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

~ ~ ~ ~

Guardians of the Galaxy
(USA 2014) (10): Intrepid fortune hunter Peter Quill (a very funny-sexy Chris Pratt) stumbles upon a dangerous alien artifact and suddenly finds himself involved in a deadly intergalactic game of cat-and-mouse as very powerful players vie to steal it from him no matter the cost. With a ragtag ship and motley crew of E.T. outcasts—an animated tree stump, trigger-happy raccoon, tattooed ogre, and green-skinned female assassin—Quill will have to survive everything from an alien prison camp to a fantastical aerial dogfight in order to deliver the artifact to its rightful place before it destroys the universe. I have never been a fan of the Marvel Comics universe (I actually walked out of Iron Man) but James Gunn has scored a major coup with this slap-happy amalgam of CGI wizardry, adult humour, and whizz-bang pyrotechnics. Teeming with geeky in-jokes (Howard the Duck makes a cameo!) and a supercool soundtrack of retro hits ranging from Glen Campbell to Ziggy Stardust, Gunn’s manic energy splashes the screen with so much comic mayhem that I found myself smiling without even knowing why. And that cast (both flesh and graphics) produces a synergy seldom seen in the movies. A little bit of Star Wars, a dash of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and a touch or two of Lara Croft all make for one hugely entertaining—and very funny—space opera.

Brigsby Bear
(USA 2017) (7): Abducted as a baby by a pair of well-meaning intellectual sociopaths and raised in a hermetically sealed underground bunker somewhere under the desert, James Pope’s world consists of odd rituals coined by his faux parents, intensive math tutoring, and thousands of VHS episodes of Brigsby Bear. Poised somewhere between Barney & Friends and Dr. Who, Brigsby is a cuddly intergalactic teddy whose ultra-low budget adventures combine Sci-Fi camp with calculus lessons and questionably sage advice (“Curiosity is an unnatural emotion!”). Obsessed with the little furry hero James fills his bedroom with Brigsby memorabilia and spends his nights figuring out how to help the bear get out of his latest jam. And then the FBI come knocking and James, now twenty-five, is thrust into a real world he never imagined and reunited with a real family he never knew. Even the one consistent source of comfort in his sheltered life, Brigsby Bear, turns out to be one big lie. But when he discovers the wonderful world of movies James becomes consumed with putting Brigsby to rest by filming one final episode himself—an idea that doesn’t sit well with the new authorities in his life… Penned by SNL alumni and childhood friends Dave McCary and Kyle Mooney (who also plays James) Brigsby Bear is a unpolished charmer which pokes fun at pop culture while at the same time praising the dreamers and creative minds which spawn it. Considering the film’s dark premise however, McCrary and Mooney bypass any dramatic depth and aim instead for the easy “fish out of water” laughs with James’ culture shock toned down to a series of awkward assimilations and his abductors (Mark Hamill, Jane Adams) no more than quirky eggheads who went too far. But perhaps its this divorce from reality (a continuation of James’ fantasy childhood?) which gives the film its “aww shucks” likability in the first place. I mean, who does’t want to see Mooney’s mop-headed man-child live the dream if only for a few reels? Greg Kinnear co-stars as a cop with thespian aspirations and Claire Danes toggles the charm as James’ cynical teenaged sister.

Michael Inside
(Ireland 2017) (7): When 18-year old Michael McCrea is caught holding drugs for a neighbourhood pusher it spells more trouble than he needs. With his dad already in prison, his grandfather barely supporting the two of them on a pension, and himself still on probation from a past infraction, a small stint in jail is inevitable. But even with a relatively light sentence the naïve young man’s brush with hardened criminals will change his life forever, and upon release he will find his real sentence is just beginning… Sidestepping the thug glamour and Hollywood bravado usually associated with prison films, writer/director Frank Berry consulted with actual ex-cons to pen this downbeat tale of a good kid making bad decisions who finds his life—already narrowly delineated by poverty, lack of education and poor role models—further constricted by a justice system which won’t look beyond the crime but instead thrusts him into a setting which, in order to stay alive, will necessitate more bad decisions. Filmed inside a real prison Berry neither exaggerates nor softens his story—the men are mean but not ogres; grandad bears a heavy heart but is not wholly innocent himself—and his perfectly cast actors live their roles especially lead Dafhyd Flynn as a bewildered Micheal, Lalor Roddy as his aging grandfather, and Moe Dunford as Michael’s impromptu prison mentor, an affable bear whose easy smile doesn’t quite conceal an underlying pathology. There is one ray of light however in the form of a testimonial given by a successful former convict to a prison support group, but judging from the faces in the crowd the message goes largely unheard. Punishment is indeed a necessary part of justice and Berry offers no resistance to that notion, but if the overall goal is to reduce, reeducate, and rehabilitate he sees society rushing headlong in the opposite direction.

(Bulgaria 2014) (8): Using family dysfunction as a political metaphor is hardly new, but writer/director Maya Vitkova’s occasionally brilliant mix of satire, surrealism, and deep felt sadness makes for a heady cocktail just the same. Boryana is a taciturn librarian working in Sofia whose dreams of escaping to the West are dashed by an unwanted pregnancy. Despite her husband’s joy and her own attempts to abort the fetus little Viktoria is born anyway, on the anniversary of Bulgaria’s Communist Uprising no less, and immediately thrust into the spotlight for two reasons: she is awarded the title of “Bulgarian Socialist Baby of the Decade” and the medical community is set abuzz when it’s discovered she was born with neither an umbilical cord nor a navel. Nine years later and the celebrated baby has grown into an insufferably spoiled brat thanks to the doting ruling party which insists on applauding her every faux pas even as she drives a wedge between her parents—her mother has never forgiven her for ruining her one shot at a better life overseas; her father is tired of trying to mend bridges. But with the fall of Communism in 1989 (her 10th birthday) Viktoria’s sudden loss of celebrity status coupled with Bulgaria’s newfound political unrest will throw the entire household back into the blender one more time… With notable performances from Irmena Chichikova as the sullen Boryana and real life siblings Daria and Kalina Vitkova playing Viktoria as child and adolescent (the former a study in angelic silence and childish temper), Vitkova lampoons communist propaganda and the worship of the West (government officials cheer as Viktoria hammers uselessly at a piano keyboard during a “recital”; Borya’s cherished cigarette lighter is shaped like Lady Liberty) and then evens it all out with moments of dreamlike beauty as when Viktoria fancies she has an umbilical cord linking her to Socialist Headquarters or a sudden squall drenches the countryside in milk (the offering—or refusing—of the latter providing a potent metaphor regardless of whether it came from a supermarket or a mother’s breast). But with the fall of Socialism the film loses much of its momentum causing characters to go static while the piercing tropes of the first three quarters devolve into so much fog and angst. Considering this is her first feature film however, Vitkova has produced a noteworthy piece of cinema which begins as a political invective then seamlessly morphs into a tragic look at broken dreams and the legacy of neglect.

Can We Take a Joke?
(USA 2015) (9): Back in the 60s, controversial comic Lenny Bruce sold out comedy clubs even as he found himself constantly under attack from police and law officials for his on-stage use of dirty words and sexual references. As the obscenity charges and jail time piled up he eventually succumbed to a lethal mixture of stress, depression, and drug abuse—but his life and death did lead to a renewed call for freedom of speech across the USA. Now, according to Ted Balaker’s infuriatingly accurate documentary, in today’s society the role of social censor has passed from lawmakers to the so-called “Outrage Mob” who take offence at the slightest off-colour joke and then use social media like a cyber lynch mob. And sadly nowhere is this more evident than on college campuses, those former hotbeds of anarchy now reduced to soft bastions of political correctness where having an opinion that differs from the herd is cause for expulsion or at least disgrace and public reprimands. From outré comedian Gilbert Gottfried who lost a lucrative deal promoting Aflac Insurance because of a tsunami joke to university student Chris Lee who required a security escort to class after he penned a satirical burlesque on the life of Jesus, the Easily Offended are targeting comedy and they’re using online platforms to quash the first amendment even as they enjoy its freedoms themselves. And it’s not just limited to entertainers as former PR exec Justine Sacco discovered when, en route to South Africa, she tweeted a joke to her 130 followers about AIDS and race meant as a rebuke against North America’s “white bubble” only to find herself fired and the target of thousands of rape and death threats before her flight even landed. How this happened is a question Balaker puts to a succession of funnymen and women and the answers are as diverse as the performers themselves as they talk about misplaced empowerment and a self-congratulatory attitude of being a good person for standing up to jokes which are not safe and pretty. But there is a push back, for just as the hateful ignorance of the Westboro Baptist Church is changing minds in the opposite direction so too are the public hissy fits of the easily offended. “If we as comics steered clear of every topic that might offend somebody we would never open our mouths…” says bad girl comedienne Lisa Lampanelli who views vulgar humour as a way of confronting everything from racism to sexual assault (ironically it was a joke aimed at the 80s band “Journey” that almost got her beaten up) and one can only believe that the ensuing silence would usher in a new puritanical dark age. A bit of a history lesson, a bit of current events (the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris was still front page news) and a highly engaging series of interviews.

The Trouble with Angels
(USA 1966) (7): Based on the scholastic memoirs of Jane Trahey, director Ida Lupino has created a fun family film for Catholics as inoffensive as you’re likely to find. When misfit troublemaker Mary Clancy (Hayley Mills) is enrolled for a three-year stint at the St. Francis Academy for Girls she immediately declares war on the school’s stern headmistress, Reverend Mother Superior (Rosalind Russell, a million miles away from Auntie Mame). Taking mousy fellow student Rachel (June Harding) under her delinquent wing, Mary unleashes one “scathingly brilliant idea” after another from putting bubble bath in the Sisters’ tea to feigning influenza in order to get out of gym class (yikes!) But Reverend Mother is not quite the ogre Mary believes her to be, a fact which eventually elicits a sea change in the spirited youngster. Perhaps a bit overambitious as it tries to cram three years’ worth of growing up into two hours—the story roughly divided into chapters by summer vacation—the action boils down to mere anecdotes punctuated by extracurricular hijinks or a prayerful aside, and it’s all given a squeaky clean veneer although non-Catholics may get lost on some of the references. For their parts Mills and Harding present a fine pair of rambunctious schoolgirls despite being in their 20s at the time, with Harding’s timidity playing foil to Mill’s mule-headed exuberance and a sundry collection of cloistered nuns ranging from kooky to senile to clueless forming a colourful backdrop. And Gypsy Rose Lee herself drops a cameo as an eccentric guest hired to teach the student body poise and grace. But it is Rosalind Russell who shines the brightest in black habit and rosary with a face hovering somewhere between an indulgent smile and a doomsday scowl. Her gravelly voice and expressive eyes adding a bit of weight to what is essentially an exercise in Catholic fluff and nostalgia. Perhaps if you listen close enough you might just hear The Bells of St. Mary’s pealing in the distance—or is that St. Trinian’s?

I Remember You
(Iceland 2017) (7): In a remote corner of Iceland three friends are trying to transform an abandoned farmhouse into a Bed & Breakfast when supernatural occurrences begin to keep them up at night. Meanwhile, in other parts of the country a grieving father is still searching for his missing son and a coroner’s office is investigating the apparent suicide of an old woman whose mutilated body was found hanging in a church. The ways in which these three seemingly separate stories come together form the crux of Óskar Thór Axelsson’s spooky ghost story, a series of Nordic jolts laced with an acute sense of sadness as it bounces back and forth across sixty years of history. Iceland’s vast, perpetually overcast landscapes of rock and sea were made for this kind of campfire tale and Axelsson makes the most of it with a driving score and directorial skills that never let his characters go full meltdown. Of course you’re required to suspend a bit of disbelief and overlook the usual glaring facepalm moments (“Something’s scratching in the crawlspace at 4 a.m. so naturally I’ll investigate by myself armed with a nightie and a flashlight…”) but the story is more or less solid and Axelsson pulls the rug on us a bit with a shrewd piece of temporal tinkering. A good flick to watch in the dark.

Quiz Show (USA 1994) (8): TV quiz shows came under fire in the 1950s when it was discovered that favoured contestants (the ones who improved network ratings and boosted sponsor profits) were being supplied with the answers beforehand, a revelation which led to a series of senate subcommittee hearings and put the entire industry in turmoil even though no laws were actually broken. Director Robert Redford gives us an acute, almost whimsical sense of time and place—New York City’s NBC studios during television’s infancy—to tell the tale of two such contestants: geeky know-it-all and all around schmuck Herbie Stempel (John Turturro) who was breaking the bank on the popular game show “Twenty-One”, and Ivy League All-American WASP Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) who was slated to dethrone him much to the delight of a television audience who producers felt were getting tired of an “annoying Jewish guy with a sidewall haircut”. At first reluctant to cheat his way to fame and fortune, Van Doren ultimately succumbed and made out like a bandit—but Stempel was not about to go gently. Well acted all around with spot on performances by Johann Carlo as Stempel’s frumpy wife, Rob Morrow as an idealistic attorney, David Paymer as a soulless production chief, and Oscar-nominated Paul Scofield as Van Doren Sr., a stuffy intellectual with an unwavering moral compass. Despite its overall quasi-comedic feel however, Redford’s film highlights an emerging industry mentality which believed truth didn’t really matter as long as “…the sponsor makes out, the network makes out…and the public is entertained”. Sobering words in this Bread and Circuses age of packaged reality shows and fake news.

Rio Bravo
(USA 1959) (8): A classic oater directed by the legendary Howard Hawks and starring a drawling, swaggering John Wayne at his quintessential best. When frontier Texas sheriff John T. Chance (The Duke) throws the no-good brother of a crooked land baron in jail on charges of murder he knows he’s in for a rough time. It’s going to be a week before a U.S. marshal can collect the prisoner and in the meantime Chance will have to guard both himself and his small jailhouse against a growing gang of outlaws hired by the baron to bust his brother free. And the odds are against Chance for the only people on his side are a pair of inept deputies—one a drunk in perpetual D.T.s (a downplayed Dean Martin) the other a crippled old curmudgeon (a toothless Walter Brennan living the role)—plus an adolescent gunslinger (baby-faced teen idol Ricky Nelson on hiatus from Ozzie & Harriet ). For all its lack of originality Hawks keeps the action going with tense showdowns both big and small, comedic breaks (Brennan’s truculent non-stop monologue almost seems ad-libbed), and a bit of awkward romance when a young woman with a checkered past breezes into town and sets her sights on the sheriff (Angie Dickinson, twenty-five years Wayne’s junior). Marked by wide open cinematography that cashes in on its Arizona locations—cacti and widescreen sunsets galore—and an evocative score by Dimitri Tiomkin, Rio Bravo manages to avoid most of the genre clichés even though the bad guys do wear mostly black and wild west shootouts are okay as long as the criminals bite it. Science Fiction author Leigh Brackett co-wrote the screenplay—unusual for a woman in those days—and perhaps it’s this female perspective that lifts it from the usual string of cowboy platitudes into a work of classic cinema.

Star Trek: Beyond
(USA 2016) (7): In this third episode featuring the reimagined crew of the USS Enterprise, Kirk and company are sent into the heart of an unstable nebula (??) to rescue shipwrecked aliens only to become trapped themselves on a mysterious planet curiously filled with old Federation artifacts and ruled over by the cantankerous Krall (Idris Elba in reptilian drag). Obsessed by a deep-seated grudge against humanity, Krall has hatched a deadly plan to even a past score and only Kirk, Bones, Scotty, and Spock, accompanied by stranded warrior woman Jaylah (Sofia Boutella in Marilyn Manson drag) can throw a wrench in the works before it’s too late. Despite a liberal sprinkling of references to former Star Trek films as well as the original TV series—most of which will only be caught by fanatical fans anyway—Gene Roddenberry’s grand future vision is not very evident here. Kirk (Chris Pine) hotdogs it with wild abandon, Scotty (Simon Pegg) flusters, Bones and Spock (Karl Urban, Zachary Quinto) spar, but the bonhomie which came so easily to the original cast seems forced and obligatory in this chapter of the franchise causing jokes to fall flat and characters to become mere facsimiles—Urban cocks his eyebrow just like DeForest Kelley! Quinto looks bemused just like Leonard Nimoy! Zoe Saldana opens hailing frequencies just like Nichelle Nichols! And that plot! Suffering from far too many Hail Mary escapes and comic book technology (more science huh? than science fiction) just to bring us to a big letdown and cursory epilogue. But being directed by Justin “Fast & Furious” Lin and produced by JJ Abrams there is no shortage of pyrotechnics with things blowing up in your face, super cool toys (Jaylah’s holographic Amazons and Krall’s space bees!) and edge-of-your-seat showdowns which owe a debt of gratitude to Lucas’ Star Wars. And Lin’s fast and furious editing is almost enough to distract us from the many inanities while Krall’s planet, a combination of CGI and BC backcountry, is pretty to look at though hardly “alien”. I appreciated the little gay touch as well even if George Takei didn’t. As an instalment in the Star Trek omnibus, Beyond is a weak link indeed—but as a silly summer popcorn muncher it streaks across your retinas with all cylinders firing. Who could have dreamed that the Beastie Boys would one day save the universe? Ha!

Generation Wealth
(USA 2018) (5): So what do a porn star, a six-year old beauty queen, and a disgraced hedge fund manager have in common? An awful lot if you subscribe to Lauren Greenfield’s skewed documentary—a directionless mash-up of anti-capitalism catchphrases, self-indulgent autobiography, and True Confessions video magazine. We live in a “pornified” culture where everything has become a commodity from women’s bodies (porn star) to children as accessories (beauty queen) seems to be the consensus, and television is there to make sure we yearn to keep up with The Kardashians at the expense of hard work, frugality, and a sense of purpose. This is not news, and highly selective interviews with plastic surgery junkies, stock market casualties, and Las Vegas escorts are hardly earth-shattering no matter how many snapshots of anorexics or decadent nightclubs get tossed at the camera. Then Greenfield turns the lens on herself growing up in 1970s Los Angeles to tell how hard it was having two absent Harvard PhDs as parents even though history seems to be repeating itself with her own two sons. And finally we sit down with fallen moguls, grown offspring of the rich and famous, and former valley girls for some tear-stained reflections on how money just can’t buy happiness…sniff sniff. But we’ve seen the bling-bling excesses before and we’ve heard the dire warnings of Capitalism’s imminent demise ad nauseam. An exercise in preaching to the choir given a sheen of insincerity when she closes an already biased exposé by plugging her new book. I think I’ll buy me a lottery ticket.

Get Low
(USA 2009) (6): Reviled by the nearby townsfolk and the butt of many disparaging tall tales, curmudgeonly Tennessee hermit Felix Bush (Robert Duvall) nevertheless derives some lonely satisfaction living by himself in his comfortably primitive backwoods shack. But Felix is also harbouring a tragic secret from the past which he needs to get off his chest before the Grim Reaper comes knocking in earnest and with no friends to turn to he hatches a most outlandish plan—he’ll host his own “funeral party”, invite everyone within four counties, and finally shed some light on all those mean-spirited rumours which have been dogging him for forty years. But first he has to convince the local mortician… Based somewhat on the exploits of Felix Bushaloo Breazeale, a real life hillbilly recluse, but padded out for theatre audiences, Aaron Schneider’s low-keyed slice of life dramedy has but a few things going for it. Robert Duvall is exceptional as the taciturn Bush who goes from grumbling loner to articulate philosopher at the drop of a shotgun shell while Sissy Spacek keeps pace as an old flame who is just finding out she never really knew the man she once loved. Bill Murray rounds out the cast as a befuddled funeral director along with Lucas Black as his too honest assistant and Bill Cobbs as a reluctant eulogist. The 1930s touches are nice too with old jalopies, dusty country streets, and a soundtrack of original music complimented by scratchy old records. But aside from being a somewhat engaging character study nothing really takes off—the anticipated climax is more lifeless than an actual wake and the ending is hardly surprising even with the last few pieces of the puzzle plopping into place. Would have been better as a short story.

We The Animals
(USA 2018) (9): Although its lyrical, sometimes brutal dreamscapes have drawn favourable comparisons to Terrence Malick (I would add Terrence Davies and even Ingmar Bergman), Jeremiah Zagar anchors his debut feature film, based on Justin Torres’ novel, with enough grit and downtrodden realism to make its voice uniquely his own. Just turned ten, Jonah (breakout performance by Evan Rosado) lives in an impoverished split-level somewhere in upstate New York with a needy mother prone to mental fugues, a marginally employed father whose affections too often run hot and cold, and a pair of older brothers who seem destined to follow the pattern of domestic violence and dead end jobs laid down by their parents. But Jonah perceives the world differently for he’s gifted—or perhaps cursed—with eyes that see beyond surfaces and a heart which feels more acutely. Using childish fantasy to escape his bleak family life he soars above the trees or else plunges underwater to a scary submarine world of adolescent urges and forbidden temptation. And he records his every thought (including his darkest secret) in a journal crowded with philosophical scribblings and animated doodles which he hides under his mattress. But dreams don’t equal action and certain secrets can’t stay buried forever… Long languorous takes drift in and out of focus underscored by anger and hopelessness yet pierced throughout by moments of rough tenderness—mom and dad dance the meringue in between bouts of abuse, dad cradles Jonah in his arms, and the three brothers concoct juvenile rituals which erupt in laughter even as they bond them closer. And biblical references abound with violence and poverty likened to a plague of locusts and a backyard trench resembling an open grave setting the stage for a childlike resurrection. However, unlike his Old Testament namesake, Jonah resists being swallowed by his surroundings, his newfound courage bringing the film to a satisfying, if ultimately uncertain, conclusion born equally of ambition and desperation. A beautiful art-house evocation of one boy’s troubled childhood whose bittersweet chapters revolve around a delicate core of warmth and humanity.

The Official Story
(Argentina 1985) (7): Buenos Aires, 1983, and Argentina’s junta-sponsored reign of terror—known as “The Dirty War” and linked to America’s “Operation Condor”—has just ended leaving a legacy of brutal suppression, torture, and thousands of men and women who simply disappeared. But for comfortably bourgeois history teacher Alicia it is little more than a memory of unpleasant inconveniences, cushioned as she was by the finagling of her husband Roberto, a prominent right-leaning lawyer. Alicia’s sanitized view of recent events takes a double hit however with the arrival of two jarring revelations: a shocking confession from one of her oldest and dearest friends, and a growing suspicion regarding the parentage of her adopted daughter, five-year old Gaby. Alicia’s attempts to uncover the facts surrounding Gaby will eventually put her at odds with Roberto who is determined to let the past remain buried. Luis Puenzo’s Oscar-winning drama is a tense jumble of social realism and political castigation which was largely filmed on the sly due to threats aimed at cast and crew. By casting Alicia (a bravura performance from Norma Aleandro) as a willful naif and then pitting her against Roberto (a dour Héctor Alterio) he creates two polar extremes—one painfully turning towards the truth, the other intent on facing the other way—which sum up the Argentinian zeitgeist of the time. Street protests and classroom clashes (Alicia is shocked when one student attacks the history books she so adores) contrast with Roberto’s boardroom intrigues (it’s no coincidence many of his associates speak American English), and a gossipy highschool reunion dinner turns into a microcosm of middle class apathy. Suffering in part from erratic editing and plot points which require some pre-reading, Puenzo’s outspoken condemnation of his country’s human rights atrocities still makes for powerful viewing especially when one considers the abusers themselves were not entirely without power when filming began.

Something for Everyone
(USA 1970) (9): Handsome drifter Konrad Ludwig (Michael York) breezes into a small Austrian village and immediately sets about ingratiating himself into the home of the Countess von Ornstein (Golden Globe nominee Angela Lansbury), a faded aristocrat now living in the shadow of the once opulent family castle she can no longer afford to keep. Striking up sexual dalliances with both the countess’ teenaged son and the daughter of the boorish yet wealthy city-dwelling Pleschke family, it quickly becomes obvious that behind Konrad’s disarming smile there beats a cold and calculating heart. But his intricate game of social-climbing is not without a few snags however, for Konrad may not be the only player in town… Based on Harry Kressing’s novel, Harold Prince’s darkly satiric fairy tale is so malicious at times it frequently borders on horror. Pitting York’s golden-haired übermensch against the old guard and the new leads to a chain of uncomfortable observations and terribly witty polemics laced with bitterness as Lansbury’s snobbish countess never misses an opportunity to disparage her own peers as well as the nouveau rich Pleshkes. And all the while Hitler’s bleak legacy can still be found lurking in the darkest corners. Knowing when to stick pins in his characters and when to simply let things unfold naturally, Prince gilds his film with so much alpine scenery and Oktoberfest extras that when the final twisted ending arrives the irony is almost too much. Eva Maria Meineke shines garishly as Frau Pleschke and Jane Carr dominates the screen as van Ornstein’s precocious daughter.

Burnt By The Sun
(Russia 1994) (7): A sad echo of Chekhov drifts through director Nikita Mikhalkov’s Oscar-winning tale of a decorated Russian veteran unable to come to terms with his motherland’s new reality. Hero of the Revolution and now a loving family man, Colonel Sergei Kotov (Mikhalkov himself who also wrote the screenplay) is spending a relaxing summer at his country dacha surrounded by an ebullient assortment of eccentric friends and domestics as well as his much younger wife Marusya and animated eight-year old daughter Nadya (real life daughter Nadezhda). But this is 1936 and despite the long idyllic days full of laughter and music Stalin’s vicious reign of terror is just beginning to cast its shadow so that when multi-talented Dimitriy—an old acquaintance and Marusya’s former lover—shows up after a long absence abroad, everyone is delighted to see him except Sergei whose military instincts suspect darker motives afoot. Divided by tone into two parts, Mikhalkov first lulls us with a prolonged intro showing the Kotov clan enjoying life in a series of silly, almost satirical vignettes (a showdown between a tank commander and an irate babushka is spot on). With the arrival of Dimitriy however the film makes a u-turn, his haunted presence underlined by troubling metaphors which start out subtle yet grow ever more malignant—mysterious balls of fire drift past windows, a lively piano rendition of Offenbach’s Can-Can turns malicious, and a gigantic portrait of Stalin hovers over a wheat field like the face of God (or Godzilla). Taking its title from the glorious sun of revolution, Mikhaldov has weaved facts and fiction into a vicious polemic bracketed by two standout performances: himself as a once proud party idealist now horrified by what Moscow has become (a photo of Kotov laughing with Stalin sits ironically in the parlour), and his daughter as a yet unblemished tabula rasa who wouldn’t know a dictator from a dormouse. Marred in part by some chaotic editing and too many kooks in the kitchen (Kotov’s household is uncomfortably reminiscent of Capra’s Vanderhof clan in You Can’t Take it With You) it’s still well worth a viewing.

In Old Chicago
(USA 1938) (7): In response to MGM’s successful disaster flick San Francisco, 20th Century Fox came up with one of its own set in the days leading up to the great Chicago fire of 1871. Despite being widowed en route to the midwest, headstrong Molly O’Leary (Best Supporting Actress Alice Brady) manages to raise three fine boys in Chicago’s infamous “Patch” neighbourhood—a muddy warren of speakeasies, gambling joints, and loose morals. But brothers Jack and Dion (Don Ameche, Tyrone Power) grow up to find themselves on opposite sides of the law when honest Jack, an aspiring politician, vows to clean up Chicago even though Dion makes his living running one of the Patch’s more lucrative saloons. Crooked deals and heated tempers come to a head one Autumn day, and then everything changes when a wayward flame sets the town ablaze… Pretty standard family drama buoyed by star power—Alice Faye shares the spotlight as burlesque singer-cum-love interest Belle Fawcett—and those final twenty minutes in which the studio blew almost two-hundred thousand dollars (a small fortune back then) to recreate a burning city. Old-style fire engines clang, panicked extras scramble, and an entire studio backlot goes up in smoke—there’s even a stampede!—all of which provide a suitable finale to a film laced with corruption and hints of sin. Sensitive souls be forewarned however, there’s the inevitable “Oh Lawdy!” black maid (a cheeky Madame Sul-Te-Wan giving it all she’s got) and a sexual seduction bordering on coercion…uh-oh.

(UK 2018) (10): Born to working class parents in the summer of 1969 Lee Alexander McQueen was not much of an academic, preferring instead to doodle clothing designs all over his notebooks. Obsessed with fashion and gifted with the creative mind of a genius, the shy self-effacing lad was barely into his twenties when he not only established a signature line but was being sought by the likes of Givenchy and Gucci to boot. Never compromising his vision however, McQueen drew upon memories of childhood trauma and his own dark imagination to create stunning catwalk shows that were at once brutal, apocalyptic, and terribly, terribly beautiful. With themes such as “Jack the Ripper Stalks His Victims” and “Highland Rape” he featured models staggering half naked and traumatized, warrior amazons sporting horns and fiery red contacts, giggling asylum inmates, and in one stroke of brilliance a woman dressed in tulle and leather belt slowly spinning while a pair of choreographed industrial robots sprayed her with paint. But his sudden skyrocket to fame, accompanied by some very personal tragedies, would eventually have a cumulative effect on the fragile artist… Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s rapid fire doc is a perfect blending of talking heads, runway extravagance, and intimate home movies meant to deliver a three-dimensional picture of McQueen as both the fashion world’s enfant terrible and self-immolating victim. Drawing upon the designer’s family and friends, lovers, co-workers and critics, as well as McQueen’s own words, and then punctuating it all with footage from his shows—themselves jaw-dropping spectacles of sight and sound—the directors barely pause for breath before immersing us over and over again into the crazy eccentric (and crazy tragic) world of their subject and the maniacs and visionaries who surrounded him. The fashions bounce from outrageous to ethereal to magnificent, the presentations are never less than scandalous, and composer Michael Nyman reprises his score from 1993’s The Piano to sobering effect. “I saw myself within the public eye as the gazelle…” states McQueen at one point while talking about his precarious fame, “…and the gazelle always got eaten.” The only documentary that has ever moved me to tears.

Women’s Flesh: My Red Guts
(Japan 1999) (1): Browsing through his filmography one gets the impression that writer/director Tamakichi Anaru definitely has issues and this forty-minute pseudo-snuff film doesn’t offer much of a counterargument. Shot directly onto grainy video with no dialogue, a sketchy lo-fi soundtrack, and gallons of red syrup, it records two women mutilating themselves to death using kitchen utensils and the wrong end of a toothbrush. Bones snap, intestines spill out, and Anaru’s eager camera is there to document everything from bloody pixilated genitals to his own left foot (oops!). For those who love their gore straight-up without the hindrance of a storyline—apparently one woman was jilted by her lover and internalized her rage or something—this is the real deal. Transgressive for sure, but is it art? Just kidding! LOL!

(Canada 2017) (4): Science and “spirituality” have never made for comfortable bedfellows and writer/director Alison McAlpine’s strong-arm attempts to force them through the bedroom door results in a hodgepodge of New Age prattle which is only occasionally punctuated by rational observations from astronomers and physicists. Filmed in and around an observatory in Chile’s famed Atacama desert, her documentary follows these scientists at work as they map the heavens amidst a landscape of jagged mountains and perpetually setting suns. Nice to look at, but natives telling tall tales about ghosts and aliens are given the same sober consideration as scientists talking about exoplanets and space travel, and McAlpine’s droning voiceover, accentuated by a tolling soundtrack, tries way too hard to wrestle some quasi-religious mystery out of endless time lapses of the Milky Way—panoramas of spinning stars that begin to look like outtakes from Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi. “If we could ask the stars a question, what would it be…?” Deep thoughts for shallow thinkers.