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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Watch on the Rhine (USA 1943) (7): Paul Lukas won his only Oscar playing an impassioned resistance fighter while Bette Davis gave a master class in overacting as his wife in this wartime weeper adapted from Lillian Hellman’s play by Dashiell Hammett. After managing to stay one step ahead of the Nazis by hopscotching across Europe, American-born Sarah Muller and her anti-fascist German husband Kurt return to the safety of her opulent childhood home in Washington D.C. along with their trio of dutiful children (three of the worst child performances you’re likely to see in one film). Welcomed with open arms by her fastidious mother (Oscar nominee Lucile Watson), Sarah and Kurt finally begin to relax even though Kurt’s involvement with the Underground is not quite over. But danger looms on the horizon for Sarah’s mother is also housing another guest, a disposed Romanian count with Nazi ties who poses a deadly complication to the couple’s secret plans… True to its source, this is a highly theatrical movie with action rarely moving beyond the family estate, but in addition to Lukas and Watson’s star performances (and despite Davis’ tearful hand-wringing) a cast of adult supporting actors—Beulah Bondi as a French housekeeper; George Coulouris as the slimy Count Brancovis; Canadian Donald Woods as Sarah’s brother; Geraldine Fitzgerald as the count’s unhappy wife—keep things running smoothly. And Hammett’s passionate screenplay takes the usual morale-boosting homilies inherent in these films and turns them into something far more moving with Lukas and Davis delivering soliloquies aimed directly at complacent American audiences while Hellman’s words highlight the stark contrast between those safely at home in the West and those who’ve already had two World Wars dumped directly onto their doorsteps.

Once Upon a Time in The West
(Italy 1968) (9): Partially penned by giallo maven Dario Argento with music by maestro Ennio Morricone, and then brought together by director Sergio Leone, this is one of the best “spaghetti westerns” ever to emerge from Rome’s Cinnecittà Studios (with gorgeous onsite locations filmed in Mexico, Utah, and Arizona). A young frontier bride (Claudia Cardinale) joins forces with two desperados (Jason Robards, Charles Bronson) in order to exact vengeance on the hired assassin (Henry Fonda putting that squeaky clean image to rest) who, along with his gang, gunned down her husband and stepchildren. But as the plot thickens—involving a crooked railroad tycoon and shifting allegiances—one realizes that everyone involved has secrets they’d rather not divulge. Filmed in long panoramic takes, with flashes of bullet-ridden violence and his signature fascination with tense facial close-ups, Leone celebrates rather than downplays those Wild West archetypes and the result is an arthouse oater where the bad guys really do wear black, the good guys (relatively speaking) wear tan, and the wealthy live in gilt and rococo cages—in this case the ailing tycoon travels in his own elaborate rail car. Vistas of crimson buttes and blue desert skies are bolstered by Morricone’s eclectic score of operatic passages (with the occasional electric guitar riff), and themes of fate and corruption find artistic outlets in the most fascinating ways: a train barrels along the track like destiny itself, images of clocks appear on saloon walls, and divine justice assumes the guise of a simple mud puddle. And that dream cast of A-List actors are consistently on point. Leave it to an Italian to show Americans how to make a cowboy movie…

Spartacus
(USA 1960) (5): Executive Producer Kirk Douglas’ pet project—a 3+ hour epic revolving around the ringleader of a first century BCE Roman slave revolt—was doomed to be an epic mess from the beginning. For one thing, despite their onscreen presence, stars Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton hated each other in real life and most everyone else put in abysmal performances including Douglas who merely parodied himself in the lead role and his love interest Jean Simmons who played a slave girl impersonating an English school matron (Peter Ustinov did deserve his Supporting Actor Oscar however as the pampered owner of a gladiatorial training camp). Tony Curtis, who brought his Bronx accent to the role of houseboy Antoninus, reportedly demanded to know who he had to fuck in order to get out of the picture. Then there’s blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s politically charged script which was accused of being commie propaganda by the ironically titled “League of Decency”, a crass musical score more suited for a rip-roaring Western, and Douglas’ ongoing hissy fits with cast and crew—Stanley Kubrick took over the reins from ousted director Anthony Mann but he’s there in name only for the finished piece bears none of his signature artistry. Historically inaccurate and falling prey to every syrupy Hollywood ploy from soft-focused schmaltz to the now famous “inspirational” scene where a mob of slaves proudly proclaim “I AM SPARTACUS!” to the Roman interrogators eager to identify him for execution, this restored version can only boast an epic battle sequence containing all the gory bits originally censored out and an oh-so subtle attempt at gay seduction between Olivier and Curtis which had also been excised. And this won four Academy Awards (and two more nominations) as well as a place on numerous “Must See” lists? Oh Spartacus…

The Life of Oharu
(Japan 1952) (9): Kenji Mizoguchi’s B&W masterwork is a heartbreaking tale of one 17th century noblewoman’s headlong fall into ruin, her only crime being an independent spirit. Told in flashback as an aging Oharu, now a penniless prostitute, thinks back on her beginnings as a revered Lady-in-Waiting for an esteemed House, Mizoguchi’s slow, beautifully framed film unfolds chapter by chapter with each segment bringing his protagonist yet another humiliation and another loss of stature. Banished from Kyoto for daring to love a man below her station, Lady Oharu goes from being a royal concubine, to a common courtesan, to a lowly streetwalker—victimized at each turn, as it were, by male ambition, female vanity, and a social order which views women as little more than wigged and painted dolls (a fact driven home in an aside involving a puppet show). Even a representative of Buddha himself ultimately casts her back into the street after a gross misunderstanding. Now with her dignity firmly in tatters, karma still has one more blow in store for Oharu and this one may very well be the final straw… Shot primarily in a warehouse due to budgetary constraints, Mizoguchi’s screen adaptation of Saikaku’s Ihara’s novel blends contemporary filmmaking with classic Japanese theatre giving it the intimate feel of a stage production which is further enhanced by rich costume and set designs and a minimalist score of sad ballads and plucked samisens. Using long takes with asymmetrical lighting that highlights every tear and wisp of incense, this is a meditative film whose tragedies go straight for the heart thanks in large part to Kinuyo Tanaka’s brilliant performance as a woman who floats but refuses to sink. Unfortunately, a brilliantly ironic critique of religion (a group of hookers marvel at how many statues of Buddhist saints resemble some of their tricks) is turned upside down for an ending that looks and sounds as if were penned by Frank Capra on Zoloft. A very small glitch however for a movie which deservedly ranks as one of Japanese cinema’s cornerstones.

Neon Bull
(Brazil 2015) (7): Handsome alpha male Iremar (Juliano Cazarré) works the northern Brazil rodeo circuit prepping the bulls and shovelling shit, but he still clings tenaciously to his one true dream—to become a fashion designer. To this end he scours garbage dumps for bits of cloth and discarded mannequins, even doodling ideas over the bare women in porn magazines, while in the background his co-workers have all but given up on their own aspirations… No Hollywood-style underdog story, writer/director Gabriel Mascaro’s slow, lyrical poem of a film never moves far from where it began as Iremar’s days unfold in a heat shimmer of quotidian chores and flights of fancy (a woman dressed in equine drag struts across a red-lit stage like a seductive centaur; a man performs a sensuous pas-de-six with his horse) while everywhere scenes of bulls and humans rutting, eating, and preening side by side—the former penned in by wooden gates, the latter by poverty and ignorance—blur the line between the Keepers and the Kept. While there may be some social overtones (curly vs straight hair provides a bone of contention) Mascaro more or less offers a gentle observance of dreams deferred that mixes classical allegory as when a carnal encounter between artist and muse unfolds (appropriately enough) in a garment factory, and welcome flashes of crude humour—an attempt to purloin prize horse semen will leave PETA members either outraged or reaching for a cigarette. Although other films have drawn parallels between animals and humans (1995’s Angels and Insects compared bugs to English gentry and Iceland’s upper crust was reduced to crumbs in 2013’s Of Horses and Men) Mascaro doesn’t seem to have an ulterior agenda to push which makes his story all the more poignant.

A Woman’s Face
(USA 1941) (8): A remake of an earlier Swedish film starring an unknown Ingrid Bergman, George Cukor’s wonderful Hollywood melodrama provided the perfect vehicle for American stars Joan Crawford and Melvyn Douglas. Embittered against the world ever since her face was disfigured in a childhood fire, Anna Holm (Crawford) has nevertheless made a comfortable life for herself through racketeering and organized crime. But when the kindly doctor (Douglas) whose wife Anna’s been secretly blackmailing heals her facial scars she’s offered a new lease on life. Some scars run deeper than mere flesh however and Anna’s crooked past—represented by her mentally unhinged partner and Svengali-like love interest (an oily Conrad Veldt)—is determined to have her perform one last horrible crime. Told mainly in flashback as a host of witnesses give testimony at Anna’s trial (among them character actors Marjorie Main playing a dour housekeeper and Donald Meek as a mousy waiter) Cukor’s bigger than life tale of redemption through plastic surgery plays on multiple levels both secular (looks really do make the woman) and sacred as the Fallen Angel trope is told in reverse. With faux wintry MGM backlots standing in for Sweden and some impressive effects—a mirrored hallway takes on a psychological edge while a tense sleigh ride calls to mind the chariots of Ben Hur—this is grand old filmmaking at its finest. Douglas is as dapper as ever, and Crawford’s softened features practically glow even as her character spits venom at any show of kindness offered her. An overlooked classic.

Inherent Vice
(USA 2014) (7): Classic film noir gets a psychedelic make-over in Paul Thomas Anderson’s faithful adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel, a ridiculously serpentine, drug-tinged whodunnit set in Los Angeles, 1970. When his ex-girlfriend turns to him for help before promptly disappearing along with the married real estate magnate she’d been seeing, drugged-out hippy turned drugged-out private eye Larry “Doc” Sportello (a bleary-eyed Joaquin Phoenix sporting bushy mutton chops) is desperate to solve the case. But his stumbling inquiries will lead him into a murky underground of Asian drug smugglers, Aryan biker gangs, and official corruption which stretches north and south along the California coast and west to Las Vegas. It will also put him on a collision course with his conservative nemesis and alter ego, LAPD detective and frustrated television actor “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin with flat top and Republican attitude), a man’s man who’d rather stomp on faces first, ask questions later… With a plot so convoluted it’s almost a satire unto itself, Anderson’s 2.5 hour comedy/drama epic certainly holds its ground alongside such Neo Noir mainstays as Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Penn’s Night Moves, although it relies more on nostalgia triggers and flashes of dry humour than actual sense. Phoenix is perfect as he trips and tokes while trying to connect too many dots (think Sam Spade reincarnated as the Dude from Big Lebowski ) and Brolin puts his dad’s rugged good looks to the test as the hard-fisted Bjornsen, an odd mixture of macho alpha and henpecked family man with a curious appetite for frozen chocolate-covered bananas. However, it’s the crackling dialogue, retro background tunes, and Oscar-nominated costume design (oh those 70s!) which manage to smooth out the film’s overstretched storyline making Anderson’s evocation of southern California’s palm-studded counterculture all the more believable. Owen Wilson co-stars as a stoned informant with Martin Short as a horny coke-snorting dentist, Reese Witherspoon as Sportello’s uptight D.A. girlfriend, and Benicio del Toro as his rumpled lawyer. Probably best viewed when one is not so…ahem…straight.

Julien Donkey-Boy
(USA 1999) (7): From Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit to Polanski’s Repulsion, actors and directors have tried to film mental illness from the inside out with varying degrees of success. Utilizing rough-hewn film stock (video transferred to 8mm then blown up to 35mm), spastic non-linear jump cuts, and actors willing to heave caution to the wind, Harmony Korine throws his own peculiar hat into the ring and the resultant narrative train wreck—more manic collage than storyline—fascinates even as it assaults. The titular character, a chronically unmedicated schizophrenic who may or may not have killed a child at the movie’s outset, lives in a New York row house with his inexplicably pregnant sister Pearl (Chloe Sevigny), wrestling-obsessed brother Chris, and a grandma who treats her little pooch like a newborn child (Joyce Korine, Harmony’s own gran) all overseen by a tyrannical patriarch (Werner Herzog. Werner Herzog!? ) who uses humiliation and verbal abuse like a lion tamer wields a whip. Using this dysfunctional unit as the film’s only tenuous anchor, Korine lets everything else fly off the handle with reality and fevered delusion, often melding at random leaving us to try and fit the pieces together. “Be a man…” growls dad as he tries to toughen up Chris by spraying him with a garden hose. “You killed the jews…you killed all the mother’s titties…” yells Julien at a poster of Hitler he alternately despises and adores, later having a phone conversation with his dead mom (courtesy of Pearl on the upstairs line). And throughout it all the camera stumbles and arcs, never standing still for long while Korine’s colour palette rarely strays from grainy neons and dirt. Opening with a poorly focused yet ironically serene passage of figure skating set to Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro”, Korine’s film is often painful to watch—a jamboree at the facility for the blind where Julien works comes to resemble the madness in Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut FolliesDonkey-Boy nevertheless carries a few stings especially when the rambling insanity of religion bobs its impotent head: an old-time revival descends into so much gobbledygook and Julien leaves a Catholic confessional (and one bemused priest) behind only to fantasize about a furiously masturbating nun. Although Herzog dominates his every scene whether he’s berating his pregnant daughter or guzzling cough syrup while sporting a gas mask, it’s Scotsman Ewen Bremner who carries the most weight. Meticulously researching his role, and copping a convincing Yank accent, his gripping portrayal of a man drowning in pain is itself painful to watch. The first American film to be certified by Lars Von Trier’s oddball Dogme’95 manifesto, a strict set of cinematic edicts whose artistic challenges too often prove tedious.

Catfish
(USA 2010) (7): New York photographer Nev Schulman begins an online friendship with Abby, a talented 12-year old art prodigy living in northern Michigan, after she does an oil painting of one of his pics. But what starts out as innocent text exchanges turns more intimate when Abby’s older sister Megan takes a shine to him and the two begin exchanging phone calls and sexy emails prompting Nev to travel to Michigan for an impromptu visit. Meanwhile Nev’s brother Ariel and his friend Henry Joost, both budding filmmakers, decide to record the evolving romance after inconsistencies begin to emerge involving Abby, Megan, and their parents Angela and Vince… It’s pretty near impossible to critique Joost and Schulman’s grainy handheld documentary without giving away key points since both the medium and the message are so intertwined. With a running time evenly divided between mumblecore passages seemingly filmed on the fly and electronic screens displaying Facebook pages, a dashboard GPS, and Google searches (even the opening credits feature a roving cursor) it certainly addresses the meta-reality which has emerged with the advent of social media platforms wherein “likes”, “friends lists”, and smiley icons have replaced actual sensory input (or common sense). Unjustly billed as a “thriller”—mostly because of one late night foray into guerrilla filmmaking—what emerges is still highly watchable, though more pathetic than tense, and unfortunately completely predictable. It’s the layers of irony however which won me over, for one gets the feeling that the “documentary” itself is not above suspicion leading Digital Age viewers to further question exactly what the hell is real. “Not based on a true story. Not inspired by true events. Just true” blares the promo, a boast which eventually rings as meaningless as a Youtube clip. Think of it as the “B” side to Courtney Cox’s superior TalhotBlond, released two years later.

Fandry
(India 2013) (8): It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when Nagraj Manjule’s distinctly Indian tale of unrequited teenaged love transitions from wistful romanticism to angry cynicism, but what begins with daydreams does eventually end in something much angrier. Dark-skinned and dirt poor, Jabya nevertheless pines away for classmate Shalu even though the beautiful young woman outranks him in every respect. For Jabya, unfortunately, was born into the lowest rung of India’s lingering caste system and seems doomed to take over the family “business” of demeaning odd jobs including the rounding up of wild pigs which the Hindu villagers are unwilling to touch lest they too become unclean. Desperate to save enough cash for a new pair of jeans with which to impress Shalu, and composing love letters to her every night by the light of a kerosene lamp, Jabya also sets his hopes on a semi-mystical quest—to slay and cremate a very special blackbird for he’s heard that the ashes, when sprinkled on the object of your desire, will cause them to love you in return. Reality, however, has no interest in either magic or a young man’s fancy… Filmed in the dusty hinterland of Maharashtra, with a palette ranging from desiccated ochers to bright carnival balloons all set to a background score of staccato drumbeats, Majule’s downbeat parable employs a troupe of relatively unknown but nevertheless talented actors most notably freshman Somnath Awghade whose awkward mannerisms and husky adolescent voice bring Jabya to full-fleshed life. In this his first full length project as both director, writer, and actor (he plays the compassionate town drunk, a tragic figure in his own right) Manjule shows a remarkable talent for composition, arranging his sets and actors in order to achieve just the right effect whether it be a romantic aside with the setting sun resting in the branches of a tree, or a satirical rebuke when everyone stops for the national anthem—the well-off students in neat rows proudly wearing their spotless school uniforms, the “untouchables” standing awkwardly beside the outdoor latrine. And a scene in which a trussed-up swine is carried past benevolent portraits of historical dignitaries pretty well speaks for itself. Both a tender coming-of-age tale and a bitter critique of injustice shored up by outdated tradition, Manjule has managed to take one of his country’s more insidious social ills and reduce it down to the story of a young man whose eyes are on the sky even though his shoes remain covered in pig shit.

Porcile
(Italy 1969) (2): The bourgeois son of a crooked German industrialist (and possible war criminal) turns his back on human relationships and finds solace in the hooves of a local pig herd. In a tandem story a medieval loner hones his taste for human flesh, slowly gathering a circle of acolytes in the process. Both eventually come to ruin—the former is (literally) consumed by his passion, the latter gets eaten up by the Catholic church. Painting in strokes far too crude and clumsy for effective satire, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s exercise in poor taste is further hampered by a script weighed down with pretentious chinwagging and a slapdash cinematography which looks as if the cameraman was constantly on the verge of tripping over a cable. When even the actors themselves appear baffled by the lines of doublespeak issuing from their mouths you know a rewrite should have been in the offing. A few nicely composed shots nonetheless as a pair of quarrelling would-be lovers discuss ideologies from opposite sides of an ornate pool, and the volcanic wasteland of 1969’s Teorema is revisited although with far less impact. Tedious.

From a Whisper to a Scream
[aka The Offspring ] (USA 1987) (7): Voodoo, necrophilia, cannibalism, and zombies—as well as all manner of inventive bloodletting and dismemberment—are presented for your puerile entertainment in Jeff Burr’s horror anthology which takes the comic book pizzazz of Creepshow and bumps it up to an “R” rating. Interested in covering the backstory of a murderess recently executed in the small hamlet of Oldfield Tennessee, a persistent reporter calls upon the deceased’s elderly uncle (Vincent Price!) and winds up getting more of a scoop than she intended. The old man is convinced that it’s Oldfield itself which is to blame for the killings because the the surrounding countryside has been a repository of evil and madness dating back a hundred years—and to prove his point he regales her with four macabre tales gleaned from the town archives. Muahahaha! Despite its low-budget schlock and overplayed hysterics, Burr and his team of talented writers have nevertheless slapped together a good old-fashioned yarn reminiscent of those Saturday afternoon treats from Amicus studios with a dollop of Eerie Tales magazine thrown in for colour. In the first vignette “Til Death Do Us Part” holds little meaning for a meek office worker determined to win the heart of his lovely supervisor (if you liked Trilogy of Terror’s rampaging Tiki doll you’ll love what comes crawling out from under HIS sofa). “Be Careful What You Wish For” could be the motto of the second tale when a conman on the run stumbles upon the secret for eternal life. And “Ain’t Love a Bitch” resounds throughout story number three after a lovestruck woman runs away with a handsome carnival freak only to discover his contract is more binding than she thought. But it’s the final chapter which proved the most chilling as Burr puts the “gory” in “allegory” to tell the tale of three Civil War soldiers who stumble upon a town populated by orphaned children and ruled by a mysterious Magistrate—a grotesque anti-war parable if ever there was one. If you’re willing to forgive its occasional misstep (the opening execution is worth a rewind) and the tacky 80s touches, this is prime movie night popcorn fare all the way even if Vincent Price ultimately hated it. Welcome to Oldfield!

Amityville: The Awakening
(USA 2017) (4): The fact that it took five years to complete and then suffered through three disastrous release dates before settling for a limited run should give you a clue as to the quality of Frank Khalfoun’s contribution to the Amityville Horror franchise. Unfortunately some of us don’t heed the warnings. Forty years after the iconic New York farmhouse’s demonic presence caused a man to off his entire family—good use of fake news footage—angry single mother Joan (Jennifer Jason Leigh finding a new career low) and her three kids move in just as the demons are getting restless again. But even though sullen goth teen Belle (a sullen Bella Thorne and her panties) suspects something is amiss and cutesy Juliet (Mckenna Grace) finds a bogeyman in her closet, the house seems most interested in their brother James (Cameron Monaghan stretching the special effects budget), a twisted comatose paraplegic hooked up to home life support and the apple of Joan’s obsessive eye. The usual shocks and mayhem ensue as an increasingly agile James leads the family down a rabbit hole so lined with clichés and illogical plot points that even the devil gives up eventually. However effective some of those shocks are—a zombie dog was gross and a mirrored reflection almost made me drop my digestive cookie—they’re all for naught as Khalfoun piles on the silliness with an obscure biblical reference, too many doors and windows slamming open and closed, and a family-unfriendly “climax” which might have been more watchable had the studio not trimmed it down for that coveted PG-13 rating. Setting itself up as a new “true story” of sorts, it also mocks the previous Amityville movies with Belle and her creepy pals watching the James Brolin original on DVD just as the lights go out prompting a trek to the basement fuse box. Glass houses Mr. Khalfoun, glass houses. At least upstate New York looked splendid with the odd palm tree (it was filmed in Long Beach…oops). Maybe they could name the next turkey pile Amityville: Go Back to Sleep Already and be done with it?

Europa Europa
(Germany 1990) (6): Using the astonishing real life memoirs of Salomon Perel as a guide, Agnieszka Holland’s episodic tale of wartime survival became one of the year’s most popular foreign films despite Germany’s decision not to submit it for an Oscar nomination. After Hitler’s rhetoric results in his father’s shoe shop being vandalized, teenaged Salomon (Marco Hofschneider) and his family join thousands of other Jews seeking a better life in nearby Poland. But when the Nazis and Stalinists begin crossing the border into that country as well, Solly ends up having to fend for himself—first teaming up with one side, then the other, eventually bluffing his way into the Hitler Youth movement where he manages to convince the authorities of his shining Aryan lineage. But one can’t live a lie forever and Salomon’s complicity with evil, borne out of a desperate will to survive, will exact a price… Filmed in and around Lódz, Holland’s eye for time and place is impeccable as she uses the crumbling masonry and winding streets to elicit a sense of siege while a confrontation between Salomon (now hiding behind the name Josef Peters) and his Third Reich girlfriend (Julie Delpy) in a nearby Hebrew cemetery provides one of the film’s many sober ironies—Solly’s nightmare tram ride through a Jewish ghetto while decked out in Nazi drag providing another. Hofschneider’s striking features and ability to go from playful to terrified in the space of a heartbeat certainly renders Salomon a sympathetic character, but in concentrating on her main protagonist Holland fails to colour in everyone else causing secondary roles to seem mere backdrop or, in the case of a fantasy ballet between Stalin and Hitler, foppish cartoons. And having the sun stand in for Yahweh during a few scenes of implied Divine Intervention was a conceit both baffling and wholly unnecessary. How many personal values would you squash in order to stay alive? And how much moral weight does the statement “I didn’t know!” carry when you are faced with the consequences of those squashed values? Intriguing questions which Europa Europa approaches but doesn’t really answer, at least to my satisfaction.

The Lunchbox
(India 2013) (9): Apparently Mumbai has a thriving lunchbox delivery service which allows housewives to send hot meals to their office-bound husbands using a mass courier service and writer/director Ritesh Batra uses this uniquely Indian arrangement to fashion a uniquely Indian love story. Firmly in a rut and fed up with a crowded bustling Mumbai where vertical cemetery plots ensure that even graveyards are standing room only, middle-aged widower Saajan (Irrfan Khan, delightfully sour) is facing his upcoming retirement with a sense of downcast fatalism. Meanwhile, across town, unhappily hitched Ila (a melancholy Nimrat Kaur) is facing her crumbling marriage with a mixture of apathy and sad resignation. And then, thanks to a glitch in the system, Ila’s meticulously prepared lunches—meant for her husband—begin arriving at Saajan’s desk by mistake and the two begin a relationship based solely on notes passed back and forth in the lunchbox’s stainless steel tiffin containers… Batra opens his gently bittersweet film with a wide angle shot of two trains passing one another, a theme which echoes throughout as Saajan and Ila’s increasingly personal yet chaste correspondence causes their lives to veer in unplanned directions—he learns to let down his walls; she learns to fly over hers (with a little help from her unseen neighbour who shouts encouragement from the apartment above). Mumbai is filmed in all its gritty chaotic glory, subtle Bollywood tunes provide the lightest of dramatic touches, and lovingly prepared meals become as intimate as a caress, but it is the notes themselves which anchor the film—hastily scribbled ruminations on life, happiness, and mortality exchanged between two sad souls which wind up being as disarming as they are charming. And just to add a bit of contrast Batra throws in a few secondary characters, namely Ila’s grieving mother full of regrets and Saajan’s pathologically upbeat apprentice whose not-entirely-honest approach to life embodies hope and resilience. The question of whether or not the two will ever meet in person is one which Batra dangles playfully in front of his audience, but in the end it doesn’t really matter for in the words of one character, “Sometimes the wrong train will take you to the right station”. In the case of The Lunchbox the journey is the only thing that matters and its first class all the way.

Right Now, Wrong Then
(Korea 2015) (6): Sang-so Hong’s 122-minute endurance test is actually composed of two one-hour shorts which doesn’t make it seem any less long. While on location for his next film, director Ham Cheon-soo makes the acquaintance of local artist Yoon Hee-jeong and the two spend the day chatting about art, life, and the intricacies of the human heart while slowly becoming smitten with one another. But as evening falls Hee-jeong invites him to a dinner party where a combination of too much alcohol and a few dirty secrets threaten to ruin the evening. In the second half of the film time loops upon itself and the two meet for the very first time once again, only this time around things proceed with a bit more candour and emotional honesty (and the alcohol elicits slightly different results). In his 17th film Hong’s penchant for putting fraught relationships under the microscope is in full force and the added novelty of twin trajectories gives him an opportunity to explore the question of “what might have been if only…” A pair of handsome leads give finely nuanced performances (twice) even to the point of getting themselves drunk in real life in order to present the partially improvised script with as much authenticity as possible. And Hong utilizes a few clever tricks to accent the symmetry between stories: the film opens in a temple and closes in a theatre; colours shift in minute ways, and background movie posters remind us that we’re watching one ourselves. Fans of the director will revel in this one even though Hong has nothing new to say—but despite the impeccable cinematography and a playful script that comes across as wholly natural I still felt like a captive third wheel on two really boring dates.

The Haunted Castle
(Germany 1921) (5): Even the greatest directors have their down days and with the master of German Expressionism, F. W. Murnau, that day comes in the form of this tepid penny dreadful. A group of noblemen gather on a country estate for a weekend of hunting and camaraderie, but when uninvited guest Count Peter Oetsch shows up it sends shockwaves throughout the company. Dour and mysterious, the Count was once accused of murdering the husband of Baroness Safferstät (who is also in attendance) and although acquitted he’s never been able to completely clear his name. Enter Fr. Faramund, an austere holy man whose arrival will lead to unexpected revelations and tragedy… Heavy on the make-up (the Baroness’ black eyes look like she just got tossed out of the ring) but showing little of Murnau’s directorial genius aside from one nicely composed static shot and an effective nightmare sequence in which the clawed hand of Nosferatu’s Count Orlok makes a terrifying cameo, this disjointed potboiler definitely shows its roots as a serialized whodunnit from a Berlin magazine. However, it was a very poor quality transfer missing several minutes and the stilted English intertitles read as if they were translated word for word from the original German—but I doubt the missing footage would have made much difference, polished or not.

The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil
(Korea 2019) (8): A serial killer is on the prowl in Seoul and only one victim has managed to escape his knife-wielding clutches, musclebound crime boss Jang. Vowing to avenge the attack which almost killed him Jang draws upon his underworld connections in order to track down the murderer—a course of action which puts him in direct conflict with underdog police detective Yeol (whose own boss is on Jang’s payroll). Realizing that the only way they’re ever going to find the madman is to pool their resources Jang and Yeol reluctantly share clues and manpower, but can a gangster and a cop trust each other long enough to catch a devil? With cameras firing on all cylinders, Won-Tae Lee’s violent joyride of a film careens down alleyways and races across rooftops with flying fists and spurting blood ensuring the action never slows for very long. As Jang, hunky tattooed Don Lee out-punches and out-growls everything in his path without so much as a raised eyebrow yet is not so tough that he can’t give an umbrella to a young college girl in need. Providing a somewhat geeky counterpart as Yeol, Mu-Yeol Kim is all hard talk and police procedural even after he gets his ass handed to him by a startled female jogger (and Jang, repeatedly). Nobody does cop dramas like the Koreans and this gritty odd couple policier is no exception. Vroom, vroom!

Manhattan Murder Mystery
(USA 1993) (7): Definitely not his best work, but Woody Allen’s lightweight homage to the 1930s Thin Man series of urban mysteries is still a pleasure to watch. When her next door neighbour suddenly drops dead, bored Manhattan housewife Carol Lipton (Diane Keaton reprising her Annie Hall persona) suspects foul play. Goaded into becoming an amateur sleuth by her playwright friend (Alan Alda), Carol concocts one elaborate scheme after another to try and solve the case—schemes which bring unexpected side effects to her own life. Allen essentially plays himself as Carol’s increasingly neurotic husband, his non-stop non-sequiturs providing a welcome vein of humour in what is otherwise a ridiculously convoluted plot and of course his beloved New York City is laid out in all its gritty charm from crumbling courtyards to the Lincoln Center’s fluorescent glitz. Comic timing and a sparkling script filled with overlapping banter more than make up for the facile storyline while the talents of Jerry Adler as the suspicious widower and Anjelica Huston as a whip smart author who smells a rat keep things from becoming a complete farce. But it’s that ending which left me smiling—a salute to Orson Welles which is so corny it actually works.

Rojo
(Argentina 2018) (8): A well-to-do lawyer gets involved in a ridiculous class struggle when an agitated vagrant demands he give up his restaurant table…words lead to actions and three months later he finds himself a person of interest after the vagrant is reported missing. Set in Argentina circa 1975 at the beginning of the American-backed “Dirty War”, the ensuing police investigation provides little more than a backdrop for Benjamin Naishtat’s deadly comic skewering of his country’s sociopolitical skeletons. It seems no one is entirely innocent, aside from the few who mysteriously “disappear” during the film, and Naishtat takes great delight in tossing out politically charged non-sequiturs throughout whether it be a troupe of visiting American cowboys greeted as saints (the local governor gives them a silver chalice, they give him a leather whip), a crack aimed at Catholic hypocrisy, or the eccentric detective investigating the disappearance—a Chilean TV cop with a “God & Country” fetish. Even old television commercials weigh in with a bourgeois fop who’d rather commit murder than share his candy. The acting is impeccably downbeat with a musical score that waffles between Spanish ballads and upbeat classical arrangements, and the director’s camera always seems eager to corral his actors regardless of location—the interiors are crowded, the exteriors are either hemmed by austere desert or heaving ocean (where an impromptu solar eclipse momentarily colours everyone blood red). Apparently no one is worthy of salvation and since Naishtat opens his movie with eager proles looting the house of a dead man and closes it with a musical salute to colonialism, no prisoners are taken either. Ouch.