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

~ ~ ~ ~

The Pope of Greenwich Village (USA 1984) (6): Shades of Brando and James Dean permeate this hard luck story of Charlie (Mickey Rourke), a working stiff trying to get ahead in New York’s Little Italy district and his scatterbrained cousin Paulie (Eric Roberts) who always seems to turn everything he touches into a disaster. When Paulie convinces a newly unemployed and heavily in debt Charlie to take part in a lucrative robbery he reluctantly agrees but, as usual with Paulie’s schemes, it all goes sour when the heist results in a death and Charlie learns too late that the money they’ve stolen belongs to “Bed Bug Eddie” (Burt Young) a very vindictive Mafia boss with a reputation for carving up people who cross him. Rourke is the epitome of edgy working class cool with his shades, worn leather jacket, and a temperament that goes from cocky confidence to apartment-trashing rage. Roberts, conversely, is annoying as a hyperactive man-child in a performance that comes dangerously close to overacting. Yet there is a chemistry at work here and the 80s aesthetic works well, from the clothes and funky background score to the street level cinematography that picks out every piece of garbage, every scrawl of graffiti, and every piece of tired old furniture. And what the film lacks in suspense it partially makes up for in sheer balls whether it’s Paulie’s very funny revenge on a traffic cop who pissed him off or Charlie staring down Eddie in a pissing contest to end all pissing contests. Too bad then that it all finishes on a rather screwball note. Daryl Hannah—dressed primarily in panties and a bra—stumbles her way through as Charlie’s hard-pressed girlfriend; character actor M. Emmet Walsh excels as a crooked cop; and the great Geraldine Page received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role as the tough-as-nails mother of the deceased—her eight minutes of screen time outshining everyone else put together.

Battle of the Sexes
(USA 2017) (7): At the beginning of the 1970s “Women’s Liberation” was a hot button topic as more and more women began rejecting the social norms which denied them equal opportunities and kept them in low-paying jobs. And professional tennis was no different, with female players earning considerably less than their male counterparts. All that was about to change however when 29-year old tennis superstar Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) faced off against 55-year old court champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carrell), a self-proclaimed “male chauvinist pig”, for what networks were touting as the ultimate battle between the sexes—at stake a one hundred thousand dollar prize and two reputations. Using wonderful period touches and an impeccable soundtrack of golden oldies, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris bring this colourful period of sports history to life for a new generation who may not understand what the fuss was all about but can certainly appreciate the implications it represented. Stone is phenomenal as the assertive King whose very public criticisms of gender inequality contrasted sharply with a personal life in which her storybook marriage was coming undone due to her emerging homosexuality (still a career-killer in 1973). And Carrell outdoes himself as the charismatic hustler who courted spectacle and controversy—he was not above lobbing balls dressed up like Little Bo Peep—even while his own marriage was on the rocks due to a gambling addiction. Thankfully the directors maintain a light touch for this match was as much about publicity and sportsmanship as it was about raising awareness, in fact King and Riggs remained the best of friends right up until his death in 1995. Despite the “establishment” being represented by some smug sexists (Bill Pullman is especially slimy as tennis promoter Jack Kramer) there were many men cheering for Billie Jean while Bobby’s team had more than a few female boosters of its own. A bright and flashy recreation of a pivotal point in modern history that will leave you feeling good all over even if you already know who won. Andrea Riseborough co-stars as King’s first lesbian crush in a steamy performance that belies the emotional trauma she’d inflict later on; Alan Cumming plays a fey seamstress and King’s voice of reason; Sarah Silverman does a bit of stand-up schtick as the feisty manager of the nascent women’s tennis league; and Elizabeth Shue and Austin Stowell play the respective spouses who wind up being more of a support than either player expected.

The Informer
(UK 1929) (7): During a gunfight on the streets of Dublin Francis, an anti-establishment activist (“IRA” is never mentioned), accidentally kills the Chief of Police. Now on the lam thanks to support from his fellow Party members, Francis risks one final visit with his ex-sweetheart Katie (Lya De Putti) before fleeing to America. But Katie is now dating Francis’ best friend Gypo (Lars Hanson) who walks in on the couple, mistakes their chaste farewell for something more sordid, and in a fit of jealousy turns Francis over to the police—an act of treachery which will lead to more misunderstandings, more betrayals, and more tragedy before the night is over. Inspired by Liam O’Flaherty’s novel, director Arthur Robison’s heavy-handed morality play descends with all the gravitas of a biblical epic as Hanson channels a proletariat Judas, De Putti gives a toned-down Mary Magdalene, and a supporting cast of heavily made-up extras provide the centurions and a gang of wayward apostles. And for the silent first half its theatrical emoting works well especially paired with that grandiose orchestral score. But then it inexplicably switches to a talkie for the second half and that’s when things begin to unravel ever so slightly. First of all the supposed Irish characters (De Putti was actually Hungarian, Hanson was Swedish) are poorly dubbed with upper-class English accents causing Katie to squeak like a dormouse and Gypo’s unnaturally deep bass to echo as if he were intoning his lines from within the confines of a granite mausoleum. Secondly, the exaggerated gestures and facial contortions which look good in silent films suddenly turn into overkill resulting in a final breath so ridiculously drawn-out that only a devout Catholic could love it. But the actors put on a good show despite all that while the cinematography and clapboard sets are impressive—encompassing crowded city streets, ragged tenements, and an unassuming train station where damnation and salvation both hinge on one single decision. Was remade six years later by John Ford.

Shaft’s Big Score!
(USA 1972) (7): Hunky Richard Roundtree dons that iconic leather coat to reprise his role as no-nonsense New York private eye John Shaft—a cool cat who shoots and screws his way from one predicament to another. After an old friend is murdered Shaft makes it his business to hunt down the killers, an investigation which will land him in the middle of a deadly turf war between a cold-hearted mafioso with a passion for clarinet music (???) and an equally ruthless black gangster (Moses Gunn) while a Manhattan police detective (Julius Harris sporting a ridiculous moustache) dogs his every move. With a cast of jive-talking brothers, greasy Italians, clueless honkies, and some foxy ladies who can’t seem to keep their tops on for long this grindhouse confection is a sterling example of the now defunct blaxploitation genre even without Isaac Hayes at the keyboard this time around. And because MGM studios footed the bill the explosions are even bigger, the blood is bloodier, and an impeccably choreographed climax has Shaft kicking ass on land and sea and in the air while a manic jazz ensemble lose their shit in the background. Penned by Ernest Tidyman (fresh from his Oscar win for The French Connection) this is a cheesy yet smartly assembled piece of ‘70s nostalgia that goes down smooth like a tall glass of Colt 45…or maybe Pabst Blue Ribbon.

Skyscraper Souls
(USA 1932) (7): A voyeuristic look into the private lives and secret scandals of the people who work, live, and love in Manhattan’s newest skyscraper—the 100-storey engineering marvel called the Dwight Building touted as “reaching halfway to heaven and halfway to hell!” There’s secretary Lynn Harding (Maureen O’Sullivan) a country girl torn between the creepy lovesick bank clerk who’s been stalking her and the building’s multi-millionaire owner David Dwight (Warren William) a serial adulterer whose own free-spirited wife (Hedda Hopper) is willing to turn a blind eye as long as the cheques keep coming. Then there’s resident prostitute Jenny (Anita Page) who has trouble telling the difference between a potential husband and a trick. Rounding out the cast are Sarah (Verree Teasdale), Lynn’s boss, who is driven to desperation when she finds her own affair with Mr. Dwight dwindling after Lynne catches his eye, and downtrodden Myra, an abused wife looking for greener pastures or at least a few greenbacks courtesy of her own extramarital affair. And a supporting troupe of cads, grifters, and tycoons set the stage for a grand finale dripping with tragedy and romance. A salacious potboiler of a film made before the Hays Office began regulating film content, director Edgar Selwyn’s adaptation of Faith Baldwin’s novel is rife with sexual innuendo including some racy lingerie scenes and frank dialogue around open marriage and premarital sex—ooh! Filmed almost entirely within or directly in front of the fictitious skyscraper, this is an ensemble soap opera exploring the various ways in which its characters interact—from O’Sullivan's giggly naif to William’s megalomaniac capitalist—while their individual fates seem directly tied to backroom deals and the whims of the stock market which is hardly surprising when you consider it was released on the heels of the Great Depression. Sadly, the acting is terribly uneven and the social mores are definitely from a different era (dragging an unwilling woman to the couch and forcibly kissing her is no longer the stuff of rom-coms). But the Art Deco sets are marvelous and the pervasive sense of melodrama is pure Golden Age whether it be a vehement exchange between ex-lovers or a plunge from the 100th floor. And just to add a bit of comic relief a perpetually overcrowded elevator provides for a series of running sight gags. Ahead of its time in some respects, creaking with age in others, this is sure to be an eye-opener for those who associate “old” with “stuffy” when it comes to cinema.

The Two Popes
(UK 2019) (8): In 2012 Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina (Jonathan Pryce) travels to Vatican City seeking permission to retire from then Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins). But rather than delivering a straightforward answer the staunchly conservative Benedict instead embroils the more progressive Bergoglio in a series of debates, stand-offs, and amiable exchanges covering such hot button topics as Catholic orthodoxy, church reform, and scandal. Both men confess to elements from their past which they are not proud of, yet Benedict carries a grudging admiration for Bergoglio—his harshest critic—and as he contemplates retiring from the papacy due to failing health he sees the Argentinian as a worthy successor… Director Fernando Meirelles and screenwriter Anthony McCarten take the facts surrounding the historic meetings between Benedict and the future Pope Francis and weave them into a taut and absorbing two-person drama in which a pair of intelligent and charismatic men—one representing the old ways, the other the new—face off amid the opulent splendours of St. Peter’s and Castel Gandolfo, both painstakingly recreated when permission to film onsite was denied. Hopkins and Pryce received well-deserved Oscar and Golden Globe nominations as did McCarten’s savvy script, and cinematographer César Charlone should have been nominated for his excellent use of light and colour. Despite the glorious artwork and rococo trappings looming in the background Charlone’s cameras rarely stray far from the faces of the past and future popes, their piercing eyes and heavily lined faces carrying all the gravitas of the one billion believers they represent. But above all else this is a dialogue-driven film with sharp repartee jumping from good-natured ribbing to heated clashes to shameful admissions while B&W flashbacks fill in the blanks and televised headlines underline Benedict’s own troubling legacy—from sex abuse cover-ups to irregularities in Vatican bank records. A thoroughly engaging piece of cinema featuring two screen legends doing what they do best and a directing style that generates all the intimacy of a live stage performance.

Pretty Red Dress
(UK 2022) (7): For struggling yet highly competitive London actress Candice Clarke (stage sensation Alexandra Burke), the slinky red-sequinned dress she just acquired is her ticket to stardom when she auditions for the role of Tina Turner in an upcoming West End production. For Travis, her hulking common-law husband newly released from prison (Natey Jones throwing caution to the wind), it represents something quite different as he begins to experiment with a side of his sexuality he’s kept repressed for far too long. And for their teenaged daughter Kenisha (promising newcomer Temilola Olatunbosun) it serves as a catalyst not only for her relationship with mom and dad, but for her own emerging identity. In writer/director Dionne Edwards’ plucky urban fantasy—set squarely in London’s Caribbean community—a shiny frock becomes a fitting symbol for gender, sexual expression, and the fragility of dreams, passing as it does between Candice and Travis and from spotlit stage to locked bedroom. Burke and Jones are sensational together with her headstrong character reeling from one too many revelations while his deep shame inches its way towards quiet assertion. Meanwhile Olatunbosun pulls up the rear as a confused young woman whose own sullen ploys for attention go largely unnoticed because her parents are just too busy grappling between themselves. With paintings of Tina, The Supremes, and Elizabeth Taylor adorning their apartment walls and a larger cast of clueless friends and relatives offering various judgements (Travis’ savvy older and more successful brother is not exactly supportive) the Clarke’s walk on the wild side—marked by angry outbursts, hurtful barbs, and an enduring kind of love—makes for an eye-opening experience. A drunken confrontation in the park does come close to overkill (although its intention is painfully clear) and a neighbourhood sashay gives us a fleeting WTF? moment until the director pulls the rug out, but that closing nightclub performance ends it all with one fierce mic drop.

The Parallax View
(USA 1974) (8): Three years after a popular senator’s very public assassination, rogue newspaper reporter Joseph Frady (Warren Beatty) uncovers startling evidence which suggests that the murder was just one part of a much larger, much more horrifying plot. But the more Frady snoops around the deadlier the stakes become until he begins to fear that the next corpse to show up may very well be his own. With shades of The Manchurian Candidate, writer/director Alan J. Pakula’s cold-blooded political thriller certainly cashes in on the mistrust and paranoia affecting a generation of Americans who not only witnessed the televised killings of the two Kennedys and Martin Luther King but still had Watergate fresh on their minds. Beatty plays it cool as the maverick journalist who suddenly finds himself in way over his head and he’s shored up by a veteran cast including Hume Cronyn as Frady’s skeptical editor, Paula Prentiss as a terrified fellow reporter, and William Daniels as a very reluctant key witness. With action stretching from Seattle to Los Angeles and from secret high-tech cabals to the not-so-friendly skies (a stint aboard a Boeing 707 was so realistic I swear they actually filmed it inflight) Pakula jacks up the suspense as Frady’s options begin to dwindle and darker powers begin to close in—in fact a barroom brawl and 70s-style car chase actually serve to ease the tension somewhat. The hairstyles and fashions may not have aged well, but the film’s underlying cynicism and sense of callous disregard for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness should still resonate with today’s crop of online Deep State believers and conspiracy theorists.

I am the Queen
(USA 2011) (7): Every year Chicago’s largely Hispanic Humboldt Park neighbourhood hosts an annual beauty pageant for young transgendered women, the only requirement being they must be at least “25% Puerto Rican”. Shooting in a low-res guerrilla verité style, directors Henrique Cirne-Lima and Josue Pellot take us behind the scenes and into the homes of three contestantants—Jolizza Colon, Bianca Feliciano, and Julissa Ortiz-Rosado—as they primp and fuss, deal with setbacks, and open up about their experiences coming out and transitioning in a culture where simply being gay is bad enough… However, instead of delivering the expected DEI polemic one would expect, neither the directors nor their subjects show much interest in preaching preferring instead to simply film street level reality whether it be a drunken curb side party where an underage Julissa introduces us to her lesbian BFF, or a pre-pageant powwow in which event coordinator Ginger Valdez lays down the law regarding personal conduct. In separate interviews the flamboyant Valdez proves to be both philosopher and comedienne as she reminisces about growing up and growing old as a trans-woman first in Puerto Rico and then on the mainland. But it is the families—specifically the mothers—which give this zero-budget doc its beating heart. Although none greeted their future daughters’ initial announcement with unbridled joy, the directors record their gradual evolution from rejection to tolerance to various levels of acceptance with a steady camera and unbiased ear—while one mom still jumps between “he” and “she” in the same sentence another expresses disdain for her daughter’s no-good boyfriend, and another talks candidly about the difficulties she experienced saying good-bye to a son. Meanwhile a young girl beams with pride at her “new” sister and an outspoken relative chides her trans cousin about her lack of drive and ambivalence toward school, “…if you’re going to be a woman then be a professional woman, not some ghetto-ass tranny!” With so much heartfelt drama leading up to it the actual contest footage almost seems anticlimactic, at least until the final crowning where the happy tears shed by the winner’s parents and siblings give testament to the power of love in overcoming any obstacle—real or imagined.

Les Misérables
(France 2019) (7): Stéphane, a conscientious police officer from the sticks, follows his ex-wife and son to Paris where he joins a tough anti-crime unit working the racially divided working class suburb of Montfermeil (where Victor Hugo wrote his titular opus). Teamed up with cynical veterans Chris whose disdain for those he polices is all too evident and Gwada, a soft-spoken black man who grew up in the neighbourhood and still carries a quiet grudge, Stéphane’s faith in the system is eventually shaken to its core. Fuelled by racial tensions, crime, and gang loyalties, Montfermeil is a rundown no man’s land of grimy housing projects haunted by disaffected youth barely kept in check by the authorities and self-proclaimed “community leaders” who are little more than gangsters with influence. But when a messy arrest attempt turns tragic for one young boy both the anti-crime unit and the thugs they collaborate with are suddenly faced with an enraged backlash which threatens to engulf the entire community in flame and fury. Based on his own short film, writer/director Ladj Ly’s first full-length feature goes beyond the usual good guys/bad guys policier to give a visceral dissection of France’s faltering multiculturalism and the inequalities, naked opportunism, and societal decay it engenders. Shot in a riveting quasi verité style with a cast whose non-professionals easily keep pace with its lead stars, Ly neither denounces nor excuses his protagonists choosing instead to show everything in gritty context. The police are faced with a constant uphill battle in which they are forced to make crooked deals and turn the occasional blind eye in order to keep things from boiling over—and oftentimes they take advantage of that position. Likewise, the neighbourhood kingpins (including the district’s unofficial “Mayor”) exert their own iron fists when need be, raking in illegal profits while at the same time cooperating, albeit begrudgingly, with the very officers who should be arresting them. It is the youth however who must bear the brunt. Directionless and without much tangible hope, Ly’s cameras follow a handful of them over the course of one decisive day. Even though their abrupt transformation from ragtag slackers to military-style guerrillas is a bit of a dramatic stretch, taken as a metaphor for released rage it serves its purpose admirably ending with one of cinema’s more incendiary standoffs. “Remember this, my friends…” quotes Hugo himself before the closing credits roll, “…there are no such things as bad plants or bad men, there are only bad cultivators”. And with this clearly in mind Ly demonstrates that in a complicated world the moral divide between the police and the policed is not so easily drawn. A great companion piece to Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 classic, La haine.

Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte
(USA 1964) (8): Bette Davis has trouble keeping her marbles in Robert Aldrich’s campy slice of Southern horror, a psychotic romp whose ghoulish details and decayed antebellum settings are a perfect match for its over-the-top performances. Thirty-seven years after she was implicated—but never charged—in the brutal slaying and partial dismemberment of her married lover, aging southern belle Charlotte Hollis (Davis resurrecting Baby Jane) is an embittered and unhinged recluse living alone on her family estate—a once grand Louisiana manor now slated for demolition. Cared for by her disheveled and eternally pugnacious housemaid Velma (Agnes Moorehead, magnificent!), the corrosive Charlotte is determined to keep her home, her dignity, and her sanity, but it would appear that all three are slowly slipping through her fingers. Starting with midnight visitations from her dead lover and progressing to mayhem, madness…and more…the screeching spinster seems caught up in a nightmare from which she can’t awaken. Is she really the victim of spiteful plotting as she maintains, or could this be a guilty conscience taking its final toll? Filmed in dreary B&W which highlights its noirish elements—Charlotte’s sunless mansion comes to resemble an ostentatious tomb brimming with family skeletons, Spanish moss drapes everything in funereal shrouds—Aldrich’s gothic chiller is heavy on atmosphere yet kept afloat by a star cast who throw caution to the wind and give us a macabre bayou melodrama. Davis waffles between iron-willed harridan and raving psychotic (how else are you supposed to behave when you see a severed head come bouncing down the staircase?) and she’s joined by an oily Olivia de Havilland playing an estranged cousin who comes to help but only makes things worse…much worse; Joseph Cotten as Charlotte’s overly suave physician; Victor Buono (in flashback) as the Hollis family’s tyrannical patriarch; and the great Mary Astor in a small but crucial role as the murdered man’s sickly widow, an angry old woman with an ace up her sleeve. Nominated for seven Oscars including Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Supporting Actress for Moorehead (she had to settle for a Golden Globe instead), Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte is a splendidly exaggerated mash-up of murder mystery and supernatural terror with a twisted plot that compares quite favourably to H. G. Clouzot’s 1955 masterpiece, Les Diaboliques.

(Denmark/USA/UK 2021) (8): In 2018 Zimbabwe prepared for its first democratic presidential election since a military coup ousted longtime dictator Robert Mugabe. Throwing his hat in the race was Nelson Chamisa, an idealistic young lawyer fed up with his country’s ongoing economic crisis brought on by decades of violence and government corruption and who, along with his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, was determined to put power back into the hands of the people. Unfortunately he was running against incumbent president and former Mugabe crony Emmerson Mnangagwa, a man who attained his office by force and was determined to keep it using whatever means he felt necessary—legal or outright illegal. Thus faced with an unscrupulous regime whose influence stretched from the army and police to the electoral commission to the courts themselves, Chamisa and his supporters prepared for an uphill battle while the world watched… For this scathing exposé documentarian Camilla Nielsson was granted unprecedented access to Chamisa and the MDC party, following him from one rally to the next as well as recording the intimate minutes of his strategy meetings which started to resemble a war cabinet after Mnangagwa began flexing his political muscle. Unscripted and shot on the fly in true verité style, Nielsson captures the zeitgeist of a country hungry for change yet still shackled by governmental collusion and authoritarian dictates. While the reigning president, convinced he cannot lose, puffs himself up for photo ops and the modest Chamisa campaigns before cheering crowds, Nielsson sets the stage for a very African “David vs Goliath” showdown at the polls—only this particular Goliath seems to hold all the cards. Opening with a charismatic rally before rural villagers and closing with a court challenge that is little more than political theatre, this is an absorbing chronicle of deception and criminality in high places which draws uncomfortable parallels from around the globe.

Deliver Us From Evil
(South Korea 2020) (8): Busy professional assassin In-nam is looking forward to hanging up his gun for good and retiring to a tropical beach…but life has other plans for him. To begin with the last man he killed, a cruel Japanese crime boss, has a homicidal maniac for a brother—appropriately nicknamed “The Butcher”—who is determined to take revenge on In-nam no matter where he hides. Secondly, he takes a personal interest in the kidnapping of a little eight-year old girl in Thailand. Jumping from Tokyo to Seoul to Bangkok, In-nam must try and save the child while managing to stay one step ahead of The Butcher. And the bodies just keep piling up… No one does kick-ass onscreen carnage like the Koreans and writer/director Won-Chan Hong’s chaotic gut-spiller is no exception. Lightning martial arts moves dazzle, storms of bullets rip across the screen, scenery is sprayed in blood, car chases become airborne, and things blow up in spectacular slo-mo accompanied by walls of smoke and flame. Ooh! Aah! In the lead, Korean screen sensation Hwang Jung-min gives us a sweaty, stone-faced antihero trying to compensate for a lifetime of bloodletting by saving a life instead of taking one (even though he ends up taking several in the process). In contrast Lee Jung-jae’s psychotic “Butcher” makes Hannibal Lecter look like an amateur and diminutive Park So-yi plays on those heartstrings as the wee doe-eyed kidnap victim. But it is matinee idol Park Jeong-min who provides the biggest surprise in his role as “Yoo-Yi”, a transsexual cabaret singer who’s hired by In-nam to be a Thai translator-slash-sidekick. What starts out as a bit of comic relief ends up being one of the film’s most sympathetic and heartfelt characters—a guardian angel in heels and bangles. In the end it doesn’t make a whole lot of narrative sense (these films seldom do) but for sheer chemistry and pyrotechnics it definitely gets a passing grade.

(Australia 2017) (9): There is a difference between “coming of age” and “growing up”, a subtle distinction brought out beautifully in this gently nuanced story (based on Tim Winton’s novel and set in the ‘70s) about two teenaged friends who find themselves taking two separate paths. Quiet and cautious “Pikelet” (Samson Coulter) couldn’t be any more different than his best buddy “Loonie” (Ben Spence), a brash and impulsive young hellraiser willing to accept a dare on almost anything. One passion they discover they do share however is surfing—Pikelet drawn to the quasi spiritual sensation of dancing on waves, Loonie taking to the huge breakers as an act of rebellious defiance. But when they forge an unlikely friendship with former champion surfer Sando (writer/director Simon Baker), he becomes something of a mentor and guru to the impressionable boys causing the differences in their temperaments to become increasingly apparent with bittersweet results. Filmed along western Australia’s rugged coastline, Baker employs a small cast and a powerful yet minimalist script to produce an adolescent parable whose ethereal touches compare favourably to the fever dreams of Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock…a sensation further enhanced by a soundtrack of orchestral surges and soft rock. The few grownups in Pikelet and Loonie’s confined world each add a facet to their journey towards adulthood: Sando is a man forever chasing a dream; his wife Eva (Elizabeth Debicki), a former champion skier sidelined by a crippling injury, has all but given up on hers and now finds passion in more self-destructive pursuits; Pikelet’s parents offer domestic stability while Loonie’s home is a hotbed of abuse and neglect. And then there’s the sea. Gorgeously filmed from above and below, its restless swells and thundering waves are a fitting psychological metaphor particularly when the camera focuses on two young men nervously clinging to their wooden boards as they dare the ocean to knock them off. Newcomers Coulter and Spence are superb, exhibiting an onscreen confidence usually seen in more seasoned performers. And Debicki’s turn as a frustrated woman whose internalized anger affects everyone around her (even influencing the weather at times) provides a melancholic counterpoint to the film’s overall themes of self-discovery and self-acceptance—Eva’s scenes with the impressionable yet steadfast Pikelet a veritable study in emotional contradictions. I must admit to approaching a film “about surfing” with few expectations, a personal bias which made the actual experience all the more moving.

The Addams Family
(USA 2019) (3): The iconic 1960s TV family gets animated for this feature film which is heavy on the creepy and kooky buy woefully short on the laughs. The cadaverous Morticia (voice of Charlize Theron) and her oily husband Gomez (Oscar Isaac) happily take up residence in an abandoned—and very haunted—insane asylum which conveniently comes with its own permanent thunderstorm. Unfortunately, their impeccably dilapidated dwelling proves to be an eyesore for the neatly manicured town of “Assimilation” (get it?) causing local real estate magnate and home improvement guru, the gargantuan-coiffed Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), to declare war on the Addams and their freaky misfit relatives. Guess who wins? Lots of morbid touches repeatedly drive home the fact that the Addams clan are oddballs—monotonously depressed emo daughter Wednesday disrupts her high school biology class by turning dead frogs into zombies; her sociopathic brother Pugsley has fun with guided missiles; grandma (Bette Midler) keeps crawly snacks between her toes—but if you’re expecting the same delightfully macabre joie de vivre which made the Carolyn Jones/John Astin series and Anjelica Huston/Raul Julia live action production so infectiously likeable you’re in for a huge disappointment. There is not much here to shore up the “OMG! ha! ha!” visuals (oh look, that mounted fish has six eyes! Wednesday has a pet octopus!) and a handful of tepid Easter eggs will only be noticed by those of us old enough to remember and bored enough to care. But the final nail in this creaky cartoon coffin comes in the form of a song & dance ending where the fluffy DEI mantra of “JUST BE YOURSELF YAY!!!” gets shoved down your throat so far you’ll be coughing up smiley-faced hairballs.

The Invisible Woman
(UK 2013) (5): As he was enjoying fame and fortune in the latter part of his career, author Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes, who also directed) became smitten with teenaged actress Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones) who, despite her moral upbringing, eventually responded to his attentions with a bit of encouragement from her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). But social propriety at the time would relegate Nelly to a life of hiding in the great man’s shadow even after his very public separation from his long-suffering wife (Joanna Scanlan). Fiennes’ turgid costume drama, based on Claire Tomalin’s historically suspect novel, certainly captures a time and place—namely 19th century England—with its Oscar-nominated wardrobes and bucolic backdrops straight from the easels of Turner or Constable. And the cast puts in a good show: Fiennes plays Dickens as a compassionate yet conflicted genius constantly torn between his personal yearnings and his thirst for the spotlight; Jones gives us a fluttery adolescent whose hero worship gradually devolves into something else (the movie is told in flashback as a more mature and respectably married Nelly looks back); and Thomas presents a protective mother balancing the need to shield her youngest daughter with the need to see that she is well looked after…as the mistress of a wealthy bon vivant perhaps. But it is Scanlan who ultimately steals the thunder from the film’s two leads, her quiet portrayal of a dutiful if somewhat dull wife turned into unloved castaway is heartbreak personified. However, historical inaccuracies aside, so much time is spent on sun-dappled introspection and restrained emotions that the whole production slogs along without ever taking wing. A spark of erotica occurs as Dickens and Ternan fumble toward that first kiss, yet it fails to ignite any fires. Likewise, with the exception of Scanlan’s flawlessly downplayed performance, it’s all but impossible to feel much more than warm indifference for either the slightly egocentric older man or the melancholic object of his desire. Visually arresting just the same with its postcard snapshots of industrial era England waffling between marbled manors, rococo apartments, and grimy alleyways littered with orphans and prostitutes, and graced with a cast who look and act as if they were born into it. Sadly, that’s pretty much where the allure ended for me.

We Have a Pope
(Italy 2011) (4): Following the death of the reigning Pope the Vatican’s College of Cardinals duly elects a successor—the quiet and somewhat neurotic Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli). But just as they’re about to present the new pontiff to his throngs of adoring fans gathered in St. Peter’s Square—not to mention a billion Catholics around the globe—Melville is suddenly incapacitated by a major panic attack. A psychiatrist (writer/director Nanni Moretti himself) is called upon to intervene but before he can make any leeway Melville manages to escape into the streets of Rome leaving no clue as to his whereabouts. Now, with the faithful eagerly waiting to discover the identity of the Church’s new leader and the Vatican scrambling to prevent a PR nightmare, it’s going to take a miracle (or a psychological breakthrough) to save the Holy See. An interesting premise whose potential sting is fatally hampered by a sloppy script which doesn’t know which direction it wants to take—is this a deadpan comedy, an ironic look at the business of faith and power, or the story of a man forced to reinvent himself under pressure? Without a pope to provide focus the cardinals are seen to scramble about almost like school kids with the psychiatrist even organizing them into teams for a volleyball tournament (huh?) while the Pope’s secretary covers his tracks by giving the press false updates on a Holy Father who doesn’t exist. In the meantime the public’s confusion is turning into impatience with everyone from journalists to world leaders weighing in despite a lack of information. And then there’s Melville himself, a timid everyman figure whose simple faith is shaken beyond repair by the enormous responsibilities thrust upon him. Wandering about Rome in a daze he eventually falls in with a troupe of actors performing…wait for it…Chekov! A study in missed potentials, Moretti’s lukewarm film does contain some standout performances especially from Piccoli as the reluctant Vicar of Christ—his fat, balding old man intentionally unremarkable in appearance yet whose struggles with faith, identity, and responsibility are truly moving nevertheless. Nor are his struggles unique to him alone for during the Vatican vote every potential candidate for the papacy, knowing what that office entails, secretly prayed that they would not be the chosen one. Unfortunately not even the late actor can alleviate the film’s long stretches of tedium nor its many puzzling non-sequiturs, and the character of the psychotherapist seems tacked on simply to provide a mouthpiece for Moretti’s own religious/political sentiments. Great sets and costumes however, and although he is a professed atheist himself Moretti approaches his subject with utmost compassion. I wish I could have liked it more.

Autumn Leaves
(USA 1956) (8): The staid and colourless life of a lonely spinster (Joan Crawford) begins to blossom when a handsome young stranger (Cliff Robertson) takes an acute shine to her. But what starts out as a whirlwind romance turns into something more sinister when she begins to notice discrepancies in what he tells people about himself—was he in the army or not? is he from Wisconsin or Chicago?—and her attempts to uncover the truth only lead to heated evasions and more inconsistencies. And then she receives a visitor who proceeds to turn her newfound happiness upside down…but who is really telling the truth? Rife with melodramatics, director Robert Aldrich’s intense soap opera nevertheless shines a mature spotlight on such taboo (for the 1950s) subjects as mental health, domestic abuse, and May-December romances with the film’s sense of foreboding giving way to chills and tragedy before moving on to the warmest compassion. Perfectly cast despite the seventeen year difference in their ages (or perhaps because of it) Crawford and Robertson dominate the scenery—her cautious old maid gradually letting down her guard; his lovesick gallant raising his as the past comes back to haunt them both. Graced with a sharp script in which even the most heated exchanges flow naturally, and directed with a consummate skill that neither rushes the story through nor bogs it down with excess pathos, this is truly a love story for adults—the occasional narrative stretch notwithstanding. Lorne Greene and Vera Miles co-star as a pair of complications, character actress Ruth Donnelly shines as Crawford’s no-nonsense landlady, and Mr. Nat “King” Cole croons the soulful title song.

Past Lives
(USA/Korea 2023) (5): First love is just blossoming between schoolgirl Na Young and her handsome classmate Hae Sung when her family decides to immigrate to Canada from Korea. Twelve years later Na Young, now going by Nora, is a struggling playwright living in Manhattan and Hae Sung is an engineering student when they hook-up briefly on social media, but even though a small spark is reignited Life ends up getting in the way and it will be another twelve years before they actually meet in person. A lot can happen in twenty-four years however and this reunion between two former childhood sweethearts, now separated by time and culture, will lead to a bittersweet weekend exploring the vagaries of destiny, love, and the choices we make. The I-Ching meets the Hallmark Channel for this rambling exercise in navel-gazing and teary philosophizing which may strive for the depths of Linklater’s dialogue-driven Before Sunrise but winds up firing a bunch of emotional blanks instead—long misty stares and whispered confessions just don’t add up to a whole lot given a script overrun by romantic clichés and mushy sentimentalism. Listening in on Nora and Hae Sung’s repetitive ruminations as they take in the Manhattan scenery becomes tedious even with writer/director Celine Song throwing in a few flashy metaphors (a carousel goes round and round, a subway car rumbles along a preordained track) and leads Greta Lee and Teo Yoo evoke no onscreen chemistry whatsoever. But at least Yoo throws some restrained passion into his character when compared to Lee’s wooden performance (was Nora supposed to be medicated?) And John Magaro, playing the “other man” in Nora’s life, tags along as a self-conscious third wheel. The only people missing were Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda as the BFFs.

The Zone of Interest
(USA/UK/Poland 2023) (9): It's 1943 and Rudolf Höss and his wife Hedwig are living the good life with their children in a beautiful country home. Rudolf likes to fish and read bedtime stories to the kids, Hedwig fusses over her colourful flower garden and keeps the servants in line, and they both indulge the children with picnics and outings to the beach. But this opening idyll is quickly shattered when it’s revealed that just beyond Hedwig’s garden wall lie the gas chambers of Auschwitz where Rudolf presides as the acting commandant. And thus writer/director Jonathan Glazer sets us up for a family drama where ordinary people go about their day—they laugh, they squabble, they have birthday parties—even as monstrous acts occur just a few meters away. And although the horrors of Hitlers’ Final Solution are never explicitly shown they are nevertheless felt throughout with the sound of machinery, trains, gunfire, and frightened shouts dulled to a constant subsonic quaver while crystal blue skies and the pristine waters of a nearby river are only occasionally marred by windblown ash from the camp’s crematoria. Far from your usual “holocaust movie” in that Glazer shocks his audience not with grisly scenes of carnage but rather with quiet domestic passages in which the horrific exists side by side with the mundane—Rudolf swells with pride when he’s promoted to overseeing the eradication of thousands of Hungarian Jews; Hedwig’s closet is full of dresses and a fur coat taken from the condemned; and the couple’s eldest son covets his collection of gold-filled teeth as if they were prized marbles. In one brilliant stroke Glazer also gives a great big salute to Günter Grass when we see the younger son banging away on his own little drum. Shot without embellishment or colour grading and using natural light whenever possible (a side story involving a defiant little Polish girl was filmed at night using a thermal camera) Glazer’s clinical approach to his protagonists, so reminiscent of Michael Haneke, creates an emotional disconnect with audiences which perfectly mirrors the humanitarian disconnect of his characters—a chasm further emphasized by long passages where the screen remains black or blood red while a discordant music score resonates with shrieks and thunderclaps. Taking home Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Sound (both hugely deserved) this is a brilliantly executed dissection of moral blindness, denial, and insidious evil opening as it does with a scene of sunlit Eden and closing with a metaphorical descent into the dark pit.