Movies, movies, movies!

Nurse Bob's film reviews

When rating a film I ask myself these three questions: What is the director’s goal or purpose? How does the director try to achieve it? Is the director successful? Hence a big box office hit may get a “5” while a Eurosleaze sexploitation flick gets a “7”. My rating system in a nutshell:

10 = Brilliant!
9 = Exceptional
8 = Very Good
7 = Good
6 = Average
5 = Forgettable
4 = Bad
3 = Dismal
2 = Dog Barf
1 = Beyond Awful

~ ~ ~ ~

The Private Life of Don Juan (UK 1934) (8): An aging lothario in 18th century Spain discovers his reputation has taken on a life of its own in Alexander Korda’s pointed comedy which softens its many barbs with moments of broad farce. Hounded by his loving yet pragmatic wife and riddled with debt, infamous ladies’ man Don Juan attempts to hide out in Seville but it isn’t long before word of his presence spreads faster than a dose of clap. Now greyer in the hair and with quite a few more wrinkles—though no more wiser—the great lover who once left a swath of satisfied women and cuckolded husbands in his wake finds himself competing with an exuberant imposter trying to cash in on his reputation plus the dawning realization that the savvy females of Seville are more in lust with the legend of Don Juan rather than the tired middle-aged man he’s become—even his surefire pick-up lines have now grown stale. Douglas Fairbanks dominates the screen in the title role, his comic timing and expressive features lampooning his previous roles as a swashbuckling man’s man and Merle Oberon keeps pace as a smitten nightclub dancer…her castanets hammering away like a telltale heart. Risqué for the time, Korda takes great delight in making oblique references to such taboo subjects as adultery, orgies, female sexuality, and male impotence—were the censors even awake?—while at the same time injecting a bit of sympathy for a formerly virile bed-hopper now struggling to accept the fact that he’s going to seed (one intended conquest ruins the mood after she takes to him like a father figure). When a misunderstanding leads the town to believe Don Juan has died the resulting “funeral” is a brilliant satire of grieving mistress wannabes and Korda mines comedy gold when a playwright decides to turn the “deceased” horndog’s life into a fanciful stage play whose opening night doesn’t quite go off as planned. If only he had been able to see this film beforehand I’m sure Mozart would have written a very different opera…(wink wink).

The Mirror Crack’d
(UK 1980) (5): You’d think with a cast that includes Angela Lansbury, Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson, Kim Novak, and Elizabeth Taylor this Agatha Christie adaptation wouldn’t be quite so awful, but it is. A fading movie star (Taylor) is in England filming an Elizabethan epic directed by her husband (Hudson) when people around her begin dropping dead—is she going to be the next victim? Enter miss Jane Marple (Lansbury) who, along with her nephew from Scotland Yard, is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. Yawn. Aside from Lansbury’s feisty Marple no one seems much interested in their roles and the entire production takes on the lacklustre monotony of a made-for-TV flick to the point I kept expecting lulls in the action to segue into commercial breaks. Taylor recites her lines as if she were doing community theatre, Hudson appears to be waiting on the clock, and Novak (playing Taylor’s co-star and bitter rival) mugs and poses like a drama class diva in what has to be one of the most affected performances to come out of the 80s. In fact no one, not even the extras, seem much interested in whodunnit so that when Marple winds up solving the case (a novel if somewhat ridiculous twist) it comes as a bit of a relief because you know the final credits are not far behind. There is one scene which stands out however, a monumental cat fight between Taylor and Novak which turns into a very funny exchange of insults: “I’m so glad to see that you’ve not only kept your gorgeous figure…” hisses Novak to Taylor, “…but you’ve added so much to it!” Given the film’s overall anemic tone those few minutes were definitely worth a rewind.

Everything Everywhere All At Once
(USA 2022) (5): The premise is simple if somewhat tortuous: every decision you make, no matter how trivial, divides the universe in two—in one reality you chose “A”, in the other you chose “B”. Multiply this by billions of people making billions of decisions and you give rise to an infinite multiverse of different realities. Harried housewife and failing entrepreneur Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) is unceremoniously recruited to help save this multiverse after a malevolent force threatens to destroy everyone’s reality. Now finding herself living all the possible lives she could have led if our universe had taken a different turn—here’s she a ninja warrior, now a Hollywood diva, now a sausage-fingered lesbian in a very ham-fisted salute to Kubrick’s 2001—she must also deal with alternate versions of her wheedling husband, snotty daughter, senile father, plus a kooky IRS auditor (Jamie Lee Curtis) intent on bringing her down. Despite its manic effects and high-brow sci-fi aspirations this is essentially a witless Kung-Fu comedy with a sappy Love Conquers All message drenched in syrup and pathos. Yeoh does her best to look confused as she staggers from one inane scenario to another (there’s a battle royale over a butt plug), Curtis is little more than an SNL caricature (think "Krazy Tax Lady!"), and the whole production looks like a 30-minute short that got padded out to 2+ hours. Tiresome, silly, and vaguely embarrassing. I guess this is what the Oscars have come to…

Maudie (Canada/Ireland 2016) (9): Sally Hawkins’ Oscar calibre performance is almost painful to watch in this biopic of celebrated Nova Scotia artist Maude Lewis (1903-1970) who, despite a learning disability and crippling childhood arthritis, gained worldwide notoriety for her folksy paintings of everyday maritime life. Although Maudie’s life was marked by personal tragedy and a volatile marriage that ran hot and cold (co-star Ethan Hawke alternates between hissy fits and moments of crude tenderness as her husband Everett) Hawkins brings out the woman’s essential childlike sense of wonder at the world around her, a wonder expressed in brightly coloured canvases of rural landscapes and the animals and people that inhabit them. The Newfoundland settings are a pastoral dream, even in the dead of a winter blizzard, and Michael Timmins’ score maintains an even keel without dipping into unnecessary poignancy. But it is Hawkins herself who dominates centre stage playing the diminutive visionary, her every move an agony of brittle joints and pain despite the bright eyes, wide grin, and mumbled witticisms with which she greeted each day. And, to underscore Maudie’s own erratic journey, the art and set design people showcase the gradual transformation of the cabin she shared with Everett from a primitive wood-burning shack to a cabin-sized mural of rainbow flowers and soaring bluebirds. Moving effortlessly between moments of simple joy and deep sadness this is one of those rare films capable of eliciting smiles and tears, often at the same time.

Escape From Alcatraz
(USA 1979) (7): Before it was decommissioned, San Francisco’s Alcatraz prison had a reputation for being “inescapable”. And then in the summer of 1962 four prisoners decided to challenge that assertion… Don Siegel’s jailbreak flick condenses months of ingenious plotting into a few hours and the results are technically competent especially with filming taking place in Alcatraz itself, now a tourist attraction. But aside from that there isn’t anything else of note in what is basically a formulaic plot replete with a tough-as-nails warden (Patrick McGoohan getting to be the boss instead of The Prisoner), deranged homosexual predator (cue shower room assault), and simmering racial tensions. Clint Eastwood gives his typical one-note performance while a supporting cast of character actors provide a bit of harmony.

Everest (UK 2015) (8): Baltasar Kormákur’s docudrama on an ill-fated 1996 Mount Everest expedition led by a New Zealand adventure company exceeds the usual “disaster movie” clichés thanks in large part to its stunning widescreen backdrops of bottomless crevasses, howling storms, and frozen peaks—taking advantage of previous documentary footage. Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Sam Worthington make the climb while Emily Watson, Kiera Knightley, and Robin Wright bite their nails and cinematographer Salvatore Totino continually dangles us over the abyss. A few intimate backstories add a touch of humanity—a staticky farewell is heart-rending, a Japanese woman’s ascent inspiring—but ultimately it’s Mother Nature who takes the final bow with scenes of blinding ice storms and blackened frostbite that make you alternately shiver and shudder.

L’argent [Money] (France 1983) (4): A pair of highschool students weave a tangled web when they decide to make a few bucks by passing on a counterfeit bill. Their single act of dishonesty will not only affect a handful of fellow Parisians leading to bankruptcy, madness, and murder (?!) but it will also lay bare the cold withered heart of capitalism itself as real bills are used to circumvent justice, win favour, and wreak vengeance. “Money is the Root of All Evil” is a tired old cliché and in this his swan song director Robert Bresson once again employs his tired old minimalist approach that still has critics touting him as some kind of genius. Halfhearted cameras plod alongside a cast of untalented amateurs who move like robots, parroting their lines with all the passion of a GPS giving directions to the nearest supermarket—here’s a fake tear self-consciously wiped off a blank face, here’s a facsimile of rage as stage blood sprays over cheap wallpaper, and here comes a smarmy observation on the wages of greed delivered with all the finesse of an axe to the head. Little more than a hasty sketch of a good film that could have been made but wasn’t, Bresson’s insistence that less is more intentionally bleeds the story of all emotional references leaving audiences to glean whatever meaning they can from a rather blasé puppet show.

The Color of Money
(USA 1986) (6): Aging pool shark Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) whose glory days are long over decides to take talented young rookie Vincent (Tom Cruise) under his wing and teach him a thing or two about playing to win. But the cocky young man has his own ideas of how to hustle the game and it isn’t long before a rift develops between master and pupil…a rift with unexpected consequences all around. Martin Scorsese mostly strikes out with this disappointing sequel to 1961’s vastly superior The Hustler even though Newman nabbed an Academy Award for revising his role from that earlier film. His portrayal of an over-the-hill pro—now suffering from poor eyesight and a mid-life crisis—grasping at one last chance for the spotlight (even if by proxy) is certainly convincing enough as he butts heads with an arrogant upstart who reminds him so much of his younger self. For his part, Cruise is an entertaining ball of energy, strutting around dingy pool halls crowing like a prize rooster and busting a few ninja moves in between wins. And balancing out the two is Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio who received an Oscar nomination playing Vincent’s hard-as-nails girlfriend, Carmen—her innate cynicism casting a sardonic eye on both men. But unless you’re terribly interested in billiards and don’t mind a threadbare plot with few twists and no surprises I’d stick with the original. The talents of B. B. King, Eric Clapton, Robert Palmer, Warren Zevon, and Don Henley do make for a cool soundtrack however.

Boy on a Dolphin
(USA 1957) (5): Notable only for its Cinemascope views of the Greek islands and the fact it was 23-year old Sophia Loren’s American film debut, this romantic thriller is otherwise a waterlogged washout. Impoverished sponge diver Phaedra (Loren) discovers a priceless statue lying on the seafloor and immediately finds herself torn between two men: an unscrupulous antiquities dealer (Clifton Webb) who promises to make her rich if she helps him smuggle the ancient artifact out of the country, and an American archaeologist (Alan Ladd) who believes it belongs to the people of Greece. And just to make thing more complicated, Phaedra finds herself falling for the American even as her Albanian boyfriend, an abusive and greedy cad, begins making plans for all that money… Loren owns the screen as a strongly independent woman who finds herself at the centre of an emotional and ethical storm—her defiant stance and acid repartee easily outshining her more famous co-stars. It’s just too bad that her widescreen personality cannot overcome a lacklustre script where the thrills lie dead in the water and the budding romance between her and the much older, much shorter Ladd spits and sputters without ever igniting. Reportedly the studio actually had her stand in a trench so as to make Ladd look taller. Indeed, finding all the ways they downplayed his short stature provides a pleasant diversion while slogging through this movie: he’s filmed on staircases, rocks, a pier (while others are in a boat), standing (while others are sitting), and in one instance he’s perched on an offscreen box—the scene cuts just as he begins to step off. Equating the removal of ancient artifacts from a sovereign nation with “cultural theft” might resonate with some contemporary audiences, and Phaedra’s argument that the “glory” of donating her find to the national archives won’t change her life by as much as a crust of bread carries some weight, but in the end aside from quaint travelogue footage shot both above and below the waterline there’s not a whole lot to see here.

Once Upon a Time in America
(Italy/USA 1984) (8): Director Sergio Leone takes the same sense of epic mythology he once applied to his westerns and applies it to America’s Jazz Age in this convoluted 4-hour saga that combines grittier elements from The Godfather with gauzy childhood memories reminiscent of Radio Days (only with sex, bloodshed, and F-bombs). Four childhood friends growing up in the Jewish quarter of New York City’s lower east side circa 1920s, “Noodles”, “Patsy”, “Max” and “Cockeye”, make a living through various petty crimes. But as they grow bigger so do their aspirations leading to betrayals, shifting allegiances, and eventual tragedy… Leone’s fluid timeline flows between the ‘20s where we see the boys weathering adversity and cementing what was supposed to be a lifelong friendship; through to the ‘30s where they are now established mobsters dallying in bootleg liquor, graft, and prostitution until a fatal decision upsets the apple cart; and finally the ‘60s where an aging Noodles (Robert De Niro), still hounded by that decision, returns to the neighbourhood in an effort to lay some old ghosts to rest. Despite its tangled plot lines and a few forays into pure melodrama (it’s interesting to see an American gangster film unfold through a European’s eyes) Leone imbues the entire production with a grandiose sense of time and place. Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli’s sepia-infused visions of bygone New York call to mind old daguerreotypes with teeming masses framed between massive brick buildings and Brooklyn Bridge looming in the distance like a modern Colossus. The Art, Costume, and Production Design teams likewise take us back in time to smoky speakeasies, elaborate opium dens, and interiors of burnished wood and stained glass where gentlemen and gangsters alike strutted in vests and ties while the women milled about like porcelain butterflies, all pearls and taffeta. And topping it all, the great Ennio Morricone provides the perfect score with plaintive strings and muted brass eliciting a sad nostalgia. A period piece with teeth however for Leone punctures the romanticism with flashes of brutal violence—brains are blown out, faces are punched to a bloody pulp, and a sexual assault is filmed from start to finish. James Woods co-stars as Max, Noodles’ unstable best friend and lifelong nemesis, while William Forsythe and Jame Hayden round out the foursome as Cockeye and Patsy respectively. Elizabeth McGovern has a key role as the unobtainable object of Noodles’ adoration (and obsession). Finally, the cast is rounded out by Treat Williams as a union leader based on Jimmy Hoffa, Danny Aiello as a crooked police chief, Tuesday Weld as Max’s disheartened moll, and Joe Pesci as (what else?) a Detroit mafioso. Rarely have I seen four hours slide by so fast.

Eagle vs Shark
(New Zealand 2007) (6): Lily works at “Meaty Burger” where she’s the butt of everyone’s jokes. Jarrod works at an electronics store and fabricates a life that is slightly more interesting than his real one. And both are dealing with emotional baggage related to no self-esteem, family dysfunction, and zero social skills. In writer/director Taika Waititi’s offbeat dramedy these two outcast dweebs will find in each other a shared mediocrity which may not transform them, exactly, but will at least give bleary-eyed credence to the old adage that there really is someone for everyone—even at the bottom of the social barrel. Leads Loren Taylor and Jemaine Clement create the dullest of romantic sparks with their deadpan faces and mechanical delivery (Napoleon Dynamite and Clerks were definite inspirations) and the cast of supporting oddballs ensure the humour remains dry as dust, from nasty coworkers and maladjusted computer geeks to family members that range from evil to simply inept. The laughs are primarily of the clueless variety—Jarrod throws a wild and crazy house party that is anything but; Lily lets loose with too much booze and make-up; Jarrod’s custom made candles are…umm…”different”—yet Waititi weighs it down somewhat with a side story illustrating why Jarrod is so keen on being someone he is not, a story which culminates in a schoolyard showdown with a former bully that is more pathetic than cathartic. But the film’s relentless monotone wears thin long before the end credits—like a punchline repeated too many times—and Waititi’s attempts to provide subtext through the use of billboards, murals, and t-shirt slogans (wild animals, seascapes, and couples figure heavily) starts off clever before shifting into overkill. Joel Tobeck co-stars as Lily’s loyal brother who fancies himself a first-class artist and impersonator (he’s neither), and Rachel House, playing Jarrod’s mean sister with a smile that can kill at twenty paces, packs the most chuckles into the smallest role.

Department Q: The Keeper of Lost Causes
(Denmark 2013) (5): While aboard a ferry with her mentally disabled brother, a prominent politician mysteriously vanishes. Her disappearance is eventually attributed to suicide by drowning and the case is closed. Five years later a Copenhagen detective and his partner reopen the investigation after they discover a couple of discrepancies in the official report—never suspecting that their inquiries will not only threaten their professional careers but their very lives as well. In this first instalment of the Department Q cold case series, based on the novels by Jussi Adler-Olsen, director Mikkel Nørgaard gives us a cliché-riddled policier that ticks all the expected boxes—disgraced policeman looking to redeem himself, mismatched partners (good cop/bad cop), upper brass that refuses to listen, trail of convenient clues—and a revealing climax that pushes the credibility envelope even if you’re willing to grant a bit of artistic license given that it’s a police thriller. In the lead roles Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Fares Fares work well together without generating much chemistry and Nørgaard keeps the pace going at a fair clip. But given the subject matter the tension is not exactly palpable and a distinct dearth of red herrings means we’re not trying to guess who’s involved as much as we’re simply waiting for an explanation. And that explanation hardly seemed worth 96 minutes.

Garden of Evil
(USA 1954) (4): “I guess if the Earth were made of gold, men would die for a handful of dirt” philosophizes one cowpoke in director Henry Hathaway’s corny Western, and despite the film’s sheer star power a handful of dirt is just about all we get. Three American fortune hunters stranded in Mexico—an oily card shark (Richard Widmark), a quarrelsome gunslinger (Cameron Mitchell), and the requisite “good guy” (Gary Cooper)—are hired by a wealthy woman (Susan Hayward) to rescue her husband who’s been trapped and injured inside a gold mine the two of them were excavating. But there’s a catch, the mine is located right in the middle of hostile Indian territory and there’s no guarantee they will live long enough to spend the bag of nuggets she’s given them. During the long trek inland each man will face various temptations as they learn to trust one another (or not) while the woman—a veritable Eve waving a golden apple under their noses—will slowly reveal her true self… Terrible acting all around with Cooper’s blank face and wooden delivery leading the pack while Widmark turns every line into a hiss, Mitchell yee-haws his way through, and Hayward pouts and glares with all the conviction of a cartoon siren. A fight scene is laughable as fists miss their targets by a foot (for some reason Mitchell’s character seems determined to land squarely in the campfire again and again) and of course there’s the usual bloodthirsty Hollywood injuns (Apaches with Mohawk haircuts??) whooping and hollering as they fall off horses and careen down cliffs. Some will succumb, some will be redeemed, and it’ll all come to a close beneath a gaudy Technicolor sunset while Bernard Herrmann’s orchestral score punches audiences in the face. Repeatedly. Look for a 23-year old Rita Moreno in a brief appearance playing a sultry cantina singer—arguably the movie’s best performance.

The Infiltrator
(USA 2016) (7): In the 1980s U.S. Customs agents launched one of their biggest stings in recent history. Setting their sights on Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar’s international network of money laundering the undercover operation resulted in the arrests of dozens of people from millionaire smugglers to bank presidents. Based on the memoirs of Customs officer Robert Mazur who risked his life posing as a high stakes investment entrepreneur eager to handle the cartel’s money, Brad Furman’s violent thriller hops between Florida and Europe as Mazur (Bryan Cranston) weathers sadistic thugs and suspicious kingpins, gaining their trust in order to amass the necessary incriminating evidence. Meanwhile his wife (Juliet Aubrey) weathers a few trials of her own when Mazur’s double-life begins to take its toll on their marriage—his alter-ego’s sham engagement to a young undercover rookie coming close to providing that proverbial last straw. Cranston’s craggy features and dyed hair (oh that 80s moustache) put him in perfect character and he’s joined by John Leguizamo as a skittish back-up, Joe Gilgun as a violent ex-con turned bodyguard, and the late Olympia Dukakis as Mazur’s larger-than-life aunt who’s down for a little undercover schmoozing herself. Running at just over two hours, Furman hardly wastes a single frame as he juxtaposes brief respites of humour with some graphic bloodletting—at one point I found myself holding my breath when Mazur’s bugged briefcase malfunctioned revealing its hidden tape recorder at a most inopportune moment. Despite the Law & Order theme however, the director still points a stiff finger or two at the American government’s own vested interest in drug money (a shadowy CIA figure makes a brief, somewhat baffling appearance) and when Mazur and his ersatz fiancee befriend one of Escobar’s top lieutenants and his wife (a suave Benjamin Bratt and Elena Anaya) the inevitable crackdown leaves both cops in an ethical quandary as upholding the law suddenly feels a lot like betraying a friend. An engaging trek through the dark side of those who fuel America’s cocaine habit made especially poignant for anyone old enough to remember the actual headlines.

[Stones] (Israel 2004) (5): Thirty-year old Michale’s time is divided between being a secretary at her father’s accounting firm, being a wife to her overworked husband, and being a mother to her little toddler. She’s also having an affair with a handsome young man—a physical arrangement involving cheap hotel rooms and hasty good-byes. But when her lover dies under tragic circumstances she suddenly finds herself very much alone with no shoulders to cry on and no way to express her grief without rousing suspicion. Her pent-up misery will eventually poison her relationships with everyone in her life as she begins to question the various roles she’s been forced into. Or something like that. Writer/director Raphaël Nadjari’s plodding verité style and bare bones narrative don’t really take a stand as much as suggest a host of interpretations. Is this a story of one woman coming undone…or rising above? As portrayed by Assi Levy, Michale is certainly not a sympathetic character—dour, selfish, and passive-aggressive—nor is she exactly an oppressed martyr. Could there be a social critique in the way her devout father cooks the books a bit so that a conservative religious group can receive more funding than they’re entitled to? There is certainly a focus on Jewish orthodoxy in the way its members bemoan the rise of secularism and see their role of teaching the Torah as a form of revitalization (never mind their questionable business dealings or the fact one of them gets away with something far worse). A feminist parable? Michaela rebels against male authority figures, refuses to cover her head when meeting a revered rabbi, and her only ally defends her at a cost. All are equally valid yet none are expressed with sufficient finesse to kick the story out of first gear. Granted, there may be facets to Nadjari’s no-burner which will resonate with Israeli audiences yet get lost in translation when viewed abroad. But as an outsider trying to look in I found the experience rather flat and listless.

(Hungary 1988) (10): Master filmmaker Béla Tarr creates yet another small masterpiece in B&W with this tragic tale of unrequited love between a downcast everyman and an ice cold nightclub singer. By day “Karrer” sits by his window facing a bleak and blasted landscape over which an endless procession of mining gondolas laden with coal make their rickety way toward the horizon. By night he listens to his favourite torch singer at the local watering hole, a married woman who has become the object of his romantic obsession despite her snarling animosity towards him and despite the dire warnings to avoid her which he receives from a weary coat-check woman who doubles as his guardian angel. Determined to win her over regardless, Karrer must first devise a plan to deal with her hulking brute of a husband—and then an opportunity presents itself… Tarr works with black and white celluloid the way a sculptor works with marble, using long static shots and slow pans to turn otherwise prosaic set pieces into tightly composed works of art suffused with meaning. And he shores up those austere visuals with ambient background noises that include mechanical clanking, wheezing accordions, a wailing infant, and assorted canine whimpers. Filmed towards the end of Hungary’s Communist rule, Tarr creates a world seemingly composed of concrete, mud, and drizzle, where dispirited dogs root among filthy puddles and locals huddle in a seedy dive (appropriately named “Titanic”) their still forms wreathed in cigarette smoke and despair, their eyes averted as if in mourning. Kafkaesque just begins to describe Tarr’s emphatically pessimistic tone, and it touches everything from a coital encounter devoid of human warmth to a sad parade of drunken dancers stumbling hand-in-hand to an out of tune band. Unlike the studied perplexity of Tarkovsky or Lynch however, Tarr’s work remains accessible even at its most enigmatic perhaps because it touches on that dark corner of the psyche we all share yet seldom acknowledge: the fear of being truly alone, the yearning for things to be something other than what they are, and the impotent fury that comes when dreams whither. Glacial and brooding, angry and despondent, with an ending that calls to mind the shrieks and ashes of Pasolini’s Teorema (in spirit if not in execution), Damnation’s icy touch is as decisive as last call and as irrevocable as a suicide note. Masterful.

The Canal
(Ireland 2014) (7): The Grudge. Ringu. Jacob’s Ladder. The Amityville Horror. Paranormal Activity. From demons lurking behind the wallpaper to cursed film stock, from evil homes to waterlogged spirits, there isn’t much writer/director Ivan Kavanagh doesn’t leave out in this panicky, cliché-riddled shocker. Yet, despite its many stumbles I still found myself enjoying the ride far more than I should have. Film archivist David (Rupert Evans) is shocked when he’s handed a scratchy old crime scene reel from 1902 detailing a brutal mass murder that occurred in the very townhouse he now occupies with his corporate wife Alice (Dutch beauty Hannah Hoekstra) and five-year old son Billy (unexpectedly seasoned performance from little Calum Heath). Upon further investigation David discovers the house actually has a very troubling past, one which now seems poised to threaten the present after he begins doubting his own sanity. Strange shadows drift across the room, whispers emanate from behind walls, and a borrowed camera records things that shouldn’t be there. But when he becomes the prime suspect in a bit of foul play, David convinces himself that he’s being targeted by a malevolent force… Jump cuts and strobe effects take centre stage as David’s close encounters with the supernatural begin to unravel his mind—a mucky public washroom provides a rendezvous with horror, a sewer line leads to Hell on Earth—while his sympathetic boss begins to question his innocence and a determined police detective closes in with a warrant. Kavanagh and cinematographer Piers McGrail go full throttle, taking audiences into increasingly narrow spaces as David’s feverish mind runs out of options—is he a victim or a madman? And the special effects department outdoes itself with grimy wraiths crawling out of mud puddles and staccato footage of mutilated bodies that leaps back and forth between grainy B&W and monochromatic shades of blood red. But just as things threaten to spin out of control Kavanagh reins it all in for a hysteria-laced climax followed by a chillingly downplayed coda as sad as it is creepy. This isn’t high art by any means, the pace is rushed and you could drive a hearse through some of its plot holes (why do supposedly smart people do such stupid things whenever they suspect there’s a ghost involved?). Taken as a genre piece however you can write off the missteps especially with such fine performances including Steve Oram as the dyspeptic detective, Antonia Campbell-Hughes as the boss with more than a professional interest, and Kelly Byrne as the live-in nanny who bears the brunt of David’s monomaniacal obsession.

(USA 2019) (6): If you’re looking for a definitive biopic on the early life of celebrated fantasy author J. R. R. Tolkien keep moving for director Dome Karukoski’s exercise in schmaltzy excesses has already been publicly denounced by both the late master’s family and Estate. If, however, you’re looking for a blatantly romanticized period piece rife with visual gimmickry and orchestral crescendos then you could do worse. Jumping back and forth in time Karukoski gives us three simultaneous films in one. The first features Tolkien as a promisingly bright orphan who sees dragons in the wallpaper and fills his notebook with scribbles of fantastical creatures. The second gives us a young Oxford man, member of a ragtag think tank, whose head is filled with fantasy realms (an embryonic “Middle Earth”) while his heart suffers through the pains and joys of first love. Finally we see a shell-shocked WWI officer slogging through the trenches on a personal quest while all around him displays of battle carnage give rise to glimpses of supernatural creatures lurking behind fog banks of poison gas—at one point a German flamethrower jarringly morphs into an angry Smaug. The visuals are nothing if not plush from glowing Art Nouveau interiors, all lace and polished wood, to hallucinatory visions of wraiths and giant lizards flitting above battlefields, and Thomas Newman’s score is appropriately grand. Yet the whole production rings hollow for its emotions only run skin deep and Tolkien’s supposed artistic inspirations (the horrors of war, the pastoral hills of rural England, the pageantry of Wagner) are made far too obvious. In the title role Nicholas Hoult is definitely sexy in an academic way and his emotional range is impressive as he goes from studious dreamer to heartbroken school kid. Meanwhile Lily Collins, playing his love interest and future wife Edith Bratt, emerges from her petticoats long enough to deliver a low-keyed feminist slap to Edwardian repression. Finally, Derek Jacobi, Colm Meaney, and Owen Teale bring up the rear as an avid language professor, an authoritarian priest, and a dour schoolmaster respectively. And it closes with a charming montage of mist and animation on a Hobbit theme—mind you, when the end credits prove to be one of the film’s highlights you know there’s a bit of a problem.

Samurai Spy
(Japan 1965) (6): 16th century Japan is a confusion of competing warlords whose networks of ruthless spies leave a trail of bloodshed and betrayal in their wake. One such spy, master samurai Sasuke, has become disillusioned with the dogs of war and yearns for a return to peace. But peaceful aspirations, unfortunately, are not enough to negate his sworn obligations nor keep personal tragedy at bay… Fifteen minutes into Masahiro Shinoda’s low-key epic and I gave up trying to follow the plot for his ongoing rapid-fire rundown of names, allegiances, and interconnections would confound all but the most meticulous of flow charts. Thankfully Shinoda’s eye for visual drama and cinematographer Masao Kosugi’s artistic flair provide enough of a distraction from the perplexing storyline that one can simply enjoy the presentation itself. Filmed in crisp B&W, interior shots are meticulous studies in geometry as silk screens, lacquer chests, and low slung tables divide everything into sharp symmetries (a curling orchid stem contrasts beautifully against a grid of bamboo slats). Counterbalance is achieved by asymmetrical landscapes where every hillside, every tree, and every rock seem both random yet highly formalized—dazzling moonlight and a bank or two of drifting smoke turning otherwise unremarkable combat scenes into surreal choreography. And for genre fans there’s more than enough leaping ninjas and flashing blades even if I found it all but impossible to follow who was killing whom and for what reason. Baffling to follow, lovely to watch, and a small treat for the ear as well with traditional Japanese percussion complimenting a bar or two of Western horns and strings.

Golden Earrings
(USA 1947) (6): On the eve of WWII a British Intelligence officer (Ray Milland) on a secret mission is caught behind enemy lines and must rely on a sultry gypsy woman (Marlene Dietrich) to not only help him complete his assignment but evade the Nazis long enough to escape back to England. But his gypsy disguise winds up having an unexpected effect as romance begins to bloom… There is a magical “Once upon a time” realism to director Mitchell Leisen’s movie with its enchanted forest, swastika-bedecked ogres, and cast of sylvan nomads spouting ridiculous accents in Bohemian drag. Milland and Dietrich, decked out in baubles and brown face, supply the necessary star power—her bewitching ways clashing with his British pragmatism—and even though their performances tend to be a bit studied they nevertheless generate a couple of onscreen sparks through sheer doggedness if nothing else. And they’re helped along the way by Ivan Triesault and Dennis Hoey as Gestapo heavies, Reinhold Schünzel as a conscious-stricken German scientist, and Murvyn Vye as a scowling Gypsy king whose band of musical vagabonds dance and sing and carouse like a ragtag host of full-sized munchkins. It’s pure Hollywood all the way of course, yet Leisen does manage to make a few vague yet chilling allusions to the Nazi pogrom that was to come as Third Reich officers look upon the gypsies with an increasingly hostile disregard.