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 Razor’s Edge
(USA 1946) (6): Edmund Goulding takes W. Somerset Maugham’s novel and turns it into a lush soap opera examining the zeitgeist of post war America. Beginning in 1919 where society deb Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney never lovelier draped in Oleg Cassini frocks) has her heart set on marrying penniless WWI vet Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power) despite objections from her snobbish ultra-capitalist uncle Elliot (Clifton Webb). Isabel is content with baubles and creature comforts but war has made Larry restless for those things which money can’t buy: peace, knowledge, and personal salvation. Eventually parting—she weds a stock broker, he travels from Paris to India looking for the meaning of life—the two are reunited ten years later and despite Larry’s new monk-like demeanour the uncomfortably married Isabel discovers the torch she once carried for him never really went out… Grand sets take the action from a soundstage New York to a soundstage Paris to a Tibet stitched together from Colorado stock footage, but the characters which inhabit them are little more than archetypes. With the Great Depression serving as backdrop Tierney sulks and schemes over what she’s lost and cannot regain; Webb remains painfully conscious of social status as he huffs and puffs; and Anne Baxter won Best Supporting Actress for her role as Tierney’s former childhood friend, once happily lower middle-class now reduced by tragedy to a drunken cynic. And in the eye of this sociopolitical storm floats Power’s unflappable pseudo-guru believing he can cure everything from headaches to a shattered heart with smiles and spiritual babble, and Herbert Marshall as W. Somerset Maugham himself, hovering in the periphery documenting the follies and foibles of these curious 20th century yanks. Pleasing to look at but its facile message is delivered via sledgehammer.

(Poland 2007) (7): During the course of WWII up to 25,000 Poles, both military and academics, were summarily executed by the Soviets who labeled them “intelligentsia” and therefore enemies to the State. In 1943 one mass grave containing 12,000 bodies, all victims of the purge, was unearthed in Russia’s Katyn forest and this forms the backbone of director Andrzej Wajda’s tragic drama. Reducing such a horrific crime against humanity to the story of one family, Wajda (whose own father was a victim) concentrates on the aftermath, both political and social, following the gruesome discovery. Caught between the advancing Nazis and the Red Army Anna is separated from her husband Andrzej, a captain in the Polish army, and returns to her family home in Cracow, now under German rule. With little daughter Niki in tow Anna steels herself to scale a mountain of bureaucracy in order to try and get her husband back. Andrzej meanwhile finds himself in a Soviet POW camp where, suspicious of Russian promises that everyone will eventually be released, starts keeping a secret diary… Using newsreel footage to underscore the story, Wajda explores how Soviet propaganda (they blamed Nazi forces for Katyn and got rid of anyone who called them out on the lie) further divided an already fractured country between those willing to turn a blind eye to what happened in order to concentrate on the “new” Poland and those who could never let it go—a schism personified by fellow Polish officer Jerzy, a friend of Andrzej, who despite having seen what happened in the forest still wears his new Peoples’ Army of Poland uniform albeit with deep ambivalence. Wajda saves the film’s gut punch for the final reel however when his camera meticulously recreates the horror of Katyn as one terrified man after another is trussed up and led to the grave, their whispered prayers going unheeded. Poland’s Oscar entry for 2007.

The Wolf of Wall Street
(USA 2013) (7): In the hands of Martin Scorsese, Wall St. Legend Jordan Belfort’s tell-all autobiography is turned into drug-fuelled frat boy’s fantasy which is as repulsive as it is morbidly fascinating. Rising from clean and sober newbie in the late 80s to one of the Stock Market’s biggest carnivores and head of his own multi-million dollar brokerage firm, Belfort embodied the American Dream on all fronts—he had the material possessions, more cash than God, and a leggy trophy wife to hang from his arm. He also consumed a mountain of drugs and screwed an endless succession of prostitutes (often at office orgies) while breaking almost every law on the books, the latter finally catching up with him in the form of an FBI task force. Starting as a manic comedy, Leonardo DiCaprio’s standout performance paints Belfort as a naif with great expectations who is quickly seduced by dollar-grabbing mentor Matthew McConaughey. But as the 180-minute epic proceeds he becomes a charismatic modern day Don Giovanni only too eager to sell his soul for earthly comforts and the power to control a stable full of greedy meathead brokers who would cheat their own grandmother’s out of their pensions in order to receive his approving nod. Earning a record for the most swear words in a film (almost 700 instances) as well as being banned or censored in several countries for its pervasive sex, nudity, and drug use—at one point a cloud of cocaine drifts over a mass of writhing bodies, at another point a dangerously stoned Belfort crawls towards his Lamborghini on all fours—Scorsese’s hedonistic, often brutal look at one man’s glorious self-destruct is a master class in cinematic hyperbole with DiCaprio routinely breaking the fourth wall to address his audience directly. Even the cameras seem stoked on crystal meth as they swoop and spin, barely keeping up with DiCaprio’s manic energy right up until the final arrest. Jonah Hill puts in an Oscar calibre performance as Belfort’s right hand man, a schmuck in way over his head, while Margot Robbie plays the model calibre wife and Kyle Chandler puts those clean-cut good looks to use as the g-man intent on crashing the whole house of cards.

The Honeymoon Killers
(USA 1970) (7): Corpulent and mentally unhinged Alabama nurse Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler) hooks up with smooth-talking New Yorker Ray Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco) through a personals ad and it’s love at first sight. Even after she discovers that Ray makes a living by bilking desperately lonely spinsters out of their life savings and then skipping town, Martha would rather aid and abet than lose the only man she’s ever likely to get. And so, posing as sister and brother, the two leave a trail of broken hearts and empty bank accounts throughout the southern States. But the stress of having to watch her beau woo one unsuspecting mark after another eventually takes a toll on Martha’s fragile mind causing an already despicable con game to turn into something psychotic and lethal. Based on the exploits of the real life “Lonely Hearts Killers” who were active in the late 40’s, Larry Kastle’s cultish B&W oddity starts off like so much found footage from John Waters’ midnight vault but ends up like a re-imagining of In Cold Blood. Stoler’s evil possessive harridan and Lo Bianco’s hammy Spanish accent certainly make for some unintentionally comedic bits especially when combined with cheap sets and overall affected performances—middle-aged Mary Jane Higby upstages everyone as a kooky Catholic victim—however, when the story moves into ever darker territory the laughs give way to a pervasive menace perfectly underscored by panning cameras and jarring close-ups. Featuring music by Gustave Mahler and a colourful background history—widely banned upon its initial release and originally directed by a young Martin Scorsese who was fired for “creative differences”—this is a purely American curio which certainly deserves more recognition than it’s received.

The Lovers
[Les Amants] (France 1958) (7): Louis Malle’s lightweight dissection of upper class ennui is mainly notable for the wave of scandal its racy love scenes caused around the world—a showing in Ohio actually led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling on obscenity. Bored with her dull provincial husband and his provincial ways, thirty-something Jeanne (Malle’s muse Jeanne Moreau as luminous as ever) escapes to the bright lights of Paris on a regular basis where she tags along beside her childhood friend Maggy, a vapid socialite more concerned with appearances than content. Taking a lover more suited to her self-image (he plays polo and drives a sports car) Jeanne embarks upon a double-life not entirely unbeknownst to her old-fashioned spouse until an unexpected encounter with the younger Bernard, a student who comes from money but is now a proud member of the proletariat, causes her to question the path she’s taken. Filmed with a somnolence as befits its privileged protagonists—an offscreen narrator providing Greek chorus—there is a touch of Buñuel running through Malle’s work as we see Jeanne’s rural reality play off against her bourgeois aspirations. She changes her hairstyle on a daily basis in order to remain au courant even in the country; Maggy balks at having to leave Paris for an engagement in the sticks; and an attempt on Jeanne’s part to impress her friend with a hoity-toity dinner party is thrown into disarray by a nocturnal visitor. But unlike Buñuel, Malle is not entirely unsympathetic to his heroine or her dilemma, for Jeanne’s comfortably monied home life is still a stifling prison of ritual and conformity while her attraction towards Bernard goes much deeper than mere physicality. It’s the physicality however which catapulted the film into arthouse infamy with a moonlight seduction leading to erotic couplings more shocking for their undercurrent of assertive female sexuality than any fleeting glimpse of Moreau’s nipple.

(USA 2010) (7): Upon leaving his latest trick’s apartment, personable young hustler Alex—all winning smile and smooth pecs—finds himself unable to leave the building. This sparks the beginning of an all-night sex adventure for the pretty but pessimistic prostitute whose search for an exit brings him face to face with every facet of gay culture suddenly made flesh. Queens and closet cases, bashers and grey-haired activists, Alex meets (and subsequently does) them all until he hooks up with a struggling poet who shakes his cynical shell to its very core. Even though director Joseph Graham’s characters never quite come across in three dimensions (the bitter coke-addled fairy for instance) and occasionally spout dialogue that borders on homo homilies, he has nevertheless crafted a highly likeable queer romp which could have been titled Alex in Wonderland. His protagonist is more metaphor than man—one older hook-up compares him to a portrait of St. Sebastian, young yet timeless—and even though he displays something of the sardonic worldview we expect from such a character (he’s gay but not that gay and he’ll offer up anything for a buck except intimacy) he’s not a cliché so much as a tabula rasa able to learn a little something from each encounter. It’s a low-budget traipse down the gay rabbit hole and back again, not grand enough to be called an odyssey but rather the story of Little Pink Riding Hood searching for grandma’s house but finding the woodsman instead.

The Cakemaker
(Israel 2017) (6): Berlin pastry chef Thomas falls in love with married Israeli businessman Oren and the two begin a months-long affair, seeing each other whenever Oren’s job takes him to Germany. But when Oren is killed in a traffic accident back home Thomas seeks closure by travelling to Jerusalem where he begins to clandestinely spy on Anat, his dead lover’s unsuspecting widow. Drawn to Anat, perhaps because she unwittingly shares his grief, Thomas takes a job in her cafe where his dessert creations become an instant sensation… Food as metaphor is nothing new to cinema and director Ofir Raul Graizer (himself a cook of some renown) wastes no time in tying the delicate art of pastry making to the film’s fragile sense of sorrow and bittersweet longing. A simple cinnamon cookie becomes both an erotic vehicle and a rallying point of religious oppression when Anat’s orthodox brother-in-law balks at the idea of a non-kosher German goy breaking eggs in her pantry. Unfortunately, like the film’s many flashes of gastro-porn, too much sugar ruins the recipe and in exploring the individual grief of his two protagonists Graizer too often skews his movie’s quiet pathos into outright melodrama with sad music in a minor key and a double-take resolution rooted in identity politics that smacked of artifice. And Thomas’ happy flashbacks to life with Oren consist mainly of the usual naked couplings (looking very awkward indeed) and clichéd chatter revolving around love and loneliness—apparently an ersatz marriage is better than nothing. Tim Kalkhof and Sarah Adler excel as the two widows and a welcome twist towards the end turns the film’s underlying theme on its ear, but the whole production still felt like a gay chick flick aimed at a straight audience.

(Russia 2007) (6): Using highly formalized visuals that oddly complement its overall verité style, writer/Director Aleksandr Sokurov applies his dreamlike prose to the futility of war and the results, while visually striking, still fall far short of 1997’s Mother and Son. Alexandra, an eighty-year old grandmother, rides convoy trains and armoured tanks in order to visit her grandson, an army officer stationed in Chechnya. Once arrived however her matronly presence has an untoward effect on the troops even as the ravaged countryside (and its inhabitants) take a toll on her. Taken as a critique of warfare Sokurov’s elderly babushka becomes an everyman figure, muttering non-sequiturs as she hobbles through a camp devoid of colour wherein everything is covered in dust and soldiers are frightened boys dwarfed by the military machines rumbling past them. Her visit to a modest local market gives rise to further sad ruminations when she teams up with a Chechen grandmother and the two reflect on the human cost of armed conflict. Taken as a socio-political allegory she becomes a weary Mother Russia herself, all aches and pains as she looks back on an unhappy life while alternately doling out sympathy and sharp criticism to the troops she encounters—the young men attracted by the wizened authority she exudes. Finally, taken as a two-handed drama it becomes problematic, for even though we know she and her grandson have been apart for seven years, Sokurov gives few clues as to what has gone on before leading to an awkward confession on Alexandra’s part followed by an even more awkward embrace. Despite the washed out cinematography and a static sense of life holding its breath (the ongoing battle is reduced to fires seen in the distance) the film, like its mumbling limping namesake, doesn’t seem to know where it wants to go and instead takes us in tiresome circles only to end where it began. And perhaps it’s this seemingly pointless circularity itself which encapsulates Sokurov’s strongest point. Octogenarian Galina Vishnevskaya, a former opera singer, does put in a fine performance as Alexandra—you can practically feel her arthritic bones and the mountain of sadness she carries within her heart—but even she is not able to buoy up a movie meant to crawl along at ground level.

Have You Seen My Movie?
(Canada/UK 2016) (8): A wonderful love letter to cinephiles everywhere, Paul Anton Smith has spliced together over one thousand scenes from a hundred plus films to create this cohesive montage of people going to the movies. From silent reels to contemporary blockbusters to foreign classics we see them arriving at the cinema (There’s Joan Crawford! And Bette Midler!), choosing their seats (there’s Dustin Hoffman! There’s Brigitte Bardot!), buying the popcorn (There’s Alan Bates! And Marilyn Monroe!) and as the houselights go down a thousand audience dramas unfold by way of film clips as the screen-within-a-screen comes alive with comedy, romance, horror, and even a bit of…porn?! Expertly knitted together with nary a seam showing Smith mixes up genres, countries, and eras resulting in a surreal night at the cinema where Sexploitation rubs shoulders with Italian Neo-Realism and rushes from Hollywood’s Golden Age butt up against Arthouse while an audience filled with everyone from Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard to Leonardo di Caprio’s Howard Hughes from The Aviator watch along with us. Indeed, towards the end when the onscreen houselights come back on we spend one golden moment watching the projected theatregoers watching us—and for those passionate about the art of cinematic storytelling it’s as close to Nirvana as you’re likely to get.

(USA 1952) (8): “A story of a ballerina and a clown…” states a title card at the beginning of Charles Chaplin’s signature opus—part autobiography, part showbiz allegory, and a lot of stagey melodrama which has deservedly found its way into the realm of cinema classics. Set in pre-WWI London, he plays a washed-up alcoholic comedian named Calvero whose Little Tramp persona (get it?) has fallen out of vogue. Co-star Clair Bloom plays Thereza, a neurotic dancer whom Calvero befriends after he saves her from a suicide attempt. Together the two form a bond despite the thirty-plus year difference in their ages with his joie de vivre buoying up her melancholia and her youth giving him a renewed purpose in life. But with his own health in decline and job offers drying up, the older Calvero is all too aware that times are changing and despite the forced bonhomie he is raging against the setting of the sun even as he pushes the talented Thereza towards her own dawn. Shot through with theatrical conceits as befits its subject—Calvero’s dreams come in the form of Vaudeville routines while Claire works through her angst in tutu and pointe shoes—Chaplin’s winsome character nevertheless offers up some heady philosophy regarding the compromises imposed by old age and the agelessness of the performing arts, possibly giving his best performance ever both in and out of greasepaint. Sad without being a tragedy, romantic without being a love story, uplifting without being a comedy, Chaplin (who besides composing the Oscar-winning orchestral score also served as writer and director) bares his artistic soul with unabashed sentimentality and a finesse worthy of Bergman, and in so doing reminds us all of why we flock to theatres in the first place. Too bad this classic was put on the back shelf for so long thanks to the anti-Communist hysteria levelled at Chaplin in the wake of false allegations. Fellow silent film star Buster Keaton joins Chaplin for some onstage schtick, one of their very few screen pairings.

(USA 1938) (7): France’s most wanted jewel thief, the dashing Pepe le Moko (Charles Boyer), has fled to Algeria with a fortune in gems and now lives like a king in the capital’s Casbah district. An exotic rat’s nest of twisting alleyways and interconnected terraces alive with criminals and other undesirables, the Casbah allows Pepe and his henchmen to hide in plain sight where they provide a constant source of irritation for the local authorities. But women are his Achille’s heel and when he meets attractive Parisian socialite Gaby (Hedy Lamarr) who’s vacationing in Algiers with her sugar daddy fiancé, their star-crossed romance could spell trouble for the wary Pepe… Shunned by American censors for its allusions to prostitution, licentiousness, and “kept women”, John Cromwell’s remake of the 1937 French hit Pépé le Moko is tame by today’s standards although there is no mistaking the erotic sparks flying between its two leads—Boyer’s photogenic looks and intense gaze definitely find their mark in the beautiful Lamarr’s downcast eyes. Combining grainy on-location travelogue footage with Hollywood sound stages works well for the most part but Cromwell seems stuck in the Silent Film Era with a couple of emotive performances and awkward close-ups (Boyer’s EYES! Lamarr’s TEETH!). Still, as the pace quickens, a compelling melodrama unfolds with tragedy, romance, and an obligatory musical croon from Boyer himself. He received an Oscar nomination for his flamboyant performance as did Canada’s own Gene Lockhart for his role as Pepe’s double-crossing double agent. But it’s Joseph Calleia who ultimately anchors the film as Inspector Slimane, an honest, soft-spoken cop and acquaintance of le Moko who realizes this particular case will require brains over brawn. An amusing side note, Boyer’s portrayal of the charming thief would go on to inspire the cartoon character of “Pepe le Pew”, Warner Brothers’ horny French skunk.

Under the Tree
(Iceland 2017) (9): Unfolding like an Old Testament rebuke—or Viking curse—there is a heart of pure evil beating at the centre of Gunnar Sigurdsson’s black suburban comedy in which violence begets violence and the sins of the parents are visited upon the sons (and pets). After his wife kicks him out of the apartment, Atli moves in with his folks and immediately becomes embroiled in a dispute with the neighbours over a tree. Firmly rooted on the parents’ yard, the tree is casting too much shade onto the patio next door and the neighbours want it trimmed but mom and dad steadfastly refuse. An escalation of words and actions goes to ridiculous lengths until a mysterious incident proves to be the final straw… Tinged with contemporary horror and a sardonic humour as deadpan as it is shocking, Sigurdsson knows exactly when to tease an audience and when to slap it upside the head and he does both with such chutzpah you’re unsure as to whether you should smirk or cringe. And Edda Björgvinsdóttir steals every scene as Atli’s progressively unhinged mother, a malevolent mix of wicked witch and doddering pit bull whose soft voice always seems to contain a suppressed snarl. Some may see sociopolitical metaphors underlying the theme of neighbours behaving badly—the parents’ feud subtly reflected in Atli’s marital problems—but that would be a stretch. Best to leave it as a patently disturbing—and shamefully entertaining—piece of cinematic hyperbole complete with somber chorales which owes a debt of gratitude to the likes of Hitchcock and Michael Haneke.

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.