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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Incident in a Ghostland (Canada 2018) (5): When it comes to scary movies some directors prefer to slowly twist the screws one little shock at a time while others like to smack the audience in the face with a frying pan right from the outset. With this clever but sloppy pastiche of fairy tale tropes and Hollywood salutes Pascal Laugier places himself firmly in the latter camp. Pauline and her two teenaged daughters Beth and Vera barely move into the rural house they inherited from a dead aunt—a tumbledown maze of wooden corridors populated by the old woman’s collection of macabre dolls—when they are brutally attacked by a cross-dressing psychopath and her monstrous henchman. Years later Beth continues to be troubled by bad dreams even though she’s now a successful horror author living in Chicago with her husband and son. But Vera, who still lives with mom in that infamous house, has it much worse. Given to violent, often self-destructive fits of paranoia as she relives the trauma she suffered, Vera has never been able to move forward. But when Beth decides to pay mom and sis an impromptu visit she discovers that sometimes the past never truly dies… With a witch and an ogre haunting the girls’ dreams (the evil duo even drive a car filled with candy) and action taking place in a haunted grandmother’s house it’s easy to see where Laugier gleaned much of his inspiration especially given Beth’s overactive imagination and penchant for telling stories—she cites H. P. Lovecraft as her biggest idol. In addition, the director piles on the pop cinema references with a little Amish boy running through a field of corn (get it?!), Vera done up in Baby Jane drag, and a midnight trek right out of Texas Chainsaw. But despite a very interesting—albeit suspect—psychological about-turn that manages to throw reality back in your face, it soon gets buried under a cacophony of screaming bitch slaps and vulgar excesses (Mr. Ogre’s “appetites” make no distinction between little dolls and young women). As with his previous film, Martyrs, Laugier once again subjects a pair of female antagonists to a sadistic round of torture and psychological despair with very little payoff in the end. At least Ghostland doesn’t try to excuse the brutality with some existential sleight-of-hand.

The Young Lions
(USA 1958) (7): A pretty bold move at the time, Edward Dmytryk’s Cinemascope adaptation of Irwin Shaw’s lengthy novel views WWII from both sides of the line as three soldiers—two Americans, one German—are thrown into combat. Conscientious nazi Lt. Christian Diestl (an Aryan-blonde Marlon Brando owning the screen) finds his faith in the fatherland shaken after he begins to glimpse the horrible truth behind Hitler’s fiery rhetoric. Across the Atlantic Broadway playboy Michael Whiteacre (Dean Martin, too old and terribly miscast) is ashamed to discover his pacifist stance turning into cowardice after he’s drafted, and penniless yet idealistic young Jew Noah Ackerman (an addicted Montgomery Clift gaunt and twitchy both on screen and off) finds he doesn’t have to go all the way to Europe to experience anti-semitism. A low-key epic clocking in at 167 minutes, these three threads will eventually find themselves entwined on the battlefield for an ending as predictable as it is unlikely. But it is the journeys themselves which command our attention. Aided by a script free of bombast and Joe MacDonald’s evocative B&W cinematography which skips from Manhattan opulence to muddy trenches, the dogs of war are mostly background noise as the “young lions” of the film evolve (or not) into future veterans with the help of the women in their lives. Barbara Rush plays Martin’s oddly conflicted girlfriend who goads him into proving himself yet doesn’t want him to get shot and Hope Lange is perfectly cast as Ackerman’s new wife, a wholesome WASP who keeps the home fires burning. This is Brando’s film however so his character gets two contrasting women in order to highlight his own inner conflict—the slutty wife of Diestl’s commanding officer (Swedish bombshell May Britt) representing the seductive promises of victory, and a demure yet defiant French nationalist (Liliane Montevecchi) embodying all the things war destroys. Maximillian Schell provides counterpoint as Diestl’s commander and ideological nemesis. Criticized upon its initial release by those who found Brando’s performance too sympathetic, this is the kind of “war movie” that can only come out after the dust has settled.

Night and the City
(UK 1950) (9): Richard Widmark is magnificent in Jules Dassin’s sad noir about a two-bit grifter whose lofty dreams of fame and fortune have turned him into a tragic laughingstock—until a big break promises to catapult him into the spotlight at last. Set in London, penniless Harry Fabian (Widmark) is not above lying, conning, and even stealing from his loving fiancee Mary (Gene Tierney) in order to pursue whatever latest get-rich scheme he’s happened to fall for. But when he sets his sights on becoming a big wrestling promoter his blind obsession to succeed no matter what the cost doles out tragedy for everyone associated with him from Mary to a couple of cross-purposed business partners (Francis Sullivan and Googie Withers playing a married couple who neither love, honour, nor obey). It also puts him at dangerous odds with London’s reigning King of the Ring Kristo (Herbert Lom) who is not about to let some upstart threaten his profit margin—odds that become complicated when Kristo’s father, a former wrestling champion, enters the fray. Betrayals and hidden agendas abound while the swirling fog of a perpetually twilit London, almost a character unto itself, maintains an oppressive atmosphere of gloom and doom. All the elements of Film Noir are here—the razor-sharp shadows, theatrical staging, air of moral indecency—yet the film’s sting lies more in heartbreak than felony as love decays and pipe dreams turn to dust. In Fabian, Widmark provides a searing character study of an impotent Everyman hellbent on overcoming a life defined by poverty who is incapable of seeing the hole he’s constantly digging for himself and, even more frustrating, unable to recognize the single lifeline being offered by the only person who cares about him. Bookended, appropriately enough, by two frantic pursuits—one aimed at escaping destiny, one rushing headlong to embrace it.

Annabelle: Creation
(USA 2017) (7): First the usual glut of disclaimers for this genre of film: of course the storyline is completely ludicrous when you give it more than a cursory thought; of course normal people do not behave this way when they discover they’re in a haunted house; and of course evil never dies, at least until the studio has milked every dollar they can from it. That being said, this prequel to the lucrative Annabelle-slash-Conjuring franchise could very well be the best of the lot. In the midwest circa 1960, six orphan girls and their kindly governess Sr. Charlotte find a new place to stay in the big country home of toymaker Samuel Mullins and his wife Esther. All is not well from the very beginning however for an opening prologue shows how the Mullins lost their little girl Annabelle in a terrible accident twelve years earlier, a death which left Samuel a dour husk of his former self and Esther a bed-bound invalid. But as the days pass and the orphans settle in, peace seems to come to the Mullins home—until little Janice enters a forbidden room and finds a most unusual doll… The Mullins have been harbouring an awful secret and Janice’s small transgression is about to unleash a whole mountain of diabolical headaches. Stylishly filmed with wide pans and close tracking shots as the girls giggle up and down staircases or else stare horrified at a darkened doorway, director David F. Sandberg finds just the right balance of innocent frivolity and demonic foreboding. There are shadows aplenty in the Mullins home, some real some psychological, and Sandberg is not above throwing in a pair of glowing eyes, scraping claws, or that eponymous doll—the ugliest piece of crinoline and porcelain you’re likely to see—which always seems to show up at just the wrong moment. But as effective as the first half of the film is, the second half spirals into haunted house clichés with flickering lights and a little black devil goading the adults into wielding the usual Catholic voodoo with the usual suboptimal results. Good special effects though, and the young actresses work well together. Unfortunately we’ve seen it all before from those very unsubtle sequel tie-ins to the promise of even more to come. Best appreciated if simply viewed as a series of fireside ghost stories…..ooh evil scarecrows and malevolent Barbies!

Queen & Slim
(USA/Canada 2019) (4): Slim, a devout Christian man who always strives to see the good in people, and Queen, a fledgling lawyer who concentrates mainly on the bad, are on their way home after a disastrous first date when Slim’s car is pulled over for a minor driving infraction. The behaviour of the officer, at first just brusque, swiftly escalates into violent antagonism leading to a struggle in which Slim accidentally kills him. Surely a clear-cut case of self-defense—but this is Ohio, the officer was white, and Queen and Slim are black. Convinced they’ll never be believed in court, the two take off on a road trip straight down America’s racial divide with one side lauding them as heroes of the new Civil Rights struggle and the other convinced their racial biases were correct all along. And therein lies the fatal flaw of director Melina Matsoukas’ first foray into motion picture territory. In her eagerness to point a glaring torchlight at institutionalized racism she sacrifices depth and subtlety (and narrative logic) in favour of a series of abject lessons on intolerance. While stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith do spark some onscreen chemistry, each character they encounter becomes little more than a soapbox: there’s Queen’s pimp uncle and his stable of sullen ‘ho’s who present African American empowerment as an impotent charade; the black mechanic who finds comfort in the status quo; the indignant youth who feels imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; a store clerk who practically embodies gun culture; and the white liberal who laments about “the war out there”. And if these cut-outs were not facile enough, Matsoukas piles on the irony with Slim’s faith reflected in the crucifixes which seem to adorn every wall and the two fugitives making sweet love in a graveyard completely unaware that a public protest in their honour is about to turn deadly. And check out Queen’s tiger print dress—growl! But the ultimate insults come in the form of a ridiculous Thelma & Louise style passage and a manipulative montage of weepy eyes and staged defiance. With a plot so resolutely black and white it’s a wonder Matsoukas even bothered to film it in colour.

Whisky Romeo Zulu
(Argentina 2004) (8): In August of 1999 a passenger jet operated by Argentinian airline LAPA crashed shortly after take-off from Bueno Aires killing 67 people including two bystanders on the ground. The investigation which followed uncovered years of shoddy maintenance, poorly trained staff, and collusion between the airline and the Argentinian military who, at that time, also served as air traffic controllers. Real life former LAPA pilot and whistleblower Enrique Piñeyro directs and stars in this damning drama covering the days immediately before and after the crash and his expertise is clearly evident in every frame. Forgoing sound stages and CGI in favour of the real thing, Piñeyro takes his cameras aboard actual passenger planes in flight—with himself at the controls—and the result is as realistic and nerve-wracking as any documentary. For months he predicted a fatal accident was inevitable, even going so far as to send a warning letter to every level of the company, yet despite the growing evidence he was stonewalled—even threatened—by a military bent on maintaining control and LAPA management who were more intent on boosting profits than protecting staff and customers. Jumping seamlessly back and forth through time Piñeyro garners a sense of irony by intercutting scenes of his character’s futile attempts to avoid catastrophe with scenes of the investigation, including sobering voice recorder transcripts recovered from the downed plane’s black box. A childhood love story blossoming (or wilting as it were) into an adult affair seems completely superfluous in an otherwise engrossing tale of tragedy and official cover-ups but Piñeyro’s winning performance, bolstered by his natural charisma and quiet passion, make you believe you are witnessing nothing but the truth. Chilling.

Five Minutes of Heaven
(UK 2009) (9): In 1975, at the height of Northern Ireland’s Troubles, seventeen-year old protestant Alistair Little shot and killed catholic Jimmy Griffin as part of an initiation of sorts into the Ulster Volunteer Force, or UVF, a Loyalist paramilitary group. The murder cost him twelve years in prison. But there was another victim that night, Jimmy’s little brother Joe witnessed the assassination and the experience not only destroyed his childhood but forever fractured the relationship between him and his parents who were never able to get over their grief. Thirty-three years later, as part of a media-sponsored reconciliation initiative, the two men were brought face-to-face for the first time… Headlined by stars Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s wrenching drama recreates not only the murder and its immediate fallout but the explosive encounter between Little and Griffin which was supposed to play out before eager cameras at a posh Irish estate but instead turned into something far more raw and ultimately cathartic. Neeson presents the grown Little as a haunted man whose burden of guilt—and the sobering insight into blind sectarian devotion it fostered—led to a worldwide campaign aimed at encouraging dialogue between warring factions from South Africa to Kosovo. Nesbitt, on the other hand, gives a fierce performance as a man so torn with unresolved pain and rage that he even frightens himself. And Hirschbiegel highlights this difference with cameras that focus steadily on Little while Griffin’s scenes are handheld and chaotic, his reality occasionally lapsing into flashback memories and angry inner monologues. Romanian actress Anamaria Marinca also deserves particular praise for her role as a studio gofer assigned to look after the needs of both men, her cool presence and honest answers providing a crucial link between the two. Finally, a somewhat cynical eye is cast upon the media itself whose eagerness to present “The Truth” too often relies on rehearsed lines and multiple takes. “In most cases, asking for forgiveness is more about the needs of the perpetrator than the needs of the victim…” wrote Alistair Little once, and in Hirschbiegel’s small thunderclap of a film the truth of that simple sentence arrives with the impact of a ricocheting bullet.

Summer Magic
(USA 1963) (6): Disney presents Pollyanna 2.0 with Hayley Mills once again cast as a pathologically optimistic minor spinning rainbows wherever she goes. After the death of her husband, Bostonian socialite Margaret Carey (an elegant Dorothy McGuire) finds herself financially strapped necessitating a move to rural Maine with her three children in tow: Nancy (Mills) all tall tales and blonde curls; ginger-haired Gilly who dreams of being a composer; and wee Peter (future cinematographer James Mathers) decked out in Prince Valiant haircut and Buster Brown threads. Setting up in a humble rented house, the Careys gradually smile and sing their way into the hearts of everyone especially jovial caretaker Osh Popham (a loveable Burl Ives) and his miserable shrew of a wife (Una Merkel). Despite the occasional urge to bitchslap that sugar & spice off everyone’s face—the kids are “precious”, the songs pure saccharine slush—Disney once again manages to produce a palatable family film through single-minded determination. Set during the ragtime era of a century ago, director James Neilson envisions a small town America where charming cottages sit like iced cakes and happy white people parade about on bicycles or jaunty jalopies which honk and sputter and scare the horses—the kind of town where both Mary Poppins AND the Stepford wives would feel right at home. But for all its treacle and happy endings that old Disney magic remains strong. From the candy-coated cinematography to Hayley Mills’ winning performance as a teenager who cannot see the clouds for the silver linings, Summer Magic does manage to capture something of the hope and innocence we once wished were commonplace. Deborah Walley co-stars as uppity cousin Julia, the bane of the Carey kids whose tiresome vanity hides a broken heart which eventually succumbs to Nancy’s indomitable good cheer.

Love, Gilda
(Canada 2018) (8): Told mainly in her own words—and often in her own voice—thanks to TV spots and home movies, diary entries, and snippets from her posthumous autobiography, this endearing documentary on the life of comedienne Gilda Radner is nothing if not a work of love by director Lisa D’Apolito. Starting with her childhood years as a chubby little Jewish kid growing up in Detroit, then moving on to her early stage experiences with Toronto’s Second City troupe and finally her now legendary presence as part of the original cast on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, Radner’s life was a study in both the rewards which come with fame and the personal costs that accompany it. But despite a string of failed relationships, an eating disorder, and struggles with self-esteem and intimacy—and then that final showdown with cancer—one glimpses a fragile yet adamant spirit behind the giggles, for here was a woman determined to laugh at whatever life threw at her and hell-bent on making us join in. SNL alumni such as Chevy Chase and Lorne Michaels join Gilda’s friends and family—including the late Gene Wilder, perhaps her greatest love—in exposing Radner for the warm, complicated, and terribly talented person she was. And, just to keep things balanced, they are in turn joined by cameos from Gilda’s beloved personas like the clueless Emily Litella, nerdy Lisa Loopner, and ever popular Roseanne Roseannadanna whose vulgar observations on life most closely represented Radner’s own earthy sense of humour. “Because I am not a perfect example of my gender…” she once wrote, “…I decided to be funny about what I didn’t have instead of worrying about it.” And the world, if only for a brief moment, was just a little bit better because of that.

A Hologram for the King
(UK 2016) (6): Still smarting from a host of bad business decisions he made in the past and presently entrenched in one helluva mid-life rut, hard-pressed tech salesman Alan Clay (Tom Hanks, unremarkable) has one more shot at redemption when his company sends him to Saudi Arabia to promote a revolutionary new teleconferencing device to the king. Upon arrival, however, nothing goes as planned—neither professionally nor personally—giving rise to all manner of existential crises. To understand just where Tom Tykwer’s screen adaptation of Dave Eggers’ novel goes awry you have to pin down exactly what it is you’re watching. As a culture clash comedy it relies too heavily on Western perceptions of what constitutes Saudi society, from smarmy businessmen and distrustful locals to the inevitable snarling camel, to carry much weight. As a romance it seems too tacked together as Clay, a recent divorcee himself, suddenly meets a kindred spirit (Sarita Choudhury) whose chaste text messages lead to the promise of something more. Huh? As a whimsical evocation of one man’s mid-life crisis Tykwer’s odd flights of fancy—including Hanks belting out “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads as his entire life goes up in a puff of purple smoke—do manage to underscore the onscreen drama as Alan suffers through a series of setbacks, indignities and a medical scare or two. Sometimes a barren desert is not just a barren desert. Perhaps it works best as a metaphorical road movie between Clay and his gregarious ad hoc driver Yousef (Omar Elba’s insouciant performance providing one of the film’s few saving graces). Perpetually disheveled and exhibiting a pleasantly skewed take on life, Yousef’s casual banter with his uptight passenger, usually while American rock anthems blare from the car speakers, offer some consistency to a film which is otherwise a jumble of styles and motives. A few outdoor shots of Riyadh blend seamlessly, at least to our eyes, with lush Moroccan locations and add a fairy tale touch to a film too often bogged down in personal angst and clumsy sociopolitical critiques—oh those evil Chinese competitors.

(USA 1989) (7): Although born into southern California’s privileged über-wealthy, teenaged Bill Whitney still can’t help feeling like an outcast. Mom and dad are preoccupied with his sister Jenny (too preoccupied) especially now that her gala “Coming Out” party is approaching, and all their interactions appear calculated and superficial—qualities mirrored in the circle of fantastically rich judges, business tycoons, and politicians that surround them. Bill’s unease is not entirely unfounded however for every now and then he witnesses something he shouldn’t (was that a pulsating blob on Jenny’s back? did mom just eat a garden slug?) prompting him to seek help from a psychiatrist who may or may not believe him. But when people start disappearing—people who share Bill’s misgivings—his suspicions turn to flat out panic as the true nature of High Society reveals itself… Set among greater L.A.’s pampered palaces and impeccably trimmed lawns where women flutter about like taffeta butterflies and tuxedoed men puff on oversized cigars, Brian Yuzna’s corrosive satire on class identity plays off a script that could have been co-written by H. P. Lovecraft and Luis Buñuel had they shared a joint before getting down to business. Yuzna’s bourgeoisie may not be as discreet as Buñuel’s but his determination to lampoon them as being a breed apart (quite literally) does give rise to some gleefully grotesque special effects including an elite soiree which turns into a throbbing gelatinous orgy straight out of Salvador Dali’s best wet dream. Yet, if the satirical elements press the message of social inequality with a bit too much force, the film’s greatest strength ultimately rests in the director’s ability to make us feel Bill’s paranoia as the once familiar slowly becomes strange and hostile—not surprising given the fact he lists Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby as one of his inspirations. Looking upon the proles which surround them as a barracuda might observe a school of tasty anchovies, Society’s rich are filthy indeed—a tired old truism that Yuzna manages to twist into a macabre parody of itself.

(USA 1930) (6): Passions boil beneath the burning desert sun in Josef von Sternberg’s lurid tale of sexual frustration and wanton desires! At least that’s how the theatre marquee might have read ninety years ago. Today however, this tame soap about a disgraced cabaret singer (Marlene Dietrich tripping over every line) torn between two ardent suitors—a handsome but penniless foreign legionnaire who ignites her libido (Gary Cooper sounding like he just woke up), and a suave French millionaire (Adolphe Menjou getting it just right) who appeals to her self-interest—just seems terribly dated. The emotive performances are still rooted in the silent era while an awkward script filled with dead air seems too self-conscious of its own ribald innuendos: “What are you doing with your fingers?” demands Cooper’s superior officer catching him gesturing at a local hussy. “Nothing……yet” comes the wink-wink response. But for all its lack of onscreen chemistry and faltering dialogue there is an appealing sense of melodrama at work with Arizona standing in for the Sahara Desert and a cast of potted palms and sheeted extras adding a touch of the exotic. And of course that final scene of Marlene making her final choice must have brought the house down back in the day. Notable for its pre-Code allusions to prostitution and adultery, Morocco is perhaps most famous for Dietrich’s girl-on-girl kiss while decked out in dapper male drag—a contentious scene which barely managed to squeak by the censors. Oh how times have changed.

(UK 2012) (6): If Bram Stoker had penned a chick flick the result might have been Neil Jordan’s moody mash-up of gothic horror and feminist wiles set on the rugged coast of England. Two women on the run from sinister forces hole up in a dilapidated seaside inn. The older Clara (Gemma Arterton) is a ruthlessly practical survivor who has no qualms about dealing with any threat as evidenced by a gruesome opening scene. In contrast, the younger Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) is a quietly introspective teenager given to bouts of melancholy and a strange aura of sadness. Immediately settling in, Clara goes about ensuring their mutual interests by seducing the proprietor and turning his bankrupt hotel into a more lucrative establishment only to see her hard work undermined when Eleanor puts their plans in peril by unexpectedly falling in love. There is a terrible secret both women are protecting—Clara with single-minded fierceness, Eleanor with reluctant ambivalence—so when “Frank” (Caleb Landry Jones) enters Eleanor’s life complications arise that could have far-reaching, and very deadly, consequences. Nicely shot scenes of rocky shores and grey skies frame a somewhat muddled storyline which flows across time and only gradually comes together to make sense largely due to Eleanor’s ongoing diary entries which she hastily jots down in precise calligraphy only to inexplicably destroy in equal haste. Drenched in rich shades of indigo and crimson which lend it an air of Victorian fable—both grandmother’s house and the big bad wolf are there if you look hard enough— Jordan’s slow pace doesn’t rely on suspense so much as it does on building up a strange feeling of pathos for his two leads whose role of perpetrators gradually gives way to something more tragic. Although the mystery around which the film revolves ultimately proves to be nothing we haven’t seen on the screen before, Jordan’s adaptation of Moira Buffini’s play certainly keeps things fresh enough with a couple of novel turns and some bloody good CGI effects. A little stagey perhaps, like a macabre twist on The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and Jones’ portrayal of the oddly idiosyncratic Frank would look more at home in a mad scientist’s laboratory, but for all its gloomy atmospherics Jordan’s team was still able to add a new volume to an old story.

The Mermaid
(China 2016) (7): Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale gets a makeover from Greenpeace and The Three Stooges in Stephen Chow’s slapstick comedy, one of China’s highest-grossing domestic films ever. After their delicate ecosystem is threatened by a ruthless developer, a pod of mermaids decide to assassinate him. To this end they employ Shan, a bumbling young mermaid able to pass as human thanks to her modified tail fin and a pair of clunky yellow boots. Unfortunately, once evil tycoon meets fishy naif it’s (almost) love at first sight which throws both sides into a panic… Buoyed by ridiculously funny sight gags—the octopus-man ringleader gets all the best laughs—and highly inventive though not quite Hollywood-grade CGI effects, Chow’s rollicking “movie-with-a-message” never quite manages to comfortably pair it’s sillier elements with later scenes of brutal carnage, including stock footage of a bloody dolphin hunt, leaving us to feel as if we’re watching two different films. But silliness abounds right from the opening scene as a conman and his family try to fleece tourists with a cheap ass “museum” of natural curiosities (cue painted dog, three inch tyrannosaur, and fat guy in mermaid suit). Granted, a comedy with habitat destruction at its core is an understandably bitter pill, but Chow wraps it up in a fun candy coating which has you giggling throughout. The thinking comes later.

(England 2012) (2): Welcome to the most dysfunctional cul-de-sac in Great Britain home of “Skunk” (Eloise Laurence), the diabetic daughter of solicitor and single parent Archie (Tim Roth) a respectable man who happens to be caught up in a romantic triangle with his Polish au pair. Across the street are the Buckleys and their adult son Rick who is not only mentally challenged, he may very well be dangerous. And next door to them is single father Bob Oswald (Rory Kinnear), a hot-tempered asshole whose three lying slag daughters would rather watch the world burn than tell the truth. Over the next few days the impressionable Skunk will witness human nature at its worst as sex, lies, and violence irrevocably change her small world. Plagued by a script marked with ludicrous turns and schoolgirl clichés (that first kiss! that terrible bully! that baffling old adult world!) Rufus Norris’ contrived melodrama tries too hard to mix tragedy with a bit of irony and humour as a nearby auto scrapyard becomes a destructive metaphor and Skunk’s verbal spars with Archie, meant to be precocious, wind up dull and childish. And what’s with those twins tossing bags of shit at people for no apparent reason? Aside from a waste of acting talent everything feels strained and theatrical from the wailing tears to the bloody fisticuffs to a gauzy “spiritual” sequence as one character stands at a crossroads. If you like your pathos served up hot and heavy then get out your napkin and tuck in for Norris has ensured there’s plenty to go around.

(USA 1972) (7): Notable for flashes of nudity, colourful language, and post “sexual revolution” morality, it’s difficult to decide which part of Billy Wilder’s “fish out of water” farce is ultimately most appealing: the star chemistry between leads Jack Lemmon and Juliet Mills, or the Isle of Capri’s lush photo ops. Wendell Armbruster Jr, the punctilious son of an American business magnate (Lemmon, earning a Golden Globe), is forced to take an unexpected flight to Italy after his vacationing father dies in a car crash. Once there however the complications begin before he even has a chance to clear customs; but the real shocker is waiting for him at the hotel. As it turns out dear old Dad did not die alone—he was with his secret mistress of ten years—and when the dead woman’s daughter (Mills) arrives from England to claim her mother’s body from the same morgue, things get really complicated. Playing Lemmon’s morally uptight businessman against Mill’s slightly neurotic bohemian provides some fertile comedy ground (he’s shocked by the infidelity, she finds it romantic) which Wilder further augments with exaggerated culture clash jokes as a fastidious Armbruster tries to adjust to rural Italy’s more laissez-faire sensibilities. To that end, New Zealand character actor Clive Revill provides the missing link as a harried hotel manager who tries to cover everyone’s tracks while also dealing with an irregular kidnapping, an impromptu murder, and the red tape intricacies of a society wherein getting anything done at all is predicated upon who you know, not what. And it’s all given a sensuous technicolor sheen by sun-drenched backdrops of sea, sky, and swaying palms set to a wistful melody. The laughs may be dated, the shocks dulled, but as a sparkling romantic comedy it’s still thumbs up all the way.

Eisenstein in Guanajuato
(Netherlands et al 2015) (5): In the Fall of 1931, after being rebuked by Hollywood, Russian silent film auteur Sergei Eisenstein traveled to Mexico to film yet another epic bankrolled in part by American author Upton Sinclair and Soviet despot Josef Stalin. While south of the border—or so the story goes—the 33-year old Eisenstein also lost his virginity at the hands (and cock) of his Mexican guide, Palomino Cañedo. British director Peter Greenaway seizes this small footnote in the life of his cinematic idol and turns it into a demented biopic of sorts with Finnish actor Elmer Bäck as the wild-haired Sergei who can’t shut up even when he’s being ploughed from behind, and Luis Alberti as his quietly dapper sparring partner and fuck buddy Cañedo. As if his vision was too big for a humble theatre screen, Greenaway reaches deep into his bag of tricks to pummel audiences with endless cutaways, split screens, and a camera which too often spins in wide orbits whether it be around a breakfast nook or Eisenstein’s lavishly appointed hotel bedroom where he and Cañedo dispense semen and wry observations in equal measure. From their two countries’ respective political revolutions to the revolutionary act of gay sex to the ultimate conquest of death over life, the two lovers’ insights and verbal parries are accompanied by some striking visuals—a display of mummified bodies, a dance sequence with blow-up skeleton dolls, and widescreen snippets from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and October: Ten Days That Shook the World while an orchestra belts out Prokofiev’s “Dance of the Knights”. And in one literally cheeky segment Cañedo plants a red flag squarely on Sergei’s post coital butt (Viva la Revolución!). Unfortunately Greenaway’s personal glee does not transfer well reducing Bäck’s non-stop soliloquies to so much exhausting prattle against a background of arty affectations which grow tiresome from sheer repetition. There are depths to be plumbed here and its sheer audacity reflects on cinema’s ability to inform and confound, but Greenaway’s rush to heap too much onto a single plate had me losing my appetite before the halfway mark.

Summer Wars
(Japan 2009) (6): Pokemon vs Tron in Mamoru Hosoda’s well-meaning bit of fluff which ultimately takes too long to say too little. Roped into posing as a classmate’s fiancé for an uncomfortable family reunion (she wants to impress her 90-year old grandmother), teenaged math prodigy and all around geek Kenji is suddenly called upon to help save humanity when a malicious hacker begins infiltrating Oz, the world’s largest social media network with billions of subscribers and links to everything from Wall St. to nuclear silos. Aided by friends and family—including the feisty grandma and a host of online avatars—Kenji and a rather truculent computer whiz reluctantly prepare to kick some cyber-butt… With anime reminiscent of those old Astro Boy toons and a cast of cute little virtual emoji characters (the squirrel looks like something from Happy Tree Friends, the bunny belongs on Xbox, and the big bad hacker hovers somewhere between a Hindu super villain and the demon from Disney’s Fantasia) there is certainly a bit of retro charm at work. But the story too often gets mired down in familial sweetness and silly plot devices as the message of “People Stick Together No Matter What!” is repeatedly hammered onto our corneas—and those video game showdowns, while colourful, soon begin to loop back on themselves. Children will get the message and then forget it once the disc ejects while older kids will giggle at the cartoon violence and occasional cuss word.

The 400 Blows
(France 1959) (7): Basically good-natured but headstrong and impetuous—some might say “free-spirited”—young Antoine Doinel (breakout performance from future star Jean-Pierre Léaud) is on a collisions course with the despotic school system, his quarrelling parents whose affections for him and each other too often run cold, and the murky French judicial system itself when, out of desperation or boredom (or both) he begins to dabble in petty crime. That about sums up François Truffaut’s debut feature film, considered by many to be one of international cinema’s greatest achievements. But if the storyline seems derivative its execution is a masterful blend of verité camerawork and textured performances which owe a debt to Italian neorealism even as those wide tracking shots and an upbeat score herald the French New Wave. Never stooping to maudlin sentimentality, Truffaut’s camera doesn’t concentrate so much on domestic squalor and dirty alleyways (the Eiffel Tower looms ominously over rows of flats during the opening credits) but on the tenacity of its inhabitants who laugh and bicker, love and cheat, and generally survive—qualities embodied in Antoine no matter where his actions land him, his only concession being the occasional tear staining an otherwise impassive cheek. A telling interview between the boy and an offscreen psychiatrist is both sad and wryly candid (and wholly improvised) while his headlong rush towards whatever future awaits is brilliantly summed up with a simple tracking shot that shouts volumes. With references to literature (Balzac is a personal hero) and the magic to be found at the local cinema wherein Antoine finds a release of sorts, this is a low-keyed piece about a boy facing his impending adulthood with all the temerity that comes from feeling one has nothing left to lose.

Feed the Light
(Sweden 2014) (3): Every now and then I come across a film so imaginatively awful that I can’t bring myself to hit the “eject” button. Such is the case with Henrik Möller’s ultra low-tech sci-fi/horror disaster based very loosely on a story by H. P. Lovecraft. While searching for her missing daughter, single mother Sara winds up in a subterranean maze beneath the streets of Malmö where wild-eyed janitors tend to perpetually flickering light bulbs while fastidiously mopping endless floors, all under the malevolent gaze of a female overseer who keeps a crazy naked man as a pet. Descending deeper into this underground multi-universe (which looks conspicuously like an unfinished industrial parking garage filmed from different angles) Sara eventually uncovers the terrifying secret behind all those faulty light fixtures… Slapdash editing and emotive performances that come across as really bad improv fail to elicit any suspense (or appreciable mystery) and what special effects appear are strictly of the “Film School 101” variety (shadowy bogeymen, blackened eyeballs, squishy rubber heads). Filmed haphazardly in static-ridden B&W with the occasional fountain of chocolate-red stage blood and one passage of psychedelia, Möller does leave us with one notable visual: an extreme rectal close-up which would have brought an appreciative tear to John Waters’ eye. Plays like a hacked version of a much better film.