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


~ ~ ~ ~


La Bête Humaine (France 1938) (8): People can indeed be beastly in Jean Renoir’s adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel, a tragic melodrama of l’amour psychotique whose bleak observation on the wages of human vice carries within it wider political overtones. Lonely train engineer Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin) is prone to rage-filled blackouts which he blames on “poisoned blood” caused by his alcoholic forebears. His life seems to take a turn however when he falls in love with Séverine (Simone Simon) the alluring young wife of aging Stationmaster Roubad (Fernand Ledoux), a moody and choleric man whose fits of jealousy often lead to violence. In fact it was one such fit which led Roubad to murder one of Séverine’s former lovers the very night she met Jacques, and now both Lantier and his newfound love must find a way to be together—but Roubad is not so easily trifled with and Lantier is overdue for another blackout… Given everyone’s occupation it’s no surprise that Renoir’s film revolves around trains, an apt metaphor as they barrel heedlessly along their iron rails with all the implacability of fate itself. It’s a train that plays host to Roubad’s homicidal wrath, Lantier and Séverine meet and later commit adultery on one, and it is an engine car—Lantier’s favourite—which doles out a final destiny. There is a synergy to Renoir’s cast that still crackles decades later: Gabin commands the screen as the tortured Lantier, a man who cries out for love only to see it constantly wrested away; Simon is radiant as the love triangle’s apex, a beauty whose innocent veneer periodically slips to reveal something uglier beneath; and Ledoux uses little more than body language and sullen stares to produce a tragically broken man at once pitiful and wholly repellent. And cinematographer Curt Courant ties it all together with grim visions of dark tunnels and smoky industrial landscapes where a simple rain barrel carries an erotic charge and a gold pocket watch becomes a ball and chain. Released just as WWII was gathering on the horizon, Renoir’s scenes of screaming locomotives and sundered lives where passions too often lead to brutality can also be viewed as darkly prophetic.

House of the Witch
(USA 2017) (4): Meadowcrest Manor has stood on the edge of town for decades. Surrounded by acres of unkempt lawn the huge, vaguely colonial eyesore hasn’t been occupied for almost that long—at least not by anything human, for as a prologue reveals there is something living within its walls and it doesn’t take kindly to nosy visitors. Now, on Halloween, six clueless teenagers decide to break into the old place to party the night away—and if you can’t guess what happens next you really need to get out to the movies more… Pedestrian and chockfull of genre clichés, Alex Merkin’s derivative “Horny Kids in a Haunted House” shocker doesn’t waste time setting the tone as sheets begin to writhe, mirrors reflect horrors, and all avenues of escape are inexplicably cut off. Of course the hapless adolescents decide to split up and explore. Of course one couple ends up in the attic where a gory discovery is made. And of course another trio follow a trail of screams into the deep dark basement. It seems the house’s creepy squatter has a use for snoopy interlopers and as each character is picked apart (literally and figuratively) its motive becomes frighteningly (?) clear. The effects are special enough when you consider the film’s limited means, especially the smoky contrails left in hallways and staircases as the evil bogey zooms about like a fighter jet, and one fingernail sequence made me wince appreciatively. But given the film’s premise Merkin doesn’t quite line up the dots that would allow audiences to connect those opening scenes with that foreboding finish. Instead he chooses to stuff the middle with so much supernatural stuff and nonsense that you feel as if you’re watching a group of highschool students trying to manoeuvre their way through a carnival funhouse while their parents wait outside. In the end a meandering storyline generates little tension and leads to a disappointing payoff that left me rooting for the witch.

Phenomena
(Italy 1985) (6): Every so often I come across a film which is so awful yet so brilliant at the same time that I find it all but impossible to give it a rating. Such is the case with this highly atmospheric, highly operatic cheese platter from Dario Argento. Fans of Italian gialli in general, and of Argento in particular, know exactly what I’m talking about. For everyone else, steel yourselves for a wild ride filled with blood, psychosis, and ridiculously emotive performances whose already stilted dialogue is rendered priceless thanks to poor dubbing. An insane murderer is stalking the campus of an exclusive all-girls academy nestled in a corner of Europe known as “the Transylvania of Switzerland” and only American freshman Jennifer Corvino (future Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly!!) has the wherewithal to stop him. Blessed with the ability to communicate with insects (she actually made a beetle horny), Jennifer is led through a series of clues thanks to her little six and eight-legged friends, until she finds herself trapped in a final house of horrors where all will be revealed. There are hints of 1977’s Suspiria at work here most notably in the menacing girls’ academy and its staff of slightly unhinged matrons, and there’s more than a whiff of the supernatural as Jennifer regularly enters into fugue states where she summons hordes of bugs to do her bidding—one highly effective scene shows a black cloud of buzzing nasties covering the top floors of the school while Jennifer’s abusive schoolmates cower behind closed windows. It is the cinematography, in fact, which ultimately swayed me for if nothing else Argento knows how to frame a shot with every shadow in its place and every drop of gore accounted for—a spooky underwater sequence at a lake is pulled off so well you hardly even notice they’re in a pool. Hampered, or perhaps bolstered, by overwrought performances and the occasional flub (unnaturally bright lighting washes out backgrounds and when a sudden storm breaks why is it only raining on one side of the school?) this is Argento at his macabre best churning out a little bedtime story filled with stabbings, decapitations, a pool of rotting body parts, and buckets and buckets of maggots. Veteran actor Donald Pleasance lends a tiny bit of credibility as a crippled Scottish entomologist who teams up with Jennifer, but it’s his chimpanzee assistant Inga—looking and acting like a little furry Igor—that deserved to walk away with an award for Best Primate in a Supporting Role. Laced with hysteria and dominated by an overbearing soundtrack of screeching arias and heavy metal (musical credits include Iron Maiden, Motorhead, and Argento’s frequent collaborators, “Goblin”) this is definitely one of the more unique best-worst horror flicks to come crawling out of the 80s. You’ve been warned and/or encouraged.

Nightingale
(USA 2014) (9): It all starts with an angry confrontation between him and his overbearing religious mother which doesn’t end well (for her), and thirty-something Peter Snowden’s chronically tattered psyche begins to implode upon itself in a chain reaction of rage, loneliness, and delusion. All he wanted to do was invite his friend Edward over for a quiet dinner—a fellow veteran for whom he holds much more than a platonic interest—but life seemed intent to thwart his plans right from the outset. Already paranoid and dangerously labile, Peter’s fuse burns ever brighter as frustration builds upon frustration—with the credit card people, with the worried inquiries from mom’s pesky friends, with the stifling walls of the house itself—and all it will take is one final spark to push him over… David Oyelowo brings the curtain down in this powerful one-man psychodrama that rolls out in a string of unilateral conversations as Peter fields phone calls, sneers at his mother via her vanity mirror, and posts agitated monologues to his online blog. Alternating between impulsive mania and near catatonia, those grandiose monologues carry within them a crushing sense of tragedy, for like a confused child his lack of any insight has rendered him ill-equipped to deal with the various realities that ring his landline or come knocking on his dead-bolted door. Director Elliot Lester leaves it up to the audience to glean what they can from the one-sided exchanges and offhand remarks—Edward’s role is questionable after a couple of cell conversations go awry and a letter addressed to his mother reveals some pathology between the lines when Peter reads it aloud. Perhaps the religious paraphernalia is heavy-handed (Christ and his Mother peer from every corner) and a few dramatic ploys don’t ring entirely true—but how do you gauge “truth” when cast and crew have effectively set up shop in the mind of a man going mad? As if in response Lester wisely leaves subjective and objective entirely relative right up to that sad and brutally intense final upload. This is theatre distilled to its purest form.

The Last Voyage
(USA 1960) (6): Twelve years before Irwin Allen took audiences on a one-way adventure aboard the Poseidon, writer/director Andrew Stone offered up this waterlogged disaster film—sort of a “Titanic-Lite” with half the body count but twice the drama. En route to Japan on one of her final voyages, the aging ocean liner S.S. Claridon runs into trouble when a fire in the engine room leads to a series of explosions that threaten to scuttle her. The ineffectual captain (George Sanders), more concerned with his career than the wellbeing of his passengers, refuses to act decisively which immediately puts him in the crosshairs of his hot-headed chief engineer (Edmond O’Brien) and fellow officers who are torn between loyalty and self-preservation. Meanwhile, first class passenger Cliff Henderson (a wooden Robert Stack) is desperately trying to free both his wife (a vivacious Dorothy Malone) who’s been caught beneath a fallen bulkhead, and his little daughter (an excruciatingly adorable Tammy Marihugh wailing like a distraught Shirley Temple) who is clinging to the edge of a jagged hole caused when an exploding boiler tore through their stateroom. Now with the ship listing, waters rising, and passengers beginning to panic, the Hendersons are quickly running out of time… What starts out promising winds up being 90 minutes of staged hysteria—you can practically hear Stone yelling “ACTION!”—with hammy performances that consist mainly of people running up and down staircases and yelling at one another. Malone and Marihugh do provide the exception however as they wring out the tears convincingly enough and Sanders does a good job as the stiff-lipped British captain who refuses to go down with the ship (dragging the producers with him no doubt). Aside from an initial blast that takes out a crowded salon with unintentionally amusing results as all-too-obvious wigged mannequins get tossed into the air (play it in slo-mo for a good laugh!) the Oscar-nominated special effects are pretty impressive for the time—torrents of water shoot through portholes, walls of flame engulf a dining room, and because Warner Brothers partially sank an actual ship for many of the shots there is an air of authenticity to the action that couldn’t otherwise have been achieved using mere models and studio backlots. Even Santa Monica Bay makes for a credible open ocean. But the movie ultimately loses points on two grounds: Charles Laughton’s somber voice provides a totally unnecessary narration—we don’t need to be told a ship is sinking when we can see it’s sinking—and a final scene, obviously meant to be “heroic”, is so patently ludicrous that I wanted to torpedo the damn boat just out of spite. At least former ballplayer turned actor Woody Strode treats us to a bit of eye candy as he plays a helpful engineer who doesn’t seem to own a shirt.

Woman at War
(Iceland 2018) (7): Iceland’s official entry to the 2019 Academy Awards is this absurdist eco-comedy whose zanier elements can’t quite hide the droning soapbox at its core. Mousy choirmaster Halla (a fierce yet downbeat Halldóra Geirhardsdóttir) is so upset over global warming that she’s declared a clandestine war on any heavy industry that tries to gain a foothold in her country. Her current target: a Chinese aluminum smelting factory. Her modus operandi: cutting off electricity to the plant by whatever means available be it dragging a metal cable over the nearby power lines or blowing up a transformer tower with plastic explosives. Having convinced herself that her quest to “save the planet” trumps the democratic rule of law, she is somewhat nonplused when her acts of sabotage lead to mixed reactions in the press with some accusing her hubris of destroying jobs and threatening Iceland’s economic future, “Do we have to stop all industry and go back to our turf houses?” muses one irate taxpayer. Even her twin sister (also played by Geirhardsdóttir), unaware of Halla’s involvement, accuses the perpetrator of sheer arrogance. But Halla really begins to question her illegal activities when she receives notice that her application to adopt a child has been processed and there’s a little 4-year old war orphan in Eastern Europe waiting for her… Right from the outset it’s clear where writer/director Benedikt Erlingsson’s sympathies lie—Greta Thunberg would adore this film over a bag of organic popcorn—but that doesn’t mean he’s above laughing with, and at, all sides of the debate. While politicians secretly meeting at an ancient archaeological site to haggle over the issue come to resemble a band of Viking warlords, Halla’s ways and means are also called into question after she scatters a typewritten manifesto rife with Go-Green posturing but woefully short on any workable solutions. Perhaps in an effort to soften the edges of a film which too often lapses into sermonizing, Erlingsson throws in a handful of farcical elements which sometimes work as when a hapless Spanish tourist is repeatedly arrested for terrorism and Halla, wearing a Nelson Mandela mask, brings down a surveillance drone with bow and arrow à la Robin Hood (posters of Mandela and Ghandi also smile beatifically from her living room wall), and sometimes border on affectation as Halla is literally pursued by the movie’s soundtrack in the form of a three-piece Icelandic oompah band and trio of Ukrainian folk singers who patiently loiter in the background awaiting their musical cues. From the opening scene of foolhardy vandalism to a closing shot that graphically brings to focus Halla’s worst fears, this is a film that deliberately pokes and provokes its audience regardless of individual convictions. And that is always a good first step.

Naples ’44
(Italy 2016) (7): Towards the end of WWII an alliance of British and American troops drove the German forces out of Naples and nearby Salerno, setting up base in a ruined city that was at once stubbornly vibrant and barely standing on its last legs. One British intelligence officer, Norman Lewis, kept a meticulous diary of his experiences in the months following the liberation and it is his own words (narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch) which director Francesco Patierno uses to form the backbone of this engaging documentary. Similar in style to Terence Davies’ ruminations on Liverpool in Of Time and the City, Patierno stitches together a free-form hodgepodge of rare archival footage, modern day travelogue, and snippets from classical Italian films shot in and around Naples to create a dreamlike mosaic of Neapolitans struggling to survive by whatever means possible as food and water shortages, disease, and a crumbling social order took their toll. Even nearby Mount Vesuvius seemed intent on finishing the destruction begun by the Nazis as it chose this worst of times to send out slow-moving rivers of lava. Young women took to prostitution, young men flexed their impotent machismo through petty assaults, and the elderly fell back on the faith that sustained them in centuries past—a fascinating mix of pagan rites and Catholic voodoo involving miraculous statues and magical Saints’ blood. And throughout it all a burgeoning black market economy took hold that saw up to 30% of military supplies mysteriously appear on private store shelves. Lewis’ emotionally-laden words and Cumberbatch’s rich voice augment scenes of everyday horror and snatches of joyful defiance—in one part of the city women set up house among mountains of dusty rubble, in another the mangled bodies of children are pulled out of a blasted building. And as words and images intertwine it becomes abundantly clear that Lewis held the utmost respect, bordering on love, for a city and its people that refused to give in even after the gates of Hell opened up beneath their feet.

Permanent
(USA 2017) (6): Bad hair makes for a weak metaphor in writer/director Colette Burson’s low-income comedy that seems to aim for the white trash aesthetic of Gummo or even Napolean Dynamite but rarely comes close. It’s 1982 and with the first day of school just around the corner highschool freshman Aurelie Dickson (Kira McLean) desperately wants a curly perm so she can look like Farrah Fawcett. But, thanks to her cash-strapped parents, she winds up with a $20 beauty school experiment that looks as if an electrocuted poodle died on her head. Thus marked as fair game by the redneck bitches in her class (all sporting soft waves and phoney drawls) Aurelie must either make a stand or resign herself to four years of bullying. In the meantime, her constantly squabbling parents are having troubles of their own: dad (Rainn Wilson) wants to become a doctor but is so obsessed with his cheap toupee that he might not make it past the first class and mom (Patricia Arquette?!) is an emotionally labile dormouse whose interests include butter dishes and marine mammals. The cast pretty much act as if they were auditioning for something better and the script itself is a mush of one-note jokes and tired idiosyncrasies—a pregnant teacher regards her fetus as if it were an extra student, dad fusses over his wig. Finally, the film’s decidedly “quirky” buildup does provide a few good laughs—most notably Aurelie’s classroom adventures and mom’s whiney non-sequiturs—but the punchline never seems to arrive and instead we get one of those hug-filled moments of validation with happy music and smiles all around. The late Michael Greene co-stars as the Dickson’s next door neighbour—a questionably qualified family counsellor and mom’s dirty old muse whom she occasionally mistakes for God, while Nena Daniels does a fair job as a honky-hating black student who, in keeping with the film’s central schtick, keeps her own wild hair tightly bound in uncomfortable braids. As an indie comedy it works often enough to keep you amused but there’s probably more inspiration to be found in a box of Miss Clairol.

Calamity Jane
(USA 1953) (5): Doris Day piles on the hick routine with a shovel in this ridiculously camp Warner Brothers musical fit only for diehard fans. The rootin’, tootin’ wild west town of Deadwood Dakota is apparently populated by horny old men and one quarrelsome female scout—Doris strutting about in buckskin breeches and confederate cap—who likes to chug down sarsaparilla and hang out with the likes of Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel) when she’s not shootin’ it out with them red-skinned varmints (PC audiences be forewarned). Unfortunately Calamity also likes to tell tall tales so when she promises to bring celebrated midwest chanteuse Adelaid Adams to town for a one-night engagement at Deadwood’s own Golden Garter saloon, she finds herself bound for Chicago—she pronounces it “Chi-coggy”, how quaint—to do just that. But thanks to a case of mistaken identity she accidentally drags Adams’ personal maid Katie (Allyn Ann McLerie) back instead. Dire emotional entanglements follow when Katie not only catches the eye of Wild Bill, whom Jane enjoys a seemingly platonic relationship with, but also piques the romantic interests of dashing Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin (Philip Carey) from the local garrison—a man Jane is secretly smitten with herself… The frontier sets are basic studio backlot fare as are the cowboys ’n Indians outfits, but aside from the Oscar-winning melody, “Secret Love”, the song & dance numbers are lively if nothing else. And when Katie temporarily bunks with Jane the initial chemistry between the two women—they gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes as they turn her rundown shack into a girlie cottage—was enough to receive a sly “wink-wink nudge-nudge” from gay viewers. But Day’s ugly duckling transformation from sassy tomboy to frilly white trash debutante just in time for the annual ball is a stretch, and her annoying swagger coupled with Hollywood’s idea of wild west argot (Window, cigarette, and creek get butchered into “winnder”, “ciga-reet” and “crick”) quickly become insufferable. A retro treat for those so inclined, a cloying endurance test for everyone else. Yee-haw.

The Greatest Showman
(USA 2017) (9): It’s only fitting that a musical biopic about the life of P. T. Barnum, whose ability to mix hype with spectacle earned him the title “The World’s Greatest Showman”, should consist of a string of bigger-than-life MTV music videos, each one more dazzling than the one before. And director Michael Gracey pulls it off with aplomb thanks in part to a first-rate cast headed by Hugh Jackman and an Oscar-nominated score that’ll have you stomping your feet and snapping your fingers. The story’s trajectory is nothing new to cinema—a young boy from humble beginnings rises to fame armed only with vision and ambition, almost loses it all, then triumphs in the end—but it’s the “how” that leaves you humming and smiling. The set designs alone are a feat unto themselves with a colourfully old-fashioned circus transforming itself into a contemporary rock concert when the needle hits the record and 19th century New York City spread out like a collection of antique dollhouses beneath an impossibly full moon. Within this fantasy milieu Barnum (Jackman, not just a pretty face as he sings and dances up a storm) scandalizes New York society with his much-touted museum-cum-circus of stuffed oddities and living freaks. But full houses of paying customers soon have their morbid curiousity turned into cheers of joy at the sheer exuberance of it all while outside angry mobs, taking aim at a pair of black trapeze artists and the show’s troupe of “unique” humans, eventually have their bigotry slammed back in their faces when the Bearded Lady (Keala Settle) belts out a comeback before dropping the mic. Michelle Williams holds her own as Barnum’s loving wife, Rebecca Ferguson pours her heart into the role of opera diva Jenny Lind (her Barnum-financed American tour introducing a romantic wedge), and Zac Efron does a great job as Barnum’s soft-spoken partner—his blossoming interracial love affair with the girl on the flying trapeze (Zendaya) providing one of the film’s many highlights as the two of them embark on a twirling aerial duet. It’s only when the final show-stopping ensemble piece brings the house down yet again that you realize Gracey has been conning you with razzle-dazzle right from the beginning—but that made me love it even more. This is “Feel Good Entertainment” on steroids.

A Countess From Hong Kong
(UK 1967) (4): A high seas romantic comedy written and directed by Charlie Chaplin and staring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren should have been a sure thing. It isn’t. A complete flop on just about every level, Countess is so colourfully bad it’s actually watchable in a sparkling roadkill sort of way. Marlon, distracted and looking as if he’d kill to be anywhere but there, plays a wealthy businessman en route from Hong Kong to the United States where he’s just been awarded a government position. Sophia, acting as if she wandered in front of the camera by accident, plays the penniless descendant of Russian aristocrats who is intent on escaping to America by stowing away in Brando’s stateroom. She doesn’t want to be sent back and his public persona can’t withstand the scandal of being discoverd with a strange woman, so what follows is basically 120 minutes of the two of them trying to evade ship’s detection by running around his stateroom and slamming doors until they stop long enough to gaze into each other’s eyes. So poorly edited that the story leapfrogs rather than flows, and the uncomfortably wooden performances—Tippi Hedren plays her bit part as Marlon’s estranged wife like she just overdosed on Lunesta—leave you wondering just how much rehearsal time the cast was given before Chaplin yelled “ACTION!” Apparently Loren didn’t like Brando, Brando didn’t like Chaplin, and Chaplin didn’t like anyone, a three-way animosity which colours every frame. And those slapstick elements might have worked had the film been made in the silent era—a wacky episode of mass seasickness left me heaving along with the characters while a “wedding night” between Loren and Brando’s effete butler (Patrick Cargill) drags on like a particularly bad Laugh-In skit. In fact the film’s only saving graces are a truly funny 2-minute cameo from Margaret Rutherford playing a dowdy bedridden hypochondriac (look for future Monty Python regular Carol Cleveland as her nurse), and Chaplin’s musical composition, “This is My Song”, which became a number one single for Petula Clark. The rest is just one big shipwreck.

An Actor’s Revenge
(Japan 1963) (8): With a career that began when he was only five years old, Kazuo Hasegawa was not only an accomplished Kabuki actor but he also became a box office sensation in the fledgling Japanese movie industry. In this, Hasegawa’s 300th film, director Kon Ichikawa puts the actor’s talents to excellent use in a strangely beautiful story which seamlessly blends stage and screen. Famous for playing female leads, 19th century Kabuki actor Yukinojo Nakamura (Hasegawa) travels to Edo where his troupe has been hired to perform a historical tragedy before a full house. But there is more than stagecraft on his mind, for Edo is home to the three powerful men he blames for ruining his parents’ lives and he has devised an ingenious plan to destroy each one of them in turn. And it all begins with him wooing one of their daughters, now a concubine in the court of a local shogun. Shot in eye-popping colours on an ultra-wide canvas, Ichikawa keeps his audience on their toes as the action shifts between “real life” and stagey production—rich palatial interiors morph into set pieces and a deep dark forest reveals itself to be nothing more than plywood props. Never abandoning his female persona Hasegawa, preening in elaborate drag, blurs the boundary between an actor acting and a son seeking vengeance, and his complex character is enhanced by a pair of quarrelling thieves—one male, one female—who aid and abet in their own bumbling way and an irate swordsman with a deadly score to settle. And just to add a touch of whimsy, Hasegawa (dressed as a man) is also cast as a dashing cat burglar smitten by Yukinojo’s feigned feminine charms. A gender-bending Shakespearean tragedy played out with all the pomp and formality of a grand Kabuki production—the overtly choreographed sword fights alone are pure theatre—with a mournful score and cinematography that turns the everyday into small pieces of art.

Tale of Tales
(Italy 2015) (8): Very loosely based on the fanciful writings of 17th century Italian poet Giambattista Basile, Matteo Garrone’s three interweaving fairy tales provide a sumptuous banquet for the eyes even if he leaves little for the intellect to chew on. A barren queen (Salma Hayek) will do anything to conceive a child even if it involves making deals with a devilish wizard. A lecherous king (Vincent Cassel) who set his sights on a fair maiden he viewed from afar gets far less than he hoped for while she receives far more than she ever dreamed—for a time, at least. And a young princess suffers an abominable fate after her doting father (Toby Jones) discovers a flea on his wrist. Set in a quasi-medieval Europe with distressed damsels, hilltop castles, and treacherous chasms, Garrone fills your plate with fantastical asides like a king doing underwater battle with a sea monster or a pair of impossible twins whose fates are inextricably tied to one another, and he binds his separate tales with a traveling troupe of performers who always seem to show up at the right (or wrong) moment. Diehard purists will balk at the idea of fairy tales played out for the sake of pageantry alone—there are no lofty lessons to be learned here other than the vague price one pays for vanity or honour or obsession—but the costumes are beautiful, the “Once upon a time…” settings straight out of every bedtime story you ever heard, and a touch of magic graces every frame. Garrone and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky’s knowledge of light and colour turn some scenes into Renaissance paintings while the set design and art departments make sure monsters are monstrous and not one leaf is out of place. But the ample sex and bloodletting ensures these are not the kind of stories you’d want to tuck your kids in with.

Seven Beauties
(Italy 1975) (7): Lina Wertmüller’s follow-up of sorts to Swept Away once again examines the brittleness of male machismo and the disparity between what we actually are and what we think we are. Only this time around she goes for the jugular as farce gives way to grim tragedy. In the years leading up to WWII, Neapolitan dandy Pasquale Frafuso (Giancarlo Giannini, superb) has become so obsessed with personal honour that he’s unable to grasp the fact he’s never really had any to begin with. Slicking back his hair and donning a cheap suit (with loaded pistol tucked prominently) he struts about town imagining himself a ladykiller, thus the irony of the title—he feels his given nickname, “Seven Beauties”, refers to his sexual prowess but it could also refer to the fact he’s the self-appointed patriarch to seven big ugly sisters all of whom seem destined for the whorehouse. When his eldest sister actually does begin frequenting the neighbourhood bordello a botched showdown with her pimp over family honour leads to a manslaughter charge and subsequent stint in an asylum—much to his shame Pasquale feigns insanity in order to avoid execution. But this is not the end, for his involuntary hospitalization (and rape of a bedridden patient) leads to Pasquale being conscripted into Mussolini’s forces which leads to his incarceration in a German concentration camp where in order to survive he forces himself to woo the camp commandant—a slovenly, stone-faced whale of a woman who takes sadistic delight in doling out his final heartbreaking humiliation when she gives him a gun and a mission. Images of strong emasculating women abound in Wertmüller’s Oscar-nominated dramedy: a painting of the Madonna looks down from high atop a wall, his mother’s presence reduces Pasquale to a blubbering child, and the prison commandant (bravura performance from American Shirley Stoler) chews up his masculinity and spits it back in his face while he grovels over a floor marked by a giant swastika. Even his much maligned older sister ends up possessing more mettle than her simpering brother. But Wertmüller has bigger fish to fry than one egotistical Italian male who regularly confuses self-preservation with self-respect, for an opening montage of war atrocities mocked by lines of beat poetry indicts an entire national mindset—“The ones who worship the corporate image, oh yeah!…the ones who say ‘we Italians are the greatest he-men on Earth’, oh yeah!…the ones who never get involved with politics…Pow!…oh yeah!” Suffering from jarring edits and suboptimal dubbing (in both Italian and German), Seven Beauties doesn’t quite carry the punch it once did and some of the more graphic scenes of Holocaust carnage smack of overkill given the film’s subject, but Wertmüller’s hooks remain sharp and her observational critiques still carry considerable weight. I doubt Fellini himself could have done much better.

Death by Hanging
(Japan 1968) (6): A national poll once revealed that 71% of Japanese adults favoured keeping that country’s death penalty. Addressing this segment of the population personally, director Nagisa Ôshima’s piece of B&W verité begins as a dry documentary showing the trappings of an execution in process—in this case that of a young man of Korean descent convicted of rape and murder—only to veer into absurdist comedy when the noose not only fails to kill him but also robs him of his memory. Now faced with an impossible conundrum, the execution team is torn: the court witness feels it would be immoral and possibly illegal to kill someone who can’t remember their crimes, the prison warden is hellbent on re-enacting those crimes in order to jog the condemned’s memory (cue farcical skits where each man takes a turn at being both rapist and victim), the Catholic priest in attendance is convinced the man’s soul has already left the body and what’s left is now innocent, and the Chief Prosecutor, smiling like a benign Buddha, seems unable to rule either way. Refusing to offer straightforward arguments in support of his anti-capital punishment stance, Ôshima instead piles dark absurdity upon dark absurdity so that the film’s sheer ludicrousness will drive the point home on its own. It’s as if Jean-Luc Godard shared a few lines of coke with Franz Kafka and the Monty Python gang while Bertolt Brecht shouted suggestions from the sideline. And for the first 30 minutes this bleak satirical farce works admirably, keeping the audience at an emotional distance yet still managing to land a few well aimed punches: “The prisoner’s awareness of his own guilt is what gives execution its moral and ethical meaning…” drones the court witness as the priest hides behind his robes and the attending physician tries to resuscitate an unconscious “R” so he can be properly killed. But Ôshima’s insistence on spreading his net wider and wider with references to Japan’s legacy of imperialism, the plight of ethnic Koreans, and a hint of incestuous obsession when R’s sister appears to enter the fray (her corporality a subject of debate since only select people can see her) becomes didactic and tedious to the extreme. And as the team gathers around a makeshift picnic (with R and sis forming the centrepiece) to deliver drunken confessions of their own things just get sillier and more mystifying leading to a final offscreen sermon dripping with condescension. Would have been far more effective as a one-act, one-set play.

Rio
(USA 2011) (5): Blu, a rare Spix’s Macaw owned and loved by Minnesota bookshop owner Linda, is actually the last male of his kind. Now, in order to save the species from extinction, the head of a Brazilian bird sanctuary talks Linda into bringing her pampered bird (he doesn’t even know how to fly) to Rio de Janeiro where he hopes to breed him with a captive female. But things go south in more ways than one when the headstrong female turns out to be less interested in romance than she is in escaping her confines and a wildlife smuggler suddenly sets his ruthless eyes on the valuable pair… 20th Century Fox certainly ticks all the right boxes in this animated feature: a lively score of original songs, bright crayon colours, and a screenful of adorably marketable characters for starters—oh those naughty little monkeys! They also managed to employ a handful of recognizable celebrities with Jesse Eisenberg and Anne Hathaway voicing the main avians, Wanda Sykes and Jane Lynch as a pair of obnoxious geese, Jamie Foxx and Will.i.am as a rapping pair of feathered sidekicks, and Jemaine Clement as a homicidal cockatoo. Plus there’s the usual wink-winks with Angry Bird cameos, a sanitized misquote from Die Hard, and a painful reference to family jewels which the kids probably won’t get. But despite all the makings of a decent film—some Vegas-style showstoppers would have wowed them in 3D—the “precious factor” is set a few degrees too high and all the jokes pretty much fall flat on their beaks. There’s nothing here that’s either new or memorable, and the one-note storyline could have been condensed into a 30-minute Saturday morning cartoon. Apparently the studio edited out some “off colour humour” in order to avoid the MPAA’s dreaded PG rating and that’s a pity for those lost jokes could have made a bit of difference. Or not.

Marketa Lazarová
(Czechoslovakia 1967) (7): Disjointed and frustratingly opaque, Frantisek Vlácil’s 165-minute allegorical morality play is nevertheless considered to be one of the greatest films to emerge from the all too brief Prague Spring. In medieval Bohemia clan leader Kozlík, a merciless pagan, and his two sons have been padding their coffers by robbing and murdering unwary travellers. His unsavoury exploits eventually land him in hot water with the king after he attacks the caravan of a German nobleman and kidnaps his son, a young man already promised to the church. Seeking defensive aid from his neighbour Lazar, a smarmy Christian not above breaking a few laws himself, Kozlík is enraged when his requests are spurned. In retaliation he kidnaps Lazar’s daughter Marketa, a pious young woman bound for the nearby convent, and gives her to one of his sons. Now, with the two clans at deadly odds with one another and the king’s men approaching, the stage is set for a series of showdowns both natural and spiritual in nature. Beautiful B&W cinematography makes excellent use of snow and forests, castle keeps and muddy fields, where the loping shadow of a galloping horse, a gaggle of praying novices, or a wayward snowflake landing upon a bruised cheek take on monumental importance. Long verité-style tracking shots—with characters occasionally staring through the lens directly at the audience—are juxtaposed with surreal dream passages that waver between the violent and the erotic, and its all buoyed by a rhapsodic score of Gregorian chants and spoken narration. One particular scene featuring a string of nuns struggling towards a church perched high atop a barren hill was purest poetry. Unfortunately it becomes a study in too much too often as Vlácil piles symbolism atop metaphor before losing the reins altogether for a finale that seems slapped together without attention to continuity or narrative flow. There’s a wandering holy man whose sacrificial lamb becomes a pagan main course, a virtuous blonde virgin who vies with an earthy brunette—one producing a child of light, the other darkness—and everywhere scenes of icebound desolation with a treacherous bog and a nearby forest haunted by snakes, wolves, and birds of prey. It’s pagan superstition giving way to Christian babble complete with visions of Hell and Paradise, it’s the polarity of human nature made flesh (rape begets love, love begets murder), and it’s the fickleness of nature which ultimately rules them all. Pretty heady stuff that too often gets mired down by its own weight. For my money Vlácil’s Valley of the Bees (1968) while not nearly as cinematic, was still a superior tale.

Hell’s Angels
(USA 1930) (8): Coming in at a cost of almost four million dollars and employing more than 70 fighter pilots (three of whom died during production), Howard Hughes’ popular WWI epic was one of the most expensive of the early talkies, and the director’s painstaking attention to detail shows in every frame. English Brothers Roy and Monte Rutledge couldn’t be less alike—Roy’s trusting naïveté making him blind to the self-absorbed womanizer Monte has become. But when war breaks out in Europe the two find themselves flying side by side in the RAF where a dangerous mission over enemy territory will cast a tragic pall over their already thorny relationship. Although the dialogue occasionally lapses into melodramatic excess—a throwback to silent film theatrics—it takes a back seat to sheer spectacle as gut-wrenching aerial dogfights employ wing-mounted cameras (no CGI here) and a German zeppelin glides like a predatory shark through the clouds above London while being strafed by a squad of determined British bi-planes. One sombre passage involving suicide remains as riveting today as it must have been back then. To further bolster the film’s screen appeal, entire sections were painstakingly colourized by hand including a gala soiree where the women’s gowns practically glow in pinks and alabasters and a moonlit encounter in the skies above England rendered in midnight blues. Being a pre-code production (subsequent re-releases were heavily censored) Hughes was also quite generous with the profanity and eroticism, the latter finding its sharpest focus in 19-year old Jean Harlow playing the vampish libertine who comes between the two brothers (among many others)—her skimpy outfits and aggressive sexuality heralding a revolution still decades away. And John Darrow provides a noteworthy performance as an ex-pat living in England who is forced to enlist in the German forces thus leading to a monumental inner conflict when he’s called upon to attack the very country he’s grown to love. A forgivably stagy script and some jaw-dropping special effects—things go BOOM!—have certainly withstood the test of time making this one of early cinema’s more remarkable offerings.

Stake Land
(USA 2010) (6): By now the plot has become rather moth-eaten: yet another “plague” has once again turned America into a chaotic wasteland overrun by the usual assortment of slathering zombie-vampires (kudos to the make-up department), and a one-man vigilante calling himself “Mister” (co-writer Nick Damici) is trying to find his way to North America’s last human stronghold. Accompanied by a ragtag posse including a nun undergoing a crisis of faith—religious imagery figures heavily—and a teenaged apprentice whose family was recently eaten, Mister quickly learns that it’s the living, not the dead, who pose the greatest threat. Despite the requisite scenes of gore and snarling fangs director Jim Mickle’s apocalyptic monster movie is more melancholic than terrifying with plaintive piano chords underlying scenes of small town desolation and the teenager’s cynical background narration speaking of hopelessness and abandonment—by the government, by patriotism, and by God himself. It’s as if Terrence Malick were channeling the spirit of George Romero. But it’s when you take a step back that you see a dark political satire unfolding as a nation of soulless ghouls gives rise to “The Brotherhood”, an amalgamation of White Power and fundamentalist Christianity whose delusional leader sees the undead as an opportunity. And when you consider the insanity seems to stop at the Canadian border one can’t help but make comparisons to the reality of Trump’s America which wasn’t slated to begin for another six years. Despite its multiple genre clichés and bouts of bleak introspection, Stake Land turned out to be a slow-burner whose flame, while not especially bright, still managed to cast some light into unexpected places.

Long Way North
(France 2015) (6): In the latter part of the 19th century, a wealthy Russian explorer leaves St. Petersburg aboard his “unsinkable” ship in order to find the North Pole—only to disappear without a trace. Several months later his young granddaughter Sasha, eager to unravel the mystery of what happened to her grandfather and restore her family’s tarnished reputation, convinces a reluctant sea captain to aid in her search. Now, with a few newly discovered documents providing the only clues as to the whereabouts of the old man’s ship, Sasha and a crew of surly misfits will brave treacherous polar waters where the threat of tempests, disaster, and death will dog their every move… The animation is primitive and all the voices sound as if they were recorded in an echo chamber but the film’s paint-by-number renderings of old Russia and the frozen north alike, sketched with a palette of frosty pastels, gives this little piece of alt-history from France a certain visual charm that will captivate the young ones as well as less discerning adults. Aside from a few glaring anachronisms (penicillin and CPR in 1882?) and a rather implausible resolution which included a baffling supernatural interlude (or was it a dream?) it proved to be 80 minutes not completely wasted. The arctic action sequences alone—a cacophony of exploding ice sheets and blinding snowstorms—were enough to carry it through. And, best of all, the animators shied away from adorably precious Pixar-style marketing mascots.