When rating a film I ask myself these three questions: What is the director’s goal or purpose? How does the director try to achieve it? Is the director successful? Hence a big box office hit may get a “5” while a Eurosleaze sexploitation flick gets a “7”. My rating system in a nutshell:

10 = Brilliant!
9 = Exceptional
8 = Very Good
7 = Good
6 = Average
5 = Forgettable
4 = Bad
3 = Dismal
2 = Dog Barf
1 = Beyond Awful


~ ~ ~ ~



Father and Son
(Russia 2003) (6): In a dusty old apartment in a quaintly crumbling soviet town (actually Lisbon) young adult Alexei lives with his widowed father. The two have grown close—perhaps too much so—and while their familiarity has not exactly bred contempt, it has certainly given rise to an ambivalence which runs hot and cold from physical sparring to tender caresses. “A father’s love crucifies…” blurts Alexei at one point, and it is this ongoing crucifixion that fuels director Aledsandr Sokurov’s sequel to 1997s Mother and Son. In that film a son clings tenaciously to his dying mother, in this virile follow-up a son attempts to let go of a father who refuses to budge. the intensity of the relationship, coupled with the fact that both actors look as if they just stepped off the cover of GQ, caused many to see a homoerotic element at play. Certainly an opening scene showing their two naked bodies entwined lends some credence to that interpretation until our perspective widens and we see that the father is in fact comforting Alexei after a particularly unsettling nightmare—not so much lovers then as an adult and his child. Subsequent close encounters (with or without t-shirts) carry similar overtones of sensuality which are quickly extinguished by the look of defiance in their eyes—competitiveness seems to taint every aspect of their relationship. They are mirror images of one another: Alexei takes interest in a local girl (the only female character of note) while dad contemplates remarrying; each takes his turn strutting and preening about the apartment; and both have army backgrounds (father is a veteran, Alexei a cadet) giving rise to some discomfiting parallels between paternal love and militarism. Impressionistic and suspended somewhere between the real world and a dream state, Sokurov’s film doesn’t provide a straight-up narrative, instead it pieces together a psychological mosaic examining those ties that bind, sometimes too tightly. And he illuminates it all in gauzy ochre light as if the entire world were stalled in a perpetual sunset, images often distorted by windows and severe camera angles or else softened by twilight while variations on Tchaikovsky play in the background. Sadly, despite the film’s striking appearance, Sokurov falls in love with his own vision making for too many drawn out flourishes and a plodding dialogue which may carry more weight in the original Russian. But this is still a solid and soulful look at a young man’s realization that before he can grow into an adult he must first put dad in his proper place.

Zelary
(Czech Republic 2003) (9): It’s 1942 and although Czechoslovakia is under German occupation medical student Eliska is enjoying a perfect life moonlighting as a nurse and living with the chief surgeon. She and her lover are also active in the underground resistance movement, taking great risks in order to aid the Czech freedom fighters. And then the gestapo discovers their cell and everyone scatters including Eliska who, under an assumed identity, accompanies one of her patients back to his remote mountain village where they are forced to marry in order to keep up appearances. At first desolate in her primitive surroundings (soap is a luxury, as is electricity and plumbing) Eliska gradually settles in thanks to the rustic charm of the locals and the abiding patience of her new husband, an older man whose honesty and simple ways threaten to turn a marriage of convenience into something deeper. But the war is never very far away, a sad fact which Eliska will eventually discover… Nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar, Ondrej Trojan’s wartime pastorale is a low-keyed affair with widescreen shots that linger over rolling hills and pasturelands or else zoom in on the quotidian lives of its subjects—a spirited young girl admonishes her pet goat, a woman miscarries, an old crone enjoys a nip of vodka. Trojan doesn’t cheapen the story with bucolic mush however, for in the midst of this rough hewn Eden there are a few snakes and life can sometimes be harsh, especially for a young woman and her son forced to live with an abusive alcoholic or an impromptu revelry with friendly forces which takes a sour turn once the alcohol starts flowing. Romantic without being saccharine, poignant without being crafty, this is a gentle and very human story whose downplayed final scene carries a well earned sentimentality.

Hereditary
(USA 2018) (6): After Annie Graham’s elderly mother passes away she’s not sure how to react, after all they’d been estranged on and off for years and in her eulogy she describes the old woman as “secretive and suspicious”. Losing herself in her artwork—she builds lifelike dollhouses depicting incidents from her own life—she tries to deal with her repressed grief supported somewhat by her well-meaning husband and two teenaged children: sullen Peter and unnervingly taciturn daughter Charlie. But when tragedy strikes yet again, accompanied by some inexplicable bumps in the night, she begins to suspect that maybe her late mother’s peculiarities ran far deeper than she had ever dreamed of… Writer/director Ari Aster’s freshman opus is a gothic Chinese puzzle box of supernatural jolts and psychological brooding which ultimately tries way too hard to keep us guessing only to cop out in the final reel. As a devilish horror film it revels in stylish tracking shots, subsonic rumblings, and the occasional grotesque flash as it follows Annie’s attempts to solve a maternal mystery that grows murkier with each successive frame. The resulting infernal conspiracy theory is effectively drawn out but never comes close to the stifling paranoia of Polanski’s Rosemary’ Baby. But just to prevent us from drawing premature conclusions the director gilds everything with elements of macabre psychodrama—for madness stalks Annie’s family and the film takes great delight in presenting us with jarring scenarios which may or may not be exactly what they seem. Like Freud’s cigar, sometimes a dollhouse (or treehouse) is just a dollhouse and sometimes it is not. Playing the progressively unhinged Annie, Toni Collette is in fine histrionic form supported by a grounded Gabriel Byrne as her perplexed husband. Alex Wolf is exemplary as Peter, a young man already carrying far too much baggage yet reaching for more while Milly Shapiro personifies creep factor as Charlie, a mannish thirteen-year old with a penchant for doodling and dead things. Finally, as if he felt the need to throw us a lifeline, Aster tosses out several none-too-subtle clues to help slower members of the audience play along (pay attention to Peter’s classroom lectures and grandma’s big box of books for starters). But if Hereditary was meant to provide its audience with food for thought it serves up a very meagre snack indeed.

Pete’s Dragon
(USA 2016) (6): Director David Lowery pours the Disney syrup thick and sticky all over this overtly sentimental reboot of the 1977 non-classic, but he does so with such manipulative skill—not to mention awesome CGI effects—that he manages to keep things just this side of mawkish. Alone in the deep dark woods following a fatal car crash, five-year old Pete is saved from a pack of hungry wolves by a big cuddly green dragon he nicknames “Elliot”. Six years later a semi-feral Pete is discovered by kindly park ranger Grace and her precocious daughter Natalie who reintroduce him to proper society (in Disney terms a happy nuclear family). But with the discovery of Pete, Elliot’s cover is blown prompting an armed posse of loggers to try and hunt him down—unless Pete and Natalie can get to him first of course… Cute cherubs wise beyond their years, doltish authorities who don’t have a clue, and a few grownups who desperately want to believe again (Robert Redford approaching rock bottom as Natalie’s affable grandfather) round out the usual suspects in this kind of production while the loveable fur-covered Elliot hovers somewhere between a slobbering puppy (he chases his own tail and snaps at butterflies!) and a big lime-coloured chesterfield. Thankfully the Pacific Northwest scenery, played by New Zealand, is pretty to look at and the action moves along at a fair clip despite an intrusive orchestral score that insists we laugh or cry at just the right moments. Steadfastly inoffensive (unless you work in the forest industry) with smiles and happy endings all around, this is definitely one for the single-digit age group—after all, who wouldn’t want their very own dragon?!

Pleasantville
(USA 1998) (7): Tired of his nowhere life, highschool loner David (Toby Maguire) yearns for the life portrayed in reruns of Pleasantville, an old sitcom poised somewhere between The Donna Reed Show and Leave it to Beaver where mom and dad always dress formally for breakfast, no one goes to the bathroom, and each day is as cloyingly perfect as the day before. He gets his wish one dark and stormy night when he and his bitchy sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are magically whisked from their suburban California home straight into the B&W world of Pleasantville where they find themselves sporting new identities and a new set of flawless mid-century parents (William H. Macy and Joan Allen). But “pleasant” is a matter of taste and the two 21st century teenagers quickly learn that the good life envisioned by 1950s television is actually an unimaginative place of bland conformity and stifling repetition… Writer/director Gary Ross’ lighthearted dissection of the American Dream then and now certainly earned its Oscar nominations for art direction, costumes, and music which evoke a bygone era that never really existed. Much like The Stepford Wives, the imaginary citizens of Pleasantville are caught in a continuous loop of scripted happiness until David and Jennifer’s arrival turns things topsy-turvy—he teaches the local soda jerk how to innovate, she teaches mom about orgasms—and with each transgression a new dab of colour appears among the black and white giving rise to some impressive digital effects. Although there are definite allusions to McCarthyism and racial segregation as the town’s defiantly monochrome mayor rails against the “coloreds” and their wicked ways, Ross keeps things light for the most part with situational humour derived from the eponymous show’s Ozzie and Harriet mentality: bathroom stalls contain no toilets, a double bed is viewed as an alien obscenity, and the kids’ first breakfast in their new home contains enough fats and sugar to kill a horse. A good-natured lampoon of the suburban fantasyland foisted by Hollywood upon a newly birthed generation of boomers which is also notable for being veteran character actor Don Knott’s last big screen appearance playing, appropriately enough, a mysterious television repairman.

Blood in the Face
(USA 1991) (7): Sometimes the best thing filmmakers can do is sit back and let their subjects sing their own praises, or in the case of documentarians Anne Bohlen, Kevin Rafferty, and James Ridgeway, let them build their own pyre. Released in 1991 and composed mainly of newsreels and rough-hewn interviews garnered from the previous forty years, they shed a bit of wan light into the darker corners of the American Nazi-slash-White Supremacist movement and while the revelations are pretty much what you’d expect they prove to be unsettling just the same. Starting in the 1950s when handsome and charismatic WWII pilot George Lincoln Rockwell began galvanizing the far right with his racist rhetoric (he likened himself as St. Paul to Hitler’s Christ) and culminating in klansman David Duke’s ascension to the Louisiana senate in 1989, the directors substitute a linear timeline with a patchwork of monologues, heated sermons, and off the cuff video shots of the alt right at work and play. A few well polished members give stone-face homilies on the evils of Jews, non-whites, and homosexuals (Rockwell admits many of his members used to be gay themselves…snap!) but for the most part we see marginally employed and marginally educated caucasians consumed with hate dressing up and playing with guns, sometimes with deadly consequences. Hubris competes with paranoia—the movement’s spiritual leaders proclaim their white agenda to be ordained by the Christian god, others warn of Mexicans carrying miniature A-bombs and Viet Cong lurking in the forests of British Columbia—and even though the interviewers (including a young and thankfully quiet Michael Moore) try to elicit coherent arguments, more often than not their participants wind up getting mired in non-facts and bombast before falling flat on their faces. What’s truly chilling however is the number of children in the background looking on with doe-eyed innocence as mom and dad sport swastika armbands and carry on about “queers and niggers”. According to one acolyte, caucasians are the only race capable of blushing with shame which apparently indicates their unique ability to hold the higher moral ground. I guess everyone else will have to be content with simply appreciating irony.

I Am Chris Farley
(USA 2015) (5): Before his death in 1997 at the age of thirty-three corpulent comedian Chris Farley, already enjoying celebrity status from his run on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, was poised for a Hollywood career—but like countless shooting stars before him he succumbed to those temptations which accompany fame and money. In Brent Hodge and Derik Murray’s respectful yet patently lightweight documentary we are familiarized with Farley’s outrageous antics (he liked to expose himself at inopportune moments among other things) but come away knowing precious little about the man behind the characters. Born into a boisterous Wisconsin family, Farley’s brand of hyper-manic humour manifested itself at an early age and eventually led him to a stint in Chicago’s famous Second City improv theatre when he was barely out of college. From there it was SNL and a handful of films which left the critics lukewarm but still gathered a tenacious fan base nevertheless. Unfortunately Hodge and Murray’s stable of talking heads, composed mainly of Chris’ siblings, fellow SNL alumni (Dan Aykroyd, Dana Carvey, David Spade etc.) and guest stars such as Bo Derek and Christina Applegate, gleefully rattle off praise and anecdotes while delicately skirting around Farley’s fatal Achille’s heels: namely a low self-esteem coupled with triple addictions to drugs, alcohol, and overeating. Relying almost solely on a few minutes of home movie footage, a prolonged interview on the David Letterman show, some film and SNL clips, and the aforementioned interviewees who all assure us he was a really cool guy (one former classmate turned priest extols Farley’s hitherto unknown charitable side) the directors offer up a surface sketch of a troubled clown with only the haziest of lines separating substance from facade. I admit to never being a fan of Chris Farley’s brand of noisy slapstick and this documentary failed to move me in either direction.

All the King’s Men
(USA 1949) (8): Director Robert Rossen may not have had Orson Welles’ knack for big screen spectacle but this Oscar-winning riff on a Citizen Kane theme is all the more successful for its lack of embellishments. Fed up with local corruption at City Hall small town dirt farmer Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford, Best Actor) begins a faltering political campaign based on honesty, integrity, and a connection with the common people which eventually wins him the state governorship. But sometimes you have to do evil in order to bring about good, or so Willie convinces himself, and as he slowly falls in love with the sound of his own voice it becomes easier for him to overlook the threats, cover-ups, and crooked deals which got him into power—the same petty graft which originally prompted him to run for office in the first place. Crawford is magnificent as he evolves from soft-spoken hick to growling egotistical demagogue hungry to reshape the world in his own image yet determined to deliver on every grandiose promise even if the means don’t justify the ends. And Rossen’s script (based on Robert Warren Penn’s Pulitzer-winning novel which was loosely based on the real life exploits of a Louisiana senator) carefully catalogues how one man’s slide into moral bankruptcy—paved with the best of intentions of course—ultimately corrupts everyone close to him including idealistic newspaperman Jack Burden (John Ireland) who goes from dutifully reporting the truth to wielding it like a political weapon and a tough-talking campaign manager (Mercedes McCambridge, Best Supporting Actress) whose admiration for the gubernatorial Frankenstein she helped create eventually crosses that thin line. A choppy editing style spiced with whirling campaign trail montages keeps the action moving at a clip and aside from a final frame that flirts with Shakespearean overkill Rossen keeps things grounded and believable—every character seems to struggle with good and evil including Stark’s own upright country wife (Anne Seymour) and resentful son (John Derek). Ironically, only Burden’s thoroughly capitalist stepfather, a most unlikeable cynic, sees the writing on the wall when everyone else is blinded by visions of stars and stripes and apple pie. Staunch Republican John Wayne was originally offered the leading role but turned it down accusing the film of “smearing the machineries of government” and “throwing acid on the American way of life”. Considering some of the White House scandals which came later the Duke’s admonishments ring hollow indeed.

The Cave
(USA 2005) (6): A group of scientists exploring a newly discovered series of giant caves deep beneath the Carpathian mountains are delighted when they stumble upon a strange new ecosystem. Their delight turns to terror however when they become trapped underground and realize they are no longer on top of the food chain… Pretty standard monster fare combining claustrophobic elements from The Descent with biological hocus-pocus from The Thing and 1974s The Bat People, but beautifully filmed nevertheless in subterranean shades of blue and grey lit only by portable lamps and sputtering flares. The underwater sequences (using a 750,000 gallon tank) have you catching your breath while those bogeyman sequences—effectively rendered in manic CGI and slimy prosthetics—do not disappoint. A passable creature feature with a nice little twist at the end.

Topkapi
(USA 1964) (7): Director Jules Dassin spoofs his own masterwork, Rififi, with this lightweight tale of a bumbling British conman working the tourist trade in northern Greece (Peter Ustinov garnering his second Oscar) who finds himself firmly wedged between a ring of international jewel thieves and the Turkish authorities thanks to several misunderstandings and a bit of bad luck. Helping the thieves abscond with a priceless jewel dagger on display in Istanbul’s Topkapi museum, yet simultaneously reporting back to an increasingly paranoid police captain, the hapless huckster must manoeuvre his way through several rocks and hard places. But will his efforts be worth it in the end? An airy little crime caper which may be short on logic but pays out in sheer entertainment for not only is there plenty of onscreen chemistry between players but the planned high-tech heist itself—stealing an artifact under lock and key in an ingeniously boobytrapped room—is so audacious that it served as inspiration for the Mission: Impossible television series. A barely intelligible Melina Mercouri co-stars as the ring’s financial backer (a colourful nymphomaniac with a lust for emeralds) along with Maximillian Schell as the brains behind the operation, Hans Fisher and Gilles Ségal as the brawn, Robert Morley as an eccentric inventor, and character actor Akim Tamiroff ultimately stealing the show as a drunken chef. Good fun all around and the rooftop views of Istanbul are magnificent, as are the ground level views of an oiled up all-male wrestling match…whew!

Diner
(USA 1982) (5): In American Graffiti George Lucas immortalized the year 1962 with a tale of friends on the brink of adulthood cruising southern California’s Sunset Strip one last time. Ten years later Barry Levinson tried to play the nostalgia card again, this time set in grungy Baltimore just prior to New Year’s Eve 1959, and the result is a tedious hodgepodge of adolescent ramblings and juvenile pranks that for some mysterious reason still garnered a fair degree of critical acclaim. Five college buddies facing their grown-up years with the usual mix of angst and befuddlement find solace in the local diner where they meet regularly to muse on sex, money, and gossip over burgers and fries. Conveniently sporting one glaring personality flaw apiece (one is a manic slacker, one an oily lothario, one a regretful new husband with OCD, yet another a timid virgin about to be married…you get the idea) the days leading up to 1960 will test both their friendship and individual mettle. Or so you’d hope. Only there isn’t much growing up to do other than the virgin letting loose at a strip club, the lothario developing a budding respect for women, and the married guy realizing his life isn’t so bad after all. The soundtrack of old tunes adds back-up without adding depth (compared to Graffiti whose soundtrack was as vital as any other character) although the period touches are impeccable—those cars! But Levinson leaves too many dangling threads and despite good performances from his cast of future somebodies (Steve Guttenberg, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser, Ellen Barkin) there simply isn’t enough meat to a script which consists mainly of bullshit sessions, posturing, and the usual animosity between generations with slacker Kevin Bacon’s successful older sibling coming across as an unimaginative stuffed shirt. One scene did impress me however—a couple discussing a dire relationship problem in a television studio are uncannily mirrored by the dialogue between two lovers in an old film being aired at the same time. A rather paltry recommendation but it’s the only thing that stood out in an otherwise pointless and meandering mess.

Ode to my Father
(Korea 2014) (9): Mixing just the right amounts of pathos and everyday humour, JK Youn’s enthusiastic big screen weeper looks at fifty years of contemporary Korean history through the eyes of truculent septuagenarian Duk-Soo. Opening in the winter of 1951, Duk-Soo and his family are fleeing their northern village ahead of the invading Chinese forces when both his father and younger sister are separated from the others in the frightened confusion—but not before dad lays the grave responsibility of being “head of the household” onto his ten-year old head. Over the ensuing years Duk-Soo will strive to keep his remaining family solvent by whatever means possible whether it be working in the grungy coal mines of West Germany along with thousands of other economically desperate ex-pats or serving as a technician in war ravaged Viet Nam where the plight of another brother and sister will reflect his own traumatic childhood. But with precious little time for either love or the pursuit of his own dreams, Duk-Soo’s recollections always arouse a wistful nostalgia tinged with bitter regret, an ambiguous combination that no one around him seems to understand, except perhaps his stoically uncomplaining wife. Grandiose cinematography that has audiences flying over battleships or zooming in on a flitting butterfly is shored up by a script that flows naturally despite the occasional maudlin lapse (a weeping orchestra seems to stalk Duk-Soo wherever he goes) and Youn wrings meaning out of the simplest of things, like a pot of bubbling stew or a dusty old jacket. And even though the cameras are firmly focused on one family he makes a few pointed comments on his country’s social and political growing pains—xenophobia and nationalism contrast with Korea’s ambivalent attitudes toward the West, and the generation gap yawns very wide indeed—while pivotal scenes of families (and by association an entire generation) trying to reconnect years after being torn apart by war even had me reaching for a tissue or two. Little wonder it’s become one of the biggest domestic box office draws in Korean history.

The Wizard of Gore
(USA 1970) (1): All the production values of a peep show porn flick but without the porn, this "psychological" horror film wallows in severed papier-mâché heads, buckets o' grocery store guts, and a gallon or two of red syrup. Stage magician Montag the Magnificent takes sadistic delight in skewering women with everything from iron spikes to a punch press (punch press?!) but what the audience doesn't see is the real terror in his volunteers' eyes—is his act an illusion or is our reality the real illusion? Huh? Anyway, it’s up to kicky television journalist Judy and her meathead boyfriend Jack to uncover the truth before it's too late! Of course the real illusion here is the number of people duped into believing that director Herschell Gordon Lewis was some kind of cinematic visionary rather than a grindhouse hack with a taste for squishy innards. Transgressive? Perhaps. But this schtick has been done with far more macabre finesse by the likes of Mario Bava, Lucio Fulci, and even John Waters. Fun to watch for the ham-fisted overacting (or non-acting) and tragic 70s decor.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
(USA 2012) (7): Despite a degree from Princeton and a dream job as a financial analyst living and working in Manhattan, Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed) finds himself torn between the allure of the American dream and the call of his Pakistani roots. And then 9/11 happens and his loyalties are pushed past the breaking point. Now living with his lower middle class family in Lahore he finds himself a prime suspect when an American professor is kidnapped prompting both the CIA and cynical Western reporter Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber) to come calling. “Things aren’t always what they seem…” Changez states to Lincoln at the beginning of a very long interview as political storm clouds gather outside—the film unfolds mainly in flashbacks—and his story goes on to affirm that opening epithet all too well. Both one man’s search for identity in a time of global hysteria and a watered down thriller as Khan and Lincoln become mindful of the ticking clock, Mira Nair’s big screen adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s novel works best when it concentrates on Khan’s individual relationships rather than the “bigger picture” his life is obviously meant to mirror. Loving America yet also angry at that country’s covert operations in his own, Khan’s interactions with the people around him say more than any polemic could. His father (the great Om Puri) embraces the old ways, his privileged New York artist girlfriend (Kate Hudson) highlights cultural misunderstanding with a post 9/11 gallery exhibit that appears to mock their relationship in a most cruel way, and Lincoln himself (ironic name) carries a hidden agenda while at the same time trying to appear objective. Canada’s own Kiefer Sutherland plays the Ugly Capitalist as Changez’s ruthlessly pragmatic former boss. And of course there’s the usual assortment of churlish Americans and outraged Moslems—the peaceful Khan suffering various humiliations at the hands of the former, and a cautious empathy with the latter. But with everyone in the film swinging their fists, Nair wisely chooses to focus her camera on just a few choice bruises.

Grave Encounters
(Canada 2011) (6): Toting a trunk full of ghost detecting equipment, the cocky members of a reality TV show specializing in paranormal phenomenon agree to be locked inside an abandoned insane asylum in upstate Maryland for an entire night (a cameo from BC’s own abandoned Riverview Hospital) to see if rumours of demonic influences within its walls are true. With the windows barred and the front door chained, the team eagerly sets up shop in the hopes of capturing a few bumps in the night to bump up their television ratings. But when the sun sets those bumps turn into something a little more insistent as the asylum’s twisty corridors turn into hellish Möbius loops and the team’s staged bravado inches towards panicked horror. And of course it’s all caught on tape… Just when you thought the whole “found footage” gimmick finally burned itself out for good along come writer/directors Colin Minihan and Stuart Ortiz—aka “The Vicious Brothers”—to take one more kick at the can and the result is a mixed bag of shocks, facepalms, and a lot of déjà vu ( [REC] and Paranormal Activity come immediately to mind). Mouldering hallways and dark doorways limned in night vision green ramp up the creep factor, some well placed jolts put you on edge when the camera whips around yet another sharp corner, and the supernatural effects, when they finally arrive, do have a nightmarish quality to them. But even though a few spooky twists promise a novel resolution to one unusually long night of screams and handheld jostling, it all descends into a stagy mishmash of haunted schlock and bedevilment instead. A worthy popcorn flick if you like the premise but the Vicious Brothers obviously didn’t set out to reinvent the genre.

The Invention of Lying
(USA 2009) (5): In his directorial debut British comic Ricky Gervais produces a philosophical comedy set a world where humans are genetically incapable of telling anything but the truth (there isn’t even a word for telling an untruth), then asks what would happen if one man broke from the pack and told the first fib. The man in question is Mark Bellison (Gervais) a lonely, dumpy, and recently unemployed screenwriter whose life is circling the toilet at an alarming rate until he discovers the power of lying. With a population that takes anything anyone says at face value Mark is soon cleaning up—after all, if you assure the bank teller you actually have more money in your account than the files indicate the problem obviously stems from a computer glitch. But his true desire—neurotic office exec Anna (Jennifer Garner)—remains just beyond his reach no matter how many embellishments he comes up with. And then he accidentally lets loose the biggest lie the world has ever heard and nothing is ever quite the same again… There are some cute moments here—a commercial for Coke begs people to keep buying the beverage even though it’s just “brown sugar water”; movies are problematic (fiction is unheard of); and the world of dating is precarious indeed when you feel compelled to tell the other person exactly what you think of them—and religion is taken for a well-deserved ride. But despite an impressive string of comedy cameos that include Jonah Hill, Louis C.K., and Tina Fey among others, and a heart-rending scene between Bellison and his dying mother played by Fionnula Flanagan, this is essentially a one joke standup routine that quickly runs out of novel ways to tell the truth. Add to that a soppy love story between Gervais and Garner and you have a moderately funny skit stretched to motion picture lengths. An interesting premise (given the reverse treatment by Jim Carrey two years earlier in Liar Liar) but Gervais sidesteps any deeper implications for a couple of surface laughs.

The Smiling Lieutenant
(USA 1931) (5): A dashing officer in the Austrian army (Maurice Chevalier) falls head over heels for the violin-playing conductor of an all-girl orchestra (Claudette Colbert) but thanks to a series of ridiculous misunderstandings finds himself engaged to a mousy princess instead (Miriam Hopkins). Comedy results as the lieutenant tries to avoid the wrath of the King by courting his virginal daughter while at the same time fiddling his fiddler on the side. Obviously made before the draconian guidelines of the Hays Office came into effect, this lighthearted farce drips with none too subtle sexual innuendos as it celebrates adultery, premarital sex, and wholesale promiscuity, not too mention some racy lingerie scenes à la 1931. But even though Colbert and Hopkins put in admirable performances and the whole production is helmed by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch, Chevalier comes across as more fop than romantic lead, that gallic accent sounding like he’s trying to enunciate around a mouthful of mashed potatoes, and no one shares any onscreen chemistry whatsoever. However, the film’s final nail comes in the form of some horrible musical asides which seem to spring out of nowhere: “You put glamour in the grapefruit…” croons Chevalier to Colbert over a post coital breakfast, “…you put passion in the prunes…with every bit of liver, I start to quiver…” Cheese and ham all around.

Silent Hill
(Canada 2006) (5): Rose Da Silva’s squeaky-voiced daughter Sharon is in the habit of sleepwalking to the edge of whatever bottomless ravine happens to be nearby before collapsing into hysterical fits. She’s also begun using her crayons to draw very disturbing scenes of blood and mayhem which seem to be centred on a specific place. When Sharon eventually goes missing following a traffic mishap Rose follows her to the creepy village of Silent Hill, an abandoned town covered in ash and perpetual twilight now inhabited by kooky members of a krazy kult and all sorts of fantastical monsters which literally ooze out of the woodwork at the worst possible moment. Rose’s mission: solve the mystery behind Silent Hill, find Sharon, and steel herself for the inevitable sequel. Based on a popular video game…and about as deep…Christopher Gans’ schlocky spook show does feature some notable special effects like big growling cockroaches, mummified scalpel-wielding hip hop nurses, and walls which alternately burn, bleed, and peel away to reveal hidden horrors. But the characters move about as if they were still being controlled by a joystick (can Rose manoeuvre those steel girders in order to effect a rescue?!) and the game’s—oops, I meant film’s—great big diabolical conspiracy theory would even have Stephen King rolling his eyes. The fact that the final reveal has to be explained to Rose-slash-The Audience by a twelve-year old pretty much says it all. The talents of Sean Bean are wasted as Rose’s nonplussed husband, Alice Krige spits mild venom as the cult leader, Canada’s monotone wonder Deborah Kara Unger manages to inject just a tiny bit of emotion into her insanely distraught ex-cult character, and in that too-tight police chick uniform Laurie Holden looks as if she should be spinning ‘round a strippers’ pole rather than kicking paranormal butt as Rose’s sidekick. Interesting ending however, and the aforementioned effects are above par, but I’ll pass on part two.

I Am Cuba [Soy Cuba] (Russia 1964) (9): Director Mikhail Kalatozov (The Cranes are Flying) was sent to Cuba in order to make a film glorifying La Revolución, instead he produced this beautifully avant-garde piece—part neorealism, part surreal fancy, and with just a dab or two of Soviet propaganda thrown in—which was roundly condemned by Moscow as being too artsy and by Havana as being little more than a series of cultural caricatures. Narrated by the Spirit of Cuba itself in the form of a sultry female voiceover, Kalatozov’s movie is presented in four parts, each telling a tale from the country’s pre-revolutionary era. It opens with the story of a chaste peasant’s fall from grace at the hands of piggish American businessmen in a drunken bacchanal worthy of Fellini himself. Part two shows a sugar cane farmer’s downfall at the hands of an evil land baron; a student activist’s inability to visit violence upon his oppressor has unexpected consequences in part three; and part four ties it all up with a rural pacifist who discovers that neglecting one’s revolutionary obligations never ends well. It’s not the propaganda elements themselves that make this an instant classic however but rather Kalatozov’s imaginative mise en scènes and visionary camerawork, groundbreaking at the time, which eventually put Soy Cuba on the world stage. A jazzy opening number has a single tracking shot snaking down the side of a hotel wall before plunging in and out of a swimming pool, a fallen comrade’s flag-draped body is carried through a burning street like a sacred relic while the sky above swarms with white doves and wind blown revolutionary pamphlets, a Western capitalist staggering through a filthy slum is overwhelmed by begging children, and a penniless student runs past gaudy store fronts filled with ostentatious consumer goods while horny American sailors hunt her down (as they drunkenly sing a pro U.S.A. ditty). Bursting with off-kilter energy and swirling images that never sit still for very long thanks to those crazy tracking shots and one unbelievable crane shoot which literally flies above rooftops filled with patriotic Cubans flinging roses, I Am Cuba may not stand up to everyone’s political scrutiny but taken as a succession of artistic impressions (albeit lensed through foreign eyes) it is nothing short of breathtaking. Ironically, Fidel and Raoul Castro joined Che Guevara in serving as “technical advisors”.

Ran
(Japan 1985) (9): Wishing to enjoy a comfortable retirement, aging warlord Hidetora divides his kingdom between his three sons and in so doing unleashes the dogs of war as brother schemes against brother for a bigger piece, neighbouring kingdoms smell blood in the water, and everyone sets their sights on retiring the old man permanently. Meanwhile a thoroughly humiliated Hidetora, accompanied by his ruthlessly honest court jester and haunted by ghosts of his own past misdeeds, slowly succumbs to madness. As he did with Macbeth in 1957’s Throne of Blood, director Akira Kurosawa places Shakespeare’s King Lear in feudal Japan and the resulting widescreen epic is nothing short of majestic. Although he was going blind at the time his eye for melding poetry with spectacle is fully honed with elaborately coloured costumes against a landscape of harsh geometries—blocky wooden castles are backlit by blood-red clouds, green cliffs recede into blue horizons, and battlefields come alive with multi-coloured pennants while blood explodes onto walls and balustrades. Staying true to Shakespeare’s themes of nihilism and the corruption that springs from pride and reckless ambition, Kurosawa’s dramatic marriage of Western and Eastern styles finds the perfect balance in Tatsuya Nakadai’s portrayal of Hidetora, his exaggerated expressions and ghost-like make-up finding their roots in classical Noh culture while Mieko Harada as the scheming wife of Hidetora’s son Jiro could give Lady Macbeth herself a lesson or two in tyranny. Reportedly influenced by man’s endless cycle of violence and revenge, and with memories of Hiroshima still intact, Kurosawa creates a world of chaos, futility, and base desires where godlike virtues are sorely lacking and everyone learns their lesson only after it’s too late. And he ends it with one of the most striking yet sadly befitting visual metaphors of his career.