I watch a lot of movies: good, bad, indifferent; all genres; English and non-English speaking; and, occasionally, I write a few comments about those I enjoyed. Here are six mini-reviews, in no particular order. The percentage/numerical ratings in the title fields are from the review-aggregation website, Rotten Tomatoes (where I look for 60% or higher), and the internet movie database, IMDb (where I look for 6.0 or higher). Movies for Movie Buffs: Index lists all my reviews so far posted.
43. The Cement Garden, Drama, Director Andrew Birkin, 1993 UK, 82%/7.1
Well, there’s nothing quite like keeping it in the family, so they say. After watching actress Jane Birkin in Je t’aime mais non plus (reviewed in Movies for Movie Buffs: 37–42), I read up on her and her career and came across The Cement Garden, directed by her brother, Andrew Birkin, featuring his son, Ned Birkin, and starring his niece Charlotte Gainsbourg, the daughter of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg. The story, based on an earlier book of the same name by renowned author, Ian McEwan, tells of four children—two boys, two girls—in the ’70s who try to stay together as a family when first the father dies and is buried normally and then the mother whose death they try to keep secret by burying her in concrete in a large box down in the basement—the titular cement garden.
There are some credible observations of how the four siblings respond to fending for themselves but the main theme is based on the developing and disturbing relationship between the oldest girl, Julie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and her younger brother, Jack (Andrew Robertson). Both are portrayed as mid-term teenagers, 17 years old and 15 years old respectively, and Jack has developed sexual awareness alongside an air of insouciance, laziness and narcissism. As the drama develops, it becomes clear that Jack is looking at his older sister in a way that exceeds normal curiosity and, eventually, an incestuous act takes place.
The film stays faithful to the book and comes across as a dark reflection on how sibling relationships could develop without parental guidance and control. The book, and thus the film, has been likened to a microcosmic version of Goldman’s Lord of the Flies but I see it more as a collapse of unfettered development in a free-rein adolescent world on the edge of the sexual revolution that took place during the ’60s and ’70s. And, by the way, Charlotte Gainsbourg has inherited the same upper-body characteristics as her mother, Jane Birkin, and which are more prominently displayed in some of her later films, most notably, the notorious Nymph()maniac, directed by the controversial avant-garde Danish director, Lars von Trier, in 2013.
44. Creep 2, Psychological Horror, Director Patrick Brice, 2017 USA, 100%/6.5
Astonishing. Mind-blowing. Mesmerising. Superlative adjectives such as these do not do justice to Creep 2, the 2017 follow-up to the 2014 entry movie, Creep, reviewed in Movies for Movie Buffs: 37–42. If you’ve not watched the original Creep movie, I recommend you do so before watching Creep 2 or reading further below.
In the 2014 Creep movie, actor and co-scriptwriter, Mark Duplass, plays the smooth-talking serial killer, Josef, who entices a videographer, Aaron (Patrick Brice, also the director and co-scriptwriter), to record legacy messages for his unborn son on the pretext that he (Josef) has an uncurable brain tumour and will be dead before his son is born. The movie was a big hit with the critics, and with me, and one wondered how Brice and Duplass could ever write a follow-up to equal the brilliance of the original. Well, they have done so. Creep 2, in my opinion, is even better than Creep despite the fact that we now know that Duplass’s character, who has renamed himself Aaron, his victim in Creep, is both a serial killer and pathological liar. His target this time is the vlogger, Sara (Desiree Akhavan), who is making a YouTube video series, Encounters, about eccentric and downright weird people she finds via personal ads on Craigslist. Aaron’s one-day-in-the-life-of videographer request ad is right up her street.
I’ll say no more other than this is grassroot indie film making at its best. The two protagonists, Aaron and Sara, operate hand-held video recorders and the tension rises as we try to figure out Aaron’s game and witness Sara’s growing uncertainty as to what she has let herself in for. Patrick Brice, the director and co-script-writer, has promised there will be a Creep 3 to complete the trilogy. I cannot begin to imagine how Creep 3 will compare against Creep and Creep 2. It’s difficult to surpass perfection.
45. The Ardennes (D’Ardennen), Drama/Action, Director Robin Pront, 2015 Belgium, 58%/6.8
Belgian directors make grim action/drama movies with lots of unsmiling faces and unlovely characters and The Ardennes is no exception. But, it’s a good movie, worthy of your attention. The story centres on two brothers, one of whom at the start of the film, Kenny (Kevin Janssens), is caught in a botched robbery and sentenced to seven years imprisonment. Dave (Jeroen Perceval), Kenny’s older brother, gets away in a car driven by Kenny’s girlfriend, Sylvie (Veerle Baetens). Four years later and following good behaviour, Kenny is released and picked up by Dave who has been made to promise by the mother that he will keep Kenny out of trouble. But Kenny has not yet found out that Dave is now romantically linked to Sylvie and that Sylvie is expecting Dave’s child.
Classic? Yes. Does all get revealed in due course? Yes, but not in a way that you would expect. Kenny wants to return to his former bad-boy behaviour whereas Dave tries desperately to prevent this from happening, all the while maintaining the charade of his seemingly platonic relationship with Sylvie. And, did I mention the runaway ostriches and the role they play? Look for them as the plot unfolds.
Don’t expect comedy or light-hearted brotherly banter in this movie. There’s duplicity, machismo and, ultimately, strong violence but the film is entertaining and will while away 96 minutes viewing time.
46. The Gangster’s Daughter (aka Shao Wu the Bad), Crime/Drama/Thriller, Director Chen Mei-Juin, 2017 Taiwan, not yet rated on Rotten Tomatoes/5.6
It’s difficult to place The Gangster’s Daughter into a standard genre box. The movie received mixed reviews from the critics with some saying it was a straightforward gangster movie made confused by the presence of the teenage daughter; others that it was more to do with father-daughter relationships against a backdrop of former estrangement and small-time gangsterism. I’m in the latter camp. The gangster, Keiko (Jack Kao), abandoned his daughter, Shao Wu (Ally Chiu) at an early age leaving her to be brought up on a small off-shore island by her maternal grandmother when her mother dies not long after. Shao Wu has obviously inherited her father’s genes and grows up as a spirited fearless teenager able to see off school bullies when they mock her upbringing and slight eccentricities (she collects landmine warning signs and unused ordinance), so much so that it is recommended she be sent to Taipei and placed under the care of her father.
Keiko, the father, is somewhat confused by the sudden intrusion in his life of a teenage girl, a stranger since abandonment, and unsure how to react when, for example, the girl befriends a boy and starts staying out later than permitted. She, on the other hand, wants to immerse herself in his life and his associates, most of whom are criminals operating in the world of protection rackets, hostess bars with benefits, and illegal gambling. Keiko is torn between his criminal life and his re-awakening fatherly feelings of love and protection towards his daughter and I found the scenes where just the two of them interact ‘sweet’. I can’t think of a better word than sweet: delightful or charming maybe, but not saccharine or sickly. Shao Wu’s feisty character ensures that these scenes never become artificial or sugary and I empathised with the developing bond between father and daughter.
I enjoyed this movie. The ending is predictable but doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the film. Ally Chiu, who plays the daughter, is what I call a natural actress i.e., her role in the film is close to her own nature. She was nineteen years old when the movie was made, her third since becoming an actress, and I look forward to her performance in more demanding movies in the future.
47. Black Widow, Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi, Director Cate Shortland, 2021 USA, 75%/7.0
Gunpowder Milkshake, Action/Adventure/Thriller, Director Navot Papushado, 2021 USA, 67%/5.2
If you like your good guys to be female, highly skilled in all forms of close combat and use of weaponry, capable of taking out all the bad guys with a merry quip and twisted smile, and yet motherly when needs be, look no further than this 2021 double bill of over-the-top feminist superheroines and righters of wrong. Black Widow, an offshoot of Marvel Studios’ Avengers franchise, features Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson), one of the original former-KGB Black Widow assassins and now a member of the Avengers, and her new surrogate sister, Yelena Belova, also trained as a Black Widow assassin and played with zest by actress Florence Pugh. The sisters are separated from their surrogate parents, Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) and super-soldier Alexei Shostokov (David Harbour), when still very young and after training in the Soviet-Russian Black Widow training program known as the Red Room, go their separate ways—Yelena remaining faithful to the KGB organisation whereas Natasha moving on to become an Avenger via the western powers’ S.H.I.E.L.D. intelligence agency. If all this is confusing, don’t worry. Just watch the movie and be entertained. The story, for what it’s worth, concerns how Natasha and Yelena, initially enemies, team up to take out the head of the Red Room, General Dreykov (Ray Winstone) with the support of their original surrogate parents. The fight scenes are spectacular, the rebonding of the four members of the ‘family’ a little mushy and maudlin, and the story absolute nonsense but, hey, this is a Marvel Studios production and thus 100% entertaining. And, as is the trend these days, the superheroines are super sexy, super athletic and… I’ll let you see what happens to the super bad General Dreykov guy.
Gunpowder Milkshake is similar to Black Widow but sufficiently different to earn a place alongside other superheroine movies. The story relates how professional hitwoman, Scarlet (Lena Headey), is forced to abandon her daughter, Samantha (Karen Gillan), after an assassination that goes wrong, resulting in the daughter being raised by the same sisterhood that trained the mother and thus also becoming a widely-feared hitwoman. The sisterhood resides in a library that has many books with unusual contents nestling in cavities inside and when Samantha kills the son of a notorious gangster, Jim McAlester (Ralph Ineson), she too has to go on the run from the organisation known as The Firm who commissioned the assassination. As you would expect, mother and daughter meet up after fifteen years separation and, again as you would expect, become a team to be feared by all and sundry except Jim McAlesters’ goons, most of whom meet a grisly end in their pursuit of vengeance. Again, similar to Black Widow, the rebonding of family members plays a strong part in the movie but, this time, a cute feisty kid is involved. In Samantha’s botched operation, she unfortunately kills the father of 8¾-years-old Emily (Chloe Coleman, sporting an amazing frizzy hairstyle) and after rescuing the young girl from would-be kidnappers, is moved to look after her, partly because she killed her dad and partly because that’s what superheroines do in these types of movies. So now we have mother and daughter assassins looking out for each other and daughter and cute kid bonding as a new family.
The fight scenes are maybe not quite as spectacular as in Black Widow but Scarlet and Samantha are ably assisted by the three well-trained members of the sisterhood when, towards the end of the film, the goons track them down in the library. The final shoot-’em-up scene takes place in The Diner (a place similar to the New York Continental Hotel, a safe check-your-gun-at-the-door neutral haven for all criminals in the John Wick movies) and is shown in all its blood-drenched slo-mo glory. And, by the way: in Gunpowder Milkshake, all the good guys are feminine and all the bad guys are male. Folks, we’ve come a long way from the days of The Phantom, Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel and all their male superhero successors.
If superhero and superheroine movies are your thing, you won’t be disappointed with either of these offerings. Check your credulity at the door, grab the popcorn and soda, and settle down to be entertained.
48. Bone Cage, Drama, Director Taylor Olson, 2020 Canada, Not yet rated on Rotten Tomatoes/5.5
I thought twice about writing comments on the Bone Cage movie. It’s a raw, emotional, uncomfortable, bleak and demanding drama set in a small rural community of Canadian forest clear-cutters and plank-and-pulp operators in Nova Scotia. The cast is headed by Jamie (Taylor Olson, also the director and scriptwriter), a wood processor operator whose job is to destroy the land of that which he loves—the forest and its inhabitants. Jamie’s sister, Chicky (Amy Groening), is desperate to escape from the stifling career-limited confines of the community but is held back by the need to care for her aging disabled father and by her clandestine sexual couplings with an older married man. Jamie’s impending marriage to a youthful fresh-faced Krista (Ursula Calder) is based on 99% lust and just 1% love and is doomed to eventual failure—‘What do you think is gonna happen to you in five years, huh?’ Krista’s mother asks her daughter. And, to make matters even more complicated, Krista’s closeted gay brother, Kevin (Sam Vigneault), is Jamie’s best male buddy and about to become his brother-in-law. Jamie is a man’s man and frequently indulges in manly horseplay with Kevin. You, the viewer, are not quite sure if these interactions carry an element of homoeroticism on Jamie’s part, or not.
Not much happens in Bone Cage. It’s a story driven by narrative rather than action. Most of the time, it’s about people doing every-day things and having every-day conversations but we can see tragedy looming. These people are trapped, body and soul, in their bone cage and there appears to be no way out. I wonder what the tourist board people of Nova Scotia think of the portrayal of the ordinary rural working folk resident in their state. And that automatic tree-felling, branch-stripping, log-cutting wood processor machine is awesome in its ferocious ability to reduce the beauty of a vibrant forest to a barren stump-littered wasteland.
Bone Cage is not easy viewing. It’s disquieting, full of coarse language (there are 160 instances of the noun, verbal and adjectival versions of the F-word, averaging almost two a minute over its 89-minute runtime), and certainly would not draw you to spend holiday time in Nova Scotia. The film is based on a novel of the same name by Catherine Banks (who assisted Taylor Olson in the creation of the script). I am motivated to read the original book if only to explain a couple of minor plot holes concerning Jamie’s brother, Travis, and his father, Clarence.