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


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Solo (Argentina 2013) (5): Perhaps a better title for this loopy gay thriller would be Scrolling For Mr. Gaybar, for it’s little more than a tired old trope revamped for a Grindr generation. After enduring a messy break-up, preppy office worker Manuel searches the internet for a bit of companionship and winds up with the bewhiskered and brooding Julio. Hitting it off at street level, the two retire to Manuel’s apartment where their date follows the expected trajectory: small talk, romantic confessions, fucking, and in the waning afterglow the usual glut of lame excuses designed to cut the evening short…”You have to leave because my friend Vicky is coming over” and “I’ll call you sometime”. At least on Manuel’s part. But Julio, cutting through Manuel’s bullshit, proves to be a tough houseguest to get rid of and that’s when Manuel begins to wonder if bringing him home was a wise decision after all… Obviously acquainted with the emotional games and dishonest politics of one-night stands, writer/director Marcelo Briem Stamm tries to spice things up with lukewarm sex and vague suggestions of darker motives at work—who is that mysterious voice on Julio’s cellphone? Why is he so interested in Manuel’s living arrangements? And just who is this “Vicky”? False starts abound as the two men circle one another, passion jostling with mistrust, while all that heartfelt pillow talk gets thrown into a sinister light once Stamm yanks the final rug out from beneath our feet. But the poorly subtitled dialogue clunks along and the two handsome leads fail to achieve that erotic synergy which would have made the film’s big twist somehow less nutty. Finally, when a director feels the need to explain his cleverness in minute detail (cue flashbacks which turn offhand comments into ironic double entendres) you know the mark has already been missed.

Hellboy
(USA 2019) (6): Even though it lacked the wit and humanity of the 2004 original plus the macabre menagerie mayhem of 2008’s Golden Army sequel—not to mention the fact that Ron Perlman beats David Harbour hands down when it come to sexy demon drag—this latest in the Hellboy franchise (more of a rewrite than a sequel) was unfairly pilloried by the critics when it first came out. It’s a comic book for crying out loud, and as such it at least pushes the envelope right into R-rated territory with gorier guts and a generous sprinkling of f-bombs to spice up an admittedly pedestrian script. With a new cast and a new nihilistic attitude (Harbour’s potty-mouthed devil no longer has time for romance and kittens), Hellboy’19 revolves around a wicked medieval sorceress whose dismembered and scattered body parts, courtesy of an irate King Arthur, are slowly coming back together thanks to her pig-headed (literally) henchman whose been scouring the English countryside gathering them up like Easter eggs. Whole once more, “Nimue” (Milla Jovovich looking more tired than nasty) is now bent on avenging all demonkind by triggering the apocalypse and only Hellboy can stop her—but, unbeknownst to him, he too is destined to play a vital role in her infernal plan. So much for storyline. It’s all terribly predictable of course, but the CGI bugaboos and magical pyrotechnics alone are worth the rental price: a plague of freaky behemoths eat up London; a Russian hag does bone-crunching calisthenics while her house ambles about on monstrous chicken legs; and a trio of misshapen giants shuck screaming humans as if they were two-legged oysters. Look closely and you’ll also catch nods to Gremlins, An American Werewolf in London, and J. R. R. Tolkien along the way. Definitely the weakest of the three, and those not-so-subtle hints of yet another film to come failed to generate any excitement in me. But for a movie based on a movie based on a graphic novel it pretty much delivers what it promises.

The Acid House
(UK 1998) (6): From the pen of Irvine Welsh (Trainspotters) comes this trilogy of nasty tales intent on portraying Scots as loud lazy lumpen dolts whose only goals in life are to drink and get shagged. In the first instalment a young man is experiencing the worst day of his life—he’s lost his job and his his girlfriend, and now his parents are evicting him so that they can have more privacy to indulge in their sick S&M fetishes. And then he meets God down at the local pub and the drunken, foul-mouthed deity shows him that no matter how bad things seem, they can always get worse. Next up, a spineless milquetoast married to the town slag faces unbearable humiliation when she leaves him and their newborn baby to shack up with the psycho neighbour. Finally, a tweaking yob experiences the ultimate LSD trip when a freak lightning strike inextricably ties him to a snobbish pair of English yuppies expecting their first child. With a palette of drug-addled colours and cameras that never stray far from the crumbling housing projects in which the stories unfold, director Paul McGuigan’s triptych of wrack and ruin jumps about like a cat on meth with results that are sometimes amusing (a housefly is bent on revenge; a baby is possessed by a crackhead; God doesn’t give a shite) but mostly dull and dreary and pointless despite (or maybe because of) all those repetitious scenes of depressingly kinky sex. And the sparse subtitles hardly do justice to that expressive Scots dialect delivered in a working class brogue: “Go back to your ma! Lick your ma’s fuckin’ piss-flaps ya fuckin’ cunt!” Charming.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
(Italy 1966) (8): From Ennio Morricone’s iconic theme music filled with operatic brass, electric twangs, and primeval chorus, to that brilliant standoff in the middle of a graveyard, this grandaddy of all Spaghetti Westerns has become something of a legend. A feat made even more impressive when you consider the fact that the international cast and crew were barely able to communicate and many of the secondary characters had to have their lines dubbed into English. The promise of a fortune in buried gold attracts the attention of a sham bounty hunter (a good Clint Eastwood), his ruthless sidekick (an ugly Eli Wallach), and a hired assassin (a bad Lee Van Cleef all decked in black). Trying to outwit each other yet conversely relying on one another at the same time, the three leave a trail of bodies in their wake as they wend their way towards a final showdown. Taken as a straight-up oater, Sergio Leone’s masterful direction (and Morricone’s aforementioned score) makes for an intensely watchable “blood ’n bullets” saga with central Spain standing in nicely for America’s Wild West. But there are deeper layers to be plumbed here for the film also resembles a cosmic morality play with influences ranging from the Tarot Deck (The Fool, The Magician, The Hanged Man, Judgment, Fate, and Fortune are among the cards Leone tosses out) to Eastern mysticism and a nod to Carl Jung for as the trinity face one another in the middle of a cemetery the headstones come to resemble nothing less than an intricate mandala. Even the Civil War, constantly raging in the background, personifies ultimate futility after both sides wreak annihilation on one another over a rickety old bridge. All these years later it’s still hard to believe it wasn’t even nominated for one single Academy Award.

Call Northside 777
(USA 1948) (7): When his sweet Polish mother places an ad offering a small fortune in exchange for any information proving him innocent, a convicted cop-killer currently serving a life sentence attracts the attention of cynical newspaper reporter P. J. McNeal (James Stewart). Believing the man guilty as charged, McNeal nevertheless begins to reinvestigate the eleven-year old case and what he uncovers makes him doubt not only the jury’s verdict but the entire judicial system itself. Based on a true story and kept as realistic as possible—the actual newspaperman serves as technical advisor and inventor Leonarde Keeler makes a cameo with his newfangled polygraph machine—this is a fine early example of the “investigative journalism” genre with Stewart giving his usual downplayed performance as a man hungry for the truth backed by a mixed cast of veteran screen actors (Lee J. Cobb as McNeal’s editor, Richard Conte as the convict) and talented newcomers (a 60-year old Kasia Orzazewski wrings your heart as the mother). Director Henry Hathaway also reaches for authenticity with real Chicago locations serving as backdrops, from a dreary tenement project where a crucial clue awaits to an even drearier prison with cells stacked atop one another like a beehive. The final piece of the puzzle is a bit of a stretch though, and in an effort to assure viewers that the system eventually works after all director Henry Hathaway ends it with a small slice of apple pie while an offscreen narrator solemnly declares, “It’s a good world—outside”. Indeed it is.

The Wave
(Norway 2015) (5): A crack in one of the mountains bordering the Geiranger fjord is widening and if it should break off it would send megatons of rock into the water giving rise to a monstrous 80 meter tsunami that would destroy everything in its path—including the town where geologist Kristian Eikjord lives with his wife and two children. Alert to the mounting threat, Kristian’s warnings go unheeded until the unthinkable actually does happen and now he’s faced with the near impossible task of saving his family as well as his neighbours before everything is swept away… With a firm scientific base (such tragedies have happened in Norway already), Roar Uthaug’s CGI-laded disaster flick—a Scandinavian first—certainly delivers on the tension and waterlogged destruction starting with a few ominous rumbles reminiscent of 1974’s Earthquake followed by a topsy-turvy aftermath played out on sets resembling a landlocked Poseidon Adventure. In fact just about every aspect of his film is lifted directly from the Disaster Film Handbook: the sceptical experts, the hysterical townsfolk, and the separated family struggling to find each other in the ensuing chaos. But one can’t fault him for simply following the rules, for aside from that awesome wall of water practically leaping off the screen these are the conventions and small manipulations fans of the genre expect. Where the movie failed, at least for me, was in the stretches it wanted us to accept, most notably a ridiculously unlikely rescue and reunion. Add to that a couple of head-scratchers (when you’re treading water in a flooded room do you really want to get the lights working by reaching for the fuse box? And what’s with all those fires?) and you have a thriller with one foot in the drink and the other waving about in the clouds. Unfortunately I can’t stretch that far.

The Trap
(Serbia 2007) (10): Serbian cinema has never been known for being fluffy and this darkly cynical film noir from the post-Milosevic era is no exception. Construction foreman Mladen Pavlovic and his wife Marija, a highschool English teacher, are desperate. Their young son Nemanja needs a life-saving operation in Germany and their meagre health insurance won’t cover the €30,000 price tag. When personal ads and the generosity of friends prove fruitless the future looks bleak indeed, especially with Nemanja’s health failing daily. And then a shady stranger offers to foot the entire bill if Mladen will perform one horrific favour… Tangled webs and tragic irony are in full force as director Srdan Golubovic shows it is impossible to sell one small part of your soul without losing it entirely, whether you’re an individual or an entire nation. Claustrophobic and shot through with moral corrosion as Mladen’s world caves in, Golubovic’s character study of one well-meaning father’s plunge into shadow finds counterparts in his country’s zeitgeist as people are judged by the make of their shoes, the colour of their car (red and white figure prominently), and how many expensive baubles they own. The Serbian flag adorns a killer’s sleeve, a crumbling mansion hides behind a whitewashed facade, and an intersection comes to resemble fate itself as the traffic light cycles endlessly through green, yellow, and red. It’s not that human life is necessarily cheap, but in Golubovic’s bleak vision it’s just another commodity to be bought, sold, and bargained with. From its staccato editing to its host of brilliant performances (as an unraveling Mladen, Nebojsa Glogovac makes you feel every twist and betrayal), Serbia’s official entry to 2008’s Academy Awards is one of those perfectly executed productions that remind me why I fell in love with Cinema in the first place.

In The Family
(USA 2011) (9): It’s rare for someone to create a three-hour film which captivates from start to finish, rarer still for that creator to score a trifecta as writer, director and star. Patrick Wang has done just that with this exquisitely realized little heartache of a movie which demonstrates once again that family bonds run deeper than mere blood. When his longterm partner Cody is killed, Joey (Wang) is left alone with their six-year old son Chip from Cody’s former marriage. Resourceful and spunky for his age, Chip (standout performance from Sebastian Banes) handles the transition from two devoted dads to just one with an ease that belies his years while Joey, for his part, begins to map out a new life for the two of them. Unfortunately Cody never changed his Will in which he stipulates that all his possessions—including custody of his son—are to go to his sister Eileen. Now, despite a once favourable relationship with Cody’s family, Joey finds himself bereft of the one light in his life and neither the Law nor Eileen are about to budge. And then he makes the acquaintance of a retired lawyer, a canny old gentlemen who may be holding the solution he’s been searching for… If you’re expecting a fiery polemic on homophobia and southern redneck bigotry (the film is set in Tennessee) or a big gay tearjerker you will walk away disappointed for Wang’s feather light approach favours long static shots, incidental music only, and an unsentimental script so keenly observed that at times it seems more like a documentary unfolding in realtime. From a silent shot of the back of Joey’s head as he receives notice of Cody’s death—cars rushing back and forth on the freeway beyond the hospital window underscoring the sense of tragedy—to the conflicting emotions racing across Eileen’s face while she listens to his statement during a court deposition, Wang is in no hurry to tie things up in a neat package. What he delivers instead are layers of emotionally-charged complexity devoid of clichéd stereotypes wherein everyone shoulders their own hurt and no one is singled out for condemnation. Flashbacks to the way things used to be are used sparingly and with great effect to show us just what Joey has lost (a spontaneous first kiss, a spontaneous first argument) and Wang alludes to his character’s current sense of being set adrift with the subtlest of touches. An accomplished architect, Joey excels at fixing other people’s broken things and that Dixieland drawl contradicts his Asian features—a fact humorously brought home when he meets his “in-laws” for the first time. Unfortunately Wang also proves to be the film’s weakest link, his portrayal of Joey lacks the peaks and valleys one would expect delivering instead an admirable sketch of a grieving man striving to reclaim what he believes to be his. But that final scene, despite being a tad rushed and maybe a little too pat, is no less moving.

11 Minutes
(Poland 2015) (5): What can change over the course of a mere eleven minutes? Well, according to Jerzy Skolimowski’s muddled mess of intersecting storylines and crazy coincidences—everything. Between 5:00 and 5:11 pm the lives of a handful of people, each one contending with their own drama and unaware of the others, will converge in one of the most colourfully jarring chain reactions to come out of European cinema in some time. There’s a sexually conflicted actress and her jealous husband; a vendor with a criminal past and seven hungry nuns; an adulterous window cleaner; a drug dealer; a would-be thief; the paramedics responding to a 911 call gone terribly wrong; plus a few peripheral characters who nevertheless have a role to play. And the only thing any of them have in common is the brief sighting of a strange harbinger suspended in the sky above Warsaw. Jumping maniacally from thread to thread with no scene lasting more than a few minutes and a chopped up timeline given the barest sense of cohesion by the portentous tolling of a church bell and a jet plane which passes ominously overhead, Skolimowski leaves it up to his audience to decipher exactly what it’s all supposed to mean. As a treatise on randomness vs. predestination all of the coincidences seem to fall within the realm of blind chance—so why do the Father, the Son, and a fine feathered Holy Ghost make split-second appearances? As a comment on alienation in the age of smartphones there are certainly enough examples of people mugging in front of their personal lenses: a sleazy film director uses his digital camera to both seduce and intimidate; a couple watch laptop porn in the intimacy of an unmade bed; and everywhere security cameras record the lives of millions of people (one such montage receding into the distance to reveal an adroit twist). Lastly, a brief interlude involving a portrait artist inconvenienced when a man jumps off the bridge he happens to be painting not only makes a statement on artifice (it’s not what you think) but his ruined watercolour provides what may be the entire crux of the movie. With so much going for it (it was Poland’s official entry for the Academy Awards—it was rejected) I still could not engage with either the characters or their predicaments except on the most superficial of levels, and all that temporal jumping about wasn’t worth the big bang pay-off. It’s a clever parlour trick of a film but as the final credits came to a close I found myself uninterested in pondering the existential questions it posed.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
(UK 2015) (7): If you’ve seen the first instalment of John Madden’s star-studded romantic fluff about a group of aging Brits living out their final years in a charmingly ramshackle Jaipur hotel, you’ve pretty well seen all that part two has to offer. Which doesn’t mean it’s not worth a look, for the characters remain endearing and the script is a pleasant blend of humour, pathos, and a dash of Bollywood pizzazz. Proprietor Sonny Kapoor (UK-born Dev Patel hamming up the Hindu schtick) has his heart set on opening up a second Marigold Hotel if he can only secure the proper funding—cue a trip stateside with his acid-tongued partner Muriel (Maggie Smith in top form) and a host of gags when he mistakes a new hotel guest (Richard Gere, aging handsomely) for an undercover loans assessor. Upon this central thread Madden tacks on a host of side stores from a pair of seasoned octogenarians reaching for a second chance at love (Judi Dench, Bill Nighy) to a two-timing grandmother with room for a third (Celia Imrie) to Sonny’s abrasive mother (Lillete Dubey all class and sass) learning to let down her own defences. But of course the best lines are reserved for Ms. Smith as a wrinkly old pit bull who’s bark hides a few secrets of her own. And it all ends on an adorably silly musical note to rival anything out of Bombay. Namaste!

In Between Days
(Canada/Korea 2006) (5): It’s winter in Toronto and the cold grey streets are reflected in the cheerless eyes of teenaged Aimie, a recent Korean immigrant being raised by her single mother. Unable to fit in with any crowd and constantly zoning out, Aimie has started skipping classes to hang out with potential new boyfriend Tran, a chain-smoking bad egg who is slowly leading the vulnerable girl down the path to delinquency. Can cigarettes, misdemeanours, and sexual experimentation be far behind? Shot in an austere verité style reminiscent of the Dogme 95 school—natural lighting, handheld cameras, incidental music only—writer/director So Yong Kim does manage to coax believably downplayed performances from her largely amateur cast. Unfortunately this minimalist approach which worked so well for her in 2008’s Treeless Mountain fails to inject much insight into what eventually becomes another derivative tale of teenaged angst and alienation, the “immigration experience” notwithstanding. As Aimie, Jiseon Kim mopes about, lolls in bed, or else addresses her flip-phone in a mumbled monotone while the adults around her seem equally preoccupied: her ESL teacher drones on about colloquialisms while mom primps for a date and nags her about studying harder. All very convincing, but where’s the point? Even Aimie’s video musings on her absent father, which could have added some much needed layers to her character, simply boil down to “I miss you dad and wish you were here”. The film’s aura of isolation and dissatisfaction, that vague adolescent yearning for something you can neither explain nor obtain, is universal (an upbeat letter stolen from a vandalized car strikes an ironic note)—but with In Between Days it’s just a familiar veneer surrounding a story filled with sullen stares and emotional blanks.

The Death of Dick Long
(USA 2019) (8): From the land of trailer parks, pick-up trucks, and pit bulls comes this tarnished example of White Trash Southern Gothic, a film with the uncanny ability to make you laugh, cringe, and stare aghast all at the same time. After a night of Jackass-style tomfoolery, good ol’ boy Dick Long (ha ha) winds up dead much to the discomfiture of his pothead buddies Zeke and Earl who, in a desire to distance themselves from the shocking cause of Dick’s death, anonymously dump his body in front of the local hospital. But the two rednecks are too inept to cover their tracks and keep what happened that night a secret for long in such a small town—Zeke has trouble lying while Earl is just plain stupid—especially after a little grey-haired sheriff and her deceptively green deputy start asking pointed questions. A perfectly trashy script which mixes comical backwoods dregs with momentous calamity is kept afloat by equally conflicted performances, most notably from Michael Abbott Jr. as the neurotic Zeke and Virginia Newcomb as his incredulous girlfriend who suddenly finds her comfortable world jarred off its foundations. Sure to draw comparisons to that other off-key classic, Fargo—although not necessarily favourable ones—director Daniel Scheinert nevertheless deserves credit for sheer chutzpah alone in delivering such an egregious plot with such a poker face. It’s a perverse episode of Trailer Park Boys presented as a drunken Greek tragedy proving once again Alabama ain’t such a sweet home after all…

The Grim Reaper
(Italy 1961) (5): The body of a dead prostitute lies in a field next to the Tiber, her corpse surrounded by the castaway detritus of Roman society. One by one, five suspects—a delinquent teen, a henpecked pimp, a lustful soldier, a lovestruck adolescent, and a surly bouncer—are hauled in for questioning and as their testimonies give rise to flashbacks we gradually come to see exactly what happened that night. Directed by a 20-year old Bernardo Bertolucci and written by Pier Paolo Pasolini this is at best a clumsy amateurish stab at Kurosawa’s Rashomon in which a horrible crime is recounted from four different perspectives. But unlike the Japanese classic which used faulty memories as a springboard for exploring the nature of morality and societal norms, Bertolucci simply parades a host of unsavoury lowlifes before the cameras to beat their breasts and wail injustice to an offscreen interrogator before he finally gives up and just shows us who did it. There is very little subtext to draw upon, no interpersonal connections to add depth, and the dramatic non-sequiturs simply add to the repetitive tedium. Aside from one or two striking pans (at one point the camera pulls away to reveal a covey of strangers huddling beneath the Coliseum as a rainstorm drenches Rome) and a dose of humour (a bitch fight between a mother and daughter involves bread knives and an iron) the abrupt editing mostly grates on the nerves while the two-dimensional characters do not engage the audience at any level save for Bertolucci’s surprisingly charitable portrayals of streetwalkers and one prowling homosexual whose character is almost, but not quite, sympathetic. Worth catching if you’re a fan of the genre, but set your expectations low.

The Nanny
(UK 1965) (7): Less than a year after Julie Andrews’ Mary Poppins splashed the screen with kite-flying wholesomeness, Bette Davis scuttled the whole flying governess fantasy with this lurid guilty pleasure based on Marryam Modell’s novel. Two years after he was implicated in the death of his baby sister, ten-year old Joey Fane (a cherubic and thoroughly unlikeable William Dix) is being released from the paediatric sanitarium in which he was incarcerated and returning home to his still distraught mother (Wendy Craig never far from a good wail) and autocratic father (James Villiers with a Britain-sized stick up his arse). Cold and cynical towards everyone around him, Joey saves his worst vitriol for the family nanny (an emoting Davis trying to resurrect Baby Jane) despite her best efforts to win him over. But there’s more to this strained relationship than a doting au pair and bratty urchin, for Joey and Nanny share a dreadful secret which may very well threaten everyone in the Fane household… Between Davis’ cryptic scowls, Craig’s crying jags, and Dix’s petulant hissy fits, director Seth Holt’s Grand Domestic Guignol could hardly be accused of finesse and the British censors seemed to agree, slapping the production with an “X” rating due to a few problematic elements. But as a gothic soap with a dash of child’s eye cynicism—the expressive Pamela Franklin adds a bit of class playing a teenaged neighbour and Joey’s only confidante—it’s an addictive watch from start to finish. Julie Andrews may have touted a spoonful of sugar, but The Nanny goes straight for the strychnine.

Layer Cake
(UK 2004) (7): Although the title of Matthew Vaughn’s gangster film refers to the criminal underworld’s densely stratified social structure, it can easily be applied to the movie itself which proves to be a multi-tiered confection of gallows humour, violence, and murky double-twists. Career cocaine dealer “XXXX” (Daniel Craig showing the same intensity he’d later bring to James Bond) is looking forward to retiring with the million quid he managed to squirrel away over the years. But his boss has two last assignments for him: finding the missing daughter of an associate and moving a small mountain of stolen Ecstasy tablets. The former job will get X into trouble with the girl’s ruthless father while the latter will put him in direct—and very deadly—conflict with the Serbian mafia. With everything he’s worked so hard for now in peril, what’s a low level trafficker to do? With a plot so tangled you could trap spiders in it Vaughn’s screen adaptation of J. J. Connolly’s novel does demand some degree of attention especially when the betrayals begin in earnest. X just can’t seem to trust anyone, including himself, and as the body count begins to rise (surprisingly slow given the film’s subject matter) a dark metamorphosis takes place which gilds that final montage in mordant irony. An essential soundtrack of remastered 80s hits pairs well with Ben Davis’ flashy cinematography—action ricochets off the screen and in one cheeky passage shelves of designer cocaine morph into a neighbourhood drug store—and a dream cast that includes Tom Hardy, Sally Hawkins, and Colm Meaney tear their way through Connolly’s brusque yet biting screenplay. A fun, though occasionally confusing ride even if you’re not a fan of the genre.

Black Snake Moan (USA 2006) (7): The title refers to one’s personal demons and in Craig Brewer’s trashy backwoods drama those demons loom large. Town slut Rae (Christina Ricci, bold and brassy) copes with her traumatic memories of sexual abuse through drugs and casual encounters with every male in town whenever her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake, amazing) turns his back. Ronnie, for his part, can’t cope with loud noises, a PTSD-like disorder which hampers him from pursuing his goal of enlisting in the army. And then there’s aging musician Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson deserving of an Oscar but not even nominated), a crusty old loner still angry over his ex-wife’s double betrayal. When a bad date leaves Rae unconscious and bleeding outside Lazarus’ shack, he takes it upon himself to “cure” her of her self-destructive ways by literally putting her in chains and showing her the kind of platonic compassion lacking in her life—an arrangement which actually begins to pay dividends. And then Ronnie comes back from boot camp and the misunderstandings begin… An admittedly controversial storyline which drew ire from female critics for its likening of one woman’s sexuality to demonic possession (not to mention frank, often violent, sex scenes), yet there is an undeniable sympathy which runs throughout. The relationship between bitter old black man and emotionally brittle white girl is nothing like the exploitation suggested by the film’s unfortunate theatre posters (a bone of contention with Ricci) but rather a dysfunctional therapy of sorts, laced with dark humour and an adamant refusal to pigeonhole either character. She cools down despite being chained to a red hot radiator while he pours out his soul in a series of bluesy ballads, and in the background secondary characters keep things in perspective—a teenaged store clerk embodies innocence, a female pharmacist’s romantic advances give Lazarus a sense of hope, and a preacher provides the calm eye to the storm which is enveloping everyone. A movie about broken people trying to heal in whatever way they can, even if their methods might prove scandalous to more sensitive viewers. Impeccable performances are backed up by soulful music (played and sung by Jackson himself) and a script as sharp as it is tawdry.

Pom Poko (Japan 1994) (6): A dark, and not entirely successful “eco awareness” anime from Studio Ghibli about a band of wild raccoon dogs determined to keep human developers from destroying their beloved forest. Until the bulldozers and steam shovels arrived, Shôkichi and his furry brethren were content to simply eat, play, and mate, among the trees of their hillside woods. Now, with their ancestral home threatened by a sprawling Tokyo suburb, they decide to fight back using their magical ability to shape-shift into whatever form they choose—be it a concrete barrier, traffic cop, or scary demon. But humans are not so easily discouraged and as the stakes become more desperate the feud between striped canids and people begins to exact a terrible toll. Despite a very stagey Halloween-style guerrilla assault on the town by raccoons posing as monsters and outer space aliens (and a few Ghibli cameos if you look close enough), the subpar animation seems more suited for a television audience while a meandering script doesn’t quite seem to know which direction to take. As a rebuke against habitat destruction it presents a very anemic argument indeed with a sour ending that seems to suggest if you can’t beat them, try using denial. As family entertainment there is a tad too much roadkill for the tykes, not to mention the raccoons’ supernaturally versatile scrotums which they proudly wield as weapons, picnic blankets, and flotation devices (cue cartoon testicles galore). And as a sardonic look at the machinations of big business (a shape-shifting fox fits quite nicely into the human world of corporate boardrooms) it fizzles without ever popping. Ultimately a sad tale of cross-species exploitation, assimilation, and gentrification whose fatalistic tone touches on a truth which remains uncomfortable no matter how many legs you walk on.

Murder Most Foul (UK 1964) (7): The late great Margaret Rutherford, looking like a dowdy old basset hound, returns to her role as crime-solving octogenarian Miss Jane Marple in this entertainingly corny whodunnit. The death of a small town barmaid seems mysteriously linked to a troupe of actors and it’s up to Marple to infiltrate their ranks and unmask the culprit before they strike again—which they do! As with all these films the actual sleuthing takes a backseat to Rutherford’s energetic mugging and puffing, her baggy eyes and dogged enthusiasm always a pleasure to watch. The clues are mundane and the solution is both facile and somewhat anticlimactic, but watching a venerable old dog teach everyone a couple of new tricks is always worth a smile. Rutherford’s campy onstage recitation of Robert Service’s poem “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” (while pretending to be an auditioning actress) is definitely the film’s highlight.

The Good Shepherd (USA 2006) (6): In 1961 the “Bay of Pigs” invasion of Cuba, backed by America’s Central Intelligence Agency, goes terribly awry leading to speculations that Castro’s regime had been tipped off. It falls to high-ranking CIA official Edward Wilson (a monotone Matt Damon bordering on catalepsy) and his department to root out the traitor, but as Wilson’s investigation progresses he begins to reflect upon his professional career—starting when he was recruited as a young political idealist to aid British Intelligence during WWII to his current position overseeing American counter-intelligence. And as old memories resurface they give him pause to reevaluate his life’s work… Not so much a political thriller, director Robert De Niro (who also stars as a no-nonsense General) instead follows the trajectory of one man’s moral evolution as he goes from fresh-faced Yale graduate to cynical and slightly paranoid spy-catcher able to look the other way as his country commits crimes for the sake of national interest. Alas, we’ve seen this film countless other times and De Niro, despite a noteworthy cast, doesn’t have anything new to add. The moral quandaries, the evil Russian counterpart (Oleg Stefan, cold as ice), and the personal tolls all loom large especially with Angelina Jolie cast as Wilson’s estranged wife and an impressive though miscast Eddie Redmayne as the couple’s emotionally fragile son. To his credit De Niro does an adequate job of juggling the film’s parallel timelines with action jumping from Wilson’s college years—where he was first indoctrinated into the halls of privilege—to 1940s London, to Washington during the Cold War. But along the way a few narrative potholes are never adequately filled in and when the rat is finally revealed there is much irony but little in the way of plausible backstory. One scene does linger in the mind however: Wilson, stuck in a loveless marriage and suspicious of everyone, looking small in his trench coat and fedora as he recedes down a hallway of the newly constructed CIA headquarters. Power may corrupt, but if one believe’s The Good Shepherd’s underlying message, it can also divide and isolate—even on the most personal level.

I See You (USA 2019) (7): When a young boy goes missing in a small New England town, the circumstances surrounding his disappearance bear an alarming similarity to a spate of child murders which took place there several years earlier. But when detective Greg Harper (Jon Tenney) reopens the case it precipitates a series of bizarre occurrences in his private life as his home suddenly becomes the target of a malevolent presence. Now, with crockery flying off the rooftop and things going bump at all hours of the day, he and his already high-strung wife (Helen Hunt) and oddly antagonistic son (Judah Lewis) have an even bigger mystery on their hands. Told twice from two different perspectives, I See You does keep you guessing right up to the halfway mark when director Adam Randall over-explains it all before catching us off guard with one final twist. Overhead tracking shots from The Shining pair well with scenes of sinister domesticity taken from Hereditary, and a few oh-so-clever foreshadowings appear on bedroom walls and computer screens—alas, the meticulous horror tropes lead to a climax which proves to be more amusingly macabre than outright shocking. Nice build-up while it lasts however even if the film’s creep factor is ultimately outdone by unsettling images of a plasticized Helen Hunt struggling to emote through layers of botched plastic surgery.