A Bad Day to go Fishing (Uruguay 2009) (7): Uruguay’s official entry for 2009’s Foreign Language Oscar is this little secular parable which uses the wrestling ring as an odd metaphor to touch on issues of personal adversity and salvation. Perpetually drunk and quite possibly brain damaged, former world wrestling champion Jacob van Oppen (Finnish strongman Jouko Ahola, built like a bull and quiet as a mouse) has been reduced to touring obscure Latin American towns where he reluctantly grapples for money in exhibition bouts arranged by his manager-cum-nursemaid “Prince” Orsini. Unbeknownst to Jacob however is the fact that Orsini is practically penniless and has been manipulating the fights so that his client never loses, not that the local competition poses much of a threat to the hulking and highly volatile Van Oppen. It is an unlucky day when the pair blow into the village of Santa Maria however for not only does the local newspaperman recognize a scam when he sees one but the man chosen to fight against Jacob is bigger, younger, and being mercilessly goaded into winning by his financially strapped fiancée. As aging champ and desperate newcomer face each other down you just know only one will be leaving the ring under his own power… There is an oily Mephistophelean quality to Orsini (Scotsman Gary Piquer playing a thoroughly convincing Spanish conman) as he chides and cajoles the depressive wrestler into one ring after another. He’s not an evil man per se but rather a benign parasite who lives off of Jacob while at the same time nursing him through his frequent psychotic episodes. The brooding Ahola on the other hand is perfectly cast as a giant man-child who, like his biblical namesake, is wrestling with a few angels of his own namely addiction, mental illness, and the Svengali-like Orsini (Van Oppen translates as “from upstairs”). As their story unfolds one wonders which character is more dependent on the other—or more in need of deliverance—for Jacob always seems to be one step from madness yet it would appear Orsini is nothing without his headline act. A curious mix of low-key drama and dry comedy with a quasi-religious twist or two (a high stakes poker game brought Bergman’s The Seventh Seal to mind) made me think of The Wrestler had it been produced by Wes Anderson.

A Brief History of Time (USA 1991) (7): Even Errol Morris’ one-note documentary style can’t dampen the sense of wonder in this look at the life and passion of Stephen Hawking based on the physicist’s own bestseller. Part biography, part soliloquy, and part theoretical physics lecture, Hawking is joined by family, friends, and fellow scientists as he reminisces about his early life; the crippling reality of living with ALS, the disease which has left him with a vegetative body but an unfettered mind; and his grand theories concerning the birth and ultimate fate of our universe. Narrated in large part by Stephen himself using the computerized synthesizer which has become his trademark voice one can’t help but get caught up in his sense of wonder as he contemplates black holes and exploding singularities from within the confines of his motorized wheelchair. A bit of self-effacing humour helps the more technical discussions go down easily and some vague theological asides are thrown in which seem to challenge God more than bolster him. And of course the inevitable Philip Glass score coupled with the director’s penchant for softly filtered lighting makes all those talking heads appear more cool than they probably are.

A Canterbury Tale (UK 1944) (7): At the height of WWII three strangers cross paths in a small English village: an easygoing American soldier, his British counterpart, and a young shop girl assigned to agricultural duty by the Home Office. Even though they’ve just met it soon becomes apparent they have a few things in common; two are nursing broken hearts while the third still regrets an unrealized childhood dream. Despite the bucolic comforts of their surroundings, this is a village where the realities of war are confined to a troop barracks on the outskirts of town and the occasional childhood game of “soldier”, they nevertheless find themselves drawn to the nearby cathedral in Canterbury where, like the medieval pilgrims in Chaucer’s tales, blessings and a few everyday miracles await them. With it’s unapologetic romanticism and a script that often veers dangerously close to schmaltzy excess there are at least a dozen reasons I should trash this movie. Yet, in spite of these glaring faults, there is a marvelous sense of innocence and wonder here which defies all attempts to discredit it. Perhaps it’s the lyrical cinematography teeming with windswept clouds and sunny fields, or the sympathetic performances that cut through much of the film’s more syrupy elements. The seemingly strict and inflexible nature of a local magistrate provides some astute social criticism, especially when he confesses his own inner fears, and the directors’ attempt to draw comparisons between these modern pilgrims and those of old is intriguing if ultimately weak. A bizarre storyline involving a mysterious man who assaults women by pouring glue on their heads proves to be an unnecessary plot device however and only hampers the film’s pastoral charms. Hard to recommend, but harder yet to simply dismiss. Note: this review is based on the UK version of the film.
A Cat in Paris (France 2010) (7): An Oscar nominee, this delightful animated adventure revolves around a little girl and her duplicitous pet cat who unwittingly cross paths with a criminal madman and his posse of bumbling thieves. Resolutely mute ever since her father was killed, Zoe lives in a comfortable Parisian apartment with her senior police investigator mother, her doting nanny, and Dino her big loveable feline companion. But Dino is not quite the lazy kitty he appears to be for when the sun sets he sneaks out of Zoe’s window and joins forces with Nico, a kind-hearted and strangely lithe cat burglar (haha!) whose been relieving Paris’ wealthier residents of their unwanted jewellery. Isolated both psychologically and emotionally (her mother is too involved with catching the evil gangster who murdered her husband to pay more than a passing attention to her silent daughter’s needs) Zoe follows Dino on one of his nightly rendezvous, meets up with a somewhat flustered Nico, and accidentally eavesdrops on the wicked thug Victor Costa as he plans the biggest heist of his career. What follows is a nicely imagined children’s story with kidnappings, daring rescues, and the kind of mild menace which always ends happily. Graced with bright cartoon energy and a jazzy musical score, A Cat in Paris has a wonderful retro look to its primitive animation—-picture Mike Judge studying under Picasso. A nice way to spend 70 minutes with the kiddies, and guaranteed not to cause nightmares.

A Cat in the Brain (Italy 1990) (6): Italian horrormeister Lucio Fulci turns the camera on himself in this deranged, and sometimes amusing, critique on his notorious body of work. He plays a director of unsavoury “sex & sadism” shockers (more of a cameo actually) who finds himself increasingly unable to separate reality from the lurid script of his latest film---did he really witness a topless woman being beaten to a bloody pulp, or was that just a curtain in the window? Unfortunately, the psychiatrist whom Fulci turns to for help has some serious perception issues of his own. Seeing the director’s predicament as the golden opportunity he’s been waiting for, the evil doctor embarks on a blood-soaked rampage while convincing a hypnotized Fulci that he is actually the one responsible for the rising body count of topless lingerie models. A pretty thin premise for what amounts to ninety minutes of blood, boobs, and body parts all filmed in that delightfully cheesy misogynistic way that only Italian giallo directors seem capable of getting away with. Fulci does challenge our perceptions in a few clever “movie within a movie” ways while at the same time extending a middle finger to those critics who claim his brand of horror leads to real life emulation (are you hearing this UK censors?) Sure to delight fans of the genre while steaming hardcore feminists, it is clear that the grandfatherly Fulci had tongue firmly in cheek. Only in Lucio’s case the tongue is severed and the cheek crawling with maggots. Enjoy!

A Christmas Horror Story (Canada 2015) (7): Director/Producer Steve Hoban was growing tired of the same old fluffy holiday fare being released around Christmastime so he decided to do something about it. The result is this weird homage to all those shockers like Gremlins, Creepshow, and Friday the 13th that had us flocking to the theatres in the 70s and 80s, eager to be scared and amused at the same time. It’s a quiet Christmas Eve in the town of Bailey Downs—but not for long—for this night is also known as Krampusnacht when Krampus, the demonic anti-Santa, comes hunting for naughty children (and adults). As the sun sets over snow-covered rooftops three intertwined stories unfold: a family is stranded in the woods after their car breaks down only to discover they are not quite alone; a husband and wife are terrorized by their eight-year old son who has become very naughty indeed; and history threatens to repeat itself when a trio of nosy students investigating a grisly double homicide become trapped in the very highschool basement where the murders took place a year earlier. Meanwhile, at the North Pole, Kris Kringle himself is having labour issues when an outbreak of undead zombie elves turn his candy-coloured workshop into a killing field. And as the camera jumps between storylines drunken DJ “Dangerous Dan” (William Shatner?!) spins the carols in between bouts of slurred holiday cheer. Calling to mind the twisted sentimentality of Tim Burton, directors Hoban, Grant Harvey, and Brett Sullivan go heavy on the twinkling lights, floating snowflakes, and crackling fireplaces which only makes the copious bloodletting and decapitations all the more side-splitting—right up to the final ninja showdown between Santa and a very hunky Krampus (real-life beefcake Rob Archer…woofers!) Of course it’s supremely silly—especially the basement ghost story—but the effects are wonderfully grotesque and the sense of tongue-in-cheek transgression is infectious. Besides, there’s a wonderful twist at the end which even I didn’t see coming and before the night is over Mrs. Claus get’s called a “reindeer-fucking snow whore”. Ho ho ho!

A Dangerous Method (UK 2011) (7): Canuck director David Cronenberg plays it surprisingly straight in this fanciful drama tracing the increasingly antagonistic friendship between pioneering psychoanalysts Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) in fin-de-siècle Europe. Once an admirer of Freud and his “talking cure” approach to psychotherapy Jung has his eyes opened to new possibilities when he has a longterm affair with a patient he is treating for severe neurosis—the brilliant and intense Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) a troubled woman destined to become a groundbreaking psychiatrist herself. Diverging from Freud’s pragmatic vision of a human psyche buffeted by psychosexual forces, Jung’s forays into the esoteric fields of parapsychology and individuation would eventually see the two geniuses at loggerheads with a fiery Spielrein developing a few theories of her own regarding sexual politics. Historically suspect and with a melodramatic sheen not quite shaken off by its star cast and painstaking attention to period detail, Cronenberg’s film—based on a novel and subsequent play—is still a literate and engrossing work especially when it reverts to its stage roots and treats us to a meeting of minds as Jung and Freud belt out ideas and argue the finer points of what makes men tick. As the film’s weakest link Knightley’s frenzied faces and shifting accent become distracting especially since her character appears to be little more than a personification of Jung’s own troubled libido—Sarah Gadon is far more convincing as the prim and demure Frau Jung who quietly overlooks her husband’s indiscretions while still holding on to him with a lacy fist. And veteran actor Vincent Cassel brings an earthy contrast to the role of Otto Gross, a disgraced therapist whose libertine philosophy of free will and unbridled pleasure may just be the only honest voice around.

A Day At The Beach (UK 1970) (7): Penned, but not directed, by Roman Polanski and then “lost” in a bureaucratic shuffle, this grim little arthouse oddity sticks with you even though it has not aged well. You know it’s going to be a bad day when Uncle Bernie swings by his brother and sister-in-law’s place to pick up his adorable little niece Winnie for a day at the beach. Not only is it pouring rain outside but he manages to knock back a couple of vodka shooters before the little girl has even put her raincoat on. Stumbling from one seaside tavern to another Bernie becomes increasingly intoxicated while Winnie tries to eke out what little enjoyment she can, comforting her uncle with a gentle forbearance that goes far beyond her single-digit age. An angry and self-loathing alcoholic, Bernie carries on an internal monologue as grey and cynical as the stormy weather around him. Not content to simply voice his rage to a deserted beach of seagulls and empty cabana chairs he begins to lash out at anyone who crosses his path, from a crusty old beach vendor to a soft-spoken gay cougar (Peter Sellers in an eye-popping cameo). Even a chance encounter with an old friend, now married and gainfully employed, turns into an afternoon of binge drinking and listless cheating. But as night descends and the shop lights wink out, Bernie’s self-destructive odyssey leaves a frightened Winnie cold and bewildered. In the role of Bernie, the late Mark Burns turns in a phenomenal performance as a man whose demons tarnish everything he touches. Although his character is a loud-mouthed intellectual prick he nevertheless manages to elicit some degree of sympathy even if it’s only a sense of sadness over a life wasted. But it is the diminutive Beatrice Eddy as Winnie who carries the most weight. Seeing everything, yet judging no one, her unaffected innocence and childish wisdom provide a beautiful counterpoint to the film’s glaring nihilism. Lastly, Taylor’s widescreen shots of bleak seascapes and slate-coloured clouds are balanced by a melancholic, almost wistful, score of flutes and harpsichord. But, although it aims for social realism the film often lapses into dramatic overkill thick with angry shouting and jarring close-ups that threaten to alienate an audience already averse to its bridge-burning protagonist. And what’s with the Danish signage in a supposedly English seaside resort? Vague artsiness? Deliberate quirkiness? Or cheaper production costs?

A Dirty Shame  (USA 2004) (6):  It's a film about sex addicts that take over a sedate Baltimore neighbourhood. It stars Mink Stole and Johnny Knoxville (as the charismatic sex guru with the golden tongue). There's a cameo by David Hassellhoff taking a poop. It's directed by John Waters. That's really all you need to know. Choose wisely.

A Double Life (USA 1947) (8): Ronald Colman took home the Oscar for his brilliant portrayal of an actor unable to distinguish between script and reality in George Cukor’s dark tragedy, co-written by Ruth Gordon. Anthony John is a celebrated Broadway performer with a long and successful career playing everything from dreary dramas to light comedies. Still sharing a mutual love with his ex-wife Brita (Signe Hasso), also a Broadway star, John seems on top of the world. But there is a grim secret behind his phenomenal success that only Brita is aware of—he becomes so deeply immersed in every role he plays that he loses all sense of self even after the curtain falls. When he stars in a comedy he is all lighthearted and boisterous, when he tackles a tragedy he becomes morose and despondent—he and Brita were actually divorced while they were playing opposite each other in Chekov’s The Seagull. It’s a recipe for disaster then when John, already somewhat jealous of his ex’s platonic friendship with a press secretary, accepts the part of the Moor in a lavish production of Othello with Brita playing opposite him as Desdemona. With heavy use of inner dialogue and overlapping imagery to illustrate his protagonist’s brittle psyche (at one point Colman looks into a mirror only to see Othello glaring back) Cukor blends elements of Film Noir with bleak fantasy sequences to create a brooding, almost gothic psychodrama wherein artifice and actuality blur and meld. In one key scene a group of buxom wannabes scramble for a part, their desperate voguing and self-promoting contrasting sharply with John’s hunger for reality and in another scene a pair of wigmakers weave fantasy hairpieces while exchanging banal gossip and Cukor once again plays with notions of truth and make-believe. Excellent cutaways to the ongoing play give Shakespeare’s prose an ironic slant, and stage curtains rise and fall almost as if the film itself were being presented in separate acts—which, I suppose, is only appropriate. Look for a very young Shelley Winters as a platinum siren who bears the brunt of Antony’s delusions.

A Foreign Affair (USA 1948) (6): In a divided Berlin following WWII occupying U.S. forces are given the task of maintaining law and order in the “American Section” with strict orders not to fraternize with the populace, especially the women—a rule many soldiers heartily ignore. Snubbing this order himself is Captain John Pringle (John Lund) whose secret dalliances with former gestapo mistress turned cabaret singer Erika Von Schluetow (Marlene Dietrich) could get him courtmartialed—especially if it was discovered he’s been doctoring files in order to help her escape her past. A wrench is thrown into his comfortable arrangement however when a visiting delegation of U.S. senators arrive to observe how the GI’s are holding up in their new role as peacekeepers. One such senator, a headstrong old maid from Iowa, Phoebe Frost (Jean Arthur), takes an instant liking to Pringle unaware of his already established affair. Comedic complications follow when the grasping Schluetow and lovesick Frost begin vying for the Captain who would just as soon bail then commit. Despite director Billy Wilder’s personal grudge against the Nazis (the Holocaust took a heavy toll on his family) he presents the besieged citizens of Berlin as a resourceful lot, mindful of their suffering yet unforgiving of the regime so many of them supported—an offhand comment about gas chambers goes by almost unnoticed. Actually filmed among the ruins of the city, one of the first major motion pictures to do so, he doesn’t try to hide the devastation surrounding his characters as they scheme and cavort past piles of rubble and crumbling walls. Dietrich is in fine form, lisping her way through a few original songs while casting her smokey eyes on a sheepishly attractive Lund whose very self-effacing attitude makes him all the more sexy. Unfortunately Jean Arthur’s nasally voice and obsessive ramblings come across as a really bad Gracie Allen imitation and an otherwise clever script loses steam before the final frame leaving us with a silly ending that is too predictably tidy. At least we’re not subjected to an overdose of Uncle Sam and apple pie. Definitely not one of Wilder’s best.

A Free Soul (USA 1931) (5): Jan Ashe, attractive debutante and daughter to celebrated lawyer Stephen Ashe whose career is on a downhill slide thanks to rampant alcoholism, is engaged to be married to Dwight Winthrop, a man even wimpier than his name (did Leslie Howard ever play anything but spineless mouseburgers?) Enter the criminally dashing Ace Wilfong (Clark Gable, oh swoon!), a notorious racketeer being defended against murder charges by Ashe Sr. When society deb and rakish mobster lock gazes it’s lust at first sight as Jan turns her back on all things decent in order to enjoy Wilfong’s indecent attentions, much to her class-conscious father’s horror. It isn’t long however before Jan’s walk on the wild side begins to take its toll. With Wilfong’s increasing possessiveness threatening to destroy her nice girl image and her mortified father crawling further into the bottle Jan strikes a bargain with the old man; she’ll give up her Ace in the hole if he’ll stay on the wagon. But can father and daughter overcome their individual addictions or will vodka martinis and freaky gangster sex prove too alluring? And what of Dwight, Jan’s milky former fiancé? Will he sit idly by while the girl of his prim and proper dreams is transformed into some ruffian’s sluttish moll? With a stellar cast rounded out by Norma Shearer and Lionel Barrymore I expected more but aside from some implied raciness this is pretty standard melodramatic fare with all the usual ingredients; fallen woman, guilt-addled parent, and one erotically charged bad boy who, if this were filmed today, would probably be cast as a sexy misunderstood vampire.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (USA 2014) (8): Bad City, Iran (actually shot in southern California) is a suburban wasteland where manicured lawns and mid-century homes exist side by side with oil derricks and spewing smokestacks. Trying to eke out a living in this dead end town by trimming rich people’s hedges, Arash barely manages to pay off the bills and keep his junkie father supplied with heroin at the same time. Meanwhile, on the other side of the tracks aging prostitute Atti is beginning to feel the despair of a wasted life—a fact not lost upon Saeed, her cruel and violent drug-dealing pimp. But everyone’s game is about to change when a new face enters the fray—a mysterious nocturnal woman with a penchant for skateboarding and a thirst for human blood who mercilessly stalks the unwary citizens of Bad Town until a chance encounter with a very stoned Arash (stumbling home from a Halloween rave in Dracula drag) opens her undead eyes to another possibility… Written and directed by newcomer Ana Lily Amirpour (but looking as if it was helmed by David Lynch wearing a burkha) this is the world’s first feminist Iranian vampire flick shot in ultra-hip B&W and sporting a phenomenal soundtrack of techno cuts and 80s-style dance tunes. Amirpour’s lovelorn bloodsucker is a refreshing mix of heartless monster and avenging activist (hint: no misogyny goes unpunished) while the town’s human inhabitants are more or less resigned to a fate of broken hearts and empty dreams—no one even seems to care about the growing pile of corpses lining the local culvert. Terribly avant-garde with its off kilter edits and use of fast and slow motion, this little arthouse oddity contains just enough self-effacing humour to avoid being labelled pretentious while at the same time wowing us with some cool visuals and a host of convincingly deadpan performances. But something tells me this won’t be opening in Tehran cinemas anytime soon.

A Hole in the Head (USA 1959) (7): An entertaining bit of schmaltz made all the more palatable thanks to a fine cast of Hollywood veterans. Life just got more complicated for widower Frank Sinatra: the bank is about to foreclose on his humble Miami Beach hotel aptly named “The Garden of Eden”; his gruff yet well-meaning brother Edward G. Robinson wants to take his 11-year old son back to Brooklyn; and his beatnik girlfriend turns out to be a bongo-playing serpent tempting him to shirk his duties and run away with her. Penniless and desperate Sinatra tries to turn his pipe dream of a Florida-based Disneyland (who knew?!) into reality by appealing to his childhood friend—-now a multi-millionaire showbiz promoter—-with disastrous results. He next turns his sights on the well-to-do widow his brother and sister-in-law tried to fix him up with…and suddenly love rears its unexpected head much to the delight of his little kid and the confusion of everyone else. An above average script coupled with sunny tropical backdrops and a cadre of seasoned actors help to transform what is essentially a predictable huggy-wuggy flick into something worth watching. Sinatra’s duet of “High Hopes” is actually easy on the ears but it’s perennial tough guy Robinson, here stepping way out of character, who winds up stealing the show.

A Jihad for Love (USA 2007) (6): From an outspoken gay imam in South Africa, to same-sex lovers in Iran, to a happy-go-lucky lesbian couple meeting the “in-laws” for the first time in Turkey, director Parvez Sharma’s sincere though poorly edited documentary shows the ongoing struggle of homosexual Moslems to reconcile with both their religious community and themselves. Like the gay Orthodox Jews in Trembling Before G-D they face an uphill battle as they tackle fundamentalist pundits and the often ambiguous condemnations alluded to in the Koran. In fact many of the participants insisted on having their faces blurred lest they face prison time—or worse—for daring to love in countries where such unions have been deemed illegal. But all is not doom and gloom as we see homophobic laws being relaxed (or ignored), open minds becoming enlightened, and in one particular sect an annual celebration recalls the affection between an ancient imam and his Hindu lover. Unfortunately the hateful rhetoric aimed at the community sometimes hits its mark causing one deeply conflicted lesbian to yearn for punishment and a “normal” life despite her girlfriend’s loving assurances. “Where there is no hurt, there is no sin…” states one defiant woman and that single triumphant sentence makes more sense than all the scripture in the world.

A Letter to Momo (Japan 2011) (8): Shortly after the tragic death of her father, pre-teen Momo’s mother sells their apartment in Tokyo and the two of them move to a remote island to live with a pair of elderly relatives. Missing the big city and weighted down by a guilty conscience (she had a terrible argument with her father shortly before his accident and the only memento she has of him is a letter he started to write to her but never finished) Momo spends the majority of her day moping about while her mother is at work. But a bizarre picture book she finds stashed away in her great-aunt’s attic, a book featuring drawings of fantastical creatures, marks the beginning of the greatest adventure of her life. Accidentally releasing three goblins trapped within its pages Momo suddenly finds herself face to face with a trio of ravenous monsters and their insatiable appetites for pilfered food and creating havoc. An unlikely friendship develops between the four of them however when Momo discovers their reason for haunting the attic is more benevolent than malicious even if their antics occasionally prove troublesome (one frog-like sprite has a problem with gas). And then two things happen, her mom gets seriously ill at the same time a typhoon hits the island and Momo must convince her reluctant supernatural friends to help her—even if that aid comes from a most unexpected source. In much the same vein as Miyazaki’s vastly superior Spirited Away, director Hiroyuki Okiura's impeccably animated feature film explores the pain of adolescence through the use of fantasy and magic. As his beleaguered protagonist struggles with issues of remorse, identity, and first love her grotesquely loveable guardian angels bicker and fart and try their best to help out even if Momo too often finds herself having to babysit them instead. The underlying theology may be pure Japanese with all manner of ghosts and demons inhabiting seashore and countryside, but the underlying story of growing up and growing wiser is universal.

A Little Princess (USA 1995) (6): It’s 1914 and ten-year-old Sara lives on a lavish Indian estate with her widowed father, the dashing army officer and wealthy entrepreneur Captain Crewe. When the captain is called to Europe to fight in the great war he sends his daughter to the exclusive “Miss Minchin’s Seminary for Girls” in New York City; an opulent boarding school run by a dour old spinster with no time for Sara’s romantic notions of magic and make-believe. Despite their stern headmistress it isn’t long before she has the other girls caught up in her colourful stories, even Becky the little black servant who lives in the attic finds some degree of solace in Sara’s fiery accounts of Prince Rama and his lover Sita. But when Captain Crewe is killed in action and the British government seizes his properties little Sara suddenly finds herself alone and penniless. Reduced to the level of scullery maid in order to pay for her keep, she soon gives in to despair despite a growing friendship with Becky. There is magic in the air however, and Sara quickly discovers that the world is every bit as wonderful and mysterious as she once imagined. With it’s glorious fairytale cinematography and evocative soundtrack of children’s choral music Princess is sure to enchant little girls everywhere; I even found my own cynical old eyes growing a bit misty towards the end. Still, it’s one thing to be gently manipulated by a director, and quite another to be gripped in a headlock and beaten with fairy wings and pixie dust. In the end, the film’s cloying mix of wistful close-ups and syrupy performances proved to be too much for me. If I had only been a few decades younger...

A Matter of Life and Death [Stairway to Heaven] (UK 1946) (10): Every now and again I will happen upon a film so thoroughly entertaining it reminds me once more why I love the art of cinema so much. Such is the case with this wonderful oddity from legendary directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; a giddy romantic fantasy set in the waning years of WWII which manages to combine a heady philosophical quandary with a bit of parody and just enough genuine affection to keep the action flowing smoothly. With his crippled bomber in flames and his only parachute gone RAF pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) must choose between two unpleasant deaths—either be burned alive or bail out and plummet thousands of feet to the English Channel below. He chooses to jump but not before he develops a desperate on-air acquaintance with radio control operator June (Kim Hunter). Making his final leap into the soupy fog below Carter is ready to greet death—and then a most amazing thing happens—he wakes up on the seashore still very much alive and ready to meet the woman he fell in love with just a few minutes beforehand. A mistake was made in heaven when the spirit guide who was supposed to lead Carter to the afterlife (a foppish French dandy who lost his head in la révolution) missed his cue and now the celestial ledgers must be balanced. But despite the spirit’s impassioned pleas to accept his death and go quietly, Carter is now with June and refuses to part with her. But is this really happening or is he merely suffering from an acute brain injury as June’s neurosurgeon friend insists? Regardless, a divine tribunal ensues with Carter demanding more time from the Almighty while on Earth doctors fight to save his life and June looks on in tears. So many beautiful elements make this a near perfect picture from spot on performances appropriately theatrical to a unique vision of the hereafter. Whereas the real world is awash in vibrant pastels and riotous nature, Paradise is a vaguely art deco hodgepodge of flickering aurorae and utilitarian offices filmed in austere B&W with Carter’s explosive court case unfolding in a giant stone odeum teeming with millions of departed souls from barbarian warriors to WAC nurses. And Powell & Pressburger’s penchant for spectacle laced with droll humour has never been more fully realized: an impromptu neurological examination of Peter takes place while a troupe of actors rehearse A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the background; a gigantic escalator edged with statues of philosophers and statesmen shuttles souls into the starry void; and the trial itself pits American zeal against British stodginess in a brilliant piece of political satire. A pure delight for cinephiles of all stripes!

A Most Wanted Man (UK 2014) (8): In the wake of 9/11 Germany’s intelligence organization forms a clandestine offshoot headed by Günther Bachman (the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, brilliant as usual) which operates outside the law in order to deal with threats to international security. Currently investigating an Islamic philanthropist who may have links to terrorist cells, Bachman’s plans are complicated by the arrival of Issa Karpov, an illegal immigrant from Chechnya currently hiding out in Hamburg. Despite a dark and troubled past Karpov appears to be a legitimate refugee seeking asylum in the West with the help of crusading lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) and a German banker (Willem Dafoe) whose own link to Karpov goes back an entire generation. With German authorities breathing down his neck, goaded perhaps by an impatient C.I.A., Bachman must separate the bad guys from the good before time runs out and matters are taken out of his hands completely. Based on the novel by John le Carré, Anton Corbijn’s complex espionage thriller steers clear of the usual “guns ’n corpses” clichés so common to the genre and instead delivers a multi-layered, high speed critique on the price of “safety” in a world perceived to be increasingly unsafe. Inspired by George Bush’s policy of extraordinary rendition wherein persons of interest can be abducted and moved about without due process, A Most Wanted Man pits conscience against political expediency with Richter’s somewhat naïve idealism at odds with Bachman’s staunch cynicism. In a game where honour is relative, both players are determined to do what is right even if it involves questionable tactics and unpredictable outcomes. Highlighted by flawless editing and stark urban backdrops Corbijn’s dynamic international cast make the most of an intelligent script rife with intrigue and an unexpected emotional depth which neither panders nor preaches. A thoroughly absorbing experience.

A Night to Remember (USA 1942) (6): Loretta Young’s luminous smile and Brian Aherne’s sexy good looks are the only memorable things in this flimsy attempt to cash in on the successful Thin Man formula. They play Nancy and Jeff Troy, a happily high-strung couple who move into a Greenwich Village character apartment so he can work on his next murder mystery novel. Before they can even unpack however they are greeted by an entire building of suspicious characters with something to hide and a roaming tortoise that always seems to be in the wrong place at the right time. And then a dead body turns up in their backyard garden and the two wannabe sleuths try to solve their first real life mystery before the police gather up all the clues for themselves. Too many red herrings and obvious plot devices for my tastes but the occasional one-liners and skewed nods to film noir keep it entertaining.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Sweden 2014) (9): Although his lengthy career has only produced a handful of eclectic films, Roy Andersson is still one of my all-time favourite directors. Exposing humanity’s ridiculous foibles through the use of loosely connected absurdist vignettes has always been his calling card and this outrageous collection is no exception. The misadventures of a pair of depressed novelty salesmen (“We like to make people laugh”) provide the catalyst as Andersson guides his blank-faced troupe of actors, appropriately made up in funereal white face, through a succession of deadpan skits examining contemporary anomie and societal dysfunction—a ship’s crew worry over what to do with a dead passenger’s uneaten lunch, Charles XII and his army descend upon a modern roadside diner on their way to defeat the Russians, and a dying woman is determined to drag her jewellery into heaven. But just as he has his audience comfortably bemused Andersson pulls the rug out with a shockingly confrontational penultimate scene in which the activation of a monstrous music box sums up all of mankind’s darkest deeds. Cooly sardonic and drier than dust, this is what a collaboration between Ingmar Bergman and Monty Python might have looked like.

A Raisin in the Sun (USA 1961) (10): The precarious equilibrium of an impoverished black family living in a Chicago slum is thrown into chaos when elderly matriarch Lena Younger receives a life insurance benefit of ten thousand dollars courtesy of her late husband. Coming from “five generations of slaves and sharecroppers” Lena sees this as an opportunity to help her family achieve some modest success in the world. Her son Walter Lee however, tired of being chauffeur to a wealthy white couple, wants to invest the roll in a questionable get-rich-quick scheme hoping that the resulting cash bonanza will establish his worth as both a black man and a husband. On the periphery Walter’s demoralized wife Ruth is tired of hearing about her husband’s pipe dreams, his sister is breaking all the rules by studying to be a doctor while “celebrating” her African roots by dating a wealthy Nigerian and playing dress-up, and Walter’s school-aged son is basically a tabula rasa absorbing everything he witnesses. Taking its name from Langston Hughes’ poem Harlem which begs the simple question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” director Daniel Petrie’s adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s play casts a passionate eye on prejudice, identity, and the cold edicts of capitalism. The Younger family’s various dreams are indeed deferred—or crushed or largely forgotten—as Lena’s small inheritance teases them with promises of either deliverance or downfall. A generational schism opens between Walter’s cynical pursuit of the American Dream no matter what the cost and his mother’s implacable sense of dignity, borne out of her early experiences in the South. The final showdown between them, when it arrives, is both heartrending yet unexpectedly poignant. Reuniting most of the original broadway cast Petrie elicits knockout performances from his three leads Claudia McNeil, Sidney Poitier, and Ruby Dee, while Charles Lawton’s crisp B&W cinematography turns a cramped tenement apartment into a fractured battleground. Pure cinema.

A Royal Night Out (England 2015) (7): It’s VE day 1945 and all of London is erupting into spontaneous parties and conga lines to celebrate the end of WWII. But from the windows of Buckingham Palace young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret can only dream of joining the commoners in the streets for their days are to be filled with interminable receptions and stuffy gala lunches. Miraculously they somehow manage to convince the king and queen to allow them to leave the palace grounds in order to attend a party at an upscale nightclub—and even more miraculously they manage to evade the military escorts assigned to them and head out on their own instead, completely incognito. Overwhelmed by the throngs of people, “Mags” and “Lillabet” quickly become separated and thus begins a royal night of madcap adventures and sobering revelations. As a tittering inebriated Margaret drifts from party to party she eventually finds herself in a notorious opium den on the arm of a dashing officer with only one thing on his mind. Meanwhile Elizabeth, accompanied by an AWOL soldier, scours the city in search of her sister while the two military escorts originally assigned to protect them fret over what they’re going to tell the parents… Needless to say it’s mostly make-believe and nonsense only loosely based on an actual event but taken as a fluffy piece of alternative history Julian Jarrold’s innocent caper goes down surprisingly well. As the royal sisters Sarah Gadon and Bel Powley gape and sparkle like something out of a Hayley Mills comedy, Emily Watson and Rupert Everett play the majestic mom and pop with stiff-lipped aplomb, and thousands of revelling extras give us an idea of what it must have been like. In the role of Jack, the AWOL soldier and Liz’s unsuspecting companion for the evening, Jack Reynor brings a certain degree of gravitas to the proceedings as the sad tale of his war experiences give the future queen something to mull over. Naturally Jarrold had to tread a fine line when embellishing a story about the royal family so not to worry, Elizabeth’s adventures are as chaste as can be (a quasi-platonic peck on the lips with Jack is mostly implied offscreen) and despite passing out in a wheelbarrow Margaret arrives on the Palace steps with her virginity safe and sound. In fact, if it weren’t for the hookers and the dead horse this fun little romp would be downright Disney.

A Screaming Man (Chad 2010) (7): The sin of the father is visited upon the son only to return tenfold in writer/director Mahamet-Saleh Haroun’s low-key political allegory set in modern day Chad. Fifty-five year old Adam has faithfully tended the swimming pool at a posh foreign-owned hotel for years and is now teaching his twenty-year old son Abdel the ropes. Sadly, economic realities see him suddenly demoted to gatekeeper while Abdel maintains the far more prestigious job of pool-boy. Bitterly jealous towards the younger man Adam’s sullen demeanour and angry silence don’t go unnoticed by either his wife whom he has kept in the dark or by Abdel who tries his best to placate the old man while still defending his new promotion. But when the local chieftain begins pressuring Adam to do his part for the country’s ongoing struggle against rebel insurgents he realizes that even though he has no money and is too old to be drafted, Abdel is quite another story… Against a backdrop of civil war in which the piercing drone of unseen fighter planes intrude on almost every scene and television is rife with images of bloodied corpses and patriotic jingoism, Haroun uses one family’s tragic divide to paint a broader picture of contemporary Africa. Adam’s next door neighbour is constantly “borrowing” without ever returning; his village chieftain rattles a fine sword until he actually has to face the enemy; and Adam’s livelihood is determined by foreign stakeholders he’s never met. Furthermore, his prideful decision to put his own needs before those of his son will give rise to consequences he never imagined. “I still believe in God…” says one elderly friend who has just lost his job at the hotel, “…but I’ve lost faith in him.” And as the sun sets on the film’s final frame these words underscore a far deeper despair. Passable acting all around and a natural script that manages to overcome its few minor embellishments.

A Serbian Film (Serbia 2010) (5): Former Balkan porn sensation Milos is now happily settled down with a wonderful wife and precocious preschool son, his past little more than a shelf full of old videos which he occasionally dusts off when he’s in the mood. But there are bills to be paid, a drinking habit to maintain, and a child to raise so when a former acquaintance from the business offers him a gig in a “sexually artistic” adult film for an unbelievable salary he reluctantly comes out of retirement one last time. Meeting up with slimy director Vukmir who shoots his arthouse erotica on a heavily secured estate with armed guards for cameramen, Milos is put off by the man’s reluctance to share details about either the production itself or the select audience to whom it is targeted. Unfortunately the whisky and the money sway his misgivings and by the time Milos realizes that his Faustian bargain with Vukmir requires him to do more than simply fuck (much much more) it is already too late… In much the same vein as Pasolini’s Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom, director Srjdan Spasojevic wallows in brutally graphic violence and degenerate sex in order to deliver a political polemic. But whereas Pasolini’s scatological opus shook its well-aimed fist at the dehumanizing effects of fascism, Spasojevic seems to hate everything about his country from its warrior mindset to the way its people willingly devour one another in order to gain even the slightest advantage. And even though the stark fluorescent lighting and score of subsonic jolts emphasize the director’s sense of despair and outrage, those horribly convincing scenes of incest, necrophilia, and child rape ensure his film crosses the line before it even leaves the gate. Sadly, this overuse of shocking imagery ultimately distracts causing the audience to concentrate not so much on Spasojevic’s shaking fist, but rather on the blood and jizz dripping off of it.

A Short Film About Killing (Poland 1988) (8): Legendary director Krzysztof Kieslowski takes an instalment from his Decalogue series and pads it out into a feature length film about crime and punishment whose graphic depiction of a state execution sent tremors through the Polish government. On the mean streets of Warsaw, transformed into a twilit world of greens and ochres, twenty-year old drifter Jacek is sentenced to death for the horrific murder of a taxi driver. As the young man is led to the gallows his lawyer Piotr, fresh out of law school, experiences a moral crisis as his own personal sense of morality comes up against the dispassionate dictates of the law he has sworn to uphold. Kieslowski is not really interested in motives or courtroom drama here (both perpetrator and victim are decidedly unpleasant people and the trial is skipped entirely) but rather in a seemingly contradictory legal code which punishes murder with yet another murder meant to deter people from committing further murders. He draws uncomfortable parallels between Jacek’s coldblooded preparations as he winds a rope around his fists (the taxi driver is strangled) and the prison staff’s equally mechanical preparations of the noose and trap door, and in doing so he challenges us to condemn one yet defend the other. Perhaps a bit heavy-handed in his moralizing—drunken sports fans proudly beat their chests, a prison priest seems bored with the whole affair, the cabbie has a penchant for hurting animals—Kieslowski certainly pulls no punches when it comes to depicting suffering and human brutality presenting us with some of arthouse cinema’s more discomfiting scenes of death and dying. You may not agree with his conclusions but you can’t fault the power of his argument especially when Piotr proffers a quote from Communism’s poster child Karl Marx, “Since Cain, no punishment has been capable of improving the world.”

A Short Film About Love (Poland 1988) (7): Krzysztof Kieslowski expands upon a theme he first explored in Dekalog #6: obsessive love in an age of anomie. Nineteen-year old Tomek has been stalking Magda, the beautiful loner who lives in the building across from him, for over a year. At first content to simply observe her through the lens of his telescope he has recently begun sabotaging her life in order to sour her romantic liaisons while setting the stage for a series of “chance encounters” with her at the post office where he works. Although his methods are decidedly aberrant his passionate attraction to the woman of his dreams is both chaste and, in an odd way, quite sweet. But when he finally makes a full confession to Magda her unexpected reaction proves to be more than Tomek’s fragile ego can handle. Although the original wielded a greater emotional impact within a shorter time frame, this padded version offers up a few new revelations especially in the character of Tomek’s adoptive godmother, a woman all too familiar with loneliness and regret—her soft-spoken presence underlining the individual desperation felt by Tomek and Magda. A fine chamber piece given further depth thanks to a few delicately placed religious metaphors (“Magda” is short for “Magdalene”…you connect the dots).

A Single Man (USA 2009) (10): It’s Southern California circa 1962; the Cuban missile crisis is looming, atomic paranoia is everywhere, and a new generation of adolescent boomers is beginning to feel the first stirrings of dissent. Against this backdrop of fear and upheaval we’re introduced to George Falconer, a tenured English professor who’s finding his life increasingly without meaning several months after the tragic death of Jim, his lover of sixteen years. Despite the demands of academia and the awkward attempts of his best friend Charley, herself an embittered divorcée, to provide some solace George finds the void left by Jim’s passing too immense to overcome. Emptying out his safety deposit box and buying some bullets for his antique handgun George decides to end his pain permanently until a series of chance encounters with a persistent student opens his eyes to a different possibility. Based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood, Tom Ford’s beautifully executed film is a near perfect blending of art and narrative. Employing long dreamlike takes paired with a score of melancholy strings he manages to evoke not only a keen sense of time and place, but of mind as well; a drunken dinner date with Charley reveals a shared pain while a brief exchange with a young hustler achieves an unexpected intimacy. With extreme close-ups (eyes and lips figure heavily), slow motion passages, and a shifting palette which goes from delicate B&W to radiant colour depending on George’s mindset, Ford imbues the story with a sensuality that is alternately erotic and heartbreakingly poignant. Filled with sadness and longing, but never insulting the audience with self-pitying sermons, the ironically titled A Single Man is the tragic love story that Brokeback Mountain only pretended to be.

A Song for Martin (Sweden 2001) (6): In much the same vein as Michael Haneke’s Amour, writer/director Bille August explores the effects of dementia on a marriage. But whereas Haneke kept his characters at a clinical distance, preferring to let the story progress under its own momentum, August seems compelled to poke and prod us into a reaction every step of the way. Famous composer and conductor Martin and first violinist Barbara fall in love (truly madly deeply in love according to August’s heavy hand) and after groping each other in a hotel room waste no time in divorcing their respective spouses much to the theatrical dismay of Barbara’s adult children—she makes the happy announcement just five days before Christmas as if to twist the knife an extra turn. In the next frame they are cavorting on their Mediterranean honeymoon like a pair of horny teenagers with only a tearjerking background score played in a minor key to remind us that we are being set up for heartbreak. And so it comes after a few frightening bouts of memory loss and confusion lead to Martin’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease which sees the couple’s jolly relationship turn into a harrowing nightmare. In the role of Martin, Sven Wolter puts in a bravura performance as he slowly descends from a gifted artist and loving husband to a shuffling, incontinent stranger in his own home—his blank eyes and furrowed brow offering a glimpse into the mental horrors he’s suffering. Viveka Seldahl’s turn as Barbara starts out convincing enough as she struggles to cope with Martin’s worsening condition first by lovingly ignoring the symptoms and covering up for him, then expressing anger and resentment as she sees all those dreams of wedded bliss slipping between her fingers. It’s when her character morphs into a perpetually burning martyr constantly throwing herself onto the pyre that things go from sympathetic to irritating, especially when she and Martin start making spectacles of themselves at one public outing after another. And then the final reel arrives and August ramps up the pathos even further with Barbara’s anguish turning into a heroine’s resolve while the orchestra gushes. What started out with such promise—the couple’s early desperate attempts to stay connected were beautifully done—spirals into a wide screen soap opera that diminishes any impact it may have had. At most it should get people talking and that alone may be worth the rental fee.

A Star is Born  (USA 1976) (2):  Truly one of the great bad movies from the 70's. With its cornball script and awful soundtrack (I've heard supermarket muzak with more energy) it never misses an opportunity to appall. Streisand delivers her lines as if she were the only person in the room and Kristofferson just looks bored. Mind you, anyone who could actually do a passionate love scene with Babs without losing his lunch deserves not only an Oscar but a purple heart as well. Yecch!

A Summer Place (USA 1959) (8): White people’s problems abound in this soapy upper-class riff on Romeo and Juliet starring yesteryear’s teen heartthrobs Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue. Star-crossed lovers Molly Jorgenson and Johnny Hunter meet at Pine Island, a posh East Coast resort, and immediately rev their libidos into third gear despite their parents’ disapproval. Johnny’s dad owns the island getaway but has fallen on hard times thanks to poor financial sense and rampant alcoholism, a double whammy which his wife endures with the patience of a flaming martyr. Molly’s dad, a former employee of Mr. Hunter, is now a self-made millionaire who’s returned to the Island as a guest along with his wife, a frigid, social-climbing virago who will stop at nothing to secure a place amongst the island’s elite guests, even calling in a doctor to ensure her daughter is still a “good girl” after she and Johnny return from a suspiciously prolonged sailing date. But just as everyone settles in for a long summer of icy stares and innuendo Mr. Jorgenson and Mrs. Hunter decide to complicate things even further by rekindling an old romance via nightly visits to the boathouse. Heartbreak and scandal ensue... Rich cinematography and a syrupy score emphasize a script rife with horny teenage angst, racy 50s-style sex talk, and scads of gauzy close-ups; who else but Sandra Dee could survive a shipwreck with hairdo and lipstick intact? Naturally the film’s heady mix of lust and guilt set against a backdrop of crashing waves seems terribly dated by today’s standards rendering some of its more dramatic moments unintentionally humorous, but despite the inherent corniness and overwrought theatrics I still found it immensely entertaining.

A Touch of Sin (China 2013) (8): “Do you know your sin?!” screeches an opera singer performing the role of a crooked magistrate about to condemn an innocent woman, and as the camera pans across a small crowd gathered in front of the stage their blank looks and empty smiles inform us that his words were directed at a much larger audience. Jia Zhangke’s scathing look at the casualties of China’s economic boom takes the form of four loosely related stories: a lowly miner fed up with crooked bosses and politicians alike decides to mete out his own social justice; a bathhouse receptionist becomes an avenging ninja when an irate customer refuses to believe that money can’t buy everything; a petty crook discovers bullets are the quickest way to get what he wants; and two drifters find employment in a brothel only to discover the grass is just as brown on the other side of the fence. Beautifully controlled despite its underlying rage, Zhangke’s violent opus speaks of the growing disconnectedness tearing at the fabric of Chinese society, not just between the rich and the poor but within the very families that comprise it. Against a barren waste of half-built office towers and grey skies choked with smog his characters strive for some sense of contentment even as they succumb to varying degrees of despair and frustration. It’s a poison pen letter to China’s new elite which nevertheless features some of the most arresting imagery to come out of that country in years; a block of dreary workers’ apartments proudly bears the name “Oasis of Prosperity”, a huge snake slithers across the path of an angry mistress forsaken by her lover, and in a swank nightclub foreign businessmen are entertained by nubile young prostitutes parading in skimpy red army uniforms. And everywhere can be seen religious symbols whether it be a statue of Buddha or a truckload of sacrificial cows. But the old gods packed up long ago, replaced by the new Trinity of Greed, Corruption, and crass Materialism.

A War (Denmark 2015) (8): We must carry responsibility for every action we take and perhaps nowhere is this fact more immediate and harrowing than in the chaos of war. Written and directed by Tobias Lindholm this tightly edited study of one man’s struggle with conscience and self-preservation was Denmark’s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film. While deployed in Afghanistan army officer Claus Pedersen tries his best to look out for the men under his command, going to extraordinary lengths to ensure their mental and physical well-being. Meanwhile, back on the home front, his wife Maria shows the same dedication to their three young children especially middle child Julius who has begun having angry outbursts in his father’s absence. But everyone’s delicate equilibrium is sent spinning when Claus, acting out of desperation after his squad is pinned down by heavy enemy fire, makes a snap decision with tragic consequences. Now facing legal repercussions back in Copenhagen he is torn between the Law (did he contravene the rules of engagement?), and Reality (did he have a choice?) while the presence of his wife and children remind him that there are other priorities governing his life. Impeccably acted and effectively shot with either manic handheld cameras while under siege or slow domestic pans, Lindholm’s battlefield allegory certainly showcases the contradiction of “ethical warfare”, yet its deeper questions go beyond the battlefield. Truth is often what we make of it—indeed, Pedersen’s trial receives an unexpected and morally problematic upset—and sometimes the rules really shouldn’t apply as a lesser but equally momentous decision on Claus’ part reveals when an Afghan family seeks sanctuary at his camp. Subtle metaphors abound—a soccer ball here, a child’s duvet there—and Lindholm ends it all with an enigmatic silence that rings louder than mortar shells.

A Warm December (USA 1973) (7): While vacationing in London with his overly-precious (and overly-coiffed) daughter, a recently widowed American doctor becomes smitten with the beautiful vivacious niece of a visiting African diplomat and before you can say “emerging third world economy” she’s seeing stars & stripes while he explores her dark continent. But alas, fate is not kind to these two lovebirds for it seems the young woman is harboring a terrible secret which threatens their romance before it can even begin. With its soundtrack of sentimental muzak and cloying camerawork that never misses an opportunity to remind us of how sad we’re going to feel at the end, this is the kind of cliché-riddled weeper that usually has me growing new sets of fangs and claws. So why the relatively high score? Chemistry! As the star-crossed lovers Esther Anderson and Sidney Poitier (who also directed) are the epitome of class and sophistication. They take a pretty generic script and inject it with enough flair and sincerity to make all but the most jaded moviegoer reach for the kleenex box or, as in my case, at least mark its location. Without their powerful onscreen presence, December would be nothing more than Love Story with an afro.

A Woman Under the Influence  (USA 1974) (9):  How can a person function in a society where the rules of proper behaviour often appear mystifying and at odds with one another?  How can a person function in a relationship filled with double bind messages and contradictory demands?  Gena Rowlands brings a tragic authenticity to her portrayal of the beleaguered Mabel, trying in vain to juggle all the various roles expected of her and receiving nothing but criticism and scornful stares in return.  Peter Falk excels as the boorish husband--at once denouncing Mabel’s bizarre behaviour and yet secretly encouraging it.  Cassavetes deftly moves his characters towards a painful finale that practically explodes with suppressed rage--and then ends the film with a sadly ironic scene of domestic banality.  An American masterpiece that is perhaps more relevant today than it was 30 years ago.

The Abandoned (Spain 2006) (7): Marie Jones is a successful American film producer with a troubled past. Originally born into a Russian family, she was adopted while still an infant after her mother was brutally murdered. But despite being raised in the West Marie feels compelled to visit her birthplace in order to unravel the twin mysteries of her mother’s death and the identity of her elusive father. However, upon arriving in Russia she soon discovers that her parents’ little village holds more secrets than she was prepared for. Joining forces with Nicolai, a curious stranger with more than a passing interest in her family history, Marie tries to get to the root of what happened in that now abandoned farmhouse where she was born forty years earlier... With a palette of washed out colours and widescreen visions of misty forests, decaying hallways, and dripping zombie effects, Nacho Cerdà has fashioned an effectively creepy ghost story. The usual jolts and jumps are there (an encounter in a cramped closet gave me goosebumps) but the film’s real strength lies in its clever use of light and sound; a flooded basement corridor comes alive with shifting shadows and demonic cries, a curtained window offers a gauzy glimpse of “something”, and a moonlit river provides a final answer. Although the Eastern European cast gave somewhat lukewarm performances, Anastasia Hille’s portrayal of Marie was convincing enough as she went from troubled tourist to terrified prey while the cleverly circuitous plot threw in one twist after another. A nice bit of spookiness to watch in the dark.

The ABCs of Death (USA 2012) (8): Twenty-six directors from around the world were each given a different letter of the alphabet and instructed to make a very short film about death using a word beginning with their particular letter as inspiration. The result is a giddy mix of oddities ranging from the scatological (“F” is for “Fart”) to the outré (“W” and “R” were...different) to the outright pornographic (“Z” is definitely not for the kiddies). With hefty doses of humour thrown in to offset the gorier elements there is nevertheless a couple of sobering chapters dealing with such hot button topics as addiction, poverty, and body image among other things. But it was the two animated contributions which came very close to singlehandedly stealing the show. Although a few shorts failed to elicit more than a blank stare it was still heartening to see so many young artists willing and able to take a minuscule budget and cobble together a four-minute nightmare complete with macabre punchline—and do it with such obvious zeal! Apparently a few teachers were fired for showing this compilation to their classes so don’t expect these letters to be hosting Sesame Street any time soon.

The ABCs of Death 2 (USA 2014) (7): Same premise as the first installment: twenty-six directors are each given a letter of the alphabet and asked to make a short horror film based on a word beginning with that letter. Not quite as entertaining as the first since the novelty has worn off and the graphic bloodletting has become a prerequisite, but with such deceptively innocent titles as “J” is for Jesus and “X” is for Xylophone (trust me, they are anything but) there is still a lot of great gory fun to be had. Look for a rather disturbing cameo at the end of the closing credits! And not to worry, part three is already in production.

Aberdeen
(UK/Norway 2001) (7): At the request of her estranged mother, now dying of cancer in an Aberdeen hospital, twenty-something yuppie Kaisa hops a plane to Norway in order to drag Tomas, her equally estranged drunken lout of a father, back to Scotland for one last reunion. Meeting up at a seedy Oslo bar, truculent father and embittered daughter immediately begin sticking pins in each other while fate seems determined to thwart their every travel plan; from being denied airline boarding passes due to dad’s inebriated condition to repeated run-ins with both the law and a gang of menacing street hooligans. And all the while their guardian angel, in the form of a kind-hearted truck driver who decides to tag along, desperately tries to keep them pointed in the right direction. But as old wounds are laid open and dark secrets revealed on the way to Aberdeen, the mother’s condition continues to deteriorate. There is much to admire in Hans Moland’s dysfunctional road movie. For starters the cinematography is truly beautiful as it shifts between bleak wintry landscapes and teary intimacies, stopping to linger on a vase of wilted flowers in a sterile hospital room or an isolated oil rig alone in a stormy sea. Furthermore, a strong cast anchored by Stellan Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, and Lena Headey keep things from flying off into melodramatic excess. But despite these obvious strengths there is a sense of hollowness to the characters, as if they were only half-drawn. We’re shown consequences without much light being shed on causes; why did Tomas go from the doting father in Kaisa’s single candy-coated memory to the trembling alcoholic drifter we see at the film’s outset? why is Kaisa so hooked on cocaine and cheap sex? and why are they both so angry at mom? A few subtle clues are dropped, and perhaps the rest is left intentionally blurred, but this lack of narrative background robs the film of much of its punch leaving the final dramatic reveal and subsequent reparation feeling contrived. But I freely admit to being a sucker for any halfway decent road movie, a weakness which compels me to overlook Aberdeen’s few shortcomings.

Abigail’s Party (UK Television 1977) (8): Mike Leigh’s delightfully caustic comedy of manners takes aim at the petty mindset of Britain’s middle class, circa 1970s, and fires both barrels...repeatedly. The story unfolds in the living room of Beverly and Laurence Moss, a truculent bourgeois couple with nouveau riche aspirations, as they prepare for an evening of drinks with friends. Using the Mosses and their guests as a catalyst, Leigh proceeds to examine their every prejudice, delusion, and paltry ambition in funny, yet increasingly uncomfortable detail. Bev is clearly a snob who finds fault in everyone except herself although her childless state and acid retorts hint at a deeper dissatisfaction. Laurence is all show and tell as he brags about his (unread) collection of leather bound Shakespeare and cheap Van Gogh prints while bemoaning the “changing character” of their street. Meanwhile their friends Angela and Tony, clearly lower middle class and new to the neighbourhood, make awkward attempts to keep up. Angela is full of vapid compliments and banal non-sequiturs while the taciturn Tony, a low level computer programmer and failed football star, offers up angry monosyllabic responses which become ever more violent as the evening wears on. Finally, the Moss’ politely reserved friend Sue, divorced and obviously monied, arrives with a bottle of wine in hand expecting dinner only to be offered chips and cheap hors d’oeuvres. Her daughter Abigail has kicked her out of the house so she can have a party; a situation which weighs heavily on Sue’s mind as she tries to appease her boorish host and hostess. As the evening progresses and the alcohol loosens everyone’s inhibitions (including Beverly’s attraction to Tony) the stage is set for a series of showdowns culminating in an outrageous ending worthy of Buñuel. As in all of Leigh’s later works, the message is often found in the details whether it be Sue’s exaggerated height (she towers over everyone else in the room), Beverly’s fawning over a tacky piece of pop art, or the distant sound of rock music drifting from Abigail’s party. Cruel, sardonic, and definitely not to everyone’s taste, but as a biting piece of social satire I give this one a firm middle finger, straight up!

Able Edwards
(USA 2004) (4): In the near future the earth’s population is decimated by a “biological contaminant”. The few remaining survivors flee to the safety of a large orbiting space habitat controlled by the powerful Edwards corporation whose charismatic founder Able Edwards, obviously based on Walt Disney, made his fortune creating cute cartoon characters and fantasy theme parks. When the company begins experiencing financial difficulties they decide to clone their namesake in the hopes he can turn things around. They soon find out that the man behind the legends left much to be desired... This movie’s one claim to fame is that it was the first feature to be filmed entirely against a green screen; all the sets and backgrounds either created digitally or lifted from stock photos and tacked on in postproduction. While that may impress some technophiles the film itself is a forgettable rip-off of  Citizen Kane that looks like it was pieced together on a Sony Playstation. The backgrounds are mostly unimpressive (and unconvincing) while the wooden acting fails to deliver any emotional impact. Despite some effective gothic imagery…Edwards' return to his ancestral home is particularly well done…and some nice retro touches that look great in B&W I can’t find much here to recommend. To see this technique used to much greater effect check out  Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and give this one a miss.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (UK 1971) (9): An organ-playing mad genius, an elaborate high-tech mansion with its own clockwork orchestra, and a series of grisly murders inspired by the book of Exodus. These are just a few of the pleasures to be found in this ultra camp horror movie from MGM studios which gained an almost immediate cult status upon its initial release. Determined to exact a horrible revenge on the medical team he blamed for his young wife’s tragic death a few years earlier, the horribly disfigured Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price no less!!) concocts a fiendishly clever plan to kill them off one by one using the ancient plagues of Egypt as a resource. Assisted by his mysterious mute henchwoman Vulnavia—who never wears the same gaudy outfit twice—he employs everything from flesh-eating locusts to ice machines while a beleaguered team of Scotland Yard detectives always seem to be just one step behind. Ostensibly set in 1925 but with mod decor more suited for swinging London (check out that neon pipe organ!) and buoyed by a musical score ranging from Mendelssohn’s “March of the Priests” to “Over the Rainbow”, this is one terribly guilty pleasure from start to finish. Little wonder it was quickly followed by a worthy sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again!

The Acid Eaters  (USA 1965) (5):  When the workday is over there's nothing these big-haired office temps like more than to grab their creepy middle-aged boyfriends and hit the road in search of that elusive pyramid of acid-laced Lego blocks. Eschewing repressive societal demands.....like driving on the right side of the road or developing a dramatic narrative.....these rebel receptionists prefer to spend their drug-crazed off-hours painting each other's breasts and faking orgasms. But when they enter the Styrofoam gates of hell and meet Satan himself (in his ill-fitting devil's outfit) the party REALLY gets going. Far out!

Across the Universe  (USA 2007) (8):  What starts out looking like an amateur high school operetta gradually builds into an unexpectedly  mature piece of cinema with strong performances throughout and a soundtrack that makes clever use of all those classic Beatles songs.  The musical numbers may not always work but when they do they are bang on thanks in large part to some dazzling visuals and Taymor’s overall sense of artistic restraint.  No, there are no amazing plot twists and you can guess how it will all end within the first 15 minutes but it’s the journey  itself that is so appealing.  For those who would accuse this film of being shallow and dull, may I remind you of that other musical based on the Beatles’ music, 1978’s vomit-inducing “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” featuring the Bee Gees.  ‘Nuff said.

The Act of Killing (UK 2012) (9): Director Joshua Oppenheimer lists Errol Morris and Werner Herzog amongst his executive producers and this shocking yet wholly unique documentary certainly bears their influence. In 1965 the Indonesian government was overthrown by a military coup and in the bloody years which followed over one million suspected communist, mainly peasants, intellectuals, and ethnic Chinese, were rounded up, tortured, and killed with full support of the West. But the new dictatorship did not do the dirty work themselves, they hired gangsters and paramilitary organizations to carry out the mass murders instead—men who are still living freely, protected by the government and hailed by some as national heroes. To try and understand the mindset behind the killings Oppenheimer contacted some of the surviving death-squad leaders, now grown into jovial grey-haired grandfathers, and presented them with an interesting alternative to the standard interview: he’d supply them with the technical expertise needed to allow them to make a short film reenacting the killings from their point of view. Concentrating mainly on three men—Anwar, once a prolific executioner; Herman, a gangster with a penchant for drag; and Yapto, a paramilitary leader—what follows is a horrifying glimpse into the minds responsible for the sadistic slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians. With cinematic genres ranging from surreal musical numbers to violent film noir, the men seem to relish the chance to relive the good old days—Anwar brags about how he perfected the art of garrotting, Yapto reminisces on the joys of raping a 14-year old girl, and Herman coaches a village full of extras on how to react to watching their houses being burned to the ground. In between taping Oppenheimer engages the men with probing interviews in which they show neither remorse nor a fully developed conscience, nor even a full understanding of what a “communist” was. Indeed, he films them shaking down local shop owners and rubbing shoulders with sycophantic government officials as if these were everyday occurrences. However, as their film-within-a-film winds down one man begins to question what he did over forty years ago after he plays the role of a torture victim, but his dramatic reaction leaves you wondering whether this is the beginning of true contrition or simply another performance while the cameras roll. As an added note of irony, the closing credits list most of the Indonesian crew as “Anonymous” for fear of government reprisals. Brilliant, jarring, infuriating.

Adam’s Rib (USA 1949) (8): When a battered woman (Judy Holliday, magnificently mousy) shoots up the apartment of her cheating husband’s mistress, injuring him in the process, it seems an open and shut case of assault with intent to public prosecutor Adam Bonner (Spencer Tracy). But Adam’s wife Amanda (Katherine Hepburn), a fellow lawyer who has taken up the cause of women’s equality, is not so sure. Believing the woman was driven to extremes by years of neglect and abuse, and acknowledging that men are all too often acquitted of “crimes of passion” whenever their family or personal honour are threatened, Amanda decides to take up the case for the defense. And as the trial quickly escalates into a cause célèbre for the press, the Bonner’s marriage begins to feel the strain with Adam’s fervent belief in the sanctity of “law and order” clashing daily with Amanda’s sense of feminist outrage. When the jury’s verdict is finally delivered it may decide far more than one woman’s guilt… A cutting edge comedy-drama for its time, director George Cukor’s insightful opus (co-written by Ruth Gordon) features an intelligent script with just enough wit to ease the occasional sting. And the trio of leads are in perfect form—Tracy and Hepburn playing the ethically divided lovers while a timorous Holliday provides the explosive lynchpin that not only rocks their personal relationship but challenges the entire judicial system itself. And to think this film is already sixty-six years old!


Address Unknown (South Korea 2001) (5): Ki-duk Kim’s allegorical potpourri is so crammed with conspicuous metaphors, shallow pathos and forced ironies that it plays out more like a contrived performance piece than a motion picture. It’s South Korea, 1970, and along the northern border a small knot of villagers eke out an existence in the shadow of an American military base. There’s the angry young girl blinded in one eye by a toy gun made from an army surplus crate; the desperate mother living in an abandoned military bus who writes endless letters stateside hoping to contact the father of her half-breed son; the son himself (a Korean actor looking faintly ridiculous in brown face paint and afro wig) torn between two worlds yet shunned by both; the taciturn artist bullied because he can’t speak English; and a bevy of veterans trying to out-boast each other with war stories. Against a backdrop of American jets which hint at a freedom just out of reach and packs of yapping dogs that seem to reflect the unhappiness and cruelty around them, these interweaving stories present us with a rather bleak snapshot of life in Korea’s “liberated” south. Klunky and unconvincing for the most part (the Western actors are horrible) Kim’s ensemble piece does contain some nice visual flourishes and a dark humour which finds its source in life’s smaller absurdities: a man attributes his well water’s sweet taste to rotting “commie corpses” buried in his front yard; a pair of youth’s garner an impromptu language lesson from the pages of a smuggled “Hustler” magazine; and the blinded young girl sports a temporary eyepatch adorned with a distinctly caucasian baby blue. An intriguing idea with a flawed presentation. And, as a cautionary note, despite the filmmaker’s assurance that “no animals were actually harmed” the casual scenes of canine abuse prove to be unsettling just the same.

Adventures in Babysitting (USA 1987) (7): Chris is not having a good afternoon. First her boyfriend bails on their big date and then she gets stuck babysitting bratty Sara, her lovestruck brother Brad, and his perpetually horny bud Daryl. Her evening takes a turn for the surreal however after she receives a frantic phone call from her best friend Brenda whose just run away from home and is now stranded at the bus station downtown and in desperate need of a ride. Reluctantly packing up the kids Chris heads into the big city where a blown tire on the freeway causes her to cross paths with a crazy one-handed tow truck operator, which leads to a run-in with a carjacker, which snowballs into a deadly confrontation with a mafia kingpin, which leads to… Get the idea? And the fact that she bears an uncanny resemblance to the current Playboy centrefold model doesn’t help matters either. Will Chris be able to keep everyone safe, rescue Brenda, and get the kids to bed before their parents come home? One of the defining teen flicks to emerge from the 80s, Chris Columbus’ lightweight comedy about a hapless young girl’s babysitting night from hell may not have aged well but for those of us who can remember a time before smartphones and GPS satellites it’s a pleasant romp down memory lane. From Elizabeth Shue’s big-haired innocence to an early cameo by Vincent D’Onofrio as a golden haired (and very thin) garage mechanic this is pure bubblegum cinema yet I must admit I smiled throughout, especially at the ludicrously improbable finale atop a Chicago skyscraper and the prerequisite “new love interest” final scene. Perhaps it’s a good thing they don’t make them like this anymore, but I’m kind of glad they made this one. Guilty pleasure.

The Adventures of Marco Polo (USA 1938) (4): In order to establish a trade pact with China the son of a wealthy Venetian merchant braves soundstage blizzards and the blistering sands of a Malibu Beach Arabia to arrive at an elaborate backlot Peking populated by exotic caucasians speaking perfect English. Caught up in a series of comic book adventures, the intrepid Marco Polo will eventually ingratiate himself with the Emperor Kublai Khan while at the same time wooing Khan’s ridiculously demure daughter (Sigrid Gurie trying to keep her eyes open). Gary Cooper delivers an “Aw Shucks” performance in what has to be one of Hollywood’s worst examples of miscasting while veterans Basil Rathbone and Alan Hale do marginally better as a treacherous Saracen and jovial Mongolian respectively. With its camp faux oriental sets, cornfed dialogue, and complete lack of any historical grounding, Goldwyn Studios’ box office flop seems more like an ambitious Busby Berkeley musical than a historical drama, only without the welcome distraction of song and dance numbers.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Germany 1926) (7): In a fairy tale kingdom straight out of the Arabian Nights, an evil sorcerer schemes to marry the Caliph’s beautiful daughter by tempting him with a magical flying horse. Thwarted at the last minute by the Caliph’s son, Achmed, the sorcerer seeks his revenge by sending the young man on a perilous journey. And thus begins a string of adventures in which the young prince contends with a sex-starved harem, falls in love with a mystical princess, and teams up with a powerful witch for a final showdown with a volcano full of demons and monsters. Painstakingly reconstructed from bits and pieces of surviving footage this impressive full-length animated feature, one of the world’s first, utilizes metal and cardboard cut-outs silhouetted agains sheets of illuminated glass. The overall effect calls to mind the Southeast Asian tradition of shadow puppetry with it’s heroic sword fights and happily ever after endings. Although primitive by modern CGI standards, Lotte Reiniger’s stop-motion epic still displays a meticulous attention to detail whether it be a princess’s feathery bird costume or the intricate finger movements of a magician casting a spell. Lastly, a stereo soundtrack of orchestral music heightens the onscreen drama while coloured backgrounds set the mood as they shift from melancholy blues to fiery reds. A fine example of the animator’s art and highly recommended to anyone interested in the subject.

The Adventures of Tintin (USA 2011) (7): Steven Spielberg anglicizes the popular Belgian comic strip about crime-solving reporter Tintin and his trusty terrier Snowy and then proceeds to have the time of his life with it. When Tintin purchases an old model ship at a London flea market he inadvertently stumbles upon a deadly mystery involving sunken treasure and modern day pirates. A clue contained within the ship’s tiny mast will lead our plucky protagonist on a wild chase halfway around the world where he’ll do battle on the high seas and fight for survival in a burning desert—evading bloodthirsty cutthroats every step of the way and befriending an alcoholic captain who may very well hold the ultimate answer in his whisky-soaked head…if only he can remember it. Europe circa 1930’s is brought to wondrous comic book life in this motion capture animation epic which combines live actors (looking waxen and faintly disquieting in their generated bods) with CGI animals and candy-coloured period sets. In the lead role Jamie Bell, sporting our hero’s signature ginger hair and elaborate quiff, exhibits all the wide-eyed wonder you’d expect while a cast of mainstays from comedy and drama circles huff and puff their way through a roster of elaborately overdone support characters. But, while the impeccable special effects left me reeling—a pair of flaming ships battling it out in a hurricane was superbly done and a giddy dash through a quasi-mystical sultanate must have looked awesome in 3D—Spielberg’s continuous attempts to ramp up the excitement with one dizzying chase sequence after another become tiresome while a quaint little non-ending practically screams “Sequel!” Apparently it’s due in 2016 but I’m not holding my breath.

Advise & Consent (USA 1962) (10): Otto Preminger’s searing adaptation of Allen Drury’s politically charged novel is just as pertinent today as it was at the height of the Cold War. When the ailing U.S. President elects Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) to be his Secretary of State it does not come without controversy. Leffingwell’s belief in detente over military posturing rankles more than a few senators especially Seabright Cooley of South Carolina (a drawling Charles Laughton in his final role) who’s also nursing a personal vendetta against the man. As Cooley’s opposition becomes more vocal a Senate sub-committee to determine Leffingwell’s suitability is convened headed by an idealistic young senator from Utah, Brigham Anderson (Don Murray). But when troubling information from Leffingwell’s past threatens to surface despite the President’s attempts to block it, the naïve yet conscientious Anderson comes to realize just how ruthless Washington politicking can be as his own dirty laundry comes back to haunt him. Drury based his characters on real politicians (Peter Lawford’s womanizing schemer is a stand-in for JFK while George Grizzard’s unscrupulous senator from Wyoming has Joseph McCarthy written all over him) and many of the events taking place in the novel were loosely based on real life incidents. In Preminger’s capable hands this attention to detail gives rise to an engrossing and wholly believable tale of underhanded deals, misguided patriotism, and the type of self-serving backstabbing that seems to be a Washington mainstay. Anti-communist rhetoric echoes back to the witch hunts of the 1950’s—the recently coined logo “In God We Trust” looms prominently over the senate chamber and Preminger never misses a chance to throw a bit of dirt onto that sentiment whether it’s a prostitute sneaking out of a senator’s hotel room or a rich socialite wining, dining, and screwing her way into the Capitol’s inner circle. Crisp B&W cinematography renders D.C. in all it’s tree-lined glory and a host of stand-out performances give the film the immediacy of a live stage production only slightly marred by a stars ’n stripes ending. Lew Ayres, Walter Pidgeon, Gene Tierney, and Burgess Meredith round out the cast and a very prim Betty White makes her screen debut as a no-nonsense representative from Kansas.

Aelita: The Queen of Mars (USSR 1924) (4): In 1921 the world receives a mysterious message from Mars consisting of just three words, "Anta Odeli Uta". It's enough to fire the imagination of Engineer Los who immediately begins plans for a rocket ship to take him to the red planet. Meanwhile on Mars, Queen Aelita has fallen in love with Los thanks to a powerful new telescope which allows her to see his every move. But the way to Mars is rocky indeed for Los' marriage is in trouble as his wife seems to be flirting with a member of the old aristocracy, Aelita's own Martian suitor is insanely jealous, and Mother Russia is filled with penniless peasants as she slowly recovers from the events of 1917. Accompanied by his revolutionary friend and a dogged detective Los eventually makes his way to Aelita's side where he finds the unibrowed beauty and her dictator father reigning Tsar-like over a population of oppressed workers just itching for liberation. Billed as the first Russian sci-fi film Aelita plays more like a slapdash soviet bedtime story complete with Communist grandstanding and hammer & sickle symbolism. The impressionistic Martian sets are pretty cool though consisting of swirling staircases and asymmetrical constructs while the the native dress code is a kitschy blend of King Tut and Lego blocks with elaborate headdresses made out of chicken wire and radio parts. A curious little tidbit that plays way too long and culminates in one of the corniest endings I've yet to see. Doesn't come within a light year of Metropolis.

Affliction (USA 1997) (8): The sins of the father are visited upon the son in this dark and pessimistic American tragedy. As a child, small town cop Wade Whitehouse bore the brunt of his alcoholic father’s physical and emotional violence. Now an adult he still struggles with the legacy of rage and self-doubt he inherited from the old man while his more fortunate siblings have managed to move on; his brother to the emotionally detached world of academia and his sister to the comforting illusion of religion. Still bitter over a messy divorce and desperately trying to mend bridges between himself and his estranged daughter, Wade feels increasingly set upon from all sides; even the tender embraces of his new girlfriend, a much needed psychological lifeline, go largely unheeded. But when a big city businessman dies in a mysterious “hunting accident” while prowling the local woods, Wade’s initial suspicion that a murder has been committed grows into a full-blown conspiracy theory as former friends and acquaintances begin to turn against him. Is there really more to the man’s death than what is contained in the official report? Or is Wade’s grip on reality slowly loosening as persistent childhood flashbacks coupled with a pathological need to prove his worth begin to cloud his judgment? In the hands of his three brilliant leads, director Paul Schrader takes what could have been a maudlin psychodrama and turns it into a piercing study of one man’s private hell. As father and son, James Coburn and Nick Nolte dance around each other like two sides of the same coin. Nolte traces Wade’s sad disintegration with an intensity that’s painful to watch, while Coburn’s portrayal of the family patriarch spitting fire and venom even as his body crumbles went on to win a well deserved Oscar. Meanwhile, in the role of the girlfriend, Sissy Spacek displays a convincing mix of heartbreak, bewilderment and, ultimately, a muted horror. It all culminates in a suitably operatic finale while a cool voiceover ties up the loose ends and provides a dispassionate eulogy of sorts. Cruel, unsentimental, and completely engrossing.

The African Queen (USA 1951) (8): In east Africa, circa 1914, a somewhat priggish missionary and her equally dour minister brother have devoted their lives to converting the local natives. Unfortunately WWI is looming on the horizon and their backwater idyll is soon beset upon by the advancing German infantry who leave a swath of devastation and burning villages in their wake. With her brother dead and the locals rounded up for military duty Rose Sayer has no choice but to escape downriver with Chris Allnut, the scruffy yet amiable captain of a ramshackle steamboat. Braving rapids, wild animals and sniper attacks they not only hatch an ingenious scheme to thwart the German high command but slowly discover they like each other more than they thought. Unique for it’s use of actual African locations (though much filming was also done on British sound stages) this is one of Hollywood’s most iconic romantic adventure stories. If the plot is somewhat facile and the ending wholly contrived, director John Huston more than makes up for it with gorgeous technicolour cinematography and a brilliant script by the late James Agee. Furthermore, the combined star power of Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart ensures The African Queen a permanent place in the realm of cinema classics.

Aftermath/Genesis (Spain 1994) (8): “Death has its price…” says the subtitle of director Nacho Cerdà’s amazing and abhorrent pair of horror shorts which sprang from his twin fascinations with death and autopsies. In Aftermath a pair of morgue attendants take an unusually cavalier attitude when carving up the bodies entrusted to their care, but when one of the men finds himself alone with the corpse of a once very beautiful (and now very mangled) young woman…well…boys will be boys. One prolonged and horrifically graphic scene of organ fondling, mortuary S&M, and full on missionary-style necrophilia later and he’s ready for bed—but not before grabbing a doggy bag for his hungry Rottweiler. “I wanted to present a nightmare from which the audience can never wake up” states a painfully young Cerdà in a post-production interview. Lines were crossed. In Genesis however, Cerdà puts aside the butcher knives and vaseline and flexes his artistic muscles instead as he presents a beautifully lyrical and almost unbearably sad tale of love and grief. After losing his wife in a fatal car crash, a heartbroken artist fashions a life-sized statue in her image. But as his work nears completion he finds the sculpture taking on a life of its own even as his own life takes a drastically different path. Graced by a soundtrack of soft classics and mournful chorales Genesis certainly surpasses the pornographic gore of Aftermath (which nevertheless contains a jarring artistry of its own). Considering Cerdà had just graduated from film school though, both short features display a surprisingly mature use of sound, lighting, and camerawork (with no dialogue) in order to set moods which swing from grotesque nihilism to poignant melancholy.

After Porn Ends (USA 2010) (7): What happens to porn stars after they get old and their careers end? Director Bryce Wagoner manages to gather a who’s who of adult actors from the 70s, 80s, and 90s for this telling “where are they now” documentary which challenges many of the myths surrounding the porn industry and the people who work in it. With a couple of expert talking heads including a UCLA psychologist, controversial journalist Luke Ford, and former star turned advocate Bill Margold providing context, Wagoner sets up his camera and lets his subjects talk about their lives before, during, and after porn. As it turns out their reasons for entering the industry are not as varied as one would expect with tales of rebellion, abuse, and the lure of quick cash more common than not, or as Margold succinctly sums it up, the need for “recognition, validation, and credibility”. But far from the “broken twisted lives” portrayed by a deeply cynical Ford (who, ironically, runs a few adult sites of his own) life after porn for these people is surprisingly varied. Despite their past occasionally blindsiding them (“X is forever” warns a few insiders) many have managed to move on and reinvent themselves: superstar John Leslie engaged in his twin passions of music and painting before succumbing to a heart attack in 2010, actress Mary Carey ran for California governor (she came in 10th), actress/producer/director/writer Asia Carrera is a single mother and MENSA member living in Utah, and actor Richard Pacheco, who once considered becoming a rabbi, is an author and artiste. Sadly other stories were not as successful with drugs, alcohol, and abusive relationships the norm while others found another addiction of sorts in religious fundamentalism thus giving rise to the “Pink Cross” bible ministries aimed at “healing lives from porn”. There is a strange disconnect evident amongst those that fared poorly after leaving their careers—they talk longingly of change and hope yet their furtive mannerisms, surgically enhanced chests, and collagen lips seem to tell a different story; no surprise then that many of them ended up back in front of the camera. Overall a fair and even-handed approach to people who work in an area of entertainment which, as many are quick to point out, still carries a lasting stigma even in this day and age.

After the Wedding (Denmark 2006) (6): Jacob, a Danish man running an orphanage in India, is promised a large donation from a wealthy businessman providing he returns to Denmark to receive it personally. Upon his arrival the tycoon invites him to his daughter’s wedding and before you can say “Skoal” skeletons begin flying out of closets and hidden agendas are laid bare. Jacob is disgusted by the lies and subterfuge he encounters but before he can return to India the businessman makes him one final offer he can’t refuse... Bier deftly contrasts the material poverty of an Indian slum with the emotional poverty of an upper class family half a world away. She doesn’t judge her characters too harshly, after all everyone has a reason for being dishonest, but neither does she excuse them. In the end we are left watching a group of bumbling adults tripping over their own good intentions as they try to make peace with one another. There is a good premise here and some good performances. Furthermore the camerawork has a refreshingly natural feel to it that gives the story a sense of immediacy. I also appreciated Bier’s occasional use of wry humour…..the drunken billionaire sitting in his office surrounded by trophy heads was especially effective. Unfortunately she asks us to accept too much on faith…..some aspects of the story are not credible and some of the “coincidences” are a bit contrived. She puts too much on one plate when a minimalist approach would have proven more effective. Alas, this is the type of crowd-pleasing soap opera that is always credited with being far more profound than it really is.

The Age of Stupid (UK 2009) (8): Set on a pollution-ravaged Earth circa 2065 this quasi-documentary/sci-fi hybrid stars Pete Postlethwaite as the embittered curator of the "Global Archives"; a stronghold off the coast of Norway built to house the last remnants of terrestrial life as well as the bulk of human knowledge. Looking back on the "Age of Stupid" (1950 - present) he pieces together what led up to the world's ecological and social collapse; a mixture of short-sightedness, corporate greed and unchecked consumerism. In the words of one 80-year old mountain guide, filmed as he gazed upon a shrinking glacier, “We knew how to profit but not how to protect...” A winning combination of actual news and documentary footage coupled with comic book effects which, unfortunately, will only be seen by those who already believe its dire message. Unsettling.

Agnes and His Brothers (Germany 2004) (6):  Oskar Roehler’s overly ambitious family drama follows the separate stories of three adult siblings from the highly dysfunctional Tschirner clan.  Eldest brother Werner, a successful politician, is slowly going mad thanks in large part to his emotionally frigid wife and loveless marriage.  To make matters worse his snotty son, who seems uncomfortably close to mom, is not only videotaping his mental unraveling but growing a healthy crop of pot in the couple’s front yard to boot.  Middle brother Hans-Jörg is an alcoholic sex addict and chronic masturbator whose monomaniacal obsession with women causes him to lose his job, his dignity, and  quite possibly his sanity.  Lastly there is little brother “Agnes” now a marginalized transsexual involved in a violent relationship who may or may not be harbouring a traumatic secret from her childhood.  Their unhappy adulthoods seem to be related to their slovenly hippy of a father and his child-rearing practices which left much to be desired.  With resentments all around and tensions becoming unbearable, the only pressing question is who will snap first.  This is a dark bit of filmmaking whose occasional flashes of weak sunlight do little to dispel the gloom.  Although the main performances are uniformly excellent the script is woefully short on substance, as if loud histrionics and thumbnail characterizations should be enough to carry us along.  Roehler asks us to fill in too many narrative gaps and leaves the role of the father, which is pivotal to an understanding of the story, weak and poorly developed.  Furthermore, the siblings’ unique tales fail to overlap but run parallel to each other instead.  This lack of a group dynamic robs the film of much of its power and leaves the characters' final scenes involving tragedy, hope, and reconciliation, flat and unmoving.  Agnes fails to earn the dramatic impact it was aiming for leaving us with little more than a handsome ragbag of missed potential.  Nice soundtrack though.

The Agony and the Ecstasy (USA 1965) (8): A wonderfully old-fashioned costume epic depicting the titanic battle of egos waged between Michelangelo, “the sculptor who never wanted to be a painter”, and Julius II, the “warrior pope”, who commissioned the reluctant artist to adorn the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Often filmed high atop his elaborate scaffolding surrounded by swirling saints, Michelangelo wrestles with issues of faith and artistic license while Julius, firmly rooted on the ground, struggles to keep the Church alive and solvent while engaged in a war against France. But the two men meet their greatest match, both spiritually and temperamentally, in each other. In the roles of Pontiff and Painter, Rex Harrison and Charlton Heston are perfectly paired (although Heston occasionally lapses into his “Moses” persona), while a soaring orchestral score and sumptuous widescreen cinematography keep things appropriately grand; candlelit scenes of those famous frescoes in the process of becoming are especially well done. An engaging piece of cinema exploring faith, duty, and the inherent suffering of the artist.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (Germany 1972) (10): Sixteenth century Spanish explorer Gonzalo Pizarro leads a ragtag group of conquistadors, nobles, and Indian slaves into the wild Peruvian jungle to search for the fabled city of gold, El Dorado. But one of his officers, the sullen and megalomaniacal Don Lope de Aguirre (an equally sullen Klaus Kinski), stages a coup and heads off with his band of mutineers to claim El Dorado for himself. Their nightmarish journey along the Amazon, plagued by violence, lunacy, and deprivation, becomes an allegory on the foibles of human avarice. Aguirre, driven mad by visions of power, crowns one of his cohorts “king” of El Dorado while the church, represented by a cowering monk who also serves as narrator, tries to ingratiate itself to whomever wields the most power. Meanwhile the rest of the men, seeing the preferential treatment afforded lord and commander, begin to reconsider their loyalties yet again. Time and nature eventually take their toll however, and in one of cinema’s most tormented sequences a raving Aguirre takes stock of his dwindling “empire”. Actually filmed on location aboard a small fleet of makeshift rafts, director Werner Herzog and crew suffered through many of the same hardships as the characters in the story with a colossal battle of egos between pigheaded director and a temperamental Kinski becoming the stuff of cinematic legend. But the finished product is breathtaking with its glorious cinematography set off by a spare yet evocative musical score. Although the entire cast put forth memorable performances, Kinski’s depraved Aguirre dominates every scene—glowering and hissing like a pit viper, his lurching gait and crooked back calling to mind a Castilian Richard III. Culling whatever he can from his surroundings whether manmade or natural (a boat suspended from a tree provides a haunting visual while a troop of frantic monkey manage to upstage Kinski himself) Herzog spins a tragic parable whose occasional flashes of gallows humour only accentuate its funereal tone.

Alfie (UK 1966) (5): Lewis Gilbert’s depressingly cynical film follows the exploits of one self-absorbed thirtyish libertine whose cavalier attitude seems to attract an endless stream of unhappy doormats only too happy to trade in their dignity for a place in his bed. Firmly entrenched in the centre of his own universe, Alfie sees women as little more than something to be used and then discarded as soon as they develop inconvenient feelings for him, whether it be a young runaway, a despondent housewife, or the neglected mother of his bastard child. In fact, anyone and anything is fair game in his single-minded pursuit of material pleasure. Three key incidents eventually do threaten to knock some feeling into him; a wealthy widow gives him a bitter dose of reality, a poignant churchyard scene reminds him of what he could have had, and he is forced to confront the tragic consequences of one particularly irresponsible affair. But as the camera follows him through the aftermath and into the next day we are left wondering whether or not he’s learned anything at all. In the title role Michael Caine’s cheeky portrayal of a selfish lout determined to look out for number one, yet secretly afraid of being alone, earned him a well-deserved Oscar nomination. His ongoing monologues aimed directly at the audience (a clever device by Gilbert borrowed from the original play perhaps?) puts us in the interesting position of being both conscience and jury. But what is the purpose behind all this deliberate provocation? What exactly is Gilbert wanting us to feel? Alfie is certainly beneath our contempt (isn’t he?) but, with one glaring exception, the doe-eyed dishrags he takes delight in misusing are not entirely sympathetic either. For all its mod flourishes and frank dialogue, the film remains terribly dated as well as socially irrelevant. Try as I might I simply can’t see the character of Alfie as a serious metaphor, nor can I glean any deeper meaning from his crass misogynistic ramblings. What we’re left with then is the tragic escapades of an arrogant and deluded emotional sadist. And that is what it’s all about, Alfie.

Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy (USA 1976) (6):  Alice is a painfully naive librarian who dreams of being a woman even as she rejects her handsome boyfriend’s amorous advances.  It finally takes a trip through a looking glass to the madcap (and shockingly liberal ) realm of Wonderland to free her from her inhibitions.....and most of her clothes.  This infamous adult musical based on Lewis Carroll’s children’s book was first marketed as a mainstream softcore  “nudie” by 20th Century Fox.  Fox was apparently not aware of the fact that several hardcore scenes were also filmed but edited out of the final product....until Subversive Cinema managed to procure the naughty bits for this uncut DVD version.  Oddly enough this strange little film actually works for the most part.  The original songs are wonderfully corny; the sets and costumes, while obviously low budget, are bright and colourful; and the script is a bizarre mixture of 70’s burlesque and bedtime story.  Of course the acting is hopelessly uneven and the sex scenes prove to be more distracting than integral, but there is a sense of innocent hedonism to the proceedings that I found quite entertaining.  And Alice’s query, “What’s a nice girl like you doing on a knight like this?” is definitely one of the greatest film quotes I’ve ever heard!

Alien Vs. Predator Requiem (USA 2007) (3):  When a mob of fertile Aliens go tusk to tusk with one very pissed off Predator in a small Colorado town (apparently located just outside of Vancouver) the local townsfolk wind up with two new career options......egg basket or lunch.  There are so many awful things about this film that it is easier to list the things I actually liked:  some of the creature effects were cool, the exploding heads were funny, and the “maternity ward massacre” was just plain wrong on so many levels.  Lastly, despite all the hype on the box the gore factor in this “unrated” version was not only disappointingly tame but poorly lit as well.  A real cinematic stink bomb.

All is Lost (USA 2013) (9): At the age of seventy-seven Robert Redford gives a powerful solo performance in writer/director J. C. Chandor’s moving story of one old man and a very different sea. When his sailboat is rammed by a rogue cargo container somewhere on the Indian Ocean a lone yachtsman methodically goes about assessing the damage and repairing what he can. Miles from any safe haven (or even a passing ship) he struggles to keep his crippled boat on course but Nature still has a few nasty curveballs up her sleeve and after riding out an especially vehement squall the man begins to realize he may very well be living out his final days… From this simple premise Chandor weaves a meticulous allegory touching on issues of courage, determination, and a pervasive sense of our own fragile mortality. With only a few lines of dialogue he instead relies on astonishing cinematography which plunges his viewers into a storm-tossed ship’s galley or marvels at sunlight glinting off the silvery scales of fish as they glide past like a shoal of placid angels. With the camera rarely straying far from his side, every line on Redford’s weathered face seems to have a story to tell and as he jots down a few notes in his logbook we are offered only a fleeting glimpse into the complexities behind the man. With so much left unsaid then, it is only fitting that the film closes with an ambiguous underwater tableau as beautiful as it is cryptic. A surreal, nearly subliminal score of ambient harmonies propels an already gripping tale of disaster at sea into something approaching transcendence.

All That Heaven Allows  (USA 1955) (8):  Pretty controversial for its time, this film by Douglas Sirk revolves around a mature woman who falls in love with a much younger man.  It proves to be yet another magnificent over-the-top technicolour melodrama from the master of the genre. As always the pretty colours and beautiful white people are merely props used to illustrate darker truths......middle class conformity, xenophobia, materialism, alienation, and the social isolation that awaits those who dare to think outside the pack mentality. Don't dismiss this film based on its soap opera appearance.....it's a bitter pill wrapped with a candy coating.

All That Jazz (USA 1979) (9): Stage legend Bob Fosse does a pas de deux with his own mortality in this beautifully conceived, semi-autobiographical story of Joe Gideon, an edgy Broadway director with insatiable appetites for perfection, sex, and dexedrine. Forsaking love and commitment, much to the chagrin of the women in his life, Gideon drives himself to produce bigger and better shows until a couple of blocked coronary arteries bring down the final curtain. Roy Scheider is amazing as the charismatic Gideon, his manic portrayal of a man dancing over the abyss is at once tragic and breathtaking. The supporting cast is strong and the musical interludes are superb culminating in one of Hollywood's more famous song & dance numbers as a hospitalized Gideon hallucinates his final farewell while Death (a luminous Jessica Lange) looks calmly on. Bold, brash and self-indulgent all the way, just like its director, this is one of the better films to come out of the 70s.

All the President’s Men (USA 1976) (8): On June 17th 1972, five men were caught breaking in to the National Democratic Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington D.C. But when Bob Woodward, a cub reporter for the Washington Post, discovered that not only were the men carrying surveillance equipment, some of them had ties to the C.I.A. as well, he and fellow newspaperman Carl Bernstein spearheaded a journalistic investigation which uncovered a web of deceit and political espionage stretching all the way to President Nixon’s personal cabinet. Based on Woodward and Bernstein’s subsequent book, Alan J. Pakula’s film is both a taut newspaper procedural and a damning indictment of the lengths politicians will go in order to stay in power. Utilizing harsh fluorescent lighting, explosive sound editing (typewriter strokes superimposed over cannon fire...brilliant!), and a highly kinetic visual style Pakula’s cast of Hollywood heavyweights, led by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, breathe life into those glaring headlines while William Goldman’s screenplay tries to make sense out of a decidedly serpentine plot. Furthermore, the inclusion of archival television footage keeps things rooted in reality while the use of two-way telephone conversations, wherein the audience is privy to both sides of the call, gives a feeling of authenticity. Whether we’ve become more accustomed to Washington scandals in the forty years following Watergate, or just more tired and apathetic, All The President’s Men still serves as a valuable time capsule which hearkens back to the days before journalism became the three-ring infotainment travesty it is today.

All This and Heaven Too (USA 1940) (5): Based on a true story, Anatole Litvak’s grievously over-baked melodrama, set in 19th century Paris, follows virtuous doe-eyed governess Bette Davis as she accepts a position in the luxurious home of Duke Charles Boyer. The Duke’s children, epitomizing sugar & spice, immediately take to their new mentor as she brings sunshine into their lonely lives and single-handedly saves little Reynald from a nasty case of diphtheria. Unfortunately, the duke also finds himself attracted to the diminutive teacher; a fact not lost upon his wife, a pathologically jealous and sexually frustrated shrew who spends her days writing him rambling letters and her nights scheming to make everyone’s lives more miserable than they already are. With the duke and governess gazing chastely at one another and the duchess’ insanity becoming increasingly theatrical, it comes as no surprise when heartbreak, madness, and tragedy arrive on the doorstep. Told in flashback as Davis’ character, now teaching French in America, tries to plead her case before a classroom of malicious debutantes who have labeled her a fallen woman, Litvak’s lavish soap opera overflows with sobbing close-ups set to weeping strings. Too bad, since some solid performances and a few clever jabs at social hypocrisy and religious dogma wind up getting lost amidst all the flailing and emoting. The sets, however, are amazing.

Amer (France/Belgium 2009) (10): Little Ana lives in a big mansion on the Côte d’Azur along with her overbearing mother and ineffectual father. She also shares an adjoining room with the mysterious shrouded maid Graziella who may be a witch, while her mummified grandfather (who may or may not be dead) resides downstairs. Highly sensitive to the negative vibes in the house, Ana is given to frightening flights of fancy with cursed lockets, haunted bedrooms and an increasingly malevolent Graziella preying on her mind. But she is not prepared for the ultimate shock of accidentally walking in on her parents having intercourse. Fast forward to teenaged Ana, a curious young girl whose newfound sexuality has her tightly wound mom trying to slap some chastity into her. Finally we see Ana the adult returning to her childhood home, now in ruins, her head full of vague erotic yearnings which elicit a sense of guilt so strong it actually takes on a life of its own. Framed within the conventions of a European slasher flick, with strong nods to giallo masters Mario Bava and Dario Argento, directors Cattet and Forzani have produced an amazingly surreal psychodrama exploring one woman’s sexual evolution from precocious child to repressed adolescent to frustrated adult (Amer translates as bitter). With only a dozen or so lines of dialogue in the entire film they rely instead on heightening our other senses through the use of provocative imagery, embellished sound, and an acute awareness of colour and texture. The result is a highly sensual, almost tactile experience in which a child’s footsteps crack like muted gunfire and a dripping bedspring splashes into a puddle with the force of a subterranean sea. But it is the exaggerated visuals which ultimately propel the story as a simple bus ride carries the promise of carnal excesses, a trek through an overgrown garden is rife with sin and temptation, and a candlelit bath literally drowns in masturbatory metaphors. With manic editing, jarring sound effects, and a camera that seems to linger on eyes, fingers, and throats, this is pure art house fare whose heavy-handed symbolism and religious references are sure to alienate the popcorn crowd even as it blows away fans of the genre. Personally I was mesmerized.

American History X (USA 1998) (7):  Sent to prison on manslaughter charges for the brutal slaying of two black men who were trying to break into his jeep, confirmed Neo-Nazi Derek Vinyard (a ridiculously buff Edward Norton proving he deserved that Oscar nomination) returns to his southern California neighbourhood a changed man thanks to a series of prison epiphanies.  Making amends to the family he once disowned for their “liberal bias” Derek embarks upon the straight and narrow. Unfortunately his younger brother Danny ("Terminator’s" Edward Furlong) seems hellbent on following in his older brother’s footsteps and is now the golden child of the same White Supremacist guru who set Derek on the wrong path years ago.  Joining forces with one of Danny’s teachers, a black man who sees the boy’s true potential, Derek is determined to protect his brother from becoming what he once was.  But the past is not so easily dismissed and Derek suddenly finds his life threatened by both the Aryans and the friends of the two men he killed.  Tony Kaye’s unsettling look at the evolution of hate features a stellar cast, an unflinching script, and enough point/counterpoint arguments to fuel a dozen heated discussions outside the theatre.  No one is born prejudiced and through a series of clever B&W flashbacks we see how Derek’s emotional vulnerability following the senseless murder of his father (a man with definite opinions of his own) left him wide open to the kind of racist rhetoric that appears to offer easy explanations to a young man filled with rage and grief.  But far from one-sided, Kaye examines the race divide from both sides showing those small transgressions and deliberate misunderstandings that inevitably lead to greater tragedies.  Perhaps he relies a bit too much on images of slo-mo seagulls, ebbing tides, and cascades of cleansing water (another shower anyone?) and those soaring choral pieces, while deeply moving, do get heavy-handed at times. But there is still an unshakeable ardor to Kaye’s film (even though he eventually gave up on the project) which manages to weather most of its Hollywood embellishments.  Too bad he felt the need for those terribly schmaltzy final scenes.

American Hustle (USA 2013) (9): At the height of the Disco Era a pair of New York con artists have built a modest empire selling forged paintings and offering bogus loans to desperate men with questionable debts. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale personifying sleazy chic with beer gut, coloured shades and the worst combover in filmdom) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, a conflicted mix of bewildered naif and hungry predator) are also lovers much to the chagrin of Irving’s neurotic wife Rosalyn. It all comes crashing down however when the two are nabbed by FBI agent Richie DiMaso who makes them an offer they can’t refuse: either aid the Feds in catching a few corrupt low-level politicians or face lengthy prison sentences. It all seems pretty easy at first until things begin to go wrong: Richie starts to have feelings for Sydney; Irving develops a friendship with one of the targeted men; and Rosalyn dusts off her high heels and decides to make a few waves of her own. But when the overly ambitious DiMaso, already unhinged thanks to a violent temper and taste for cocaine, decides to widen his net to include a couple of high-ranking congressmen and a very dangerous mob boss, Irving and Sydney realize they must pull their biggest scam yet or else face consequences far worse than jail. Writer/director David O. Russell has fashioned a giddy yarn of cross and double-cross populated by fully fleshed clichés and presented with all the moral ambivalence of a sinister sitcom. He further embellishes things with a frantic editing style, a glorious soundtrack of old A.M. radio classics, and more kitsch than the 1975 Sears catalogue. However, although the story is very loosely based on the FBI’s Abscam Sting (an opening title card assures us that “some of this stuff actually happened”) his film is essentially all about appearances, lies, and bullshit. It’s about the many ways we con ourselves into seeing what we want to believe in order to satisfy our need for either money, love, or prestige. But the fact that he has taken a tired old Hollywood plot, gussied it up with some A-list performances and a brilliantly sardonic script (partly improvised), and then marketed it as an Oscar contender may be the biggest hustle of all. Sir, I salute you!

An Affair to Remember (USA 1957) (8): Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr shine in one of the greatest cinemascope weepers of all time. On a cross Atlantic cruise bound for New York, notorious playboy Nickie Ferrante develops a tentative shipboard romance with fellow passenger Terry McKay, the only woman he’s ever met with a wit to match his own. Unfortunately the smitten couple are just weeks away from getting married to other people; he to a wealthy heiress and she to millionaire tycoon, both of whom are waiting for them at the New York City docks. Agreeing to put their separate marriage preparations on hold, the couple plan a romantic rendezvous atop the Empire State Building in six months; just enough time for each of them to become gainfully employed. While Nickie tries to hone his skills as a painter, Terry returns to the nightclub circuit where she gains some notoriety as a stage singer. But when the time comes for their much anticipated reunion a sudden tragedy keeps them apart and threatens to destroy any future happiness they might have had. With its lush widescreen cinematography, rich technicolor sets and bubbling dialogue, Leo McCarey’s film certainly starts out with a romantic flair. Grant and Kerr’s sparkling repartee, moving from capricious banter to lovestruck confessions, is very well written and delivered with appropriate vigour; a side trip to visit an aging grandmother in her hilltop villa is especially poignant. However, if Affair begins like a refreshing sip of pink champagne, it ends with a mouthful of sticky corn syrup. Schmaltzy pathos competes with dewy-eyed pining to see how many tissues they can wring out of the audience while the addition of a cloying children’s choir filled with sweetly smiling cherubs (why does their junior band sound like a professional orchestra?) goes straight for the sentimental jugular. But, for those who can handle the extra helping of icing towards the end, this is one cinematic confection that will leave you satisfied.

An American in Paris (USA 1951) (6): An ex-GI decides to follow his dream of becoming a famous artist while living in the fabled City of Lights. Along the way he is wooed by a rich cougar, falls in love with his friend’s fiancee, and finds ample opportunities to sing and dance. This is certainly a technicolor delight filled with postcard cinematography and a famous soundtrack of hummable Gershwin tunes. Some highlights include a one-man orchestra performance by Oscar Levant, a sequence of whirling solos by Leslie Caron, and an extended dance routine played out against vibrant cardboard cut-outs of Paris complete with misty fountains and glowing archways. Unfortunately it soon becomes apparent that Caron and Kelly are performers, not actors. While the choreography is technically on the mark and the vocals are pitch-perfect, there is no chemistry between the two leads and therefore no depth to the story itself. Their tearful romance is little more than a colourful prop meant to bridge the gaps between song and dance numbers. Worth a look, but file it under “light entertainment”.

Anastasia (USA 1956) (7): Set in 1928 Paris, Anatole Litvak’s sparkling though historically inaccurate screen adaptation of Maurette’s stage play sees General Sergei Pavlovich (Yul Brynner), former right hand man to the executed Tsar Nicholas, determined to cash in on rumours that the Tsar’s daughter Anastasia managed to escape the firing squad and is now living incognito somewhere in Europe. Not believing the rumours himself, he nevertheless manages to collect hefty deposits from various deposed Russian aristocrats who are counting on him to track down the young duchess. Enter “Anna Koreff” (Ingrid Bergman in her Oscar-winning performance), a mentally unstable amnesiac Pavlovich finds wandering along the banks of the Seine who not only bears a striking resemblance to his quarry but also possesses a mind so malleable that she is capable of taking on any persona he wishes. But as he slowly transforms his emotionally labile protégé into a marketable Anastasia she becomes so convincing that even the cynical general begins to wonder whether he has actually stumbled upon the real thing. Artistic license aside, this is a beautifully rendered exercise in what if—an historical fairy tale which combines mystery with a dash of romance as Pavlovich realizes, perhaps too late, that his interest in Anna goes beyond the huge dowry waiting for her in a London bank. Filmed in swirling colours with widescreen Cinemascope settings that reach from Parisian slums to royal reception halls, this is filmmaking on a grand scale. Presenting Koreff as a naïve tabula rasa, Litvak toys with issues of memory and identity as well as the need to belong—is Anna’s performance merely parroting or has Pavlovich’s tutoring actually tapped into buried memories? And is that a note of despair we hear in her insistence that she actually is Nicholas’ missing heir? Fine performances all around, especially from Bergman and a dignified Helen Hayes as Pavlovich’s most ardent skeptic, the dowager Russian Empress Maria Feodorovna living in luxurious exile in Copenhagen.

An Autumn Afternoon (Japan 1962) (7): Ozu’s final film (he died a year later) explores much of the same territory as his earlier Late Spring; namely the disintegration and reintegration of the nuclear Japanese family post WWII. Once again an aging widower is concerned over his daughter’s refusal to marry due to her filial obligation to look after him. Afraid that 24-year old Michiko will miss out on the happiest time of her life, Mr. Hirayama enlists the aid of friends and family to find her a suitable mate even though the prospect of losing her is taking a greater toll on his peace of mind than he’s willing to admit. Ozu’s usual assortment of visual cues are here with train whistles and drifting smoke reminding us that the clock is ticking; but there is an undertone of pessimism at work (or is it just resignation?) not usually seen in his family dramas. A reunion with a former high school professor reveals an old man trying to alleviate his many life regrets through alcoholic binges; a contentious pair of golf clubs bought by Hirayama’s cash-strapped son casts a glaring eye on Japan’s emerging consumerism; and some wartime recollections in a smokey bar hint at a deeper cynicism. An appropriately bittersweet ending, sad yet oddly comforting, provides the perfect capstone for one of cinema’s more distinguished careers.

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (USA 2004) Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (USA 2013) (1): It’s the 1970s and television news reporting is still part of the old boy’s club. Nowhere is this more apparent than at KVWN in San Diego, a station run by chauvinist pigs with the head hog being celebrated anchorman Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrel, screaming a lot). So it comes as no surprise then that when the boss hires a female reporter (Christina Applegate proving she can’t act on the big screen either) blatant sexism—and unexpected romance—rears it’s moustachioed head and….and….and that’s about as far as I got. It’s rare for me to actually give up on a film before it’s over, and almost unheard of to have it happen twice in a row but these two flicks are so godawful terrible I could only stand 30 minutes of each one, plus a few more minutes spent fast-forwarding just in case things got better. Like a pair of really bad Saturday Night Live sketches that go on way too long, there is nothing here that goes beyond a self-conscious chuckle. What humour there is consists mainly of boners, ca-ca, and titty jokes with lots of yelling, juvenile pratfalls, and idiotic non-sequiturs, (“I’m mentally retarded!” quips the silly weatherman. Haha!) . Yes, I realize writers Ferrel and McKay were probably going for the look of an old school sitcom (and old school laughs) wherein the sheer zaniness is supposed to sweep you up or something. But this is not 1970 anymore and I’m not nine years old. Pathetic.

The Anderson Tapes (USA 1971) (3): Sean Connery stars as sexy Duke Anderson, a master thief fresh out of prison who decides to get back into the game by robbing the residents of a swank New York apartment building where Ingrid, his pampered prostitute girlfriend lives. Gathering the usual assortment of criminal ne’er-do-wells around him, including a shockingly young Christopher Walken as an ace safecracker, Anderson prepares to pull off the biggest hit of his career. But unbeknownst to the cocky burglar not only are those nightly pillow talk sessions with Ingrid being tape-recorded by her jealous benefactor, but the I.R.S. and F.B.I. have their cameras pointed in his direction as well. Sidney Lumet’s tale of a skewed Robin Hood (fed up with the double standards inherent in Capitalism, Anderson steals from the rich to give to himself) living in an age of surveillance cameras and hidden microphones tries to inject a bit of conspiracy paranoia into an otherwise tepid heist caper. Grainy video images accompanied by a jarringly intrusive electro soundtrack by Quincy Jones are obviously meant to ramp up the tension but only serve to annoy, while the quick cuts and flash-forwards are just plain messy. An admirable cast of B-listers do their best, especially Judith Lowry and Margaret Hamilton as a hilarious pair of bickering spinsters, while the 70’s “high tech” gadgetry is amusingly primitive. But it all fails to gel into anything profound and instead we’re left watching a mildly engaging cops ‘n robbers romp with some sort of ironic message tacked on to the final scenes. And, in a particularly shabby move, the late great character actor Martin Balsam is cast as an outrageously fey interior decorator giving rise to more than a few “faggot” snipes. Real classy.

The Andersonville Trial (USA 1970) (10): During the American Civil War Georgia's Andersonville Prison was the site of unimaginable suffering as captured Federal soldiers died by the thousands from lack of shelter, food, and basic sanitation. After the South fell the man in charge of running Andersonville, Captain Henry Wirz, was brought to trial on charges of wartime atrocities. In this brilliant television adaptation of Saul Levitt's play, Wirz's trial is given dramatic life as two opposing lawyers, one Federal one Confederate, argue over the fine line between an officer's patriotic duty to obey the orders given to him and his moral obligation to resist those orders if he finds them inhumane. An all-star cast, directed by George C. Scott (!), provide top-notch performances in a production that goes beyond mere courtroom procedural to cast a harsh light on what it means to be human. Amazing!

And the Band Played On (USA 1993) (6): Matthew Modine heads a surprisingly diverse cast of A and B-listers (Phil Collins as a gay bathhouse owner?!) in this medical docu-drama examining the earliest years of the AIDS epidemic. He plays Dr. Don Francis, a researcher who along with colleagues in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles---not to mention the Pasteur Institute in Paris whose work was pivotal in isolating the virus---struggled to understand why so many previously healthy men were succumbing to opportunistic infections heretofore unseen in such numbers. Hampered by conservative politics, professional egos, and the mistrust of the gay community itself, Francis and the other teams waged an uphill battle in the beginning while new cases of AIDS steadily increased worldwide. A well-meaning film despite some Hollywood grandstanding and a script which often wavers between highschool lecture and activist rant. The use of actual news footage provided an historical backdrop and all those familiar faces jockeying for a cameo in what was then a “controversial” picture put in generally good performances. Unfortunately, although some very obvious attempts were made to portray the gay community in a favorable light I couldn’t help but see them as little more than a small horde of angry club boys and underwear models serving up background noise. A closing montage of video clips and dead celebrity photos, all set to an Elton John ballad, was blatantly manipulative yet still left me in tears as I remembered my own Lover who died from this disease over twenty years ago. Nevertheless, this remains an important testament when taken with a grain of salt and an understanding of the era in which it was produced.

An Education (UK 2009) (7): It’s 1961 London and bright young highschool student Jenny Mellor (Oscar-nominated Carey Mulligan) is cramming for her final exams in the hope of being accepted into Oxford even as she dreams about living a beatnik lifestyle “wearing black clothes and listening to Jaques Brel”. A chance encounter with dashing businessman David Goldman (Peter Sarsgaard) seems to offer Jenny everything she’s been looking for—he’s handsome, worldly, and exhibits an endearing Bohemian sensibility which clashes beautifully with her own stuffy middle class reality. He’s also twice her age, a fact lost upon her parents—especially her square father—as David charms them into letting him woo their daughter. But there are no shortcuts to happiness and in director Lone Scherfig’s disarmingly breezy coming-of-age story one adolescent girl’s first brush with romance will cost her more than she had bargained. Everyone remembers their first big crush and Scherfig captures that magical time with bright colours, awkward silences, and a soundtrack of timeless pop tunes. There is an innocent eroticism to Jenny’s ongoing seduction and Sarsgaard plays the waggish older man to perfection. More than a simple teen love story however, Scherfig examines the generation gap with warm candour balancing Jenny’s wide-eyed enthusiasm for life with the more dampened outlooks of her female teachers (a short yet vital walk-on by Emma Thompson) and the constant aura of disappointment exuded by her mother. Not the deepest film on the subject, but well-written and easy on the senses. The cast is nice to look at too.

The Angry Red Planet (USA 1959) (2): Retro sci-fi for people who know jack shit about science fiction. Absolutely awful story of the first manned trip to Mars where three virile astronauts and one token female scientist (who also doubles as nurse and housewife...I guess her PhD simply stands for Pretty Hot Dame) must face down a giant rat-spider with lobster claws, a carnivorous play-doh bush and a huge "bacterium" filled with psychedelic scrub brushes. Presented through the miracle of "CineMagic" which simply means actors are filmed in a monochromatic shade of lurid crimson as they cavort in front of cheesy painted backgrounds (I've seen better artwork taped to refrigerator doors). And of course it ends with the cliched “Earthlings beware...” speech delivered by some rather uppity Martians resembling three-eyed samurai grasshoppers. It’s enough to make Ed Wood lose his lunch. (Score 2/10 for sheer campiness and some atmospheric music).

Animal Kingdom (Australia 2010) (10): After his mother dies of a heroin overdose Joshua Cody, not quite eighteen and not particularly bright, is taken in by his estranged grandmother and her adult sons...uncles he hasn’t seen in years. There’s a reason his mom tried to shield him from the rest of her family however, for under the tutelage of Grandma Cody and uncle Andrew (aka “Pope”) the family home is a volatile den of thieves with armed robbery and drug dealing the main sources of income. Surrounded thus by crooked cops, crooked relatives, and the crooked lawyers who defend them, Joshua quickly learns that in the human jungle the strong must fight for survival while the weak must align themselves as best they can; everyone else is fair game. Unfolding like a waking nightmare, David Michôd’s visceral gut-punch of a film follows Joshua as he tries to determine his place in the food chain, especially after the slaying of two police officers puts him squarely in the crosshairs of both the authorities and the Cody family alpha male, uncle “Pope,” a soft-spoken sociopath with a murderous temper. A far cry from the usual crime drama, Animal Kingdom features a brilliantly downplayed script enhanced by grim, dreamlike cinematography and a disparate soundtrack of muted pop tunes and somber acoustical passages. Michôd’s cast is picture perfect as they flesh out their characters, especially Jacki Weaver as Joshua’s grandmother; a seemingly benign white trash matriarch who just may be the most cold-hearted predator of them all. A horrifying and unapologetic film with an ending that is at once shockingly unexpected and sadly inevitable. Good cinema!

Anna Christie (USA 1930) (8): Greta Garbo’s first talkie was this screen adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s play about three disconnected souls in search of love, forgiveness, and liberation. Fifteen years after she was sent to live on a Wisconsin farm by her recently widowed father, twenty-year old Anna Christie (Garbo) returns to the dingy New York City wharf where dad ekes out a living piloting a coal barge in between bouts of drinking. Practically strangers to one another, father and daughter nevertheless form a tentative bond despite his desire to keep her as far away from the temptations of “that devil sea” as he can. But when temptation does arrive in the form of brusque Irish sailor Matt (Charles Bickford practically oozing brute machismo) the stage is set for a trio of heartbreaks. Anna’s father is desperate to protect his daughter from the hard and lonely life of a fisherman’s wife (the same fate his own spouse succumbed to years before) while Matt is determined to strong-arm his way into Anna’s heart for his own weary heart longs for a “good girl” to maintain hearth and home. Anna however, consumed with anger and resentment, carries a dark secret from her past which threatens to derail everyone’s happiness. Dark and moody with images of restless waves and obscuring sea fogs, director Clarence Brown captures the essence of O’Neill’s themes—alienation, destitution, perseverance—to produce an intense theatrical drama with a cinematic flourish. Although his characters occasionally emote (Hollywood was just emerging from the quirks of the Silent Era after all) their performances ring true especially Garbo and character actor George F. Marion as daughter and father. But it is the incomparable Marie Dressler as Marion’s spurned mistress Marthy who steals scene after scene. Overweight, dowdy, and perpetually soused, Marthy is the only person honest enough (or drunk enough?) to tell the truth regardless of who wants to hear it. A magnificent piece from the beginning of American cinema’s Golden Age with a surprising, albeit deeply buried, feminist twist.

Anonymous (UK 2011) (9): According to proponents of the “Oxfordian Theory”, Shakespeare was merely a front man who never set quill to paper but instead published the works of another under his own name. It is the waning days of Elizabeth the First’s reign and she is besieged by war both from Catholic royals on the mainland and from an uprising in Ireland, not to mention an increasingly restless Earl of Essex. Even in the heart of London itself a small troupe of actors led by Ben Jonson (future poet Laureate) are entertaining the masses with ribald comedies whose satirical jabs at the gentry border on seditious. And then the works of a new playwright, William Shakespeare, are presented and certain members of the court are more outraged than ever for not only are these plays enormously popular, they also seem to contain thinly veiled criticisms aimed at key government figures especially Sir Robert Cecil, the queen’s unctuous advisor whose powerful family has been manipulating the monarchy for decades. But Shakespeare is nothing but a semi-literate stage actor for the true author of Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night and all the rest is Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, the queen’s former lover now married into the ultra-conservative Cecil clan. With writing prose considered idle, even wicked, foolishness by his Puritan in-laws Edward is forced to write anonymously (even though his family and the queen are well aware of his ruse) while the boorish Shakespeare basks in the spotlight. But court intrigues run far deeper and more treacherous than either William or Edward could possibly imagine and it is only a matter of time before Cecil threatens to bring the curtain down for the final time with a series of damning accusations. Better known perhaps for his apocalyptic “monsters and explosions” epics, director Roland Emmerich proves he is equally adept at sprawling historical dramas. His CGI invocation of old London, both from the air and at ground level, is an impressive mix of country estates, garbage-strewn alleys, and a vibrant core of Tudor squalor all bound in perpetual mist and rain. An amazing cast, impeccably dressed in rags or satins, shift back and forth through time as Emmerich backtracks in order to fill in the details: here a decaying Elizabeth (a star turn from Vanessa Redgrave) reminisces with a wistful de Vere when suddenly she is a young queen once more (played by her real life daughter Joely Richardson) grappling beneath the sheets with her equally passionate paramour. And throughout we catch glimpses of Jonson’s troupe performing key scenes from Shakespeare’s (de Vere’s?) plays before an appreciative audience; their wit and pathos enriching the film’s context immeasurably. Although diehard Oxfordians are relatively few in number they include the director himself and actor Derek Jacobi who, as a contemporary narrator, opens and closes the film in a suitably theatrical manner. The conspiracy aspect may be suspect (most scholars laugh it off) but as an exercise in alternative history this is still an intelligently written and hugely entertaining work shown bigger than life as befits any tall tale.

Another Country (UK 1984) (7): Playwright Julian Mitchell adapts his own stage production for the big screen in this hit-and-miss period drama based on the early life of infamous “Cambridge Five” spy Guy Burgess who, along with his cohorts, passed sensitive Western intel to the Soviets during the Cold War. The film excels in its impeccable evocation of a proper 1930’s English public school where the next generation of Britain’s privileged elite act out their country’s rigid class system through an equally rigid hierarchy of junior students, prefects, and handpicked seniors appropriately nicknamed the Gods. With gauzy backdrops of gilded interiors and warm summer days we follow the fates of upperclassmen Guy Bennet (a painfully young Rupert Everett) who embraces the status quo despite his much flaunted homosexuality, and his unexpected ally Tommy Judd (an equally young Colin Firth) whose fervent embrace of revolutionary Communism puts him at odds with everyone else. Where the film falters however is in its attempt to tie Bennet’s disillusionment with school politics (his lack of discretion costs him an invitation to join the Gods) with his decision to become a traitor to his country—a rather big leap to say the least. But the long languorous camerawork captures a certain romanticism and Everett’s conflicted character is a brilliantly detailed study of defiance and fragility, openly challenging the norms yet painfully in love with fellow classmate James Harcourt (Cary Elwes). A political metaphor perhaps (Lenin and Gay Activism!) but a tragic love story more than anything else.

Another Earth (USA 2011) (8): On the same night that astronomers discover a new terrestrial planet approaching Earth, honours student Rhoda Williams gets behind the wheel of her car after downing a few too many celebratory drinks. The resulting collision earns her a four-year prison term and destroys the life of local composer John Burroughs. Now released from prison and desperate to make amends for what she did, Rhoda sets out to apologize to Burroughs but instead enters into an unforeseen relationship with the unsuspecting composer who is still nursing his grief with medication and alcohol. And all the while the sky above is increasingly dominated by a new world which proves to be more similar to our own than anyone could have dreamed. Talking about his remarkable debut feature, filmed on a shoestring budget with the help of family and friends, director Mike Cahill stated, “There are certain things you have got to deal with yourself…there’s this inner monologue inside your head…what if it were externalized?” Using an outrageous science-fiction device as a potent metaphor he explores issues of isolation, atonement and redemption in a most unusual and captivating way. Both Williams and Burroughs (get the literary allusion?) are frozen; she’s drowning in remorse while he’s crippled with rage and sadness; yet neither one is able to make that connection which would allow them to move forward. But as “Earth II” continues its inexorable advance a new possibility presents itself, one that will have consequences both mysterious and reparative. With ordinary urban settings rendered extraordinary in eerie blue earthlight, and fantastical images of another earth suspended over rooftops and ocean, Cahill’s restless camera and ethereal script produce a style one could describe as “dreamlike verité”. If he sometimes appears to fall in love with his own vision it’s only because what he’s seeing is beautiful indeed.

Antibodies (Germany 2005) (6): When Gabriel Engel, the monstrous psychopath responsible for a string of child sex murders, is arrested in Berlin beleaguered rural cop Michael Martens hopes he can finally solve the mystery of a young girl whose mutilated body was found in his village a year earlier. Certainly this cold case bears most of Engel’s trademarks but when Michael travels to the big city to interview the madman a cruel psychological game of cat and mouse ensues with Engel sowing seeds of doubt in the young detective’s mind (did he kill the little girl or not?) while turning his already staunch Catholicism into a neurotic obsession with guilt. “Evil is a virus…” whispers Engel from behind bars, his cell decorated with a devilish mural done in his own blood, “…and you are infected!” Borrowing heavily from The Silence of the Lambs, writer/director Christian Alvert’s topsy-turvy mindfuck of a film certainly doesn’t lack ambition with it’s staccato editing, rattling timeline shifts, and pervasive gloom of sin and sickness. As the killer’s seductive words seep into Martens’ virtuous Christian psyche the battle between Good and Evil plays out on an uncomfortably intimate level. But Alvart chooses to wallow in too many biblical references turning an otherwise intelligent thriller into a clunky Old Testament metaphor straight out of Genesis. Engel’s full name translates into “Angel Gabriel” (wow!) and while Michael (as in archangel?) wrestles with him we quietly overdose on Catholic symbolism—a stapler delivers some good old-fashioned mortification; a brothel offers up temptation in both black and white; and God’s own stand-in bursts through the clouds in a triumphant whirl of helicopter blades. But it was a magical mystical backwoods intercession by Bambi and friends that ultimately pushed the envelope too far. A great premise and capable cast, but even a clever double twist at the end was not quite enough to save its soul.

The Antichrist (Italy 1974) (4):  Poor little Ippolita; as if being confined to a wheelchair is not bad enough, her father’s impending marriage is now throwing her Electra complex into a tailspin.  But when she wakes up one morning with a frog in her throat and goat on her breath all hell breaks loose...  This little Italian cheese ball manages to be bad in so many awful and imaginative ways that it would be a shame to simply dismiss it as another “Exorcist” rip-off.  The dinner scene is priceless and the final exorcism deserves a very special Oscar all its own (keep an eye out for the black clad stagehands crouching behind the dresser as its drawers “mysteriously” pop out).  Put this one on your cult classics list

Antigone (Greece 1961) (8): Screen legend Irene Papas’ intense performance as the titular heroine burns up the screen in this classical rendition of Sophocles’ tragedy. When the disposed Polynieces attempts to sieze the crown from the king of Thebes (his estranged brother Eteocles) his army is defeated, but not before both brothers die in battle. Their uncle Creon, being the next in line, assumes the throne and immediately orders Eteocles’ body to be buried with full honours while the traitorous Polyniece’s body is to be left to rot in the field. Upon hearing this royal edict Antigone, the dead men’s sister, openly defies the king and buries her disgraced brother thus enraging Creon who orders her to be sealed in a cave forever. But Creon’s decision to place his personal pride above family honour will ultimately lead to his own disgrace and tragic downfall. Beautifully filmed in sombre B&W with sets and costumes taken from the Classical Greek stage, director Yorgos Javellas stays faithful to the play’s theatrical roots right down to a chorus of bearded wise men whose poetic asides serve as the conscience of both king and common man alike. And the cast is amazing, aided by a highly formalized script rife with rage and sorrow they deliver their lines with an emotional force that is almost palpable. An ancient classic which can still speak to the heart two thousand years later.

Antigone (USA-TV 1974) (9): Antigone is a princess of Thebes whose brothers are killed fighting on opposite sides of a civil war. When her uncle Creon finally assumes the throne he has the body of the "good" brother (the one who fought for him) buried with full honours while issuing a royal decree that the other be left to rot in the field as a warning to all who would oppose him. Defying Creon, and risking the death penalty for treason, Antigone buries her brother and thus begins an ideological tug-of-war with her uncle which leads to consequences neither one could have imagined. Honour, duty and stubborn pride take centre stage in this brilliant contemporary adaptation of Jean Anouilh's 1944 play, based on Sophocles' tragedy and originally aired on PBS's "Great Performances". Genevieve Bujold's searing portrayal of Antigone, equal parts blind idealism and naive cynicism, is perfectly matched by Fritz Weaver's Creon, a tired and inflexible tyrant whose crown weighs heavier than he is willing to admit, while television veteran Stacy Keach provides a passionate yet oddly sardonic Greek Chorus. Filmed in and around an actual theatre this teleplay suffers from the usual problems of old video: the sound is rather flat, the colours faded and there is a bit of peripheral distortion; but its powerful leads, combined with some wonderfully theatrical staging makes this a tour de force worth renting.

Apartment Zero (UK 1988) (8): Adrian LeDuc is an introverted neurotic living in Buenos Aires who divides his time between managing a ramshackle repertory cinema and an equally ramshackle residential complex filled with delightful eccentrics. Shunning all human contact during his off-hours, he retreats to his dingy apartment where he finds some degree of solace amongst the movie posters and framed photos of dead matinee idols which adorn the walls. With his mentally ill mother locked away in a sanitarium and theatre revenues taking a nosedive he is eventually forced to seek a roommate in order to cut costs. After interviewing a string of increasingly bizarre applicants he eventually settles for a darkly handsome American expat. Jack seems to be Adrian’s opposite in every way; he’s outgoing, bold, and has no problem voicing an opinion; but behind the smoldering eyes and vaguely threatening smirk there is an unsettling intensity that hints of unspoken secrets. Donovan wastes no time ratcheting up the homoerotic tension as Adrian begins to obsess over his new lodger. At first content to simply do his laundry and make him breakfast every morning, Adrian gradually begins to question Jack’s suspicious behaviour especially after a series of mysterious murders begin to rock the city… Colin Firth brings a manic energy to the role of Adrian, a man who seems to have trouble distinguishing reality from a movie script. Indeed, there is a definite aura of Hollywood artifice to the entire film with its beautifully overdone dramatics and noirish dialogue. With Apartment Zero Donovan first delivers a winning combination of cerebral humour, ambiguous sexuality and paranoid suspense which makes full use of the subdued lighting and cleverly placed movie memorabilia. He then executes a brilliant segue from camp mystery to psychological horror before bringing it all to a suitably outrageous ending. A dark and disturbing treat.

The Apple Dumpling Gang (USA 1975) (5): In the frontier town of Quake City, California (built on an active fault line), notorious gambler Russel Donavan suddenly finds himself saddled with three precocious orphans, penniless heirs to one of the region’s now defunct gold mines. But as the confirmed bachelor tries to squirm his way out of town, sans children of course, the kids discover that their late father’s mine still has a bit of profit left amidst the rickety timbers and dank tunnels; a revelation which puts them squarely in the sights of a couple of bumbling thieves as well as a more sinister gang of outlaws. Donovan, meanwhile, is surprised to find he’s not only developing some latent paternal instincts toward the lovable moppets but the daughter of a local businessman is also causing some uncomfortable romantic yearnings. Gosh, could the two reluctant grownups and three adorable waifs actually form a family?! Despite a cast of solid Hollywood character actors this bland and relentlessly inoffensive Disney comedy boils down to nothing more than a series of wild west pratfalls and slapstick routines with a bit of forced fuzziness (awwww...orphans! ) to tie it all together. The adults seem to wade through their shallow lines with a twinge of self-conscious embarrassment while the three little leads have as much onscreen charisma as a tin of sardines. To be fair, some stagecoach action scenes are nicely choreographed but a tacked on sequence involving a runaway mine car is pure back-projection cheesiness. Aside from the usual love affair with gunplay inherent in all things Western (don’t worry, no one gets hurt) this bit of cowboy fluff is as “G” as they come.

Army of Darkness (USA 1992) (5): When Ash, an overbearing hardware salesman, comes across an ancient edition of the Necronomicon, the accursed "Book of the Dead", he can't help but dabble in a little black magic much to his regret. Not only does his meddling in the black arts cost him his girlfriend and his right hand, he also inadvertently opens a time vortex which lands him in the year 1300. There, through a series of misadventures, he becomes involved in a war between the local kingdom and a putrefied army of the dead over that same copy of the Necronomicon--the king needs it to defend his people against the ghouls, the zombies need it in order to rule the world, and Ash needs it in order to return to the 20th century. Armed only with his trashed car, a chainsaw, a shotgun and a couple of science textbooks Ash prepares for the biggest showdown of his life. Rife with inside jokes, nerdy humour and inane Three Stooges-style slapstick, Sam Raimi's horror/comedy flick plays like the idiot offspring of The Evil Dead and Monty Python's Holy Grail though far less gory than the former and definitely less funny than the latter while a few feeble nods to the likes of Star Wars and The Day the Earth Stood Still elicit little more than a blink or two. Where the movie excels however is in the final half when an epic battle between a ragtag brigade of medieval knights and an animated horde of skeletal warriors provides a skewed homage to the works of Ray Harryhausen (or is it Jim Henson?). Although this DVD transfer was a bit too dark and fuzzy, watching these two armies hack and insult each other (some of the visuals and one-liners are pretty funny) almost made up for it. A bona fide cult hit with the Tech Support crowd but after all the hype I was left feeling vaguely disappointed.

Arn: The Knight Templar (Sweden 2007) (8): Based on the books by Jan Guillou, this spirited costume epic set in medieval Scandinavia follows the shifting fortunes of Arn, a Swedish Knight Templar sent to defend the Holy Land for a period of twenty years as a form of penance after he falls in love with and impregnates a local chieftain’s daughter. For her part in the affair the daughter, Cecelia, is consigned to a nunnery for an equal length of time and has her newborn son taken away from her. While in Jerusalem Arn proves himself to be an exceptional warrior winning the respect of not only his superiors but his sworn enemy, the legendary Muslim leader Saladin with whom he forms a tentative friendship. But his heart yearns for Cecelia and the hope that one day they will be united once more. Meanwhile back in Sweden, Cecelia holds onto the same desperate hope; but with the Crusades raging in the Middle East and the Danes threatening war from the south, tragedy seems inevitable. With glorious widescreen cinematography that makes the most of its European and Moroccan locations, an international cast of seasoned actors, and an intelligent script that shifts effortlessly between English, Swedish and Arabic, Peter Flinth’s assured film seamlessly combines a rousing historical adventure with a heartbreaking love story. Even in the midst of clashing armies his camera manages to capture the subtlest nuance; a hungry stare or a bloodied crucifix, while scenes of battlefield carnage and desert sandstorms give way to quietly lit chapels and gentle snowfalls. Perhaps he relies a little too heavily on slow motion brooding and soaring chorales, but it’s a small critique for something that kept me captivated for over two hours.

Around the World in 80 Days (USA 1956) (7): Eccentric London businessman Phileas Fogg wagers a sizable bet with his fellow Reform Club members that he can traverse the entire globe in 80 days, quite a feat for 1872. Accompanied by one small suitcase, a satchel full of cash and his multi-talented manservant Passepartout, Phileas begins a journey that will take him soaring over the Alps in a balloon, trekking through an Asian jungle on the back of an elephant, and traversing the American Wild West by steam locomotive. Along the way he and Passepartout will also manage to rescue a doomed princess and fight savage Indians. But forces are afoot to ensure that Fogg fails in his quest; for the stuffed shirts back at the Reform club are not above a little international sabotage in order to protect their investment while a tenacious private investigator is determined to implicate Phileas in a most ingenious crime. Jules Verne’s fantastical story is reduced here to a series of mildly engaging skits separated by prolonged travelogue footage obviously meant to wow audiences with the film’s then brand new 70mm widescreen format. Of course many of the supposedly exotic locales were actually filmed on American sound stages with painted extras giving them that precious “Hollywood Postcard” appearance, but the cinematography is still lovely to look at and the dozens of surprise celebrity cameos (a term coined by producer Michael Todd) will keep movie buffs on their toes. A big ambitious film filled with colourful flourishes and charming period details which nevertheless fails to rise above light entertainment.

The Artist (France 2011) (7): When silent screen star George Valentin accidentally bumps derrieres with an ardent fan, fresh-faced chorus girl Peppy Miller, romance seems inevitable. Weighed down by a loveless marriage, George is drawn to Peppy’s insatiable optimism and joie de vivre while the young ingenue’s much publicized flirting with the older celebrity jumpstarts her own motion picture career. Unfortunately it’s almost 1930 and the age of silent films is coming to an end as “talkies” begin to make their first appearance. Refusing to compromise his artistic integrity for the sake of this latest cinematic fad, Valentin sees his own star power quickly diminishing while Peppy suddenly finds herself the toast of Tinseltown. With his latest film dying at the box office, his assets eaten away by the Great Depression, and only his little dog for companionship (he fired his faithful manservant), Valentin begins nursing his self-pity with unhealthy doses of alcohol; but Peppy has other plans for George, including a most ingenious job offer. Can love truly conquer all or is yesterday’s matinee idol destined to become tomorrow’s tragic headline? Although filmed entirely in English, The Artist has become one of the most celebrated French films in years. This meticulously crafted tribute to Hollywood’s silent era, complete with intertitles, a jazzy score, and rich B&W cinematography, definitely has the appearance of an old classic with a few modern tech twists thrown in; a “full sound” nightmare was especially clever. Furthermore, with his slicked hair and pencil moustache and her permed curls and flapper dresses, handsome leads Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo exude that golden era movie star quality. Add to that a strong supporting cast, some sly references to vintage films, and an eye-popping musical finale, and you have all the makings of a fun night in front of the big screen. But despite the loving attention to period detail and genre motifs (the signature styles of old-school directors are aped throughout), this is not 1930 anymore. They really can’t make ‘em like they used to, nor should they, and all that fluffy romantic melodrama ultimately comes across as elaborate imitation, flattery notwithstanding. Besides, the Best Actor Oscar should have gone to the dog.

The Art of Love (France 1983) (1): The final instalment in Borowczyk’s “Immoral Trilogy” and supposedly based on the work of Ovid. It is 8 A.D. and in one wealthy Roman household it’s adulterous liaisons and tepid orgies all around. Before the day is over a tumescent statue will receive some oral service, a man in bull drag will mate with an ersatz cow and a lethargic maiden will loll about in a fish tank with all the erotic conviction of someone who’s just fallen into a toilet. From the ludicrous script (badly dubbed) to the glaring soundtrack of singing centurions and disco muzak there is nothing even remotely titillating going on here. And, as a final insult to his audience, Borowczyk ends this gobbler with one of the lamest “twists” I’ve seen in some time. It’s a good thing Ovid is already dead because this turd sandwich would have killed him for sure.

As Above, So Below (USA 2014) (6): There are more than 200 miles of tunnels beneath the streets of Paris crammed with the skeletons of six million people which were moved underground centuries ago when the surrounding cemeteries became overcrowded. Drawn to these dusty catacombs in search of the Philosopher’s Stone, that elusive metal which grants unlimited power and immortality, a young archaeologist leads a ragtag documentary crew armed only with headlamps and a few arcane clues. As the team wends its way deeper into the maze of bones strange things begin to happen, things that seem drawn from their collective memories: a childhood piano appears around one corner, a ringing telephone around the next. But when they pass through a forbidden tunnel (ignoring the implicit warning carved directly above it of course) shit gets real as the subterranean necropolis reveals its darkest secret yet. Filmed in that shaky handheld camera style that nauseates as much as it disorients (everyone has their own helmet cam so the audience doesn’t miss a single jolt) this underground treasure hunt cum demonic puzzler plays like a cross between Tomb Raider and Blair Witch as imagined by Dante Alighieri. Of course as with all such horror expeditions its ability to frighten is dependant upon one’s willingness to suspend disbelief—and there are enough “WTF?” moments to make the less forgiving reach for the “eject” button. But for those willing to go along for the ride there are adequate bumps and shocks to keep your interest including an existential head-scratcher of an ending. And the fact that it was filmed in the actual Parisian catacombs themselves with real live bones (the first feature to receive such clearance) is just icing on the cake.

The Ascent (Russia 1977) (9): As the film begins we are faced with an arctic vista of sleet and ice when suddenly, out of a snowbank, a ragtag group of Russian partisans slowly rise like dispirited wraiths amongst the bare trees and frozen earth. Thus begins Larisa Shepitko’s grueling story of two soldiers struggling to stay alive in WWII Russia while still remaining true to their principles. The two men, Kolya and Sotnikov, are sent on a quest by the partisan commander to try and procure much needed food and supplies for the suffering troop. Their journey quickly becomes an odyssey as they encounter the many faces of war; from an elderly collaborator to a struggling widow with three young children to feed. But it is when they are captured by German forces that they face their greatest challenge in the form of a Russian Nazi interrogator who offers them life in exchange for denouncing their beliefs and betraying their comrades. As one man steadfastly refuses to break faith with his cause, even unto death, the other begins to waiver in his convictions, terrified at the prospect of torture and execution. This is when the film takes an unexpected spiritual turn as events in the German detention centre begin to mirror the Passion of Christ complete with temptations, betrayals, and the long march to Calvary. Rife with religious imagery played out against bleak winter landscapes, Shepitko uses B&W cinematography to wring every nuance out of a fall of snow or a trembling shadow. She shifts effortlessly between a handheld verité style and long dreamlike passages which are visually arresting yet do not weaken the film’s underlying gravity. The final scenes of salvation and damnation are delivered with such overpowering intensity I was tempted to hit the pause button just to catch my breath. A classic whose influence can be seen in later films such as Come and See and Aleksei German’s The Last Train.

As It Is In Heaven (Sweden 2004) (2): After a near fatal heart attack cuts his career short a world-famous maestro retires to the small village he left at the age of seven; a move which stirs up a few unhappy childhood memories. At first delighted to have Daniel take over as conductor for their amateur church choir, it isn't long before his big city presence and standoffish manner begin to rankle some of the locals' small town sensibilities. Exaggerated rumours concerning the new choirmaster are soon circulating thanks in large part to one jealous spinster and an emotionally repressed pastor; rumours which threaten to not only divide the community but break up the fledgling choir just as it's on the verge of gaining international notoriety. But, thanks to the power of music, wondrous things begin to happen: an abused wife finds courage, an emotionally scarred woman falls in love, and a pair of former bullies show remorse. Alleluia! This movie is so full of bullshit Hollywood cliches and forced sentimentality it's little wonder it was chosen as Sweden's official entry for Best Foreign Language Oscar. From Daniel's healing affair with the town slut (she teaches him to love again...and ride a bike!) to the glaring religious references, everything about this film rings false and stagy. There are a few memorable lines when the errant pastor receives a tongue-lashing from his furious wife but the final scene at an international choir competition is so blatantly manipulative I had to hit "pause" until I could stop laughing. American-style dreck with a Swedish accent.

The Asphalt Jungle (USA 1950) (9): Newly released from prison, notorious master thief Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider is already planning the biggest heist of his career—one million dollars in gems locked away in the vault of a swank jewellery store. To this end he gathers a small cadre of local crooks bankrolled by a prominent lawyer with a taste for the good life, including a very expensive bleached blonde mistress (an unknown Marilyn Monroe). However, despite Doc’s meticulous planning things begin to fall apart almost from the beginning thanks to a few technical mishaps and the inherent greed of his cohorts. But when the double-crosses begin in earnest everyone’s future begins to look increasingly grim… John Huston’s quintessential noir classic features knockout performances from a cast of Hollywood heavies and enough moody atmosphere for a dozen lesser movies. Shooting in expressive B&W that transforms his unnamed city into a concrete wasteland of littered streets and grimy back rooms, Huston populates his film with crooked cops, backstabbing gangsters, and the prerequisite beautiful women; from Marilyn’s brain-addled temptress to Jean Hagen’s naïve showgirl whose unrequited love for one of Doc’s posse brings her nothing but heartache. An intelligent script crackles with enough angst and menace that Huston wisely refrained from garnishing it with an unnecessary soundtrack…in fact the entire film only contains six minutes of background music heard during the opening credits and returning for the ironically pastoral closing scene. “Crime is nothing but a left-handed form of human endeavour…” says the morally bankrupt lawyer at one point and, despite a tidy little “law and order” service announcement delivered by the city’s upstanding chief of police, Huston’s pessimistic foray into mankind’s darker side would seem to bear that out.


Audience of One (USA 2007) (6): Richard Gazowsky, a charismatic Pentecostal minister based in San Francisco, claims to have received a message from God instructing him to film the world’s greatest biblical-based science fiction epic. Gathering his friends and family around him---none of whom have any film experience---he mortgages his home and culls his meagre flock for all the dimes and nickels he can get in order to form “WYSIWYG” (What You See Is What You Get) Christian Pictures and begins work on Gravity, a film he describes as “Star Wars meets The Ten Commandments”. Traveling between Italy and California with a ragtag crew and some drunken actors he found on Craigslist, Gazowsky quickly realizes that filming the next big thing is not as easy as the Lord led him to believe. With shoddy equipment continuously breaking down, a drug-addled leading man threatening to mutiny, and a mountain of overdue bills piling up (including a lawsuit from the city of San Francisco over unpaid rent), it’s going to take a miracle to get Gravity off the ground. What begins as a lighthearted and often amusing documentary gradually spirals down into something rather sad and pathetic as we see a severely disillusioned wannabe director desperately trying to attain his dream even as he insists it’s “God’s movie”. Tearful prayer sessions calling upon divine monetary intervention are rendered somewhat insincere as we see him try to bluff and lie his way out of one jam after another; in one particularly disturbing scene Gazowsky attends an industry convention in Las Vegas where he brags about his two-hundred million dollar budget and the filming he plans to do all around the world. In another scene we catch a glimpse of his grandiose delusions as he tells his dwindling congregation about the Lord’s eight-fold plan for him which includes an airline, a television empire, and an outer space colony. Meanwhile his mother, who founded the church he now presides over, looks on with a mixture of sadness and regret. Cunning con artist, deluded dream-chaser, or perhaps a little bit of both, one is still left with the distinct impression that the small voice of God in the back of Gazowsky’s head sounds an awful lot like his own insatiable ego.

Audrey Rose (USA 1977) (3):  John Beck’s gorgeous blue eyes and tight butt are the main attractions in this tepid spin on an “Exorcist” theme in which the only mystery is not the existence of reincarnation but rather how a group of seasoned actors managed to wade through such a corny script without giggling.  The story opens with little Audrey Rose dying in a fiery car crash.  Cut to Manhattan 11 years later where Ivy, the googly-eyed daughter of  upper-class parents, is having disturbing nightmares of being burned alive.  When Audrey’s dad (a distracted Anthony Hopkins) shows up on the scene claiming Ivy is really his reincarnated daughter and demanding visitation rights all hell should break loose.  But it doesn’t.  What follows is a lot of spiritual mumbo-jumbo, 70’s style, culminating in a ludicrous court trial and an ending that is unexpectedly bleak though equally ludicrous.  The director could at least have had Beck take his shirt off just once, dammit...

Au Hasard Balthazar (France 1966) (4): A young girl’s pet donkey provides a hairy metaphor in Robert Bresson’s glaringly obvious religious allegory. Loved by his first owner, the virginal Marie (get it?), Balthazar is eventually pawned off to a succession of owners including a thief, a murderer, and a miser, before ending up back in Marie’s stable. Along the way he will be alternately used and abused, reviled and cherished, as his placid eyes behold every vice and virtue mankind has to offer—including Marie’s repeated falls from grace. Viewed by one grieving mother as a saint of sorts, Balthazar patiently brays and snorts while his human counterparts wax philosophical on everything from human vanity to the nature of sin before he finally meets his own little Calvary in a field full of bleating sheep (get it yet?). Marred by a stilted script and a host of lifeless performances, Bresson’s opus is further weighed down by a few too many narrative gaps and an overabundance of symbolism (oh look, he’s carrying gold and frankincense!). In the hands of a director like Luis Buñuel or Carl Dreyer this tale of an ass elevated to sainthood would go in the most obvious of directions but Bresson asks us to take it all at face value and that is one direction I’m not willing to go.

Au Revoir Les Enfants  (France 1988 ) (9):  In WWII France a privileged young boy becomes separated from his classmates during a school outing. He suddenly realizes that outside the walls of his comfortable Catholic boarding school lies a dark and threatening forest filled with wild animals.....some of which walk on two legs. This is perhaps the defining scene in Louis Malle's beautifully understated opus about the loss of childhood innocence amidst the horrors of war. Malle imbues his film with a sense of tragic irony.....children play silly war-like games while real atrocities occur a few miles away; images of Christ and the Virgin look down helplessly upon scenes of petty theft and everyday cruelty; and betrayal comes in the form of an innocent glance. A sad, gentle film free of artifice and bombast, which makes the final farewell all the more tragic.

Autobiography of a Flea (USA 1976) (8): Hypocrisy in its basest forms...moral, sexual and religious...forms the cornerstone of this period romp based on a 19th century erotic manuscript. Opening with the susurrant strains of a harpsichord the camera pans an immaculately appointed boudoir before focusing on a pampered pooch vigorously chewing its ass. This is when we are first introduced to the film’s narrator, a verbose body louse who has a keen interest in the puzzling behaviour of humans. Jumping through a convenient keyhole he finds a new home for himself on Belle, a curvaceous yet maddeningly naive debutante who’s just discovering her own sexuality. What follows is a series of lighthearted adventures involving lusty priests, lecherous uncles and oversexed hayseeds as Belle’s chastity falls into disrepair and is replaced by an increasingly cunning libido. In one of the more interesting scenes, a spartan church rectory plays host to a wholly secular gangbang (with John Holmes showing off his gift from God); while in another segment the flea saves Belle from an unwanted advance by delivering a well placed bite on her attacker’s dangling bits. It may lack the darkly salacious wit of the Marquis de Sade, and the faux Victorian dialogue gets tiresome after a while but the elaborate sets and costumes are well done and the energetic performances fun to watch even if the actual acting is hopelessly uneven. A good effort and certainly one of the better porn flicks to emerge from the 70s.

Autopsy (USA 2008) (2): Part of the After Dark Horrorfest’s 8 Films to Die For this little stink bomb has neither the wit nor the humour to raise it above the level of juvenile trash. A car load of hysterical teenage archetypes end up in a creepy hospital run by a staff of kooky horror film clichés who view their patients as being somewhat less than the sum of their parts. Here they must endure the usual cheap shocks and gratuitous gore until the only one left standing is the one you predicted would survive at the film's outset. The carnage is about what you’d expect although the “hanging guts” scene had a certain nasty charm and the “girl gone wild” twist at the end was mercifully brief. Has the genre really sunk this low?

Away From Her (Canada 2006) (8):  A soft, gentle film about a couple coming undone due to Alzheimer’s disease.  As Grant enters his autumn years, Fiona slowly retreats into an eternal springtime of sunshine and fading memories.  Pinsent plays the husband with great restraint, often using nothing more than a glance to convey the depths of the man’s despair while Christie brings a sense of graceful dignity to Fiona, holding her head high even as she fades away.  But it is Dukakis’ crusty yet practical Marian that keeps the film firmly anchored and prevents it from slipping into maudlin sentimentality.  Polley accents the film with subtle shifts of timelines, a keen eye for visuals....blue shadows in a wintry wood, delicate wildflowers covered in frost.....and a few sly elements of pure Canadiana that let you know this film belongs north of the 49th.  A remarkable achievement.

The Awful Truth (USA 1937) (8): Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are perfectly matched in this sparkling little confection voted one of the top comedies of all time by Premiere magazine. They play Jerry and Lucy Warriner, New York socialites whose marriage is coming undone thanks to a few innocent fibs and a general mistrust of each other. With only ninety days to go before their divorce settlement becomes final the former lovebirds try getting into the dating scene once more, she with an Oklahoma oil tycoon and he with a ditzy nightclub singer and sullen debutante. But, the awful truth is they’re actually ambivalent about ending their relationship and thus spend way too much time trying to sabotage one another’s attempts at finding new love. A partially improvised script crackles with witty comebacks and double entendres as the Warriner’s verbal sparring goes from casual insults to a catty game of one-upmanship. In two of the film’s funnier scenes Jerry sets his soon-to-be ex up for a dance floor fail and she later retaliates by arriving at his new girlfriend’s estate pretending to be a drunken sister. A chic urban comedy sure to put a smile on your face! And yes, the Warriner’s dog, “Mr. Smith”, also played Asta in The Thin Man series.


The Baba Best of Baba Alla (Russia 2006) (2): With her toothless grimace, sagging breasts and fat unwiped ass, Baba Alla has certainly earned the title of world’s oldest and ugliest whore. In Yakov Levi’s collection of juvenile short films we see the shambling grotesque as she squeezes her fungus-yellowed toes into a pair of disco pumps, waves a crusted feminine pad at passing teenagers, and cleans cockroaches out of her vagina with a toilet brush. Aided by Penisella (the chick with a dick) and Dinkerbell the Cock Fairy, Levi’s theatre of disgust is a mostly unfunny mishmash of flabby guts, tonsillar close-ups and grossly exaggerated faux cumshots which make the works of John Waters seem like pure genius. Add to that a pair of completely gratuitous asides involving haunted matroshka dolls and a trio of busty co-eds who raise the ghost of the Marquis de Sade and you are left with two good laughs, a few groans, and a whole lot of blank staring.

The Babadook (Australia 2014) (9): Single mother Amelia is having trouble with her precocious son Samuel, a hyperactive six-year old who not only believes in monsters but takes elaborate steps to protect the two of them by fashioning homemade dart guns and booby traps in the basement of their old home. Born on the same day his father died—a horrendous accident which still haunts his mother—Sam has become extremely sensitive to the opinions of others, his erratic behaviour alternating between violent tantrums and forlorn withdrawal. Now, thanks to an especially scary storybook that he found on his bedroom shelf he’s more convinced than ever that a malevolent spirit is hellbent on destroying him and his mother. Presented in threatening rhymes and illustrated with macabre pop-up illustrations the book tells the tale of “Mr. Babadook”, an evil man in top hat and coat who sneaks into houses at night and wreaks havoc before turning his sights on the unlucky inhabitants. Despite assuring Samuel to the contrary, Amelia begins to suspect that this most inappropriate bedtime story is responsible for more than just a few childish nightmares. And then her own bad dreams begin… Childhood angst and unresolved grief come together to form a most diabolical bogeyman in writer/director Jennifer Kent’s first feature film; a taut psychological mindfuck that’s equally effective as a straight-up ghost story. Playing like every campfire tale you’ve ever heard, there are enough bumps in the night—not to mention one very scary armoire—to keep you whistling in the dark for weeks. Not content to simply rely on standard genre jolts however, Kent elicits much of the movie’s sense of dread through old clips (as Amelia flips through late night TV stations she encounters everything from big bad wolves and sex ads to Italian giallo) and clever camerawork including some of the most evocative dream sequences since Mia Farrow turned out the lights in Rosemary’s Baby. But there is a deeper unease beneath the film’s wicked chills, one that speaks of a widow’s despair and a child’s fear of abandonment—for the horror in the house presents a very different face to mother and son. Finally, even though her film’s final moments pay due respect to The Exorcist and Poltergeist, Kent brings it all together for an unexpected finale with a distinctly feminine sensibility. And the performances are amazing too.

Baby Blood (France 1990) (5):  When a malevolent pork sausage makes a home for itself in an unsuspecting woman’s uterus, “female empowerment” takes on a whole new meaning in this French splatter film.  It isn’t long before the little cocktail weenie has her chugging back the gallons of fresh human blood it needs in order to survive and grow into the  big bad monster it always wanted to be...think of a phlegmy calzone designed by H. P. Lovecraft.  Despite the poor editing, bad performances, and lackluster script there are still some admirable elements here.  For one thing, the ongoing telepathic dialogue between woman and worm has a certain wry wit to it and some of the underlying humour manages to hit the mark, although the sandwich board advertising “Baby Blood 2” was a bit obvious.  Lastly, the gore effects are a pretty cool mixture of George Romero and Monty Python.  I’ve seen worse.

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (USA 1947) (7): Buoyed by an Oscar-winning screenplay and an all-star cast (Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, Shirley Temple) this screwball comedy of misunderstandings and misplaced affections is sure to make you smile, if not exactly laugh out loud. When a roguish artist is put in a precarious position by a lovestruck teenager her older sister, a circuit court judge, makes him an offer he can't refuse; pretend to date the young girl until she can get over her infatuation or else face a number of trumped up charges. Things get complicated however when the judge begins to have romantic feelings of her own and her wannabe boyfriend, an assistant D.A., decides enough is enough. A final showdown in a swank nightclub involving shouting matches and birthday cakes is truly funny!

Bad Day at Black Rock (USA 1955) (8): Towards the end of WWII a one-armed man breezes into the tiny desert community of Black Rock; his identity unremarkable, his purpose unknown—and immediately we’re aware that something is not quite right. Greeted with suspicion and outright hostility by the town’s dozen or so inhabitants, John J. Macreedy (a soft-spoken Spencer Tracy) is nevertheless determined to seek out the man he’s come to find despite being stonewalled by the sheriff and threatened by the local land baron and his posse of goons. It seems Black Rock has a terrible secret to hide and no one wants to see Macreedy live long enough to discover it. Filmed in widescreen Cinemascope with vistas of endless sand and towering mesas to heighten its sense of isolation, John Sturges’ tale of an ugly small town and the even uglier people who live there paints a dire picture of patriotism’s other side—the xenophobia and racism, and the righteous mindset of the pack. Although a bit too extreme to be considered a microcosm of America at large (unless you concentrate on the civil rights travails of the South) Bad Day certainly casts an unwelcome light on one of that country’s darker wartime legacies. Presenting his film as a dry and dusty chamber piece featuring a cast of A-list character actors, Sturges slowly ramps up the tension using long, almost languorous shots under a burning sun. The result is a dim and pessimistic parable set in a West more villainous than wild.

Bad Grandpa (USA 2013) (7): When his drug-addicted daughter is sent to prison yet again, puerile octogenarian Irving Zisman is saddled with the task of transporting his 8-year old grandson across country to live with his slovenly crackhead father. Recently widowed and perpetually horny, Irving resents little Billy’s “cock blocking” presence and tries his damnedest to balance his guardianship duties with getting laid any way he can…often involving the kid in some highly questionable pranks along the way. As for Billy, although he willingly goes along with his grandfather’s harebrained schemes he secretly longs for a brand new family… Straight-up adolescent comedy, right? WRONG! This is a Jackass production, that giggling troupe of comedy neanderthals who unleash their offensive stunts and grotesque bodily function humour upon unsuspecting rubes which they then secretly film à la Candid Camera. Star Johnny Knoxville, (forty-three going on twelve) is completely convincing in his layers of old man make-up while young Jackson Nicoll plays the foil with a wide-eyed innocence that’s almost criminal. Substituting a series of non-PC gags for dramatic narrative Knoxville and his pint-sized accomplice cruise the open highways of America, hidden camera crew in tow, grossing out/offending/enraging as many people as they can and capturing it all on tape for our perverse amusement. Among the high (low?) points: a farting contest at Denny’s gets messy; grandpa dangles his rubbery nut sack at a ladies’ club; and the two instigators, with Billy in full circuit queen drag, conspire to tear the “Carolina Cutie Pies’ Young Miss Pageant” a new arsehole. I won’t even mention the sexual encounter with a vending machine or grandma’s most unfortunate memorial service. Disgusting, childish, and a sure indication of just how low popular entertainment has sunk. It’s also funny as hell! So I’ll watch something by Bergman tomorrow…bite me.

The Bad Sleep Well (Japan 1960) (9): Akira Kurosawa’s angry film noir not only examines corporate corruption in high places but is also highly critical of the mindless loyalty engendered in Japanese workers; some of whom would willingly kill themselves rather than face the humiliation of testifying against their crooked bosses. When one such man is shamed into committing suicide after he discovers his superiors are up to their eyebrows in a scheme involving rigged government contracts, his enraged son Nishi decides to go deep undercover in order to expose the men responsible. Going so far as to change his identity and marry the boss’ crippled daughter, Yoshiko, in order to gain the old man’s confidence, Nishi uses his meagre inheritance to unleash an ingenious plan aimed at gaining confessions from all concerned. But not even he is prepared for the lengths criminals will go to in order to protect their own—for not only do wicked men sleep peacefully, they have trouble distinguishing the light from the darkness. in the meantime his wholly innocent wife and hot-tempered brother-in-law are having some distressing revelations of their own. Brilliantly scripted and accompanied by a hip jazz score, Kurosawa’s critical eye follows his characters from opulent hotel suites and boardrooms to the desolation of a bombed factory; a crumbling remnant of Japan’s military defeat just fifteen years earlier. As the story progresses however you come to realize that the lines between “good” and “bad” are not so easily drawn, for Nishi’s memories of his father aren’t quite as golden as he would like and his marriage of convenience to the trusting Yoshiko carries within it the same aura of unscrupulousness he’s vowed to expose. Furthermore, in his single-minded zeal to wreak vengeance (and ease some personal guilt) Nishi is only too willing to step outside the law himself. A complex and cynical film whose bleak ending once served as a wake-up call but now, sadly, seems more of a prophecy.

Bait (Australia 2012) (5): As if to prove that the SyFy channel is not the only source of Z-grade chills, those wacky Australians have combined The Mist with Jaws to give us a waterlogged thriller that’s as much fun to watch as it is to slam. When a tidal wave wipes out an idyllic beachfront community a handful of survivors find themselves trapped in a flooded supermarket with a pair of hungry great white sharks patrolling the aisles (I kid you not!) Cut off from the outside world the plucky shoppers—including a delinquent daughter and her policeman dad, a pair of robbers, a love triangle, and a bickering couple trapped in a car with their yappy pomeranian (best actor by far)—must devise a plan to outwit the giant fish and escape while the director tosses a coin to see who gets eaten next. Despite some regrettable CGI effects which probably looked better in big screen 3D, the submerged grocery store sets are pretty convincing and there’s enough squishy gore to make you either heave or howl depending on your sensibilities. The weakest link however is a bumbling script delivered by an amateurish cast desperate to prove that they can too act and a ridiculously grandiose musical score that merely serves to underline the film’s silliness—a pair of “Rambo: Shark Killer” sequences are unintentional (?) comedy gold. It still serves up a cheesy treat though…who needs Sharknado when you’ve got Sharknami? And yes boys and girls, there is indeed a sequel on the way…

Ballad of a Soldier (Russia 1959) (7): When a nineteen-year old signalman stationed at the Russian front singlehandedly turns back an enemy tank invasion he is rewarded with a six day pass—just long enough to journey back to his little village and spend a day with his mother. But Alexei’s trek by train, foot, and automobile will turn into an odyssey of sorts as he offers a crippled soldier a new lease on life, eases the mind of a dying father, and pricks the conscience of a wayward wife. In addition, thanks to a number of missed connections, he will also encounter fellow traveler Shura who is on her way to see her injured fiancé and the two of them will fall madly in love only to have fate and circumstance threaten their future happiness. And all the while Alexei’s six day leave is quickly coming to an end and he has yet to reach his village… A fine piece of Soviet agitprop cast with the usual assortment of brave warriors defending the motherland and stoic peasants threshing grain beneath a glorious sky. Unlike other directors of the time however Grigorly Chukhray puts aside the hammer and sickle and fashions a beautifully sad love story instead as two young idealists literally pass in the night. A wistful musical score underlines both love and tragedy alike while Chukrhay’s keen eye pulls off a couple of gorgeous cinematic coups: a battleground comes to resemble one of Dante’s hellish circles; a lone woman runs through an endless field of wheat; and two lovers embrace against an explosion of sunbeams. Perhaps a bit self-conscious at times, and a droning voiceover towards the end needlessly pushes the point, but still a grand old entry from the heyday of Mosfilm Studios.

The Band Wagon (USA 1953) (7): Writers Adolph and Betty Comden completely rewrite an old 1930’s stage hit and in the hands of director Vincente Minnelli it’s turned into what many critics consider to be one of the quintessential MGM musicals. Former matinee idol Tony Hunter (an aging Fred Astaire) is well aware of the fact his star has all but faded as times and tastes have changed. But when his playwright friends Lester and Lily Marton (Nanette Fabray, Oscar Levant) offer him a chance to star in their latest Broadway revue he’s at first reluctant even though it’s to be directed by the legendary Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan). He eventually gives in and that’s when the troubles begin: Tony and ballerina co-star Gabrielle Gerard (a stunning Cyd Charisse) take an instant dislike to each other, the rehearsals are a technical disaster, and a pretentious Cordova insists on taking the Marton’s play—a frothy musical comedy about a children’s author—and revamping it into a contemporary version of Faust with fire and brimstone and tortured souls galore. Can everyone settle their artistic differences before the entire production becomes an even bigger flop than it already promises to be? Marvelous technicolor sets are steeped in 1950’s modernism yet the song & dance numbers are charmingly old-fashioned from the now iconic “That’s Entertainment!” to the pure country corn of “Louisiana Hayride”. But the show belongs to Astaire and Charisse who seem to float on air as they swirl and swing across the stage beginning with a fanciful pas de deux in Central Park and ending in a rather odd but watchable jazz number about a Manhattan murder mystery. The rest of the cast perform admirably and despite a forced love interest between its two stars the film still gives off enough sparks to assuage all but the most cynical of viewers.

The Barefoot Contessa (USA 1954) (4): Celebrated movie star Maria D”Amata (an unconvincing Ava Gardner) has died after making only three films. As acquaintances gather in the Italian countryside for a modest funeral three mourners look back on her meteoric rise and tragic death: writer/director Harry Dawes (an unconvincing Humphrey Bogart) who knew her when she was an unknown Spanish flamenco dancer named Vargas and has acted as her mentor and guardian angel ever since; PR man Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien, convincing enough to snag an Oscar) who admired her from afar while a pair of international tycoons fought over her like a bone; and wealthy Italian count Vincenzo Toriato-Favrini (a ham-stuffed Rossano Brazzi) whose love stole her heart yet led to her tragic downfall just the same. In the process we are treated to three self-indulgent bouts of post mortem navel-gazing as each man beats his breast while Ava, in flashback after interminable flashback, tries to embody the object of their individual obsessions through stilted mannerisms and a bargain basement Latina accent. A ludicrous soap opera script supposedly borrows elements from the real life bios of Rita Hayworth and Gardner herself (poor girl gets a break, finds fame, marries rich) adds a touch of Pygmalion (check out that tombstone statue) then proceeds to garnish it with so much Hollywood flotsam and affected monologues that had it been handled slightly better—or slightly worse—you could almost enjoy it as a satirical take on the film industry itself with characters constantly reminding one another that reality is not a script, dammit! In once scene, perhaps the film’s most shamelessly awful, Brazzi’s tortured count explains to Maria why he won’t be joining her in their conjugal bed and when she runs to Harry Dawes with a hare-brained scheme to make her unhappy husband smile again he counters with “You’re talking mawkish nonsense you’ve remembered from cheap films!” If ever a pot called a kettle black…

Baron Blood 
 (Italy 1972) (2):  A little slice of fromage from Mario Bava about a stupid tourist visiting the family estate in Austria who unwittingly raises his evil ancestor from the dead.  Naturally the reanimated Baron goes on a killing spree and it’s up to the idiot and his bimbo sidekick to have him put down...again. I remember seeing this film as a child and it scared the HELL out of me.  Thirty-five years later and it all looks so corny--from the uneven editing and poor continuity (it’s daytime, no, it’s nighttime, no wait, it’s daytime) to the awful acting and mediocre effects nothing seems to work.  Add to that a paint-by-number script and a musical score that sounds like it belongs in a stag film and you have all the makings of a bad movie.  Sadly, it’s not quite bad enough to be good.

Barry Lyndon (UK 1975) (7): Stanley Kubrick’s sumptuous three hour costume epic follows the rise and fall of Redmond Barry, an 18th century Irish libertine who manages to rise far above his humble station in life as he goes from penniless criminal to military hero to kept husband of a wealthy widow. But his single-minded pursuit of the good life, coupled with the insular mindset of the aristocracy with whom he tries to ingratiate himself, lead to his ultimate undoing. If the story is hardly original its glorious widescreen presentation more than compensates. Utilizing a new lens technology which allowed him to capture key scenes using only ambient light, Kubrick fills the screen with soft pastel landscapes and baroque interiors awash in golden candlelight. Elaborate costumes and make-up coupled with meticulous period sets, apparently inspired by the paintings of Thomas Gainsborough among others, give the film a gauzy romantic feel complimented by a musical score of lilting Gaelic ballads and sombre orchestral movements. A lacklustre script does manage to deliver a few choice lines, but Ryan O’Neal’s leaden performance (his appointment had more to do with studio politics than artistic merit) is ultimately distracting; his portrayal of Barry being neither sympathetic nor engaging. A pity considering everything else was pretty well spot on.

Basket Case (USA 1982) (7): Every now and again a horror film comes along which is so godawful terrible that it should be dismissed before the opening credits finish scrolling—yet it’s made with such childlike (and slightly sadistic) zeal and is terrible in so many right ways that you find yourself cheering the beleaguered director on even as you break out in fits of laughter. Such is the case with Frank Henenlotter’s zero-budget “video nasty” about Siamese twins Duane and Belial (one normal, one monstrous) forcibly separated in their teens and now wandering the sleazy streets of Manhattan seeking vengeance on the doctors who performed the operation. Hiding his stunted brother in a wicker basket that he carries with him everywhere, soft spoken Duane (Donovan lookalike Kevin Van Hentenryck), sets up base in a fleabag hotel off of Times Square and begins plotting one messy murder after another. However, despite a crippling psychic connection with Belial (who looks like a mutant scrotum with fangs and claws) Duane nevertheless finds time to start dating vacuous blonde receptionist Sharon, a love interest which turns Belial green with envy and sets in motion all manner of good bloody fun. Cheap and tawdry from the squirts of fake gore to Belial’s stop-motion styrofoam rampages, there is a definite sense of humour at work in Henenlotter’s film as if cast and crew knew exactly what they were doing and only gradually let their audience in on the joke. Featuring B-movie performances all around and enough grotesque effects to make even the most jaded viewer crack a smile although, ironically, it was the panty-sniffing scene and not the eviscerations that grossed me out the most. Small wonder it was released by “Analysis Films”.

Battle in Heaven (Mexico 2005) (5): Pudgy, middle-aged chauffeur Marcos has a few things on his mind. Not only is he having an affair with Ana, his wealthy employer’s rebellious daughter, but he and his wife have accidentally killed their friend’s baby in a botched kidnapping attempt; a murder he casually mentions to Ana one day while visiting her at the brothel where she moonlights as a prostitute. With his wife urging him to keep his mouth shut and his young lover insisting he turn himself in, a moral tug-of-war takes place in Marcos’ head with a guilty conscience waging war against self-preservation. His inner turmoil begins to colour the world around him as Mexico City suddenly teems with portentous images both sacred and grotesque; an impatient mother manhandles her child, a procession of pilgrims file past singing hymns, and a subway passenger sports a devilish mask. Things finally come to a head inside a suitably grand cathedral as Marcos makes his ultimate decision... Reygadas’ strange aesthetic (a poor attempt to emulate Gus van Sant?) is evident in every frame of this bombastic mishmash of half-baked ideas; there are long takes including a 360° pan off a balcony, annoying sound effects with ticking clocks and oddly placed classical music figuring prominently, and some explicitly carnal non-sequiturs featuring chubby bums and sweaty genitals. Images of conflict abound, whether its a cadre of armed guards or a spirited soccer game, and there are more than a few subtle digs at both religious fervour and blind nationalism. The overall effect may be disquieting but any attempts at achieving greater depth are ruined by the flat and lifeless performances of his hopelessly amateur cast. Despite its grandiose title and some dazzling visuals, Battle in Heaven comes across as an experimental film gone terribly awry. Shallow, indulgent and emotionally sterile.

The Battle of the River Plate [Pursuit of the Graf Spee] (UK 1956) (7): At the beginning of WWII, Germany patrols the Atlantic with a small fleet of “pocket battleships”; small, fast and highly maneuverable warships able to conduct raids on Allied convoy routes and then make their escape before reinforcements can arrive. One such ship, the Admiral Graf Spee, is especially troublesome in the waters of the south Atlantic where it is responsible for sinking several merchant vessels. Caught in a clever ambush by three British gunships off the coast of Uruguay, the Graf Spee is badly damaged despite its superior fire power and forced to limp into the harbour at Montevideo. Being a neutral country Uruguay is required by international law to assist the Germans in making their crippled ship seaworthy, without providing any ammunition or weapons repairs, after which its captain is obligated to leave their waters. Meanwhile just off the coast, with only three ships to their name and over a hundred miles of ocean to patrol, the British are preparing for a game of cat and mouse with the damaged battleship once it re-enters international waters. As both sides engage in heated diplomatic negotiations with the Uruguayan government (and some public opinion propaganda on the side) the deadline for the Graf Spee’s departure is quickly approaching... Powell and Pressburger’s fine tale of duty and honour under pressure defies the usual flag-waving conventions we’ve come to expect from war dramas and instead seeks out the human component beneath the uniforms. There are no lionhearted heros or loathsome villains here but rather a handful of commanding officers, three British, one German, bound by conflicting sets of principles to carry out their separate missions to the best of their ability. An air of mutual respect develops between them despite the fact their orders are to attack one another, a respect which makes the brief yet gripping visions of battle carnage all the more tragic. In one particularly poignant scene a group of shipboard P.O.W.s are given boxes of Christmas decorations to brighten up their holding cell, while in another scene captured officers salute the coffins of enemy sailors killed during a particularly heavy assault. A most un-warlike battle film in which adversity is met with quiet courage and a victorious celebration is tempered by a profound sense of loss. The understated musical score and wide horizon cinematography are marvelous.

Battle Royale (Japan 2000) (7): In the near future a global stock market collapse and record unemployment has pushed Japanese society to the brink of total chaos and nowhere is this more apparent than in the school system. With truancy and juvenile delinquency reaching dangerous levels the government is forced to pass the Battle Royale Act which effectively allows the state to randomly kidnap groups of students, place them on a deserted island, and give them 48 hours in which they must either kill or be killed with the last kid standing declared the winner. Thus it is that forty-two unlucky grads from Tokyo wake up from a drugged haze to find themselves equipped with basic military rations, a “mystery weapon”, and two days to off each other. As a bonus incentive they’re also fitted with explosive dog collars to prevent escape and encourage full cooperation because in the unlikely event that more than one person lives past the deadline, everyone’s head blows up! It’s Hunger Games served up sushi-style with extra helpings of graphic teen-on-teen violence and a pervasive sick sense of humour which leaves you chuckling even as the body count rises. Director Kinji Fukasaku taps into everyone’s dark highschool fantasies as old classroom resentments explode in a hail of knives and bullets, sweethearts become killing duos, and the class geek plans to even the score with every authority figure he can find. Plus, just for fun, Fukasaku also throws a relentless psychopath and murderous nymphomaniac into the mix. But, blatant social satire aside, it’s ultimately all about the violence; from an hilariously deadpan indoctrination video in which a perky co-ed welcomes the unwilling recruits to the island, to the final bullet-riddled comeuppance. Perhaps a bit problematic in this age of school shootings (the film was released in Japan…with official disapproval…just a year after Columbine) but with the great “Beat” Takeshi Kitano playing a disgruntled professor-cum-camp commandant how can anyone take this seriously?

The Battleship Potemkin (Russia 1925) (8): Sergei Eisenstein’s breathtaking piece of Soviet agitprop is just as engaging ninety years later even if the Communist posturing elicits more irony than insurrection these days. When sailors aboard the battleship Prince Tavrichesky (nicknamed “Potemkin”) stage a mutiny to protest their poor living conditions they manage to subdue the commanding officers but not before one of their own members is shot dead by the captain’s guards. When news of seaman Vakulinchuk’s martyrdom reaches the port of Odessa, a city already gripped in revolutionary fervour, its citizens take to the streets in a peaceful show of solidarity—peaceful that is until the Czar’s troops arrive… Banned in France and the UK until the 1950’s due to a fear of working class unrest this masterful silent classic has gained a rightful place on countless “best of” lists including Premiere magazine’s “100 Movies That Shook The World”. From painterly views of ship’s cannons backlit by glorious clouds to a string of close-ups showing zealous sailors and peasants alike embracing the party line, there is nothing subtle about this movie especially when a tense naval stand-off takes an unexpected turn. But propaganda aside, the true genius of Eisentstein’s vision can be summed up in its climactic bloodbath scene shot on the great steps of Odessa when the military began firing indiscriminately into the crowd. Directing hundreds of extras into a coherent pandemonium you can sense the panic and horror as rifles go off and bodies fall leaving us with two iconic images: a distraught woman confronts the Czar’s forces while cradling her dying child, and a baby carriage careens down endless flights of concrete steps after the child’s mother falls prey to a bullet. I wonder what Eisenstein would make of Communism’s modern legacy.

Beauty (South Africa 2011) (9): Sure to raise eyebrows and hackles among those expecting the relative safety of a “gay film”, writer/director Oliver Hermanus’ agonizing character study of one man raging in a Hell of his own making nevertheless took home the Queer Palm at Cannes. Built like a bull and with a temperament to match, Afrikaner businessman François van Heerden (a brooding Deon Lotz) seems to have it all: a comfortable marriage, a successful lumber mill, and healthy doses of racism and homophobia. Homophobia directed towards effeminate queers that is, certainly not the clandestine circle of like-minded men he gets together with now and again for some secretive man-on-man group sex. Having thus far managed to keep his sexual appetites separate from his role of patriarch and breadwinner François is thrown a curve ball when, at his daughter’s wedding, he meets and falls in lust with Christian, the decidedly heterosexual son of a former business partner. Infatuated with the handsome young man François is at first content to engage in chance encounters and genial small talk, but there is a darker, unbalanced side to the desperately closeted older man and what began as a passing fancy swiftly becomes a dangerous obsession with tragic possibilities… There is a hint of Michael Haneke’s emotional disengagement in Hermanus’ sometimes clinical approach to storytelling and his brilliant use of long static shots which show little yet speak volumes compares favourably to the very best in contemporary Romanian cinema. Long takes of François, outlined in red strobes, fidgeting in a gay disco or staring with singleminded intensity at the object of his desire from across a sunlit beach cause the first stirrings of tension while an innocuous scene of him cleaning out a stagnated swimming pool carries a sinister overtone—and throughout the movie images of long poorly lit corridors, physical barricades, and happily out gay couples cavorting just beyond his reach provide appropriate visual metaphors. The closet is a terrible place to be, and in the case of François it can also be ultimately destructive. A despairing and uncomfortable film, masterfully told right up to its harrowing climax and deliberately open-ended coda.

The Beauty of the Devil (France 1950) (9): Director René Clair’s cheeky adaptation of the Faust legend stars legendary Swiss character actor Michel Simon (a Gallic version of Monty Woolley) as the boisterous demon Mephistopheles who comes to Earth seeking to buy the soul of unhappily aging Professor Faust (also played by Simon). Newly retired and despondent over having wasted his life pursuing nothing but academia, Faust gladly accepts the second chance at youth, fortune, and romance offered by Mephisto…seemingly at no obligation. But the devil is in the details and the elderly doctor, now a dashing young man, quickly discovers that being twenty again isn’t all it’s cracked up to be especially with a crafty old demon intent on separating him from his eternal soul with every kind of trick and temptation imaginable. With his dreams turning to dust and damnation awaiting him, it’s going to take a miracle—and perhaps a bit of stupid luck—for Faust to deny the devil his due. Told with much humour and diabolical subterfuge, Clair’s film belongs squarely to Simon whose blustering presence and good-natured evil carries everyone through the occasional dry spell—his overly confident Mephistopheles both the instigator of chaos and its collateral victim. The rest of the cast, notably Gérard Philipe as the young Faust and Nicole Besnard as his gypsy love, put in fine performances aided in large part by a musical score of choral arrangements and Michel Kelber’s grandiose cinematography which spins between 18th century cobblestone streets, pastoral countrysides, and the royal palace itself. Blasphemy is rarely this much fun!

The Beaver (USA 2011) (2): Walter Black is the worn out CEO of a failing toy company whose descent into depression and alcoholism seems destined to end in suicide, just like his father before him. His wife can no longer relate to him, his youngest son has become invisible and his eldest son is keeping a checklist of all his dad's peccadillos so he can avoid becoming like him. All seems lost until Walter happens upon a discarded puppet lying in a trash bin. The comical little beaver quickly becomes Walter's aggressively assertive alter ego; drawing up million dollar business deals, reuniting him with his estranged family and becoming something of a television personality. No longer able to speak for himself Walter instead gives full rein to the puppet which never leaves his arm for a second. Meanwhile his eldest son, who's also making a living of sorts by pretending to be someone else (he sells term papers for two hundred bucks a pop), is slowly sinking into the same abyss as his father. Things come to a head when Walter realizes the Beaver is not as benevolent as it pretends to be and a violent confrontation leads to lots of group hugs. This is the kind of insipid crapfest that festival audiences insist on crediting with profound psychological depth instead of seeing it for the shallow one-trick tearjerker it actually is. As the drunken schizoid Walter, Mel Gibson (playing more of a cameo than an actual role) mopes and mugs his way along while feigning some nondescript British accent for his hairy sidekick. As his long-suffering wife Jody Foster (miscast!!) just stares and weeps into the camera. There are a few meaty bits along the way, a valedictorian's speech towards the end has some merit, but it's all lost amidst the dramatic cliches and unintentionally hilarious showdowns; watching Gibson and the Beaver duke it out had me howling! Terrible!

Becket (UK 1964) (6):  Lackluster historical soap opera recounting the tempestuous relationship between Henry II and Thomas Becket.  Gross historical inaccuracies and artistic license aside, the film is just plain dull.  Burton delivers his lines in a flat monotone as if he were nursing a perpetual hangover (which he probably was), and O’Toole portrays the young king as if he were a bitchy old queen.....although he would do a better job of it a few years later in “The Lion In Winter”.  The rest of the talented cast is pretty much wasted, except for John Gielgud’s feisty turn as King Louis of France.  Even though some of the sets are impressive and the cinematography appropriately grandiose it was still a royal letdown.

Bedazzled (UK 1967) (9): Timid short-order cook Stanley Moon (Dudley Moore at his mousiest) dreams about making a move on Margaret, the strangely coiffed waitress. Alas, dream is all he can do thanks to a terminal lack of self-confidence, a fact that drives him to the brink of suicide. Help of a sort arrives in the form of George Spiggot (Peter Cook, brilliant!) a suave, smooth-talking con artist who also goes by the names Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Satan. Spiggot offers to grant Moon seven wishes in exchange for his measly little soul, an offer Stanley finds too good to be true. But, as the sayings go, be careful what you wish for and the devil is in the details for Satan quickly proves himself to be a most devious genie. As Stanley doggedly tries to win the heart of the elusive Margaret, Spiggot manages to twist his every wish into something vulgar causing the hapless burger-flipper to find himself transformed into everything from a snobbish cuckold to a common housefly to a lesbian nun. In the meantime God, portrayed here as a somewhat less than divine Voice, has a few plans of his own for the errant angel. Moore and Cook have penned a side-splitting satire that manages to skewer religion, politics, and consumer culture all at the same time. Cook’s silver-tongued Satan is a perfect blend of mischievous imp and heartless capitalist who takes great pride in his work whether he’s swindling old ladies, stealing souls, or simply taking a hammer to a shipment of bananas. Aided by the Seven Deadly Sins (including Raquel Welch as a convincing Lust) he runs the Rendezvous Club, a sleazy vice joint with no shortage of clientele. In the role of the naive and bewildered Stanley, Dudley Moore provides the perfect foil for Cook displaying the flexibility and sense of timing that made him a comedic mainstay. A cheeky satirical romp whose flamboyant performances and sparkling script have managed to withstand the test of time.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (USA 1971) (6): At the height of WWII, a bumbling apprentice witch living on the coast of England (Angela Lansbury, charming) finds herself saddled with a trio of war orphans being evacuated from London. At first Miss Price and the kids eye one another warily --- she doesn’t like children, they don’t like her cooking --- but sweet smiles and the wonders of magic eventually win out. When Price receives the terrible news that her Correspondence School for Witches is closing its doors without sending her the one final spell she desperately needs, she and the kids travel to London via a flying bed in order to confront the school’s founder, Professor Emelius Browne. Although the professor’s assistance proves to be somewhat less than satisfactory, he agrees to join Price and the tykes as they search the globe for the missing incantation, a journey highlighted by a stint on the wholly animated island of Naboobu, a technicolor land ruled by animals; and ending with a sorcerous encounter between a cadre of bumbling German invaders and a castle full of enchanted armour. Guess who wins? Disney enlivens a rather dull script with some well choreographed cartoon sequences (an underwater dance between Lansbury and co-star David Tomlinson amidst swirling bubbles and fishy waiters is nicely done), the songs are catchy though hardly memorable, and the final showdown between Nazis and ghostly battalions from England’s past borders on creepy. Thankfully, the usual dose of Disney treacle is kept to a minimum, it’s just too bad they didn’t maximize the editing...a raucous jungle soccer game goes on way too long while a song & dance homage to the hawkers of Portobello Road begins to resemble a series of outtakes from Mary Poppins. Fine fare for the single-digit crowd and a bit of syrupy nostalgia for their parents (or grandparents).

Beefcake (USA 1999) (6): Want to see what your bachelor uncle used to look at behind a locked bathroom door back before you were born? "Beefcake" is an occasionally funny, always campy look at the heyday of the "physique" magazine, those softcore, homoerotic publications that claimed to be nothing more than manuals for fitness fanatics. The performances are generally convincing, the guys are easy on the eyes and the clever melding of old B&W stock footage with the contemporary actors is almost seamless. Unfortunately it suffers from a great deal of uneven editing and the talking head cameos seem superfluous. A good effort that doesn't quite hit the mark.

Before Night Falls (USA 2000) (7): Schnabel’s ambitious biopic traces the life of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas from the dire poverty of his early years in Cuba to the dire poverty of his final years in America. Born into a household of “unhappy women”, the young Reinaldo quickly learned to equate having nothing with having absolute freedom. Chastised by his grandfather for writing poetry and seeing no hope for gainful employment in his future, the young writer ran off to join the revolution at the age of fifteen. After Castro came into power Arenas, like his fellow writers, enjoyed a brief revival of the arts before the new government clamped down on certain key freedoms. “People who make art are dangerous to any dictatorship...” states his benefactor at one point, “...artists are escapists and therefore counter-revolutionaries.” Jailed for his defiance of Castro’s regime and harassed for his homosexuality, Reinaldo spent a year in one of Cuba’s most notorious prisons before finally receiving permission to emigrate to the United States, along with Cuba’s other “undesirables”. In the meantime his major oeuvre, written while incarcerated and smuggled out chapter by chapter, won a prestigious literary award in Europe. Schnabel’s film is saturated with brilliant colours and a mesmerizing score composed of classical piano, mellow strings and hot Latin beats. He combines straightforward narrative with languorous passages of visual poetry which takes the viewer from sun-washed beaches to the dimly lit filth of a stone cell to a freezing tenement in New York. Using old newsreels and contemporary Mexican locations, he recreates post-revolutionary Cuba and shows it to be a contradictory mix of kinetic energy and spiritual torpor laced with an edgy sexuality. Being openly gay, it seems, was both an attempt to integrate into the fledgling society and an act of political defiance which was not limited to those living on the fringe as a naked nighttime romp with a cadre of horny soldiers attests. Unfortunately, the last half of the film gets stalled by repetitious scenes and a final coda that seems to go on far longer than it should. Furthermore, although Javier Bardem’s powerhouse performance shines throughout, the bizarre cameos by Sean Penn and Johnny Depp come across as superfluous and gimmicky. Despite its flaws, Before Night Falls remains an honest and respectful tribute.

Before the Rain (Macedonia 1994) (7):  A young monk undergoes a crisis of faith when a Moslem girl, wanted for murder, seeks refuge in his cell.  A married woman must make a painful decision whether to continue her comfortable existence in London or follow Aleksander, her Macedonian lover, back to his homeland.  Her lover, meanwhile, seeking a return to a simpler past finds the village he grew up in transformed by ethnic hatred into something terrible.  These are the stories that make up Manchevski’s circular triptych on the many casualties of war in which blood begets blood, brother turns against brother and the innocent are often caught in the crosshairs.  As a successful photojournalist Aleksander traveled the globe documenting the horrors man inflicts upon his fellow man.  But when the violence comes to his doorstep he realizes that there is no such thing as a neutral observer and his silence equals tacit consent.  Manchevski presents us with a parched desert landscape where goodness is often overwhelmed by vindictiveness and a simple gesture of compassion can lead to tragedy.  When the rain finally does come however, it is not the healing shower we expect but rather a torrent of bitter tears.  Before the Rain is visually gorgeous employing a series of highly stylized painterly tableaux that seem almost impressionistic.  Some scenes are perhaps a bit too composed, as if the film were staggering under the weight of its own portents, and the use of narrative symmetry, wherein certain lines and situations are repeated, seems forced at times.  Still a beautiful and heartfelt work that deserves to be seen...and heard; the music is wonderful.

Before Tomorrow (Canada 2008) (8): Directors Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Madeline Ivalu make perfect use of their arctic locations to tell this tale of an ill-fated Inuit family, a follow-up of sorts to 2001’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. It’s high summer circa 1840 and in 10-year old Maniq’s village life goes on as it always has with hunting, mending, and storytelling from the elders—grandfather’s tall tale about white men in a strange boat the only hint that Europeans are on the move. Things change irrevocably for Maniq however when he accompanies his grandmother Ninioq (co-director Ivalu) and her frail ancient friend Kuutujuk to a remote island in order to dry fish and caribou meat for the coming winter. During these last few weeks of summer Maniq will harpoon his very first seal, Kuutujuk will draw her final breath, and Ninioq will entertain the sleepy boy with fanciful stories about cavernous whales and impish ravens. But when the snow begins to fall and the men of the village fail to come back for them Maniq and his grandmother must set out on their own to discover what happened… Cousineau and Ivalu’s cast of aboriginal non-professionals put in such natural performances that at times the film resembles a documentary especially with those amazing backdrops of rocky shores, rolling tundra, and sheets of ice glistening beneath a frozen sun. Whether it be a dying Kuutujuk savouring a bowl of berries or an anxious Ninioq seeking solace from her dead husband’s memory, the directors wring a bit of magic from even the simplest scenes. Those expecting an action adventure movie will be sorely disappointed however, for just like one of grandmother’s bedtime stories told round a guttering oil lamp, Before Tomorrow is a slow progression of quiet moments and everyday metaphors whose underlying message—the devastating cost of colonialism—is delivered in a hushed whisper.

Begotten (USA 1989) (3): Christianity and paganism go mud wrestling as E. Elias Merhige shits out his very own Creation Myth and presents it in glorious monochromatic Snuff-O-Rama. Opening with a sombre warning advising “language bearers, photographers and diary makers” to forsake their “frozen memories” and pay heed to the “incantation of matter” (translation: if you don’t understand my film it’s because I’m way too clever for you) we see a bound and hooded creature spastically disembowel itself; according to the closing credits, God has just committed suicide. But from the dripping offal emerges Mother Earth, suitably clad in a Lone Ranger mask and hula skirt. Digitally inseminating herself from Jehovah’s phallus (ewww!) she proceeds to give birth to a writhing humanoid who is immediately beset upon by a group of cowled savages. And the evening and the morning are the second day. On the third day mother and son are both subjected to all sorts of poorly focused atrocities with a salacious emphasis on genital mutilation and dismemberment eventually leading to a montage of seedlings emerging from the ground; the earth is reborn. Merhige uses a series of post production techniques which not only give the film a grainy, under-exposed look but add a jerkiness to the characters’ movements. Coupled with a voiceless soundscape of dripping faucets, surgical suction and incidental noises the overall effect is of a silent movie filmed in Hell; which is probably where it should have remained. Grotesque, macabre, and excessively repellent, but not without a certain pathological charm. No wonder Marilyn Manson cannibalized parts of it for one of his music videos.

Being Julia (Canada/UK 2004) (9): London, 1938, and unrivalled queen of the stage Julia Lambert (Annette Bening, brilliant) is terribly bored of it all and wants her husband-slash-producer Michael (Jeremy Irons all stiff upper lip) to end her current West End blockbuster early so she can seek some real excitement abroad. Despite protests from the play’s backer, whose wife has more than motherly feelings towards Julia, Michael considers giving in to her pleading. And then “real excitement” winds up finding her instead when she begins a sudden affair with someone half her age, a penniless young American who has adored her since he was a teenager. Now with the blush of love on her cheeks Julia takes a renewed interest in love and life, much to the exasperation of her faithful maidservant who has seen it all before. But when her paramour proves to be not quite the dashing knight she envisioned—well, as they say, “Hell hath no fury…” All the world is indeed a stage in director István Szabó’s charming adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s novella, and his immaculately primped protagonist glides through it as if she never left the theatre—unconsciously quoting lines while trying to hold an actual conversation and shocked to discover real tears on her cheeks as she feels genuine emotions for perhaps the first time in decades. Glittering sets and a shamelessly romantic score by Michael Danna, punctuated here and there by Cole Porter and Noel Coward, set the mood perfectly while Bening’s Oscar-nominated performance—culminating in a hilariously theatrical revenge—makes this an actress’ film through and through. Lambert may have her weaknesses but her years of experience and innate sense of self-preservation prove more than formidable for anyone trying to cross her—including a young upstart who fancies herself the next big star only to discover the reigning queen is nowhere near ready to abdicate. An ebullient celebration of one woman coming into her own whose humour is both thoughtful and intelligent and whose occasional forays into pure fancy (Michael Gambon plays Julia’s dead mentor who still coaches her from the sidelines) add just the right amount of magic.

Be Kind Rewind (USA 2007) (4):  When the owner of a ramshackle video rental outlet goes on a short vacation he leaves his inexperienced assistant in charge of the business.  The boss is only gone a few hours when the assistant’s schizoid friend accidentally erases all the VHS tapes in the store (he was apparently “magnetized” while trying to blow up a power plant or something.  Never mind, it’s not important).  Anyway.  Rather than toss out the store’s entire inventory the two men decide to use the erased cassettes to tape their own versions of the lost  films.  Unbelievably their cheap amateur 20-minute remakes prove to be very popular and business is soon booming with eager customers lining up to buy the “sweded” versions of everything from “Driving Miss Daisy” to “Last Tango in Paris”.  It doesn’t take long for the bubble to burst however. Not only are the men slapped with a series of copyright infringement lawsuits from the major studios but the city serves notice that they intend to demolish the building in which the store is located unless the owner can come up with sixty thousand dollars for repairs.  Their solution?  Make an original movie starring everyone in the neighbourhood to try and raise the necessary cash before the bulldozers move in.  I really wanted to like this film....not only does it satirize America’s “Blockbuster” mentality but it also throws a few well placed jabs at corporate Hollywood in the process.  Unfortunately it is just not that good.  Gondry often sacrifices logic for a silly gag or mawkish sentimentality and Jack Black joins Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey on my list of extremely annoying character actors.  In it’s own strange way though it is a love letter of sorts to the magic of cinema......a poorly worded letter with lots of spelling errors and written in crayon.......but sincere nonetheless.

Belladonna of Sadness (Japan 1973) (7): Heavily influenced by the psychedelic poster art of the 60s and 70s not to mention the pervasive drug culture, Eiichi Yamamoto’s scandalous animated feature unfolds like a series of LSD-laden watercolours set to a trippy score of discordant jazz and melancholy piano. It tells the story of Jean and Jeanne, two chaste lovers living in medieval Europe whose lives are forever altered when the local land baron takes it upon himself to rape Jeanne on the eve of her wedding. Nursing a burning hatred towards the man, Jeanne enters a pact with the devil in order to wreak vengeance upon the entire village while her listless husband sees his own fortunes rise and fall. Shot through with nudity and a graphic yet surreal carnality, Jeanne’s dalliances with a persistent Lucifer (he’s one horny devil) show her that the road to perdition is not only life-affirming, it can also be downright…orgasmic. Putting Christian voodoo on the back burner, this remarkable film is first and foremost a multicoloured celebration of female empowerment and sexual awakenings with Jeanne’s journey from battered victim to erotic goddess unfolding against a hallucinatory background of bloody revenge, writhing couples, and moist genitalia . In this universe God is little more than a limp noodle while Satan rears up like a big stiff prick. It’s enough to make Fritz the Cat blush.

The Belles of St. Trinian’s (UK 1954) (8): St. Trinian’s school for girls has a rather notorious reputation among the surrounding towns; whenever its students are on the warpath shops board up their windows, policemen hide in jail cells and the very mention of its name causes the local school superintendent to reach for the aspirin. To say the girls are “horrid” would be an understatement unless you consider betting on the horses, making bootleg gin in chemistry class, and winning athletic competitions by doling out concussions to the opposing team part of a legitimate curriculum. Then there’s the constant pranks involving cans of paint and medieval weaponry. Think of it as a Hogwarts for future delinquents. And overseeing it all is the terminally optimistic, and morally myopic, headmistress and school founder Miss Millicent Fritton. Having seen her school go from its glory days in the 1920’s to its current state of disarray thanks to a disastrous mix of unpaid bills, bounced cheques and shoddy hiring practices (the staff are either drunk, neurotic or wanted for questioning), Miss Fritton is determined to keep its doors open come what may. But when the fabulously wealthy Sultan of Makyad unwittingly sends his daughter to St. Trinian’s with a pocketful of cash and a prepaid tuition the school’s normally anarchic atmosphere erupts into a series of hilariously madcap misadventures involving amateur gangsters, Zulu warfare and a stolen racehorse which not only divide the student body but pit the indomitable Miss Fritton against her unscrupulous brother Clarence with the fate of St. Trinian’s itself hanging in the balance. For all its silliness and slapstick gags this is an extremely likable comedy whose wonderful cast and witty script are aided by director Frank Launder’s keen sense of comic timing. The rich B&W cinematography and lively score keep the action flowing while dozens of shrill-voiced extras in school uniform provide just the right amount of chaos. The real star of the show however is the wonderful Alastair Sim who does an amazing job in and out of drag playing both Millicent and Clarence Fritton. His portrayal of the frumpy headmistress is a joy to watch and attests to his formidable acting ability. Crosby and Bergman would be aghast!

The Bells of St. Mary's  (USA 1945) (9):  “The Bells of St. Mary’s” is one of those timeless movies that seem to exist in a bubble.  If it had been made at another time, with different actors it would have been just so much corny sentimentality and sugary sweetness.  Luckily for us it was made at just the right time with the perfect cast.  Bergman is positively luminous in her role as Sister Benedict, and only Bing Crosby could have reprised the role of Fr. O’Malley with such effortless grace.  We can forgive the film’s wide-eyed naiveté because it is just so well done, from the warm and cozy sets to the rich B&W cinematography.  And that final scene has got to be among Hollywood’s top 100 tearjerkers.

The Belly of an Architect (UK 1987) (6): The emblematic belly in question belongs to Stourley Kracklite, a husky, overbearing American architect who, along with his nasally-voiced trophy wife, makes a pilgrimage to Rome. Supposedly hired to oversee the construction of an exhibition honoring obscure 18th century French architect Etienne Boullée, his personal hero and a man with whom he shares more than a few things in common, Stourley instead finds himself embroiled in a power struggle with a wealthy Italian upstart and a host of strangely hostile officials. As deadlines loom and his wife’s behaviour becomes increasingly suspicious, Kracklite begins to suffer vague abdominal symptoms coupled with an odd temporal dislocation wherein the intrigues of long-dead Roman emperors begin to mirror events in his own life. Concerned about his failing health, and plagued with doubts regarding his wife’s fidelity and his own self-worth, Stourley’s initial sense of unease threatens to turn into absolute paranoia...but is it completely unfounded? As with all of Greenaway’s projects, Belly of an Architect unfolds with a cinematic bravura that takes full advantage of Rome’s magnificent scenery. Blowing drapes, piercing stares, and ancient artifacts compete with the film’s pounding score while the director’s penchant for stark symmetries and puzzling allegory is evident throughout. Unfortunately, the rich visuals are not always supported by a leaden script that too often wallows in abstruse references and arty chinwagging. The film’s cast is hopelessly uneven as well. Brian Dennehy is perfect in the role of the titular antihero; his larger-than-life frame and booming voice give him the appearance of an imperial statue come to life. He dominates each scene both physically and emotionally at the expense of the other, less talented, actors whose characters become little more than a pallid backdrop. Finally, Greenaway’s preoccupation with birth, death and decay once again takes centre stage but, unlike the cleverly engaging twists and turns of his previous films, Architect comes across as a colourful cerebral exercise with a disappointingly poor payoff in the end.

Beowulf  (USA 2007) ( 8 ):  Surprisingly literate adult fantasy that looks like a cross between a playstation game and a Waterhouse painting.  Everything here is presented in heroic proportions from the imposing soundtrack to the elaborate action sequences, which must have looked spectacular in IMAX 3D.  And let’s not forget the hunky protagonists......Ray Winstone and Angelina Jolie never looked so sexy in their computer-generated bods, it’s a shame the technical crew forgot to give them genitalia.  Be sure and check out the “making of” short in the extras section....very interesting.

Bernie (USA 2011) (7): Kind, compassionate, and charitable to a fault—and just a little too light in the loafers—funeral director Bernie Tiede was one of the most beloved citizens of Carthage, a quiet town of upscale rednecks in eastern Texas. Adored by all the little old ladies and admired by the men, Bernie was not only a bastion of solace in times of grief he was also active in local theatre and gave as best he could to any and all humanitarian concerns. So when he started keeping company with wealthy 80-year old widow Marjorie Nugent—accompanying her on first class trips, organizing her social calendar, and acting as valet, butler, and chauffeur (and maybe more)—it raised nary an eyebrow for just about everyone hated the rude demanding old crone and felt pity for the selfless little man who withstood her daily abuse. But when Tiede was charged with murdering the miserable old woman and keeping her death a secret while he continued to spread her money around town people were oddly divided between those who felt he could never have done such a horrible thing and those who felt she deserved it anyway. Based on a true story written up by journalist Skip Hollandsworth, director Richard Linklater’s darkly comic satire of skewed small town values takes a deceptively sympathetic stance on Tiede’s crime. As played by Jack Black, Bernie is a soft-spoken dandy with a weak spot for sob stories who only wants to make people happy. Marjorie on the other hand (Shirley MacLaine at her bitchy best) was a devil in blue rinse who delighted in hurting others and shunned any form of human contact. Riding him like a nazi foreman Nugent made Bernie’s life so unbearable that he had no recourse but to grab the nearest rifle and then cover his tracks as best he could. But as we find ourselves joining the townsfolk in patting Bernie on the back and tut-tutting the mean old prosecuting attorney (Matthew McConaughey all cowboy hats and Texas drawl) you can almost sense Linklater smirking up his sleeve. And just in case he didn’t make his point clear enough he throws in a bunch of colourful ad-libbed interviews with locals who are only too eager to extol the virtues of the charming young man who just happened to shoot an old woman in the back four times. Wink wink!

Big Bad Mama (USA 1974) (7): Angie Dickinson (and her breasts) star as Wilma McClatchie, a dirt poor single mother in Depression era Texas who finds herself even more destitute when her bootlegging boyfriend is killed by the cops. Packing up her two sex-obsessed daughters she decides to hit the road in search of infamy and fortune. At first content to simply deliver moonshine to the local hicks, a few twists of fate land her in the company of a machine gun-toting bank robber and suave con artist who introduce her and the girls to the lucrative world of armed robbery. Slowly making their way to California where Wilma hopes to use her ill-gotten lucre to open a legit business, the gang decides to pull one more outrageous stunt guaranteed to make them all filthy rich. Although Dickinson doesn’t quite convince us she’s a hard-edged desperado and William Shatner’s faux southern drawl is cringe-worthy, this is still one of the more entertaining B-Movies to emerge from the 70s; think slapstick version of Bonnie & Clyde with the sleaze factor turned up half a notch. Carver, under the tutelage of the great Roger Corman, keeps things buoyed with plenty of frantic shoot-outs and steamy bed-hopping as mother and daughters take their male accomplices for a few test spins; Shatner and co-star Tom Skerritt even manage to show off some of their assets in a few (almost) nude scenes. Like a string of dirty jokes with some occasionally funny punchlines the humour is decidedly low-brow but the pacing is tight and a supporting cast of dumb sheriffs, horny yokels and religious swindlers keep things interesting. Even the oddly incongruous ending seems more of a sly wink than a glib cop-out.

The Big Combo (USA 1955) (8): For those who like a double shot of noir with an extra side of sadistic hoodlums, two-fisted cops, and the hapless dames who love them both! Coldhearted crime boss “Mr. Brown” (Richard Conte, intensely unlikeable) practically runs the city and police lieutenant Leonard Diamond (a chiseled Cornel Wilde) is determined to put him away for good even if he has to bankrupt his department’s budget to do so. It doesn’t help matters that Diamond is also in love with Brown’s bleach-blonde moll Susan (breathless bombshell Jean Wallace) a woman who is just beginning to realize what she threw away when she agreed to become a gangster’s mistress. Unfortunately Brown is very good at destroying incriminating evidence (or people) and Diamond’s efforts to pin an old murder on him leads both men down a very dark and treacherous path of double-crosses and dirty dealings… Shot in a perpetual twilight of fogbound streets and cheap dives, Joseph Lewis’ B&W evocation of a city seething with angst and corruption is sure to make genre fans squeal with delight. The dialogue is appropriately corny (“I’m going to break him so fast he won’t have time to change his pants”) and the plot is knotty enough to offer up a few surprises before its inevitable conclusion. Helene Stanton does a good job as Rita, Diamond’s world-weary stripper girlfriend (of course) but the biggest shock is Earl Holliman and Lee Van Cleef as a pair of gay hitmen—believe me, subtle hints abound!

Big Hero 6 (USA 2014) (7): Life in the futuristic metropolis of San Fransokyo (like San Francisco only with more architectural gewgaws and cute Disney-fied ethnic types) is tough enough for fourteen-year old engineering whiz Hiro: he’s still reeling from a family tragedy and his application for the city’s most prestigious technical college is about to expire. He’s also inherited “Beymax”, a big loveable klutz of a robot with a blank face and a body made out of balloons. But when a masked super-villain steals his latest invention—an amazing breakthrough in miniature robotics—and uses it to wreak destruction upon the city Hiro realizes he is the only person who can defeat the madman. Transforming a cadre of fellow geeks into a team of superpowered crime fighters the boy wonder prepares to face his arch nemesis with a souped-up Beymax (now geared for violence) at his side… Amazing animation compensates somewhat for the heavy doses of Disney syrup as a boy and his robot discover the meanings of forgiveness, mercy, and sacrifice and a host of annoying sidekicks live out every geek’s superhero fantasies. But Hiro winds up pulling so many high-tech rabbits out his hat (does he have a nuclear reactor in his lunchbox too?) that everything just gets silly towards the end. Without much for adults to laugh at, Big Hero 6 lacks the wit of The Incredibles, the campy science of Frankenweenie, and the endearing nonsense of Despicable Me. Nice lesson in ethics for the kiddies though (if they’re even listening) but a robot pal that shambles about like a leaking hot water bottle just doesn’t measure up to a decent Minion.

Big Man Japan (Japan 2007) (6): Japan’s entry in the “mockumentary” category has a film crew following everyday loser Masaru Daisatô around Tokyo. Chronically underemployed, estranged from his wife and daughter, and with only his cat for company Daisatô nevertheless has one very big secret—zap him with enough electricity and he becomes Big Man, a fifty-foot destroyer of monsters and defender of all Japan. At least that’s the notoriety his father and grandfather enjoyed…nowadays Daisatô’s antics are more annoying than helpful earning him a meagre late-night cable TV slot and legions of angry protestors decrying his wasteful energy consumption and the wholesale destruction he often leaves in his wake. But when an evil horned devil creature brings a new threat to downtown Tokyo, Big Man Japan finally meets his match—but at least his ratings go through the roof. Although its running length could have been trimmed by a few minutes and many of the laughs require a thorough knowledge of Japanese pop culture (those who grew up with the likes of Ultraman and the Power Rangers will have a distinct advantage) director/star/writer Hitoshi Matsumoto’s deadpan delivery and hysterical visuals go a long way in smoothing over some of the film’s more baffling elements—an over-the-top final showdown had me smiling and scratching my head at the same time. Big Man himself looks like a warped G.I. Joe sporting a sky-high afro wig and corporate logos while the assorted CGI monsters range from sweetly grotesque (Baby Monster) to disgusting (Stink Monster in heat) to downright obscene (Stare Monster with a telescopic eyestalk for a dick). A few good laughs surrounded by a tad too much dead space make for a quaint little satire that’s as easy to forget as it is to watch.

The Big One  (USA 1998 ) (1):  Typically self-promoting and hopelessly biased series of hissy fits from the uber-liberals' slovenly poster child. It's amazing how Michael Moore can uncover the sordid underbelly of corporate America just by interviewing a few high school dropouts in a dark parking lot. Perhaps he can take some of the MILLIONS of dollars he's made condemning capitalism and use it to put himself through film school.

Billy Budd (UK 1962) (10): Peter Ustinov not only directed but co-wrote this staggering adaptation of Herman Melville’s final book, a searing allegory on good and evil which takes place, appropriately enough, on the wide open sea. It’s 1797 and able seaman Billy Budd (an Oscar-nominated Terence Stamp in his first film role) is an affably naïve sailor serving aboard a British warship where his self-effacing mannerisms and open-faced honesty quickly gain him the favour of his fellow conscripts as well as the gruff Captain Vere (Ustinov). The sadistic Master-at-Arms John Claggart however (an ice-cold Robert Ryan) quickly becomes obsessed with Budd once he realizes he cannot break the young man’s spirit with his usual array of threats and small cruelties. But then Claggart goads Budd into unwittingly committing a capital offence for which the only penalty is death and his final victory seems secure. With no time for a formal court-martial hearing Captain Vere and his officers are suddenly faced with an insurmountable moral crisis: do they shirk their sworn duties and pardon Billy, or knowingly hang an innocent man? Vere’s conflicted conscience, accentuated by a heaving ocean and an unseen French enemy lurking nearby, casts a glaring spotlight on the often contradictory interplay between the letter of the Law and the spirit of Justice. With Budd’s angelic disposition showcasing man in his purest state and Claggart’s cynical tyranny (fostered by some vaguely suggested life experiences) the exact opposite, both officers and crew come to represent the Everyman treading uncertainly between the two poles vainly clutching whatever moral compass they possess be it a bible, a personal code of ethics, or a big tome of naval regulations. Solid literary performances all around backed by magnificent Cinemascope vistas of foaming seas and starlit skies. An overlooked classic.

Birdman (USA 2014) (7): Actor Riggan Thomson (Oscar-nominated Michael Keaton) was once famous around the world for playing superhero “Birdman” in a trilogy of action-packed comic book thrillers. Now, more than twenty years later, he’s struggling for artistic recognition by staging an obscure Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver story about a man struggling to remain relevant in his own life. But his efforts are dogged by a cynical daughter fresh out of rehab (Oscar-nominated Emma Stone), an abrasively eccentric co-star hellbent on upstaging him (Oscar-nominated Edward Norton), his neurotic lawyer (Zach Galifianakis), and a shallow pretentious theatre critic determined to teach this aging Hollywood upstart a lesson in artistic integrity. Alejandro G. Iñarritu’s highly polished film within a play within a film is a study in contradiction. Even as his protagonist provides that too familiar metaphor of the imaginative soul railing against conformity in a world of social media tweets, his film revels in its own gimmickry: a dangerously unstable Thomson may or may not have real superpowers and an ongoing inner dialogue with his feathered alter ego is highlighted by glossy passages of magical realism. The film itself is a vertiginous swirl of steadicam shots cleverly edited to appear as one continuous take even though it spans three days, and a handful of too obvious references to Phantom of the Opera and Macbeth (a crazed actor screams out the “Sound and Fury” monologue just off of Times Square) drive their points home with theatrical zeal. But this is a film about egos, creativity, and the stage after all which makes Iñarritu’s dramaturgical flourishes not only germane, but indispensable. The fact that it went on to win four Academy Awards is a delicious irony.

The Bishop's Wife (USA 1947) (8):  An overlooked Christmas classic which warms the heart despite its mushy religious sentimentality.  A dapper angel (Cary Grant) is sent to New York in order to help Henry Brougham (David Niven), an Episcopalian bishop whose obsession over building a new cathedral has caused him to neglect the more important things in life like faith, hope, charity, and family.  Passing himself off as Dudley, the bishop's new aide, the angel reveals his true identity to Brougham (but no one else) and sets about making things right one tiny miracle at a time.  In the meantime the bishop's wife Julia (a gushing Loretta Young), long taken for granted by her preoccupied husband, finds herself inexplicably drawn to the heavenly Dudley when he begins lavishing her with the attention she has been denied for so long.  With Dudley falling in love for the first time in centuries, the faithful Julia becoming emotionally confused, and the bishop beside himself with jealousy, the stage is set for a most memorable Christmas Eve...  A cloying bit of fluffiness drenched in yuletide cheeriness but ultimately saved by a trio of fine performances and Gregg Toland's beautiful B&W cinematography which cashes in on snowy stage sets and cozy fireplaces.  As an added bonus the ebullient Monty Woolley gives a twinkling cameo as Professor Wutheridge, a stuffy academic whose brush with Dudley renews his faith in mankind.  Put this one alongside Capra's It's A Wonderful Life.

The Blackboard Jungle (USA 1955) (6): Idealistic war veteran Richard Dadier is excited to land a job teaching English at North Manual Highschool, an inner city boys school dubbed “the garbage can of the educational system” by one of its many harried teachers. But with a student body consisting mainly of thugs, gang-bangers and assorted cretins, his initial enthusiasm is soon dampened to a sullen persistence especially after he’s assaulted in an alley and his precariously pregnant wife begins receiving troubling letters. Beginning to doubt his vocation, Dadier is on the verge of packing it in until a classroom showdown with the school’s head hoodlum provides an inroad of sorts. For the most part Richard Brooks manages to keep his film believable thanks to a very talented cast including Glenn Ford as the beleaguered Dadier and Sidney Poitier as an unexpectedly wise student. Along the way he also makes a few salient observations on the many faces of prejudice, the abysmal working conditions of educators, and the role of society in molding the next generation of taxpayers. Unfortunately, by today’s standards it all comes across as a little too trite and tidy with simple discussions often morphing into sermons and a lukewarm script rife with truisms and clichéd bad boys; one tense scene in which Old Glory comes to the rescue provides a particularly puzzling metaphor. Interesting just the same, and the opening credits featuring Bill Halley and His Comets belting out “Rock Around the Clock” was cool, if somewhat odd.

The Black Cat (Italy 1981) (5): Lucio Fulci, one of the undisputed masters of splatter cinema, turns down the gore factor and adds a few extra smoke machines for this dark and moody supernatural thriller "freely adapted" from Edgar Allan Poe's short story. A series of macabre accidents are killing the inhabitants of a small English village, accidents that seem to revolve around a local psychic and his pugnacious pussycat. Caught up in the mystery are a visiting amateur photographer and a skeptical Scotland Yard inspector who suddenly find their own lives in danger the closer they get to the truth. Despite its creepy crawly camerawork and shadowy gothic sets there are just a few too many loose ends to Fulci's opus to garner it more than a passing nod. How are the victims related, exactly, and why were they killed? How does the psychic's eccentric little "hobby" fit into the storyline? And what about that chamber of horrors in the local churchyard? The P.O.V. cat cam gets annoying after a while but the little black feline itself is just adorable!

Black Christmas (Canada 1974) (8): Filmed in just over a month on a modest budget, Bob Clark’s wonderfully atmospheric slasher film went on to become one of the most famous bits of homegrown cinema, even influencing the likes of John Carpenter. It’s Christmastime in the American town of Bedford (a poorly disguised Toronto despite the two American flags) and the girls at the Pi Kappa Sig sorority have a few problems: one sister is dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, another is slightly unhinged (Margot Kidder, being ironic), and the House Mother is a foul-mouthed drunk. However, on a more ominous note, a homicidal madman is stalking the premises taunting the women with increasingly psychotic phone calls and availing himself of every open window and unlocked door. As her roommates begin disappearing it’s up to Jess (a luminous Olivia Hussey) and police lieutenant Fuller (a bored John Saxon) to unmask the killer before he can complete his crazed agenda. Filmed in rich shadowy earth tones accentuated by candy-coloured holiday lights and a macabre score of jarring piano chords, Black Christmas is a guilty pleasure which makes no apologies for it’s handful of illogical plot devices, including an odd little twist at the end which, if taken as a psychological metaphor rather than a straight-up shocker, does manage to provide one final frisson. The strong cast of B-listers seem to be enjoying themselves while some clever cinematography, including creepy POV killer shots and one especially infamous eyeball scene, have you peering self-consciously over your shoulder. One of the best genre films I’ve seen thus far.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (US/Canada 2015) (6): The Exorcist meets Picnic at Hanging Rock in writer/director Oz Perkins’ brilliantly stupid horror show which proves Thomas Wolfe was right and you really can’t go home again—even if you’re the devil himself. It’s winter break at a prestigious girls boarding school in upstate New York and everyone has gone home for the holidays except freshman Katherine and senior Rose, both of whom are waiting for parents who never seem to arrive. But the girls have other pressing matters to attend to for Rose may be carrying some unwanted baggage and Kat is having problems of a more…diabolical…nature in the form of menacing phone calls and an unhealthy attraction for cutlery. Meanwhile, in a timeline next door, runaway Joan is hitching a ride with a nice middle class couple with a tragic secret of their own, but not to worry for Joan is carrying the biggest, most bloodcurdling secret of all… What exactly is the relationship between these three young women and is there any truth to the rumours of black magic being practiced by the two old maids who oversee the school? A true triumph of style over substance—not to mention narrative cohesion (don’t worry, it all makes sense eventually)—Perkins takes great delight in exaggerated staging, slo-mo saunters, and enough darkened corridors and banging pipes to flesh out at least one sequel. It all looks great on the big screen especially with an appropriately jarring soundtrack to ramp up the creep factor. But whether your frissons come from the film’s overt supernatural element or its plethora of bad psychology (is that half-seen wooly mammoth in the corner really Satan?) this is one production that will keep you in your seat until the very end…and then have you rolling your eyes all the way home.

Blackfish (USA 2013) (7): Keeping orcas in captivity for the sake of turning a profit has long been a contentious issue but in Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s scathing documentary on the effects of that captivity it becomes tantamount to a crime against nature. Armed with an array of talking heads including a man who used to trap wild whales, a neuroscientist, and a host of former trainers—many in tears as they give their story—as well as damning evidence from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s files Cowperthwaite asserts that taking these intelligent and highly social animals out of their natural environment and training them to do backflips for a bucket of fish not only harms them psychologically but has led to numerous human fatalities in the process. Citing incidents at water parks from Victoria BC to the Canary Islands she zeroes in on one animal, “Tilikum”, and shows how crowded conditions, lack of staff education, and corporate profiteering all played their part in a series of tragic deaths and near deaths involving trainers and orcas “frustrated” from being penned up for years in small concrete pools with other whales not related to them (they have a highly advanced sense of “family” and are often aggressive towards members of other pods). From the barbaric act of capturing baby whales in the wild—now banned in Washington State—to the process of coercing them to act against their nature in theme parks worldwide, nothing in the “black fish” trade is above contempt or likely to disappear as long as there are paying tourists and a market for cuddly plush killer whale dolls. A bit preachy and manipulative at times (cue sombre music) and ignores the good work being done by other marine researchers, but the wrongness of cooping up these bright mammals should be self-evident from the outset.

The Black Hole (USA 1979) (5): While combing the galaxy in search of “habitable life” [sic], the crew of the starship Palomino happen upon a huge derelict ship orbiting the fringes of a black hole. Identifying it as the USS Cygnus which disappeared mysteriously 20 years previous, they decide to investigate further. Upon entering the Cygnus they discover the entire complex is now being run by the eccentric, and possibly mad, Dr. Reinhardt along with a silent crew of homemade androids. It is Reinhardt’s dream to plunge the Cygnus into the heart of the black hole in order to discover what lay on the other side, and he quickly recruits the reluctant crew of the Palomino to help him. But all is not as it seems, for the wild-eyed genius has a few dark secrets he’d rather not reveal. Disney’s box office flop is a weak hybrid of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Star Wars, but does justice to neither one. Although impressive for the time, the special effects are now hopelessly dated consisting mainly of bad matte paintings, plastic models and lots of visible wires. Coupled with that is some ludicrous techno jargon (it’s not a searchlight, it's a micro beam!), garish sets awash in plaid-coloured lights, and enough scientific faux pas to make Stephen Hawking run out of the theatre. And of course, being Disney, there is a pair of adorable robots; one with a Slim Pickens drawl and one sounding like Roddy McDowall huffing helium (neither actor is credited). Still, despite its many drawbacks, there is an aura of childlike wonder to the film which renders it more of an outer space fairytale than a bona fide work of science fiction. Furthermore, the unexpectedly operatic ending was impressive; a kind of last minute collaboration between Stanley Kubrick and Dante Alighieri. Not good enough to be taken seriously, yet not quite bad enough to achieve cult status.

Blackmail Boy (Greece 2003) (7):  While watching this Olympian soap opera with its frenzied bitch fights and gender-bending bed-hopping one can’t help but be reminded of the early works of Almodovar.  The directors employ the same black comedy and broad farce to skewer contemporary Hellenic society while their sly allusions to classical mythology give the movie a dramatic formality that belies its essentially outrageous storyline.  Unlike Almodovar, however, they do nothing to elicit sympathy for the film’s main characters and instead we are left watching a handful of urban pigs wallow in their own muck.  The film does end in a wonderfully overdone tragedy of.....well......Greek proportions though, and that alone was worth the preceding 90 minutes.

Black Narcissus (UK 1947) (10): Shortly after WWII a group of Anglican nuns are sent to an abandoned palace high in the Himalayas, a former harem actually, in order to set up a school and dispensary for the local peasants. At first warming to their task under the watchful eye of newly appointed Sister Superior Clodagh, the women are soon overwhelmed by the sensuous beauty around them; from the intimidating cliffs and mountain peaks outside their door, to the faded murals depicting carnal delights adorning the fledgling convent’s crumbling walls. It doesn’t help matters that the natives have to be bribed into seeking the sisters’ services, nor that the local General’s surly British handyman embodies the very essence of temptation with his too-short shorts and unbuttoned shirt. As their faith in their vocation wavers and unpleasant memories begin to resurface the sisters slowly succumb to passion, despair, and madness; and all the while a cold incessant wind whips at their habits while an ancient Hindu holy man watches impassively from beyond the convent walls... Directors Powell and Pressburger’s gothic melodrama is one of the most strikingly photographed Technicolor marvels the British film industry has ever produced. The interplay of light and shadow, bathed in rich primary colours, lends a painterly quality to their work which often borders on pure expressionism. Choosing to film the entire epic on a UK soundstage rather than on location, they maintain a firm sense of artistic control which sees the wonders of northern India transformed into a series of psychological metaphors and plumbs each scene for its most primitive emotional content whether it be Sister Clodagh ringing the morning bell while perched on the edge of an abyss, or the increasingly neurotic Sister Ruth smearing crimson lipstick across her mouth. This constant juxtaposition between the sacred and the subtly erotic, tinged with elements both tragic and horrific, make for an exhilarating cinematic experience which has not dimmed in the intervening sixty-five years. A masterpiece.

Black Night (Belgium 2005) (8):  Oscar inhabits a Kafkaesque world of dark streets and menacing shadows where the sun makes a weak appearance for only fifteen seconds every afternoon. During the day he works at the Natural History Museum collecting and cataloguing exotic insects--a passionate hobby that carries over into his private life. But at night he has troubling dreams triggered by vague memories of a childhood tragedy involving a young girl who may have been his sister. Then one day his insular world is suddenly breached when he comes home to discover a seriously ill African woman dying in his bed… Oliver Smolders has described Black Night as a film reflected in a broken mirror where the onus is on the viewer to glean some sense from the fractured, non-linear narrative. He has certainly produced an elaborate psychodrama to challenge our sense of what is real and what is metaphor utilizing a bleak fairytale aesthetic that mesmerizes even as it confounds. He does drop tantalizing clues along the way though: Oscar’s memories are presented as grainy 8mm loops played against a toy stage; there is an emphasis on duality (or disassociation): mysterious twins, night/day, black/white; and strong references are made to Belgium’s history of colonialism in Africa. And then there are the omnipresent insects whose combination of beauty and savagery seem to reflect our protagonist’s own contradictory emotions, their silent gaze forever following him. They thrive on death and decay yet carry the ability to morph into something greater; a theme which the movie explores in unflinching detail. Black Night finally ends as enigmatically as it began, with two children on a dimly lit stage. An elegantly crafted nightmare whose cryptic imagery taps into our most primitive fears even as it teases our intellect.

Black Orpheus (Brazil 1958) (9):  The sad tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is played out against Rio’s Carnival in this gorgeous technicolour explosion of music and dancing.  In this version we see Orpheus as a handsome carefree streetcar conductor forsaking his spoiled fiancée for Eurydice, an ingénue from the country who is convinced a murderous stranger is stalking her.  As the jilted woman and skull-masked stalker close in on the two lovers events come to a tragic climax amidst the swirling dancers and colourful costumes of a Carnival parade.  Orpheus’ subsequent search for his lost love is filmed with a classic solemnity that contrasts sharply with the sunny spontaneity of the movie’s first half thereby heightening the sense of grief and despair.  Camus manages to remain faithful to the original Greek tragedy while at the same time making it seem as if it was written for the favelas of Brazil.  I especially enjoyed his sly references to  mythological names and images:  Orpheus’ fellow conductor and guiding force is named Hermes; a guard dog named Cerebus; and Eurydice’s scarf covered in zodiac signs are but a few examples.  Lastly, he brings the whole story to a sad yet hopeful conclusion.  Amazing!

Black Rain (Japan 1989) (7): Shôhei Imamura’s passionate film follows the fate of three family members caught in the atomic blast over Hiroshima. Although they survived, Shige Shizuma, his wife Shigeko, and their adult niece Yasuko are nevertheless scarred by the ordeal, both physically and emotionally, for the rest of their lives. Moving back to their rustic mountain village the three find some comfort in both one another and in the quotidian rhythms of the farming community around them. But as rumors of Yasuko’s exposure to radioactive fallout continue to scare away potential suitors and the Shizumas watch with helpless resignation as friends and fellow victims succumb to the “flash sickness”, all three are reminded of their own uncertain future. Meticulously shot in rich shades of black and white which lend it an aura of authenticity, Black Rain has the feel of a classic film. Imamura exhibits an artist’s eye for texture and composition whether he’s filming a pastoral vista of hills and rice paddies or a procession of burned and bloodied civilians shambling through streets choked with corpses and smoking rubble. His scenes of devastation achieve a poetic intensity while other moments of quiet, individual suffering take on a tragic intimacy. And throughout it all he manages to interject some striking cinematic images; a group of women bathing in the river are partially obscured by smoke from nearby funeral pyres while a shell-shocked veteran has a disturbing flashback amidst a studio filled with stone gods and demons. Although he clearly loves his characters, Shôhei does not spare them, or us, from life’s harsher realities. With neither science nor religion able to offer much solace, Mr. Shizuma sums it up quite succinctly, “An unjust peace is better than a just war...”

Black Swan
(USA 2010) (3): Touted as a deeply psychological thriller, Darren Aronofsky’s bird-brained shocker tries to jolt new life into a tired old premise with enough arty hysterics and gaudy effects to flesh out a dozen teen scream movies. The story revolves around Nina Sayers, an up-and-coming prima ballerina who lands the lead role in her company’s controversial new production of Swan Lake; a role which requires her to play both Princess Odette, the virginal white swan, and Odette’s chief nemesis Odile, the evil black swan. Emotionally repressed and pathologically neurotic, Nina at first finds it difficult to tap into that dark part of her nature which the role of Odile demands. It doesn’t help that her mother is a controlling shrew who blames her daughter’s birth for destroying her own stage career; nor that Thomas, the company’s artistic director, is causing her confused libido to run hot and cold with his mixed sexual messages. Furthermore, fellow dancer and arch-rival Lily seems intent on sabotaging Nina’s grand debut by introducing the naive ballerina to the sordid world of drugs, discotheques, and hot lesbian lust. It all comes to a head on opening night when Nina, her last shred of sanity firmly in the toilet, decides to give the audience the performance of her life... This is the type of overwrought melodrama that wows cinematic dilettantes with its trite Freudian allusions and crap symbolism, whether it be the pink butterfly wallpaper adorning Nina’s bedroom, a menacing winged statue standing in a theatre foyer, or the black feathery tattoos on Lily’s shoulder blades (seriously??) Not content to let this cheap psychodrama play out subliminally where it would be the most effective, Aronofsky chooses instead to assault his audience with some unintentionally hilarious CGI effects including Nina’s bone-crunching morph into a malevolent red-eyed gobbler right in front of her screaming mother. Finally, a host of wooden performances (enjoy that Oscar Natalie), slapdash directing, and a comic book script combine to make Black Swan one giant goose egg.

Blast of Silence (USA 1961) (7): Freelance hitman “Baby Boy” Frank Bono has been hired to knock off a low level New York gangster, one of his more lucrative assignments. But it’s Christmas Eve in Manhattan and a chance run-in with a woman he once had a crush on has Frank rethinking his career choice—not a healthy thing to do when you’re working for the mob. Meanwhile, his deepening ambivalence does not go unnoticed by the ruthless men who hired him and they never take “no” for an answer… Considered by many to be a late film noir classic, Allen Baron’s ultra low-budget B&W downer is a gloomy mix of recycled clichés and a host of stock characters ranging from the troubled assassin (played by Baron himself) to his virginal object of desire to the slovenly corpulent gun dealer with a fondness for rats of all stripes (a delightfully sleazy performance from accomplished writer and producer Larry Tucker). And Bono is dogged every step of the way by an unseen narrator who acts as a combination Greek chorus and voice of conscience. What raises this one above the herd however is Merrill Brody’s brilliant cinematography and Meyer Kupferman’s score of frantic jazz and soulful horn solos. Filmed guerrilla style on the twilit streets of Harlem and the Lower East Side, Brody juxtaposes urban grunge with garish Christmas displays (complete with children’s choirs) with ironic effect while his interior shots are all sharp angles and cold electric light. Dark and despairing from its opening monologue on the rigors of childbirth—brilliantly underscored by scenes of a train emerging from a tunnel—to its final storm-tossed climax filmed while hurricane Donna was battering the eastern seaboard. A fine example of maximum effect with minimum resources.

Blind Chance (Poland 1981) (6): “Every generation needs light...a belief that life can be better”. So states an elderly professor in Kieslowski’s rambling circuitous story in which coincidence, fate, and divine intervention go up against each other with no clear winner. The film is presented as a trio of short films each beginning with the same introduction; Witek, a promising young medical student, is running to catch a train. In two scenarios he misses the train, in one he does not, yet in each case there are subtle differences in the sequence of events which drastically alter Witek’s life. In one timeline he becomes a tentative Catholic whose only desire is for God to be, in another he becomes an anti-government activist, and in the third he puts his faith in neither God nor Man and instead chooses political and spiritual apathy. But the Fates, presented here in various female guises, are a fickle bunch and the film’s ultimate finale is either a scathing look at God’s “mysterious ways” or simply another example of mordant Eastern European nihilism. Questions of free will, idealism and individual choice abound in what is arguably Kieslowski’s most overtly political film; uncomfortable questions which caused the film to be held in limbo for six years by Poland’s communist censors. There is much to chew on here, but the glacial pacing and preachy dialogue had me squirming more often than not, while the unsympathetic characters kept me at arm’s length. Definitely not one of his better films.

Bliss (USA 1997) (2): When sensitive yuppie Joseph discovers his neurotic trophy wife Maria is having a few deep sessions with an unorthodox sex therapist he is hurt and angry--until he starts taking a few lessons of his own from the mysterious Dr. Balthazar. Soon Joseph is getting in touch with his inner chakras while helping Maria dispel her childhood demons by poking her sacred spot and pouting a lot. This pretentious little softcore "art" film overflows with enough empty-headed prattle and New Age cliches to fill a dozen Deepak Chopra books. Whether it's the gauzy camerawork which makes everything look like it was filmed through a curtain or the overblown soundtrack of whining violins and lethargic vocals, there is a smug sense of profundity at work here which is not supported by the wooden performances and shallow coffeehouse philosophizing. Maria's final healing catharsis carries the promise of some depth but, like the rest of the movie, falls prey to one too many teary close-up and reproachful stare. The shots of Gastown and the Vancouver skyline are rather pretty though.

Blood and Black Lace (Italy 1964) (7): Things are not going well for recently widowed fashion designer Christine Como—with her new collection about to be released someone is murdering her top models one by one in various messy ways and then leaving the bodies about as if to taunt her. Could it be the coke-addicted boyfriend? The taciturn dress designer? The big butch diva? And why does everyone want to get their hands on the first victim’s secret diary? It’s up to cool-headed Inspector Silvester to unravel the mystery before there’s no one left to work the runway. Heavy on atmosphere with backlit drapes, a sinister jazz score, and a studio full of blood red mannequins, Mario Bava’s grisly slasher—the granddaddy of every Italian gialli ever made—features enough garter belts and push-up bras to fill a Victoria’s Secret catalogue. There is a lurid artistry to his work however with clever tracking shots either loitering backstage at a haute couture show or keeping pace with a terrified damsel as she frantically tries to manoeuvre a gallery’s dim hallways with a killer hot on her tail. And the ridiculously dubbed dialogue only adds to the fun! Trashy cinema with a chic edge.

Blood for Dracula (Italy 1974) (6):  Andy Warhol collaborator Paul Morrissey's follow-up to the camp classic Flesh for Frankenstein features an emaciated Count Dracula (Udo Kier) being forced to leave his native Romania in search of fresh blood--and only the blood of a certified virgin will do. Pretending to be looking for a wife, Dracula and his henchman Anton find themselves in Italy at the palatial but decaying home of the penniless Marquis and Marquesa di Fiore (and their four nubile daughters) where the Count prepares for a veritable blood feast.  Unfortunately, the virginity of the eldest Di Fiore girls is in question thanks to hunky resident handyman Mario (Warhol stud Joe Dallesandro not even trying to hide his American accent) causing the aging vampire to experience some unsettling GI symptoms and alerting Mario to the fact that there is a monster in their midst...  But when both bloodsucker and handyman set their sights on fourteen-year old Perla Di Fiore, apparently the only virgin in town, someone's going to have to die...  Full of transgressive sex, theatrical performances, and amusingly bloody effects that are as disgusting as they are tacky, this one is strictly for diehard Warhol fans only.  Morrissey does have tongue firmly in cheek however, casting the great Vittorio De Sica as the barely intelligible Marquis and having Dallesandro spout vapid Marxist jingles as he bangs away at his bourgeois employer's willing daughters.  Kier, for his part, portrays a more sympathetic Dracula--conscious of his advancing years as he meticulously dyes his hair and secretly longing for the everlasting peace of the grave.  A cult classic.

Blood Sucking Freaks [The Incredible Torture Show] (USA 1976) (2): A truly nasty example of transgressive cinema which caused a small ripple of controversy upon its initial release before being deservedly forgotten. The Amazing Sardu, sole proprietor of “Sardu’s Theater of the Macabre” has a gift for torturing women; when he’s not maiming and murdering them on stage in front of an unsuspecting audience (they think it’s all faked) he’s living out some extremely sick S&M fantasies backstage aided by his little brown sidekick Ralphus. The unfortunate women who manage to survive his sadistic attentions are then sealed in cardboard boxes and shipped out to wealthy businessmen as part of a thriving white slavery ring. But when a renowned theatre critic refuses to review Sardu’s gruesome performance art the stage is set for a most diabolical act of revenge in which kidnapped critic and brainwashed ballerina perform a fatal pas-de-deux in an improvised “Sadism Ballet”. Meanwhile, the dancer’s boyfriend has teamed up with a crooked cop in order to uncover the truth behind Sardu’s theatrical practices and what they find goes beyond their worst fears... With its zero budget, inept performances, and overall sleazy presentation one could compare Freaks to the early works of John Waters, say Pink Flamingos or Desperate Living, but Joel Reed’s grotesque indulgence lacks both the drugged wit and flamboyant cheesiness which make a Waters film so much fun to watch. There is an attempt at satire here as Sardu makes a few snide comments on the state of theater, but for the most part we are subjected to a lurid succession of tits and misogyny: a woman’s bum is used as a dartboard, another has 5,000 volts shot through her nipples, and another has a hole drilled into her skull so one of Sardu’s more ardent fans can suck her brains out through a straw (after pulling out her teeth with a pair of pliers). But seriously, put your feminist outrage to rest for this film is so pitifully done and the performers so self-consciously embarrassed that it’s incapable of offending anyone. Besides, the stable of naked feral cannibal women Sardu keeps locked up in the basement end up having the final laugh anyway.

Blossoms in the Dust (USA 1941) (7): “To a world wracked with desolation and despair...” proclaims the theatrical trailer, “...comes a warm human story of a quiet lady who devoted her life to the nameless, the homeless, and the friendless...” Thus begins this fanciful biopic of Edna Gladney, a former Wisconsin debutante who not only became a champion for the rights of orphaned and unwanted children but a driving political force in eliminating the term “illegitimate” from their birth records; a stigma that often branded them for life. Moving to Fort Worth with her wealthy Texan husband at the turn of the century Edna led the carefree life of the upwardly mobile until a series of personal tragedies changed her life forever. Unable to have a family of her own she eventually turned her attention to the plight of children condemned to “poor farms” where substandard care and social disgrace were the norm. Despite financial setbacks and community pressure her “Texas Children’s Home and Aid Society” was soon placing these unfortunate kids into the arms of loving parents almost as fast as they showed up on the doorstep. There is a wonderful film here if you can get past a few glaring flaws. To begin with, the director chooses to gild Edna’s story with unwarranted amounts of cloying sentimentality and spun sugar; all those lingering shots of rosy-cheeked cherubs and dewy eyelashes set to soaring strings simply get in the way. Secondly, despite their admiral performances Greer Garson is simply too old for the part (she was 37 when she played the part of an 18-year old deb) and Walter Pidgeon, as her one and only love, comes across as neither romantic nor Texan. And lastly, even though I tried to view the whole production from an historical perspective, the cast of yassuh-spouting black domestics began to grate on my nerves anyway. A shamelessly manipulative technicolor tearjerker that nevertheless manages to captivate and entertain. “It’s aimed at your heart...” concludes the trailer, “...and it hits the mark.” No wonder I was pulling arrows out of my chest all night.

Blow Out (USA 1981) (7): Brian De Palma makes murder sexy in this stylish thriller even though time has given it something of a kitschy edge. Sound engineer Jack Terry (a post Grease John Travolta) is out in the Pennsylvania woods with his microphone when he inadvertently records the noise from a speeding car losing control and plunging into a river. Diving to the rescue he manages to pull a young woman to safety but the elderly male driver is already dead. And that’s when his troubles begin for the dead man is a powerful Washington senator, the woman is definitely not his wife, and according to Jack’s recorded evidence the accident was no accident. Now with the senator’s spin doctors trying to keep them quiet, a TV reporter eager for a story, and a homicidal psychopath (creepy sexy John Lithgow) stalking them both, Jack and Sally (80’s icon Nancy Allen) are barely managing to stay one step ahead of the game—but for how long? An obvious allusion to Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick misadventure is tempered by nods to Antonioni’s Blow-Up and just about every cinematic trick Hitchcock has ever pulled from his sleeve including towering crane shots and breathless chase sequences. Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond even has a few tricks of his own with ceiling cams skewing our perception (Jack’s cluttered work room is reduced to a doll’s house as the camera zooms upwards), 360˚ pans, split screens, and a brilliant low angle shot of a life and death struggle played out against a sky full of exploding fireworks. Laced with paranoia and a sense of the macabre—a restroom strangulation is a study in fetishized suspense—De Palma takes a rather facile plot and drenches it in so much panache that you hardly even notice the plot holes right up to that horribly ironic final segment. A great late night popcorn flick.

Blue [Three Colors: Blue] (France 1993) (7): After surviving a car crash in which her famous composer husband and five-year old daughter were killed, Julie is incapacitated by grief. Unable to attend their funeral in person (a state affair given her husband’s celebrity status) she can only crawl under her hospital sheets and stare numbly at a video recording of it. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt Julie decides to kill herself by other means: she sells off everything she owns, cuts ties with her friends (including Olivier, her would-be lover), and moves to Paris where she reinvents herself as an idle woman of means. Refusing to fall into the “trap” of loving anyone or anything again, she spends her days engaging in pointless pursuits while avoiding any meaningful human contact. But no woman is an island and despite herself Julie begins to form tenuous ties with the people around her—the prostitute downstairs, her institutionalized mother, a street musician, a persistent Olivier—all of whom are carrying their own load of emotional baggage. Furthermore, what few trinkets she kept from her former life trigger deeper memories and her husband’s unfinished score (he had been commissioned to compose a symphony celebrating the unification of Europe) refuses to leave her head… The first film in director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s trilogy based on the colours of the French flag, Blue (symbolizing “Liberty”) examines both the cost and the illusion of freedom in an increasingly interdependent world. In trying to escape her sorrow—and accompanying anger—through isolation Julie forms a psychological prison which ironically limits her life more than love or grief ever could. “What do you do for a living?” inquires her real estate agent, “Nothing” is her curt reply. Only by opening up to the joys and pains of others, that trap she so desperately tried to avoid, can Julie hope to obtain personal liberation. But, as with all things worth having, there is a price to be paid for as Julie begins to examine her own life, including her marriage, some painful truths are laid bare. Bogged down in places by a few heavy-handed metaphors (the colour blue saturates every scene; mom’s television screen shows bungee jumpers taking leaps of faith; Julie constantly dives into the sapphire waters of a public pool) Kieslowski’s masterful direction, backed by some evocative cinematography and a standout performance by lead Juliette Binoche, still manages to keep things grounded. And that majestic orchestral score gives the whole proceeding an aura of great solemnity.

The Blue Gardenia (USA 1953) (7): After the man she adores dumps her, meek telephone operator Norah Larkin (Anne Baxter) decides to drown her broken heart by going on a date with sleazy pin-up artist Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr). After indulging in a few too many cocktails at the Blue Gardenia Lounge Norah winds up at Harry’s apartment where, in the process of warding off his attempts at date rape, she passes out. Regaining consciousness, Norah stumbles home and wakes up the next day with a killer hangover and only vague recollections of what transpired the night before. But when she discovers that Prebble was found murdered and the police are searching for a mysterious woman more or less matching her description Norah’s fractured memories send her into a spiral of guilt and outright panic… With a plot as believable as a cheap dime store novel and melodramatic performances all around, this 50’s potboiler would be laughed out of the theatres were it were released today. But it wasn’t, thank goodness, and there remains an earnestness to Fritz Lang’s magnificent direction which takes the lean dark streets of Los Angeles and turns them into an alternate reality of suspicious glances and fogbound paranoia using long tracking shots and shaded close-ups. Baxter’s hysterics are credible and she can turn them on and off with the flick of a switch as she goes from gullible doormat to California’s Most Wanted in a swirl of platinum curls and addled wits. Helping her out are Richard Conte as a crusading reporter eager to get the true story before the police do, a perpetually smirking George “Superman” Reeves as the cynical detective determined to find the “Blue Gardenia” killer, and Ann Sothern and Jeff Donnell as Norah’s roommates—one a kooky airhead addicted to crime novels, the other a pragmatic divorcée with a knack for finding a few clues on her own. Even the late great Nat king Cole makes a cameo crooning the film’s theme song. It’s all pretty ludicrous when you take the time to think it out and the “big reveal” at the end is practically handed to you ten minutes after the film begins, but over sixty years later it’s still a lot of fun to watch. Think of it as Film Noir Lite with a side of corn.

Blue Jasmine (USA 2013) (8): Ever since Eminem won a best original song Oscar for his trailer park drivel (and didn’t even have the decency to honour the travesty by showing up in person) I’ve viewed the Academy Awards as a contemptuous joke and not a measure of actual talent. But occasionally they do get it right. Case in point is Cate Blanchett’s emotionally draining performance as Jasmine, a former New York trophy wife with attitude to spare suddenly reduced to a working class peasant when her millionaire husband is convicted of fraud. Now suffering from acute anxiety attacks which cause her to babble to herself at the most inopportune times, Jasmine heads west to San Francisco where she moves in with her estranged sister Ginger, a white trash single mother of two with more than a few reasons to dislike Jasmine and her ex-husband. But trading in country estates, European shopping sprees and gala dinner parties for a dingy apartment, part-time employment, and night school courses proves to be more daunting than she expected, and not even self-medicating with Xanax and vodka martinis can stop her slow slide towards madness. Although it contains some genuinely humorous elements as Jasmine makes pathetic attempts to deny her new circumstances, Woody Allen’s class-conscious drama tracing one bewildered woman’s terrible fall is in fact deeply tragic. Repeatedly blindsided by past memories Jasmine staggers about in an angry haze, her denials and outright lies sabotaging whatever chance at happiness comes her way, while even life on the lowest rung of the economic ladder proves to be beyond her capacities. Ironically Ginger, having learned to accept her own status long ago thanks to her older sister’s imperious critiques, finds in Jasmine’s struggles a new sense of dignity. Intelligently written and presented with great conviction…one of Allen’s finest achievements.

The Blue Umbrella (India 2005) (7): Vishal Bhardwa goes heavy on the metaphors in this simple story about the transformative power of innocence and the wages of avarice. Precocious little Biniya (newcomer Shreya Sharma so full of sugar and spice you don’t know whether to hug her to death or just drown her) trades in her precious good luck charm for a beautiful blue umbrella. Since none of the neighbours in her remote northern village have ever seen anything like it before Biniya and her glorious parasol quickly become the centre of attention drawing locals and tourists alike. Shopkeeper Nandu, on the other hand, openly covets the girl’s prized possession, desiring its simple beauty (and ability to attract customers) for himself. Despite his best offers Biniya stubbornly refuses to part with her umbrella causing his jealousy to turn into an obsession. And then the umbrella goes missing, breaking the girl’s heart and throwing the village into an uproar as accusations fly and Nandu protests his innocence. But when he receives an exquisite red umbrella in the mail Nandu finally gains the notoriety he’d been hoping for as all eyes focus on him. Fame, however, can be a fickle thing especially when it is ill-gained… Bland performances and the usual Bollywood hokum are offset somewhat by a fairy tale aesthetic which sees Biniya singing and dancing her way to wisdom while Nandu huffs and scowls through adversity towards redemption. In the end, however, it was the arresting cinematography which finally won me over. Shot in the shadow of the Himalayas Bhardwaj’s film revels in colour and texture whether he’s shooting a wedding procession making its way through a gentle fall of snow or a child draped in scarlet fabric twirling beneath an endless sky. There is a lyrical quality to his parable which glosses over much of its technical shortcomings (like shoddy editing) and makes a rather glib moral all the more palatable. Sweet and easy on the eyes.

Blue Valentine (USA 2010) (7): Dean and Cindy’s marriage is in trouble. What communication they share consists mainly of repetitive arguments and hurtful accusations; even an overnight stay at a tackily appointed “love hotel” meant to provide some quality alone time winds up being just another alcohol-fuelled evening of angry resentments. It doesn’t take long to appreciate the reasons for this unhappy state of affairs for Cindy presents as a passive-aggressive martyr while Dean’s drunken man-child has more in common with their four-year old daughter. A series of flashbacks allow us to trace the couple’s disintegration as we see two naïve and painfully immature souls trying to connect; she’s living at home with her violent domineering father while trying to earn a medical degree, he’s a dim-witted highschool dropout from a broken family who’s been eking out a living doing menial labour. When she finds herself pregnant they decide to do the wrong thing for all the right reasons. This then is not the story of good beginnings gone sour, but rather a marriage which never had a chance in the first place. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are wonderful together; their largely improvised dialogue is completely convincing as banal smalltalk and heated quarrels hint at deeper psychological scars which neither partner is emotionally equipped to deal with constructively. Director Derek Cianfrance keeps the mood low-keyed with muted colours and overcast skies while his relentless camera records love’s final death throes. To his credit he steadfastly avoids any clichéd Hollywood cop-outs presenting us instead with a sad little non-ending and a few visual cues as the final credits roll. Some may see this as a lolling drama going nowhere and featuring unbelievable characters (med student marries loser?) While I can’t say they’re completely wrong, I chose to view Blue Valentine as a piercing character study of two damaged and desperate people making a string of bad decisions. There may be something of the “experimental” in Cianfrance’s work, some scenes definitely have an aura of affectation to them, but Gosling and Williams’ naturalistic performances go a long way in smoothing out the film’s few rough edges.

Bombon: El Perro (Argentina 2004) (6): Ever since losing his job as a gas station mechanic, kindhearted fifty-something Juan finds himself living on his daughter’s couch while trying to eke out a living selling handmade knives from the back of his truck. One day, as payment for helping a stranded motorist, he is given a fully grown purebred dogo Argentino; a large hunting dog looking like a cross between a pit bull and a boxer. Before long he forms a partnership with a professional dog promoter and in a montage of scenes reminiscent of a canine Rocky, “Lechien” is being trained as a champion show dog; a future which could prove very lucrative for Juan. It all comes crashing down however when it is discovered that Lechien is unable (or unwilling) to mate with other dogs thereby ruining Juan’s chances to profit by hiring him out for stud service. It would appear that Lechien and Juan have one thing in common--in the eyes of the world they are both seen as lacking any intrinsic worth; Juan because of his age, and the dog because of his lack of marketable assets. As this revelation dawns on both man and beast the beginning of a new partnership slowly emerges... Despite it’s open-faced sincerity Bombon suffers from an acute lack of chemistry. Neither actor nor dog radiate any charisma; Lechien dutifully barks and whines on command while Juan’s permanently baffled expression makes him look as if someone dropped a few xanax in his yerba mate. Despite the inspirational soundtrack and long symbolic shots of dusty deserts this remains a road movie forever stuck in neutral.

The Book of Life (USA 2014) (9): Rough ’n tumble Joaquin and artistically inclined Manolo are best friends even though they’ve been in love with the same woman, the gorgeous Maria, since they were kids. Now several years later Joaquin is a decorated hero, Manolo a disgraced bullfighter who plays a mean guitar, and Maria is at a loss as to whom she truly loves. However, unbeknownst to the earthly trio, a pair of netherworld gods have made Maria’s final decision the basis of a diabolical bet—a bet neither one intends to lose. But while both men vie for the hand of Maria in a struggle which will take one of them to Hades and back, their small town of San Angel is about to face its greatest challenge yet as the evil bandit Chakal and his gang of cutthroats decide to pay everyone a visit… Set in a storybook Mexico with action that spans the world of the living and the worlds of the dead, director Jorge R. Gutiérrez’s exuberant animated feature practically leaps off the screen in a swirl of music and cartoon pandemonium. The subject matter (life, death, and what comes next) may be Tim Burton territory but Gutiérrez’s Latin sensibilities eschew the former’s dark palette of greys and blues for an explosion of bright crayon colours instead, presenting us with an Aztec fantasyland where everyone and everything seems to be constructed of wooden blocks and Lego pieces. The humour spans all generations, the kickass songs (including a hit from Radiohead and two originals from Paul Williams) are definitely hummable, and the onscreen adventures suggest a beautifully warped imagination. Cool stuff!

The Book Thief (USA 2013) (6): The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is witnessed by Anne of Green Gables in Brian Percival's adaptation of Markus Zusak's novel. Torn from her mother, a convicted communist, and sent to live with good Aryan foster parents the quietly reserved Liesel seeks what solace she can in learning to read---finding escape in the pages of every book she "borrows" from people around her. But when her new parents begin harbouring a fugitive Jew in the basement Liesel gains a new sense of responsibility and a mandate to tell her own tale. Curiously narrated by the Grim Reaper himself (?!) who waxes a bit poetic on his vocation, what unfolds is a generic tale of Nazi oppression and heroic resistance with bombs relegated for the most part to dust-shaking rattles and Hitler staring from posters like the Big Bad Wolf. Liesel's shaky transformation from war waif to story-weaving adolescent is shored up by the likes of Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson as her ersatz parents, his kindly grandpa figure playing against Watson's stern yet flappable matriarch. Nico Liersch also does a fine job as Rudy, the Hitlerjugend with a heart of gold and a boy-sized crush on Liesel. Sadly a climactic passage of pure Hollywood heart-tugging is only partially offset by a poignant denouement before it all fades to black. Nicely presented with its snowy streets and rustic homes but quickly forgotten once the lights come up.

Borgman (Netherlands 2013) (7): “…and they descended upon the Earth to strengthen their ranks.” With this faux Old Testament-style quote writer/director Alex van Warmerdam opens his surreal and darkly comic film, a hodgepodge of sadistic puzzler in the vein of Lars von Trier, bourgeoisie skewering á la Michael Haneke, and devilishly sardonic Catholic nightmare straight from the mind of Luis Buñuel. After a vigilante led by an irate priest flushes him out of his underground lair, homeless vagrant Anton Breskens (aka Camille Borgman…names are important here) flees to a genteel suburb of northern Holland where he insinuates himself into the lives of upscale yuppies Richard and Marina, their lithesome Danish nanny, and three picture perfect children. Taking pity on the poor scruff who shows up on their doorstep begging for a bath, especially after her bellicose husband beats him senseless for no good reason, Marina secretly puts Borgman up in the guest cottage where she tends to his wounds and sneaks him dinners. But there is a malevolence surrounding the bearded tramp who seems to derive much pleasure from sowing discord in his host family: Richard’s lucrative job is suddenly in jeopardy, the kids mysteriously tune out, and Marina begins experiencing horrible nightmares of domestic violence which affect her waking hours. And then Borgman’s diabolical accomplices show up and things head south very quickly for the demonic little imp and his posse love to play games and when it comes to winning murder is definitely on the table. The upper class is always an easy target for satire and Borgman is no exception—when he places an ad for a new gardener Richard is appalled by the number of non-white applicants and after youngest daughter Isolde guts her teddy bear Marina lectures her on the poor third-world child who laboured to make it—but Warmerdam’s barbs are edgeless and we’ve heard all these jokes before. As a study in Good vs. Evil however he does manage to make us squirm for he presents a contemporary world devoid of virtue in which darker motives bubble beneath polite facades and wickedness, bearing the mark of the Beast no less, is meted out in the most innocent of packages. Indeed, Borgman only has to blow on the flames that already exist in order to wrack Richard and Marina’s home with all seven of the deadly sins. Finally, a downbeat finale brings forth the true horror of what we’ve been witnessing for the past two hours but even that falls strangely flat. Despite a storyline that at times derails into ad-lib territory and an infuriating smugness (deliberate perhaps?) which seems intent on convincing audiences the film is far more complex than it actually is, there is still an unsettling quality to the production. It’s almost as if the movie were judging you based on your reaction to it and finding therein something shameful. The Netherlands’ official entry for Best Foreign Language Oscar, 2014.

Born to Be Blue (Canada 2015) (8): Jazz music is best when its spontaneous, improvised, and from the heart. Perhaps it’s fitting then that writer/director Robert Budreau’s free-flowing look at the life of legendary trumpeter and lifelong heroin addict Chet Baker—credited with inventing the sound of “west coast swing—relies more on feeling than actual biographical facts. Opening with Chet’s first introduction to smack when he was a gap-toothed kid playing alongside Dizzie Gillespie and Miles Davis in the early 50s (a clever film-within-a-film as an older, wizened Chet is hired to play himself in an ill-fated biopic) and ending with his much lauded comeback attempt in 1966, Budreau takes a non-linear approach to the musician’s life with stagey B&W flashbacks offset by colour sequences detailing a rocky personal life marked by failed romance, violence (a vicious assault just about ended his already faltering career), and an overwhelming addiction to a drug which was both a crutch and a creative muse. Ethan Hawke should have received an Oscar nomination for his role as the passionate yet muddled Baker, and Carmen Ejogo excels as his frustrated lover, a struggling actress who comes to represent all the women in Baker’s life. Downcast and moody, much like Chet’s peculiar brand of music-making, with an eye for sunsets and an ear for sad jazz, this is not destined to be a crowd pleaser. But for those who appreciate a fine ensemble drama shot through with flashes of bleak poetry it’s certainly worth a look.

The Boss of it All  (Denmark 2006) (7):  While watching this caustic corporate satire It’s difficult to tell exactly who Von Trier holds in deeper contempt.  Lawyers?  CEOs?  Thespians?  Danes?  Icelanders?  Anyone who isn’t Lars Von Trier?  He seems to have a knack for thinking up ideas for edgy and intelligent films then ruining them by being stupid.  This time around he delivers a brilliantly funny, if typically mean-spirited, comedy revolving around the unethical and cowardly owner of an IT company......think of a dark Danish version of “The Office”.  He then proceeds to mar the proceedings with cheap gimmicks like stopping the action in order to lecture the audience and using some silly computer program to determine camera angles resulting in a nauseating blend of jarring cuts and off-centre framing.  Great idea for a film though, too bad someone else didn’t think of it.

The Boston Strangler (USA 1968) (8): Between 1962 and 1964 as many as 13 women in the Boston area were found strangled and sexually mutilated. The resulting police investigation eventually led detectives to Albert DeSalvo, a local furnace repairman and father of two small children. Although he was never formally convicted in any of the murders he would end up spending the rest of his life incarcerated for lesser crimes; first in a state mental hospital and finally in a maximum security prison. Fleischer’s engrossing drama features a cast of seasoned actors headlined by Tony Curtis as the deeply troubled strangler and Henry Fonda as John Bottomly, the reluctant law professor charged with hunting him down. Controversial for 1968, the film doesn’t shy away from the more troubling aspects of the case; DeSalvo’s sexual aberrations are alluded to (Curtis’ facial expressions during the assaults speak volumes) and his victims are portrayed with a blunt realism that deepens the sense of tragedy while keeping the grislier details tastefully off camera. Some homophobic slurs do prove troublesome, even when you consider the time and place in which the story unfolds, and it’s difficult to assess whether Bottomly’s overly respectful approach to a gay suspect constitutes genuine sympathy or condescension. What won me over in the end however was the film’s highly innovative camerawork. Fleischer’s frequent use of multiple frames and overlapping dialogue is brilliant; the separate frames sometimes appearing as pieces of a puzzle while at other times forming a mosaic of fear and suspicion as we see images of women locking doors and peering nervously over their shoulders. Furthermore, Bottomly’s tense interrogations of an increasingly psychotic DeSalvo are beautifully enhanced when the killer’s disjointed memories suddenly become interactive with both men moving in and out of reality. Despite some glaring factual omissions, DeSalvo was definitely not the innocuous family man portrayed here, this still remains a highly polished and riveting piece of pseudo-fiction.

Boulevard (USA 2014) (2): An unconvincingly subdued Robin Williams (delivering his Swan Song) gives a one-note performance as a deeply closeted milquetoast whose phobia of hurting other people's feelings has caused him to put his own feelings on hold. Forever stuck in first gear, mousy loans officer Nolan Mack (Williams) divides his time between randomly shuffling papers at the bank where he works, going to the nursing home to stare at his vegetative father, and coming home to a sexless marriage with a listless and permanently depressed zombie wife (Kathy Baker actually showing less animation than one of John Carpenter's undead). But when he suddenly finds himself playing sugar daddy to troubled street hustler Leo, their platonic navel-gazing gives him the courage to shift his life from dull desperation to tedious optimism as he discovers that even at sixty years of age it's never too late to be boring in new and novel ways. Working with a cast of cardboard characters and a script which combines the worst of Woody Allen's dramas with Barney the Dinosaur platitudes, director Dito Montiel is clearly aiming for the heartstrings in this sad little tale of old regrets and new beginnings. Everyone is suffering in his universe: Mack struggles with a long overdue midlife crisis; Leo gets smacked around by his big bad pimp; and Mrs. Mack (named "Joy"...haha irony) is stuck in a sham marriage. But Montiel's aim is completely off and no one ends up suffering more for it than his audience.

The Boxtrolls (USA 2014) (8): The nearly perpendicular town of Cheesebridge is under siege by a subterranean horde of Boxtrolls—jabbering little beasties sporting grocery containers for clothes and possessing an unquenchable thirst for any gewgaw or knickknack they can get their four-fingered hands on. Things have become so bad that mayor Lord Portley-Rind and his white-capped cabinet have hired the venomous exterminator Archibald Snatcher to destroy the creatures once and for all, even agreeing to Snatcher’s exorbitant price: namely a garish white top hat (symbol of power and prestige) of his own. But you can’t judge a box by its label for the trolls are not the drooling monsters portrayed in Snatcher’s tall tales and the exterminator himself has some diabolical secrets of his own involving kidnapping and murder. It finally falls down to Portley-Rind’s headstrong daughter Winnie and “Eggs”, a human child raised by the trolls, to expose Snatcher’s true plans and save the wee bugaboos before they’re eradicated completely. Definitely not for the single-digit crowd, directors Annable and Stacchi’s painstakingly intricate stop-motion animation feature has enough macabre scenarios and outrageous inventions to turn Tim Burton green with envy. Beautifully realized in all its storybook grunginess, the town of Cheesebridge is teeming with eccentrics and grotesques thanks to the vocal talents of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Ben Kingsley among others. Snatcher proves to be a formidable cartoon villain with his rotten teeth and fire-breathing mechanical death machine—yet his scariness is balanced with a slightly sick sense of fun (he’s monstrously allergic to cheese, the town’s biggest commodity) and a few unexpected insights on morality provided by his conscience-stricken henchmen who constantly try to assure themselves that they’re still the “good guys”. Dark, eclectic, and shot through with enough imagination to keep adults and older children interested.

Boy (New Zealand 2010) (9): Ever since his mother died in childbirth eleven-year old “Boy” has been busy helping his grandmother raise his younger brother Rocky as well as a few cousins in a ramshackle house on New Zealand’s Waihau Bay where he maintains his hope and sanity through a very active imagination. But the family’s equilibrium is thrown into chaos when gran goes away for a few weeks and Boy’s delinquent dad, Alamein, shows up fresh out of prison with a few of his shady mates in tow. Suddenly faced with the father figure he had always dreamed of Boy sets about trying to mend fences but Alamein is only interested in two things: getting high and finding the stash of stolen money he hid somewhere in a nearby field. Over the next few days both Boy and his father will have some growing up to do, but who will end up being the parent and who will be the child? If the plot sounds clichéd and gloomy writer/director Taika Waititi (who also plays dad) serves it up with such wit and self-effacing charm, not to mention winning performances from his young Maori cast, that you can’t help but smile even through some of the more painful scenes. Unlike the world weary grade-school midgets portrayed in 2005’s 12 And Holding, Waititi’s kids are not mini-adults but rather fully fleshed children with all their silliness and nascent wisdom intact—Rocky believes he has uncontrollable super powers which accidentally killed his mother when he was born; Boy fancies himself a Polynesian Michael Jackson with the baddest moves (the film takes place in 1984); and Boy’s cousin doles out tween ennui while strutting around in an oversized fur wrap and high heels. Waititi still knows how it feels to be a little kid in a big world and his film’s many segues into simple fantasy embellish the story rather than distract whether it’s Rocky’s crayon drawings moving across the page or Boy, upon watching his father being roughed up by a biker gang, imagines him starring in a low-budget version of Jackson’s “Beat It” video instead. And when the children visit their mother’s grave which they covered in their own loving graffiti, it’s difficult to keep a dry eye. If the poverty and neglect seem downplayed it’s only because the camera is filming from the vantage point of an impressionable young lad who can still sense goodness long after adults have given up. With a disarmingly natural script and amiable performances (even dad and his slapstick gang grow on you) as well as those clever touches—with kids named Falcon Crest and Dallas you know television is Waihau Bay’s major source of entertainment—Waititi has produced a real winner. Childhood’s joys, pains, and sundry mortifications are all served up with warmth and just a touch of magic. Be sure to sit through the closing credits…

The Boys in the Band (USA 1970) (9): As storm clouds gather overhead a group of men, all gay, gather in a modest New York apartment for a birthday party in honour of their mutual friend, Harold, who has chosen to be fashionably late. There’s the usual generic queer dishing and camping as they await his arrival but when the host’s very conservative and questionably straight college buddy shows up unexpectedly with emotional baggage in tow, a slow fuse is lit that burns brighter and hotter as the evening wears on. When Harold eventually does show up, stoned and uncaring, the stage is set for a series of emotional showdowns. Easy banter soon gives way to some rather sharp and nasty barbs; jealousies and resentments begin to surface and the host’s buddy throws a homosexual panic that almost brings the house down. With a tempest raging outside, the men retreat to the living-room where a cruel game of “Truth or Dare” takes place which strips away defenses and lays bare some painful truths. Based on Mart Crowley’s play, Boys in the Band uses a party as an ironic metaphor to illustrate the realities of being gay in 1970. If you can look past the gucci bags, fruity poodles and chintz curtains you’ll see that he has incorporated a rich variety of sentiments into just a few characters. While the host is poisoned by internalized homophobia one guest acts out his gayness almost as a challenge to the world; while another man risks everything for the sake of love, his partner finds himself terrified at the prospect of intimacy. Even Harold, world-weary and cynical, finds some solace in the hustler hired to be his “gift” for the night; a naive and refreshingly untainted young man who remains immune to the poison darts flying over his head. It would be easy to dismiss this film as just so much homo nihilism, but one must take it in historical context. Released just one year after the Stonewall Riots, it was the first film to show gay men as more than just comedy relief. It came out at a time when being gay was sufficient grounds for losing your job, your home, your family, and your freedom. I see this brilliant film as both a dark celebration and an angry rebuke to society at large. As one character put it, “If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so much...” As true today as it was back then. As a sad footnote, five of the original cast members have since died of AIDS.

Boystown (Spain 2007) (8): Madrid's aging Chueca neighbourhood is undergoing a sea change. Gay couples are buying up its quaint little condos and slimy real estate agent Victor is only too happy to oblige them, even if he has to murder every little old lady who refuses to part with her home. When their next door neighbour meets an untimely end at Victor's hands, the bearish Leo and his hunky boyfriend Rey inherit her apartment (Rey was the "son she never had") but instead of selling it to Victor, Rey decides to give it to his miserable bitch of a mother who immediately makes it her business to break up their relationship. Frustrated with this unexpected turn of events Victor sets his sights on the old woman while at the same time driving a romantic wedge between the two men. Meanwhile the neurotic police detective Mila and her closeted sidekick son Luis are hot on the trail of the killer...a trail that seems to be leading them to Leo. Playing like the bastard son of Almodovar and Hitchcock, this rollicking dark gay comedy may lack the former's touch of the subtly absurd and the latter's sense of style but director Juan Flahn knows how to elicit a coarse laugh and a knowing wink. His cartoonish protagonists are all huggable, his yuppie antagonist sleaze personified, and the character of Rey's mother hilariously abrasive. Of course it all ends happily ever after without too many twists or turns, although a final chase through a steamy bath house probably looked better on paper. The men, of course, are gorgeous!

Brain Damage (USA 1988) (5): Respectable middle-aged couple Morris and Martha Ackerman are tearing their tastefully appointed New York apartment to pieces searching for their little pet who’s gone missing despite the seven deadbolts on the front door. The pet in question, named “Aylmer”, is in fact a wisecracking twelve inch parasitic worm resembling a big blue turd able to induce highly addictive LSD-style trips in his hosts as long as they keep him supplied with fresh brains to eat, preferably human. In a neighboring apartment, a young man wakes to find his bed covered in blood, the ceiling dripping pleasant psychedelic colours and a smooth-talking, blue-eyed Aylmer attached to his neck. It isn’t long before Brian becomes firmly hooked to Aylmer’s little gift and begins taking the wriggling monster out for late night walks so he can burrow hungrily into the foreheads of unsuspecting victims. Troubles begin to mount however as the body count rises, Brian’s girlfriend begins asking too many questions, and the Ackmermans, now looking like a pair of haggard crackheads, come knocking with a loaded pistol. Director Frank Henenlotter combines a bizarre storyline with a few primitive special effects to produce a mildly engaging little flick which fails to achieve the quirky cult status of 1982’s vastly superior Liquid Sky. Usually a film of this low calibre can at least elicit a bit of 80s nostalgia with all those hairdos and madonna-esque accessories, but here they just look silly and dated; one particular scene involving an ill-fated blowjob at an underground “Goth club” filled with mohawked extras bopping around to lame music is especially embarrassing. Aylmer himself is rather cute as he cajoles and berates an increasingly desperate Brian into finding him one more brain to eat, but the mix of puppetry, cheap animation, and stop motion photography used to bring him to life is woefully inconsistent. Lastly, an odd shower room scene featuring muscle hunk Joseph Gonzales repeatedly soaping up his tight butt is completely gratuitous but appreciated just the same.

The Brave Little Toaster (USA 1987) (6): Disney takes anthropomorphism to a new level in this animated tale of five abandoned appliances who take to the road in search of their beloved pint-sized master after his family moves to the big city. Along the way they discover an enchanted pond, spend a night in a scary forest and do battle with a malevolent junkyard magnet....only to discover that their master's new appliances aren't exactly pleased to see them. Featuring good old-fashioned animation and some lively musical numbers including a macabre stint in a used appliance store and a death row dirge played amongst rusting heaps of condemned cars. I suppose one could see a subtle jab at our consumer mentality but for the most part it's a lesson on the importance of respect, cooperation and self-sacrifice aimed squarely at the preschool crowd. Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman lend their voices.

The Brave Little Toaster to the Rescue (USA 1997) (4): Weak sequel to 1987’s so-so tale of animated household appliances setting out in search of their “master”. This time around the precious electrical gadgets rescue a group of cutesy lab animals bound for an evil research facility, give an outdated computer a new lease on life, and help their master (now a college senior) recover his lost thesis on “The Secret Life of Animals”. Lots of cartoon silliness, machine hugs, and slapdash songs to amuse the kids while the underlying themes of faith and perseverance are sweetly summed up in the cloying musical ditty, “Hang In There Kid!”. It’s enough to make you want to kick your toaster in the ball bearings.

Breath (Korea 2007) (7): Notorious quirk master Ki-duk Kim, able to go from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again at the drop of a clapperboard, takes three of arthouse cinema’s most beloved staples—love, sex, and death—and twists them into something highly watchable if not entirely successful. Aspiring sculptress Yeon is so browbeaten by her philandering husband that she’s taken to midnight fugues along the outskirts of Seoul. Death row inmate Jang Jin has been trying to avoid his upcoming execution by attempting suicide so many times that his latest self-mutilation has made national headlines. Recognizing a kindred spirit (both are dying in one way or another) Yeon bluffs her way into visiting Jang Jin and in a highly improbable but ingeniously cinematic turn of events manages to squeeze a yearlong affair into a few short weeks. But even as the two damaged lovers pursue their doomed tryst Yeon’s husband undergoes a sea change which threatens to upset an already precarious equilibrium while Jang Jin’s obsessive gay cellmate gradually succumbs to jealousy and despair. Taken as a love story Kim’s skewed tale of amour fou rings flat and hollow indeed for he doesn’t even try to inject it with anything approaching credibility. But taken as a psychodrama there is enough sexual yin and yang, not to mention gender wars, artistic conceit, and a touch of the divine, to fuel a dozen heated discussions afterwards. And Kim peppers it all with a barrage of cryptic visuals just to pique your inner artiste: Yeon’s sterile urban apartment contrasts with Jang’s cramped cell where five men huddle beneath makeshift murals of nude women scratched into the concrete walls; the weighty statue of a one-winged angel stares forlornly from behind a television set; a voyeuristic prison warden (tellingly played by Kim himself) watches Yeon and Jang through CCTV cameras, alternately encouraging and then frustrating their amorous advances seemingly on a whim. Beautifully shot in the dead of winter (of course) with long brooding takes that cash in on bare branches, blue snowdrifts, and whitewashed prison walls, there is a touch of whimsy amongst all the melancholy despite a patently downbeat ending. A tragic love poem firmly rooted in unreality that still succeeds in addressing issues of yearning, disconnectedness, and a sad kind of redemption.

Breathing (Austria 2011) (6): Raised by the state after he was abandoned as a child and now incarcerated in a juvenile detention centre for a grievous crime he committed five years earlier, nineteen-year old Roman Kruger is facing his future with a mixture of fear and sullen resignation. Unable to truly connect with another human being he is now expected to find gainful employment or remain in a bureaucratic no man’s land. After a few unsuccessful attempts he finally takes a job transporting bodies for the county morgue where a chance encounter with an emaciated corpse that happens to bear his family name gives him the impetus to confront his past—the most painful journey of his young life. To its credit, writer/director Karl Markovics’ multiple-award winning film about one damaged soul’s first hesitant steps towards adulthood manages to steer clear of emotional excesses. Relying instead on a slowly burning tension Markovics follows Roman through a series of small emotional epiphanies leading to a somewhat predictable final confrontation which is nevertheless handled with a delicate restraint. Unfortunately the movie’s plodding symbolism begins to drag with Roman’s cell representing more than physical isolation, a swimming pool substituting for a womb, and a sad parade of anonymous cadavers symbolizing the ultimate disconnect. Furthermore, a garish transit station billboard (trains also figure heavily) encouraging viewers to “take the plunge” is shown one too many times while a key scene goes for the irony jugular when it is played out amidst the fake domesticity of an IKEA showroom. Some striking imagery and a sombre background score do soften a few of the film’s rougher edges though, and lead actor Thomas Schubert’s reserved performance captures Roman’s dilemma perfectly.

Bride of Re-Animator (USA 1989) (6): That whacky Dr. West and his angst-ridden sidekick Dr. Cain are at it again in Brian Yuzna's decidedly macabre spoof on the Frankenstein myth. This time around the demented duo are collecting spare parts in order to fashion a new girlfriend for Dr. Cain starting with the preserved heart of his former gal pal. Grisly special effects and outrageous plot devices aside (flying head? finger-eyeball monster?) this is a worthy sequel to its darker predecessor made all the more interesting by superior techno wizardry and a perverted sense of humour; yes, beneath all those butchered limbs and slimy entrails there is a dark comedy of sorts accentuated by a musical score that shifts between tense horror and Bugs Bunny cartoon. For pure gross-out entertainment you could do worse...the final basement showdown between the hapless doctors, their buxom creation, and a crypt full of sewn-together rejects is priceless!

The Brides of Dracula (UK 1960) (6): En route to a private girls’ school in Transylvania, French teacher Marianne Danielle’s coach makes an unexpected stop at a country inn where it appears the local patrons have been doing double-espresso shooters all morning. Between jumping at shadows and giving each other quick nervous glances they try to convince her that a hasty return to Paris would be in her best interest. But when the elderly dowager, Baroness Meinster, enters the tavern and convinces Marianne to spend the night at her estate, the innkeeper and his wife bid her farewell with all the finality of a march to the gallows. Living alone with Greta, her butch maid, the Baroness seems content simply to have another live body gracing her table until Marianne makes a startling discovery...the old gal’s son is being kept prisoner in a separate wing of the castle, presumably so she can rule in his stead. Swayed by his oily charms, Marianne helps the Baron escape and before you can say “Nosferatu” young girls are dropping dead with peculiar bite marks on their necks and furry rubber bats are winging their way on not-so-hidden wires. Enter the cadaverous Dr. Van Helsing (horror mainstay Peter Cushing). Armed with a satchel of wooden stakes and a lot of pseudo-religious babble he sets out to defeat the fanged villain before Marianne becomes his next victim. With its glorious overacting and sumptuous colours, this is one of Hammer Studios’ B-movie gems. The wistful recreation of 19th century Transylvania is a curious blend of Bavarian beer gardens and Cockney accents while Castle Meinster embodies the term “gothic camp”. And the cast is almost perfect, from the gruff local priest to Marianne’s wide-eyed innocence, but David Peel’s GQ looks don’t quite fit the role of a bloodsucking fiend. With his poofy blonde wig and lisping accent he approaches his character with all the conviction of a hairdresser on steroids; perhaps they should have renamed it The Beards of Dracula. Great fun anyway!

The Bridge (USA 2006) (6): Eric Steel’s controversial documentary on those who choose to commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge poses an ethical dilemma which I find impossible to resolve.  He spent months filming the bridge in order to capture footage of actual jumpers, then interviewed some of their family and friends afterwards.  Is this artistic expression or simply cold exploitation, good intentions or not?  The video clips are definitely gut wrenching and the subsequent interviews are tactfully done.  Steel allows his subjects to speak without hindrance, the result is a heartfelt testament to the memory of those that died....but was it necessary to show the fatal leaps themselves?  Watching these troubled people in their last moments of life certainly added to the film’s impact.  It’s the question of whether or not “dramatic impact” is sufficient justification that troubles me.  There seems to be no higher purpose to this film other than documenting a year’s worth of suicides.  Then, as if to add some artistic integrity to the proceedings, Steel intercuts the various stories with time-lapsed images of the bridge shrouded in fog.  The result is a false romanticism that is cheap and repetitive.  As a journalistic endeavour it has its moments, I’ll even accept Steel’s claim that he tried to intervene whenever he could, but there remains a morbidly voyeuristic component to this documentary that I find unsettling.

Bridge of Spies (USA 2015) (9): As the Cold War heats up, Brooklyn insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is recruited to defend convicted Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Oscar-winner Mark Rylance) in what promises to be an open-and-shut case. Vilified as a commie sympathizer by a population already obsessed with nuclear bombs and the Red Menace, Donovan nevertheless sticks to his belief that all men deserve a fair trial as laid out in the Constitution, even if they are working for a foreign power. But matters become politically complicated when U.S. Air Force pilot Gary Powers is captured while flying an aerial reconnaissance mission over Russia at the same time an American student is detained by East German authorities who suspect him of being yet another spy. With the CIA breathing down his neck and military authorities on both sides eager to get their men back, Donovan finds himself in a tug-of-war with Moscow, East Berlin, and Washington as he tries to find a solution that will satisfy everyone. Despite a few of his signature Apple Pie moments, this is one of Director Steven Spielberg’s more captivating films with a literary script penned by the Coen brothers and superb performances from its international cast. Far from the black and white morality of Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan, in Bridge of Spies Spielberg views the Cold War through varying shades of grey. Although they are working on opposite sides both Abel and Powers are conscientious men carrying out their assignments with equal diligence—their own opposing convictions highlighting the overall unease of the late 50s when atomic paranoia, fierce nationalism, and East-West xenophobia was the stuff of headlines. Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, coupled with an Oscar-nominated score and production design take an already fascinating page in history and turn it into a widescreen epic that hops from the sunny streets of New York City to the snowy ruins of East Berlin—scenes of Powers’ plane being shot down had me gripping the sides of the couch. A highly polished yet old-fashioned political thriller.

The Bridge to Terabithia  (USA 2005) (3):  When the school loner teams up with the quiet new girl in class a peculiar friendship develops.  Soon they are playing deep in the woods where they imagine themselves to be king and queen of an imaginary realm. This movie had lots of promise but unfortunately Csupo gave it a double dose of Disney syrup and turned it into a sappy melodrama for preteens. In choosing to smother audiences with schmaltz and shallow pathos he missed an opportunity to really delve into the dark fantasy world of children....a theme explored with greater effect in films such as "Tideland" and "Pan's Labyrinth". Everything about this film is over-the-top from the ponderous soundtrack to Anna Sophia Robb's cloying little saucer-eyed waif. Not recommended for diabetics.

Brief Encounter (UK 1945) (5): When an emotionally frustrated housewife bumps into an equally desperate married doctor at a railway station a spark is lit that threatens to overwhelm them both. Soon Laura and Alec are frolicking in a rowboat, holding hands over dinner and staring into each other’s eyes at the cinema; but when the opportunity to go all the way finally presents itself the two are forced to examine the path their lives are taking. Told mainly in flashback as Laura composes a fictitious confession to her conservative fossil of a husband David Lean’s three-hanky weeper, based on Noel Coward’s play, is chockfull of the usual cinematic metaphors: trains pass each other in the night, a stone bridge is somehow never crossed, and a furtive pat on the shoulder conveys all the heartache in the world. Sadly, although the film is replete with emotional credibility (it’s sympathetic portrayal of spouses on the brink earned the wrath of Irish censors) it suffers from some terribly florid dialogue and overblown performances which render it more soap than substance. The final obligatory scene of syrupy reconciliation while Rachmaninov plays in the background reduced us to a round of groans and winces.

Britannia Hospital  (UK 1982) (7):  Too bitter to be dismissed as mere farce, too blunt to be simple satire, this final installment in Lindsay Anderson’s trilogy on the decline of the British Empire is equal parts sitcom and social diatribe.  Like the boarding school in “If...” we once again see a public institution standing in for the country itself.  This time around it’s a hospital under siege.  As the privileged elite go head to head with unionized labour on the eve of a royal visit, a lone doctor quietly creates a super being meant to replace vastly inferior homo sapiens.  Absurd, angry, and filled with despair, the film ends with a darkly prophetic monologue and a chilling demonstration of man’s “successor”.  Unsettling.

Broadcast News (USA 1987) (7): James L. Brooks’ skewed view of journalistic integrity in the arena of high stakes network news takes the form of a workplace love triangle. Shrewd but boring reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) is carrying a torch for neurotically fastidious producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) who is obsessed with charismatic anchorman Tom Grunick (William Hurt), a handsome hunk whose outgoing personality and unwavering honesty mask the fact he is completely clueless when it comes to just about everything. With Aaron and Jane pushing the boundaries of their respective niches and Tom feeling the first stirrings of ambition after a controversial story he covered himself receives positive reviews, everyone is brought to the breaking point both personally and professionally when emotions finally go ballistic just as the station announces massive layoffs. The right combination of biting comedy and honest drama allows Brooks to make a quasi-cynical statement regarding journalism in the age of infotainment without resorting to sarcasm or cliché. He presents an industry where stories of human suffering are gussied up for optimum viewer impact (and commercial breaks), emotions are often rehearsed, and personality trumps substance—yet his three stars (who all received Oscar nominations for their trouble) stumble ever onward convinced that it is all somehow worth it. A fully fleshed, slightly bitter, anti-romance co-starring Joan Cusack as a whacked-out girl Friday and Jack Nicholson in a surprise cameo as the network’s star anchorman whose slightest frown reverberates throughout the newsroom like a heavenly edict.

The Broadway Melody (aka The Broadway Melody of 1929) (USA 1929) (5): Catfights and heartbreak abound in this roaring twenties fairytale which follows the trials and tribulations of two naïve sisters from the American heartland as they vie for fame and romance on New York’s “Great White Way”. This early talkie boasts some terribly camp song & dance numbers along with enough bitchy humour and racy lingerie to keep modern audiences mildly amused. There’s even a mincing homo costumer to show us just how far Hollywood’s gay stereotypes haven’t come in the intervening eighty years. The glitzy deco sets are wonderful but the blatant overacting and mortuary make-up hearken back to the worst days of silent films. A frothy little melodrama that’s as shallow as a producer’s soul.

The Broken (UK 2008) (6): "Through the looking glass" takes on a whole new meaning when a woman begins to suspect she is being replaced by a malevolent doppelganger from the other side of the mirror. Awash in menacing shadows and claustrophobic camerawork The Broken is certainly stylish. Add to that some great performances, taut direction and a fiendish sense of paranoia and you have all the makings of a great thriller-cum-psychodrama. Too bad it all peters out in the end with a lukewarm twist and a distinct lack of resolution one way or the other. It's the horror equivalent of a shaggy dog story; lots of buildup with a disappointingly bland finale.

The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium 2012) (6): Didier and Elise are a perfectly mismatched couple: he’s a bearded banjo-plucking cowboy in a popular bluegrass band and she’s a bohemian tattoo artist whose body art is a veritable patchwork quilt of her life and loves. As the film opens the two are faced with every parent’s nightmare when their seven-year old daughter Maybelle is diagnosed with leukemia, a stressor for which their relationship is ill-prepared. Based on a play by Johan Heldenbergh (who is also cast as Didier), director Felix van Groeningen moves the narrative back and forth through time showing husband and wife falling in and out of love as Maybelle goes in and out of hospital, her illness providing a guilt-riddled minefield of sorts between her dad, an angry atheist, and her mom’s hippy spirituality. In much the same vein as Clanfrance’s Blue Valentine, Groeningen traces the emotional ebb and flow of a contemporary relationship over a period of several years, from two young people experiencing the first blush of love to a pair of haggard parents and beyond. A well acted and engaging piece of cinema ultimately undone by Heldenbergh’s decision to use it as a podium from which to launch a few very personal YouTube rants. When Didier discovers that the science necessary to save his daughter’s life is being hampered by American evangelicals he launches into a couple of lengthy tirades aimed first at George Bush’s veto of stem cell research, then at religion in general before finally shaking his fists at Yahweh himself. While his sentiments certainly hit the proverbial nail on the head their delivery is both stagey and forced. And the decision to smother his two leads under mountains of unbearable heartache begins to look like mere fodder for a hundred Top 10 country-western weepers—the exaggerated misery rendered almost frivolous in the process. No wonder it was Belgium’s official Oscar contender. The soundtrack of bluegrass ballads however (Heldenbergh and co-star Veerle Baetens use their own voices) is pure heaven, and in the role of Maybelle little Nell Cattrysse delivers the film’s most believable performance.

Broken Wings (Israel 2002) (9):  Beautifully realized film about one family’s disintegration following the sudden death of the husband and father.  While the eldest daughter watches her dreams of becoming a recording artist slip away due to the new domestic responsibilities thrust upon her, the eldest son turns his back on the world and adopts an angry cynicism that keeps everyone at arm’s length.  The two youngest children, perhaps sensing the crippling grief  in the home, develop a sullen petulance composed of tantrums and life-threatening stunts.  And all the while their mother sleepwalks through her day oblivious of the pain around her.  There is an aura of barely suppressed rage and guilt in the Ulman household that seems to poison everything it comes in contact with.  It finally takes another crisis to jolt the older members of the family out of their self-pitying ruts and begin to work towards healing the rift left by the husband’s death.  It’s difficult to believe that this remarkably mature and assured work is Nil Bergman’s first feature film.  He brings a depth of characterization to his movie that is usually associated with far more experienced directors.  Furthermore he realizes that the tiniest of details can be tremendously important to a story’s narrative....whether it’s a honeybee buzzing against a pane of glass or faded murals of happy children surrounding an empty pool.  A wonderfully understated film with natural performances and an ending that is both upbeat and believable.

The Brood (Canada 1979) (7): At the mysterious “Somafree Institute of Psychoplasmics” patients with deep seated resentment issues are offered a novel way to vent their anger. Under the tutelage of Dr. Hal Raglan (a wonderfully intense Oliver Reed) clients are emotionally goaded to the point where their rage takes on an actual corporeal existence leading to dramatic catharses involving sudden rashes and dripping pustules. But for one particularly disturbed woman the treatment proves to be all too effective allowing her to not only nurse her various murderous grudges, but dress them up in little snowsuits and send them on their bloody way as well...an ability which doesn’t bode well for anyone who’s ever wronged her. Arguably one of Cronenberg’s best films, this fiendish little sci-fi/horror hybrid revels in those dark spaces we’d rather not investigate whether it be a gloomy staircase in an empty house or our own sadistic revenge fantasies. Directing a talented cast against a backdrop of wintry Toronto landscapes Cronenberg slowly ratchets up the tension, jolt by sudden jolt, before bringing it all to a suitably macabre finale...including one particularly nasty postpartum scene which had censors everywhere lunging for the scissors. Grotesque and deliberately provocative á la David Cronenberg, The Brood still remains one of the more intelligent films to emerge from the era of “Canucksploitation” shockers.

The Browning Version (UK 1951) (7): Michael Redgrave brings a remarkable depth to the role of a public school teacher whose ill health is forcing him to give up his tenure at an upper class boys’ school in favour of a less lucrative position at an institution for troubled teens. Mr. Crocker-Harris, grim and unsmiling, looks back over his 18 years as a professor of Latin and Greek with bitterness and regret. Once a promising young scholar, he slowly let his dreams die one by one until, approaching middle age, he realizes his life is as dead as the languages he teaches. He is pitied by the faculty, scorned by his students, and trapped in a loveless marriage to a woman who views him with contempt even as she flaunts her affairs in his face. Yet there remains one student who seems to sense the old man’s inherent worth, a bright young boy who tries to tap into his fragile humanity and whose farewell gift, from which the movie gets its title, opens a floodgate of repressed emotion. Asquith presents Terence Rattigan’s painfully honest play with great subtlety aided in large part by Dickinson’s poignant B&W cinematography. It’s all so very British, with the characters’ impeccable diction and well-mannered facades barely concealing their underlying anger and despair. Harris’ emotional showdown with his wife, a victim in her own rights, is brilliantly downplayed even as the sky above them explodes with fireworks. Perhaps the film relies too heavily on melodrama at times with its drawn out stares and well-choreographed anguish; and perhaps the allusion to the classical tragedy of Agamemnon, which Harris is teaching his class, doesn’t quite hit the ironic mark it was aimed at. But these are minor drawbacks for a film that many critics hail as a small masterpiece.

Bug (USA 2002) (7): A little boy squashing a cockroach on a Los Angeles sidewalk sets in motion a long chain reaction of coincidences affecting dozens of strangers. That one dead bug will eventually lead to a couple’s divorce and another couple’s second honeymoon; a man will begin stalking the woman of his dreams while another one will end up in Intensive Care and a third will find himself in prison; a cat will get run over, a pig will be shot, and in what has to be the film’s biggest stretch everyone will be given a second chance at life and they won’t even know it. Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s lighthearted look at Chaos Theory may lack the pizzazz of Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run but it certainly doesn’t lack in imagination or sheer audacity, and a few familiar Hollywood faces don’t hurt either. Watching how these two men manage to link seemingly innocuous events into an ever expanding picture had me laughing out loud more than once—not all the connections may make perfect sense but then again life itself rarely does anyway. An enjoyable little indie production with wit and charm to spare.

Bullitt (USA 1968) (7): Aside from an amazingly choreographed car chase in and around San Francisco and Steve McQueen’s handsome mug, Peter Yates’ gritty policier is pretty much standard fare albeit with a slightly more convoluted plot. McQueen plays Frank Bullitt, an honest cop assigned to protect a star witness who is slated to appear before a senate committee on mob corruption. Unfortunately the bad guys are one step ahead and the witness is assassinated before he can testify leaving Bullitt at the mercy of both a very angry senator (an oily Robert Vaughn) and the chief of police. Determined to find out how the killers managed to track down their target Bullitt launches his own investigation and winds up uncovering a lurid trail of deception and double-crosses. Nice touches of 60’s kitsch, including a host of familiar character actors, add to a compelling if somewhat fantastic storyline and Jacqueline Bisset’s inclusion as Bullitt’s love interest (and nagging voice of reason) provides a sexy distraction. But that aforementioned car chase alone is worth the rental fee.

Bunny Lake is Missing (UK 1965) (6): Freshly arrived in England, American Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) leaves her five-year old daughter Felicia, nicknamed “Bunny”, at nursery school before running off to do some errands. When she returns to pick her up however not only is Bunny missing but the staff have no record of the child having been there in the first place. And then the police become involved and Ann’s initial concern turns to full blown panic for all traces of Bunny seem to have vanished into thin air including her passport and all her clothes and toys. With the police beginning to doubt whether her daughter ever existed at all only Ann’s brother Steven (2001’s Keir Dullea), a journalist living in London, insists that something sinister is afoot… Director Otto Preminger’s tale of mystery and madness starts out as a straightforward policier before taking a sharp turn into darker psychological territory. Much like Mia Farrow’s character in Rosemary’s Baby, Lynley plays a distraught mother in crisis whose cries for help not only fail to reach the right ears, they also cast further suspicion on herself. Filmed in bleak shades of B&W, Preminger keeps most of the action indoors with narrow hallways, locked doors, and dusty corners suggesting frames of mind as much as physical settings. A fine supporting cast provides enough creepy eccentrics to keep you guessing including a cameo by Noël Coward as Ann’s lecherous landlord and Martita Hunt as the retired head of Bunny’s school—a nutty old woman with an unhealthy interest in children’s nightmares—while screen legend Laurence Olivier plays the cynical police superintendent whose investigation into Bunny’s disappearance yields one dead end after another. Unfortunately Dullea’s tepid performance as the outraged Steven is more studied than sincere and that big twist ending is just so much psychotic improv.

The Burmese Harp (Japan 1956) (9): At the end of WWII a regiment of Japanese troops stationed in Burma surrender to British forces and prepare to be transported to a distant P.O.W. camp. Before leaving however, one officer is given the task of convincing a renegade battalion of fellow soldiers firmly planted in a mountain stronghold to lay down their weapons and accept defeat. Sadly he fails to sway their stubborn commander in time to avert an ally counterstrike and tragedy ensues. Suddenly alone and destitute, the young man disguises himself as a monk and begins the 200 mile journey to join his comrades. Along the way his encounters with war’s gruesome aftermath will contrast sharply with the simple humanity of the peasants he meets and his life will be changed forever. Rife with Buddhist allegory and sublime choral pieces, this anti-war parable is one of the most striking examples of Japanese cinema ever made. Kon Ichikawa directs with the eye of a poet and his talented cast perform beautifully. Sad, reflective, and quietly subversive....a minor masterpiece.

Burn After Reading (USA 2008) (8): Like a dummied down version of Dr. Strangelove aimed at the YouTube crowd, Ethan and Joel Coen’s screwball satire strives to take the “I” out of C.I.A. while proving yet again that proper style can triumph over a lack of substance. When disgruntled ex-CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich, delightfully unbalanced) decides to record his memoirs for a future book he sets in motion a deadly comedy of errors and mistaken identities after a copy of his unfinished work accidentally falls into the hands of a pair of inept personal trainers. Believing they have stumbled upon a cache of volatile government secrets Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand proving she’s still got it) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt, ditto) quickly give up on the notion of simply returning the incriminating CD and instead decide to sell it to the highest bidder—Linda, a forty-something lonely heart, needs the money to “reinvent” herself through cosmetic surgery while Chad, who obviously rode the short bus to school, just likes playing spy vs. spy. Meanwhile Osborne’s emasculating harpy of a wife (I love Tilda Swinton!) is having an affair with slutty federal agent Harry Pfarrer (a salacious George Clooney) who’s convinced he’s being shadowed by the government which causes him to suspect everyone around him including Linda whom he’s just met through a personal ad while his wife is away secretly contemplating divorce…. And all the while Osborne is getting crazier, Linda’s boss is bent on wooing her, the Russians are mildly interested, and the CIA is walking into doors. In the end everyone involved is either screwing someone else or being screwed themselves, often simultaneously. It’s a madcap mess to be sure, and the separate strands don’t add up to a whole lot despite its tepid Cold War echoes and a few unexpected shocks. Taken as a farce however the laughs come easily, the A-listers provide a host of endearingly idiotic caricatures, and a non-stop barrage of F-bombs spice up a decidedly deadpan script. And even though the all too obvious nods to Kubrick are mostly wasted, they do provide a visual flair which compliments the film’s overall frenetic pace. But the final laugh, which perfectly sums up the preceding ninety minutes, comes from a stone-faced CIA superior who, upon trying to make sense of the conflicting reports crossing his desk, wonders aloud how people could be so damn stupid.

The Burning  (USA 1981) (6):  A cantankerous camp caretaker is horribly burned when a practical joke goes awry.  Five years later, armed with an unusually sharp pair of garden shears, he returns to wreak his revenge on a new generation of stupid kids.  Big hair!  Gratuitous breasts!  Naked shower scene!  Horny teenagers!  Dead teenagers!  Ridiculous bogeyman plot!  Annoying POV camerawork!  Cheap shocks!  Yes kids, this is what used to make your parents scream on a Saturday night.  Now wipe that smirk off your face and pay attention, the 80’s were nothing to laugh at.

The Buttercup Chain (UK 1970) (6): Since they were kids Margaret and France have always had the hots for each other but since their mothers were identical twins the spectre of incest has prevented them from pursuing their mutual attraction to its logical conclusion. As a consolation prize they enter into a 4-way relationship with tourists Fred and Manny, an arrangement which allows them to air their angst all over Sweden, Italy and Spain as the quartet embarks upon an endless summer holiday. But "free love" can sometimes come with a terrible price including a tragic funeral followed by a hot-blooded showdown on a disco dance floor. I'm sure there's a mature and insightful film here somewhere beneath all the artsy hysterics and counter-culture claptrap but I found myself settling for some gorgeous scenery and soaring strings instead.

By the Light of the Silvery Moon (USA 1953) (6):  Cloying sequel to the insufferable "On Moonlight Bay" which is rendered somewhat more palatable by a handful of memorable pop songs.  WWI has just ended, and in anticipation of her sweetheart's return from the trenches eighteen-year old Indiana tomboy Doris Day (she was THIRTY-ONE for crying out loud) is eager to trade in her mechanic's overalls for a frilly wedding dress---much to the bitter disappointment of her kid brother's lovestruck piano teacher.  But alas, her burgeoning hormones are put on ice when fiancé Gordon MacRae decides he needs time to settle down and become established before taking her to the altar.  In the meantime her banker father's professional dealings with a French actress are giving the town gossips a field day and an innocent note is misinterpreted causing everyone to suspect each other of infidelity.  Luckily it all works out in the end thanks to the power of song and a bit of dance.  Of course with all those dollhouse interiors and snowy postcard scenes of smiling caucasians you already knew a happy ending was inevitable.  More wholesome than eating apple pie in church with Jesus.

The Cabin in the Woods (USA 2012) (8): With influences as varied as Sam Raimi, Kevin Smith, and Michael Haneke, Drew Goddard’s wickedly original monster movie doesn’t just poke fun at every single horror cliché you can think of, it mercilessly exploits them for its own twisted purpose while at the same time shooting genre fans a big lop-sided grin. Starting out like any other teen scream movie, the usual college archetypes (slut, jock, stoner, virgin, egghead) climb into a van and head for a cousin’s backwoods cabin for a weekend of alcohol-fuelled mischief. But this is not going to be an ordinary getaway for right from the beginning their every move is being monitored and manipulated by a small army of technicians nestled in an elaborate underground complex brimming with high-tech wizardry. From a creepy encounter with a gas station attendant to a pile of unpleasant surprises awaiting them in the cabin’s basement, everything seems to be scripted, right down to the cleverly concealed nozzles emitting mood-altering pheromones. When the scary stuff finally does arrive the unfortunate kids are left to fight for their lives while their cynical observers crack jokes and sip coffee. Only gradually do we become aware of the reasons behind this intricate ruse, and the final earthshaking reveal proves both monstrously evil and brazenly cheeky. Goddard’s impish mix of paranoia, terror, and youtube parody pays loving (if somewhat warped) homage to so many cult favourites I lost count, but sly references to The Shining, Evil Dead, Hellraiser, and Stephen King’s It were unmistakable. A conspiracy theory penned by H. P. Lovecraft, a satirical jab at what makes audiences squirm, or a smug practical joke aimed at our insatiable appetite for the macabre; The Cabin in the Woods is all of these, plus a damned good time to boot!

The Caine Mutiny (USA 1954) (9): Newly graduated from Princeton, fresh-faced and privileged mama’s boy Willie Keith does his part for the war effort by joining the Pacific fleet as an ensign. Unfortunately his dreams of high seas adventure are scuttled when he finds himself assigned to The Caine, a rusty old minesweeper with a laissez-faire captain and a crew of ne’er-do-wells who haven’t seen any action in years. Keith’s initial disgust soon turns to hope however when the captain is replaced by Lt. Commander Philip Queeg (Humphrey Bogart), a strict disciplinarian with a reputation of doing things by the book who soon has the sailors properly dressed, clean shaven, and going about their duties with a reluctant enthusiasm. But with the passing of time it becomes apparent that the new captain’s strict adherence to rules and regulations masks something far more disturbing as his military zeal slowly morphs into a paranoid fanaticism which alienates him from everyone on board, including his own officers. Things finally reach a breaking point when his increasingly erratic behaviour forces second-in-command to forcibly take control of the ship. Now facing the death penalty for mutiny the officer must rely not only on the wiles of his lawyer but on the support of his fellow NCOs as well—the latter proving far more problematic than he could have imagined. Released just three years before his death, this powerful WWII drama garnered Humphrey Bogart his third Oscar nomination and for good reason. As the shellshocked Queeg he displays a depth of emotion rarely seen in his previous films, his outstanding performance backed up by fellow stars Johnson, Fred MacMurray, and José Ferrer. Not interested in burning his protagonist at the stake, director Edward Dmytryk (just recovering from his own Hollywood blacklisting) presents us with a conflicted man whose conscientious efforts to do the right thing are constantly undermined by a resentful staff and his own personal demons. Scenes of shipboard life range from good-natured sloth to strained stand-offs and a climactic storm filmed with enough dizzying effects to elicit a case of widescreen seasickness. But it is the controlled tension of the final court martial hearing that delivers the movie’s most dramatic punches as erstwhile friends turn traitorous, recollections become muddled, and Maryk’s noble intentions are called into question even as Dmytryk wrings a surprising amount of sympathy for the beleaguered Queeg. And although it borders on the preachy, a final angry monologue delivered by Maryk’s lawyer puts everything into uncomfortable focus as he calls everyone’s innocence into question—including the woefully inexperienced Willie Keith. Despite a tacked-on romance between Keith and a San Francisco nightclub singer, this remains an intelligent war time drama which goes beyond the usual Stars ‘n Stripes tropes to deliver a psychological minefield of its own.


Caligula (Italy/USA 1979) (6): Malcolm McDowell plays insanity for all it’s worth in Penthouse Films’ overreaching and salacious historical fuckfest chronicling the rise and fall of Roman emperor Caius Caligula. Following the family tradition of killing all obstacles in his way Caligula dispatches his grandfather Tiberius (a pockmarked Peter O’Toole) in order to claim the title of Caesar for himself. At first content to have the decidedly eccentric upstart in power the army and senate discreetly turn a blind eye to his incestuous love affair and other sundry perversions, but when Caligula begins threatening their own livelihoods his messy demise is only a matter of time. Highly controversial upon its initial release thanks to a mix of big name stars and X-rated non-sequiturs Caligula now seems a camp, if overly violent exercise in big budget exploitation. Sloppily edited due to Penthouse editor Bob Guccione’s insistence on mixing pornography with spectacle it nevertheless contains some scenes of inspired lunacy: a thoroughly mad Caligula orders his troops to attack a lake full of bullrushes; Tiberius wanders about a lavish palace overflowing with deviants and grotesques; and an orgy to end all orgies erupts when a host of senators’ wives are recruited to serve in the royal bordello. Even a surprisingly young Helen Mirren takes it up the backside during an Isis convention. Vulgar, gratuitous, and historically suspect—but the overall sense of decadence is palpable while the flamboyant costumes and elaborate sets are amazing. The acme of arthouse porn.

Calvary (Ireland 2014) (10): In its religious context “Calvary” refers to the Crucifixion where an innocent Jesus was sacrificed for the sins of mankind; in a more secular sense it describes any moment of extreme mental or physical anguish. In this devastating drama writer/director John Michael McDonagh manages to unite both definitions to challenge his audience with a monumental quandary both humanist and theological in scope. Soft-spoken bearish Father James (an amazing turn from Brendan Gleeson) is the parish priest in a tiny seaside village where the inhabitants gleefully indulge in all seven deadly sins, a fact he has grown to accept with quiet perseverance. While hearing confession one Sunday he is confronted by a faceless parishioner who casually mentions that he is going to kill him in one week’s time in order to exact revenge on past sins committed against him. Thus faced with his impending murder James spends the next seven days contemplating everything from the nature of sin and forgiveness to human mortality and the preciousness of existence itself. As if seeing the locals for the first time in his life the good Father is at once outraged and moved to compassionate action by the self-destructive folly around him—and each small epiphany brings him one day closer to his appointment with an angry killer. Relieved somewhat by flashes of very dark yet well placed humour, McDonagh’s rustic Passion play builds upon a succession of revealing episodes in which Father James seems to be the only person actually evolving. The static nature of the characters around him may seem off-putting, even comical, until one realizes them for the biblical archetypes they represent—with the forlorn adulteress and weary rich man rubbing shoulders with the mocking cynic and (in this case) prodigal daughter while Gleeson’s shaggy Christ tries to heal what he can, his own version of Gethsemane played out on an airport tarmac. Filmed with an eye for pastoral charms which belie its sense of impending tragedy, McDonagh uses medieval ruins, stark hillsides, and thundering surf to underline James’ own troubled spirit—the juxtaposition of the solid and eternal with ever-changing seascapes providing a series of poignant metaphors culminating in a sobering montage of people and places. Harrowing and thoroughly engrossing, one of the more spiritual films I’ve seen in some time.

Camera Buff (Poland 1979) (8): The suffering of the artist (or myopic pigheadedness, or sociopolitical obligation depending on your viewpoint) is the focus of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s pre-Solidarity satire which skewers all notions of “official story”. Eager to document the arrival of his first child, Filip Mosz blows two months’ worth of paycheques on an 8mm movie camera. When word spreads of his new toy Filip’s boss is eager to use Mosz as a PR tool, filming happy employees at work and play. But the camera never lies—or rather the person behind the camera films what he wants—and as Filip’s work attracts the attention of social activists and artistes alike he finds the strain of “showing the truth” affecting both his public and private life. “You never know who you’ll help, or who you’ll harm…” says one of his friends who has just lost his job thanks to one of Mosz’s ill-informed five minute exposés, and it would appear truer words were never spoken. Light in tone but carrying a powerful sting, Kieslowski doesn’t condemn Filip’s newfound journalistic zeal—indeed the director himself made a career out of holding up a cinematic mirror to his audience—but there are at least two sides to every story and in the hands of an ardent amateur a camera can be as dangerous as a loaded gun especially when he begins to blur the lines between real-time life and composed images. A wry little gem that revels in its low budget appearance as well as star Jerzy Stuhr’s wonderfully hangdog expressions.

Camille (USA 1936) (9): Set in 19th century France, George Cukor’s grandaddy of all tearjerkers stars the great Greta Garbo as Marguerite, a self-centred Parisian courtesan whose extravagant lifestyle far outweighs her modest purse. Thanks to her seductive looks and carefree attitude however Marguerite is able to charm the francs right out of their owners’ pockets while giving very little in return. But when she finds herself the focus of a passionate triangle her usual aloof attitude comes back to pierce her right through the heart. On the one hand is the austere but fabulously wealthy Baron de Varville who regards Marguerite as a cherished object to be owned; on the other is Armand, heir to a modest estate who practically worships her yet has very little to offer financially. Shifting her attentions between the Baron’s cool stability and the uncertainty of Armand’s ardent embraces, Marguerite’s predicament is made all the more complicated by the knowledge she only has a very short time to live thanks to an unnamed illness that is slowly draining her of life and vitality. When she finally does decide between love and security will it be too late? When discussing the enduring quality of Cukor’s paean to amour fou (based on the novel by Dumas) one can certainly cite the lavish sets and costumes, the lush musical score, and the evocative cinematography that goes from boudoir intimacies to grand ballroom fêtes. And despite the draconian dictates of the Hays code which was firmly entrenched at the time there is a muted eroticism to the ongoing sexual politics whether it be a series of playful kisses or an urgent hug—in one telling scene Marguerite’s innocent birthday party swiftly transforms into a full-blown bacchanal. But it is Garbo’s magnificent performance that makes it all work. She doesn’t so much speak her lines as play with them, toying with the audience even as she toys with her onscreen suitors. Her portrayal of a woman of leisure frightened by the prospect of unconditional love as she faces her impending mortality would be so much overblown melodrama in the hands of a lesser artist—Garbo inhabits the part and makes us believe right up to that final heartbreaking close-up. This is what a movie star looks like.

Camille 2000 (Italy 1969) (5): Sleazemeister Radley Metzger’s arthouse nudie based on Dumas’ La dame aux camélias follows the doomed love affair between Amand Duval, the naive scion of an upper middle class family, and Marguerite Gautier, the voluptuous mistress of an Italian duke. Despite his friend’s warnings that she destroys every man she touches, the lovestruck Duval is immediately drawn to the seductive yet alarmingly frail Gautier. At first put off by her freewheeling sexuality and hedonistic ways Amand eventually gains access to her bed, and ultimately her heart. But everything worth having comes at a cost and in Amand’s case the price of Marguerite’s love may very well be his own heart and soul. Even though the once spicy sex scenes barely touch a 14A rating these days and the story itself is tired and clichéd, Metzger’s lush Italian settings, including a richly appointed Roman villa, are beautifully filmed while the mod 60s outfits and furnishings are pure groovy kitsch. A curious little time warp which neither moves nor titillates yet still remains watchable.

Campfire (Israel 2004) (7): A year after burying her husband, 42-year old Rachel is still feeling the loss. Although she never really loved him he was a good enough man and his presence gave her life the stability she craved. Now feeling the need to move forward she decides to sell his car (which she hasn’t touched since his death) uproot her two teenaged daughters and relocate to an as yet unbuilt controversial new settlement on the West Bank founded by her friend Shula’s husband Motke, an ideological Zionist. Wholly self-absorbed in her own problems Rachel ignores the heated protests of her increasingly cynical eldest daughter Esti and the dangerous liaison forming between her painfully naïve youngest Tami and a local group of male delinquents. Furthermore, she’s so busy waiting for romantic fireworks that she fails to recognize the innate decency of the modest bus driver Shula fixed her up with. It’s not until a series of minor revelations and confrontations occur, including a tragic turn with Tami, that Rachel finally sees what her own self-pity has wrought upon others. Ostensibly told by Tami in few opening voice-overs, Joseph Cedar’s politically-laced family piece—part healing circle, part coming-of-age drama—avoids the obvious melodramatic pitfalls by maintaining a cool distance from its characters while at the same time adding just enough humour and emotional turmoil to keep you connected. Although much of the underlying social commentary may be lost on those of us not well versed in Israeli politics, the human element rings loud and clear from Rachel’s desperate search for a new niche to her girl’s growing resentment of mom’s blinders. Well acted with a restrained cinematography to keep things grounded and a wistful score that wavers between major and minor keys as if to remind us that sometimes life just happens.

Cannibal Girls (Canada 1973) (5): Not many people are aware of the fact that Canada churned out a fair number of slasher films back in the 70's and 80's. Case in point is this camp mix of lowbrow horror and campus humour. Sweethearts Clifford and Gloria (SCTV alumni Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin) are vacationing in a small Ontario town when they happen upon a most unique restaurant run by the caped and top-hatted Rev. Alex St. John, his feral handyman, and a trio of beautiful Manson girls. Unfortunately, this particular establishment's signature dishes contain generous amounts of "tourist" prompting the two Torontonians to flee for their lives until they realize that Cannibal Cuisine is more popular in Northern Ontario than they thought. Although the storyline is full of holes, the acting never rises above the level of a dark sitcom and the gore factor is annoyingly tame, there is something endearingly Canadian about this sophomoric little oddity. Perhaps it's the snowy vistas and small town charm, or the dry self-effacing humour which assures the audience that both cast and crew are well aware of what they've produced, but this turkey actually works on some strange level. The addition of gimmicky "warning bells" wherein a submarine klaxon alerts the squeamish to close their eyes before a particularly nasty scene provides the perfect cheesy topping! Not that good, not that bad.

Canopy (Australia 2013) (9): During WWII an Aussie pilot is shot down over the forests of Singapore. Alone in an overgrown no man’s land with meagre rations and surrounded by enemy gunfire “Jim” must rely on his wits and blind luck in order to evade capture—or worse. Crossing paths with a Chinese soldier in similar circumstances, the two men begin a high stakes game of cat and mouse in a jungle teeming with Japanese troops. With its slow deliberate pace, lack of dialogue, and refusal to blow things up every two seconds, writer/director Aaron Wilson’s novel anti-war film is definitely not for every taste. There are no Apocalypse Now pyrotechnics or guts’n’glory sermonizing, instead he throws his two protagonists into a fallen Garden of Eden whose lush foliage offers no sanctuary, whose otherwise serene skies are ripped apart by flying shrapnel and where ethereal sunsets are marred by a pall of smoke and ashes. At one point a pair of enemy bombers is reflected in the calm waters of a tropical pond, in another passage the red glow of a flare transforms the nighttime forest into a crimson circle of Hell. Although punctuated now and again by muffled Billie Holliday tunes and sombre bass chords, Wilson’s soundtrack consists primarily of heightened natural sounds and the ever present clash of swords—every birdcall and whining bullet seems to contain within it a deeper spiritual significance which underscores the men’s physical tribulations. Surreal, hypnotic, and unexpectedly complex, it all leads to an ending as lyrical as it is sobering. Arthouse cinema at its most intense.

Caprice  (USA 1967) (4):  Doris Day excels at many things......playing a sexy secret agent is not one of them.  This little nugget is too silly even for her, perhaps that’s why the supporting cast deliver their lines with just a hint of self-conscious embarrassment.  Okay, the movie theatre scene was colourful but the rest was just colourfully dull.  A good film to have on in the background while you do your housework.  Or maybe you could just fire up iTunes instead.

Captain Phillips (USA 2013) (9): Despite my ongoing “Tom Hanks fatigue” and the Hollywood hyperbole surrounding the actual facts of the case, I still found this idealized account of the 2009 highjacking of an American cargo ship by desperate Somali pirates one of the more riveting actioners I’ve seen in quite some time. Sailing around the horn of Africa en route to Mombassa laden with heavy equipment and humanitarian supplies the Maersk Alabama, captained by New Englander Richard Phillips, finds itself boarded by a pack of armed men intent on taking over the ship and holding both it and the crew for ransom. What follows is a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse as Phillips bargains with the already agitated posse’s deadly serious leader while his hidden crew wage a war of sabotage against their kidnappers. But once the U.S. Navy gets involved with their “no hostages” mandate the stakes suddenly go from precarious to downright lethal. With quick editing, a pounding score, and cameras in perpetual motion, director Paul Greengrass’ high seas thriller moves effortlessly between wide ocean vistas and glaring blue skies to interior shots of metal rat mazes and broiling engine rooms—a tense stint aboard a bobbing lifeboat will have some reaching for the dramamine. But it is the psychological standoff between Phillips and pirate leader Muse (newcomer Barkhad Abdi deserving his Oscar nod) that propels the story forward. Refusing to demonize his antagonists, yet offering little sympathy, Greengrass presents them as beleaguered serfs propping up their courage with mild narcotics and watching their ill-gotten gains go to feed the coffers of local warlords. Captain Phillips on the other hand is a staunch middle class family man who nevertheless senses the moral ambivalence in Muse and, in the end, tries to prevent the bloodbath he fears is approaching. A taut and suspenseful piece of moviemaking…but if you’re hoping for a factual documentary you best look elsewhere.

Captains Courageous (USA 1937) (5): Forced pathos and a glib sentimentality abound in this watery tale of a spoiled rich kid from New York who becomes an insufferably contrite wuss after he accidentally falls off a luxury liner and is rescued by a gruff old mariner. Miles from land and with no hope of returning home until the cod season is over several weeks hence, little Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Bartholomew, not even trying to attempt an American accent) finds himself adopted by Captain Troop and his salty crew of clichéd sea dogs including Manuel Fidello the Portuguese fisherman who pulled him out of the sea (Spencer Tracy sporting a ridiculous accent that makes him sound more like a missing Marx Brother). Under Manuel’s fatherly guidance and the stern yet harmless camaraderie of his new shipmates Harvey undergoes a sea change (bwahahaha!!) in which brattiness is replaced by a sense of conscience and a predictable tragedy leads to a greater appreciation of all things pure and spiritual. Despite an impressive cast of Hollywood A-listers who bravely deliver their hackneyed lines with the utmost sincerity everyone ends up going down with the ship anyway.

Carandiru (Brazil 2003) (7): In October of 1992 Brazil’s infamous Carandiru prison, the largest in Latin America, was the scene of that country’s worst jail massacres as heavily armed riot police stormed the facility indiscriminately shooting inmates, killing over one hundred of them. Based on the book by Drauzio Varella, Carandiru’s doctor at the time, as well as first hand accounts from the prisoners themselves Hector Babenco’s brutal drama strives to attach a human element to the slaughter by putting us on intimate terms with a handful of inmates. Concentrating on kingpins Highness and Ebony who actually ran the prison while the warden looked the other way, Babenco uses flashbacks and impromptu interviews to add depth to each one of his subjects; there’s the hardened killer whose guilt eventually overwhelms him, the petty thief striving to support two wives, the pre-op transsexual in love with a fellow inmate, and the bewildered young naif whose one moment of rage landed him a 25-year sentence. As seen through the eyes of their idealistic resident physician, a skewed social contract has evolved amongst the prisoners fostered by a need to survive Carandiru’s grossly overcrowded and aging facilities. In fact, aside from the odd knifing and constant specter of HIV, life seems remarkably routine within the prison walls until an isolated skirmish between two rival cellblocks escalates into a full-blown siege prompting the authorities to send in the troops. There is a gritty realism to Babenco’s movie which was actually filmed inside an abandoned Carandiru shortly before it was demolished. His standout cast bring a complexity to their characters which contrasts sharply with their bleak surroundings and adds an undercurrent of primal energy to the story. Guilty perhaps of being a bit too sympathetic towards his subjects, these are hardened thieves and murderers after all, he nevertheless refuses to smooth over some of their more glaring faults; they may be flawed but they remain human throughout. Similarly, the film’s highly operatic final scenes of carnage and mayhem pull no punches as we see bullet-riddled bodies piled in hallways and pools of blood dripping down staircases. In the end the reasons behind the massacre are left deliberately vague; was it politically motivated? A series of personal vendettas? Cops gone wild? As one inmate succinctly puts it, “Prisons are no place for the truth”.

Caravaggio (UK 1986) (8): It’s 1610, and in a lowly fisherman’s hut the great Renaissance artist Michelangelo da Caravaggio lies dying, attended only by his loving servant Jerualeme and a few old women from the village. As he floats in and out of feverish dreams he reflects back on a life filled with controversy; from his sensuous, often homoerotic paintings to his various lovers…both male and female…to his many run-ins with the Catholic hierarchy. In Derek Jarman’s fanciful biopic the artist’s more famous paintings come to sumptuous life accompanied by the director’s signature penchant for anachronism and religious ridicule. In this particular version of the 16th century noblemen ride about on motorbikes, critics bang out scathing reviews on clunky typewriters, and priests do sums on old school calculators. The Church is seen as an opulent den of iniquity with drunken Vatican staff parties playing out in underground catacombs while the pontiff himself is portrayed as a crafty old queen. But it is when the camera focuses on Caravaggio, portrayed by a fiery Nigel Terry, that we see Jarman at the height of his skill. There is an intensity to his character bordering on the erotic which suggests a man born out of time, determined to wring as much love and pleasure out of life as he can yet bound to suffer the exquisite pain of the artist. And artistry abounds in Jarman’s work, with half naked models drifting in and out of painterly tableaux, delicate drapes brushing against imposing murals, and a background score that goes from high Renaissance chorales to wild jazz. A plucky, visceral film filled with elaborate conceits which toys with history even as it draws us in.

Carlito’s Way (USA 1993) (8): After serving only five years of a thirty year sentence for various drug and racketeering offences, gangster legend Carlito Brigante (an animated Al Pacino) finds himself back on the streets determined to turn his life around. Buying into a local nightclub his only dream is to make enough cash to move to the Bahamas where a former cellmate has a lucrative (and legitimate) job waiting for him. And just to sweeten the pot the girl he left behind has decided to give him a second chance. But the siren song of the underworld won’t let him go: friends need “special” favours, a new generation of thugs keep drawling lines in the sand, and his coke-addicted lawyer gets him involved in a harebrained scheme that just might land him back in jail—or worse. Carlito’s life has reached a monumental fork in the road and the path he chooses will make all the difference… Set in New York’s disco era Brian De Palma’s gritty story of one remorseful soul’s quest for redemption, based on the books by Edwin Torres, is an antithesis of sorts to 1983’s Scarface. Unlike Tony Montana’s headlong rush towards damnation, Carlito is struggling upstream all the way; a one-time criminal kingpin trying to put his past to rest. A brilliant supporting cast, including an unrecognizable Sean Penn as the manic lawyer, keep Pacino’s character slightly off balance as he struggles to redefine “right” from “wrong” while whirling cinematography and a score of old dance hits propel the action forward. Of course it wouldn’t be a De Palma film without a touch of the surreal and clever allusions to Heaven vs Hell are used throughout—the word “Paradise” pops up in various guises and a climactic encounter involves people going up (or down) escalators. Not your usual gangster film.

Carmen Jones (USA 1954) (8): Bizet’s classic opera is given a fresh American twist in Otto Preminger’s sumptuous widescreen technicolor production based on the Broadway play. Joe, a promising young Air Force lieutenant, forsakes his career, his future, and the only woman who ever loved him when he falls under the romantic spell of Carmen Jones, a fiery seductress who works at a factory adjacent to his barracks. But Carmen proves incapable of remaining faithful to any one man, a fact which will lead to tragedy and a spectacular fall from grace. With an all-black cast headlined by Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge, and Pearl Bailey, plus updated lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein set to Bizet’s classical score, Carmen Jones is one of those rare adaptations which actually manages to build upon its source. Although some of the lip-syncing is poorly timed, a few passages quaintly racist (“Joe, you is my man...”), and the more demanding pieces obviously dubbed (they hired professional opera singers to record the soundtrack), there is an undeniable passion and frank eroticism here which translate seamlessly from 19th century Spain to contemporary Chicago. Olé!

Carousel (USA 1956) (3): Billy Bigelow, former carnival gigolo now deceased and working in a heavenly sweatshop polishing stars, is granted a request to return to earth for one day to help sort things out with his widow, Julie, and the daughter who was born after he died. In flashback we see how the gruff and virile Billy swept Julie off her naive young feet one evening, married her in haste, then turned into a lazy abusive lout while she strove to be the most lovable doormat 1870s Maine had ever seen. But once he found out she was pregnant he decided to become a responsible breadwinner; starting with an ill-fated armed robbery. Returning to earth fifteen years later he sees that Julie has gotten along well without him, his adolescent daughter however is not only having boy trouble but has had to endure years of merciless taunting on account of her late father being a thief and wife-beater. How can Billy instill a sense of pride in his daughter and comfort Julie’s broken heart in the short time allotted him? Whisper yet another sappy song into their ears of course! God knows there’s no shortage of those floating around in this facile and sickeningly sentimental cinemascope weeper, along with some featherweight drama, ham-fisted performances and ridiculously affected New England accents. With the exception of a nicely fluid ballet sequence towards the end the dance routines are clunky and dull (despite the obvious physical prowess of all those twirling gay boys); a choreographed clambake is particularly painful especially when the overzealous cast of extras belt out an impassioned ditty about splitting lobsters in half and sending clams “galloping down their gullets”. Unfortunately the film’s only standout anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” has been hijacked by so many telethons and schmaltzy Vegas acts in the intervening years that it now sounds even more trite than when it first debuted. Not even a feigned sense of nostalgia can excuse Carousel’s syrupy excesses; once around and you’ll be begging to get off.

Carrington (UK 1995) (9): The highly unorthodox yet deeply felt love affair between promising young artist Dora Carrington (Emma Thompson) and the acerbic though congenial gay author Lytton Strachey (Jonathan Pryce) forms the basis of writer/director Christopher Hampton’s beautifully realized biopic. Introduced to each other just as WWI was breaking out, the impressionable painter and much older writer found a kindred spirit in one another which saw them sharing not only a home together but a bed as well, albeit quite chastely. Over the next several years Strachey would become the only constant in Dora’s life, patiently standing by as she drifted through a string of lovers and one ill-advised marriage while his own health and romantic interests wavered. But the somewhat skittish Carrington never realized just how much of a pillar Strachey provided her with until time and circumstance began to take their toll… Set in a post-Edwardian landscape of colourful country cottages and idle rich with the ravages of war reduced to the occasional explosion echoing faintly across the channel, Hampton’s biography skips over the minutiae of Carrington’s life (her lesbian leanings for one) to concentrate instead on the relationship between his flawed but gifted protagonists—their lovingly frank banter and intimate confessions taking place against a backdrop of changing mores and short-term dalliances. Strachey was the rock to which Carrington tethered herself, a fact that became more apparent as the years passed and both matured in age if not outlook. A bit bigger than life in parts as befits its characters, Hampton nevertheless manages to hold the reins steady by balancing his film’s many lyrical passages with doses of candour and wit while his two stars completely immerse themselves in their roles, especially Pryce whose portrayal of the quietly effacing author earned him a BAFTA nomination. Passionate, moving, and almost achingly beautiful.

Cartel Land (USA 2015) (7): The much feted “War on Drugs” is visited by yet another documentary filmmaker, but this time around Matthew Heineman skirts the usual exposé of official collaboration and failed policies and instead focuses his lens on two very different men on opposite sides of the Mexican border who have more in common than first appearances would suggest. In the north Tim “Nailer” Foley has formed a heavily armed citizen’s vigilante group dedicated to patrolling the no-man’s land in southern Arizona where smugglers regularly transport drugs and people while the underfunded border patrol is nowhere to be seen. A thousand miles further south Dr. José Mireles has launched his own crusade against the drug gangs who are terrorizing the small towns of Mexico’s Michoacán province—his own neighbours having been beheaded a year earlier for violating one of the cartels’ many unwritten laws. But both men gradually discover that even the best of intentions often go awry as Foley finds his ranks swelling with the alt right (not that he puts up much of a protest) and Mireles’ “Autodefensa” league, composed of working class men who share his passion, begins to fall prey to the very corruption it swore to eradicate—with the government’s tacit approval no less. Shot in the usual jerky handheld style one associates with guerrilla filmmaking and making effective use of night skies and a fortuitous thunderstorm or two, Heineman concentrates mainly on Mireles (no naïve innocent himself) as his vision goes from heroic liberator to disillusioned martyr and beyond while the drug trade itself seems to receive little more than an inconvenient dent. Cynical with just a touch of despair, Heineman offers no solutions to the endless cycle of poverty, greed, and corruption but rather showcases a few brief victories in an all-consuming battle which shows no signs of slowing down. The fact that he bookends his film with scenes of an outdoor drug lab where masked men stir steaming cauldrons of meth like Macbeth’s witches only heightens the sense of futility.

Case 39 (USA 2009) (6): Overworked social worker Emily Jenkins is incensed when her supervisor gives her yet another suspected child abuse case to investigate, but when she visits the Sullivan home for the first time and meets 10-year old Lilith, a pale and timid little waif living in perpetual fear of her dour-faced parents, alarm bells begin to go off. Hostile and taciturn, Lilith’s parents vehemently resent any outside interference, in fact dad can’t even bring himself to speak with Emily directly preferring instead to whisper prompts into his wife’s ear. Lilith, in the meantime, just sits like a terrified doe caught in a pair of menacing headlights. Deeply disturbed by the meeting, Jenkins sets about trying to get the child placed into foster care despite the lack of any real evidence to support her suspicions of abuse. But when the Sullivans try to seriously harm their daughter one night Emily takes it upon herself to sponsor Lilith until the authorities can find her a permanent home. Then things start getting weird. With bad things happening around her and Lilith’s cherubic smiles becoming increasingly decorative, Emily begins to suspect that there is far more to Case 39 than she is willing to accept. Like all supernatural thrillers one must take huge leaps of faith here and ignore the obvious gaps in logic. Having accomplished this you are left with a decent, if unexceptional, shocker featuring appropriately theatrical performances backed by some unsettling effects (a particularly grisly bathroom scene will have you reaching for the earplugs). Director Christian Alvart does show some degree of control as he slowly ratchets up the suspense; unfortunately he leaves no room for either doubt or ambiguity hence you know from the outset where this is all heading but the buildup is chilling enough that you take the journey anyway. Alas, the final series of showdowns is disappointingly predictable (and a bit silly)...luckily we’re not threatened with a sequel. As Emily, Renée Zellweger is convincing as she shifts from naive do-gooder to bewildered dragon slayer while BC’s own Jodelle Ferland’s understated portrayal of Lilith makes The Omen’s Damian look like Bobby Brady on a good day. But it’s Vancouver, in the role of Portland, Oregon, which ultimately shines the brightest.

Casino Royale (UK 1967) (6): A 007 spoof which is not really that funny despite a slew of in-jokes and an impressive budget. When the evil SMERSH organization sets in motion a plan to take over the world, international leaders convince a reluctant James Bond (David Niven) to come out of retirement by blowing up his country estate. Once on the case however, the staunchly celibate super sleuth finds himself inundated with scantily clad double agents, bumbling accomplices, and a whole lot of high-tech tomfoolery. But with time running out and evil SMERSH leader Dr. Noah about to unleash armageddon, James must use every trick at his disposal in order to save the world without compromising his own newfound virginity. A snappy musical score by Burt Bacharach keeps things lighthearted while some outrageous set and costume designs—a mod mix of German expressionism and Laugh-In psychedelia—practically defines retro kitsch. It’s too bad time has deflated most of the jokes and the sight gags look as if they were inspired by Benny Hill including a supremely silly casino showdown between good guys and bad guys…and cowboys and Indians…and busty models and kilted Scotsmen…and Frankenstein…and trained seals. A cold war schtick doesn’t even come close to Dr. Strangelove while a cast of comedy mainstays, gorgeous leading ladies, and surprise celebrity cameos elicit little more than a smile and a nod—Woody Allen, playing Bond’s inept nephew Jimmy, ends up getting all the best lines anyway. A fluffy bit of nostalgia for those so inclined. As an aside, apparently a psychotic Peter Sellers hated co-star Orson Welles so much that he refused to act alongside him prompting the need for stand-ins and some clever editing.

Casino Royale (UK 2006) (7): This first instalment of a whole new James Bond franchise starts, appropriately enough, at the beginning with the surly Bond (Daniel Craig looking real nice in and out of a dinner jacket) just one killing shy of attaining his coveted 007 status within the British Intelligence service. Assigned to bring down an evil financier whose been backing international terrorism (a perfectly cast Mads Mikkelsen), Bond weaves a path of destruction that stretches from Uganda to Miami only to wind up risking it all in a multi-million dollar poker game. So much for plot. The expected flash bang special effects are out in full force with an opening parkour chase through a construction zone that defies gravity to an airport runway rampage that defies belief to a novel take on Titanic played out on the Grand Canal. It’s all very thrilling to say the least especially with director Martin Campbell’s eye for widescreen mayhem, Stuart Baird’s hyperkinetic editing, and composer David Arnold’s hammering score to fill in the gaps. And Craig’s Bond is a refreshing departure from the suave sex machines of the 60s—here he plays Ian Fleming’s iconic good guy as a brooding conflicted egotist who seems to lose a bit of his soul with every shot he fires and whose relationship with his immediate superior, “M”, (a hard-nosed Judi Dench) is fraught with hostility and confrontation. But a hastily constructed side story involving an ill-advised office romance (enter sultry Bond Girl Eva Green) appears to have no purpose other than to stick a final pin in Bond and after watching Craig beat insurmountable odds over and over and over again—hails of bullets always seem to miss their mark and a ridiculous resuscitation scene commits medical sacrilege—you begin to wonder whether the writers were simply overzealous or did they really think we were that gullible. Still, once you get into the comic book mood of the whole thing it becomes oddly addictive viewing. Besides, watching a buff Daniel Craig saunter onto a Bahamian beach wearing nothing but a clingy bathing suit is even more exciting than watching bad guys blow up.

The Cassandra Crossing (Germany/Italy 1976) (6): Fresh from the attempted bombing of a clandestine European lab, a lone terrorist stows away on a train bound from Geneva to Stockholm. The twist is he’s been unknowingly infected with a highly contagious plague bacteria engineered by the West and now one thousand passengers are at risk. With sick people beginning to collapse in the aisles and the American government attempting a cover-up by diverting the train to a quarantined area accompanied by armed guards with orders to shoot anyone trying to disembark, nerves begin to fray as a host of main characters—including a famous neurologist, the eccentric wife of an arms dealer, a celebrated author, and an amiable Holocaust survivor—fight to save both themselves and others. But the train’s final destination involves crossing a treacherous mountain pass which may pose an even greater risk to the passengers than the bacteria itself… A not entirely successful thriller from the Irwin Allen school of trashy disaster epics which lies somewhere between The Andromeda Strain and The Love Boat, Cassandra nevertheless boasts such names as Sophia Loren, Richard Harris, Ava Gardner, and Burt Lancaster with a few B-listers along for the ride most notably Martin Sheen as a greasy gigolo and O. J. Simpson as a determined lawman (LOL!). A few scientific faux pas and logic potholes notwithstanding this is a brisk and enjoyable no-brainer with lots of high-speed mountain scenery, stagey emoting, and an unexpectedly tense finale that probably kept the special effects team up way past midnight. A worthy late-night popcorn feature.

The Cat and the Canary (USA 1927) (8): It’s a dark and stormy night when the greedy relatives of deceased millionaire Cyrus West gather at his gloomy mansion for the reading of the will—twenty years after his death as per his wishes. But the eccentric old tycoon never really liked his immediate family, knowing that they only saw dollar signs whenever they looked at him, so besides a will he also left a few cryptic letters with his lawyer designed to cast suspicion and unease in their ranks. To his chosen heir however, he also included one ominous proviso: if you are judged to be mentally incompetent the entire fortune will go to another as yet unnamed member of the West clan. Cue a night of intrigue, mayhem, and murder made all the more harrowing by the arrival of a guard claiming an escaped lunatic may be hiding on the estate. Unlike Radley Metzger’s horrid 1978 adaptation (also reviewed here) director Paul Leni creates a beautifully gothic setting of creepy hallways, cobwebbed rooms, and hidden passageways. Using tinted film stock that goes from midnight blue to radiant orange as well as some clever effects, he pays homage to the original stage play with his talented troupe of silent actors emoting amongst elaborate backdrops of billowing drapes and candlelit parlours; a crazy escape attempt on the back of a horse-drawn milk cart was especially well done. And true to the German expressionist school Leni also throws in a few surreal visuals, most notably the exterior shots of West’s mansion rising organically from the surrounding countryside like a haunted castle. Shot through with suspense and unexpected humour, this delightfully spooky classic from the silent film era still manages to hold its own.

The Cat and the Canary (UK 1977) (3): Porn auteur Radley Metzger tries his hand at mainstream entertainment in this limp and lifeless whodunit. It’s 1934 and the adult kin of deceased tycoon Cyrus West have gathered on his estate for the reading of the Will; actually the “viewing” of the Will would be more apropos as the rascally Cyrus filmed himself reading it shortly before his death. According to his wishes the entire fortune is to go to one lucky heir with the following caveat; if that person is judged to be insane by the following morning the estate will pass to an unnamed next in line whose identity will be revealed in a second tape played over breakfast. And thus the stage is set for a long evening of mysterious hijinks and red herrings (with gay innuendos and implied incest for good measure) as someone begins bumping off the West clan one by one. All the obligatory ingredients are here: a dark and stormy night, creepy mansion, gaggle of eccentric relatives with secrets to hide, and just for good measure rumors that an escaped lunatic who likes to flay his victims alive may be prowling the grounds. Overflowing with genre clichés, this bit of tedium delivers all the thrills and chills of a Scooby Doo rerun despite the half-hearted efforts of its cast of British B-listers. The ending is somewhat satisfying however; not because the mystery is finally solved but because it’s The End.

Carve Her Name With Pride (UK 1958) (6): Violette Szabo was a fair English rose who went from being a headstrong war widow and single mother to one of the most celebrated Allied spies during WWII, receiving a posthumous George Cross from the king himself. Unfortunately, although the exploits of the real life Szabo were remarkable, in director Lewis Gilbert’s gushing biopic she is raised to sainthood in a tale of watered down peril where star Virginia McKenna seems to spend more time falling in love with co-star Paul Scofield than actual spying. The brits display those famous stiff upper lips, the Germans snarl, and Szabo’s heroic last stand is appropriately backlit by sombre clouds pierced through with sunbeams while the strings section goes wild. Nice performances however (McKenna received a BAFTA nomination) and after a meandering start the story takes off at a decent pace.

Cemetery Man (Italy 1994) (5): Rupert Everett plays Francesco, the brooding live-in caretaker of a modest little graveyard which houses an awful secret. It seems the churchyard is cursed with a most inconvenient quirk which causes the newly departed to rise as flesh-eating zombies a few days after they’ve been buried. Afraid to alert the authorities lest he lose his job Francesco and his dull-witted assistant calmly do their nightly rounds, shovel and pistol in hand, dispatching the odd ghoul with a well-placed (and very messy) blow to the head. As a self-proclaimed guardian between the living and the dead, Francesco finds himself uncomfortably poised between both worlds; he can’t relate to the living, and the dead just piss him off. It all changes one day when he becomes infatuated with a voluptuous young widow and decides the living make much better company after all. But the dead, particularly the muppet-like Grim Reaper himself, are not so keen on letting him go. Soavi’s film is an inconsistent hodgpodge of gothic horror, bone-dry comedy, and macabre romance that too often spirals down into the absurd to be taken seriously. He does throw in some nice touches though; Francesco’s full name translates as “Francis of the Dead” (his mother’s maiden name being “of Love”) and his erratic relationship with the widow (she takes on a few incarnations along the way) is intriguing. Moreover, there are some exceptional visuals incorporating elements of the gruesome and the sublime; an erotic coupling takes place amongst the headstones, a fall of red silk brushes against a putrefying skull, and a tableaux of the earth and moon as seen from space resolves into something quite different as the camera pans around. Attempts are made to ruminate on both the relationship between love and death, and the paradox of free will vs. destiny. But, ultimately, the gory effects and twisted storyline (a French kiss with a severed head is particularly nasty) prove too distracting. Enjoyable for what it is, a failure for what it tries to become.

Chained (Canada 2012) (5): A nine-year old boy and his mother are abducted by a sadistic serial killer with an intense dislike of women. Driving them to his secluded home by the edge of an abandoned highway (a dreary cameo by Saskatchewan’s own Moose Jaw), “Bob” immediately sets about dispatching the mother while her terrified son cowers in the back of the car. Over the next several years a twisted mentorship gradually develops between killer and child, now nicknamed “Rabbit”, which sees the boy go from chained slave living off table scraps and cleaning up the aftermath of his master’s conquests to reluctant acolyte struggling with adolescent hormones and an increasingly troubled conscience. But when Bob decides it’s time for Rabbit to get a knife of his own and start meeting girls the young man’s already conflicted psyche goes into crisis mode leading to some drastic decisions and a most heinous revelation. On the plus side, director Jennifer Chambers Lynch proves adept at imbuing tight physical spaces with enough psychological dread that at times Bob’s spartan, boarded-up house (complete with makeshift basement graveyard) seems almost surreal. Vincent D’Onofrio’s burly soft-spoken yet implacable psychopath is the perfect human monster while Eamon Farren’s emaciated good looks and haunted eyes bring the character of Rabbit to sickly life. To her further credit Lynch keeps the most extreme violence off camera where muffled screams and the occasional puddle of blood deliver more impact than a cartload of entrails ever could…apparently this was not so much by design but due to some last minute editing in order to avoid the box office poison of an NC-17 rating. Too bad it all falls apart towards the middle with an already dicey scenario demanding ever increasing leaps of faith. Although D’Onofrio gives an incredible performance the reasons behind his rage, hinted at in grainy flashbacks, are so outrageous that I was more bemused than horrified while the film’s big reveal was just plain stupid. A highbrow slasher flick with dark overtones that barely conceal its shallow roots.

The Changeling (Canada 1980) (7): After suffering a horrible personal tragedy composer and music professor John Russell (George C. Scott?!) leaves New York and holes up in a rural mansion near Seattle (actually an amalgamation of Vancouver and Toronto). But his respite is short lived for the house has a grim history and something in the attic has started to demand his attention with loud bangs, slamming doors, and spectral moans…not to mention a persistent little antique wheelchair hidden behind a wall. Seeking the assistance of a medium (cue creepy seance scene) John begins to uncover the secret behind the haunting—a secret so horrible it stretches all the way to the offices of a respected senator… If you are willing to forgive the usual assortment of genre absurdities and dramatic stretches (this is a horror movie after all) director Peter Medak still manages to pull off a genuinely scary haunted house tale which relies as much on darkened hallways and cobwebbed staircases as it does on ghostly jolts. Russell’s decaying manor provides the perfect setting for all sorts of macabre mischief and an old fashioned score of piano riffs and shivering strings set your teeth on edge. Scott is his usually growly self—imagine General Patton as a Ghostbuster—while co-star Trish Van Devere as his sidekick and maybe love interest manages a convincing scream or two. Spooky stuff from the Great White North.

Changeling (USA 2008) (9): Based on a true story, Clint Eastwood’s gripping mystery concentrates on a botched missing child case which became a notorious cause célèbre in Los Angeles circa 1928. After her nine-year old son Walter disappears one afternoon single mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie, luminous) turns to a somewhat reluctant LAPD to help find him. Five months later news comes that the police have picked Walter up in Illinois and are returning him by train. But as an ecstatic Christine rushes to the station platform amid a sea of police and reporters she is horrified to discover that the little tyke waiting for her is not Walter at all. Insisting that she is simply distraught and that “kids change under stress” an increasingly hostile Captain Jones convinces Christine to quietly take “Walter” home and learn to reconnect with him. Refusing to let the matter rest however, Christine launches a one-woman campaign to locate her real son aided by Presbyterian minister and outspoken critic of official wrongdoing Rev. Gustav Briegleb. Unfortunately the LAPD of 1928 is a corrupt organization which doesn’t take kindly to increased public scrutiny and the more Christine pushes, the harder—and more dangerously—they push back. In the meantime Christine continues to care for the strange little boy under her roof while a few troubling clues regarding Walter’s actual whereabouts slowly emerge… A triumph of style and substance, Eastwood’s haunting period piece painstakingly recreates flapper-era Los Angeles with it’s tree-lined streets, concrete skyscrapers, and cherry red streetcars not to mention the detailed costumes and low-tech conveniences. His standout cast and a credible script firmly anchor the film in time and place while a wistful score (credited to Eastwood but sounding more like Vangelis) tinges everything with a sense of yearning and melancholy. Intelligently written and presented with flair.

Character (Netherlands 1997) (7): Dreverhaven the local court bailiff is dead and all suspicion falls on his illegitimate son Jacob whom he sired with Joba, his former housemaid. Hauled before a police inquiry Jacob, just recently graduated from law school, pleads his innocence and through a series of flashbacks we witness the destructive relationship between the deceased and the accused which began with Jacob’s birth. Dreverhaven was a cold-hearted bastard who followed the letter of the law without ever considering the ideals behind those laws. Taking grim satisfaction in evicting people from their homes regardless of their financial or physical limitations his villainy eventually extended to Jacob, the son he never openly acknowledged, when he came after him for a defaulted loan. Meanwhile, instead of rising to her child’s defense, the taciturn Joba offered him little more than criticism and silence. Eventually Dreverhaven’s apparent desire to destroy his son took its toll returning us once more to the film’s beginning, that decisive final encounter which saw the old man dead and Jacob covered in blood… Director Mike van Diem’s tense drama, set in early 1900’s Rotterdam, plunges its audience into one angry young man’s Oedipal rage and does so with gusto. Dreverhaven (brilliantly played by Jan Decleir) seems a force of nature, residing in a top floor office and coming forth only to dispense cruel justice like an Old Testament Jehovah. Hating him, yet perversely seeking his approval, Jacob thrusts and parries with the old man—his youthful passions mirrored by Dreverhaven’s icy contempt—while incomplete mother figures loom in the background whether it be Joba’s cold indifference or the troubling sexual temptations introduced by an office secretary. Explosive performances all around plus a kinetic energy reminiscent of a Wes Anderson production (only more focused). Unfortunately Diem’s attention to the smallest of details, while admirable, does cause the action to drag out in too many places while the central point is driven home with more force than it needed. Still an engaging piece of cinema which definitely earned its Foreign Language Oscar.

Charade (USA 1963) (6): The plot has too many holes and reaches and some of the performances fall flat, but there is something about this undemanding crime caper that keeps you watching and smiling just the same. Maybe it’s the lush Oscar-nominated musical score by Henry Mancini, or the glittering Paris backdrops, or maybe the whole production is just riding on the sheer star power of its two leads? After her husband is murdered aboard a French train, Regina Lampert (a sparkling Audrey Hepburn) is shocked to discover he not only led a questionable double life but he also managed to squirrel away a quarter of a million ill-gotten dollars. Now a trio of ruthless men are after her, convinced she knows where the money is, and her only allies seem to be a taciturn American bureaucrat (a bored Walther Matthau) and a mysterious stranger (a greying Cary Grant) who may or may not have her best interests at heart. Double-crosses and fake identities become the order of the day as an unnerved Regina must decide who to trust and who to run away from. Despite a few rather operatic murders, a bit of mild suspense, and George Kennedy’s hammy performance as a growling one-armed thug, Charade is essentially a contrived May-December romantic comedy with Hepburn and Grant not quite convincing enough to suspend disbelief. But they’re pretty to look at (those Givenchy fashions!) and Charles Lang’s opulent cinematography cashes in on snow-capped alps and twinkling Parisian boulevards. Perhaps it’s fitting then that the film reaches its climax in an ornate theatre all done up in red and gold—bet devoid of any audience. Great opening credits sequence though.

Charley’s Aunt (USA 1941) (7): Lord Fancourt “Babbs” Babberley (Jack Benny!?) is the oldest sophomore at Oxford University and if he doesn’t get his degree soon his family will ship him off to a sheep ranch in New Zealand. His two roommates Jack and Charley meanwhile are trying to woo a pair of sweethearts who refuse to be seen with them unless they have an escort (this is 1890 after all). So, in exchange for a much needed academic favour Babbs agrees to pose as Charley’s eccentric aunt Lucia from Brazil, a wealthy widow only too pleased to chaperone the ladies long enough for Jack and Charley to propose to them. But when the girls’ overly protective uncle and Jack’s widowed father both decide to pursue Charley’s aunt—or rather her fortune rumoured to be in the millions—a farcical drag comedy ensues which sees Babbs in and out of petticoats while thwarting his would be suitors’ amorous advances. And then the real aunt Lucia arrives on the scene and an already screwball comedy threatens to fly right off the rails. At forty-seven Benny was already far too old for the part and it shows, as does his corny British accent which he finally abandons (along with everyone else) within the first twenty minutes. The sheer outrageousness of the story however, coupled with a manic presentation which sees everyone running around, slamming doors, and ducking behind walls, manages to keep you off guard just enough to elicit a string of smiles and the occasional guffaw. This is an old fashioned comedy after all, free of any improper innuendo or racy gender-bending—although ersatz Aunt Lucia’s familiarity with Jack and Charley’s fiancées is enough to raise a queer eyebrow or two. A good clean bit of buffoonery overall and certainly worth watching just to see Jack Benny dressed up like a Dickensian spinster.

Charley Varrick (USA 1973) (6): A gang of smalltime bank robbers looking for petty cash make off with far more than they bargained for when they knock over a modest little New Mexico Savings and Loan. It seems the Mob has been using the bank to store some ill-gotten loot, almost 800 thousand dollars’ worth, and they’re determined to get even with whoever took it. Pursued by both the police and the Mafia, the thieves find their options (and membership) steadily decreasing until ringleader Charlie Varrick decides to make one last desperate gambit… A watchable crime flick with some good action sequences, including a cat & mouse chase between a car and airplane, and a cheesy soundtrack of canned jazz that keeps it forever locked in the 70s. In the lead, Walter Matthau shuffles and mugs as usual while mob hitman Joe Don Baker scowls and smacks people around. But Matthau’s character never quite becomes the anti-hero the movie demands as it’s impossible to side with someone willing to kill people for the sake of a few thousand dollars. Strictly movie-of-the-week fare.

Charlie Wilson’s War (USA 2007) (7): By all accounts—including his own—Texas congressman Charlie Wilson (an affable Tom Hanks) was a hard-drinking womanizer who was not above a bit of dirty politicking or the occasional sexual fling. But when the Russians began invading Afghanistan at the beginning of 1980 he was both moved by the suffering of the Afghani people and incensed over what he considered to be America’s lackadaisical response to this latest provocation in the long-running Cold War. With the help of truculent CIA operative Gust Avrakotos (an unlikeable Philip Seymour Hoffman deserving his Oscar nomination) Wilson used his political prowess to not only secure a billion dollars in aid and weaponry for the Mujahideen rebels, he also managed to garner support from such diametrically opposed allies as Pakistan and Israel not to mention a wealthy faction of the Texas bible belt thanks to the interventions of savvy Houston socialite—and sometime lover—Joanne Herring (a tough-as-nails Julia Roberts). But despite his best intentions the fallout from “Charlie Wilson’s war” would have unforeseen consequences for the middle east in general and American foreign policy in particular. Overlooking all the swearing and nudity this fact-based comedy-cum-drama still comes across as a fanciful Disney revisionist piece replete with sparkling personalities and a clearly defined line between the good guys and the bad guys. The American halls of power, here seen as a jocular cocktail party, provide little more than a colourful backdrop to Wilson’s visionary campaign with Hanks downing whiskey shots between bouts of moral indignation and Roberts rattling off political strategies while primping her eyelashes. Hoffman’s character however cuts straight to the heart of the film as a cynical, acid-tongued agent who has seen the results of too many “good intentions” to take much delight in Wilson’s victories. It is Hoffman’s performance, along with the venerable Om Puri as Pakistani president Zia, which give the film a welcome dose of gravitas while history itself provides the scathing irony.

Children of Men  (UK 2006) (9):  In the near future the human race suddenly finds itself suffering from a plague of infertility.  With an aging population and zero birth rate society begins to come apart at the seams. Very well done.....excellent editing and sound effects, some remarkable performances and assured direction throughout. I was especially impressed with the undercurrent of dark satire that always seemed to be lurking just beneath the dramatics. I may disagree with some of the films rather facile politics but as a near-future thriller it succeeded admirably.

The Children’s Hour (USA 1961) (8): The two headmistresses at an exclusive girl's academy (Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn) find their lives turned upside down when one of their students, a spoiled vindictive brat with an overly active imagination, sees and hears more than she is able to process thus giving rise to a vicious rumour suggesting the two women are more than just friends. With students being pulled out of class by their concerned WASP parents and Hepburn's fiancee (James Garner) facing guilt by association, the teachers fight back any way then can. But society's rampant homophobia makes tragedy seem inevitable. Based on Lilian Hellman's play, which was itself based on a one hundred year old Scottish case, this controversial drama goes to great lengths to avoid the word "lesbian" which was still taboo in 60s cinema. Furthermore, a monumental meltdown by MacLaine only seems to reinforce the opinions expressed by the staunchly conservative parents. But taken as a discomfiting time capsule it certainly leaves you with a stark idea of where we were and how far we've come. As an aside, in the role of Mary, the child who started the ball rolling in the first place, diminutive Karen Balkin gives us one of filmdom's most hateful little bitches ever.

Child’s Play (USA 1988) (7): Poor little Andy…all he wanted for his sixth birthday was a “Good Guys” doll, one of those cuddly child-sized moppets with bright red hair, crystal blue eyes, and an electronic vocabulary of three happy sentences. He got the doll alright, but unfortunately his doting mother didn’t realize that this particular action figure was possessed by the soul of notorious serial killer and part-time voodoo enthusiast Charles Lee Ray who was gunned down in a toy store the night before. Now bent on killing everyone who wronged him, “Chucky” is on the loose in Chicago armed with an unusually sharp kitchen knife and no one will believe Andy’s wild tales about the homicidal birthday present with a thirst for blood… Not since Karen Black peeked under the couch in Trilogy of Terror has a creepy dolly elicited so much frightened laughter—but at least her wooden nemesis simply grunted. Child’s Play forces us to endure a huggable cabbage patch kid screaming “Fuck you bitch!” and “You have a date…with DEATH!” while throwing little plastic tantrums. The animatronic effects are pretty effective though and blend seamlessly with the few live stand-in performances. The script is beyond hokey however with 80s good girl Catherine Hicks playing the hysterical mother, Brad Dourif hamming it up as Charles Lee Ray-slash-voice of evil Chucky, and Chris Sarandon as the cynical cop who has a change of heart when Chucky decides to hitch a ride in the squad car. But it’s Alex Vincent, only seven at the time, who keeps things form spinning into total inanity by playing Andy with a supremely straight face and sense of childlike terror. Hicks wrestles a stuffed doll with wild abandon, Sarandon fires at it with all the solemnity of a wild west duel, and the skies above Chicago roil and rumble with matte lightning bolts. Schlock cinema doesn’t get much better than this.

Child’s Pose (Romania 2013) (10): Romanian directors have a knack for showing one thing while actually saying something altogether different. Case in point is Calin Peter Netzer’s Oscar-nominated drama, at once a dark family tragedy and a subtle indictment of societal corruption. When her good-for-nothing son’s reckless driving kills a fourteen-year old child Cornelia Keneres (a devastating performance by Luminita Gheorghiu) uses her wealth and social connections to clear his name. Successfully bribing a greedy witness to change his statement and calling in a few political favours, Cornelia then sets her sights on the child’s grieving family—ostensibly offering to pay for the boy’s funeral while secretly hoping her show of generosity will get them to drop all charges. But her desperate scheming goes awry when the ungrateful son’s vitriolic attitude towards her domineering ways underscores a lifetime of failed mothering and a visit with the dead teen’s parents further unravels whatever pretence she once had of being a “family”. Filmed without a musical score and using mainly handheld cameras, Netzer’s bitter pill of a movie works on more than one level—it’s no accident that Cornelia’s privileged urban lifestyle contrasts so sharply with the impoverished rural reality of the victim’s relatives (she drives up to the police station decked out in furs while the boy’s enraged uncle sports a worn cloth coat) or that the only witness to what really happened comes with a convenient price tag. Furthermore, Cornelia’s inability to cope when confronted with someone else’s grief speaks not only of her own personal disconnect but of a greater social malaise. A sad and unrelenting tale which slowly builds to its shattering climax. This is what the art of cinema is all about.

Chillerama (USA 2011) (5): When his Drive-In theatre is sold out from under him, Cecil Kaufman decides to reward his loyal customers with one final dusk-to-dawn horror extravaganza featuring some of the more obscure titles from his extensive library. In Wadzilla New York City is ravaged by a carnivorous 20-storey spermatozoa resulting in the world's biggest money shot. The innuendo-laced teen musical I Was A Teenage Werebear features a group of highschool outcasts who transform into hirsute leather queens whenever they get a boner. And in a supreme example of political incorrectness Adolph Hitler tries to win the war by creating a monstrous rabbi thanks to The Diary of Anne Frankenstein. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, some popcorn tainted with zombie spooge is turning theatre patrons into a mob of very horny undead (cue tasteless sight gags involving rotting dicks and tits). Directors Adam Green et al know their target demographic of college geeks and freaks well--the gross-out humour never rises above toilet level, the T&A quotient is fairly generous, and a few obvious movie references lead everyone to believe they're more clever than they actually are. There are some genuinely funny scenes for those so inclined, it's just too bad they're forced to take a back seat to a whole lot of juvenile antics. “The power of shit compels you!” yells one overly zealous priest in the feces-obsessed short film Deathication; an apt tagline if ever there was one.

Christmas in July (USA 1940) (8):  Jimmy MacDonald is forever entering contests in the hopes of winning that elusive cash jackpot.  In the meantime he supports himself and his widowed  mother by working as an office drone in a nondescript company along with Betty, his fawning girlfriend.  Then one day his luck changes when he receives a telegram telling him he’s won the $25,000 grand prize in the Maxford House Coffee slogan contest and before you can say “money equals happiness” he’s off on a shopping spree buying gifts for the entire neighbourhood, including a diamond engagement ring.  “The terrible thing about being poor...”, gushes a magnanimous Betty sporting her new fur coat and shiny ring, “...is having to worry”.  And everyone’s worries appear to be solved...until the awful truth is revealed.  It seems the telegram was sent as a practical joke by some of his co-workers...  Preston Sturges delivers another sparkling spoof on capitalist manners and the cult of celebrity that packs more charm into 67 minutes than many feature-length films.  Much of the humour is derived from the way people’s perceptions of Jimmy change after he achieves notoriety;  he goes from a faceless employee to smoking cigars with the board of directors who hang on to his most innocuous comments as if they were Delphic proclamations of great import.  Retailers who wouldn’t have given him the time of day now fall over themselves trying to lick his boots, and the neighbours greet him as if he were the second coming of Christ.  Of course it all works out in the end, but not before Sturges throws a few well-aimed barbs at America’s corporate soul and Betty gives an uplifting sermon on the value of hope.  The black cat was cute too!

A Christmas Tale [Un conte de Noël ] (France 2008) (5): It’s Christmastime in Paris and at the home of the wealthy Vuillard family the clan is gathering with enough emotional baggage in tow to satisfy a convention of neurotics. Youngest son Ivan, still suffering from the effects of a teenage breakdown, is hiding an explosive marital secret from his trusting wife. Middle son Henri, a penniless grifter given to bouts of drunken lambasting, arrives with his latest girlfriend, a foreign beauty with an uncanny ability to cut through other people’s bullshit. And eldest daughter Elizabeth, with her occasionally present husband and suicidal son, is a veritable ball of conflicting angsts who once tried to banish Henri from the family altogether due to some unspoken faux pas on his part. Heading the family table are patriarch Abel, huffing and mugging like a congenial toad, and matriarch Junon (Catherine Deneuve resting on her star power) an ice-cold Medea with an ulterior motive behind her smiles and kisses—-she needs a bone marrow donor in order to combat a fatal blood disorder. And casting a shadow over everyone is the memory of eldest son Joseph whose childhood death still gives rise to thinly veiled recriminations. As the family arms themselves for the holidays reputations will be assassinated (again), accusations will fly, and angry skeletons will roam freely while Abel croaks out genteel non-sequiturs and Junon uses her cancer diagnosis as an excuse to be a bitch about everything. Arnaud Desplechin’s thoroughly unlikable dysfunctional family drama features awful people saying and doing awful things to each other for no readily apparent reason. With an overly large cast of characters vying for screen time the separate storylines soon become hopelessly entangled while one face blurs into another. He does try to impose some deeper meaning to his jumbled mess through the ironic use of Christmas music (both classical and contemporary) as well as a few glaringly obvious references to Shakespeare and the Bible…at one point the wee grandkids stage a play about a despotic knight who gets his comeuppance. The overall effect however is more patronizing than illuminating and with a 2½-hour running time all that nastiness and unresolved grief becomes really tedious really fast. Henri’s personal credo: “Don’t act beyond your capacity to repair” could, in this case, be just as easily applied to moviemaking. As an aside, the medical scenes do carry a certain clinical authenticity with actual hospital staff playing themselves.

The Chumscrubber (USA 2005) (8): Life sure is tough when you’re a group of overly privileged white teens pining away in the maddeningly dull suburbs of southern California where the streets are lined with identical split-levels and nothing ever changes. And it doesn’t help matters when your parents are self-obsessed middle-class WASPS with their heads perpetually embedded up their backsides. Enter Dean, a morose loner who discovers his only friend Troy has hung himself and doesn’t quite know how to cope with the boy’s suicide. Sadly, Troy’s mother is too busy throwing a party to notice her son is dead and Dean’s parents are too caught up in their own careers to care much—his mom touts better living through vitamins while his dad is a self-help guru who sees his son’s silent cries for help as fodder for his next book. But Troy was more than a friend, he was also the neighbourhood drug dealer and his death inspires school outcasts Billy (his military father punches first, asks questions later), Lee (his parents love the idea of what their son should be), and Crystal (her mom is the town cougar with a closet full of halter tops to prove it) to take his place—but first they must get their hands on Troy’s stash, a treasure trove of uppers and downers they believe Dean has in his possession and for which they will go to any lengths to acquire—even kidnapping and murder… Like an uneasy collaboration between Wes Anderson and Larry Clark, director Arie Posin’s darkly satirical send-up of America’s new generation gap turns a seemingly idyllic slice of suburbia into a toxic battleground where angst-ridden kids flounder while clueless parents grapple with their own neuroses. At times hilarious—a woman is so preoccupied with fears of abandonment that it takes her two days to realize her son has been abducted—at other times filled with barely suppressed rage—Troy’s passive-aggressive mother makes a point of telling everyone in the neighbourhood that she in no way blames them for her son’s death—this is an unsettling mix of offbeat humour and scathing social critique which doesn’t always gel yet still manages to pack a vicious punch or two. A sad tale of mid-life crises gone awry, prescription tranquilizers that no longer work, and a pervasive loneliness of epidemic proportions told with tongue in cheek and teeth firmly gritted. The title, fittingly enough, refers to a popular post-apocalyptic video game heavy on violence and alienation. This is the type of work Bergman may have envisioned had he flunked out of film school and moved to Orange County. Stars Glenn Close, Ralph Fiennes, and Allison Janney.

Cinema of Death (USA 2004) (6):  A collection of five “extreme” short films exploring obsession, madness and suffering.  In Adoration we see a young man’s pathological desire for a woman lead to an ultimate consume-ation.  It is cleverly presented as a film within a film in which we become both observers and observed.  Dislandia  has no overt narrative and is only loosely linear in that it has a beginning and an end.  Its sole character, a painfully reserved child whose face is covered by a grotesque mask, wanders despondently through a sepia-tinged landscape of muted images and discordant sounds.  You can interpret the ending as being happy, but the film’s macabre aura never completely dissipates.  Pig  is a short S&M mind-fuck involving a group of faceless people, an abandoned house in the desert, some surgical equipment and lots of gauze.  Hollywood Babylon spends four minutes looking at a wall of framed photos...oh joy.  Le Poeme proved to be the most troubling for me.  The director films the dissection of an actual cadaver while a voice-over reads a passionate poem by Rimbaud.  He claims he was trying to show how pain and joy exist side by side; joy being the exuberant imagery of the poem, pain being the autopsy I suppose.  He then tries to justify the needless disfigurement of the corpse (the eyelids are sliced off, the heart removed) by stating he gave the dead man “life” by casting him as the narrator.  The body was made available for anatomical study afterwards so no harm done, right?  I’m not so sure the deceased, or his family, would agree.  Art?  Or stylized desecration?  The latter I should think.

City of the Living Dead  (Italy 1980) (4):  With a title like "City of the Living Dead" AND a director like Lucio Fulci I was ready for a great zombie splatter flick. Wrong. A hackneyed script (the gates of hell have opened....oh my!!) some cheap dramatics and abysmal sfx all add up to mediocre late-night cable fare. Think of it as "gore lite" for the brain dead.

City of Women (Italy 1980) (6): On a train bound for some unspecified destination middle-aged rogue Snàporaz (Marcello Mastroianni greyer but no wiser) is nodding in and out of sleep when he suddenly notices the beautiful woman sitting across from him. After a few sad attempts to seduce her—while a gaggle of school girls mock him in the background—he follows her off the train and into a surreal landscape populated by emasculating feminists, seductive mother figures, and a whole lot of women who just plain need a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Not used to assertive females with a mind of their own a bullied and thoroughly discomfited Snàporaz makes his way to the home of the area’s sole male inhabitant Dr. Xavier Katzone, a brutish lothario who lives in a thrusting stone tower (naturally) and revels in weapons, vicious dogs, and phallic symbols of every kind. There, surrounded by bourgeois party animals including his bitter ex-wife, Snàporaz will receive one humiliating comeuppance after another as he searches in vain for the perfect woman while a host of unsympathetic ladies cut his male machismo into bite-sized pieces. Federico Fellini’s skewed celebration of female empowerment is a fantastical rambling circus of a film seemingly without beginning or end and filled with enough flesh and psychosexual sleight of hand to give Sigmund Freud a stiffy—Dr. Katzone’s photo gallery of sexy backlit females who moan and beg for it at the touch of a button was especially telling. There is no doubt but that Fellini loved women and was in awe of them, but whereas a director like Pedro Almodóvar expresses his own admiration for the fairer sex with dignity and warm humour, in City Fellini approached his subjects with some degree of trepidation often portraying them as avenging Valkyries or hypersexualized carnivores—or in the case of Katzone’s unnatural attraction to a stone bust of his mother, aloof goddesses. Overly long and filled with gaudy detours (a lustful salute to Hollywood’s Golden Age was cute) this is not one of Federico’s better films, but if you’re willing to take it as a dated feminist time capsule it will certainly give you something to talk about afterwards. In the words of an exasperated Snàporaz himself, “What kind of movie is this!?”

The Class of Nuke ‘Em High (USA 1986) (2): Tromaville Highschool is located directly in the shadow of the Troma Nuclear Power Plant (the film is produced by Troma studios....get it? Ha!) and over the years the steady exposure to radiation has taken its toll on the student body causing a teacher to become bald and turning a host of former honours students into a gang of rowdy drug-dealing freaks. But when a catastrophic leak of nuclear waste contaminates both the school water supply and the freaks' marijuana grow-op, it leads to all sorts of mutant mayhem including a homegrown radioactive monster in the school basement. Like an episode of Welcome Back Kotter, only with more blood and tits, this amateurish bit of 80's Drive-In fodder isn't even good enough to spoof. The mark of a good "bad" film has always been in the balance between clever and awful, but aside from some amusingly gratuitous gore this poorly made, poorly acted mess is just plain awful. A soundtrack of generic metal tunes plus the threat of a sequel didn't help matters either. Some movies should never have been made.

Cléo From 5 to 7 (France 1962) (7): Celebrated French songstress Cléo has a few hours to kill before a fateful appointment to discuss test results with her pathologist—are those vague stomach pains really cancer? In order to provide some comfort her superstitious secretary engages in silly good luck rituals while her best friend Angèle (get it?) offers good-natured sympathy and courage; but Cléo’s lover is too preoccupied with his own mundane problems to take much notice and an old fortune teller warns of turbulent times ahead. Escaping the conflicting voices around her Cléo seeks respite in the sunlit streets of Paris, now suddenly alive with enigmatic portents both upbeat and discouraging, where a chance encounter with a handsome soldier en route to Algeria not only gives her a new reason for hope, but also reveals an inner strength she never knew she had. Together they slowly make their way to the doctor’s office… Although not quite shot in real time, Agnès Varda’s freewheeling experimental film nevertheless manages to trace its protagonist’s two-hour journey from terrified anticipation to calm resolve with a heady mix of poetic license and crisp cinéma-verité. While friends and acquaintances try to distract her, Cléo’s inner monologue belies a childlike bewilderment as she talks herself into action rather than retreat. The picturesque B&W cinematography and track of pop ballads give an acute sense of time and place while Cléo’s emotional struggle is universal. An unexpected gem from the French new wave.

Closely Watched Trains (Czech 1966) (7): Milos is a slacker from a long line of slackers and eccentrics—his father sits on his ass all day collecting a pension and his uncle died when he tried to use his powers of hypnotism to stop a column of Nazi tanks from invading Prague. Now with the Germans firmly entrenched in Czechoslovakia Milos gets a job as a train dispatcher in the hopes that he can garner a paycheque for doing nothing. But what he really wants is to lose his virginity and despite ample opportunities he’s never quite “up” to it. In the meantime his fellow dispatcher Hubicka is getting laid on a nightly basis and his boss, a sexually repressed family man, is constantly going on about Sodom, Gomorrah, and Armageddon (with pet pigeons roosting on his head). Even the demands of the underground resistance take a backseat to Milos’ raging hormones until he is convinced to undertake a dangerous assignment with hilariously macabre consequences. A fine instalment from the all too brief Czech New Wave, Jirí Menzel’s absurdist comedy managed to poke fun at the Communist mindset in such a roundabout way that it snuck right past the censors. Tedious bureaucracy, boredom, and misguided nationalism are presented with such tongue-in-cheek finesse that at times it is hard to see the sting lurking just beneath the surface, especially with the Third Reich providing a convenient smokescreen. Alternately ludicrous and strangely sobering.

Cloud Atlas (Germany/USA 2012) (4): This bloated film adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel about a host of reincarnated souls crossing paths through the ages is so spectacularly awful in so many amazing ways that its three-hour running time practically flies by in a blur of inspirational Hallmark moments. A cadre of international stars headed by Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon and Jim Broadbent gloriously waste their time as they take turns falling madly in love and validating one another’s existence while at the same time waxing sanctimoniously on the undying power of love, the interconnectedness of all things, and the dignity of the human spirit. Meanwhile, just for good measure, Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving get to be recycled as the perennial bad guys (or girls). Jumping back and forth across 500 years of history we see how small acts of kindness and villainy echo down the centuries: in 19th century Polynesia a kindly lawyer befriends a runaway slave; a brilliant gay composer suffers a doomed love affair in pre-WWII Britain; a crusading reporter discovers the truth behind nuclear energy in disco-era San Francisco (while across the pond a group of feisty Scottish seniors break out of a sinister nursing home); in a future totalitarian Seoul a rebellious clone plants the seeds of a new religion; and lastly (thank God), in a far flung post-apocalyptic America where everyone shuffles around in caveman drag spouting white trash pidgin, love finds a new foothold among the stars. Gag and barf. The widescreen cinematography is appropriately grandiose and some of the futuristic gewgaws are fun to watch, but the transmigratory connections get shoved in your face a few too many times (OMG, there’s that comet-shaped birth mark again! And that haunting melody!) and the teary-eyed soliloquies are enough to make Spielberg wet his skivvies. Still, film geeks will have a ball uncovering the more subtle background clues linking one storyline to another. I was just impressed I managed to stay awake.

Cloudburst (Canada 2011) (8): Hard-drinking, foul-mouthed octogenarian Stella (a thoroughly convincing Olympia Dukakis) is beyond angry when her blind and invalid lover Dot (Brenda Fricker…ditto) is placed in a nursing home by a meddling granddaughter. With no legal recourse at her disposal Stella decides to kidnap Dot and drive up to Canada where the two can become legally married and therefore inseparable. Along the way they pick up handsome young drifter Prentice who’s trying to make it back to Nova Scotia to visit his dying mother. In the big old lesbian road movie that follows Stella and Dot look back on their thirty-one years together and the prospect of finally tying the knot with a mix of cold feet, longing, and an abiding love which has seen them through more tough times than they can remember. Prentice, meanwhile, has a few heartaches of his own to nurse and as the odd trio slowly make their way to the border unexpected bonds are formed while others are changed forever. Besides the endearing performances of Dukakis and Fricker (Dot’s calm yet feisty Irish demeanour is the perfect foil for Stella’s rather imaginative sailor’s mouth), director Thom Fitzgerald’s ability for incorporating natural beauty into his film’s narrative give it an easygoing rhythm which makes the one-liners and sight gags all the more hilarious—for at its heart this is a bittersweet romantic comedy after all (Dot’s unfortunate bedroom encounter with Prentice’s estranged father deserved more than one rewind). Unfortunately it all culminates in the kind of exaggerated “sugar and tears” ending for which Canadian cinema is infamous for—but despite some unnecessary drama the film’s heartfelt message of enduring love (and laughter) still rings loud and clear.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (USA 2009) (8): When budding scientist Flint Lockwood tries to help his small island community recover from an economic slump by inventing a machine that turns water into food, no one is prepared for the dire gastronomic consequences which follow. Launching his invention into the atmosphere Flint is hailed as a hero by the people of Swallow Falls who are delighted to have pizzas and sundaes rain from the sky, not to mention the millions they stand to make from curious tourists. But the town's greedy mayor decides that more is better and before you can yell "Alka Seltzer" he's pushed Flint's machine beyond its capacity resulting in a mighty edible hurricane of giant mutated victuals that not only threatens the island, but the entire world as well. Based on the children's book this is one of the cleverest and at time laugh out loud funny animated features I've seen since Despicable Me 2 had me chuckling non-stop. Filled with food-oriented sight gags, Hollywood jabs, and witty one-liners (not to mention a well deserved send-up of network sexism) this is one to delight the entire family. The formula may be familiar (failed achiever redeems self, gets the girl etc. etc.) but rarely has it been (re)told with such colourful ingenuity. Besides, where else can you see a talking monkey battle with carnivorous gummy bears on the wings of a speeding jet plane?

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (USA 2013) (7): The original gang is back in this slightly too cute but nevertheless entertaining sequel. This time around über-dork Flint Lockwood has been recruited by television science guru Chester V who, along with a small army of mega geeks and personalized holograms, runs the fabulous “Live Corp Company” an institution devoted to the advancement of science. Flint’s assignment, return to the island community of Swallow Falls and deactivate his malfunctioning invention which turns water into food before the planet is overrun by mutated menu items. But there are two major obstacles in Flint’s path: first of all Swallow Falls is now an overgrown jungle inhabited by fearsome “food animals” (shrimpanzees, watermelophants, and wildebeets...oh my!); secondly, the great Chester V has a few diabolical plans of his own for Flint’s odd invention. Can Flint and company save the Earth yet again or will we all fall prey to a mad scientist and/or armies of toothsome appetizers? The premise may be rehashed, and the adorable factor turned up a notch (“Berry” the strawberry coos like a toddler and poops jelly) but the underlying wit and visual gags remain largely the same…especially those candy-coloured nods to Jurassic Park. You’ll never look at your cupboard shelves the same way again.

Cloverfield (USA 2008) (8): Godzilla meets the Blair Witch as a small handful of hapless yuppies record the ingestion of New York City while fleeing for their lives. It all begins at an upscale party where a loft-full of beautiful people have gathered to bid a fond farewell to the guest of honour. Walking among the clinking beer bottles and dazzling white smiles, video camera in hand, party animal Hud tries to capture every witty remark and drunken innuendo when suddenly...shit happens! There’s a mighty tremor, followed by a blackout and then another tremor. Rushing to the rooftop the partygoers witness an enormous explosion in the distance which fills the sky with flaming debris necessitating a hasty retreat to the sidewalk below. But once they join the crowds of dazed pedestrians things start to get really interesting with toppling skyscrapers, monstrous rumblings and tantalizingly brief glimpses of something huge and reptilian wreaking havoc in downtown Manhattan. When the head of the Statue of Liberty comes flying down the street however the gang decides it’s time to make their way across the river where things seem to be much calmer. As Hud tapes their every move they get hung up on the Brooklyn Bridge, run into trigger-happy national guardsmen, and do battle with some long-legged beasties in a rat-infested subway tunnel...but will they survive the night? Reeves has fashioned a fiendishly clever film that combines a good old-fashioned monster movie with a satirical critique on post 9-11 hysteria. The sound effects and CGI-generated mayhem are impeccable while the amateurish video footage maintains a state of claustrophobic panic. Of course there are some awkward plot devices; Reeves doesn’t explain why people who are running in terror would decide to record an ongoing documentary, and we are expected to believe it would take the army only 15 minutes to flood NYC with tanks and battalions. But with a movie so chockfull of awesome destruction and deliriously chaotic action sequences it is easy to forgive. Be forewarned though, Cloverfield’s jerky handheld camerawork is not for the weak of stomach.

Coco Before Chanel [Coco Avant Chanel] (France 2009) (5): Celebrated couturier Gabriel Bonheur aka “Coco Chanel” (1883 - 1971) was a pioneer on at least two levels—she was the first female to make a dent in what was then a male-dominated profession and her edgy sense of style practically defined women’s haute couture for decades. She was also an ambitious businesswoman and patron of the arts who courted some scandal during WWII for her dalliances with the German occupiers. But watching Anne Fontaine’s drab, lifeless biopic you get the impression of a mousy depressive with a taste for straw hats and unavailable men who stumbled upon fashion design when she was bored one afternoon. Beginning with a ten-year old Gabriel and her sister being dropped off at an orphanage by their penniless father, and then proceeding through her early years as a saloon singer, seamstress, and mistress to a boorish millionaire before ending on a lavish mirrored runway, Fontaine offers little insight and no emotional connection whatsoever but rather gives us a pedestrian Masterpiece Theatre rendering of an enigmatic person whose legacy certainly deserved more than a cursory melodrama. Lead actress Audrey Tautou (Amélie) does bear an uncanny resemblance to Chanel but aside from a few fierce words and that permanent scowl her performance lacks the fire one would expect from a woman who seemingly broke taboos as casually as she hemmed a skirt—in an age where appearances meant everything she took on more than one lover and defied fashion conventions with her masculine togs. The rest of the cast offer up readings as lacklustre as the dull countryside cinematography—attempts to disparage France’s idle rich as a bunch of shallow deviants elicit little more than a yawn and Coco’s “passionate” affair with a British opportunist not even that—but at least Catherine Leterrier’s Oscar-nominated costume designs add a splash of much needed colour and sophistication.

Code Unknown (Germany 2000) (7):  On the streets of contemporary Paris a casually cruel gesture has an immediate affect on a disparate group of people and sends emotional ripples across half a continent.  This engaging film uses several cinematic styles to chronicle the stories of these people while underscoring its central theme.....the misery that results from our inability to truly communicate with one another.  This lack of empathy is demonstrated in various subtle ways; from the many instances of misunderstandings to the jarring use of quick cuts, often in the middle of a sentence, leaving the viewer to guess as to what was actually happening.  As usual Haneke’s style is maddeningly cryptic and he delivers his sermon with the customary amount of smugness.  But if you’ve seen enough of his films you already know what to expect.

Collision (USA 2008) (8): Is Christianity good for the world? Religious faith and secular humanism go toe to toe as “Anti-Theist” Christopher Hitchens squares off against evangelical theologian Douglas Wilson in Darren Doane’s gripping documentary. Doane follows the two men as they embark on a series of guest lectures promoting their collaborative book and engaging audiences in heated debates. While Wilson insists all things come from God including our fundamental concept of “right and wrong”, Hitchens steadfastly denies the idea of divine intervention in any aspect of the natural world instead referring to Christianity as a “wicked cult”. However, despite the often passionate verbal sparring onstage the two men share a surprisingly civil and respectful friendship behind the scenes as the camera catches them having a good-natured argument over coffee or exchanging favourite literary quotes in a smoky bar. Highly educated, scholarly, and possessing razor sharp wits, the two men raise the “Faith vs. Science” debate from the usual level of ignorant shouting match to an eloquent repartee which is both entertaining and intellectually challenging. Doane keeps the pace hectic with a choppy editing style, skewed camera angles and colour filtering which goes from harshly exaggerated reds to washed out blues although his MTV-style soundtrack of hip hop nonsense seems woefully out of place. “One of us has to lose the argument and admit moral defeat...” states Hitchens at one point and while viewers may disagree on who deserves the final trophy the arguments presented are fascinating to hear.

The Color of Pomegranates (USSR 1968) (6): Sergei Parajanov’s biography of 18th century Armenian poet Sayat Nova eschews linear narrative and instead delivers a series of striking dioramas and snatches of performance art meant to trace the artist’s inner evolution from rebellious child to lovestruck adult to devoted cleric and, finally, Christian martyr. The eclectic blend of music, natural sounds, and spoken word compliments some wonderfully abstract staging and lead actor Sofiko Chiaureli’s delicate features seem lifted directly from a medieval icon as he plays multiple roles, both male and female. Unfortunately, unless you have a firm understanding not only of Armenian art, culture, and history but of the life and work of Nova himself, Parajanov’s ambitious opus becomes little more than a succession of beautiful but frustratingly enigmatic tableaux.

Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (USA 1981) (4): Robert Altman’s big screen flop, based on Ed Graczyk’s broadway flop, is literally crammed with faux nostalgia and enough white trash melodrama to make Valley of the Dolls look like an episode of Gidget. At a dusty old Woolworth’s store in a small sunbaked Texas town which time seems to have forgotten a small group of women slowly converge. It’s 1975, the 20th anniversary of the death of James Dean, and they are the last remnants of his local fan club come to reminisce and swap stories. There’s brassy town tramp Sissy (Cher sporting a padded bra) whose aspirations never got her past the city limits; overly boisterous Stella Mae (a grating Kathy Bates) whose thwarted dreams of motherhood are soothed somewhat by her husband’s big bank account; mousy Edna Louise; unhinged Mona (a berserk Sandy Dennis) with one foot forever planted in the past who swears her twenty-year old son is the result of a one-nighter with Dean himself; and the sultry Joanne (a ridiculous Karen Black) who holds the evening’s biggest secret—all overseen by shop owner Juanita (Sudie Bond giving the film’s best performance) an evangelical Christian whose pious ways hide her own secret shame. With cold beer on the counter and a storm brewing on the horizon, good natured ribbing slowly gives way to tawdry confessions and scathing cat fights as each woman lets loose a barrage of ever more ludicrous revelations. Lurching back and forth between 1975 and 1955 through the use of two-way mirrors and stagey lighting we see just how these women evolved into the drunken embittered bitches they are tonight. And frankly it’s hard to give a damn. Perhaps Altman and Graczyk had a loftier goal in mind—tying together a handful of broken dreams, a small town drying up in the sun, and the tragic death of an idol into a grandiose statement on the demise of idealism and innocence. But whereas Bogdanovich nailed this ethos in his masterpiece, The Last Picture Show, Altman presents us with a shrill and rancorous drag revue. A camp spectacle from a cast of seasoned actresses (including three Oscar winners) who should have known better.

The Comedians (USA 1967) (3):  About a third of the way into this torturous mess you get the distinct impression that someone misplaced the script and rather than rewriting it the director simply told everyone to wing it.  Burton and Taylor are especially disappointing as they mumble non-sequiturs while sucking on each other’s faces and poor Lillian Gish seems to have trouble remembering she’s in a talkie.  It’s amazing that Graham Greene took his own novel about Duvalier’s bloody regime and turned it into a sitting room drama complete with insipid love affair.  It’s 150 minutes of pure tedium.....if it had run any slower it would have been going backwards.

Coming Home (USA 1978) (9): One of the quintessential films examining the effects of the Viet Nam War on those who served and those who waited at home. When Captain Bob Hyde marches off to battle with dreams of guts & glory his all-American wife Sally dutifully tends the home fires, even volunteering at a veteran’s hospital despite the disapproval of her husband who frowns on anything that threatens his role as man of the house. It’s there she meets Luke Martin, an embittered marine sergeant paralyzed from the waist down who channels his frustrations into the occasional angry outburst and act of civil disobedience. A friendship gradually develops between sergeant and housewife leading to a romantic liaison and eventual love affair. Meanwhile Captain Hyde, unbalanced and disillusioned by the horrors he’s witnessed, returns home a hollow man with nothing to show for his ordeal but a meaningless medal and a head full of ghosts. When Sally’s infidelity is finally exposed it proves to be the final straw for Hyde whose drinking binges and bouts of rage conceal an anguish far deeper than anyone imagined… Beautifully written and flawlessly performed (Jon Voight's and Jane Fonda’s Oscars were well deserved as was Bruce Dern’s nomination), Hal Ashby’s critical look at a system which sends men to fight then seems to forget them when they come back broken focuses on those internal battlefields that exist long after peace is declared; indeed, he restricts images of actual warfare to snapshots and grainy B&W news reports. The tone may be angry and sardonic at times, but his sense of compassion towards his main characters never wavers. There is a balance here with one man rediscovering his humanity while another loses everything he believed in, and in the middle Sally tries desperately to comfort both even though she can’t possibly understand what they’ve been through. The period detail is impeccable, including a brilliantly integrated score of 60’s rock anthems, and a few subtle touches add just the right amount of irony; a yuppie flashing a peace sign (the director’s brief cameo), a TV station going off air to the strains of the national anthem, and a bittersweet closing montage with Tim Buckley’s haunting Once I was playing in the background. As a side note, the love scenes between Luke and Sally, besides being groundbreaking in themselves (the sexual needs of the handicapped were never addressed so honestly before), were filmed with such piercing intimacy they border on erotic art. One of the better films to emerge from the 70s.

The Conjuring (USA 2013) (6): Ed and Lorraine Warren, the dynamic ghostbusting duo whose real life experiences at a New England farmhouse gave rise to the Amityville Horror franchise, tear yet another page out of their demonic scrapbook in order to tell the tale of Roger and Carolyn Perron. When the Perrons and their five daughters moved to a new home in rural Rhode Island they had no idea the place had a macabre history involving witchcraft and murder, nor were they aware that a dark presence still resided in the dusty nooks and crannies. No sooner had they settled in then the spooky hijinks began with banging walls and foul odours quickly giving way to eerie visitations and spectral assaults. By the time the Warrens were consulted the Perrons were living out of the downstairs parlour, the only relatively safe place in the entire house. Setting up shop with various paranormal detectors scattered throughout the building and a small team of demon watchers manning the controls, the Warrens and their hosts prepared for a series of spooky all-night vigils—but no one was prepared for the sheer malevolence they encountered…an evil with the ability to stretch far beyond the Perron’s front gate. There is a genuinely scary short film here. The first half of The Conjuring contains all the necessary ingredients for a week’s worth of nightmares with midnight treks into a dark cellar lit only by matches, haunted cabinets creaking open, and a little girl checking under her bed despite my whispered warnings to dive under the sheets instead. ”There’s something standing behind the door!” one child hisses to her little sister as my hand reaches for the light switch yet again. Unfortunately director James Wan decides halfway through that more is better than less and we’re treated to the usual string of Catholic clichés (the crucifix fell on the floor….oh nooooo!), leering rubber masks, and ridiculous images of a possessed Lili Taylor riding a bucking armchair and spitting blood. Not only did I (comfortably) turn the lights back off but the group hug finale had me wishing for a rematch. Where’s Max von Sydow and Jason Miller when you need them?

The Conjuring 2 (USA 2016) (5): Six years after their last haunted escapade demonologists extraordinaire Ed and Lorraine Warren are off to England at the behest of the Catholic church in order to investigate some strange goings-on at the house of single mother Peggy Hodgson and her four kids. It seems the ghost of a cantankerous old man has it in for youngest daughter Janet and his devilish temper tantrums are making the entire family’s life a waking nightmare. Despite evidence that this might be a hoax the ghostbusters sense that there is actually more to this particular haunting than just a few sensational headlines—a suspicion reinforced by Lorraine’s tragic premonitions. Naturally they spend a few nights in the spooky house with the frightened Hodgsons and that’s when all hell decides to break loose as director James Wan blows his budget on every creepy special effect he can muster. The first part is is the most effective as Wan relies on a creaking stair or half seen shadow in order to ice our spines, but when he rolls out the big guns the entire production falls prey to CGI overkill with exploding lightning bolts, walls rent asunder, and a pasty white nun leaping out of the woodwork like Marilyn Manson in convent drag. A plot twist left my eyes rolling and the usual Catholic mumbo-jumbo made it all seem so terribly serious (crosses crosses everywhere!), but Poltergeist did it better and The Exorcist did it first. Based on a true story (LOL!).

The Conqueror [Taras Bulba] (Russia 2009) (2): It's the 16th century and Mother Russia is threatened from all sides by her enemies. Enter the Cossacks, mighty warriors from the Ukraine whose sacred duty it is to protect God and country from the evil Polish warlords and their papist ways. First and foremost amongst these soldiers of Orthodoxy is the grizzled Taras Bulba who, along with his virtuous sons, will lead the fearless Cossacks against the loathsome Poles and their miserly Jewish cohorts. But will Bulba's dwindling army of ruffians and drunks be able to face down the enemy's well-armed and disciplined cavalry? And what happens when one son falls in love with a Polish noblewoman and defects to the other side? Let's leave historical accuracy to scholars of Russian antiquity and just concentrate on why this is such an awful movie. Weak acting, awful script hampered further by haphazard editing, and cheap-ass CGI effects on par with your typical SyFy channel filme-du-jour. It's amazing how many pointless slo-mo sabre fights one can cram into 133 minutes. Furthermore, with its endless train of last-breath soliloquies praising hearth and home, and crude racial/national stereotypes (leering Polacks, cringing Jews) the film's cloying sense of patriotism goes beyond simple propaganda and enters into the realm of pure myth. An epic failure on all counts.

Conquest of Space (USA 1955) (7): “This is a story of tomorrow...” intones the opening narrator, “...or the day after tomorrow.” Thus begins one of the more optimistic science fiction epics to emerge from the Cold War. After months spent training on “The Wheel”, a multinational space station orbiting Earth, a select crew of astronauts under the tutelage of hard-nosed military hero Colonel Sam Merritt and his dutiful son Captain Barney Merritt (blond hunk Eric Fleming) prepare for the human race’s greatest adventure; the first manned mission to Mars. Braving meteorites, privation, and their own personal demons the five plucky men finally set foot on the red planet only to experience a mixed bag of bitter disappointments and potential promise. Despite a few naive assumptions and forgivable scientific liberties, Conquest of Space features some great special effects for its time, a pinwheel space station whirling against a giant backdrop of Earth is quite well done especially when set to an original score faintly reminiscent of Holst’s “Neptune the Mystic.” Furthermore, director Byron Haskin demonstrates a sound understanding of what life in space might be like. “The Wheel’s” multiracial inhabitants must have been eye-opening for contemporary audiences and a couple of futuristic concepts are bang on; overpopulation, dwindling resources, big screen TVs, and the move towards one world government (“free trade” hadn’t been coined yet). But where the film excelled for me was when it explored the downside of space exploration; the longing for home, the interpersonal tensions, and the psychosis brought about by endless responsibilities and confined quarters here referred to as “space fatigue”. A colourful and visionary addition to the retro sci-fi genre.

The Conspirator (USA 2010) (8): Following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth, Northern authorities under the direction of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline barely recognizable in spectacles and muttonchops) charge seven of Booth’s acquaintances with conspiracy, including Mary Surratt (Robin Wright, brilliant), mother of missing conspirator John Surratt and owner of the boarding house where the men allegedly hatched their plan. Although the evidence against her ranges from purely circumstantial to downright questionable the State, eager to set a stern example by staging a mass execution, insists on trying Mary under a military tribunal thereby bypassing many of her civil rights. Enter Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy sans Scottish brogue), a Union war hero turned lawyer who reluctantly agrees to defend Mary despite his own personal bias against her and the South in general. But as Aiken delves further into Mary’s rather complicated story he begins to doubt her guilt, especially after the government repeatedly stonewalls his attempts to uncover the truth. Is Mary really a cunning conspirator or is the State simply seeking revenge by making her a symbolic scapegoat? Writer James D. Solomon weaves actual transcripts from Surratt’s trial into his script and director Robert Redford poceeds to film it all in shades of sepia and leached pastels against CGI backdrops of old Washington; the result is a painstakingly authentic historical drama which unfolds like a series of antique daguerreotypes. Supported by an impressive cast, McAvoy’s transformation from cynical doubter to zealous advocate contrasts beautifully with Wright’s portrayal of a disgraced widow whose downcast eyes nevertheless harbour an iron resolve (and perhaps a troubling secret or two). With the Constitution of the United States not even a hundred years old and the wounds of America’s bloody Civil War still fresh, The Conspirator is a damning exploration of that point where political expediency tries to eclipse the rule of law.

Contagion (USA 2011) (6): Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns to the States after a business trip to Hong Kong (and a sexual layover in Chicago) complaining of flu-like symptoms. Twenty-four hours later she is dead, and so are a lot of other people from Kowloon to Minneapolis and the numbers are growing exponentially. By the time the CDC and WHO come on board the mysterious epidemic has already reached around the globe and the race is on to isolate the organism responsible and control it before it’s too late. With civilized society slipping into anarchy, the sick and dying crowding into makeshift clinics, and governments scrambling to protect themselves the fate of millions rests with a small team of doctors and technicians (Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet et al) . Although Steven Soderbergh’s medical thriller doesn’t even come close to the controlled tension of The Andromeda Strain, he still manages to present a watchable drama with enough star power, techno jargon, and beeping machines to gloss over most of the film’s Hollywood hyperbole. Riding on the back of our SARS and ebola paranoia his microscopic McGuffin’s ability to produce a messy demise en masse exposes just how unprepared we are for a global pandemic both economically (“Who’s going to pay for all this?” blurts a health official examining a gymnasium-cum-field hospital); socially (deadly riots erupt when pharmacies run out of a purported herbal cure); and politically (the spectre of germ warfare is alluded to as elected officials scramble for cover and a CDC spokesman becomes a sacrificial scapegoat). And of course the internet fuels the flames with rumours and misinformation tweeted by a prominent douchebag conspiracy theorist (Jude Law) whose fear-mongering proves to be surprisingly profitable. All the ingredients for a modern day horror movie are here, but Soderbergh’s insistence on examining the emergency from every possible angle simply piles too much on to our plates resulting in narrative gaps and underdeveloped characters. Furthermore, attempts to humanize the crisis—a widower (Matt Damon) fights to protect his remaining child, a WHO doctor (Marion Cotillard) becomes a medical hostage in China, a researcher in Atlanta takes a leap of faith—seem tacked on. But the pulsating music score hits the mark and tight editing causes 106 minutes to fly by. Besides, it’s fun to watch a cavalcade of Hollywood darlings sweat, spew, and run for their lives.

Contamination [Alien Contamination] (Italy 1980) (4): It’s Alien served with a big helping of pasta as director Luigi Cozzi takes some outrageous liberties with Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic in order to churn out this tepid thriller. When a mysterious, seemingly abandoned, freighter docks in New York the authorities are in for a very unpleasant surprise for not only has the ship’s crew been turned into sushi but the cargo hold is filled with big glowing eggs that have a nasty habit of spewing forth sticky clouds of greenish goo causing the abdominal cavities of anyone in the immediate vicinity to explode in sickening slow motion. As sexy special agent Colonel Holmes and her team investigate the unearthly cargo they slowly uncover a deadly conspiracy that stretches from the frozen wastelands of Mars to a steamy Colombian coffee plantation where they come face to face with mindless zombies, locked bathroom doors, and a final showdown with a malevolent head of broccoli. Even though it appears Cozzi was working with a slightly bigger budget than most Eurosplatter auteurs, all the familiar trappings of the genre are here; the cheesy soundtrack and dubbed dialogue go together beautifully while the attention to gory detail is delightfully apparent as showers of wet crimson guts gush forth from barely concealed chest prostheses. It’ll have you yelling “Mama mia!” even as you reach for the Fast Forward button.

Continental, A Film Without Guns (Canada 2007) (9):  A middle-aged man on his way home from work falls asleep on the bus.  He wakes up to find the bus deserted in the middle of a deep dark forest.  With no clue as to where he is or where he’s going he sets out into the woods, apparently lured by some mysterious siren song.  This wonderfully understated opening sequence pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the story as we see a handful of characters trying to navigate through their own emotional wildernesses.  Contemporary themes of loneliness, isolation and regret are expertly weaved together, sometimes with deadpan humour, often with sharp poignancy.  There is the hotel clerk, desperate to be needed by another person, who manufactures ersatz relationships using her answering machine; the insurance salesman who “sells peace of mind” while his own life falls apart; the elderly shop owner facing his mortality with a mixture of weariness and despair; and lastly, the missing man’s wife who suddenly finds her well-defined life drastically altered by her husband’s disappearance.  LaFleur layers these stories in some beautiful and imaginative ways.  His juxtaposition of the mundane with the subtly absurd makes for a refreshing and unconventional look at life, which brings to mind the films of Roy Andersson.  He even manages a sly reference to Lamorisse’s “Le Ballon Rouge”.  The film ends on a more or less happy note, but LaFleur is quick to point out that “happiness” can be highly subjective and often comes at a cost.  One of the better films I’ve rented this year.

Control Alt Delete (Canada 2008) (4): Lewis is a chubby socially awkward cyber-geek working at a computer security firm on the eve of Y2K. Recently dumped by his girlfriend after she discovered his extensive cache of internet porn he finds himself becoming increasingly attracted to the one constant in his life that truly accepts him for what he is....computers. With the help of a drill, bubble wrap, some duct tape and a bottle of lube he's soon banging away at more than just keyboards, a clandestine habit that has his disgusted fellow employees searching for the mysterious "computer rapist". Against a backdrop of Y2K hysteria this dry satire tries to say something about being marginalized in an increasingly tech-obsessed society but its lightweight script and cartoonish characters produce little more than a vulgar sitcom. A subplot involving a co-worker gradually becoming numb from the feet up was a wasted metaphor that went nowhere and the "toilet cam" twist was just stupid. Good thing star Tyler Labine is just so damn huggable looking.

Coraline (USA 2009) (8): Good Mother versus Bad Mother when a neglected young girl finds a mysterious tunnel linking her new house (the aptly named “Pink Palace”) with its identical twin in an alternate reality. Constantly ignored by her yuppie parents and lost in a strange new neighbourhood, Coraline finds herself pretty much alone. She does manage to find some solace in visiting the wacky boarders living in her attic and basement but the only real friend she has is the decidedly geeky boy next door, Wyborne (pronounced “Why Born”...don’t you just love symbolism?) with whom she has a tentative relationship at best. Things change however when she discovers a small secret door hidden behind the wallpaper which leads to a much sunnier version of her own life complete with new and improved editions of her parents. In this happier world mom and dad are all good, completely attentive, and they let Coraline do whatever she wants. All they ask in return is that she become a little button-eyed dolly just like them; Good Mother, it seems, has a definite taste for young impressionable lives. Steeped in Freudian psychology and filled with appropriately macabre prepubescent imagery, Coraline is one of the more complex animated features I’ve seen thus far. As Coraline struggles to break free from the suffocating demands of her increasingly malevolent “other” mother an intense psychodrama unfolds in which childish fantasies give way to troubled nightmares; an adorable circus of dancing mice morphs into a pack of slinking rats, a childish snow globe turns into an icy prison, and an enchanted garden becomes a tangle of horrors. But, in keeping with the film’s underlying subtext of growth and maturation, a talking feline familiar will provide the clear voice of reason while a trio of unhappy ghosts will kindle a newfound sense of responsibility. Of course no work that offers more than a passing nod to Sigmund and Anna would be complete without a few sexual metaphors; an outrageous burlesque show staged by a pair of buxom grannies fits the bill perfectly and heralds our diminutive protagonist’s impending adolescence. The home 3D is pretty damn cool too!

Coriolanus (UK 2011) (7): Shakespeare’s final tragedy is given a contemporary facelift in this adaptation shot mainly in the Serbian countryside, an area still bearing the scars of its own recent conflicts. Having returned to Rome a war hero for his victory over the neighbouring Volscians, Caius Marcius (Ralph Fiennes, also making his directorial debut) is a shoo-in for a seat on the senate thanks to a grateful populace and the machinations of his domineering mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave, strong as ever). But his arrogant disregard for the common people coupled with a headstrong pride leads to his being banished from the country instead. Joining forces with Rome’s enemies under the leadership of Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler whose garbled Scottish brogue proves to be the weakest link), Marcius, now called Coriolanus, descends upon his former homeland bent on revenge until the intercession of his wife and mother causes him to have second thoughts much to Aufidius’ displeasure… The bard’s meaty prose seems perfectly at home amongst tanks and machine guns; it’s allusions to prideful downfalls, reckless rage, and weaknesses of the human heart timeless since the day they were first set to paper. Fiennes directs with the eye of an artist rendering both tearful exchanges and bullet-riddled showdowns with equal passion, and his cast seems to be more than up for the task. Unfortunately this is not one of Shakespeare’s better plays and the somewhat facile plot, although engaging enough, rarely enthrals despite a host of superb performances. The clever twenty-first century touches are well placed however, with mass media taking on the role of Greek Chorus as the story unfolds. A must for every Shakespeare fan.

The Corpse Grinders (USA 1971) (1): The Lotus Cat Food Company (“For cats who love people!”) is compensating for poor sales by using cheaper cuts of meat courtesy of the nearby cemetery. But when household felines begin developing a taste for live human flesh after eating their product local physician Dr. Howard Glass and his buxom sidekick Nurse Angie decide to do a little undercover investigating. Managing to uncover Lotus’ macabre secret, Howard and Angie suddenly find themselves at the mercy of the company’s owners who are determined to see them become Fluffy’s next meal… A cheesy zero-budget groaner that’s not even good enough for the midnight circuit. Porn-level acting, bargain basement special effects (did that rubber arm just bounce?), and a couple of glaring continuity fails make for a grindhouse sleeping aid that had me nodding off throughout. And what was with the one-legged deaf secretary and her fake sign language? The tacky 70s decor was a hoot however, and the gratuitous “bra, panties and a Budweiser” scene was worth a rewind. Like Kibbles ’n Bits for your brain.

Corridors of Blood (UK 1958) (6): Boris Karloff is Dr. Thomas Bolton, a 19th century London surgeon sickened by the pain and suffering he witnesses in the operating room and determined to alleviate it by experimenting with different kinds of anesthetizing gases. Using himself as a guinea pig Bolton’s best intentions eventually transform him into an addict given to destructive binges and blackouts. Barred from practice due to his unorthodox activities the good doctor unwittingly falls in with a band of cutthroat body snatchers who promise to procure the chemicals he needs for his research-cum-habit providing he signs a series of questionable death certificates with no questions asked. Sadly, by the time a drug-addled Bolton finally realizes what he’s been doing it may already be too late to save his dream...and his life. With merry old England reduced to a few badly painted backdrops and a dingy pub of smelly threadbare cretins this low budget shocker relies on the star power of leads Boris Karloff (a most convincing pothead), hunky hirsute Francis De Wolff as the crooked ringleader, and a relatively unknown Christopher Lee as a homicidal henchman—and they succeed admirably. Scenes of Karloff’s laboratory manage to steer clear of “mad scientist” conventions although watching him huff nitrous oxide through a rubber hose is unintentionally amusing, and the hospital scenes are sobering enough with agonized screams, phlegmatic coughs, and the briefest glimpse of an amputation which was dutifully censored for delicate British audiences. Not memorable.

The Country Girl (USA 1954) (8): Former Broadway star Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby), now an alcoholic has-been eking out a living singing commercial jingles, is given a second chance at fame when director Bernie Dodd (William Holden) offers him the lead role in his latest play. But Dodd’s attempt to revive his one-time idol’s career puts him in direct conflict with Elgin’s much younger wife Georgie (Grace Kelly) whom he perceives as a dour and controlling shrew and the root cause of Elgin’s boozy descent into obscurity. But as his play prepares to debut in New York City Dodd slowly comes to the realization that Frank and Georgie’s precarious marriage is far more complex and piteous than he had imagined and now, with a waffling lead actor on his hands and a nervous producer yelling in his ear, he also discovers his contempt for Georgie is turning into something far more problematic… A profoundly unhappy story about a couple undone by past tragedy whose fragile equilibrium, based on lies and guilt, is now ironically threatened by the promise of a new beginning. Crosby shows he is more than just a sleepy-eyed crooner with his edgy portrayal of a whimpering drunk desperately clinging to rock bottom while Kelly steals the show as his perpetually angry wife, an intense woman whose haunted eyes barely conceal a deeper pain. And Holden, spitting fire and judgement, proves to be the perfect catalyst. Nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, and winning two—one for Grace Kelly’s psychologically charged performance and another for George Seaton’s piercing screenplay—The Country Girl is marred somewhat by a soapy ending but its juxtaposition of cheery onstage musical numbers and offstage drama pulls all the right strings and its cast never miss a beat.

Coup de Grâce (Germany 1976) (5): On a country estate somewhere in the Baltics circa 1919 a small troop of German soldiers are waging a war against communist guerrillas hiding out in the nearby woods. Home to the countess Sophie de Reval and her brother Konrad (one of the soldiers) the manor house is now a ghost of its former glory with blown out windows, backed up sewers, and an amusingly senile aunt living upstairs. Taking an erotic interest in Konrad’s friend, the handsome yet taciturn officer Erich von Lhomond, Sophie is at first mystified then angered with the brooding man’s ambiguous response to her sexual invitations despite the fact he appeared genuinely jealous of her brief affair with yet another serviceman. But when she discovers that Erich only has eyes for Konrad, Sophie’s emotional desperation becomes political causing an already volatile love triangle to become deadly. Based on a popular novel, Volker Schlöndorff’s cinematic adaptation examines the futility of war both objectively (while aid from Berlin ebbs and floes, support for the cause also wanes) and subjectively (as the sounds of gun and bomb waft in through the windows the Reval home itself turns into a psychosexual minefield). Images of death are met with apathy, attempts at mirth appear sadly ridiculous, and an anxious exchange between Sophie and Erich through a locked door comes to resemble a Catholic confession. Filmed in bleak shades of black and white against a backdrop of frozen fields, the entire world seems lovelorn and weary; even the film’s shocking yet downplayed climax can be seen as either a callous act of indifference or the ultimate act of cruel revenge. Unfortunately its plodding pace is further hampered by some puzzling edits and a scattered narrative while a distinct lack of emotional conviction—perhaps intentional—frustrates all attempts to connect with the characters. Thankfully Schlöndorff would visit similar territory with much more zeal in 1979’s The Tin Drum.

La Coupure (Canada 2006) (3): As the film opens we’re treated to a lovely couple engaging in some hot and heavy lovemaking. It isn’t until later that we realize the woman is cheating on her husband, and later still we realize the “other man” is her brother. Christine and Christophe have been getting it on with each other since they were teenagers and twenty years later they still are, despite the fact she’s now married with two adolescent kids. Ignoring the dire warnings from their long-suffering mother and some suspicious queries from the husband, the two siblings go at it like dogs in heat whenever they get the chance. Afterwards they agonize and emote about what terrible people they are with flowing tears and heated recriminations flying indiscriminately; but try as they may they just can’t seem to stop loving each other. Things really get sticky however when Tamara, Christine’s pubescent daughter, develops a crush on her uncle sending Christine into an emotional tailspin. Chateauvert’s tawdry little bit of arthouse drivel is not even good enough to be accused of pretentiousness. It would appear everyone in this mess wants to be a victim as they glare accusingly at each other and speak in teary half sentences, but after watching the two leads spin their wheels and stare into each other’s navels for eighty minutes you realize that he’s simply taken 10 minutes of decent material and stretched it into a feature film. The result is stilted, repetitious and unconvincing. Despite Valerie Cantin’s noteworthy performance and a mercifully abrupt ending, it still wasn’t worth the three dollar rental fee.

The Cranes Are Flying  (Russia 1957) (9):  Striking use of light and composition coupled with an intelligent script lift this film far above the usual war-time weeper and turn it into a piercing study of the human heart.  Kalatozov uses the camera as an artist uses his brush, treating us to some of cinema’s more amazing sequences.....an attempted seduction during a night-time air raid; a dying soldier’s vision of the wedding he’ll never have; a woman quietly grieving her dead lover in the midst of a joyous crowd....the list continues, and it is impressive.  Free from the overt government propaganda of earlier Soviet films and staunchly avoiding maudlin sentimentality, “The Cranes are Flying” remains a powerful and mature work fifty years after it was first released.

Crazy Heart (USA 2009) (7): A washed-out alcoholic who also smokes too much, lives out of his battered truck, and barely gets by performing at bowling alleys and third rate dives, fifty-seven year old former Country Western superstar “Bad” Blake’s life has ironically become a sad C&W cliché itself. He’s hit rock bottom and if the booze doesn’t end what’s left of his career his inability to write any new material will—and to make matters worse the fact that his former protégé Tommy Sweet has skyrocketed to fame constantly eats away at his drunken ego. And then he finds a potential muse in Jean, a single mother trying to get her own journalism career off the ground, and a bleary-eyed Blake thinks he may have staggered into love . But the two of them are carrying enough emotional luggage to pack a pick-up truck and whiskey is a very demanding mistress… Movies about down-and-outers trying for one more kick at redemption are as old as Hollywood itself and director Scott Cooper’s hooch & cigarettes saga, based on the novel by Thomas Cobb, doesn’t really add anything new to the convention. But if the storyline seems all too familiar Jeff Bridges’ Oscar-winning performance manages to turn it into something extra special; his grumbling stumbling portrayal of a man who has done it all yet has nothing to show for it alternately exasperating and deeply compassionate. Hell, he even belts out those soulful T Bone Burnett songs as if he wrote them himself. And backing him up are Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jean, Colin Farrell as Sweet (his Irish brogue hidden behind a southern drawl), and a welcome cameo from Robert Duvall as Blake’s only remaining friend. Gritty as a dirty ashtray and with enough heartbreak to fuel a Tammy Wynette and George Jones duet, Cooper’s long lonesome highway of a film may be rooted in country truisms but his delivery is anything but trite and that final resolution is beautifully unsentimental.

Creep (USA 2014) (3): If one could take this “found footage” horror show as a parody of the genre it might get a weak pass, but writer/director/stars Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass don’t seem to have their tongues anywhere near their cheeks and the result is an insultingly facile shaggy dog story where the big pay-off arrives more like a dippy six-second youtube vine than a proper climax. Videographer Aaron (Brice) tapes himself traveling into the hinterland of California in response to an ad he answered offering a thousand dollars for one day’s worth of filming—“discretion appreciated”. Arriving at his destination, a remote mountain cabin, he’s met by his client Josef (Duplass) who wants Aaron to help him make a video diary for his unborn son, a child he may not live to see. Manifestly eccentric, Josef has Aaron film him taking a bath, frolicking in the woods, eating pancakes, and waxing philosophical about dying and regrets. But as the day wears on Aaron becomes uncomfortably aware that Josef may be a few bricks shy of a load and there may be more to the amateur footage they’re shooting than a simple fatherly memento… Devoid of any tension—its cheap shocks consist mainly of Josef jumping out from behind doorways…eek!—and with an annoying homoerotic undertone that grates like a squeaky hinge this is one gobbler that should never have left the drawing board. It’s not easy to watch movies about stupid people doing stupid things for stupid reasons and Brice’s character certainly deserves a few Darwin awards of his own…not that either one of the painfully ad-libbed performances are particularly believable in the first place. The fact that some promote this piece of work as “psychological horror” is laughable. On the other hand however the idea that there are two more sequels being planned did manage to keep me awake at night.

The Cremator (Czech 1969) (7): Either the blackest satire or most unsettling psychological horror film to emerge from Czechoslovakia’s New Wave. Kopfrkingl is a sombre, somewhat mousy family man given to rambling ruminations on cleanliness, godliness, and bourgeois values circa 1930s Prague. Overseeing the local crematorium he is perhaps a bit too tied up in his work which he regards as a divine calling, for in the flames there is an end to all suffering and a final liberation of the soul as the dearly departed are hastily returned to dust. In fact he sees his ovens as a final solution to all of mankind’s woes so it comes as no surprise that when Nazi forces begin to encroach on his “civilized” society, an increasingly unhinged Kopfrkingl is more than happy to offer up his expertise… With off-kilter camera angles and moody shades of B&W, Juraj Herz’s nightmarish allegory on the roots of fascism combines the visual excesses of Fellini with the mordant introspection of Bergman. The results don’t always fit together smoothly, and some of our protagonist’s observational rants sound more like cynical navel-gazing, but the oppressive sense of impending doom and despair is inescapable.

Cria Cuervos (Spain 1977) (9): Made towards the end of Franco’s regime, Carlos Saura has crafted a brilliant film that is both political allegory and psychological essay. Little Ana, mysterious and taciturn, is still quietly grieving the the death of her mother when she witnesses her father’s demise in the arms of another woman. Left orphaned along with her two sisters she is placed in the care of her strict but well-meaning aunt who moves into the family home bringing the crippled grandmother with her. It is a confusing time for Ana where the magical thinking of childhood meets the harsher realities of the adult world with its contradictory messages and baffling behaviour. She is set adrift in the isolated old house which is haunted with memories of the past whether they be faded snapshots or imaginary visits from her dead mother which bring a smile but little solace. Torn between her authoritarian aunt, her uncommunicative grandmother, and the kind-hearted yet gossipy housekeeper, Ana lashes out with childish abandon at those she feels responsible for her loss of maternal love...an act which inadvertently marks the beginning of her maturation. Saura’s convoluted story moves fluidly between past, present and future aided in large part by the wonderfully understated performances of its two main leads; Ana Torrent as the troubled child and Geraldine Chaplin’s dual role as both mother and adult Ana. Although the ghost of Franco is never far away...military uniforms abound, an air of repression is everywhere, and the ending hints at monumental changes to come...this is also a study in memory. Do we recall memories, or do we manufacture them after the fact in order to justify our actions? By concentrating on Ana’s inner turmoil as she reluctantly lets go of the past and takes her first awkward steps towards adulthood Saura quietly illuminates the many pains of growing up in a way that is universal. Excellent!

Cries and Whispers (Sweden 1972) (9): A woman’s impending death from cancer tears apart the already tenuous relationship she has with her two sisters in Ingmar Bergman’s unhappy look at sex, lies, and anxieties in a fin de siècle Swedish manor. As the dying Agnes (Harriet Andersson, magnificent) alternates between calm reflection and violent outbursts her sister Maria (a glowing Liv Ullman) becomes increasingly detached from her own life, engaging in a petty affair while barely tolerating her despondent husband. Sister Karin on the other hand shrinks from all forms of love and human contact, even taking a piece of broken glass to her vagina as if to mock her husband’s conjugal expectations. Only Anna, the family’s loyal maidservant, seems emotionally equipped to deal with Agnes, cradling the frightened woman close to her breasts while whispering soft comforts—could she be thinking of her own child whom she lost years earlier? As Agnes’ final hour approaches an ice cold chasm opens between each character with Maria and Karin going through the motions of sibling intimacy (the husbands relegated to mere background noise) while Anna dutifully dresses them and prepares their meals. And then Agnes dies and the family dynamics shift one final time… This is not a subtle film by any means—autumn stalks the backyard, sunlight ebbs and floes through curtained windows, and winds sigh around mossy statues. The sisters’ luxurious mansion itself becomes a powerful psychological space with off-white gowns fluttering past walls painted a lurid blood red and everywhere the incessant ticking of clocks. An adulterous kiss is exchanged in a shadowy doorway, a visiting parson’s prayer over Agnes’ body turns into an anguished cry for personal salvation, and in one particularly harrowing scene a post mortem visit between Agnes and her sisters drives home the final wedge. The theatrical flourishes may seem stagey to some, but for those of us accustomed to the master’s touch this is quintessential Bergman.

Crime of Passion (USA 1957) (6): In Gerd Oswald’s magnificently overdone noir melodrama ambitious newspaper reporter Barbara Stanwyck sacrifices everything for a taste of domestic bliss when she falls in love with easygoing homicide detective Sterling Hayden only to discover the crushing horror that is middle class mediocrity. Slowly losing her mind to meaningless dinner parties and the vapid conversations offered up by other policemen’s wives, Barbara realizes that her only hope for salvation lies in goading her staid husband into seeking a promotion. To this end she sets in motion an elaborate scheme involving deception, adultery…and worse! With its lurid jazz score, theatrical dialogue, and stark B&W cinematography that practically oozes sin and desperation Oswald’s potboiler comes dangerously close to being a parody of itself. Thankfully Stanwyck’s knockout performance as a modern woman raging against the social ties that bind manages to lend some gravitas to the proceedings while a few familiar Hollywood faces keep the hysterics to a muted roar.

Criss Cross (USA 1949) (7): Burt Lancaster and Vancouver’s own Yvonne De Carlo are amorous exes in Robert Siodmak’s dark tale of obsession and double-crosses. Returning to Los Angeles after wandering around the country Steve Thompson moves back in with his mother and gets a job driving an armoured truck. Against his better judgement he also begins dogging his ex-wife Anna, an opportunistic tramp who’s become a little too cozy with local crime boss Slim Dundee. As old passions are reignited Steve begins to see a new future with his former spouse—even after she unexpectedly marries the violent yet oh so wealthy Slim. Entering into a partnership with Slim, now his romantic rival, Steve plans to rob his own truck with the mobster’s help and then run off with Anna taking his share of the loot. Fate, of course, has other plans… Brimming with all the usual genre clichés—growling gangsters, sexy dames and smoking guns—and set to a pulsing rhumba beat (an unknown Tony Curtis makes a brief cameo as a dance hall gigolo) Criss Cross has all the makings of a film noir classic. Unfortunately a rather anemic script lacks crackle and the erotic potential between Lancaster and De Carlo fails to elicit more than a faint spark. But the handsome cast is easy to look at and the views of bygone Los Angeles are quaint.

The Croods (USA 2013) (9): In the dog-eat-dog and everything-eat-man world of prehistory live the Croods, a cave dwelling family overseen by neanderthal patriarch Grug whose paranoid motto of “Never Not Be Afraid” has kept the clan alive if not exactly happy. Daughter Eep is hungry for adventure, Granny spends her days thinking of new insults to hurl at her son-in-law, youngest toddler Sandy thinks she’s part wolf, and son Thunk couldn’t tie his shoelaces to save his life…if he had shoelaces…or shoes for that matter. But the world is changing, and with fiery meteorites lighting the sky and volcanic eruptions destroying everything they’ve ever known the Croods are forced to think outside the cave and reluctantly join forces with Guy, a young loner and his simian sidekick who are seeking safety in the distant mountains and the mysterious lands beyond. Beset by natural disasters and garish menageries of psychedelic carnivores including flying piranha-fish, pastel tigers, and giant man-eating pansies, the Croods and their worldly guide (he knows fire!) slowly make their way towards the dawning of a new age—but with the threat of total annihilation constantly nipping at their heels will they survive long enough to see it? One of the most visually gorgeous and meticulously rendered animated features I’ve seen in some time, The Croods revels in multicoloured pastel sets while herds of outlandish bugs and neon monsters practically leap off the screen (and onto store shelves no doubt). The engaging orchestral score by Alan Silvestri keeps pace with the prehistoric action which is further enhanced by some eye-popping “camerawork” including POV sequences, turbocharged tracking shots and lots of adorable close-ups (awww….reptile dog!). Although squarely aimed at youngsters there is still plenty here to make mom and dad smile and a happy-go-lucky ending actually leaves you looking forward to the inevitable sequel (already in production). A welcome little break from reality…yabba dabba doo!

Cross of Iron (UK 1977) (7): Sam Peckinpah, famous for his blood & guts treatment of everything from westerns to social commentary (The Wild Bunch; Straw Dogs) casts a critical eye on the madness of war in this his only WWII drama. Set along the Russian front during the retreat of 1943 the story focuses on the animosity between two very different German officers: highly decorated Sgt. Rolf Steiner (James Coburn) a legendary solider who secretly loathes his uniform and everything it stands for, and Capt. Stransky (Maximillian Schell) a pampered Prussian aristocrat whose cowardice is matched only by his obsession with obtaining the coveted Iron Cross, Germany’s highest military honour. While Steiner is willing to go to any lengths to ensure the safety of the men entrusted to him, Stransky hides in the background plotting to not only get his medal but bring the much lauded Steiner down by any means necessary… In true Peckinpah fashion violence and mayhem are omnipresent with exploding mortars forming a background score of their own and scenes of battlefield carnage rendered almost commonplace through sheer repetition as if the director, not content to simply decry the inanity of warfare, felt the need to rub the audience’s nose in it. Trudging through a forgotten circle of Dante’s Hell, the two leads face off against a landscape of blasted craters and muddied corpses, the one damning his soul with every bullet he fires the other vainly chasing a trinket he believes will restore his lost honour. Savage and almost farcical in its refusal to bestow a deeper meaning to the onscreen chaos, Peckinpah is not interested in fashioning heroes. Instead he shows us a world where men kill for political whims, youth is corrupted, and even the fairer sex is demoted to a tribe of vengeful valkyries. “What will we do when we have lost the war?” asks one weary officer of another, “Prepare for the next one” comes the curt reply. Also starring James Mason as a colonel desperately clinging to some sense of integrity and David Warner as his cynical captain.

Cul-de-Sac (UK 1966) (8): The privileged, if terribly dull lives of impotent businessman George and his generally frustrated wife Teresa are thrown into disarray when “Dicky”, a brusque and churlish gangster on the lam, decides to hole up in their crumbling seaside castle while awaiting the arrival of his cohorts. Immediately drawn to the alpha male’s coarse machismo, the milquetoast George finds himself becoming a neurotic lapdog while Teresa’s libido begins to tingle at the thought of finally having a “real man” in the chateau. Meanwhile the somewhat thick-headed Dicky remains perpetually baffled by his eccentric hosts’ increasingly odd behaviour. A tense psychological three-way ensues with destructive fun and games and a growing sense of menace which threatens to not only derail the couple’s orderly life but send it careening into the abyss as well. Under the guise of an absurdist black comedy, and it really is funny to be honest, Roman Polanski explores some weighty territory: the banality of the upper crust (an insufferable lunch party with some boorish friends and their hellish son is pure gold); gentility as a weak facade hiding our true natures; and the power of brutality to incite chaos and madness in even the most civilized settings. George and Teresa’s imposing estate, set conspicuously atop an isolated thrust of rock, speaks of affluence but in reality it is overrun with domesticated chickens and bad artwork while the couple themselves are practically penniless thanks to the cost of its upkeep. Dicky, on the other hand, remains oblivious to the faux opulence around him and instead helps himself to whatever the hell he wants thanks to a loud voice and loaded pistol (ah, symbolism!). But it is in the film’s blazing finale, dripping with violence and grim irony, that Polanski showcases his legendary directorial skills as he brings the story full circle before ending it with one of the more magnificently outlandish series of images I’ve seen in some time.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (USA 2008 ) (5):  A sincere, though misguided attempt to give new meaning to the old saying, "Youth is wasted on the young".  Through a series of deathbed flashbacks it tells the story of Benjamin, who was born with the body of an old man but the mind of an infant.  As he grew older mentally, his body grew younger which led to a few romantic complications as there was only one brief span of time in which mind/body were in synch with one another.  A very interesting premise which this overly long and lightweight drama fails to explore adequately.  Fincher concentrates on the trimmings of the story.....lots of pastel sunrises, "homespun" wisdom, and Brad Pitt's pecs but fails to deliver any real substance, instead distracting the audience with superfluous asides involving blind clockmakers ('cause you never know what's coming for you); dubious hummingbirds (their wings trace the symbol for "eternity" don't you know); and a protracted sequence showing the power of coincidence which reminded me of the opening scenes of "Magnolia"..... (gee, if only her friend had bought a better pair of shoelaces Daisy would still be dancing.....)  This is the type of cloying Hollywood crowd pleaser which lulls you into believing you are watching something profoundly moving, but as the houselights come up you realize you've simply been sold a bottle of cinematic snake oil.

The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (UK 1964) (6): Egypt, circa 1900, and a pair of British scientists have unearthed the tomb of Ra-Anteph, the enigmatic Egyptian prince who was murdered by his jealous brother just as he was on the cusp discovering the secret of immortality. Returning to England with the mummy and its treasures, the two men immediately find themselves at odds with their financial backer—a crass American showman eager to make a quick buck by turning Ra into a carnival sideshow. Of course, as with all things dead and Egyptian, Ra’s tomb comes with an obligatory curse damning all who desecrate his final resting place and it isn’t long before everyone is being stalked by one very pissed off (and very dusty) mummy. But what is it really after? And why does it spare the life of the party’s sole female scientist, French bombshell Annette Dubois, and her mysterious new boyfriend? Yet another delightfully hokey production from Hammer Films, the British studio that practically defined “B-Movie” back in the sixties. Despite the laughable plot and tacky faux Egyptian flourishes there is a comic book earnestness to the film which makes you want to laugh with it instead of at it. As Dubois, English actress Jeanne Roland’s gargling French accent (apparently dubbed) is oddly charming and the star of the show looks splendid as it shuffles and wheezes in its musty linen wrappings, especially while carrying an unconscious Dubois wearing her sexiest nightie. A fun flick for late nights in front of the telly!

The Curse of the Werewolf (UK 1961) (6): Poor little Leon; it’s bad enough his conception was the result of his mother being raped by an insane dungeon inmate, but he was born (and orphaned) on Christmas Day to boot and according to the film’s screenwriter any unwanted child born on Jesus’ birthday is practically begging for some evil mojo. It appears he was invaded by an animal spirit when he drew his first breath and by the time he was old enough to talk he was already licking dead squirrels and growing an impressive pelt on his little palms much to his foster parents’ horror. Advised by their parish priest to shower the child with love and affection in order to thwart his lupine proclivities, Leon eventually grows up to be a happy well-adjusted adult until a visit to a local brothel once again awakens the hairy beast within. Will he be able to live happily ever after with the local vintner’s pouty-lipped daughter whom he’s been wooing on the sly, or will his newly acquired taste for dead hooker cast a pall on their planned nuptials? Oliver Reed obviously graduated from the William Shatner School of Dramatic Arts as he shamelessly shrieks and emotes his way through Hammer Films’ one and only werewolf flick. The rest of the cast is suitably overblown while the studio sets, meant to evoke 18th century Spain, are a soothing mishmash of bucolic clichés and peasant argot. When we finally do get to see Reed in wolfman drag however he looks more like Gary Glitter after a week’s bender; he even barks like a little shih-tzu when he should be howling. A wonderful Saturday afternoon monster movie.

Cutter’s Way (USA 1981) (5): One dark and stormy night junior yacht salesman Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges, impossibly cute) inadvertently witnesses the aftermath of a young girl’s murder. At first suspected by the police he is later discarded when his recollections of the incident lead nowhere. Confiding in his friend Alex Cutter (John Heard, emoting), a Viet Nam vet whose experiences have left him an alcoholic cripple with a disposition that bounces wildly between embittered cynic and raging lunatic, the two men hatch a plan to solve the case. Against the wishes of Alex’s wife, a lackadaisical sot draped in adulterous intentions and a perpetual nightie, the guys join forces with the dead girl’s oddly non-grieving sister in order to track down the killer. Their efforts eventually lead them to the palatial estate of a very wealthy and very dangerous man where a final confrontation will surprise all involved. Ivan Passer’s drama, based on a bestseller, fails on whatever level you choose to judge it. As a policier it lacks both suspense and mystery leaving you to wonder just where the hell the cops were during all this; there is not enough cohesiveness to the cast for a decent character study: Bridges stares mildly into the camera (sans shirt thank God!) and when Heard is not screaming or sulking his grizzled croak and exaggerated limp make him sound like a white trash Long John Silver, and the women are little more than window dressing. Finally, despite its pervasive sense of melancholy and staged outrage, as a moral allegory there is just not enough meat to separate good from evil causing a key love scene to go limp and making an avenging entrance upon a galloping white mare sadly comical. Meandering, tedious, and dramatically overblown.

Daisy Kenyon (USA 1947) (6): Although she was at least ten years too old for the part, Joan Crawford’s bigger-than-life features still manage to dominate the screen in this weepy love triangle. Daisy is a successful commercial artist involved in a tempestuous affair with Dan O’Mara, a brusque and very married attorney. Tired of always being the “other woman” she begins seeing the soft-spoken Peter Lapham, a disillusioned and recently widowed veteran who is Dan’s opposite in almost every way. After marrying Peter on a whim Daisy begins to have second thoughts about Dan, especially after he undergoes a messy divorce and comes sniffing around her door again. Bothered by Dan’s persistence and shocked by Peter’s seeming indifference, Daisy flees to her country cottage where she receives a life-altering epiphany on an icy road which leads to a final confrontation with the two men in her life. With its ridiculous plot, snappy dialogue and fluffy musical score it would be easy to dismiss this film as just another chick flick, but beneath the overly polished exterior Preminger touches upon some contentious topics. The very idea of a strong woman with a fulfilling life and professional career who was not dependent on a man was novel enough; allowing her to explore her sexuality, with a married man no less, was downright shocking. In addition, the issue of child abuse is addressed as Dan’s sexually frustrated trophy wife (brilliantly portrayed by Ruth Warrick) takes out her aggression on the couple’s two daughters. And even though the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder hadn’t been coined yet Peter’s psychological wounds, supposedly due to his wife’s tragic death, are tied-in to some unspoken wartime experiences. Lastly, America’s simmering post-WWII racism is ridiculed as we hear of a Japanese-American veteran returning from Europe to discover his home has been sold from under him. Along the way there are some nice touches; the way Dan turns off the music every time he enters Daisy’s apartment for instance; and it is all filmed in beautifully shadowed B&W. Fun to watch if you can get past it’s sillier elements.

The Damned Don’t Cry (USA 1950) (7): With her face cemented into an imposing rictus of eyebrows and acute angles, Joan Crawford was probably the last actress the studio should have considered to star in this maudlin noir about a bullied housewife sleeping her way into high society, but that doesn’t stop her from giving one of her most monumental over-the-top performances. She plays Ethel Whitehead, the impoverished midwest spouse of a surly oil field worker who leaves her husband after tragedy destroys what was left of their marriage. “I want something more than what I’ve got out of life and I’m going to get it!” she hisses from the doorway and in the next frame she’s doing just that in New York City—only in Ethel’s case “getting more” means playing lover to a series of increasingly powerful and dangerous men while recreating herself as Lorna Hansen Forbes, socialite widow of a multi-millionaire oil tycoon. But once a browbeaten housewife always a browbeaten housewife and when “Lorna” finds herself torn between two rival mobsters her precarious house of cards comes crashing down around her. With Steve Cochran and David Brian as the competing gangsters and Kent Smith as the milquetoast accountant who really really loves her (gosh darn), the stage is set for some deliciously corny B-movie lines and theatrical scowls. “He’s promised me the world, Marty, and I’ve got to have it!” laments Ethel-cum-Lorna; “I like a woman who has brains…” croons underworld kingpin George Castleman finding allure in Crawford’s mannish pout, “…but when she also has spirit, that excites me!” Joan goes from domestic naif to strong-willed moll and back again without smearing her signature slash of lipstick, Cochran and Brian beat their chests, Smith mewls like a trampled kitten, and it all ends with a scene of hackneyed pathos laid on as thick and heavy as Crawford’s greasepaint. Warped feminism, overblown morality, and camp overkill come together for one highly entertaining piece of B&W kitsch.

The Dancer Upstairs (Spain/USA 2002) (7): In an unspecified Latin American country Agustín Rejas, an idealistic police detective, is assigned to hunt down Ezequiel, the charismatic leader of a homegrown terrorist cell. Using children and rural peasants as his foot soldiers, Ezequiel has been waging war against the government through domestic sabotage and an increasingly bold series of assassinations which threaten to topple the state’s already tenuous democracy. But hunting down the murderous anarchist proves to be all but impossible for Rejas and his team for despite the absence of an official revolutionary manifesto (Ezequiel’s “platform” consists of little more than fiery Communist jingles) his followers seem to be everywhere. Frustrated at every turn the married Rejas finds some chaste comfort in the company of his daughter’s ballet teacher, a quiet and fragile woman who, in Agustín’s eyes, will eventually come to symbolize both the beautiful potential and tragic disillusionment of his country. Loosely based on the story of Peru’s “Shining Path” insurgency, John Malkovich’s dreamy noir policier, filmed in English, features an outstanding cast of Latin stars set against a nicely framed backdrop of generic palm trees, red-tiled roofs, and junta brass (actually an amalgamation of Spanish, Portuguese, and Ecuadorian locales). Although it works as a straight-up thriller there are great depths here, both political and psychological, as Malkovich examines the fractured mindset of a society in transition; while Ezequiel’s followers mindlessly parrot their leaders’ nihilistic slogans Agustín’s wife agonizes over whether or not to get a nose job, and the ruling government all too quickly decides to impose martial law...yet again. Despite an unnecessarily murky plot and some prolonged navel-gazing, Dancer still proved to be an intelligent and wonderfully stylized piece of filmmaking.

Dancing at Lughnasa (Ireland 1998) (8): Pat O’Connor’s screen adaptation of Brian Friel’s Tony award-winning stage play recounting one boy’s magical summer in Donegal is undeniably Irish in its heady balance of acerbic wit, homespun warmth, and sense of melancholia which seems to underly everything. Young Michael is the only male in a rural farmhouse run by the five unmarried Mundy sisters: spinsterish Maggie and simple-minded Rose who earn a meagre wage knitting woollen mittens; pragmatic Maggie who’s always maintaining the peace; Christina, Michael’s mother, still carrying a dimly lit torch for his seldom seen gadabout father; and eldest Kate (Meryl Streep) a schoolteacher who rules the roost with an iron will that barely conceals her own insecurities. Narrated by a grown-up Michael the story focuses on August, 1936, the month when everything changed forever starting with the arrival of his uncle Jack, a priest who’d been doing missionary work in Africa and was now suffering from the beginnings of dementia. No sooner had Jack begun threatening the family’s equilibrium with his impulsive wanderings and wild pagan tales then Michael’s father visited further chaos upon the home with an impromptu appearance of his own. That, coupled with some sorry economic turns for the sisters, marked a turning point in the Mundy house from which no one would ever fully recover. Gleaned mainly from young Michael’s memories, O’Connor’s gorgeously visual film frames its family drama in a bucolic setting of green hills and mountain lakes where prim Christianity vies with pagan bacchanals (the harvest feast of Lughnasa—pronounced LOO-na-sa—gives rise to drunken midnight revelries) and every heart seems to be tinged with one form of longing or another whether it’s Rose’s ill-fated attraction for a married man, Jack’s wistful stories of Africa, or Kate’s bitter suspicion that the best parts of life are now behind her. But throughout it all the sisters yearn to dance—albeit to music from a scratchy old wireless set—and stubbornly refuse to go gently. Anchored by Streep, yet never overshadowed, the supporting cast are superb as they present strong characters that somehow manage to meld into a greater whole without losing their distinct personalities. A simple story whose small moments of pain and abiding love make for captivating cinema.

Dancing at the Blue Iguana (USA 2000) (3): Michael Radford's improvised ensemble piece follows the loves, losses and heartbreaks of a group of strippers working in a sleazy L.A. dive. Among the familiar names are Darryl Hannah playing a gullible airhead, Jennifer Tilley overacting her heart out as a histrionic party slut, and Sandra Oh as the grinder with brains (she writes poetry in between lap dances). Radford's clumsy attempts to portray his female leads as more than just tits and a g-string simply downgrade them to a gaggle of neurotic stereotypes. The music is good, the dancing mechanical, and the emotional depths shallow indeed. Robert Altman would not be impressed.

Dancing Lady (USA 1933) (7): What’s a penniless young dancer gotta do in order to make it on New York’s Great White Way? Not much, at least according to Robert Z. Leonard’s frothy little Broadway fairy tale in which aspiring chorus girl Janie Barlow (a lithesome Joan Crawford before the eyebrows and shoulder pads) suddenly finds her affections torn between millionaire playboy Tod Newton (Franchot Tone) who’ll do anything to win her heart and aloof stage director Patch Gallagher (Clark Gable) with whom she’s secretly smitten. But the show must go on and when Janie gets offered the lead role in Gallagher’s latest extravaganza romantic entanglements will just have to sort themselves out. Corny and as camp as they come—a musical “salute” to Bavaria snubs its nose at Prohibition and a glittery mirrored carousel number is guaranteed to turn even the straightest man crooked—this is an easily digestible little confection from the pre-Hays days (note the skimpy costumes and sexual innuendo) which also marks the screen debut of Fred Astaire in a bit part. The Three Stooges make a surprise cameo and Crawford plays the starry-eyed hoofer with shameless abandon.

Dangerous Crossing (USA 1953) (8): Blushing newlyweds John and Ruth Bowman are taking a trans-Atlantic cruise for their honeymoon when John mysteriously vanishes just as the ship leaves dock. Ruth’s initial concern soon turns into full-blown panic however when she discovers all traces of her husband’s existence have been erased, their cabin has been changed and is now registered under her maiden name, and the crew denies ever having seen her in the company of a man. Are the hapless couple victims of a sinister plot? Or is Ruth carrying more baggage than meets the eye as her mental health is called into question? With a sea full of red herrings and a plot as murky as ocean fog this is a wonderful example of film noir excess. Newman never misses a chance for a shadowy close-up or sinister stare as he ratchets up the suspense, and Jeanne Crain plays the role of Ruth to perfection as a terribly naïve bride whose paranoia threatens to spiral out of control. The ending may be tied up a little too neatly but the pleasure lies in the journey itself, not its resolution.

Dante’s Inferno (USA 2007) (9): Sean Meredith’s outrageous little film uses meticulously drawn cardboard puppets on an elaborate toy stage to give the epic poem a very hip modern spin without losing any of its satirical wit. Dante, an unshaven twenty-something slacker, wakes up alone and disoriented in a decidedly low rent neighbourhood after pulling an all-night bender. He’s rescued from his predicament by the poet Virgil who proceeds to take him on a guided tour of the nearby city, which as luck would have it turns out to be Hell itself. What follows is a heady mix of camp horror and political satire as the two men journey deeper into a colourfully contemporary Hades where the souls of the damned suffer some updated punishments for age-old sins. The lustful are trapped in an endless red-light district; hypocrites are doomed to wander forever dressed up as corporate logos (Strom Thurmond in a Mrs. Butterworth outfit…priceless!); and in the infernal city of Dis, now a yuppie condo development, heretics such as L. Ron Hubbard and the Ayatollah Khomeini spend eternity immersed in boiling jacuzzis. It soon becomes clear where Meredith’s political sympathies lie as we see many of George Bush’s cronies suffering one indignity or another all under the malevolent eyes of a Fox News helicopter. This is a gorgeously executed work that incorporates low-tech effects and bright comic book action with an irrepressible energy that’s impossible to ignore. Meredith stays true to the original text while at the same time producing something highly original and fiercely intelligent. Two thumbs up!

Danton (France/Poland 1983) (8): During the “Reign of Terror” which followed the French Revolution two former allies find themselves on opposite sides of an ideological divide. As the head of the “Public Safety Committee” Maximilien Robespierre is a man of impeccable honour and a fierce supporter of the new republic who is obsessed with rooting out all enemies of the fledgling state through imprisonment and execution. Georges Danton (a fiery Gérard Depardieu) is a more left-leaning sympathizer who once held Robespierre’s position and now actively opposes what he sees as an emerging dictatorship. As tensions between the two men escalate the city of Paris stands divided causing the more radical elements of Robespierre’s camp to demand the arrest and summary execution of Danton and his followers—an idea which fills Maximilien with dread even as it becomes increasingly unavoidable. With the Reign of Terror in full swing and the population beginning to take sides the scene is set for a courtroom showdown which not only puts Danton on trial, but the entire government as well. While some have suggested Polish director Andrzej Wajda used this story of post-revolutionary France to reflect on his own country’s political turmoil in the early 80s (change Danton’s name to Walesa and you get the idea) Danton is still an engrossing character study-cum-philosophical treatise on its own. Filmed in grandiose widescreen shots as befits its subject matter and with meticulous attention to period details, Wajda’s political allegory is rife with small ironies—a child is repeatedly slapped as he struggles to recite the articles of the Constitution; a guillotine is reverently unveiled as if it were a religious icon—and weighty insights into the ambiguous nature of “freedom” itself. A seemingly incongruous soundtrack of sombre choral pieces, reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001, ultimately proves to be a stroke of cinematic genius—their ethereal yet vaguely threatening harmonies adding just a touch of horror as each man marches towards his own fate. Well done!

Dark Habits (Spain 1983) (6): Yolanda, a nightclub singer with a sordid past, finds herself on the lam from a couple of very determined detectives after a bit of drug dealing goes terribly awry. Seeking refuge in the Convent of Humble Redeemers she is at first content to hide out amongst the cloistered nuns and tacky Catholic decor but soon discovers this is not your ordinary priory. Adopting some rather peculiar names in order to increase their sense of humility, the nuns at Humble Redeemers seem to spend less time pursuing their religious vocation and more on indulging their own particular vices; while Sister Rat of the Sewers writes sexy potboilers, Sister Manure has visions of Christ thanks to a steady diet of acid and Sister Snake sews sexy evening gowns for the Virgin Mary. Meanwhile, Sister Sin is raising a tiger in the backyard and Mother Superior, a heroin-snorting lesbian, is engaging in a bit of high society blackmail in order to keep the convent solvent. But when the Supreme Head of the order crashes an impromptu party there is hell to pay all around. This early film by Pedro Almodovar is definitely not amongst his better ones; the pacing is erratic, the camerawork a bit sloppy and the ongoing jokes occasionally forced. But there is no denying that signature deadpan humour and sense of panache. As in all his films Pedro loves his female leads and presents them with a warmth and vitality that belies the film's ridiculous premise. Despite its flaws this is still a highly watchable and occasionally hilarious farce that kicks Sister Act right out the chapel door.

The Dark Knight (USA 2008) (8):  I found this latest entry in the Batman series tackled some surprisingly complex philosophical arguments in between the obligatory car crashes and things blowing up.  When Bale’s honour-bound caped crusader goes up against Ledger’s malevolently anarchic Joker it is no longer a simple good guy vs. bad guy scenario but rather the timeless battle between order and chaos played out with comic book characters.  Nolan fleshes out the principal players, bringing home the point that good and evil are inherent in all people, in fact it is the constant interaction between these two forces that makes up “human nature”.  Since Batman and the Joker each represent one aspect of this duality they are, by definition, incompletely human.  Indeed they seem to form a tenuous dependency on one another, neither one able to quite bring himself to kill the other even when the opportunities present themselves.  This twofold aspect of existence is further brought out in Aaron Eckhart’s District Attorney character’s striking transformation following a deep personal tragedy.  Unfortunately Nolan abandons the earlier visions of Gotham City as being a labyrinthine maze of decaying warehouses and noirish art deco skyscrapers in favour of a sunnier steel and concrete metropolis looking very much like contemporary Chicago.  This doesn’t fit well with the story’s dark subject matter and makes some of the more outlandish special effects seem out of place.  It’s a small drawback though and one easily overlooked.  The Dark Knight is one of those rare gems...an action flick that relies as much on brains as it does on brawn.

Dark Passage (USA 1947) (6): When prison inmate Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) breaks out of San Quentin he only has one thing on his mind—find out who framed him for the murder of his wife. But after being on the lam for fewer than ten minutes his life starts taking a series of unexpected twists and turns involving death, blackmail, plastic surgery, and a beautiful stranger (Lauren Bacall) who seems convinced of his innocence. With the police closing in and his options running out Parry is going to need a miracle or two in order to avoid the gas chamber but fate seems intent on handing him one wild card after another… A study in Film Noir overkill, Delmer Daves’ film takes an already convoluted plot and peppers it with so many Hail Mary coincidences you get the impression the ending would have been the same had Parry simply sat in a coffeeshop and let the solution come to him instead. And the first person POV camerawork which dominates the first hour, obviously meant to show the world through Parry’s eyes without revealing his face, proves ultimately distracting as the cast self-consciously deliver their lines directly into the lens. But the wonderfully theatrical script manages to play it straight and there is no mistaking the screen chemistry between Bogart and Bacall as they slowly gravitate towards each other’s arms. However, it is Agnes Moorehead’s over-the-top portrayal of a screeching virago intent on making everyone’s life miserable that ultimately brings the house down. The scenes of 1940’s San Francisco are nice too.

The Dark Side of the Heart (Argentina 1992) (7):  A fascinating, if terribly uneven, piece of art house cinema about a frustrated poet’s search for his perfect Muse.  Oliverio is obsessed with finding the one woman who can satisfy his voracious appetites....for love, for sex, for inspiration....and he doesn’t give a damn who he steps on in order to do it.  Even Death herself is not spared his sarcastic barbs.  But when this brash, somewhat cocky artist finally does meet his match in the form of a beautiful yet shrewd hooker he suddenly finds himself outwitted and outclassed.  Subiela’s film possesses a rhapsodic beauty with some gorgeously surreal visuals paired with an eclectic soundtrack.  He surrounds Oliverio with images of both life-affirming carnality and sobering mortality, often with humourous intent, while a trio of topless cabaret performers provide a sporadic Greek chorus.  Unfortunately the film suffers from some muddled cinematography and erratic editing.  The dialogue often lapses into pretentious banter that may sound better in the original Spanish but makes for some pretty stilted subtitles.  Some glaring faults aside, it still managed to hold my attention to the very end.

The Dark Valley (Austria 2014) (9):  Clint Eastwood meets Sigmund Freud in Andreas Prochaska’s Teutonic oater set in the Wild Wild West of the Austrian alps.  When lone traveler Greider wanders into an isolated mountain village armed only with a box camera and a rifle he sends the tiny town’s already shaky equilibrium into a violent tailspin.  Ruled for decades by the bellicose Brenner family, the villagers hold some sinister secrets they would just as soon keep to themselves and they waste no time letting visitors know they are never welcome.  But the taciturn Greider has an explosive secret of his own, one that involves the town and several of its inhabitants, and as the first snows begin to fall his deadly agenda will send a series of shockwaves through the entire community.  Bleak and moody in tone (in other words, Austrian) Prochaska makes the most of his breathtaking alpine locations where every mountain peak looms like the hand of God and snowy shadows are steeped in menace.  His villagers, trudging about their wilderness home like disconsolate wraiths, are a study in rock bottom despair—the truth behind their predicament gradually revealed through flashbacks and whispered comments—while Greider (convincingly played by British expat Sam Riley) reflects their despair with a haunted gaze of his own.  Graced by a lean script whose meager dialogue and flashes of bloody violence are bolstered by amazing cinematography, whether it be a panorama of twilit crags or an angry face etched in firelight, this is definitely not your father’s Western.  These hills are alive with something dark and twisted. 

Dark Victory (USA 1939) (8): Bette Davis stares death in the face in this grandaddy of all tearjerkers. She plays wealthy New York socialite Judith Traherne, an impulsive and headstrong woman determined to make her own way in life until a malignant brain tumour threatens to cut that life short. Enter Dr. Frederick Steele, a brilliant and dashing young neurosurgeon into whose hands Judith reluctantly places her trust. Their relationship, at first adversarial, slowly develops into mutual respect and then, finally, romance. But with Judith's poor prognosis can the two lovebirds possibly find true happiness before those wedding bells turn into a funeral peal? Over-the-top in every way but with a supporting cast including George Brent, Humphrey Bogart and Geraldine Fitzgerald, a superb script adapted from an original stage play, and Ms. Davis' brilliant performance you'll be reaching for the kleenex anyway. Truly a cinema classic.

Dark Waters (Italy 1989) (9):  Wonderful piece of gothic horror about the mysterious goings-on at an isolated convent that is all the more impressive when you consider it was made on a shoestring budget with a largely unprofessional cast.  Baino proves to be quite adept at maintaining a macabre atmosphere full of menace and decay helped in large part by amazing lighting and sound.  Whether it’s a stone tunnel lit by hundreds of softly glowing candles or the sound of raindrops hitting a crucifix, everything here seems a bit larger (and louder) than life.  While the final climax is a bit disappointing (you can hear about all the difficulties they encountered in the extras section), the film itself, taken as a whole, was amazing.  Lovecraft would have cheered.

Darkon (USA 2006) (6):  Ever wonder what happened to those math club nerds that used to get beaten up for lunch money?  Well, some went on to become mass murderers, some founded computer companies, and others became......live action role-playing gamers!  Sporting cardboard breastplates and armed with nerf bats and mom’s ironing board, these weekend warriors transform vacant lots and high school playing fields into fairy-tale battlegrounds as they live out their sword & sorcery fantasies.  Dragons will be slain, damsels will be rescued and mighty empires will be forged; at least until Monday when everyone goes back to their part-time jobs at Starbucks and 7-11.  I suppose one could view their play-acting as a microcosm of human history with its alliances and betrayals, kindnesses and atrocities, all in the name of God...or power...or both.  But that would require a monumental stretch.  Instead we are left watching a bunch of well-meaning uber geeks in colourful costumes posturing and proclaiming, often in an awkward approximation of “mythical” English.  It’s harmless fun for the most part although it is sad to see some of the more ardent players trying to use their fictitious personas as a panacea for some significant emotional problems in their actual life.  A classic case of arrested development on a grand scale that is alternately embarrassing and oddly captivating.  Frodo would have been mortified.

Daughters of Darkness (Belgium 1971) (7): After a hasty marriage, newlyweds Stefan and Valerie are on their way to his family estate in the U.K. when train trouble finds them stranded on a stormy stretch of Belgian coastline. Now the sole guests at a posh seaside hotel it soon becomes apparent that the increasingly agitated Stefan is doing everything he can to postpone their arrival in England and thus a meeting with his mother—and for good reason. The two lovers are soon joined by a couple of new guests, the striking Countess Bathory (a gorgeously seductive Delphine Seyrig) and her pouting companion Ilona (centrefold extraordinaire Andrea Rau). As the days wear on the Countess begins to insinuate herself into the lives of Stefan and Valerie, her forced congeniality and bizarre moods hiding the fact that she and Ilona are starving for much more than simple companionship… An effectively gothic horror story presented in the style of European arthouse trash with generous dollops of nudity and sex, director Harry Kümel’s kinky vampire tale is practically carried single-handedly by Seyrig; her platinum coiffure, sultry voice, and endless supply of slinky sequinned gowns (including a crazy bat cape) dominating every scene. In fact the film’s original French title, The Red Lips, takes its cue from her signature lipstick. Tastefully tawdry as only the Europeans can do—although a violent S&M scene and a phone call home both push the envelope—Kümel’s use of soft focus close-ups and grand visuals make this one of the genre’s more striking works.

David Copperfield (USA 1935) (6):  Some glorious overacting by a very talented cast saves this rather flat and overly long production from being a total waste of time.  The characters are appropriately Dickensian as is the melodramatic tone.  Freddie Bartholomew’s portrayal of the young Copperfield as a fawning little milquetoast does get irritating pretty fast though. He pouts and whines with such shameless abandon that you want to whip a hairbrush at his head.  And I thought Dakota Fanning was the most annoying child actor to ever live.  I stand corrected.

Dawn of the Dead (USA 1978) (6): The first of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead spin-offs features a tired old plot that has become something of a cinematic cliché (although it was fresh enough when Dawn was first released): a group of people holed up together in order to survive a zombie apocalypse must face animated corpses, marauding gangs, and their own personal demons. The reason behind the hordes of hungry undead is never made clear...is it a virus? a curse?....but the effects on American society are all too clear as law and order give way to vigilantism and anarchy. The fact that the survivors choose a mega mall in which to make their last stand does provide a nice touch of social commentary though, giving us endless scenes of drooling, mindless ex-shoppers shuffling past flashy displays of consumer goods in search of fresh meat. Romero’s comic book vision is highlighted by some amusing visuals (zombie Hare Krishna, meet zombie nurse), fountains of fluorescent red blood, and an odd musical score of supermarket muzak and menacing chords offset by background television noise. I remember sneaking over to Detroit in order to see the uncensored version of this film because at that time the former Ontario Film Review Board was a little too eager with the scissors; but thirty-five years later the exploding heads and ripped guts are passé and the glut of sequels, remakes, and copycats have set my zombie tolerance to zero.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (USA 2014) (8): After homo sapiens are decimated by a manmade “simian virus”, a struggling group of survivors take shelter in the decaying ruins of San Francisco. Meanwhile, just north of the city, a colony of genetically modified apes who managed to escape their captivity when the human race fell have established a primitive civilization of their own complete with crude architecture, political manoeuvring, moral ethics (apes don’t kill apes), and a surprisingly advanced language consisting of manual signs and English words. Unfortunately, when human and ape eventually cross paths a gross misunderstanding results in bloodshed and the threat of interspecies war. Cooler heads prevail however, thanks to a small cadre of American scientists and Caesar, leader of the apes, whose pacifist yearnings are still tempered by a healthy mistrust of his people’s one-time captors. But apish malcontents on both sides of the evolutionary divide ensure that peace between man and monkey is short-lived: a hotheaded human mercenary pulls his gun one too many times, and Caesar’s trusted advisor Koba secretly plots his revenge on mankind in retaliation for the indignities he suffered as a lab rat. Will Caesar’s supporters and their hairless allies be able to save the day one more time or are both sides doomed to go out in a hail of bullets and bananas? A surprisingly effective thriller if one is able to accept a few leaps of faith and logic (in ten years time monkeys go from flinging feces to riding horseback with machine guns blazing from both paws?) The grandiose CGI effects are incredibly effective, lending a sense of nobility and piercing intellect to those rubbery chimpanzee features while at the same time creating some spectacular battle scenes either on the ground or raging atop a teetering skyscraper—and it’s all thrown at you in ear-splitting Dolby stereo and arrow-dodging “Real 3D”. Although director Matt Reeves is not averse to playing the sympathy card whether it be a man weeping over pics of his dead children or a tear rolling down a grieving ape’s cheek, his ability to humanize the inhuman (or make monkeys out of men) is uncanny and soon has you seeing past the special effects wizardry and straight into the heart of his characters. “We’re not so different…” says a charismatic Caesar to his human counterpart as Reeves pulls out all the stops for a finale approaching biblical proportions…and in the back of my mind I could see Jane Goodall beaming ecstatically.

Daybreakers (Australia 2009) (6): Ten years after a plague has turned 95% of the world’s population into vampires, cities have become gothic landscapes where clouds of bats wheel over shuttered skyscrapers, chic cars with blacked-out windows speed down empty streets, and Starbucks offers a little extra hemoglobin to go with their famous lattes. But despite efforts to round up all remaining humans a worldwide shortage of fresh blood is looming and without a steady fix the earth’s new masters are reverting into mindless bat-like monsters. Furiously working to perfect a synthetic blood substitute before it’s too late, vamp-hematologist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke looking otherworldly sexy with pointed incisors and glowing eyes) is one of the few undead with a conscience. Despite the fact the company he works for, Bromley Pharmaceuticals, regularly harvests humans like cattle Dalton subsists on pigs’ blood and dreams of a day when vampires and mortals can co-exist. And then one night he accidentally crosses paths with a group of renegade humans whose charismatic leader (Willem Dafoe) may have the ultimate answer the world’s been waiting for—but not everyone is willing to listen, especially those vampires who stand to lose the most. Even allowing for a generous amount of horror-fantasy license, writer/directors Michael and Peter Spierig’s violent sci-fi drama-cum-black political satire is so silly it was sometimes hard to keep a straight face. But lapses in logic and common sense take a back seat to the film’s wonderfully noirish style and fantastical effects. Using dark shadowy shades the Spierig brothers envision a nighttime city of listless bloodsuckers, their skin ashen beneath harsh neon lights, decked out in retro-40’s fashions while electronic billboards predict impending doom between ads for sun-proofed windows and fang whiteners. The Bromley Corporation itself, all murky greens and whites, is a nightmare straight from the mind of Swiss artist H. R. Giger with post modern furniture and a vast picture window overlooking surreal mountains of machinery where humans are hooked up like milking cows. Everyone puts in energetic performances, including Sam Neill as an oily fanged CEO, and the gore factor is set to high—hapless vampires burst into flames, hapless humans are gutted, and it all ends in a wild ride of spurting blood, oozing entrails, and severed heads. Great fun, like a big budget episode of True Blood, but only if you don’t think about it too much.

Day for Night (France 1973) (8): Director Ferrand (real life director and co-writer François Truffaut) has his hands full. He’s in the south of France trying to film a mawkish drama all about lust and murder but his leading man is a lovelorn drama queen, his American actress (Jacqueline Bisset) is fresh from her latest nervous breakdown, and the champagne-soaked diva he hired to play the family matriarch has to tape her lines to the wall. Behind the camera the insurance company is getting cold feet, a series of rotating sexual liaisons mimic the onscreen action, and Ferrand is expected to literally turn day into night using special camera filters in order to capture a key scene. What else could possibly go wrong…? With huge salutes to everyone from Buñuel and Godard to Hitchcock, Truffaut’s gentle Oscar-winning film-within-a-film is both a loving valentine to the creative process and a comedic poke at the crazies and eccentrics who make it happen. “There is more harmony in movies than in real life…” says one production member to a distraught actor, and indeed as problems and budgets pile higher (much like the artificial “snow” blowing on set) those words become more prophecy than platitude. But this is the world of art and make-believe and even a final unforeseen tragedy which one character heralds as the end of cinema itself winds up being just another bump in the road. A cheerful little in-joke whose self-deprecating humour proves irresistible. And in the role of the drunken diva, Oscar-nominated Valentina Cortese pulls out all the stops!

Days of Darkness (Canada 2007) (9): Jean-Marc Leblanc is firmly ensconced in a soulless upper-class Montreal suburb; doomed to a sexless marriage with a high-powered realtor who treats him like an outdated accessory, and a complete stranger to his two daughters who’d rather interact with their iPods. At his low-level government job he is just another generic drone paid to listen to the tragic stories of clients as he automatically denies their applications for financial aid. His only escape is through a rich fantasy life where he is constantly the centre of attention, whether it be for winning a landslide election or authoring a bestseller based on his meaningless life. And of course there is a group of beautiful women eager to wait on him and fulfill his every sexual need. But reality has a way of intruding into even the most pleasant of reveries and it isn’t long before Jean-Marc must face the unhappy wreck his life has become. With it’s undercurrent of helpless rage, Denys Arcand’s follow-up to Decline of the American Empire and Barbarian Invasions goes beyond mere social satire; his bitter vision of a modern dystopia going down in flames is at once darkly comical and terribly unsettling. He populates his film with hordes of blank-faced commuters glued to their cellphones while the radio drones on about murder, plague and catastrophe. Meanwhile, the government is housed in a decaying concrete monstrosity (Montreal’s Olympic Boondoggle) where employees must dodge falling plaster while being harangued by pro-ministerial slogans. With nods to Brazil and 1984 (and a sly salute to Kill Bill ) Arcand uses fantasy and embellishment to draw attention to some troubling trends; from the sinister rise of political correctness to the crushing nightmare of government bureaucracy and the abysmal state of healthcare. But there is hope amidst the pessimism, for as his marriage disintegrates and his fantasy women grow tired of him Jean-Marc receives a delicate epiphany by the shores of a quiet lake. Aside from an overly long Renaissance Fair sequence which, while germane to the film’s central themes, strays into Woody Allen territory there is not much here that is less than brilliant. Very funny...and depressingly honest.

The Dead (UK 2010) (6): As western Africa succumbs to a zombie apocalypse the international community scrambles to evacuate all aid workers and military advisors from the area. Stranded in the midst of the plague when his plane goes down, American Lt. Brian Murphy must make a desperate cross-country trek to a distant army stronghold accompanied by his African counterpart, Sgt. Dembele, who is searching for his missing son. Traversing an arid desert while being menaced by the walking dead at every turn, Murphy and Dembele struggle to stay alive. But the scope of the problem may be greater than even they can imagine... To their credit, directors Howard and Jonathan Ford combine some striking cinematography with a mounting sense of desolation and dread as the two men scramble over parched Martian landscapes and shadowy forests littered with grisly human remains. Compared to George Romero’s vision of viciously animated zombies, their hordes of the undead seem oddly listless; shambling aimlessly through cornfields or silhouetted against blood red sunsets while seeking out their next meal of human flesh. Despite a few sudden jolts the horror factor is definitely diminished by this pervasive feeling of apathy, but perhaps the metaphor of unhappy corpses preying on the living is more apropos in a continent ravaged by political unrest, civil war, and AIDS. Unfortunately the Fords spend so much time on style they neglect substance; a few narrative strands are left dangling, some plot devices don’t add up, and the whole enterprise takes on the characteristics of a standard road movie, albeit with a few more exploding heads and strewn guts. The film’s final visual however, before all fades to black, is truly haunting.

Dead & Breakfast (USA 2004) (2): Writer/director Matthew Leutwyler piles insult on to injury in one of the lamest excuses for a “horror comedy” I’ve witnessed in some years. On their way to a wedding in Galveston, an RV full of the usual teen scream mainstays (jock, stoner, slut, virgin, geek, bitch) end up spending the night at a creepy old B&B where, thanks to one guy’s clumsiness, they accidentally unleash some angry Oriental spirits which immediately set about possessing the entire town. Suddenly besieged by a mob of slobbering demonic hicks bent on stealing their souls, the remaining members of the troupe, aided by a mysterious drifter and armed with nothing but a chainsaw and some homemade shotguns, prepare for a battle royale because apparently the only way to kill the possessed is to separate the brains from the bodies. Now who didn’t see THAT coming? While the mediocre effects treat us to an evening of exploding papier mâché heads and fountains of red dye, Leutwyler tries to lighten things up by stuffing this turkey with enough grade school humour to give an entire playground a case of the giggles. But wait, as if our intelligence hasn’t already been mortally wounded, he then goes for “quirky” by adding a guitar-pluckin’, jive-rappin’ cowboy narrator, a few weak nods to vastly superior films, and one horrible parody of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. “This is like a bad horror movie!” blurts one aspiring starlet as her character tries to register frightened disbelief. Touché Sweetheart, touché.

Deadfall (UK 1968) (2):  A mysterious woman and her elderly gay husband join forces with an ace jewel thief in order to pull off an elaborate heist.  That’s about it.  Whatever action the film contains lasts 10 minutes; the rest is bogged down by a stupid ponderous script filled with pointless musings, ridiculous plot twists and ominously screeching seagulls.  Then there’s the obligatory love affair between thief and wife, which robs the film of any credibility it may have had.  The character of the gay husband was handled very poorly of course, he is presented as a pathetic object of scorn....or pity, which is even more insulting.....and made the butt of some derisive “queer” comments.  The actual robbery is intercut with scenes of a wonderful classical guitar concert; the music is nice, the rest is just so much pretentious garbage.

The Dead Girl (USA 2006) (8):  When the mutilated body of a young woman turns up the discovery serves as a catalyst of sorts in the lives of four different people.  There’s the spinster living with her controlling bitch of a mother who finds the courage to start a life of her own; the med student working at the local morgue who believes the murdered woman is her long-lost sister and hopes the discovery will bring her family some closure; the bitter neglected wife who suspects her husband may have had something to do with the killing;  and, finally, the mother of the dead girl who ends up making some startling discoveries about her daughter’s secret life.    Even though they are not related, these women share one thing in common; each one is emotionally frozen as they struggle to deal with issues of unresolved grief.  Moncrieff makes excellent use of colour and composition with scenes going from sharp-edged reality to softly shaded reverie and the downbeat musical score keeps it together.  Unfortunately,  even though each story would make a fantastic short on its own, strung together they threaten to sink the film under the weight of their combined misery.  But thanks to an extremely talented cast and her own tight direction Moncrieff manages to keep things afloat.  This technique of storytelling may have been used before with greater effect, but The Dead Girl remains a decent drama that is both tragic and compelling.

Dead Snow (Norway 2009) (6): It’s Easter Vacation and seven wild and crazy college students have decided to spend some time at an isolated cabin in the mountains. However, unbeknownst to them, the surrounding hills are home to a garrison of bloodthirsty Nazi zombies who are too dead to realize the war’s been over for almost seventy years and before you can yell “Sieg Heil” the kids’ boisterous horseplay has turned into a desperate, and very messy, fight for survival. Although the protagonists do a lot of yelling in Norwegian there isn’t a lot to distinguish Dead Snow from any other film in the horror/slasher/zombie genre; there’s the usual shocks and red herrings, ill-focused P.O.V. camerawork, and even a bit of tawdry Scandinavian sex (in an outhouse no less). Furthermore, even though the soundtrack of sombre orchestral riffs and screaming metal manages to keep pace with the onscreen action it sounds oddly disjointed at times. What sets this one apart from most of the pack however is the macabre sense of humour which seems to creep just below the surface of even the most grotesque scenes. An errant Molotov cocktail had me laughing out loud while the discovery of a shed filled with pointy tools and a chainsaw (oh boy!) set the stage for one magnificently overdone blood-soaked showdown involving flying heads, stretched intestines, and a couple of novel uses for a snowmobile. A few terse one-liners are well timed, some obscure movie references appeal to the inner geek, and a very funny (and very fleeting...don’t blink!) homage to Soviet propaganda is brilliant. It all ends on a surprisingly dark note with one final ironic twist that left me more amused than disappointed. Director Tommy Wirkola may have traded in much of the film’s suspense for an extra serving of gore and sick laughs, but I’d say he more than broke even.

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (USA 2008) (9): In the Fall of 2005, 32-year old Dr. Andrew Bagby was found murdered in a Pennsylvania state park. The prime suspect Dr. Shirley Turner, his estranged girlfriend, promptly fled to Canada. While his parents fought for her extradition back to the USA Turner stunned everyone by claiming she was pregnant with Andrew's child...a boy she named Zachary. In this amazing documentary, Andrew's childhood friend Kurt Kuenne prepares a time capsule of sorts for Zachary so the child will know something of his father when he grows up. Following Andrew's grimly determined parents as they fight for custody of their only grandson, Kuenne casts a disparaging eye on Canada's pathetically outdated judicial system as it forces the grieving couple to jump through endless hoops. But he saves the final insult for last. The film's frantic editing style, composed of jump cuts and overlapping dialogue, is problematic at first but once the story really starts you will be glued to your seats.

Death at a Funeral (USA 2007) (6½):  A generic “Dysfunctional Family Reunion” movie that delivers more smiles than outright laughs.  When the patriarch of an upper middle class family passes away his relatives gather at the estate for the funeral service.  As is typical in this type of comedy things don’t go exactly as planned.....long-held resentments come to the surface, bodies get misplaced and skeletons fly out of closets.....but when a malicious dwarf and a few tabs of acid get thrown in the mix all hell breaks loose.  The characters are pretty much two-dimensional cutouts and the humour lacks any real wit relying instead on funny faces and broad hysterics.  Still, there is a certain good-natured charm to the proceedings, which made for an enjoyable popcorn night on the sofa.

The Deaths of Ian Stone (UK 2007) (6): A handsome American ex-pat living in London, Ian Stone has quite the cross to bear. Every day at approximately the same time he’s murdered by a gang of monstrous assassins only to wake up in the middle of a slightly different life where everyone he’s previously known is now a stranger to him. Aided by a mysterious old man who seems to pop up at just the right time, Ian slowly unravels the mystery behind his many deaths, but time is running out and this greatest of revelations may prove to be his ultimate doom. A likeable cast and intriguing storyline partially make up for a comic book script and general lack of any real terror. The bogeymen themselves are a nicely unpleasant cross between graveyard ghoul and swirling dust cloud with a nasty ability to morph their arms into very sharp lobster claws. It all threatens to fall apart towards the end with a prolonged hospital torture scene that borders on pure camp and an ending aimed straight at the chick flick crowd. Fun to watch just the same.

Deathwatch (UK 2002) (7): Finding themselves behind enemy lines after a particularly bloody skirmish, the surviving members of a WWI British squadron happen upon a series of German trenches guarded by a trio of soldiers who seem to be more frightened than defiant. Killing two of the guards out of hand and taking the third prisoner, the Brits decide to hunker down and wait for help to arrive. Now surrounded by muck and rats and the rotting bodies of German infantrymen—too many bodies to make sense—their recent battle experience plus the perpetual drenching rain begin to take their toll as nerves become frayed and tempers snap. But when someone (or something) begins picking them off one by one it becomes terrifyingly clear that the Hun may be the least of their enemies… Using monstrous metaphors to describe the toll war takes on our basic humanity is not new, it’s been a literary mainstay for centuries from the Book of Revelations to Beowulf to F. Paul Wilson’s The Keep. Writer/director Michael J. Bassett’s particular Grendel however has a more subtle, quasi-spiritual edge to it despite the gruesome special effects and tortured screams—more a twisted mirror than scaly fiend. With grey drizzling skies and blasted landscapes he presents the battlefield as a psychological space haunted by rage and despair in which his nine protagonists, holed up like hunted rabbits, come to represent a microcosm of mankind, from the conscientious pacifist (Jamie Bell all wide-eyed and quivering) to the bellowing warrior (Andy Serkis mugging and swaggering). Some sloppy pacing and a few WTF? moments notwithstanding, this is still a decent film whose claustrophobic spaces and nightmarish cinematography manage to combine straight-up horror with loftier allegory. It’s “Give Peace a Chance” sung to the tune of The Twilight Zone.

The Decameron (Italy 1971) (7): Based on the 14th century writings of Boccaccio this series of ribald tales is crammed full of lusty nuns, murderous saints and adulterous housewives, all tied together with director Pier Paolo Pasolini's signature penchant for the scatological and the blasphemous. But, like an Italian take on "The Canterbury Tales", there is a finely honed satire at work beneath all the tasteless jokes and ample nudity. Pasolini's cast of unwashed amateurs lend an air of authenticity to the period sets, looking as if they just stepped out of Boccaccio's manuscript with all their warts and rotten teeth intact. Not for those with delicate sensibilities.

Deception (USA 1946) (6): Oh what a tangled web is weaved in this overplayed three-handed melodrama which sees Bette Davis trying to juggle Paul Henreid and Claude Rains at the same time while an elaborate string of lies threatens to leave her empty-handed in the end. Separated from her European lover, a gifted cellist, during the war and believing him dead at the hands of the the Nazis, a grieving pianist returns to America where she becomes the mistress of a wealthy composer. But four years later she is unexpectedly reunited with her sweetheart at a New York concert hall and forsakes everything in order to marry him on the spot. Unfortunately her rash decision does not lead to the conjugal bliss she had envisioned for her new husband still bears the psychological scars he suffered as a prisoner-of-war and the jilted composer, an arrogant and overbearing man, seems determined to sabotage her precarious happiness any way he can…even if it means destroying her husband’s fledgling musical career. Desperate to keep her sordid past a secret from her increasingly unbalanced spouse, the woman eventually gets caught up in her own deceit leading to a volatile confrontation which changes everyone’s lives forever. Whew! With Davis wavering between giddy romance and babbling neurosis, Henreid shouldering his cello like a cross, and Rains growing horns out of his his forehead, there is nothing subtle about this heavy-handed tale which is short on characterization and a tad generous on the moralizing. But these old B&W classics are supposed to be bigger than life and Deception’s theatrical dialogue coupled with a grandiose orchestral score (Beethoven never sounded so heartbreaking) will not disappoint fans of the genre.

The Deep Blue Sea (USA/UK 2011) (3): With its cloying score of whiney violins and a script that sounds as if it were written by a third-rate romance writer who kept falling asleep at the keyboard, Terence Davie’s ridiculously lush weeper (based on a play by Terence Rattigan) is so badly executed it’s actually entertaining…for all the wrong reasons of course. It’s London circa 1950 and teary-faced Hester, the chronically suicidal wife of diminutive milquetoast Sir William, is having a lukewarm affair with Freddie, a former RAF pilot who believes his participation in the Battle of Britain gives him permission to be a self-centred boor. Leaving her husband for Freddie’s ambivalent embraces Hester spends the better part of the film pouting and staring at drapes while Freddie screams and drinks, and Sir William piteously rubs salt in his own wounds. Aside from a few pithy observations on love made by Freddie and Hester’s stoic landlady that’s pretty much it. Davie’s usual flair for poetic imagery does find an outlet of sorts with dreamy opening and closing sequences using long continuous shots of local street life to impart a delicate sense of time and place, but it is pretty much wasted everywhere else thanks to the horribly stilted dialogue and a complete lack of any empathy for his characters. This is not so much a melancholy romance as it is an uninspired drama about stupid people doing stupid things for no good reason. In one particularly indulgent passage Hester, waiting to fling herself in front of a subway train (yawn), is suddenly thrust into a wartime flashback featuring a cast of stiff upper-lipped clichés waiting out the Blitz by singing “Molly Malone” in a candlelit tube station. I just wanted her to jump and be done with it.

Defenceless:  A Blood Symphony (Australia 2004) (3):  When a woman refuses to sign over her beachfront property to a trio of ruthless developers they decide to teach her a lesson by killing her husband.  Naturally this causes her to abandon her child, take an overdose and become a lesbian.  When they rape and murder her lover however, she decides to put the past behind her and reunite with her child for a picnic on the beach.  But when they finally hit upon the idea of raping and murdering her (after an all-night brainstorming session perhaps?) things get really dicey.  Nine months later...get the symbolism?...she emerges from the sea a veritable juggernaut of divine retribution, a castrating goddess determined to send those three nasty creeps to hell in a hand basket.  But first she befriends a precocious young girl who is being abused by her stepfather...  I really wanted to like this movie, after all it does have some clever moments.  By presenting it as a silent film with a post-production soundtrack of classical music and natural sounds Savage attempts to give it the theatrical feel of an opera...or highly eclectic interpretive dance.  Furthermore he drenches each scene with bright primary colours and highly composed mise en scènes as if to exaggerate the film’s mythological elements.  Unfortunately, despite his efforts, it ends up being just so much bad art.  With it’s overstated symbolism, terrible performances, and self-conscious attempts to gross out the audience Defenceless is ultimately little more than a splatter flick with attitude.

Deliver Us From Evil (USA 2006) (9): In the 1970s Catholic priest Fr. Oliver O’Grady was sent from Ireland to a parish in Lodi, California where he befriended a number of families, gained their trust, and then proceeded to rape their children. When complaints began to come forward regarding his sexual activities the Church, in an effort to avoid negative attention, began to shuffle him from parish to parish within northern California where he continued to prey on children—the youngest being a nine month old baby girl—well into the 1980s until the mountain of evidence against him forced a reluctant Church to take more definitive action. In this scathing documentary Amy Berg gathers a host of articulate voices from experts on church history and canonical law to psychologists, lawyers, and a few brave families willing to recount what happened to them over thirty years ago. The result in a damning critique on a Catholic hierarchy more concerned with saving face and money than protecting children from predatory priests. So murky was the official response to the allegations against O’Grady—indeed to all cries of molestation everywhere—that one lawmaker likened the Church to the Italian Mafia in its evasiveness and penchant to hide behind lawyers while making underhanded deals with the perpetrators. In one instance evidence suggests that former bishop Roger Mahoney, O’Grady’s immediate superior, took part in a massive cover-up in order to protect his own ecclesiastical aspirations; a shameful move which paid off when he was promoted to cardinal. Taped depositions of Church officials trying to squirm their way out of probing questions are infuriating enough until Berg interviews O’Grady himself and a deep chill sets in for it quickly becomes evident that behind the grandfatherly chuckles he is a sexual sociopath incapable of appreciating the emotional devastation he left in his wake. With a trail of culpability leading all the way to Vatican City Berg’s exposé is a study in rage and frustration, but when she turns her camera on a guilt-ridden father and his struggling adult daughter it’s enough to rip your heart out. In a postscript Berg mentions that to date the Roman Catholic Church has paid out one billion dollars in settlements and legal fees to victims of abuse, and one gets the sinking feeling that that is a mere drop in the bucket. Essential viewing.

Demons 3: The Ogre (Italy 1988) (7): As a little girl growing up in Oregon Cheryl was troubled by awful nightmares. In her dreams she would find herself in a vast cellar where she’d witness a grotesque monster hatching from a giant cocoon suspended from the ceiling. Despite her attempts to escape the ogre would always catch her in the end and she’d wake up screaming. Twenty years later she is a famous horror writer vacationing in northern Italy with her husband and young son when her life takes a sudden macabre turn. It seems the abandoned castle they’re renting contains a cellar exactly like the one in her childhood dreams and before you can yell “déjà vu” doors are rattling, green goop is dripping from the ceiling and babysitters are being consumed. According to the creepy locals there is a legend associated with the old fortress which states it is inhabited by an ogre who is driven mad with lust whenever it smells the wild orchids that grow in the local countryside; and after 200 years it has one very nasty case of blue balls. Despite the terrible acting and hackneyed script there is a refreshingly childlike quality to this film, as if it were penned by a particularly vicious ten-year old. Bava also throws in an unexpected psychosexual dimension as events in the castle begin to mirror the steamy plot of Cheryl’s latest book. Does the horny beast really exist or is it merely the “sexual fantasies of a bored frustrated housewife” as her increasingly annoyed husband maintains? It’s this odd little twist, which is never truly resolved, that saves the film from total obscurity.

The Den (USA 2013) (8): Sociology researcher Elizabeth Benton receives a coveted grant to study contemporary online culture via “The Den”, a popular worldwide chat site. Initially suffering through the usual assortment of gawkers, perverts, and pranksters, she gradually builds up a list of contacts and begins writing notes on her new wired reality. But when she witnesses a possible murder taking place in real time her academic pursuits give way to a deadly game of cat and mouse after the psychopath responsible manages to hack into her private computer files. With neither the police nor her faculty providing much help, Elizabeth tries to solve the case herself—and that’s when her friends begin disappearing. It was inevitable that some smart cookie would produce a movie which takes place entirely in cyberspace with iPads, laptops, and smartphones plotting the action in a flurry of desktop screens and chat windows. With nods to Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover and another horror franchise whose name could constitute a spoiler, writer/director Zachary Donohue’s grisly thriller casts a pretty grim eye on our internet appetites for the sexual and the macabre even as he exploits them to his advantage. The voyeuristic action is fast and furious, the suspense menacing, and the obvious pitfalls mostly forgivable (people running for their lives do not worry about recording the action). But aside from the usual messy bloodletting it is a few low-key scenes (including a quietly horrifying “real world” denouement) that actually prove to be the most unsettling as Donohue shows us that the virtual bogeyman could be anywhere—or anyone.

Departures (Japan 2008) (8): Daigo is a promising young cello player who suddenly finds himself unemployed when his modest Tokyo-based orchestra goes bankrupt. Returning to his childhood home with dutiful wife Mika in tow, Daigo reluctantly takes on a job as a nokanshi, someone who prepares the dead for burial through a highly ritualized series of actions involving washing and grooming the body, dressing it, and applying make-up before placing it in the coffin---all performed while the grieving relatives look on. At first squeamish about his new vocation (and sensitive to the negative connotations it carries in polite society) he gradually comes to realize that in honouring the dead he is able to appreciate life all the more, an increasing sense of inner peace which culminates in a bittersweet reunion with the father who abandoned him thirty years earlier. I shouldn't like this movie; it’s gushingly sentimental, mawkish, manipulative and completely predictable, like one of those cinematic Hallmark cards which always seem to win awards. But despite my inherent cynicism it won me over just the same. There is an unwavering optimism to director Takita's vision, a refusal to ignore the good in people, and a deeply felt sense of dignity which balances out the film's fluffier elements. The ceremonial wake scenes are sobering, the cinematography both sweeping and intimate, and the musical score sublime. Add to that a talented cast and deceptively simple storyline that plays out like a modern parable, and you have a sweet little tale that goes right for the heart.

Dersu Uzala (Russia/Japan 1975) (5): In pre-revolutionary Siberia a team of Russian army surveyors cross paths with Dersu Uzala, an affable tribesman who decides to tag along, teaching them the practical ways of his people in the process and saving the commanding officer’s life more than once. A few years later the commander returns to the taiga and meets up with Dersu, now an old man with poor eyesight, and decides to bring him home. But the grizzled aboriginal is not prepared for the confusing world of 1910 Russian society and so makes a decision which will impact both his life and that of his old friend. Actually penned and directed by Japanese legend Akira Kurosawa, this ham-fisted and all-too-predictable “meeting of cultures” film tries in vain to pair the noble savage with his city-dwelling counterpart and fails on virtually every level. Like a retro Soviet propaganda film without the overt political grandstanding, Kurosawa combines gloriously overdone cinematography (the Kremlin must have loved those blazing red sunsets) with manufactured pathos and a script littered with colourful native aphorisms and then expects us to nod sagely as we compare the wise old ways with silly modern contrivances. Not sure how this earned its Best Foreign Film Oscar…was it a sympathy nod to Kurosawa whose own career was flailing at the time? Or was Hollywood just blowing kisses at Moscow?

The Descendants (USA 2011) (8): When his party animal wife winds up on life support following a boating accident, Hawaiian real estate magnate Matt King is forced to examine some uncomfortable truths about himself, his marriage, and the tenuous relationship his many absences have engendered with his two daughters: Scottie, a bratty nine-year old; and Alexandra, an angry adolescent who seems destined to follow in her mother’s footsteps. On top of this, his relatives are pressuring him to sell the family trust...several thousand acres of pristine parkland on the island of Kauai. Alexander Payne’s psychological road movie plays equally well as both a warmhearted family drama and a study of one middle-aged man trying to wring some meaning out of his life as everything he once took for granted is now called into question. As he contemplates selling off his ancestral lands, King’s dilemma begins to mirror the tensions within his own family, for every decision we make comes with a price and sometimes it is others who must foot the bill. Despite a few lapses into preciousness, this is a solidly written and well-balanced film whose talented cast, capped by George Clooney, move easily from light comedy to passionate tears, sometimes within the same scene as evidenced by one especially heated hospital room confrontation. The lush tropical settings belie a certain irony while a buoyant soundtrack of Island pop tunes manages to keep things in proper perspective. A real charmer!

The Descent (UK 2005) (8):  Neil Marshall trades in the testosterone-drenched machismo of “Dog Soldiers” for a double dose of kick-ass estrogen in this shockingly effective horror thriller.  When a group of female spelunkers get trapped in a series of subterranean caves they soon discover that they are being stalked by some very nasty creatures with little brains and great big teeth.  But even as they desperately search for a way out the “crawlers” always seem to be just one step ahead.  It’s all here...claustrophobic spaces, creepy monsters, and a pervasive darkness that weighs on our protagonists as much as the tons of earth and rock above their heads.  Marshall’s underground world is a dimly lit succession of nightmare landscapes and bottomless chasms where any shadow could hide a pile of whitewashed bones or a pair of malevolently glowing eyes.  As friend turns against friend and reality becomes questionable a psychological dimension emerges that culminates in a bleakly enigmatic final scene.  A true “chick flick” in every good sense, from the cast of strong yet believable women to the prevalence of psychosexual imagery (despite Marshall’s statement to the contrary sometimes a cave is not just a cave).  If you’re looking for a film with shocks, gore, AND brains you need look no further.

The Descent: Part 2 (UK 2009) (5): If you can ignore a small plethora of ridiculous plot devices, Jon Harris’ lame sequel to Neil Marshall’s horror classic (read my review) still has enough jolts and claustrophobic chills to keep you mildly entertained. Sarah Carter, the sole survivor of an all-female spelunking expedition into the Appalachians (actually filmed around the UK with no one even trying to hide their accent) emerges from underground covered in her friends’ blood and babbling incoherently. Determined to get to the bottom of the mystery the local sheriff rounds up a posse, including a hospitalized Sarah, and descends to the bottom of an old abandoned mine whose machinery mysteriously still works. Once below ground the usual genre conventions take over as each member of the group comes up against hordes of blind cannibalistic gollums with a taste for clueless humans and Sarah must face a dark secret from her past (past meaning yesterday). Who will survive?! To be fair there are some genuinely scary parts to Harris’ horror fiasco as flashlights burn out and slimy heads pop out of nowhere—an underwater trek through a series of narrow tunnels left me gasping for air. Plus the whole idea of being trapped in the dark under tons of rock stokes a primitive fear in all of us. But Harris piles on so many ludicrous twists (subterranean ninja bitch?) and “oh no they wouldn’t” moments that I found my frights regularly interrupted by eye-rolling groans. And then he pulls one final twist out of his derrière and the whole house of cards comes crashing down. I didn’t need to keep the lights on…

Despicable Me 2 (USA 2013) (9): Chrome-domed, needle-nosed Gru, former evil scientist now grumpy foster father to three little moppets has gone straight, using his formidable intellect and army of banana-headed Minions to manufacture a line of tasty jams and jellies. But when he’s recruited by the AVL (Anti-Villain League) to defend the Earth he reluctantly becomes a super spy aided by his overly neurotic AVL partner Lucy Wilde. It seems some mysterious arch-villain has stolen a cache of deadly serum which can transform people and animals (and Minions) into furry purple monsters and is now hiding out with his ill-gotten gains in a popular shopping mall. Could it be the diminutive Asian wig salesman? The boisterous Mexican restauranteur? The bungling teddy bear maker? It’s up to Gru and Lucy (and the MINIONS!) to uncover his identity and save the world before time runs out. Brilliant animation, candy-coloured graphics, and some very funny cartoon action make this sequel superior in every way to its nevertheless respectable predecessor—a “21 Fart Gun Salute” was pure juvenile comedy gold while a Village People parody was a camp delight for us aging boomers. And those little babbling, googly-eyed, hotdog-shaped Minions are one of the most endearing creations to ever pop out of a graphic artist’s head. Too bad they felt the need to tack on a love interest between Gru and the scatterbrained Lucy, in fact the entire film could have done without her shrill annoying antics. Perhaps in Despicable Me 3 she really will get thrown into a volcano…

The Devil's Backbone  (Spain 2001) (8):  During the Spanish Civil War a group of abandoned orphans witness firsthand man's propensity to inflict suffering upon others. Nightmare visions of a ghostly child compete with macabre images of violence and death......an unexploded bomb in a playground, a dead fetus in a jar, burned bodies covered in rubble. The film seems balanced on the edge of a spiritual abyss and even the faint glint of humanity at the end does little to dispel the darkness. "The Devil's Backbone" is both haunted and haunting.....well worth seeing.

Devil’s Island (Iceland 1996) (5): In the years following WWII, American soldiers stationed in Iceland slowly migrated home leaving their barracks of pre-fab quonset huts behind. One such abandoned outpost, nicknamed “Camp Thule” by its new inhabitants, is now home to families of squatters, petty thieves, and the marginally employed. Despised by the locals and largely ignored by the government (except for the occasional police incident) the residents’ lives consist largely of drinking binges and domestic squabbling—-although an odd sense of community keeps them supporting one another as best they can. When forty-ish Gógó sees a chance to escape to the USA with her new American husband she jumps at it, leaving her three grown children in the care of her henpecked father and bible-wielding mother, much to the jealous envy of her neighbours. But when her son Baddi (a prophetic name if ever there was one) goes to visit her stateside he returns to Thule a changed man. Now dressed up as a cross between James Dean and Elvis Presley, with a bad attitude to match, he swaggers around camp spouting snatches of American pop lyrics and getting into as much trouble as possible. Like an aimless rebel without a clue, Baddi enjoys his new sense of celebrity even as he bitterly criticizes everyone he once called friend and family. But his drunken brawls and dime-store machismo will have far greater consequences than even he can imagine… Set in the 1950s, Devil’s Island plays like a loud, white trash version of American Graffiti only with more mud and less whimsy. The cardboard characters and choreographed misery seem aimless at times with people yelling at each other as if on cue and the camp’s more eccentric inhabitants (namely Baddi’s spell-casting grandmother and the alcoholic ex-athlete next door) provide what passes for comedic relief. The resulting free-for-all tends to downplay the film’s more tragic elements while a poignant, and very beautiful, musical score of sad strings is lost amidst all the shouting and drinking. Some evocative cinematography aside, Devil’s Island proved to be a crass and unpleasant experience overall with very little dramatic redemption in the end.

The Devil’s Rain (USA 1975) (4): Of all the best worst movies ever made, Robert Fuest’s lurid tale of Satan worshippers hiding out in a desert ghost town certainly deserves an honourable mention. Corbis, the leader of this infernal congregation, has been waging a war with the local Preston family for a very long time, ever since one of their ancestors stole a magical book which he desperately needs in order to carry out his devilish plan. Now, with only two members of the Preston clan left to oppose him, Corbis and his followers are ready for their final assault to regain the book and fulfill a most evil prophecy… A pyrotechnic climax filled with wailing souls and melty-face special effects hardly makes up for the film’s hokey script and ham performances but there is a charming tackiness to the black mass scenes—especially when Corbis sprouts a pair of horns and billygoat beard (baa Lucifer, baa!)—and the whole cast seems so self-conscious you can only feel sorry for them. But the real blasphemy is seeing the likes of Ernest Borgnine, Ida Lupino, and Keenan Wynn sharing top billing with William Shatner—someone must have sold their soul for that one.

Diabolique [Les Diaboliques] (France 1955) (10): Two women form an unlikely partnership when they conspire to murder the cruel and despotic headmaster of a private boarding school—his wife…and his mistress. Finding solace in their shared misery Christina, the frail and very Catholic (read: guilt-riddled) spouse and Nicole, the fiercely determined “other woman”, have had enough of Michel’s violent outbursts and physical abuse. Despite the fact they all work at the same academy, an institution actually bequeathed to Christina by her wealthy family, the two desperate women manage to carry out their elaborate plan which not only leaves Michel dead but manages to make it look like an accident as well. But they are not prepared for the macabre twists which follow as their carefully laid plans for the “perfect murder” begin to come undone. First an unexpected delivery raises their suspicions, then a bizarre sighting throws them into a fearful frenzy leading to wild accusations as each woman threatens to frame the other for the crime. Meanwhile, the presence of a kindly old private eye investigating the husband’s disappearance looms ever larger… True to its name, director H. G. Clouzot’s masterful suspense thriller is diabolical indeed (the original title translates as “The Devils”). Watching these two women—one already suffering from interminable pangs of conscience, the other consumed with quiet rage—slowly unravel provides some of the most gripping cinema I’ve seen in some time. With a script that reads like a series of land mines and gloomy B&W cinematography which exploits all those narrow hallways and stuffy rooms, Clouzot establishes an air of anxiety and doubt then slowly increases the tension until it threatens to erupt into full blown paranoia. Things are kept in check however thanks to his assured hand and a powerful cast highlighted by the late great Simone Signoret as the angry mistress. Unfortunately the character of the fatherly investigator seems more of an appeasement to sensitive members of the audience rather than a crucial plot device, but Clouzot still manages to throw in one last eerie little twist before the final credits. Apparently when he bought the rights to the novel on which the film is based he narrowly beat out Alfred Hitchcock. But I doubt that even the great man himself could have produced a more effective yarn. Good devilish fun!

Diary of a Chambermaid (France 1964) (6): Director Luis Buñuel, bane of the bourgeoisie, is up to his old tricks again with this snide satire on the French mindset leading up to WWII. Parisian maid Céléstine leaves the city behind in order to work at the wealthy Monteil family’s country estate where it soon becomes obvious to the cunning domestic that things are not quite right with her new employers. Patriarch M. Monteil is a crusty old man who enjoys shooting butterflies with a shotgun and indulging in his fetish for women’s footwear, his daughter is a frigid shrew who values possessions above people, and her husband is an insatiable satyr desperate to hump the leg of anything in a skirt. Rounding out the roster is Joseph the handyman, an unrepentant fascist who takes great delight in reading defamatory articles about “wops and kikes”, and M. Mauger the left-leaning neighbour who shows his disgust for the right-wing Monteils by depositing his garbage in their backyard. At first amused by the perversions and political rhetoric around her, Céléstine is content to simply play one bastard off of another. But when a horrific crime is committed in the nearby woods, the perpetrator of which is well known to her, her moral outrage becomes a form of twisted collaboration served up with the best of intentions. There are no clear winners in Buñuel’s universe where self-serving fascists and liberals alike indulge in petty squabbles and meaningless ritual. On the other hand, the somewhat egotistical Céléstine is not exactly the “conscientious observer” she believes herself to be as she ingratiates herself with both sides. Lacking both the energy and sardonic wit of his other films this is definitely not Buñuel’s best shot, but it manages to inflict a few wounds just the same.

Dillinger (USA 1973) (7): Despite a few Hollywood embellishments writer/director John Milius’ bullet-riddled biopic of 1930’s bank robber John Dillinger stays surprisingly close to the facts. As played by Warren Oates, Dillinger was an emotionally unstable egotist who once bragged that no jail could hold him and actually proved it on at least one occasion. Along with his posse of colourful hoodlums like Baby Face Nelson and Pretty Boy Floyd, he waged a brazen campaign of violence and murder throughout the midwest becoming a depression-era folk hero of sorts to the very people whose life savings he was stealing. And then it all came to an end at the hand of the now legendary “Woman in Red”. Made on a modest budget but starring an impressive cast (Harry Dean Stanton, Richard Dreyfuss, Cloris Leachman…) what Milius lacked in technical equipment he more than made up for with superb editing, authentic location shots, and a masterful use of sound—ominous footsteps ascend a staircase, machine gun fire shatters panes of glass, a dying breath gurgles wetly. Narrated in parts by Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson), the G-man determined to bring the gang and its leader to justice—or an immediate grave—it becomes clear right from the start that Dillinger was a very bad person but that doesn’t stop Milius from painting an aura of sorts around his protagonist anyway, presenting him as a mad yet charismatic individualist determined to get what he wants or else go out in a blaze of glory. It is the myriad scenes of gunplay however that prove to be the most problematic, gripping images of bullets tearing through walls and bodies as policemen topple and bad guys shout defiance becoming almost fetishistic in their bloody detail. In that respect then, a truly American film.

The Dirty Dozen (UK/USA 1967) (7): Lee Marvin heads a cast of Hollywood heavies in this unexceptional combat tale which nevertheless manages to entertain. Towards the end of WWII American army officer Major Reisman reluctantly agrees to head a suicide mission against an opulent French château crawling with Nazi bigwigs. His goal: kill as many Germans as possible, blow everything up, and then try to get back to Allied territory in one piece. Since chances of actually surviving the exercise are practically nil no soldier in his right mind is willing to volunteer therefore Reisman is assigned a makeshift platoon of men not in their right minds…namely a dozen hardcore military prisoners willing to sign up in exchange for having their sentences commuted. With only a few months to turn this ragtag unit of murderers, rapists, and head cases into a squad of elite paratroopers Reisman has his work cut out. But will they be able to destroy one of the most heavily fortified German outposts in Normandy on the eve of D-Day? And who (if any) will survive to tell about it? Even if its standard wartime script lacks any real chemistry or tension and the action occasionally comes across as darker Disney fare (although a fiery “final solution” ploy is pretty grotesque) Dozen’s 2½ hour running time is nicely paced and some elaborate pyrotechnics provide an adequate payoff. Besides, it’s fun to watch some of yesterday’s stars doing what they do best; though in this case their best is not quite good enough.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them (USA 2014) (6): Writer/director Ned Benson’s arthouse weeper about a short-lived marriage becoming derailed was originally presented as two separate features, each one exploring the reaction of one partner, which he proceeded to chop up and then restitch into this two-hour endurance test. With their relationship on the rocks Conor Ludlow (James McAvoy) throws himself into his failing restaurant business while at the same time trying to re-establish some connection with his thrice divorced father (Irish great Ciarán Hinds). His partner Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain) returns to her privileged life in upstate Connecticut where she enrols in esoteric college courses and suffers through her white bread parents’ fumbled attempts at solicitude (William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert, both excellent). But the past is not so easily laid to rest and the wounded young couple—the source of all this painful recrimination is only gradually revealed in offhand comments and brief flashbacks—can’t quite bring themselves to cut those last remaining ties. Visually arresting with Manhattan’s many moods providing appropriately hip backdrops and featuring a score of soft indie croons you can’t help but like (a chill version of Bowie’s “Wild is the Wind” was beautiful), Benson's opus certainly has the makings of something great especially with a dream cast that also includes Viola Davis and Bill Hader. McAvoy alternately rails and despairs in a convincing American accent while Chastain’s porcelain features go from rage to remorse at the drop of a well-meaning platitude. But it’s the script which proves to be the production’s Achille’s Heel—its klunky metaphors and stilted sentimentality had me wondering whether or not Dr. Phil would receive a co-writing credit. “Tragedy is a foreign country…” drones Eleanor’s academic WASP of a father, “…We don’t know how to talk to the natives…” (huh?) and then there’s the haphazard scrawl of urban graffiti that offers up a deep thought, that titular Beatle’s song (“lonely people…blah blah”), and a strategically placed poster for Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman which practically leaps off Eleanor’s bedroom wall to smack you upside the head just in case you didn’t get the allusion. Commonplace for all its artiness, it’s still striking enough to keep you watching although come morning you may wonder why you bothered.

Disconnect (USA 2012) (7): It’s evening in a nondescript American city and as people take to their smartphones, laptops, and tablets a collection of stories take shape. A couple still mourning the death of their infant son have grown apart causing the wife to seek solace in a chatroom support group—a decision which may destroy far more than her marriage. A journalist investigating the exploitation of minors on pay-per-view sex sites finds her own sense of ethical superiority challenged when one of her subjects crosses that fine line. And a malicious highschool prankster has a crisis of conscience when a bit of cyber mischief aimed at the class loner goes viral. Whether you take the title of Henry Alex Rubin’s hardwired drama to be a passive noun or imperative command depends on your own point of view but one thing is for certain: each one of his characters is broken in some way be it emotionally, financially, or morally. And in this age of the Internet, where reaching out to another human being has become a mechanical keyboard shortcut, their various attempts to connect more often than not achieve the exact opposite. Beautifully filmed, with chatroom text often superimposed over intimate close-ups as if to accentuate the degrees of separation between them, Rubin’s characters are perpetually logged in yet tuned out to the real people within arm’s reach. At one point a hospital monitor displays ghostlike images of a dying brain and you realize this could just as easily be a youtube curio. Regrettably, what could have been a great film is marred by a montage of slow-motion clips accompanied by crashing waves of passionate strings as Rubin tries to tie all his loose threads together in a series of highly unlikely (though dramatically cathartic) resolutions. After two hours of slow steady build-up this style of emotional manipulation comes across as studied and facile. Good performances from the likes of Jason Bateman and Alexander Skarsgård however, and the diverse soundtrack of grunge and chamber pieces seem oddly complimentary.

The Divorcee (USA 1930) (6): Norma Shearer stars as the sweet and effervescent Jerry, a “great girl with a man’s point of view” engaged to Ted, an equally doe-eyed and doting newspaper reporter. Three years into their blissful marriage however it all comes crashing down when Jerry learns of her husband’s one night stand with whore-du-jour Janice whose mouth is even bigger than her ample hips. Lamely trying to convince her that it didn’t mean a thing and suggesting she “snap out of it” Ted tries to carry on as if nothing happened, but Jerry is not so easily convinced. Angry and depressed, she winds up evening the score one night with Ted’s best friend. With the tables suddenly turned Ted’s reaction is anything but understanding; apparently a casual affair is okay as long as no male egos are harmed in the process. With her husband strutting around like a wounded peacock stubbornly refusing to demonstrate the same leniency that was expected of her, Jerry becomes all too aware of the double standard which permeates society and decides to rebel against it. One quickie divorce later and he’s a drunken boor while she reinvents herself as a born again party girl. An amazingly enlightened story for such an early film, The Divorcee crackles with some smart dialogue and over-the-top acting (it’s an early talkie after all). Unfortunately this is still 1930 and people weren’t ready for independent, sexually aggressive women who held their heads high while the final credits rolled. But while the ending may be a disappointing cop-out, at least Ms. Shearer’s character managed to rattle the cage a bit.

Dixie Ray Hollywood Star (USA 1983) (9): John Leslie, looking like Al Pacino overdosing on viagra, is a veritable one-man show in Anthony Spinelli’s impressive XXX homage to 1940’s film noir. He plays a private dick (ha ha) trying to discover who’s been blackmailing a former movie star with some compromising photos taken at one of her drunken sex parties. Is it the estranged husband? The crooked nightclub owner? The promiscuous daughter? And what’s with the dead lesbian on the floor? Full of double-crosses and double Ds, the movie excels with great performances, a tight script and striking camerawork. Set in 1943, Spinelli uses some very authentic looking sets, as well as clothes and hairstyles, to create a time and place that is pretty remarkable for an adult film. Even the cliché-riddled closing dialogue between the private eye and his detective buddies would sound right at home in any noir policier from that era. And did I mention one of those detectives is played by Cameron Mitchell?! Will wonders never cease...

Doctor Dolittle (USA 1967) (7): In the quaint English town of Puddleby-on-the-Marsh circa 1845 successful doctor John Dolittle (Rex Harrison) grows tired of humans and decides to devote his life to treating animals instead. With the help of his verbose 200-year old parrot Polynesia he also learns to converse with them, mastering five hundred animal languages in the process from Anteater to Zebra. With his manor house now resembling Noah’s famous ark and patients flying, crawling, and slithering in to see him on a daily basis, Dolittle still has one more dream to realize—to set out in search of the elusive giant pink sea snail; a mythological mollusk who holds the answers to some of his most burning questions. To this end he joins a travelling circus where his star attraction, a two-headed llama or “pushmi-pullyu”, earns him enough money to buy a small ship for the journey. But his erratic behaviour and claim to speak in animal tongues does not sit well with the local magistrate necessitating a hasty escape from Puddleby with a crew of friends both human and non. And thus begins a high seas adventure replete with giant whales, lost tribes, and one very big bug… Twentieth-Century Fox’s expensive box-office bomb (and highly contentious Oscar nominee for coveted “Best Picture”) still stands head and shoulders above the Eddie Murphy travesties filmed thirty years later. Made before the advent of CGI the scores of animals are mostly real (filming proved to be a nightmare) with the glaring exception of a bizarre animatronic fox that jerks and snaps like a vulpine zombie. The sparkly musical numbers are generally painless, the pleasingly pastoral sets range from English hills to tame jungles, and the few fantastical creature creations are believable enough. Unfortunately a love interest between Harrison and female lead Samantha Eggar, over thirty years his junior, is a stretch and all those adorable cuddly extras threaten to push the cutesy factor past the critical mark. But having first seen it as a child when it premiered I was pleased to discover that I can still smile at a horse with glasses or an ailing elephant sporting a woollen scarf.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (USA 1920) (8): One of the earlier screen adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s psychological horror classic starring the legendary John Barrymore in a brilliant dual role. After being introduced to the world of earthly temptations by a couple of cynical colleagues fed up with his straitlaced morality, the kind-hearted yet maddeningly timid Dr. Jekyll is horrified at the carnal stirrings he feels within himself. Convinced that he can devise a potion to separate his baser nature from that which is good and benevolent, the good doctor holes up in his laboratory for weeks concocting just such a magical cocktail. But rather than rid him of all those sinful yearnings the elixir instead transforms him into the vile and slobbering Mr. Hyde, a creature consumed with lust and rage; the id to Jekyll’s superego. Unhindered by either conscience or empathy, Hyde takes up residence in a seedier part of town where he begins feeding his monstrous appetites for pleasure and cruelty on a nightly basis. In the meantime Jekyll’s persona, making an occasional appearance despite Hyde’s more powerful influence, appears increasingly wan and helpless. Tragedy, of course, is inevitable... Beautifully theatrical characters, a gothic organ score, and sets which run the gamut from sunny parlours to crumbling opium dens keep this silent shocker surprisingly effective almost 100 years later. As both Jekyll and Hyde, Barrymore gives one of silent cinema’s most amazing and versatile performances; his repeated transformations from proper Victorian gentlemen to sadistic brute, achieved with a bit of make-up, some primitive prosthetics, and a whole lot of grimacing, are genuinely creepy to behold. Rife with Freudian overtones and just a dash of drug culture, this B&W gem is one of the better literary adaptations I’ve seen.

The Doctor Takes a Wife (USA 1940) (7): When a bestselling feminist author and diehard chauvinist doctor are mistaken for newlyweds a complicated comedy of errors ensues which finds both parties reluctantly reaping the benefits of their sham relationship—her unscrupulous editor talks her into writing a new book about the “joys” of marriage and he finds himself promoted to full professorship by a dean who values holy matrimony above all else. The trouble is, not only can’t they stand one another but they’re already engaged to different people. Loretta Young and Ray Milland shine in this screwball comedy from Hollywood’s golden age where the one-liners come out of left field, the double entendres are as pure as snow, and the comic action is always one step ahead of reality—one particularly inspired scene has Milland wooing his fiancée in one apartment while trying to appear as Young’s faithful husband in front of a room full of guests in the suite next door (hint: there’s a lot of balcony hopping). And even though you can predict the romantic outcome before the opening credits have stopped rolling, this remains a great piece of innocent silliness that will have you smiling throughout.

Dodes'ka-den (Japan 1970) (9):  Life in an urban slum is never easy, but in Akira Kurosawa's colourful collection of ghetto tales neither is it dull.  Set amidst a jumble of ramshackle huts firmly located on the other side of the tracks, his camera follows several intersecting dramas as they unfold over the course of a few days.  Among the stories:  a slightly unhinged father who amuses his little boy by building castles in the air; a grief-stricken woman whose attempt to reunite with her estranged husband only leads to further anguish; and a pair of drinking buddies who regularly stumble home to each other's spouses.  And bridging the narrative strands are a philosophical old man with a knack for saying the right thing at the right time, and a mentally challenged son who indulges his obsession for trains by traversing the neighbourhood in an imaginary trolley bus.  Shot primarily on fanciful soundstages using bold primary colours and a lilting score which compliments both its comedic and tragic elements, this is a deeply human film, brimming with compassion, whose occasional moments of "preciousness" are completely forgivable.  Although deemed too depressing by fickle audiences upon its initial release, Kurosawa's first colour film would nevertheless go on to become Japan's official entry for best foreign language Oscar.

Dogtooth (Greece 2009) (7): When it comes to raising children, director Giorgos Lanthimos takes the whole “nature vs nurture” debate and turns it upside down in this scathingly dark satire which wowed the judges at Cannes. In a beautifully appointed country home, more of a gated compound actually, a well-to-do factory worker and his wife are holed up with three adult children, none of whom have ever been beyond the front yard. Determined to protect their brood from worldly evils, the couple have kept them under tight psychological control through elaborate lies and false information—-apparently man-eating cats lie in wait beyond the house’s perimeter (a terrible fate which mom and dad claim befell a fictitious younger son), the airplanes that fly overhead are actually toys which occasionally fall into the garden, and mom can give birth to dogs and baby brothers at will. Furthermore, any new words which fall outside the siblings’ frame of reference are assigned more familiar definitions, thus “the sea” refers to the big leather armchair in the den, and a salt shaker is called a “telephone”. Wholly ignorant of the world which exists past the giant hedge the three kids, approaching their 20s, while away the hours playing destructive games, watching tedious home movies, and listening to highly sanitized school lessons played on a tape recorder. But when dad starts paying a female security guard to satisfy his son’s carnal needs, the woman introduces the boy and his two sisters to some dangerous influences (like Hollywood films and oral sex), thus planting a small seed of rebellion in the older sister’s mind… Filmed in dispassionate wide angles which occasionally cut off people’s heads, and with a mundane script delivered in cold monotones, Dogtooth is a study in depersonalization and modern paranoia. This is a generic nuclear family (Christina the security guard is the only character with a name) in which the parents’ natural instinct to safeguard their offspring has been perverted beyond recognition leading to some psychological fallout both humorous and jarring. And as the big bad world continues to creep into their sheltered existence, the three young adults experience a breakdown in the social order which mom and dad have so rigidly maintained through the years. I suppose one could see allusions to the dangers of fascism in this dark family drama but its reach is not quite ambitious enough to make that leap. Instead we’re treated to an uncomfortable psychodrama fascinating in its premise and shocking in its delivery—-this is definitely not a movie for the squeamish and easily offended. Still not quite enough to make Michel Haneke blush.

Don’t Drink the Water (USA 1969) (3): Jackie Gleason plays the stereotypical ugly American as he scowls, grimaces and grinds his teeth in this bland Cold War sitcom that’s heavy on the one-liners but woefully light on wit. He plays New Jersey caterer Walter Hollander (the “Potato Salad Picasso” ) returning from a European holiday with his shrill air-headed wife (an under-utilized Estelle Parsons) and oversexed daughter. En route their flight is hijacked to the Eastern Bloc country of Vulgaria (ha ha)...a dismal place filled with phony Cyrillic signs and even phonier accents. Mistaken for spies, the family takes refuge in the American embassy which, as luck would have it, is currently being overseen by the absent ambassador’s inept son. What follows is a series of lame sketches involving riots, bombs, an irate oil sheik and a zany Italian priest. As the Hollanders throw half-hearted barbs at each other and their daughter begins an affair with the ambassador’s son, an escape plan is eventually hatched which leads to a painfully unfunny chase sequence and stupid finale. Despite some last minute yankee doodle sermonizing towards the end, the movie utterly fails to deliver any satirical bite. What we are left with instead is a 100 minute joke with no punch line.

Dorothy Mills (Ireland 2008) (7): Still mourning the death of her young son, forensic psychiatrist Jane Van Dopp nevertheless journeys to a remote offshore village in order to assess the mental status of Dorothy Mills, a fifteen-year old sitter accused of trying to murder a baby left in her care. But from the moment Jane steps foot on the island things go from bad to worse: the tight-lipped villagers are openly hostile towards her; the local vicar runs his church almost as if it were a cult; and she’s nearly killed when a carload of teenagers run her BMW off the road—-teenagers that continue to harass her even though the local magistrate swears no one matching their descriptions even exists on the tiny island. Despite this cold introduction however Jane finds her greatest challenge comes when she meets Dorothy herself. Shy and withdrawn, the diminutive girl flatly denies ever having been near the baby in question even though the child’s parents were eyewitnesses to the assault. Furthermore, the islanders regard Dorothy with a mysterious mixture of fear and resentment, reluctant to release her to the doctor’s care yet angrily accusing her of being a freak. But when Dorothy begins exhibiting different personas—-from a giggling three-year old naif to a drunken, foul-mouthed yob—-Jane realizes she may have stumbled upon the most extreme case of multiple personality disorder in her long career. And then Dorothy begins manifesting a brand new persona which shakes Jane to her very core… Despite some soft logic and the type of dramatic hyperbole one expects from the genre, director Agnès Merlet has fashioned a good old-fashioned mystery thriller where science and the supernatural take turns confounding our expectations. As doctor and patient, Carice van Houten and Jenn Murray breathe life and complexity into their characters without resorting to cheap theatrics while the remaining cast are near perfect as they play an entire village of grizzled countryfolk desperately trying to hide some nasty secrets. Although the final confrontation and round of accusations strain the believability quotient, Merlet caps it all off with a little twist that’s just clever enough to keep you from feeling cheated.

Double Indemnity (USA 1944) (9): In Billy Wilder’s film noir masterpiece unhappy housewife Barbara Stanwyck (sporting a ridiculously blonde wig) seduces stalwart insurance salesman Fred MacMurray (in a most un-Disney performance) into helping her become a wealthy widow. The idea is to trick her husband into buying a lucrative accident policy and then arrange his convenient demise so that the two of them can collect on the huge settlement. Of course unforeseen complications arise in the form of Stanwyck’s overly observant stepdaughter and MacMurray’s co-worker, fastidious claims investigator Edward G. Robinson (stealing the show). As tensions rise and the two conspirators-cum-lovers begin to sweat, they quickly come to realize they may have underestimated one another—and that’s when things get really interesting. Told in flashback during a taped confession, Wilder pulls out all the stops with crackling dialogue and an undercurrent of restrained eroticism all taking place in a permanently twilit Los Angeles. MacMurray smirks, Stanwyck smoulders, Robinson growls, and it seems a bit exaggerated and corny by today’s blasé standards but to diehard genre fans this is the mother lode. Great fun!

The Double Life of Veronique (France/Poland 1991) (7): Legendary director Krzysztof Kieslowski excels at telling small tales with enormous implications as his beautiful protagonists are buffeted by forces beyond their control, whether they arise from random chance or preordained fate. In this his most commercially successful film he adds elements of the supernatural to explore issues of interconnectedness and personal freedom as two strangers unknowingly live parallel lives. Polish Veronica and French Veronique have never met nor do they know each other yet they could be identical twins. Both have been raised by single fathers, both find solace in music (one sings, one teaches), both suffer from congenital heart conditions, and both are troubled by the ambiguities of love—but whereas Veronique is cowed by life’s uncertainties, Veronica approaches it with enthusiastic abandon. Vaguely aware of their personal doppelgängers if only on an intuitive level, one woman’s tragic turn will have profound repercussions in the other’s life. Gorgeous cinematography filmed in muted pastels and accompanied by a soundtrack of plaintive baroque pieces certainly makes viewing Double Life a sumptuous experience—here a teabag slowly rotates in a steaming cup, here Veronique regards her potential lover (a puppeteer, significantly) through shifting panels of stained glass, and here a passing shadow falls across a sleeping figure as if it were a shroud. And throughout the film windows and mirrors offer up shifting reflections of our protagonists as if to emphasize the dual nature of their separate stories. Both a psychological treatise on the price we pay for every life choice made and a study in alternate realities or “what might have been” as one woman chooses safety while the other leaps towards her destiny. But despite Kieslowski’s solid reputation as a cinematic auteur, the film’s visual and auditory flourishes occasionally come across as so much arthouse affectation—arresting to see and hear but only serving to gussy up an already frustratingly opaque story. There’s no mistaking the star power of lead actress Irène Jacob however, her dual role as Veronica/Veronique bringing warmth and a depth of perception to an otherwise emotionally reticent work.

Double Solitaire (USA TV 1974) (8): Part of PBS’ “Broadway Theater Archives” series. On the eve of his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary Charlie and his wife Barbara begin to examine the barren landscape their own 20-year marriage has become. A series of soliloquies ensue in which friends and relatives give the troubled couple their own spin on what constitutes joy and intimacy; from romantic getaways, to learning the art of emotional compromise, to a complete rejection of the institution itself. It seems no one is completely satisfied with their life partners and their relationships consist mainly of routine intimacies and a kind of loving forbearance. Charlie and Barb’s dissatisfaction eventually comes to a boil during a seaside retreat when a fiery confrontation destroys any marital illusions they may have had and forces them to see their union for what it has become. A pair of powerhouse performances from Susan Clark and Richard Crenna keep you riveted while a frighteningly honest script may leave you questioning your own conjugal priorities. This is what quality television used to look like.

Double Wedding (USA 1937) (6): High-powered Manhattan businesswoman Margit Agnew (Myrna Loy) has made it her life’s work to control every single aspect of her younger sister’s life—choosing the foods she eats, the clothes she wears, and the man she will marry. But Irene and her milquetoast fiancé Waldo would much rather run away to Hollywood with Charles Lodge, the smooth-talking yet penniless movie mogul they’ve befriended (William Powell), and take control of their own destinies once and for all. Romantic sparks fly when a determined Margit butts heads with an equally pigheaded Charles while Irene and Waldo discover that personal freedom comes at a cost. This seventh pairing of Loy and Powell is a mostly unsuccessful screwball romp heavy on the hysterics but woefully short on laughs. Loy is a curly coiffed shrew whose icy heart is long overdue for a spring thaw; Powell plays a lovably animated vagabond living quite happily in a parking lot trailer; and Florence Rice as Irene is about as engaging as plain wallpaper. Only John Beal as Waldo shows any comedic substance, his perpetually stunned expressions and spineless monotone at once amusingly boring and oddly sympathetic—a browbeaten mouse getting ready to roar. Worth a look if you’re so inclined—the art deco touches are nice—but Hollywood has certainly done better.

Doubt (USA 2008) (9): “What do you do when you’re not sure…” intones Fr. Flynn during a Sunday sermon, “…doubt can be a bond as powerful as certainty.” This pretty much sets the tone for Shanley’s brilliantly executed drama about an embittered mother superior who accuses Flynn of molesting a child at the school where she resides as principal. Armed only with a misguided sense of righteousness, Sr. Beauvier begins a one-woman witch hunt designed to make her unfounded suspicions a reality, even violating her own moral code in order to do so…“In the presence of wrongdoing, one steps away from God” being her only justification. In order to truly appreciate what Shanley has done we must look at the period in which the film takes place, the early ‘60s. The nation was still reeling from the assassination of Kennedy, cold war paranoia was in full swing, and Pope John XXIII was trying to drag Catholics into the 20th century with the Second Vatican Council. While Fr. Flynn openly embraces the spirit of change sweeping the church Sr. Beauvier remains dour and rigid, not even allowing ballpoint pens into the classroom. Torn between these two extremes is Sr. James, a young novice who teaches history. Possessed of a certain naiveté, or maybe just a greater faith in the basic goodness of people, she is at first drawn into Beauvier’s web of suspicion then later horrified by the old woman’s monomaniacal crusade. Shanley’s use of natural elements to provide counterpoint to the film’s narrative is superb; storms and tempests battle overhead while a mighty wind buffets the church doors. He also employs subtler imagery to great effect whether it be the stained glass eye of God or a statue of the Virgin casting a shadow on a garden wall; and a simple burnt light bulb has never held such import. Lastly, despite all the empty hearsay and innuendo, he introduces just enough doubt into the story to make us question our own convictions as to what really happened. A completely engrossing drama highlighted by some magnificent performances including Viola Davis’ turn as the young boy’s mother whose reaction to the accusations took me completely off guard. Bravo!

Down by Law (USA 1986) (7): Two men from the wrong side of the tracks find themselves unwilling cellmates when they’re targeted by crooked police stings. Previously abandoned by their respective muses, unemployed D.J. Zack (a gravelly Tom Waits) and ambitious pimp Jack while away the hours getting on each other’s nerves until they’re joined by a third prisoner, Italian ex-pat Roberto (a brilliantly animated Roberto Benigni) arrested for accidentally killing a man with a billiard ball. Alternately amused and annoyed by Roberto’s broken English and childlike zeal for all things American, the two men gain a grudging respect for the little foreigner when he manages to concoct a successful escape plan. Finding themselves lost in the Louisiana wilderness the three mismatched prison mates embark on an oddball quest for freedom containing elements of Greek mythology (in one hilarious passage the ragtag Argonauts watch dispiritedly as their ship sinks into the bayou mud), a swamp rat version of Dante with Benigni’s half-assed Virgil providing all the laughs, and a true blue tribute to Frost as two roads diverge in a yellow wood. Stylishly framed in stark shades of black and white, Jim Jarmusch’s noir comedy has a gritty experimental feel to it heightened by a largely improvised script and just the right amount of absurdist humour. A character driven odyssey graced by spot-on performances and tight camera shots which balance the low-rent squalor of New Orleans with murky panoramas of steaming bogs. One of the more important films to come out of the 80’s.

Drag Me To Hell (USA 2009) (8): With her eye on the bank's new Assistant Manager position mild-mannered Loans Officer Christine Brown is determined to show her boss that she can be a hard ass executive type by foreclosing on the home of an old woman who was late with one too many payments. Unfortunately the gnarled phlegmy senior in question just happens to be a vindictive gypsy witch that seeks her revenge by sicking an evil demon on Christine who suddenly discovers she has only three days left before the hoofed and horned fiend drags...her...to...HELL! Aided by a pair of ESL spiritualists an increasingly desperate Christine wages battles against malevolent shadows and flying crockpots while her devoted boyfriend looks helplessly on. But will she be able to dispel the curse before time runs out? A midnight trek through a stormy graveyard may hold the answer but astute viewers will have guessed the "surprise" ending long before then. Sam Raimi returns to his gross-out roots in this deliriously overdone horror romp crammed full of spewing eyeballs, vomited maggots and mouthfuls of sticky green pus. He's fashioned a great old-fashioned splatter film whose outrageous effects and ghoulish sense of humour ("...here kitty kitty kitty...") had me jumping and chuckling throughout. A real hoot!

Dragonwyck (USA 1946) (9): When simple farm girl Miranda Wells is invited for an “extended visit” at the estate of her remote relative Nicholas Van Ryn, a fabulously wealthy patroon in upstate New York, she can barely pack her bags fast enough despite the misgivings of her devout parents. But her promised role of governess to Nicholas’ only daughter is not all it appears to be for Dragonwyck Manor’s gloomy corridors are filled with ghostly memories and dark secrets; secrets reflected in the arrogant Van Ryn’s angry outbursts and his timid wife’s pale haunted eyes. At first put off by the baffling social rituals of the upper class Miranda is inexorably drawn to the dreams of wealth represented by Nicholas while the one man who truly loves her, country doctor Jeff Turner, looks helplessly on. Slowly transformed from a country naif to a privileged pariah Miranda realizes too late that some dreams can become nightmares. But Dragonwyck holds one more horrible secret for her; a secret which may prove to be her ultimate undoing... Brimming with stormy nights and menacing shadows, Dragonwyck is a grand example of old school Gothic Kitsch. Leads Gene Tierney and Vincent Price manage to wring every nuance out of a brilliantly overdone script while director Joseph Mankiewicz keeps things bleak and brooding with a dimly lit attic here, a shadowed staircase there, and the occasional burst of pastoral charm to emphasize the darkness. For added depth a side story involving the desperate plight of tenant farmers working on the Van Ryn estate provides a clever political metaphor mirroring Miranda’s own dire predicament. An intelligent and artfully presented soap which manages to steer clear of camp excess.

The Draughtsman's Contract  (UK 1982) (9):  Rarely has the English language sounded so beautiful in a film as it does in this lavish period piece. From the sumptuous cinematography and exaggerated costumes to the razor sharp script it provides a sensuous feast for both eye and ear. Greenaway presents us with a seemingly straightforward murder mystery on a country estate then proceeds to obscure the proceedings with allegorical clues, enigmatic dialogue and the occasional red herring. Solving the crime, however, takes a back seat to the simple pleasure of watching a cinematic artist at work. Brilliant!

Drive (USA 2011) (9): Sometimes it takes a foreign eye to see something new in what most North American audiences take for granted. In the case of those “bullets ’n car chases” action flicks Danish ex-pat director Nicolas Winding Refn’s baroque touches elevate a pedestrian storyline into arthouse magic. Blank-faced Ryan Gosling is perfect as the nameless anti-hero, a preternaturally quiet mechanic and stunt driver who also moonlights by driving getaway cars for whoever has the money—and he’s very good at what he does since he knows the streets of Los Angeles like the back of his hand. Chaos enters his well ordered life however when he begins seeing his next door neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan), the twenty-something mother of a young boy whose husband is about to be released from prison. When the husband’s past threatens the well-being of Irene and her son the Driver decides to intervene and that’s when everything starts to come apart despite his honourable intentions. Tragedy of Shakespearean proportions quickly follows… Whether it’s a midnight beach strobed by a flashing lighthouse, a tentative caress, or bullets ripping through a skull in excruciating slow-motion, Refn’s keen sense of colour and texture—not to mention that glorious techno-synth soundtrack—render every frame a small work of art. At one point a bad guy gets his comeuppance at a burlesque club and as the music soars and a host of topless dancers look on dispassionately like sequinned Valkyries you realize this is as far from Dirty Harry as one could possibly get and still remain in the genre. Bryan Cranston is superb as Gosling’s crippled sidekick and Ron Perlman and Albert Brooks excel as a pair of ice cold gangsters (you’ll never look at a knife and fork the same way again). America’s violent love affair with fast cars and big guns has rarely looked this beautiful.

Drunken Angel (Japan 1948) (7): With his ramshackle clinic situated meaningfully between bombed out ruins and a toxic cesspool (across the street from the ironically named "Happy Market") gruffly compassionate doctor Sanada does his best to help Tokyo's downtrodden despite the fact he enjoys more than a drop of sake now and then. But when violent gangster Matsunaga (the great Toshiro Mifune) shows up at his door suffering from tuberculosis Sanada makes it his mission to not only cure the man's disease but turn his life around as well. Sadly, the past has a way of dogging people and sometimes the best of intentions cannot stop someone from continuing on the path they've chosen. Kurosawa's ruminations on the post WWII Japanese zeitgeist is evident throughout this brooding drama as Sanada's wry comments and occasional lecture on corruption and complacency speak more to the audience than the criminal in his office. Oppressive images of rot and chaos are lightened somewhat by a faint undertone of optimism as a minor character makes her own life-altering decision and one young schoolgirl, a former patient, proudly flaunts her clean bill of health. A classic.

Duck (USA 2005) (2): Full of mawkish sentimentality, mangled metaphors and a soundtrack overflowing with sugary folk ballads, this lightweight road movie-cum-social critique manages to lay one rotten egg after another. Set in a dystopian 2009 (Jeb Bush is president, recycling has been abolished and social security is bankrupt), it revolves around sixty-six year old Arthur, a newly widowed retiree who finds himself alone and penniless in a hostile world. After scattering his wife’s ashes in the park where they used to court; now the garbage-strewn site of a future shopping mall, he decides to end it all with a handful of prescription drugs when he is saved by the timely arrival of an orphaned duckling. Soon man and bird are inseparable buddies; sharing the bathtub, cuddling in bed and exchanging little gems of feathered wisdom. But when Arthur’s neurotic asshole of a landlord evicts the pair they suddenly find themselves on a long (so very very long) journey of the soul as they slowly make their way to the coast. Crossing the dirty concrete wasteland of Los Angeles they meet up with the usual assortment of one-dimensional stock characters one expects in these schmaltzy knee-jerk sagas; the heartless authorities, the panhandler with a heart of gold, the blind vagrant who sees all, and the deeply philosophical immigrant (Amy Hill overdoing it with an insultingly fake Asian accent). Eventually Arthur and his little winged alter ego do make it to the shores of the sunlit Pacific just in time for the film’s sickeningly sweet finale and a mercifully quick fade to black. With its corny dialogue and clumsy attempts at eliciting sympathy this little turkey should never have been hatched. I must admit that the duck was kind of cute though, especially when it took an unscripted shit on the picnic table.

Duck Soup  (USA 1933) (4):  I suppose when it was fresh in theatres the humour in “Duck Soup” was considered innovative and risqué.  In the years since then however the Marx Brothers’ brand of Vaudevillian comedy has been emulated so many times that the original routines now seem very tired and very dated.  That said, Groucho’s witty ripostes can still make me smile and Margaret Dumont plays the perfect foil.  The antics of his partners however do get monotonous after a while, especially Harpo’s hyperactive idiocy.  A sterling example of slapstick comedy at its finest but definitely not for everyone, myself included.

Early Summer (Japan 1951) (8): Another wry exploration of Japan’s post WWII generation gap which saw children respectfully rebelling against their parents’ traditional values. This time around twenty-eight year old Noriko’s family are determined to see her marry their bachelor of choice; but the headstrong young woman has romantic ideas of her own. Supported by her liberated friend (they both wear western fashions, hold down jobs, and believe in female assertiveness) she resists the allure of conformity and decides to follow her own heart much to the consternation, and eventual illumination, of her mom and dad. Brilliant images of soaring balloons and waving kites are tempered by a few happily caged birds and scenes of everyday domesticity while Ozu’s signature use of trains, smoke, and a restless ocean gently underscore the fact that life is what it is and every decision comes at a cost. Meanwhile, the skewed priorities of Noriko’s two bratty nephews remind us all that a sense of humour is indispensable if we are to weather all those slings and arrows. The zen-like cinematography is serene and the opening/closing choral pieces are piercingly beautiful.

The Earrings of Madame de... (France 1953) (9): The pampered wife of a French aristocrat sells her diamond earrings to pay off some mounting debts. Over the next two years those jewels will mysteriously reappear in her life again and again and in so doing highlight the web of lies, hypocrisy, and infidelity which seem to define her existence. Technically sumptuous with its elaborate tracking shots and unexpected camera angles, Max Ophül's brilliantly filmed fin de siècle morality play moves effortlessly between light farce, biting satire, and desperate tragedy before the camera settles on one sadly ironic final scene. A classic.

East is East (UK 1999) (7): In 1937 George Khan immigrated to Britain from Pakistan with dreams of creating a better life. Now, in 1971, he owns a chip shop and he and his redheaded English wife Ella are busy raising their seven children. But despite Khan’s insistence on maintaining a traditional Moslem household his offspring are more interested in snogging, going to the disco, and enjoying the occasional plate of bacon and sausages while the long-suffering Ella tries to bridge the cultural gap between her very Pakistani husband and her steadfastly British brood. Aside from an inconvenient circumcision and the occasional lecture on Old World Values however, the kids manage to carry on their own lives right under George’s nose with a little help from their mom. And then he tries to arrange a marriage between two of his sons and the less-than-desirable daughters of a wealthy businessman and his snobbish wife and all hell breaks loose. Having already failed to marry off his eldest son (now disowned) this is George’s last chance at gaining some respectability—but one boy refuses to marry a “Paki” and the other would rather play the field himself. Heated words quickly lead to physical blows all around as an increasingly desperate Khan and a fiercely protective Ella try and do what’s best for their family. Starting off as a dry comedy of manners highlighting the cultural differences inherent in one immigrant family, Damien O’Donnell’s slice o’life drama slowly moves into more serious territory as issues of domestic abuse, xenophobia, and racial identity begin to rise above the laughs. It’s not that Khan is an unreasonable despot, nor that his kids are consigned to becoming delinquents, but after thirty-four years he is still very much a stranger in a strange land while his children have embraced the values of the only country they have ever known—even if the colour of their skin gets them barred from the odd club now and then. As husband and wife the great Om Puri and Linda Bassett are perfectly matched with his broken English and eccentric ways gaining little ground against her working class sensibilities. The rest of the cast, most reprising their roles from the original stage play, are spot on as young adults precariously balanced between two worlds. A rather bittersweet ending is sure to make western audiences feel more comfortable in their seats but Ayub Khan-Din’s screenplay adaptation still offers an illuminating glimpse into a reality few of us have ever encountered.

East Side, West Side (USA 1949) (8): Manhattan society couple Brandon and Jessie Bourne’s marriage is on the upswing after she forgives his extramarital indiscretion with slutty gold digger Isabel Lorrison. But all that’s about to change when Lorrison, who left for parts unknown after the affair ended, breezes back into town determined to rekindle Brandon’s libido despite the fact that another man is now paying her bills. Suspecting her husband has once again fallen off the monogamy wagon Jessie is torn between giving him a third chance or phoning a divorce attorney when fate sends her a curve ball in the form of Mark Dwyer. A government agent newly returned from Europe, Dwyer is a charming and charismatic man who takes an instant liking to Jessie when their paths cross at a busy airport. Although still in love with her errant husband, Jessie’s innocent flirting with Dwyer begins to cast a shadow on her resolve to mend her marriage yet again. And then tragedy strikes, as it usually does in these movies, and everyone’s game is suddenly changed… Graced by a crisp and intelligent script as well as a handful of star performances, Mervyn LeRoy’s tale of domestic despair among the idle rich is an overlooked B&W classic. As the beleaguered couple James Mason and Barbara Stanwyck are superb, while a seductive Ava Gardner plays the slutty temptress for all it’s worth. A fresh-faced Cyd Charisse as a New York model vying for Dwyer’s attention and Van Heflin as the handsome bachelor himself round out the cast. There’s even a surprise cameo by Nancy Reagan if you can catch it. LeRoy makes good use of his urban settings with the hustle and bustle of Manhattan contrasting sharply with quiet moments of household drama and a surprisingly erotic (for the time) seduction scene. But it’s Barbara Stanwyck who ultimately carries the show with her uncanny ability to portray women who are at once terribly vulnerable and fiercely determined. This is what a movie star looks like.

Eastern Promises (UK 2007) (7):  A dark and dismal glimpse into the inner world of the Russian mafia seen through the eyes of one of its soldiers is juxtaposed with the story of a young nurse trying to find the family of a newborn foundling.  Generally good performances all around further enhanced by a subtle soundtrack, tight editing, and a dark palette of colours ranging from blood reds to shadowy blues.  But while I did appreciate the fact that Cronenberg used the story of the baby as a counterpoint to that of the Russian protagonist....her final scene is awash with sunlight while he retreats further into darkness....the two tales did not fit together well.  The film was further weakened by an implausible Hollywood-style ending.  Despite these drawbacks I still found much to be admired here.

Ebola Syndrome (Hong Kong 1996) (5): Kai is a unrepentant psychopath. After murdering his lover and her husband, he flees to South Africa where he lands a job cooking at a Chinese restaurant. Being hypersensitive to even the most innocuous criticisms, it isn’t long before he develops an enormous grudge against the restaurant’s overbearing owner and his spoiled harpy of a wife; but how will he exact his revenge? Then one day, while driving home with a shipment of meat, he spies a semi-conscious African woman lying by the side of the road. Being the disgusting slimeball that he is, Kai naturally decides to drop his drawers in order to take advantage of the situation. Just as he’s finishing up however, the woman has a sudden violent seizure and dies; but not before spraying him in the face with copious amounts of white mucus. It seems the hapless native was infected with the dreaded Ebola virus which is 99.9% fatal with Kai being in the lucky 0.1% who simply become active carriers able to infect others. This is when the party shifts to high gear! Returning to the restaurant, Kai begins to unknowingly infect others especially when he grinds up the owners and serves them as “African buns”. Escaping back to Hong Kong he eventually learns the truth about his viral status and sets about infecting as many people as he can in a non-stop orgy of festering pustules, spraying blood and screaming hysterics. Playing like a weak Chinese giallo, Ebola Syndrome revels in its many excesses whether it’s a graphic dismemberment or violent rape. Unfortunately the special effects are below par, the editing weak, and Yau’s clumsy attempts at humour fail to survive the inept subtitling; “My sperm is spilling out from my mouth...” says a sexually frustrated Kai at one point. Furthermore, the character of Kai is so patently awful (he’s not above sucking out a woman’s eyeball or masturbating into a customer’s pork chop) that his gross-out behaviour actually becomes tiresome. An unimpressive splatter flick overdone in every way.

Eccentricities of a Nightingale (USA TV 1976) (10): Blythe Danner gives a standout performance as the long suffering Alma Winemiller, a delicate and flighty southern belle yearning for love, excitement, and a sense of having accomplished something with her life. Browbeaten by her father, an Episcopalian minister, for her dramatic affectations (she displays an unladylike zeal every now and again) and labelled an “eccentric” by the good people of her small Mississippi town, the only things that keep Alma from going completely mad are a small circle of equally eccentric outcasts and her unrequited passion for John Buchanan (Frank Langella), the handsome young doctor who lives across the street. But John is kept on a short leash by his mother who’s determined to marry him off to someone more suitable to his station in life (her constant doting carrying a disturbingly incestuous edge) and Alma is trapped between the social demands of her father and the day-to-day care of her mother, a woman whose own shattered dreams have already driven her over the edge. A background story involving an errant aunt who followed her heart with tragic results only serves to underscore the play’s inherent pessimism. Things finally come to a boil on New Year’s Eve when a desperate Alma finally confronts John with her feelings and proceeds to make him a most scandalous offer… Based on Tennessee William’s play Summer and Smoke, this television adaptation made for PBS’s Theater in America series is pure southern melodrama from the genteel banter which carries daggers to our heroine’s overwhelming sense of being smothered in a gilded cage. There is a sad romanticism to Alma’s plight, edged perhaps with a lunatic fringe, which speaks of the hopeless longings which nevertheless give us reason to keep plodding on. This is as close to a love story as Williams gets, and even though the ending is more tragedy than comedy it nevertheless presents us with an unhappy soul finally finding her solitary niche.

Eden [aka The Abduction of Eden] (USA 2012) (6): Hyun Jae, a 16-year old student newly arrived in America with her family, is out on the town with her best friend when she is kidnapped by a pick-up at the local watering hole. Driven to a remote storage facility in the middle of the desert she is first stripped of her belongings and her identity then forced into prostitution with a group of similar women. Housed like cattle by their male captors and kept docile through violence, intimidation, and drugs, Hyun Jae (now named “Eden”) and her cellmates endure a life of privation and hopelessness, knowing that their lives are only worth the money they’re able to bring in. Eden soon realizes that if she is to survive she will have to cooperate with her keepers, even aiding them when necessary, while constantly looking for a way to escape. But her desperate quest for freedom will not only threaten her own life but those of her parents as well, for this isolated prostitution ring is just the edge of an international human trafficking network run by some very dangerous people. Based on the real life memoirs of Chong Kim, a young woman who went through a similar ordeal, Megan Griffiths problematic film tackles the issue of modern day sex slavery as tactfully as possible—-avoiding lurid sensationalism (all sex and nudity occurs off camera) yet still managing to get her angry message across. Of course there is the usual assortment of brutish drooling men one would expect, as well as a few dispirited female collaborators, but allusions to poverty, neglect and domestic abuse indicate the root causes of this global tragedy are far more complex than bad men capturing good girls. Unfortunately, like all movies “based on a true story” it is impossible to separate fact from screenplay. There is an unevenness to the film with narrative gaps and improbable turns which at times made me feel as if I was watching a cautionary After School special. To her credit Griffiths avoids much of the Hollywood hyperbole a story like this could engender, and she does draw out some noteworthy performances from leads Jamie Chung as Eden and Matt O’Leary as her coked-out overseer…although Beau Bridges’ turn as a crooked sheriff looks more like a nastier outtake from Smokey and the Bandit. For her first time directing from the big chair however, she has created something that is well worth seeing.

Electra Glide in Blue (USA 1973) (5):  Diminutive trooper John Wintergreen patrols the lonely stretches of highway that wind through the Arizona desert ticketing hippies and off-duty police officers alike.  He’s an honest cop who manages to avoid the petty corruption around him as he pursues his dream of becoming a homicide detective.  When he’s called upon to assist in the investigation of a suspicious suicide it appears his wish is about to be granted but it isn’t long before he realizes that not everyone shares his sense of honour.  Guercio’s simple film employs some beautiful imagery and imaginative camerawork; lots of wide-angle shots of mesas framed against brilliant blue skies and closer, intimate shots sometimes reflected in a mirror as if to challenge our sense of reality.  He also uses some clever cinematic allusions, which lend depth to the narrative.  In one scene Wintergreen uses a poster of Easy Rider for target practice, a segment  that  later injects a tragic irony to the movie’s finale.  In another scene reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove, he begins to suspect his new boss may be a bit crazy. Finally, the film ends with a highly effective tracking shot enhanced by a soulful closing song.  Where it ultimately failed for me however was in the weak script which often lapsed into tired genre clichés, and the blatant overacting; whether it was the local floozy delivering a histrionic monologue, the town schizoid’s wild-eyed ramblings, or John’s lunatic police partner having a monumental meltdown.  What could have been a richly textured study of one man’s noble struggle to achieve greatness without sacrificing his integrity winds up being a nicely filmed TV cop drama instead.

Elevator to the Gallows (France 1958) (9): Louis Malle’s debut feature film is a devilishly clever bit of pulp fiction brimming with dark irony and a pervasive fatalism. Florence and Julien are impassioned lovers whose desire to be together prompts them to concoct a foolproof scheme to off her husband—a wealthy arms dealer who also happens to be Julien’s boss. But as Florence waits for him in a nearby cafe Julien’s well laid plans hit a couple of serious snags when he gets stuck in an elevator while fleeing the scene of the crime at the same time a pair of juvenile delinquents decide to go for a joy ride in his getaway car. With Florence thinking the worst, Julien desperately trying to free himself, and the car thieves racking up one deadly complication after another, everyone is in for a long and bumpy ride. Despite some theatrical dialogue and a few improbable twists—or perhaps because of them—Malle’s freshman production, based on Noël Calef’s novel, is a savvy, suspenseful thriller that keeps you on edge right up to the ingenious Catch-22 ending. Briskly edited and filmed in crisp B&W, it’s headline stars Maurice Ronet and French New Wave darling Jeanne Moreau are in fine form as they sweat and agonize over a fate that seems all but sealed while a dark and stormy night heads toward an uncertain dawn. And having legendary jazz musician Miles Davis supply the largely improvised background score is the final cherry on top.

11:14 (USA 2003) (7): At precisely 11:14 pm, on a lonely stretch of highway, five disparate yet oddly connected stories converge for one brief moment. By the time 11:15 rolls around one exasperated policeman will have to contend with two dead bodies, a botched robbery, a mysterious hit and run, and a little severed penis. Laced with a grim sense of humour Greg Marcks‘ fatalistic drama begins with a straightforward plot device---a car accident; then, by rewinding his camera five separate times, he proceeds to challenge our understanding of what we just witnessed as we see all the events which led up to that one opening crash. Buoyed by some good performances and with enough twists and tangles to keep you entertained, 11:14 does manage to flesh out its eighty minute running time. But the use of intersecting stories and repetitive timelines is hardly new, having been used in other films with much greater effect, here it comes across as a wee bit gimmicky. The story is pretty cool though, and Marcks certainly has enough surprises to spring on an unwary audience. An intelligently written no-brainer with a wicked heart.

Elmer Gantry (USA 1960) (8): In the 1920’s midwest, traveling salesman and petty grifter Elmer Gantry (Oscar winner Burt Lancaster) is living hand to mouth selling vacuum cleaners and pop-up toasters in between bouts of drinking and carousing. Handsome and charmingly loquacious, he’s always looking for an easy buck no matter who he has to sweet-talk. One night he happens upon an old-fashioned Christian tent revival run by charismatic preacher Sister Sharon Falconer (a demure Jean Simmons) and when he sees the enraptured crowd hanging on her every word, not to mention handing over their spare change, he realizes that selling salvation may be the most lucrative scam going. Worming his way into Falconer’s confidence Gantry’s fire ’n brimstone sermons and showbiz panache soon have spellbound vigilantes waging a moral crusade all over town, filling his pockets and stoking his insatiable ego in the process. But when a shameful secret from the past suddenly resurfaces it threatens to smack the bible right out of his hand and causes him to see Sister Falconer in an entirely different light. Highly controversial for its cynical portrayal of organized religion as something of a con game (how little things have changed over the decades), Richard Brooks’ adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel pits Sister Falconer’s steadfast faith against Gantry’s opportunistic blustering while an atheist newspaper reporter covering her ministry serves as a referee of sorts. What happens when the good Sister begins to question her convictions and the former salesman begins to believe his own sermons makes for one helluva show culminating in an apocalyptic finale which will have believers pondering deep thoughts and everyone else smirking over the pile of ironies.

El Norte (USA/UK 1983) (4): Enrique and his sister Rosa are Mayan indians working on a coffee plantation in Guatemala where the aboriginal labourers are treated like disposable slaves. After a planned uprising goes terribly wrong the two siblings flee their small mountain village and begin the long trek to America where, according to their aunt’s dusty collection of “Good Housekeeping” magazines, the streets are paved with consumer goods and everyone owns a flush toilet. Braving deprivation and predatory peasants (and a sewer full of belligerent rats) the two finally find themselves in the promised land only to discover that the life of an illegal alien is not much different than the life they left. Gregory Nava’s sophomoric attempt at pricking our social conscience plays out like a Grimm fairy tale with a little brown Hansel and Gretel wandering lost through the forest of Los Angeles while being taken advantage of at every turn by cardboard caricatures of gringos and chicanos alike. As Enrique proudly practices his English while serving caviar at a private club (and sounding like Manuel on Fawlty Towers) Rosa tries to decipher the arcane workings of a modern washing machine and ends up scrubbing her rich bitch employer’s laundry on the front lawn instead. Ha ha culture shock! Nava clearly has trouble deciding whether his film is a tragedy shot through with humour or a comedy with tragic overtones although either approach fails by the time the ending rolls around: a life-changing decision is tempered by a cheesy hospital scene lifted straight from a Mexican soap opera with Barber’s Adagio for Strings playing obtrusively in the background. His heart is in the right place but a facile script that relies on every cliché it can find and a host of embarrassingly bad performances ultimately undo whatever humanitarian message was meant to be conveyed.

El Topo (Mexico 1970) (5): Ostensibly a western featuring a black clad gunslinger and his nude 6-year old alter ego. After witnessing the murder of an entire town by a group of rowdies, El Topo (the mole) decides to seek revenge which leads him to the path of enlightenment as he defeats one master duelist after another until his death and rebirth as messianic leader to a tribe of cave-dwelling misfits. The grandfather of all midnight movies, Jodorowsky's spiritual allegory owes more than a passing nod to Catholic voodoo, 60s drug culture, and the director's pathological relationship with his own father. God, Messiah, Avenging Angel, and Sacrificial Lamb all rolled into one, El Topo's journey towards the light is at once an emotional catharsis rife with sex and violence, and a series of inner revelations (cue mystical bunnies and subterranean resurrection). But mostly it's just a lot of artsy tableaux and quasi-mystical banter which gives the appearance of tremendous depth depending on how long you hold the smoke... Like far out man!

Emanuelle and the Last Cannibals (Italy 1977) (4): Yet another soft-core adventure featuring everybody’s favourite nympho photojournalist, horribly written and horribly dubbed just the way we like it! This time around Emanuelle is working undercover in a psychiatric hospital when the newest admission, a wild woman found wandering around the Amazon, decides to chew a nurse’s breast off. Armed with her unique talent for mixing business with pleasure, our scantily clad shutterbug manages to uncover a few clues beneath the woman’s hospital gown while simultaneously getting her fingers wet. Suspecting that the patient ran afoul of real life cannibals, Emanuelle immediately grabs her camera and a clean thong and heads for the wilds of South America accompanied by her anthropologist paramour-du-jour. There, in the steamy jungles of Brazil, she will have to contend with an impotent big game hunter and his man-eating wife, a pious nun in garters, and a forest full of hungry horny savages. But not to worry, for even though her clothes constantly desert her our salacious camerawoman manages to make her way back to America without being eaten (for a change). A sultry soundtrack of porn ballads clashes nicely with some low-budget gore effects, including one especially nasty scene which lends new meaning to the term “split beaver”. Ciao!

Emanuelle and the White Slave Trade (Italy 1978) (2): This time around our slutty shutterbug is on assignment in Nairobi where she hopes to infiltrate the carefully guarded hideaway of notorious Italian gangster Giorgio Rivetti. But first her blonde friend Ely insists on showing her the sights including an impromptu visit to a local garage where Ely receives a five-point inspection and lube job from a willing mechanic while Emanuelle gives herself a manual overhaul in the front seat. After a brief lesbian shower scene where Ely proves that she is in fact not a true blonde, the two girls dress up as stewardesses, latch onto a visiting European prince, and finagle their way into Rivetti’s compound. One wild animal safari and hashish-induced four-way later Emanuelle has her story and is bound for home when she hears of a white slave trade operating out of New York. Her investigations eventually lead to a private sex club in San Diego where she poses as a new trainee, ingratiating herself with the club’s stern madame and drag queen overseer. Her first assignment is to help an elderly senator work out a few kinks while Madame and a young protégée give each other a firm “thumbs up” from behind a two-way mirror. Upon discovering some awful truths about the establishment’s recruitment policy Emanuelle tries to escape only to be captured by the resident goon squad leading to a Kung Fu showdown in a bowling alley, an obligatory gang rape, an attempted lobotomy (I kid you not), and a personalized pap smear from a busty nurse. Things eventually do end on a happy note as Emanuelle straddles the plank with a boatload of horny fishermen while the newspapers print her incriminating photos. With its atrocious dubbing and choppy editing, obviously designed to keep things just this side of an “X” rating, this is one of the sloppier instalments of the series. Not worth the price of emission.

Emanuelle Around the World  (Italy 1977) (5):  Here's some fun stuff to do while watching "Emanuelle Around the World"! (1) See how many famous landmarks you can name whenever Laura Gemser spreads her knees...."Ooh, it's the Golden Gate Bridge....and isn't that the Trevi Fountain?" (2) Whenever a nipple appears onscreen try and be the first one to yell "ROSEBUD!" (3) After each nude scene try and predict how many minutes Laura Gemser will keep her dress on. Who says a bit of mediocre Eurosleaze can't be fun...and educational!

Emanuelle in America  (Italy 1977) (6):  Ten minutes into the film Emanuelle is threatened by a crazed gunman who wants to kill her in order to save the world from immorality. Luckily she manages to put her mouth where his money is and thus begins yet another carefree, clothing optional chapter in the life of our horny heroine. Whether she's enjoying a Venetian orgy or simply cuddling up with a good snuff film Emanuelle can't help but bring joy and a quick release to everyone she meets, even Mr. Ed gets a helping hand! The production values are above par, the theme song surprisingly wistful and the hardcore bits almost erotic (the "Tarzan" scene was my favourite). Not bad at all.

Emanuelle in Bangkok (Italy 1976) (5): Luscious Laura Gemser reprises her role of the beloved international photographer suffering from chronic overexposure in this poorly dubbed and flaccidly softcore tale of sex in high places. This time around she’s on assignment in Bangkok (no, I won’t stoop to cheap puns) ostensibly to do a photo shoot of the royal family even though her tight schedule seems to leave plenty of time for lesbian bubble baths, naked opium binges, and a congenial gang rape. But sinister forces are afoot as the King is imprisoned and her apartment is ransacked. Luckily a group of German mercenaries are able to lend her several helping hands and she manages to flee to Casablanca just in time to satisfy a tent-load of Bedouins before beginning a torrid affair with the American ambassador’s daughter. D’Amato incorporates some cool travelogue footage with impressive location shots and a surprisingly wistful storyline--think of a chick flick made for dirty old men--that explores Emanuelle’s inner feelings almost as much as her underpants. It’s too bad the whole thing ends up looking like it was pasted together using surplus footage from other films though, a better editor could have made a world of difference. Or not.

Empire of Passion (Japan 1978) (7): In 19th century Japan the country wife of a lowly rickshaw driver is seduced by a dashing young officer, twenty-six years her junior. Consumed with passion for each other they murder her unsuspecting husband and dump his body down an abandoned well. But neither the living nor the dead will let them be for not only does the local magistrate come snooping around their village looking for the missing driver, the dead man’s ghost starts making regular visits to his guilt-stricken wife as well. Forced to continue their illicit affair in the shadows lest suspicious tongues begin to wag, the increasingly paranoid couple soon realize that sexual lust alone is no match for supernatural vengeance. An erotically charged tale of amour fou which manages to combine elements of horror with some surprisingly frank scenes of carnal abandon without diminishing either one. Although the story itself is rather straightforward (Karma is a bitch, man) director Nagisa Ôshima’s stagey presentation gives it the aura of a creepy campfire tale as his camera pans over clouds of mist wafting through a dark forest or a slow rain of autumn leaves obscuring the mouth of a moss-coated cistern. And, in typical Japanese fashion, the sex is both desperate and just a little twisted. Who knew you could be scared and horny at the same time?

Enchanted (USA 2007) (8):  Disney pokes fun at its own cutesy reputation in this playful satire on the fairytale formula.  The story concerns Giselle, a cartoon maiden in the animated land of Andalasia, who is about to marry Prince Edward, her one true love.  Edward’s wicked stepmother meanwhile, the evil sorceress Queen Narissa, schemes to block the marriage in order to keep the throne for herself.  To this end she banishes Giselle to the world of reality, namely New York City, where the winsome naïf must contend with muggers, freaks, and a cynical population that no longer believes in happily ever after.  It isn’t long before Giselle becomes entangled in the lives of a skeptical divorcee, his 8-year old daughter and his jealous fiancée; but when Prince Edward and his little chipmunk sidekick come looking for her things go from simply confusing to complete pandemonium...  Despite the sheer absurdity of the movie’s premise there is a seductive quality to the comical proceedings that caught me off guard and had me smiling like a kid.  The musical numbers are bright and lively, the allusions to Snow White and Cinderella are cleverly done, and the CGI effects are amazing....rats and cockroaches have never looked so darn cute!  And yes, there is a very happy ending for all.  Enchanted doesn’t try to be anything than what it is, a light and fluffy little treat.  It succeeds admirably.

The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream (Canada 2004) (7): There is a coming energy crisis, according to Gregory Greene’s cortège of solemn talking heads, which will make the shortages of the 70’s look like a golden age and the Iraqi war a minor skirmish. Gone are the days where oil and natural gas gushed out of wells and into our bottomless gas tanks and water heaters. As the earth’s supply of crude is used up it will become increasingly difficult...read expensive...to coax the black gold out of the ground necessitating deeper wells that produce fewer barrels. This law of diminishing returns is bad news to an America whose addiction to cheap energy and, by association, cheap prices on everything from food to detached bungalows has been nurtured by years of corporate propaganda and social manipulation. As the supply of oil slides down the wrong side of the bell curve, people will be forced to downscale their energy-dependent lifestyles and work/shop/play closer to home while economies become increasingly localized. And nowhere will this pinch be felt more than in those sprawling concrete salutes to conformity, the suburbs. At one time the pastoral retreat of the wealthy wishing to escape the industrial reek of crowded cities, the advent of cheap automobiles quickly opened up these hinterlands to the hordes of rat racers eager to hit the new super-freeways in search of their own piece of the American dream. “The ‘suburbia project’...” laments one author, “...was the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world...a living arrangement with no future”. Indeed, with energy prices predicted to skyrocket there will be a domino effect which will render the suburban dream unsustainable before Generation X gets its first gray hair. So where’s the upside? According to Greene there isn’t one unless you commit to the idea of “New Urbanism” which is essentially a nostalgic return to the livable urban environments of yesteryear where parks, specialty stores, apartment buildings and transit routes could all be found within walking distance of each other. Furthermore, although research into alternate energy sources should have begun 50 years earlier one cannot discount the ability of human ingenuity to overcome the obstacles it created in the first place. The only question seems to be, will people leave their obsolete suburban “McHouses” willingly or be dragged out kicking and screaming? Bleak and unsettling, Greene’s glimpse into our future history makes you feel as if you’ve been kicked out of bed right in the middle of a pleasant dream. But is his cast of interviewees simply a pack of gloomy naysayers, or true prophets of doom? I guess time will tell. *Gulp*

End of Summer  (Japan 1961) (9):  When you watch enough Ozu you realize a few things: all his movies revolve around the same themes.....the transitory nature of life/love/happiness and the identity crisis of post WWII Japan; he uses the same ensemble cast; he uses the same images (smoke, trains, tombstones); and he uses the same sets (same house, same tavern). However, his mastery of these elements make each film a separate joy to watch. "The End of Summer" tends to be a bit heavy-handed in is symbolism but I still found it entertaining. It's a pleasure to see a true artist at work even if you are already familiar with his palette.

The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Germany 1974) (8): In 1828 a strange young man suddenly appeared in Nuremberg’s town square. Unkempt and barely able to walk or communicate beyond a few words, the only clue to “Kaspar’s” origin was a letter clutched in his hand describing his lifelong imprisonment in a dark cellar, and his spoken desire to be a “cavalry officer” like his father. At first intrigued, the locals soon grew tired of Kaspar until a wealthy benefactor took him under his wing and taught him not only to read and write, but speak his mind as well. The results were both astonishing and ultimately frustrating for Kaspar’s perceptions of the world around him turned out to be…unique…to say the least. Writer/director Werner Herzog takes a historical incident and proceeds to fashion it into a series of satirical barbs as an increasingly verbose Kaspar is treated first as a novelty, then a financial burden, a trained monkey, and finally a tragic protagonist. The focus of Herzog’s critical eye is not on the man himself however, but rather the effect his appearance has on the staid German society into which he is thrust. Pursued by petty bureaucrats and bourgeois gawkers Kaspar’s unschooled (and therefore wholly innocent) mind is unprepared for the contradictions and meaningless conventions he encounters—a revered professor testing Kaspar’s mental capacity with a “problem in logic” has the rug pulled out from under him when the supposed idiot savant counters the accepted solution with one of his own and a pair of pious ministers turn blue after Hauser casually points out the inanity of their beliefs. And, just to further confuse the local gentry, Kaspar rattles off a few non-sequiturs involving desert nomads and an alpine danse macabre as if they were cryptic parables—“You must never tell a story unless you know how it ends” chides one woman. Using long takes and a soundtrack of classical chamber pieces, Herzog manages to keep his mordant sense of humour in check right up to the films amusingly ghoulish finale causing the chuckles, when they come, to be more self-conscious than we’d like. As an interesting aside, the life of lead actor Bruno S. was itself quite a sad enigma.

Entertainment (USA 2015) (7): In 2012 director Rick Alverson teamed up with Tim Heidecker (of Tim & Eric fame) to make The Comedy, one of the most brutal critiques of millennial mindsets ever set to celluloid. With Entertainment they inflict yet another angst-ridden wail of despair on an audience perhaps lured by the ironic title and promises of stand-up schtick from the film’s star, outré comedian Gregg Turkington. Turkington does don his onstage persona of Neil Hamburger—a dried up comedic has-been sporting a ridiculous tuxedo, perpetual cocktail and pathetic combover who looks as if he just crawled out of a months-long coma—only this time he stays in character throughout to show us the pain and boiling rage behind all those unfunny scatological one-liners. Ostensibly a road movie about a comic driving across the Mojave desert towards a big gig in Los Angeles and a possible reunion with his estranged daughter who never picks up the phone, Alverson turns the convention on its ear and instead delivers an unsettling study of one man’s gradual disintegration. With motel TV’s showing a mindless telenovela and the car radio blaring incongruous songs about hope and love, the comedian slowly makes his way stopping just long enough to perform in empty bars with his sidekick and alter ego, a pathetically untalented mime (Tye Sheridan), and take the occasional depressing side tour—an airplane graveyard, a ghost town, a blight of oil derricks. But with each failed show and each sad message left on his daughter’s answering machine his grip on sanity loosens one heckler at a time… Alverson makes use of his desert locales with empty highways and desiccated cacti emphasizing both his protagonist’s banality and growing disconnect. He then imparts a further sense of gravitas through the clever placement of primary colours and a unique soundtrack which includes everything from lounge to sacred chorales. Subtle as scorched earth and as pleasant as a razor blade across the wrist, Alverson’s film is certainly not for those easily offended or put off by long slow takes which show nothing yet scream volumes, and Turkington’s deadpan delivery doesn’t garner much sympathy when the fall eventually comes. But the point of the film is that it doesn’t have a point to make and the audience is invited to simply ride along at their own peril. John C. Reilly and Michael Cera co-star as a tediously dull cousin full of empty praise and a truck stop hustler looking for warmth.

Enter the Void (France 2009) (8): Gaspar Noe, the bad boy of French cinema, assaults our senses once more with this acid-tinged karmic mindfuck which makes up for its weak narrative with some dazzling visuals. Orphaned at an early age and then raised in separate foster homes, Linda and Oscar eventually find themselves sharing an apartment in a seedy section of Tokyo where they eke out an existence stripping and dealing narcotics respectively. But when Oscar is killed in a botched drug bust his sister's already unstable life takes a nosedive while Oscar's detached spirit embarks on a meandering tour through the now ethereal streets of downtown Tokyo which suddenly bear an uncanny resemblance to the netherworld described in his tattered copy of "The Tibetan Book of the Dead". Noe pulls all the usual tricks out of his sleeve for this one; vertiginous camerawork spins and loops seemingly at random, pulsating bass beats keep things anchored and everything is awash in lurid shades of neon light. There's the usual transgressive scenes one expects from Gaspar...a thrusting dildo here, an aborted fetus there...but a rough-edged lyricism slowly emerges as we see Oscar's soul buffeted between past and present aided by ubiquitous "portals" as it searches for its next destination. The ending is wholly predictable for anyone able to follow the clues (cryptic signage and artwork abound), but at 160 minutes the journey is breathtaking.

Equinox Flower (Japan 1958) (10): Businessman Hirayama has no trouble doling out words of wisdom to friends and colleagues alike, especially in matters of love and traditional values. But when his headstrong daughter Setsuko, sporting skirts and blouses in contrast to her mother’s kimonos, becomes engaged without his consent a showdown between the old ways and the new causes both sides to re-examine their priorities. There is not much here that Yasujirô Ozu hasn’t covered before as he once again examines Japan’s post WWII crisis of identity with timeworn customs slowly losing ground to all things Western, from clothes and music to female empowerment—but he does so with such finesse that it is worth watching all over again. Although this was only his first colour film he still manages to frame each scene with the eye of a painter: a cherry red kettle rests against a paper screen; a vase of flowers sits before a darkened window; and a gentle breeze stirs a line of drying laundry, their primary colours in harmony with the pale sky above. A master of light and composition, Ozu’s interiors are all squares and rectangles with doorways and bamboo panels drawing our attention to the unfolding drama within while his exterior shots of hard-edged skyscrapers and yielding trees provide fitting metaphors for father and daughter. Never one for melodrama, Ozu realizes that age must eventually give way to youth and this is highlighted by two standout images which remain with you throughout the final credits: a comfy chair beckons from the end of a sun-dappled hallway and a puffing train (one of his signature tropes) speeds towards a heartfelt reconciliation. This is what art looks like.

Erotic Daughters of Emmanuelle (France 1974) (1): After exploring the downstairs of his upstairs maid, Professor Mueller retires from the rat race in order to establish a rustic commune where “pleasure is all that matters”…<fast forward>…lusty lumberjacks take a breast break…<fast forward>…aphrodisiacs and blowjobs save the day when three reluctant businessmen refuse to sign a contract…<fast forward>…a woman makes out with a skeleton and an old man is led around on a leash…<fast forward>…a cowboy bags a pair of twins; John Holmes does a Frank Zappa imitation…<fast forward>…two couples discover a third position…<fast forward>…entwined lovers roll around in the grass, fall into a river, continue to roll around…<fast forward>…a drag queen’s wig falls off in the middle of a passionate kiss but the other guy doesn’t notice…<fast forward>…some gangsters rip off a woman’s bra…<fast forward>…officials show up in a limousine and get punched in the face…<fast forward>…lesbian action…<fast forward>…everyone ends up screwing in a ravine. The End.

Escape From Planet Earth (USA 2013) (4): When Scorch Supernova, superhero idol of the planet Baabs, is lost after responding to an alien distress signal from the mysterious “Dark Planet” (three guesses…) it’s up to his nerdy mission control brother Gary to set aside their longstanding sibling rivalry and rescue the big lummox. But things don’t go exactly as planned for Scorch and a host of other hapless aliens are being held captive by a mad general intent on using their advanced technology to develop an ultimate doomsday device…as well as everything else from touchscreen technology to social networking. Landing on Earth, Gary must use his formidable brain to not only free the aliens but prevent the paranoid army hawk from destroying every one of their home planets out of sheer spite. Gee, I wonder who will win? Rarely have so many cool celebrity voices been wasted as in this derivative mess of underdog clichés and stale E.T. pratfalls. With the exception of a few colourful scenes the visuals are mostly an uninspired mix of old View Master reels and Tomorrow Land miniatures populated by the usual assortment of marketable beasties and an insipid score of galactic muzak. The original songs suck too.

Eternal Love (USA 1929) (6): The great Ernst Lubitsch helms this silent weeper, deemed by many to be one of the era’s more notable works. Set in a small Swiss village circa 1806 it concerns the doomed love affair between the headstrong Marcus (screen legend John Barrymore) and the virginally pious Ciglia (Camilla Horn). Attracted to one another as only opposites can, their budding happiness is threatened on all sides by vindictive villagers and the petty jealousies of others—not to mention a subtle reference to some drunken adultery—until heaven itself provides a convenient though somewhat messy deus ex machina. Terribly emotive even for the genre and that final twist has got to be one of silent cinema’s most contrived “tragedies” but the B&W alpine scenery is lovely (filmed in Banff, Alberta!) and Lubitsch puts those howling snowstorms and jagged crags to imaginative use. It’s a wonder everyone didn’t come down with frostbite.

Eugénie de Sade (France 1970) (4): A tawdry bit of “amour fou” originally written by the Marquis de Sade, overhauled by Spanish sleaze auteur Jesus Franco, and set in contemporary Berlin. As she lay bleeding in her hospital bed, Eugénie Radeck de Franval takes time out from dying to make a breathless confession to prying journalist Attilla Tanner (Franco, showing that he can act about as well as he can direct). Raised by her stepfather Albert, a frustrated author with a weakness for violent erotica, Eugénie led a fairly normal life until the day she came upon a very dirty book hidden in Albert’s study and was “jolted into another level of reality” much to her stepdad’s delight. Quickly indoctrinating his daughter into the joys of sadistic sex, Albert and the impressionable Eugénie embarked upon a series of conquests involving rape, murder and, of course, incest. But when Eugénie became smitten with Paul, a local jazz musician, Albert was thrown into a jealous rage. Armed only with a pocket knife, a pair of scissors and a hara kiri blade he ultimately succeeded in destroying Eugénie’s one shot at true love. I’m sure Franco’s legions of fans will see all manner of deep psychosexual nonsense at work in this panty parade; the ruinous effects of obsessive love, the complicity of the voyeur, and the arbitrary line separating pleasure from pain for instance. He certainly does try to inject an arty sensibility to the proceedings with bleak urban skylines and wintry landscapes set to a soundtrack of pretentious violins and warbling divas. However, despite the postcard visuals and inflated dialogue it all falls flat; a grandiose vision served up by a limited talent. Not enough flesh for the pervs, not enough meat for the rest of us.

Europa (Denmark/Germany 1991) (8): Wanting to make the world a slightly better place Leopold Kessler, the American son of a German expat, travels back to his father’s homeland shortly after WWII in order to work. Meeting up with his uncle, a gruff and taciturn old goat who dislikes Americans as much as he mistrusts Germans, Leopold lands a job as a first class sleeping car conductor where he meets and falls in love with Katharina, the railway owner’s enigmatic daughter. But despite his desire to “show Germany a little kindness”, Katharina’s shady connections to the underground partisan movement eventually bring about a crisis of conscience in Leopold when he is forced to make a moral decision between two equally repugnant options. Filmed in hallucinatory B&W with occasional splashes of grainy colour, and using a variety of gaudy cinematic conceits from rear projection to macabre montages, Lars von Trier’s unflattering examination of Germany’s post-war mindset looks like the brainchild of Guy Maddin and David Lynch after the two had shared a few lines of coke. With Kafkaesque sets and dialogue centred on rules, regulations, and conformity, von Trier presents a defeated nation scrambling over its own ruins while bowing meekly to the Allied forces which now control it. Trains, always a powerful metaphor, are used to great effect here whether it be a couple destroying a toy railroad set with their desperate copulating or Leopold’s own train, formally employed at Auschwitz, now refurbished with carefully segregated compartments: wealthy industrialists and military brass to the front, huddling peasants in the middle, and a makeshift concentration camp in the rear where emaciated inmates stare blankly from behind iron bars and chickenwire. And despite the faux elegance of its first class accommodations, the tattered curtains and grimy windows reveal nothing but passing scenes of death and destruction. Finally, as if to overlay an element of dark psychodrama, Max von Sydow’s grim voiceover plays hypnotist to our hapless protagonist’s sad struggles. A dystopian mindfuck and a fine example of what von Trier was capable of before he went off the deep end.

Europa Report (USA 2013) (8): Sebastián Cordero has fashioned one of those rare cinematic achievements: an intelligent outer space thriller which favours genuine tension over cheap shocks and a keen sense of wonder over conventional horror clichés. In the near future a manned mission is sent to Europa, Jupiter’s enigmatic ice ball of a moon, in the hope of finding aquatic life under its thick crust of frozen water. En route the crew of Europa One loses contact with Earth thanks to a particularly violent solar flare which temporarily disables their communications equipment. With just weeks to go before their Jovian rendezvous Commander Daniel Wu decides to go ahead with the mission, meticulously documenting their journey for eventual transmission back to Ground Control once a radio link is reestablished. After several complications, including one tragedy, they eventually land on Europa and begin to explore the vast ocean beneath its surface. Needless to say they are not quite prepared for what happens next. Told almost entirely in flashback using “declassified” video footage beamed back from various onboard cameras, as well as earthbound talking heads offering explanations to an unseen audience, a frightening yet remarkable story gradually unfolds which keeps you on edge without resorting to standard monster movie tropes. Cordero’s manic directorial style, coupled with a few well placed auditory jolts, constantly catches you off guard. At times the screen is filled with multiple video feeds challenging viewers with a high-energy visual collage which suddenly narrows down to one single staticky frame before fading to black. At other times Jupiter hangs crazily in the sky as a shaky suit-mounted camera records something in the shadows of an ice cave and a remote underwater submersible relays scores of amazing data from just beneath the Europa One’s landing module. Although Cordero’s quick cutaways and jerky editing are highly effective in maintaining a skittish suspense, he does manage to smooth out the film’s rougher edges with regular flash-forwards to the relative calm of various after-the-fact press conferences. Well paced, beautifully photographed (nice to see a spaceship interior that doesn’t look like a Disney attraction), and filled with a subtle sense of awe. And those final scenes did not disappoint.

Even Dwarfs Started Small (Germany 1970) (7): Werner Herzog may have written and directed this grotesque oddity but it presents itself more like an unholy collaboration between Buñuel, Pasolini, and Harmony Korine. In a sere landscape of desiccated palms and lava beds populated entirely by midgets the residents of a remote institution (reform school? asylum? gulag?) have revolted causing the desperate camp commandant to take a lone hostage and barricade himself behind its concrete walls. But, unsure how to handle their newfound freedom, the diminutive rioters run rampant destroying everything in their path with sadistic zeal—plants are set on fire, furniture is smashed, farm animals are tortured, a pair of blind pacifists are taunted beyond endurance—before it all ends on a note of unhinged nihilism. But what is Herzog getting at? The attention given to the destruction of material possessions would suggest a critique of bourgeois values (a truck’s steering wheel is jammed so that it spins in endless circles much to everyone’s delight while a formal al fresco dinner turns into an orgy of smashed plates and flung peas). Yet there is an underlying meanness to the little peoples’ bacchanal that points a sardonic finger at mankind’s inherent fascination with vice and cruelty. At one point a woman proudly presents a shoebox diorama featuring a wedding party of dead insects and a man leads a mock religious procession solemnly waving a crucified monkey. Certainly the curious casting of little people has much to say about Herzog’s mindset for here we see humanity literally downsized to a mob of cackling imps while the world looms huge by comparison and all symbols of authority (the commandant, the police) are either completely impotent or non-existent. Herzog’s third feature film certainly deserves kudos for sheer balls and chutzpah, but the shots of suffering animals go beyond the pale.

Ever After (USA 1998) (7): Drew Barrymore shines in this unabashedly romantic, and refreshingly feminist, rewrite of Cinderella which forgoes magical interventions and talking mice for a more practical approach—even the requisite Fairy Godmother is replaced by a most unexpected Renaissance cameo. Set in 16th century France it tells the story of little Danielle, daughter of a minor nobleman, who is demoted to scullery maid when her father dies and leaves her to the mercies of his new wife and her two spoiled daughters. The stepmother, Baroness Rodmilla (an ice cold Anjelica Huston still managing to elicit a bit of pathos), soon runs the estate into debt thanks to her wild spending habits so when the palace announces young Prince Henry is searching for a mate she is determined to see her pouty daughter Marguerite on the throne no matter what the cost. Danielle in the meantime has already met the prince when he literally stumbled upon her in a field and romance has blossomed—but he thinks she is a wealthy courtier and through a set of elaborate ruses she has maintained the illusion. But when the Baroness discovers that Danielle has thrown a wrench into her royal ambitions the claws come out and only a miracle or two, along with Danielle’s own resourcefulness, will save the day. Filmed on location in the French Dordogne region where castles and forests nestle beneath perpetually blue skies, Ever After never strays very far from its fairy tale inspirations. All the characters are scrubbed clean, sunlight sparkles off every surface, and any sense of menace is quickly damped down to Disney levels—a roving band of gypsy cutthroats turn out to be just a bunch of party animals while Rodmilla’s scowling machinations are reduced to an unhappy woman’s mid-life crisis. It all ends happily ever after of course with nasty people getting their comeuppance and a gushing Royal Ball to rival any little girl’s (or boy’s) storybook fantasy. Light and fluffy throughout, but somehow satisfying just the same.

Eve’s Bayou (USA 1997) (8): It’s 1962 and for ten-year old Eve Batiste, daughter of Louis Batiste “the most successful coloured doctor in Louisiana”, life is just one long lazy summer. Graced—or perhaps cursed—by her slightly eccentric family, life is never dull: there’s suave aunt Mozelle, saddled with perpetual widowhood, whose crazy voodoo visions have a tendency to come true; older sister Cisely pretending to be mature beyond her years, and mom Roz who’s finding it increasingly difficult to ignore her husband’s drunken philandering. But her childhood innocence begins its downward descent one night when Eve witnesses one of her father’s indiscretions, and as lies and revelations begin to pile up the ugliness of the real world begins to overwhelm her youthful idealism leading to anger, recrimination…and a fateful visit to a backwater witch. Softening his sometimes fatalistic sense of reality with charm and just a touch of the supernatural, writer/director Kasi Lemmons' keen eye for emotional nuances hits the mark thanks to a fine cast and a literate script. His bayou settings, festooned with Spanish moss and magical portents, at first reflect his little protagonist’s feelings of wonder, but as her eyes are slowly opened the snakes and spiders she once took for granted come to represent some of life’s darker aspects. A powerful and poignant coming-of-age tale.

Evil Dead (USA 2013) (6): Five young people descend upon a backwoods cabin in order to help one of their members go cold turkey. And then one dark and stormy night they happen upon a trapdoor which leads to a hidden cellar filled with the mummified corpses of forest animals. The underground vault also contains a mysterious book of black magic covered with hastily scrawled warnings begging whoever discovers it to leave well enough alone. Of course the warnings go unheeded and when one particular dipshit recites a spell he discovers on one of the blood-spattered pages he inadvertently releases a malevolent spirit leading to all sorts of messy dispatches and demonic mayhem. Will the survivors be able to undo the evil that’s been unleashed or is this truly mankind’s last stand? Brimming with squishy effects and spurting arteries Fede Alvarez’s high tech remake of the Sam Raimi horror classic certainly doesn’t want for blood (reportedly 70,000 gallons of fake gore were used) but a few extra brain cells would have been nice especially towards the end where a Hail Mary final solution is so patently ludicrous that I just stared dumbfounded. But the atmospherics are great—dark woods, dark cellar, flashes of lightning—and the grossness factor is creatively revolting with a nail gun, electric carving knife, and requisite chainsaw making special guest appearances. The underlying camp humour will appeal to those so inclined and a few ham-fisted references to the original (OMG! The drawing in the book looks just like the 1981 movie poster!) are sure to keep the Comic-Con crowd on their toes. I was pleasantly amused.

Excellent Cadavers (Italy 2005) (6):  Bleak and pessimistic look at the Sicilian mafia and its intimate relationship with Italy’s corrupt political system.  It would appear that the Cosa Nostra is so firmly entrenched in that country’s governmental affairs that any attempt to root it out results in bureaucratic stonewalling and a rash of cold-blooded assassinations.  The mafia itself is presented as a highly structured and ruthless organization that maintains its economic stranglehold through a mixture of intimidation, bribes, and murder.  Turco recounts the story of two brave magistrates who painstakingly gathered evidence in order to bring hundreds of Mafiosi to justice in Italy’s trial of the century.  They later paid for their honesty with their lives and most of the convictions they won were overturned.  He uses a combination of grainy news footage and still photos to give his documentary a gritty realism that is complimented by a handful of articulate talking heads.  Technically, it appears a bit disjointed in places and the narration is occasionally  choppy, furthermore it could certainly use some tighter editing.  Despite these flaws however it remains a fine example of objective journalism.

Executive Suite (USA 1954) (8): When Avery Bullard, the autocratic CEO of a Fortune 500 company, drops dead without having named a Vice President a power void quickly develops within the executive ranks as each man jostles for his shot at the Big Chair. The playing field is ultimately narrowed to two men: Loren Shaw, who represents the new business model of putting dividends ahead of innovation; and Don Walling, an old-fashioned idealist who believes net profits must take a back seat to corporate pride and quality workmanship. With corruption, adultery, and shady business deals swaying the others’ votes it comes down to heiress Julia Tredway, major stockholder and Bullard’s former mistress, to sway everyone’s opinion one way or the other. But Julia, distraught and suicidal over her lover’s death, wants nothing to do with either man. A well-balanced Wall Street parable in which the death of one millionaire comes to symbolize the death of an era. Throughout the course of the film we learn that Bullard based his career on demanding nothing but the best—-the best workers, best material, best product—-only to switch his focus to shareholder profits in his waning post WWII years; a legacy clearly demonstrated in the cold-hearted office politics which erupt even before his body has grown stiff. And with only one man to oppose this slide into executive greed and worker apathy (a fiery William Holden as Don Walling) the odds seem hopeless. A truly star-studded cast put in excellent performances and director Robert Wise’s decision not to tack on a musical score results in a film filled with sharp edges and heavy silences. Finally, a few brilliant touches add a sense of dramatic irony to the film’s fable-like quality: a boardroom wall of stained glass windows suddenly resembles a cathedral apse as Walling delivers an impassioned speech on corporate noblesse oblige to his fellow execs, and a nearby clock tower resounds with a funereal peal at crucial points throughout the film. Perhaps Executive Suite’s sermon on hope and industrial honour falls on deaf ears in today’s “Made in China” society, but it nevertheless remains one of Hollywood’s better tributes to the American Can-Do! ethos.

Exit Humanity (USA 2011) (2): A young frontiersman struggles to stay alive when the American Civil War is followed by a zombie apocalypse. Like a bad movie based upon a bad graphic novel (including some budget-saving segments of bad animation), this ponderous turkey vainly tries to breathe new life into a dead theme and fails miserably. Some of the wild west vistas are pretty, and star Mark Gibson is hunky enough, but the poor editing (enough with the teary flashbacks already), hammy performances, and distinct lack of zombie gore made us wave the white flag at the 30 minute mark. Should be renamed Yawn of the Dead.

The Exterminating Angel (Mexico 1962) (8): As Señor Nobile and his lovely wife prepare for a lavish dinner party at their mansion they are somewhat perturbed when the servants decide to beat a hasty retreat before the guests have even come through the front door. Keeping a stiff upper lip, the wealthy couple decide to wing it anyway with the aid of their chief Steward. Aside from some flying hors d’oeuvres things go splendidly until the guests retire to the living room and suddenly find themselves unable (or unwilling) to leave. There are no locked doors or physical barriers but an unexplained physical malaise keeps them rooted in the salon and try as they may they just can’t seem to make it past the threshold. As crowds gather outside the estate, equally unable to walk past the open gate, the dinner guests slide into a type of bourgeois savagery; angry recriminations are leveled at their hosts, adulterous urges are acted upon and a messy meal is made of a hapless flock of sheep that just happen to wander by. As their isolation drags on the affluent partygoers, desperate for material comfort and helpless without their maids and butlers to wait on them, begin to despair. Walls are ripped apart in search of water, rare Ming vases become toilets and, as a last ditch effort, a seemingly absent God is called upon. Once again Luis Buñuel takes aim at the pettiness of the upper class and scores a bullseye. By combining fierce wit with a parade of increasingly absurd plot twists he delivers a cruel satire that has you laughing even as you cringe. The mundane qualities of his subjects are brought out in some very clever ways with individual lines (and one entire scene) being repeated and an acid-tongued script laced with disparaging remarks about class and patriotism. Furthermore, aside from their all-consuming lethargy, there exists a spiritual paralysis with some guests taking cold comfort in meaningless ritual; as one woman offers up a showy prayer to the Virgin, another practices voodoo with the chicken feet and feathers stashed in her purse and a couple of well-dressed dandies eagerly exchange secret Masonic handshakes. Ever the atheist, Buñuel adorns the salon walls with faded religious icons, including one prominent painting of St. Michael battling the dragon which graces the makeshift latrine’s outer door. But his final jab at both church and aristocracy is saved for a deliciously irreverent ending involving raucous bells and a few persistent sheep. Wonderfully layered and impossible to pigeonhole.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (France 2010) (6): Lukewarm riff on the Lara Croft/Indiana Jones theme in which our eponymous heroine, globe-trotting journalist Adèle Blanc-Sec, regularly braves outrageous perils and narrow escapes in order to supply her publisher with the most fantastic tales. It is 1911 and Blanc-Sec is currently scouring the Sahara desert searching for the final resting place of Patmosis, the brilliant physician to pharaoh Ramses II, in the hopes that his mummified remains will somehow provide a clue to treating her comatose sister back in Paris. But the evil Professor Dieuleveult is hot on her trail and the one person who can help her has a date with the guillotine. And as if that is not enough, upon her return to France she is romantically pursued by a lovestruck zoologist and her plans are constantly being dashed by a posse of bumbling detectives and a rather persistent pterodactyl. Yes, a pterodactyl. Although pretty to look at, lead actress Louise Bourgoin lacks both the edgy sensuality of Croft and the droll self-effacing humour of Jones making her swashbuckling adventures seem strangely pedestrian. Furthermore, although director Luc Besson makes excellent use of some very clever CGI effects (a gaggle of wise-cracking mummies brought a smile to my face) the film’s comic book inspiration becomes painfully obvious as everything starts to get very silly towards the end; his final scene is a narrative misstep of titanic proportions. Entertaining for what it’s worth, but I think I’ll pass on the promised sequel.

The Eyes of Laura Mars (USA 1978) (6): Laura Mars is a celebrated New York photographer whose provocative fashion lay-outs involving scantily clad lingerie models in scenes of murder and mayhem raise the ire of feminists and social conservatives alike. But when she begins having psychic visions of close friends being killed by a mad stalker, murders that become all too real, she finds herself gaining a notoriety she hadn’t bargained on. With the killer on her tail and a romance blossoming with the rugged detective assigned to her case (Tommy Lee Jones with big poofy hair and bell bottoms!) Laura finds her personal and professional lives thrown into a tailspin. Kershner poses some tough questions about the role of art in society; does it simply reflect a reality that already exists, or does it play an integral role in shaping that reality? In our media-obsessed culture should artists be held accountable for their creations, or does “freedom of expression” trump all even if it’s solely for monetary gain? Laura stages mock tragedies as part of her work, but at night she retreats to a posh penthouse appointed with serene statuary and calming earth tones where she can detach herself from the chaos far below. “Murder exists already...” she protests, “...physical, spiritual, moral...I just show it...”. And as an ironic rebuke sales of her photographs skyrocket after news of the killings become public. There are a few such clever touches throughout the film; Laura’s bedroom is lined with floor to ceiling mirrors which reflect fractured illusory images of herself, several of her more controversial spreads bear an eerie resemblance to actual crime scene photos, and her “visions” are presented as grainy commercial video footage. Is art imitating life, or have the roles reversed? Unfortunately Kershner is too busy throwing red herrings at us to explore these tantalizing questions in any depth and we are left with an above average police thriller with extraneous love story instead. Faye Dunaway is certainly radiant in the title role, and the film’s colourful blend of 70s fashion, bad hairdos and disco snippets is effective. But it could have been so much more.

Eyes Without a Face (France 1960) (9): Brilliant yet slightly unbalanced plastic surgeon Doctor Génessier will stop at nothing to restore the face of his daughter which was left horribly disfigured as a result of his careless driving—even if he has to make unwilling skin donors out of a couple of unlucky young women. Aided by his equally unbalanced assistant, a former patient who now adores him, and a stable of very vocal canine guinea pigs Génessier wields his scalpel with intellectual abandon in the makeshift operating room he has set up in the garage. Meanwhile his daughter Christiane, sporting a flesh-like mask and Givenchy gowns, wanders the estate like a despondent wraith unsure as to whether or not her father’s grotesque experiments are worth it… Director Georges Franju plays this wickedly camp horror story completely straight making you feel the doctor’s burden of guilt and Christiane’s growing sense of anguish as all attempts to make her “normal” again end in disaster. Beautifully staged with shadows and staircases evoking more pathos than tension and a poignant musical score which underlines the film’s overall sense of sadness and loss. As an aside the rather intense surgical scenes, shocking for 1960, threw European censors into a tizzy and reportedly had people fainting in the aisles at its Edinburgh premiere.

Faces (USA 1968) (7): The war between the sexes is a bleak battlefield indeed in this early experimental work by John Cassavetes. As his marriage deteriorates into a series of angry clashes, Richard Forst tries to seek some comfort in the arms of Jeannie, a prostitute half his age. His wife Maria, meanwhile, has her own disastrous fling with Chet, a young dance floor gigolo. But with the morning light fantasies give way to cold reality and each partner is forced to confront the loveless mess their relationship has become. Themes of alienation and illusion run strongly throughout Cassavetes’ film as characters gasp for air between bouts of loneliness and rage; each one bearing the scars of living yet none capable of sharing their pain openly. Drunken banality and sexual games replace actual communication, and as the night wears on both become increasingly destructive. While one of Jeannie’s intoxicated clients proudly declares his love for “Aesop’s fables and Walt Disney”, one of Maria’s elderly friends, terrified of her own mortality, makes a pathetic fool of herself fawning over a blond youth. Even the Forst’s own adulterous transgressions are shown for the desperate acts of denial they are; in trying to ignore their marriage’s impending demise they form the most tenuous of bonds with people who are essentially idealized strangers. As Chet sagely observes, “Nobody has the time to be vulnerable to each other...” Cassavetes’ use of B&W coupled with severe camera angles which pit foreground against background, often across a table or flight of stairs, highlights the movie’s confrontational tone. Furthermore, as characters go from room to room flicking switches on and off, shifting panels of light and darkness are created which offset the film’s heavy realist approach. Lastly, the use of artwork is both subtle and powerful; while Jeannie’s apartment is decorated with images of solitary nymphs, the Forst’s have a painting of a couple playing an intense game of chess and a photo of multiple streams flowing aimlessly over a barren landscape. If the drama is a wee bit overdone in parts the powerful performances almost make up for it.

Factotum (USA 2005) (8): Hank Chinaski is your typical “beat generation” antihero; a frustrated street-level poet drifting from one dead end job to another, broke, angry and perpetually hung over. His brutally honest essays about life on the edge are filled with rage and despair yet even as he shakes his fist at the world he seems forever destined to stagger in its shadow. One could almost see him as a tragic martyr to his art if it were not for the fact his stigmata are entirely self-inflicted; between the alcoholic benders and destructive love affairs he manages to sabotage every chance he gets to rise above the gutters and dives that seem to demarcate his life. But even as the piles of rejected manuscripts and empty beer bottles get higher, he doggedly pursues his only dream; to be a published author. The film ends much as it begins with Hank, down but not quite defeated, drawn towards yet another elusive muse as she saunters seductively across a smoky bar... Matt Dillon is superb; he brings a complex intensity to the role of Hank that is further enhanced by strong supporting performances from Lili Taylor and Marisa Tomei. His character may not elicit much sympathy but his passion is unmistakable. Ultimately it’s Hamer’s assured direction that manages to keep things gritty and believable; his portrayal of a life set to slow burn is at once wholly captivating and oddly inspiring. Well done.

Fail-Safe (USA 1964) (9): When a suspicious computer glitch accidentally sends six American fighter jets into Russian air space with a nuclear payload marked for Moscow a desperate round of telephone negotiations begin between the president (a deadly serious Henry Fonda) and the Soviet premier. Unable to recall the squadron both men must find a way to prevent them from reaching their target or else face the spectre of WWIII--a nuclear holocaust in which no one will emerge victorious. With time running out and war hawks on both sides itching for a confrontation (Walter Matthau as a pathological pentagon advisor with a taste for commie blood is the very embodiment of Eden’s serpent) it isn’t long before fear and ingrained nationalism begin to take their toll on those gathered in their underground bunkers. And then the president and his Soviet counterpart begin to ponder the unthinkable… If the plot bears more than a passing resemblance to Dr. Strangelove it is not by accident. Both films were released by Columbia in 1964 and both were filmed in much the same style--tight claustrophobic camera shots, grim B&W cinematography, and an idealized War Room dominated by a computerized map on which the fate of the world is played out like a game of PONG. But whereas Kubrick chose to mock atomic paranoia with mordant satire, Sidney Lumet exaggerates it then uses it as a podium from which to deliver a fiery sermon on the insanity of nuclear stockpiling….Fonda’s harsh condemnation directed at both the White House and Kremlin are clearly aimed at the audience instead. Some overly dramatic background drama notwithstanding, this is a tense and unrelenting Cold War horror film with a stellar cast and a pervasive sense of doom that has barely dimmed in fifty years.

The Fall (UK 2008) (8): While languishing in a Los Angeles hospital circa 1915 a suicidal Hollywood stuntman passes the time entertaining a little girl with tall tales regarding the evil Governor Odious and the five eccentric bandits who've sworn to kill him. Presented from a child's point of view this is one of the most beautifully visual films I've ever seen; amazingly surreal sets (it was filmed in 18 countries) bathed in rich primary colours and framed with the eye of a poet. As man and girl enter into the story's narrative an unexpected psychological depth emerges that sets this one head and shoulders above the pack. A few melodramatic lapses are easily overlooked and the little actress is just too cute for words.

The Fallen Idol (UK 1948) (9): The precocious son of a French diplomat stationed in London has his innocence eroded by the lies and secrets told to him by his adult caretakers. With his parents away, little Phillipe treats the enormous embassy in which he lives as one big playground; his only adult contacts being the kind-hearted butler Baines, and Baines’ wife, a severe and unhappy woman who rules Phillipe’s life with an iron fist. Finding solace in Baines’ friendship, Phillipe tags after the man whenever he can, even sneaking outside to follow him on his rounds. One day the child happens upon his friend getting cozy with the house stenographer at a local cafe and thus finds himself entrusted with the first of many lies. Convincing Phillipe that the woman is in fact a niece whom his wife cannot stand, Baines swears the boy to secrecy, even sealing the deal with ice cream and a trip to the zoo. It isn’t long however before the mentally unstable Mrs. Baines catches wind of the affair and a bewildered Phillipe suddenly finds himself at the centre of an emotional storm he cannot understand. But when a heated argument between Mrs. Baines and her husband ends up with her lying dead at the bottom of a staircase Phillipe, the sole witness to the altercation, discovers that telling “the truth” is far trickier than he imagined. Did he actually see a murder being committed or, as Baines’ conflicting testimony insists, nothing more than a tragic accident? Carol Reed’s knee-high noir thriller uses an impressionable child to highlight the fabrications and half-truths adults utilize to either get what they want, or avoid that which they don’t. Filmed through a kid’s eyes with meticulous attention to the interplay of light and shadow, Reed presents us with some strikingly images; an elusive game of hide-and-seek toys with our perceptions, a nighttime journey through the streets of London takes on a nightmarish quality, and a wee pet snake becomes a metaphor of biblical proportions. As he peers down at the adult world below him, usually from the vantage point of a bannister or balcony window, Phillipe’s observations on the contradictory nature between words and actions lends him a childlike wisdom which is both comforting and ultimately unsettling. An ironic coda wherein a truthful confession goes largely unheeded provided the perfect capstone.

Falling Down (USA 1993) (3): Determined to make it home in time for his daughter’s birthday party, a beleaguered everyman (Michael Douglas looking like a disgruntled Clark Kent) finds himself boxed in an interminable L.A. traffic jam on the hottest day of the year with no air conditioning and no patience. Abandoning his car on the freeway he decides to set out on foot but his walk soon becomes an infuriating odyssey across a landscape of failed capitalism and rude people behaving badly which causes his already creaking mind to completely unhinge. A surly Korean shopkeeper refuses to give him change for a dollar, a latino gang shakes him down, a batshit white supremacist makes a mockery of the Bill of Rights—and with each encounter his rage increases while his deadly arsenal grows exponentially from a baseball bat to a switchblade to a machine gun to a……bazooka?! And “home”, in actuality, is his ex-wife’s house and she already has a restraining order on him. Meanwhile, his trail of increasingly violent outbursts have attracted the attention of a soft-spoken, soon-to-be-retired police detective (Robert Duvall) with a few domestic problems of his own. Glaring racial stereotypes aside, this story of an angry white man with a gun lamenting over the fact that America is no longer great does touch a contemporary nerve, but director Joel Schumacher’s ham-fisted delivery is so insultingly facile that its deeper message of disposable lives and postmodern angst is lost in all the cinematic hubris. Douglas’ character is known only by his personalized license plate “D-FENS” (he works in a missile factory…get it?) and Los Angeles is conveniently reduced to a bubbling cauldron of country club elitists, lazy panhandlers, and unruly minorities—when D-Fens runs into his doppelgänger, an equally angry black man who just happens to be wearing the exact same outfit, I almost hit the eject button. And then, as if to make sure the stupider members of his audience get the message, Schumacher heaps on the ironies with outdoor murals of war and the Crucifixion strategically placed in the background along with garish signs blaring out “World Peace”, “Kill! Kill! Kill!”, and “No Matter, Never Mind”—and of course Old Glory makes several cameos in various stages of disrepair. Even a minor cut on D-Fens’ hand comes to resemble a bleeding stigmata. Duvall and Douglas do put in admirable performances considering what they had to work with, but casting Tuesday Weld as Duvall’s wife—a former beauty queen whose fading looks have transformed her into a psychotic cow—seemed vaguely insulting. The rest of the cast put in performances that are just too awful to dwell upon. It did succeed in making me madder than hell though, but for all the wrong reasons.

The Family Fang (USA 2015) (6): Siblings Annie and Baxter Fang had a unique childhood. Living under the shadow of their parents Caleb and Camille, a pair of avant-garde artistes, they were often used as little more than props for a series of outlandish public performance pieces which saw Annie sitting in Central Park singing a song about killing your parents and Baxter staging a mock bank robbery (complete with realistic handgun) while mom and dad gleefully filmed from the sidelines. Praised as groundbreaking guerrilla art by some critics, shallow pranks by others, the Fang’s antics nevertheless earned them an international reputation. Now adults, Annie and Baxter (Nicole Kidman, Jason Bateman—who also doubled as director) are still dealing with the fallout of their eccentric upbringing: she’s a B-list actress who drinks too much and he’s a one-hit author with a crushing case of writers’ block. But when their estranged parents (Christopher Walken, Maryann Plunkett) suddenly go missing and foul play is suspected old wounds are reopened and the past comes alive, for Baxter is convinced this is the real thing but an upbringing of subterfuge and staged humiliations has Annie doubting the evidence… Despite a host of good performances (Walken’s railing egotist steals every scene) and some colourful flashbacks, Bateman’s comedy/drama about a dysfunctional family living under the microscope—or camera lens—doesn’t have any new logs to throw onto the fire. Dad staunchly defends his past decisions, mom is browbeaten, the adult kids waver between angry recriminations and self-destructive depression, and it all ends with the usual epiphanies and weeping wounds. As a critique on the purpose of art however Fang does set forth a few tepid questions as to where the boundaries lay, but one fiery monologue from Caleb on the responsibility of the artist notwithstanding it all pretty much fizzles into so much pretentious gabble. Definitely not the best work of anyone involved, these fangs elicit little more than a superficial scratch.

Family Nest (Hungary 1979) (7): Due to a chronic housing shortage a young couple is forced to live with the husband's overbearing authoritarian father; a move that proves to be their undoing. Using a stark verite style composed of long intimate close-ups and heated monologues Bela Tarr uses the petty lies and everyday hypocrisies of one extended family to cast a jaundiced eye on life under Communist rule. The acting is flawless and despite some muddled subtitles the characters' underlying frustrations ring loud and clear.

Fanny and Alexander (Sweden 1982) (9): Set in 1907, Bergman’s kaleidoscopic swan song (his last theatrical movie), part autobiography part child’s eye fairy tale, follows the changing fortunes of Alexander Ekdahl and his little sister Fanny. Born into a wealthy family of show business eccentrics the two children were raised in a loving atmosphere of colourful hedonism filled with animated gossip, small infidelities and just a touch of madness. Things change for the worse however when, after the sudden death of her husband, Mrs. Ekdahl marries the local bishop, Edvard Vergerus, a dour unhappy man whose spartan home is ruled by “punctuality, cleanliness, and order”. Taking an instant dislike to his new stepfather, urged on perhaps by ghostly visitations from his late father, Alexander finds himself involved in a battle of wills with the austere cleric; a battle which eventually spreads to the entire Vergerus household with violent and unforeseen consequences. Bergman’s love for the theatre, and mistrust of religion, are evident throughout this grand period drama. Whether it be a children’s slide show, an ornate Christmas pageant, or a series of loving soliloquies extolling the virtues of stage and actor, there is a touch of magic to his film which manages to buoy his young protagonists even in their darkest moments. A midnight creep through the fantastical home of Alexander’s Uncle Isak, culminating in a most dramatic encounter with “God”, is pure cinematic wizardry. Furthermore, to his credit, Bergman does not demonize the Reverend Vergerus but rather shows him as a fully fleshed and tragically flawed human being who desires to do what is right but is crippled by his uncompromising religious convictions; a broken life-sized crucifix hidden away in his attic speaks volumes. But gloom and despair aside this is ultimately a comedy in the literary sense, replete with candlelit celebrations, loving smiles and a storybook ending. Originally filmed for Swedish television, Bergman’s original version had to be cut by more than two hours for this theatrical release and all that editing does take its toll on the story’s sense of continuity. Despite that however, Fanny and Alexander remains a true testament to his genius and a fitting capstone to a fascinating career.

Fantasm (Australia 1976) (6): Filmed in L.A. by an Aussie film crew, this little foray into softcore sexploitation explores the wacky world of female sexual fantasies. Host and narrator Dr. Jungenot A. Freud (get it?) introduces a series of vignettes designed to titillate those audiences down under who were just beginning to appreciate that country’s new “R” rating. Starting with a young woman who gets a very close shave from a trio of unusually hetero hairdressers the film’s mood seems to waffle between a low-keyed eroticism and outright burlesque. An altar-full of devilish monks stage their own version of the Burning Bush; a horny vixen wishes upon a banana and ends up having a food fight with John Holmes; a proper southern mother entertains some incestuous yearnings when her handsome military son comes home for a bath; and a bored housewife finally finds a use for that strap-on dildo when a cross-dressing thief tries to make off with her panties. And of course there is the prerequisite girl-on-girl action as two women compare bust-lines in a steamy sauna. Aside from a troublesome “rape fantasy” the film approaches its subject matter with a lighthearted tongues-in-cheeks sense of fun underscored by some unexpectedly graphic nudity. Beats the pants off of Crocodile Dundee.

Fantasm Comes Again (Australia 1977) (6): This sequel to the 1976 softcore sensation once again tested the limits of Australia's new "R" rating by offering more skin, more simulated couplings, and more dubbed slurps. A fledgling journalist and her cynical mentor burn the midnight oil at a local Melbourne newspaper office preparing the next "Dear Collette" column--a sexual advice feature run by a fictitious therapist who responds to the steamy letters sent in by her avid readers. With a bottle of tequila firmly in hand the two ghost writers begin poring over the latest batch of one-fisted tales while the camera eagerly reenacts each author's exploits in a series of smutty vignettes. Among the film's highlights: an aspiring gymnast practices the horizontal bars on her coach's thighs; a virile lifeguard perfects his breaststroke with a trio of watery nymphs; and a guilt-ridden Catholic girl discovers the backdoor to salvation when she accidentally confesses her impure thoughts to a church janitor. Despite the bad 70s hairdos and some lifeless performances there is a sense of playfulness to the film which is genuinely erotic when it works, amusingly stupid when it doesn't. Aside from one glaring misstep (no guys, women DO NOT fall in love with their rapists) the tone is kept to a lighthearted hedonism. Plenty of female flesh for those so inclined, plenty of full montys for the rest of us.

The Fantasticks (USA 1995) (6): Even though the off-Broadway mainstay loses much of its small stage charm in this silver screen adaptation, there is still enough here to elicit a few wistful smiles. Two neighbouring widowers will stop at nothing to foster a romance between their teenaged children, Matt and Louisa. The desperate fathers even feign an ongoing feud and forbid the two youngsters from seeing each other in the hope that “kids will always do what they’re told not to do”. But when a mysterious carnival blows into town the two men decide to enlist the aid of its dashing, and decidedly devilish, proprietor El Gallo whose elaborate business cards promise to make “dreams come true”. Hatching an outrageous plan involving kidnapping and sword fights, El Gallo does manage to draw the fledgling sweethearts closer together until one of the dads accidentally spills the beans and the path of true love experiences its first big bump. As a disenchanted Matt is led astray by the temporal pleasures of the outside world, Louisa becomes seduced by El Gallo’s oily charms and the despairing fathers begin to lose hope. Teeming with bright candy colours and deliberately exaggerated performances, The Fantastick’s light fairytale feel belies its scholarly origins. Inspired by centuries of romantic tradition, from Roman mythology to Shakespeare and beyond, the play’s deceptively simple script is rife with literary archetypes that tickle the intellect while its unapologetic sentimentality appeals to the dreamer in all of us. Ritchie keeps the sets and effects simple enough, a giddy boat ride through the “Tunnel of Love” has a delightful vaudevillian edge to it, but the cast seems uncomfortable with the quirky dialogue and the widescreen cinematography dilutes much of the play’s more fanciful elements. Even so, the songs are just as wonderfully corny as ever and still manage to make us pause and remember that certain September...

Fantastic Planet (France/Czech 1973) (8): On the distant planet of Ygam, ruled by the gigantic blue-skinned Drogs, swarms of tiny humans co-exist like vermin. Occasionally kept as pets and regularly exterminated as pests in the wild, the “Oms” nevertheless maintain a thriving stone age culture in abandoned city parks and buildings. One such domesticated Om, “Ter", manages to escape from his owner taking with him a valuable tool with which he can tap into the Drogs’ vast library of technical information. Joining up with a tribe of wild Oms, Ter shares this new knowledge and together they devise a most ingenious plan to not only escape their oppressors but destroy them outright. However, with greater knowledge comes deeper wisdom and thus both Oms and Drogs find themselves at a crucial turning point in their individual destinies…can they resolve their differences or is mutual annihilation inevitable? Winner of a special jury award at Cannes, René Laloux’s hippy trippy animated adaptation of Stefan Wul’s novel—itself a thinly disguised critique on the plight of the Czech people under Soviet occupation—certainly captures the essence of early 70s psychedelia. Like Salvador Dali reimagining Yellow Submarine the fantastical sets of nightmarish flora and impossible fauna form the perfect backdrop for some of the film’s more esoteric elements: the Drogs (quite literally) fly high on meditative trances or are prodded into “chimerical visions” by motile tree roots while the Oms flit like pixies underfoot, often taking part in quasi-religious ceremonies involving animal sacrifices and glowing brownies. And thanks to the ubiquitous mystical magical mumbo-jumbo the underlying political message, though loud and clear, is rendered more parable and less polemic. Like, far out man!

Farewell My Concubine (China 1993) (9): Using the tumultuous friendship between two stage performers to illustrate fifty years of Chinese history, Kaige Chen’s sweeping epic is as intimate as it is grand. First linking up in 1924 as students at a rather austere Chinese Opera school, the quietly effeminate Douzi and his boisterous counterpart Shitou begin a hesitant relationship despite the differences in their demeanours. They eventually make a name for themselves in the Beijing opera circuit, their close yet chaste offstage partnership reflected onstage with Douzi (now renamed Dieyi) forever playing the faithful mistress to Shitou’s (now called Xiaolou) noble Chu king in the popular opera Farewell My Concubine. But Xiaolou’s budding romance with a local prostitute (the luminous Gong Li) will not only test his loyalties to Dieyi and the stage, but forever alter the course of everyone’s life in the process. Weathering some of modern China’s most turbulent times, from the external horrors of the Japanese occupation to the greater internal horrors of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the two “stage brothers’ ” constant clashes, shifting allegiances, and various betrayals come to represent the fractured sociopolitical mindset of their homeland right up to the film’s heartbreaking denouement as the two men, now on in years, reprise their famous roles to an empty house. Filled with lush widescreen images awash in reds and gold against the cacophonous bang and clash of Chinese Opera, Chen’s love for the art of cinema (as well as an abiding sympathy for the suffering of artists) is evident in every frame. Running just under three hours his masterful film unfolds with a composed patience, each scene imbued with layers of meaning whether it be a brainwashed mob shouting revolutionary rhetoric or an abandoned pair of silk slippers softly underscoring a greater tragedy. Deeply human and overtly political (which is probably why it didn’t receive the Oscar it rightfully deserved) Chen’s masterpiece is a sterling example of cinema’s ability to transport and transform.

Farewell, My Queen (France 2012) (6): Benoît Jacquot’s sumptuous period piece, based on Chantal Thomas’ novel, examines the final days of Marie Antoinette (a solid performance from Diane Kruger) as seen through the eyes of her devoted servant Sidonie Laborde. With whispers of civil unrest in the background the grand court of France carries on with the usual small intrigues, sexual indiscretions, and extravagant parties. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the Queen herself, a frail and flighty creature whose days consist of scandalous novels (read to her by Sidonie) and poring over fashion magazines. But when the Bastille is stormed and the mob begins their pogrom of beheadings, the crystal and gilt interiors of Versailles quickly become an oppressive warren of frightened nobles and scurrying rats. With only her sometime lover the Duchess Gabrielle and faithful Sidonie at her side, Marie Antoinette is forced into a series of fateful decisions—one of which will finally reveal her true nature to an increasingly cynical and disenchanted Sidonie. Filmed on location, Jacquot painstakingly recreates the pre-revolutionary French court from the intricate wigs and costumes to hallways littered with artwork and tapestries. His nighttime scenes are especially gorgeous seemingly lit using nothing but glowing candles and moonlight. The fact that advancing hordes of angry peasants are only alluded to in monstrous rumours is a nice touch which forces us to concentrate on the chaotic elements of a royal household in dissolution—this is not a historical epic but rather a study in various reactions to historical events happening offscreen. However, despite the elaborate touches and capable cast there is a distinct lack of momentum to a story already hampered by too many details for those of us not familiar with La Révolution. Furthermore a handful of noteworthy performances fail to elicit much energy resulting in lots of running around and hasty embraces but no passion. A gold-plated treat for the eye, a humdrum exercise for the mind.

Fausto 5.0 (Spain 2001) (7): Dr. Fausto is an eminent surgeon specializing in terminal cases, mainly cancer patients in the final stages of their disease. Although committed to his work, dealing with pain and tragedy on a daily basis has not only blinded him to life’s happier elements it has also given rise to a deep-rooted fatalism bordering on suicidal. His life takes a turn for the surreal however when he travels to Barcelona to attend a medical conference and crosses paths with Santos, a former patient whom he had left for dead eight years earlier. Now the very picture of health despite having been handed a previous death sentence, the perpetually cheerful Santos dogs Fausto’s every step determined to make him happy by any means possible. But as Santos’ displays of camaraderie become increasingly sinister Fausto begins to suspect the little man’s easy smiles hide darker motives…a suspicion which quickly turns into a living nightmare as the old adage “Be careful what you wish for…” threatens to become an epitaph. Penned and presented by Spain’s controversial theatre group “La Fura del Babus” this contemporary take on Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (later reimagined by Goethe) is an unnerving mix of psychological horror and modern angst. Working within a modest budget, Fausto’s small cadre of directors manage to transform Barcelona into a bizarre netherworld awash with images of death and temptation: an anatomy class becomes a lesson in mortality, a hotel is wrapped in shroud-like scaffolding, and an underage coquette seduces Fausto in an abandoned operating room surrounded by jars of surgical specimens. Of course those familiar with the source material will already have an inkling as to where this is all heading, but a few welcome twists prevent things from becoming too predictable and lend an unexpected pinch of optimism. Confrontational and vulgar at times, overtly operatic at others, there nevertheless remains an underlying vein of dark poetry throughout the film which holds you in your seat until the final enigmatic scenes.

Far From the Madding Crowd (UK 1967) (8): Julie Christe, Terence Stamp, Alan Bates and Peter Finch headline this gorgeous adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 19th century novel. Stubborn and headstrong Bathsheba, just recently come into a large inheritance, finds herself being pursued by three very different suitors; a dashing cavalry officer with a heart of ice, an aging landowner desperate for one last chance at love, and a simple shepherd who has all but given up on her. Aided by Nicholas Roeg's sumptuous widescreen vistas of the Dorset countryside this 3-hour epic practically drips tragedy, heartbreak and romance from every frame. It doesn't quite reach the level of passion it was aiming for but all is easily forgiven.

Fear and Desire (USA 1953) (2): There’s a reason legendary director Stanley Kubrick wanted all copies of this early work destroyed—it’s embarrassingly awful or, in his own words, amateurish like a child’s drawing on a fridge. Six generic soldiers are stranded behind enemy lines in a war that seems to be more metaphysical than actual. Trying to find their way back home they ruminate, cogitate, and regurgitate on the senselessness of war by substituting hackneyed soliloquies and jarring close-ups for actual profundities. Bad acting, worse writing, and a whole lot of hot air.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (USA 1998) (5): It’s 1971 when stoner journalist Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp ripped to the gills and out of control) and his buddy Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro, ditto)—who also serves as his lawyer and agent—pack up their suitcase with every narcotic known to man and head out on a drug-fuelled road trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in order to investigate a motocross race…or the death of 60’s idealism…or something. Upon arriving however, their pharmaceutical pursuits get the better of them leading to all manner of exaggerated mayhem, paranoia, and bemusement. To be fair, it couldn’t have been easy shooting a POV film about two men who chow down on mescaline and cocaine for breakfast and director Terry Gilliam, never known for his subtlety anyway, gives it his best shot with tight sweaty close-ups, hyperkinetic dialogue, and a host of CGI hallucinations which include melting carpets and a bar full of polyester lounge lizards who morph into a viciously amusing Jurassic Park parody. The neon extravagance of Sin City also provides the perfect backdrop for Duke’s musings on where America went wrong, its soulless spectacles and gaudy patrons taking centre stage while Viet Nam flashes on the television and images of Richard Nixon float in and out of reality. When our two addled protagonists crash a convention of narcotics officers it’s impossible not to laugh at the sheer irony of it all. But the manic energy wears thin after a while, as does Depp’s machine gun narration, and trying to glean the meat of Hunter S. Thompson’s source novel from all those trippy detours becomes tiresome. A runaway merry-go-round of a film which insists on feeding you just one more hit of blotter acid when all you want to do is slow down and get off.

Fear(s) of the Dark (France 2007) (6): Four animated shorts from various directors take aim at all things creepy and unsettling with limited success. A college student plays reluctant nursemaid to a host of nasty bedbugs; a young girl has a questionable run-in with a vengeful spirit; a village is terrorized by something in the woods; and in the film’s best segment, a wayward traveller seeks refuge in a mysterious house with a murderous secret. Loosely tying the stories together are a series of vignettes involving a mad hatter and a pack of wild dogs with a taste for innocent flesh while a faceless narrator provides an endless litany of her many phobias, among them a fear of indigestion and becoming “irredeemably bourgeois”. Drawing artistic inspiration from a variety of sources including Japanese manga, Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico, and American illustrator Edward Gorey, the directors take us to places live actors simply cannot. There is a macabre, dreamlike feel to the primitive B&W animation which relies more on shadow and texture than graphic carnage yet, in the end, it ultimately fails to deliver the icy frissons it promises. Mildly unnerving and then easily forgotten, rather like an episode of Fear Factor for the terminally timid.

Fellini Satyricon (Italy 1969) (9): Loosely based on the ribald satire written by first century Roman courtier Petronius, the remaining text of which only exists in random fragments, Fellini’s phantasmagorical traipse through ancient Rome follows the misadventures of hot-tempered Encolpius, his nemesis and sometime lover Ascylitus, and Giton, the pretty boy whose affections they constantly vie for. Their adversarial relationship will take them from the steamy confines of a Roman bathhouse, to a gay wedding aboard a slave ship, to a watery oracle where Encolpius is afflicted with impotence after he accidentally kills the resident god. And throughout it all is Fellini’s signature talent for incorporating the absurd and the grotesque in a manner that is at once dreamlike and nightmarish with images of pagan decadence and casual brutality competing with passages of artistic genius: a gigantic stone bust of Caesar is dragged through a public square, a Minotaur’s maze is ablaze with sunlight and bloodstained frescoes, and an old fashioned bacchanal filled with boorish noblemen and their elaborately coiffed and painted wives suddenly resembles an antique frieze as everyone pauses to stare into the camera. This is a bored and weary society whose insatiable appetites for lust and cruelty has deadened their ability to comprehend the omnipresent art which adorns every wall, and the artists which create it. Like its source material, Fellini’s masterpiece is itself fragmentary and episodic consisting of brief vignettes and elaborate tableaux which jump back and forth through time giving us the impression of an epic rather than a sequential narrative. Casually throwing out thoughts on art, love, and mortality along the way, he manoeuvres his characters through an increasingly surreal Roman Empire before abruptly consigning them back to the pages of history in what has to be one of cinema’s more clever endings. In Fellini’s own words, “I am examining ancient Rome as if this were a documentary about the customs and habits of the Martians.” Pure joy from start to finish!

Fellini’s Roma (Italy 1972) (8):  Fellini’s decidedly skewed homage to the Eternal City  , circa WWII to 1972, is less a love letter than a collection of outrageous postcards.  Through a series of disjointed narratives and giddy flashbacks he presents us with a city full of spectacles and absurdities, where silent monuments to past glory stand cheek to jowl with raucous images of contemporary excess.  But even as Romans lose touch with their past they seem doomed to repeat it with images of “Il Duce” standing in for Julius Caesar and drunken revelers taking part in modern bacchanals.  In one sobering scene ancient frescoes in a newly discovered catacomb fade and disappear upon being exposed to “modern air”...but as the last painted face turns to dust we see that some of the ancient Romans bore an uncanny resemblance to their modern counterparts.  In another episode, my personal favourite, an ecclesiastical fashion show meant to highlight the latest in Vatican wardrobes begins as an hysterical satire on the church’s affluence but gradually turns into something far more caustic with the pope himself becoming an object of pagan idolatry.  There is no doubt that Fellini loves his city with all its illusions and chaos.  Scenes of debauchery and hedonism are offset by quiet moments of contemplation and innocent humour.  The final scene in which a mob of young people on motorcycles circle the city like a plague of locusts brings the whole work to a satisfying, if somewhat abrupt, conclusion.  Loud, crass and self-indulgent for sure, but an exhilarating trip nonetheless.

Female (USA 1933) (3): When Alison Drake inherits the family car company from her father she suddenly finds herself surrounded by hundreds of handsome male employees more than willing to grease her gears for the sake of a promotion. Not one to worry about other people’s opinions she eagerly takes them up on their offers but, after a vodka-fueled roll in the hay, unceremoniously dumps them back into the secretarial pool. “I’m merely treating men the same way they’ve always treated women” she admits to an old highschool girlfriend and one can’t help but marvel at such a frank and liberated attitude in 1933. However, upon meeting the cavalier and oh-so-manly engineer Jim Thorne she suddenly realizes that all she really wants is “...marriage.....love......and children, the things women were born for.” Boo! Hiss! The art deco sets, however, are beautiful.

Fermat’s Room (Spain 2007) (6): In response to a series of mysteriously enticing invitations, four brilliant mathematicians gather in an abandoned warehouse for a night of intellectual fun and games. But as the evening progresses they quickly realize they have been caught in a most ingenious trap involving hydraulic presses and moving walls; if they are to survive until dawn they will have to work together in order to solve a number of mathematical puzzles posed by their enigmatic host, Mr. Fermat. With time running out and tensions mounting it soon becomes clear that the four reluctant guests were not brought together randomly. The reason for their current predicament may very well lie in their past, but what are the common threads? And why does Fermat hold them in such low esteem? Interesting premise stylishly presented but it lacks both the wit and claustrophobic camerawork essential to make it work; I’m thinking of the brazen audacity of Saw or the Kafkaesque paranoia of Cube. Furthermore, in a vain attempt to repeatedly throw us off the trail the directors pile on so many red herrings and ludicrous plot twists that Fermat’s Room winds up being a victim of it’s own inflated sense of cleverness. The mathematical word problems are fun however and sure to be a hit at geeky dinner parties everywhere.

The Fifth Horseman is Fear (Czech 1964) (7): Dr. Braun is a Jewish physician living in Prague at the height of the Nazi occupation. Stripped of his right to practice medicine he is relegated to the role of inventory clerk, cataloguing the mountains of personal property confiscated from Czech Jews. Ignoring the suffering around him he diligently performs his repugnant task while downplaying his identity and claiming to be a “realist”. But when he is called upon to help an injured partisan hiding in his building he is faced with an ethical dilemma of monumental proportions which pits his desire to remain invisible against his growing need to take a stand. Brynych offers a scathing look at fascism and the fear and moral apathy which fuel it. He uses Braun’s apartment complex to give a cross sectional view of a totalitarian society; from it’s winding stairway filled with hushed whispers and suspicious stares to the endless repetition of rules and regulations punctuated by ringing bells and flickering lights. In one apartment an old woman mourns past glories; in another a self-obsessed housewife poses before a mirror while ignoring her crying child. Upstairs, a wealthy physician wrestles with his conscience while below him a collaborator convinces himself he’s just following orders. At one point Brynych makes ironic comparisons between the numbed alcohol-induced bonhomie of a local tavern and the drugged anarchy of an insane asylum. And when the police lock the building’s tenants in the cellar while their apartments are searched it quickly becomes a nightmare warren of shadowy corners as neighbour turns against neighbour in a frenzy of accusations, pleading and half-finished prayers. But as Braun alone is singled out for his role in aiding the criminal his altruism is ultimately rewarded with a strange mixture of sadness, fear, indifference and relief. With its jarring score of blaring horns and pounding pianos as well as some overly dramatic passages bordering on the absurd, this example of Czech “new wave” cinema is definitely an artistic challenge. There is great beauty here however; at one point as Braun moves through a warehouse packed with stolen goods he pauses by a wall of silent musical instruments and stopped clocks; in another scene his inner turmoil takes the form of a passionate soliloquy directed at the audience while in the distance we see a smokestack spewing out noxious black clouds. An acquired taste for sure, but one to savour slowly.

Filth (UK 2013) (9): At an Edinburgh police detachment the coveted job of Detective Inspector has become available and of the six potential candidates only Bruce Robertson is desperate enough to go to any lengths in order to secure it—his bloated ego demands this promotion and his sexy siren of a wife has promised him a host of carnal delights if he gets it. Setting in motion a series of dark and underhanded schemes meant to discredit his competition Bruce lies, cheats, and manipulates his way to the front of the line and it doesn’t hurt that the police chief who’ll make the final decision is also a fellow Mason. It quickly becomes apparent that Robertson is not only a bad person he is a sociopathic bully lacking any conscience or empathy. But as much as we grow to hate him it soon becomes equally apparent that he hates himself even more hence the cocaine binges, the emotionally sadistic affairs, the countertop full of psychiatric medications, and the inability to accept any compliments—when the widow of a man he tried to save tells him what a good person he is her words hit him like physical blows. Furthermore it’s revealed that his home life is not quite the way he describes it and an unpleasant childhood memory has been festering in his psyche for years. Consumed by rage and self-loathing Robertson is a man who has been falling for some time; his erratic behaviour is becoming more troublesome and a host of threatening hallucinations are now dogging his every waking hour. Morally bankrupt and lost in a haze of sex and drugs he’s about to hit rock bottom and the impact, when it comes, will be epic. Based on Irvine Welsh’s novel, screenwriter/director Jon S. Baird spends the first part of this harrowing tragedy trying to convince us we’re watching a black comedy instead with whacked-out characters, cynical asides (Bruce extols the virtues of Scottish culture as he passes a trio of slack-jawed yobs), and surreal fantasy sequences reminiscent of Wes Anderson on crack. But as the film proceeds we realize this is the story of one man’s disintegration and the laughs quickly give way to sympathetic head shakes until we’re finally hit with a closing scene so bleakly sardonic that it bothered me for hours afterwards. Perhaps Baird tries a bit too hard at times—a lingerie twist towards the end pushes the envelope and a host of fanciful encounters with psychiatrist Jim Broadbent approach overkill—but the cast is magnificent especially a phenomenal performance by lead James McAvoy (he can even vomit on cue) and the pervasive sense of a waking nightmare never lets up. An eclectic soundtrack featuring everything from Motown to Jingle Bells provides the icing on the cake.

The Filth and the Fury: A Sex Pistols Film (UK 2000) (7): Part of a generation fed up with rising unemployment and a growing police state, a group of young men stumbled into each other, taught themselves to play the instruments they had stolen, and became "The Sex Pistols"...and in so doing launched the so-called "punk music" phenomenon of 1970s Britain; a volatile mix of angry nihilism and civil confrontation. Not so much a documentary as a pastiche of grainy concert footage, television spots, and home movies narrated by the now middle-aged Johnny Rotten and company, "The Filth and the Fury" waxes surprisingly philosophical on the meaning behind the spectacle ("Punk Rock" became an unfortunate pigeon-hole term for many) and what it set out to accomplish in its brash and undisciplined way. Of course the Conservative dictates of the time (Thatcherism was just around the corner) are cast in an appropriately demonic light while industry bottom-feeders are personified by the band's slimy pseudo-manager Malcolm McLaren. A rollicking, frenetic barrage of sight and sound which gives you a distinct impression of a time and place almost forty years ago. The group may have lasted just a few years but their spit-stained legacy continues to this day.

The Final (USA 2010) (1): It’s the geeks vs. the jocks when a group of highschool misfits fed up with being constantly harassed devise an elaborate plan to even the score. Sending out anonymous invitations to a super hip costume party the nerdy underdogs manage to subdue their unwitting nemeses (and their totally hot stuck-up girlfriends) thanks to a bowl of drugged punch and several feet of leg irons. What follows is a study in psychotic overacting and insultingly gratuitous cruelty as each big bad bully is disfigured, maimed, tortured and crippled before the hero is finally able to escape and alert the authorities. One-dimensional stereotyped characters and a juvenile script obviously penned by a teenaged loner with rage issues are the least of this shit pile’s faults. While it’s no secret that I’m a fan of the “slasher” genre of film, those movies have always possessed a certain dark, tongue-in-cheek approach never meant to be taken seriously and easily brushed aside upon exiting the theatre. This smug little revenge piece however is not only terribly made but traverses some very dangerous ground, namely the justification of outrageous acts of murder and violence as an answer to classroom taunts. Of course the jocks and bitches are just so excessively awful that our little goth victims have no choice but to don nazi outfits and horror masks in order to sever their spines, burn their faces off and stick needles in their throats while spouting angry rebukes. “I’m the monster you made me!” emotes one little freak waving a machine gun in the head jock’s face and we’re supposed to....what? cheer the little fucker on because we all know what it’s like to be teased? The phenomenon of deadly violence in schools has been examined with far greater skill in movies such as the darkly satirical If... and Gus Van Sant’s disarmingly impassive Elephant. Joey Stewart’s sophomoric little foray into this most serious territory on the other hand plays more like a crack-fuelled hissy fit which makes 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds look like a masterpiece.

The Firemen’s Ball (Czechoslovakia 1967) (9): Originally banned by the Czech government and then later submitted as that country’s official contender for the 1969 Best Foreign Film Oscar, Milos Forman’s rip-roaring parody on the foibles of Communist rule packs more sarcastic merriment into 75 minutes than most films twice its length. A small town fire brigade decides to host a gala in honour of it’s retired chief, now 86 years old and missing a few marbles. But the evening’s highlights—a fund-raising raffle and beauty contest—are derailed when the prizes keep disappearing and the female contestants are either too plain, too clueless, or too disinterested to participate requiring some strong-arm tactics by the brigade’s befuddled ad hoc ruling committee. And when, at the height of the festivities, a nearby home actually does go up in flames the term “Chinese Fire Drill” gets a brand new Slavic slant with inebriated firemen trying to contend with the building’s bewildered occupant while an impromptu outdoor bar caters to the onlookers. Stressing the importance of goodness, kindness, and…solidarity…this is an acerbic and unrelenting lampoon aimed directly at Moscow by way of Prague. Very funny!

The First Day of the Rest of Your Life (France 2008) (8): “Families are machines that destroy feelings!” So reads an impassioned diary entry by irate teenager Fleur Duval after yet another row with her mother in writer/director Rémi Bezançon’s remarkable drama following the Duval clan through two generations. Patriarch Robert is a taxi driver still browbeaten by his tyrannical father, matriarch Marie-Jeanne finds herself increasingly at sea as the family nest empties, and the three children have their own baggage to drag: youngest Fleur seems to be raising herself as she repeatedly loses her heart while rebelling against every societal dictate she can find; middle son Raph is a slacker whose dreams are slowly smothering his reality; and eldest son Albert, despite being a successful med student, is bearing the brunt of his grandfather’s legacy as Robert carries his own childhood resentments forward. Loosely divided into five chapters beginning in the late 80s and ending in the new millennium, Bezançon concentrates on those frictions inherent in every family especially when the kids realize that mom and dad were never perfect to begin with. Small disappointments snowball into enormous roadblocks, grudges become set in cement, and physical distances turn into emotional isolation until a pair of tragic turns cause the pieces to rearrange themselves yet again. But despite the sobering subject material Bezançon manages to inject healthy doses of sympathy and humour into his story—if families can destroy feelings they can also save the occasional soul. Filmed with flair and imagination, not to mention an awesome soundtrack, First Day may not touch the emotional chords of Vallée’s C.R.A.Z.Y. but its uncomfortable truths will still have you laughing even as it touches a nerve or two.

Fitzcarraldo (Germany 1982) (6): Werner Herzog and his nemesis Klaus Kinski return to Wrath of God country in this tale of man vs. nature, but this time around Kinski trades in Aguirre’s bloodthirsty megalomania for an obsessive, just slightly unhinged, romanticism. He plays Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, a near penniless frontiersman in 19th century Amazonia whose love of opera hatches a crazy plan to build a grand theatre in the heart of the jungle. But first he has to acquire sufficient wealth. Borrowing heavily from his mistress Molly (Claudia Cardinale), a successful bordello owner, “Fitzcarraldo” buys a promising but extremely isolated rubber plantation as well as a second-hand steamboat to transport his future harvests. But getting to the plantation proves more difficult than he thought for not only must he calm a group of savage headhunters who believe he may be a god, he must also deal with a mutinous crew and the fact that a small mountain lies between his ship and its final destination. His solutions, needless to say, are as harebrained as his ambition… Notorious for its production problems—Kinski was a raging lunatic, the elements refused to cooperate, and there were deaths, disabilities, and disease—Herzog’s film is a surprisingly lucid, at time pastoral, rumination on man’s eternal struggle, the power of art, and the legacy of colonialism (ironic considering how he exploited his small army of Indian extras). A by-the-numbers plot is lifted into the surreal by a series of striking tableaux: Caruso blares from an onboard gramophone as native drumming answers from the surrounding jungle; a ragtag flotilla of rickety motorboats transport an opera company across the Amazon—with costumes and props on full display; and straining natives haul Fitzcarraldo’s multi-ton ship through the forest (no special effects used, just an unseen bulldozer). Unfortunately dubbed and in need of a good editing, this is still a charming Quixotic tale of one man who set out to tame the wilderness with Strauss and Wagner only to return full circle to where he began only wiser if not exactly richer.

Five Easy Pieces (USA 1970) (6):  Jack Nicholson takes his job and shoves it in this rather overrated character study released at the beginning of the “ME” generation.  Robert “Eroica” Dupea is not happy:  he hates his dead end job, he’s grown tired of his whiney girlfriend, and he looks upon his bourgeois family with arrogant contempt.  He’s forever running away from responsibilities yet, at the same time,  he’s searching for some sense of permanence.  Robert’s life seems to encapsulate the growing dissatisfaction and restlessness that ushered in the 70’s.  He doesn’t fit in with any crowd and society’s restrictions are a constant source of irritation for him---hence the famous “diner scene” as well as an amusing interlude with an acid-tongued hitchhiker.  It’s when he reluctantly returns home to visit his ailing father and estranged sister that he receives an emotional comeuppance which forces him to face some uncomfortable truths about himself. But will the subsequent soul-searching be enough to make him change his ways?  There is some depth here with action taking place on more than one level.  The spare soundtrack (Tammy Wynette and Chopin?!) is effective as is the use of music to add definition to the key characters.  The performances are impressive and the understated ending was perfect.  Unfortunately, this is a true period piece forever stuck in the 70s.  Much of the initial impact it had 40 years ago has not withstood the test of time and even though I can appreciate what it said to a past generation I still found Nicholson’s character tedious and petty.  It was one of the defining films of its decade however, and that alone is worth the rental fee.

5 x 2 [aka Cinq fois Deux] (France 2004) (6): Told in reverse chronological order, François Ozon’s profoundly melancholic study of a disintegrating marriage is buoyed by a soundtrack of European torch songs and a highly photogenic pair of leads. Starting with Gilles and Marion finalizing their divorce—and then engaging in a violent farewell fuck bordering on rape—Ozon takes us backwards in time to show what went wrong. Divided into five chapters we see their disastrous dinner party, the emotionally fraught birth of their first child, a lurid (and rather silly) wedding night secret, and finally their problematic initial meeting on the Italian riviera where they literally swim off into the sunset. Stéphane Freiss portrays Gilles as a one-note boor who keeps his wife at arm’s length for reasons not fully explained while Valeria Bruni Tedeschi’s Marion comes across as a perpetual victim, her eloquent features too often frozen in an expression of tearful bewilderment. And a background cast of dysfunctional extras simply mirror the couple’s disengagement especially Marion’s bickering parents and Gilles’ gay brother who plays emotional doormat to his much younger sluttier boyfriend. The aforementioned song list does provide some soul however as does the roving cinematography which turns closed bedrooms and sun-drenched beaches into psychological statements. But despite a literate script that keeps things moving at a brisk pace this is a story that’s not only been told many times before but told with more conviction as well.

Flamingo Road (USA 1949) (7): “There’s a Flamingo Road in every town...” intones a faceless narrator at the beginning of this wonderfully overbaked noir soap, “...it is the street of social success...the avenue of achievement...the golden goal for all who struggle and aspire to reach the top...” And thus begins the odyssey of Lane Bellamy, a down-on-her-luck carnival girl who finds herself stranded in the small southern town of Bolden. At first romanced by the local deputy, all-American Fielding Carlisle, Lane begins laying down a few tentative roots until she crosses paths with Sheriff Titus Semple, the very embodiment of corruption. Titus has plans of his own for the naive Fielding; he’s to marry the daughter of a local tycoon and then ascend to the state senate where he’ll become yet another elected puppet for Semple to manipulate. With her dreams dashed at every turn by the conniving Titus and her reputation in tatters thanks to a false morals charge, Lane finds solace in the arms of construction magnate Dan Reynolds, himself a political schemer involved in an uneasy truce with Semple. But the crooked sheriff has friends in places higher than Lane had imagined and she soon discovers that not even an address on Flamingo Road can keep him at bay for long. Michael Curtiz’s brooding potboiler casts a critical eye on America’s faith in democracy; his politicos are portrayed as spineless toadies for sale to whichever alpha male happens to be in the room, whether it’s a slimy southern cop with a drawer full of dirty secrets, or a self-interested businessman with an aggressive attitude and violent temper. Representing the common man (and woman) caught up in this bureaucratic maelstrom, Lane goes from powerless victim flinching at every blow to indignant avenger who’s fed up and not going to take it anymore. Joan Crawford’s ballsy performance is pure joy to watch especially since the script gives her some of the film’s snappier lines; her piercing eyes and chiseled features registering teary heartbreak or spitting rage with consummate skill. But it is Sydney Greenstreet’s portrayal of the quintessential backdoor slimeball, Titus Semple, that steals the show; his doughy features and rotund body encasing a heart of pure Machiavellian evil. Add to that some wonderfully brooding B&W camerawork paired with a suitably dramatic score, and you have a true golden oldie!

Flesh for Frankenstein (USA 1973) (8): Written and directed by Paul Morrissey and “presented” by Andy Warhol, this scandalous arthouse monster romp mixes soft-core porn, cheap but plentiful gore, and camp special effects to produce a bit of satirical horror so magnificently overdone it would have made Mary Shelley leap from the nearest window. Mad doctor Baron Frankenstein (Udo Kier, barely intelligible) is having problems: his sister Katrin (aging sex symbol Monique van Vooren) who also happens to be his wife and mother to his two decidedly bizarre children, is being unfaithful with the new stableboy Nicholas (Warhol darling Joe Dallesandro); his meek lab assistant Otto is starting to assert himself; and his life’s work—a pair of gorgeous zombies sewn together using parts from unlucky townsfolk—are refusing to mate. But when Nicholas recognizes the male zombie’s head as belonging to his recently murdered friend his desire for revenge turns Frankenstein’s bad day into something completely intolerable… Definitely not for cinematic purists or those easily offended, Morrissey’s movie revels in bad taste and sheer overacting; as if Nicholas’ sleazy sexcapades and the Frankenstein’s incestuous marriage weren’t enough he proceeds to push the envelope even further with piles of steaming offal and a bit of cringeworthy necrophilia—“To know death, Otto…” barks the Baron as he removes his pecker from the female zombie’s innards, “…you must first fuck life, in the gallbladder!” Eek. Originally released in 3D Morrissey doesn’t waste a single opportunity to throw whatever he can at the lens whether it’s a handful of fresh dripping guts or a pair of jiggling tits at the local brothel—the film’s dark and bloody finale featuring a bouncing kidney-on-a-stick aimed directly at your face is so blatantly cheesy you just have to give it three cheers! Changing social norms may have reduced its original “X” rating to a more nondescript “R”, but Flesh for Frankenstein still remains a fine example of underground filmmaking at its most exuberant—seeing the Baron’s 70’s gothic laboratory complete with anatomical figures and mason jars filled with sticky body parts alone is worth the rental price. Yuck!

Flesh Gordon Meets the Cosmic Cheerleaders (Canada 1990) (1): When the nefarious black-hooded Evil Presence renders the men of their planet terminally flaccid with his “impotence ray”, a group of sexually frustrated women led by Robunda Hooters decide to kidnap galactic stud Flesh Gordon in the hopes that his legendary manhood will thrust new life into their neglected crevices. Naming themselves S.C.R.E.W. (Society of Cheerleaders to Rehabilitate Erections Worldwide) the desperate damsels in undress prepare for a little creative lap dancing on an eager Gordon suitably bedecked in a towel and mind control helmet. Meanwhile back home, the henpecked Evil Presence has plans of his own for Flesh’s man gland thanks to the surgical skills of his resident mad scientist, Master Bator...a penile transplant! But Flesh’s girlfriend, Dale Ardor, is hot on their trail accompanied by Dr. Flexi Jerkoff and his phallic spaceship powered by copulating chickens. Along the way they will do battle with a belt of flatulent ass-teroids, a greasy mob of malodorous Turd People, and a giant bitchy transvestite penis... I made it to the 30 minute mark before I started hitting fast forward. It’s one thing to make a godawful low-budget flick and have it catch on, like the highly creative original Flesh Gordon, or even The Rocky Horror Picture Show for that matter; but intentionally making a bad movie filled with stupid puns, cheap sets and acting that goes beyond abysmal simply results in a bad movie. Like a brainless porno without the porn, this softcore embarrassment is yet another black eye for Canadian cinema, albeit a tiny insignificant one. And, as a personal insult, Vancouver’s own Sun Tower gets a cheap cameo because...like...you know...it kinda looks like a wee-wee.

Flower Drum Song (USA 1961) (6):  When a young Chinese stowaway shows up in San Francisco’s Chinatown with her elderly father in tow she winds up complicating the lives of everyone she meets in this sparkling Rodgers & Hammerstein musical of romantic misunderstandings and happy endings.  Petite Mei Li originally came to meet nightclub owner Sammy Fong for a prearranged marriage masterminded by his mother.  But Sammy is already involved with his star performer so he tries to pawn her off to Mr. Wang, a staid businessman looking to pair his increasingly Americanized son with a traditional Chinese wife.  His son, meanwhile, is pining away for someone else...   Based on the novel (and subsequent stage play) by C. Y. Lee, Flower Drum Song takes a rather lighthearted look at the generation gaps and culture clashes in an immigrant Chinese community circa 1958.  From the bright colourful sets to the wonderfully camp songs and lively dance numbers this is one of the more striking widescreen musicals.  It also broke a lot of racial barriers for Asian-American actors who were no longer content playing stereotypical roles (never mind that many of the “Chinese” characters here are actually played by Japanese-Americans...and one African-American).  Unfortunately the film’s cloying sentimentality has not aged well in the 50 years since its release and what was once considered groundbreaking theatre now seems somewhat bland.  Still worth renting if only for the vibrant song and dance routines.

Following (UK 1998) (8): Although Christopher Nolan’s first full-length film clocks in at a mere seventy minutes he packs it with more twists than many features twice its length. An unemployed slacker with hazy dreams of becoming a writer looks for inspiration by following strangers on the busy streets of London. Not so much a stalker, but rather a bland tabula rasa looking for meaning in his own life by vicariously taking part in the lives of strangers. Things take a turn for the macabre however when he begins following a professional burglar on his rounds while at the same time falling in love with one of the people he’s been tracking—a beautiful damsel in distress with a very dangerous ex-boyfriend. Filmed in old school B&W on a budget of only six thousand dollars this is not only a remarkably astute character study but a wickedly convoluted thriller to boot. Shifting the narrative back and forth through time Nolan thwarts any attempts to place his story in sequential order, forcing us to rely on little cues instead: a change in hair style or clothing; a bruised eye that comes and goes; fleeting snatches of a police confession… The result is a giddy, disorienting, and highly voyeuristic short film that hints at better things to come.

Forbidden Games (France 1952) (10):  Delicately observed with impeccable performances all around, director René Clément's wartime drama is one of the most moving films about children ever made and rightfully deserves its place on the list of "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die" compiled by Steven Schneider.  In the summer of 1940 six-year old Paulette (Brigitte Fossey, simply amazing) is fleeing from a German air strike when a strafe of bullets kills both her parents.  Wandering the French countryside cradling her dead puppy (another victim of the attack) she is taken in by a poor family of farmers where she becomes fast friends with their youngest son Michel (Georges Joujouly, also amazing).  With a child's eye view of mortality Michel tries to help Paulette cope with her loss by creating a secret cemetery for  all the dead animals they come across--a few chicks, a worm, some birds, a cockroach--stealing decorative crosses from the nearby graveyard to mark the tiny little plots.  But the thefts do not go unnoticed, nor does the question of what to do with a little orphan girl, leading to both children discovering a few unhappy truths about the adult world.  Shot through with moments of  genuine warmth and rustic humour, Clément uses his small cast of characters to produce a film of unexpected depths.  Michel and Paulette studiously observe the rituals of death without really understanding it, much like the horrors of war playing out in the newspapers, and their concept of God is little more than baffling prayers and vague promises of Paradise.  Meanwhile, the inanity of battle is reduced to a ridiculous ongoing feud between Michel's parents and the family next door, a feud which culminates in a crazy graveside face-off.  A beautiful film, touched by magic and a child-sized sadness.

Forbidden Zone (USA 1980) (7): Alice in Wonderland meets Flesh Gordon and H. R. Pufnstuf for a week-long cocaine binge in this seriously fucked up performance piece penned by the founding members of Oingo Boingo. When the outrageously dysfunctional Hercules family enter a mysterious door in the basement of their new home they find themselves transported to the sixth dimension where diminutive King Fausto (Fantasy Island’s Herve Villechaize), his busty wife Queen Doris and their perpetually topless daughter are at constant odds with the fantastical denizens of their subterranean kingdom. Falling in love with young Frenchie Hercules, King Fausto tries to keep the jealous Doris from killing the entire clan until they have a chance to escape back to their own world. Or something like that. Among the many drug-fueled highlights are a frog-headed butler, a human chandelier, and a snappy Big Band number performed by Satan and his chorus of jazzy zombies. There’s also a machine-gun toting Sunday School teacher, cross-dressing twins, and a decapitated chicken boy whose chatty head flies around on little angel wings. Filmed in austere B&W with badly drawn cartoonish sets and cheap cardboard props Forbidden Zone has all the production values of a 70s porn film minus the porn but with lots of tits. The sheer audacity of it all proved irresistible however and some of the musical numbers (yes Virginia, it’s a musical) are pure camp delight. Lots of fun for those with a penchant for all things underground and cultish.

Force of Evil (USA 1948) (7): Bullets, dames, and double crosses abound when crooked lawyer John Garfield’s loyalties are torn between helping his small-time racketeer brother remain solvent, appeasing his syndicate boss, and wooing the quintessential girl next door. Filled with shadows and despair, Abraham Polonsky’s stock noir thriller boasts wonderfully gritty New York locations and the kind of tough-as-nails dialogue that has become synonymous with the genre. The use of light and camera angles is especially noteworthy as cold concrete buildings loom over empty streets and a city bridge yawns towards a distant shore. Although the plot occasionally runs in circles, watching the seasoned cast rip into each other is almost worth a second viewing. Almost.

The Forgiveness of Blood (Albania 2011) (7): A longstanding feud between pig-headed neighbours Mark and Sokol over a piece of contentious land erupts in a heated exchange of insults one day. Angry words quickly lead to a violent confrontation in which Sokol is stabbed to death—Mark swears it was self defense but the dead man’s family claim it was cold-blooded murder. With Mark now hiding from the authorities his family is left to face the harsh penalties imposed by the Kanun, an ancient code of justice used for centuries to settle disputes, punish wrongdoers, and preserve honour. Now confined to their home the family must eke out a living as best they can—only eldest daughter Rudina is allowed to leave the house in order to continue her father’s bread delivery business while the younger siblings are homeschooled and her older brother Nick tries to keep himself occupied building a backyard gym, its brick walls echoing his own sense of isolation. But Sokol’s relatives, especially a hot-headed cousin, are not content with the arrangement and as long as Mark remains free they wage a campaign of intimidation and vandalism against his family. And even as Rudina proves to be a somewhat shrewd entrepreneur Nik, now cut off from his friends and sweetheart, slowly begins to unravel… In a village setting of striking contrasts (smart phones and horse drawn carts) American director Joshua Marston’s low-keyed parable examines the cost of pride and the equivocal nature of honour; the serpentine requirements of the Kanun appearing as just one more anachronism—albeit a deadly serious one for to defy its precepts is to invite fatal retribution. As both Mark and Sokol’s family dig their heels in the question of guilt or innocence takes a back seat to revenge and saving face. And, as always, it is the bystanders who bear the brunt. Alas even the promise of a mediator (with a lucrative agenda of his own) and Nik’s own act of selflessness (goaded by a sense of guilt perhaps) fail to move this particular mountain leading to a glum ending as needless as it is sad.

For the Use of the Hall (USA-TV 1974) (8): Part of PBS’s “Broadway Theatre Archive” series. Having failed in their attempts to secure the American Dream, Allan (a mediocre painter specializing in forgeries) and Charlotte (a wannabe socialite) break into an old woman's Long Island house and set up home with the aid of some stolen groceries. Meanwhile the old woman's adult children; Terry (a backsliding nun) and Martin (a failed playwright) pay an unexpected visit along with the Martin's current wife (a successful children's author). What follows is a long dark, and very funny night of the soul as each character is forced to realize just how far their dreams have diverged from reality. Charlotte fumes over what should have been, Terry longs for heavenly reassurance, Martin faints at bad reviews, and Allen longs for a love that never really existed. Only Alice, the author, seems to comprehend what is going on...but then again she is used to spinning fantasies. A well rounded cast and sharp script make this a television classic aided in large part by Bess, the old woman herself who, as the play's narrator, provides some well needed dramatic links. "Do not feel sorry for these people..." she states at one point, "...for what is a wasted life? Only one that hasn't been lived." If our lives are little more than a stage production, or so the play infers, we shouldn't fret over how it will end or whether or not it will be a success......just be thankful for the use of the hall. Amen.

The Fortune Cookie (USA 1966) (5): When TV cameraman Harry Hinkle is accidentally tackled while filming a football game his shyster brother-in-law Willie, a two-bit ambulance chasing lawyer, tries to talk him into feigning partial paralysis so that he can launch a million dollar personal injury lawsuit. At first reluctant to take part in the fraudulent scheme, the habitually honest Harry eventually agrees after Willie convinces him that playing the sympathy card may very well get him reunited with his ex-wife, a failed nightclub singer for whom he still carries a torch. But with a battery of insurance lawyers out for his blood, a private detective with a nose for fraud filming his every move, and the prospect of being confined to a wheelchair for months while he “recuperates” all weighing on his mind, not to mention his own guilty conscience, will Harry be able to keep up appearances or will the prophetic message in his lunchtime fortune cookie, “You Can’t Fool All of the People All of the Time” prove to be all too true? Billy Wilder’s cynical comedy certainly throws a few well aimed punches at America’s corporate mentality as crooked lawyer, conniving ex, and soulless agency types go at each other like dogs fighting over a crippled bone. Meanwhile Harry’s own moral compromise, emphasized by his mother’s theatrical wailing and the remorseful eyes of the quarterback who ran into him, sets him up as a bewildered cog in a machine more heartless than he could have imagined. There’s even a few weak attempts at addressing issues of racism and racial stereotyping that probably carried more weight back in 1966. But for all that the film is just too bland and predictable and not very funny at all. Stars Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon do their usual mugging and verbal sparring while Wilder keeps the pace going, but the film’s moralistic message seems hopelessly naive today (alas) and its tidy little ending just a bit too trite.

42nd Street (USA 1933) (6): The story is older than Broadway itself: a young ingenue from the cornfields of the midwest travels to the big city seeking fame and fortune and winds up becoming a star overnight when she is called upon to replace an injured leading lady. Filled with the usual assortment of backstage bitching, flippant one-liners and romantic intrigues (this was filmed 50 years before "A Chorus Line") it all seems a bit stale by today's standards. Although Ruby Keeler's dazed performance gives the impression she took one too many hits off the bong the rest of the cast is adequate, including a young Ginger Rogers. But it is the wildly camp closing number, staged by Busby Berkeley himself, that makes it all worthwhile; the rest is just preamble.

Forty Shades of Blue (USA 2005) (1):  An autocratic record executive, his neglected Russian mistress and his estranged son spend a few days staring at each other and biting their knuckles in this plodding overblown drama that attempts to say something meaningful about loneliness, alienation and the need to feel connected.  After 60 minutes of blank looks and lifeless dialogue I started hitting the fast-forward button hoping there would eventually be some point to the tedium.  Apparently there wasn’t.  Poorly made and boring beyond words.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet (Italy 1972) (8): When musician Roberto Tobias accidentally kills a man in self defense the entire confrontation is caught on film by an ominous stranger wearing a child’s mask. Putting the incident behind him Roberto tries to get on with his life but it isn’t long before incriminating photos begin popping up in his apartment and a series of late night visits from the masked psycho promise worse things to come. With a neighbourhood full of suspects and a wife becoming increasingly overwrought Tobias finally hires a private investigator (played with gay abandon by Jean-Pierre Marielle) to discover both the identity of his disguised tormentor and the motive behind the escalating harassment. With the body count rising however could it already be too late for Roberto? Teeming with claustrophobic spaces, hissing cats and eccentric characters set against an atmospheric score of hip 70s muzak and sinister strings, Dario Argento’s overplayed psychological suspense thriller is a sterling example of the Italian giallo style of filmmaking. There is a definite visual flair to his work with its exaggerated editing and menacing shadows which is reinforced, oddly enough, by a comparatively innocuous script. Although not as bloody as you’d expect from a work helmed by the great Italian goremeister the violence is still taut and believable while the film’s final death scene, an elaborately overdone slow motion sequence, is pure cheesy elegance. Lastly, as a means to solving the mystery (and provide his movie with a title), Argento introduces a plot device so outrageously macabre that I found myself laughing and cheering at the same time. It’s good bloody fun all around! NB: Unlike most foreign fare giallo films are best viewed in their English dubbed versions, it’s all part of the experience!

Four Lions (UK 2010) (8): Sure to offend sensitives on both sides of the ethical divide, Christopher Morris’ absurdist satire about a group of terrorist wannabes planning to blow something up in London plays like an episode of The Three Stooges Call a Jihad. Fed up with what he perceives as Moslem-bashing Western decadence, hot-tempered and ideologically muddled Omar jets off to Pakistan with the dimwitted Waj in order to study the fine art of explosives but instead winds up inflicting more damage on Al-Qaeda than the ubiquitous American drones flying overhead. Meanwhile, back in London self-appointed leader Barry (a fanatical convert unable to tell the difference between a bullet and a brain cell) recruits ambivalent rapper Hassan to join the brotherhood mainly because his dad owns a van. With Omar’s abrupt return a round of infighting ignites over the best way to employ all that bleach and peroxide provided by coconspirator Faisal who acquired the explosive components from unwitting shop owners by donning various disguises, among them a terrorist and a bearded lady. Omar wants the group to blow themselves up at a public event; Barry wants to blow up a mosque in order to “rally the moderates”; Faisal wants to strap bombs to crows and blow up drug stores because “...they sell condoms that make you want to bang white girls.” With hilariously inappropriate dialogue and slapstick timing Morris deftly peels away the many layers of fanatical chinwagging to reveal the often idiotic and contradictory nature of fundamentalist rhetoric. His angry men in search of a cause are as unfocused and impotent as the police entrusted to stop them while the general public shuffles along hobbled by political correctness. Ironically it is Omar’s brother, an ultra Orthodox Moslem, who provides the only voice of reason. But Morris saves his blackest and most problematic humour for the film’s final frames leaving us with two haunting images: Omar reinventing The Lion King as a Mujahideen bedtime story for his young son, and a cadre of would-be bombers scurrying panic-stricken around London dressed like cartoon characters. Lines were crossed.

Frankenweenie (USA 2012) (10): In the sleepy town of New Holland, populated by cadaverous children and their clueless parents, where dark secrets abound and thunderstorms are a nightly occurrence, lives young Victor Frankenstein. A genius by nature, a loner by choice, Victor spends his days filming 8mm horror movies on a backyard set assisted by the only friend he’s ever known…his faithful lapdog Sparky. Sadly, one day the unthinkable happens when Sparky chases a ball into the street and winds up mangled beneath the wheels of a truck leaving Victor devastated and completely alone. All seems hopeless for the depressed lad until a science class lecture on electricity gives him a most ingenious idea—if a weak electrical current can cause the legs of a dead frog to jump, could a whole lot of electricity bring a small dog back to life? Quickly constructing a crazy laboratory out of Christmas lights and his mom’s best pots and pans, Victor soon has a hastily sewn together Sparky jumping and yapping once again. Keeping his pet’s resurrection a secret lest his parents freak out, Victor hides Sparky as best he can but it isn’t long before a handful of mad scientist wannabes are hot on his trail and New Holland is turned upside-down. This is Tim Burton at his finest doing what he does best: clever works of gothic animation replete with quirky characters and a dark fairy tale aesthetic. The B&W photography and pasty white puppets perfectly capture the look and feel of all those Saturday afternoon monster movies. Look closely and you will see brilliant nods to the likes of Frankenstein and company, the Wolfman, Count Dracula, and the Mummy while a few townsfolk bear uncanny resemblances to Boris Karloff and Vincent Price. Plus, as a hilarious update, there is a clever take on one of Toho Studios more loveable creations complete with screaming Japanese victim. It’s all good gruesome fun, definitely not for the littlest family members, which will leave older kids amused while the rest of us howl at the literary allusions and Hollywood in-jokes.

Free Fall (Germany 2013) (4): Marc is a rookie cop who loves his family and his live-in girlfriend Bettina. But when fellow rookie Kay, a handsome pot-smoking rogue, begins making passes at him Marc's initial shock soon turns into confused lust and everything he's thus far taken for granted about his life and sexuality begins to unravel. In between bouts of tawdry gay sex (they do it against the side of a car, they do it in a bathroom stall) Marc's guilt-riddled moping soon has Bettina thinking the worst despite his heated denials that it's not "another woman". And then love rears its problematic head and its melodrama all around... If this film had been released thirty years ago I could forgive its glaring transgressions. In this day and age however the idea of a predatory homosexual loner taking advantage of a poor confused family man (Bettina is expecting their first child, of course) is not only a tired cliché its also vaguely offensive. Bettina and Marc make love, Kay and Marc rut like drunken sailors, and confronting one's latent feelings is a potentially life-ruining proposition with rampant homophobia coming from all sides. Writer/director Stephan Lacant does try to inject some humanity into the mess (the men kiss tenderly before popping Ecstasy and fucking) and their jogs along a forest trail are an interesting metaphor (is Marc running towards something or away from something?) but while this type of wet dream seduction fantasy makes for great gay porn, as a piece of mature cinema it fails at that first uninvited smooch.

The French Connection (USA 1971) (7): William Friedkin’s high-speed crime thriller swept the Oscars in 1972—including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Gene Hackman—and even though it has aged considerably over the years it is still an exhilarating ride. Set in 1971 but loosely based on an actual drug seizure that took place ten years earlier, it follows the exploits of maverick New York narcotics officers Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle and Buddy Russo (Hackman and Roy Scheider both intensely believable) as they deal with that city’s lowlife drug dealers. And when they hear that a huge supply of heroin is bound for New York harbour from parts unknown Doyle and Russo put out every feeler they can in an effort to stop the multi-million dollar shipment from hitting the streets. But the crooks behind the operation, including the ruthless French connection, are equally determined to see them fail… Often filmed on the sly without all the proper permits, Friedkin’s Brooklyn is a decaying urban jungle of crumbling brick and dirty alleyways where criminals and cops play deadly cat and mouse games—except for Doyle who’s explosive personality and obsession with taking bad guys down has made him something of an anti-hero among his fellow officers, including his partner Russo. Employing quick edits and camera angles which never seem to stray far from the gutter Friedkin’s film has a gritty improvised feel, less polished than the usual Hollywood fare yet more immediate than simple vérité. Today’s crop of PC viewers may balk at the casual racism (different time, different place folks) but the film moves along like a runaway train culminating in one of cinema’s most famous sequences: a subway car containing a sniper careens along an elevated track while Popeye Doyle keeps pace in the streets below, weaving in and out of traffic at breakneck speeds (one of the resulting collisions was actually unplanned). Time has rendered the film’s good guys vs. bad guys mindset faintly anachronistic (as well as those racial stereotypes), and the no-tech approach definitely hearkens from another era, but this is still a classic of the genre and entertaining as hell.

Frenzy (UK 1972) (7): Hitchcock’s penultimate film, a curious mix of bleak humour and disturbing violence, actually garnered a British “X” rating upon its initial release--the only one of his films to do so. After his ex-wife is found brutally raped and murdered by London’s notorious “Necktie Strangler” former RAF hero and now unemployed bartender Richard Blaney finds himself on the lam from Scotland Yard who believe him to be the prime suspect. Even though he didn’t do it (the identity of the actual serial killer is revealed early on) a small mountain of circumstantial evidence plus his own history of alcoholism and domestic violence suggest otherwise. Eventually captured and convicted, Blaney’s vehement claim that he was set up by the real culprit give chief inspector Oxford reason to question the evidence he so painstakingly presented in court. Prodded by his eccentric wife’s “female intuition”, Oxford sets his sights on a new suspect while an escaped Blaney rushes to exact his own revenge. Darker and more explicit than the usual Hitchcock fare with nudity, swearing, and intense close-ups of strangulations in progress, Frenzy nevertheless exhibits the biting wit of its director: the staunch British-ness of the characters provide a stream of in-jokes: Mrs. Oxford’s attempts to foist “continental cuisine” upon her husband have him running for the mash and bangers and a macabre tussle with a stiffening corpse in the back of a potato truck threatens to go beyond the pale. An opening credits sequence features a fly-over of London accompanied by grandiose travelogue music—a score repeated throughout the film with ironic effect. Good grotesque fun all around!

From Beyond  (USA 1986) (7):  Sinister things are happening at 666 Benevolent Lane. It seems the perpetually horny Dr. Pretorius has opened a doorway into an evil dimension using a machine he built by putting a gazing ball and some tuning forks on top of an old hot water heater.... Soon the air is filled with floating tapeworms and carnivorous jellyfish while the doctor himself is transformed into a giant play-doh phallus. Great campy fun full of bad acting and revolting special effects. Strictly B-movie fare but oddly watchable.

From Here to Eternity (USA 1953) (9): Based upon James Jones’ novel, Fred Zinnemann’s multiple award-winning romantic tragedy is set in the days leading up to Pearl Harbour. Newly transferred to Schofield army base in Hawaii, Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (an intense Montgomery Clift) immediately gets on the wrong side of his commanding officer Capt. Holmes when he declines to use his fighting skills in order to help the company win an annual boxing competition. Not used to having his requests denied, the egotistical Holmes sets about making the young private’s life miserable through a combination of demeaning duties and physical abuse. Refusing to be broken by Holmes’ sadistic tactics, Prewitt finds solace in the arms of a local escort (Donna Reed’s Oscar performance) and the drunken camaraderie of his best friend Angelo (Frank Sinatra’s Oscar performance). But when Angelo’s impudence and cocky attitude lead to deadly consequences, Prewitt’s life takes a tragic turn of its own. Meanwhile, Holmes’ marriage is on the rocks thanks to his many past affairs prompting his embittered wife (an unexpectedly sultry Deborah Kerr) to embark upon a romantic indiscretion of her own—with Sgt. Warden, her husband’s second-in-command (Burt Lancaster oozing masculinity from every pore). And then the Japanese attack and everyone’s life is thrown back into the blender one final time… Although the original earthiness and cynical army-bashing of Jones’ book was toned down considerably by the censors, Zinneman’s film still manages to cast a few stones at the military mindset while a handful of carefully edited embraces, including Kerr and Lancaster’s famous beachside tussle, merely suggest a far deeper eroticism. The closing scenes in which war finally rears its ugly head over our lovers’ tropical idyll are an incredible blending of big screen chaos and personal horror. A true classic.

The Front (USA 1976) (8): In the early 1950s the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) headed by the infamous senator Joe McCarthy was convinced that the entertainment industry was crawling with communist sympathizers. In order to root out these subversive “reds” a series of political witch hunts ensued which saw scores of people from the film and television sector lose their jobs, victims of harried informants and an unofficial “black list”. Opening with a montage of 50’s video memorabilia including scenes from McCarthy’s wedding and bombing raids over North Korea, Martin Ritt’s angry film, drawn largely from his own recollections of that time, follows the story of Howard Prince (Woody Allen playing it straight), a meek cashier at a New York diner who poses as an author in order to help a trio of blacklisted writers sell their screenplays. Taking credit for the scripts himself (and later splitting the royalties with the three men) Prince is initially drawn by the easy money—but when he witnesses the decline and fall of a once respected comedian thanks to the gestapo-like tactics employed by the HUAC his political apathy quickly turns to anger putting him squarely in the crosshairs of the commie hunters who had had their suspicions about him all along… Rife with bitter ironies and just a touch of seditious humour, The Front features some heartfelt performances (especially Zero Mostel as the beleaguered comedian) backed by an intelligent and literary script. A dark period in contemporary American history made all the more touching after the closing credits reveal that many of the people involved in its making, including Ritter and Mostel, were blacklisted themselves.

Frost/Nixon (USA 2008) (8): After resigning from the office of president following the Watergate revelations, a disgraced (and officially pardoned) Richard Nixon retreated to his California estate without ever having confessed to any wrongdoing despite the damning evidence against him. But in the spring of 1977 an amazing thing happened; a British talk show host with practically no journalistic credentials and very little financial backing convinced Nixon to sit down for a series of taped interviews centering on his career including his controversial foreign policies and, most importantly, Watergate itself. Squaring off like a pair of mismatched boxers a young and somewhat naïve David Frost was at first bowled over by the ex-president’s uncanny ability to dominate the conversation, twisting words and steering things away from uncomfortable territory. Convinced that they had gained the upper hand, Nixon’s team of advisors sat smugly by while Frost floundered at a loss for words. But when it came time for the final and most crucial interview, Frost and his team were prepared; the resulting verbal showdown went on to make television history. Reprising their stage roles as Frost and Nixon, Michael Sheen and Frank Langella are thoroughly convincing as a tabloid gadabout in way over his head and an unnervingly intense politician weighed down by too many guilty secrets. Their onscreen chemistry, at first cool and courteous, develops an unexpected depth and complexity until that final David & Goliath confrontation which sees a broken and contrite Nixon gaining some semblance of peace while Frost receives the validation and respect that had long eluded him. Aside from Langella and Sheen’s powerful presence, Kevin Bacon in the role of Nixon’s faithful lapdog, Jack Brennan, was also memorable. A bit of Hollywood hyperbole aside (a volatile nighttime conversation between the two men never really happened) this is still an absorbing drama with excellent performances all around and enough cleverly placed period touches to convince you it is indeed the late 70s. Good cinema.

Frozen (USA 2013) (10): After she inadvertently freezes the kingdom of Arendelle in the middle of spring with her secret ability to summon winter at will, a horrified Queen Elsa flees into the arctic wilderness where she plans to live out the rest of her life in a castle of ice. But her sister Anna, refusing to give up on her, pursues Elsa to the perilous summit of North Mountain accompanied by the handsome Kristoff, his puppy-dog of a reindeer Sven, and a piecemeal snowman named Olaf. Alas, the sisterly reunion Anna was expecting ends tragically when Elsa accidentally sends a bolt of freezing energy straight into her sister’s heart—an inevitably fatal complication which can only be reversed by an act of true love. Quickly returning to Arendelle, an ailing Anna not only discovers that “true love” is harder to come by than she thought but when Elsa tries to rectify all the damage she’s wrought things threaten to get unimaginably worse… Featuring fairy tale vistas of twilit snowflakes and enchanted palaces, as well as some of the most amazingly nuanced performances to ever be wrung from animated characters, Frozen is truly one of Disney’s better cinematic achievements to date. A grand cartoon epic addressing issues of faith and empowerment that somehow manages to avoid all the tired clichés these productions usually engender: there are no bumbling lovestruck half-wits here (okay, maybe the snowman but he’s just too cute for words), the women ultimately find strength from within, and the abundant comic relief is more cerebral and less slapstick (though that too is handled very well). And the surprisingly catchy musical numbers would be right at home on any Broadway stage—which I suppose is already in the works.

Frozen River (USA 2008) (7): Ray Eddy is barely able to support herself and her two kids on the part-time wages she earns working at a discount dollar store. But when her deadbeat husband takes off with the final down payment on their new double-wide mobile home her precarious financial position becomes downright disastrous. With mounting debts and nowhere to turn, the family’s outlook looks increasingly grim until a chance encounter with a young Mohawk woman provides Ray with an opportunity to make some much needed money smuggling illegal aliens across the border in the trunk of her car. Lila Littlewolf has been involved in the human trafficking business for some time, using the frozen St. Lawrence as a makeshift highway between her reservation and the one in Canada. Justifying her actions as being nothing more than “trade” between two Indian nations she offers Ray several hundred dollars for every successful drop-off providing she keeps her mouth shut. It isn’t long before their nighttime trips raise the suspicions of a state trooper however, leading to some complications neither woman is prepared to face. Hunt’s gripping indie film carries itself with a confidence that belies its modest budget. Her use of frozen landscapes highlight the protagonists’ own dilemma as they try to eke out an existence in a world which leaves little room for moral qualms. Each woman carries a heavy burden, whether it’s Ray worrying about where her children’s next meal is going to come from or Lila trying to regain the baby stolen by her mother-in-law. Some of the scenes may be a little contrived, a Christmas Eve miracle proves a tad too symbolic for my tastes, but for the most part Hunt keeps things grounded and credible. I especially admired the small touches she employed to convey the older woman’s quiet despair; her silent tears, the broken makeshift carousel in the front yard, or the unopened packet of “Romance” bath salts sitting next to a rusted tub. The dialogue is genuine and the powerfully downplayed performances, including Melissa Leo’s Oscar-nominated portrayal of Ray, turn an otherwise pat ending into something almost beautiful. Well done.

The Funhouse (USA 1981) (5): Four teens (Jock, Nerd, Slut, and Virgin respectively) head out to the carnival on a double date despite rumours associating the traveling fair with some grisly murders in the past. On a dare they decide to sneak into the funhouse after hours in order to smoke dope and make out little realizing that this particular midway is also home to a murderous mutant with a taste for flesh and pretty girls. Thus begins a night of terror for the hapless adolescents as they become trapped in a mechanical house of horrors while a vile slobbering fiend prepares to have a little fun of its own. From the recycled thrills and chills to the gratuitous opening shower scene of soapy teenaged tits, horrormeister Tobe Hooper doesn’t have one single original idea to spin in this wholly derivative 80’s monster flick—every jolt arrives right on time and you can pretty much guess who’s going home at the end. But it’s still fun to watch if only for the nostalgia.

Funny Face (USA 1957) (6): Jo, a bookish ingénue (Audrey Hepburn) is “discovered” by middle-aged commercial photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) and Maggie Prescott, the pushy editor of a woman’s magazine (Kay Thompson) who decide to make her the next big model whether she likes it or not. Whisking her off to Paris for an exclusive fashion shoot Maggie can’t wait to cash in on the mousy naif’s natural beauty but an innocent kiss between model and photographer quickly (somewhat too quickly) blossoms into romance leading to all sorts of complications when Jo’s fascination for a local beatnik philosopher throws Dick into a jealous tailspin. Although buoyed by a few hummable Gershwin melodies and some lively dance numbers (Hepburn twerks it out beat-style in a smoky nightclub while Astaire does what he does best) this remains pure widescreen fluff that’s easy on the eye then quickly forgotten. The camp humour and 50s decor is pure kitsch, the Parisian backdrops suitably dreamy, but the forced love affair between Hepburn and Astaire (thirty years her senior) is both awkward and ludicrous (unless you’re Celine Dion).

Funny Girl (USA 1968) (7): Barbra Streisand’s award-winning musical vehicle chronicles the life of performer Fanny Brice, a plain Jewish girl from New York’s Lower East Side who rose to be the toast of Broadway thanks to her fearless determination and an uncanny talent to make people smile. Her personal life, on the other hand, was less than stellar with a string of failed marriages and a particularly heartbreaking love affair with a charming gambler, here played by a very dapper if somewhat tone deaf Omar Sharif. The period touches sparkle, as do Streisand’s interminable gowns, but one soon gets the impression that all that choreographed pathos and comedy schtick is mere padding between Babs’ showstoppers. Apparently she was not very funny to work with either.

The Garden of Allah (USA 1936) (7): Ridiculously overplayed yet oddly irresistible technicolor melodrama exposing forbidden passions beneath the fiery desert sun! Wealthy spinster Marlene Dietrich, still mourning the death of the invalid father she nursed for years, travels to northern Africa seeking solace and a spiritual recharge. She meets Charles Boyer instead, a disgraced Trappist monk who has fled the monastery for a bit of earthly temptation. When lonely socialite and bewildered friar eventually lock eyes temperatures rise and vows are shattered (after a hasty marriage of course). But when Dietrich discovers Boyer’s true identity all heaven breaks loose and the naive couple must come to a heart-rending decision. Despite a studio backlot vision of the “mysterious orient” (including some running around in Californian dunes), a supporting cast of gaudily dressed extras spouting gibberish, and a few glaring examples of sloppy editing, this remains a lush and highly watchable weeper seventy-five years after it was first released. Perhaps it’s the operatic performances and extravagant dialogue, or the cloying orchestral score highlighting a sensuous world of starlit oases and gauzy close-ups, or maybe it’s just the sheer audacity of the plot which places two of Hollywood’s greatest stars smack in the middle of an American housewife’s fever dream. Obvious religious metaphors aside (Dietrich’s character is named “Domini” after all) this is one of those romantic oldies you simply have to accept on its own terms. Frankly I enjoyed every frame!

The Garden of Earthly Delights (UK 2004) (7): Written, directed, and filmed by Polish Renaissance man Lech Majewski, and based on his own novel, this free-form meditation on life, death, and art is definitely a study in patience—but for those willing to give it time the metaphysical payoff is well worth any initial squirming. Claudine and Chris are English ex-pats residing in Venice where she is finishing her thesis on the works of 15th century painter Hieronymus Bosch while he studies shipbuilding as part of his own PhD pursuits. Composed entirely of choppy home movies shot on Chris’ new handheld camera, we see the two lovers explore the city and cavort like school kids in between sobering asides where they talk passionately about everything from artwork to the vagaries of life. Claudine, it turns out, is dying of cancer and these videos are to be the only legacy she leaves for Chris who obsessively records their every waking moment including the occasional erotic embrace. Drawn to the fantastical imagery in Bosch’s triptych masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights, Claudine ruminates on the middle panel’s underlying message of heaven on Earth where the concepts of good and evil are neutralized and absolute freedom makes us the equals of God. Meanwhile Chris, perhaps owing to his background in marine architecture, is more inclined towards symmetry and balance than transcendent mysteries. Pretty heady stuff, especially when paired with long studied pans of moonlit canals, haunted faces, and poignant outbursts both private and very public. Heavy with seemingly incidental symbolism—at one point an icon of the risen Christ peers from an open window while in a separate segment Chris tenderly holds Claudine’s favourite dress to his face as if to breathe her essence into his lungs—we are left to ponder which images carry the most spiritual weight. Coolly academic at times and presented in an erratic nonlinear fashion that may alienate some, Majewski’s intellectual foray nevertheless revolves around a heart beating with empathy and purest compassion. The artwork comes to glorious life under Claudine’s ardent scrutiny while a sad score of tinkling piano keys (written by Majewski) provides counterbalance to Bosch’s vision of Paradise. This is the human condition, told in miniature.

Gaslight (USA 1944) (9): After her aunt and legal guardian, a famous opera singer, is strangled in her London flat heartbroken Paula Alquist (a luminous Ingrid Bergman) takes up residence in Italy. Ten years later, with the murder still unsolved, she returns to England accompanied by her new husband Gregory (a perfectly slimy Charles Boyer) in order to take possession of her late aunt’s richly appointed home. But her wedded bliss is short-lived when disappearing objects and bumps in the night bring her sanity into question; odd occurrences which somehow seem tied to her increasingly coldhearted spouse. Does Gregory have something to hide? And why is he so fascinated with the aunt’s collection of bric-a-brac? A masterpiece of mood and suspense in which a young wife’s fear of impending madness is highlighted by claustrophobic interiors (her opulent quarters are stuffed to the rafters with a dead woman’s memorabilia) and exterior shots of lamplit fog. With her signature sense of grace, Bergman’s Oscar-winning performance traces Paula’s descent from a fresh-faced ingenue ready for life and romance to an emotionally battered hausfrau afraid of every shadow while Boyer (a weak leading man at best) throws everything he’s got into the character of Gregory, a smooth-talking despot whose underlying cruelty creeps forth with each passing scene. Joseph Cotten’s turn as a Scotland Yard inspector tends to fade into the background but an impossibly young Angela Lansbury (just seventeen!!) makes her remarkable screen debut as Nancy, the shiftless maid with loose lips and looser morals. An instant classic!

The Gatekeepers (Israel 2012) (9): Tasked with protecting Israel from terrorism and espionage the Shin Bet has been at the forefront of intelligence gathering in the occupied territories since 1967’s Six Day War. Cloaked in secrecy and operating quasi-independently, only its leaders are known by name. In a journalistic coup director Dror Moreh manages to gather some half dozen former heads of the organization for a series of taut and revealing interviews in which they shed a bit of light on what went on behind the scenes from 1967 to the ill-fated Oslo Accord of 1995 and beyond. Emphasizing tactics and intel over actual strategy and occasionally overstepping the letter of the law, Shin Bet sometimes found itself at odds with elected officials who tried to distance themselves from the organization’s more questionable decisions. But as these men reflect on political ineptitude, vast ethical quandaries, and missed opportunities (the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by Israeli nationalists and the rise of Hamas pretty well buried Oslo) Moreh manages to put a very human face on what is now a very inhumane situation and in doing so poses some very troubling questions to his audience regardless of where they stand on the Palestinian situation. With mistrust and escalating violence from both sides fuelled in large part by revenge, diplomatic apathy, and governments who can only think in terms of binary solutions, all of Moreh’s erudite talking heads agree on one thing—ignore the Occupation at your own peril. “Victory is simply the creation of a better political reality” states one former Shin Bet director quoting 18th century Prussian general Carl Clausewitz, and when applied to Israel’s public security debate he is quick to add that his country has won every battle even as it lost the war. Calling to mind the very best of Errol Morris, this is a fascinating insight into a very murky affair aided by intelligent Q&A sessions, a tense score of minor chords, and amazing visuals which go from dingy interrogation cells to infrared satellite images.

Gates of Heaven (USA 1978) (6):  An early documentary by Errol Morris covering the founding of the “Bubbling Well Memorial Park and Cemetery for Animals” in Napa, California.  Presented as a series of ongoing monologues in which grieving owners and dead animal entrepreneurs alike tell their stories to an unseen interviewer.  The results are sometimes amusing, sometimes sobering, and sometimes downright baffling.  Much of Morris’ signature style is evident here...the clever editing, the static camera that catches every subtle gesture, and an unobtrusive, non-judgmental approach that puts his subjects at ease and loosens their tongues.  What the film lacks though is the focus that is so evident in his later films.  There are several instances where people go off on tangents, like the two old dog owners having a catfight, or the grandmother grumbling about her ungrateful grandson and his sluttish ex-wife.    Furthermore many of the talking heads are just plain boring and add very little to the film’s narrative.  An interesting little oddity, but certainly not in the same league as “The Thin Blue Line” or “The Fog of War”.

The Gay Divorcee (USA 1934) (8): Another paper-thin plot takes a backseat to the dancing talents of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in this slightly racy tale of romance and infidelity. She plays an unhappily married society girl living in London with her scatterbrained aunt. Since her husband refuses to grant a divorce her lawyer hires an Italian fop to pose as her lover so her spouse will have no choice but to accuse her of adultery. Complications arise however when she mistakes the lawyer’s friend (Astaire), a man already smitten with her, for the hired Lothario. Spectacular song and dance numbers inevitably follow. Edward Everett Horton and Erik Rhodes are the perfect foils as lawyer and gigolo respectively, and Alice Brady manages to steal every scene she’s in as the crazy aunt. But it is the music and dancing that make it all worth watching—a seaside rendition of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” is as refreshing now as it was then and a grand eighteen minute extravaganza of swirling extras and spinning doors set to “The Continental” managed to nab the Academy’s very first Oscar for Best Song. As inoffensive as a cookie and twice as sweet.

Genevieve (UK 1953) (7): It’s time once again for the annual London to Brighton Vintage Car Rally and an excited Alan McKim is busily doting on his old jalopy, Genevieve. Not sharing Alan’s obsession with cars, his wife Wendy is steeling herself for yet another 48 hours of tedium, potholes, and being bounced about as she dutifully accompanies her husband. Alan’s best friend and fellow car enthusiast, Ambrose, is also eagerly anticipating the big day although his current femme-du-jour Rosalind has a few misgivings of her own especially when Ambrose objects to her taking her pet St. Bernard along for the ride. But as the rally commences a good-natured competitiveness between Alan and Ambrose gradually spirals into a war of words and sabotage as each man tries to best the other’s time by whatever means necessary. Of course it doesn’t help that both their cars seem determined to break down at the worst possible moments. In the meantime Wendy and Rosalind can only look on helplessly as the men make bigger and bigger fools of themselves... While this lighthearted road movie elicits little more than an occasional smile, its amiable cast and animated direction manage to keep things flowing smoothly. There are a few standout moments as when an indignant Rosalind is forced to push Ambrose’s car through a muddy pond or the McKim’s check into a shabby hotel run by an eccentric old maid (“hot water is provided between half-past two and six o’clock”), but aside from a few adult innuendos that left me blinking, the humour is squarely aimed at the geriatric set. Mild and inoffensive, like a nice glass of warm milk.

Gentlemen Broncos (USA 2009) (6): The writing/directing team of Jared Hess and his wife Jerusha had a hit with 2004’s Napoleon Dynamite, a slacker comedy whose winning formula of suburban eccentrics, vacant expressions, and deadpan deliveries practically redefined “quirky”. Sadly, they try way too hard to score a similar bullseye with Gentlemen Broncos