REVIEWS Very fine Michael Caine drama with ‘The Great Escaper’; Stylish, solid horror with ‘Imaginary’; ‘How to Have Sex’: a confronting look at raunch culture; ‘Cabrini’ a loving, if long, biopic about the legendary nun

Veteran pair: Glenda Jackson and Michael Caine in ‘The Great Escaper’.

THE GREAT ESCAPER ***1/2 (96 minutes) M
In his final film before announcing his retirement, Michael Caine is effortlessly fabulous in The Great Escaper, playing real-life figure Bernie Jordan who, in 2014, went AWOL from his nursing home to attend the 70th anniversary commemoration on the D-Day landings.

In her final film before passing away, Glenda Jackson puts in an equally wonderful turn as Irene, Bernie’s loving wife who remains at the home trying to provide cover before the truth of Bernie’s disappearance inevitably surfaces.

Delicately directed by Oliver Parker from a screenplay by William Ivory (Made in Dagenham), the film’s sweet tone thankfully never veers into sentimentality; the story remains grounded in the tragedy of war, building to a memorable scene decrying the human cost of battle.

A beautifully etched performance by John Standing as RAF veteran Arthur, who befriends Bernie with a touching gesture of camaraderie, further underscores the life-long mental scars war can inflict.

There are some nicely judged moments of humour as Bernie becomes an unintentional celebrity but these never overwhelm the film’s themes of sorrow, loss and closure.

Proving again how the strongest statements are best made quietly, The Great Escaper is a gem of a film highlighting how war commemorations, however boisterous or colourful, essentially serve as strident statements against war.

To wit: one near-silent vignette shows figures standing on the near-empty beach at Normandy, a stirring reminder of how war can imbue an otherwise picturesque location with the chill of memory.

Bear vs Kid in ‘Imaginary’.

IMAGINARY ***1/2 (104 minutes) M
The style is strong and the ambience creepy as the long tradition of scary movie kids continues apace in Imaginary, a high-quality horror jaunt that’ll make you see cute stuffed toys a whole new light.

When Jessica (DeWanda Wise) and husband Tom (Tom Payne) move in to her childhood home she notes with nostalgic delight how her step-daughter Alice (Pyper Braun) – a movie name that has long been an omen of impending nastiness; Alice, Sweet Alice anyone? – has taken to her old teddy bear, Chauncey.

Things start going off beam, of course, as Alice’s conduct and animated interactions with Chauncey become ever more unsettling.

Well directed by Jeff Wadlow, who does a fine job generating just the right mood of supernatural paranoia – thanks in large part to a terrific turn by veteran Betty Buckley as a creepy-ass neighbour – the film carries the formidable stamp of Blumhouse Productions.

Dedicated to horror films that boast some originality, the studio has largely been good to its word, knocking out consistently good horror fodder such as: Insidious; The Purge; Unfriended; The Black Phone; M3GAN and, most recently, Five Nights at Freddy’s.

You can safely add this one to the list.

Mia McKenna-Bruce in ‘How to Have Sex’.

HOW TO HAVE SEX ***1/2 (91 minutes) MA
Blessed with a caustically ironic title this finely directed, zeitgeist-tapping sex drama dives into the downside of raunch culture as three post-high school British girls join the hormonally pre-occupied throngs at a hot holiday spot.

Looking for fun and hopefully a few casual hook-ups with similarly minded guys with laddish swagger and zero body fat, the girls find prospects in the adjacent apartment with Tara (Mia McKenna-Bruce) becoming entwined with bad boy Paddy (Samuel Bottomley) whose seduction strategy takes them to the beach.

Rather than deploy off-the-shelf clichés about toxic masculinity, writer/director Molly Manning Walker (in a very strong debut) instead opts for a more nuanced engagement with the issues of consent and the presumption of sexual entitlement. Nobody gets off lightly as the truth behind events unfold.

Full of challenging questions and confronting conversation triggers, the film offers unforced observations about excessive drinking, female bonding, blithe degradation – that pool party scene is hard to stomach – and recreational sex through an impressive raft of naturalistic performances, especially from McKenna-Bruce and Shaun Thomas, who plays Paddy’s mate Badger.

(This review ran in August 2023 during MIFF.)

Cristiana Dell’Anna as Cabrini in ‘Cabrini’

CABRINI **1/2 (145 minutes; part subtitled) M
Dedicated to the adoration of feisty proto-feminist nun Francesca Cabrini, Cabrini is a loving and long biopic detailing her dogged fight against anti-Italian prejudice as she and her sisters work to help the poor and starving immigrant souls of late-1800s New York.

Lovingly directed on a noticeably big budget, Alejandro Monteverde (Sound of Freedom) mounts Cabrini as an historical melodrama about bigotry, dignity, morality and political corruption – often all in the one scene.

Propelled by a strong central performance from Cristiana Dell’Anna, who projects a subdued-yet-unmistakable “don’t fool with me” attitude to all the people who give her stick – and there are a lot of them – the film is a punchy, if prolonged, paean to Cabrini in particular and, more generally, to the under-acknowledged truth the people of faith have the capacity to be huge troublemakers.

This, of course, follows the lead of Jesus Christ, whose example instructed his followers to defy authority, especially when it was in the service of his dictates.

By this measure, Cabrini proved herself a heck of a kick-ass Catholic, confronting everyone from the Pope, her archbishop (David Morse) and the Apple’s mayor (a heavily bearded John Lithgow).

The production is handsome – kudos for the film’s recreation of old New York streetscapes – and there’s no doubting the tenacity Cabrini possessed in kick-starting a global network of hospitals designed to help the poor.

That said, the film is a bit of a tub-thumper, with loud declarations about the power of women and the rights of the poor to decent health care.

Still, it’s a good-looking biopic that moves at a reasonable clip and has its humanist heart unashamedly positioned clearly on its sleeve.