, teenaged Gwen lives with her mother and little sister. With dad away fighting in a war, mom suffering from bouts of melancholia, and little Mari not yet old enough to pull her weight, it falls to Gwen to look after the day-to-day running of their small rustic farmstead. But adversity lurks in the form of a nearby mining operation whose lordly owner possess the locals like a plague and has managed to run everyone else off their land except Gwen’s family—and the longer her mother resists his demands that she sell the farm to him, the more mysterious tragedies seem to befall the family until their very lives are in jeopardy… For his debut feature writer/director William McGregor combines the encroaching nihilism of Tarr’s The Turin Horse with the suggestion of diabolical evil from Eggers’ The Witch to fashion what at first appears to be a slice of gothic horror but for one glaring difference: in this dark tale the devil in the doorway is all too human. In a story propelled more by imagery than its sparse script cinematographer Adam Etherington shows consummate skill in evoking a sense of bottomless despair, for Gwen’s world of crags and mist seems locked in a perpetual tempest where even a roaring fireplace (infernal imagery abounds) fails to dispel the gloom and God’s own house offers more menace than solace. In the title role, Eleanor Worthington-Cox portrays a timid young woman cowed by the machinations of the adult world which threaten to undo her. As the wraithlike mother, Maxine Peake is a study in contradictions—strong yet dangerously fragile; resolute yet unpredictable; loving, in her own way, yet carrying within her a secret that could destroy the family. And, as the owner of the mine, Mark Lewis Jones encapsulates all seven of the deadly sins, a fact heightened rather than lessened by his soft voice and gentlemanly attire. Simply told and without flourish, McGregor has created a wretched folk tale—sadly rooted in historical truths—in which goodness is unable to comprehend evil; madness takes on a supernatural sheen; and a little girl’s fervent prayers are cast into the whirlwind only to fall upon deaf ears.

Making the Boys
(USA 2011) (7): In the Fall of 1968 struggling playwright Matt Crowley’s controversial play The Boys in the Band opened in New York and the very fact it made it to the stage (and a subsequent movie) at all has earned it a place in the modern equal rights movement. The story—a gay man’s birthday celebration turns ugly when everyone brings their emotional luggage to the party—marked the first time homosexuality took centre stage in a mainstream production and even though its star has faded over the years it still remains a contentious chapter in our history. Lauded by some for its frankness and unapologetic honesty, reviled by others as a portrayal of self-loathing gay stereotypes, its cast of angry flamboyant queens nevertheless encapsulated the spirit of what it meant to be gay in the turbulent semi-closeted 60s, a subject that was still uncomfortably controversial at the time. Crayton Robey’s incisive documentary traces the arc of Crowley’s play from its wildly successful off-Broadway premiere through the decadent 70s and on to the 21st century where talking heads from the gay community including playwright Edward Albee, columnist Dan Savage, trans-actress Candis Cayne, and a handful of the original cast, are still split over both its relevance and legacy. Rendered glaringly out-of-date by the Stonewall Riots and devastated by the AIDS epidemic, it has still managed to hang on if only as a reminder of where we once were and how far we’ve come. But the doc’s most intimate moments are reserved for the then 75-year old Crowley himself who describes the emotional (and financial) journey which took him from being the child of a neurotic mother and bible-thumping father to the minor echelons of Hollywood’s gay underworld to, finally, the feted author of the very first play all about “us”.

Pirate Radio
[aka The Boat that Rocked ] (UK 2009) (7): In the 1960s, fearing it would evoke a tidal wave of immorality and drug use, the conservative British government banned radio stations from playing rock ’n roll. But with a population hungry for the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, and Dusty Springfield, enterprising DJs took to the high seas where they were able to broadcast their forbidden records from retrofitted cargo ships. In this unapologetically “Feel Good!” movie, writer/director Richard Curtis takes us aboard the fictitious S. S. Radio Rock where a crew of hippies, rogues, and airwave rebels—and one impressionable teenager—are taking great delight in snubbing their noses at the establishment by playing the kind of pop tunes that get everyone from schoolgirls and nurses to maids and accountants tapping their feet and shaking their hips. It’s not all smooth sailing however, for a stuffy member of parliament (Kenneth Branagh barely recognizable in conservative haircut and horn rims) has been tasked with sinking their offshore studio by year’s end and he’ll do anything within his power to accomplish that goal. Blatantly sentimental, especially with its non-stop soundtrack of classic 60s tracks which seems to offer just the right song for every dramatic twist, Curtis’ evocation of Britain’s Carnaby Street era may occasionally lean towards idealized fantasy (those silly splashy final scenes are pure joy!) but there is no mistaking his love for the music and the people who spread it around. Branagh’s character is appropriately cartoonish while his floating nemeses are appropriately bewhiskered, bedraggled, and impishly defiant—their clashes serving to define an emerging zeitgeist which was unstoppable even before The Kinks ever mentioned Lola. Philip Seymour Hoffman co-stars as a cynical American DJ who realizes these will be the best years of his life; Bill Nighy struts and crows as the station’s manager; Emma Thompson makes a brief appearance as a well-to-do ex-groupie; and the long list of subversive disc jockeys is rounded out by the likes of Nick Frost, Chris O’Dowd, and Rhys Darby. It may not be an entirely accurate history lesson, but as the cinematic equivalent of a pleasure cruise it will leave you smiling.

Sadie McKee
(USA 1934) (7): With Joan Crawford headlining, Clarence Brown’s grand soap opera is delivered with such earnestness and features such good performances that it is easy to forgive its dramatic embellishments. Despite his sketchy employment record and general unreliability, working girl Sadie (Crawford) is so smitten with her longtime beau Tommy that she runs off with him to New York City to get married even though they only have $17 between them. Alas, true to form, Tommy leaves her holding the license after he receives a better offer. Now living in a rundown boardinghouse and working at a nightclub Sadie meets, and eventually marries, perpetually drunk millionaire Jack Brennan (Edward Arnold, dominating the screen). But in spite of Brennan’s inebriated attempts to make her happy, Sadie continues to pine for Tommy until fate causes their paths to cross one more time… Beautiful cinematography captures opulent interiors and modest flophouses alike in soft shades of black and white—a wintry snowfall has never conveyed such sadness—while a savvy script, based on Viña Delmar’s novel, lightens its pathos with a bit of humour and some snappy one-liners. Crawford, only 28 at the time, alternates between rock hard determination and mushy vulnerability with such aplomb that you’d swear those tears are genuine and she’s supported by a phenomenal cast: Arnold’s monied lush shows an unexpected depth; Jean Dixon, playing Sadie’s roommate, conveys a world-weary wit; and Esther Ralston channels Mae West as a Vaudeville chanteuse and home-wrecker. Released before the draconian Hays Code began sanitizing Hollywood productions, Sadie McKee is also notable for its allusions to premarital sex, prostitution, and rather frank depiction of alcoholism which was shown as a debilitating illness rather than a vehicle for tipsy sight gags. The film’s moral high road and unlikely coincidences may not fly with today’s batch of cynical moviegoers, but time and pedigree demand we accept it on its own terms. Franchot Tone, the future Mr. Crawford, co-stars as the scion of a wealthy family who has to hold his own feeling inside as he watches Sadie’s rise and fall.

I Married a Witch
(USA 1942) (6): Almost 300 years after they were burned at the stake by a mob of New England Puritans, a father and daughter pair of witches (Cecil Kellaway, Veronica Lake) return to make life miserable for the last surviving descendant of the man who accused them—prominent politician and gubernatorial candidate Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March). Things head south however when a spell backfires causing the daughter to fall head over heels in love with Wooley much to her vengeful father’s displeasure. The primitive special effects and corny jokes are charming (flying taxi?!) and the premise itself was fresh at the time—it actually served as a template for the classic TV series Bewitched—but the ensuing years have not been kind. Lake and the much, much older March generate zero onscreen chemistry even though March at least tries to make an effort while Lake essentially recites her lines as if distracted by something offscreen. Kellaway adds some mirth as the irascible father, his character hovering between quaint town drunk and mischievous leprechaun, while co-star Susan Hayward hams it up like a pro as Wooley’s spoiled fiancée, her face frozen in a perpetual moue as she fumes and whines at every turn. In fact their disastrous nuptials, interrupted by everything from tempests to a warbling wedding singer who doesn’t know when to shut up, provide the film with its single comedic highlight. A bit of fluffy family entertainment which could have benefitted from a few magic charms of its own.

La Primera Noche
[aka The First Night ] (Columbia 2003) (6): Luis Alberto Restrepo’s tragic drama begins with Tonio and Paulina making a terrified trek through a nighttime forest carrying two crying infants. Something terrible has befallen their mountain village and they have barely managed to escape with their lives. So why is there so much antagonism between them? Why does Tonio find it difficult to talk about his brother? And why is he dressed like a soldier? They eventually make their way to Bogotá where they hope to use that city’s urban sprawl to evade their pursuers—but in Columbia’s thorny social and political reality all they’ve really managed to do is substitute one war zone for another… The editing is shoddy, the acting generally sub par, and the story itself often falls back on telenovela conceits with a soundtrack that would be more at home in a giallo thriller—so why did I find Restrepo’s modest work impossible to dismiss? For one thing it’s a brave effort on his part, reducing his country’s civil unrest to a tale of one family torn apart by political ideology. Furthermore it paints a bleak picture of a metropolitan city which traps those seeking refuge into cycles of poverty and exploitation. Playing the ill-fated duo, Carolina Lizarazo and Jhon Álex Toro generate a wretched onscreen chemistry as two people helplessly watching their dreams implode and the director draws on subtle yet ingenious ploys to underscore their plight: the homeless couple camp out in front of a travel agency whose poster for Antarctic tourism proclaims “Enjoy the End of the World!”; a hobo’s compassion proves to be as rotten as his teeth; and the bright lights of Bogotà take on a new meaning when they’re reflected in a filthy mud puddle. As unpolished as it is (the frequent flashbacks, while indispensable to the plot, are nevertheless intrusive) Restrepo still manages to prove that one doesn’t need a big budget in order to make a big statement.

Summer of 84
(Canada 2018) (6): Fifteen-year old Davey Armstrong has begun to suspect that his next door neighbour is actually the “Cape May Killer”, a psychopath who’s been abducting young boys up and down the Pacific northwest. Trying to convince his three best friends, however, is proving to be difficult. For starters Davey already has a wild imagination fuelled by his twin obsessions for mystery books and supermarket tabloids; secondly the neighbour in question, Mr. Mackey, is an upstanding member of the police force tasked with finding the killer. Eventually banding together the boys set out to prove (or disprove) Davey’s suspicions before yet another kid goes missing… John Wayne Gacy meets The Goonies in François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissel’s (it took three directors?!) retro teenage thriller—a derivative rehash of old slasher flicks that never quite gels. A few snatches of pop songs and some tacky furniture tells us it’s 1984 while the friends’ preoccupation with Star Wars and tits tells us they’re adolescents. So far so average. The boys themselves are little more than stock characters—the fat kid, the maladjusted kid, the nerd, and Davey, the “normal one”—while the adults are mostly clueless and the super hot chick next door provides fodder for the usual glut of anatomy jokes. How very 80s. Suffering from too many coincidences and forced nostalgia (the boys use walkie-talkies! The girls wear scrunchies!) the directors still wring a few anxious jolts from an otherwise tepid script while the entire production manages to squeak by with a passing grade thanks to some clues cleverly hidden in plain sight and a macabre final reel that arrives like a cold slap after ninety-plus minutes of Boys’ Life hijinks. As a period piece it’s mostly unconvincing, as a buddies movie it lacks the proper chemistry, and as a thriller it trips over itself more often than not. But as a stand-in for small town Oregon, British Columbia’s lower mainland looks fabulous!

Anna Karenina
(UK 2012) (5): Artifice and stagecraft bring Tolstoy’s grand tragedy to clinking, clanking life but when the final curtain drifts across the screen you’re left wondering if all that pomp was worth it. Not really. The story is by now iconic: torn between the lukewarm attentions of her adoring yet stiflingly bourgeois husband (Jude Law) and an exciting yet rakish Count (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the aristocratic Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) chooses the latter. And in the upper class circles of imperialist Russia where it is all but impossible for a woman’s reputation to survive even a whiff of scandal, her decision will come to exact a terrible price. Director Joe Wright’s lavish production certainly doesn’t skimp on the visuals from the Oscar-winning costumes to the Oscar-nominated music and cinematography, in fact his film often has the feel of a small jewellery box come to life. And Tom Stoppard’s highly theatrical screenplay places the action squarely on a 19th century stage where actors move from set to set (sometimes bypassing extras arranged in frozen tableaux until needed); prop doors open up onto wheat fields; and St. Petersburg appears as a painted backdrop for toy trains and artificial snow. An intriguing approach reduced to mere gimmickry by the film’s distinct lack of passion. Knightley and Taylor-Johnson stare hungrily at one another as Law simpers and wrings his hands, but despite being technically admirable their performances ultimately fail to convince. Compare that to a parallel, and more satisfying story between a lovestruck landowner (Domhnall Gleeson) and a reluctant socialite (Alicia Vikander) and the main plot’s shortfalls become even more glaring. Lovely to look at—a train station appears as if by magic in the rigging above the main stage just in time for the bleak finale—but in the end flat and not very engaging.

(UK 2015) (6): It was a dark and stormy night when a redeye commuter train broke down in the middle of a deep forest. At first incensed over the delay, the few passengers on board found their irate grumblings quickly turning into screams of terror after a big growling something came loping out of the nearby woods in search of dinner… Given the title of his film plus all those opening shots of a full moon you just know director Paul Hyett is about to serve up yet another variation on a werewolf theme, but he adds just enough spin to keep things interesting if unexceptional. The visuals are about right with crane shots of a menacing woods bisected by the stalled train, it’s softly glowing lights barely piercing the surrounding mists, and claustrophobic interior scenes which make the most out of tightly-packed seats and fogged windows. And the passengers are the usual assortment of monster fodder from the spineless wimp who finally grows a pair to the whiney pair of pensioners and slimeball yuppy. In fact Hyett makes his characters so patently unlikeable that when the carnage began I found myself rooting more for the creature. And what a creature! More prosthetic than CGI with dripping fangs and claws and a face somewhere between angry grizzly bear and pro wrestler—too bad those tinny pre-recorded howls sound more like a pissed off Shih Tzu than a murderous spawn of Hell. But the understated gore is nicely done with flashes of entrails and mushy body parts to augment the buckets of blood. And although the cliché-riddled script never rises above the level of a TV movie, Hyett injects enough black humour to keep things fresh while a bit of backstory sounds like the beginning of a spooky campfire tale. A creepy train ride that may not be worth the price of a full ticket but if you can manage to sneak aboard it’s a worthwhile trip.

Ready Player One
(USA 2018) (8): In the year 2045 video games have replaced religion as the opiate of the masses. In order to escape the drudgery of overcrowded cities and a depressed economy people don headsets, body suits, and cyber-gloves in order to enter “Oasis”, a fantastical online VR world where you can be anyone or anything you want and do anything you desire providing you have enough coinage. And now common citizens have been given an even greater incentive to play because shortly before his death the childlike co-founder of Oasis, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), set up the greatest challenge cyberspace has ever seen: find three magical keys embedded throughout the game world and you stand to inherit not only his estate worth billions, but the Oasis platform itself. With his mind on the prize, impoverished teenaged geek and Halliday worshipper Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) plugs himself in and sets about solving the puzzle aided by a few mystifying clues and his cadre of fellow misfits. But there is an evil corporate force afoot—both virtual and very solid—who’ll do anything to solve it first… With real life and CGI action that explodes off the screen in a million different colours, Steven Spielberg’s big screen fantasy is packed with so many retro pop culture references that you’ll have to slap the pause button repeatedly in order to catch them all. Elm Street’s Freddy Kreuger, RKO’s King Kong, and Chucky from Child’s Play are there as well as every rocket ship, hot rod, and robot from the past eighty years of summer matinees—my favourite sequence being a long spoof of Kubrick’s The Shining (LOL!) And, despite his signature penchant for warm fuzzies and sparkly resolutions, Spielberg keeps the action going at a fair clip whether it’s taking place on elaborate real life sets (vertical stacks of mobile homes are the new white trash condos) or an online world of dazzling landscapes and crazy cosplayers shooting lasers beams out of every orifice while 80s radio hits blare from the sky. But beneath the sound and light show there is a sobering subtext playing out, for what kind of future awaits a society that has pretty much given up on the idea of improving reality in favour of a comforting illusion? Olivia Cooke co-stars as an online badass and love interest; Ben Mendelsohn hisses as a ruthless CEO; Simon Pegg does a fair American accent playing Halliday’s former business partner; and providing the wheedling voice of cyber-villain I-R0k (get it?) T. J. Miller is given some of the script’s best lines. So put your brain on PAUSE and just hit PLAY!

The Martian
(UK/USA 2015) (9): When he’s lost and presumed dead during a violent Martian sandstorm, American astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is left behind by his team after they’re forced to return to Earth. Now injured and very much alone on the red planet, Mark must somehow survive by scavenging what’s left of the mission hardware while NASA, realizing the mistake, plans a desperate rescue mission which may or may not work. Combining hardcore science fiction with space cowboy fantasy Ridley Scott’s rip-roaring tale of survival, nominated for 7 Oscars, may push the envelope every now and again (starting with that “violent” sandstorm) but the green screen renderings of ochre mesas, mile high dust devils, and endless plains of cratered desolation beneath an alien sky are nothing less than spectacular, as are those wild and bumpy outer space sequences with spinning POVs against a looming Mars. And Damon certainly deserved that Best Actor nomination since much of the film is devoted to his own one-man show. Keeping a running video diary—a great gimmick that educates the audience and fills in some plot holes without being pedantic—Watney proves to be a very resourceful space age Robinson Crusoe facing every small triumph, and a few deadly setbacks, with aplomb and a sense of humour which caused some to label Scott’s drama as a…comedy?! “Fuck you, Mars!” exclaims Watney at one point as he devises yet another ingenious ploy to keep himself alive a few weeks longer, and I found myself echoing the sentiment while crossing my fingers. Jessica Chastain co-stars as the mission commander with Kristen Wiig trading in yucks for straight-faced seriousness as a press secretary; Sean Bean making a sly LOTR reference playing a mission overseer; and Chiwetel Ejiofor as yet another NASA expert charged with bringing Watney home. A good old-fashioned blockbuster whose dazzling pyrotechnics never overshadow a script rife with wit and humanist compassion.

Les Petits Mouchoirs
[aka Little White Lies ] (France 2010) (8): When a serious accident lands one of their members in Intensive Care, a group of Parisian friends decide to go on their annual seaside holiday without him. But their buddy’s brush with mortality proves to be a slow-acting catalyst that eventually causes each person to re-examine (or in some cases examine for the very first time)…everything: from personal relationships to the direction they’ve allowed life to take them. The French title translates to “small handkerchiefs” and refers to the fact that even though we do our best to cover them up some things cannot be ignored indefinitely. Thus, while one friend childishly pines for his ex another actively pushes love away and yet another harbours an unsettling secret which puts his already rocky marriage into question. And nowhere is this disconnect between truth and self-delusion more apparent than in the group’s de facto leader, Max. Older and more successful than his peers, Max makes a big show of his magnanimity until discord, frustration, and a pair of unwelcome rodents who’ve taken up residence in his beachside bungalow begin to widen the chinks in his armour leading to a series of meltdowns and a shameful betrayal. With sunny ocean views forming an ironic backdrop, writer/director Guillaume Canet’s tale of clueless, somewhat spoiled 30-somethings forced to finally grow up could be viewed as a GenX version of The Big Chill despite its incongruous, yet no less wonderful soundtrack of old radio hits—Janis Joplin, CCR, and Gladys Knight vie with Bowie, Van Morrison, and The Isley Brothers with great effect. In between glasses of wine and piles of seafood hearts will be wrenched as coping mechanisms begin to run down and confessions work their way to the surface. Thankfully Canet sprinkles his ensemble drama with enough humour to avoid maudlin introspection and ends it all with a bittersweet coda that points towards a newfound maturity. A fine piece of cinema for adults.

(Canada 2012) (7): Writer/director Brandon Cronenberg (David’s son) obviously inherited his father’s flair for the macabre and he puts it to good use in this deadly satirical tale of corporate scheming and celebrity worship. In the very near future an entire industry is devoted to harvesting diseases from pop culture idols—from a common cold to herpes simplex—and passing them on to obsessive fans willing to pay a hefty price in order to share the exact same misery as their favourite stars. Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) is a salesman for one such company whose main source of everyday pathogens—celebrity diva Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon)—has proven to be a gold mine of coughs and rashes. But Syd has another sideline career, that of smuggling these valuable viruses in his own body and selling them to black-marketeers. Things go terribly wrong however when Hannah (and subsequently Syd himself) becomes deathly ill and the cause seems to be anything but natural… Sticking to low-tech effects bolstered by a talent for lighting and set design, Cronenberg creates a convincing world of Fame Worship and consumerism run amok; a world where one can purchase a movie star’s chlamydia (all infectious agents copyright protected of course) or else devour a steak cloned from that same star’s muscle cells. Unsettling medical passages (yes, those needle pokes are real) and grotesque body transformations are straight out of Cronenberg Sr.’s playbook and Brandon deepens this pall of horror with antiseptically white sets where oversized tabloid pics adorn every wall and CGI starlets writhe on widescreen television sets—adding a whole new dimension to the term “peep show”. Jones is perfectly cast, his softly growling voice and cold eyes defining a predatory yuppy until ill health turns him into something both cruel and pitiable. As the object of everybody’s desire, Gadon’s persona is as flashy as a camera bulb and as shallow as an airbrushed magazine cover—in other words, “perfection”. Perhaps Brandon’s efforts are not quite polished enough for Hollywood, perhaps his story’s trajectory is a tad too opaque for the matinee crowd, but for those willing to give him a chance he paints a picture at once diabolically exaggerated and uncomfortably close to home.

(UK/Australia 2016) (5): The true story couldn’t be more fascinating: After being separated from his older brother at an Indian train station, five-year old Saroo accidentally rides the rails hundreds of miles from his village to arrive frightened and hungry on the very mean streets of Calcutta. Unable to speak the local language and prey to all sorts of exploitation, he ends up in an orphanage where he is eventually adopted by a middle class Australian couple. Twenty-five years later, armed only with vague memories and Google, he tries to retrace his journey to see if he can locate his birth family. Alas, director Garth Davies felt the need to smother this adaptation of Saroo Brierley’s biography with so much schmaltz and syrup that it is all but impossible to distinguish facts from Hollywood sentimentality. The music swells too many times; cameras linger on a few too many sobbing hugs; and adult Saroo’s deeply meaningful wanderings (as portrayed by Dev Patel) are too often juxtaposed with flashbacks to little Saroo gazing doe-eyed at a world he can’t quite understand. Co-star Nicole Kidman, as the adoptive mother, is mainly relegated to tears and sighs while Rooney Mara, playing Patel’s girlfriend, alternates between pouts and compassionate nods. In fact the film’s only convincing performance comes from pint-sized Sunny Pawar as young Saroo. Pawar beat out some 2,000 other children for the coveted role and his onscreen confidence—those facial expressions alone render his scripted lines almost superfluous—belies the fact that this was his acting debut. But aside from some nice cinematography (trains are always a great metaphor) what could have been a gripping drama rarely rises above the kind of manipulative tearjerker that the Oscars love to love.