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

~ ~ ~ ~

(USA 2017) (6): A predictable and almost indecently cloying heart-tugger, Marc Webb’s little Hallmark card of a film is saved by two things: a powerful cast and a script that occasionally trips over its own mawkishness to say something profound. Ever since her mathematical genius mother killed herself Mary Adler (a star turn from Mckenna Grace) has been living in a Florida trailer park with her uncle Frank (an “aw shucks” Chris Evans). Now, at the age of six, Mary has become a precocious math prodigy herself and Frank is determined to give her a normal childhood lest she also become an emotionally damaged academician like her late mother. Enter Frank’s own estranged mother Evelyn, an wealthy and controlling Boston WASP who is equally determined to see her granddaughter achieve her full intellectual potential. With Frank blaming Evelyn for his sister’s death, Evelyn accusing Frank of negligence, and no one listening to Mary, it will take a messy custody battle to sort things out. Or maybe not. Marred by lapses of sentimental treacle (including a ridiculous maternity ward scene and a nod to God set against a glaring sunset) as well as a sobbing violin section hellbent on wresting those tears from our eyes, writer Tom Flynn nevertheless manages to inject a much needed empathy into characters which never quite descend into one-note props. Frank is not the rural hick one expects—although his own sketchy brush with academia is a bit of a plot hole—and Evelyn is not the monstrous all-consuming bitch audiences can delight in hissing at. And Mckenna Grace, bless her little doe-eyed heart, manages to tread that fine line between engaging moppet and insufferable midget, carrying the entire weight of the film in the process. A bit of humour, a couple of clever “oh-no-she-didn’t” retorts, and a warm chemistry between Evans and Grace all serve to make Webb’s quiet film about choices and self-determination appear brighter than it actually is. And that proved good enough for me…but just barely.

Far From Men
(France 2014) (5): In colonial Algeria circa 1954, Dura, a former French soldier now teaching in a remote one-room schoolhouse, is tasked with accompanying an Arab prisoner to the closest police station—a two day hike through mountainous wasteland—where he is to be tried for murder. Reluctant to lead someone to their death yet curious as to why the man accepts his fate so meekly, Dura has no choice but to follow orders. En route the men become entangled with various factions of Algeria’s ongoing civil war, from zealous opposing forces to compassionate prostitutes, and each encounter strengthens the growing bond between them leading to a moral crossroads—literally and figuratively—when they finally reach their destination. Despite rather anemic performances, leads Viggo Mortensen and Reda Kateb do manage to create a simmering onscreen chemistry but the story itself becomes lost amid the monotonous grandeur of parched hills and desert sunsets. Furthermore, a spare script adapted from a short story by Camus isn’t able to ignite much drama while the film’s jaundiced view of how conflict (whether military or cultural) turns allies into enemies and family into strangers has already been done before to much greater effect. The evocative musical score, however, is beautiful.

The Devil and Father Amorth
(USA 2017) (1): Director William Friedkin hits a career low with this trashy piece of reality TV which strives to convince the incurably naive that the fiction he presented in 1973’s The Exorcist actually has a basis in fact. Following Rome’s “official exorcist” Fr. Gabriele Amorth as he casts the devil out of an Italian woman for the ninth time (she keeps getting repossessed) we are first treated to a stagy bit of Catholic voodoo with family members mumbling prayers while the afflicted woman snarls on cue for the handheld camera. “We are legion…!” she screams in a voice reminiscent of Jurassic Park’s velociraptor—and then, as if plagiarizing the bible wasn’t enough, she adds, “She is OURS!” right from pen of William Peter Blatty. But the real insult to intelligence occurs afterwards when Friedkin presents his videotaped “proof” to medical professionals, spoon feeding them exactly what he wants to hear in a shameless montage of bad editing and baseless conclusions. “Demonic possession is a real medical diagnosis!” he crows after a roundtable discussion with psychiatrists even though no one said any such thing…and then he shores up his assertion by interviewing priests and a crackpot demonologist who blames his own depression on too much hobnobbing with Satan. Employing every manipulative trick in the book, from dramatic cutaways to sonic jolts, but falling woefully short on any solid evidence (a dramatic display of devilish telekinesis did occur but we have to take his word for it because it was the one time he left his camera in the car) one gets the impression the only real possession taking place is Friedkin’s obsession with proving himself right. Pure unadulterated bullshit.

Mid-August Lunch
(Italy 2008) (8): Middle-aged bachelor Gianni (real life writer/director Gianni Di Gregorio) shares a cramped two-bedroom flat with his lovably eccentric ninety-year old mother. Always short on cash the two compensate for their somewhat meagre means with love and Gianni’s culinary skills. Now, with Italy’s mid-August holiday approaching and all of Rome preparing to leave for the coast, Gianni’s condo manager makes him an offer he can’t refuse: babysit his own elderly mother while he takes off for the long weekend and he’ll write off Gianni’s three-year backlog of unpaid fees. Reluctantly agreeing to the bargain Gianni and his mom are somewhat perturbed when the man drops both his mother and elderly aunt on their doorstep. And then, to make matters worse, their family doctor talks Gianni into looking after his aging mother as well in payment for all those house calls. Thus burdened with four old women whose demeanours range from mousy to flamboyant, Gianni prepares for a long, hot weekend. Reminiscent of 1990’s The Company of Strangers in structure if not plot, Di Gregorio enlists a cast of personable amateurs to create this beautifully warm-hearted comedy that ever so lightly touches on issues of loneliness and human connection yet still manages to thwart our expectations at every turn. There is no build-up to some shattering climax, no dramatic animosity, and none of his performers lapse into tired clichés like the suffering bachelor or the kooky old lady missing a few marbles. Nor is there any pretension to a script which contents itself with ad libbed banter and home-cooked meals—and wine, lots and lots of wine—Di Gregorio’s cast of elderly women proving that neither age nor acting experience need be deterrents when you have such a lovely story to tell. Ultimately it’s ninety-three year old Valeria De Franciscis, making her screen debut, who steals the show as Gianni’s persnickety mother. With a disarming candour and ability to twist things to her advantage she’s given the best lines and delivers them as if they were her own—and that closet full of loud fashions is pure icing. She went on to make two more films before dying at the age of ninety-nine.

Beasts of No Nation
(USA 2015) (10): When soldiers enter his West African village searching for anti-government guerrillas, young Agu flees into the forest—but not before witnessing half his family being murdered. Eventually falling into the hands of the outlawed guerrillas, he comes under the spell of a fatherly commandant who uses fear, rebel propaganda, and recreational narcotics to turn Agu into a 10-year old killer. But the boy’s lessons don’t end with his first kill (the butchering of an unarmed college student), for the further Agu journeys into the heart of darkness the more he realizes that human corruption runs rampant regardless of which side you profess to fight for. Based on Uzodinma Iweala’s novel, Cary Fukunaga’s shocking drama of one child’s living nightmare actually employed former child soldiers to serve as extras and technical directors making the results nothing less than harrowing. Blood red seems to saturate every other frame—in the dirt, in the lurid sunsets, in gore pooling by an ambushed jeep—and Fukunaga furthers the hellish metaphors with images of black smoke obscuring the sun and fires burning pyre-like between jungle fronds. Meanwhile, in a stroke of irony, every ruined building seems to sport an upbeat mural promoting national pride. “Sun, why are you shining at this world?…” says Agu in one of his many voiceovers, “…I am wanting to catch you in my hands, to squeeze you until you can not shine no more.” A heartbreaking curse coming from a little boy who at the film’s outset was consumed with soccer and playing “Imagination TV” with his friends. Idris Elba outdoes himself as the commandant, a ruthless renegade whose patriotic jingoism barely conceals an underlying psychopathy, but it is newcomer Abraham Attah in the role of Agu who gives the film its visceral sense of tragedy. Going from a babbling preteen to an embittered warrior peering from out of those same young eyes, Attah needs little more than a stare or a dismissive tilt of the head to impart an entire world of hurt while his youthful exuberance, now distilled down to a weary monotone, chronicles the destruction of every innocent dream he ever held dear. “Mother…” he intones prayerfully recalling the last time he saw her face during a frantic evacuation, “…I can only be talking to you now because God is not listening.” Just one of the film’s many moments of agonizing truth.

Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood
(USA 2017) (7): Pushing ninety-one, in failing health, and living like a packrat in a series of cluttered bungalows with his aged wife, Scotty Bowers is hardly the picture of a sexual revolutionary, but in post WWII Los Angeles he was at the epicentre of Hollywood’s big gay closet. Shortly after leaving the Marine Corp in 1945, a young and handsome Scotty began working at a downtown L.A. gas station when a chance encounter—and subsequent tryst—with movie star Walter Pidgeon led to a lucrative career providing male and female sex partners (and oftentimes himself) to Tinseltown’s closeted gay and bisexual elite from Cary Grant and Rock Hudson to Katherine Hepburn and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Not a pimp exactly, his “employees” kept what they made, but rather a master of discreet introductions and provider of safe places for screen idols desperate for unorthodox sex but terrified of being outed and fired by a movie industry which insisted on squeaky clean heterosexual personas for all its stars. A brusque and likeable chap who goes from tearing up while recalling his brother’s death in Iwo Jima to talking candidly about his three-way with Ava Gardner and Lana Turner, some may see Scotty as a freedom fighter of sorts long before the LGBTQ moniker was even invented while others may catch glimpses of something more troubling. Well into turning tricks from the age of twelve (starting with the nice man next door) Bowers scoffs at the notion he was molested. ”No one has ever had their life ruined by a blow-job…” he insists while talking about the string of priests who used to pay him with pocket change, and he is so adamant that you find yourself glossing over these childhood confessions in your eagerness to hear more juicy gossip. Supplemented with talking heads including former hustlers turned pensioners, biographers, and retired industry insiders, as well as ironic clips from old movies and grainy orgy footage, Scotty emerges as an unapologetic renegade from a time when a slight indiscretion could end a career and land you in jail. He did wait until all the big names involved were dead before publishing his tell-all memoir entitled Full Service thereby avoiding embarrassments—and perhaps a lawsuit or three—however one can’t help but wonder about the motives behind his shenanigans. Was he fixing people with dates out of compassion in an age of puritanism as he maintains? Was he compensating for something in his own life? Or was he simply an audacious horndog who swung every which way? All of the above perhaps.

Withnail & I
(UK 1987) (5): Hyped on amphetamines and focused through the bottom of an empty wine bottle, Bruce Robinson’s gonzo buddy movie has found its way onto countless “top” lists and for the life of me I can’t figure out why. It’s 1969 and unemployed, or perhaps unemployable, actors Withnail and his pal Marwood are barely getting by in their threadbare London flat where rats cozy up in the unused oven and a pile of filthy dishes in the kitchen sink is turning into a science experiment. Maniacally theatrical and perpetually soused, Withnail has but one foot in the real world while Marwood, his foil and polar opposite, is a mousy ball of conflicting psychoses. Living but for the day, the two men decide to escape the madness of London and take a vacation at the country cottage of Withnail’s wealthy uncle Monty—himself a failed thespian and raving old queen. But the locals are not exactly friendly and the countryside is a morass of rain and mud (and one horny bull) turning an anticipated escape into just more of the same. And then Monty shows up with romance on his mind… Star performances all around—Richard E. Grant’s Withnail cops every scene with histrionic flourish, Paul McGann’s nerve-wracked Marwood mopes about with tail between legs, and Ralph Brown plays the quintessential space cadet drug dealer mumbling profound inanities with all the solemnity of the Dalai Lama. As uncle Monty however, Richard Griffiths camps it up shamelessly but the image of a mincing perv traipsing half naked into a young man’s bedroom for a bit of sexual assault didn’t sit well with me. Lastly, despite a script laced with acerbic brilliance and unexpected flashes of sad poetry as Marwood’s voiceover reads from an assumed journal, there’s not much substance to latch on to. Culled from Robinson’s own memories of living with a zany actor who eventually drank himself to death perhaps there is a statement somewhere on carefree Bohemians clashing with the “real world”. Or perhaps it’s just an episode of Fear & Loathing in Camden. Either way it struck me as a nihilistic piece of booze-soaked pointlessness.

The Third Murder (Japan 2017) (6): A cynical lawyer is assigned to defend a factory worker who has already confessed to robbing his boss and then brutally murdering him. But the more Shigemori interacts with his taciturn client the more he begins to wonder what really happened that night, for not only does Misumi keep changing his story but his motives (or lack of) keep changing with each new revision. And why does Misumi know more about the case, the murdered man’s family, and his own defense team than he really should? Motives are first and foremost in writer/director Hirokazu Koreeda’s courtroom drama—not so much a policier as it is a rumination on truth, culpability, and that elusive bird we call justice. Everyone, it appears, has an angle to pitch—from the presiding judge right down to the dead man’s crippled daughter—and sifting through the conflicting testimonies and incongruous evidence (while dealing with his own family drama) is causing Shigemori to question whether it’s even possible to arrive at an objective reality which satisfies everyone: cue images of criss-crossing wires and an asphalt intersection. All in all a smart idea bogged down by too much repetition and introspective longueurs that seem to stretch from May to December. In the end we think we know what happened but, like our protagonist, can we ever really be sure? And that is exactly what Koreeda intended all along.

Royal Wedding
(USA 1951) (5): A famous brother-sister dance team (Jane Powell and a much older Fred Astaire) are invited to bring their popular Broadway show to London as part of the festivities leading up to Elizabeth’s wedding. Romantic entanglements follow as she falls for a British Lord (Peter Lawford?) and his confirmed bachelorhood is challenged by a chorus dancer (Sarah Churchill, Winston’s daughter). Loosely based on Astaire’s relationship with his sister Adele, an off-putting script full of corny sentiment and anemic romance is little more than a lifeless vehicle for some sparkling dance sequences including a pas de deux with a coatrack, a duet on a tilting dance floor, and Astaire literally hoofing it up on the walls and ceiling of his hotel room thanks to an elaborate rotating set attached to a fixed camera. The music is largely forgettable however and that glaring technicolor threatens to give you a headache long before the final vows.

Angels Wear White
(China 2017) (8): The sexual assault of two underage girls by a prominent politician in a seaside hotel provides the focal point for Vivian Qu’s angry dissertation on corruption and power imbalance in the new People’s Republic. Following the incident, twelve-year old victim Wen finds herself little more than a pawn in a game larger than she is able to imagine: mom worries about her reputation, the authorities don’t want to rock the boat, and the perpetrator is intent on finding everyone’s price before the courts take notice. Meanwhile sixteen-year old desk clerk Mia, the only witness to the crime, finds herself threatened by an irate boss who wants his hotel kept out of the papers. Everyone it seems has something to either gain or lose except the little girls themselves… Shot with a noirish edge and special attention to faces—angry, despairing, frightened, resolved—Qu pulls no punches while at the same time highlighting how quickly people lose sight of the real crime in their zeal to escape the fallout. The rapist himself is not even seen except in a grainy video, as if his presence is only a backdrop to the real story. Only Wen, Mia, and the female attorney assigned to the case see what’s really happening and they are perhaps the least able to do anything about it. And throughout the film the director scores one visual coup after another whether it be a despondent Wen walking along a beach full of blushing newlyweds or a giant Marilyn Monroe statue gracing a city park like a Goddess of Defiance in blousy skirt and six-foot stilettos. A target for both frightened runaways and petty vandals alike, Monroe’s likeness may ultimately be mere fibreglass and steel but Qu’s striking metaphor makes for a final scene that resounds long after the house lights come on.

State and Main
(France/USA 2000) (6): Having been kicked out of their last location shoot by irate locals, a big Hollywood production company descends upon a quaint Vermont town so “sleepy” it’s almost comatose in order to finish filming their big budget blockbuster. But the mayor’s wife is a social-climbing virago, the film’s star can’t keep it in his pants, and after his fiancée leaves him for the screenwriter a hometown political hopeful decides to teach big business a lesson. David Mamet nips the hand that feeds him in this free-flow skewering of all things Tinseltown which contains the usual characters: oily snake of a producer; heartless director who wheedles and blows smoke up your ass at the same time (William H. Macy); whiny starlet who decides her bare breasts are suddenly worth more (Sarah Jessica Parker); and unscrupulous lothario leading man (Alec Baldwin) who pursues jailbait because “everyone needs a hobby”. But the townsfolk themselves are not exactly the Norman Rockwell hicks they appear to be turning the expected David vs Goliath showdown into something a little more cynical—and just to make sure you get the irony, the movie everyone is trying to wrap up is all about truth and purity. Sadly, despite the lively camerawork and some superb performances—Phillip Seymour Hoffman is great as the guileless screenwriter who finds himself at the inevitable moral crossroad where “art” crosses paths with “profit”—Mamet fails to elicit much energy resulting in some otherwise clever lines that simply fall lifeless. The film is further hampered by a jingly score which sounds as if it were lifted from TV commercials and a pervasive sense of déjà vu because we’ve already seen these L.A. caricatures so many times that the dirt they dish doesn’t even stick anymore. Perhaps the late Robert Altman could have done something with the material but after The Player why would he have bothered?

(Russia 2017) (6): Oleg is a paramedic whose whose fierce, sometimes reckless dedication to the sick and injured too often leads to drinking binges and stretches of depression. His wife Katya is a surgeon at the district hospital where long hours and shift work are also taking their toll. Yet despite the sensitivity they exhibit for the strangers they encounter while on duty, their own marriage is floundering on life support for Katya wants a divorce and Oleg can’t quite figure out why. Saved by powerful performances and low-keyed, almost verité ambulance sequences, Boris Khlebnikov’s clunky melding of E.R. drama with soured romance never really gels into something cohesive. Katya and Oleg’s marriage is in free fall and the medical system in which they work is similarly crumbling thanks to new draconian guidelines from Moscow, but if there is a metaphor to be found here it is mostly lost in translation. Certainly the uphill battle both partners face at work thanks to dwindling resources and official bureaucracy is reflected in Oleg’s personal struggle to save a relationship whose erratic heartbeat grows weaker by the day. But the film seems lost in a continuous loop that sees Oleg alternately drinking and crying, Katya doling out mixed messages as her feelings run hot and cold, and the omnipresent ambulance siren sparking apathy, anger, or despair. Could have been so much better had Khlebnikov connected a few more dots.

And Then There Were None (USA 1945) (8): A grand old whodunnit from the pen of Agatha Christie is translated into a B&W confection by director René Clair. Eight strangers find themselves in a gloomy mansion situated atop a remote island, invited guests of an absent benefactor. Together with a dour maid and butler—the only other people for miles around—they patiently await the arrival of their host, and that’s when the fun begins. Someone on the island has a murderous agenda and as their numbers begin to dwindle (the deaths oddly connected to a children’s rhyme) each guest begins to feel the killer could be sitting right next to them. But what’s the motive? Lots of moody atmosphere with storm clouds and crashing waves outside and creaking corridors within as the body count rises and everyone scrambles to solve the mystery before they’re next. Barry Fitzgerald and Walter Huston are exceptional as a shrewd judge and drunken doctor respectively, while the rest of the cast play their one-dimensional suspects with melodramatic aplomb. Clair doesn’t offer a lot of clues, the red herrings are thankfully kept to a minimum, and the big reveal is saved for the very end. It’s not the solution that matters however, it’s the journey itself which proves to be so much fun!

Finding Dory
(USA 2016) (7): One year after they find Nemo, loveable scatterbrained sidekick Dory has a sudden inspiration to find the parents she lost so long ago. The problem is she is one small fish in a very large ocean and thanks to her memory problems she has trouble recalling what happened five minutes ago let alone a lifetime ago. Nevertheless, accompanied by Nemo and his reluctant dad Marlin, the trio set out on a trans-Pacific trek that will see them chased by giant squid, flopping on a highway, and manoeuvring the water pipes of California’s Marine Life Institute where the recorded voice of Sigourney Weaver welcoming tourists doubles as the voice of God. Lively 3D animation and vibrant primary colours propel the story briskly enough to avoid boring the small fry (a bucket of dead fish makes for a rather macabre scene however) and the humour is advanced enough to make mom and dad chuckle along—the greedy seagulls are here replaced by a grumpy old octopus, a brain-damaged duck (cue indignant letters to Pixar), a mob of cuddly-wuddly otters, and two cockney sea lions. For those so inclined there are tons of animated cameos and tie-ins from Finding Dory to Inside Out and a scene involving Dory, a nearsighted whale shark, and timid beluga whale will remind older audiences of a similar scene from Alien. Ellen DeGeneres reprises the title role with her usual comedic timing and the voices of Albert Brooks, Ed O’Neill, and Eugene Levy (among others) provide capable back-up. Of course you’ll have to stay for the closing credits as the Pixar team tosses out a host of funny snippets while Sia sings “Unforgettable”. Awwww!

The Great Ziegfeld
(USA 1936) (7): One can forgive the cinematic excesses of Robert Z. Leonard’s three-hour biopic spectacular, after all it follows the ups and downs of legendary Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., the creative mind behind the Ziegfeld Follies which wowed live theatre audiences back when motion pictures were still silent. William Powell captures the essence of the man—the egotist, the visionary, and the womanizer (his indiscretions highly sanitized for the big screen)—as he goes from carnival barker hawking “The World’s Strongest Man” to New York mainstay introducing the world to some of its most beautiful women. Frank Morgan co-stars as fellow producer and friendly lifelong nemesis Jack Billings while Myrna Loy, Virginia Bruce, and Luise Rainer play some of the loves in Ziegfeld’s life—Rainer eventually taking home the “Best Actress” Oscar for her stagey portrayal of melancholy French chanteuse—and Mrs. Ziegfeld #1—Anna Held. But the facile plot (rags to riches to rags) is swept aside by a glut of outré musical numbers highlighted by an outrageously camp fashion show and Dennis Morgan crooning “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” in front of a monstrous rotating wedding cake covered with cherubs, chandeliers, two miles of silk, and dozens of cavorting chorus girls. Fanny Brice (the original “Funny Girl”) provides a bit of schtick, Ray Bolger does a tap dance cameo which he would reprise three years later as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, and Eddie Cantor lookalike Buddy Doyle causes contemporary audiences to gasp as he struts about in blackface. It’s a glittery potpourri of fantasy girls and gaudy set designs barely held together by the thinnest of plots and all designed to amaze without actually teaching anything about the man behind the myth. Winning the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1936 it’s a grand old entertainment to be sure, but perhaps it’s a good thing they don’t make them quite like this anymore.

(UK/Italy 1966) (7): The discrepancy between objective truth and that which we perceive as true provides fertile ground for Michelangelo Antonioni’s metaphysical thriller based on Julio Cortázar’s story. Just for a lark, boorish fashion photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) decides to snap a few wide-angle shots of a couple spooning in a city park when the irate woman (Vanessa Redgrave) chases him off only to show up later nervously demanding that he hand over the photos he took. Thomas refuses of course and upon developing the contentious roll of film begins to suspect the lens captured more than a clandestine tryst for as he continues to enlarge the images a deadly crime scene gradually emerges which turns his already piqued curiosity into an obsession. Set in psychedelic-era London Antonioni saturates the screen with crayon colours, jazz records, and long-limbed supermodels decked in outer space glam costumes (iconic 60s covergirl Veruschka makes an impressive cameo writhing seductively on the floor as Hemmings wields his Nikon like an intrusive weapon). Placing his characters against door frames and windows, often with blinds or studio props standing between them and the audience, Antonioni stresses the artifice of Thomas’ world wherein natural elements like blowing tree branches seem out of place, even sinister, when compared to the safety of staged studio shoots. Bookending his film with scenes of a raucous mime troupe creating imaginary havoc only heightens this sense of pseudo-reality while the captured crime itself morphs into an incomprehensible piece of abstract expressionism the more Thomas blows it up. Controversial at the time for its gratuitous nipples and an implied three-way between Thomas and a pair of mod groupies—and bogged down in places by stretches of tedium—this is nevertheless a masterful blending of stylish trappings (now hopelessly “retro”) and philosophical puzzler. Antonioni is not concerned with motives and resolutions but instead poses a conundrum: if the camera—and by association our own senses—never lies, does that mean it always shows the truth?

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.