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

~ ~ ~ ~

Sunflower (Italy 1970) (7): There’s an element of simple human warmth which runs through Vittorio De Sica’s bittersweet film that saves it from becoming just another two-hankie weeper—and the combined star power of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni doesn’t hurt either. After her soldier husband Antonio (Mastroianni) fails to return home at the end of WWII, Giovanna (Loren) refuses to believe he’s dead and instead clings to the army’s official “missing in action” status as if it were a talisman. Years pass without any word until, acting on a hunch, she journeys to Russia where he was last seen trudging through the snow with his retreating battalion… Told mainly in flashbacks De Sica starts off on a playful note with Antonio and Giovanna devising one harebrained scheme after another to keep him from being conscripted, their romantic entanglements given a wistful air by Henry Mancini’s melancholy score. But as an angry Giovanna tries to discover what became of her man the tone turns darker as De Sica avoids hysterical emoting to prove you can convey more pathos through a simple curve of the lip or a heavy silence—and Loren’s expressive beauty is more than up for the task. A sombre montage of battlefield brutality culled from the memories of the last soldier to see Antonio delivers an anti-war message while the film’s powerful closing shots remind us, somewhat emphatically, that despite our hearts’ most fervent desires life plays out according to its own rules. Beautifully filmed throughout, De Sica gives us one of cinema’s most poignant scenes as a determined Giovanna wanders through a rustic cemetery whose makeshift crosses stretch towards the sky.

Scandal Sheet
(USA 1952) (8): Mark Chapman (a growling, scowling Broderick Crawford) is a cold-hearted cynical bastard. He’s also the editor for one of New York City’s fastest growing tabloids where his nose for sensationalism is attracting readers by the hundreds of thousands. Not above printing lurid crime scene photos or exploiting the city’s sad and lonely, Chapman is fast becoming a valuable asset to his publishers until his own scandalous past resurfaces in the form of a woman who knows too much and isn’t afraid to tell. Heated words are exchanged, she winds up dead, and Chapman ruthlessly covers his tracks as best he can until—irony of ironies—two of his paper’s ace reporters (John Derek, Donna Reed) start covering the murder investigation and he realizes that unless he can throw them off the trail it will eventually lead to him. Director Phil Karlson is in fine form with this film noir classic whose scathing critique of tabloid journalism was years ahead of its time. Crawford’s bigger than life as the egotistical editor who gets caught up by his own unchecked ambition while Derek and Reed are convincing as the mismatched reporters—his callous attitude (mimicking that of Chapman whom he worships) constantly grating against her sense of decency and compassion. In Karlson’s downbeat film, based on the book by Samuel Fuller, crime may not pay but it damn well sells newspapers. It also makes for one hell of a good movie.

Murder Ahoy
(UK 1964) (5): Margaret Rutherford once again dons the guise of Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s doddery grey-haired sleuth, to solve a string of maritime murders. After a member of the board of trustees overseeing a merchant marine training vessel drops dead before he can deliver some “terribly important news”, fellow board member Marple suspects foul play and decides to pay the ship a visit. Unfortunately her arrival heralds more premature demises and the frumpy amateur detective must unmask both villain and motive before she becomes fish food herself. Set to a score which sounds like it was lifted from a game show, red herrings abound and any sense of peril fails to materializes as Rutherfords prim and proper old girl—with the body of a small tank and face of a droopy St. Bernard—fusses and goes “tsk tsk” while pulling clues out of thin air. This series of Disney-style murder mysteries may be classic (Rutherford is a darling) but after watching one or two they quickly settle into predictable tedium. A surefire cure for insomnia.

The Last Supper
[La última cena] (Cuba 1976) (8): Celebrated Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea teaches Buñuel a thing or two in this satirical recounting of an actual 18th century slave revolt. During the Catholic Holy Week leading to Easter the wealthy owner of a sugar plantation decides to teach his slaves about the blessings of Christianity by reenacting the Last Supper much to the dismay of his sadistic overseer who feels they could be put to better use chopping sugar cane. Casting himself as Christ and twelve randomly selected slaves as his disciples, the Count prepares a lavish banquet where he regales the tired and battered men with pious homilies about the virtue of suffering, the importance of loving one’s master, and the role of blind obedience in God’s Great Plan. But as the wine continues to flow the “disciples”, already confused by this strange white religion (Being beaten is a blessing!? Christ’s apostles ate him!?) counter with a few sardonic parables of their own. The next day however, after their master reneges on a promised day of rest, the rebellious slaves learn just how far Christian Charity will actually take them… Combining magical realism with passages of bloody brutality all set to a stirring Afro-Cuban beat, Alea’s simple tale goes beyond mere criticism of slavery and colonialism and attacks Catholic complicity (the local priest is little more than an impotent mouthpiece) and the inane doctrines of the religion itself which encourage meek servitude and forbearance with promises of full equality after death. The editing may be a bit clunky and the soundtrack tends to wane and swell at odd times, but Alea’s largely amateur cast is triumphant and that candlelit banquet is surely one of world cinema’s more iconic scenes.

(USA 2015) (7): When high school senior Sage (Julia Garner) finds herself in need of six hundred dollars for an abortion she decides to forego telling her overbearing mother and instead seek out help from her grandmother Elle (Lily Tomlin, amazing!) a cantankerous old lesbian and unapologetic 70s-era feminist. Although sympathetic towards her granddaughter’s plight, Elle is also financially strapped and with the clinic appointment a mere eight hours away she and Sage embark on a rocky road trip through southern California as Elle tries to call in favours from every person she’s ever been close to from a transsexual tattoo artist (viva Laverne Cox!) to an embittered heterosexual ex (Sam Elliott, greyer and still sexy). But as her less than exemplary past is dredged up Elle—still mourning the loss of her longterm partner—is forced to reappraise her life while a discomfited Sage eyes the clock… Tomlin is pitch perfect as the confrontational foul-mouthed grandma whose barrage of F-bombs and sarcastic one-offs fail to completely conceal her own insecurities, especially in matters of the heart. And Julia Garner proves to be the perfect foil, reflecting her gran’s vitriol back at her and showing Elle just how old and nasty she’s become. Even though a side story about Elle’s damaged relationship with her own daughter (Sage’s mom) occasionally sinks to reproachful clichés, writer/director Paul Weitz’s snappy script coupled with Tomlin’s breakneck delivery ultimately save this one from becoming just another bitchy gay soap opera. A seasoned supporting cast that includes Marcia Gay Harden and Elizabeth Peña manage to hold their heads high throughout.

Wake Island
(USA 1941) (6): A likeable wartime propaganda film, based on a true story, meant to bolster the morale of civilian and military audiences alike even though director John Farrow and his team of writers stretched the truth for the big screen. In reality, the Battle of Wake Island began the day after Pearl Harbour and involved one thousand American soldiers stationed on a small South Pacific atoll who managed to temporarily repel a Japanese invasion even though they were outnumbered by more than two to one and had a large contingent of civilian workers to protect as well (the were building a naval base). In Farrow’s vision they practically sink the entire Japanese fleet in between bouts of good-natured ribbing and practical jokes although it does end on an appropriately grave note. Nominated for four Academy Awards including Best Picture, it was a big hit at the box office despite the fact it’s pretty much indistinguishable from the glut of other Stars ’n Stripes patriot films. The usual characters make their appearance from the crusty Major (Brian Donlevy) to the meathead Private (Best Supporting Actor nominee Wiliam Bendix) and the script is strictly by-the-numbers although the actual battle sequences—filmed along California’s Salton Sea—are breathtaking. As an interesting note, filming began while the battle was still going on prompting the studio to devise three different endings depending on how things turned out. Only in Hollywood…

The Demon
[aka Kichiku ] (Japan 1978) (9): The spirit of Hitchcock blows through this harrowing tale of childhood misery, adapted from Matsumoto’s novel by director Yoshitarô Nomura. When his destitute mistress of seven years shows up on his doorstep with the three small children he fathered, shop owner Sôkichi Takeshita knows he’s in for a rough night. But when she flees without a trace leaving them behind his existence turns hellish indeed for not only is he already deeply in debt to the bank but his wife Oume, who knew nothing of his transgressions, takes it upon herself to make life for him and “the brats” as unbearable as possible. Thus, with Oume raging like a mad Medea and his resources stretched past their limit, a neurotic and increasingly unstable Sôkichi decides that it would be best for everyone if the children simply disappeared… Shot through with fairy tale archetypes and infernal imagery—the drone of stinging insects augment a sweltering summer; a blood red sunset illuminates a fiendish scene; Oume embodies every wicked stepmother, and the children wander through a concrete forest like two Hansels and a Gretel—Nomura banks the tension while exploiting our own innate fears of abandonment. Speeding trains and a restless ocean speak of fate and a higher power, but the demon of the title is deliberately left vague. Does it refer to the vengeful Oume? The morally confused Sôkichi who suffers from his own childhood traumas? Or is it to be found in eldest son Riiki, whose steady gaze and unusual resilience seem to mock the Takeshitas and whose very presence threatens to unravel them like a divine judgement….or a curse? Childhood abuse and loss of innocence are never easy subjects for a filmmaker to tackle, but with The Demon Nomura finds the right balance between pathos and horror and the result is a small masterpiece.

This Filthy World
(USA 2006) (8): Infamous film director John Waters is taped live delivering his one-man show before a New York audience in Jeff Garlin’s side-splitting concert documentary. Emerging from a church confessional onto a stage littered with garbage and garish bouquets Waters immediately launches into a rapid-fire monologue about his peculiar parochial childhood, his early career as a guerrilla filmmaker responsible for such underground horrors as Pink Flamingos and Multiple Maniacs, and his later life as an older, wiser, but no less skewed Hollywood anti-icon capable of releasing mainstream cineplex fare like Hairspray. Laced with hefty doses of transgressive humour and delivered with his usual candour, Waters’ urban trash philosophy waxes eloquent as he discusses everything and anything including Catholicism, 9/11, sexual kinks, the government, political correctness, censorship, and the inherent joy that comes from crossing every line. But it is the tall tales and juicy anecdotes which provide the most fun from his adventures with lifelong friend Harris Glenn Milstead (aka “Divine”) to his filmmaking exploits and ensuing run-ins with the law. A filthy time capsule written by one of the industry’s more unique minds that goes down like a cheap cocktail—refreshing and just a little bit odd.

A Child is Waiting
(USA 1963) (8): Sadly, thanks to artistic differences with both the studio and producer Stanley Kramer, this early work from pioneering director John Cassavetes bears little of the psychological honesty he would later become famous for but it still provides an emotional punch that was far ahead of its time. Looking for some fulfillment in an otherwise unfulfilling life, middle-aged Jean Hansen (a remarkably demure Judy Garland) takes a job teaching music at a state-run boarding school for children with mental disabilities. Presided over by compassionate advocate Dr. Matthew Clark (Burt Lancaster playing Burt Lancaster) the children—diagnosed with everything from Down’s Syndrome to perinatal brain injury to all forms of autism—are ruled with a tough love policy designed to make them as independent as possible. But when Jean crosses a line and takes a personal interest in one particularly sad case, eleven-year old Reuben who was abandoned by his parents and now exists in a walking stupor, she realizes that hugs and kisses alone cannot save these children, in fact they can be dangerously counterproductive. Filmed quasi-documentary style in an actual state hospital and starring an impressive cast of children with all the disabilities mentioned above, there is a ring of authenticity to Cassavete’s film that neither flinches from some of the harsher realities of caring for high needs children nor downplays the often esoteric rewards (a Thanksgiving Play doesn’t go quite as planned and you can only smile at the chaos). It’s the parents however which give the story its underlying pathos. With reactions ranging from sadness to discomfort bordering on hostility you see the greater prejudices of society clearly reflected in their eyes. A meeting between Dr. Clark and the state budgeting committee reduces the children to dollars and cents while a visit to an adult psychiatric ward gives a stark example of where their futures often lead. Gena Rowlands and Steven Hill are especially effective as Reuben’s conflicted parents—she can’t bear to visit her son because she “loves him too much” while he feels Reuben would have been better off dead. Despite some soap opera moments and a cloying soundtrack of whiny violins Casavetes et al never stoop to condescension and the children (oh those kids!) take to the camera with unabashed zeal.

(USA 2004) (6): As his friend’s wedding day approaches, eighth-grade English teacher Miles (Paul Giametti) decides to take him on a road trip through southern California for a little bit of golf, a little bit of male bonding, and a whole lot of wine-tasting. But his buddy, semi-employed voiceover actor Jack (Thomas Haden Church), is more interested in getting laid one last time before matrimony ends his sex life altogether. Enter Maya and Stephanie (Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh), two women the men encounter on their travels and before you can utter Cabernet Sauvignon the complications begin to mount. Jack falls for Stephanie who has no clue about his upcoming marriage; Maya, who also appreciates a fine wine, takes a renewed shine to Miles (they’ve known each other as acquaintances in the past); and Miles, still smarting from a divorce two years ago and currently frustrated over his inability to get a manuscript published, can’t pop the Xanax fast enough. Pithy banter and drunken revelations punctuated by drama and a bit of slapstick quickly follow… In Vino Veritas takes on a hip contemporary spin in what could well be Hollywood’s first oenological romantic dramedy as bottles of the red and white liquid become something of an overbearing metaphor: a cherished bottle of Cheval Blanc ’61 precipitates a life change and a droning monologue on pinot grapes—they’re terribly delicate yet nurtured properly they produce the finest vintage—pretty well speaks to everyone. But Giamatti’s insufferably neurotic wine snob garners little sympathy (think Woody Allen dropped into the middle of a vineyard) while Church’s clueless man-slut starts to get on your nerves after the third or fourth sexual reference. Despite a host of Oscar nominations this is a movie whose aging angst-ridden protagonists seem to hearken from a different era, like a Gen X version of The Big Chill served between glasses of Syrah and Chardonnay. And unless you’re totally into viniculture the endless wine references are just so much fermented grape juice.

The Oyster Princess: A Grotesque Comedy in 4 Acts
(Germany 1919) (7): Before he emigrated to the United States, silent film legend Ernst Lubitsch directed this scathing—and very funny—satire on the excesses of American capitalism. When pampered debutante Ossi Quaker (irony!) discovers one of her contemporaries has married into European royalty she threatens to tear daddy’s New York mansion down brick by golden brick unless he finds a bona fide prince she can call her own. Turning to local matchmaker Seligsohn, Mr. Quaker manages to scrounge up Prince Nucki, a penniless aristocrat now living with his manservant Josef in a rundown tenement. But thanks to a gross misunderstanding Ossi’s long-awaited marriage doesn’t quite go as planned leading to more tantrums, more chaos, and the beginning of a loveless honeymoon… Tacky gilded sets and gross decadence abound reaching their zenith during the wedding reception where maids and butlers outnumber the guests ten to one and a spontaneous “foxtrot epidemic” breaks out after the orchestra leader loses his mind. And then there’s the meeting of the local Temperance League which opens with a champagne toast only to end in fisticuffs. But despite its patently Hollywood ending there’s no moral to Lubitsch’s sixty-minute screwball caper because the principal characters are already beyond redemption to begin with: Ossi is a spoiled brat so used to getting her own way that it has become the norm; Prince Nucki is the very epitome of a European monarchy gone to seed (his “throne” consisting of a rickety chair placed atop an orange crate); and Mr. Quaker himself is a fat lazy leviathan doted on by liveried footmen including an inner circle of black servants who feed him and wipe his nose. In fact, had he lived today he could very well have been the King of Wall Street.

Up in the Air
(USA 2009) (8): Fear of commitment vies with our innate need for human contact in Jason Reitman’s multiple award-winning—including six Oscar nominations—romantic comedy with a bitter sting. Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) spends eleven months out of the year flying around the country clocking up air miles as a “transition specialist” which is a polite term for someone who is specifically hired to tell mid-level executives that they are fired. He also moonlights as a motivational speaker encouraging people to rid themselves of messy attachments both physical and emotional. Spending more time in the air than on the ground Ryan has a skewed view of relationships and being “settled” until three seemingly unrelated events create unwelcome turbulence in his life: he’s forced to mentor a young upstart in the business (Anna Kendrick) who has all the book-learning but none of the experience; he’s called upon to intervene when his niece’s wedding plans go awry; and, after a one-night tryst at an airport hotel, he begins to fall for a savvy businesswoman (Vera Farmiga) whose moral compass seems to be pointing in the same directions as his own. Taking what could have been a classic chick-flick premise, writers Reitman et al avoid the usual rom-com formulations and instead deliver a highly literate, psychologically piercing examination of love and deception in the age of smartphones, laptops, and emoticons. Clooney and Farmiga are picture perfect as the ultimate pair of aging yuppies—comparing their various rewards cards as a form of foreplay (she practically drools over the size of his frequent flyer points) and meting out intimacy according to flight schedules and calendar apps. Kendrick, meanwhile, plays the clueless ingenue with a winning mix of emotional fragility and the kind of hubris that seems to accompany those fresh out of college—yet she still manages to give her mentor a long overdue comeuppance. The remaining earthbound cast fill in the blanks as they wrestle with a desire to connect and a fear of being hurt. But it’s those brief yet brutal termination interviews which give the film its heaviest moments with the newly jobless—look for cameos from the likes of Zack Galifianakis and J. K. Simmons—sobbing, raging, or simply going silent, their tragic looks intruding on Bingham’s lofty worldview like a crashing plane.

Only Lovers Left Alive
(USA 2013) (9): Jim Jarmusch is not among my favourite directors but this long languorous daydream, laced with melancholy and passion, is one of the hippest arthouse vampire flicks I’ve seen in some time. In an abandoned part of Detroit sits a ramshackle manor house bathed in moonlight and surrounded by the distant sound of howling dogs. It’s the home of reclusive rock star “Adam” (Tom Hiddleston) who spends his nighttime hours composing goth anthems and ruminating on the uselessness of it all. Meanwhile, half a world away in Tangiers, his pasty-skinned tangle-haired wife “Eve” (Tilda Swinton) spends her evenings exchanging bon mots with best friend Christopher Marlowe—the original Marlowe—(John Hurt) while downing little aperitif glasses of ruby red blood which hits them both like a shot of purest heroin. Adam and Eve (no relation) are vampires, as is Marlowe, and between the three of them they have witnessed two thousand years of zombie history—their pet name for humans—with feelings that range from profound depression in Adam to detached amusement in Marlowe, to Eve’s supernatural forbearance. But a delicate balance is upset when Eve travels stateside to be with Adam and her somewhat impulsive sister shows up after an absence of almost ninety years—an arrival which triggers a couple of most unfortunate events… Those expecting the action-packed bloodbath of From Dusk Till Dawn or the screeching fiends of 30 Days of Night will be sorely disappointed for Jarmusch is not out to make another monster movie. His undead are among the most literate, highly refined intelligentsia to ever walk the Earth—Adam has rubbed shoulders with the likes of Lord Byron and Mary Wollstonecraft; Eve can read several languages at a time; Marlowe is still writing even though his physical strength is waning—and all three have an uncanny affinity for flora and fauna, rattling off binomial nomenclature in flawless Latin. Fangs make a cursory appearance, blood is acquired from a lab rather than a jugular, and ghoulish behaviour is limited to a few brief yet significant scenes. As with all his productions Jarmusch likes to play with names (Eve books a night flight as “Daisy Buchanan” Adam visits the blood bank as “Dr. Faustus”) and he underlies it all with a vein of humour that runs deep and dry—pun intended. Swinton and Hiddleston are a perfect match as the eternal lovers, Hurt is a winning combination of piercing intellectual and crusty old man, and the late Anton Yelchin shows his budding talent as Adam’s longhaired metalhead gofer. A story of immortals dealing with the terrifying prospect of their own immortality told with visual flair and a great deal of dramatic restraint.

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll
(UK 2010) (8): Matt Whitecross’ garish, psychedelic whirlwind of a biopic traces the life of Ian Dury who, along with his back-up band “The Blockheads”, became something of a punk rock sensation in the 70s and 80s. From his early life as a recovering polio victim languishing away at a sate run sanatorium to his brief burst of success playing in front of crowds eager to experience his outlandish stage antics, Whitecross touches on Ian’s emotionally fraught relationship with his father, his rising and falling fortunes, his broken marriage, and the problematic bonding with his own children—most notably young son Baxter. Told in flashbacks and flash-forwards with raucous musical interludes that are part political burlesque and part psychotic cabaret, Whitecross uses everything from animated backdrops to flights of working class fantasy to create a mesmerizing collage of his subject. And star Andy Serkis gives one of the greatest performances of his career thus far, his portrayal of Dury a heady mix of white trash poet, flamboyant provocateur, and drug-huffing wreck as he chugs along with his leg brace and shock of greasy hair. A piss-filled celebration of punk’s middle-aged warrior that is as crass and unapologetic as Dury himself.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age
(UK 2007) (7):  Cate Blanchett once again dons the royal crown as Elizabeth I in director Shekhar Kapur’s big budget sequel to 1998’s Elizabeth.  It’s 1585 and an older, wiser Virgin Queen faces crises and intrigue both within the court and from abroad.  The imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots is laying claim to the English throne; King Philip II of Spain is planning an overwhelming naval assault; and homegrown Catholics view her as a Protestant whore.  Meanwhile, still unmarried and childless, Liz finds herself falling slippers over tiara for the dashing Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen)—an unrequited love which has the palace buzzing…  As usual with any big screen costume drama historical accuracy takes a backseat to sheer spectacle, and Kapur delivers spectacle in spades.  The palatial sets, opulent outfits, and computer-generated sea battles are breathtaking and a cast of A-listers (among them Geoffrey Rush as Walsingham; Samantha Morton as Mary; Jordi Mollà as Philip) are certainly strong enough to be heard above the visual din.  But the film’s gushing patriotism insists on bathing Elizabeth in ethereal light—at one point she literally glows as the camera spins giddily about her and in another scene she delivers an inspired oration atop a white horse, gathering storm clouds reflecting off her immaculate armour—while at the same time demonizing Philip and his papist hordes.  Coupled with a soundtrack of thundering orchestras and straining choirs that border on epic overkill, Kapur pushes his production dangerously close to Marvel Comics territory with England’s Wonder Woman facing off against Spain’s Darth Vader.  But the performances are superb, the sense of history in the making palpable, and the aforementioned spectacle flies right off the screen and into your face.

Sinister 2 (USA 2015) (5):  Battered housewife Courtney Collins and her two bruised children are on the lam from her sadistic husband when they take refuge in an old farmhouse.  But the house comes with a brutal history of death and madness (See my review for Sinister) and it isn’t long before little Dylan and his brother Zach begin receiving nightly visitors in the form of ghostly children and a lanky mean-spirited bogeyman.  Meanwhile a private eye investigating the house’s murderous past comes snooping around the Collins’ backdoor triggering a whole lot of tepid chills as the forces of evil come oozing up the basement stairs threatening to precipitate yet another familial bloodbath.  This inferior sequel recycles most of the former’s jolts but none of its sense of horror as a few initial frissons quickly give way to stretches of tedium punctuated by things dutifully jumping out at the camera.  As in the original Sinister the writers rip off The Ring series with the spectral kids forcing Dylan to watch a collection of nasty corrupting home videos, and this time around they take an unabashed stab at King’s Children of the Corn when a nearby farmer’s field sets the stage for a fiery videotaped climax.  But the film’s greatest shock comes at the very end after director Ciarán Foy threatens to unleash Sinister 3.  GOOD GOD NOOOOO!!!

Detention (USA 2011) (6):  The students at Grizzly Lake High School are facing their upcoming prom with varying degrees of trepidation.  Class jock Billy has vowed to beat up class heartthrob Clapton; prima donna Ione is commandeering the cheerleader team; and outcast Riley simply hates her life.  The adults aren’t faring much better either, especially Principal Verge who rules the hallways like an embittered nazi foreman.  And just to add more fuel to everyone’s angst an axe-wielding psychopath dressed up like a damaged beauty queen has begun dispatching the student body starting with self-proclaimed “bitch” Taylor ( it stands for Beauty, Intelligence, Talent, Charisma, Hoobastank) who gets carved up before she can finish her manic monologue to the audience on how to be cool at school.  Who will be next…and does anyone even care?  Joseph Kahn and Mark Palermo’s sloppy satire on teen movies throws drunken punches at everything from The Breakfast Club and Freaky Friday to Saw, Scream, and Prom Night.  But not content to simply rip off they also throw in such giddy nonsense as soul transference, mutant alien students, and an extraterrestrial time-traveling bear—and they serve it all up with a crazy disjointed energy that suggest lots of long caffeine-fueled nights in front of the keyboard.  From the imaginatively vulgar opening credits (a puddle of vomit parts to reveal “Directed By”) to the shaggy dog sci-fi ending, Detention is juvenile and unforgivably stupid.  It is also a fresh, oddly hip, and indecently entertaining little indie (drug abuse and teen suicide are just a few of the altars Kahn and Palermo piss on) which reduced me to self-conscious giggles more than once.  This is what we may have gotten had John Carpenter and John Hughes collaborated over a bowl full of methamphetamine.  Maybe they should have.

Kill the Messenger
(USA 2014) (8): In the mid-90’s journalist Gary Webb (amazing turn from Jeremy Renner) uncovered evidence that suggested America’s crack cocaine epidemic was partly orchestrated by the C.I.A. who had formed a partnership with various drug cartels. According to the series of articles he wrote for the San Jose Mercury News dealers got free access to the American market while the Intelligence Agency skimmed off the profits to fund anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua after Congress refused to support Reagan’s dirty little war. This revelation hit both the news stands and the internet like a bombshell until dark forces started pushing back and Webb found himself targeted both personally and professionally. An incendiary condemnation of twisted politics, collusion, and ultimately public apathy, director Michael Cuesta’s factual drama follows Webb from U.S. courtrooms to Central American prisons blending linear narrative with brief flashbacks to underscore his points. With Webb’s life threatening to unravel and his colleagues developing cold feet you realize this is not going to be a neat and tidy journalistic coup in the manner of All the President’s Men but rather a real life Goliath tale in which the giant proves to be bigger than David imagined.

The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell
(USA 1955) (6): A lacklustre biopic made all the more unremarkable by Gary Cooper’s timid performance. He plays the titular character, a decorated WWI general who, in the mid-1920’s, faced a military tribunal after he made a public statement accusing the War Department of criminal negligence, incompetence, and “almost treasonable administration”. He’d been advocating for more research and funding to bolster America’s fledgling air force which was facing extinction thanks to its antiquated planes and lack of regulations but both the army and the navy, not appreciating the importance of a strong air presence, ignored his pleas and ordered him to desist. And then two tragedies involving military aircraft made headlines prompting an outraged Mitchell to take his fight to the media, a move which resulted in court-martial proceedings for conduct unbecoming an officer. Despite an Oscar nomination for best screenplay, this is one of Otto Preminger’s less engaging films. Overly sentimental, it presents Mitchell as an “aw shucks” gentleman with a vision when the real character was in fact a charismatic firecracker—even Billy’s widow expressed her disappointment upon watching it. The cinemascope presentation is captivating enough as it swings from sinking battleships to courtroom tension but aside from a few worthy performances—namely Elizabeth Montgomery (in her screen debut) as a grieving widow, Rod Steiger as a vicious prosecutor, and Ralph Bellamy as his counterpoint for the defense—everyone else pretty much reads their lines especially Cooper who wavers between bland and distracted. One scene does stand out however when, during the trial, an overly zealous Steiger scoffs at Mitchell’s eerie prediction of an air attack on Pearl Harbor.

Footlight Parade
(USA 1933) (8): When talking pictures threaten to kill Broadway, famous stage director Chester Kent (James Cagney, acting and dancing!) decides to fight back by producing a string of big budget “prologues”—live song and dance numbers that precede a motion picture. Gathering a string of eager chorus girls and talented nobodies (including Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell) he sets out to wow cinema audiences with one audacious extravaganza after another. But a rival producer is hellbent on stealing Kent’s best ideas and a platinum blonde chiseler (Claire Dodd) is after his money. Thankfully his faithful secretary (Joan Blondell) is there to keep things from flying apart but she is more interested in winning his heart than in saving the show. The corny performances may hearken back to the silent era but the musical numbers are pure Hollywood gold with a delightful “Cats” routine filmed fifteen years before Andrew Lloyd Webber was even born, a racy rendition of “Honeymoon Hotel” with sliding walls and half-naked virgins, and the pièce de résistance, an amazing aquatic sequence with underwater cameras, synchronized swimmers smiling through all the chlorine, and a glitzy human fountain that goes beyond camp. Breathtakingly choreographed by the legendary Busby Berkeley and featuring a great deal of risqué, pre-code humour—not to mention glaring allusions to adultery, drugs, prostitution, and a whole lot of female flesh—this is a grand old fossil of a film from the beginning of Hollywood’s golden era.