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

~ ~ ~ ~

Immoral Tales
(France 1973) (4): In the 20th century a worldy young man tries to take advantage of his younger cousin during a trip to the beach but the not-so-innocent waif winds up turning the tide on him. In the 19th century a pious adolescent locked up by her puritanical mother for having impure thoughts discovers that with God’s help you don’t need a man when you have a cucumber. In the 17th century a Hungarian countess and her dashing squire maintain a harem of voluptuous country girls, but aside from shower room fun and games the noblewoman has more sinister plans for the naked beauties. And in the 16th century Lucretia Borgia keeps it all in the family with the unbridled cooperation of Pope Alexander VI (her dad) and her brother Cesare while their most vocal opponent burns at the stake. Polish bad boy director Walerian Borowczyk’s stab at arthouse porn looks and sounds fantastic with its elaborate sets and period costumes shored up by celestial choral arrangements. Seduction, incest, sexual assault, and self-gratification take to the stage in a series of four vignettes—a fifth chapter was removed and turned into another feature film—centred on female sexuality in all its incarnations (?) However, despite obvious influences by the likes of De Sade, Pasolini, the life of St. Theresa, and the tales of Countess Bathory, Borowczyk’s attempt to turn sordid lead into cinematic gold simply produces a lecherous medley of breasts, buttocks, and bush whose string of extreme gynaecological close-ups and stagey orgasms neither illuminate nor challenge. Just because you can push the envelope doesn’t mean you should, a point this tedious succession of Playboy centrefolds proves again and again.

Merci Pour Tout
[Thanks for Everything] (Canada 2019) (7): Estranged sisters Marianne and Christine are having enough problems already: despite her wildly popular blog on family living Marianne’s own marriage is about to come apart thanks to a former fling turned amorous stalker while Christine’s fizzled singing career has her crooning Christmas carols at drunken office parties and nursing homes. And then their equally estranged father dies leaving them with a real problem. Apparently the irascible old man was involved in some pretty shady dealings and despite his daughters’ attempts to put aside personal differences just long enough to scatter his ashes their father’s past comes back to haunt them in a very real and dangerous way. Director Louise Archambault’s dark Christmas comedy has the look and feel of a Hallmark Channel offering with its perfect wintry snowscapes, soundtrack of soft holiday ballads, and pair of broken hearts (both women have a knack for sabotaging their happiness). But leads Julie Perreault and Magalie Lépine Blondeau play the bickering sisters convincingly enough—their catty squabbles eliciting as many winces as laughs—and Isabelle Langlois’ script hits the right balance between farce and pathos. Furthermore, the girls’ decision to dispense dad’s remains over the Magdalen Islands turns the whole production into a highly watchable December road movie fraught with familial tensions at every comedic turn. Aliocha Schneider is appropriately creepy as Christine’s lovesick stalker (maybe a little too creepy), Robert Aubert plays the world’s worst hitman with a knack for suffering concussions, and Patrick Hivon offers a bit of romantic eye candy as Christine’s biggest regret. Joyeux Noël!

Muppet Treasure Island
(USA 1996) (8): Robert Louis Stevenson’s high seas epic about one young lad’s brush with galleons, pirates, and buried treasure is given a Jim Henson update—and why the hell not?! Bored with washing dishes and waiting tables at the tavern owned by the portly and truculent Mrs. Bluveridge (Jennifer Saunders, hilarious!), Jim Hawkins dreams of travel and adventure, a dream which becomes all too real when a dying brigand (Billy Connolly hamming it up to perfection) leaves him in charge of a treasure map. But in order to find the fortune in gold and jewels Jim will have to secure a ship and contend with all manner of cutthroat puppets and humans… Shot in Day-Glo colours with a rousing musical score and host of surprisingly good song and dance numbers directors Brian Henson and David Lane give their production the look of a Disney cartoon, an effect bolstered by colourful yet not quite convincing green screen backdrops of starry seascapes and tropical islands inhabited by all manner of foam rubber critters. Of course all the familiar faces are here: Kermit plays the stalwart captain Smollett with Sam Eagle as his first mate, Gonzo and Rizzo the Rat are cast as Jim’s bumbling sidekicks, Beaker plays (what else?) a frantic lab assistant, and Fozzie Bear plays a brainless squire. Furthermore, grumpy old men Statler and Waldorf regularly break the fourth wall as a pair of wooden figureheads and the inevitable Miss Piggy does her usual schtick as a jilted lover turned tribal Goddess. And no muppet production would be complete without a horde of nosy intrusive rats, here playing a group of tacky tourists who regard the entire perilous trek as if it were a Holland-America cruise, even disrupting Kermit and Piggy’s big scene when their little rodent tour guide announces, ”And here we have the actual location where they filmed Muppet Treasure Island!” prompting dozens of tiny wee flashbulbs to go off. But it’s a leering, bigger than life Tim Curry who ultimately steals the show as Long John Silver the one-legged pirate with a talking lobster perched firmly on one shoulder, his sardonic grin and infectious laughter making him one of Disney’s more lovable villains. Over the past several decades Jim Henson’s foam and fabric creations have become something of a national treasure and this parody of Treasure Island is but one more big, silly,—and immensely entertaining—testament to that fact.

The Drowning Pool
(USA 1975) (6): In this so-so sequel to 1966’s Harper, Paul Newman reprises his role as the quietly determined Los Angeles private eye, Lew Harper, whose simplest investigations always seem to turn into something far more complex and deadly. In this instalment Harper is summoned to Louisiana by Iris Devereaux (Joanne Woodward) his ex-lover now unhappily married into a wealthy family who finds herself being blackmailed by a disgruntled former employee. But what at first appears to be a simple case of sour grapes quickly spirals down into a dangerous quagmire of corruption, sex, and murder that stretches from the impeccably manicured lawns of the Devereaux estate to the seedier dives of New Orleans. Heavy on bayou atmosphere but carrying little dramatic weight, director Stuart Rosenberg’s adaptation of Ross MacDonald’s novel is fun to follow along despite having all the punch of a dime-store paperback. Every citizen of Iris’ small town has something to hide it seems and the deeper Harper digs the more dirt he uncovers—and the more overdone the performances become with each character taking a turn at either having a theatrical meltdown or snarling from the business end of a revolver. Or both. It does have a pretty cool escape sequence however which required a specially designed set and thousands of gallons of water, and it’s always a pleasure watching Newman and his wife work together (especially when he’s clad in nothing but a pair of wet boxers). Finally, Charles Fox’s orchestral variations of Roberta Flack’s hit song, “Killing Me Softly” gives the production a poignant edge which makes it seem more profound than it actually is. Murray Hamilton co-stars as a ruthless oil baron with Tony Franciosa as a conscious-stricken chief of police, Richard Jaeckel as a crooked cop, and a 17-year old Melanie Griffith as Iris’ whiney Lolita of a daughter.

The Double Hour
(Italy 2009) (7): Newly arrived in Italy where she works as a chambermaid, Slovenian immigrant Sonia (Kseniya Rappoport) decides to try her luck at romance by attending a “speed dating” event. Hooking up with Guido (Filippo Timi), a somewhat taciturn ex-cop now working as a security guard, she finally goes out on her first real date in ages—a date which ends on a very devastating note. But nothing, it seems, can be taken at face value and in the ensuing days a string of impossible incidents and terrifying visitations will leave an increasingly disturbed Sonia questioning whether or not that ill-fated date is truly over. Why are the police now tailing her? Why is there a photo of her posing in a place she’s never been to? And why is she receiving phone calls from someone who is dead and buried? Director Giuseppe Capotondi’s puzzle box of a film weaves elements of horror and psychodrama into a most unconventional thriller which, despite an abundance of hints, doesn’t make much sense until a final reveal provides the key. Shot with an edge of paranoia sometimes bordering on full-blown panic, the director makes great use of mirrors, windows, and frosted glass to underscore his protagonist’s mental fog as she tries to distinguish reality from fiction. For their work both Rappoport and Timi nabbed best acting awards at the Venice Film Festival and deservedly so—her portrayal of a woman caught up in a waking nightmare successfully treads that line between quiet dread and outright hysteria while his dark features and downcast eyes hint at deeper motives. Ultimately, Capotondi’s torturous tale never really delivers on all the twists and turns it promises at the beginning but that’s okay for in the final analysis this is a crumpled love story aimed more at the heart than the mind.

9 Dead Gay Guys
(UK 2002) (7): What do an Orthodox Jewish size queen, a sexually frustrated dwarf, and a high-voltage cattle prod have in common? More than they should in writer/director Lab Ky Mo’s tasteless and adamantly low-brow romp through London’s queer underbelly which unfolds like a tacky bullshit session between Guy Ritchie and Bruce LaBruce. Young Irish expat Byron and his artless best friend Kenny, both resolutely heterosexual (LOL!), make a meagre living doling out blowjobs in the washroom at one of England’s more colourful gay watering holes. With a clientele of mincing old men the two have it made—until they decide to investigate the murder of a notorious local poofter and wind up hot on the trail of a small fortune in hidden cash. But they are not the only ones looking to get rich quick and before the whole kitschy tale comes to a close there will be a small pile of flamboyant corpses left in their wake… Determined to have audiences clutch their pearls as often as possible Mo takes to the screen with gleeful abandon revelling in racial, religious, and sexual stereotypes (a faux retraction towards the end is dutifully recited with a wink and a smirk) while sending the camp factor into the stratosphere with gaudy sets, bitchy queens, a homicidal dyke, and a trio of antique pensioners clucking on a park bench like a dowdy Greek Chorus. And the soundtrack rocks with everything from classical orchestrations to Fats Domino and Motörhead popping up as if Mo accidentally left his old iPod on random shuffle. It’s all sophomoric of course as well as crass and oh-so-insensitive which probably explains why it premiered on Rotten Tomatoes with only an 18% approval rating even though it openend to a packed house at Cannes…the house becoming progressively less packed as the film wore on. So why did I enjoy it more than I should have? Because in this time of Outrage Culture it takes balls to deliver up a tactless homo soap opera and do so in such a way that we can take a long laugh at ourselves even if those laughs lead to eye rolls and head-shaking afterwards. And Mo presents it all in a spirit of crude fun instead of spite, irreverent satire rather than ridicule, and for that I give him both a salute and a stiff middle finger. Just please gawd don’t let him get it into his head that the world wants a sequel…we really don’t need a tenth body.

Die Hard with a Vengeance
(USA 1995) (8): In this third instalment of the franchise maverick police officer John McClane (Bruce Willis, yippee ki yay motherfucker!) is down and out in Manhattan having lost his job, his wife, and most of his sobriety. But after he’s targeted by “Simon”, the the leader of a terrorist group (a dyed and frosted Jeremy Irons proving blondes have more bombs), he’s quickly called back into service. Sent on one telephoned wild goose chase after another by Simon—failure to complete each task in a timely manner results in something blowing up—McClane and the audience are both left to ponder why he’s being targeted and what, exactly, is the terrorists’ ultimate goal… As in the previous two Die Hard films plot takes a distant backseat to personalities and special effects. Bedecked in grimy tank top and blood stains, Willis makes sarcasm sexy yet again with his wisecracking, ass-kicking character wreaking havoc throughout New York City commandeering automobiles, subway cars, trucks, and helicopters while loading and reloading whatever weapon he happens to be holding at the time. And he’s joined by Samuel L. Jackson as the ornery proprietor of a Harlem pawn shop who goes from innocent bystander to reluctant sidekick when he accidentally throws a wrench in Simon’s plans. Willis and Jackson mine a rather straightforward script for all the laughs they can get (although Jackson’s “angry black man” schtick gets a little tired) and watching them crash through rush hour traffic, jump off bridges, and tap dance around ricocheting bullets while tearing into each other one gets the impression that they actually enjoyed themselves. But of course it’s the explosive effects which make you want to stick around and director John McTiernan’s team doesn’t disappoint with car chases that rival The French Connection and an underground subway disaster that just doesn’t stop. Yes it’s a cartoonish caper which couldn’t have been any more improbable had its two protagonists sported capes and superhero leotards, but that is precisely what makes these films so damn endearing. Between Willis’ self-deprecating smirks, Jackson’s bug-eyed rants, and Irons’ menacing attempts at an eastern European accent, this is a big pyrotechnical comic book of a film that requires little more than a 2-hour suspension of disbelief—and maybe some popcorn. Canada’s own Graham Greene co-stars as an NYPD detective tasked with saving a whole gymnasium full of kids.

Just Another Love Story
(Denmark 2007) (9): “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun…” said Jen-Luc Godard once, and with this jet black salute to Film Noir writer/director Ole Bornedal puts that old adage to a most rigorous test. Fleeing a deadly situation she helped to create while vacationing in Asia, Julia returns home to Denmark where a tragic car crash leaves her blind, crippled, and amnesiac. Family man Jonas, meanwhile, has grown bored and restless with his perfect wife and two perfect children; so much so that when he is first on the scene at Julia’s accident and her shocked state causes her to mistake his voice for that of a former lover she met while away he decides to go along with the ruse. Now accepted as “Sebastien” by both a slowly recuperating Julia and her wealthy family (they never met the real boyfriend) Jonas embarks on a perilous double life. But when Julia’s muddied past resurfaces in a most unexpected way Jonas’ romantic masquerade turns into something far more dire, especially when her memories come trickling back… Filmed with a twilight palette of muted colour and shadow with occasional bursts of the surreal as Jonas and Sebastien begin to overlap one another, Bornedal has crafted a dark psychological mindfuck in which surfaces belie true intentions and a knock at the door hangs in the air like a threat. Leads Anders W. Berthelsen and Rebecka Hemse work well together with his character all nervous gapes and hesitant advances to her willful resolve and moments of frightened vulnerability (those scars from the accident run deeper than they appear). And Dan Laustsen’s cinematography wrings ominous import out of overcast skies, uncomfortable family gatherings, and a bitter rainstorm that opens and closes the whole fantastically improbable story. Furthermore, casting Jonas as a police photographer gives rise to some unsettling scenes in the city morgue where naked corpses awaiting autopsy provide a bit of sweet irony. Shot through with violence and the driest of humour, Bornedal’s twisted tale of love and karma goes down smooth like a jigger of bourbon—right up to that perfect final line.

David Crosby: Remember My Name
(USA 2019) (7): Singer, songwriter, musician, and ‘60s bad boy, I must admit that although I enjoyed his music I never really thought much about David Crosby as a person until I watched this insightful autobiography by A. J. Eaton. Asking all the right questions—sometimes uncomfortably so—Eaton hands the mic to the 78-year old musical icon and lets him open up about his childhood memories and first forays into the entertainment industry right through to his tumultuous years with The Byrds, CSN, CSNY, and finally his own solo career. Still sporting his flyaway hair (now grey and thinning) and signature bushy moustache, Crosby comes clean about his self-destructive relationships with the women in his life and the personal pain which led to his near fatal addictions to heroin and cocaine. He also looks back on the glory days of CSN/CSNY with fondness and more than a few regrets admitting that he was never the easiest person to get along with. But that mordant sense of humour comes through in every take as do the remnants of his radical Left sixties politics whether it’s lingering bitterness over the Kent State shootings or the Peace & Love high he received at Woodstock. Now approaching 80 and living the life of a benign grandfather on the little ranch he shares with his wife—yet still fitting in tour dates despite advanced heart disease, diabetes, and a liver transplant—he remains a charismatic contradiction of artistic inspiration and self-doubt, a fact Eaton brings to the forefront using frank interviews and lively archival clips. And above all else, the music. Sadly, David Crosby died from COVID-19 complications four years after this documentary was made.

Can’t Buy Me Love
(USA 1987) (7): Ronald Miller (a terribly young Patrick Dempsey) is Tucson High School’s most unpopular senior while blonde cheerleader Cindy Mancini (Amanda Peterson) is the centre of everyone’s attention. But after a lovestruck Ronald comes to the aid of a cash-strapped Cindy one afternoon she reluctantly agrees to “pretend date” him for a month so he can increase his social standing—much to the confusion of her stuck-up girlfriends and his posse of fellow geeks. However, as their four week contractual agreement comes to an end crossed purposes and romantic misunderstandings have Cindy reexamining her feelings while Ron, on the other hand, becomes an insufferable boor thanks to his newfound popularity. Something, obviously, has to change… This is pure 80s schlock from the overly enthusiastic performances and strictly categorized school body (everyone is either a slut, a jock, a valley girl, or a nerd) to the wonderfully horrid fashion sense—neon leg warmers, big feathered hair, sparkly face powder, and top knot ponytails…oh my! And then there’s the three obligatory scenes shown in every teen romcom from that era: the girls’ locker room, the drunken house party, and the big school dance. But, abashed nostalgia and clunky narrative devices aside, it remains a likeable tale of opposites attracting and everyone getting a great big overbearing lesson on inclusivity, tolerance, and the importance of just being yourself. Dempsey fawns and trips over his own feet with conviction while Peterson adds a touch of insight to an otherwise flat character, and a 13-year old Seth Green twirls a non-existent moustache as Ronald’s bratty little brother whose schemes always seem to end with a fart joke. For younger audiences it’s little more than a fluffy time capsule with a few small offences to latch on to (OMG they used the “R” word!) but for those who came of age when this was still premiering in theatres it’s an entertaining example of how Hollywood thought teenaged lives should be lived. It also left me with one of filmdom’s better put-downs: “She’s given more rides than Greyhound”. Bwahaha!

The Double
(UK 2013) (7): Kafkaesque horror or Wes Anderson black comedy? Or perhaps a little bit of both? Richard Ayoade’s grimly whimsical adaptation of Dostoevsky’s short story certainly elicits uncomfortable chuckles as he tells the story of a clerk who runs head on into his own doppelgänger. Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg, perfectly cast) is a cowering ball of spinelessness inured to being stepped on by everyone—including Fate and his own institutionalize mother. Working days as an office drone in a dreary data collection agency, Simon goes home to a lonely flat where his only stimulation is to spy on co-worker Hannah, his secret crush who lives just across the street. His humdrum existence receives a kick however when his wheedling boss (Wallace Shawn) hires a bright new employee who just happens to look exactly like Simon (Eisenberg perfectly cast yet again). But although James Simon (get it?!) could be Simon James’ identical twin physically he is his polar opposite in every other way. Brash, cocky, aggressively assertive, and wildly popular with everyone he meets, James Simon soon becomes the darling of the company and a hit with all the ladies, including Hannah, and he’s not above using his ersatz twin to get whatever he wants. As Simon James starts losing the ability to distinguish between reality and lunacy—his life and that of James are entwined in some unsettling ways—it dawns on him that his small world is only big enough for one… Much like Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Ayoade’s film examines the duality of human nature with one man split into two facets. But unlike Stevenson’s protagonist neither Simon nor James are so easily assigned to “good” or “evil” for one without the other is bound to fail (or go mad)—James tries to tutor an unbalanced Simon in the art of lying and seduction while Simon gets an overly ambitious James a fat promotion by sitting in on an aptitude test for him. Overflowing with idiosyncratic characters and a satirical bent bordering on smugness Ayoade’s psychodrama never ventures far from the shallows but it does raise some interesting discussion points—is Simon vs James an internal or an external struggle? is blind ambition as punishable as meek inaction?—and for that point alone it’s worth wading into.

Mary Poppins Returns
(USA 2018) (9): Emily Blunt proves to be a worthy successor to Julie Andrews in Disney’s captivating sequel to the 1964 classic about a mysterious nanny who brought joy and a touch of magic to a stuffy middle class London family. Set approximately 25 years later, right in the middle of the Great Depression, the two original children are now adults: Jane (Emily Mortimer) is busy espousing the ideals of the Labour Party and Michael (Ben Whishaw) is a widowed father raising his three well-behaved children while trying to keep the bank from foreclosing on the family home—a fate which seems inevitable given he’s already missed several loan payments and the bank manager (Colin Firth) has it out for him. Then one blustery day Mary Poppins literally floats out of the sky and into their lives once more and nothing is ever the same again… Shot with the same watercolour palette that turns every rooftop and street corner into a pop-up book this is not only a treat for the eyes but also the ears thanks to a slew of hummable songs and orchestrations by Oscar nominee Marc Shaiman which bring the film’s many dance routines to dynamic life. And writer/producer/director Rob Marshall’s insistence on using old-fashioned hand-drawn illustrations alongside a bit of CGI for the numerous animated sequences adds a charming retro touch as characters swim through an underwater fantasia, enter an alternate world painted on the side of a lacquered bowl, and participate in a show-stopping song & dance tribute to books (“A Cover is Not the Book!”) Cinema aficionados will appreciate the clever little “Easter eggs” Disney throws in, children will laugh at the bright crayon colours, and adults will be tempted to cast off their cynicism and believe in “Happily Ever After” if only for a few hours. Julie Walters is perfectly cast as the family’s crusty old maid with a heart of gold, Meryl Streep camps it up as a gypsy cousin who can't tell up from down, and Lin-Manuel Miranda is a ball of boyish energy as a helpful lamplighter and Poppins confidante—his musical talents on full display when he joins fellow lamplighters for a boisterous rooftop hoedown, an intricately choreographed number as much gymnastic event as dance off. But it is two surprise cameos which make you want to cheer when 91-year olds Dick Van Dyke and the late Angela Lansbury prove they still have it—he busting a few moves on his own as a feisty bank CEO, and she as a bewitching balloon lady with a voice still golden after all these years. It’s enough to make you run outside and fly a kite!

The Rose
(USA 1979) (6): Bette Midler overdoes the Janis Joplin schtick in Mark Rydell’s rock ’n roll tragedy about a foul-mouthed superstar whose stage antics and bigger than life persona barely conceal a private life being ripped apart by alcohol, drugs, and histrionics. Decked out in raggedy Stevie Nicks dresses, a frizzy perm, and perpetually smeared mascara, Mary “The Rose” Foster shrieks and stumbles her way from one sold out gig and consequent meltdown to another all the while tearfully professing her need for love and stability. She seems to find both when a drunken one-night stand with a chauffeur (Oscar nominee Frederic Forrest) turns into a passionate on-again off-again affair—until he realizes just how much baggage she’s really carrying. Midler received an Oscar nomination for her role as the booze-soaked emotionally grasping diva but watching her character circle the drain for two hours proves to be a bit of an endurance test even with a sordid backstory from her youth thrown in to help explain a few things as well as add an edge of poignancy to a certain upcoming tour date. However, when she takes to the stage for the film’s numerous full-length concert scenes Midler shifts into pure “Divine Miss M.” mode shaking the screen with a soulful rendition of Midnight in Memphis, a raucous nightclub performance of Seeger’s Fire Down Below backed by a stage full of adoring drag queens, and even though we all know how it’s going to end this doesn’t stop her from bringing down the curtain with a cover of Joplin’s Stay With Me Baby so raw that Pearl herself would have given it a standing ovation. And of course there’s the title song which haunted airwaves long after the movie left town. Also nominated for Best Sound and Editing, the concert scenes could very well stand alone thanks to thousands of screaming extras and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s ability to capture Midler (and her band) in every flattering spotlight. The rest is just generic “price of stardom” melodrama one can read about in any back issue of Rolling Stone magazine…or People. Alan Bates shares the screen as Rose’s unrelenting manager, but whether he’s her beleaguered handler well on the way to a first ulcer and heart attack or a heartless controlling monster is up for debate.

The Artist and the Model
(Spain/France 2012) (5): The often thorny relationship between the creative mind and its various muses is put under the microscope in writer/director Fernando Trueba’s B&W film—a pastoral piece aiming for allegory but settling instead for a series of dry lectures. As WWII rages, aging sculptor Marc Cros (a curmudgeonly Jean Rochefort) is content to simply observe the world around him from the relative peace of his studio in the French countryside. But when his wife (an older, classier Claudia Cardinale) brings home a secretive young Spanish girl she found sleeping in a doorway, Cros’ artistic juices begin flowing once again. Doffing her clothes in exchange for room and board “Mercé” begins posing for the artist and as the days linger on learns a thing or two about the nature of art while Cros—having created what may be his signature piece thanks to Mercé—encounters a yawning void when his Latin muse decides to move on. Peppered with wry dialogue in which the artist delivers mumbling lectures on observation and technique (a simple pen drawing by Rembrandt brings him to tears with its glorious simplicity), Trueba confines most of the film to a rustic studio wherein Cros wanders among half-finished statues of nude women as sunlight falls upon Mercé’s naked flesh. This constant juxtaposition of dusty remnants from the past with a vivacious living body turns an otherwise unremarkable workshop into a psychological space in which an old man’s sensual memories are stirred once again and an artist’s blocked mind is pierced by sudden inspiration. It’s a potent drama which may have made a great short story but as a feature-length film it too often felt as if I were simply watching the plaster dry. Chus Lampreave provides some much needed comedy as the couple’s bug-eyed Spanish housekeeper and Götz Otto points at the transcendent quality of art playing Cros’ best friend and disciple—a German officer whose military affiliation doesn’t hinder his admiration for beauty and the people who can create it.

The Dead
(UK/Ireland 1987) (9): In the bitterly cold winter of 1904 friends and relatives of a well-to-do Dublin family gather for a posh dinner party marking the Feast of the Epiphany. Hosted by a pair of spinster aunts and their niece, the evening is marked by music and dancing, idle gossip and poetry. But as the festivities wind down there will be a few personal epiphanies among the guests: one woman’s fiery politics will be met with indifference, an elderly mother will face yet another trying evening with her alcoholic son, and a random song will force married couple Gabriel and Gretta (Donal McCann, Anjelica Huston) to reevaluate what it is they mean to one another. And meanwhile, outside the home’s small circle of warmth and light, a dusting of snow continues to fall upon the frozen streets. In this his theatrical swan song, director John Huston gathers his family—daughter Anjelica is mesmerizing, son Tony received an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay—to bring James Joyce’s short story to beautiful life and in so doing creates a gentle, candlelit reverie on love, grief, and the multiple little joys and sorrows that accompany the living while the dead are never far away be they buried in churchyards or in memories. At one point Gabriel refers to their hosts as the “Three Graces”, and Huston’s final opus is indeed a heady mix of mirth, elegance, and youth (or at least recollections of youth) given emotional weight by keen observation and a closing monologue which, when paired with Fred Murphy’s evocative cinematography, ends the film on a melancholic note so powerful I was still mulling it over long after the lights came up. One of the more sublime films to emerge from the ‘80s.

Open Hearts
(Denmark 2002) (7): Twenty-something Cecilie (Sonja Richter) has her life gutted after a traffic accident leaves her fiancé Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) an embittered quadriplegic. Now hospitalized and wallowing in self-pity, Joachim no longer wishes to see Cecilie despite her protestations, a fact which causes her to seek some solace in the company of hospital physician Niels (Mads Mikkelsen) who just happens to be the husband of the woman who ran into Joachim. But kind words and a shoulder to cry on inevitably lead to something more problematic when a triangle of love, loneliness, and desperation develops between Neils, Cecilie, and Neils’ wife Marie (Paprika Steen) whose guilty conscience at first blinds her to what is going on. Joachim, meanwhile, is having an epiphany of his own. Uniformly brilliant performances which border on verité realism coupled with writer/director Susanne Bier’s directorial restraint cut straight to the heart without turning into soap opera mush. And the fact that Bier mostly adheres to the curbs imposed by Von Trier’s Dogme 95 manifesto (there’s a few questionable flourishes involving thermal cams and pop tunes) keeps everything emotionally raw and off balance. If it were an American film the script would practically write itself in a crescendo of acid tears and hysterics, but this is European arthouse fare and that means our pat Hollywood expectations fail to materialize. Instead Bier presents a complex psychodrama devoid of villains and martyrs where grief and discontent make abject bedfellows—Cecilie’s misery strikes a chord with Neils whose own relationship may not be as perfect as it seems—while those left on the periphery are caught up in the undertow as Marie tries to hold on to what she is losing and Joachim reluctantly adjusts to his new reality. Rounding out the cast is a superb performance from Stine Bjerregaard as Neils and Marie’s teenaged daughter, an adolescent whose own brush with heartbreak has rendered her even more susceptible to her father’s betrayal. Bier may not close her film on the happiest (or saddest) of notes, but as the turmoil settles and passions give way to truth you realize she couldn’t have ended it any other way and still remain credible.

(Norway 2012) (7): In 1947 Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl set out to prove that Polynesia was originally settled by indigenous South Americans traveling west—and not Asians traveling east—one thousand years before Columbus. In order to show such a trek was possible he and his team built a primitive raft out of balsa wood, christened it the “Kon-Tiki” after the Incan sun god, and set out from Peru putting themselves at the mercy of ocean currents and prevailing winds equipped only with a tiller, a canvas sail, and a rudimentary knowledge of sailing (Heyerdahl couldn’t even swim). In this Oscar-nominated adventure flick directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg give a largely romanticized account of the Kon-Tiki’s legendary cross-ocean voyage (the 100+ day journey is reduced to 90 minutes screen time) in which Thor and his team grow lean and grizzled as they face off against stormy seas, rotting planks, and the thousand little tensions which arise when people are forced to live in close proximity day after long weary day. Oh, and man-eating sharks too. The cast, headed by Pål Hagen as the intense and tightly focused Heyerdahl, work very well together especially given the cramped space in which most of the movie was shot and since much of it was actually filmed at sea cinematographer Geir Andreassen augments their performances with vast panoramas of open ocean, storm clouds ripped by lightning, and undersea sequences featuring CGI-enhanced sharks so realistic they leave you shivering. Finally, composer Johan Söderqvist adds the finishing touch with a majestic orchestral score that turns every mishap and triumph into a momentous occasion. Interesting to note, Heyerdahl’s real life account of the journey actually nabbed the 1952 Oscar for Best Documentary even though advances in genetic mapping ultimately disproved his theory.

(USA 1972) (7): In the backwoods of depression-era Louisiana, sharecropper Nathan Lee Morgan and his wife Rebecca (Paul Winfield, Cicely Tyson) are barely managing to keep their three children clothed and fed. So when Nathan Lee ends up in jail on a trumped up charge it falls to eldest son David Lee (Kevin Hooks) to take his place as man of the house. But David is nursing a few dreams of his own, born out of school lessons and book reading, dreams he is not even aware of until he meets a charismatic young teacher. In a movie concerning an impoverished black family living in the old South day-to-day racism is pretty much a given, but in director Martin Ritt’s adaptation of William H. Armstrong's novel the bigotry is little more than background noise for this is not a film about oppression but rather personal liberation and the unbreakable bonds that exist within families. Taking its name from the Morgan’s old hound dog who somehow manages to bounce back no matter what happens to him, Ritt’s camera follows David Lee’s slow transition from cowed young boy to perceptive adolescent whose exposure to society’s double standards and everyday indignities cause his jaw to be set a little firmer, his gaze to become a little more penetrating. Whether he’s grappling with a copy of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers or undertaking a cross country trek to find the prison camp where his father is incarcerated (“coloured folk” weren’t allowed to know where their family members were being kept) David Lee’s various struggles toward adulthood are as much existential as they are physical. But it’s not about victimhood for the Morgans are a strong, resilient family able to counter hardship with love, determination, and a bit of humour. Nor are the white characters portrayed as slobbering bigots—for while the town sheriff is psychologically unable to see beyond Jim Crow (a sad statement in itself), a respectable widow risks public disgrace and legal ramifications when she overcomes her own innate racism in order to offer the Morgans a helping hand. Winfield and Tyson shared Best Actor/Actress Oscar nominations playing the unbreakable parents—his bigger than life father figure intent on seeing his children get a better life; she embodying dignity and grace with little more than rags and resolve—14-year old Hooks imbues David Lee with a wisdom beyond his years, and composer Taj Mahal entertains as an easygoing neighbour with a guitar. Rounding out the film’s four Academy Award nominations were ones for Best Picture and Best Screenplay.

Night at the Museum
(USA 2006) (7): In order to get his life back on an even track and cement his visitation rights with his young son, divorcé Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) needs full-time employment ASAP. So when he’s offered the job of night watchman at New York’s Museum of Natural History he snaps it up. But the job comes with one horrendous caveat not mentioned in the brochures: once the doors are locked for the night every single museum display suddenly comes to raucous, and very dangerous, life thanks to an ancient Egyptian spell. With the institution’s hallways now teeming with snarling wildlife, animated mannequins ranging from Attila the Hun to Confederate soldiers, and one particularly destructive T. Rex skeleton, Daley has his work cut out for him—if he can survive until morning…and the next morning…and the next… A very cute little family film that only occasionally lapses into saccharine excesses, director Shawn Levy combines high grade special effects with sheer star power to produce a romp that’ll make the young ones gasp while the older folk giggle at some of the in-jokes. CGI lions vie with jade tigers, cavemen discover fire over and over again (while developing a taste for fire retardant foam), and tiny Roman soldiers go up against tiny Wild West cowboys and tiny Incas when their miniature dioramas suddenly turn all too real. Ricky Gervais reprises his clueless persona from The Office playing an equally clueless museum curator, Robin Williams provides a couple of loud yucks as a wax dummy Teddy Roosevelt, Rami Malek is an Egyptian pharaoh with an Oxford accent, and an 81-year old Dick Van Dyke joins Mickey Rooney and Bill Cobbs to prove they still got it as a trio of villainous Museum guards with a plan of their own. It’s magical thinking made flesh and a great deal of fun for those of us still able to tap into that inner child—I didn’t even mind the fact that they eventually churned out not one but two sequels plus an animated third. Owen Wilson and Steve Coogan co-star as a truculent cowpoke and conceited centurion respectively, and Canada’s own Patrick Gallagher looks great in barbarian drag as Attila.

The Naked Island
(Japan 1960) (10): A peasant farmer, his wife, and their two young sons scrape out a meagre living atop a miserable thrust of rock in the middle of a bay. While the little boys care for the livestock, fish along the shoreline, and prepare breakfast (the eldest also attends school), the adults paddle the family barge to a nearby town for supplies and fresh water then haul the water buckets up a backbreaking series of inclines in order to irrigate their modest crops. With their existence so dependant on the passing seasons and the capriciousness of nature, they’re living on the razor’s edge and it would only take one small tragedy to upset the balance—but all four possess a stubborn resolve to survive whatever the future may bring and perhaps that is all it takes. Writer/director Kaneto Shindô wanted his “cinematic poem” to capture “…the life of human beings struggling like ants against the forces of nature…” and his efforts have yielded one of the most serene pieces of Japanese cinema I have yet to see. With but one word of dialogue in it’s entire 96-minute running time Shindô’s B&W cinematography becomes a Zen-like meditation on the various cycles of life, the camera breathing momentous importance into everyday images—a waterlogged pine cone bobs in the surf, distant fireworks burst over a sleepy town, withered plants cling tenaciously to the soil, and a woman’s sweating face dominates the screen as she makes her painful way up the side of a cliff—while in the background the passage of time is marked by sunsets, storms, and harvest festivals. Watching Shindô’s family as they bend with the elements one could be reminded of Béla Tarr’s The Turn Horse. But whereas Tarr’s subjects are slowly consumed by the darkness, Shindô’s protagonists have learned to live alongside it with a grim resilience punctuated now and then by fleeting moments of joy and pain: a Sunday trip into town gives the little boys a chance to explore, a soak in a makeshift hot tub gives mom a tired smile, and a brief instance of domestic violence is born more out of anxiety than malice. Even an explosive moment of despair inevitably gives way to the all-important business of simply living. A small, quiet masterpiece accented by a bittersweet score of strings and woodwinds.