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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Le Beau Serge
(France 1958) (8): Credited as being the film which kick-started the French “Nouvelle Vague” school of cinema, writer/director Claude Chabrol’s debut feature uses natural settings (his home town of Sardent) and a largely amateur cast to shed an uncomfortable light on France’s post war zeitgeist. After being away for twelve years, including a stint in a sanatorium recovering from TB, François returns to the small village he grew up in and is shocked by what he finds. Not only is everything in disrepair—his old home is practically condemned—but his childhood friends all seem to share a general malaise which sees loveless marriages, dead end jobs, and alcoholism as the norm. And nowhere is this more apparent than with his former best friend Serge. Once handsome and highly motivated, Serge’s life now consists of driving a delivery truck, getting stinking drunk, and berating his pregnant wife whom he blames for the death of their first child. Assuming a Messiah complex, François is determined to save the town—and Serge in particular—from themselves by setting an example. But even Christ eventually found himself waging a losing battle… Gloomy winter landscapes filmed in shadowy B&W set the tone and Chabrol’s camera lingers on every brick wall and faded timber, giving special attention to the town’s sprawling cemetery where a horrible secret comes to light among the bleak headstones. Borrowing heavily from Catholic orthodoxy, Chabrol traces the town’s decline using elements of confession and salvation, sin and damnation (roaring fireplaces figure prominently), with wine turning into nothing but inebriation and a spin on the Nativity which proves more pathetic than joyous. Keeping with the theme of lost souls, the village priest is seen mouthing platitudes to a congregation that diminishes every year while Marie, the local tramp, gives us a Mary Magdalene long past any hope of redemption. For all its lack of polish and star power, this remains a sobering elegy that starts with a cheerful arrival only to finish with a despondent departure.

Royal Flash
(UK 1975) (8): George MacDonald Fraser’s series of novels about the scandalous exploits of 19th century military libertine Captain Harry Flashman make for one very funny movie in this largely overlooked gem from director Richard Lester. In this chapter the drunken, womanizing Flashman (Malcolm McDowell) is kidnapped by dour German aristocrat Otto Von Bismarck (Oliver Reed) and forced to impersonate a crown prince who is due to be married to an equally dour duchess (Britt Ekland) but instead finds himself in the embarrassing situation of having contracted a venereal disease. However, Bismarck’s plan to have Flashman replace the prince so the royal wedding can go as planned while the real prince is being treated actually has a more sinister purpose and Flashman soon finds himself not only fighting for his life but for the future of western Europe itself. With perfect comic timing all around and a ribald sense of humour that falls somewhere between Woody Allen and Mel Brooks (with a dash of Monty Python slapstick) this swashbuckling costume spoof is filled with chuckles and laugh out loud moments throughout whether it be an exhausting sword fight swimming in sight gags, a botched police raid on a casino-slash-bordello, or a bewildered Flashman’s ongoing repartee with Bismarck’s gang of eccentric thugs whose leader (Alan Bates) dogs him like a curse. And the crew outdo themselves with lavish rococo interiors, meticulous costuming, and magnificent cinematography that makes the most of its Bavarian locations. As witty as it is zany, this is one period comedy that has managed to maintain its sparkle almost fifty years later. Look for Bob Hoskins in a small role as a clueless police constable and the great Alastair Sim presiding over a ridiculous duel.

Cure
(Japan 1997) (7): Homicide detective Takabe (an overwrought Koji Yakusho) is already stressed enough having to watch helplessly as his wife’s mental illness slowly changes her from a loving partner into a silent stranger. But his fragile equilibrium is about to take a hammer blow when ordinary people—including a policeman, a doctor, and a newlywed—begin committing grisly murders and afterwards claim they can’t remember why they did it. Paired with a forensic psychiatrist, Takabe’s investigation will lead him down a psychotic rabbit hole where a most unusual suspect will prove to be more dangerous than a roomful of serial killers… Writer/director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira) breaks the J-horror mould Western audiences have come to expect and instead delivers a psychological chiller whose creep factor relies more on obscure reveals than jump scares and pasty white phantoms. Indeed, there are no crashing musical cues or bucking cameras warning audiences when to cover their eyes for Kurosawa prefers to elicit goosebumps with the the most ordinary of devices: a faded photo stares ghost-like from a tattered book, a scratchy voice recording resembles a disjointed incantation, and the titles on a dusty bookshelf outline one man’s descent into monomania. In one scene an old five-second B&W film loop couldn’t have been much more macabre had the subject pulled a Ringu and crawled out of the TV set. But like an exercise in free association, Kurosawa waves a few hints in front of us—a lecture on 18th century European parlour tricks here, a bit of gruesome graffiti there—and then lets us tie up the dangling ends however we see fit. Overall an unsettling trek into the nightside of the human psyche that opens with a brightly lit bloodletting yet ends with little more than a cryptic glint.

Certain Women
(USA 2016) (6): Writer/director Kelly Reichardt’s talent for squeezing maximum meaning into a minimalist presentation is once again on display in this triptych of stories from author Maile Meloy—but could there be such a thing as too understated? Under the big skies of Montana the lives of four women will lightly brush past each other in ways that are more coincidental than pivotal: a frustrated lawyer (Laura Dern) will come to appreciate the difference between jurisprudence and justice when she tries to explain to her brain-damaged client (Jared Harris) why his compensation claim is being rejected; a terribly lonely ranch hand (Lily Gladstone) gets a crash course in reality after she falls for a woman teaching a night course at the local high school (Kristen Stewart); and when they begin to break ground for their future home, a couple (Michelle Williams, James Le Gros) find that the foundations of their own marriage are not as solid as they thought. It’s not difficult to draw lines between these seemingly disparate narratives for, as in her previous films, Reichardt has much to say about the ways in which we communicate—or miscommunicate, or don’t communicate at all—and the ethical and emotional confusion which inevitably develops. Dern’s competent attorney knows how to apply the law but fails to comprehend the effect of that application on the man she’s representing. Gladstone’s admirably restrained performance gives us a woman yearning for a connection yet unable to voice her desire while the object of that desire remains largely blind to what should have been obvious. And Williams and Le Gros fuss over a pile of newly acquired decorative sandstone bricks (remnants of a ruined schoolhouse) while fracture lines slowly widen between them—a fact not lost upon their snotty teenaged daughter (Sara Rodier begging for a slap). And the director draws upon local colour and terrain to underscore her message with wide open plains of nothing stretching for miles, horses finding simple joy in kicking up their hooves, and an opening shot of an endless train winding its way across an evening landscape. Aside from a ridiculously unrealistic police hostage situation (or was that an attempt at metaphor?) this is a simple, contemplative film which doesn’t break any new ground nor does it leave us with much to ponder afterwards, but the acting is solid and the background guitar chords are a perfect accompaniment.

The Perfect Candidate
(Saudi Arabia 2019) (7): Bad girl writer/director Haifaa Al-Mansour produces one of the more notable female empowerment movies to emerge from Saudi, gently (oh so gently) undermining that kingdom’s deeply rooted cultural and religious misogyny in the process. Physician Maryam Alsafan (a captivating Mila Al Zahrani) is dealing with several fires at once: her plans to attend a medical conference in Dubai have been canceled because she can’t find a male relative willing to sign her “permission to travel” slip; her headstrong ways have put her at odds with her father, a musician of some renown; and the rural emergency clinic where she works is practically inaccessible because the only road leading to it is in such bad shape. It is the latter issue which eventually prompts her to run for a seat on the local council—the only woman to do so—prompting an immediate backlash from voters as traditional values clash with the 21st century. Far from the polemic one would expect had this been, say, an American production, Al-Mansour treads softly in dealing with her country’s historical sexist attitudes, allowing everyday occurrences to speak for themselves whether it be a room full of partying women suddenly rushing to cover up their western attire whenever a man approaches, a fashion show featuring “designer” chadors, or a seriously injured patient insisting his son take him to a hospital with male doctors. And Maryam’s grassroots campaigning itself—based largely on pointers gleaned from Google searches—runs into roadblocks from both sides with indignant men refusing to take her seriously and her own kid sister worried about the unfavourable gossip her political aspirations will cause. Thankfully Al-Mansour avoids the usual Hollywood ending, but that doesn’t prevent her heroine from delivering a few terse feminist reprimands beforehand…and her decision to toss her niqab arrives like the ultimate mic drop. Amazingly, this wound up being Saudi Arabia’s official entry for 2020’s Best Foreign Film Oscar.

Somebody Up There Likes Me
(USA 1956) (7): Perry Como belts out the sentimental theme song while the Oscar-winning cinematography and art direction take us from the grimy alleyways of New York to the glaring spotlight of the boxing ring in director Robert Wise’s somewhat idealized biopic of fighting legend Thomas Rocco Barbella—better known as Rocky Graziano. Born to an embittered drunk of a father (Harold J. Stone) and a bleeding martyr of a mother (Eileen Heckart), the future middleweight champion of the world started out as a rebellious delinquent haunting the streets of Brooklyn with his equally wild friends (look for Sal Mineo and a very young Steve McQueen). After years spent in and out of prison—including a stint in Leavenworth for deserting the army and assaulting an officer—he finally found a constructive outlet for his violent hair-trigger temper when a trainer, recognizing his innate talent for boxing, got him started professionally. Paul Newman uses his handsome face to good effect playing the truculent, slightly unbalanced Graziano in a performance that is as off-putting as it is fascinating. That the man had charisma is never in doubt, but Newman’s portrayal also skirts the man’s darker side, namely his frequent fits of rage and brash egotism which allowed him to triumph in the ring but often threatened to turn his personal life into shambles. For their part, Stone and Heckart are perfectly cast with his angry alcoholic feeding into her guilt complex as they contend with their problematic son. Pier Angeli co-stars as Graziano’s girlfriend and later wife, a “nice Jewish girl” conflicted between her abhorrence for fisticuffs and a desire to support her husband as he follows his dream toward that championship bout. And rounding out the main cast is Everett Sloane playing Rocky’s trainer, mentor, and occasional nursemaid. I admit an inherent dislike for “boxing movies” in general mainly because I’ve never understood the allure of the sport, and cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg’s attention to squeamish details ensures that this is not always an easy watch—POV camerawork makes you feel every punch and split brow. It doesn’t have the epic touches of Rocky, nor the arthouse grandeur of Raging Bull (including that brilliant music score), yet this story of an unlikeable underdog making good despite himself has chemistry to spare and by the end I found myself smiling right alongside the cheering crowds.

Lizzie
(USA 2018) (8): In 1892 New England heiress Lizzie Borden was implicated in the grisly axe murders of her father and step-mother leading to a sensationalized trial and verdict. In this morbidly riveting period piece director Craig William Macneill embellishes the facts somewhat yet still sticks to the accepted story of what probably happened that August day. Told mainly in flashbacks, the Borden’s upscale house is portrayed as a prickly psychological prison ruled by patriarch Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) whose stuffy Victorian morals fail to conceal the fact that he is a controlling tyrant and a lecher. His wife Abby (Fiona Shaw) meanwhile, inured to the reality of her husband’s various hypocrisies, has become a quietly embittered shrew. And siblings Emma and Lizzie (Kim Dickens, Chloë Sevigny) couldn’t be more dissimilar—“good daughter” Emma weathers her father’s rule by blending into the wallpaper while social pariah Lizzie, armed with a sharp wit and sharper tongue, challenges him at every turn. Thus with boiling resentments and suppressed rage already the norm, Andrew’s decision to rewrite his Will—significantly disenfranchising Lizzie in the process—provided all the motive necessary for what came next. But what, exactly, did come next is left mainly to conjecture yet Macneill doesn’t hesitate to dramatize the most likely chain of events in bloody detail consigning the trial itself to a mere footnote. Sevigny, who also served as producer, gives us a Lizzie Borden that waffles between delicate flower prone to seizures and hysteria, and cold-blooded psychopath whose frozen affect and toneless invectives are almost as chilling as the murders themselves. And the story unfolds in a gauzy pastel dollhouse of a residence, all taffeta and chintz, in which male authority is a given and the women are expected to flutter obediently—could there be a sardonic feminist fable at work here? Denis O’Hare, with a mouth full of rotting teeth and eyes like a rat, co-stars as a slimy relative eager to take control of the Borden estate. And playing the Borden’s Irish servant Bridget, a cowed and abused drudge who knows more than she dare tell, Kristen Stewart’s usual monotone delivery actually works in her favour. Although her character figures far more prominently than the person it is based on (including a completely fabricated relationship with Lizzie) Stewart’s morally conflicted maid ends up being the only virtuous voice on the block. Finally, as the father, Sheridan is so implacably odious that one doesn’t wonder why he was killed so much as why did it take so long

Hell House LLC
(USA 2015) (7): In 2009 a group of young entrepreneurs decided to open a Halloween “Hell House” attraction in the small New York town of Abaddon. Transforming an abandoned hotel into a haunted house with cheesy lighting effects, creepy mannequins, and lots of staged horror, the five friends eagerly awaited the throngs of local thrill-seekers willing to pay for the opportunity of being frightened for a few minutes. But something went terribly wrong on opening night resulting in a number of deaths and injuries—a dark tragedy quickly followed by an official cover-up. Five years later a journalist and her team travel to Abaddon determined to discover the truth behind what happened that night and in the course of their investigation they receive a pile of home movies made by the creators of Hell House—tapes which will give the mystery a most macabre edge. Muahahaha! I freely confess to being a sucker for “found footage flicks” (yay Blair Witch!) and writer/director Stephen Cognetti’s little video chiller is a fine example of the genre. Augmented by fake talking head interviews (a photojournalist, an author, a survivor, an internet influencer) the grainy, low-res recordings slowly reveal how things began to go awry mere days before opening night with malfunctioning props and strange noises providing the requisite number of shivers and jump scares—if you hate clowns as much as I do, prepare yourself—while infighting and personality clashes also took their toll. The chaotic camerawork will challenge audiences (hint: not all the frights are caught centre stage) and it perfectly compliments the movie’s theatrical performances. Of course the usual yawning gaps in logic so crucial to these films are fully employed, most notably terrified teens racing between attic and basement with flashlights when there are functioning light switches on every wall (except maybe for one), and no one considers simply running out the front door and never coming back as a viable option. But if you can accept putting your critical thinking on pause as part of the price of admission then this little carnival ride of a film will provide a pleasantly spooky 90 minutes of distraction.

Joy House
[Les félins] (France 1964) (6): When French gigolo Marc (Alain Delon) has an affair with the wife of a New York mobster the enraged husband sends a posse of hitmen to France with instructions to “bring back his head”. Barely escaping his fate, the hard-pressed Marc winds up serving as chauffeur for a mysterious American widow (Lola Albright) and her scatterbrained maid (Jane Fonda). But the widow’s lush Côte d’Azur mansion turns out to be more of a madhouse when the eccentric women begin behaving oddly—the lady of the house talks to mirrors, the maid doesn’t know one end of a broom from the other, and their fumbling attempts to seduce the frenchman appear to be rooted in something much darker than mere sex appeal—all of which give Marc reason to believe he may be safer taking his chances out on the street. Lovely B&W cinematography takes in the French Riviera with all its sun, sea, and palm trees, and the set design crew turn a cliffside château into a carnival attraction complete with secret doorways, hidden tunnels, and an eclectic art collection that ranges from classical to daffy. And that serpentine script, full of curves and deadly schemes, certainly wrings out a few chuckles as an increasingly neurotic Marc tries to evade his would-be killers while simultaneously juggling a pair of hostile seductresses and solving the mystery of their seaside estate. But writer/director René Clément’s stab at producing a Gallic screwball comedy too often falls flat whether due to uneven pacing (it doesn’t barrel along so much as stop and start), some rather silly passages (Fonda doesn’t do a convincing airhead), or the film’s running joke which runs out of steam before it can cross the finish line. Nice twist at the end however.

Last Summer
(USA 2013) (7): Paint drips down a canvas, pale sunlight gilds a pair of entwined torsos, rain puddles reflect a passing couple…and hovering on the periphery classical piano solos are interwoven with birdsong, train whistles, and grumbling thunder. Like slowly flipping through a picture book, writer/director Mark Thiedeman’s languorous story of two teenaged lovers spending their last summer together drifts by in a succession of deliberately staged tableaux where incidental noises take on a sad edge and sparse, seemingly innocuous conversations are but the tip of a vast emotional iceberg. Boyfriends since adolescence, Luke and Jonah (Samuel Pettit, Sean Rose) are now faced with a parting of the ways for the academically gifted Jonah, grown restless in their small Arkansas town, is leaving for college while Luke, who may not graduate at all, has resigned himself to the fact that life will not be taking him anywhere. In these final days, punctuated by moments of intimacy and a few laughs and tears, the young men will alternately cling to one another and acknowledge the distance which is already developing between them—Luke gives an internal monologue on Jonah’s need to spread his wings, Jonah admits to envying people who are content to remain in one place, and Jonah’s mother (Roben R. Sullivant) offers whatever hesitant support she can muster. The small cast put in impressively natural, if somewhat monotone performances which should strike a nerve with anyone who can remember their first broken heart, and an appropriately vague closing shot is as ambivalent as life itself. But those looking for a conventional movie with a lead-in, climax, and epilogue will be put off from the very beginning for Thiedeman is not interested in tidy resolutions preferring instead to concentrate on the emotional processes at work between his protagonists. Using painterly, loosely connected imagery and half-whispered dialogue he creates a series of highly textured impressions onto which we might project our own memories and experiences. Flighty arthouse fare for those with more traditional tastes, but if you can appreciate cinema as poetry it has charm to spare. Not too shabby for a feature-length directorial debut.

The Beguiled
(USA 1971) (9): It’s 1864 Virginia and even though the North and South are clashing mere miles away life inside the wrought iron fence surrounding Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Girls remains a somewhat subdued idyll of French lessons, classes in proper etiquette, and bible study. But a snake is about to enter this all-female Eden in the form of severely wounded Union soldier John McBurney (Clint Eastwood) whom staff and students nurse back to health despite laws against “aiding the enemy”. The women’s ministrations are not entirely selfless however, for the presence of an attractive virile male has stirred something long repressed especially for sexually precocious student Carol (Jo Ann Harris), frigid professor Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman), and school mistress Miss Farnsworth herself (Geraldine Page) a neurotic spinster with a few skeletons of her own. Taking advantage of the carnal tensions he’s created, an unprincipled McBurney tries to con his way into the hearts (and beds?) of his benefactors thus opening a psychosexual Pandora’s box which will lend credence to the old adage, “Hell Hath No Fury…” Eastwood plays against character in director Don Siegel’s moody piece of Civil War Gothic, but his manipulative cad soon crashes headlong into the film’s five strong female leads. Harris is perfectly cast as an ambiguous blend of eager naif and seasoned seductress able to outmanoeuvre her prey at every turn. Hartman, meanwhile, brings a contemporary spin to her role of Lonely Heart turned vengeful Fury in a performance which doesn’t quite go the way we expect. And Page burns the house down as a wilted southern belle whose genteel mannerisms belie the fact she can be more dangerous than an entire Confederate platoon. Mae Mercer, playing Hallie the school’s sharp-tongued slave, provides a Greek Chorus of sorts as she watches events unfold toward their horrifying conclusion. And a noteworthy turn is also given by 11-year old Pamelyn Ferdin whose girlish obsession with the man she found in the forest eventually turns pathological. It’s a jarring, macabre mix of biblical retribution (this serpent finds a host of willing Eves and The Crucifixion gets an erotic makeover) and fairy tale analogy (wolves come in many guises and some beauties are best left sleeping). Spiced with allusions to incest, rape, and latent homosexuality Siegel's film must have caused a certain degree of consternation among moviegoers who flocked to theatres expecting to see the usual “Clint Eastwood Movie”, and for that fact alone I consider it one of the unsung classics from the '70s

Rocco and His Brothers
(Italy 1960) (7): Its graphic violence, including a horrific sexual assault, earned Luchino Visconti’s epic family drama the ire of censors around the world when it was first released yet it begins innocently enough with widowed Rosario Parondi (an excitable Katina Paxinou) leaving the impoverished south of Italy in search of a better life for her and her five sons amid the bright lights of Milan. But time and circumstance will see her grown children take very different paths: eldest Vincenzo marries into a snobbish family which looks down on his peasant roots; truculent drifter Simone (a sulky Renato Salvatori) seeks fame in the boxing ring only to find it slip through his fingers; Ciro, ever the voice of reason, is determined to rise above his situation through education and hard work; and, like a martyr without a cause, Rocco (a conflicted Alain Delon) is forever putting his own dreams on hold for the sake of the family. Only Luca, the youngest, is able to retain his innocence throughout although he’ll learn a few hard lessons about life and living before the story’s over. And at the crux of the drama is Nadia (Annie Girardot, superb) a free-spirited prostitute whose urban mannerisms belie a life devoid of warmth or attachment—when she comes between Rocco and Simone a fuse is lit which can only end badly. Both a political discourse on North/South relations (the Parondis no sooner get off the train than they begin to miss the sense of community they’ve left) and a Greek tragedy of epic proportions as brotherly bonds are broken and a mother’s happiness is dashed to pieces, Visconti and cast skirt that fine line between explosive theatre and shrill melodrama. Some heart-rending moments are beautifully shot in expansive B&W—a fit of jealous rage is almost too intense to watch, a clash on a cathedral rooftop drips with irony, and that embrace aboard a meandering street car has now become iconic—but they must compete with bursts of manic spectacle as brother shrieks at brother and mom wrings her hands while calling upon every saint in the Catholic pantheon. Truly a product of its time, Rocco and His Brothers has become something of an anachronism in its depiction of male/female interactions (and a gay predator) but there are deeper truths at work here which are brought out beautifully in a handful of monologues as one brother or another speaks of integrity, familial bonds, and the endless march of time.

Hero
(Hong Kong 2002) (8): Ancient China is composed of a handful of warring kingdoms but one king is determined to unite them all into a single country even if it means more bloodshed in the interim. Of course this garners him many enemies, most notably three invincible assassins who go by the names of Sky, Flying Snow, and Broken Sword. But when a nameless magistrate manages to kill all three the grateful king, eager to discover how he did it, invites him for a royal audience. However, as the humble magistrate recounts his adventures the king begins to suspect that his stories are not entirely factual… In the same vein as Kurosawa’s Rashomon, writer/director Yimou Zhang’s glorious historical fantasy toys with the truth as an increasingly sceptical monarch tries to piece together what really happened and a trio of conflicting flashbacks leave audiences guessing as well. But this simple plot takes a distant backseat to the film’s sheer spectacle with wild Mongolian locations creating a backdrop for flying warriors and spinning swords, clouds of whistling arrows descending from the sky like a plague of locusts, and acres of billowing silk framing impossibly choreographed martial arts sequences or an erotic tussle between a master and his disciple. Colours figure prominently (providing visual cues as the narrative changes) and Zhang’s poetic license provides a non-stop feast for the eye as an airborne sword fight is partially obscured by swirling autumn leaves that change hue before they hit the ground and mint green drapes flutter slowly to a parquet floor after they’re sliced through by a slashing blade. Add to that lavish costumes and set pieces which evoke a mythical land of misty palaces and stately courtyards wherein an estimated 18,000 extras practically burst the screen with black-clad soldiers and courtiers, and you have a grand piece of Oscar-nominated storytelling which begs the question—what, exactly, is a “hero”?. Superstar Jet Li stars as the magistrate, the sultry Maggie Cheung breaks your heart as the ill-fated Flying Snow, and Ziyi Zhang (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) plays Broken Sword’s adoring acolyte—a mousy young woman with some killer abilities of her own.

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.