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

~ ~ ~ ~

My Dream is Yours (USA 1949) (6): After his number one act quits on him, Los Angeles talent agent Doug Blake (Jack Carson) heads to New York City to find a replacement before his income dries up completely. And he finds it in the form of mousy music store clerk Martha Gibson (Doris Day), a soft-spoken widow with golden pipes. Once Blake convinces Martha to return with him to L.A. to seek her fortune the story pretty much writes itself. Doris sings one mediocre song after another as her character experiences the usual ups and downs in both her professional career and in her love life while generic shots of the two bustling cities hardly make up for a string of unexceptional sound stage sets—mainly nightclubs, recording studios, and one cramped apartment. And the copious musical interludes—featuring an all-female orchestra!—never rise above standard radio fare. But Doris sparkles, Carson plays his usual big lovable lug, and they’re joined by a who’s who of familiar character actors: Adolphe Menjou as an advertising exec looking for a new star, Eve Arden as Blake’s wisecracking foil, S.Z. Sakall as an easily flustered millionaire in need of a new star for his radio show, and an animated Bugs Bunny (voiced by Mel Blanc) who joins Carson and Day in a bizarre Easter-themed dream sequence. Lee Bowman also co-stars as an arrogant singing sensation who tweaks Doris’ heart. Easy to watch, easy to forget.

The Magnificent Seven
(USA 1960) (8): Director John Sturges pays Akira Kurosawa a sincere compliment by taking his masterpiece, Seven Samurai, out of feudal Japan and placing it in the rollicking Wild West frontier of the 1880s. And with a cast that includes Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Eli Wallach, and Robert Vaughn, it became an instant classic. The frightened citizens of a small Mexican farming community regularly beset by cutthroat bandits led by the lunatic Calvera (a silver-toothed Wallach in leering bandito drag) pool their meagre resources and hire seven outlaw gunslingers to defend their village. Over the ensuing weeks a synergistic relationship develops between the pacifist farmers and the gunmen with the former learning to stand up for themselves and the latter reappraising a nomadic lifestyle marked by violence and loneliness. But when Calvera and his men show up with rifles blazing both the expertise of the “magnificent seven” and the resolve of the peasants whom they’ve tried to train will be pushed to the limit… Beautiful widescreen pans of hills and brush are perfectly paired to Elmer Bernstein’s rousing Oscar-nominated score (later used in Marlboro cigarette ads), and an incisive script is bolstered rather than overshadowed by all the flying bullets and chest-clutching—although the bloodletting is neither graphic nor gratuitous Sturges’ take is still more brutal than Kurosawa’s thanks in no small part to Technicolor and the use of American firearms in place of Japanese swordplay. Everyone plays their roles with absolute conviction from Vaughan’s ruthless villain-turned-coward to McQueen’s boyish insolence, and newcomer Horst Buchholz, barely concealing his German accent, reprises Toshirô Mifune’s iconic role by toning down the comic buffoonery in favour of a naive bad boy wannabe which plays well against ringleader Brynner’s hardened cynicism. A ripping good Western and a sardonic allegory on the role of Hawks and Doves in society (can there really be no peace without conflict? is the line between peacenik and warmonger so rigid?) this is one of those instances where an American remake of a foreign staple actually does justice to both. Kurosawa, apparently, was deeply flattered.

The Maze Runner
(UK/USA 2014) (7): Teenaged Thomas wakes up to find himself in a forested compound populated by a tribe of adolescent boys who, like himself, have no memory of how they got there nor any idea of who they once were. Having formed a rustic community guided by a set of homespun rules, the young men have given up any hope of escape since their entire glade is surrounded by a huge concrete maze guarded by man-eating monsters that prey upon anyone unlucky enough to get lost in its twisting depths after dark. Thomas, however, believes that the maze, much like his erased identity, poses a mystery and he intends to solve it or die trying. But first he has to convince the others… Alternating between the Louisiana countryside and elaborate stage sets, director Wes Ball describes his adaptation of James Dashner’s dystopian sci-fi novels as Lord of the Flies meets Lost. I would also add “…by way of a Sony Playstation” to that description for its YA target audience will surely love the video game action as tween protagonists manoeuvre their way through crumbling passageways and up vine-choked barricades in search of elusive clues while the walls close in and mechanical horrors give bellowing pursuit—all rendered in glorious clinking, clanging CGI. There is definitely an awe-inspiring component to those towering cement barriers which suggests hidden high-tech interventions, and the action sequences come fast and wild with just enough squishy guts and splattered blood to maintain a marketable PG-13 rating. Regrettably, after all that kick-ass action the story’s resolution arrives in a string of WTF? revelations accompanied by the usual set-up for a sequel (there are actually two sequels). Great casting though, Ball’s young actors possess a synergy that works very well on the big screen with kudos to Dylan O’Brien whose portrayal of Thomas is not undermined by his MTV good looks, Aml Ameen as the boys’ de facto leader, Thomas Brodie-Sangster as his open-minded second in command, Will Poulter as a freckled antagonist, and Blake Cooper whose naïve innocence provides tragic contrast to the film’s undercurrent of violence and subterfuge. Patricia Clarkson co-stars as an adult behaving badly. A very worthy post-apocalyptic cliffhanger providing of course you can accept its highly improbable premise.

Little Vampire
(France 2020) (8): It’s nice to be reminded that there is more to animation than the latest Pixar production and this bright crayon-coloured treat from France is a perfect example. A 10-year old vampire, bored with immortality, befriends an orphaned mortal boy his own age much to the consternation of his undead mother and his stepfather, a former pirate turned skeletal “Captain of the Dead”. But there is danger afoot in the form of “Gibbous”, a moon-faced vampire-killing demon who bears a personal grudge against mother and child and will go to any lengths to get his claws on them. Meticulously rendered old-fashioned animation takes the action from a haunted mansion populated by all manner of bumbling ghouls to a pair of ghostly galleons battling it out in the moonlit skies above southern France, yet writer/director Joann Sfar doesn’t forget to pay homage to her sources of inspiration with spooky B-movie posters adorning the little vampire’s bedroom (coffin room?) and the mansion’s ramshackle home theatre boasting an exhaustive inventory of B&W horror classics. But it’s the menagerie of wraiths, monsters, and other supernatural oddities that provide the most pleasure as little vampire’s unearthly playmates come crawling, floating, flapping, and oozing their way out of churchyards and belfries. A scarlet bulldog phantom can’t keep his cynical mouth shut, a botched Frankenstein always seems to put his foot in it, and a host of skeletons keep losing their heads…and arms…and legs… Meanwhile the not-quite-so-terrifying Gibbous has problems of his own as he tries to commandeer a horde of little squeaky firefly minions who always seem to be underfoot—literally. The “Inclusivity and Acceptance” message may ring a little too loudly at times—yes, yes, humans and monsters should celebrate their diversity, we get it already—but it is rendered palatable by the film’s sheer exuberance and irresistible cartoon silliness. Kids will enjoy the constant stimulation while adults will be reminded of those long ago Saturday mornings in front of the television set.

[Closeness] (Russia 2017) (9): The kidnapping of a young couple sets in motion a chain of events which will threaten to tear the missing man’s impoverished family apart and expose the small hypocrisies which run rife through their supposedly tight-knit Jewish community. Attempts to raise the ransom money are met with resistance, crooked propositions, and outright hostility, while their remaining daughter, Ilana, (brilliant performance by Sigourney Weaver lookalike Darya Zhovner), begins to crack under the pressure for not only has she had to live in her brother’s shadow all her life but she is now being coerced into playing a pivotal role to obtain his release. And the fact she has been seeing a local Moslem man has already fractured her relationship with mom and dad… Shot in the grubby industrial town of Nalchik, director Kantemir Balagov’s searing family drama pits generation against generation, tradition against reality, and perceived duty against personal freedom, while tribal resentments bubble away in the background—the kidnappers being members of a much maligned Islamic community of which Ilana’s boyfriend is a member. Balagov chose a 4:3 aspect ratio which accentuates the feeling of being hemmed in, both physically and psychologically, while his roaming lens lingers on peeling plaster and mud puddles—at one point it peers down a cramped corridor where we can just make out a couple involved in a desperately sad sexual encounter. Light and colour also figure prominently with Ilana’s contemporary threads (her jean jacket adorned with a roaring lion logo) contrasting with mom’s dour frocks, and the use of filters which bathe a car’s interior in pallid hues of yellow or turn an impromptu house party into a highly personal circle of Hell. But it is Zhovner who keeps our eyes glued to the screen. Her portrayal of an angry young woman torn between familial obligations and a desire to establish her own life is both fierce and upsetting as she pulls herself up only to be knocked down again, occasionally seeking some small respite in drugs and alcohol. A complex, aggressive film which does not shy away from controversy but which may have crossed a line when Balagov inserted footage from an actual snuff film—grainy scenes of executions which come across as unnecessary to the story and pose a troubling ethical dilemma when one considers these were not paid actors. It’s a stinging misstep in an otherwise powerful film that gripped me from beginning to end.

A Married Woman
[Une femme mariée] (France 1964) (6): Composed of interlocking vignettes, some lasting only a dozen seconds or so, this is not the best example of Jean-Luc Godard’s directorial skills. But despite its flat presentation and abrupt editing, his disdain for France’s emerging consumer culture and the way it objectifies women comes through loud and clear—perhaps a bit too loud. Unhappily married Charlotte (a strikingly delicate Macha Méril) is at a crossroads in her life: does she remain with her husband Pierre (a tightly wound Philippe Leroy) or leave him for her newfound lover Robert (Bernard Noël looking like a cross between Cary Grant and Rock Hudson)? Either decision will come at a cost for the possessive Pierre, a commercial pilot, treats her like an errant child to be owned and disciplined—even resorting to private detectives and sexual violence to keep her in line. On the other hand Robert, an actor, treats her like a sex kitten and source of pleasure. Indeed, the first several minutes of the film are nothing but images of him running his hands over her naked body while the camera deconstructs that body into its basic components: shoulders, belly, legs, neck, hands, and finally face. As for Charlotte, she comes across as vain, vacuous, and only able to interact on a superficial level, hardly surprising when one learns that her worldview is mostly gleaned from glossy Cosmo-style magazine articles (“How Perfect is your Bust?”) and seemingly endless ads for women’s underwear which assail her from newspapers and billboards. Even her inner dialogue is underscored by flashes of lurid tabloid headlines and she’s barely moved by radio reports of death and destruction—when the subject of Auschwitz comes up (her husband having visited the site on a recent flyover) she initially draws a blank. Of course, being a nouvelle vague French film there is a whole lot of navel-gazing and visual non-sequiturs going on, but in this case the circuitous dialogue and bland day-to-day diversions are precisely the point Godard is trying to make, even going so far as to implicate the artifice of cinema itself in the process. Not for every taste, I admit I found it a bit of an endurance test at times, but for those interested in the evolution of 60s arthouse cinema this is an important (though hardly essential) piece.

Heart of a Dog
(USA 2015) (7): Avant-garde performance artiste Laurie Anderson takes two life-changing events—the death of her mother and the death of her beloved terrier “Lolabelle”—and uses them as springboards to ruminate on everything from 9/11 and the nature of memory to Buddhism and the philosophies of Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard. Not entirely autobiographical for she mixes fancy with facts, and too structured to be a “stream of consciousness” thought experiment, her random observations and anecdotes eventually snowball into a cohesive, occasionally fascinating, meditation on the nature of life and living or as she puts it, “…to live in the gap between the moment which is expiring and the one which is arising.” Shot using nothing but her iPhone and similar small devices the visuals do waver between crystal clear portraitures and foggy, unfocused impressions (not always to good effect) but it’s Anderson’s gentle, unhurried voice which ultimately captivates as her ongoing narrative sometimes connects the dots, sometimes leaves them dangling enticingly. Alternately deeply subjective—her experiences with both mom and dog are sure to elicit a few tears—and objectively detached as she skirts American politics, Heart of a Dog is like reading a personal letter from a distant friend and wondering where the time went. “The purpose of death…” suggests Anderson’s whispering voice at one point, “…is the release of love”. And if this small opus is her response to death then we are all a little better off for it.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye
(USA 1950) (8): Crooked cops, desperate dames, double-crossing thugs…graft…corruption…and murder! Director Gordon Douglas checks all the boxes in this especially sordid Film Noir and he finds the perfect muse in James Cagney who gives the genre one of its most repulsive sociopaths. Seven people are standing trial on charges of homicide or conspiracy to commit homicide and the only thing they have in common is the unfortunate fact they became involved with escaped convict and master criminal Ralph Cotter (Cagney), a vicious, sadistic manipulator who’d stop at nothing to get whatever he wanted. Seducing the grieving sister of a fellow convict who was killed during his jailbreak, Cotter resumed his nefarious activities—using bribery, blackmail, and bullets to impose his will—until complications entered his life in the form of a seductive heiress with an overly protective father. Originally banned in the state of Ohio for its cold-blooded brutality, Douglas’ old school gangster film hinges on Cagney’s bravura performance as the deceptively suave Cotter, a poisonous viper in designer threads who’d smile to your face even as he stabbed you in the back. The rest of the cast is rounded out by blonde Barbara Payton and brunette Helena Carter as the women in his life, a barrel-chested Ward Bond as a swindling police inspector, and Luther Adler playing an unscrupulous lawyer who comes with a hefty price tag. Told in flashbacks as witnesses give their testimony this is a tightly woven, occasionally erotic, and often shocking (for the time) drama only somewhat undone by an abrupt ending that leaves no room for resolutions or farewells. An overlooked classic.

The Living End
(USA 1992) (6): Still in shock from his recent HIV+ diagnosis, twenty-something journalist Jon (Craig Gilmore) falls in with hard-drinking sociopathic hustler Luke (Mike Dytri), also positive, and the two embark on a nihilistic road trip across the midwest marked by rough sex, violence, and the pessimism that comes from realizing that once you’ve lost everything you have nothing left to lose. Writer/director Gregg Araki’s micro-budget indie film may not resonate with younger audiences who never had to live through the worst of the AIDS pandemic when gay men were dropping like flies while governments did nothing (I lost my first partner to HIV the same year this film was released) but the zeitgeist of those who were affected comes through loud and in your face. The sense of helplessness and rage—often expressed in self-destructive ways—is very much apparent as intimate hugs and pillow talk between the two men are juxtaposed with moments of shocking abuse and cruel retorts, and all the while Luke’s drinking increases and Jon develops a troubling cough. Filmed guerrilla-style with grainy primary colours and transgressive performances, the crude acting and cliché-riddled script combined with a chaotic editing style can be off-putting at times until one remembers this is an angry, confrontational polemic from a specific time and place when such a response was more than warranted. At one point Luke flippantly considers going to D.C. and blowing president Bush’s brains out, then decides it would be better to simply inject him with a syringe of their infected blood stating, “How much do you want to bet they’d have a magic cure by tomorrow?”. Yet, despite its overt political message Araki manages to remind us that this is still a work of cinema for Jon is, among other things, a film critic hence posters celebrating Godard and Warhol adorn his apartment walls while other artwork regularly pops up in the background to augment the ongoing drama—check out the billboards and the Barbie cereal box. And that crushingly beautiful closing shot gives the knife one last, painful twist. Finally, it’s all tied together by a killer soundtrack of acid rock and doleful indie soloists which turn Jon’s tape deck into a scratchy Greek chorus. Darcy Marta co-stars as Jon’s fag hag BFF who also suffers from his diagnosis, albeit vicariously.

(Spain 1996) (5): Even though she personally abhors violence of any kind, grad student Ángela (a perpetually breathless Ana Torrent) chooses to write her thesis on the prevalence of violent images in film and television. But when, in the course of her research, she comes across a bona fide “snuff” video in which a woman is actually beaten, tortured, and murdered on camera she is unprepared for the psychological impact the film’s sadistic cruelty will have on her. And then she discovers that the victim was actually a former student who disappeared two years ago… Writer/director Alejandro Amenábar’s big sloppy mess of a thriller follows Ángela as she enlists the aid of a geeky horror aficionado (an exhaustingly manic Fele Martínez) and a suave stalker (a creepy/cute Eduardo Noriega) in an attempt to discover how the dead woman met her fate and the answers she uncovers will prove more horrible than any tape. Sounds great in theory but the actual execution relies on too many far-fetched coincidences and narrow escapes while a surprisingly small cast of suspects are forced to take turns being the red herring although the big unmasking should come as no surprise to Scooby Doo fans. But as if stagey attempts at suspense and mystery are not enough—yes there are endless chase segments and a requisite nightmare sequence (whew! it was only a dream!)—Amenábar then attempts to elevate the tiresome production into a rumination on society’s preoccupation with brutality-as-entertainment with a closing montage that tries to implicate all of us on both sides of the camera. Sorry Alejandro, but Michael Haneke already led several forays into that subject and he said it better and louder.

Lloyds of London
(USA 1936) (7): In 18th century England two boys from opposite sides of the tracks—the penniless Jonathan and well-to-do Horatio—become fast friends before circumstances see them take two very different roads. Jonathan travels to London where he finds success working for the fledgling Lloyds of London insurance conglomeration, becoming something of a cynic in the process. Horatio on the other hand becomes a celebrated admiral in the British navy as it faces off against the forces of Napoleon. But even though separated by time and distance, the friendship they once shared will unexpectedly resurface to play a pivotal role not only in their personal lives but in the future of England itself. Only marginally inspired by actual historical facts, director Henry King’s mostly fabricated epic of fates and fortunes certainly doesn’t lack in grandeur, it actually garnered a well-deserved Oscar nomination for it’s lavish sets which go from humble taverns to ravaged warships to palatial estates—a comedic stint in a richly appointed casino giving us a fine example of “Hollywood Baroque”. A 22-year old Tyrone Power got his big break as the adult Jonathan whose prickly love affair with a very married Lady Elizabeth (a bejewelled Madeline Carroll) has him running hot and cold throughout while Guy Standing gives the film ethical ballast as his aging business mentor, Virginia Field tugs the heartstrings as the barmaid who secretly yearns for him, and an oily George Sanders provides moral counterpoint as Elizabeth’s opportunistic cad of a husband. Even a 12-year old Freddie Bartholomew, who proved so irritating in Captains Courageous, gives a fine performance as young Jonathan although he’s partially eclipsed by American-born Douglas Scott playing young Horatio as a proper little English lord with a streak of recklessness. A tall tale well told with distinguished B&W cinematography to shore up the narrative and closets full of regal costumes to please the eye.

(Australia/USA 2018) (6): American entrepreneur William Winchester amassed a fortune thanks to his invention of the Winchester repeating rifle, the most lethal firearm of its day. When he died in 1881 his widow Sarah (1839 - 1922) moved to San Jose, California where she spent decades building and rebuilding an elaborate house filled with winding corridors, stairways leading nowhere, and secret rooms. Rumour has it she was convinced that all the souls who died as a result of her husband’s guns were coming after her and the only way she could protect herself was to turn her home into a baffling maze. Using this bit of Americana as a starting point, writer/directors Michael and Peter Spierig construct a wholly fictitious and rather mundane haunted house story in which psychiatrist Eric Price (a dapper Jason Clarke) is hired by the Winchester corporation to assess whether or not Mrs. Winchester (Helen Mirren, slumming it to pay the bills?) is sane enough to continue heading her late husband’s company. Plagued by his own personal ghosts, and nursing an opium addiction to boot, Price is at first put off by Sarah’s fanciful delusions—but as things start going bump in the night and ghastly visitations begin leaping from around corners and out of mirrors, his own grip on reality steadily loosens. The standard jump scares and spooky CGI effects ensue as doctor and patient find themselves at the mercy of the spirit world, and they’re joined by Sarah Snook as Winchester’s terrified niece and Scicluna-O’Prey as the old woman’s supernaturally sensitive grand-nephew. As a biopic it’s a waste of good film stock, but taken as a straight-up chiller it has it’s moments with the directors wringing as much atmosphere as they can from those cramped, gloomy Victorian set pieces before treating us to an earthshaking climax. Not quite good enough to fuel the debate on gun control however, although I’m sure the NRA would not be amused. Ultimately a so-so popcorn flick for late night insomniacs with low expectations.

The Pledge
(USA 2001) (5): With a cast that includes Jack Nicholson, Benicio Del Toro, Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, and Patricia Clarkson, it’s hard to believe that director Sean Penn actually fumbles the ball in this adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s novel. On the eve of his retirement police detective Jerry Black (Nicholson) becomes involved in the investigation of a brutally murdered child—an involvement which becomes an all-consuming obsession when he makes a solemn vow to the dead girl’s parents that he will find their daughter’s killer. Exactly why he suddenly develops this idée fixe is never satisfactorily explored, a fact which weakens the ensuing drama even further. Anyway, even after the police believe they’ve apprehended the suspect Black sets off on his own armed with the flimsiest of evidence yet thoroughly convinced the murderer is still out there ready to strike again. And so begins a journey—part policier, part psychodrama, part character study—that will lead Black closer to the truth even as it takes its toll on his own sanity. With the interior of British Columbia an unconvincing stand-in for Nevada, this is a moody atmospheric piece which attempts to smooth over its credibility stretches with postcard vistas of misty lakes, slow-motion birds in flight, and idiosyncratic characters, all set to tinkling piano keys and droning strings. The mystery does deepen however, but only until you realize this is not a standard thriller but rather a Greek Tragedy that focuses on our would-be hero as he’s slowly undermined by his own flaws, in this case a fixation on fulfilling the pledge he made no matter what the cost. And that cost finally arrives in the form of an ironic flip-flop whose grandiose sense of tragedy aims for mythical proportions but settles for a faintly ridiculous Deus ex Machina gimmick instead. Arty to the point of distraction, Penn ultimately spends too much time building up to an anti-climax which is hardly worth the preceding two hours. Robin Wright co-stars as a single mother and love interest unwillingly caught up, along with her child, in Black’s personal mania.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard
(USA 2017) (7): Thanks to a series of deadly twists, a once famous and now disgraced bodyguard (Ryan Reynolds) finds himself having to protect the life of a notorious international assassin (Samuel L. Jackson) as he’s transported from a British prison to The Hague where he is set to testify against a tyrannical Eastern European dictator (Gary Oldman). Only two things stand in their way however: they are sworn enemies who loathe one another, and the deposed despot will do anything to see that neither one of them makes it to Holland alive. Reynolds and Jackson are the perfect odd couple in Patrick Hughes’ explosive road comedy, the former’s uptight guardian playing foil to the other’s sarcastic hellion while Oldman seethes and hisses in a flawless Russian accent—his agents clambering after their quarry with just about every handheld weapon known to man. Of course it’s all testosterone and horseshit as dozens of vehicles go boom, millions of bullets streak across the screen, and a small mountain of bloodied corpses steadily piles up, but Hughes brings such a ballsy panache to the production that its glaring credibility stretches still leave you smiling and cheering his two antiheroes on. Even Salma Hayek’s listless performance as Jackson’s foul-mouthed wife (her colourful profanities recited with all the passion of a grocery list) fails to slow down the action. One of the more enjoyable “Summer Blockbuster” no-brainers in which substance is gleefully replaced by things blowing up and moral relativism (who is the worse human being, the amoral bodyguard or the “ethical” hitman?) is reduced to a string of bitchy stand-offs. Just add popcorn.

A Beautiful Curse
(Denmark 2021) (6): What are those intangible cues, those abstract qualities that tell us this particular person may be “the one”? And are these cues wholly based in reality or are they based, at least in part, on our own desire to see what we want to see? In his flawed yet nevertheless impressive debut feature writer/director Martin Garde Abildgaard attempts to address these questions by turning the tale of Sleeping Beauty into a peculiarly one-sided love story. A small island community has fallen victim to a mysterious plague which causes people to fall asleep wherever they happen to be. Without suffering any ill effects from their dormancy, the residents doze peacefully in restaurants, city buses, and private homes completely oblivious to the world around them and unable to be roused. Enterprising young photojournalist Samuel (Mark Strepan) sneaks past official barricades in order to take pictures of the unconscious populace and in so doing comes across the slumbering body of Stella (Olivia Vinall) and is immediately smitten. Now taking up residence in her cottage, Samuel begins forming a mental image of what Stella is all about based on her journals, a couple of audio tapes, and his own imagination—a series of fanciful conjectures which gradually take on a life of their own. Long slow takes and a drowsy musical score may prove tedious for impatient viewers but Abildgaard makes the most of his clearly limited budget with touches of magical realism (sunlight casts rainbows across a sleeping face, a goldfish forms a connection) and an astute script that sidesteps what could have degenerated into a string of sun-kissed Hallmark moments. And of course it’s the little details that always make me smile such as the artwork on Stella’s walls which speaks of barriers whether it be a painting of sunglasses or a photo of a woman staring from behind a window pane. Lastly, his handsome leads are a good match as sparks—real? imagined?—fly between them leaving us to wonder that when it comes to matters of the heart just how wide awake are any of us?

Cook Up a Storm
(Hong Kong 2017) (6): Ever since his father, a master chef, abandoned him when he was only ten years old “Sky” has been obsessed with becoming a culinary artist himself. Now the proprietor of a modest yet popular little eatery nestled in a Hong Kong suburb, Sky’s reputation comes under attack when a new restaurant opens across the street run by Paul, a Michelin-starred chef trained in France. Sky’s classical Cantonese cooking and Paul’s Western-influenced cuisine make for an intense rivalry which comes to a head when both enter an international culinary competition. However, unbeknownst to each other both men are dealing with personal issues that may torpedo their chances at ever becoming the next “God of Cookery”… Director Wai-Man Yip’s sentimental dramedy with a gourmet twist is a film I definitely shouldn’t have liked as much as I did—the heart-tugging is a bit too forced with slo-mo B&W flashbacks and a tinkling soap opera score, the cartoonish humour barely survives translation, and the plot pretty much writes itself. Add to that some horrid subtitling that strobes across the screen way too fast and you are left with a movie fraught with potholes (at least on this side of the Pacific). But there is a fairytale charm to the bright neon sets and equally colourful characters—that high-tech cooking competition studio is a riot of flash and bang—and stars Nicholas Tse (Sky) and Yong-hwa Jung (Paul) bring a fresh-faced fierceness to the dinner table that makes you want to stick around for dessert. Lastly, those mouthwatering kitchen scenes, filmed with all the brio of a music video, should have come with a warning, “Do Not Watch on an Empty Stomach!”. It’s definitely cinematic fairy dust, albeit fairy dust elevated to a large extent by an eager young cast and tightly choreographed camerawork that cashes in on all the vivid colours and aproned flourishes. Think of it as Iron Chef on estrogen.

(USA 2014) (9): Tobi Powell, an elderly ballet professor at New York’s prestigious Juilliard school, is delighted when he’s approached by Lisa Davis, a young woman wishing to interview him for an upcoming dissertation on the history of dance in America. With her rather tight-lipped husband Mike serving as sound technician, Lisa’s initial questions have Tobi reminiscing with great zeal on his illustrious career which began in New York in the carefree ‘60s and eventually took him all over the globe. But as the interview expands—stoked in part by shots of bourbon and a few tokes of hash—the questions grow increasingly pointed causing Tobi to realize that the couple he’s invited into his apartment have a very different reason for being there. Writer/director Stephen Belber adapts his three-handed Broadway play for the big screen to give us a harrowing drama of dark secrets, agonizing choices, and the devastation they often leave in their wake. Patrick Stewart is nothing short of mesmerizing as the flamboyant Tobi, a man whose scandalous candour and colourful flourishes are slowly peeled away to reveal a lifetime’s accumulation of triumphs, regrets, and above all, forbearance. In the role of Mike, Matthew Lillard proves to be a complex struggle of vulnerability and toxic machismo, his sparring with Stewart threatening to bring the house down on more than one occasion. And rounding out the cast Carla Gugino’s Lisa provides a bridge of sorts, her empathy battered from both sides as she grapples with her own personal issues. But first and foremost this is a movie about men. Belber’s razored script cuts to the core of the male psyche: how men register trauma, how they deal with trauma (or not), and the toll that trauma eventually takes on them and those closest to them. A long dark night of revelations and retributions that opens with a sunlit brunch and ends with a morning taxi that pulls away like the closing of a chapter. Pure cinema.

What Did the Lady Forget?
(Japan 1937) (7): An early comedy from director Yasujirô Ozu which yet again examines his country’s emerging generation gap fuelled, at least in part, by the influence of American culture. The home of henpecked professor Komiya and his dour, controlling wife Tokiko is thrown into mild turmoil with the arrival of their headstrong and thoroughly westernized niece Setsuko. Already smoking and drinking despite being barely out of her teens, Setsuko’s assertive manner and taste for immodest skirts and high heels heralds the approach of a new liberalism which puts her in direct conflict with her bespectacled and unshakeably traditional aunt. But when niece and uncle try to bypass Tokiko’s iron-fisted authority to enjoy a night on the town (reluctantly aided and abetted by one of Komiya’s hapless students) a heated comeuppance is pretty well inevitable… As close as you’re likely to get to a Hollywood “screwball comedy” in 1930s Japan, Ozu’s cast is in top form while his understated comedic elements are keenly observed, relying more on timing and body language than outright yucks. And there’s much humour to be gleaned from gossipy housewives, browbeaten spouses, and precocious kids (a study session for upcoming exams turns into an impromptu singalong complete with spinning globe), yet Ozu is also a master of subtlety as those same housewives drool over Fredric March and flip through glossy American-style magazines. It may not reach the emotional depths of his later works, but for a lighthearted exploration of changing mores and shifting sex roles it serves quite well as an amusing—and occasionally baffling—time capsule.

Diamonds of the Night
(Czech 1964) (8): While being transported to a Concentration Camp two Czech teenagers manage to jump off the train and disappear into the German countryside. Already weakened from lack of food and now lost in the middle of a deep dark forest, their headlong flight will take on surreal dimensions when signs and visitations begin to emerge from the shadows: a blank-faced farmer’s wife causes psychological turmoil when she offers them a crust of bread; a colony of ravenous ants dog their every move; and fitful memories of happier times haunt their dreams. But their small taste of freedom is tenuous at best for not far behind them a heavily armed ad hoc posse of arthritic old pensioners has gathered to give chase like a relentless pack of toothless bloodhounds. With a running time of only 67 minutes Jan Nemec’s WWII fable (apparently based on a true story) turns a cross country chase into an existential nightmare as his young protagonists flee in every direction only to find themselves back at the beginning. Using silent flashbacks, repetitive sequences, and dreamlike tangents which may or may not be literal, Nemec challenges both his characters and his audience to separate fact from fancy—and a maddeningly cryptic final segment approaches metaphysical territory suggesting, as it does, that perhaps “escape” was the wrong word to use. Shot in bleak B&W, Diamonds of the Night boasts one of Czech cinema’s more famous sequences: a frantic, unbroken tracking shot over hills and through bushes as the young men scrabble through the dirt and bullets whine past their heads.

(USA 1967) (9): Director Martin Ritt and his writing team take a tired old Wild West trope—passengers on a stagecoach besieged by bandits—and turns it into a nail-biter which casts a bitter eye on greed, racism, and class privilege. John Russel, a white man raised by Apache (Paul Newman), is used to being regarded as inferior by his more civilized counterparts. But when a gang of outlaws hold up the coach he’s riding on leaving him and his fellow travellers stranded in the wilds without food, water, or transportation, his survival skills and preternatural patience will offer them their only chance of survival. The gunslingers, however, are not quite done with them… Using just a handful of characters Ritt’s rock solid script and A-One cast provides a microcosm of 19th century America as the passengers, forced to interact with each other and the unforgiving environment, begin to reveal their true natures. Frederic March and Barbara Rush are phenomenal as a wealthy couple just realizing that money and class are not always enough to turn the tide in their favour; Cameron Mitchell plays a lawman unable to cope with the physical and social desolation of the American frontier; Peter Lazer and Margaret Blye are a pair of newlyweds already experiencing strife—she longs for the pleasures he’s unable to provide; and Richard Boone bares his teeth as an intensely unpleasant outlaw who encapsulates all that is dark and corrupt. But it is Newman and Diane Cilento (playing a ballsy frontier woman) who anchor the film with their verbal sparring: his stoic Native fatalism butting heads with her occasionally misplaced sense of propriety leading to sparks that are not entirely antagonistic. With his protagonist already straddling two worlds Ritt’s drama, based on Elmore Leonard’s novel, uses a clash of cultures to guide the story in unexpected ways giving us a Western that transcends that genre’s usual limitations in the process. Martin Balsam co-stars as the owner of a Mexican cantina whose own unpolished sense of ethics provides yet another valuable counterpoint.