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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Renoir (France 2012) (6): Approaching the end of his life and severely crippled by arthritis, celebrated painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (magnificent performance by 87-year old Michel Bouquet) finds some platonic solace in his latest muse, aspiring actress and model Andrée. But when his son, future film director Jean Renoir, returns to the family estate in order to recuperate from a war wound Andrée finds herself balanced between the older man’s stubbornly optimistic pursuit of all things beautiful and Jean’s more sober outlook gained from his experiences in the trenches. Gauzy sets and filtered light filled with heat shimmers and flower petals certainly make Gilles Bourdos’ period piece look like one of the master’s oils: in one scene a drop of ochre paint slowly unfurls in a glass of water with all the gravitas of a deathbed confession, in another sunlit bathers turn surreal when filmed from below. But aside from Bouquet’s César-nominated turn as the crusty artist plagued by both disease and grief for his deceased wife, everyone else delivers pretty basic performances with the possible exception of Thomas Doret who, as Renoir’s youngest son Coco, views his father’s ongoing legacy with a very un-childlike cynicism. “The pain passes…” confesses Renoir during one of his low points, “…but beauty remains.” And given the film’s rather bland impact audiences are left with little more than gorgeous Côte d’Azur backgrounds and a moody orchestral score by Alexandre Desplat.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
(USA 1970) (7): Directed by big breast enthusiast Russ Meyer and penned, believe it or not, by future film critic Roger Ebert, this is not a sequel to 1967’s potboiler but rather a kitschy parody of the original with even more grass, more tits, and more big, big 70s hair. And for the most part it actually works! Buxom rock star wannabes Kelly, Casey, and Pet, along with their roadie Harris, pile into an old van and head west to seek their fortune among the bright lights of Los Angeles. With encouragement from Kelly’s wealthy aunt and music industry bigwig “Z-Man” Barzell (John Lazar giving Hollywood one of it’s campiest performances ever) the girls’ success seems guaranteed. But that success comes with a hefty price tag written in drugs, sex, and a round of personal heartbreaks. Shot in psychedelic colour by De Luxe and sporting enough mod fashions and tacky day-glo art to fill a thousand thrift shops, Meyer’s pills’n’booze addled soap opera plays it straight-faced throughout. And it is precisely this disciplined approach which sharpens its satirical edges making a wild Hollywood party look like an adult episode of Laugh-In and turning that outrageous climax—a throughly inappropriate riff on Helter Skelter—into the biggest spoof of all. Despite its dated portrayal of mincing homos, depressive dykes (“…their’s was not an evil relationship, but evil did come because of it…”), and psychotic trannies—all of which have to be taken with a weary forbearance—this is still a fun watch and the original songs, including a cameo by 60s group Strawberry Alarm Clock, are not half bad. Lastly, Ebert’s script leaves us with one of B-Cinema’s most memorable lines shouted during a spurned lover’s monumental hissy fit: “You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!” They just don’t write ‘em like this anymore and for that we can all be thankful.

Melancholia
(Denmark 2011) (7): No one does mental illness quite like Lars von Trier. In Antichrist he turned pathological grief into a freak show of genital mutilation and chatty zombie foxes and now with Melancholia he likens clinical depression to nothing less than the literal end of the world… Newlywed Justine (a brilliant turn from Kirsten Dunst) has just singlehandedly sabotaged her lavish wedding reception due to a losing battle with catatonia. Her long-suffering sister Clarie (Charlotte Gainsbourg, also brilliant) is scandalized especially since it was her wealthy husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) who bankrolled the whole affair at the couple’s opulent fairytale estate. Meanwhile their bitterly divorced mother (a venomous Charlotte Rampling) is taking some grim satisfaction in the fiasco, their philandering father (John Hurt) is oblivious, and the groom (Alexander Skarsgård) is realizing his matrimonial mistake even before the bride’s veil has come off. And in the skies above a newly discovered planet appropriately christened “Melancholia” (Symbolism for Dummies, anyone?) is on a collision course with Earth. Opening with an ostentatious slo-mo montage of images which pretty much encapsulate the entire film—the art director obviously influenced by the paintings of Pieter Bruegel and John Everett Millais—von Trier abruptly shifts into ice cold reality as Justine’s illness taints everyone’s happiness, including her own, and an approaching Melancholia casts its growing shadow across the land. Although the director confessed to having written the script while under the influence of drugs and alcohol, pretty par for course if you’re at all familiar with the works of von Trier, there is nevertheless a breathtaking flair to his visuals which owes a huge debt of gratitude to Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice: an elaborate sundial silently ticks off the minutes, nature reacts to the cosmic/psychological turmoil, and an encroaching darkness touches everyone in a different way: Justine’s paradoxical composure playing off Claire’s mounting hysteria and John’s crushing nihilism. Definitely not for every taste but for anyone who’s ever had to deal with mental health issues either in themselves or in a significant other, von Trier’s objective scenes of doom and anxiety will definitely strike a subjective chord. And Dunst’s heartbreaking performance is pitch perfect right up to that final fantastical frame.

Behind the Candelabra
(USA 2013) (8): Steven Soderbergh’s bitchy drama about Liberace and his former lover Scott Thorson (based on Thorson’s tell-all book) unfolds like an episode of Dynasty—only with way more make-up and rhinestones. Opening in 1977 when the fabulously flamboyant pianist (Michael Douglas, amazing) first met the 18-year old boy toy (Matt Damon, convincing despite being 24 years older than his character), Soderbergh pulls no punches as he films the two men going from enthusiastic bedmates to comfy companions to resentful exes—the bewigged and controlling Liberace succumbing to plastic surgery and his insatiable taste for young men, Thorson spiralling his way through addiction, jealous rages, and some needless surgery of his own. And much of it is filmed on location amid the late entertainer’s kitschy rococo mansions loaded to the rafters with golden columns, tacky knick-knacks, and enough animal fur to depopulate several zoos. Titillating and lurid—neither Damon nor Douglas shy away from butt shots and saliva-swapping—this is not exactly a poison pen exposé for Thorson’s memoirs elicit a certain sympathy for the fey Liberace who was one of showbiz’s most open closet cases. Playing on the libidos of the old women who came to see him while backstage playing the sugar daddy for a succession of pretty male faces, Douglas presents his character as a complex contradiction of material wealth and emotional poverty, flashy confidence and crippling doubt. Damon, meanwhile, nails it as the quintessential California blond seduced by the older man’s promises of bright lights and financial security. But, true to its subject matter, Behind the Candelabra is mostly fading sparkles and queer theatrics despite a sobering deathbed coda. It is done so well, however, that that alone was enough to keep me glued to the screen. Scott Bakula, Dan Aykroyd, and Debbie Reynolds are almost unrecognizable as a barroom pickup, business manager, and Liberace’s mom respectively, and Rob Lowe oozes sleaze as an unscrupulous plastic surgeon. Interesting to note that while Soderbergh’s film was released in theatres around the world it was limited to cable in the United States after studios considered it “too gay”. Bitch, please…

The Immigrant
(USA 2013) (6): Determined to prevent her sickly sister from being deported back to Poland, newly arrived immigrant Eva (a mesmerizing Marion Cotillard giving the film its backbone) finds herself having to rely on the kindness of strangers. Unfortunately, the stranger in question is Bruno Weiss (an emoting Joaquin Phoenix), a burlesque producer and part-time pimp who introduces the headstrong naif to the debilitating world of vice and immorality while at the same time making her the object of his obsessive affections. And then Bruno’s estranged cousin pops up (Jeremy Renner stuck in first gear), immediately takes a fancy to Eva himself and thus precipitates one final tragedy. The rich cinematography, poignant orchestral score, and sepia-tinted recreation of 1920s New York City may be enough to sway you, but for those with a more critical eye the relentless heartbreaks in James Gray’s period weeper provide enough melodrama to rival 1914’s The Perils of Pauline. Cotillard gives a noteworthy performance—including memorizing 20 pages of Polish dialogue—her plain beauty undercut by the quiet fierceness lashing out from her eyes as she constantly reassess her life and the people in it. She’s so good in fact that she leaves Phoenix and Renner trying to catch up: a sympathetic Phoenix wringing and wailing as the tortured would-be lover; Renner’s good guy smiling and cooing in dented armour. The corruption of innocence is a cinematic trope as old as the industry itself and in that respect Gray’s opus hardly breaks new ground, but the aforementioned technical artistry does make for a grand widescreen experience and Cotillard is more than up for the endless bumps and scrapes her character must endure. Finally, as all fades to black, we are left with a bittersweet image of purest poetry. Almost worth it.

Kiss of Death
(USA 1947) (6): Three-time loser Nick Bianco (Victor Mature), currently serving a 15-year sentence for a jewel heist gone wrong, is proud of the fact that he’s never ratted on a fellow criminal. But when personal tragedy strikes he decides to cooperate with the New York D.A. in exchange for a lighter sentence—a decision which puts him on the wrong side of vengeful psychopath Tommy Udo (Oscar-nominated Richard Widmark making his movie debut). Pretty standard Film Noir fare albeit one which concentrates more on the ethical conundrum at its core and less on flying bullets. Mature is torn between his thieves’ honour and a higher good while Widmark’s hissing madman and Bianco’s adoring saint of a wife (Coleen Gray laying it on a little too thick) compete for his soul. And just to give the emotional knife another twist Bianco’s two cherubic daughters are are thrown in for the “Awww!” factor, the connection between them and a prominently displayed painting of Christ welcoming the little children all too obvious. Although refreshingly sympathetic towards its main protagonist—“He’s not a bad guy” states one prison guard about the soft-spoken Bianco—and heavy on the personal anguish, director Henry Hathaway never really gets the tension going even with a beautifully underlit scene of midnight jitters and that final cat-and-mouse pursuit through the alleyways of Manhattan. And the Hays office made sure the film’s darker elements, namely rape and suicide, were significantly softened for the big screen. But despite all that, Kiss of Death does leave audiences with one of the genres more chillingly iconic scenes: Udo dispatching a screaming wheelchair-bound woman, his maniacal giggling still managing to rival that of Heath Ledger’s Joker some sixty years later.

The Cuckoo
(Russia 2002) (6): Set in wilds of Finland during WWII, writer/director Aleksandr Rogozhkin’s three-handed satire provides one of cinema’s more astute metaphors for warfare. Two men from either side of the battle line—one a Finnish deserter, the other a disgraced Russian officer—wind up sharing space on a crude homestead run by a young Lapp woman. The Finn is an adamant pacifist despite his Nazi disguise; the Russian has doubts about the Soviet dream; and the woman is simply horny and desperate to get laid. And the punchline? Due to language barriers none of the characters can understand each other. The resulting misunderstandings make for some fertile comedy—the Communist cooks up a stew of poison mushrooms and the pacifist’s well-meaning gesture of peace is grossly misread—but as nerves fray and boiling hormones beget jealousy, things abruptly turn sour and then surreal after the woman breaks out her shaman’s drum for some spirit world tinkering. Sadly, much of the cultural allusions provide in-jokes lost on Western audiences causing us to scratch our heads almost as much as the protagonists.


The Strange One (USA 1957) (8): Based on novelist Calder Willingham’s experiences as a cadet in South Carolina’s military academy, director Jack Garfein’s scandalous piece of pulp fiction, considered by some to be an overlooked classic, is a master class in toxic masculinity and sexual repression. Ben Gazzara gives filmdom one of its slimiest antiheroes as senior cadet Jocko De Paris (if ever there was a porn name…), a charismatic sociopath who takes sadistic delight in pitting fellow cadets against one another in Machiavellian schemes that see one innocent student expelled and a senior officer dishonourably discharged. Aiding him are his sycophantic roommate and a pair of new recruits bullied into his service—one a toadying doormat, the other a conscious-stricken idealist (George Peppard making his screen debut). But tyrants are only as strong as those willing to obey their orders, and when Jocko finally crosses a line his reign of intimidation and manipulation becomes precarious indeed. From Lord of the Flies to Taps, using an all male setting as a microcosm to examine the interplay of authority and submission is not new to cinema and in that respect The Strange One is not so strange after all. But Garfein’s low budget B&W production adds a vague psychosexual twist in the form of Perrin McKee, a senior cadet and budding author whose attraction to Jocko goes beyond mere hero worship and who has taken it upon himself to chronicle the object of his desire in a series of fictionalized accounts which strike a raw nerve in De Paris’ otherwise impervious hide. With McKee’s stories eerily reflecting reality (his protagonist is given the alias “Night Boy”) and Jocko’s psychological sway waning, it only remains for the final chapter to be written… Opening with a homoerotic drawing of a partially dressed cadet worthy of Tom of Finland and not shying away from glimpses of skivvies and sweaty pecs, Willingham’s screenplay is not so much about homosexuality as it is about the magnetic attraction between the weak and those they perceive as powerful. Despite the buxom centrefolds adorning the walls, Jocko’s alpha male nevertheless elicits a fawning deference, tinged with growing resentment, from those under his influence—in essence they’ve become lovers in all but thought and deed. A lurid and operatic oddity, yet one whose themes of corruption, control, and comeuppance are as pertinent today as they were back then.

Anthropoid
(Czech 2016) (8): Shortly after Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia, SS General Reinhard Heydrich, one of the Third Reich’s top officers and an architect of Hitler’s “Final Solution”, is tasked with quelling any Czech resistance—his brutal methods of torture and wholesale murder earning him the nickname “The Butcher of Prague”. In response, the exiled Czech government, operating out of London, fly in a group of paratroopers whose mission it is to enter one of Europe’s most heavily occupied cities and assassinate Heydrich, one of Germany’s most heavily guarded officials. Based on the true story of Operation Anthropoid and filmed for the most part in the actual locations where events unfolded back in 1942, writer/director Sean Ellis has fashioned a thoroughly engrossing historical piece whose main actors, Irishmen Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan both leaving their brogues behind, blend seamlessly with a largely Czech cast. Authentic period details bring the past to life (or death) and although Ellis does not flinch from brutal reality—a brief scene of torture is so intense it seems longer than it actually is—quotidian atrocities are only a backdrop as the operatives and their Czech Resistance allies (not all of whom agree that Heydrich’s death would be a good thing) put their meticulous plan into action. There’s the usual hair-raising moments when it becomes apparent not everything is going to go according to plan, but that explosive climax is perhaps more memorable for its stretches of painful silence, punctuated by a classical score, than the thousands of bullets and hand grenades ripping up the screen.

Dirty Grandpa
(USA 2016) (1): It’s hard to picture the great Robert De Niro being so desperate for a paycheque that he would debase himself for this vulgar, tasteless, and insultingly idiotic road movie. But he did and in so doing gave his career a low point so far down I doubt he’ll ever surpass it. The day after his grandmother’s funeral and a week before his own lavish wedding to a vapid socialite, budding lawyer Jason Kelly (Zac Efron, equally desperate?) is roped into driving his irascible grandfather, Dick, from Atlanta to south Florida supposedly to help the old man work through his grieving. Grandpa, however, has another agenda in mind—after forty years of being faithful to his now deceased wife he is hornier than hell and obsessed with getting laid. Enter Lenore, a slutty vacuous college girl with a fetish for wrinkled flesh (Aubrey Plaza giving the film its only funny lines) whom Dick happens to meet in a parking lot and before you can drop a viagra Dick and Jason are off to spend Spring Break in Daytona Beach with Lenore and her friends (one of whom is an old flame of Jason’s…cue plot twist!) where a meth-fuelled frat party, meth-fuelled rave, and run-in with a pair of meth-fuelled cops await… As if being subjected to a non-stop slew of juvenile jokes centred on pussies, cocks, and drugs aren’t bad enough director Dan Mazer ratchets up the insults with a tweaking Efron prancing about with a stuffed toy dangling off his dick, a tasered Dermot Mulroney (playing Jason’s uptight dad) with magic marker penises drawn all over his face, and an insufferably annoying De Niro masturbating into a kleenex (or doing “number three” as he puts it). But Mazer gives audiences their final black eye towards the end when he shifts gears and tries to turn this shit show into a warm fuzzy all about following one’s dreams and making peace with the past. And the ultimate insult? IT ISN’T EVEN FUNNY! The next time De Niro finds himself strapped for cash perhaps he should take the high road and start a GoFundMe account instead.

Stranger Than Paradise
(USA 1984) (7): Horse races and cheating at poker pretty much define Willie’s slacker lifestyle until his Hungarian cousin Eva comes to visit him in his one-room New York fleabag. Taciturn and poker-faced herself, Eva’s monotone criticisms begin to grate on the hipster and, after ten days, he is only too happy to see her finally leave for their aunt’s place in Cleveland. One year later Willie and his buddy Eddie “borrow” a car and head to Ohio to meet up with Eva once more spurring an impromptu joy ride to Florida where their fortunes will ebb and flow in a most unusual way. Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan comedy, composed of 67 static scenes each separated by a few seconds of blackout and all shot in a grainy B&W mix of grunge verité and artless mumblecore, is arguably one of the best American indie films to emerge from the 80s. His largely unknown cast pretty much personifies apathy as they smoke and gamble, kibitz and bullshit, and generally face life with a yawn and a stare—although it’s 86-year old amateur Cecillia Stark as Aunt Lotte who garners the most smiles despite having the least screen time. Not a film for lovers of either action or witticisms (it is, after all, a thirty-minute short blown up to ninety) but the aura of deadbeat lives and urban grit gains a momentum of its own and that final double twist couldn’t have been funnier if it had come with a laugh track.

Youth
(Italy 2015) (7): Shot through with small intimacies and grand distances, Paolo Sorrentino’s rumination on creativity in the face of senescence could be seen as a follow-up of sorts to 2013’s The Great Beauty. It certainly has the director’s signature flair for matching grandiose music to grandiose scenery and turning ostentation into something occasionally profound whether it be a bird in an ornately gilded cage or a frozen tableau of bathers soaking up an unseen sun. Two octogenarian artists: orchestra conductor/composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) who wishes nothing more than to slip into retired oblivion, and film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) intent on producing his career capstone despite the fact his creative juices have all but dried up, are whiling away the hours at a swank hotel deep in the Swiss alps. Here, surrounded by natural wonders and a swirling multitude of muses in the form of bathing beauties, Hollywood brats, and a statuesque Miss Universe, the two old men chitchat on everything from artistic integrity to the daily grind of growing older but not necessarily wiser. Meanwhile the next generation, including their estranged adult children who happen to be married to one another, is experiencing all the passions, triumphs, and tragedies reserved for the very young… Moving between episodes of softened reality and heightened fancy, Sorrentino’s admiration for Fellini is stronger than ever with cameras panning over hotel guests posed as if for a classical frieze, a revolving stage in the hotel pool hosting entertainers who always seem to reflect the current mood, and a nude Amazon wading past a gobsmacked Ballinger and Boyle like god herself. In the end one will experience a renaissance of sorts while the other will receive a demoralizing reality check when he’s visited by a brusque old diva (Jane Fonda barely recognizable except for the voice). “You say emotions are overrated…” an introspective Boyle says to his old friend at one point, “…But that’s bullshit. Emotions are all we’ve got.” And if anything can span the yawning generational divide which Sorrentino posits before us, that is surely it.

The Belko Experiment
(USA 2016) (5): Eighty ex-pat Americans working in a Bogotá office complex find themselves unwilling pawns in Greg McLean’s satirical psycho-bender—a shoot-em-up with far more guts than brains. At first shocked to find their building abruptly turned into an armoured cage (à la Transformers), the unlucky co-workers’ unease turns to terror when a mocking voice on the PA system goads them into a deadly game of kill or be killed. Quickly falling into loose groups of hawks and doves (or pragmatists and idealists if you prefer) with one lone dissenter trying to avoid a bloodbath, fear and desperation—and an arsenal of knives, guns, and surprisingly lethal office supplies—start the body count rising while the unseen tormentor continues to raise the ante… Yet another riff on the Battle Royale theme, albeit more political with nasty American posturing and allusions to globalization and militarization (funny how that ad hoc vigilante squad springs up so quickly), McLean piles on the symbolism: skull masks, lucky talismans, and the company motto “Business Without Borders” all figuring prominently while an operatic score tries to raise the arthouse bar. He even takes the idea of Battle’s explosive neck collars and substitutes it with explosive microchips previously embedded in everyone’s head supposedly as a tracking device in case of kidnapping—cue exploding skulls and spattered walls. But despite the madhouse pacing and chaotic tension Belko doesn’t have much more to offer beyond colourful gore, for when its central puzzle is finally resolved the answer is so smug and facile that I wanted to kick in the TV screen—irony and all.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
(USA 2010) (7): Love her or hate her, Joan Rivers broke new ground for female comics starting in the early days when she dared to crack jokes about sex, pregnancy, and abortion, to the latter years when her foul-mouthed Jewish grandmother schtick drew laughter and heckles alike. In Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s documentary, filmed as the comedienne turned 75, Joan takes centre stage (as usual), letting us into her gaudily appointed penthouse apartment for a look back on a career filled with triumphs and regrets. Intercutting hilarious stage performances with some brutal confessions, Rivers presents herself as a contradictory mix of aggressive businesswoman trying desperately to remain relevant, and vulnerable diva whose stretched face and pounds of make-up attest to the fact she fears obscurity more than death itself…an observation further strengthened by her willingness to accept any job offer no matter how demeaning. An interesting character sketch of a terribly complicated woman whose life was fraught with mountains and valleys—from industry accolades and standing ovations to the suicide of her husband, a failed acting career (her biggest aspiration and greatest disappointment), and ongoing adversarial relationship with her daughter Melissa. “The only time I am truly, truly happy is when I am on a stage…” confesses Joan standing behind a theatre curtain while an unseen audience offers thunderous applause, and one can’t help but wonder if her willingness to take on this project in the first place was just another kick at the can.

Boy A
(UK 2007) (7): Eleven years after he was sent to juvenile detention for committing a horrendous crime, a young boy—now a young man—is finally released under a veil of secrecy. Given a job and a new identity in a new town, “Jack” slowly builds an assumed life for himself with the encouragement of a fatherly social worker. But the press has a long memory and some people are unable to forgive and forget so it’s only a matter of time before Jack, still plagued by bad dreams, must face his past yet again. In this his film debut, Andrew Garfield plays Jack as a sympathetic naif whose hangdog expression and driving desire to be liked are underscored by flashbacks to an emotionally starved childhood and a most unfortunate friendship with a budding sociopath. Peter Mullan, as the social worker, provides an equally complex character study as a man whose compassion for the young offenders in his care contrasts sharply with the thorny relationship between his estranged son and himself. Director John Crowley’s adaptation of Jonathan Trigell’s novel keeps things low-keyed, only gradually releasing the details of what young Jack did to deserve such infamy, and in so doing he gives audiences a chance to acquaint themselves with the character without pre-judging him. And for their parts Garfield and Mullan share an onscreen chemistry with Mullan’s sage humanity playing off Garfield’s self-doubts and guilty memories. But, unfortunately, both author and director already know where our sympathies should lie and they go out of their way to point us in that direction with a pitiful stab at romance between Jack and an office worker and an unlikely feat of heroism on Jack’s part which garners him a child’s thank-you card dripping with pathos and irony. At least the film’s satisfyingly ambivalent ending doesn’t include torches and pitchforks.

The Vast of Night
(USA 2019) (7): If you can imagine the cast of Dobie Gillis starring in an episode of The X-Files directed by Rod Serling you might be able to appreciate Andrew Patterson’s low-budget retro sci-fi chiller. It’s 1958 and in a small New Mexico town strange signals are being broadcast from points unknown. Intrigued and a little freaked by the bizarre sounds suddenly coming over her phone lines, mousy switchboard operator Fay Crocker teams up with local D.J. and newshound wannabe Everett Sloan to try and solve the mystery. Two mysterious interviews and one strange sighting later, the duo stand poised to break the biggest news story America has ever seen… Feeding on the Cold War unease of the time, Patterson’s obvious familiarity with old reruns of The Twilight Zone and One Step Beyond is put to good use with period details down pat and wide screen cinematography which every now and then narrows to a grainy B&W TV image—a clever gimmick perhaps meant to remind us that he’s in on the joke too. Despite a lack of onscreen charisma, his two leads nevertheless throw themselves into a comic book script that could very well have been written in the 50s—Sierra McCormick’s Fay all bobby socks and cat-eye glasses while Jake Horowitz portrays Sloan as a slick-haired small town celebrity with aspirations bigger than New Mexico. Despite a rough start with too many people talking too fast all at the same time and a couple of baffling moments where the screen goes blank (perhaps to mimic an old time radio show?) the film eventually does find its groove as the mystery and tension mount right up to that satisfyingly downplayed CGI finale. In the process Patterson leaves us with two notable strokes of movie magic: a seemingly unbroken tracking shot which scoots over fields and roads before racing through a school gymnasium and jumping out a window; and a haunting score of meditative New Age-style chords which clashes beautifully with those dusty hick-town environs, leaving everything with a vaguely surreal edge. Finally, as an ongoing wink to a savvy audience, Sloan’s radio station call letters are WOTW. Get it?

Solo
(Argentina 2013) (5): Perhaps a better title for this loopy gay thriller would be Scrolling For Mr. Gaybar, for it’s little more than a tired old trope revamped for a Grindr generation. After enduring a messy break-up, preppy office worker Manuel searches the internet for a bit of companionship and winds up with the bewhiskered and brooding Julio. Hitting it off at street level, the two retire to Manuel’s apartment where their date follows the expected trajectory: small talk, romantic confessions, fucking, and in the waning afterglow the usual glut of lame excuses designed to cut the evening short…”You have to leave because my friend Vicky is coming over” and “I’ll call you sometime”. At least on Manuel’s part. But Julio, cutting through Manuel’s bullshit, proves to be a tough houseguest to get rid of and that’s when Manuel begins to wonder if bringing him home was a wise decision after all… Obviously acquainted with the emotional games and dishonest politics of one-night stands, writer/director Marcelo Briem Stamm tries to spice things up with lukewarm sex and vague suggestions of darker motives at work—who is that mysterious voice on Julio’s cellphone? Why is he so interested in Manuel’s living arrangements? And just who is this “Vicky”? False starts abound as the two men circle one another, passion jostling with mistrust, while all that heartfelt pillow talk gets thrown into a sinister light once Stamm yanks the final rug out from beneath our feet. But the poorly subtitled dialogue clunks along and the two handsome leads fail to achieve that erotic synergy which would have made the film’s big twist somehow less nutty. Finally, when a director feels the need to explain his cleverness in minute detail (cue flashbacks which turn offhand comments into ironic double entendres) you know the mark has already been missed.

Hellboy
(USA 2019) (6): Even though it lacked the wit and humanity of the 2004 original plus the macabre menagerie mayhem of 2008’s Golden Army sequel—not to mention the fact that Ron Perlman beats David Harbour hands down when it come to sexy demon drag—this latest in the Hellboy franchise (more of a rewrite than a sequel) was unfairly pilloried by the critics when it first came out. It’s a comic book for crying out loud, and as such it at least pushes the envelope right into R-rated territory with gorier guts and a generous sprinkling of f-bombs to spice up an admittedly pedestrian script. With a new cast and a new nihilistic attitude (Harbour’s potty-mouthed devil no longer has time for romance and kittens), Hellboy’19 revolves around a wicked medieval sorceress whose dismembered and scattered body parts, courtesy of an irate King Arthur, are slowly coming back together thanks to her pig-headed (literally) henchman whose been scouring the English countryside gathering them up like Easter eggs. Whole once more, “Nimue” (Milla Jovovich looking more tired than nasty) is now bent on avenging all demonkind by triggering the apocalypse and only Hellboy can stop her—but, unbeknownst to him, he too is destined to play a vital role in her infernal plan. So much for storyline. It’s all terribly predictable of course, but the CGI bugaboos and magical pyrotechnics alone are worth the rental price: a plague of freaky behemoths eat up London; a Russian hag does bone-crunching calisthenics while her house ambles about on monstrous chicken legs; and a trio of misshapen giants shuck screaming humans as if they were two-legged oysters. Look closely and you’ll also catch nods to Gremlins, An American Werewolf in London, and J. R. R. Tolkien along the way. Definitely the weakest of the three, and those not-so-subtle hints of yet another film to come failed to generate any excitement in me. But for a movie based on a movie based on a graphic novel it pretty much delivers what it promises.

The Acid House
(UK 1998) (6): From the pen of Irvine Welsh (Trainspotters) comes this trilogy of nasty tales intent on portraying Scots as loud lazy lumpen dolts whose only goals in life are to drink and get shagged. In the first instalment a young man is experiencing the worst day of his life—he’s lost his job and his his girlfriend, and now his parents are evicting him so that they can have more privacy to indulge in their sick S&M fetishes. And then he meets God down at the local pub and the drunken, foul-mouthed deity shows him that no matter how bad things seem, they can always get worse. Next up, a spineless milquetoast married to the town slag faces unbearable humiliation when she leaves him and their newborn baby to shack up with the psycho neighbour. Finally, a tweaking yob experiences the ultimate LSD trip when a freak lightning strike inextricably ties him to a snobbish pair of English yuppies expecting their first child. With a palette of drug-addled colours and cameras that never stray far from the crumbling housing projects in which the stories unfold, director Paul McGuigan’s triptych of wrack and ruin jumps about like a cat on meth with results that are sometimes amusing (a housefly is bent on revenge; a baby is possessed by a crackhead; God doesn’t give a shite) but mostly dull and dreary and pointless despite (or maybe because of) all those repetitious scenes of depressingly kinky sex. And the sparse subtitles hardly do justice to that expressive Scots dialect delivered in a working class brogue: “Go back to your ma! Lick your ma’s fuckin’ piss-flaps ya fuckin’ cunt!” Charming.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
(Italy 1966) (8): From Ennio Morricone’s iconic theme music filled with operatic brass, electric twangs, and primeval chorus, to that brilliant standoff in the middle of a graveyard, this grandaddy of all Spaghetti Westerns has become something of a legend. A feat made even more impressive when you consider the fact that the international cast and crew were barely able to communicate and many of the secondary characters had to have their lines dubbed into English. The promise of a fortune in buried gold attracts the attention of a sham bounty hunter (a good Clint Eastwood), his ruthless sidekick (an ugly Eli Wallach), and a hired assassin (a bad Lee Van Cleef all decked in black). Trying to outwit each other yet conversely relying on one another at the same time, the three leave a trail of bodies in their wake as they wend their way towards a final showdown. Taken as a straight-up oater, Sergio Leone’s masterful direction (and Morricone’s aforementioned score) makes for an intensely watchable “blood ’n bullets” saga with central Spain standing in nicely for America’s Wild West. But there are deeper layers to be plumbed here for the film also resembles a cosmic morality play with influences ranging from the Tarot Deck (The Fool, The Magician, The Hanged Man, Judgment, Fate, and Fortune are among the cards Leone tosses out) to Eastern mysticism and a nod to Carl Jung for as the trinity face one another in the middle of a cemetery the headstones come to resemble nothing less than an intricate mandala. Even the Civil War, constantly raging in the background, personifies ultimate futility after both sides wreak annihilation on one another over a rickety old bridge. All these years later it’s still hard to believe it wasn’t even nominated for one single Academy Award.