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

~ ~ ~ ~

Phoebe in Wonderland
(USA 2008) (5): Nine-year old Phoebe Lichten (Elle Fanning) has a rich imagination…perhaps too rich. Controlled by crippling self-imposed rules of conduct, she can’t descend a staircase or traverse a sidewalk without observing elaborate rituals and her interpersonal skills are hampered by tics and bizarre outbursts. Her loving but ineffective parents—mom is a bit of a shrill neurotic, dad is a smiling doofus—steadfastly refuse to see anything wrong with their daughter’s behaviour and the staff at her school are almost comically useless. Always obsessed with Wonderland (Carroll’s not Jackson’s) Phoebe is over the moon when she lands the role of Alice in the annual school play—a stroke of good fortune which puts her obsessive behaviour into dangerous overdrive while at the same time introducing her to sphinx-like drama teacher Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson), a bohemian spirit who embraces artsy kids while looking with disdain upon “horrible normals”. Now suffering from self-inflicted injuries and Wonderland-inspired hallucinations (mom becomes the Red Queen, the insufferable child psychologist morphs into Humpty Dumpty) Phoebe is heading for a great fall and even a final diagnosis may hot put her together again unless she can find her own way through the Looking Glass… Mental illness becomes cloying in Daniel Barnz’s bittersweet child’s-eye drama wherein adults scurry about uselessly (except Miss Dodger who sits still and dispenses Flower Child platitudes) and Lewis Carroll metaphors are ground into the audience’s collective skull. Unabashedly preachy, Barnz has Mrs. Lichten (Felicity Huffman) explain to both Phoebe’s psychologist and us how children are unfairly categorized, and when a little gay classmate is bullied for wanting to play the Red Queen Miss Dodger treats everyone to a sermon on the role of crossdressing in Elizabethan theatre. For her part Elle Fanning avoids looking like a princess headed for rehab, her grounded performance making the most of a trite script while Bailee Madison chews up the scenery as her bratty little sister Olivia. Everyone else seems little more than a paper cut-out character with one note to play especially Campbell Scott as the school’s spineless principal and Madhur Jaffrey as one of Phoebe’s many busybody teachers. Even Patricia Clarkson, an actress I admire, reads the script in a Delphic monotone which gives her pat lines more weight than they actually deserve. A well-meaning drama which jumps in over its head only to wade into the shallows for an abrupt ending which could be taken as either deliberately ambiguous or a sign that Barnz simply ran out of ideas.

(USA 2016) (7): Daniel Radcliffe breaks the Harry Potter mould and loses his English accent to boot in this FBI thriller inspired by an actual case. When a half dozen containers of radioactive material wind up missing outside Washington D.C. the Moslem community goes to the top of the suspect list. But agent Angela Zamparo (Toni Collette) has different ideas. Suspecting something more homegrown she enlists the aid of fellow agent Nate Foster (Radcliffe) whom she convinces to go undercover in order to infiltrate a local chapter of White Supremacists and more specifically the virulently racist online conspiracy theorist Dallas Wolf (Tracy Letts). A true fish out of water, the diminutive and bookish Foster nevertheless dons a convincing skinhead persona—but the more he becomes involved with his targets the deadlier the stakes become… In much the same vein as American History X, director Daniel Ragussis lays open the hate and warped ideology of his subjects. However, unlike X , he goes one step further—humanizing rather than demonizing them thereby rendering their credo all the more repugnant. Backyard potlucks, petty infighting, and dreams of a better life all set in placid suburbia seem perfectly normal until you notice the swastika cupcakes and hear children whispering about “mud people” as if they were bogeymen. Having Foster find a kindred spirit of sorts in Gerry Conway (Sam Trammell)—a devoted family man, accomplished engineer, and cross-burning Nazi who also adores philosophy and classical music—Ragussis suggests there is not such a great gulf dividing “us” from “them”—all it takes is a bit of false rhetoric and a nudge, especially if the unfocused anger is already there. A psychological dissection as much as it is a nail-biting policier, everyone delivers top notch performances especially Radcliffe whose false bravado barely conceals the fact he’s scared to death and a savvy gum-snapping Collette pulling strings in the background while trying to keep him safe. Hulking bear Chris Sullivan also appears as an imposing yet deceptively soft-spoken Aryan brother with a dangerously suspicious streak. Aside from the usual Hollywood embellishments (does no one hear Foster loudly reporting in to the FBI behind that flimsy bathroom door?) Ragussis keeps things well paced and tightly controlled from an undercover greenhorn’s stumbling first attempts to that final dead serious takedown.

Only Angels Have Wings
(USA 1939) (4): In the sleepy Central American seaport of Barranca, ace American pilot Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) is making a go at running an air freight service with a hangar of aging planes and a crew of hotshot wingmen. It’s a dangerous and dirty business but with a lucrative contract up for grabs the rather hard-hearted Carter is willing to risk anything, even his own life as well as the lives of others, in order to remain solvent. But complications arise when traveling cabaret singer Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) finds herself in Barranca with a few hours to kill in between sailings—just enough time to fall madly in love with the callous airman. Further complications ensue in the form of an old flame (Rita Hayworth) who also breezes into town on the arm of her new husband (Richard Barthelmess), a disgraced pilot who’s come looking for a job in Carter’s outfit. And then a tropical storm moves in… Everyone is terribly miscast in Howard Hawks’ turbulent soap opera which never quite falls into a comfortable groove even though he swore every word and ridiculous twist was based on real life events—are we watching a comedy, a tragedy, or a thriller? Grant and Arthur look like they accidentally stumbled out of a George Cukor farce as they alternately spit and spoon; Barthelmess skulks and glares in what has to be a very bad Petter Lorre impression; Hayworth emotes by the numbers; and Oscar winner Thomas Mitchell is reduced to being Grant’s hop-along sidekick. The only saving grace to the whole tedious melodrama is the cinematography and special effects which were both nominated for Academy Awards. Joseph Walker’s aerial sequences are breathtaking for the time, his cameras swooping over jagged peaks or else plunging through roiling fog banks while technical wizard Roy Davidson et al use their skill (and some convincing miniature models) to place you in a rollicking cockpit or make you witness first hand a horrendous plane crash. But despite the combined efforts of these two men the film itself simply limps down the runway before stalling altogether.

The Selfish Giant
(UK 2013) (8): Clio Barnard takes Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale of the same name and turns it inside-out in this drama which juxtaposes bleak social realism with moments of unexpected beauty. Growing up in a dirty Yorkshire town, best friends Arbor and Swifty find some solace in each other’s company. Prone to fits of ADHD which make his school attendance spotty at best, Arbor shares a social housing unit with his violent drug-dealing brother and loving but powerless mother. Swifty’s lot is not much better for his unemployed parents are stuck with too many children and the family furniture is slowly disappearing thanks to the debt collectors who always seem to be knocking at the door. Making a few extra pounds by collecting metal (often illegally) the boys fall in with local scrap dealer “Kitten”, a growling bear of a man with a weakness for race horses and ingrained dislike for children. Recognizing Swifty’s gentle way with horses, Kitten begins to favour him—a situation which the hyperactive Arbor finds intolerable. This growing rift between the boys, coupled with Arbor’s increased neediness and greed (his thieving becoming ever more bold), sets the stage for exploitation and eventual disaster… Barnard elicits performances from her remarkable young leads which ring true on every level. From their quotidian jostling right up to that horrendous climax, Conner Chapman (Arbor) and Shaun Thomas (Swifty) exhibit a streetwise savvy and pathetic naïvety which seem as natural as the abandoned warehouses and rickety apartment blocks that delineate their lives. In the pivotal role of Kitten, Sean Gilder becomes the giant in miniature with a locked gate and snapping dog protecting his garden of rusting metal wherein shady deals are made and youth is corrupted. Yet Barnard still sees a poetic beauty amidst the grime as sheep and horses graze contentedly beneath skies either strewn with stars or laden with grey mist through which cooling towers drift in and out of focus. And running throughout the countryside ubiquitous power lines crackle and hum like an implacable force of nature unto themselves. Even the film’s final tragedy is gentled somewhat into a transformative event which may not lead to Paradise as in Wilde’s tale but at least opens up the possibility of an earthbound deliverance. Beautifully realized and emotionally jarring. A warning however: if you’re not familiar with the Yorkshire dialect be sure to enable the subtitle option.

(USA 2016) (6): In this horror anthology eight directors give their own macabre spin on the old saying “Holidays are Hell” and the resulting shorts—averaging only twelve minutes apiece—are a lukewarm hodgepodge of hits and misses. Ranging from seriously spooky when a woman reunites with her long lost dad in a Father’s Day straight out of H. P. Lovecraft territory, to the amusingly grotesque when a terribly self-conscious psychopath goes on a blind date for New Year’s Eve. In Easter (one of my favourites) an impressionable young girl confuses the eponymous bunny with Zombie Jesus but St. Patrick’s Day disappoints with a story that begins in dark mythology only to end in a camp salute to Benny Hill. A passable comic book of a film with a few jolts and enough twisted humour to keep you from yawning outright, but 1982’s Creepshow did it better.

(USA 2013) (5): When Keller Dover’s little daughter Anna and her best friend Joy Birch go missing right after Thanksgiving it proves devastating to both sets of parents. But when the police let their prime suspect, Alex Jones—a taciturn recluse with the mind of a ten-year old—go free for lack of evidence it causes Keller, already an ardent “survivalist”, to go full throttle vigilante. Kidnapping Alex in order to extract a confession, Keller’s violent zeal eventually infects Joy’s otherwise pacifist parents. Meanwhile Detective Loki, the officer investigating the girls’ disappearance, is facing roadblocks of his own both professional and personal as his inquiries lead him to a defrocked priest, a desiccated corpse, and a hooded stalker with a penchant for petite size fashions… Thanks to Roger Deakins’ Oscar-nominated cinematography Denis Villeneuve’s moody whodunnit at least looks good with leaden skies hailing down sleet and wisps of ice fog drifting through a leafless forest. Unfortunately it all falls apart under the weight of its own gravitas as the director, so eager to convey a message, throws in red herrings, clever-clever clues, and serpentine twists which seem more concerned with highlighting his protagonists’ demons rather than presenting a logical policer. Keller’s bravado is covering up his feelings of impotence; his wife is surrounded by prescription bottles; the Birches’ moral compass is spinning; and Loki is dealing with memories of the childhood trauma he himself suffered. Wow, it seems Anna and Joy are not the only prisoners here and Villeneuve fills every frame with intrusive images of angels and dangling crosses, stately stags and hastily whispered prayers just to make sure we understand there is a spiritual dimension at work beneath all the angry hysterics. As Loki, Jake Gyllenhaal is a conflicted mix of clinical cop and pained participant which never quite rings true while Viola Davis and Terence Howard have better luck as the Birches, their raw suffering providing the film with some much needed ballast. Even Melissa Leo’s small but pivotal role as Alex’s aunt, a woman who has already seen too much pain, is almost enough to fill in a few potholes. But in the role of Keller, Hugh Jackman’s raging ball of male machismo is just too much to bear as he bellows and smashes his fists into whatever is handy—I kept waiting for Wolverine’s knives to sprout from his knuckles. In the end, an otherwise sterling thriller is undone by Jackman's stagy emoting and a string of closing solutions which pushed the envelope a bit too far.

Factory Girl
(USA 2006) (7): Messy and disjointed—much like its subject, apparently—George Hickenlooper’s psychedelic acid-tinged bio tracing the rise and fall of socialite Edie Sedgwick may be factually suspect but it still makes for some fascinating cinema. Leaving the stuffy confines of Radcliffe for the bright lights of New York City circa 1965, oil heiress and bohemian artiste wannabe Edie Sedgwick quickly fell in with a struggling Andy Warhol and company whose unconventional pop art and even more unconventional short films were just starting to break out into mainstream arthouses. Exerting a Svengali-like influence over the naive party-girl, Warhol soon transformed her into an underground superstar whose waifish good looks eventually attracted the attention of fashion maven Diana Vreeland. But Warhol’s hippy trippy tribe also introduced Edie to barbiturates, LSD, and heroin which marked the beginning of her sloppy downfall—an ill-fated affair with a famous folk singer (Bob Dylan’s name is never mentioned due to a threatened lawsuit) providing the final nail. Told in flashbacks from a California halfway house Sedgwick is presented as the archetypal poor little rich girl, surviving abuse and neglect at the hands of her WASP parents only to find exploitation and a moral vacuum amid Manhattan’s “beautiful people”. Flipping from B&W to colours that waver between dirty realism and drug-addled kaleidoscope, Hickenlooper certainly captures something of the beatnik zeitgeist—the bold make-up, dangling accessories, and mod threads all bolstered by an awesome soundtrack. But it’s a veneer of glittering non-conformity barely hiding the despair and emptiness beneath, a paradox perfectly captured by Guy Pearce’s portrayal of Warhol as a man compensating for his own perceived shortcomings through disengagement and cruel cynicism. Hayden Christensen, on the other hand, produces a nasally-voiced caricature of Dylan sporting the harmonica and leather jacket but dispensing little more than vapid platitudes about being “real” and “true”. And why they chose Jimmy Fallon to play Sedgwick’s confidante-cum-social pimp is anyone’s guess. In the end it’s Sienna Miller who outshines everyone playing a terribly needy, terribly lonely young woman who had it all only to lose it in a whirl of narcotics and manic abandon.

The Imposter
(UK 2012) (8): Thirteen-year old Nicholas Barclay disappeared near his San Antonio Texas home in the summer of 1994 and his family spent the next three years trying to figure out what happened. Then, in 1997, they received a call from Spain claiming that a young man matching Nick’s description was found in that country suffering from shock prompting his older sister to board a plane and bring him home. But discrepancies surfaced almost immediately—how could a little boy grow so big in just three years? Why the thick French accent? Why were his blue eyes suddenly brown? Was there any credence to his fantastical stories of torture and sexual abuse? And why was the family, including his own mother, so adamant in ignoring the mounting evidence suggesting little Nick was not who he claimed to be? Bart Layton’s documentary has all the makings of a Hollywood thriller as it delves into a lurid world of lies, mental illness, and emotional manipulation on a grand scale. Through the use of cleverly edited interviews intercut with true-to-life reenactments his whole outrageous house of cards unfolds in tantalizing increments with authorities on both sides of the Atlantic as well as the FBI and American Immigration getting caught up in one family’s ongoing dysfunction. And then, when the camera focuses on the exploits of a private investigator looking into the original cold case, things get even more interesting… Stranger than fiction and completely engrossing.

Out In The Dark
(Israel 2012) (7): Many films have tried to encapsulate the tensions between Israel and Palestine but Michael Mayer reduces them to the story of a cross-border gay romance and the result, while highly watchable, seems a little too facile. When Israeli lawyer Roy meets Palestinian student Nimer in a Tel Aviv gay bar erotic sparks are inevitable for both are personable and eager to improve their stations in life. An affair soon turns into a relationship but the powers that be cast a long, dark, shadow over the pair’s happiness—Roy’s parents have a hard enough time accepting his homosexuality let alone his Arab boyfriend; Nimer must lead a double life between Roy’s apartment in Tel Aviv and his own family in Ramallah lest he be ostracized or worse (his brother Nabil dallies with terrorists); and the Israeli Security Force introduces yet another wedge between the men when they decide the best way to Nabil is through Nimer himself. But whether or not love can scale the wall and conquer generations of mistrust and anger is the question Mayer pursues as his protagonists face conflict from their families, the government, and ultimately each other. Nicely shot along the rooftops and urban sprawl of Tel Aviv with two photogenic leads falling in and out of bed, it’s easy to get caught up in the film’s hard-edged sentimentality. But Mayer propels his story forward by damping down social and political complexities in favour of clearly defined good vs evil choices—Nabil and his cronies stand in for the violent fedayeen while Israeli Security (here shown as one homophobic commander and two hairy goons) are the big bad wolves. Caught up between these two opposing forces Roy and Nimer’s relationship will follow a rocky course indeed. In the end it’s a novel twist on Romeo & Juliet which sheds some sympathetic light into corners Western audiences don’t often see.

Thunder Road
(USA 2018) (8): The film opens with a dapper young policeman in full uniform delivering a eulogy before a modest crowd of mourners. Officer Jim Arnaud’s mother has just passed away and he is having a tough time keeping it together. In fact, as his prepared speech turns into a string of non-sequiturs followed by an impromptu dance routine what starts out looking like a comedic skit turns into something actually quite sad. With his marriage in shambles, the custody of his daughter in question, and his job performance suffering, Arnaud’s life is already going down in flames and mom’s death is merely the final straw for a man whose mental state was already hanging by a thread. Descending into chaos and pathetic outbursts of rage—balanced by the tenderest of moments with his nine-year old daughter Crystal—Arnaud is suffocating in the small Texas town where he was born and raised and now works, and unless something gives soon his impending disintegration will be a sure thing… Triple threat Jim Cummings serves as writer, director, and lead actor in this absorbing drama, based on his earlier short film of the same name, and despite a few rough edges he succeeds admirably. Mixing pathos and edgy ad-libbed humour (there are guilty laughs throughout) his Arnaud is a complicated everyman with a barely contained manic energy giving rise to some revealing monologues and an endearing puppy dog expression that stares with hurt and defiance every time he’s kicked to the curb. A fine supporting cast has Cummings’ back, especially Nican Robinson as his only friend on the Force and Kendal Farr as his sullen yet highly vulnerable daughter, but it is Cummings himself (aided by his own piercing script) that ultimately carries it off. Clean-cut and chockfull of neurotic quirks, his portrayal of a decent man dancing on the edge while critiquing the world around him with fatalistic candour will certainly prove to be a career highlight.

Running with Scissors (USA 2006) (5): How can someone take a dream cast giving their best shot and still churn out such a disjointed mess as this sloppy adaptation of author Augusten Burrough’s sensationalized childhood memoirs? Apparently Ryan Murphy can and the results are disappointing to say the least. Raised by a flakey feminist mother who fancied herself a poet laureate (Annette Bening going beyond neurotic) and an emotionally constricted alcoholic father (an angry monotone Alec Baldwin), Augusten rode out the 70s in a conflicted environment of monied privilege and pathological neglect. But when his parents finally divorced and his increasingly incoherent mother pawned him off to be raised by her eccentric quack of a psychiatrist (Brian Cox doing a comic book Freud), young Augusten’s life took a slide into the surreal. Living like hermits in a rambling hoarder’s paradise of dirty dishes, garish knickknacks and desiccated Christmas trees, Dr. Finch and his shambling drudge of a wife (Jill Clayburgh. Jill Clayburgh??) were raising their two adolescent daughters (Evan Rachel Wood, Gwyneth Paltrow)—one who wanted to watch the world burn, the other who received psychic messages from her cat—while treating a slew of deranged clients including a violent schizophrenic (Joseph Fiennes) who wound up providing Augusten with his first taste of gay sex… And so it goes. There is no faulting the actors here as everyone puts their best foot forward most notably Bening’s perpetual meltdown and Cox’s messianic guru who proudly shows off his masturbation room and dispenses valium as if it were Holy Communion. But much like Tony Richardson’s The Hotel New Hampshire, Murphy’s forced zaniness becomes tiresome very quickly leaving you to wonder how much of his source material is actually based on memories versus cuckoo fantasies. And why are there palm trees and giant phycus growing in New York State? Perhaps Wes Anderson’s dry sense of humour could have salvaged something watchable from all the batty pandemonium but as is it felt like I was watching a movie based on a rather kinky Roald Dahl book. A wonderful soundtrack of 1970s radio hits turns out to be the film’s one saving grace.

We Monsters
(Germany 2015) (8): Paul realizes that his fourteen-year old daughter Sarah is not handling his divorce very well. Full of sullen teenage resentment aimed at both parents (dad forgot her birthday, mom neglected her, both are already seeing other people) she’s been lashing back with cutting remarks and mood swings. But when she confesses to Paul, and later to her mother Christine, that she killed her best friend Charlie in fit of pique, the adults realize there is far more going on than simple growing pains. Trying to hide their daughter’s crime lest that solitary moment of bad judgement destroy her entire life, Paul and Christine’s own judgement falters as their paranoia grows, especially after Charlie’s distraught and not quite stable father comes around asking questions… Things are not always what they seem in Sebastian Ko’s contemporary noir which weaves a very tangled web indeed. As the unhinged parents resort to ever more drastic measures to protect their daughter, Sarah’s continuing emotional lability and pissy tantrums suggest there is something much colder beneath all that adolescent angst—or are we misreading things entirely? Shot with a mixture of harried close-ups and clinically detached long shots in which characters are seen framed by doorways and window panes or else wandering lost through empty fields, Ko keeps the emotional factor running hot and cold even as an ironic track of piano riffs downplays the onscreen tensions he so expertly builds upon. As for the meaning behind the film’s title, it’s a bit of a toss really—for monsters can sometimes be birthed in the strangest of places.

The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales
(France 2017) (8): Patrick Imbert and Benjamin Renner take us back to the old Loony Tunes days in this animated trilogy. As the curtain opens a troupe of barnyard thespians are preparing to entertain us with three short plays starring (among others) Rabbit, Pig, and Duck. After a rocky start—the furry, feathered, leathery actors are not quite ready—act one opens with a lazy stork insisting that the three bumbling protagonists deliver a baby girl to her new parents while he takes some R&R. Act two concerns a hungry but not so bright Fox who “kidnaps” three eggs from a chicken coop only to wind up as a surrogate mother when the newly hatched chicks immediately bond with him. Finally, in act three, believing they’ve accidentally killed Santa Claus Duck and Rabbit (with a long-suffering Pig in tow) don their holiday apparel and take to the rooftops to try and save Christmas—but their good intentions land them in the pound instead. Literally. Delightfully primitive animation rendered in pastel shades calls to mind bedtime storybook illustrations and a cast of energetic voice actors breathe manic life into the little critters with Fox regularly breaking the fourth wall in order to emcee the evening’s festivities. Available in both the original French and a professionally dubbed English version, this is a whole lot of fun with or without kids.

I’ll See You In My Dreams
(USA 2015) (7): After the death of her dear old dog reawakens memories of the husband she lost twenty years earlier, seventy-ish widow Carol Petersen (Blythe Danner proving she still has it) finds little solace in her daily routine—between golfing and playing bridge with her gossipy girlfriends there just isn’t much else to do. And then the unwelcome appearance of a rat in her living room proves to be a catalyst of sorts which leads to a platonic affair of the heart with a much younger man and the possibility of romance with another from her own generation (a smirking, drawling Sam Elliot). With the younger man giving her cause to reflect on her past and the older giving her hope for the future, Carol’s comfortable rut is about to get shaken. But, as they say, life sometimes happens… Life doesn’t exactly begin again in Brett Haley’s warmhearted character study which thankfully avoids all those “second childhood” clichés, rather it receives a gentle reboot in a mature woman who once thought all her happiness was bound up in the funeral urn and old photographs adorning her mantle. Danner brings a sense of dignity and fatalistic wisdom to the role which is beautifully offset by Rhea Perlman, June Squibb, and Mary Kay Place as her female posse—a night of “speed dating” elicits a wry smile which turns to outright laughter when they all decide to try pot again after a forty year hiatus. Free of aging boomer caricatures, patronizing homilies, and tidy endings, Haley’s easygoing script aims for the mind as well as the heart to prove that even one’s sunset years can still contain flashes of sunlight.

The Navigator: A Medieval Odyssey
(Australia/NZ 1988) (8): Like a feverish dream orchestrated by Werner Herzog and David Lynch (and maybe Guy Maddin without the affectation), Vincent Ward’s time travel tale unfolds in tantalizing snippets that only gradually coalesce into a solid story. Opening in a wintry Britain circa 1348 as the Black Death stalks the countryside and peasants cling to superstitious totems, a young boy named Griffin believes his visions of a great cathedral in a great city located on the other side of the world hold the key to saving his village from the encroaching Plague. Carrying offerings of copper and a statue of the Virgin to place in the grand church, a group of village men guided by Griffin and his dreams descend into a nearby mineshaft and begin digging towards this enchanted destination. Their tunnel eventually does lead to a glorious realm of light but it’s not the City of God they arrive at—it’s Aukland, New Zealand in 1988… Shifting between crisp B&W and pastel technicolor, Ward tinges his fantastical tale with just enough magic to soften its outrageous premise. Despite a few comic moments (imagine 14th century peasants trying to cross a freeway or encountering a submarine) this is not a “fish out of water” comedy but rather a grave religious pilgrimage whose underlying sense of the surreal is heightened by a soundtrack of Gregorian chants and rear-projected images of roiling moonlit skies, snow-blasted desolation, and a cackling Angel of Death. As the group desperately searches for Griffin’s Cathedral—they must offer up their supplications before sunrise lest their village perish—Aukland itself is turned into a shimmering hallucination only partly grounded in reality where neon lights shine onto empty streets and a storefront display of television sets is mistaken for a window into Hell. An arthouse curio which waffles between cold focus and flights of impressionism, Ward has created a contemporary medieval myth wherein even an otherwise pat Hollywood ending is transformed into something weighty and mystical.

Train to Busan
(South Korea 2016) (9): A zombie apocalypse suddenly descends upon Korea leaving the passengers aboard a speeding bullet train to fend for themselves when an infected stowaway begins turning commuters into hordes of flesh-eating undead. With their numbers dwindling by the hour (the zombies are stupid but persistent) the survivors must hole up until the train is able to make it to a military stronghold in Busan—but carloads full of ravenous ghouls are not the only obstacle they will have to face… Sang-ho Yeon’s “caboose of the living dead” flick is one helluva ride from the high-speed CGI mayhem to a perfectly cast group of protagonists who run the gamut from clueless frat boys to corporate slimeball to sweet little girl (an amazing turn from ten-year old Su-an Kim). But it’s the zombies that take centre stage with their angry white eyes and impossibly twisted spines as they jerk and dash maniacally on the hunt for blood. Moving like an organic mass, they tumble over each other occasionally cresting into tidal waves of snapping teeth and grisly maws as they overwhelm anything with a pulse. Surprisingly Yeon keeps the gore to a minimum of squirting arteries and torn flesh preferring to imply carnage rather than showcase it and the overall effect puts the creep factor through the ceiling—the image of writhing bodies and sprays of blood silhouetted against an opaque window becomes the stuff of nightmares. Of course there are a few eye-rolling moments common to the genre—why do people stop running at the most inopportune moments?—and a daddy-daughter bonding moment is pure Korean melodrama with gushing tears and slo-mo flashbacks while the orchestra works itself into a frenzy. But these minor drawbacks are lost amidst two hours of delirious chaos as Yeon tightens the tension leaving you to wonder if anyone will make it to the final stop.

Swimming Pool
(France 2003) (8): Charlotte Rampling is superb as Sarah Morton, a rather frigid British crime novelist whose artistic juices are experiencing a bit of a drought. Retreating to her publisher’s lush estate in the south of France for some much needed R&R Morton begins working on her next big novel only to be interrupted by the arrival of Julie, the publisher’s Lolita-like daughter who proceeds to turn Morton’s staid life inside-out. Representing everything Sarah is not, Julie has no qualms about traipsing around the pool naked, flaunting her sexual conquests each night, and leaving a trail of dirty dishes and discarded panties in her wake. Both repulsed by and obsessed with the beautiful young woman—even helping herself to the girl’s secret diary—Morton gradually discovers there is a dark underside to Julie’s partying and before she can even bang out her next chapter the two become involved in a real life crime thriller… Exactly what goes down in François Ozon’s erotic head-scratcher—feminist psychodrama? artist’s allegory? off-kilter whodunnit?—is entirely up to you but with patience and observation it’s sure to be remarkable. In the role of Rampling’s publisher, Charles Dance brings a dominating male presence to the film, a firm thumb under which Morton’s creativity energy must limit itself only to those pursuits which promise to be the most profitable…for him. Yet finding a muse in Julie’s wanton abandon (and nursing a secret envy) is both a liberating experience and a harrowing adventure for the spinsterish Brit who feels her wild exploratory days are long gone. And then there’s Julie’s succession of sex partners, all generic male egos except for the one hunk that puts Sarah’s own libido on simmer. Central to Ozon’s puzzler of course is the enigmatic swimming pool around whose cobalt depths—sometimes murky, sometimes all too clear—the two women spar and share and ultimately transform. If you’re unfamiliar with Ozon’s style this would be a good place to start, if you’re already a fan then welcome home!

Rawhead Rex
(UK 1986) (1): Not even a script by Clive Barker can save this steaming dump of a film, a horror travesty so ridiculously awful that it prompted Barker to take a more active role in any future movies based on his work. With his young family in tow, American archaeologist Howard Hallenbeck is scouring the British Isles looking for material to put in his upcoming book on pre-Christian pagan sites. In a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, they arrive at a small Irish village just as a local farmer unwittingly releases an ancient demon from its subterranean prison and now the monster—nicknamed “Rawhead” and looking like a snarling animatronic Donkey Kong with rabies—is on the prowl searching for souls and human flesh and it’s up to Howard to put it back it its place. George Pavlou’s grand turkey misfires on just about every level from its cheap ass sets, intrusive music, and flat lighting to the creature itself, a slapdash construct of rags and battery-operated rubber mask. No single performance stands out as particularly awful since they’re all terrible, but in the role of Hallenbeck native Californian David Dukes seems to have just one game face to cover every emotion whether it be lust or terror, and he delivers his hokey lines as if reading them from the back of a cereal box. Not one genre cliché is missed either—the cynical police chief wears a fedora and chews cigars, religious gobbledegook is delivered with all seriousness, and there’s a gratuitous titty scene when a woman’s dress mysteriously falls off while she’s being pulled kicking and screaming from an overturned trailer. But it’s the not-particularly-special effects that provided the most entertainment as the technical team uses up a whole box of magic markers to create swirls and laser beams and one helluva superimposed storm. One scene did manage to sum up the whole experience rather nicely—a possessed priest writhes on the ground as Rawhead takes a piss in his face. I know exactly how the poor guy felt.

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.