Hail the Conquering Hero  (USA 1944) (8):  Sturges mixes just the right amount of wry humour and mocking satire in this thoroughly entertaining story of a naive young man caught up in the lies of others.  Woodrow Truesmith (the names are brilliant) is the small-town son of a WWI hero.  His father died in the line of duty and his mother maintains a shrine to his memory in the living room.  Sadly, when Woodrow tries to follow in his father’s footsteps by enlisting in the Marines he receives a medical discharge due to his persistent hay fever instead.  Too ashamed to face his family and friends with the truth he gets a job in a shipyard and lets everyone believe he’s fighting overseas.  It’s when a group of real Marines decides to help him return home as a decorated hero that things begin to spiral out of control.  Sturges’ assured direction and intelligent script keep things moving at a brisk pace, but even as the gags come fast and furious there is an underlying anger to the film as it skewers everything from rampant capitalism to gushing patriotism.  And although the final scene appears to be a sentimental cop-out, upon closer inspection it practically oozes sarcastic irony.  Pretty daring stuff for a movie released towards the end of World War II.

Half Nelson (USA 2006) (8): Dan Dunne is a highschool history teacher who’s learned nothing from his own past. By day he’s a charismatic educator and hardworking coach for the girls’ basketball team but at night he indulges his insatiable appetites for crack cocaine and cheap sex. Like most addicts Dan believes himself to be in control of both his drug use and his professional life until he’s discovered smoking in the girls’ room by 13-year old Drey, a bright young student with enough problems of her own. A hesitant friendship slowly develops between the two as they discover they may have more in common than they thought. Fleck firmly avoids the cinematic hyperbole inherent in these types of films; there are no healing hugs, 12-step platitudes or tearful trips to rehab. Instead we see two fully realized human beings who, despite their vastly different backgrounds, are drawn to each other’s pain for reasons entirely their own. Using naturalistic dialogue, handheld camerawork and a funky score, Fleck gives his film an unpolished street-level authenticity further enhanced by some amazing performances. The film does falter somewhat when it tries to ramp up the dramatic irony. Dunne’s classroom lectures on the importance of “change” and “turning points” in respect to history (usually delivered while hungover) are glaring examples of this as are the historical asides delivered by various students; the narrative relevance between covert CIA atrocities and Dunne’s own self-deception is tenuous at best. And a strategically placed “stars’n’stripes” bandaid is pure overkill. Still, this is one of the more engrossing character-driven dramas I’ve seen in years. Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps play off one another beautifully while their final scene, if not exactly uplifting, at least hints at the possibility of mutual salvation.

The Hangover (USA 2009) (4): On the eve of his wedding Doug is treated to one final “boys night out” in Las Vegas courtesy of his two best friends; Stu, a henpecked dentist whose control freak girlfriend has a bigger set of balls than he does, and Phil, an irresponsible teacher planning to make a few bets using the field trip money he collected from his students. Also tagging along is Allan, Doug’s future brother-in-law, a badly damaged slovenly man-boy. Checking into a luxurious villa suite at Caesar’s Palace the four men start the night with a few toasts of Jagermeister and then----oblivion. Waking up the next day horribly hungover and with no recollection of the night before the three buddies discover their suite has been completely trashed and Stu is missing a tooth. What’s more, there’s a chicken roaming the livingroom, a tiger growling in the bathroom, and a crying baby abandoned in the hallway closet. Doug, however, is nowhere to be found. Using the few clues at their disposal the men try to retrace their steps of the night before leading to a few startling revelations as they meet the wacky owner of a wedding chapel, tangle with an effete Asian crime boss, go toe-to-toe with Mike Tyson, and get tasered by a couple of pissed off cops whose cruiser seems to be in their possession. But beneath all the big-budget effects and frantic adult language this is really the cinematic equivalent of an all-night kegger aimed squarely at the college fraternity crowd. The only potential laughs came at the very end with the discovery of Doug’s digital camera and its trove of incriminating pictures. In an effort to fill in some narrative gaps and explain exactly what happened that fateful night the director tosses some of those photos onto the screen during the closing credits where we’re treated to an assortment of bare breasts, a prosthetic penis (wow, unrated versions rule!), and surprise cameos from a few Las Vegas mainstays. Unimaginative, juvenile, and looking like it was slapped together overnight, The Hangover goes for quirky but settles for mediocre. They never did explain where the damn chicken came from.

Happy Birthday to Me (Canada 1981) (2): Virginia enjoys being one of the popular girls at school because all the boys flirt with her and she gets invited to all the best parties. But “Ginny” also has a dark secret involving an accident which killed her mother five years earlier and left her in a coma. Subjected to a series of “brain regeneration” experiments Virginia managed to regain her senses, but the cure came at a terrible cost. Still suffering from memory lapses and bouts of paranoia, she begins to feel her world unraveling after her friends begin disappearing one by one—a mysterious killer is on the loose and everyone’s a suspect. Aided by a sympathetic counsellor (Glenn Ford hitting rock bottom) and her well-meaning though perpetually absent father, Virginia eventually learns the truth on the eve of her 18th birthday. And what a party that turns out to be… Poorly made canucksploitation shocker rife with stupid non-sequiturs and enough plot holes to bury all the bodies in---twice. And thanks to some heavy-handed censorship (to avoid an "X" rating) even the gruesome murders are little more than split second flashes. The "twist" ending sucked too. No wonder Ford supposedly drank his way through the entire production.

Hard-Boiled (Hong Kong 1992) (8): We may never know exactly how many rounds of ammo writer/director John Woo went through while filming this ultra violent policier but by the time the final credits appeared it felt like half the population of Hong Kong was either blown up, shot up, or beaten up. The plot, what there is of it, involves rebel cop “Tequila” Yuen (Yun-Fat Chow from Crouching Tiger fame) and his attempts to bring down international arms dealer Johnny Wong (Tony Leung) a true psychopath if ever there was one. The trouble is, Wong is already the target of an intense undercover investigation and Tequila quickly discovers that not all the bad guys are playing on the wrong side. Still troubled by memories of a botched tea house raid he conducted the previous year (who knew blazing bullets went so well with dim sum?) Yuen is nevertheless determined to bring Wong down no matter what the cost. But being a John Woo film plot details are hardly germane to enjoying the onscreen carnage as motorcycles and limos explode into fireballs, entire buildings go kaboom, and blood-spewing bodies pirouette in slow motion like a grisly ballet—my favourite scene being a howling Yuen careening down a fiery hallway aboard a hospital stretcher with guns firing from both hands. And throughout it all the rat-a-tat-tat of spent bullets as bodies hit the floor and gore paints the walls. Compared to this incendiary spectacle Dirty Harry is nothing but a thumb-sucking pussy.

Hard Candy (USA 2005) (2): Little Red Riding Hood becomes an avenging angel in David Slade’s troubling tirade which confuses primitive bloodlust with civilized justice. When a precocious fourteen-year old girl arranges to meet the creepy thirty-two year old photographer who’s been stalking her online you know things are going to get disturbing. It certainly starts out that way when Jeff brings Hayley home for a few drinks and some innuendo-laced verbal sparring. Impressed with his risqué photos of underage models Hayley practically begs him to shoot a spread of her, a request he’s only too eager to fulfill until an unexpected twist in fate cuts things short and the stalker finds himself becoming the victim. In the psychological battle which follows Jeff’s past sins are put on trial with Hayley as the self-appointed judge and jury who will stop at nothing in order to exact a confession. Unfortunately what starts out as a taut and believable drama quickly spirals into a psychotic mess filled with outrageous plot devices and nonstop sanctimonious tirades; “I’m every little girl you ever watched, touched, hurt, screwed...” seethes a triumphant Hayley at one point. Oh please, is this supposed to make us cheer for the preceding scenes of physical and mental torture? Slade seems to have an acute case of moral ambivalence as the question of who we’re supposed to feel sorrier for, the slimy pedophile or the bat-shit teenager, quickly becomes a contentious issue. Both are equally repulsive in what amounts to an adolescent revenge fantasy. While I can see the “little vigilante girl” theme appealing to those with an axe to grind I personally found the film’s bloated theatrics and smug sense of righteousness completely insulting. I give Hard Candy a 2/10 for its high-calibre performances (a waste of talent) and nothing more.

A Hard Day (Korea 2014) (10): Homicide detective Go is not having a good night. For one thing Internal Affairs has just raided his office with allegations his squad has been dabbling in petty larceny and extortion (all true); for another, he’s already late for his mother’s funeral and his sister is now haranguing him over the phone. And then, as he’s speeding along a deserted stretch of highway trying to put out both fires at once, he strikes and kills a pedestrian. Not wanting a vehicular manslaughter charge added to his mounting troubles he devises an ingenious way to dispose of the body and cover his tracks. But this is one corpse that refuses to rest in peace for no sooner has he washed his hands of the whole affair then he begins receiving threatening calls and texts from an anonymous witness to the accident who will not hesitate to expose Go unless he performs one big favour… With more curves than a mountain road and enough bleak humour to fuel a dozen Coen Brothers flicks, writer/director Seong-hun Kim’s feverishly edited slaphappy crime thriller follows a panic-stricken Go as he becomes mired in a web of double-crosses and corruption that stretches from Korea’s criminal underworld straight to the upper echelons of the police force itself. Only a mildly crooked cop at heart, Go now seems poised to bear the brunt of a whole truckload of sins and Kim’s cameras are there to catch every giddy car chase, every macabre twist of fate (oh his poor dead mother!), and every suspenseful stand-off. The fact that Kim manages to make us laugh out loud even as we hold our breaths is testament to a master storyteller at work. Great fun!

Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (USA 2004) (6): Non-caucasian twenty-somethings Harold and Kumar forsake a late night at the office and a med school interview respectively in order to smoke a bong and watch bad cable TV. Seized with a sudden case of weed-induced munchies they heed the siren call of a particularly seductive commercial and thus begins a long and torturous all-night road movie as the two stoners go in search of burgers, pot, and pussy, in that order. Of course their culinary quest is blindsided at every turn by, among other things, a pick-up truck full of racist neanderthals, a bloodthirsty raccoon, and a cameo by still-closeted Neil Patrick Harris reinventing himself as a coked-out man-slut on the hunt for sloppy chicks. A desperate search for medical marijuana turns into an E.R. parody, an escaped zoo animal provides some unlikely transportation and, in what was for me the film’s only highlight, a brief sojourn in the ladies room lands our heros right in the middle of a spirited game of “battle-shits” between two clueless debs. The “Prejudice is Wrong” sermonizing complete with politically correct ending is tempered somewhat by a lot of drugged non-sequiturs and good-natured racial stereotyping but, in the end, it’s just another vapid teen comedy that tries to convince us it’s so much more because it has a message. John Cho and Kal Penn do share a certain degree of screen chemistry however, their deadpan expressions and comic timing are adequate considering the unexceptional material they had to work with. When a DVD’s option menu is funnier than the film itself you know you’re in trouble.

The Harrad Experiment/Love All Summer  (USA 1974) (3):  Before the free-spirited flower children of the 60’s became the bitter divorcees of the 80’s there was.........THE 70’S!  That tasteless carefree era where a woman could go out in public sporting a Dorothy Hamill wedge and polyester pantsuit without being laughed at.  Where a man could wear a pukka shell necklace and use half a can of spray on his poofy hair and still get laid.  And people actually believed in this sanctimonious drivel about free love and marriages without borders.  These films, poorly made as they are, embody that self-delusional hedonism quite nicely as we see a group of horned up students confuse emotional immaturity with personal liberation and social evolution.  As an aside, if you’re looking for a film that shows off the 70’s in all their tacky glory you’ll enjoy “Love All Summer”......the hair, the fashions, the furniture.....ewwwww!

Harvest Time (Russia 2004) (9): Writer/director Marina Razbezhkina’s lyrical pastiche of childhood memories becomes both a poignant reflection on family ties and a delicate condemnation of Russia’s communist past. Mixing images of crushing poverty with poetic pans of land and sky, she tells the story of two young brothers growing up on a collective farm in post WWII Russia. Despite being crippled in the war their father maintains a jovial air while their hardworking mother drives a combine and dreams about having a calico dress to call her own. When mom wins the prestigious “Red Banner” flag for best worker she proudly carries her trophy home, but as time and hungry mice begin to take their toll on the delicate fabric her single-minded obsession with protecting this glorious symbol of socialist solidarity begins to unravel her own psyche with tragic results. Told in flashback as an unseen narrator pores over dusty photos, Razbezhkina stays true to her documentarian roots allowing the story to unfold through keen observation and almost incidental dialogue rather than tightly scripted dramatics. The result is an intimate series of tableaux where blowing drapes, a guttering lamp, or a cascade of sunlit dust motes weigh as heavily as a child’s tears. We know from the opening monologue that this will not be a happy tale, and sure enough a contemporary coda set in a shabby housing project provides the final twist of the knife. Beautifully crafted and terribly sad.

Harvey (USA 1950) (8): Playwright Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize play not only gave James Stewart one of his most iconic roles, it has also become something of a Hollywood legend in itself. Stewart plays Elwood P. Dowd, an affable alcoholic whose eccentric ways always bring serenity and happy endings wherever he goes. Unfortunately, his insistence that he is best of friends with a giant invisible talking rabbit named Harvey is a constant source of embarrassment and distress for his already neurotic sister Veta (Josephine Hull in an Oscar-winning performance) and spinster niece Myrtle. Determined to have him committed to a sanitarium the two women plot and scheme with the help of a local judge and resident psychiatrist—but Elwood appears to be living a charmed life and no matter how hard Veta’s posse tries to corner him he always seems to end up on top. With everyone around him slowly going mad with frustration, Elwood’s good-natured demeanour and oblivious smile begin to lend credence to the idea that having an invisible friend may not be so bad after all… A classic screwball comedy which relies on frantic pacing and outrageous misunderstandings to gloss over its facile plot. Apparently it takes a comfortably crazy man to bring out the inherent craziness in others and Stewart’s somewhat studied portrayal of a grinning tabula rasa happily downing martinis with his invisible friend while all around him go up in flames is a perfect marriage of witty dialogue and comic timing with a “happily ever after” ending that smirks more than it smiles.

The Haunted Strangler (UK 1958) (5): In 1860 a penniless man is convicted of being London’s notorious “Haymarket Strangler” and hanged at the gallows. Twenty years later celebrated author James Rankin (Boris Karloff) believes the wrong person was executed and sets out to find the real killer despite his ailing health. The closer Rankin gets to the truth however the more unstable his mind becomes—and when he unearths the strangler’s original weapon of choice, a surgical scalpel, the murders mysteriously begin once more! Pure drive-in theatre schlock featuring a cast of screaming women waiting to be the next victim and a plot twist Helen Keller could have seen coming. But Karloff shines as usual, putting in a convincing Jekyll and Hyde performance without the use of make-up—apparently he achieved his “crazy face” simply by taking out his dentures. Genius!

The Haunting of Whaley House (USA 2012) (2):  Even though she is deeply skeptical of the supernatural, struggling medical student Penny earns a meagre living operating as a tour guide for San Diego's Whalley House, dubbed “The Most Haunted House in America!”  But according to Bethany, the home's senior curator, "Even if you don't believe in ghosts, they believe in you..." (muahaha!) so in order to protect Penny from demonic influences she gives the younger woman three words of advice:  don't call the spirits out (they hate that); be careful not to break anything (they're very territorial); never ever enter the house at night (that's their time).  It comes as no surprise then that the very next evening Penny and her buddies, along with a celebrity ghost hunter who just happens to be a friend of a friend, sneak into Whaley House and proceed to break all three rules within the first 10 minutes.  Death and bogeymen ensue.  No one loves a decent "dead teenager" film as much as me; the bad acting, the gratuitous boobs, and the buckets of spraying blood hearken back to the good old days spent watching Friday the 13th and Halloween at the local cineplex.  But even I have to draw the line at this horribly executed mess with it's slapdash script and cast of screaming drama school dropouts.  At least a few of the killings were somewhat imaginative (clothesline decapitation!)  The trouble is, they didn't come soon enough.

Hawaii (USA 1966) (7): Based on James Michener’s novel, George Roy Hill’s tropical saga follows the colonization and subsequent exploitation of the Hawaiian Islands and their inhabitants—first by well-meaning missionaries and later by less altruistic entrepreneurs. In 1819 after an arduous sea voyage from Boston, fire-and-brimstone Calvinist preacher Reverend Abner Hale (a ridiculously coiffed Max von Sydow) arrives on the island of Maui with his new wife Jerusha (Julie Andrews), a demure and far more progressive former debutante. Met with an idyllic Eden crawling with serpents and bare-breasted apples Hale immediately sets about extolling the virtues of intolerance and guilt amongst the bewildered Hawaiians as Jerusha struggles to be a good pastor’s wife while still maintaining an open mind. And then temptation crosses her own path with the arrival of Captain Rafer Hoxworth (Richard Harris), a leering and virile whaler who once stole her heart back in Connecticut and now wants it back again. As the tiny village of Lahaina slowly transforms into a bustling seaport Hale tries to force his biblical myths onto the natives, the natives push back, Jerusha waffles, and the stage is set for a series of showdowns, tragedies, and even an enlightenment or two. Although the film’s anti-colonial stance rings loud and clear (the sins and hypocrisies of the church are duly noted) Hill takes some care not to portray the aboriginals as wholly innocent naïfs or, even worse, clichéd “noble savages”. Golden Globe winner Jocelyn LaGarde’s portrayal of the island’s corpulent and iron-willed Ali’i Nui, or spiritual matriarch, is a compelling mixture of youthful zeal (“You teach me write English!”) and grim resolve which provides a dramatic contrast to Sydow’s evangelical arrogance. Alas, against these two strong performances Julie Andrews’ Jerusha comes across as an anemic reinvention of Maria von Trapp sans habit and musical mountains. Thankfully Dalton Trumbo’s keen script manages to hold its own against all those Panavision scenes of heaving oceans and palm-fringed lagoons, and Elmer Bernstein’s Oscar-nominated score blends it all together. Even Hill’s occasional lapses into dramatic overkill wherein supernatural credence is given to both Christian and pagan superstitions are quickly forgiven when he presents them as dramatic catalysts rather than bona fide spiritual phenomena. A long sprawling epic with an impressive supporting cast including Carroll O’Connor and a very young Gene Hackman. Keep an eye out for an unknown and uncredited Bette Midler heaving ho as a seasick missionary’s wife.

Hawaii, Oslo (Norway 2004) (7): What Erik Poppe’s multi-character ensemble piece lacks in discipline it more than makes up for in presentation. On the mean streets of Oslo during the hottest day of the year we are introduced to a handful of strangers, among them a couple whose newborn son is dying, an ambulance attendant who becomes obsessed with a suicidal woman, a pair of young delinquents on the run, a violent convict, and an institutionalized young man still obsessed with his childhood sweetheart. Each character is desperately grasping at a personal dream which hovers just beyond their reach, much like the tropical images that seem to adorn every wall. Tying the individual stories together are an enigmatic newspaper girl and Vidar, a counsellor-cum-guardian angel who tries to use his sleep-induced visions of the future to nudge each person in the proper direction. In the course of a single night some dreams will be realized while others will be lost forever, and redemption will come in the form of one final sacrifice. With its suspiciously convenient coincidences and heavy angelic symbolism there is certainly enough to criticize here. Furthermore, as a narrative bridge between the separate tales Vidar and the young girl prove to be a rather ponderous plot device at times rendering some of the dramatic links weak and contrived. So why can’t I simply dismiss it as nothing more than a Scandinavian version of Touched By An Angel? First off the cast is magnificent; there is a synergy between them that results in performances that are both natural and engrossing. Secondly, the script manages to avoid most of the saccharine pitfalls one would expect and instead delivers a well-paced and captivating composite of lives in chaos. And finally, the spare soundtrack of strings and piano chords compliments the film’s low-keyed delivery perfectly. A deeply felt work which must be taken at face value.

Hãxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Sweden 1922) (8): Benjamin Christensen’s surprisingly lucid and scholarly treatise on man’s perception of witchcraft starts with primitive notions of the supernatural, carries through the medieval obsession with devils, and finally explores modern (circa 1921) psychoanalytical theories of hysteria and mental illness. Scoffing at age old superstitions Christensen chastises the church’s history of torturing and executing “ugly old women” but is quick to point out that in contemporary times the elderly and mentally ill are still isolated both physically and socially. Along the way he regales us with some amazingly staged visuals from a huge diorama depicting ancient Egyptian cosmology to several tinted dramatizations, some whimsical some tragic, meant to give viewers a taste of what our forefathers believed: a sorceress gives birth to several squirming grotesques, a raucous witch’s sabbath features a demonic jazz band, a convent of repressed nuns go wild, and an entire household falls prey to the Inquisition. But have we really moved beyond our primitive fears he wonders as a fortune teller reads her tarot cards and one of his elderly actresses swears her little prayer book allows her to see devils. Pretty heady stuff considering it was made over ninety years ago!

Headhunters (Norway 2011) (9): As recruitment officer for the Pathway Corporation self-absorbed yuppy Roger Brown has it all: a gorgeous wife, luxury home, and all the creature comforts he could possibly want. The trouble is his salary, while generous, doesn’t even come close to paying for it all so he moonlights as an art thief—stealing priceless works from clients and then selling them on the black market—a practice which barely manages to keep his creditors at bay. Enter Clas Greve (Game of Thrones hunk Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) a savvy businessman applying for one of the CEO positions at Pathway who also happens to own a Rubens painting worth millions. Relieving Greve of his artwork proves to be surprisingly easy for Brown until he discovers that Greve is not just a brilliant executive, he’s also a cold-blooded mercenary who once specialized in tracking terrorists and escaped convicts. Now the game is on with an obsessed Greve hot on the trail of a terrified Brown who is forced to go to extreme, at times shocking, lengths in order to save his own skin. But there is more at stake here than a mere painting and as Brown comes to realize the true scope of his adversary’s ambitions he discovers that nothing is quite what it appears to be and no one in his life is above suspicion. Morten Tyldum’s caustic satire on boardroom politics flies off the screen in a flurry of gut-wrenching violence and morbidly comical twists and turns. Panicked close-ups and widescreen mayhem are tossed about with expert precision while a devilishly clever script ensures the impeccable cast is put to good use. As Brown, Norwegian star Aksel Hennie uses his 5’6” frame and baby-faced features for all they’re worth, portraying a pint-sized goliath overcompensating at every turn in direct contrast to Coster-Waldau’s towering egotist. Their epic battle of wits crosses so many lines (warning: feces and dead pets) that the inevitable chase scenes might as well have taken place on a runaway roller coaster. Both a mean-spirited lampoon of all things corporate and a thriller of the first order, Headhunters is one of the better films to come out of Scandinavia in years!

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (USA 1968) (6):  Alan Arkin plays the ironically named Mr. Singer, a deaf mute who has a remarkable sensitivity to other people’s unhappiness coupled with an unfortunate inability to mind his own business.  When his only friend, a fellow deaf mute, is committed to a mental hospital Singer moves to a nearby town in order to be closer to him but it isn’t long before the townsfolk, perhaps sensing his sympathetic nature, begin assailing him with their own tales of woe.  There’s Mick, the alienated teenage girl whose dreams were put on hold when her father was crippled; the alcoholic drifter desperately trying to turn his life around; and the embittered black doctor who hates all things Caucasian and is hated in return by his spiteful daughter.  Even the institutionalized friend is nothing more than a slovenly eating machine that uses him as a free meal ticket.  Everyone is so busy crying on Singer’s shoulder they fail to realize that he is having problems of his own...until it’s too late.  Miller ratchets up the misery factor in his film to the point where it starts looking like a parody of itself.  There doesn’t appear to be anyone in this town who isn’t in the midst of a crisis and watching Singer drag his multiple crosses down main street becomes tedious after a while.  We are bombarded with so much contrived anguish that when the final tragedy occurs it almost seems like comic relief.  Miller’s attention to small details does manage to sketch a fairly convincing portrait of a small southern town though, and Sondra Locke shines in the role of Mick.  But, ultimately, Arkin’s uneven performance as Singer is just not strong enough to carry the film through.

The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things  (USA 2004) (6):  Seen through the eyes of one terribly abused child the world is a disjointed place full of menace and confusion, a fact that is presented with horrible clarity in this unsettling and thoroughly ugly film.  There are no easy outs as Argento plunges us into a knee-high vision of hell and then challenges us to make some narrative sense out of the non-stop barrage of repulsive images.  Yet despite the film’s undeniable power and the brilliant performances by Argento and the three (!?) boys who played her son, it’s not without its flaws.  For starters, the film’s quirky, episodic nature often leaves large narrative holes that defy logic.  Furthermore, in over-playing the grotesque Asia fails to flesh out her characters sufficiently causing them to appear as little more than white trash stereotypes.  The story’s essential misery comes through loud and clear, we don’t need to have it shoved down our throats.

Heavens Above (UK 1963) (7): A simple clerical error sees a rather unorthodox pastor accidentally assigned to the parish of Orbiston Parva, a small ultra-conservative town practically ruled by the Despard family whose factory churns out the miracle drug “Tranquilax” (it’s a sedative! and a stimulant! and a laxative!) No sooner does the Rev. John Smallwood (a pious Peter Sellers) set up shop when he begins to disrupt the entire village’s fragile equilibrium: he allows a band of gypsies to live in the rectory, he begins handing out free groceries to anyone in need (or not in need), he hires a black man as chief church officer (To Kill A Mockingbird’s Brock Peters), and he convinces Lady Despard to spend her fortune on the less fortunate even turning the family mansion into a homeless shelter—much to her capitalist son’s outrage. But no good deed goes unpunished and as Smallwood’s saintly intentions reap unexpected complications he finds himself a universal pariah despised by everyone from the local clergy to shopkeepers and union officials. When word of his exploits finally reaches the bishop, as well as the Prime Minister himself, a desperate plan is hatched to not only save Orbiston Parva but protect all of England from Smallwood’s dangerous socialist delusions. A light and airy satire in which directors John and Roy Boulting seem to take great delight poking red hot needles into every facet of English society whether it’s a violent fight in a bread line over who is more needy and deserving or a cynical Downing St. cabinet meeting designed to sell the British people yet another bill of goods. Even if a few glaring critiques are driven home one too many times causing Sellers’ good Christian to run out of cheeks to turn, a wholly ludicrous ending provides some refreshing sarcasm and raises the film’s title to a whole new level of irony.

Heathers (USA 1988) (6): Heather, Heather, and Heather are the queen bitches of Westerburg High in the cultural no man’s land of Sherwood Ohio. Filling the entire student body with either fear, jealousy, or lust (sometimes all at once) the three pampered debs pretty much rule the hallways along with tag-along wannabe Veronica (pouty freshman Winona Ryder) who envies their social status even though their casual cruelty often keep her awake at night. But when the Heathers’ mean-spirited pranks and scathing attacks push her past the breaking point Veronica realizes she must either quit the clique (and commit social suicide) or become as shallow and vapid as them. An unexpected third option presents itself when she falls for school bad boy J. D. (a young Christian Slater doing an old Jack Nicholson imitation) who offers her a more permanent solution for ridding Westerburg of the Heathers’ tyrannical control much to her horror—and guilty pleasure. But J. D.’s crusade against the “in crowd” runs deeper and more dangerous than Veronica thought ultimately landing her at a moral crossroads of epic proportions. Yet another 80’s comedy centred on teenage malaise featuring the usual high school stereotypes (milk-spewing geeks, meathead jocks, hippy potheads et al) and the clueless parents and lame-duck teachers who always seem to be looking the other way. But like a cross between Revenge of the Nerds and Malick’s Badlands Michael Lehmann’s bleak campus caper underlines its cynical laughs with a darker despair that touches on such hot-button issues as youth suicide, date rape (a bizarrely effective scene), adolescent alienation, and the kind of school violence which would later grab real life headlines. Too bad things don’t quite gel into a cohesive whole thanks to some jarring edits and dangling storylines. Furthermore a few weak pop culture references pretty much fall flat—the local cops are named Milner and McCord (google Adam-12 if you’re under 40); Veronica’s “normal” friend is named Betty (read Archie comics much?) while their last names are Sawyer and Finn; and a copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar figures prominently. Apparently writer Daniel Waters wanted Kubrick to helm production which leaves me to wonder what rabbits Stanley may have been able to pull out of such a black hat.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch  (USA 2000) (9):  The story of Hedwig, a German transsexual rock star trying to find love and fame in America.  A rude, raucous and unapologetic film that tackles issues of love and identity head on with nary a blink or moment's hesitation. The acting is first rate, especially John Mitchell's powerhouse performance, and the music rocks. Essential viewing.

The Heiress (USA 1949) (9): Olivia de Havilland won her second Oscar playing mousy spinster Catherine Sloper in William Wyler’s beautiful adaptation of a play based on Henry James’ novel “Washington Square”. In a swank New York neighbourhood circa 1850s successful widower Dr. Austin Sloper (Oscar nominee Ralph Richardson) is doing his best to marry off his daughter Catherine. But years of being unjustly compared to her mother, a woman whose memory Dr. Sloper worships, has left the aging Catherine painfully timid and socially awkward much to her father’s disappointment. Things change one evening at a society dance when the reluctant debutante meets the dashing but penniless Morris Townsend (an unconvincing Montgomery Clift) who takes an instant liking to her. Flattered beyond words by Morris’ amorous attentions Catherine experiences love for the first time in her life—a development which thrills her romantic airhead Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins, superb) but leaves her highly judgmental father cold as he naturally suspects Morris of being more interested in his daughter’s dowry than her personality. When all his attempts to discourage the relationship fail Dr. Sloper threatens to disinherit Catherine and this single proclamation will prove to be the catalyst which changes her life forever. A brilliant script laced with humour and tragedy is further enhanced by a compassionate orchestral score and tight B&W cinematography which transforms the Sloper’s opulent brownstone into a psychological prison as images of lacy drapes and sunshine conflict with nighttime scenes of empty staircases and feeble lamplight. But this is above all a character-driven film and the interplay between Richardson and de Havilland as implacable father and daughter, with Hopkins and Clift providing counterbalance, is as engrossing as it is heartbreaking. One of Wyler’s finest achievements.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (USA 2008) (7): In case you missed the first instalment, “Hellboy" was the name given to a little orphaned devil rescued from the Nazis during WWII. Now a hunky beet-red demon (a gravelly-voiced and sacrilegiously sexy Ron Perlman) he, along with a small cadre of paranormal oddities including his human torch girlfriend Liz, is part of a top secret government program aimed at protecting mankind from supernatural McGuffins. This time around an irate elf prince is determined to settle an old score with humanity by rebooting an army of invincible golden robots, but before he can properly lead the mechanical warriors he must first find all the missing pieces of the golden crown used to control them. So much for the movie’s 15-minute intro told in animated storybook fashion. The rest of the film is pretty much standard comic-con fare with lots of super silly CGI monsters wreaking havoc on Manhattan while Hellboy doles out the wisecracks and gets henpecked by Liz. However, because writer/director Guillermo del Toro never tries to mask Hellboy’s comic book roots much of the cartoonish action can be forgiven. In fact the film’s steampunk inventiveness and Saturday Morning zeal ultimately wins you over with scenes like a giant pansy bouncing taxi cabs off of the Brooklyn Bridge, a horde of tooth fairies crashing a swank auction house, or an underground Troll Market whose sheer audacity rivals the famous cantina scene from Star Wars. One of my personal highlights was Seth MacFarlane providing the voice of a persnickety German gas bag—literally, a cloud of sarcastic vapour housed in a clockwork suit of armour. Too bad then that a few gushy romantic spots spoil the momentum with their forced pathos and orchestral stirrings. And of course Hellboy’s increasing disenchantment with mankind’s many foibles coupled with some troubling questions about his parentage ensure part three is as good as made.

Hello, My Name is Doris (USA 2015) (7): Full of tics and idiosyncrasies and dressed up like a thrift store gypsy, mousy office drone Doris (Sally Field reinventing Gidget as a doddery boomer) has spent her entire life caring for her invalid mother. Now well into her sixties with no love interest and a career which has gone nowhere she is just beginning to realize what those years have cost her. And then her outspoken best friend Roz (Tyne Daly, magnificent) drags her to see yet another motivational speaker who convinces her to seize whatever it is in life she desires—after all “impossible” is just another way of saying “I’m possible”!! But what Doris desires is John, the new guy at work (and who wouldn’t want Max Greefield?) who just happens to be almost four decades her junior. With the help of Roz’s precocious thirteen-year old granddaughter Doris ingratiates herself into John’s life where her quirky demeanour and outré fashion sense quickly win over his circle of friends—but is there a mutual interest developing or is that just her overactive imagination? Director/co-writer Michael Showalter’s low key indie is a deceptively sweet charmer masking an especially bitter pill. The comedic elements themselves are perfect: Tyne Daly is priceless as Doris’ loudmouthed counterpart, scenes where Doris interacts with various shoals of pretentious Manhattan hipsters contain more than a few LOL moments, and her erotic daydreams provide flashes of magical realism such as when she imagines John ravaging her right there on the staffroom countertop. But beneath the one-liners and quasi slapstick routines there is another story about a severely depressed elderly woman (she still lives in her deceased mother’s house which has become a hoarder’s paradise) whose reawakened sexuality forces her to weather yet another round of shame and doubt. A believably upbeat ending with an enticingly dangled thread does dispel much of the film’s tragic elements—although a bitter confrontation with an overbearing brother and his bitchy wife still lingers—and as Doris saunters off camera with her bewigged head held high audiences are left feeling vaguely chastised for having laughed at her predicament in the first place. However, for those who feel Showalter’s film delivers a timely lesson on chauvinism let me remind you of two things: the only other single male in Doris’ age range is presented as a slimy lounge lizard, and had the gender roles been reversed—a much older male subordinate hankering for a female co-worker—many of Doris’ warmhearted pranks like skulking after John while he’s on a date or sabotaging his life through a bit of malicious cyber-stalking (at one point she opens a fake Facebook account) would have triggered creepy frissons and accusations of engendering rape culture. But different shoe, different foot, and the result is a mature comedy with a particularly sharp sting.

Henry V (UK 1944) (6): Directed and produced by Sir Laurence Olivier with himself in the title role as Shakespeare’s determined English king who in 1415, at the height of the 100 Years War, laid claim to the throne of France—a claim which eventually led to the Battle of Agincourt. Nominated for a handful of Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor though only netting an “honorary award” for outstanding achievement, Olivier’s vision starts out promising enough by showing us how a performance at the Old Globe theatre may have looked and sounded in 1600 complete with raucous crowds, an unexpected rainstorm drenching the stage, and actors constantly breaking the fourth wall in order to mug at the audience. But then he decides to up the ante by introducing gaudy technicolour sets meant to mimic medieval illuminated manuscripts but instead resemble a child's pop-up storybook. That, plus a bit of overacting and some wartime censorship aimed at turning the Bard's work into Allied propaganda—the English are heroes, the French a lazy stand-in for the Hun menace—turns the whole production into a big loud mess. Still ahead of its time despite the missteps and therefore worth a look.

Her (USA 2013) (7): Among the sterile gleaming skyscrapers of a futuristic L.A. mousy Theodore Twombly (sexy nerd Joaquin Phoenix) is watching his life fall apart. He’s in the middle of a heartbreaking divorce with the only woman he’s ever loved and the prospect of starting all over again with an ever-narrowing playing field is depressing to say the least. Between bouts of desperate phone sex and playing room-sized holographic video games you could say he is trapped in a rut. Ironically he makes a living composing sappy hand-written letters for people who wish to impress their loved ones without the hassle of actually picking up a pen themselves. Everything changes however the day Theodore installs the latest O.S. software onto his computer, a new form of artificial intelligence calling herself “Samantha” who evolves from cheerful search engine to Theo’s best friend within the first few days. Possessing a hardwired empathy and the sexy voice of Scarlett Johansson it isn’t long before Samantha is also sharing Theodore’s bed, even if he’s responsible for all the lovemaking himself—although an ill-fated stint with an “OS surrogate” is sadly amusing. An e-love affair ensues which lifts the carbon partner’s spirits while simultaneously opening up the silicon girlfriend’s artificial horizons to a host of new possibilities—perhaps too many possibilities for Theo’s fragile heart to handle. Writer/director Spike Jonze’s bittersweet sci-fi romance is certainly slick with a host of A-list actors and an ultra-hip smogbound Shanghai standing in for a new and improved Los Angeles. The clever technological touches are nice too from tiny multi-purpose earplugs to vast cityscapes rendered surreal in shades of red and yellow. But, like Bladerunner on estrogen, it is essentially a weepy cyber-chick flick in which everyone, both meat and metal, takes turns breaking one another’s hearts and reciting deeply profound Hallmark cards while Arcade Fire croons softly in the background. Phoenix mopes and wrings his hands, Johansson’s voice alternately giggles and whines, and BFF and fellow outcast Amy Adams looks as if she’s trying to shake off a mouthful of sedatives. But if you twist your brain a few degrees you can still appreciate it as a deadpan satire on mankind’s increasing dependence on all those shiny WiFi gizmos that tell us when to get up, remind us to tie our shoelaces, and entertain us on the commute to work. Indeed, scenes of plugged-in pedestrians gesticulating wildly while carrying on animated conversations with their own downloaded companions is not such a far cry from today’s urban reality. Kind of makes you want to buy Siri a dozen roses, just in case.

The Heroes of Telemark (UK 1965) (7): In Nazi-occupied Norway circa 1943 members of the underground resistance, operating on orders from both Oslo and London, are tasked with destroying the power plant at Telemark which the Germans have been using to produce heavy water for their atomic bomb project. After a few disastrous attempts they have one more chance to prevent the deadly shipment from reaching Berlin, but their plan presents them with a troubling moral dilemma. Pretty standard espionage thriller lifted above the ordinary by the fact it is based on an actual chapter in WWII history, albeit told with some degree of artistic license. Despite being terribly miscast as a Norwegian physicist and saboteur respectively Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris nevertheless put in fine performances, their inner turmoil bubbling to the surface as duty to the Allied cause comes into direct conflict with personal ethics. Of course machine guns fire away and things blow up—and a cross-country ski chase is as breathtaking as it is deadly—but it’s those Panavision shots of wintry Norwegian landscapes which ultimately take precedence. The passions of war just seem all the more senseless when arch-enemies are constantly being upstaged by snowcapped peaks and frozen fjords.

Hidden (Norway 2009) (6): A decaying old house becomes a horrifyingly apt metaphor in this Scandinavian take on childhood trauma and repressed rage. After his estranged mother's death Kai must return to the family home, a site of unspeakable abuse years earlier, in order to settle her estate. But someone else has taken up residence amongst the mouldy walls and dripping ceilings, somebody hellbent on hurting anyone who comes too near the old homestead. Could it be that Kai was not the only victim of his psychotic mother or is part of him still a cowering nine-year-old desperate to escape the old woman's clutches? Mixing elements of David Lynch (sans ego) with the sinister sensibilities of John Carpenter, Pål Øie delivers a classic 80's style slasher film easy on the gore and rife with psychological subtleties. Ploddingly repetitious at times with some unfortunately exaggerated performances but there is enough substance here to keep you watching right up to the jarringly abrupt final scene; a clever little split second frame that's easy to miss if you blink at the wrong time.

High and Low (Japan 1963) (10): When the board of directors of a major shoe company announce plans to cut costs by turning out substandard merchandise, Gondo, a frustrated executive, mortgages everything he owns in order to buy enough stock to vote them down. But before he can finalize his purchase tragedy strikes; the 9-year old son of his longtime chauffeur is abducted and the kidnapper is demanding an outrageous ransom or he will kill him. When the chauffeur turns to Gondo for help the businessman is faced with a near impossible choice; paying the money will leave him in financial ruin, doing nothing will result in the death of a child. Thus burdened, the hitherto conscientious Gondo must face a side of himself both terrifying and humbling. His final decision, and the events it sets in motion, makes for an intense police thriller which touches on issues of corporate inhumanity, social inequality, and the dehumanizing effects of the capitalist mindset. Glaring newspaper headlines provide some irony while a brief stint in a heroin den seems more like a zombie nightmare. Beautifully filmed, tightly directed, and not one minute of its 2-1/2 hour running time wasted. A classic in every sense.

High Fidelity (UK/USA 2000) (7): Mildly obsessive and on the wrong side of thirty, aging slacker Rob Gordon (John Cusack channeling that 80s angst to perfection) finds little solace in the dingy vintage vinyl store he runs in a decaying Chicago neighbourhood. Freshly dumped by his latest girlfriend, Rob spends his rebound time pondering what went wrong with every relationship he ever had starting in grade seven when he was cheated on by his first girlfriend after they’d been together for all of six hours. Deriving cold comfort from his two geek employees Dick and Barry (Todd Louiso mumbling like a stunned ferret and Jack Black playing the usual obnoxious asshole) and his timely one-night stand with soul crooner and fellow lonely heart Marie De Salle (Lisa Bonet, a long looong way from The Cosby Show), Rob settles into an angry funk until his soul-searching causes him to look up his former lovers to find out firsthand why things ended so badly… Like The Big Chill for Generation X, Stephen Frears’ most unromantic romantic comedy points a caustic finger at its self-absorbed delusional protagonist, an 80s brat finding himself alone again yet perpetually clueless as to what exactly happened. But Rob’s character is not entirely without sympathy—certainly his latest ex has more than her share of baggage and a few encounters with past flames are sufficient to convince him that he may have dodged more than one bullet in his early years. Featuring appearances by Catherine Zeta-Jones, Tim Robbins, Lili Taylor and Bruce Springsteen (?!), a well written script (Rob’s inner monologue cleverly presented as glib asides to the camera), and an impeccable soundtrack of obscure new wave classics. A nice bit of retro-looking fluff with the occasional bite.

High Sierra (USA 1941) (8): It’s bullets, dames, and an extra helping of testosterone in this classic noir thriller, penned in part by John Huston. Humphrey Bogart is notorious bank robber Roy Earle, recently released from a life sentence thanks to some political dealings by his former associate, Big Mac. But this is not a simple humanitarian gesture on Mac’s part for the gangster boss has need of Earle’s special talents. There’s a secluded resort in the mountains of California where the rich (and their jewellery) go to frolic, and Big Mac wants Roy to break into the hotel’s vault where the pampered guests stash a small fortune in gold and gems. Teaming up with a couple of small town hoods and the inevitable femme fatale (Ida Lupino as Marie, a two-bit dancehall girl seeking a better life) Earle sets out to fulfill his obligation to Big Mac. Of course things don’t go exactly as planned... Although I’ve never been fond of Bogart’s acting style, his portrayal of Roy Earle contains a complexity which goes beyond the clichéd tough guy image. He is a study in contradiction and inner conflict, longing for a simpler honest life yet unable break ties with his criminal past; an inability which seems to taint everything he touches. A side story involving a penniless farmer and his crippled daughter reveals an unexpected vulnerability and deep-seated hunger for love, while a budding romance with Marie carries more fatalistic overtones. In true noir fashion the drama runs hot and heavy while the passionate kisses seem more forced than natural, but a bit of comic relief in the form of a black handyman (racial stereotyping á la 1940s) and a jinxed pooch with a dark reputation (Bogart’s real life pet) lift the mood somewhat. And those theatrical closing scenes, high atop a barren mountainside, are pure cinema!

High Society (USA 1956) (5): The romantic trials and tribulations of the idle rich make for tedious viewing in Charles Walters’ musical adaptation of The Philadelphia Story. On the eve of her second marriage spoiled Newport deb Tracy Lord (an elegant Grace Kelly) is having millionaire-sized problems. Not only is her ex-husband C. K. Dexter-Haven (Bing Crosby looking more like her father) still carrying a torch for her, but she’s also feeling romantic sparks with magazine reporter Mike Connor (Frank Sinatra, ditto) much to the chagrin of his fellow paparazzo Liz Imbrie (Celeste Holm looking like everyone’s mother). Add to that her father’s extramarital liaisons and her bachelor uncle’s incessant meddling and you have a surefire recipe for disaster—especially after everyone has a bit too much to drink the night before the wedding. Highlighted by gorgeous mansions, a string of Cole Porter tunes including the Oscar-nominated “True Love”, and an uplifting cameo by Louis Armstrong and his band as a jazzy Greek Chorus, there is not much here beyond a standard romance albeit one with a bit more glitz and glamour. An ironic lecture on how terrible it is to have to sell one’s mansion for tax reasons goes nowhere and having Mr. Lord’s adultery explained away as simply “a fear of growing old” while his emotional doormat of a wife nods sagely is almost laughable. A first class cast riding in a second-rate vehicle.

The Hills Have Eyes 2 (USA 2007) (4):  The original movie is now a horror classic.  The remake took the gore up a few notches and gave the story a modern Frankenstein spin with angry atomic mutants preying on an America grown complacent.  It’s too bad they decided to try and milk the franchise one more time with this tepid sequel that revels in the carnage but does nothing to build upon its vastly superior predecessors.  After spending the first 40 minutes showing the characters climbing a hill, the film quickly becomes just another formulaic “Fiends-In-The-Dark” splatter flick somewhere between Aliens and Just Before Dawn only much less imaginative than either one.  And of course it finishes with the totally expected unexpected ending that seems to be a prerequisite for anyone making these movies.  Diehard gore fans will be amused and that’s about it.

His Girl Friday (USA 1940) (8): High-pressured New York newspaper editor Walter Burns hits the roof when he discovers his ace reporter Hildy Johnson is quitting in order to get married and settle down in suburbia. Not only is she the best writer he has but she’s also his ex-wife and he’s never really fallen out of love with her. Resisting his less-than-subtle pleas to reconsider both her job and upcoming marriage, Hildy is determined to take the evening train to Albany accompanied by Bruce, her faithful lapdog of a fiancé, and his domineering mother. Resorting to sabotage, Walter tries every trick up his sleeve to thwart Hildy’s plans—but when a death row inmate the paper had been defending escapes and both the mayor and police chief are implicated in a political cover-up, Hildy’s reporter instincts kick in much to Walter’s delight and Bruce’s bewilderment… As the battling ex-spouses, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are pure comedy gold; their verbal sparring and witty comebacks practically fly off the screen at breakneck speed overseen by Howard Hawks’ frantic direction which keeps the action fast and razor sharp. Employing such relatively new script innovations as overlapping dialogue and ad-libbed lines, Hawks produces a rollicking coaster ride of a film that nevertheless manages to remain tight and (mostly) coherent. But beneath the laughs there is a cold vein of cynicism as amoral, muck-raking journalists and self-serving politicians are seen feeding at the same trough while a possibly innocent man awaits execution and his distraught girlfriend is regarded as little more than a tabloid footnote. A smart and incisive comedy with a social conscience…little wonder it has found its way on to so many “Best Of” lists.

His Majesty The Scarecrow of Oz (USA 1914) (5): Dastardly King Krewl tries to force Princess Gloria into marrying the fawning courtier Googly-Goo, but she only has eyes for Pon, the lowly gardener’s son. Intent on breaking up his daughter’s illicit romance, Krewl seeks out the wicked witch Mombi who freezes the girl’s heart and turns her boyfriend into a kangaroo. Meanwhile, in another part of the studio lot, Kansas virgin Dorothy Gale has her own run-in with Mombi and barely escapes with her hair ribbons intact. Teaming up with an enchanted scarecrow, an amorous tin woodsmen, and a cowardly lion (not to mention the “Wizard” himself) Dorothy and Pon set out to rescue the princess, defeat the witch, and liberate the magical kingdom of Oz. Yep, it’s pretty fucked up but this early adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s books….directed by the author himself…is not without a certain charm. The primitive sets are offset by some whimsical costuming and surprisingly sophisticated special effects while a background score of silent-era piano medleys and contemporary chill beats compliment the onscreen action which, thankfully, has been slowed down to normal speeds—-none of that fast-motion jerking so common in these old flicks. The plot seems pretty haphazard at times with characters running about aimlessly and mugging for the camera, but considering it just turned 100 years old a certain amount of forgiveness is in order. After all, this is how it all started…

His Secret Life (Italy 2001) (6): After her husband Massimo is killed in a traffic accident fortyish Antonia is shocked to discover he had been living two entirely different lives. With her he had an affluent middle-class existence in a better part of Rome where he managed a company and she worked at an HIV clinic. But in a seedier part of town Massimo also had a male lover, Michele, and was an integral part of an extended family of social outcasts including a political refugee from Turkey, a transsexual woman dealing with family rejection, and a colourful assortment of eccentrics. At first locking horns with Michele who, ironically, was always jealous of her comfortably open life with Massimo, Antonia gradually comes to realize what a sheltered and banal existence she had been living. Goaded by her lovingly cynical mother the bewildered widow begins spending more time with Michele and company, discovering more about her husband’s secret life while precipitating a sea change in her own. Brimming with shallow stereotypes and all the expected plot twists there is much in writer/director Ferzan Ozpetek’s film for me to loathe. From Antonia’s unhappily bourgeois lifestyle (because you can’t be rich and content) to the forced liberté, egalité, and fraternité of an apartment building full of Bohemian queers, Ozpetek hauls out the soapbox a few too many times resulting in a pedestrian drama with all the usual calls for tolerance and understanding. Even Michele’s ongoing ambivalence towards love and intimacy is reduced to so much tortured emoting while the director’s use of AIDS as a glaring metaphor is overdone. But the acting is still top-notch, the characters likeable despite the obvious drawbacks, and the story carries you along even as your inner critic shakes its head. Lastly, the end credits are accompanied by a silly montage of clips obviously meant to remind audiences that life is a comedy after all—and oddly enough it works. A sudsy little heart-warmer for sure, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to hit the stop button.

The Hobbit 2: The Desolation of Smaug (USA/New Zealand) (7): This superior second instalment in Peter Jackson’s ambitious attempt to turn one small book into an epic trilogy begins, appropriately enough, where the first film left off. A cadre of dwarves aided by the wizard Gandalf and hobbit-cum-thief Bilbo Baggins are trying to reclaim their subterranean kingdom from the wicked dragon Smaug who has turned it into his personal treasure house. In the meantime Middle Earth’s arch-nemesis, Sauron, continues to gather his minions about him in preparation for the apocalyptic battle between Good and Evil already played out in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Unlike the ragtag nonsense of its predecessor however, part two shows far more discipline and style. Gone are the “Rock-Em Sock-Em” mountain monsters, reindeer rabbits, and slapstick battle scenes; instead we are treated to a more mature fairy tale ethos filled with the sense of enchantment and otherworldly peril which made LOTR an instant classic. Clocking in at just over two and one-half hours, The Desolation of Smaug practically flies across the giant IMAX screen in brain-addling three dimensions: an encounter with giant spiders had my skin crawling; an exhilarating barrel ride over waterfalls and rapids contained some surprise laughs; and Bilbo’s game of cat-and-mouse with an unexpectedly erudite dragon contained some of the best rampaging monster footage ever conceived by a computer graphics team. It all ends a little too abruptly though with a final cut-off that seems more like a commercial break than a cliffhanger, but it was enough to ensure my place in line for part three.

The Hobbit 3: The Battle of the Five Armies (NZ 2014) (8): Cinematic license aside, Peter Jackson has definitely saved the best for last in this final chapter of his bloated Hobbit Trilogy. In part two a legion of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (hunka hunka burnin’ love Richard Armitage) set out to wrest their mountain stronghold away from the evil dragon Smaug who had been using it as his personal lair while in the north the demonic Sauron was rallying his own minions of darkness. Now with the fire-breathing lizard dead (cue some awesome CGI pyrotechnics) the company have not only reclaimed their ancestral land but they’ve also gained a small mountain of dragon treasure to boot. But dragons’ gold carries a curse which eats away at a man’s soul and before long an increasingly paranoid Thorin has alienated himself from the very friends and allies who helped him win back his crown in the first place including the eponymous hobbit Bilbo Baggins. With armies of angry men and elves ready to storm the mountain gates Thorin prepares for his final stand—and then swarms of bloodthirsty orcs (google it) under the guidance of Sauron make a sudden appearance and the estranged allies must band together once more or be annihilated permanently. Although it never quite reaches the level of high fantasy which made The Lord of the Rings so successful, Hobbit 3 nevertheless manages to strike an impressive balance between adrenaline rush, droll humour and moments of sheer poetry: in one scene a brooding Thorin wanders through a majestic underground hall while a memory of Smaug stalks him beneath the gold-paved floor, in another a ridiculously ginger-coiffed Billy Connolly, wielding a war-hammer and thick Scottish brogue, hunkers into the fray atop a giant armoured pig. And although the bulk of the film is dedicated to one prolonged battle scene it is a gloriously choreographed battle filled with fantastical creatures and comic book swordplay that defies both gravity and common sense. Lastly, a series of tragic turns actually manage to tug at the heartstrings while a clever closing coda ends at the exact moment LOTR begins. An unexpectedly enjoyable capstone to an otherwise disappointing adaptation.

Hocus Pocus (USA 1993) (5): It’s Halloween night and in the town of Salem a young man tries to scare his little sister and impress his potential new girlfriend by goofing off in a supposedly haunted house. Unfortunately his actions resurrect the evil Sanderson Sisters: Winnie, Mary, and Sarah (Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, Sarah Jessica Parker), three women condemned as witches three hundred years earlier. With just one night to ensure their newfound immortality by sucking the life force out of Salem’s children the bumbling crones immediately set about weaving their blackest spells. But the kids manage to steal Winnie’s book of magic and aided by an enchanted cat and a friendly zombie they’re determined to prevent the sisters from carrying out their heinous plan until dawn when the sun’s rays will destroy them forever. Chockfull of the usual sentimentality and pretend peril Disney is famous for, Hocus Pocus plays more like a theme park attraction than a motion picture with Parker and Najimy hamming it up as if waiting for a third stooge and Midler in full hag drag delivering a family friendly version of her Divine Miss M schtick. However, despite the foolish pratfalls and cloying sweetness there are a few decent chuckles that rise above the primary school level and the special effects are certainly passable—Najimy flying through the air on an old Hoover was a particularly nice touch. A seasonal cult mainstay guaranteed not to give the little ones nightmares nor tax grandma’s pacemaker.

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.

Holes (USA 2003) (7): After he is wrongfully convicted of stealing a pair of valuable sneakers Stanley Yelnats IV, youngest scion of the eccentric yet penniless Yelnats clan, is sent to a desolate youth detention centre in the middle of the Texas outback. There, a hundred miles from the nearest town and surrounded by rattlesnakes and deadly lizards, Stanley and his fellow teenage misfits find themselves at the mercy of a pair of unscrupulous camp commandants and one very tough warden with a curious method of rehabilitating her charges. Each day at the crack of dawn the kids are brought into the desert where they’re forced to dig random holes in the parched earth, surrendering any “unusual objects” they may happen to uncover to their overly eager guards. At first puzzled by this seemingly pointless exercise, Stanley gradually begins to suspect there is far more going on at “Camp Green Lake” than simple character building; a suspicion which is confirmed after he glimpses a few incriminating items in the warden’s cabin. Meanwhile, in a parallel story set a hundred years earlier when the camp’s current location was the site of a thriving town on the edge of a now-extinct lake, the tragic tale of bandit queen “Kissin’” Kate Barlow provides some vital historical background that will directly impact Stan’s current dire situation. Although darker than the usual Disney fare (there are killings, a suicide, an attempted lynching) Holes nevertheless maintains a touch of the fantastic which transforms Stanley’s adolescent search for answers into something unexpectedly profound. A shameful family curse, a redemptive climb up a mountainside, the fulfillment of a broken promise…all figure heavily as Stan and his fellow detainee “Zero” escape from camp—their trek through the desert coming to resemble an allegorical quest. The young cast members are convincing enough while the seasoned adults give the film some much needed structure, even if they are mostly relegated to grown-up clichés (kudos to Jon Voight as the crusty “Mr. Sir”, Sigourney Weaver as the ice cold warden, and Eartha Kitt as an old world sorceress). Pretty heavy stuff from the folks who unleashed Mickey Mouse on the world. And yes, there is a happy ending.

Holiday Affair (USA 1949) (7): Who knew future Psycho victim Janet Leigh and perennial tough guy Robert Mitchum could actually generate a bit of awkward screen chemistry together in this sudsy little romantic comedy. She plays Connie Ennis, a war widow and single mother raising her overly adorable six-year old son by working as an undercover “comparison shopper” (apparently a quasi-legal profession in 1949). He plays Steve Mason, a free-thinking and somewhat opinionated toy salesman for a large department store who loses his job thanks to Connie’s meddling. Despite being newly unemployed and practically homeless Mason takes an instant liking to Connie causing her to question her plans for a “safe and comfortable” marriage to wealthy fiancé Carl, a warmhearted but stuffy lawyer. But it’s little Timmy’s childish determination which finally nudges mom in the right direction. Playing out against a backdrop of Christmassy New York postcard scenes this bit of holiday cheer could easily be overlooked if it weren’t for a disarmingly good-natured script and the strength of it’s A-list stars including one very talented child actor; seven-year old Gordon Gebert not only makes precious palatable, he makes it seem natural. Of course the film is laced with the usual old-fashioned hokum as a woman who’s been successfully raising a small child on her own suddenly finds herself agonizing over which man will make her feel the most secure; apparently “neither” was not an option. Everything winds up being warm and fluffy however with the men ruffling their feathers at each other, Connie learning to let go of her dead husband, and Timmy putting everyone to shame with his pint-sized wisdom. Considering the film’s overall tone the final scene, a glaring example of sweetness overkill, comes as no surprise; it even left me smiling with it’s allusions to childhood wonder as a loving embrace cleverly morphs into a vision of yuletide joy. I guess I still have a soft spot somewhere...

Hollywood Canteen (USA 1944) (7): A group of A-list celebrities rally round the flag in this unabashedly patriotic series of photo ops meant to buoy the spirits of war-weary soldiers. Founded by Bette Davis and John Garfield during WWII, the real Hollywood Canteen was an L.A. nightclub catering to active servicemen on their way overseas. The food was free and the staff consisted entirely of members of the entertainment industry including the occasional movie star. In this fictional account we follow the adventures of Corporal “Slim” Green who wanders into the Canteen hoping to meet the actress he’s been fantasizing about during those long nights in the South Pacific, the sweetly angelic Joan Leslie. When he finally does meet her he gets far more than he bargained for including an obligatory tear-filled farewell on a train station platform. Hollywood Canteen overflows with great song & dance numbers, surprise cameos, and enough cornball comedy to keep you smiling. It’s light and fluffy, a little heavy on the apple pie, and about as subtle as an infomercial but highly entertaining just the same.

Hollywood Cavalcade (USA 1939) (6): Hollywood writes a love letter to itself in this somewhat overly confident paean to the power of cinema. Don Ameche gives a wonderful performance as the megalomaniac director who turns a Broadway understudy into a silent screen sensation (a radiant and good-natured Alice Faye) only to realize too late that he's in love with her. Success is quickly followed by heartbreak before the inevitable happy ending arrives just in time to leave theatregoers feeling satisfied. A couple of surprise cameos are fun and a prolonged B&W action sequence featuring the Keystone Cops is pure silent joy! Add to that a soundtrack of soaring strings filmed in rich velvety technicolor, an accomplished supporting cast, and a directing style which just manages to avoid melodramatic excess, and you're left with a highly watchable golden oldie.

The Holy Mountain (Mexico 1973) (7): Beaten and abandoned for being a thief, a pitiful Christ-like figure seeks enlightenment under the tutelage of a mysterious Alchemist. Joined by a cadre of eight worldly tyrants, each representing a different social evil, the Thief and company undergo a series of mystical epiphanies as the Alchemist prepares them for their final mission—a direct assault on the mythological “Holy Mountain” in order to usurp the nine immortals who guide men’s lives from atop its lofty peaks. So far so good, right? In the hands of Chilean bad boy Alejandro Jodorowsky however this seemingly artsy-fartsy spiritual allegory gets buried under shovelfuls of grotesque pageantry and scandalous non-sequiturs placing it firmly in the realm of midnight cult films. From the Alchemist’s rainbow palace-cum-laboratory situated within a brick-like monolith to the streets below teeming with freaks and hedonists, nothing in Jodorowsky’s anti-masterpiece is either subtle or self-explanatory. Two things quickly become apparent though: an antipathy towards the Catholic church (a transvestite Virgin Mary sucks back a bottle of tequila; a bishop shares his bed with a life-sized crucifix; Jesus turns his shit into gold…) and an outright disgust with Latin America’s past and present as the conquest of Mexico is played out using a cast of lizards and toads in full costume and masked soldiers randomly select peasants for public execution much to the delight of polaroid-snapping tourists—the latter given some artistic merit as songbirds and candy burst forth from the victims’ multicoloured gunshot wounds. Elaborate 70s-style staging and an impressive budget cover up what is essentially a string of political rants and bargain basement theology, but at least it’s more intellectually accessible than 1970’s head-scratcher El Topo. Of course in the case of Jodorowsky that’s like saying one tab of bad LSD fucks you up slightly less than two tabs. And a gentle warning—I don’t think he bothered to consult the Humane Society for this one. Keep the curtains closed.

Homicidal (USA 1961) (8): William Castle, that crowned king of B-movie schlock, hits a home run with this stagey rip-off of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Mentally derailed killer Emily insinuates herself into a wealthy southern California home where she takes pleasure in tormenting wheelchair-bound matriarch Helga and sharpening her arsenal of deadly surgical knives. But Emily’s murderous plans hit a snag when one of her intended victims, Helga’s step-daughter Miriam, becomes a little too suspicious. And then Warren, Helga’s son and the inexplicable focus of Emily’s insane rage, comes home for a visit triggering murder, mayhem, and a final twist so ludicrous that it’s sheer genius. Full of ominous musical cues and jagged shadows, Castle elicits a pair of over-the-top performances from stars Jean Arless as the psychotically glowering Emily and Eugenie Leontovich who, as the mute Helga, uses every facial expression at her disposal to convey silent terror. Meanwhile Patricia Breslin and hunky Glenn Corbett, playing Miriam and her love interest Karl, bring a touch of much needed sanity to all the craziness. Never one to pass up a chance to pummel his audience with cheap gimmicks—he threw plastic skeletons at them in House on Haunted Hill and jolted them with electricity in The Tingler—Castle introduces a 45-second “Fright Break” just before the film’s shocking final scenes with an onscreen stop watch giving sensitive moviegoers a chance to retreat to the safety of the theatre lobby. Apparently there were no takers.

Hostel 2 (USA 2007) (2): I actually defended the original Hostel as a sly sociopolitical satire in the guise of a splatter flick. In that film an impoverished eastern European village managed to survive by converting an obsolete factory (a casualty of the “new economy” perhaps) into an upscale abattoir where G8 millionaires paid top dollar for the pleasure of killing their own people. It’s too bad Eli Roth felt the need to hack another limb off his cash cow for this unimaginative and insulting sequel. This time around it’s a trio of American women who fall prey to the drooling sadistic Slavs as a bevy of international clients engage in an online bidding war to determine who will get to torture them to death. This is the film’s only notable scene as Roth presents a montage of well-dressed businessmen (and a woman...hurray for equality) furiously upping the ante on their cellphones, laptops and blackberries while their wives and children carry on in the background, completely oblivious. But once the actual bloodletting begins artistic integrity flies out the window and we are left watching a grisly freak show with delusions of being far more complex than it actually is. There are a few obscure cameos (Ruggero Deodato as an Italian cannibal) and a ludicrous about-face towards the end as Roth tries to give a warped salute to female empowerment but only manages to dig his hole deeper. Lastly, an attempt is made to gild this steaming turd by delving into the psyches of two American clients who journey to Slovakia to make their first kill. There is the promise of some depth there but it ends up being lost in all the screams and gratuitous gore. Despite a few new faces and a bigger costume budget which allows the Slavic baddies to dress up in 007 chic you get the distinct impression we’ve all been down this road before. The first time was unique, the second time is just tiresome. A detour is advised.

The Hot Rock (USA 1972) (5): Robert Redford heads a cast of 1970’s B-listers in this most unfunny comedy heist caper. Newly released from his latest stint in prison, inveterate thief John Dortmunder quickly finds himself involved in yet another illegal enterprise when the ambassador of a small African nation hires him to steal “The Sahara Stone”, a great big diamond currently on display at a New York museum. Gathering the usual assortment of criminal minds around him, Dortmunder hatches an ingenious (and highly implausible) plan to grab the gem and make a quick getaway. Of course the plan quickly unravels as the elusive diamond is repeatedly misplaced resulting in a series of increasingly elaborate recovery schemes. A great premise is bogged down by an acute lack of momentum, ho-hum performances and a script which begs us to take ever larger leaps of faith. Watching this slow-motion action flick left me with the impression it probably would have worked better on the small screen as a TV sitcom complete with wacky extras and canned laughter. It does contain one bit of historical nostalgia however, a dizzying helicopter flight over New York City contains some amazing footage of the World Trade Centre towers still under construction.

Hot Tub Time Machine (USA 2010) (7): One of the more pleasant DVD surprises for me this year, a juvenile gross-out comedy that actually had me laughing out loud! When their loser friend almost offs himself in a drunken stupor, fortyish Adam (John Cusack, loveable as usual) and Nick (perfect foil Craig Robinson) decide to take the truculent bastard to Kodiak Valley, the old ski resort where they used to raise hell as teenagers. Upon arriving, with Adam’s reluctant nephew Jacob (über-geek Clark Duke) in tow, the three men settle in for a weekend of booze, hookers, and reminiscing. Unfortunately the more they look back on the past the more depressing their present becomes: Adam is now a boring insurance salesman still pining over an old girlfriend; Nick turned his back on a potential music career and now grooms pampered dogs for a living; and their perpetually pickled buddy Lou (Rob Corddry stealing all the best lines) has been on a continuous cocaine binge since grad. But all that is about to change, for as they wallow in their private hot tub drowning all regrets in vodka and energy drinks some space-time continuum shit happens and they wake up in 1986—the year they last visited Kodiak and made the decisions that shaped their adult lives. Now faced with two momentous options—repeat the past in order to preserve the future or make new choices and risk messing things up even more—the three buddies (who appear the same to one another but look like adolescents to everyone else) ponder their next move. in the meantime Jacob, who wasn’t even born in ’86, begins flickering in and out of existence… With humour that is as much visual as it is verbal, director Steve Pink’s evocation of the MTV generation is hilarious for those of us who remember it, from the horrible neon jackets and poofy-haired metal bands (Poison!) to Jheri curls, yeti boots, and Alf on T.V. Of course the humour rarely rises above boobs and bodily functions with a bit of barf, lots of narcotics, and a surprise cameo by Chevy Chase as a flatulent Time Lord. But it’s all presented with such imagination and the caustic dialogue, laced with F-bombs and priceless one-liners, comes fast and furious enough to cover over the occasional groan. If only the 80s really had been that much fun.

Hour of the Wolf (Sweden 1968) (8): Bergman mixes the tragic with the diabolical in this story of an introverted artist slowly going insane who eventually disappears without leaving a trace. Johan and Alma spend most of their time on an isolated island where he works on his paintings while she plays the adoring wife. However, despite the idyllic setting, his mental state begins to deteriorate; he paints visions of grotesque creatures he claims to have seen and he is visited by various enigmatic characters, both seductive and frightening, real and imagined, including a callous muse in the guise of a former lover. Even a friendly dinner at a local dignitary’s estate becomes a painful ordeal when the party turns into a vulgar display of bourgeois excess expertly filmed with extreme close-ups, spinning camerawork and overlapping dialogue. But are these experiences real or are they being filtered through Johan’s increasingly fractured mind? Eventually his strained relationship with Alma comes to an explosive end thanks to the mysterious gift of a loaded pistol, and Johan returns to the baron’s mansion...now a house of horrors whose winding hallways and monstrous inhabitants become a metaphor for his own diseased psyche. Told in flashbacks using Alma’s recollections and Johan’s own diary, the story plays with our sense of reality. From the opening credits which include sounds of the film’s cast and crew preparing the day’s shoot, to the movie’s “demons” which are as solidly real as the island itself, the line between truth and illusion is never delineated. Even Alma begins to see Johan’s ghosts, as if her love for him has also left her susceptible to his psychosis. The use of light and shadow is striking, especially those scenes shot in the dead of night, the “hour of the wolf” in which most people die, most babies are born, and nightmares run rampant. Bergman has crafted an incisive look at the lonely suffering of the creative mind filled with cryptic imagery and a pervasive sense of dread. We are left to wonder whether Johan was stalked by his madness, or did he in fact court it. “The mirror has been shattered...” he declares at one point, “...but what do the splinters reflect?” Indeed.

House [Hausu](Japan 1977) (8): After meeting Ryoko, her widowed father's outrageously serene fiancee, a pouty Gorgeous packs up her Electra complex and goes to visit her aunt, an elderly spinster living in the middle of a deep dark forest. Accompanied by her aptly named girlfriends Fantasy, Melody, Sweet, Kung Fu and Mac she tries to put some distance between herself and those confusing feelings of guilt and jealousy, but this is not going to be a simple family reunion for Auntie has some unresolved issues of her own. Still grieving over a doomed wartime love affair, the grey-haired woman's bitterness seems to permeate every corner of her rickety old home while her mysterious white cat displays all the mannerisms of a witch’s familiar. As her friends succumb one by one to the house’s evil ways (and the aunt’s peculiar appetites) Gorgeous experiences a profound transformation which sees her go from petulant teenager to enigmatic young woman thanks to a tube of red lipstick and a dusty wedding gown. Steeped in dark fairy tale imagery, Nobuhiko Ohbayashi’s trippy take on the trials of puberty employs a fascinating array of cinematic tricks from hand-painted trompe l’oeil backdrops and matte sunsets to primitive animation and silent B&W film footage. Not completely comfortable in a horror film niche, House’s psychedelic effects and pop-up book sets play more like a day-glo psychodrama. Add to that a whole host of sexual symbolism; one girl is stripped bare by malevolent mattresses, another is attacked by thrusting logs, and a third finds herself floating on a sea of gushing blood, and you have one hell of an adolescent allegory. In one especially telling scene aboard a train bound for Auntie’s house the girls compose a shopping list including, among other things, “...love and dreams...” while in the next seat a nun and priest doze unawares. Bullseye!

The House I Live In (USA 2012) (10): Ever since Richard Nixon announced a “War on Drugs” back in the 1970’s America has spent one trillion dollars on drug enforcement, made tens of millions of arrests—more than any other country and mainly men, mainly poor, mainly black—and has yet to see any dent in the sale and use of narcotics. Starting with the sad experiences of his childhood nanny who lost her son to drugs, documentarian Eugene Jarecki tries to find out what went wrong and the answers he uncovers are as diverse as they are unsettling. Whereas Nixon’s “war” focused more on treating addicts and the social conditions which lead to a drug culture in the first place, subsequent presidents from Reagan to Clinton demonized the lowest rungs of the chain, the user and street level dealer, in order to garner votes from frightened Americans and introduce draconian (and ultimately useless) sentencing guidelines which disproportionately targeted the poor and powerless. But the roots of the problem can be traced back to the 1800s when new drug laws were aimed at culling the population of minority workers: you can’t arrest a man for being Chinese but you can arrest him for smoking opium. And now the mythical “War on Drugs” has become so deeply entrenched in the American psyche it is a necessary cornerstone for every political campaign not to mention an economic boon as police officers are offered huge incentives to harass users and low level dealers while entire economies have come to rely on the local prison. But this is not your typical left-wing rhetoric on the poor and marginalized for Jarecki draws upon a host of literate talking heads from such diverse fields as sociology, history, neuroscience, and criminology as well as members of law enforcement, judges, lawyers, and low level dealers themselves who each share their own unique take on the battle. A well planned and insightful documentary that takes one of society’s most complex problems and lays it out in such a way that even the most ardent supporters of law and order will find themselves having second thoughts. “Just Say No” just doesn’t cut it anymore.

The House of Sand (Brazil 2005) (9): Filmed in striking cinemascope sweeps Andrucha Waddington’s lyrical allegory on time, fate, and mortality features a pair of knockout performances from real life mother and daughter Fernanda Montenegro and Fernanda Torres who play two generations of mothers and daughters over a space of sixty years. Opening in 1910, a reluctant and very pregnant Áurea (Torres) is dragged from her comfortable urban existence into the desert wastes of northern Brazil by her much older husband who is determined to eke out a new life among the dunes and scraggly palms. Accompanied by her quietly stoic mother (Montenegro) Áurea rebels against the harsh deprivations imposed upon her and vows to leave by whatever means possible. And then her husband dies, her child is born, and one cold twist of fate after another sees her resolve eventually give way to resignation. But the fight lives on in her daughter Maria and as trickles from the outside world slowly begin to intrude upon their solitude Àurea is determined not to let Maria suffer through the same hardships that were foisted upon herself so long ago… Decidedly lacking in action sequences this is a purely character-driven drama played out against majestic widescreen backdrops of white dunes, white skies, and crashing waves with the omnipresent sand trickling into the titular shack like a living thing while a ceaseless wind moans through its makeshift eaves. With the eye of a true artist Waddington serves up some remarkable scenes—a solar eclipse passes over Áurea’s upturned face like a divine portent only to be mirrored years later when Maria’s face is shadowed by a squadron of airborne bombers—and his two leads play the strong yet haggard protagonists with absolute conviction. A marvelous study in contradictions, Waddington’s keen sense of balance makes boundless space seem stifling, sunbaked desolation take on a supernatural serenity, and heartbreaking sacrifice turn into personal liberation. An arthouse gemstone.

The House of the Devil (USA 2009) (8): Despite the misgivings of her best friend, cash-strapped college student Samantha decides to do a one-night stint babysitting a reclusive old woman living in an isolated house miles from town. It’s the night of a rare lunar eclipse and the old lady’s creepy daughter and cadaverous son-in-law seem overly eager to be out of the house by midnight assuring Sam that their unseen mother shouldn’t require any assistance as she pretty much stays in her upstairs apartment. But after the couple leave and the rambling gothic home settles into silence Sam begins to suspect that she should have stayed back at the dorm after all. It begins with the odd bump and rattle from the top of the stairs, then the pipes start emitting strange clanks and echoes prompting Samantha to start investigating the estate’s many shuttered rooms and closets where a handful of hidden photographs turn her initial unease into the first stirrings of panic. And then grandma decides to come out... Set in the early 80’s, Ti West’s devilish creepshow effectively employs many of the cinematic gimmicks used in horror movies from that era; jarring close-ups, voyeuristic camera shots, and sinister orchestral riffs mixed with snatches of old pop tunes. His slow, deliberate pace ratchets up the tension making you squirm right up until the film’s frantic bloody finale which, while appropriately macabre, still proves to be a tiny bit of a letdown given the preceding ninety minutes of tightening suspense...think Rosemary’s Baby directed by Mario Bava. A fine bit of old-school spookiness nonetheless, further enhanced by a believable script and a perfectly cast group of talented actors.

Housewife, 49 (UK-TV 2006) (8): At the beginning of World War II a group of journalists place ads throughout England looking for people willing to submit daily diaries as part of the “Mass Observation Project”, an undertaking meant to chronicle the lives of everyday citizens during wartime. Heeding the call is Nella Last (the amazing Victoria Wood, R.I.P.), a middle-aged housewife living in Barrow-in-Furness on the northwest coast. Browbeaten by everyone and everything Nella is hardly the stuff of headlines; a chronically depressed neurotic married to an insufferable monotoned bore (David Threlfall as far from his Shameless role as one can get) who enjoys little more than a pleasantly shallow relationship with her grown children. But as Nella puts pencil to paper, divulging in written words what she could never speak out loud, a gradual sea change occurs which sees her go from dowdy dormouse to a mature woman with a considerably stiff upper lip. Based on Last’s own diaries and adapted for the screen by Victoria Wood herself, this is a sparkling kitchen sink drama wherein war is little more than an intrusive backdrop for one woman’s personal evolution. Nella joins the Women’s Voluntary Service, weathers aerial bombings, stands up to her frumpy husband, and refashions her relationship with eldest son Cliff—a young soldier with a troubling secret of his own—and it’s all presented with such offhand naturalism that one could mistake it for a WWII episode of Coronation Street. Despite a few understandable jumps in the narrative—the story takes place over a six year period after all—this is a deeply intimate portrait and thanks to Woods’ beautiful working class prose it is never less than absorbing. As a note of interest, the real Nella Last continued writing her diary until shortly before her death in 1968.

How’s Your News?
(USA 1999) (2): A documentary following a group of mentally disabled adults as they cross the USA conducting “man on the street” interviews for their ersatz news show. I suppose we are expected to smile indulgently as they stutter and stammer and drift away on tangents while their unfortunate victims squirm uncomfortably but all I saw was a string of cringeworthy amateur film footage designed to test the limits of my patience. There is nothing outstanding about these characters, they have neither chemistry nor cohesiveness; in fact the woman is downright annoying. There are a few mildly interesting moments: an obnoxious street preacher tries to distance himself from a persistent interviewer who is only able to grunt and gesture and an attempt is made to pose questions to a newborn lamb, but many of the episodes have the look of a cruel prank. In one of the more disturbing scenes a severely spastic man in a wheelchair is parked on a busy L.A. boardwalk with a microphone and a sign stating, “My Name is Larry, Please Talk to Me”. There is no doubt that these people enjoyed themselves, but the filmmakers themselves tread a very fine line between “laughing with” and “laughing at”....and not always successfully.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (USA 2014) (9): If you liked the first instalment you'll love this one. It's been five years since young Hiccup united Vikings with their one time enemies the dragons and life couldn't be better. Instead of warring with one another man and lizard now live in happy partnership with dragon races and carnivals replacing harpoons and fire bombs. But trouble is looming in the form of Drago Bloodfist, a mad pirate intent on taking over the world with his army of fire-breathing leviathans and only Hiccup stands between him and his insane scheme. Impeccable animation featuring crazy aerial battles as well as a few surprisingly poignant scenes (Hiccup is reunited with someone he thought gone forever even as another loved one is tragically lost) make this a surefire hit for adults and kids alike. And keep your ears open or you'll miss an oh-so-subtle allusion to one of the first animated gay characters ever!

The Human Centipede: First Sequence (Netherlands 2009) (5): Oh this is a nasty bit of badness! A mad scientist with an intense dislike for human beings abducts a trio of hapless tourists and turns them into a six-legged freak by stitching their asses to their mouths. With their knee tendons severed to prevent them from running away and their digestive tracts joined into one long tube (one man's poop is another's breakfast) it appears the three victims are at the mercy of their tormentor. And then the police show up... As the crazy surgeon, actor Dieter Laser is the perfect combination of insane genius and depraved villain. His cadaverous features convey more malice with a simple smile or tilt of the head than an entire page of leering dialogue ever could. The basement operating room scenes are creepy enough and the three unfortunate "subjects" are a convincing blend of horrified shock and outrage as they scream and/or moan around their horrific surgical scars. Apparently writer/director Tom Six thought of the idea for this film while discussing possible punishments for a child molester. "He should have his mouth sewn to a truck driver's ass..." said Tom; the rest is *gulp* cinematic history.

The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence (Netherlands 2011) (6): So this is the nasty little flick that so horrified the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) that they demanded 32 cuts before allowing it to be shown in the UK. Martin is a grotesque bug-eyed car park attendant in greater London who has an unnatural fondness for Tom Six's film The Human Centipede. In that film a mad doctor surgically attaches three hapless victims ass-to-mouth in order to form a human version of the eponymous insect. Martin decides to outdo the fictitious doctor by making a twelve-person centipede using unwilling volunteers gleaned from the lower levels of the parkade where he works. Not possessing a medical degree however, Martin has to improvise with a staple gun, duct tape and a suitcase full of carpentry tools. Ewww! Not really a sequel, Centipede 2 is more of a variation on a theme. Unlike the cold clinical feel of the first film, there is a definite flair to Six's shocking B&W camerawork which frequently borders on the surreal; domestic scenes of Martin and his shrewish mother are darkly comic while the more appalling sequences of violence possess a certain horror artistry. Furthermore, with this film Six sends a sly “Fuck You” to the BBFC itself who too often justify their powers of censorship by claiming to protect British society from those who would try to emulate the graphic violence they see in films. And graphic violence abounds; teeth are knocked out with a hammer, tendons are snipped with scissors, a woman is raped by a man wearing a barbed wire condom, and a newborn baby gets its head crushed by a gas pedal. One particular scene involving mass injections of a powerful laxative is just too gross to mention here. Pretty heavy stuff which Six tries to balance out with sardonic humour aimed at the movie industry (a cameo by one of the original Centipede actresses is pretty funny!) Lastly, Laurence R. Harvey's rubbery face and toad-like body were made for the role of Martin. Gratuitous and sick from start to finish for sure, but not so easily dismissed.

The Human Resources Manager (Israel 2010) (5): Scandal hits Jerusalem’s largest bakery when one of their employees, a Romanian ex-pat with no local family, is killed by a suicide bomber and her body is left unclaimed in the city morgue. Painted by an overly zealous reporter as an uncaring corporation with no compassion for its workers, the bakery’s owner decides to soften the defamatory newspaper gossip by paying to have the woman’s body returned to her village for a full funeral. She also scapegoats the company’s HR manager and orders him to escort the casket to Romania accompanied by the muckraking journalist who is still hungry for photo-ops. A quaint tragicomic road movie ensues in which manager and reporter cross paths with a succession of quirky characters including the woman’s delinquent son and fierce mother—all black shawls and even blacker scowls—which elicit a profound change of perspective for both of them. In director Eran Riklis’ adaptation of Abraham Jehoshua’s novel cosmopolitan Israel gets a comeuppance of sorts from the harsh realities of Eastern Europe and one man’s own dysfunctional family life slowly gets sorted out the more he stares at a simple wooden coffin. There is a pervasive sense of déjà vu to the standard Hollywood clichés however which reduce Romania to a dreary stretch of highway wending its way through dreary winter landscapes populated by pedestrian bureaucrats and unsmiling peasants who seem to cross themselves at the slightest provocation. And as the manager’s phone calls home go from terse to warm and fuzzy and the reporter discovers there are two sides to every story you quickly realize just how formulaic the whole production actually is. There are a few flashes of comedy but they are quickly swallowed up by tears or snowstorms and the ending pretty much writes itself without any satisfying depth beyond a hug or two. Bland and unexceptional.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (USA 1939) (10): Victor Hugo’s classic tale of the deformed bell-ringer who falls in love with an outlaw gypsy girl is given the big screen treatment in this magnificent adaptation. Condemned to the gallows after she is framed for murder, the childlike Esmeralda (Maureen O’Hara, naturally gorgeous) is rescued by the hunchback Quasimodo (Charles Laughton, mesmerizing) and given sanctuary in Notre Dame cathedral. But Paris’ Chief Justice Frollo is secretly lusting after the gypsy dancer and will stop at nothing to prevent any other man from having her. Meanwhile penniless poet Gringoire, who also loves her, has joined forces with the notorious king of the Thieves’ Guild in order to rescue Esmeralda from her cloistered confines. And throughout it all wise king Louis XI strives to keep the peace even as this explosive four-way love rectangle pits church against state and peasant against nobleman culminating in a riotous clash on the steps of Notre Dame. Rich and emotive, director William Dieterle’s soundstage vision of 16th century France teems with colourful characters and extravagant set pieces—the mock cathedral alone cost 250,000 dollars, big money at that time. But it is the human interplay which makes this a B&W classic with all of mankind’s strengths and foibles reduced to a handful of players—from Quasimodo’s selfless generosity to Frollo’s self-centred scheming to the king’s detached benevolence. It is Charles Laughton however who ultimately owns the film. Sporting the elaborate make-up and prosthetics which took over two hours to apply, his frightening appearance belies a pure heart and innocent soul in direct contrast to the handsome yet corrupt citizens that surround him. At one point he is whipped in public and you feel a sense of outrage, and in another scene he offers Esmeralda food adding timidly “I’m going away so you don’t have to see my ugly face while you’re eating…” and it’s all you can do to keep from crying. A beautifully rendered bigger-than-life allegory with standout performances all around and a score that goes from orchestral arrangements to ethereal chants. Recommended.

Hurricane Bianca (USA 2016) (6): Nelly Manhattan substitute teacher Richard Martinez, a gay man’s Woody Allen, accepts the position of “teaching ambassador” to a highschool in Milford Texas, a bible belt jerkwater town where goats roam the streets and everybody is a first cousin. But after only two days on the job the homophobic principle sends him packing much to the delight of his vice-principle, a sexually repressed virago, and the teaching staff composed of a slutty social studies professor and testosterone-laced football coach. Martinez is not one to give up without a fight however so before the dust can even settle he returns to teach dressed incognito as his alter ego Bianca Del Rio, a towering foul-mouthed paragon of fierceness all glam make-up and bitchy one-liners who blows through Milford High like the titular typhoon shaking up students and faculty, exposing hypocrisy (juicy secrets abound!) while teaching her homeroom class of aspiring rednecks a thing or two about tolerance. Featuring a cast of alumni from Ru Paul’s Drag Race—including Ru Paul himself as a dapper weatherman—and funded in large part by fan donations this cheeky bit of burlesque written and directed by Matt Kugleman is a technical washout on every level if viewed as a “straight” comedy. It’s crass, it’s corny, and it’s overplayed—Del Rio’s stage antics don’t translate easily onto the small screen and the LGBTQ “message” is drilled home with all the subtlety of a high heel to the nuts. But this is essentially a drag show, glorious campy drag, so whether it’s Bianca slandering an office troll or her club gurl buddies Bailey and Stephen (drag divas William Belli and D. J. Shangela Pierce both faaaabulous) mincing and scratching out eyes, the joke’s on everyone—especially Texas. It’s Tootsie meets Blackboard Jungle all rolled up in sequins and sprinkled with fairy glitter.

The Hurt Locker (USA 2008) (10): The title of director Kathryn Bigelow’s horrifying journey into darkness is GI slang for any severe injury sustained in battle. But injuries come in many different guises and if war is indeed a drug, as attested by the film’s opening quote by journalist Chris Hedges, then it is one of the most destructive of addictions. Staff Sergeant William James (Oscar nominee Jeremy Renner) has just taken command of an elite American bomb squad stationed in Baghdad. A genius when it comes to detecting and disarming homemade explosives, James’ maverick attitude and zeal for taking risks nevertheless alienates him from the other members of his team. But there is a hunger underlying his hotshot bravado which neither the heated voice of reason provided by his next in command Sergeant Sanborn (an intense turn from Anthony Mackie) nor the panicked rebukes from operations specialist Owen Eldridge (an edgy Brian Geraghty), can defuse—and as James’ exploits lead his men down ever more dangerous roads the source of that hunger becomes frighteningly clear. With the incisive eye of a documentarian Bigelow proves quite adept at maintaining an atmosphere of chaotic tension, switching from long strained takes to jiggling handheld verité as she recreates a dust-choked Baghdad of burned out cars and crumbled walls where half seen faces peer out of every recess and an innocuous pile of rubble could conceal a deadly threat. Under a scorching sun, their camouflage gear seemingly out of place amongst the market stalls and scrambling children, her characters move in a constant state of controlled anxiety knowing that any wrong move may prove to be their last. But as each man faces that heart of darkness which seems to saturate everything around them Bigelow presents three very different responses: one despairs over a life of quiet domesticity he may never live to see; one sees the nightmare for what it is and the knowledge preys upon his sanity; and yet another finds within the adrenaline rush a way to keep his own demons at bay. Not so much a war movie as it is a psychological treatise on the hidden casualties of battle, Bigelow takes great pains to avoid proselytizing to either side but instead allows events to unfold as they will. In the process she treats her audience to some haunting imagery—a soldier moves ominously through a pall of smoke; a setting sun turns blood red; a dead child lies sprawled on a kitchen table—and a powerful soundtrack of melancholy notes and apocalyptic wails. Its Oscars for Best Picture and Director were well deserved.

Husbands (USA 1970) (7): The sudden death of a mutual acquaintance causes three white collar family men to experience a reverse rite of passage as they shirk their adult responsibilities and try to re-live the carefree days of adolescence. What follows is a long string of pointless booze-fuelled dialogues and petty indiscretions with each man reluctantly coming to terms with his own mortality. An impromptu trip to England eventually brings them face to face with a host of equally unhappy female counterparts prompting two of the men to return home, tails firmly between legs, while the third friend flounders helplessly thanks to the marital bridges he’s already burned. Cassavetes’ dark and unamusing “comedy about love, death, and freedom” zeros in on three adult boys getting an early start on their mid-life crises with all the pathetic shows of masculine bravura and hidden anxieties that that entails. Appropriately enough the wives are never shown for this is strictly male fantasy territory, sustained by alcohol and delusions of youth, while we the audience are kept stone cold sober throughout thanks to an unflinching camera and lack of any musical soundtrack which might otherwise lend a whimsical quality to the men’s cruel and self-centred idiocy. Long and drawn out at times with a script that seems largely improvised (and therefore completely believable) Husbands is a true test of cinematic perseverance. But the power of its three leads: Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, and Cassavetes himself, gives it a sad sense of hyperrealism which strikes a definite chord with those of us on the other side of forty.

Hypocrites (USA 1915) (7): Lois Weber’s religious allegory on vice and corruption may seem laughably naive today but it created a small storm of controversy 95 years ago for its copious amounts of female nudity. Weber uses the same cast to present two interconnected stories, each one highlighting the many pitfalls awaiting the unwary as they choose between the straight and narrow path to enlightenment and the broad avenue to ruin. In the first, a contemporary small town pastor is forced to resign after delivering a fiery sermon on hypocrisy; in the second a medieval monk is killed by an angry mob outraged by his statue celebrating the spirit of Truth in the form of a nude female. It’s interesting to see how Weber draws parallels between the townsfolk of the middle ages and their modern counterparts; kings and queens give way to top-hatted businessmen while drunken abbots become crooked politicians, and all the while “Truth” walks among them unseen and ignored. Weber takes a decidedly cynical look at contemporary society and doesn’t find much to commend. In one unintentionally hilarious flashback she shows the root cause of an unfortunate family’s dire misery; while daughter eats greedily from a box labelled “INDULGENCE”, son avidly pores over a leather-bound volume of “SEX”. Overdone in every aspect with exaggerated performances and a sense of moral superiority bordering on smugness, yet Hypocrites remains an important example of cinema as an emerging art form made all the more valuable considering it was made by one of the few female directors of the time.

I Am Divine (USA 2013) (8): Born in Baltimore in 1945, Glenn Milstead was always a square peg in a round hole—fat, effeminate, and not at all like the other boring white middle class kids at school. And then he met up with his new neighbour, an aspiring filmmaker and self-proclaimed freak by the name of John Waters who introduced the impressionable Glenn to Baltimore’s seething underground of sex, drugs, and make-up, and thus the outrageous persona of Divine, the most glamorously trashy drag queen to ever grace the screen and stage, was born. Tracing Glenn/Divine’s rise from whacked-out cult goddess in such flicks as Female Trouble and the infamous Pink Flamingos to the cusp of his career renaissance in mainstream films, recording studios, and prime time television, director Jeffrey Schwartz makes excellent use of a wide array of talking heads—some almost as colourful as Divine herself—as well as candid interviews and a generous assortment of hilarious movie clips and outtakes. What emerges is a portrait of the quiet, contemplative soul beneath the clown face and fright wigs; a man who struggled with one addiction or another (pot and fatty foods tied for first place) yet adored his friends and was determined to see his character evolve from midnight movie diva to prime time actress…or actor…or both. Sadly, Glenn’s obsession with food ultimately cut his life short before he could realize all of his dreams but he left behind a body of work that will never be matched for its sheer audacity and exuberance.

I Am Love [Io sono l’amore] (Italy 2009) (8): Emma Recchi, the Russian wife of an obscenely rich Milanese businessman (Tilda Swinton, always electric) approaches middle age with a sense of disconnectedness; she’s never been an integral part of her husband’s world and she’s all but lost her Slavic roots. And then she meets her son’s friend Antonio, a young chef who dreams of one day opening his own restaurant. Immediately drawn to his rustic charms and simple lifestyle Emma at first resists her erotic yearnings but they eventually prove too much for her to bear resulting in a fall from grace that will shake her life to its very core… I must admit that halfway through Luca Guadagnino’s grandiose family drama I found myself wondering why someone would take such a pedestrian plot—frustrated housewife finds escape in the arms of a younger man—and dress it up with so much operatic gravity. And then I realized it actually is an opera in which the arias have been replaced by glorious emoting and eclectic camerawork. At first off-putting, Guadagnino’s theatrical presentation soon takes on a life of its own as John Adams’ majestic score bangs and crashes through a series of stagy tableaux: lovers tussle al fresco surrounded by wheat and butterflies; an untouched porcelain place setting speaks of tragedy; and rain washes over a grieving cemetery statue. The ornately appointed Recchi mansion, looking like a gilded mausoleum, underscores Emma’s isolation while Antonio’s humble home seems perpetually bathed in sunlight and songbirds—this and several other too obvious contrasts both amateurish and oddly sublime. Finally, a subplot involving a daughter’s search for personal liberation places this one squarely in the realm of feminist cinema…all the more reason to celebrate. Magnificently overdone in every way and sure to divide critics down the middle. I loved it!

Ice Age: Continental Drift (USA 2012) (6): Our future fossilized friends are at it again in yet another prehistoric romp. This time around a sudden spate of continental division (precipitated by that silly squirrel and his acorn) separates Manny Mammoth from his wife and daughter when he is set adrift on an iceberg along with sabre-toothed Diego, Sid the sloth, and Sid’s spunky grandmother (hilariously voiced by Wanda Sykes). Braving rough seas and a shipload of jungle pirates led by the cutthroat orangutan Captain Gutt, Manny sets out in search of his family before the cataclysmic (and wholly accidental) birth of North America—complete with stone age Statue of Liberty—keeps them apart forever. Lots of colourful cartoon pratfalls will keep the kiddies amused while the distinct lack of wit, aside from a few glaring movie references, will have mom and dad stifling a yawn.

Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (USA 2009) (7): Those prehistoric mammals are back at it again in this third Ice Age installment. This time around Manny and Ellie Mammoth are preoccupied with the impending arrival of their first child; a fact which causes aging saber-toothed Diego to question his place in the herd and fills the head of lisping simpleton Sid the Sloth with parental longings of his own. It’s no wonder then that after accidentally falling into a underground ice cave and discovering three rather large unattended eggs Sid immediately adopts them and sets about trying to hatch a family of his own. Unbeknownst to either Sid or his friends however, the eggs belong to one very angry T. Rex mother from a subterranean Land that Time Forgot who not only comes seeking her babies, but drags the hapless sloth back to her underground jungle as well. Led by the jungle’s sole warm-blooded denizen, a decidedly whacko weasel named Buck, Sid’s friends brave lava falls, ferocious dinosaurs, and treacherous terrain in order to rescue the furry little cretin. But the underground world contains one additional threat more terrifying than all the rest put together, and the raggedy band of rescuers are about to cross its path... Filled with cartoon silliness and gentle peril (a stint in a carnivorous plant is cute while an aerial dogfight with pterodactyls must have been breathtaking in widescreen 3D) this colourfully animated kiddie show contains enough adult humour, including a few gay innuendos, to keep mom and dad entertained while an abundance of sugary sweetness reminds them that they’re not six-years old anymore. A pair of squabbling possums provide some nice comedic diversions but an ongoing side story involving a couple of crazy squirrels fighting over an acorn soon becomes tiresome. Overall, this is a beautifully rendered bit of fluff with some sly one-liners, a soaring musical score, and celebrity voices that are bang on.

Ice Crawlers (USA 2003) (1): Heavens! Evil multinational energy syndicate, Geotech, is drilling for oil in Antarctica when they unwittingly unleash a horde of giant carnivorous rubber cockroaches which have been frozen in the ice shelf for hundreds of millions of years; you know, back when Antarctica was tropical. Anyway, bouncing around on their barely concealed strings the chitinous cooties soon develop a taste for blue collar brutes and it’s up to a team of young photogenic scientists (Geek, Nerd, Jock, Slut, and Ice Princess respectively) to save the station and alert the world. Absolutely awful rip-off of Carpenter’s The Thing with a few anemic nods to Alien and “special effects” on par with Toho Studio’s neoprene monster epics. Some tacked-on Greenpeace sermons strive for “ecological awareness” while a few flashing tits satisfy the MPAA “R” requirement and a ludicrous love affair between the tree-hugging Ice Princess and an oil company rep provides irony for the brain dead.

Ice Station Zebra  (USA 1968 ) (6):  When a Russian spy satellite crash lands in the North Pole it’s up to Captain Rock Hudson and his submarine full of seamen to get to it before the evil Commies.  Pretty standard Cold War fare with the required number of secret agents and evil Russians squaring off against their upstanding American counterparts.  Hudson and McGoohan put in passable performances but Ernest Borgnine’s ham-fisted turn as a Communist defector belongs in the Hollywood Hall of Shame.  Engaging enough despite the rather dated special effects and a disappointingly dull ending that practically drips with forced ironies.

Ida (Poland 2013) (8): In the early 60’s Anna, a noviciate on her way to becoming a nun, goes to visit her only living relative, aunt Wanda. Raised in an orphanage and now living in a convent, Anna is at first taken aback by her aunt’s hard-drinking and loose-living ways despite the fact she is a celebrated court judge who managed to evade much of the privations visited upon Poland by the Communist regime. But the naïve and resolutely pious young woman is completely unprepared for the family bombshells Wanda drops on her—secrets about her parents that date back to the darkest days of the German Occupation and which still prey on Wanda’s mind. Now, with everything she’s ever believed about herself and her religious calling in a state of flux, Anna goes on a fateful road trip with Wanda, a journey whose final destination will present her with a devastating choice. Filmed in soft shades of white and grey in the intimate 1.37:1 Academy ratio, writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski adapts a tragic chapter from his own family history to produce a story wherein one woman’s shaken faith comes to represent the shame of an entire nation. Moving from cloistered interiors to a world of earthly temptations, Pawilkowski’s Anna (brilliantly downplayed by newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska) is a study in forbearance and quiet suffering, her gaze perpetually downcast with only those preternaturally dark eyes betraying the upheavals within. And then, as if to highlight Anna’s humility—or bewilderment—Pawlikowski uses doorways, arches, and windows to divide the screen into discreet geometric spaces, often relegating his human characters to the lower quadrants while bare walls, open skies, and the occasional telling artwork or Catholic bauble dwarf them from above. Austere wintry settings and a soft classical score tie everything together beautifully.

The Ides of March (USA 2011) (8): Director George Clooney heads an outstanding cast in this contemporary fable about power, corruption, and the seductive illusion of moral compromise. It’s the Ohio Primaries and Democratic Governor Mike Morris is involved in a heated battle to become the next presidential candidate. Running his campaign is Paul Zara, a world-weary manager with an almost neurotic obsession with trust issues; and baby-faced Stephen Meyers, a brilliant media spin-doctor whose own slide into bureaucratic cynicism has been halted by Morris’ charismatic personality and unwavering honesty. But when Meyers becomes entangled in a dark scandal involving the man he idolizes, a scandal which would forever ruin the governor’s White House aspirations, the disillusioned young man suddenly finds himself a lone player in a ruthless game of dirty politics and media kowtowing. Against a backdrop of droning newscasts and patriotic photo-ops, Clooney’s passionate examination of one man’s evolution from idealistic pawn to soulless operator unfolds like a perverse morality play. With Morris encompassing all the qualities one could hope for in a future president and Meyers embodying the very essence of youthful zeal the stage is set for a fall from grace which arrives with the impact of a divine lightning bolt. Meyers’ subsequent attempts to protect his tarnished hero slowly chip away at his own sense of integrity until he finds himself becoming the very thing he’s always despised, a transformation underlined by a darkly ambivalent closing shot.

The Idiot (Japan 1951) (9): Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of Dostoevsky’s classic takes its time gathering steam but for those patient enough to wade through the long takes and serpentine plot twists the film’s final half delivers a dramatic punch well worth the wait. After a near death experience in a prison camp shatters his spirit, Kameda returns to his hometown with the mind of an innocent child. Wide-eyed and honest to a fault, his deceptively simple insights into human nature prove problematic for the people around him who alternately treat him as a social pariah or a kind-hearted saint. But when two very different women develop ambiguous affections for him—“fallen woman” Taeko and mercurial Ayako—his inability to hurt anyone’s feelings leads to angry confrontations within Ayako’s family and dangerously jealous rages from Taeko’s other suitor, the brutish Akama. Surrounded on all sides by lies and deceit it soon becomes apparent that the simpleminded Kameda is the only noble being in a world filled with idiots—a tragic irony which will ultimately destroy him. Moving the novel’s setting from Russia to a wintry Hokkaido, Kurosawa fills the screen with some of his most powerful imagery: sullen Akama’s empty house is encased in ice; nighttime revellers sporting grotesque masks skate around our protagonists, and the two female rivals glare at each other while a nearby stove belches smoke and flames. And throughout the film a series of howling blizzards lash out with sheets of frozen snow. Unhappy and pessimistic but presented with a dark artistry which remains faithful to Dostoevsky’s intentions while rendering them wholly Japanese. A rich script and mournful orchestral score further enhances what I consider to be one of Kurosawa’s crowning achievements.

I Dismember Mama (USA 1972) (6):  Ever since he was institutionalized for trying to stab his mother, Albert Robertson has had a grudge against women believing them all to be vile temptresses.  He's especially angry at mom whom he blames for all his emotional and financial woes and vows to kill her as soon as the opportunity presents itself.  Managing to escape from the asylum Albert makes a beeline for home where he rapes and murders the housekeeper before taking off with her unsuspecting 11-year old daughter.  In the meantime Mrs. Robertson, safely in police custody, desperately tries locate her son before he can do more harm.  To be honest,  I rented this film hoping for a tawdry splatter flick filled with gratuitous gore and nudity.  I was therefore unprepared for a cohesive story which actually contained some psychological depth, a decent script, and a handful of surprisingly effective performances.  In the role of Albert, Zooey Hall displays an edgy mix of sexual rage and emotional neediness; his misogynistic cat-and-mouse game with the unfortunate maid is truly chilling, making his subsequent childlike attempts to befriend her daughter, including a macabre pretend wedding, all the more appalling.  As the mother, Joanne Moore Jordan presents us with a woman bewildered by her son's transgressions yet unable to see the role she herself  played in shaping his damaged psyche.  Lastly, Rosella Olsen's performance as a poolroom prostitute whose assertive attitude and aggressive sexuality threaten to send Albert over yet another psychiatric cliff proved to be one of the film's highlights.  It all ends with a darkly atmospheric chase through a warehouse filled, appropriately enough, with partially dismantled mannequins.  The rest of the cast may be various shades of awful and there is certainly a touch of 70s cheese   at work (starting with the stupid title), but for a no-budget thriller with a cast of unknowns it went far beyond my expectations.

I Drink Your Blood (USA 1970) (4): When a group of hippy satanists descend upon a small east coast village the unsuspecting residents (all forty of them) adopt a live and let live policy. But when his sister is raped and his grandpa is force-fed LSD, little Pete gets even with the cult in the only way he knows how—he sells them meat pies laced with rabies! With their town now overrun by homicidal hippies foaming at the mouth and wielding machetes, pitchforks, and steak knives, Pete and his family must fight for survival until help can arrive. And then things get even worse when an infected flower child turns into a raving nymphomaniac and gives rabies to an entire construction crew… Bad acting, a synthesized musical score á la Donkey Kong, and gore effects consisting mainly of ketchup-splattered mannequin parts have managed to keep this turkey on everyone’s list of best worst cult films. It’s initial “X” rating in the U.S. and outright banning in the UK didn’t hurt its reputation either. Entertainingly awful but beware, a chicken gets killed.

I Know Where I’m Going (UK 1945) (7): Ever since she could crawl, an amusing prologue informs us, the headstrong and somewhat spoiled Joan Webster knew exactly where she was going. It came as no surprise then when at the age of twenty-five she announced to her exasperated father that she was heading up to the wilds of northern Scotland in order to marry an English lord twice her age. But fate and the elements (not to mention an ancient clan curse) have other plans for Joan when a sudden squall prevents her from journeying to the island where her fiancé awaits and she must share close quarters on the mainland with Torquil MacNeil, a dashing Scotsman on leave from the Royal Navy. With her mind set on the upcoming marriage but her heart now yearning for Torquil, Joan experiences indecision for the first time in her life… In the hands of a lesser director this wartime chick flick would have ended up as so much mush and treacle, but with Powell & Pressburger at the helm it transcends the bounds of its generic storyline and becomes something quite touching instead. Leads Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey are perfectly paired—her angular features as hard as her heart and his expressive eyes and hoarse brogue able to melt ice with a single glance. And backing them up is a cast of lively extras, including an eccentric old colonel, whose open-faced emotions and rustic ways add depth and context to the unfolding love story. Cinematography has always been a cornerstone of any Powell & Pressburger production and here an unexpectedly poignant script is played out against magnificent views of heaving seas and storm-tossed clouds enveloping a village where people still dance to bagpipes, herd cows through the town square, and make small talk in heavily accented Gaelic. And a climactic channel crossing in the middle of a raging gale is a dizzying blend of bobbing miniatures and rear-projected studio tempests. The film’s one Achille’s heel (or winning charm depending on your point of view) lies in its budding romance—are Joan’s lovelorn hysterics and Torquil’s passionate glances just so much fluff or is there a subtle humour at work as we see the haughty Englishwoman fall for a swirling kilt? Personally I was left charmed.

Il Divo (Italy 2008) (9): Paolo Sorrentino’s highly kinetic and ultra chic biopic of Italian statesman Giulio Andreotti who headed that country’s Christian Democratic Party for seven consecutive terms despite a mountain of substantial rumours linking him to various organized crime interests ranging from the Mafia to the Vatican Bank. Even as his political rivals succumbed to assassination (along with various judges, journalists, and businessmen) Andreotti managed to avoid prison after all criminal convictions against him were overturned and he was appointed “Senator for Life” in 1991. Portrayed as a dour-faced, stiff-backed Nosferatu by a convincing Toni Servillo, the soft-spoken Andreotti was a complicated and enigmatic figure feared by supporters and detractors alike. In the hands of Sorrentino we see a haunted man seemingly appalled by what he may (or may not) have done but convinced that evil means are sometimes necessary in order to ensure virtuous ends. Indeed, in a volatile, and wholly fictitious monologue directed at his long-suffering wife Giulio warns that the end of the world will be precipitated by good and honest men. With elaborate visual flourishes and a fanciful soundtrack of classical overtures and club beats Sorrentino’s amazing production blends elements of film noir, political potboiler, and courtroom drama into a series of polished vignettes, some starkly realistic others fantastic. He leaves us with an impression, aided by some well-placed factoids, of an eccentric and unnervingly pragmatic little man whose reputation took on a life of its own and whose secrets could very well have brought down a government. Bravo!

I Live in Fear: Record of a Living Being (Japan 1955) (6): Elderly businessman Kiichi is terrified of nuclear war—even a simple flash of lightning sends him scrambling for cover. His obsession with H-bombs is so profound that he has already spent a small fortune building an underground bunker in northern Japan and now he wants to move his entire extended family to a homestead in Brazil believing that South America will be the only place on Earth able to survive a global atomic holocaust. Worried that this monomaniacal quest for a safe harbour is going to deplete his bank account (and their inheritance) his children petition the courts to have him deemed mentally incompetent. But the old man’s steadfast determination to protect his family from the spectre of yet another mushroom cloud gives at least one court moderator, Dr. Harada, cause to reflect on his own feelings and subsequently those of an entire nation still reeling from the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Akira Kurosawa’s problematic film, released a mere ten years after the American bombings, uses one desperate man’s family dynamics to tap into Japan’s post-war mindset. While Kiichi struggles to convince everyone they are not safe, his children respond to his pleadings with everything from bemused tolerance to outright hostility while his wife suffers in silence and his mistresses worry about whether or not their kids will be included in his Will. There is a desire to put the past aside and move forward with their own lives even though they privately confess to a touch of nuclear unease themselves. Filmed in grainy B&W, Kurosawa concentrates on faces and dialogue…a helpless stare here, a sarcastic rebuke there…while a pervasive heat wave has everyone continuously wiping their necks and fanning themselves. When Kiichi, his troubled mind already on the verge of collapse, is finally driven to one last desperate act aimed at convincing his family to follow him, his plight is summed up succinctly by an attending psychiatrist who wonders whether or not, in a world gone mad, it is the people who remain calm that are the craziest. Although his opus has not aged well, “atomic paranoia” now reduced to an historical catchphrase and Kiichi’s plight ambivalent at best (is he a frightened everyman or just another kook?) Kurosawa’s deft camerawork and natural staging conveys sympathy if not much else. The final scenes go from chilling to heartbreaking in the blink of an eye. 

I Love You Again (USA 1940) (8): When a meek teetotaling businessman from small town Pennsylvania (William Powell) gets an accidental knock on the noggin he suddenly realizes he’s been suffering from amnesia for the past decade and is in fact a hard-drinking unscrupulous con artist. With no memory of what he did during the preceding nine years he is both shocked and bemused to discover that he’s not only become an upstanding citizen but he also has a gorgeous wife (Myrna Loy, of course) who is about to divorce him for another man… Can he keep everyone in the dark long enough to pull off the biggest con of his life and perhaps save his newfound marriage at the same time? This ninth pairing of Powell and Loy is one of the better screwball comedies that Hollywood produced during the heyday of the 30's and 40’s. The two stars are in top form—Powell plays the bewildered swindler with his usual drunken aplomb and Loy’s frigid society housewife alternately melts and freezes as she tries to figure out why her terribly boring spouse is suddenly the life of the party. The jokes always hit their mark with perfect timing and the rubbery features of co-star Frank McHugh, playing Powell's feisty sidekick in crime, can bring the house down with a simple double take. Good clean entertainment with just a hint of sexy fun.

Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (Canada 1975) (3): Granted Nazi Sexploitation films occupy a decidedly narrow niche but that niche has still produced such notable paeans to bad taste as Red Nights of the Gestapo and Last Orgy of the Third Reich. This salacious death camp romp on the other hand, actually filmed on the old Hogan’s Heroes set, lowered the bar about as far as it could go. Loosely based on war crimes committed by Ilse Koch, the woman responsible for Buchenwald’s notorious human skin lampshades, Don Edmonds’ swastika shocker follows the exploits of camp commandant Ilsa (busty Dyanne Thorne, all tits and no talent) a sadistic warden conducting medical experiments on her unlucky prisoners. Convinced that women can withstand more pain than men and would therefore make superior soldiers Ilsa subjects her female inmates to all manner of atrocities from flaming tampons and electrified dildos to boiling bubble baths and fatal floggings. The men she uses for sexual pleasure, castrating them afterwards as casually as if she were trussing a turkey. But she finally meets her match in Wolfe (Gregory Knoph displaying even less talent than Thorne) a perpetually virile American POW who fucks her over both literally and figuratively. Hokey German accents, trashy special effects (who knew you could use jumper cables on nipples) and burlesque Nazi uniforms that never seem to button past the cleavage make for a tawdry night in front of the telly. The fact that producer Herman Traeger begins this travesty with a disclaimer and dedication, “…with the hope that these heinous crimes will never occur again” is the final nail. Just for a laugh, when last heard from Dyanne Thorne, now in her 70s, was an ordained minister in Las Vegas. Sieg Heil!

I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (Korea 2006) (4): Sometimes whimsy can be an endearing trait and sometimes it can grate on the nerves like ice water poured down an unsuspecting back. Chan-Wook Park’s ridiculous tale of madness and healing definitely falls into the latter category with stars Soo-jung Lim and popstar “Rain” yelling, creeping about, and mugging for any camera they can find. She plays a young anorexic so traumatized by her schizoid grandmother’s forced march to the asylum that she reinvents herself as a vengeful robot whose only companions are other machines like light bulbs and coffee makers. He plays a kleptomaniac with the ability to steal everything from days of the week to people’s emotions. It’s only a matter of time (a very, very long time) before cyber-girl and crazy thief find in each other the key to recovery. Meanwhile a psychiatric ward full of tacky stereotypes (fat girl thinks she can fly; timid man can only walk backwards; Heidi wannabe struts about in a Swiss folk dress) race around in hysterics screaming and leaping into walls. Numerous flights of fancy are rendered so much CGI nonsense and Park’s attempts to take a deep breath and actually say something are lost in all the camp and hubris. Perhaps he was going for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest à la Wes Anderson but what we end up getting is The Snake Pit by Pee Wee Herman.

Images (USA 1972) (7): Movies exploring the subjective nature of mental illness so often rely on cliched hysterics and psychedelic camerawork that Altman's disturbingly subdued foray into the genre comes as a bit of a shock. Susannah York shows why she deserved her Best Actress win at Cannes as she plays Cathryn, a frustrated children's author slowly losing her grip on reality...and taking us along with her. Retreating to a cottage in the English countryside with her American husband, Cathryn at first warms to the rustic charm of lakes and forest but it isn't long before her personal demons resurface due in part, perhaps, to some ongoing guilt over a series of past extra-marital indiscretions. Combining a menacing soundtrack punctuated by jarring rasps and crashes with a subtle array of visual cues; a statuette of a cowering angel, warped reflections, discordant wind chimes...Altman's psychosexual puzzle box of a film starts off inconspicuously enough but soon leads us into ever darker territory as Cathryn's hallucinations, at once threatening and erotic, become indistinguishable from reality. The overplayed shocker of an ending is perhaps a wee bit stagey but it is a small criticism for an otherwise tense and unsettling movie experience.

I’m All Right Jack (UK 1959) (8): A brilliantly caustic satire set in post WWII England which casts a jaundiced eye on the never-ending struggle between capitalist ideology and the socialist backlash which opposes it. When Stanley Windrush, the painfully clueless nephew of a decidedly privileged family, decides to put his Oxford business degree to good use he finds the corporate world doesn’t quite live up to his idealized expectations. After being passed over by the “Detto Detergent Company”, “Yum-Yum Candies”, and “British Corsets”, he finally settles for a simple labourer position at his uncle Bertie’s weapons factory, the aptly named “Missiles Inc.” It isn’t long however before Stanley’s naive idealism and tenacious honesty put him in hot water with both the oafish labour union, personified by the stuffy shop steward Mr. Kite who believes Lenin sits at the right hand of God; and the factory’s slimy managerial staff, personified by his own Uncle who is currently involved in an underhanded arms deal with a Middle Eastern diplomat. A series of misunderstandings and dirty political maneuverings ensue which snowball into a national strike and a raucous television showdown. An all star cast including Terry Thomas, Peter Sellers, Richard Attenborough, and Margaret Rutherford (with a surprise cameo from Malcolm Muggeridge), compliment a razor sharp script which manages to keep both sides well within its crosshairs. Intelligent, hilarious, and perhaps more relevant now than it ever was.

I’m Not There (USA 2007) (7): I’m not Bob Dylan’s biggest fan, in fact I know next to nothing about the man although I do appreciate some of his music. After watching Todd Haynes’ kaleidoscopic jigsaw puzzle of a biopic however I was left with a whole slew of conflicting impressions. Rather than present a straight-up storyline with the usual humble beginnings and problem-riddled rise to fame, Haynes chooses instead to pass Dylan through a cinematic prism without any attempt to separate the man from the myth. What emerges are six distinct personae (none of whom are named Bob Dylan), played by six seasoned actors ranging from Heath Ledger to Cate Blanchett, each portraying a different aspect of the singer/songwriter. Reluctant folk icon, despised pariah, enigmatic auteur, recluse, activist….here he’s a black child riding the rails, here he’s a jaded rock star philosophizing in the back of his limo, now he’s a frontier outlaw taking a stand against corporate bullies, and now he’s a cocky anti-hero facing a panel of dour interrogators… It’s a testament to Haynes’ enormous talent that he manages to weave his separate stories in and out of each other, going back and forth through time, while simultaneously mimicking a host of directing styles including Fellini and Godard. This is the cutting edge of experimental filmmaking which successfully treads that fine line between coherent art and arty subjectivism. It’s a shifting montage of words and snippets, tied solidly together by Dylan’s music, which presents you with an idea of Dylan, rather like an abstract sculpture which changes perspective as you walk around it. I didn’t get any of the in-jokes or biographical allusions, nor did I walk away able to spout facts and figures, but as a theatrical experience it was well worth it. I just wish Haynes had cut it down to a more sustainable running time.

I’m So Excited! (Spain 2013) (8): Pedro Almodóvar returns to his roots in this outrageous sex farce whose sheer campiness almost obscures its subversive political barbs. All is not well aboard Peninsula Airlines flight 2549 en route to Mexico City for shortly after takeoff the pilot realized that the wheels were frozen in place thanks to a technical screw-up on the ground. Now circling Spain waiting for emergency landing clearance the crew must deal with an increasingly agitated Business Class section and the threat of a lawsuit. Meanwhile the sexually ambivalent pilots and three bitchy stewards try their best to maintain the peace through alcohol, true confessions, and a lip-synched song-and-dance number straight out of drag heaven. But with time running out a new complication arises when a complimentary batch of mescaline-laced punch kicks everyone’s libido through the stratosphere… Filmed in rainbow colours with bitching, back-biting, and blowjobs all around this certainly is comedy at its most gay, and the three diva flight attendants (played to perfection by Javier Cámara, Raúl Arévalo, and Carlos Areces) do their best to stoke the flames with one diligently praying to his cardboard saints, one preying on the copilot, and one unable to tell a lie no matter how terrible the truth is. But delve beneath the hilariously tacky surface features and the state of the plane suddenly mirrors the state of the nation: the pampered elite in First Class include a swindler, a cheat, a murderer, and a nymphomaniac or two while the peasants in Economy remain blissfully unaware of any impending doom thanks to a well-meaning stewardess and a bottle of sedatives. Furthermore, the plane is forced to stay aloft because every airport is either holed up with security concerns or facing bankruptcy. Written and directed by Almodóvar this is also a wry tribute to himself with a cast of former mainstays (Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas are handed laughably minor roles) and a few in-jokes sure to make his fans chuckle. A tasteless and delightfully vulgar mash-up of 1980’s Airplane and all those oh-so serious Airport movies, shaken and served up like a Valencia cocktail.

In A Better World (Denmark 2010) (8): When Christian comes to the aid of Elias, a classmate mercilessly bullied by a group of older kids, the two become fast friends. Quiet and unassuming, Elias finds an outlet of sorts in Christian's fiery temper and single-minded obsession with wreaking vengeance on anyone who crosses him. But when Christian's desire to even the score with a loudmouthed auto mechanic goes too far Elias finds himself in way over his head. Meanwhile the boys' parents are having issues of faith and forbearance themselves; while Elias' mom is dealing with her husband's infidelity, his father is facing a moral crisis of a different sort halfway around the world. At the same time Christian's father is dealing with issues of grief and guilt surrounding his wife's death...a struggle sadly misinterpreted by Christian. Susanne Bier's amazing ensemble piece examines the complexities of taking a moral stand from widely differing angles. She is well aware of the small compromises, white lies and sometimes contradictory messages heaped upon children as they try to understand the mysterious ways of grown-ups; ways that are often just as strange to the adults themselves. With excellent performances throughout and a wonderfully intimate visual style (scenes of Christian standing atop a silo looking down in judgement on the people below were truly inspired) it's little wonder it won last year's Best Foreign Language Oscar.

In Bed  (En la cama) (Chile 2005) (7):  The battle of the sexes is reduced to a series of post-coital dialogues intercut with some hot and horny sex scenes in this remarkable film from Chile. Bize makes the most of a very confined space due in large part to a pair of talented (and gorgeous) leads and some expert editing. Some of the dramatic revelations may be a bit forced but the script remains believable and the underlying sense of loneliness and regret is palpable.

In Bruges (UK 2008) (9): The Irish humour is dark and heavy in Martin McDonagh’s amazing debut feature, a thoroughly engrossing mix of Shakespearean tragedy and religious parable with just a touch of Abbot & Costello. Ray and Ken are hired killers on the lam after a contracted murder in London goes horribly awry. Fleeing to Brussels to hide out while awaiting further instructions from Harry, the brutish gangster who hired them, the two men try to get along as best they can despite wildly differing personalities. But when the new orders finally arrive, Harry ends up making them an offer they can neither refuse nor accept. As the foul-mouthed yet strangely vulnerable Ray, Colin Farrell exhibits a manic energy which dominates every scene; his thick brogue making even the most innocuous sentence a reason to smirk. Brendan Gleeson’s Ken, on the other hand, is a study in forbearance; a curious blend of wide-eyed wonder and weary stoicism. As the two play off each other along the streets and canals of Belgium’s capital they manage to piss off everyone they encounter from Belgians, Americans and Canadians to fat people, hookers and coke-snorting dwarves. McDonagh’s fiendishly clever script constantly challenges our expectations while the superb cinematography incorporates Brussels’ brooding medieval buildings and alleyways to create a sombre fairytale aesthetic further enhanced by a wistful musical score. The film’s relentlessly mounting suspense finally comes to a head on Christmas Eve when Harry travels to Bruges in order to confront the two errant hit men. What follows is a masterful fusion of form and substance ending in a gorgeously contrived coda lifted right from Hieronymus Bosch’s Last Judgement. Hysterical, brutal, and unexpectedly moving...a pure delight.

In Celebration (UK 1975) (7):  The resentments children and parents can hold against each other, even into adulthood, is a recurring theme in this story of three estranged brothers who come together at the family home to celebrate their mom and dad’s 40th wedding anniversary.  From the outset it is obvious that tensions run deep in this family, with forced gaiety and impromptu arguments all around...apparently there is more than one elephant in the Shaw’s living room.  Each son has an axe to grind and as the family’s afternoon of discomfort becomes a long night of discontent the blades turn razor sharp.  There is a load of repressed anger here that seems to centre on the mother and, in an odd way, the memory of their eldest brother who died at the age of seven.  Each son handles his pain differently...while one rages against society, another seeks solace in materialism while the youngest turns his anger inwards.  Things finally reach the breaking point around the breakfast table when the sons realize they must either attempt an uneasy truce or watch the family disintegrate.  Based on David Storey’s play, “In Celebration” is certainly theatrical with characters glaring daggers at each other and dialogue being delivered hot and heavy.  This type of presentation does not do well on the small screen, in my opinion, and comes across as exaggerated melodrama.  Furthermore, when the family’s “dark secrets” are finally revealed they hardly seem worth the preceding two hours of heated tirades and surly stares.  Still, the acting is very good and the pace never slackens.  I would love to have seen the original stage production.

In China They Eat Dogs (Denmark 1999) (7): Mild-mannered bank teller Arvid is not having a good day. His girlfriend is breaking up with him out of sheer boredom and an entire rock band has threatened to beat him up after he turns down their request for a loan. But when he thwarts an attempted robbery and becomes a local hero he feels his luck is about to change. And it does…for the worse. Not only do the aforementioned rockers catch up with him but the would-be thief’s wife pricks his conscience with a sob story so convincing he decides to help her and her husband out by staging another robbery. Enlisting the aid of his brother Harald, a criminal mastermind and Arvid’s polar opposite, as well as a few of Harald’s dim-witted assistants including hapless immigrant Vuk, the men pull off an elaborate heist which not only nets them a duffel bag full of cash but also attracts unwanted attention from the local mafia. And then things start to get really complicated… The grating contrast between Arivid’s milquetoast integrity and Harald’s cutthroat moral relativism (“Nothing is right, nothing is wrong, it’s all up to you”) provides the backbone for Lasse Olsen’s blackhearted comedy in which virtue runs amok and the best of intentions leaves a trail of corpses in its wake. Comparable to Quentin Tarantino at his most sardonic, Olsen’s slice of nordic noir is not quite as polished as it could be thanks to a few narrative potholes and a silly denouement involving a pair of grim reapers, but the pyrotechnics are dazzling and the cast’s deadpan delivery rarely misses. An ironic soundtrack of heavenly choir pieces provides the perfect finishing touch.

The Incredibles (USA 2004) (9): Former superhero Mr. Incredible and his superhero family are forced to live the straight life along with the rest of their kind after a string of lawsuits threaten to bankrupt the government which once supported them—after all, you can’t catch super villains without derailing the occasional subway or demolishing the odd skyscraper. Now living in suburbia under the assumed name Bob Parr along with his wife Helen (aka “Elastigirl”) and their three superkids, Mr. Incredible ekes out a living as an insurance salesman while pining away for the old days when being a guardian of mankind meant something. So when a mysterious agent calls upon him to help save the world once more Bob just can’t resist, even if he has to lie to Helen who is determined to raise a “normal” family despite a son who can run faster than a bullet, a sullen daughter who can create force fields and make herself invisible, and a giggling newborn with powers yet unrealized. But a new arch nemesis is on the rise, one with a personal grudge against Bob, and he will stop at nothing to make his diabolical dreams come true—starting with ridding the world of all superheroes… Brad Bird’s Oscar-winning animated feature has the look and feel of a Saturday morning cartoon whose candy-coloured backdrops and slapstick mayhem have been given new computerized life while keeping all those killer robots and retro rocket ships intact. The first Pixar production to actually receive a “PG” rating, presumably for violence and adult content (people die in messy ways albeit offscreen), there is a pessimistic vein just beneath the vibrant pyrotechnics and witty repartee which speaks to the new millennium’s preoccupation with tarnished heroes and the sense of skepticism which has replaced them. Not only have a generation of caped crusaders been forced into obscure desk jobs, but their special powers are proving to be of little use against corporate bosses and middle-aged spread. Not to worry however for in this world justice still triumphs, evildoers still meet their doom, and a promised sequel insures that we haven’t heard the last from Mr. and Mrs. Incredible. Samuel L. Jackson provides the voice of “Frozone”, a speed skating brother equipped with icicle rays, and Bird himself breathes life into Edna “E” Mode, the fabulously eccentric pint-sized designer of superhero tights whose manic speech and Beatles haircut proves to be one of the film’s many pleasures.

Indecent Desires/My Brother’s Wife (USA 1966/67) (6): A wonderful pair of retro nudies made in the days when women sported mile-high hairdos and wore false eyelashes the size of toilet brushes. In Indecent Desires a discarded doll exerts an unhealthy influence on the skinny perv who brings it home. It proves to be a voodoo doll of sorts and every time he fondles its little plastic chest Anne, the busty blonde secretary across the street, gets an extra flip in her bouffant. It isn’t long before Anne begins to doubt her sanity and no amount of prancing around the living-room topless seems to help. Even her best friend Babs is unable to offer any comfort as she is too busy having simulated non-sex with her “continental” boyfriend (he goes to bed with a fake moustache, sunglasses and cigarette holder). In My Brother’s Wife virile Frankie spends a few days with his dumpy middle-aged brother Bob, and Bob’s improbably sexy wife Mary who looks like a goth Barbie on xanax. Frankie and Mary’s inevitable affair is narrated in a series of monotone voice-overs coupled with jarring close-ups of their faces...and hands...and shoes...and nostrils. There’s a wonderful avant-garde sleaziness to these tawdry tales that is difficult to pin down. Perhaps it’s the ultra-cool beatnik soundtrack that runs the gamut from supermarket muzak to old-fashioned bump’n’grind. Perhaps it’s the bizarre B&W camerawork that looks like a collaboration between Roger Corman and Salvador Dali; a baffling girl-on-girl sequence involving a checkered couch is especially odd. Or maybe it’s just the delightful trashiness of it all; from the gaudy 60’s decor and tacky recycled sets to the lurid storylines (both women succumb to their wantonness). A real unexpected pleasure!

Infernal Affairs (Hong Kong 2002) (9): Police inspector Lau has been assigned to a task force aimed at destroying the local drug cartel run by Hon Sam. Petty crook Chen Yan is Sam’s right hand man and trusted confidante. Even though the two don’t know each other’s identity they nevertheless share a common secret which irrevocably binds one to the other—they are both imposters. Lau is actually on Sam’s payroll, using his position on the force to destroy evidence and warn the gangster of impending police raids while Yan is an undercover cop trying to gather that same evidence and arrange those raids. Complications abound when their respective bosses hand them the task of rooting out the mole in their midst leading to an intense game of cat-and-mouse as good cop and bad cop try to unmask one another before they’re exposed themselves. As slick and stylish as they come, this fast-paced Hong Kong policier practically flies by in a jagged blur of bullets, double crosses, and three-piece suits all lensed by the legendary Christopher Doyle who transforms Hong Kong into a rat’s maze of neon streets and smoggy skies reflected in pristine glass skyscrapers. Not content to simply squeeze out another Chinese gangster flick, writers Alan Mak and Felix Chong delve beneath the surface of their protagonists to examine what happens to a man’s psyche when he is forced to act against his nature for years at a time—the prickly conscience, the loss of identity, and the existential crises which arise when one is faced with yet another line to cross. Finally, a series of deeply ironic twists elevate an already masterful story into the realm of parable as Max and Chong question the nature of morality—a challenge answered in part by a pair of sobering Buddhist quotes which bookend the film.

L’Inferno  (Italy 1911) (8):  Surprisingly good screen adaptation of Dante's Inferno considering it is almost 100 years old although the contemporary pop soundtrack detracts from the drama rather than adds to it. The sets were imaginative (very much influenced by Dore's illustrations), the acting appropriately theatrical and the special effects and costumes were pretty impressive for 1911. Some familiarity with Dante's epic poem as well as medieval cosmology in general would certainly help the viewer understand what was being shown. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone with a serious interest in the history of film.

Inferno (Italy 1980) (3): A young woman’s life takes a turn for the worse when she buys a mysterious book from a crippled antiques dealer. Written by an architect hired to build three very unique homes; two in Europe, one in America, the book warns of the “Three Mothers”, a trio of particularly malevolent witches hellbent on world domination. Using their custom made mansions as repositories of supernatural power, the witches bring death and destruction to everything they touch, but by following a handful of enigmatic clues contained within the book it is possible to ruffle them up a bit. And so the story goes... This disappointing follow-up to 1977’s vastly superior Suspiria is heavy on the surreal with endless corridors of blood-red shadows and blowing drapes set to a soundtrack of acoustical jolts, operatic passages, and screeching rock. Switching locations back and forth between Rome and Rome-as-New York, there is a certain urban chic to Dario Argento’s vision...lots of dimly lit skyscrapers and lurid neon...while a few scenes actually manage to go beyond simple atmospherics; an underwater exploration of a submerged parlour, though somewhat extraneous, still provided a nicely macabre tangent while visions of flung kitties (credits include “cat wrangler”) and confused rats trying to look menacing threatened to put the camp factor through the roof. Unfortunately, thanks to some abysmal editing and a muddled storyline the film ultimately proved to be all show with very little substance leaving me to wonder if Argento accidentally left out a few reels. Deadly serious, unintentionally amusing.

Inherit the Wind (USA 1960) (6): A high school science teacher in America’s bible belt, circa 1920’s, is arrested for violating State law when he tries to teach Darwin’s theory of evolution to his students. The subsequent trial, pitting a fire-and-brimstone southern lawyer against his atheistic northern counterpart, sets the stage for a head-on collision between Church and State which draws the attention of the entire nation. With newspaper headlines mocking the town’s fundamentalist principles and an increasingly desperate preacher trying to protect his flock from the evils of secular science it soon becomes clear that this court case strikes a collective chord that goes far deeper than a simple disagreement over apes and man. Based on Tennessee’s infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925, Stanley Kramer’s two-hour sermon on individualism and freedom of thought packs a handful of Hollywood heavyweights into a cramped and sweltering courtroom for a monumental showdown that never quite materializes. He tries a bit too hard to segregate the issues at hand by presenting them as separate characters; the town preacher is pure religious zeal, the teacher serves as a beleaguered everyman, and the northern lawyer personifies rationality while his outspoken opponent spews bombastic nonsense, bible firmly in hand. Meanwhile, a soured Chicago newspaperman who’s latched on to the case provides a cynical Greek chorus of sorts as he dictates his reports. A bit too neat and tidy, culminating in an overblown courthouse melee and a somewhat smarmy closing scene. But the underlying issue of freedom of religion versus freedom of everything else is as pertinent today as it ever was.

The Innkeepers (USA 2011) (6): In the small New England town of Campion, the 110-year old “Yankee Pedlar Inn” is about to close its doors for the final time. With only a few guests staying in the crumbling hotel, desk clerks Claire and Luke find they have more than enough time to indulge in their favourite pastime of amateur ghost hunting. It seems that the restless spirit of Madeline O’Malley, a jilted bride who hung herself in an upstairs room at the turn of the century, has not yet checked out and the supernatural sleuths want to get some footage of her ghost for their website before the “Yankee Pedlar” is made into a parking lot. Armed with special recording equipment, Claire and Luke take turns scaring themselves in dark places until the arrival of two unusual guests: a former actress turned medium and a tired old man with a sad secret, turn their harmless investigations into something far more menacing. Writer/director Ti West doesn’t have much to add to the standard haunted house story; all the usual jolts and shocks are there as well as a few well placed frissons (Claire interprets the medium’s warning to avoid the basement as an open invitation, naturally). But despite a lacklustre script and mediocre performances there is a mounting tension here which relies more on creepy staging than blood-soaked bodies and rubber masks. Like a good campfire tale you know it’s all nonsense even as you sneak glances over your shoulder just to be sure. Standard issue spookiness, however I must admit that while watching The Innkeepers in bed...alone...in the dark...I found myself turning the light on for the last 20 minutes.

Innocence  (France 2004) (7):  A somber fairytale about the arcane mysteries and small terrors of growing up. Through the use of muted colours and dark shadows, Hadzihalilovic maintains an air of vague foreboding.....an atmosphere that is further enhanced by a surprisingly talented cast of children. The final scene of muted eroticism was especially well done. This would make a great companion piece to "Picnic at Hanging Rock". Remarkable!

The Innocents (USA/UK 1961) (8): Based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, this fine slice of gothic horror follows a young governess and the two children entrusted to her on a lonely, isolated English estate. At first miss Giddens is delighted with the huge empty mansion surrounded by fields and lakes even though her only adult company is an elderly housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, and a few background servants. Little Flora proves to be equally delightful with her neatly starched pinafores, precocious mannerisms, and surprisingly expansive vocabulary. But when Flora’s brother Miles returns home after being expelled from boarding school under troubling circumstances things begin to change. Despite a stiff formality that belies his years Miles appears to be a perfectly well-behaved child, but behind his innocent questions and lingering stares there lurks the faintest air of menace. An unnatural bond exists between the two children as if they were involved in a monstrous game which miss Giddens finds “...secretive, and whispery, and indecent” And then the ghostly apparitions begin with malevolent faces in the window, cries in the night, and a pale figure standing amongst the reeds. Gleaning a bit of the estate’s troubled history from a reluctant Mrs. Grose, Giddens convinces herself that the children are innocent pawns in a horrific supernatural conspiracy---but will she be able to save them? Against a backdrop of moonlit gardens, creaking hallways, and decaying statuary director Jack Clayton spins a classic haunted house tale replete with hints of madness and melancholy. His horror is both overtly real and deeply psychological for despite the spectral visitations and slamming shutters the real terror lies in miss Giddens’ eyes as her uneasy concerns soon evolve into wild accusations and paranoia. Lastly, Clayton’s assured hand is readily apparent in a frantic climax which comes full circle and lends meaning to the film’s bleakly enigmatic opening scenes. Chilly!

In Praise of Older Women (Canada 1978) (3): So this is the film that caused so much furor...and a near riot...when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival?! All I saw was a tepid and not particularly funny sex comedy about a horny young boy with a fetish for older women who becomes an even hornier adolescent and, finally, a lecherous adult. The movie could be shown in any order however, since the character of Vayda remains static throughout. While there is evidence of growth in the women he meets (they grow tired of him) he seems forever locked in some masturbatory fantasy as he shamelessly humps the leg of anything forty-ish and female. The film goes nowhere and has nothing to say; the acting is terrible, the script is dull, and the direction uninspired. As for those “controversial” sex scenes which got the movie in trouble with the Ontario censors 30 years ago, I suppose Kaczender was aiming for softcore eroticism but they came across as bland and mechanical instead--just a lot of poorly lit T&A with occasional glimpses of Tom Berenger’s little flaccid dink. Not even viagra could get this one off the ground.

Inside Job (USA 2010) (8): In 2000 Iceland’s government introduced a series of measures aimed at deregulating and privatizing that tiny country’s financial sector; the results were catastrophic both economically and socially as a once bustling economy accrued a debt almost ten times its gross national product. Using the Icelandic example as a starting point, documentarian Charles Ferguson and his team examine the reasons behind the global economic collapse of 2008. In the wake of the Great Depression the United States enacted measures to prohibit banks from making risky investments with other people’s money, safeguards which helped insure steady economic growth with relatively minor fluctuations in the decades which followed. Enter Ronald Reagan who, along with his successors, removed these barriers thus giving investment bankers and their ilk free rein while at the same time weakening the powers of government overseers---the wolves had effectively been put in charge of the henhouse while the guard dogs sat around muzzled. As in Iceland the results were catastrophic as banks took on bad debts, sold them as junk stock to unwitting investors (certified as AAA investments by insurance agencies who were in on the scam), and raked in billions of dollars annually in incentives, bonuses, and inflated salaries. Furthermore, financial institutions around the world made billions on the side by laundering drug money and bankrolling illegal ventures such as Iran’s nuclear energy program. But an economy based on phantom money is doomed to fail and when the crash came millions were left homeless, pension plans were wiped out, and American taxpayers were left holding the bag to the tune of almost 200 billion dollars in bail-outs. The people who precipitated the collapse however managed to pocket billions more while deftly evading any legal prosecution. Using a variety of talking heads from various disciplines Ferguson’s team presents a sad tale of government collusion, runaway greed, and a sociopathic lack of conscience in the financial sector. The area of the brain which is stimulated by winning money is the same area that lights up with cocaine, explains one counsellor with a large Wall Street clientele, hence we have a group of type-A personalities with addictions to both money and power. Of course we already know Ferguson’s documentary does not have a happy ending as he shows the various ways in which financial puppet masters have not only infiltrated all levels of government but the educational system itself. “For the first time in history...” drones narrator Matt Damon, “...average Americans have less money and are less prosperous than their parents.” Frightening, infuriating, yet ultimately anesthetizing as the sheer scope of this financial obscenity slowly hits home.

Insidious (USA 2010) (7): California yuppies Josh and Renai Lambert and their three kids haven’t even finished unpacking when they realize their stately new house has a few unsettling quirks—but when eldest son Dalton falls into an unexplained coma after an impromptu visit to the attic things slowly take a turn for the bizarre. Several months later a still comatose Dalton is being cared for at home when a series of frightening visitations convince Renai that his illness is more spiritual than physical causing her to seek some rather unorthodox interventions despite her husband’s objections. With their son’s soul in the balance the Lamberts find themselves involved in a supernatural tug-of-war with only two possible outcomes: life, or eternal damnation. Director James Wan takes a fairly straightforward “demons in the belfry” haunted house story and dresses it up with such ballsy panache that I found myself smiling even as I teetered on the edge of my seat. The usual assortment of frights and shocks are served up with style thanks to some highly effective lighting and camerawork while an underlying dark humour in the form of a pair of bickering ghostbuster geeks and their elderly mentor (a deadly earnest Lin Shaye) begins as comic relief but quickly leads to a wild seance-cum-exorcism that practically leaps off the screen in a hail of quick edits and exploding flashbulbs. A visit to the netherworld provides a final creepy treat as Dalton’s dilemma is explained by a series of macabre tableaux awash in a sea of fog machines and lurid neon. Even the inevitable twist ending that promises a sequel (already out on DVD) had me laughing more out of anticipation than annoyance. It’s all chills and nonsense of course, but presented with such deadpan cheekiness (look for Wan’s sly allusion to his Saw movie franchise) that it won over my better judgement just the same. If you’re looking for a smart popcorn thriller that’s easy on the brain without being insulting you need look no further.

Insidious: Chapter 2 (USA 2013) (6): Starting where the original left off (read my review) we revisit the Lamberts who are still beset by a very persistent and mean-spirited ghost—only this time it’s not young Dalton who’s in trouble, it’s dad who’s not quite himself. Cue more sudden jolts and spectral mayhem as those ghostbusting geeks from part one gear up for yet another demonic showdown accompanied by their now deceased manager. Although it’s all pretty much déjà vu by now, James Wan’s morbid sense of fun still rings loud and clear as he plays on our childhood fears whether it be a dark closet at the end of a darker hallway or something nasty at the foot of the bed. A rather ridiculous background story manages to tie up all the loose ends and some imaginative segues to the original movie allow us to see that film in a slightly different light (so that’s what was banging on the front door!) Alas, it all ends with the promise—threat?—of a series of Insidious spin-offs. No James…NO!

Insignificance (UK 1985) (7): It's 1954, and in New York City the lives of four famous people will crisscross back and forth over the course of one warm spring night. In a swank hotel room high atop Manhattan a vivacious blond movie star will seduce a brilliant physicist, but not before explaining the Theory of Relativity to him using a couple of toy trains and a flashlight. Meanwhile her big dumb husband, a faded baseball star, can't get her out of his mind. Then there's the ultra-conservative senator who transforms his own personal demons into a witch hunt for commies... Rather than portray them as simple flesh-and-blood people, director Nicolas Roeg takes the likenesses of Monroe, Einstein, DiMaggio, and McCarthy (their names are never mentioned but the intent is unmistakable) and instead utilizes them as the post-WWII American icons they've clearly become. Gathering them into the same parlour he waxes philosophical on the nature of knowledge and truth, love, identity, power and the whole ball of wax. The result is a strange brew of deep thoughts and odd tangents that works for the most part thanks to some imaginative directing and a handful of knockout performances. The film's explosive climax is among my all-time favourite movie endings!

International House (USA 1933) (7): When Professor Wong announces his latest invention, the “radioscope”, will revolutionize broadcasting, industry representatives from around the world descend upon Shanghai’s International House Hotel in the hopes of acquiring the copyright. Sight gags, slapstick, and double entendres ensue as competing CEO’s wreak mayhem from the lobby clear up to the top floor. With cameos from the likes of George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bela Lugosi, and W.C. Fields, this one-hour gag reel is little more than a vehicle for showcasing big name radio and movie stars of the time. Burns plays it straight as the house physician with Allen as his ditzy nurse, Lugosi is the crazy Russian aristocrat, and Fields plays the eccentric lush smitten with blonde bombshell Peggy Hopkins Joyce. The rest of the cast have now sunken into obscurity with the exception of Cab Calloway adding a bit of jazz and “Baby” Rose Marie belting out a torch song atop a pair of grand pianos. And then there’s the nightclub floor show whose deadpan campiness is laugh-out-loud hilarious! Definitely dated and amusingly racist (“Me washy clothes!”) but still fun to watch—and since it was released before the draconian Hays Code took effect the sly references to drugs and sex are unexpectedly ribald: “Oh, it’s a pussy…” says Fields staring between Joyce’s legs before reaching down and rescuing the cat she accidentally sat upon. Oh my!

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (USA 2014) (8): Computer prodigy, co-founder of Reddit, and fierce crusader for freedom of information, Aaron Swartz (b. 1984) forsake what could have been an extremely lucrative Silicon Valley career in favour of sociopolitical activism aimed at all attempts to curb public access to the internet. Citing everything from copyright protection to national security, both the American government and its corporate lobbyists were keen on slapping restrictions on the World Wide Web using arcane computer fraud legislation and the now infamous “Stop Online Piracy” and “Protect IP” acts known collectively as SOPA & PIPA. But in the post 9/11 age of cyber-terrorism, digital crime, and Wikileaks, Swartz’s sometimes controversial methods put the Obama administration on edge and angered business interests who not only feared losing billions in profits through copyright infringements but also stood to lose face should some of their practices regarding the gathering and manipulation of information be called into question. The result was an aggressive FBI investigation and a string of trumped up charges, both of which preyed upon Swartz’s already fragile senses. Brian Knappenberger’s incisive documentary combines newsreel footage and Swartz’s own home movies with interviewees that range from family members and ex-girlfriends to movers and shakers in the online community itself. What emerges is a portrait of a brilliant young man whose occasional streak of arrogance was more than balanced by a keen desire to protect his beloved internet from those who would monopolize and control it. What also emerges is a troubling picture of America’s skewed justice system which took a well-meaning young man trying to make a valid albeit forceful point and vilified him beyond all recognition even as it studiously ignored the Wall Street bigwigs who precipitated the financial crisis of 2008. A compelling piece of documentary filmmaking that eschews the soapbox in favour of intelligent, passionate discourse.

Interstellar (USA 2014) (2): In a bleak near future Earth’s biosphere has been decimated by a mysterious blight which is slowly wiping out all cash crops save corn. In this world of dust storms and starvation former aeronautical engineer Cooper tends the family farm with his father and two kids while still dreaming of the stars. Eventually making his way to NASA (now a clandestine underground organization) thanks to some supernatural hocus-pocus in his daughter’s bedroom involving bookshelves and dust bunnies (don’t ask) Cooper suddenly finds himself on a spaceship bound for a newly discovered wormhole located around Saturn (really, don’t ask). His mission? Use this interstellar gateway to find a suitable planet to serve as mankind’s new home. But things don’t go exactly as planned and Cooper’s team, including an annoying robotic domino, find themselves having to contend with hostile worlds, mad scientists, and a treacherous black hole which may just hold all the answers. And, as if things couldn’t get worse, his tenuous relationship with his preteen daughter—she never forgave him for leaving—will be further tested by the phenomenon of time dilation which sees her age back on Earth while he remains forever young in space… Take the best ideas from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Poltergeist, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, then add a few wheelbarrows full of Deepak Chopra shit (the correct answer is LOVE!!) and you are left with an unforgivable travesty of a film so full of potholes, bad science, and narrative gaps that our eyes started rolling before Cooper even had lift-off. An intergalactic chick flick that tries to make up for its lack of depth with tears and pyrotechnics. And the theatre we saw it in had their dolby set to “ear-splitting”--it was so loud that most of the dialogue was lost in a distorted tidal wave of crashes and booms. Next to this gobbler Gravity is a veritable PhD thesis.

In The Dust Of The Stars (Germany 1976) (4): Made by East Germany’s famous DEFA studios in the waning years of the Berlin Wall it isn’t difficult to find parallels between this fictitious story of extraterrestrial oppression and the socialist rhetoric of the ruling GDR. While investigating an interstellar distress signal originating from Tem 4, a desolate planet of dusty deserts and ancient lava flows, the crew of the starship Cynro are forced to make an emergency landing due to a mysterious power surge. The humanoid Temians at first greet their would-be rescuers with open arms yet flatly deny ever having sent an SOS in the first place. Not content with the aliens’ pat answers to their questions the astronauts decide to do a little undercover detective work which eventually lands them right in the middle of a colonial uprising between the Temian overlords and the planet’s oppressed natives, the Turi. As tension between the two factions reaches its crisis point it takes an act of selfless, one could almost say Christ-like, sacrifice to finally overthrow the shackles of capitalist oppression. Although woefully lacking in grandeur (and acting, and special effects, and script...) Dust nevertheless tries to compensate with pure cheesy glitter. The glossy sets are right out of Studio 54, the costumes were obviously designed by an ABBA fan club, and there is even a bit of gratuitous nudity, communist-style. A hedonistic (read: Western) disco party-cum-orgy complete with psychedelic genie costumes and aerosolized drugs proves to be the film’s only hight point although the theme song, an ethereal female chorale, is rather pretty. Recommended for those with an interest in camp retro Eastern bloc science fiction movies. All three of you.

In the Fog (Germany/Russia 2012) (9): At the height of WWII in German-occupied Belarus, four Russian men are accused of being partisans and sentenced to death—but at the last minute Sushenya is pardoned by the camp commandant and released. Now branded as a collaborator by his neighbours (an accusation he vehemently denies) and looked upon with veiled suspicion by his own wife it comes as no surprise when two armed members of the Belarus underground show up on his doorstep to mete out their own vigilante justice, a turn of events Sushenya accepts with meek resignation. Fate steps in however and before the sentence can be carried out all three men find themselves on the lam, with one partisan critically wounded. As they trudge through the woods, the wounded fighter hanging off Sushenya’s shoulders, a trio of revealing flashbacks show just how each man arrived at this moment in time. In this engrossing allegory director Sergey Loznitsa goes to great lengths to avoid making a simple “war movie”: the pacing is meditative with long takes devoid of any musical distractions and the horrors of battle are kept discreetly offscreen—a family is slaughtered in their home while the camera focuses on the front porch and a scene of bustling market stalls is undercut by the sound of creaking ropes, the only sign that a mass hanging has taken place. Loznitsa is more interested in how people distinguish between right and wrong under circumstances which are profoundly immoral to begin with. Through flashbacks we catch glimpses of virtue and cowardice, bravery and foolhardiness while apparent acts of mercy carry deadly consequences and morality is as nebulous as the icy mist that follows the three as they stumble through a freezing wilderness. Meanwhile Loznitsa underscores his unfolding psychodrama with a background of incidental noises: winds sigh, raucous crows protest, and a cocked rifle shatters the silence like a hammer blow. In the end, as attested to by a fogbound denouement, it’s not so much a question of what his subjects should do but rather, given the circumstances, what else can they do? Intense, heart-rending, brilliant.

In the Mouth of Madness (USA 1994) (5): When celebrated horror author Sutter Cane goes missing before the release of his greatest novel to date, insurance investigator John Trent suspects the publishing company is attempting an elaborate scam. Puzzled by the increasingly violent behaviour of Cane’s worldwide legion of fans as they hungrily await the new book (even his agent goes on an axe-wielding spree before being gunned down) Trent and literary editor Linda Styles head off into the wilds of New England to search for the author’s hidey-hole, the elusive village of “Hobb’s End”. But when the two finally arrive at their destination they get an unhealthy dose of alternate reality as a series of bizarre encounters suggest that the macabre storylines of Cane’s books are beginning to come true—including grisly murders, subterranean monsters, and demonic transformations. “Reality is not what it used to be…” quips one of the townsfolk before blowing his head off and suddenly Trent is calling his own sanity into question. Is he experiencing a psychotic break as the film’s opening sequence seems to suggest, or is he actually caught up in a nightmare of the eccentric author’s own making? With echoes of Stephen King and the Creepshow franchise, as well as several nods to H. P. Lovecraft (bordering on plagiarism) John Carpenter’s ode to mass paranoia is certainly populated with enough freaks, oddities and tentacled thingamajigs while a dark musical score and giddy editing keeps everything nicely off balance—the final twist is pretty cute too. But all the technical wizardry and animatronic bugbears don’t add up to a whole lot of anything besides a few jolts and lots of schizoid ruminations on the nature of reality. So is this the creative process reimagined as a horror movie? A bleakly satirical look at artistic narcissism? Or just a running joke on the gullibility of moviegoers? Mea culpa on the last one.

In The Valley of Elah (USA 2007) (5): The kiss of death for any film occurs when the director, fearing their audience is too dense to get “the message”, highlights it, underlines it, and then proceeds to shout it out from every frame. Canadian Paul Haggis did this in 2004’s abysmally pretentious Academy award-winner (OMG!) Crash, and now with Elah he pontificates on the War in Iraq with stars ’n stripes all around and an orchestra driven to exhaustion. When his son Mike goes AWOL after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq grizzled veteran Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) sets out to find him with only a few weak clues and some troubling smartphone images Mike shot while in the Middle East. Stonewalled by the military at every turn, Deerfield eventually teams up with local police detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) and the two manage to uncover what happened to Mike. But the tragic answer only leads to bigger, more harrowing questions. As a straight-up missing persons mystery Elah has far too many fortunate coincidences to be more than mildly intriguing yet it’s watchable enough given Jones’ Oscar-nominated performance as a man torn between military sensibility and paternal guilt and Susan Sarandon’s star turn as his suffering wife. But when Haggis tries to delve into everything from PTSD to the inherent immorality of war—with a bit of sexual harassment thrown in just to cover all the bases—it turns into a sanctimonious soapbox homily determined to leave everyone with a black eye: the military, the government (Dubya drones on in background news broadcasts), and civilians alike for the evils in Iraq seem to find their counterpoint in the moral apathy back home (cue strip clubs and Mexican drug dealers). Films such as The Hurt Locker and Denmark’s A War managed to present war as both a physical battlefield and a psychological space. In Elah, Haggis presents an overly adorned knee-jerk response to a much deeper problem and he does so with contrived pathos and one very tiresome biblical metaphor. This is the kind of emotional manipulation all too common in Canadian cinema and serving it up with an American-sized budget doesn’t make it go down any easier. That patronizing final scene alone is enough to make Spielberg weep.

In This Our Life (USA 1942) (7): Bette Davis plays the evil conniving virago for all it’s worth in John Huston’s over-the-top soaper. When spoiled rich bitch Stanley Timberlake (Davis) dumps her adoring fiancé Craig Fleming (suave doormat George Brent) in order to run off with Peter, the husband of her sister Roy (simmering martyr Olivia de Havilland), the stage is set for tragedy and divine retribution. It isn’t long before Peter, a promising surgeon, slowly wakes up to the fact that Stanley loves only herself, a revelation which finds him hitting the bottle more than he should. Roy and Craig, in the meantime, are finding more than shared misery in one another’s company. But when a seemingly contrite Stanley returns to the family minus Peter she’s more determined than ever to upset the apple cart once again by setting her sights on rekindling Craig’s affections. With the family picking sides—Roy and her father suspicious of Stanley’s every move while her doting mother and wealthy uncle William (whose creepy attentions towards Stanley border on incestuous) willing to turn a blind eye to her scheming ways—it takes a tragic accident to shake everyone back to reality. Aside from Davis’ manic portrayal of an egotistical harpy incapable of moral compunction the rest of the cast plays it pretty straight with de Havilland’s Roy suffering angelically, Brent’s Craig grasping for silver linings, and Frank Craven as family patriarch Asa Timberlake nodding sagely while his daughter’s life goes down in flames. What sets this one apart from the usual crop of old Hollywood morality plays however is its frank depiction of racist attitudes in the south—in this case Virginia. Young black man Parry Clay (a quiet performance by Ernest Anderson) is an employee of Uncle William’s who dreams of becoming a lawyer despite the many obstacles a “coloured boy” must overcome. When Stanley finds herself in serious trouble with the law and tries to pin the blame on Parry his cynical attitude towards the legal system, and the compassion his plight engenders in the caucasians around him, proved too problematic for southern audiences causing the studio to cut out any “sympathetic” scenes before the film was shown below the Mason-Dixon line.

Into the Abyss (USA 2011) (9): in 2001 in the small town of Conroe, Texas, eighteen-year old Michael Perry and his buddy Jason Burkett were charged with the murders of three people during the course of an apparent robbery attempt (they wanted the dead woman’s new Camaro). Perry served ten years on death row before finally being executed by lethal injection in 2010 while Burkett is still serving a life sentence with no chance for parole until 2042. With his keen eye for details and easygoing, yet tightly focused demeanour director Werner Herzog travels to Texas to interview the two convicts (just eight days before Perry’s death) as well as their families and acquaintances, prison staff, and the families of their victims. Although he offhandedly mentions he disagrees with capital punishment, Herzog clearly has no set agenda here preferring instead to let his subjects speak for themselves, his neutral yet cutting questions neither leading them on nor disparaging whatever it is they have to say. At one point a simple query about squirrels, asked in the middle of a prison cemetery, causes one death row pastor to break into tears as he admits to feelings of helplessness. As the lens focuses in on people’s faces (Herzog remains behind the camera) we can’t help but be moved by their stories of grief and regret—a victim’s daughter talks about being cut off from her own life; the tough facade of another victim’s brother crumbles when he holds up a picture of his “best buddy”; and a former guard talks hesitantly about his nervous breakdown. But it is the interviews with the two convicts and their families which prove to be the most revealing with Perry being little more than a man-child insisting on his innocence and Burkett’s towering father listing the many ways he failed his son as his eyes mist mist over. Relying on crime scene footage and police interviews to even the playing field somewhat (the murders really were horrific) as well as a darkly moving orchestral score, Herzog wisely refrains from any personal soliloquies aimed at swaying his audience. Deeply compassionate—you can tell he had more than a director’s interest in the subject matter—yet meticulously clinical as harsh lighting glares down on an execution gurney’s restraining straps, this is quintessential documentary filmmaking.

Into the White (Norway 2012) (7): Two enemy planes, one British and the other German, manage to shoot each other down over the arctic wastes of Norway at the height of WWII. When the surviving five crew members end up in the same abandoned hunting cabin they must try to put their political differences aside in order to survive long enough to be rescued; a task which proves to be more tricky than either side thought. Based on an actual story, director Peter Næss’ beautifully shot anti-war flick only occasionally succumbs to the usual Hollywood-style genre clichés with one charmingly English chappy cracking jokes while the obsessively anal Jerry commander draws a charcoal line down the centre of the cabin to impress upon his amused POWs where “British Territory” ends and German land begins. But as relationships thaw between bowls of moss soup and trips to the open air outhouse (its roof and sides sacrificed for firewood) a common sense of humanity emerges highlighted by a succession of scenes both dramatic and comedic: the man gather gravely around a freshly killed rabbit unsure as to how prepare it for the frying pan; they band together to save the life of an injured airman; and the two commanding officers find themselves literally holding up the roof. And then the Norwegian armed forces arrive and the realities of war return with a vengeance. As Næss plays with the balance of power between his antagonists he leaves us with one lasting image that stands out above all the others—sworn enemies standing beneath a magnificent aurora display crooning a ragtag rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. If only it had been that easy…

Into the Wild (USA 2007) (7): Poor little rich boy becomes pretentious hippy in Sean Penn’s overly preachy but well meaning biopic.  The film is based on the life of Chris McCandless who, shortly after graduating with honours, decided to reject his parents’ middle class materialism and “live off the land” instead.  To achieve this goal he gave his life savings to charity, burned the contents of his wallet and changed his name.  After wandering from one end of the country to the other eking out a living doing menial labour he finally achieved his goal of   escaping into the Alaskan wilderness.  Unfortunately he soon realized that a few paperback books and a cocky attitude were not sufficient supplies when facing the harsh realities of arctic survival.  When the movie attempts to turn McCandless into some kind of modern day folk hero it fails….despite his education he was a clueless kid who could  deliver a verbose lecture on the evils of capitalism yet displayed a reckless stupidity when it came to making life decisions.  Where the film worked for me however, were those times it concentrated on the tragic elements of his life.  We are presented with an emotionally disturbed young man whose personal demons dogged him on every step of his journey.  He sought solace in isolation, sadly cutting himself off not only from his family but also from every kind soul who attempted to assist him.  Perhaps the film’s greatest strength lies in its uniformly excellent acting especially Emile Hirsch’s powerhouse performance as Chris and a deeply moving cameo from Hal Holbrook.  A troubling film about a troubled young man.

The Intruders (Canada 2015) (3):  Sudbury, Ontario stands in for suburban Chicago in Adam Massey's terribly derivative 80s-style suspense thriller and the only thing he manages to get right is the snow.  After the tragic death of her mother sends her into a psychotic tailspin, Rose Halshford (Miranda Cosgrove, wide-eyed and vacuous) finds herself leaving the sunny climes of California for the frigid midwest with her well-meaning father who believes a change of scenery and a handful of prescriptions is all she needs.  Moving into the grand old period home her architect dad hopes to renovate Rose takes some comfort in being a whiny unappreciative little bitch until a series of increasingly odd incidents involving dolls and cryptic scratches turn her bad dreams into a waking nightmare.  It seems the Halshford's new home was the scene of some nastiness involving a crazy religious cult, a sexually frustrated maniac, and a teenage runaway and Rose is  now convinced someone (or some thing) still lives there and wants to communicate with her.  Unfortunately dad chalks it up to paranoia especially after Rose becomes obsessed with the creepy man next door, and her suspicious new boyfriend seems to be harbouring a few secrets of his own.  Is Rose sharing her home with an unknown terror or does she need to hightail it back to the pharmacy?  A ludicrous script filled with red herrings and non-sequiturs forgoes logic in favour of cheap campfire chills (OMG she's actually going into the basement!) and an overblown musical score that bangs and crashes its way through a succession of tepid "shocks" (OMG there's a doll head on the staircase!)  But the worst is yet to come as an exaggerated finale rips off every teen scream cliché for a big reveal that's so nonsensical it can only be...Canadian. 

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Italy 1970) (7): There is often a thin line between scathing satire and smug sarcasm, and Elio Petri’s cynical Oscar-winner, part one of his “Trilogy of Neuroses”, skirts that line more often than not. Meant as a reverse riff on a Kafka theme the fun starts when a celebrated Chief of Homicide casually kills his mistress and then litters her apartment with enough incriminating evidence to get himself convicted twice. The reasons behind his actions, while never explicitly addressed, seem related to the woman’s refusal to take their sadomasochistic sex games seriously (he likes to play the big respectable cop while photographing her in gruesome crime scene poses). A rabid fascist at heart--he regularly delivers incendiary sermons on the virtues of repression and authoritarian dictates--the detective is torn between continuing his quest to rid Italy of all its dissidents and the greater need to bring himself to lofty justice, especially since he is in charge of investigating the very murder he committed. But as a symbol of Law, Order, and Control he is forever “above suspicion” and even his two key witnesses refuse to aid him in his grand self-immolation, though for two very different reasons. Leads Gian Maria Volonté as the detective and Florinda Bolkan as the hapless courtesan are perfectly matched with Bolkan’s bohemian beauty providing the mirror image of Volonté’s frantic autocrat—their fiery interactions, told in flashback, forming the film’s backbone. Blackly comical and lacking in finesse, Petri’s shrill sermon on the amorality (über-morality?) of power toys with nihilism but the sense of despair is confined to the shallows and the wry smiles are well aimed and hearty enough.

The Invitation (USA 2015) (9): After a personal tragedy ended their marriage Will and Eden, unable to deal with each other’s pain, went their separate ways. So it comes as a surprise then when a few years later Eden invites him and his new girlfriend Kira to join her and her new beau David for a posh dinner party at their upscale home in the Los Angeles hills. At first put off by the banal banter of the assembled guests David is amazed at Eden’s sense of calm especially since he is still unable to come to terms with what happened between them. But as the evening wears on the forced bonhomie becomes even more strained when Eden and David begin gushing about the cultish spiritual movement they credit for their newfound happiness. And as the wine flows and inhibitions lower, David begins to suspect that there is more to this evening than a simple reunion between old friends… Starting out with small talk and uneasy laughter as out of touch acquaintances half-heartedly catch up on each other’s lives, director Karyn Kusama slowly sharpens the psychological edges of her thriller with an already unbalanced Will noticing—and quite possibly misinterpreting—worrisome little details like a barred window or the occasional odd mannerism. But when the shocks start arriving you realize she has been setting you up for a contemporary horror story that plays on southern California trendiness (remember EST and Transcendental Meditation?) yet ends with a vision more suitable to Dante. As Will, Logan Marshall-Green wears his pain prominently on his sleeve as he stares and stumbles his way through the evening taking us along with him—a compelling blend of anger and paranoia to match Emayatzy Corinealdi's (Kira) helpless befuddlement. Tammy Blanchard and Michiel Huisman on the other hand play Eden and David like a pair of Stepford yuppie acolytes, their bland smiles chillingly shallow as they spout their metaphysical word salad. Taken as a postmodern nightmare or the blackest of satires (or both) this is one psycho-shocker that hooks you solidly and never lets go.

Iphigenia (Greece 1976) (10): Ancient history and classical mythology meld beautifully in this magnificent production based on Euripides’ sad tale of king Agamemnon. When his brother’s wife, the infamous Helen, is abducted by Paris of Troy, Agamemnon is chosen to lead the Greek city states in what was to become the Trojan War. Gathering at the port of Aulis the vast army awaits a favourable breeze in order to launch their thousand ships when one of the king’s men accidentally kills a sacred deer in the forest of Artemis during an ill-fated hunting expedition. For his punishment Agamemnon is informed by the goddess’ oracle that no fair wind will blow until he sacrifices his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. Torn between his crushing sense of duty and his deep love for Iphigenia, he reluctantly summons the girl to Aulis on the pretext that she is to be married to the great hero, Achilles. Expecting her to journey alone he is shocked when an entire wedding party, led by his headstrong wife Clytemnestra, arrives to celebrate the upcoming nuptials instead. But when Achilles and the queen discover the truth, Agamemnon’s troubles have just begun. Director Cacoyannis distances himself from all the bloodletting and male posturing common to the “swords and sandals” genre and instead delivers a fiercely emotional epic which rests squarely on the shoulders of his three main leads. As the outraged Clytemnestra, Irene Papas burns up the screen with an intensity that brings you to tears even as you flinch. Costa Kazakos makes you feel every wrenching pain of Agamemnon’s personal hell and Tatiana Papamoskou, only 13 at the time, throws herself into the role of the titular heroine with a heartbreaking mixture of childlike innocence and terrified dismay. Although firmly rooted in reality (there are no flying horses or horned satyrs here) Iphigenia nevertheless contains scenes of pure poetry; a furious Clytemnestra confronts her husband in a room littered with the trappings of war, the smoke from a burning altar partially obscures a phalanx of dark-robed priests, and a flotilla of warships lights up a midnight sea. Many scenes are shot using actual ruins as backdrops while acres of haggard soldiers in tarnished armor lend an air of authenticity to the story which belies its quasi-mythological origins. Beautifully written, beautifully imagined.

Irina Palm (Belgium 2007) (5): Her grandson Olly is dying of some exotic disease and frumpy widow Maggie (a monotone Marianne Faithfull) is desperately trying to raise enough money to send him and his parents to Australia where a new treatment has become available. With no marketable skills and no income to speak of, Maggie winds up working at a SoHo sex club giving hand-jobs to anonymous strangers who stick their willies into her cubicle through an outside glory hole. But thanks to her soft touch and some expensive coconut oil lube Maggie, working under the stage name “Irina Palm”, is soon raking in £800 a week with men lined up twelve deep outside her stall. Of course the secret of her employment soon gets out and reactions amongst friends and family vary between prurient interest to a full-on meltdown from her judgemental bitch of a son (a lesson in histrionic overkill from Kevin Bishop). And all the while little Olly is heading towards the grave one baby step at a time… Despite an oh-so-sober score by Belgian alt-rockers “Ghinzu” and an annoying habit of fading to black every five minutes, Director Sam Garbaski presents us with a simple hodgepodge of pathos, one-note comedy (how many times must we watch a prim and proper Maggie screw up her face as she grabs another dick?), and a tepid moral relativism that strives to make an ethical mountain out of a simple tug ’n pull. Everyone seems to be reading their lines off the back of a cereal box and a ludicrous love interest between Maggie and her pimp-slash-manager Miki is probably the funniest schtick of all. A film that wants to wow us with an ultimate punchline or heartwarming revelation yet fails to deliver either one.

The Iron Rose (France 1973) (5):  Jean Rollin toys with our innate fears of death and the dark in this macabre little tale of young lovers trapped in a cemetery overnight.  As the story opens our sweethearts are looking for a quiet place for an afternoon tryst and the local graveyard seems like the perfect spot with its sunny trails and secluded crypts.  But time flies when you’re having fun and before they know it the sun has set and the front gates have been locked.  What seemed like a romantic idyll during the day has now become a Stygian maze filled with noxious mists and strange half-glimpsed shapes.  There are no zombies crawling out of graves here, just the preternatural silence and two highly overactive (and slightly unhinged) imaginations...  Rollin does use some interesting imagery to illustrate how death exists even in the midst of life:  a lively wedding reception becomes quiet when a guest recites a poem about suicide; as our two lovers enter the cemetery the man quotes a passage from Dante’s Inferno while a barking dog and flat trumpet provide a discordant requiem; and a quiet walk along the seashore takes on a funereal pall when the eponymous rose washes up on the beach.  In one particularly theatrical memento mori, the protagonists share a desperate embrace in an open grave filled with skulls.  Sadly, despite some intriguing scenes and a very creepy finale, The Iron Rose is just too full of itself to be truly effective.  The ponderous script rife with jarring cuts and overblown dialogue seems like a parody at times, the lighting is too stagy, the acting too exaggerated, and the girlfriend’s “cemetery dance” sequence ends up looking like a really bad Bjork video.  What could have been a great film is ultimately undone by its own art house excesses.  Pity.

Irrational Man (USA 2015) (7): When philosophy professor Abe Lucas (a depressed Joaquin Phoenix) begins his new job teaching at a swank Rhode Island college his reputation for alcohol and women precede him giving rise to all sorts of rumours regarding his traumatic past. Attracted to the older man’s brooding ways and frustrated sense of idealism—all his attempts at international charity work only served to deepen his nihilistic outlook—grad student Jill Pollard (a preppy Emma Stone) begins a tenuous friendship with Lucas which eventually leads to an affair. But with all her attempts to lift Abe out of his rut thwarted by his self-destructive behaviour Jill is about to give up until an overheard conversation gives his existence a new sense of purpose. At first delighted by her lover’s sudden inexplicable interest in life, Jill is eventually thrown into an existential quagmire when she discovers the real reason behind his newfound zeal… Starting out as a somewhat pretentious boarding school drama with beautiful people in designer clothes hashing out Kierkegaard and Kant, writer/director Woody Allen gently pulls the rug out from under us as Lucas’ disillusionment with the “mental masturbation” of philosophy is suddenly put to an acid test. It’s one thing to ponder over dusty tomes, but trying to apply those lofty proclamations on morality, ethics, and reasoning to the dirty, always ambiguous real world can be problematic at best. Above par performances (Parker Posey excels as a sexually frustrated lab prof with her sights on Lucas) are graced by an intelligent script whose macabre sense of irony is underscored by an incongruous soundtrack of jazzy piano riffs. It all comes to a head with a tussle worthy of Hitchcock in which Allen, with tongue just slightly in cheek, plays with the concept of randomness vs destiny and leaves us wondering, “What are the chances…?!” Sly little devil.

I Sell the Dead (USA 2008) (7): On the eve of his execution for the heinous crime of grave robbing, career ghoul Arthur Blake sits in his cell sharing a bottle of whisky with prison chaplain Father Duffy. At the rather gruff priest’s insistence Arthur begins recounting the details of his criminal life which began when, as a child in desperate need of funds, he teemed up with veteran body snatcher Willy Grimes. Barely eking out a living supplying fresh corpses to the unscrupulous Dr. Quint, the two men eventually hit pay dirt when they discovered there was far more money to be made selling the undead to an underground scientific community eager for zombie lab rats. But no lucrative venture is without risk and for Arthur and Willy that risk came in the form of rival gang “The House of Murphy”; a family of psychotics and sociopaths intent on cornering the living dead market at any cost… Very loosely based on the exploits of a pair of 18th century Scottish grave robbers, this cheeky little flick successfully mixes dark humour with a bit of gore and a few over-the-top performances. The inclusion of some comic book backgrounds (it was later made into a graphic novel) bring to mind 1982’s Creepshow and exaggerates both the film’s fantastical and ridiculous elements…a fog-shrouded Old England and its denizens never looked so enticingly grimy. It’s a macabre, tongue-in-cheek romp which never quite hits the comedic heights it was aiming for but manages to elicit consistent smiles just the same. And that lowbrow ending was the horror equivalent of a pie in the face!

I Shot Andy Warhol (UK/USA 1996) (8): Canadian director Mary Harron’s riveting drama about the unfortunate acquaintance between New York avant-garde artist Andy Warhol and the schizoid man-hating dyke-cum-feminist Valerie Solanas, author of the S.C.U.M. Manifesto (Society for Cutting Up Men). In the late 60’s Warhol and his warehouse commune of musicians, artistes and eccentric bohemians, collectively known as The Factory, pretty much defined everything that was new and exciting in the east coast art scene…from experimental films and performance pieces to the now iconic silk screens of movie stars and household groceries. At the same time Solanas, suffering from a childhood of neglect and abuse, was trying to support herself through prostitution while banging out her tome of anti-male essays and working on her first anti-male play, Up Your Ass. Already conned by an unscrupulous publisher, Valerie became convinced that only the great Andy Warhol could appreciate her script and bring it to Broadway. But The Factory was never interested in her paranoid rants and the more Warhol avoided the increasingly neurotic wannabe the more Solanas began to suspect he was part of an ever enlarging conspiracy to discredit her. Finally, her mind properly snapped, Valerie acquired a gun from her anarchist quasi-boyfriend and paid Warhol one final visit. Shot through with 60s tunes and all the acid-laced set designs you’d expect, Harron’s opus captures something of the underground Manhattan art scene her protagonists inhabited. Drugs and drag queens (Stephen Dorff is amazing as Warhol’s muse, the late great Candy Darling), creative geniuses and lacquered poseurs, all are presented with pinpoint accuracy. But the entire film hinges on Lili Taylor’s knockout performance as the obsessive Solanas and Jared Harris’s beautifully nuanced turn as the soft-spoken Warhol. There is a depth to Taylor’s portrayal, for despite her glaring mental illness Valerie Solanas was a bright and insightful artist in her own right as a few B&W monologues in which she quotes from her work attest. Meanwhile Harris’ Warhol, here a strange and decidedly queer mix of jet set butterfly and taciturn recluse, provides the perfect contrast; the grounded yin to her volatile yang. A truly unexpected gem whose closing “Where are they now?” title cards carry a surprising poignancy.

Island in the Sun (USA 1957) (6): It’s adultery, murder, and interracial lust beneath the tropical sun in this tawdry soap which shocked audiences upon its initial release and garnered a ton of racist hate mail for star Joan Fontaine. On the Caribbean island of Santa Marta, still under stuffy British rule, the insanely jealous scion of a wealthy plantation family discovers his bloodline is not as white as he would like it to be—a fact he tries to twist to his political advantage while his younger sister takes it as tacit permission to lower her moral standards. Meanwhile, on another part of the beach, a caucasian socialite finds herself wishing she had a little more black in her…namely the fiery young native with political aspirations of his own. It all comes to a head during Carnival when, amidst swirling masks and steel drum beats, dirty secrets will be laid bare, passions will turn deadly, and the shackles of colonialism will receive a thorough shaking. A sensationalistic script and theatrical performances nevertheless do manage to address the issue of racism (from both sides) as well as racial identity. Pretty heady stuff for the 1950s even if time and shifting social norms have pretty well removed its sting.

Island of Lost Souls (USA 1932) (8): Banned from UK theatres until 1958 by British censors who felt its subject matter went “against nature”, this early film adaptation of H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau is definitely one of the creepiest. A shipwrecked sailor finds himself a reluctant guest on a remote island where the insane Dr. Moreau (a brilliant Charles Laughton) is in his lab busily transforming wild animals into something resembling human beings if you can overlook the fangs, claws, and copious amounts of body fur. Determined to draw the hapless castaway into his mad experiments by having him mate with an exotic panther woman, Moreau will stop at nothing—including murder—to realize his twisted dream of playing God to a race of feral humanoids. But when the sailor’s lovely fiancee arrives on the island with a rescue party in tow the crazed doctor decides to get two bangs for the price of one—and that’s when his slobbering tribe of hirsute man-beasts really start to howl. Graced by theatrical performances and exaggerated lighting straight out of Hollywood’s Silent Era as well as a lush backlot jungle set, director Erie C. Kenton weaves a macabre tale rife with enough brutal violence and implied perversions that it elicited a small scandal upon its initial release. Eighty-four years later however the sexuality is just so much camp, but the grotesque make-up effects (including Bela Lugosi in dog-face) are still revolting and the film’s sadistic edge is as sharp as ever.

I Spit on Your Grave (USA 2010) (6): In Steven Monroe’s remake of the 1978 cult classic young author Jennifer Hills rents an isolated backwoods cabin in order to work on her next big novel. Unfortunately her arrival does not go unnoticed by the local group of horned up delinquents who decide to pay her a visit one night. Managing to escape, Jennifer enlists the aid of the local sheriff and that’s when things get ugly, for it seems that everyone in this neck of the woods has a hankering for city girls. Repeatedly beaten, raped, and left for dead, Jennifer eventually manages to outwit her assailants and when payback time arrives it isn’t pretty… I must admit the overplayed brutality and sexual violence of the first half had my finger hovering over the “stop” button more than once—Jennifer’s horrific ordeal unfolds in full colour widescreen shots as each hayseed takes his turn manning the handheld camera for a souvenir video. There seems to be a macabre air of revelry to the film’s misogyny as cowering female screams and begs while her naked body is dragged over rocks and mud. But when cruel reality gives way to ardent revenge fantasy you realize that Monroe has been toying with his audience the whole time by pushing the standard ‘woman in peril” horror conventions beyond all reasonable limits. And in the welcome catharsis that follows winces turn to eager anticipation as Jennifer uses fish hooks, garden shears, and one very slippery shotgun to even the score. Insulting to women, rednecks and everyone’s intelligence to be sure, but I still found myself cheering even as my husband cringed.

I Stand Alone (France 1998) (10): Rarely does a movie leave me shaking inside long after the final credits have left the screen. Case in point, this gut-wrenching study in nihilism and despair that could only have come from the brilliantly twisted mind of French bad boy Gaspar Noé. Phillipe Nahon gives a standout performance as “the butcher” a beleaguered everyman born in France “that shithole of cheese and Nazi lovers” on the eve of WWII. Abandoned by his mother at the age of three and orphaned by the Nazis after they executed his father, he grew up on the streets of Paris where he eked out a living managing a butcher shop. Unable to form meaningful relationships (his first wife left him with an institutionalized daughter while his second wife, an emasculating shrew, robbed him of whatever dignity he had left) the Butcher begins to project his growing rage on those around him. Carrying on an agitated and increasingly disjointed monologue in which he blames his past humiliations and current financial straits on everyone from women to foreigners to homosexuals, the Butcher eventually reaches his breaking point. With only one gun and three bullets he seeks to get his revenge on life; but not before he has one last fateful encounter with his estranged daughter... With its abrupt narrative jumps punctuated by sounds of distant thunder and jolting gunshots, Noé’s claustrophobic film crawls inside the head of its protagonist and refuses to provide the objectivity that would allow us to separate reality from paranoia. Even mundane billboards and shop signs take on a psychological subtext as we see the “Hotel Future” and “Cafe Here and There” loom heavily in our antihero’s wanderings. With typical mordant detachment, Noé chronicles the disintegration of one man’s painfully fragile ego. But this is not a simple rant on the effects of poverty or bigotry, for the Butcher’s self-destructive fury and impotent flailing are signs of a much deeper spiritual sickness which, as the film’s final shocking scene reveals, carries within it a threat more lethal than a simple bullet.

The Italian Job (UK 1969) (9): Less than 24 hours after being released from prison Charlie Croker, notorious thief and womanizer, finds himself planning the greatest heist of his career at the request of a murdered colleague's widow. Four million dollars in gold bullion is about to be escorted through the winding streets of Turin, Italy and Charlie has just a few short weeks to flesh out the elaborate robbery plan begun by his dead friend while assembling a crack team of burglars, stunt drivers and one deviant computer genius with a fetish for fat chicks. Despite having both the mafia and Italian polizia hot on their trail, the unlikely troupe of bandits manage to pull off the century's most ingenious theft using traffic jams, electronic meddling and one very funny low speed car chase through the alleyways, stairwells (?!) and rooftops (?!?!) of Turin. Unfortunately fate has one last ironic wrench to throw into their carefully laid plans... Michael Caine is perfectly cast as the cavalier Croker while the rest of the cast is in fine form, most notably Benny Hill as the pudgy computer geek and Noel Coward as the criminal kingpin footing the bill. But it is a trio of adorable candy-coloured Mini Coopers that ultimately steal the show. The gutsy little cars swerve and squeal right on cue as if they were the villainous counterparts of Herbie the Love Bug, only with more personality. With just the right combination of comedic energy and cheeky satire, this cartoon caper is a fine example of light entertainment at its very best.

It Happened Here (UK 1965) (10): With a shoestring budget and an army of volunteers writers/directors Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, who were just teenagers when they began this project in 1956, manage to produce a chilling alternate history in which Germany has won the war and England has become an occupied state. Presented as a quasi-documentary complete with newsreels and B&W verité camerawork, we’re shown a divided Britain where an underground resistance wages a guerrilla campaign against the German forces while an increasingly fervent generation of English Nazis embrace the assurances of national socialism promised by their new Führer. Against this backdrop a district nurse, relocated from the countryside to a “demilitarized” London, tries to see the good behind the occupation—an obsessive attention to law and order now reigns for one thing—while turning a blind eye to the darker side of her new masters—swastikas hang from every government building and common folk sport shiny black uniforms while calmly discussing genocide over tea and crumpets. But when she is faced with evidence of Nazi atrocities taking place on English soil her own political apathy takes a tumble…a dangerous thing to happen in a country now rife with zealous informants and card-carrying nationalists. Lacking the funds for a full scale costume epic, Brownlow and Mollo rely instead on small touches to give us a sense of time and place: Hitler’s face beams from the cover of every magazine, military bands bang out patriotic songs through quiet boroughs, ubiquitous propaganda posters urge people to “Work in Germany!”, and news announcers loudly proclaim Britain’s liberation from communism and the Jewish menace. Lastly, a fine cast of both professionals and amateurs are completely convincing as they move about their brave new world either cooing or looking the other way according to their conscience. A triumph of substance over means.

It Happened on 5th Avenue (USA 1947) (6): Wealthy industrialist Michael J. O'Connor learns a thing or two about life, love, and the American Way when his daughter Mary, mistaken for a penniless runaway, falls in love with one of the happy-go-lucky squatters she discovers living in the family's vacant New York mansion. At Marry's insistence O'Connor disguises himself as a homeless vagrant in order to join their ranks and check out his daughter's love interest. At first put off by their lower class ways the old man balks at having to pose as a hobo in his own home until his ex-wife joins in the fun and O'Connor finds himself at a sudden moral (and financial) crossroads when Mary's potential new boyfriend becomes an unexpected business rival. Chockfull of corny sentimentality, wide-eyed patriotism and a double serving of gooey romance, this post WWII comedy does deliver a carefully worded critique on the mindset of the privileged class while still managing to paint those sacred capitalist ideals with a kinder, gentler face. Average holiday fare and nothing more.

It’s Not Me, I Swear! (Canada 2008) (10): To say ten-year old Léon Doré is a “problem child” would be the understatement of the century. Given to dramatic suicide attempts, vandalism, arson, theft, and a knack for lying that seems second nature he is the holy terror of the neighbourhood. When the “perfect family” across the street go on a camping trip Léon trashes their house; when his own family bursts into a shouting match he tries to bring peace by setting the upstairs on fire. But he is still very much a child, given to bouts of colourful daydreaming (mostly darker colours), whose destructive rebelliousness can be traced at least partially to his tumultuous home life. His ineffectual father is a human rights lawyer out to save the world, his mother is a frustrated artist and fellow daydreamer who shields her little boy from the harsher consequences of his actions, and his older brother Jérôme simply dreams of having a normal life. And then mom suddenly ups and leaves for more exotic climes and Léon is left bewildered and angry that his already fractured life has just received yet another blow. Joining forces with his diminutive love interest Léa, bearing the bruises of her own dysfunctional family, Léon sets off to find his mother on a journey that will mark the beginning of the end of his childhood… Featuring fantastic performances from its young cast (lead Antoine L’Écuyer is a revelation) and brilliant cinematography which makes the most of its dizzying crane shots (everything seems so much neater from God’s perspective) writer/director Pillippe Falardeau weaves together elements of Christian and Greek mythology—Léon’s take on Genesis is novel to say the least—with some bitter reality to produce a wholly unique tale of one deeply disturbed child’s search for light at the end of a seriously dark tunnel. Calling to mind Neil Jordan’s Butcher Boy, Falardeau uses humour to soften the fact that his tiny protagonist is in fact losing his grip on sanity. But whereas Jordan’s Francie is offered very little in the way of redemption, Léon’s attempts to break down the world into small understandable pieces eventually gives rise to a nascent wisdom that hints at better times ahead. Awash with magical images of animal familiars and hiding places that are as much psychological as geographical, Léon’s faltering sideways step towards adolescence—mirrored by Léa’s wholehearted plunge—represents yet another dramatic coup for Quebec cinema that rivals Lauzon’s Léolo.

Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future (Russia 1973) (6): Mild-mannered genius Alexander Timofeyev has built a time machine in his modest Moscow apartment much to the consternation of his neighbours who complain about the constant power outages his experiments cause. On top of that his gorgeous wife is leaving him for a film director and the apartment manager seems intent on making his life miserable. But when he finally takes his invention for a test spin things go from bad to worse in ways he had never imagined. Opening a portal to 16th century Russia he inadvertently “kidnaps” the infamous tsar, Ivan the Terrible, while at the same time sending his apartment manager, also named Ivan, and a hapless cat burglar back to the Tsar’s palace. What follows is a series of gags based on culture clashes, mistaken identities (both Ivans are played by the same actor), and subtle jabs at communism and religion. Director Leonid Gaidai’s cast obviously have a great deal of fun as they throw themselves into character with wild abandon. Using slapstick, improvisation, and chase sequences right out of Benny Hill they almost succeed in pulling off what could have been a burlesque send-up of Eisenstein’s sober 2-part epic. There are a few nice touches along the way: Repin’s painting of Ivan and his Son hangs prominently in Alexander’s apartment; funky 70s fashions, soviet-style, abound; and a very silly song & dance sequence near the end reminded me of a similar scene in Python’s Holy Grail. Many of the jokes fall flat however, at least to western audiences, and the production values leave much to be desired. Furthermore Gaidai, perhaps not knowing how to end this increasingly ridiculous farce, resorts to one of cinema’s most clichéd and overused devices. Fun to watch if not exactly memorable, but the cat is priceless!

I Wake Up Screaming [aka Hot Spot ] (USA 1941) (5): When up-and-coming model Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) is found dead in her Manhattan apartment suspicion immediately falls upon talent promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) the man who first discovered her when she was a lowly waitress and who may have been in love with her to boot. However, the more Christopher professes his innocence the more chief detective Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) insists on his guilt. But Cornell, a menacing oily-voiced hulk, has a few secrets of his own to hide. Only Lynn’s sister Jill (Betty Grable) senses something amiss but will anyone listen? When critiquing any film noir it is essential that one suspend disbelief to allow for the heightened dramatics and artistic license which are germane to the genre, but this dark murder mystery from director H. Bruce Humberstone is just too sloppy to forgive. As a policier its conspicuous disregard for proper procedure stretches plausibility past the breaking point with cops sauntering in and out of people’s apartments without an invite or a warrant and on-duty officers making deals with suspects on a lark. And aside from Cregar’s chilling performance everyone else seems to be reading their lines off the back of their hands, especially a woefully miscast Mature who stumbles and emotes his way towards the film’s laughably naïve conclusion. But the cinematography revels in New York’s nightlife and the strange musical score—including a revised orchestral version of “Over the Rainbow”—counteracts much of the film’s noirish nonsense. Worth a look for diehard fans.

Jackass 2.5  (USA 2007) (4):  It would appear that the drugs, booze, and fart sniffing are finally catching up to the Jackass gang.  In the interviews they’re looking a little greyer, a bit more desiccated, but definitely no wiser and the pranks themselves are nothing more than a collection of outtakes and surplus footage from their previous movies.  It’s enough to make you laugh a few times if you’re in like-minded company, smile a few times if you’re alone, or just sit there self-consciously while your highly judgmental boyfriend slowly shakes his head.  I guess the party’s over.

Japanese Girls at the Harbor (Japan 1933) (7): Schoolgirls Dora and Sunako are the very best of friends even though Sunako is often preoccupied with her motorcycle-riding boyfriend, Henry. But unbeknownst to either girl, two-timing Henry is hanging out with the sultry showgirl Yoko and her crooked pals. When word gets back to Sunako the naive young woman ignores her best friend’s advice and decides to get even with Henry one fateful night. The fallout from her rash decision throws everyone’s life off kilter and it isn’t until a few years later, when all three cross paths once more, that we see the price each one has paid. Hiroshi Shimizu’s silent melodrama features some wonderfully natural performances and (for the time) innovative camerawork as people fade in and out of existence and interactions are often framed by an open door or shadowed hallway. Foregoing the scene-chewing drama of many of his Hollywood contemporaries, Shimizu instead maintains a respectful distance from his characters bordering on detachment; we are allowed to view their pain but we cannot truly share in it. Furthermore, his use of seemingly innocuous background props to underscore a scene’s emotional impact is both clever and highly effective; a simple skein of yarn hints at infidelity, a cup and saucer left in the rain carry tragic overtones and a crude portrait floating in a ship’s wake signals both an ending and a beginning. Some may be put off by it’s rather formalized and episodic presentation, but I found Japanese Girls to be a captivating example of early Japanese cinema.

Japan Japan (Israel 2007) (7): “Cinema is dead...” states 19 year old layabout Imri as last night’s trick peels off a used condom, “...I used to enjoy entering other people’s realities but it went away.” And so begins Lior Shamriz’s remarkable indie feature, part art house short (at only 65 minutes) and part slacker diary chronicling one young man’s lethargic journey to nowhere. Leaving his backwater town for the bright lights of Tel Aviv Imri dreams of traveling to Japan where he suspects a sea change awaits him that will give his dull life sudden purpose; providing mom and dad keep sending him cheques of course. However, his grandiose plans for starting this new existence seem to consist of taking a few Japanese lessons, looking at satellite views of Tokyo on google earth, and downloading gay Asian porn. This sense of disconnect and self-delusion seems to run rampant in Shamriz’s film as we see Imri’s roommate throwing parties for imaginary friends, his BFF Naama prancing around New York like an Israeli Bjork, and his mother dividing her time between attending New Age lectures and setting up a home gym she’ll never use. Combining a non-linear storyline and rambling intellectual voice-overs with various gimmicky cinematic ploys like fast forwarding, split screens and random video montages (not to mention a few messy hardcore detours), Shamriz gives us a rough sketch of an apathetic young man whose life is revving in neutral. Furthermore, a few cleverly placed trailers for Japan Japan, complete with cast credits, give the impression that Imri is forever consigned to play a supporting role in his own story. Although the film’s delivery may seem shallow at first glance it is precisely this superficiality, coupled with a frantic editing style, that highlights our protagonist’s sideways descent into more of the same. “Be Satisfied With Here and Now” proclaims a multilingual poster on Imri’s wall, a poster which always seems to be facing his backside, while conversely another placard ironically shouts, “To Live in Tel Aviv but to Feel in SoHo”. Shamriz finishes his little opus appropriately enough at a border checkpoint adorned with an oddly incongruous piece of artwork and a darkly elegiac work by the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy which ends thus, “...As you have ruined your life here, in this little corner, you have destroyed it in the whole world.” Heavy, pessimistic, and more than a little self-indulgent, this is still a decent example of what can happen when a director dares to take a chance.

Jezebel (USA 1938) (6½):  Bette Davis plays Julie, a headstrong southern belle who is blessed with more balls than brains in this sumptuous period piece set in antebellum Louisiana.  Her insistence that she be at the centre of everyone’s universe eventually leads to her downfall as she alienates herself not only from her family and social circles, but the only two men who ever loved her including Preston her sometime fiancé.  She eventually learns the error of her ways however and in the end we see a humbled and contrite Julie go from wildcat to ministering angel as an outbreak of yellow fever ravages the streets of New Orleans.  Wyler presents us with a picture postcard of a film filled with genteel stereotypes whether it be impeccably dressed gentlemen dueling at dawn or contented slaves ready to belt out a rousing spiritual at the drop of a manacle.  The sets and costumes are painstakingly authentic and the musical score, while subdued, is perfectly synched to the onscreen action.  There is even a hint of Dantean imagery as we see a cloaked Julie barging across a fetid river in order to walk among the plague victims.  Unfortunately, when you eliminate the grandiose sets and hoop skirts you’re left with little more than a one-hankie tearjerker, which lacks any profound depth.  Still, the acting is wonderful especially Davis’ Oscar-winning performance and the B&W cinematography beautifully rendered.  Entertaining, if not challenging.

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.

Jodorowsky’s Dune (France 2013) (7): In the early 1970s, still riding on the success of his underground classics El Topo and The Holy Mountain, Chilean avant-garde director Alejandro Jodorowsky turned his sights on Frank Herbert’s Dune—a novel which he found deeply spiritual (even though he hadn’t read it) and was hellbent on turning into the greatest movie ever made. Getting the green light from his French backers he pieced together a production dream team that included fantasy illustrators H. R. Giger and Jean Giraud (aka Moebius), special effects wizard Dan O’Bannon, Pink Floyd, and cast members David Carradine, Mick Jagger, and Orson Welles. Jodorowsky and his cohorts spent the next several months producing an elaborate script-cum-storyboard featuring colour illustrations and scene-by-scene sketches which he pitched to every major movie studio who would let him through the front door. Alas, he was never able to raise the necessary finances and his Dune became the greatest movie never made. From producers, artists, and enthusiastic film critics to O’Bannon’s widow and Jodorowsky himself (then 84 years old) , Frank Pavich’s engaging documentary sheds some light on what went wrong and what could have been. What emerges is a portrait of the artist as a fiercely passionate visionary whose grandiose ideas were bigger than his purse (the film was to be fifteen hours long) and whose colourful eccentricities gave conservative studio execs cold feet—at one point Herbert’s galactic emperor Shaddam IV was to be played by surrealist painter Salvador Dali who insisted on having a burning giraffe scene thrown into the film for good measure. Despite his project being turned down however, several of Jodorowsky’s ideas regarding camera techniques and set design would mysteriously resurface in such productions as Star Wars, The Terminator, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. One final note, just to inject a bit of reality into the fairy tale, even though Alejandro clearly comes across as a lively and creative intellectual his previous track record suggests that this film would also have been relegated to the realm of midnight cult oddities. But in a world where Peter Jackson can go from Meet the Feebles to Lord of the Rings anything is possible.

Joe (USA 1970) (7):  A proper white collar executive comes face to face with his darker half in the form of a slovenly loudmouthed bigot in this rather heavy-handed look at the backside of the American dream. Boyle manages to portray the titular cretin with venomous abandon despite a script rife with oversimplified stereotypes (think of Archie Bunker with rabies) while the rest of the cast put in adequate performances especially Audrey Caire as the executive's class-conscious trophy wife. With its overbearing use of symbolism and occasional vitriolic rants, "Joe" is about as subtle as a baseball bat to the kidneys......but it provides an interesting example of how Hollywood interpreted the death of the 60s. Worth a look

Johnny Guitar (USA 1954) (10): Based on Roy Chanslor’s novel, director Nicholas Ray takes all the conventions of Hollywood’s traditional Western and turns them inside out in this gender-bending oater, and the results are at once deadly serious and giddily surreal. A lethal love triangle has developed between gun-toting, pants-wearing saloon owner Vienna (feminist wet dream Joan Crawford bedecked in fiery shades of red and white), and sexually-repressed harpy Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge sporting ginghams and funereal black) who owns the local bank. Emma’s hormones are boiling over Vienna’s ex-flame and all around bad boy the “Dancin’ Kid” (a fact she vehemently denies) and these erotic impulses are pushing her over the edge. Vienna, however, is busy rekindling a romance with Johnny “Guitar” Logan (hunky Sterling Hayden) a gunslinger turned pacifist who ran out on her five years earlier and is now back for second helpings—a fact which the Dancin’ Kid finds hard to swallow. When The Kid runs afoul of the law and Vienna locks horns with cattle baron John McIvers—a despot who practically owns the town, including the sheriff—over a planned railroad extension, an unhinged Emma finally sees a chance to get rid of both her female rival and male goad in one dastardly swoop. But Johnny Guitar has other plans… Rich technicolor backdrops and Wild West Gothic interiors highlight a snappy subversive script which places the women firmly in charge while the men bluster and pose impotently. Further reversing genre expectations, Ray casts the virginal spinster as the “bad guy” while a worldly (and definitely un-virginal) Vienna maintains the moral high ground right to the bullet-riddled finale. As for sexual innuendo, I’ll leave all those scenes of thrusting rock formations, moist tunnels, and long hard gun barrels (held at waist level) for the armchair Freudians. In an interesting aside, Crawford so hated younger co-star McCambridge (who would provide the demon voice in Friedkin’s The Exorcist twenty years later) that she once took the actress’ entire wardrobe and scattered it along the interstate!

Joyeux Noël (France 2005) (8): Christmas Eve, 1914, and on an isolated French farm a spontaneous camaraderie develops between entrenched German, French, and Scottish troops. Laying down their weapons for a few brief hours the sworn enemies pass the time exchanging family photos, playing soccer, and burying their dead before WWI begins all over again. Before New Years Day 1915 arrives three commanders will see the war through different eyes, a pair of lovers will make a life-altering decision, and a priest will come to question not only his vocation but the mind of God Himself. Although based on historical facts it quickly becomes quite clear that writer/director Christian Carion has taken some dramatic liberties with his story as a temporary truce becomes a mini peace summit with opposing armies seeking refuge in each others' foxholes while exchanging postcards and shots of whisky. Be that as it may this is still a well crafted movie, beautifully filmed and buoyed by some amazing performances from its international cast. Yes, anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of history can explain why WWI was justified; but by reducing warfare to its essential human components Carion highlights how tragic and ludicrous it truly is.

Juan of the Dead (Spain/Cuba 2011) (7): When Havana is beset by hordes of ravenous zombies (or “American-backed dissidents” as the press dutifully calls them), good-for-nothing ladies’ man Juan and his potbellied sidekick Lazaro do what any patriotic Cuban would—try to profit from it. Gathering together a loosely knit circle of fellow thieves and grifters, including drag queen La China and her musclebound boyfriend who faints at the sight of blood, they establish the “Juan of the Dead Extermination Service” and immediately set about dispatching ghouls with canoe paddles, machetes, and a harpoon or two. But the dead keep coming despite official assurances that life is now back to normal in a Havana beset with flames and scattered body parts. Sensing their own impending doom Juan, Lazaro, and their two adult children hatch one last desperate plan—but first they’re going to need a big pile of corpses… Filled with snide social commentary and political in-jokes (zombie #1 is sporting a bright orange Guantanamo prison uniform while Lazaro confesses it’s always been difficult to tell the living from the dead in Cuba) this Latin entry in the zombie genre is an entertaining if uneven blend of slapstick stunts, political satire, and gross-out horror—a mass decapitation scene in Revolution Square is as messy as it is ingenious. At times it seems as if Argentinian director Alejandro Brugués hired half of Havana to be extras in this modest little romp, and if the results are any indication we can expect bigger and better things from him in the future.

Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial (USA 2007) (8): It’s been almost 90 years since the infamous Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee and one thing has become quite clear; right wing bible-thumpers are an evolutionary dead end. This fascinating documentary focuses on the furor generated in Dover, Pennsylvania after certain Christian elements on the school board tried to sneak the religious nonsense of Intelligent Design (old-school Creationism wearing a new, secular hat) into highschool biology classes. When a group of concerned parents and science teachers cried “foul” the already hazy separation between church and state came under renewed attack leaving angry rhetoric, death threats and vandalism in its wake. The case eventually went to court with the “Darwinists” presenting an excellent argument using facts, research data and documented evidence to dispel the airy speculation and pseudo-science of the “Creationists”; the verbatim reenactments using original court transcripts are fascinating. Things are not so clearly delineated however as the director points out the fact that many of the parents and professors resisting this sinister encroachment of Christian fundamentalist claptrap into their school’s curriculum are themselves active Christians. So, is Intelligent Design merely a controversial theory meant to challenge Darwin’s ideas thereby inviting open discussion and discovery? Or is it the thin edge of a wedge meant to usher in a new era of scientific thought based on biblical teaching? Google “Dark Ages” and decide for yourself.

Kaboom (USA 2010) (5): Writer/director Gregg Araki manages to entertain and disappoint at the same time in this psychedelic college romp which attempts to bolster a weak sci-fi premise with some tepid eroticism. Artsy sophomore “Smith” (Thomas Dekker looking like Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong) is taking a walk on the bi-side by simultaneously banging blonde co-ed London and the hunk he met at the nude beach while fantasizing about his vacuous surfer roommate. Meanwhile Smith’s best friend Stella, a monotone dyke with an 80s wardrobe and attitude to match, is trying to break up with her devilishly psychotic girlfriend. But when Smith starts having troubling visions involving a dead redhead and a fiendish cult sporting animal masks, visions with a chilling basis in reality, all hell (literally) threatens to break loose. A college caper featuring the usual cast of marginalized adolescents, absent adults, and menacing authority figures with enough quirky humour and bouncy sex to make it palatable—not to mention a ridiculously over-the-top ending from which the film gets its title. An okay idea weakly delivered.

Kadosh (Israel 1999) (8): Two women are hobbled by religion and its attending patriarchal mindset in writer/director Amos Gitai's contentious Palme d’Or nominee. Rivka and her younger sister Malka have spent their entire lives immersed in Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox community where men are considered God’s greatest creation, women’s happiness is limited to raising their husband’s children, and strict Hassidic laws govern everything from brewing tea on the Sabbath to the proper way for newlyweds to lose their virginity. Despite this, Rivka and her husband Meir are passionately in love. But when ten years of marriage fail to produce any children Meir’s father, a hardline rabbi, insists he get a divorce and marry a younger woman. Malka, meanwhile, is engaged to marry a brutish lout chosen by Meir’s father even though she is already in love with a man whose secular ways have ostracized him from the community. The resulting friction pits anger and desperation against inflexible religious edicts and makes for intense and (one would assume) divisive viewing. With the men in their lives holding all the power, Rivka and Malka’s search for resolution will lead them down two very different paths as Gitai touches on issues of sanctioned misogyny, radicalized Judaism (Meirs’ father believes more orthodox kids means more chances to overthrow the government), and the gross imbalance of power inherent in any theocracy. Despite the incendiary subject matter Gitai keeps his camera at arm’s length, neither judging nor proselytizing but letting his characters carry the story through words and actions—an approach which leads to some beautifully provocative imagery when a splash of red light illuminates an adulterous couple or a wedding night turns into a clumsy rape when God fails to intervene. A slow-burning heartache of a film told with passion and emotional honesty.

Kansas City Confidential (USA 1952) (7): When Joe Rolfe, an ex-con trying to make an honest living, is suspected of taking part in a daring armed robbery he not only loses his job but the police insist on hounding him even after he's proven innocent. Taking matters into his own hands Joe decides to unmask the real culprits and clear his name once and for all. But when his quest lands him in a sleepy Mexican resort town Joe realizes he's stumbled onto something far more deadly than he imagined. With tough-talking hard-fisted bad guys, crooked cops, and the prerequisite busty dame, Phil Karlsons's moody noir thriller is so lavishly overdone that it practically becomes a parody of the genre. Thankfully it is saved from obscurity by some intense performances and B&W cinematography that makes the most of those close interiors and moonlit docks. A non-stop barrage of stylized clichés which somehow add up to something quite enjoyable.

Keane (USA 2004) (6): When we first meet William Keane he is frantically searching for Sophie, his nine-year-old daughter who was abducted from a bus station earlier on. At first it is easy to feel concern and empathy for his plight as he is brushed off by station officials and passersby alike but his increasingly irrational behaviour quickly causes us to realize that this is a very deeply disturbed man. Constantly self-medicating himself with alcohol and cocaine, a practice leading to frequent violent outbursts, Keane is ill-prepared to care for himself let alone find a missing child. In fact, as we listen to his ceaseless manic monologue rife with guilty references and paranoid fixations we begin to doubt the veracity of his claims; indeed the only “evidence” he has of little Sophie’s existence is an old newspaper article that may or may not be about her. But when Keane forms a tentative bond with a single mother living in the same fleabag hotel his relationship with her daughter, a young girl roughly the same age and size as the elusive Sophie, carries both the promise of salvation as he struggles to lay some demons to rest, and the threat of tragedy as he refuses to lose his daughter a second time. In the title role Damian Lewis is nothing short of brilliant. Avoiding the wild hysterics often associated with the portrayal of mentally ill characters he instead turns in an amazingly nuanced performance which relies as much on facial expressions and shadowed stares as physical exertion. Keane is not a sympathetic character by any stretch and as the camera follows his every move, much like an unwelcome stalker, we are alternately fascinated, saddened and repulsed by his actions. Unfortunately, ninety minutes of unhinged ramblings and drug-fueled non-sequiturs prove to be more exhausting than gripping, rather like watching a perpetual car crash in slow motion. Even the occasional insights into Keane’s troubled past do little to pierce through the film’s deliberate opacity. As a character study it should prove of some interest to psychology majors but for the rest of us its lack of momentum and psychotic repetitiveness is ultimately frustrating.

Kes (UK 1969) (7): Life in a dreary working class neighbourhood consists of grim conformity and casual cruelties, and no one knows this better than young Billy. With his father eternally absent he shares his modest family home with a violent narcissistic older brother and a harried mother whose tattered evening dress and sad eyes reflect her own dying dreams. All around him Billy is constantly reminded of the small hypocrisies inherent in society as those in charge repeatedly contradict themselves: there’s the coach who talks of nobility and fair play even as he cheats; the headmaster who lectures on self-respect while beating errant students with a cane; and the fellow classmates who won’t hesitate to betray one of their own. But when Billy acquires a baby falcon and teaches himself how to train it he glimpses a greater truth underlying the young bird’s fierce independence. There is a wild innocence, a single-minded rebelliousness to its soarings which speak to the lad and open his mind to the possibilities of life beyond the grey houses and weary adults that currently delineate his world. Unfortunately, childhood revelations all too often fall victim to the crushing realities of growing up poor and marginalized, a fact Billy has always suspected but until now has never paid much attention to. Will the delicate sense of mutual respect and dependence he’s nurtured with “Kes” be enough to carry him through this most crucial and painful time of his life? One of Ken Loach’s more nuanced films featuring some unbelievable performances from a cast of relative unknowns, especially David Bradley’s naturalistic turn as Billy. One word of caution however, if you’re not familiar with the harsh accent and turns of speech found in Britain’s South Yorkshire area be sure to turn on the English subtitles.

The Kid (USA 1921) (6): A destitute single mother leaves her newborn in the back seat of an expensive-looking car hoping the owner will take pity on him. But, thanks to a series of misadventures, the baby winds up in the care of a kind-hearted vagrant who proceeds to raise the kid as best he can. Five years later the two are inseparable but the mother, now a famous actress (in only 5 years?) comes looking to reclaim the child she once gave up. Yes, this is a "Chaplin" classic...but only if you like Charlie Chaplin. Personally I find his affected "Little Tramp" persona more irritating than endearing rendering this 60-minute film one big melodramatic fairy tale, and not a particularly original one at that. Pint-sized Jackie Coogan certainly steals the show (apparently his big crying scene was aided in part by some nasty paternal threats) and the extremely old school production values do carry some charm. Perhaps it was the first of its kind but that doesn't make it the best.

Killer Joe (USA 2011) (9): Packed to the rafters with illicit sex and bone-crunching violence William Friedkin’s trailer park tragedy, based on Tracy Letts’ play, splashes across the screen in what can only be coined White Trash Gothic. Set in the shithole of Texas the story opens with Chris Smith, a chronic loser whose luck has just taken another turn for the worse. His mom sold the stash of cocaine he was hiding in order to have her car repaired and now he has to pay back seven grand to his supplier or face being buried alive. Seeking the advice of his clueless father (Thomas Haden Church) and overly-mascaraed tart of a step-mother (Gina Gershon sporting a big bushy merkin) Chris’ desperation hatches an ingenious plan: find a hitman to murder the old lady and then collect the fifty thousand dollar life insurance benefit she bequeathed to his kid sister Dottie. Enter Killer Joe Cooper (a reptilian Matthew McConaughey) a full-time police detective who moonlights as a hired assassin. Although he prefers to be paid upfront Joe agrees to do the job on spec providing the Smiths offer up a little collateral—namely some quality alone time with the childlike Dottie. Things go swimmingly until a couple of unforeseen double-crosses lead to broken noses and broken teeth culminating in one of the most dysfunctional family dinners ever filmed—you’ll never look at Kentucky Fried Chicken the same way again. Shot in dusty shades of brown and blue beneath a sky constantly ripped by lightning, Friedkin’s tawdry tale of greed and retribution makes excellent use of its mobile home locales and honky tonk background noise. Terribly inappropriate and wielding the blackest wit, Killer Joe is something Shakespeare could have written had he been born a psychopathic sharecropper. Y’all have been warned.

The Killers (USA 1946) (7): When a pair of hardened hitmen arrive at a New Jersey backwater and kill a gas station attendant for no apparent reason the local police want to write it off as a one-time incident. After all the dead man, Ole Anderson (Burt Lancaster making his screen debut), had only been in town for a few weeks and had kept pretty much to himself the whole time. But when it’s discovered that Anderson had a modest life insurance policy payable to an elderly cleaning woman in Atlantic City who barely knew him, it piques the interest of insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmund O’Brien) who sets about unraveling the mystery behind the man’s murder. What Reardon uncovers is a sad and sordid tale of corruption, desperation, and a pair of fatal double-crosses which culminated in Anderson’s death—a death he apparently accepted with resignation. Director Robert Siodmak’s film noir staple, based on a story by Ernest Hemingway, has all the necessary elements and then some: tough-talking gangsters, smoking revolvers, and a curvaceous femme fatale with a heart of ice (Ava Gardner displaying the goods with abandon). He creates a world of shadowy streets and menacing footsteps where everyone has a cigarette in their mouth, a gun in their overcoat, and a chip on their shoulder. Using flashbacks to great effect the story weaves back and forth in time as Reardon’s inquiries continually add more pieces to the puzzle—and even though Siodmak glosses over a few dubious plot twists we’re willing to forgive because it’s all part of the fun. Classic!

Killer’s Kiss (USA 1955) (7): Legendary director Stanley Kubrick (who also doubled as writer, producer, cinematographer, and editor) helms his first foray into film noir with this 67-minute mood piece whose flat lighting and highly stylized framing would later become part of his signature repertoire. The story itself—a washed-up boxer rescues a damsel in distress and so invokes the jealous wrath of her gangster boyfriend—is pure pulp as is the schlocky dialogue, but the mean streets of New York City have rarely looked so skewed and menacing. Kubrick, who was actually collecting welfare at the time and operating out of the back of his truck, shows a newfound maturity as his camera swoops and curves up stairwells and across rooftops; creeping down a shadowed alley one moment and basking in the garish neon of Times Square the next. In a chain of particularly memorable scenes boxer and femme fatale regard each other across a courtyard, their lives delineated by their apartments’ square window frames. Lacking proper permits, much of the filming was done on the sly resulting in an improvised verité energy reduced only slightly by the fact sound and voices had to be dubbed in later. A visceral boxing sequence compares favourably to Scorsese’s Raging Bull albeit on a much smaller budget, but it’s the final confrontation played out in a warehouse brimming with naked mannequins which hints at the young director’s future genius.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (USA 1976) (8): Writer/director John Cassavettes’ long slow lament on dreams deferred takes the form of a gangster thriller with conscientious strip club owner Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara) receiving an offer he can’t refuse. When a mountain of gambling debts get him in trouble with the Los Angeles mob Vitelli’s attempts to buy himself more time fall on hardened ears. Now, with his life and limbs in mortal danger, he reluctantly accepts a deadly assignment—assassinate a rival Chinese loanshark who’s been eating into the mob’s profits and all his gambling sins will be forgiven. Basically an honest man who has never pointed a gun at anyone since he served in the Korean War, Cosmo’s decision to save his own skin at the expense of another’s will have far-reaching and tragic consequences… Ever the student of human behaviour, especially those forces which seem to guide our hands, Cassavette’s focus is not so much on gangster violence (his mafiosi are reduced to menacing caricatures) but rather on the everyman’s struggle to wring some comfort from a world that is too often cold and remote. No matter what route he takes Vitelli just seems to dig his hole deeper when all he really wants is a small bit of contentment with the woman he loves. Filmed in garish shades of red and midnight blue with spotlights often forming halos around Cosmo as he moves in and out of darkness, there is a sad almost melancholic tone to the film. Harsh, clinically detached dealings with the mobsters (at one point they discuss murder over coffee and muffins) contrasts sadly with the tawdry fantasy shows at his strip club where beautiful sirens flash their breasts while a clownish emcee sings torch songs about love and longing. Highly kinetic and choppy with few scenes lasting more than a handful of seconds and characters kept at arm’s length, Cassavette’s pacing expertly reflects his antagonist’s mental state thus allowing us to see, if not actually feel, his unraveling.

Kill the Messenger (USA 2014) (8): In the mid-90’s journalist Gary Webb (amazing turn from Jeremy Renner) uncovered evidence that suggested America’s crack cocaine epidemic was partly orchestrated by the C.I.A. who had formed a partnership with various drug cartels. According to the series of articles he wrote for the San Jose Mercury News dealers got free access to the American market while the Intelligence Agency skimmed off the profits to fund anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua after Congress refused to support Reagan’s dirty little war. This revelation hit both the news stands and the internet like a bombshell until dark forces started pushing back and Webb found himself targeted both personally and professionally. An incendiary condemnation of twisted politics, collusion, and ultimately public apathy, director Michael Cuesta’s factual drama follows Webb from U.S. courtrooms to Central American prisons blending linear narrative with brief flashbacks to underscore his points. With Webb’s life threatening to unravel and his colleagues developing cold feet you realize this is not going to be a neat and tidy journalistic coup in the manner of All the President’s Men but rather a real life Goliath tale in which the giant proves to be bigger than David imagined.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (UK 1949) (9):  Imagine an Agatha Christie novel written by Oscar Wilde and you’ll get some idea of what to expect from this highly entertaining satire on the skewed morality of Britain’s landed gentry.  A young man, distant heir to a vast estate, barely ekes out a living doing menial jobs.  His wealthy relatives have effectively denied him his rightful place in the family due to the fact his father was a “commoner”.  Obsessed with revenge he plans to get even with all involved by claiming the title of Duke for himself....even if he has to murder everyone that stands between him and his goal.  As each one of his relatives dies mysteriously his station in life rises accordingly until he finally has the family estate within his grasp.  We know things don’t go exactly as planned however since, from the outset, we realize the entire film is being told in flashback on the eve of his execution.  To say more would be a disservice to anyone wishing to experience this brilliant film for the first time.  The script displays a savage wit that the actors are more than capable of delivering, Alec Guiness is especially good as he plays every member of the doomed D’Ascoyne clan, and the wonderfully ambivalent ending had us laughing out loud.  Great fun!

The King (USA 2005) (8): Upon leaving the navy, a mentally unbalanced Elvis (Gael García Bernal, formidable in English as well as Spanish) dons his civvies, packs up his rifle and heads for Texas to search for the father he’s never met. But when he finally meets his dad, now a born-again preacher with a family of his own, the man refuses to acknowledge him and thus the sin of the father comes home with a vengeance. With a pathological determination Elvis slowly insinuates himself into Pastor Dave’s home—first wooing his unsuspecting daughter whose blank face and childlike naïveté suggest mental aberrations run in the family, then engaging in a violent confrontation with his equally sheeplike son, and lastly winning over the pastor’s embittered wife. Sadly, by the time the truth of Elvis’ parentage becomes public knowledge his sick mind games have already gone too far leading to one final spectacular retribution. With a fine cast headlined by García and William Hurt, James Marsh’s unsettling film combines elements of horror, domestic tragedy, and tense psychodrama as we see one man’s rigid faith begin to crack when confronted with a dire and angry secret from his past. With intense close-ups and an editing style that goes from slow pans to jarring cuts, Marsh manages to create an aura of dark foreboding even in the sunniest moments while a soundtrack of AM radio tunes and low-key melodies provide an ironic counterbalance. True, his characters don’t always behave logically and a few twists didn’t sit right with me, but given the subject and manner of execution it is precisely these unexpected elements which give his work extra teeth. A tad heavy on the moralizing perhaps, but as a contemporary take on Good vs. Evil (who wears which label is up to you) Marsh manages to produce an effectively creepy urban fable.

The King of Comedy (USA 1982) (8): Martin Scorsese takes aim at America’s obsession with celebrity and scores a direct hit in this funny and very mean-spirited satire. Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro, perfectly infuriating) is a penniless nobody with grandiose dreams of becoming the nation’s greatest stand-up comedian. Dressing up his meagre apartment as an ersatz television studio he regularly entertains daydreams in which he is the toast of television and the envy of the one man he admires the most, talk show host Jerry Langford (an effectively low-keyed Jerry Lewis). In order to make his dreams of fame and fortune come true Rupert begins stalking Langford accompanied by his equally batshit companion Masha (an outrageously manic Sandra Bernhard) who is determined to become Jerry’s lover at any cost. Repeatedly frustrated in their attempts to gain access to Langford’s life the obsessive duo eventually resort to more extreme measures in order to get their idol’s attention… Although it starts out deceptively as just another wacky comedy you soon realize that Scorsese’s protagonists are actually a pair of narcissistic psychopaths with De Niro’s Pupkin a sitcom reincarnation of Travis Bickle. This revelation suddenly casts all those jokes and pratfalls in an uncomfortably sinister light as the true depth of Pupkin’s mania becomes apparent and, by association, the public’s unquenchable thirst for novelty and sensationalism (spurred on by a press eager to invent the next Big Thing). With its cruel cynicism and sense of the absurd, The King offers a few shivers to go with its laughs.

King of Devil’s Island (Norway 2010) (9): In the winter of 1915 teenaged delinquent Erling is sent to the Bastøy Reformatory, a rocky gulag situated in the Oslo fjord where troubled youth go to to be rehabilitated into “honourable, humble, and useful little Christian boys”. Once there however he quickly learns that the life of Bastøy’s inmates, all aged between eleven and eighteen, is a relentless grind of mental and physical abuse at the hands of a sadistic House Father and his lackeys while the resident governor turns a blind eye to the mistreatment, preferring instead to dole out tough love platitudes. But Erling is not about to have his spirit crushed like so many of his fellow detainees especially after a tragic turn of events highlights just how deeply rooted Bastøy’s moral corruption lies. Coming into direct conflict with the Governor and House Father, Erling is determined to see justice done no matter what the cost… Impeccably designed, Marius Holst’s engrossing drama was the most expensive Norwegian film ever produced at the time and that big budget is evident throughout from the bleak snow-blasted locales to the flawless reproductions of the original reformatory buildings. Reading from an insightful script that cleverly weaves elements from Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Melville’s Moby Dick, stars Benjamin Helstad and Stellan Skarsgård lead a sturdy cast, both young and old, in what begins as a “true story” but quickly morphs into a lofty parable on dignity, adversity, and the power of defiance. Even the film’s rather heavy-handed final scene falls well within its literary grasp when taken as the maritime metaphor it was clearly meant to be.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (USA 2007) (8): Ever since Time magazine did an article on teenaged enthusiasts back in 1982, competitive arcade gaming has been going strong in garages and recreation centres in America and beyond with record scores constantly being set and broken in everything from Pac-Man to Missile Command. But Donkey Kong is still recognized as the most challenging and difficult game around. It’s goal, to repeatedly rescue a damsel in distress from a barrel-rolling, flame-throwing, spring-tossing ape across dozens of increasingly difficult snakes-and-ladders type settings, still attracts gamers from around the world. One such man, Redmond Washington native Steve Wiebe (pronounced “wee-bee”) is determined to break the longstanding DK score set by gaming legend Billy Mitchell and documentarian Seth Gordon is their to follow the tense rivalry to its ultimate conclusion. Portraying Wiebe as a downtrodden yet loveable family man whose entire life has been one big disappointment after another and Mitchell, a successful entrepreneur, as a monumental douche with an ego to match (and a ridiculously outdated rockabilly hairdo) Gordon kicks objectivity to the curb and instead delivers a geeky David vs Goliath smackdown of epic proportions. The fact that both men are actually friends in real life and have protested Gordon’s skewing of the truth hardly matters as the director charges headfirst into the cutthroat culture of arcade competitions where Machiavellian schemings and zealous referees determine who gets a place in the record books and just about everyone seems to be exhibiting one psychiatric diagnosis or another. The talking heads are funny (this shit is serious, man!), the background history fascinating, and Gordon keeps the pace as brisk as the retro games themselves. Be sure to stay through the closing credits.

The King’s Speech (UK 2010) (7): Tom Hooper’s biopic detailing the relationship between King George VI and Australian ex-pat Lionel Logue, a self-proclaimed speech therapist who helped him overcome the crippling stutter which severely hampered his ability to deliver a speech or have a simple conversation. Having exhausted every doctor they could find, George’s wife Elizabeth convinced him to see Logue as a last resort and despite her husband’s grave misgiving and the therapist’s unorthodox methods—like having the future king roll on the floor or shout obscenities at the top of his lungs—a slow and painful progress takes place. Managing to get the reluctant monarch through his coronation ceremony with nary a stammer, Logue’s greatest challenge was yet to come when WWII broke out in Europe and George was forced to make the most important radio address in his life… Lavishly filmed with palatial interiors contrasting with Logue’s colourfully spartan apartments and featuring a first rate cast including Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Timothy Spall (as Winston Churchill), and Academy-award winner Colin Firth, the film is certainly lovely to look at though never quite as engaging as it promises to be despite its historical significance. But Hooper’s solid directing keeps things flowing and David Seidler’s incisive screenplay gives us a feel for all involved.

Kinky Boots (USA/UK 2005) (7): So this is the movie that inspired the popular Broadway musical. After his father dies Charlie reluctantly inherits the venerable family shoemaking business. But times are tough, tastes are changing, and the sprawling Northampton factory is in danger of going into receivership taking dozens of jobs with it. Enter “Lola” (a dazzling Chiwetel Ejiofor) a big glittery black drag queen that Charlie runs into during a trip to London and who eventually inspires Charlie to turn his company’s liabilities around by cornering a hitherto ignored market—sexy footwear for women, transvestites, and everyone in between. Before their grandiose plans can be set in motion however there are a few obstacles Charlie and Lola must overcome, namely Charlie’s grasping yuppie fiancée and the shoe factory’s staff of conservative yobs and dowdy hens. A camp marketing fairy tale (pun intended) based on an actual story—the factory really does exist—whose message of acceptance and understanding, though loud and clear, is cushioned by a few exuberant drag routines and Ejiofor’s standout performance as Lola, a man more at home in a sexy frock and lip gloss yet whose delightfully acerbic tongue hides more than a few emotional wounds. One of those rollicking feel good films that goes down easily and entertains without insulting cast or audience with crass stereotypes or PC manifestos. And that final catwalk is enough to bring the house down.

Kismet (USA 1955) (7): This wonderfully brainless confection, part Arabian Nights part Wizard of Oz, follows the adventures of a penniless poet as he finagles his way into the grand Caliph’s court thanks to a case of mistaken identity and several fortuitous coincidences. Unfortunately his new-found fame threatens to derail his daughter’s dream of marrying her one true love...the Caliph himself! With its gorgeous technicolour sets and elaborate costumes Kismet is visually arresting, think of ancient Persia as interpreted by Hanna-Barbara. Furthermore the jazzy song and dance numbers are pure camp; musical theatre just doesn’t get much gayer than this unless you throw Doris Day into the mix. A bright breezy marshmallow of a film filled with beautiful singing and romantic silliness; it may not challenge your intellect but it’ll put a smile on your face just the same. And Howard Keel’s broad shoulders and deep baritone are sexy as hell!

Kisses (Ireland 2008) (6): Pre-teen Dylan and his sort-of girlfriend Kylie lead a pretty grim life in their rundown housing project—he’s subjected to daily doses of physical and emotional abuse, she’s facing far worse. Hopping a ride on a canal barge they decide to leave it all behind and head for the bright lights of Dublin where Dylan hopes to be reunited with his long lost brother. Things go well at first for the two naifs as Kylie’s wad of stolen bills treats them both to some new threads and a bag of candy; but when the cash runs out and despair begins to take hold a different, more menacing city begins to emerge. It finally takes a few chance encounters with a philosophizing prostitute, a pair of sexual predators, and a Bob Dylan impersonator to convince the kids that if you’re going to have a shitty childhood anyway you may as well just stay at home. Yet another riff on a “babes in the woods” theme wherein a pair of unhappy children trade one miserable existence for another before realizing everyplace is just like home. The two talented leads do have an onscreen charisma which renders their (barely intelligible) dialogue both natural and believably raw while their behaviour is pretty much what you’d expect from a pair of clueless runaways. Writer/director Lance Daly shows some ingenuity especially in his decision to film early scenes of domestic misery in stark B&W then gradually tinting things to full colour as Dylan and Kylie get further away from home. But the mean streets of Dublin never get quite mean enough and our little protagonists’ meandering adventures don’t quite gel into anything more meaningful than a string of inoffensive “Kids gone Wild” scenarios. Finally, a drawn out closing sequence delivered in relentless slow-motion looks grand but says nothing new.

Kiss Me Deadly (USA 1955) (9): When a breathless blonde hitchhiker (Cloris Leachman’s screen debut!) wearing nothing but a trench coat flags down his jaguar, tough-talking private eye Mike Hammer (a sleazy sexy Ralph Meeker) knows his luck has taken a turn. But after he’s forced off the road and wakes up to discover she’s been murdered he realizes it’s a turn for the worse. It seems the young lady he picked up was involved in something extremely unsavoury and now he’s not only being stalked by a gang of neanderthals eager to know the dead woman’s cryptic last words, but the local police have their sights on him as well. Not willing to be a simple pawn however, Hammer decides to unravel the mystery himself—and the closer he gets to the truth the more difficult it becomes to stay alive. Director Robert Aldrich’s tale of hard-boiled alpha males, loose women, and the dark dealings which bring them together has been rendered “quaint” with time, but it still ranks as one of film noir’s quintessential classics. Penned by the great Micky Spillane whose pulp fiction dialogue crackles in every scene and infused with a vulgar, though still effective carnality, Aldrich creates a shadowy L.A. netherworld of crooked people and crooked morals whose serpentine twists and turns eventually lead to a gloriously ludicrous climax, part science fiction spectacle and part horror show. The fact that the Kefauver Commission declared it 1955’s number one menace to the morals of American youth only heightens the fun!

Kitty Foyle (USA 1940) (7): Even though it was extensively sanitized by the Hay’s Office, this screen adaptation of Christopher Morley’s racy novel, penned by the great Dalton Trumbo, is still entertaining and a curious example of Hollywood’s reaction to nascent feminism. Twenty-six year old Katherine aka “Kitty” Doyle (Oscar winner Ginger Rogers) is experiencing an emotional logjam. With just a few hours to go she must decide whether to run off to South America with the dashing Wyn Strafford (the dashing Dennis Morgan), scion to a wealthy Philadelphia banking family who has decided to forsake his fortune—not to mention his wife and child—in order to live in sin with her, or else marry struggling intern Dr. Mark Elsen (Clark Gable lookalike James Craig), a man with not much to offer besides love and honesty. As she hesitantly packs her bags Kitty looks back on how she got to this crossroads—from being the headstrong daughter of a staunch Irish Catholic father to becoming a fiercely independent woman to being torn between two very different men—and how Wyn, and later Mark, steered her life into different directions. But choosing between what you want and what you need is never easy, and as the clock ticks away KItty’s recollections of romance and heartbreak lead her to a final decision… With Trumbo’s eloquent script, Roger’s offhand naturalism, and director Sam Wood’s keen sense of time and space (a swirling snow globe divides the film into discreet chapters while providing an apt metaphor) what could have been a soapy chick flick turns into something quite compelling. Although the sex and a few other unmentionables were toned way down, or else deleted entirely, this is still a brave film for 1940 featuring a strong female lead and men who are somehow incomplete: while one lacks moral resolve, the other covers his insecurities with male bravado. Skirting issues of class distinction, sexual politics, and even a bit of racism (“I’m free, white, and twenty-one…”, states a newly unemployed Kitty in an effort to assuage Wyn’s concerns) Kitty Foyle bravely goes where very few previous films dared, and considering when it was made it still manages to hold its own.

Kung Fu Panda (USA 2008) (8): A big clumsy panda bear named Po (voice of Jack Black) offsets his rather humble life working in dad’s noodle shop with ridiculously grandiose martial arts daydreams in which he is an invincible hero. No one is more shocked than him however when he is chosen by the aging master of China’s most prestigious dojo—acting upon a questionable revelation—to become the mythical Dragon Warrior, defender of the realm. But taking a crash course in Kung Fu is the least of Po’s problems for the other students (Tigress, Monkey, Mantis, Crane, and Snake) resent his presence and the sensei assigned to teach him is determined to make his life as miserable as possible. But all that changes when psychopathic panther Tai Lung, the kingdom’s most feared arch villain, bursts out of prison with vengeance on his mind and all eyes turn hesitantly towards Po… Opening with an intricate homage to Japanese anime, Dreamworks' big gutsy cartoon epic exploits every “Ancient China” cliché Western audiences have come to expect with mystical landscapes of cherry blossoms and waterfalls rendered in bright crayon colours and a veritable menagerie of barnyard animals sporting coolie hats and chopsticks. The story is predictable and the underlying message of believing in oneself pretty much writes itself, but the laughs come easily and the action sequences are a marvel to behold. Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, and Jackie Chan are just a few of the surprise celebrity voices.

Kuroneko [aka “Black Cat”] (Japan 1968) (8): In a medieval Japan wracked by wars and lawlessness, a woman and her daughter-in-law are beaten, raped, and left to die in their burning hut by a gang of mercenary samurai. Some time later a pair of mysterious women begin appearing outside the fortress of the local warlord; apparitions which seem to coincide with a series of grisly murders involving swordsmen having their throats torn out. Convinced that his castle is besieged by malevolent ghosts the general assigns his bravest warrior, Gintoki, the task of eradicating the demons. But to his horror Gintoki discovers he has far more in common with the angry spirits than he imagined leading not only to a supernatural battle of wills, but of loyalties as well. A superb ghost story with eerie effects and theatrical flourishes which at times resembled a traditional Japanese puppet play. Director Kaneto Shindô sets his spooky tale of love and revenge amidst acres of bamboo forest awash in misty moonlight while his interior shots border on the abstract with deep shadows bordering empty spaces. The ghosts themselves, pale and ethereal, are a potent mix of rage and lonely despair—-the latter giving rise to some wholly unexpected eroticism. A beautifully rendered Japanese campfire story framed with the eye of an artist.

La Strada (Italy 1954) (7): A destitute old woman unable to feed her large brood is forced to sell her eldest child to a wandering performer, “The Great Zampano” an ill-tempered strongman who specializes in breaking chains across his chest. Naive and “not quite right in the head”, the childlike Gelsomina is at first eager to take up the gypsy lifestyle but soon realizes that life on the road is not quite the great adventure she had imagined it to be, especially at the hands of the drunken and often violent Zampono. But when the mismatched pair join up with a traveling circus Gelsomina finds herself falling for the resident Fool, an impulsive rogue who teaches her to laugh at life’s absurdities thus setting the stage for both heartbreak and tragedy. Life is indeed a circus in what many critics consider to be Fellini’s greatest film alongside La Dolce Vita. As young naif and world-weary drifter ramble across a post WWII landscape of empty fields and dusty grey villages their journey becomes an allegory for human existence; a raucous wedding celebration here, a sombre religious pageant there (where Gelsomina’s attention wavers between a parade of crucifixes and a butchered pig hanging in a store window), and everywhere subtle reminders of our own mortality. Fellini achieves a marvelous sense of balance and texture, suspending the wide-eyed innocence of Gelsomina (appropriately bedecked in clownish makeup) between Zampono’s self-loathing rage and the Fool’s flighty recklessness. There is a marvelous feeling of growth to her character as every person she encounters on the road leaves their mark, and we see in her sad eyes the dawning awareness of a deeper truth. But it is in the film’s bittersweet ending that Fellini weaves a small bit of theatrical magic, forcing us to place our sympathies where we least expected while at the same time giving us cause to view his film from an entirely different angle.

The Lady Eve (USA 1941) (9): Professional card shark “Colonel” Harrington and his daughter Jean (Barbara Stanwyck, outstanding!) make a living out of fleecing unsuspecting millionaires on luxury cruise holidays. This time they have their eyes set on the bumbling and wholly naive Charles Pike (an appropriately ovine Henry Fonda) heir to the Pike Pale Ale fortune who is sailing back to America after spending a year in the Amazon rainforest. But just as they prepare to relieve him of several thousand dollars at the card table Jean’s flirtatious act backfires when she finds herself actually falling in love with the unsuspecting sap and decides to protect him from her father’s cheating ways. Unfortunately, before Jean can come clean with Charles he finds out about the pair of scam artists and unceremoniously dumps her. Not one to take humiliation lightly, Jean —now masquerading as the Lady Eve, niece of a minor British noble—ups the stakes and plots a very mean-spirited revenge on Pike and his family. Fate, however, has slightly different plans for both parties… Cleverly placed images of snakes, Paradise, and that notorious apple add a little extra zest to Preston Sturges’ wildly comic battle of the sexes which sees poor Adam repeatedly falling (often literally) for Eve’s seductive charms. With action ranging from slapstick to oh-so-subtle eroticism and a script bubbling over with snappy comebacks and double entendres this is a deceptively simple comedy for grown-ups which mocks romance even as it revels in it. Funny stuff!

The Lady from Shanghai (USA 1947) (5): Some believe the visual assaults and bloated dramatics of an Orson Welles production marked him as a cinematic genius. Personally I find his style so exaggerated that his films practically become a parody of themselves. Case in point is this film noir flop in which globe-trotting Irish vagabond Michael O’Hara (Welles himself feigning a vaguely Celtic lilt) is hired aboard the yacht of wealthy criminal lawyer Arthur Bannister after he rescues the man’s wife from an attempted mugging and rape. But O’Hara only has eyes for Mrs. Bannister (Rita Hayworth), a slutty bleached blonde whose ham-fisted attempts at seduction have had his libido flying at full mast ever since he came to her aid. No one is on the level in the Bannister household however and as passions and jealousies smoulder Michael finds himself caught in a baffling web of double-crosses which sees him ultimately framed for murder. Apparently Welles’ insatiable ego had him rewriting the script on a daily basis while studio cuts lopped off an entire hour of the movie’s 155-minute running time—the net result is a chopped up study in arty indulgence whose serpentine plot is rendered even more unfathomable than it already was. Not that plot matters much given the film’s overbearing excesses in every other department—oblique shadows loom menacingly, everyone delivers their lines with either a snarl or a gasp, and the overuse of perspiring close-ups quickly grows tedious whether it’s Hayworth’s self-conscious cheesecakes or Glenn Anders (playing Bannister’s sleazy law partner) leering into the lens in a risible attempt to look threatening. A courtroom showdown goes beyond ludicrous when the defense attorney takes the stand and beings questioning himself, and a bullet-riddled showdown at an amusement park—all funhouse mirrors and trapdoor slides—strives to mimic the nightmare aesthetic of German expressionism but winds up looking like a macabre salute to Walt Disney instead. Even a clandestine rendezvous at a dimly lit aquarium, clearly meant to ooze with dramatic tension, comes across as just one more stagey gimmick when Welles decides to magnify the fish behind the glass to leviathan proportions turning the entire scene into an outtake from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Neither suspenseful nor engaging, Lady from Shanghai is just one more indication that with Citizen Kane Orson Welles was perhaps Hollywood’s greatest One Hit Wonder. Two Hit Wonder if you include 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons.

Lady Vengeance (AKA Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) (Korea 2005) (7): In this final chapter of Park Chan-Wook’s loose trilogy revenge is a dish best served piping hot, buffet-style. After spending 13 years in prison for a horrendous crime she didn’t commit, Lee Geum-Ja (nicknamed “Kind Hearted” by her fellow prisoners in recognition of the many twisted little favours she afforded them, like killing the resident lesbian cannibal) wastes no time setting in motion an elaborate plan aimed at delivering a shrill and macabre form of justice to the man who set her up. At the same time, despite her increasingly obsessive vendetta, she desperately tries to reconnect with the infant she was forced to give up, now a young girl living with her adoptive parents in Australia. With it’s puzzling jumble of frantic flashbacks and visually captivating, though dramatically inconsequential, arty excesses Lady Vengeance is certainly a lot of fun to watch. The unnecessarily convoluted plot is aided in part by an energetic cast, some flashy camerawork and a grandiose score of classical riffs which undermine some of it’s sillier elements. Furthermore, the film’s crowning scene in which a cornered pedophile’s fate is decided by a small mob of outraged parents is a master stroke of bone-dry humour and wry social commentary. Unfortunately Park seems to fall in love with his vision towards the end and drags the proceedings a few minutes past the point where the final credits should have been rolling. Lack of narrative cohesion and sloppy editing notwithstanding this is still an engaging, if decidedly lightweight, entry in the Revenge genre.

L’affaire Dumont (Canada 2012) (7): Wrongfully convicted of sexual assault a delivery man is sentenced to prison despite conflicting evidence, an ethically suspect judge and prosecutor, and his accuser’s own admission of doubt. With his ex-wife alienating him from his children and the authorities refusing to believe his claims of innocence, Michel Dumont’s only hope lies in the dogged determination of Solange, his new bride, who is convinced her husband did nothing wrong. Using actual court transcripts for its trial scenes Daniel Grou’s provocative film, based on a true story, plays out like a comedy of deadly serious errors. Citing official apathy and grave judicial oversights which began in a small Montreal courtroom but had repercussions all the way to the Minister of Justice’s office, Grou calls into question a legal bureaucracy which not only sent an innocent man to jail for three years but continued to drag its feet even after his name was cleared. Although marred somewhat by meandering timelines and a few baffling edits, Grou’s excellent cast manage to make the most of Danielle Dansereau’s succinct script—delivering an angry polemic whose headlines are only a few years old.

La Grande Bouffe (France 1973) (4): Four upper class gentlemen—a judge, a producer, an airline pilot, and a pampered scion—meet at a rundown chateau to fulfill a suicide pact by literally eating themselves to death. To spice up the weekend they also invite a corpulent schoolmistress and trio of stick-thin prostitutes over so they can screw in between bouts of gourmet gorging and explosive flatulence. As the days progress and the larder diminishes this orgy of food and sex becomes ever more depraved giving rise to a series of infamous scenes: the teacher rides the producer while he lets out a barrage of wet farts; a burst toilet drenches the pilot in a shower of fresh shit; and a fat chick kneads a ball of dough with her butt cheeks. Determined to die by means of sheer overindulgence the men nevertheless find time to clear their mouths long enough for some middle class skewering and rancid navel-gazing… Clearly meant as a send-up of bourgeois excesses à la Buñuel by way of Pasolini, director Marco Ferreri’s controversial opus lacks the wit and finesse of the former and the latter’s keen sense of moral outrage. What we’re left with then is a string of coarse scatological vulgarities which miss their satirical mark and instead deliver an unfocused assault with the audience becoming little more than collateral damage. Sadly, an A-list cast of European stars including Marcello Mastroianni, Michel Piccoli, Phillipe Noiret, and Ugo Tognazzi (whose characters share their first names) all deliver what could very well have been their career lows. Disappointing.

Lake of Fire (USA 2006) (9): Tony Kaye’s 2½ hour documentary on the abortion debate is as thorough and even-handed an examination of this divisive topic as you’re likely to find. Using crisp B&W cinematography and a dynamic editing style that affords equal time to his vast assembly of passionate talking heads, he refuses to join in the fray. Setting his camera up as passive observer instead, he remains silent while both sides of the issue wave their individual flags. Personally I found it difficult not to pass judgement on some of the more hostile elements of the “anti” side; their twisted, often contradictory rhetoric punctuated by vehement proselytizing as they compare abortion providers to Satan and Hitler. Many are seen to condone violence, intimidation and ever murder to get their pro-life message across while at the same time patently refusing to acknowledge the roles of contraception, education and social reform in reducing the incidence of unplanned pregnancy. As one professor of bioethics observes, abortion monomania is merely the thin edge of the wedge for conservative Christian reformers whose ultimate goal is to replace the Constitution with biblical law by whatever means necessary. Even Norma McCorvey, the original Jane Roe in Roe vs. Wade, is shown taking up the “Right to Life” cause after a life-altering experience. But it’s when the film focuses on the middle ground that we hear the most compelling arguments from both sides. As philosophers, lawmakers, and ministers struggle to define what constitutes human life and where the reproductive rights of women should begin and end, we follow one woman as she decides to terminate an unwanted pregnancy; a powerful and sobering experience that puts a human face to what is often reduced to an abstract argument. Be forewarned though, Kaye does not shy away from using graphic imagery to jolt the viewer whether it’s a dismembered fetus lying in a pan of blood or the corpse of a doctor gunned down in a parking lot. Far from being macabre exploitation, these scenes are designed to keep you involved in the debate and provide an unsettling counterpoint to the various onscreen arguments. No matter what your personal stand on abortion may be, Lake of Fire will challenge you both viscerally and intellectually. Exactly what a documentary is supposed to do.

Land of the Dead (USA 1997) (5): Romero's zombies are restless yet again in this sequel of a sequel which delivers pretty much what we've come to expect; conflicted humans, hungry ghouls, and a whole lot of dripping entrails. This time around however the living dead are the decided winners, gaining not only the entire Earth ("let's go to Canada!" says one of mankind's last survivors) but a faint glimmer of intelligence behind those rotting eyes. Could this be the beginning of a Zombie Confederation? Sociopolitical allegory aside (yes, some insist Romero's series is a wry commentary on the Reagan years) this latter addition to the genre shows just how tired the subject has become...when shuffling, drooling, man-eating corpses begin to elicit feelings of sympathy and a sense of preciousness it's time to put that final bullet to the brain. Good effects though.

Land of the Lost (USA 2009) (6): When Prof. Rick Marshall infuriates the halls of academia by claiming to have designed a machine which allows people to travel sideways in time he quickly finds himself demoted to elementary school science teacher. Bitter, penniless and developing an unhealthy relationship with fast food, his life seems to be headed for total obscurity until Anna, a former student, gives him the courage to complete his “tachyon amplifier” and take it out for a field test. Looking like a cross between a jet pack and a decorative boom box (it has the complete soundtrack to A Chorus Line on its hard drive) the device ends up working a little too well, sending Rick and Anna to an alternate universe along with a clueless redneck who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The trio find themselves on a strange desert planet, a kind of inter-dimensional crossroads where smart-ass dinosaurs and fuzzy apemen cavort amongst an odd array of terrestrial artifacts; rusted cars, abandoned motels, and a Golden Gate Bridge partially submerged in sand dunes. But when they stumble upon an army of demented lizard people bent on conquering the galaxy they quickly find themselves pawns in a high-stakes power struggle. Normally I avoid anything that headlines Will Ferrell, but I must admit this foolish little comedy far surpassed my expectations, modest as they were. The visual gags are pretty good, the dialogue surprisingly witty, and the cheesy special effects compliment the rather juvenile humour perfectly; whether its a tacky neoprene lizard suit or the planet itself which seems composed entirely of rejected sets from Jurassic Park and Star Wars. A send-up of the “Today” show, complete with Matt Lauer cameo, was especially well done. Perhaps I’m just being uncharacteristically lenient, but sometimes “stupid” can be a good thing.

La Notte (Italy 1961) (6): Writer/director Michelangelo Antonioni examines the final twenty-four hours of a disintegrating middle-class marriage and wrings it for all the angst he can get. Novelist Giovanni Pontanno (Marcello Mastroianni) and his socialite wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) spend the morning at a hospital visiting a terminally ill friend whose sense of regret and futility proves to be rather prophetic as their day wears on. She later wanders around the old neighbourhood where nothing but idle violence, crumbling walls, and a lost child await her; he makes a weak attempt at a sexual liaison before going home to wait for her in the dark. Deciding to attend a lavishly bourgeois soiree thrown by a millionaire acquaintance Giovanni and Lidia are treated to a long alienating night of the soul instead as they play psychological games with each other while the other partygoers, a colourless collection of intellectual boors, put down the champagne long enough to decry everything from money to intimacy—the drunken bacchanal which follows faintly reminiscent of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita released a year earlier. Giovanni is clueless as to what is happening, Lidia is too numb to do much more than stare morosely into his eyes, and neither one is able to connect emotionally with anyone. And all the while the evening’s empty entertainments provide a sense of irony and detachment. Existentialist crises in these arthouse films usually engender a great deal of navel-gazing and despite its grandiloquence and sociopolitical allusions (a sense of anomie pervades every frame) this is pretty much all Antonioni delivers. Mastroianni and Moreau are perfectly paired however, their downbeat chemistry dragging the story forward while some sobering images underscore the subject matter: a femme fatale bedecked in her finest stands forlorn in the rain, guests cavort fully clothed in a swimming pool, and the Pontanos try to have an intimate discussion in the middle of a gargantuan traffic jam. Strictly old school avant-garde fare.

La Promesse (Belgium 1996) (8): Teenaged Igor and his father run a flophouse for illegal migrants, fleecing them for inflated rent and using them as cheap labour for their home renovation business in exchange for forged citizenship papers. Igor also supplements his income by ripping off the occasional pensioner at the garage where he works as an apprentice mechanic. And then one of his father’s workers dies while on the job and Igor feels the first prickling of a conscience when dad tries to cover the whole incident up and railroad the deceased’s unsuspecting wife and infant son out of town before the authorities come snooping around. Having made a promise to the dying man that he would look after his family, Igor now finds himself torn between loyalty to his father and upholding his promise—and with time running out his decision must come sooner than later. Another gritty slice-of-life drama from the Dardenne brothers featuring strong performances and filmed in the naturalistic style that has become their trademark. Levelling the playing field somewhat, the Dardennes are not so quick to point fingers as they are to paint a simple picture of flawed humans trying to deal with what life has given them. The father may be an ogre but he is not without some small compassion; the migrants may be desperate but they are not above ratting each other out or gambling away what little means they have; and all attempts by the authorities to stem the flow of human trafficking are cosmetic at best including a staged takedown of four hapless Romanians which the local mayor uses as a campaign photo-op. Stark and uncompromising right up to its unhappily ambivalent final frame, La Promesse is free of the usual knee-jerk sermonizing and emotional manipulation one would expect (it doesn’t even have a musical score), a fact which makes its subject matter all the more unsettling.

Largo Viaje (Chile 1967) (5): Apparently there is a belief in some Latin American countries that stillborn infants fly to heaven and become instant angels. To celebrate this occasion their little bodies are dressed up with paper wings and a solemn wake takes place which often turns into a drunken revelry. When his baby brother is born dead a young child is confused by the odd mixture of joy and grief which follows; as his mother suffers in silence, friends and neighbours become increasingly intoxicated leading to much vulgar groping and half-hearted brawls. The next day the little boy is horrified to discover his father has taken the tiny casket across town to the churchyard leaving the ornamental wings behind; how is his brother going to fly to heaven without them? Setting out on his own to try and find his dad, the child comes face to face with some of the modern world’s harsher realities. From crooked preachers and drunken delinquents to cynical prostitutes and (irony of ironies) raucous trade unionists the tiny tyke gets into one scrape after another while desperately trying to hold on to a pair of paper wings that always seem to escape his grasp. Some of the imagery in Kaulen’s little morality play is quite powerful, whether it’s a group of privileged gentry taking sport in shooting pigeons or a grief-stricken father carrying his baby’s coffin onto a city bus. Unfortunately the film is all but destroyed by horrific acting (badly dubbed in Spanish), unintelligible subtitles and an acute lack of effective directing. His religious lessons are less than subtle as he bombards us with heavy-handed symbolism including endless flocks of dirty pigeons and the elusive papery pinions. The result is a poorly edited undisciplined mess filled with subplots going nowhere, self-conscious performances, and a vague feeling of incompleteness. An appropriately sober finale did little to dispel my disappointment.

Lars and the Real Girl (USA 2007) (4): Lars is a painfully withdrawn loner living in his brother and sister-in-law’s garage. Despite his gentle manner you get the impression he suffers from some severe emotional damage: he has no friends, his conversations consist of one or two sentences, and a simple touch sends him racing for cover. People are forever trying to get him to come out of his shell; his sister-in-law even tackles him in the driveway just to deliver a simple dinner invitation. All this changes one winter day when he begins dating “Bianca”, a life-sized sex doll he ordered on the internet. Not only does he invent an elaborate history for it (Swedish-Brazilian descent, raised by nuns, strictly religious) but he begins taking it to parties where the two of them engage in loving one-way conversations. At first shocked by his aberrant behaviour, his brother listens to the the advice of the compassionate town therapist (a saintly Patricia Clarkson) and accepts Bianca as part of the family while the good townsfolk adopt her as one of their own. But then the Spring thaw comes and Lars begins to discover real girls... Despite some great performances this “inflatable-chick” flick is a manipulative one-joke weeper that takes a cute idea and runs it into the ground; the ending is almost too embarrassing to watch. All those quirky characters and homespun wisdom are just so much fluff designed to make the movie look less ridiculous than it really is. Perhaps Gillespie was aiming for the same idiosyncratic charm as Fargo, but all he delivers is a nauseatingly saccharine musing on the curative power of insanity. Uggh!

The Last Detail (USA 1973) (7): A pair of sailors, “Badass” Buddusky (an unhinged Jack Nicholson) and “Mule” Mulhall, are assigned the task of accompanying disgraced seaman Meadows (grinning naif Randy Quaid) from Virginia to a naval prison in New Hampshire where he’s to serve eight years for attempting to steal a few bucks from a charity box. En route they take pity on the big lumbering kid and decide to show him a few final good times before he’s locked up. What follows is a dispirited road movie with three drunken warriors bonding over hookers, beer, and outbursts of petty violence. Director Hal Ashby’s film never strays far from the sad and sordid with America a seemingly endless expanse of smoky bars and garbage-choked alleys where every female character, from religious fanatic to pouting prostitute, is nothing more than a warped image of Mother. Well made nonetheless despite its outdated sensibilities.

Last Exit to Brooklyn (USA 1989) (3): Dante would have felt right at home in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighbourhood, a violent hellhole of broken down tenements and perpetual twilight populated by an assortment of misfit dregs. In his first English language foray director Uli Edel adapts Hubert Selby Jr’s controversial 1968 novel, set in Red Hook circa 1952, and presents it as a string of interconnected tales meant to form a collage of suffering, rage, and fizzled dreams. There’s macho shop steward Harry Black whose latent homosexuality leads him into darker temptations; prostitute Tralala (a bottle blonde Jennifer Jason Leigh all hips and tits) so accustomed to daily abuse that she self-destructs when a trick offers her real affection; screaming sissy boy Georgie (Alexis Arquette, RIP) whose uncontrollable lust for bad boy Vinnie is only partially abated by the heroin he consumes; and browbeaten overweight Donna (Ricki Lake?!) who finds herself in a family way much to her loudmouthed father’s dismay. Against a backdrop of labour unrest, no doubt meant to highlight the gulf between the haves and have-nots, Edel exploits every tawdry cliché and stereotype he can muster from histrionic drag queens to knuckle-dragging delinquents who assert their rites of manhood through vicious assaults and petty crime. But after subjecting us to 100 minutes of physical and emotional carnage his film fails to provide any satisfying payoff, either for better or for worse. There’s a static sense of tragedy which goes nowhere and what few strands of hope do exist are swiftly undermined by yet more muck and outrage—scenes of a newborn’s baptism are intercut with a violent gang rape on an unconscious woman leaving us with one more dreary contrast to ponder. At least Dante received a warning written on the gates of Hell, “All Hope Abandon, Ye Who Enter Here”…a sentiment that should be scrawled all over Last Exit’s DVD case. A thoroughly ugly and repulsive film made no more palatable by composer Mark Knopfler’s weepy violins.

Last House on the Left (USA 1972) (4): A pair of escaped convicts and their accomplices brutalize two young women but get more than they bargained for when one of the girls' parents decide to even the score. Although it stirred up considerable controversy upon its initial release Wes Craven's misogynistic slash-fest proved to be the template for all those "dead teenager" films that followed. With its shoestring budget, hammy performances and odd mixture of gore and lowbrow humour it's about as polished as an 8mm porn flick but it's still a bit of cinematic history and that alone makes it worth seeing if you can stomach the cruelty and surprisingly realistic blood. Personally, I was more shocked by the uber-tacky 70s sets; floral drapes, wood paneling and day-glo flowers.....bleccch!

The Last of Sheila (USA 1973) (7): Entertaining but overly elaborate whodunnit featuring a star cast of 70's A-listers. Six movie industry types are invited aboard the private yacht of a reclusive millionaire for a week long Mediterranean cruise. They quickly discover this is not going to be a simple pleasure jaunt however, for their callous host has planned seven days worth of devious fun and games for his guests involving riddles and scavenger hunts meant to expose a few of their more unsavoury secrets. At first amused, the six unwary passengers soon realize that their host is deadly serious especially when it becomes apparent there is a coldblooded murderer on board. But what is the connection? Could it have something to do with a party they all attended years ago in which the tycoon suffered a tragic loss? Marred by an increasingly convoluted plot and outrageous twists you get the impression that the film's writers were a wee bit too clever for their own good. Still, the sunny Cote d'Azur locations are pleasant on the eye and it's great fun watching the likes of Dyan Cannon, James Mason and Raquel Welch dash up and down cobblestoned alleyways or wander through a candlelit medieval monastery dressed as monks. The esoteric clues don't add up to much unless you have an exceptionally vivid imagination, but the movie's unexpectedly sardonic resolution does cast a well aimed barb directly into the heart of Hollywood culture.

Last Life in the Universe (Thailand 2003) (9):  Despite its decidedly unhappy protagonists there is an unwavering sense of optimism in Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s delightful film that offers a ray of sunlight even in the darkest moments.  It concerns Kenji, a lonely, somewhat neurotic Japanese ex-pat living in Bangkok who spends his spare time meticulously arranging his apartment (even his shoes are filed according to day) and making half-hearted attempts at suicide.  One day, while contemplating jumping off a bridge, he witnesses a car accident in which a young girl is killed.  Thus begins his tentative relationship with Noi, the girl’s older sister and his opposite in almost every respect....whereas his life is obsessively ordered and devoid of any spontaneity, hers is bordering on chaos....yet both characters are desperately alone, drifting through their lives without direction.  But even as they hesitantly gravitate towards one another elements from their past threaten to destroy what little happiness they’ve gained.  Ratanaruang uses his character’s contrasting personalities to full effect presenting us with a quirky tale of two lost souls in search of balance.  He injects his film with a wonderfully dry humour and just a touch of magic thanks in large part to Chris Doyle’s imaginative camerawork and some amazing performances from the two leads.  The gracefully downplayed finale was pure poetry.

The Last Seduction (USA 1994) (5): Despite male protestations to the contrary, Linda Fiorentino winds up having the biggest dick of all in this vulgar stab at neo-noir which asks us to laud its ridiculous twists as being far more clever than they actually are. She plays cunning ice princess Bridget Gregory who decides to flee New York City with a suitcase full of money belonging to her husband, a white collar dealer specializing in prescription meds. Now laying low in an upstate hick town under an assumed name, the tough-talking Bridget begins a physical affair with restless local Mike Swale while at the same time filing for an understandably problematic divorce. But her husband owes the mob big time and his progressively desperate attempts to regain his loot prompts Bridget to hatch a fiendishly intricate plot to not only keep the cash for herself but silence him for good—but first she’ll need help from an unsuspecting Mike… Sultry voice notwithstanding, Fiorentino’s character lacks both the class and the sexual triggers of a true femme fatale, her cold countenance and universal contempt delivering instead a sadistic, foul-mouthed sociopath (for which she won a few festival awards). Her mechanical couplings with Mike, obviously meant to titillate cable audiences, are tepid at best and his growing obsession for her, while necessary for the plot, is rendered more amour stupide than amour fou. Furthermore, although director John Dahl’s attempt to rewrite film noir conventions does contain some snappy lines and the occasional curveball, you soon get the feeling that you’ve already seen bits of this movie played out in other, more superior films (Body Heat and The Postman Always Rings Twice immediately come to mind). And finally, after leading his audience through two hours of pathological scheming and trashy sex (and that corny music!) his facile ending arrives like a disappointing punchline to an especially insulting joke.

The Last Supper [La última cena] (Cuba 1976) (8): Celebrated Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea teaches Buñuel a thing or two in this satirical recounting of an actual 18th century slave revolt. During the Catholic Holy Week leading to Easter the wealthy owner of a sugar plantation decides to teach his slaves about the blessings of Christianity by reenacting the Last Supper much to the dismay of his sadistic overseer who feels they could be put to better use chopping sugar cane. Casting himself as Christ and twelve randomly selected slaves as his disciples, the Count prepares a lavish banquet where he regales the tired and battered men with pious homilies about the virtue of suffering, the importance of loving one’s master, and the role of blind obedience in God’s Great Plan. But as the wine continues to flow the “disciples”, already confused by this strange white religion (Being beaten is a blessing!? Christ’s apostles ate him!?) counter with a few sardonic parables of their own. The next day however, after their master reneges on a promised day of rest, the rebellious slaves learn just how far Christian Charity will actually take them… Combining magical realism with passages of bloody brutality all set to a stirring Afro-Cuban beat, Alea’s simple tale goes beyond mere criticism of slavery and colonialism and attacks Catholic complicity (the local priest is little more than an impotent mouthpiece) and the inane doctrines of the religion itself which encourage meek servitude and forbearance with promises of full equality after death. The editing may be a bit clunky and the soundtrack tends to wane and swell at odd times, but Alea’s largely amateur cast is triumphant and that candlelit banquet is surely one of world cinema’s more iconic scenes.

Last Tango in Paris (France 1972) (5): Bernardo Bertolucci’s problematic film made international headlines upon its release thanks to some graphic sex and a twisted plot. It all seems pretty quaint 40 years later but this annoyingly artsy story of two disillusioned strangers finding solace in fucking each other’s brains out still carries faint remnants of an emotional punch. Middle-aged Paul is an embittered widower still angry over his wife’s sudden suicide; twenty-something Jeanne is trying to find a bit of quiet time from her boyfriend, a narcissistic director obsessed with filming her every move. When the two have a chance encounter in an empty Parisian apartment sparks fly and belt buckles are undone leading to an ongoing sexual liaison intentionally devoid of any personal attachments or other “bullshit” from the outside world; they don’t even know each other’s names. But Paul’s demons eventually prove too much for the naïve Jeanne to handle resulting in some hurtful games and one final tragic encounter. A pretentious and rambling masturbatory fantasy with dreary overtones of mortality and contemporary angst. In the role of Paul, Marlon Brando is thoroughly convincing as he scowls and ruminates (a dead rat proves to be a potent vehicle), Maria Schneider’s Jeanne however seems little more than a shallow prop constantly upstaged by her own breasts. As for the sex...you’ll never look at a stick of butter the same way again.

Last Train Home (Canada 2009) (7): According to filmmaker Lixin Fan there are approximately 130 million migrant workers in China who are forced to travel thousands of kilometres to find low-paying factory jobs while leaving their children to be raised by the grandparents. Once such couple, Zhang and his wife Suqin, eke out a living sewing garments for the international market while their teenaged daughter Qin and younger son Yang live with grandma two thousand kilometres away. Once a year, on Chinese New Year, Zhang and Suqin are granted sufficient time off to make the arduous journey home to see their kids, joining millions of other workers on overcrowded trains, buses, and ferries. Once reunited however they are greeted by children who are essentially strangers to them and this is where Fan’s movie, not so much a documentary as it is a sad slice of reality filmmaking, finds its true heart. Zhang and Suqin want nothing more than to have their children study hard in order to gain an economic advantage but son Yang is content with being “fifth place” in his class standings and daughter Qin is feeling the first stirrings of rebellion as she considers dropping out of school and heading for the city where she’s convinced the solution to her unhappiness lies just beyond the next menial job. Their grandmother in the meantime reminisces about the demise of her own youthful dreams when government decree basically exiled her to the countryside where the once thriving villages are now home to “the very old and very young”. Tensions flare, heated words lead first to violent confrontations then disheartened introspection, and over the course of three consecutive New Year’s visits we see the family dynamic irrevocably shift one small decision at a time. Filmed with patience and an unerring attention for the smallest of details—a half-formed tear glistens in the corner of granny’s eye, a family shrine reflects the light of hastily lit votive candles—Fan nevertheless manages to capture the bigger realities, both economic and social, buffeting his chosen subjects as fellow migrants (many of whom stood in line for days in order to purchase a coveted ticket home) talk about finances, family pressures, and the wasteful ways of Westerners. But despite some gruelling factory footage nowhere is the hardship of these workers more apparent than in the many rail sequences where we witness sweating men and women packed into rickety trains like sardines, lost in thought as they lumber obliviously past scenes of majestic mountains and smog-choked cities.

The Last Wave (Australia 1977) (6): When five Aborigines are accused of murdering one of their own the task of defending them falls to David Burton (Richard Chamberlain), a corporate tax lawyer moonlighting at Legal Aid. His attempts to connect with the strangely taciturn men leads Burton to believe that there is more to the story than the coroner’s report would suggest. When one of the accused finally opens up and introduces Burton to “Charlie”, an old shaman, the case takes on supernatural overtones for it seems the murdered man possessed some forbidden knowledge regarding mankind’s future and his death was actually the result of sorcery. Already plagued by portentous nightmares Burton is horrified to discover that he may be at the epicentre of an impending disaster foretold in ancient Aboriginal folklore; a disaster that not only threatens him but the entire planet. And as the skies above Australia darken with wind, hail, and biblical downpours his bad dreams begin to come true… Director Peter Weir follows his critically acclaimed Picnic at Hanging Rock with this voodoo thriller that starts out on a promising note with enough creepy tension to keep you interested but ends with so much Hollywood mumbo-jumbo leading to a final apocalypse that drips across the screen like a cataclysm in a teapot. Chamberlain’s performance is tepid at best while the Aboriginal stock characters stare into the distance, their cultural beliefs reduced to a few mumbled passages about magical rocks and spiritual planes. Only actor/writer David Gulpilil’s animated performance as one of the accused men exhibits the kind of intensity one would expect from a story with such far-reaching aspirations. An interesting premise but ultimately a soggy disappointment.

Late Autumn (Japan 1960) (10): Six years after her father's death 24-year old Ayako is still happily unmarried and living a contented life with her widowed mother Akiko; a fact her late dad's three best friends can't understand. As Ayako continues to block all their attempts to pair her off with suitable bachelors the three men decide upon a different plan of action. Believing Ayako's resistance stems from an unwillingness to abandon her mother, they set their sights on getting Akiko hitched first in the hope that once mom is taken care of daughter will be more willing to begin her own life. A series of well-meaning blunders and misunderstanding ensue which threaten to not only derail the men's elaborate plans but drive a wedge between Ayako and Akiko as well. In this gentle, bittersweet comedy Ozu once again demonstrates his mastery of the subtle cue where a sad smile or offhand comment contains tremendous import. His examination of the widening generation gap in post-war Japan is flawless and cleverly wrought; traditional kimonos compete with western skirts, former army encampments are now tourist destinations and the older generation seems oblivious to the seismic shift in social mores as a small overnight earthquake goes largely unnoticed. But nowhere is this felt more than in the evolving relationship between the modern-minded Ayako and her more traditional mother. Although Ozu's signature devices for conveying the implacability of life...trains, clocks and drifting smoke...are surprisingly muted here he nevertheless provides some beautifully poetic images with a succession of asymmetrical industrial spaces contrasting easily with wide open fields and softly glowing lamps; and everywhere we see nameless faces either rushing madly, or calmly strolling, from one open door to another. This is what cinematic art is all about.

Laura (USA 1944) (8):  With its somewhat facile plot and curt dialogue this dark and moody tale of a homicide detective who begins to fall in love with the portrait of a murdered woman would be unable to stand up to close scrutiny.  Thankfully it doesn’t have to.  “Laura” is a magnificently overdone noir classic filmed in rich shades of B&W and featuring all the conventions of that genre which we’ve come to know and love including a hauntingly evocative musical score.  Part policier and part shadowy romance, with chills, shocks, and just enough red herrings to keep you busy.  Tierney and Andrews are perfectly paired as they slowly seduce each other....never has a simple peck on the mouth held such erotic potential......and the supporting cast is wonderful.  They really don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

The Lavender Hill Mob (UK 1951) (7): One of the more famous Ealing Studios comedies features Alec Guinness as a mousy bank clerk who hatches a scheme to steal a cache of gold bullion from his employer. With the help of three fellow conspirators, one of whom runs a company specializing in novelty items, the plan involves melting the gold down and then smuggling it out of the country in the form of miniature Eiffel Tower souvenirs bound for a warehouse in France. Of course complications arise, and as the authorities slowly close in the men must resort to increasingly outrageous measures to avoid capture. There are some madcap sequences which manage to elicit a chuckle or two: a run-in with a group of English schoolgirls who unwittingly purchase half a dozen of the ersatz paperweights is cute; a dizzying trek down the Eiffel Tower’s winding staircase borders on the impressionistic; and the film’s crowning climax, a wild cops ‘n’ robbers chase through the streets of London is well done. Unfortunately, even though the comic performances in these grand old films are timeless, the humour itself has not aged quite so well. Another mild-mannered comedy guaranteed to keep the grandparents in stitches.

Leave Her to Heaven (USA 1945) (7): While en route to New Mexico for some R&R bestselling author Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde limited to two facial expressions) meets fellow train passenger Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney, stunning) a rich but oddly intense debutante with drop dead looks. After a breakneck romance at the family estate Harland suddenly finds himself married to the mysterious heiress after she unceremoniously dumps her intended fiancé (a jilted Vincent Price…not pretty). Sadly all is not sunshine and hugs for the former bachelor as he gradually comes to realize that his beautiful new wife is actually a clingy gorgon with a pathological need to be loved. But when Ellen’s singleminded obsession with Harland turns monstrous not even he is prepared for the lengths to which she is willing to go in order to keep him for herself. Presented in its original exaggerated technicolor which caused one critic to label it “rainbow noir”, John Stahl’s creepy tale of amour fou unfolds like a series of colourized postcards featuring attractive pink caucasians against backdrops of impossibly green forests, blue lakes, and red deserts. Thankfully Gene Tierney’s smouldering intensity, all red lipstick and fiery glares, seems refreshingly contemporary in a film which too often crosses over into old fashioned melodrama with makeshift psychology and a glowing sunset finale to rival Gone With the Wind. However, unlike Glenn Close’s manic fireworks in Fatal Attraction, Tierney sets her character to slow burn resulting in a downplayed, almost subliminal madness which methodically eats away at all who come in contact with her. Ravishing imagery (which garnered a well-deserved Oscar nod to cinematographer Leon Shamroy) set to an appropriately grand score and a cast of pretty people in crisis make this one a surefire guilty pleasure!

Le Cercle Rouge (France 1970) (7): Among the favourite films of Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Aki Kaurismāki, this slick policier from writer/director Jean-Pierre Melville is considered a classic of the genre. A newly paroled convict (Alain Delon), an escaped prisoner (Gian Maria Volonté) and an alcoholic ex-cop (Yves Montand) join forces to pull off the biggest heist of the century. Despite meticulous planning however they come up against two wild cards: a very determined police inspector is closing in on the escapee, and the mob has a score to settle with the ex-con. While short on suspense and relying on a few unlikely coincidences, Melville revels in style with fashionable characters, a spare yet hip soundtrack of drum beats, and set pieces that go from speeding train cars to gaudy nightclubs to crumbling chateaux. The planned heist itself is a gritty mix of muscle and low-tech gimmickry, especially when compared to the computerized mayhem of recent offerings, but that actually makes it all the more watchable. Tightly edited, short on superfluous dialogue, and employing a widescreen palette of dusky countrysides and fluorescent interiors (and a curious attention to doors), this is an entertaining blend of film noir and crime thriller.

The Legacy (UK/USA 1978) (5): While on a business trip in the English countryside Americans Margaret and Peter (Katherine Ross showing the emotional range of a block of wood and Sam Elliott looking like a 70s porn star) are accidentally run off the road by Jason Mountolive, a member of the local gentry out for a spin in his Rolls Royce. As a way of apologizing Jason invites the couple to stay at his lavish estate while their motorcycle is being repaired in the village. But Maggie and Pete’s brief respite soon becomes intolerable after their secretive host invites a group of international jet-setters to his mansion for a weekend of bizarre fun and games. With a household of menacing maids, hostile manservants, and one downright catty nurse blocking their every move, the hapless couple are reluctantly drawn into a diabolical conspiracy involving black magic and a mysterious old man hidden away in an attic sickroom. And then the killing begins… Richard Marquand’s schlocky shocker is pure 70s kitsch from its musical score of Charlie’s Angels riffs (including a lamentable theme song warbled by disco dropout Kiki Dee) to Elliot’s cookie duster moustache and too tight jeans. But the occult touches do provide some camp fun while a bit of PG-rated gore is imaginative enough to keep your finger off the FF button. And of course there’s Sam Elliott’s infamous naked butt shower scene which is always worth a rewind or two…or three…

The Lego Movie (Australia/USA 2014) (8): All is not well in Bricktown, the wildly animated world where everyone and everything is made from multicoloured Lego blocks (including clouds, ocean waves, and laser beams). The evil Lord Business has taken over and is intent on unleashing his maniacal OCD dream of making everything stay exactly the same—a horrible fate for a population of toy people given to fits of imagination. Bricktown’s underground resistance headed by the wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman in his first animated role) is fighting back however with help from the likes of Lego Batman, Lego Wonder Woman, Lego Retro Space Guy and a host of colourful “Master Builders”. But when unassuming office drone Emmet accidentally discovers the one weapon that can stop Lord Business in his tracks he finds himself suddenly revered as Bricktown’s new plastic messiah—a role he is woefully unqualified for. With no time to contemplate his fate, Emmet is suddenly thrust into Bricktown’s most epic battle ever, a skirmish which will challenge reality and lead him to worlds he never dreamed possible… Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have accomplished a very rare thing indeed, they’ve managed to produce a resolutely “G” rated film which still contains enough adult humour in the form of obscure references and snickering satire to keep mom and dad laughing right alongside the kids. With characters such as Metal Beard the Pirate (an android hybrid sporting an arm shark), the literally two-faced Good Cop/Bad Cop, and Unikitty (a cutesy passive-aggressive construct forever blowing rainbows up everyone else’s ass) playing alongside childhood mainstays like Green Lantern, Han Solo, and Gandalf, the stage is set for a multi-generational, multi-genre fracas with a continuous barrage of one-liners and sight gags coming fast and furious. And that frantic animation, using Lego pieces to form the basis of an entire universe, is alternately boggling and hilariously low-tech. Even an emotionally sloppy “real life” ending complete with overbearing message (Own Your Inner Child!) fails to dampen this party although star Will Ferrell should realize by now that even quasi-dramatic roles are forever beyond his grasp. Like a kitschy reimagining of The Matrix featuring junk from a child’s toy box, this is a vibrant treat with enough wit to smooth over the occasional groan. As it’s Oscar nominated ditty goes, “Everything is awesome…!”

L’enfant (Belgium 2005) (7): Bruno and Sonia are a pair of homeless teens barely eking out a living on the streets of Belgium. Between a meagre social allowance and Bruno’s various criminal activities the two have managed to get by until the birth of their son, Jimmy, throws a very large wrench in the works. Content to settle down and raise the baby the best way she can (while still relying on Bruno’s ill-gotten income) Sonia harbours white trash dreams of domestic tranquility. Bruno, on the other hand, sees in the kid a golden opportunity to make a lot of cash by selling him to an underground adoption agency because, after all, they can always have another child later on. His eventual decision will have serious and far-reaching effects that neither he nor Sonia are equipped to deal with. From the start it is clear that the Dardenne brothers are not interested in portraying their protagonists as anything more than a pair of clueless adolescents playing the role of grown-ups without any of the insights, responsibilities or sense of perspective that comes with age. Sonia’s nascent mothering instincts see her fussing protectively over Jimmy as if he were a cherished doll while Bruno’s childish horseplay and inability to appreciate the consequences of his actions cause one to question exactly who the “child” of the film’s title refers to. Shot in dreary earth tones against backdrops of garbage-strewn embankments and homeless shelters, L’enfant’s lack of cinematic dressing and musical soundtrack gives it the gritty feel of a “Dogme 95” work right up to its emotionally charged finale where our juvenile parents take their first painful step towards adulthood. An unhappy slice of life which bypasses sensationalism in favour of blunt honesty.

Léolo (Canada 1992) (10): “I dream, therefore I am not”. So goes the wistfully recited mantra of young Leo Lauzon, a boy growing up in a squalid Montreal tenement who uses the words as if they were an incantation against the poverty and mental illness which seem to be the birthright of his highly dysfunctional family. Escaping his unhappy lot through elaborate fantasies scribbled in an old notebook (and routinely discarded into the trash) he reimagines himself as Léolo Lozone, son of a Sicilian peasant who miraculously impregnated his French-Canadian mother by way of a batch of imported tomatoes—one of Canadian cinema’s more “colourful” sequences. Now exiled with a crazy family in a ramshackle apartment, Léolo depends on a fierce imagination to bring his lyrical prose to life: a battered bedroom door opens onto a sunny Italian countryside, his catatonic sister is really a paper bag princess brushing her locks by candlelight, and the immigrant girl next door becomes the Beatrice to his pint-sized Dante. And all the while he plots the downfall of grandpa, the brutal patriarch whom Leo blames for the family’s multiple miseries. Gorgeously filmed in sunlight or midnight shadows (and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of guttering candles) and boasting a soundtrack as eclectic as its wee protagonist—Sicilian folk songs, medieval chant, and majestic arias give way to Tom Waits, Mick Jagger, and Loreena Mckennitt—Jean-Claude Lauzon’s psychological tour de force practically leaps off the screen with images both fantastic and crushingly real. It is precisely this juxtaposition of fancy and reality, with an undercurrent of the grotesque, which begs the question—is this the wholly subjective testament of a kid slowly going mad as in Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy or are these simply child’s eye memoirs that have grown with the telling? In the end it doesn’t really matter. Presenting the rite of adolescence with all its uncomfortable revelations as a dark fantasy is hardly novel, but in Lauzon’s brilliant hands it becomes a thing of disquieting beauty.

Léon [Léon: The Professional] (France 1994) (7): After her entire family is murdered in a botched drug deal 12-year old Mathilda (Natalie Portman’s screen debut) moves in with her neighbour across the hall, the furtive and somewhat dim-witted Leon (French hunk Jean Reno), only to discover the big lumbering man-child leads a secret life as New York City’s most lethal hitman. Far from being horrified however Mathilda is intrigued and soon has Leon teaching her the tricks of his trade as part of a grand revenge fantasy against the crooks who killed her little brother and left her an orphan. But the not particularly bright Leon has personal problems of his own for a local mafioso owes him for a string of contracts and he is living in a constant state of paranoia—jumping at every sound, sleeping with one eye open, and guzzling cartons of milk with the zeal of a parched alcoholic. But Mathilda is one determined little girl and her single-minded mission will lead them both down an ever darkening path… Essentially a buddy movie, this blood & guts version of Chaplin’s The Kid has some genuine moments of warm comedy between bouts of gunplay and tearing flesh. Scenes of a precocious Mathilda teaching a monosyllabic Leon to be more human while he teaches her to be less certainly sets the stage for a few terribly non-PC sight gags even though the overall bonding theme fails to rise above teary clichés. The original story had Leon and a 14-year old Mathilda becoming lovers but writer/director Luc Bresson opted for a cloying sexual tension instead showing an innocently lovestruck adolescent’s advances failing to move the impassive (clueless?) object of her desire. With its highly exaggerated characters and gory cartoon violence Léon works best if viewed as a warped fairy tale: picture Portman’s Little Red Lolita teaming up with Reno’s homicidal Selfish Giant while Gary Oldman huffs and puffs his way to a new level of overacting as the Big Bad Drug-Dealing Wolf.

Le Trou (France 1960) (10): Four inmates at a Parisian jail are in the midst of plotting an elaborate break out when they are forced to share their already cramped cell with a fifth man awaiting trial for attempted murder. Deciding to trust the stranger they include him in their plan to dig a tunnel straight down to the prison’s basement and into the sewer system. With the possibility of discovery constantly hovering over their heads the five desperate prisoners, one of whom is scheduled to be executed, set in motion an ingenious scheme to complete a series of tunnels and escape routes using nothing but homemade tools while at the same time employing some clever devices to keep the guards from suspecting anything. All goes amazingly well until the final hour when an unexpected complication threatens to derail their dreams entirely. Based on an actual 1947 incident, director Jacques Becker hired some of the original escapees to be technical advisors on his film. The result is an intricate and painstakingly faithful recreation of both the prison itself and the unbelievable resourcefulness of the men who employed everything from glass bottles to cardboard boxes in their bid for freedom. Using mainly non-professional actors Becker elicits a host of natural performances whether he’s portraying an amiable bonhomie between the convicts themselves (including an oh-so subtle suggestion of homoeroticism) or a grim determination among men who have nothing much to lose. As an amazing aside Jean Keraudy, who plays ringleader Roland Darbant, is in fact playing himself. But it is the cinematography which raises this above the usual genre fare with a camera that crawls through narrow tunnels or stands still as a pair of inmates, lit only by a single flame, slowly recede down a stone passageway. A heady, claustrophobic film with suspense to spare and a relentless pace that had me glued to the screen right up to the final credits. Sadly, Jacques Becker died two weeks after filming was completed.

Let’s Make Love (USA 1960) (6): When billionaire tycoon and notorious playboy Jean-Marc Clement discovers he is to be spoofed in an Off-Broadway musical he shows up at the theatre during rehearsals to demand an explanation. However, before he can even open his mouth he’s smitten by the gorgeous star of the show, Amanda Dell, as she struts her way through a seductive song & dance routine. Mistaken for a Clement lookalike auditioning for a role in the production, Jean-Marc is hired on the spot and immediately sets about trying to woo Amanda away from her current boyfriend and co-star. But it’s not easy pretending to be a penniless actor, especially when the object of your desire expresses nothing but disdain for the person she thinks you’re only impersonating. Unable to tell Amanda his true identity, yet unable to prolong the lie indefinitely, Jean-Marc is at his wit’s end and not even the sage advice of a few showbiz legends can bail him out. With his clever ideas to win Amanda backfiring and the show set to open in just a few days, Jean-Marc makes one last desperate ploy to set the record straight... Even though stars Marilyn Monroe and Yves Montand lack any onscreen chemistry, most of the jokes fall flat, and the story itself is pure pulp, there remains a corny sentimentality to this little powderpuff of a movie for all its sappy dialogue and muddled musical interludes. It’s a clumsy urban fairy tale for sure, but told with much sparkle and aided by a handful of surprise celebrity cameos. A guilty pleasure for a sleepless night in front of the TV.

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.

The Lickerish Quartet (Italy 1970) (4): In an extravagantly appointed castle atop a hillside a jaded 40-something couple and their secretive young son while away the hours watching crude B&W stag films and making derisive comments on the “type” of women that would stoop to such behaviour. It seems cruel mind games and bitter reproaches are de rigueur with this wealthy little triad until one day they spot a woman at a carnival who bears a striking resemblance to one of the porn actresses they’ve been drooling over. Upon bringing her home they soon discover the tables turned against them as the young Bohemian acts as both a moral catalyst causing them to examine the petty hypocrisies that make up their lives, and a sexually liberating goddess who guides the couple in exorcising their private demons while helping the son overcome his religious guilt. Or something like that. There is certainly an element of European arthouse sleaze at work behind all the pretentious banter and jiggling breasts though. Full of annoying 8 mm flashbacks, bad paintings, and cheesy theological imagery you get the feeling that Metzger bit off more than we are willing to chew as he tries to examine issues of love and identity within the framework of a softcore nudie. There are some nice touches along the way however; one particular stag film morphs into a series of repressed wartime memories for mom, while dad and the mysterious woman screw on a library floor made up of oversized dictionary pages with words such as “phallus” and “fornicate” figuring prominently. But in the end it’s just camp, corny and outrageously overblown; a sterling example of mental masturbation at its worst.

Life, Above All (South Africa 2010) (8): Living in one of South Africa’s poorer neighbourhoods life is not easy for young Chanda. Barely into her teens she’s practically raising her two half-siblings while maintaining the household and caring for her ailing mother—her rarely seen drunken stepfather more of a hindrance than anything else. But with the death of her baby sister the days become even more intolerable for not only does her mother’s tenuous health take a nosedive, rumours begin spreading that the family is cursed thanks to some past indiscretion on her parents’ part. Now shunned by her neighbours (especially after she defends her best friend, a prostitute working the local truck stop) and barely tolerated by relatives who fear her mom’s illness will bring shame to the family, Chanda’s life is about to get tougher than even she could have imagined… Presented in the Sotho language with a largely amateur cast, director Oliver Schmitz’s hard-hitting drama, based on Allan Stratton’s novel, is definitely one of those crowd-pleasing “message movies” which always seem to wow them at film festivals. Certainly the dusty landscapes and stirring native hymns effectively underscore the onscreen tragedies whether it be a grieving mother cradling her dead infant or a solitary tear running down the face of a child who has already cried too much. But aside from a true-to-life script refreshingly devoid of any bombast, Schmitz’s film finds its true strength in the acting abilities of his homegrown cast especially newcomer Khomotso Manyaka as Chanda. Her expressive features and forceful voice belying her lack of formal training as she portrays a stoic little girl quietly accepting the role of an adult with all its attending lies, hypocrisies, and heartbreak. It all proceeds pretty much as one would expect, which is not necessarily a bad thing, until a particularly moving finale tinged with grace and compassion gives us pause to reconsider the director’s motivation. Are those steady eyes staring at us from the movie screen filled with accusation? Forgiveness? Or a dawning wisdom which transcends both?

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (UK 1943) (7): After being humiliated by a young upstart during a training exercise, a decorated general looks back on his forty-plus years of military service and all the triumphs, losses, and regrets (including a chaste affair with his best friend’s wife) that made him the man he is today. Now regarded as an obsolete fossil by a new generation of soldier, Gen. Clive Candy at first rebels against the impertinence of youth—and the cruelties imposed by old age—until those jogged memories recall his own reckless zeal two generations ago. Using postcard sets filmed in gloriously exaggerated technicolor and graced by a quick-witted and oh-so-British script, this classic Powell & Pressburger production uses one likeable old man’s recollections to examine issues of loyalty and honour as well as the inherent follies of patriotism…no wonder then that Winston Churchill loathed the film. Unfortunately it also suffers from a few too many “jolly goods” and “hip hip hurrahs” turning what could have been a brilliant two-hour epic into an almost three-hour endurance test. A compassionate character study nonetheless whose wry critiques manage to rise above the extra padding.

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (USA 2004) (9): Peter Sellers was a comic phenomenon who started with radio skits before moving on to a rewarding movie career which included the Pink Panther series and his penultimate film, the critically acclaimed Being There. He had a knack for bringing oddball characters to life but in reality he found it impossible to play the most important character of all—himself. Given to bouts of dark depression and frequent violent outbursts he was unable to reconcile living in the spotlight with having a personal identity of his own. The result was a string of failed marriages, a growing sense of alienation, and an unhealthy relationship with his domineering mother who kept the apron strings tied a bit too tightly. Stephen Hopkins’ psychological roller coaster of a biopic, based on Roger Lewis’ tell-all book, is as manic and flamboyant as its subject. Told in episodes linked by home movies, fantasy interludes, and ersatz film clips Sellers (Geoffrey Rush, amazing) is portrayed as an empty vessel, incredibly talented yet constantly hungering for more, be it fame, love, or beautiful women including a tempestuous stint with Swedish bombshell Britt Ekland (Charlize Theron looking more like Ekland than Ekland herself). Hopkins takes a novel approach to exploring Sellers’ chaotic psyche often having Rush assume other characters as the troubled actor tries to reshape unpleasant memories—as first wife Anne (Emily Watson) storms out of the room after a heated argument she is suddenly replaced by Sellers in full drag who, as Anne, proceeds to forgive him for his infidelity. In another scene he plays his mother praising him for being such a good son even as she steps into her own casket. An opening credits sequence looks ironically like a Blake Edwards comedy and a string of strategically placed 60’s pop songs maintain a sense of time and location. A giddy and harrowing look at the enigma which was Peter Sellers.

Life In A Day (USA/UK 2011) (8): When director Kevin MacDonald and team asked people from all over the world to create a video diary detailing what they did on July 24th 2010 he was not prepared for the response. Over 81,000 film clips from 192 countries arrived and had to be edited down to make this incredible 90 minute snapshot of one day on planet Earth. From jungles, deserts and urban skyscrapers we see a variety of people turning their laptops and camcorders on themselves as they attempt to answer three simple questions posed by MacDonald: "What is in your pocket?" "What/who do you love a lot?" and "What do you fear the most?" But what starts out as a series of poignant Youtube clips quietly morphs into something deeply moving and, at times, deeply disturbing. Whether it's the Korean national cycling around the world, the Australian man recovering from open heart surgery, or the American woman dressing up for a Skype date with her military husband these tiny tales highlight our similarities while exploring those things which set us apart. And Vancouver's "Celebration of Light" fireworks display has a guest cameo! Brilliant!

Lilting (UK 2014) (8): Kai, a twenty-something Englishman of Chinese descent, has just died leaving his widowed mother Junn more isolated than ever. Never having learned English, Junn is living in a retirement home which she hates and nursing an ongoing grudge against Kai’s best friend and roommate Richard whom she blames for driving a wedge between her and her son. What Junn doesn’t know however is that the two men had actually been lovers for the past four years and Kai’s death has left Richard devastated and unsure of what to do with his ersatz mother-in-law. With the help of a translator, ostensibly hired to help Junn communicate with a fellow resident who has taken a liking to her, Richard attempts to heal the rift between them and perhaps gain some mutual understanding in the process. Guilt and resentment permeate writer/director Hong Khaou’s beautiful little indie drama which centres on two people who, literally and figuratively, are unable to communicate with one another. Richard is afraid to tell the old woman the truth lest she react badly, Junn is bound by her cultural upbringing, and hovering in the middle ground is the translator Vann, a young woman trying to remain objective even as she sees both parties falling apart. Eschewing unwarranted dramatics, Khaou keeps his characters grounded, relying as much on body language as translated words to push the story forward. Sunlight and windows play a key role, and while Khaou moves leisurely back and forth through time Kai makes a series of cameos as both mother and lover ruminate on the past. Despite its flaws—the story rambles at times, the camera lingers longer than it should, a few arty touches seem overly contrived—this is still a nicely understated heart-tugger which rests solidly on the shoulders of its two leads, puppy-eyed Ben Whishaw and Asian powerhouse Pei-Pei Cheng.

The Limey (USA 1999) (7): Wilson, an angry British career criminal with a violent temper, travels to Los Angeles in order to take revenge on the seedy Hollywood producer he believes is responsible for the death of his estranged daughter. Aided by Roel, one of the girl’s acquaintances (himself a former inmate), Wilson’s murderous plan begins to take shape until some unforeseen complications arise in the form of drug dealers, a trigger-happy private security agent, and a couple of very determined detectives. As hunter and hunted close in on one another bullets begin to fly and the body count rises…but which one will walk away in the end? Although the paper-thin plot holds no great surprises, Terence Stamp’s stand-out performance as the titular anti-hero provides a fascinating character study of a man driven by guilt and an innate rage. With coping skills that consist mainly of violent acts, Wilson is unable to deal with his grief in any other way; even the small voice of reason offered by Roel is not enough to dissuade him from his course. Director Steven Soderbergh presents us with a weary, smoke-filled L.A. filmed in washed out shades of brown and backed by a muted soundtrack of rock riffs. His choppy editing style toys with our sense of time with flashbacks, flash-forwards and repetitious scenes catching us off guard at unexpected moments. The resulting sense of narrative disorientation doesn’t always work in the movie’s favour—-did the projectionist play the reels out of order?—-but there’s no denying the fact it adds a certain kinetic energy to the onscreen drama while providing a few clues as to why Wilson feels partly responsible for his daughter’s untimely end. There is also an unexpected mythical element to the man’s tragic quest as we see him waiting in the shadows while his prey looks down imperiously from a hilltop mansion. A fine piece of cinema which doesn’t rely on blood and guts to tell its story.

Linda Lovelace for President (USA 1975) (4): After becoming famous for her sword-swallowing antics in the XXX groundbreaker Deep Throat, Linda Lovelace renounced her porn debut amid allegations she was forced into it at gunpoint by her insane husband. So how does one explain this softcore bomb made just three years later? Opening with a full frontal Lovelace spoofing the iconic flag scene from Patton and a warning (threat?) that the following film is sure to offend everyone regardless of race, colour, or creed, director Claudio Guzman and writer Jack Margolis (Laugh-In) serve up a tepid political satire in which Linda finds herself running for president as head of the “Upright Party”—a motley assortment of bohemians, libertines, and social outcasts. Unnerved by her swift rise in the polls, the ruling conservatives set their sights on derailing her campaign and thus the stage is set for slapstick showdowns, lowbrow gags, and a ton of tits thrown in for no reason whatsoever. True to the film’s opening promise, Guzman and Margolis eagerly push the envelope in a mad dash to spoof every racial, sexual, ethnic, and religious stereotype they can muster with Lovelace’s cabinet composed of a Confucius-spouting asian, a jive-talking black man, a mincing queen, a lustful priest, a candy-toting pedophile, and a raving nazi. The jokes mainly fall flat and the acting is atrocious (Lovelace smiles vacantly and appears to be reading her lines phonetically) but as the cameras capture Linda and company making their way across America’s heartland—with Micky Dolenz from The Monkees at the wheel!?—Guzman creates a warped little time capsule from the hedonistic yet endearingly naive 70’s. Sure to give a whole generation of angry Social Justice Warriors a conniption and that alone makes it worth a look.

The Lion in Winter (USA-TV 2003) (5): A weak television adaptation of the classic 1968 film, itself based upon a stage play. It’s Christmas Eve 1183, and all is not well in the household of King Henry II as he and his captive wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, scheme and plot over which son will inherit the crown. He favours the cretinous half-wit John, while she has her eye on the ambitious Richard, “a constant warrior and sometime poet”. Thrown into the mix are Geoffrey, the neglected third son with a chip on his shoulder the size of Brittany; and young Louie, France’s new monarch whose state visit conceals a few ulterior motives of his own. While this modern version may claim some technical superiority it lacks any of its predecessor’s passion and sense of intimacy, relying instead on histrionics and overacting...rather like a medieval episode of Dynasty. And although they are accomplished actors in their own rights, leads Glenn Close and Patrick Stewart are simply no match for the bravura performances of Katherine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole (Hepburn actually garnered a well-deserved Oscar for her role as the emotionally conflicted Eleanor). Perhaps I’m being unduly harsh for I find it all but impossible not to compare the two at every point, but in my opinion this is one remake that didn’t need to see the light of day.

The Little Foxes (USA 1941) (8): Lillian Hellman’s hard-hitting play about avarice and corruption in a wealthy southern family circa 1900 leaps effortlessly onto the big screen thanks to a convincing cast and seamless direction. When a yankee entrepreneur decides to invest in a cotton mill for their small town, the three Hubbard siblings, Regina, Oscar and Ben, are only too happy to enter into what promises to be a very lucrative partnership. With cheap, exploitable labour and free water access guaranteed by the governor the greedy trinity have only to provide the remaining capital to cement the deal. Unfortunately Regina’s estranged husband controls her purse strings and being a man of honour he refuses to back any venture which takes advantage of the poor and defenseless. With their dreams of wealth and power thus threatened, the Hubbards quickly prove that they are willing to stoop to any depths in order to get what they want, no matter who gets hurt in the process. Director William Wyler doesn’t miss a single nuance in Hellman’s brilliant script; beneath the cultured niceties and layers of pancake make-up there is an aura of wickedness and decay in the Hubbard household as brothers and sister growl and snap at each other while Regina’s frail husband clings desperately to his values and her young daughter suddenly finds herself at a moral crossroads. Bette Davis is superb as Regina, a venom-spitting cobra with puppy dog eyes. Her restrained performance gives us a character who is ruthless yet terribly vulnerable; even in the midst of her vitriolic tirades we catch brief glimpses of helpless rage and immense tragedy. But it is Patricia Collinge as Aunt Birdie, Oscar’s browbeaten wife whose family once owned the plantation which the Hubbards now claim as their own, who gives the film its soul. Ignored, mocked, and ridiculed at every turn her pathetic attempts to regain the respectability she once enjoyed is the very essence of faded southern gentility in the years following the Civil War. As one black servant succinctly sums it up, “There are those who’d eat the world...and those who’d just sit and watch.” It’s these prophetic words, later paraphrased with ominous overtones by Ben Hubbard, which give this 70-year old drama an uncomfortably contemporary feel.

Little Murders (USA 1971) (6): Based on Jules Feiffer’s ill-fated Broadway play, freshman director Alan Arkin’s outlandish film provides a cinematic soapbox from which he launches a disparaging sermon on all the perceived ills of modern society. New York photographer Alfred Chamberlain (a slack-jawed Elliott Gould) is laid back to the point of being comatose. A professed “apathist” he feels nothing, believes in nothing, and aspires to nothing. Patsy Newquist, on the other hand, is a neurotic bachelorette with a non-stop mouth and an infectious joie de vivre. When the two cross paths a most unlikely romance develops leading to a hasty marriage with unforeseen consequences as Alfred’s newfound emotions are put to a tragic test. Arkin’s absurdist anti-establishment comedy certainly casts its net far and wide as he mercilessly harpoons every quirk and foible he can find: Patsy’s crass parents are caricatures of bourgeois twits; a wedding ceremony at the “First Existential” church emphasizes the spiritual poverty inherent in pop culture; and 20th century urban paranoia reaches a ludicrous level when an epidemic of snipers sends Patsy’s parents racing to install steel shutters while the police run around in panicked circles. And throughout it all there are a few admittedly clever barbs as when Alfred’s arty photos of dog poop are snatched up by Vogue magazine and the Newquist’s tackily appointed apartment suffers one power outage after another. But its ultimately too ambitious, for even as Alfred learns to view the world through a different lens (leading to an unexpectedly nihilistic finale) one gets the impression it all boils down to a personal tirade against a whacked-out Big Apple. Shrill, manic, and in an age where Facebook and Twitter have too often replaced actual human contact, Little Murders’ warning about the dangers of actually feeling something arrives a few years too late.

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...

The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue (Spain 1974) (6):  When the British government experiments with “ultrasonic radiation” to control agricultural pests they inadvertently raise a crop of hungry zombies instead.  It’s up to the owner of a head shop and a reluctant female motorist to convince the authorities that it’s breakfast time at the morgue and everyone’s on the menu.  Despite the silly title this is actually a decent early entry in the zombie flick genre.  The gore effects are appropriately grisly and there are some pretty tense scenes.  Of course, as with all these films, there are some unintentionally funny moments....I especially liked the motorist’s heroin-addicted sister tweaking on the sofa and the evil sociopathic baby.  I prefer my undead a bit more decomposed though, the make-up in this film seemed to consist mainly of white face powder and novelty red contact lenses.  Still worth the price of admission!

Locke (UK 2013) (10): Construction foreman Ivan Locke is dealing with three monumental crises simultaneously—one at work, one at home, and one elsewhere. Currently in his BMW heading for London his attempts to put out these fires are limited to a succession of progressively frantic phone calls via his handsfree mobile device. But as the miles slowly click by his attempts to make the world right again for everyone else begin to take their toll on his own mind causing cracks to appear in an otherwise cooly detached demeanour. Writer/director Steven Knight’s brilliant one man show has Tom Hardy giving one of the most demanding performances of his career. With nothing but disembodied voices to egg him on Hardy traces his overly conscientious character’s struggle to balance personal integrity with professional responsibility despite the fact that every decision he makes comes at a dire cost. Locke is essentially a good man in a very bad situation: being pulled in three separate directions, trying to please everyone yet pleasing none—a stream of invectives aimed at his deceased father, launched between calls, providing the only clues behind his questionable actions. Filmed in real time with cameras hovering in and around the rushing car—sometimes riding shotgun, sometimes hanging from a headlight or a side mirror while neon reflections bleed across the windshield—Knight’s film relies as much on visual impact as it does on emotionally laden dialogue. Certainly that endless stretch of black asphalt represents so much more than a simple freeway. A moody voyeuristic tour de force whose downplayed presentation only heightens its impact.

Lola (Germany 1981) (7): In a small German city shortly after WWII, crooked businessman Schuckert is enjoying a free reign for not only is he the sole building contractor for miles around he also runs the only bordello—a lusty establishment which counts the entire town council among its regular customers. Enter pure and unblemished Mr. Von Bohm, the area’s new building commissioner and a man so fastidious in his ways that he has raised punctuality to a neurotic obsession. Practically worshipping his country’s new free market economy Von Bohm envisions a grand future for everyone while Schuckert simply sees a host of lucrative new angles to be exploited. Wending her way between both men is Lola, a singing hooker employed by Schuckert who despite her lowly station in life has set her sights on the virginal Von Bohm. Can a fall from grace be far behind? Alternately filmed in shades of lurid red or candy-coloured pastels depending on who the camera is following, this third instalment of Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy is perhaps his most scathing satirical attack yet on Germany’s post-war “economic miracle”. With a small town poised between two seemingly moral opposites it quickly becomes apparent that although Von Bohm’s gushing patriotism is the most photogenic it is the corruption, complacency, and good-natured vice of Schuckert that people seem to gravitate towards. And Barbara Sukowa excels in the role of Lola, a strong-willed woman determined to beat the odds as she plays one man against the other. Fassbinder’s brilliant satirical touches (Von Bohm woos Lola in a deserted church; caged birds offer a bitter symbolism; the radio blasts romantic ballads rife with irony) play well against the film’s bawdier elements and ensure that the laughs keep coming. Prostitution—or whoring in general—has never been a more apt metaphor.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (UK 1962) (5): Colin Smith, an impoverished youth filled with the usual class-conscious rage, is sent to the Ruxton Towers reform school after robbing a bakery. During his incarceration the local governor takes a keen interest in Colin’s athletic prowess as a long distance runner and sees in the lad a chance for the school to win a most prestigious trophy at the annual athletic meet between the working class Ruxton boys and their privileged rivals from a local private school. But a series of increasingly tedious flashbacks show us that Colin has several reasons for being angry at the established gentry and his anger threatens to transform a simple cross-country race into a most predictable metaphor. It’s all here; the self-righteous tirades against the unfairness of it all, the stock footage of soulless urban sprawl, and the stereotypical angry young man bemoaning his station in life. A few weak ironies are thrown in for good measure; an inmate is privately beaten while the school choir sings a patriotic hymn, a brand new TV (sign of affluence!) is filled with mindless jingles and fascist rants, and Mr. Smith’s death benefit does more good for the family than the old man could ever afford to do while alive. Finally, Colin’s brief interlude at a seaside resort with his buddy and a couple of girls gives rise to even more contemporary angst and yearning. Bland, shallow, and terribly dated.

Lonely Are the Brave (USA 1962) (7): When wandering cowboy John Burns (Kirk Douglas) discovers his best friend Paul (Michael Kane) has been locked up for aiding and abetting illegal migrants, he mounts his trusty steed Whisky and heads to New Mexico to free him. Deliberately getting himself thrown into the same jail as Paul by way of a barroom brawl, John plans an escape for the two of them but Paul, who now feels the responsibility of having a wife and young son weighing on his shoulders, isn’t interested in increasing his sentence. Escaping on his own instead, Burns has one last embrace with Jerry (Gena Rowlands), Paul’s exasperated wife (and John’s former lover) before riding Whiskey over the mountains and into the sunset pursued by a determined sheriff (Walter Matthau) and vindictive policeman (George Kennedy). It appears that everyone has an archetype to play as director David Miller laments the taming of the American Spirit. In a wild west increasingly covered in barbed wire fences, super highways, and fast food outlets, Douglas’ fiercely independent cowpoke is a proud anachronism who can’t accept the fact his time has come and gone. Rowlands, representing hearth and home, is at a loss to explain why the men in her life can’t just settle down and “obey the rules”, and Matthau and Kennedy provide the long, sometimes brutal, arm of conformity. Finally, although his role is relatively minor, Kane’s domesticated family man embodies everything Burns has tried to avoid. Even a young Carroll O’Connor plays his part as a trucker-cum-Angel of Destiny. Perhaps screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s incisive script, based on Edward Abbey’s novel, wallows a bit too much in glaring contrasts (a horse gets stuck in traffic, a police helicopter soars like a mechanical eagle) and perhaps Jerry Goldsmith’s tinkling musical score too often sounds like a plaintive Hallmark moment, but the film’s keens sense of old ways reluctantly giving way to the new strikes deep. Besides, this is purported to have been Douglas’ favourite picture.

Longford (UK 2006) (9): Frank Pakenham (b. 1905), more popularly known as the 7th Earl of Longford, or simply Lord Longford to the press, had a long and distinguished political career. A liberal convert to Catholicism he put his faith to practice by visiting prison inmates and championing their cause in the public spotlight. His judgement, and subsequently his career, were eventually called into question however when he threw his support behind Myra Hindley, one of Britain’s most notorious prisoners. In the mid 1960’s Hindley, along with her boyfriend Ian Brady, received life sentences for the abduction, torture, and murder of a number of children in the Manchester area. Although she was universally reviled as a monster, Longford saw in Myra a terribly sad and remorseful young woman whose obsession for the charismatic Brady had led her down a dark path not of her own making. Facing opposition from the tabloids, popular opinion, fellow politicians, and even his own family, Longford was determined to have Hindley’s life sentence reviewed by a parol board especially since she had already served fifteen years. But a tempestuous visit with a clearly disturbed Brady cast the first shadow of doubt in Longford’s mind—was his cause célèbre the soft-spoken victim she appeared to be, or was there something else behind that demure voice and sincere desire to repent? Or was the calculating Brady merely playing with everyone’s mind? Brilliant performances from Jim Broadbent as Longford, Samantha Morton as Myra, and a psychotically intense Andy Serkis as Brady do justice to a literary script that shifts from sweeping social proclamations to meaningful bedroom conversations without faltering. Taking his camera from squalid prison yards to the stuffy House of Lords, director Tom Hooper has a knack for wringing deeper impressions out of otherwise mundane shots with Longford and Hindly dwarfed by prison barbed wire fences, a tiny makeshift grave in the middle of a frozen moor, or a leafless tree scrabbling towards a wintry sky. Both a brilliant character study of one man striving to live by his faith and a treatise on the sometimes blinding nature of that same faith, Longford is one of the more striking made-for-television productions to come out of England.

The Long Goodbye (USA 1973) (5): Exactly why this send-up of Film Noir conventions—adapted from Raymond Chandler’s novel by sci-fi great Leigh Brackett—wound up on so many “best of” lists is beyond me. As a policier it’s about as engrossing as an old rerun of Barnaby Jones and as a tilted salute to the age of Bogart, Mitchum, and Lizabeth Scott it’s anemic at best. When his best friend ends up on the lam after being accused of murdering his wife, Los Angeles private detective Philip Marlowe (a slovenly Elliot Gould) sets out to prove his innocence. But when tragedy strikes yet again Marlowe must manoeuvre through a lurid world of adultery, gangsters, and cheap cons before arriving at a solution which he definitely wasn’t expecting. Director Robert Altman employs his usual modi operandi of restless cameras, overlapping dialogue, and hundreds of criss-crossing extras while legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond films everything in washed-out pastels giving L.A.’s harsher streets a softened watercolour sheen. The overall result is aesthetically pleasing but does little to compensate for a script devoid of any tension and performances which seem a little too ad-libbed. Gould’s anti-hero shambles his way through with a sardonic smirk and perpetually lit cigarette while a supporting cast provide the usual red herrings, most notably a stoned and drunk Sterling Hayden playing a stoned and drunk writer and director Mark Rydell playing a caricature of a Jewish mob boss. The one-liners aren’t clever enough and the little recurring jokes (Marlowe lives next door to a harem of nubile nudists, a security guard does endless movie star impersonations, the film’s theme song keeps popping up in the damnedest places like a piano lounge and Mexican funeral band) get tired after the first couple of passes. Whether taken as an homage or a skewering or a little of both, The Long Goodbye’s forced eccentricities and misfired tropes never quite come together. As a bit of trivia however you can look for a silent and uncredited Arnold Schwarzenegger as a bodyguard and for those who grew up watching 1970’s TV commercials Gould’s finicky orange tabby is none other than Morris the 9Lives cat food mascot. Hooray for Hollywood!

The Long, Long Trailer (USA 1953) (7): Newlywed Nick and Tacy Collini (Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz NOT reprising their television personas) get in way over their heads when they decide to make their first home a 40-foot trailer. Before the honeymoon is over they'll get stuck in a mudslide, take out aunt Anastasia's front yard, and tie up every highway between Florida and Colorado. Will cooler heads prevail or will their long, long trailer make for a very short marriage? A delightful little comedy which makes the best of a one-line joke thanks to Lucy and Desi's star power and some genuinely funny sight gags: Tacy's attempt to prepare a fancy meal while on the move was hilarious while a nail-biting trek up (and down) a treacherous mountain road provided some comic suspense. File this one under Fun Family Fare.

The Look of Silence (USA 2014) (7): Joshua Oppenheimer follows up his 2012 documentary The Act of Killing (also reviewed here) with this very personal account of Indonesia’s bloody past. In the first film Oppenheimer brought the atrocities of that country’s 1965 military coup to life by interviewing former death squad members who proudly boasted about all the “communists” they tortured and murdered—an estimated one million in total—even going so far as to reenact some of their more grisly crimes. In Silence he focuses his camera instead on one man, fortyish optometrist Adi, whose older brother Ramli was sadistically executed two years before Adi was even born. Traveling from village to village Adi interviews both the men responsible for the carnage (all successful and protected by the new government) and the citizens who timidly looked the other way. But as the horrifying facts begin to surface what emerges is not quite the enraged confrontation Western audiences would expect. Although the film’s glacial pacing is sometimes off-putting there is a purpose behind Oppenheimer’s lingering close-ups and Adi’s rambling interviews for this is both a search for objective truth and a yearning for some degree of personal closure. Adi listens dispassionately as his aging subjects defend their actions while their families, many of whom had only a dim idea what was taking place, look on uncomfortably. At other times he stares stone-faced at taped interviews in which retired commanders gleefully describe the proper way to chop off a head or disembowel a woman. One such man angrily rebukes Adi’s prying into the past while the younger man fits him for a pair of glasses as if the new lenses might somehow force him to see the past more clearly. But it is Adi’s interactions with his parents which give the film it’s deepest sense of tragedy for his octogenarian mother can’t stop remembering Ramli’s final hours while senility has caused his 103-year old father to forget he even had a son.

Lore (Germany/Australia 2012) (10): Although she doesn’t speak the language herself, director and co-writer Cate Shortland has fashioned the quintessential film examining the German zeitgeist immediately following WWII and she calls upon every dark fairy tale archetype to do so as her cameras follow a group of frightened children making their way to grandmother’s house. After her parents are rounded up by the Allies for unspoken crimes nineteen-year old Lore and her younger siblings flee into the forest to escape the Americans who, her mother assures her, run torture camps for naughty boys and girls. Making her way across a landscape scarred both physically and psychologically by the Reich’s defeat, Lore’s innocent unease slowly turns to horror as she comes to understand the truth behind the lies and denials she had once believed: lies about Hitler and the Fatherland, lies about her parents’ involvement in the war, and denial over the photos of stacked corpses slowly circulating among the populace—“They’re just Hollywood actors!” states one irate woman, “You never actually see a German killing anyone!” adds her companion. And, as if to embody her growing doubts, an angry young man calling himself Thomas joins Lore on her trek to grandma’s, his sullen presence at once underscoring the hypocrisy around her and igniting her first carnal thoughts… Heavily influenced by the Australian New Wave aesthetic of the 70s and 80s, Shortland indulges in handheld camerawork and languorous slow-motion pans of sun-dappled silences…an effect simultaneously soothing and vaguely disquieting, like the prelude to a nightmare. A sense of weary disillusionment flows through every frame of her film so that even the erotic interplay between Lore and Thomas takes on an edge of sad desperation and Lore’s constant attempts to wash the dirt off her body become a study in futility. Finally, a set of closing scenes drive home the fact that once innocence has been violated one can never truly go home again. A moody, at times surreal film which addresses a facet of the second world war not often seen in cinema.

Lost Horizon (USA 1937) (7): Frank Capra’s classic tale of a snowbound Utopia may seem a bit trite by today’s cynical standards yet it’s vision of a kinder, gentler society should make us all the more fed up with the status quo. It’s China, 1935, and a violent military action is putting foreigners in peril; enter Robert Conway, dashing diplomat and England’s “Man of the East”. Surrounded by thousands of hysterical Asian extras Conway gathers up the last few Caucasians left in a remote village and whisks them away to Shanghai. Unfortunately their small plane is hijacked en route by a mysterious Mongol pilot and eventually crashes into a Himalayan mountainside where Conway and company are rescued by a group of fur-clad natives who take them to the mystical monastery of Shangri-La. Protected from the outside world by a ring of imposing mountains Shangri-La is a semi-tropical paradise where the happy citizens follow a strict code of unwavering pacifism. “Be Kind” is the only motto here and before long the troupe are completely seduced by the valley’s hypnotic blend of peace and idyllic splendour. But their visit is not entirely accidental as Conway discovers when he is summoned to speak with the saintlike High Lama (character actor Sam Jaffe looking like a mummified Phantom of the Opera). Apparently the people who run Shangri-La have some grandiose plans for the world at large and Conway is to play a critical role in bringing them to fruition. Released just as WWII was gathering on the horizon it is easy to appreciate the film’s call for non-violence even though the American Military added some anti-Japanese propaganda to the opening scenes which were thankfully removed for this restored version. The plane passengers themselves provide a small cross-section of greater society’s ills, from the skeptical scientist and oily conman to the weary prostitute and George, Conway’s brother, who ends up being the proverbial snake in Eden. Groundbreaking for the time, the cinematography and Oscar-winning set design use refrigerated sound stages, rear projection and life-sized plane models for realism while the clever use of miniatures and stage lighting adds a touch of magic. A pipe dream perhaps, but produced with a great deal of flair and intelligence.

The Love Bug (USA 1968) (7): Likeable Disney fluff about down-on-his-luck race car driver Jim Douglas (studio mainstay Dean Jones) who unwittingly takes possession of a most unusual VW beetle; a car that literally has a mind of its own. Despite his mechanic’s insistence that “Herbie” has genuine feelings, Douglas initially credits the bug’s odd behaviour to various electrical malfunctions even though its performance on the race track far exceeds the model’s design specifications and it has the strange habit of opening and closing its own doors, playing matchmaker, and taking off for short jaunts by itself. Eventually coming around, Douglas and his new love interest—a former business acquaintance of his arch racetrack rival Peter Thorndyke (fellow studio mainstay David Tomlinson)—enter Herbie in the greatest race of his career. But Tomlinson is not about to see the uppity beetle beat him yet again, even if winning means having to repeatedly sabotage the determined little car. Not much to critique here really, a thoroughly G-rated family film with some impressive stunts for the time, a bit of mild menace, and the type of happily ever after ending you can rely on. The background scenes of hippy-era San Francisco are pretty cool too.

The Loved Ones (Australia 2009) (7): Still blaming himself for the car accident which killed his father six months earlier, highschool senior Brent (Johnny Depp lookalike Xavier Samuel) tries to ease his guilt with hefty doses of Death Metal and pot. Thankfully his girlfriend Holly and overly protective mother are there to provide some solace. Unfortunately fellow classmate Lola “Princess” Stone is not so understanding after Brent politely refuses her invitation to the school dance. Living in an isolated farm house with her lobotomized mother and homicidally attentive father (with whom she has a disturbingly intimate relationship), Lola is one very troubled young lady who will stop at nothing to get what she wants even if it means having daddy kidnap Brent and drag him home for her own private prom complete with party hats and disco ball. But when Brent doesn’t take kindly to being tied up and having his vocal chords paralyzed, Lola and her dad decide to break out the party favours; mainly butcher knives, a carving fork, and one very persistent power drill. Will Brent’s mom and girlfriend be able to find him in time or will he end up experiencing the ultimate horror which awaits just beneath the Stone’s kitchen floorboards? Like a sick mash-up of Carrie and Texas Chainsaw, this wholly gratuitous teenage bloodbath proves that when it comes to psycho cinema those twisted Aussies have their American counterparts beat hands down. Although technically impressive with its grisly effects and crazy camp performances, what ultimately saves The Loved Ones from becoming just another batshit flick is an underlying current of jet black humour which reaches its peak during the film’s frenzied finale involving girls, cars, and a big old pile of bones and corpses. Director Sean Byrne knew exactly what he was doing and for those who appreciate it he serves up a treat, everyone else gets the screen equivalent of a middle finger.

The Lovely Bones (USA 2009) (8): Narrating from the great beyond, angelic 14-year old Susie Salmon describes how she was brutally murdered on December 6th, 1973 by her neighbour Mr. Harvey, a violent pedophile with a taste for little girls. Unwilling to let go of her earthly attachments Susie finds herself stuck in a benign limbo while she makes one desperate attempt after another to connect with her grieving father and exact revenge on her killer. But, as she gradually discovers, anger can be a double-edged sword and karma has a way of working things out on its own. Peter Jackson’s dark fairy tale evokes a keen sense of déjà vu for those of us old enough to remember day-glo pantsuits and floral wallpaper while his gloriously visual CGI-riddled visions of the afterlife are drawn directly from the innocent daydreams of a naïve teenage girl. But unlike the syrupy tripe of What Dreams May Come, Jackson keeps things grounded with an intelligent script and a cast of believable characters. In the role of Susie, Saoirse Ronan gives a complex performance as a teenager mourning all the adult delights she will never know; her shock of red hair and pale features underscoring a formidable young talent. Stanley Tucci’s turn as Mr. Harvey, on the other hand, is a chilling blend of bewildered man-child and ice cold predator; the very embodiment of every parents’ nightmare. But even though Susan Sarandon’s role as Susie’s drinking, smoking, Bohemian grandmother provides a few welcome laughs it seems slightly out of place given the film’s overall tone. Poignant and lyrical, with just a wee touch of schmaltz (Spielberg is listed as an executive producer after all), this proved to be one unexpected pleasure.

Love Me Deadly (USA 1973) (5): Still nursing an unhealthy attachment to her long dead father, Los Angeles socialite Lindsay Finch satisfies her Electra impulses by sneaking into funeral homes and swapping spit with the dearly departed after the mourners have left. It isn’t long however before her post mortem kisses attract the attention of creepy mortician Fred McSweeney who just happens to host a weekly coven of devil worshippers in his embalming room and before you can shout rigor mortis! Lindsay is introduced to the wonderful world of drugs, Satanism, and necrophilia—a clandestine hobby which soon puts her at odds with the only two men in her life who are actually alive… Director Jacques Lacerte’s cheesy low-budget cult flick is a veritable riot of kitschy fashions, hair-sprayed coifs, and all the tacky 70s decor you can stomach in one sitting. With everyone’s acting ability one step above the average porn loop and a baffling musical score which continually bounces from three-fingered minor chords to sunny cartoon melodies and A.M. radio schlock (not to mention a wholly inappropriate orgy scene set to “Requiem for Soprano” first heard in Kubrick’s 2001) this is definitely one of the best worst films I’ve seen in some time. At least the few relatively tame gross-out segments are still worth a look (guys tend to holler when they’re being embalmed alive) and the cuddly closing scene is enough to put the creep factor right through the stuccoed ceiling.

Lover Come Back (USA 1961) (7): Although they’ve never met in person and have no idea what each other looks like, Madison Avenue advertising execs Jerry Webster and Carol Templeton (Rock Hudson, Doris Day) suddenly find themselves bitter rivals when the amoral and underhanded Jerry steals a lucrative account right from under Carol’s virginal nose. But when she finds out he’s trying to seal a deal with Nobel scientist Linus Tyler to market “Vip”, a revolutionary and highly secret new product, she decides it’s payback time. The trouble is, Vip doesn’t actually exist, at least not yet, and to make matters even worse Carol mistakes Jerry for professor Tyler and sets about trying to woo him much to his amusement. Cutesy romantic complications ensue… Full of bright Day-Glo colours and kitschy decor this frothy little treat from director Delbert Mann still manages to pack in a surprising amount of sexual innuendo, including a few gay in-jokes, despite Hudson’s determinedly hetero playacting and Day’s trademark apple pie wholesomeness. Rock never misses a chance to take his shirt off or set his bedroom eyes to high-beam, Doris flusters like a Catholic schoolgirl in pink lipstick and a blonde flip; and in the role of Webster’s neurotic CEO, Tony Randall provides the perfect foil. A racy little comedy guaranteed not to offend anyone providing they can overlook its inherent 60’s sexism. And Doris’ collection of loud hats has to be seen to be believed!

Lovers of the Arctic Circle (Spain 1998) (3): "Life is a series of circular journeys..." we're told at the outset of this very tedious bit of arthouse fodder, "...and all things die when they run out of gas". Much like this film. Following the journey of the palindromically named Otto and Ana from childhood sweethearts to step-siblings to clandestine lovers, Julio Medem's film meanders back and forth through time for no apparent reason other than to show us how seemingly random coincidences conspire to alter our protagonists' lives. But, sadly, not even fate can make those lives any more interesting to watch despite portentous wind storms, interminable sunsets, and a metaphorical red bus. I made it to the halfway mark then fast forwarded through to the final tragedy without skipping a beat. A bad chick flick for the easily enthralled.

The Loving Story (USA 2011) (8): In 1958 Richard Loving married his longtime sweetheart Mildred and the two of them began living as man and wife in their home state of Virginia. They never dreamed that their relationship marked the beginning of a legal battle which would start in the county jail where they were temporarily incarcerated and end in front of the Supreme Court of the United States thus changing the face of the Civil Rights Movement forever. The fact that Richard was white and Mildred was “coloured” so enraged bigots throughout the south who believed that god himself intentionally segregated the races the two were forced to live apart for months at a time while their challenge to Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law worked its way through the legal system with invaluable help from the ACLU. This gripping documentary, comprised entirely of archival footage, home movies, and contemporary interviews, not only exposes the ludicrous attempts at justifying a law which was basically a throwback from the days of slavery, it also paints a simple picture of an ordinary couple facing extraordinary circumstances with dignity and perseverance: Mildred’s calm and articulate manner complimenting Richard’s quiet strength. So persuasive was the ACLU’s winning arguments that several years later the SCOTUS decision on “Loving vs. Virginia” was cited repeatedly in the fight for same-sex marriage recognition, a struggle which Mildred (who died in 2008) supported wholeheartedly. In her own words, “I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.” Beautifully done.

Lucker The Necrophagous (Belgium 1986) (2):  Even though its production values are not as polished as “Nekromantik”, this tale of an escaped lunatic who enjoys having sex with the decomposing bodies of his victims certainly delivers on the gross-out factor.  The question is, does the world really need another stag film for psychopathic necrophiles?

Lust for Life (USA 1956) (7): Vincente Minnelli’s cinemascope biopic on the tortured life of artist Vincent van Gogh is based on Irving Stone’s novel of the same name. In one of his signature performances, Kirk Douglas traces the evolution of Holland’s most famous son as he goes from frustrated evangelist to impassioned painter increasingly frustrated with his inability to break down that “iron door” separating what he perceives from what he is able to portray on canvas. Falling in with the unpopular Impressionist school while staying with his brother Theo in Paris, Van Gogh’s tentative sketches eventually gave way to the vibrantly coloured interiors and landscapes he was to become famous for. Unfortunately, despite Theo’s moral and financial support and the gruff encouragement he received from fellow artist Paul Gauguin (an Oscar-winning Anthony Quinn) Vincent slowly succumbed to the crushing loneliness and mental instability that seemed to be his lot in life while his works received little if any critical attention. After several bouts of debilitating anxiety attacks, including one that prompted him to slice off his own ear, and a few voluntary stints in asylums, Vincent eventually died penniless at the age of 37, a suspected suicide. Douglas’ animated performance shows us a man of great genius—and great pain—who struggled to express his impressions of light, colour, and texture with oils and paintbrush. With cleverly constructed sets and location shots along the coasts of Holland, Belgium, and France, Minnelli brings the master’s works to literal life as we see his paintings juxtaposed with the actual forests, buildings, and sun-drenched wheat fields which inspired them—apparently the director had one section of a field spray-painted so that its colour would more closely match Van Gogh’s work. With a narrator reading Vincent’s letters to his brother, as well as some intensely staged exchanges between the fiery Dutchman and the equally volatile Gauguin, Minnelli offers us the briefest of glimpses into the working of an artistic soul—a feat not easily accomplished using the medium of film.

M (Germany 1931) (8): Originally banned by the Nazis, Fritz Lang’s darkly brooding tale of a murderous pedophile, part policier, part social critique, has lost none of its bite in the intervening years and Peter Lorre gives his greatest performance as Hans Beckert, a painfully withdrawn young man compelled to kill children by his “darker half”. As the body count grows and the police remain baffled the public becomes increasingly agitated especially when the local newspaper decides to cash in on the fear with one sensationalistic headline after another. Even the city’s criminal underground is spurred into action as the increased police presence begins to threaten both their livelihood and their “good” reputation. Ironically it is the villains who seem to have all the resources and manpower to catch the killer. Their efforts eventually lead to an ingenious game of cat & mouse in an empty office building that culminates in a most fantastic trial by jury. Lang’s gorgeous B&W photography and severe camera angles lend a sense of hyperreality to the film’s Kafkaesque industrial landscapes and a few beautifully executed tracking shots, including one that actually goes between two floors, were highly innovative for the time. The murders themselves, though never shown, are made painfully real by the most innocuous of images---an abandoned ball or an empty place setting at a dinner table. And as a crime thriller it is fascinating to watch the devices of modern detective work...circa 1931. But the film’s true strength lies in the way it chronicles the effect of the murders on an entire society, from the mayor’s office right down to the common pickpocket. A form of mass paranoia erupts in vigilantism and hysterical accusations while the tortured Beckert himself, clueless and mentally ill, is used to illustrate the capricious nature of mob justice. Thoroughly modern themes for such an old film.

Madadayo (Japan 1993) (5): Sadly, Akira Kurosawa’s final film is not among his best; a study of one old man’s decline plagued by glacial pacing and too many moments of staged serenity. Towards the end of WWII sixty-year old professor Uchida announces he’s retiring from teaching in order to devote more time to his writing. Living hermit-like with his adoring wife in a cramped hut (his first house having fallen prey to Allied bombs) the delightfully eccentric Uchida nevertheless welcomes the small horde of former students who regularly drop by to pay their respects to the man they once described as a “lump of pure gold”. And every year they gather to honour him on his birthday where they ritually chant “Are you ready?” to which he replies “Not yet!” (madadayo!) before downing a tankard of beer. The years pass, small joys and sorrows come and go, the professor grows older and more feeble, his students become middle-aged professionals, and still the birthday celebrations continue until one day Uchida quite literally walks into the most gloriously cheesy sunset to ever grace a green screen. Despite some moving performances and a lovely Vivaldi score there is not enough substance here to flesh out 134 minutes. Between the yearly fêtes Uchida ruminates on life, goes looking for a missing cat, displays his wry sense of humour, and generally represents the director himself as he faces his final years with dignity and wit. Along the way we learn nothing of his students or his wife (perhaps intentionally) but we do see subtle changes as Japan limps towards its post WWII economic miracle: traditional garb gives way to western suits, modest parties become soirees, and female faces begin to appear in the crowd. A polite and respectful meditation on that deeper wisdom which comes with age whose lack of dramatic sweep and narrative context (it is very Japanese) unfortunately turns a swan song into something of a cinematic endurance test. Patience required.

Mad Max: Fury Road (Australia) (9): In its basest form this latest addition to the Mad Max mythos from writer/director George Miller is essentially a two-hour high speed car crash, but it is delivered with such pyrotechnics and adrenaline you hardly notice it all hinges on a hare-brained plot. A nuclear Armageddon has rendered Oz a hostile desert where tribal warlords vie for control of what meagre resources remain. The strongest of these men, Immortan Joe, is currently experiencing domestic problems in his rocky citadel after a group of female pacifists—including his entire harem of concubines—led by ace warrior Furiosa (a kick-ass Charlize Theron sporting a mechanical arm) commandeer an armoured vehicle and head out in search of more peaceful pastures. Not one to give up easily however, Joe amasses an army of drug-fortified, radiation-sickened soldiers driving lethal super vehicles and gives chase. But the women gain an unexpected boon when a psychologically scarred ex-cop turned desert rogue named Max (a baritone Tom Hardy) joins their ranks… Red filters and a touch of CGI turn magnificent Namibian locales into crimson martian landscapes where flotillas of outlandish war machines—one even sporting a demented musician wailing on a fire-spitting electric guitar—crash, roll, flip, and explode while a thrashing orchestral score barely manages to keep pace. Spectacular stunts, surreal panoramas, and acres of sweaty, muscular man flesh manage to keep you in your seat, and in a welcome twist to the genre Miller cuts through the heavy pall of testosterone with a few slashes of high-octane estrogen when Furiosa encounters a gang of rebel grannies. Anyone with a medical background will smirk at the highly improbable ending but at least the promise of a sequel comes more as a reassurance than a threat. A fast and furious screen-burner guaranteed to entertain as long as you keep your brain firing on one piston.

Madrid, 1987 (Spain 2011) (5): Ángela, a beautiful young journalism student, decides to interview crusty old newspaper columnist Miguel as part of her term paper. Meeting at a local bistro the two eventually wind up at an apartment belonging to Miguel’s friend where a botched attempt at seduction on his part finds the two accidentally locked in the bathroom with no clothes and no chance of being rescued until the next day. Thus confined, the two spend the next twenty-four hours gazing into each other’s navel with Miguel giving a series of lectures on everything from art and journalistic integrity to politics and fucking while sniffing around Ángela’s hindquarters like a dog in heat. Ángela, for her part, simply tries to toss in her own youthful insights now and again. Like an anemic version of My Dinner with Andre sans appetizers, writer/director David Trueba’s two-hander bites off way more than we care to swallow. Despite a few bon mots Miguel’s non-stop monologues become tiresome as does Ángela’s ambivalent hero worship of the abrasive curmudgeon. As teacher and pupil inevitably open up to one another between bouts of verbal sparring and potty breaks we learn nothing new from either generation and the persistent nudity (there’s only one towel) goes from glaring metaphor to crass gimmick rather quickly. When the bathroom door finally opens no one was more relieved than me.

The Magic Voyage of Sinbad [Sadko] (Russia 1953) (2): A decidedly Slavic Sinbad tries to bring happiness to his homeland by scouring the seven seas in search of the Bird of Happiness. Along the way he battles foppish vikings, cops a feel off of Neptune's daughter, and kidnaps an overgrown budgie only to discover that true happiness lies with his flat-chested girlfriend back home. The worst Sinbad movie ever made (actually based on an opera by Rimsky-Korsakoff) is not without a certain degree of style. There are a few wonderfully surreal scenes, a treacherous phoenix locked within the fantastical walls of a Raja's palace is especially well done, but the film is ruined again and again by bad dubbing, horrendous matte screen backdrops and primitive special effects....a toy boat filled with stick dolls floating in a choppy bathtub left us howling! Keep an eye out for the MST3K version of this Russian turkey so your evening won't be a total waste.

The Magnificent Ambersons (USA 1942) (7): Orson Welles directs this dark morality play set at the turn of the century which traces the shifting fortunes of the Amberson clan, most notably daughter Isabel and her son George, while recording the death of the era in which they lived. Practically owning the small town in which their palatial estate is situated, the Ambersons enjoy a life of privilege unimagined by the common folk around them. But behind the gala balls and evening soirees there is a degree of discontent, for despite her marriage to businessman Wilbur Minafer, Isabel still longs for her first love, the pioneering inventor Eugene Morgan whose heart she broke years before. Upon Wilbur’s death the long-suppressed feelings between her and Eugene are reignited much to the indignation of her son George and her sister-in-law Fanny; he is worried about scandalous rumors while she, an embittered spinster, has always carried a torch for Morgan herself. Complicating matters is the budding romance between the spoiled and impetuous George and Morgan’s quick-witted daughter, Lucy. But dynasties don’t last forever and a combination of failed business deals and burned bridges find Isabel and George at a social and financial crossroads with Eugene and Lucy looking on helplessly from the sidelines. This is a gorgeously filmed epic with all of Welles’ cinematic conceits on full display, from dizzying camera angles and glorious tracking shots to intimate close-ups and amazing Christmas Card sets. And it’s all shot in richly shadowed B&W making the cinematography an integral part of the tragic narrative. Unfortunately the executives at RKO Studios, unhappy with both the length and depressing vision of Welles’ family drama, went behind the director’s back and cut almost an hour out of its running time while adding an “uplifting” ending for good measure. As a result the pace of the story appears choppy and episodic, and the syrupy final scenes ring false. A real pity.

Magnificent Obsession (USA 1954) (7): When ill-mannered millionaire playboy Bob Merrick (a convincingly hetero Rock Hudson) crashes his racing boat the paramedics tie up the town’s only resuscitator in order to revive him. Of course this is the exact time that the saintly Dr. Phillips, local hero and benefactor, decides to have a heart attack and dies for want of the same resuscitator. Overcome with guilt, Merrick becomes haunted by the good doctor’s memory whether it’s in the form of a half-finished portrait, or his widow’s accusing stares (Jane Wyman, beautifully victimized). His desperate attempts to make amends inadvertently lead to yet another disaster which leaves the poor woman permanently blinded. This is when he becomes involved with a mysterious friend of the Phillips family who indoctrinates him into a secretive mystical order; apparently when the late doctor was not busy walking on water he made a cult out of tapping into the power of the universe by doing anonymous good deeds. As he woos the blind widow using an assumed identity, Merrick decides to turn his life around and devote himself to the betterment of others; he even returns to medical school and graduates with honours. But can he ever repay his debt to the woman he loves? Sirk has outdone himself with this sudsy weeper. It is awash with rich vibrant colours, impassioned performances and a lush musical score complete with heavenly choir. His odd mixture of romantic melodrama and Christian voodoo may not always gel, but he embellishes it with so much froth you hardly notice. I suppose you could read all sorts of meaning into the film’s outrageous plot: how blindness takes many forms from the physical to the metaphysical; how averting one’s eyes from the baser trappings of human nature leads to a clearer spiritual vision; or how our sense of reality changes when familiar elements are removed from their usual context. There is certainly enough symbolism in Sirk’s use of shadows, doorways and windows and he wraps it all up in so much religious hocus-pocus, including a mock witch-burning. I chose to watch it as a magnificently overdone soap opera instead, and as such it was pure joy!

Make Way For Tomorrow (USA 1937) (10): When Barkley and Lucy Cooper, married for fifty years, discover that the bank is foreclosing on their home (Barkley has been unable to find work) the couple turn to their adult children for help. Faced with having to look after mom and dad the kids reluctantly agree to take them in; Lucy moves in with one son and his wife while Barkley moves in with another, three hundred miles away. But when it appears that this temporary fix may become permanent and the other siblings are unable (read: unwilling) to help, troubles begin to mount. None of the children want their parents underfoot, even the maid protests over having to babysit Lucy while a granddaughter refuses to bring friends home due to grandma's incessant talking. For their part, the old couple seem too set in their ways to effect a compromise even though they sense they are not wanted. The children eventually hit upon a solution, behind their parents’ backs of course, leading to one of cinema's most heartbreaking endings. Equal parts droll comedy and soft spoken tragedy, Leo McCarey's indictment of the Generation Gap circa 1930s shows that nothing much has changed in the intervening eighty years: some grown-ups still find aging parents an obstacle rather than an obligation. Stars Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi look and act as if they truly were married for half a century; their unspoken understanding, wistful recollections, and gentle banter anchor the film with a profound pathos without succumbing to cheap sympathy. Furthermore the children, all played with consummate skill, are not the two-dimensional adult brats you would expect but rather complex characters exhibiting a wide range of conflicting emotions. The film's final scene, beautifully underplayed, will have you reaching for that last kleenex.

Malabimba the Malicious Whore  (Italy 1979) (2):  Take a nubile young naif, a busty cougar, an altruistic lesbian nun and a couple of sexually frustrated men. Throw them in a gloomy old castle and add one lustful spirit. Shake gently and voila, you have Malabimba—or as I prefer to call it, "The Father, The Nun, and the Horny Ghost". With its generic hardcore close-ups and histrionic presentation, this cheesy little dish will delight sleaze connoisseurs of all persuasions. Leave it to a good Catholic pornographer to equate a young woman's sexual curiosity with demonic evil. BOO!!

Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (USA 1973) (1): Some people should never be allowed within 50 yards of a movie camera. Case in point is Christopher Speeth’s jumbled train wreck of a film in which a host of unsuspecting suburban couples buy shares in a rundown amusement park only to discover its staffed by hippy cannibals led by an impotent vampire and a caped Frank Zappa lookalike. Living in underground caves beneath the carnival, the ghouls emerge at night in order to watch old horror movies before inflicting mayhem and carnage on those poor souls unlucky enough to be wandering the midway after hours. Enter Vena, daughter of one of the new shareholders, who strikes up a romantic liaison with Kit, a carnival barker who suspects something is amiss when he discovers blood in the Tunnel of Love. Sneaking out of the family trailer (yes, they live in a trailer in a parking lot) in order to meet up with Kit, Vena instead falls prey to Malatesta’s horde of malcontents and thus begins a long and puzzling night of terror. With sets composed mainly of plywood and bubble wrap, lines taken directly from a bad comic book, and a director who has no concept of either continuity or momentum, Carnival of Blood is at best a running joke with no punchline. Employing a cast of no-talent nobodies, with the exception of no-talent somebody Hervé Villechaize (here playing Bobo, an enigmatic and barely intelligible dwarf), Speeth makes several weak, and unintentionally hilarious, attempts to confound his audience with fantastical dream sequences and arty asides à la Carnival of Souls: shambling zombies covered in pancake make-up cavort amongst giant mylar balloons, an annoyingly fey fortune teller lisps dire warnings to Vena, and a hapless victim is fed into a pulsating rubber orifice before being drained of blood and eaten alive. Absolutely horrible on every level (ooh...styrofoam heads covered in ketchup!) this stinker goes beyond amateurish and ranks as one of the worst excuses for a film I’ve ever seen. It’s confounding to read the number of glowing reviews it’s received over they years, I guess some critics just don’t know the difference between “slapdash” and “surreal”.

Mama (Canada/Spain 2013) (5): Five years after disappearing into the woods with their suicidal father, Victoria and her sister Lilly, now aged eight and six, are found living like wild dogs in an abandoned cabin. Reunited with their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau playing both men) and his rocker girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) the girls slowly reintegrate into society with the help of a psychiatrist who hopes to make them the subject of his next thesis. But something nasty has followed them out of the woods, something named Mama that has been watching over the two tykes since they were first lost and is not about to let go of them now. As Lucas and Annabel resign themselves to the sound of little pattering feet in the hallway other mysterious happenings become harder to ignore: the creaking shadows seen out of the corner of their eyes; the juicy black moths crawling out of the wallpaper; and the guttural sighs drifting up through the air ducts. With the spectral phenomena becoming more brazen, the girls’ doctor tries to unravel the sad mystery behind Mama before the thing can make its final move. Using a palette of wintry colours and lighting effects which rarely go beyond twilight, director Andrés Muschietti’s ghostly shocker certainly doesn’t lack for style. Furthermore, executive producer Guillermo del Toro’s fascination with the dark fairytale world of children is evident throughout starting with an opening montage of disturbing crayon scribblings and the words “Once upon a time…” But the film’s many jolts become predictable after a while—all those jerking silhouettes and fluttering moths reduced to so much gimmicky filler and his fiend little more than an extra crispy Barbie with waving hair and a few extra joints. When Muschietti finally ends this overly long exercise in generic frights he not only destroys any sense of mystique, he also veers full on into cloying Tim Burton territory with menacing moonlight and a choir straining to keep the mood going. And more goddam moths.

Maman est Chez le Coiffeur (Canada 2008) (7): Set in rural Quebec towards the end of the 60’s this coming-of-age film centres on the Gauvin family, particularly eldest daughter Élise. With dad a successful doctor and his wife Simone an international journalist of some renown the family seems to be leading an idyllic life which makes mom’s abrupt and angry departure for a posting in London, England all the more confusing. While oldest brother Conrad reacts to mom’s disappearance with a sullen indifference his younger sibling Benoit, already terribly fragile due to some unspecified “personality disorders”, turns his anger both inward and outward in a series of increasingly destructive stunts. Meanwhile Dad does his best to keep the family going while dealing with his own feelings of bewilderment and deep-seated guilt. But it is Élise, barely in her teens, who feels her mother’s absence most acutely for only she and her father know the real reason behind Simone’s hasty exit. Dealing with her own sense of guilt, intensified by an emerging case of adolescent angst, Élise finds her carefree days behind her as she slowly comes to the realization that the world is both sadder and more wonderful than she had ever imagined. With long languorous shots of glowing cornfields and lazy rivers director Léa Pool evokes hazy childhood memories of summer vacation, that special time in our lives when skies were somehow bluer and grass so much greener. Furthermore her many little touches, from patterned vinyl furniture and flowery fashions to old television footage and flippy hair-dos capture the flavour of the late 1960’s perfectly while a piercing score of classical piano and sultry torch songs ties it all together. Lastly, her stellar cast of actors are both physically beautiful and enormously talented. Unfortunately she often ices the cake more than is necessary and quietly slips into Spielberg territory with its inflated nostalgia and dripping sense of poignancy; a closing montage in particular threatens to yank our heartstrings right out of our chests. And although her actors handle the material with great aplomb, the children are fantastic, I couldn’t help but feel a subtle artifice and manipulation at work which detracted from what was otherwise an assured and finely nuanced film.

Mamma Roma (Italy 1962) (8): Anna Magnani is brilliant in Pasolini’s heartbreaking story of a former prostitute desperately trying to give her son the life she never had. First married to a man decades her senior while still a teenager, then victimized by a brutal pimp, “Mamma Roma” endured years of shame and privation yet managed to survive by sheer force of will. Now eking out a living as a vegetable vendor in a backwater village she dreams of saving her son from a life of small town delinquency by moving to an upscale apartment in Rome; a dream thrown into turmoil when her ex-pimp comes knocking at the door. Although firmly rooted in Italian neorealism, Pasolini nevertheless manages to throw in some very clever camerawork which, along with a melancholic score of classical Vivaldi, gives his film the highly formalized feel of a religious epic; a series of long tracking shots following Mamma Roma as she strolls past assorted johns while waxing eloquent on everything from motherhood to the legacy of Mussolini were especially notable. There is a finely balanced symmetry at work here as the story shifts from the mean streets of rural Italy to the cleaner, though no less mean, streets of modern Rome. While the old apartment faces a barren cemetery filled with concrete headstones, the new one overlooks the faded glory of crumbling ruins; yet in both settings one is all too aware of the ubiquitous dust that seems to cover everything. True to his roots, Pasolini doesn’t miss an opportunity to take a few jabs at God, or rather the ritualized hypocrisy of the church whether it’s a sobering interpretation of the Madonna & Child, a trio of pigs crashing a wedding banquet, or a passionate quotation from Dante’s Inferno. But, above all, this is a sad tale of one headstrong mother’s refusal to accept what life has given her. “The evil you do is like a highway the innocent have to walk down...” she states at one point; words that culminate in one of cinema’s most tragic final scenes.

The Man Called Flintstone (USA 1966) (6): Meant as a swan song for the Bedrock gang after the TV series was cancelled, this animated James Bond spoof sees Fred Flintstone mistaken for secret agent Rock Slag. With the real Slag laid up in hospital it’s suddenly up to Fred to save the world from the nefarious arch criminal Green Goose who plans on holding civilization hostage with his super powerful “inter-rock-inental” missile. Accompanied by an unsuspecting Wilma, Barney, and Betty, Fred’s undercover adventures take him from Paris to Rome before a wacky showdown outside an Italian amusement park lands him in more than hot water. The usual prehistoric sight gags are all here (jet planes fly on pterodactyl power, alligator suitcases are actual alligators), the animation is one notch above Saturday morning television, and the tacked on musical numbers are beyond corny but for those of us who grew up with The Flintstones it’s a technicolor trip down memory lane, bare feet and all.

Manifesto (Germany 2015) (9): Originally presented as a multi-screen gallery installation, Julian Rosefeldt’s celebration of various schools of 20th century thought and artistic expression makes for an engaging cinematic experience with Cate Blanchett portraying no less than a baker’s dozen worth of personas, each reading from one particular group’s published manifesto. She’s a grieving widow haranguing a crowd of graveside mourners with the anti-everything ferocity of Dadaism. She’s a wholesome midwest housewife lowering her head over the dinner table and, in lieu of grace, delivering instead a longwinded paean on the comforting familiarity of Pop Art. Now she’s both a news anchor and a roving reporter exchanging banter on the precepts of Conceptual Art and Minimalism. And, my personal favourite, she’s a no-nonsense teacher drilling the virtues of Von Trier's Dogme 95 into the heads of her bewildered second grade students. Theatrical, volatile, glorious, and contradictory, Blanchett’s consummate acting skill and Rosefeldt’s keen eye for marrying ideology with the perfect image (a goth punk delivers a rant on Stridentism; a maddeningly pretentious CEO gushes over Abstract Expressionism) add up to a master class on the artistic and philosophical movements which have shaped western society. Well worth a second viewing.

The Man in the White Suit (UK 1951) (6): In this beloved Ealing Studios comedy Alec “Obi Wan” Guinness plays Sidney Stratton, a brilliant if hopelessly naive chemist who’s just made the discovery of the century; an indestructible fabric that also repels dirt. Expecting international accolades for his momentous invention, Stratton instead receives a crash course in Capitalism as textile giants, trade unionists, and humble washerwomen alike, fearing for their livelihoods, go to extraordinary lengths to shut him up. It seems the world is not yet ready for perpetual clothes that never wear out and Sidney quickly finds himself on the lam from an increasingly hostile mob. There is not much to overtly criticize in this inoffensive little satire; it is well written, well acted and the B&W cinematography is pleasing to the eye. It’s just not very funny. With its mild sense of non-peril and terribly droll humour it’s all so very very British in a way that doesn’t really work for me, eliciting little more than an occasional half-smile. It’s easy to watch however, then quickly forgotten, and guaranteed not to keep you up at night.

The Manitou (USA 1977) (6): This unintentionally (?) camp riff on an Exorcist theme finds a San Francisco woman with a most unusual lump on her neck. It contains a growing fetus, actually the reincarnated spirit of a powerful medicine man, and both traditional Indian magic and modern medical treatments are helpless to stop his rebirth. But the woman's ex-boyfriend (an embarrassed Tony Curtis) eventually finds a way to battle the malevolent pint-sized shaman armed only with the power of love and a few kindhearted computers (no, really). Great views of SF and plenty of cheesy 70's touches. Really really bad but lots of fun just the same!

The Man of My Life [ L’homme de sa vie] (France 2006) (6): Handsome chemist Frédéric is enjoying a summer holiday in the country with his beautiful young wife, adorable little son, and pragmatic mother when life is turned upside-down by the arrival of next door neighbour Hugo, a graphic artist with a few chips on his shoulder. Seemingly polar opposites in every way—heterosexual Fred sees the world through rose-coloured glasses, Hugo is an embittered gay man who scoffs at love and commitment—the two men are inexplicably drawn to one another much to the discomfiture of Fred’s increasingly neurotic wife… Writer/director Zabour Breitman takes the conventional chick flick and adds a dash of testosterone in this not-quite-homoerotic look at male bonding, father-son relationships, and the emotional pitfalls that simply come with being a man. Kicked out of his home by a homophobic father when he was just a teenager, Hugo is understandably cold when it comes to warm fuzzy feelings even though the walls of his home are decorated with scrawled messages pertaining to hope and dreams. Fred, on the other hand, seems content with his middle class existence until Hugo’s pessimism forces him to defend it. Yet both men are harbouring secrets and both are boxed in physically as well as psychologically with Fred’s bedroom walls and Hugo’s concrete swimming pool providing unsubtle metaphors and a long rambling discourse à la My Dinner with Andre shedding some light on their individual psyches while at the same time dividing the film into rough chapters. Some visual flourishes are striking though of questionable value—a mysterious wind constantly blows through Fred’s front door; people move in and out of forced tableaux reminiscent of 19th century romantic paintings; a trek through a dazzling field of sunflowers is pure overkill—but when Breitman tempers her enthusiasm just a tad the results can be disarmingly poignant as in those scenes where Fred’s son runs around in red cape and hood like a mischievous cupid—an echo of younger, more innocent times. Although the surface story of a happy hetero thrown into a tailspin by a conniving homo may be off-putting, taken as a psychodrama exploring male dichotomies it’s at least engaging.

The Man Who Came to Dinner (USA 1942) (8): World renowned critic, lecturer, and egotistical boor Sheridan Whiteside (a bitchy, bewhiskered Monty Woolley) pays a visit to the provincial town of Mesalia, Ohio as part of a cross-country publicity tour. While there he grudgingly accepts a dinner invitation at the home of Mr. & Mrs. Ernest Stanley, the closest thing Mesalia has to an upper crust. Unfortunately a slip on an icy porch lands him in a wheelchair and forces him to spend an entire month at the Stanley residence while he recuperates. With a neurotic private nurse and his iron-willed but kindhearted secretary Maggie (Bette Davis, definitely playing against character) in tow it isn’t long before the insufferably arrogant Whiteside commandeers the entire downstairs for his own needs with the sufficiently cowed Stanley clan relegated to the upper bedrooms. Between fielding calls from world leaders and Hollywood moguls and working on his upcoming “inspirational” Christmas radio address Sheridan takes great delight in manipulating everyone else’s life, including the Stanley’s adult children. But when Maggie—the only person who can handle his insatiable ego—falls in love with a local newspaper editor and decides to quit her job a desperate Whiteside is determined to sour the romance by any and all means at his disposal. And then things get silly… Director William Keighley’s screwball comedy certainly shows its Broadway roots with characters running in and out of doors or up and down staircases while the camera remains rooted for the most part in the elegantly spacious living room where Whiteside and Maggie affectionately lock horns. Although the producers were worried about Woolley’s homosexuality being “too obvious” on the screen his evocation of the portly quick-witted old harridan is pure comedy gold—besides, Reginald Gardiner’s portrayal of Beverly Carlton, Whiteside’s personal friend and worldly bon vivant (a character based on Woolley’s real life friend Cole Porter) is not only gay as a goose but his bitchy repartee proves to be one of the film’s many highlights. And then there’s the supporting cast of Jimmy Durante, Billie Burke, and Ann Sheridan—not to mention a handful of enthusiastic penguins and a truculent octopus—which keep nudging the storyline towards one goofy tangent or another. Keighley does seem to lose the reins towards the end however as the film’s manic momentum threatens to fly right off the rails turning a madcap ending into more of a madhouse. Thankfully the preceding mountain of giggles ensures that all is forgiven.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (USA 1956) (7): An American couple vacationing in Morocco with their young son accidentally become entangled in an assassination plot and the conspirators will stop at nothing to keep them quiet. With on-site locations stretching from the bazaars of Marrakesh to London’s Royal Albert Hall, maestro Alfred Hitchcock tries to work his old magic, twining suspense and paranoia into a tired but still highly watchable thriller. Stars James Stewart and Doris Day do share an onscreen chemistry and the wide angle technicolor shots swing effortlessly from blue desert skies to a cramped kidnapper’s lair, but there is an acute lack of tension which keeps the audience forever at arm’s length while some of the American couple’s more stupid decisions push the believability envelope. And do we really need to hear Ms. Day sing “Que Sera Sera” yet again?

The Man Who Never Was (UK 1956) (7): Fanciful account of one of the most audacious military tricks of WWII. In the spring of 1943 it was essential that the Allies invade and occupy the German stronghold at Sicily, a fact well known to Hitler and his cabinet who made sure the small island was heavily guarded. In order to weaken the enemies’ defences, the British high command decided to implement an outrageous plan first suggested by Lt. Cmdr. Ewen Montagu—acquire a dead body; dress it up as an officer of the Royal Marines; plant misleading documents on it suggesting an Allied invasion of Greece; and then drop it into the ocean off the coast of Spain where it will wash ashore, an apparent victim of a plane crash, thus allowing the “top secret” papers to reach the Germans stationed there. With painstaking precision Montagu and his associates create “Major Willy Martin” complete with military ID, bank account, and a love letter from his fictitious fiancée Lucy (in fact the unsuspecting roommate of Montagu’s secretary whose own real life fiancé is serving in the RAF). But, despite their efforts, the staff at British Intelligence are not quite prepared for the tenacity of their German counterparts who launch a very thorough investigation into the identity of Major Martin which includes sending a spy to London… Although gussied up somewhat for the big screen this remains an interesting and very entertaining wartime story which manages to stick to the facts for the most part without any of the exaggerated patriotism so common to the genre. Montagu’s efforts are meticulously recreated right up to the time a handful of officers release the body into the sea, and scenes of the spy skulking about London trying to verify Martin’s existence carry sufficient menace without resorting to melodrama. Gloria Grahame’s performance as the grieving Lucy does border on film noir overkill however, providing the movie’s only low point. The deathbed scene wherein a grieving Scotsman willingly donates his son’s body without question is especially poignant, filmed in soft shadows with a camera angle that manages to take in father, son, and Lieutenant (even though the real body was in fact a lone Welsh vagrant who committed suicide). A few key players, among them Montagu himself, have small cameos and Peter Sellers provides some off camera voices including a very convincing Winston Churchill! And the opening sequence featuring Martin’s body rolling in the surf while a sombre narrator quotes from the 16th century song “The Battle of Otterburn” was brilliant.

Man With a Movie Camera (Russia 1929) (10): Writer/Director Dziga Vertov’s dazzling cinematic celebration takes us on a breakneck tour of a day in the life of a cosmopolitan Russian city (actually an amalgamation of Kiev, Moscow, and Odessa). Kneeling in front of approaching trains, perching vicariously on the door of a speeding car, or hanging from the edge of a skyscraper, he presents us with a crazy visual montage of ordinary citizens going about their business as the city sprawls organically around them, its spinning wheels and chuffing pistons ensuring that all runs smoothly. Making expert use of every camera trick in the book from split screens and superimposition to stop-motion animation, Vertov’s rapid fire editing technique coupled with a kinetic musical score by contemporary composer Michael Nyman (The Piano) almost overwhelms the senses as we weave in and out of traffic, descend down mine shafts, and flit in and out of beauty parlours and factories. Here a child is born, there an open casket is paraded towards the churchyard, and everywhere people smile, mug, or hide from the ubiquitous lens—including the director himself who often films himself filming others as if to remind us that we are witnessing the creative process firsthand. By examining man’s interrelationship with the natural and manufactured world one could almost see Dziga’s vision as an upbeat precursor to Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi. Astonishing!

Marguerite (France 2015) (8): Based on the life of American socialite Florence Foster Jenkins, a woman who would not let a dire lack of talent interfere with her dreams of singing opera, director Xavier Giannoli has fashioned a ravishing period piece whose satirical barbs never quite conceal the warm empathy at its heart. Living in the wealthier circles of 1920’s France, middle-aged heiress Marguerite Dumont (a bravura turn from Catherine Frot) is a giving benefactor with a passion for the arts and children’s charities. Hosting musical recitals at her country estate in order to raise funds she manages to secure some of Europe’s most promising talent—and then undermines it all by casting herself as the headlining act. With a screeching soprano that sounds like two angry cats mating Marguerite assails her audience with selections from Mozart to Puccini, basking in their applause completely oblivious to their hidden smirks and suppressed giggles. But when a newspaper critic jokingly praises her caterwauling Marguerite decides to fulfill her lifelong dream of performing a one-woman show on a proper stage. Gathering a small group of sycophants around her as well as a third-rate musical coach, Marguerite prepares for her world premiere much to the alarm of her perpetually embarrassed husband… What begins as a cruel comedy—Dumont’s opening rendition of Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria has the viewer laughing right along with the seated patrons—quickly elevates into a sublime dialogue on the fragility of dreams, a joyous celebration of art for art’s sake, and a scathing attack on the hypocrisy of an upper crust whose money can buy anything but compassion. Cajoled by acquaintances who prefer the simplicity of false flattery to painful honesty (and one smarmy anarchist who’d use her naïvety as a political statement) Marguerite is every bit the sacrificial lamb. Even her husband, who has sponged off of her wealth throughout their marriage, is more concerned with saving his own face. Only her faithful butler-cum-guardian angel Madelbos can recognize the pure soul shining beneath the cracking voice and gaudy stage costumes. Helping her maintain her comforting delusion by blocking criticism and blackmailing would-be detractors, Madelbos maintains a meticulous archive of his mistress in various operatic poses—his photographs capturing the dream even as it threatens to crumble from beneath her while his unblinking eye stares through the viewfinder like God himself. In Giannoli’s quietly subversive film the empress may have no clothes, but it is her court which winds up truly naked.

Marriage Italian Style (Italy 1964) (8): Wealthy entrepreneur Domenico Soriano (Marcello Mastroianni) has enjoyed a tumultuous twenty-two year relationship with prostitute-turned-mistress Filumena (Sophia Loren) which saw her go from a frightened teenager to the head of his household—but never his wife, after all what would mom and the neighbours think? During that time Filumena endured countless small indignities as her benefactor drifted from one affair to another while treating her as little more than a cozy business proposition with benefits. And then he announces his upcoming marriage to a girl half his age and Filumena responds by hatching an underhanded plan to not only save her position but snag Domenico once and for all. Of course even the best laid plans can go astray and as their relationship comes undone in a shower of emotional pyrotechnics Filumena plays her final card, a psychological bombshell which leaves Domenico reeling… Told mainly in flashbacks as both partners take turns reflecting on how things went so wrong, Mastroianni and Loren are perfectly matched—bouncing from passionate embrace to vehement condemnation in a flurry of staccato editing. A comedy in the classic rather than contemporary sense, this tale of pig-headed machismo and desperate feminine wiles cuts a rocky and occasionally violent swath as it touches on issues of social hypocrisy, class privilege, and female disempowerment. Thankfully a welcome touch of earthy humour smooths out some of the more heartbreaking moments (Loren can make you laugh or cry with just a look) because, at its heart, this volatile drama is still very much a love story.

The Marriage of Maria Braun (Germany 1979) (8): Apparently director Rainer Werner Fassbinder held the sacrament of marriage in particularly low regard. Little wonder then that he uses one woman’s troubled state of matrimony as a scathing metaphor for Germany’s post-war “Economic Miracle”. Married for less than one day, Maria Braun is forced to say good-bye to her soldier husband Hermann when he is sent to the Russian front leaving her to fend for her mother and grandfather by herself. It is the final days of WWII and Maria’s unnamed city is a maze of rubble and makeshift shops where people barter brooches for potatoes and prostitutes are paid with chocolate and firewood. Holding on to Hermann’s memory (he is presumed dead) Maria is determined to make her way in life no matter what the cost. Starting out as a dance hall plaything for lonely American GI’s she gradually morphs into the cold-hearted mistress of a French entrepreneur before finally evolving into a ruthless capitalist and amassing a small fortune of her own. But for every Deutschmark she gains Maria loses a bit of her humanity, not caring who she has to destroy in order to get what she wants. Even the miraculous return of Hermann, shell-shocked and nearly mad, does not deter her from her goal for she has long ago convinced herself that all those indiscretions were for the greater good—namely financial security for the two of them. Opening with a series of almost comical bangs (the newlyweds hunker down in a parking lot to say their vows while the Allies carpet bomb the town) and ending with a sardonic explosion so ludicrous it goes beyond the satirical, Fassbinder effectively bookends his film between two moments of destruction—one borne of conflict the other of apathy and affluence. In fact he takes great pains to constantly remind us of his disdain for what his country has become following the war: televised nationalism often drowns out real dialogue, Maria mistakenly puts her purse in a vase after her husband sends her a rose as if affection and currency were interchangeable, and the jarring sounds of heavy machinery seem to creep into even the most intimate scenes. A cold and cynical reproach featuring a knock-out performance by Fassbinder muse Hanna Schygulla.

Martyrs (France/Canada 2008) (2): Fifteen years after she managed to escape from a subterranean house of horrors where, as a child, she was kept bound and continually tortured by a faceless man and woman, Lucie is still suffering from her ordeal. Given to bouts of self-mutilation and dogged by her own rage personified by a twisted knife-wielding grotesque that only she can see, Lucie’s one link with sanity is Anna, her childhood confidant and best friend. When Lucie discovers the couple she believes responsible for her abduction are now living a comfortable middle class existence she decides to settle the score herself, leaving Anna to clean up the mess and wonder whether the bloodbath was warranted or did her friend’s unhinged mind unwittingly claim a host of innocent victims. But this grisly act of revenge is just the beginning of Anna’s own horrifying odyssey as some macabre secrets are suddenly laid bare, including the real reason behind Lucie’s childhood ordeal. With its central premise exploring the transformative power of suffering coupled with grave theological overtones Martyrs is a problematic film indeed, but in the hands of a more mature and capable director it could have been profoundly thought-provoking as well. Unfortunately Pascal Laugier chose cheap exploitative shocks instead, painting the screen with gratuitous bloodletting and sadistic misogyny then trying to excuse his excesses by pulling a few metaphysical rabbits out of his ass. The result is a steaming pile of psychotic drivel that not even an appropriately sombre finale can rectify. The only time a film offends me is when it treats me like a gullible idiot willing to swallow any garbage as long as its presented with enough flash and bang. Laugier’s smug conviction that his 100 minute S&M fantasy actually has something deep and radical to say proved to be the most offensive thing about it.

The Master (USA 2012) (9): WWII has just ended and able-bodied seaman Freddie Quell, alcoholic and violently psychotic, is set adrift in the American heartland by a military bureaucracy which doesn’t know how to deal with him. Unable to keep down even the most menial of jobs due to his paranoid outbursts, Freddie wanders in a perpetually drunken stupor until eventually falling in with The Cause, a fledgling cult which believes our current afflictions—-including war and disease—-can be cured through hypnosis and past life regression. The Cause’s intensely charismatic leader Lancaster Dodd, himself a man of questionable moral appetites, sees in Freddie’s crippling mental illness all the makings of a perfect acolyte. Claiming to be, among other things, a doctor, author, and nuclear physicist, Dodd (aka The Master) subjects Freddie to one humiliating “treatment” after another…aided in part by some particularly powerful homemade moonshine…until Quell becomes that most dangerous of creatures, the True Believer. But this is not a simple Master/Disciple relationship for just as Freddie’s sick mind cries out for direction and focus, so too does the egotistical Dodd’s megalomania demand faithful adoration. As The Cause comes under increased scrutiny by both the authorities and some of its own adherents, the cracks in Dodd’s mental armour begin to show forcing his relationship with Quell, who is finally having doubts of his own, to reach a new level of dependence. Saturated with a psychological edginess as well as a stifled eroticism, Paul Thomas Anderson’s piercing study on the cult mindset (Scientology itself is never mentioned, of course) features outstanding performances; most notably Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Quell and Dodd. Their emotional interplay is almost sexual in its intensity as each one feeds off the other while Dodd’s fully indoctrinated wife (a frightening Amy Adams) sits in judgement over both. Anderson’s attention to minute period details is impeccable while his cinematography propels the story forward whether it’s a widescreen panorama of restless waves or a slow pan across a parlour of enamoured believers. A brilliant and exhausting cinematic experience which leaves you wondering how, in an age of supposed enlightenment, something like this could even happen. I suppose it doesn’t matter whether it’s a pope or a new age guru, there will always be sheep in search of a flock.

Matador (Spain 1986) (6): Ángel (a ridiculously young Antonio Banderas) is a wannabe bullfighter who faints at the sight of blood. Dominated by his crazy Catholic mother the confused young man is desperate to prove his manhood by any means possible, including a sexual assault on the fashion model next door. But when his attempt at rape garners him even more humiliation he “confesses” to a series of unsolved murders that have be plaguing Madrid. In the meantime Ángel’s matador instructor harbours an unhealthy fetish for snuff films while the female lawyer assigned to defend him has a few dirty little secrets of her own. And as if that is not enough his mother wants to disown him, the fashion model pities him, and the police inspector investigating the murders has grown a little too fond of him—and so has the inspector’s wife. Pedro Almodóvar’s lurid telenovela presents an uneasy mix of nihilistic humour and kinky sex which doesn’t quite hit the fever pitch of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or the wry sensuality of Live Flesh, but it does contain moments of pure transgression as he tries a bit too hard to equate carnal desire with violence using the bullring as an ongoing metaphor. Opening with the image of a man furiously masturbating to slasher films the tone is pretty well set and it then becomes more of an academic exercise to see how Almodóvar manipulates his stable of damaged Spaniards as they go about interacting with one another. Along the way there are some eye-catching visuals: Ángel’s overly pious mother is filmed through a pane of distorted glass and an avant garde fashion show shamelessly exploits domestic violence, but a perverse deus ex machina in the form of a climactic solar eclipse borders on overkill. Definitely not his best work, but his characteristically skewed takes on passion and morality are certainly on full display.

Matewan (USA 1987) (8): John Sayles wrote and directed this gut-wrenching account of the infamous Matewan Massacre, a film he has credited with becoming “…a staple in the teaching of U.S. Labour history”. In 1920 the Stone Mountain Coal Company effectively owned the small mining town of Matewan, West Virginia. The land for miles around belonged to them, the workers’ houses were leased from them, and supplies could only be bought from the Company store. Working under deplorable and dangerous conditions the miners were kept in check by threats of eviction, or worse, if they even whispered the word “union”. So when organizer Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper making his impressive screen debut) slips into town to help its citizens join the growing labour movement the Company not only sends in replacement workers, mainly desperately poor immigrants and disenfranchised black men, they also hire a professional goon squad to squash any “Bolshevik” uprising using intimidation, violence, and even murder. Outgunned and with no political support to back them up the miners and their families face a dangerous and demoralizing uphill battle culminating in a final deadly confrontation. Filmed on location in West Virginia everything in Matewan rings true from the costumes and white trash accents to some claustrophobic scenes in subterranean mine shafts. Sayles' superb cast breathe life into their characters making the film’s final string of tragedies all the more palpable—most notably Mary McDonnell as a widow trying to keep her idealistic son alive, Kevin Tighe as a particularly nasty Company thug, and David Strathairn as the town’s hard-nosed sheriff desperate to keep the capitalist wolves at bay. An egregious chapter in American democracy presented with passion and cinematic flair.

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!

Mau Mau Sex Sex (USA 2001) (2):  Managers of early grind house cinemas used to plaster their theatres with lurid posters detailing all manners of outrageous x-rated delights in order to sell tickets.  The actual movies themselves would inevitably fall far short of these advertised claims.  Sort of like this documentary.  You pop in the DVD expecting a fun and campy look back at the heyday of sexploitation flicks.  What you get instead is an extended episode of “Grumpy Old Men” in which a few brief film clips are lost among long tedious scenes of Dan and David arguing with each other...watching TV...playing cards...talking about their prostates and dredging up obscure memories that no one cares about.  Pretty damn boring to be honest.  At least the theatrical trailers in the “extras” section are somewhat funny.

The Measure of a Man [La Loi du Marché] (France 2015) (6): Having been laid off from his factory job Thierry Taugourdeau (Vincent Lindon, Best Actor Cannes) is caught up in a demeaning cycle of pointless state-sponsored classes, job interviews that go nowhere, and a constantly shrinking welfare cheque. And being on the wrong side of forty with a family and a mortgage to support means his prospects look dim indeed. He finally lands a job as a supermarket detective hunting down shoplifters with an array of high-tech cameras and for the first time in months there seems to be a light at the end of the unemployment tunnel. But having to strong-arm an endless stream of mortified suspects begins to take its toll on Thierry’s conscience for their personal confessions reflect his own financial woes… Reminiscent of Lars Von Trier’s austere “Dogme 95” school of filmmaking, writer/director Stéphane Brizé’s small morality play uses handheld shots and natural performances unembellished by studio sets, fancy camerawork, or background music. The result is a verité style which, thanks to Lindon’s perfectly downplayed working class protagonist, makes even the most mundane passage somehow compelling as Thierry suffers through a series of everyday humiliations—one scene in which a class of fellow job-seekers critique his interview style is particularly cringeworthy. In fact every character in Brizé’s film seems culled from real life making it impossible to distinguish scripted word from ad-libbed banter especially the scenes where suspects, caught red-handed, are hauled into the store’s interrogation room squirming and gaping like deer in the proverbial headlights. Brizé miscalculates however when his zeal to pit these downtrodden proles against a soulless corporate nemesis skews the whole production with a heavy sense of moral superiority. Apparently every thief has a noble excuse and every excuse resonates with Thierry’s own righteousness: one shoplifter has a drug-addicted son to support (oh wow, and Thierry has a son with cerebral palsy!), another is struggling on a fixed income (oh wow, Thierry knows exactly how that feels!). But when one apprehension ends in a rather contrived tragedy you realize just how eager Brizé is to preach to the choir. The ethically correct and wholly predictable closing scene will certainly have hardcore liberals clapping ecstatically while everyone else files out of the theatre. Finally, just in case the audience doesn’t “get it” the original French title translates as The Law of the Market. Got it?

Meet John Doe (USA 1941) (6): Desperate to save her job, a newspaper columnist fabricates a suicide letter from the anonymous “John Doe”, an unemployed everyman so disillusioned by slimy politicians and the “state of civilization” that he plans to stage the ultimate protest by leaping from the roof of City Hall on Christmas Eve. Her cheeky stunt backfires however when first the town, and then the entire nation takes up the fictitious man’s cause forcing her and her publisher to hire a penniless drifter to fill his pretend shoes. A social movement is soon underfoot with John Doe urging Americans to feed the hungry, house the homeless, and tear down the various fences that keep them from getting to know their neighbours. It isn’t long before those in power, sensing the public’s dangerous obsession with this faux messiah, try to exploit the man to their own advantage leading to one very big fall from grace. Yet another quasi-socialist fairytale from Frank Capra in which Evil Capitalists square off against the Common Man and we’re all assured that Utopia is just around the corner if only we’d just be extra nice to one another. A surprisingly dour climax in front of a stadium full of Doe supporters is quickly brushed aside in favour of church bells, teary embraces, and one overly long, cliché-riddled sermon atop a snowy roof. A sweet film, but it’s message of naïve optimism does not sit well with the pragmatic cynicism of the new millennium.

Meet The Spartans (USA 2008) (2): An unforgivably sophomoric attempt to spoof the film 300 with hunky Sean Maguire leading a cast of waxed eye candy through a tedious succession of trashy jokes, corny puns and feeble visual gags. Some of the lower points include an impromptu dance-off where the Persian army gets served by the plucky Spartans, a mindless Grand Theft Auto sendup, and an excruciatingly bad American Idol finale. As if that wasn’t enough to insult our intelligence we’re also treated to cheap product placements and an endless array of crappy fake celebrity cameos. What little humour there is occurs more by accident than design and is limited to the first 10 minutes. Finally, not content to let this travesty die at 75 minutes, the directors just had to sprinkle the closing credits with deleted scenes which, believe it or not, were too awful to leave in the actual movie. Not even sharp enough for the 12-and-under crowd.

The Men (USA 1950) (7): A WWII vet paralyzed from the waist down thanks to an enemy bullet finds his biggest battle still awaits him back in America where adjusting to a “normal life” is proving to be next to impossible. Spending the next few years wasting away in one VA hospital after another, Ken is finally placed on a general ward of fellow paraplegics under the care of a compassionate physician whose tough-as-nails approach eventually jolts the wounded man out of his self-destructive rut. Encouraged by the other patients Ken prepares to leave the safety of the hospital for good, even renewing his relationship with Ellen, the fiancée he’d been avoiding ever since his injury. But he soon discovers that society is not quite ready to accept a man in a wheelchair while his new bride learns that there is a vast difference between loving someone and pitying them. Faced thus with a hefty double dose of reality it would appear than Ken and Ellen’s education has just begun… Despite some soap opera dramatics and Teresa Wright’s syrupy sweet performance as Ellen, this is a surprisingly frank (for the time) depiction of life after paralysis which not only touches on issues of depression, anger, and prejudice but also manages a few roundabout references to sexual frustration and caregiver burnout. Even the quotidian struggle with incontinence is addressed as each man dutifully reports his hits and misses to the attending doctors. In his movie debut Marlon Brando already exhibits the onscreen intensity which would soon make him a movie icon leaving the rest of the cast—many of them actual patients from the local VA hospital—to provide a colourful counterbalance of jovial camaraderie and, in one case, momentous tragedy. Thankfully, director Fred Zinnemann and producer Stanley Kramer keep the Hollywood gloss to a minimum presenting us with an ending which falls just short of “happily ever after”.

Messalina, Messalina (AKA: Caligula II) (Italy 1977) (6):  A ribald sex comedy about the amorous exploits of Messalina, wife of Emperor Claudius, who spends her days screwing the palace staff and her nights moonlighting as a high end hooker.  Forget historical accuracy, this is more like an X-rated version of A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum complete with a stuttering flatulent Claudius who even bears a striking resemblance to Zero Mostel.  Corbucci delivers a disarming mixture of slapstick humour, witty one-liners (badly dubbed, of course) and poorly edited softcore dalliances that had me laughing out loud more than once, much to my surprise.  The grandiose costumes and sets, “borrowed” from the original Caligula, are put to good use and make the film look as if it had a much larger budget than it actually did.  And the final scene, in which Claudius orders the wholesale slaughter of Messalina and her cohorts, is a supremely silly bit of Pythonesque overkill.  Definitely not for all tastes, but it sure put a smile on my face.

Metropolis (Japan 2001) (6): Director Rintaro’s colourfully animated steampunk epic owes as much to Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner as it does to Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece. Despite having its own president, the multi-leveled city state of Metropolis is in fact ruled by a totalitarian regime headed by Duke Red, a megalomaniac with dreams of world domination. As the privileged citizens of the upper levels enjoy a utopian existence thanks to underground hordes of robot slaves and displaced workers, Red is finishing construction of the Ziggurat, a massive skyscraper with sinister military overtones. Meanwhile a subterranean Liberation Movement is underway and a renegade scientist, secretly commissioned by the Duke, is putting the finishing touches on his latest creation; Tima, a highly advanced robot whose special capabilities are crucial to the Duke’s evil plans. But a pair of wild cards arrive in the form of a Japanese detective hired to track down the mad scientist, and the detective’s impressionable young nephew who falls in love with the diminutive waif-like Tima. Together they will have to face not only the combined military might of Metropolis but Duke Red’s own adopted son, a violent young man with a murderous grudge against all things robotic. Based on a manga (of course), Metropolis’ retro sci-fi look revels in crazily detailed buildings and charming mechanical creations, but a serpentine plot and uneven pacing tend to drag it down in parts with too much time spent on establishing personalities and not enough on story development. But when things finally do get moving Rintaro treats us to some glorious pyrotechnics and a cleverly conceived bittersweet ending all backed by an oddly appropriate soundtrack of jazzy torch songs and old pop tunes (Ray Charles?!). It may not be up to Studio Ghibli standards, but Rintaro still manages to provide a rousing good story just the same.

Michael Clayton (USA 2007) (8):  Michael Clayton is a janitor of sorts.  He’s a company lawyer who specializes in clearing the names of guilty clients as long as they have the cash to pay for it.  It’s not that he’s an evil man, but his personal values are often forced to take a backseat to the financial pressures imposed by his messy divorce, failed business venture, and expensive gambling addiction.  His professional life is a high-pressured mix of dubious ethics and legal loopholes aimed more at maximizing  company profits than insuring justice is done.  But when one of his esteemed colleagues suffers a mental meltdown it jars him out of his own moral paralysis and he is forced to confront the creature he has become.  This is a brutal and despairing film that is as infuriating as it is mesmerizing.  Shot in somber hues of blue and grey it presents us with a bleak corporate landscape filled with lost souls and an all-consuming hunger...for money, for power, for prestige.  Yet there are unexpected moments of purity amidst the debris; the plot of a child’s fantasy novel provides a mystical subtext to the main story  for instance, and Clayton’s sudden epiphany on a mist-shrouded hillside has an undeniable spiritual intensity to it.  When the ending came it was not unexpected, but I found myself on the edge of my seat just the same.  Michael Clayton may not be a unique film but it is written with great style and intelligence, not to mention the wonderful performances.  Very well done.

Midnight Movies (Canada 2005) (7): Stuart Samuels’ likeable made-for-cable documentary chronicles the rise and fall of the “midnight movie” craze which began (and ended) in the 1970s. These were the movies which appalled mainstream audiences with their transgressive scenes of sex and violence, as well as a mordant cynicism which perfectly reflected the mindset of an entire generation of twenty-something boomers still reeling from the death of the 60s. In the words of the late Roger Ebert, “They were the opening wedge in the birth of irony…” Box office failures upon their initial commercial release, they found an audience at midnight showings where the theatres were packed with rowdy pot-smoking bohemians eager to escape the 9 to 5 conformity of their parents’ generation. Unfortunately the introduction of home video, as well as an increasing immunity to shock value amongst moviegoers, signalled the end of a very brief era. The film snippets bring back fond memories for those of us who attended the old showings and a variety of infamous talking heads, ranging from John Waters to David Lynch, provide some much needed historical context. For the sake of brevity, Samuels concentrates his efforts on the six films which practically defined the genre: Jodorowsky’s El Topo, Sharman’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Lynch’s Eraserhead, Waters’ Pink Flamingos, Henzell’s The Harder they Come, and Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. I’ve seen five of them, how about you?

Milk (USA 2008) (9): Harvey Milk was a mild-mannered Jewish insurance salesman from New York who went on to become the first openly homosexual American to hold public office when he was elected to the San Francisco board of Supervisors. In doing so he not only advanced the cause of equality (both gay and non-gay) but also raised the ire of religious bigots and their uber-conservative mouthpieces, Anita Bryant and John Briggs. You can’t justify the unjustifiable armed with nothing but hatred and a few bible quotes however and the attempts of the fledgling moral majority to consign gays to the back of the bus only served to galvanize the community further. Sadly, his career came to a sudden end when fellow Supervisor Dan White, a troubled man with an inferiority complex the size of California, murdered him, along with Mayor George Moscone. Van Sant eschews his usual enigmatic approach and presents us with a straightforward, beautifully polished story told in one continuous flashback as Harvey sits at his kitchen table recording his memoirs “in case of assassination”. Through the seamless use of archival footage, incidental music, and vintage clothing he manages to evoke a sense of time and place, which, while remaining authentic to the era, conveys a sense of immediacy that hasn’t dimmed in 30 years. Sean Penn gives what could well be his greatest performance to date, aided in large part by a tremendous supporting cast, most notably Josh Brolin’s passionate portrayal of the cowardly White. Milk is an inspiring testament to the life of a great visionary, delivered with the force of a classical tragedy and made all the more moving by the fact he was an actual person. Essential viewing.

The Milky Way (France 1969) (6): Bunuel’s sly rumination on the pointlessness of theological debate is as convoluted and fantastical as its subject matter. Two modern day pilgrims, Peter and John (naturally), slowly make their way from France to the cathedral of Santiago de Campostela in Spain. Along the way their picaresque journey gives rise to several tangential storylines involving woodland orgies, religious swordfights, and a host of schoolgirls spouting Inquisition-style condemnations. The director’s acerbic wit is evident throughout as characters enter into increasingly ridiculous arguments over the nature of God, often contradicting themselves as they wallow in pools of dogmatic prattle while strategically placed barnyard sounds offer a sarcastic counterpoint. With a relatively small cast playing a variety of roles and a script that jumps haphazardly through time there is a disorienting feel to the film that may have been intentional but nevertheless tried my patience at times; it’s as if Bunuel tried to cram too many ideas into one small movie with a resultant theological overload. There remains much to ponder here however, even as you smirk and laugh. Oddly enough, although he was an avowed atheist Bunuel presents us with an engaging and very human Christ who downplays his miracles while stressing his message of love and charity. The Catholic church should be so progressive…

Min and Bill (USA 1930) (8): George W. Hill’s early talkie may only be an hour long but it was enough to earn Canadian born Marie Dressler a well-deserved best actress Oscar and propel the portly dour-faced sixty-two year old to superstardom. She plays Min, the truculent owner of a waterfront boardinghouse-cum-speakeasy catering to the fishermen and other assorted characters that always seem to frequent the docks. Big loveable wharf rat Bill (a big loveable Wallace Beery) is her constant companion and occasional sparring partner while teenaged Nancy is the abandoned waif she raised and loved as her own. When Nancy’s maternal mother suddenly blows back into town, a drunken slattern intent on sponging off her daughter, Min must do everything she can to protect the child she never bore. Alternately hilarious (a heated wrestling match between Dressler and Beery is priceless!) and deeply affecting à la Stella Dallas as we see a lower class woman willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of her child’s future. The comic timing is impeccable giving many of the lines a spontaneous ad-libbed feel while the dramatic turns successfully combine earthy dialogue with silent era theatrics. A wonderful little gem from the beginning of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Minions
(USA 2015) (8): A prequel of sorts to the Despicable Me franchise this animated oddity traces the evolution of the Minions, those little yellow banana-shaped clowns with the signature goggles and gibberish language—actually an amalgamation of several languages including French and Indonesian. Starting in the precambrian sea where their microscopic one-celled ancestors first learned there was safety in submitting to bigger badder creatures and on through the ages, the Minions served ever more nefarious masters but their klutzy carefree ways always managed to screw things up in the end (a T. Rex unexpectedly becomes extinct, a surprise birthday party for Count Dracula is a disaster, and an explosive brush with Napoleon leads to a hasty retreat). Now, in 1968 and with no evil genius to emulate, the wee jelly beans are in a sad state of decline until three of their members—the visionary Kevin, endearingly manic Bob, and dour Stuart—decide to venture forth in search of a new master the whole tribe can serve. Traveling around the globe the trio eventually end up in the company of Scarlett Overkill, the world’s only female super villain, who assigns them their first task: steal Queen Elizabeth’s royal crown right off her royal head. And then the fun starts when a series of missteps and misjudgements destroy half of London and see Bob crowned king of England. But getting on the wrong side of a very angry Scarlett Overkill proves to be the Minion’s biggest mistake… Bright candy colours and non-stop cartoon silliness all set to a groovy 60’s soundtrack place this one firmly in the realm of family entertainment. For the tots there is enough frantic action to bridge those short attention spans and the adults will enjoy the nostalgic tongue-in-cheek spoofs of everything from The Beatles to the Moon Landing not to mention an oh-so brief cameo from Richard Nixon attending a Super Villain Convention. Goofy, irreverent (monarchists and anglophiles beware!), and revelling unabashed in cornball humour, this instalment may lack the novelty of the first films but when it comes to comedy those lemony stumblebums are all golden.

The Misfortunates (Belgium 2009) (8): Not yet thirty years old and struggling author Gunther Strobbe is already an embittered and cynical man living with a woman he despises who’s carrying a child he doesn’t want. The reasons for his overriding pessimism slowly unfold as the camera goes back in time to show a teenaged Gunther living with his perpetually martyred grandmother, alcoholic father (his mother having fled the scene), and three slovenly uncles who have returned to the nest after screwing their own lives and now indulge in their favourite pastimes of drinking, fucking, fighting, and proclaiming to the world that the Strobbe family name still carries a degree of honour. But even though young Gunther carries the seed of his older counterpart’s dim worldview, the adult Gunther still holds on to an echo of his youthful aspirations—but will it be enough to evade the downward spiral which seems to be his family’s birthright? Told in Gunther’s own earthy prose as he bangs out his first manuscript, director Felix van Groeningen’s slow-burning drama rests on the shoulders of his amazing cast as they stumble and bluster their way towards a destiny which appears ever darker leaving a bewildered young Gunther (impressive newcomer Kenneth Vanbaeden) to toss about in their wake. The white trash dialogue may be appropriately prosaic, at times even humorous, but regular bursts of narration provide a bleak poetic counterpoint which, accompanied by a soundtrack of soft chords and Renaissance choral pieces, elevates the onscreen squalor to near classical tragedy. “The train continues to wind its way through my life…” recites Gunther at one point as yet another line of cars zooms along its tracks in what becomes a recurring motif throughout the film “…unlike a car, it travels past the world’s rear…you can only see the decay from the railway track.” Compassionate yet unforgiving, harsh yet never stooping to pathos, van Groeningen’s artfully framed glimpse into one man’s evolution does suggest a kind of grace set amidst a landscape of terrible sadness.

Mission Impossible III (USA 2006) (7):  It’s time to fasten your seatbelts as Captain Scientology speeds around the globe blowing things up from Rome to Shanghai in his relentless pursuit of the nefarious Mr. Davian.  Will he be able to save both the world AND the girl in time for the final credits?  Will Davian recover from his unfortunate fender bender?  Is this the final installment of the MI series?  Tom Cruise is in fine manic form as super agent Ethan Hunt but, unfortunately, Philip Seymour Hoffman is just too damn huggable to be taken seriously and his evil arch-villain comes across as a grumpy lil’ Easter bunny instead.   Still, MI-3 provides a rollicking good two hours worth of high-tech tomfoolery and I wouldn’t have changed a minute of it.

The Mist (USA 2007) (6): Frank Darabont’s haphazard screenplay, based on yet another Stephen King novella, tries to be too many things at once; sci-fi thriller, claustrophobic horror movie, psychological study, and pseudo-religious potboiler. Borrowing very heavily from such films as The Fog, Alien, and The Birds as well as some of the more esoteric writings of H. P. Lovercraft, it concerns a random group of people who seek refuge in the local supermarket when their town is besieged by a most unusual fog bank. It would appear the soupy mist is crawling with all sorts of unpleasantness, from big meat-eating bugs and screeching pterodactyls to huge nasty tentacled things resembling a cross between an octopus and a Venus flytrap. Of course there’s the usual assortment of King mainstays; hysterical women, hero jocks, a cute kid (the movie’s best performance) and, for good measure, a schizoid chick with messianic delusions (Marcia Gay Harden making a fool of herself). As the little band of consumers slowly become the consumed a few hatch a desperate escape plan while the rest succumb to the aimless ramblings of the crazy lady who assures them that the final days are at hand. To be fair, there are some amazing CGI effects and wild visuals in this film which had my skin crawling more than once. The pervasive mist is a wonderfully disorienting device that adds a macabre overtone to all those twisted, half-seen shapes slithering in and out of focus. But even if we forgive some of the film’s more blatantly illogical devices its underlying premise involving secret military mischief is just plain silly. Furthermore, Harden’s guru character is poorly written and her murderous tent revival subplot is harebrained at best. The film’s unexpectedly bleak ending, filled with horror and brutal irony, did come as a surprise though and was effectively paired with the mournful vocalizations of Dead Can Dance. But it was poor consolation for two hours worth of disappointment.

Mr. and Mrs. Smith (USA 1941) (6): In Alfred Hitchcock's attempt at straightforward comedy Robert Montgomery and Carol Lombard play Ann and David Smith, a high society couple who, after three years of living together, suddenly discover their marriage license isn't valid thanks to some obscure bureaucratic oversight. Although seemingly devoted to each other beforehand, this second chance at being single causes Ann to question her decision to marry David in the first place. Jealousy, emotional games and a whole lot of broken furniture ensue. A most un-Hitchcockian film, this breezy little confection lacks both substance and depth, relying instead on the star power of its two main leads. Add to that some smart New York backdrops, an animated script, and just a touch of raciness and you have a highly polished little comedic gem that's quickly forgotten.

Mister Lonely (USA 2007) (6): A struggling Parisian street performer is barely making ends meet doing Michael Jackson impersonations for the Nursing Home circuit when a chance encounter with a vivacious Marilyn Monroe lookalike changes his life forever. Following her to the remote highlands of Scotland he is indoctrinated into a most peculiar commune; a rustic country farmhouse populated by ersatz celebrities both past and present. With James Dean and Queen Elizabeth washing dishes, Little Red Riding Hood hanging laundry and Madonna joining the Three Stooges in building a backyard stage, the young man is heartened to find himself surrounded by fellow wannabes. “We have become what we wish we were...” declares a jovial imitation pope in full Vatican drag while the Queen later adds, “We live through others to keep the spirit of wonder alive.” But has this extended family of counterfeit VIPs really stumbled upon the secret to true happiness or is their existence based upon a self-delusion as fake as Elizabeth’s rhinestone tiara? Indeed it would appear that not everyone wears their famous guise easily and when the Vaudeville-style variety show they’ve rehearsed for months only manages to draw a few bored country bumpkins the contradiction between fantasy and harsh reality proves to be too much for some. Harmony Korine takes a novel approach in examining our inherent need for identity and inclusion as well as our constant search for something, anything, that will give meaning, and therefore purpose, to our lives. Never one to be accused of romanticism (see my review for Trash Humpers) he balances his film’s decidedly lightweight approach with a few sobering reminders that this is not a fairytale after all; in one scene a flock of condemned sheep underscore the fragile nature of mortality while an ongoing taped diary documents our protagonist’s painful reintegration into the real world. Meanwhile, in a parallel story taking place halfway around the globe, a group of missionary nuns’ leap of faith comes to symbolize both the power of belief and, in a cruelly ironic twist, the cold indifference of fate. There is definitely a lot to ponder here and the talented cast deliver their largely improvised lines with aplomb but, alas, Korine’s final product proves to be overly ambitious, overly long and terribly disorganized. Furthermore, even though some scenes border on pure poetry others are just plain silly; the “singing eggs” segment really should have ended up on the cutting room floor. Well-meant if not exactly well made.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman (USA 2014) (7): Whether he’s discussing the inherent futility of fetching a stick or splitting an atom in his spare time there is no doubt that the suave bespectacled Mr. Peabody is indeed the world’s most intelligent dog. Living in an opulent New York penthouse with his adopted human son Sherman (also bespectacled but not quite as suave) Peabody has amassed a considerable fortune thanks to his impressive catalogue of inventions. But his greatest achievement yet, the WABAC time machine, is one he keeps to himself. Traveling back and forth to the past in order to teach Sherman human history firsthand, Mr. Peabody takes great pains to ensure the precocious boy doesn’t do anything to alter history. And then one day Sherman inadvertently tells his bitchy little classmate Penny about the WABAC and before he can yell “NO!” the two find themselves in ancient Egypt. A series of temporal misadventures ensue which threaten to tear apart the entire space-time continuum unless Mr. Peabody can once again save the day. For those of us old enough to remember the Mr. Peabody’s Improbable History segments of the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show this high-tech bit of nostalgia is sure to elicit a smile or two, especially the future retro animation which calls to mind old ViewMaster reels. Of course grievous liberties are taken with history—Da Vinci engages in a slapstick bitch fight with a truculent Mona Lisa; France’s post revolutionary “Reign of Terror” is reduced to a series of stale “Let them eat cake” gags; and the Trojan War becomes a Greek pissing contest with Patrick Warburton’s Agamemnon sounding like a classical revision of Family Guy’s Joe Swanson—but it all looks swell and the tepid dialogue is peppered with enough of Mr. Peabody’s signature bad puns to keep you wincing.

Mr. Thank You (Japan 1936) (7): Navigating his way through the mountain passes which separate one rural stop from another a handsome young bus driver, dubbed “Mr. Thank You” due to his genial disposition, becomes involved in the daily lives of his passengers. There’s the impoverished young girl on her way to be sold (presumably) in Tokyo, the party gal looking to settle down, the old lecher whose sophisticated airs are as phoney as his gold watch, and a myriad of country folk busy with weddings, births, and burials. A simple road movie on the surface, director Hiroshi Shimizu uses humour and casual chatter to paint a colourful, if somewhat unhappy, picture of Japan as it struggles to recover from the Great Depression. Grave talk of lost jobs and wayward workers is intercut with good-natured comedy (a cigarette contest has party girl and lecher trying to blow smoke rings up each other’s backsides) and the glorious Japanese countryside continually rolls by in waves of forested hills and flowery meadows. A lighthearted ending dispels much of the underlying gloom, and Shimizu’s sense of time and place is impeccable.

Moby Dick (USA 1956) (10): “Call me Ishmael…” And so begins John Huston’s impressive screen adaptation of Melville’s classic seafaring tome wherein one man’s maniacal thirst for revenge against the great white whale who maimed him years before takes on the elements of a religious quest. It’s New England 1842 and Ishmael, a young adventurer (Richard Basehart, too old) and the story’s narrator, has found employment aboard the whaling ship Pequod where he comes face-to-face with the ship’s grizzled captain, Ahab (Gregory Peck, too young), a man who bears the scars—both physical and spiritual—from his first encounter with the legendary bone-white leviathan Moby Dick. Once out to sea it soon becomes apparent that Ahab is more interested in finding and killing Moby Dick than in the lucrative business of whaling, and he is willing to defy both man and God to do so. Railing against the Almighty and pushing his men to the brink of mutiny, Ahab finally tracks down the whale which has haunted his every waking moment and their final showdown, rife with elements of madness and divine judgment, will shake both heaven and earth. Much of Melville’s Shakespearian prose and lofty spiritual metaphors survive intact thanks to a literary screenplay penned by Huston and Ray Bradbury—rarely have flocking seagulls and sheets of lightning taken on such supernatural significance—and the set designs are sublime, be it a humble fishing village, a nautical-themed church (where pastor Orson Welles delivers an apropos sermon on Jonah), or the cramped quarters aboard a heaving ship. Despite their miscasting, both Peck and Basehart deliver fiery performances with Ahab’s self-destructive rage contrasting significantly with Ishmael’s sense of humility. But it is in the film’s ultimate confrontation between man and beast that Huston pulls out all the stops, delivering a thunderous battle sequence of exploding waves and splintering wood before winding things down to an eerily calm final frame. An overlooked classic that deserves to be reevaluated.

Modern Times (USA 1936) (9): Presented in the silent film style using intertitles and only a few incidental sounds and mechanical voices, Charlie Chaplin’s comedy of manners for an industrial age is still relevant (and just as funny) eighty years later. His little tramp plays a wayward cog in an increasingly mechanized world of mammoth machines and factory drones where his irrepressible joie de vivre lands him in and out of prison and the unemployment line. Teeming up with a fellow outcast (a gorgeous Paulette Goddard) the two social pariahs try to forge some happiness out of a society hellbent on conformity. Famous for its whimsically elaborate sets and physical comedy—including a now iconic image of Chaplin literally caught in the gears of an enormous engine—there is a gravity beneath the slapstick as issues of poverty, injustice, and the dehumanizing side of technology work their way in between the laughs. But it was a subtle scene of implied homosexuality plus a “gurgling stomach” passage that gave the Hays office nightmares. I guess they missed the part where he accidentally goes off on a hilarious cocaine binge! Classic cinema.

The Molly Maguires (USA 1970) (5): Martin Ritt’s box office flop “suggested” by Arthur H. Lewis’ novel proved to be not only disastrous for his directorial career but seriously hampered the careers of stars Sean Connery and Richard Harris as well. Set in the coal mines of Pennsylvania circa 1876 it tells the story of a group of Irish immigrants so fed up with dangerous working conditions, crooked foremen, and slavish wages that they formed a terrorist group, the Molly Maguires, whose use of violence and occasional murder as a form of political protest put them on the top of everyone’s Most Wanted list. Undercover detective James McParlan (Harris) poses as a new miner in order to infiltrate the Maguires, led by Jack Kehoe (Connery), and gain enough evidence to bring them all to court. But once he experiences the hardships these men have to endure the difference between social justice and statutory law becomes increasingly distinct making him question his original mission. Despite allusions to Judas Iscariot’s crisis of conscience there isn’t much else of note in Ritt’s dusty drama which pits a cast of truculent soot-blackened Irishmen against a police squad of uniformed goons. The obvious class struggle is never given more than surface attention and even the middle voice of reason provided by landlady Mary Raines (Samantha Eggar) is reduced to a romantic non-sequitur when McParlan begins nipping at her heels. Meandering and historically suspect, it doesn’t even come close to the dramatic punch of 1987’s Matewan.

Mondays in the Sun (Spain 2002) (8):  This beautifully realized film plays like a road movie without the road....or the car...  When three buddies lose their jobs at the local shipyard they suddenly find themselves with too much time on their hands and too little money.  Even though they meet at the local pub every night to bullshit and cry on each others’ shoulders they go home to three different realities:  brusque Santa daydreams about the way things should be; grey-haired Lino feels the weight of his advancing years as he tries to compete with men half his age; and proud José feels emasculated every time his wife brings home her own paycheque.  It takes a friend’s sudden death to jar them out of their self-pitying rut....but is it enough to make them change?  Aranoa takes full advantage of his seaside locations with some clever maritime imagery, whether it’s a ferry going nowhere or a half-finished tanker rusting away in dry dock.  His characters are fully fleshed and human to a fault thanks in large part to a talented cast and an intelligent script that is alternately very funny and deeply affecting.  Two thumbs up!

The Monk (Spain/France 2011) (8): In 1595 a newborn child is abandoned on the steps of a Capuchin monastery just outside Madrid, the only clue to his identity a peculiar birthmark on the right shoulder. Years later the child has grown into one of the monastery’s most celebrated monks, Father Ambrosio (sexy wonderful Vincent Cassel), renowned for his pious ways and the fiery sermons which attract people from miles around who come just to hear him speak. But when he discovers a nun at a nearby convent is harbouring a terrible secret he ignores her pleas for mercy and in his self-righteous zeal ends up destroying her life. And this one uncharitable act will lead Ambrosio down an increasingly dark path indeed when Satan, sensing a chink in the holy man’s armour, decides to set a trap for him cleverly baited with two women—one a carnal temptress and one whose chastity mocks his own… Oh those soothing contradictions and colourful psychoses we refer to as “religious faith” do make for some grand cinema and in the hands of director/writer Dominik Moll this adaptation of Matthew Lewis’ scandalous 18th century novel is a veritable smorgasbord of Catholic angst—bursts of sunlight segue into utter blackness, statues of saints seem frozen in mid-scream, and a tempestuous whirlwind ruffles the pages of a bible while snuffing out votive candles meant to honour the Blessed Virgin. No stranger to psychodrama (see my review for With a Friend Like Harry…) Moll uses church pageantry and scriptural verse to represent his protagonist’s floundering battle with temptation as a procession of the faithful comes to resemble a pagan ritual and the innocent reciting of a devotional psalm becomes a pornographic incantation. Filmed in dry shades of rust and ochre in a biblical landscape of barren rock, Moll uses some clever old-style camerawork—a face in a crowd receives extra illumination, scenes iris in and out like in a silent film—almost as if to remind us that what we are watching is sacred melodrama of the highest order and if we spend too much time pondering its deep spiritual implications we will surely miss the knife edge of humour hidden up its sleeve. Blasphemy rarely comes sweeter.

Monsieur Lazhar (Canada 2011) (7): After one of their staff commits a very public suicide, a Montreal school hires substitute teacher Bachir Lazhar—newly arrived from Algeria and still acclimatizing himself to the strange ways of Quebec—to take her place. But inheriting a homeroom of traumatized tykes proves to be something of a challenge for the soft-spoken immigrant for in their eyes he sees a reflection of the tragedy which caused him to flee his country in the first place. Fighting both the administration and his own sense of grief M. Lazhar embarks on a school year his pupils will not soon forget, especially little Simon and Sophie who are having an especially tough time with their teacher’s death although for very different reasons. Based on Evelyne de la Chenelière’s stage play, Phillipe Falardeau’s quiet little crowd-pleaser was Canada’s official Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film which is ironic considering its unmistakable Quebecois slant. A pretty derivative story of tribulation and healing with loveable youngsters, distressed adults, and a foreign voice who somehow manages to bridge all the gaps. The parallel between Bachir’s experience and that of his students is perhaps too clearly delineated and it’s hard to believe the school administration could be that rigid, but the low-keyed performances are top-notch all around and Falardeau keeps it refreshingly free from the overstated dramatics one would expect (although Émilien Néron’s Simon will have you reaching for the kleenex eventually). A gently engaging film which is nevertheless quickly forgotten once the houselights come on.

Montenegro (Sweden 1981) (8): Marilyn Jordan is bored. An American trophy wife married to a wealthy Swede she has everything most people would dream of; an attentive husband, two generically darling children, and a big house in the country. Unfortunately she also has entire days full of empty hours that no amount of banal pursuits can hope to compensate. Furthermore, the crushing ennui of her upper class existence is wreaking havoc on her already fragile psyche; when she’s not trying to poison the family dog or set fire to her husband’s comforter she’s throwing pearls down the staircase and spraying the potted palm for imaginary bugs. Her bewildered husband eventually seeks the advice of a renowned psychiatrist, an ingratiating Armenian expat with a few problems of his own, who soon becomes a permanent fixture at the family dinner table for all the good it does. Marilyn’s life takes a drastic turn however when an attempt to accompany her husband on his latest business trip results in a series of comic mishaps which land her in the company of a rowdy group of Yugoslavian immigrants. Operating out of the Zanzibar Nightclub, a ramshackle dive specializing in petty larceny and prostitution, the loud and lively Serbs introduce Marilyn to the carefree hedonistic lifestyle she’s been craving, including the amorous attentions of one resident hunk. But all freedoms come at a cost and in escaping one prison we often come up against bars of a different sort. Dusan Makavejev’s darkly absurdist comedy may start out low-keyed as we see Marilyn’s predicament mirrored in the faces of caged zoo primates, but this proves to be a clever ruse for as the film’s deliberate pace gains momentum and its plot becomes more outrageous you suddenly realize that he has presented us with a fascinating conundrum. Is this the overt story of one woman’s last attempt to break free from the ties that bind...or are we watching a wholly subjective S.O.S. as her last shreds of sanity sink beneath the waves? Or could it be both? Despite some weak performances and an uneven energy there is a droll fatalism running through Makavejev’s work culminating in an unexpectedly mordant about-face which assures us that even though it was filmed entirely in Stockholm, its heart belongs firmly in Belgrade.

The Most Dangerous Game (USA 1932) (9): Shipwrecked big game hunter Bob (Joel McCrea) washes up on the shores of a south Pacific island where he becomes a guest of Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks), an eccentric Russian nobleman living in a mysterious jungle fortress along with a trio of brooding servants. Joining Eve and her brother Martin (Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong), fellow castaways from another shipwreck also in residence at Zaroff’s estate, Bob at first hits it off with the odd Russian, a fellow hunting enthusiast, as they talk about the thrill of the chase. But Zaroff’s gleaming eyes conceal a deeper madness for the reclusive Cossack has long ago grown bored with hunting dumb animals and now revels in hunting that most dangerous of game—man himself!—and in a stroke of darkest irony boastful safari hunter Bob is set to become his next quarry… Borrowing much of it’s jungle sets from King Kong which was being filmed at the same time with leading lady Miss Wray, this wonderfully overdone bit of gothic camp wastes no time in establishing character and mood as it plunges its cast into a murky world of steamy swamps and moonlit cliffs. McCrae’s sense of moral outrage is the perfect compliment to Banks’ melodramatic madman and Wray gasps and screams in all the right places. Made before the Hays code was in full effect the directors treat us to a bit more skin than usual while a trophy room of mounted human heads is one of the more macabre sequences to come out of the 30’s. Clocking in at a mere sixty-three minutes this is one of the most perfectly realized films I’ve yet to see. Visually striking and creepy as hell!

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.

Moon (UK 2009) (8): Sam Rockwell puts in a bravura performance as an astronaut alone with himself at a remote lunar outpost who begins to question not only the ethical practices of the company who hired him but his own sanity as well. He plays Sam Bell, an engineer working for the giant mega-corporation Lunar Industries Ltd. whose mining facilities are harvesting the moon’s surface for “helium-3”, a clean power source supplying energy for 70% of the world’s burgeoning population. Nearing the end of a three-year contract as sole human inhabitant of the automated factory Sam happily dreams of being reunited with his wife and baby girl back on Earth despite a growing case of cabin fever. His robotic companion GERTY (a series of suspended arms and hard drives communicating with smiley face icons and the smooth voice of Kevin Spacey) tries to offer some assurance but when certain technical “glitches” begin to appear a new, ominous light is cast not only on Lunar Industries but on the whole reason for Sam being on the moon in the first place. Is he suffering from delusions brought on by his extended isolation or are there more sinister explanations for his discomfort? Using majestic cinematography coupled with an ultra-hip soundtrack of urban chill, classic Mozart and sad piano solos, director Duncan Jones (Bowie’s son!) delivers an intelligently written science-fiction puzzler for grown-ups. His use of studio miniatures instead of more expensive CGI effects creates a futuristic setting which is both wonderfully retro and hauntingly surreal. Although technical purists may balk at the film’s few scientific faux pas there is no denying the film’s visual impact; a scene in which a distraught Sam is comforted by a mechanical arm is both chilling and terribly pitiful. There is a pervasive sense of melancholy to Jones’ vision as he presents us with a moral dilemma brought on by unchecked technology and human greed then challenges us to formulate our own arguments.

Moonrise Kingdom (USA 2012) (9):  With its candy-coloured houses, idyllic seascapes, and quirky citizens who call each other by their first and last names, the tiny island community of New Penzance is like a picture post card come to life.  It's also unbearably dull for anyone yearning for an identity to call their own.  Wallowing in this backwater paean to conformity are pre-teen misfits Suzy, a dreamer whose love of fairy tales is overshadowed by a violent temper; and Sam, an emotionally scarred orphan politely rejected by his foster family and mercilessly bullied by the kids in his Khaki Scouts troupe.  Finding a kindred spirit in each other's company, Sam and Suzy repeatedly try to escape the regimented confines of New Penzance only to be dragged back again and again by well-meaning adults and pathologically obedient boy scouts.  But as their affection for each other deepens they make one last desperate attempt to break free, and in so doing initiate a string of revelations which will forever change their lives and turn New Penzance upside-down.  Like Romeo & Juliet reimagined by Jung and Dr. Seuss, Wes Anderson's delightful storybook of a film exaggerates life's little idiosyncrasies even as its lovestruck protagonists do battle with the forces that threaten to overwhelm.  Brimming with eccentric personalities and outlandish plot devices culminating in a thunderous epiphany of biblical proportions, he brings to life that magical time between childhood and adolescence when wishes give way to reality, a broken heart becomes a mortal wound, and adult motivations become just a tad less mysterious.  Borrowing imagery from sources as varied as Shelley's Frankenstein and Noah's transformative flood set against a soundtrack of classical fugues, it's ultimately all about growing up without growing old.

The Moon-Spinners (USA 1964) (7): British teenager Nicky Ferris (perpetual virgin Hayley Mills) is vacationing on the isle of Crete with her prim and proper aunt Frances when she stumbles upon a sinister mystery at the rustic hotel in which they’re staying. Something’s afoot with the innkeeper’s surly brother, something involving astrology and the nearby Bay of Dolphins, and he is doing his best to chase the two women away. The plot thickens however when Nicky meets up with fellow Brit Mark Camford, a curious young man with secrets of his own, and before you can shout “teenage love interest” the plucky pair are on the run from a pair of would be assassins as they try and solve an increasingly complex puzzle before their luck runs out. If you can ignore a few plot holes and a suspiciously long string of convenient coincidences this big budget Walt Disney thriller is actually quite entertaining. Director James Neilson avoids much of the syrupy twaddle one expects from the studio and replaces it with some gorgeous technicolor location shots and elaborate sets including the seaside ruins of an ancient temple, a raucous pagan celebration, and an eerie old church complete with mouldering subterranean crypt. An especially well executed scene involving an escape from a locked windmill would have made Hitchcock smile. The performances are generally above par notably Joan Greenwood as the matronly aunt and legendary Irene Papas as the unhappy innkeeper with an advanced case of prickly conscience thanks to her brother’s illicit schemes. Even a browned and accented Eli Wallach puts in a convincing performance as the evil uncle Stratos and silent film star Pola Negri’s cameo as an eccentric heiress is pure camp. A fun family romp whose sense of peril never wanders far from a solid “G” rating.

Morituri (USA 1965) (7): Robert Crain, a wealthy German ex-pat living illegally in India during WWII, is given an ultimatum by the Allies—either aid them in a top secret operation or face deportation back to Germany where the Nazis are waiting to arrest him for desertion. Posing as an SS officer aboard a German freighter heading from Japan to France, Crain is to use his past military training to secure the ship and its precious cargo of rubber so the American fleet can capture it at sea. Knowing that the freighter’s captain has hidden several explosive charges aboard his vessel in order to scuttle it in the event of an enemy encounter, Crain has only a few days to locate the bombs and disable them while at the same time allaying the crew’s growing suspicions regarding his true identity. But even though Crain, a self-serving pacifist, took on the assignment merely to save his own skin he soon finds his stance of moral neutrality challenged on two sides—first from the ship’s antagonistic captain who has a few ethical qualms of his own, and secondly from a group of political prisoners bound for concentration camps, among them a young Jewish woman whose harrowing story shakes Crain from his complacency. Bernhard Wicki’s moody tale of one man’s latent conscience receiving a rude awakening begins as a straight-up espionage thriller with good guys and bad guys clearly delineated. He then proceeds to blur the lines exposing Crain’s conscientious objector rhetoric for the willful blindness it actually is and turning the captain’s proud paternal boasting into something hollow after he discovers what his “war hero” son has actually been doing. But the sheer star power of leads Marlon Brando and Yul Brynner as Crain and the Captain respectively are not enough to salvage a script which clips along for the first half then gets muddied by too many asides and incidentals before arriving at its ironic final scene. Conrad Hall’s Oscar-nominated B&W cinematography goes a long way however as camera’s swoop down from above or crawl between decks highlighting tense faces and heavy silences as they pass while Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score booms and crashes in the background.

Mother and Son (Russia 1997) (10): In a cabin in the woods a grieving man tenderly cradles his dying mother and tries to soothe her by recounting an odd dream he had. Strangely enough it seems that she had the selfsame dream: a troubling vision of human weakness and the vagaries of God which left her feeling despondent. And then she asks her boy to take her outside for a walkabout in the forest even though she can barely stand and thus mother and son embark upon their final dream together. In director Aleksandr Sokurov’s stunning visual poem time stands still so that one woman’s dying breath becomes a halting dialogue on grief, mortality, and the unbreakable bonds between parents and offspring. Filmed as if through a pane of warped glass, the son gently carries his mother through a distorted landscape of pallid sunlight and impossibly green fields stretched beneath a sky filled with thundering storm clouds. A cottage door comes to resemble the entrance to a sepulchre, a branch of delicate flowers beckons enticingly from beyond an open window, and a black train moves across the land with the inevitability of fate. And all the while mom is becoming quieter and son is trying to avoid her weakening gaze. Highly formalized with its studied mise-en-scène and spare soundtrack of classical piano, whispered prayers, and exaggerated nature (rain pounds and winds wail) this sterling example of arthouse cinema is more meditation than movie and so demands patience and a willingness to enter into its psychological space. Once having done so however, the journey is not soon forgotten especially if you have ever lost someone you truly loved.

Mother Joan of the Angels (Poland 1961) (10): Religious hysteria, secular angst, and everyday pragmatism abound as Father Suryn, a painfully naive 17th century priest, tries to rid a convent of demons only to discover the real bugaboos reside within his own head. Long believed to be under satanic influence, Mother Joan’s small rural cloister has defeated all previous attempts at exorcism—even causing one parson to be burned at the stake for heresy. And with rumours of unnatural acts taking place inside its walls it has also been the source of a few peasant fantasies. Armed with nothing more than his wavering belief and a doe-eyed piety, Suryn is not prepared for the spiritual and physical challenges awaiting him for not only is the reverend mother ambivalent about her resident devils, part of her is actually enjoying the notoriety (and worldly liberties) her possession provides. Seeking advice from an embittered rabbi, the country priest is forced to reappraise his own notions of good and evil leading to a revelation which shakes the foundations of his own faith especially when Joan’s seductive presence begins to threaten his vow of chastity. With subtle critiques aimed at a totalitarian mindset (Rome's, not Moscow's of course) and a wry feminist slant---the "demons" in this case rebelling against male authority figures and sexual repression---Mother Joan contains scenes of ecstatic poetry and a troubled spirituality leading to a horrific finale.

Mother of Tears (Italy 2007) (6): The final instalment in Dario Argento’s “Three Mothers” trilogy (see my reviews on Suspiria and Inferno) concerning a trio of ancient and malevolent sorceresses who take turns trying to rule the world. This time around a mysterious casket found buried outside an Italian graveyard unleashes the Mater Lachrymarum, or Mother of Tears, the most wicked witch of them all who wastes no time gathering her minions from around the globe and having them converge on Rome. Soon the Eternal City is engulfed in a wave of violence and depravity with men raping women, women stabbing boyfriends, and mothers throwing babies off bridges. Only Sarah Mandy (played by Dario’s daughter, Asia), a timid art student with innate magical abilities, is able to stand up to the diabolical Mother. But will her nascent powers be enough to save western civilization from a new dark age of terror and destruction? Pursued by hordes of evil slutty wiccans and one very determined simian familiar (bad monkey!) Sarah frantically searches for a way to kill the witch and save the world. Meanwhile time is running out and Rome is slowly going down in flames… Lacking the creepy atmospherics of its predecessors, Mother of Tears instead offers up extra helpings of gratuitous tits and high-tech gore; a woman is beheaded by a bathroom door while another is strangled with her own intestines, eyes are gouged out, children are consumed, and our heroine wades through a putrid waterfall of rotting corpses. Not exactly family fare but the sombre cheesiness of the whole production with its synthesized goth score and rivers of blood is rather infectious, plus there are a few genuine shocks along the way too, even if the Big Bad Witch herself winds up looking like a disgruntled backup singer for Bananarama. A fine example of Gothic Trash.

Mother’s Day (USA 1980) (2): From the warped minds at Troma Entertainment comes yet another unpleasant little cult flick, this time featuring a couple of murderous hillbillies and a domineering mother. Between trashing their already tumbledown house and getting drunk there isn’t much to keep the cretinous Addley and his genetically bankrupt brother Ike entertained--after all they live in the middle of nowhere and their diminutive matriarch maintains a smothering psychological grip on them. But when the situation presents itself they like nothing better than kidnapping hapless females and staging elaborate backyard shows wherein the women are tortured, raped, and murdered while Mom barks helpful directions from the sideline. They meet their match however when they abduct a trio of busty campers who manage to turn the tables on Ma and the boys. Chock-full of the usual genre mainstays--drooling hicks, screaming chicks, cheap grisly effects--this nasty bit of stupidity is just too poorly written and presented to elicit more than the odd scornful grunt. Even the glut of casual misogyny proves to be more tiresome than offensive although there is a tawdry scene of poetic justice involving a hammer and a box of panty shields. Vulgar, puerile, and tasteless to the extreme, Mother’s Day lacks any of the style or imagination which immortalized such underground hits as Friday the 13th and Halloween. I suppose Troma Entertainment satisfies a decidedly narrow niche market hence you either love their stuff or hate it. Personally I’m beginning to despise them.

Moulin Rouge (UK 1952) (7): Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864 – 1901) turned the Parisian art world on its ear with his bold, rapturously coloured paintings of dance hall girls, prostitutes, and the society dandies who frequented both. Perhaps best known for his posters advertising the Moulin Rouge, Paris’ notorious burlesque theatre, his work expressed a Bohemian joie-de-vivre belied by a certain haunted quality, as if his subjects were both a source of gaiety and vaguely threatening. Hardly surprising considering his diminutive size and crippled gait, the result of a childhood trauma which left his legs stunted and partially paralyzed. For this highly fictionalized biopic director John Huston draws upon Lautrec’s own vibrant palette (garnering Oscar nods for Art Direction and Costume Design in the process) to show us an artistic genius whose disastrous attempts at love—most notably a self-destructive affair with a manipulative streetwalker—provided both creative inspiration for his canvases and a cynical despair in his personal relationships including an unhealthy affinity for cognac. Inspired by Lautrec’s vision, Huston paints the screen with wild colours whether it be a rousing can-can or a montage of the artist’s work then abruptly shifts gears as we see a lonely Henri hobbling along a darkened street or standing in awe before a classical female sculpture. In the lead role José Ferrer, appearing every inch the artist thanks to hidden leg straps and clever camera tricks, portrays a fiercely private man who learned long ago that women “don’t marry cripples” yet whose defences are easily shaken by a kind word or sympathetic gesture from the opposite sex. Rounding out the cast are Colette Marchand as Lautrec’s romantic nemesis (a convincingly manic performance), a mature Suzanne Flon as the woman who may have loved him, and Zsa Zsa Gabor as a grasping opportunistic femme fatale (hello typecasting). Woefully inaccurate as these films tend to be Moulin Rouge is still an entertaining piece of semi-fiction whose rich evocation of a bygone era is brought to radiant life, if only for a few hours.

Mount Pleasant (Canada 2006) (2): It’s a beautiful Vancouver day and in the lower income neighbourhood of Mount Pleasant Mr. and Mrs. Basic White Couple undergo a sea change when their little daughter pricks herself on a discarded needle; he becomes a vigilante asshole while she begins to question her role as a drug and alcohol counsellor. Meanwhile, on the other side of Cambie St., Mr. Soulless Real Estate Agent and his trophy wife are having problems of their own: he’s developed twin vices of frequenting underage prostitutes and selling McMansions to foreigners; she’s obsessed with appearances; and their monotone daughter is experiencing an identity crisis because dad doesn’t think she’s sexy enough and mom wants her to wear a dress when all she wants to do is play sax in an existential grunge band that specializes in songs about emptiness. And just to complete the social triptych we’re introduced to Miss Tragic Crackwhore and her misunderstood boyfriend-cum-pimp Mr. Suffering Crackhead who dream about getting high in Bangkok hence the cheap palm motif wallpaper in their tumbledown apartment. Over the course of the next few days everyone will be thrown into the blender only to emerge with a few cheap epiphanies while the rest of us get a lecture on tolerance. Facile, sanctimonious, and shot through with bullshit ironies. The only things missing were a philosophizing panhandler, granola-munching pacifist, and long-suffering interracial gay couple. And people ask me why I loathe Canadian cinema so much...

Much Ado About Nothing (USA 2012) (5): Apparently shot over twelve days in and around his Santa Monica estate with a cast of industry friends, Joss Whedon’s tepid take on Shakespeare’s romantic farce looks and feels like an overly ambitious home movie. The story itself is a mainstay from highschool English class: fellow soldiers Benedick, a confirmed bachelor, and Claudio, a lovestruck naif, weather a host of adversities before finally succumbing to the charms of acid-tongued Beatrice and maidenly Hero—with a little underhanded prompting from their friends and family. Presented here in casual B&W with all the flair of a yuppie garden party, Whedon does exhibit some imaginative staging with manly arguments taking place amidst the girly trappings of a child’s bedroom and a pair of bumbling police detectives stealing the show with their Laurel & Hardy schtick. But even though Shakespeare’s razor sharp musings on what motivates the sexes are timeless and Whedon claims to have stayed true to the Bard’s prose (with a little editing due to time and budgetary constraints), this truncated southern California version still seems somehow dummied down. Would have made a great student film.

Mud (USA 2012) (7): Fourteen-year old Ellis and his best friend Neckbone have lived on one of the Mississippi’s many southern tributaries all their lives; fishing, talking about girls, and contemplating the mysterious ways of adults. Their lives take a dangerous turn however when they happen upon Mud (Matthew McConaughey in need of a comb) a dishevelled drifter hiding out on one of the river’s many islands. Gaining their confidence Mud captivates them with his sad tale of Juniper, the one true love for whom he’s been pining away. Determined to reunite the two lovers Ellis and Neckbone begin supplying Mud with purloined canned goods and the spare parts he needs in order to refurbish the old motorboat he found abandoned in the nearby woods. But other parties are searching for Mud as well: the state police have a warrant for his arrest and a posse of hired guns have their own sinister plans for him. And when Juniper (a bruised and battered Reese Witherspoon) breezes into town things start to get really complicated. Drawn into Mud’s world of murder and amour fou, Ellis soon finds his youthful zeal slowly giving way to a grown-up cynicism as truth and fabrication become harder and harder to separate… Sticking to the southern roots which gave his previous films Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter their idiosyncratic appeal, writer/director Jeff Nichols here enters into full-on Mark Twain territory with long summer days unfolding by a river that seems to go on forever. His protagonists inhabit this backwater Eden, complete with panoramic sunsets, magical talismans, and a poisonous snake or two, as if they were organic offshoots of the water itself—occasional glimpses of the nearby town offering little more than decrepit mobile homes and white trash malls. This juxtaposition of the natural and manmade serves to highlight Ellis’ own painful passage from childhood to adolescence, a journey made even more poignant when he experiences his first crush even as his parents’ marriage begins to decay. It comes as something of a disappointment then that Nichols chooses to end what could have been an engaging coming-of-age story with a jarring OK Corral showdown (even Ellis’ elderly neighbour turns sniper) followed by a fluffy epilogue in which loose ends are neatly tied up in a pretty bow. Thankfully a winning cast manage to keep things afloat long enough for the final credits but the film’s bucolic charm ends up taking a bullet long before everything fades to grey.

Multiple Maniacs (USA 1970) (9): Cannibalism, anal rosary beads, and one of underground cinema’s most surreal sexual assaults are just some of the treats served up in John Waters’ twisted ode to bad taste. His longtime muse Divine plays the proprietor of a traveling “Cavalcade of Perversions” where headline acts such as a man who eats his own vomit and a heroin addict going through DT’s are used as bait to lure unsuspecting patrons into the makeshift tent where they are promptly robbed and drugged at gunpoint. All is going swimmingly for Lady Divine and her crew of grotesques, including her trampish daughter Cookie, until her boyfriend Mr. David begins having an affair with Bonnie the bleached blonde nymphette with a taste for old men and unnatural acts. When news of Mr. David’s infidelity reaches Divine it throws her into a murderous rampage of jealousy and perversion beginning with a visitation from the Infant Jesus of Prague and a most sacrilegious reimagining of Christ’s Passion (fair warning) before ending in a trashy King Kong spoof on the dusty sidewalks of downtown Baltimore. Remastered from the original 16mm stock for this Criterion edition, Waters’ beloved guerrilla filmmaking has never looked so good in all its cheesy B&W glory whether it’s an addled Edith Massey playing the Virgin Mary or a bearded glue-huffing transvestite stumbling about in a Jackie Kennedy frock. There may be a message in all the Roman Catholic mumbo-jumbo—the downtrodden pervs become Christ and his followers, elements of the “divine” (ha ha) can be seen in the strangest places, and posters for movies such as Boom and Pasolini’s Teorema adorn the walls—but for the most part this is strictly for aficionados of Waters’ signature Theatre of Depravity. Enjoy!

Murder Ahoy (UK 1964) (5): Margaret Rutherford once again dons the guise of Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s doddery grey-haired sleuth, to solve a string of maritime murders. After a member of the board of trustees overseeing a merchant marine training vessel drops dead before he can deliver some “terribly important news”, fellow board member Marple suspects foul play and decides to pay the ship a visit. Unfortunately her arrival heralds more premature demises and the frumpy amateur detective must unmask both villain and motive before she becomes fish food herself. Set to a score which sounds like it was lifted from a game show, red herrings abound and any sense of peril fails to materializes as Rutherfords prim and proper old girl—with the body of a small tank and face of a droopy St. Bernard—fusses and goes “tsk tsk” while pulling clues out of thin air. This series of Disney-style murder mysteries may be classic (Rutherford is a darling) but after watching one or two they quickly settle into predictable tedium. A surefire cure for insomnia.

Murder 101 (USA 1991) (2):  While teaching a class of wannabe authors the finer points of writing a thriller their professor gives them an unusual homework assignment.....plan the perfect murder.  But when he suddenly finds himself framed for a couple of homicides he begins to think that one of his pupils is taking things a little too far.  Could this have anything to do with the testimony he gave several years earlier that caused one of his colleagues to be sent to prison for murdering his wife.....a conviction the professor himself has some doubts about?  Will he be able to vindicate himself before the cops close in?  Will he be able to convince his ex-wife of his innocence AND win her back?  Who cares?  This is a mediocre excuse for a thriller that mixes a handful of the usual red herrings with a plot that is pretty much divorced from reality.  Condon then brings the whole mess to an unsatisfactory conclusion by throwing in a ludicrous twist that seems more like a lame apology to the audience than the terribly clever eye-opener it was obviously meant to be.  I’ve seen episodes of “Murder She Wrote” that were more engaging.

Murder She Said (UK 1961) (6): Margaret Rutherford is the quintessential Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s stout spinsterish super sleuth, in this first instalment of what was to become a short-lived series of whodunnits. After she witnesses a woman being strangled through the window of a passing train, Jane Marple dutifully reports it to the authorities but due to a lack of any collaborating evidence the police soon abandon the case. Not one to be put off however, the feisty old woman draws upon her own crime-solving savvy—gleaned from the hundreds of murder mysteries she’s read over the years—and sets out to find the killer herself, a hunt which will eventually lead her to the brooding Ackenthorpe mansion and its family of bickering suspects. The script is pure paperback pulp, the cast little more than the usual red herrings and genre caricatures from the blustering patriarch to the taciturn gardener, and the trail of clues is laid out in such a way that a blind man could follow it. Furthermore, the character of Ackenthorpe’s precocious nephew Alexander (Ronnie Raymond), while clearly meant to offer some comedic relief, instead comes across as an ultra creepy man-child especially with that horribly dubbed voice. But director George Pollock wrings what suspense he can from a succession of shadowy rooms and creaking doors, and Rutherford’s doddering grey-haired bloodhound, looking like Sherlock Holmes’ grandmother in scarf and overcoat, is a treat to watch.

Mutiny on the Bounty (USA 1962) (7): The “happy natives” angle was overused, Marlon Brando’s fake English accent fooled no one, and the editor should have been flogged for dereliction of duty. But this version of Charles Nordhoff’s novel about the despotic Captain Bligh whose reign of intimidation and abuse is brought to an end when first officer Fletcher Christian leads a mutiny still makes for a grand widescreen epic. After an arduous and highly cinematic trek from England to Tahiti to pick up a cargo of breadfruit seedlings bound for Jamaica, the crew of the HMS Bounty are at the breaking point, for in his eagerness to deliver the precious plants in time Captain Bligh’s acid tongue and penchant for cruel and unusual punishment knew no bounds. With memories of that idyllic South Pacific island still fresh in their minds the sailors suffer one more indignity causing Lieutenant Christian—a privileged aristocrat already harbouring a growing enmity towards his commander—to seize control, set Bligh and his officers adrift, and plot a new course for the Bounty. But even the noblest of intentions come with consequences and responsibilities and as they zig-zag across the sea the future of Christian and his mutineers becomes more and more uncertain… Despite the overflow of beautiful sunsets and long-legged virgins this is essentially a moral conundrum asking us to consider whether or not one wrong corrects another. Furthermore, just to muddle things a bit more, Bligh’s cargo of breadfruit which he so zealously guarded was meant to be nothing more than a cheap food source for Jamaica’s population of plantation slaves. Gorgeous to watch despite its historical inaccuracies, and Trevor Howard steals the show as the unmovable Captain.

My Bloody Valentine (USA 2009) (2): Ten years ago the small mining town of Harmony was rocked by a grisly murder rampage committed by Harry Warden, a miner who became unhinged after a tragic underground explosion killed several of his workmates. Flash-forward to the present and Warden, who supposedly died in a cave-in, is nothing more than an unpleasant memory; that is until Tom Hanniger, the new owner of the local mine, skulks into Harmony with plans to sell the town’s sole source of income. Despite protests from the dozens of people who stand to lose their jobs Tom is resolute; after all, Harmony holds no special place in his heart especially since he came very close to being one of Warden’s victims a decade earlier. With the town’s fate hanging in the balance a heavy breathing, pickaxe-wielding madman clad in miner’s outfit and gas mask makes a sudden reappearance and the gory killings begin all over again. Has Harry Warden returned from the dead...or has someone decided to carry on his legacy? Not one tired, overused horror cliché or 3D gimmick is ignored in this monumentally bad turkey gobbler of a film: gratuitous breasts will jiggle, eyeballs will pop out, and slutty girls will be eviscerated. As the cast stumbles their way through some of the most inane dialogue ever scripted you can almost hear them begging to be the next victim, preferring a messy demise to spending one more minute in this career-killing turdball. No surprise that writer Todd Farmer (whose hunky bare ass gets a much appreciated cameo) lists such cinematic gems as Drive Angry, and Jason X among his accomplishments. With the film’s body count rising and list of suspects dwindling, Farmer and director Patrick Lussier manage to hurl one final insult at the collective intelligence of their audience; a subterranean stand-off and final reveal so ludicrous and contrived that we could only laugh. The fact that they actually left the door open for a sequel is pure hubris.

My Blueberry Nights (Hong Kong 2007) (4): With his first English language production former Asian golden boy Wong Kar Wai proves that his winning blend of visual poetry and off-kilter romance does not translate well when placed in the American heartland, in fact it falls flat on virtually every level. After discovering the love of her life has been cheating on her, brokenhearted Lizzie (a painfully green Norah Jones) seeks refuge in a Manhattan cafe where the British proprietor Jeremy (Jude Law served up à la chick flick) offers sage advice and all the blueberry pie she can eat—apparently none of his customers ever order it. “It’s not the pie’s fault…” he drawls knowingly, “…it’s just that people make other choices.” Gee, isn’t life just like that?! Jeremy also enjoys pondering his security cam footage (“I’m amazed at all the things I miss during the day!”) and collecting discarded keys left behind by jilted lovers—including his own ex. Emboldened by all that rejected pie, Lizzie strikes out on a road trip in order to forget her problems only to learn a couple of valuable life lessons from two polar opposites: a heartbroken alcoholic policeman who loves too much; and a cynical career gambler who’s forgotten how. Despite some notable Hollywood names and his usual flair for studying faces and urban landscapes, Wong’s colour-drenched lesson on being true to oneself contains too many self-conscious tropes and contrived monologues to garner much credibility. Images of speeding subways and Vegas neon come across as so much artifice while the stilted ruminations on life and love sound as if they just popped out of a fresh baked fortune cookie. Even Natalie Portman’s standout performance as a hard-nosed poker player with father issues barely lifts this one above syrupy fluff. Wong’s keen sense of style excels when working within familiar milieux, he should leave bad American films to American directors.

My Brilliant Career  (Australia 1979) (8):  A small intimate drama of one self-centred young woman's journey towards wisdom that plays like a grand epic....beautifully shot with first class performances all around. Armstrong displays a tremendous talent for creating a time and place, suffusing austere images of the Australian outback with golden light and muted colour reminiscent of old daguerrotype photos. She expertly weaves elements of nature into the story's narrative.....parched fields, dust storms and sudden cloudbursts....along with a sense of longing and muted eroticism that makes the movies final scenes all the more compelling. Well done

My Dinner with Andre (USA 1981) (8): The story is simplicity itself; pragmatic and under-employed playwright Wallace Shawn has a dinner date with his friend, the wildly successful (and decidedly eccentric) theatre director Andre Gregory. At first the two men exchange pleasantries and gossip until, with the arrival of dinner, the real conversation begins. Andre has been traveling the world, from Scottish communes to Himalayan temples, trying to define himself both mentally and spiritually. At first Wallace finds his friend’s wildly embellished stories amusing, his peculiar worldview a seemingly chaotic mix of new age philosophies and arty hedonism. But as the evening wears on Andre begins to hit a few raw nerves with Wallace leading to a rapid-fire intellectual debate over coffee which leaves both men with more questions than answers. Never straying far from intimate facial close-ups, Louis Malle doesn’t so much cast us as the proverbial fly on the wall but rather as silent dinner guests. As the conversation leaps from art to mortality to the elusive nature of reality itself you can’t help but be fascinated and, like myself, perhaps a little discomfited when the topic turns to love and relationships. Both men turn in flawless performances, especially Gregory’s longwinded monologue which never misses a beat or subtle nuance. Neither pretentious nor preachy, this is one meal you shouldn’t miss.

My Dog Tulip (USA 2009) (7): Based upon the book by British author J. R. Ackerley, this simple animated tale about an old curmudgeon’s sixteen-year love affair with his pet Alsatian is sure to bring dog enthusiasts everywhere to tears. With piercing insights (“Unable to love each other, the English turn naturally to dogs…”) and whimsical artwork that wavers between primitive watercolours and even more primitive pencil scribbles, Ackerley’s working class prose describes a life of mutual dependance and loving devotion with the occasional small disaster thrown in for good measure. While the author’s acidic wit is sure to bring a smile to adult faces, the often earthy animation may prove problematic for more protective parents as Tulip’s excretory and coital adventures are waggishly portrayed in shades of yellow, brown, and pink. The look of a retro cartoon paired with a script straight from the pages of the New Yorker.

My Fair Lady (USA 1964) (6):  Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison were made for the parts of Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins in this wry look at the British class system.  Their onscreen chemistry is further enhanced by great sets, amazing costumes and one of the most recognizable collections of songs from any musical.  Unfortunately, three hours worth of cotton candy proved to be a bit much for me and I found my finger hovering over the “skip” button about halfway through.  A real treat for die-hard fans though.

My Favorite Brunette (USA 1947) (4): A mostly unfunny string of noir clichés in which bumbling San Francisco baby photographer Bob Hope assumes the identity of his private eye neighbour and comes to the aid of damsel in distress Dorothy Lamour. It seems Miss Lamour’s uncle has been kidnapped by an international gang of ne’er-do-wells and Hope must brave a series of misadventure, including an involuntary stint at a mental hospital, before he can get the girl and solve the mystery….but he still manages to end up on Death Row just the same. Of course the story itself takes a backseat to Hope’s stand-up schtick while a handful of surprise celebrity cameos will go largely unrecognized by contemporary popcorn munchers. Disappointing.

My Neighbours The Yamadas (Japan 1999) (6): With a child’s sense of perseverance, little Nonoko regards her extended family with a mixture of delight and bewilderment. There’s dad who always seems to put his foot in it, mom who enjoys a daily crisis, big brother who is constantly disappointed by his ordinariness, and dour grandma who doesn’t seem to have a kind word for anyone except when it really counts. But the crazy Yamada household is infused with love and small kindnesses as they weather (quite literally at times) the unpredictable sea of life. Using primitive yet colourful animation techniques this earlier offering from Studio Ghibli is presented as a series of vignettes, some whimsical and fantastic others more grounded, meant to convey the giddy uncertainties inherent in simply living. The result is akin to reading a stack of Sunday comics which, when it works, elicits a smile as the Yamada’s chaotic adventures remind us of our own familial idiosyncrasies. However, it tends to drag on a bit too long with a few scenes crossing the line into “precious” territory aimed squarely at the kindergarten crowd. Not Ghibli’s best production for sure, but its happy-go-lucky optimism hints at greater things to come.

My Reputation (USA 1946) (8): With her two sons away at boarding school newly widowed socialite Jessica Drummond (I can’t get enough of Barbara Stanwyck!) finds herself with too much time on her hands and not enough passion in her life. Her yearning for romance however is tempered by the demands of her social status; on the one hand if she so much as looks at the wrong man her so-called friends will descend on her like a pack of gossiping vultures, and on the other hand her domineering shrew of a mother expects her to follow in her own footsteps and spend the rest of her life celibate and dressed in black. But during an impromptu trip to Lake Tahoe with her best friend Ginna (Eve Arden, always the BFF) Jessica literally crosses paths with the dashing yet droll-humoured army major Scott Landis (George Brent just starting to go to seed) and suddenly love is in the air even as tongues begin to wag. With everyone casting their opinions and an increasing sense of hypocrisy (the husband of Jess’ biggest critic is also making passes at her) Jessica soon finds herself at a most crucial crossroads. Will she finally grow a pair and tell the world to suck it…or will she succumb to all those disapproving stares and snippy comments thus destroying her last chance for happiness? A magnificently over-the-top wartime chick flick with evocative B&W images of domestic bliss and snow-covered pines set to a million weeping violins. Stanwyck, as usual, proves to be the pivotal focus on which the story turns, her sheer movie star presence anchoring some of its more melodramatic excesses while her gorgeously framed face sets the tone for every scene. Her character’s desperate dilemma may seem trivial by today’s standards but that doesn’t lessen the power of her performance. They can’t make them like this anymore.

My Week With Marilyn (UK 2011) (6): In 1956 Marilyn Monroe was in England filming The Prince and the Showgirl directed by co-star Sir Laurence Olivier. Based on the memoirs of Colin Clark, Olivier’s personal assistant, Simon Curtis’ intimate drama tells of the tensions between an addled Monroe who arrived with her usual retinue of sycophants, babysitters, and pill pushers, and the quick-tempered Olivier who was driven to distraction by Marilyn’s mountain of idiosyncrasies yet secretly envied her natural acting ability. Emotionally fragile and chronically insecure, Marilyn is attracted to the star-struck Colin’s quiet honesty leading to a tenuous friendship in which screen icon and gofer find themselves unexpected confidants. However, as they begin to spend more time together Clark’s star worship turns to heartfelt concern, for not only is his idol beset with a host of demons but her entourage seem determined to keep her in a hazy state of compliance through a combination of prescription drugs and ingratiating pep talks. With her current marriage in trouble and an increasingly impatient Olivier demanding more of her time, Colin slowly realizes that simply holding Marilyn’s hand is never going to be enough. Although the cast is uniformly superb, Michelle Williams’ Monroe is phenomenal. A mix of sex kitten and movie star, she shows us an enormously talented actress bewildered by the widening gap between the public legend she’s become and the lonely, vulnerable woman she actually is; used and exploited at every turn yet sadly unable to let go of the attention. Where the movie suffered for me however was in Colin Clark’s overly-sentimental recollections. From the lazy afternoon skinny-dip to the midnight spooning and whispered confidences, how much is fact and how much is just wistful invention? It certainly looks good on the big screen, and as an author-cum-filmmaker himself I’m sure Clark has a knack for telling us exactly what we want to hear. But then again, “based on a true story” has never worked well for me.

My Winnipeg (Canada 2007) (6): Guy Maddin’s hallucinatory hodgepodge of half-formed ideas and vague recollections concerning his hometown of Winnipeg certainly challenges the concept of what a documentary should be. Presented as a highly visual stream of consciousness, it begins with the director nodding off on a train bound for Canada’s “coldest city”. As the rocking of the locomotive lulls him to sleep, the passing scenery transforms into a strange jumble of archival footage and personal memories; a waking dream which Maddin attempts to place in context using historical trivia and his own rather bad poetry. But unlike Sandburg’s unapologetic odes to big-shouldered Chicago, Maddin’s opus approaches its subject with a contradictory mixture of self-conscious pride, embarrassment, and repressed hostility. His Winnipeg is a pedestrian town of small dreams and “sleepwalkers”, where the past is constantly paved over and an epidemic of cultural amnesia seems to infect those unlucky enough to stay. Yet, conversely, there is also a grand history of pioneer toughness and civic activism which has been largely forgotten. Casting a woefully ineffectual group of amateurs to play his family in a series of fanciful flashbacks, we see how Maddin’s love-hate relationship with his hometown bears an uncanny resemblance to the ambivalent feelings he harbours towards his mother. It seems the tightly coiffed matriarch had the unnerving ability to read her children’s minds and often used what she found there to make their lives miserable; a talent Maddin dramatizes with humorous effect. From mock nazi invasions and mystical ice rinks to baffling ballet sequences and soviet-style propaganda films, My Winnipeg possesses a surreal charm that would have made a striking twenty or thirty minute short. Sadly, at eighty minutes it lacked both the kinetic energy and narrative cohesiveness to maintain my interest for the duration. In addition, the actors portrayed their characters with all the conviction of a really bad high school drama club. A deeply subjective and heartfelt little curiosity nonetheless.

The Naked Kiss (USA 1964) (9): One of the most perfectly rendered awful movies ever made, Samuel Fuller’s clichéd melodrama hits all wrong notes and does so with tawdry panache! Big city hooker Kelly (a deadly serious Constance Towers) leaves her past behind and tries to start a new life as a paediatric nurse’s aide in the midwest burg of Grantville—after turning one last trick with the local lawman, Captain Griff. Now, engaged to be married to Grantville’s richest bachelor despite Griff’s heated protestations, Kelly’s past threatens to overwhelm her when she commits a most heinous crime and all her alibis suddenly evaporate into thin air… A fine example of camp noir, Naked Kiss’ stock characters and exaggerated drama (everybody gets a gripping close-up!) are oddly compelling to watch especially when you throw in a few bitch fights, a crooked madam (she runs “Candy a la Carte” for discerning gentlemen with a sweet tooth), and an adorable cast of crippled children. A pleasantly lurid surprise whose solid camerawork and spirited performances—not to mention a refreshingly feminist slant—manage to rise above a mediocre script. No wonder it’s among John Waters’ Ten Most Favourite Overlooked Movies!

Naked World (USA 2003) (6): Another documentary following artist Spencer Tunick as he tries to convince everyday people to pose nude for his avante-garde photographs. Unlike Naked States where he confined his shoots to America, this time he takes his camera around the world with stops in dozens of major cities including a surprisingly uptight Paris and even more surprisingly laid back London. Along the way we meet a few interesting people such as a hesitant gallery owner in St. Petersburg and a lively 70-year old poet in Cape Town as well as mobs of strangers, sometimes numbering several hundred, eager to disrobe in public for the sake of art. Some interesting philosophies of nudity gradually emerge; while a Parisian woman refers to public nakedness as “an assault”, one Russian artist muses on the “confrontation” between impersonal urban constructs and a very vulnerable human body. “In a capitalist society...” points out one disaffected Soviet citizen, “...you have a sense of MY body. Under socialism you don’t feel as if you own your body.” In Tokyo a model decries Japan’s corporate hive mentality which frowns on individual expression while in Brazil one woman describes an underlying sexist attitude towards female self-determination. For some then, baring oneself in public becomes a direct challenge to social order. For others it represents a vehicle to overcome personal shame as we see a woman learning to accept her AIDS-altered body while another timidly reveals the scarred shoulder and breast she received from a childhood accident. The photos themselves are often quite beautiful, with seas of naked flesh covering roads and fields or swirling en masse around public landmarks as if they were one organic entity. There is a sensual appeal to the images without the erotic fascination one would expect. But his greatest achievements, in my opinion, are the individual studies involving a single person or small group; a trio of self-conscious Japanese women stand defiantly in the middle of a road, a lone woman kneels with her back towards an orthodox church, and an elderly man proudly poses on a grassy hillside. Although the subject is fascinating, the delivery is strictly made-for-cable quality. Tunick lacks the onscreen charisma needed to keep the energy flowing and instead we are treated to a lot of nit-picking and whining. Better to simply google his works online.

Naughty Nudes 65 (USA 1965) (1): Okay, as a gay man I suppose my opinion on these all-female stag loops will have to remain completely objective, but with titles such as The Writhing of Awilda, Milky Thighs, Bedroom Eyes and Gertie’s Glistening Garter can anyone take them seriously? It’s hard to believe these poorly focused 10-minute exercises in tedium actually had our grandfathers reaching for the hand lotion. I mean, how many times can you watch a topless Wal*Mart cashier with really bad hair loll aimlessly on an unmade bed anyway?

Nebraska (USA 2013) (8): Convinced he’s won a million dollars thanks to a magazine subscription scam, cantankerous old Woody Grant (Bruce Dern, magnificent) is hellbent on getting from his home in Billings, Montana to the publisher’s headquarters in Lincoln, Nebraska despite having lost his drivers’ license due to advanced age and a lifetime of alcoholism. Finally giving in to his old man’s pipe dream, youngest son David (a quietly reserved Will Forte) agrees to take him on this wild goose chase knowing full well there’s going to be no cheque at the end of it. Along the way the two men make a pit stop at Woody’s old hometown where an affable reunion of monosyllabic uncles, inbred cousins, and local yokels becomes skewed for the worse when news of Woody’s impending millionaire status resurrects some long dormant resentments. Meanwhile, father and son are joined by older brother Ross and gossipy acid-tongued mother (June Squibb stealing every scene) and what started out as a simple road trip becomes a poignant reflection on the past… Beautifully rendered in soft shades of black and white with a spare musical score and widescreen panoramas of fields and farms, Alexander Payne’s picaresque journey into the heart of American Gothic country is essentially a three-hander with Dern’s grizzled character coming to terms with his life’s many failures, Squibb’s truculent harridan all regrets and wistful memories, and Forte’s soft-spoken, forbearing son beginning to understand them both. Perhaps the country corn idiosyncrasies are laid on a little heavy at times—America’s heartland seems to be little more than vacant smiles, vacuous conversations, and inertia beneath huge open skies—and the glaringly uneven acting ranges from Dern and Squibb’s Oscar-nominated performances to bad community theatre, but there is no mistaking the fact that Payne is wearing his heart on his sleeve throughout. A tender, unhurried little film about fathers and sons whose harsher truths are softened by occasional bursts of humour.

Nekromantic 2 (Germany 1991) (2): "Til Death do us Party" seems to be the motto when a lonely young widow digs up her late husband for a bit of postmortem hanky-panky. Some great girl-on-corpse action, a memorable bathtub dismemberment, and a coital beheading that has to be seen to be believed. But it was the dead baby seal that finally did me in. Nasty nasty nasty.

Nerve (USA 2016) (6): Goaded one too many times by her adrenaline-junkie friend Sydney, timid teen Vee decides to join “Nerve”, a wildly popular internet game where pay-per-view Watchers challenge Players with increasingly dangerous dares which, if completed successfully, earn the players cash and the promise of instant online fame. Initially called upon to do moderately embarrassing stunts—she has to kiss a stranger for five seconds while broadcasting it live on her phone—Vee’s dares become increasingly problematic (and lucrative) especially after she hooks up with Ian, a fellow player whose sudden appearance seems a little too convenient. Soon Vee is racking up both cash and viewers—a development which irks fame whore Sydney—and her dares are becoming evermore treacherous. But it’s when she decides enough is enough that she discovers the game of Nerve is not so easy to leave and the Watchers wield more power than she could have imagined. A taut and highly pertinent contemporary nightmare of a film which careens about with so much promise only to fizzle out just before the finish line. Firmly rooted in a depersonalized culture which bases self-worth on the number of “likes” one can get, where emotions are a spectator sport and life is observed through the lens of a smartphone, Henry Joost and Ariel Shcuman’s savvy adaptation of Jeanne Ryan’s novel puts all that social media technology to effective use—even the film’s colours are exaggerated as if the world itself has been photoshopped. It’s too bad then that after almost ninety minutes of tense build-up the ending arrives like a weak-kneed composite of The Goonies and Mad Max with avenging hackers and OMGs! all around—“Kids, don’t try this at home” and “Pics, or else it didn’t happen” seem to be the only take-home messages here. At least the kick-ass soundtrack offers some redemption with tracks from the likes of Roy Orbison, Wu-Tang Clan, and Icona Pop.

The New York Ripper (Italy 1982) (5): A madman is stalking the streets of New York City quacking like a duck while making mincemeat out of his unfortunate female victims. Seriously, he quacks like a duck. The case eventually lands squarely in the lap of Lieutenant Fred Williams who, along with the killer’s lone survivor, races against the clock to try and prevent another hapless woman from becoming a statistic. But wading through the list of red herrings proves to be a monumental task: Is it the peep show perv with the missing fingers? The foot-humping rich bitch with a taste for Puerto Rican toes? The doctor with a tape recorder fetish? The closeted psychologist? Or the adorable mathematician with a tragic secret? Italian gore-meister Lucio Fulci’s notorious giallo slasher, made famous during Britain’s inane “video nasties” witch hunt, is a twisted mix of kinky sex and grisly carnage. It’s fun to see his mostly Italian cast and crew stumble through their terribly dubbed lines, a weak attempt at a Bronx accent is particularly lamentable, while trying to maintain an aura of mounting suspense which never quite materializes. The splatter effects are pretty good although North American audiences may balk at the “garter belts and stab wounds” aesthetic of sexualized violence; a prostitute’s close encounter with a razor blade is especially nasty. And the film’s resolution, in which killer and motive are revealed, leads to much head-scratching and eye-rolling. If you’re a fan of the genre you’ll eat it up; personally it’s a meal I could have done without. Quack quack.

Nightcrawler (USA 2014) (10): Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal, chilling) is a manic bottom feeder with grandiose dreams who barely supports himself through petty criminal activities. He also may or may not be suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome. His meagre life takes a serious turn one night however when he happens upon a police situation and is introduced to the world of “Stringers”, independent news gatherers armed with digital cameras and police scanners who descend upon disasters and crime scenes like vultures hoping for a big payoff from TV networks hungry for images of human misery. Intrigued by this line of work Louis buys some second hand equipment and begins roaming the streets himself where his blatant narcissism and complete lack of empathy soon has him on the payroll of a local Los Angeles station—after all he’s not above moving corpses at the scene of an accident to make them more photogenic. Swiftly climbing the ranks of southern California’s stringer community Louis hires a sidekick to navigate the streets (an animated Riz Ahmed) and uses his ill-gotten footage to navigate television news director Nina Romina (an ice cold Rene Russo) into a compromising position since any personal integrity she may have had was long ago sacrificed for the sake of ratings. And then Louis lands the biggest scoop of his fledgling career and the depths of his monomania become appallingly clear. Like 1976’s Network, first-time director Dan Gilroy takes a grim look at the cesspool of exploitation and manipulation we call “The Nightly News”, but unlike Peter Finch’s loveable raving eccentric Gyllenhaal’s Bloom is an unblinking carnivore slavering behind his lens as he gleefully records all manner of tragedy for an insatiable public. Filmed in dark midnight shades against a backdrop of garish neon and black asphalt, Gilroy reduces images of bloodied corpses and burning wrecks to the size of Louis’s handheld screen and then backs them up with a soundtrack of quasi-religious music which belies the true horror of what we’re seeing. In the end it’s all bread and circuses for a public grown apathetic on a steady diet of televised carnage—and since it is this very appetite which fuels the networks in the first place we can’t help but wince self-consciously as Gilroy tears the industry a new one. Essential viewing.

Night Games (Nattlek) (Sweden 1966) (7):  Mai Zetterling’s brutal psychodrama about a grown man tormented by a history of childhood abuse is definitely not for the emotionally squeamish.  There is a raw, unrelenting intensity to her work, which may appear as artistic hubris to some but which I found completely engrossing.  The story concerns newly engaged Jan who brings his fiancée Irene home to the family estate.  The empty mansion holds nothing but bitter memories for Jan as he recalls the many traumas,  both sexual and emotional, he suffered at the hands of his abusive mother and her hedonistic friends.  These recollections threaten to overwhelm him and destroy his relationship with Irene before it can even start...a fate she is determined to prevent.  Zetterling plays with our sense of time, showing Jan as adult and child in scenes that seem to flow into one another.  She casts the mansion as a character unto itself, its many closed doors and dim hallways reflecting Jan’s increasingly troubled mind.  His home is a battlefield, both figuratively and literally, where firing squads practice on the front lawn and painful memories take the form of raucous houseguests who refuse to leave.  The very  concept of “mother” is fractured into three parts....Jan’s natural mother, a self-absorbed bohemian who treats him as an accessory much like the little clockwork bird she keeps in a cage; his elderly aunt who tries to nurture him yet is powerless to prevent the abuse; and Irene, who dispels the angry child within him leading to the film’s finale, an explosive catharsis that had me chuckling even as I shook my head.  This is not an easy film to like with its discordant images, mocking tone and occasional audacity but there is an undeniable artistry here that cannot be ignored.

Nightmare Alley (USA 1947) (6): Carnival barker Stan Carlisle (Tyrone Power mostly in a tank top…swoon!) discovers he has a gift for reading people—a knack for coming up with intuitive guesses that make him appear to be a genuine mentalist. Learning the secret tricks of the trade by wooing resident fortune teller Zeena (Joan Blondell gleefully hamming it up) he eventually quits the carnival circuit, dumps Zeena, and moves to the midwest where he begins a lucrative nightclub career pretending to read the minds of Chicago’s upper crust. But Stan, always looking for the next big fish to fry, falls in with a crooked cohort and begins a new scam—fleecing wealthy patrons of thousands of dollars by feigning an ability to commune with their dearly departed. “You’re going against God…” stammers Molly, his overly angelic wife and former sideshow worker as Carlisle, ever the con-man, begins to believe his own spiel, “…you think God’s going to stand for that?!” Apparently not—and even though Stan’s inevitable fall has been foreshadowed since the opening credits and reinforced by Zeena’s tattered deck of tarot cards, it still arrives like a heavenly hammer blow just the same. I am usually the first one to forgive the dramatic excesses inherent in any film noir production, after all it’s those very excesses which make the genre so much fun to watch in the first place. But director Edmund Goulding’s preachy tale is so predictable with it’s tawdry “just desserts” twists and pious condemnations that at times it seems to be mocking itself. Despite that sculpted chest Power doesn’t exhibit much of a screen presence and fellow actresses Blondell, Colleen Gray (Molly) and Helen Walker as a less-than-professional psychologist either hiss or weep according to the scene. Still fun to watch, but its hokey script calls to mind a cheap graphic novel. Indeed, Jules Furthman’s screenplay was taken from William Gresham’s dime store paperback.

Nightmare City (Italy 1980) (1):  Somehow a group of mindless atomic zombies manage to fly a plane to an unspecified city where they set about killing the inhabitants thereby turning them into fellow zombies.  As the carnage continues a local journalist and his wife try to make their way out of the chaos.  There is nothing here that is even remotely entertaining....the acting is beyond abysmal, the screenplay is sophomoric at the best of times, and the slapdash special effects reminded me of a really bad student film.  The "zombies" themselves are nothing more than a bunch of studio extras with burnt pizza stapled to their heads.  And just when you thought it couldn't get any worse, the director ends this turkey with a "twist" that's sure to evoke dry heaves from serious cinephiles everywhere.  The entire film stinks so bad you'll want to spray your television set with Lysol afterwards.

Night Moves (USA 2013) (7): Eco-radical wannabes Dena and her brooding friend Josh (convincingly played by Dakota Fanning and Jesse Eisenberg) join forces with backwoods activist Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard looking like an extra from Deliverance) in order to give society a big wake-up call by blowing up a hydroelectric damn in Oregon using a boatload of homemade explosives. But their carefully laid plans take an unexpectedly tragic turn leading to feelings of guilt and self-recrimination which threaten to undermine their already strained alliance. With slow meticulously staged panoramas of lakes and forests, and a background score that goes from thrash metal to haunting chords, director Kelly Reichardt’s tale of accountability and misplaced idealism doesn’t concentrate so much on the why of her grungy trio’s actions but rather on the psychological fallout that ensues when they are forced to question their hitherto lofty motives. While Dena struggles with a prickling conscience and Harmon tries to downplay his own culpability, Josh gives into despair and, ultimately, a consuming paranoia as his once comfortably green world suddenly becomes a threatening place of suspicious stares and veiled accusations. A bit slow in parts (the suspense lies in interactions and revelations not in things going “boom”) with a rather abrupt—though entirely apt—ending that abandons you at the cliff’s edge, Reichardt’s highly disciplined film is absorbing to watch but not likely to ignite any heated debates afterwards.

Night of the Demon (UK 1957) (10): American psychologist Dr. John Holden travels to England in order to attend a symposium where he plans to debunk the powers of witchcraft attributed to reclusive millionaire and dabbler in the black arts, Dr. Julian Karswell. Upon arriving in London however Holden learns that one of his colleagues who also attempted to expose Julian as a fraud met with a most grisly death the night before. Still refusing to believe in demons and the supernatural Holden ignores the pleas of his more openminded associates, including the dead professor’s niece, and slowly builds a case against the diabolical magician using logic and science---but the devil will have its due and Holden soon finds his staunch skepticism shaken to its very core. A magnificently atmospheric horror story with grand B&W cinematography that toys with our childhood fears of shadowy corners and deep dark woods whether it be an unseen bogeyman at the end of a hallway or a pair of demonic footprints chasing us through a moonlit forest. Director Jacques Tourneur knows just when to pile on the chills and when to let our own imaginations take over—a children’s party turns diabolical, a sunny country estate takes on haunted airs, and a pair of passing trains seem to open up the gates of Hell itself. The stuff of nightmares, and a lot of fun too---who knew Satan could be so cuddly?!

The Night of the Hunter (USA 1955) (9): In the depression-era south a fanatically religious psychopath disguised as a wandering minister drifts from town to town preying on lonely widows and slitting the throats of any women who arouse his deep-seated sexual rage. While serving a thirty-day sentence for theft however, the “Reverend” Harry Powell shares a cell with a death row inmate who, unbeknownst to his wife, has hidden a small fortune in stolen cash somewhere on the family farm. Obsessed with finding the money, Powell immediately sets his sights on the newly widowed Willa Harper and her two children, John and Pearl. Lost without her husband and easily manipulated, the somewhat simpleminded Willa quickly falls under Powell’s spell eventually joining him in a loveless marriage and taking up his fire & brimstone rhetoric. Meanwhile, convinced that the children know the whereabouts of their father’s loot, Powell sets his eye on young John. At first trying to cajole the boy into revealing his secret, the false preacher eventually shows his true nature when the suspicious lad steadfastly refuses to cooperate. What follows is a harrowing mix of suspense and backwoods horror as a terrified brother and sister attempt to flee from their murderously insane stepfather… From a desperate trek down a moonlit river to a sinister silhouette splayed across a bedroom wall, rarely has the use of light and shadow played such a key element in the telling of a story. In fact the dichotomy of light and darkness forms the very basis of director Charles Laughton’s gripping fable which examines the endless struggle between innocence and evil (appropriately enough, Powell has the words “hate” and “love” tattooed on the fingers of opposing hands). Filmed in striking shades of B&W against fanciful backdrops of starry skies, fairy-tale houses, and forest familiars, Night of the Hunter has the aura of a dark fantasy told through the eyes of a child in which adults, their motives unfathomable, can’t always be trusted to do what is right. Although some may be put off by the film’s stagey sets and theatrical presentation (a cold-blooded murder is filmed as a chilling pas de deux), one must remember that Laughton has reimagined the story of Hansel and Gretel complete with deep dark woods and a precarious path to grandmother’s house. This is a grim bedtime story expertly directed and featuring a stellar cast which pits a baleful Robert Mitchum as the bible-spouting madman against an angelic Lilian Gish as the children’s last refuge. Brilliant!

The Night of the Iguana  (USA 1964) (8):  With the Mexican Riviera filling in for Eden, religious metaphors abound in John Huston’s tightly directed tale about a disgraced priest leading an all-female tour group through a troubled paradise.  As Rev. Shannon wrestles with his own personal serpents, both spiritual and corporeal, he finds himself in the middle of a metaphysical tug-of-war with three strong-willed women embodying Judgment, Forgiveness, and Faith.  When the inevitable showdown comes it is a dark and stormy night indeed.  Graced with magnificent performances and bold sensual cinematography this story of one man’s journey into light is one of the better Tennessee Williams screen adaptations I’ve seen.

Nights of Cabiria (Italy 1957) (8): The world becomes a stage once more in Felini’s sad comedy about a waifish prostitute whose desire to be loved is both her greatest strength and her Achilles heel. Small and childlike but with a fierce determination and temper to match, Cabiria plies her nighttime trade along Rome’s less fashionable neighbourhoods where she finds a rough solace amongst the motley assortment of other streetwalkers. But, as revealed at the film’s opening in which the latest love of her life tries to drown her for a few lire, she is a sucker for a handsome face and a kind word. In fact it appears that every man she falls for has an ulterior motive up his sleeve (or a girlfriend in the wings) waiting to dash her hopes and test her emotional endurance one more time. Prayers to heaven fail to elicit a response and an encounter with a Vaudevillian devil only leads to humiliation—and worse… Like the story of Job, Fellini puts his diminutive protagonist through the grinder again and again as if testing her mettle, offering her a chance at happiness and then sweeping the rug out from under her at the last moment. And all the while a bevy of prostitutes, including one imposing figure whose chosen corner meaningfully resembles a roadside amphitheatre, provide a straggling Greek chorus offering Cabiria condemnation, praise, or tired indifference. As Cabiria, Giulietta Masina appears to reinvent and update the role of Gelsomina from La Strada giving us one of cinema’s most powerful performances in the process. Her pixieish beauty and malleable features render her lines superfluous as she alternately registers fury, heartbreak, and naïve joy with nothing more than a smirk and a toss of the head—her eyes seeming to carry the entire weight of the world. Finally, as if to drive home the theatrical elements of his film (and life itself), Federico tempers a decidedly downbeat ending with a bit of absurdist fancy as a makeshift carnival wends its way through a darkened forest. Only Fellini…

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.

Night Train Murders (Italy 1975) (5): College students Margaret and Lisa are making their way from Germany to Italy in order to spend Christmas with Lisa’s parents in Verona. Switching trains near the border the two hapless coeds suddenly find themselves trapped in a first class cabin with two psychopaths and a nymphomaniac until a fellow passenger comes to their rescue. Oops…spoke too soon…he turns out to be just another rapist eager for his next young victim. In the meantime, while the girls are suffering multiple humiliations just trying to stay alive, Lisa’s parents’ marriage is disintegrating thanks to her father’s wandering eye. Will mom and dad make it to the train station on time? And will the girls still be alive to tell their tale? Chockfull of sadistic misogyny and sexual violence, this sleazy piece of Eurotrash certainly earned its place on the UK’s infamous “Video Nasties” list back in the 70’s. Nowadays it’s just so much kitschy sexploitation complete with voyeuristic camerawork, lurid dialogue (badly dubbed, naturally) and a warbling theme song that grates on the nerves—I doubt the singer managed to hit even one proper note. A fine example of the “spaghetti thriller” with sleaze and cheese to spare.

Night Train to Munich (UK 1940) (7): In the months leading up to WWII eminent Czech scientist Dr. Axel Bomasch is kidnapped by the Nazis along with his daughter Anna (Margaret Lockwood). Bomasch had been working on a new type of armour plating that would make battleships almost unsinkable and Hitler, eager to have that technology for the Third Reich, will stop at nothing in order to force the reluctant scientist to cooperate. Enter special British agent Gus Bennet (a terribly miscast Rex Harrison) who is dispatched to Germany in order to bring Dr. Bomasch and his daughter safely back to England until his plans are blindsided by a pair of well-meaning English tourists… A grand old wartime yarn based on Gordon Wellesley’s Oscar-nominated original story and spun for the big screen by director Carol Reed, Night Train relies on outrageous coincidences, dumb Nazis, and questionable plot twists that would have rendered a less assured production more farce than fancy. But Harrison and Lockwood manage to plod along amiably supported by a leering Paul Henreid and the comedic duo of Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford here reprising their roles of Caldicott and Charters, those stiff upper-lipped British gents who first appeared on another train in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. As a propaganda film it goes down easily without the need for any King and Country bombast and the scenes along a treacherous mountain pass are beautifully filmed though hardly convincing.

Night Watch (Argentina 2005) (6):  Mild-mannered Victor survives on the somewhat surreal streets of Buenos Aires by hustling and selling drugs.  He has a small circle of regular clients and manages to avoid jail by routinely servicing the local police inspector.  But one night, after a couple of near death (??) experiences his life takes a bizarre turn and the once familiar streets now seem strange and vaguely menacing.  Is he in fact dead or just really stoned?  Are the odd characters that start crossing his path ghosts?  Is it just a coincidence that the calendar proclaims it is November 2nd...the Day of the Dead?  Cozarinsky’s film is certainly stylish with its gritty realism punctuated by moments of dreamlike fancy.  Unfortunately it is woefully short on substance.  What could be mistaken for a spiritual journey of some depth ends up being just a lot of psychological navel-gazing with a few clever political barbs thrown in.....the tranny hooker dressed like Margaret Thatcher was pretty cute.  Despite this major flaw “Night Watch” is not an unlikeable film and the lead actor is certainly easy on the eye.  Just lower your expectations and you’ll be fine.

Nightwatch (Denmark 1994) (7): Law student Martin (GOT's Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) begins his new job as nightwatchman in a creepy morgue just as a serial killer begins carving out a trail of mutilated women. Nerves already frayed by his surroundings, Martin starts to doubt his own sanity when it appears the killer has begun taunting him with a macabre workplace prank which not only casts suspicions on himself, but threatens to destroy his life in more ways than one. A taut psychological whodunnit which makes the most of its funereal settings with flickering lights, darkened hallways, and a room full of draped cadavers which always seems to have the door ajar. Coster-Waldau exudes paranoia in every frame while co-star Kim Bodnia as his whacked-out friend brings just the right amount of psychosis. A real nordic chiller.

Nil by Mouth (UK 1997) (9): Ray Winstone and Kathy Burke give career-defining performances as Raymond, the violently psychotic patriarch of a white trash London family, and Valerie, his increasingly desperate punching-bag of a wife on whom he regularly unleashes all his frustrations and anger. Rounding out the household are Val’s heroin addict brother Billy, her long-suffering mother, and embittered grandmother. Though light on plot—Billy’s theft of a treasured memento proves to be the catalyst for all sorts of brutal confrontations—Nil By Mouth’s dispassionate look at a morally disoriented Ray rushing towards the abyss borders on urban horror; his ultimate disintegration being one of the most intense scenes ever put to celluloid. Not an easy film to watch by any means: the violence is convincingly intense including an episode of domestic abuse that is almost too savage to watch, the sense of lives being wasted is oppressive, and every other sentence contains a colourful combination of “fuck” and “cunt”. But for all that it remains one of the most gripping character studies you’re likely to see. Oddly enough, after two hours of physical and psychological carnage it all ends on a banal household scene that is either an attempt at redemption or the deepest of ironies. Writer/director Gary Oldman (yes, the actor) claims to have based the script on his own childhood memories, even dedicating the film to his father. And that is probably the most disturbing thought of all.

1941 (USA 1979) (7): Spielberg’s sparkling goofball comedy was unjustly maligned by many critics when it was first released but its humour has withstood the test of time. Based on a few wartime anecdotes and then blown up to big screen proportions it takes place in southern California just a few days after Pearl Harbour. At that time the entire west coast was on the lookout for a potential Japanese attack and civilian paranoia was running at an all-time high. Amidst all the conspiracy theories and false sightings Spielberg focuses his camera on a handful of characters (including dozens of wonderful celebrity cameos) whose separate stories provide a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of the time; from Dan Aykroyd’s straight-laced Sergeant and John Belushi’s mad dog gunner pilot to a pair of star-crossed lovers and a hapless couple who play unwilling hosts to a military squad stationed on their front lawn (Ned Beatty and Lorraine Gary....hilarious!). Add to this a leaky Japanese submarine full of incompetents off the coast of Long Beach and the stage is set for some silliness on a grand scale. Filmed in hazy wide angle shots, 1941 has the look of a classic war film, but its humour is definitely of the Animal House, Porky’s, Naked Gun variety with a few subtle nods to The Russians Are Coming and Dr. Strangelove. There’s even a wonderful Little Rascals reference that you’re bound to miss if you blink at the wrong time and the whole thing starts with a side-splitting spoof of Jaws. Things eventually come together for a brilliantly overdone pyrotechnical finale involving an aerial dogfight through the streets of Los Angeles and an amusement park bombardment as Spielberg plasters every square inch of the screen with foolishness and mayhem. Despite the impeccable special effects and big name cast this is not a sophisticated film, nor does it try to be. Its endless visual gags and slapstick timing may illicit more smiles and chuckles than outright laughs, but the smiles are consistent and the juvenile sense of fun contagious. The only thing missing was an old-fashioned pie fight.

The Ninth Day (Germany 2004) (8): Due to his outspoken criticism of the Third Reich, Catholic priest Henri Kremer is sent to Dachau’s notorious “Priests’ Block”, a section of the concentration camp where imprisoned clergy enjoy a few meagre privileges (they’re starved and tortured less) thanks to the pope’s ambivalent stance on Hitler’s regime. Reduced to a skeletal wraith Kremer nevertheless holds true to his faith until one day an apparent miracle happens—he is released and sent home to Luxembourg. Even though his once wealthy family have been reduced to tenement dwellers Henri is overjoyed with his freedom until he realizes it comes with a price. Now under the guidance of gestapo officer Gebhardt, Kremer has nine days to sway the local bishop into endorsing the Nazi Party thereby easing tensions between the local population and their German occupiers. Failure to comply with this mandate will not only result in his being sent back to Dachau, but it could negatively impact the lives of everyone around him as well. Thus the stage is set for an epic three-way theological debate with Kremer holding true to his belief that supporting the National Socialists would be tantamount to a betrayal of Christian values; Gephardt, himself a frustrated Catholic turned Nazi idealist, asserting his newfound faith in Hitler’s vision; and the bishop’s secretary naively looking for the middle ground wherein the church could “support the Germans without violating our conscience”. Based on the memoirs of Fr. Jean Bernard, director Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum) presents an all too human protagonist poised between two equally horrifying choices: stay true to his faith and be plunged back into abject despair, or avoid further torment by selling his soul. Despite some harrowing death camp scenes— hollow-eyed inmates recite a Latin prayer as one of their own is led to the gallows—this is not a holocaust movie per se but rather a study of what moves men to act, often against their best interests or the interests of others, and how they justify those actions at the end of the day. Was Judas’ betrayal of Christ (here echoed in Kremer’s order to influence the bishop of Luxembourg) an act of treason or a revolutionary gesture? As Father Kremer, Ulrich Matthes’ cadaverous face seems perpetually etched in pain and guilt (a desperate act of self-preservation will forever haunt him) especially when played against the seductively Aryan features of August Diehl as Gebhardt—an example of inspired casting if ever there was one. An intensely spiritual film in which men’s deeds drown out the rhetoric and the voice of god is frustratingly mute.

Ninotchka (USA 1939) (8): Several years after the revolution Russia’s newly formed Soviet Republic is trying to make ends meet by selling off the assets it confiscated from its deposed ruling class. To this end a trio of bumbling cabinet ministers travel from Moscow to Paris in order to pawn a collection of priceless gems formerly owned by the Duchess Swana. Their plans are derailed however when the Duchess, now living in Paris, tries to reclaim her coveted jewellery by having her lawyer set up a series of legal challenges. Realizing that the three men are clearly out of their league (they begin to fall prey to capitalism’s crafty ways) Moscow sends a new envoy to deal with the problem—stone-faced and iron-willed Ninotchka (Greta Garbo!!), a dour comrade who’s sense of humour has been replaced by strings of socialist rhetoric. But even she is no match for the City of Lights as romance, in the form of the Duchess’ dashing lawyer, begins to soften her sharp edges. A thoroughly enjoyable though lightweight romantic comedy kept afloat by Garbo’s star power and a devious script which gently disparages communism while reducing Mother Russia to a Bolshevik sitcom (naturally it was banned in the USSR for years). The cast is rounded out by romantic lead Melvyn Douglas (and his moustache), comedic great Sig Ruman as Minister Iranoff, and Ina Claire as the Duchess in one of filmdom’s most delightfully bitchy performances. The comedic elements may have mellowed over the years but as the early theatre posters proclaimed—“Garbo Laughs!”—and that’s all that really matters.

Nobody Loves Me (Germany 1994) (8): The unfortunately named Fanny Fink finds herself single, unloved and on the wrong side of thirty. On top of that her dilapidated apartment building is going condo and she's joined a wacky death cult which believes the body is nothing but a corpse waiting to happen. Receiving no sympathy from her mother, a failed romance writer, it takes her eccentric neighbour, a voodoo priest-cum-drag diva with problems of his own, to give her the confidence she's sorely lacking. Like a dark Germanic version of Amelie (which came out seven years later) this charmingly oddball comedy is a winning blend of reality and the subtly absurd but with the innocent fluffiness of the Gallic hit replaced by some wonderfully macabre overtones. With it’s whimsical images of death, Carnivale-like embellishments, and ensemble of quirky characters, Nobody Loves Me appears a bit contrived at times (a detour into E.T. territory seems to have been added more as a convenient way to tie up a few loose ends than an integral plot device) and the film is definitely in need of some tidier editing. But director Doris Dörrie never takes things too seriously and her likable cast and enchanting storyline make it all worthwhile.

North Sea Texas (Belgium 2011) (7): Teeming with beautifully stylized images of blowing sand and lapping waves, director Bavo Defurne’s gay coming-of-age drama set on the Belgian coast circa late 1960’s is sure to strike a chord or two with audiences of all persuasions. Little Pim has a rich fantasy life, swanning about his bedroom like a grand duchess with his bedspread substituting for an evening gown much to his mother’s dismay. He also keeps a diary of sorts in the form of a little box of treasures: an old tiara and sash once belonging to his mom, a few baubles, a photograph… Down the street lives Gino, Pim’s best friend (with occasional benefits) and the object of his first pre-pubescent crush. Fast forward a few years and Pim, still fixated on Gino who is preparing to move out on his own, has sunk into adolescent despondency—until his mother takes in a new lodger, a handsome gypsy whose ambivalent signals have both mother and son preening themselves in front of the mirror. Breezy yet emotionally grounded, Defurne’s first feature-length film uses a small talented cast to highlight the travails of love and longing so common to us all. As Pim grows older his box of treasures takes on a decidedly adult tone with erotic drawings of Gino replacing mom’s tiara; his mother, a former beauty queen turned boozy hausfrau, neglects her son in favour of chasing after any man who will have her; Gino’s sister Sabrina wonders why Pim doesn’t return the attention she lavishes upon him while her mother wastes away still bitter over the husband who abandoned her. Not resorting to tearful pathos despite all that, Defurne’s final resolution does come across as a bit too tidy but the naturalistic performances he elicits from his actors coupled with wistful maritime vistas and some well placed 60’s kitsch ultimately balance things out.

Nostalgia for the Light (Chile 2010) (7): The arid climate of Chile’s Atacama Desert makes for perfect stargazing while it’s unchanging nature also keeps a perfectly preserved record of the past. In Patricio Guzmán’s haunting documentary—part philosophical discourse, part history lesson—the harsh Atacama landscape becomes a metaphor not only for his country’s troubled past but also for man’s quest to find meaning in the Grand Scheme of things. Astronomers gaze placidly through their huge telescopes searching for the origins of time and space among the stars; archaeologists study thousand-year old petroglyphs nearby, the only clues left behind by a vanished race; and a small cadre of determined grandmothers sift through the sand in search of bones and mummified remains belonging to their loved ones, part of a generation of “Disappeared” who were tortured, murdered, and disposed of during Pinochet’s reign of terror. Both the country and the individual are shaped by what they strive to remember or struggle to forget, uncover or cover up, prompting one astronomer to assert that memory has a gravitational force which constantly attracts us—those with a memory are able to live in the “fragile present” while those who have none don’t live anywhere. Mass graves and bullet-riddled skulls are juxtaposed with scenes of spiral galaxies and multi-coloured nebulae while Guzmán’s soft voice waxes poetic off camera assuring us that whether scrabbling in the dirt or peering beyond the Solar System, understanding where we’ve come from is essential to understanding who we are and where we’re going. We are indeed made of star stuff and in this lyrical daydream of a film that single truth reassures even as its implications stagger the mind.

Not One less (China 1999) (7): When a troubled student stops coming to her tiny rural classroom a young substitute teacher discovers he’s gone to the city to try and earn a few yuan for his impoverished mother whose chronic illness has put the family deeply in debt. Despite being only thirteen-years old herself, and a rather mediocre educator at best, Wei and her remaining students manage to raise enough cash to buy a bus ticket into town so she can find the wayward boy and bring him back home. But the sprawling metropolis is bigger and more impersonal than she thought and only her dogged determination keeps her from giving up completely—and then a few key people begin to take an interest in her quest. Ostensibly about the plight of China’s one million school dropouts (with a few pointed critiques aimed at rigid bureaucracy and institutionalized poverty), Zhang Yimou’s shameless heart-tugger begins on a sardonic note as an apathetic Wei butts heads with a village chief who seems more concerned about the price of chalk than a quality education. However it soon heads into Frank Capra territory when an entire city comes together to help a teary-eyed Wei find her little lost sheep with hugs and happy endings all around. But the wistful soundtrack is easy on the ears, scenes of verdant valleys and towering mountains are pretty to look at, and Zhang’s cast of unknown amateurs are just so darn watchable that I got caught up in it even though my better judgement urged me to hit the eject button. Too bad about the awful subtitles.

Notorious (USA 1946) (6): When Alicia Huberman, the disgraced American daughter of a convicted nazi operative, is approached by the State Department she reluctantly agrees to help them infiltrate a cadre of wealthy, and very ruthless, German spies hiding out in Brazil. Headed by Alexander Sebastian, a friend of Alicia's father who always carried a torch for her, the secret cabal is working on a most nefarious plan to even the score with America. But despite her worldly experiences (she's not a virgin...gasp!) Alicia finds her patriotism put to the test when Sebastian proposes to her; a move that ultimately places her in grave danger. And to make matters worse, she's also fallen in love with the government agent assigned to follow her. Certainly full of menace and brooding camerawork, and the the sheer star power of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman lights up the screen, but their romance is forced (as in instantaneous) and the plot sheer hyperbole even for Hitchcock. Of course whenever slimy skulking Nazis go up against apple pie fortitude the ending is already a foregone conclusion....it's the story that matters and in this case it proves a bit hard to swallow. Claude Rains does a believable turn as the insanely jealous Sebastian however while "Madame Konstantin" in the role of his evil mother comes to resemble Goebbels in a skirt. Nice green screen views of Rio too.

Nuit #1 (Canada 2011) (7): Clara and Nikolai meet at a Montreal rave and eventually wind up at his dingy apartment where a drunken fumble fuck starts on the couch and ends on the mattress in his bedroom. Ironically, the real intimacy doesn’t begin until afterwards when Clara quietly gathers her things and tries to sneak away only to be confronted by an irate Nikolai who believes “people who have seen each other naked at least deserve a proper good-bye”. What follows is a long emotional night of reflections and accusations, sometimes tender often brutal, as the ersatz lovers take turns becoming each other’s judge and confessor. Nikolai can barely afford to support himself and feels perpetually isolated, Clara tries to soothe her unbearable sense of alienation with drugs and destructive sex, and both partners come to see their previous coupling for what it really was… With an outside world perpetually drenched in snow and freezing rain, writer/director Anne Émond uses a tawdry one-night stand as a starting point for examining some uncomfortable sides of contemporary life: the loneliness and anomie, the unrealistic expectations, and the search for a panacea whether it be biological or pharmaceutical. Shot in a boxlike 1.33:1 aspect ratio and without a musical soundtrack she literally hems her characters into a confined space forcing them to share a physical proximity without any distracting background noise. Despite his initial bravura Nikolai’s self-inflicted wounds run deep while Clara’s vain attempts to clean herself (she takes a bath, she takes a shower, she runs through the rain) fail to remove the real dirt she feels. With a staginess that belies its shabby setting (Nikolai’s apartment really is horrid) Émond’s musings could be seen as so much morbid navel-gazing were it not for a pair of excellent performances and a script whose piercing insights make the occasional flourish completely forgivable. Sad and confrontational, this is a thoroughly modern tale of two damaged souls passing in the night.