Oasis of the Zombies (France 1981) (2): Sleaze auteur Jesus Franco turns his sights from tits to terror in this incredibly bad zombie rip-off. A retired German commander, a group of spoiled college kids and a documentary film crew descend upon on a remote Saharan oasis in search of buried nazi treasure. The huge cache of gold comes with one rather significant caveat however---it’s guarded by a cadre of dead stormtroopers with a taste for entrails. During the course of one harrowing night, obviously filmed at high noon, some will be eaten while others will be eaten out (yes, even in the midst of a zombie attack Franco is still able to insert a few lukewarm scenes of desert nookie), and one young man will “mostly” find himself. Where to begin? The lamentable dubbing of a godawful script? The cheap papier mâché zombie masks? The even cheaper zombie muppet-on-a-stick? The monotonous soundtrack of two-finger organ chords? Or the distinct lack of any appreciable blood & guts? The only scene that even approached euro-splatter standards in gore involved a brief glimpse of bloodied deli meats being manhandled by a trio of bored ghouls. If ever a movie cried out for a bullet to the brain...

Obsession (UK 1949) (8): Driven to distraction by his wife’s endless marital indiscretions, eminent psychiatrist Dr. Clive Riordan (Robert Newton menacingly dapper) has vowed to kill the next man who hangs his hat on her bedpost. Sadly, he doesn’t have to wait long for the opportunity when he catches her in the arms of a brash American. But rather than settle for a quick bullet and possible death sentence Riordan has something far more elaborate in mind, something that will not only allow him to get away with the perfect murder but also subject both his wife and her lover to a merciless form of psychological torture in the process. His grisly plans hit a pair of snags however in the form of a relentless Scotland Yard inspector and one very precocious pooch… Dark and macabre, but shot through with that impeccably proper British-ness which sees everyone dressed to the nines and being oh-so obtuse about it all, Edward Dmytryk’s odd little thriller certainly falls outside the usual drawing room dramas so prevalent at the time. It also must have presented something of a headache to the censors with its allusions to rampant female sexuality and grotesque demises. A great deal of fun nonetheless especially with C. M. Pennington-Richards’ ominous cinematography going in and out of cellar doors and a tense score by none other than Nino Rota himself. The stunning Sally Gray is all ice and blonde curls as Riordan’s wife Storm (cool name!), Naunton Wayne is perfectly cast as the mousy inspector with a mind like a rat trap, and canine co-star Monty the Dog hams it up right on cue. This is film noir as envisioned by Edgar Allan Poe and served up with a glass of scotch.

Oculus (USA 2013) (7): Eleven years ago Tim Russell was confined to a mental institution for shooting his father after the old man went off the deep end and did bad things to their mother. Now twenty-one and declared sane by his doctor he is happily reunited with his sister Kaylie—but their joy is marred by the fact they both carry very different memories of what exactly happened all those years ago. While Tim’s therapist has convinced him that he suffered a nervous breakdown from which he is now fully recovered, Kaylie remembers something far more sinister involving an antique mirror which once hung in their father’s study... To truly enjoy this twisty tale you of course have to forgive the usual nonsensical horror conventions common to any haunted thingamajig story and writer/director Mike Flanagan manages to squeak by with a handful of satisfactory explanations couched within a script that is unexpectedly hair-raising once it gets going. But, above being an effective ghost story, Flanagan manages to pull off a small dramatic coup by running two parallel stories simultaneously—showing what really happened to the children all those years ago while at the same time showing an adult Tim and Kaylie entering the supernatural fray once again. The result is a dizzying montage of past and present as we see the kids running up stairs and hiding in bedrooms while their grownup selves do pretty much the same, all giving rise to an increasingly monstrous reveal which Flanagan wisely saves for the end. And those glowing-eyed creepies which seem to be around every other corner are pure nightmare fodder. Good scary fun!

Of Time and the City (UK 2008) (8): Writer/director Terence Davies presents us with a highly subjective hallucinatory slideshow of words and images as he recalls growing up gay, Catholic, and angry in post WWII Liverpool. Snapshots and snippets of video show a city of crushing poverty rubbing shoulders with Royal excesses and religious pomp while the common folk go about the business of simply living. Davie’s own recollections, written in muscular prose and spoken with all the solemnity of a high mass, describe a city both menacing and banal, robust and sadly vulnerable. Filling in the narrative gaps with quotes from the likes of Jung and Engels and smoothing it all over with an eclectic soundtrack of pop tunes, mournful arias and majestic choral pieces, Davies leaves us with an emotional collage of conflicting feelings which is a far cry from the working class fantasyland of The Long Day Closes. Piercing, sardonic, occasionally tender, yet always compelling, Of Time and the City makes for an unsettling piece of cinematic art.

O. Henry’s Full House (USA 1952) (7): O. Henry was the pen name of William Sydney Porter (1862 - 1910) an American author whose masterful short stories, culled from his experiences travelling the backroads of North and Central America, presented ordinary people reacting to extraordinary circumstances. Witty and playfully written, his tales ran the gamut from comedy to stark drama yet always contained that little ironical twist at the end which became his trademark. In this cinematic collection five directors take turns bringing one of his stories to life aided by a who’s who of Hollywood stars. From The Cop and the Anthem in which a panhandler suffers through one of the worst days of his life to The Last Leaf detailing a curmudgeonly artist’s ultimate sacrifice to save a young woman’s life and the almost unbearably saccharine frosting of The Gift of the Magi wherein a pair of penniless newlyweds gush over each other while going to great lengths to secure that perfect Christmas gift this is a mixed bag that doesn’t always work. But with a cast that includes names like Marilyn Monroe, Charles Laughton, Farley Granger, and Anne Baxter it’s well worth a look. And did I mention it’s all narrated by John Steinbeck himself?

The Old Dark House (USA 1932) (9): It’s a dark and stormy night on the Welsh moors as squabbling couple Phillip and Margaret, along with their friend Roger, seek refuge in a gloomy old manor. Here they come face to face with the appropriately eccentric Femm family: dour bible-quoting Rebecca, her swishy and cadaverous brother Horace, the oddly asexual patriarch Sir Roderick, and Morgan the brutish handyman (Boris Karloff looking like a cross between Frankenstein’s monster and the wolfman). As the storm worsens two more travellers come knocking at the door: loudmouthed capitalist Sir William and his animated gal pal Gladys. Settling in for the night the stranded visitors try to establish an uneasy rapport with their creepy hosts, but sinister things are afoot. It seems the Femm family are having a rather difficult time keeping their skeletons in the closet and it isn’t long before all hell breaks loose... James Whale’s short film is a masterpiece of characterization and atmosphere. He’s created the quintessential “haunted” house replete with shadowy stone corridors, banging shutters and endless flights of creaking stairs; but beneath the gothic trappings there lurks a darkly comic, and decidedly queer, psychodrama. Pitting Rebecca’s repressed sexuality, Horace’s nelly hysterics and Morgan’s animal carnality against one another, Whale finds ample opportunity to revel in some brilliantly bitchy dialogue while using his five reluctant houseguests as anchors to keep the film from flying off into pure camp. Lastly, Arthur Edeson’s amazing cinematography makes the most of wind, rain, and flickering candles. Whether he’s filming a backseat seduction or a menacing monologue reflected in a warped mirror, his keen eye and sense of style gives the movie an unexpected contemporary feel. Remarkable!

Old Joy (USA 2006) (6): With the passive-aggressive consent of his pregnant wife Tanya, twenty-something Mark heads off for an overnight camping trip to a secluded hot springs with his highschool buddy Kurt whom he hasn’t seen in years. But when Kurt begins the journey by bumming money off of Mark in order to buy some marijuana it quickly becomes apparent that more than water has passed under the bridge since the men last met. Mark is now a responsible, steadily employed husband and father-to-be who listens to political talk radio, does volunteer work, and never fails to pick up whenever Tanya calls. Kurt, on the other hand, has one foot in the past (“I really really miss you…” he laments to Mark at one point) and his head in the clouds as he prattles on about everything from quantum physics to urban blight between lungfuls of pot smoke while Mark stares ahead and makes non-committal replies. But when they finally reach the hot springs Kurt makes one last clumsy attempt to re-bond with his old friend which is at once jarringly uncomfortable and terribly sad. Writer/director Kelly Reichardt’s small indie gem looks at the roles time and personal choices play in the disintegration of a friendship and she does so with the same naturalistic flow she would later exhibit in Wendy and Lucy. Although her attention to small details is admirable—a crow perches ominously, forest streams rush ever onward—it is the widening breach between her two characters which takes centre stage. At one point they become lost in the wilderness, both literally and figuratively, before setting up camp next to a makeshift garbage dump and you get the clear impression from Kurt’s aimlessness and Mark’s unease that this is probably the last time the two will ever get together. Indeed, a pair of closing shots show the men returning to two very different realities. Unfortunately Reichardt’s strict adherence to naturalism often works against her with the banal chatter sounding too ad-libbed and the endless montages of country roads and mossy trees coming across as deliberate and studied. But the oppressive silences are perfectly maintained and Yo La Tengo’s unobtrusive score of strumming guitars is shot through with melancholy.

Old Men in New Cars (Denmark 2002) (8): Lasse Spang Olsen’s outrageously tacky sequel to In China They Eat Dogs (also reviewed here) once again unites bad boy thug Harald with the clueless Martin, Peter, and “accident-prone” immigrant Vuk. Fresh from his latest stint in prison, Harald doesn’t even have time to unpack his things before troubles come knocking once again. He still owes the Serbian mafia millions of kroner, his restaurant business is going to hell, and his beloved foster father Munk is actively dying but not before making one last request—he wants to meet Ludvig, the biological son whom he abandoned years ago. Unfortunately Ludvig is now a psychopath currently locked up in Sweden’s tightest security prison. But an undaunted Harald is determined to grant Munk his dying wish so, accompanied by Martin and Peter, he manages one of the most brazen (and hysterically funny) jail breaks in Scandinavian history. Of course things go from bad to worse and before the closing credits Harald and the boys will pull off a couple of explosive heists, steal a plane, run afoul of a suicidal hostage, and destroy half the police cars in Sweden and Denmark. A laugh-out-loud combination of brilliant pyrotechnics and blatantly offensive humour makes for one very guilty pleasure. Expertly edited and written with sadistic zeal, Olsen barely gives his audience time to breathe between high-speed chases and flying bullets; and he spices things up with enough politically incorrect passages to keep the more delicate types cringing inside their cardigans. Brash, juvenile, and resolutely unapologetic for surebut I still laughed my head off!

O Lucky Man (UK 1973) (6):  Not a single social institution escapes unscathed in Lindsay Anderson’s three hour tantrum aimed at all things authoritarian.  The story follows the picaresque adventures of Michael Travis, a young naif determined to make his fortune by becoming the best coffee salesman in northeast Britain.  It isn’t long before he discovers that the world isn’t quite the oyster he thought it would be however and the convoluted, oddly surreal tale that follows becomes a caustic Pilgrim’s Progress for modern times.  After being wrongfully convicted and sentenced to prison Travis undergoes a complete change of heart, discarding his capitalist credo in favour of a more humanitarian approach to life.  Unfortunately he soon realizes that this new-found faith in mankind may be unwarranted as he is victimized by the very people he sets out to help.  Anderson aims for the same wry satire that Kubrick achieved a few years earlier in A Clockwork Orange but in his mad dash to piss on every altar he can find he instead delivers a series of  sarcastic rants with no big payoff in the end although I must admit the ending was fun in its own way.  I did appreciate some of the film’s little touches---the fact that he had the same actors play multiple characters, and the musical interludes that served to fill in the gaps and provide some sense of continuity.  There is definitely food for thought here, if only he didn’t try to force feed us.

Once Were Warriors  (New Zealand 1994) (8):   "Once Were Warriors" opens with an idyllic landscape of clear blue water and lush green hills, but when the camera pans away we realize we’ve been watching a garish billboard overlooking a filthy slum.  It’s this constant juxtaposition of the serene with the tragic which gives the film much of its strength.  Tamahori’s brutal look at the effects of personal apathy and cultural anomie on a Maori community is nothing less than harrowing. The men, descended from the proud warriors of the title, have now adopted fist-fights, petty crime and drinking binges as their new rites of manhood while the women seem resigned to a life of domestic violence and poverty.  Within this setting he offers us an intimate glimpse into the life of one specific family.  While she suffers at the hands of her abusive husband, Beth is drawn to the memories of her culturally rich childhood.  Her eldest daughter, on the other hand, looks to the future by writing stories based on Maori legends.  With one son in a gang and another seized by social services it takes a horrible tragedy to jar Beth out of her helpless stupor...  A powerful and demanding film.

101 Dalmatians (USA 1961) (10): Faithful dalmatian Pongo is determined to find suitable mates for both himself and his “pet human” Roger, a struggling musician living in London. He finally gets his wish when, after a disastrous first encounter in the park with fellow dalmatian Perdita and her own pet human Anita, wedding bells are soon ringing for the homo sapiens and a litter of fifteen pups are on the way for the dogs. But everyone’s happiness is short-lived for Anita’s old highschool friend, the rich and outrageously wicked Cruella De Vil (picture an anorexic Tallulah Bankhead snorting a bushel of cocaine), has diabolical plans of her own for the puppies and she will stop at nothing—including dognapping—to get them. So when the spotted little furballs eventually do go missing it’s suddenly up to Pongo and Perdita, aided by a surprisingly organized canine underground, to rescue them from Cruella’s clutches before she can turn them into a fiendish fashion statement. The highest grossing animated feature up until that time, this charming bit of pre-CGI Disney used a xerox photocopying process to produce a look both crisp and visually complex. The result is a storybook London filled with jazzy spires and blinking neon surrounded by a countryside of watercolour snowdrifts and star-speckled skies. The characters themselves, both two-legged and four, are portrayed with a depth and personality not often seen in cartoon features whether it be a romantic kiss between humans, a horde of fascinated puppies jostling in front of a TV set, or De Vil’s maniacal psychosis as she storms from one disaster to another. And then there’s all those surprise canine cameos from 1955’s Lady and the Tramp! A big warm fuzzy whose heart tuggers and slapstick action have managed to entertain two generations and counting.

The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (Sweden 2013) (8): Director Felix Herngren is firmly entrenched in Wes Anderson territory with this quirky series of tall tales, part road movie and part fantastical biopic. On the afternoon of his 100th birthday the stodgy yet amusingly off-kilter Allan Karlsson slips out the window of his retirement home in search of something different. A few hours later, thanks to a gross misunderstanding at the train station, he finds himself on a bus headed for the dullest town in Sweden unwittingly dragging a suitcase crammed full of mob money behind him. Allan eventually discovers his windfall and joins up with a disgruntled railroad conductor, a lacklustre geek (he “almost” has a degree in any discipline you care to mention), and a fiery-tempered ex moll who happens to be in possession of a stolen circus elephant. Hitting the road, this unlikely foursome will wend their way towards a most unlikely destiny while being dogged at every turn by both a vengeful gangster and an overly conscientious police detective. En route, as if the film’s premise isn’t already silly enough, a stone-faced Karlsson regales his traveling companions with highly improbable stories from his youth in which an early love affair with explosives combined with an affinity for outrageous coincidences propelled him from a stint in an insane asylum when he was nine to “accidentally” changing world history by rubbing shoulders with the likes of General Franco, Joseph Stalin, Robert Oppenheimer, and Herbert Einstein, Albert’s dumber brother. Playing the multi-generational Karlsson, Robert Gustafsson had to endure countless hours being fitted with prosthetics and special make-up (which garnered that department an Academy Award nomination) and the results are well worth it. As his character matures from a clueless adult into an equally clueless yet oddly wiser centenarian, Gustafsson is backed by a capable supporting cast that manage to fill in the gaps nicely as well as a playful script full of deadpan deliveries and gallows humour whose vivid hyperboles engage the audience without insulting their intelligence. An eccentric mishmash of offbeat adventures and alternate history that will either leave you rolling in the aisle or just rolling your eyes. Or perhaps something in between.

One Way Passage (USA 1932) (8): Dapper gentleman Dan Hardesty (William Powell) meets impulsive socialite Joan Ames (Kay Frances) while on a luxury cruise from Hong Kong to San Francisco and the two immediately fall madly in love. But each is keeping a dark secret from the other—she is suffering from a terminal illness and he is a convicted murderer facing execution in the States (his “cabin mate” is actually a police guard). But a lot can happen in three weeks and as the two lovebirds coo over one another Joan starts ignoring her doctor’s advice to lay low as Dan plans his next escape with a little onboard help from high society swindler “Barrel House Betty” and her drunken sidekick “Skippy”. But will they ever trust one another enough to tell the awful truth? If the premise sounds more corn than romance the actual film is a pure delight from its fluffy opening scene where Dan and Joan literally bump into one another to its oddly moving final fade to black. The art deco backdrops and slinky gowns are beautiful and even though the actors’ emotive performances belie their silent film roots (as does the orchestral score) Robert Lord’s Oscar-winning script saves the day with a fine balance of passion, pratfalls, and pathos. Aline MacMahon and Frank McHugh are especially good as Betty and Skip, she posing as a faux countess and he stumbling in and out of trouble while looking for his next drink—in fact the abundance of alcohol and sexual innuendo marks this production as strictly pre-Hays code. Just grab a deck chair and enjoy!

The Onion Field (USA 1979) (6): Cop turned author Joseph Wambbaugh’s screen adaptation of his novel, itself based on actual court documents, examines the aftermath of a policeman’s murder in 1963 Los Angeles. When a pair of plainclothes officers pull over a suspicious car they suddenly find themselves at the mercy of unpredictable sociopath Greg Powell (a convincing James Woods) and his neurotic sidekick Jimmy Smith, a petty thief fresh out of prison over whom Powell maintains a ragged psychological control. The two men force the cops to drive them to an isolated farm where one officer winds up dead while his partner manages to escape. The murder itself is tragic enough, but what follows is a cynical and angry indictment of a judicial system so full of loopholes that, in the words of one naïve public prosecutor, “Lawyers can deem fantasy is real and lies are the truth.” Powell, quick-witted, shrewd, and wholly narcissistic, decides to defend himself using every legal trick he can glean from the prison library while Smith, forever cowering in Powell’s shadow, finds that manipulating the system isn’t so hard after all. As the case drags on year after year the surviving officer, wracked with guilt and subjected to professional scrutiny, suffers the effects of post traumatic stress disorder eventually losing his job, his sense of dignity and, in what has to be the film’s most powerful performance, his very will to live. Wambaugh’s passions are evident throughout as he casts a jaundiced eye on a legal system more concerned with motions and appeals than justice. To his credit he does manage to steer clear of the usual stereotypes; his lawyers are just as conflicted, his criminals carry an intensity which belies their brutal appearance, and the veteran policemen who hover in the background display a subtle cynicism which hints at deeper battle scars. Furthermore, he cleverly derails our expectations of a neat and tidy Hollywood ending, giving us instead a bittersweet series of resolutions which may not completely satisfy yet ring far more authentic. Unfortunately he tries too hard to get his points across resulting in some awkward sermonizing and a few needlessly theatrical moments. The subject matter is gripping enough and, in the hands of a very talented cast, the film’s momentum could have carried itself without all the dramatic prodding.

The Onion Movie (USA 2008) (6):  In the spirit of Tunnel Vision and Kentucky Fried Movie comes yet another film composed of unrelated skits tied together by the barest of plots. This time around The Onion, that infamous group of slackers who make a living out of mocking everything from world events to western pop culture, try their hand at moviemaking with mixed results. What little story there is revolves around a seasoned anchorman trying to resist the growing corporate influence on his nightly newscast. As the suits in head office try to turn the evening news into an ongoing commercial for the station’s parent company he becomes increasingly frustrated in his attempts to deliver “fair and balanced” journalism. Most of the film’s humour is derived from the newscast itself with video clips and sight gags spoofing everything from television commercials to “human interest” stories. It's hilarious when it works. I've always felt that The Onion’s sharp satire is best served in small doses however, whether it’s a short clip on their website or a two-paragraph article in one of their publications. It’s impossible to keep the pace going for 80 minutes and the strain soon becomes evident. The ongoing parody of Steven Seagal’s latest blockbuster, “Cockpuncher” got tired real fast and the lame wackiness of the National Lampoon-style ending elicited little more than a chuckle. Still, it was worth the three bucks just to see Meredith Baxter deep-fry a kitten on a TV cooking show. Now THAT was funny!

The Only Son (Japan 1936) (9): Disappointment is almost palpable in this early work by the great Yasujirô Ozu, his first true “talkie”—a small family drama showing how each generation tends to pin its hopes on the next. In a small Japanese village circa 1923 widowed mother Tsune sacrifices everything in order to send her son Ryosuke to boarding school in Tokyo so he can become a “great man”. Cut to 1935 and Tsune, now greyer and more stooped, travels to Tokyo to visit her son only to discover he has failed to live up to her dreams and is instead eking out a meagre living teaching night school and trying to provide for his own family. With mother and son vainly trying to hide behind happy faces it’s going to take some painfully honest dialogue and a personal confession or two before they are able to reappraise their relationship. Quietly contemplative in nature, Ozu’s gift for revealing life’s harsher truths while maintaining a sense of dignity and compassion for his characters is on full display here. Tsune is hardly the demanding harridan one would expect in a Western film but rather a determined mother whose provincial ideas of what constitutes big city success may have been naïve from the outset. Ryosuke, for his part, is a good man at heart (a medical emergency opens Tsune’s eyes to her son’s true worth) who was completely unprepared for Tokyo’s ruthless rat race—a vague political statement on the director’s part perhaps? But in typical Ozu fashion there is no melodrama beyond a poignant late night crying session and his beloved metaphors—drifting smoke, dust motes, an unlit lamp—are there to showcase the fleeting nature of both happiness and sorrow. Even Ryosuke’s infant son provides a wry statement as he calmly sleeps throughout the entire film like a little dormant seed unaware of the expectations he will be shouldering one day. “Life’s tragedy begins with the bond between parent and child” states an opening quote by Akutagawa and by movie’s end you realize that sober axiom is not so much a decree as it is a challenge—and it cuts both ways.

Only Yesterday (Japan 1991) (7): Past and present leapfrog one another in Isao Takahata’s animated adaptation of Yuuko Tone’s manga series. Tokyo office worker Taeko, almost thirty, spends the summer picking safflowers in the country dogged—quite literally—by her grade school memories circa 1966. The past weighs quite heavily indeed as adult Taeko takes a shine to local organic farmer Toshio while ruminating on her childhood benchmarks: her first crush, her first period, the class outcast who refused to shake her hand, and the struggles which came from being the youngest child in the family. The Studio Ghibli animation is impeccable ranging from richly coloured sequences in which grown-up Taeko manoeuvres her way through crowded Tokyo or marvels at a pastoral sunset, to delicate pastel recollections where her younger, more carefree self lives entirely for the moment—staring with momentous anticipation at a fresh pineapple (an expensive rarity for Japanese households in the 60s) to floating in mid-air all the way home after the class cutie shows an interest in her. Anyone who has ever had a childhood will appreciate the poignancy of her vivid memories but at its core this is a chick flick for boomers and Taeko’s meandering woolgathering ultimately required the kind of Zen-like patience I was unwilling to give it. Still beautiful to look at and the wistful closing sequence is aimed squarely at the romantic in all of us.

On Moonlight Bay  (USA 1951) (5):  Doris Day and Gordon MacRae fall in love and sing a lot in this technicolour musical set in 1917. The film tries to match the panache of “Meet Me in St. Louis” but fails to capture any of that classic’s lighthearted exuberance.  The acting is forgettable, the script mundane and, aside from a rather nice arrangement of “Silent Night”, the songs are unremarkable.  Besides, watching a 29-year old Doris Day play the role of a precocious tomboy is just a little bit creepy.

On My Way (France 2013) (8): “Life goes on!” is the cheeky mantra throughout writer/director Emmanuelle Bercot’s quixotic road movie in which a middle-aged woman reassesses her priorities while finding out it’s never too late to surprise yourself. Betrayed by her lover, henpecked by her mother, and dogged by creditors, former beauty queen Bettie (Catherine Deneuve), now the frumpy owner of a failing restaurant, drives off one day in search of smokes (she also failed at quitting nicotine) and never looks back. Motoring at random through the hinterland of rural France Bettie crosses paths with an assortment of oddballs—a decrepit old man still mourning the death of his first love, a pack of drunken cougars, a lovestruck gigolo—butts heads with her estranged daughter, and forms an unorthodox alliance with her precocious eleven-year old grandson (a promising turn from Bercot’s own son Némo Schiffman) before being blindsided by the promise of a new beginning coming from a most unexpected direction. Light and airy in tone yet still taking its central theme of crisis and transformation seriously, Bettie’s long journey of reflection is gilded with enough humour and uncommon sense to keep everyone’s eyes off of their navels while that wonderfully muddled soundtrack of international indie chill keeps things just a tad off-kilter. Deneuve’s sense of timing has never been better as she goes from pathetic weeping to sardonic smirk to open-faced cluelessness and a supporting cast of eccentrics and common folk alike ensures everything stays anchored—a reunion between Bettie and her fellow “Miss France 1969” hopefuls provides some wry insights without being cruel. A gentle reaffirmation that life does indeed go on no matter how many wrenches we throw at it.

On The Waterfront (USA 1954) (9): Elia Kazan’s multiple award winning morality tale was apparently a personal attempt to make amends for his collaboration with Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts. Marlon Brando plays former boxing contender Terry Malloy, a conflicted dockworker whose passive acceptance of organized crime in the Longshoremen’s Union is tested when he falls in love with the sister of a murdered whistleblower. Rod Steiger plays his older brother Charlie, a man already bought by the local crime boss (Lee J. Cobb) in exchange for job security and a bloated income. Karl Malden plays a priest on a mission to rid the waterfront of corruption. And Eva Marie Saint plays Brando’s naïve love interest, a mousy young woman blinded to the darker side of life by her insular Catholic school upbringing. When Malloy is subpoenaed by a grand jury investigating the mafia his loyalties are put to the test and his final decision may very well mean the difference between life and death. Steiger and Brando are pure cinematic gold, with a guilt-riddled Charlie trying to protect his younger sibling while at the same time indoctrinating him into the mob’s ranks, and Terry still smarting over the fact that his older brother sabotaged his promising boxing career for the sake of a rigged bet. Saint, for her part, plays the bewildered ingenue to perfection (although erotic sparks fly with that first kiss) and Cobb growls and paces like a wounded grizzly. Unfortunately Malden’s crusading preacher delivers one too many fiery sermons, albeit with the best of intentions, which only add more mass to a film already heavy with moral quandaries. Lastly, Boris Kaufman’s brilliant B&W cinematography and a grave musical score by Leonard Bernstein transform the film’s drab Hoboken settings into a Dantean landscape of smoke and decay with the ubiquitous presence of pigeons and hawks overhead underscoring the central theme of predator vs prey. A classic in every sense.

Open Grave (USA 2013) (6): On a dark and stormy night a man wakes up to find himself in a pit filled with rotting cadavers and no recollection of who he is or how he came to be among the dead. Escaping the mass grave with the help of a mysterious mute woman he makes his way towards the lights of a country estate where five strangers, also suffering from acute amnesia, are already holed up. Who are these people? Why do they seem to think they may know each other? And why do they exhibit talents they didn’t know they possessed—while one is an expert marksman another discovers he can read several languages. Mutual suspicion gradually gives way to reluctant cooperation as the six tentatively explore the nearby countryside. But the further they wander the more sinister their predicament becomes for the surrounding woods are strewn with corpses and an abandoned institution down the road holds some horrifying answers to questions they never thought of asking. Despite an intriguing premise Gonzalo López-Gallego’s apocalyptic thriller has too many potholes preventing an audience from completely suspending their disbelief. The international cast, while pretty to look at, just can’t maintain enough suspense and they get no help from a script rife with genre clichés and a few too many clever-clever twists—it’s like looking at a condensed version of a SyFy channel mini-series. But the big reveals are worth the wait and the film’s messy conclusion is certainly a novel take on an otherwise tired formula.

Opening Night (USA 1977) (8): After an unusually ardent fan dies while trying to see her, celebrated actress Myrtle Gordon (yet another star turn by Gena Rowlands) finds her life unraveling at the seams. Already struggling with alcohol and the fact she’s getting older Gordon sees in the teenager’s death a metaphor for her own fleeting youth—an unsettling prospect made all the more poignant by the fact she’s starring in an upcoming Broadway play about a woman who’s life is imploding as she approaches middle age. While everyone around her seems resigned to their greying hairs and extra creases, especially sixty-year old playwright Sarah Goode (a punchy Joan Blondell), Gordon is acutely aware of the fact she is utterly alone after having alienated herself from every man who ever loved her including co-star Maurice Aarons and director Manny Victor (John Cassavetes and Ben Gazzara). As her despair gives rise to fanciful hallucinations and too many tips of the bottle Gordon’s mental health begins to suffer leading to the film’s pitiful climax and—just maybe—the hard won wisdom that comes from knowing the difference between”...what you dream about and what’s really there.” Echoes of Bergman can be felt in writer/director Cassavetes’ powerful booze ’n cigarettes drama about loneliness, grief, and aging gracelessly. Certainly his love of both stage and cinema is clearly on display with a clever play-within-a-film approach while his use of unflattering lighting and looming close-ups strips the movie of any false sentimentality—little wonder that garish mirrors figure prominently. Gutsy and filmed with the immediacy of an improvised documentary, this certainly ranks as one of Rowlands’ and real-life hubby Cassavetes’ best collaborations.

Open Season (USA 2006) (6): In the small backwoods town of Timberline, Boog the grizzly bear has it made. Living in the garage of the ranger who rescued him as a cub he never wants for food or attention, and all he has to do in return is put on a daily performance for tourists at the nearby national park. But when he saves Elliot, a somewhat impulsive deer, from Shaw, the town’s most notorious hunter, the overly thankful stag leads him on one too many destructive adventures giving the ranger no choice but to release him into the wilderness. Having only known the comforts of civilization Boog finds himself literally lost in the woods with only scatter-brained Elliot for companionship. Not sure how a bear is supposed to act (or where he’s supposed to poop even…old joke) Boog finds his new surroundings more than a little intimidating especially when his mild manners are mocked by the ethnically diverse forest denizens including a pair of whacked out French ducks, sassy Latina skunks, and a school of leaping ninja salmon…although McSquizzy, the truculent Scottish squirrel (voiced by Billy Connolly) has the best lines. But with hunting season approaching and Boog’s bumbling presence causing all the animals to be more vulnerable than usual, the kind-hearted bear unwillingly finds himself the last bastion of defence between woodland creatures and the hordes of gun-toting rednecks driving up from town—including Shaw who is thoroughly convinced that Boog and company are part of a global animal conspiracy. A spectacular showdown between man and animal ensues… Pretty much by-the-numbers animated offering featuring all the usual cultural references and Hollywood in-jokes (McSquizzy does a Braveheart routine while a little porcupine speaks in E.T. monosyllables) but the visual gags are a few notches above average and the colourful characters are actually very funny although die-hard hunters may not appreciate their neanderthal cartoon counterparts. It was enough to make me laugh out loud a few times, and that’s saying a lot.

Open Water (USA 2003) (6): Yuppie couple Susan and Daniel leave their hectic lifestyle behind and head to the Bahamas for a little overdue R&R. But a scuba-diving expedition turns a dream vacation into a nightmare when their tour boat accidentally leaves them behind thanks to a faulty head count. Finding themselves suddenly alone in the wide open ocean the two react first with worried disbelief which soon becomes a growing terror as the hours drag on and ominous fins begin to appear in the water around them… A simple premise loosely based on the real life experience of an American couple diving off the Great Barrier Reef, writer/director Chris Kentis’ soggy shocker plays on our fears of deep water, unseen monsters, and utter helplessness in a way that has you acutely aware of your legs dangling unprotected over the edge of the couch. Despite the tepid performances of his two main actors and a lead-up consisting of tedious domestic flashes—they chat on their cells, they eat breakfast, they brush their teeth, Susan shows her boobs, Daniel swats a mosquito—once the action moves into the water he quickly goes from thriller to full-blown horror and the wait is almost worth it. Wide-angle vistas of endless waves and maddeningly distant smokestacks alternate with intense close-ups of the couple trying to reassure each other while looking above and below the surface for predators which can be seen lurking in increasing numbers. A flash of fin here, a stifled scream as “something” brushes against a leg, and an intermittent background score of island tunes reformatted as funeral dirges all add up to one creepy day at sea. And when night falls a sudden squall lights up our protagonists’ struggle in strobes of lightning and utter darkness. Too bad then that Kentis didn’t spend more time on script and continuity as scuba gear changes colour, sea conditions range from choppy to calm to sunny to cloudy in a matter of seconds, and a banal argument over who is more to blame threatens to slide into satire. He did use a real ocean with real sharks though (the actors wore protective gear and a “shark wrangler” handled the beasties) and a macabre ending was effective if technically suspect. A scary bit of cinema for those willing to forgive, a complete miss for those who can’t.

Open Your Eyes
(Spain 1997) (6): César is a vainglorious yuppie who has never had to work very hard for anything be it money, prestige, or women, including his best friend’s girl Sofía (Penélope Cruz). But he finally gets his comeuppance when Nuria, a psychotic ex, decides to crash her car with him in it—she dies and he is left horribly disfigured. Hiding his monstrous face behind a rubber mask César wallows in recriminations and self-pity until the dreams begin: he dreams he is whole again thanks to a brilliant plastic surgeon; he dreams he is in an insane asylum on a murder rap; he dreams that Sofía is someone else; and he dreams that he is dreaming. With the help of a psychiatrist César tries to unravel the mystery behind his loosening grip on reality and their sessions will lead both men to a truth more devastating than either was prepared for. Alternating between tense close-ups of eyes and faces and fanciful cityscapes writer/director Alejandro Amenábar’s slow-burning psychological mindfuck challenges the ways we distinguish truth from fantasy. With its serpentine plot twists and shifting timelines he keeps his audience off guard even as his characters struggle to make sense of it all. César is at once a cowering victim and insufferable egotist—appearing to be the object of a psychotic conspiracy theory while at the same time possessing an uncanny ability to manipulate everyone around him including a tavern full of boisterous partygoers who inexplicably fall silent when he decides that their revelry has become too loud. Sadly, with such an intriguing build-up it comes as somewhat of a letdown when Amenábar’s big reveal turns out to be a tired old sci-fi cliché that even a cast of beautiful people and some evocative camerawork fail to reinvent. But to be fair, Tom Cruz’s American remake, Vanilla Sky, is reported to be even worse.

Ordet (Denmark 1955) (8): In his previous films, Day of Wrath and The Passion of Joan of Arc (both reviewed here) Carl Dreyer used bold widescreen imagery to explore how religious zeal carries within it the propensity to inflict pain and despair. With Ordet he brings this message closer to home as one stubborn man’s ideological feud with an equally pigheaded neighbour threatens to tear his family apart. Big and colourful patriarch Morten Borgen practices an easygoing form of Lutheranism, believing each day is a call for celebration and wonder. His close relationship with God is based on faith and an unshakeable trust in the inherent goodness of the Almighty. His dour yet prayerful neighbour Peter Petersen, on the other hand, follows a far more conservative path to salvation consisting of modesty and austerity in all things. Rounding out the Borgen household are brothers Mikkel, an avowed agnostic despite the tender ministrations of his pious wife; Johannes, a deeply disturbed theology student now convinced he is the risen Christ after having read Kierkegaard; and Anders, a soft-spoken teenager whose misfortune it is to fall in love with Petersen’s only daughter, the equally demure Anne. Irate over their children’s budding relationship the two fathers ardently split dogmatic hairs in an effort to prove who is closer to God until a wake-up call arrives in the form of a deep personal tragedy; a terrible loss which will shake both men’s faiths to their very cores and expose their heated debate for the inconsequential banter it really is. Always respectful of his characters Dreyer never judges but instead allows them to grow and mature over time. Much like the biblical story of Job, he uses suffering and adversity to seek out spiritual truths whether it’s one man’s quiet acceptance of God’s implacable Will or another’s realization that there is more than one path to redemption. Along the way he manages to insert a few wonderfully wry observations; in one memorable scene a city doctor argues with a country pastor over the importance of science versus spirituality while Johannes’ sullen Christ-like figure wanders by unheeded. Equal parts family drama and religious epic, there is a keen sense of light and symmetry at work here which, along with some languorous tracking shots and highly formalized staging, give the impression of a Renaissance painting come to life. But it is Ordet’s highly contentious final scene that steals the show. Dreyer comes straight out of left field and delivers a miraculous ending so outrageous (and oddly touching) that it not only challenges our own religious convictions but pushes the limits of cinema as an art form to boot. No wonder Carlos Reygadas chose to offer Dreyer the sincerest form of flattery when he copied it for his own film, 2007’s Silent Light (also reviewed here).

The Orphanage (Spain 2007) (7):  Juan Bayona presents us with a ghost story that challenges our sense of reality by blurring the line between objective truth and subjective experience.  Thirty years after being adopted from the “Good Shepherd Orphanage”, Laura Sanchez returns with her husband Carlos and young son Simon.  She intends to buy the mouldering old building, long since abandoned, and turn it into a group home for children with special needs.  One day however, after exploring a seaside cave, Simon claims to have met a new friend hiding in the shadows.  This is hardly surprising as the overly inventive child already has two imaginary playmates; but when he invites “Tomas” home with him things start going bump in the night, doors mysteriously slam shut, and Simon ultimately disappears without a trace.  Bayona realizes that children and adults inhabit very different realities and that adults will often indulge a child’s magical view of the world with little white lies and fanciful stories designed to shield them from some of life’s harsher lessons.  But sometimes make-believe can backfire and an innocent game can develop ominous overtones...  This film packs some very well-placed jolts aided by creepy camerawork and unsettling sound effects.  It has an air of gothic horror about it that is truly chilling.  Regrettably, Bayona asks us to take some pretty large leaps of faith:  an elaborate game of dress-up towards the end seems like overkill; a scene involving psychic researchers recalls the excesses of Poltergeist ; and the dark secret at the heart of the film, involving a myopic nanny and sinister flour sacks, has too many holes in it to be effective.  All the clues do add up in the end, but the Peter Pan finale left me feeling vaguely cheated.

Orphans (UK 1997) (9):  Peter Mullan takes a close look at the small tyrannies and petty power struggles inherent in all families, then blows them up to outrageous proportions in this searing drama that is at once darkly comic and uncomfortably familiar.  Four adult siblings, three brothers and a wheelchair-bound sister, come together on the eve of their mother’s funeral.  But as the sun sets and rain clouds gather on the horizon it becomes obvious that her sudden death has stirred up an emotional hornets’ nest.  What follows is a dark and stormy night of the soul with divine portents raining down from the sky and streets awash with everyday saints and demons.  As each sibling becomes separated from the others they begin their own unique journeys toward the light.  One gives in to rage while one succumbs to despair; one seeks solace through martyrdom while one learns a harsh lesson in humility.  It is only after the lights go out and the whirlwind has passed that they begin to see clearly.  There is nothing subtle in this amazing film where the spiritual and the secular collide head-on, where temptations and benedictions pop up in the most unusual places and where adults become frightened orphans lost in a storm.  But just when you think Mullan has lost control of the proceedings and allowed things to spin into chaos, he expertly reins everything back in for a quietly sunlit finale which oddly mirrors the film’s opening scene and brings the whole movie to a beautiful, if emotionally exhausting, finish.  Bravo!

Orphee [Orpheus] (France 1950) (6): Jean Cocteau's avant-garde interpretation of the Greek myth follows Orpheus, a frustrated Parisian poet who finds his own personal muse in the form of a sexy vampish Grim Reaper much to the consternation of his long-suffering and secretly pregnant wife, Eurydice. When Ms. Reaper (aka "The Princess") winds up claiming Eurydice, Orpheus enlists the aid of one of her netherworld henchmen in order to journey to Hades and bring his wife back, but he finds himself torn between his dutiful love for Eurydice and his passionate obsession for the Princess. Tears, self-sacrifice, and one terrible caveat ensue. Cocteau's use of contemporary post WWII French culture (The Princess' demonic goons are leather-clad bikers; Orpheus receives poetic inspiration via short wave radio broadcasts a la Radio Free Europe) coupled with some highly experimental camerawork makes this a solid arthouse mainstay. Considered by many to be a semi-autobiographical work, "Orpheus" examines both the inner workings of an artistic mind as well as the societal pressures exerted upon it. It's all very rich in detail, and symbolism practically oozes from every frame but, despite its many critical accolades, I still found it rather dry and meandering. À chacun son goût.

Osaka Elegy (Japan 1936) (6): With her father about to lose his job unless he pays back the small sum he embezzled, and her brother about to be kicked out of university on the eve of graduation unless he can pay the rest of his tuition, twenty-something Ayako saves the day by giving in to her lecherous old boss’ advances and becoming his mistress. Emboldened by her newfound power over men she decides to extract a little cash from yet another unhappily married man so she can run away with her fiancé—-but her plans backfire and she winds up being labelled a “delinquent” much to her (now financially secure) family’s shame. Kenji Mizoguchi’s somewhat jumbled little morality play still manages to conceal a few satirical barbs as one woman’s fall from grace casts a glaring spotlight on the hypocrisy and double standards inherent in Japanese society; from Ayako’s ungrateful family (even her little sister whines about losing face at school) to her wimpy boyfriend’s fear of being associated with a “fallen woman”. Even the boss’ wife, a headstrong virago who mocked his earlier threats to carry on an affair, is suddenly reduced to a blubbering shrew when her place in high society is threatened by her husband’s indiscretion. Yet, despite its tragic overtones this remains a dark comedy with Ayako shaking her head at the petty dramatics around her even as she struggles to shoulder her own scarlet letter.

Otto; or, Up With Dead People (Germany 2008) (3): There are those members of the gay community who insist on branding themselves as sexual outlaws, using transgressive sex as a form of political protest. In this occasionally clever film-within-a-film Canada’s own bad boy director Bruce La Bruce takes this mindset to his usual extremes and the results, though hardly jaw-dropping, are at least novel. Otto is a shambling, milky-eyed, twenty-something zombie in tight jeans and a preppie sweater. Not exactly sure how he came to be undead he nevertheless seems to have vague recollections of a doomed love affair with a handsome classmate and a strained relationship with his hulking father. Reviled by the local townsfolk and regularly harassed by teenage gangs, he eventually stumbles into documentarian diva and anarchist extraordinaire Medea Yarn who just happens to be filming a “political” zombie flick in which hordes of living dead homos decide to lash out against repressive societal norms and rampant capitalism. Or something like that. Fascinated by Otto’s death-related delusions (is he, or isn’t he?) she decides to make him the focus of her next big project---a decomposing symbol for intolerance and injustice everywhere. Otto, meanwhile, has an agenda of his own... Of course there’s the usual blood-soaked nonsense one comes to expect from this genre of film and true to his porn roots La Bruce spices things up with lots of tumescent zombie dick (a boy-on-ghoul orgy is particularly odd). But the “marginalized undead” metaphor is weak at best. The film is further marred by hammy acting, an overblown script and some jarring sound and visual effects. As a director La Bruce has trouble keeping characters and storyline organized; his constant shifts in mood and style become tedious and eventually wreck what could have been a painfully poignant ending. However, as the final credits rolled I was left with one nagging question...in this day of equal rights and increasing mainstream acceptance is this type of film even relevant anymore?

Our Children (Belgium 2012) (9): Newlyweds Murielle and Mounir are very much in love having tied the knot after a brief but blissful courtship. But with the birth of their first child subtle changes begin to occur in their relationship: arguments erupt over little things, there never seems to be enough time, and Mounir’s foster father and former immigration sponsor, Dr. André Pinget, uses his offers of financial aid to exert a psychological grip on the couple. By the time their fourth child arrives Murielle, quite possibly suffering with severe postpartum depression, is at her wit’s end for not only has Mounir grown cold and indifferent (he’s dealing with financial problems and pressure to help his family back in Morocco) but Pinget’s need for control is beginning to resemble a megalomania. With her therapist more concerned with prescriptions and professional decorum than actually listening, Murielle’s feelings of isolation and shame spin out of control and tragedy seems inevitable. Joachim Lafosse’s riveting family drama uses tight spaces—interiors are often framed in such a way that people are confined to small squares of light—and a score of sorrowful choral pieces to heighten its sense of sad disconnect. Images of children happily at play clash jarringly with adults hurting one another while either overlooking Murielle’s deteriorating condition or, worse, blaming her for it. A devastating study of one woman’s unchecked descent into mental illness (the original French title translates as “To Lose Reason”) overlaid with delicate political overtones as Dr. Pinget insists on equating foreign aid with foreign ownership. Harrowing.

Out of the Furnace (USA 2012) (8): Despite a stint in prison which cost him the woman he loved, Russell Baze (an intense Christian Bale) is determined to make a life for himself working in a small town Pennsylvania mill like his father before him. But his kid brother Rodney (Casey Affleck, impressive) doesn’t share his simple aspirations. Four tours in Afghanistan have damaged something inside Rodney, filling him with rage and a desire to run as far away from his childhood home as possible. Finding an outlet of sorts in the underground world of bareknuckle fighting Rodney gains something of a reputation for himself until he runs afoul of Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson, overdoing it) a sadistic promoter, drug dealer, and addict with more than a few scores to settle. When Rodney goes missing and the police investigation gets bogged down in red tape Russell takes it upon himself to find his brother and settle a few debts of his own. Filmed in grimy shades of blue with a town that seems little more than smoky skies and boarded up storefronts, Scott Cooper manages to lift a generic blue collar thriller into something of note thanks in large part to an amazing cast (including Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, and Forest Whitaker) and a score that runs from heavy orchestral passages to Pearl Jam. Perhaps he plays the testosterone card a bit too freely with Bale swinging a rifle like it was his third arm and a snarling Harrelson heading up a pack of thoroughly repulsive backwoodsmen, but when taken as a contemporary American folk tale all that macho chest pounding becomes easier to accept. Cooper may not have reinvented the genre but he certainly contributed something that stands out from the usual crop.

Out of the Past (USA 1947) (9): When Jean-Luc Godard said, “To make a movie all you need is a girl and a gun…” he could very well have been talking about director Jacques Tourneur’s brooding B&W piece now widely considered to be something of a noir classic. A few years ago shady private eye Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) was hired by gangster gambler Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to track down Sterling’s runaway mistress Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer, with a gun)—an assignment which almost cost him his life when he fell in love with Moffat himself. Now living the straight life running a gas station near Lake Tahoe where he’s engaged to a woman so pure and wholesome that even her shadow is white, Bailey is trying to forget the past. But the past strong-arms its way back into his life when Sterling offers him a job he can’t refuse involving burglary, extortion and murder…and Moffat mysteriously reappears to rekindle an old flame… Mitchum and Douglas are a perfect pair with the former’s icy reserve playing off the latter’s fiery impulsiveness while Greer portrays a sexy femme fatale so twisted she’d double-cross herself if she could. And Tourneur keeps the mood appropriately bleak and volatile with knife-edged shadows, a script that practically spits venom, and cameras which always seem to find the darkest corners. It’s tough-talking machismo, dangerous dames, and smouldering sexuality all wrapped up in a plot so convoluted you’ll need a map to find your way out. Quintessential film noir.

The Outsiders (USA 1983) (3): Francis Ford Coppola doesn't miss a single rebellious teen cliché in this cornfed mash-up of "West Side Story" and "Rebel Without a Cause" starring an entire cast of Tiger Beat heartthrobs. In a dried up little Oklahoma town circa 1965 the upper crust "Socials" gang enjoy all the privileges and no-iron polyester they can handle while their arch-rivals from the other side of the tracks, the "Greasers", have to make do with torn blue jeans and domestic violence. When a young Greaser accidentally kills a Social in self defense it sets in motion a series of events leading to tragic epiphanies, unexpected heroics, and the requisite police shoot-out. But Coppola is not John Hughes; C. Thomas Howell, who plays wistful poetry-spouting Greaser "Ponyboy", is not James Dean; his sidekick Ralph Macchio is not Sal Mineo; and the songs of Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, and Elvis Presley are not the teen anthems Coppola was aiming for. Hackneyed, blatantly manipulative, and overplayed to the point of satire. But the sunsets were lovely.

Overlord  (UK 1975) (8):  An interesting mix of staged scenes and old archival footage give this story of one young man’s transformation from naive recruit to disillusioned soldier a level of credibility rarely seen in this genre of film.  Cooper forgoes all but the barest of storylines and instead concentrates on creating a series of impressions....the emotionally restrained farewells; the impersonal tedium of boot camp; the desperate longing of a wartime crush; and finally, the naked terror of a D-Day landing.  The ravages of war are shown in all their stark cruelty yet there are also dreamlike sequences of poetic intensity.  Cooper avoids the macho hubris inherent in so many films about war and instead delivers a heartfelt elegy to the thousands of “unknown soldiers” whose stories can never be told.

The Ox-Bow Incident (USA 1943) (9): In the waning days of the wild west a small Nevada town is besieged by a gang of cattle rustlers. With no idea of who the thieves might be the townsfolk are understandably suspicious of every stranger that comes and goes. But when a local rancher is shot during an apparent heist the deputy sheriff puts together a posse of angry locals and sets out in search of the killers. Happening upon a trio of travellers camping out in the woods the bloodthirsty rabble decides to take the law into their own hands and execute all three with nothing but a mock trial to determine their guilt. Only seven men stand between the lynch mob and the accused men who’ve been condemned on the most circumstantial of evidence. What follows is a gut-wrenching showdown between conscience and the base need for bloody revenge as a black minister and elderly businessman plead for cooler heads and the would-be executioners are whipped into a righteous frenzy by an overly zealous cavalry officer and the dead rancher’s grieving friend. And all the while three nooses are being made ready… Shot entirely on sound stages William A. Wellman’s Oscar-nominated morality play proved problematic for the studio when it was released. Its frank depiction of man’s inherent ability for ugliness and disregard for the civilized rule of law made more than a few execs uneasy especially when the censors took exception to the distinct lack of redeeming qualities in some of its key characters. In other words, its essential truthfulness made for uneasy viewing among wartime theatregoers hungry for happily ever after endings. Nevertheless there is a terrible beauty to Arthur Miller’s B&W cinematography. He films this long dark night of the soul using menacing silhouettes and twisted tree trunks to reflect the human drama below while a heavenly sunrise provides a moving backdrop for those decisive final moments. A troubling parable which still hits close to home over seventy years later. Henry Fonda stands out along with Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn.

Painted Fire [Chi-hwa-seon] (South Korea 2002) (5): Biopic covering the tumultuous life of famed artist Jang Seung-up (d. 1897) who defied artistic convention in order to create his own passionate ink and watercolour pieces. A peasant by birth, Jang’s natural talent was recognized early on and under the tutelage of a series of patrons he quickly gained notoriety with his ability to mimic other painters before finding his own artistic voice. Of course, as with all geniuses Jang had more than his fair share of demons which he attempted to appease through alcoholic binges and violent outbursts usually aimed at those who cared for him the most. Meanwhile, Korea itself was suffering from an identity crisis both from within as internal political struggles took their toll, and from without as Japan and China eagerly picked over the bones. Shot with the eye of an artist, Kwon-taek Im’s film is visually impressive with wide-angle vistas of fields and forests alive with autumnal shades of red and gold suddenly shifting to candlelit domestic interiors or pools of still water. But the story suffers from erratic editing, confusing timelines, and a lack of context for anyone not well versed in Korean history. Furthermore, Jang himself is seen more as a lazy and petulant alcoholic rather than the suffering artist the director clearly wanted to portray. The artwork, however, is gorgeous and a sudden ending is appropriately poetic.

The Painted Veil (USA 2006) (8):  It is England, 1925, and Kitty, a self-centred young socialite is about to marry an adoring, though emotionally repressed doctor in order to appease her stuffy upper-class family.  Immediately after the wedding he takes her back to Shanghai, China where he’s been working in a local medical laboratory.  It isn’t long before she finds the love she craves in the arms of another man leaving her husband disillusioned and bitter.  As an apparent act of revenge he threatens to expose her adultery unless she accompanies him to a remote village where an outbreak of cholera is decimating the local population.  It’s here, amidst a backdrop of natural beauty and human misery that they are finally able to take the first tentative steps towards a reconciliation.  This is a gorgeous old-style tearjerker full of lush cinematography and exotic locales.  Naomi Watts and Edward Norton are perfectly paired as the unhappy couple who long for affection even as they inflict pain upon one another.  There is a synergy between them in which a casual glance can convey a sad reproach or a subtle eroticism.  In fact the entire cast is completely convincing which makes the final scenes all the more powerful.  A beautiful fusion of sublime imagery and succinct dialogue that rings true right up to the final credits.

Paint Your Wagon (USA 1969) (6): Even though Joshua Logan’s ambitious widescreen musical about life in a California gold rush town bears only a passing resemblance to the original stage production it nevertheless contains a certain transgressive charm with its rustic panoramas and kinky morality. Grizzled prospector Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin, can’t sing), a drunk given to bouts of melancholy, forms an unlikely partnership with hapless pioneer Sylvester “Pardner” Newel (Clint Eastwood, can’t sing either) after the two strike it rich and create the town of “No Name”—a lawless collection of oversexed male vagabonds and fortune hunters hungry for gold and starving for female companionship. Sharing everything from mining profits to a Mormon wife that Ben wins in a bidding war (Jane Seberg, dubbed) the two men settle into a comfortable ménage à trois while No Name grows in both wealth and decadence thanks to an influx of millionaire wannabes and hijacked prostitutes. But when a family of god-fearing Christians stumble into town they introduce the most destructive force of all—virtue—and No Name will never be the same again. The genre was already dying when this big-budget flop was released and one can see how Paint Your Wagon may have provided the final nail in that coffin. The tepid musical numbers and off-key warbling do little to propel a rather tired story, although a heavy-hearted rendition of “They Call the Wind Maria” is admirable and Marvin’s gravelly voice brings a rough solemnity to his solo of “Wandering Star”. The scenery is beautiful however with cinematographer William Fraker wringing all he can out of those mountain settings and there is a definite synergy between Marvin, Eastwood and Seberg which keeps the rest of the cast in decent form. Take it as a breezy adult parable, if you will, about the wages of too much freedom and too little responsibility wherein the town of No Name comes to represent Every Place. Besides, who wouldn’t want to share sheets with Lee Marvin and a pre-batshit Clint Eastwood?

The Pajama Game (USA 1957) (5): All is not well at the Sleep-Tite pyjama factory as militant union members go toe-to-toe with the company's hardheaded management over a contentious 7½ cent raise. But things get even more complicated when the fiery head of the Grievance Committee (Doris Day) falls head over heels in love with the new Supervisor. Will love conquer all or will their differing ideologies tear them apart? The Technicolor sets are pretty and some of the songs went on to become classics ("Hey There", "Steam Heat", "Hernando's Hideaway"), but the real star of the show is Bob Fosse's wonderfully complex choreography. The rest is just so much fluff and frosting with a bit of sanitized socialist rhetoric thrown in for good measure.

Pandora’s Box (Germany 1929) (8): With her trademark bob and smokey eyes, Louise Brooks was one of the most beautiful silent screen stars to emerge from the Flapper Era. Those looks and acting talents are put to good use in Georg Pabst’s scathing morality play in which a free-spirited gold digger singlehandedly destroys her wealthy lover’s family and reputation. Riding on a wave of affluent “benefactors”, Lulu has managed to survive in style but her one dream, to become a theatrical sensation, continues to elude her. To make matters worse her current lover, newspaper editor and prominent media figure Dr. Ludwig Schön, is dumping her in order to marry a more acceptable society girl. Enter former mentor Schigolch who introduces her to a shady talent agent with promises of fame and fortune. She’s to star in a musical revue penned by Alwa Schön, Ludwig’s son, with help from mutual acquaintance Countess Anna Geschwitz, both of whom have amorous designs on her. Seeing an opportunity to even the score with Ludwig and make a name for herself on stage, Lulu uses her considerable charms to ensnare both father and son while manipulating everyone around her. But karma is a bitch, and like the mythological coffer referred to in the title Lulu’s actions will unleash all manner of evil leading to her eventual downfall at the hands of the only man capable of resisting her allure. With its themes of sexual politics and brazen amorality, not to mention frank depictions of adultery, white slavery, and lesbian lust, Pandora’s Box had censors lunging for the scissors upon its initial release. Of course the general public was not ready to accept the film’s protagonist, a curvaceous femme fatale wielding more power between her legs than all her male counterparts combined and thus she was cast as a sexual carnivore; a fallen Eve forever tempting a string of wholly innocent Adams. But there is an artistry to Pabst’s vision with its evocative B&W staging and dramatic tension where a shadowy glare shouts murder and a furtive squeeze drips with erotic potential. In one scene a snow-white lily blooms ironically next to the couch where Lulu spreads her wares, while in several others a bas-relief of a struggling saint (or damned soul) figures prominently in the background. The story may have been told a thousand times, but this 85-year old film’s tale of obsession and madness still manages to speak to a contemporary audience. And that is what cinema is all about.

The Panic in Needle Park (USA 1971) (7): Originally banned in the UK for its explicit portrayal of drug use, Jerry Schatzberg’s thoroughly depressing, heroin-laced love story was actually filmed in and around New York’s infamous Sherman Square, dubbed “Needle Park” by the addicts haunting it’s nearby streets. Newly arrived from Fort Wayne Indiana, lonely straw-haired bohemian Helen finds herself pursued by Bobby, a petty thief, low level pusher and full-time junkie who seems to offer her the love and security she craves. At first attracted to his manic energy and spontaneous personality Helen is able to overlook the squalor and coked out friends that seem to hover around Bobby. But when she goes from sharing his bed to sharing his needle a destructive pattern of dependency and despair sends her life spiralling out of control leading to one final desperate act of betrayal. With its street level camerawork, garbage-strewn sets and soundtrack of urban clamour, Needle Park’s unrelenting aura of hopelessness provides one of cinema’s most convincing anti-drug messages. With the exception of Kitty Winn’s anesthetized performance as Helen, the supporting cast’s portrayal of lives best unlived is at once morbidly fascinating and deeply repellant with Al Pacino’s standout performance dominating every scene. Keeping his characters at an emotional arm’s length, Schatzberg neither romanticizes the drug culture they’re immersed in, nor demonizes it. As the dispassionate lens of his handheld camera captures every fleeting joy and tragic turn of the story he challenges us to reconsider our own opinions while at the same time providing no easy answers. The mindset and lingo may be dated at times and the narrative jumps a bit abrupt (perhaps on purpose?), but this contemporary urban tragedy remains powerful 40 years later.

Panic in the Streets (USA 1950) (7): When a stowaway is found murdered on the docks of New Orleans the resulting autopsy shows that he was carrying more than a few bullets in his chest—he was also in the last stages of pneumonic plague, a deadly and highly contagious respiratory disease with an incubation period of just 48 hours. Now, with only two days to track down and treat everyone who came in contact with the doomed man before they can precipitate a lethal epidemic, Lt. Commander Clint Reed M.D. of the U.S. Public Health Service is facing an uphill battle for not only are the police reluctant to swing into action, but the very people they’re looking for have good reason to remain hidden. Director Elia Kazan’s “medical noir” features a fine performance from lead Richard Widmark as Reed, a man desperate to avoid a catastrophe even as he begins to succumb to stress and frustration. Long shots of seedy wharves and the seedier people who inhabit them are underscored by snatches of doleful jazz while an Oscar-winning script keeps us from confusing the good guys with the bad. Epidemiologically suspect, the Centre for Disease Control was only four years old after all, but tightly directed and highly watchable from the first hail of bullets right to the final cat-and-mice chase through a decaying dockyard. Widmark is supported by Barbara Bel Geddes as his dutiful wife and Paul Douglas as a gruff police captain with Zero Mostel and Jack Palance (in his screen debut) as a neurotic thief and brutal underworld sociopath respectively.

Papillon (USA 1973) (8): In 1933 convicted murderer Henri Charrière—nicknamed “Papillon” (Butterfly) for the tattoo on his chest—was sent to the infamous penal colony in French Guyana despite his strenuous pleas of innocence. Surrounded by swamps, malaria, and an ocean teeming with sharks and deadly currents he nevertheless attempted several jailbreaks, even making it all the way to Colombia where he was adopted by a tribe of natives before being recaptured. His flights led to increasingly dire punishments from the camp commandant until, several years later, he was finally able to take one last stab at freedom as he planned an escape from Devil’s Island itself. Based on Charrière’s bestselling memoirs (which have since fallen into disrepute as mounting evidence suggests he may have fabricated many of his adventures) Frank Schaffner’s grand prison epic still manages to entertain and enthral thanks in large part to Dalton Trumbo’s visceral script, elaborate tropical sets (shot in Jamaica), and the combined star power of leads Steve McQueen as Papillon and Dustin Hoffman as fellow prisoner and loyal sidekick Louis Dega. Starting with a march of shame through the streets of Paris as the prisoners are boarded onto ships bound for South America, Schaffner goes heavy on the grit and squalor: the trip to Guyana resembles a migration of slaves, the prison itself is rife with dangers both natural and human, and everyone from the guards to a morally suspect Mother Superior is on the take. Papillon’s incarceration is shown in wretched detail, especially a harrowing two-year stint in solitary confinement in which he shared his narrow cell with bats and supplemented his meagre diet with centipedes and cockroaches. Juxtaposing these jail scenes with widescreen panoramas of palm-fringed beaches and impossibly blue skies Schaffner makes you feel his protagonist’s intense yearning for freedom as well as his soul-crushing defeats as plans fall apart and an implacable prison staff seem intent on breaking his mind, body, and spirit. Even if the “true story” on which it is based is suspect, this remains both an affecting tale of one man’s perseverance against impossible odds and a condemnatory statement on man’s ability to inflict cruelty on others. Highly watchable.

Paradise: Faith (Austria 2012) (8): In the first instalment of Ulrich Seidl's trilogy, Paradise: Love, a group of flabby forty-ish women travel to Africa for a sex vacation hoping that the illusion of romance will offer them some degree of personal validation. In part two he turns his attention to the empty promises of religion. Maria has joined a grass roots organization intent on converting a multicultural Austria back to Catholicism. By day she goes door to door cradling a statue of the Virgin Mary, eager to introduce immigrants and sinners alike to God's mom. By night she whips the lustful thoughts out of herself while at the same time showing Jesus just how much she loves him. But when her estranged husband (a paraplegic Moslem no less) makes a sudden appearance Maria begins to suspect that God has left the building. Satire doesn't come any drier than this.

Paradise: Hope (Austria 2013) (7): Writer/director Ulrich Seidl caps his trilogy of unhappy women looking for connection by coming full circle. Gone are the exploitations of Paradise: Love and sad blasphemies of Paradise: Faith, replaced instead by a surprisingly restrained look at the wounds inflicted by first love. While her mother vacations in Africa (a direct reference to Paradise: Love) chubby thirteen-year old Melanie is enrolled in a weight loss camp. There, surrounded by other teens dealing with issues of body image and dysfunctional parents, she experiences her first sexual stirrings when she develops a crush on the camp doctor, a grey-haired gentleman almost old enough to be her grandfather. A chaste yet increasingly alarming exchange of affections takes place (the good doctor has a few emotional pathologies of his own) but despite encouragement from her more worldly campmate Verena, Melanie’s journey towards adulthood is about to hit its first pothole. Refreshingly devoid of lurid voyeurism and “fat kid” gags—these young people are made of sturdier stuff than that—Seidl's penchant for cool observation is softened by a real compassion for his characters. “Bee Who You Wanna Bee!” states Melanie’s whimsical t-shirt, to be replaced later by one featuring a sleeping kitten, and telling artwork features unobtainable mountain peaks or a frightened clown fish taking shelter in a bed of stinging anemones. Giggling exchanges with Verena call to mind the sweet naiveté of adolescence while a brief encounter in a local tavern reveals its more perilous side. Lastly, a creepy woodland rendezvous bypasses our pessimistic expectations and delivers up a scene of genuine, if very awkward, warmth instead. As with many Austrian films the acting is deliberately wooden at times and there is that pervasive sense of conformity as scene after scene depicts the kids herded and lined up like trained horses. Furthermore the downplayed ending may disappoint those hoping for tears and epiphanies (or something more prurient) but life doesn’t play out that way, a fact which Seidl is all too aware of.

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (USA 1996) (8): In May of 1993 the bodies of three eight-year old boys were found near the Robin Hood Hills area of West Memphis, Arkansas. They had been hogtied, tortured, and then mutilated in various ways (one was castrated) before being dumped into the local river. Police were quick to get a full confession from seventeen-year old Jessie Misskelley who claimed to have helped fellow teens Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin commit the murders so, against a backdrop of outrage and cries for vengeance, the three young men went to trial. Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky spent ten months following the courtroom proceedings and interviewing the accused and their families as well as the families of the victims. In much the same vein as Errol Morris, they take a backseat to their own production letting subjects speak for themselves while presenting enough evidence to thoroughly confound their audience—for what emerges is a sinuous, at times contradictory tale of justice not quite deferred but certainly warped. For starters the mentally handicapped Misskelley produced a sworn testimony with enough glaring inconsistencies to suggest faulty interrogation techniques on behalf of the investigating detectives. Secondly, both Echols and Baldwin were cast as outsiders who listened to heavy metal music and had more than a passing interest in the Occult which in this low-rent bible belt town was practically an admission of guilt. And then there’s the question of why apparently key evidence was either glossed over or ignored entirely. But as experts and laymen alike take the stand to be either bolstered or shot down by the lawyers, what started out as a series of charges based on pure hearsay and conjecture becomes even murkier. And throughout it all the accused display a naïve apathy, either looking at the floor or staring with seeming incomprehension as the trial reaches its conclusion—at one point Echols, faced with the possibility of a death sentence should he be found guilty, takes some comfort in the fact that future generations of children will remember him as the bogeyman of West Memphis. The trial scenes are absolutely riveting, the interviews both illuminating and heartbreaking (crime scene photos are almost unwatchable), but the sense of sloppy jurisprudence from both sides is inescapable. Seldom has a documentary exploring the question of guilt or innocence been so absorbing. Note: this is the first part of a trilogy exploring the trial and subsequent fallout of the so-called “West Memphis Three”.

Paradise: Love (Austria 2012) (9): Fat, lonely, and on the wrong side of forty, Austrian divorcee Teresa decides to treat herself to a seaside holiday in Kenya. There, surrounded by other corpulent sunburnt Europeans she discovers that the virile natives are more than willing to look beyond her “sagging breasts and fat ass” and provide her with the unconditional love she craves. But then come the inevitable hard luck stories as the men make increasingly aggressive demands for funds to help a destitute sister…or an ill niece…or an aging father…or an injured brother… As she finds herself spread out in one dingy hostel room after another Teresa’s romantic fantasies swiftly give way to an angry cynicism which only serves to heighten her despair. Featuring a fearless performance from lead actress Margarete Tiesel who bravely bares her soul as well as her extra pounds, Ulrich Seidl’s unflinching (and uncomfortably graphic) film blurs the line between exploiters and exploited. Yes there is an aura of colonialism as we see a makeshift fence dividing the beach between pampered white tourists and the black hawkers waiting to descend upon them, and a private birthday bash comes to resemble a slave auction when the drunken women haggle over who can give the negro stripper an erection. But there is another, more subtle prostitution at work here as the savvy Kenyans home in on Teresa’s personal weaknesses be it fear of abandonment (“Love is forever…”), or poor body image (“Baby I can’t stop, you got me so turned on…”), or just plain loneliness (“No, you’re not old…). It’s this intricate power play that seems to fascinate Seidl and gives his movie an unexpected poignancy. Often filmed as a solitary figure against an empty swimming pool or endless stretch of beach, Teresa’s unhappiness plays on that note of insecurity we all carry within ourselves thus giving Paradise: Love a far more universal punch than one would expect. Neither the men nor their female targets are bad people really, they’re just out to get whatever they can before going back to their respective corners. It’s a dance of sorts, a game of words and actions, and to ignore the rules is to put oneself in emotional peril as underscored by the film’s brilliantly sardonic final shot (and post credits coda). Confrontational, at times repulsive, but in the end sadly compassionate.

Paranoiac (UK 1962) (5): After their parents die in a plane crash and their older brother commits suicide, Eleanor and Simon find themselves the sole remaining heirs to the vast Ashby estate. Unfortunately Simon is a boorish alcoholic and Eleanor may very well be mad. But when their supposedly dead brother Tony comes looking for his share of the money we discover the Ashby family has more skeletons than closets to put them in. A macabre whodunnit filled with false leads and a no-star cast of red herrings featuring an overwrought Aunt, a seductive (and barely intelligible) French nurse, and a young accountant with a shameful secret. Things start out intriguing enough but it eventually sinks into a gothic soap opera with Oliver Reed giving the performance which should have netted him a lifetime Razzie award for awfulness. A great choice if you’re wide awake at 2 a.m. with absolutely nothing to do.

Paranormal Activity (USA 2007) (6): Yuppie couple Katie and Micah have just moved into a comfortable San Diego townhouse when things start going bump in the night. No stranger to spooky manifestations (she’s been having them since she was eight) Katie consults a psychic who confirms her worst fears---something evil has been following her since she was a child and it’s starting to get pissed off. Micah refuses to let his girlfriend be harassed by an invisible bogeyman however, and sets up his camcorder in order to capture any “weird shit” going on. Of course things start off with a red herring or two until the couple start placing their camera on the dresser while they sleep at night and that’s when the creep factor threatens to go through the roof. Rippling sheets, slamming doors and mysterious shadows are just the beginning, but when Micah decides to explore the attic at 3 a.m. it’s all you can do to keep yourself from diving under the couch. Presented as a series of home movies, Paranormal Activity combines the choppy verité style of Blair Witch with the non-Disney elements of Poltergeist. Director Peli frames his shots just right and then ratchets up the suspense until you squirm. The nighttime scenes especially had my skin crawling; who knew that looking at nothing could be so frightening? Unfortunately the actors are not quite up to the task especially with a script consisting mainly of bad improv and running up and down staircases. There are too many illogical plot devices (“Gee, something demonic is running amok so let’s keep the lights off as we film the apartment and then go back to bed…”) and a cheap Exorcist rip-off towards the end left me groaning. This type of horror is best played out in the audience’s imagination where subtlety is the key; by bombarding the screen with exaggerated visuals Peli ends his film with the diabolical equivalent of a car chase. When it works it leaves you covered with goosebumps, but when it doesn’t the whole production goes down like a flaming Ouija board.

Paranormal Activity 2 (USA 2010) (6): Packed with more devilry, more slamming doors, and more static video footage this slightly superior follow-up to 2007's lukewarm hit is not so much a prequel as it is a re-imagining. After Daniel and Kristi Rey's dream home is apparently ransacked by burglars they have surveillance cameras installed in every nook and cranny while their Spanish-spouting housekeeper, believing there are more diabolical forces afoot, runs around chanting prayers and burning incense. Of course there's the obligatory few days of grace where nothing much happens as the cameras record domestic trivialities between the Reys and their two kids, teenaged Katie and infant Hunter. Then stuff begins to happen: a pot falls off a hook, a light winks out, and the family dog suddenly seems preoccupied with the cellar door. Something's in the house and it isn't camera shy... Although more polished than its predecessor (bigger budget?) PA2 follows the same general formula---first slowly drive the tension up notch by notch using the suggestion of a demonic presence rather than an actual physical bogeyman. Next, reinforce that suggestion with some low-key effects; the pool vacuum crawling out of the water was too creepy. Then blow it all to pieces with an over-the-top screamfest ending and promise (threat?) of another sequel. Once again we're expected to suspend our disbelief to the breaking point (why do they stay in an evil haunted house? why does everyone walk around with a digital camera in hand? how come the housekeeper understands English but only speaks Spanish?) and once that point is reached the spell is broken. Scary while it lasted but ultimately disappointing.

Paranormal Activity 3 (USA 2011) (7): Presented as yet another series of "found tapes", this time from 1988, this third instalment in the Home Movies From Hell franchise pretty much follows the same tired old premise as its predecessors: young family with kids move into a scary demonic house, things bump and crash, youngest child develops an unhealthy relationship with an invisible friend...but instead of jumping in the car and GETTING THE HELL OUT OF THERE, dad decides to set up video cameras in order to figure out just what the bogeyman wants (huh!?). Despite the many illogical plot devices this one is still genuinely creepy with enough jolts and excruciatingly tense static shots to have you reaching for every light switch you can find. Plus, in a rather obvious yet clever closing twist the directors make a sincere effort to clear up some of the narrative holes from parts 1 and 2. It's all rather silly of course, but I still spent the night on my husband's side of the bed much to his annoyance.

Paranormal Activity 4 (USA 2012) (3): This fourth kick at the video devil can follows the events of part two (the far superior third instalment being relegated to mere background fodder) which ended with little toddler Hunter Rey being abducted by his demon-possessed aunt Katie. Cut to small town Nevada five years later where teenaged Alex and her boyfriend Ben have become intrigued by Robbie, the strange kid who just moved in next door. When Robbie’s mother is rushed to the hospital one night Alex’s parents take the weird tyke in where he quickly befriends their young son, Wyatt. It soon becomes apparent that Robbie is no ordinary child for not only does he wander the house in the wee hours staring at nothing, he also talks to an invisible friend who seems to be the cause of all those scary noises and slamming doors. Alex and Ben begin to suspect that Robbie’s friend is not so imaginary after all and before you can yell...“There’s an evil spirit in the house that wants to kill us so let’s set up hidden cameras and film some cool shit!”...they proceed to do just that. The rest of the film consists of all the usual shocks, ad libbed terror, and jarring home movie footage, including some night vision nonsense obviously designed to scare the hell into us (ooh, the knife is levitating!!!) but only serve to elicit a few smirks as we realize just how tired and clichéd the whole “found video footage” schtick has become. Personally I wish the fucking demon would just take out a Facebook page and be done with it.

Paranormal Activity 5 [aka Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension] (USA 2015) (3): Why do I even bother writing reviews on this franchise anymore when I can just copy and paste my previous comments? Once again…a family with young child in tow move into a faux mediterranean box house in a Santa Rosa suburb. And then weird stuff happens—drapes move, lights flicker, the kid starts talking to an increasingly malevolent invisible friend—and, once again, instead of running away screaming dad decides to set up video cameras instead, especially when he finds a cache of old VHS tapes taken by the home’s previous owners and a magical camcorder which can “see” demons as wisps of black smoke with skull faces. What does the big bad devil from parts 1 through 4 want this time around? Why do the little girls in the old videos seem to know all about the home’s new owners even though they were taped over twenty years ago? And why is that silly old Catholic priest trying to exorcise the house using witchcraft? Aside from a few well placed jolts and a nicely convincing performance from its young actress I really don’t give a shit anymore.

ParaNorman (USA 2012) (8): Norman Babcock sees dead people. And dead animals. Not only that, he also engages them in animated conversations whether it be his deceased grandmother whose taken up residence on the family couch or the civil war vet riding his spectral horse down main street. Needless to say this supernatural talent has earned him a reputation: his family can’t decide whether he needs to see one shrink or two and the school bully is always eager to remind him of what a freak he is. But all that is about to change, for Norman’s hometown is under a curse placed by a vindictive witch executed there three hundred years earlier (a fact local merchants use to lure tourist dollars) and as the anniversary of her death approaches an unearthly storm descends upon the village releasing a horde of angry zombies intent on mass destruction—and only Norman has the wherewithal to save the day. Accompanied by his airhead sister, fellow pariah Neil, and Neil’s hardbodied neanderthal brother, Norman prepares to do battle with the forces of darkness—but even he is not ready for the truth behind the witch’s vengeance. A delightfully macabre bit of 3D animation with enough icky humour to keep the kids happy (a tug-of-war with a corpse is bizarre enough without the “toilet ghost” sequence) while writer/director Chris Butler throws in enough grown-up laughs to earn a “PG” rating—apparently a little gay zinger towards the end had conservative bloggers burning up their keyboards. Add to that some sly little visual gags and one-liners and you have a highly entertaining cartoon fable that abandons the usual claptrap about “tolerance” for those who are different and instead goes straight for full-on acceptance. And the wonderfully retro closing credits, complete with toe-tapping musical accompaniment, provide the icing on the cake.

Paris, Texas (Germany/France 1984) (7): A panoramic view of sunbaked desert narrows to an extreme close-up of a shambling vagrant making his way towards a lone gas station, the only thing that passes for civilization in this valley of death. His name is Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) and he disappeared mysteriously, along with his wife, four years earlier leaving their three-year old son Hunter to be raised by brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) and sister-in-law Anne. Alerted by the local authorities Walt flies out from Los Angeles to pick up his oddly withdrawn brother and bring him home where he is reunited with a son who barely remembers him. And as Travis and Hunter begin the hesitant process of bonding once more the mystery of what happened to his wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski) prompts father and son to embark on one more journey—a road trip to Texas which will ultimately break one heart while mending another. Beautifully photographed and impeccably acted, German director Wim Wenders’ bittersweet tale of persons in flux and lives reconnecting moves at the pace of a slow heartbeat. Travis is a man so conflicted with the past that he seems emotionally paralyzed in the present—his first self-conscious attempts to be a father are almost comical while his final interaction with Jane (a powerfully presented monologue) seems like a plaintive whisper from the abyss made all the more poignant by the various panes of glass which prevent them from actually touching. But this is strictly European arthouse fare transplanted across the Atlantic with its expressive dialogue and artistic mise en scène conveying a fanciful old world impression of the American heartland—endless highways punctuated by ironic billboards, dusty mesas, and dustier dives, and everywhere ubiquitous images of dreams deferred whether it be a faded mural of the Statue of Liberty or the contrived interiors of a seedy peep show where women perform against backdrops like “Diner”, “Hotel”, and “Poolside”. Even if his Euro sensibilities don’t always fit their southwest settings, Wenders’ understanding of what prods the human soul is universal in scope and haunting in presentation.

Particle Fever (USA 2013) (8): The idea sounds deceptively simple: take two streams of protons going in opposite directions, accelerate them to near light speed and then smash them into one another and see what emerges from the subatomic carnage. The implications however are vast for not only could this experiment reveal the building blocks which make up the building blocks which make up the universe, it could also reveal that most elusive of all elementary particles, the Higgs-Boson (unfortunately dubbed the “God Particle”) which holds everything together. To this end a small international army of scientists, engineers, and overseers built a seventeen-mile multi-ton underground ring in the Swiss countryside, the largest machine ever built by man and the biggest gamble ever undertook by science. Director Mark Levinson’s engaging documentary follows the people at CERN’s LHC (Large Hadron Collider) project during the hectic final weeks before the big event as their excitement grows and the world press eagerly gathers to report on either a triumphant victory or a crushing failure. Interviewing a series of amicable personalities from a post-doc student who compares the atmosphere at CERN to a bunch of six-year olds awaiting the best birthday party ever to an ebullient project manager dividing his time between fretting over alarm bells and doing kitchen science experiments with his children, it quickly becomes apparent that everyone even remotely involved with the LHC possesses an infectious enthusiasm for discovery which makes all those boring old highschool physics classes suddenly seem monumentally worthwhile. Making his subject’s esoteric chalkboard scribbles even remotely accessible to the educated layman is no easy task and Levinson doesn’t quite achieve it, but the talking heads do manage to convey a clear sense of what it is they’re looking for and its far-reaching implications concerning the nature of everything we refer to as “reality”. Far from presenting dry formulae and academic doublespeak, Levinson manages to delve behind a sea of university degrees to show the human side of the equation with theoretical physicists engaged in a jocular rivalry with their experimental counterparts, press conferences turning into PR stand-up routines, and the man who predicted it all in the first place, British professor Peter Higgs now in his 80s, wiping an anticipatory tear from his eye as a press conference reveals CERN’s initial findings. “Why do humans do science, why art?” ruminates one distinguished academician only to answer himself with his next sentence, “The things that are least important for our survival are the very things that make us human.” Sadly, a bigger and better LHC had been planned for Texas but congressional blustering effectively mothballed it and its skeletal framework is now home to cobwebs and juvenile graffiti.

Passengers (USA 2016) (8): An interstellar ship is on its way to mankind's latest colony world, a journey of 120 years, with thousands of passengers and crew in suspended animation when a computer glitch causes engineer Jim Preston (the incredible edible Chris Pratt) to awaken 90 years prematurely. Unable to go back into hibernation Jim faces the prospect of growing old and dying alone with only a gregarious android bartender (Michael Sheen) for company. Succumbing to an overwhelming sense of isolation after spending a year exhausting every diversion the ship has to offer, Preston revives fellow passenger Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a sleeping beauty whom he fell in love with through the glass of her frozen sarcophagus. But just as this desperate ploy for human contact begins to unravel (Lane is understandably pissed) the two face an even greater danger when the ship itself throws a few sinister wrenches into their plans. Technical stretches aside (this is science fiction after all) Passengers is a beautifully crafted tale of love and loneliness played out against a backdrop of galactic proportions. As a thriller it has its moments—the special effects team goes into overdrive when the ship's gravity cuts in and out and a spacewalk looks incredible in widescreen 3D—but at its core it is an unexpectedly moving romance.

Passing Fancy (Japan 1933) (6): Kihachi, a kind-hearted lout, barely manages to support himself and his ten-year old son Tomio. Romantic possibilities present themselves one day however when he crosses paths with the beautiful yet destitute Harue, a penniless young woman living in the streets. Kihachi manages to find Harue a place to stay and a job at a local restaurant run by Otome, a middle-aged widow with her own designs on the impulsive bachelor. But, alas, Harue only has eyes for Jiro, Kihachi’s dashing young friend who, for his part, couldn’t care less. As the adults strive to make their lives ever more complicated, young Tomio looks on with a bemused mixture of jealousy and juvenile cynicism. This early silent film by Ozu is a bit of a jumble with elements of broad comedy, melodrama, and heartbreak thrown together seemingly at random. As in all his works, the parent/child relationship is central while underlying themes of fate and impermanence pervade every frame. Not his best work, but the likable performances and natural staging speak of greater things to come.

The Passion of Anna [aka: A Passion] (Sweden 1969) (5): It’s sex, lies, and nervous breakdowns all around as Ingmar Bergman crams enough contemporary angst and self-delusion onto one small island to fuel a half dozen suicide notes instead of just one. Bitter divorcé Andreas Winkelman (Max von Sydow) has turned his back on human interaction and lives a hermit-like existence on one corner of the island. New neighbours Eva and Elis Vergerus are having troubles of their own: he’s a cynical architect who compensates for his lack of empathy by photographing humans behaving badly while she is an empty shell who feels as if her very existence is nothing but an offshoot of her domineering husband’s ego. Nihilistic sparks fly when Andreas is introduced to the recently widowed Anna (Liv Ullman) a woman crippled both physically and psychologically whose warped memories of her late husband, a callous and abusive man, have elevated him to near sainthood. Both Anna and Andreas are harbouring darker secrets and when the skeletons are finally laid bare it proves to be the proverbial last straw for all concerned. And just to highlight everyone’s moral blindness someone on the island has begun mutilating innocent animals and leaving them for dead… Whew! Graced by strong performances and Sven Nykvist’s stark cinematography which takes savage delight in all those dreary icebound landscapes, Bergman’s paean to the futility of it all (he had just broken up with star Liv Ullman) certainly leaves no room for ambivalence. Clocks tick, church bells peal, and an ad-libbed dinner party (one of the film’s stronger scenes) manages to chastise artistic affectation, the concept of “truth”, and God himself before the coffee even gets cold. But it ultimately falls prey to its own affectations with rambling monologues, histrionic posturing, and Bergman’s willingness to break the fourth wall by periodically interrupting the film so that his actors can discuss what makes their characters so unlikeable—a pretension he would later regret. A curious little arthouse ensemble piece examining the various ways we lie to ourselves and to one another which has not aged well despite the timelessness of its message.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (France 1928) (7): Hailed by many as one of the silent era’s last great masterworks, a copy of this long-lost work by director Carl Dreyer was eventually discovered in a Danish psychiatric hospital and painstakingly restored. Based on actual court transcripts from the trial of Jeanne d’Arc, one of France’s most beloved patron saints who was martyred at the age of nineteen, it is both a taut courtroom drama and overt condemnation of a bigoted church hierarchy. Despite leading several successful campaigns against the English and being honoured by Charles VII, Joan’s eccentric ways proved troublesome to the established clergy; she claimed to have celestial visions, heard voices, and insisted on dressing like a man until her voices told her otherwise. She was eventually arrested on charges of witchcraft and heresy, tortured, humiliated, and ultimately burned at the stake when she refused to renounce her personal beliefs. In the role of Joan stage actress Maria Falconetti brings a frightening intensity to the screen; her face exhibiting an unsettling mixture of tenacious faith and mortal terror (with a touch of mental illness?) as she struggles to understand the charges being laid against her. Her ordeal begins to mirror the passion of Christ as she is mocked and ridiculed by her accusers, at one point a length of coiled rope is placed on her head like a crown of thorns. Dreyer deliberately films all his characters without stage make-up causing every wart and blemish to stand out in high relief, the result is both austere and vulnerably human. Furthermore, the spartan sets heighten the movie’s sense of gravity while focusing our attention on the fierce emotions playing out on the actors’ faces. The use of extreme close-ups may be overdone at times, some unnecessarily awkward camerawork doesn’t always work (the inverted crane shots were especially baffling), and the occasional anachronism reminds you that it is not 1431, but there are moments of pure cinema throughout; a prolonged scene of Joan’s burning corpse sliding down the stake while angry peasants revolt in the streets was undeniably powerful. Although Dreyer’s later film, Day of Wrath revisited the topic of church atrocities with greater effect (review posted), this early work still manages to hold its own eighty years later.

Pat and Mike (USA 1952) (7): Katherine Hepburn plays Patricia “Pat” Pemberton, an all-American athlete with a natural talent for golf and tennis. Spencer Tracy plays Mike Conovan, a decent enough sports promoter who’s not above trying to fix a game in order to appease his underworld stakeholders. When the two come together sparks turn to flame and a new contest slowly emerges with Pat having a definite advantage. There’s only one snag—Pat is still intimidated by her alpha male fiancé Collier to the point that whenever he shows up to watch her play his presence causes her to panic and lose the game. Will Pat and Mike still be able to make a love match with Collier and a couple of impatient mob bosses hovering in the wings? A likeable comedy buoyed by a lively script and the undeniable screen chemistry of Tracy and Hepburn which makes a lighthearted attempt to address the deeper social concern of gender inequality and women’s independence. The prolonged sports scenes are surprisingly gripping, especially a whimsical segment in which an agitated Pat imagines the tennis net getting progressively higher while her opponent’s racquet looms enormous and her own shrinks to the size of a paddle. A few “before they were famous” cameos from Chuck Connors and Charles Bronson round out a competent cast which also includes a number of actual pro athletes, both male and female. Good late night viewing.

Paths of Glory (USA 1957) (9): In the midst of WWI three French soldiers are charged with cowardice after their regiment’s attempt to capture a German stronghold ends in disaster and retreat. Only their commanding officer-cum-defense attorney Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) stands between them and the firing squad but he knows the deck is already stacked against them for they are nothing more than scapegoats meant to teach their comrades a lesson. Furthermore, the generals who planned the assault in the first place knew it was doomed from the beginning but one regarded it as a matter of national pride and the other saw it as a means to further his own military career. With the clock ticking and morale ebbing Dax must defend his charges as best he can before an army tribunal sentences three innocent men to death for the sins of others. From two pompously bedecked generals buttering croissants while callously discussing how many men will die the following day to a cowardly booze-soaked lieutenant saving his own reputation at the sake of another man’s life this is perhaps Stanley Kubrick’s most scathing damnation of war’s many inanities. Lacking both the nihilistic cheekiness of Doctor Strangelove and the vulgar sarcasm of Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick’s straightforward approach involved transforming a farmer’s field into a pitted smoking vision of Hell with apocalyptic explosions raining dirt upon the frightened faces of men huddled in foxholes and trenches while their superiors exchange pleasantries in a richly appointed chateau turned headquarters. Unrelentingly angry and far too bitter for mere satire it’s little wonder that France and its allies banned the film for years in order to save face. Ralph Meeker and Adolphe Menjou round out a sterling cast and Kubrick’s flair for tracking shots and intrusive lighting adds a touch of the surreal.

The Peanuts Movie (USA 2015) (10): I’ve been a diehard Charlie Brown fan ever since I was old enough to read my first Peanuts strip. I also believed that when it came to animating Charles Schulz’s immortal characters nothing could ever top 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas for sheer cartoon magic. With this endearing feature director Steve Martino has proven me wrong for he manages to bring the whole gang to computerized life with such love and whimsy that I felt as if I was four years old again. Presented in bright candy colours with a cast of familiar voices and an amazing 3D process that combines the best of CGI effects with a retro comic book appeal (think old ViewMaster reels), Martino has created the definitive Peanuts motion picture. Charlie Brown is determined to rise above his wishy-washy reputation in order to impress the new girl in class but despite the support of his faithful dog fate always seems to throw him a curveball. Snoopy, in the meantime, indulges in a WWI fantasy as he scours the French countryside in his flying doghouse searching for the evil Red Baron who has kidnapped Fifi, his one true love. Against these two main stories the rest of the Peanuts clan experience their own trials and tribulations especially Snoopy’s klutzy avian sidekick Woodstock who always seems to be one faithful step behind his canine friend. A playful script written in part by Schulz’s son and grandson remains faithful to the Peanuts mythos while at the same time offering a bit of contemporary enlightenment to Charlie Brown’s perpetually bruised ego. And lastly, a couple of loving touches are sure to elicit a wistful smile from those of us old enough to remember the original Christmas special that started it all—a few bars of Vince Guaraldi here and there; Lucy’s tirade over “dog germs” repeated almost verbatim; and Bill Melendez’s original vocalizations for Snoopy and Woodstock given new life seven years after his death. In a word…adorable!

Peeping Tom (UK 1960) (9): Mark Lewis is a seriously introverted cameraman working for a big studio and supplementing his income by doing pornographic photo shoots on the side. He is also a serial killer who is compelled not only to film himself murdering his female victims but to record the subsequent police investigations as well. Suffering from the horrendous mental abuse he suffered at the hands of his austere father, a famous neurologist who used his son as a guinea pig in a series of experiments examining the fear response, Mark is unable to form meaningful relationships with the opposite sex, preferring instead to gaze longingly at them through the eyepiece of his 8mm camera. But when he begins a hesitant relationship with Helen, a young woman living in his building (much to the consternation of her suspicious mother) the conflicting emotions which ensue threaten to overwhelm his obsessively ordered world. With the police closing in and his fledgling girlfriend asking uncomfortable questions, Mark’s tenuous grip on sanity is driven to the brink... Years ahead of its time, this daring psychological drama examines the intricate power play between voyeur and subject, stalker and stalked, and the role of media, in this case home movies, in creating emotional distances. Cleverly set in the make-believe world of cinema...and pornography...director Michael Powell delves beneath surface appearances to reveal some uncomfortable truths; at one point Mark refuses Helen’s innocent request to be filmed as he does not want to see her “that way”, in another scene one of his cheesecake models asks to be photographed so that the bruises inflicted by her jealous fiancé are not readily apparent. In the role of Mark, Karlheinz Böhm is completely captivating, his awkward naïveté and childish attempts to socialize contrasting sharply with his murderous interludes; a man well aware of the demons which poison his life yet powerless, or unwilling (?), to exorcise them. An overlooked cinema classic with a truly chilling finale.

Penny Dreadful (USA 2006) (7):  Ever since she was involved in a horrific traffic accident years ago, Penny Dearborn has been unable to ride in cars without having severe panic attacks.  As our story opens she is in the middle of a therapeutic road trip of sorts accompanied by her psychiatrist who is trying to help her face her fears head on (no pun intended).  But when the doctor accidentally wings a hitchhiker with her BMW and feels obligated to offer the poor soul a lift to the nearest campground Penny quickly finds car phobia is the least of her worries... This is the kind of tall tale we used to scare each other with around the campfire when we were kids and in order to truly appreciate what Brandes has done you need to overlook the more blatant inanities and get to the film’s underlying psychology and subtle humour.  He taps into some universal fears; the dark, being trapped, abandonment, being lost, claustrophobia, and the bogeyman in the window.  Even though he utilizes some tired old horror mainstays he still manages to throw in the odd shock and keep the film’s overall atmosphere close and creepy.  Both female leads are good, especially Rachel Miner as Penny who makes full use of a very confined space.  Her performance is appropriately over-the-top and pretty much carries the film.  The use of music and jarring cuts is effective and the opening credits are very cool.  Despite its rather unimaginative ending, Penny Dreadful still provides a chilling treat.

The Petrified Forest (USA 1936) (6): While trying to evade the police, four desperate gangsters hold a diverse group of people hostage in a remote desert diner. Among the unwilling guests are Gabrielle Maple, the owner’s daughter who dreams of becoming an artist in Paris; her colourful grandfather; Boze, the dumb jock handyman with a crush on “Gabby”; wealthy banker Mr. Chisholm and his bitter aging trophy wife; Gabby’s rabidly patriotic father; and Alan Squier, an insufferable angst-ridden milquetoast grown tired of a world which has no place for Art. With their precisely delineated lives as fossilized as the wood outside it isn’t long before this small band of characters forms a microcosm of contemporary American society. As dad dances around the flag and grandpa recalls fuzzy memories of past glory, the Chisholms bicker over the importance of duty and prestige. Meanwhile Boze fawns over a goal he can never attain and Gabrielle retreats into a book of romantic poetry; the desperate need to escape her meaningless life heightened by Alan’s existentialist whining. When the inevitable shoot-out with the law comes a final sacrifice ensures that no one’s life will ever be quite the same again. With an over-the-top script rife with tortured soul-bearing and avant-garde social critiques things get bogged down pretty quickly; a deeply metaphorical sandstorm borders on sheer overkill. If it were made today I’d give this film a much lower mark but, for some reason, these old B&W classics possess an ageless quality that is almost sacrosanct. There is an earnestness to them which allows me to overlook all but the most glaring faults; like Bogart’s performance. I just can’t see why his portrayal of gang leader Duke Mantee is touted as being a “breakout” role; his muddled monotone and self-conscious shambling (at one point he appears to be paralyzed from the waist up) seem pretty lame. But I suppose that was then, this is now and who am I to argue with the making of a Hollywood legend?

Peyton Place (USA 1957) (7): Set in 1941, Peyton Place is a sleepy New England whistle-stop where they set their clocks by the four seasons, where the locals are whiter than white and the dreams of youth are quietly sacrificed in order to maintain the town’s WASP conformity. It’s the kind of place that would make Garrison Keillor long for the lights of Broadway. But all is not as it seems as the camera slowly peels away the respectable affectations to expose the town’s darker side. Taking the form of parallel storylines that gradually converge, the movie contains enough controversial topics to fill ten lesser films; from rape, suicide and abortion to murder, teen pregnancy, and pre-marital skinny-dipping. Even a wholesome birthday party turns into a seething cauldron of flaming teenage hormones thanks to a small bottle of liquor and a 78 rpm of Blue Moon. This is a sprawling big-screen soap opera featuring some splendid performances and an over-the-top script that is nonetheless intriguing; the explosive courtroom scene towards the end was especially well done and Robson doesn’t miss a single nuance as even the most fleeting of glances can trigger an entire strings section. He may not show the technicolor flair of Douglas Sirk but this unsparing critique of Middle American social and moral conventions rarely misses its target.

Phantasm 2 (USA 1988) (5): Set a few years after the events in the original Phantasm (1979) this disappointing sequel starts off as a z-rated monster flop redeemed somewhat towards the end by a campy B-movie finale. In the original classic Mike and his friends discover a grisly secret in the local mortuary; an otherworldly fiend known only as the Tall Man is robbing graves and turning their inhabitants into squishy little zombies before teleporting them to his hellish home world as cheap labour. They fail of course and Mike ends up in a mental institution. In this chapter Mike lies his way to freedom, teams up with his old pal Reggie, and hits the open road in order to track down the Tall Man who has left a string of razed towns and plundered cemeteries in his wake. Along the way they’re aided by Liz, Mike’s new love interest who he’s only met in his dreams; Alchemy, a mysterious hitchhiker; and Father Meyers, a neurotic priest who’s been trying to stop the Tall Man using Catholic voodoo and shots of Jack Daniels. Their final showdown in a creepily ornate mortuary is a fine example of clichéd horror movie overkill complete with chainsaws and a homemade flamethrower (look for the sly “cameo” by Sam Raimi). But it’s all made palatable by some glorious overacting and director Don Coscarelli’s acute sense of his film’s many shortcomings; if audiences are going to laugh anyway then you might as well give them something to laugh at. The two male leads provide a fine pair of bumbling antiheroes while Angus Scrimm’s return as the cadaverous Tall Man is reason for cinema geeks everywhere to celebrate. And don’t worry, the subpar special effects will still satisfy the gorehounds---those little round flying Cuisinarts from the first instalment are back with a vengeance and an unfortunate incident involving embalming fluid and hydrochloric acid is worth a rewind. For a three buck rental you could do worse.

Phantasm 3: Lord of the Dead (USA 1994) (4): Picking up shortly after the previous installment ended, this terrible sequel of a sequel once again reunites friends Reggie and Mike as they scour the countryside in search of The Tall Man, that towering malevolent super being with the Buster Brown haircut who’s resorted to murder and grave-robbing in order to flesh out his army of the dead. This time around Mike is kidnapped by the forces of evil and it’s up to Reg to rescue him aided by Rocky, a sassy nunchuk-wielding diva; Jody, Mike’s dead brother whose spirit is now confined to a flying pinball; and Timmy, the amazing homicidal wonder brat. Together these four mismatched heroes will face down flesh-eating dwarves, crawling hand monsters, and a hearse full of mischievous zombies who won’t stay dead. Of course it all culminates in yet another showdown in yet another creepy mortuary leading to yet another puzzling non-ending and the promise (threat?) of yet another sequel. Lacking both the originality of the first film and the sometimes amusing self-parody of the second, this amateurish little turd explosion features lamentable acting skills, lacklustre directing, and a script that comes across as bad improv. Director Don Coscarelli does throw in some nice gore effects however, and lead actor Reggie Bannister’s butt looks damn good in those tight jeans; but one is left with the impression the studio still doesn’t realize the cow they’re desperately trying to milk is already dead.

Phantasm: Ravager (USA 2016) (5): It is almost impossible to objectively critique this final chapter in the Phantasm series since you either love it, hate it, or couldn’t care less. Begun in 1979 it tells the overly long tale of ice cream vendor Reggie Bannister and his dealings with the otherworldly necromancer known as “The Tall Man” (Angus Scrimm, R.I.P.), a growling cadaverous old man and his army of zombie midgets who has captured Reggie’s BFF. Desperate to rescue his friend Reggie travels through time and space armed with nothing but his own determination and a rucksack full of weapons while the Tall Man always manages to stay one small step ahead. In Ravager longtime collaborators Don Coscarelli and David Hartman (who also directed) bring the series full circle in a murky twisting story that opens with a grizzled Reggie, who may or may not be suffering from dementia, slipping in and out of various realities—is he wandering alone through a California desert? fighting the undead in a post-apocalyptic future? scrambling across a deadly blood red planet? or simply raving in a sanitarium bed? And the sphinx-like Tall Man is there to taunt him at every turn with his sepulchral voice and flying horde of metallic killer robot orbs. With the exception of Scrimm’s leering malevolence the performances are uniformly hokey and the special effects hover just a few notches above youtube. Yet there exists a childlike exuberance in Hartman’s dark comic book vision as he leads us down one rabbit hole after another, forcing us to either derive our own meaning from the open-ended finale (hallucination, revelation, or supernatural armageddon?) or simply yawn and turn the channel. I did appreciate the 80’s cheesiness however and those clumsy metaphysical digressions were interesting enough though hardly novel. But I can’t recommend it to anyone except diehard fans even if I couldn’t quite bring myself to hit the “stop” button.

The Phantom Carriage (Sweden 1921) (7): With shades of A Christmas Carol evident throughout, Victor Sjöström’s macabre silent classic would eventually inspire the likes of Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick. It’s New Year’s Eve and Sister Edith, a pious Salvation Army matron, lies dying of tuberculosis—her last earthly wish being to see wayward drunk David Holm, the man she spent her entire short career trying to turn around, one more time. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, having forsaken his wife and kids and ignoring Edith’s pleas Holm sits in a frozen graveyard with his drinking buddies regaling them with the tale of “The Phantom Carriage”. Apparently, the first person to die at the stroke of midnight on NYE is doomed to drive Death’s carriage for an entire year--a ramshackle (and eerily transparent) funeral wagon, pulled by an emaciated horse, in the back of which newly departed souls are stacked like kindling. A drunken fight breaks out, David is killed, the clock strikes twelve, and the carriage arrives. Meanwhile, still waiting to speak to David before she dies, Sister Edith is preparing to take her final breath… Thanks to some meticulous restoration and the addition of both a modern score and a tinting process which lends certain key scenes hues which range from golden yellow to midnight blue, this wonderful wintry tale of sorrow and redemption is perhaps more vibrant now than when it was released almost one hundred years ago. Not giving into the dramatic excesses so common to the silent genre, Sjöström (who also plays David Holm) elicits surprisingly natural performances from his cast as they play the gamut from tragedy, pathos, and hope to a restrained horror—images of the ghostly carriage and its cowled driver moving silently down cobbled streets or into the surf to seek a drowned man are still creepy all these years later. A nicely crafted morality play whose inventive camerawork and compelling story should make it standard holiday viewing.

Phantom Museums [Short Films by the Brothers Quay] (UK 1987) (7): Kafka corrupts Disney as all our subconscious hobgoblins are allowed to run rampant in this collection of bizarre stop-motion shorts where mutant dollies, mechanical constructs and everyday trash take on sinister overtones, both erotic and grotesque. It's all terribly avant-garde of course, and frustratingly obtuse, but there is no denying the Quay brothers' uncanny ability to fascinate even as they disgust. An entire DVD set is a bit much however because, as with all nightmares, their work is best taken in small doses.

The Phantom of Liberty (France 1974) (8): Buñuel’s skewed view of contemporary middle class values begins, oddly enough, with the execution of Spanish rebels by Napoleon’s forces during the Peninsular War, an incident made famous by Goya’s painting “The Third of May 1808”. “Down with liberty!” shouts one of the condemned before the bullets silence him and it’s this apparent contradiction which sets the tone for for the loosely connected collection of absurdist skits that follow. A bourgeois couple enlist the police to help search for their missing daughter even though the little girl has never left their side; a group of intellectuals sit around a dining room table discussing current affairs while relieving themselves on toilets; and a prayer meeting turns into a poker game which turns into a public S&M flogging. Mercifully, Buñuel doesn’t leave us hanging in confusion for a clue is to be found within a Police Academy lecture when a professor tries to explain Margaret Mead’s theories on cultural and moral relativism and their impact on law and human behaviour while his classroom of constables carry on like a group of five-year olds. Not quite as surreal or angst-ridden as, say, Roy Andersson’s work, but Buñuel’s social scalpel is as sharp as ever.

The Phantom of the Opera (UK 1962) (7): Set in Victorian England, this is one of the better screen adaptations of the French classic. The plot is pretty straightforward of course; a mysterious masked character stalks the halls of a theatre wreaking havoc as the resident company rehearses for an upcoming opera production. Smitten by lead singer Christine Charles, the “Phantom” is determined to help her develop her amazing vocal talents even if it means sequestering her to his underground lair. Christine’s young beau Harry, meanwhile, sets out to rescue his sweetheart and bring the reclusive madman to justice. The period sets are impeccable including the Phantom’s abode which is an eclectic combination of Bat Cave and carnival sideshow while the chills and thrills are surprisingly effective. Director Terence Fisher further foils our expectations by eliciting an unexpected sympathy for the titular protagonist. Once the reason behind his monomaniacal obsession with the theatre is explained his grotesquely disfigured character takes on an aura of tragic romanticism. We see a misunderstood genius who was horribly wronged in the past now forced to lurk in the shadows due to the facial scars he acquired trying to exact an unsuccessful justice. The opera scenes themselves, taken from a fictitious production detailing the life of Joan of Arc, were quite good for a B-movie and lent an undercurrent of sad irony to the story. Artistic license aside, this was still an unexpected pleasure.

Phantom of the Paradise (USA 1975) (8): Brian De Palma takes Gaston Leroux’s gothic mainstay about a disfigured madman who haunts a Paris opera house and updates it with a big tacky dose of 70s kitsch in this rip-roaring stab at both the Machiavellian music industry and the artistic narcissism it engenders. What he lacks in stature diminutive record guru Swan (Paul Williams, whose score was nominated for an Oscar) more than makes up for in cold-blooded cunning. Stealing the life’s work of struggling songwriter Winslow Leach—a “rock cantata” based on Faust—and leaving the poor man disfigured, insane, and possibly dead, Swan decides to make it the opening act for his elaborate new nightclub, The Paradise. But when a frighteningly transfigured Leach, now sporting a cape and bird mask, begins throwing deadly wrenches in Swan’s plans the exec does the only thing possible—he hires him! With clever spins on the works of Shelley, Goethe, and Oscar Wilde thrown in along with a few subtle in-jokes and a loving smirk at Alice Cooper, De Palma presents a rock operetta that rivals Rocky Horror in sheer campiness. The songs are pure AM radio gold, the performances appropriately theatrical, and the elaborately cheesy trappings pay homage to the era of disco dust and polyester. If you’re old enough to remember the 70s this is sure to put a guilty smile on your face.

Philomena (UK 2013) (9): Overly cynical journalist Martin Sixsmith reluctantly tackles a dreaded “human interest” story when he agrees to help an elderly Irish woman find the son she was forced to give up fifty years earlier. Through flashbacks we learn that Philomena Lee (Judi Dench proving there’s nothing she can’t do) was raised in a strict convent school where the girls were kept completely ignorant about sex and procreation. As a result the seminary housed a small population of unwed mothers, much to its Catholic shame, and an “orphanage” where the nuns adopted the children out to wealthy families for a convenient fee. Now approaching seventy Philomena, an endearing mix of childlike innocence and unexpected flashes of pragmatism, renews her search for “Anthony” with equal parts excitement and trepidation for what she may find. At first approaching his assignment with cool detachment, Martin soon finds his professional distance narrowing as Philomena’s story unfolds—the discovery of a small cemetery behind the convent containing the mothers and babies who didn’t make it thanks in part to poor medical care (“suffering is their penance”) further galvanizes his resolve to see some degree of justice (and vengeance) done. But as the search for Anthony takes them abroad and his fate gradually reveals itself both Martin, a confirmed atheist, and Philomena, a devout Catholic, will have their beliefs challenged in ways they never expected. A magnificent ensemble piece, inspired by a true story, whose punch is heightened by the fact it refuses to elicit an emotional response through cheap theatrics. Crisp cinematography, complemented by random loops of home movies and an evocative musical score, propel the story forward while at the same time keeping the characters grounded in reality. And those occasional welcome bursts of wry humour manage to soften the film’s sadder elements making the final reveals all the more believable. A gem.

Phone Call From a Stranger (USA 1952) (7):  After walking out on his unfaithful wife a successful Indiana attorney decides to grab a flight to L.A. in order to sort out his feelings.  En route he forms a friendship of sorts with three fellow passengers:  the failed actress trying to mend her broken marriage; the alcoholic doctor with a dark secret; and an obnoxious traveling salesman with a suspiciously gorgeous wife.  They wind up exchanging phone numbers so they can meet up again someday.  Unfortunately the plane makes an unplanned stop into the side of a tree and the lawyer is the only one left standing.  When he decides to phone the grieving spouses of his fellow passengers in order to offer them some comfort by describing their loved ones final hours he ends up becoming more involved in their lives than he had planned...  With its hokey script and blatant overacting this melodramatic tear-jerker would be laughed out of theatres if it was released in this day and age.  But there is an innocent sincerity to these old B&W classics that is pretty much lost upon today’s cynical popcorn munchers.  I found this simple story quite captivating despite...or perhaps because of...it’s flaws.  It’s a tall tale told well and the little flashes of unexpected humour were wonderful.

Picnic (USA 1955) (6): When handsome drifter Hal Carter (William Holden, too old and too drunk for the part) breezes into a small Kansas town his bare chest and virile ways open a big can of sexually repressed worms among the local women especially beauty queen Madge Owens (a lifeless Kim Novak) who’s unhappily dating the local playboy, her bookworm younger sister who’s experiencing her first flush of hormones, and Rosemary Sydney the desperately lonely school teacher constantly horrified to find herself on the wrong side of forty (a knockout performance by Rosalind Russell). But Carter has a few shameful secrets of his own and his presence at the annual Labor Day picnic will prove to be too much for some as pretences are stripped away and emotional baggage is flung open for all to see. Joshua Logan’s ironically titled film, based on the stage play, examines the gulf between practicality and passion which often causes people to make the wrong decisions for all the right reasons. Laced with hysteria and an eroticism which belies its widescreen Norman Rockwell backdrops as well as a completely fabricated ending (the director’s idea, not the playwright’s) Picnic has become a terribly dated and overblown soap opera which nevertheless makes for some enjoyable late night popcorn munching.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (USA 1945) (10): Oscar Wilde’s wildly inventive novel, an existential horror story which tackles issues of art, morality, and our preoccupation with the beauty of youth, transfers to the big screen with considerable success in this big budget MGM production. The story—a London dandy enjoys eternal youth, and all the excesses that go with it, while a beautiful portrait of himself shows the ravages of time and sin by slowly morphing into something grotesque—sparked quite a scandal when it was released in the 1880s thanks to its elements of amorality. In director Albert Lewin’s adaptation the sex and drugs are strongly suggested (offscreen, of course) but it is the cumulative effects of privilege and licentiousness that take centre stage. Freed from the effects of age and decay—both anathema to Wilde’s idea of art as beauty—and goaded by the cynical ruminations of his mentor Lord Henry, Dorian’s perpetual springtime eventually leads to moral apathy and outright cruelty as he is repeatedly disappointed by the weaknesses of others. Every life he touches seems to spiral into disaster (Angela Lansbury shines as a naïve saloon singer with a fatal attraction) and even the vilest of distractions eventually elicit little more than a weary boredom. Yet Gray remains forever young while the painting, which he keeps locked up out of shame, reflects the true state of his soul by gradually transforming into a leprous goblin covered in warts and blood. Impeccably shot in B&W (for which it won an Oscar) with fleeting moments of Technicolor whenever it focuses on Dorian’s picture, this is a heavy, brooding film whose gravitas is maintained beautifully by a near perfect cast especially Hurd Hatfield who plays Dorian Gray with a soft-spoken psychopathology and George Sanders who, as Lord Henry, steals all of Oscar’s best lines. Donna Reed co-stars as the adoring siren whose own innocence and beauty lead to a fatal epiphany. A Hollywood classic despite a bit of studio sanitization.

Pieces of April (USA 2003) (9): Sporting a shock of funky dyed braids, piercings and wild jewellery, April Burns (Katie Holmes) is as far removed from her suburban WASP family as it is possible to get. Ever since she was a toddler she’s been her parents’ biggest disappointment and now that she’s living in a dreary New York City walk-up with her black (OMG!) boyfriend both sides are finding the geographical distance immensely reassuring. Her sister Beth is an obsessive neurotic, her brother Tim is a slacker who lives through the eye of his camera lens, and her father finds himself in the uncomfortable position of constantly defending his wayward daughter in front of her siblings. But it is April’s rocky relationship with her mother Joy (an Oscar-nominated performance from Patricia Clarkson) that fuels writer/director Peter Hedges’ heartfelt dysfunctional comedy. Once a free-spirited woman, a diagnosis of terminal cancer has turned mom into a tired and persnickety old woman who speaks her mind a bit too much while flying off on one tangent or another. But Joy’s limited days prompt April to offer an olive branch of sorts when she invites the whole family, including senile grandma, to New York for Thanksgiving dinner with her and her boyfriend. The trouble is, neither one of them knows how to prepare a meal and when their stove breaks down April finds herself relying on the kindness of her highly eccentric neighbours in order to cook the damn bird before everyone arrives… Made on a shoestring budget over the course of two weeks, Peter Hedges has combined the best elements of a classic road movie (the Burns’ trek to the big city is fraught with hilarious complications) with a poignant family drama which elicits the occasional tear between all those chuckles. His cast practically live their roles and their efforts are made all the more believable by a low-keyed cinematography that makes the most of its natural settings whether it be a quiet interlude in a snowy woods or a collection of sad balloons hanging from a peeling stair bannister. A bittersweet slice-of-life movie whose comical elements never stray too far from the heart.

Pierrepoint [The Last Hangman] (UK 2005) (7): Dark and disturbing biopic of Albert Pierrepoint who was a nondescript deliveryman by profession but, like his father before him, moonlighted as one of England’s most prolific hangmen dispatching over 600 condemned criminals in a career spanning 22 years. In the beginning we see Albert as a fresh young face justly proud of his skill with the noose. His clinical approach to determining how much rope to use based on a person’s physical stature and profession (manual labourers have stronger necks) ensured a clean kill every time thus earning him the respect of prison officials everywhere and making him the Home Office’s first choice when it came to the assembly line executions of Nazi war criminals at the end of WWII. “The State wants them dead...” he explains to a junior assistant at one point, “...we just do the job.” But the cumulative weight of all those ghosts eventually takes it’s toll and Pierrepoint finds it increasingly difficult to resume his normal life each time he exits a prison by the backdoor. A harrowing confrontation with the distraught mother of a death row inmate coupled with a personally devastating encounter at the gallows prove to be the final straws that end his career shortly before capital punishment was abolished in the U.K. In the lead role Timothy Spall puts in a powerfully understated performance as a man of some honour who finds himself going from celebrated hero for hanging evil Germans to reviled pariah for the execution of a single mother. His desperate belief that the people he killed have “paid the price” and are now innocent once more gives him little solace; in one touchingly macabre scene he gently washes the nude body of a woman he executed minutes beforehand, as if washing her dead flesh will somehow remove the blood from his own. In the able hands of director Adrian Shergold Albert’s own personal dilemma finds some reflection in English society at large as we catch glimpses of an unyielding morality and the hypocrisy it engenders. Even his own wife proves her somewhat duplicitous nature when, drunk and in tears, he pleads for some reassurance that he is a good person only to have her pull away in revulsion unable to discuss his “other” job despite the fact she has no problem accepting the extra money it puts in their coffers. Grim, depressing and presented in sombre funereal colours, Pierrepoint is both a fascinating character study and an unflinching look at a form of punishment which, in Albert’s own words, was “nothing but revenge.”

Pieta (Korea 2012) (6): Gang-Do is a ruthless money collector, working for a smalltime loan shark, who takes righteous satisfaction in crippling debtors so he can collect on their health insurance claims—a severed arm here, spinal cord injury there…it’s all in a day’s work for the perpetually angry young man who sees the entire world in shades of black. Enter meek yet fiercely devoted Mi-Son, an older woman claiming to be the long-lost mother that abandoned Gang-Do when he was just a baby and who has now returned in order to make amends. At first refusing to believe her Gang-Do tests Mi-Son’s resolve with a few horrific tests of his own until, eventually satisfied, he takes great delight in finally having a mom to call his own. Softening his evil ways, Gang-Do tries to become the good son but the past is not so easily laid to rest and Mi-Son has a tragic secret of her own… Writer/director Ki-Duk Kim’s somewhat scattered psychodrama is a grab bag of pop psychology and pseudo religious riffs which don’t quite gel into a comfortable whole. There’s an unhealthy dollop of Freud’s Oedipal Complex as mother and son cross that fine line a few times (ever see Bertolucci’s Luna?), a little bit of Buddhist mysticism involving ice cold Karma wherein attachment to worldly goods—in this case money—is the root of all suffering, and some good old divine punishment and martyrdom straight from the bible as Mi-Son and Gang-Do take turns looking down on each other from a great height. A cruel film whose emotional detachment and casual sadism ensure audiences are kept at arm’s length, neither railing against its protagonist’s transgressions nor revelling in his agony. Great performances however, and a macabre ending that hints at how good the production might have been.

Pillow Talk (USA 1959) (7): An interior decorator (Doris Day) shares both a telephone party line and a mutual dislike with a womanizing songwriter (Rock Hudson). Even though the two have never met fate and a few white lies eventually land them in each other's arms. Pretty adult humour for 1959 (including some ironic gay innuendo), great technicolor New York settings and it's all as corny as it sounds. Fun!

Pink Floyd London 1966/67 (5):  A poorly lit, poorly framed hodgepodge of video clips set to a jarringly discordant soundtrack doesn’t add up to much in this acid-laced homage to “swinging” London.  The celebrity interviews are interesting however, and Peter Whitehead’s impressionistic “60’s Experience” montage does manage to convey something of what it must have been like.  Not as groovy as it could have been.

Pinky (USA 1949) (8): In much the same vein as "Imitation of Life", Elia Kazan's challenging film addresses issues of both racism and racial identity in this story of a light-skinned black woman who returns to her southern roots after having passed for white up north. Upon graduating from nursing school in Boston, Patricia "Pinky" Johnson is at first delighted to be home again in her grandmother's clapboard shack nestled in the shadows of a faded plantation. Sadly, her sense of nostalgia soon sours after she realizes that all the privileges she once enjoyed as a caucasian, including the company of her unsuspecting white fiance, no longer apply to her new "coloured" status. When her grandmother's employer, the ballsy old matriarch living in the mansion across the field, falls terminally ill Pinky is hired as her nurse and a tentative friendship forms between the two. But when the old crone leaves Pinky her entire estate, much to the chagrin of her scheming cousin, the resulting court case exposes the town's deep-seated bigotry and forces Pinky to come to terms with her own self-deception. Pretty touchy stuff for 1949 but Kazan pulls it off with aplomb. His three leads are magnificent (although some may balk at a decidedly white Jeanne Crain playing the lead) and his supporting cast of mixed race extras defy southern stereotypes. Pinky's own personal dilemma, to either be true to oneself or escape into a comfortable lie, is keenly portrayed as grandmother and fiance tug her in different directions while distant train whistles underscore her sense of isolation. Even though any astute viewer will be able to guess the film's outcome from a mile away the ending, when it arrives, is nevertheless moving without being patronizing.

The Pirate (USA 1948) (5): Set on a fictitious Caribbean island in the 19th century Vincente Minnelli’s soundstage musical follows the fate of island deb Manuela (Judy Garland, nowhere near Kansas) a bored ingenue who tries to spice up her existence by fantasizing about a life of adventure in the arms of legendary pirate Macoco, a dashing buccaneer she’s only read about. But alas, the humdrum maiden is due to be married to local mayor Don Pedro, a portly and somewhat oily man several years her senior who promises her a life of comfortable banality. Enter the handsome scoundrel Serafin (Gene Kelly looking very fine) who’s just arrived in port with his traveling band of minstrels. A seasoned showman with an eye for the ladies Serafin immediately falls in love with the overtly naïve Manuela and decides to throw a wrench into her arranged marriage—even if it means masquerading as the nefarious Macoco himself. Music and romantic complications ensue. Aside from a bit of erotic innuendo and a few rousing song & dance routines inspired by Noel Coward’s music—most notably a fiery piratical number with Kelly showing off the goods in a pair of too-tight shorts and a gymnastic version of “Be A Clown” which was banned in the South because it featured blacks and whites sharing the stage—it’s just a whole lot of technicolor fluff and nonsense with hammy performances and a flimsy script. Little wonder it bombed at the box office.

Pitfall (Japan 1962) (5): On the lam from the authorities with his little son in tow, an army deserter and petty crook seeks refuge and a possible job in an isolated mining town. Upon arriving however he finds the place uninhabited save for a crazy shopkeeper who spends her days rearranging her rotting wares while dreaming of a better life that never materializes. But when the miner is murdered by a mysterious man in white his ghost is left to wander the streets, now teeming with silent spirits, and rail against the unfairness of it all. Soon joined by other victims of the pale assassin the man’s confused anguish quickly turns to impotent rage even as we the audience are tossed a few clues as to what really happened. And all the while his now orphaned son runs aimlessly between the town’s empty shacks trying to wring some childlike sense out of his new reality. Slow, wordy, and lacking in suspense, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s minimalist drama is not so much a murder mystery as it is a stark and unsympathetic critique on life itself. If existence is unjust, he seems to say, non-existence is even more so. If there is no god to set things right in the end, neither is there a devil to stir the pot—just poor corruptible human beings doing what they do best in both this world and the next. Alas, despite its unhappy supernatural twists and some inspired B&W cinematography which transforms a ragtag village into a subtle hell on earth, Pitfall’s glacial pace and disconsolate navel-gazing ultimately tries to make too much out of too little.

Pit Stop (USA 2013) (8): In a blue collar Texas town two gay men deal with love, loss and longing. Forklift operator Ernesto’s former boyfriend lies comatose in a nursing home following a car accident two years ago and Ernesto still sits by his bed reading him Cosmo articles and reminiscing. Meanwhile his current ex is living in the spare bedroom and bringing home sex dates; a situation Ernesto finds increasingly intolerable. On the other side of town contractor Gabe is helping his former wife raise their six-year old daughter while pining away for the man that left him a few months earlier. When Ernesto and Gabe finally do cross paths sparks don’t exactly fly, but a slow ember is definitely ignited… Sound like the making of a queer chick flick? Guess again, for in the capable hands of writer/director Yen Tan what could have been a superficial weeper actually becomes a subtle and low-keyed slice of life as two lonely men slowly gravitate towards one another despite a beautifully enigmatic ending to remind us that nothing in life is ever certain. Believable performances all around (the male leads are almost too gorgeous) are further enhanced by a background score of soft country-western ballads and a simple script free of bitchy drama. From the pains of breaking up to the steamy scenes of first-time sex there is nothing here that we can’t relate to and Tan knows exactly when to stroke the heartstrings and when to simply let his characters breathe—there are no weeping close-ups or crashing violins here. A slow-moving ensemble piece filled with heavy silences and uncomplicated emotions that rings truer than Brokeback Mountain ever will.

The Place Beyond the Pines (USA 2012) (10): Steeped in spiritual metaphors and packing a series of emotional punches, Derek Cianfrance’s powerful tale of remorse and atonement is presented as a trio of interrelated chapters, each ending with a momentous decision, that resemble three lost episodes of Kieslowski’s Dekalog. “Thou Shalt Not Steal” could be the subtitle of the movie’s first hour in which we see pugnacious motorcycle stuntman Luke (Ryan Gosling, amazing) give up the carnival circuit in order to help raise his infant child, the result of a one-night stand a year earlier. But with the baby’s mother already living with another man and job prospects scarce Luke turns to armed robbery in order to make ends meet—a decision which will affect his family for years to come. In part two, related to “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness”, small town cop Avery (Bradley Cooper, also amazing) is hailed as a hero after a shootout with a dangerous felon leaves him injured and the perpetrator dead. The accolades don’t sit quite well with him however for not only is he struggling with guilt over the other man’s death, the shooting incident itself leads to some troubling revelations regarding rampant corruption within the police force. Treated as a celebrity by the media yet feeling soiled within, Avery must decide between collusion or activism—and both choices come with a heavy price. Lastly, in what could be dubbed “Honour Thy Father and Thy Mother”, two highschool stoners, A.J. and Jason, form an unlikely friendship which ultimately leads them down a dark and dangerous path, especially after it’s discovered that they have more in common than they first thought. Gorgeously filmed with dampened colours and low-keyed dramatics delivered by a sterling cast, Cianfrance takes his time building tensions and forming tenuous bonds between one story and the next. The result has all the solemnity of religious parables which he then enhances with a piercing soundtrack of sacred choir pieces and forlorn acoustical arrangements. Bleak at times and overlaid with a pervasive sense of melancholy, but shot through with flashes of grace and poetry. Impressive.

Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea (USA 2004) (6):  The Salton sea, in California’s Imperial Valley, was created over 100 years ago after heavy rains caused the Colorado river to overflow its banks and flood a low-lying area known as the Salton sink.  Once touted as the “California Riviera”, it was a tourist mecca for those seeking to escape the urban sprawl of Los Angeles.  Developers were quick to cash in on what seemed like a sure bet; subdivisions were planned, lots were sold and marinas were built.  Unfortunately the bubble began to burst towards the end of the 50s due to a combination of poor planning and bureaucratic double-dealings.  Today it is a large polluted saltwater lake surrounded by ramshackle towns populated by a host of colourful eccentrics and those with nowhere else to go.  Despite some well-meaning efforts to restore the sea to its formerly pristine condition not much has changed in over 30 years.  Mezler and Springer’s documentary is not as engaging as I had hoped.  The interviewees are more than eager to get in front of the camera but we are left with a series of monologues that seem to go in circles while the sporadic narration contains none of the sardonic wit you’d expect from John Waters.  The vintage newsreel footage and promotional videos were pretty funny though, but not enough to maintain my interest for long.  Where is Errol Morris when you need him?

The Plague Dogs (USA/UK 1982) (7): Life is tough for the animals at a secret research facility hidden away in England's Lake District. Subjected to painful, debilitating and, ultimately, fatal experiments by a cadre of sinister "white coats" the little furry victims seem resigned to their short unpleasant lives. But when a careless custodian leaves a cage door unlatched two desperate dogs make a mad dash for freedom. Rowf, an embittered labrador, and his docile companion Snitter, an addled terrier sporting a horrific skull incision soon find themselves lost in unfamiliar terrain until a little fox with questionable intentions comes to their rescue. In the meantime their escape creates a storm of controversy in the English Parliament as animal rights activists square off against the government and rumours begin circulating that the little pooches may be harbouring some rather nasty germs. With its compelling, often brutal storyline delivered by a cast of talented voices this animated feature, based on Richard Adams' novel is definitely not for the kiddies. There is a bleak sense of hopelessness to the dogs' trek that intensifies even as they near their ultimate goal, a semi-mythical island where they can be truly free. Not as preachy as one would expect, director Martin Rosen limits his human characters to background voiceovers and instead focuses on the bewilderment of the animals themselves as they struggle to understand the unfairness of it all; "Why do they do it Snitter?" implores Rowf at one point, "I'm not a bad dog." Although the crude animation is just one small step above Saturday morning fare, it's washed out watercolour vistas and dark silences do manage to augment the film's brooding atmosphere. Unfortunately a heartbreakingly surreal final scene is marred by a trippy-hippy anthem overkill.

The Plague of the Zombies (UK 1966) (5): Sir James Forbes, eminent professor of medicine, travels to a small Cornish town accompanied by his lovely daughter in order to help one of his former pupils solve a most diabolical mystery. The young men of the village are dying for no apparent reason and their bodies are disappearing from the local churchyard as fast as they can be buried. Following a trail of clues which lead to the palatial estate of the local magistrate, Forbes and his young protégé are drawn into a terrifying conspiracy involving black magic and an old abandoned mine. Can they set things right before Sir James’ daughter becomes the next victim? Another wonderfully giddy Seven Arts/Hammer Pictures period piece featuring the usual cast of suspicious country hicks inhabiting the same old 19th century sets enhanced by stockpiles of fog machines and combustible miniatures. The addition of a tacky voodoo altar complete with jamming African drummers and play-doh devil dolls adds just the right amount of cheese while the titular “plague” consists mainly of shuffling cretins in pancake make-up and monk’s robes. The underlying story of zombie exploitation is somewhat novel (if it were made a few years later one could draw comparisons to Thatcherism), but only if you can overlook a plethora of nonsensical plot devices and logic gaps. Finally, despite an effective decapitation scene and creepy dream sequence involving the dead crawling from their graves, there’s not much here to keep you from a peaceful night’s sleep.

Planet of the Vampires (Italy 1965) (8): After a suspicious computer glitch forces the spaceships Argos and Galliott to crash land on the mysterious fog-enshrouded planet they had been investigating, initial unease quickly turns to horror as the crew members find themselves being stalked by an invisible evil. With their numbers dwindling and chances of escape becoming slimmer by the minute, the surviving astronauts must solve an age-old alien mystery before they become its next victims—but who can you trust when you can’t even trust yourself? If you’re able forgive the gaudy leatherette spacesuits (Hell’s Angels meet Count Dracula?) and some lamentable outer space special effects of the “plastic-model-on-a-string” variety this sci-fi giallo by legendary director Mario Bava quickly makes up for its technical shortfalls with genuinely creepy set designs and a story which, although not novel for the genre, still packs a few surprises including a double-twist ending that left me smiling. Almost surreal in its presentation, the planet’s surface is a dimly lit nightmare of organic rock formations, moaning winds, and multi-coloured mists which occasionally part to reveal half-seen wonders or terrors—a bubbling lava field is a riot of crimson shadows, an apparition of malevolent zombies brings to mind Carpenter’s The Thing, and a trip to explore the menacing ruins of an ancient starship from another world draws favourable comparisons to a similar scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien, filmed fourteen years later. A truly effective little chiller which seems to revel in its low-budget cosmos, bless its little dubbed heart!

Planet Terror [ aka Grindhouse: Planet Terror ] (USA 2007) (10): For those of you unfamiliar with the genre, “grindhouse” is a collective term used to describe the glut of tawdry exploitation films released back in the 70s and 80s which screened as double bills in the nation’s seedier cinemas. Revelling in blood and tits they were generally low-budget productions that lured young men into the theatre with promises of explicit violence, hot chicks, and lots of softcore humping. In this brilliant homage, writer/director Robert Rodriguez has taken the genre to dizzying new heights while still maintaining the guts ’n sleaze factor for a new generation to enjoy. Thanks to a botched paramilitary raid a small Texas town is exposed to a deadly nerve gas which transforms people into melty dripping zombies with an insatiable appetite for human flesh. Into this cannibalistic melee are thrown a host of survivors including an ex go-go dancer with a wooden leg (Rose McGowan, sexy crazy); a psychotic ER doctor (Josh Brolin, sexy sexy); the doctor’s unfaithful lesbian wife; a one-man vigilante with a fetish for bullets; and a troop of heavily armed bad guys with a horrific agenda of their own. Who will survive the night in one piece and who will simply end up in pieces? Lots of cheesy cheap-ass gore with exploding heads and gutted torsos is augmented by a script rife with clichés and one-line groaners (“She could suck the bend out of a river”) and it’s all served up with such low-brow panache that you can’t help but laugh along with it—those scenes of Rose McGowan flying through the air, her stump now fitted with a high-calibre machine gun-cum-grenade launcher spraying death in every direction, are surely some of cinema’s all time high/lows! Rodriguez obviously sat transfixed through a few grinders himself for he captures the look perfectly right down to the celluloid scratches and spliced jump cuts which suggest film stock that has been played long past its expiry date. Spectacular explosions, repulsive special effects, and a slew of surprise celebrity cameos (Quentin Tarantino as an oversexed zombie soldier?!) take me back to my own adolescent days when I used to sneak across the border to Detroit in order to see these films in all their uncensored glory. I guess they really can make them like they used to…..if that’s even a good thing.

Play Misty for Me  (USA 1971) (6):  This film would go on to serve as a template for many of the "Jilted-Psycho-Stalker" films that followed. Unfortunately it is firmly rooted in 1971 and has aged very poorly......from Eastwood's poofy hair and neon sans-a-belt slacks to the ridiculous sex scene in the middle of a pond with Roberta Flack crooning in the background. It played like a late-night cable adaptation of a particularly bad Jackie Collins' novel.

Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (USA 1960) (4):  Doris Day plays her trademark coiffed doormat in this vacuous cupcake of a movie that makes you feel as if you should be laughing out loud even as you stare glassy-eyed at the TV screen.  David Niven is terribly miscast as her husband, a former professor turned big theatre critic whose new-found celebrity begins to take precedence over his familial duties much to Doris’ sad dismay.  When the two of them decide to move from the glamour of NYC to a home in the sticks, accompanied by their endearingly bratty kids (one of whom is kept in a cage) and obligatory precious pooch you’d expect all sorts of wholesome hijinks to ensue.  They don’t.  Virtually every joke falls flat, including the Rock Hudson reference, and the two musical interludes serve no purpose other than to provide just enough time to walk to the kitchen for a snack.  The only bright spot is Janis Paige in her role as a Broadway vamp who tries to seduce Niven.  She brings a sexy comedic presence that is pretty much wasted here. One expects a certain amount of sugary sweetness in any Doris Day film but this one’s enough to give you a mouthful of cavities.  (As an aside, check out the big lesbian veterinarian who comes to visit....what was Doris thinking?!)

Point Blank (USA 1967) (6): After pulling off a minor heist grizzled gangster Walker (Lee Marvin) is double-crossed and left for dead by his partner-in-crime who runs off with both the money and his wife. Now intent on revenge Walker travels from San Francisco to Los Angeles determined to not only kill the man but recover his rather paltry share of the loot. Vengeance does not come easily however for his partner is involved in the “Organization”, a shady underworld of big business where each layer of corruption leads to to yet another like the skin of a rotting onion and cash has given way to electronic transfers and credit cards. Drawing heavily on European arthouse motifs director John Boorman’s screen adaptation of David Newhouse’s novel The Hunter practically drowns in its own style with puzzling dream states, liquid timelines, and some striking architectural angles highlighting downtown L.A.’s wonderland of concrete slabs and swaying palms. In one scene Walker flattens a pair of thugs at a nightclub while an onstage slideshow flashes images of cringing women, in another his heavy footsteps echo down a corporate corridor providing counterpoint to scenes of his unfaithful wife daubing make-up onto her weary face. He’s an anachronism who still believes that all one needs to get what they want is a pistol and a sense of outrage. But in 1960s California trench-coats and fedoras have been replaced by business suits and computer keyboards and as he bullies his way past one impeccably dressed racketeer after another his quest becomes ever more pathetic—not so much David vs Goliath then as David vs Hydra, with each new head more sinister than the previous one. Unfortunately the acting is woefully uneven with Marvin and co-stars Carroll O’Connor, Lloyd Bochner, and John Vernon putting in admirable performances while Angie Dickinson pulls up the rear as Marvin’s troubled love interest and Sharon Acker, as his wife, gives the impression she can’t even spell “paper bag” let alone act her way out of one. And finally, all those arty embellishments may look fine in French films but transcribed to an American setting they come across as polished affectations.

Ponyo (Japan 2008) (6): When 5-year old Sosuke rescues a most unusual goldfish from the beach near his home he has no idea of the danger he’s introduced into the world. As it turns out the small girl-faced creature is the amazing offspring of an embittered marine biologist now operating out of a magical undersea laboratory, and a watery goddess charged with overseeing the oceans’ welfare. Enchanted with life above the tideline the little bit of sushi, named “Ponyo” by Sosuke, decides she’d rather be human but her father has different plans for he’s dedicated his life to returning the world’s oceans back to their prehistoric glory with the aid of an enchanted well; a move which will dramatically end all life on land especially those ignorant polluting humans. But in the midst of this mystical eco-showdown there is a glimmer of hope as both Ponyo and Sosuke come to realize that true friendship involves sacrifice. Despite its charming score and visual flourishes (an opening shot of billowing jellyfish floating through a sunlit sea was superb) this is the most Disneyesque, and hence my least favourite, Miyazaki creation. Unlike the piercing insights of My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away which examined the tiny joys and terrors of growing up in the most wonderfully imaginative ways, Ponyo’s rather flat, and at time confusing, presentation seems content to simply dole out the standard lessons in love, hope and responsibility. The timeless sense of magic we’ve come to expect from Miyazaki is missing here, replaced instead by a cuteness overload which gives the film a Saturday Morning Cartoon feel. Nevertheless, the animation remains impeccable and there are more than a few artful touches whether it be a scene of monstrous waves beneath a starlit sky or a gaggle of old ladies rediscovering their youth in an underwater meadow. Too bland for adults, too baffling for the young ones.

Population 436  (Canada 2006) (2):  "Deliverance" meets "The Stepford Wives" by way of "The Village" in this clumsily written bit of stupidity. We've seen "Rockwell Falls" in countless bad horror movies......the suspiciously slack-jawed locals, the TERRIBLE SECRET that everyone refuses to talk about, the meddling outsider who teams up with the local pariah in order to solve the mystery......and MacLaren does nothing to build upon this tired old formula. Then, as if to add insult to injury, he throws in a ludicrous ending with an oh-so-clever little twist that Helen Keller could have seen coming. Jeremy Sisto needs to fire his agent.....and Fred Durst should stick to amateur sex tapes.


Porco Rosso (Japan 1992) (7): Set in a quasi-fictitious post WWII Europe where fascist states and flying "seaplane pirates" vie for control of the Mediterranean, Miyazaki's thoroughly charming feature follows the adventures of Porco Rosso--aka The Crimson Pig, aka Marco Rossellini--former ace pilot in the Italian airforce now scraping a living as an airborne bounty hunter. He's also a short, ungracious, moustachioed pig thanks to a strange heavenly encounter. When Rosso's life and livelihood are threatened by an alliance between sky pirates and the corrupt governments who support them it's up to a handful of his quirky friends, led by a very young airplane engineer, to give him the edge he needs in order to win one final showdown... Studio Ghibli has turned out yet another winning combination of old school animation and slightly outlandish storyline with a few piercing observations thrown in for good measure. This time around Miyazaki sets his sights on male chauvinism (it seems Porco is a pig in every sense) so it's no surprise that women play a major role in the story, including that 17-year old engineer whose innocence and wit save the pig in more ways than one. Although it may not be on the same level as Spirited Away or My Neighbour Tortoro, Porco Rosso's bright colours, wonderfully terse dialogue, and nicely realized action sequences...the aerial dogfights are choreographed perfectly while an aside involving truant schoolgirls is pretty funny...are sure to entertain kids of all generations.


Pornografia [Pornography] (Poland 2003) (7): It's 1943 and two Polish intellectuals are whiling away the summer on an idyllic country estate. Bored with their little bourgeois diversions Fryderyk and Witold decide to hedge a bet; can they corrupt the youthful innocence of their host's seemingly angelic daughter, a blonde pig-tailed ingenue engaged to a promising young attorney? At first an amusing game, their attempts to have her fall from grace with the family handyman begin to take on sinister tones leading to a final tragic conclusion. And all the while WWII rages just beyond the rustic gates. Despite its plodding pace and copious amounts of symbolism, this caustic parable possesses a visual flair not often seen in Eastern European cinema. Director Jan Kolski's heightened use of natural elements provides both a dark counterpoint to the film's sunnier moments as well as an ominous foreshadowing; moths wearily circle a kerosene lamp, a midnight storm of biblical proportions flashes violently overhead, and an unseen pack of dogs howl in the woods where Nazis and resistance fighters hunt each other relentlessly. A final coda involving divine retribution and a piercing insight into the black recesses of one man's heart was as powerful as it was unexpected.

Porn Theatre (France 2002) (6):  In the dark auditorium of a dilapidated adult cinema a motley group of men converge for what seems like a weekly ritual. While some sit alone masturbating others engage in a series of fleeting sexual alliances while paying only cursory attention to the images of feigned ecstasy on the screen. And all the while tired old drag queens haunt the aisles like dispirited Muses. The men in Nolot’s theatre exist in a world of illusion and denial…from the closeted basher to the gay man with the fake wedding ring. In the dark they are free to explore the “other half” of their sexuality (the only real woman in the film being the verbose cashier in the ticket booth) yet there is a sad desperation to their shadowy couplings that vanishes as soon as the lights go up (or the cops appear). There is one scene that seems to transcend the film’s inherent pessimism however. We see a burgeoning friendship develop between the cashier, the decidedly hetero projectionist, and an elderly gay man that may or may not lead to some sexually liberating experimentation. But even that is given a sinister twist as we realize that the woman is merely conspiring with the older man to help him obtain the object of his desire and that he, in turn, is not forthcoming about his HIV status. Despite having some interesting insights and a novel approach I still found this film problematic. Does the world really need another movie about lonely angst-ridden homosexuals rutting in toilets and dim hallways? Like the vastly superior, “Good-Bye Dragon Inn” Nolot attempts to use the physical space of a movie theatre to explore the ethereal nature of the human spirit. Unfortunately he winds up giving us little more than a sordid peep show filled with wasted opportunities.


The Possession of David O’Reilly
(UK 2010) (6): A surprisingly effective psychological horror romp considering it borrows more than it should from the likes of Blair Witch Project and the Paranormal Activity franchise. Sweethearts Alex and Kate are settling down for a night in front of the telly when Alex’s friend David shows up unannounced. Clearly distraught, David confesses to Alex that he’s just discovered his wife has been cheating on him and he needs a place to crash for a few days while he gets his head straightened out. At first the young couple obliges, but as David’s behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre it is clear there is more going on here than a heartbroken husband. Apparently David is being pursued by things; monstrous decomposing things that slither up driveways, rattle doorknobs, and glare at him from behind darkened windows. Skeptical at first, Alex and Kate gradually begin to question whether their friend’s elaborate delusions may contain a grain of truth especially after Alex thinks he may have glimpsed something in the kitchen. And that’s when the lights go out... There is much to admire here as directors Andrew Cull and Steve Isles ratchet up the tension using tight camera angles within confined spaces; the camera seemingly perched on characters’ shoulders one minute, then drifting off to concentrate on a menacing stairwell or shadowed curtain the next. Their musical score of deep bass and strained chords, punctuated by a few auditory jolts, follows the onscreen action perfectly while the three talented leads trace their descent into group paranoia with gusto. Not willing to give easy answers, Cull and Isles instead drop a few cryptic clues along the way: a simple newspaper becomes a Ouija board, a personal diary hints at madness, and a succession of lurid tabloid clippings threaten to give the whole game away. Some of the narrative devices are tired (oh look, the computer camera recorded...umm....something!) and the chaotic closing scenes, filmed in jerky handheld video, occasionally cross the line between controlled pandemonium and free-for-all screamfest, but there’s no denying a definite sense of tension and dread as things quietly go bump in the night and shadows seem to move just out of the corner of our eye. Of course, as with all these films, suspension of disbelief and a willingness to forgive are mandatory.

Postal (USA/Germany 2007) (7): Director Uwe Boll sets out to offend as many people in as little time as possible in this vulgar attack on all things politically correct. And God bless him! Tired of being accosted by panhandlers, intimidated by corporate slimeballs and cuckolded by his fat slovenly wife, redheaded “Dude” decides to get even with the world. Teeming up with his sleazy Uncle Dave, the crooked guru of a new age cult which combines the excesses of Branch Davidian with cleavage from the Playboy Mansion, Dude attempts to steal the latest shipment of wildly popular “Krotchy” dolls in order to sell the little penis-shaped toys at an inflated price on eBay. Meanwhile, in another part of Paradise Falls, a local cell of Moslem terrorists have more nefarious plans for the little playthings involving global plague and divine retribution. When the inevitable showdown between the two groups takes place the resulting hail of bullets and flying guts brings tastelessness to a new low. Despite being a rather ham-fisted attempt at satire, it is based on a video game after all, Boll nevertheless succeeds in lampooning some of America’s more endearing quirks. From gun culture and coffee culture to right-wing nut cases and conspiracy theorists, he manages to place all his stereotypes in a row and then blows them away one by one. It begins with an outrageously inappropriate spoof of 9/11, ends with a surprisingly surreal vision of nuclear armageddon and in between we are treated to some very wicked scenes involving Asian drivers, Arab fanatics, black cops and cheap white trash. Boll himself has a cameo as the proprietor of “Little Germany”, a nazi-themed amusement park, while guest star Verne Troyer shows off his little electric dildo before being gang-raped by a mob of manic monkeys. George Bush and Osama Bin Laden lookalikes figure prominently, and Canada’s own Dave Foley is shown full frontal scratching his bare balls and taking a dump. It’s crass, sacrilegious, and repugnant to the extreme. Personally I laughed my head off, but don’t blame me if you decide to rent it. You’ve been warned...

The Postman Always Rings Twice (USA 1981) (6):  When a hot-blooded drifter with a criminal past is hired to be the resident mechanic at a truck stop diner it isn’t long before he takes more than a passing notice of the boorish owner’s sexually frustrated young wife.  The two go from smokey stares to punching each other to screwing their brains out within days.  As their affair heats up they soon realize that the only obstacle standing in the way of their happiness is the woman’s husband.  And that’s when the plot thickens...  Despite the authentic 1930’s sets and costumes nothing else rings true in this remake of the 1946 noir classic; the sex scenes, while daring for the time, are stagey and lack any passion while the cast come across as stock characters from a cheap novel...whether it’s the cigar-chomping lawyer, the sleazy insurance agents, or the obsessive lovers themselves.  There is a lack of momentum here that drains the film of any tension and turns what could have been a  dramatic finale filled with irony and divine retribution into a simple tear-jerker.  There is an art to making a noir thriller with just the right amount of eroticism and dark suspense, but Jessica Lange’s torn panties and Jack Nicholson’s trademark leer just didn’t do it for me.

Post Tenebras Lux (Mexico 2012) (5): Carlos Reygadas’ maddeningly opaque stream of consciousness (the title translates as “After Darkness, Light”) starts out with two toddlers having bad dreams. Little Rut dreams she is surrounded by wild animals and big bad wolves during a doomsday lightning storm—actually farm livestock and dogs but the metaphor is clear. Meanwhile, in the bunk above her, Eleazar dreams of a devil complete with horns, tail, and glowing pink skin sauntering into mom and dad’s room with an ominous toolbox in hand. What follows is a series of ruminations—filmed in the box-like Academy ratio with prismatic visual effects—on the struggle between the dark and the light which focuses on a single middle class family: Rut, Eleazar, and their parents Juan and Natalia. Dad is a loving father who is also addicted to porn, given to bouts of violence, and prone to precipitating a row with Maria who often cries alone afterwards. The two kids are a happy admixture of id impulses and clingy dependance, scaling rocks one moment and crying for mommy the next. Moving fluidly back and forth through time we see the two adults in various stylized settings—a boorish dinner party, an AA meeting where Juan insists he doesn’t have a problem, and a European sex spa where Maria is brought to orgasm by a group of eager Frenchmen while Juan looks on impassively. And throughout it all Reygadas struggles to maintain that precarious balance between good and evil, or human kindness vs human foibles if you will, as he highlights the best and the worst in his larger cast of characters amid surreal visions of apocalypse and salvation—a macabre suicide and sanguineous rainstorm on one hand, a sunlit picnic and final embrace played to Neil Young’s “It’s A Dream” on the other. Semi-autobiographical (Rut and Eleazar are actually played by Reygadas’ own kids) and off-putting in its subjectivity (a non-sequitur involving an English boys’ rugby match is thrown in for no other reason that to show that teamwork is a good thing) this is sure to divide audiences despite the fact it netted Reygadas the Best Director award at Cannes. A masterwork of great depth and creativity or the kind of cinematic gobbledygook that wows arthouse crowds too intimidated to question its artistic integrity? Perhaps a more apt title would be Pop-Corn et Prétention.


Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead (USA 2006) (9): When General Lee Roy paves over an ancient Indian burial ground to make room for one of his “American Chicken Bunker” fast food franchises he not only raises the ire of local green activists, but pisses off some drunken spirits as well. However, when a carton of very strange eggs suddenly appears in the kitchen things quickly go from bad to worse and before you can yell “McNugget!” satanic chicken monsters are crawling out of people’s asses, customers are turning into feathered flesh-eating zombies, and the floors are slick with gallons of vomited green ichor. It’s up to the geeky restaurant staff; Denny, Carl Jr., Arby (get it yet?) and Arby’s sometime lesbian girlfriend Wendy, a card-carrying member of “Collegiate Lesbians Against Mega-conglomerations” or C.L.A.M., to make a stand against the clucking hordes of fiendish fowl before they lay waste to America. Where can I possibly begin? It’s a titty teen comedy, a frat house gross-out, and a corporate satire so glaringly awful it’s shameful. On top of that it blatantly rips off everything from Night of the Living Dead and Gremlins to Alien, and Pet Semetery. And it makes you love every moment of it! With its bad puns, stupid one-liners and disgusting sight gags Director Kaufman goes for the jugular but ends up lopping off the entire head instead. Among the film’s low points: a grotesquely obese Jared (supposedly from “Subway” fame) paints an entire bathroom with explosive diarrhea; a hillbilly bones a chicken carcass before being impaled by a broom handle; a crew of possessed waiters use cleavers, meat slicers and a deep fat fryer on unlucky patrons; and a veiled waitress is the butt of enough Moslem jokes to spark a dozen jihads. Even porn legend Ron Jeremy has a brief cameo but manages to keep his own cock under wraps for a change. Crude, rude, disgusting, ignorant, gratuitous, and sure to deeply offend PC types everywhere. And the damn thing’s a musical too! Grade A!

Predestination (USA 2014) (9): A time-travelling cop (Ethan Hawke) is sent back to New York City circa 1975 to thwart a mad bomber who will be responsible for killing thousands of civilians in a January attack. Posing as a bartender while he bides his time he makes the acquaintance of a mysterious young man with an incredible tale to tell—a tale which will lead to a twisted temporal goose chase that gets more baffling at every turn. Time travel paradoxes are a mainstay of science-fiction and in the Spierig brothers’ Gordian knot of a film, based on a short story by sci-fi great Robert Heinlein, they come fast and merciless. As Hawke’s character jumps back and forth through time in pursuit of his elusive quarry, his temporal leaps begin to take their toll on his mental health—apparently psychoses and dementia are not uncommon in his profession—while the taciturn bar patron throws a few ingenious wrenches into the plot and the audience scratches its collective head bloody. Naturally there is a bit of scientific license (a time travel device that fits in a violin case?) and some background information on the furtive X-Files government agency behind the time tampering would have been interesting though hardly germane to the story. But the Spierigs do deliver a rip-roaring head-slapping actioner with far more IQ points than most Saturday night popcorn features—and those clever little clues they toss along the way only reveal themselves in retrospect.

Pretty in Pink
(USA 1986) (5): One more formulaic teenage fairy tale from John Hughes with the same faces, same dilemmas, and same resolution. Poor girl Andie (Molly Ringwald of course) is just smart enough to graduate from an elite highschool despite being constantly harassed about her funky clothes and introspective ways by the spoiled rich bitches in her class. Her best friend “Duckie” (John Cryer embodying every 80s cliché he can find) is carrying an unrequited torch for her but she only has eyes for uber-yuppie Blane (the perpetually startled Andrew McCarthy). When Blane finally asks her out to the prom Andie feels she has it made until Blane’s slimy friend Steff (James Spader) begins to sow the seeds of doubt—rich boys don’t date poor girls after all. On the eve of prom night Blane gets cold feet, Andie is heartbroken, and Duckie does what best friends are supposed to do. Horribly dated (those clothes! ), predictable from the very start, and crammed with forced sappiness—how do you even find a misty moonlit parking lot in Los Angeles?—this one is strictly for the nostalgia buffs. Co-starring Annie Potts as the wacky girlfriend with the best advice and Harry Dean Stanton as Andie’s gushing father.

Pride (UK 2014) (8): In 1984 the British coal industry was crippled first by the draconian dictates of Margaret Thatcher and secondly by a tumultuous strike by the nation’s miners. Finding similarities between the plight of the miners and the sad state of gay rights in the UK (both parties harassed by the police and demonized by the press) queer activist Mark Ashton began a grass roots fundraising campaign within the gay community aimed at helping unemployed miners and their families. Picking a nondescript town in southern Wales, Ashton and his motley assortment of friends started making cash deliveries but they were ill-prepared for the deeply entrenched homophobia they received from the very people they had set out to help. In the spirit of recent English feel-good movies Matthew Warchus’ effervescent little dramedy, based on actual headlines, milks much warmth and humour from its central theme of two opposing cultures coming to understand one another. The miners are all gruff machismo (although the most hateful voice is female) while the gays react with camp wit despite shaking like fish out of water. There’s all the expected watershed moments you’d expect—someone comes out of the closet, someone gets bashed, AIDS rears its ugly head, and small acts of tolerance lead inexorably toward camaraderie—but the swanning is kept to a believable level and no one is relegated to stock cliché. Of course it never happened exactly this way although the LGSM (“Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners”) did raise thousands of pounds causing hundreds of miners to show their gratitude by marching in London’s 1985 Gay Pride Parade. Hollywood manipulations aside, this charming feature is ultimately lifted from the mainstream by a crackling script and editing that never leaves you sitting idle. And the cast, above all, shines in every frame. A fine piece of humanist filmmaking in which blue collars and pink glitter prove once again that there is strength in solidarity.

Primary Colors (USA 1998) (6): Henry Burton, an idealistic young black man whose grandfather was a civil rights pioneer, joins the campaign team of charismatic southern senator Jack Stanton and his tough-talking wife Susan (John Travolta and Emma Thompson doing an admirable impersonation of the Clintons) as they vie for the democratic presidential nomination. Despite the misgivings of his activist wife Henry takes charge of Stanton’s campaign along with a sleazy advisor (Billy Bob Thornton true to form) and a host of ministerial eccentrics. However, as election time draws nearer Burton’s Great White Hope turns out to be less than perfect as a couple of key marital indiscretions provide stumbling blocks and his “good old boy” persona fails to hold up to close scrutiny. But what’s a political romanticist to do when the opposition proves to be no better or worse? With surprise cameos from the likes of Larry King, Geraldo Rivera, Charlie Rose, and Rob Reiner, Mike Nichols’ droll comedy could have been a scathing satire on Washington politicos and the art of spinning the truth. He instead opts for the myth of “honesty on the campaign trail” halfway through and turns it all into a shamelessly gushing paean to apple pie patriotism bursting with Old Glory and cascades of red, white, and blue balloons. At least Larry Hagman is convincing as Stanton’s humble adversary with a tarnished past and Kathy Bates steals every scene in her Oscar-nominated role as a psychologically unbalanced investigator whose own 70’s idealism is sorely tested after she’s hired by Stanton to protect his image. Good for a few laughs and a whole lot of soul-crushing irony when you consider what’s haunting the Oval Office in 2017.

Prisoner of the Mountains (Russia 1996) (6): The waste and woe of war is encapsulated in Sergei Bodrov’s Oscar-nominated film, itself drawing inspiration from a short story by Leo Tolstoy. During the Chechen conflict two mismatched Russian soldiers—Sacha, a hardened cynic and Vanya, a timid pacifist—are taken prisoner by a village chieftain who intends to use them as hostages in order to free his son from prison. Despite the wishes of the other villagers who simply want to execute them, Abdul cares for the shackled men as best he can and as the days pass a curious dynamic takes place which sees Sacha and Vanya bonding while Dina, Abdul’s adolescent daughter, becomes increasingly conflicted when her fondness for Vanya begins to interfere with her father’s plans. Shot in Dagestan, not more than twenty miles from the actual front lines, Bodrov’s anti-war plea is told in a series of breathtaking shots which make the most of the area’s bare dusty mountains—going from dizzying overhead pans to ground level scenes of toiling villagers dancing and harvesting while Russian bureaucrats snarf down caviar and try to maintain order in the midst of chaos. The performances are impeccable, especially thirteen-year old newcomer Susanna Mekhraliyeva as the doe-eyed Dina, a young beauty whose character exudes a spirited mix of childish curiousity and mature resolve. A meeting between Abdul and Vanya’s mother, who traveled from Russia to plead for her son’s life, crackles with unspoken tensions and Vanya’s handmade gift to Dina—a wooden crane in flight—makes a subtle allusion to Kalatozov’s 1957 B&W classic. But Bodrov downplays everything to the point of stasis with the two Russian’s verbal sparring little more than jock talk and a series of sad twists never really digging beneath the film’s surface.

The Private Life of Henry VIII (UK 1933) (9): As one of cinema’s quintessential Tudors Charles Laughton alternately bellows and coos (and burps and belches) his way towards a well deserved best actor Oscar in this surprisingly frank historical romp. Starting with the execution of his second wife Ann Boleyn (an intensely moving Merle Oberon) and carrying on through to doddering old age and wife number six, Alexander Korda’s early talkie makes up for its rather modest sets with opulent location shots, intricate costumes, and a marvelous script that goes from courtly formalities to bawdy innuendo in a heartbeat. The cast is in top-notch form including the appropriately dashing Robert Donat as Thomas Culpepper, the man who cuckolded Henry with wife number five. But as the crafty Anne of Cleves, the fourth wife who not only managed to rid herself of Henry but acquired a small fortune and kept her head in the bargain, Elsa Lanchester is priceless. Presented as a toned down mix of royal bad boy, artful statesmen, and perpetually lovesick bachelor, Henry’s blustery rants and clever bon mots betray a man whose crown weighs a little heavier with each passing year as personal desires and demands of the realm seem to be at odds more often than not. Despite a comparatively meagre budget (the castle interiors are mostly limited to a few whitewashed chambers) Korda nevertheless offers some inspired visuals as when a raucous crowd gathers for yet another execution or wrestlers cast splayed shadows across an immense tapestry. Even though more pedantic scholars may balk at the film’s bit of historical license this is still a hugely entertaining picture from filmdom’s burgeoning golden age.

Private Romeo (USA 2011) (4): With their commanding officers and most of the student body away on manoeuvres, a handful of impressionable cadets find themselves with plenty of time to study, work out, and read passages of Romeo and Juliet to each other in English class. However, over the course of a few days, the spirit of Shakespeare’s tragedy begins to manifest itself in real time as the young men go from quoting the play to living it, and a pair of star-crossed gay lovers slowly emerge much to the consternation of their peers. I appreciate it when a filmmaker takes a risk and writer/director Alan Brown’s decision to place the fair streets of Verona within the hallways of a military academy did lead to some interesting modifications: Romeo’s confrontation with Tybalt takes place on a basketball court, the famous balcony scene plays out in a moonlit dormitory, and the lovers deliver their climactic embraces atop a classroom desk. With handheld camera shots, tinkling piano passages, and a palette that goes from drab khaki to romantic technicolor there is a definite air of experimentation to his work. But his cast of giggling club boys trip over the Bard’s badly edited prose with neither conviction nor comprehension while a poorly reimagined finale ignores Shakespeare’s original intent thus robbing the production of any dramatic sting. Furthermore, the inclusion of some music video non-sequiturs left me scratching my head and the end credits sequence featuring a baby-faced private “Juliet” crooning “You Made Me Love You” to the camera was just plain corny. Not even the cast of Glee would stoop this low.

Prometheus (USA 2012) (6): In the latter part of the 21st century a team of archaeologists uncover tantalizing evidence that extraterrestrials have periodically visited Earth in order to oversee our development. From ancient Egyptian carvings to neolithic Scottish cave paintings, the team discovers eerily similar depictions of tall beings pointing towards a distant planetary system while men kneel reverently before them. Lured by the possibility of contacting these ancient "Engineers", the crew of the starship "Prometheus", backed by an aging industrialist, head towards this alien homeworld. Upon arriving at their destination, an earth-like moon circling a ringed gas giant, the crew discover enormous ruins filled with mysterious clues, grave enigmas, and an unexpected malevolence. It would appear that the Engineers were not quite the altruistic benefactors our ancestors made them out to be and the earth crew's sudden appearance may very well herald our own destruction. With its strong use of mythological archetypes and heavy religious overtones, including an obscure reference to Christ, this tepid prequel to the hugely successful "Alien" franchise plays more like a bungled creation myth than a straightforward sci-fi thriller. Indeed, elements of the Hindu trinity, most notably Brahma (the creator) and Shiva (the destroyer/transformer), figure prominently from the very first scene as we witness a mystifying Alien suicide (sacrifice?) atop a primordial waterfall. The ruins themselves bear a striking resemblance to ancient temples complete with graven images and quasi-mystical mosaics. But why are they filled with the skeletal remains of these supposedly superior beings? And what is going on with all those casks of organic ooze stockpiled in a series of secret chambers? Director Ridley Scott avoids too many overt explanations, often at the expense of narrative cohesiveness, and instead drops just enough hints to allow us to figure it out for ourselves. Of course for those who prefer not to dwell too much on a film's deeper meaning there are plenty of ultra hip techno marvels (the robotic "mapping hounds" were especially cool), awesome CGI effects, and lots of explosions in gloriously overdone 3D, while the sensuously organic sets, inspired by original "Alien" artist H. R. Giger, are amazing. Sadly however, despite its lofty spiritual aspirations the film is just too full of unrealistic plot devices and contrived drama to be taken seriously; a side story involving a sinister robot on a mission goes beyond cliché. It's as if the writers started out with a decent premise and then padded it with so much Hollywood razzle-dazzle in order to attract a more lucrative demographic of popcorn munchers. Marvellously presented, mildly challenging, poorly written.

Promises! Promises! (USA 1963) (2): Jayne Mansfield’s tits are the only high points in this cheesy, insipid and completely unfunny high seas sex comedy. Sandy Brooks is determined to become pregnant while on a round-the-world cruise with Jeff, her bookish husband. Unfortunately not only is Jeff’s libido deep-sixed but, unbeknownst to Sandy, he is also sterile thanks to an adolescent bout of mumps. In the cabin next door are the Brooks’ good friends, hunky actor King Banner and his wife Claire, also dealing with baby issues of their own. When Jeff seeks help from the ship’s doctor he’s given a few samples of what he believes to be a powerful aphrodisiac/fertility drug (actually just plain aspirin dispensed with a great deal of hype). Hilarity supposedly ensues as Jeff accidentally doses King, Claire doses herself, and everybody wakes up pregnant. Virtually everything in this farce falls flat; the acting is horrible, the jokes are stale, and the frothy little musical numbers will make you want to heave ho. Furthermore, Mansfield’s infamous nude scenes are silly, repetitious and blatantly gratuitous; small wonder they were later made into a Playboy spread. And as if all that wasn’t enough there are a couple of stock characters thrown into the mix which serve no purpose whatsoever, especially “Babette” the gay hairdresser with a penchant for wigs who provides some tired old queer clichés. Despite the wonderfully kitschy artwork and a few nice theatrical touches involving split screens and overlapping dialogue I still found myself praying for an iceberg. Alas, it never came.

The Proposition (Australia/UK 2005) (9):  In the searing Australian outback of the 1800s police captain Stanley (Ray Winstone a million miles away from Nil By Mouth) has just captured two members of the brutal Burns gang--sullen Charlie (Guy Pearce) and his halfwit brother Mikey.  But Stanley is really after oldest brother Arthur (Danny Huston) a psychopathic madman responsible for a string of atrocities who has so far managed to elude the authorities.  Striking a bargain with his captives Stanley promises to grant them both pardons if Charlie will hunt down his brother and bring him to justice.  But one does not make a deal with the devil so easily and Stanley's decision to bend the law will exact a horrendous price.  With a screenplay by Nick Cave, known for his dark and moody song lyrics, director John Hillcoat draws on Old Testament allegory and Zen mysticism to deliver a languorous waking nightmare combining all the moral ambiguity of a John Ford production with the dreamlike artistry of Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock.  Filmed in hellish shades of ochre and crimson with a soundtrack of whispered ballads, this is a three-handed morality tale pitting captain Stanley's troubled sense of ethics against Charlie Burns' personal code of honour and the local magistrate's lust for bloody retribution.  And, as if to highlight the film's sense of light and darkness (sunsets and sunrises figure heavily), Arthur Burns' naked savagery provides a polar contrast to the naive innocence of Stanley's wife Martha (Emily Watson), a good Christian woman who fusses over teapots and is only dimly aware of the evil that lies beyond her immaculate white picket fence.  A visually stunning film whose flashes of sadistic violence are balanced by heavy silences and the occasional lapse into arty prose only serves to heighten its sense of the ethereal.

PVC-1 (Columbia 2007) (10): After a middle class home invasion fails to net them the small fortune they had been hoping for, a group of ruthless thieves fasten a remote controlled pipe bomb around the neck of the family matriarch. With only a few hours in which to gather up fifteen million pesos before the bomb explodes the woman begins a nightmarish cross-country trek, accompanied by her distraught husband and eldest daughter, to find someone in authority who can remove the device and save her life. And all the while the pipe around her neck continues to beep… Shot in real time using one continuous take writer/director Spiros Stathoulopoulos delivers one of the most devastatingly suspenseful tales I have seen in years especially considering it was based on an actual case. With nothing but natural sounds and a whirling camera he dogs his characters through forests and across rivers before planting them in the middle of an isolated village where a final deadly gambit had me biting my nails right up until the film’s last few seconds. An excellent cast keeps the action teetering on the edge of hysteria and a spare yet solid script doesn’t offer any respite despite a few flashes of mordant humour when the police “bomb squad” arrives and a crowd begins to gather. Despite one puzzling paramedic scene that came across as superfluous the rest of the film is a study in torturing your audience and making them love you for it. Bravo!

Quantum of Solace (UK 2008) (7): Picking up where Casino Royale left off, this second instalment of EON productions’ James Bond saga sees a haggard Daniel Craig hot on the trail of “Quantum”, a multinational shadow organization with wicked plans to control the planet by controlling what we value most. It is far from business as usual however for this time around Bond, still grieving over his lost love, is driven by a very personal vendetta which puts him at cross purposes with not only his own superior (Judi Dench as “M”), but a pair of ruthless CIA operatives as well. Of course the rather twisty plot takes a back seat to all the flash-bang-crash special effects starting off with a deadly car chase through northern Italy then proceeding to a parkour trek across the rooftops of Siena, a fiery maritime pursuit in Haiti, and a breathtaking aerial dogfight over a South American desert. Craig’s 007 is a sometimes off-putting but always watchable blend of iron-fisted determination and psychopathic nightmare as he kills and screws his way towards the film’s final sequence of gunfire and pyrotechnics, his ice cold stare and haunted countenance enough to make Sean Connery and Roger Moore’s incarnations soil their impeccably tailored suits. But if the comic book escapades bypass credibility the film’s underlying message of ecological devastation and government complicity (the CIA gets a big black eye and even Canada’s own CSIS is reduced to a one-night stand) tints all those screeching brakes and awesome explosions with a weighty cynicism—in fact the murder of one unfortunate character is a very apropos rehash from 1964’s Goldfinger. The opening credits rocked too.

The Quare Fellow (Ireland 1962) (8): Patrick McGoohan is superb as Thomas Crimmen, a rookie prison guard whose naive views on crime and punishment are severely tested when he becomes involved with the wife of a condemned murderer. At first content in his belief that justice always prevails and laws always protect the innocent, he is paired up with Mr. Regan, a 17-year veteran and former political prisoner whose first-hand experiences with capital punishment have caused him to lose faith in a legal system which condones killing within prison walls even as it denounces the act of murder itself. At first puzzled by the older man’s cynicism, it isn’t until the wife of the death-row inmate, the quare fellow of the title, comes to him personally with evidence that may save her husband from the gallows that he finds himself having to face some extremely uncomfortable truths. Arthur Dreifuss’ sharply focused B&W film, based on the play by Brendan Behan, paints a grim picture of the Irish penal system circa 1950’s. It is a warren of petty corruption and gross inequality while both church and state look on with blank indifference; as one man has his death sentence commuted thanks to some influential friends another, in desperate need of psychiatric attention, is given a Holy Card and a few empty platitudes instead. Strategically placed religious paintings add a bleak irony to the story while the prison’s steel bars seem to extend beyond its walls and into the nearby town. It soon becomes apparent that each character is trapped within their own private cell whether due to the harsh dictates of social conformity or the blind demands of governmental bureaucracy. Finally, the ethicality of the hangman’s noose itself is scrutinized from all sides, by jailors, townsfolk and inmates alike, and found wanting. Indeed, in one scene the very presence of the notorious rope causes a near riot in a neighbourhood pub. As in the stage production, the face of the prisoner in question is never seen thereby turning him into a true everyman figure who comes to represent far more than one frightened and lonely convict. Controversial for its time, The Quare Fellow is still a bold and absorbing drama four decades later.

Quartet (UK 2012) (7): Dustin Hoffman proves he’s almost as talented a director as he is an actor in this mild British comedy about the transcendent power of music. The elderly residents of Hammond House, an opulent retirement home for aging musicians, are getting ready to stage a gala fundraiser to celebrate Verdi’s birthday. There’s more at stake than simple showmanship however, for their home has fallen on difficult financial times and the monies raised from this event will help keep the taxman at bay. Unfortunately a wrench is thrown into the works with the arrival of Jean Horton (the brilliant Maggie Smith), a former diva extraordinaire who once packed opera houses worldwide and is now reduced to a penniless yet indomitably proud old woman. Her entrance proves to be too much for longtime resident Reginald Paget whose heart she once broke decades earlier, and the friction between the two begins to affect everyone around them. But Cedric, the feisty octogenarian in charge of directing the upcoming musical soirée, wants to use Jean’s fading star power to boost ticket sales through the roof—-if only he and the others can help her overcome a most terrible case of stage fright. Reginald, in the meantime, begins to realize that his feelings for Jean have never really gone away… With a cast of well seasoned actors (many of the film’s extras are actually retired singers and musicians) and a poignant script which strives to tread that fine line between realism and treacle, Hoffman serves up a “feel good” movie which celebrates the autumn years of those who dedicated their lives to their craft without glossing over some of the harsher truths of aging: the regrets over paths not taken, the loss of independence, and the multiple physical humiliations inflicted by time. After all, as one wrinkled diva fighting the effects of senility puts it: “Growing old is not for sissies.” Although the story does occasionally dip towards schmaltz, Hoffman manages to keep things afloat (with Bill Connolly’s lecherous old gentleman providing some much needed earthiness) while pastoral scenes of rolling gardens and polished bannisters are beautifully enhanced by an operatic score of drifting arias and chamber pieces. A swan song in every sense of the word.

Le Quattro Volte (Italy 2010) (10): It is a rare thing indeed when such a small film manages to pack such a metaphysical wallop—throwing together elements of theology, mortality, and the whole circle of life with the ease of an old man untying his shoelaces. Shot around a medieval village nestled in the hills of Calabria, director Michelangelo Frammartino’s silent meditation on the nature of everything is free of dialogue relying instead on pastoral landscapes and the shuffling quotidian pace of the people and animals who inhabit it. An aging shepherd struggles to tend his flock, a tree is felled, a goat is born, and everywhere are scenes of religious devotion commingling with pagan ritual yielding results sometimes comical (a dressy Easter pageant goes awry), sometimes oddly moving (the old man tries to cure his ills by drinking water mixed with sweepings from the chapel floor). Bookended by two crucial scenes of fiery transformation Michelangelo presents his audience with three little deaths, each one subtly connected to the others, giving the impression of an unbroken cycle of life and rebirth stretching from past to future. It is this transient nature of existence that saturates every frame of his remarkable opus and Frammartino captures it all with the eye of a poet, filming light reflecting off dust motes as they settle on a church altar with the same solemnity as he does a dying man taking his final breath. And in one amazing eight-minute take he pans significantly up and down a rustic road while a yapping border collie proceeds to steal the show. Le Quattro Volte translates as “The Four Turns” and where those divisions lie is cunningly implied. Gentle and unassuming yet presented with the mastery of an oil painting, this is one picture that comes pretty close to being perfect.

Queen Christina (USA 1933) (7): Rouben Mamoulian’s mostly fabricated historical weeper centres on the politically problematic romance between Sweden’s Queen Christina (1626 - 1689) and Spanish envoy Don Antonio. Orphaned when her father King Gustav fell on the battlefield, Christina ascended to the throne at the tender age of six where she proved to be an apt pupil in everything from philosophy to statecraft. Sick of Sweden’s constant wars with its European neighbours the adult Christina invited key foreign dignitaries to Stockholm in an effort to hammer out a series of peace treaties. One such dignitary, Spaniard Don Antonio (a Catholic), bypassed Christina’s court and landed squarely in her bed—a liaison which didn’t sit well with her Protestant subjects. Thus torn between her duties of state and her love for Antonio Christina was forced into making a decision that would change her life forever. With a supporting cast of angry peasants and scheming nobles to offer some historical context the luminous Greta Garbo (looking nothing like the actual queen who was in fact a pockmarked hunchback) vogues for all she’s worth while leading man John Gilbert struggles, and fails, to keep up. There are allusions to Christina’s fierce intelligence and beneficent support of the arts, Garbo’s final throne room scenes certainly carry an air of dignity, but so much emphasis is placed on soft focus close-ups and straining hormones (the Hays Office must have had a field day with all that implied sex) that any relation to historical fact seems almost incidental. But the cinematography is wonderful with sunbeams slanting across regal chambers and snowy ramparts alike, and a shockingly erotic interlude involving firelight and grapes. In short, it’s one hell of a story if only it was true.

Quinceanera  (USA 2006) (8):  Poor Magdalena, on the eve of her most important birthday she discovers she’s been blessed with an apparent immaculate conception much to the dismay of her bible-thumping father.  Meanwhile her tough streetwise cousin is having a menage with the gay couple upstairs and old Uncle Tomas is being faced with eviction.  This sparkling little indie feature plays out like a telenovela yet possesses more wit and genuine emotion than most big budget flicks I’ve seen.  It’s not often that I’ve actually smiled and cried at the same time while watching a film.  It’s nice to know that I still can.

Rabid (Canada 1977) (5): 70’s porn start Marilyn Chambers stars in writer/director David Cronenberg’s second commercial venture. She plays Rose, a woman badly burned in a motorcycle accident who undergoes a highly controversial skin graft procedure which leaves her with a ravenous appetite for human blood (huh?). Sporting a brand new anus-like orifice under her armpit equipped with a fleshy needled appendage (another unfortunate side effect from her surgery) Rose goes on a stinging spree leaving behind a trail of victims who quickly turn into foaming bloodthirsty zombies thanks to some unnamed virus she also happens to be carrying. With hordes of murderous psychopaths now roaming the streets of Montreal, martial law is declared as the government scrambles to contain the epidemic before it’s too late. Cronenberg’s twin fascinations for medical procedures and body morphing are on full display in this low-budget Canucksploitation shocker sometimes referred to as “venereal horror” thanks to Rose’s habit of passionately embracing her next meal before infecting them. There are also definite sexual connotations to that puckered sphincter pulsating beneath her arm and the elongated tube which springs from it when she feeds. As in many of his later films Cronenberg combines sexual desire with physical mutation producing results both unsettling and strangely depressing. Unfortunately his production values don’t quite live up to his vision and we are left with a cult mainstay that contains a few jolts (a homicidal rampage on a metro train is well done) and one guilty laugh (Santa gets caught in the crossfire). Thankfully Miss Chambers proves that she has what it takes to be a low-budget leading lady—with or without her top on.

Race With the Devil (USA 1975) (8): While en route from San Antonio to Aspen for a long awaited ski vacation couples Roger and Kelly (Peter Fonda and Dark Shadow’s own Lara Parker) and Frank and Alice (Warren Oates, Loretta Swit) accidentally witness a satanic backwoods ritual in which a young woman is sacrificed. Pursued by the coven of devil worshipers the four travellers jump in their deluxe RV and hightail it to the nearest town where they alert the authorities. Frustrated by the local sheriff’s unwillingness to believe their story they decide to head for the nearest big city—unfortunately for them however the bible belt seems to be crawling with Satanists these days and before they reach their destination they will have to deal with a small army of diabolical cowboys intent on silencing them forever. Although the plot of this road movie-cum-occult thriller is beyond ludicrous its execution is a pure adrenaline rush with some of the best car chase sequences I’ve ever seen as well as a very convincing aside involving rattlesnakes. Using little more than a crooked smile or extended stare, director Jack Starrett continually stokes the paranoia until it appears that everyone and their uncle is in league with Beelzebub—even a brief respite at a seemingly innocent trailer park contains undertones of dark foreboding as the local hicks all but sprout horns while chugging back beer and slow dancing to tacky C&W tunes. But it is the final scenes of highway warfare between the embattled RV and a phalanx of devilish yokels driving pick-ups, tow trucks, and delivery vans that sets your pulse pounding and almost makes up for one very stupid ending. Pure drive-in movie fodder that still looks smart on the small screen.

Radio Days (USA 1987) (9): Woody Allen’s animated New York lilt narrates this near perfect comedy, a cartoonish autobiography culled from his memories of growing up a poor Jewish kid in Brooklyn. Presented as a series of anecdotes set in the early ‘40s, we follow the misadventures of Allen’s 10-year old alter ego Joe (a very young Seth Green) who shares a modest walk-up with a colourful extended family that includes his lovingly quarrelsome parents and perpetually lovestruck aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest). Anchored by a couple of historical turning points—Aunt Bea gets dumped during the “War of the Worlds” broadcast and the bombing of Pearl Harbour interrupts a soap opera—Allen employs a heady mix of nostalgia and magical realism to bring his recollections to vibrant life. There’s the cousin who just loves to listen in on the neighbourhood party line; the pork-eating, Sabbath-breaking communist next door (Larry David) who corrupt’s Joe’s uncle Abe; the ditzy cigarette girl who becomes a national celebrity (Mia Farrow); and a motley assortment of naked substitute teachers, German U-Boats, and a high society scandal or two. And uniting everyone at every level are the ubiquitous radio sets glowing in every corner as they pour out gossip, melodrama, and a non-stop parade of golden pop songs. Rightfully nominated for the best Art and Set Design Oscar, Radio Days painstakingly recreates New York City during the Big Band Era with glowing neon billboards and kitschy nightclubs aswirl with haute couture (or plain cotton dresses and gingham tablecloths for the less hoity-toity) and a host of surprise cameos keep the party going—Kenneth Mars as a truculent rabbi and a very brief stint by Diane Keaton as a torch singer immediately come to mind. Warm and gauzy, this is one Woody Allen film that will make you pine for the good old days no matter when you were born. “Forgive me if I romanticize the past…” states Woody during the opening monologue and rarely has a director been in less need of absolution. Julie Kavner, Jeff Daniels, and Danny Aiello also star.

Rage (Spain 2009) (5):  Columbian migrants José and Rosa are having trouble fitting into Spanish society.  His violent temper has put him on the wrong side of his construction foreman and she is earning minimum wage as a live-in maid for the wealthy Torres family while fending off the sexual advances of Alvo, their boorish son.  But when José finds himself on the lam after accidentally killing his boss he decides to hide out in the only safe place he knows--the mansion where Rosa works.  Here, unbeknownst to either his girlfriend or her employers, Jose settles into the largely unused upper floors of the stately old home:  stealing food from the kitchen, calling Rosa using the phone in the guest bedroom, and eavesdropping on the family's day to day dramas.  His clandestine existence is threatened however after he receives a couple of shattering revelations regarding Rosa, one of which brings his temper to the boiling point.  Anger and desperation eventually lead José down a very dangerous path which will not only threaten his future but those of Rosa and the Torres family as well who are unaware of the rage growing just above their heads.  Not sure what director Sebastián Cordero was aiming for with this gothic thriller which is heavy on the atmospherics (kudos to the trained rats) but comes up woefully short on logic.  Is it supposed to be a head piece using a compartmentalized house to reflect the protagonist's fractured psyche?  A sociopolitical statement decrying the treatment of immigrants (the "unwanted guests" in our midst)?  Or just a misguided attempt at maintaining suspense by asking the audience to take a few leaps of faith?  Despite some tight camerawork which rarely leaves the front door and lighting that juxtaposes sunny exteriors with dusty attics, it amounts to little more than a telenovela weeper with a teary ending so over-the-top the DVD should have come with a complimentary box of kleenex.

Ragnarok (Norway 2013) (7): Convinced that the Viking grave he’s been studying contains the answer to a momentous secret, archaeologist Sigurd journeys into the wilds of Norway accompanied by his two children and a couple of fellow scientists. Following the runic clues on an ancient stone tablet Sigurd and company eventually find themselves on a small island in the middle of a mysterious lake where a subterranean cave not only yields a few troubling answers but leads to an encounter with a diabolical evil straight out of Norse mythology. Could this signal the beginning of Ragnarok, that final battle between gods and demons? A sweeping orchestral score and widescreen flyovers of mountain peaks and yawning fjords promises an adventure epic to rival Jackson’s LOTR, but Mikkei Sandemose’s family-friendly monster yarn delivers a Walt Disney adventure instead—and not a particularly clever one at that. A victim of too many stretches and convenient coincidences, Ragnarok’s cookie-cutter cast and cartoon perils don’t add up to anything memorable since we’ve all seen this story before, only bigger and better. But dad and the kids are so gosh darn loveable (little Brage places internet ads to find his widowed father a new mate!) and the CGI shocks are effective enough to keep you interested: a rappel across the lake has you holding your breath while a creepy sojourn in an abandoned bunker will give the tots nightmares for weeks. Nothing remarkable here, but still worth a rental if you’re in the mood for Horror Lite.

Ragtime (USA 1981) (6): Milos Forman takes E. L. Doctorow’s big sprawling novel scrutinizing the American zeitgeist pre WWI and cuts it down to a bite-sized 2½ hours with limited success despite its eight Academy Award nominations. Centred on a representative cross-section of society in and around New York City, Ragtime chronicles the fortunes of a select few over the course of several months as they weather all manner of tribulations from murder and adultery to explosive civil rights issues. A well-to-do family is thrown a curve ball when a problematic baby is abandoned on their front lawn; a black musician suffers one too many humiliations and decides to take a violent stand; a penniless Russian immigrant discovers the wonders of cinema; and a ditzy divorcee goes from riches to rags and back again. Cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek captures the feel of a bygone era with wide pans of stately homes and streets bustling with Model T’s and horse drawn carriages while the costume and art design departments lay it on thick (Art Nouveau and Belle Époque everywhere!) and Randy Newman’s nominated score overlays jazzy piano numbers with just a touch of wistfulness. The separate stories don’t quite dovetail however and even though it looks nice on screen Forman doesn’t quite achieve the grandiose statement he was reaching for—was that opening and closing pas de deux aiming for irony? In turns funny and tragic but without ever achieving that vital emotional connection with its audience, Forman’s glittering kaleidoscope of a film is still pretty—and pretty flat. The one true highlight though was watching an obviously ailing 81-year old James Cagney in his final role as Chief of Police. Despite being confined to a wheelchair (never hinted at thanks to clever editing) his performance of a gruff yet privately amused lawman who has seen it all is the perfect capstone to one of Hollywood’s more distinguished careers. Howard E. Rollins, Mary Steenburgen, Brad Dourif, and Mandy Patinkin round out the cast with surprise cameos from Donald O’Connor and Pat O’Brien.

Rain (USA 1932) (8): A shipload of tourists find themselves unexpected guests on the tropical island of Pago Pago after a case of cholera grounds their boat. Among the passengers are Sadie Thompson (Joan Crawford looking like Tony Curtis in Some Like it Hot ), a streetwise call-girl who has spent her entire life on the wrong side of the tracks, and Alfred Davidson (Walter Huston), a fire-and-brimstone missionary who along with his bible-spouting shrew of a wife (Beulah Bondi, magnificently strait-laced) hopes to wreak salvation on the island’s natives. But when Davidson discovers Sadie is living a life of debauchery right under his nose (she dares to drink and dance on the Sabbath among other things) he turns his evangelical sights on her with a vengeance. Of course Sadie responds to his self-righteous zeal with all the venom she can muster but despite the moral support of the islanders and a troop of American soldiers stationed nearby, Davidson’s political connections soon have Thompson on the defensive. A taut psychological battle ensues between an increasingly vulnerable Sadie and Davidson who is obsessed with saving her soul even if it means destroying her spirit. Her soul, however, may not be the only thing the fiery pastor covets—and as an apocalyptic storm envelopes the tiny South Pacific Eden in sheets of driving rain, passion and damnation collide head-on… Combining the glorious overacting of the recently defunct silent era with a soundtrack of pagan drums and crackling thunder, Lewis Milestone’s bitter indictment of moral hypocrisy masquerading as religion is perhaps more apropos today then it was eighty years ago. Using a cast of virtuous natives as a benchmark he makes grim comparisons between their primitive contentment and the emotional deceptions played out between his two “civilized” protagonists. As Thompson wrestles with his own feelings while looking down on Sadie (literally and figuratively) from his room at the top of the stairs, she in turn feigns a joie-de-vivre long ago destroyed by too many late nights and faceless men. Unfortunately what could have been a brilliant film from the beginning of Hollywood’s golden era is taken down several notches by a patently ludicrous ending that rings false on every level. Or was it meant to be ironic? Still an amazing piece and well worth renting.

Raining Stones (UK 1993) (8):  Ken Loach’s wonderfully rooted working class drama centres on the chronically unemployed Bob who barely manages to support his wife and daughter by supplementing his welfare cheque with the occasional odd job; whether it’s stealing a sheep to sell to the butcher or bouncing at a local rave bar.  But when his daughter sets her sights on an expensive dress for her first communion  Bob’s pride refuses to let him accept charity and he soon finds himself getting deeper and deeper into debt.  As financial pressures mount and job prospects dry up his options become dangerously limited...  Shot in a street level verité style which  gives it all the immediacy of a documentary, this deeply human film boasts some amazing performances from its very talented cast.  Loach offsets the pervasive pessimism with occasional flashes of humour and his subtle use of religious imagery is put to good use as Bob, a staunch Catholic, develops a crisis of faith which culminates in a most illuminating discussion with the local priest.  I also appreciated the film’s sense of balance; it opens with a sacrificial lamb of sorts, then follows Bob as he responds to various temptations, and finally ends with a gentle scene of absolution.  Very well done.

The Rambler (USA 2013) (6): After a four year stint in prison an unnamed rambler (Dermot Mulroney, perpetually stone-faced in wranglers and aviator shades) is released into a strangely transformed southern landscape populated by freaks and geeks, dead men, monsters, and supernatural apparitions where reality itself is curiously prone to sudden jump cuts and bursts of video static. Slowly hitchhiking his way to Oregon where he hopes to hook up with his estranged brother, his stygian journey will see him bum a ride with a wandering mortician who claims the ability to capture people’s dreams on VHS tape; enter into a mephistophelean partnership with a most inept poker player; and have his every move dogged by a seemingly indestructible blonde siren. Bland dusty backdrops assume a nightmare quality as the rambler, cracking neither a smile nor a frown, interacts with a population as dry and deadly as the desert they inhabit. But as he approaches his final destination the unseen Fates decide to play their final ace and that long lonesome highway is suddenly not so benign anymore… Filled with images both grotesque and morbidly amusing its difficult to decipher exactly what writer/director Calvin Reeder had in mind. Is this a cowboy Dante trekking his way through a Midwest netherworld? Is the film merely taking the piss out of every overused horror cliché ever invented? Or does Reeder simply enjoy jerking off to David Lynch? It flops on practically every level of course, but as a prime chunk of cinematic roadkill it defies us to avert our eyes even for a second. And that, I suppose, is what this journey is all about.

Random Harvest (USA 1942) (7): As the citizens of a small English town celebrate the end of WWI, a shell-shocked soldier suffering from complete amnesia (Ronald Colman, memorable) slips out of the local asylum and wanders the streets in a daze until he crosses paths with a spirited stage performer who takes an instant fancy to him. Running away to the English countryside in order to evade the hospital staff searching for him, Paula and “Mr. Smith” inevitably fall in love, move into a little dream cottage and begin raising a family. Fate has other plans for the happy couple however for a few years later Smith is accidentally knocked unconscious; a nasty bump on the head which manages to restore his past but erases all memories of what happened after he left the trenches. Returning to his wealthy family Smith, real name Charles Rainier, picks up where he left off totally unaware that he has a wife and son waiting for him elsewhere. It is now up to Paula to win back the love of a man who can’t remember her ever existing... With a musical score of weeping strings, a plot that goes beyond ludicrous, and an over-the-top performance by Greer Garson whose Paula shifts interminably between lovestruck stalker and moping martyr, director Mervyn LeRoy uses every cinematic trick in the book to rip those heartstrings out of our chests. This is one film that should be thoroughly trashed; so why did I find myself smiling even as my eyes repeatedly rolled upwards in the sockets? Because those old directors knew how to pour on the syrup without cloying their audiences to death, that’s why. It’s all romantic fluff and dust bunnies of course, but Garson and Colman’s star power keeps it afloat while the rich B&W cinematography has you reaching for the kleenex; whether to dry your eyes or stifle a yawn is entirely up to you. Let’s just pray Hollywood doesn’t decide to unleash a remake.

Rango (USA 2011) (8): When his human owners make a series of high-speed swerves to avoid hitting an armadillo, a pet chameleon is forcibly ejected from the car’s rear window. Finding himself stranded in the middle of a burning desert with only the bisected, yet mysteriously still alive, armadillo for company the timid reptile must rely on his wits and innate acting ability to survive. After evading one very determined hawk the chameleon finds himself in the parched town of “Dirt”…an amalgamation of discarded boxes and bottles inhabited by wild west desert animals in desperate need of a hero. It seems their sole source of water has inexplicably dried up and lawlessness is threatening to destroy everything they’ve managed to build thanks to a gang of renegade prairie dogs, a gunslinging rattlesnake, and a crooked mayor. A budding thespian at heart, it isn’t long before the chameleon reinvents himself as “Rango”, the fastest gun on four legs and Dirt’s newest sheriff. But there’s more to being a hero than wearing spurs and spinning a tall tale and Rango soon realizes he may very well have bitten off more than he can chew. Despite a slow somewhat generic start (kooky critters, kooky voices, kooky pratfalls) it quickly becomes apparent that Gore Verbinski’s little animated feature is aimed more at mom and dad and less at the wee ones. Some biting adult humour and no-nonsense cartoon violence coupled with glaring spoofs on everything from Star Wars to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to every film Clint Eastwood has ever made, not to mention a bit of New Age mysticism, will definitely have adults giggling while the kiddies gape at the pretty colours. And those colours are pretty indeed with impeccable animation picking out every hair on a mouse’s face and every feather on the band of mariachi owls who serve as the story’s Greek chorus—an aerial dogfight with dive-bombing bats was especially well choreographed. The entire production looks and feels like a Sergio Leone duster (it isn’t that difficult to reimagine Lee Van Cleef as a villainous viper after all) and the combined vocal talents of Johnny Depp, Ned Beatty, Ray Winstone (as a cockney Gila Monster) et al ensure that all those one-liners remain sharp as tacks. A wicked little antidote to Frozen.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Finland 2010) (8): When an American research team discovers the tomb of the real Santa Claus buried deep beneath a mountain on the Russian-Finnish border they unleash a lot more than goodwill towards men. It seems the tomb is guarded by hordes of flabby naked pickax-wielding elves with a nose for gingerbread and an insatiable appetite for naughty children. Furthermore, the frozen (but quickly thawing) Spirit of Christmas himself turns out to be twenty feet tall and bears more of a resemblance to a horned demon than the jolly red-robed St. Nick in all the storybooks. With his friends disappearing and his nearby village in a state of siege, it falls down to plucky little 10-year old Pietari to not only save the day but devise a plan to put Father Christmas back where he belongs. With shades of Carpenter’s The Thing, a touch of Spielberg, and a big dollop of mordant Scandinavian wit, this delightful little holiday mood-killer is sure to make you laugh out loud even as you set a bear trap in the chimney. The cast of cute kids and hunky dads is perfectly matched while an army of wrinkled extras running through the snow wearing full beards and nothing else is eye-popping to say the least. The spare CGI effects are well done (a nighttime helicopter chase towards the end is breathtaking) but it is the film’s clever coda, from which it gets its title, that left me howling. This is one cinematic treat you’ll want to open before the 25th!

The Raspberry Reich (Germany/Canada 2004) (5): Reminiscent of the transgressive Danish films of the 60s, Bruce la Bruce’s occasionally funny send-up of the revolutionary mindset is a bizarre mix of Marxist diatribe and hardcore pornography. An underground cell of bumbling activists (“we’re not terrorists!”) calling themselves “The Raspberry Reich” have kidnapped the handsome son of a wealthy German banker and are threatening to kill him unless his father meets their socialist demands. However, unbeknownst to Gudrun their ideology-spouting leader, not only has the industrialist previously disowned his gay son but the son is currently involved in a hot love affair with one of her own henchmen. Thus begins a wild ride of sexual experimentation (“heterosexuality is the opiate of the masses!”), ridiculous socialist rhetoric (“corn flakes are counter-revolutionary!”), and a few sobering history lessons regarding covert C.I.A. operations; all punctuated by the occasional blow-job and flying cum shot. As revolutionary euphemisms scroll and flash across the screen we are treated to a few amusingly ironic scenes thanks in part to Gudrun’s floor-to-ceiling wallpaper depicting her political heroes...in one particularly odd little passage a terrorist wannabe performs fellatio on a loaded rifle while Che Guevara poses on the wall behind him. As per La Bruce’s penchant for confrontational sex and disregard for social norms things sometime go a bit overboard, and the cast of Euro porn stars are not quite up to the task of actually acting without a penis in their mouths, but when the satirical barbs occasionally hit home they do so with a vengeance. “The tyranny of the bed is counter-revolutionary...” screams Gudrun during an athletic sex marathon with her boyfriend which takes them from bed to hallway to elevator, “...sexuality is a force of nature that cannot be contained by a mattress or a sheet. Now fuck me for the revolution!!” Amen, sister.

Rat Race (USA 2001) (1): “Borrowing” its plot directly from 1963’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World this most unfunny comedy concerns a motley group of petty Las Vegas gamblers who are given a challenge they can’t refuse: two million dollars is stashed in a locker at a New Mexico train station several hundred miles away and the first one to get there, by any means possible, wins. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, eccentric casino owner Donald Sinclair (a toothsome John Cleese) is wagering his own bets on who will win the race with a roomful of international high-stakes gamblers… With such names as Rowan Atkinson, Whoopi Goldberg, and Seth Green in the credits I expected a laugh-out-loud homage to screwball comedy, what I got instead was the cinematic equivalent of sticking pins in my eyes. I made it through the first half hour of this steaming dump before I started fast-forwarding to see if it actually got funny. It didn’t. Not since Anchorman have I ever run across a film whose ignorant and juvenile attempts at humour managed to insult the intelligence of both cast and audience alike. Better to have watched an ice cube melt.

Rebecca (USA 1940) (8): While on assignment in Monte Carlo with her wealthy employer, a timid secretary is swept off her feet by dashing millionaire Maxim de Winter who marries her before transporting her to Manderlay, his luxuriously appointed though cheerless seaside estate. Sadly, her fairytale romance comes to an abrupt end when she discovers that the memory of de Winter’s late wife Rebecca, by all accounts a beautiful and vivacious force of nature, is still very much alive not only in her husband’s thoughts but especially in the heart of Mrs. Danvers the psychotic housekeeper who insists on maintaining her late mistress’ boudoir as if it were a shrine. Unable to compete with a ghost, the new Mrs. de Winters slowly sinks into despair aided by an obviously unhinged Danvers who goads her into contemplating suicide. But Rebecca had some dark secrets of her own which Maxim slowly reveals to his new bride—secrets that could either save their floundering marriage or destroy it forever. Alfred Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film (and only Oscar winner) is an over-the-top gothic love story laced with fog and shadows; where steely glances cast daggers and a pervasive sense of gloom threatens to snuff out any hint of happiness. Although Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier are perfectly cast as the newlyweds, her squeaky little dormouse playing against his grief-stricken stoicism, it is Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers who steals every scene—her not entirely sane glares hinting at evil intentions and forbidden desires as she jealously berates the helpless bride while fawning lovingly over the dead Rebecca’s collection of fur coats and panties. Unintentionally camp by today’s standards but that only makes it more enjoyable!

[Rec]2 (Spain 2009) (5): Directors Balagueró and Plaza’s disappointing follow-up to their 2007 horror hit (also reviewed here under “VIFF 2008”). In the first film the residents of a Barcelona apartment complex come down with a mysterious malady which turns them into rampaging zombies, and a TV anchorwoman finds herself trapped in the middle of a nightmare when she and her camera crew accompany an Emergency Response Team into the building. In this sequel, more of a continuation actually, the action picks up a few minutes after the first film ends as a heavily armed SWAT team equipped with guns and video cameras storm the building. Led by the mysterious Dr. Owen, the officers begin searching the complex room by room looking for survivors and victims alike; but when they stumble upon an abandoned laboratory littered with files outlining horrendous experiments carried out under direct orders from the Vatican, their routine search takes on terrifying supernatural overtones... All the elements which made the first film so effective; the jarring handheld camerawork, screaming close-ups, and sudden ghoulish shocks, somehow seem tired and derivative this time around although a pivotal scene using green-tinged night vision is pretty clever. It’s as if the directors lost their momentum in the intervening two years and now find it all but impossible to simply start where they left off. Add to that a few nonsensical plot devices, some overly theatrical performances, and a superfluous side story involving mischievous teenagers and you have all the makings of a killer video game. It’s The Exorcist, directed by George Romero, and presented on a Sony Playstation.

[Rec] 3: Genesis (Spain 2012) (5): It’s Koldo and Clara’s wedding day as seen through the lens of filmmaker Atùn, guest of the groom, who busies himself with recording everyone and everything. Here’s grandpa with the defective hearing aid and there’s uncle Pepe nursing a mysterious dog bite on his wrist even though he insists he’s okay. It’s all boring home movies (or “cinema verité” as Atùn insists on calling it) until the reception when an increasingly ill Pepe spews a puddle of blood just before tearing his wife’s throat out with his teeth. Cue zombie apocalypse as carnivorous waiters descend on the wedding party turning bridesmaids and best men alike into flesh-eating monsters while survivors, including the newlyweds, try to make their way to safety… This third instalment in director Paco Plaza’s undead series bears little resemblance to its predecessors causing me to question why he even bothered in the first place. As a horror film it lacks both suspense and fright factor; as an occult thriller it fails to elicit any supernatural chills aside from a few bible quotes and a brief cameo by the creature from parts one and two; and a weak attempt to turn the story into some kind of comedy misses the mark entirely. At least there are a few cute scenes—finding himself in a church Koldo fashions a makeshift battle suit out of holy relics while on the other side of the reception hall Clara finds a chainsaw to go with her wedding gown—and the gore factor is pleasingly messy including a demonic Bonnie & Clyde finale. Alas, Part 4 has already been released.

Red Eye (USA 2005) (6): When her flight home is delayed Lisa Reisert, a lovely but somewhat mousy desk supervisor at a swank Miami hotel, decides have a drink with a fellow passenger, the suave yet creepy Jackson (last name Rippner. Jack Rippner. Welcome to Foreshadowing 101). When their plane finally does take off Lisa is at first delighted to have Jackson sit next to her until she discovers his true nature; he’s a sociopath who arranges assassinations and right now he has his sights set on a political bigwig staying at Lisa’s hotel. In order to eliminate the government bureaucrat in question however, Jackson needs Lisa’s help; help she refuses to give until he makes her an offer she can’t possibly refuse... Wes Craven’s foray into straight-up thriller is a mixed bag at best. The impressive cinematography takes us from the close confines of an airplane lavatory to the sweeping vistas of a penthouse suite, the resulting interplay of claustrophobic spaces and agoraphobic vulnerability takes you off guard at times and ratchets up the tension nicely. Unfortunately, even though they are talented performers on their own, Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy produce very little screen chemistry here as they plod through a generic script accompanied by a cast of stock characters from every Airport movie ever made. Of course the tables will be turned more than once, the usual twists will occur and we’ll be expected to accept some enormous gaps in logic. But even though Red Eye’s gaps start out small enough they quickly become bottomless chasms that threaten to swallow you up, popcorn and all. Perhaps Craven should have stuck to what he does best; simply seat Freddy Krueger in first class, have everyone fall asleep, and let the slashing begin...

Red Headed Woman (USA 1932) (3):  Jean Harlow plays a gold-digging slut with her eye on the boss’ happily married son in this silly blend of sexual politics and camp drama.  She uses everything in her arsenal from garter belts to an annoying baby voice to get a rise out of the poor sap, but when she finally lands him she realizes that life on Easy Street is not quite what she expected.  A battle of wills soon erupts between her and his nauseatingly angelic wife that she is simply not equipped to handle.  So what’s a poor girl to do?  Try to screw someone richer of course!  I suppose one could see some twisted form of female empowerment circa 1930s at work here, especially when you consider how little real power women held outside of the bedroom but the characters rarely rise above cartoon stereotypes while the script is as cheap and shallow as its protagonist.

Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974 (UK TV 2009) (7): When a young schoolgirl goes missing in the north of England cub reporter Eddie Dunford is assigned to the case. But when her mutilated body is found on a construction site owned by a local real estate magnate Dunford finds his fledgling investigation suddenly stonewalled at every step, especially when he uncovers similar abductions going back six years. With the police openly antagonistic, his editor threatening to reassign him, and even key witnesses slamming the door, Eddie realizes he may be on to something larger and more horrible than he first imagined… In this first instalment of a trilogy based on David Peace’s novel director Julian Jarrold examines a string of child murders and the effect it has on the normally reserved citizens of a sleepy Yorkshire town circa 1974. As a straight-up investigative thriller however it contains too many illogical elements and unexplained twists to really hold together. Jarrold tries, with limited success, to fill in these narrative potholes with jarring timeline shifts and arty non-sequiturs that look as if they were filmed through sheets of sun-dappled gauze. But when viewed instead as a series of psychological impressions following Eddie Dunford’s journey from eager truth-seeker to disillusioned and unhinged cynic it becomes a Kafkaesque nightmare of corruption and depravity wherein every avenue of escape seems to lead right back into the maelstrom. A dark and unrelenting film whose violent climax is more epitaph than catharsis.

Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980 (UK-TV 2009) (6): Based on David Peace’s quartet of books about crime and corruption in the north of England, this second instalment in the Red Riding Trilogy takes place six years after the tragic events of 1974 (see my review). After another sex trade worker falls prey to the notorious Yorkshire Ripper, Manchester’s Chief Constable Peter Hunter is sent to Leeds in order to head up his own inquiry into the murders much to the chagrin of the local constabulary who have more than a botched homicide investigation to cover up. Much more. As Hunter and his team strive to uncover the truth they are increasingly intimidated by the cops, including the Chief Inspector, who will stop at nothing to get rid of him and the uncomfortable questions he is dredging up. Could their mounting hostility have anything to do with an unsolved nightclub massacre which took place in their district back in 1974—a killing spree that Hunter also investigated? And if so, how is that related to the string of butchered prostitutes? And then the intimidation turns deadly and Hunter begins to realize just how deep evil runs in the seemingly quaint north country. Peace wrote four books on the subject but due to budgetary constraints the second volume, set in 1977, was dropped from the televised series. Because of this omission director James Marsh was forced to rely on muddled flashbacks in order to fill in the gaps but he is only partially successful in smoothing out what proves to be an exasperatingly tangled storyline even for those of us who sat through part one. It is still an effective policier however full of gloom and doom, where seemingly every soul is corrupt beyond redemption and a sombre pall permeates the landscape like a choking fog. Murder, adultery, and a perverse sense of horror that too often pushes the envelope make for one confusing, albeit wonderfully moody, psychodrama.

The Red Shoes (UK 1948) (10): Powell and Pressburger’s glorious technicolour epic based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale about a vain young girl forced to dance by a pair of enchanted shoes, is both a heartfelt homage to the world of theatre and a stunning allegory on the suffering of the artist. Wealthy debutante Victoria Page dreams of being a professional dancer to the exclusion of all else. When the world renowned ballet impresario Boris Lermontov shows up at one of her aunt’s society parties Victoria immediately sets out to impress the coldly aloof maestro with her skill, eventually becoming his star performer. He even commissions an entire ballet, ironically based on Anderson’s short story, to be written just for her; a role which promises to cement her reputation as the world’s foremost prima ballerina. But, unbeknownst to Vicky, Lermontov’s feelings go much deeper than those of a benevolent benefactor, feelings which are dashed when she falls in love with Julian Craster, the company’s idealistic resident composer who wrote the score for her trademark ballet. Torn between the domestic contentment offered by Julian and her dedication to the stage, here embodied by Lermontov’s icy determination, Victoria finds herself forced to make a painful decision on the eve of her greatest performance. With its gorgeous sets and breathtaking cinematography that stretches from London’s Covent Garden to the cliffs of Monte Carlo, The Red Shoes is a bold departure from the run of stuffy dramas being produced in the UK at the time. The lovely redheaded Moira Shearer breathes life into the role of Vicky, her classic good looks and theatrical presence combined with her consummate skill as a professionally trained dancer set the screen on fire. The film’s highlight, a beautifully expressionistic performance of the titular ballet, is surely one of the most amazing dance sequences ever filmed. For all its melodrama and occasional excesses this still stands as a fine example of pure movie magic. Brilliant!

The Reeds (UK 2009) (6): In Nick Cohen's mixed bag of a ghost story revenge is a dish best served cold...and wet. When a group of friends rent a boat for a drunken weekend they unwittingly become entangled in a twenty-year old murder mystery involving some nasty waterlogged victims who refuse to stay anchored. Some highly improbable scenes (how come the bottom of a murky marsh is so well lit even though it's midnight?) are nonetheless presented with a certain brio and the creepy antagonist looks pretty cool in his grim reaper raincoat and blood-soaked wellingtons. An interesting twist on an old plot but the looping timelines and repetitive handheld mayhem may give you a nasty case of seasickness.

Reflections in a Golden Eye (USA 1967) (6): On an army base in the deep south circa 1940’s, obsession, perversion, and forbidden passions lead to madness and murder in John Huston’s lurid adaptation of Carson McCullers’ novel. Spoiled rich bitch Leonora Penderton (Elizabeth Taylor) is being stalked by an enlisted man, Pvt Williams, who has started sneaking into her boudoir at night in order to sniff her lingerie while she sleeps. Meanwhile her brooding hulk of a husband Major Weldon Penderton (a mumbling Marlon Brando) has focused his own latent homosexual desires on Williams and begins a little stalking of his own. And just to complete the circle of lust and deceit Leonora is having a torrid affair with Lt. Col. Langdon (Brian Keith) who’s been kicked out of the conjugal bed by his frigid and increasingly psychotic wife Alison (Julie Harris) and she in turn is lavishing all her attention on the couple’s outrageously fey Filipino houseboy Anacieto. If it all sounds like a salacious soap opera, it is—but beneath the southern melodrama there are some acute observations on sexual repression, emotional sadism, and the cult of machismo. Leonora taunts Weldon incessantly about his lack of manhood, making cruel comparisons between him and the prize stallion she makes a point of riding every day; Weldon, horrified by his carnal urges, overcompensates with macho posturing and an almost fanatical adherence to army discipline and social order; Langdon responds to his wife’s demand for a divorce by having her committed. And all the action revolves between two polar opposites: the menacingly virile Williams and the overtly queer Anacieto. The title refers to a peacock’s eye in which all the world is reflected in grotesque miniature and as if to drive home that concept each scene is saturated with a washed out golden haze causing the occasional splash of colour to stand out like a klaxon horn—an interesting gimmick which only served to confuse early audiences. Finally, after putting his characters through an emotional blender for the better part of two hours, Huston throws them all together for one final psychosexual showdown as bullets begin to fly… It’s enough to make Tennessee Williams take the first train north.

The Reivers (USA 1969) (6): In the Mississippi summer of 1905, eleven-year old Lucius McCaslin is about to embark on his first big adventure when his parents and grandfather attend a funeral in St. Louis leaving him in the care of the family maid. Coaxed off the straight and narrow by his no-good adult friend Boon and Boon’s equally roguish friend Ned, Lucius purloins his grandfather’s latest prized possession—a brand new canary yellow “Winton Flyer” automobile—and the three set out on a joy ride bound for Tennessee. But with their first stop being a Memphis brothel where Boon is smitten with one of the girls, it doesn’t take long for young Lucius to learn a thing or two about life beyond his family’s white picket fence. Before their four-day road trip is over he’ll also catch an ugly glimpse of southern bigotry and sexism, experience his first broken heart, and discover just how painful remorse can be. Quaint period touches and a story that rambles along at a decent pace manage to keep your interest but aside from the star power of Steve McQueen as Boon and Will Geer as Lucius’ wise old grandfather (not their best work) there isn’t much else to recommend. In fact if you remove the cussing, fighting, and hookers you’re left with little more than generic Disney family fluff. A charmingly forgettable adaptation of William Faulkner’s novel.

Remember (Canada 2015) (5): As if English-Canadian cinema needed another nail driven into its coffin perennial one-hit wonder Atom Egoyan comes up with this psychologically suspect, intellectually insulting riff on Memento. Ninety-year olds Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau) and the recently widowed Zev Guttman (an Oscar-calibre Christopher Plummer) share a common tragedy, they are both Jews who survived Auschwitz even though their respective families did not. Now neighbours in a New York nursing home the two men are about to set in motion an elaborate plan to hunt down and kill the camp commandant who made their lives a living hell seventy years earlier. Having escaped to North America under the assumed name of Rudy Kurlander, the former Nazi could be any one of four Kurlanders now residing in the States and Canada and the two men intend to follow each lead until they find him. They face two main obstacles however, Max is on oxygen and confined to a wheelchair so he cannot leave the care facility, and Zev, while mobile, is suffering from the early stages of dementia and must constantly rely on the highly detailed letter he carries to remind him of what his mission is and what he must do next while Max arranges his hotels and transportation via telephone. With his brain misfiring and his physical health frail at best, Zev slowly makes his way across America with a list of addresses and a loaded glock… Despite its ridiculous premise and more than a couple of potholes in logic the first part of the film is actually quite watchable thanks to meticulous editing and Plummer’s phenomenal performance as the soft-spoken, often muddled man on a mission. However, after an encounter with a kooky cop (a sterling example of overacting if ever there was one) things go downhill quickly culminating in one of Hollywood’s more lamentable twist endings which will elicit either gasps or groans depending on how gullible the audience is. As a study in survivor mentality it is simplistic at best, as a straight-up thriller it requires too many concessions to be truly effective. The only time I feel offended by a movie is when it insults my intelligence and while Remember didn’t exactly leave my common sense mortally wounded, it certainly was bruised.

Restless (USA 2011) (2): Emotionally scarred by the death of his wealthy parents when he was a child, teenaged Enoch Brae now spends his days haunting cemeteries and crashing memorial services. Lacking any marketable social skills he pretty much keeps to himself, his only friend being Hiroshi, the ghost of a WWII kamikaze pilot whom he met when he was in a coma following the car crash which killed his parents. Love eventually does enter his life however when, at yet another anonymous funeral, he meets the sunny and lighthearted Annabel, a young girl with a keen interest in evolutionary theory and a passion for water birds (they’re the only birds who can go anywhere). Unfortunately Annabel only has three months to live, a fact which at first intrigues Enoch but ultimately causes his abandonment issues to resurface. Nevertheless, with Hiroshi’s encouragement, Enoch and Annabel use her last few weeks to wring as much happiness out of life as they can...a journey which heals all three in very different ways. With sophomoric performances bordering on Highschool Musical territory, a script rife with hokey sentimentality (they rehearse her death scene with taped bird noises in the background...isn’t that precious?), and enough strained pathos to send an entire theatre full of Twilight fans into wailing hysterics, this inane stab at teen angst rings false and contrived at every turn. A soundtrack of airy-fairy folk ballads only serves to highlight just how blatantly manipulative it tries to be. Furthermore, it’s impossible to feel any sympathy towards the two protagonists; he’s a petulant brat, she’s a free-spirited airhead, and their entire relationship is one big vapid attempt to wax philosophical on life’s greater mysteries while scarfing down Halloween candy and playing dress-up. I find it hard to believe that Gus Van Sant, the man who gave us such films as Milk, Paranoid Park, and Elephant could be responsible for this mushy maudlin mess. Artificial, ridiculous, and intellectually insulting.

Revenge of the Living Dead Girls (France 1987) (4): A big sloppy mess of a film that seems to have something to do with toxic waste, corporate blackmail, and three dead chicks who refuse to stay buried. The cast of Eurotrash nobodies plod through a script that is so awful it’s good; the seduction scenes are especially hysterical. Of course there is the usual bit of gore…a woman gets a high heel in the eye, a man has his “other” head bitten off…and, as an added bonus, we’re treated to some hot girl-on-girl zombie action where we learn that a samurai sword makes a lousy dildo. The ending is so outrageous the director felt compelled to flash a notice on the screen begging audiences not to give it away. You’ll just want to wave your hands in the air and yell “Vive les Mortes!!”

Revolver (UK 2005) (6):  There’s a great saying that goes, “The fact that no one understands you doesn’t make you an artist”.  A fitting epitaph to this ostentatious display of psycho-babble and flashy pyrotechnics.  The story centres on Jake, a hard-nosed player newly released from prison and bent on getting even with Macha, the gangster who set him up.  Just as he’s about to exact his revenge however, he discovers he only has three days to live due to some rare disease (huh?)  Enter Zach and Avi, two mysterious loan sharks who promise to help him settle the score with Macha.....for a price.  The rest of the story consists of double-crosses, bloody shoot-outs and hefty dollops of Freudian psychology with a little Jung on the side.  Apparently the “real” enemy we face is our own ego which often manifests itself as an external threat.  Wow.  Guy Ritchie’s ego is certainly on display in every frame as he tries to convince us that style equals substance and trite aphorisms can become profound insights if they’re repeated often enough.  He even throws in some talking heads from the field of psychology as the end credits roll as if to prove to us that we just sat through something amazingly brilliant.  I will say this though, “Revolver” looks great in a Quentin Tarantino/John Woo sort of way, the music is interesting, and the performances above par.  It’s just not as clever as all the hype would have us believe.

Rich Hill (USA 2014) (8): Andrew Palermo and Tracy Tragos’ award-winning doc (Sundance 2014) follows the lives of three adolescent boys whose families are living in the shadow of the American dream. Filmed in the impoverished midwest town of Rich Hill, Missouri, we are first introduced to Andrew, a likeable kid living with a mother addicted to prescription sleeping pills and a father who drags the family all over the country following a series of get rich pipe dreams which never seem to materialize. Accepting his lot in life (“I’m just a kid, the adults control what happens…”) Andrew dabbles in football, horseplays with his kid sister, and patiently waits for God to answer his prayers. Appachey, suffering from an alphabet of mental disorders from ADD to OCD and possibly Asperger’s Syndrome, lives in a squalid house with his siblings and a single mother who gave up on her own dreams long ago. Lastly, the medicated and perpetually angry Harley is shuffled between grandparents while his mother completes a prison sentence (a conviction directly related to his anti-social behaviour) while at the same time shouldering a horrifying family secret. Intense and voyeuristic, with occasional passages of sadly poetic imagery—a meagre 4th of July fireworks display and neon-lit county fair merely highlight everyone’s plight—Palermo and Tragos refuse to judge their subjects thus avoiding having the film turn into a white trash horror show. Letting the kids, parents, and other adults speak for themselves instead, sometimes directly to the camera, a picture gradually emerges of human beings in flux partially due to their own bad decisions and partially due to the crushing economic realities around them. Garnering neither sympathy nor condemnation, Rich Hill’s snapshot of other peoples’ lives nevertheless leaves its audience with a few indelible memories like Andrew’s father using an electric skillet, kettle, and clothes iron to heat up enough water to fill the bathtub (the gas was shut off because of non-payment) or Harley enjoying his weekly phone conversation with his jailed mother. Sobering stuff.

Rigor Mortis (Hong Kong 2013) (8): Fans of the 1980s Mr. Vampire series have reason to celebrate as director Juno Mak reunites some former cast members for this grisly and darkly humorous homage to the Chinese “hopping vampire” genre. When a suicidal actor checks into a dilapidated apartment complex he’s not prepared for the supernatural goings on that seem to be an everyday part of life (and death) for the eccentric tenants. A pair of vengeful spirits haunt the flat across the hall, an old lady is raising a zombie in her bathtub, and a cadre of tattered demons wander the hallways every evening…just to name a few. But when a wall-crawling, bunny-hopping bloodsucker is set loose the morose leading man finds himself allied with the kindly noodle vendor downstairs who also happens to be a vampire hunter… A serpentine plot and several confusing twists, at least for those of us not familiar with this brand of horror, eventually make some kind of sense—but logic takes a back seat to the colourfully acrobatic CGI effects and ghoulish Kung Fu showdowns. Mak takes great delight in filling the screen with as much hocus pocus as he can: gossamer ghosts defy gravity while trailing a network of writhing tentacles behind them, black-eyed banshees scream from within mirrors, and the Asian-style Nosferatu is one chilling cadaver as it leaps and spins in its monk’s robes. The somewhat abrupt ending proves to be a head-scratcher (is there a bit of Jacob’s Ladder at work here?) but it was enough to make me want to rent the original prototype!

Rise of the Guardians (USA 2012) (10): When Pitch Black (aka The Bogeyman) unleashes a plague of bad dreams upon the world’s children the enigmatic Man in the Moon calls upon Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, Sandman, and a reluctant Jack Frost—-collectively known as “The Guardians”—-to defend the little ones from harm. But the very existence of the Guardians is dependant upon kids believing in them and as Black’s evil begins to turn that innocent belief into cynical doubt Santa and the gang find their magical powers becoming seriously depleted. Will they be able to thwart the Bogeyman in time, or will fear and skepticism become the new childhood norm? As it turns out the answer arrives from a most unlikely source… A big colourful comic book of a film with brightly animated characters, riotous action sequences, and a delightful sense of whimsy which feeds into some of our earliest childhood fantasies: from a big boisterous (and decidedly Soviet) Kris Kringle and his rocket sleigh to an endearingly somnolent Sandman adrift on a cloud of golden dust, a rainbow-hued Tooth Fairy and her flock of little hummingbird helpers, and an ill-tempered Easter Rabbit armed with boomerangs and a thick Aussie accent. And then there’s that supporting cast of muttering yetis, clumsy elves, two-legged pastel eggs, and a menacing herd of fiery-eyed nightmares. But it is the interplay between Pitch Black and Jack Frost which takes centre stage for both are pariahs in their own right and both yearn to become real in the eyes of preschoolers everywhere, albeit for two very different reasons. A clever script replete with sly visuals and presented with the kind of youthful zeal that makes you wish you hadn’t grown up quite so fast.

The Road (USA 2009) (8): In the wake of a global disaster (was it nuclear war? a comet strike?) America is reduced to a grey landscape of incinerated trees and ruined cities beneath roiling skies permanently choked with cinders. Through this desolation of skeletons and silence, decked out in rags and hauling their few possessions on a makeshift barrow, a man and his young son (Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee, both magnificent), slowly trudge along, heading towards the coast where the father believes some semblance of civilization may still exist. Living off whatever scraps they can find while braving apocalyptic storms, wildfires, and marauding bands of tribal cannibals, their relationship comes to represent the fracturing of mankind itself—the man tortured by golden dreams of the past while the boy, who was born after the disaster, faces a twilit future where death and deprivation are as common as the ubiquitous soot that covers every surface. A couple of defining encounters with fellow survivors, one a tired old man (Robert Duvall) and one young and desperate, will further highlight the ideological rift between father and son with the kid reaching out while dad clings zealously to his gun and its two remaining bullets even as he tries to impart some sense of nobility to his child. Will they reach the coast? And will it contain the promise of salvation they’ve pinned their hopes on? Based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel, director John Hillcoat’s sobering account of life after the fall is as far from the testosterone-laced idiocy of Mad Max as one can get. Much like 1983’s Testament in which a woman stoically faces The End with her children by her side, Hillcoat reduces man’s final bang and whimper to a single family unit (the mother, Charlize Theron, having given up earlier on). But this is a grittier, more appalling look at what can happen to the human animal once civilization’s veneer is ripped away. The film’s pall of violence and depravity, though never presented gratuitously, nevertheless imparts a bleakness more disheartening than all those images of blasted forests and crumbling country homes. “Keep the fire alive!” pleads dad at one point while choking on a lungful of ash, and in the shrouded silence this simple supplication resounds like a benediction.

Robin and Marian (USA/UK 1976) (8): Fairy tales are always supposed to end with “happily ever after…” so perhaps this partly explains why Richard Lester’s bittersweet coda to the legend of Robin Hood received such a lukewarm response upon its initial release. After having spent twenty years fighting in the Crusades alongside the late King Richard, a greyer and wearier Robin (a perfectly cast Sean Connery) returns to a Sherwood Forest that has somehow grown smaller and less magical. His longtime foe the Sheriff of Nottingham (a sadistic Robert Shaw) now reigns supreme and his former band of merry men have all moved on. Even his one true love, the maid Marian (a glowing Audrey Hepburn), has forsaken the world and become abbess of the local convent now under siege by a Pope-hating King John. But while Robin’s remaining followers slowly begin to trickle back into the forest a December passion rekindles between the Prince of Thieves and his Lady as they try to make up for two decades of separation. Unfortunately, although the years have also taken their toll on the Sheriff the animosity between him and Robin has not diminished making one final confrontation inevitable. A few narrative jumps cause the film’s pace to stumble now and again and John Barry’s intrusive musical score too often borders on gushing treacle, yet there is a solidity to James Goldman’s script which tinges its romantic centrepiece with sadness and a yearning for what might have been. As Robin and Marian embrace we sense their disenchantment with a world they once delighted in for they’ve both become all too aware of the ugliness which lurks beneath: Robin’s experiences in battle have left more than physical scars on his once perfect body and Marian’s crushing loneliness came close to destroying her. Even a supposedly heroic battlefield scene toward the end comes across as pointless and pathetic. Only Robin’s lifelong friend Little John (Nicol Williamson) seems unaffected by the passing years. Having followed Robin to the Holy Land and back we see in John’s eyes a devotion that perhaps goes far deeper than mere friendship making Robin and Marian an unorthodox kind of love triangle. Pensive and unashamedly nostalgic, this is one heart-tugger that had me in the palm of its hand right up to that emotionally draining final scene. Richard Harris, Denholm Elliot, Ian Holm, and Ronnie Barker round out the stellar cast.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (USA 1964) (5): Stranded on Mars with only a pet monkey, an American astronaut tries to make the best of it despite an errant asteroid, an alien invasion and an escaped slave from another world. Bad special effects and even worse science (to be fair, the film was released a year before Mariner 4's historic fly-by of the red planet) render this flick as little more than a cinematic curiousity. At least Paul Mantee is easy on the eyes.

Rock of Ages (USA 2012) (6): Set in 1987, Adam Shankman’s rock ‘n roll musical follows the adventures of songbird Sherrie Christian (she’s just a small town girl) who leaves the dim lights of Tulsa Oklahoma to seek her fortune on L.A.’s Sunset Strip. Ending up waiting tables at the infamous Bourbon Room, Sherrie falls for Drew Boley, another singer wallowing in obscurity, and together the two face down adversity and heartache as they strive to make a name for themselves. Along the way there will be run-ins with an egotistical rock legend (Tom Cruise?!), a slimy talent agent, and a moral crusade of Orange County housewives led by the mayor’s suspiciously puritanical wife. Of course the cookie cutter plot takes a distant backseat to the non-stop barrage of 80’s metal anthems, but if Shankman was trying to do for big hair bands what Julie Taymor did for The Beatles in 2007’s Across The Universe he doesn’t even come close. Whereas Taymor’s film combined some amazing tunes with a cleverly conceived story, Shankman merely churns out an overly long music video which, thankfully, doesn’t take itself too seriously. Some of the staging is well done as when strip club owner Mary J. Blige belts out “Any Way You Want It” while her girls defy gravity on the dance poles, but most of the numbers are just plain silly fun...picture Russell Brand and Alec Baldwin as aging metal-heads falling in love with each other while crooning “Can’t Fight This Feeling”. If the movie itself is completely forgettable the soundtrack will keep you humming for days and the little splashes of 80s memorabilia, including a few wrinkled cameos, will make those of us old enough to remember crack a smile. Or just cringe.

The Roe’s Room (Poland 1997) (8): Lech Majewski’s autobiographical opera about growing up with his parents is brought to the small screen in this beautiful production made for Polish television. Faintly reminiscent of Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes, in spirit if not in presentation, Majewski offers up a succession of nonlinear, highly formalized mise-en-scènes designed to invoke the magical and impressionistic qualities of childhood memories in which a drab hallway carpet becomes a verdant meadow or a dusty library is transformed into a mysterious jungle. Using the four seasons as a template he traces the inevitable evolution of his own family. In spring and summer all is tender caresses and sunlit windows with green vines poking through the plaster walls, young deer roaming the living-room and a bubbling spring erupting in the middle of the dinner table. Yet by winter the plants have withered, the deer have fled, and the aging parents are frozen by an icy blizzard howling from an open fridge. Along the way the son experiences his first sexual stirrings as he gazes upon the carnal exploits of his downstairs neighbour; and a dawning spiritual awareness as he vaguely wonders about the well-being of his prayerful upstairs neighbour. Majewski’s use of incidental objects to add subtext to the film’s disjointed narrative is marvelous; whether it’s an enigmatic painting by Chirico partially obscured by blowing curtains, or the passage of time indicated by the father’s collection of stamps showing the phases of the moon. Filled with obscure rituals and stagy theatrics this film is definitely not for everyone, but I found it completely absorbing. And the music is magnificent.

Rogue (Australia 2007) (8): A group of tourists out for a day of sightseeing in Australia’s Northern Territories are stranded on an island in the middle of a rising river when their boat is attacked by a giant crocodile. With the water level creeping ever upwards and the giant reptile prowling just offshore they embark on a desperate gambit to reach safety before they are either drowned or eaten. Writer/director Greg McLean, the man who set the “Ozploitation” genre on its ear with his Wolf Creek instalments, gives us an exciting Aussie spin on Jaws with seven metres of scales and snapping teeth determined to make a snack out of the usual assortment of horror dramatis personae. But what sets this flick above the others is an enthusiastic cast who throw themselves (literally) into their roles, an unexpectedly evocative soundtrack of strings and percussion, and some majestic widescreen vistas of wild Australia. Of course you are required to overlook a few lapses in logic and a wee bit of artistic license, this is a monster movie after all, but the CGI effects are enough to make you flinch and a final showdown in a subterranean lair is a small triumph of editing and special effects choreography.

Rollerball (UK 1975) (8): Norman Jewison’s sadly overlooked science fiction classic is perhaps more pertinent now than it was forty years ago. In a future utopian society run by a global Corporate Government and its ruling class of “executives”, all of mankind’s historical ills…poverty, disease, avarice…have been eradicated. Kept happily anesthetized by their boardroom overlords through the use of recreational narcotics, erotic distractions, and shiny techno toys, the people only have one law they must observe…never ever question the actions of those in charge. The population’s one aggressive outlet is the enormously popular televised sport of rollerball; a dangerously violent high-speed variation of roller derby in which armoured players use any means at their disposal to cripple the opposing team as they try to gain possession of a steel ball. But when the sport’s most charismatic player, Jonathan E., is asked to retire at the height of his career he refuses to blindly obey the executive council and instead begins asking some very uncomfortable questions regarding the government’s motives and the true nature of the game—-a move which leads to tragedy and some horrifying revelations. With elaborate sets stocked with futuristic kitsch (day-glo furniture and computer punch cards?) and a classical soundtrack of sad strings and pounding organ solos (Bach’s Tocata und Fugue in D Minor figures prominently) Jewison’s vision of one man’s battle against a flawed Eden looks charmingly retro yet carries within it some chilling comparisons to today’s headlines. This is a disarmed society, dependant upon high tech bread & circuses to keep it amused and content to uphold the status quo as long as its basic needs are met. Libraries, overseen by corporate computers, contain appropriately censored and condensed literature; multiple television screens adorn every room; and aphrodisiacs are passed around like breath mints. In one especially telling scene a group of bored elite, hung over from the previous night’s bacchanal, seem lost when they wander out into the natural world…until they decide to make a game out of setting fire to a stand of pine trees. And all the while the game of rollerball becomes increasingly lethal as the rules governing it are slowly pared away and the fans begin responding with violence of their own. A deadly serious social satire or cautionary political allegory? Both I’d say, and more.

Roman Holiday (USA 1953) (8): Winning Oscars for costume design, writing, and best actress for a relatively unknown twenty-four-year old Audrey Hepburn, director William Wyler's wistful romantic comedy has found its way onto many "best of" lists including Steven Schneider's "1001 Movies to See Before You Die" and the American Film Institute's "Greatest Genre Films". Shot entirely in Rome and using that city's exotic backdrops to full effect, it tells the story of a very bored Princess Ann (of no affixed country) who becomes so desperately vexed by endless state duties that she sneaks out of her palatial digs during an official stopover in Italy in order to wander the streets of Rome incognito. Falling asleep on a park bench she piques the interest of American newsman Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) who reluctantly takes her under his wing. And then Joe finds out who this demure young waif really is and realizes he just may have stumbled onto the most lucrative story of his career. Joining forces with his photographer buddy Irving (Eddie Albert), Joe takes Ann---who has no idea she's been recognized---on a giddy 24-hour tour of the Eternal City while Irving snaps clandestine pics of her enjoying her first true tastes of freedom, from smoking a cigarette to joining in a dance hall brawl. But Rome tends to weave a spell on young couples and before the day is over naive sovereign and cynical civilian will discover they have much more in common than they first thought... Filmed in gauzy B&W, Wyler's bittersweet tale of improbable love revels in amour while at the same time keeping one foot firmly fixed in reality. For all his acting prowess Peck never could play a convincing romantic lead but this shortcoming is hardly noticeable as Hepburn lights up the screen with every appearance, her delicate beauty and sense of grace giving the entire project a heart of pure enchantment. Dreamy, playful, but not without a note of sadness, this is one bit of old school romance which has withstood the test of time.

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (USA 1961) (8): After her husband’s sudden death aging actress Karen Stone finds herself adrift in Rome—a city which, like herself, exists largely in the past. He had been twenty years older than her and that age gap, plus a circle of flattering friends, allowed Karen to ignore some harsher truths about herself: she had more personality than talent, and she was quickly approaching middle-age. Alone for the first time Stone falls prey to the wiles of Contessa Magda, an embittered relic of European nobility now peddling illusions of romance to rich lonely women (and men) in the form of dashing young gigolos. One such rent-boy, Paolo, slowly works his way past Karen’s defences threatening both her personal stability and very public reputation in the process. A lush technicolor adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ tragedy headlined by Vivian Leigh (whose personal life mirrored much of Karen’s) and a shockingly young Warren Beatty who sabotages his own good looks with a ridiculously affected Italian accent. True to Williams’ style everyone seems to exist within a comforting bubble of unreality from Paolo’s pathetic attempts to rise above his station in life to Stone’s own fragile vanity as she wills herself into believing she’s finally found love and passion. Reality, however, is never far away for Karen’s future is literally shadowing her through the streets and alleyways of Rome. A fine cast is rounded out by screen great Lotte Lenya as the Contessa, a cynical dowager who mocks the very women she purports to be helping, and Jill St. John as Barbara Bingham, a shallow starlet who embodies everything Karen feels she has lost. A sad tale presented with style and flair.

Rome Adventure (USA 1962) (6): Suzanne Pleshette and Troy Donahue can’t decide whether they’re starring in a love story or a two-hour travelogue for Tourism Italia in this sweet little bowl of romantic mush. She plays Prudence Bell, a chaste librarian at an exclusive Connecticut girls’ college who rebels against her school’s stifling sense of morality by quitting and heading for Rome in search of love. He plays Don Porter, an American student studying abroad who’s just had his heart torn in two by a man-eating femme fatale and is now desperately on the rebound. Looking for consolation in each other’s company Prudence eagerly wraps her legs around Don’s vespa and the two embark on a whirlwind series of postcard adventures. But even as they fall head over heels for each other complications loom on the horizon; Don’s first love slinks back for an encore while Prudence discovers she has a few more suitors than she bargained for including the debonair (and way too old) Rossano Brazzi. With its derivative plot, misty-eyed performances and mawkish dialogue, Rome Adventure often plays like the screen adaptation of a “True Romance” comic book. With all that innocence and heartbreak being bandied about it’s a wonder anyone has time to listen to the droning voice of Prudence and Don’s tour guide as she points out several of Italy’s wonderful sights, (I wonder if they had travel agents standing by at the back of the theatre?) However, despite all that there remains a certain dated charm to this film which actually made me care about what happened to the two overly attractive lovebirds. Pleshette is convincing as the sweet naif while screen hunk Donahue registers heartache like a pro; their scenes together combine just the right amount of innocent playfulness and sexual tension. Furthermore a capable supporting cast including Constance Ford as a sage bookstore owner and Iphigenie Castiglioni as the kindly owner of the pensione where everyone is staying add a nice dose of reality. Lastly, legendary trumpeter Al Hirt manages to make an awkward cameo even more awkward while the glories of Rome provide a beautiful backdrop. It’s all mush of course, but tasty sexy mush just the same.

Rome, Open City (Italy 1946) (8): Roberto Rossellini’s magnificent film about life in Rome under Nazi rule was in the vanguard of the Italian neo-realism movement and is as powerful now as it ever was. Although his professional actors are incredible (Anna Magnani can do no wrong) his cast of non-professionals, including actual German POWs in the role of enemy soldiers, is wholly believable; small wonder when you consider the real Occupation was still fresh in everyone’s mind. Over the course of a few days we’re introduced to a wide cross-section of people including a Catholic priest drawn into the resistance armed only with his faith, a young widow planning her wedding in the midst of chaos, a bitter actress turned collaborator, and a world-weary German officer who regards his “master race” with a jaundiced eye. Rossellini strikes a perfect dramatic balance between hope and despair, softening the film’s many tragic moments with flashes of comic relief to remind us that life goes on. Although heroes and traitors are given equal time a series of inspirational soliloquies leave no doubt as to where his sentiments rightly lie; it’s this lack of the usual bombastic sermons that truly highlights the everyday courage of his characters. Despite it’s stark realism Open City nevertheless contains some truly cinematic moments as when a group of children solemnly walk away after witnessing an execution, or the image of an ostentatious German officers’ club which backs onto a torture chamber. The portrayal of a heartless Nazi moll as a predatory lesbian didn’t sit well with me however, was her homosexuality supposed to indicate how utterly depraved she was? This implied homophobia is a small, albeit troubling criticism for a film that is otherwise pretty near perfect.

Romper Stomper  (Australia 1992) (4):  Well meaning but poorly conceived mess of a film lacking any real insight and taking itself far too seriously. A supposed statement on racism and violence, it tends to revel in the very thing it sets out to condemn......with Russell Crowe shamelessly mugging for the camera and endless sequences of frenzied yobbos smacking each other and smashing things. The final scene with our little neo-nazi Romeo and Juliet rolling in the surf while a busload of Asian stereotypes look on was so poorly done it was laughable.

La Ronde (France 1950) (8): Max Ophul’s lighthearted merry-go-round of a movie follows the romantic exploits of its circulating cast as they go through the rigors of love; from seduction to heartbreak to eventual rebound with another willing player. Guided by the film’s omniscient narrator who wields the power of fate in his hand, each separate story segues smoothly into the next as characters switch partners and love begins anew. Prostitutes and soldiers, poets and mistresses, Counts and scoundrels; all take part in a marvelously circular danse d’amour while a swirling background waltz maintains a steady rhythm like the beating of a heart. Ophul adds some colourful touches along the way; plaster cherubs and satyrs peek out of bushes, every scene includes a clock to mark the passage of time, and a whimsical carousel spins round and round in the centre of town...stopping only briefly when one character experiences a temporary bout of impotence. Filled with theatrical conceits and sexual innuendo (sometimes a sword is not just a sword) this is a bright breezy film delivered with a playful insouciance that has aged beautifully.

Room at the Top (UK 1959) (7): Despite its uneven performances and heavy-handed moralizing, Jack Clayton’s working class melodrama sports a literate script and enough taboo-breaking that it earned a strong “X” rating from the British censors. In a mad dash to rise above his station in life dissatisfied office clerk Joe Lampton (a wooden Laurence Harvey) sacrifices the the one woman who truly loves him, the older unhappily married Alice (Oscar winner Simone Signoret), in favour of pursuing a dalliance of convenience with Susan, the naïve daughter of a wealthy factory owner (Heather Sears all sugar and spice and a head full of helium). But be careful of what you wish for, as the adage goes, for just as Joe stands poised to have it all the flimsy house of cards he built through scheming and deception threatens to crash down upon him. From Susan’s class-conscious parents to the righteous hypocrisy of Alice’s philandering husband, Britain’s strictly tiered society is dissected to reveal the moral desert behind the monied facade. Frustrated at every turn, Joe soon realizes that in post war England (the film takes place in 1947) those born into a lower caste aren’t even allowed to dream of cake let alone eat it. Daring at the time for its frank depictions of adultery and (gasp!) sexual pleasure, Clayton presents a most unflattering vision of an industrialized north choked with smog, littered with brick smokestacks, and crawling with soot-covered children in raggedy clothes. But the film really belongs to Signoret who sets the screen to smoulder with her depiction of a fully fleshed sexual being whose passionate embraces barely hide the anger she feels at being used as a pawn by the two men in her life. Dated, but still entirely watchable.

Rope (USA 1948) (10): Banned from several theatres upon its initial release due to a great deal of implied homosexuality not to mention allusions to justifiable genocide, Alfred Hitchcock’s first colour film remains one of his best—a dark and unsettling study of one upper class sociopath’s evening of psychological games. Roommates (and probable lovers) Brandon and Phillip feel they have just committed the perfect murder when they entice former classmate David to their Manhattan penthouse, strangle him, and then stuff his body into an antique trunk which they keep in the living room. But whereas the high-strung Phillip suffers from crippling remorse immediately afterwards the ice cold Brandon feels only elation on successfully executing the “perfect killing” of a second-class human being—murder, after all, doesn’t apply if you are the victims intellectual and social superior. To celebrate his triumph Brandon hosts a dinner party that night using the old trunk as a macabre serving table. Among the invitees are David’s father, his girlfriend, and the girlfriend’s ex beau…David’s former romantic rival who still carries a torch for her. Also invited is Rupert Cadell, one of the men’s professors from college (James Stewart in fine form), a shrewd and observant creature who begins to suspect foul play as the flow of wine sees Brandon making increasingly cryptic comments while Phillip trembles and sweats. The usual social niceties soon give way to uncomfortable questions when David, also invited according to Brandon, fails to make an appearance. Will the two partners get away with their crime before Cadell’s suspicions turn to certainty? Famous for being filmed entirely on one indoor set (true) using one continuous take (not true) this is definitely one of Hitchcock’s more striking productions with a voyeuristic camera smoothly gliding from room to room, seemingly in real time, as it follows first one character and then the other. Masterfully directed, Hitchcock manages to make eighty minutes seem like an entire evening’s worth of tension and suspense starting with the murder itself and ending with a somewhat ingratiating homily perhaps meant to dispel some of the film’s more controversial elements. A fine ensemble piece which plays out like live theatre.

Rosetta (Belgium 1999) (8): This troubling Dardenne brothers’ film not only won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, its bleak presentation of childhood poverty also caused Belgium to rethink its child labour laws. Teenaged Rosetta (Émilie Dequenne—best actress, Cannes) is a resourceful and honest young woman so determined to escape her squalid home life that her search for gainful employment is bordering on a manic obsession. Living in a trailer with no running water and an alcoholic mother who is not above turning the occasional trick for a case of beer, she is both a reluctant caregiver and sporadic breadwinner. Wary of everyone and trusting no one, not even the hesitant young man who attempts to connect with her, Rosetta sees holding down a real job as her only route to salvation and normalcy. But with only a string of temp positions to her name (she’s let go before her position can become permanent) hope is eroded by a creeping pessimism and each failed attempt to rise above her station precipitates yet another meltdown… Filmed in jarring verité style with natural sounds and handheld cameras that never stray far from Rosetta’s shoulder, the Dardennes maintain a heartbreaking intimacy with their battered protagonist as she trudges into one brick wall after another while vainly trying to hide her poverty from the world. Fighting against odds that seem forever stacked against her she finds sad consolation in repeating her childish mantra, “I won’t be left by the wayside”, before closing her eyes at night. Confrontational and immersive from the very beginning, this is a discomfiting experience right up to its darkly ambivalent final frame which begs the question, which route do you take when all roads seem to lead nowhere?

Rubber (France 2010) (9): Some films take themselves far too seriously, others not seriously enough. And then there’s Rubber, Quentin Dupieux’s seriously fucked up homage to “No Reason” which doesn’t seem to give a shit either way. Deep in the American southwest a discarded car tire with homicidal tendencies shakes itself into consciousness and begins rolling through the countryside with killing on its steel-belted mind, (it has telekinetic powers which make things go boom—-like bunny rabbits and human heads). But complications arise in the form of love interest Sheila, a raven-haired drifter for whom the rubber killer develops an erotic obsession, and a posse of rather ineffectual state troopers who would just as soon step out of character and go home. And just to remind you that the movie’s premise is every bit as nonsensical as you think it is, a crowd of Comic Con geeks hang around in the nearby desert critiquing the story as it unfolds through their binoculars. In fact the film can’t end as long as they’re alive and watching it…a complication which the director tries to remedy in his own infernal way. Supremely silly, amusingly gory, and one of the most wickedly original works I’ve seen in some time. Watching a simple rubber tire (no big special effects budget here) as it longs for a girlfriend, takes out its revenge on an errant motorist, and then helps itself to a motel shower, is so ridiculous that I found myself laughing as much out of enjoyment as embarrassment. And that outrageous final scene sticks it to the movie industry as few indie films ever have. Gives “Goodyear” a whole new meaning.

Ruggles of Red Gap (USA 1935) (8): Set in 1908, Leo McCarey’s Academy Award nominated comedy of cultures follows the adventures of a proper English butler after he is set adrift in the wilds of the American west. Faithful and fastidious to a fault, Ruggles (Charles Laughton, magnificently mousey) has been the personal valet of the current Earl of Burnstead (Topper’s Roland Young) all his adult life, just like his father and grandfather before him. But when the Earl “loses” him in a game of poker to a wealthy American couple—social upstart Effie Floud and her husband Egbert, an unapologetic mountain man who’d rather drink whisky and spit tobacco than wear a top hat and spats—Ruggles finds himself bundled up and headed for Red Gap, Washington; a booming hick town of cowboys, saloons, and boorish nouveau riche. Mistaken for a revered officer of the English army, Ruggles is immediately set upon by Red Gap’s gaggle of upwardly mobile society wives and quickly becomes the toast of the town much to the dismay of Effie and her snobbish brother-in-law—and the secret amusement of Egbert and Maude, her no-nonsense mother. Torn between the dictates of his strict class-conscious upbringing and his newfound desire to partake in the American Dream by going into business for himself, not to mention a growing fondness for local widow Prunella (the great Zasu Pitts), Ruggles has a monumental decision to make—especially when his former employer journeys to Red Gap in order to reclaim him… Overflowing with clever one-offs and hilarious asides (Effie’s attempts to speak le français are priceless as is her allusion to the “Mayor of Canada”), McCarey directs with tongue firmly in cheek as he plays the stereotype card for all it’s worth—whether it’s a stuffy exchange between British aristocrat and lowly manservant or a raucous tavern of drunken cowpokes trying to remember “What did Lincoln say?” until hushed to sudden sobriety by Ruggles’ recitation of the Gettysburg Address. A big loveable farce from Hollywood’s golden age which has lost none of its sparkle or underlying wit in the ensuing decades.

The Rules of the Game  (France 1939) (9):  "The Rules of the Game" is on many critics' list of greatest films, and rightfully so. It's a richly textured examination of a privileged society rife with hypocrisy and moral apathy that extends from the mightiest tycoon down to the lowest servant. Renoir's expert direction is a feast for the eyes as he manipulates light and shadow in order to guide your attention from frame to frame. It is a film that plays on two levels.......the action in the background giving an ironic twist to the story unfolding in the foreground. A timeless classic.

Rumble Fish (USA 1983) (6): In Francis Ford Coppola’s paean to juvenile delinquency downtown Tulsa is transformed into a working class purgatory with banks of inexplicable smoke blowing down every street and exaggerated shadows splashed on every wall. Based on S. E. Hinton’s novel, it concerns the plight of teenaged Rusty James (Matt Dillon tripping over James Dean’s footsteps), a sweet-faced, somewhat vacuous punk pining away for the good old days of mindless gang violence while he wastes his youth downing chocolate milk at the local soda shop and groping his virginal girlfriend. But when his older brother “Motorcycle Boy” (Mickey Rourke substituting blank gazes for emotional depths) breezes back into town Rusty’s own raison d’être is turned upside down causing an already established downward spiral to get even steeper. Motorcycle Boy was something of a legend among Tulsa’s burgeoning population of dropouts and the bane of local authority figure Officer Patterson, and Rusty was leader of the pack thanks to his sibling’s reputation. Now reunited under the same roof with their alcoholic father (Dennis Hopper living the role) the two young men find themselves at odds—Rusty’s eagerness to be the biggest fish in a very small pond conflicting with his brother’s advice to leave the water altogether before he becomes the latest casualty in a family chockfull of losers. And then during one drunken night on the town the fate of one brother will forever impact the other and Tulsa just won’t be the same. Filmed in dreary shades of B&W, the only flashes of colour coming from the eponymous fish of the title and a brief yet crucial glass reflection, Coppola seems influenced by both Robert Wiene’s expressionism and David Lynch’s elaborate affectations. Clouds speed by overhead, clocks loom in every corner, and midnight revelries come to resemble Dantean bacchanals while lopsided camera angles manage to keep us off balance. But to what purpose? There are certainly a few clever tricks up Coppola’s sleeve such as the B&W cinematography alluding to Motorcycle Boy’s colour blindness—his inability to distinguish one hue from another having definite moral and perhaps psychiatric implications. However it seems like a whole lot of smoke and mirrors to tell a simple tale and a host of wooden performances delivering a hackneyed script make it a rather uninteresting one at that. Nice early cameos from the likes of Diane Lane, Nicolas Cage, and Vincent Spano though, and it all looks wonderful on the big screen.

Run Silent Run Deep (USA 1958) (8): At the height of WWII a section of ocean off the coast of Japan has come to be known as “The Graveyard” due to the number of American submarines blown apart by the wily commander of a Japanese destroyer. The captain of one such ill-fated sub, Rich Richardson (a fossilized Clark Gable), is so eager for revenge that he manages to commandeer his way onto another submarine much to the resentment of its displaced captain, Jim Bledsoe (an unfossilized Burt Lancaster), and head back to sea for a rematch despite official orders to avoid The Graveyard. What follows is a taut drama of strained loyalties and frayed nerves as Richardson and Bledsoe square off under enemy fire while the crew begin to wonder who is really in charge. Filmed almost entirely within the claustrophobic spaces of a submarine using highly innovative (for the time) underwater effects and authentic set pieces, this is one of the better B&W wartime dramas to surface in the 50’s. Despite being too old for their roles, Gable and Lancaster share an onscreen chemistry, perhaps fuelled by their purported offscreen animosity, which maintains a dramatic tension and hones the performances of an impressive supporting cast including a very young Don Rickles making his film debut. The full screen battle sequences are convincing enough and the constricted onboard cinematography is a marvel of cramped spaces and narrow corridors with the ever-present mechanical pings and clicks heightening the suspense. Somewhat reminiscent of Melville’s Moby Dick, with Gable’s Ahab single-mindedly pursuing his ironclad whale no matter what the cost.

Rushmore (USA 1998) (3): Max Fischer is a successful playwright, a persuasive statesman, and a charismatic entrepreneur all rolled into one. He’s also fifteen years old and an inveterate con artist whose failing grades and manic extracurricular activities are making his future at the prestigious Rushmore Academy for boys tenuous at best. And as if that weren’t enough he’s begun stalking the recently widowed grade one teacher, Mrs. Cross, and seems intent on ruining the life of Herman Blume, the father of two of his classmates whom he views as a romantic rival. As tensions escalate and a round of retributions between the adult Blume and the naïve man-child Fischer threaten to destroy everyone’s life, a series of new opportunities present themselves to Max when he is relocated to an inner city public school. Director Wes Anderson’s flair for eccentric comedies featuring quirky characters fails him miserably in this off-putting, faintly disturbing tale which confuses crazed obsession with precociousness and features an endless parade of affected monotone performances. In the lead role Jason Schwartzman exhibits zero screen chemistry, his character’s set countenance and gleaming stares more suggestive of mental illness than endearing charm while fellow star Bill Murray delivers his usual deadpan SNL persona. A thoroughly unlikeable film about unlikeable people repeatedly being made fools of by a psychotic little shit. And the soundtrack’s assortment of rock and folk ballads sounds woefully out of place too. D-minus.

Sabrina (USA 1954) (7): Billy Wilder’s sparkling romance follows the travails of Sabrina Fairchild, a lowly chauffeur’s daughter with a lifelong crush on David Larrabee, the devilish playboy son of her father’s multi-millionaire employer. Ignored by David and gently admonished by her dad who warns her not to reach for the moon (the unspoken American caste system is alluded to throughout), Sabrina reluctantly moves to Paris to study cooking. Two years later she returns a more sophisticated and confident young lady, a fact not lost upon David who immediately sets about wooing her despite being engaged to a sugar cane heiress as part of a marriage-of-convenience scheme concocted by his older brother Linus. Compared to David’s wild and carefree nature Linus is all corporate meetings and stock market quotes, so when his younger brother’s dalliance with the hired help’s daughter threatens to topple his plans Linus takes it upon himself to drive a wedge between the would-be lovers. But love knows no bounds and even as Linus experiences a change of heart he also realizes he may have feelings for Sabrina himself leading to difficult decisions all around. While the story may read like a copy of True Love magazine, Wilder’s deft direction and Audrey Hepburn’s charming performance keep things somewhat credible. William Holden’s portrayal of David Larrabee is just the right amount of dashing good looks and careless spontaneity, the perfect foil to Hepburn’s reserved zeal. If only it were easier to overlook a miscast Humphrey Bogart’s wooden performance, dumpy demeanour, and grandfatherly wrinkles. But this is a fairy tale romance after all, filled with moonlit nights and champagne kisses all backed by an ubiquitous orchestral score. “I’ve stopped reaching for the moon…” says a dreamy Sabrina to her doting father, “…and decided to let the moon reach for me.” And they all lived happily ever after.

The Sacrifice (USA 2005) (1): HORRIBLE! Local goth kid with personal issues joins local preppie with personal issues in order to uncover the awful truth about a witches’ coven operating in their sleepy New England town. Apparently director Jamie Fessenden got a rad new video camera and some plastic skulls for Christmas and decided to shoot this totally awesome horror movie starring his highschool buddies and their families including nelly old uncle Jim as the lisping antagonist. Halfway through filming he discovered the camera came with an instruction booklet so he threw in some cool effects using filters and double exposures and then got the kids in band class to compose a couple of creepy chords for like, you know, atmosphere. And get this, the two teenage leads get all gay on each other and start making out and one of them even takes his clothes off at the end and tries to act all evil and stuff while covered in pink Karo syrup and shaking a rubber head from the drama department! Amateur to the extreme with a cast that definitely should not give up their day jobs, this crapfest looks as if it was shot over a long weekend and then released directly to DVD without any editing (look for the cameraman’s reflections!). And this got an 8.1/10 on imdb.com?! Oh wait, two of the three reviews were written by friends of the director. Be sure to check out the sequel, The Resurrection, coming nowhere soon.

Safety Not Guaranteed (USA 2012) (6): The laughs don’t exactly come fast and furious in Colin Trevorrow’s northwest slacker comedy, but at least the smiles come easily enough. With no skills, no motivation, and no future to speak of, millennial poster child Darius (poker-faced Aubrey Plaza) lands a job as an intern at the less-than-prestigious Seattle Magazine where she hauls packages and cleans toilets. And then the magazine decides to run a feature on a mysterious personal ad placed by someone looking for a partner to join them on a time travel odyssey, “safety not guaranteed”, and Darius is chosen to accompany ace reporter and all-around douchebag Jeff and his browbeaten lackey Arnau. Traveling to the godforsaken hick town of Ocean View the three manage to track down Kenneth, the ad’s author, but what starts out as a bit of flippant investigative journalism turns into something more sobering when Darius begins to take her subject seriously. Meanwhile, in the background, Jeff’s overt sexism receives a timely comeuppance when he tracks down an old highschool sweetheart and the mousy Arnau finally finds a cure for his terminal virginity. But do Kenneth’s time travel claims actually hold any validity or is he as crazy as all the evidence suggests? Between Darius’ monotone mumblings, Arnau’s timid squeaks, and Jeff’s macho blustering Trevorrow finds enough situational humour to elicit a few giggles and a developing romance seems almost plausible. But the sci-fi slant comes across as a quirky add-on—the film’s underlying theme of regretting the past notwithstanding—and the final twist is more shaggy dog than resolution. Okay for a discount rental but if you pay full price you’ll probably want to go back in time and stop yourself.

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea (UK 1976) (5): Lewis John Carlino’s sloppy cerebral film—based on the letter if not the spirit of Yukio Mishima’s novel—wobbles unconvincingly between an Oedipal nightmare and a Nietzschean episode of The Little Rascals. Thirteen-year old Jonathan Osbourne lives with his widowed mother in a big house overlooking the Devon coast where he attends school and she runs her late husband’s antique shop. Although a dutiful son, Jonathan also belongs to a secret cabal of kids run by a psychopathic moppet referred to as “The Chief” who regularly harangues them with heated polemics on the moral superiority of the strong and the betrayal which results when creatures upset the natural balance—highlighting the latter point by making a gruesome example out of the family cat, a once feral hunter which he now despises for becoming a fat house pet. Just entering puberty and filled with the Chief’s Übermensch hogwash, Jonathan’s hormones are already spinning out of control when his mother decides to take a quiet American sailor as her lover. Outraged by their domestic couplings yet drawn to the man’s tall tales of the sea, not to mention the troubling masculine presence he brings to the house, the disturbed teen is desperate to restore balance to his world by any means necessary, but first he needs just one small push… Filled with treacly music and enough technicolor montages of smiles and sunsets to make Douglas Sirk heave ho, Carlino’s macabre melodrama is psychologically suspect on every level. His pathological children are completely unconvincing as they spout Nihilism and puff on dad’s cigars—a Lord of the Flies sequence set in a proper English greenhouse is laughable. Tween tots, no matter how precocious, simply do not behave like this which makes the film’s much lauded “shocking” finale all the more preposterous. And leads Sarah Miles and Kris Kristofferson share no screen charisma whatsoever. She does an admirable job playing the emotionally starved widow hungry for a second go-around, but even though his piercing eyes and dishevelled beard provide erotic counterpoint to her repressed sensuality Kristofferson is little more than a wooden prop who appears lost in a fog half the time. Their sex scenes, controversial at the time, seem mechanical these days but those little dashes of symbolism (check out the poster on Jonathan’s bedroom door) are worthy of a smile if you have the time. The scenery is lovely too.

Saint [aka Sint aka Saint Nick ] (Netherlands 2010) (7): One of the most closely guarded secrets of the Catholic church is the fact that Saint Nicholas was not the benevolent holy man who gave rise to the legend of Santa Claus, but rather an evil renegade bishop who roamed the medieval Dutch countryside with his band of cutthroats murdering adults and kidnapping children. And even though irate villagers burned Nicholas and his posse to death, their twisted souls still return every time a full moon falls on December 5th (St. Nicholas Eve) in order to exact bloody vengeance. Cut to December 5th in modern day Amsterdam and disgraced police officer Goert Hoekstra, whose own family fell prey to “Sinterklaas” thirty-two years earlier, is gearing up for a supernatural battle royale for there is to be a full moon tonight and he appears to be the only man in all of Holland who knows what is going to happen… Take the brooding atmosphere of Carpenter’s The Fog, the gory mayhem of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and the macabre yuletide whimsy of Dante’s Gremlins, and you have this tongue-in-cheek Dutch splatter film where cheery Christmas card sweeps of snow-covered eaves and beaming children compete with severed heads and flying guts. To watch writer/director Dick Maas’ crispy zombie Claus—decked out in full Kris Kringle gear—astride his decomposing horse galloping across rooftops carving out a swath of death with his wickedly sharp staff while rotting “elves” seek out chimneys and open windows is to re-experience the joy of watching a brainless Saturday matinee popcorn shocker back when you were a kid. And Maas never misses an opportunity to eviscerate, decapitate, and generally mangle anyone (or anything) that gets in the way. A wicked sense of humour makes up for a few dry spells and some spotty plot devices and the whole production comes with that obligatory threat of a sequel which, thankfully, has yet to appear for this is one Christmas that need only come once in a lifetime.

St. Elmo’s Fire (USA 1985) (4): It’s Georgetown 1985 and seven newly graduated future yuppies are horrified to discover that life ends at twenty. An unbalanced Kirby (Emilio Estevez) is still stalking the senior girl who broke his heart; white trash Billy (Rob Lowe) avoids responsibility by chasing skirts and playing sax; perpetually blank-faced Kevin (Andrew McCarthy) is a frustrated writer and avowed cynic whose lack of a love life has everyone questioning his sexuality; party girl Jules (Demi Moore!) is a coke-snorting train wreck with a pink apartment; politically savvy Alec (Judd Nelson) is practicing to be a neo-con by cheating on his dishrag of a girlfriend (Ally Sheedy); and Jewish American Virgin Wendy (Mare Winningham) is still wearing chastity panties while nursing a crush on bad boy Billy. Over the course a few days their group friendship will be tested by painful revelations, infidelity, and the fact that they are all basically obnoxious. Like a new wave version of The Big Chill director Joel Schumacher tries to cram the minds of world weary retirees into the bodies of overgrown school kids and then have them spout petty euphemisms about the vagaries of life and love as if they were facing middle age with a trunkful of regrets. Whether they’re getting drunk and comparing scars at the film’s eponymous watering hole or staring meaningfully into the camera while the grievously overplayed “Man in Motion” kicks it in the background, the ensemble cast just doesn’t gel; the assorted crises and tidy resolutions are wholly contrived for the big screen and the vain attempts to be hip 80s-style are now terribly dated. Or maybe I’ve just grown up. But there is a certain amount of perverse pleasure in watching some of today’s has-beens back when they were yesterday’s up-and-comers.

Samsara (USA 2011) (6): Ron Fricke’s follow-up to 1992’s Baraka was filmed in two dozen countries over a period of five years to give us a visually impressive cinematic poem based on the endless cycle of death and rebirth. Under his meticulous direction natural wonders give way to glaring cityscapes, ancient ruins are juxtaposed with devastation from modern disasters, and scenes of peace and serenity are constantly jarred by depictions of contemporary vices. Here an African tribeswoman quietly nurses her child, there a nuclear American family poses with its home arsenal; a sped up camera turns worshippers at Mecca’s Kaaba into a swirling vortex while an assembly line of rubber sex dolls is laid out all headless torsos and gaping orifices. In one notable passage an image of humans working robot-like in endless office cubicles is replaced by images of humanlike robots staring at the camera as if contemplating a universal truth. But it ultimately boils down to beautiful scenery paired with nice music to assure us once again that war is bad, technology is suspect, and spirituality trumps all—and mankind gets to repeat everything again and again throughout the ages. Too bad the subtle confrontation of Reggio’s superior Koyaanisqatsi (which Fricke photographed) is exchanged here for a series of overt sermons—a grotesque performance piece seems more fitted for an avant-garde Fringe Festival and a man is buried in a casket shaped like a handgun (get it?) Gorgeous to watch but In the end Fricke simply winds up preaching to his own choir.

San Andreas (USA 2015) (3): When a series of devastating earthquakes wipe out most of Los Angeles and San Francisco you know you're in for a big special effects marathon and director Brad Peyton certainly delivers with skyscrapers tumbling, bridges collapsing, and a big ol' tsunami crashing up Market St. Unfortunately he also throws in a cloying storyline about a hunky L.A. fireman (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson proving his best performances were in the ring) who calls a temporary truce with his soon-to-be-ex wife in order to rescue their daughter--can you guess what happens next? Lots of slo-mo tears and inspirational hugs set against a sky bursting with sunbeams while Old Glory unfurls in the background. Oh for fuck's sake…

The Sandpiper (USA 1965) (7): Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton prove once again that chemistry can rise above substance in this unabashed weeper that looks great as long as you ignore its sillier components. Taylor plays Laura Reynolds, a free-spirited artist living on the coast of southern California with her impressionable nine year old son. When the kid gets into trouble with the authorities one time too many (he shoots a deer to see if it is fun) he is ordered to attend a religious boarding school run by the soft-spoken yet somewhat stuffy Reverend Doctor Edward Hewitt, a surprisingly convincing Burton. Of course when the respectable married clergyman meets the wild Bohemian sexpot you just know sparks are going to fly and a fall from grace is just around the corner. This is when an otherwise decent story begins to slide into maudlin chick-flick territory complete with teary reproaches, theatrical monologues, and endless scenes of restless surf. Eva Marie Saint is especially annoying as the martyred wife who always seems to find just the right outfit to go with her bloodied cross. Make no mistake, this is pure Hollywood soap, but it is done with such panache...from the magnificent widescreen cinematography to the sappy theme song...that it remains highly watchable just the same. And Taylor’s Big Sur bungalow is to die for!

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (UK 1960) (7): Albert Finney plays Arthur Seaton, a selfish, unsympathetic lout in one of the more famous “angry young men” films to emerge from 1960’s England. Fed up with the pointless working class existence he’s inherited from his “dead from the neck up” parents, Arthur rebels via a series of equally pointless drinking binges, adulterous affairs and juvenile practical jokes; “I’m out for a good time...” he confesses to the camera at one point, “...all the rest is propaganda”. And when it comes time to take responsibility for a personal crisis he helped precipitate he proves to be a man of his word. Shot in dreary shades of grey and white which serve to highlight the endless tedium of Arthur’s reality, Karel Reisz’s rather depressing film presents an exaggerated urban landscape of crushing conformity and muted desperation where a trip to an amusement park is rife with angst and a futile rant against suburban sprawl provides a grim irony. It’s all terribly dated of course, and obviously tailored to a generation of future hippies, but the performances are pretty near flawless and Seaton’s vitriolic musings occasionally hit home.

Saturn in Opposition (Italy 2007) (7): In much the same vein as his earlier work The Ignorant Fairies (aka His Secret Life, also reviewed here) writer/director Ferzan Ozpetek once again puts together an ensemble cast of gay men, damaged women, and one loud Turkish immigrant, then sits them around a dinner table and lights the fuse. Davide and Lorenzo are a pair of gay yuppies; uptight hetero couple Antonio and Angelique are having marital difficulties much to the consternation of their precocious children; lonely Sergio is a self-proclaimed “old fag”; Roberta has a heart of gold and a purse full of narcotics; and feisty grey-haired Neval has a habit of saying the wrong thing at the right time. Like a downbeat episode of Friends, Ozpetek follows these mismatched companions as they wax philosphical on life, love, and infidelity in between heaping platters of pasta before a climactic tragedy finally pushes the limits of their friendship. Not as preachy as His Secret Life and thankfully lacking the tedious navel-gazing of his other work, Steam: The Turkish Bath, this time around Ozpetek is able to strike an amicable balance between humorous asides, heart tugs, and that gravitas which comes from acknowledging—as Lorenzo succinctly puts it—“…’forever’ doesn’t exist”. If you can sit through a rather slow and disjointed first twenty minutes the film eventually does find its rhythm and the emotional pay-off is worth the wait.

The Savages (USA 2007) (9): When their estranged father begins to exhibit early signs of dementia siblings Jon and Wendy Savage not only face the uncomfortable prospect of having him institutionalized, they must also come to terms with a lifetime of resentments, disappointments and unresolved anger. Wendy, a histrionic drama queen and frustrated playwright, covers up her rage by doting on the old man even as her own life circles the drain. Jon, a drama teacher specializing in Bertolt Brecht, tries to distance himself from his own feelings by adopting a coldly rational approach to the situation even though a simple plate of fried eggs can bring him to tears. Meanwhile, dad looks on in a state of helpless bewilderment... Writer/director Tamara Jenkins' excellent family drama combines tense emotional confrontations with just enough mordant humour to allow her audience some breathing space. A beautifully rendered, deeply felt three-hander that rests squarely on the powerful performances of its main leads; Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laura Linney and Philip Bosco.

Save the Tiger  (USA 1972) (8):  Above average drama examining the death of the American dream and the casualties left in its wake. Jack Lemmon leads a very impressive cast as an everyman figure....lamenting the loss of society's integrity while at the same time lamely justifying his own moral corruption. The final scene tied the whole film up nicely.

Saving Mr. Banks (USA 2013) (8): Disney Studios pats itself on the back in this largely fictitious account of Walt’s attempts to acquire the movie rights to P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins books. Used to getting whatever he wants, Disney (Tom Hanks) meets his match in Travers (Emma Thompson) a prim and obsessively fastidious woman who, despite her dwindling bank account, is absolutely opposed to seeing the story of her beloved nanny transformed into a sugary Magic Kingdom mainstay with bouncy musical numbers, animated penguins, and (shudder!) Dick Van Dyke. But there is more to Travers’ resistance than simple artistic egotism and frequent flashbacks to a childhood in turn-of-the-century Australia reveal a loving but tumultuous home life with her father (Colin Farrell), a wildly inventive Irish immigrant prone to fits of depression and alcoholism. As the pair of powerful personalities continually circle one another they eventually hit upon a common chord and the rest, as they say, is history. Director John Lee Hancock resurrects a rosy vision of the 60’s with bouffants, party dresses, and candy-coloured attractions providing an intrusive counterbalance of sorts to Travers’ bittersweet childhood memories. Thompson and Hanks are perfectly matched, his unchecked zeal coming up against her dour sense of propriety, and a supporting cast of studio songwriters, a bubbly secretary, and one insightful chauffeur (Paul Giamatti) soften the central tug-of-war without resorting to fluffy distraction. A charming tale of “what if” given some weight by a dark psychological edge.

Sawdust and Tinsel (Sweden 1953) (8): When the flea-bitten traveling carnival “Circus Alberti” rambles into a small provincial town a round of revelations and betrayals threaten to tear the troupe apart. Ringmaster Albert Johansson, a growling bear of a man, has grown tired of his transitory existence and now longs for the domestic stability represented by the wife and two children he originally ran out on years earlier. His shrill and insecure mistress Anna, sensing his thoughts, tries to find a more permanent caregiver in the arms of local actor Frans. Both become disillusioned for Albert’s ex has forged a life free from his angry tirades and Frans has nothing to offer but contempt and empty promises… All the world is a dark and dreary stage indeed in Ingmar Bergman’s tragicomic look at human foibles and our endless search for something resembling love. Starting off with a fanciful flashback in which a circus clown is cuckolded by his seductive wife when she goes skinny-dipping with a cadre of soldiers (sometimes a cannon is not just a cannon) Bergman proceeds to make jesters of all his characters as they shamble in and out of the spotlight sharing a bit of drunken wisdom or punching each other in the face. A meeting between Albert and Mr. Sjuberg, a seasoned thespian and head of the neighbourhood theatre group, leads to a lecture on art versus artifice while a decisive confrontation between the ringmaster and his ursine alter ego ends with both a bang and a whimper. And throughout it all we catch glimpses of Sjuberg’s troupe rehearsing their latest play, a tragedy which ironically mimics Albert’s own quandary. The stage may be adorned with sawdust and tinsel but the players ultimately walk away smelling faintly of manure. Ain’t life a bitch?

Sayonara (USA 1957) (7): During the Korean war when thousands of American servicemen were stationed in Japan, it was Uncle Sam’s official policy to actively discourage romantic liaisons between U.S. soldiers and Japanese women by imposing draconian sanctions including a law forbidding G.I.s from bringing their “Oriental” brides home to the States; a policy which many Japanese nationals applauded. As the story opens, top gun pilot Major Lloyd “Ace” Gruver (Marlon Brando looking especially hot in his dress blues) has just been assigned to a cushy desk job in Kyoto thanks to his girlfriend Eileen’s father, a four-star general and personal friend of the family. Gruver is pure stars & stripes and apple pie; he doesn’t know the difference between a pagoda and a sushi roll, nor does he care. But when he’s asked by his good friend and fellow airman Joe Kelly (a marvelously understated Red Buttons) to be his best man as he marries a local girl his convictions are put to the test. His decision to stand by Kelly not only derails his relationship with Eileen and her family, but also threatens his military career as he becomes a target of the air force’s ingrained racism. Alone and disillusioned he finds himself smitten by an aloof Japanese cabaret performer, Hana-Ogi, and thus begins his own forbidden love affair. Like Gruver and Kelly, Hana-Ogi, is also bound by unfair social conventions. She is legally “owned” by the theatre company and therefore barred from marrying, or even dating. As pressures mount against the two couples events come to a final climax which leads to tragedy for one, and a courageous stand for the other. Contentious for its time, Sayonara openly criticized both the military and the American public for their narrow-minded bigotry. It’s message has mellowed considerably over the years however and what we are left with is a lightweight western tear-jerker with colourful Japanese trappings, including a ludicrously miscast Ricardo Montalban in Kabuki drag. Fun to watch, easy to forget.

The Scalphunters (USA 1968) (7): In the wild wild west of 1860 resourceful trapper Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster) is relieved of his pack horse and collection of furs by a tribe of irate Indians who accuse him of trespassing. In return they saddle him with the highly educated though somewhat verbose runaway slave Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis) who turns out to be more of a hindrance than a bargain. Fixated upon retrieving his stolen goods, Bass and Lee follow the tribe only to watch them slaughtered by a gang of “scalphunters”—outlaws eager to cash in on a government bounty for native scalps. With a tenacity now bordering on the monomaniacal Bass turns his attention to the hunters’ leader (Telly Savalas) and a rugged battle of wills ensues in which a pile of mangy furs become more important than Jason’s golden fleece. Joseph Lee, meanwhile, tries to play both sides to his advantage as he slowly discovers that being a slave is merely a state of mind… The traditional Western is probably my least favourite genre of film but Sydney Pollack’s treatment of William Norton’s screenplay transforms this tale of singleminded determination into twin fables on the folly of pride and the destructive powers unleashed when obsession trumps common sense. Thankfully they wrap it all up as a very droll satirical romp through the American southwest with the three-way conflict between indignant slave, stubborn trapper, and unhinged bandit becoming progressively more outrageous even as the coveted pelts continue to slip past everyone’s grasp. Pretty heady stuff for a Saturday afternoon oater.

The Scent of Green Papaya (France 1993) (5): Saigon 1951, and 10-year old country lass Mui, wide-eyed and innocent, has just arrived in the big city where she’s hired as a domestic by an upper middle class family. Life is good, the work is easy, and because she resembles her mistress’ dead daughter Mui also enjoys a few special privileges. But the life of the relatively rich is not as grand as she imagined for grandma has been an upstairs hermit ever since her husband died, the lady of the house seems to be the sole breadwinner, and her spouse has a habit of grabbing the cash box and taking extended tours of Saigon’s many brothels. Furthermore, the middle son has made a hobby out of torturing insects while the youngest is determined to make Mui’s life as difficult as possible. In other words, they’re bourgeois. But our plucky little heroine is so in tune with nature (she smiles at ants!) and her noble peasant ways that she barely notices the little brat farting in her general direction. Ten years later the kindly mistress, now a forlorn widow, reluctantly lets Mui go, but not before bestowing upon her the meagre dowry originally meant for her own deceased daughter. Still sporting her vacuous smile (only as an adult it looks less endearing and more like brain damage) Mui becomes the housemaid of a handsome young pianist much to the chagrin of his immaculately coiffed fiancée. A prolonged seduction takes place (oh the power of lipstick!) as man and servant enter into a pygmalion-like relationship which sees Mui finally realizing her full potential. Yes, this Cannes winner and Oscar nominee boasts some amazing cinematography filled with bright vibrant colours and warm tropical locales (actually filmed entirely on a Parisian sound stage) but its snail’s pace challenged my patience throughout while a jaw-aching sweetness practically oozed from every frame. Contrived and emotionally unconvincing, this is a Vietnamese Pollyanna whose rich visuals barely mask a core of pure cinematic syrup. Spielberg would weep.

Screamers (Canada 1995) (5): It’s the year 2078 and on the frontier planet Sirius 6B a civil war has erupted between the evil N.E.B. Corporation and the Alliance of Miners. The trouble started, so we’re told in an opening scroll, when the company began ignoring the safety concerns of its miners in order to exploit a rich vein of berynium, the most powerful energy source in the universe. Now in its fourth year, the war has decimated the civilian population leaving behind a token Alliance stronghold involved in a perpetual stalemate with their N.E.B. counterparts. Having exhausted their nuclear arsenals the two sides are now reduced to random sniper attacks, but the Alliance has one extra dirty trick up their sleeves; a miniature army of self-replicating, semi-intelligent burrowing robots equipped with whirling blades and a penchant to attack anything with a heartbeat. Nicknamed “screamers” for the sound they make when coming in for a kill, the motorized butchers lie in wait for those unwary soldiers not equipped with special Alliance armbands designed to ward off the little metallic beasties. But when the screamers begin developing a sense of self-awareness as well as a talent for improving their own design, both the N.E.B. forces and the Alliance find themselves up against a common enemy neither one of them could have imagined. With anemic nods to Bladerunner and The Thing, Christian Duguay’s outer space shoot-’em-up takes a fairly interesting spin on the Frankenstein myth and bogs it down with some substandard CGI effects and a host of hammy performances; Quebec’s own Roy Dupuis is especially terrible as a bile-spitting hired gun. Still, there are some nice otherworldly backdrops, cool hardware, and enough blood and guts to pad out an otherwise threadbare narrative. A few macabre twists are mostly predictable, but a fiery shoot-out with a horde of murderous kindergarteners was pure delight!

The Seagull’s Laughter (Iceland 2001) (7): Director Ágúst Gudmundsson’s screen adaptation of Kristin Marja Baldursdóttir’s novel is a devilishly black comedy pitting elements of Norse folklore and nascent feminism against a backdrop of domestic abuse and adulterous husbands. Set in a small fishing village outside Reykjavik circa 1950 it tells the story of prodigal daughter Freyja who returns to the fold after her American GI husband suddenly drops dead. Moving in with her adoptive granny and three plain jane cousins—slow-witted Ninna, drama queen Dodo, and maliciously precocious Agga (Christina Ricci lookalike Ugla Egilsdóttir playing an Icelandic version of Wednesday Addams)—Freyja wows family and friends alike with her suitcases full of stateside haute couture and exotic perfumes. But true to her mythological namesake (the alluring goddess associated with sex, beauty, and death) working class Freyja’s darker nature soon has her righting a few old wrongs and scoping out the town’s most eligible bachelor much to the chagrin of his well-to-do fiancée. But when idle gossip of sexual impropriety turns to whispers of murder only Agga holds the truth for she believes she’s seen evil in Freyja’s seductive eyes and she’s witnessed the older woman’s mysterious midnight sojourns into the nearby rocky hills where magic is said to reside… Delightfully deadpan in the way it tackles social maladies of the time (is every man in the village a drunken cheat and every woman a victim of one form or another?) with the vaguely ethereal Freyja upsetting the established order by empowering the women, bewildering the men, and in a telling final jab setting the prepubescent Agga on a brand new path. Droll Scandinavian satire served up cold as ice and dry as old bones.

Seance [Kôrei] (Japan 2000) (7): Sato and his wife Junko are not your ordinary suburban couple: he’s a sound effects engineer for a local production company and she’s a part-time waitress and full-time medium who sees dead people at the most inopportune times. Lately their lives have become more peculiar than usual for his recordings of natural sounds have yielded some very unnatural results while she is finding it increasingly difficult to serve customers a cup of coffee when there’s a faceless ghost glaring at her from beyond the sugar bowl. So when a detective, on the recommendation of a parapsychologist, comes seeking Junko’s services in order to locate a kidnapped girl the couple see it as a welcome diversion, especially Junko who dreams of cashing in on her psychic abilities. But what starts out as a promising collaboration quickly turns into a nightmare when she discovers the lost girl is closer (in body and spirit) than she first suspected putting her and Sato firmly at odds with both the supernatural world and the local police department. Despite a few forgivable flaws in logic—it’s a ghost story after all—this made-for-television thriller, a twisted Japanese hybrid of The Sixth Sense and Seance on a Wet Afternoon, has enough bumps and jolts to keep you peering over your shoulder throughout. However, unlike most entries in the Asian horror genre the obligatory creaking, limp-haired phantoms take a back seat to some marvellously eerie atmospherics: ghostly klaxons peal in the night, lightning illuminates a curtained window, and spectral shadows spill from a partially opened doorway accompanied by the sound of rushing wind. The pseudo-scientific background is shaky at best (did I mention this is a ghost story?) while the lightweight attempts to plumb the couple’s psychological motivations provide little more than a dramatic footnote, but for sheer creepiness it still had me reaching for the light switch.

The Searchers (USA 1956) (7): Historical revisionism aside, John Ford’s glorious widescreen Western, often seen near the top of many critics’ “best of” lists, manages to mold the usual genre tropes into something approaching spiritual allegory. John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a weary Confederate soldier returning to his brother’s Texas homestead at the end of the Civil War. The happy family reunion is cut short however when a roving band of Comanches raids the farm killing most of Ethan’s family and making off with his little niece Debbie. Consumed with rage, Ethan sets out to rescue the girl and exact his revenge accompanied by young Martin Pawley, the “one-eighth Comanche” man he rescued from a similar raid when Martin was just an infant. But neither Ethan nor his motives are as honourable as they first appear for his hatred of all things Indian goes far deeper than first suspected (keep your eyes open for clues as to why) and he regards anything touched by them as tainted, including Debbie. Against a backdrop of soaring buttes and impossibly blue skies Ethan’s singleminded journey is as much psychological as physical; a few subtle hints suggest a man already burdened with a checkered past now anxious to redeem himself and make the world right again. Facing outlaws, harsh landscapes, and an increasingly antagonistic relationship with Martin who provides a small but persistent voice of reason, Ethan’s quest brings him face-to-face with a few of his own demons. A final showdown with the Comanche chief does not become the straightforward good versus evil struggle we expect, but rather an angry contest of wills and an airing of past sins. Much has been said of the film’s apparent racist overtones in portraying Ethan’s Indian nemesis as an ignoble savage, but when both men are viewed as archetypes rather than simple characters, Ford’s vision becomes abundantly clear. This is a parable for adults which begins with an open door and ends with that same door closing like the final page of a storybook. However, the real impact of the film lies in its wide angle cinematography which makes full use of those Utah settings; sunbaked deserts, crimson sunsets, and candlelit domestic scenes, all rendered in rich technicolour, give The Searchers a quasi-mythological feel and help distract the viewer from some rather mediocre performances. John Wayne, after all, was a screen icon and not an actor.

Second Skin (Spain 1999) (8): When his wife, Elena, discovers that he’s having an affair with another man, Alberto furiously backpedals even further into the closet. In the meantime, unable to fall out of love with him, Elena tries to ignore her embittered mother’s crusty advice while taking a brief hop off the monogamy wagon herself. But when Alberto’s clandestine lover Diego (Javier Bardem, ¡muy guapo!) finds out about the wife…and kid…Alberto’s meticulously maintained double lives finally cross paths sending the already neurotic family man crashing headfirst through the closet door. Having spent his entire life lying about more than just his sexuality, Alberto is ill-prepared for the emotional showdowns which ensue as both wife and boyfriend draw lines in the sand and demand a final decision. No one, of course, is prepared for what comes next… There are so many reasons I should not like this homo version of a chick flick (dick flick?) For starters, the orchestral score of swelling strings practically pounds the pathos into your skull while gauzy tear-stained close-ups and puppy dog stares ensure that heartache gushes from every frame. If Barbara Cartland had been born a drag diva this is precisely the kind of Harlequeen romance she would have been famous for. And any astute observer will be able to see the ending barreling down from a mile away. So why did I find myself sighing and nodding my head sympathetically? Well, director Gerardo Vera does manage to avoid most of the mushier pitfalls inherent in the genre while his trio of talented actors do justice to an insightful script which, despite its melodramatic elements, stays sharp and believable. Also, he gives his film a spicy kick by including a little softcore man-to-man erotica that almost looks as if it wasn’t rehearsed a thousand times beforehand. And lead actors Bardem and Jordi Mollà are almost too gorgeous for their own good. A guilty pleasure which nevertheless rings truer than Brokeback Mountain ever could.

The Secret in Their Eyes (Argentina 2009) (9): A young woman is raped and murdered in a Buenos Aires suburb and the police inspector assigned to the investigation, Benjamin Esposito, finds his inquiries hampered by bureaucracy and a judge who seems more intent on a quick fix than actual justice. Twenty-five years later the newly retired Esposito, still obsessing over what has now become a cold case, decides to create his own sense of closure by writing a novel about his experience. But his attempts to recreate the past open an old wound as he recalls the dead woman’s grieving husband whose painful longing begins to mirror Benjamin’s own unrequited feelings for Irene, the department chief whom he loved from afar. And then his recollections offer up some new clues and an old crime suddenly comes to life once more… Flowing dreamlike between past and present Juan José Campanella’s gentle meditation on love, regret, and the creative process strikes an intricate balance between straight-up policier, bittersweet romance, and biting social critique (the murder eventually shedding light on some monstrous government corruption). Going beyond the obvious Campanella also explores the many faces of grief with Esposito and Irene pining over missed opportunities, the widower’s shaky stoicism hiding a deeper hunger for revenge, and Esposito’s partner Pablo continually trying to drown a lifetime of frustrations at the local pub. Everyone, it seems, is haunted one way or another by the past. If the film occasionally lapses into melodrama—a passionate farewell at a train station should have been shot in B&W—it is only a testament to the director’s art as he causes us to wonder whether or not we are watching Benjamin’s memories of things as they actually happened or as he wanted them to happen. Beautifully shot with long meticulous takes that give heightened importance to people’s faces (the eyes!) and a background score of sad violins, this is one film that actually deserved its Oscar win.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (USA 2013) (6): Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller, yawn) is a shy recluse who manages the photo negatives department at Life magazine’s New York headquarters. Spicing up his otherwise humdrum life with elaborate daydreams Walter’s in the habit of zoning out at the oddest times—staring blankly in the middle of a conversation while he fantasizes about rescuing a damsel in distress or thwarting his super villain boss on the streets of Manhattan. Needless to say this peculiar habit has made him the butt of more than one jokester, especially Ted Hendricks the douchebag manager in charge of downsizing the company as Life abandons its magazine format and goes digital. But when Walter is entrusted with the periodical’s final cover picture supplied by a famous globe-trotting photojournalist, he loses the negative and thus begins a real life adventure which sees him fighting sharks in the north Atlantic, braving volcanoes in Iceland, and hiking through the Himalayas as he tries to track down the notoriously elusive shutterbug. Despite some clever opening credits and fantasy sequences, touristy views of Iceland and Greenland (Iceland again), and a few star cameos, this remake of the 1947 Danny Kaye classic is a predictable hodgepodge of “self realization” riffs (Walter’s adventures abroad expand his horizons!) and romantic fluff—his online pursuit of a fellow employee (Kristen Wiig, another yawn) giving rise to a couple of silly E-Harmony schticks. Not quite the imaginative epic it sets out to be but it did manage to keep me mildly amused.

The Secret of the Grain [La graine et le mulet ] (France 2007) (9): Slimane Beiji has spent most of his life working in the dockyard at Port Sète, first as an unregistered immigrant and then as a full-fledged citizen. Now in his latter years he finds he doesn’t have much to show for it—his company is cutting his hours causing an already precarious financial situation to turn dire, he’s become impotent with his girlfriend, and his adult children are the only bridge between him and his embittered ex-wife. His biggest regret however is the fact that he never managed to fulfill his lifelong wish of opening a floating restaurant (a veritable “ship of dreams”) specializing in “fish couscous”, a traditional dish his former spouse makes to perfection. Spurred on by his lover’s headstrong daughter Rym (a multiple-award winning performance by newcomer Hafsia Herzi) Slimane decides to gather his meagre resources and take a stab at that dream after all. Wading through a maze of municipal bureaucracy, not to mention a reluctant loan officer, Slim manages to secure a rusty old fishing boat and with the help of family and friends—including his girlfriend and ex-wife—the restaurant slowly becomes a reality. Throwing a fund-raising gala on the newly remodelled boat, Slimane invites one hundred of the town’s most influential bigwigs to come and sample his wares. But just as things seem to be going his way the unthinkable happens and it’s going to take a miracle or two, and perhaps a small sacrifice, to keep his dream from being destroyed for good. Writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche’s seriocomic parable about hope and adversity is presented with such natural energy and disarming dialogue that at times it sounds like an ad-libbed reality show. Characters swirl around each other offering encouragement or rebukes, gossiping around the dinner table, and occasionally offering profound insights into life, love, and the meaning of it all. Lead actor Habib Boufares plays Slim as if in a daze, a man who has seen too many disappointments to take much pleasure in a bit of luck when it presents itself. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the film’s astonishing multi-layered finale where we see a disheartened Slimane tormented, quite literally, by a trio of mocking Fates even as more powerful forces are at work on his floating eatery. At 150 minutes Grain takes its sweet time getting to the point and I must admit I found some of the prolonged banter tiresome, but this is a film that demands your full attention and once you get into its groove the journey proves to be one of those rare cinematic delicacies.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (USA 2012) (3):  With a huge asteroid scheduled to destroy the Earth in three weeks' time, newly single and terribly lonely insurance salesman Dodge (Steve Carell, already limp and lifeless) has resigned himself to dying alone and unloved.  But when he crosses paths with brokenhearted downstairs neighbour Penny (Keira Knightley, aiming for quirky but settling for unbalanced) and abandoned mutt "Sorry" (best performance by far) his short life finds some meaning after all.  Both characters are searching for something to validate their existence--he wants to hook up with an old flame, she wants to reunite with her folks in England---and in the long, tedious road trip to nowhere which follows they discover that all they ever wanted is sitting right there in the seat beside them.  Lorene Scafaria's "End of Days" love story starts out with so much promise as we see society preparing for its impending demise with a mordantly amusing mix of despair, violence, and everyday banalities:  "Some upper level management positions have suddenly become available!" spouts a chipper HR rep at a sparsely attended staff meeting while bodies fall out of windows and buildings burn.  But in the end all we get is a standard, and oh so boring, romance populated by flat characters and the usual plot twists: Penny meets up with an ex while Dodge heals old wounds with his estranged father.  Furthermore, the abundance of illogical plot devices make the whole apocalyptic theme seem like a weak afterthought:  utilities and television broadcasts continue uninterrupted, "widespread" rioting seems limited to one city block, and in one completely nonsensical passage a trans-Atlantic flight aboard a two-seater Cessna is actually contemplated.  Doesn't even come close to the complexity of Don McKellar's far superior Last Night and by the end I found myself just wishing the damn asteroid would hurry up.  At least the classical rock soundtrack was easy on the ears.

The Serpent and the Rainbow (USA 1988) (5): In the waning days of Doc Duvalier’s regime a freelance American scientist, Dennis Alan, is sent to Haiti by the powerful Biocorp pharmaceutical corporation in order to discover the secret of “zombification”; the process whereby ordinary people are apparently killed and then brought back as mindless automatons. By studying the complex drug cocktail involved in the process Biocorp hopes to develop a revolutionary new surgical anesthetic thereby cornering the world market and boosting their profits. But Alan’s snooping around Port-au-Prince soon attracts some unwanted attention from Captain Peytraud, chief of the local secret police who has a few black magic secrets of his own. Anxious to protect those secrets, Peytraud subjects the hapless scientist to some nasty torture both physical and mystical in order to get him to leave the island. Not so easily swayed, Alan joins forces with a benevolent witch doctor and an attractive psychologist (cue love interest); but will their combined power be enough to defeat the evil Peytraud or will Alan become yet another one of his victims? Filled with racial and cultural stereotypes against a background of increasingly silly mumbo-jumbo (a zombie bride shoots snakes out her mouth, a dinner party of Bostonian wasps turns into an impromptu exorcism) this little foray into the spiritual realm, inspired by true events (oh my!), wanders as aimlessly as the living dead it portrays. Star Bill Pullman lacks the onscreen energy needed to build up any credible suspense and his supporting cast of colourful sorcerers and Mardi Gras revellers look more like a Bayou tourist attraction. The film’s fiery climax, a hokey voodoo showdown replete with swirling ghosts and burning skulls, was all Hollywood flash with no substance. In the end, aside from some creepy cemetery scenes, The Serpent and the Rainbow is not so much a horror movie as it is a twisted travelogue.

The Serpent’s Egg (USA 1977) (5): Bergman’s overblown period piece proves that bigger budgets don’t always translate into better films, even in the hands of a master. In 1920’s Berlin an unemployed, alcoholic Jewish-American trapeze artist (oh Ingmar...please!) moves in with his former sister-in-law after his brother commits suicide for no apparent reason. Life isn’t easy for Abel and Manuela; jobs are scarce, food is a luxury item, and a young upstart named Adolph Hitler is busy sowing seeds of discontent. Abel steadfastly refuses to acknowledge the rising tide of German xenophobia and anti-semitism, choosing instead to numb himself in a haze of alcohol and look the other way; he even vandalizes a Jewish storefront for good measure. But as times become more desperate reality begins to encroach upon his progressively fragile mind; his friends and acquaintances are ending up in the morgue, the police seem to be shadowing his every move, and throughout it all he is bothered by the sound of distant machinery that no one else can hear. When the inevitable breakdown comes, involving mad scientists and heinous conspiracies, we are no longer sure what is real...nor do we very much care. To be fair, Bergman does offer up some striking scenes which heighten the film’s sense of spiritual despair; a funeral procession wends its way through rush hour traffic, a political rally is held outside a cemetery, and a verdigris-encrusted angel stares helplessly at Abel as he is interrogated by police. Furthermore, garish burlesque shows highlight a society sliding into chaos and add an air of dark irony. But the acting is hopelessly uneven and the script rife with histrionic non-sequiturs. Even viewed as a completely subjective psychodrama Serpent’s Egg is little more than a paranoid cabaret.

Serpico (USA 1973) (7): Director Sidney Lumet sticks to the seedy side of New York in this biopic of whistleblower Frank Serpico who made national headlines after he went public with accusations of rampant corruption among his fellow NYPD officers. Upon completing his police training, promising young rookie Serpico hits the streets eager to serve and protect only to find the rank and file regularly supplementing their income through threats and extortion while their leaders turn a blind eye. Refusing to accept bribes, Serpico finds himself a professional pariah shuffled from one precinct to another while being stonewalled by his superiors every time he tries to alert them to the gross misconduct he’s witnessing. With pressure from work beginning to affect his personal life he finally decides to take his concerns to the next level—a decision which will not only threaten his career but his very life as well. As the grungy, bearded Serpico (he preferred to work undercover), Al Pacino’s Oscar-nominated performance is a hyperkinetic mix of streetwise cop and outraged crusader whose frustrated tirades belie a deeper sense of betrayal as he sees his childhood ideals of what a policeman stands for shattered one by one. Supported by a cast of B-list mainstays and an evocative score by Mikis Theodorakis, this simple tale of an honest everyman going up against a dangerously complacent bureaucracy becomes a contemporary take on David & Goliath made all the more compelling because it really happened.

7 Boxes (Paraguay 2012) (7): As part of his dream to become a television star teenaged Victor is obsessed with owning a brand new cellphone with built-in camera. But working as a delivery boy in Asunción’s sprawling outdoor market only earns him a few pennies per day, not even enough to make a downpayment. And then his luck seems to take a turn when a local businessman offers him a huge cash bonus for doing one baffling yet simple task: load his delivery barrow with seven sealed boxes, cart them around the neighbourhood for a few hours, and then return them. Of course things don’t go as planned and before a new day can begin Victor and his friend Liz will be hunted by the police, threatened by gang members, and see their worst nightmare come true when Victor decides to peek inside box number one. With minimal means and a cast of virtual unknowns (at least in North America), directors Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schembori have come up with a good old-fashioned thriller whose clever script and macabre sense of humour keeps you engaged while offering a sly wink or two at our pursuit of celebrity—indeed, a final montage gives an undeniably sardonic spin to the old “fifteen minutes of fame” adage. Some frenzied editing and a memorable music score all add to the fun especially when a climactic wheelbarrow chase past deserted market stalls begins to rival any big budget automobile showdown. Not as polished as a Hollywood remake would be, but in the end that is where 7 Boxes derives most of its charm.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (USA 1954) (5): It’s 1850 and in the untamed wilderness of the Oregon Territories life is harsh; the winters are interminable, the wildlife dangerous, and eligible bachelors outnumber available females ten to one. It comes as no surprise then that wives are a scarce commodity worth fighting (or at least singing and dancing) over. But when big bearish frontiersman Adam Pontipee, head of the Pontipee clan, comes to town looking for a bride the gruff redhead has no problem marrying Milly, the most desirable bachelorette for miles around. Milly’s dreams of conjugal bliss are quickly shattered however when she discovers her homemaking skills will not be limited to Adam alone, but to his six bewhiskered and uncivilized brothers as well. With a fierce determination that belies her diminutive stature Milly sets about turning the six Pontipee boys into proper gentlemen just in time for the annual Barn Raising Dance where they are able to out-pirouette the city slickers and so win the hearts of the town’s six bachelorettes. But alas, the townsfolk are not about to part with their women so easily prompting Adam to concoct a most brazen and oh-so politically incorrect scheme to win them back. Much chaste singing and dancing ensue… One of the more famous Cinemascope musicals featuring hunky Howard Keel and mousy Jane Powell in the leads, backed by a cast of mainly nobodies including a pro baseball player and male ballet dancer. The painted backdrops and plywood frontier sets are cheesy, but the musical numbers are athletic enough even if the dubbed songs themselves are completely forgettable. It’s the sheer campiness of it all that appealed to me though; the strutting cowboys, the awkward lyrics (“A man can’t sleep when he sleeps with sheep…”), and an all-girl lingerie cat fight featuring sexy bloomers and corsets. “It’s indecent if you ask me…” laments a shopkeeper’s portly wife, “…one lone woman with seven scroungy backwoodsmen.” I guess one woman’s nightmare is another man’s dream come true. Musical cinema just doesn’t get any gayer than this.

Seven Days [Les sept jours du talion] (Canada 2010) (7): Dr. Bruno Hamel, a prominent Montreal surgeon, and his wife Sylvie realize every parents’ worst nightmare when their 8-year old daughter Jasmine is found brutally raped and murdered. Blaming both themselves and each other (this is the one day Bruno didn’t drive his daughter to school because his wife wanted a little morning sex) their relationship disintegrates into a series of heated incriminations and icy distances. But when the man responsible for Jasmine’s death, a known sex offender and pedophile, is finally caught Hamel decides to work through his rage and guilt in a more direct route. Kidnapping the suspect from police custody thanks to some elaborate planning Bruno transports him to an isolated cabin where he spends the next seven days, ironically the week leading up to Jasmine’s ninth birthday, exacting his own retribution using a combination of household tools and surgical instruments. In the meantime a Montreal detective, suffering from the effects of a violent crime himself, races to discover Hamel’s location before charges of kidnapping and torture escalate into homicide. Filmed in grim shades of blue and grey with isolated figures set against wide empty spaces, Daniel Grou’s bleak drama treads a fine line between graphic realism and sordid exploitation. What saves his film from becoming just another bloodletting revenge fantasy however is its emotionally volatile script and a host of powerful performances. Although he courts no sympathy for the pedophile, popular opinion definitely leans in favour of the vengeful father’s actions, Grou gradually reveals the true price of vigilante justice as every scar Bruno inflicts upon his daughter’s killer opens a fresh wound in his own psyche, wounds he attempts to anesthetize with hefty doses of alcohol. At first outraged with his wife’s telephone pleas to give himself up, Hamel is spurred into furious action when the mother of another little victim voices her own disapproval...a fury which leads to both a tense encounter and a grief-stricken epiphany. “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”, goes the anonymous saying, and watching Grou’s tragic protagonist slowly pollute his own soul makes for some harrowing cinema.

1776 (USA 1972) (7): Director Peter Hunt’s widescreen adaptation of Sherman Edward’s Broadway musical, based in turn on Peter Stone’s book, imagines the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Filmed in a wonderfully reconstructed Philadelphia of colonial brick and colourful hawkers, much of the action (and singing and dancing) takes place inside a makeshift congress where representatives from each fledgling colony hash it out under the benevolent eye of congressional president John Hancock (Dark Shadows’ David Ford). With a fiery John Adams from Massachusetts (St. Elsewhere’s William Daniels) and a hunky Thomas Jefferson from Virginia (Ken Howard) pushing for secession from the British Empire while representatives John Dickinson (PA) and Edward Rutledge (SC) representing the South push back, the stage is set for one dramatic musical showdown after another with a bit of comic relief provided by a wisecracking Benjamin Franklin (Howard da Silva). Of course women take a far backseat as a demure Abigail Adams exchanges letters with John and Margaret Jefferson sings a ditty about her husband’s violin. But as the calendar inches towards the fourth of July and letters from General George Washington convey doom and gloom on the front lines, individual agendas slowly inch toward a consensus but not before one last flourish—a sombre number over slavery wherein Adams demands its abolishment while Rutledge calls everybody out on their hypocrisy. Even if its historical accuracies are sometimes sketchy and the songs and choreography less than memorable, there remains a glow of patriotic passion which runs throughout it’s almost three-hour length as a cast of spirited actors raise the founding of their country to near-mythological status.

The Seventh Continent (7): Georg and Anna Schober are a comfortably middle-class couple with a darling daughter and lovely home who, for reasons not entirely clear, choose to throw it all away one day. Their decision, influenced perhaps by a series of bleak revelations and cryptic insights, proves disastrous for all concerned. Since this is a Michael Haneke film neither the Schober’s dilemma nor their personal solution should come as any shock to those familiar with a director whose name has become synonymous with “social dysfunction”. What sets this film apart however is Haneke’s excellent use of quick edits and his determination to avoid easy answers. Rather than delve into the Schober’s psyches ad nauseam he instead follows them over the course of three unexceptional days, each day separated by a year. With his trademark detachment he shows us how their lives are defined primarily by material possessions and mundane rituals, whether it’s buying groceries or feeding a tank of pet fish. By further separating these rituals into their component parts and concentrating on tasks rather than feelings, he creates a suffocating sense of contemporary apathy and despair; rarely has tying a shoelace conveyed such angst. As you would expect, the minimalist script is heavy with contradictory messages and repressed rage while the camera dutifully avoids any intimacy with the characters who are often filmed without heads. Moral blindness, hollow materialism and futile daydreaming all find their metaphorical counterparts here, (a carwash and tourism billboard figure prominently while a flushed wad of cash causes Western audiences to squirm), and the cast pull it off beautifully especially Leni Tanzer as the daughter; her portrayal of a young innocent tainted by her parents’ demons is heartbreakingly real. Loosely based on a true story, Haneke presents us with a cool, clinical montage of a couple in crisis and then challenges us to make sense of it.

The Seventh Seal (Sweden 1957) (9): For many the quintessential Bergman film which has been copied and parodied so many times it has become something of an arthouse icon. After a long torturous crusade in the Holy Land, dispirited knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) returns home to a medieval Sweden teeming with fear and superstition. The Plague is claiming victims up and down the coast while an implacable church harangues the frightened masses with tales of Judgement Day. Upset with the apparent meaninglessness of life and death, as well as God’s unwillingness to show himself (“Why does he hide in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles?”) Antonius is undergoing a major crisis of faith when a most unlikely, yet not entirely unexpected, traveler pays him a visit—none other than Death himself, ghostly pale and draped in black. Not wanting to die until he has accomplished something of true value Antonius challenges Death to a game of chess, winner take all. Meanwhile, not far away, a band of jovial actors wend their way towards the nearest town and their own date with destiny. Perhaps one of Bergman’s most personal films, purported to be amongst his favourites, we can hear within Block’s eloquent rails against the Almighty Ingmar’s own spiritual angst as his knight demands proof of God’s existence only to be met with emptiness and Death’s sardonic grin. His troupe of actors on the other hand seem unfettered by supernatural concerns and instead approach life with lust and enthusiasm—their leader ironically receiving visions of the Virgin and Child while Block stumbles in darkness. This constant juxtaposition of light and dark (joy and despair, faith and doubt) proves to be a winning combination as Bergman paints the screen with some of cinema’s most memorable scenes: a skeletal shepherd keeps watch over a non-existent flock, a plague victim is bathed in a sudden burst of sunlight, and the Grim Reaper leads a band of dancing souls towards the grave. And topping the list, Death and the Knight are shown contemplating their chessboard against a darkling sea, their silent musing rendered in gothic black and white. At once distancing and strikingly intimate, The Seventh Seal is a triumphant blend of philosophical discourse and pure storytelling wherein the entire world is reduced to a game board with everyone a pawn. Heady stuff.

Sex Drive (USA 2008) (7): High School senior Ian has more than a few problems. First of all he’s the only person in his class who hasn’t been laid. On top of that he is constantly terrorized by his testosterone-drenched older brother; romantically upstaged by his 14-year old younger brother; and ignored by Felicia, the object of his desire, who wants to be “just friends” while she actively pursues his suave and sophisticated best friend, Lance. So what’s a poor boy to do? Search for sex on the internet of course, where he quickly develops a steamy cyber-relationship with blonde bombshell “Tasty” who lives several states away. “Borrowing” his brother’s prized 1969 GTO Ian sets out on a road trip, with Lance and Felicia in tow, to meet Tasty and finally lose his virginity. Along the way they have a run-in with a damaged cashier and her pathological boyfriend, go wild with a mob of Amish party animals, engage in some impromptu watersports with an angry hitchhiker, and get arrested for damaging an endangered species. But when Ian finally meets up with his dream date everything that could possibly go wrong does. And then some. Starting off with an intentionally lame intro by director Sean Anders and writer John Morris who promise a bonanza of gratuitous flesh, the film rarely rises above juvenile gags and prurient humour; but it does so with such gleeful abandon that it won me over despite my better judgement. With its witty script, shameless performances and scenes involving dangling testicles, pointless nudity, and a talking doughnut with a hardon...how could anyone not love this movie?

Sex in Chains (Germany 1928) (5): Chronically unemployed engineer Franz is eking out a living selling vacuum cleaners to rich bitches with pampered cats while his wife Helene helps out by selling cigarettes at a swank nightclub. Things seem to be going well for the happy couple until one fateful night when a persistent club patron makes a few too many unwelcome advances at Helene causing Franz to come to her rescue. A short fistfight later and the customer lies dying in the hospital while Franz is handed a three-year prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter. Thus begins William Dieterle’s lurid tale of “sexual desires among prisoners”. Denied vaginal visiting rights the convicts make do with a lot of anguished overacting, little sex dolls fashioned out of bread crumbs and, occasionally, each other. Clinging zealously to his marriage vows Franz heroically resists temptation amusing himself instead by desperately sniffing one of Helene’s perfumed hankies. She, on the other hand, goes into hormonal overdrive and no amount of rubbing her face with her husband’s spare pants can satisfy her. She eventually has a one-night stand with the boss (an ex-con friend of Franz) leading to an early morning walk of shame and a vow to confess all. But, unbeknownst to poor Helene, Franz has already fallen head over ankles for Alfred, the new kid on the cellblock... Despite the theatrical emoting and overdone storyline (this is a silent film after all) there are still some remarkable elements to this movie. The call for prison reform, including conjugal visits, was years ahead of its time and the subject of homosexuality per se was handled as well as could be expected; “unnatural acts” amongst inmates are decried yet the character of Alfred is presented almost as an innocent romantic with genuine feelings for Franz. There is an hysterical eroticism here which occasionally works; a chaste visit between husband and wife practically burns with repressed desire and an extreme close-up of Franz and Alfred touching hands for the first time is heavy with sexual tension. Unfortunately it all blows up in the end with an angst-laden confrontation and ludicrously “moral” finale. Thankfully the “God’s Laws” sermon is limited to a small cursory appearance.

Sex Life in L.A.  (USA 2000) (6):  Dispassionate look at a handful of men caught in the dark side of the Hollywood dream who, despite some surprisingly philosophical insights, still find themselves having to market their pecs and genitals in order to pay the bills.  Hick avoids the tired old “exploiters vs. exploited” dichotomy and instead approaches his subjects on neutral ground, employing a cool sincerity that allows them to tell their own stories.  Some may be put off by the film’s frankness, including a wholly gratuitous (but still appreciated) masturbation scene, but as a gritty street-level series of character studies it manages to rise above its flaws.

Sex/Life in L.A. 2: Cycles of Porn (USA 2005) (4):  “In America it’s all about the size of your dick...making sure people know how big it is, or if it isn’t big then lying about it” laments one frustrated writer/porn diva in Jochen Hick’s disappointing followup to Sex Life in L.A. It’s a resigned form of cynicism which seems to permeate this look at Southern California’s gay porn industry as it chews up fresh young boys and spits out disillusioned drug-addled old men.  Hick concentrates most of his attention on the residents of an online reality-based hotel as they perform for paying customers in lieu of rent and a real job...think of Big Brother starring naked twinks.  He gives equal time to HIV-positive bodybuilder Cole Tucker who, at the age of 42, decided to revel in his good health and good looks by making several adult films before quietly retiring to Palm Springs.  From clueless kids who believe porn will be their gateway to fame and fortune, to irresponsible asswipes who make a killing (pun intended) doing bareback videos Hick tries to show the various sides of an industry most of us are not aware of...nor care about if we’re being honest.  Unlike his first foray into this territory which strove to get under the skin of its subjects, this sequel is all surfaces and clichés served with gratuitous dollops of hardcore asides.  An attempt is made to put the lives of these young men in context by showing them interacting with family members at home but it results in so much meaningless banter...or worse.  “If I wasn’t his mother...” quips one middle-aged woman poring over her son’s magazine spread, “...I’d go for him myself!”  EWWWW!

Sexual Parasite: Killer Pussy (Japan 2004) (5): It’s every straight man’s nightmare as a jungle parasite that turns otherwise docile vaginas into carnivorous castrating machines is unleashed upon Japan! Brought back from an ill-fated Amazon expedition inside the cooter of a hapless marine biologist (ladies, always look before you sit) the slippery beast and it’s reluctant host are frozen and stored safely inside a secret underground vault until a group of horny college dudes and their mostly naked girlfriends unwittingly thaw them out. What follows is a gratuitous smorgasbord of oiled breasts, rubber entrails and toothy beavers as each boy takes a one-way trip through the golden arches. But can the last girl left standing defeat the muff monster long enough to put her bra back on and escape? At just over 60 minutes Killer Pussy manages to combine the worst excesses of softcore sexploitation with some unbelievably lame special effects; the parasite itself is nothing more than a sock puppet looking like a cross between a catfish and a big black dildo. Still, there are some very (unintentionally) funny moments and a few clever devices...the vaginal canal POV camerawork was certainly inspired. Vulgar, indefensible, and lacking any artistic merit whatsoever. A perfect Saturday night party movie!

Seytan (Turkey 1974) (3): Throughout the 70s and 80s Turkish cinema was notorious for churning out poorly made rip-offs of popular American classics from The Wizard of Oz to Star Wars. Case in point is this horrendous scene-by-scene forgery of The Exorcist complete with snatches of Mike Oldfield’s signature score and a mangled Turkish version of Blatty’s original script; e.g. “Let the servant and believer men to crouch down your grace which you never grudge from your all creations” (about halfway through this mess the translator obviously gives up and implores us to simply “google it”). But the terrible special effects, terrible cinematography, terrible acting, and increasingly bitchy subtitling (screen: “The End”, subtitle: “At Last!”) do make for one very funny bad movie!

Shadow of a Doubt (USA 1943) (8): Living in the perfectly average town of Santa Rosa, with a perfectly average family (dad works in a bank and revels in grisly murder mysteries, mom bakes a cake) and perfectly average friends, teenaged Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright) feels stifled by the sheer ordinariness of her life. All that changes after her prayers to be delivered from boredom are apparently answered when her mother’s beloved brother Charles (from whom Charlie got her name) arrives unexpectedly from the east coast. Uncle Charles (Joseph Cotten) represents everything Charlie feels is lacking in her own life: he’s sophisticated, well traveled, and seems to obey no rules but his own. In fact Charlie is so smitten with him she’s convinced they share a form of telepathy which allows her to sense his thoughts and moods. It is this psychological connection which eventually causes her to suspect the oddly reclusive Charles is not quite the gregarious bon vivant she first made him out to be. And then a few disturbing incidents involving her uncle—a macabre newspaper article here, a piece of mysterious jewellery there, a faint pall of hidden malevolence everywhere—turn her suspicions into cold panic especially when a couple of strangers begin dogging Charles’ every move and his true nature slowly reveals itself to her. Although it did poorly at the box office, this dark tale of innocence corrupted by the arrival of evil was purported to be among director Alfred Hitchcock’s favourite collaborations. So strong is its sense of menace that it borders on horror causing more than one critic to compare the character of Uncle Charles to Bram Stoker’s Dracula in his ability to twist the minds of those around him especially his naïve niece who seems to be the only one capable of seeing the monster in the living room yet is helpless to sound the alarm. Filled with sunshine and small town American values which only serve to highlight the skulking wickedness in everyone’s midst, this is perhaps Hitchcock’s most ironic film and should therefore be on every fan’s “must see” list.

Shadows (USA 1959) (7): John Cassavetes’ directorial debut uses an impressive collage of Manhattan’s beatnik scene to focus on interracial ties, lost dreams, and the mindset of the thriving counter-culture movement. A white man falls in love with a one-night stand not knowing she is a light-skinned black woman. Meanwhile her brothers head down two very different paths with one searching for chicks and trouble in the company of his delinquent white friends and the other, a struggling singer, reduced to emceeing a cheap burlesque show. Shot guerilla-style in B&W with a hand-held 16mm camera, Cassavete’s mostly improvised script and cast of non-professional “night people” gleaned from New York’s underground is a fascinating time capsule from the beat era of the late 50’s. Not a masterwork by any stretch—the acting is woefully uneven, the jarring edits all too obvious, and the ad-libbed performances get stuck in the occasional rut—this experimental film nevertheless provided a low-keyed watershed of sorts for American independent cinema. The free-style jazz score, frank sexuality, and erratic narrative threads (the various plot lines seem to begin and end in the middle) were a bold innovation for a generation grown used to cohesive plots and tidy resolutions and the passing years haven’t dimmed its sense of freshness.

Shame (Sweden 1968) (8): When Sweden is torn apart by civil war, married couple Jan and Eva Rosenberg (Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann) flee the city and head to their rustic farmhouse on a remote northern island. Polar opposites in many ways—Jan is a meek pacifist in denial who’d rather not listen to bad news on the radio while Eva is more a cynical pragmatist alway looking for the advantage—the two former musicians eke out a respectable living selling produce to the locals. But when troops begin invading their pastoral sanctuary and neighbours are forced to take sides the escalating tension not only forces Jan and Eva to recognize their marriage for the tenuous partnership it actually is, it also compels them to commit acts both shameful and horrific in their bid to stay alive. Considered by some to be among his masterpieces, Ingmar Bergman’s polemic on the dehumanizing effects of war refuses to take a moral stance. We are never told why the country is so bitterly divided and in the end it doesn’t really matter for despite their different ideologies both sides end up looting, murdering, and blowing things up with equal conviction. It is the effects of this war on his two protagonists however that piques Bergman’s interest as mild-mannered Jan warps into something monstrous and level-headed Eva falls prey to numbing despair. Despite a shaky first half—was Bergman aiming for nightmare or reality?—this dark parable quickly descends past fear, anger, and madness (with a sombre allusion to The Seventh Seal ) until it finally lingers over a series of macabre closing shots torn straight out of Dante’s Inferno. Beautiful and terrifying.

Shame (UK 2011) (9): By all appearances Brandon is a privileged executive with a cushy job and a chic Manhattan apartment. But his private life is dominated by a serious addiction to sex and pornography which sees every hard drive he owns (including his work computer) crammed with degrading images, his credit card charges going towards cybersex sites, and a parade of listless prostitutes taking their share of his disposable income. Like all addictions the more he feeds it the hungrier it becomes rendering him pretty much incapable of having a normal relationship with women as a sadly awkward first date and subsequent hook-up quickly reveal. And then his kid sister, a struggling singer, pays him an unexpected visit and Brandon’s already toxic lifestyle is shaken to its very core. The fact that “Sissy” has a few self-destructive habits of her own is readily apparent from the old and new scars on her wrists and a pleading phone conversation with her ex that spirals into an emotional meltdown. But it is the relationship between Sissy and Brandon, fraught with recriminations and simmering hostility, which gives this remarkable film its tragic centrepiece. “We’re not bad people…” sobs an inconsolable Sissy at one point after yet another showdown with her brother, “…we just come from a bad place”—and that single cryptic sentence hints at the greater sadness underlying all their anger and self-loathing. Things finally come to a head when, after a rock bottom night of orgiastic excesses, Brandon crawls home to find his life irrevocably changed—but will it be for the better? Reading from a script so natural it sounds ad-libbed leads Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan bravely bare body and soul. Their incredible performances give writer/director Steve McQueen’s profoundly unhappy story about two isolated souls seeking connection a dramatic punch which leaves you sitting glassy-eyed through the closing credits. Scenes of explicit sexuality are rendered melancholic, a score of orchestral arrangements and disco tunes sound mournful, and Carey Mulligan’s unbelievable torch song rendition of “New York, New York” even has co-star Fassbender wiping unrehearsed tears from his eyes. Compassionate towards its characters yet never lenient, Shame’s sense of grief and emotional sabotage backed by impersonal urban settings may not leave you feeling good, but it will leave you feeling.

Shaun the Sheep Movie (UK 2015) (10): Bored with the routine of farm life, Shaun the wayward sheep hatches a plan to lull the farmer to sleep so he and his flock can run wild in the fields. Naturally his plan backfires hilariously and the sheep find themselves having to rescue the farmer who is now wandering around the big city with a bad case of amnesia thanks to a bump on the head. Aided by the farmer’s disgruntled dog as well as a homeless mongrel, and pursued by a relentless animal control officer, the ovine posse narrowly avoid one disaster after another in their quest to recover their owner—an operating room mix-up spells dire trouble for one unconscious patient and a lunch date at a snooty French bistro almost lands everyone in doggy prison. Meanwhile, back on the farm, the pigs are discovering it’s far more fun to behave like humans… Impeccable stop-motion animation that took six years to complete plus an endearing storyline laced with wit and clever pop culture references (Silence of the Lambs, Cape Fear, a salute to The Beatles) make this a delightful piece of entertainment for all ages. And the fact that it all unfolds with no dialogue whatsoever is a testament to the brilliance of the entire production team. Guaranteed to make even the most cynical face crack a smile!

She Done Him Wrong (USA 1933) (6): Apparently Mae West had to be sewn into her slinky gowns in this bawdy comedy famous for two things: at just over one hour in length it is the shortest film to ever be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and the “National League of Decency” cited it as one of the reasons it had to bring in tougher censorship laws. It also saved a floundering Paramount Studios from bankruptcy. She plays “Lady Lou”, a Vaudeville singer with a checkered past whose curvaceous figure and sexual magnetism have men drooling all the way to her boudoir door. Despite having an insanely jealous boyfriend in prison (as well as a few other male “acquaintances”) Lou can’t help teaming up with any man rich enough to keep her in diamonds including the crooked proprietor of the nightclub where she’s currently the star attraction. But when she tries to seduce the virtuous young man who runs the gospel mission next door (a baby-faced Cary Grant) his cool reception sets her hormones to slow simmer. Set in the 1890’s this screen adaptation of the infamous stage play Diamond Lil faithfully recreates a bygone New York, if only for a few brief scenes, but time has rendered its raciness quaint while West’s scandalous double entendres would probably fly right over the heads of today’s target movie demographic (although they may bristle at the black maid’s racist caricature). There will never be another Mae West however, and that makes it a classic in its own right.

Shelter
(USA 2007) (5): Zach is a surfer dude and struggling graffiti artist living with his sister Jeanne and her five-year old son Cody in the seedier side of San Pedro. His best bud Gabe is a privileged trust fund kid who enjoys hanging out, getting stoned, and talking about chicks ad nauseam. Having just broken up with his girlfriend (yet again) Zach is content playing babysitter to Cody while spray-painting his artwork all over town—and then Gabe’s older brother Shaun comes to town for a prolonged visit and things get complicated. A frustrated screenwriter from Los Angeles, Shaun is not only drop dead gorgeous but he also takes an instant liking to Zachary whom he barely remembers as a gangly teenager on rollerblades. Buddying up, Zach and Shaun begin spending an awful lot of time together until one fateful night when Zach realizes that his attraction for Shaun goes far deeper than friendship—an attraction that appears to be mutual… A well-meaning though hopelessly sophomoric gay love story which, had it been made thirty years earlier, would have been considered cutting edge. Nowadays however its derivative script and two-dimensional characters are simply a nice-looking rehash of every queer crush film ever made. Zach wallows in denial; Shaun is still mending a previously broken heart; Jeanne is a chain-smoking neurotic dating an abusive neanderthal; and just guess which two people Cody adores the most? Slo-mo montages of Zach and Shaun surfing and gazing into each other’s eyes are shored up by folksy ballads and widescreen sunsets but the pre-packaged angst seems mere affectation and the emotional depths run rather shallow. At least we’re spared the usual gay predator vs. closeted prey plot line (their couplings are spontaneous and photogenic if nothing else) and the gauzy views of Southern California are unapologetically sentimental.

She’s a Boy I Knew (Canada 2007) (7): In 2000 clean-cut jock Steven Haworth began a four-year journey that would see “him” become Gwen Tara Haworth, a spiky-haired trans woman with a penchant for doc martins and alternative girlfriends. Looking back on her childhood and transitional period through home movies and contemporary interviews with friends, family, and an ex-wife, Gwen holds nothing back as she talks about her struggles with gender identity and acceptance issues; struggles which often hurt the very people who loved her. Although well-spoken and honest to a fault, Gwen’s long list of confessions is thankfully upstaged periodically by her parents, especially mom whose candid thoughts on her new daughter (and wistful recollections of her now defunct son) range from wry observations to intensely personal revelations. As Gwen herself admits, “How much courage does it take to give up the dreams we have for our loved ones in order to invest in the dreams they have for themselves?” A brave and intimate video diary of one person’s often painful evolution.

Ship of Fools (USA 1965) (7): Based on Katherine Anne Porter’s book, Stanley Kramer’s ambitious film takes every virtue, cruelty, and vanity mankind has produced and places them squarely on the shoulders of a motley group of cruise ship passengers. It’s 1933 and a second-rate German ocean liner is making its way from Mexico to Europe carrying an eclectic group of travellers who pretty much cover all seven of the deadly sins. From the clownish nazi and naively stoic Jew to the embittered divorcee who finds solace in a shot glass, the disgraced social activist who finds her true love too late, and the ethically conflicted lovers who can only agree between the sheets, it appears everyone on board has something to regret, extol, envy, buy, or sell. And just to add a bit of moral ballast the ship’s lower deck is teeming with hundreds of unwashed migrant workers returning to Spain, their sobering presence contrasting with the first class couple who enjoy feeding their slobbering pooch steak from the captain’s table. Before they reach their final destination romance will bloom and die, friendships will be forged and enmities stoked, and God himself will be challenged. A sterling international cast featuring Vivian Leigh (making her swan song), José Ferrer, Oskar Werner, and Simone Signoret shine despite the occasional dramatic hyperbole and director Stanley Kramer manages to forge his collage of separate storylines into something streamlined and cohesive as his camera tracks characters from deck to deck and cabin to cabin. And having the diminutive Michael Dunn, here playing a dwarf either ignored or reviled by his fellow passengers, step out of character in order to bookend the film was a stroke of inspiration—he may not be the mouse that roared but his roguish smile and mocking laugh add yet another layer of irony. Unfortunately it is the film’s ironic excesses and thinly disguised sermons which keep it from being truly exceptional with a Jewish salesman downplaying Germany’s new wave of anti-semitism, a kindly grandmother whose son proudly displays his swastika armband, and a shipboard costume ball in which everyone wears their heart on their heads (the aforementioned nazi sympathizer whirling around the dance floor sporting a pair of devil horns). A grand ensemble piece just the same buoyed by a host of assured performances and a crisp B&W cinematography that makes the most of those swelling waves and distant horizons.

Ship of Theseus (India 2012) (8): The Ship of Theseus Paradox is an ancient thought experiment which raises the question of whether an object that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object, such as a ship which over the years has received new planks, new oars, new rigging and so on yet still retains its original shape. In writer/director Anand Gandhi’s metaphysical triptych three unrelated people each undergo a profound physical change which in turn affects their outlooks on justice, spirituality, and the nature of art. A celebrated photographer is forced to reappraise her work after her failing eyesight is restored. Following an operation a politically apathetic young man passionately pursues a criminal cause célèbre only to discover the roles of victim and perpetrator are not so easily defined. A pacifist monk dedicated to animal rights is forced to either betray his convictions or die defending them. Combining the best of European arthouse cinema yet never straying too far from the colourfully harsh bustle of Mumbai’s streets and alleyways, Gandhi proves adroit at disguising profound philosophical discourses as friendly chitchat and transforming everyday scenes into ethereal snapshots—at one point the monk and his cynical companion discuss karmic retribution while strolling past strategically placed urban graffiti, in another segment two men make their way through a sunlit slum whose twisting pathways come to resemble a sacred labyrinth, and in my favourite passage wandering holy men are dwarfed by the massive wind turbines towering above them. Gandhi eventually ties his stories together in a most remarkable and fitting way and then dangles the question of whether or not these are the same three people we met at the film’s beginning. For that matter one could also ask the same question of the audience itself. Heady stuff.

Shock Corridor (USA 1963) (5): B-Movie icon Peter Breck gives The Snake Pit’s Olivia de Havilland a run for her money in this zero-budget noir about murder and insanity. He plays ace newspaper reporter Johnny Barrett who’s determined to win a Pulitzer Prize by going undercover at the local psychiatric hospital and solving a cold case murder that occurred there earlier. With the help of his editor and faithful stripper girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers, who also treats us to a cheesy song and dance non-sequitur) Johnny poses as the asylum’s newest patient—a man with unhealthy, often violent appetites for his sister—in order to gain access to the three insane men who witnessed the murder: an army deserter who believes he is General E. Lee’s right hand man; a black man with a penchant for KKK drag; and a nuclear physicist who traded in atomic research for a box of crayons. But the closer Johnny gets to uncovering the truth the more his institutional surroundings take their toll on his own psyche until a series of involuntary shock treatments and an unfortunate gang-grope at the hands of a “nympho” gang from the women’s wing threaten to push him over the edge entirely… To be fair there are some novel effects to the flick (an indoor thunderstorm was inspired), the high contrast B&W is all shadows and nightmare, and a bit of deep thinking obviously went into a mostly hackneyed script as occasional periods of lucidity among the psychotic inmates reveal a surprising humanity—the former physicist waxes philosophical on paranoia in the atomic age while the black man’s affinity for the Klan makes discomfiting allusions to internalized racism. Unfortunately the film too often indulges in scenery-chewing campiness and cornball dialogue: “You think I like singing in that sewer with a hot light on my navel?” wails Cathy as she tries to talk Johnny out of his crazy plan, “I’m fed up with playing Greek chorus to your rehearsed nightmare!!” Oy! But Breck does bring an exaggerated intensity to the role as he emotes his way to a nervous breakdown and Towers is all nail-biting and running mascara as she looks on helplessly. However, the film ultimately belongs to Larry Tucker who, as the rotund aria-spouting Pagliacci, actually makes his madness believable. It ain’t art folks, but as an example of 60’s “transgressive cinema” it remains an entertaining curio.

The Shock Doctrine (USA 2009) (8): Author Naomi Klein’s bestseller examining the social and economic fallout of “disaster capitalism” around the world makes for an engrossing documentary. Starting with the infamous CIA-backed psychological experiments carried out on unwitting Montreal volunteers which proved that induced shocks, whether physical or mental, can lead to heightened complacency and weakened resistance, Klein goes on to show how those same principles have been applied to economies around the world with disastrous results. University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman (1912–2006) believed that the only road to economic stability was through deregulated capitalism, privatization, and an unfettered free market. He and his disciples, dubbed “The Chicago Boys”, felt that entire populations could be “shocked” into embracing this new reality in times of crisis, whether real or imagined. Seeing Friedman’s approach as a means of increasing their profits unhindered by pesky domestic policies, wealthy industrialists (backed by their political cronies) were eager to usher in this brave new world. In Chile the socialist democracy of Salvador Allende was overthrown by General Pinochet in an American-backed coup which saw Allende’s dreams of nationalization and collectivization replaced by a military dictatorship and rampant capitalism. The result was massive unemployment, runaway inflation and thousands of detainees tortured and murdered under suspicion of being evil Marxists. The process was repeated in Argentina and, later, in Russia where Gorbachev’s attempt at a gradual westernization was overthrown by Yeltsin’s aggressive coup. Then there was the manufactured crisis of all those “Weapons of Mass Destruction” which gave Bush the permission he needed to permanently destabilize Iraq. But on the home front where military takeovers and mass murder were frowned upon, Friedman’s dream took root in the slash & burn policies of political sweethearts Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher—-again resulting in rising inflation and unemployment rates, and an ever widening gap between the rich and the nouveau poor. From the bombing of Baghdad which led to western control of Iraq’s resources, to the flooding of Hurricane Katrina which Friedman saw as a golden opportunity to privatize the New Orleans school system, Klein describes her Shock Doctrine as: “The systematic raiding of the public sphere in the aftermath of a disaster, when people are too focused on the emergency…to protect their interests.” She does offer a bit of hope in the end, but judging by the failed “Occupy Wall Street” movement and the continuing marginalization of all those who dare to challenge the bastions of capitalism, it is a small offering indeed.

The Shoes of the Fisherman (USA 1968) (7): After having served twenty years in a Siberian gulag for refusing to renounce his faith, Archbishop Kiril Pavlovich Lakota (Anthony Quinn) is mysteriously released under the auspices of Vatican City. Whisked away to Rome and immediately promoted to Cardinal despite his claims of unworthiness (the Pope’s motives being more political than spiritual) he sets about reacquainting himself with a world that has grown larger and more dangerous during his imprisonment. But when the old pontiff drops dead a Vatican impasse finds an overwhelmed Lakota crowned history’s first Russian Pope. Modest and deeply humble, Kiril the First spends his initial days in office comforting a dying Jew, soothing the passionately heretical Fr. Telemond (Oskar Werner), and saving the crumbling marriage of a distraught British doctor and her philandering American husband (Barbara Jefford and David Janssen). His true test however will come when world leaders call upon him to avert WWIII after China, suffering from a famine of biblical proportions, begins rattling its sword at both East and West. Taken as a lush costume epic—it even has an overture and entr’acte!—director Michael Anderson’s 160-minute Roman Catholic fantasy is pure big screen entertainment. Cutting seamlessly between stock footage of St. Peter’s square thronged with faithful tourists and Cinecittà’s glorious papal sets it practically oozes pomp and ceremony not to mention some fascinating trivia on how the Church’s inner sanctum operates. Apparently Quinn had his own brush with Jerusalem Syndrome while filming and it shows in his intense performance as a soft-spoken shepherd with a few revolutionary ideas of his own who is suddenly called upon to shout, metaphorically if not literally. Whether heaping Christian charity upon godless communists or trying to grasp Telemond’s vision of a “Cosmic Christ”, Lakota is first and foremost a man of deep spirituality whose years of deprivation have only served to heighten is compassion for mankind. Not exactly Dr. Zhivago, yet not the Catholic propaganda I was expecting either despite a few misty moments and Kiril’s ludicrously inconceivable plan to ease global tensions. And what was that Dr. Strangelove control room beneath the Kremlin all about? Well-written at least and filmed in majestic cinemascope sweeps, this is big budget drama of the old school variety. Co-stars Sir John Gielgud as the dead pope, Laurence Olivier as the Russian Premier, and Vittoria de Sica as a fellow cardinal—character actor Burt Kwouk, looking like Lenin doing a bad Mao impersonation, struts and hisses as the Chinese Chairman.

Shortbus (USA 2006) (8): “New York City is where everyone comes to be forgiven…” states one character in writer/director John Cameron Mitchell’s controversial opus. And no place offers absolution quite like the Shortbus nightclub, an oasis of non-conformity in the heart of Manhattan run by drag queen-cum-mother figure Justin Bond where people of all sexualities and genders come together for sex and camaraderie, their “sin” consisting of nothing more than being different. Among the clientele passing through the club’s taffeta curtains are a sex therapist who’s never experienced an orgasm; a terminally depressed young man who can only communicate his pain through a video diary he tapes for his adoring partner; a dominatrix who yearns for a conventional relationship; and a lonely voyeur who falls in love vicariously. Mixing pathos, humour, and healthy dollops of hardcore sex Mitchell takes us down a few less traveled roads as his subjects talk and fuck their way toward a host of personal epiphanies while the Big Apple itself—here represented by a cleverly crafted cardboard model of day-glo buildings and fairy tale bridges—gears up for an electrical orgasm of its own. Joining a select few movies such as 9 Songs and Intimacy, Shortbus manages to incorporate explicit sex into a non-pornographic narrative and in so doing attain a sense of rapport few mainstream movies ever achieve as each character takes a turn at being naked and therefore vulnerable both literally and figuratively—even the director has a full-on cameo during a group sex scene. Alternating between tender honesty and goofy abandon (one man hums “The Star Spangled Banner” with his face buried in another’s arse) Mitchell knows full well that physical sex can heal on many different levels—look for an ingenious nod to The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, I’m sure C. S. Lewis never thought of that angle when he was typing away! Cathartic and playful in turn I expected to be amused, even titillated. What I wasn’t expecting were the tears in my eyes.

Shutter Island (USA 2010) (8): Mystery and mayhem at the madhouse may not be the most original plot device in movie history but Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel proves to be an irresistible blend of policier, psychological riddle, and gothic chiller. It’s 1954 when shellshocked and recently widowed WWII veteran Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio in fine form), now a U.S. Marshall, is sent to investigate the disappearance of a female inmate at the imposing Ashecliffe Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Located on a remote island off the coast of Massachusetts and locked down like Fort Knox it seems impossible that the woman could have escaped from the facility at all, a fact which immediately raises the suspicions of Daniels and his inexperienced partner (a suitably clueless Mark Ruffalo). Indeed, the asylum’s staff and directors do seem uncomfortable under his gaze as they evade questions and stonewall his investigation—could there actually be any truth to the monstrous conspiracy rumours reaching the detective’s ears? With a hurricane bearing down on the island and his own mental wellbeing suffering from wartime flashbacks and memories of his deceased wife, Daniels slowly sorts through the few cryptic clues he has, especially a hastily written note left by the vanished inmate. But the solution, when it finally arrives, may make him wish he had never left home in the first place. Scorsese delivers the goods with full force, foregoing subtlety in favour of thundering winds and hallucinatory side trips awash in blood and ashes. Brilliantly filmed, Ashecliffe becomes an organic space alive with ominous shadows and half heard whispers where a struck match flares like a doomsday torch and a desperate stopover in a rain-soaked mausoleum provides some delirious Hollywood overkill. Thankfully, a strong supporting cast (Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Max von Sydow) keeps things creepy yet grounded as they lead us down one blind alley after another. If Scorsese occasionally eclipses the credibility gap, he does it with such gusto that we are more than happy to take the leap with him.

Shut Up and Sing  (USA 2006) (7):  Starts out looking very much like a promotional video for the Dixie Chicks but gradually evolves into a surprisingly intimate portrait of the band as they weather the conservative backlash to a seemingly innocuous little remark. We see them trying to back-pedal their way out.....watch them attempt to appease the rabid masses.....and, finally, adopt an F.U. attitude as they restart their world tour. A bit self-indulgent perhaps, certainly in need of some editing but interesting nonetheless. Thankfully the images of inbred southern hicks, their tiny brains firmly embedded up their backsides, are kept to a minimum.

The Sicilian Girl (Italy 2008) (7):  Taken from 1990’s headlines, Marco Amenta’s true story about a mafia daughter turned informer is as heartbreaking as it is infuriating.  Growing up in Sicily with a father whom she admired for being an “honorable” mafioso boss—one who always settled conflicts peacefully—little Rita Atria is shocked when he is murdered by the very people he called friends.  But when the mob strikes her family yet again, an older Rita decides to fight back by going to the police; an unforgivable sin in a society where the underworld is both judge and jury and cops are seen as the real enemy.  Now in a witness protection program and shunned by her own mother, Rita slowly comes to realize that doing the right thing comes at a horrible price for not only does the mafia fight back with a terrifying vengeance, she is also forced to accept some uncomfortable truths about her late father.  With her safety tenuous at best and the case against the men she accused going badly, Rita decides on one last desperate gambit to try and ensure justice is done…  A host of stellar performances deliver a painfully believable script (based on actual court transcripts) to tell the tale of one woman’s journey from laissez-faire supporter to passionate adversary.  Vengeance and Justice are never the same thing, and in Amenta’s capable hands this lesson is delivered with deadly accuracy.

Side Effects (USA 2013) (7): When a deeply disturbed woman commits a brutal crime while under his care, psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (an intense Jude Law) suspects her actions were the result of a toxic side effect related to the new antidepressant he prescribed. Suddenly the subject of public scrutiny and shunned by the pharmaceutical company that supplied him the drug in the first place Banks finds both his professional and private life slowly unraveling especially after a damaging revelation from his intern years is revealed. But as he continues to work with his now institutionalized patient he starts to believe that there is more to her case than he first thought, a suspicion further compounded after the woman’s former therapist takes a renewed interest in the case. Against a backdrop of corporate complicity and hidden agendas, where doctors and patients alike pop happy pills as if they were candy, director Steven Soderbergh spins a tall tale of deceit and paranoia as one man’s obsessive search for the truth leads him down a very dark alley indeed. Noteworthy performances all around and an inventive plot that keeps you glued to the screen. It’s just too bad Soderbergh asks us to swallow a few too many whoppers along the way causing that suspension of disbelief to weigh a little heavier as you approach the film’s dubious yet cruelly satisfying conclusion.

Sightseers (UK 2012) (8): Bland and blank-faced Tina decides to crawl out from under her domineering mother’s iron fist and embark on a caravan tour of northern England with Chris, her brooding and anally retentive boyfriend of three months. They no sooner begin their dreary vacation however (one of the highlights is a visit to a “pencil museum”) when Chris’ rants about rude people and the British class system take a turn for the psychopathic causing Tina to register that her new beau’s still waters run deeper and more dangerous than she thought. But that’s okay because our mousy little anti-heroine has a few bones of her own to pick with the universe and as the blood begins to flow she comes to realize that there are more things in heaven and earth than were ever dreamt of in her timid philosophy. Like Malick’s Badlands rewritten by the Python gang, Ben Wheatley’s dark and vicious deadpan shocker can’t quite decide if it’s a black satire or a horror film shot through with gruesome chuckles. Either way the surreal vistas of overcast wastes coupled with some ironic 80’s anthems (Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Power of Love” is used with great effect) and a largely improvised script bordering on the freakish make this one very enjoyable head-scratcher. It’s a testament to Wheatley’s skill that he can make us smile even as he repeatedly sticks bloodied pins in his cast.

The Silence (Germany 2010) (8): In the summer of ’86 an eleven-year old girl is raped and murdered in a farmer’s field then dumped into a nearby lake. Obsessed with the case, police detective Krischan Mittich neglects his own marriage in order to track down the killer but no arrest is ever made. Twenty-three years later another young girl, Sinikka, disappears under identical circumstances and Mittich, now retired, is convinced it is the work of the same person. Joining forces with rookie officer David Jahn (who is still reeling from the recent death of his wife) to track down the killer the two men experience one dead end after another in their investigation. In the meantime Sinikka’s parents are falling apart, the first victim’s mother is having old wounds ripped open, and their department chief is breathing down their necks. There is one man however who knows what really happened but he is reluctant to come forward because although his information would solve the case, it would also destroy his own life in the process. Director Baran bo Odar’s bleak policier is not so much a thriller—we know who did it from the get-go—but rather a dark meditation on conscience, obsession, and the destructive power of remaining silent. Whether it be through despair or mental illness or sheer frustration, all his characters seem frozen in place and Odar’s long tracking shots of grieving faces and lonely fields heighten this sense of isolation beautifully. In the role of Jahn, Sebastian Blomberg’s unresolved anguish over his dead spouse spirals into so much theatrics and hyperbole (at one point he wallows on the kitchen floor wearing her housedress), but everyone else puts in convincing performances including Ulrich Thomsen as a bad guy, a pathetic human being who would be pitiable were it not for his monstrous appetite. Overacting aside this is an unsettling ensemble piece, well filmed and tightly directed.

Silent House (USA 2011) (7): Teenaged Sarah is helping her dad and uncle Peter fix up the family's lakeside retreat which has fallen into disrepair thanks to years of neglect and the occasional squatter. Filled with dust and mould, and without any power thanks to rats chewing through the wires, their work is cut out for them. But when Peter takes off leaving Sarah and her dad on their own, things take a turn for the wierd. Apparently they are not the only ones home and when dad goes to investigate the upstairs rooms he doesn't return leaving Sarah alone in the dark... Sure to disappoint those expecting a straight-up bogeyman movie this psychological house of cards, based on an earlier Spanish film, starts off creepy enough; things go bump, adults disappear then reappear, and a frightened adolescent plays cat-and-mouse with a potential killer...a gratuitous trip to the basement had me turning the lights on. But when the big twist comes towards the end I must admit to being a wee bit put off at first for having the rug pulled out from under me---until I thought about it some more and suddenly all those illogical plot devices (why is every door and window locked from the inside? How difficult can it be to catch a rather loud kid carrying a very bright lantern?) made perfect sense. Directors Kentis and Lau have fashioned a tight suspenseful thriller with a cerebral pay-off in the end. The appearance of being shot as one continuous real-time take (kudos to Elizabeth Olsen's bravura performance) was at once disconcerting and wholly absorbing; imagine continuously looking over someone's shoulder as they live out their worst nightmare. Perhaps some of the symbolic props were overdone, but the overall effect was quite disturbing. Chilling stuff.

Silent Light (Mexico/Netherlands 2007) (8): After a beautifully executed opening scene of dawn spreading over a verdant countryside accompanied by the distant braying of unseen livestock, the camera cuts to the kitchen of a simple farmhouse where Johan, Esther, and their five children sit around the breakfast table, heads bowed reverently in silent prayer. Thus begins Carlos Reygadas’ quietly poetic film about love and adultery in an isolated Mennonite community. Although Johan loves his wife he can’t help feeling his marriage to Esther was a mistake ever since he started seeing Marianne, a clerk at the local ice cream parlour. Esther is well aware of his indiscretions and tries to wear a brave face hoping her husband will eventually come to his senses. Meanwhile, Johan’s father insists this is the work of the devil and tells him of his own brush with temptation years earlier, while his best friend suggests that perhaps God had something to do with Marianne entering his life. The conflict between Johan’s emotional needs and spiritual beliefs threaten to overwhelm him until an unforeseen tragedy throws his life off balance and brings everything into painful focus. Reygadas tells his tale in slow, carefully composed takes awash with natural sounds and a delicate light which gives the most mundane images a sense of profound significance whether it’s a conspicuously ticking clock or muted sunlight falling against a curtained window. He deftly avoids sentimentalism and overt religious spectacle, filming some key scenes from a detached distance while relying more on charged silences than dramatic dialogue. The highly cryptic final segment, wherein the two women finally meet, is both intensely moving and certainly open to much spirited debate. Sadly, although his three non-professional leads are more than up to the task the same cannot be said for the others who turn in rather stilted, self-conscious performances. At just under 2½ hours of pained stares and breast-beating, Silent Light is definitely not for everyone; but for the patient viewer its extraordinary visuals and deliberate pacing pay off big time.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (USA 1977) (2): When Prince Kassim is turned into a baboon by his evil stepmother Queen Zenobia so that her own son can claim the throne, Kassim's sister, Princess Farah, enlists the aid of her maritime boyfriend Sinbad in order to save the day. Joining forces with the powerful alchemist Melanthius, the two lovers along with the simian prince journey to the north pole where the secrets of an ancient temple may be able to return the prince to his human form. But Zenobia won't give up without a fight leading to all sorts of tiresome mayhem involving poorly animated bugs, monsters, and mythical beasts. Using cheap Mardi Gras costumes, cartoonish effects, and performances which go beyond abysmal, Sam Wannamaker's fantasy flop doesn't even come close to matching it's predecessor, 1958's classic The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, despite being filmed in the "miracle" of Dynarama (translation: lots of bad green screen backgrounds and even worse stop motion sequences featuring some moth-eaten action figures from the back of Ray Harryhausen's closet). Wannamaker can't even get his mythology straight resulting in a confusing Disneyland jumble of Egyptian pyramids, Arabic minarets, and Yankee accents. However, in the role of Sinbad, Patrick Wayne (John's son!) is extremely easy on the eye, if somewhat grating on the ear.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (USA 2014) (8): “Death is just like life in Sin City…and love doesn’t conquer anything at all…” And that pretty well sums up the tone of Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s crazy violent pseudo-animated faux noir prequel-slash-sequel to 2005’s Sin City, both based on Miller’s graphic novels. Like the moving panels of a comic book all decked out in razor sharp black & white with the occasional splash of neon colour to emphasize a female form or a gouged eyeball, Miller and Rodriquez return to the titular metropolis—a rundown berg so rife with cruelty and corruption it’d make downtown Mosul look like a Florida retirement community—to churn out a handful of tales involving crooked politicians, seductive man-eaters, and an acrobatic squad of deadly ninja hookers. Eva Green plays the ultimate femme fatale revelling in her ability to drive men mad; Powers Boothe is a psychopathic senator who plays a very mean game of poker; Jessica Alba takes to the runway as a homicidal stripper on mission; and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a charmed gambler about to be shit on by Lady Luck. And tying the various strands together are Bruce Willis as an unhappy spirit and a barely recognizable Micky Rourke playing a one-man death machine with the face of a rabid bull and a body to match. The dialogue is pure pulp fiction corn lacking any true wit but it’s all beautifully stylized to look like pen and ink illustrations come to life and the glut of extreme brutality is entertainingly shocking—heads and limbs are casually lopped off, faces are crushed, arteries are severed, and fountains of pure white cartoon blood erupt like geysers while electric guitars wail. And of course, staying true to its target demographic, Sin City also adds hefty dollops of fantasy female flesh to its noirish mix of grungy cityscapes and sexy firearms. Not recommended for the pure of heart or weak of stomach.

Sinister (USA 2012) (7):  Anxious to pen another bestseller, true crime author Ellsion Oswalt (an annoyingly intense Ethan Hawke)  moves his family to a small Pennsylvania town.  Peace and quiet are not Oswalt's primary concerns though, for unbeknownst to his wife and kids their new house was actually the scene of a horrific killing spree a few years earlier in which four members of a family were hanged in the backyard while the fifth member, a little girl, was abducted never to be seen again.  Hoping to gain inspiration from the home's grisly past as he writes about the murders that took place there Ethan sets about digging for dirt aided by an eager deputy sheriff and a few bottles of Jack Daniels.  But the chance discovery of a box full of 8mm home movies and some bizarre children's artwork suggests darker forces were behind the deaths; forces which have struck in the past and now seem to be rallying once more.  As with all supernatural thrillers it is imperative to dampen one's expectations of sense and logic (when some thing is running about the house in the dead of night people naturally want to keep the lights off while they stumble around in the dark using their cellphones as a flashlight...sheesh!)  However, for those of us able to suspend that pesky disbelief, Sinister winds up being an effective blend of spooky ghost story and psychological teaser with some well placed jolts and lots of things bumping along midnight hallways.  There is a macabre undercurrent to the story which contains elements both terrifying and darkly poignant, and director Scott Derrickson proves he is able to deliver a chillingly good yarn despite a rather unimaginative premise (think The Ring meets Amityville Horror ).  Furthermore, some creepy camerawork coupled with a soundtrack of crashing chords and scratchy goth beats heighten the hideous while helping us to ignore some of the film's sillier devices.  A good Halloween flick!

Sir! No Sir! (USA 2005) (9): Throughout the 60s and 70s several well documented rallies were held stateside protesting America’s military involvement in Viet Nam. What wasn’t widely publicized however was the homegrown anti-war movement amongst the enlisted men themselves. Angry and disillusioned by the atrocities they witnessed both overseas and in the VA hospitals back home a growing number of soldiers began to question why they were fighting and dying for a cause that seemed questionable at best and downright criminal at its darkest moments. David Zeiger’s fascinating documentary traces this GI peace movement which started with a few underground newspapers distributed in off-base coffee houses and soon blossomed into marches, public protests, and open defiance of official orders—in extreme cases a few commanding officers were actually murdered by their own men. The army quickly responded with court-martials and lengthy prison terms but with growing public condemnation, a changing political landscape in Viet Nam, and an increasing reluctance on the part of draftees to fight in a war they disagreed with the writing was already on the wall. An engaging mix of talking heads including veterans, family members, and Peace! poster girl Jane Fonda herself (her anti-war road show here seen as an antidote to Bob Hope’s patriotic propaganda tours) are enhanced by smoothly edited archival footage taken from home movies and the evening news—an especially effective opening and closing sequence depicting a napalm attack along a palm-fringed coastline draws immediate comparisons to Apocalypse Now. Passionate, respectful, and well documented, Zeger manages to correct a few misconceptions while adding yet another valuable chapter to the story of America’s involvement in Viet Nam.

Sisters of the Gion (Japan 1936) (6): Daring by western standards at the time, Mizoguchi’s sad tale of female exploitation has lost most of its sting although the underlying message is just as pertinent today. Geisha sisters Umekichi and O-Mocha ply their trade in the “pleasure district” of Kyoto. When Mr. Furusawa, one of Umekichi’s regular clients, falls on hard times he decides to move in with the two women much to O-Mocha’s displeasure. Although her older sister looks upon the newly bankrupt and unhappily married Furusawa with pity and compassion, O-Mocha has become embittered to the way men “pay money to treat us as playthings” and insists that Umekichi dump the penniless man and look for a wealthy benefactor to support her instead. To this end she concocts a series of underhanded schemes, using men the way they’ve used her, to not not only get rid of Furusawa but land both her and her sister a pair of rich patrons in the process. Of course things go terribly awry and both women are taught a harsh lesson on how little their lives mean to the men who seek their services. A cold and unhappy tale which has its heart in the right place but nevertheless ends with an angry monologue by O-Mocha which sounds more like a prepared statement than a howl of despair.

Six Degrees of Separation (USA 1993) (6):  John Guare’s hugely popular stage play makes an uneven and not entirely successful transition to the screen.  Flan and Ouisa are a pretentious upper-class couple who’ve made millions buying and selling other people’s art collections.  When a young black man shows up at their penthouse door, bleeding from a recent mugging and claiming to be a good friend of their children, they initially react with guarded skepticism.  But it isn’t long before the charming young Paul has them eating out of the palm of his hand with his witty ripostes and clever banter.  When he casually mentions he is the son of Sidney Poitier he has them hooked.  All is not as it seems however and a few days later they discover that they are not the only Upper Eastside couple to be visited by “Paul Poitier”.  What starts out as a farcical look at the banality of Manhattan’s privileged gentry soon takes a serious turn as the couple begin to peel away Paul’s facade to reveal the true motives behind his actions.  Indeed, facades loom heavily in this somewhat one-sided sermon against petty bourgeois values.  In trying to emulate the wealthy lifestyle he so desires Paul acts as a mirror in which some characters begin to see the various charades they play in their own lives....the crooked deals, the forced bonhomie, and the amusing strings of anecdotes that serve as a substitute for actually living.  Paul may be an impostor but he ends up being the only “genuine” person in the entire movie.  This is when things get bogged down.  The ensuing rhetoric has a certain air of self-righteousness about it as revelations are made and angry indictments are leveled.  It would seem that anyone with a top-floor view of Central Park is just a big phony.  To  be fair, the script is certainly clever and Schepisi makes the most of his Manhattan settings.  Furthermore there are some commendable performances, most notably Stockard Channing in the role of Ouisa.  I guess some plays just don’t translate well into movies.

1612 (Russia 2007) (8): Vladimir Khotinenko's magnificent costume epic is a heady mix of historical revisionism and romantic fantasy with a tragic love triangle thrown in for good measure. Set during Russia's "Time of Troubles" at the beginning of the 17th century, the story revolves around the bloody struggle for the Tsar's throne left vacant after the ruling Gudenov family was assassinated. With the Polish military laying siege to Moscow and a brutish Polish nobleman determined to force the last remaining Gudenov, Princess Kseniya, into an arranged marriage it falls down to young Andrei, a lowly serf with a lifelong crush on Kseniya, to turn the tides of war and rescue the object of his desire. The film's gorgeous widescreen cinematography moves effortlessly between candlelit tunnels and blood-soaked battlefields while a few magical touches add a subtle fairytale sheen to what is essentially historical mythmaking. And the male leads are hunky perfection! A perfect popcorn movie.

6ixtynin9 [A Funny Story About 6 and 9 ] (Thailand 1999) (7): After losing her corporate job, another victim of the Asian economic crisis, Tum struggles to make ends meet with her few remaining baht. Her luck changes one day however when she discovers a small fortune tucked inside a noodle box and left outside her apartment door. Not wasting too much time wondering about where the money came from, Tum begins to plan a new life for herself with some sage advice from her scatterbrained friend. But when the villainous owners of the cash come snooping around, as well as their enemies and the police, an increasingly distressed Tum sees her dreams of financial independence thwarted time and again. And as if being at the centre of a simmering gang war isn’t enough everyone that comes calling on her, cop and criminal alike, has the unfortunate habit of meeting a messy demise in her living room… With deadpan delivery, absurd plot twists, and just a touch of noir, director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang has fashioned one of the darker comedies to ever emerge from Asia. Pale and perpetually dumbstruck, Lalita Panyopas is perfectly cast as the desperate antihero trying to hold on to her ill-gotten gain while circumstances beyond her control push her in directions she’d rather not go. The supporting cast is appropriately loud and crass, especially a nosy neighbour who suspects Tum of screwing her police boyfriend (one of the film’s funnier sequences), and it all ends with an outrageous Thai version of the old Mexican standoff. Some jarring edits and a few odd fantasy sequences aside, this is still one hell of an evening’s entertainment!

Skyfall (UK 2012) (7): When watching a James Bond film one must expect a patently ludicrous storyline with lots of stuff blowing up and Skyfall is certainly no exception. But the enjoyment lies in the execution and this instalment practically flies by in a riot of gunfire, explosions, and a few welcome cameos from Daniel Craig’s rock hard pecs. This time around agent 007 is hot on the trail of a stolen hard drive containing top secret NATO information while at the same time his employers at the British Intelligence Agency are under attack from within after their computer system is hacked by a mad genius (a fey golden-locked Javier Bardem looking as if he’d be more at home on the set of Austin Powers). And then Bond discovers that the attacks may be directly linked to a dirty secret held by his personal boss “M” (Judi Dench still kicking ass at 77) and the revelation proves less than comforting. The plot however simply provides a framework in which to showcase all those eye-popping (or eye-rolling depending on your sensibilities) action sequences: a wild motorcycle chase along the rooftops of Istanbul; a fire & brimstone showdown over the Scottish moors, and a surreal confrontation atop a neon-lit Shanghai skyscraper are just some of the highlights. But say good-bye to the suave sophistication and ingenious gadgets of Sean Connery or Roger Moore; Craig’s Bond is a coarse and sullen wild card with haunted eyes and a quick trigger finger facing his declining years with a mixture of stubborn resolve and perhaps a few unvoiced regrets. If you can ignore some yawning plot holes (a puzzling sexual dalliance starts nowhere and goes nowhere), fantastical plot devices, and 007’s uncanny ability to dodge hundreds of bullets (save two), you may just walk away feeling as if you’ve gotten your money’s worth. Great opening credits sequence too!

Slaughterhouse Five (USA 1972) (8):  A decent adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s semi-autobiographical novel about a man suffering from extreme dissociative behaviour following his experiences in a German POW camp.  Billie Pilgrim is literally lost in time, he never knows when he’ll be pulled from his affluent middle-class existence in order to relive the horrors he witnessed in WWII. Both realities are confusing to him....the senseless destruction of the past, and the comfortable banality of the present with its silly social conventions and a family that is little more than a group of strangers to him.  Not only is he lost in time then, he is also lost culturally and spiritually.  It’s not until he’s kidnapped by a race of aliens that he finally experiences the peace of mind that has eluded him.  Ironically, it is this third reality (a complete departure from reality actually)  that contains the least amount of true freedom....he’s cooped up in a sparsely furnished glass bubble surrounded by a poisonous atmosphere while  his benevolent captors urge him to mate with a fellow abductee.  The “Tralfamadoreans” dismiss the concept of free will, believing instead that suffering and joy are both inevitable and the key to happiness is to play down the bad times and concentrate on the good.  Pilgrim’s attempt to impart this bit of wisdom to his fellow Earthlings proves disastrous.  It appears that prejudice, hatred and blind revenge...presented here as an embittered fellow veteran...are obstacles that may prove too much for mankind to overcome.

Sleepers (USA 1996) (5): In the summer of 1968 four young friends living on the mean streets of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen get caught up in a bit of juvenile delinquency that goes way too far. Sent to an upstate reform school, the boys are subjected to months of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of four sadistic guards who seem determined to make their lives pretty near unbearable. Cut to 1981 and the boys, now young men, have gone very different routes—one is working for a newspaper (Jason Patric), one is a fledgling lawyer with the District Attorney’s office (Brad Pitt), and two have become drug-addled enforcers with a local street gang. But they all share one thing in common, they’ve kept the horrors of what happened at the detention centre to themselves out of a communal sense of shame. And then the two gang members happen upon one of their former tormenters eating in a restaurant and words lead to bullets and twin murder convictions. Hearing of their plight, the lawyer and newspaperman decide that with one down and three more to go it’s payback time for all concerned… What starts out as a poignant tale of good kids going bad during the Summer of Love (the 60s touches are perfect) quickly segues into a juvenile horror story with slimy turnkeys led by a leering Kevin Bacon and lots of off-camera screaming. As gripping and painful to watch as the first half is however, the second half proves to be far more problematic. With Patric and Pitt trying to rig their friends’ trial with the help of a conscience-stricken priest (Robert DeNiro) and an alcoholic lawyer (Dustin Hoffman) as well as planning the downfall of the other guilty parties, director/screenwriter Barry Levinson sinks to the level of righteous vigilantism and holier-than-thou proselytizing. Somehow crooked deals and ice cold revenge get confused with a higher moral plane while the edicts of a local mafia boss—himself responsible for countless murders—ring out with all the authority of Lady Justice herself. And just to make sure that the audience feels guilty about questioning the film’s smug sense of virtue Levinson browbeats us with monochromatic flashbacks of brutalized kids—one even trying to say the rosary while being assaulted. Manipulative as hell, especially with John Williams’ syrupy orchestral score, and in light of America’s increasing preoccupation with guns and street justice a subversive film for all the wrong reasons. As an ironic footnote, all claims that the source book was based on the real life experiences of author Lorenzo Carcaterra have long since been debunked. In other words, he lied.

Sleeping Beauty (Australia 2011) (5): University student Lucy (a very brave Emily Browning) approaches life with a cynical detachment bordering on nihilism whether it be her lackadaisical performance at work or the tawdry sexual encounters she engages in afterwards. In fact the only time she lets her emotional guard down is when she’s in the company of her housebound drug-addicted fiancé…but it’s questionable which he craves more—her or the booze she provides him with. When a highly lucrative job becomes available at an exclusive bordello-cum-supper club Lucy jumps at the chance to strip down to her skivvies and serve rich old men (and lesbians) caviar and brandy while they look down on her as just another piece of animated furniture (“Make sure your lipstick matches the colour of your labia…” advises her nearly nude mentor). And then her reluctant madam offers her the best deal yet—thousands of dollars stand to be made if Lucy will allow herself to be drugged, stripped, and placed in an ornate bed so that elderly clientele can have their way with her unconscious body providing they observe the house rules: no penetration and don’t leave a mark. At first revelling in her cash windfall Lucy begins to wonder what exactly goes on when her lights go out so she invests in a miniature spy camera and discovers, much to her horror, that the high-end brothel also offers one final service. Although it is an uneasy marriage of Eurosleaze exploitation and arty excess, Julia Leigh’s problematic film does contain some piercing insights into the politics of love vs desire vs regret. The underlying irony here is that even when a sleeping Lucy is at her most vulnerable she still wields the most power as her various would-be rapists succumb to the ravages of old age whether it be impotence, melancholy, or a slipped disc. Forever shut off from her mind they must make do with her smooth flawless body alone and that one fact goads them mercilessly…”I’m going to fuck you with my big horse cock…” seethes one old codger as he struggles to stay atop her inert form, his tiny penis nestled uselessly between his legs. Unfortunately, aside from Browning’s bold performance as the unhappy protagonist who keeps her feelings sedated in one form or another, the rest of the cast get mired down in the script’s inflated gravitas giving it the aura of sombre student film. At its best Sleeping Beauty’s fairy tale aesthetic exhibits a warped feminism which questions the balance of power even as it sets misogyny on its ear, but at its worst you can practically hear Leigh purring as she is repeatedly seduced by the sound of her own voice. A pity.

Sleep Tight (Spain 2011) (10): César (heartthrob Luis Tosar) is the handsome soft-spoken concierge at a chic Barcelona apartment building. He is also an ice cold sociopath completely lacking any human empathy whatsoever. Constantly dogged by suicidal thoughts, César’s only respite comes from playing malicious pranks on the tenants; deriving some degree of mirthless satisfaction by making others miserable. He meets his greatest challenge however in Clara, the perpetually optimistic young woman upstairs, and no matter what he does—-seeding her apartment with cockroach eggs, injecting lye into her face cream, hiding under her bed with chloroform in hand waiting for her to fall asleep—-she remains oblivious to the monster behind his false smile. The only witnesses to his wicked activities are the little girl across the hall whose juvenile attempts at blackmail eventually backfire; and his institutionalized mother who, paralyzed and mute following a stroke, can only weep as he whispers every sordid detail of his plan to destroy Clara’s life. But when Clara’s boyfriend discovers a few incriminating clues, César’s tenuous hold on sanity begins to crumble and his mean-spirited games suddenly turn deadly… Shot almost entirely within the confines of an aging condo complex, Jaume Balagueró’s sadistic urban nightmare plays on many different levels: as a straight-up thriller it contains passages of almost unbearable tension as Balagueró slowly raises the stakes; as a psychological horror film its casual cruelty is both repellent and morbidly fascinating; and as the blackest of comedies its diabolically twisted ending left me chuckling more out of disbelief than amusement. A perfectly choreographed assault on modern insecurities which puts a sinister spin on that last bastion of safety—-our homes (and beds). Sweet dreams!

Slither (USA 2006) (9): When a meteorite crashes in the middle of hick town USA (Vancouver!!) it's carrying a most unusual passenger; a slimy barb-shooting slug with a voracious appetite for fresh meat and a frightening ability to control people's minds. Soon pets are disappearing, the town millionaire is sporting a couple of tentacles and the local tramp has been turned into a corpulent bug factory. Will the woefully inexperienced police chief and his band of bumbling deputies be able to destroy the outer space menace before it destroys us? James Gunn's loving homage to 80s horror flicks borrows heavily from the likes of "Alien", "Night Of The Living Dead" and "The Thing". His winning combination of amazing special effects and old-fashioned storytelling has produced a wonderful mix of chilling shocks, deadpan humour and enough spewing blood and mucus to satisfy the most ardent gorehounds. One of the better popcorn movies I've seen in some time.

Small Town Gay Bar (USA 2006) (7): Director Malcolm Ingram takes his camera down south to document the reality of living and partying gay in the butthole of the bible belt. Concentrating on rural Mississippi he introduces us to the patrons of “Rumors” in Shannon (pop: 1,657) as they let loose after spending Monday through Friday “working for Republicans”. Drawing on a colourful assortment of drag queens, lesbians, circuit boyz and regular old gays-next-door a picture emerges of a defiant subculture tired of having to fit in with the status quo yet strangely at home amongst the rednecks and bible-thumpers which surround them. There’s the usual tales of sexual indiscretions and falling in love, being harassed and fighting back, all told with surprising candor considering the fact that just having their faces on celluloid means taking a big personal risk for many. In one particularly wrenching departure from the film’s overall sense of playful optimism the mother of a young gay man brutally murdered and then set on fire expresses her teary bewilderment at the cruelty of others. Unfortunately too much airtime is given to Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps and his ilk as they spew their ignorant backwoods poison; but in the end even their passionate vitriol fails to dampen the spirit of these gutsy men and women as they fight hate with courage, humour, and pure fabulousness. Snap!

Smash His Camera (USA 2010) (7): Leon Gast’s savvy documentary chronicles the life and work of Ron Galella, self-proclaimed king of the paparazzi, whose fifty year career has yielded more than three million celebrity photographs which he lovingly stores in a basement archive. From Greta Garbo and Mae West to KISS and Pee Wee Herman no one escaped his roving lens, but he harboured a monomaniacal obsession for Jackie Onassis—chasing her around Manhattan, jumping out of bushes to catch her with her children, and hiding behind coat racks to film her on dinner dates. This constant harassment eventually resulted in a restraining order against him which lasted four years. Galella himself is seen as a very enthusiastic septuagenarian goodfella type incapable of appreciating the effect his behaviour has on the VIPs he regularly stalks…he even had himself locked up in a London warehouse for a weekend so he could take pictures of Liz and Richard while their yacht was anchored in the Thames. Fancying himself a “photojournalist” working in the public’s interest, he and his wife-manager have made a small fortune hawking his ill-gotten photos to tabloids and magazines—enough to buy a small mansion in New Jersey which he tackily adorned with plastic flowers and bunny statuary. But where does freedom of speech end and intimidation begin? Exactly how public should public figures be? Cited as a “personality profiteer” by one photographer and “the price tag of the first amendment” by a constitutional lawyer, it would seem the critics are divided on the issue. There is a certain candid energy to many of his pics, so unlike the hasty smartphone snaps one sees on magazine racks today, that has earned him some degree of notoriety among collectors and art galleries alike; where else can you get a mug shot of a tipsy Bette Davis scowling her way out of New York’s Studio 54? But is it artistry which renders his snapshots so intriguing, or is it simply the subjects themselves that make you want to look twice? And do the means always justify the ends? “In another fifty years the name of Ron Galella will have been forgotten!” says one detractor, and as if to emphasize the point Gast films a giggling teenager at one of Galella’s gallery showings who fails to recognize even one celebrity face. Beleaguered champion of free speech or opportunistic bottom feeder, Gast certainly gives enough fodder for both arguments. Personally my opinion was summed up quite succinctly by Marlon Brando who, after being followed by Galella for several blocks, gently called him over and proceeded to break his jaw.

The Snake Pit (USA 1948) (9): Drawn from author Mary Jane Ward’s own experiences following a nervous breakdown, Anatole Litvak’s gut-wrenching story about one woman’s struggle with mental illness was the first motion picture to deal with the subject candidly and realistically. Shortly after her marriage, blushing newlywed Virginia (a star performance from Olivia de Havilland) begins exhibiting paranoid delusions and alarming outbursts of violent accusations. Finally hospitalized by her bewildered husband Virginia is teamed with the progressive psychiatrist doctor Kik who is determined to uncover the reasons behind her erratic behaviour—traumatic events from her past which are so thoroughly repressed that it may take months to reveal them all. In the meantime Virginia undergoes various treatments, including electro-shock therapy, while languishing in a state asylum so overcrowded and understaffed that the harried nurses barely have enough time to herd the patients from one appointment to the other. But despite many setbacks Virginia continues her lonely trek towards mental health as a series of flashbacks begin to fill in the blanks. Bleak institutional sets populated by a convincing cast of extras displaying everything from paranoid schizophrenia to nymphomania drive home a sense of isolation and unreality. Defined by locked doors and steel bars, Virginia’s shrunken world is a haze of doctor’s visits and confused encounters, frightening in its complexity as her mind struggles to make sense of it all. At one point she stands alone while the ward around her erupts into a madhouse with agitated patients casting wild shadows on the walls and the camera slowly panning upwards as if she were at the bottom of a pit. Although cutting edge at the time some of the psychoanalysis scenes are now quaintly outdated (A framed photograph of Freud glares from Dr. Kik’s wall), and the nursing staff are unjustly portrayed as mean-spirited handmaidens. But when you take into consideration that not only was this the first film of its kind but it sparked a host of mental health reforms to boot, these are small criticisms indeed. A true tour de force.

Snow Cake (UK/Canada 2006) (3): Following a horrific accident in which the young hitchhiker he picked up is killed, a British tourist with a few dark secrets tries to make peace by moving in with the young girl's badly autistic mother while finding release of a different kind with the woman next door. A healing trinity is formed and, thanks to the power of mental illness, everyone walks away transformed. This story of one guilt-ridden man's journey into light has a great premise but in typical Canadian fashion it is overly mawkish, arty and rife with dime store symbolism (ooh, metaphorical wallpaper and snow globes!) Great for those who like having a film’s message rammed down their throats with a jackhammer.

Snowpiercer (Korea/Czech Rep/USA/France 2013) (8): There’s something for everyone in writer/director Joon-ho Bong’s rollicking sci-fi parable which, true to its graphic novel roots, is a highly entertaining mash of grit, gore, and mordant humour at times bordering on slapstick. After man’s ill-advised attempt to reverse global warming by seeding the atmosphere with a chemical agent, the entire Earth is plunged into an epic ice age with accompanying mass extinctions. In this frozen world of 2031, all of humanity has been reduced to a few hundred survivors living aboard an ultra high-tech train which speeds along its globe-spanning track making one complete circuit of the planet every year. However, in order to ensure survival of the species and avoid chaos, a draconian class system is strictly enforced with the privileged elite inhabiting the luxurious forward cars and the unwashed masses huddling in squalor at the very back. Several revolts have been attempted in the past but this time around the people of the rear, led by visionary activist Curtis, are determined to seize control of the train and confront “Mr. Wilford”, the quasi-mythical Engineer who runs it all. But first Curtis and his ragtag group of freedom fighters will have to contend with a few devilish surprises… A sterling cast of international stars including John Hurt, Kang-ho Song, and Octavia Spencer seem to have great fun slashing and yelling as their elaborate train sets careen past dead cities and treacherous mountain passes sending up great spumes of ice and snow along the way (bravo to the CGI department!). And Tilda Swinton more than earns her salary as Mr. Wilford’s lisping, buck-toothed emissary. But there is more going on here than mere comic book thrills, although that aspect alone is well worth the price of admission. As a political allegory with ecological overtones Snowpiercer couldn’t be more obvious especially after Swinton delivers a fiery speech to the coach class denizens on the importance of “knowing one’s place on the train”. But as Curtis strives to rise above his station in life, moving ever forward through cars that offer glimpses into hell or heaven, his journey towards the remote and manifestly cruel Godhead at the very front becomes a spiritual quest. A richly layered metaphor whose big screen excitements make its deeper elements all the more captivating.

S.N.U.B.! (UK 2010) (3): After terrorists nuke London a small group of survivors find themselves cooped up in a decommissioned government bomb shelter where they set about keeping house while waiting for the authorities to find them. Something does eventually come banging at the front door but (horrors!) it is not the official rescue party they'd been hoping for. As its members are messily picked off one by one the frantic group of atomic refugees come to the frightening realization that they are not the only ones to survive the blast and that nuclear fallout may well be the least of their worries. Director Jonathan Glendening certainly provides some amazing visuals, from the detonation itself spreading shockwaves through the heart of London, to the bomb's fiery aftermath as hurricane winds swirl burning embers against a lurid blood-red sky. Unfortunately this seems to be where his grand vision ends. The cramped set is populated with the usual suspects: slimy politician, army hero, hysterical girls, mop-haired tyke; all of whom spout their cliched lines and dutifully scream on cue. The lacklustre camerawork and sluggish directing fail to elicit any tension whatsoever leaving us instead to watch a gaggle of actors run up and down hallways, hide behind bureaus and feign an air of menace. Lastly, when the final reveal comes, it is just plain dumb.

Sometimes a Great Notion (USA 1979) (8): The Stamper family have been logging their stretch of the Oregon wilderness for generations and they are not about to let an industry strike keep them from working—a fact which puts them at odds with their unionized neighbours who are feeling the economic pinch. But pigheaded patriarch Henry (Henry Fonda) doesn’t know when to quit and when to compromise, a stubborn streak he has passed on to his son Hank (Paul Newman) and nephew Joe (Oscar nominee Richard Jaeckel). As the logging season begins to wind down and resentment among the unemployed townsfolk threatens to boil over into violence the Stamper’s face yet another stressor when youngest son and black sheep Leeland (Michael Sarrazin), whom Henry sired with a former mistress, returns to settle a few scores of his own. With conflicts mounting both inside and outside the Stamper homestead you just know tragedy is in the air, but when it finally arrives it doesn’t quite come from the direction you expect. Despite some right-of-centre politicking (rogue independents good, unionized labour bad) director Paul Newman has produced a fine family saga worthy of the big screen and he is helped in large part by cinematographer Richard Moore’s grand Pacific Northwest vistas and a cast of top notch actors not the least of which is Lee Remick as Hank’s quietly dissatisfied wife, a woman whose own restlessness is amplified by Leeland’s sudden appearance. Big, boisterous, and boasting one of cinema’s more colourfully macabre endings, this is a fine story well told. A word of caution to environmentalists however—many trees get injured.

Son Frère (France 2003) (5): Despite having had nothing to do with each other for years, estranged brothers Luc and Thomas do share one thing in common; they both have issues with trust and abandonment. The gruff and taciturn Thomas tends to keep people at arm’s length, including his own family, while the younger, more sensitive Luc is still coming to terms with being gay. It comes as no surprise then that when a pale and sickly Thomas suddenly shows up on the steps of Luc’s Parisian apartment claiming he has a fatal illness and looking for some brotherly comforting he doesn’t quite get the warm embrace he was yearning for. In fact Thomas’ unnamed malady incites a string of emotional showdowns with everyone patiently awaiting their turn to have a go at him as he lolls about on various deathbeds, from his neurotic parents and weary girlfriend to Luc’s overly virtuous (and perpetually unclothed) boyfriend. But the biggest sparks fly between the two brothers themselves for they have a lifetime of resentments to settle before Thomas draws his last pitiful breath. Family battlegrounds make for some gripping cinema, but in the hands of director Patrice Chéreau we’re served up a maudlin and manipulative tearjerker instead. Aside from some painfully realistic medical scenes (with only one glaring faux pas) little else rings true. The characters’ emotional responses seem fabricated and fit together a little too conveniently while some symbolic banter about the sea goes on way too long and a dream sequence in which the brothers exchange roles borders on the ridiculous. There are a few choice lines about the fragility of family ties which struck a personal chord in me, and the film’s closing scenes do give an impression of what a good movie this could have been with proper directing and a few script rewrites. By going for the emotional jugular Chéreau delivers a tearful head-butt with an ending too weak to justify it. But Marianne Faithfull’s throaty rendition of “Sleep” was magnificent.

Song at Midnight (China 1937) (6): Teeming with misty moonlight and revolutionary rhetoric, this early Chinese take on The Phantom of the Opera plays like a communist infomercial that thinks it’s a gothic romance. Song Daping is a promising young actor whose socialist ideologies gets him in trouble with the local capitalist landowner. But when he starts seeing the man’s lovestruck daughter, Xiaoxia, her father has him sprayed with nitric acid. Horribly disfigured, Daping retreats to the attic of the local theatre while Xioxia, believing him dead, goes mad with grief. Still deeply in love with the now insane young woman, Daping eases her fevered mind by serenading her with a “song at midnight” whenever the moon is full. Not content to be so cruelly separated from his sweetheart, Daping sees an opportunity when a visiting troupe of actors take temporary residence in the decaying old theatre. Can he convince Ou, the company’s promising young male lead, to take his place in Xiaoxa’s life and become her suitor? There are many drawbacks to this film; choppy editing, quirky subtitles and unreliable sound quality to name a few, although some of these may be the effects of age on the original film stock. Furthermore, the exaggerated performances and shadowy atmosphere would probably fare better in a silent film while the odd snatches of classical music seem out of place. There is a dead earnestness to the production, however, and I soon found myself warming to its Chinese Opera aesthetic where passionate young lovers solemnly pose against painted dawns and nights are dark and stormy indeed. Director Weibang presents us with a kinder, gentler phantom whose motivations spring more from love (and Party ideals) than revenge which causes me to disagree with other critics who cite Song at Midnight as being China’s first “horror” film. Despite it’s occasional awkward moments it remains a fine example of cinematic excess in the grand tradition.

Song of the Sea (Ireland 2014) (8): Ben leads an idyllic existence on a grassy island with his lighthouse keeper father and six-year old sister Saoirse (pronounced “SEER-see”) not to mention Cú his big shaggy sheepdog. Sadly, his relationship with Saoirse has always been strained for his mother passed away the night she was born and he’s blamed her for that ever since. Dark-haired and frail, Saoirse has never spoken a word in her short life but her steady gaze suggests a deeper wisdom which seems to be closely connected to the sea that surrounds her home. But when she wanders off one night and is later found soaking wet and nearly dead from cold by the water’s edge Ben’s grandmother insists on taking the two children to her home in the city; a decision Ben’s dad reluctantly, even mysteriously, agrees with. It’s while staying with grandma however that Ben first begins to realize there is more to his little sister than he first suspected especially after she is abducted first by a trio of urban sprites, and then by a darker supernatural force intent on quashing her nascent powers forever. Intent on rescuing Saoirse, Ben embarks on a perilous journey which will take him from contemporary Ireland right to the very heart of Irish mythology. Unfolding like a series of beautifully childlike watercolours, writer/director Tomm Moore’s animated feature mixes adult themes of grief and loss with a whimsical fairy tale innocence steeped in Celtic folklore. The result is an enchanting bit of cinema that holds its own with the best of Studio Ghibli—keeping the very young in their seats and the not-so young smiling nostalgically. And a soundtrack of Gaelic lullabies and folk songs complement the film’s more fantastical elements perfectly. Its Oscar nomination was more than deserved.

Sorcerer (USA 1977) (8): Four desperate men on the run—a terrorist, an embezzler, a thief, and an assassin—find themselves hiding out in the same dirty South American backwater working on a gas well for slave wages. With no chance of ever being able to earn enough money to leave their wretched surroundings the men settle into a daily routine of hopelessness and despair. But when salvation presents itself in the form of a dangerous assignment, they practically leap at the chance. In order to cap a raging gas fire the oil company needs four men to transport a cache of unstable nitroglycerine aboard a pair of ramshackle trucks across two hundred miles of primitive roads in exchange for permanent citizenship and forty thousand in local currency to be shared equally among whoever survives. What starts out as a potential suicide mission however slowly takes on deeper spiritual overtones as the men are forced to deal with their own innate character flaws while navigating a terrain teeming with infernal metaphors from treacherous bridges and bottomless gorges to swamps, jungles, and howling tempests. And all the while images of winged observers, be it a circling condor, a corporate logo, or a native petroglyph, keep watch over their plight with cold detachment. William Friedkin’s painstakingly rendered odyssey, part thriller part quasi-religious allegory (he claims the title refers to the fickle god of fate, I sense something more diabolical), takes Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear and updates it with some spectacular special effects…a trek across a decaying suspension bridge actually had me holding my breath. His international cast, though not headliners in their own right, quickly develop an onscreen synergy making Sorcerer one helluva road trip with a darkly ironic final destination. And a synthesized soundtrack by German techno group Tangerine Dream imbues the onscreen action with just the right amount of mysticism.

Sound of Noise (Sweden 2010) (5): Contemptuous of the piped muzak and bland recitals that pass for musical entertainment, a group of guerrilla percussionists decide to stage their own production of “Music for One City and Six Drummers”—a series of impromptu concerts combining avant-garde performance art with public vandalism. Using everything from the unconscious body of a kidnapped anchorman to a bank vault full of crisp Euros to generate their discordant beats, the renegade musicians cause an increasing stir amongst the usually sedate inhabitants of Malmö. Tone-deaf police detective Amadeus (haha!) Warnebring is assigned to the case but the closer he gets to nabbing the musical anarchists the more he realizes their tactics could actually aid him in fulfilling his own music-hating agenda… With dull conformity coming up against artistic narcissism, Sound of Noise is ostensibly a social comedy. Images of heavily armed SWAT teams rounding up street musicians as if they were terrorists and Warnebring’s selective deafness cancelling out anything he doesn’t want to hear would certainly point in that direction. But the humour is too broad and the satirical digs too clumsy to elicit more than a few opening chuckles before it all falls flat. Sometimes silence really is golden.

Source Code (USA 2011) (5): Army helicopter pilot Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up in the body of a strange man who is riding a Chicago commuter train about to be blown up as part of a terrorism plot. But when the explosion comes he discovers he’s actually part of a military experiment in time-alteration with the ability to put him back aboard the ill-fated train again and again until he finds the identity of the bomber—and he’s only allotted eight minutes at a time to do so. Uncertain of how he got to be in this situation and with a million unanswered questions weighing on his shoulders Colter follows his own trail of clues and the answers he uncovers are unsettling to say the least. A little bit of Die Hard and a whole lot of Groundhog Day make Duncan Jones’ second foray into science fiction (after the much lauded Moon with Sam Rockwell) a somewhat engaging Chinese puzzle of a film—how do you solve a crime that hasn’t happened yet when you have to re-live the same brief stretch of time repeatedly? But the techie explanations are shoddy at best rendering everything more fantasy than science and a repetitive love story (he only has eight minutes per mission to woo the doomed woman in the seat across from him) add an unnecessary chick flick element to what is ultimately a Search & Destroy thriller. And not a very good one at that. Gyllenhaal acts as if someone just woke him up from a deep sleep and object of desire Michelle Monaghan seems content to simply watch the passing scenery. Only Vera Farmiga, playing a mission controller with a conscience, adds a degree of credibility when her starched military demeanour gives way to compassionate concern but she isn’t given nearly enough lines. “Change The Past. Save The Future” reads the movie’s tagline—better to change your mind and save your money instead.

Soylent Green (USA 1973) (8): One of the great overlooked films to come out of the 70’s, Richard Fleishcer’s darkly pessimistic sci-fi thriller, based on Harry Harrison’s book, plays out like yesterday’s headlines. New York City circa 2022 is a crumbling home to forty million people, half of whom are unemployed and living in whatever alley or stairwell they can find while the rich look down from their luxury towers. In this overcrowded world of polluted resources and global warming the temperature never dips below sweltering, strict rationing ensures that food riots are commonplace, and euthanasia centres are run like day spas for the disenfranchised (perhaps the film’s most poignant passage). Only the Soylent Corporation, maker of the plant and algae-based foodstuff soylent green, is able to keep mass starvation at bay. But when William Simonson, one of its top board members, is found bludgeoned to death police detective Thorn (a blustering Charlton Heston) and his sidekick Sol (a heartbreaking final performance by Edward G. Robinson who died of cancer ten days after filming ended) suspect there is more to this homicide than the evidence would suggest—suspicions that are confirmed when their ongoing investigation is met with deadly resistance. Stubbornly following his leads Thorn manoeuvres his way through a web of political and corporate corruption until he solves Simonson’s murder and in so doing uncovers a conspiracy too horrible to believe. Imaginative set designs utilize elements of 70s chic and urban decay to invoke a retro futuristic look where rotting tenements guarded by armed landlords house the teeming masses and lavish penthouses are adorned with garish mobiles and faux fur sofas, not to mention larders filled with such astronomically priced delicacies as beef and celery. Gleaned from the pages of Harrison’s novel, Fleischer envisions a cold mechanistic society where unruly crowds are dispersed with bulldozers and corporations have become the new gods. Not a pretty future in 1973 and uncomfortably familiar in 2015.

Spellbound (USA 1945) (6): Resident psychiatrist Constance Petersen finds her cold heart warming to Dr. Edwardes, the new head of Green Manors sanitarium—-in fact, after a single afternoon’s stroll the two fall hopelessly in love. Sadly, Constance quickly discovers that Edwardes is not only harbouring a dark secret, but he may not even be the man he claims to be…if only he could remember. Suddenly finding herself involved in a murder investigation (did he or didn’t he?) a lovestruck Petersen flees to New York with her amnesiac lover in the hopes of unlocking his memories and clearing his name before the police dragnet closes in… Hitchcock’s stylish whodunit was touted as the first serious “psychoanalytical” film upon its initial release, by today’s standards however its mental health slant comes across as so much naïve psycho-gibberish, although a dream sequence designed by surrealist Salvador Dali serves up a visual treat while a colourful patient session with a sexually repressed man-hater adds a little spice. Furthermore the film’s subtle sexism (“Women make the best psychoanalysts until they fall in love. After that they make the best patients”) becomes annoying real fast. Hitchcock’s signature flair for pairing rousing orchestral scores with eye-catching cinematography is evident throughout but too many outrageous twists and gimmicks involving ski slopes, dream interpretation, and a giant papier-mâché hand push the envelope past credibility and towards the ludicrous. If it were not for the star power of leads Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck I would give this one a pass.

The Spiderwick Chronicles (USA 2007) (6): Still smarting from a messy divorce, Helen Grace packs up her three kids and moves into the old family estate left vacant after crazy aunt Lucinda was committed for telling too many tall tales regarding her encounters with supernatural creatures; creatures she insists abducted her father 80 years earlier. At first the Grace kids view their musty new surroundings with varying degrees of resignation until a series of odd occurrences lead to the discovery of a most unusual book which sparks a battle royale between the little folk living on the Spiderwick estate and the despotic ogre residing in the nearby woods with his army of toad-like minions. For the book, compiled by Aunt Lucinda’s late father, contains some dangerous information and powerful spells which could devastate all life on earth, mortal and mystical alike, should they fall into the wrong hands (or claws, as it were). Filled with flowery fairies, rhyming brownies and drooling goblins in pirate drag, all carrying the prerequisite Harry Potter-like names of course (Thimbletack, meet Hogsqueal) this is at best a lukewarm serving of the “children’s fantasy” genre. The CGI effects are passable, the acting less so, and a rather bland script keeps any sense of peril, or wonder, consistently dampened for the single-digit crowd. Not a total waste of time, but with the likes of Joan Plowright and Nick Nolte I expected so much more.

The Spiral Staircase (USA 1945) (7): A serial killer is stalking a quaint New England town circa 1900 and he’s targeting women with physical or mental disabilities. Bad news for Helen, the mute live-in caregiver of Mrs. Warren (Oscar-nominated Ethyl Barrymore) the cantankerous bedridden matriarch of the Warren estate, for the murderer has followed her home with the intention of making her his next victim. But who could it be? Professor Warren, the old woman’s somewhat stuffy son? Steve, his playboy brother whose rare visits always seem to spell trouble? Oates, the gruff and taciturn groundskeeper who likes to skulk about in the rain? Or could it be someone else entirely? And why is Mrs. Warren so desperate to have Helen leave the house that very night? With a violent storm brewing and gas lamps flickering Helen finds herself in a deadly game of cat and mouse—and she can’t even scream for help. Taking place inside a gloomy old mansion with the killer’s wild bloodshot eye glaring out of darkened corners (an ocular cameo from director Robert Siodmak) and the eponymous staircase twisting crazily from shadowy basement to candlelit upper floors, The Spiral Staircase is an effective combination of gothic horror and film noir menace. An opening murder, reflected in the madman’s eye, almost seems like a macabre dance between stalker and victim—an unsettling effect revisited towards the end without losing any of its initial punch. Lead actress Dorothy McGuire proves that actions can speaker louder than words as her silent character goes from coy grins to wide-eyed terror and an impressive supporting cast including Elsa Lanchester as a boozy maid and Kent Smith as the family doctor and Helen’s love interest provide some welcome relief from the mounting tension. But it is Ethyl Barrymore’s turn as the crusty Mrs. Warren which grounds the film and provides some much needed dramatic depth. Pretty much predictable before you even reach the midway point, but it all unfolds with a cruel zeal that’s still fun to watch seventy years later.

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (USA 2015) (5): Based on the Nickelodeon program created by marine biologist Stephen Hellenburg this latest animated endeavour features all the kooky cartoon characters from SpongeBob SquarePants (yep, he’s a kitchen sponge who wears boxed shorts) in a new adventure above and below the surf line. The underwater town of Bikini Bottom is thrown into post-apocalyptic turmoil when the secret formula for their highly addictive Krabby Patty Burgers is stolen by the pint-sized one-eyed super villain Plankton. But hare-brained burger flipper SpongeBob suspects there is more to the recipe’s disappearance than people suspect so, along with a reluctant Plankton, he embarks upon a series of whacky exploits which will take him and his fishy posse from the Pacific basin to the far reaches of Outer Space with real-life stops in Hawaii and southern Georgia along the way. I must admit to not being a fan of the original series and seeing this big screen treatment hasn’t changed my mind much. The colourful animation does have a retro Polynesian feel to it with flower patterns and tacky trunks but the perpetually unhinged characters (including a morose squid, capitalist crab, and demented squirrel in a diving bell) grate after a while. Even a couple of anemic nods to Mad Max and The Shining, some thinly veiled drug references, and a fully fleshed Antonio Banderas in ridiculous pirate drag can’t stop the production from looking like Pee Wee’s Playhouse with all of the hysteria but very few laughs. Some things just belong on cable.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring (Korea 2003) (7): Although framed by the passing seasons, the title of Kim Ki-Duk’s low-key Buddhist parable refers more to the seasons of man. In “Spring” we find an elderly monk living on a floating shrine in the middle of a lake along with his young acolyte, a boy of seven or eight. Their long tranquil days are spent in prayerful meditation, religious instruction and gathering medicinal herbs from the surrounding forest. In “Summer” the arrival of a beautiful young pilgrim introduces the disciple, now a robust adolescent, to the worldly temptations of lust and greed causing him to abandon his master in the “Fall” only to return in “Winter” an angry and disillusioned man wanted by the police. But as “Spring” rolls around once more life comes full circle in a series of revelations and atonements. The film is certainly pleasing to look at with sweeping views of lake, forest and mountains; its highly formalized structure more scripture than script. There is an uncluttered beauty to its simple sets and spartan dialogue, with freestanding doorways and humble statuary figuring prominently. Alas, Kim occasionally takes religious imagery to some ponderous, even silly, extremes which threatens to turn the entire “circle of life” theme into something superficial and contrived. Between the monk’s rotating menagerie of pets which had me googling “Buddhist Symbolism” for over an hour, and the disciple’s anguished emoting, the film began to feel more like a karmic soap opera rather than the spiritual metaphor it was clearly meant to be. Richly detailed nonetheless with a satisfying, if somewhat strained, conclusion.

SS Hell Camp (Italy 1977) (2): Is there nothing those zany nazis won’t do in the name of world domination? Batzella’s shameless sexploitation flick follows the escapades of the aggressively bisexual Dr. Ellen Kratsch, looking like a particularly nasty Lufthansa stewardess, and her two jaded assistants. When she’s not perfecting her serum which turns men into big lumbering rape machines, Ellen moonlights as an SS interrogator who terrorizes male members of the Italian resistance with an odd combination of improvised lap dancing and castration while their women are subjected to some extreme indignities involving flaming trash cans, jumper cables, and a pair of ravenous guinea pigs. Will the surviving partisans triumph in the end? Will Dr. Kratsch get what’s coming to her? Will the hairy man-beast ever realize that oral sex doesn’t involve a knife and fork? This is a truly awful movie that looks as if it were filmed in someone’s backyard with a few loops of stock war footage tacked on for good measure. The dubbing is unusually atrocious with the “Italian” underground speaking in accents that range from a clipped British staccato to a slow southern drawl, and the action sequences are so amateurish you almost expect to hear a laugh track in the background. In fact, remove the film’s more contentious scenes and you are left with a terribly mediocre story that’s not even good enough for late night cable. There are some very entertaining entries in the “sex and swastikas” sub-genre of film but this is definitely not one of them.

The Stanford Prison Experiment (USA 2015) (9): In the summer of 1971 Stanford psychology professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo launched one of that university’s most controversial social experiments. Turning the upper levels of an empty school building into a makeshift “jail” complete with cells and solitary confinement, he recruited two dozen campus volunteers and arbitrarily divided them into “prisoners” and “guards”. Starting with a mock arrest, the prisoners were strip searched, assigned a serial number instead of their name, and forced to wear demeaning uniforms while the guards were issued sunglasses, batons, and official outfits. The guards were also given complete control over the prisoners with full impunity to do as they pleased (within the parameters of a pre-signed contract). Designed as a two-week study on the psychology of authority and submission, the experiment ran into trouble within forty-eight hours as both groups began to internalize their roles and initial playacting turned into something dangerously real. Meanwhile Zimbardo and his assistants watched things unfold through video cameras and microphones, unaware that their passivity had made them part of the experiment itself. Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez and his top-notch cast deliver intense performances which lend Tim Talbot’s already biting screenplay an air of authenticity. What starts out as an almost comical piece, complete with tacky 70’s hair and stoned expressions, quickly spirals down into unsettling passages of brutality and humiliation where the occasional naïve quip elicits more pity than humour. It is Billy Crudup’s turn as Zimbardo however that proves to be the most chilling as he stares godlike through his hidden lens. Convinced that his grand experiment will change the world, his academic narcissism temporarily blinds him to the fact that there is a difference between people and lab rats. Engrossing and infuriating, yet there is no denying that Zimbardo’s work shone an uncomfortable light into the darker recesses of the human psyche—a topic on which he continues to lecture.

Stardust (UK 2007) (7): The tiny English village of Wall holds a rather unusual secret. Just beyond the surrounding forest there stretches a low stone wall separating England from the magical realm of Stormhold, and a small closely guarded breach in that wall provides the only gateway between the two worlds. When English teenager Tristan Thorn observes a falling star landing just beyond the wall he decides to enter Stormhold in order to procure it and thus impress Victoria, the aloof object of his adolescent infatuation. But he is not the only one searching for the celestial object—now transformed into a sparkly Claire Danes—for a trio of evil sorceresses want to eat her heart which has the power to grant immortality and a quartet of ruthless princes need the enchanted jewel she wears around her neck before they can lay claim to the throne of Stormhold left vacant by their recently deceased father. Luckily Tristan finds the somewhat argumentative twinkler first and although the two share an initial animosity a series of close calls and deadly encounters, including a brief sojourn aboard a flying pirate ship, will turn their hostilities into something completely expected for anyone who grew up reading fairy tales…especially after Tristan’s unique pedigree is revealed. Based on Neil Gaiman’s book, Matthew Vaughn’s swashbuckling fantasy succeeds for the most part despite Robert De Niro being horribly miscast as a sissy pirate captain—egads! To be fair though Ricky Gervais’ hilariously improvised turn as a crooked shopkeeper more than makes up for it. The swords and sorcery special effects are nothing new, we’ve seen them in countless other forays into the genre, but they are played out with such zeal it’s like having a storybook come to life with an airborne galleon sailing through a thunderstorm and a wicked Michelle Pfeiffer in hag drag shooting green lightning out of her fingertips. Definitely not for the kiddies—animals are gutted and throats are slit while a chorus of disfigured spirits keeps score—but if you like a little meat to go with your Hocus Pocus and Princess Bride you could do worse.

Stardust Memories (USA 1980) (9): After critics slammed his attempt to emulate Bergman in 1978’s Interiors, Woody Allen shot back with this fantastical and highly kinetic ersatz Fellini about a filmmaker on the verge of a nervous breakdown, appropriately presented in washed out shades of black and white. While reluctantly attending a retrospective of his movies at the Stardust Motel, famed comedian turned director Sandy Bates (guess who!) daydreams about his childhood as a gifted magician and the various lovers who have served as muses throughout his career, especially the intense and psychologically labile Dorrie (a stunning Charlotte Rampling) and the glamorous French siren Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault). As these reveries intrude into his everyday life Bates finds himself lost amidst a surreal crush of sycophants and wannabes, medicated divas and pedestrian producers, snobbish critics and intellectual boors, all of whom begin to blur the line between reality and the films being screened. A ruthlessly intelligent script is enhanced by some striking visuals—enlarged photographs suddenly appear on Sandy’s walls to lend subtext; a giant gorilla carries off a particularly annoying fan—and the swirling mob of jabbering extras that constantly surround him deliver a nonstop verbal assault of praise and criticism. Although Allen vehemently denied claims that Stardust Memories was in any way autobiographical, his disdain for cinema culture in general and critics in particular is evident throughout especially when the paparazzi, puzzled by Bates’ attempts at “serious filmmaking”, keep harping on his earlier, funnier work—“What do you think the Rolls Royce represented?” asks one confused moviegoer upon exiting the theatre, “I think that represented his car” chimes her equally confused date. Self-indulgent, sarcastic, brilliant, and (irony of ironies) very funny.

Stargate (USA 1994) (4): In 1928 archaeologists make a baffling discovery while excavating an Egyptian tomb—a giant ring made of some unknown metal and covered in cryptic symbols which has lain under the sand for thousands of years. Cut to 1994 and crack Egyptologist Daniel Jackson (a stunned James Spader in it for the money) is suddenly drafted by the US military to work on a top secret project. The mysterious ring, it turns out, is a gateway leading to other worlds and Jackson is needed to translate the instructions. Accompanied by a squad of marines under the leadership of Colonel Jack O’Neill (a monotone Kurt Rusself looking sexy-stupid in a ginger brush cut) Jackson passes through the newly restored stargate where he finds himself trapped on a remote planet of serfs ruled by a malevolent E.T. and his flying pyramid (The Crying Game’s Jaye Davidson looking like a cross between Miss Clairol and Emperor Ming with a muddled synthesized voice to boot). Will the troops be able to thwart E.T. before his nefarious plans also include the Earth? Will Jackson be able to unravel the final secret of the stargate before it’s too late? Will Davidson wear the same gaudy outfit twice? Yawn. A bargain bin assortment of special effects and tacky faux Egyptian flourishes don’t add up to much in Roland Emmerich’s flatline sci-fi “epic” despite its overbearing orchestral score and rousing pans of cheering aliens (many of whom were actually mannequins due to budgetary woes). His cast mouth their lines while trying not to look embarrassed and his plot, though painstakingly laid out as if aimed at an audience of imbeciles, is still clumsy and paper-thin. Ponderous and nowhere near as clever as its television spin-off, it all boils down to the usual shootouts and derring-do played out amongst southern California’s sand dunes which at least afford a bit of pretty scenery.

Star Trek (USA 2009) (10): Starting a few years before the beginning of the original series, this prequel of sorts follows all the old familiar faces back when they were just starting their careers and before they became established as the crew of the newly christened Enterprise. As our story opens, Starfleet is under attack by an unknown Romulan super-ship bent on destroying every planet of the Federation for some unknown reason. Among the young officers drafted into emergency duty are a rebellious James Kirk, an uncharacteristically emotional Mr. Spock and a smoking hot Uhura…later joined by one Dr. McCoy and engineer extraordinaire Montgomery Scott. In a wonderfully convoluted story involving time travel and revenge, Abrams burns up the screen with some very impressive effects while at the same time paying equal attention to the little details that had fans laughing and cheering; whether it was Spock’s upturned eyebrow or McCoy’s trademark crustiness. He doesn’t simply present us with an early version of an already established cast but rather develops them as fully fleshed characters unto themselves, allowing their camaraderie to develop naturally. The result is a completely engrossing outer space adventure that is at once exhilaratingly fresh and warmly familiar. This is a magnificent wide-screen blockbuster of a film that needs to be seen in a big theatre (we saw it at the Cinerama in Seattle). Guaranteed to bring a nostalgic tear to old-time Trekkers and a new enthusiasm to those who never even heard of William Shatner. Beam me up!

Star Trek: Into Darkness (USA 2013) (8): J. J. Abrams does it again in this old-fashioned big-screen popcorn movie destined to be one of the best this summer has to offer! This time around the reinvented crew of the USS Enterprise find their loyalties put to the test when they're called upon to enter a restricted military zone in order to capture a dangerous fugitive; a move which not only reveals a darker side of The Federation but one which could spark a catastrophic war with the Klingon Empire as well. Borrowing a few key storylines (and a long list of in-jokes) from both the old series and the original motion pictures, Abrams spins a tall tale with just the right blend of humour and audacity to keep you smiling even as you grip the sides of your seat. The script is appropriately grandiose, the action sequences breathtaking, and the excessively adorable cast manage to deepen that special chemistry they began in the first installment. And stuff blowing up never looked so cool in IMAX 3D! The film’s closing credits, a loving homage to Alexander Courage’s original score, is sure to bring a tear to the eyes of diehard trekkers everywhere.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (USA 2015) (9): Ostensibly a sequel to 1983’s Return of the Jedi, Disney’s latest addition to George Lucas’ legacy is essentially a rehash of A New Hope, the film which started it all. Once again evil threatens the galaxy and some old mainstays are joined by a few fresh faces as they confront their destiny, light sabres in hand. But the wholly derivative plot is delivered with so much flash bang and widescreen wonder that I found myself cheering at the comic book heroics even as I joined the older members of the audience in groaning at the clever little in-jokes culled from the first trilogy. Despite director J. J. Abrams overindulging his fetish for blowing things up in spectacular ways he still manages to capture the space opera aesthetic of the 1977 original right down to a distant phalanx of Imperial Walkers and a rowdy interlude in a space bar complete with google-eyed blues band. And even though they look worse for wear, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill ramp up the nostalgia along with Chewbacca and the robots. But it’s BB-8, the newest little droid rolling around like a high-tech soccer ball who ends up stealing one scene after another. I guess sometimes you really can believe all the hype. May The Force Be With You...again!

State of Play (USA 2009) (6): A newspaper team investigating the suicide of a prominent senator’s mistress realize they have more on their hands when the clues they uncover seem to link her with the murder of a petty thief a day earlier. Following the trail a conspiracy theory begins to emerge involving bribes, crooked politics, and a sinister defense contractor currently under investigation by the dead woman’s lover. As the team continues to flesh out the story the head reporter begins to have a conflict of interest for not only is he a personal friend of the senator, he also has a romantic history with the man’s wife. Kevin Macdonald has fashioned a tightly paced potboiler simmering with adrenaline and mounting paranoia, and with stars Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck playing off each other it’s certainly easy to watch. Too bad he expects us to accept a string of convenient coincidences, a rather lame twist, and an ending awash in genre clichés. This is the type of thriller the admen like to label as pulse-pounding and breathless, I just found it tired but still watchable.

Steambath (USA-TV 1973) (4): Heaven’s anteroom is a rundown New York City sauna and God is a truculent Puerto Rican handyman named Morty in this controversial PBS offering which was the first American television production to feature nudity and swearing. Bill Bixby stars as Tandy, a young man who has just gotten his life on track when he chokes to death in a Chinese restaurant and winds up in his underwear sweating with a host of other unhappy spirits. Not content to abide by the “Will of God” however Tandy tries to goad the diminutive wise-cracking Almighty into letting him have his life back before he’s ushered, along with the others, through that final door from which there is no return. The only problem is, Tandy’s life was not quite as rosy as he recalls leading to a host of unwelcome epiphanies while an increasingly impatient God prepares for the next batch of wretched souls. Featuring a handful of forgettable sitcom actors, a pair of cartoonish faggots, and a mostly naked Valerie Perrine trying to act her way out of the proverbial paper bag, this cheesy example of disco-era existentialism is just too damn shallow to warrant any outrage over its blatant sexism and homophobia. Golly, with the two homos worrying about their looks, Perrine whining over the fact she’s only had one orgasm, and a former stock broker realizing he spent his entire life betting on the wrong horse, it seems as if absolutely everyone has wasted their earthly existence and Jehovah just doesn’t give a rat’s ass—could there be a lesson here? Vapid, intellectually stifled, and permanently dated.

Steam: The Turkish Bath [Hamam] (Italy 1997) (3): When his aunt dies at her home in Turkey and leaves everything to him, Italian businessman Francesco flies from Rome to Istanbul in order to sell off the old lady’s estate as quickly as possible. To that end he hires a somewhat smarmy Turkish lawyer who arranges a meeting with one of Istanbul’s more powerful real estate magnates. Once on the ground however Francesco makes a few discoveries that threaten to derail his life altogether. For one thing his aunt also owned a rundown hamam, a traditional bathhouse for men where gentlemen gather for some steam, soap, and relaxation. For another Francesco discovers a pile of letters his aunt wrote (but never mailed) to his mother detailing her love for Istanbul and the erotic kick she received from spying on the men in her hamam. Steam, she observed, not only relaxes the body it also relaxes inhibitions causing men to do things with one another they otherwise would not—a startling revelation Francesco discovers for himself when he starts dropping the soap in front of the caretaker’s handsome young son. But when Francesco’s neurotic beanpole of a wife decides to pay her husband an impromptu visit the closet doors are blown right off their hinges leading to a few sordid confessions and some life-altering decisions. An overblown Italian soap opera which relies far too heavily on “deeply meaningful” close-ups and dragging silences—here Francesco wanders through the hamam noting the sensuous curves of its architecture, here his wife wanders through the rain tugging at her wedding band, and here the two of them wander angrily down the street taking turns denouncing one another. Add to that some jarring edits and a melodramatic subplot involving a ruthless businesswoman and you have one of those arty “gay films” that everyone’s supposed to like but few actually do. At least the soundtrack of middle-eastern beats was groovy enough.

The Stewardesses in 3D (USA 1969) (3): Billed as the world’s first 3D sex comedy, this little cheese platter follows the adventures of five oversexed and under-talented sky sluts on an extended layover in Los Angeles. While number one doles out a mercy shag to a Viet Nam vet number two tries to sleep her way into a lucrative modelling contract. Meanwhile number three mixes LSD with skim milk and finds herself on surprisingly intimate terms with a table lamp. Finally, number four seduces number five by convincing her that really boring lesbian sex is an awful lot like swimming. As a bonus there’s a bar fight, some groovy music and an incomprehensible murder/suicide. And throughout it all the director doesn’t miss a single 3D cliché as everything not nailed down gets shoved in front of the camera; from pool cues and bullet bras to barking dogs and yawning beavers. Although the novelty of watching all those unfocused boobs float hazily in front of you wears thin pretty quickly a side trip to an amusement park does provide some pretty cool funhouse footage. Too bad the script plods along and goes nowhere, the laughs are non-existent, and the softcore sex scenes are just plain dull. Not even 3D glasses can give this turkey any depth.

Still Alice (USA 2014) (6): When middle-aged linguistic expert Alice Howland (Oscar winner Julianne Moore) discovers she has early onset Alzheimer’s disease the revelation sends ripples through her entire family. Husband John, a research professor, tries to advance his career and keep the home fires lit at the same time while reactions from their three adult children range from eldest Anna’s neurotic fussing to rebellious daughter Lydia’s fatalistic acceptance. As for Alice, she adopts a gallows humour as she uses every means at her disposal—post-it notes, calendar apps, recorded messages—to delay the inevitable as long as she can. And for that time when the inevitable finally does arrive she’s already hidden a lethal dose of sleeping pills in her dresser drawer… Directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland take neuroscientist Lisa Genova’s lengthy debut novel and telescope several months’ worth of deterioration into a mere 100 minutes leaving us with little more than a series of highly depressing Hallmark moments in which Moore goes from forgetting a word, to wetting her pants, to staring incomprehensibly while Lydia recites a passage from Angels in America to her: ”It’s…about…love…” drawls Alice as Lydia puts the book down and you can imagine an entire audience reaching for their tissues. Unlike A Song for Martin or Amour, two films that refused to blink when dealing with dementia, Glatzer and Westmoreland concentrate a bit too much on sunshine and hugs instead of plumbing the emotional minefield such a diagnosis engenders. As John, Alec Baldwin puts in a stony performance—laughing or turning sombre on cue—while Kate Bosworth in the role of Anna seems constantly on the verge of screaming and Kristen Stewart’s Lydia is caught in a perpetual scowl. Moore, however, does as much as she can with the material handed to her and gives a fierce performance as a woman trying to manoeuvre between a rock and hard place even as the map disintegrates in her hands. Flawed for sure, but still a worthy addition to the growing list of films and documentaries dealing with this tragic epidemic.

Still Mine (Canada 2012) (9): When his wife of sixty years begins to deteriorate both mentally and physically, 87-year old Craig Morrison (a bravura performance from James Cromwell) decides to build a smaller, more convenient home for the two of them on their rural New Brunswick ranch. But despite his technical savvy he quickly runs up against a mountain of red tape as the government housing office cites him for one ridiculous building code violation after another. With Irene’s condition worsening (Geneviève Bujold, equally amazing), his well-meaning children questioning his every decision, and the local building inspector refusing to be placated, Craig decides to follow his heart even if it puts him at odds with the law. Writer/director Michael McGowan is in no hurry as he allows this beautifully unembellished drama to unfold like a bittersweet love poem, his two leads sparking such onscreen chemistry as they head into their twilight years that at times it seems more of a documentary—it is in fact based on a true story. Cromwell and Bujold bring the octogenarian couple to life with a delicate yet abiding intimacy which goes from tears of anger to knowing smiles and moments of passion (oh yes, there is sex) while Julie Stewart and Rick Roberts play two of their children with a touching mix of long established exasperation and deep concern. And finally, a simple background score of poignant strings provides the perfect compliment to Brendan Steacy’s cinematography, his rolling hills and quiet seashore as enduring as Craig and Irene themselves. Perhaps the building inspector’s role was a bit two-dimensional in its bureaucratic zeal and the closing ballad by Mumford & Sons leaned on the emotions a bit too hard (although I would disagree) but considering how much disdain I usually hold for English-Canadian cinema—pandering, derivative plots and terrible acting—it lifts my heart whenever I see one of our own get it right for a change. Bravo!

The Sting (USA 1973) (8): During the latter half of the Depression two petty con-artists bite off more than they can chew when they unwittingly steal a sizable sum of cash belonging to a vengeful mobster. After one partner is murdered for his part in the theft, the remaining man escapes to Chicago where he hooks up with an acquaintance of his dead friend; a one-time master grifter now living in a squalid waterfront dive. Together the two plot a most ingenious revenge on the gangster responsible for their friend’s death. As their elaborate scam takes shape, involving rigged poker games and fake bookie joints, nothing is quite what it appears to be...but will it be enough to fool a master criminal? This is a briskly paced, colourful tale featuring wonderful performances from its star-studded cast while the detailed sets, costumes and musical score bring 1930s Chicago to life with a vibrancy that is part fact, part wistful nostalgia. The ending may not come as a great surprise, Hill offers up too many clues beforehand, but the journey there is thoroughly enjoyable.

Stonehearst Asylum (USA 2014) (7): In the winter of 1899 psychiatric resident Edward Newgate travels from Oxford to the bleak north country in order to further his studies at the Stonehearst Asylum. There, under the tutelage of Dr. Silas Lamb, he is introduced to a most unorthodox method of treating chronic insanity, namely setting aside the more barbaric forms of contemporary therapy and instead letting the patients interact with one another freely without the use of restraints, drugs, or locked cells. At first put off by the thought of allowing the mad to wander the halls and corridors with only minimum supervision it soon becomes apparent to Newgate that Lamb’s controversial experiment holds some merit for the asylum’s inmates seem to have bonded into one big happy—if not entirely healthy—family. But two things occur which cause him to reevaluate his opinion once more: he falls in love with a beautiful patient whose troubled demeanour hints at darker secrets, and an impromptu visit to the cellar offers up a revelation so horrifying that it not only threatens Newgate’s own sanity, but his very life as well. Based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, director Brad Anderson doesn’t hold back on the gothic touches—the lunatics caper and cavort like a medieval bacchanal, interior shots are all faded elegance and candlelight, and the asylum itself rises from the barren landscape like a saurian House of Usher constantly besieged by fog and lightning. The film is buoyed however by grim touches of humour à la Tim Burton (a formal Christmas dinner alternates between the sinister and the comically grotesque) and a stellar cast featuring the likes of Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, and Jim Sturgess. Furthermore a score of minor keys and darkly whimsical flourishes are reminiscent of the best of Wes Anderson. A wonderfully macabre tall tale which, despite a predictable final act, nevertheless ends with a couple of sweetly ironic twists.

Stonewall Uprising (USA-TV 2010) (8): A well crafted PBS documentary detailing the birth of the modern gay rights movement in June of 1969 when the patrons of New York City’s Stonewall tavern, fed up with police harassment, met violence with violence after the NYPD showed up for yet another routine raid. Shedding some light on the mindset of America prior to Stonewall, directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner show the horrors many homosexuals had to endure—including sterilization, electro-shock aversion therapy, and even lobotomies—as a society steeped in religious bigotry and homophobia tried to “cure” them of their deadly perversion. Seamlessly blending B&W re-enactments, news footage, so-called educational films demonizing gays, and a host of aging eyewitnesses this is a winning combination of social history and stories from the front line. Affirming and enraging at the same time, the effects of the Stonewall Uprising still reverberate to this day, especially now that the forces of hate and oppression are once again rearing their ugly heads in Trump-era America. Essential viewing for persons of all stripes.

Storm (Sweden 2005) (5): As a rare hurricane rages over southern Sweden, smartass slacker Donny Davidson (“DD” to his acquaintances) is in for a night of puzzles and revelations. It all begins when he finds himself unwillingly sharing a cab with a damsel in distress, in this case a red-haired ninja on the lam from an unsavory posse of black-clad ghouls and their mentally unhinged leader. This seemingly random encounter leads to several more and before the night is over DD will be implicated in a murder investigation, pursued by both the Stockholm PD and the ghoulish posse, and entrusted with a mysterious silver cube which apparently holds all the answers. With low-budget nods to The Matrix, Lara Croft, and his own Underworld, Måns Mårlind’s graphic novel of a film employs flashy special effects to dress up what would otherwise be a bland and unexceptional psychodrama. As hinted at the film’s outset, DD is struggling with some repressed childhood memories; traumas which have not only robbed him of the ability to feel genuine emotion, but to feel any tactile stimulation whatsoever. Mårlind’s uneasy pairing of sci-fi aesthetics with a Psych 101 script in order to explore his protagonist’s inner turmoil does make for some interesting twists however as we see DD travel back to his childhood neighbourhood, now reinvented as a menacing landscape of subtle horrors; and his struggle with a guilty conscience almost achieves the superhero status Mårlind was obviously aiming for. But in the end it proved to be a whole lot of flash and sizzle with very little substance to chew on.

Storytelling (USA 2001) (7):  Life imitates art...then art turns around and kicks life in the balls in Todd Solondz’s mean-spirited pair of tales mocking artistic narcissism and upper class complacency.  In the first part a young woman composes a heartfelt story based on a disturbing sexual encounter she had with the professor teaching her creative writing class.  When she presents it to her classmates, however, she doesn’t quite get the reaction she was hoping for.  In the second part a wannabe director tries to make a serious documentary on a troubled teenager but his motives become suspect after it is shown to a test audience.  Solondz explores the various ways we lie to others, and to ourselves, as we try to reconcile the differences between the person we actually are, and the person we believe we should be.  Along the way he employs his signature brand of caustic humour, whether it be a derisive allusion to American Beauty or the cutting remarks of a blissfully self-absorbed child; the latter becoming the very embodiment of the director’s own world-weary cynicism.  Unlike his previous films which elicited some degree of sympathy for the characters, Storytelling goes straight for the jugular and takes no prisoners.  In fact the final scene is a firm F. U. to filmmakers and audiences alike...followed by a jaunty little closing song that pokes fun at the movie itself.  This is the type of film Michael Haneke would make if he had a sense of humour, but Solondz’s tone is just too bitter to pull it off completely.  Instead of the biting satire it could have been he delivers a cruel and sarcastic polemic instead.  There are still some brilliant moments here, but he’s done better.

Straight Time (USA 1978) (7): Some guys feel safer locked up, explains newly paroled Max Dembo (Dustin Hoffman) to his glassy-eyed potential new girlfriend Jenny (Theresa Russell), because out here people judge you by what’s in your pockets, in jail they judge you by who you are. An interesting viewpoint considering Dembo is a career loser whose been in trouble with the law since he was 12 years old. Now, having just finished a six-year stint for armed robbery, the pressure of freedom is already getting to him in the form of a slimy parole officer and a dead end minimum wage job. Reacquainting himself with friends from his criminal past—none of whom have gone completely straight despite their suburban appearances—Max finds the allure of living the thug life quickly outweighing whatever feeble perks his newfound liberty can offer. Based on Edward Bunker’s novel, director Ulu Grosbard’s gritty slice of life doesn’t rely on gunplay and violence to propel itself forward, although they do play an integral part, but rather on the inner conflict playing across Max’s face as he convinces himself the good life for Jenny and him is just one easy heist away. Indeed, when it comes to dramatic impact scenes of Max waving guns and bellowing threats pale in comparison to a single shot of him nestled against Jenny’s naked breasts like a restless child seeking consolation. A taught script is aided by a cast of young unknowns—Kathy Bates, Gary Busey—as well as such seasoned standbys as Harry Dean Stanton and M. Emmet Walsh, and Grosberg’s direction keeps things flying along despite an incongruously lighthearted score by David Shire (were they aiming for irony?) For those poor souls hardwired for self-destruction crime does indeed pay, but it’s a currency most of us would gladly avoid.

The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (Belgium 2013) (4): An ornate Brussels apartment building becomes a psychosexual house of mirrors in Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s deconstructed giallo. The story, what there is of it, involves harried executive Dan Kristensen who arrives home after a brief business trip to discover his wife is missing under suspicious circumstances. Desperate to find her, Dan approaches his bizarre neighbours, his taciturn landlord, and an overtly hostile police detective, all of whom have their own sad tales of woe and abandonment to tell in lurid flashbacks and cryptic bursts of dialogue. This is when the narrative jumps the track completely and we are led on a kaleidoscopic and maddeningly repetitive goose chase composed of staccato edits and jarring sound effects filmed in either flat B&W or stained glass shades of red, green, and blue. With art nouveau murals of nude women adorning the walls and hidden passageways echoing with screams and orgasmic sighs, the camera assaults us with one-second flashes of tits and eyeballs, slashed throats and pierced skulls, gaping mouths and split-screen faces while drops of blood congeal and an unnaturally shiny knife literally rings with metallic menace. Sidestepping a solid plot, Cattet and Forzani instead give us the impression of a thriller with gory dispatches and hallucinatory sequences to suggest mental states, both of which provide a trail of anemic clues. But it all seems more like an unhinged pastiche of Mario Bava and Dario Argento than anything original. Their previous foray into slasher psychedelia, the infinitely superior Amer, used its exaggerated giallo tropes to embellish an actual story with psychological overlays—in Tears they not only put form before substance, they completely replace it leaving us with a big blob of garish frosting but no cake.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (USA 1946) (9): Small town heiress Martha Ivers is stuck in a sexless marriage to up-and-coming D.A. Walter O’Neil. The only thing that seems to keep them together is the fact they share a couple of horrific secrets from their past—-secrets that fuel Martha’s drive for material success while her guilt-addled husband practically sleeps with a bottle of scotch. Enter Sam Masterson, Martha’s childhood sweetheart whom she hasn’t seen in almost twenty years and who may or may not know her dirty secrets. It isn’t long before passions are rekindled, jealousies are ignited, and suspicions escalate into a murderous paranoia which threatens to topple Martha’s carefully constructed empire. A stellar cast (Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Kirk Douglas) give scene-stealing performances in this sterling example of why we love Film Noir. It’s all here: a dark and scandalous plot, stylish dialogue laced with testosterone and erotic innuendo, and the kind of emotionally charged theatrics which practically define the genre—-Lizabeth Scott is especially good as Masterson’s potential new love interest; a husky-voiced siren with a few skeletons of her own. Director Lewis Milestone’s B&W cinematography, filled with stormy nights and fireside seductions, is accompanied by an appropriately menacing orchestral score which propels the story forward without missing some of the finer visual nuances (sometimes a burning log is not just a burning log). Great fun!

Strange Magic (USA 2015) (4): There is an uneven truce between the sunlit Land of Fairies and the murky denizens of the Dark Forest. All that is about to change however for the king of the forest is hellbent on destroying all the magical flowers which grow along his border. These flowers provide the key ingredient for a powerful love potion and the morose king wants to destroy all traces of that particular emotion. He meets his match in fairy Princess Marianne who, unlike her boy-crazy sister, is also soured on the notion of romance thanks to an egotistical suitor but will not tolerate trolls and goblins entering her daisy-cluttered realm. Skirmishes, kidnappings, and cartoon peril ensue as each side tries to outfox the other while puffs of love dust complicate everything. Supposedly based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (they’re kidding, right?) it’s hard to believe that George Lucas and Industrial Light and Magic are behind this derivative piece of sugar & spice with its X-Box animation and gut-wrenching remixes of tired old pop tunes. While there is some imagination to the forest monsters (whispering mushrooms, a mouse-like imp, and several variations on a frog) the fairies are basically Barbie dolls with butterfly wings and a tin ear who flit from one generic bloom to another—although an animated elf (voice of Elijah Kelley) is very well done. Some of the action sequences were interesting and a few one-liners actually made me smile, but the bubblegum rock soundtrack and cloying sweetness left my stomach flopping.

Stranger by the Lake (France 2013) (9): It’s the height of summer and blonde pretty boy Franck likes to frequent an isolated stretch of lakefront where men come to doff their clothes, catch some rays, and occasionally wander into the nearby woods for a bit of old school cruising. There he meets up with Henri, a flabby middle-aged loner of indeterminate sexuality who is dutifully ignored by the beach’s more chiseled denizens. The two develop a satisfyingly platonic friendship but Franck really has his eye on the new guy Michel, a moustachioed hunk with a porn body and libido to match and before long the two men are heading into the forest themselves. For Franck it’s love at first tumble despite Michel’s aloof attitude and insistence that they keep their relationship confined to the beach. And then Franck secretly witnesses something horrible and he suddenly sees Michel in a new and highly dangerous light. However, despite warnings from Henri, he can’t quite bring himself to flee the man who has now become a psychosexual obsession… Beautifully framed with static wide-angled shots full of sun, surf, and naked sprawling bodies, writer/director Alain Guiraudie’s minimalist tale of amour fou has achieved two seemingly contradictory goals: first he normalizes casual gay sex as a form of social interaction complete with its own rituals and rules of conduct yet, at the same time, he manages to expose its petty, shallow, and highly judgemental underbelly. With unattractive but personable Henri at one pole and gorgeous but emotionally dead Michel at the other, Guiraudie expertly suspends Franck between substance and lust (and never the twain shall meet, apparently) and he places them all in an erotically charged Garden of Eden bordered by forest, lake, and telltale parking lot. Only in this garden the whispering trees stand like indifferent angels, forbidden fruit beckons from the bushes, and God himself appears in the form of a cadaverous police detective whose piercing eyes and incisive questioning force Franck to reappraise his knowledge of good and evil. Despite its bucolic setting, Guiraudie’s Paradise harbours a deadly snake indeed and love is truly blind—but is it also recklessly destructive? An ambivalent final scene, pure genius on the director’s part, stretches tension to the breaking point and leaves you questioning your own convictions. This is the type of fare Hitchcock would have brewed up had he been born a queer provocateur.

Strangers on a Train (USA 1951) (9): Classic Hitchcock! While en route to his home in Connecticut, tennis star Guy Haines is approached by a fellow train passenger, a very persistent man who seems to know more about him than he’d like. Aware of Guy’s extremely messy divorce proceedings as well as his budding romance with a senator’s daughter, Bruno Antony makes him a most murderous offer; he’ll kill Guy’s two-timing shrew of a wife if Guy will kill Bruno’s wealthy overbearing father. After all, reasons Bruno, having each murder carried out by a total stranger while the only person with a real motive is conveniently somewhere else is foolproof. Dismissing his would-be conspirator as a simple flake Guy gets off at his stop and forgets the whole thing unaware that Bruno has already taken steps to fulfill his part of the “bargain”. With the increasingly psychotic Bruno dogging him like a guilty conscience, the police eyeing him suspiciously and his new girlfriend not knowing what to think, it isn’t long before Guy’s world begins to close in on him. Hitchcock pulls out all the stops in this over-the-top noir romp; from the giddy camerawork rife with shadowy faces to the wonderfully theatrical performances, most notably Robert Walker’s intense turn as the low-keyed psychopath. A carnival stalking provides some creepy chills while the film’s whirling finale is enough to make you swear off merry-go-rounds for life. They really can’t make ‘em like this anymore. I miss you Alfred!

Street of Shame (Japan 1956) (7): Kenji Mizoguchi’s unsentimental look at the daily tribulations endured by sex trade workers at a brothel in Tokyo’s red light district has been cited as one of the reasons Japan outlawed prostitution shortly after the film’s release. The “Dreamland Lounge” is home to a small cadre of women who spend their evenings aggressively luring clients through the front door and their days trying to make sense out of how they ended up having to sell their bodies in the first place. Weighed down by crushing debt and familial obligations—one young girl becomes the family breadwinner after her father is injured at work, another older woman is past her prime and considered damaged goods—they also have to struggle with rampant sexism, ageism, and moral hypocrisy as polite society gives them a wide berth even as it supplies them with a steady stream of regulars. Starkly lit and filmed so that the women often appear trapped by hallways or door frames, Mizoguchi’s only glaring misstep is an odd musical track of science fiction warbles which he thankfully keeps to a bare minimum. By the movie’s end one woman will succumb to the pressure of it all, another will ruthlessly connive her way off the streets, and a nervous recruit will reluctantly peddle her virginity to passing strangers. And all the while their pimp extols his role of guardian and social worker as politicians endlessly waffle back and forth on the issue. Frank yet never lurid, sympathetic yet never stooping to cheap romanticism, Mizoguchi’s protagonists are strong-willed survivors for whom sex has become a retail business and their bodies little more than a commodity. “I’m so glad we chose not to commit suicide…” says one exhausted prostitute cradling her son while her husband wolfs down both their shares of an already meagre dinner, and the irony of that simple offhand remark arrives like a cold smack in the face.

Strip Nude for Your Killer (Italy 1975) (4): Another lurid, poorly dubbed, giallo thriller filmed in Vagin-O-Vision and served up hot and cheesy as only the Italians can do it. A fashion photographer specializing in breasts becomes concerned when his colleagues begin dying around him in very messy ways. But who could the killer be? Is it the slutty model? The big lesbian CEO? The other slutty model? The nympho secretary? The other other slutty model? And what’s the link between the victims and the woman who died from a botched abortion at the film’s outset? As the murderer works their way through the cast and the local police inspector narrows down the remaining suspects you suddenly realize you don’t really care ‘cause if you’ve seen one of these sleazy gobblers you’ve seen them all. Still, they do retain a certain 70’s charm with the bell bottom slacks, twangy jazz music, and softcore nonsense. And did I mention all the tits?

Stroszek (Germany 1977) (9): Recently released from his latest stint in prison, alcoholic simpleton Bruno Stroszek (Kasper Hauser’s Bruno S. basically playing himself) falls in with his aged neighbour Scheitz, and Eva, a battered prostitute on the lam from her sadistic pimps. Finding nothing of value to keep them in Berlin, the three decide to seek their fortunes in America where Scheitz’s nephew has promised them jobs and a place to stay. Ending up in a rural Wisconsin backwater of truck stops and railroad tracks they soon discover that life in the U.S. of A. doesn’t quite live up to their dreams and before long all three find themselves homeless, penniless, and without value—or as Bruno sums it up, in Europe the abuse is physical whereas in America they kick you spiritually even as they flash you a friendly smile. Clearly writer/director Werner Herzog gleaned his images of life in the United States from soap operas and sad C&W songs for the countryside is rife with hidden murderers, beer-guzzling cowboys perform their own dentistry, and the landscape is a frozen dustbowl right out of Grapes of Wrath. But this America is intended to be more allegorical anyway and as our hapless trio find themselves drifting apart and coming undone those aforementioned friendly smiles loom ironically. In typical Herzog fashion the humour is served bleak and dry as bone whether it be Bruno’s skewed observations on life or a foiled bank robbery that is as sad as it is funny. But it’s those final scenes, crammed full of anger and imploded dreams, that arrive like a gut punch to remind us that Herzog never intended this to be a comedy. Of course I would expect nothing less from a man who manages to begin a tale with a newborn babe struggling to live only to end it with a dancing chicken.

The Stunt Man (USA 1980) (7): On the lam from the police and suffering from PTSD, Viet Nam vet Cameron stumbles onto the set of a WWI epic being shot by tyrannical director Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole). Entering into a Mephistophelean deal with Cross, Cameron is offered the safety of anonymity in exchange for taking on the gruelling role of stunt double for the film’s main star—the original double having recently perished in an unfortunate technical debacle. Paranoia soon sets in however as the line between reality and cinematic illusion blurs with Cameron leaping off buildings, dodging bullets, and getting blown up over and over again while Cross hovers in his elevated director’s chair alternately cajoling or spitting verbal lightning bolts like an Old Testament Yahweh. And throughout it all the object of Cameron’s desire, tantalizing screen siren Nina Franklin, eggs him on with promises of carnal delights. Movies about Hollywood artifice are nothing new but director Richard Rush takes things to another level as his waylaid protagonist begins to rebel against the Cross he bears and grandiose biblical allusions mock our notions of predetermination and divine (or otherwise) intervention—Cross’ first name actually translates as “God” (wink wink). Deliberately pretentious and overplayed throughout (O’Toole received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the blustery, bellowing Deus ex Machina), this intriguing allegory unfortunately suffers from sloppy editing which sees it’s breakneck speed too often skid to a grinding halt. Certainly not your usual mainstream fare, but this worthy adaptation of Paul Brodeur’s novel certainly deserves its solid cult status.

Submarino (Denmark 2010) (7): Nick and his younger brother are still reeling from the abuse they suffered at the hands of their perpetually drunk mother back when they were kids. Now having just finished a stint in prison thanks to his violent temper, the hulking Nick is living in a halfway house where he seems destined to follow in his old lady’s alcoholic footsteps. His younger brother, in the meantime, is eking out a living as a single father while indulging in the only two things he cares about in life: his cherubic son Martin and his addiction to heroin. When their estranged mother suddenly drops dead leaving them with property worth a small fortune the two men finally have a chance to straighten out their lives, but reconnecting with one another and rising above their individual demons proves more difficult than they had ever imagined especially with the memory of a shared childhood tragedy still haunting them both… The sun is always shining on the other side of the street in Thomas Vinterberg’s stubbornly pessimistic downer which seems determined to smack its protagonists sideways no matter which way they turn. Frozen cityscapes choked with snow only highlight the gloomy atmosphere as Nick rages in the gutter with hookers and rapists while his brother passes out on living room rugs and bathroom floors—a needle still stuck in his arm and a dejected Martin gazing from the shadows. Despite a host of standout performances Vinterberg’s insistence on piling misery atop misery strains sympathies dangerously close to the breaking point thus robbing an otherwise poignant final scene of much of its impact. There is still an admirable film here however and the downplayed delivery of its two male leads manages to offset much of the manufactured pathos.

Sudden Fear (USA 1952) (9): Joan Crawford’s signature shoulder pads and caterpillar eyebrows take centre stage in this deliciously camp noir thriller that will have you simultaneously cheering and snickering! She plays Myra Hudson, a fabulously wealthy heiress turned Broadway playwright who believes she’s found the man of her dreams when bit actor Lester Blaine (an angular Jack Palance) whom she previously had fired from one of her productions crosses her path once more on a westbound passenger train. Poetry and starry cuddles soon lead to romance and marriage and for the first time in her life Myra feels happy and alive. But Lester’s love proves to be false when Myra discovers he and his bleached blonde mistress (a slutty wise-cracking Gloria Grahame) are planning her imminent demise so he can inherit her vast estate. Unable to go to the police with any credible evidence Myra must rely on her own wits to not only survive the next few days but even the score with the murderous duo as well. To those ends she devises a most ingenious scheme to divide and conquer, but not even she is prepared for the complications that ensue when her elaborate plans are unexpectedly thrown into disarray. Tightly controlled with magnificently theatrical performances all around, director David Miller knows exactly how to up the suspense until you’re squirming in your seat. Adding to the fun is a pounding score of strings and jazzy riffs and some good old noirish cinematography with an emphasis on dimly lit interiors and dizzying shadows; in one particularly effective scene the camera zooms in for an extreme close-up on Ms. Crawford’s face while the shadow of a swinging clock pendulum plays back and forth across her granite features. Delirious and overdone at every turn, like a good film noir should be, this is a definite treat for genre fans and newbies alike. Immensely entertaining!

Sullivan’s Travels (USA 1941) (10): Preston Sturges’ sparkling satire on class, privilege, and artistic conceit proves to be one of the smartest comedies to emerge from the 40’s with sharp insights that still ring true today. When millionaire director John Sullivan (western mainstay Joel McCrea proving his versatility) decides to helm the definitive film about social inequality and the plight of the poor he is abruptly reminded that his privileged upbringing negates all attempts at empathy with America’s downtrodden despite his fiery rhetoric. So, in an attempt to connect with the lower classes, Sullivan borrows a hobo outfit from the wardrobe department and sets out on the road with ten cents in his pocket. But with a bus full of aides and reporters (not to mention personal physician and chef) keeping pace right behind him Sullivan soon finds that all roads lead right back to Hollywood. Eventually fleeing his studio watchdogs he reluctantly teams up with a disillusioned wannabe actress (an endearing Veronica Lake) and together they discover all the beauty and ugliness life without hope has to offer. Of course his multi-million dollar bank account is only a phone call away rendering their journey somewhat sanitized—until one final Christ-like attempt to help the poor sets Sullivan on a course he could never have imagined, giving him a big fat dose of “reality” in the process. Brimming with witty exchanges and sardonic irony, and just a touch of uplifting slapstick, Sturges’ brilliant film plays with its audience even as it appears to mock itself—one key scene involving convicts shuffling into a backwoods church while an all-black congregation solemnly croons “Let My People Go” is so over-the-top you begin to wonder…are we still watching Sturges’ movie or is this the movie Sullivan intends to make? But then they all sit down to watch a Disney cartoon and the answer becomes readily apparent. Despite a tidy little “happily ever after” ending á la Frank Capra (more irony?) there are still plenty of clever barbs here—and even more treats—to keep you smiling throughout.

Summer 04 (Germany 2006) (8):  Miriam and André are a comfortably bourgeois couple enjoying the summer at their seaside cottage along with their moody son Nils and his leggy 13-year old girlfriend, Livia.  Their days are filled with sailing, outdoor dinners and genial conversations that go nowhere.  But when Livia, a precocious and surprisingly mature Lolita, begins to flirt with Bill, the handsome stud down the road Miriam’s protective instincts kick in....or is it merely a jealous resentment?  Livia proves to be a catalyst of sorts, upsetting the couple’s precariously balanced life and causing all around her to re-examine the forces that motivate them....whether it’s Miriam’s unspoken discontent or Nils’ dawning awareness of the lies and small hypocrisies of adulthood.  When a sudden tragedy strikes everyone is thrown off balance and things are never the same again.  “Summer 04” is a beautifully restrained ensemble piece with great performances and cinematography that puts those hot summer days and quiet nights to good use.  Krohmer approaches his characters with a sense of detached compassion, never judging yet never making excuses for their behaviour.  The final scene, played out in the restaurant of a swank hotel, is a master stroke of deep irony underscored by a funky musical coda.  Good viewing!

Summer Hours (France 2008) (6): Hélène has lived in the same rustic country estate outside Paris since she was a child. Having shared it with her uncle, a famous painter and art collector, she is now surrounded by expensive memorabilia and objets d’art which are of tremendous sentimental value to her but mean little to her adult children who have only vague memories of their great-uncle. Recognizing the fact that her home has become something of a mausoleum to her uncle’s memory and that her kids now have lives of their own, Hélène chooses her 75th birthday party to make her final wishes known—upon her death eldest son Frédéric, acting as executor, is to donate a few pieces to museums and then sell off the bulk of the art along with the house and split the proceeds with his younger brother and sister. But when she eventually does die several months later the reactions of her children are immediate and polarized—Frédéric wants to keep things exactly as they are out of a sense of duty; younger Jérémie, a businessman living in China, needs the money to better the lives of his own family; and sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), a designer dividing her time between New York and Tokyo, doesn’t feel the need to live in the past with a bunch of dusty paintings and a crumbling home no one has time to visit anymore. And as their parents haggle incessantly over what to sell and what to keep the grandkids are more interested in just partying with their friends… Time marches on in writer/director Olivier Assayas’ drama about fading memories and family dynamics wherein old ways give way to the new, sometimes reluctantly, and observing tradition competes with the desire to forge one’s own way. His skillful use of artwork throughout the film then goes on to provide a series of metaphors highlighting these themes: Hélène revels in the nostalgia they bring (even a broken Degas sculpture, a victim of her sons’ horseplay, reminds her of bygone days); Frédéric sees an enduring legacy he can leave to his kids; Jérémie and Adrienne see a source of much needed income; the grandchildren simply see old paintings from another era. Unfortunately the film too often rambles repetitiously from one intellectual squabble to another with Frédéric spinning his tires in the mud while everyone else checks the time and plans their escape. To his credit he does favour practicality over sentimentality, but the film’s unrelenting quaintness gets boring rather quickly.

Summer Storm (Germany 2004) (5): Yet another gay coming-of-age story with all the usual clichés and stock characters present and accounted for. Tobi and Achim are on the same highschool rowing team along with their respective girlfriends Anke and Sandra. But, unknown to anyone, the deeply closeted Tobi is actually in love with Achim and the fact that the two budding adolescents do practically everything together—including the occasional wank session—doesn’t make it any easier. When the team heads north for a national regatta the two boys wind up sharing a tent which puts Tobi’s hormones on high alert despite Achim’s express desire to spend more time with Sandra. Anke, in the meantime, is becoming suspicious over Tobi’s unwillingness to respond to her own open invitation. Then an openly gay rowing club, the “Queerstrokes”, set up camp next door and as a violently metaphorical thunderstorm rolls in everyone gets thrown into the blender to emerge challenged if not completely changed. Director and co-writer Marco Kreuzpainter’s derivative queer love story has nothing new to say, in fact it simply rehashes a lot of tired old themes. The gay boys flirt with the straight boys (their team leader comes off as a creepy teenaged predator), the straight boys are bemused (one sexually confused member runs screaming into the woods after an unwelcome kiss borders on assault), and everyone eventually settles for a host of euphemistic gestures concerning tolerance. Of course there’s an uncomfortably hokey boy-on-boy sex scene followed by a weak attempt at pathos, and the anticlimactic rowing competition itself (there are only two teams?) panders to the liberal in all of us. Preachy and politically correct all over but at least no one gets hurt and the soundtrack of smooth croons and retro club cuts is a welcome distraction.

Summer and Smoke
(USA 1961) (8): Yet another melancholic tale of southern belles and dreams deferred from the pen of Tennessee Williams rendered in rich technicolour with a knockout Oscar-nominated performance from Geraldine Page. Miss Alma Winemiller’s life has never been easy. Being the only child of a small town Mississippi minister she was expected to be the very picture of virtue despite her growing crush on next door neighbour John Buchanan (Laurence Harvey). Now, with her adolescence long behind her, she’s had to assume all the social duties of a pastor’s wife thanks to her mother’s debilitating nervous breakdown leaving her no time to either live, love, or laugh. But when Buchanan arrives back in town after graduating from medical school Alma’s hopes soar once more despite the obvious differences in their temperaments—she’s a prim and sexually repressed neurotic on her way to an early spinsterhood while he seeks solace in gambling, whisky, and loose women. After a few ill-fated attempts at romance with Alma, Buchanan leaves town to complete his studies and upon his return Alma decides to finally reveal her true feelings—but it may already be too late for the object of her desire has had an epiphany of his own. Shot against a backdrop of long languorous summer days and nights that seem to stretch on forever Williams’ piercing prose examines three small tragedies: Alma unable to give voice to her dreams; her mother whose dreams have long since died; and Buchanan who realizes he’s been chasing the wrong dream all along. As if to underscore her plight, Alma’s journey begins and ends in the town square where the sculpture of a stone angel entitled “Eternity” leans with its hands forever outstretched—but whether it is in supplication, pity, or simple mockery is left for the viewer to decide. A sad story told with style and compassion.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (USA 1927) (8): It’s summertime and in an idyllic resort town a simple farmer is lured away from his infant son and golden-haired wife (an angelic Janet Gaynor) by the seductive charms of a brunette temptress from the Big Bad City. Forsaking all he once held dear the man prepares to follow his lover wherever she may lead but first he’ll have to follow her advice and sell the farm then get rid of his adoring wife by staging a boating accident and letting her drown… F. W. Murnau’s silent classic is a heady mix of dark melodrama, erotic potboiler, and light comedy, all tied together by some amazing visual effects (an urban carnival takes on surreal overtones) and a lively orchestral score. Not one for understatement, Murnau splashes the small screen with fanciful images of pastoral bliss and moonlit embraces which he then contrasts, sometimes jarringly, with scenes of howling tempests and metropolitan chaos—his “big city” actually an elaborate outdoor soundstage. A beautifully overdone morality play whose grandiose staging and powerful performances make its somewhat facile message of love and forgiveness all the more palatable.

Sunshine (UK/USA 2007) (7):  In the year 2057 the sun is starting to burn out prematurely causing an eternal ice age on earth.  A crew of eight astronauts is sent on a mission to explode a huge mega-bomb in the sun’s upper layers in an attempt to “create a star within a star” thereby re-igniting the solar furnace and saving the world.  This is mankind’s second attempt to do this, the first crew having mysteriously disappeared before they could complete their mission.  What follows is a grand entry in the sci-fi genre with elements reminiscent of 2001, Alien and Event Horizon.  Boyle splashes the screen with gorgeous sensual images which convey not only a sense of  wonder but also explore the various ways technology and spirituality impact each other.  The talented cast is well-balanced and play off each other with a high degree of believability thanks in large part to a strong director and tight script.  While there is some definite artistic license regarding the underlying physics (this is science FICTION after all) the accompanying commentary by  Dr. Brian Cox offers some interesting theories regarding the film’s premise.  Well deserved praise aside, the film is not without a few glaring flaws.  The “Bogeyman in the Airlock” subplot was a bit of overkill, and Boyle seemed to fall in love with his own pyrotechnics towards the end resulting in a finale that bordered on the self-indulgent.  Despite these faults, Sunshine is still an exhilarating ride worth taking.

Superbad (USA 2007) (7): Highschool seniors Evan (a virginally perplexed Michael Cena) and Seth (an F-bombing Jonah Hill) have been BFFs since kindergarten. Now faced with the prospect of going to different universities the two are experiencing the first pangs of separation anxiety, especially the corpulent Seth who’s never had that many friends to begin with. When the two are invited to the biggest kickass grad party in town AND promise to supply the liquor thanks to a fake ID recently acquired by geeky sidekick Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse stealing every scene), they set themselves up for a harrowing night of farcical detours especially when they cross paths with Southern California’s most unorthodox pair of cops (Bill Hader and co-writer Seth Rogen). From Adventures in Babysitting to Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, “Teen Quest” comedies are nothing new and Superbad has nothing new to offer. As Seth, Evan and Fogel desperately try to make their way to the party there’s plenty of gross-out conversation centred primarily on tits and blowjobs, the usual lampooning of authority figures (Officers Slater and Michaels cavort like two stooges on crack), and a hefty dose of underage drinking and groping if no actual nudity. Despite this lack of originality the adult content is still funny enough to make older audiences smile and there is a warm if superficial vein of camaraderie underlying the slapstick antics as our two boyhood chums grow up just a little bit. But it was the prolonged and extremely juvenile flashback montage featuring a very young Seth going through his “penis drawing” phase (even George Washington gets a hefty wang) that provided the guiltiest laughs.

Super 8 (USA 2011) (9): In the summer of 1979 a group of kids are out way past their bedtime filming the latest scene in their amateur zombie flick when they witness a horrendous train derailment. Grabbing their camera gear they hightail it for home but not before they cross paths with the crash’s lone survivor and notice some very strange cargo spilling out of the overturned cars. Within hours their small Ohio town is crawling with military types intent on blocking any attempts by the local sheriff (one of the kids’ father) to investigate what really happened. But even the military are unable to hide the fact that mysterious things are afoot; people are disappearing, strange power surges and blackouts plague the town, and the night is filled with ominous howls and spontaneous explosions. At first reluctant to even discuss what they saw that night, the young filmmakers are spurred into action when one of their own goes missing. What follows is a delightful child’s eye adventure in which a handful of precocious tweens do their best to outwit a town full of authority figures who are either too evil or too clueless to appreciate them. Following a trail of clues and hunches the gang stumbles upon a deadly government secret of galactic proportions while at the same time managing to hurl colourful insults at each other and maybe grow up just a little. Writer/director J. J. Abrams keeps the pyrotechnics going as hardware tumbles through the air, glass storefronts implode and vintage cars are turned into fiery scrap. He also exhibits an appreciation for what keeps audiences glued to their seats; his plucky pre-teens are sure to make contemporary kids snigger and aging boomers smile nostalgically as they recall watching the likes of E.T., The Goonies, and Gremlins for the first time. Unfortunately an otherwise very cool ending is marred by an overdose of Disneyesque schmaltz, probably courtesy of producer Steven Spielberg. But the film’s late 70s setting is impeccable, the young cast superb, and the soundtrack of old rock anthems pitch perfect. Be sure and sit through the final credits!

Superhero Movie (USA 2008) (5): When young Rick Riker is bitten by a genetically enhanced dragonfly while on a class field trip he suddenly finds himself endowed with super powers. Meanwhile, across town, evil business magnate Lou Landers has been developing powers of his own. When the two men finally confront each other the fate of Empire City hangs in the balance… The team that brought us the “Scary Movie” series apply their tired old formula to the superhero genre with mixed results. There is nothing fresh here, the jokes are stale, the plot (based loosely on “Spiderman” with a little “X-Men” thrown in) is derivative and wholly predictable, and the visual gags juvenile at best. But I have to admit it had me rolling off the couch more than once. I guess I’m just a sucker for a bad spoof.

Supernova (USA 2000) (6): In this science fiction thriller the crew of the deep space Medical Rescue Vessel "Nightingale" are diverted from their usual duties in order to respond to a garbled distress call from a remote corner of the galaxy. Coming out of hyperspace they find themselves in the gravitational grip of a massive star just hours away from annihilating itself in a powerful supernova explosion. Narrowing the S.O.S. signal to a rogue moon circling the unstable star they rescue the lone survivor of an ill-fated mining operation, a handsome young man whose identity strikes an unpleasant chord with the Nightingale's resident physician. But all is not what it appears to be for the young miner has a few secrets of his own, secrets which seem to revolve around a most unusual piece of carry-on luggage. With his damaged ship threatened from both within and without, the Nightingale's rookie captain is forced to make some difficult decisions whose ramifications reach further than he could ever have imagined. Although much maligned by critics upon its initial release, Supernova nevertheless presents an interesting, if hardly exceptional, story of first contact gone awry. The cast of beautiful people wear their roles well while some frantic editing and rocket ship sets bathed in glowing shades of blue allow us to suspend our disbelief for the full ninety minutes. However, the underwhelming CGI effects probably look better on a home screen and a host of energetic performances still fail to breathe life into a lacklustre script. Furthermore, whether this was intentional or not, the ship's robotic handyman, Flyboy, bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Woody Allen's clunky android in Sleeper. A hauntingly surreal denouement and one tantalizingly unresolved thread ultimately save the film from total obscurity.

Suspiria (Italy 1977) (7): A young American dancer travels to Germany to attend a prestigious ballet school but encounters madness, murder and black magic instead. It would appear that the school's faculty have some very nasty secrets hidden away within the institution's crumbling walls and it's up to the plucky new girl to get to the bottom (or top) of things. With its gothic chic sets drowned in dark shades of lurid red, histrionic performances, and blaring musical score by The Goblins (think Mike Oldfield vs Skinny Puppy) Argento's undisputed master work is a gloriously overdone tale of contemporary witchcraft. A bit dark at times (as in not enough light) this is still one of the best giallo horror films ever made. Argento's signature penchant for the macabre is clearly evident but this time around he couches it in pure artistry; shadowy hallways framed in stained glass, growling figures silhouetted against white sheets, and everywhere a sense of malevolence and decay. One helluva guilty pleasure!

Sweet Movie (Canada/France 1974) (3): A most repulsive film, Dusan Makavejev’s scatological rant against conformity, social taboos, and political ideology caused the usual stir when it premiered at Cannes, was immediately banned from UK cinemas, and led to one star being ousted from her native Poland for seven years. Disjointed and pointedly anarchic in nature it involves two unrelated storylines that neither converge nor particularly compliment one another. In the first tale an American tycoon hosts an international beauty pageant for virgins in order to find himself a suitable wife willing to have her chastity confirmed onstage. After enduring a horrendous wedding night at the hands of the germ-phobic billionaire and his gold-plated penis, the winner (Miss Canada!) finds herself exiled to Europe where she falls prey to a subversive Austrian commune whose members use infantilism and bodily functions as a form of social protest (note: if you are adverse to watching people puke, shit, and piss all over themselves at the dinner table this is your cue to fast forward). In the adjoining tale beaming socialist Captain Anna Planeta pilots her big boat, adorned with a weeping Karl Marx figurehead, through the canals of Amsterdam. Inside her decrepit vessel lies a virtual treasure trove of candy, including a huge flat of sugar which doubles as a lovemaking pit. Luring young men and boys aboard her ship with promises of sex and sweets she proves to be not quite as benevolent as she appears... To fill in the gaps between his narratives Dusan throws in some horrifyingly explicit B&W newsreels detailing the WWII atrocities at Katyn for reasons I’m sure made perfect sense to him at the time. It all comes together in the final reel where a pair of cynical endings show the virginal Miss Canada now transformed into the ultimate consumer whore and Planeta getting her just desserts while her victims return for a final bow as if to remind us it’s just a movie after all. Makavejev certainly has the proper credentials growing up as he did in communist Yugoslavia where he studied psychology at a leading Serbian institute, and his film does contain a few memorable scenes as when a group of nuns, happening upon a copulating couple, suddenly form a pious tableau straight out of a Renaissance painting. But in his zeal to skewer everything from socialist utopias and capitalist daydreams to the creative restraints placed upon artists (like himself no doubt) he exhibits the same kind of narcissistic arrogance he’s supposedly condemning. If you don’t appreciate his often subjective film with its obscure references and puzzling symbolism it’s obviously because you’re not smart enough to recognize his genius. Any reasonably well read viewer will quickly get the gist of what Makavejev is carrying on about and then just as quickly shrug it off as a terribly dated piece of guerrilla filmmaking which was once confrontational and is now just an affront. Finally, I can take all the potty scenes, mock castrations, and bouncing genitalia he cares to throw at me but when a mostly naked Planeta writhes and lap dances for a group of rapt nine-year old boys a line is definitely crossed, artistic expression or not. A thoroughly sour experience.

Sweet Smell of Success (USA 1957) (10): In today’s age of tabloid gossip and paparazzi muckraking Alexander Mackendrick’s darkly cynical look at the corrupting power of celebrity is perhaps more relevant now than it ever was. Burt Lancaster is superb as J. J. Hunsecker, a despotic Broadway columnist whose fame has led him to believe that he is above such trivialities as morality and ethics; even politicians and the police are at his beck and call. Circling him like a faithful lapdog is press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis, equally brilliant) a fawning sycophant who will do anything in order to get his clients a favorable mention in J. J.’s column, even agreeing to sabotage the budding romance between Hunsecker’s sister Susan and Steve Dallas, a promising young musician whom J. J. views as an unwelcome rival (his brotherly concern hints at something far more grotesque). As Steve’s reputation is suddenly targeted by a newspaper smear campaign Susan begins to suspect the truth, but years of conditioning have left her unable to stand up to her brutally overbearing brother. With Hunsecker desperately trying to maintain control and Susan experiencing the first stirrings of rebellion, the stage is set for one final confrontation... A contemporary tragedy of Shakespearian proportions, Sweet Smell of Success pits tyranny against naïve innocence in a world awash with noir archetypes, glittering neon, and garbage strewn streets. Its crisp B&W cinematography captures a cold and heartless city while a cruel script is rife with barbs and hidden knives. But ironically the film’s most piteous victim is Sidney Falco, an everyman whose hunger for fame and fortune has led him down a very dark path indeed. Watching him stare with a mixture of apathy and horror as the last pieces of his soul are devoured is truly chilling. An American masterpiece.

Swiss Family Robinson (USA 1960) (5): During the reign of Napoleon a resourceful couple and their three sons flee war-ravaged Europe for the promise of a fresh start in the fledgling colony of New Guinea. En route however they wind up being shipwrecked on a deserted island where they immediately set about creating a tropical idyll with supplies and livestock salvaged from the sinking ship. But with the nearby jungle full of wild—and apparently very tameable—African animals (on a South Pacific island?!) and the surrounding waters home to sharks and cutthroat pirates, the Robinsons will have to rely on their wits and ingenuity in order to survive! Walt Disney guts yet another piece of classic literature, in this case Johann Wyss’ 1812 novel, and turns the remains into a kindergarten fantasy with cutesy critters, cartoon peril (the pirates look like an Indonesian drag revue), and the coolest treehouse ever built. Parents John Mills and Dorothy McGuire assume the proper gender roles—he saws logs, she coos over gingham drapes—while the two older boys struggle with adolescent hormones (James MacArthur looking just fine sans shirt) and the youngest runs wild and free (Kevin Corcoran cloying audiences to the point of nausea). It all ends happily ever after of course and some of the wildlife sequences are superbly filmed even though the rough treatment of the animals would be illegal today. Sure to charm the preschoolers but I liked the Robinsons better when they were lost in space.

Synecdoche, New York (USA 2008) (10): Caden Cotard is a modestly successful stage director obsessed with death. It doesn’t help that his mailbox is filled with cancer magazines, his newspaper is filled with obituaries and the cartoons his child watches seem to mock his fears. Even the milk in the fridge is long past its expiry date while the wallpaper in his cluttered kitchen bears a ghostly, half-emerged figure. Between interminable visits to specialists who take a bleak interest in his intermittent lumps, bumps and bloody stools he works on an ironic production of Death of a Salesman while at the same time trying to save his failing marriage. But when he receives a huge arts grant he decides to embark on his biggest project yet; no less than recreating the city of New York in an abandoned hangar and populating it with hundreds of anonymous extras, including stand-ins for everyone in his life from his wife and daughter to Hazel, the box office cashier he’s having an uneasy affair with. Before long however, the actors begin to take on lives of their own which diverge from his carefully prepared script necessitating the introduction of additional actors to play the actors who are acting out his life... Combining the audacity of Fosse’s All That Jazz with the cryptic details of Anderson’s Magnolia, Kaufman draws on theatrical hyperbole to highlight one man’s rage against his own mortality. Using telescoping timelines, overlapping characters and an odd dream logic, he creates a skewed reality which is both seductive and mystifying. “Fate is what you create...” bellows a character at one point, “...every choice you make changes everything...and you only get one chance to play it out!” Fueled by his own artistic narcissism and an overriding fear of obscurity (he is described as a man “already dead”) Caden attempts to challenge this dictum by rewriting his own life with a cast of doppelgängers and phantoms. But you can’t change the past and all people, no matter what their station in life, arrive at the same final destination. Kaufman’s brilliant script is constantly catching you off guard with its unexpected turns and sly allusions (google “Cotard Delusion” and “synecdoche” for starters). He then fills his elaborately layered sets with tantalizing clues and visual tropes, whether it’s the briefly glimpsed title of a book or Hazel’s chronically smoldering house (reflecting her own reckless passion, perhaps?). Puzzling, enigmatic and impossible to fully appreciate with one viewing; we may not grasp all the finer tricks, but Kaufman’s sympathetic portrayal of a painfully flawed everyman can’t help but strike a chord.

Tabloid (USA 2010) (8): Back in the late ‘70s former Miss Wyoming beauty queen Joyce McKinney’s fat dumpy Mormon boyfriend left her in order to attend missionary school in England. Not used to being jilted, she became so convinced that the church had abducted and brainwashed him that she hired a pair of accomplices and journeyed across the Atlantic in order to abduct him back—by any means necessary—then deprogram him and make him fall in love with her once more—again, by any means necessary. And this is where Errol Morris’ delightfully lurid documentary gets even more risqué especially after the British tabloids got hold of the story and turned it into a cause célèbre for it contained all the necessary ingredients of a good old fashioned scandal: a buxom kidnapper, Scotland Yard, and kinky sex. With a small cadre of talking heads ranging from an outspoken ex-Mormon and a pair of journalists to a Korean cloning specialist (yes, you read that right) Morris prompts and cajoles his subjects into revealing far too much information and then augments his interviews with campy film snippets and some of the salacious headlines (“Mormon in Manacles!”) which graced the front pages of The Daily Express and Daily Mirror, two UK tabloids that competed with each other to get the “true story”. Still perky and clueless after all these years McKinney (with a stated IQ of 168) alternately condemns and exonerates herself while Morris gleefully keeps pace and everyone else smiles and shakes their heads. Who was this lovestruck pageant winner? What was going through her mind at the time? And what to make of all that titillating evidence the Mirror managed to dredge up in Los Angeles? The answers are only a DVD away…!

Take Care of My Cat (Korea 2001) (7): With the comfortable certainties of childhood behind them three young women, friends since grade school, face the vagaries of the adult world with emotions that range from quiet despair to a kind of guarded optimism. While one selfishly pursues a corporate career armed only with a sense of self-delusional narcissism, another contends with parental pressures that threaten to derail her dreams of being an artist, while the third, raised by her destitute grandparents, faces a bleak future of dead-end jobs and poverty. As each girl reaches a crisis point in her life, heralded by the arrival of the titular kitten, she finds herself forced to make a momentous decision that will alter her life for better or worse. In the meantime there are families to deal with, deadlines to meet, and a whole lot of growing up to do... Jae-Eun Jeong has fashioned a very smart, if slightly unrealistic, snapshot of young lives on the cusp. Aside from the urban fairy-tale ending her film has a refreshingly unsentimental feel to it with its gritty cityscapes and funky minimalist score punctuated here and there with some dreamlike sequences. I was especially intrigued with the recurrent use of geometric shapes, especially squares...whether it was a table inlay, a window design or one girl’s mandala-like doodles; it reminded me of endless timetables and reinforced the film’s underlying theme nicely. And of course there is the omnipresent sound of cellphone ringtones. It seems the majority of the film’s communication is in the form of voicemail and text messages, a phenomenon that Jeong exploits with a sly wink. Lastly, there’s the cat. Originally a birthday gift, the little feline ends up being shuffled from one woman to the other as priorities change and circumstances arise. It quickly becomes both a symbol of responsibility and a metaphor for an entire generation trying to find its place in the world. A bit overdone at times, oversimplified at others, but a sincere effort nonetheless.

Take Shelter (USA 2011) (8): Curtis is a dedicated family man living in rural Ohio with his wife and young, hearing impaired daughter. Life seems pretty good for him until he begins having apocalyptic nightmares involving monstrous storms and murderous stalkers; dreams that seem to linger long after he's leapt out of bed. Something bad is going to happen, of that he's convinced, but are these truly visions or is he following the same path as his mother who was institutionalized with schizophrenia when he was only ten years old? No longer certain as to where the dividing line between reality and delusion lies Curtis begins constructing an elaborate tornado shelter in the backyard (a job the family can ill afford) while at the same time making a few hesitant visits to the local mental health clinic. His erratic behaviour soon begins placing a strain on both his marriage and his job, a strain that begins to take its toll on his already fragile mind. Jeff Nichols' amazing film, part psychodrama part social metaphor, is rife with contemporary angst. In fact fear seems to saturate every frame as Curtis obsesses over his family's security, his personal health, and an uncertain future punctuated by ominous portents that only he can see. The film's visuals are arresting and the intense performances uniformly excellent but, given its overall sense of mounting tension and paranoia, the thundery climax comes across as a bit too tidy...until Nichols plays his ace. In what has to be one of the most enigmatic codas I've seen in some time he pulls a small cinematic coup which forced me to reinterpret the preceding two hours yet again. I like it when a director does that!

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (USA 1974) (8): A group of heavily armed men take a subway car full of passengers hostage threatening to kill one person every minute unless their demands are met. A smart, tightly edited thriller with an all-star cast that manages to keep the action moving right up until the unexpectedly comical ending. Flipping back and forth between claustrophobic interiors and widescreen cityscapes, director Joseph Sargent ratchets up the suspense while keeping the plot simple and believable. A few non-PC moments may make overly sensitive contemporary audiences squirm (listed among the closing credits are "The Homosexual", "The W.A.S.P." and "The Hooker" ha! ha!) but hey, it was the freaking 70s!

The Tales of Hoffmann (UK 1951) (7): The dynamic duo of classic British cinema, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, team up once again with the legendary Archers production company for this sumptuous screen adaptation of Offenbach’s opera. Hoffmann, a struggling writer, is smitten by Stella, a prima donna with the local ballet company who has agreed to meet with him at a local tavern. But city councillor Lindorf has an inexplicable grudge against Hoffmann and does everything in his power to prevent their rendezvous. In the meantime a group of students descend upon the pub and between rounds of drinking encourage the lovelorn man to regale them with tall tales of his past romances. Thus begins a series of flashbacks in which Hoffmann and his trusted friend Ncklaus, along with Lindorf and Stella, take on various guises as three separate stories unfold. In the first, Hoffmann is a student who loses his heart to a clockwork ballerina; then he’s a rogue who loses his soul to a Venetian courtesan; and finally, a poet whose love for a doomed singer helps him to find his own true Muse. Apparently the film that prompted George Romero to enter the business and now painstakingly restored by the Martin Scorsese Film Foundation, Powell & Pressburger’s gloriously overdone production, presented with an English libretto, overflows with striking images: a swirl of dancing marionettes comes to life; a soundstage Venice is all gauzy backdrops and guttering candles; and a lonely Greek isle is lifted straight from a classical painting. But the elaborately camp set designs and extravagant performances, all presented in eye-gouging Technicolor, limit this one to diehard fans of opera and ballet as well as those who love a bit of fey cinema now and again. The music is magnificent however, and star Moira Shearer’s ballet sequences alone are worth the rental price.

The Taming of the Shrew (Italy/USA 1967) (7): Even though Zeffirelli took many liberties with Shakespeare’s caustic comedy, paring away much of its complexity in the process, this brash costume epic still manages to float thanks in large part to the combined star power of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. In prosperous Padua wealthy merchant Baptista is eager to marry off his two daughters. Young Bianca, beautiful and demure, has no shortage of suitors—-in fact a few overly eager bachelors have resorted to outrageous subterfuge in order to win her hand. But alas, according to custom Bianca cannot wed until her older sister Katharina finds a husband of her own. And therein lies the film’s comedic wellspring for “Kate” is a foul-tempered, acid-tongued dragon who terrorizes her family and sends all eligible men running for cover. Kate eventually meets her match however when the drunken opportunist Petruchio stumbles into town looking to “thrive and wive” and is immediately steered towards the surly maiden and her handsome dowry. What follows is an all out Elizabethan battle of the sexes in which Katharina, the cards already stacked against her thanks to her gender, goes head-to-head agains the gruff and implacable Petruchio who is determined to bring her to heel at any cost. One of Shakespeare’s more problematic plays, at least to 21st century sensibilities, Kate’s transformation from fiery hellcat (or independent spirit?) to domesticated hausfrau can be interpreted as either a straightforward example of 16th century sexism or, with a small stretch of the imagination, a subtle rebuke steeped in irony and satire. Certainly Kate’s closing monologue concerning a woman’s happy subservience to her lord and master will forever be open to heated discussions. But no matter, this is still a lively, raucous free-for-all full of pageantry and rich Renaissance backdrops all set to an airy score by Nino Rota. Although lacking the lush romanticism of his later Romeo and Juliet (1968), Zeffirelli nevertheless manages to infuse a spirited passion into this film adaptation. And when those sparks begin to fly between Burton and Taylor the erotic overtones are unmistakable.

Tammy and the Bachelor (USA 1957) (7): Seventeen-year old bayou naif Tammy (a twenty-five year old Debbie Reynolds trying to sound like Elly May Clampett) lives an idyllic life along the Mississippi river with her pet goat and crusty old grandfather (Walter Brennan), a part-time preacher and full-time bootlegger. But Tammy’s white trash paradise begins to unravel when she and grandpa take it upon themselves to nurse injured pilot Peter Brent (preppie hunk Leslie Nielsen) back to health and the presence of so much recuperating male flesh sets her hormones to slow boil. Bidding a teary farewell to Peter as he returns to his own home, our little swamp princess resigns herself once more to a life of fishin’ and gardenin’ until one day grandpa gets arrested for selling one too many bottles of moonshine and he decides to take Peter up on his offer to care for Tammy should she suddenly find herself alone. Upon arriving at the Brent estate Tammy is shocked to discover Peter’s family lives in a sprawling antebellum mansion (cue token black maid) and that he is unhappily engaged to a Louisiana ice princess when all he wants is the simple life of a farmer. Despite herself Tammy is drawn to Peter’s broad shoulders and puppy dog eyes while he is drawn to her simple charms and budding cleavage. Annnnd…..you can pretty well guess the rest. Notable only for it’s syrupy Oscar-nominated theme song and for featuring one of Fay Wray’s final big screen appearances as Peter’s faded southern belle mother, Tammy and the Bachelor is one of those ridiculously innocent chick flicks that nevertheless manage to charm the smug smirk right off your face. Perhaps it’s the wistful music and exaggerated technicolor; or maybe it’s watching two pretty people fall predictably in love; or maybe, after a diet of so much “realism” when it comes to sex and violence, it’s fun to treat yourself to some cinematic floss where carnality is reduced to a sunset kiss and the only crisis is forgetting to milk the goat. If only.

Tangled (USA 2010) (9): Disney once again rewrites a classic fairy tale, this time Rapunzel, but does it with such sparkle that I found myself smiling and humming along with all those cute animated characters just the same. Locked in a tower ever since she was a baby by the nefarious “Mother Gothel” because of her magical hair’s ability to grant immortality (as long as it’s brushed regularly and never ever cut) the kidnapped princess Rapunzel has nothing but her imagination and precocious pet chameleon to keep her company. Leery of the outside world thanks to Gothel’s exaggerated accounts of the villains and monsters which inhabit it the princess, now eighteen, nevertheless wonders about what lies beyond her stone walls, especially the mysterious lights she sees floating in the night sky every year on her birthday. When the charming thief Flynn Rider accidentally winds up in Rapunzel’s tower room she finally sees a chance to escape her dreary captivity and experience life for the first time—but Flynn is being hunted by the king’s guards (and one very determined king’s horse) and the naïve princess soon realizes she may have bitten off more than she can chew. Gothel, meanwhile, will stop at nothing to get her ridiculously long-haired “daughter” back… Featuring impeccable animation and a host of surprisingly catchy tunes that range from exuberant slapstick—a Monty Python-style song & dance number at the “Snuggly Duckling” tavern is priceless—to wistful cartoon romance as thief and princess sing to each other beneath a sky glowing with paper lanterns. Made for little girls, but I liked it too!

Targets (USA 1968) (8): Peter Bogdanovich’s first film, and arguably his best, is a disturbingly realistic drama which sets the horror genre on its ear as it examines America’s twin fascinations with gun violence and celebrity. Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff essentially playing himself) is an antique actor known for his macabre roles who, feeling the weight of his years and all too aware of the diminishing shock value of his classic tales of terror when compared to contemporary newspaper articles of senseless killings, decides to make one final public appearance at a Los Angeles drive-in theatre showing one of his golden oldies. Meanwhile, in a converging story, a mild-mannered insurance salesman murders his family before calmly embarking on a shooting spree, eventually ending up at the same drive-in, arsenal in hand, as Karloff’s character. A tense confrontation between horror icon and homicidal psychopath ensues… Made all the more terrifying by its sheer ordinariness—at one point the sniper takes a break between killings to enjoy a sandwich and a Dr. Pepper—Bogdanovich’s constant juxtaposition of nightmarish reality and Hollywood peril (incidental television screens air menacing films throughout) reaches a surreal climax at the outdoor theatre where the gunman, hemmed in by a very real Orlok on one side and a twenty foot screen Orlok on the other, is unable to distinguish which one he should be trying to kill. An amazing and prophetic film which is perhaps more pertinent now than it was forty years ago.

The Taste of Tea (Japan 2004) (9): Hope springs eternal in Ishii’s long languorous daydream of a film that revels in life’s small joys and unspoken fears. The Haruno family live in a quiet pastoral village nestled between towering mountains and sun-dappled fields. It’s a place where being a misfit is the norm and people seem to have no more than a casual acquaintance with life’s harsher realities. While mother Satomi spends her days trying to restart her career as an animator, her psychotherapist husband Nobuo tries to lift people out of the ordinary through hypnosis. Meanwhile eldest son Hajime is experiencing his first tastes of love and heartbreak; little sister Sachiko longs to be grown up; and uncle Ayano is slowly coming to terms with a failed relationship. Each character sees the world filtered through their own personal dreams; whether it’s Hajime chasing trains that always seem to elude him or Sachiko constantly being followed by a huge version of herself which compounds her feelings of inadequacy. Then there’s Ayano who finds himself unable to cross the bridge that leads to his ex-girlfriend’s shop. Only grandfather Akira, eccentric and perhaps a bit demented, lives for the moment, relishing each day as if it were a precious gift. And throughout it all there’s the ubiquitous cups of tea that seem to be poured at just the right moment in order to bring the family together, soothe a jangled nerve, or welcome a weary guest. Ishii saturates each frame with fantastic imagery and a passion for his characters which, although sincere, never takes itself too seriously. Through the long sunny days and soft moonlit nights one feels an underlying sense of harmony at work which gives each person the courage to hope. There is a wonderfully layered look to his film, with separate narrative strands taking place in the foreground, middle ground and background, often simultaneously. If things occasionally move at a glacial pace it is only to allow us ample time to smell the many roses along the way.

Tekkonkinkreet (Japan 2006) (8½):  Beautifully crafted anime about a streetwise orphan named Black and his innocent young sidekick White, who patrol the skies and alleyways of Treasure Town guarding their turf while eking out a living through petty theft.  When a powerful crime syndicate tries to take over the neighbourhood they’re in for more trouble than they bargained for as they come up against these two pint-sized ninjas and their superhuman abilities.  The gripping storyline is an interesting blend of film noir and Saturday morning cartoon that will appeal to older children yet contains enough depth and pathos to keep adult fans of the genre captivated.  Treasure Town itself is a colourful rat’s nest of garish attractions and decaying storefronts reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s vision of L.A. in “Blade Runner”.  Arias has captured the spirit of the original manga perfectly.  His intelligent script is further enhanced by some incredible animation and a very cool soundtrack of original music.  Highly recommended.

10 Cloverfield Lane (USA 2016) (7): This follow-up to 2008’s Cloverfield is not so much a sequel or prequel as it is an alternate companion piece. After suffering a freakish car accident, twenty-something Michelle wakes up chained to a wall in a concrete room with a badly sprained ankle and a few bruises. The room is just part of an elaborate bomb shelter manned by psychotic conspiracy theorist and former navy officer Howard (John Goodman?!) and his other “guest” Emmett who are both convinced that Doomsday has been visited upon America in the form of a devastating attack from either Russia or Mars. Believing she is the prisoner of a madman Michelle tries her damnedest to escape until some discomfiting evidence makes her realize that there may be more to Howard’s articulate rants than mere delusion. Circumstances, however, eventually force her to decide between two equally terrifying options: stay put with an increasingly agitated Howard or take her chances with what lies beyond the bunker’s double steel doors… Considering it was produced by J. J. Abrams, director Dan Trachtenberg’s riff on the monster movie is surprisingly restrained when it comes to things blowing up. Filmed almost entirely within the cluttered confines of a survivalist shelter his three-handed horror show relies instead on ratcheting tension and the occasional curveball to keep us off guard. While Howard, Emmett, and Michelle maintain a wary camaraderie in their underground hidey-hole there is just enough input from above to keep you on edge whether it be a mysterious rumbling or a frightening view through a plexiglass window. True to the genre it’s all supremely silly if you take the time to think about it, but it’s such an entertaining silliness delivered with so much deadpan seriousness that you’re willing to forgive and enjoy. Besides, it’s refreshing to see a resourceful female protagonist who doesn’t resort to flashing her boobs and screaming every time she’s in peril.

Tenebre (Italy 1982) (7): When an American mystery writer visits Rome on a book promotion tour his arrival sparks a series of grisly murders which bear an uncanny resemblance to the misogynistic slayings in his latest novel. Soon he is receiving fanatical phone calls and cryptic notes from the twisted killer as the pair of homicide detectives assigned to the case run around in circles. With everyone dying around him it’s only a matter of time before the author becomes the next victim, but who could the murderer be? As the red herrings are messily picked off one by one the plot becomes increasingly diabolical culminating in a dark and stormy showdown bursting with hysterical screaming, fountains of crimson gore and a double ending that had me rolling on the couch. Gloriously overdone in every way this is classic giallo from Dario Argento, one of the genre’s undisputed masters. Not for every taste to be sure; there are no cerebral plot devices here, precious little logic and the cast of B-list actors are outshone by the manic performance of one very persistent doberman. But if you like a bit of sex and guts to go with your cheese then light up the bong and hit “play”.

Ten Tiny Love Stories  (USA 2001) (2):  Did you ever have to sit and listen to some casual acquaintance drone on and on about all the boring minutiae of her insignificant life until all you could think of was tearing your eyeballs out of their sockets so at least you'd have an excuse to run away screaming? Watching this film is kind of like that only you have to go through it 10 times. Despite some good acting this is still the kind of syrupy treacle that gives chick flicks an even worse reputation than they already have. Run away, RUN AWAY!!!

Teorema (Italy 1969) (6): Viewing Pier Pasolini’s socio-religious allegory is akin to wading through a lake of molasses blindfolded—you’re never sure in which direction you’re heading and it takes an awfully long time. The bare bones story begins with a charismatic young man (Terence Stamp) who inexplicably arrives at the doorstep of a wealthy Italian family and proceeds to sleep with each and every occupant of the household, starting with the maid and working through brother, sister, mother, and father. Then, as abruptly as he arrived he leaves and in the psychic wake left by his sudden absence no one is ever the same again: one member gives in to temptations of the flesh while another achieves sainthood, one is consumed with artistic mania, one becomes catatonic, and the patriarch himself becomes a born again Marxist. We know Stamp’s character represents a god because Pasolini said so but surely the director, an avowed atheist, was not aiming for spiritual inspiration despite those religious flourishes which too often border on camp conceits. What then? Is this a dead sober parable on the transformative power of socialist ideology? The film certainly opens with enough communist rhetoric as a news crew questions the fate of the middle class while interviewing factory workers. Or is Pasolini taking a broad swipe at the fragility of the bourgeoisie when he shows one such family crumbling after a single brush with the “divine”? Off-putting in its use of apparently haphazard editing and penchant for flowery yet wooden performances and utilizing a strange musical score of sad jazz and godly choirs watered down so as to sound deliberately subliminal, this is a difficult movie to like let alone recommend. Furthermore, the years have only served to exaggerate its avant-garde eccentricities without shedding any further light on Pasolini’s motives. But flat tone and esoteric metaphors aside there is a captivating quality to his vision which welcomes analysis—however fruitless—and that final scene of a nude figure stumbling and screaming across a landscape of smoke and ashes has become iconic in arthouse circles. Irony of ironies, the movie actually received an award from the Catholic Film Office which was later rescinded after the Pope grumbled about it.

Terribly Happy (Denmark 2008) (10): One of the most ferociously biting films to come out of Denmark in years, "Terribly Happy" plays like a strange mash-up of David Lynch and the Coens. After suffering a nervous breakdown Robert, a Copenhagen cop, is assigned to a tiny backwater in the middle of nowhere, the kind of place where "nothing much happens". Only things do happen, bad things, and the nearby bog holds more secrets than anyone is willing to admit. When Robert gets involved with the abused wife of the local bully his brief brush with l'amour fou leads to an unforeseen tragedy which not only threatens to end his career permanently, but quite possibly his life as well. Director Henrik Genz's macabre little puzzler draws its inspiration from seemingly disparate genres; film noir, westerns, and the best of Euro avant-garde. His characters, at once believable and completely bizarre, seem to inhabit a world just slightly skewed from the norm where the most mundane of things carry tremendous import; a little girl's toy stroller becomes the voice of conscience, a summer storm breaks with heavenly wrath, and a simple game of cards costs a man his very soul. A strange and wonderful little flick that toys with our expectations and then delivers its final punchline with a wink and a smirk. The lead actor is a total hunk too....woof viking!

Terror is a Man (Philippines 1959) (6): Seaman William Fitzgerald finds himself stranded on a small island off the coast of South America where he becomes a guest of the mysterious Dr. Girard and his bullet-breasted wife Frances. Immediately warming up to his tropical surroundings (and Frances' ample charms) Fitzgerald settles in to wait for the next supply ship to arrive. But it isn't long before his relaxing respite turns into a fight for survival for the good doctor has been conducting an unwholesome experiment in his basement involving one very angry leopard man with a knack for escaping... Despite it's ultra-low budget this strange hybrid of "Frankenstein" and "The Island of Dr. Moreau" is surprisingly big on atmosphere and tension thanks to some creepy camerawork and a well-placed thunderstorm. Although the script is only a few notches above standard B-movie fare, director Gerardo de Leon compensates nicely with tight editing (the "creature on a rampage" scenes are chilling), unexpectedly sympathetic performances, and a pair of lead actors that are very easy on the eye. Furthermore, the monster itself is an intriguing mix of pitiful victim and repulsive creation, a nice departure from the usual assortment of neoprene ghouls we've come to expect from this type of film. A pleasant surprise all around even with the tacky "warning bells" which alert you to close your eyes during one particularly gruesome scene.

Terrorstorm  (USA 2006) (5):  The events of 911 have certainly polarized popular opinion and both sides have their outspoken mouthpieces. At first Alex Jones comes across as both passionate and well informed....he hits upon some key points and offers compelling evidence. And then the proselytizing begins......the rants and sheer speculation. He offers mountains of accusations, often supported by molehills of actual facts. I do believe there is far more to 911 then the official story......but "Terrorstorm" simply clouds an already contentious issue with even more innuendo and hearsay.

Terror Taxi (Korea 2000) (4): Cab driver Gil-Nam is not having a good day. His estranged girlfriend Yoo-Jung is being harassed by loan sharks, his best buddy is a heroin addict and, to top things off, he ends up dead after being forced off the road by a ghostly driver. But even the afterlife proves to be disappointingly anticlimactic for Gil; aside from the fact his taxi now contains a beating heart and runs on blood he finds himself back on the streets competing with other spectral cabbies for elusive customers, both living and dead. Deciding to get even with the ghost who killed him Gil enlists the aid of an outrageously eccentric group of fellow dead drivers as well as an enigmatic little girl who has a knack for showing up at just the right time. What follows is a series of frantically choreographed car chases, flying taxis, and unfortunate accidents; apparently ghost drivers don’t really care if their fares arrive alive and well. There is some Laurel & Hardy type comedy from a couple of clueless cops, a few unexceptional CGI effects, and a whole lot of crazed yelling before everything runs out of gas and coasts to a painfully slow stop. You’d be further ahead taking the bus.

Thank Your Lucky Stars (USA 1943) (7): Warner Brothers does its part for the war effort with this frothy musical comedy in which the barest of plots —- three showbiz wannabes try to finagle their way into an all-star charity revue —- provides the studio with an excuse to parade some of its biggest talent for a string of fun cameos. Highlights include Bette Davis getting slammed during a jitterbug routine, Errol Flynn proving he can neither sing nor dance, and Humphrey Bogart getting dressed down by an irate orchestra conductor. Olivia de Havilland, Ida Lupino, John Garfield, and Dinah Shore also make appearances. The song & dance routines range from rousing to pure camp ending with a stagey salute to Optimism while Vaudeville veteran Eddie Cantor’s dual roles (as himself and as a tour guide who looks like Eddie Cantor) provide just enough cornball humour to keep you smiling. Satisfying and wholesome, like a big old piece of American apple pie with a side of ham.

That Evening Sun (USA 2009) (8): 80-year old Abner Meecham decides he's had enough of the nursing home so he packs up his bags and heads back to the east Tennessee farm where he used to live. In the three months he was away however his son, a big city lawyer, has leased the land to Lonzo Choat the local drunk and all around failure who's determined to scrape enough cash together to buy the property outright so he can begin providing for his young family. Refusing to leave what he considers to be his land Abner moves into the rundown shack behind the main house, a former slaves' quarters, where he sets about being an increasingly irritating thorn in Lonzo's side. A series of escalating showdowns between the two men eventually lead to consequences both tragic and darkly comic. Themes of anger, regret and powerlessness abound in this quiet rural drama as both men rage against the forces that oppose them. While Abner refuses to accept the limitations imposed by illness and old age, Lonzo feels forever branded by the mistakes he's made in the past. Only their respective children seem to grasp the truth behind all the posturing; Paul Meecham's memories of growing up with his dad are a little different than Abner's while sixteen-year old Pamela Choat senses the true source of her father's destructive outbursts. A final fiery confrontation, followed by an unexpectedly subdued coda, thwarts our Hollywood expectations and brings everything to an appropriate, if bittersweet, conclusion. The cast is magnificent.

That Obscure Object of Desire (France 1977) (7): At a Seville train station middle-aged Parisian businessman Mathieu unceremoniously dumps a pail of water on a distraught woman much to the shock of the other passengers sharing his compartment. Then, during the long ride to Paris, he regales them with his sad tale of l’amour fou which led to the unfortunate scene they just witnessed… The first time Mathieu met eighteen-year old Conchita she was working as a domestic at his cousin’s sumptuous Paris apartment and he was immediately taken by her beauty and seductive manner. In the months that followed Mathieu used every social advantage at his disposal, from money to prestige, to woo her into bed. But Conchita thwarted his every attempt at seduction while at the same time stringing him along—encouraging his attentions one moment, spurning them the next, and disappearing for long stretches only to resurface when he least expected it. With Mathieu’s sexual frustration reaching the breaking point and Conchita showing no signs of abandoning her coquettish ways (or her virginity) things could only go from bad to worse. Meanwhile, almost as an aside, terrorism groups are blowing things up and a plague is descending upon Barcelona… In this his final film 77-year old director Luis Buñuel once again indulges his fascination with the intricacies of sexual passion and how it compares to everything from violence and civil unrest to economic inequality and class struggle. Mathieu holds all the privilege that comes with money and position, Conchita holds “that obscure object of desire” between her legs, and everyone else seems to be using either one or the other to get their own needs fulfilled. Of course there’s the usual jabs at religion (one terrorist cell is named after the baby Jesus and Conchita’s real name is “Concepcion”) and it is no coincidence that Mathieu’s spellbound audience on board the train is composed of a judge, a woman, and a psychologist who just happens to be a midget. But Buñuel’s genius is most evident in his decision to cast two women in the role of Conchita—one demure and sulking, the other fiery and unpredictable—who tag team their way in and out of Mathieu’s affections. Add to that some very clever conceits utilizing mirrors, bloodied lingerie, and emotional baggage suddenly made material and you have a mordantly funny, slightly sadomasochistic, satire that keeps your eyes rolling right up to its ludicrous finale.

That Touch of Mink (USA 1962) (6): Romantic sparks fly after a disastrous encounter on the streets of Manhattan introduces a twenty-something unemployed computer operator (Doris Day pushing forty) to a suave billionaire lothario (Cary Grant pushing sixty). But their mutual attraction is at cross purposes for Grant is just looking for a mistress he can pamper with fur coats and world cruises while Day has her vagina locked down tighter than Fort Knox and only a wedding ring will open those pearly gates. So what’s a professional virgin to do when the chance of a lifetime comes knocking but the wedding bells remain silent? Packed with more risqué innuendo than the usual Doris Day confection but with all the erotic tension of a Sunday afternoon bingo game at the nursing home, Delbert Mann’s frothy little comedy of sexual manners is so outdated that time has rendered it’s blatant sexism somehow quaint as Doris tries to prove she’s a worldly woman without busting her hymen in the process. “Oh, if only he would just hit me!” she laments after derailing Grant’s lavish attempt to get between her legs and he accepts his defeat like a gentleman causing her no end of guilt and embarrassment. Can you just guess how it’s all going to end? The candy-coloured postcard views of New York and Bermuda are dreamy and an amiable supporting cast manage to make Doris’ dilemma seem slightly less ridiculous—notably Audrey Meadows who gets all the best lines as her delightfully cynical roommate; Gig Young as Grant’s neurotic financial advisor and voice of conscience; and John Astin as the sleazy welfare officer who’d love to seize the Day himself. Surprise cameos from New York Yankee legends Micky Mantle, Roger Maris, and Yogi Berra too!

The Theory of Everything (UK 2014) (8): James Marsh’s overly romanticized biopic on the life of celebrated physicist Stephen Hawking, based on the autobiography of former wife Jane Hawking, is saved from the ordinary by a script which never descends to mawkishness and a pair of Oscar-nominated performances from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones (he won, she didn’t). It opens in 1963 when Hawking, then a 21-year old gangly geek with a lopsided grin and sense of humour to match, was just beginning to impress his Cambridge professors with some outrageous theories on time, the universe, and everything. This was also the time when two pivotal moments in his early life took place: he met his future wife Jane who was working on a PhD in medieval poetry at the time and he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease, a typically fatal degenerative condition which would eventually confine him to an electric wheelchair unable to speak or care for himself yet leave his remarkable mind untouched. Despite being given a scant two years to live Hawking beat the odds, raised a family, authored a number of books, and is still active in academic circles. Focusing more on Hawking’s private life—the challenges of a deteriorating body, the dissolution of his thirty-year marriage, his evolving personal philosophy—Marsh elicits amazing performances from his two leads. Eddie Redmayne went to great lengths when preparing for the title role and it shows in the subtleties of voice and gesture as he goes from loveable nerd to world renown theoretician, his bodily contortions almost painful to watch as the disease takes its toll. For her part Felicity Jones plays the faithful wife with a mind of her own to great effect, her initial adoration turning to something more sober as two years stretch to a dozen and more. Complimented by a beautiful musical score from Jóhann Jóhannsson this is a fitting homage to a most remarkable life.

There Was a Father (Japan 1942) (8): Unable to forgive himself after one of his students accidentally drowns during a class trip Shuhei Horikawa, a widowed highschool professor, turns his back on teaching and returns to his hometown with his young son Ryohei in tow. But supporting the two of them proves to be tougher than he thought so he enrolls the boy in a boarding school and heads off to Tokyo in search of more lucrative employment. The years pass, the father grows old, the son becomes a teacher himself, and the two look back on a relationship lived out mainly in letters and weekend visits. With his characteristically warm detachment, director Yasujirô Ozu examines the ways parents live through their children and one generation helps shape the next. Distant trains, wafting smoke, and stone monuments mark both the passage of time and the inexorable hand of fate, while some cleverly constructed camera angles speak of life’s continuity; father and son often reflecting each other’s movements while in the background a river flows or a monk patiently grinds wheat into flour. But Ozu is also quick to point out that sons are not mere copies of their fathers, a fact brought out with droll humour as we watch Shuhei lecture his class on the symmetrical nature of angles while years later Ryohei teaches his own class about the explosive nature of dynamite. Lastly, a wistful closing scene gently reminds us that sometimes children learn more from their parents’ mistakes...

They’re Watching (USA 2016) (7): A Los Angeles artist and her foreign boyfriend buy a rundown farmhouse in the Eastern European jerkwater of Moldova as part of an American home improvement television show. Six months later the show’s bitchy director and her team of slackers journey back to Moldova in order to see how the artist’s renovations are coming along, but what starts out as a simple follow-up TV episode turns deadly when the superstitious locals, convinced that the farmhouse is haunted, decide to destroy both it and anyone who tries to get in their way. Yet another one of those “filmed as it happens” horror movies in which jerky handheld shots and skewed nighttime angles are de rigueur and the jolts come fast and furious. Writer/directors Jay Lender and Micah Wright are well aware of the fact they are not the first to exploit this gimmick however so they wisely throw caution to the wind and take a tongue-in-bloody cheek approach with deadpan visuals and one-liners which don’t quite parody the genre yet still provide a couple of hearty laughs to offset all that shock and gore (and demonic frogs!). The big reveal can be seen coming a mile away but the pyrotechnical finale—a freaky cross between Ghostbusters and Blair Witch—is a must-see and America’s preoccupation with fame whores and reality television receives a diabolical twist.

They Were Expendable (USA 1945) (7): Starting with the attack on Pearl Harbour and ending with the fall of Bataan (both events reduced to bleak radio announcements), John Ford’s patriotic WWII epic concentrates on the role of the newly invented “Motor Torpedo Boats” or MTBs in the war against Japan. Small, sleek, and lethally equipped with mounted machine guns and torpedoes, the boats were deemed too tiny to be effective by the naval brass and were instead used as a glorified taxi and messenger service. But a few key victories changed all that and the little highly manoeuvrable ships (also called PT boats) earned their rightful place alongside the navy’s biggest destroyers. With Florida standing in for the Philippines the usual cast of loveably scruffy officers and baby-faced recruits is headed by Robert Montgomery as the unflappable commander, John Wayne as his hot-tempered second-in-command, and Donna Reed as the virginal nurse who represents everything the men are fighting for. A rather flat script is redeemed by some breathtaking battle scenes as Wayne and Montgomery guide their men through bullets and exploding waves while enemy aircraft strafe them from above. Understandably sympathetic to his characters, Ford avoids glorifying war for its own sake and instead concentrates on the brave (and simultaneously frightened) men faced with a grim task and determined to carry it out no matter what the consequences. A fine example of the war movie genre.

Thief (USA 1981) (7): Frank, a master jewel thief (James Caan), has spent most of his earning years in prison and is now intent on pulling off as many jobs as possible in order to pad his personal retirement fund, marry his girlfriend Jessie (Tuesday Weld), and finally lead the life of leisure he has so meticulously imagined. When a local Mafia kingpin approaches him regarding a very lucrative but highly complicated heist involving a fortune in diamonds locked away in an ultra high-security vault Frank decides this will be his final illegal endeavour before settling down with Jessie and their newly adopted son. But one does not make a deal with the devil and after the gangster goes back on his word Frank decides to even the score—even if it costs him everything, including his own life. Director/screenwriter Michael Mann’s highly atmospheric neo-noir thriller is an often muddled hodgepodge of dark psychodrama and even darker policier. Hiring actual cops and ex-cons as technical advisors Mann leaves his moral compass at home for it seems everyone in Frank’s world operates on threats and violence: the bad guys are beyond ruthless; the police punch first and ask questions later; and Frank himself is an angry confrontational loner prone to sudden outbursts. Pretty standard Charles Bronson fare with affected performances all around (Thief received several “Razzie” and “Stinkers” nominations). What saves Mann’s film from relative obscurity however is its keen sense of style and meticulous attention to detail. Shot in murky shades of blue with an intrusive electro soundtrack by Tangerine Dream, Thief’s perpetually rain-soaked neon landscapes call to mind Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner while the occasional foray into sunlit suburbia provides the necessary contrast between Frank’s grungy reality and domestic dreams. The high-tech burglary scenes themselves, involving actual tools of the trade, are fascinating.

The Thief (Russia 1997) (9): Born six months after his father was killed in the war, little Sanya never knew the man in person although he occasionally sees his ghost waving to him from a doorway or a passing train. Now, in 1952 at the age of six, Sanya and his mother Katya are riding the rails from an uncertain past towards an uncertain future when they meet Tolyan, a handsome and very charismatic army officer who takes them both under his wing (as well as taking Katya to bed). But as the three move from one dingy apartment building to another Katya’s domestic dreams quickly evaporate for despite his ample charms Tolyan is nothing like what he appears to be and his callous manipulative nature soon takes it’s toll on her, both mentally and physically, as well as the impressionable Sanya whose childish adoration of his new father figure clashes with Tolyan’s selfish indifference—his “lessons” on how to win through intimidation and violence jarring against the boy’s gentle personality. Of course tragedies are inevitable and as a weary middle-aged Sanya narrates his own life story we see how cruelties, both small and large, shape not only individual lives but, by inference, entire societies as well. Writer/director Pavel Chukhray has accomplished what only a select few have ever done—he’s made a genuinely authentic film about childhood trauma and by casting diminutive actor Mikhail Filipchuk as Sanya he also found the perfect vehicle for telling it with those wide eyes and a perpetual sense of puzzlement mirroring the adult confusion around him. The political statements are there of course but Chukhray keeps them subtle—a tattoo of Stalin over Tolyan’s heart; wealthy party members inhabiting the upper floors of a building while “cooperative apartments” are consigned to the basement—and they never overshadow the family tragedy playing out in the foreground. Sanya’s evolution from innocent child to shattered adolescent and finally haunted adult, told simply and without bombast or unwarranted drama, showcases one of the more genuinely heartbreaking rites of passage in modern cinema.

The Thief Lord (UK 2006) (5): Fed up with their respective foster homes, newly orphaned Prosper and his kid brother Bo break out and head for the open road. Pursued by a pair of rotten relatives and a bumbling private eye the little fugitives make a beeline for the grand canals and serpentine alleyways of Venice, a city much revered by their late mother who believed it was tinged with magic. It is here they fall in with Scipio, the infamous Thief Lord and his band of diminutive pickpockets and purse snatchers who've formed a family of sorts amidst the ruins of an abandoned theatre. At first reluctant to make a living dealing in stolen goods Prosper eventually befriends this ragtag band of fellow unwanted children until a shocking confession from Scipio threatens to tear the little flock asunder. In the meantime Bo begins seeing fantastical beings winking at him from pedestals, fountains and waterways, creatures which may have something to do with a magical carousel his mother once told him about. Could the enchanted carousel be here in Venice? Could it have something to do with the enigmatic Count who has hired the children to steal a most peculiar artifact? And will the mystery be solved before Prosper and Bo are apprehended and dragged back to England? Based on Cornelia Funke's bestselling book director Richard Claus presents us with an uncomplicated world where excruciatingly precious moppets wage gentle warfare against a population of big fat stupid adults. It's a saccharine place of comic book malice (hence no dramatic tension), happy endings and warm fuzzy hugs all around; the cinematic equivalent of a Rice Krispie square. Although the touches of fantasy are well played and the Venetian locations beautiful (why do the locals all speak with a clipped London accent?) this one remains strictly for the single-digit crowd.

Thieves’ Highway (USA 1949) (7): Hellbent on revenge, Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) drives a big rig from Fresno to San Francisco in order to settle a score with the crooked produce wholesaler (Lee J. Cobb) who robbed Nick’s truck-driver father and left him a cripple. But when he arrives in the city he’s plunged into a dockside netherworld of corruption, menace, and carnal temptation in the shape of a worldly prostitute (Valentina Cortese) with a weak spot for virtuous men. Not quite sombre enough to wear the noir moniker comfortably, Jules Dassin’s quintessentially American melodrama pitting good against evil under dark California skies is less of a crime thriller—the police make only a cursory appearance—than it is a noble quest with Conte’s rickety flatbed standing in for a white steed, a fuming Cobb doing a fine dragon imitation, and Cortese’s resourceful streetwalker a not quite distressed damsel. Comedy great Jack Oakie is perfectly cast as a gruff trucker with a conscience, his lovable mug adding a touch of humanity to all those archetypes. The action is sometimes stilted, the dialogue ranges from ad-libbed naturalism to genre clichés, but the moral fine points are left appropriately grey and the wholly predictable ending makes you smile just the same. Very watchable.

The Thing (USA 2011) (6): The CGI effects may be slicker, and the cast of big burly Norwegians easier on the eye, but this inferior prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic plays more like a weak rehash than an original vision. American paleobiologist Kate Lloyd arrives in Antarctica at the request of a Norwegian scientific expedition and gets far more than she bargained for. It seems the Scandinavians have uncovered an enormous prehistoric spaceship and its one lone occupant, a vaguely malevolent shape firmly encased in a block of ice. Taking the frozen specimen back to their makeshift lab the Norwegians unwittingly allow it to thaw only to discover that it wasn’t really dead at all and now they have to contend with one big angry E.T. equipped with killer claws, a bottomless gullet and a very nasty ability to mimic any life form it comes in contact with. Faced with the prospect that any one of their numbers could in fact be a “thing” in human guise the survivors must find a way to flush it out while at the same time avoid becoming its next meal. Director Matthijs van Heijningen tries to copy Carpenter’s original mood with dark claustrophobic interior scenes set against a backdrop of bleak mountains and endless snowfields; he even plagiarizes the opening title shot and much of the original musical score. However, although the creature sequences themselves are gruesomely effective as it morphs and melts into grotesque parodies of the humans it has ingested, he has nothing new to say. In fact, several key scenes seem to be copied directly from Carpenter’s film while the alien ship’s interior appears remarkably similar to the one found in Ridley Scott’s Alien. In the end we are left with a few jolts, some nightmarish visuals, and an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. At least the dog escaped...

Things To Come (UK 1936) (8):  H. G. Wells’ screenplay covers 100 years of “future history” starting with a catastrophic global war in 1936 (WWII actually began just three years later) through the decades of barbarism and petty fiefdoms which followed civilization’s collapse (the dark ages of the ‘60s) and, finally, the rise of a utopian society ruled benevolently by a cadre of scientists and philosophers.  But even as mankind’s shiny new cities rise from the ashes, peace is once more threatened by a growing movement of disaffected Luddites...  This is an ambitious film with impressive special effects that must have been considered breathtaking 70 years ago.  Furthermore there is a wonderfully retro feel to the elaborate set designs which combine elements of both ancient Rome and ‘30s art deco.  But beyond the ill-fitting togas and flashy gizmos there is some very serious sermonizing by the great author himself.  Wells leaves no doubt as to where his sympathies lie....scientific inquiry and rational thought are essential to our survival as a species.  It comes as no surprise then that church steeples are noticeably missing from his vision of an advanced society.  The film certainly has its theatrical moments, after all Raymond Massey was never known for his subtlety, but considering when it was made “Things to Come” is a classic of speculative fiction.

13 Ghosts (USA 1960) (5): William Castle, the P. T. Barnum of Saturday afternoon matinees, had a gift for combining razzle-dazzle showmanship with cheap gimmickry and this ludicrous haunted house story is one of his more infamous achievements. When cash-strapped Professor Cyrus Zorba inherits a spooky old mansion from his eccentric uncle Plato he believes his money woes are finally at an end. Ignoring the warnings from his late uncle's solicitor (apparently the old man had a penchant for all things occult and made a hobby out of collecting angry spirits) Cyrus moves his family into the crumbling estate only to discover that he's inherited far more than an old house full of dusty furniture. Armed with his uncle's last invention, a pair of goggles that lets the wearer see ghosts, Cyrus finds his family under siege from a variety of papier mâché ghouls and flying groceries. But what is the message uncle Plato is trying to deliver from beyond the grave? And what's with all those hundred dollar bills on the carpet? This turkey is crammed with so many horror movie cliches and cheap shocks you get the impression it was written by a couple of boy scouts around a campfire. Yet it is precisely this naivete, coupled with some nicely skewed camerawork and stagey lighting, that lends it a certain charm; you just know this would have given you nightmares when you were seven and that's part of the fun! Besides, a sly cameo by the great Margaret Hamilton will leave you chuckling. NB: This film was originally presented in "Illusion-O" wherein theatre patrons were give a pair of "ghost viewers" which allowed them to see the onscreen phantoms by looking through coloured lenses. Now how cool is that?!

The Thirteenth Floor (USA 1999) (7): In 1990s Los Angeles elderly professor Hannon Fuller and his business partner Douglas Hall are close to completing their greatest achievement—a wholly immersive virtual reality world modelled on southern California circa 1937 which allows users to interact with computer-generated characters so lifelike that they are indistinguishable from actual human beings. However, just as the two men are applying the final touches to their creation Fuller is brutally murdered and Hall is forced to enter the faux L.A. program in order to unmask the killer. But all is not as it seems in this computerized landscape for even though the evidence he uncovers proves to be unsettling including the sudden appearance of Fuller’s mysterious daughter, Hall uncovers a further truth which will literally rock his world. Josef Rusnak’s film, based on a 1964 science fiction bestseller, takes an already far-fetched premise and stretches it to near ludicrous dimensions with all the requisite high tech bells and whistles in tow—the “immersion couch” which allows scientists to enter the V.R. program is a riot of disco lasers and neon readouts. But he presents it all with such stylized panache—tough-talking detectives, sexy femme fatale, and a perpetual thunderstorm overhead—that the term “cyber-noir” suddenly springs to mind. Add to this the fact that lead actor Craig Bierko is just too gorgeous for his own good and you have an old-fashioned sci-fi thriller with a clever, if somewhat glib, twist at the end.

30 Days of Night  (USA 2007) (7):  A simple, occasionally clever, rehash of plot devices taken from every zombie and vampire movie ever made and all played out in a setting borrowed right from Carpenter’s “The Thing”.  Slade adds nothing new to the mythos but he bombards the screen with so much razzle-dazzle that you could almost mistake it for something fresh.  From the giddy camerawork to the well-choreographed action sequences this is one of the more entertaining no-brainers I’ve seen in some time.  I may even rent the inevitable sequel.

This Must Be the Place (Italy 2011) (8): With his shock of black hair, pancake make-up that highlights rather than conceals his haggard features, and halting childlike falsetto, middle-aged “Cheyenne” (Sean Penn never fails to amaze me) looks like a wizened and emasculated Edward Scissorhands instead of the 80s goth rock sensation he once was. Despite being adored by his loving wife and revered by a new generation of well-fed little nihilists, Cheyenne basically spends his days shuffling listlessly around his Irish mansion on the outskirts of Dublin regarding the world through eyes that have already seen too much and doling out little nuggets of naïve wisdom at the most unexpected times. Now shouldering the effects of a lifetime of excesses not to mention the guilt over a pair of fans who took his fatalistic lyrics too literally, the former crooner exists in a state of perpetual ennui, abandoned by his mournful muse and out of touch with the world at large. But when he travels back to New York to attend the funeral of his estranged father whom he hadn’t talked to in thirty years he realizes just how much he’s really lost. A former inmate at Auschwitz (he told his young son the tattoo on his arm was a “phone number”), Cheyenne’s dad spent his entire life trying to track down the prison guard who once humiliated him seventy years ago and is now an old man hiding somewhere in the States. Taking up his father’s quest Cheyenne begins a Quixotic journey into a somewhat clichéd American heartland where chance encounters with other hurting souls ultimately deflect his goal from revenge to something altogether different. Director Paolo Sorrentino again displays his knack for the visual and narrative pyrotechnics which made 2008’s Il Divo such a quirky success. His stylized characterizations of conflicted Dubliners and stereotyped Americans (an avid gun enthusiast explains the joy of killing with impunity) are offset by gorgeous images of spacious skies and amber waves of grain. Although not as tight as Divo and a bit too obvious in its message—a young boy’s fear turns to courage, a distraught mother’s longing for her lost son mirrors Cheyenne’s situation, and a chance encounter with a buffalo (huh?) says something about purity of vision—This Must Be the Place still proves to be an addictive watch. And the soundtrack is wonderful…look for a cameo by the now snowy-haired David Byrne!

This Sporting Life  (UK 1963) (9):  Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts are perfectly matched in this bleak working class drama about a well-meaning lout vainly trying to rise above his station in life.  When a brash young miner is given the opportunity to make it big as a rugby star his reckless pursuit of fame and fortune threatens everything he ever valued, including the tenuous relationship he’d been forming with his widowed landlady.  Harris’ character is a complex contradiction of arrogant cockiness and painful vulnerability that brings to mind a young Marlon Brando.  Roberts portrays the grieving widow  as a woman who yearns to be loved yet cannot let go of her husband’s memory, terrified to get close to another man lest he leave her as well.  Their scenes together swing wildly from cold civility to frustrated outrage to a desperately intense passion.  Anderson’s gritty B&W tragedy is beautifully filmed and its central story of a beleaguered Everyman raging against the forces that oppose him is ageless.

Three Days of the Condor (USA 1975) (8): Robert Redford is Joseph Turner, a low-level CIA operative specializing in scouring bestsellers for hidden military secrets who returns from lunch one day to find his co-workers murdered; victims of a professional assassin squad. Suspecting this was an inside job and he is next on the list, Turner finds himself on the run not only from the mysterious hitmen but his own people as well. Commandeering his way into the apartment of an unwilling accomplice (Faye Dunaway) Turner tries to stay alive long enough to solve the mystery as to why he's being targeted in the first place. Although the "high tech" 70s gadgetry may be amusingly quaint by today's standards, and the tacked-on romance between Redford and Dunnaway more of a box office ploy than integral plot device, this tale of covert machinations and paranoia within the American Halls of Power still packs enough of a wallop to make contemporary conspiracy theorists squeal. Furthermore, the film's tense denouement in which Redford's character has a verbal showdown with his immediate superior on a crowded New York sidewalk bears an eerie resemblance to today's headlines. Well done!

300 (USA 2006) (8): Zack Snyder creates a glorious CGI vision of ancient Greece in this rewrite of the Battle of Thermopylae that is devoid of historical accuracy but heavy on the comic book gore. Through the use of post production wizardry he melds live action with virtual sets to give us a film whose washed out colours and golden lustre recall the graphic novel on which it is based. When Spartan king Leonidas (Gerard Butler, not even trying to mask his Scottish brogue) finds his meagre forces grossly outnumbered by a vast Persian army led by the elaborately effeminate King Xerxes, he and his men defy the odds and hold their own for three days before finally being defeated; a defeat which was later avenged at Plataea. Snyder brings the heat of battle to vivid life with endless fountains of blood, dripping swords and graphic decapitations. He also employs a strong element of the fantastic as grotesque creatures and mythical beasts threaten our heroes from every side only to be defeated in the most outrageous examples of military hyperbole; yet there is a certain grandiose nobility to the proceedings that demands to be taken seriously. This is a testosterone-drenched fantasy epic overflowing with bellicose male posturing and endless vistas of half-naked beefcake; Butler looks especially edible with his full beard and little furry jockstrap. Part adolescent reverie, part macho wet dream, and wholly entertaining.

300: Rise of an Empire (USA 2014) (7): Taking place before, during, and after the action in 300 (also reviewed here) Noam Murro’s grand comic book of a film again sacrifices historical accuracy for a heady overdose of flesh and blood. Godlike Xerxes, king of the Persians, has just defeated Leonidas, king of the Spartans, and is now setting his sights on conquering the remaining Greek city-states. Only general Themistokles (Aussie hunk Sullivan Stapleton) stands between him and final victory and the plucky Athenian is not about to give up without a fight. But can Themistokles convince all of Greece, including Leonidas’ headstrong widow Queen Gorgo (Game of Thrones bitch extraordinaire Lena Headey), to join forces in time to defeat the Persian navy? In the end it all boils down to a series of strategic face-offs between the Athenian and his equally determined female counterpart, Persian commander Artemisia, thus setting the stage for one epic naval battle after another. Filmed with the same glossy CGI bravura as its predecessor, Rise of an Empire certainly looks breathtaking enough with cameras swooping birdlike over warships as they ride gargantuan waves and fountains of blood gush, spurt, and explode across the screen. Murro’s computer generated vistas of ancient Greece seem lifted right from storybook plates with an impossibly large moon hovering over scenes of carnage and a mythical Athens filled with sunlit temples and golden fields of wheat—he even throws in a few monstrous sea serpents just to remind us that we’re essentially watching an adult cartoon come to life. And then there’s the endless parade of ridiculously gorgeous men wearing little more than miniskirts and loincloths flexing and strutting in front of the lens before disembowelling one another with their long, hard, throbbing swords. It’s all nonsense and make-believe of course, and the grandiose dialogue too often dips into cliché and hyperbole, but it still packs a dramatic wallop and the visuals are superb.

3 Nuts in Search of a Bolt (USA 1964) (2): Writer/director/co-star Tommy Noonan embarrasses both his untalented cast and himself with this silly juvenile attempt at “adult” comedy. The infamous Mamie Van Doren stars as Saxie Symbol, a man-hating stripper living in a palatial L.A. mansion with her two equally damaged roommates; an alcoholic car salesman and a narcissistic male model. In an attempt to deal with their personal issues the three mismatched oddballs have been engaging in group therapy with very little success but, unable to afford separate counseling, they are stuck in a rut. And then Saxie hits upon the perfect solution. Hiring a marginally employed method actor for $20/week plus room and board, the three first acquaint him with their individual neuroses and then have him begin paying regular visits to the world famous psychiatrist, Dr. Myra Von, where he pretends to be the disturbed “Mr. Smith”, a man suffering from three distinct sets of personality disorders. Thus three people get personalized counseling for the price of one. The ruse backfires of course when Von, convinced that her newest patient is a “multiple schizophrenic”, arranges to have their sessions broadcast via closed circuit television to a host of mental health specialists around the world. Things then go from bad to worse when these private broadcasts go public thanks to a screw-up at the studio and Mr. Smith becomes an overnight sensation... If the plot sounds hare-brained, its presentation is even more so. From Van Doren’s naïve sex kitten shtick to Dr. Von’s outrageously fey male secretary Henry (female impersonator T.C. Jones), no one in this sophomoric mess can act causing the whole thing to come across with all the conviction of a highschool drama class reading their lines for the first time. The choppy editing seems more haphazard than planned and Mamie’s tawdry T&A scenes (filmed in lurid colour) are so blatantly gratuitous they’re laughable; the “beer bath” sequence in which she squeals and gyrates in a tub full of sudsy brew had me in tears for all the wrong reasons. I suppose one could look at this flick with a certain degree of irony, after all it was filmed long before the term “reality television” was ever coined, but its poor production values and overall awfulness precludes even that small credit. Just file it under Frothy Fromage, right next to 1963’s Promises! Promises!

Three On A Match (USA 1932) (6): “Three on a match means one will die soon...” So goes the old adage as three former classmates light up during an impromptu reunion. There’s Vivian who attended a private highschool and is now a terribly depressed trophy wife; Ruth, class valedictorian now a meek office drone fresh out of business college; and Mary, irrepressible tomboy and all-around slut who went on to become a chorus girl after a brief stint in reform school. The “death” which eventually follows their ill-fated smokes has as much to do with shattered virtue as it does with physical demise for one woman will fall from grace, one will redeem herself, and one will get stuck with babysitting duty. A tired and predictable morality play with a cloyingly sweet ending (the child actor is pretty good, I must admit) but with the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Joan Blondell and Bette Davis who can resist?

The Three Stooges (USA 2012) (7): When the Sisters of Mercy orphanage faces bankruptcy due to their destructive antics, oldest residents Moe, Larry, and Curly decide to hit the road in an effort to raise the eight-hundred thousand dollars needed to keep it solvent. Of course being the Three Stooges they no sooner leave the driveway when everything that could possibly go wrong does just that—they become involved in a murder plot, wreak havoc in a hospital, and Moe ends up becoming a regular on Jersey Shore (oh sweet irony!) But with only days left before their beloved orphanage is forced to close its doors forever the still penniless Stooges are going to need a miracle or two…or nine or ten. For fans of the original blockheads this will prove to be a reunion of sorts for leads Sean Hayes (Larry), Will Sasso (Curly) and Chris Diamantopoulos (Moe) not only bear an uncanny resemblance to their namesakes but their zany choreographed slapstick is bang on, right down to the cartoon sound effects and beloved catchphrases (“I’m a victim of circumstance!”). Plus, there’s a few side-splitting sequences that would never have made it past the censors seventy years ago: an exploding fart joke left me choking while a piss fight in a nursery featuring Moe and Curly in full drag went beyond the pale. And casting Larry David as crusty old Sister Mary-Mengele was a stroke of comedic genius. Even a somewhat lame “Kids, Don’t Try This At Home” service announcement by directors Bobby and Peter Farrelly leaves you with a smile after you realize those hunky models are not the Farrelly brothers. The hip-hop closing credits are pretty cool too. A nice bit of inspired stupidity which pays a skewed homage to an era of comedy long since past.

They Came Back [Les Revenants] (France 2004) (7): Dressed in slacks and plain house frocks, a ragtag crowd of the newly departed shuffle past the cemetery gates, their blank faces and dazed eyes making them look as if they’ve just been jolted awake from a particularly deep sleep. So begins Robin Campillo’s most unorthodox low-keyed film which adamantly refuses to be a zombie flick, offering up a poignant exercise in “What if…” instead. On a grand scale the sudden appearance of seventy million extra citizens (thirteen thousand in one town alone) threatens economic stability as they must be clothed, fed, and either employed or put back on the pension payroll much to the resentment of those already struggling from paycheque to paycheque. But it is on the personal level that Campillo’s tall tale excels admirably with former friends, family, and sweethearts now faced with the presence of those they already laid to rest both physically and emotionally whether it’s a grieving couple whose relationship is threatened by the return of their six-year old son or a guilt-ridden girlfriend who now finds herself shadowed by a formerly deceased lover. And to make matters worse the dead themselves have changed—although they retain fragments of their former memories they remain oddly withdrawn and seemingly out of sync with the living, behaving like idiots savants at best and reticent conspirators at worst as the film slowly builds towards an unexpectedly emotional finale laced with suspense and pathos. Whether taken as a metaphor for Europe’s ambivalent relationship with its teeming population of immigrants or a cautionary tale on the pitfalls of wish fulfillment, They Came Back’s clever script and downplayed presentation will have you thinking long after you’ve returned the DVD.

The Third Man (UK 1949) (10): Lured by the prospect of a lucrative job offer, American author Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) travels to Vienna in order hook up with his friend, successful entrepreneur and ex-pat Harry Lime. Upon arriving however Martins is shocked to discover Lime has just died in a rather suspicious traffic accident and everyone he talks to, including the local British military authority, provides him with a different account as to what happened. Teaming up with Lime’s former lover Anna, Martins is determined to solve the mystery of Lime’s death—but the truth he uncovers is far from what he expected. Shot in Vienna itself, a partitioned city still reeling from WWII, director Carol Reed’s moody and highly stylized noir thriller is a riot of canted shadows and damp cobblestones where suspicious stares peer from behind shuttered windows and sinister footsteps echo down every alleyway. Reed taps into the post war zeitgeist of weary pessimism with Cotten swimming upstream against a current of damning revelations even as he tries to forge some sort of intimacy with a grieving Anna. A masterpiece of light and sound, his use of oblique camera angles turn the Austrian capital into a tilted rat’s maze in which even the smallest noise reverberates with menace. A climactic chase through the city’s underground sewers, a masterful combination of onsite locations and soundstage recreations, is one of the most revered sequences in the history of film; a triumph of closed space cinematography and seamless editing. No wonder it appears on so many “best of” lists.

Thunderball  (UK 1965) (6):  Another adventure featuring James Bond, spydom's favourite psychopathic horndog.  This time he’s shooting and screwing his way through the Bahamas in an effort to locate a pair of armed nuclear missiles that have gone astray. The action is appropriately cartoonish and Sean Connery is certainly very easy on the eyes but I'm afraid I just can't suspend my disbelief long enough to really enjoy these films and instead find myself wishing S.P.E.C.T.R.E. would succeed just once. Who needs Miami anyway?

The Thursday Club (USA 2005) (5):  Forty years after he was whacked on the head by an Oakland police officer during a Viet Nam protest, George Csicsery returns to the scene of the crime to see if he can find the cop who swung the baton so long ago.  His research leads him to the “Clam Bucket”, a local eatery where a group of retired cops gather every Thursday to reminisce about the good ol’ days and catch up on current events.  By allowing them to tell their own stories Csicsery attempts to give us a sense of how the demonstrations of the 60s appeared to those who stood on the other side of the barricades.  It would appear that the generation gap was not so wide after all as we hear these men talk about their experiences during WWII and their personal views on Viet Nam, some of them even had sons serving in the army at the time.  It’s certainly hard to imagine these genial old codgers beating up hippies and dragging them off to jail......it’s also hard to imagine this clean cut middle-aged filmmaker as having been one such hippy.  But appearances can be deceiving and time lessens the impact of events.  What we are left with then is a series of affable interviews that don’t really go anywhere, nor do they add up to anything other than a bunch of personal opinions and private recollections.  I suppose I was looking for some definitive insights into that most confusing of decades.  I should have known better.

Tickets (Italy 2005) (7): Three great directors give us three interrelated stories, all of which unfold on a train bound for Rome. An aging professor is returning home from a medical conference in Germany where he was smitten by a beautiful younger woman he met only briefly. Lost in a series of pleasant reveries about what might have been he begins to compose a rambling letter to her, a task that causes him to review his own life. Meanwhile, in another car, a truculent older woman has a series of ridiculous arguments with some fellow passengers while her handsome 25-year old assistant (boy-toy?) sneaks off in order to chat up a sweet young girl from his past. When the inevitable blow-up happens between the two of them she must face some uncomfortable truths about herself. Lastly, a group of coarse but well-meaning Scottish soccer lads on their way to a world cup game are having no luck whatsoever when it comes to tickets and chicks. But when fate places them in an ethical quandary involving a family of Albanian refugees they find themselves having to make one of the most difficult decisions of their young lives. I love the metaphor of a train; it’s a perfectly contained microcosm traveling along a preordained track yet there is always room for the unexpected. Here Kiarostami, Loach, and Olmi use it as a vehicle to explore the natures of truth and reality, conscience and responsibility. The final destination may be tied up a little too neatly, but the journey is still worth the price of a ticket.

The Tillman Story (USA 2010) (8): In April of 2004 US army corporal Pat Tillman was killed in Afghanistan when his convoy was reportedly ambushed by the Taliban. Only 27 years old, Tillman was declared a national hero and both politicians and army brass wasted no time in eulogizing the determined young man who walked away from a multi-million dollar NFL contract in order to serve his country. But the lack of solid information regarding her son’s death coupled with some glaring inconsistencies caused his mother, Dannie, to question exactly how and why Pat died that day. Wading through mountains of bureaucratic red tape, first hand testimonies, and forensic reports—much of it redacted by army censors—a deeply disturbing picture emerged which raised serious questions regarding Pat’s death. That a cover-up had taken place was obvious, but the extent of what really happened would take Dannie and her family on a journey they had never imagined. A solid and well-informed documentary by Amir Bar-Lev about a most amazing man—a world class athlete and risk-taker as well as a quiet, well-read, introvert—who, in death, was thrust into a spotlight he had always tried to avoid. That his death was tragic is a given, but how that tragedy was later twisted into a propaganda tool for Bush’s America is both infuriating and disheartening. News reels, home movies, and a perfect mix of ad-libbed talking heads bring Pat’s story home, but Bar-Lev’s film ultimately rests on the shoulders of Dannie, a most tenacious advocate who emerges as a force to be reckoned with.

Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie (USA 2012) (7): If you’re a fan of their TV show you’re going to love the movie! If not, stop reading now. After blowing one billion dollars of mob money financing a three-minute movie (there were “other” expenses), wannabe actors-cum-entrepreneurs Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim hightail it to the American midwest where they take on the task of revitalizing the S’wallow Hills shopping mall. Long since fallen into a state of disrepair, the mall is now home to vagrants and wolves but Tim and Eric have a plan if only they can avoid the mob long enough to see it through. Chockfull of their signature gross-out humour, politically incorrect passages (no, you should never use a child for skeet shooting) and juvenile sight gags (a visit to “Reggie’s Used Toilet Paper Warehouse” is…umm…convincing) this is definitely not one for the sensitive types. And just to ensure an “unrated” DVD version there are a few added scenes to push that envelope just a little further: while a distraught Eric receives a healing scat bath at the Shrim Spiritual Centre, Tim cheats with his 65-year old girlfriend at the mall sex shop where they spend the night plugging every orifice they can find. A host of not-so-surprising cameos from the likes of Zach Galifianakis, Will Ferrell, and a really really ill John C. Reilly (best death scene ever) raise the star power a few notches while Tim and Eric’s uncanny ability to make “stupid” palatable smooths over some of the film’s drier spots. Love it or hate it, personally I had tears in my eyes.

Timecrimes (Spain 2007) (7): Hector and his wife Clara are busy setting up their new home in the country when he notices some strange goings-on in the bushes across the road. Armed with a pair of binoculars he sets off to investigate while his wife, unaware of his concerns, takes the car into town. In the forest he comes upon the body of a nude woman who may or may not be dead and is momentarily taken aback until a madman wrapped in bloody bandages and sporting a mean pair of scissors makes a sudden appearance. Fleeing for his life, Hector eventually stumbles upon a mysterious laboratory complex hidden amongst the trees where a most unusual experiment is taking place... What follows is a surprisingly lucid and engaging story involving time travel and altering the future that throws a volley of paradoxical curve balls our way while piling on the suspense. Vigalondo keeps a firm directorial grip on the proceedings, doling out just enough clues to keep you hooked while softening some of the plot’s more illogical elements with a darkly twisted humour. It’s a temporal Frankenstein story that’s sure to lead to some interesting discussions afterwards, but to say more would be a disservice. Keep your eyes opened!

Time Out [L’emploi du Temps](France 2001) (9): To the casual observer Vincent Renault is a man on the rise. Having resigned from a prestigious consulting company he is now gainfully employed by the U.N. where he helps emerging African nations become financially self-sufficient. With a gorgeous home outside Paris, a small pied-à-terre in Geneva and a loving family to boot, what more could a man want? The trouble is it’s all a lie. Vincent was actually fired from his first job, and rather than tell anyone the humiliating truth he has fabricated an entire alternate life; while his wife believes his long absences from home are due to work obligations he is actually spending his time reading newspapers on a park bench, haunting office buildings in his shabby suit and tie, and sleeping in his car. As his finances begin to run dry Vincent hits a new low; conning money from friends and family alike under the pretense of investing it on the sly in a foolproof banking scheme. Just as his fragile house of cards threatens to come crashing down on his head a guardian angel enters Vincent’s life in the form of a shady businessman who promises him a lucrative way out of the mess he’s created. But all things come with a cost attached to them and Vincent’s carefully crafted deception may very well carry the biggest price tag of all. Laurent Cantet’s piercing character study of one lost soul’s pitiful ploy to maintain the illusion of material success to the exclusion of all else plays with all the force of a classical tragedy. It’s not that Vincent is a bad person, or even a particularly unlikeable one, for in him we see elements of ourselves; the need to belong, to be valued, and to know one’s niche in the scheme of things. Even an ersatz rat race is preferable to the existential limbo in which Vincent finds himself, where board meetings seem to mock him from behind glass doors and a bucolic alpine retreat provides a cold comfort as false as his fabricated life. Shot under overcast skies with a palette of shadowy blues and pallid whites it appears as if Vincent’s entire world has been drained of substance while the film’s glacial pacing slowly builds towards a powerful final scene of reproachful stares and one last desperate fugue. A terse coda may seem tacked on but upon closer inspection it carries within it an intense irony which thwarts any notion of a pat Hollywood ending.

To Have and Have Not (USA 1944) (6): About the only thing going for Howard Hawks’ generic wartime romance, a gutted adaptation of Hemingway’s novel, is the fact that it first introduced Humphrey Bogart to Lauren Bacall. He plays Harry Morgan, an American expat running a fishing charter out of Martinique; she plays Marie Browning, a small time thief and full-time femme fatale none too eager to return to her own home in New York. Sparks fly when they first meet followed quickly by bullets when Morgan reluctantly takes an assignment with the French underground who are trying to topple the island’s fascist regime. Whatever screen chemistry there exists between the two stars is strictly by the book however with Bogart’s studied nonchalance brushing up against Bacall’s wooden sultriness—their snappy exchanges, including the now famous “You know how to whistle, don’t you…?”, appearing forced and clichéd as they light one suggestive cigarette after another. An unsung Walter Brennan gives the best performance as the alcoholic sidekick following Morgan around like a puppy with the DT’s while Dan Seymour’s smarmy French inspector Renard is so godawful he could have served as a template for Seller’s Clouseau. However, the soundstage views of Martinique and rear-projected high seas mayhem are nicely done.

Tokyo Sonata (Japan 2008) (6): Beginning with a portentous rainstorm and wrapping up to the gentle strains of Debussy, writer/director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s jet black comedy (a very Japanese take on Laurent Cantet’s Time Out ) uses one family’s financial downfall to illuminate issues of Japan’s outdated patriarchy and the dehumanizing face of economic downsizing. When his company moves their headquarters to China’s cheaper pastures forty-six year old salaryman Ryûhi Sasaki finds himself out of work for the first time in his life. Unable to admit his failure to wife Megumi or their two children he instead maintains the pretence of employment while actually spending his days at a local park where the jobless congregate like destitute zombies—the newly laid-off still wearing their suits and ties while the longterm inhabitants sport rags in various states of decomposition. Silently suffering Megumi, in the meantime, continues to wring whatever meaning she can out of her role of wife and mother while wishing that she could wake up and discover her life thus far was just a dream. As for the boys, a confrontation at school teaches youngest son Kenji that truths can hurt as much as lies while older slacker Takashi is trying to inject purpose into his life by joining the military and fighting someone else’s war. Over the course of several days Kurosawa will have his characters run, stumble, or drive their way to the end of the road (literally or figuratively) until a seismic shift in the Sasaki household brings them all home once again: Ryûhi will suffer multiple humiliations in his search for validation (read: employment) before his life is dramatically rebooted; Megumi will experience a beachside epiphany after spending the night with Japan’s most inept psychopath; Kenji will discover that honesty, no matter how painful, is still the best policy even if lying actually gets things done; and Takashi will fade into a nationalistic metaphor. A grandiose cinematic vision shackled by an uneven tone (slapstick, pathos, and irony make for uncomfortable bedfellows) and a few overly staged tangents (Megumi’s night of madness seemed like it was lifted from a different film altogether). But the evocative cinematography is nicely done—a storm-obscured window dominates one frame while a sobbing character is picked out in shades of gold by the rising sun—and the spare soundtrack of two-fingered synthesizer chords sounds appropriately low rent. Kurosawa (no relationship by the way) may have been aiming for Ozu, but he got a twisted Capra with a few drops of Miike instead.

Tokyo Twilight (Japan 1957) (7): Ozu’s signature trains, smoke, and ticking clocks abound in this tale of a single father and his two daughters, but the gentle stoicism of his earlier films has been replaced by a bitter cynicism that seems out of place with the softly lit B&W interiors and airy musical score. After his wife abandoned him Mr. Sugiyama was left to raise their two young daughters himself. Now, several years later, the eldest child, Takako, is a mother herself and unhappily married to an abusive drunk while younger Akiko finds herself pregnant and very much alone. But when the long lost mother suddenly shows up old wounds are reopened and unexpected tragedy ensues. Ozu is all too aware of life’s unpredictability, perhaps this explains the film’s many scenes of gambling and chance whether it be a spirited game of mahjongg or a crowded pachinko parlour. The characters appear to have little control over their destinies; Takako is resigned to her terrible marriage because it is “best” for the child, Akiko’s small cries for help go unheeded, and their father feels powerless to help either one. There is also a subtle commentary on the increasing influence of western culture in all its forms; submissive Takako chooses traditional garb while her rebellious sister is more apt to wear a skirt and sweater. Along the way Ozu employs some clever cinematic conceits to convey his characters’ sense of isolation; endless snowstorms, distant train whistles and an enigmatic billboard featuring a large pair of unblinking eyes (a nod to The Great Gatsby ?) Relentlessly bleak and unforgiving look at the disintegration of a nuclear family which lacks that small hint of redemption one comes to expect from his films. Considering his past achievements, Tokyo Twilight is both a bold departure and a vague disappointment.

To Live (Hong Kong 1994) (8): Zhang Yimou’s gorgeous film traces 30 years of contemporary Chinese history by examining its impact on one young couple. Wealthy landowner Xu Fugui enjoys his privileged lifestyle until an uncontrollable gambling habit cause him to lose everything; his estate, his fortune and his mousy wife Jiazhen who, along with their little daughter and unborn son, decides to strike out on her own. Penniless and desperate, Fugui ekes out a meager living as a street vendor and puppeteer until fate and Mao’s Cultural Revolution unite him with Jiazhen once more. With a new-found determination to weather whatever life has to throw at them, the young family bravely face the social and political upheavals of the 50s and 60s with cautious optimism. With his endearingly flawed characters and a liberal dollop of delightfully dark counterrevolutionary barbs, Zhang manages to find that delicate balance between life-sustaining hope and bitter tragedy. He forgoes the impersonality of a political epic and instead delivers a loving family portrait; Mao’s troubling legacy may pervade every aspect of the film but it is reduced to the level of two adults and two small children. Ge You and Gong Li are flawless in their leading roles while the haunting musical score is as integral to the story as its intimate cinematography. “I want to live...” Fugui states at one particularly trying time in his life, “...there’s nothing like family.” A perfect summation of a film that stands among the best I’ve seen this year.

Tom at the Farm (Canada 2013) (6): After his boyfriend Guillaume dies in an accident, Tom (director Xavier Dolan) travels into the wilds of rural Quebec in order to attend the funeral. Once there however he quickly learns that not only was “Guy” deep in the closet with his family, he had several very good reasons to stay there. His older brother Francis is a hulking sadistic bully determined to keep his departed brother’s “secret” hidden from friends and family at any cost while mother Agathe is a tightly wound ball of neuroses all too willing to swallow Francis’ lies about Guy’s pretend girlfriend Sarah—a coworker and friend of Tom’s who, unbeknownst to him, also doubled as the dead man’s beard. Thrust headfirst into the seething cauldron of angst and despair that is his lover’s family, an emotionally fragile Tom at first rebels against the head games being played between mother and son (prompting a few beatings from the latter) but soon finds himself being seduced, perhaps soothed, by their steadfast denials—even voicing his grief at the family table using the third person as if he were reading a letter from Sarah. A few weeks later Tom, dressed in Guy’s clothes and happily taking on his share of farm chores, and Francis, waffling between murderous brutality and sociopathic charm, are dancing a homoerotic pas de deux (at one point quite literally) while Agathe holds tenaciously to her blinders and increasingly obtrusive background artwork encourage us to be real. But when Tom invites Sarah to the farm in order to play the heartbroken girlfriend in person, she opens a great big can of vicious worms which threatens not only to destroy the trio’s tense equilibrium but forces Tom to examine what he has become…and what Francis already is. In this dark tale of self-loathing and deferred grief Xavier Dolan, Quebec cinema’s perennial golden child, abandons the lighthearted sexual politics of his previous works in order to examine the underside of queer identity and erotic yearning. Tom at the Farm is a study in polar opposites—curly-coiffed Montreal hipster vs knuckle-dragging redneck—finding a dysfunctional solace in one another even as their close proximity runs the risk of mutual annihilation. As with his three previous films Dolan manages to throw in a few wry comments along the way: at one point a mousy and contrite Tom wears a camo jacket with “Canada” epaulets while an enraged Francis sports some very loud “AMERICA!” togs. But even taken as a partially subjective psychodrama, Tom’s manufactured turmoil and overplayed sense of foreboding don’t sit well on the screen giving a few of its tenser moments a slightly ludicrous edge. And Xavier, who has always been in love with the sound of his own voice, now seems to be courting his face too as we are treated to a seemingly endless string of full screen close-ups, some in agonizing slow-motion, highlighting Tom’s various tribulations. An interesting foray into genre territory, but with the wild success of 2009’s I Killed My Mother, Dolan established a benchmark which he has yet to surpass.

The Tomb of Ligeia (UK 1964) (6): Based on the story by Edgar Allen Poe, this ridiculously gothic horror-cum-love story set amongst the gentry of 19th century England could only have sprung from the B-movie genius of Roger Corman. Vincent Price plays grieving widower Verden Fell, a photophobic, top-hatted recluse living in a dusty cobwebbed mansion next to the ruins of an old cathedral. Convinced that his late wife Ligeia (lie-JEE-ah) will fulfill her deathbed promise and return to him, he is loath to pursue any amorous liaisons with a living breathing female, preferring instead to skulk around his dead spouse’s headstone and stare endlessly into fireplaces. His life takes a drastic turn however when the headstrong Lady Rowena takes a tumble off her horse and lands right smack in front of Ligeia’s tomb. Romance, of course, is inevitable and before you can yell “bad adaptation” the two are happily wed. But life for the new Mrs. Fell is destined to be unpleasant for her husband remains haunted by memories of Ligeia and the dearly departed bitch refuses to rest in peace. With dead foxes appearing on the bedspread and a sinister black cat hissing and clawing its way into her heart, Rowena feels her grip on sanity slowly slipping until a trip to the attic reveals a most fiendish secret... From the tumbledown atmospherics of the medieval ruins to Fell’s decrepit mansion tackily appointed in faux Egyptian chic, nothing in this camp schlocker even comes close to being subtle. Price ruminates and emotes like a pro while Elizabeth Shepherd brings equally monotonous performances to her dual role as dead wife/living wife. Even the poor cat is forced to overact as unseen stage hands fling it through windows and across bedspreads accompanied by a dubbed soundtrack of snarls and yowls; thankfully its more physically demanding close-ups are provided by a stuffed understudy. But the camp dialogue, glaring musical score and screen-chewing scenery are vintage Corman all the way! Delightfully overblown cinematic kitsch that’s as much fun to watch as it is to critique afterwards!

Tomboy (France 2011) (8): When her family moves to a new neighbourhood in the burbs 10-year old Laure (Zoé Héran, amazing) decides to reinvent herself as Mickäel, the new boy in town. Never one for dolls or dresses she manages to fool her new group of friends—running around sans shirt, playing rough and tumble with the other boys, and becoming the object of a schoolgirl crush when Lisa, the only other 10-year old girl in the hood, begins dogging her. But you can’t fool all of the people all of the time and as the new school year approaches maintaining her dual life becomes more and more problematic… In this sweet little coming-of-age drama writer/director Céline Sciamma asks some piercing questions without sermonizing on the proper answers. Whether Laure is gay, trans, or simply straight with a twist is immaterial since Sciamma is more interested in questioning our notions of identity and gender roles anyway. Providing counterpoint to Laure’s gender-bending is her kid sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana, too cute for words!), all sugar and spice and pink tutus who finds the idea of having a secret big brother great fun and is not above a little bending herself as the two of them don fake moustaches and giggle in front of the mirror. Resting almost entirely on the shoulders of her very young cast, Sciamma makes this a true kids’ movie relegating the adults to benign background noise with the exception of Laure’s pregnant mother (it’s a boy, of course) who ends up having to inject a jarring bit of reality into her daughter’s life. Using lots of close-ups bathed in summer sunshine and avoiding any saccharine overkill—there is a refreshing lack of manipulative musical cues—Sciamma elicits natural, seemingly ad-libbed performances all around which make Laure’s dilemma both believable and sympathetic. Challenging without resorting to melodrama, and shot with moments of wry humour (just how does a young girl masquerading as a boy give her speedos the proper “bulge”?) this is family viewing for a new generation.

Tony Manero (Chile 2008) (7): It’s Chile, 1978, and in the streets of Santiago the iron fist of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship can be seen everywhere from armed militia enforcing the nightly curfew to trigger-happy cops rounding up dissenters. But in a dusty old cinema taciturn 52-year old Raúl Peralta sits through yet another screening of the latest American blockbuster, Saturday Night Fever. Narcissistic and violently unpredictable, Raúl has become obsessed with the film and fancies himself the Chilean incarnation of John Travolta’s suave character, Tony Manero. Working in a dingy nightclub where he and a band of listless amateurs put on a nightly disco show to the music of the Bee Gees, Peralta dreams of one day owning his own club complete with glass dance floor and spinning neon with himself as the main attraction—and to obtain this monomaniacal goal he will stop at nothing, including sabotage, theft, and murder. Shot in 16mm using handheld cameras and later blown up to 35mm, Pablo Larrain’s allegorical rant against his country’s darkest days has a suitably grainy look and sense of real time immediacy to it. The character of Peralta (a chilling performance from Alfredo Castro) is as blank-faced a sociopath as you’re likely to see in cinema, yet in his cold-blooded disregard for anyone but himself you can’t help but see a greater political truth as his petty torts and casual homicides reflect the greater atrocities being committed by Pinochet’s regime. Even his unhinged fixation on American pop culture carries within it a darker censure of that country’s insidious influences both culturally and politically—“Manero is an American and you’re not…” Peralta’s abused girlfriend tells him one night, “…you belong here.” And all the while he primps and preens in the hopes of winning a tacky Tony Manero lookalike contest being held at a local TV station. Seen by some as a pitch-black comedy (at one point Peralta shits on a competitor’s pristine white disco suit) Larrain nevertheless keeps things low-keyed and tense, his characters never straying far from the film’s central core of hopeless, impotent rage. The choppy episodic nature of his work may be off-putting for some and perhaps his political metaphors don’t always translate clearly, but by the time you reach that final edgy scene Larrain’s message becomes shockingly clear.

Top Hat (USA 1935) (5): Fred Astaire was not much of a singer, Ginger Rogers couldn’t act to save her life, and neither possessed any real screen chemistry. But throw them on an elaborate soundstage with a back-up orchestra and boy could they dance—and it’s the dancing that saves this bit of studio fluff from total obscurity. He plays an American entertainer starring in producer Horace Hardwick’s latest West End extravaganza, she plays the fashion model who catches his eye leading to romance until she mistakes him for a married philanderer. Crossed wires and comedic confusion ensue which garner a slight smile aimed more at the sheer campiness of it all than anything else. Helen Broderick manages to spice things up a bit as Hardwick’s surprisingly liberated wife Madge while Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore, playing Hardwick and his mincing valet respectively, burn up the screen like a pair of raging queens. The grand finale, played out on a 300-foot Venetian canal set with a cast of bedecked extras swirling to Rogers’ warbling voice, is pure Hollywood overkill. At least the Irving Berlin tunes are memorable.

The Tower Heist (USA 2011) (6): When the soulless owner of New York's swankiest condo tower not only swindles his employees out of their pension fund but stands to be acquitted thanks to some political ties, it falls to a group of disgruntled former staff members to right the wrong and steal back what was taken from them. A fine cast of solid B-Listers keep the smiles coming while some brisk directing ensures the pace never slackens---but as the plot twists become more ludicrous and all those fortunate "coincidences" begin to lose any credibility you suddenly realize director Brett Ratner has abandoned an otherwise colourful heist caper and entered into pure Robin Hood fantasy territory. Fun to watch just the same.

Town Without Pity (USA 1961) (6): Gottfried Reinhadt’s sombre courtroom drama follows the investigation, and subsequent trial, of four American servicemen stationed overseas who are accused of raping a local German girl. With the town in an uproar, the victim’s wealthy father demanding blood and the men’s own commanding officer determined to make an example of them by invoking the death penalty, the only person standing between them and the gallows is crack defense lawyer Maj. Steve Garret. Oddly, in preparing his case Garret quickly learns that everyone in the village has a personal axe to grind with the victim; the resident hookers are jealous of her privileged lifestyle, her boyfriend’s overly protective mother sees her as a threat, and the sexually frustrated old man next door has her pegged as a shameless flirt. With a growing reluctance bordering on revulsion, Garret realizes that in order to perform his duty he will have to systematically destroy the young girl’s reputation. In the lead role Kirk Douglas delivers one of his most powerful performances. His character is a complex mixture of ethical dilemma and cold-blooded determination fueled perhaps by some vague personal agenda. Even as he tears into the naive plaintiff it is quite clear that he has also put himself on trial, and the verdict is less than satisfactory. With its dreary greyscale landscapes of shuttered buildings and overcast skies, Reinhardt’s pessimistic film casts a critical eye on what motivates us leaving little room for honour or virtue; indeed, its flagrantly overdone finale threatens to overwhelm the audience with sheer pathos and heavy-handed irony. Furthermore the blaring soundtrack of jazzy James Bond riffs and lurid muzak undermines much of the movie’s dramatic impact while the script contains more than a few clunky lines that fall flat. The occasional use of a voiceover narrator in lieu of subtitles is effective, if annoying at times, while the metaphorical use of muddied rivers to represent a system of jurisprudence which seems to favour process over truth is brilliant. An engaging story which would have been far more effective had the director not been so eager to shove its message in our faces. And if I never hear Gene Pitney’s whiny theme song again it will be too soon.

Toy Story 3 (USA 2010) (10): This third (and most successful) instalment of the hugely popular series about the misadventures of a group of toys who come to life when no one’s looking not only won an Oscar for best animated feature, it was also the first such film to break the one billion dollar revenue mark. This time around cowboy Woody, spaceman Buzz and all the other plastic denizens of little Andy’s toy chest are in a quandary—Andy is now an adult on his way to college and his former playthings have been donated to a children’s facility except for his sentimental favourite, Woody, who is to accompany him to the dorm. At first enchanted by their new surroundings, and angry at Andy for kicking them to the curb, the toys ignore Woody’s pleas to remain faithful to their original owner. But the “Sunnyside Daycare” turns out to be something of a Gulag and it’s suddenly up to Woody to rescue his pals and find everyone a new home. Of course the usual sight gags and Hollywood in-jokes abound (the Potato Heads can’t keep their limbs in order, a psychotic Care Bear reinvents a scene from Cool Hand Luke, and a metrosexual Ken sports more sequins than Barbie herself) but this time around the writers explore much darker territory, touching on issues of abandonment, grief, and even a little existential despair—oh yes, a nightmarish stint at a garbage dump could have been co-written by Nietzsche and Lars von Trier. Sufficiently colourful and frantic for tiny attention spans yet packing enough weight for adults including a sweetly sentimental ending, it lends credence to the old adage, “Third time’s the charm”.

The Tree of Life (USA 2011) (9): Not since Kubrick’s hairy man ape threw that fateful bone at the moon in 2001 has a director had the audacity to paint such a simple story across so vast a canvas. With a narrative that stretches from the dawn of creation to the threshold of eternity, Terrence Malick’s grand opus takes man’s ceaseless quest for truth and meaning in a seemingly indifferent cosmos and distills it down to one unhappily middle-aged businessman’s childhood memories. Through a series of loosely joined vignettes, some painfully real others gauzy and impressionistic, we follow Jack O’Brian’s early years in 1950s Texas as he goes from gurgling newborn to exuberant toddler to disillusioned adolescent tired of the mixed messages he receives from the adult world around him. There are two ways by which to live one’s life, so we’re told in an opening monologue---by grace, which encompasses faith, forgiveness and forbearance; and by nature, which leans towards man’s baser motivations: envy, dissatisfaction, and resentment. Torn thus between his mother’s quiet stoicism and his father’s authoritarian dictates, yet eager to please them both, Jack succumbs first to despair and then to the first stirrings of rebellion. Cut to Jack the adult, working in a barren landscape of skyscrapers and business meetings before coming home to an equally barren relationship. We get the impression that here is a man who’s achieved great material success but is now all too aware of the yawning spiritual void at his feet. And therein lies the film’s central enigma; is this the story of one world weary man’s attempt to reboot his priorities by drawing upon his earliest recollections of faith and wonder? or is it all but a momentary flash before the eyes of a wandering soul journeying towards that ultimate light? Awash with soaring arias and portentous visions of parting clouds and swirling galaxies, Malick examines the endless cycle of life and death and life through a curious admixture of Darwinian realism and Judeo-Christian allegory which gives rise to some striking scenes: a host of proto-planets silhouetted against a newborn star, a mortally wounded plesiosaur awaiting death on a Cretaceous beach, and a young child swimming through an underwater nursery on his way to being born. Some critics have dismissed The Tree of Life as being pretentious and overly ambitious, and I can’t completely disagree with them. But unlike the clinical austerity of Kubrick’s vision (still my sentimental favourite) there is an underlying sense of humility to Malick’s film, as if all the trials and tribulations of one human family pale to insignificance when set against the majestic universe in which they’re suspended.

Trick ‘R Treat (USA 2007) (7): It's Halloween night and in one little Ohio town things are about to take a turn for the macabre as a practical joke winds up raising a short bus full of autistic ghouls, a homicidal school principal decides to teach his son the tricks of the trade, a young wife pays the price for extinguishing a jack'o'lantern too early, and an ersatz vampire falls in with a pack of real bitches. And what's with that little knife-wielding kid sporting the pumpkin head? In the same vein as 1982's "Creepshow", Michael Dougherty's little bag of tricks revels in its comic book roots with suitably cartoonish action, a bit of colourful gore, and a whole lot of spine-tingling silliness. His handful of separate stories cleverly segue into one other almost seamlessly bringing the whole film full circle, while a few witty monster references just add to the fun. The horror element may evoke more smiles than chills, especially for those of us who grew up on a diet of 80s slasher films, but Dougherty never claimed he was producing a masterpiece.

The Trojan Women (UK 1971) (6): After Troy is razed by the Greek army in retaliation for the abduction of Helen, its women wake up to find the city in ruins, their men dead and their fates sealed as ships lie ready to carry them back to Greece where they will either become wives, slaves, or concubines for their new masters. Among the survivors are Hecuba, the former queen now slated to be a handmaid; her mad daughter Cassandra destined for the king’s bed; her rebellious daughter-in-law Andromache; and Helen herself, now an object of hatred and scorn from both sides. As each woman is forced to let go of everything she's held dear a series of painful dramas unfold culminating in a heartbreaking sacrifice and burial. Based on Euripides' play and employing a few flourishes from Classical Greek drama, most notably an impromptu Chorus of mourning widows, The Trojan Women is a highly stylized, highly theatrical picture often bordering on performance art. Shot in and around central Spain, the film's barren landscapes of rocky hills and dusty caves underscore its sense of outrage and emotional devastation while the stellar cast (Katherine Hepburn, Irene Papas, Genevieve Bujold, and Vanessa Redgrave) manage to keep the patently ornate dialogue believable. Perhaps a bit too formal in presentation for some tastes, it is based on a play over 2,000 years old after all, but for all that it still managed to hold my attention for the full two hours.

Troubled Water (Norway 2008) (7): Several years after he was convicted of drowning a four-year old child during a botched robbery, twenty-something Jan Hansen is finally released from prison. Finding work as a church organist Jan (now calling himself Thomas) starts to rebuild his life, even forming a romantic liaison with the resident pastor Anna, a single mother with intimacy issues of her own. But the past does not rest so easily in Jan’s mind for despite his insistence that his partner in crime committed the actual murder he is still plagued by guilt and it doesn’t help that Anna’s son looks exactly like the dead child. Anna, in the meantime, unaware of Jan’s past but sensing his troubled spirit tries her best to comfort him with all the usual rhetoric about God’s infinite love and forgiveness. And then one day Jan is recognized by Agnes, the dead boy’s mother, and her revelations threaten to topple his already tenuous peace. Intimately photographed (scenes of Agnes in a swimming pool are juxtaposed with images of her dead child floating downriver with heartbreaking effect) and buoyed by a glorious soundtrack of organ solos which run the gamut from Bach to Simon & Garfunkel, Erik Poppe’s three-handed rumination on the nature of remorse and forgiveness certainly doesn’t lack ambition. When Jan’s crushing sense of regret comes up against Agnes’ unresolved grief—having never confronted him in court she’s never been able to move on—you know you’re in for an emotional showdown of monumental proportions that not even Anna’s well-meaning platitudes can pave over. Besides, when the truth finally comes out and Anna’s own son is unexpectedly put in a precarious situation the otherwise benevolent pastor suddenly finds those “words of comfort” somewhat difficult to swallow. Where the film suffers however is with Poppe’s lack of subtlety: Jan goes by his middle name Thomas, and he doubts the existence of God (get it?); water, the universal symbol of absolution, practically drenches every scene whether it’s a spilled cup, a gentle downpour, or a raging rapid; and a heavily staged final scene of (watery) atonement pushes the envelope right off the table. But, in spite of these glaring faults, this is still a deeply felt and beautifully constructed piece with a star cast (Trine Dyrholm as Agnes makes you feel every tear) and a cleverly looped storyline that backspaces even as it moves relentlessly forward.

This is England (UK 2006) (8): It’s England 1983, and while the draconian dictates of Maggie Thatcher are unravelling the social fabric at home, a contentious war in the Falklands is also taking its toll on the national psyche. Against this backdrop of political unrest and rising unemployment eleven-year old Shaun is having problems of his own. Having to deal with schoolyard bullies on a daily basis and still grieving the loss of his father who died in the war, Shaun falls in with a group of well-meaning delinquents who introduce him to the joys of petty vandalism, ska music, and his first real kiss. Watching her son find a cherished sense of family with his rude boy friends, Shaun’s mother reluctantly allows him to wear his new doc martens and red suspenders, even turning an almost blind eye to his shaved head. But when Shaun crosses paths with Combo, an ex-con and hardened skinhead, the highly impressionable boy is seduced by the older man’s xenophobic rants and fanatical devotion to all things English (read: caucasian). Drifting away from his egalitarian gang of layabouts, it isn’t long before Shaun is displaying a St. George’s Cross flag in his bedroom window and terrorizing the “Paki” shopkeeper down the street. Although he still harbours doubts about Combo’s nationalist rhetoric, the lonely pre-teen finds in him a kind of warped father figure—until a particularly violent confrontation causes him to question the direction his young life is taking. Based in large part on director Shane Meadows’ own childhood experiences, This is England mixes moments of sheer nostalgia (the fashions and pop music are spot on) with passages of precipitous violence which, while deeply provocative, are never gratuitous. And throughout it all we catch televised glimpses of Falkland carnage and the Iron Lady herself launching a missile or decrying the “socialist state”. What sets Meadows’ amazing film apart from similar ruminations on Thatcher’s legacy is the sense of style he brings to the screen: slow-motion sequences trace Shaun’s various evolutions, his protagonists are fully fleshed human beings (even Combo is presented as more demonized than demonic), and scenes of wartime horrors contrast sharply with a background score of mediative instrumentals and soft-spoken ballads. Although there are a few narrative gaps (where was the mother while the son was running wild?) this still remains one of the better films dealing with the nascent wisdom of childhood. And in the role of Shaun, fourteen-year old Thomas Turgoose is a born natural.

The Train (USA/France 1964) (9): In the waning days of WWII, as Paris eagerly awaits liberation at the hands of the approaching allies, German colonel Von Waldheim (an intense Paul Scofield) is determined to complete one last assignment. Taking it upon himself to steal the entire inventory of French masterpieces from the famous Musee du Paume, Von Waldheim intends to load the paintings onto a commandeered train and transport them to Germany where they can be used as bartering tools after that country surrenders. There is more to his single-minded obsession however as he feels a certain awe when he stares at these pieces which represent the artistic soul of France itself. Fortunately he is not prepared for the tenacity of the French Resistance who, despite their dwindling numbers, are determined to prevent the artwork from ever leaving their country. Spearheaded by railroad supervisor Paul Labiche (a star turn from Burt Lancaster), a motley collection of railway workers, townsfolk, and freedom fighters devise a series of daring plans to ensure the train never rolls onto German soil. But as the number of dead steadily rises Labiche begins to question the virtue of his mission while Waldheim becomes increasingly obsessed with the ethereal nature of his cargo. Although based on the memoirs of Rose Valland, an art historian and decorated member of the French military who was instrumental in keeping thousands of art treasures out of Nazi hands, director John Frankenheimer nevertheless takes great liberties in embellishing her story with scene-stealing explosions and Hollywood heroics. He does so with such cinematic zeal however that the overall effect is more captivating than distracting—actually using real trains and having Lancaster perform his own impressive stunts. Essentially a battle of wills between two equally adamant men, this is both a condemnation of war’s various atrocities and a sobering look at man’s higher aspirations given a somewhat ironic sheen when one sees bullet-riddled corpses lying next to crates marked “Renoir” and “Matisse”. “You talk about the war…I talk about what it costs!” states a reluctant collaborator and Labiche’s possible love interest Christine (French treasure Jeanne Moreau), and her words carry more weight than all the trains in Paris.

The Transfiguration (USA 2016) (8): Teenaged Milo has an indecently overactive imagination. Raised by his older brother Lewis in a dreary Bronx housing project ever since their parents died, Milo feels disconnected from the gangs and drug-runners that plague his neighbourhood for he fancies himself one of the undead, a poor black vampire kid who keeps a detailed journal of “vampire rules”, lives vicariously through his collection of sadistic youtube clips and bootleg monster videos, and regularly wanders the city in search of human prey, marking off each successful hunt on his appointment calendar. Quiet and easy to ignore, it is readily apparent that Milo’s preternatural silence is due more to crushing poverty and neglect than an ancient curse, and that day-to-day life in his rundown ‘hood is more terrifying than any Transylvanian castle. And then he meets his new neighbour Sophie—alienated, bruised and stuck in her own particular hell—and as the two develop a faltering relationship Milo faces the horrifying prospect of becoming mortal… Leads Eric Ruffin and Chloe Levine are marvelous in this slow-burning, expertly restrained indie feature—director Michael O’Shea’s first—both showing a great deal of maturity and dramatic timing as they portray two damaged children trying to get by in the big bad world. Ruffin plays the taciturn Dracula wannabe with an intensity that belies his years, a tragic young man whose yearning for a sense of control over his life has caused him to confuse horror schlock with reality leading to deadly results. Levine’s Sophie, on the other hand, is all wistful dreams and a hunger to be loved who sees in Milo a chance to fulfill both (not knowing his secret). O’Shea’s not-quite-vampire flick goes easy on the gory shocks—preferring highly effective subsonic trembles over screeching strings in order to elicit tension—but his sporadic forays into the darker side are as casual and gut-wrenchingly real as Milo’s own dissociated emotions. A bleak, distinctly American spin on Alfredson’s Let The Right One In, where sunlight offers no reprieve and love arrives like a stake.

The Trial (France 1962) (?): A bewildered everyman (Anthony Perkins) finds himself arrested for an unspecified crime yet the more he tries to defend himself the more mired he becomes in a bureaucratic nightmare of red tape and sinister authority figures. Could he be on trial simply for being innocent? Absurdist, bordering on farcical, writer/director Orson Welles took the idea from Franz Kafka's unfinished manuscript and it certainly shows in the brooding cinematography and heaped-up paranoia—Paris’ now defunct Gare d'Orsay is brilliantly transformed into a hive of desk drones mindlessly pecking away at their keyboards. Unfortunately Welles' "grandiose vision" keeps getting eclipsed by his grandiose ego resulting in a sloppily edited piece of exaggerated theatrics and drama club overacting. Despite Perkins' valiant effort and a supporting cast that includes Romy Schneider and Jeanne Moreau, the film is just too weighed down by its own sense of magnitude. If you like your fascist dystopias a bit more coherent you may want to stick to Radford's 1984, Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange or Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451. Or, for the more adventurous, there's always Pasolini's Salò. No star rating because I began fast-forwarding around the 45 minute mark.

The Trip (USA 1967) (5): Uptight television director Paul Groves hopes to gain some insights into his topsy-turvy life by taking a hit of LSD from his guru buddy John and ends up spending the next 24 hours hallucinating Day-Glo hippy chicks and medieval warlords, and…like…totally getting in touch with his feelings, man. Roger Corman’s infamous drug culture flick (written by Jack Nicholson!) is noted for its psychedelic sets, groovy music, and cast of dope era stars—namely Peter Fonda, Bruce Dern, and Dennis Hopper. Terribly dated to the point of spoofing itself, it nevertheless contains such memorable moments as a montage of jump-cuts in which Fonda, ripped out of his gourd on acid, stumbles through a Los Angeles literally glowing with neon corporate logos. Images of death and rebirth provide a bit of context, but if you didn’t live it you ain’t gonna to get it.

The Triplets of Belleville (France 2003) (8): After her cadaverous grandson is abducted while cycling in the Tour de France, a diminutive grandmother and her waddling bloodhound follow the kidnappers’ trail across the ocean to the legendary metropolis of Belleville (a thinly disguised New York City circa 1950’s). Once there however she finds herself both penniless and powerless for her beloved grandson is now in the clutches of a mafia kingpin who has heinous plans for his stable of purloined cyclists and no one seems willing to stop him. And then unexpected help arrives in the form of the once famous and now forgotten Triplets of Belleville, a jazz age singing trio now reduced to three wizened yet contented old hags holed up in a rundown tenement and subsisting on the frogs they manage to cull from a local pond. Joining forces with grandma the four elderly women (and dog) manage to turn Belleville’s underworld upside down in a crazy rescue mission that will see them lobbing grenades and dodging bullets while trying to hold on to their Sunday hats. Nominated for two Oscars, writer/director Sylvain Chomet’s oddball animated feature is a sheer delight of exaggerated eccentricities and scathing satirical barbs presented with only a few intelligible words of dialogue amidst a whole lot of stylized gibberish. Grandmother’s got a clubfoot and goggle glasses, her grandson is all horse teeth and oversized calves, the gangsters are moustachioed imps guarded by block-shaped henchmen, and the triplets themselves are an engaging mass of straggly hair, sagging wrinkles, and cackling grins. But it is the sly jabs at Americana which get the most laughs with a corpulent Lady Liberty hoisting a cheeseburger above a wobbling population of heavyweights and, in one particularly nasty scene, an unflushed turd bears an uncanny resemblance to a certain cartoon mouse. Outrageous, catty, and decked out in bright storybook colours, Triplets combines the raw edginess of old school animation with some truly beautiful artwork to deliver a guilty treat for adults.

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (UK 2005) (6): Director Michael Winterbottom’s attempt to make a film out of Laurence Sterne’s 18th century novel “The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman”—a book deemed “unfilmable” due to its convoluted and highly subjective nature—doesn’t produce quite enough humour to flesh out this ninety-minute mockumentary despite such comedy heavyweights as Steve Coogan, Dylan Moran, and Stephen Fry. Essentially the memoirs and ruminations of a minor nobleman beset by bad luck from the time he was born (the doctor accidentally broke his nose with a pair of delivery forceps) this story within a documentary within a comedy sketch takes great delight in lampooning the creative process with actors going in and out of character, professional egos taking their toll, and endless production meetings fraying nerves and depleting budgets. In one surreal passage, perhaps the film’s zenith, Steve Coogan is reluctantly suspended into a giant foam rubber uterus as Winterbottom makes a feeble attempt at artiness. The period sequences themselves provide some very funny send-ups of English gentry but after the first thirty minutes it all begins to muddle and drag. This is not Day for Night by any stretch.

Triumph of the Will (Germany 1935) (8): Filmed “20 years after the outbreak of war, 16 years after the beginning of Germany’s suffering, and 19 months after the beginning of the German Rebirth”, Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary chronicling the Third Reich’s glorious 1934 Nuremberg Rally is definitely a triumph of cinematic propaganda. Given full rein by the Führer himself Riefenstahl employed thirty cameras and over one hundred technicians in order to showcase all the parades and impassioned speeches in their best possible light. Beginning with Hitler’s plane descending from the clouds to be greeted like the new messiah by throngs of saluting acolytes, Leni employs every trick in the book to unite the man with the myth—a triumphant motorcade into the heart of the city gushes with patriotic photo ops; a carefully staged trek through a spotless youth camp shows a sea of freshly scrubbed aryans laughing ecstatically for the camera; and Adolph is filmed against stadiums full of screaming loyalists…at one point Leni has him positioned in front of a distant arc lamp creating the impression of a heavenly aura surrounding the man. She even manages to get Hitler’s posse (Göring, Hess, Goebbels et al) to smile benevolently into her lens. And everywhere can be seen the beloved swastika swaying gently from balconies or carried aloft by enraptured party members. Supposedly required viewing for all school children at the time—and then banned after the war—Riefenstahl’s moving testimony is now rife with ironies and ominous undertones given our gift of hindsight—those once subtle references to “racial purity” ring especially loud and clear today. A marvelous example of the filmmaker’s ability to manufacture truth and then sell it to an entire nation.

Trollhunter (Norway 2010) (7): Norway’s entry in the “Based Upon Found Footage” genre is a surprisingly droll horror-comedy revolving around a group of film students who decide to investigate a suspected wildlife poacher. Following “Hans” as he drives off each night in his oddly rigged jeep, the young documentarians quickly find themselves in way over their heads...for Hans is actually working for the TSS (Troll Security Service), a highly secretive government agency whose objective is to control the population of these rather large and shaggy mean-spirited beasts. Something has been spooking the local trolls causing the normally reclusive omnivores to venture dangerously close to inhabited territory and Hans must not only subdue the errant ogres but discover why they’re on the move in the first place. Chockfull of satirical asides, silly visuals and enough dry humour for two American remakes, Troll Hunter is a delightful mix of shocks and chuckles. Its talented cast keeps things moving at a decent pace while the outrageous CGI effects and jerky handheld camerawork (often filmed in an eerily green “night vision” mode) almost have you believing it really happened. While remaining somewhat faithful to traditional fairytale accounts of troll behaviour (a spoof of The Three Billy Goats Gruff is hilarious!) director André Øvredal still manages to keep our expectations at bay by throwing in a few twists of his own; apparently German tourists are a bit of a delicacy, and troll farts are very nasty indeed. A good old rip-roaring monster movie intelligently written and presented with tongue firmly in cheek.

Tropic of Cancer (USA 1970) (2): Rip Torn plays Henry Miller in this semi-autobiographical tale of an American Lothario eking out a living in Paris by bumming off the kindness of friends and strangers alike while bedding as many women as possible. Along the way we're forced to listen to his convoluted musings on everything from French architecture and fornication to the more intimate parts of the female anatomy (I lost count of the number of times "cunt" was mentioned). Its ample nudity and foul language garnered an "X" rating in 1970 but despite the racy subject matter it's little more than 90 minutes of pretentious navel gazing and bloated doggerel.

Tropic Thunder (USA 2008) (8): Things are not going well on the jungle set of Tropic Thunder, a big budget Viet Nam epic based on the wartime memoirs of gruff and reclusive Sgt. “Four Leaf” Tayback. Not only does the director have to contend with technical screw-ups but he also finds himself playing nursemaid to a cast of Hollywood prima donnas; among them a heroin-snorting party animal (Jack Black, true to form), a semi-talented rap star, a fussy leading man (Ben Stiller, surprisingly un-annoying), and a faded Aussie matinee idol who underwent “racial reassignment” surgery in order to play a tough, jive-talking brother (Robert Downey Jr. in what should have been an Oscar-winning performance). At his wits’ end the director takes Tayback’s advice and dumps the actors in the middle of a nearby rain forest with instructions to find their way back to base camp while staying in character. Armed only with prop weapons and a map, the men ham it up as best they can while hidden cameras record their every move and surprise pyrotechnics keep them off guard. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to cast and crew, this particular rainforest is run by a ruthless drug cartel and their diminutive warlord who mistake the bumbling performers for an invading American army. Filled with hilarious celebrity cameos and an acerbic humour that harpoons everything from Tinseltown politics to cliché-riddled American war movies, Stiller’s film is a perfect blend of in-your-face comedy and pitch black satire. Glorious widescreen shots drenched in tropical colours, and expertly choreographed action sequences call to mind the meticulous camerawork of Platoon or Apocalypse Now, but this is more skewering than homage. Stiller concentrates on the darker side of celebrity, the lies and illusions one maintains pursuing that Hollywood dream of money and prestige; as the crew suddenly find themselves struggling with a variety of identity crises, a talent agent back in Los Angeles considers entering into a faustian bargain with a ruthless producer. And throughout it all the cameras keep rolling right up to the satisfyingly ironic ending. This territory has been covered many time before though never with such riotous excess; it may not be art, exactly, but rarely have two hours flown by so fast.

Trouble the Water (USA 2008) (6): Nominated for an Academy Award for all the usual reasons, Carl Dean and Tia Lessin’s documentary brings the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina to a very personal level with an uneven mix of professional footage, television bulletins and shaky home movies taken by a young couple who actually rode the storm out in their dripping attic. As President Bush offers platitudes from an exclusive country club in Phoenix and Michael Brown, then head of FEMA, stares moronically into the news cameras, a troubling picture begins to emerge which is summed up succinctly by one survivor’s cousin, “If you don’t have money, and you don’t have status, you have no government.” With no food, water or shelter, and a military more concerned with maintaining order than delivering aid, those who were left to fend for themselves, mostly poor and black, saw those prophetic words become cold reality. Two of Dean and Lessin’s subjects may not have been angels--he was dealing drugs and she was on the fast track to an early grave when they first met--but by the film’s end we see a couple reborn; he lands a job and she tries to jumpstart a music career. Definitely in need of some trimming, Trouble the Water often plays more like a rambling inner city reality show than a world class doc, but its straight-up approach and unembellished testimonies manage to keep it afloat, if just barely.

True Grit (USA 2010) (9): Headstrong Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), only 14-years old, is determined to avenge her father’s death by tracking down his murderer and bringing him to justice. To this end she hires Rooster Cogburn (Oscar nominee Jeff Bridges), a drunken U.S. marshal old enough to be her grandfather and whose glory days are long over. Accompanied partway by a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) eager to collect a bounty, the three journey into Indian territory where they will be sorely tested by both nature and man for not only is winter approaching but Mattie’s quarry is just one member of a ruthless gang of thieves and killers hellbent on evading capture. The ragtag posse’s biggest hurdle however will come from within themselves as Mattie’s fiery yet naïve sense of justice grates against a burned-out Cogburn’s alcoholic cynicism. Will they get their man, and will the journey be worth it? Vast plains and endless skies frame this Coen Brothers adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 novel, a beautifully rendered twist on the traditional oater in which the bad guys aren’t entirely despicable nor are the good guys entirely spotless. Roger Deakins’ impeccable cinematography takes great delight in stars, snowflakes, and roaring firelight, with a sweeping vision that goes from expressive close-ups to wide-angled seas of grass without missing a heartbeat. But it is the Coen’s script which sets this one apart from the usual genre fare—vivid and unexpectedly eloquent, even the low-down dirty outlaws’ speech sounds like prose spat through broken teeth. A bittersweet paean to the Old West with a coda as cool and pragmatic as its environs.

Tucker and Dale vs Evil (Canada/US 2010) (7): Thanks to some hilarious misunderstandings a pair of good ol’ southern bubbas, Tucker and his dim-witted bewhiskered pal Dale, are mistaken for murderous backwoods psychos by a group of vacationing college students who have obviously watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre one too many times. As their members are picked off one by one in a series of amusingly grisly (and wholly accidental) ways the kids become convinced that the two rednecks are out to get them and begin plotting a desperate counterattack with much prodding from their slightly unhinged self-appointed leader. Tucker and Dale, in the meantime, are having trouble understanding why a group of apparently suicidal teens are obsessed with tormenting them when all they want to do is fix up the new vacation cabin they just bought. With Alberta standing in for the Appalachian countryside, writers Eli Craig and Morgan Jurgenson spoof every hillbilly horror cliche they can lay their hands on; from crazy cops and chainsaw-wielding wackos (Tucker was only trying to fend off a swarm of bees, honestly!) to an obligatory scream queen stumbling through the underbrush in halter top and ill-fitting cha-cha pumps. A side story involving the budding romance between Dale and one of the girls he and Tucker “rescued” from her deranged friends is both oddly sweet and provides a basis for the film’s gloriously overdone final showdown at an abandoned sawmill. For anyone who’s ever sat through The HIlls have Eyes, Just Before Dawn, and the Wrong Turn franchise with a slight smirk on their face, this satirical romp will have you laughing out loud! And as an aside, in the role of Dale, Canada’s own Tyler Labine is every bear lover’s dream come true. Dang!

Tuesday, After Christmas (Romania 2010) (7): Family man Paul has been having a five month affair with dental hygienist Raluca, much to her dour mother’s displeasure, and is now head over heels in love with the younger woman. Torn between this new romance and a sense of duty to his unsuspecting wife Adriana and their ten-year old daughter Paul must make the most difficult decision in his life: which woman should he leave? And just to make matters worse, Christmas is only a few days away. Those looking for dramatic fireworks will be sorely disappointed with this ultra low-key kitchen drama, for if Romanian directors are noted for one thing it’s their ability to wring piercing truths from the most commonplace domestic scenarios. Mundane conversations about gift shopping and dental appointments suggest Paul and Adriana are in a rut while silly bedroom banter reveals an emotional immaturity between man and mistress. But when the big confession finally occurs the resulting confrontation between betrayed wife (a brilliant performance by Mirela Oprisor) and floundering husband crackles with anger and bitterness leading to an ironically downplayed Christmas Eve coda with the in-laws. Perhaps a tad too dry in its lead-up but director Radu Muntean ends it all with a punch to the gut that’s as visceral as it is psychological.

12 (Russia 2007) (6): A Chechen teen is accused of murdering his adoptive father, a decorated Russian war vet, in a seemingly open-and-shut case and a jury of twelve men must decide whether he is guilty or not. With eleven members eager to send the “little animal” to prison for life, one man believes he is innocent and thus begins a long night of deliberation and recrimination with the sequestered jurors revealing their own hidden prejudices as the vote continues to waffles back and forth. But if you think this sounds like a Russian remake of Lumet’s 1957 classic Twelve Angry Men you’d only be partially correct for whereas Lumet’s vision of justice vs conscience was pretty much black and white, writer/director Nikita Mikhalkov presents us with all manner of grey right up to the final verdict and beyond. Additionally, Lumet followed a certain degree of jurisprudence as his beleaguered dozen sifted through the evidence and argued the facts. Mikhalkov gives little more than a cursory nod to court procedure opting instead for indulgent, long-winded monologues as each man steals the spotlight in order to ramble on about how his own life was affected by violence or injustice or the vagaries of fate. There is a stagey, theatrical feel to the presentation with faulty wiring occasionally plunging the men into darkness, a trapped songbird chirping next to a religious icon, and a whirling knife blade embedding itself into a stack of court transcripts. Even the film’s opening and closing quotes praising truth and mercy turn out to be mere artifice for the supposed source, “B. Tosia”, is an invention of the director himself (who also pulls double duty playing one of the Jurors). But there is a compelling urgency to the film, aided by violent flashbacks of the accused teen’s tragic childhood, which makes its 160 minute running time fly by in a seamless edit of ardent soliloquies and striking visuals mercifully punctuated by an undercurrent of droll humour. Clearly meant as a critique of Soviet society—the men come from all walks of life, each with his own unique baggage in tow as they deliberate in a crumbling gymnasium due to courthouse renovations—his talented cast do manage to rise above a script which occasionally proselytizes. Unfortunately, at least for this Western viewer, he drives his point home with a hammer when a few well placed taps would have sufficed.

12 and Holding  (USA 2005) (3):  What starts out as an examination of pre-teen angst quickly morphs into a suburban soap opera featuring a cast of world-weary midgets. Human children simply do not talk like this, nor do they get themselves into these situations. I tried to give Cuesta the benefit of the doubt and view this film as a series of pre-adolescent fantasies: the fat kid who dreams of being a jock; the wimpy kid who dreams of being Dirty Harry; and the lonely kid who dreams of falling in love with her ideal father figure, but it still failed to impress me. L.I.E. was an excellent foray into similar territory--it’s hard to believe the same director is responsible for this dud.

12 Angry Men (USA 1957) (9): In New York, as storm clouds gather on the “hottest day of the year,” an 18-year old boy from the wrong side of the tracks stands accused of murdering his father. With a mountain of evidence against him and two solid eyewitnesses whose damning testimonies link him to the crime, the death penalty seems inevitable. The monumental task of deciding the young man’s fate ultimately rests in the hands of the twelve-member jury assigned to the case, and eleven of them have already decided he is guilty. Only one man stands between them and the unanimous vote needed for a verdict. “Juror #8” (Henry Fonda, marvelously understated) is not entirely convinced the boy did it and has some serious doubts concerning the prosecution’s arguments. Fighting an uphill battle against his increasingly hostile fellow jurors he insists on presenting his own interpretation of the evidence; but will it be compelling enough to swing the vote? Filmed almost entirely within the confines of a small jury room, Sidney Lumet’s intense courtroom drama is absolutely engrossing. His roster of A-List stars play off one another expertly on a set that is little more than a claustrophobic mix of sweat and cigarette smoke. As the afternoon’s deliberations wear on and tempers begin to flare Lumet deftly places each separate juror on trial, slowly exposing the hidden motives and deep-seated prejudices influencing their decisions. While one man holds anyone from “those neighbourhoods” in equal disdain another has an axe to grind with his own son, a situation that quickly sets him on a collision course with Fonda’s character. In the end however, as a sudden rainstorm brings some relief from the oppressive heat, it is time for one final, decisive vote. With its brilliant cast and tightly focused direction 12 Angry men is a powerful ensemble piece exploring what can happen when conscience versus consensus. An American classic.

12 Days of Terror  (South Africa 2004) (3):  As a rule I generally give movies a minimum of 30 minutes to impress me before I hit the eject button.  This waterlogged turkey had me eyeing the remote at the 10-minute mark.  Even though it claims to be based on actual events, it simply comes across as a cheap remake of  “Jaws”.  The sets look like an ad for Main street U.S.A. and the smooth young posers that inhabit them are right from the pages of last month’s International Male catalogue.....yes, it seems to be Gay Day at Shark Beach.  Despite some fairly decent special effects (the CGI squirts of blood were laughable) the movie simply can’t overcome its terribly clichéd script and amateurish performances.  This is one fish tale that should have been torpedoed.

Twentieth Century (USA 1934) (4): A Svengali-like Broadway director makes a star out of a mousy lingerie model, but his obsessive attentions prove to be too much for the young naif and she flees to the bright lights of Hollywood. A few years later she is a matinee idol and his career is drying up...now his only hope for success lies in convincing her to star in his latest production, an overly ambitious take on the Passion of Christ. But there is one hurdle to overcome, the former ingenue-turned-movie star wants nothing to do with her old mentor and a chance encounter between the two on an eastbound express train leads to some emotional fireworks. Loud and crass, this screwball comedy lampooning artistic egos proved to be a bit too flakey for my tastes. Lombard and Barrymore are a study in overacting while a cast of wise-cracking palookas and assorted eccentrics provide a colourful, if ineffectual backdrop. Some of the original play's satirical jabs come through unscathed but the all-too-obvious ironies are not very funny while the constant emoting soon gets on your nerves.

20 Centimetres  (Spain 2005) (7):  Monica Cervera is superb in her role as a good-hearted narcoleptic transsexual trying to scrape enough cash together to pay for her sex change.  She takes an otherwise unremarkable little film and turns it into something wonderful.  Her character is totally convincing as she moves effortlessly from scenes of camp humour to poignant intimacy delivering a softly nuanced performance that combines a sad vulnerability with ironclad optimism.  It’s too bad the film is marred by some badly choreographed and wholly superfluous Bollywood musical sequences, they appear gimmicky and add nothing to the central narrative.  Still, there is enough warmth and gentle humour here to put a big smile on your face.  Well worth renting.

20 Feet From Stardom (USA 2013) (7): Few people outside the industry have ever heard of names like Darlene Love, Lisa Fischer, or Merry Clayton, which is why Morgan Neville’s Oscar-winning documentary is so important. It brings to light a subject even the most ardent music lovers rarely think about, namely the back-up singers whose soulful vocalizations add an acoustic punch to those headline performers we all listen to. At one time composed mostly of pretty white women who sang sweetly, if unimaginatively, to the likes of Perry Como, the playing field changed with the advent of rock ’n roll when artists began demanding a more forceful presence able to handle complex harmonies and wailing guitars. This new breed of back-up singer—primarily strong black women who cut their musical teeth in the wild exuberances of a gospel choir—were eagerly sought by everyone from Ray Charles and David Bowie to Joe Cocker and The Rolling Stones. Interviewing a handful of these women (and men) Neville paints a picture of extremely talented singers who, with few exceptions, never made it into the spotlight. Along the way he touches on sensitive issues of sexuality and racism as one woman talks about Ike Turner’s penchant for scanty costumes while another recounts swallowing her pride to sing back-up for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama at a time when racial tensions were nearing the breaking point all across the south—to her credit though she managed to turn the experience into an act of defiance. According to Sting, one of the few “big names” featured in the doc, success in the music industry is as much about happenstance and luck as it is talent and these life stories certainly add credence to that sad insight. Falling prey to despondency, unscrupulous producers, and lacklustre publicity, few ever cross those twenty extra feet to reach centre stage. A poignant look at some brave and fearsomely talented people who openly share their memories as well as their hopes and disappointments. Merry Clayton, by the way, was the woman whose heart-rending cries of “Rape! Murder!” haunt the Rolling Stones’ hit Gimme Shelter.

Twin Sisters (Holland 2002) (7): The Netherland’s Foreign Language Oscar nominee for 2002 is a lush tearjerker, based upon a Dutch bestseller, which begs the question: if you were raised under completely different circumstances would you still be the same person inside? It’s 1926 and young twins Lotte and Anna enjoy an idyllic life on their family’s estate in Germany. But after their parents die the two girls are forcibly separated by bickering relatives with frail Lotte being carted off to Holland to live with a wealthy aunt and uncle and the more robust Anna sent to a farm in Germany owned by white trash cousins. And so the two girls, once completely devoted to one another, begin two very different lives. Lotte is pampered with all of the creature comforts including a university education and as much privilege as her uncle’s money can buy while Anna grows up in abject poverty with no formal education and daily doses of neglect and abuse. The two are briefly reunited just as Hitler is gaining power but their meeting is bittersweet for time and politics have already begun setting them on very distinct paths. Meeting briefly after the war, and then again decades later when they are well into their seventies and long since estranged, director Ben Sombogaart shows how two siblings, at one time identical in every way, can become different people thanks to a combination of environment and personal choices. But do external forces really change our personal nature that much? Predictable from the start, especially when Anna marries a dashing SS officer and Lotte becomes engaged to a Jew, and overrun with weeping strings and sad piano riffs, Sombogaart treads uncomfortably close to Spielberg territory. Thankfully the sheer momentum of the story, coupled with engaging performances and a big screen presentation, manages to squeeze out most of the syrupy contrivances leaving behind a piece of pure cinema whose political overtones take a backseat to its more human elements.

Twitch of the Death Nerve AKA Bay of Blood (Italy 1971) (2):  A blood-soaked whodunnit which seems to revolve around a series of grisly murders on a waterfront property.   Unfortunately the sound on this little tidbit from the “Mario Bava” collection was very poor, going from barely audible to jarringly loud which made it difficult to follow what little plot there was.  Anyway, lets do our giallo checklist:  Bad acting?  yes.  Terrible dubbing?  yep.  Odd disjointed music?  hell yeah.  Jumpy camerawork reminiscent of an amateur home movie?  bingo!  Cheap special effects?  you got it!  Should be a lot of fun for fans of this genre but we decided to just fast forward to the murders themselves and call it a night.

The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (UK 1960) (6): Director Terence Fisher takes enormous liberties with Robert Louis Stevenson’s 19th century novella in this lush, and surprisingly adult, Hammer Film’s adaptation. Mild-mannered London scientist Dr. Jekyll, shunned by the medical community and cuckolded by his wife, is obsessed with man’s dual nature…..the inner soul which strives for love and goodness vs. the “higher man”, a cold calculating machine whose insatiable appetites for excitement and pleasure go unhindered by moral constraints. Concocting a serum which successfully separates these two forces, Jekyll injects himself thus giving rise to his amoral alter ego, Mr. Hyde. But unlike the drooling monster portrayed in countless other films, Fisher’s Hyde is portrayed as a virile and well-groomed man of means with a penchant for violence which lurks just beneath his dapper exterior. As cruel as he is handsome, Hyde wastes no time experiencing all the pleasures 1874 London has to offer; from smoky opium dens to raucous bordellos and all points in between. Hyde eventually cooks up a diabolical (and rather facile) scheme to even the score with his cheating wife and her lover but not before engaging in several psychological tug-of-wars with an increasingly horrified Jekyll persona. In his dual role of Jekyll/Hyde Paul Massie gives a good performance…ironically it’s Dr. Jekyll who is actually more frightening to behold with his glued on beard and eyebrows. Meanwhile veteran actor Christopher Lee successfully goes against character as a boorish libertine who sponges off his friend Dr. Jekyll even as he secretly beds his wife. Fisher’s take on the old story does contain a few interesting twists as we see a mousy Jekyll fashion a backbone out of his moral outrage (so unlike him) and an arrogant Hyde visibly flinch when his offer to buy Mrs. Jekyll’s affections are flatly turned down. Lastly, some lively cinematography and a generic orchestral score smooth over much of the film’s sillier elements…a Can-Can dance routine drags on way too long…and makes for an enjoyable, if not particularly challenging, late night treat. After all, when it comes to Hammer Horror one must always be willing to forgive.

Two for the Road (UK 1967) (7): Successful architect Mark Wallace (Albert Finney) and his wife of ten years Joanna (Audrey Hepburn) are flying across the channel for a business trip-cum-second honeymoon. But as they half-heartedly stick knives in one another en route you realize that their marriage is not only in deep trouble but has been for quite a while. Thus begins a string of non-sequential flashbacks as they ruminate over what went wrong. From the ambivalent blush of infatuation when they first met in the south of France, through the often stormy months of courtship, and finally the staid confines of marriage and parenthood, we see how their youthful zeal slowly gave way to creeping ennui even as their fortunes went from being penniless vagabonds to established members of the stuffy middle class. Stanley Donen’s remarkable film, highly experimental for the time, plays with our sense of time as it follows the rocky ups and downs of a relationship in crisis. More temporal montage than linear narrative, past and present merge seamlessly as memories take on a life of their own—at one point an older and unhappier Mark and Joanna driving a posh Mercedes-Benz pass their younger fiery selves on a French country lane, the latter putt-putting around in a broken down MG. Presented as a series of parallel road movies, these recollections provide an emotional minefield of sorts with romantic moments of bohemian abandon being punctuated by bitter tiffs and the odd affair. A brief driving holiday with a sickeningly bourgeois American couple and their horrid child provides some comic relief while holding up an uncomfortable mirror, and a pair of encounters at an ultra glam soiree proves to be a turning point—but which direction will Joanna and Mark take? Cool and oh-so hip from Hepburn’s mod 60’s outfits to its counter-culture message, Donen’s film could have become just so much arty pretension. But the passionate chemistry between Finney and Hepburn combined with Frederic Raphael’s Oscar-nominated screenplay and Henry Mancini’s beautiful orchestral accompaniments instead produce a strangely endearing dramatic comedy that sparkles as it bites.

U-Carmen Ekhayelitsha  (South Africa 2005) (7):  I've always enjoyed watching artists take a chance. Setting "Carmen" in modern day South Africa is a pretty big chance and, for the most part, Dornford-May manages to pull it off. The music is wonderful and the singing is superb.  Unfortunately it doesn't manage to capture the sensuality and passion of the opera and instead we are left watching a very admirable amateur production with a few clever twists.

Ugetsu  (Japan 1953) (9):  Brilliant film about the dire consequences of unchecked ambition and the illusory nature of celebrity. Two men, two desperate quests for material success, two tragic realizations that the single-minded pursuit of fame and fortune often comes with a horrible price. Mizoguchi's masterful use of light and composition raises the somewhat terse dialogue to poetic heights. A quiet masterpiece.

Unbranded (USA 2015) (7): Before they enter the adult rat race for good, four college grads decide to go on the ultimate road trip—riding a pack of semi-wild mustangs clear across the back country of America from the Mexican border in Texas to the Canadian line in Montana. Months are spent beforehand gathering supplies and taming mounts until they finally set out with an air of excited anticipation and an unseen camera crew in tow. Riding past some of North America’s most stunning landscapes, from purple mountain majesties to fruited plains (and a whole lot of mud, scrub, and cactus), we see a change come over men and beasts as hardships take their toll and a sense of isolation—offset somewhat by GPS and cellphones—sets in. The horses show their inner strength even though a little burro ultimately steals the limelight and the guys experience personality clashes between moments of reflection with their de facto leader emerging as somewhat of a narcissist…a fact made abundantly clear when, a mile from the border, an unexpected wrench is thrown into his plans. As a straight travelogue director/cinematographer Phillip Baribeau packs a great deal of scenery and emotion into 105 minutes as the men make their way through arid deserts and mountain hailstorms, at one point they traverse a narrow ledge high above the Grand Canyon and you unconsciously hold your breath. Meanwhile one of their many resource people, an aging cowboy poet, makes an appearance and struggles to hold back the tears as he wonders whether or not his own son, killed at the age of four, would have enjoyed making such a trek himself. But when the cameras turn their attention on talking heads from the Bureau of Land Management or BLM (the government agency responsible for safeguarding public lands and the wildlife therein) things become problematic. Clearly biased towards the BLM’s handling of the wild mustang population as well as the needs of ranchers whose grazing cattle compete with the horses, Baribeau leaves precious little room for criticism from the opposing point of view. Is it really necessary to round up thousands of these wild animals for auction every year in order to save them? Are they really responsible for destroying their own habitat through unchecked breeding? The sociopolitical arena is muddled indeed but thankfully this doesn’t seem to be the film’s main focus and before long the boys are back in the saddle again getting drunk and wondering what it’s all about.

Uncle Buck (USA 1989) (5): When a family emergency calls Bob and Cindy Russell out of town they reluctantly leave his chronically unemployed slob of a brother Buck (John Candy, born for the part) in charge of their three kids: sullen teenaged bitch Tia and nauseatingly precocious tykes Maizy and Miles (a post Michael Jackson, pre DUI Macaulay Culkin). Of course no sooner have mom and dad backed out of the driveway then Uncle Buck and Tia are locking horns and the two little ones are learning some interesting new vocabulary. Determined to protect Tia from her perpetually horny boyfriend Buck inadvertently inflicts one humiliation after another upon her while she in turn takes some delight in sabotaging his already shaky love life. But not to worry for by the time the parents return everyone has learned something about life with hugs and reconciliations all around, mother and daughter mending bridges, and Uncle Buck discovering the art of responsibility. A formulaic script filled with tired generational clichés amounts to little more than watching an obese Candy mugging his way through a series of lame pratfalls—Uncle Buck does laundry in the microwave, flips a giant pancake with a snow shovel, punches a clown—with no narrative glue to bind them together. Director John Hugh’s earlier attempts to plumb the generation gap yielded such gems as Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. With Uncle Buck he simply tosses us a rock.

Uncle John (USA 2015) (8): Soft-spoken uncle John has just killed a man. He followed him as he stumbled, dazed and injured, along the shore of a lake and then made extra sure he was dead before disposing of the body forever. Miles away, John’s nephew Ben has begun a frustratingly platonic office friendship with his new manager Kate and the two of them have decided to drive out to visit the old man so Ben can show her around Uncle John’s dairy farm-cum-furniture workshop and perhaps pick up a box of his favourite childhood doughnuts along the way. Everything goes well until Danny, the dead man’s thuggish brother, stops by with a few uncomfortable questions for John and a pleasant sunny afternoon segues into a dark and dangerous night… Opening with murder and the voice of an offscreen pastor haranguing his unseen congregation with a sermon on hellfire and damnation while Wisconsin’s lake country flashes past Uncle John’s speeding pick-up truck, it is clear that director Steven Piet (making his feature debut) and co-writer Erik Crary are taking us on a devilishly skewed journey indeed. Although not as sleek or polished as a Coen Brothers production there is no mistaking the fact that we have entered Fargo territory with grizzled locals gossiping it up at Franny’s cafe, an amiable sheriff sharing a few brews while trying to add up what few clues he has, and Kate and Ben’s slow-burning fondness for each other lending an unexpectedly low-key eroticism to an already low-key thriller—not so much a “whodunit” as it is a “why’d-he-doit?” With an eye for geometrical symmetries, Piet frames his characters in squares and rectangles with the occasional bold splash of colour or consciously placed doorframe dividing the screen and focusing our attention. And his cast is impeccable from Alex Moffat and Jenna Lyng as Ben and Kate, all goofy smiles and clumsy stares, to an outstanding performance by veteran actor John Ashton in the title role, a tired and drooping old man with enough gall to end another’s life but sense enough to be wracked by guilt over it. Some may be put off by the film’s glacial pacing and a script so cleverly offhand yet commonplace it seems entirely ad-libbed, but I count these among its strengths especially when combined with some brilliant cinematography which takes full advantage of all those wide open spaces and endless country roads. Piet and Crary have managed to tap into the eccentricities of the Coens to produce a one-off piece of Americana whose macabre touches and simmering suspense also bring to mind a very young Hitchcock.

Unconscious (Spain 2004) (8): Set in Barcelona, 1913, Joaquín Oristrell’s ribald Freudian sex farce combines a piercing sense of humour with just enough erotica to get your id revved up. When her famous neurologist husband mysteriously disappears Alma Pardo enlists the aid of her unhappily married brother-in-law Salvador (Luis Tosar, one of the sexiest actors to emerge from the Iberian peninsula), also a neurologist of some renown, to track him down. Following the clues in Dr. Pardo’s celebrated thesis on “female hysteria” (he was a newly converted acolyte of Sigmund Freud) Alma and Salvador’s quest will lead them on a series of very funny misadventures all of which poke a few satirical holes in fin de siècle psychoanalysis—from a transvestite soiree to a steamy men’s sauna and an ornately appointed bordello to the set of a clandestine porn studio. Along the way our two amateur sleuths will not only have to confront a host of psychosexual theories made flesh, they’ll also have to deal with their growing attraction for one another; a situation further complicated when Salvador accidentally hypnotizes himself into telling his frigid wife what’s really on his mind. Filmed in washed out colours against penny postcard backdrops and utilizing the occasional silent era conceit, Oristrell’s wicked little comedy revels in its various neuroses as it mines Sigmund’s heady theories for all the lowbrow laughs it can get. A final confrontation between the legendary Austrian analyst and one very dysfunctional family literally brings the house down while a series of clever codas undermines some of the film’s darker elements reminding us that since we’re all a little fucked up anyway we might as well have fun with it.

Under Milk Wood (UK 1972) (5): Dylan Thomas’ beautiful prose is meant to be played out in the theatre of the mind where its soaring imagery can pluck your imagination into creating his tumbledown Welsh fishing village and all the colourful characters that inhabit its cobbled streets. Confined to celluloid it becomes a stilted and self-conscious melee as we watch glassy-eyed narrator Richard Burton wandering aimlessly through the aforementioned town mouthing Thomas’ words while a series of pedestrian dramatizations attempt to bring them to life. Despite a capable cast—including Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O’Toole—the visuals just can’t compete with the poetry and it all comes to resemble a film school experiment gone awry. A fanciful closing sequence of midnight revelry offers little redemption.

Under the Sand (France 2000) (8): The ever beautiful Charlotte Rampling is mesmerizing in François Ozon’s terribly sad drama about guilt and unresolved grief. While enjoying a seaside vacation together, Marie’s husband of twenty-five years goes for a swim in the ocean and never returns. A year later his memory still haunts her, quite literally, as she struggles to deal with the uncertainty of what happened that day—did he drown? Was it a suicide? Or, as his embittered mother insists, something else entirely? With no body to mourn and an apartment which has slowly turned into a shrine, Marie is going through the motions of living while still talking about Jean in the present tense as if his absence were but temporary. And then two things occur which jar her already brittle psyche to the core: the possibility of a new romance presents itself and she receives a troubling phone call from the police. Written with compassionate detachment and directed with the lightest of touches, Ozon refuses to lead his audience in any one direction but rather beckons us to simply watch quietly as a slowly unraveling Marie tries to keep her own head above water especially after she uncovers some secrets Jean had been hiding from her. With the seasons flowing from Summer towards Winter and widescreen panoramas of crashing waves more metaphorical than physical, this piercing study of a lonely middle-aged woman’s growing disillusionment is a perfect example of what can happen when a fearless actress crosses paths with the right director.

Under the Skin (UK 2013) (7): A nameless woman (Scarlett Johansson, enigmatic) prowls the streets of Glasgow in a beat up van looking for single unattached men to seduce. Once under her charms the men follow her into abandoned buildings where they strip down and willingly wade into a sinister pool of oil which swallows them whole. Although the reason behind this ritual is not fully revealed one gets the impression she has little choice in the matter for a grim-faced man on a motorcycle is constantly spurring her on. Regarding her victims with the cool detachment of a black widow, the woman appears incapable of human emotions—even witnessing a tragic double drowning on a lonely stretch of beach fails to elicit more than a few uncomprehending blinks. But when she takes pity on a severely disfigured man and responds to the gentle advances of another her detachment turns to panicked confusion and an attempt to abandon her murderous mission leads to an unearthly revelation and one final tragedy. Jonathan Glazer combines elements of horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction in this quietly unsettling road movie whose poverty of dialogue is offset by provocative images of grey urban landscapes and mist-shrouded wildernesses. Deliberately obscure to the point of frustrating, Glazer refuses to shed much light on the what and why of the story and instead invites (challenges?) his audience to connect the ill-defined dots themselves. There are definite elements of The Man Who Fell To Earth at work here, but unlike Bowie’s well-meaning but gullible Mr. Newton, Johansson’s motives are left up in the air with only a few briefly flashed clues to guide you. Glazer’s hidden cameras manage to produce some wonderfully natural performances—the “victims” were not actors nor did they know they were being filmed in the van until afterwards—and Johansson, sporting blood red lipstick and a raven wig, is a convincing paradox of cold-blooded predator and bemused ingénue. A haunting mystery and a darkly comic take on sexuality as a weapon that cuts both ways. Worth a look if you’ve got the patience.

Undertow (Peru 2009) (9): With hints of Ghost and Longtime Companion, Javier Fuentes-Leòn’s piercing drama is one of the most beautiful gay love stories to hit the screen in years. Miguel is a simple fisherman living in a tiny coastal village where everyone knows everyone else’s business. Very married, and with a baby on the way, he nevertheless manages to carry on a clandestine affair with Santiago, a handsome free-spirited artist who’s recently taken up residence on the outskirts of town. However, despite their obvious feelings for one another, Miguel is still plagued by Catholic guilt and that rigid code of Latin machismo which balks at the idea of two men finding warmth and passion in one another’s arms. It all changes one day when Santiago drowns at sea and his very solid spirit, in need of a proper burial, begins showing up at Miguel’s doorstep on a regular basis. After the initial shock wears off Miguel actually becomes quite pleased with this new arrangement; after all it is far easier to carry on an affair with a man no one else can see or hear. But loving a ghost (or a simple memory?) carries its own emotional toll and when the truth of Miguel’s past becomes common knowledge thanks to some incriminating artwork and a few wagging tongues he is faced with a heart-rending decision; a decision wherein either choice comes with a terrible price. Against a brilliant backdrop of pastel buildings and restless seascapes Leòn’s simple story takes on the dimensions of a modern parable as one man’s struggle with his own sexual and emotional ambivalence is given a corporeal existence. Thankfully there is none of the dramatic hyperbole one would expect from an American treatment of this subject matter (Brokeback Mountain still makes me heave). The lead actors put in completely believable performances whether it’s a teary reproach or a sensuous coupling on a deserted beach; their sex scenes are genuinely erotic, their various farewells deeply heartbreaking. Furthermore, the actress playing Mariela, Miguel’s wife, traces her character’s evolution from shocked disbelief to angry confrontation with consummate skill. While understandably confused, Mariela is never martyred but shown instead as a fellow casualty of both church and society. But metaphor and political subtext notwithstanding, Undertow is first and foremost a delicately nuanced and bittersweet romance; uncomplicated in its presentation, lyrical in style, achingly human in scope.

Unfaithfully Yours (USA 1948) (8): On the eve of a great performance a fastidious and somewhat egotistical orchestra conductor (Rex Harrison) becomes convinced he is being cuckolded by his beautiful young wife (Linda Darnell) despite her obvious devotion to him. With no time to confront her he takes to the stage consumed with jealousy and as he frantically waves his baton around he envisions three separate scenarios, all set to classical music, by which he might deal with her supposed infidelity. Ranging from gruesome (and most ingenious) revenge to sobbing forgiveness his perfectly planned fantasies goad him into giving the most heartfelt concert of his career. But upon returning to their lavish Manhattan apartment all attempts to make those dark daydreams a reality result in comic mayhem as fate throws him one hilarious curveball after another. Like any good classical composer writer/director Preston Sturges begins this wickedly funny little opus on a minor key with Harrison’s growing paranoia contrasting sharply with Darnell’s wide-eyed bemusement while a supporting cast’s best intentions propel the story ever onward. Sturges then hits a sombre chord introduced by an amazing close-up in which the camera goes right past Harrison’s eyelashes and directly into his mind where his troubled psychodramas play out in moody B&W while the band plays on. The best is saved for last however with bleak melodrama giving way to slapstick burlesque as the conductor makes an ever greater fool of himself and the loving wife begins to suspect he may have snapped more than his baton. A grand romantic farce intelligently written and presented with gusto!

The Uninvited Guest  (El Habitante Incierto) (Spain 2004) (9):  Felix is alone in the house when a stranger comes to the door asking to use the phone, apparently his car has broken down and he needs to call a garage.  Felix obliges but when the stranger suddenly disappears into the house things start to get......odd.  This is a ferociously intelligent psychological thriller/horror/black comedy offering from Spain that draws you in and screws with your mind until the final frame. Well done!

United 93  (USA 2006) (9):  I refused to see this film in the theatres thinking it to be a grotesque exploitation of other people's misery. I rented it on the advice of a fellow cinephile and quickly realized how wrong I had been. If anything this film is a respectful memorial to those who lost their lives on 9/11....one only has to see the family interviews in the "extras" section to realize this. Technically and artistically it is a tremendous achievement.....with a frantic verite style and believable dialogue delivered by some amazing actors. One gets the claustrophobic feeling that they are actually silent witnesses on the plane itself rather than passive observers. There is no political grandstanding, no patriotic propaganda.......just a heartbreaking story of some ordinary people in an extraordinary situation.

Up (USA 2009) (8): When he was a young boy, Carl Fredricksen dreamed of piloting a fantastic flying machine into the wilds of South America. Fueled by newsreel footage of dashing adventurer Charles Muntz’s escapades in those southern jungles he vowed, along with his childhood sweetheart Ellie, that someday he would journey to the semi-mythical Paradise Falls (a land lost in time!) But sometimes life gets in the way of living and despite the young couple’s best efforts to realize their dream there were always bills to pay and minor crises to avert. Sadly, Ellie dies without ever stepping foot outside the United States, leaving Carl an embittered old man long past his prime. With developers itching to bulldoze his home and a nursing home eager to add him to their census, he hatches an ingenious scheme to leave the civilized world behind; he attaches thousands of helium-filled balloons to the chimney and turns his house into a domestic dirigible. Accompanied by Russell, a 10-year old “Wilderness Explorer” who happened to be on the porch during lift-off, Carl finally sets sail for South America... Pixar’s latest adventure is a pure delight from start to finish. Meticulously detailed and rich in bright carnival colours, Up attests to the power of animation to touch an emotional chord with its audience whether it be a soft-spoken pathos or a wistful yearning for some magic in our lives. Of course there is the expected assortment of oddly charming (and marketable) characters one expects from Pixar; a pack of dogs fitted with talking collars had us rolling on the couch, a mad scientist looms menacingly, and a giant pastel bird comes close to stealing the show. Beyond the kaleidoscopic visuals and slapstick action, however, there is a surprising depth to this story. The buoyant quality of dreams is certainly taken to its literal extreme but the crippling effect of memories, especially those associated with guilt or unresolved grief, is beautifully illustrated as we see Carl stumbling over an expanse of barren rock dragging his floating house behind him as if it were a leg iron. Yet, as the old man finally lets go of the past and the young boy learns the importance of duty, we are treated to one last radiant barrage of sight and sound which brings the entire film to a perfect three-point landing.

Up the Down Staircase (USA 1967) (6):  Sandy Dennis plays a wide-eyed young idealist who accepts a teaching position at a poor inner city highschool in this film that strives for gritty realism but ends up looking like an episode of “Degrassi High: The Bronx” instead. All the usual characters are in attendance with the class clown, the dumpy girl with emotional problems, the dangerous loner with a switchblade, and the angry black student with a chip on his shoulder sitting right up front. There are a few promising storylines here but for some reason Mulligan does not follow through on them. The result is a lukewarm drama that fails to engage the viewer and culminates in an ending that is both bland and predictable. There is one scene that stands out however; a young student with a crush on her former English teacher presents him with a poorly written love letter only to have her spirit crushed as the cavalier bastard corrects her grammatical errors without once addressing her feelings. That scene, along with a wonderful guitar and woodwind soundtrack, almost made the two hours worth it.

Ushpizin (Israel 2004) (7): Although he gave up his acting career when he converted to orthodox Judaism, Shuli Rand agreed to star in this final film, which he also scripted, provided the distributor adhered to a few stipulations: refrain from showing it on the Sabbath and cast his real-life wife Michal as his onscreen wife. Needless to say they agreed. It’s the eve of Succoth—a seven-day celebration commemorating the Jews’ flight from Egypt in which makeshift shacks (sukkahs) are erected as temporary dwellings and any guests, or ushpizin, are especially honoured—and ultra-orthodox Jerusalem couple Moshe and Malli Bellanga are in dire straits. Not only has Mali failed to conceive a child in their five years of marriage but their cupboards are as bare as their bank account. With no money to buy a sukkah or prepare the traditional meals, and no guests to wait upon anyway, the holidays are looking very bleak indeed. Turning to God for assistance the Bellanga’s fervent prayers give rise to a series of seeming miracles including the arrival of a pair of unexpected guests from Moshe’s past, Yossef and Eliyahu. But Moshe’s friends remember him from a time before he became devoutly religious, a former life he’s kept from Malli and would just as soon forget himself. Raucous, profane, and just a little malevolent, Yossef and Eliyahu’s presence will have a profound effect on both Moshe’s marriage and his status within the ultra-conservative neighbourhood itself… I always find religious eccentricities somewhat baffling while inspirational tales of “miraculous intercession” are downright hokey, and Ushpizin definitely delivers on both counts. But all those orthodox idiosyncrasies (Moshe loses it when a “holy citron” he paid a small fortune for ends up in a tossed salad) provide a degree of cultural humour especially when they clash with the boorish secularism of the Bellanga’s unwelcome guests. Furthermore, the constant struggle to balance faith (or simply hope) with harsher reality will strike a universal chord with any audience. And finally, despite a predictably saccharine ending, Shuli and Michal Rand are just plain charming together. Their grounded performances, full of piety yet tinged with doubt, make Ushpizin more than just a Judaic Hallmark Moment.

Valley of the Bees  (Czechoslovakia 1967) (9):  Well crafted parable on the struggle between spiritual idealism and secular pragmatism. Two knights, each representing one side, try to bridge the widening gulf between them with tragic consequences. The ending was sublime

Vampyr (Germany 1932) (7): Carl Theodor Dreyer’s first talkie was this dark, atmospheric tale of vampires and lost souls wreaking havoc in the French countryside. World traveler and student of the occult Allan Grey finds himself in a lonely country inn with nothing but hayseeds and a taciturn housemaid for company. Plagued by bad dreams and an unsettling nighttime visitation from a strange old man, Grey is drawn to a mysterious mansion where ghosts and grotesque visions await him. It seems Gisèle, the landowner’s daughter, has fallen prey to one of the undead and before her father can summon the help she needs he is murdered. Thus it falls to Grey, armed only with a brave heart and an arcane textbook on vampires, to defend Gisèle’s soul by battling the forces of darkness and their human allies… Although the circuitous storyline often seems to double back on itself there is no denying Dreyer’s eerie sense of style: weird shadows flit about on walls and ceilings, strobe lights flash from stairwells and window panes, and a triumphant sunrise dispels the dank mists from an enchanted forest. At one point Grey has an out-of-body experience where he witnesses his own burial complete with macabre coffin cam while in another scene an image of the grim reaper sits patiently by a gloomy river. And Dreyer keeps our perspective off balance the whole time with skewed camera angles and impressionistic sets which seem to waver in and out of existence as if in a nightmare. A largely amateur cast (Grey himself is played by a French-born member of the Russian aristocracy) devilishly emote their way through a sparse script while Dreyer heaps on the effects…reportedly breaking jars of jam in order to attract more dirt and bugs. Nosferatu would feel right at home.

The Vanishing Point [Ce que mes yeux ont vu ] (France 2007) (6): Life and art bleed into one another in Laurent de Bartilat’s glacially paced academic thriller which offers poignant insights into the nature of both in lieu of shocks and car chases. Budding art historian Lucie Audibert (Sylvie Testud looking like an orphaned waif from Les Mis) is obsessed with the works of 18th century painter Jean-Antoine Watteau, especially his recurrent motif of a beautiful young woman with her back turned towards the viewer. Determined to discover who this woman was Lucie delves into Watteau’s life, concentrating on his elusive circle of friends and his fascination with Paris’ Comédie-Française theatre troupe. Convinced Watteau left small enigmatic clues in his finished canvases Lucie’s dogged determination to discover the truth puts her at odds with her university mentor, an embittered old man who’s inexplicably averse to her historical meddling. Refusing to back down, Lucie’s inquiries lead her from the streets of old Paris to the modern haunts of Belgium and what she discovers will threaten to set the staid art world on its collective ear. Definitely not a crowd pleaser but sure to engage anyone with even a passing interest in the psychology of art and the minds who create it, Bartilat’s often dry presentation is given depth by some artful touches of his own: Lucie unconsciously assumes the pose of Watteau’s mysterious model, a glaring billboard speaks of academic blindness, and Lucie’s mother is living a life which could have been taken from one of the paintings her daughter is studying. An improbable love interest in the form of a deaf street performer with a fascination for Parisian history, meant perhaps to link Lucie with the past, seemed almost superfluous and the artistic trail of clues she follows doesn’t really make sense until the final reel--but as an intellectual teaser it managed to keep me interested and the fact that it was not written by Dan Brown came as a relief.

Vanishing Waves (Lithuania 2012) (7): In this inner space science fiction psych-romance writer/director Kristina Buozyte deftly skirts chick flick territory thanks to a savvy script and a pair of brave actors willing to bare all for the sake of art. As part of a revolutionary “neuron-transfer” experiment, scientist Lukas agrees to be hooked up to the mind of a comatose patient via an elaborate wired headset and watery sensory deprivation tank. The idea is to synch his brain waves with those of the subject thereby becoming the first person in history to directly experience the thoughts and sensations of another. But entering this alternate unreality carries unforeseen hazards for as soon as Lukas surfaces into the other’s mind he finds a mysterious woman waiting for him and the two begin a series of id-driven encounters that threaten to derail the entire project, alienate him from his “real” girlfriend, and drive him quietly insane. But who is this woman and why is she so desperately needy? Minimalist high-tech sets give an otherwise far-fetched tale some sense of credibility while arty camera effects and modest CGI (the creepy bug was fascinating) remind you that it’s not supposed to make perfect sense, at least not on the surface. And what leads Marius Jampolskis and Jurga Jutaite lack in onscreen charisma they certainly make up for with enthusiasm as they brood and despair in between bouts of erotic abandon—his single-minded moodiness spilling over into real life while her erratic bi-polar swings hint at deeper conflicts. Not a perfect tale by any stretch but by the time all the pieces fall into place Buozyte caps it off with a satisfyingly bittersweet ending and the background score of sad arias is nicely arranged.

The Vault of Horror (UK 1973) (6): Trapped in a comfortably appointed office basement after the elevator they were taking mysteriously breaks down, five men while away the hours retelling their worst nightmares in this cheeky horror anthology based on the "Tales From the Crypt" comic book series. The best of the lot concerns an artist (Tom Baker) whose dabbling in voodoo goes straight to his head. The weakest link is a murderer who picks the wrong restaurant in which to celebrate his latest kill. Lots of kitschy fun but not a whole lot of blood thanks to the BBFC nannies. Terry Thomas and Glynis Johns also join in the fun.

Vera (Mexico 2003) (8):  When an elderly man becomes trapped in a cave by a rockslide he finds himself embarking on a strange voyage accompanied by an enigmatic woman. Despite the rather poor quality of this DVD transfer I still found Vera to be an amazing film. The concept of death as both a linear journey and a series of ritualized transformations is explored using seductive, almost hypnotic imagery and a very minimalist soundtrack with no narration and almost no dialogue. Athie incorporates religious iconography from a multitude of sources and blends them seamlessly into one man's unique spiritual awakening. Well done!

Vernon, Florida (USA 1981) (2): An early work by eclectic documentarian Errol Morris in which he attempts to take the pulse of a backwater white trash town in northern Florida. Those of you familiar with the geography will have an uncomfortable sense of déjà-vu while the rest of us will stare disbelievingly at the drawling preacher who makes an entire sermon out of the word "Therefore" (he also had to consult the dictionary to look up "conjunction"); the turkey enthusiast who views the hunt as an ongoing battle of wits (with the gobblers often coming out on top); and the incomprehensible septuagenarian who keeps possums and turtles in a makeshift pen for some reason or another. Morris' static camera and insistence that his redneck subjects completely empty their thoughts on film makes for one of the longest hours I've ever squirmed through. 'Murkah, fuck yeah!

Veronika Voss (Germany 1982) (8): The final instalment in Fassbinder’s loosely strung “BRD Trilogy” in which he uses the plight of his female protagonists as a metaphor for Germany’s post WWII zeitgeist. It’s 1955 and movie star Veronika Voss, once the toast of Berlin and rumoured to be Goebbel’s personal playmate, clings tenaciously to her rapidly fading glory. But changing times and a ravaging addiction to morphine have rendered her a sparkling anachronism who has gone from leading lady to playing bit parts as “The Mother”. A chance encounter with reporter Robert Krohn, himself stuck in a rut with a dead end job and loveless relationship, eventually leads to a wild affair and some dispiriting revelations as Krohn gradually uncovers the truth behind the legend. Not only is Voss involved in a psychologically (and financially) destructive sadomasochistic relationship with Dr. Katz, the female neurologist who supplies her morphine, she seems forever stuck in 1943—unable to understand that her star set long ago and only film buffs and old ladies remember her anymore. Now with Veronika’s mental state deteriorating and Krohn asking too many uncomfortable questions, it is only a matter of time before Katz makes a move to protect her “investment”. Filmed in dismal black and glaring white which renders faces ghostlike and interiors cold and antiseptic, Veronika Voss’ world is a schizoid mix of real life angst and desperate illusions where cruelty and selfishness lead to success and love becomes a weapon turned against the one who offers it. With everyone’s radio blaring a curious mixture of patriotic tirades and American country music while they go about using and discarding one another this is one of Fassbinder’s most angry and pessimistic films. Comparable to Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard with its gothic touches and various levels of madness, Veronika Voss’s final curtain doesn’t so much signify the death of an era but rather the birth of something monstrous.

La Vie En Rose (France 2007) (6):  Marion Cotillard’s powerful performance smoothes out most of the rough edges in this dark tribute to the intense and turbulent life of France’s most celebrated chanteuse. Dahan’s episodic narrative weaves back and forth through time, from Piaf’s unhap(py childhood during WW1 to her sad and untimely death in 1963. The result is more of a loose collage than a standard biography which, taken in its entirety, leaves you with a keen sense of the woman behind the legend. I admit to not being a great fan of the biopic genre as I am constantly aware of the artistic license directors use in order to make their films watchable. The camera certainly lingers on Piaf’s private misery often to the exclusion of anything else. It’s this lack of balance that left “La Vie En Rose” feeling incomplete and somewhat lop-sided to me. A passionate and sincere film nonetheless with some of the most dynamic acting I’ve seen in some time....just not destined to be in my personal top 10 this year. 

The V.I.Ps (USA 1963) (8):  When a heavy fog grounds all planes at London’s Heathrow airport the resulting flight delays have a dramatic effect on the personal lives of several passengers stranded in the First Class lounge.  There’s the wealthy socialite fleeing her loveless marriage and the French gigolo who’s accompanying her; the Australian tycoon facing bankruptcy and his personal assistant who’s secretly in love with him; the cash-strapped European director and his air-headed starlet; and lastly, the doddery old Duchess trying to raise enough cash to save her ancestral home.  Part Love Boat, part Airport, this technicolour soap opera features a paper-thin script and a wholly contrived series of plot lines.  So why did I enjoy it so much?  Because as a paper-thin soap opera it is a great deal of fun to watch!  The A-list cast is in top form as they agonize and emote, the set designs feature some wonderful examples of early 60’s kitsch (Liz Taylor’s Givenchy gowns are to die for) and lastly, Margaret Rutherford’s portrayal of the pill-popping Duchess is a pure delight.  Silly, sappy, and at times bordering on camp yet strangely watchable.  Put your brain in neutral and enjoy!

Viy (Russia 1967) (9): Once upon a time in old Russia an arrogant young seminarian named Khoma is summoned to the house of a rich land baron. The man’s nubile daughter had just died under tragic circumstances the previous day but before she drew her final breath she insisted that Khoma spend three nights praying over her body for reasons known only to her. At first bewildered by the request since he had no idea why a strange woman would ask for him by name, Khoma goes to the church where the girl’s corpse is lying in state. Upon seeing her face however he realizes that the two of them had indeed met once before under the most terrifying of circumstances. Promised a thousand gold pieces to complete his three-night vigil (and a thousand lashes should he refuse) Khoma brings his holy book to the chapel and prepares for a night of solemn observances. But it’s hard to pray over a body that refuses to stay dead… Directed by graduates of the prestigious Mosfilm Institute and billed as the first Russian horror film, Viy is a giddy mix of dark comedy and spooky chills. Using painted storybook backdrops, Orthodox imagery, and a host of surprisingly competent special effects the film stays true to its roots as a Ukrainian folk tale while at the same time never taking itself too seriously. The rustic sets and cast of rowdy peasants are authentic enough and Khoma’s ultimate battle with the agents of darkness is a riot of hidden wires and rear projection with flocks of bats and ravens careening overhead and all manner of ghouls and demons melting out of the woodwork. A glorious example of unfettered imagination trumping a decidedly modest budget, this is classic Soviet cinema.

Wait Until Dark (USA 1967) (6): An antique doll stuffed with a small fortune in heroin falls into the unwitting hands of a blind Manhattan housewife who has no clue as to its true value. Desperate to get it back, a pair of low-level crooks and their psychotically evil boss stage an elaborate ruse involving fake IDs and role-playing in order to trick her into surrendering the toy. But she proves to be smarter than they think and a relatively tame deception quickly escalates into a deadly game of cat and mouse. Set almost entirely within the confines of a small New York apartment, director Terence Young manages to wring a surprising amount of dramatic tension out of his limited space especially during the final crucial moments which he wisely filmed in near total darkness. And in the lead role a luminous Audrey Hepburn is given free reign to showcase her enormous star power, deservedly garnering an Oscar nomination in the process. But the concocted plot is so blatantly outlandish that I found its clever little twists more amusing than suspenseful while Alan Arkin’s hissing malevolent gangster (complete with affected New York twang) seemed straight out of an underground comic book. Finally, a highly improbable (though intricately staged) climactic showdown gave the envelope that final push. A fine piece of entertainment nonetheless, as long as you don’t overanalyze it.

Wakeful Nights (Japan 2005) (4): “Rakugo”, we’re told in the film’s first frames, is a traditional form of Japanese comic storytelling. Part performance art, part stand-up routine, it consists of a lone narrator recounting a humorous story using minimal props and playing all the characters himself. This particular story begins with Kyokaku, an elderly master of the art, lying on his deathbed. As his family and friends gather around he makes one last puzzling request; to see a woman’s “honeypot”. Scouring the family tree for a relative willing to fulfill the master’s wishes they eventually find an agreeable daughter-in-law eager to doff her panties for a noble cause; and thus the stage is set for the film’s one and only amusing punchline. Gathering at the ensuing series of wakes (death seems to come in threes) the surviving family members regale each other with exaggerated tales concerning the deceased, usually bawdy in nature with a vulgar emphasis on genitals, bodily waste, and sexual exploits, with a bit of aquatic bestiality thrown in for good measure. Not so much a linear story as a series of sake-fueled flashbacks, we are treated to a few tasteless funereal exploits nonetheless with a dancing corpse and raunchy rap contest taking centre stage. I’m sure a native Japanese speaker would find Wakeful Nights to be a riot since the majority of laughs come in the form of puns and double-entendres but, alas, this type of culture-specific humour does not translate well into another language. To his credit, fledgling director Masahiko does try to bridge this gap by cluttering the screen with colour-coded subtitles and annotated surtitles aimed at explaining to Western audiences just why their Japanese counterparts are rolling in the aisles. But, as we all know, timing is everything and if you have to explain a joke it ceases to be funny.

Wake in Fright (Australia 1971) (8): Male bonding becomes a destructive force in Ted Kotcheff’s psychological gut-punch of a film, a classic only recently restored. John Grant is a schoolteacher contracted to work in the Australian outback, a scorched wilderness of red dirt and buzzing flies which he loathes. Anxious to get back to his girlfriend in Sydney for the Christmas holidays Grant instead finds himself in the dusty hellhole town of Bundanyabba (aka “The Yabba"), stranded and penniless thanks to a night of reckless gambling. Surrounded by macho neanderthals whose daily rites of manhood consist of beer, bravado, and an overbearing bonhomie, Grant at first finds it easy to rely on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter. But as the days wear on and the bottles pile up the town’s crippling sense of apathy and lives wasted begins to infect his own psyche culminating in a catastrophic evening of binging and gunplay when he and the blokes decide to hunt down kangaroos for a lark. Already in a drunken stupor Grant is not prepared for the cruel violence which follows nor for the aggressive male camaraderie which seems to affect every aspect of life in this forgotten whistle-stop. Oppressive and tainted with hopelessness, Kotcheff’s masterfully directed film plays like one man’s waking nightmare. Try as he may Grant just can’t seem to leave town and as he begins his slow descent he is further tormented by Faustian memories of his girlfriend beckoning half-naked before a pounding seashore. Faced with an existential mediocrity Grant’s despair is almost palpable which makes the film’s gripping final moments—scenes saturated with self-hatred and a bleak homoeroticism—all the more heart-rending and lending a sad irony to its sunbaked denouement.

Walk on Water (Israel 2004) (7): Eyal is a Mossad agent specializing in assassinating threats to Israeli security. Taciturn and cynical, he suffers from an emotional disconnectedness with the people around him. Even his wife’s recent suicide has failed to pierce his hard shell and a strange medical condition renders him incapable of shedding tears. Having dealt mainly with P.L.O. terrorists he is somewhat taken aback when his supervisor sets his sights on a new target; Alfred Himmelman, a decrepit Nazi war criminal who has recently disappeared from his private hospital room in Argentina. Believing the man’s wealthy son has spirited the feeble octogenarian back to Berlin, he orders Eyal to find him despite the young agent’s misgivings as to the value of hunting down someone who is half dead already. “I want to get him before God does...” is the boss’ only reply. Luckily Pia, the old man’s granddaughter, lives in a nearby kibbutz and is looking for someone to act as a guide for her visiting brother, a soft-spoken and openly gay Axel. Presenting himself as a tour operator, Eyal befriends the two siblings hoping to gather clues regarding the whereabouts of their grandfather. Eventually his investigation leads him to the family’s estate in Berlin where he finally confronts Alfred, now a withered husk connected to oxygen and an intravenous drip. What follows is an intense crises of moral and spiritual proportions for Eyal compounded by an unexpected intervention from Axel. Eytan Fox has crafted an insightful character study of one man’s search for salvation. Eyal spent years following orders, hardening his resolve and silencing any feelings of remorse. But when he comes up against Axel, a “patronizing German peacenik” he slowly begins to question the motives behind some of his vindictiveness. Fox juxtaposes gorgeous seaside vistas with grimy urban reality to lend greater depth to the film’s central metaphor; “Only by purifying the heart from inside, with no negativity, no bad thoughts, can you walk on water...” states Axel at one point. Unfortunately Fox stumbles towards the end with a conclusion that is too predictable and too tidy. Furthermore some plot developments seem like overkill; the wife’s portentous suicide note, Eyal and Axel’s “odd couple” relationship, and Axel’s dalliance with a Palestinian boyfriend. Luckily the film’s momentum manages to smooth over most of the rough spots and finishes with a lovely little flourish.

Walk on the Wild Side (USA 1962) (6): At the height of the Great Depression two penniless drifters meet up on a lonely stretch of Texas highway: lovesick Dove Linkhorn (Laurence Harvey) on his way to New Orleans to find the elusive Hallie, an artist with whom he had had an affair three years earlier and now can’t get out of his mind; and Kitty Twist (Jane Fonda), a wild and undisciplined runaway looking for nothing more out of life than a “good time”. Parting ways just outside the Big Easy, Dove finds work at a roadside cafe run by hot-blooded Teresina Vidaverrie who takes more than a passing fancy to him, while Kitty wanders into town seeking her fortune. A series of personal ads eventually lead Dove to Hallie (played by the stunning Capucine) but his joy is short-lived for his one true Love is now employed at a local bordello where Jo, the obsessive lesbian madam (a convincingly butch Barbara Stanwyck), has her in a tight psychological grip. Unable to simply walk away from the woman of his dreams, Dove faces increasingly dangerous opposition from Jo and her henchmen culminating in a tense confrontation involving bullets, broads, and an ambivalent Kitty, now reborn as Jo’s newest recruit, who may prove to be Dove’s only hope. Filmed in sensual shades of black and white, Edward Dmytryk’s noirish potboiler oozes with lust, corruption, and sins of every stripe. From the crumbling French Quarter sets which practically define southern gothic to the ghostly women and angry men which inhabit them, there is a pervasive sense of decadence and decay underlined by a score of muted jazz and the odd religious rebuke. But, like an episode of As The World Turns penned by Tennessee Williams, it boils down to one big lurid soap opera albeit one with a certain trashy sophistication that compels you to keep on watching. And aside from Fonda’s usual by-the-numbers delivery, everyone else approaches their roles with a believable passion.

The Wall (Austria 2012) (7): While visiting friends at their remote mountain cabin, a woman wakes up one morning to find herself alone with only the family dog as company. Believing her friends decided to spend the night in a nearby village she sets out on foot to find them only to discover her path blocked by an invisible wall. Her initial confusion soon turns to panic when she realizes that not only is the wall everywhere but all signs of human activity on the other side of it have ceased; a few vehicles lay abandoned and an elderly couple in a neighbouring chalet seem frozen in time like a pair of domestic statues. With her world now confined to an alpine valley with accompanying meadow, woods, and all the wildlife therein, the woman slowly prepares herself for a very uncertain future. Julian Pölsler’s existential sci-fi drama, Austria’s official 2014 Oscars submission, poses a very intriguing question: if you separate a person from all the man-made constructs which define their life, both socially and culturally, and then set them up as the last human being in the universe, how will they go about identifying themselves as human? With no one to compare themselves to and no societal conceits to dictate their actions, what new criteria will they use to determine their place in the scheme of things…and what new parameters will be imposed? In response to these weighty questions the woman’s makeshift diary traces a delicate spiritual awakening as her focus gradually shifts from quotidian concerns to zen-like acceptance when the true nature of her predicament becomes apparent. Although the rambling philosophical monologues occasionally become tedious (she has no one else to talk to after all) they never stray into banal navel-gazing territory. There is a crisp and insightful intelligence behind her inner dialogue which is given further power thanks to Martina Gedeck’s amazing performance and all those telling vistas of sunlit mountains and snow-dusted forests.

WarGames (USA 1983) (4): So this is the teen fantasy romp that inspired a generation of hackers and moved the American congress to revamp the “Computer Fraud and Abuse Act” of 1984? Hard to believe given it’s inane script whose schlocky “What If?” scenario relies more on audience gullibility and flashy sets than actual tension. While trying to steal some codes from a California-based games developer, Seattle computer whiz David (a young and skinny Matthew Broderick) accidentally hacks into the NORAD supercomputer in Colorado. When he challenges the chatty computer (who thinks he is its creator) to an innocent game of “Thermonuclear War” David unwittingly brings America and the USSR to the brink of WWIII for the military brass overseeing the semi-sentient mainframe have no way of knowing that the Russian missile launches they’re detecting are in fact simulations. With bombers taking to the air and the Soviets on high alert it falls to David and his potential new girlfriend (Ally Sheedy, just along for the ride apparently) to avert global disaster. Accompanied by an overdone Indiana Jones style musical score director John Badham has his geeky protagonist pull a few too many rabbits out of his slacker butt to allow for much suspension of disbelief—David escapes from the most highly locked-down site in North America using nothing but a pair of forceps and a tape recorder for one—and then he tries to turn an already overwrought finale into some sort of moral proclamation as man and machine realize that atomic warfare is just plain bad. Broderick and Sheedy’s characters are neither convincing nor particularly likeable and the rest of the crew look like they just stepped out of a television sitcom. With neither the cynical wit of Dr. Strangelove nor the fatalistic horror of Colossus: The Forbin Project this is little more than a dummied down adolescent thriller aimed directly at the 80’s bubblegum crowd. To its credit though it did herald the rising power of home computers and it made me smile to watch Broderick shuffling 8-inch floppies as if they were the pinnacle of technology (which they were….alas!).

Warrendale (Canada 1967) (7): With funding from the CBC, fledgling documentarian Allan King was allowed to take his cameras into Toronto’s Warrendale facility, an experimental centre treating emotionally disturbed children. With neither talking heads nor voiceovers to smooth out the rough spots, King simply let the cameras roll over several days’ worth of meltdowns, quiet times, and illuminating staff meetings. Although we are never given their diagnoses the kids, ranging in age from preteen to young adult, clearly suffer from a multitude of mental health issues including ADD and mild autism while the soft-spoken staff display an amazing degree of control as they use confrontation, whispered reassurances and, when needed, restraining hugs if a child’s acting out becomes too destructive (a few patched holes in the wall indicate that some hugs came too late). In one rather baffling scene bedtime stories and baby bottles are used to calm some of the older children down. Allowed unlimited access to both patients and employees, King films the quotidian realities of life at Warrendale—the soothing interventions, the daily tantrums, the giggling mischief—but when an unexpected tragedy befalls the facility he is on hand to record the psychological fallout as their caregivers help the children struggle through waves of overwhelming grief. The film’s seemingly unstructured format and voyeuristic approach (you can even hear the camera gears whirring away) are definitely not to everyone’s taste but King has left us with an intense documentary of children in pain and the adults who care for them. This is not cinéma-vérité, this is as real as life gets.

War Requiem (UK 1988) (8):  Wilfred Owen was a British lieutenant in WWI who wrote a series of poems based on his experiences.  Angry and despairing, yet darkly beautiful, his words were later made into a somber oratorio by Benjamin Britten.  Derek Jarman gives the works of Owen and Britten new life in this silent homage to the many casualties of war including love, youth, innocence and joy.  With all the solemnity of a high mass he uses a disjointed narrative and highly stylized images to tell the story of a doomed romance between a young soldier and an army nurse (the ever radiant Tilda Swinton).  Through Jarman’s uncompromising eye war is presented as a series of empty rituals and hollow glories:  a group of children dressed in military drag set fire to a teddy bear; a soldier receiving holy communion becomes a sacrificial lamb; and in one scene reminiscent of The Tin Drum, a young boy beats out a discordant rhythm while behind him a vulgar burlesque show parodying the goddess Britannia unfolds.  Some scenes are definitely overstated as when a young officer carrying a wreath of poppies past the ranks of his dead comrades comes upon a frozen tableau of the risen Christ, but for the most part Jarman shows remarkable restraint.  In one of the film’s most moving segments a group of weary soldiers gather by a muddy pond to wash each other’s wounds while elsewhere the nurse quietly braids her hair like a mad Ophelia.  This is an angry confrontational work, so typical of its director, but there is a terrible fragility to it as well when even the delicate smoke from an extinguished candle carries overtones of immense tragedy.

Waste Land (Brazil/UK 2010) (7): Celebrated contemporary Brazilian artist Vik Muniz, now living comfortably in America, decides to give something back to his Brazilian roots. Traveling to Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill located outside Rio, where a few thousand catadores (impoverished people who sort through the tons of garbage in search of recyclables to sell) eke out a living, Vik hit upon an ingenious plan to help them earn extra money. Under Vik’s guidance the catadores created huge portraits out of the garbage they’d collected which he then photographed and put on display in art galleries around the world. The resulting celebrity, not to mention cash windfall, took everyone by surprise and enabled these hardworking men and women to gain a financial foothold and social status hitherto undreamed of. One of those heartwarming “can-do” documentaries that film fest audiences love to love, directors Lucy Walker et al show just how far people can go with the right amount of motivation and encouragement. Although it lacks the kind of dramatic punch that keeps me comfortably in my seat, it was still interesting to see the various success stories Muniz’s intervention brought about both on a personal level (a few of his subjects have gone back to school) and a social level as we see their unofficial leader pursue a political career. Rife with colourful characters and and an underlying sense of dignity, file this one under “feel good”.

Waterloo Bridge (USA 1931) (7):  This story of a young Canadian soldier who falls in love with a prostitute in WWI England is a fine blend of kitchen sink realism and Hollywood melodrama.  When Roy first meets Myra while on leave in London he believes her to be a struggling actress trying to make ends meet; but when he takes her to meet his well-to-do family on their English estate the facade begins to crumble and she is forced to make a heartbreaking decision.  With the exception of Kent Douglass’ hammy performance as Roy the remaining cast, including a very young Bette Davis, are superb.  The simple sets filmed in soft shades of B&W are effective and the actors deliver their lines so naturally that at times it seems they are doing improv.  Despite the rather abrupt ending, Waterloo Bridge remains a fine example of what Hollywood was capable of before the draconian Hays code was put in place.

Weekend (UK 2011) (9): Heading out to the disco after indulging in a bit too much weed and alcohol, the otherwise shy and somewhat withdrawn Russel wakes up in his apartment the next morning with a killer hangover and an unexpected bedmate—Glen, a sexually aggressive, confrontationally queer artist and Russel’s polar opposite in many ways. Over the next 48 hours an awkward one-night stand will slowly evolve into something deeper as both men open up to each other between energetic bouts of fucking and getting high. Russel’s self-effacing attitude actually harbours a growing resentment towards the closet walls he feels around himself. Glen, despite his anti-establishment tirades and homo bravura, is nursing a delicate and vulnerable heart. As the weekend progresses the two will discuss everything from coming out and homophobia (both external and internal) to love, self-esteem, and antique teacups. But there’s one question weighing heavily on both their minds—where is this all leading? Phenomenal performances from leads Tom Cullen and Chris New are coupled with a believably candid script to make writer/director Andrew Haigh’s modest film an unexpected revelation. Although it certainly does not reflect every gay man’s reality (drugs weigh heavily), this small snapshot of contemporary life still poses some universal questions about identity and belonging in between dollops of wry humour.

Wendy and Lucy (USA 2008) (7): Armed with an old Honda Accord and five hundred dollars in her knapsack, Gen-X drifter Wendy Carroll has left the suburbs of Indiana to find gainful employment in the wilds of Alaska. Accompanied by her canine alter ego Lucy, Wendy supplements her meagre budget by sleeping in the car at night and occasionally shoplifting when things get tight. Unfortunately her carefully laid plans get derailed in Portland when her car breaks down, she gets in trouble with the law, and Lucy goes missing all on the same day. With her stash of bills almost depleted and no help in sight Wendy spends the next couple of days trying to salvage what little hope she can, but fate seems to have the upper hand. Kelly Reichardt’s pessimistic look at one young woman’s disenchantment with the American dream is suffused with so much angst and disappointment that at times it is almost unbearable to watch—even the otherwise beautiful scenery is tainted with mud while the flowery doodles adorning a homemade logbook seem pathetic. And, even more significant, everything everywhere comes with a price tag attached to it. As Wendy desperately searches for a way out of her predicament she comes up against the usual stock characters, each representing one facet of of society: a group of vagrants find some solace in each other’s misery; a kindly security guard offers what little he has; and a clean-cut grocery clerk’s zealous adherence to “The Rules” marks the beginning of Wendy’s tribulations. Not all the elements click (a phone call home comes across as stagey) and at times Reichardt is a little heavy-handed with the pathos, but thanks to a believable script which favours realism over sentimentality and a convincingly downbeat performance by lead Michelle Williams (sans make-up and shampoo), Wendy and Lucy is a small tragedy with enormous implications.

We Need to Talk About Kevin (UK/USA 2011) (10): Eva and Franklin are an upscale yuppie couple; she’s a successful travel writer while he enjoys a lucrative white collar career. Everything changes however when their firstborn, Kevin, makes his appearance. From the outset it is clear something is wrong for the baby cries constantly when he’s alone with Eva yet becomes a cooing angel when Franklin comes home. As a toddler and young child Kevin will not interact with Eva except in the most hurtful and destructive ways, even refusing to be toilet trained until he’s well past the walking and talking stage. Despite reassurances from her pediatrician that her son is “normal”, Eva watches Kevin continue to grow into a mean and cold-hearted adolescent devoid of any empathy who takes delight in taunting her and terrorizing the little sister that adores him; even a homemade disc entitled “I Love You” which Eva finds hidden in his bedroom contains nothing but pornography and a computer virus. With her husband successfully conned into believing their son is a “good kid” Eva strives to maintain an uneasy peace between Kevin and herself...but not even she is prepared for the social and emotional fallout when he decides to take his universal contempt to the next level. Like a contemporary take on The Omen, only without the convenient supernatural explanation, Lynne Ramsay’s gut-wrenching look at the evolution of a sociopath pushes an already tense family drama into the realm of urban horror. With a keen sense of style, Ramsay alternates scenes of harsh reality with almost surreal interludes as she weaves back and forth through time...a raucous tomato festival Eva is covering in Spain morphs into a crimson bacchanal, a street full of little Halloween revelers becomes a pagan nightmare (while a jarringly incongruent recording of Buddy Holly’s “Everyday” plays in the background), and throughout the film blood red metaphors abound as Eva repeatedly tries to wash her hands clean. Horrific storyline aside, there is also a jet black satire at work here as we see a generation of boomers trying to contend with the spoiled brats they’ve engendered; while Eva looks on with helpless bewilderment, Franklin is completely oblivious to the narcissistic monster in the living room. Ramsay even manages to make a wry comment or two on society’s television-obsessed preoccupation with the macabre and mob vigilantism. A brilliant and unsettling piece of cinema which had me shaking my head long after the final credits. And in the role of Eva, the legendary Tilda Swinton is pure gold.

West Side Story (USA 1961) (8): Shakespeare’s fair Verona is transported to a seedy Manhattan housing project where the reigning street gang of good Irish Catholics, “The Jets”, are preparing for a final showdown with rival Hispanic gang “The Sharks” whom they view as nothing more than a bunch of lousy Puerto Ricans. Complications arise however when former Jet and all-round nice guy Tony falls in love with Maria, the newly immigrated sister of Shark leader Bernardo. As tensions between the competing groups of hoodlums escalate Tony and Maria plan their escape; but fate deals the young lovers a nasty hand and tragedy is never far behind them. Winner of ten Academy Awards including “Best Picture” and “Best Director(s)” this rollicking musical is one of the most successful Broadway adaptations in movie history. Exploring such prickly (for the time) topics as racism and delinquency, all that singing and dancing actually carries a surprising amount of dramatic weight. True to its theatrical roots, West Side Story’s muscular choreography and operatic performances are nicely showcased by gritty urban sets backlit in shades of red and blue; apparently a neighbourhood demolition in New York City was postponed for weeks so that the directors could shoot key scenes on location. And despite Natalie Woods’ horrible Spanish accent and the fact that few of the main actors could actually sing, the jazzy musical score still remains vibrant fifty years later while those beautiful classic songs are dubbed almost seamlessly. Loud and energetic with a heartbreaking finale, it’s Romeo & Juliet set to a bongo beat.

We Were Here (USA 2011) (9): There is a vein of unconditional tenderness which runs throughout directors David Weissman and Bill Weber’s documentary built upon the recollections of those who lived through the early days of San Francisco’s AIDS crisis which saw almost sixteen thousand people die in the space of a few years. Using a minimalist music score and loads of snapshots, home movies, and television spots for emphasis, they give their amiable talking heads all the time they need as they reminisce about life at ground zero. From the drifter turned activist to the florist who supplied free funeral sprays to those who couldn’t afford to pay, and from the artist who lost every friend he had to the heterosexual nurse who cared for the dying at S.F. General’s notorious ward 5B, these stories offer a deeply personal account of the triumphs and tragedies faced by the gay community as it struggled to care for its own even as governments and pharmaceutical companies dragged their feet. At times heartbreaking to see candid photos of young men ravaged by HIV against an endless backdrop of obituaries, at other times fiercely proud as men and women, gay and straight, take to the streets for loud protests or silent vigils. Whether you test positive or negative there is no mistaking the tremendous impact that period of time had on our collective psyche, and as someone who lost a partner to AIDS back at the height of the epidemic I found myself having to hit the pause button more than once as one person’s memory pricked several of my own. A sobering memorial (or history lesson for the new generation) shot through with compassion, love, and even a good laugh or two—one man recalls his deathly ill friend trying to decide whether or not it was worth buying the extra large pack of Costco toilet paper! Tears and smiles then, in perfect harmony.

What Dreams May Come (USA 1998) (2): Robin Williams moves heaven and hell in order to rescue the soul of his dead wife in this mushy mess of maudlin excesses and syrupy tripe. Pre-deceased by their two darling children, stoic Chris Nielsen and his neurotic artist wife Annie manage to keep their life on track until the unthinkable happens; Chris is smushed by a flying sports car while playing good Samaritan to an accident victim. Aided by a prancing ill-focused ghost Chris says his final farewells to a bereft Annie and enters into his own private afterlife; an unconvincing amalgamation of his wife’s artwork created with globs of wet paint. Unfortunately, when Annie tries to join him prematurely by committing suicide she is cast into Hell where no one can escape...until now, of course. Embarking on a Dantean quest to recover her spirit and bring her to the light Chris must first cross a Stygian sea, walk across a swamp of indignant human heads, and face down the enraged denizens of a flaming Thunderdome set. But can he break through the guilt-ridden delusions that keep her tied to a decaying mockery of their happy home before it’s too late? And will they ever be reunited with their children, now reinvented as a black yuppie and Asian airline hostess? Borrowing heavily from the works of Van Gogh, Bosch, and the Pre-Raphaelites with lighting reminiscent of the Dutch Masters, director Vincent Ward et al present a shimmering vision of Paradise filled with squiggly landscapes and flying toddlers. Apparently Heaven and Hell are whatever our subconscious makes of them hence all good souls enter into a manic series of pop-up fairytale books while bad souls get caught in endless psychotic loops. Everything about this production is so trite and disingenuous that it’s difficult to point enough fingers. Teeming with lofty mountain peaks and sunlit meadows, the film’s opening scenes practically drill the concept of foreshadowing into our skulls (golly, is that a print of “The Garden of Earthly Delights” hanging above Annie’s bed?) while the afterlife’s shallow sentimentality leads one to believe God is a big fan of Harlequin romances. As a manipulative, overplayed weeper with emotions as fake as its cheap matte backgrounds, What Dreams May Come presents a compelling argument for atheism.

What Have I Done to Deserve This? (Spain 1985) (8): Gloria is a typical Madrid housewife; bored, neglected and sexually frustrated she tries in vain to keep her dysfunctional family together. While her husband is supplementing his income by forging historical documents her eldest son is selling dope to his classmates and her youngest son is sleeping with his best friend’s father. Meanwhile the woman upstairs is abusing her spooky daughter, the hooker next door is constantly asking for a helping hand with her tricks and grandma is having trouble keeping track of her pet lizard. If it weren’t for her drawer full of prescription drugs and the occasional huff of airplane glue Gloria would have packed it in long ago. But as financial pressures mount and her husband’s abusive behaviour escalates, her already fragile psyche takes one final nosedive right through the kitchen floor. A wickedly camp soap opera from Pedro Almodovar, this unpolished gem plays out like a Castilian version of Maria Hartman, Maria Hartman. The cast is in top-notch form as they deliver their lines with the master’s inimitable deadpan seriousness and the wholly inappropriate laughs come fast and furious (Gloria’s business deal with a pedophile dentist is especially noteworthy). Although Pedro’s lifelong obsession with strong female characters is clearly evident in this early work, it is first and foremost a deliriously exaggerated salute to life’s absurdities. Best taken with a couple of valium.

What We Do in the Shadows (New Zealand 2014) (9): No one quite does deadpan humour like the Kiwis and this side-splitting mockumentary is as fine an example as you’re likely to see this side of Best in Show. In the weeks leading up to Wellington’s annual Unholy Masquerade Ball—a night of glitz and glamour for the local undead—a camera crew, armed with crucifixes, follow the exploits of four vampire roommates as they party and squabble from sunset to dawn. There’s 18th century nobleman Viago who still pines for his ex-girlfriend, now 96-years old and living in an old folks home down the street; medieval Vladislav (Jemaine Clement from Flight of the Conchords) whose fondness for torture has earned him the name “Vlad the Poker”; pampered Deacon who figures himself a ladykiller (literally); and ancient Petyr, looking like a desiccated Nosferatu, who lives in a basement crypt and only comes out long enough to munch on a human spine or two. As the cameras role the men argue over whose turn it is to wash the dishes (“Why do we even have dishes?”), clean last night’s gore off the couch (“Could you please lay down some newspapers before you eat your victim?”), and ensure the next meal is a virgin (“Would you eat a sandwich after someone else has fucked it?”). Of course in true New Zealand fashion there is nighttime partying with the fanged bachelors taking to the streets dressed like rejects from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in search of women to wine and dine and later devour. Filled with so many sight gags and one-liners not to mention surprisingly inventive and nasty special effects—the men levitate, turn into bats, tear out throats—that the film’s Masquerade Ball climax, though just as funny, is actually somewhat of a letdown. But there are plenty of belly laughs along the way especially when the roommates cross paths with a group of inept werewolves and Deacon accidentally flies into a power line. And then there’s the scenes where the vampires, long out of touch with modern technology, learn how to google… Dry as dust and bloody hilarious!

Where the Boys Are  (USA 1960) (7):  Despite its pat underlying message--nice girls get to date millionaires, bad girls get run over--this tale of horny college kids getting it on during spring break is remarkably mature considering it premiered almost 50 years ago.  Skirting issues such as premarital sex, date rape and even female empowerment (sort of) certainly sets this film apart from the crop of “beach blanket” clones that followed.  I must admit I was pleasantly surprised.

Where’s Poppa? (USA 1970) (6): Carl Reiner skips the sublime and goes straight for the ridiculous in this neurotic comedy of family dysfunction. George Segal plays Gordon, a beleaguered defense attorney slowly going mad thanks to his cantankerously senile mother (a rather bland and unconvincing Ruth Gordon) who spends her days sabotaging his happiness while making endless inquiries as to the whereabouts of her long dead husband. Finding a private duty nurse willing to babysit the old bat is proving to be an insurmountable task for Gordon until one day he interviews Louise: a dedicated caregiver who is also very beautiful and very single. It would seem that all his prayers are about to be answered at last. Unfortunately Momma has other plans... There are some truly hilarious moments in this film; a courtroom showdown between a curmudgeonly army officer and a long-haired draft dodger is priceless as is a late night encounter between Gordon’s henpecked brother and a group of muggers which results in a naked dash through Central Park. The majority of the film’s humour is decidedly low-brow however, and not for the easily offended including an appallingly tasteless rape scene which starts off with a bevy of jive-talking racial stereotypes and ends with a groan-inducing, not-quite-homophobic punch-line. The ongoing shtick does get tired after a while though, like a joke that’s been told too many times, although the story’s conclusion is amusing enough and certainly less creepy than the “alternate ending” in the extras section...eek! Perhaps he should have just thrown her from a train.

White [Three Colors: White] (France 1994) (8): Sexual obsession and economic disparity make surprisingly comfortable bedfellows in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s corrosive east/west comedy. Polish immigrant Karol has hit rock bottom—not only has Dominique, his French soon-to-be-ex-wife, humiliated him in a Parisian divorce court but thanks to a vindictive act of sabotage she now has the police on his tail. Enter Mikolaj, a fellow depressed ex-pat who happens upon Karol panhandling in a metro station. Concocting a harebrained scheme to leave the country the two men make their way back to Warsaw, but the post-communist “new” Poland is not quite what Karol expected (“I’m home!” he blurts out upon seeing a barren field overrun by scavenging birds). It isn’t long however before the plucky former hairdresser settles in and begins figuring out a way to be reunited with his former spouse, a woman he still worships from afar despite the shoddy way she treated him. But there is a difference between reconciliation and revenge, and as Karol’s elaborate plan comes to fruition that difference becomes progressively vague. Shot through with images of daunting women (a sexy poster here, a demure effigy there) and the sound of little angelic pigeon wings which seem to flap at the most inopportune moments, Kieslowski’s droll tale of reversed fortunes and amour fou is, at its heart, a dysfunctional love story of sorts. Nevertheless, the director still manages to take some very funny swipes at a supposedly unified Europe as parallels are drawn between Karol’s impassioned yet impotent attempts at conjugal bliss and blond-locked Dominique’s acrimonious demands. One of Kieslowski’s best.

White Light Black Rain (USA 2007) (8):  Steven Okazaki’s documentary on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is resolutely apolitical, concentrating instead on the recollections of everyday civilians who witnessed the horrors of atomic warfare firsthand and lived to tell about it.  Now in their 60’s and beyond, these survivors bear the obvious physical scars of their ordeal, but it is the deeper wounds, both spiritual and psychological, that still seem to generate the most pain.  You can only listen in silence as they tell their various stories such as the two children who watched their mother’s incinerated corpse crumble to dust, or the young girl who escaped the raging fires by wading into a river choked with burned bodies.  Okazaki supplements the interviews by showing newsreel footage of the bombs’ aftermath as well as nightmarish drawings made by the victims themselves as they tried to express their memories on paper.  It is interesting to note that none of them show any animosity towards the United States.  Their anger is aimed instead at the Japanese government which ignored them, and their fellow citizens who shunned them.  Many of them continue to feel as if they are outsiders, forgotten by the younger generations and politely ignored by everyone else.  Sad, insightful, and completely captivating.

White Material (France 2009) (8): An unspecified African country is heading towards civil war and seeing the end of an era quickly approaching the French colonialists who once called it home are hightailing it back to Europe while their African allies either switch allegiance or head for the hills. One woman however steadfastly refuses to run away—Maria Vial (Isabelle Huppert, stunning) overseer of the Café Vial coffee plantation seems oblivious to the escalating violence, turning a blind eye to the armed teenagers patrolling the highways and a deaf ear to the nationalistic jingoism blaring from the radio. Forsaking her own safety as well as that of her family Maria obsesses over the upcoming coffee bean harvest as if the turmoil surrounding her was just another bump in the road. But when the hitherto distant conflict comes to her doorstep Maria’s fragile illusions come crashing down with devastating consequences. Languidly paced using a palette of dusty earth tones beneath sun-bleached skies, director Claire Denis takes what could have been just another political potboiler and turns it into a psychological battleground where the lines have been intentionally blurred thus rendering any moral criticisms purely arbitrary. Is Maria’s fierce determination a virtue or foolhardy craziness? Do the guerrillas have legitimate grievances or are their terror tactics merely self-serving? Indeed scenes of child soldiers scrambling for candy one moment only to wave machine guns at terrified civilians the next contrast sharply with government troops wearing the flag even as they systematically cut the throats of dissidents. Even the Vial clan is split with Maria’s ex-husband scheming his way to the border, her dying father refusing to leave the home in which he was born, and her indolent son avoiding any commitments until a harsh brush with reality sends him careening into the abyss. Although Denis doesn’t shy away from the bloodshed inherent in any armed conflict the war itself is mostly background noise meant to provide context for the sundry personal tragedies it engenders and it is this lack of onscreen testosterone, coupled with a low-keyed soundtrack of reggae tunes and electro beats, which makes it all the more unsettling. A small cinematic coup whether taken as an intense character study or a metaphor for an entire continent.

Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (France 1966) (7): All of France is abuzz over Polly Maggoo, the pouty raven-haired American model who has hit the runways of Paris like an atomic blast. Simultaneously pursued by a lovestruck foreign prince, a formidable magazine editor, and an obsessive television journalist eager to uncover the “real” Polly, the poor girl barely has enough time to apply her black wig and lipstick. But beneath the bright lights and pancake make-up is a rather unremarkable kid from Brooklyn, all freckles and crooked teeth, who is at once bewildered and mildly amused by all the attention her smile has garnered. Starting with an outrageous fashion show featuring women strutting around in sheet metal gowns, looking more like modern sculpture than human beings, ex-pat American director William Klein’s wild, rollicking, and oh-so-French satire manages to skewer both the fashion industry and the business of television infotainment in one outrageous swoop. Very nouvelle vague with its jostling handheld camerawork, intellectual dalliances, and grainy B&W presentation, this is not the easiest film to follow but the payoff is well worth your patience and the razor sharp dialogue, dripping with amiable sarcasm, is worth an occasional rewind. The glam costumes alone are priceless!

Who Killed the Electric Car? (USA 2006) (8):  So...electric cars were pulled off the market because auto makers and the oil industry didn’t want to see their profits threatened.  To this end they were given invaluable assistance from Republican lackeys while an anesthetized public drooled over all the pretty SUVs being rolled out...  Unlike the smug self-righteousness and half-truths of a Michael Moore production Paine manages to cover all aspects of this corporate-sponsored tragedy with equanimity, letting the facts speak for themselves.  The talking heads are engaging and an attention to detail is evident throughout.  His documentary is not so much a rant against big business as it is a lament for social and political apathy in general....yet it ends on a surprisingly hopeful note.  Well done.

Wicked Little Things (USA 2006) (5): When a young widow discovers her late husband owned some property in the hills of Pennsylvania she packs up her two daughters and decides to make a fresh start of it. Moving into the old Tunny estate proves to be more of a challenge for Karen and the kids than they had anticipated however for not only is the house in dire need of repairs but the surrounding hills are said to be haunted by the angry ghosts of children who died in a horrific mining disaster 100 years earlier. Of course things immediately begin going bump in the night, lights start to flicker, and before you can yell “Pickaxe to the Thorax!” legions of petite ghouls in work shorts and pinafores are roaming the countryside hungry for blood. Can Karen defeat the little monsters before they destroy her? And why do they have a particular affinity for her youngest daughter? Filmed with the usual assortment of eccentric yokels against a backdrop of misty forests there is nothing here even remotely original. Cardone tries too hard to establish a creepy atmosphere as if full moons and dazed rats are enough to make us cringe in terror; at one point you can practically see the fog machine puffing behind a bush. His generic shopping list of chills and thrills has been done to death in countless other films of this calibre, from an unnecessary stroll into a dark basement to a group of horny teenagers getting it on in the woods. Besides, despite their cannibalistic tendencies and empty eye sockets it’s hard to be afraid of a pack of pale-faced moppets who look as if they’ve just come from an off-Broadway revival of Oliver!

Wilde (UK 1997) (6):  The life of flamboyant author, playwright, and Victorian bon vivant Oscar Wilde is give the Masterpiece Theatre treatment in this meticulously staged but unremarkable biopic.  Stephen Fry’s heartfelt performance garners a certain amount of sympathy for the man—a literary giant of formidable wit ultimately undone by “that love which dares not speak its name” when he begins a tempestuous affair with Lord Alfred Douglas (Jude Law’s screen debut).  Already married with two children yet no stranger to London’s clandestine gay circles, Wilde was already courting scandal before he met Alfred.  But the younger man’s volatile personality quickly made front page news out of Oscar’s homosexual dalliances, especially after Alfred’s boorish vindictive prig of a father decided to attack Wilde with charges of gross indecency—a court case which marked the end of the writer’s celebrity status.  A fine supporting cast including Vanessa Redgrave as Oscar’s no-nonsense Irish mother and Jennifer Ehle as his faithful wife (and a yet unknown Orlando Bloom as a bitchy hustler) keep things from sliding into soap opera while trial transcripts and snatches from “The Selfish Giant” provide some artistic weight.  Both a historical indictment aimed at institutionalized homophobia and a tragic love affair, yet lacking sufficient dramatic momentum to carry either one convincingly.

Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (USA 1957) (7): Rockwell Hunter inhabits a world of artifice and facades. As a writer of TV commercials for a Madison Avenue advertising firm it’s his job to sell the American Dream to a nation of faceless housewives using snappy slogans and seductive models. His job ends up on the chopping block however when his biggest client, “Stay-Put Lipstick” threatens to give their account to another agency. Desperate for new ideas he decides to pay a visit to reclusive Hollywood bombshell Rita Marlowe (Jayne Mansfield playing the quintessential bleached-blonde airhead to perfection) in order to talk her into an endorsement contract. To his dismay she agrees, but with one tiny caveat; he must pose as her new boyfriend in order to make her former beau jealous. The resulting publicity gains him a handsome promotion, a reputation for being a fantastic lover (undeserved) and, alas, the seething enmity of Jenny, his longtime fiancee. Torn between his love for Jenny and his desire for material success Rock eventually finds himself at an ethical crossroads where he must make a most difficult decision. Based on the wildly successful Broadway comedy and featuring many of the original stars, this light and frothy satire makes a few wry observations on everything from America’s love affair with television and corporate sponsored culture to its monomaniacal pursuit of celebrity. In one telling scene Rock accepts his new key to the executive washroom with an almost religious reverence while in another lively sequence a singing jingle spoofs his newfound fame. Filmed in gorgeous widescreen technicolor and laced with some racy sexual innuendo, Rock provides an interesting snapshot of America’s materialistic mindset circa 1957 while a few clever asides to the camera and an opening montage of commercial parodies keeps things lighthearted. A disappointingly glib ending is a bit of a letdown though and doesn’t do justice to the rest of the film.

The Wind Journeys (Columbia 2009) (9): After the funeral of his wife, middle-aged troubadour Ignacio packs up his accordion, saddles his donkey, and heads north in order to return the instrument to the man who made it. Although his singing and playing have earned him much fame, he believes the accordion is cursed (it even sports a pair of devilish horns) and whoever falls under its spell is doomed to the lonely life of a wandering minstrel. But the concertina gives back as much as it takes, imparting its owner with subtle powers of perception and filling an otherwise ordinary life with wistful melodies. Thus it is that Ignacio, reluctantly carrying his soul by the shoulder straps and accompanied by a young disciple in the form of Fremin, a village youth determined to learn the master’s art, journeys out into a world which seems to be starved for music. Along the way the two will be served by the accordion’s tunes as it heals an old wound, defeats a sorcerer, and in one beautifully enigmatic passage appears to induce a resurrection. Before their odyssey reaches its final goal however, both characters will undergo a sea change with the older man finding a new, unexpected purpose in life and the impetuous youth discovering powers he never knew he possessed. Columbia’s official Oscar entry, Ciro Guerra’s beautifully rendered spiritual pilgrimage draws strength from a cast of talented non-professionals and a script whose terse dialogue and sheer simplicity speak volumes with the simplest of gestures. Using gorgeous widescreen shots of soaring mountains, windswept savannahs, and sunlit seashores paired with occasional bursts of lyrical handmade music, Guerra weaves a quiet parable of grief and rebirth whose Christian overtones barely conceal its deeper, pagan inspirations. A fine example of cinematic poetry.

Wings (USA 1927) (10): Although it was released almost 90 years ago, William A. Wellman’s silent film about love and honour during wartime remains one of the most spectacularly ambitious films to ever emerge from that genre. It’s 1917 and Jack and David are two small town guys from opposite sides of the tracks—David is a privileged trust fund kid while Jack is strictly middle class. But they both share one thing in common, they’re head over heels for local deb Sylvia. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Jack, his tomboy neighbour Mary (the infamous Clara Bow being as demure as she possibly can) has been carrying a heavy torch for him practically her entire life. When the two men decide to enlist in the fledgling American Air Force they not only put aside their rivalry to become fast friends, they also begin racking up medals for their brave deeds above the battlefields of France. Moved by patriotic zeal herself, Mary eventually enlists in the Transportation Corps where she once again finds herself in close proximity to the man she secretly loves. But alas, war is hell, and as the Allied Forces prepare for their greatest move against the enemy you just know that tragedy is unavoidable… Filmed with the full cooperation of the Air Force, Wellman—a decorated combat pilot himself—employed thousands of extras in order to stage some of the most riveting and believable blood & guts battle scenes on both land and in the air. No CGI effects here, his actors actually flew their own planes while operating remote controlled cameras fixed to the engine cowling. The result is a series of breathtaking aerial dogfights with biplanes looping in and out of clouds or speeding along enemy lines as bombs wreak havoc and soldiers succumb to bullets and shrapnel (they used chocolate syrup for blood). Meanwhile, back on solid ground as the ill-fated love triangle (rectangle?) plays out, cinematographer Harry Perry uses some imaginative techniques to keep the action flowing: at one point the camera flies over the table tops at Paris’ Folies Bergère while a very drunk Jack chases elusive champagne bubbles, and in a more sobering passage a plane comes to rest next to a military graveyard of immaculately white crosses. Meticulously restored by Paramount Studios with a full orchestral score, evocative tinting techniques, and a host of well placed sound effects, Wellman’s epic has survived the test of time with all its glory and silent era melodrama lovingly intact. Look for a cameo by a then unknown Gary Cooper and some shocking pre-Hays Code dalliances with nudity and homoerotica—two women in male drag cavort in a bar and a man-to-man kiss (American cinema’s first!) doesn’t seem quite so platonic. Winner of two Academy Awards including Best Picture.

Winnie-the-Pooh (USA 2011) (8): Thanks to a series of comical misunderstandings a search for Eeyore's missing tail winds up becoming a hunt for the elusive "Bakson”, a terrifyingly mischievous monster with a penchant for swallowing alarm clocks and putting holes in socks. Filmed as if the action took place within the pages of a storybook, it's fun to see the Hundred Acre Wood gang scrambling up paragraphs and (literally) tripping over their sentences. Although produced for the preschool crowd the colourful old-school animation and clever presentation will give adults a pleasant sense of nostalgia. Even the cutesy 60-second songs are somewhat catchy!

The Winter Guest (UK 1998 ) (9):  Set in northern Scotland and using a palette of colours that goes from warm earth tones to bleak pastels, Rickman deftly weaves several seemingly disparate stories into one coherent meditation on life, grief, hope and the need to move forward. Emma Thompson and her mother are nothing short of phenomenal. The endless vistas of snow and the frozen sea are used to highlight a script that is profound while remaining natural. Absolutely beautiful

Wisconsin Death Trip (USA 1999) (7): Based on Michael Lesy’s lovingly macabre book, James Marsh’s sombre docudrama uses old photos, newspaper clippings, and live actors to give us a snapshot of life in rural Black River Falls, Wisconsin circa the late 19th century. With all the visual flair of Errol Morris, Marsh paints a harsh portrait of life in the tiny midwestern town where madness, murder and despair kept the locals shuffling between the churchyard and the nearby mental asylum. Nominally divided into the four seasons, Death Trip takes original news stories from the time and proceeds to add a human dimension to the headlines with archival portraits and B&W reenactments. There’s the great diphtheria epidemic which sent several children to their graves, jealous alcohol-fueled rages, senseless homicides, and lonely suicides. Along the way we also meet some of the town’s more colourful personalities like Mary Sweeney, the notorious “Wisconsin Window Smasher” whose mania for breaking glass was known throughout the state. To provide a contrast of sorts Marsh occasionally brings his cameras back to the 21st century for a few lively montages of life in contemporary Black River Falls where bored teenagers share the sidewalk with old ladies in wheelchairs. Dark and poignant, but never lurid, Marsh’s fascinating time capsule breathes life into a stack of yellowing photographs while challenging our notion of the “good old days”. Lake Wobegon was never like this.

Wise Blood (USA 1979) (5): John Huston’s adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s novel tries to say something about the capriciousness of faith and man’s unerring ability to shoot himself in the foot but winds up flat on its face instead. Young veteran Hazel Motes returns to his dusty Georgia roots only to discover most of the townsfolk have either died off or moved on. An intense, slightly unhinged creature who “don’t believe in nothin’“, Hazel takes his cue and moves to the big city where he decides to exorcise the memories of his late grandfather, a fiery evangelist, by forming his own sect, The Church of Truth Without Christ, which denies both redemption and salvation and touts the idea of a wholly human and impotent Jesus. Preaching his secular gospel from the hood of a cheap used car, Hazel’s nightly tirades attract the unwelcome attention of a few fellow street ministers with their own schtick to sell (one pretends to be blind, the other doles out salvation while strumming a guitar) and before you can yell out “Praise the Lord” the struggle for a congregation is underway. The satirical jabs at southern Christian orthodoxy are painfully obvious throughout especially when a simple-minded disciple is attracted to Hazel’s rants and the nihilistic pastor begins to dabble in some messy mortification of the flesh. Furthermore, a brief aside involving a carnival sideshow rip-off (Gorgo, the “Monarch of the Jungle” winds up being a gorilla-suited hick) highlights our essential gullibility. And everywhere is Huston’s signature critique on the foibles of human vanity which doom all our endeavours to ultimate failure. But the film’s slapdash appearance, narrative dead ends, and overdose of quirky southern eccentrics dull whatever edge the original story may have contained leaving us with a watered down contemporary parable. The cast of seasoned character actors do manage to breathe some life into their clichéd roles but I still found myself losing interest long before the downplayed moral of the story was revealed.

Wit (USA 2001) (10): Every now and again a film will bypass my usual defense mechanisms and strike me to my very core--such is the case with this made-for-cable feature based on Margaret Edson’s pulitzer prize winning play. Emma Thompson is phenomenal as Vivian Bearing, a fiercely intelligent somewhat starchy professor of English literature who discovers she has an aggressive form of ovarian cancer which has already spread beyond her pelvis. Faced with a grim prognosis Vivian agrees to undergo a gruelling eight month course of experimental chemotherapy. As the disease and chemicals take their toll on her body she begins to reflect not only on the past but on the words of John Donne, her favourite poet and the subject of her thesis, whose meditations on life, death, and salvation become paramount as her own life slowly ebbs away. Composed mainly of incisive monologues, often delivered directly to the camera, Vivian takes us on a personalized tour of her ordeal from the agonies of non-stop nausea and hair loss (Thompson actually shaved her head for the part) to the endless indignities administered by disinterested technicians (not an entirely fair representation). Along the way she critiques her own life, sometimes reliving key moments clad only in hospital gown and IV pole or watching dispassionately as figures from her past file silently past her hospital bed. One brilliant yet rather cavalier intern, a former student of hers, provides a mirror of sorts in which Vivian catches uncomfortable glimpses of her own academic mindset. Heartbreaking yet never maudlin, painfully honest yet never voyeuristic, this is the story of a proud and independent woman suddenly having to face her own mortality and in so doing achieve that final grace which awaits each one of us. A powerful tale told with dignity and compassion, and one of the best films I’ve seen this year. Highly recommended to all of my colleagues in healthcare.

The Witch (USA 2015) (9): In the year 1630, for reasons not entirely specified, devout Puritan William is banished from his New England colony and sent to live in the wilderness along with his dour wife Katherine and five children. Settling down in a small clearing the family seems cursed from the beginning—their field produces a meagre harvest, the rambunctious twins begin reciting dark nursery rhymes, and the livestock become increasingly skittish. But when mysterious tragedies start to befall the family William and Kate become convinced they are under attack from supernatural forces lurking within the nearby forest, a forbidding tangle of twisted trees and rotting logs. Despite William’s steadfast faith and Katherine’s fervent, almost hysterical prayers, a sense of malevolence settles upon the farm which seems to be centred on the two eldest children, daughter Thomasin and son Caleb. As hope wanes and minds unravel the family begins to tear apart—and that’s when the true horror begins… As a straight-up gothic shocker writer/director Robert Eggers delivers the goods on all counts. Filmed in the seldom used 1:66 ratio using mainly ambient light, his dusty interior shots are claustrophobic spaces pierced by the odd burst of sunlight while the occasional trek into the woods is dominated by looming trees whose grasping branches come in and out of focus through wisps of fog. His characters speak in their original Puritan dialect (much of his script was gleaned from contemporary folk tales and court transcripts) and the background score is overpowered by tense strings and eerie choral arrangements. But when viewed as a bizarre adolescent metaphor Eggers’ film takes on a whole new dimension. Thomasin and Caleb are just entering puberty—he’s beginning to notice breasts while she’s experiencing the first pangs of discontent—and although they feel the crushing weight of Christian guilt thanks to their pious parents there is a subtle carnality to their surroundings as if an ineffectual God was looking the other way and forbidden fruit was dangling just out of reach. A bleak and cryptic fairy tale with a few perverse twists on such themes as Little Red Riding Hood, The Garden of Eden and Hansel & Gretel. Keen, harrowing, and chilled to the bone.

Witches' Hammer (Czechoslovakia 1969) ( 8 ):  When a simple old woman, unjustly accused of witchcraft, is tortured into making a series of false confessions an entire town is thrown into chaos.  A totalitarian state soon arises wherein neighbour turns against neighbour, conscientious objectors are silenced, and the church fills its coffers with property confiscated from the condemned.  And all the  while the ruling nobility nervously look the other way.  By skillfully blending scenes of religious corruption with images of spiritual purity Vavra instills a dark irony into his work that is both compelling and painful to watch.  Considering this film was made in the former Czechoslovakia around the time of the Soviet invasion one can’t help but draw parallels between the two.  Indeed, tragic examples of intimidation  and brutality winning out over reason and justice continue to this very day.

Witching and Bitching [Las brujas de Zugarramurdi] (Spain 2013) (8): The battle between the sexes takes an infernal turn in writer/director Álex de la Iglesia’s multiple award winning lampoon of sexism, machismo, and PMS. A gang of thieves posing as street performers, including a silvery Jesus Christ and martian green G.I. Joe, make off with a small fortune in gold after staging a crazy daylight heist in one of Madrid’s busiest squares. Two of the men, bitter divorcé José and henpecked Antonio, manage to escape (Sponge Bob went down in a hail of bullets and Minnie Mouse just couldn’t run fast enough) along with José’s 10-year old son whom he refused to leave with his ex-wife since it was his visitation day after all. Commandeering a nearby taxi—whose driver has relationship troubles of his own—the group make their way to the French border. But a pit stop at an isolated country village brings about horrifying complications for the local women belong to the vanguard of a nationwide coven of witches preparing for a gruesome ritual—and a taxi full of desperate men is just what they’ve been waiting for. Meanwhile José’s shrewish wife is hot on the trail of her errant husband with a pair of bickering detectives right behind her. Starting with opening credits that pay homage to famous crones throughout history (including Maggie Thatcher) and a brilliantly choreographed robbery filmed guerilla-style since the crew did not have permission to shut down Madrid’s bustling Puerta Del Sol, the thrills and laughs come fast and furious right up to the grand finale, a subterranean witches’ sabbath that must have given the special effects department headaches for a week. Filled with wry tongue-in-cheek observations on male and female peccadilloes, not to mention some laugh-out-loud sight gags and one-liners, the tone is decidedly light even if the blood flows a bit freely at times. A very funny comedy of horrors with a script that makes you giggle even as it slaps you upside the head.

With a Friend Like Harry
[aka: Harry, He’s Here to Help] (France 2000) (8): In this jet black psychological comedy writer/director Dominik Moll keeps his cards close to his chest, offering us a puzzling thriller before springing his punchline in the final reel. Michel is a harried thirty-something man tied down to a nagging wife, four screaming daughters, mounting debt, and a pair of meddling parents who can still control him long distance. While vacationing with his family Michel takes a