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


~ ~ ~ ~


Jesus’ Son (USA 1999) (7): It’s Fear & Loathing in Iowa City in Alison Maclean’s screen adaptation of Denis Johnson’s drug-addled short stories set in the early 70’s. Following the exploits of one Midwest down-and-outer affectionately known as “Fuck Head” (Billy Crudup) as he walks through the valley of poverty and addiction, the film’s uneven pacing and incomplete flashbacks effectively mimic his own misfiring memories while the overall tone shifts between poignant, madcap, and uncomfortable sobriety. Falling in with career junkie Michelle (Samantha Morton) whom he meets at farmhouse party, an already marginalized FH soon takes up the needle himself while trying to support the two of them through petty crime and dead and jobs—until a pair of tragedies point him toward the straight and narrow. Aside from a host of clever religious metaphors (a diner window’s stencilled design becomes a crown of thorns; an abandoned Drive-In is mistaken for Calvary; a Mennonite wife models redemption) and a surreal turn in a hospital ER thanks to a whole lot of mushrooms, Maclean eschews psychedelia in favour of harsher reality, albeit softened somewhat by flashes of mordant humour and FH’s stoned voiceover. A pill-popping tale of resurrection—the title comes from Lou Reed’s Heroin—featuring a handful of surprise cameos from the likes of Dennis Hopper playing a rehab inmate, Jack Black as a disorderly orderly, and Holly Hunter as a limping angel of death.

Walk Don’t Run
(USA 1966) (7): Amidst the hubbub and overcrowded conditions of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics two Westerners are forced to become unlikely roommates: millionaire industrialist Sir William Rutland (Cary Grant, suave and silly in equal measure) and the beautiful but overly fastidious fellow ex-pat Christine Easton (Samantha Eggar), a young woman living on her own in Tokyo’s urban jungle. But their highly synchronized platonic arrangement is thrown off kilter when Sir William brings home brusque American athlete Steve Davis (Jim Hutton) and winds up playing cupid to the pair of mismatched youth—for Steve is a confirmed bachelor and Christine is already engaged to an effeminate milquetoast from the British embassy. Charles Walters’ romantic comedy is a highly likeable pile of fluffiness notable for two things—it was actually filmed on location and it was Grant’s final theatrical release. Knowing that his Leading Man days were coming to an end he indulged in some cute self-effacing humour like absent-mindedly humming the themes from a few of his more famous films and registering indignation when the possibility of his character having an intimate relationship with the much younger Eggar never even entered anyone’s mind (“I thought you were just a relative” states one person innocently enough, causing Rutland to scrutinize himself in the closest mirror). For their part Eggar and Hutton do share a bit of onscreen chemistry with her uptight curls complimenting his wrinkled shirt and loafers. Their first tentative caresses manage to turn up the heat a bit without shaking the film’s staunch G-rating while a touch of screwball comedy and some quaint Japanese stereotypes keep the smiles coming. Look for George Takei’s bit role as a bewildered police captain whose feigned accent keeps waffling between Tokyo and downtown Los Angeles.

Murder at the Gallop
(UK 1963) (6): When a wealthy recluse is found dead the coroner determines it was natural causes, but geriatric super sleuth Jane Marple (Margaret Rutherford, bless her) believes otherwise. With only a piece of dried mud for a clue and a cast of the dead man’s eccentric relatives to sift through, Marple will leap upon a horse (side-saddle of course), get freaky on the dance floor, and scale a cartload of beer barrels before finally wheezing out the culprit’s name—but not before the audience has already guessed it. A quaint bit of movie nostalgia lovingly filmed in B&W and featuring a bouncy musical score. Robert Morley and Flora Robson co-star as a pretentious nephew and mousy housekeeper respectively.

Wrong Cops
(France 2013) (5): Outré director Quentin Dupieux scored a cult hit with 2010’s Rubber, an odd one-off about a homicidal car tire terrorizing the American southwest. It was definitely weird but it worked. With Wrong Cops he misses the mark entirely and instead serves up a series of tepid skits that are crass, juvenile, and only occasionally amusing. To a renegade group of Los Angeles police officers breaking the rules is the only rule they obey—drugs, hookers, and armed sexual assault are just a few of the perks they indulge in while wearing the badge. And then officer Duke (who sells dead rats stuffed with dope from the back of his cruiser) accidentally shoots an innocent civilian and spends the rest of the movie trying to dispose of the not-quite-dead-yet body. So much for plot. Featuring a soundtrack of loud techno beats and a who’s who cast of familiar nobodies and forgotten names including Eric Wareheim of Tim & Eric fame as an officer harbouring a dangerous obsession with tits, yesterday’s shock rocker Marilyn Manson (sans greasepaint and contact lenses) as a goth dweeb, and Eric Roberts (huh?!) as a director or something, this should have been funnier than it was. But the script is too lazy to actually shock much and there’s a pervasive sense of actors self-consciously waiting out the clock so they can scratch this one off their resumés. Even viewers with an already skewed sense of humour will find it hard to maintain a smile while those with a particularly low melting point will be offended into a coma.

The Woman in the Window
(USA 1944) (8): Edward G. Robinson and Joan Bennett are dynamite together in this tense drama from Fritz Lang. He goes against type as a mild-mannered college professor facing a midlife crisis who has an affair of the heart with an artist’s model. But even though their evening begins innocently enough with a few drinks and a laugh or two, it abruptly ends in tragedy as both professor and model are plunged into a nightmare of murder and blackmail. And to make matters worse, the District Attorney investigating the case (Canada’s own Raymond Massey) just happens to be one of the professor’s closest friends. With Robinson and Bennett trying to cover their tracks and Massey closing in for the kill, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will come out ahead. From its evocative musical score and sharp B&W cinematography to Lang’s obsession with details (Massey sniffs out the smallest clues while Robinson makes ham-fisted attempts to conceal them) this is quintessential noir made all the more enjoyable by it’s two leads—their shared sense of angst evident in every look and gesture. So masterful is Lang’s touch that one can even forgive the film’s cornball ending, a pat resolution that leaves everyone satisfied even though the joke’s on us.

Venus in Fur
(France 2013) (8): Roman Polanski still has it as evidenced by this wickedly clever play-within-a-play (based on David Ives’ Broadway production) which observes, dissects, and ultimately trashes the the power imbalance between men and women—politically, institutionally, and (zing!) sexually. It’s 2 a.m. and beleaguered playwright Thomas (Polanski lookalike Mathieu Amalric) paces an empty Paris stage frustrated over his inability to find a female lead for his upcoming production—an adaptation of a 19th century Austrian novel about Severin, a timid professor, who enters into a sadomasochistic relationship with Vanda, a demure young woman with whom he’s become obsessed. Suddenly the theatre door opens and in walks a haggard actress, coincidentally also named Vanda (Mrs. Polanski, Emmanuelle Seigner), who begs for a chance to audition despite the late hour and her disheveled appearance. Against his better judgement Thomas gives her a shot—she comes curiously well-prepared—with himself reading the lines of Severin. And that’s when the tables begin to turn. Vanda, both in and out of character, starts challenging Thomas-slash-Severin over the source material’s inherent sexism as well as its demonization of women. She asserts it’s porn, he declares it a masterpiece of Western literature. She states that even as Severin is dominated he still controls Vanda, he offers up weak denials. And as the two walk through their lines an S&M game of cat-and-mouse ensues with Vanda tugging at the reins while Thomas the Director tries to maintain control even as his character suffers one humiliation after another. A comedy for sure, but one bursting with indignation and social savvy. Polanski’s arsenal of cinematic bullets always seem to find their mark—a storm rages outside the theatre; Thomas’ cellphone goes off at just the right moments with it’s “Ride of the Valkyries” ringtone; and a wooden cactus thrusts phallically towards heaven (a leftover prop from the theatre’s previous production of “Stagecoach”)—but it is the verbal sparring between Vanda/Vanda and Thomas/Severin that takes centre stage. The two circle each other like shark and prey, their ongoing animosity eventually culminating in a deliriously over-the-top piece of stagecraft that only Polanski could have pulled off. A two-handed game of sexual poker directed with consummate skill and played out by a pair of leads whose onscreen chemistry practically sizzles.

Reprise
(Norway 2006) (8): A breath of French New Wave blows through Joachim Trier’s remarkable first feature about two childhood friends facing the vagaries of adulthood together. Millennials Phillip and Erik are both aspiring writers, in fact they not only finish their first manuscripts at the same time but they mail them off to the publisher the very same day. Phillip gets a book deal, Erik gets a rejection slip, and the ripples from that will alter their friendship and their lives forever. Or will it? Using a loose editing structure that flashes backwards, forwards, and even sideways in time, the film’s brief episodic segments form a narrative collage of sorts with an offscreen narrator smoothing out the blank spots by revealing characters’ thoughts and predicting possible futures. It’s a low-keyed game of “What If” as the story strives to constantly rewrite itself—Phillip’s newfound celebrity puts him at odds with his girlfriend and lands him in a psychiatric ward while Erik flounders in his search for artistic integrity, but what if things had taken a slightly different turn? Comparisons to 1998’s Run Lola Run are inevitable but whereas Tykwer concentrated on alternate realities Trier is more concerned with altering perceptions as his two protagonists and their circle of friends struggle with issues of obsession (the trials of romance figure heavily); authenticity (one friend goes from punk rocker to corporate shill), and truth in a word which seems to redefine the term daily. It’s a savvy look at two young men in search of an identity that also addresses responsibility, wishful thinking, and that fine line which flickers between mental illness and the creative soul. Think of it as The Big Chill for a generation barely out of their teens.

Little Boy
(Mexico 2015) (3): Comic book fantasy is confused with religious faith in Alejandro Monteverde’s WWII fable, an English language confection so oppressively saccharine it’s like drowning in corn syrup while being beaten about the head with a Sunday School primer. Growing up in the seaside town of O’Hare, California, diminutive milquetoast Pepper Busbee—nicknamed “Little Boy” because of his size—has but one friend in the whole world, his doting father. But when dad joins the army and is sent to the South Pacific Pepper is left to face the town bullies on his own—his martyred mother and hotheaded brother too caught up in their own problems to render much assistance. And then two substitute father figures enter his life—a Hollywood magician and a Catholic priest—leaving him convinced that he not only possesses the power to literally move mountains but by sheer force of will alone he can also vanquish his schoolyard foes, end the war, and bring his father home in one piece. First, however, he must work his way through Father Oliver’s list of mystical Christian virtues which includes feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and befriending local Asian Mr. Hashimoto, newly released from a government internment camp and the focus of everyone’s wartime xenophobic zeal… Monteverde piles on so many hackneyed coincidences and emotional manipulations it’s difficult to pinpoint his film’s weakest link. As the perpetually dew-eyed moppet, Jakob Salvati does have a few shining moments but his character is so relentlessly precious you don’t know whether to pat him on the head or strangle him. Michael Rapaport doesn’t fare much better as Pepper’s dad, his portrayal hovering somewhere between grownup man-child and loveable St. Bernard. Only Emily Watson (mom) and Tom Wilkinson (priest) are particularly noteworthy but their talents are largely wasted on a script dripping with pathos and treacle. Then there’s the quaint cinematography, looking like sun-dappled Norman Rockwell prints, which promises nostalgic depth but delivers period bric-a-brac instead especially when coupled with a forced whimsy that obviously aims for Wes Anderson territory. Ultimately it’s the story’s sketchy sense of morality that left me scratching my head—Mr. Hashimoto’s mistreatment is frowned upon yet the destruction of Hiroshima is cause for cake and lemonade as the townsfolk rally around a beaming Pepper who somehow links the mushroom cloud with his ersatz superpowers (google “Little Boy WWII”). The final nail however has to be the film’s patently ludicrous ending, a scene so full of gushing sunshine and bullshit it would even cause Steven Spielberg to hurl his lunch.

Jerichow
(Germany 2008) (6): Fresh from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, veteran Thomas (Benno Fürmann) is in desperate need of a job. His luck changes when he accidentally crosses paths with Ali (Hilmi Sözer), a Turkish businessman who just lost his license thanks to yet another drunk driving conviction. Hired as a makeshift chauffeur, Thomas gradually earns the gruff man’s trust—and then he falls for Ali’s German wife Laura (Nina Hoss) who responds to his advances with equal ardour. But the would be lovers have a few hurdles to clear for Laura is carrying some serious baggage and Ali is a fiercely jealous husband who is not as naïve as he appears to be… Aside from Sözer’s fiery performance, writer/Director Christian Petzold’s contemporary spin on The Postman Always Rings Twice is wanting when it comes to sensuality and passion. Fürmann and Hoss certainly make a handsome couple but their clandestine embraces are overly rehearsed and any sense of erotic tension is only skin deep. Their affair seems rushed as Petzold tries to cram too many emotions into too small a space and the film’s resolution is almost comical in its patness. But there’s a hip vibe to Hans Fromm’s washed-out cinematography and Petzold’s terse script, both of which keep viewers at arm’s length. A stylish bit of noir-lite bolstered by Sözer’s heartfelt pain and hampered by an overall sense of detachment.

Leap Year
(Mexico 2010) (8): Michael Rowe’s jarring portrait of a woman on the verge garnered him the coveted “Golden Camera” award at Cannes, and rightfully so. Laura is a young journalist newly arrived in Mexico City from her hometown of Oaxaca. Somewhat plain and mousy, her life doesn’t seem to consist of much: during the day when she’s not banging out articles on her laptop she’s spying on her neighbours—sometimes masturbating, sometimes simply puffing absently on a cigarette. In the evenings she engages in a series of pathetic one-night stands which leave her feeling even more lonely and insignificant. “I’m so happy!” she assures her mother and brother over the phone as she fabricates stories about all the friends she has, and with each lie you realize that her isolation borders on the pathological. And then she brings home Arturo, a man whose taste for degrading and often violent sadomasochism strikes a dangerous nerve in Laura’s already frail ego… Filmed entirely within the confines of Laura’s small apartment, Rowe elicits bold performances from his small cast, especially lead actress Monica Del Carmen who timidly bares every inch of her body and soul—even a lone cockroach shambles across the floor as if on cue. Not addressing the root of Laura’s self-implosion directly he instead offers audiences just enough metaphorical clues to arrive at an answer by themselves—Laura’s curious obsession with a wall calendar; an offhand post-coital comment; an old razor; and seemingly random artwork including a living room poster which, in retrospect, speaks loudest of all. With stretches of tedious quotidian rituals punctuated by glaring passages of transgressive sex this is definitely not a film for everyone although I personally wouldn’t have trimmed one minute off it’s running time. Discomfiting yet strangely anesthetizing (Laura’s life in and out of the bedroom is portrayed with mechanical precision) Rowe’s indecently honest psychodrama starts off nondescript then gradually builds toward a finale of pure raw catharsis. A remarkable first feature.

Undercurrent
(USA 1946) (5): Swept off her feet and hastily wed by wealthy Washington industrialist Alan Garroway (Robert Taylor), bright yet naïve Ann Hamilton (Katherine Hepburn) discovers trying to fit into high society a harrowing experience. But finding the right ballgown is nothing compared to her creeping suspicions that Alan is not quite the gentle soul he appears to be. What’s behind his sudden angry outbursts? Why is he so obsessed with his long lost brother? And is there any truth to those deadly accusations made against him by society hostess Sylvia Burton (Jayne Meadows in her screen debut)? Determined to find the truth, Ann is ill-prepared for the terrible answers to her questions. And so is the audience. What starts out as a noirish thriller swiftly becomes a turgid soap opera full of unlikely revelations, ridiculous twists, and the type of ham-fisted performances one would not expect from the likes of Hepburn and Taylor. The talents of co-stars Robert Mitchum, Marjorie Main, and Edmund Gwenn are similarly wasted. At least the music is pleasant (André Previn served as supervisor) and the B&W cinematography sparkles all the way from D.C. to S.F.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
(USA 1963) (7): After his speeding car careens off the road an old man (Jimmy Durante!) makes a dying confession to the ragtag group of motorists who’ve stopped to help him: he’s buried a small fortune somewhere in southern California and it’s all there for whoever finds it first. With only a few enigmatic clues to guide them the five would-be Samaritans at first agree to search for the treasure together, then greed rears its ugly head and it’s suddenly every man (and wife and mother-in-law) for themselves as cars, bicycles, and even an airplane or two are commandeered in a mad cross-country rush to uncover the loot. Essentially a 154-minute car chase, Stanley Kramer’s high-speed comedy is notable for two things: it’s Oscar-winning special effects and a dream cast of big name comics and character actors, many of whom were content to simply make a brief onscreen cameo. Made before the era of CGI effects the intricate highway sequences and aerial acrobatics are still a wonder to behold with cars, trucks, and taxis soaring over curbs or spinning doughnuts along mountain roads while an airplane flies through a billboard before looping under a hangar—and it’s all presented in widescreen “Super Panavision” (Cinerama’s cheaper cousin). Of course it’s just fluff and silliness, like a big-budget retro version of television’s Amazing Race, but that cast makes it all worthwhile—Milton Berle as a husband pecked to death by his wife’s shrewish mother (Ethel Merman sporting a voice that never dips below 100 decibels); Sid Caesar as a resourceful dentist cursed with skewed luck; Micky Rooney and Buddy Hackett as mismatched buddies; Jonathan Winters as a thick-headed trucker; Spencer Tracy as a dogged detective; Phil Silvers as a johnny-come-lately…and surprise walk-ons from the likes of Jack Benny, Don Knotts, and Buster Keaton just to name three. Similar undertakings have been tried since, but as a grand old comedy ensemble piece Mad World still sets the standard.

The Return of the Soldier
(UK 1982) (7): Shellshocked following a traumatic experience on the battlefields of WWI France, Captain Chris Baldry (Alan Bates) returns to his sprawling English estate with a severe case of amnesia which has wiped out all his memories from the past twenty years. Greeting his trophy wife Kitty (Julie Christie) as he would a stranger, Chris is now a happy-go-lucky twenty-something youth in the body of a middle-aged man who still believes he is wooing his childhood sweetheart Margaret (Glenda Jackson), a woman far beneath his social standing who is herself long married and pushing fifty. Thus an uneasy triangle of affection is set up with Chris pursuing a dead romance as if he and Margaret had only parted yesterday, Margaret rekindling feelings she forgot she had—much to the discomfort of her own loving husband—and the spiteful Kitty consumed by jealousy and desperate to reinstate the status quo of her privileged lifestyle…but first she must find a way to restore Chris’ lost memory. Filmed in shades of sunshine and golden candlelight with sets that range from the Baldry’s art nouveau manor house to Margaret’s modest country cottage, director Alan Bridges’ bittersweet epic only rarely lapses into maudlin territory—an opening dream sequence goes on far too long and a closing revelation is a little too pat and rushed. These are minor distractions however considering the film’s highly literate script (adapted from Rebeccas West’s 1918 novel) and moving performances from it’s three stars—Ann-Margret is also impressive as Chris’ cousin Jenny, a browbeaten spinster carrying a forbidden torch of her own. There are several bald allusions to class distinction, notably in Kitty’s disdain for Margaret’s threadbare wardrobe and humble address, but it is the central dilemma which focuses our attention. Is it better to let someone live a blissful lie or reorient them to a reality which will destroy their every chance at happiness, for Chris’ amnesia is not only masking a war-related trauma but a very personal tragedy as well. Lush and heartbreaking, with a pervasive sense of longing that tinges everything with melancholy.

The Guard
(Ireland 2011) (7): The Irish penchant for political incorrectness is dark indeed in John Michael McDonagh’s comedic policier set in a small backwater on Ireland’s west coast. Full of piss and tall tales, local police sergeant Gerry Boyle (national treasure Brendan Gleeson) is not above taking an occasional snort or indulging his kink for buxom prostitutes—sometimes two at a time. But when a ruthless international drug smuggling operation comes to town and he finds himself having to work with black FBI agent Wendell Everett (Done Cheadle), his caustic humour and irritating peccadilloes not only jeopardize the operation but put him at odds with Everett who is already feeling like a fish out of water among the bizarre Gaelic-speaking locals. Muddy waters run deep however and Boyle may not be quite the country blockhead he appears to be… Shot through with trenchant wit delivered in a barely comprehensible brogue and a few uncomfortably funny scenes (no sense letting a stray hit of Ecstasy go to waste even if it just rolled out of a dead motorist’s pocket), McDonagh’s humour is definitely aimed at a hometown audience: Englishmen are the butt of frequent wisecracks, “big city” Dubliners don’t fare much better, and the oddball townsfolk are clearly punchlines to jokes North Americans would never understand—even a farmer’s white mare gets in on the act. Despite all that there is still more than enough funny stuff here to keep everyone smiling and enough tension to keep you on your toes right up to that sly final twist.

The Danish Girl
(UK 2015) (6): Taken from David Ebershoff’s book, Tom Hooper’s somewhat histrionic biopic of Lili Elvenes who, in 1920’s Denmark, became one of the first transgendered women to undergo reassignment surgery is apparently so full of fabrications and crucial omissions that it may as well be fiction. Born Einar Wegener, a landscape artist of some note, Lili first began experimenting with crossdressing while married to portrait painter Gerda Gottlieb. At first willing to accept what she believed to be an eccentric kink, Gerda soon had to acknowledge that “Einar” had been nothing more than a cover as Lili began to emerge and assert herself. Cut to a succession of doctors, all of whom regarded Einar as one form of abomination or another thus prescribing everything from straitjackets to radiation therapy, until pioneering Dresden surgeon Kurt Warnekros offered the Wegeners the ray of hope they had been looking for…but not without some risk. Eddie Redmayne’s porcelain features and quiet voice are convincingly feminine as he undergoes the transformation from shy Einar to demure Lili and Oscar winner Alicia Vikander’s portrayal of Gerda is a fiery mix of devotion, jealousy, and unrequited love (for some reason her overt lesbianism was glossed over for the big screen). But the idea of battling personalities vying for Wegener’s soul threaten to turn the production into a queer take on The Three Faces of Eve (or The Exorcist ) and Hooper subjects his audience to a few too many tear-filled confrontations with handwringing and tortured gazes all around. She may not have been the first, but the story of Lili Elvenes (or Lili Elbe in the film) is nevertheless an important chapter in the history of transgendered people, unfortunately Hooper irons out the complexities of her situation and turns the whole thing into a highly polished period drama with an “inspirational” ending that’s pure treacle.

Theeb
(Jordan 2014) (7): Naji Abu Nowar’s “Bedouin Western” was Jordan’s official entry for Best Picture Oscar, the first such submission from that country. Set in the Ottoman province of Hijaz during WWI, it tells the story of Theeb (“Wolf”) a young boy who accompanies his older brother as he guides an English cavalryman to a secret military destination along the pilgrims’ route to Mecca. Beset by bandits along the way, Theeb suddenly finds himself stranded in a hostile environment of soaring temperatures and wild animals—his only companion an injured bandit who may or may not help him. Both a coming of age story and a political allegory, Nowar’s spare yet beautiful film features a cast of impressive amateurs wandering through some of Jordan’s most austere desert landscapes (the same region stood in for the surface of Mars in Ridley Scott’s The Martian). Torn between revenge and mutual need, Theeb’s journey with the thief introduces the boy to a world he never knew existed, where political intrigues and shifting technologies are as foreign to him as the distant sea he’s only heard about—to his young mind the mysterious Turks are more concept than reality and a locomotive is an unimaginable wonder. But trains are beginning to take over the much venerated pilgrims’ route and their steel rails have already started replacing camel tracks thus altering an entire culture. First and foremost however this is a wasteland road movie seen through the eyes of a youth whose own innocence is as fragile as the way of life he’s only just come to know.

Hell is for Heroes
(USA 1962) (6): Don Siegel’s modestly budgeted WWII flick pits a host of character actors against a backdrop of cheesy special effects, yet it nevertheless manages to pique your interest right up to its rather abrupt ending (apparently forced upon the production crew when Paramount Studios refused to sign yet another cheque). Six American GI’s are given the impossible task of guarding a stretch of French countryside against a German division which clearly outnumbers and outguns them. Until backup can arrive the men are forced to use their wits in order to keep the enemy at bay, but with nerves already near the breaking point the odds at success are becoming increasingly grim. A clunky mixture of soundstage sets, northern California shoots, and mismatched stock footage, Siegel’s film has gone on to achieve something of a cult status thanks in large part to a motley cast which includes singer Bobby Darin as an army packrat, comedian Bob Newhart as a nerdy clerk (doing his famous telephone schtick), and Steve McQueen as the brooding, truculent anti-hero—rumour has it his misanthropy carried on offscreen as well. But it’s television’s Nick Adams (Johnny Yuma in The Rebel) who out-hams them all as a Polish national eager to please Uncle Sam. A flawed but engaging departure from the usual guts’n glory big screen epics. James Coburn and Daniel Boone’s Fess Parker also star.

Faust: A German Folk Legend
(Germany 1926) (7): F. W. Murnau’s screen adaptation of Goethe’s defining work is a phantasmagorical mix of high tragedy and dark expressionism whose eroticism and flashes of nudity were quite daring for the time. As the Plague ravages his medieval town the scholarly Dr. Faust becomes increasingly despondent when Heaven appears to turn a deaf ear to his fervent prayers for a cure. Enter Mephisto, a cunning envoy from Hell who offers Faust eternal youth and all the power in the world in exchange for his immortal soul. Eager to alleviate the suffering around him, the good doctor agrees to the demon’s terms and turns his back on God. But as the saying goes: “The devil is in the details”, and Faust’s good intentions quickly backfire as Mephisto’s treachery plays on his vanity, leading him down a path filled with corruption and wickedness—for the doctor is merely a pawn between God and Satan who have made a secret wager over whether or not the powers of Hell can corrupt a mortal man’s soul. With an unlimited budget and a crew of cinematic visionaries, Murnau’s silent masterpiece alternates scenes of domestic tranquility with horror and heart-rending sorrow—a leering devil spreads his wings over the spires of a sleeping village while a woman cradles her dying infant and smiling children weave garlands of daisies unaware of the evil set to pounce upon them. With his open face reflecting an aura of melancholy Gösta Ekman is perfectly cast as the betrayed Faust—playing him as both a grizzled senior and doe-eyed young man—while Camilla Horn has you reaching for the tissues in her role of Gretchen, an innocent virgin despoiled by Faust’s unchecked libido. But it is screen legend Emil Jannings who ultimately owns the film, his portrayal of the impish Mephisto a master class in fawning seduction and diabolical guile. A tad long at almost two hours and with a few narrative detours that were unnecessarily padded, this is still a sterling example of pioneer cinema before the advent of CGI, Technicolor, and Dolby Surround.

Father Goose
(USA 1964) (6): Despite garnering an Oscar for best screenplay, Ralph Nelson’s jungle comedy of manners featuring two mismatched adults and a troop of precocious kids turns out to be not much more than a mildly amusing and wholly predictable romp in a Walt Disney vein. In the middle of WWII irascible American opportunist Walter Eckland (Cary Grant) is reluctantly inducted by the Australian Navy to serve as a civilian “spotter” on an uninhabited South Pacific island. With nothing but primitive amenities (including a case of his beloved whisky) and a short wave radio, his job is to report on any Japanese activity in the area. Already at odds with the commander who shanghaied him into “volunteering’ for this position as well as his effeminate aide (Trevor Howard, Jack Good), Eckland’s frayed nerves are further stretched when he suddenly has to share the island with a teetotaling teacher (Leslie Caron) and her seven impressionable schoolgirls who were abandoned when their pilot was called away to assist with military duties. Now, no longer able to drink, swear, or walk around in his underwear, and with the chances of rescue becoming unlikely as the war heats up, it’s only a matter of time before Eckland and the professor come to verbal blows. Meanwhile, the Japanese fleet is practically knocking at their backdoor… Grant’s hard-drinking, amoral charmer is the film’s only highlight thanks to his star power and several good lines of script but he shares no screen chemistry whatsoever with Caron whose prim and proper professor quickly becomes tedious—and those bratty moppets grate on you almost from the very first scene. Of course he cools down, she warms up, and the girls become more adorable with every Japanese fly-by while Howard’s pragmatic, slightly acerbic radio presence gives the entire production its only adult voice. Not exactly “fun for the whole family” but at least it won’t shock the grandparents.

The American Friend
(West Germany 1977) (5): Less pretentious than Wings of Desire but just as meandering, Wim Wenders’ stab at “noir lite” is a road movie without a map, a buddy flick without any friends, and a gangster film with no good guys in sight. German picture framer Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz in his first big role) is peripherally involved with an art forgery ring that stretches from Hamburg to New York City. He is also dying from an unnamed blood disorder and fears that he will leave his wife and child destitute. Enter American friend and ringleader Tom Ripley (a wooden Dennis Hopper) who inadvertently lands Jonathan a lucrative job as a hitman for a French mobster. Initially horrified at the prospect of killing another human being, a desperate and increasingly fatalistic Jonathan eventually warms up to the task—albeit with some degree of ineptitude—causing Ripley to become both his mentor and guardian angel. Nicely lit and tinted (apparently Wenders and cinematographer Robby Müller were inspired by American painter Edward Hopper) The American Friend is definitely appealing to the eye and aside from Dennis Hopper’s mechanical performance everyone else puts on a good show including a host of fellow directors playing bad guys (Samuel Fuller?!). But if there is any point to the film it is obscured by arty detours, abrupt edits (which city are we in now?), and pacing that slows to a crawl except for two memorable scenes: one in a Paris metro station where Zimmerman stalks his first victim and the other on a speeding train. What motivates Zimmerman is made clear—he wants the money. But Wenders’ attempts to expound on the psychological fallout from his actions make for some frustratingly murky cinema full of U-turns and dead ends.