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Nurse Bob's film reviews

Picks and Pans from the Vancouver International Film Festival 2021

(UK): Terence Davies’ gushing Masterpiece Theatre biopic of controversial English poet Siegfried Sassoon is a study in overwrought dramatics and orchestral meltdowns which leave little room for subtlety. Beginning with Sassoon’s traumatic experiences in the trenches of WWI which caused him to become an outspoken objector (and an inpatient at a Scottish sanitarium) through to his embittered old age where he looks back upon his life with silent despair and explosive regret, Davies doesn’t miss an opportunity to wring out the heartstrings and set the violin section into a lather. Temporally at sea, the story bobs back and forth with a recuperating Sassoon taking the first of many male lovers here, settling for a conventionally unhappy marriage there, and suffering endless heartbreaks throughout (were all gay men in England at that time egotistical train wrecks?) And, for that extra ton of bricks, the director breaks the narrative on a regular basis with cutaway reveries featuring snatches of Sassoon’s poetry offset by B&W footage of war casualties. A sentimental assault too often bogged down by its own sense of magnitude.

The Book of Delights (Brazil): Mr. Goodbar waxes philosophical in this tale of Lóri, an elementary school teacher who tries to dull her loneliness through one night stands—until she meets her match in the form of a self-centred philosophy professor who calls her out on her self-deception. Or perhaps it is he who meets his match in her, for Lóri, despite the emotional damage, is not without a few insights of her own. A bit of navel-gazing aside (Lóri tries to share her views on human nature—gleaned from her dead mother’s journal—with her 7-year old students with amusing results) director Marcela Lordy’s combination of sex and angst has produced an existential romance that is painfully familiar to anyone who has either loved in vain or felt unable to love at all. Animal familiars figure prominently; a trip to the beach becomes an existential epiphany; and a final round of carnality turns into something sacred as the first rays of dawn touch the sleeping lovers. Erotic and cerebral in turn, the soul-searching is occasionally stilted (the source novel probably read better) but the two handsome leads manage to smooth out most of the script’s bumps and the result is captivating.

Brighton 4th (Georgia/Russia): Former wrestling champ now an amiable if somewhat large retiree, Kakhi (Levan Tediashvili) leaves Tbilisi bound for New York where his son Soso is trying to raise enough cash for a marriage of convenience that will gain him a green card. But what Kakhi finds is less than admirable for Soso is living in a squalid boarding house and owes the mob a large gambling debt. So what’s a loving pragmatic father to do? Make things right of course, or at least try. Fine natural performances all around, especially from Tediashvili (an actual ex-wrestler) who plays a big lovable bear of a man with a gentle smile and an iron headlock. A simple story of family bonds told without bombast or affectation…and that final scene is pure cinema.

Brother’s Keeper (Turkey): At a dreary boarding school tucked away in a snowbound corner of Anatolia, little Yusuf wakes up to find his best friend Memo sick and semi-conscious. In Ferit Karahan’s biting indictment Yusuf’s fruitless struggle to get Memo the care he needs goes largely ignored by an adult staff too preoccupied with their own problems to care much for one unwell little boy. The understocked infirmary is overseen by a teenager who only knows how to dispense aspirin; the closest hospital is dealing with a broken snowplow and an ambulance shortage; and the teachers most responsible for the wee student’s welfare have conflicting stories over what befell the child. And meanwhile, despite Yusuf’s pleas, Memo’s condition continues to deteriorate. Both a rebuke against rampant authoritarianism (corporal punishment and humiliation are the rules not the exceptions) as well as a commentary on Turkish society itself (the boys are mainly Kurds) Karahan calls to mind Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu in the way he’s able to wring irony out of such a deadly serious predicament whether’s it’s a slippery patch of floor that only seems to trip up adults; or the silly lengths they resort to in order to get cellphone reception; or the fact that all anyone can say of Memo is that “he doesn’t have a fever.” And when the truth is finally revealed (after much denial and finger-pointing) it neither exonerates nor excuses but rather widens the blame even further. A tightly controlled drama with a cast of exceptional preteens so committed to their characters that at times it borders on documentary realism. One of my top films this year.

(Serbia): All Marijana wants to do is give her little daughter a proper birthday party. But this is Yugoslavia circa 1993 and with wars raging and inflation out of control she’s fighting an uphill battle all the way. Bad enough that most of the party ingredients are either stolen or bought on the black market, but as the gathered adults succumb to secondhand whisky and first hand drugs fresh wounds are opened further (politics, sex, and infidelity topping the list) while their poisonous barbs begin to be reflected in the children who partake in a few mean games of their own. Aside from the ironic juxtaposition of childish cruelty with adult angst, Milica Tomović’s slow burner never really goes anywhere, preferring instead to wallow in its own anger and pain. And perhaps that is exactly the point, for in its despair we see the mirrored image of the disintegrating country in which it all takes place. But it’s a political rebuke that seems to run throughout Serbian cinema and in that respect Celts is little more than another cold slap with nothing new to say.

Everything Went Fine (France): After a debilitating stroke leaves well-to-do André (star turn from André Dussollier) a helpless invalid he calls upon his eldest daughter, Emmanuèle, to help him end his life. At first devastated, she eventually begins to navigate her way through the murky legal roadblocks preventing French citizens from obtaining medically assisted suicide abroad—the closest legal clinic being across the border in Switzerland. With her own emotions barely in check, Emmanuèle will also have to deal with an ambivalent sister, a mentally unstable stepbrother, and conflicted friends and relatives. Meanwhile, much to everyone’s delight, dad’s health is improving even though his resolve seems unmovable. In the hands of a lesser director this poignant family drama could have gone in any one of a dozen sentimental directions. Thankfully François Ozon was in charge and that means a hefty dose of realism gentled somewhat by an underlying sense of humour as dad ruffles a few feathers here and softens a few troubled brows there. Sophie Marceau is perfectly cast as the harried daughter and Charlotte Rampling is utterly convincing as André’s estranged wife who’s suffering through a few maladies of her own.

Father Pablo (Mexico): Painfully young and righteous to the point of arrogance, Father Pablo is used to giving the usual pat answers to questions of faith and sin. But he meets his match when he pays a visit to his dying father, a crusty non-believer, for the old man has opted to be euthanized on his 60th birthday and there is (almost) nothing Pablo can do about it. Rife with Christian metaphors, José Arrubarrena’s modern day parable moves at a snail’s pace as the blank-faced Pablo struggles with temptation, takes a walk in the wilderness, and plunges himself into a makeshift baptism that leaves him wetter but no wiser. And dear old dad, although paralyzed, always seems to be one moral step ahead of him. Terribly slow, no doubt on purpose, there is a sly edge to Arrubarrena’s story which pits blindly obedient dogma against worldly pragmatism in a showdown that’s unevenly matched from the very beginning. No wonder it starts off with Pablo getting lost in a make-believe swamp during a game of Dungeons & Dragons.

Girlfriends (Spain): Ever since Marta left her working class neighbourhood for the bright promises of Barcelona, the aspiring photographer has been trying to reinvent herself. Embarrassed by her blue collar parents and decidedly low-brow (though fiercely loyal) childhood friends, she hopes to create a new niche for herself among the arty intelligentsia crowd even if it means fudging a bit on her resumé. But circumstances conspire to knock her down a few notches when a reluctant trip home forces her to reevaluate both her lofty self-opinion and the “art scene” in general. Carol Rodríguez Colás’ savvy little confection, part chick-flick sitcom and part coming-of-age-yet-again drama, is perfectly suited to the small screen, concentrating as it does on how the smallest of interactions can sometimes lead to the biggest revelations. Marta and her girlfriends giggle, get stoned, and ogle boys in between breaking up and getting back together again (which they do at least a few times) and along the way she learns that the grass is just as fertile on either side of the tracks and “home” is something you can never quite leave. Definitely a cinematic Hallmark Moment, but one saved by gutsy performances and a script that manages to keep its comedic elements reined in.

Hands That Bind (Canada): Hardworking and conscientious, Andy is hoping to inherit the farm he’s been faithfully toiling on for years. But his dreams of self-sufficiency are dashed when the boss’ prodigal son—a truculent drunk with no ranch experience—arrives with his slovenly wife in order to claim his birthright. Slowly consumed by resentment, Andy’s inexorable tumble towards his own dark side begins to affect not only his marriage but the very landscape itself as nightmares and macabre portents—from UFOs to a phantom car—begin dogging him. Hailed as an example of “Prairie Gothic”, Kyle Armstrong turns one man’s plummet from grace into a puzzling rabbit hole that at times comes across as more artifice than substance (Andy has a habit of disappearing into walls). But there is no mistaking his ability to capture a good visual as cinematographer Mike McLaughlin turns wide open fields and starry skies into something vaguely threatening with little more than a bizarre cloud formation or a trio of bobbing lights. A burning tree calls to mind Yahweh’s little bush; a dead cow resembles a pagan sacrifice; and the old adage “You Reap What you Sow” is driven home with a vengeance.

Havel (Czech Republic): From struggling playwright and activist harassed and imprisoned by the Communist authorities in the 60s to the Czech Republic’s first democratic president, Václav Havel’s career was colourful to say the least. In Slávek Horák’s stylized yet unembellished biopic we see Havel warts and all (his timidity, his indecisiveness, his problems with monogamy) as he goes from political pariah to social juggernaut acquiring both a backbone and a new sense of purpose along the way. A pretty standard history lesson if not for Horák’s occasional theatrical flourishes that see interrogation rooms morph into stage sets and proletariat rabble become a cheering audience.

The In-Laws
(Poland): After their son leaves his bride-to-be at the altar, an upper class couple is left with a reception hall full of guests and nothing to celebrate. The wife, secretly pleased that her boy decided against marrying someone from a working class family, must now put on a contrite face for the jilted fiancee's angry parents. But as the vodka flows harsh truths lead to harsher actions. Meanwhile the guests are getting rowdy, the caterer is pulling his hair out, and the band keeps playing... With a rotating cast and superb tracking shots (including an opening 17-minute single take) Jacob Michalczuk channels the very best of Robert Altman into this uproarious farce tinged with a distinctly eastern European fatalism. Never missing a chance to take a dig at the bourgeois mindset (the bride's parents are looking for compensation, the groom's mother shouts "Peasants!"), Michalczuk takes great pleasure in the tiniest nuances whether it be a harried waiter trying to enforce smoking regulations, the wedding singer's questionable repertoire, or the kitchen's gas stoves which release perfectly well-timed gouts of flame. A wickedly dry comedy (oh that ending!) that will leave you wincing even as your sides split.

Moneyboys (Taiwan): Having left the stifling confines of the rural Chinese village where he grew up, Fei now ekes out a living as a gay prostitute in the big city. Constantly harassed by the police and all but shunned by his family, Fei’s biggest source of pain however comes from within, for although he longs for a man of his own the emotional toll exacted by his profession has left him unable to appreciate love even when it’s lying next to him. And then he’s joined by Long, a childhood friend also eager to escape the village, who wishes to follow in his footsteps—or simply follow him, period—and Fei is forced to take a very uncomfortable inventory of his life thus far. Given the film’s subject matter and location (with Taiwan standing in for the Mainland) it’s understandable that director C. B. Yi’s story of lives lived in the shadows should be shot through with melancholy and unfulfilled yearning. It appears the only choice his protagonists have is between settling for a string of dysfunctional trysts or entering into the relative safety of a sham marriage. Yet this is not a sentimental film by any means for Fei is both the victim and the author of his own unhappiness, and as his self-pitying cynicism plays off against Long’s fresh-faced buoyancy a long overdue comeuppance arrives leading to one precious ray of hope. Yi was tutored by none other than Michael Haneke and it shows in the delicate interplay between social stricture and personal freedom, as well as in the knowing use of background clues: compare two estranged men framed by a window looking out upon a dreary urban skyline to a motor scooter carrying two potential lovers as it speeds past a bucolic mural of fields and orchards. Very nicely done.

Money Has Four Legs (Myanmar): Wai Bhone, a straight-to-DVD director with big screen aspirations, sees his master opus (yet another remake of a popular 1940s gangster film) beset by problems on all sides: the crooked producer doesn’t understand “art”; the main actress is an airhead; the censor board is taking exception to everything; and his personal savings are wiped out when the bank goes belly up. Desperate for cash and inspired by his ex-con brother-in-law, he decides to take matters into his own hands and rob the same bank which robbed him. Complications ensue… With a nod or two to Truffaut’s Day for Night, Maung Sun takes a wry look at the creative process filtered through layers of official corruption and spiritual propriety to give us a sometimes engaging, sometimes tedious, comedy which pits artistic dreams squarely against social realities. Some clever touches raise the stakes (the street where Bhone lives is decorated with faded plastic stars) and the movie’s ironic ending(s) are topped with a big ol’ dollop of karma. And with actors that seems to be enjoying themselves every step of the way it’s easy to overlook the film’s obviously low budget and occasional wooden delivery. In fact one can almost hear the voice of Sun gleefully shouting “Action!”.

The Siamese Bond (Argentina): After she inherits two ocean front condos from her estranged father, 40-year old Stella packs up her argumentative mother and embarks on a six-hour bus ride to the coast. With a storm brewing on the horizon the road trip that follows will open up old wounds and inflict new ones as mother and daughter inadvertently widen a rift that has existed between them for ages. Small talk gives way to idle barbs which eventually lead to devastating confessions, and with lightning flashing in the distance it becomes apparent that Stella’s luggage is more emotional than physical and mom, despite her cruel blustering, is far more vulnerable than first appearances would suggest. Shot mainly within the confines of a moving bus, Paula Hernández’s magnificent two-hander features a script that cuts with surgical precision and cinematography which bestows the most innocuous details with deep significance: a flashing brake light gives the cabin a hellish glow; an errant sheep suggests a sacrificial lamb; and a tempest rages from above like the hand of Fate. Actresses Valeria Lois (Stella) and Rita Cortese (the mother) achieve perfect onscreen synergy—dressing alike in the same floral prints and sporting matching hairdos as they strain against the familial bond that hangs like a chain between them. A unique take on the Road Movie formula with an ending that was as fresh as it was inevitable.

Small Body (Italy): When her firstborn child, a girl, is born dead Agata is distraught to discover her little soul will never enter into Heaven but will instead spend eternity in Limbo because, according to the Church, stillborns can never be baptized. Determined to right this wrong she straps the tiny coffin to her back and heads north where she’s been told there exists a chapel that can free her baby’s spirit… Set in rural Italy towards the end of the 19th century, Laura Samani’s impressive film—part religious allegory, part feminist pilgrimage—unfolds with the dreamlike quality of a folktale wherein a heartbroken mother must contend with the forces of light and darkness as the World tries to hinder her path and her stand-in spiritual guide (a young ruffian carrying a few secrets of their own) reluctantly points the way. Mixing Catholic voodoo with pagan ritual, Samani’s cameras follow Agata as she literally and figuratively sails through Hades and climbs heavenward—all represented by breathtaking marine and alpine locations. So powerful in its sheer simplicity, Samani’s tale of grief, sacrifice, and ultimate redemption was one of the more moving selections at this year’s festival.

Three Sisters (S. Korea): Although they’re all dealing with personal crises, three adult sisters couldn’t be more different in temperament: Mi-ok is a failed playwright whose alcoholism leaves her husband cowering in the corner; Hee-sook is a self-effacing doormat with a goth daughter who hates her and a penchant for cutting herself when no one is looking; and obsessively pious Mi-yeon is the perfect Christian wife—until her husband’s affair requires her to turn the other cheek. In Lee Seung-won’s explosive family drama dysfunction is the norm, hysterics are the preferred mode of communication, and meltdowns are practically a requirement. Thankfully his trio of actresses are more than up to the task and his strong direction, coupled with a script that deftly balances pathos with dashes of black humour, keep things from flying off the handle entirely. Lee tosses his audience headfirst into the fray as the quasi-estranged sisters interact among themselves and with their often bewildered families, but it’s not until those final scenes—a family reunion celebrating their father’s birthday intercut with B&W flashbacks—that we begin to get some explanations for all that crazy, especially after their hitherto unseen younger brother arrives with a special birthday wish of his own. Alternately loud and soft, mercurial and balanced, Lee’s final resolution may not ring entirely true, but the journey is stimulating to say the least.

Time (Hong Kong): A trio of aging gangland assassins supplement their retirement savings by offering their services to elderly clients who’d rather die quickly than live alone and penniless. But as they feel their own years weighing down upon them they eke out whatever solace they can find: while one reluctantly “adopts” a troubled teen another finds affirmation in the arms of his favourite prostitute, and the third tries to insinuate herself into the lives of her son and his family (and fails). It’ll take one final crisis however to galvanize them into something resembling their former selves and allow them to enter those golden years with a new sense of purpose. Despite its nods to campy ‘60s Hong Kong action flicks, this first feature from Ricky Ko only manages to elicit a waning smile or two as it slides into maudlin telenovela territory with the usual slo-mo pathos and enough weepy karaoke to make you want to slash your wrists. Even a sort-of slapstick final flourish can’t shake the preceding ninety-minutes of ennui and only deepens the film’s pall of geriatric angst instead. When the closing credits montage proves more entertaining than the movie itself you know you’re in trouble.

Unclenching the Fists (Russia): Teenaged Ada can only dream of leaving the jerkwater town in which she’s been trapped since birth. With her days spent running the family store (and spurning the advances of a very forceful deliveryman) and nights spent playing both nursemaid and mother to her controlling father and cheerful though irresponsible brother, she’s amassed a few psychological scars as real as the physical scars on her body—a tragic souvenir from the past. But hope arrives in the form of a visit from her older brother, a quiet young man who managed to forge a life of his own in a distant city and on whom she’s now pinned her last desperate bid for freedom. However, fate—and family ties—are not so easily shrugged off. Aside from a talented young cast able to register a gamut of emotions from fear and complacency to impotent rage without even raising their voices, Kira Kovalenko’s incisive character study of a drowning woman is underscored by exceptional cinematography wherein mountains ring the town like prison walls and Ada’s unhappy home is presented as a confining warren of locked doors and airless rooms. Even the ornament adorning dad’s rearview mirror—a paper goldfish tethered to a string—can do little more than spin in circles. A stifling film whose harsh realism briefly gives way to a dreamlike final sequence that begs you to draw your own conclusions.