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

~ ~ ~ ~

Out of the Past (USA 1998) (7): In the mid-90s Utah highschool student Kelli Peterson, still coming to terms with her own sexuality, decided to start a campus support group for gay, bi, and lesbian students and their supporters. Calling it the “Gay-Straight Alliance” she submitted her proposal to the school authorities never imagining the avalanche of bigotry and homophobia her dream would unleash. With opposition stretching from the Salt Lake City school board to the state legislature, Kelli’s legal odyssey would make international headlines and propel her to the vanguard of the gay rights movement. Using this plucky young woman’s determination as a focal point, director Jeff Dupre puts her experience in a historical context by comparing it to the struggle faced by such heroes of equality as Henry Gerber who founded the first Gay Rights organization in 1925 (he was arrested and lost his job), Bayard Rustin who at one time was Martin Luther King’s right hand man during the civil rights movement (his sexuality became a political hot potato), and Boston socialite Annie Adams Fields who along with her lover, the author Sarah Orne Jewett, moved freely through 19th century high society until changing social mores, fuelled by psychiatric babble, cast a disparaging pall over their relationship. “If we don’t exist in history then we don’t really exist in the present…” states the narrator in an opening monologue, and bolstered by personal letters and a panel of talking heads which include historians, clergy, and politicians, Jeff Dupre’s short documentary suggests that we’ve been LOUD and PROUD for a lot longer than we think. Gwyneth Paltrow, Edward Norton, and Linda Hunt lend their voices.

(Germany 2010) (8): Stem cells are undifferentiated pluripotent entities free of the constraints imposed by specialization and therefore able to become whatever kind of cell they wish to be (figuratively speaking, of course). Using this bit of medical science as a springboard, writer/director Tom Tykwer’s adulterous comedy explores what can happen when human beings similarly free themselves of the constraints imposed by societal norms allowing determinism to give way to liberating acts of free will. Fortyish couple Hanna and Simon have been together for years and although they’re happy enough their sex life has lost much of its spark prompting Hanna to have an affair with Adam, a doctor specializing in—you guessed it—stem cell research! Things get complicated however when Simon, purely by chance, takes a walk on the “bi” side and also begins seeing Adam thus begetting a three-sided affair in which none of the participants are aware of the others’ involvement. Until one fateful night… Juggling themes of death and life (there’s a cancer scare and a fertilized ovum), birth and rebirth, intimacy and loneliness, Tykwer, always the showman, dazzles the screen with clever conceits ranging from overlapping dialogue and multiple screens to animated angels and a touch of absurdism in order to bring home the fact that we are much more than the sum of our cells and love need not be limited by gender roles or biological imperatives. A script that already crackles with insight and wry humour is given further weight by Tykwer’s sly casting: Simon’s job as an artistic engineer involves bringing other people’s visions to life and Adam’s research is aimed at elevating boring skin cells into multi-tasking super cells. A whip smart urban comedy about sex and chimerism that begins with a daydream and ends right smack in the middle of a petri dish.

The Great Silence
(Italy 1968) (5): The frontier town of Snow Hill, Utah is under siege both from nature as a blizzard settles in, and from man with bandits living in the nearby hills and a posse of resident bounty hunters killing anyone with a price (real or imagined) on their head. With the local magistrate running his own crooked operations the townsfolk turn to a mysterious mute gunman (Jean-Louis Trintignant giving his best Gallic impression of Clint Eastwood) for salvation. Named Silence not because of his lack of speech but because “everywhere he goes the silence of death follows him!” Silence meets his greatest challenge in Loco, the bounty hunters’ bloodthirsty leader (Klaus Kinski basically playing himself). Not all Spaghetti Westerns are created equal and this is quite evident in director Sergio Corbucci’s abysmally dubbed, plodding parade of wild west clichés that neither the great Ennio Morricone’s evocative score nor Silvano Ippoliti’s breathtaking alpine cinematography can raise above “so-so”. Corbucci may have Sergio Leone’s vision but he demonstrates none of the master’s style and sophistication, treating us instead to random acts of violence drenched in fake blood and slapdash editing that jumps about, occasionally zooming in for a melodramatic close-up. Two passages do manage to work however, a love scene between Silence and a grieving widow is genuinely erotic without going beyond PG-13, and that infamous finale which is sure to shock anyone raised on American westerns. The rest is just hay.

All Fall Down
(USA 1962) (9): With it’s ironic allusions to The Nativity, Cain & Abel, The Prodigal Son, plus a ramshackle Garden of Eden with too many worms and apples, director John Frankenheimer’s dark family drama is almost a parable unto itself. Brothers Clinton and Berry-Berry Willart (Brandon de Wilde, Warren Beatty), couldn’t be less alike: Clinton’s trusting, wide-eyed naïf contrasting sharply with his revered older brother’s self-destructive womanizing misogynist. Meanwhile, the family home is an unpredictable battleground with their idealistic father, Ralph (Karl Malden) dousing his many disappointments with whiskey and their prattling neurotic mother Annabell (Angela Lansbury) unwilling to face the elephants in the living room. Things come to a full boil however when the older daughter of a family friend pays a visit (Eva Marie Saint) and both brothers become smitten—a situation which brings about a troubling sea change in mom. Presented in rich B&W that dulls the sunlight while accentuating the shadows, this is a slice of small town American gothic whose occasional excesses—naming the eldest son after a wasting disease for example—are compensated by superb casting and a script that crackles with repressed tensions. Malden and Lansbury are pure cinematic gold as they cross swords more out of weary habit than passion, de Wilde’s innocence makes that final fall from grace all the more poignant, and even though Beatty’s amoral libertine seems underdeveloped his performance still packs a punch when his epiphany finally comes. For her part as the aging spinster (all of thirty-one, gasp!) Saint ends up showing the most range going as she does from frustration to elation to desperation to summation. Lionel Lindon’s cinematography glides through seamy dives and kitschy parlours alike, his cameras coming to rest on the drawn face of a prostitute or the ambivalent gleam in Annabell’s eye as she looks upon her firstborn with something more than maternal devotion. One scene in particular stands out, a tryst by a pond filmed through layers of gauze with blossoming trees, swans, and an offscreen orchestra lending a false mythological sheen to what is essentially a hasty rut. Through his two male leads Frankenheimer juxtaposes goodness and honour with all seven of the deadly sins and the result is quite often arresting.

The World of Henry Orient
(USA 1964) (7): From the first time they met at a prestigious NYC girls’ academy, 14-year olds Marian and Valarie (Merrie Spaeth, Tippy Walker) have been the very best of friends—calm, sincere and very middle class Marian providing the perfect compliment for the endearingly neurotic upper class Valerie. Spending their days either playing make believe in Central Park or listening to records while inventing wild stories about Marian’s absent father, the two girls quickly become inseparable. Then Valerie develops a crush from afar on Henry Orient (Peter Sellers), a second-rate concert pianist and two-faced lothario prompting both girls to begin stalking the eccentric artiste, a situation which puts him at odds with the married woman he’s been having an affair with (Paula Prentiss). Director George Roy Hill’s sweet tale of childhood friendship is given a boost by Disneyesque cinematography that transforms Manhattan landmarks into a technicolor playground of possibilities and a score by Elmer Bernstein which manages to be both cheery and wistful at the same time. For their parts Spaeth and Walker (whose movie careers never got off the ground) are all sugar and spice, their innocent daydreaming and harmless mischief providing a false, if oh so seductive, dream of what adolescence used to be like once upon a time. Sellers provides the usual flourishes of course, including an accent which goes from Eurotrash dilettante to Bronx deadbeat depending on the scene. But, aside from the two leads, much of the film rests on the shoulders of Prentiss whose ambivalent wannabe adulteress has her constantly skulking from doorway to taxicab while constantly peering over her shoulder like a frightened bird, and the great Angela Lansbury as Valarie’s controlling bitch of a mother and the reason for the young girl’s weekly psychiatrist appointments. Reprising a watered down version of her shrewish matriarch from The Manchurian Candidate, Lansbury hobs and snobs her way across the screen—decked out in pearls and haute couture—while Tom Bosley follows in her wake as the wealthy browbeaten husband just waiting for that final straw. All in all a fluffy cotton candy movie which manages to elicit a string of smiles thanks to Hill’s disciplined direction, a screenplay that’s sentimental without being cloying, and a cast perfectly matched to their roles.

Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed
(UK 1969) (7): In this fifth instalment of Hammer Horror’s Frankenstein series the evil baron (I love you Peter Cushing!) is on the lam due to some unsavoury “brain transplant” research he was conducting. Holing up in a boarding house he manages to bully and blackmail the lovely owner (sex kitten Veronica Carlson) and her drug-dealing physician fiancé into helping him continue his nefarious work. But first he must break into the local insane asylum and free his one-time associate and collaborator who was locked up after he went crazy… Embellished 19th century sets and costumes set the mood—from ostentatious parlours and colourful crinolines to a mad scientist’s cellar—and the cast seem to enjoy hamming it up, especially Cushing as the monomaniacal genius with the piercing gaze and character actor Thorley Walters as a befuddled chief of police who always seems to be two steps behind the baron. Of course the science is sketchy at best (who knew you could transplant a human brain using garden tools and a dish towel?!) but director Terence Fisher achieves unexpected depths when Frankenstein and his heartbroken “monster” find themselves on opposite sides of an ethical divide, and that hellish ending works on several levels. Unfortunately the production hits a sour note with a totally unnecessary rape scene which was tacked on at the last minute to appease studio bigwigs who felt that, along with the somewhat tame gore, the film needed a bit of sex. Thankfully Cushing (who was appalled at the idea) demanded modifications to the script before he would agree to it.

The Seven-Ups
(USA 1973) (6): When one of his team is killed during a routine surveillance operation, the head of an elite undercover police unit (Roy Scheider, always a pleasure) goes on the offensive and winds up entangled in a murky gangland operation involving kidnapped mobsters and phoney cops. Pretty standard 70s-style policier in the same vein as 1968’s Bullitt, only less so as a cast of gravelly-voiced mafiosi and leering henchmen get set upon by a kick-ass Scheider sticking to a paint-by-number script curiously devoid of any swear words stronger than “shit”. At least the gritty NYC locations, from dingy diners to upscale avenues, add some authenticity and the by now obligatory car chase squeals and screeches dramatically as it tears through several boroughs before crashing over a bridge and into oncoming traffic. Tony Lo Bianco is effective as a sketchy informant with a secret but that overbearing musical score by Don Ellis sounds as if it were borrowed from a horror movie.

The Sterile Cuckoo
(USA 1969) (7): Another sappy love story from the Flower Power Generation which, despite not having aged very well, still crams on the nostalgia for anyone old enough to remember that first adolescent crush. Two freshmen en route to their respective colleges cross paths on a Greyhound bus—manic-depressive train wreck with daddy issues Pookie Adams (Academy Award nominee Liza Minnelli, true to life?) and conscientious dullard Jerry Payne (Wendell Burton providing a one-note foil to Minnelli’s clingy scatterbrain). Over the course of the school year romance will bloom between the two, or rather be foisted upon them as Pookie stalks Jerry and Jerry witlessly complies, until the arrival of Spring when both come to realize there is more to falling in love than montages of flying kites, cuddling in farmers’ fields, and checking into honeymoon cabins under an assumed name. Minnelli does put in a decent performance as an emotionally damaged paradox desperately seeking approval while at the same time dismissing everyone around her as a “weirdo”. Burton, on the other hand, has trouble competing with his hyperactive co-star and too often becomes indistinguishable from the wallpaper. What ultimately buoys the film is its downplayed script thankfully free of clichés and director Alan J. Pakula’s gift for setting a mood with little more than a facial expression or a camera angle: the couple’s first time undressing in front of each other is appropriately awkward and a simple phone call becomes sadder than Rhett Butler’s final farewell. Lastly, the entire production is given a sheen of wistful melancholy by the mellow harmonies of The Sandpipers performing that Oscar-nominated theme song, “Come Saturday Morning” as if it were a love ballad being sung at a funeral mass.

Before Midnight
(USA 2013) (8): Richard Linklater brings his romantic drama trilogy to a satisfying close with this cerebral, though no less affecting, look at a couple in turmoil. It’s been 18 years since Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) first laid eyes on each other as adolescents vacationing in Austria. Now, one divorce and a set of twins later, the two are experiencing a very different holiday in Greece after a visit from Jesse’s stateside son sets off a chain reaction of guilt, resentments, and self-analysis. Jesse regrets being so far away from Hank, Celine feels she’s being blamed for the estrangement, and on a final night meant for romance and lovemaking both partners begin tossing long held emotional baggage at one another instead. And their aim is ruthlessly on the mark. Brilliantly co-written by Linklater and his two stars, this is a savvy tale for grown-ups set in a seaside Eden littered with the kind of snakes and apples that all relationships must eventually face—from past regrets and transgressions now hastily resurrected in the heat of argument to ice cold appraisals of what the future may hold. But throughout it all there remains that undercurrent of passion which made the first two instalments so compellingly watchable, for even at this late hour we still have our fingers crossed. And, as always, Linklater’s cast makes it all painfully believable with a trenchant script that never stoops to cheap melodrama. In one perfectly conceived passage taking place at an impromptu brunch the director actually manages to encapsulate all three films when Jesse and Celine are suddenly surrounded by reflections of themselves—the young couple on their left are still blushing with first love; the husband and wife across from them are trying to keep the flame alive; and the widow and widower to their right recall their lost loves with sad fondness. If Before Sunrise featured fresh-faced naifs taking off into calm blue skies and Before Sunset achieved altitude with the first signs of turbulence, then Before Sunset shows our two protagonists finally coming back to Earth for a precarious but nevertheless hopeful three-point landing. A superb piece of cinema all around.

The Bay
(USA 2012) (5): Although no stranger to creating stories for the small screen, writer/director Barry Levinson’s attempt at the found footage genre, a kind of eco-conscious monster movie, is just too staged to be passed off as “real” and instead resembles nothing more than a rigorous workout from the improv studio. Millions of dead fish and seabirds are showing up along the New England coast and the official cause is listed as an algae bloom. But fledgling news reporter Donna (a not quite convincing Kether Donohue) knows better because she was at ground zero when all hell broke loose at a fourth of July celebration on Chesapeake Bay. Now possessing several hours’ worth of classified video thanks to a dark web hacker site, she is determined to deliver the real story of death, mayhem, and environmental crimes to the world. What follows is a montage of dashboard cams, smartphone captures, and security camera footage as Donna pieces together the disaster as it unfolded. Occasionally effective—some underwater scenes are very creepy—but a few bloopers manage to get past the editing department (palm trees in Delaware?) and despite some intentional humour there were just too many moaning extras in shock make-up jostling for a close-up to suspend my disbelief. In addition, a “top secret” big screen video conference between Homeland Security and the CDC is more slick than it should be and a doctor’s home movie pushes the envelope even further. It’s Jaws meets Blair Witch as envisioned by Greenpeace, with a message relentlessly rammed into our corneas. At least the special effects are pleasingly gross.

A Quiet Place
(USA 2018) (9): With only two dozen lines of spoken dialogue in its 90-minute running time, director John Krasinski’s monster movie makes excellent use of camerawork, sound editing, and an electro-pulse score that beats like a frantic heart. The result is one of the scariest fright flicks to come slithering out of Hollywood in years. Earth has become infested with carnivorous outer space bugaboos which, although completely blind, possess supernaturally acute hearing that allows them to pick off any human unlucky enough to drop a plate or step on a twig. In America’s heartland the Abbotts (Krasinski and real-life wife Emily Blunt) and their kids have learned to cope with the invasion by taking extraordinary steps to ensure silence: pathways are coated with sand, painted footprints bypass creaky floorboards, and thanks to their hearing impaired daughter (Millicent Simmonds who’s managed to turn her own deafness into a selling point), everyone is fluent in sign language. But even the most fastidious planning can’t anticipate every possible scenario and when the accidental noises start they may as well be dinner bells… Let’s start with the monsters—misshapen CGI creatures precariously balanced on long boney claws, hovering between spiders and midnight bogeymen—the perfect nightmare creations to go with the film’s rural setting of tangled forests and dark starry nights. With so much quiet to go around, Krasinski heightens every incidental sound, like a stifled scream or the scrape of hideous claws ascending a staircase, in order to wring maximum terror from a minimum of decibels. It’s the cast however who give the knife its most agonizing twists for their silent masks of horror prove to be more effective than the film’s obligatory jolts. Of course there’s the few physical and technical stretches that go with the genre, but unless you’re an obsessive purist you won’t even notice them as you hold your breath and reach—quietly!—for the earplugs.

Johnny Got His Gun
(USA 1971) (6): Any anti-war movie written and directed by Dalton Trumbo, with a little help from Luis Buñuel no less, is sure to carry a pretty hefty sting. But the film has not aged well over the years and some of its rather klunky staging has since degraded into mere psychedelic affectation. Europe, WWI, and American enlistee Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms) is in hospital blind, deaf, and missing all four limbs as well as half his face thanks to an enemy mortar shell. Now kept alive through various rubber tubings, the army medical team is convinced his higher cerebral functions have also been blown away—but they are wrong. Inside his head Joe is very much aware, and lacking external stimuli his mind fills the void by wandering back in time where memories and flights of fancy offer him comfort and misery in equal measure: there’s his father (Jason Robards) who always wanted more than life gave him; his girlfriend who begged him not to go to war and now taunts him as an ethereal fay; and Jesus Christ himself (Donald Sutherland reading Buñuel’s lines) who has nothing to offer but platitudes and hollow sympathy. Then Joe finally discovers a way to actually communicate with his caregivers only to find the answers they give him contain the cruellest barbs of all. Filmed in clinical B&W with colours reserved for flashbacks only, Trumbo’s stifling set designs heighten his character’s sense of panic and isolation—Joe is completely swathed in sheets and bandages with only the touch of a sympathetic nurse or the warmth of a sunbeam to remind him he’s still on Earth. His inner monologues, ranging from philosophical resignation to screams of despair, go unheard by the military brass contemplating his fate and one gets the impression his sorry state is more a source of embarrassment to them than anything else—why else would they keep his bed locked behind a utility room door? After all, according to one ghostly memory of his father, “…democracy has something to do with young men killing each other…” , and the implication is clear: if you’re unable to kill, you are of little use to the war machine. And God, needles to say, is nowhere to be found. Marred by some overly zealous theatrics which might have been more appropriate on a Broadway stage, Trumbo’s nightmare vision was still sufficiently dark enough that heavy metal band Metallica used several clips from Johnny for their music video, “One”.

(Japan 1964) (7): The story opens with a crane shot overlooking a field of wild reeds swaying in a stiff breeze. But their seemingly random movements suddenly take on a sinister pattern as if something invisible and monstrous were cutting a swath toward the camera. And so begins Kaneto Shindô’s landmark Japanese film, a heady mix of horror, psychosis, and erotica whose blatant scenes of carnality so frightened the British censors at the time that they initially banned it before removing the more contentious scenes and slapping it with an “X” rating. Medieval Japan is being ripped apart by civil war but in the depths of an overgrown marsh an old woman and her daughter-in-law, Kichi, manage to survive by killing unwary samurai and selling their gear to a local black marketeer. The balance of power shifts however when Hachi, a friend of Kichi’s husband, returns from the war and informs the young woman that her man is dead. Now drawn towards the brusque and virile newcomer the widowed Kichi enters into an illicit affair, her frantic midnight couplings with Hachi drawing a deadly reaction of jealousy from the old woman who’s own sexual yearnings are tempered by a fear of abandonment. And then one dark and windy night she’s visited by a menacing stranger wearing a macabre mask and all hell suddenly breaks loose… Despite the slow pacing of the movie’s first half, once Shindô sets his bodies in motion things heat up quickly as lust competes with paranoia and even nature gets in on the act with thunder and tempests raging overhead. A beguilingly complex psychodrama brimming with sensual metaphors—a yawning pit speaks of death and transformation, swaying reeds seem to caress the naked bodies running through their midst, and lost in a libidinous fever a vengeful old crone comes to realize that sometimes a tree trunk is not just a tree trunk— Shindô’s resolutely dark and oppressive allegory addresses both the outward depravities of war and that other kind of enemy which lurks within our own minds. Kudos to Kiyomi Kuroda’s sharp B&W cinematography that turns everyday muck and weeds into things both threatening and ethereal, and a special nod to Hikaru Hayashi whose eclectic musical score of pounding drums, human gasps, and downbeat jazz keep things perpetually off balance.

Slow West
(UK 2015) (9): When Rose, the woman he loves, is forced to flee with her father from the rugged coast of Scotland to the wild west of 1870s America, Jay Cavendish (a likably cadaverous Kodi Smit-McPhee) decides to cross the pond himself in search of her. Accidentally teaming up with a gun-slinging outlaw (Michael Fassbender who also narrates when needed), the ill-prepared Jay plods his way over the hills and through the woods to Rose’s cottage on a trail suddenly populated by wolves of every shape and stripe—all of whom have a keen interest in finding the girl themselves. Bringing an international cast to the rugged plains of New Zealand, Scottish writer/director John Maclean fashions one of the more oddball “American” westerns I’ve seen in some time. His simple road movie is heightened by mythological references and storybook characters that turn the everyday into something wondrous and skewed: a campsite turns into a raging river, a farmer’s crop becomes a bloodied Elysium Field, and the path to true love takes a very unexpected detour. But don’t let Maclean’s light touch and macabre humour lull you into thinking this is just another quirky indie flick (a literal reference to “salt in the wound” had me torn between laughing and squirming), for if the film’s setup is reminiscent of a truculent Wes Anderson the finale is darkest Shakespeare delivered with a smirk. Kudos to cinematographer Robbie Ryan for those fairy tale panoramas of forests, meadows, and snow-capped peaks, as well as Jed Kurzel’s award-winning score. Game of Thrones’ Rory McCann co-stars as Rose’s protective father and Aussie Ben Mendelsohn plays a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Literally.

Penny Serenade
(USA 1941) (5): “Maudlin” pretty much sums up George Steven’s two-fisted weeper about a couple (Irene Dunne and Oscar-nominated Cary Grant playing well together) trying to eke out some happiness in a universe determined to see them fail every chance it gets. Despite a promising honeymoon, Roger and Julie’s marriage has hit too many snags along the way for he’s a dreamer who’s best intentions are constantly sabotaging their finances—but when real tragedy strikes it successfully drives that final nail into the relationship. Now, on the verge of leaving him for good, Julie goes through their impressive collection of phonograph records and with each tune she spins memories in the form of flashbacks begin flooding the screen. And then Roger comes home. And then the phone rings… Morrie Ryskind’s sappy soapy script practically trips over itself in its zeal to set the hapless couple up just so it can bitch slap them right back to square one again. Throwing subtlety aside, every glimmer of hope contains a dagger and even a child’s sickeningly sweet grin (aimed directly at the audience) promises heartbreak to come. This blatant manipulation reaches its zenith during a school Christmas pageant which couldn’t have been more precious had Christ himself made a tearful cameo. But Stevens saves his emotional ace for that final scene, a three alarm hankie-fest as contrived as it is improbable. Beulah Bondi and Edgar Buchanan co-star, she playing a spinsterish guardian angel of sorts and he providing some much needed levity as the couple’s lovable handyman, a precursor to Petticoat Junction’s uncle Joe perhaps? To be fair, a sequence of clips poking fun at parental jitters is genuinely funny (apparently it takes three pairs of hands to bathe a ten pound baby) and that soundtrack of old crooners is nice. Unfortunately it was the forced pathos that wound up giving me the biggest laugh of all.

(UK 2016) (8): Thirteen-year old Una was ushered into a three-month long sexual relationship with her adult neighbour which ended abruptly when he abandoned her at a seaside hotel. He wound up serving four years in prison for statutory rape while she was left to flounder in the social stigma and emotional aftermath of having been abused then tossed aside by the object of her preteen crush. Now, fifteen years later, Ray (Ben Mendelsohn) has assumed a new identity and a new life while Una (Rooney Mara, phenomenal) is still without closure, nursing scars that refuse to heal. Managing to track him down, Una confronts Ray in the warehouse where he works and so begins one very long night of confrontations, recriminations, and fumbling attempts at conciliation. To even suggest that such a heinous crime could contain levels of moral ambiguity is to invite sound condemnation, but that is exactly what Benedict Andrew’s very theatrical adaptation of David Harrower’s stage play examines with consequences that are often problematic but never glib. A study in contradictions from the very outset, Ray’s expressed remorse is undercut by his suggestions that he “already paid his debt” and “we both knew what we were doing”. Una, on the other hand, vacillates between wanting him to continue suffering for his crime and needing that attention and intimacy once more—“Why did you leave me?” becoming an increasingly plaintive mantra as the hours tick by. Gradually however, as abuser and abused fill the gaps in each others’ memories (here Andrews makes excellent use of crucial flashbacks, including a wrenching courtroom scene) both audience and characters come to see the entire picture of what happened which makes the film’s closing sequence—a dinner party at Ray’s new home—all the more distressing. Already strengthened by a credible script of tearful pathos and frank, almost clinical anatomical references, Andrews adds further depth with several telling shots not the least of which is an adult Una curled up on a child’s bed watched over by a big stuffed tiger. One misinformed critic accused Una of “romanticizing pedophilia” and nothing could be further from the truth for Ray’s weak protests are more evasion of responsibility than defense while Una’s manifold pain never wavers for a minute nor does her anger lose its focus. But by peeling back the many psychological layers to expose the destructive bond which exists between victim and perpetrator the director makes us realize that crimes such as this are far more complex than newspaper headlines and their impact continues to reverberate over they years regardless of jail sentences and the passage of time.

Jules & Jim
(France 1962) (6): François Truffaut’s breezy tragicomedy of sex and friendship was certainly ahead of its time when it rode into cinemas on the crest of the French New Wave. But it hasn’t aged very well and the wordy script now seems like a series of quaint intellectual dalliances. In the years leading up to the first world war, bon vivant metrosexual Jim and his mousy Austrian BFF Jules while away the hours laughing and chasing skirts. And then they’re introduced to Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), a freethinking libertine whose resemblance to a Greek statue that both men adore leaves them hopelessly smitten. Thus begins a twenty-year love triangle which sees Catherine favouring one, and then the other, before irrevocably changing the course of their relationship with one final decision… With Jules and Jim likened to Sancho Panza and Don Quixote—leaving Catherine as the windmill toward which they both tilt—Truffaut’s screen adaptation of Henri-Pierre Roché’s novel has a lot to say about sexual politics in the 60s despite the fact it opens in 1912. For her part Moreau plays the psychologically suspect Object of Desire with an unapologetic brio. She’s a mercurial juggernaut whose emotional wake leaves both men floundering, sometimes with comic results but more often than not with shades of pining and despair that contrast sharply with the youthful zeal of those opening scenes. In the face of Moreau’s spirited performance the film’s underlying bromance never quite solidifies despite the sobering intrusion of WWI (the men fight on opposing sides, terrified they’ll accidentally kill one another) leaving you to wonder what, besides Catherine, is the glue that keeps them together. In the end too many falls from grace combine with too many sexual entanglements—the latter occasionally used as a weapon—leading to a sardonic finale that somehow fails to completely block the film’s sunnier disposition.

(UK 1936) (7): An early Hitchcock thriller which, despite its short running time, still packs in more mood and atmosphere than many full-length features. A cabal of foreign saboteurs are planning a deadly attack on London and it is up to undercover Scotland Yard detective Ted Spencer (a dashing John Loder) to uncover their diabolical plans. All roads lead to the germanic owner of a downtown movie theatre (hulking Viennese actor Oskar Homolka, all scowls and eyebrows) but with time running out will Spencer be able to save the day and still manage to woo the evil man’s unsuspecting and desperately unhappy American wife (a radiant Sylvia Sydney)? Hitchcock had the fog machines working overtime on this one with dank, menacing nights and overcast days beautifully expressed in B&W. At 37 his mastery of texture and composition was already established with raucous crowd scenes drenched in suspense as an overhead clock approaches zero hour or a fiendish rendezvous in a dimly lit aquarium, the silhouetted characters planning death and destruction while fish swim lazily past the viewing ports. But it’s in the way Hitchcock downplays the potential horror that gives the film its macabre edge: a child’s delight with a playful puppy twists the knife and the would-be killer’s struggle with a guilty conscience actually makes him more monstrous. I must admit the film’s climax caught me off guard and that puzzling denouement, almost surreal in its irony and simmering rage, puts this early work in a league of its own.

(UK 1959) (8): Eight years before To Sir With Love had Sidney Poitier facing racism in swinging London, the Rank Organization released this bitter indictment of black/white relations which, despite its hand-wringing theatrics, somehow bites down harder and deeper. The body of a white college girl is found in a respectable London Park prompting Chief Inspector Hazard (Nigel Patrick) to launch a murder investigation. But when it is discovered she was actually of mixed race the entire tone of the inquiry alters as prejudices begin crawling out of every corner—from police bias to suddenly hostile witnesses to mixed feelings from all echelons of the black community itself towards those who “turn white”. And then her boyfriend, a respectable young man from a working class caucasian family, falls under Hazard’s scrutiny causing an already sensitive situation to come apart at the seams. A frantic jazz score underlines the film’s heavy-handed presentation and a palette of Eastmancolor pastels actually highlights the all too apparent shades of ebony and ivory throughout. Despite the gravity of the subject matter however, there remains a certain naiveté to the script as screenwriter Janet Green goes to a few unnecessary lengths to spotlight racial divisions: the dead girl’s mixed heritage is emphasized by the fact she wears racy neon knickers under her conservative tweeds, and the owner of a “coloured” nightclub assures inspector Hazard that no matter how badly some of his patrons try to pass for white they just can’t resist the beat of a bongo drum. But given this was released in 1959 England one can forgive the emoting and occasional faux pas (and that pidgin English), for director Basil Dearden was able to start a dialogue on institutionalized racism decades before BLM ever took to the streets.

(Germany 2013) (5): By all accounts St. Hildegard von Bingen was the 12th century's version of a feminist dynamo with talents ranging from medicine and musical composition to ecology and a whole lot of woo nonsense in between (she promoted the power of crystals almost 900 years before Gwyneth Paltrow first steam-cleaned her own vagina). It's disappointing then that Margaretha von Trotta's biopic of the German nun who went from timid novice to ingenious proselytizer winds up being a bland costume drama spiced with a bit of superstitious Catholic voodoo—Hildegard’s so-called “visions" which probably owed more to faulty brain chemistry than any divine dispatch. Glenn Close lookalike Barbara Sukowa's lukewarm performance never quite ignites and many of the medieval nun's accomplishments get left on the back burner. The singing, however, is beautiful. Can't really rate it more than a five because I started hitting the FF button for the final third.