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

~ ~ ~ ~

Swiss Army Man (USA 2016) (2): A shipwrecked Hank (Paul Dano) has his life saved by a flatulent corpse (Daniel Radcliffe?!?!) who happens to wash ashore just as he’s about to do himself in. But this is no ordinary cadaver for it possesses several supernatural abilities including fart-powered jet ski, fresh water fountain (just push on his tummy) and magical compass (his post mortem boner always points the way home). Still reading? Okay, then… “Manny” can also talk but he’s a complete tabula rasa who has forgotten what being alive was like so it’s up to Hank to jar his memory on everything from chicks to masturbation to love. And while the two make their way back to civilization Manny’s naiveté about life causes Hank to reevaluate his own—cue soaring a cappella ballads as Hank heals and Manny lets loose a string of squeakers. So, it’s Weekend at Bernies coupled with Castaway though less funny than the former (which wasn’t funny anyway) and less interesting than the latter (which wasn’t very interesting to begin with). Add a little bit of Gilligan’s Island as Hank tries to recreate the real world for Manny using trash and flotsam, and you have the kind of juvenile drivel that wows them at the MTV Awards while the rest of us see it for what it really is: a three million dollar fart joke. Trying to view this insultingly stupid mess as either a spoof or a grand metaphor doesn’t help either for I’ve seen reruns of Beavis & Butthead which offered more social insight with far more finesse. And worst of all, it leaves you with a host of disturbing visuals not the least of which is Dano in garbage dump drag dancing with Radcliffe who’s suspended from a tree by wires. Cast and crew reportedly taped their own bouts of flatulence for use on the soundtrack and that alone should be the only warning you need.

(USA 2015) (7): As America is devastated by a new virus which slowly turns people into decaying man-eaters, a father (Arnold Schwarzenegger showing unexpected depth) bypasses the authorities in order to bring Maggie, his infected daughter, (Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin, all grown up) home so he can care for her until the bitter end. But as her flesh begins to spoil and her appetites begin to shift, he wonders if he’s capable of doing her that one final favour. Those expecting a Romero-style zombie bloodfest will be sorely disappointed for director Henry Hobson has chosen to remove the jolts and gore in order to give us a deeply felt family tragedy. Filmed in the hinterlands of Louisiana, Maggie unfolds under perpetually overcast skies with the sound of distant thunder accenting a score of heavy strings and sad piano. There is a touch of Terrence Malick to its gauzy cinematography as Arnold wanders dejectedly through a ruined cornfield (the virus attacks everything) or Maggie stares with open horror at the maggots wriggling from her fresh wounds. It is never easy to lose a child for any reason, and screenwriter John Scott 3 seems to understand this for his script is grounded in tender, almost impressionistic moments as father and daughter try to find some sense of normalcy in the face of darkness: they laugh at childhood memories; he shields her from the authorities determined to put her into “quarantine”; and she hangs out with her friends at the local quarry, finding some solace in a former high school sweetheart who is also infected. And the end, when it finally comes, is as gentle as a tear and as piercing as a razor blade. Joely Richardson co-stars as Maggie’s stepmother who is torn between love for her stepdaughter and the ice cold pragmatism of life during a plague—her heartbreaking ambivalence providing the perfect balance between Schwarzenegger’s crippling grief and Breslin’s brave childlike facade. A slow and moody slice of American Gothic whose themes of love and loss are strangely bolstered, not hampered, by the rotting make-up effects.

Darkest Hour
(UK 2017) (6): Joe Wright’s impressive piece of historical revisionism, covering one crucial month in the life of Winston Churchill, was met with criticism upon its release by those who felt the Prime Minister’s role in mobilizing Britain was exaggerated and those who felt Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Winston as a morally upright old curmudgeon ignored his track record of imperialism and bigotry. But you can only stuff so much into one month’s time and no one can begrudge Oldman his Best Actor Oscar for that fiery performance which fills the screen from beginning to end. The month in question, May 1940, saw Churchill assume the role of PM from an ailing Neville Chamberlain and unite a divided parliament under a banner of war aimed at halting Hitler’s encroachment across Europe. Filled with wide angle views of smokey round tables and a few shots both inspired—an aerial view over a bombarded countryside morphs into the face of a dead child, and insipid—Churchill rides the tube and smiles upon an interracial couple (something the real man is unlikely to have done), Wright’s fanciful epic treads that fine line between inspirational nationalism and blustery propaganda, often stumbling in its zeal to make his rotund protagonist seem larger than life. However, Bruno Delbonnel’s Oscar-nominated cinematography and Anthony McCarten’s script capture both the time and the national zeitgeist, and Oldman wears his pounds of make-up and prosthetics as if he were born into them thereby bringing to life a mesmerizing idea of what Winston Churchill could have been. The cast is rounded out by Kristin Scott Thomas as Winston’s wife, Lily James as his beleaguered secretary, and Aussie Ben Mendelsohn as a lisping George VI.

Trouble in Paradise
(USA 1932) (7): Among the dreamy canals of Venice, dashing European thief Gaston (a stodgy Herbert Marshall) falls in love with sexy American pickpocket Lily (a sassy platinum Miriam Hopkins) and together they set their sights on scamming wealthy widow Mariette (Kay Francis commanding the screen). Jealousy and tribulations arise however when Mariette threatens to steal Gaston’s heart instead… Reportedly director Ernst Lubitsch’s favourite project, this sparkling romantic comedy eventually got into trouble with the newly formed Production Code for its heavily implied sex (shadows fall across an inviting bed, a bedroom door quietly locks into place) and dubious morality (sometimes crime does pay!) resulting in its relative obscurity for decades until it was revived for TV in the late ‘50s. So very tame by today’s standards it still remains an effervescent bit of fluff shored up by some snappy dialogue—an intimate dinner turns into a game of thieving one-upmanship—moonlit Venetian sets, and innovative cinematography as the director’s lens races from window to window and up and down grand staircases. And those gorgeous dresses and period tchotchkes will give fans of art deco something to cheer about. Lubitsch even manages to throw a bit of revolutionary rancour into the mix with Lily and Gaston chiding the frivolous habits of the wealthy while the rest of the world continues to struggle through the Great Depression. A simple yet elegant melding of Hollywood glamour and social critique that still works today.

You Only Live Twice
(UK 1967) (5): Aside from the novelty of 1962’s Dr. No and the nihilism of Daniel Craig’s reboots, I’ve never been able to generate much enthusiasm for the cartoonish exploits of James Bond, and this fifth instalment in the series proved to be no exception. A hostile agency is sabotaging both the Soviet and American space programs causing the Cold War to heat up as each country accuses the other. Feigning his own death in order to go deep undercover, British super-sleuth James Bond (Sean Connery and his hairy chest) travels to Japan where a mysterious volcanic island holds all the answers. What follows is pretty much cut & paste as Bond shoots and screws his way through stupid escapes (a helicopter dogfight had my eyes rolling) stupid plot holes (Bond undergoes plastic surgery in order to look “Japanese”, the results last for one scene) and the kind of macho posturing meant to reel in that adolescent demographic—hint: he wins every fight and gets laid, repeatedly. Not to mention an improbable storyline so ludicrous that I couldn’t even excuse its nonsense as being satire (piranha goldfish pond?). In short, risible special effects and a script weighed down by hyperbole and techie wet dreams render You Only Live Twice a running joke that manages to inadvertently spoof itself. The crew did build an awesome volcano set at England’s Pinewood Studios however even though it failed to make the final fiery conclusion any less silly, and Donald Pleasance’s kitty-stroking mad genius would eventually form the basis for “Dr. Evil” in the Austin Powers comedies thirty years later. Credit where credit is due I guess.

(France 2012) (6): Approaching the end of his life and severely crippled by arthritis, celebrated painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (magnificent performance by 87-year old Michel Bouquet) finds some platonic solace in his latest muse, aspiring actress and model Andrée. But when his son, future film director Jean Renoir, returns to the family estate in order to recuperate from a war wound Andrée finds herself balanced between the older man’s stubbornly optimistic pursuit of all things beautiful and Jean’s more sober outlook gained from his experiences in the trenches. Gauzy sets and filtered light filled with heat shimmers and flower petals certainly make Gilles Bourdos’ period piece look like one of the master’s oils: in one scene a drop of ochre paint slowly unfurls in a glass of water with all the gravitas of a deathbed confession, in another sunlit bathers turn surreal when filmed from below. But aside from Bouquet’s César-nominated turn as the crusty artist plagued by both disease and grief for his deceased wife, everyone else delivers pretty basic performances with the possible exception of Thomas Doret who, as Renoir’s youngest son Coco, views his father’s ongoing legacy with a very un-childlike cynicism. “The pain passes…” confesses Renoir during one of his low points, “…but beauty remains.” And given the film’s rather bland impact audiences are left with little more than gorgeous Côte d’Azur backgrounds and a moody orchestral score by Alexandre Desplat.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls
(USA 1970) (7): Directed by big breast enthusiast Russ Meyer and penned, believe it or not, by future film critic Roger Ebert, this is not a sequel to 1967’s potboiler but rather a kitschy parody of the original with even more grass, more tits, and more big, big 70s hair. And for the most part it actually works! Buxom rock star wannabes Kelly, Casey, and Pet, along with their roadie Harris, pile into an old van and head west to seek their fortune among the bright lights of Los Angeles. With encouragement from Kelly’s wealthy aunt and music industry bigwig “Z-Man” Barzell (John Lazar giving Hollywood one of it’s campiest performances ever) the girls’ success seems guaranteed. But that success comes with a hefty price tag written in drugs, sex, and a round of personal heartbreaks. Shot in psychedelic colour by De Luxe and sporting enough mod fashions and tacky day-glo art to fill a thousand thrift shops, Meyer’s pills’n’booze addled soap opera plays it straight-faced throughout. And it is precisely this disciplined approach which sharpens its satirical edges making a wild Hollywood party look like an adult episode of Laugh-In and turning that outrageous climax—a throughly inappropriate riff on Helter Skelter—into the biggest spoof of all. Despite its dated portrayal of mincing homos, depressive dykes (“…their’s was not an evil relationship, but evil did come because of it…”), and psychotic trannies—all of which have to be taken with a weary forbearance—this is still a fun watch and the original songs, including a cameo by 60s group Strawberry Alarm Clock, are not half bad. Lastly, Ebert’s script leaves us with one of B-Cinema’s most memorable lines shouted during a spurned lover’s monumental hissy fit: “You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!” They just don’t write ‘em like this anymore and for that we can all be thankful.

(Denmark 2011) (7): No one does mental illness quite like Lars von Trier. In Antichrist he turned pathological grief into a freak show of genital mutilation and chatty zombie foxes and now with Melancholia he likens clinical depression to nothing less than the literal end of the world… Newlywed Justine (a brilliant turn from Kirsten Dunst) has just singlehandedly sabotaged her lavish wedding reception due to a losing battle with catatonia. Her long-suffering sister Clarie (Charlotte Gainsbourg, also brilliant) is scandalized especially since it was her wealthy husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) who bankrolled the whole affair at the couple’s opulent fairytale estate. Meanwhile their bitterly divorced mother (a venomous Charlotte Rampling) is taking some grim satisfaction in the fiasco, their philandering father (John Hurt) is oblivious, and the groom (Alexander Skarsgård) is realizing his matrimonial mistake even before the bride’s veil has come off. And in the skies above a newly discovered planet appropriately christened “Melancholia” (Symbolism for Dummies, anyone?) is on a collision course with Earth. Opening with an ostentatious slo-mo montage of images which pretty much encapsulate the entire film—the art director obviously influenced by the paintings of Pieter Bruegel and John Everett Millais—von Trier abruptly shifts into ice cold reality as Justine’s illness taints everyone’s happiness, including her own, and an approaching Melancholia casts its growing shadow across the land. Although the director confessed to having written the script while under the influence of drugs and alcohol, pretty par for course if you’re at all familiar with the works of von Trier, there is nevertheless a breathtaking flair to his visuals which owes a huge debt of gratitude to Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice: an elaborate sundial silently ticks off the minutes, nature reacts to the cosmic/psychological turmoil, and an encroaching darkness touches everyone in a different way: Justine’s paradoxical composure playing off Claire’s mounting hysteria and John’s crushing nihilism. Definitely not for every taste but for anyone who’s ever had to deal with mental health issues either in themselves or in a significant other, von Trier’s objective scenes of doom and anxiety will definitely strike a subjective chord. And Dunst’s heartbreaking performance is pitch perfect right up to that final fantastical frame.

Behind the Candelabra
(USA 2013) (8): Steven Soderbergh’s bitchy drama about Liberace and his former lover Scott Thorson (based on Thorson’s tell-all book) unfolds like an episode of Dynasty—only with way more make-up and rhinestones. Opening in 1977 when the fabulously flamboyant pianist (Michael Douglas, amazing) first met the 18-year old boy toy (Matt Damon, convincing despite being 24 years older than his character), Soderbergh pulls no punches as he films the two men going from enthusiastic bedmates to comfy companions to resentful exes—the bewigged and controlling Liberace succumbing to plastic surgery and his insatiable taste for young men, Thorson spiralling his way through addiction, jealous rages, and some needless surgery of his own. And much of it is filmed on location amid the late entertainer’s kitschy rococo mansions loaded to the rafters with golden columns, tacky knick-knacks, and enough animal fur to depopulate several zoos. Titillating and lurid—neither Damon nor Douglas shy away from butt shots and saliva-swapping—this is not exactly a poison pen exposé for Thorson’s memoirs elicit a certain sympathy for the fey Liberace who was one of showbiz’s most open closet cases. Playing on the libidos of the old women who came to see him while backstage playing the sugar daddy for a succession of pretty male faces, Douglas presents his character as a complex contradiction of material wealth and emotional poverty, flashy confidence and crippling doubt. Damon, meanwhile, nails it as the quintessential California blond seduced by the older man’s promises of bright lights and financial security. But, true to its subject matter, Behind the Candelabra is mostly fading sparkles and queer theatrics despite a sobering deathbed coda. It is done so well, however, that that alone was enough to keep me glued to the screen. Scott Bakula, Dan Aykroyd, and Debbie Reynolds are almost unrecognizable as a barroom pickup, business manager, and Liberace’s mom respectively, and Rob Lowe oozes sleaze as an unscrupulous plastic surgeon. Interesting to note that while Soderbergh’s film was released in theatres around the world it was limited to cable in the United States after studios considered it “too gay”. Bitch, please…

The Immigrant
(USA 2013) (6): Determined to prevent her sickly sister from being deported back to Poland, newly arrived immigrant Eva (a mesmerizing Marion Cotillard giving the film its backbone) finds herself having to rely on the kindness of strangers. Unfortunately, the stranger in question is Bruno Weiss (an emoting Joaquin Phoenix), a burlesque producer and part-time pimp who introduces the headstrong naif to the debilitating world of vice and immorality while at the same time making her the object of his obsessive affections. And then Bruno’s estranged cousin pops up (Jeremy Renner stuck in first gear), immediately takes a fancy to Eva himself and thus precipitates one final tragedy. The rich cinematography, poignant orchestral score, and sepia-tinted recreation of 1920s New York City may be enough to sway you, but for those with a more critical eye the relentless heartbreaks in James Gray’s period weeper provide enough melodrama to rival 1914’s The Perils of Pauline. Cotillard gives a noteworthy performance—including memorizing 20 pages of Polish dialogue—her plain beauty undercut by the quiet fierceness lashing out from her eyes as she constantly reassess her life and the people in it. She’s so good in fact that she leaves Phoenix and Renner trying to catch up: a sympathetic Phoenix wringing and wailing as the tortured would-be lover; Renner’s good guy smiling and cooing in dented armour. The corruption of innocence is a cinematic trope as old as the industry itself and in that respect Gray’s opus hardly breaks new ground, but the aforementioned technical artistry does make for a grand widescreen experience and Cotillard is more than up for the endless bumps and scrapes her character must endure. Finally, as all fades to black, we are left with a bittersweet image of purest poetry. Almost worth it.

Kiss of Death
(USA 1947) (6): Three-time loser Nick Bianco (Victor Mature), currently serving a 15-year sentence for a jewel heist gone wrong, is proud of the fact that he’s never ratted on a fellow criminal. But when personal tragedy strikes he decides to cooperate with the New York D.A. in exchange for a lighter sentence—a decision which puts him on the wrong side of vengeful psychopath Tommy Udo (Oscar-nominated Richard Widmark making his movie debut). Pretty standard Film Noir fare albeit one which concentrates more on the ethical conundrum at its core and less on flying bullets. Mature is torn between his thieves’ honour and a higher good while Widmark’s hissing madman and Bianco’s adoring saint of a wife (Coleen Gray laying it on a little too thick) compete for his soul. And just to give the emotional knife another twist Bianco’s two cherubic daughters are are thrown in for the “Awww!” factor, the connection between them and a prominently displayed painting of Christ welcoming the little children all too obvious. Although refreshingly sympathetic towards its main protagonist—“He’s not a bad guy” states one prison guard about the soft-spoken Bianco—and heavy on the personal anguish, director Henry Hathaway never really gets the tension going even with a beautifully underlit scene of midnight jitters and that final cat-and-mouse pursuit through the alleyways of Manhattan. And the Hays office made sure the film’s darker elements, namely rape and suicide, were significantly softened for the big screen. But despite all that, Kiss of Death does leave audiences with one of the genres more chillingly iconic scenes: Udo dispatching a screaming wheelchair-bound woman, his maniacal giggling still managing to rival that of Heath Ledger’s Joker some sixty years later.

The Cuckoo
(Russia 2002) (6): Set in wilds of Finland during WWII, writer/director Aleksandr Rogozhkin’s three-handed satire provides one of cinema’s more astute metaphors for warfare. Two men from either side of the battle line—one a Finnish deserter, the other a disgraced Russian officer—wind up sharing space on a crude homestead run by a young Lapp woman. The Finn is an adamant pacifist despite his Nazi disguise; the Russian has doubts about the Soviet dream; and the woman is simply horny and desperate to get laid. And the punchline? Due to language barriers none of the characters can understand each other. The resulting misunderstandings make for some fertile comedy—the Communist cooks up a stew of poison mushrooms and the pacifist’s well-meaning gesture of peace is grossly misread—but as nerves fray and boiling hormones beget jealousy, things abruptly turn sour and then surreal after the woman breaks out her shaman’s drum for some spirit world tinkering. Sadly, much of the cultural allusions provide in-jokes lost on Western audiences causing us to scratch our heads almost as much as the protagonists.

The Strange One (USA 1957) (8): Based on novelist Calder Willingham’s experiences as a cadet in South Carolina’s military academy, director Jack Garfein’s scandalous piece of pulp fiction, considered by some to be an overlooked classic, is a master class in toxic masculinity and sexual repression. Ben Gazzara gives filmdom one of its slimiest antiheroes as senior cadet Jocko De Paris (if ever there was a porn name…), a charismatic sociopath who takes sadistic delight in pitting fellow cadets against one another in Machiavellian schemes that see one innocent student expelled and a senior officer dishonourably discharged. Aiding him are his sycophantic roommate and a pair of new recruits bullied into his service—one a toadying doormat, the other a conscious-stricken idealist (George Peppard making his screen debut). But tyrants are only as strong as those willing to obey their orders, and when Jocko finally crosses a line his reign of intimidation and manipulation becomes precarious indeed. From Lord of the Flies to Taps, using an all male setting as a microcosm to examine the interplay of authority and submission is not new to cinema and in that respect The Strange One is not so strange after all. But Garfein’s low budget B&W production adds a vague psychosexual twist in the form of Perrin McKee, a senior cadet and budding author whose attraction to Jocko goes beyond mere hero worship and who has taken it upon himself to chronicle the object of his desire in a series of fictionalized accounts which strike a raw nerve in De Paris’ otherwise impervious hide. With McKee’s stories eerily reflecting reality (his protagonist is given the alias “Night Boy”) and Jocko’s psychological sway waning, it only remains for the final chapter to be written… Opening with a homoerotic drawing of a partially dressed cadet worthy of Tom of Finland and not shying away from glimpses of skivvies and sweaty pecs, Willingham’s screenplay is not so much about homosexuality as it is about the magnetic attraction between the weak and those they perceive as powerful. Despite the buxom centrefolds adorning the walls, Jocko’s alpha male nevertheless elicits a fawning deference, tinged with growing resentment, from those under his influence—in essence they’ve become lovers in all but thought and deed. A lurid and operatic oddity, yet one whose themes of corruption, control, and comeuppance are as pertinent today as they were back then.

(Czech 2016) (8): Shortly after Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia, SS General Reinhard Heydrich, one of the Third Reich’s top officers and an architect of Hitler’s “Final Solution”, is tasked with quelling any Czech resistance—his brutal methods of torture and wholesale murder earning him the nickname “The Butcher of Prague”. In response, the exiled Czech government, operating out of London, fly in a group of paratroopers whose mission it is to enter one of Europe’s most heavily occupied cities and assassinate Heydrich, one of Germany’s most heavily guarded officials. Based on the true story of Operation Anthropoid and filmed for the most part in the actual locations where events unfolded back in 1942, writer/director Sean Ellis has fashioned a thoroughly engrossing historical piece whose main actors, Irishmen Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan both leaving their brogues behind, blend seamlessly with a largely Czech cast. Authentic period details bring the past to life (or death) and although Ellis does not flinch from brutal reality—a brief scene of torture is so intense it seems longer than it actually is—quotidian atrocities are only a backdrop as the operatives and their Czech Resistance allies (not all of whom agree that Heydrich’s death would be a good thing) put their meticulous plan into action. There’s the usual hair-raising moments when it becomes apparent not everything is going to go according to plan, but that explosive climax is perhaps more memorable for its stretches of painful silence, punctuated by a classical score, than the thousands of bullets and hand grenades ripping up the screen.

Dirty Grandpa
(USA 2016) (1): It’s hard to picture the great Robert De Niro being so desperate for a paycheque that he would debase himself for this vulgar, tasteless, and insultingly idiotic road movie. But he did and in so doing gave his career a low point so far down I doubt he’ll ever surpass it. The day after his grandmother’s funeral and a week before his own lavish wedding to a vapid socialite, budding lawyer Jason Kelly (Zac Efron, equally desperate?) is roped into driving his irascible grandfather, Dick, from Atlanta to south Florida supposedly to help the old man work through his grieving. Grandpa, however, has another agenda in mind—after forty years of being faithful to his now deceased wife he is hornier than hell and obsessed with getting laid. Enter Lenore, a slutty vacuous college girl with a fetish for wrinkled flesh (Aubrey Plaza giving the film its only funny lines) whom Dick happens to meet in a parking lot and before you can drop a viagra Dick and Jason are off to spend Spring Break in Daytona Beach with Lenore and her friends (one of whom is an old flame of Jason’s…cue plot twist!) where a meth-fuelled frat party, meth-fuelled rave, and run-in with a pair of meth-fuelled cops await… As if being subjected to a non-stop slew of juvenile jokes centred on pussies, cocks, and drugs aren’t bad enough director Dan Mazer ratchets up the insults with a tweaking Efron prancing about with a stuffed toy dangling off his dick, a tasered Dermot Mulroney (playing Jason’s uptight dad) with magic marker penises drawn all over his face, and an insufferably annoying De Niro masturbating into a kleenex (or doing “number three” as he puts it). But Mazer gives audiences their final black eye towards the end when he shifts gears and tries to turn this shit show into a warm fuzzy all about following one’s dreams and making peace with the past. And the ultimate insult? IT ISN’T EVEN FUNNY! The next time De Niro finds himself strapped for cash perhaps he should take the high road and start a GoFundMe account instead.

Stranger Than Paradise
(USA 1984) (7): Horse races and cheating at poker pretty much define Willie’s slacker lifestyle until his Hungarian cousin Eva comes to visit him in his one-room New York fleabag. Taciturn and poker-faced herself, Eva’s monotone criticisms begin to grate on the hipster and, after ten days, he is only too happy to see her finally leave for their aunt’s place in Cleveland. One year later Willie and his buddy Eddie “borrow” a car and head to Ohio to meet up with Eva once more spurring an impromptu joy ride to Florida where their fortunes will ebb and flow in a most unusual way. Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan comedy, composed of 67 static scenes each separated by a few seconds of blackout and all shot in a grainy B&W mix of grunge verité and artless mumblecore, is arguably one of the best American indie films to emerge from the 80s. His largely unknown cast pretty much personifies apathy as they smoke and gamble, kibitz and bullshit, and generally face life with a yawn and a stare—although it’s 86-year old amateur Cecillia Stark as Aunt Lotte who garners the most smiles despite having the least screen time. Not a film for lovers of either action or witticisms (it is, after all, a thirty-minute short blown up to ninety) but the aura of deadbeat lives and urban grit gains a momentum of its own and that final double twist couldn’t have been funnier if it had come with a laugh track.

(Italy 2015) (7): Shot through with small intimacies and grand distances, Paolo Sorrentino’s rumination on creativity in the face of senescence could be seen as a follow-up of sorts to 2013’s The Great Beauty. It certainly has the director’s signature flair for matching grandiose music to grandiose scenery and turning ostentation into something occasionally profound whether it be a bird in an ornately gilded cage or a frozen tableau of bathers soaking up an unseen sun. Two octogenarian artists: orchestra conductor/composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) who wishes nothing more than to slip into retired oblivion, and film director Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) intent on producing his career capstone despite the fact his creative juices have all but dried up, are whiling away the hours at a swank hotel deep in the Swiss alps. Here, surrounded by natural wonders and a swirling multitude of muses in the form of bathing beauties, Hollywood brats, and a statuesque Miss Universe, the two old men chitchat on everything from artistic integrity to the daily grind of growing older but not necessarily wiser. Meanwhile the next generation, including their estranged adult children who happen to be married to one another, is experiencing all the passions, triumphs, and tragedies reserved for the very young… Moving between episodes of softened reality and heightened fancy, Sorrentino’s admiration for Fellini is stronger than ever with cameras panning over hotel guests posed as if for a classical frieze, a revolving stage in the hotel pool hosting entertainers who always seem to reflect the current mood, and a nude Amazon wading past a gobsmacked Ballinger and Boyle like god herself. In the end one will experience a renaissance of sorts while the other will receive a demoralizing reality check when he’s visited by a brusque old diva (Jane Fonda barely recognizable except for the voice). “You say emotions are overrated…” an introspective Boyle says to his old friend at one point, “…But that’s bullshit. Emotions are all we’ve got.” And if anything can span the yawning generational divide which Sorrentino posits before us, that is surely it.

The Belko Experiment
(USA 2016) (5): Eighty ex-pat Americans working in a Bogotá office complex find themselves unwilling pawns in Greg McLean’s satirical psycho-bender—a shoot-em-up with far more guts than brains. At first shocked to find their building abruptly turned into an armoured cage (à la Transformers), the unlucky co-workers’ unease turns to terror when a mocking voice on the PA system goads them into a deadly game of kill or be killed. Quickly falling into loose groups of hawks and doves (or pragmatists and idealists if you prefer) with one lone dissenter trying to avoid a bloodbath, fear and desperation—and an arsenal of knives, guns, and surprisingly lethal office supplies—start the body count rising while the unseen tormentor continues to raise the ante… Yet another riff on the Battle Royale theme, albeit more political with nasty American posturing and allusions to globalization and militarization (funny how that ad hoc vigilante squad springs up so quickly), McLean piles on the symbolism: skull masks, lucky talismans, and the company motto “Business Without Borders” all figuring prominently while an operatic score tries to raise the arthouse bar. He even takes the idea of Battle’s explosive neck collars and substitutes it with explosive microchips previously embedded in everyone’s head supposedly as a tracking device in case of kidnapping—cue exploding skulls and spattered walls. But despite the madhouse pacing and chaotic tension Belko doesn’t have much more to offer beyond colourful gore, for when its central puzzle is finally resolved the answer is so smug and facile that I wanted to kick in the TV screen—irony and all.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
(USA 2010) (7): Love her or hate her, Joan Rivers broke new ground for female comics starting in the early days when she dared to crack jokes about sex, pregnancy, and abortion, to the latter years when her foul-mouthed Jewish grandmother schtick drew laughter and heckles alike. In Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s documentary, filmed as the comedienne turned 75, Joan takes centre stage (as usual), letting us into her gaudily appointed penthouse apartment for a look back on a career filled with triumphs and regrets. Intercutting hilarious stage performances with some brutal confessions, Rivers presents herself as a contradictory mix of aggressive businesswoman trying desperately to remain relevant, and vulnerable diva whose stretched face and pounds of make-up attest to the fact she fears obscurity more than death itself…an observation further strengthened by her willingness to accept any job offer no matter how demeaning. An interesting character sketch of a terribly complicated woman whose life was fraught with mountains and valleys—from industry accolades and standing ovations to the suicide of her husband, a failed acting career (her biggest aspiration and greatest disappointment), and ongoing adversarial relationship with her daughter Melissa. “The only time I am truly, truly happy is when I am on a stage…” confesses Joan standing behind a theatre curtain while an unseen audience offers thunderous applause, and one can’t help but wonder if her willingness to take on this project in the first place was just another kick at the can.

Boy A
(UK 2007) (7): Eleven years after he was sent to juvenile detention for committing a horrendous crime, a young boy—now a young man—is finally released under a veil of secrecy. Given a job and a new identity in a new town, “Jack” slowly builds an assumed life for himself with the encouragement of a fatherly social worker. But the press has a long memory and some people are unable to forgive and forget so it’s only a matter of time before Jack, still plagued by bad dreams, must face his past yet again. In this his film debut, Andrew Garfield plays Jack as a sympathetic naif whose hangdog expression and driving desire to be liked are underscored by flashbacks to an emotionally starved childhood and a most unfortunate friendship with a budding sociopath. Peter Mullan, as the social worker, provides an equally complex character study as a man whose compassion for the young offenders in his care contrasts sharply with the thorny relationship between his estranged son and himself. Director John Crowley’s adaptation of Jonathan Trigell’s novel keeps things low-keyed, only gradually releasing the details of what young Jack did to deserve such infamy, and in so doing he gives audiences a chance to acquaint themselves with the character without pre-judging him. And for their parts Garfield and Mullan share an onscreen chemistry with Mullan’s sage humanity playing off Garfield’s self-doubts and guilty memories. But, unfortunately, both author and director already know where our sympathies should lie and they go out of their way to point us in that direction with a pitiful stab at romance between Jack and an office worker and an unlikely feat of heroism on Jack’s part which garners him a child’s thank-you card dripping with pathos and irony. At least the film’s satisfyingly ambivalent ending doesn’t include torches and pitchforks.