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 Unknown Woman
(Italy 2006) (5): Newly arrived in Italy from the Ukraine and now employed as an au pair for the wealthy Adacher family, Irina seems determined to turn her life around. Something’s not quite right however for she’s not only working for the Adachers she’s also stalking them, especially their little daughter Thea who happens to be suffering from a rare genetic disorder. Through lurid flashbacks we know Irina was a prostitute for a sex slave ring run by a sadistic pimp, but what is the connection (if any) to this upscale Italian family? And what’s behind her increasingly desperate and bizarre behaviour? On the surface writer/director Giuseppe Tornatore (Cinema Paradiso) fashions a taut psychological thriller whose mounting questions are not answered until the final few minutes when all those flashbacks from Irina’s past finally fall into place. The Ennio Morricone score practically pulses while the crisp editing and attention to darker colours keep things on edge—bystanders are laced with suspicion and the Adacher’s looming condo complex takes on the air of a grim fortress. Unfortunately, beneath the slick presentation it’s a muddled mess relying on implied tension and Irina’s gasping close-ups to convince us into believing it has even darker depths to plumb. Filled with puzzling twists (violent Santas, a stairwell mishap) and too many dangling threads, all of which make sense long after we stop caring one way or another, this is a study in technique over substance with brief flashes of sexual violence meant to garner shocked sympathy yet bordering on exploitation themselves. Lead Kseniya Rappoport does manage to sweat on cue at least, and little Clara Dossena’s acting talents prevent Thea from becoming as insufferable as the script makes her out to be.

The Last Days of Disco
(USA 1998) (9): Set in Manhattan during “the very early eighties”, writer/director Whit Stillman’s cheeky dissection of bourgeois twenty-somethings facing looming adulthood is like a redux of The Big Chill (or parody of The Breakfast Club) aimed at the still clueless tail end of the boomer generation. Against a landscape of glitter balls, disco dust, and herpes, Stillman’s comedy-drama focuses on the travails of recent Ivy League grads and emotional opposites Charlotte and Alice (Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny) currently working as drones at a publishing firm while dreaming about all things bigger and better. An introspective depressive, Alice is constantly upstaged by Charlotte, a tactless narcissist, while around them their ever-changing circle of acquaintances wallow in self-centred pseudo-crises of their own: one man’s pick-up schtick involves pretending to be gay; one is dealing with mental health issues; another’s livelihood depends on being seen at the best clubs. Yet everyone agrees that the biggest social litmus test in New York City is whether or not you can gain admittance to the hottest discotheque in town (unnamed but obviously based on Studio 54), where the arrogant doorman uses his godlike judgement to decide who is beautiful enough and who is not. On the surface, Stillman’s film is little more than a series of ongoing skits involving hook-ups and pointless exchanges (everyone argues over the deeper meaning behind Lady and the Tramp while downing vodka tonics) but surfaces are what it’s all about—from slinky outfits to the fantastical disco itself which pulses with strobe lights and plastic party people. Beckinsale puts in a stellar performance as a glittery predator who doesn’t realize she’s actually prey, while Sevigny’s pensive doormat gives the film its anchor—her introverted gaze taking in everything even if she doesn’t quite understand it all. It takes a great deal of wit to write a script which is so banal yet rings so true and Stillman nails it as his little yuppies banter about everything from bedroom politics to the tenets of the “Me Generation”, condemning shallowness while at the same time splashing about in it. Crisply edited and filled to the rafters with solid gold music, the story begins in Fall and ends in Spring just as the “Disco Sucks” counter-revolution heralds the end of an era and casts everyone into the harsh light of another new reality. Great fun!

Ball of Fire
(USA 1941) (6): After her gangster boyfriend is implicated in a high profile murder case, jive-talking nightclub singer “Sugarpuss” O’Shea (Barbara Stanwyck) eludes police investigators by hiding out in an opulent Manhattan institute staffed by eight eccentric professors busy working on an upcoming encyclopedia. Unaware of her criminal ties one of the eggheads, English major Bertram Potts (Gary Cooper), eagerly soaks up her snappy vocabulary as part of his research into contemporary American slang leading to the usual romantic complications when O’Shea’s sexy demeanour begins to stir his latent hormones at the exact same time her ruthless lover comes looking to reclaim her. With a screenplay by Billy Wilder and director Howard Hawks at the helm I expected more from what has been billed as one of the last “screwball comedies” of Hollywood’s golden era. But despite co-stars like Oskar Homolka as a jovial fellow professor, Dana Andrews as the bad guy, and Dan Duryea as his snivelling henchman there isn’t much to laugh at aside from Stanwyck’s quaintly archaic patois—her Oscar-nominated performance complimenting a cast of doddering academicians and overshadowing Cooper’s relentless monotone. The comparisons to Snow White and the Seven Dwarves were nicely played however although a snide reference to Cooper’s role in Sergeant York would probably fly over most heads. The film ultimately succumbs to too much froth and too many implausible plot devices (what are the chances of that happening?! and that ?!) before it’s all tied up nice and neat with a closing kiss. A rather bland confection.

Rory O’Shea Was Here
[Inside I’m Dancing] (Ireland 2004) (9): It can’t be easy to make a movie in which both protagonists are confined to wheelchairs—one paralyzed except for two fingers on his right hand and the other severely spastic and all but incomprehensible—but in bringing Christian O’Reilly’s novel to the big screen this is exactly what director Damien O’Donnell has done. When twenty-year old Rory O’Shea (James McAvoy) transfers to the “Carrigmore Residential Home for the Disabled” he brings a breath of fresh air—or an ill wind depending on which side of the nurses’ station you occupy. Caustic, rebellious, and possessing a biting wit, he refuses to let his worsening muscular dystrophy define who he is or limit what he can at least attempt if not attain. His unorthodox attitude eventually inspires (corrupts?) Micheal Connolly (Steven Robertson), a young shut-in with cerebral palsy whose garbled speech only Rory can understand without the aid of a cumbersome alphabet board. Convincing Michael to join him on his treks into the big bad outside world, the two eventually secure an accessible apartment together and promptly face their biggest challenge in the form of vivacious club girl Siobhan (Romola Garai) whom they hire to be their personal care assistant. Serving as a catalyst of sorts, Siobhan’s presence in the apartment will cause both men to confront some very discomfiting truths. Although there have been many films revolving around disabled leads, few have succeeded with this much humour and humanity and even fewer actors have attained the level of credibility that McAvoy and Robertson manage to display—McAvoy registering elation or despair with his eyes and Robertson injecting each slurred line and body spasm with emotional intensity. Thankfully, O’Donnell doesn’t even know the meaning of pity as his characters rumble along in their electric chairs, either facing down members of a Benefits Board or blowing a bucket of charity money at a local pub (“It’s funding for the needs of the disabled..” explains Rory to a scandalized Michael, “…I’m disabled and I need a drink”). A warm yet honest look at life as seen from a wheelchair, weaving laughs and tragedy into one of the year’s most unexpected pleasures.

The Disaster Artist
(USA 2017) (8): In 2003 a little indie drama called The Room premiered at a Los Angeles theatre and promptly died a quick and painful death. Cited by some as the Citizen Kane of bad films, it was such a perfectly awful mess that it’s co-star actually wrote a book about how it came to be, a book which director James Franco turned into this Oscar-nominated docudrama (oh sweet irony!) The film was the brainchild of writer/director/producer/leading man Tommy Wiseau, an enigmatic and downright batty auteur who claimed to be from New Orleans but instead resembled Vlad the Impaler with an accent like Bela Lugosi having multiple strokes. Drawing from a seemingly bottomless bank account (the film’s final budget was an estimated six million) Wiseau joined forces with fellow acting school failure Greg Sestero to create what was meant to be a window on his troubled soul (actually a directionless slapdash love triangle of sorts) but instead became a beacon of badness that continues to wow audiences in cultish midnight screenings. Real life brothers James and Dave Franco take the leads—Dave playing it straight as the committed but talentless Greg and director James owning every scene as the wildly flamboyant but equally untalented Tommy—with an impressive cast of A and B-listers taking up the slack (Seth Rogen is particularly good as the production’s bemused script supervisor and de factor director). But much like Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s 1995 paean to bad cinema’s best director, Franco manages to elicit laughs and amazement while at the same time remaining respectful to his subjects—so much so that Wiseau and Sestero actually have walk-on cameos and clips of their film appear over the closing credits. Wiseau’s opus may have been an abysmal and misguided stink bomb, but Franco paints the man himself as one having the passionate soul of an artist even if he is shackled with the creative means of a mere vassal.

The Sand Pebbles
(USA 1966) (9): In revolutionary China of 1926, gruff and iconoclastic naval engineer Jake Holman (Steve McQueen) signs aboard an American gun boat patrolling the country’s backwaters with orders to protect United States citizens. But China is a dangerous patchwork of feuding warlords, communist insurgents, and nationalistic forces gathered under Chiang Kai-Shek—all of whom want yankees to go home, by deadly force if necessary. As Jake’s tour of duty goes from routine to treacherous his self-centred interests and frank racism—he has no love for the native “slope-heads—will be shaken by the attentions of a naïve missionary schoolteacher (Candice Bergen), a fellow sailor (Richard Attenborough) whose ill-fated love for a Chinese prostitute transcends all political divisions, and a ship’s captain (Richard Crenna) whose obsession with duty and honour is in direct contrast to Jake’s cynical survival instincts. Nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, The Sand Pebbles is arguably the capstone of director Robert Wise’s career—reportedly his personal favourite. His three-hour epic is a near perfect melding of widescreen drama and personal tragedy with a suitably grandiose soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith and elaborate sets of old China bustling with coolies and revolutionaries alike (actually filmed in Hong Kong and Taiwan). And Wise keeps the playing field even, for if the natives are restless they have good reason—Western prejudice against the Chinese runs deep while an auction scene at a brothel is still cringeworthy over fifty years later. But the sweep of historical pageantry is overtaken by McQueen, Crenna, and Attenborough, three very different performances which manage to give some perspective to a confusing and tumultuous era. Japanese-American actor Mako received his only Oscar nomination as a shipboard labourer whose innocent zeal gives Holman second thoughts and Attenborough’s timid love interest is played by Emmanuelle Arsan who, ironically, would go on to pen the softcore Emmanuelle franchise. Gripping, disturbing, and ultimately very, very sad.

Le Notti Bianche
[White Nights] (Italy 1957) (8): Luchino Visconti takes Dostoevsky’s story of harsh reality on a collision course with comforting fantasy and places it in an idealized Italian town (actually created within Rome’s famous Cinecittà studios). While making his way home one winter night modest office clerk Mario (Marcello Mastroianni) encounters lovely blonde Natalia (Maria Schell) weeping on a lonely bridge and it’s love at first sight—at least for him, for Natalia’s heart still belongs to the taciturn lover (Jean Marais) who left her a year ago promising to come back and she now holds nightly vigils waiting for his return. Determined to win her over, Mario courts, woos, and even occasionally berates the labile young woman, placing Natalia in the emotionally precarious position of having to choose between a man who is flawed but real and the idealized memories of a man who fails to materialize night after night after night… Trading in his usual neorealism for a dash of the surreal, Visconti sets his film in a fairy tale pop-up book of crumbling brick walls and misty canals spread out beneath snowy midnight skies where bridges become visual metaphors linking old and new, real and imagined, love and longing. Natalia lives in a quiet old building with her ancient aunt, Mario lives in a low-rent hotel bursting with lively chaos; Natalia is content with opera and giallo novels, Mario prefers loud nightclubs and the cinema; lost in romantic reverie, Natalia keeps silent watch for her heart’s desire while Mario is constantly in motion and all too aware of the hookers, pickpockets, and assorted brutes who share the sidewalks. Yet there is a synergy between the two whether they are having a heated argument in the rain or cutting loose on the dance floor (a prolonged scene in a raucous discotheque unfolds like a fever dream). And Mastroianni and Schell give fine performances, his headstrong pragmatism going up against her equally wilful pipe dream. The dialogue may be ponderous at times and Schell’s character often borders on hysteria (she goes from coquette to martyr at the drop of an espresso) but there is a gauzy romantic sheen to the whole production, laced with pathos, which smooths over any rough spots. The Real and the Desired eventually do run into one another, but in Visconti’s hands it’s not so much a crippling crash as a bittersweet ricochet.

(USA 2016) (8): A badly disfigured mercenary with superhuman powers (Ryan Reynolds hovering between leading man and stand-up comedian) must choose between joining the X-Men and becoming a crime-fighting hero or wreaking bloody vengeance on the evil technician (hunky Ed Skrein) who turned him into a mutant and destroyed his burgeoning romance with a sexy fellow mercenary. He chooses the latter. But if you think this is going to be yet another Marvel Comics matinee you’re in for a delightful shock for this very adult send-up of the genre is filled to the gills with kinky sex, spraying guts, and more F-bombs than a Chelsea Handler monologue. Right from the opening scene where cameras slowly revolve around a frozen mid-air tableau of mass carnage while Juice Newton croons “Angel of the Morning” and the credits inform us that the film is directed by “An Overpaid Tool” and stars “God’s Perfect Idiot” you know you’ve already left Green Lantern territory far behind. Ecstatic sequences of violent gore (shot on Vancouver’s own Georgia viaduct with the West End waving in the background) are spiced with hilariously rude, semi-improvised dialogue dripping with sarcasm and geeky in-jokes, Reynolds often breaking that fourth wall to address the audience directly with a wink and smirk behind his spider-man-ish body costume. Co-stars Karan Soni as Deadpool’s cab-driving chauffeur, T. J. Miller as a bitchy bartender, Stefan Kapicic as the voice behind a metallic CGI Russian superhero, and a spry 73-year old Leslie Uggams as Deadpool’s roommate who won’t let blindness prevent her from assembling an IKEA dresser. Be sure to leave the kids at home.

Days of Being Wild
(Hong Kong 1990) (8): Timepieces figure heavily in Wong Kar-wai’s early masterwork about lives adrift in mid-century Hong Kong, yet ironically his main character seems to be trapped inside a temporal bubble of his own making, growing neither older nor wiser. It’s 1960 and sullen Lothario “Yuddy” (the late Leslie Cheung channeling James Dean) has turned seduction into a cruel sport as he expertly woos and beds women only to dump them when they are at their most vulnerable. Breaking the heart of homespun ticket seller Li-zhen (a luminous Maggie Cheung), Yuddy nary blinks an eye before moving on to shrill cabaret dancer Mimi (Carina Lau, all fire and smoke) who ultimately receives the same treatment despite putting up a spirited fight. But despite his cold exterior Yuddy is shouldering his own emotional burden for his adoptive “auntie”, a former high-end courtesan now turned into a lacquered dragon, refuses to grant his singular heartfelt wish—to know the identity of his birth mother—out of fear that he will abandon her as well… Shot in the director’s eclectic style with off kilter cameras either hovering over players or else recording them at oblique angles—one amazing tracking shot zooms down an early morning street and bursts through a doorway before floating up a spiral staircase (kudos to cinematographer Chris Doyle)—Wong’s predilections for bright primary colours and splashes of light even in the grungiest of settings are already well developed. He presents the story in a similarly oblique, quasi-linear fashion. We know it’s one long flashback told from a train as it lumbers through a tropical jungle, but the why and wherefore are only revealed one small drama at a time. A sad tale of displacement, unfulfilled dreams, and hearts past breaking in which images and expressions speak as loudly as the spartan dialogue—Li-zhen’s quiet cry on the shoulder of a sympathetic neighbourhood cop (Andy Lau providing the film with ballast) carrying as much cathartic weight as Mimi’s destructive tantrums. Even the world which encircles Wong’s cast seems neglected and on the verge of decay despite an ironic soundtrack that includes Hawaiian melodies. The editing does get a little jarring towards the end and a final scene seems lifted from a different movie—to be fair it was supposed to be a set-up for an unrealized sequel—but still a wholly unique vision in Asian cinema. Then again, one could say that about most of Wong Kar-wai’s films.

Father and Son
(Russia 2003) (6): In a dusty old apartment in a quaintly crumbling soviet town (actually Lisbon) young adult Alexei lives with his widowed father. The two have grown close—perhaps too much so—and while their familiarity has not exactly bred contempt, it has certainly given rise to an ambivalence which runs hot and cold from physical sparring to tender caresses. “A father’s love crucifies…” blurts Alexei at one point, and it is this ongoing crucifixion that fuels director Aledsandr Sokurov’s sequel to 1997s Mother and Son. In that film a son clings tenaciously to his dying mother, in this virile follow-up a son attempts to let go of a father who refuses to budge. the intensity of the relationship, coupled with the fact that both actors look as if they just stepped off the cover of GQ, caused many to see a homoerotic element at play. Certainly an opening scene showing their two naked bodies entwined lends some credence to that interpretation until our perspective widens and we see that the father is in fact comforting Alexei after a particularly unsettling nightmare—not so much lovers then as an adult and his child. Subsequent close encounters (with or without t-shirts) carry similar overtones of sensuality which are quickly extinguished by the look of defiance in their eyes—competitiveness seems to taint every aspect of their relationship. They are mirror images of one another: Alexei takes interest in a local girl (the only female character of note) while dad contemplates remarrying; each takes his turn strutting and preening about the apartment; and both have army backgrounds (father is a veteran, Alexei a cadet) giving rise to some discomfiting parallels between paternal love and militarism. Impressionistic and suspended somewhere between the real world and a dream state, Sokurov’s film doesn’t provide a straight-up narrative, instead it pieces together a psychological mosaic examining those ties that bind, sometimes too tightly. And he illuminates it all in gauzy ochre light as if the entire world were stalled in a perpetual sunset, images often distorted by windows and severe camera angles or else softened by twilight while variations on Tchaikovsky play in the background. Sadly, despite the film’s striking appearance, Sokurov falls in love with his own vision making for too many drawn out flourishes and a plodding dialogue which may carry more weight in the original Russian. But this is still a solid and soulful look at a young man’s realization that before he can grow into an adult he must first put dad in his proper place.

(Czech Republic 2003) (9): It’s 1942 and although Czechoslovakia is under German occupation medical student Eliska is enjoying a perfect life moonlighting as a nurse and living with the chief surgeon. She and her lover are also active in the underground resistance movement, taking great risks in order to aid the Czech freedom fighters. And then the gestapo discovers their cell and everyone scatters including Eliska who, under an assumed identity, accompanies one of her patients back to his remote mountain village where they are forced to marry in order to keep up appearances. At first desolate in her primitive surroundings (soap is a luxury, as is electricity and plumbing) Eliska gradually settles in thanks to the rustic charm of the locals and the abiding patience of her new husband, an older man whose honesty and simple ways threaten to turn a marriage of convenience into something deeper. But the war is never very far away, a sad fact which Eliska will eventually discover… Nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar, Ondrej Trojan’s wartime pastorale is a low-keyed affair with widescreen shots that linger over rolling hills and pasturelands or else zoom in on the quotidian lives of its subjects—a spirited young girl admonishes her pet goat, a woman miscarries, an old crone enjoys a nip of vodka. Trojan doesn’t cheapen the story with bucolic mush however, for in the midst of this rough hewn Eden there are a few snakes and life can sometimes be harsh, especially for a young woman and her son forced to live with an abusive alcoholic or an impromptu revelry with friendly forces which takes a sour turn once the alcohol starts flowing. Romantic without being saccharine, poignant without being crafty, this is a gentle and very human story whose downplayed final scene carries a well earned sentimentality.

(USA 2018) (6): After Annie Graham’s elderly mother passes away she’s not sure how to react, after all they’d been estranged on and off for years and in her eulogy she describes the old woman as “secretive and suspicious”. Losing herself in her artwork—she builds lifelike dollhouses depicting incidents from her own life—she tries to deal with her repressed grief supported somewhat by her well-meaning husband and two teenaged children: sullen Peter and unnervingly taciturn daughter Charlie. But when tragedy strikes yet again, accompanied by some inexplicable bumps in the night, she begins to suspect that maybe her late mother’s peculiarities ran far deeper than she had ever dreamed of… Writer/director Ari Aster’s freshman opus is a gothic Chinese puzzle box of supernatural jolts and psychological brooding which ultimately tries way too hard to keep us guessing only to cop out in the final reel. As a devilish horror film it revels in stylish tracking shots, subsonic rumblings, and the occasional grotesque flash as it follows Annie’s attempts to solve a maternal mystery that grows murkier with each successive frame. The resulting infernal conspiracy theory is effectively drawn out but never comes close to the stifling paranoia of Polanski’s Rosemary’ Baby. But just to prevent us from drawing premature conclusions the director gilds everything with elements of macabre psychodrama—for madness stalks Annie’s family and the film takes great delight in presenting us with jarring scenarios which may or may not be exactly what they seem. Like Freud’s cigar, sometimes a dollhouse (or treehouse) is just a dollhouse and sometimes it is not. Playing the progressively unhinged Annie, Toni Collette is in fine histrionic form supported by a grounded Gabriel Byrne as her perplexed husband. Alex Wolf is exemplary as Peter, a young man already carrying far too much baggage yet reaching for more while Milly Shapiro personifies creep factor as Charlie, a mannish thirteen-year old with a penchant for doodling and dead things. Finally, as if he felt the need to throw us a lifeline, Aster tosses out several none-too-subtle clues to help slower members of the audience play along (pay attention to Peter’s classroom lectures and grandma’s big box of books for starters). But if Hereditary was meant to provide its audience with food for thought it serves up a very meagre snack indeed.

Pete’s Dragon
(USA 2016) (6): Director David Lowery pours the Disney syrup thick and sticky all over this overtly sentimental reboot of the 1977 non-classic, but he does so with such manipulative skill—not to mention awesome CGI effects—that he manages to keep things just this side of mawkish. Alone in the deep dark woods following a fatal car crash, five-year old Pete is saved from a pack of hungry wolves by a big cuddly green dragon he nicknames “Elliot”. Six years later a semi-feral Pete is discovered by kindly park ranger Grace and her precocious daughter Natalie who reintroduce him to proper society (in Disney terms a happy nuclear family). But with the discovery of Pete, Elliot’s cover is blown prompting an armed posse of loggers to try and hunt him down—unless Pete and Natalie can get to him first of course… Cute cherubs wise beyond their years, doltish authorities who don’t have a clue, and a few grownups who desperately want to believe again (Robert Redford approaching rock bottom as Natalie’s affable grandfather) round out the usual suspects in this kind of production while the loveable fur-covered Elliot hovers somewhere between a slobbering puppy (he chases his own tail and snaps at butterflies!) and a big lime-coloured chesterfield. Thankfully the Pacific Northwest scenery, played by New Zealand, is pretty to look at and the action moves along at a fair clip despite an intrusive orchestral score that insists we laugh or cry at just the right moments. Steadfastly inoffensive (unless you work in the forest industry) with smiles and happy endings all around, this is definitely one for the single-digit age group—after all, who wouldn’t want their very own dragon?!

(USA 1998) (7): Tired of his nowhere life, highschool loner David (Toby Maguire) yearns for the life portrayed in reruns of Pleasantville, an old sitcom poised somewhere between The Donna Reed Show and Leave it to Beaver where mom and dad always dress formally for breakfast, no one goes to the bathroom, and each day is as cloyingly perfect as the day before. He gets his wish one dark and stormy night when he and his bitchy sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) are magically whisked from their suburban California home straight into the B&W world of Pleasantville where they find themselves sporting new identities and a new set of flawless mid-century parents (William H. Macy and Joan Allen). But “pleasant” is a matter of taste and the two 21st century teenagers quickly learn that the good life envisioned by 1950s television is actually an unimaginative place of bland conformity and stifling repetition… Writer/director Gary Ross’ lighthearted dissection of the American Dream then and now certainly earned its Oscar nominations for art direction, costumes, and music which evoke a bygone era that never really existed. Much like The Stepford Wives, the imaginary citizens of Pleasantville are caught in a continuous loop of scripted happiness until David and Jennifer’s arrival turns things topsy-turvy—he teaches the local soda jerk how to innovate, she teaches mom about orgasms—and with each transgression a new dab of colour appears among the black and white giving rise to some impressive digital effects. Although there are definite allusions to McCarthyism and racial segregation as the town’s defiantly monochrome mayor rails against the “coloreds” and their wicked ways, Ross keeps things light for the most part with situational humour derived from the eponymous show’s Ozzie and Harriet mentality: bathroom stalls contain no toilets, a double bed is viewed as an alien obscenity, and the kids’ first breakfast in their new home contains enough fats and sugar to kill a horse. A good-natured lampoon of the suburban fantasyland foisted by Hollywood upon a newly birthed generation of boomers which is also notable for being veteran character actor Don Knott’s last big screen appearance playing, appropriately enough, a mysterious television repairman.

Blood in the Face
(USA 1991) (7): Sometimes the best thing filmmakers can do is sit back and let their subjects sing their own praises, or in the case of documentarians Anne Bohlen, Kevin Rafferty, and James Ridgeway, let them build their own pyre. Released in 1991 and composed mainly of newsreels and rough-hewn interviews garnered from the previous forty years, they shed a bit of wan light into the darker corners of the American Nazi-slash-White Supremacist movement and while the revelations are pretty much what you’d expect they prove to be unsettling just the same. Starting in the 1950s when handsome and charismatic WWII pilot George Lincoln Rockwell began galvanizing the far right with his racist rhetoric (he likened himself as St. Paul to Hitler’s Christ) and culminating in klansman David Duke’s ascension to the Louisiana senate in 1989, the directors substitute a linear timeline with a patchwork of monologues, heated sermons, and off the cuff video shots of the alt right at work and play. A few well polished members give stone-face homilies on the evils of Jews, non-whites, and homosexuals (Rockwell admits many of his members used to be gay themselves…snap!) but for the most part we see marginally employed and marginally educated caucasians consumed with hate dressing up and playing with guns, sometimes with deadly consequences. Hubris competes with paranoia—the movement’s spiritual leaders proclaim their white agenda to be ordained by the Christian god, others warn of Mexicans carrying miniature A-bombs and Viet Cong lurking in the forests of British Columbia—and even though the interviewers (including a young and thankfully quiet Michael Moore) try to elicit coherent arguments, more often than not their participants wind up getting mired in non-facts and bombast before falling flat on their faces. What’s truly chilling however is the number of children in the background looking on with doe-eyed innocence as mom and dad sport swastika armbands and carry on about “queers and niggers”. According to one acolyte, caucasians are the only race capable of blushing with shame which apparently indicates their unique ability to hold the higher moral ground. I guess everyone else will have to be content with simply appreciating irony.

I Am Chris Farley
(USA 2015) (5): Before his death in 1997 at the age of thirty-three corpulent comedian Chris Farley, already enjoying celebrity status from his run on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, was poised for a Hollywood career—but like countless shooting stars before him he succumbed to those temptations which accompany fame and money. In Brent Hodge and Derik Murray’s respectful yet patently lightweight documentary we are familiarized with Farley’s outrageous antics (he liked to expose himself at inopportune moments among other things) but come away knowing precious little about the man behind the characters. Born into a boisterous Wisconsin family, Farley’s brand of hyper-manic humour manifested itself at an early age and eventually led him to a stint in Chicago’s famous Second City improv theatre when he was barely out of college. From there it was SNL and a handful of films which left the critics lukewarm but still gathered a tenacious fan base nevertheless. Unfortunately Hodge and Murray’s stable of talking heads, composed mainly of Chris’ siblings, fellow SNL alumni (Dan Aykroyd, Dana Carvey, David Spade etc.) and guest stars such as Bo Derek and Christina Applegate, gleefully rattle off praise and anecdotes while delicately skirting around Farley’s fatal Achille’s heels: namely a low self-esteem coupled with triple addictions to drugs, alcohol, and overeating. Relying almost solely on a few minutes of home movie footage, a prolonged interview on the David Letterman show, some film and SNL clips, and the aforementioned interviewees who all assure us he was a really cool guy (one former classmate turned priest extols Farley’s hitherto unknown charitable side) the directors offer up a surface sketch of a troubled clown with only the haziest of lines separating substance from facade. I admit to never being a fan of Chris Farley’s brand of noisy slapstick and this documentary failed to move me in either direction.

All the King’s Men
(USA 1949) (8): Director Robert Rossen may not have had Orson Welles’ knack for big screen spectacle but this Oscar-winning riff on a Citizen Kane theme is all the more successful for its lack of embellishments. Fed up with local corruption at City Hall small town dirt farmer Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford, Best Actor) begins a faltering political campaign based on honesty, integrity, and a connection with the common people which eventually wins him the state governorship. But sometimes you have to do evil in order to bring about good, or so Willie convinces himself, and as he slowly falls in love with the sound of his own voice it becomes easier for him to overlook the threats, cover-ups, and crooked deals which got him into power—the same petty graft which originally prompted him to run for office in the first place. Crawford is magnificent as he evolves from soft-spoken hick to growling egotistical demagogue hungry to reshape the world in his own image yet determined to deliver on every grandiose promise even if the means don’t justify the ends. And Rossen’s script (based on Robert Warren Penn’s Pulitzer-winning novel which was loosely based on the real life exploits of a Louisiana senator) carefully catalogues how one man’s slide into moral bankruptcy—paved with the best of intentions of course—ultimately corrupts everyone close to him including idealistic newspaperman Jack Burden (John Ireland) who goes from dutifully reporting the truth to wielding it like a political weapon and a tough-talking campaign manager (Mercedes McCambridge, Best Supporting Actress) whose admiration for the gubernatorial Frankenstein she helped create eventually crosses that thin line. A choppy editing style spiced with whirling campaign trail montages keeps the action moving at a clip and aside from a final frame that flirts with Shakespearean overkill Rossen keeps things grounded and believable—every character seems to struggle with good and evil including Stark’s own upright country wife (Anne Seymour) and resentful son (John Derek). Ironically, only Burden’s thoroughly capitalist stepfather, a most unlikeable cynic, sees the writing on the wall when everyone else is blinded by visions of stars and stripes and apple pie. Staunch Republican John Wayne was originally offered the leading role but turned it down accusing the film of “smearing the machineries of government” and “throwing acid on the American way of life”. Considering some of the White House scandals which came later the Duke’s admonishments ring hollow indeed.

The Cave
(USA 2005) (6): A group of scientists exploring a newly discovered series of giant caves deep beneath the Carpathian mountains are delighted when they stumble upon a strange new ecosystem. Their delight turns to terror however when they become trapped underground and realize they are no longer on top of the food chain… Pretty standard monster fare combining claustrophobic elements from The Descent with biological hocus-pocus from The Thing and 1974s The Bat People, but beautifully filmed nevertheless in subterranean shades of blue and grey lit only by portable lamps and sputtering flares. The underwater sequences (using a 750,000 gallon tank) have you catching your breath while those bogeyman sequences—effectively rendered in manic CGI and slimy prosthetics—do not disappoint. A passable creature feature with a nice little twist at the end.

(USA 1964) (7): Director Jules Dassin spoofs his own masterwork, Rififi, with this lightweight tale of a bumbling British conman working the tourist trade in northern Greece (Peter Ustinov garnering his second Oscar) who finds himself firmly wedged between a ring of international jewel thieves and the Turkish authorities thanks to several misunderstandings and a bit of bad luck. Helping the thieves abscond with a priceless jewel dagger on display in Istanbul’s Topkapi museum, yet simultaneously reporting back to an increasingly paranoid police captain, the hapless huckster must manoeuvre his way through several rocks and hard places. But will his efforts be worth it in the end? An airy little crime caper which may be short on logic but pays out in sheer entertainment for not only is there plenty of onscreen chemistry between players but the planned high-tech heist itself—stealing an artifact under lock and key in an ingeniously boobytrapped room—is so audacious that it served as inspiration for the Mission: Impossible television series. A barely intelligible Melina Mercouri co-stars as the ring’s financial backer (a colourful nymphomaniac with a lust for emeralds) along with Maximillian Schell as the brains behind the operation, Hans Fisher and Gilles Ségal as the brawn, Robert Morley as an eccentric inventor, and character actor Akim Tamiroff ultimately stealing the show as a drunken chef. Good fun all around and the rooftop views of Istanbul are magnificent, as are the ground level views of an oiled up all-male wrestling match…whew!

(USA 1982) (5): In American Graffiti George Lucas immortalized the year 1962 with a tale of friends on the brink of adulthood cruising southern California’s Sunset Strip one last time. Ten years later Barry Levinson tried to play the nostalgia card again, this time set in grungy Baltimore just prior to New Year’s Eve 1959, and the result is a tedious hodgepodge of adolescent ramblings and juvenile pranks that for some mysterious reason still garnered a fair degree of critical acclaim. Five college buddies facing their grown-up years with the usual mix of angst and befuddlement find solace in the local diner where they meet regularly to muse on sex, money, and gossip over burgers and fries. Conveniently sporting one glaring personality flaw apiece (one is a manic slacker, one an oily lothario, one a regretful new husband with OCD, yet another a timid virgin about to be married…you get the idea) the days leading up to 1960 will test both their friendship and individual mettle. Or so you’d hope. Only there isn’t much growing up to do other than the virgin letting loose at a strip club, the lothario developing a budding respect for women, and the married guy realizing his life isn’t so bad after all. The soundtrack of old tunes adds back-up without adding depth (compared to Graffiti whose soundtrack was as vital as any other character) although the period touches are impeccable—those cars! But Levinson leaves too many dangling threads and despite good performances from his cast of future somebodies (Steve Guttenberg, Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Paul Reiser, Ellen Barkin) there simply isn’t enough meat to a script which consists mainly of bullshit sessions, posturing, and the usual animosity between generations with slacker Kevin Bacon’s successful older sibling coming across as an unimaginative stuffed shirt. One scene did impress me however—a couple discussing a dire relationship problem in a television studio are uncannily mirrored by the dialogue between two lovers in an old film being aired at the same time. A rather paltry recommendation but it’s the only thing that stood out in an otherwise pointless and meandering mess.