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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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.

Wildlike
(USA 2014) (7): Fourteen-year old Mackenzie (Ella Purnell) is sent to live with her uncle (Brian Geraghty) in Alaska while her mother is treated for an undisclosed illness back home in Seattle. But when her uncle begins to display more than a familial interest in her she has no choice but to run away. Now wandering with little money and no goal other than getting home Mackenzie, out of sheer desperation, hooks up with an elderly backpacker (Canada’s Bruce Greenwood) who’s carrying a few pieces of emotional luggage himself. Using planes and buses, cars and ferries, writer/director Frank Hall Green’s minimalist road movie makes excellent use of Alaska’s amazing wild country to tell a simple story of two sad people whose chance encounter leads to a kind of emotional synergy—as one learns to trust again, the other finds a new purpose in life. With the character of “uncle” reduced to frantic voicemails and a string of disturbing texts, this is a two-handed drama with a few walk-on parts to add perspective, most notably a pair of kite enthusiasts whose easygoing freedom is expressed through their high-flying inventions and a shuffling grizzly (listed as “Joe Boxer the Bear” in the credits) who stands in for adversity in all its forms. Finally, a spare musical score and uncomplicated script give the production a natural feel where emotions bubble to the surface without prodding and problems, while not exactly exorcised, are at least able to be faced. Great ending too.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs
(Japan 1960) (7): The stairs in question are a cramped flight leading up to a dingy little nightclub, one of several hundred dotting Tokyo’s Ginza district. The woman is Keiko, nicknamed Mama, one of a thousand “bar hostesses” who haunt these drinking establishments and whose job it is to increase sales by exuding a false bonhomie while flirting with the wealthier male customers. For in old Japan’s patriarchal society a woman’s only currency is her virtue—hold on to it too tightly and you risk losing a potential benefactor, spend it too loosely and you are condemned by the same comfortably married men who enjoyed sexualizing you in the first place. It’s a catch-22 situation that Keiko has never quite made peace with. Now widowed and approaching 40, she is not only determined to open a bar of her own but she intends to hold on to her dignity in the process. Unfortunately, with the exception of her deadbeat brother whom she supports, it’s the men in her life who hold the real power and although some are willing to offer her business loans (often on the sly) it’s what they expect back in interest that will test her mettle… Lapsing every now and then into soap opera, Mikio Naruse’s B&W diatribe against the status of women is nevertheless an indispensable piece of early Japanese cinema and a worthy successor to the likes of Ozu. Using the Ginza’s concrete and neon canyons as a microcosm Naruse traces the lines of power, both overt and implied, as Keiko, dressed in a drab kimono that contrasts with the younger women’s Western skirts, manoeuvres her way towards her goal. Delicately spurning sexual advances including those from a married broker whom she secretly adores, yet willing to play the game (she forces herself to accept the drinks they offer even though she hates alcohol) she will ultimately come to the sad realization that appearances are generally misleading and the value of one’s virtue is as fickle as the stock market. It’s a cold nighttime world that Naruse presents to us wherein even an ambitious woman’s choices are limited to wife or mistress and the same system that lures them with the promise of success can just as easily destroy them. Love is too often synonymous with ownership, every kindness seems to carry a price tag, and even death is not enough to keep creditors at bay. In one of the film’s sadder scenes a meeting with the hitherto unknown wife of a man she once fancied takes place in a barren dirt field, the two women commiserating while a pair of rambunctious boys peddle circles around them on their tricycle. The late Hideko Takamine gives one of her career highlights as Keiko, a strong yet vulnerably brittle protagonist alternately buoyed by a pragmatic skepticism and sunk by the romantic nature she holds close to her heart much like the photo of her dead husband—a memory of happier times—she keeps locked away in a makeshift shrine. And thus the ultimate irony of the title, for although the stairs to Keiko’s workplace lead ever upwards she may as well be standing in place.

Hardcore Henry
(Russia/USA 2015) (9): In a top secret laboratory “Henry” is resurrected as a mechanized killing machine with no memories of his previous human life and his only companion a weeping female scientist who claims to be his wife. But he barely has time to flex his new titanium muscles before he’s thrust into a deadly turf war between a telekinetic madman trying to raise an army of murderous cyborgs and a crippled scientist opposing him with an equally adept militia of assorted clones. Hardly giving audiences enough time to breathe, writer/director Ilya Naishuller and his team practically kick us out into the mean streets of Russia where we chase after Henry as he busts parkour moves up and down buildings, assaults a military base, and essentially shoots, guts, and explodes his way towards a shattering revelation and final showdown high above the glittering spires of downtown Moscow. Filmed entirely from Henry’s POV (a huge artistic risk which pays off big time) we see all the gory hyperkinetic action unfold through his eyes—whether he’s precipitating destruction in a red-lit bordello (cue dildo joke), getting blown up in a fiery bus crash, or falling from skyscrapers, horses, and helicopters—a true marvel of editing and choreographed violence that rarely lets up even when the occasional crossed circuit results in a screen full of jerky static. Partially fan-funded through Indiegogo , this is little more than a first-person video game gone rogue (Payday 2 and Left 4 Dead were inspirations) and Naishuller makes no apologies, on the contrary he revels in the pure adrenaline madness of it all with a severely dry sense of humour that will have gamers and non-gamers alike smirking while they try to follow a series of almost subliminal clues. Make no mistake, this is not arthouse cinema but rather a fiendish high-tech cross of grindhouse gristle and Xbox chaos slapped together with consummate skill and garnished with a driving soundtrack that includes the likes of Freddy Mercury, The Stranglers, and The Temptations all crooning against a background of metal grunge. And there is blood. And explosions. Holy! Fucking! Shit!

Quo Vadis
(USA 1951) (8): Upon returning to Rome after a successful military campaign, decorated general Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor and his hairy chest) falls in lust with fair Lygia (a doe-eyed Deborah Kerr), the adopted daughter of a retired nobleman. But, although she initially spurns his brusque advances with chaste reserve, there are other, more insurmountable obstacles to be overcome. For one, Lygia is a Christian, that newly formed cult on which the mad emperor Nero (a convincingly unhinged Peter Ustinov earning an Oscar nomination) has taken a dim view. Secondly, Nero’s ruthless wife Poppaea (Patricia Laffan, ice cold and twice as deadly) has decided that if she can’t have Vinicius for herself then no one can. Against a backdrop of religious loyalties, barbaric spectacle, and political intrigues, will Vinicius and Lygia have their mutual attraction come to fruition or will fate and circumstance keep them forever apart? Set in the year 64 A.D. this grand “swords & sandals” epic earned eight Academy Award nominations and is credited with singlehandedly saving MGM studios from impending bankruptcy. With all of Rome’s sprawling Cinecitta studios at his command, director Mervyn LeRoy employed over 30,000 extras—each clad in authentic costume—and monumental set pieces which must have been eye-popping at the time, to bring ancient Rome to life in all its bloody glory. The script is appropriately grandiose and although the cast manage to make their stagey lines seem plausible, it’s Ustinov and Laffan which carry them to the next level. As Nero he exhibits a manic energy and unpredictable demeanour that wavers erratically between self-aggrandizement and paranoid suspicion while her empress is a cunning reptile whose elaborate coif and pastel gowns do little to soften her stony features. But it’s the Oscar-nominated work of the art and cinematography teams that push Quo Vadis over the top. Intricately staged tableaux of marble columns, towering statuary, and thousands of billowing gowns are rendered in such searing Technicolor they come to resemble Pre-Raphaelite canvases, and LeRoy applies this same meticulous attention to detail in the film’s more contentious chapters whether it be Christians used as lion fodder (passages which garnered it a British “X” rating) or a prolonged scene of fiery conflagration so intense you can almost feel the flames (some primitive green screen techniques notwithstanding). The only fly in the ointment, for me at least, was the droning message about Christianity’s many blessings that at times came close to being a Catholic circle jerk—God shines through a copse of trees like a nuclear flash, St. Peter shuffles and proselytizes like a kindly white-haired Gandalf (although his own demise is shown with explicit cruelty), and even Jesus makes a cameo in a gauzy flashback to the shores of Lake Galilee. However, if you’re willing to turn that particular cheek, the rest of the movie is dazzling. Leo Genn also received an Oscar nomination for his role as Vinicius’ ethically-minded uncle forced to tread a fine line in order to stay in Nero’s favour, and pro wrestler Buddy Baer provides 6’6” of loin-clothed eye candy as Lygia’s unofficial guardian.

Tangerines
(Estonia 2013) (10): Zaza Urushadze’s Oscar-nominated anti-war parable, set in the early 90s during the Georgian civil conflict, keeps the violence to a minimum concentrating instead on that spark of humanitarianism that can exist even between the bitterest of adversaries. Resolute pacifist Ivo and his friend Margus tend a tangerine orchard in the Georgian state of Abkhazia—a hotly debated region whose ethnic tensions have caused all of Ivo’s neighbours to flee back to their ancestral homes in Estonia. Passionately devoted to their little grove of trees Ivo and Margus are understandably concerned when the war intrudes on their deserted dirt road in the form of two gravely injured soldiers—one a Chechen mercenary fighting for Abkhazia, the other a Georgian nationalist. Now with a pair of sworn enemies recuperating beneath his roof Ivo must go to great lengths to maintain the peace even if it means holding back his own sense of grief, for the ravages of war are not totally unknown to him. Meanwhile the two soldiers, hissing at each other like wounded bobcats, respond to Ivo’s forced armistice in ways neither one could have predicted. With the realities of war itself reduced to a few fleeting but nevertheless brutal passages, Urushadze focuses his camera on four men forced to live together, their growing familiarity breeding something nobler than contempt even though a couple of unwelcome visitors ensures we don’t forget blood is being spilled just beyond the distant hills. Of course the symbolism is unmistakable—the placid garden that seems immune to strife, communal suppers with Ivo sitting peacefully between the two warriors—and its emotional weight is given further depth by a melancholic score of plucked strings that sound like an Elizabethan dirge. With muscular performances all around it is the cast which ultimately carries the production on their sturdy shoulders. As the Chechen Giorgi Nakashidze is initially all brawn and focused rage, Misha Meskhi plays the Georgian as a young man filled with misplaced zeal, and Lembit Ulfsak’s Ivo anchors the movie with soft-spoken, some might say godlike, forbearance, his pithy observations on warfare and those who wield it making the film’s more savage elements seem as pitiful as they are tragic. At one point Ivo and Margus, along with a friend, get rid of a bombed out van by rolling it down a hill: “I thought it would explode” says the disappointed friend. “It explodes in the cinema…” says an equally disappointed Margus. “The cinema is one big fraud!” responds Ivo. And with that simple retort Urushadze delivers a powerful slap with the gentlest of hands.

La Bête Humaine
(France 1938) (8): People can indeed be beastly in Jean Renoir’s adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel, a tragic melodrama of l’amour psychotique whose bleak observation on the wages of human vice carries within it wider political overtones. Lonely train engineer Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin) is prone to rage-filled blackouts which he blames on “poisoned blood” caused by his alcoholic forebears. His life seems to take a turn however when he falls in love with Séverine (Simone Simon) the alluring young wife of aging Stationmaster Roubad (Fernand Ledoux), a moody and choleric man whose fits of jealousy often lead to violence. In fact it was one such fit which led Roubad to murder one of Séverine’s former lovers the very night she met Jacques, and now both Lantier and his newfound love must find a way to be together—but Roubad is not so easily trifled with and Lantier is overdue for another blackout… Given everyone’s occupation it’s no surprise that Renoir’s film revolves around trains, an apt metaphor as they barrel heedlessly along their iron rails with all the implacability of fate itself. It’s a train that plays host to Roubad’s homicidal wrath, Lantier and Séverine meet and later commit adultery on one, and it is an engine car—Lantier’s favourite—which doles out a final destiny. There is a synergy to Renoir’s cast that still crackles decades later: Gabin commands the screen as the tortured Lantier, a man who cries out for love only to see it constantly wrested away; Simon is radiant as the love triangle’s apex, a beauty whose innocent veneer periodically slips to reveal something uglier beneath; and Ledoux uses little more than body language and sullen stares to produce a tragically broken man at once pitiful and wholly repellent. And cinematographer Curt Courant ties it all together with grim visions of dark tunnels and smoky industrial landscapes where a simple rain barrel carries an erotic charge and a gold pocket watch becomes a ball and chain. Released just as WWII was gathering on the horizon, Renoir’s scenes of screaming locomotives and sundered lives where passions too often lead to brutality can also be viewed as darkly prophetic.

House of the Witch
(USA 2017) (4): Meadowcrest Manor has stood on the edge of town for decades. Surrounded by acres of unkempt lawn the huge, vaguely colonial eyesore hasn’t been occupied for almost that long—at least not by anything human, for as a prologue reveals there is something living within its walls and it doesn’t take kindly to nosy visitors. Now, on Halloween, six clueless teenagers decide to break into the old place to party the night away—and if you can’t guess what happens next you really need to get out to the movies more… Pedestrian and chockfull of genre clichés, Alex Merkin’s derivative “Horny Kids in a Haunted House” shocker doesn’t waste time setting the tone as sheets begin to writhe, mirrors reflect horrors, and all avenues of escape are inexplicably cut off. Of course the hapless adolescents decide to split up and explore. Of course one couple ends up in the attic where a gory discovery is made. And of course another trio follow a trail of screams into the deep dark basement. It seems the house’s creepy squatter has a use for snoopy interlopers and as each character is picked apart (literally and figuratively) its motive becomes frighteningly (?) clear. The effects are special enough when you consider the film’s limited means, especially the smoky contrails left in hallways and staircases as the evil bogey zooms about like a fighter jet, and one fingernail sequence made me wince appreciatively. But given the film’s premise Merkin doesn’t quite line up the dots that would allow audiences to connect those opening scenes with that foreboding finish. Instead he chooses to stuff the middle with so much supernatural stuff and nonsense that you feel as if you’re watching a group of highschool students trying to manoeuvre their way through a carnival funhouse while their parents wait outside. In the end a meandering storyline generates little tension and leads to a disappointing payoff that left me rooting for the witch.

Phenomena
(Italy 1985) (6): Every so often I come across a film which is so awful yet so brilliant at the same time that I find it all but impossible to give it a rating. Such is the case with this highly atmospheric, highly operatic cheese platter from Dario Argento. Fans of Italian gialli in general, and of Argento in particular, know exactly what I’m talking about. For everyone else, steel yourselves for a wild ride filled with blood, psychosis, and ridiculously emotive performances whose already stilted dialogue is rendered priceless thanks to poor dubbing. An insane murderer is stalking the campus of an exclusive all-girls academy nestled in a corner of Europe known as “the Transylvania of Switzerland” and only American freshman Jennifer Corvino (future Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly!!) has the wherewithal to stop him. Blessed with the ability to communicate with insects (she actually made a beetle horny), Jennifer is led through a series of clues thanks to her little six and eight-legged friends, until she finds herself trapped in a final house of horrors where all will be revealed. There are hints of 1977’s Suspiria at work here most notably in the menacing girls’ academy and its staff of slightly unhinged matrons, and there’s more than a whiff of the supernatural as Jennifer regularly enters into fugue states where she summons hordes of bugs to do her bidding—one highly effective scene shows a black cloud of buzzing nasties covering the top floors of the school while Jennifer’s abusive schoolmates cower behind closed windows. It is the cinematography, in fact, which ultimately swayed me for if nothing else Argento knows how to frame a shot with every shadow in its place and every drop of gore accounted for—a spooky underwater sequence at a lake is pulled off so well you hardly even notice they’re in a pool. Hampered, or perhaps bolstered, by overwrought performances and the occasional flub (unnaturally bright lighting washes out backgrounds and when a sudden storm breaks why is it only raining on one side of the school?) this is Argento at his macabre best churning out a little bedtime story filled with stabbings, decapitations, a pool of rotting body parts, and buckets and buckets of maggots. Veteran actor Donald Pleasance lends a tiny bit of credibility as a crippled Scottish entomologist who teams up with Jennifer, but it’s his chimpanzee assistant Inga—looking and acting like a little furry Igor—that deserved to walk away with an award for Best Primate in a Supporting Role. Laced with hysteria and dominated by an overbearing soundtrack of screeching arias and heavy metal (musical credits include Iron Maiden, Motorhead, and Argento’s frequent collaborators, “Goblin”) this is definitely one of the more unique best-worst horror flicks to come crawling out of the 80s. You’ve been warned and/or encouraged.

Nightingale
(USA 2014) (9): It all starts with an angry confrontation between him and his overbearing religious mother which doesn’t end well (for her), and thirty-something Peter Snowden’s chronically tattered psyche begins to implode upon itself in a chain reaction of rage, loneliness, and delusion. All he wanted to do was invite his friend Edward over for a quiet dinner—a fellow veteran for whom he holds much more than a platonic interest—but life seemed intent to thwart his plans right from the outset. Already paranoid and dangerously labile, Peter’s fuse burns ever brighter as frustration builds upon frustration—with the credit card people, with the worried inquiries from mom’s pesky friends, with the stifling walls of the house itself—and all it will take is one final spark to push him over… David Oyelowo brings the curtain down in this powerful one-man psychodrama that rolls out in a string of unilateral conversations as Peter fields phone calls, sneers at his mother via her vanity mirror, and posts agitated monologues to his online blog. Alternating between impulsive mania and near catatonia, those grandiose monologues carry within them a crushing sense of tragedy, for like a confused child his lack of any insight has rendered him ill-equipped to deal with the various realities that ring his landline or come knocking on his dead-bolted door. Director Elliot Lester leaves it up to the audience to glean what they can from the one-sided exchanges and offhand remarks—Edward’s role is questionable after a couple of cell conversations go awry and a letter addressed to his mother reveals some pathology between the lines when Peter reads it aloud. Perhaps the religious paraphernalia is heavy-handed (Christ and his Mother peer from every corner) and a few dramatic ploys don’t ring entirely true—but how do you gauge “truth” when cast and crew have effectively set up shop in the mind of a man going mad? As if in response Lester wisely leaves subjective and objective entirely relative right up to that sad and brutally intense final upload. This is theatre distilled to its purest form.

The Last Voyage
(USA 1960) (6): Twelve years before Irwin Allen took audiences on a one-way adventure aboard the Poseidon, writer/director Andrew Stone offered up this waterlogged disaster film—sort of a “Titanic-Lite” with half the body count but twice the drama. En route to Japan on one of her final voyages, the aging ocean liner S.S. Claridon runs into trouble when a fire in the engine room leads to a series of explosions that threaten to scuttle her. The ineffectual captain (George Sanders), more concerned with his career than the wellbeing of his passengers, refuses to act decisively which immediately puts him in the crosshairs of his hot-headed chief engineer (Edmond O’Brien) and fellow officers who are torn between loyalty and self-preservation. Meanwhile, first class passenger Cliff Henderson (a wooden Robert Stack) is desperately trying to free both his wife (a vivacious Dorothy Malone) who’s been caught beneath a fallen bulkhead, and his little daughter (an excruciatingly adorable Tammy Marihugh wailing like a distraught Shirley Temple) who is clinging to the edge of a jagged hole caused when an exploding boiler tore through their stateroom. Now with the ship listing, waters rising, and passengers beginning to panic, the Hendersons are quickly running out of time… What starts out promising winds up being 90 minutes of staged hysteria—you can practically hear Stone yelling “ACTION!”—with hammy performances that consist mainly of people running up and down staircases and yelling at one another. Malone and Marihugh do provide the exception however as they wring out the tears convincingly enough and Sanders does a good job as the stiff-lipped British captain who refuses to go down with the ship (dragging the producers with him no doubt). Aside from an initial blast that takes out a crowded salon with unintentionally amusing results as all-too-obvious wigged mannequins get tossed into the air (play it in slo-mo for a good laugh!) the Oscar-nominated special effects are pretty impressive for the time—torrents of water shoot through portholes, walls of flame engulf a dining room, and because Warner Brothers partially sank an actual ship for many of the shots there is an air of authenticity to the action that couldn’t otherwise have been achieved using mere models and studio backlots. Even Santa Monica Bay makes for a credible open ocean. But the movie ultimately loses points on two grounds: Charles Laughton’s somber voice provides a totally unnecessary narration—we don’t need to be told a ship is sinking when we can see it’s sinking—and a final scene, obviously meant to be “heroic”, is so patently ludicrous that I wanted to torpedo the damn boat just out of spite. At least former ballplayer turned actor Woody Strode treats us to a bit of eye candy as he plays a helpful engineer who doesn’t seem to own a shirt.

Woman at War
(Iceland 2018) (7): Iceland’s official entry to the 2019 Academy Awards is this absurdist eco-comedy whose zanier elements can’t quite hide the droning soapbox at its core. Mousy choirmaster Halla (a fierce yet downbeat Halldóra Geirhardsdóttir) is so upset over global warming that she’s declared a clandestine war on any heavy industry that tries to gain a foothold in her country. Her current target: a Chinese aluminum smelting factory. Her modus operandi: cutting off electricity to the plant by whatever means available be it dragging a metal cable over the nearby power lines or blowing up a transformer tower with plastic explosives. Having convinced herself that her quest to “save the planet” trumps the democratic rule of law, she is somewhat nonplused when her acts of sabotage lead to mixed reactions in the press with some accusing her hubris of destroying jobs and threatening Iceland’s economic future, “Do we have to stop all industry and go back to our turf houses?” muses one irate taxpayer. Even her twin sister (also played by Geirhardsdóttir), unaware of Halla’s involvement, accuses the perpetrator of sheer arrogance. But Halla really begins to question her illegal activities when she receives notice that her application to adopt a child has been processed and there’s a little 4-year old war orphan in Eastern Europe waiting for her… Right from the outset it’s clear where writer/director Benedikt Erlingsson’s sympathies lie—Greta Thunberg would adore this film over a bag of organic popcorn—but that doesn’t mean he’s above laughing with, and at, all sides of the debate. While politicians secretly meeting at an ancient archaeological site to haggle over the issue come to resemble a band of Viking warlords, Halla’s ways and means are also called into question after she scatters a typewritten manifesto rife with Go-Green posturing but woefully short on any workable solutions. Perhaps in an effort to soften the edges of a film which too often lapses into sermonizing, Erlingsson throws in a handful of farcical elements which sometimes work as when a hapless Spanish tourist is repeatedly arrested for terrorism and Halla, wearing a Nelson Mandela mask, brings down a surveillance drone with bow and arrow à la Robin Hood (posters of Mandela and Ghandi also smile beatifically from her living room wall), and sometimes border on affectation as Halla is literally pursued by the movie’s soundtrack in the form of a three-piece Icelandic oompah band and trio of Ukrainian folk singers who patiently loiter in the background awaiting their musical cues. From the opening scene of foolhardy vandalism to a closing shot that graphically brings to focus Halla’s worst fears, this is a film that deliberately pokes and provokes its audience regardless of individual convictions. And that is always a good first step.

Naples ’44
(Italy 2016) (7): Towards the end of WWII an alliance of British and American troops drove the German forces out of Naples and nearby Salerno, setting up base in a ruined city that was at once stubbornly vibrant and barely standing on its last legs. One British intelligence officer, Norman Lewis, kept a meticulous diary of his experiences in the months following the liberation and it is his own words (narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch) which director Francesco Patierno uses to form the backbone of this engaging documentary. Similar in style to Terence Davies’ ruminations on Liverpool in Of Time and the City, Patierno stitches together a free-form hodgepodge of rare archival footage, modern day travelogue, and snippets from classical Italian films shot in and around Naples to create a dreamlike mosaic of Neapolitans struggling to survive by whatever means possible as food and water shortages, disease, and a crumbling social order took their toll. Even nearby Mount Vesuvius seemed intent on finishing the destruction begun by the Nazis as it chose this worst of times to send out slow-moving rivers of lava. Young women took to prostitution, young men flexed their impotent machismo through petty assaults, and the elderly fell back on the faith that sustained them in centuries past—a fascinating mix of pagan rites and Catholic voodoo involving miraculous statues and magical Saints’ blood. And throughout it all a burgeoning black market economy took hold that saw up to 30% of military supplies mysteriously appear on private store shelves. Lewis’ emotionally-laden words and Cumberbatch’s rich voice augment scenes of everyday horror and snatches of joyful defiance—in one part of the city women set up house among mountains of dusty rubble, in another the mangled bodies of children are pulled out of a blasted building. And as words and images intertwine it becomes abundantly clear that Lewis held the utmost respect, bordering on love, for a city and its people that refused to give in even after the gates of Hell opened up beneath their feet.

Permanent
(USA 2017) (6): Bad hair makes for a weak metaphor in writer/director Colette Burson’s low-income comedy that seems to aim for the white trash aesthetic of Gummo or even Napolean Dynamite but rarely comes close. It’s 1982 and with the first day of school just around the corner highschool freshman Aurelie Dickson (Kira McLean) desperately wants a curly perm so she can look like Farrah Fawcett. But, thanks to her cash-strapped parents, she winds up with a $20 beauty school experiment that looks as if an electrocuted poodle died on her head. Thus marked as fair game by the redneck bitches in her class (all sporting soft waves and phoney drawls) Aurelie must either make a stand or resign herself to four years of bullying. In the meantime, her constantly squabbling parents are having troubles of their own: dad (Rainn Wilson) wants to become a doctor but is so obsessed with his cheap toupee that he might not make it past the first class and mom (Patricia Arquette?!) is an emotionally labile dormouse whose interests include butter dishes and marine mammals. The cast pretty much act as if they were auditioning for something better and the script itself is a mush of one-note jokes and tired idiosyncrasies—a pregnant teacher regards her fetus as if it were an extra student, dad fusses over his wig. Finally, the film’s decidedly “quirky” buildup does provide a few good laughs—most notably Aurelie’s classroom adventures and mom’s whiney non-sequiturs—but the punchline never seems to arrive and instead we get one of those hug-filled moments of validation with happy music and smiles all around. The late Michael Greene co-stars as the Dickson’s next door neighbour—a questionably qualified family counsellor and mom’s dirty old muse whom she occasionally mistakes for God, while Nena Daniels does a fair job as a honky-hating black student who, in keeping with the film’s central schtick, keeps her own wild hair tightly bound in uncomfortable braids. As an indie comedy it works often enough to keep you amused but there’s probably more inspiration to be found in a box of Miss Clairol.