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

~ ~ ~ ~

Woman on the Run
(USA 1950) (8): While walking his dog one evening Frank Johnson (Ross Elliot) becomes the sole witness to a gangland murder. Afraid of what might happen to him should he testify he flees into the night pursued by the police and the cold-blooded killer who will stop at nothing to silence him for good. The plot thickens even further however when his estranged wife (Ann Sheridan) takes a sudden interest in her husband’s wellbeing and joins in the chase accompanied by a persistent reporter (Dennis O’Keefe) eager to get the big scoop. But could her good intentions wind up spelling disaster for all concerned? This grand example of Film Noir at its finest was almost lost for good when the only known print was destroyed in a fire leaving nothing but poor quality bootleg copies on the market. An intact original was eventually uncovered in the archives of the British Film Institute and sent to UCLA for preservation—and a good thing too for director Norman Foster’s minor opus, steeped in paranoia and deception, is a reason to celebrate. The old San Francisco locations are nicely rendered in grungy B&W (Union Square, Coit Tower, and the Ferry Building all make cameos) and the dialogue pops and crackles as characters trade wisecracks and pessimistic jibes—apparently Sheridan and O’Keefe had a hand in tailoring their own lines resulting in some onscreen chemistry that adds a few extra curves to an already bumpy ride. And those final scenes, captured at a dockside amusement park, couldn’t have been any more tense had they been filmed in 3D. Whether you’re unfamiliar with the genre or a diehard fan, Woman on the Run is definitely worth the time.

And God Created Woman
(France 1956) (5): A tawdry melodrama whose immorality would barely warrant a PG rating these days, Roger Vadim’s potboiler is noteworthy only because it cemented a then 22-year old Brigitte Bardot’s reputation as an international sex kitten. Raised in a dour conservative family, former orphan Juliette (Bardot) has grown into a pouty teenaged libertine who has all the village men chasing her tail like lustful alleycats—but Juliette only has eyes for Antoine, manager of the local shipyard. In a fit of pique however she marries his younger brother, Michel, even though her loins are still firmly orientated toward Antoine. Meanwhile wealthy middle-aged shipyard owner Eric is determined to become the moody naif’s sugar daddy come hell or high water. The heated romantic rectangle which results ensures that it’s only a matter of time before events reach a tragic head… With St. Tropez’s azure locations standing in for Eden, Bardot’s character is both apple and snake, temptress and victim of her own desires. And Vadim’s camera spends as much time lingering over her tastefully exposed flesh as it does on all those sandy beaches and tortured male close-ups. But this flick doesn’t quite fit within the realm of “female empowerment” for Juliette wields her sexuality like a toddler with a loaded pistol—firing at random and racking up collateral damage along the way. Bardot is certainly attractive in all the right places, but her character’s scatterbrained approach to life, filled with 18-year old angst and seductive moues, becomes monotonous very quickly even if one accepts the usual scenario of sheltered small town girl smitten with hormonal wanderlust. Still, the scenery is lovely and a crazy jazz score is quaintly dated.

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing
(USA 1955) (6): Apparently stars William Holden and Jennifer Jones couldn’t stand each other and their offscreen animosity translates into some rather tepid love scenes. But it doesn’t really matter because Henry King’s weepy Cinemascope romance, based on the memoirs of Dr. Han Suyin, is so glossed over that even the author herself refused to watch it. In 1949 Hong Kong English-Chinese doctor Han Suyin (Jones) falls for American correspondent Mark Elliot (Holden) in an affair which goes beyond all propriety thus threatening her good reputation. For one thing Elliot is unhappily married and unlikely to get a divorce, for another the widowed Suyin is torn between Chinese stoicism which instructs her to wear the memory of her late husband like a mantle and her European practicality—as a self-described “Eurasian” she presents a baffling blend of ancient superstition (butterflies bring good fortune!) and modern sensibility (it only takes Elliot three scenes to get her into a swimsuit). Trouble is brewing for the two lovers however as attested to by a couple of blatant foreshadowings, most notably a sombre parade winding past their hotel room as they passionately embrace. Jones’ eyes have trouble staying in character as they go from almond to round and back again thanks to arbitrarily employed prosthetics and Holden dutifully slogs through his lines with determination if not passion. But the lush Technicolor scenery bounces seamlessly between Hong Kong location shots and the 20th Century Studios ranch in Malibu, and the movie did manage to pick up three Oscars for costuming, music, and best song—that dreamy title theme cropping up on radios and jukeboxes throughout before ending with a gushing choral finale obviously meant to ensure there’d be no dry eyes in the theatre. And although John Patrick’s literary screenplay periodically slips into “exotic mode”—as Suyin’s honourable uncle, veteran character actor Keye Luke sounds as if he’s reciting fortune cookies—it still packs an intellectual punch as it dares to address issues of adultery, cultural identity, and miscegenation, not to mention a few romantic exchanges which would have been almost sexy had King cast a pair of different leads. All in all a fine example of the type of big screen tearjerker popular throughout the ‘50s. This is what might have happened had Ernest Hemingway penned a Harlequin romance and then handed it over to Douglas Sirk.

Shot Caller
(USA 2017) (7): While serving a prison sentence for a fatal DUI, white collar family man Jacob Harlon (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) falls in with the resident skinhead gang, doing whatever he has to do in order to survive on the inside. Once he’s released however those same criminal ties continue to dog him thus barring any chance he might have had to go straight—including a possible reunion with his ex-wife and son. Now, with a major crime in the offing, Jacob discovers he still has a few shreds of his former decency left…but will those shreds be enough to save both himself and his estranged family? By all rights I really shouldn’t have enjoyed this prison drama as much as I did, the main sticking point being the implausible transformation of a pampered L.A. stockbroker into a tattooed shiv-wielding gangbanger seemingly overnight. Yet Coster-Waldau makes it easy to believe with little more than an alteration in voice, physical bearing, and eye contact while writer/director Ric Roman Waugh uses flashbacks to contrast the sea change between clean-shaven yuppie and moustachioed thug. Although the penitentiary scenes differ little from other genre offerings—cue cast of buff bikers and crooked guards—Waugh nevertheless brings a bit of intelligence to the table most notably Harlon’s ongoing psychological struggle as he tries to let go of his old life, and the leader of the skinheads (Jeffrey Donovan) whose “human animal” philosophy underscores a montage of violence and chest-beating. But despite the paperback theatrics Waugh’s film races along raising tension, dashing hopes, and throwing the odd curveball along the way supported by bleak cinematography (a row of solitary cages in a prison yard resemble a zoo in more ways than one) and a musical score that manages to ride shotgun for the duration. Omari Hardwick co-stars as a hard-bitten cop able to smell a rat a mile away; Holt McCallany makes a brief but intense appearance as a merciless gang leader; and Lake Bell elicits just the right amount of sympathy as Harlon’s former wife, a determined woman torn between her memories of the past and her need for a brighter future.

A Star is Born
(USA 2018) (7): Bradley Cooper makes an impressive directorial debut in this remake of a remake of a remake, and sharing the spotlight with him Lady Gaga proves that she is made of more than just crazy props and make-up. Jack (Cooper) is a C&W singer on the way down thanks to drugs, alcohol and childhood trauma who embarks on an emotionally fraught relationship with talented naif Ally (Gaga). Watching over the couple are Jack’s older brother (Sam Elliot) who, given Jack’s addictions, is more of a babysitter than road manager, and an unscrupulous producer intent on turning Ally into the next big pop star even if it compromises her artistic integrity and drives a wedge between her and Jack. Cooper plays his own guitar and belts out live performances like a pro, Gaga plays against type and nails it, and together they create a definite onscreen chemistry which makes every duet soar and every tragic turn shred those heartstrings. Elliot expands his range dramatically—yes those are real tears—and a supporting cast includes Dave Chappelle being dead serious for a change, Andrew Dice Clay (?!) playing Ally’s middle-aged dad like a blue collar Robert Young, and RuPaul alumni William Belli and Shangela ad libbing the house down as Ally’s drag queen BFFs. Although some of the symbolism tends to be overbearing (a billboard foreshadows an unhappy twist, Gaga whistles “Over the Rainbow” as she traipses up a brick road, a poster of Carole King hangs prominently) Cooper handles his twin stories—rags-to-riches intertwined with riches-to-rags—with an unexpected depth that made those final moments of tragedy and triumph strike with documentary realism. A fine effort all around which definitely deserved its eight Oscar nominations—including “Best Song” win. And speaking of songs, the music is pretty amazing.

A Woman, A Gun and a Noodle Shop
(Hong Kong 2009) (6): The slapstick elements and cartoonish emoting may be too broad for Western audiences leaving us to wonder whether this is an attempt at homage or an outright parody. But either way Zhang Yimou’s reimagining of the Coen brother’s 1984 classic Blood Simple is definitely a dazzling treat for the eyes, if not the intellect. Moving the action from Texas to the multi-hued desert of China’s Gansu province circa 19th century (?) Yimou’s tale of retribution and amour fou centres on wealthy noodle shop owner Wang who discovers his much younger wife is having an affair with one of his apprentices. Realizing he’s been cuckolded, the already abusive Wang employs crooked police officer Zhang to dispose of the couple and remove all traces of the dirty deed. But the policeman is crookeder than Zhang first thought and his plucky wife just bought a gun leading to a lethal series of double-crosses and crossed wires. If you’ve seen the Coen’s film you pretty well know how this is going to play out, but Yimou soaks the screen in such beautiful colours and exotic CGI sets that it is easy to overlook a rather prosaic script. Characters skulk about in flamboyant shifts of shocking pink and jade green while the barren landscape around them erupts in bands of cinnamon and tangerine beneath a neon blue sky—and at night all is illuminated by an impossibly full moon. A ragtag troop of country cops looking like costumed rejects from Kurosawa’s Ran provide a bit of comic relief—their cross-eyed commander hammed to perfection by Benshan Zhao—and Wang’s other two apprentices (a screeching Mao Mao and ridiculously bucktoothed Ye Cheng) provide a bit of lukewarm physical comedy à la Laurel & Hardy. But it’s Honglei Sun as the hired assassin who cements each scene, his stony features, pinprick eyes, and casual cruelty calling to mind a wild west Terminator especially given his bargain store samurai uniform. Despite a shaky beginning and running gags that often limp along, this is still an enjoyable satire which may not match the lauded cult status of its source material but neither does it offer insult.

Easy Money
[Snabba Cash] (Sweden 2010) (7): In order to maintain his upper class illusion, part-time cabbie and full-time student JW decides to dabble in his boss’ “other” line of work—drugs. Recently escaped from prison, low level smuggler Jorge, who also works for JW’s boss, is trying to evade both the police and the Serbian mafia who have a score to settle with him. When these two men eventually join up it will place them both in the crosshairs of Mrado, a ruthless enforcer sent to deal with Jorge. Now, with a multi-million dollar shipment of cocaine on its way from Germany to Sweden and a turf war looming these three separate narratives will run headlong into each other with destructive consequences. Manic editing makes it look as if Daniel Espinosa’s Scandinavian crime thriller were filmed on the run then hastily pasted together in-camera while an equally chaotic script jumps erratcially from one thread to another, occasionally in the middle of a conversation. There is a low level brilliance to his potentially off-putting delivery however for it gives us a story as emotionally charged and psychologically disordered as its characters—and those characters run deeper than the film’s opening scenes of vice and violence would suggest. JW is a yuppie wannabe whose romantic liaison with a beautiful heiress has left him addicted to appearances, a hunger for the good life which stands poised to destroy his real life. Jorge’s pregnant sister is dredging up uncomfortable childhood memories even as he tries to prove he’s nothing like their abusive late father. And Mrado finds himself the reluctant guardian of his 8-year old daughter after his drug-addled ex-wife is deemed incompetent to care for her. Staccato gunfire and bloody fisticuffs set to a volatile score of Euro beats remove any notions of romance (crime seems to pay but its currency is dirty indeed) and Espinosa’s three leads turn in exemplary performances especially when they find their individual lives becoming more and more constricted. The movie’s tangled plots and irregular assemblage may be seen as liabilities by some (you really do need to pay close attention) but it left a big enough impression on director Martin Scorsese that he was instrumental in bringing it to North American theatres. A bit of trivia: Dragomir Mrsic, who plays Mrado, stumbled upon acting after serving time in prison for bank robbery.

Shut In
(Canada 2016) (5): Recently widowed child psychologist Mary Portman (Naomi Watts) lives in the wilds of New England (Quebec) with her 18-year old stepson Stephen (Charlie Heaton) who has been in a vegetative state ever since he was involved in the car accident which killed his father. Between counselling her wee clients and providing total care for a comatose Stephen Mary has little time for anything else. But with a winter storm on the way her own psychological health is called into question when she begins having visions of one of her patients—a little deaf boy who has gone missing—and her house suddenly comes alive with mysterious bangs and crashes in the night… Make no mistake, this is a bad movie. Insultingly bad. Its cheap jump scares quickly become tedious and that silly “twist” sets the stage for such ridiculous melodrama it’s almost comical. Then there’s the derivative plot devices—the romantic red herring, the doctor who refuses to believe her—and the yawning gaps in logic as a few puzzling turns go unexplained. But for all its genre shortcomings director Farren Blackburn does know how to squeeze out a decent no-brainer chiller thriller which kept me watching even if I occasionally rolled my eyes. The snowy isolation is a perfect backdrop for a tale that grows creepier with every slamming door, and if you’re able to tweak your critical thinking for 90 minutes the tension grows exponentially as Mary heads for the basement (of course) or peers through a darkened window. Watts gives us a convincing damsel in distress and the lighting department makes sure that there are enough darkened hallways and sputtering candles to turn her Maine getaway into a picturesque haunted house. I suppose one could try and excuse it as a psychodrama with Oedipal overtones but that would be a stretch even for me. Best just to turn the lights down, grab the popcorn, and prepare to be pleasantly underwhelmed.

(USA 2007) (7): In the late 60s a serial killer calling himself “Zodiac” was responsible for fatally stabbing or shooting at least five people in California, mainly women and couples. What set him apart from the usual crop of psychopaths however was the way he aggrandized himself by sending cryptic letters to the media, taunting notes which often included messages written in his own secret code. David Fincher’s policier is based largely on firsthand accounts from those directly involved in the case, including one of the victims who actually survived, and follows the Zodiac manhunt as it alternately grows hot and cold over the space of several decades—hampered from the beginning by largely circumstantial, occasionally conflicting evidence; lack of cooperation between police forces; and the killer’s own craftiness. Mark Ruffalo angrily wrings his hands as a San Francisco detective assigned to the case, Robert Downey Jr. is true to form as a caustic reporter, and Jake Gyllenhaal outshines them both as a clever newspaper cartoonist turned amateur sleuth whose obsession with finding Zodiac turns his own life inside out. Meanwhile Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, and Chloë Sevigny provide back-up as a fellow detective, crusading lawyer, and Gyllenhaal’s frustrated wife respectively. The period sets are convincing enough—especially with the likes of Donovan, Marvin Gaye, and Tommy James playing on the radio—and Fincher went to great lengths to ensure accuracy, even flying in trees to a murder site grown arid over the years and reconstructing victims’ clothes based on forensic reports. Although at 157 minutes it does drag in parts and some of the pieces of the puzzle don’t fit so tidily (a creepy basement interlude between Gyllenhaal and a “person of interest” would be more at home in a horror knock-off) it’s still fascinating to see how brilliant deductions and grievous screw-ups combined to give us one of the 20th century’s most baffling mysteries. A word of warning to the delicate however, the murder recreations are distressingly realistic.

Appleseed: Ex Machina
(Japan 2007) (8): Although not considered true anime by many diehard aficionados due to its artwork and animation techniques, Shinji Aramaki’s adaptation of the popular graphic series still makes for exciting viewing. In the year 2133 mankind has recovered from yet another global war only this time a new urban utopia, named Olympus, has arisen from the ruins. A marvel of civil and architectural engineering, Olympus is inhabited by every kind of human (organic, cyborg, and GMO “bioroids”) co-existing in harmony thus providing a hopeful blueprint for the rest of the world. But a snake has entered this future Eden in the form of terrorists who are somehow able to turn peaceful citizens into murderous mobs. Suddenly besieged by violent insurrection on all sides, Olympus’ leader calls in the E.S.W.A.T. team (Especial Weapons and Tactics) to quell the rioters and uncover the psychic saboteurs. The task of saving Olympus will eventually fall to E.S.W.A.T. officer Deunan, a kick-ass ninja chick, and her cyborg partner-cum-lover Brialeos… Although Aramaki’s film doesn’t do well with extreme close-ups (his computer graphic characters exhibit the emotional range of cartoon marionettes) he more than makes up for it with wide screen action. Crayon-coloured explosions and glowing sci-fi cityscapes light up the screen accompanied by giant booms, rapid fire bangs, and a supercool electro-pop musical score by Yellow Magic Orchestra founder Haruomi Hosono. It’s as if a young John Woo was let loose on a stack of superhero colouring books—no surprise that he's listed as a producer! And if you can get by all those blatantly ridiculous narrow escapes there’s some deeper philosophical points to chew on—the allure of conformity vs the need for individuality for instance, or the contradiction of striving for peace through force. And then there’s the concept of interracial romance taken to the next level when you realize Duenan’s hunky metallic boyfriend has more in common with a refrigerator than a human being. A meticulously executed piece of cinema which looks great, sounds awesome (turn those speakers up!), and leaves you with something to think about.

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom
(Italy 1975) (7): Pier Paolo Pasolini’s swan song (he was murdered before its release) takes an 18th century S&M classic penned by the Marquis de Sade and sets it in the northern Italian town of Salò circa 1944 when it was the de facto seat of power for Mussolini’s fascist regime. Viciously depraved and unflinchingly cruel, his cinematic attack on capitalism, totalitarianism, and the hypocrisy of morality remains to this day one of the most divisive of arthouse films and one of the few to push the envelope beyond all measures of decency. In the waning years of WWII four wealthy Italian libertines forcibly round up 18 youths (nine boys, nine girls) and imprison them in a richly appointed manor house where, over the course of four months, they are subjected to humiliation and rape, torture and mutilation, and in one lavish banquet scene forced to eat their own excrement. Taking great delight in their positions of power the four men mete out mercy or punishment depending on their whims while the captives slowly gravitate toward becoming either sacrificial lambs or willing collaborators. It’s a difficult watch, often revolting to the point of nausea, but Pasolini’s steady camera and cold direction assures that there will be no ambivalence to his message. The men in charge—a judge, a bishop, a duke, and a president—are clearly metaphors as is their “Book of Rules” which lays down the law while simultaneously recording the names of those who break it. The house itself is a decaying echo of past decadence festooned with priceless artwork and religious pieces in which saints and angels either have their eyes tightly shut or else focused on Heaven. Indeed, more than one cry for divine intervention falls on deaf ears in both this world and the next. And the young victims, all seized from bourgeois homes, are a clear lesson on the corrupting effects of privilege—those favoured by the libertines advance, those not are subjected to horrors which grow progressively more sadistic as the film lopes towards its nihilistic conclusion. Excess in all things is strictly observed, ethics are twisted into something hideous, and every social convention—from love and marriage to crime and justice—are gleefully pissed on. And the next generation bears the brunt. With influences from the likes of Dante, Nietzsche, Proust, and de Sade himself, Pasolini gives us not so much an impassioned denouncement as one long and not entirely coherent scream of rage. A profoundly ugly film of questionable necessity, but given the current state of the world the debate over whether or not he crossed a line is still far from academic.

Elvis & Nixon
(USA 2016) (6): In the winter of 1970 Elvis Presley met with then president Richard Nixon at the White House. While there are no official transcripts of what was discussed there were a couple of firsthand accounts from presidential aide Bud Krogh and Elvis’ personal friend and P.R. man Jerry Schilling. Using their recollections plus a whole lot of imaginative filler director Liza Johnson turns this historic encounter into a droll exercise in “What if…?” As portrayed by Michael Shannon, Elvis is a mix of celebrity egotist, southern gentleman, and staunch supporter of all things right of centre who is obsessed with becoming an undercover federal agent so that he can protect America from communists and hippies and the drug culture they promote (even The Beatles are not above his suspicion). As portrayed by Kevin Spacey, Nixon is a gruff, dismissive square peg who shares Elvis’ concerns even though he has absolutely no grasp of either pop culture or the younger voting demographic. Despite meandering for most of its running time—Elvis charms the ladies, Nixon swears and blusters—when their meeting eventually does take place it is well worth the wait to watch Elvis violate every protocol in the book while a ruffled Nixon comes to admire him for it. Spacey perfectly embodies the president, from the stooped posture and gravelly voice to the brusque mannerisms all of which make his emerging hero worship hilariously awkward. Unfortunately, aside from the pompadour wig and flashy bling, Shannon’s performance robs The King of his essential charisma and screen presence giving us not much more than a second rate Elvis impersonation. But the dialogue crackles and Spacey’s noteworthy turn is reinforced by a pair of neurotic aides (Colin Hanks, Evan Peters) as well as a brief but funny appearance by Tate Donovan as Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman.

Army of Shadows
(France 1969) (7): Focusing on a cell of the underground French Resistance during that country’s Nazi occupation, Jean-Pierre Melville’s adaptation of Joseph Kessel’s novel destroys the romantic notion of handsome young men performing gallant acts of bravery while maintaining the moral high ground. Both Melville and Kessel were actively involved in the defence of France during WWII, in the military and the Resistance, and this unsettling insiders’ view of how the Underground worked is perhaps more accurate than a dozen Hollywood blockbusters. Living with the constant threat of torture and execution should they be caught by the Germans, a small cadre of French fighters wage a clandestine war against the enemy aided in part by British allies. From midnight parachute jumps over hostile territory to elaborate rescue schemes, there’s nothing they won’t do in order to hasten the liberation of France. But the danger and risk of exposure doesn’t come without a price—namely an obsession with secrecy bordering on paranoia and an ice cold sense of justice for anyone (even their own) who violates the rules. In this “army of shadows” courage and brutality necessarily exist side by side—a scene in which three men must carry out a death sentence on a former friend turned informant is especially gruelling to watch. Presented in a near verité style which makes it look as if it were filmed on the fly, Melville paints a sobering picture of lives upturned by war and morals compromised out of necessity—for in a time where happy endings are a luxury even heroes can emerge tarnished. As one of the group’s leaders, Lino Ventura is a study in duty and implacable resolve while superstar Simone Signoret dominates the screen as a fellow agent with a gift for making the impossible possible.

(S. Korea 2013) (6): Fed up with her husband’s latest infidelity, an already unstable wife decides to remove his offending member with a butcher knife—but when he manages to fight her off she focuses her rage on their sleeping teenaged son instead. With his wife now disappeared and his son horribly wounded, the guilt-wracked father looks to the internet for possible solutions and discovers a whole world of dubious medical advice and deviant kink. The son meanwhile strikes up a most unusual relationship with dad’s much younger mistress. And then mom comes home. Kim Ki-Duk’s transgressive piece of arthouse certainly ticks all the boxes from rape and incest to genital mutilation and extreme S&M, and he manages to do it without one single word of dialogue. But how do we approach the final result? It could be a psychodrama tracing the knotted bonds between husband, wife, son, and mistress with a perverse nod to Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and a gang of hyper-sexed punks thrown in for ballast. It could be a deconstruction of male/female identities with all their vulnerabilities and toxicities laid bare. Or it could be a soured Buddhist parable stressing the path to enlightenment through the severing of ties with earthly desires (accent on “severing”). The title itself refers to geometric properties which remain constant no matter how deformed they may become. Certainly the director tosses out enough visual clues to suggest multiple interpretations—mom’s frilly blood red lamp for example, or Dad’s gun drawer with its copy of The Great Gatsby, or that benevolent bust of Buddha which conceals something terrible. One thing’s for certain however, those gutsy enough to meet the challenge will definitely walk away with strong opinions one way or another. Personally I’m still trying to figure out exactly what the actual living fuck I just sat through.

Seven Samurai
(Japan 1954) (8): In the wild wild west of 16th century Japan a village of rural farmers hires seven professional swordsmen to defend their land from a roving gang of bandits. Over the course of several weeks the samurai, whose temperaments range from philosophical to truculent, attempt to organize the villagers into something resembling a ragtag militia—but when the bandits finally come knocking, will their efforts prove to be enough? Touted by many critics as “the greatest Japanese movie ever made”, writer/director Akira Kurosawa’s rollicking 3½-hour Western is certainly a testament to his gift for intimate drama and large scale punch. Avoiding soundstages as much as possible, his shabby thatched sets and dusty costumes (both nominated for Oscars) look absolutely authentic when coupled with those fields and mountains, and his cast of extras fret about in their rags and bandanas as if they were born to be feudal peasants. Blending moments of near slapstick humour with tragedy and a touch of sensuality (a village girl’s tussle with a samurai disciple is partially illuminated by a trembling campfire) Kurosawa revels in the genre without glorifying the violence—the final clash between farmers and marauders is a master class in controlled chaos where grisly slayings are suggested rather than scrutinized and nary a drop of blood is shown. Covering familiar territory of loyalty, idealism, and the corrupting nature of warfare, Seven Samurai is also a study in texture as Kurosawa draws upon everything from the snick of a sword to pummelling rainstorms to the pounding of hooves on a dirt road to augment a minimalist score whose grand orchestral moments take a backseat to single tension-filled notes. But, for all its artistry, the film belongs to star Toshirô Mifune as a well-meaning though slightly unhinged samurai wannabe. Leaping and posturing throughout—usually while bare-assed—he spits his lines as if they were curses, laughs like a madman, and constantly has his rowdy bravado undermined with one comeuppance after another. Seven Samurai may or may not be the “greatest” Japanese film of all time, but Mifune’s performance is certainly one of cinema’s finest.

Don’t Breathe 2
(USA 2021) (6): Our favourite blind kick-ass Navy Seal with a talent for vengeance is back again, and now he’s the good guy. Sort of. This time around Blind Guy is leading a quiet existence in a brand new dilapidated house on the outskirts of Detroit when a gang of ruffians break into his home and try to kidnap the young girl he’s been raising. But even though they have eyes and vastly outnumber him in terms of manpower and firepower he still manages to give them the fight of their lives… As a rule the one thing I can never forgive a director for is treating me like a gullible idiot and Rodo Sayagues definitely crosses that line on multiple occasions. However, much like the first film, part two is slapped together with such slick, over-the-top temerity that its comic book ridiculousness actually becomes an asset. For starters, the cast is perfect: from Stephen Lang’s sightless warrior—all scars, guilt, and grizzled rage—to the psychotic methamphetamine appeal of gang leader Brendan Sexton III, with nods along the way to Fiona O’Shaughnessy as the mother of all crackheads, Madelyn Grace as the sword-wielding young girl, and some brief but very nice eye candy from martial arts hunk Rocci Williams giving us the hottest bad boy since Tom Hardy’s Bronson. Then there’s the set designs, an operatic mix of 80s “teen scream” flicks (creaky stairs, creaky basement, creaky attic, dust motes everywhere); Road Warrior accessories (the bad guys just look bad!); and Blade Runner decay (the climactic scenes were actually filmed in an old shabby-chic Serbian hotel). Effective use of lighting too with a flooded room bathed in cobalt blue and shafts of blood red sunbeams piercing through wooden slats to light up a whole swath of pain. But its the imaginative R-rated carnage that deserves the most applause (and appreciative laughs) as Sayagues’ sfx crew utilize everything from hammers, machetes, and gardening tools to keep the gore dripping at a decent rate—they even give the old phrase “two thumbs up” a macabre new meaning. A silly implausible premise with a couple of absurd twists thrown in just for the hell of it, but once I accepted the fact that cast and crew were not aiming for an Oscar I could appreciate it for the genre classic its destined to become. Cute dog too!

The Child in Time
(England 2017) (4): Popular children’s author Stephen Lewis (Benedict Cumberbatch) takes his 4-year old daughter Kate to the supermarket where she promptly vanishes when he becomes momentarily distracted at the checkout. Now three years have gone by and the case has grown cold, much like Lewis’ marriage. Although still on friendly—even intimate—terms, the incident has caused such a rift between him and his wife (Kelly Macdonald) that she’s moved out and moved on leaving him alone to obsess over Kate’s disappearance…an obsession that has begun to colour every aspect of his life. I’m sure Ian McEwan’s source novel offers greater insights (not to mention much needed explanations) but Julian Farino’s screen adaptation takes an incisive piece on grief, guilt, and the effects of loss and muddies the waters with so much existential claptrap and political non-sequiturs that it becomes lost at sea. It would appear Lewis’ world is filled with “missing children” of one kind or another—his publisher inexplicably retreats into a second childhood; his mother recounts a bizarre prenatal experience involving an unborn Stephen; and both he and his wife have teasing visions of Kate. Even his current book about an unhappy young boy who wants to be a fish carries notes of emotional distress. But if his fruitless search for the little girl is meant to be a greater metaphor—innocence lost perhaps, or a way to emphasize the bewildered Stephen as a child “lost in time”—the message is misplaced amid the film’s temporal shifts (flashbacks render it a kind of psychological time travel tale) and sinister intrigues—a heartless Prime Minister with despotic attitudes towards child welfare probably plays a key role in McEwan’s book but is reduced to puzzling background noise in the film. Although well shot with an emphasis on “home” and sporting a fine pair of leads, the end product itself plays out like so many dots in search of a line to connect them. And that closing scene, smacking of absolution and transcendence, ends up pushing the envelope just a little too far.

Double Suicide
(Japan 1969) (9): In modern day Osaka a troupe of performers is preparing to present a 19th century bunraku (traditional puppet theatre). Amid a flurry of backstage preparations the lifelike dolls, laborious constructions requiring multiple human operators, are carefully being assembled while the play’s director finalizes a few last minute changes over the phone. The story they’re enacting is a classic tragedy: despite having a loving wife and two small children, humble merchant Jihei is madly in love with the beautiful courtesan Koharu but he lacks the necessary funds to buy her freedom from the high class brothel to which she is indentured. Adding to the couple’s misery is wealthy businessman Tahei who intends to purchase Koharu for himself thereby separating the lovers forever. Realizing that they can never be together in life, Jihei and Koharu make plans to join each other in death… An intriguing storyline to begin with but as the opening credits finish Masahiro Shinoda’s transgressive master work scores an artistic coup when both puppets asnd puppet stage are replaced by live actors and fanciful sets employing giant woodcuts, hand-painted backdrops, and plywood frames that imply busy streets and solid buildings. And the puppeteers themselves, draped in black from head to toe, continually move among the actors quietly manipulating props like stage hands one moment and providing a robust Greek Chorus the next. Filmed in a boxlike 1.33:1 ratio to enhance its stage-like vibe, Shinoda also opts for classic B&W cinematography and a soundtrack of Kabuki notes. The overall effect is of a dreamlike space in which doomed love, crippling remorse, and dark redemption play out with all the operatic flourishes one would expect while the gloved hands of fate literally shadow the protagonists. Exquisitely staged from those playful opening scenes to that crushing final frame.

(USA 2021) (8): Caught between a boring job and an emasculating wife, meek family man Hutch Mansell (Bob Odenkirk, perfect) faces one more humiliation when a pair of burglars cause him to wimp out in front of his son. But Hutch is not quite the doormat he appears to be... With hints of covert intrigue, the Russian mafia, and a rising body count, Ilya Naishuller's "shoot-em-up" is not exactly a comedy, but his tongue is definitely in his cheek with this twisted ode to the likes of John Wick and 1974's Death Wish. Things go boom, blood flies like raindrops, and we're treated to a lesson on how to kill four armed men with one bullet. Based on an idea by Odenkirk (in turn based on his own experience with a home invasion) this wildly imaginative revenge fantasy also stars a feisty old Christopher Lloyd acting out of character and loving it!

Images in a Convent
(Italy 1979) (6): In the 19th century Italian countryside Sister Angela is not having an easy go of it. As Mother Superior of the Santa Fiora convent she is all too aware of the ancient curse hanging over the building, a curse which gives her nuns a blasphemous appetite for finger-banging, cunnilingus, and wooden dildos. Now, to add to her carnal quandary, she must also play host to two new arrivals—a voluptuous countess hiding from her uncle's lusty attentions, and a handsome young stranger whose libido is strong enough to satisfy the entire flock. Could this have something to do with the statue of Pan leering over the garden wall? Or is Satan himself wandering her hallowed halls sporting a raging boner? Heavy on the atmospherics, Joe D'Amato's X-rated "nunsploitation" flick is equal parts arthouse tickler (poorly lit corridors coupled with airy choral pieces) and grindhouse sleaze with copious amounts of boy-on-girl-on-nun-on-girl action and a hardcore rape scene that's far too dated to be offensive. Ultimately just a whole lot of boobs and 70s bush culminating with a surprisingly erotic exorcism in which a horde of horny noviciates show a pious priest just how weak his flesh can be. Umm…amen?