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


~ ~ ~ ~


Hail, Caesar! (USA 2016) (7): Set in 1950s Los Angeles, Joel and Ethan Coen’s ripping satire on Hollywood unfolds in a series of overlapping vignettes that are not as clever as you’d expect but they do hit enough notes to be amusing throughout. As head of “physical production” for Capitol Pictures, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is basically a fixer—ensuring that schedules run on time; stars maintain their squeaky clean reputations (by force if necessary); and the insatiable press only publish the dirt he dishes them. But things start to get out of hand when the studio’s main box office draw, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is kidnapped while shooting a big-budget biblical epic entitled Hail Caesar! leaving the film’s director tearing his hair out and Capitol Pictures in a dire financial lurch. And that is only one of many fires Mannix is trying stamp out while simultaneously working through a few life decisions of his own with the help of his Catholic confessor… The technicolor period touches are nicely done and even though the film’s humour generally bypasses subtlety for the broader yucks, they are on point more often than not—a panel of religious leaders arguing over Hail Caesar’s! script begin to sound like one of those “a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar…” jokes; a drawling cowpoke (Alden Ehrenreich) tries to transition from rootin’, tootin’ westerns to sophisticated comedies much to the chagrin of his prissy director (Ralph Fiennes); and a cabal of truculent Hollywood communists arguing the finer points of Karl Marx over tea and finger sandwiches leads to a scene of camp agitprop so overdone it should have been a sequel unto itself. And throughout it all we catch snippets of current productions from a crucified extra ordering lunch to a glitzy underwater ballet. Fine performances all around especially Clooney who goes from smug celebrity to whinging bitch in under a second when faced with Brolin’s wrath, with additional support coming from Tilda Swinton playing twin gossip columnists sniffing in the wrong places and Scarlett Johansson who, as a crusty imitation of Esther Williams, is having trouble fitting into her mermaid costume thanks to a one-night stand. Frances McDormand flexes her comedy chops as a doddering film editor and Channing Tatum proves to be the biggest revelation of all with song and dance moves proving he’s more than just a hunky bod. As a side note, although Brolin’s character comes across as a congenial though heavy-handed dorm mother it is in fact based on real life studio “fixer” E. J. Mannix (d. 1963) whose list of whispered accusations included violent misogynist, murderer, and mob lieutenant. Only in Hollywood!

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors
(USSR 1965) (5): Notable for the fact it was one of the first Ukrainian language films to fly under the radar of Soviet censorship, Sergei Parajanov’s Carpathian fairytale has garnered awards and rave reviews wherever it has played. Puzzling, since all I saw was a slapdash arthouse mess of sloppy editing, tinny sound, and lifeless performances. Set in a remote 19th century mountain village, the story follows the tragic life of a handsome young peasant named Ivan whose sad adventure begins when his father is killed in a brawl. Desperate for love, the grown Ivan is given two chances at happiness only to have them snatched away—once by nature (God?) and once by the Devil. Using this bare bones narrative, Parajanov fleshes out his movie with so much local pageantry that the already thin plot gets waylaid in favour of a prolonged dance sequence or yet another poorly focused pan of colourful peasants trudging through snow-choked forests. Interesting in that it delves into the culture of the Ukraine’s ethnic Hutsul people—the elaborate woollen costumes are authentic; both a marriage and a funeral ceremony are shown in detail; and a soundtrack of clanging bells, whistling flutes, and Orthodox choirs seems almost organic—but the primitive production standards and apparent lack of qualified film editors make it look as if it was shot on the fly and then later dubbed in an echo chamber. Spinning cameras evoke more nausea than interest and a cacophony of mumbling voiceovers—an attempt at a Greek Chorus perhaps?—makes it sound as if you’re watching two different movies simultaneously. A confusing hodgepodge of cheap cinematic tricks and Soviet travelogue which one critic succinctly diagnosed as “terminal artsiness”.

I Saw the Devil
(Korea 2010) (9): Hellbent on exacting his own brand of retribution, a special forces detective tracks down the sadistic serial killer who butchered his fiancee. Not content to simply hand the madman over to the authorities, the policeman embarks instead on a game of cat and mouse with the murderer which becomes progressively more brutal at every turn. But vengeance is neither sweet nor tidy, and when you taunt a monster long enough you risk becoming a monster yourself… Jee-woon Kim’s excessively graphic revenge fantasy is definitely one to file under “Extreme Cinema”, but beneath all the spurting blood and flayed body parts there is a twisted psychology at work which is even more disturbing than the casual sadism. In the role of the detective, Lee Byun-hun is so intent on satisfying his own rage that he becomes more robot than human, his blank face not fully comprehending the wider consequences of his actions. Conversely Choi Min-sik, playing the killer, is the lively embodiment of pure evil—a cunning creature so devoid of anything even resembling a conscience that he’s little more than a seething mass of id impulses. It’s inevitable, then, that when two such elemental forces of nature collide there will be sparks…and blood. Lots of blood. And Kim throws us into the fray head first with relentless pacing that rarely comes up for air and a cruel camera which holds us captive through passages of such depravity that even I found myself squirming. Appropriately enough, snow and ice figure prominently as do twilit roads and darkened tunnels. But this is not simply a gratuitous bloodbath for Kim ends his film on a note of such savage poetry that I was left wondering just who the titular devil actually referred to.

Unsane
(USA 2018) (6): On the surface Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy affecting a decent American accent) has it all: a promising career; a beautiful apartment; and a business savvy that seems to be working for her. But beneath the surface she is a mass of crippling anxieties thanks to some unresolved family issues and a traumatic experience which happened to her shortly before she moved to Boston. Intent on coming to terms with the past she begins seeing a professional counsellor—but her very first session marks the beginning of a nightmare when she is involuntarily hospitalized on a psychiatric ward whose locked doors, surly patients, and hostile staff appear more malevolent by the hour. Or is it all in her mind? Notable for the fact it was shot entirely on an iPhone, Steven Soderbergh’s psychological horror film is a riveting mix of both inner and outer drama in which the audience is never quite sure who to believe—at least for the first half. Objectively it can be seen as a Kafkaesque thriller about an innocent woman hopelessly trapped in an elaborately tangled medical system. Subjectively—and this is where the director shines—it throws objective reality into question as Soderbergh gets inside Sawyer’s head with exaggerated long shots and edgy close-ups heightening her sense of persecution, especially after she becomes convinced that the past has reappeared to taunt her. Sadly, it’s this intense build-up of psychological prompts that make the film’s final half all the more disappointing. If the beginning provides a lesson in creating an atmosphere of claustrophobic paranoia, the ending sees it all devolve into a batshit mess of 80s-style "scream queen" tropes that insults our intelligence as it pushes the envelope right off the table. A pity, really. Jay Pharoah co-stars as a fellow patient and Sawyer’s sole lifeline; Amy Irving plays the “concerned mother” for all it’s worth; and indie darling Joshua Leonard shamelessly emotes as a disorderly orderly.

A Most Violent Year
(USA 2014) (8): When making a moral decision do we focus more on the consequences of our actions or the “rightness” of the actions themselves? Writer/director J. C. Chandor tackles this age old quandary with an intense drama that zeroes in on ambitious yet virtuous entrepreneur Abel Morales and his more pragmatic wife, Anna (Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain providing onscreen dynamite). Set in New York circa 1981—statistically the most crime-ridden year in that city’s history—Morales is intent on expanding his heating oil business by purchasing some prime industrial real estate at great personal risk. Standing in his way however are the D.A.’s office which has made his company the focus of a corruption investigation, and a pair of unknown thugs who are regularly hijacking his fuel trucks. Honest to the core, the harried businessman nevertheless sees his American Dream aspirations slipping away with every theft and subpoena while those he once considered friends and confidantes—including his lawyer (Albert Brooks), his teamster foreman, and Anna who doubles as company accountant—offer solutions steeped in various degrees of moral repugnancy. But as his financial situation becomes ever more precarious, Morales is forced to acknowledge that in the world of business ethics is relative and even the most upright objectives cannot escape the taint of corruption. Shot in dreary industrial locales with the spires of New York glittering in the distance, Chandor’s tight editing and articulate script make two hours fly by while the film’s sense of classical tragedy is enhanced by a soundtrack of funereal movements and lethargic radio voices recapping the day’s crime statistics as if they were reciting a shopping list. Isaac’s disheartened Everyman is a study in outrage and control as he tries to swim agains the tide, and he’s matched stroke for stroke by Chastain whose character learned long ago that it’s better to simply float. Also of note is David Oyelowo as the prosecuting District Attorney, a man so inured by his office that he can only see the world in shades of dishonesty and deception. Chandor’s tale of one good man, an antithesis to Coppola’s The Godfather if you will, ends appropriately enough on an ambivalent note with characters gazing upon the fruits of their decisions with all the weight of Shakespearean monarchs. An unexpected pleasure.

Sollers Point
(USA 2017) (6): Being under house arrest at the home of his estranged father wasn’t easy for 26-year old ex-felon Keith (McCaul Lombardi), and now that his ankle bracelet has finally been removed he’s more determined than ever to set his life right. But the old neighbourhood is still filled with the same temptations—from drugs to thugs—and despite his honourable intentions he begins to feel his former life dragging him back… Shot on a shoestring budget with (mostly) natural performances that ring true to life as they flow across the screen, writer/director Matthew Porterfield’s small character study is free of the Hollywood bluster one generally associates with its timeworn story of a former con trying to go straight. Lombardi is a study in suppressed anger and coiled reflexes as he instinctively reacts to his environment—whether through violence or casual sex—while Jim Belushi, playing his negligent father, provides some backstory with little more than an offhand insult or disparaging glance. The trouble is Porterfield becomes a little too thorough as he paints everything in various shades of despair. The small section of Baltimore where the film unfolds is apparently inhabited exclusively by whores and junkies, punks and gangbangers—where everyone is either using someone or else being used. Keith’s picaresque journey likewise boils down to a series of encounters with the usual stock characters like a tweaking hooker who opens up to him about her miserable life a mere ten seconds after she gets into his car, or the crazy Illuminati-style cult leader who rages on about reality and the “inner eye”, or the drug-dealing gunrunner who couldn’t have been more sleazy had he been twirling a handlebar moustache, or the disheartened ex who’s sort of moved on. Even a showdown with dad involves the requisite profanities and smashed crockery. And that’s too bad for every now and then I glimpsed a greater vision from Porterfield, most noticeably in the film’s anticlimactic final reel where a downcast irony managed to sidestep my somewhat cynical expectations. Still highly watchable however with its vérité editing and soundtrack of rap and death metal—but in the end it’s little more than a road movie whose protagonist tries to keep his eye on the horizon while spinning doughnuts in his own backyard.

Halfaouine
(Tunisia/France 1990) (7): Situated right smack in the middle of that awkward time between childhood and adulthood, tween-aged Noura isn’t quite welcome to hang out with the older boys, but he has started noticing women’s boobs at the all-female Turkish bath his mother’s been taking him to since he was born. Now, with his baby brother’s much-fêted circumcision ceremony approaching, Noura has a few hard (and sometimes amusing) lessons to learn about the adult world—starting with his despotic father who rules the roost like an impotent god, and the alluring servant girl who provides all the temptation a young man can possibly handle. Surprisingly liberal with the nudity, sacrilege, and sexual innuendo given this is a Tunisian film, what Férid Boughedir’s coming-of-age drama lacks in depth (tepid performances and a superficial script don’t make for heavy viewing) it manages to compensate with sheer chutzpah and a joie de vivre that transcends language and cultural barriers. Images of birds and rooftops figure prominently for, like a bird, Noura likes to hop about as he observes the world of adults, often clandestinely from behind eaves and windowsills. And Boughedir populates Noura’s neighbourhood with characters who are more archetype than flesh and blood: the spinster aunt convinced demons are blocking her love life; the curvaceous cousin who is not averse to sampling life’s many pleasures; the romantic cobbler who writes plays no one will see; and a variety of saints, libertines, and ogres (some with a political bent) whose separate agendas seem to conflict and contradict rather than compliment. It’s a confusing world indeed, and Noura’s final rite of passage—as joyful as a first kiss yet in its own way as painful as the ritualized assault on his baby brother’s genitals—carries a note of melancholy that is sure to strike a chord with audiences around the world. I guess some things truly are universal.

The Hallelujah Trail
(USA 1965) (5): In the Wild West of 1867 a shipment of forty wagonloads of whiskey bound for the saloons of Denver is beset on all sides despite the protection of a military escort. First a righteous mob of female Temperance League activists stands determined to destroy the evil brew before it can reach its destination. Then a horde of Indian warriors with a taste for white man’s “fire water” are equally determined to make off with a few hundred gallons for the tribe (their leader’s name, “Chief Five Barrels”, pretty well sums it up). And topping it off an ad hoc militia of thirsty miners out of Denver arrives to oversee the precious cargo, by force if necessary, and the U.S. Cavalry itself falls into disarray when their leader (a bland Burt Lancaster) locks horns with the Temperance League chairwoman (a bland Lee Remick). When all parties finally converge for a stormy showdown the resulting pandemonium will ensure no one walks—or staggers—away unscathed. Employing an offscreen narrator and cartoon maps to sort out the plot for slower members of the audience, John Sturges’ western farce is basically a 150-minute episode of F-Troop without the laugh track (or the laughs) which was interesting enough to keep me watching but not interesting enough to keep me from glancing at the clock while I waited, glassy-eyed, for the comedy to kick in. The terribly dated humour never strays far from alcohol-related gags, cultural spoofs, and “battle of the sexes” jabs while a blaring score of Broadway-style music (courtesy of Elmer Bernstein?!) and standard footage of wagon trains lumbering past mesas merely add to the monotony—although I must admit, for all their madcap silliness the film’s climactic horseback scenes are well choreographed even if a stuntman did lose his life performing one of the more dangerous feats. But it’s the cast that makes or breaks a movie and headliners Lancaster and Remick pretty much dictate their lines, receiving no help from costars Jim Hutton playing a lovestruck Captain; Donald Pleasance as an alcoholic fortune teller; Brian Keith as an irate booze-selling capitalist (his repeated tagline “I’m a taxpayer and a good Republican!!” getting stale after the first reading); and Martin Landau hamming it up in black wig and red face as a befuddled Sioux chieftain. “See How the West was FUN!“ promises one of the film’s original posters…yet twelve hours later I’m still waiting.

The Dance of Reality
(Chile/France 2013) (7): Cult cinema icon Alejandro Jodorowsky maintains “reality” is not subjective but instead springs forth from our own imaginations. It’s therefore fitting that his fanciful autobiography would take the form of a Felliniesque circus awash in metaphors, both moving and profane, inspired by such diverse sources as the Tarot deck, evangelical Christianity, and Karl Marx. Set in the Chilean seaside town of Tocopilla where he was born in 1929, the director wastes no time setting the tone as we see his school-aged self torn between two conflicting parents. Dad (played by Jodorowsky’s own son) is a Jewish-Ukrainian immigrant and stalwart Stalinist determined to beat curly-locked Alejandro into his idea of what a man should be. Mom, on the other hand (bravely portrayed by soprano Pamela Flores), is a buxom Bohemian who counters her husband’s cruel authoritarianism with dabbles into religious mysticism and the Arts—indeed, she sings all her lines as if life were one grand aria. Thus perched precariously between earthbound travails and heavenly aspirations (with Death a constant sidekick), Alejandro can do little more than watch as his parents’ pas de deux plays itself out—dad’s communist zeal taking deadly aim at Chile’s ruling dictator (an obsession which will give rise to a most unexpected metamorphosis) while mom’s spirituality, equal parts faith and everyday magic, leads to a transformation of its own. The film’s stream-of-consciousness approach is sure to frustrate cinematic purists, especially when Jodorowsky himself makes onscreen cameos to share his personal insights directly with the audience while his characters freeze in place; and scenes of ample nudity—some in an emphatically vulgar context—will send others packing. But those intrigued enough to sit through its 133-minute running time will be rewarded with a kaleidoscopic trek through one man’s memories filled with joys and pain, miracles and freaks; where a small child wages battle with the sea, a crippled assassin assumes the colours of the Chilean flag as if it were a pox, and God is as likely to mock as he is to condole (in response to a request for alms from a destitute beggar a disgusted priest hands the man a live tarantula instead). Uncanny, unsettling, yet ultimately satisfying, this is Jodorowsky doing what Jodorowsky does best.

Tetsuo II: Body Hammer
(Japan 1992) (6): Growing up in an abusive home with a mad scientist for a father has left milquetoast family man Taniguchi Tomoo with a dire legacy: when he’s subjected to insurmountable duress he transforms, Hulk-like, into a murderous cyborg with an appetite for destruction. So, when his wife and child fall prey to a cult of sweaty foundry workers with a thing for grotesque body modifications, Tomoo loses it just in time for a smackdown battle royale with the cult’s insane (and partially mechanized) leader, a man-machine with whom Tomoo is all too familiar. At least that’s what I’m guessing. Actually the rolling end credits left me wondering what the absolute living fuck did I just watch? Granted, I jumped right into this without the advantage of seeing its predecessors, but slogging through writer/director/editor/cinematographer Shin’ya Tsukamoto’s sloppily spliced mess of a film—more a montage of death metal music videos—left me feeling there wasn’t much to miss. Constant cutaways and wobbly handheld chaos are definitely not for those with weak stomachs—it’s as if Tsukamoto simply threw footage into a blender then pasted together what came out—while a background score is either screeching industrial grunge or Bach’s Prelude in C Major (aka Gounod’s “Ave Maria”). The stop-motion scenes of torture and transmogrification (oozing carbuncles turn into flaring machine guns!!) are strictly bargain basement and Tomoo’s ultimate killing machine, a slapdash creation of cardboard boxes and spare auto parts, looks like something a well-meaning dad threw together for his kid’s first Halloween. But credit where credit is due, Tsukamoto does imply a dystopian near-future Tokyo (think zero-budget Blade Runner) while the film’s panicky pacing combines with overbearing light filters to generate a dark manga aesthetic—especially those laboratory scenes rife with wickedly arcane metal contraptions and racks of staticky TV monitors. The violence is pretty cool too (LOL “head nozzles”!) A good example of a director trying to do a lot with very little and almost succeeding—it DID win a few obscure awards after all.

The Blonde One
(Argentina 2019) (9): Single-father Gabriel (Gaston Re) leaves his young daughter at his parents’ house in order to search for work. He eventually lands a position in a woodworking shop several miles away and moves in with co-worker Juan (Alfonso Barón) who seems to be his opposite in every respect. Whereas the more taciturn Gabriel tends towards introspection, Juan is an outgoing lothario who never seems to want for female companionship. Yet despite their differences, or perhaps because of them, an attraction develops between the two men which slowly smoulders towards a greater intimacy. But it will be a rocky road for both, for even as Gabriel wears his heart on his sleeve Juan proves to be just as cavalier with men as he is with women… Writer/director Marco Berger’s bittersweet love story relies so much on minute observations that its already spartan dialogue is rendered pretty near superfluous. An emotionally charged glance seems to last forever; a furtive caress goes unnoticed by a roomful of homies; sunlight picks out a single tear as it slides down an unshaved cheek—and outside the apartment commuter trains rush to and fro, their sheer implacability mirroring a passion which likewise ebbs and flows. Handsome as hell, Re and Barón are pure dynamite on screen, their hot and cold relationship heartbreakingly familiar to anyone who’s ever allowed themselves to be vulnerable and their mutual lust almost tangible. But it is Malena Irusta, playing Gabriel’s daughter Ornella, who ultimately anchors the production with a pint-sized practicality—her seemingly random banter with dad offering some much needed sunshine especially in that final reel. A tenderly observed drama that is at once painfully human and almost unbearably erotic.

A Hijacking
(Denmark 2012) (10): A Danish cargo ship with nine men on board is hijacked by Somali pirates who demand a fifteen million dollar ransom for its release. Back in Copenhagen the company CEO, a man who is used to wheeling and dealing in order to get what he wants, decides to go against the advice of the international hostage negotiator his company hired and deal with the pirates’ English-speaking negotiator himself…a decision which will have a profound impact on both himself and the ship’s crew. Comparisons to Tom Hank’s 2013 blockbuster, Captain Phillips, are inevitable of course, but writer/director Tobias Lindholm avoids the winning big screen bravado of the latter and instead concentrates on the psychological toll such an incident exacts on the sailors as well as the negotiating team back home. With the ongoing parley—conducted over fax and phone—stretching from days into months as alternate offers are tabled and rejected, the various deprivations see the crew slowly unravel. Even the pirate negotiator, a man who insists on his own impartiality by repeatedly avowing, “I’m not one of them!”, begins to succumb to the pressure of having to broker a seemingly impossible deal between a hardline businessman (whose bluffs can’t conceal the fact he’s terrified) and a ragtag troop of heavily armed outlaws who are growing more impatient each day. Lindholm’s tense standoff drama ultimately rests on two men: ship’s cook, Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk) whose heartbreaking descent into panic and near catatonic anguish perfectly encapsulates the mood of his fellow sailors, and stone-faced company CEO Peter (Søren Malling) whose own feelings of outrage and impotence are underscored by the tense faces of the crew’s families. Relative unknown Abdihakin Asgar also puts in a fine performance as the voice of the pirates, a harried middleman who, like the captive Danes he oversees, would much rather be at home with his own family. With action shifting from cramped, malodorous ship’s cabins to an equally cramped situation room back in Denmark, Lindholm leaves audiences little room to breathe nor does the tension ever let up. Indeed, an uneasy fraternization between captives and captors—born out of close proximity and hampered by a language barrier—is too often dispelled when machine guns are waved at heads. With a cast of anti-heroes drenched in fear and sweat, the resolution of Lindholm’s gripping shipboard drama may not carry the visceral satisfaction of Hanks’ movie (Rambo fans take note) but it will hit you harder and last longer because of that, for it carries the unmistakable sting of reality.

Sea Marks
(USA 1976) (9): Directors Ron Maxwell and Steven Robman bring Gardner McKay’s two-character stage play to the small screen and the result is one of the more moving love stories I’ve seen in some time. Remembering a woman he spied at a wedding party a few years before, gentle-natured Irish fisherman Colm Primrose (Missouri native George Hearn affecting a decent accent) looks up her address and mails her a simple letter of introduction. The woman, Timothea Stiles (Veronica Castang elegantly downplayed), can’t remember having met Primrose but she is so impressed with his simple yet lyrical descriptions of daily life in the small coastal village where he grew up as well as his philosophical musings on life’s bigger questions that she responds in kind. Letters eventually lead to a meeting which leads to much more when Colm joins her in Liverpool. Problems arise however when Stiles wishes to use her position at a large publishing company to share Colm’s letters, which she regards as poetry, with the world much to the consternation of Primrose who feels his inner soul ebbing the longer he’s separated from his beloved coastline… A lovely and deeply felt romance whose edge comes not so much from culture clash—she’s an urban divorcee, he’s a country virgin—but rather a clash of hearts and minds. Although they love one another, neither will ever feel completely at ease in the other’s world: Timothea tries to forget her poor Welsh roots as she seeks worldly success in the big city whereas Colm continues to feel the tug of the sea calling him home, even in his dreams. At times rhapsodic as when the fisherman’s primitive prose is set against images of a raging seashore (filmed on location in western Ireland), at others playfully erotic as the two fumble their way to bed. Yet alongside the emotionally laden words and expressions of affection there runs a sense melancholy, for we know their differences stand poised to overwhelm the bridges they’ve built. A bittersweet story of two lonely people in search of a safe harbour that is as tender as a shaft of moonlight through an apartment window and as powerful as an ocean swell. Part of the Broadway Theater Archive collection.

Nicotina
(Mexico 2003) (8): Cigarettes and coincidences are inextricably entwined in Hugo Rodríguez’s jet black crime spoof that sees small twists of fate morph into blood-soaked Gordian knots over the course of one momentous evening. Pathologically withdrawn computer geek Lolo (Diego Luna, superb) is hired by the Russian mob to hack into a series of Swiss bank accounts in exchange for a handful of stolen diamonds. But before he can hand over the CD containing the information he is confronted by his outraged neighbour who has just discovered the surveillance equipment he’d been using to spy on her. In the ensuing confusion he grabs the wrong disc before heading out the door—and that one innocent faux pas sets in motion a chain reaction of deadly (and hilariously macabre) events that will sweep through his Mexico City neighbourhood. Reminiscent of a young Almodóvar in the way he skewers our expectations while wringing humour out of the worst situations, Rodriguez takes an almost sadistic delight in goading his characters beyond their limits. An injured gunman gives a frustrated pharmacist an idea; a barber and his truculent wife argue over what to do when a valuable corpse winds up in one of their salon chairs; and two ruthless henchmen have an ongoing debate about mortality, random chance, and nicotine—an argument won decisively when one sticks his nose where it doesn’t belong. In fact cigarettes figure prominently throughout whether as a vague philosophical sticking point or a mode of seduction—or, in one of cinema’s more satisfying codas, divine retribution. A truly evil little comedy that begins with a puff and ends with a bang.

The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales
(Mexico 1960) (8): A bit of Buñuel drifts through Rogelio A. González’s darkly comic Grand Guignol, a macabre satire which has you chuckling even as you grimace. When he’s not stuffing dead animals, genial taxidermist Dr. Pablo Morales enjoys nothing more than downing a few pints with his buddies and horsing around with the neighbourhood children. His wife, on the other hand, is a frigid shrew and hypochondriac who divides her time between praying to the many saints that adorn her bedroom wall and thinking up new ways to torment her long-suffering husband—even going so far as to garner sympathy by making false accusations of domestic abuse. But when she finally crosses a line, the even-tempered Pablo begins plotting the perfect crime to free himself from her clutches forever… Filmed in heightened shades of B&W with off-kilter lighting that accents every scowl and diabolical grin, this is film noir with a colourful twist and González’s cast plays it straight right to the end. As the ill-matched couple Amparo Rivelles and Arturo de Córdova provide each other’s foil beautifully—her screeching martyr finding counterbalance in his slow, methodical burn—but it’s Antonio Bravo as the dour parish priest who gives the film its sting. Spouting fire & brimstone at every opportunity, yet able to pull a pious face when necessary, Bravo’s Padre Familiar provides some caustic religious parody as his righteous suspicions regarding the fate of Mrs. Morales go up against Pablo’s ice cool confidence. Irony proves to be the movie’s ultimate lynchpin however leading to one helluva wicked ending!

Meek’s Cutoff
(USA 2010) (7): Kelly Reichardt does not make epic blockbusters. The diminutive director from Florida has instead made a name for herself fashioning small-scale dramas which still manage to resonate across the biggest of screens. Case in point is this slow, meticulously detailed story of three pioneer families making their way to the promised land of Oregon circa 1845 who manage to get lost in the wilderness after their grizzled guide, Meek (Bruce Greenwood unrecognizable in long grey locks and bushy beard), proves unreliable. Painterly sweeps of sere hills and cracked riverbeds set against vast sunsets are reminiscent of Jean-Francois Millet’s rustic canvases, especially given the film’s frame-like 1.33 : 1 aspect ratio, and Jeff Grace’s evocative score heightens elements of pathos, struggle, and the lightest frisson of horror as dwindling rations cause morale to edge towards mute panic. Meanwhile cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt makes it seem as if nature is swallowing Reichardt’s protagonists whole with faded gingham dresses and tomb-like wagons almost lost beneath a yawning sky. Forgoing the usual explosive climax one might expect from Hollywood, Reichardt instead focuses on the little quotidian tasks involved in simply staying alive and staying human, from gathering meagre handfuls of twigs for an evening campfire to one woman’s zen-like concentration as she kneads a small lump of precious bread dough. Adversity eventually does make an appearance however in the form of a captured Indian warrior (stuntman and Crow tribe member Rod Rondeaux, mesmerizing). The families hope their taciturn and defiant captive will lead them to water while Meek, fuelled by past experience and his own prejudices, insists on killing the man before he has a chance to kill them. Does the group continue to follow one of their own despite the many wrong turns? Or do they put their trust in a “heathen savage” they can neither understand nor comprehend? It is this central conflict which ultimately fuels Reichardt’s film especially when Meek’s vengeful mindset runs afoul of the more sympathetic Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) with potentially deadly results. Calling to mind the likes of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock with its minimalist approach and passages of everyday surrealism, or even a withered contradiction to Malick’s fertile Days of Heaven landscapes, this is not a movie for the easily distracted hinging as it does on minute observations and pithy interactions. But Williams and Rondeaux are perfect as her inner strength finds an edgy counterpoint in his impassive gaze and preternatural stillness—at one point he chants over the body of a gravely ill settler (is it a song of mourning? healing?) and in the heavy silence that follows one can almost feel a shift in the group’s power dynamic. An anti-western as unromantic as they come despite its harsh beauty.

Wings in the Dark
(USA 1935) (7): Cary Grant is a brilliant aviation engineer whose career is grounded when he’s blinded in an accident. Myrna Loy is the hotshot stunt pilot who was falling in love with him before the mishap and now finds herself being pushed out of his life as he wallows in angry self-pity. Yet she is determined to help him realize his dream—perfecting an onboard autopilot which will allow people to “fly blind” through the worst weather. Oh irony of ironies! If not for the sheer chemistry between these two amazing actors Paramount Pictures’ starry-eyed melodrama would never have gotten off the ground, but Loy brings her usual suave confidence to bear and Grant blusters with aplomb, his initial awkward interactions with a seeing eye dog (star performance from veteran canine, “Lightning”) both comedic and heartwarming at the same time. In fact everyone puts in a good show, even Virginia native Hobart Cavanaugh tripping over a horribly wrong Highland accent as he plays Grant’s well-meaning Scottish assistant. And it’s all tied together by cinematographer William C. Mellor who takes his cameras aloft for some beautiful bird’s eye views as well as equally convincing soundstage passages with Loy and Grant strapped in while rear projection clouds scud past their faux cockpits. It was that final climactic scene however—an impossible midair feat of derring-do—that had me torn between cheering and simply rolling my eyes. I chose to cheer.

Valhalla Rising
(Denmark/UK 2009) (7): Perhaps it’s the rocky coastlines plagued by mist and portentous storm clouds, or the violent dream sequences filmed in shades of blood red, but a pall of madness and damnation permeates Nicolas Winding Refn’s moody Viking saga—a brutal reinterpretation of The Passion which borrows liberally from Norse mythology and Conan the Barbarian comic books. Possessing almost superhuman strength and with a temper to match, the chained slave dubbed “One Eye” (Mads Mikkelsen not taking any shit) earns his keep by killing each and every opponent set against him while his owner, a gruff chieftain, collects on the wagers. Eventually escaping his master (whose severed head winds up on a pike), One Eye, accompanied by a young boy-cum-acolyte, falls in with a band of Crusaders on their way to Jerusalem. But when the winds die and a strange crimson fog encircles their longship the fortune-hunting Warriors of Christ begin to suspect that One Eye and the boy are leading them to a place that has nothing to do with the Holy Land. With barely a hundred lines of dialogue, most of it grunted out in tight-lipped sentences, Refn’s savage arthouse piece is primarily a study in textures—wind soughing through bare branches; the play of shadow and watery sunlight over sea and crag; the “snick” of a blade being yanked from a corpse; fur and leather framing a scarred face—all heightened by a background of natural sounds and subsonic pulses. The story, what you can glean of it at least, is hardly profound as it suggests a Dantean quest towards Golgotha steeped in Christian voodoo and harsh Eddic visuals—but the delivery is a superbly sensual experience mixing as it does dreamlike landscapes with moments of monstrous cruelty. Mute throughout, Mikkelsen’s cryptic single-eyed barbarian seems to be a stranger anywhere he goes, a mystery which Refn dangles before us right up until that final vicious revelation. Like a procession of dark oil paintings Refn’s film cannot be ignored as it washes over you, but once the lights come up you realize it left very little in its wake.

Dreamgirls
(USA 2006) (8): Bill Condon’s Motown operetta, based on the 1981 Broadway play which was in turn inspired by the story of Diana Ross and the Supremes, is a rags-to-riches fairy tale whose songs and visuals are as dazzling as its script is shallow. But oh does it dazzle! Making their debut in a humble Detroit talent show, black female trio “The Dreamettes” believe their own dreams of stardom are lost when they lose the contest. Putting disappointments aside however, their performance does attract the attention of suave, Svengali-like car salesman and part-time producer Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx doing Berry Gordy) who ignites their career—first as back-up singers for an R&B star (Eddie Murphy channeling James Brown) and then as a headline act wowing audiences from Vegas to London. But their shining star comes with the usual snags in the form of racial barriers, broken hearts, and artistic differences between the group’s two powerful leads—soft-spoken and mainstream Deena (Beyoncé playing it down) and the loud and proud Effie (Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson playing for keeps). Several years later the successful Deena, now an unhappily married megastar, and Effie, just plain unhappy period, cross paths once more and their meeting will change everything… The plot is hardly complex nor are the characters especially profound in any way representing as they do the usual showbiz archetypes from breathless wannabe to disenchanted diva and from true-to-self artist to pop chart sellout—and every caucasian seems to be a variation of Pat and Debbie Boone. But music is the driving force here and in that respect Dreamgirls delivers as promised starting with bluesy Motown vibes which slowly give way to glamorous disco glitz (the women appearing to change wigs and fashions with each cutaway). In fact music is so central that characters switch between the spoken word and the sung sometimes within the same sentence, a tactic which generally segues into something memorable (as when Hudson tears the curtain down with her rendition of “I’m Not Going”) with only the occasional misstep. And the costume and art departments earn their paycheques as the story moves from 60s peach party dresses to tacky 70s chic. In the end “What Price Fame?” may be a story that grows older with each telling, but every now and then a production comes along that makes it all worth hearing just one more time.

Tiger Bay
(UK 1959) (7): Precocious tomboy Gillie (Hayley Mills making her impressive screen debut) has a reputation among the residents of her rundown Cardiff tenement for inventing tall tales in lieu of the truth. But when she witnesses the murder of a woman at the hands of her jealous lover, a Polish merchant marine (English language debut of Horst Buchholz), she decides to keep it to herself, forming an unlikely alliance with the remorseful man instead. Believing the handsome Bronislaw will someday take her around the world on one of his ships—a delusion he helps maintain in order to ensure her silence—Gillie resolves to help him escape even if it means going on the lam with him and lying to the persistent police detective who believes she knows more than she’s telling (Hayley’s dad, John). With Bronislaw desperate to evade British justice, Gillie’s head filled with visions of overseas adventure, and Detective Graham doggedly piecing together the clues, fate will ultimately decide where the cards fall… Based on Noël Calef’s short story, J. Lee Thompson’s B&W drama is a winning blend of police procedural, Hitchcock thriller, and childhood fancy with thirteen-year old Mills (managing to pass for eleven) dominating every scene with a wide-eyed face that goes from innocent cherub to scheming imp in a heartbeat. In the background Mills Sr. is the very embodiment of implacable authority while Buchholz strikes a note of sympathy playing an otherwise decent man forever burdened by one moment of angry passion, his interactions with Hayley crackling with chemistry without resorting to schmaltz. And although several expertly filmed near escapes leave everyone’s nerves jangled—oh the power of shadows and oblique camera angles!—they are offset by a musical score that shifts from paranoid riffs to sunny melodies as Gillie, confusing real life with playtime and TV, becomes immersed in an adult tragedy she can’t quite grasp.