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

~ ~ ~ ~

Sombre (France 1998) (7): Relentlessly arthouse in its presentation, brutally explicit in its execution, Phillipe Grandrieux’s highly experimental film chronicling the disintegration of a serial killer has been dividing audiences and critics alike despite its limited release. Sexually frustrated and deeply disturbed, Jean (Marc Barbé personifying every mother’s nightmare) is in the habit of strangling the women he picks up after subjecting them to increasingly violent foreplay. But his murderous rages are tempered somewhat after he meets stranded motorist Claire and, later, her sister Christine. Repressed and virginal, Claire’s innocence is the direct opposite of Christine’s more open sexuality and that contrast touches a chord in Jean’s troubled mind. Yet as the three begin an awkward interaction we discover Claire may be the most damaged one of all… It is never easy to film the mind of a sociopath from the inside out but Grandrieux gives it his best shot with jagged editing, tumbling handheld camerawork, and a host of darkly fanciful non-sequiturs meant to highlight his dissociation from reality—a theatre of children scream enthusiastically at a scary puppet show, a dance club turns tribal, and frenzied passages of blowing wind and blurred mayhem speak to Jean’s mounting agitation. Even the sexual assaults themselves, while graphic, are strewn with chaotic jump cuts and contradictory moments of pitiful tenderness. Poorly lit throughout and with little attention to continuity—an exact mirror of his protagonist’s mental state—Grandrieux leaves narrative cohesion behind for this film is clearly meant to be a snapshot without explanation. And thus emerges its moral quandary for in Claire’s unexplained willingness to stay with Jean, even after she and her sister are subjected to his true nature, the director presents a woman complicit in her victimhood who needs what her would-be assailant is offering as much as he does. Not to let audiences off the hook entirely however, Grandrieux also throws in a tracking shot of blank-faced pedestrians which speaks directly to the films thorny element of voyeurism. And Little Richard vies with Bauhaus in a background score as erratic as the movie itself. Cinematic art at its most problematic.

Waiting for Armageddon
(USA 2009) (7): The first half of Kate Davis, David Heilbroner, and Franco Sacchi’s documentary on evangelical Christians’ preoccupation with the “End Times” as foretold in the bible makes you feel as if you were watching a Born Again informercial. In fact, listening to their earnest attempts to marry Judaeo-Christian mythology with actual reality you wonder why the directors didn’t add a laugh track. But this is merely a set-up, giving their subjects enough rope as it were, for in the second half you begin to sense a sinister undertone to the pious rhetoric when you realize these people want to fulfill the prophesies of the Old Testament by bringing about a horrendous battle in the Middle East, aka “Armageddon”, for only then will Jesus return to Earth and the righteous ascend to heaven in the mass exodus of The Rapture. One minister even describes the idea of blood flowing in the streets as “sweet” for it will show that God is keeping his promise (of course, with cameras rolling, he’s quick to add that the suffering involved will be lamentable). To this end Moslems have replaced Communist Russia and Red China as the new Christian bogeymen and Israel is praised beyond reason—behind the adoration of the Jewish state however lies the antisemitic assumption that only those Jews who turn to Christ will be worth saving. In the eyes of one moderate Evangelical (contradiction in terms?) the American Evangelical movement has become a powerful political lobby pushing their “Apocalyptic Foreign Policy” at all levels of government for there can be no Rapture if peace comes to the Middle East (and if it does it’s likely due to Satan’s influence). But, reading between the lines, this delusional pursuit of God's plan has also caused collateral damage as Roe v. Wade once again comes under right wing scrutiny and environmental concerns are dismissed because Jesus will heal the planet “supernaturally” when he returns. “The separation of Church and State is a joke!” assures one pastor and in the end that is one point all parties can agree upon.

Before Sunset
(USA 2004) (7): The sequel to Richard Linklater’s slightly superior Before Sunrise in which a chance encounter between American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and French Celine (Julie Delpy) on a European train led to a 24-hr romance in the streets of Vienna before the two had to part ways. In that film the fledgling lovers agreed to meet again at the same train station even though they neglected to exchange phone numbers. Nine years later Jesse, on tour promoting his bestselling novel, stops at a Paris bookstore and is reunited with Celine despite the fact their planned Viennese reunion never happened. With just over an hour to spend before Jesse has to be whisked away to the airport, the two wander around Paris comparing the paths their lives have taken and brooding over how things could have been different. Jesse is a successful author drowning in a dead marriage (his novel, ironically, a romance mirroring his encounter with Celine), Celine is a social activist who has yet to find the love she needs and the endlessly disappointing search has left her former sunny outlook on life marred by a bitter fatalism. Shot in real time with the two strolling and chatting, small talk gradually segueing into deeper ruminations and unhappy confessions, Linklater’s superb script once again explores “what might have been” as the couple’s old flame, tempered by circumstance and regret, begins to rekindle. And, as in the first film, the chemistry between Hawke and Delpy remains a convincing blend of candour and guarded intimacy. Balanced between two offhand remarks by Celine—“If you don’t believe in any kind of magic or mystery you’re as good as dead” and, “Memories are wonderful things, if you don’t have to deal with the past”—audiences are likewise left yearning for a romantic resolution yet made all too aware of reality and the passing of time right up to that ambiguous final line. As an interesting aside, Miss Delpy wrote and sang her own songs for the film.

Corpus Christi
(Poland 2019) (8): Light can sometimes shine forth from the darkest places and, conversely, even the brightest of lights can sometimes be consumed by that same darkness. Freshly released from Juvenile Detention, Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia channeling a young Christopher Walken) is on his way to begin a dead end job at a sawmill when a combination of mistaken identity and outright lying finds him serving as village priest instead. With the regular vicar, a crusty old cynic, off receiving medical treatments Daniel’s unvarnished and ad-libbed homilies and unorthodox approach (he encourages mourners to scream rather than sob) become something of a welcome scandal in a town torn in half by a recent tragedy. The ruse can’t last indefinitely however and when his past comes knocking at the rectory door all Hell threatens to descend upon him. Jan Komasa’s gritty interpretation of The Passion finds the perfect conduit in Bielenia, his boyish open-faced looks evolving from hard-bitten young offender with a taste for raves, cocaine, and fucking (yet who still says his rosary every night), to a soft-spoken mover of mountains drawing upon a strength rooted in his own pain. The biblical parallels are all too obvious to anyone who suffered through Sunday School: the carpenter on a mission who attempts miracles—in this case taking on a town divided—before succumbing to temptation, betrayal, and a very different take on Calvary (look for a brief but brilliant scene as “Pilate” washes his hands). But the body and blood of Komasa’s flawed Christ, while on full display, are purely secular in nature and glorious trappings of Catholic voodoo aside—Komasa doesn’t miss an opportunity to bathe the screen in ethereal sunlight or roaring hellfire—the only spirit moving through his film is ultimately human. Supposedly based on an actual incident, Corpus Christi is Poland’s official submission to this year's Academy Awards.

I Lost My Body
(France 2019) (9): On the cold wintry streets of Paris a dispirited young man, his youthful dreams having been crushed by the same accident which took his parents, barely gets by delivering pizzas. And then one day he falls in love with a voice he hears over an apartment intercom and his decision to meet the woman behind that voice takes him down a very unpredictable road. Meanwhile, across town in a pathology dissection lab, a severed hand suddenly comes to life, crawls out a window, and braves a host of urban dangers—including hungry rats, subway tunnels, and construction sites—in a desperate search to be reunited with its body. In Jérémy Clapin’s beautifully animated feature two stories, one plausible the other fantastic, cross paths in a bit of magical realism which offers a meditation on our own search for wholeness and connection. The young man, haunted by happier childhood memories, nevertheless strives to evade the confines of destiny by taking huge leaps—some metaphorical one quite literal—while the hand doggedly pursues a goal which may no longer exist and in so doing grows from a grotesque oddity into something warm and sympathetic. Small wonder then that given such audacious subject matter Clapin makes allusions to short story master Guy de Maupassant and John Irving’s beleaguered everyman, T. S. Garp. A moving score of minor chords complements a meticulously rendered anime vision of twilit skylines and urban sprawl (those childhood memories cast in wistful B&W) and the overall effect is at once painterly and melancholic, even a small albeit significant final victory is hushed somewhat by a gentle snowfall. Animation as a mature art form has rarely been this stirring. Nominated for Best Animated Feature at this year’s Academy Awards.

(USA 2012) (8): Starting with their humble beginnings as polite and deferential photographers willing to observe strict studio rules to the obnoxious carrion vultures of today, there is no doubt that the paparazzi have played a major role in how celebrities and the general public view one another from Rock Hudson’s homosexual cover-up to Liz Taylor’s very public divorces. But Kevin Mazur’s insightful doc goes beyond the usual scenes of harried movie stars being stalked by rogue lenses to reveal something much more insidious at work, namely how the once lauded Free Press—and by association, democracy itself—have been partially hijacked by online gossip-mongers and supermarket tabloids willing to pay upwards of $500,000 for an unflattering snapshot of Roseanne Arquette’s cellulite or Britney Spear’s latest meltdown. And just where do they get that much money in the first place? Well, according to Mazur’s succession of industry talking heads, from a homegrown consumer base whose insatiable appetite for scandal has turned guerrilla “journalism” into a billion dollar business while at the same time relegating actual world events to the back burner. Interviewing stakeholders from both sides—Salma Hayek talks about being accosted by an aggressive photog while carrying her infant son; a self-proclaimed photojournalist claims he’s creating “history”—Mazur keeps the playing field more or less even, making sure to include opinions from reality slags Snooki and Heidi Montag whose own careers relied solely on flash photo-ops and fake news. Celebrity status was as much about packaging as it was talent, and listening to surprisingly candid insights from the likes of Elton John, Jennifer Aniston, Kid Rock, and Sheryl Crow (who was pretty much ignored until she was diagnosed with breast cancer) leaves you with the distinct impression that in the manufactured world of tabloids, where fact-checking takes a backseat to publishing deadlines and tact bows to profit, one picture is worth a thousand lies.

Love Streams
(USA 1984) (4): It’s disheartening to realize that the multi-talented John Cassavetes’ penultimate swan song should be this anemic rehash of Faces and A Woman Under the Influence; a cliché-riddled soap opera in which all of the director’s signature moves are reduced to trite affectations. Best-selling L.A. author Robert Harmon (Cassavetes) is a mixed bag of contradictions. He’s made a fortune writing sensitive books about women yet in reality he treats the many females who cross his threshold—and his bed—as if they were disposable commodities to be used and then forgotten; a hard-edged chauvinism made all the more acute by his rampant alcoholism. His sister Sarah (Gena Rowlands, the only notable performance in a sea of mediocrity) is not faring much better as her once-loving husband, fed up with her mental fugues and bouts of mania, divorces her taking their daughter with him. Eventually getting together for an impromptu visit, brother and sister try to take some solace in one another’s company—but you can’t offer what you haven’t got and between his selfishness and her pathological neediness there can be little room for healing… Nothing in this film rings true emotionally nor is there any empathy with which the audience can connect. Instead, we watch two souls damaged beyond repair—one a reprehensible cad who pours his estranged 8-year old son a beer before abandoning him in a hotel room to search for hookers, the other a manic ball of neuroses who goes catatonic whenever she doesn’t get her way—repeatedly shoot themselves in the foot while simultaneously helping each other to reload. Despite fellow director Peter Bogdanovich helping the ailing Casavetes put things together, the latter’s sense of style is still on full display even though it no longer conveys much substance: conversations are filmed off centre, ad-libbed dialogue jerks along uncomfortably, and the narrow confines of Harmon’s house come to represent both a physical space and a state of mind as blue skies and human banter are slowly replaced by tempests and wild animals—but that operatic climax remains pure cinema showboating at its corniest. “Life is a series of suicides…” blurts Harmon during a rare moment of near sobriety and given the film’s ridiculously dreary disposition that sad little maxim seems more like a silver lining.

(USA 1998) (7): With a script influenced by the works of Huxley, Orwell, and Ayn Rand, and enough violence and mild profanity to earn it a “PG” rating, this early animation by DreamWorks Studios about a neurotic little bug tired of the status quo was something of a groundbreaker in its day. Rebelling against his own insignificance…”I was the middle child of five million”…perpetually depressed worker ant “Z” (voice of Woody Allen playing Woody Allen) decides he doesn’t want to be just another faceless drone in a colony of zillions. But a combination of skewed luck and happenstance ends up landing the meek insect smack in the middle of an anthill communist uprising, a royal kidnapping, and a deadly military coup—all within an area of less than ten square metres. The animation may be primitive by today’s standards but the story, buoyed by Allen’s signature one-liners, skips along with humour clever enough for tots and adults alike: “This tastes like crap…” says a stoned ladybug chewing on some suspicious brown material, “Hey, it is crap…not bad!” responds the equally stoned weevil slumped next to her. And a pair of effete wasps will have you looking at yellow jackets in a whole new light while human cameos are limited, appropriately enough, to such things as a pair of gigantic sneakers and a fly swatter. An entertaining little cartoon about diversity and individuality notable for its long list of celebrity voices from Ann Bancroft and Gene Hackman to Christopher Walken, Danny Glover, and Jennifer Lopez.

How to Steal a Million
(USA 1966) (6): Parisian socialite Nicole Bonnet (Audrey Hepburn, always magical) is faced with a dilemma. Her bon vivant father Charles (an irascible Hugh Griffith all eyeballs and carnival beard) has attained legendary status in the art world for his collection of rare masterpieces—all of which he painstakingly forged himself in a secret upstairs studio. Unfortunately, with his prized possession—a supposedly Renaissance statue of Venus (itself a forgery only a few decades old)—now on loan to a prestigious museum, his “hobby” is about to be revealed after the museum orders a series of authenticity tests on the sculpture for insurance purposes. To protect her beloved father Nicole must steal the statue before the tests can be performed but how does a naïve young woman foil one of the most heavily guarded art exhibits in France’s history? Enlist the aid of a suave and sophisticated cat burglar of course… William Wyler’s lightweight heist comedy is beautiful to look at with its technicolour Paris locales and Hepburn’s endless succession of Givenchy gowns, but postcard settings aside there is little else to recommend. Even with Peter O’Toole in the role of master thief Simon Dermott and the likes of Eli Wallach and Charles Boyer putting in supporting roles there’s not much chemistry going on making a romantic side story fall flat and the “elaborate scheme” to purloin Venus more farce than thriller. A charming bit of fluff and champagne nonetheless worth a look just for the sights and Audrey’s haute couture frocks.

(France 1960) (7): Arguably more famous for what it isn’t rather than for what it is, Jean-Luc Godard’s grainy low-budget homage to American B-movies forever broke the mould of what movies are supposed to look like and ushered in French cinema’s New Wave aesthetic. Petty thief and all-around cad Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo hovering between man’s man and lovable sociopath) goes for a joyride in a stolen car, killing a motorcycle cop in the process. Now holed up in Paris with his unsuspecting American ex-girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg personifying Beat Generation sexy) Michel whiles away the hours planning an escape to Italy with Patrica while at the same time trying to seduce the headstrong woman all over again. Meanwhile, the gendarmes are slowly closing in… Seemingly shot on the fly with jerky handheld passages alternating with long tracking shots and the then novel use of jump cuts—reportedly used by Godard to remove any tedious bits—Breathless’ hopped up energy is further augmented by a wailing jazz score and some clever, seemingly ad-libbed dialogue—be it Michel and Patricia bringing the Battle of the Sexes into the bedroom or Michel breaking the fourth wall to smirk directly at the audience. Audacious for its time and still oozing hipness sixty years later. Bogart would have either been proud…or confused.

The Future
(Chile/Italy 2013) (5): Dead performances and equally lifeless dialogue aside, Alicia Scherson’s adaptation of Robert Bolaño’s novel gets distracted by so many literary and psychological allusions that it ultimately drowns in a puddle of metaphors. After their parents die in a car crash, teenagers Bianca and Tomas find themselves alone in the family condo with only dad’s meagre pension to keep them afloat. Then Tomas brings home a couple of meathead friends from the gym who convince the siblings to take part in a get rich scheme, namely having Bianca pose as a prostitute for faded film star “Maciste” (Rutger Hauer) now a wealthy recluse who never leaves his crumbling baroque mansion and is rumoured to keep his fortune locked up in a wall safe. Blind and mourning his lost laurels, Maciste takes some perverse pleasure in oiling up Bianca’s naked body while Bianca, for her part, begins to have feelings for the sad old man… With influences ranging from The Shining (a tracking highway shot promises horror which never comes) to Last Tango in Paris (fumbling sex countered by angst-ridden dialogue, “What colour is my cum…is it black?” whines Maciste) The Future never quite finds a comfortable groove especially given the oh-so-symbolic red herrings Scherson throws our way. Even at midnight the orphans are bathed in pearly light the colour of a saint’s halo because, according to Tomas, “Accidents release so much energy they alter the universe..” Okay. Maciste made his money playing Hercules in low-budget epics and Bianca likes to cut men’s hair (are we getting confused with Samson & Delilah?). Bianca’s daily walks always seem to take her past Rome’s iconic Cinectitá movie studios as if to remind us that all is artifice—even the Coliseum is reduced to a dirty souvenir ashtray. And finally, touches of magic realism predominate as brother and sister try to find a fresh balance between the clinically optimistic ramblings of the social worker assigned to them (she literally fades in and out of existence) and the carnal id impulses of Tomas’ musclebound buddies (who take turns bedding sister while spinning brother’s moral compass). Three lost souls in search of a berth then, but the zombie-like acting clunks along while the plodding journey itself seems interminable. Doesn’t hold a candle to 2003’s Last Life in the Universe.

The Wife
(UK 2017) (6): “In front of every great woman is a wheedling, incompetent, and wholly despicable man…” seems to be the message emanating throughout Björn Runge’s adaptation of Meg Wolitzer’s novel; a passive-aggressive cliché of a film whose intense performances and pretty winter scenery don’t make it any less trite. Having spent his entire life amassing an impressive body of work, American author Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) is finally getting the recognition he deserves when he’s chosen to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. But why is his dutiful wife Joan (Glenn Close) so ambivalent? Why is is grown son David (Max Irons), a fledgling writer himself, so angry? The dark and stormy answers begin to emerge once the family arrives in Stockholm (Glasgow) for the big event dogged by a determined journalist (Christian Slater) who begins asking too many awkward questions. As Joan starts thinking back on their marriage—from its seedy beginning as a teacher-student affair to its current comfortably upper class privilege—a lifetime of resentments and anger begins to bubble up for it isn’t easy living in the shadow of a famous icon especially when one is all too aware of the dirt beneath the carpet… Lacking the necessary onscreen chemistry together, Pryce and Close (who received a Best Actress nomination) do provide fiery albeit one-note performances: while he huffs and puffs and dawdles like a grey-haired peacock she simmers and boils through a series of interminable close-ups obviously meant to garner sympathy from the audience once the improbable twist is revealed. Irons, for his part, simply whines and pouts like a spoiled brat which makes his character all the more insufferable—his inferiority complex ridiculously highlighted when a fellow Nobel laureate introduces his own family of eggheads and PhDs. Once the script finally hits the fan however, complete with much spitting and hissing as husband and wife circle one another like tomcats, the movie hits its biggest pothole. Why does such a strong and independent woman wait forty years to assert herself against the narcissistic lothario she married? The aforementioned scenery is nice to look at though, and the weighty orchestral score can stand on its own merits. But the heavy-handed references to James Joyce (oh that final snowfall!) had me rolling my eyes.

Torch Song
(USA 1953) (6): Joan Crawford hoofs and lip-synchs her way through one of the corniest romantic musicals MGM ever foisted upon an unsuspecting audience, and she does so with such balls that it almost succeeds on pure campiness alone. Almost. She plays aging stage diva Jenny Stewart—“the woman who put the ‘Broad’ in ‘Broadway’…“—a venomous drama queen who’s managed to either intimidate, emasculate, or eradicate anyone who’s ever cared for her (autobiography much, Joan?). Now, on the verge of opening a big one-woman show, her alcoholic rehearsal pianist suddenly calls it quits causing the show’s desperate producer to hire a last minute replacement, dapper army veteran Tye Graham (Michael Wilding). Sparks immediately begin flying between finicky star and virtuous musician who, despite being blinded in the war, is the only man that can see her for the frightened starlet she still is. The rest of the facile script pretty much writes itself. Filmed in eye-gouging Technicolour—nothing compliments anything and everything clashes with Crawford’s self-designed gowns—and tacky Manhattan sets filled with 1950s kitsch (Stewart’s retro high-tech bedroom belongs on The Jetsons) the limp song & dance numbers do little to alleviate the overall sense of a train derailing in slow motion. But with no high points to speak of it’s the movie’s low points which prove to be the most entertaining: Crawford’s emotional bedtime meltdown (complete with blood red lipstick and clown eyebrows); a puzzling rendition of “Two-Faced Woman” with Joan strutting down a painted staircase in blackface; and Crawford and Wilding trying to out-ham each other in a weepy sugar ’n soap ending so blatantly overdone that even Duchess, Graham’s seeing-eye dog, makes herself scarce. Gig Young co-stars as Stewart’s long-suffering paramour and Marjorie Rambeau actually walked away with a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role as Stewart’s manipulative mother. Alas, poor Duchess didn’t even make it into the closing credits.

Welcome to Happiness
(USA 2015) (4): It can’t be easy to create a film that is at once clumsy, affected, and insufferably pretentious, yet with this little slice of the bizarre indie writer/director Oliver Thompson gives it his best shot. Children’s author Woody (Kyle Gallner, mostly forgettable) has a secret: he’s the gatekeeper of a magical doorway in his hallway closet which gives anyone who passes through it the chance to correct past mistakes that may be weighing on their minds. The trouble is it only opens for certain people and Woody, despite being weighed down by a guilty memory of his own, is not one of them. Jealous of the strangers passing through his closet door—among them a suicidal artist and a sexually abused woman—Woody is determined to see what lies on the other side for himself… An interesting premise but Thompson is so preoccupied with showing the audience how audaciously clever his film is that he throws subtlety to the wind in favour of glaring references to serendipity and predestination. The murals adorning Woody’s apartment walls don’t whisper suggestions as much as scream them in your face—is that the Parting of the Red Sea behind his desk? and his landlord is named Moses? OMG!—while the trail of “coincidences” that land people on his doorstep are a tad too contrived to be accepted at face value, even for a fantasy film. Lacking momentum and failing to elicit much curiousity (just like that “Complacent Cat” in one of Woody’s books) Welcome to Happiness settles for a paltry pay-off of “Everything Happens for a Reason” platitudes delivered with much hype and low-budget artiness. Sometimes quirky just doesn’t cut it. Nick Offerman co-stars as the monotone landlord with Keegan-Michael Key as a supernatural talent scout and Six Feet Under’s Frances Conroy as an angelic guidance counsellor.

Embrace of the Serpent
(Colombia 2015) (8): Nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar, Ciro Guerra’s doleful requiem on the plight of Amazonia’s indigenous peoples circa 19th century is a heady mix of spiritual parable and bitter history lesson. While exploring the Amazon basin in 1909, German naturalist Theo Grunberg became seriously ill—a situation which forced him to seek help from native shaman Karamakate whose knowledge of herbal medicine was the only thing that could save his life. But the horrors of colonialism had left Karamakate an angry hermit suspicious of anyone with white skin and his decision to help Grunberg find a rare psychedelic herb with quasi-mythical healing properties was fraught with mistrust and misunderstanding. Forty years later, spurred by Grunberg’s fantastical posthumous diaries (and harbouring a hidden agenda of his own), American botanist Evan Schultes traveled to Colombia hoping to rediscover the fabled plant—and in so doing met up with the aging Karamakate who’d become an embittered husk of his former self. Together they set out on a journey which would change them both. Using rich B&W cinematography which turns the rainforest into a waking dream, Guerra’s sad film unfolds in a string of languorous chapters as cameras drift over sinuous riverbeds and steaming treetops recording each man’s journey like they were a pair of solemn pilgrimages. From the slavery of the rubber plantations to the cultural genocide wrought by Christian missionaries, Guerra doesn’t balk at the truth yet he couches the bitterness in scenes of such pastoral beauty that one is never sure where reality gives way to dreamlike allegory. A madman declares himself Christ, a disfigured thrall begs for death, and an arcing fireball heralds a twist of fate as one scientist sees his dream unravel while his counterpart across the years is transformed by a dream he never knew he held. Meanwhile the film’s one constant, Karamakate, as if absorbing the atrocities around him, goes from proud warrior to piteous senior with one last quest to perform. A clash of both cultures and philosophies tinged with narcotic hallucinations (coca leaves figure heavily in native sorcery), Embrace of the Serpent’s gentle plainsong rhythm never quite conceals the poison dart hovering just below its surface.

Clash by Night
(USA 1952) (7): The misogyny may be dated and the pall of angst a little over-baked, but Fritz Lang’s seedy love rectangle practically snaps and pops off the screen thanks to a star cast and a script which apparently never met a noirish cliché it didn’t like. Weary with the world and cynical to the core after her affair with a married politician went south, Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck, outstanding) returns to the little California fishing village she left ten years earlier. Taking up residence with her ill-tempered brother Joe (Keith Andes, ready to punch a hole in anyone or anything) she’s swayed by local fisherman Jerry (Paul Douglas, larger than life) a big lovable bear who adores her. But despite her best efforts to feign domestic bliss, it’s the rakish Earl (a snarly Robert Ryan) who eventually catches her fancy. Very unhappily married and angry at the world because of it, Earl’s deep-seated hatred for the fairer sex speaks to Mae’s own self-loathing in ways Jerry can’t begin to understand. Meanwhile Joe is having problems of his own with headstrong girlfriend Peggy (star performance from a still unknown Marilyn Monroe) whose progressive opinions regarding women have him undecided over whether she should be lectured or strangled. He attempts both. With Earl’s fragile chauvinism and Joe’s open-hearted decency forming opposite poles, Lang takes a somewhat sensationalistic look at how the two women in his film evolve emotionally over the course of a single year—helped in part by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca’s pans of moonlit clouds and thundering waves, and Roy Webb’s plaintive orchestral score. But it’s the dialogue, adapted from Clifford Odets’ stage play, that will leave you either wincing or smiling appreciatively: “Don’t kid me, baby. I know a bottle by the label!” sneers Earl as Mae tries to wrestle from his unwanted embrace. They probably shouldn’t make ‘em like this anymore—but I’m glad they did in 1952. Silvio Minciotti co-stars as Jerry’s father—a man without direction ever since his own true love died—and J. Carrol Naish plays his Uncle Vince, a self-serving serpent who takes comfort in the unhappiness of others.

Sweet Country
(Australia 2017) (7): “The rule of law was the last to arrive…and the first to be broken” stated Aboriginal filmmaker Warwick Thornton on the colonization of Australia. With this in mind his much feted feature film, based on an actual court case, becomes both a tense drama and a sobering history lesson. In the wild west Outback of 1929 an Aboriginal ranch hand shoots and kills a white man before fleeing into the wilderness with his wife. The fact that it was in self-defense and the dead man was cruel and mentally unstable—a side-effect of having served in WWI perhaps—means little to the constable assigned to track him down, a fellow war veteran whose racist worldview is very much limited to Black and White. Using the pursuit and subsequent trial as springboards, Thornton highlights some uncomfortable truths about his country’s beginnings and he does so with all the panache of an early John Ford. The twentieth century hasn’t quite reached the Northern Territory yet leaving his characters suspended in time and allowing him to examine the forces shaping them. Little better than slave labour, the black natives are the subjects of scorn and abuse, often taken from their homeland and forced to acknowledge King and Country—a situation some rebel against while others seem to adapt to as a way of getting ahead in changing times hence one young boy gleefully robs his white overlords while his elder is eager to help them hunt down the fugitive. Their white counterparts, meanwhile, seem torn between maintaining the status quo and quelling a growing sense of shame (one rancher alternately beats and rewards the Aboriginal youth he’s more or less adopted while a white missionary humbly offers them the empty promises of Christianity). With wide open deserts and salt flats serving as backdrops Thornton and his largely native cast and crew inject just a touch of mysticism to the story—oddly placed flashbacks and flash-forwards mimic dreamtime and dusk turns already exotic scenery otherworldly—but bring us back to ice cold reality as the accused is led before an outdoor tribunal in chains, the presiding judge barely able to silence catcalls coming from the vengeful townsfolk. A deceptively straightforward story which uses a tragic flashpoint to highlight cultures in collision yet leaves us with one of Australian cinema’s more inspired shots—a heartbroken man wanders aimlessly into the desert while in the sky above him storm clouds and rainbows vie for dominance.

Fireworks Wednesday
(Iran 2006) (8): Traditionally the Persian New Year is ushered in with a bang as people spend the entire day setting off fireworks. In this solidly made family drama, only his third feature film, writer/director Asghar Farhadi makes excellent use of those pyrotechnics—both visually and auditory—as sparks fill the night sky and onscreen tensions are matched by a background of distant pops and bangs. Blushing bride-to-be Roohi (a luminous Taraneh Alidoosti) is sent by her temp agency to do some light housework for wealthy couple Morteza and his wife Mozhde (Hamid Farokhnezhad and Hediyeh Tehrani, both burning up the screen). But the naïve young woman barely has time to remove her chador before she becomes embroiled in the throes of a disintegrating relationship with accusations of adultery, lying, and possible mental instability being tossed back and forth like hand grenades. On the eve of their departure for a holiday in Dubai, Morteza has convinced herself that Mozhde is having an affair with the woman across the hall. Mozhde, protesting his innocence, feels his wife’s unbalanced fits of tears and scathing recriminations are tearing their marriage apart. Caught in the middle, Roohi is repelled yet oddly fascinated as she’s called upon to be both a spy and an alibi for the warring spouses, a position made even more precarious when neighbourly gossip enters the fray and her weak attempts to intervene—made with the best of intentions—backfire miserably. Filmed almost entirely in the couple’s dishevelled apartment (they may be getting ready to emigrate) Farhadi uses the physical disarray, as well as those incessant firecrackers, to emphasize the psychological turbulence tumbling off the screen. There is a hint of Cassavetes, or possibly Robert Altman, to this ensemble piece with its overlapping dialogue, twists of perspective, and a fidgety camera that seems to prowl as it catalogues every nuance and outrage. Are Mozhde’s suspicions, based on the most circumstantial evidence, correct or is she truly descending into paranoia? Farhadi keeps the answer close to his chest right until the end, but his tight direction and phenomenal cast ensure that this is one bumpy ride worth hanging on for—beginning, as it does, with a sunny interlude in the mountains and ending with a metaphorical jaunt through Hell and beyond.

Who Can Kill a Child?
(aka Island of the Damned ) (Spain 1976) (7): “Man is crazy…” observes a shopkeeper twenty minutes into Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s arresting film, “…and the people who suffer most from his madness are children.” When those roles are reversed however, as in this chilling allegory, the tragic turns into creeping horror. Vacationing Brits Tom and his pregnant wife Evelyn think they’ve found their idyllic getaway on a small island off the southern coast of Spain. But right from the outset they sense wrongness in the air for the tiny town is devoid of any grownups and the myriad youngsters wandering the streets and beaches behave more like skittish pack animals than carefree kids. And then the bodies of the adults begin showing up in hotel rooms, alleyways, and offices forcing the couple to face a terrible reality—those clusters of sweetly smiling children who’ve been trailing them are in fact sadistic murderers who take great delight in offing anyone old enough to vote. Trapped and with no way to contact the mainland, Tom and Evelyn are determined to survive even if it means committing the unspeakable… Loosely based on a Spanish novel and borrowing from such diverse masters as Hitchcock, Polanski, and John Wyndham—stick feathers on the moppets and you have a scene right out of The Birds while Evelyn’s delicate condition gives less successful nods to Rosemary’s Baby and Wyndham’s Cuckoos—Serrador takes what could have been a straight-up thriller and infuses it with sociopolitical overtones thanks to an opening montage of newsreels highlighting the plight of children from Nazi Germany to Viet Nam to war-torn Biafra. It’s Day of the Animals with preteens replacing the indignant wolves and eagles. But whereas the beasts in William Girdler’s cheese bomb were pissed off at man’s environmental havoc, Serrador’s little innocents seem content to merely reflect what we’ve been doing to ourselves all along. And therein lies the real horror.

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.