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


~ ~ ~ ~


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 all too aware 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.

Insidious: Chapter 3
(USA 2015) (4): A prequel to the first two instalments of the Insidious franchise, this haunted house turkey appears to have been written while it was being filmed for all the sense it makes. Confined to a wheelchair after an accident, grieving teenager Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott delivering her lines as if she was reading them from the back of a cereal box) is trying to get in touch with the spirit of her dead mother but conjures up a a wheezing demon with muddy feet instead. And as things start to go bump in the night with increasing frequency her harried father (Dermot Mulroney in need of a better agent) enlists the aid of psychic guru Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye doing a third reprise) and the pair of bumbling paranormal investigators from parts one and two. Mayhem follows when Elise drops in on Hell, Quinn loses half her soul, and dad runs out of things to yell… Plenty of cheap jolts of the “BOO!” variety which startle without actually scaring—not that any of those tepid performances manage to convey fright—combine with cheap special effects (oooh…fog machine! ooooh….seance!) and shock make-up to deliver a paint-by-number ghost story that becomes tediously predictable after the bogeymen run out of novel ways to jump at the camera lens. The closing credits are cool though, not just because of the witty animation but because it’s, you know, “The End”. I won’t be sleeping with the lights on.

The Flat
(Israel 2017) (7): After his grandmother dies at the age of 98, filmmaker Arnon Goldfinger helps his mother clean out the old woman’s Tel Aviv apartment—no easy task for she was a bit of a hoarder. A lifetime of knickknacks soon pile up including some letters and photos which shed a troubling light on grandma and grandpa’s activities during WWII and immediately afterwards. Having had roots in Germany stretching back generations, Goldfinger’s Jewish grandparents never really considered themselves Israelis and this fact becomes clearer the more he delves into their past. Traveling between Israel and Europe Arnon tries to make some sense out of the few clues left him, but his investigations yield as many questions as they do answers… A very personal documentary which starts out as an exercise in family history yet soon touches on issues of selective recall, repressed memories, and the kind of apathy which results from being taught at an early age not to make too many inquiries. His mother knows shockingly little about her own parents and grandparents, a distant cousin living in Germany makes a jarring accusation, and the aging daughter of a former SS officer has real trouble sorting fact from fancy. It takes three generations to start asking questions about what happened during the war, according to one interviewee, because the second generation simply doesn’t want to talk about it. Intellectually stimulating yet resolutely informal—Goldfinger is not above letting people mug at the camera or film himself filming others—this is not so much a lesson in genealogy as it is a glimpse at a generation gap turned into a chasm by secrets and circumstances.

Spotlight
(USA 2015) (9): In the same style as All the President’s Men, Tom McCarthy’s true-to-life journalism thriller follows the events leading up to one of the biggest scandals the Catholic church has ever had to hush up. When a crack team of reporters for The Boston Globe newspaper decide to revisit an old story regarding a pedophile priest, they are not prepared for the startling revelations which follow. As they probe deeper into the story—interviewing victims, ex-priests, and evasive lawyers, as well as dredging up old files—a picture begins to emerge of widespread sexual impropriety involving dozens of priests going back decades and an even bigger cover-up orchestrated by forces both religious and secular. Garnering Oscar wins for Best Picture and Screenplay as well as three more nominations including Best Supporting performances for Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo, both playing reporters, McCarthy’s angry exposé starts off slowly with a flashback to 1976 then gradually builds momentum until the final round of accusations and condemnations. A taut and perfectly paced drama with a dream cast that also includes Michael Keaton as the lead investigator, Liev Schreiber as the paper’s new editor-in-chief, and Stanley Tucci as the only lawyer in town willing to go up against the archdiocese. Winnipeg-born Len Cariou also puts in a fine performance as a crooked cardinal while Billy Crudup becomes the embodiment of a slippery defense lawyer. The tales of abuse are pitiful but the resultant trail of lies and official shirking are infuriating especially after one weary character sums it up with, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to molest him.” And the fact that it really happened (and continues to happen around the world) makes you want to whip a brick through a stained glass window.

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison
(USA 1957) (8): During WWII a demure Irish nun (Deborah Kerr) and hard-bitten American marine (Robert Mitchum) find themselves the only inhabitants on a lush South Pacific Island when she is accidentally abandoned at a nearby mission and he washes up on shore after a skirmish at sea. Initial discomfort gradually eases into amiable routine as the two learn to live off the land—but the enemy threat is never very far away. The Japanese fleet is not the only thing the two have to worry about however, for as the weeks pass Corporal Allison’s hard heart starts to soften towards Sister Angela and the young novice begins to question whether or not those strict vows are such a good thing after all… John Huston’s Cinemascope adaptation of Charles Shaw’s novel is as chaste a love story as you’re likely to see thanks in part to the meddling of the Hays Office, yet Kerr and Mitchum make it seem plausible. In this her fourth Oscar-nominated performance Kerr seems a natural in that white habit and ponderous crucifix, an engaging mixture of naïvety and grace to complement Mitchum’s gruff pragmatism. Yet Huston lets neither character sink to the level of cliché for despite her pious resolve Sister Angela is keenly aware of the temptation laid before her and Allison possesses a streak of gentleness that belies his crusty demeanour and fondness for rice wine and tobacco. And all this is conveyed with little more than a simple look, a downcast smile, an offhand remark, while the ocean crashes and the palm trees sway. Not a romance by an means, rather a story about two people bound by vows (Cpl. Allison is as married to the Marines as Sr. Angela is to God) yet finding themselves in circumstances where the warmth of another human being is as essential as food and water.

The Ritual
(UK 2017) (8): After the tragic death of their friend, four buddies decide to take a hiking tour through the wilds of Sweden. Caught in a torrential rainstorm while traversing a deep dark forest, they seek overnight refuge in an old ramshackle cabin strangely adorned with runic symbols and a pagan altar of sorts. And that’s when the nightmares—both real and imagined—begin as a bloodthirsty something begins stalking them through a forest suddenly grown impenetrable… David Bruckner’s highly effective chiller, based on Adam Nevill’s novel, borrows a bit from Blair Witch, Evil Dead, and The Hills Have Eyes, yet still manages to produce something that can make audiences jump especially when the sun goes down and the shadows lengthen. Garnering most of his frissons from creepy music and sound effects with a few grisly shocks along the way, Bruckner also throws in a keen psychological dimension as main character Luke (a moody Rafe Spall), still blaming himself for the death of his friend, begins to confuse supernatural hauntings with a guilty conscience. Although a sojourn in a creepy deep woods village comes dangerously close to M. Night Shyamalan territory the final reel remains a satisfying mix of spooky and cerebral. A scary ensemble piece with all the usual jolts plus a refreshingly unexpected depth.

The Silver Chalice
(USA 1954) (2): Arguably the worst “religious epic” to ever crawl out of a Hollywood backlot, Victor Saville’s epic failure is notable for one thing: it marked the screen debuts of Paul Newman, Natalie Wood, and Canada’s own Lorne Greene. The true miracle however is that it didn’t mark the end of their careers at the same time—Newman himself panned the film and strove to distance himself from it. After his wealthy adoptive father passes away Basil, a talented sculptor (Newman showing no talent whatsoever), is usurped by his jealous uncle and sold into slavery. But he is rescued by the apostle Luke and brought to Jerusalem where he is commissioned by the late Jesus’ disciples to build a silver chalice in which to house the battered tin cup used by Christ at the Last Supper. Political intrigue and romantic complications follow as anti-Christian forces strive to destroy the cup while at the same time two women battle for Basil’s affection—Joseph of Arimathea’s weepy Christian daughter Deborra (Pier Angeli tripping over her own accent) and lusty blond cougar Helena (Virginia Mayo in sequinned negligees and circus make-up) whom Basil rescued from slavery when he was just a child. Lazy writing of the “It is written…” variety coupled with lamentably self-conscious performances call to mind the worst of high school drama class while the ridiculous choreography (oh those sword fights! oh that orgy!) proves to be the final nail. No wait, the final nail would have to be the apostle Peter (Lorne Greene. Lorne Greene?!) giving his bloated closing monologue on how the Holy Grail, now lost, will resurface when the world needs it most (cue Monty Python?) Some credit is due to Franz Waxman’s gushingly overripe musical score, the perfect accompaniment to to all that ham, as well as Howard Bristol’s magnificently abstract set designs composed of forced perspectives and surreal angles reminiscent of Chirico. Or perhaps Dr. Seuss. And kudos to the costume department for turning out a “classical collection” that would be the envy of any drag queen. Co-starring a terribly miscast Jack Palance as magician and messiah wannabe Simon, southern California as the Holy Land, and at least two dozen sandal-clad extras as “the crowd”.

The Endless
(USA 2017) (7): Ten years after Justin and his brother Aaron (directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead) escaped from a backwoods cult in the wilds of northern California, a strange videotape arrives on their Los Angeles doorstep prompting them to return to “Camp Arcadia” one last time. Met with smiles and an easygoing bonhomie by the camp members, Aaron settles in as if he’d never left. Justin’s simmering suspicions, however, continue to grow for despite being welcomed back by Arcadia’s placid ad hoc leader, Hal, he becomes all too aware of the inscrutable glances he and his brother are getting as well as the cryptic answers he receives whenever he makes pointed enquiries about the camp itself. And then signs and portents begin raining down—crows fly in endless circles, topography seems to shift with a will of its own, and the night sky is impossibly lit by the glow of two full moons—causing Justin’s initial unease to inch towards full-on panic. Both brothers are obviously suffering from faulty memories—Aaron recalls Arcadia as being a happy hippy commune, Justin remembers a malevolent death cult—but what is real and what is merely believed? The Arcadians themselves appear domestic to the point of being pleasantly bland yet one senses they have uncomfortable answers to some very dark questions. Benson and Moorhead’s little indie curio certainly takes you on a novel ride without actually breaking any new ground in the horror/sci-fi genre. Obviously shot on a limited budget, they still managed to gather a superb cast of B-list actors whose performances range from low-keyed nuance to shrill bluster and bluff (James Jordan is superb as “Shitty Carl”, a bellicose redneck with a taste for self-harm holed up in a nearby trailer). And although not quite up to big studio standards the film’s special effects are nevertheless effective especially when they aim for the small and unexpected rather than sky-splitting spectacle—a lazy afternoon on the lake turns monstrous using little more than light and shadow. Hardly the “mind-bending” experience some critics imply, but for the discerning viewer it’s sure to titillate a a couple of brain cells.

Ride the High Country
(USA 1962) (7): Not much of note in this early oater by director Sam Peckinpah other than it was the swan song for stars Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, and it marked the screen debut of Mariette Hartley. Aging U.S. marshal Steve Judd (McCrea) is hired to transport a cache of gold from a frontier California mining town to a bank vault several miles away. Teaming up with his old war buddy Gil Westrum (Scott) and Westrum’s hotheaded young sidekick Heck (B-movie hunk Ron Starr), they’re joined along the way by runaway Elsa (Hartley) who’s fleeing her fanatically religious father in order to marry a local prospector. Complications eventually arise for Judd when Westrum and his protege decide the gold would be better in their own pockets and Elsa discovers she’s marrying into a nightmare. Standard Western fare follows with drunken brawls and gung-ho shoot-outs, although two scenes do stand out—Elsa’s macabre brothel wedding turns into a swirling bacchanal straight from the mind of Fellini, and a now iconic sequence featuring McCrea, firearm blazing, as he gallops through clouds of gun powder straight at the camera. Sadly, Hartley’s character doesn’t really grow beyond the level of meek chattel despite a couple of attempted rapes and a supposedly headstrong attitude. It’s ultimately a story of transitions, with the Wild West giving way to businessmen and old heroes riding off into their various sunsets. But the real star of the film ends up being George Bassman’s gushing musical score, it’s sad melodies adding a touch of romanticism to Lucien Ballard’s Metrocolor panoramas of mountaintops and pine forests.

Enemy
(Canada 2013) (7): Filmed in an appropriately monochromatic Toronto of faded buildings and yellow smog, Denis Villeneuve’s psychosexual phantasm of a film hovers somewhere between the twisted suspense of an older Hitchcock and the mental aberrations of a younger Cronenberg. History professor Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) is experiencing a premature mid-life crisis as each day seems to be a stifling repeat of the one before: he gets up, goes to work, comes home to a bare apartment, has mechanical sex with his distracted girlfriend, and wakes up alone. His life enters the Twilight Zone however when, while watching a DVD on his laptop, he spies a background actor who looks exactly like him. Obsessed with finding the man, Adam eventually tracks him down and realizes that the two of them share more than a carbon copy likeness of each other for the actor—Anthony Clare (also Gyllenhaal)—appears to be living an alternate version of Bell’s life including a dysfunctional relationship with his own significant other. But when Clare begins stalking Bell in turn, an already surreal situation turns ominous, perhaps even deadly. Shored up by Gyllenhaal’s bravura double performance and a worthy supporting cast that includes Isabella Rossellini as Bell’s enigmatic mother, Mélanie Laurent as his frigid girlfriend, and Toronto’s own Sarah Gadon as Clare’s pregnant wife, Javier Gullón’s adaptation of José Saramago’s novel knows just how much to reveal through delicate clues and how much to obscure beneath layers of jarring metaphor—a visit to a strip club resonates with id impulses, spiders make for some startling cameos, and Adam’s class lectures on despots and control wax prophetic. And throughout it all Villeneuve holds the reins with both hands, letting Gyllenhaal stretch his wings (he really does manage to play two different men thanks in part to some clever filming) yet never allowing the situation to spin into absurdity. Bell’s panicky confusion grows proportionally to Clare’s oddly vindictive spite while the two women face an identity crisis of their own leading to a host of closing images that confound even as they illuminate. “Chaos is order yet undeciphered” states the author in an opening quotation, a sentiment Villeneuve takes to heart as he hints and prods but leaves the final codebreaking to his audience.

Gods of Egypt
(USA 2016) (6): Two-dimensional characters, lukewarm CGI effects, and a plot thinner than a comic book is not much to go on but somehow director Alex Proyas manages to churn out something entertaining enough thanks to a bit of star power and sheer chutzpah. The gods of ancient Egypt love the Nile kingdom so much they’ve taken up residence among mortals despite being nine-feet tall and having liquid gold for blood. Osiris, the current god-king, is about to pass the crown to his layabout son Horus (Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) when he is usurped by his wicked brother Set (Gerard Butler looking buffed but sounding like he’s in the middle of a Glaswegian pub crawl). Robbed of most of his powers and sent into exile, Horus joins forces with master thief Bek (an annoyingly cocky Brentan Thwaites) in order to wrest the throne of Egypt back from his uncle Set whose tyrannical rule threatens to destroy the world. But Set’s evil runs deeper than either mortal or immortal anticipated and as the remaining gods join in the fray the future of humanity hangs by a thread. Or something like that. Reducing the Egyptian pantheon to a swashbuckling sitcom of bickering couples and colourful eccentrics then throwing in a pair of doe-eyed adolescent lovers—Bek wants to retrieve his girlfriend from the Netherworld—and dropping them all into a make-believe world culled from every DVD fantasy game ever invented (with more than a passing nod to Indiana Jones) should have yielded more groans than smiles yet it is this very cheesiness that ends up making the film so darn watchable. Everyone delivers their lines with a smirk—Geoffrey Rush as supreme god Ra looks like he’s about to break into giggles—and the flashy effects combined with that grandiose music makes two hours fly by in a whirl of gilded wings and computer-generated monsters. Let’s just pray there isn’t a sequel.

My Favourite Wife
(USA 1940) (7): Seven years after his wife Ellen (Irene Dunne) was swept out to sea and presumed drowned, attorney Nick Arden (Cary Grant) is embarking on a honeymoon with his new wife Bianca (Gail Patrick). But before he can even get Bianca’s garters off Ellen miraculously crosses the threshold instead, alive and eager to resume her spousal duties even though she is now legally dead. Romantic hijinks ensue as Nick goes to extraordinary lengths to avoid consummating his new marriage to an increasingly frustrated Bianca while at the same time secretly reconnecting with an increasingly amused Ellen. But Ellen has a little secret of her own and as the tables turn—and turn again—Nick’s predicament goes from problematic to monumental. A light and frothy confection which compensates for its lack of logic with pure Hollywood star power and plenty of screwball antics (a hotel mix-up is classic). In this their second of three pairings, Grant and Dunne have the perfect onscreen chemistry—his neurotic fidgeting playing foil to her wry, slightly mocking humour. Patrick, on the other hand, shows that while her heavy presence makes for a mean femme fatale she lacks the levity and timing essential to a comedic role. One unintentionally amusing aside is the casting of Randolph Scott as Stephen Burkett, Nick’s wannabe competition for Ellen’s attentions. Rumour has it that Grant and Scott were more than just friends in real life and watching them eyeing one another—ostensibly as rivals—is terribly funny, if only in hindsight.

Oedipus Rex
[Edipo Re] (Italy 1967) (6): Sophocle’s tragedy about Oedipus, the foundling who gained the throne of Thebes then discovered he’d unwittingly murdered his father and married his mother, is given a slight contemporary twist by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Initially set during Mussolini’s reign with an Italian officer consumed by murderous jealousy over his wife’s attention to their newborn son, it abruptly shifts into an antique daydream set in ancient times where an abandoned baby, left to die in the desert, is rescued and raised by King Polybus and Queen Merope in the palace at Corinth. Growing into a handsome young man, Oedipus is horrified to learn of his incestuous fate from the Oracle at Delphi and so leaves home before it can come true. But a combination of cruel fate and personal weakness eventually leads him to ruin… With a cast of unknown professionals and fidgeting amateurs, and a jerky handheld cinematography that tries to make the most of those sun-drenched Moroccan locations, Pasolini’s enigmatic film is part autobiography—his own childhood was not exemplary—and part social critique, though the lines between the Fall of Thebes and pre-Fascist Italy are sketchy at best. One does not try to decipher a Pasolini film however, best to simply revel in it’s esoteric mix of poetry, myth, and politics. His actors emote as if on a Greek stage (Silvana Mangano is brilliant as the Queen, Franco Citti less so as Oedipus) while extras parade around in outrageous costumes ranging from indigo thawbs to elaborate headdresses made from plaster, scrap metal, and branches. But it’s those sere desert locations that ultimately make up for much of the movie’s potholes with mud cities baking beneath a blinding sun which glares down upon kings and peasants like an impersonal eye. A low-budget pageant and a worthy addition to Pasolini’s omnibus.

November
(Estonia 2017) (9): Once upon a time in a magical Eastern European village where witches and werewolves roam the night and clockwork demons made out of willow branches and cow skulls clunk their way through the woods, a peasant girl named Liina falls in love with Hans. But Hans only has eyes for the lovely baroness, a haunted woman who barely knows he even exists. This doomed love triangle forms the backbone of Rainer Sarnet’s bleak yet visually arresting fairy tale based on a popular Estonian novel and set in a quasi-medieval countryside where superstitious farmers prepare for the coming Winter by whatever means necessary—stealing from each other, from the ruling Lord, from the church, and even from the Devil himself. No sin goes unpunished however, whether it be the theft of a silver brooch or Liina’s revenge spell aimed at her female rival, and as ice and darkness encroach upon the land there will be Hell to pay…literally. Not since Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast has B&W cinematography elicited such surreal beauty and Sarnet wastes no opportunity to flood the screen with fog and moonlight or cheerless sunshine—tree branches stand out in stark contrast while entire forests erupt in a riot of brilliant white, and a jilted lover floats serenely through shafts of watery sunlight as two mythical sweethearts glide down an impossibly beautiful Venetian canal. And it’s all set to a gorgeous score of classic chorales and ethereal rhythms. Here the sacred and profane mix with Old World folk tales to create a pagan dreamscape at once disjointed and oddly exuberant—the Dead come home for supper, the Plague arrives in the form of a white goat, and a dying snowman dispenses sad poetry. Wickedly blasphemous with an underlying vein that runs hot and cold between heartbreak and dark humour (spiced with a bit of Baltic politics), Sarnet’s crazy imaginative adult fable is impossible to pin down—a true feast for the senses.