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


~ ~ ~ ~


Parrish (USA 1961) (6): It’s sex, lust, and avarice beneath the blazing New England sun in Delmer Daves’ tawdry soap opera, based on Mildred Savage’s novel—a lurid potboiler so overbaked it’s actually entertaining. Eager for a new lease on life, widowed Ellen McLean (Claudette Colbert in her final big screen appearance) takes her hunky grown son Parrish (Troy Donahue trying to get by on looks alone) to the tobacco fields of Connecticut where they both find employment at the estate of plantation owner Sala Post. But it doesn’t take long—about 10 minutes, actually—before the perpetually aroused young man begins bedding the foreman’s slutty daughter (Connie Stevens) before moving up to Post’s own slutty daughter (Diane McBain) while mom, chaste for the past ten years, begins romancing Post’s sworn enemy, wealthy tobacco entrepreneur Judd Raike, a pathologically hateful despot driven by profit margins and a need to control everyone around him (Karl Malden, spitting venom and dispensing judgement like the Almighty himself). As passions ignite and old hostilities reach the breaking point, this promises to be one long hayride no one will ever forget…least of all Raike’s sons who’ll do anything to gain their dad’s approval and his pubescent daughter Paige (Sharon Hugueny) whose own torch for Parrish is just beginning to smoulder. Whew! Donahue sulks like a James Dean wannabe, Stevens and McBain lick their lips, and everyone else either rages or placates accordingly thanks to a script so stuffed with innuendo and clichéd theatrics that it couldn’t have been any cornier had they added a studio soundtrack of “oohs” and “aahs”. Strangely enough, although it runs almost 150 minutes there’s still a rushed feeling to the story as Donahue rises through the ranks, does a puzzling military stint, then returns home for a final comeuppance—all without messing one strand of his blond locks. As a dramatic vehicle it stalls at every turn, but if you’re looking for an old-style camp melodrama this one is firing on all cylinders.

Lovelace
(USA 2013) (7): In the 1970’s, mousy and freckled 21-year old Catholic girl Linda Boreman went from total obscurity to one of the hottest names in the fledgling porn industry when she changed her name to Linda Lovelace and starred in the groundbreaking adult film Deep Throat. If we are to believe Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s docudrama, based on the late actress’ bestselling autobiography, her rise to infamy was actually not of her own choosing but rather that of her husband Chuck Traynor, an abusive, coke-snorting misogynist who essentially pimped his wife to the mob (and the world in general) for his own financial gain. As played by Amanda Seyfried, Lovelace was a personable though not-quite-innocent ingénue who went from the heavy-handed rule of her religious mother (Sharon Stone, barely recognizable in home perm and parochial housedress) to the egomaniacal ministrations of Chuck (Peter Sarsgaard personifying slimeball) whose Svengali-like control over her, backed by threats of violence, literally forced her in front of the cameras—or cheesy hotel rooms where her talents were available for a price. Considering the film’s subject matter the directors show surprisingly little skin, preferring instead to concentrate on Lovelace’s own personal journey from exploited commodity to outspoken industry critic. And Seyfried handles this transition very well, her evolution mirrored in everything from her changing hairstyles to the set of her face as starstruck innocence is replaced by a weary maturity. The 1970s touches are convincingly real—her parents La-Z-Boy loungers and flowered wallpaper are enough to make you cringe with recognition—and a soundtrack of solid gold radio hits always seems to hit its mark at just the right time. But despite a slick presentation, things never seem to rise above the level of an engaging “Movie of the Week” offering which, in hindsight, I suppose is also appropriately retro. Chloë Sevigny gives a brief cameo as an interviewing journalist and Robert Patrick does a fine job as Linda’s doting father, an ex-cop who can’t come to terms with his baby girl’s public persona—his performance providing a much needed departure from the film’s glut of slathering male stereotypes, all gold chains and bad toupees. As an aside, owned and touted by the mob Deep Throat went on to make millions worldwide (the actual amount a matter of debate) while Lovelace reportedly received a mere few thousand dollars for her work.

Cash McCall
(USA 1960) (6): By all rights this “corporate romance” from Warner Brothers should have been scrapped before it was even finished. The script itself is a mush of free market dealing and lovestruck clichés while the slipshod editing gives rise to some glaring continuity flubs. Thankfully a dream cast of character actors including E. G. Marshall, Dean Jagger, and Henry Jones, combined with lead stars James Garner and Natalie Wood are enough to make things pleasantly watchable if nothing else. Business maverick Cash McCall (Garner, sexy as ever) has built an empire out of buying ailing businesses for a song and reselling them for a profit. With lawyers, accountants, and consultancy firms in his back pocket he’s not exactly breaking any laws but his methods could use a little ethical oversight. His latest acquisition, a plastics moulding company run by tycoon Grant Austen (Jagger), hits a double snag however when Austen has second thoughts and a rocky romance is rekindled between Cash and Austen’s daughter, Lory (Wood, all aglow). It seems the two met at a party the year before and a budding affair ended rather unceremoniously—cue ridiculous flashback with Natalie’s dress billowing in the wind, a moment of fireside passion, and inexplicable close-ups of eyes, mouths, and noses (did the writers hire a temp?). Anxious to begin where he left off, McCall must now woo the girl anew while making things right with a host of business associates, beginning with Lory’s dad. For you see, at heart he’s not the financial barracuda everyone makes him out to be. Those not familiar with Wall Street machinations, myself for instance, will find the corporate side of the story a tad confusing. Those looking for romance will likewise be disappointed for although they sparkle on their own, Garner and Wood generate little more than a pilot light when they share the screen, their love affair coming across as forced and barely credible—a yearlong obsession after one dance and a flash of skin? But Garner’s character is oh so rich and handsome as hell, a real “man’s man” who knows how to handle women (apparently you have to grab them by the elbow and force them along), while Wood smoulders as a conflicted WASP torn between her love for daddy and a libido that snaps like a hungry pooch whenever Cash enters the room. Interesting as a snapshot of America’s zeitgeist circa late 50s, most notably in the way it tempers capitalist ideology with social awareness—for every white collar deal, blue collar livelihoods are literally at stake. It’s also a prime example of just how rigid Hollywood’s sex roles could be when you compare Garner’s confident bravura with Nina Foch’s portrayal of Maude Kennard, the assistant manger of the hotel where McCall is residing. In the film’s most powerful performance she plays a successful businesswoman who nevertheless dotes on Cash like a giggling schoolgirl only to implode into a thousand bitter shards when she realizes she can’t have him. But, seeing as its James Garner and all, I can’t say I blame her.

The Last Command
(USA 1928) (8): Deposed and disgraced following the Revolution, Grand Duke Sergius Alexander, cousin to the Tsar and once exalted head of the Russian military, is now a broken man barely getting by working as an extra in Hollywood. And then he gets a casting call to play the role of a general in—irony of ironies—a war epic and it seems as if his fortunes may have finally taken a turn. But at the hands of the film’s antagonistic director (a man still carrying a personal grudge) the former duke’s first day on set also threatens to become his greatest humiliation yet. Containing elements later revisited in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard and 1980’s The Stunt Man, director Josef von Sternberg’s silent classic uses Tinseltown’s own artifice as a vehicle to tell the story of one proud man’s tumble from grace and another man’s discovery that whether or not it’s served up cold, revenge can still leave a bitter taste. Bookended by scenes taking place in contemporary Hollywood, the bulk of the story unfolds in Revolutionary Russia as the Grand Duke, an unabashed patriot to the motherland, faces down a pair of insurgents posing as actors, embarks on a tragic love affair, and tries to protect his troops against the ill-advised whims of the Tsar himself. As portrayed by Emil Jennings—who took home the world’s first Oscar for Best Actor—he is a powerful, complex man torn between his sworn duties to the crown and his desire to do what’s best for the country, two commitments too often at odds with one another. He’s supported admirably by a young William Powell and Evelyn Brent playing the rebels, Powell’s character consumed by hate while Brent’s femme fatale finds herself at a moral crossroads when “the enemy” doesn’t turn out to be the ogre she imagined. And the special effects department, primitive as it was, manages to serve up an ice cold Soviet winter (both in “real life” and “movie set” mode) with several notable scenes—my personal favourite being that of a train slowly pulling into a station overrun by a revolutionary mob, its flickering windows offering brief glimpses of violent confrontations outlined in silhouette. Not quite a “film within a film”, Sternberg’s keen grasp of composition and continuity nevertheless juxtaposes reality with staged imitation, making his sad story a treat for both mind and eye.

Red Riding: The Year of Our Lord 1983
(UK 2009) (5): As with the previous two instalments of this trilogy, the final chapter begins with a disappearance—a 10-year old girl on her way home from school. The publicity garnered from her possible abduction harkens back to a spate of child murders that occurred nine years ago and which resulted in the very public trial and conviction of a mentally disabled man. But with the supposed perpetrator firmly behind bars uncomfortable questions begin to surface which seem to suggest a heinous cover-up. Now, determined to uncover the truth, a disgraced lawyer and a guilt-addled police officer—often working at odds with one another—must contend with a thoroughly crooked constabulary, an evasive clergyman, and a string of former witnesses that have either been bought or cowed into silence…or worse. A hopelessly muddled plot is further marred by too many flashbacks and blind alleyways so that despite having watched the first two films I still found myself needing to backtrack and reorient on more than one occasion. But the aura of corruption and moral damnation that earmarked the series thus far reaches its zenith in this last episode. That, along with the overcast skies and nuclear towers which loom over everyone and everything, gives the impression that England’s Yorkshire countryside is teeming with nothing but evil intentions and murder. The writers even saw fit to revisit a female psychic whose cryptic visions now prove eerily accurate. Huh? The performances are top-notch however with a cast that includes Sean Bean, Peter Mullan, and a perpetually scowling Jim Carter—but even they are not enough to make up for a meandering storyline whose tragic reveals and sun-dappled finale still leave too many dangling threads to be satisfying.

Ghost Town
(USA 2008) (6): Following his near death experience during a medical procedure, curmudgeonly Manhattan dentist Bertram Pincus (Ricky Gervais) discovers—much to his irritation—that he is suddenly able to commune with the dead. Never a people person to begin with, he must now contend with a mob of pushy New York ghosts who dog his every move demanding that he sort out the messes they left behind so that they can move on. But one particular spirit, philandering yuppie Frank Herlihy (Greg Kinnear), won’t take no for an answer. Frank’s widow, Gwen (Téa Leoni), is getting ready to marry someone he despises and his insistence that Pincus throw a wrench into their nuptial plans backfires when Pincus discovers he actually has a heart after all leading to emotional complications on both sides of the grave. Gervais delivers the same acerbic stand-up routine that worked so well for him in After Life (Pincus really is an insufferable asshole) while Kinnear, all dapper in tux and bowtie, gives a sympathetic performance as the unhappily deceased husband slowly coming to terms with his mistakes. Leoni provides a character sketch of the conflicted widow torn between grief and anger, and co-star Kristen Wiig basically acts out an SNL skit as the scatterbrained surgeon who almost killed Pincus in the first place. The trouble is, after watching such genre mainstays as The Sixth Sense and 1990’s Ghost there is a pervasive sense of déjà vu to writer/director David Koepp’s little urban dramedy especially since it doesn’t have anything new to add anyway. The funny bits are enough to elicit a smile or two given Gervais’ expert sense of sarcasm and eye-rolling comebacks—an exchange with Leoni (whose Gwen is an archaeologist) over some mummified remains is one of the highlights. However, the film’s attempt to plumb deeper depths of love, loneliness, and healing falls prey to a cast of two-dimensional extras and a script that too often substitutes schmaltz for substance. Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, Ghost Town leaves you feeling like you’ve just watched three back-to-back episodes of a doomed sitcom: it’s sweet and charming but not much else.

Infection
(Japan 2004) (7): Things are not going well at Central Hospital, the dingiest and most poorly run medical facility in all of Japan. Aside from the ongoing staffing shortages, lack of supplies, and shoddy maintenance (filthy walls and poorly lit hallways choked with junk seem to be the norm), both the Chief of Staff and Head Nurse are behaving very oddly and a fatal blunder has malpractice lawsuit written all over it unless everyone can “dispose” of the evidence in time. Then a mysterious ambulance drops off a patient suffering from a most horrific—and contagious!—infection and the hospital’s already bone-weary night shift suddenly find their worst nightmares are just beginning. Someone involved with Masayuki Ochiai’s cinematic train wreck had to have watched every episode of Lars Von Trier’s The Kingdom for that Danish serie’s macabre touches are to be found in almost every frame—from the crazy old woman who sees ghosts in mirrors to the monster sliding through the plumbing to the dead body decaying in an empty room. There is also a dark humour at work which compliments rather than offsets the jolts and carnage, most notably a skittish student nurse who couldn’t hit the side of a barn with a syringe (despite copious practice on her own arms) and the aspiring surgeon with an obsession for suturing. None of it makes more than the sketchiest of sense of course, even with a glossy paranormal reveal thrown in towards the end, but the ham-fisted performances are pure camp and the gore flows freely enough to fill in most of the plot holes. Fans of J-horror will have reason to celebrate while anyone who has ever worked in a hospital will appreciate the underlying satire whether it was intentional or not. One of the best bad movies I’ve seen in quite some time!

Private Fears in Public Places
(France 2006) (7): A real estate broker is infatuated with his devoutly Christian secretary, a situation exacerbated when she unintentionally sends him a very mixed message. She, meanwhile, moonlights as a caregiver for a miserable old man whose not-quite-available adult son has caught her attention. Elsewhere in the city a frustrated woman has answered dozens of singles' ads with the same disappointing results and a bickering couple are discovering that falling out of love can be just as emotionally complex as falling in. With a winter storm settling over Paris these six lonely hearts will intersect and diverge in random ways leading to a possible lifeline for some and a sad confirmation for others… Obstructions figure prominently in Alain Resnais’ adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn’s play—screens, walls, and curtains always seem to crop up between characters while windows look out onto frosted streets where the snow offers both a fairy tale sheen and a blast of cold reality. In several scenes a swank hotel bar, all gilded in fiery neon, provides the perfect metaphor with its passionate veneer only accentuating the despondency of its key patrons, and in one clever twist Resnais actually moves the snowstorm indoors. Secrets also weigh heavily with one person crippled by a past mistake, another lamenting a dead lover, and a third satisfying their repressed libido in the only way they know how. But despite its comedic elements this is by no means a romantic film where everything falls together neat and tidy in the final reel for love and yearning don’t always work that way, a fact which the 84-year old Resnais was well aware of. Although marred by some sloppy editing and rather clunky religious asides the film is shored up by a fine cast—an awkward first date is embarrassingly accurate—and a script whose honesty and wit manage to survive translation. And Resnais juggles these fragile stories with care allowing encounters and missed opportunities alike to flow naturally across the screen. A poignant statement on contemporary disconnect perhaps best summed up by Mick Jagger almost forty years before it was made: “You can’t always get what you want…”

Relic
(Australia 2020) (7): When gran goes missing her daughter and granddaughter get the police to launch a search in the nearby woods. Sadly, the old woman has been slightly off her rocker for a while now causing both of them to fear for the worst. But when she suddenly shows up in her kitchen—bruised and filthy but otherwise okay—the mystery of her disappearance takes on a supernatural dimension. Something, it seems, has followed grandma home and as things start to go bump in the night, walls begin to shift, and mold takes hold on every surface, both daughter and granddaughter come to suspect that the family matriarch is no longer herself... Something unique to the horror genre, a genuinely scary film which doesn't rely on leaping bogeymen and camera jolts to make audiences sweat. It's also something of a hybrid, for beneath the creepy demonic effects there is a tragic metaphor at play as one old woman's encroaching dementia becomes a haunted house unto itself. Fear, abandonment, and the crippling dependance that comes with age and illness all find their expression in Natalie Erika James' impressive feature debut, a multi-generational shocker in which the real monster elicits more tears than screams.

I Vitelloni
(Italy 1953) (7): Often billed as a comedy, Federico Fellini’s largely autobiographical account of five slackers eking out an existence in a jerkwater town makes a bleak statement on the social realities of post WWII Italy. Getting uncomfortably close to 30 and still directionless, Moraldo and his buddies are representative of a new Lost Generation of young men with no prospects, no ambition, and no sense of responsibility. Preferring to party and chase women (whether or not those women are willing) they can only dream—one is a literary dilettante, another fancies himself a scholar, and a third, Fausto, regularly cheats on the woman he was forced to marry after she became pregnant, citing his need to “be free” as if it were a self-evident truth. But when his wife disappears with their child causing everyone to fear the worst, Fausto receives a crash course in growing up. Although firmly rooted in the aesthetics of neorealism, one can still see the young Fellini’s flair for the surreal developing in the background, most notably a hedonistic Carnival sequence adorned with grotesque statuary and masked revellers who hop to a discordant orchestra score, their false bonhomie and hollow smiles underlining the general zeitgeist of the time while a seaside interlude will later be revisited in 1960’s La Dolce Vita. And when Fausto lands a job selling religious trinkets the irony, though kept low-key, provides some of the film’s highlights especially when he tries to hawk a stolen angel. Not content to simply dump on the youth however, Fellini is quick to point out the foibles of the generation who sired these young men, hardworking fathers and mothers who are nevertheless more concerned with appearances and tradition than self-fulfillment. But, as if to balance the aura of pessimism, he ends on an ambivalent note as each friend receives a comeuppance in one form or another and one heeds the siren call of the big city—for better or for worse. Federico’s doppelgänger perhaps?

High Life
(France 2018) (3): Reading director Claire Denis’ explanation for this dreary sci-fi sludge gives the impression that the film she thought she had made was somehow substituted at the last minute without her knowledge. On a rickety spaceship bound for an enormous black hole, two lone survivors—Monte, a depressed father (Robert Pattinson perpetually moping) and his infant daughter, Willow—go through the motions of domesticity even though Monte knows this will be a one-way trip. Interminable flashbacks fill in the backstory: a crew of misfits overseen by the mad doctor Dibs (Juliette Binoche in need of rent money perhaps?) eventually succumb to isolation and their own demons, but not before Dibs has had a chance to carry out some unsavoury research and everyone else has had a chance to throw a few punches. Now, alone with his growing daughter, Monte faces an uncertain destiny as the swirling blackness of their ultimate destination looms ever closer… A poetic premise rendered crass and repugnant, for as much as Denis claims the film is about “tenderness, trust, fidelity, and sincerity” in outer space it can’t dispel the salacious focus on masturbation, sexual assault (both male and female), and bodily fluids in general, nor can the pretty astronomical backdrops (at one point the stars coalesce to form a womb according to the director) impart any existential depth to her warped aesthetic. “It’s about sexuality…sensuality…” she croons yet the grimy attempts at erotica prove tastelessly voyeuristic especially one messy and overly long session in the ship’s “sex closet”, a concept so reminiscent of the “Orgasmatron” in Woody Allen’s Sleeper that I had to laugh. An homage to Tarkovsky’s Solaris? Hardly, although it does rip off Kubrick’s 2001. A cosmic rumination on loneliness, humanity, and atonement? (a tragic transgression from Monte’s past is given weighty reality when a blip appears on his radar screen). Not really. Neither life-affirming, sex-positive, nor psychologically believable, and the “science” is suspect at best—all of which lead to the conclusion that some things are better off lost in space.

The Sisters Brothers
(France 2018) (8): It may not be as striking as Sergio Leone’s spaghetti offerings, but with his first English feature French director Jacques Audiard gives the world its first…“Pâté Western”?…and it proves to be a refreshing take on some old tropes. The wilds of Spain and Romania are transformed into a believable 1850s Oregon in his tale of two ruthless assassins—psychopath Charlie Sisters and his overly analytical brother Eli (Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly generating a volatile chemistry)—hired to track down and kill a young gold prospector (Riz Ahmed) at the behest of their malevolent benefactor. But the prospector finds an unlikely ally along the way thus turning what should have been a straightforward search and destroy operation for the Sisters into an illuminating journey that will revisit old wounds and cause each to view their chosen profession—as well as each other—in a new light. Although steeped in violent imagery and some Wild West hyperbole (did those old revolvers really shoot out so much smoke and flames?), at its core this is an existential horse trip addressing the often fraught bond between brothers, between sons and fathers, and between conflicting ideologies as the brothers’ coldblooded pragmatism comes up against the prospector’s altruistic dreams. Phoenix and Reilly spar like pros, mixing wit, humour, and pathos in between murders as they gallop their way towards a destiny neither anticipated. Ahmed is perfect as the soft-spoken idealist forced to realize that charitable intentions are too often not enough. And Jake Gyllenhaal, playing a bounty hunter hired to keep tabs on the brothers’ quarry, is a complex mix of intellectual dispassion and struggling conscience. Beautifully shot and edited to make the most of those wooded alpine panoramas and carrying a script that is as subtle as it is acerbic, Audiard’s star-studded oater opens with fire and darkness and closes with sunlight in an intricate single take that loops through a series of gentle curves. As the Sisters’ evil employer Rutger Hauer provides a malignant father figure, and UK-born Rebecca Root, playing a frontier mayor-cum-madam, makes the term “trans-actress” obsolete. Good viewing all around.

Jubilee
(UK 1978) (5): Disturbed by a vision of her realm’s ultimate fate, Queen Elizabeth I (Toyah Wilcox) calls upon the dark angel Ariel to transport her 400 years into the future where her beloved London has been transformed into an industrial hellhole. Now ruled over by punk queen Mad (also Toyah Wilcox) and her legion of violent punker slags, as well as ruthless media mogul Borgia Ginz (a maniacally cackling Jack Birkett), England has become a goth wilderness of crumbling factories strewn with graffiti and haunted by ragtag gangs of armed guerrillas and sadistic cops. While queen Mad preaches the gospel of anarchy to her neon-painted acolytes, Ginz’s stranglehold on pop culture allows him to replace the people’s grim reality with comfortable fantasies—or in his words, “As long as the music’s loud enough we won’t hear the world falling apart!” And he backs that up with a raucous burlesque version of “Rule Britannia”. But despite Buckingham Palace having been turned into a recording studio, the country idyll of Dorset transformed into a supremacist stronghold (with an aging Hitler in front of the telly), and Westminster Abbey hyped as a discotheque-sex-club where even Christ and his disciples get down and dirty, England’s visiting 16th century monarch is not quite at a loss for words… Lacking the poetry of War Requiem, the finesse of Caravaggio, the focused rage of The Last of England, and the pointed activism of Edward II, this earlier work by director Derek Jarman too often lapses into grunge excesses to be taken seriously. The transgressively political sex and punk platitudes now seem embarrassingly dated (just like the sharpie make-up and krazy hair) and the abundance of portentous character names—Amyl Nitrate, Chaos, Angel, Sphinx—come across as just so much affectation. Furthermore it sounds as if the ink hadn’t even dried on the script before Jarman had his cast hamming it up in front of the camera, and the slapdash editing style is more off-putting than engaging. Still, it proved to be an uncanny harbinger of the coming Thatcher years and for that reason alone it can be regarded as a time capsule curio. Look for a young Adam Ant as an aspiring rock star and Rocky Horror alumni Richard O’Brien (Riffraff) and Nell Campbell (Little Nell)—he playing Elizabeth’s wordy alchemist and she starring as an enthusiastic sexual predator unfortunately named “Crabs”.

National Velvet
(USA 1944) (8): She was only 12-years old when she landed this big breakout role, but Elizabeth Taylor already had “star” written all over her. In rural 1920s England, wide-eyed country lass Velvet Brown (Taylor) is so smitten with horses that she even practices her considerable equestrian skills in bed with strings tied to her feet. So when she happens to win a talented but high-spirited gelding in a raffle her aspirations of riding in competition swell to include nothing less than the prestigious Grand National Sweepstakes itself. Reluctantly aided by a former jockey still haunted by a tragic secret (Mickey Rooney) and cheered on by her family (including a 19-year old Angela Lansbury as the eldest sister and Anne Revere who didn't even have to feign a UK accent to cop an Oscar as Velvet’s sage mother) Velvet’s dream is on the cusp of coming true—and then a couple of unforeseen complications, including the fact that girls were not allowed to compete, threaten to dash it all to pieces. Cinematographer Leonard Smith turns the California coast into a bit of old England while the Art and Set Decoration teams transform drab MGM sound stages into a series of Currier & Ives collectors’ plates—those bucolic hand-painted backdrops and country cottage interiors all aglow in retina-searing Technicolor. But it’s the exuberant script and an A-list cast who keep things from sliding into pure treacle despite the gauzy camerawork and enthusiastic orchestral score. Taylor is all smiles and freshness with Rooney providing just a touch of rueful cynicism, and Revere, along with co-star Donald Crisp as Mr. Brown, ground the production as the loving parents—her sense of perspective playfully interacting with his good-natured bouts of pique. Ultimately it is Robert Kern’s editing skills (which garnered the film’s other Oscar) that push National Velvet over the top. The climactic horse race is both thrilling and believable, a perfect meld of live footage and rear projection punctuated now and again by an ongoing comedic interaction between a distraught Rooney and Arthur Treacher playing a testy race patron. A fine family film about a little girl who dreamed big that is uplifting and airy without being vacuous. Apparently the young Taylor was so taken with the horse that he was gifted to her after the movie was finished. She cared for him until the day he died.

Intouchables
(France 2011) (7): Based on the real life friendship which developed between multi-millionaire Philippe Pozzo di Borgo who was paralyzed from the neck down following a paragliding accident, and his male caregiver Abdell Sellou, Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano’s bromance comedy is a winning mix of genuinely moving moments and Odd Couple clichés. Cultured in the finer things in life but not above a good laugh, Philippe (François Cluzet showing amazing range despite being immobilized throughout) takes a chance on hiring bad boy from the hood, Driss (Omar Sy channeling Eddie Murphy) despite the latter’s lack of training and multiple misgivings about looking after a total care client. But with Phillipe drawn to Driss’ disorderly joie de vivre and lack of condescending pity, and Driss more than happy to live in his boss’ palatial mansion, what starts out as a business deal gently morphs into something deeper with each man drawing upon the other’s strengths. Chopin, fine wine, and physiotherapists are soon augmented by rolled joints, hookers, and Kool & The Gang as Phillipe discovers he’s capable of far more than he thought possible and Driss finally learns to care about someone other than himself. Predictable from start to finish and hitting all the expected emotional notes, the directors have nevertheless produced something of a rarity in cinema: a story about disability that flows with empathy and humour without being smarmy or patronizing. Cluzet provides the perfect straight man to Sy’s grinning schtick and neither the handicapped card nor the race card—the real life Sellou was Algerian, Driss is Senegalese—are played (thank gawd!) thus allowing the directors to simply show love and respect developing naturally between their unlikely protagonists without the need for sermons. A guaranteed heart-warmer written for adults.

Fox and His Friends
(Germany 1975) (7): Writer/director Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s bitter tale of a little proletarian worm who thought he could be a bourgeois butterfly is perhaps more cutting today than it was upon its initial release. Not very attractive and not particularly bright, gay carnival worker Franz (Fassbinder) is blown out of his humdrum rut when he wins a small fortune in Deutschmarks playing the lottery. But, like the proverbial lamb being led to the slaughter, he is not prepared for a world where literally everything suddenly comes with a price tag attached: friendship, family ties, and most notably…love. Now in a one-sided relationship with Eugen, the heir to a failing bookbinding factory, Franz’s bank account is slowly being chipped away by a new condo, upscale furniture, and a sports car as Eugen tries to turn him into a replica of his own snobbish, class-conscious self. But you can’t fashion steak from cold mutton and as the money dwindles so too does Eugen’s affections leaving a flummoxed Franz more vulnerable and unhappy than he ever was before his windfall… With all the moral gravitas of a fable, Fassbinder takes an emphatically dim stance on the relationship between material wealth and perceived status as well as a privileged class who regard their social inferiors as commodities to be used and discarded. The director himself puts in a fearless performance as the tragic naif, including an unabashed full monty to show off the results of a preparatory crash diet, while Peter Chatel (as Eugen) is the embodiment of slime and Christiane Maybach’s portrayal of Franz’s embittered alcoholic sister becomes a metaphor unto itself. With a satirical ending as bleak as they come, Rainer assures us that money actually can buy happiness after all—just not your own.

Tora! Tora! Tora!
(USA 1970) (7): Four years in the planning and employing a small army of stars, uniformed extras, and a couple of directors from both sides of the Pacific, 20th Century Fox’s widescreen epic about the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour—an unprovoked act which propelled America into a world war—certainly deserved its many technical-related Oscar nominations, including a win for Best Visual Effects. Ironically, it proved to be an initial flop stateside even as it became a box office success in Japan. Main director Richard Fleischer consulted actual veterans as well as historians in order to make his film as accurate as possible and one can see why the results didn’t sit well in American theatres. Mixed messages, bureaucracy, and a stodgy military hierarchy all played a role in making the Hawaiian base a sitting duck while on the other side of the ocean a power play was unfolding between hawks who wanted to eliminate the potential threat of American aggression directed at Japan’s expansion, and doves who worried about “waking the sleeping giant”. With so much of the budget invested in staging the attack itself, the studio still managed to hire a who’s who of American character actors, as well as some of their Japanese counterparts. Unfortunately even the likes of Martin Balsam, Jason Robards, and E. G. Marshall weren’t able to breathe much life into a pedantic script which too often sounds like a rote historical reenactment, both dry and lacking spontaneity. But oh when the action finally gets underway it’s non-stop fireballs as strafing warplanes descend upon elaborate outdoor sets and scale models alike. The complex aerial manoeuvres and rolling warships are enough to invoke motion sickness and the sound department deafens audiences with screaming engines and spectacular pyrotechnics. In the end, president Roosevelt’s “date which will live in infamy” is preserved in all its tragedy thanks to Fleischer’s attention to detail and a special effects team which shoves you into a front row dockside seat.

Rain
(New Zealand 2001) (9): The summer of ’72 proves pivotal for 13-year old Janey as she spends yet another holiday at the family’s lakeside cottage. Mom is an adulterous alcoholic who’s set her eyes on Cady the virile hunk moored offshore, Dad is bewildered with self-pity, and the awkward advances of Janey’s would-be boyfriend are more annoying than encouraging—especially since she’s vying for Cady’s attention herself. Only her kid brother Jim seems to be untainted by the games and deceptions going on around him, marking him as an innocent lamb among tired wolves and sheep too far gone to care anymore. Presented in colours that shift from bleached pastels to saturated primaries and framed in a boxlike aspect ratio that mimics home movies, director Christine Jeffs’ adaptation of Kirsty Gunn’s novel is a brilliant experiment in sound and texture which captures the mind of a young woman on the cusp of adolescence. Watching her parents slowly crumble to pieces while at the same time struggling with her own newly heightened emotions Janey is beginning to see the adult world for what it truly is and Jeffs pulls a few risky cinematic ploys in order to project her inner struggles onto the screen—and for the most part they work admirably. Passages of slow-motion are punctuated by surreal touches yet the film never flies off into arthouse indulgence: a close-up shot of whiskey slowly splashing over ice is almost carnal in its intensity; a post-coital shower filmed in B&W is wracked by guilt and pain; and the horizon is smudged by storm clouds carrying the promise (or threat) that this will be a vacation no one will ever forget, a sentiment echoed in the sour lemons which always seem to be scattered around mom’s bottle. And throughout Jeffs employs images of water—baths that never seem to cleanse, a placid lake that harbours temptation as well as treachery, a wet dress sensually dripping across a wooden tabletop—an oft overused metaphor here given new life. But a story is only as good as its cast, and once again Jeffs cashes in big time. Alicia Fulford-Wierzbicki is brilliant as Janey, a mixture of pouty defiance and clingy dependance while Sarah Peirse and Alistair Browning excel as the parents—you can feel the sadness and tension between them coming right off the screen. Marton Csokas plays the forbidden object of desire with a quiet eroticism and Aaron Murphy, nine-years old at the time, anchors everything as the freckle-faced Jim whose innocence adds poignancy to the unfolding drama. A perfect marriage between sight and sound—the sensuous visuals pairing well with a soft soundtrack of retro tunes—and one of the few films to successfully usher audiences into the psyche of its young protagonist.

A Day in the Death of Joe Egg
(UK 1972) (10): Married couple Bri and Sheila’s ten-year old daughter Jo (nicknamed “Joe Egg”) has been in a near vegetative state since she was six weeks of age. Even though she is unresponsive to external stimuli, requires total care, and is wracked by frequent seizures, they nevertheless have her enrolled in daily physiotherapy and take turns caring for her at home where they employ dark humour and fanciful conversations (imagining what Jo might think or say) in order to cope. But the animated banter is tinged with cruelty and the perfunctory shows of affection barely conceal an underlying sense of despair and rage—rage against the medical establishment which let them down, rage against the hollow platitudes offered by the church, and resentment aimed at friends and family who seem unable (or unwilling) to recognize their pain. But there is a deeper divide forming in the home for whereas an exhausted Sheila still feels a maternal obligation to care for the life they’ve created however feeble it may be, an equally exhausted Bri is quickly coming to the end of his existential rope… Alan Bates and Janet Suzman both put in stunning performances as the suffering parents and they are shored up by an equally capable supporting cast: Sheila Gish and Peter Bowles as a visiting couple whose own difference of opinion—her cold pragmatism running afoul of his socialist idealism (look for the halo)—scratches an already festering wound, and Joan Hickson stealing every scene she’s in as the gossipy mother-in-law who can’t see beyond the tip of her perpetually lit cigarette. Based on Peter Nichols’ stage play, director Peter Medak limits most of the drama to Bri and Sheila’s two-story flat, a jumbled chaos of Bri’s eclectic artwork and Sheila’s menagerie of pets who, like Jo herself, require daily care and consideration. It’s in this domestic arena that the volatile topic of quantity versus quality of life is hesitantly alluded to against the backdrop of a marriage in turmoil. With Sheila grabbing at imagined straws (does Jo’s flexing fist signify awareness?) and Bri retreating into alcohol and sexual fantasies, a fuse which has been burning for ten years is slowly but inexorably inching toward an explosive climax made all the more poignant by flashbacks to happier times. A brutal, confrontational work which doesn’t demand you choose a side, but does insist that you listen to all sides. As an interesting note, Montrealer Elizabeth Robillard puts in an uncanny performance as Jo, spending the entire film either strapped into a wheelchair or else lying limp and spasming. No small feat for a twelve-year old.

I’ll Be Yours
(USA 1947) (8): Even the smallest fib can snowball out of control in this fluffy big city fairytale showcasing the talents of Winnipeg’s own squeaky clean Deanna Durbin. Fresh from the corn belt, midwest ingénue Louise Ginglebusher (Durbin) arrives in New York with a hundred dollars in her purse and a desire for something new. It isn’t long however before she finds herself cornered in the penthouse lair of a wolfish millionaire (Adolphe Menjou) and the only way for her to escape his eager clutches is to lie about being married to a handsome, though struggling, lawyer (Tom Drake) whom she just met in passing that afternoon and whose business card she’s still carrying. Desiring Durbin for himself, Menjou immediately sets his sights on Drake who sets his sights on Durbin who desperately tries to shovel herself out of a mess that just keeps getting messier. Sparkles, romance, and singing ensue as Deanna shows us why she was once touted as box office gold. Universal studio’s L.A. backlot makes for a passable Manhattan and the design crew earn their keep with lively nightclub sets (Durbin and Drake waltz past an indoor waterfall…swoon!) and swank industrial interiors from a grand minimalist theatre lobby to Menjou’s ornate bachelor pad. To be honest, by this time Durbin’s wide-eyed virgin schtick was getting a little stale but Preston Sturges’ screenplay saves the day with its genuinely funny face-offs and some rapid-fire exchanges with character actor William Bendix, cast as an abrasive waiter and restaurateur wannabe, who times his lines as if he were delivering a stand-up routine. And Durbin brushes off her famous pipes with a couple of operatic numbers, most notably a show-stopping rendition of “Granada” complete with wandering orchestra. It’s all candy floss and kisses of course, but sometimes that’s exactly what you need.