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

~ ~ ~ ~

Pacific Rim (USA 2013) (7): In the near future an inter-dimensional rift under the Pacific Ocean allows mammoth aquatic beasts called “Kaiju” to enter our world and wreak havoc from San Francisco to Manila. Mankind responds to this extraterrestrial threat by building skyscraper-sized killer robots called “Jaegers”, each controlled by two human pilots. And Earthlings appear to be gaining the upper hand until the Kaiju start morphing into something bigger, meaner, and even more destructive. Now, with the fate of the planet hanging in the balance, it’s up to ace pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam practically choking on his own testosterone) and a small cadre of sweaty meatheads to kick some alien butt before they kick ours… It’s easy to dismiss Guillermo del Toro’s crazy-stupid sci-fi thriller at first glance—after all the derivative storyline is preposterous and the script never rises above adolescent comic book schlock. But then you realize that beneath the glaring neon gewgaws and flash-bang effects this is actually a lovingly cheeky homage to every Japanese monster movie ever made. Sure, the hokey neoprene body suits have been replaced by high-tech models and CGI (the multi-eyed Kaiju resemble scaly King Kongs with the noggin of a Joe Dante gremlin), and the old cardboard and balsa wood mock-ups of downtown Tokyo have given way to digitally rendered cityscapes and elaborate Toronto sound stages, but this is still a universe in which Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan would feel right at home. Emoting seems to be the cardinal rule here and del Toro’s over-the-top special effects are paired with equally exaggerated performances especially by Idris Elba as a stone cold commander, Rinko Kikuchi as the little Japanese girl who could (and Becket’s squeeze), and the team of Charlie Day and Burn Gorman camping it up as a pair of slapstick scientists who couldn’t have been sillier had they been played by Laurel & Hardy. Even B-Movie mainstay Ron Perlman has a cameo of sorts playing a black market entrepreneur pimped out in gold-plated shoes and wire goggles. The destruction is awesome, the fight sequences hilarious, and the whole production makes you feel like a kid sitting through a super cool Saturday afternoon matinee. Either take it for what it is or give it a pass because del Toro offers no middle ground.

Ex Machina
(UK 2014) (7): When the reclusive multi-millionaire CEO of a computer research firm invites ace programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson, Brendan’s son) to his high-tech Alaskan compound the young whiz is understandably delighted. Once there however, his delight turns to fascination when he discovers he’s been chosen to evaluate the latest model of artificial intelligence, a beautiful robot named Ava (Alicia Vikander, all transparent baubles and glowing wires). Tasked with determining whether Ava truly has a mind of her own or is merely mimicking human reactions, Caleb’s initial awe turns dubious when he begins to suspect his benefactor of having much darker motives… A breath of Stanley Kubrick blows through writer/director Alex Garland’s sci-fi brain teaser, a satisfying if occasionally predictable marriage of Oscar-winning CGI effects and compelling story that draws its inspiration from such diverse sources as Shelley’s Frankenstein and the Prometheus legend to Bluebeard and Christian Creation mythology. Gleeson and Vikander definitely share onscreen chemistry with his post-adolescent zeal offset by her computerized intensity. But Vikander is especially brilliant given the fact the special effects team rendered half her body as gears and blinking motherboards—her not-quite-mechanical delivery hinting at a self-awareness that may or may not spring from mere binary code. It’s the conversations between man and machine which ultimately provide the film’s backbone, so reminiscent of HAL from Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, as they proceed from data exchange to deeper waters. Unfortunately Oscar Isaac’s performance as the company CEO is a glaring misfire, his obnoxious character coming across as more of a slimy lounge lizard than either an aging prodigy or mad scientist. But given the film’s ultra-hip appearance (that house!) and a script that rarely stoops to clichés, one sour note is easy to overlook.

(USA 1995) (10): Fresh from pulling off a violent yet brilliantly executed armoured car robbery, criminal genius Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) sets his sights on one last heist that will leave him set for life. Dogging his every step however is equally savvy LAPD detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) who is determined to see that McCauley spends the rest of his life back in prison. But despite the film’s ample artillery and a crackling pace that rarely rests for a moment, writer/director Michael Mann’s 3-hour policier epic is not as concerned with hardware and strategy as it is with focusing on the psychological landscape between the good guys and the bad. McCauley and Hanna are two sides of a very dark coin and Mann drives this symmetry home every chance he gets—both men are obsessive perfectionists well versed in society’s underside; both are ruthless in their pursuits; and although one has chosen the high road and one the low road, both of their paths come with dire personal consequences starting with an inability to love unconditionally as attested to by Hanna’s string of divorces and McCauley’s sadly hesitant affair with a graphic artist. Yet there exists a grudging respect between the two adversaries, as if each recognizes in the other his own mirror image, leading to one of cinema’s most perfectly ad-libbed scenes when they sit down for a coffee after calling an unofficial truce. Stylishly shot in midnight colours with a moody soundtrack that stretches from Brian Eno and Moby to Hungarian composer Györy Ligeti and the Kronos Quartet, this is a film weighted with pessimism and broken dreams where long passages of introspection are shattered by scenes of grim violence including a deadly shoot-out in downtown Los Angeles so realistic it’s been used to train soldiers and police officers alike. Val Kilmer co-stars as McCauley’s right-hand man—a jarring combination of cold-blooded thief and emotionally needy husband—and Diane Venora plays Hanna’s live-in girlfriend, a woman who weathers his many absences with sour grace while her daughter (a teen-aged Natalie Portman) slowly comes undone. Mesmerizing from those brutal opening scenes to an unexpectedly moving coda.

The Age of Innocence
(USA 1993) (9): Set among the ornate brownstones and gilded ballrooms of 1870s New York society, Martin Scorsese’s sumptuous adaptation of Edith Wharton’s story is one of his most restrained and therefore most powerful films. An epic period drama about star-crossed lovers, it follows the fortunes of stalwart attorney Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) whose happy engagement to mousy debutante May Welland (Winona Ryder, Best Supporting Actress nominee) is threatened when he meets her cousin Ellen (Michelle Pfeiffer), a disgraced countess fleeing from an unhappy marriage in Europe and now ostracized by New York’s elite for her “unconventional ways”. Finding in Ellen a kindred rebel spirit which sees the world as it truly is—so unlike May’s timid domesticity and naïve conviction that all is harmony and order—the two are gradually drawn to one another. But this is Victorian Era America and beneath all the gold leaf and rococo trappings the privileged gentry are confined by a rigid set of social codes more impenetrable than that of any primitive tribe so it isn’t long before gossip and innuendo ensure that any action taken by Newland or Ellen will come at a cost. Apparently Scorsese deemed this his “most violent film” not for any physical action but for its sheer depth of emotion. indeed, despite their waxed moustaches and butterfly dresses, the refined gentlemen and ladies depicted here are able to flash the most dazzling of smiles even as they twist their knives further in. A wistful, heartbreaking, and deeply romantic piece with a baroque score and erudite script—partially narrated by Joanne Woodward—all set off by Michael Ballhaus’ golden cinematography, Gabriela Pescucci’s Oscar-winning costume designs, and set decorations which make old New York’s monied class come to life once more, if only for a few hours.

The Cloverfield Paradox
(USA 2018) (5): With every country on Earth poised to go to war over dwindling energy resources, the multinational crew of on orbiting space station risk everything in a desperate experiment which, if successful, will harness the unlimited power of the universe itself. Unfortunately their unstable particle beam rips a hole in space-time propelling them into an alternate reality instead where an alternate Earth is having problems of its own. Will they be able to get back to their own planet before this new dimension traps them forever? And what other unpleasant side effects could this botched experiment have unleashed? Hint: a television interview with a luddite author warns of “demons”…ooooooh! Of course if you’ve seen the first two Cloverfield movies you already know what’s going to happen and if you haven’t then skip this farcical prequel altogether and consider yourself fortunate. Ultra-cool special effects and futuristic gewgaws fail to mask a comic book script so patently ridiculous that even if you do succeed in suspending your disbelief you’re going to find it all but impossible to suspend your IQ as well. Lots of flashing lights and buttons replace actual science (even if it’s only fiction); running, shouting, and sweaty close-ups stand in for drama; and crazy poltergeist stuff happens with only a few lame hints to give it any perspective (my favourite—a severed arm crawls in search of a magic marker). And what’s with casting Chinese superstar Ziyi Zhang as the vitally important and indispensable engineer who only speaks Mandarin? The interpersonal tensions—love, resentment, sacrifice, betrayal—seem like afterthoughts and that ridiculous resolution offers the film’s only real tie-in with its far superior successors. The slick effects and sheer momentum keep it just entertaining enough for a popcorn night, but you might want to rent Disney’s The Black Hole as a bad movie back-up.

Bone Tomahawk
(USA 2015) (8): Writer/director S. Craig Zahler takes a handful of tried and true horror tropes and twists them into something chillingly fresh, if not quite original. The Wild Wild West is about to become ferocious when a tribe of cave-dwelling cannibals begin picking off the hapless residents of Bright Hope, an otherwise peaceful frontier town. When the savage troglodytes make off with a couple of well known citizens a four man posse led by the erudite, no-nonsense sheriff Hunt (an impeccably bewhiskered Kurt Russell) give chase—but their would-be rescue mission quickly spirals into the stuff of nightmares when the quarry becomes the hunter. With dialogue that is oddly formal verging on stilted and brief flashes of grisly bloodletting, Zahler’s monstrous Western has the feel of a graphic novel especially with those howling sound effects echoing over the sagebrush and hungry fiends all decked out in grey body paint and grotesque piercings. Russell brings his usual intensity to the role of Hunt, a man bound by honour as much as the law, while a supporting cast of ne’er-do-wells and cowpokes flesh the story out, notably Matthew Fox as the town’s dapper yet deadly Lothario; Patrick Wilson as a husband eager to find his captured wife despite hobbling with a broken leg; and Richard Jenkins whose scene-stealing deputy Chicory—a perfect blend of addled geriatric and loyal sidekick—throws some much needed humour into all the gore and tension. And gore, both implied and explicit, arrives in due course including one particularly brutal scene in which a trio of cannibals prepare their struggling evening meal. John Wayne would have pissed his pants.

Wall Street
(USA 1987) (6): David worships Goliath in Oliver Stone’s corporate fable, an edgy mix of wheeling, dealing, and nagging consciences. Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen all nerves and piss) is an eager young stockbroker living on the brink of poverty for whom the promise of easy cash is like blood in the water. Enter Manhattan kingpin Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas earning that Oscar) who takes the naïve Fox under his wing and teaches him that making it on Wall Street requires some sacrifices—starting with one’s sense of personal integrity. But, like any other drug, money comes with its own side effects and despite his rising star and Gekko’s oily assurance that “Greed is Good” Fox eventually finds out that in the world of high stakes finance there are too many pawns in play and too few ethical lines left uncrossed. Using skittish camerawork that taps into the nervous energy of New York’s stock exchange crowd both at work and at play, Stone fashions a hip Faustian melodrama in which Sheen’s exuberant youth is slowly corrupted by Douglas’ Mephistophelean tutelage. Boardrooms come to resemble luxurious aeries in which millionaire traders perch like birds of prey (or cunning parasites), fortunes are made and lost with the roll of a computer mouse or a whispered rumour, and everyone and everything can be expressed in terms of monetary value. Stone also throws in a few clever touches such as an eclectic background score that goes from Frank Sinatra to The Talking Heads and an oversized mural in Fox’s newly acquired penthouse that consists of distorted heads which seem to leer at him from every angle—even the names, Gekko and Fox, drip with irony. But the plot is an old cliché that has been retold under so many different guises that you just know how it’s all going to end and those “high tech” 80’s touches are distractingly retro (remember when portable phones were the size of bricks and onscreen computer text was livid green?). Then there’s Daryl Hannah’s monotone performance as Sheen’s opportunistic bedmate, a casting mistake so glaringly bad that it shadows an otherwise capable ensemble that includes Terence Stamp as a British shark, Sheen Sr. as Fox’s working class dad, and Hal Holbrook as an honest broker providing counterpoint to Douglas’ conniving.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
(USA 2015) (6): It’s been almost forty years since I was a teenager and I never was much of a slacker. Unfortunately those two qualities seem mandatory requirements in order to enjoy Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s teenage slacker comedy-tearjerker so it’s understandable that I really wanted to dislike it. But this adolescent dramedy has a way of drawing you in despite the corny one-liners, packaged angst, and blatantly manipulative plot devices—or perhaps it is precisely these flaws that lend it a certain awkward gravitas? Greg is a geeky highschool loner who, along with his only bud Earl, delights in recording no-budget spoofs of classic movies (their cinematic omnibus includes such titles as A Sockwork Orange and Gross Encounters of the Turd Kind….haha….get it??). But when his mom insists he befriend Rachel, a class acquaintance newly diagnosed with leukemia, in order to “cheer her up” a tenuous friendship develops between dweeb and dying girl, a friendship that will force Greg to grow up just a little especially after he’s talked into making a personal film just for her… “This isn’t a touching romantic story…” insists Greg in retrospect even though Gomez-Rejon draws upon every weepy cinematic cliché from Love Story to Beaches in order to yank our heartstrings. And yet there is a certain lopsided freshness to his approach that forces us to see these kleenex moments in a different light. Perhaps it’s those doses of millennial humour—part harebrained non-sequiturs, part cynical commentary—that defuse the pathos and cause a double take. Maybe it’s the loving yet ineffectual adults that reminded me of my own age—Greg’s dad (Nick Offerman!) is an intellectual dilettante; Rachel’s mom is a lonely cougar full of regrets; an outspoken history teacher is a thirty-something anarchist. Or perhaps it was the unexpectedly surreal ending, bolstered by Brian Eno’s eclectic score, that jolted me out of my middle-aged rut and made me realize that this movie speaks to a different generation than my own (nowadays I even view The Breakfast Club with the same sense of puzzlement—was I ever that young?) A fine cast play off each other with expert precision as Greg’s self-obsessed pessimism bounces off Earl’s urban smarts and Rachel’s angry fatalism, and Gomez-Rejon keeps the narrative flowing with energetic camerawork, a bit of animation, and some cutesy intertitles that could have been lifted from any highschool essay. Not a perfect film by any stretch, but one not afraid to wear its fresh young heart on its sophomore sleeve.

Everlasting Moments
(Sweden 2008) (6): Based on a series of memoirs, Sweden’s official entry for the 2008 Oscar is a mishmash of biopic, history lesson, and period drama that never seems to sit comfortably in any genre. Married to a violent, drunken lout, Maria Larrson tries to keep her family clothed and sheltered by shoring up her husband’s paycheques with money raised from housecleaning and sewing—but this is 1907 and opportunities open to women are already severely restricted. And then she takes an interest in photography using a camera she won in a lottery and suddenly her world opens up as the beauty around her comes into sharper focus, a beauty she now has the ability to capture forever. Or so the movie’s synopsis suggests. The acting is impeccable and the attention to period details is convincing enough, but Jan Troell’s film lacks any momentum or focus of its own: Maria and her husband Sigge move from one hot-tempered spat to another (taking time out for his affairs and her conceptions) while the kids go from puppy-eyed children to puppy-eyed adolescents and the only way one can mark the time is when the furniture gets rearranged, Sigge dons a WWI uniform, and intertitles occasional give us the year. Even the central theme (Liberation through art? The preservation of memory?) is consigned to Maria taking a couple of snapshots while the owner of a local camera shop fawns over her. Clocking in at over two hours in which not a whole lot happens one begins to wonder whether those memoirs were missing a few pages.

The Enemy Below
(USA 1957) (9): In the middle of WWII the new commander of a navy destroyer (a square-jawed Robert Mitchum) picks up the scent of a German U-boat in the south Atlantic and gives chase. Meanwhile the German commander (Curd Jürgens making his impressive American debut), sensing the pursuit, begins evasive action. What follows is a tense game of cat-and-mouse between ship and submarine as the two seasoned and battle savvy foes try to outguess, outsmart, and outmanoeuvre one another over the course of twenty-four hours. Amazing cinematography both above and below the waves couples with explosive Oscar-winning special effects and a script both sharp and literate to produce a film that abandons the usual “guts’n glory” flag-waving in favour of darker, psychological insights. Although the commanders have become inured to the dogs of war they are not without their individual scars for both men have suffered personal tragedies because of it and both have begun questioning the wisdom of armed conflict. The American sees warfare as something humans carry within themselves, the German laments the loss of honour among warriors, yet both have a mission to carry out despite their grudging respect for one another. Notable for its sympathetic portrayal of the enemy (no bloodthirsty Huns here), the intriguing plot was later recycled for an episode of Star Trek in which Captain Kirk squares off against an elusive Romulan commander.

Citizen Kane
(USA 1941) (8): A scandalous box office flop upon its initial release, co-writer/director Orson Welles’ signature opus is now considered one of the benchmarks in modern American cinema launching the careers of such stars as Agnes Moorehead and Joseph Cotten. If the story is simple enough—mega-billionaire Charles Foster Kane (Welles libelling William Randolph Hearst) spends his entire life amassing material possessions only to make a deathbed discovery that the one thing he truly desired was never for sale—its execution is pure cinema magic. Deep focus techniques render backgrounds and foregrounds with crystal clarity, cameras seem to melt through ceilings and table tops, and B&W matte paintings give Xanadu, Kane’s gaudy Florida estate, the aura of a haunted house. Told in post mortem flashbacks as a roving reporter anxious to decipher the meaning of “rosebud”, Kane’s final word, interviews everyone from the tycoon’s best friend to his business associates, butlers, and a drunken ex-wife (Dorothy Comingore libelling Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies), all of whom offer a different glimpse into the man behind the legend beginning with his impoverished childhood and ending with the lonely septuagenarian as decayed as his empty mansion. Big, brash, and unapologetic—much like its creator—and impressively filmed even if the cinematography does occasionally resort to flashy gimmicks and that much anticipated final reveal proves something of a let-down. An interesting pop-psychology foray into what makes a megalomaniac tick (Kane’s brush with politics seems frighteningly contemporary) and the fact that Welles was only twenty-five years old at the time is almost unbelievable.

(UK/France 1979) (7): Pride necessarily goeth before the fall…repeatedly…in Roman Polanski’s beautifully photographed, emotionally muted adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 19th century weeper, Tess of the d’Urbervilles. When a drunken penniless field worker discovers that he is related to a now defunct line of medieval aristocrats the news doesn’t bring him any riches but it does spell the beginning of the end for his eldest daughter, Theresa. Eager to cash in on her husband’s lineage, Tess’ mother sends her off to the estate of a wealthy landowner who shares the same family name in the hope that the potential relative will show some generosity toward distant kin. But instead of open arms the painfully withdrawn Tess begins an odyssey of seduction, exploitation, and tragedy beginning with the landowner’s boorish son and ending with a kindly lover who nevertheless judges her past by a different set of standards than he does his own. With a palette of earth tones and shadowed pastels, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth’s vision unfold like a series of watercolour landscapes while Phillipe Sarde’s score tints them all with sadness. A strawberry becomes forbidden fruit, a threshing machine resembles Leviathan, and scenes of Tess peering through doorways and windowpanes reflect her attempts at moving beyond her station. Unfortunately Nastassja Kinski’s somnolent performance lacks the fire one would expect from such a character. Even though it is a tale of Victorian rigidity, class hypocrisy, and the sorrow of women, Kinski still mewls and pouts like a sullen puppy thus dampening much of the film’s emotional punches. Still a worthy example of literary filmmaking however, and the fact Polanski bookends it with two scenes of ancient British paganism lends an added dimension while at the same time gently thumbing a nose at the era’s pompous and ineffectual clergy.

Bad Santa
(USA 2003) (6): With over 300 cuss words including a whopping 170 F-bombs crammed into its 99 minute running time, Terry Zwigoff’s spiteful Christmas caper is definitely the antithesis to such frothy holiday fare as Capra’s Wonderful Life. Billy Bob Thornton, true to form, plays Willie, a child-hating alcoholic ex-con with a suicidal streak who wastes most of the year stealing, getting pickled, and indulging his fetish for heavyset women. But every December marks a moral low point his calendar when he and diminutive sidekick Marcus (Tony Cox managing to insert “fuck” into every sentence) hire themselves out as mall Santa + elf—a racket which allows them to case each store’s security system so Willie can practice his safecracking skills later on. And then, while working a shopping centre in Arizona, Willie is force to hide in the opulent home of a precocious and utterly naïve ten-year old (is there an Oscar for most annoying child performance?) and his life takes a drunken lurch to the right as something resembling a conscience tries to crawl out of his tequila-soaked brain. An overriding fixation with bad taste seems to be the prime motivator in Zwigoff’s thoroughly nasty flick and Thornton’s malicious forays into petty crime and booze-fuelled outbursts—usually while decked out in his jolly red suit with a doe-eyed tyke balanced on one bony knee—are funny in a cringeworthy sort of way. And Cox certainly picks up the slack with a seemingly endless supply of colourful foul-mouthed comebacks. But watching a rock bottom loser continually implode over the course of an hour-and-a-half grates on the mind and that cornball ending suggests a screenplay that wrote itself into an uncomfortable corner. Worth a rental nevertheless if only to get a healthy dose of political incorrectness for the only snowflakes in this film are on the ground. Look for John Ritter in his final role as a mousy floor manager and the late Bernie Mac as a crooked store detective.

A Serious Man
(USA 2009) (9): What do Schroedinger’s Cat, Jefferson Airplane, and the sufferings of Job have in common? Quite a lot, at least in this wonderfully surreal, Oscar-nominated parable from the Coen brothers. In the biblical account Satan asserts that man is only good because he desires heavenly favours—God disagrees and to prove the devil wrong he allows him to smite the pious Job with all manner of plague, pestilence, and personal tragedy. Never losing faith, Job nevertheless begins to question divine wisdom causing Yahweh, in a pique of theodicy, to assert his moral superiority once and for all. Relocating the biblical epic to a middle class Jewish neighbourhood in 1967 Minnesota (the kitschy touches are perfect!) the Coens’ film revolves around Larry Gopnik, a mild-mannered physics professor who suddenly finds his comfortable existence turned upside-down when his wife demands a divorce, his tenure at the university is put into question, and infernal temptation arrives in the form of a Korean exchange student willing to pay for a passing grade. With his world imploding and a trio of comical rabbis unable to offer any useful counsel, Larry eventually finds himself balanced on the edge of a crushing moral dilemma—and like Schroedinger’s mystical cat the universe can go either way… Although steeped in Judaic folklore and idiosyncrasies (an 18th century Yiddish prologue sets the tone) there is ample spiritual and secular crossover to allow the average goy to follow along and the Coens inject enough deadpan humour, including fanciful dream sequences, to keep the laughs going—a stoned bar-mitzvah is worth a rewind. But an answer to the central question of how a just and loving god can allow evil and suffering to exist remains appropriately opaque. A great cast balances gravity and satire while a plethora of divine metaphors ranging from TV antennas and whirlwinds to Grace Slick’s apocalyptic voice keep things just this side of suburban fantasy.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
(USA 1948) (10): John Huston’s grand morality fable set in the wilds of Mexico has deservedly found a place on almost every critic’s “Greatest Movies” list. It is also purported to be among the favourite films of such notables as Robert Redford, Stanley Kubrick, and Sam Raimi. Down-on-their luck ex-pats Fred C. Dobbs (a riveting Humphrey Bogart) and Bob Curtin (oater mainstay Tim Holt) are barely getting by in a sleepy Mexican town when they join forces with crusty old prospector Howard (the director’s father Walter Huston giving an Oscar-winning performance) who’s convinced there’s gold in them thar’ hills. But true to Howard’s cautionary warnings, the yellow metal can indeed do strange things to men’s souls and when the trio stumble upon pay dirt its siren song of wealth and power proves to be more insidious than they imagined. Vast B&W panoramas of arid deserts and rocky crags dwarf the protagonist as they struggle with temptation and nature grown wrathful while suitably biblical metaphors—a deadly serpent, a howling whirlwind, a resurrection, a wronged Samaritan—add a spiritual dimension to their quest. Bogart undergoes a monstrous transformation with theatrical zeal, Holt provides a shaky moral anchor, and Huston steals every scene as a proverbial wise man who’s seen it all before yet still comes back for more. Aside from an often overbearing musical score and a supporting cast of cardboard Mexican caricatures, this is an epic piece of moviemaking that begins with a whimper and ends with a bang drenched in irony and bitter humour.

(USA 2014) (7): As the turbulent 60’s wound down civil unrest over the war in Viet Nam expanded to include the FBI with protesters targeting the hitherto untouchable bastion of Law & Order’s history of violating first amendment rights. To this end married couple Bonnie and John Raines joined a group of activists calling themselves “The Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI” who, in 1971, successfully broke into the FBI offices in Media, Pennsylvania and stole every file they could lay their hands on. What they found turned into a nightmare for both the Bureau and it’s aging patriarch J. Edgar Hoover for the stolen documents detailed gross violations of personal liberties with G-Men infiltrating every organization from the Black Panthers to the Women’s Liberation Movement while at the same time spinning propaganda to discredit any group or individual overly critical of the government. But these revelations proved to be just the tip of a very large iceberg as more journalists got on board demanding greater transparency from a federal organization which had operated in the shadows for far too long. Engaging interviews with the original Citizens’ Commission members (all of whom were thankfully still alive while the documentary was being filmed) is augmented by old newscasts, staged re-enactments, and passages from some of the purloined files—all of which were made public following the break-in. But if the spunk displayed by these idealists of yesteryear is inspiring, it is quickly dampened by the political apathy and jingoistic patriotism of today, a fact that Bonnie Raines sadly concedes. Still an interesting window into the zeitgeist of the time.

The Last Station
(UK 2009) (6): In Russia, summer 1910, literary giant Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) is facing his final days in a state of domestic turmoil. At the behest of his oily sycophantic disciple Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), the father of “Tolstoyism”—a monk-like adherence to purity, passive resistance, and denouncement of personal wealth—is contemplating signing over the copyrights of all his manuscripts to the Russian people. Meanwhile his grasping materialistic wife Sofya (Helen Mirren) is determined to see that his sizeable estate remains within the family. Observing the fireworks are Valentin (James McAvoy), Tolstoy’s personal aide and number one fan, and Sergeyenko (Patrick Kennedy), the guru-like leader of a nearby Tolstoyist commune. Michael Hoffman’s adaptation of Jay Parini’s novel is an exercise in lost opportunities and misfired direction which nevertheless manages to entertain if only on a superficial level. Plummer and Mirren certainly deserved their Oscar nominations but their characters appear insubstantial—Tolstoy’s genius is reduced to a few bon mots as Plummer scowls and growls like a loveable old bear, Mirren’s shrill harridan flips between weepy histrionics and plate-smashing defiance, and in the background Giamatti twirls his waxed moustache like a silent film villain and McAvoy’s star-struck naif waffles about with a perpetual tear clinging to the corner of each eye. The music is stirring however (especially those ironic opera passages) and the German locales stand in admirably for the decaying opulence of pre-Revolutionary Russia although the crew did get permission to film on the grounds of Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s former estate—it’s rough splendour lending some legitimacy to the ongoing soap. Even an early example of soviet paparazzi make an appearance as Leo and Sofya can’t seem to leave the house without being surrounded by scribbling journalists and hand-cranked cameras. Sadly, all the ingredients of a truly great biopic are here but Hoffman just doesn’t get the recipe right.

Death Proof
(USA 2007) (8): Quentin Tarantino bypasses the usual testosterone for a kickass dollop of high octane estrogen in this grindhouse companion piece to Planet Terror. Kurt Russell turns on the oily charm as a psychopathic stuntman who gets his thrills dispatching young female motorists using his armoured muscle car with the skull and crossbones decal. With a number of kills already under his belt he turns his sick sights on a group of women taking an innocent road trip only to discover that not all girls play nice whether they’re behind the wheel or not. If the plot is pure exploitation its execution is nothing less than exhilarating with unbelievable chase & crash sequences sandwiched between tamer moments that combine just the right amount of sleaze, cheese, and enough bitchiness to melt celluloid. As in Planet Terror, Tarantino incorporates scratchy film stock and spliced jump cuts to give everything a low budget sheen but he spares no expense when it comes to highway mayhem with flipping cars, flying body parts, and one of cinema’s more harrowing games of road chicken featuring actress/stuntwoman Zoë Bell clinging to the hood of a speeding Dodge Challenger. The women are fierce, the music is hot, and Quentin throws in so many clever in-jokes using everything from magazines and billboards to license plates and posters that I lost count. And that final scene…! This is one “chick flick” you won’t be seeing on the Oprah Network.

(USA 2007) (8): As part of their plan to rule the mainland, the Japanese military invaded Shanghai in the latter part of 1937. Bolstered by this victory they then set their sites on the capital city of Nanking, a bustling sprawl whose population had swelled to one million thanks to the arrival of war refugees. After days of bombardment which left much of Nanking in ruins the Japanese eventually entered the city and that is when the true horror began. It’s estimated that as many as 200,000 people were killed by bullets, bayonets, or immolation while 20,000 women were raped (some as young as ten) and countless other civilians left crippled and mutilated. A group of foreigners living in Nanking managed to establish a “Safe Zone” wherein asylum seekers could take shelter but even that was no guarantee against an invading force which seemed to operate without rules or restraint. Culling first hand accounts from actual survivors, personal correspondence written by those Westerners who stayed behind, and bootlegged film footage of the atrocities themselves, directors Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman’s HBO documentary manages to impart something of the terror that descended upon the city for several long weeks. The personal memories are heartbreaking—one elderly man recalls watching his injured baby brother trying to suckle on his dead mother’s breast—while the journal entries, read in character by such notables as Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemingway, and Jürgen Prochnow, give a wider perspective of what would come to be known as “The Rape of Nanking”. A sobering look at one of Chinese history’s more miserable chapters which occurred a full four years before Pearl Harbour galvanized the West and twelve years before Mao wrote the next one.

Boccaccio 70
(Italy 1962) (7): Taking its name from the 14th century author of The Decameron, that licentious work which shed some light on medieval thoughts regarding love and sex, this quartet of short films—each helmed by a noted director—examines the downside of eros in contemporary Italy. Mario Monicelli offers up a sitcom involving newlyweds Luciana and Renzo who are constantly frustrated in their attempts to find time for a wedding night. Federico Fellini addresses sexual repression with a visual circus about an ardent puritan with a fetish for public decency who is terrorized by a giant colossal Anita Ekberg. In Luchino Visconti’s segment a wealthy woman (Romy Schneider) responds to her husband’s latest infidelity by getting a job only to find out she’s qualified for just one thing. Finally, Vittorio De Sica casts Sophia Loren in the role of an impoverished carnival barker who tries to buy a brighter future by holding a lottery with herself as the grand prize. Four directors, four visions each featuring strong women reacting to distress in four very different ways—stoicism, satire, despair, and blazing tenacity—while the men are relegated to background noise (De Sica’s decision to film a group of horny lechers next to a herd of squabbling pigs was certainly no accident). A tad dated and containing a few scenes guaranteed to ruffle modern day feathers, but an interesting time capsule of a film just the same.