Movies, movies, movies!

Nurse Bob's film reviews

10 = Brilliant!
9 = Exceptional
8 = Very Good
7 = Good
6 = Average
5 = Forgettable
4 = Bad
3 = Dismal
2 = Dog Barf
1 = Beyond Awful

~ ~ ~ ~

The Abandoned
(Spain 2006) (7): Marie Jones is a successful American film producer with a troubled past. Originally born into a Russian family, she was adopted while still an infant after her mother was brutally murdered. But despite being raised in the West Marie feels compelled to visit her birthplace in order to unravel the twin mysteries of her mother’s death and the identity of her elusive father. However, upon arriving in Russia she soon discovers that her parents’ little village holds more secrets than she was prepared for. Joining forces with Nicolai, a curious stranger with more than a passing interest in her family history, Marie tries to get to the root of what happened in that now abandoned farmhouse where she was born forty years earlier... With a palette of washed out colours and widescreen visions of misty forests, decaying hallways, and dripping zombie effects, Nacho Cerdà has fashioned an effectively creepy ghost story. The usual jolts and jumps are there (an encounter in a cramped closet gave me goosebumps) but the film’s real strength lies in its clever use of light and sound; a flooded basement corridor comes alive with shifting shadows and demonic cries, a curtained window offers a gauzy glimpse of “something”, and a moonlit river provides a final answer. Although the Eastern European cast gave somewhat lukewarm performances, Anastasia Hille’s portrayal of Marie was convincing enough as she went from troubled tourist to terrified prey while the cleverly circuitous plot threw in one twist after another. A nice bit of spookiness to watch in the dark.

The ABCs of Death (USA 2012) (8): Twenty-six directors from around the world were each given a different letter of the alphabet and instructed to make a very short film about death using a word beginning with their particular letter as inspiration. The result is a giddy mix of oddities ranging from the scatological (“F” is for “Fart”) to the outré (“W” and “R” were...different) to the outright pornographic (“Z” is definitely not for the kiddies). With hefty doses of humour thrown in to offset the gorier elements there is nevertheless a couple of sobering chapters dealing with such hot button topics as addiction, poverty, and body image among other things. But it was the two animated contributions which came very close to singlehandedly stealing the show. Although a few shorts failed to elicit more than a blank stare it was still heartening to see so many young artists willing and able to take a minuscule budget and cobble together a four-minute nightmare complete with macabre punchline—and do it with such obvious zeal! Apparently a few teachers were fired for showing this compilation to their classes so don’t expect these letters to be hosting Sesame Street any time soon.

The ABCs of Death 2 (USA 2014) (7): Same premise as the first installment: twenty-six directors are each given a letter of the alphabet and asked to make a short horror film based on a word beginning with that letter. Not quite as entertaining as the first since the novelty has worn off and the graphic bloodletting has become a prerequisite, but with such deceptively innocent titles as “J” is for Jesus and “X” is for Xylophone (trust me, they are anything but) there is still a lot of great gory fun to be had. Look for a rather disturbing cameo at the end of the closing credits! And not to worry, part three is already in production.

A Beautiful Curse (Denmark 2021) (6): What are those intangible cues, those abstract qualities that tell us this particular person may be “the one”? And are these cues wholly based in reality or are they based, at least in part, on our own desire to see what we want to see? In his flawed yet nevertheless impressive debut feature writer/director Martin Garde Abildgaard attempts to address these questions by turning the tale of Sleeping Beauty into a peculiarly one-sided love story. A small island community has fallen victim to a mysterious plague which causes people to fall asleep wherever they happen to be. Without suffering any ill effects from their dormancy, the residents doze peacefully in restaurants, city buses, and private homes completely oblivious to the world around them and unable to be roused. Enterprising young photojournalist Samuel (Mark Strepan) sneaks past official barricades in order to take pictures of the unconscious populace and in so doing comes across the slumbering body of Stella (Olivia Vinall) and is immediately smitten. Now taking up residence in her cottage, Samuel begins forming a mental image of what Stella is all about based on her journals, a couple of audio tapes, and his own imagination—a series of fanciful conjectures which gradually take on a life of their own. Long slow takes and a drowsy musical score may prove tedious for impatient viewers but Abildgaard makes the most of his clearly limited budget with touches of magical realism (sunlight casts rainbows across a sleeping face, a goldfish forms a connection) and an astute script that sidesteps what could have degenerated into a string of sun-kissed Hallmark moments. And of course it’s the little details that always make me smile such as the artwork on Stella’s walls which speaks of barriers whether it be a painting of sunglasses or a photo of a woman staring from behind a window pane. Lastly, his handsome leads are a good match as sparks—real? imagined?—fly between them leaving us to wonder that when it comes to matters of the heart just how wide awake are any of us?

Aberdeen (UK/Norway 2001) (7): At the request of her estranged mother, now dying of cancer in an Aberdeen hospital, twenty-something yuppie Kaisa hops a plane to Norway in order to drag Tomas, her equally estranged drunken lout of a father, back to Scotland for one last reunion. Meeting up at a seedy Oslo bar, truculent father and embittered daughter immediately begin sticking pins in each other while fate seems determined to thwart their every travel plan; from being denied airline boarding passes due to dad’s inebriated condition to repeated run-ins with both the law and a gang of menacing street hooligans. And all the while their guardian angel, in the form of a kind-hearted truck driver who decides to tag along, desperately tries to keep them pointed in the right direction. But as old wounds are laid open and dark secrets revealed on the way to Aberdeen, the mother’s condition continues to deteriorate. There is much to admire in Hans Moland’s dysfunctional road movie. For starters the cinematography is truly beautiful as it shifts between bleak wintry landscapes and teary intimacies, stopping to linger on a vase of wilted flowers in a sterile hospital room or an isolated oil rig alone in a stormy sea. Furthermore, a strong cast anchored by Stellan Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, and Lena Headey keep things from flying off into melodramatic excess. But despite these obvious strengths there is a sense of hollowness to the characters, as if they were only half-drawn. We’re shown consequences without much light being shed on causes; why did Tomas go from the doting father in Kaisa’s single candy-coated memory to the trembling alcoholic drifter we see at the film’s outset? why is Kaisa so hooked on cocaine and cheap sex? and why are they both so angry at mom? A few subtle clues are dropped, and perhaps the rest is left intentionally blurred, but this lack of narrative background robs the film of much of its punch leaving the final dramatic reveal and subsequent reparation feeling contrived. But I freely admit to being a sucker for any halfway decent road movie, a weakness which compels me to overlook Aberdeen’s few shortcomings.

Abigail’s Party
(UK Television 1977) (8): Mike Leigh’s delightfully caustic comedy of manners takes aim at the petty mindset of Britain’s middle class, circa 1970s, and fires both barrels...repeatedly. The story unfolds in the living room of Beverly and Laurence Moss, a truculent bourgeois couple with nouveau riche aspirations, as they prepare for an evening of drinks with friends. Using the Mosses and their guests as a catalyst, Leigh proceeds to examine their every prejudice, delusion, and paltry ambition in funny, yet increasingly uncomfortable detail. Bev is clearly a snob who finds fault in everyone except herself although her childless state and acid retorts hint at a deeper dissatisfaction. Laurence is all show and tell as he brags about his (unread) collection of leather bound Shakespeare and cheap Van Gogh prints while bemoaning the “changing character” of their street. Meanwhile their friends Angela and Tony, clearly lower middle class and new to the neighbourhood, make awkward attempts to keep up. Angela is full of vapid compliments and banal non-sequiturs while the taciturn Tony, a low level computer programmer and failed football star, offers up angry monosyllabic responses which become ever more violent as the evening wears on. Finally, the Moss’ politely reserved friend Sue, divorced and obviously monied, arrives with a bottle of wine in hand expecting dinner only to be offered chips and cheap hors d’oeuvres. Her daughter Abigail has kicked her out of the house so she can have a party; a situation which weighs heavily on Sue’s mind as she tries to appease her boorish host and hostess. As the evening progresses and the alcohol loosens everyone’s inhibitions (including Beverly’s attraction to Tony) the stage is set for a series of showdowns culminating in an outrageous ending worthy of Buñuel. As in all of Leigh’s later works, the message is often found in the details whether it be Sue’s exaggerated height (she towers over everyone else in the room), Beverly’s fawning over a tacky piece of pop art, or the distant sound of rock music drifting from Abigail’s party. Cruel, sardonic, and definitely not to everyone’s taste, but as a biting piece of social satire I give this one a firm middle finger, straight up!

Able Edwards (USA 2004) (4): In the near future the earth’s population is decimated by a “biological contaminant”. The few remaining survivors flee to the safety of a large orbiting space habitat controlled by the powerful Edwards corporation whose charismatic founder Able Edwards, obviously based on Walt Disney, made his fortune creating cute cartoon characters and fantasy theme parks. When the company begins experiencing financial difficulties they decide to clone their namesake in the hopes he can turn things around. They soon find out that the man behind the legends left much to be desired... This movie’s one claim to fame is that it was the first feature to be filmed entirely against a green screen; all the sets and backgrounds either created digitally or lifted from stock photos and tacked on in postproduction. While that may impress some technophiles the film itself is a forgettable rip-off of  Citizen Kane that looks like it was pieced together on a Sony Playstation. The backgrounds are mostly unimpressive (and unconvincing) while the wooden acting fails to deliver any emotional impact. Despite some effective gothic imagery…Edwards' return to his ancestral home is particularly well done…and some nice retro touches that look great in B&W I can’t find much here to recommend. To see this technique used to much greater effect check out  Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and give this one a miss.

The Abominable Dr. Phibes
(UK 1971) (9): An organ-playing mad genius, an elaborate high-tech mansion with its own clockwork orchestra, and a series of grisly murders. These are just a few of the pleasures to be found in this ultra camp horror movie from MGM studios which gained an almost immediate cult status upon its initial release. Determined to exact a horrible revenge on the medical team he blames for a personal tragedy, the horribly disfigured Dr. Anton Phibes (Vincent Price no less!!) concocts a fiendishly clever way to kill them off one by one using the bible as inspiration. Assisted by his mysterious mute henchwoman Vulnavia—who never wears the same gaudy outfit twice—he sets his diabolical plans in motion while a beleaguered team of Scotland Yard detectives always seem to be just one step behind. Ostensibly set in 1925 but with mod decor more suited for swinging London (check out that neon Wurlitzer!) and buoyed by a musical score ranging from Mendelssohn’s “March of the Priests” to “Over the Rainbow," this is one terribly guilty pleasure from start to finish. Little wonder it was quickly followed by a worthy sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again!

About Elly (Iran 2009) (9): From the outset of his clever opening credits it’s obvious that not everything is what it appears to be in Asghar Farhadi’s absorbing mystery—part social critique and part morality lecture. When a group of Tehran yuppies decide to spend a few days in a rented seaside villa one of the wives invites her daughter’s kindergarten teacher, Elly, to join them in the hope that she can play matchmaker between Elly and Ahmad, her recently divorced friend visiting from Germany. But the festivities are cut short when Elly mysteriously disappears without a trace leaving the rest of the group to contend with the police, the missing woman’s oddly taciturn family, and themselves. As the days wear on however their anxieties slowly morph into accusations, recriminations, and breast-beating when the truth about Elly is slowly revealed. Sumptuous cinematography alternates between shadowed interiors and the wide open Caspian sea, finding time to linger on a child’s tears or an adult’s tense face while a solid script defies Western notions of everyday life among Iran’s middle class. Using sly little tropes—a tire spins uselessly in the sand, twisting the truth results in physical illness, an offhand quote becomes prophesy—Farhadi shows how even the whitest of lies can spin the darkest webs while at the same time pointing a gently accusing finger at certain rigid social dictates and an omnipresent patriarchy. Heavy-handed at times with a few lapses in logic but the direction is tight and the cast is nothing less than perfection, especially Golshifteh Farahani’s Oscar-worthy performance as the beleaguered wife who invited Elly in the first place. A fine example of the right director with the right story finding the right ensemble of actors.

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie (UK 2016) (6): Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley dust off their AbFab characters for another go in this vaguely disappointing farce framed for the big screen but written for the telly. When her list of clients begins to dry up and an autobiography deal goes sour, fashion PR maven Edina Monsoon (Saunders, as loud as her clothes) tries to snag a recently agent-less Kate Moss with the help of her coke-snorting slag BFF Patsy Stone (Lumley decked out in cigarette, sunglasses, and up-do). Unfortunately, all she manages to do is earn the wrath of an entire nation when she accidentally knocks Moss into the Thames after crashing a swank industry soiree. With the supermodel presumed drowned and the press calling for her head, Eddie and Patsy hightail it to the French Riviera with her teenaged granddaughter in tow. Now doggedly pursued by both the police and Eddie’s irate daughter Saffy (Julia Sawalha still mousy only greyer) the two flamboyant fugitives will face a champagne-soaked uphill battle all the way… The panoramic views of downtown London and sunny Nice are beautiful and the list of fashionista cameos are as long as your arm—besides Moss herself we’re treated to walk-ons from the likes of Stella McCartney, Jerry Hall, and Jean Paul Gaultier with Pierre Cardin opening the doors to his futuristic hilltop mansion. But aside from Saunders and Lumley’s manic performances the material sags under the weight of all those personalities causing you to go from “OMG!” to “Oh look, it’s Perez Hilton, Joan Collins, and Dame Edna…” To be fair, the two leads are in fine form despite the intervening 25 years and the original cast members manage to reignite something of the old chemistry—not to mention the fashion industry being more than willing to laugh at itself—it’s just that the shock value has worn thin and the characters have become so predictable they’re something of a self-conscious cliché. Eddie and Patsy get shit-faced with a bong, Eddie’s daffy assistant “Bubble” (Jane Horrocks) still spouts vacuous non-sequiturs, and magazine editor Magda (Kathy Burke) continues to spit and growl. Even a sadly despairing monologue by Saunders on growing old, fat, and irrelevant (while bobbing about in Pierre Cardin’s pool) only serves as a lead-in to yet another schtick while a gender-popping finale is more or less lifted from Wilder’s Some Like it Hot. With a quarter century gap you’d expect something more than a storyline as old and tired as its protagonists.

A Ciambra (Italy 2017) (7): The Romani community in Italy’s Calabria region forms the setting for writer/director Jonas Carpignano’s sadly realistic coming of age story centred on 14-year old Pio. No longer a child, yet not quite an adult despite his smoking, drinking, and petty crimes, Pio longs to follow in the outlaw footsteps of his older brother. Alternately encouraged and criticized for his criminal initiative by his family (mom doesn’t want to know what he’s been doing but she gladly accepts the money he brings home) Pio decides to pull the biggest caper of his young career—unfortunately he chooses the wrong target setting off a chain of events he can’t control. Real life Pio Amato and his entire family provide a most convincing non-professional cast, their underplayed roles not only offering insight into the Romani community itself but also delicately tracing one young man’s evolution from wide-eyed follower to cynical insider. And Amato is more than up for the task giving us a natural performance, culled from actual experience, which makes every grandiose smirk and quivering tear wholly believable. None of Calabria’s natural beauty is on display here, Carpignano’s largely handheld cameras lingering instead on piles of garbage and sordid discotheques as Pio moves between his ramshackle tenement and the clapboard slum where his refugee friend Ayiva lives—another winning performance from Burkina Faso native Koudous Seihon backed by an amateur supporting cast culled from all over Africa. Decidedly unsentimental in its approach—neither immigrants nor Italian locals are wholly evil or without blemish—the director nevertheless injects a touch of magical realism to propel his story forward: a mystical horse speaks of innocence lost; a harrowing trip aboard a commuter train suggests what will replace it; and a visit to a brothel becomes a sad rite of passage. Finally, a supreme act of betrayal will mark one boy’s point of no return. A film that begins with a chaotic narrative jumble only to end on a sad note of quiet resignation. Italy’s official entry for the 2017 Best Foreign Movie Oscar.

The Acid Eaters  (USA 1965) (5):  When the workday is over there's nothing these big-haired office temps like more than to grab their creepy middle-aged boyfriends and hit the road in search of that elusive pyramid of acid-laced Lego blocks. Eschewing repressive societal driving on the right side of the road or developing a dramatic narrative.....these rebel receptionists prefer to spend their drug-crazed off-hours painting each other's breasts and faking orgasms. But when they enter the Styrofoam gates of hell and meet Satan himself (in his ill-fitting devil's outfit) the party REALLY gets going. Far out!

The Acid House (UK 1998) (6): From the pen of Irvine Welsh (Trainspotters) comes this trilogy of nasty tales intent on portraying Scots as loud lazy lumpen dolts whose only goals in life are to drink and get shagged. In the first instalment a young man is experiencing the worst day of his life—he’s lost his job and his his girlfriend, and now his parents are evicting him so that they can have more privacy to indulge in their sick S&M fetishes. And then he meets God down at the local pub and the drunken, foul-mouthed deity shows him that no matter how bad things seem, they can always get worse. Next up, a spineless milquetoast married to the town slag faces unbearable humiliation when she leaves him and their newborn baby to shack up with the psycho neighbour. Finally, a tweaking yob experiences the ultimate LSD trip when a freak lightning strike inextricably ties him to a snobbish pair of English yuppies expecting their first child. With a palette of drug-addled colours and cameras that never stray far from the crumbling housing projects in which the stories unfold, director Paul McGuigan’s triptych of wrack and ruin jumps about like a cat on meth with results that are sometimes amusing (a housefly is bent on revenge; a baby is possessed by a crackhead; God doesn’t give a shite) but mostly dull and dreary and pointless despite (or maybe because of) all those repetitious scenes of depressingly kinky sex. And the sparse subtitles hardly do justice to that expressive Scots dialect delivered in a working class brogue: “Go back to your ma! Lick your ma’s fuckin’ piss-flaps ya fuckin’ cunt!” Charming.

Across the Universe  (USA 2007) (8):  What starts out looking like an amateur high school operetta gradually builds into an unexpectedly  mature piece of cinema with strong performances throughout and a soundtrack that makes clever use of all those classic Beatles songs.  The musical numbers may not always work but when they do they are bang on thanks in large part to some dazzling visuals and Taymor’s overall sense of artistic restraint.  No, there are no amazing plot twists and you can guess how it will all end within the first 15 minutes but it’s the journey  itself that is so appealing.  For those who would accuse this film of being shallow and dull, may I remind you of that other musical based on the Beatles’ music, 1978’s vomit-inducing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band featuring the Bee Gees.  ‘Nuff said.

The Act of Killing (UK 2012) (9): Director Joshua Oppenheimer lists Errol Morris and Werner Herzog amongst his executive producers and this shocking yet wholly unique documentary certainly bears their influence. In 1965 the Indonesian government was overthrown by a military coup and in the bloody years which followed over one million suspected communist, mainly peasants, intellectuals, and ethnic Chinese, were rounded up, tortured, and killed with full support of the West. But the new dictatorship did not do the dirty work themselves, they hired gangsters and paramilitary organizations to carry out the mass murders instead—men who are still living freely, protected by the government and hailed by some as national heroes. To try and understand the mindset behind the killings Oppenheimer contacted some of the surviving death-squad leaders, now grown into jovial grey-haired grandfathers, and presented them with an interesting alternative to the standard interview: he’d supply them with the technical expertise needed to allow them to make a short film reenacting the killings from their point of view. Concentrating mainly on three men—Anwar, once a prolific executioner; Herman, a gangster with a penchant for drag; and Yapto, a paramilitary leader—what follows is a horrifying glimpse into the minds responsible for the sadistic slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians. With cinematic genres ranging from surreal musical numbers to violent film noir, the men seem to relish the chance to relive the good old days—Anwar brags about how he perfected the art of garrotting, Yapto reminisces on the joys of raping a 14-year old girl, and Herman coaches a village full of extras on how to react to watching their houses being burned to the ground. In between taping Oppenheimer engages the men with probing interviews in which they show neither remorse nor a fully developed conscience, nor even a full understanding of what a “communist” was. Indeed, he films them shaking down local shop owners and rubbing shoulders with sycophantic government officials as if these were everyday occurrences. However, as their film-within-a-film winds down one man begins to question what he did over forty years ago after he plays the role of a torture victim, but his dramatic reaction leaves you wondering whether this is the beginning of true contrition or simply another performance while the cameras roll. As an added note of irony, the closing credits list most of the Indonesian crew as “Anonymous” for fear of government reprisals. Brilliant, jarring, infuriating.

An Act of Love (USA 2015) (6): In 2007 Methodist minister Frank Schaefer ignored the rules and regulations of his church and presided over the same-sex wedding of his gay son. It took almost six years for this transgression to reach the ears of the church hierarchy leading to a canonical trial in which his staunch support of inclusivity would threaten his ordained status. Scott Sheppard’s piecemeal documentary—composed of grainy news bytes, talking heads, and old photo albums—examines the issues surrounding the case and the often contradictory stance of a religious body which officially recognizes its gay members as “equal children of God” while simultaneously imposing a double standard when it comes to equality within its ranks. Defrocked gay ministers compete with church officers, both sympathetic and not, in pushing their separate agendas but in the end it’s the same tired old pro/con arguments with one side calling for a renaissance of sorts in the Methodist mindset and the other side stressing the importance of unity, church law, and the dangers of a schism (not to mention the very real threat of lowered Sunday revenues). One must applaud the courage of Rev. Schaefer and his supporters, but as a gay man and an atheist I can only shake my head as the teachings of a desert deity continue to hurt and divide thousands of years later.

An Actor’s Revenge (Japan 1963) (8): With a career that began when he was only five years old, Kazuo Hasegawa was not only an accomplished Kabuki actor but he also became a box office sensation in the fledgling Japanese movie industry. In this, Hasegawa’s 300th film, director Kon Ichikawa puts the actor’s talents to excellent use in a strangely beautiful story which seamlessly blends stage and screen. Famous for playing female leads, 19th century Kabuki actor Yukinojo Nakamura (Hasegawa) travels to Edo where his troupe has been hired to perform a historical tragedy before a full house. But there is more than stagecraft on his mind, for Edo is home to the three powerful men he blames for ruining his parents’ lives and he has devised an ingenious plan to destroy each one of them in turn. And it all begins with him wooing one of their daughters, now a concubine in the court of a local shogun. Shot in eye-popping colours on an ultra-wide canvas, Ichikawa keeps his audience on their toes as the action shifts between “real life” and stagey production—rich palatial interiors morph into set pieces and a deep dark forest reveals itself to be nothing more than plywood props. Never abandoning his female persona Hasegawa, preening in elaborate drag, blurs the boundary between an actor acting and a son seeking vengeance, and his complex character is enhanced by a pair of quarrelling thieves—one male, one female—who aid and abet in their own bumbling way and an irate swordsman with a deadly score to settle. And just to add a touch of whimsy, Hasegawa (dressed as a man) is also cast as a dashing cat burglar smitten by Yukinojo’s feigned feminine charms. A gender-bending Shakespearean tragedy played out with all the pomp and formality of a grand Kabuki production—the overtly choreographed sword fights alone are pure theatre—with a mournful score and cinematography that turns the everyday into small pieces of art.

Adam Resurrected (Germany/Israel 2008) (4): In 1920’s Berlin, Adam Stein (Jeff Goldblum) made a name for himself as the owner and star of a one-man circus where he wowed audiences with parlour tricks and his uncanny feats of mind-reading. Forty years later, suffering from the horrors he endured while a Concentration Camp inmate as well as crippling survivors’ guilt after his family was exterminated at that same camp, Stein is a patient at an experimental asylum outside Tel Aviv which specializes in treating victims of the Nazi death camps. Now wracked by bouts of violent mania and possessing a strange ability to affect the workings of his own body (he can initiate spontaneous hemorrhaging and restart his own heart) Adam seems a lost cause, until he finds a kindred spirit in another “hopeless” case—a feral child whose pathology reopens a very raw wound. Set in the early 60s with B&W flashbacks, director Paul Schrader’s attempt to make an arthouse Holocaust film—think Cabaret meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—juggles profundity with opacity only to wind up flat and affected instead. Goldblum puts in a fine performance as he alternates between gregarious intellectual and cowering casualty but his character grates on the nerves (intentionally?) and he isn’t aided much by a cast of bit actors playing the usual potpourri of psych unit residents. Derek Jacobi plays it straight as the gruff yet compassionate medical director permanently at odds with Stein, and Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer aims low as a sultry head nurse who finds Stein’s delusions overpoweringly sexy—their tasteless couplings looking as if they were plagiarized from a cheesy Italian sex comedy. But it’s Willem Dafoe’s role as death camp supervisor, Commandant Klein, that provides the film with anything resembling a backbone. Torn by his own inner devils, Klein takes perverse pleasure in forcing Adam to assume the role of a pet dog—shuffling about on all fours, eating from a bowl, and being led on a leash—a humiliation which will spare his life yet leave it marked forever. In the end Schrader’s mixed bag of psychiatric clichés and ponderous metaphors (the chains that bind) never really takes off, culminating as it does with a mishmash of Old and New Testament tropes that features a Burning Bush and a Last Temptation. But he does leave us with a couple of searing visuals: a despondent Stein howls in his kennel while smoke billows from a crematorium chimney, and a bitter old man flings rocks at an empty sky demanding an account from God.

Adam’s Rib (USA 1949) (8): When a battered woman (Judy Holliday, magnificently mousy) shoots up the apartment of her cheating husband’s mistress, injuring him in the process, it seems an open and shut case of assault with intent to public prosecutor Adam Bonner (Spencer Tracy). But Adam’s wife Amanda (Katherine Hepburn), a fellow lawyer who has taken up the cause of women’s equality, is not so sure. Believing the woman was driven to extremes by years of neglect and abuse, and acknowledging that men are all too often acquitted of “crimes of passion” whenever their family or personal honour are threatened, Amanda decides to take up the case for the defense. And as the trial quickly escalates into a cause célèbre for the press, the Bonner’s marriage begins to feel the strain with Adam’s fervent belief in the sanctity of “law and order” clashing daily with Amanda’s sense of feminist outrage. When the jury’s verdict is finally delivered it may decide far more than one woman’s guilt… A cutting edge comedy-drama for its time, director George Cukor’s insightful opus (co-written by Ruth Gordon) features an intelligent script with just enough wit to ease the occasional sting. And the trio of leads are in perfect form—Tracy and Hepburn playing the ethically divided lovers while a timorous Holliday provides the explosive lynchpin that not only rocks their personal relationship but challenges the entire judicial system itself. And to think this film is already sixty-six years old!

A Day in the Country (France 1946) (8): Begun in 1936 and never finished due to WWII and director Jean Renoir’s immigration to America, this proposed feature length film was eventually released as a 40-minute short. The fact that it’s still counted among his greatest works bears testimony to Renoir’s artistry. In the summer of 1865 a Parisian shopkeeper takes his family—wife, aged mother-in-law, and grown daughter Henriette—on a jaunt into the countryside where they wind up at a rustic inn for a picnic and a bit of fishing. While the family frolics among the cherry trees and wildflowers a pair of roguish locals become smitten with the effervescent Henriette and vie for her attention—while simultaneously slathering her giggly mother with a few risqué compliments. And as clouds gather overhead an innocent flirtation will lead to something much more…and much less. Aided by future director Luchino Visconti and celebrated French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, Renoir is able to capture the essence of a carefree summer’s day where sunlight filters through trembling leaves and an old woman naps with a kitten curled in her lap as if both were posing for a portrait. With the weather thus tied directly to mood, the director goes from sunbeams to raindrops, and from animated banter to a silent boat ride whose leisurely trek across a swirling stream carries overtones both erotic and wistful. A triumph of minimalist storytelling which left me yearning for the feature film that never was.

The Addams Family (USA 2019) (3): The iconic 1960s TV family gets animated for this feature film which is heavy on the creepy and kooky buy woefully short on the laughs. The cadaverous Morticia (voice of Charlize Theron) and her oily husband Gomez (Oscar Isaac) happily take up residence in an abandoned—and very haunted—insane asylum which conveniently comes with its own permanent thunderstorm. Unfortunately, their impeccably dilapidated dwelling proves to be an eyesore for the neatly manicured town of “Assimilation” (get it?) causing local real estate magnate and home improvement guru, the gargantuan-coiffed Margaux Needler (Allison Janney), to declare war on the Addams and their freaky misfit relatives. Guess who wins? Lots of morbid touches repeatedly drive home the fact that the Addams clan are oddballs—monotonously depressed emo daughter Wednesday disrupts her high school biology class by turning dead frogs into zombies; her sociopathic brother Pugsley has fun with guided missiles; grandma (Bette Midler) keeps crawly snacks between her toes—but if you’re expecting the same delightfully macabre joie de vivre which made the Carolyn Jones/John Astin series and Anjelica Huston/Raul Julia live action production so infectiously likeable you’re in for a huge disappointment. There is not much here to shore up the “OMG! ha! ha!” visuals (oh look, that mounted fish has six eyes! Wednesday has a pet octopus!) and a handful of tepid Easter eggs will only be noticed by those of us old enough to remember and bored enough to care. But the final nail in this creaky cartoon coffin comes in the form of a song & dance ending where the fluffy DEI mantra of “JUST BE YOURSELF YAY!!!” gets shoved down your throat so far you’ll be coughing up smiley-faced hairballs.

Address Unknown (South Korea 2001) (5): Ki-duk Kim’s allegorical potpourri is so crammed with conspicuous metaphors, shallow pathos and forced ironies that it plays out more like a contrived performance piece than a motion picture. It’s South Korea, 1970, and along the northern border a small knot of villagers eke out an existence in the shadow of an American military base. There’s the angry young girl blinded in one eye by a toy gun made from an army surplus crate; the desperate mother living in an abandoned military bus who writes endless letters stateside hoping to contact the father of her half-breed son; the son himself (a Korean actor looking faintly ridiculous in brown face paint and afro wig) torn between two worlds yet shunned by both; the taciturn artist bullied because he can’t speak English; and a bevy of veterans trying to out-boast each other with war stories. Against a backdrop of American jets which hint at a freedom just out of reach and packs of yapping dogs that seem to reflect the unhappiness and cruelty around them, these interweaving stories present us with a rather bleak snapshot of life in Korea’s “liberated” south. Klunky and unconvincing for the most part (the Western actors are horrible) Kim’s ensemble piece does contain some nice visual flourishes and a dark humour which finds its source in life’s smaller absurdities: a man attributes his well water’s sweet taste to rotting “commie corpses” buried in his front yard; a pair of youth’s garner an impromptu language lesson from the pages of a smuggled “Hustler” magazine; and the blinded young girl sports a temporary eyepatch adorned with a distinctly caucasian baby blue. An intriguing idea with a flawed presentation. And, as a cautionary note, despite the filmmaker’s assurance that “no animals were actually harmed” the casual scenes of canine abuse prove to be unsettling just the same.

Adventures in Babysitting (USA 1987) (7): Chris is not having a good afternoon. First her boyfriend bails on their big date and then she gets stuck babysitting bratty Sara, her lovestruck brother Brad, and his perpetually horny bud Daryl. Her evening takes a turn for the surreal however after she receives a frantic phone call from her best friend Brenda whose just run away from home and is now stranded at the bus station downtown and in desperate need of a ride. Reluctantly packing up the kids Chris heads into the big city where a blown tire on the freeway causes her to cross paths with a crazy one-handed tow truck operator, which leads to a run-in with a carjacker, which snowballs into a deadly confrontation with a mafia kingpin, which leads to… Get the idea? And the fact that she bears an uncanny resemblance to the current Playboy centrefold model doesn’t help matters either. Will Chris be able to keep everyone safe, rescue Brenda, and get the kids to bed before their parents come home? One of the defining teen flicks to emerge from the 80s, Chris Columbus’ lightweight comedy about a hapless young girl’s babysitting night from hell may not have aged well but for those of us who can remember a time before smartphones and GPS satellites it’s a pleasant romp down memory lane. From Elizabeth Shue’s big-haired innocence to an early cameo by Vincent D’Onofrio as a golden haired (and very thin) garage mechanic this is pure bubblegum cinema yet I must admit I smiled throughout, especially at the ludicrously improbable finale atop a Chicago skyscraper and the prerequisite “new love interest” final scene. Perhaps it’s a good thing they don’t make them like this anymore, but I’m kind of glad they made this one. Guilty pleasure.

The Adventures of Marco Polo (USA 1938) (4): In order to establish a trade pact with China the son of a wealthy Venetian merchant braves soundstage blizzards and the blistering sands of a Malibu Beach Arabia to arrive at an elaborate backlot Peking populated by exotic caucasians speaking perfect English. Caught up in a series of comic book adventures, the intrepid Marco Polo will eventually ingratiate himself with the Emperor Kublai Khan while at the same time wooing Khan’s ridiculously demure daughter (Sigrid Gurie trying to keep her eyes open). Gary Cooper delivers an “Aw Shucks” performance in what has to be one of Hollywood’s worst examples of miscasting while veterans Basil Rathbone and Alan Hale do marginally better as a treacherous Saracen and jovial Mongolian respectively. With its camp faux oriental sets, cornfed dialogue, and complete lack of any historical grounding, Goldwyn Studios’ box office flop seems more like an ambitious Busby Berkeley musical than a historical drama, only without the welcome distraction of song and dance numbers.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (Germany 1926) (7): In a fairy tale kingdom straight out of the Arabian Nights, an evil sorcerer schemes to marry the Caliph’s beautiful daughter by tempting him with a magical flying horse. Thwarted at the last minute by the Caliph’s son, Achmed, the sorcerer seeks his revenge by sending the young man on a perilous journey. And thus begins a string of adventures in which the young prince contends with a sex-starved harem, falls in love with a mystical princess, and teams up with a powerful witch for a final showdown with a volcano full of demons and monsters. Painstakingly reconstructed from bits and pieces of surviving footage this impressive full-length animated feature, one of the world’s first, utilizes metal and cardboard cut-outs silhouetted agains sheets of illuminated glass. The overall effect calls to mind the Southeast Asian tradition of shadow puppetry with it’s heroic sword fights and happily ever after endings. Although primitive by modern CGI standards, Lotte Reiniger’s stop-motion epic still displays a meticulous attention to detail whether it be a princess’s feathery bird costume or the intricate finger movements of a magician casting a spell. Lastly, a stereo soundtrack of orchestral music heightens the onscreen drama while coloured backgrounds set the mood as they shift from melancholy blues to fiery reds. A fine example of the animator’s art and highly recommended to anyone interested in the subject.

The Adventures of Tintin (USA 2011) (7): Steven Spielberg anglicizes the popular Belgian comic strip about crime-solving reporter Tintin and his trusty terrier Snowy and then proceeds to have the time of his life with it. When Tintin purchases an old model ship at a London flea market he inadvertently stumbles upon a deadly mystery involving sunken treasure and modern day pirates. A clue contained within the ship’s tiny mast will lead our plucky protagonist on a wild chase halfway around the world where he’ll do battle on the high seas and fight for survival in a burning desert—evading bloodthirsty cutthroats every step of the way and befriending an alcoholic captain who may very well hold the ultimate answer in his whisky-soaked head…if only he can remember it. Europe circa 1930’s is brought to wondrous comic book life in this motion capture animation epic which combines live actors (looking waxen and faintly disquieting in their generated bods) with CGI animals and candy-coloured period sets. In the lead role Jamie Bell, sporting our hero’s signature ginger hair and elaborate quiff, exhibits all the wide-eyed wonder you’d expect while a cast of mainstays from comedy and drama circles huff and puff their way through a roster of elaborately overdone support characters. But, while the impeccable special effects left me reeling—a pair of flaming ships battling it out in a hurricane was superbly done and a giddy dash through a quasi-mystical sultanate must have looked awesome in 3D—Spielberg’s continuous attempts to ramp up the excitement with one dizzying chase sequence after another become tiresome while a quaint little non-ending practically screams “Sequel!” Apparently it’s due in 2016 but I’m not holding my breath.

Advise & Consent (USA 1962) (10): Otto Preminger’s searing adaptation of Allen Drury’s politically charged novel is just as pertinent today as it was at the height of the Cold War. When the ailing U.S. President elects Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) to be his Secretary of State it does not come without controversy. Leffingwell’s belief in detente over military posturing rankles more than a few senators especially Seabright Cooley of South Carolina (a drawling Charles Laughton in his final role) who’s also nursing a personal vendetta against the man. As Cooley’s opposition becomes more vocal a Senate sub-committee to determine Leffingwell’s suitability is convened headed by an idealistic young senator from Utah, Brigham Anderson (Don Murray). But when troubling information from Leffingwell’s past threatens to surface despite the President’s attempts to block it, the naïve yet conscientious Anderson comes to realize just how ruthless Washington politicking can be as his own dirty laundry comes back to haunt him. Drury based his characters on real politicians (Peter Lawford’s womanizing schemer is a stand-in for JFK while George Grizzard’s unscrupulous senator from Wyoming has Joseph McCarthy written all over him) and many of the events taking place in the novel were loosely based on real life incidents. In Preminger’s capable hands this attention to detail gives rise to an engrossing and wholly believable tale of underhanded deals, misguided patriotism, and the type of self-serving backstabbing that seems to be a Washington mainstay. Anti-communist rhetoric echoes back to the witch hunts of the 1950’s—the recently coined logo “In God We Trust” looms prominently over the senate chamber and Preminger never misses a chance to throw a bit of dirt onto that sentiment whether it’s a prostitute sneaking out of a senator’s hotel room or a rich socialite wining, dining, and screwing her way into the Capitol’s inner circle. Crisp B&W cinematography renders D.C. in all it’s tree-lined glory and a host of stand-out performances give the film the immediacy of a live stage production only slightly marred by a stars ’n stripes ending. Lew Ayres, Walter Pidgeon, Gene Tierney, and Burgess Meredith round out the cast and a very prim Betty White makes her screen debut as a no-nonsense representative from Kansas.

Aelita: The Queen of Mars (USSR 1924) (4): In 1921 the world receives a mysterious message from Mars consisting of just three words, "Anta Odeli Uta". It's enough to fire the imagination of Engineer Los who immediately begins plans for a rocket ship to take him to the red planet. Meanwhile on Mars, Queen Aelita has fallen in love with Los thanks to a powerful new telescope which allows her to see his every move. But the way to Mars is rocky indeed for Los' marriage is in trouble as his wife seems to be flirting with a member of the old aristocracy, Aelita's own Martian suitor is insanely jealous, and Mother Russia is filled with penniless peasants as she slowly recovers from the events of 1917. Accompanied by his revolutionary friend and a dogged detective Los eventually makes his way to Aelita's side where he finds the unibrowed beauty and her dictator father reigning Tsar-like over a population of oppressed workers just itching for liberation. Billed as the first Russian sci-fi film Aelita plays more like a slapdash soviet bedtime story complete with Communist grandstanding and hammer & sickle symbolism. The impressionistic Martian sets are pretty cool though consisting of swirling staircases and asymmetrical constructs while the the native dress code is a kitschy blend of King Tut and Lego blocks with elaborate headdresses made out of chicken wire and radio parts. A curious little tidbit that plays way too long and culminates in one of the corniest endings I've yet to see. Doesn't come within a light year of Metropolis.

A Fistful of Dollars (Italy 1964) (7): This first instalment in Sergio Leone’s “Dollars Trilogy” was roundly condemned by critics and the subject of a successful lawsuit filed by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa who felt it bore an uncanny resemblance to his 1961 film, Yojimbo. But time and reputation has nevertheless earned it a place in the pantheon of memorable Spaghetti Westerns where it remains an entertaining, if somewhat kitschy, Italian interpretation of America’s Wild Wild West (and Kurosawa’s Yojimbo). A drifter with no name (it’s Clint Eastwood) breezes into the Mexican border town of San Miguel—a haven for smugglers and bandits—where he become embroiled in an ongoing power struggle between the village’s two ruling clans: The Baxters, whose patriarch also doubles as sheriff; and the Rojos whose leader Don Benito has sired two bloodthirsty psychopaths for sons, Esteban and Ramón. Deciding to play both sides against each other in a deadly game of one-upmanship, the drifter uses the two families’ greed and hubris to line his own pockets. But as bodies pile up in the streets he risks becoming too clever for his own good, especially when he lays eyes on Marisol (German bombshell Marianne Koch), unwilling mistress to the insanely jealous Ramón. An opening credits sequence featuring animated silhouettes shooting it out to a haunting Ennio Morricone score (the whistles and minor chords foreshadowing later collaborations), sets the stage for the Wild West opera that follows which, while not nearly as polished as the trilogy’s capstone, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, still manages to incorporate some mythological elements into all that whisky and gunplay, including a symbolic sojourn in the Underworld. Upon entering San Miguel, Eastwood is met with various images of death—a corpse on horseback, an empty noose, a leering undertaker, the town “bell ringer” whose peals herald a fresh grave—and Leone wastes little time driving those portents home as one violent yet curiously bloodless showdown after another fills the undertaker’s coffins (while sending the British censors into a tizzy). Being his first major motion picture break, Eastwood wastes no time perfecting his soft-spoken sarcasm and squinty-eyed glare while Leone’s supporting cast—culled from Germany, Italy, and Spain—put forth convincingly mad performances despite the English dubbing (even Clint had to dub his own voice for the film’s American release). In the end, sub-par production values are made up for by a wickedly clever plot that sees Eastwood’s more or less ethical drifter stoking chaos for profit, and Morricone’s aforementioned score is beautiful as it wavers between funeral dirge and paean to Justice.

An Affair to Remember (USA 1957) (8): Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr shine in one of the greatest cinemascope weepers of all time. On a cross Atlantic cruise bound for New York, notorious playboy Nickie Ferrante develops a tentative shipboard romance with fellow passenger Terry McKay, the only woman he’s ever met with a wit to match his own. Unfortunately the smitten couple are just weeks away from getting married to other people; he to a wealthy heiress and she to millionaire tycoon, both of whom are waiting for them at the New York City docks. Agreeing to put their separate marriage preparations on hold, the couple plan a romantic rendezvous atop the Empire State Building in six months; just enough time for each of them to become gainfully employed. While Nickie tries to hone his skills as a painter, Terry returns to the nightclub circuit where she gains some notoriety as a stage singer. But when the time comes for their much anticipated reunion a sudden tragedy keeps them apart and threatens to destroy any future happiness they might have had. With its lush widescreen cinematography, rich technicolor sets and bubbling dialogue, Leo McCarey’s film certainly starts out with a romantic flair. Grant and Kerr’s sparkling repartee, moving from capricious banter to lovestruck confessions, is very well written and delivered with appropriate vigour; a side trip to visit an aging grandmother in her hilltop villa is especially poignant. However, if Affair begins like a refreshing sip of pink champagne, it ends with a mouthful of sticky corn syrup. Schmaltzy pathos competes with dewy-eyed pining to see how many tissues they can wring out of the audience while the addition of a cloying children’s choir filled with sweetly smiling cherubs (why does their junior band sound like a professional orchestra?) goes straight for the sentimental jugular. But, for those who can handle the extra helping of icing towards the end, this is one cinematic confection that will leave you satisfied.

Affliction (USA 1997) (8): The sins of the father are visited upon the son in this dark and pessimistic American tragedy. As a child, small town cop Wade Whitehouse bore the brunt of his alcoholic father’s physical and emotional violence. Now an adult he still struggles with the legacy of rage and self-doubt he inherited from the old man while his more fortunate siblings have managed to move on; his brother to the emotionally detached world of academia and his sister to the comforting illusion of religion. Still bitter over a messy divorce and desperately trying to mend bridges between himself and his estranged daughter, Wade feels increasingly set upon from all sides; even the tender embraces of his new girlfriend, a much needed psychological lifeline, go largely unheeded. But when a big city businessman dies in a mysterious “hunting accident” while prowling the local woods, Wade’s initial suspicion that a murder has been committed grows into a full-blown conspiracy theory as former friends and acquaintances begin to turn against him. Is there really more to the man’s death than what is contained in the official report? Or is Wade’s grip on reality slowly loosening as persistent childhood flashbacks coupled with a pathological need to prove his worth begin to cloud his judgment? In the hands of his three brilliant leads, director Paul Schrader takes what could have been a maudlin psychodrama and turns it into a piercing study of one man’s private hell. As father and son, James Coburn and Nick Nolte dance around each other like two sides of the same coin. Nolte traces Wade’s sad disintegration with an intensity that’s painful to watch, while Coburn’s portrayal of the family patriarch spitting fire and venom even as his body crumbles went on to win a well deserved Oscar. Meanwhile, in the role of the girlfriend, Sissy Spacek displays a convincing mix of heartbreak, bewilderment and, ultimately, a muted horror. It all culminates in a suitably operatic finale while a cool voiceover ties up the loose ends and provides a dispassionate eulogy of sorts. Cruel, unsentimental, and completely engrossing.

A Fool (China 2014) (7): When a crazy vagrant follows him home one day, suburban goatherd Latiaozi (writer/director Jianbin Chen himself) finds his troubles multiplying. For starters, the incoherent “fool” proves impossible to ditch and appears to have a limitless appetite for home-cooking. In addition, his disruptive presence is driving a wedge between Lati and his wife as their feelings for the wild man oscillate between pity, disgust, and a grudging sense of responsibility for his fate. But when Lati places a picture of their unwelcome houseguest in a Lost & Found ad, “relatives” of the homeless man suddenly come crawling out of the woodwork causing a beleaguered Lati’s domestic and financial woes to skyrocket as his wife becomes fed up with his waffling and the fool’s ersatz family members begin accusing him of profiteering… No good deed goes unpunished in Chen’s small town satire which combines elements of farce and social critique to tell the tale of a basically honest everyman caught up in a society where graft is a fact of everyday life (Lati and his wife are raising funds to reduce their incarcerated son’s jail term through bribery), money is a social lubricant, and government agencies not only turn a blind eye to what’s going on—they profit from it themselves. Images of mindless goats, including a sacrificial lamb, figure prominently and it all takes place in the days leading up to Chinese New Year where dancing dragons and colourful lights promise an auspiciousness that never seems to arrive. Furthermore Lati’s modest one-room home sports a crudely painted tropical paradise on one wall and he and his wife entertain themselves at night by watching sappy Hong Kong soap operas—both of which only highlight his current predicament. And what’s with that battered cherry-coloured visor which passes from fool to goatherd? As it tinges an already cruel world with a crueller shade of red one can’t help wondering why Chen chose that particular colour. It eventually ends on a muted note awash in irony and more than a touch of melancholy which suggests that Latiaozi, in striving to do the right thing, may be the biggest fool of all.

The African Queen (USA 1951) (8): In east Africa, circa 1914, a somewhat priggish missionary and her equally dour minister brother have devoted their lives to converting the local natives. Unfortunately WWI is looming on the horizon and their backwater idyll is soon beset upon by the advancing German infantry who leave a swath of devastation and burning villages in their wake. With her brother dead and the locals rounded up for military duty Rose Sayer has no choice but to escape downriver with Chris Allnut, the scruffy yet amiable captain of a ramshackle steamboat. Braving rapids, wild animals and sniper attacks they not only hatch an ingenious scheme to thwart the German high command but slowly discover they like each other more than they thought. Unique for it’s use of actual African locations (though much filming was also done on British sound stages) this is one of Hollywood’s most iconic romantic adventure stories. If the plot is somewhat facile and the ending wholly contrived, director John Huston more than makes up for it with gorgeous technicolour cinematography and a brilliant script by the late James Agee. Furthermore, the combined star power of Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart ensures The African Queen a permanent place in the realm of cinema classics.

Aftermath/Genesis (Spain 1994) (8): “Death has its price…” says the subtitle of director Nacho Cerdà’s amazing and abhorrent pair of horror shorts which sprang from his twin fascinations with death and autopsies. In Aftermath a pair of morgue attendants take an unusually cavalier attitude when carving up the bodies entrusted to their care, but when one of the men finds himself alone with the corpse of a once very beautiful (and now very mangled) young woman…well…boys will be boys. Several prolonged and horrifically graphic scenes of necrophilia later and he’s ready for bed—but not before one last desecration. “I wanted to present a nightmare from which the audience can never wake up” states a painfully young Cerdà in a post-production interview. Lines were crossed. In Genesis however, Cerdà puts aside the butcher knives and vaseline and flexes his artistic muscles instead as he presents a beautifully lyrical and almost unbearably sad tale of love and grief. After losing his wife in a fatal car crash, a heartbroken artist fashions a life-sized statue in her image. But as his work nears completion he finds the sculpture taking on a life of its own even as his own life takes a drastically different path. Graced by a soundtrack of soft classics and mournful chorales Genesis certainly surpasses the pornographic gore of Aftermath (which nevertheless contains a jarring artistry of its own). Considering Cerdà had just graduated from film school though, both short features display a surprisingly mature use of sound, lighting, and camerawork (with no dialogue) in order to set moods which swing from grotesque nihilism to poignant melancholy.

After Porn Ends (USA 2010) (7): What happens to porn stars after they get old and their careers end? Director Bryce Wagoner manages to gather a who’s who of adult actors from the 70s, 80s, and 90s for this telling “where are they now” documentary which challenges many of the myths surrounding the porn industry and the people who work in it. With a couple of expert talking heads including a UCLA psychologist, controversial journalist Luke Ford, and former star turned advocate Bill Margold providing context, Wagoner sets up his camera and lets his subjects talk about their lives before, during, and after porn. As it turns out their reasons for entering the industry are not as varied as one would expect with tales of rebellion, abuse, and the lure of quick cash more common than not, or as Margold succinctly sums it up, the need for “recognition, validation, and credibility”. But far from the “broken twisted lives” portrayed by a deeply cynical Ford (who, ironically, runs a few adult sites of his own) life after porn for these people is surprisingly varied. Despite their past occasionally blindsiding them (“X is forever” warns a few insiders) many have managed to move on and reinvent themselves: superstar John Leslie engaged in his twin passions of music and painting before succumbing to a heart attack in 2010, actress Mary Carey ran for California governor (she came in 10th), actress/producer/director/writer Asia Carrera is a single mother and MENSA member living in Utah, and actor Richard Pacheco, who once considered becoming a rabbi, is an author and artiste. Sadly other stories were not as successful with drugs, alcohol, and abusive relationships the norm while others found another addiction of sorts in religious fundamentalism thus giving rise to the “Pink Cross” bible ministries aimed at “healing lives from porn”. There is a strange disconnect evident amongst those that fared poorly after leaving their careers—they talk longingly of change and hope yet their furtive mannerisms, surgically enhanced chests, and collagen lips seem to tell a different story; no surprise then that many of them ended up back in front of the camera. Overall a fair and even-handed approach to people who work in an area of entertainment which, as many are quick to point out, still carries a lasting stigma even in this day and age.

After the Wedding (Denmark 2006) (6): Jacob, a Danish man running an orphanage in India, is promised a large donation from a wealthy businessman providing he returns to Denmark to receive it personally. Upon his arrival the tycoon invites him to his daughter’s wedding and before you can say “Skoal” skeletons begin flying out of closets and hidden agendas are laid bare. Jacob is disgusted by the lies and subterfuge he encounters but before he can return to India the businessman makes him one final offer he can’t refuse... Bier deftly contrasts the material poverty of an Indian slum with the emotional poverty of an upper class family half a world away. She doesn’t judge her characters too harshly, after all everyone has a reason for being dishonest, but neither does she excuse them. In the end we are left watching a group of bumbling adults tripping over their own good intentions as they try to make peace with one another. There is a good premise here and some good performances. Furthermore the camerawork has a refreshingly natural feel to it that gives the story a sense of immediacy. I also appreciated Bier’s occasional use of wry humour…..the drunken billionaire sitting in his office surrounded by trophy heads was especially effective. Unfortunately she asks us to accept too much on faith…..some aspects of the story are not credible and some of the “coincidences” are a bit contrived. She puts too much on one plate when a minimalist approach would have proven more effective. Alas, this is the type of crowd-pleasing soap opera that is always credited with being far more profound than it really is.

The Age of Innocence (USA 1993) (9): Set among the ornate brownstones and gilded ballrooms of 1870s New York society, Martin Scorsese’s sumptuous adaptation of Edith Wharton’s story is one of his most restrained and therefore most powerful films. An epic period drama about star-crossed lovers, it follows the fortunes of stalwart attorney Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) whose happy engagement to mousy debutante May Welland (Winona Ryder, Best Supporting Actress nominee) is threatened when he meets her cousin Ellen (Michelle Pfeiffer), a disgraced countess fleeing from an unhappy marriage in Europe and now ostracized by New York’s elite for her “unconventional ways”. Finding in Ellen a kindred rebel spirit which sees the world as it truly is—so unlike May’s timid domesticity and naïve conviction that all is harmony and order—the two are gradually drawn to one another. But this is Victorian Era America and beneath all the gold leaf and rococo trappings the privileged gentry are confined by a rigid set of social codes more impenetrable than that of any primitive tribe so it isn’t long before gossip and innuendo ensure that any action taken by Newland or Ellen will come at a cost. Apparently Scorsese deemed this his “most violent film” not for any physical action but for its sheer depth of emotion. indeed, despite their waxed moustaches and butterfly dresses, the refined gentlemen and ladies depicted here are able to flash the most dazzling of smiles even as they twist their knives further in. A wistful, heartbreaking, and deeply romantic piece with a baroque score and erudite script—partially narrated by Joanne Woodward—all set off by Michael Ballhaus’ golden cinematography, Gabriela Pescucci’s Oscar-winning costume designs, and set decorations which make old New York’s monied class come to life once more, if only for a few hours.

The Age of Stupid (UK 2009) (8): Set on a pollution-ravaged Earth circa 2065 this quasi-documentary/sci-fi hybrid stars Pete Postlethwaite as the embittered curator of the "Global Archives"; a stronghold off the coast of Norway built to house the last remnants of terrestrial life as well as the bulk of human knowledge. Looking back on the "Age of Stupid" (1950 - present) he pieces together what led up to the world's ecological and social collapse; a mixture of short-sightedness, corporate greed and unchecked consumerism. In the words of one 80-year old mountain guide, filmed as he gazed upon a shrinking glacier, “We knew how to profit but not how to protect...” A winning combination of actual news and documentary footage coupled with comic book effects which, unfortunately, will only be seen by those who already believe its dire message. Unsettling.

Agnes and His Brothers (Germany 2004) (6):  Oskar Roehler’s overly ambitious family drama follows the separate stories of three adult siblings from the highly dysfunctional Tschirner clan.  Eldest brother Werner, a successful politician, is slowly going mad thanks in large part to his emotionally frigid wife and loveless marriage.  To make matters worse his snotty son, who seems uncomfortably close to mom, is not only videotaping his mental unraveling but growing a healthy crop of pot in the couple’s front yard to boot.  Middle brother Hans-Jörg is an alcoholic sex addict and chronic masturbator whose monomaniacal obsession with women causes him to lose his job, his dignity, and  quite possibly his sanity.  Lastly there is little brother “Agnes” now a marginalized transsexual involved in a violent relationship who may or may not be harbouring a traumatic secret from her childhood.  Their unhappy adulthoods seem to be related to their slovenly hippy of a father and his child-rearing practices which left much to be desired.  With resentments all around and tensions becoming unbearable, the only pressing question is who will snap first.  This is a dark bit of filmmaking whose occasional flashes of weak sunlight do little to dispel the gloom.  Although the main performances are uniformly excellent the script is woefully short on substance, as if loud histrionics and thumbnail characterizations should be enough to carry us along.  Roehler asks us to fill in too many narrative gaps and leaves the role of the father, which is pivotal to an understanding of the story, weak and poorly developed.  Furthermore, the siblings’ unique tales fail to overlap but run parallel to each other instead.  This lack of a group dynamic robs the film of much of its power and leaves the characters' final scenes involving tragedy, hope, and reconciliation, flat and unmoving.  Agnes fails to earn the dramatic impact it was aiming for leaving us with little more than a handsome ragbag of missed potential.  Nice soundtrack though.

The Agony and the Ecstasy (USA 1965) (8): A wonderfully old-fashioned costume epic depicting the titanic battle of egos waged between Michelangelo, “the sculptor who never wanted to be a painter”, and Julius II, the “warrior pope”, who commissioned the reluctant artist to adorn the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Often filmed high atop his elaborate scaffolding surrounded by swirling saints, Michelangelo wrestles with issues of faith and artistic license while Julius, firmly rooted on the ground, struggles to keep the Church alive and solvent while engaged in a war against France. But the two men meet their greatest match, both spiritually and temperamentally, in each other. In the roles of Pontiff and Painter, Rex Harrison and Charlton Heston are perfectly paired (although Heston occasionally lapses into his “Moses” persona), while a soaring orchestral score and sumptuous widescreen cinematography keep things appropriately grand; candlelit scenes of those famous frescoes in the process of becoming are especially well done. An engaging piece of cinema exploring faith, duty, and the inherent suffering of the artist.

Aguirre, The Wrath of God (Germany 1972) (10): Sixteenth century Spanish explorer Gonzalo Pizarro leads a ragtag group of conquistadors, nobles, and Indian slaves into the wild Peruvian jungle to search for the fabled city of gold, El Dorado. But one of his officers, the sullen and megalomaniacal Don Lope de Aguirre (an equally sullen Klaus Kinski), stages a coup and heads off with his band of mutineers to claim El Dorado for himself. Their nightmarish journey along the Amazon, plagued by violence, lunacy, and deprivation, becomes an allegory on the foibles of human avarice. Aguirre, driven mad by visions of power, crowns one of his cohorts “king” of El Dorado while the church, represented by a cowering monk who also serves as narrator, tries to ingratiate itself to whomever wields the most power. Meanwhile the rest of the men, seeing the preferential treatment afforded lord and commander, begin to reconsider their loyalties yet again. Time and nature eventually take their toll however, and in one of cinema’s most tormented sequences a raving Aguirre takes stock of his dwindling “empire”. Actually filmed on location aboard a small fleet of makeshift rafts, director Werner Herzog and crew suffered through many of the same hardships as the characters in the story with a colossal battle of egos between pigheaded director and a temperamental Kinski becoming the stuff of cinematic legend. But the finished product is breathtaking with its glorious cinematography set off by a spare yet evocative musical score. Although the entire cast put forth memorable performances, Kinski’s depraved Aguirre dominates every scene—glowering and hissing like a pit viper, his lurching gait and crooked back calling to mind a Castilian Richard III. Culling whatever he can from his surroundings whether manmade or natural (a boat suspended from a tree provides a haunting visual while a troop of frantic monkey manage to upstage Kinski himself) Herzog spins a tragic parable whose occasional flashes of gallows humour only accentuate its funereal tone.

A Hijacking (Denmark 2012) (10): A Danish cargo ship with nine men on board is hijacked by Somali pirates who demand a fifteen million dollar ransom for its release. Back in Copenhagen the company CEO, a man who is used to wheeling and dealing in order to get what he wants, decides to go against the advice of the international hostage negotiator his company hired and deal with the pirates’ English-speaking negotiator himself…a decision which will have a profound impact on both himself and the ship’s crew. Comparisons to Tom Hank’s 2013 blockbuster, Captain Phillips, are inevitable of course, but writer/director Tobias Lindholm avoids the winning big screen bravado of the latter and instead concentrates on the psychological toll such an incident exacts on the sailors as well as the negotiating team back home. With the ongoing parley—conducted over fax and phone—stretching from days into months as alternate offers are tabled and rejected, the various deprivations see the crew slowly unravel. Even the pirate negotiator, a man who insists on his own impartiality by repeatedly avowing, “I’m not one of them!”, begins to succumb to the pressure of having to broker a seemingly impossible deal between a hardline businessman (whose bluffs can’t conceal the fact he’s terrified) and a ragtag troop of heavily armed outlaws who are growing more impatient each day. Lindholm’s tense standoff drama ultimately rests on two men: ship’s cook, Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk) whose heartbreaking descent into panic and near catatonic anguish perfectly encapsulates the mood of his fellow sailors, and stone-faced company CEO Peter (Søren Malling) whose own feelings of outrage and impotence are underscored by the tense faces of the crew’s families. Relative unknown Abdihakin Asgar also puts in a fine performance as the voice of the pirates, a harried middleman who, like the captive Danes he oversees, would much rather be at home with his own family. With action shifting from cramped, malodorous ship’s cabins to an equally cramped situation room back in Denmark, Lindholm leaves audiences little room to breathe nor does the tension ever let up. Indeed, an uneasy fraternization between captives and captors—born out of close proximity and hampered by a language barrier—is too often dispelled when machine guns are waved at heads. With a cast of anti-heroes drenched in fear and sweat, the resolution of Lindholm’s gripping shipboard drama may not carry the visceral satisfaction of Hanks’ movie (Rambo fans take note) but it will hit you harder and last longer because of that, for it carries the unmistakable sting of reality.

Alexandra (Russia 2007) (6): Using highly formalized visuals that oddly complement its overall verité style, writer/Director Aleksandr Sokurov applies his dreamlike prose to the futility of war and the results, while visually striking, still fall far short of 1997’s Mother and Son. Alexandra, an eighty-year old grandmother, rides convoy trains and armoured tanks in order to visit her grandson, an army officer stationed in Chechnya. Once arrived however her matronly presence has an untoward effect on the troops even as the ravaged countryside (and its inhabitants) take a toll on her. Taken as a critique of warfare Sokurov’s elderly babushka becomes an everyman figure, muttering non-sequiturs as she hobbles through a camp devoid of colour wherein everything is covered in dust and soldiers are frightened boys dwarfed by the military machines rumbling past them. Her visit to a modest local market gives rise to further sad ruminations when she teams up with a Chechen grandmother and the two reflect on the human cost of armed conflict. Taken as a socio-political allegory she becomes a weary Mother Russia herself, all aches and pains as she looks back on an unhappy life while alternately doling out sympathy and sharp criticism to the troops she encounters—the young men attracted by the wizened authority she exudes. Finally, taken as a two-handed drama it becomes problematic, for even though we know she and her grandson have been apart for seven years, Sokurov gives few clues as to what has gone on before leading to an awkward confession on Alexandra’s part followed by an even more awkward embrace. Despite the washed out cinematography and a static sense of life holding its breath (the ongoing battle is reduced to fires seen in the distance) the film, like its mumbling limping namesake, doesn’t seem to know where it wants to go and instead takes us in tiresome circles only to end where it began. And perhaps it’s this seemingly pointless circularity itself which encapsulates Sokurov’s strongest point. Octogenarian Galina Vishnevskaya, a former opera singer, does put in a fine performance as Alexandra—you can practically feel her arthritic bones and the mountain of sadness she carries within her heart—but even she is not able to buoy up a movie meant to crawl along at ground level.

Alfie (UK 1966) (5): Lewis Gilbert’s depressingly cynical film follows the exploits of one self-absorbed thirtyish libertine whose cavalier attitude seems to attract an endless stream of unhappy doormats only too happy to trade in their dignity for a place in his bed. Firmly entrenched in the centre of his own universe, Alfie sees women as little more than something to be used and then discarded as soon as they develop inconvenient feelings for him, whether it be a young runaway, a despondent housewife, or the neglected mother of his bastard child. In fact, anyone and anything is fair game in his single-minded pursuit of material pleasure. Three key incidents eventually do threaten to knock some feeling into him; a wealthy widow gives him a bitter dose of reality, a poignant churchyard scene reminds him of what he could have had, and he is forced to confront the tragic consequences of one particularly irresponsible affair. But as the camera follows him through the aftermath and into the next day we are left wondering whether or not he’s learned anything at all. In the title role Michael Caine’s cheeky portrayal of a selfish lout determined to look out for number one, yet secretly afraid of being alone, earned him a well-deserved Oscar nomination. His ongoing monologues aimed directly at the audience (a clever device by Gilbert borrowed from the original play perhaps?) puts us in the interesting position of being both conscience and jury. But what is the purpose behind all this deliberate provocation? What exactly is Gilbert wanting us to feel? Alfie is certainly beneath our contempt (isn’t he?) but, with one glaring exception, the doe-eyed dishrags he takes delight in misusing are not entirely sympathetic either. For all its mod flourishes and frank dialogue, the film remains terribly dated as well as socially irrelevant. Try as I might I simply can’t see the character of Alfie as a serious metaphor, nor can I glean any deeper meaning from his crass misogynistic ramblings. What we’re left with then is the tragic escapades of an arrogant and deluded emotional sadist. And that is what it’s all about, Alfie.

Algiers (USA 1938) (7): France’s most wanted jewel thief, the dashing Pepe le Moko (Charles Boyer), has fled to Algeria with a fortune in gems and now lives like a king in the capital’s Casbah district. An exotic rat’s nest of twisting alleyways and interconnected terraces alive with criminals and other undesirables, the Casbah allows Pepe and his henchmen to hide in plain sight where they provide a constant source of irritation for the local authorities. But women are his Achille’s heel and when he meets attractive Parisian socialite Gaby (Hedy Lamarr) who’s vacationing in Algiers with her sugar daddy fiancé, their star-crossed romance could spell trouble for the wary Pepe… Shunned by American censors for its allusions to prostitution, licentiousness, and “kept women”, John Cromwell’s remake of the 1937 French hit Pépé le Moko is tame by today’s standards although there is no mistaking the erotic sparks flying between its two leads—Boyer’s photogenic looks and intense gaze definitely find their mark in the beautiful Lamarr’s downcast eyes. Combining grainy on-location travelogue footage with Hollywood sound stages works well for the most part but Cromwell seems stuck in the Silent Film Era with a couple of emotive performances and awkward close-ups (Boyer’s EYES! Lamarr’s TEETH!). Still, as the pace quickens, a compelling melodrama unfolds with tragedy, romance, and an obligatory musical croon from Boyer himself. He received an Oscar nomination for his flamboyant performance as did Canada’s own Gene Lockhart for his role as Pepe’s double-crossing double agent. But it’s Joseph Calleia who ultimately anchors the film as Inspector Slimane, an honest, soft-spoken cop and acquaintance of le Moko who realizes this particular case will require brains over brawn. An amusing side note, Boyer’s portrayal of the charming thief would go on to inspire the cartoon character of “Pepe le Pew”, Warner Brothers’ horny French skunk.

Alice in Wonderland: An X-Rated Musical Fantasy (USA 1976) (6):  Alice is a painfully naive librarian who dreams of being a woman even as she rejects her handsome boyfriend’s amorous advances.  It finally takes a trip through a looking glass to the madcap (and shockingly liberal ) realm of Wonderland to free her from her inhibitions.....and most of her clothes.  This infamous adult musical based on Lewis Carroll’s children’s book was first marketed as a mainstream softcore  “nudie” by 20th Century Fox.  Fox was apparently not aware of the fact that several hardcore scenes were also filmed but edited out of the final product....until Subversive Cinema managed to procure the naughty bits for this uncut DVD version.  Oddly enough this strange little film actually works for the most part.  The original songs are wonderfully corny; the sets and costumes, while obviously low budget, are bright and colourful; and the script is a bizarre mixture of 70’s burlesque and bedtime story.  Of course the acting is hopelessly uneven and the sex scenes prove to be more distracting than integral, but there is a sense of innocent hedonism to the proceedings that I found quite entertaining.  And Alice’s query, “What’s a nice girl like you doing on a knight like this?” is definitely one of the greatest film quotes I’ve ever heard!

Alien Vs. Predator Requiem (USA 2007) (3):  When a mob of fertile Aliens go tusk to tusk with one very pissed off Predator in a small Colorado town (apparently located just outside of Vancouver) the local townsfolk wind up with two new career options......egg basket or lunch.  There are so many awful things about this film that it is easier to list the things I actually liked:  some of the creature effects were cool, the exploding heads were funny, and the “maternity ward massacre” was just plain wrong on so many levels.  Lastly, despite all the hype on the box the gore factor in this “unrated” version was not only disappointingly tame but poorly lit as well.  A real cinematic stink bomb.

All Fall Down (USA 1962) (9): With it’s ironic allusions to The Nativity, Cain & Abel, The Prodigal Son, plus a ramshackle Garden of Eden with too many worms and apples, director John Frankenheimer’s dark family drama is almost a parable unto itself. Brothers Clinton and Berry-Berry Willart (Brandon de Wilde, Warren Beatty), couldn’t be less alike: Clinton’s trusting, wide-eyed naïf contrasting sharply with his revered older brother’s self-destructive womanizing misogynist. Meanwhile, the family home is an unpredictable battleground with their idealistic father, Ralph (Karl Malden) dousing his many disappointments with whiskey and their prattling neurotic mother Annabell (Angela Lansbury) unwilling to face the elephants in the living room. Things come to a full boil however when the older daughter of a family friend pays a visit (Eva Marie Saint) and both brothers become smitten—a situation which brings about a troubling sea change in mom. Presented in rich B&W that dulls the sunlight while accentuating the shadows, this is a slice of small town American gothic whose occasional excesses—naming the eldest son after a wasting disease for example—are compensated by superb casting and a script that crackles with repressed tensions. Malden and Lansbury are pure cinematic gold as they cross swords more out of weary habit than passion, de Wilde’s innocence makes that final fall from grace all the more poignant, and even though Beatty’s amoral libertine seems underdeveloped his performance still packs a punch when his epiphany finally comes. For her part as the aging spinster (all of thirty-one, gasp!) Saint ends up showing the most range going as she does from frustration to elation to desperation to summation. Lionel Lindon’s cinematography glides through seamy dives and kitschy parlours alike, his cameras coming to rest on the drawn face of a prostitute or the ambivalent gleam in Annabell’s eye as she looks upon her firstborn with something more than maternal devotion. One scene in particular stands out, a tryst by a pond filmed through layers of gauze with blossoming trees, swans, and an offscreen orchestra lending a false mythological sheen to what is essentially a hasty rut. Through his two male leads Frankenheimer juxtaposes goodness and honour with all seven of the deadly sins and the result is quite often arresting.

All is Lost (USA 2013) (9): At the age of seventy-seven Robert Redford gives a powerful solo performance in writer/director J. C. Chandor’s moving story of one old man and a very different sea. When his sailboat is rammed by a rogue cargo container somewhere on the Indian Ocean a lone yachtsman methodically goes about assessing the damage and repairing what he can. Miles from any safe haven (or even a passing ship) he struggles to keep his crippled boat on course but Nature still has a few nasty curveballs up her sleeve and after riding out an especially vehement squall the man begins to realize he may very well be living out his final days… From this simple premise Chandor weaves a meticulous allegory touching on issues of courage, determination, and a pervasive sense of our own fragile mortality. With only a few lines of dialogue he instead relies on astonishing cinematography which plunges his viewers into a storm-tossed ship’s galley or marvels at sunlight glinting off the silvery scales of fish as they glide past like a shoal of placid angels. With the camera rarely straying far from his side, every line on Redford’s weathered face seems to have a story to tell and as he jots down a few notes in his logbook we are offered only a fleeting glimpse into the complexities behind the man. With so much left unsaid then, it is only fitting that the film closes with an ambiguous underwater tableau as beautiful as it is cryptic. A surreal, nearly subliminal score of ambient harmonies propels an already gripping tale of disaster at sea into something approaching transcendence.

All That Heaven Allows  (USA 1955) (8):  Pretty controversial for its time, this film by Douglas Sirk revolves around a mature woman who falls in love with a much younger man.  It proves to be yet another magnificent over-the-top technicolour melodrama from the master of the genre. As always the pretty colours and beautiful white people are merely props used to illustrate darker truths......middle class conformity, xenophobia, materialism, alienation, and the social isolation that awaits those who dare to think outside the pack mentality. Don't dismiss this film based on its soap opera's a bitter pill wrapped with a candy coating.

All That Jazz (USA 1979) (9): Stage legend Bob Fosse does a pas de deux with his own mortality in this beautifully conceived, semi-autobiographical story of Joe Gideon, an edgy Broadway director with insatiable appetites for perfection, sex, and dexedrine. Forsaking love and commitment, much to the chagrin of the women in his life, Gideon drives himself to produce bigger and better shows until a couple of blocked coronary arteries bring down the final curtain. Roy Scheider is amazing as the charismatic Gideon, his manic portrayal of a man dancing over the abyss is at once tragic and breathtaking. The supporting cast is strong and the musical interludes are superb culminating in one of Hollywood's more famous song & dance numbers as a hospitalized Gideon hallucinates his final farewell while Death (a luminous Jessica Lange) looks calmly on. Bold, brash and self-indulgent all the way, just like its director, this is one of the better films to come out of the 70s.

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.

All the President’s Men (USA 1976) (8): On June 17th 1972, five men were caught breaking in to the National Democratic Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington D.C. But when Bob Woodward, a cub reporter for the Washington Post, discovered that not only were the men carrying surveillance equipment, some of them had ties to the C.I.A. as well, he and fellow newspaperman Carl Bernstein spearheaded a journalistic investigation which uncovered a web of deceit and political espionage stretching all the way to President Nixon’s personal cabinet. Based on Woodward and Bernstein’s subsequent book, Alan J. Pakula’s film is both a taut newspaper procedural and a damning indictment of the lengths politicians will go in order to stay in power. Utilizing harsh fluorescent lighting, explosive sound editing (typewriter strokes superimposed over cannon fire...brilliant!), and a highly kinetic visual style Pakula’s cast of Hollywood heavyweights, led by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, breathe life into those glaring headlines while William Goldman’s screenplay tries to make sense out of a decidedly serpentine plot. Furthermore, the inclusion of archival television footage keeps things rooted in reality while the use of two-way telephone conversations, wherein the audience is privy to both sides of the call, gives a feeling of authenticity. Whether we’ve become more accustomed to Washington scandals in the forty years following Watergate, or just more tired and apathetic, All The President’s Men still serves as a valuable time capsule which hearkens back to the days before journalism became the three-ring infotainment travesty it is today.

All This and Heaven Too (USA 1940) (5): Based on a true story, Anatole Litvak’s grievously over-baked melodrama, set in 19th century Paris, follows virtuous doe-eyed governess Bette Davis as she accepts a position in the luxurious home of Duke Charles Boyer. The Duke’s children, epitomizing sugar & spice, immediately take to their new mentor as she brings sunshine into their lonely lives and single-handedly saves little Reynald from a nasty case of diphtheria. Unfortunately, the duke also finds himself attracted to the diminutive teacher; a fact not lost upon his wife, a pathologically jealous and sexually frustrated shrew who spends her days writing him rambling letters and her nights scheming to make everyone’s lives more miserable than they already are. With the duke and governess gazing chastely at one another and the duchess’ insanity becoming increasingly theatrical, it comes as no surprise when heartbreak, madness, and tragedy arrive on the doorstep. Told in flashback as Davis’ character, now teaching French in America, tries to plead her case before a classroom of malicious debutantes who have labeled her a fallen woman, Litvak’s lavish soap opera overflows with sobbing close-ups set to weeping strings. Too bad, since some solid performances and a few clever jabs at social hypocrisy and religious dogma wind up getting lost amidst all the flailing and emoting. The sets, however, are amazing.

Alphaville (France 1965) (5): Despite its lofty premise Jean-Luc Godard’s sci-fi noir—a satirical dystopian downer that could have been penned by Orwell and Dick with a little advice from Kafka and Bradbury—plays out like an unfinished art project. In a faraway galaxy lies Alphaville (looking exactly like 1965 Paris…wink wink), a totalitarian metropolis run by Alpha-60, a computerized tyrant that has outlawed all forms of self-expression—even crying will get you executed by firing squad, your body then thrown into a pool to be stabbed repeatedly by a women’s synchronized swim team (huh?) Into this iron-fisted autocracy comes Lemmy Caution, an American agent decked out in trench coat, fedora, and flash camera, who is tasked with destroying Alpha-60 before it can realize its goal of galactic conquest. But two seemingly insurmountable problems stand in his way: he falls in love with the daughter of Alpha’s evil creator, and he has no idea how one goes about breaking an unbreakable machine with superhuman powers. Godard deconstructs the usual science-fiction tropes using low budget stand-ins: a Plymouth Valiant takes the place of a spaceship and futuristic technology is merely suggested by blinking lights, toy phones, and the disembodied voice of Alpha itself provided by an uncredited actor using an electronic voice box so grating I was tempted to turn the sound off altogether. He then adds a few clever touches such as replacing the Gideon bible in hotel rooms with an official dictionary that is constantly being revised to remove such problematic words as “Love” and “Conscience”. And the industrial settings are pure film noir with impersonal office buildings looking down upon rain-soaked streets and Caution letting his pistol speak for him as he manoeuvres his way through a society of law-abiding automatons made crushingly uniform by Alpha’s pervasive control. Even the characters’ names provide a bit of sardonic irony: Doctors von Braun, Nosferatu, and Heckell ’n Jeckell all get their fifteen minutes. But the editing is too disjointed, the plotting too opaque (perhaps on purpose), and the dialogue—gleaned from the works of Jorge Luis Borges and French surrealist Paul Éluard—too often drifts into arthouse gibberish. Lastly, the distinct lack of anything even remotely resembling special effects definitely marks this as “cinema of the mind” which would probably have played better on the radio. Besides, we’ve already seen mad computers and enslaved populations in countless other sci-fi offerings, and the film’s unoriginal ending will give anyone familiar with E. M. Forster’s novella, The Machine Stops, an unshakeable sense of déjà vu. Look for an underused Akim Tamiroff playing a hapless fellow agent coming apart at the seams thanks to too much enforced conformity.

A Married Woman [Une femme mariée] (France 1964) (6): Composed of interlocking vignettes, some lasting only a dozen seconds or so, this is not the best example of Jean-Luc Godard’s directorial skills. But despite its flat presentation and abrupt editing, his disdain for France’s emerging consumer culture and the way it objectifies women comes through loud and clear—perhaps a bit too loud. Unhappily married Charlotte (a strikingly delicate Macha Méril) is at a crossroads in her life: does she remain with her husband Pierre (a tightly wound Philippe Leroy) or leave him for her newfound lover Robert (Bernard Noël looking like a cross between Cary Grant and Rock Hudson)? Either decision will come at a cost for the possessive Pierre, a commercial pilot, treats her like an errant child to be owned and disciplined—even resorting to private detectives and sexual violence to keep her in line. On the other hand Robert, an actor, treats her like a sex kitten and source of pleasure. Indeed, the first several minutes of the film are nothing but images of him running his hands over her naked body while the camera deconstructs that body into its basic components: shoulders, belly, legs, neck, hands, and finally face. As for Charlotte, she comes across as vain, vacuous, and only able to interact on a superficial level, hardly surprising when one learns that her worldview is mostly gleaned from glossy Cosmo-style magazine articles (“How Perfect is your Bust?”) and seemingly endless ads for women’s underwear which assail her from newspapers and billboards. Even her inner dialogue is underscored by flashes of lurid tabloid headlines and she’s barely moved by radio reports of death and destruction—when the subject of Auschwitz comes up (her husband having visited the site on a recent flyover) she initially draws a blank. Of course, being a nouvelle vague French film there is a whole lot of navel-gazing and visual non-sequiturs going on, but in this case the circuitous dialogue and bland day-to-day diversions are precisely the point Godard is trying to make, even going so far as to implicate the artifice of cinema itself in the process. Not for every taste, I admit I found it a bit of an endurance test at times, but for those interested in the evolution of 60s arthouse cinema this is an important (though hardly essential) piece.

The Amazing Mrs. Holliday (USA 1943) (7): An American schoolteacher working as a missionary in China during the Japanese invasion flees to San Francisco with eight little war orphans in tow. But when the immigration department tries to separate her from the children she finds herself posing as the sweet young widow of a wealthy old commodore who was lost at sea when his ship was torpedoed. Now firmly ensconced in the dead man’s palatial estate with eight wide-eyed moppets, her troubles are only just beginning for besides dealing with a guilty conscience she must also contend with the commodore’s suspicious family and his handsome grandson who seems to be falling for her… Canadian-born Deanna Durbin, Hollywood’s perpetual virgin, plays the title role with her trademark “golly gee!” apple pie innocence set to high gear—even managing to give her famous pipes a workout as the screenwriters make room for a couple of songs in English, Italian…and Mandarin no less. She’s joined by Edmond O’Brien as the dashing grandson, fish & chips icon Arthur Treacher as (what else) a stuffy butler, and Barry Fitzgerald as a crusty old sea dog-slash-guardian angel who somehow manages to cajole and manipulate everyone towards the film’s highly improbable happy ending. It’s the kind of fluffy treacle which if made today would be consigned to the Hallmark channel but time and pedigree have allowed it to remain “heartwarming” if not much else. Fine performances—despite that tiresome naïf schtick Durbin was indeed a star—and an Oscar-nominated score of velvety violins make the whole production feel like a summertime Christmas flick. Though uncredited, French master Jean Renoir apparently did the lion’s share of directing but Bruce Manning took all the credit.

Amen (France 2002) (8): Playwright Rolf Hochhuth’s opus The Deputy: A Christian Tragedy created quite a stir after its 1963 Berlin premiere detailing as it did the complicity of the Catholic Church in Hitler’s Final Solution. Now, legendary director Costa-Gavras brings it to the screen in a harrowing adaptation that even Hochhuth is said to have admired. Tasked with disinfecting troop barracks and purifying their drinking water, conscientious SS officer Kurt Gerstein (Ulrich Tukur), a devout Protestant, is horrified to discover that his expertise with chemicals is now being used to exterminate thousands of human beings on a daily basis. Determined to get word out, Gerstein is stonewalled at every turn—from friends, family, and fellow churchgoers who refuse to believe him to Western Allies who prefer to concentrate on their own war effort (while ignoring Jewish refugees seeking asylum) to the Vatican itself whose leader, Pope Pius XII, is more concerned with diplomacy and Hitler’s war on Communism than heeding rumours of death camps. Aided by an equally outraged Jesuit priest (Mathieu Kassovitz) Gerstein must tread a fine line between German patriotism and his moral revulsion towards the Nazi party’s tactics. Needless to say, their stories do not have a happy ending… Outstanding performances all around especially from Tukur whose portrayal of a man torn down the middle goes straight for the heart and Kassovitz who presents us with a young naif whose faith is shaken to its roots when his revelation of war atrocities are met with condemnation from the very people tasked with keeping the Faith. But perhaps Costa-Gavras’ greatest achievement is in his ability to relate the horrors of the Holocaust while barely showing them—the outside walls of a gas chamber tremble silently as an SS officer gloats through a peephole; corpses are briefly glimpsed through the trees as they tumble into hastily built bonfires; and throughout the film grim trains pulling strings of cattle cars constantly traverse the landscape, their engines belching out black smoke like so many crematoriums. The overall impression is of a nightmare from which neither protagonist can awaken delivered with a gut punch usually associated with films that rely on more graphic measures. If Auschwitz and Treblinka were horrible in themselves, so too were the official reactions to news of their existence and Costa-Gavras makes no concessions in this regard whether it’s Pius XII wandering beatifically in papal drag or a Vatican dinner party where cardinals and American diplomats suck back crawfish while staring disinterestedly at a map detailing how many Jewish “units” are to be eliminated. In one pointed scene a fellow Christian and former friend condemns Gerstein’s SS uniform while at the same time his own supposedly innocent war efforts provide the movie with one of its most ironic tweaks. Yet another Holocaust film perhaps, but one told from a most unique and unlikely perspective.

Amer (France/Belgium 2009) (10): Little Ana lives in a big mansion on the Côte d’Azur along with her overbearing mother and ineffectual father. She also shares an adjoining room with the mysterious shrouded maid Graziella who may be a witch, while her mummified grandfather (who may or may not be dead) resides downstairs. Highly sensitive to the negative vibes in the house, Ana is given to frightening flights of fancy with cursed lockets, haunted bedrooms and an increasingly malevolent Graziella preying on her mind. But she is not prepared for the ultimate shock of accidentally walking in on her parents having intercourse. Fast forward to teenaged Ana, a curious young girl whose newfound sexuality has her tightly wound mom trying to slap some chastity into her. Finally we see Ana the adult returning to her childhood home, now in ruins, her head full of vague erotic yearnings which elicit a sense of guilt so strong it actually takes on a life of its own. Framed within the conventions of a European slasher flick, with strong nods to giallo masters Mario Bava and Dario Argento, directors Cattet and Forzani have produced an amazingly surreal psychodrama exploring one woman’s sexual evolution from precocious child to repressed adolescent to frustrated adult (Amer translates as bitter). With only a dozen or so lines of dialogue in the entire film they rely instead on heightening our other senses through the use of provocative imagery, embellished sound, and an acute awareness of colour and texture. The result is a highly sensual, almost tactile experience in which a child’s footsteps crack like muted gunfire and a dripping bedspring splashes into a puddle with the force of a subterranean sea. But it is the exaggerated visuals which ultimately propel the story as a simple bus ride carries the promise of carnal excesses, a trek through an overgrown garden is rife with sin and temptation, and a candlelit bath literally drowns in masturbatory metaphors. With manic editing, jarring sound effects, and a camera that seems to linger on eyes, fingers, and throats, this is pure art house fare whose heavy-handed symbolism and religious references are sure to alienate the popcorn crowd even as it blows away fans of the genre. Personally I was mesmerized.

American Animals (UK 2018) (9): College art major Spencer Reinhard is tired of his average life and yearns for something that will set him apart from the herd. Then he becomes acquainted with his university’s priceless collection of rare books including a volume of watercolours depicting American fowl by James Audubon—artwork which gives the film both its name and central metaphor—and a plan begins to hatch. Joining up with three other disaffected students including anarchist slacker Warren Lipka (and possibly inspired by the movies of Quentin Tarantino) Spencer et al plan a daring daytime theft of several valuable books from the library’s minimally secured “special collections” room. Of course life isn’t like the movies and despite ringleader Lipka’s best laid plans problems, both logistical and psychological, begin to add up. A true story based on an actual 2004 robbery in Lexington, Kentucky, writer/director Bart Layton’s multi-layered scrutiny of restless youth and the pursuit of American-style celebrity unfolds at breakneck speed, stopping now and again to break that fourth wall as the real students behind the characters—now adults—give account for their actions, their stories often conflicting as they mistake one another’s memories for their own. Segueing between reality and dramatization, and elevated by a phenomenal soundtrack including a show-stopping rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Who By Fire”, Layton’s arthouse hybrid of heist flick and psychodrama is pure cinema. With evocative cinematography that draws upon everything from strobing flashlights to anxiety-riddled verité, and four powerhouse performances from leads Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, and Evan Peters, American Animals is not so much a crime re-enactment as it is a dissection of those egocentric forces which led up to it. Finally, as if to add a dash of irony to this underlying theme, Layton concludes with a brief “where are they now?” segment which suggests that life sometimes does imitate art. Or is it the other way around?

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.

American History X (USA 1998) (7):  Sent to prison on manslaughter charges for the brutal slaying of two black men who were trying to break into his jeep, confirmed Neo-Nazi Derek Vinyard (a ridiculously buff Edward Norton proving he deserved that Oscar nomination) returns to his southern California neighbourhood a changed man thanks to a series of prison epiphanies.  Making amends to the family he once disowned for their “liberal bias” Derek embarks upon the straight and narrow. Unfortunately his younger brother Danny ("Terminator’s" Edward Furlong) seems hellbent on following in his older brother’s footsteps and is now the golden child of the same White Supremacist guru who set Derek on the wrong path years ago.  Joining forces with one of Danny’s teachers, a black man who sees the boy’s true potential, Derek is determined to protect his brother from becoming what he once was.  But the past is not so easily dismissed and Derek suddenly finds his life threatened by both the Aryans and the friends of the two men he killed.  Tony Kaye’s unsettling look at the evolution of hate features a stellar cast, an unflinching script, and enough point/counterpoint arguments to fuel a dozen heated discussions outside the theatre.  No one is born prejudiced and through a series of clever B&W flashbacks we see how Derek’s emotional vulnerability following the senseless murder of his father (a man with definite opinions of his own) left him wide open to the kind of racist rhetoric that appears to offer easy explanations to a young man filled with rage and grief.  But far from one-sided, Kaye examines the race divide from both sides showing those small transgressions and deliberate misunderstandings that inevitably lead to greater tragedies.  Perhaps he relies a bit too much on images of slo-mo seagulls, ebbing tides, and cascades of cleansing water (another shower anyone?) and those soaring choral pieces, while deeply moving, do get heavy-handed at times. But there is still an unshakeable ardor to Kaye’s film (even though he eventually gave up on the project) which manages to weather most of its Hollywood embellishments.  Too bad he felt the need for those terribly schmaltzy final scenes.

American Hustle (USA 2013) (9): At the height of the Disco Era a pair of New York con artists have built a modest empire selling forged paintings and offering bogus loans to desperate men with questionable debts. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale personifying sleazy chic with beer gut, coloured shades and the worst combover in filmdom) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams, a conflicted mix of bewildered naif and hungry predator) are also lovers much to the chagrin of Irving’s neurotic wife Rosalyn. It all comes crashing down however when the two are nabbed by FBI agent Richie DiMaso who makes them an offer they can’t refuse: either aid the Feds in catching a few corrupt low-level politicians or face lengthy prison sentences. It all seems pretty easy at first until things begin to go wrong: Richie starts to have feelings for Sydney; Irving develops a friendship with one of the targeted men; and Rosalyn dusts off her high heels and decides to make a few waves of her own. But when the overly ambitious DiMaso, already unhinged thanks to a violent temper and taste for cocaine, decides to widen his net to include a couple of high-ranking congressmen and a very dangerous mob boss, Irving and Sydney realize they must pull their biggest scam yet or else face consequences far worse than jail. Writer/director David O. Russell has fashioned a giddy yarn of cross and double-cross populated by fully fleshed clichés and presented with all the moral ambivalence of a sinister sitcom. He further embellishes things with a frantic editing style, a glorious soundtrack of old A.M. radio classics, and more kitsch than the 1975 Sears catalogue. However, although the story is very loosely based on the FBI’s Abscam Sting (an opening title card assures us that “some of this stuff actually happened”) his film is essentially all about appearances, lies, and bullshit. It’s about the many ways we con ourselves into seeing what we want to believe in order to satisfy our need for either money, love, or prestige. But the fact that he has taken a tired old Hollywood plot, gussied it up with some A-list performances and a brilliantly sardonic script (partly improvised), and then marketed it as an Oscar contender may be the biggest hustle of all. Sir, I salute you!

An American in Paris (USA 1951) (6): An ex-GI decides to follow his dream of becoming a famous artist while living in the fabled City of Lights. Along the way he is wooed by a rich cougar, falls in love with his friend’s fiancee, and finds ample opportunities to sing and dance. This is certainly a technicolor delight filled with postcard cinematography and a famous soundtrack of hummable Gershwin tunes. Some highlights include a one-man orchestra performance by Oscar Levant, a sequence of whirling solos by Leslie Caron, and an extended dance routine played out against vibrant cardboard cut-outs of Paris complete with misty fountains and glowing archways. Unfortunately it soon becomes apparent that Caron and Kelly are performers, not actors. While the choreography is technically on the mark and the vocals are pitch-perfect, there is no chemistry between the two leads and therefore no depth to the story itself. Their tearful romance is little more than a colourful prop meant to bridge the gaps between song and dance numbers. Worth a look, but file it under “light entertainment”.

Amityville: The Awakening (USA 2017) (4): The fact that it took five years to complete and then suffered through three disastrous release dates before settling for a limited run should give you a clue as to the quality of Frank Khalfoun’s contribution to the Amityville Horror franchise. Unfortunately some of us don’t heed the warnings. Forty years after the iconic New York farmhouse’s demonic presence caused a man to off his entire family—good use of fake news footage—angry single mother Joan (Jennifer Jason Leigh finding a new career low) and her three kids move in just as the demons are getting restless again. But even though sullen goth teen Belle (a sullen Bella Thorne and her panties) suspects something is amiss and cutesy Juliet (Mckenna Grace) finds a bogeyman in her closet, the house seems most interested in their brother James (Cameron Monaghan stretching the special effects budget), a twisted comatose paraplegic hooked up to home life support and the apple of Joan’s obsessive eye. The usual shocks and mayhem ensue as an increasingly agile James leads the family down a rabbit hole so lined with clichés and illogical plot points that even the devil gives up eventually. However effective some of those shocks are—a zombie dog was gross and a mirrored reflection almost made me drop my digestive cookie—they’re all for naught as Khalfoun piles on the silliness with an obscure biblical reference, too many doors and windows slamming open and closed, and a family-unfriendly “climax” which might have been more watchable had the studio not trimmed it down for that coveted PG-13 rating. Setting itself up as a new “true story” of sorts, it also mocks the previous Amityville movies with Belle and her creepy pals watching the James Brolin original on DVD just as the lights go out prompting a trek to the basement fuse box. Glass houses Mr. Khalfoun, glass houses. At least upstate New York looked splendid with the odd palm tree (it was filmed in Long Beach…oops). Maybe they could name the next turkey pile Amityville: Go Back to Sleep Already and be done with it?

A Most Violent Year (USA 2014) (8): When making a moral decision do we focus more on the consequences of our actions or the “rightness” of the actions themselves? Writer/director J. C. Chandor tackles this age old quandary with an intense drama that zeroes in on ambitious yet virtuous entrepreneur Abel Morales and his more pragmatic wife, Anna (Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain providing onscreen dynamite). Set in New York circa 1981—statistically the most crime-ridden year in that city’s history—Morales is intent on expanding his heating oil business by purchasing some prime industrial real estate at great personal risk. Standing in his way however are the D.A.’s office which has made his company the focus of a corruption investigation, and a pair of unknown thugs who are regularly hijacking his fuel trucks. Honest to the core, the harried businessman nevertheless sees his American Dream aspirations slipping away with every theft and subpoena while those he once considered friends and confidantes—including his lawyer (Albert Brooks), his teamster foreman, and Anna who doubles as company accountant—offer solutions steeped in various degrees of moral repugnancy. But as his financial situation becomes ever more precarious Morales is forced to acknowledge that in the world of business, ethics is relative and even the most upright objectives cannot escape the taint of corruption. Shot in dreary industrial locales with the spires of New York glittering in the distance, Chandor’s tight editing and articulate script make two hours fly by while the film’s sense of classical tragedy is enhanced by a soundtrack of funereal movements and lethargic radio voices recapping the day’s crime statistics as if they were reciting a shopping list. Isaac’s disheartened Everyman is a study in outrage and control as he tries to swim agains the tide, and he’s matched stroke for stroke by Chastain whose character learned long ago that it’s better to simply float. Also of note is David Oyelowo as the prosecuting District Attorney, a man so inured by his office that he can only see the world in shades of dishonesty. Chandor’s tale of one good man, an antithesis to Coppola’s The Godfather if you will, ends appropriately enough on an ambivalent note with characters gazing upon the fruits of their decisions with all the weight of Shakespearean monarchs. An unexpected pleasure.

Anastasia (USA 1956) (7): Set in 1928 Paris, Anatole Litvak’s sparkling though historically inaccurate screen adaptation of Maurette’s stage play sees General Sergei Pavlovich (Yul Brynner), former right hand man to the executed Tsar Nicholas, determined to cash in on rumours that the Tsar’s daughter Anastasia managed to escape the firing squad and is now living incognito somewhere in Europe. Not believing the rumours himself, he nevertheless manages to collect hefty deposits from various deposed Russian aristocrats who are counting on him to track down the young duchess. Enter “Anna Koreff” (Ingrid Bergman in her Oscar-winning performance), a mentally unstable amnesiac Pavlovich finds wandering along the banks of the Seine who not only bears a striking resemblance to his quarry but also possesses a mind so malleable that she is capable of taking on any persona he wishes. But as he slowly transforms his emotionally labile protégé into a marketable Anastasia she becomes so convincing that even the cynical general begins to wonder whether he has actually stumbled upon the real thing. Artistic license aside, this is a beautifully rendered exercise in what if—an historical fairy tale which combines mystery with a dash of romance as Pavlovich realizes, perhaps too late, that his interest in Anna goes beyond the huge dowry waiting for her in a London bank. Filmed in swirling colours with widescreen Cinemascope settings that reach from Parisian slums to royal reception halls, this is filmmaking on a grand scale. Presenting Koreff as a naïve tabula rasa, Litvak toys with issues of memory and identity as well as the need to belong—is Anna’s performance merely parroting or has Pavlovich’s tutoring actually tapped into buried memories? And is that a note of despair we hear in her insistence that she actually is Nicholas’ missing heir? Fine performances all around, especially from Bergman and a dignified Helen Hayes as Pavlovich’s most ardent skeptic, the dowager Russian Empress Maria Feodorovna living in luxurious exile in Copenhagen.

Anatomy of a Fall (France 2023) (8): Not entirely happily married couple Sandra (Sandra Hüller, amazing) and Samuel have their problems. She resents being uprooted from her home in Germany to live in a remote French chalet near the village where her husband grew up. He resents her success as an author while his own writing aspirations are put on hold due to the demands of remodelling their house and homeschooling their visually impaired son, not to mention a major case of writers’ block. But when Samuel is found dead outside their home Sandra becomes embroiled in a highly volatile investigation as the courts try to determine whether his death was a result of suicide or murder—with Sandra being the sole suspect. Crisp wintry cinematography, a canny script which bounces between English and French, and a host of top-notch performances transform director Justine Triet’s policier into something far more profound. Not so much a whodunnit as it is a dissection of how we go about deciding upon the Truth when everyone seems to have their own version of it—from the Prosecution who creates a dismal picture of Sandra’s relationship with Samuel based largely on conjecture, to the Defense which presents its own version of reality, to a host of witnesses whose sympathies seem to be divided along gender lines. Then there’s Sandra herself, an outsider who struggles with the language even as her testimonies drop like bombs before a bemused magistrate. And despite being deceased, Samuel also manages to present his own ambiguous evidence just to muddy the waters even further. But the film finds its focus on the couple’s 12-year old son Daniel (a stunning turn from Milo Machado-Graner). Blind, both figuratively and literally, to the intrigues around him Daniel’s struggle to choose his own Truth will create a moral dilemma which threatens to overwhelm him. A knotty philosophical discourse posing as a tense courtroom drama that will leave you not so much questioning the verdict as wondering why you’re questioning it. And kudos to “Messi”, the border collie who played Daniel’s support dog “Snoop”. His impeccable performance as a silent witness earned him a Palme Dog award at Cannes!

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (USA 2004) Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (USA 2013) (1): It’s the 1970s and television news reporting is still part of the old boy’s club. Nowhere is this more apparent than at KVWN in San Diego, a station run by chauvinist pigs with the head hog being celebrated anchorman Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrel, screaming a lot). So it comes as no surprise then that when the boss hires a female reporter (Christina Applegate proving she can’t act on the big screen either) blatant sexism—and unexpected romance—rears it’s moustachioed head and….and….and that’s about as far as I got. It’s rare for me to actually give up on a film before it’s over, and almost unheard of to have it happen twice in a row but these two flicks are so godawful terrible I could only stand 30 minutes of each one, plus a few more minutes spent fast-forwarding just in case things got better. Like a pair of really bad Saturday Night Live sketches that go on way too long, there is nothing here that goes beyond a self-conscious chuckle. What humour there is consists mainly of boners, ca-ca, and titty jokes with lots of yelling, juvenile pratfalls, and idiotic non-sequiturs, (“I’m mentally retarded!” quips the silly weatherman. Haha!) . Yes, I realize writers Ferrel and McKay were probably going for the look of an old school sitcom (and old school laughs) wherein the sheer zaniness is supposed to sweep you up or something. But this is not 1970 anymore and I’m not nine years old. Pathetic.

The Anderson Tapes (USA 1971) (3): Sean Connery stars as sexy Duke Anderson, a master thief fresh out of prison who decides to get back into the game by robbing the residents of a swank New York apartment building where Ingrid, his pampered prostitute girlfriend lives. Gathering the usual assortment of criminal ne’er-do-wells around him, including a shockingly young Christopher Walken as an ace safecracker, Anderson prepares to pull off the biggest hit of his career. But unbeknownst to the cocky burglar not only are those nightly pillow talk sessions with Ingrid being tape-recorded by her jealous benefactor, but the I.R.S. and F.B.I. have their cameras pointed in his direction as well. Sidney Lumet’s tale of a skewed Robin Hood (fed up with the double standards inherent in Capitalism, Anderson steals from the rich to give to himself) living in an age of surveillance cameras and hidden microphones tries to inject a bit of conspiracy paranoia into an otherwise tepid heist caper. Grainy video images accompanied by a jarringly intrusive electro soundtrack by Quincy Jones are obviously meant to ramp up the tension but only serve to annoy, while the quick cuts and flash-forwards are just plain messy. An admirable cast of B-listers do their best, especially Judith Lowry and Margaret Hamilton as a hilarious pair of bickering spinsters, while the 70’s “high tech” gadgetry is amusingly primitive. But it all fails to gel into anything profound and instead we’re left watching a mildly engaging cops ‘n robbers romp with some sort of ironic message tacked on to the final scenes. And, in a particularly shabby move, the late great character actor Martin Balsam is cast as an outrageously fey interior decorator giving rise to more than a few “faggot” snipes. Real classy.

The Andersonville Trial (USA 1970) (10): During the American Civil War Georgia's Andersonville Prison was the site of unimaginable suffering as captured Federal soldiers died by the thousands from lack of shelter, food, and basic sanitation. After the South fell the man in charge of running Andersonville, Captain Henry Wirz, was brought to trial on charges of wartime atrocities. In this brilliant television adaptation of Saul Levitt's play, Wirz's trial is given dramatic life as two opposing lawyers, one Federal one Confederate, argue over the fine line between an officer's patriotic duty to obey the orders given to him and his moral obligation to resist those orders if he finds them inhumane. An all-star cast, directed by George C. Scott (!), provide top-notch performances in a production that goes beyond mere courtroom procedural to cast a harsh light on what it means to be human. Amazing!

And God Created Woman (France 1956) (5): A tawdry melodrama whose immorality would barely warrant a PG rating these days, Roger Vadim’s potboiler is noteworthy only because it cemented a then 22-year old Brigitte Bardot’s reputation as an international sex kitten. Raised in a dour conservative family, former orphan Juliette (Bardot) has grown into a pouty teenaged libertine who has all the village men chasing her tail like lustful alleycats—but Juliette only has eyes for Antoine, manager of the local shipyard. In a fit of pique however she marries his younger brother, Michel, even though her loins are still firmly orientated toward Antoine. Meanwhile wealthy middle-aged shipyard owner Eric is determined to become the moody naif’s sugar daddy come hell or high water. The heated romantic rectangle which results ensures that it’s only a matter of time before events reach a tragic head… With St. Tropez’s azure locations standing in for Eden, Bardot’s character is both apple and snake, temptress and victim of her own desires. And Vadim’s camera spends as much time lingering over her tastefully exposed flesh as it does on all those sandy beaches and tortured male close-ups. But this flick doesn’t quite fit within the realm of “female empowerment” for Juliette wields her sexuality like a toddler with a loaded pistol—firing at random and racking up collateral damage along the way. Bardot is certainly attractive in all the right places, but her character’s scatterbrained approach to life, filled with 18-year old angst and seductive moues, becomes monotonous very quickly even if one accepts the usual scenario of sheltered small town girl smitten with hormonal wanderlust. Still, the scenery is lovely and a crazy jazz score is quaintly dated.

And the Band Played On (USA 1993) (6): Matthew Modine heads a surprisingly diverse cast of A and B-listers (Phil Collins as a gay bathhouse owner?!) in this medical docu-drama examining the earliest years of the AIDS epidemic. He plays Dr. Don Francis, a researcher who along with colleagues in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles---not to mention the Pasteur Institute in Paris whose work was pivotal in isolating the virus---struggled to understand why so many previously healthy men were succumbing to opportunistic infections heretofore unseen in such numbers. Hampered by conservative politics, professional egos, and the mistrust of the gay community itself, Francis and the other teams waged an uphill battle in the beginning while new cases of AIDS steadily increased worldwide. A well-meaning film despite some Hollywood grandstanding and a script which often wavers between highschool lecture and activist rant. The use of actual news footage provided an historical backdrop and all those familiar faces jockeying for a cameo in what was then a “controversial” picture put in generally good performances. Unfortunately, although some very obvious attempts were made to portray the gay community in a favorable light I couldn’t help but see them as little more than a small horde of angry club boys and underwear models serving up background noise. A closing montage of video clips and dead celebrity photos, all set to an Elton John ballad, was blatantly manipulative yet still left me in tears as I remembered my own Lover who died from this disease over twenty years ago. Nevertheless, this remains an important testament when taken with a grain of salt and an understanding of the era in which it was produced.

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!

Angel-A (France 2005) (7): “It’s difficult to love yourself when nobody shows you how.” A simple observation that goes a long way in writer/director Luc Besson’s offbeat romantic comedy laced with heavenly overtones. André (Jamel Debbouze), a small-time American hustler currently living in Paris, owes an awful lot of money to an awful lot of bad people. Now facing threats of bodily harm—and worse—unless he pays up he decides his life isn’t worth much anyway and so prepares to leap into the Seine. Enter the mysterious Angela (Rie Rasmussen) a towering blonde beauty who just happens to be clinging to the very same bridge as André. Angela’s rather abrupt appearance in the unhappy man’s life will not only cause waves (literally) but as the two form a hesitant bond, rife with friction and ideological clashes, her otherworldly comportment will have André considering taking a different kind of leap… The diminutive Debbouze’s dark features and elfin good looks play nicely off Rasmussen’s pale nordic profile as does his neurotic musings (think middle-eastern Woody Allen) when compared to her grounded, slightly edgy pragmatism. She has no qualms about raising much needed funds by using whatever means God has given her, for instance, while he drowns his moral ambivalence with shooters even as the euros pile up. Gradually, however, Angela’s ethereal presence will have André looking at the world—and himself—with newfound eyes, a revelation which will carry its own set of complications. Filmed in expressive B&W (bridges, mirrors, and angelic statuary figure heavily) with a wonderful soundtrack of soft jazz, Besson’s witty script practically flies out of his main characters’ mouths—André’s manic zeal tripping over itself, Angela’s preternatural calm more than suggesting supernatural roots—leaving a cast of background actors to play the usual assortment of devilish gangland heavies. As far from the arty hubris of Wenders’ Wings of Desire as one can get, this gentle, often quite funny tale of saints and sinners making their way through the City of Lights lingers in the mind like a cool sip of champagne—with a hefty shot of bourbon on the side.

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.

The Angry Red Planet (USA 1959) (2): Retro sci-fi for people who know jack shit about science fiction. Absolutely awful story of the first manned trip to Mars where three virile astronauts and one token female scientist (who also doubles as nurse and housewife...I guess her PhD simply stands for Pretty Hot Dame) must face down a giant rat-spider with lobster claws, a carnivorous play-doh bush and a huge "bacterium" filled with psychedelic scrub brushes. Presented through the miracle of "CineMagic" which simply means actors are filmed in a monochromatic shade of lurid crimson as they cavort in front of cheesy painted backgrounds (I've seen better artwork taped to refrigerator doors). And of course it ends with the cliched “Earthlings beware...” speech delivered by some rather uppity Martians resembling three-eyed samurai grasshoppers. It’s enough to make Ed Wood lose his lunch. (Score 2/10 for sheer campiness and some atmospheric music).

Aniara (Sweden 2018) (9): En route from a ravaged Earth to a new home on Mars the interplanetary ship Aniara—filled with thousands of colonists many of whom bear the scars of things more terrible than global warming—experiences a disaster which leaves it hurtling towards interstellar space. Now, with onboard fear turning into fatalistic malaise, all the old foibles of humanity begin to manifest themselves amongst passengers and crew alike as brushes with fascism and religious zealotry vie with rampant consumerism and a unique brand of hedonism thanks to bootleg drugs and MIMA, an AI virtual reality machine. But as weeks grind into years once pristine hallways become ghettos and recreation centres turn into shrines until the arrival of a mysterious object from space pushes Aniara’s small pocket of mankind towards its next iteration. With a timeline as big as its vision, Pella Kågerman’s existential space opera—based on Harry Martinson’s epic sci-fi poem—is a blend of impressive CGI and bleak psychodrama exploring what happens when people are stripped of all hope and life loses whatever meaning they may have once given it. With the blackness of space hovering just outside every viewport like an organic presence (kudos to the effects team for some breathtaking vistas) Kågerman’s endless night of the soul eventually extends beyond humans to infect MIMA with its own brand of mechanical melancholy. Told mainly through the eyes of a staff astronomer and her female lover, Aniara’s grit and drama unfolds like a Viking saga with flashes of violence and carnality interspersed with passages of austere grace and a final twist of brutal irony which provides the film with a perfect capstone. An eye-opener for those who still believe science-fiction to be the realm of little green men and wisecracking robots.

Animal Farm (UK 1954) (8): Aside from the ending, Joy Batchelor and John Halas’ BAFTA-nominated piece of animation remains more or less true to George Orwell’s political satire about revolutionary idealism vs human nature. After years of suffering deprivation and indignity at the hands of an oppressive farmer, the livestock rise up in a workers’ revolt, send him packing, and claim the farm for themselves. But the manifesto that they lovingly hand-paint on the side of the barn (which includes such golden rules as “All Animals are Created Equal”, “Animal Shall Not Kill Animal”, and “Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad”) is gradually undermined by a cabal of scheming pigs led by the coldly ambitious boar Napoleon and his cowardly sycophant Squealer who believe that some animals are more equal than others and lolling about in a human house beats a sty any day. With the drunken farmer thus replaced by an elite porcine dictatorship—all of whom are learning to walk on two legs—the furred and feathered proletariat find their quality of life becoming more unbearable with each passing day. Despite a couple of adorably drawn characters (ooh that baby duck!) and a palette of dark pastels, this is a relentlessly bleak riff on the theme of “Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely” which doesn’t shy away from blood and death as when Napoleon calls upon his squad of vicious Storm Trooper dogs—which he perverted from the time they were puppies—to rid “his” farm of malcontents. Nor does he hesitate to exploit the less able animals in exchange for bartered human goods which he hogs (haha) to himself. However, whereas Orwell’s novel ended in a whimper rather than a bang, Batchelor and Halas rewrite it into something a bit more inspirational—apparently the American CIA owned the rights to the book and it’s rumoured they wanted to use the film to promote their anti-communist rhetoric. Either way it still packs quite an emotional punch for a cartoon so send the kids out to play because this ain’t Disney.

Animal Kingdom (Australia 2010) (10): After his mother dies of a heroin overdose Joshua Cody, not quite eighteen and not particularly bright, is taken in by his estranged grandmother and her adult sons...uncles he hasn’t seen in years. There’s a reason his mom tried to shield him from the rest of her family however, for under the tutelage of Grandma Cody and uncle Andrew (aka “Pope”) the family home is a volatile den of thieves with armed robbery and drug dealing the main sources of income. Surrounded thus by crooked cops, crooked relatives, and the crooked lawyers who defend them, Joshua quickly learns that in the human jungle the strong must fight for survival while the weak must align themselves as best they can; everyone else is fair game. Unfolding like a waking nightmare, David Michôd’s visceral gut-punch of a film follows Joshua as he tries to determine his place in the food chain, especially after the slaying of two police officers puts him squarely in the crosshairs of both the authorities and the Cody family alpha male, uncle “Pope,” a soft-spoken sociopath with a murderous temper. A far cry from the usual crime drama, Animal Kingdom features a brilliantly downplayed script enhanced by grim, dreamlike cinematography and a disparate soundtrack of muted pop tunes and somber acoustical passages. Michôd’s cast is picture perfect as they flesh out their characters, especially Jacki Weaver as Joshua’s grandmother; a seemingly benign white trash matriarch who just may be the most cold-hearted predator of them all. A horrifying and unapologetic film with an ending that is at once shockingly unexpected and sadly inevitable. Good cinema!

Annabelle: Creation (USA 2017) (7): First the usual glut of disclaimers for this genre of film: of course the storyline is completely ludicrous when you give it more than a cursory thought; of course normal people do not behave this way when they discover they’re in a haunted house; and of course evil never dies, at least until the studio has milked every dollar they can from it. That being said, this prequel to the lucrative Annabelle-slash-Conjuring franchise could very well be the best of the lot. In the midwest circa 1960, six orphan girls and their kindly governess Sr. Charlotte find a new place to stay in the big country home of toymaker Samuel Mullins and his wife Esther. All is not well from the very beginning however for an opening prologue shows how the Mullins lost their little girl Annabelle in a terrible accident twelve years earlier, a death which left Samuel a dour husk of his former self and Esther a bed-bound invalid. But as the days pass and the orphans settle in, peace seems to come to the Mullins home—until little Janice enters a forbidden room and finds a most unusual doll… The Mullins have been harbouring an awful secret and Janice’s small transgression is about to unleash a whole mountain of diabolical headaches. Stylishly filmed with wide pans and close tracking shots as the girls giggle up and down staircases or else stare horrified at a darkened doorway, director David F. Sandberg finds just the right balance of innocent frivolity and demonic foreboding. There are shadows aplenty in the Mullins home, some real some psychological, and Sandberg is not above throwing in a pair of glowing eyes, scraping claws, or that eponymous doll—the ugliest piece of crinoline and porcelain you’re likely to see—which always seems to show up at just the wrong moment. But as effective as the first half of the film is, the second half spirals into haunted house clichés with flickering lights and a little black devil goading the adults into wielding the usual Catholic voodoo with the usual suboptimal results. Good special effects though, and the young actresses work well together. Unfortunately we’ve seen it all before from those very unsubtle sequel tie-ins to the promise of even more to come. Best appreciated if simply viewed as a series of fireside ghost stories…..ooh evil scarecrows and malevolent Barbies!

Anna Christie (USA 1930) (8): Greta Garbo’s first talkie was this screen adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s play about three disconnected souls in search of love, forgiveness, and liberation. Fifteen years after she was sent to live on a Wisconsin farm by her recently widowed father, twenty-year old Anna Christie (Garbo) returns to the dingy New York City wharf where dad ekes out a living piloting a coal barge in between bouts of drinking. Practically strangers to one another, father and daughter nevertheless form a tentative bond despite his desire to keep her as far away from the temptations of “that devil sea” as he can. But when temptation does arrive in the form of brusque Irish sailor Matt (Charles Bickford practically oozing brute machismo) the stage is set for a trio of heartbreaks. Anna’s father is desperate to protect his daughter from the hard and lonely life of a fisherman’s wife (the same fate his own spouse succumbed to years before) while Matt is determined to strong-arm his way into Anna’s heart for his own weary heart longs for a “good girl” to maintain hearth and home. Anna however, consumed with anger and resentment, carries a dark secret from her past which threatens to derail everyone’s happiness. Dark and moody with images of restless waves and obscuring sea fogs, director Clarence Brown captures the essence of O’Neill’s themes—alienation, destitution, perseverance—to produce an intense theatrical drama with a cinematic flourish. Although his characters occasionally emote (Hollywood was just emerging from the quirks of the Silent Era after all) their performances ring true especially Garbo and character actor George F. Marion as daughter and father. But it is the incomparable Marie Dressler as Marion’s spurned mistress Marthy who steals scene after scene. Overweight, dowdy, and perpetually soused, Marthy is the only person honest enough (or drunk enough?) to tell the truth regardless of who wants to hear it. A magnificent piece from the beginning of American cinema’s Golden Age with a surprising, albeit deeply buried, feminist twist.

Anna Karenina (UK 2012) (5): Artifice and stagecraft bring Tolstoy’s grand tragedy to clinking, clanking life but when the final curtain drifts across the screen you’re left wondering if all that pomp was worth it. Not really. The story is by now iconic: torn between the lukewarm attentions of her adoring yet stiflingly bourgeois husband (Jude Law) and an exciting yet rakish Count (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the aristocratic Anna Karenina (Keira Knightley) chooses the latter. And in the upper class circles of imperialist Russia where it is all but impossible for a woman’s reputation to survive even a whiff of scandal, her decision will come to exact a terrible price. Director Joe Wright’s lavish production certainly doesn’t skimp on the visuals from the Oscar-winning costumes to the Oscar-nominated music and cinematography, in fact his film often has the feel of a small jewellery box come to life. And Tom Stoppard’s highly theatrical screenplay places the action squarely on a 19th century stage where actors move from set to set (sometimes bypassing extras arranged in frozen tableaux until needed); prop doors open up onto wheat fields; and St. Petersburg appears as a painted backdrop for toy trains and artificial snow. An intriguing approach reduced to mere gimmickry by the film’s distinct lack of passion. Knightley and Taylor-Johnson stare hungrily at one another as Law simpers and wrings his hands, but despite being technically admirable their performances ultimately fail to convince. Compare that to a parallel, and more satisfying story between a lovestruck landowner (Domhnall Gleeson) and a reluctant socialite (Alicia Vikander) and the main plot’s shortfalls become even more glaring. Lovely to look at—a train station appears as if by magic in the rigging above the main stage just in time for the bleak finale—but in the end flat and not very engaging.

Anonymous (UK 2011) (9): According to proponents of the “Oxfordian Theory”, Shakespeare was merely a front man who never set quill to paper but instead published the works of another under his own name. It is the waning days of Elizabeth the First’s reign and she is besieged by war both from Catholic royals on the mainland and from an uprising in Ireland, not to mention an increasingly restless Earl of Essex. Even in the heart of London itself a small troupe of actors led by Ben Jonson (future poet Laureate) are entertaining the masses with ribald comedies whose satirical jabs at the gentry border on seditious. And then the works of a new playwright, William Shakespeare, are presented and certain members of the court are more outraged than ever for not only are these plays enormously popular, they also seem to contain thinly veiled criticisms aimed at key government figures especially Sir Robert Cecil, the queen’s unctuous advisor whose powerful family has been manipulating the monarchy for decades. But Shakespeare is nothing but a semi-literate stage actor for the true author of Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night and all the rest is Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, the queen’s former lover now married into the ultra-conservative Cecil clan. With writing prose considered idle, even wicked, foolishness by his Puritan in-laws Edward is forced to write anonymously (even though his family and the queen are well aware of his ruse) while the boorish Shakespeare basks in the spotlight. But court intrigues run far deeper and more treacherous than either William or Edward could possibly imagine and it is only a matter of time before Cecil threatens to bring the curtain down for the final time with a series of damning accusations. Better known perhaps for his apocalyptic “monsters and explosions” epics, director Roland Emmerich proves he is equally adept at sprawling historical dramas. His CGI invocation of old London, both from the air and at ground level, is an impressive mix of country estates, garbage-strewn alleys, and a vibrant core of Tudor squalor all bound in perpetual mist and rain. An amazing cast, impeccably dressed in rags or satins, shift back and forth through time as Emmerich backtracks in order to fill in the details: here a decaying Elizabeth (a star turn from Vanessa Redgrave) reminisces with a wistful de Vere when suddenly she is a young queen once more (played by her real life daughter Joely Richardson) grappling beneath the sheets with her equally passionate paramour. And throughout we catch glimpses of Jonson’s troupe performing key scenes from Shakespeare’s (de Vere’s?) plays before an appreciative audience; their wit and pathos enriching the film’s context immeasurably. Although diehard Oxfordians are relatively few in number they include the director himself and actor Derek Jacobi who, as a contemporary narrator, opens and closes the film in a suitably theatrical manner. The conspiracy aspect may be suspect (most scholars laugh it off) but as an exercise in alternative history this is still an intelligently written and hugely entertaining work shown bigger than life as befits any tall tale.

Another Country (UK 1984) (7): Playwright Julian Mitchell adapts his own stage production for the big screen in this hit-and-miss period drama based on the early life of infamous “Cambridge Five” spy Guy Burgess who, along with his cohorts, passed sensitive Western intel to the Soviets during the Cold War. The film excels in its impeccable evocation of a proper 1930’s English public school where the next generation of Britain’s privileged elite act out their country’s rigid class system through an equally rigid hierarchy of junior students, prefects, and handpicked seniors appropriately nicknamed the Gods. With gauzy backdrops of gilded interiors and warm summer days we follow the fates of upperclassmen Guy Bennet (a painfully young Rupert Everett) who embraces the status quo despite his much flaunted homosexuality, and his unexpected ally Tommy Judd (an equally young Colin Firth) whose fervent embrace of revolutionary Communism puts him at odds with everyone else. Where the film falters however is in its attempt to tie Bennet’s disillusionment with school politics (his lack of discretion costs him an invitation to join the Gods) with his decision to become a traitor to his country—a rather big leap to say the least. But the long languorous camerawork captures a certain romanticism and Everett’s conflicted character is a brilliantly detailed study of defiance and fragility, openly challenging the norms yet painfully in love with fellow classmate James Harcourt (Cary Elwes). A political metaphor perhaps (Lenin and Gay Activism!) but a tragic love story more than anything else.

Another Earth (USA 2011) (8): On the same night that astronomers discover a new terrestrial planet approaching Earth, honours student Rhoda Williams gets behind the wheel of her car after downing a few too many celebratory drinks. The resulting collision earns her a four-year prison term and destroys the life of local composer John Burroughs. Now released from prison and desperate to make amends for what she did, Rhoda sets out to apologize to Burroughs but instead enters into an unforeseen relationship with the unsuspecting composer who is still nursing his grief with medication and alcohol. And all the while the sky above is increasingly dominated by a new world which proves to be more similar to our own than anyone could have dreamed. Talking about his remarkable debut feature, filmed on a shoestring budget with the help of family and friends, director Mike Cahill stated, “There are certain things you have got to deal with yourself…there’s this inner monologue inside your head…what if it were externalized?” Using an outrageous science-fiction device as a potent metaphor he explores issues of isolation, atonement and redemption in a most unusual and captivating way. Both Williams and Burroughs (get the literary allusion?) are frozen; she’s drowning in remorse while he’s crippled with rage and sadness; yet neither one is able to make that connection which would allow them to move forward. But as “Earth II” continues its inexorable advance a new possibility presents itself, one that will have consequences both mysterious and reparative. With ordinary urban settings rendered extraordinary in eerie blue earthlight, and fantastical images of another earth suspended over rooftops and ocean, Cahill’s restless camera and ethereal script produce a style one could describe as “dreamlike verité”. If he sometimes appears to fall in love with his own vision it’s only because what he’s seeing is beautiful indeed.

Another Happy Day (USA 2011) (7): Quivering mass of neuroses Lynn (Ellen Barkin) reluctantly drives to her parents’ place in Annapolis to attend the wedding of her eldest son—a child she bore but never raised. In tow are her two other sons: young Ben (Daniel Yelsky) whose touch of autism sometimes has him saying the darnedest things, and sullen teenager Elliot (Ezra Miller) whose caustic personality, confrontational bouts of rage, and various addictions have him flying in and out of rehab. There’s a reason for Lynn’s en route misgivings however, reasons which crystallize as soon as she opens the front door. Mom (Ellen Burstyn) is a flinty old queen of denial, dad (George Kennedy) is a lumbering bear slowly slipping into dementia, and Lynn’s sisters are a cackling group of nasty gossips. And when Lynn’s abusive ex-husband arrives on the scene (Thomas Haden Church) accompanied by his new wife (Demi Moore), a passive-aggressive witch with a few axes of her own to grind, you just know the weekend is not going to go well… The dysfunctional family reunion has always been a Hollywood mainstay and with this exercise in mud-slinging and acidic rebukes writer/director Sam Levinson doesn’t set out to reinvent the genre. With emotional wounds on full display and old accusations flying about like live grenades his film too often slides into histrionic meltdowns even with its random moments of mordant humour (Ben, who fancies himself a film director, records more drama than he intended). But what ultimately saves the day is a script that contains more than a few kernels of genuine pain and consistently brilliant turns from his leads who inhabit their characters thus making some of the story’s louder moments uncomfortably believable. Barkin’s complex performance gives us a whimpering doormat whose multiple resentments seethe just below the surface; Burstyn is a coiffed harridan whose brittle hugs hide daggers; 86-year old Kennedy, in one of his final screen appearances, is a marvel of wisdom and confusion; and Moore’s nasty new wife practically leaves icicles in the air every time she opens her mouth. And kudos to Yelsky and Miller who gives us a pair of siblings slowly being crushed beneath their family’s baggage—Kate Bosworth joins them later as the estranged older sister who perhaps carries the deepest scars of them all. In the hands of a lesser cast and crew we’d have been left with a stagey melodrama—in fact we very nearly are—but Levinson manages to serve up a bitter pill that captivates even if it catches in our throats.

Anthropoid (Czech 2016) (8): Shortly after Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia, SS General Reinhard Heydrich, one of the Third Reich’s top officers and an architect of Hitler’s “Final Solution”, is tasked with quelling any Czech resistance—his brutal methods of torture and wholesale murder earning him the nickname “The Butcher of Prague”. In response, the exiled Czech government, operating out of London, fly in a group of paratroopers whose mission it is to enter one of Europe’s most heavily occupied cities and assassinate Heydrich, one of Germany’s most heavily guarded officials. Based on the true story of Operation Anthropoid and filmed for the most part in the actual locations where events unfolded back in 1942, writer/director Sean Ellis has fashioned a thoroughly engrossing historical piece whose main actors, Irishmen Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan both leaving their brogues behind, blend seamlessly with a largely Czech cast. Authentic period details bring the past to life (or death) and although Ellis does not flinch from brutal reality—a brief scene of torture is so intense it seems longer than it actually is—quotidian atrocities are only a backdrop as the operatives and their Czech Resistance allies (not all of whom agree that Heydrich’s death would be a good thing) put their meticulous plan into action. There’s the usual hair-raising moments when it becomes apparent not everything is going to go according to plan, but that explosive climax is perhaps more memorable for its stretches of painful silence, punctuated by a classical score, than the thousands of bullets and hand grenades ripping up the screen.

Antibodies (Germany 2005) (6): When Gabriel Engel, the monstrous psychopath responsible for a string of child sex murders, is arrested in Berlin beleaguered rural cop Michael Martens hopes he can finally solve the mystery of a young girl whose mutilated body was found in his village a year earlier. Certainly this cold case bears most of Engel’s trademarks but when Michael travels to the big city to interview the madman a cruel psychological game of cat and mouse ensues with Engel sowing seeds of doubt in the young detective’s mind (did he kill the little girl or not?) while turning his already staunch Catholicism into a neurotic obsession with guilt. “Evil is a virus…” whispers Engel from behind bars, his cell decorated with a devilish mural done in his own blood, “…and you are infected!” Borrowing heavily from The Silence of the Lambs, writer/director Christian Alvert’s topsy-turvy mindfuck of a film certainly doesn’t lack ambition with it’s staccato editing, rattling timeline shifts, and pervasive gloom of sin and sickness. As the killer’s seductive words seep into Martens’ virtuous Christian psyche the battle between Good and Evil plays out on an uncomfortably intimate level. But Alvart chooses to wallow in too many biblical references turning an otherwise intelligent thriller into a clunky Old Testament metaphor straight out of Genesis. Engel’s full name translates into “Angel Gabriel” (wow!) and while Michael (as in archangel?) wrestles with him we quietly overdose on Catholic symbolism—a stapler delivers some good old-fashioned mortification; a brothel offers up temptation in both black and white; and God’s own stand-in bursts through the clouds in a triumphant whirl of helicopter blades. But it was a magical mystical backwoods intercession by Bambi and friends that ultimately pushed the envelope too far. A great premise and capable cast, but even a clever double twist at the end was not quite enough to save its soul.

The Antichrist (Italy 1974) (4):  Poor little Ippolita; as if being confined to a wheelchair is not bad enough, her father’s impending marriage is now throwing her Electra complex into a tailspin.  But when she wakes up one morning with a frog in her throat and goat on her breath all hell breaks loose...  This little Italian cheese ball manages to be bad in so many awful and imaginative ways that it would be a shame to simply dismiss it as another “Exorcist” rip-off.  The dinner scene is priceless and the final exorcism deserves a very special Oscar all its own (keep an eye out for the black clad stagehands crouching behind the dresser as its drawers “mysteriously” pop out).  Put this one on your cult classics list

Antigone (Greece 1961) (8): Screen legend Irene Papas’ intense performance as the titular heroine burns up the screen in this classical rendition of Sophocles’ tragedy. When the disposed Polynieces attempts to sieze the crown from the king of Thebes (his estranged brother Eteocles) his army is defeated, but not before both brothers die in battle. Their uncle Creon, being the next in line, assumes the throne and immediately orders Eteocles’ body to be buried with full honours while the traitorous Polyniece’s body is to be left to rot in the field. Upon hearing this royal edict Antigone, the dead men’s sister, openly defies the king and buries her disgraced brother thus enraging Creon who orders her to be sealed in a cave forever. But Creon’s decision to place his personal pride above family honour will ultimately lead to his own disgrace and tragic downfall. Beautifully filmed in sombre B&W with sets and costumes taken from the Classical Greek stage, director Yorgos Javellas stays faithful to the play’s theatrical roots right down to a chorus of bearded wise men whose poetic asides serve as the conscience of both king and common man alike. And the cast is amazing, aided by a highly formalized script rife with rage and sorrow they deliver their lines with an emotional force that is almost palpable. An ancient classic which can still speak to the heart two thousand years later.

Antigone (USA-TV 1974) (9): Antigone is a princess of Thebes whose brothers are killed fighting on opposite sides of a civil war. When her uncle Creon finally assumes the throne he has the body of the "good" brother (the one who fought for him) buried with full honours while issuing a royal decree that the other be left to rot in the field as a warning to all who would oppose him. Defying Creon, and risking the death penalty for treason, Antigone buries her brother and thus begins an ideological tug-of-war with her uncle which leads to consequences neither one could have imagined. Honour, duty and stubborn pride take centre stage in this brilliant contemporary adaptation of Jean Anouilh's 1944 play, based on Sophocles' tragedy and originally aired on PBS's "Great Performances". Genevieve Bujold's searing portrayal of Antigone, equal parts blind idealism and naive cynicism, is perfectly matched by Fritz Weaver's Creon, a tired and inflexible tyrant whose crown weighs heavier than he is willing to admit, while television veteran Stacy Keach provides a passionate yet oddly sardonic Greek Chorus. Filmed in and around an actual theatre this teleplay suffers from the usual problems of old video: the sound is rather flat, the colours faded and there is a bit of peripheral distortion; but its powerful leads, combined with some wonderfully theatrical staging makes this a tour de force worth renting.

Antiviral (Canada 2012) (7): Writer/director Brandon Cronenberg (David’s son) obviously inherited his father’s flair for the macabre and he puts it to good use in this deadly satirical tale of corporate scheming and celebrity worship. In the very near future an entire industry is devoted to harvesting diseases from pop culture idols—from a common cold to herpes simplex—and passing them on to obsessive fans willing to pay a hefty price in order to share the exact same misery as their favourite stars. Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) is a salesman for one such company whose main source of everyday pathogens—celebrity diva Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon)—has proven to be a gold mine of coughs and rashes. But Syd has another sideline career, that of smuggling these valuable viruses in his own body and selling them to black-marketeers. Things go terribly wrong however when Hannah (and subsequently Syd himself) becomes deathly ill and the cause seems to be anything but natural… Sticking to low-tech effects bolstered by a talent for lighting and set design, Cronenberg creates a convincing world of Fame Worship and consumerism run amok; a world where one can purchase a movie star’s chlamydia (all infectious agents copyright protected of course) or else devour a steak cloned from that same star’s muscle cells. Unsettling medical passages (yes, those needle pokes are real) and grotesque body transformations are straight out of Cronenberg Sr.’s playbook and Brandon deepens this pall of horror with antiseptically white sets where oversized tabloid pics adorn every wall and CGI starlets writhe on widescreen television sets—adding a whole new dimension to the term “peep show”. Jones is perfectly cast, his softly growling voice and cold eyes defining a predatory yuppy until ill health turns him into something both cruel and pitiable. As the object of everybody’s desire, Gadon’s persona is as flashy as a camera bulb and as shallow as an airbrushed magazine cover—in other words, “perfection”. Perhaps Brandon’s efforts are not quite polished enough for Hollywood, perhaps his story’s trajectory is a tad too opaque for the matinee crowd, but for those willing to give him a chance he paints a picture at once diabolically exaggerated and uncomfortably close to home.

Atlantis: The Lost Empire (USA 2001) (7): Although it proved to be box office poison when it was first released (and not entirely without reason) this PG-rated offering from Disney Studios is still a fine example of old fashioned animation set to a rousingly good original score. It’s 1914 and polyglot bookworm Milo is stuck working in the boiler room of a prestigious museum when all he really wants to do is continue the search for Atlantis begun by his late grandfather. He gets his chance when a wealthy benefactor offers him a berth on a fantastic submarine whose crew are off to find the lost continent using an array of retro hi-tech gadgets. But the journey to their awe-inspiring destination will be marred by monsters, disasters…and betrayal of the worst kind. A colourful steampunk nod to the likes of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells relatively free of the usual Disney treacle (although it still manages to seep in once Milo meets the super cute Atlantean princess) and unexpectedly violent with a rising body count courtesy of bloodthirsty mechanical crustaceans and a seemingly endless supply of enemy ammo—an underground aerial dogfight is a fine example of choreographed mayhem. Atlantis itself turns out to be an interesting amalgamation of Egyptian, Celtic, and Aztec ruins peopled by flaxen haired Aryans whose advanced woo science has both maintained and hobbled them. As a bonus Marc Okrand, the man who invented the Vulcan and Klingon lexicons, contributes his considerable talents to the production by creating a believable lost language for a lost race. A decent watch for adults (who’ll get the sly asides) and older kids (who won’t). Plus, the voice talents of Michael J. Fox, James Garner, and Leonard Nimoy don’t hurt either.

Antz (USA 1998) (7): With a script influenced by the works of Huxley, Orwell, and Ayn Rand, and enough violence and mild profanity to earn it a “PG” rating, this early animation by DreamWorks Studios about a neurotic little bug tired of the status quo was something of a groundbreaker in its day. Rebelling against his own insignificance…”I was the middle child of five million”…perpetually depressed worker ant “Z” (voice of Woody Allen playing Woody Allen) decides he doesn’t want to be just another faceless drone in a colony of zillions. But a combination of skewed luck and happenstance ends up landing the meek insect smack in the middle of an anthill communist uprising, a royal kidnapping, and a deadly military coup—all within an area of less than ten square metres. The animation may be primitive by today’s standards but the story, buoyed by Allen’s signature one-liners, skips along with humour clever enough for tots and adults alike: “This tastes like crap…” says a stoned ladybug chewing on some suspicious brown material, “Hey, it is crap…not bad!” responds the equally stoned weevil slumped next to her. And a pair of effete wasps will have you looking at yellow jackets in a whole new light while human cameos are limited, appropriately enough, to such things as a pair of gigantic sneakers and a fly swatter. An entertaining little cartoon about diversity and individuality notable for its long list of celebrity voices from Ann Bancroft and Gene Hackman to Christopher Walken, Danny Glover, and Jennifer Lopez.

Apartment Zero (UK 1988) (8): Adrian LeDuc is an introverted neurotic living in Buenos Aires who divides his time between managing a ramshackle repertory cinema and an equally ramshackle residential complex filled with delightful eccentrics. Shunning all human contact during his off-hours, he retreats to his dingy apartment where he finds some degree of solace amongst the movie posters and framed photos of dead matinee idols which adorn the walls. With his mentally ill mother locked away in a sanitarium and theatre revenues taking a nosedive he is eventually forced to seek a roommate in order to cut costs. After interviewing a string of increasingly bizarre applicants he eventually settles for a darkly handsome American expat. Jack seems to be Adrian’s opposite in every way; he’s outgoing, bold, and has no problem voicing an opinion; but behind the smoldering eyes and vaguely threatening smirk there is an unsettling intensity that hints of unspoken secrets. Donovan wastes no time ratcheting up the homoerotic tension as Adrian begins to obsess over his new lodger. At first content to simply do his laundry and make him breakfast every morning, Adrian gradually begins to question Jack’s suspicious behaviour especially after a series of mysterious murders begin to rock the city… Colin Firth brings a manic energy to the role of Adrian, a man who seems to have trouble distinguishing reality from a movie script. Indeed, there is a definite aura of Hollywood artifice to the entire film with its beautifully overdone dramatics and noirish dialogue. With Apartment Zero Donovan first delivers a winning combination of cerebral humour, ambiguous sexuality and paranoid suspense which makes full use of the subdued lighting and cleverly placed movie memorabilia. He then executes a brilliant segue from camp mystery to psychological horror before bringing it all to a suitably outrageous ending. A dark and disturbing treat.

The Apple Dumpling Gang (USA 1975) (5): In the frontier town of Quake City, California (built on an active fault line), notorious gambler Russel Donavan suddenly finds himself saddled with three precocious orphans, penniless heirs to one of the region’s now defunct gold mines. But as the confirmed bachelor tries to squirm his way out of town, sans children of course, the kids discover that their late father’s mine still has a bit of profit left amidst the rickety timbers and dank tunnels; a revelation which puts them squarely in the sights of a couple of bumbling thieves as well as a more sinister gang of outlaws. Donovan, meanwhile, is surprised to find he’s not only developing some latent paternal instincts toward the lovable moppets but the daughter of a local businessman is also causing some uncomfortable romantic yearnings. Gosh, could the two reluctant grownups and three adorable waifs actually form a family?! Despite a cast of solid Hollywood character actors this bland and relentlessly inoffensive Disney comedy boils down to nothing more than a series of wild west pratfalls and slapstick routines with a bit of forced fuzziness (awwww...orphans! ) to tie it all together. The adults seem to wade through their shallow lines with a twinge of self-conscious embarrassment while the three little leads have as much onscreen charisma as a tin of sardines. To be fair, some stagecoach action scenes are nicely choreographed but a tacked on sequence involving a runaway mine car is pure rear-projection cheesiness. Aside from the usual love affair with gunplay inherent in all things Western (don’t worry, no one gets hurt) this bit of cowboy fluff is as “G” as they come.

Appleseed: Ex Machina (Japan 2007) (8): Although not considered true anime by many diehard aficionados due to its artwork and animation techniques, Shinji Aramaki’s adaptation of the popular graphic series still makes for exciting viewing. In the year 2133 mankind has recovered from yet another global war only this time a new urban utopia, named Olympus, has arisen from the ruins. A marvel of civil and architectural engineering, Olympus is inhabited by every kind of human (organic, cyborg, and GMO “bioroids”) co-existing in harmony thus providing a hopeful blueprint for the rest of the world. But a snake has entered this future Eden in the form of terrorists who are somehow able to turn peaceful citizens into murderous mobs. Suddenly besieged by violent insurrection on all sides, Olympus’ leader calls in the E.S.W.A.T. team (Especial Weapons and Tactics) to quell the rioters and uncover the psychic saboteurs. The task of saving Olympus will eventually fall to E.S.W.A.T. officer Deunan, a kick-ass ninja chick, and her cyborg partner-cum-lover Brialeos… Although Aramaki’s film doesn’t do well with extreme close-ups (his computer graphic characters exhibit the emotional range of cartoon marionettes) he more than makes up for it with wide screen action. Crayon-coloured explosions and glowing sci-fi cityscapes light up the screen accompanied by giant booms, rapid fire bangs, and a supercool electro-pop musical score by Yellow Magic Orchestra founder Haruomi Hosono. It’s as if a young John Woo was let loose on a stack of superhero colouring books—no surprise that he's listed as a producer! And if you can get by all those blatantly ridiculous narrow escapes there’s some deeper philosophical points to chew on—the allure of conformity vs the need for individuality for instance, or the contradiction of striving for peace through force. And then there’s the concept of interracial romance taken to the next level when you realize Duenan’s hunky metallic boyfriend has more in common with a refrigerator than a human being. A meticulously executed piece of cinema which looks great, sounds awesome (turn those speakers up!), and leaves you with something to think about.

L’argent [Money] (France 1983) (4): A pair of highschool students weave a tangled web when they decide to make a few bucks by passing on a counterfeit bill. Their single act of dishonesty will not only affect a handful of fellow Parisians leading to bankruptcy, madness, and murder (?!) but it will also lay bare the cold withered heart of capitalism itself as real bills are used to circumvent justice, win favour, and wreak vengeance. “Money is the Root of All Evil” is a tired old cliché and in this his swan song director Robert Bresson once again employs his tired old minimalist approach that still has critics touting him as some kind of genius. Halfhearted cameras plod alongside a cast of untalented amateurs who move like robots, parroting their lines with all the passion of a GPS giving directions to the nearest supermarket—here’s a fake tear self-consciously wiped off a blank face, here’s a facsimile of rage as stage blood sprays over cheap wallpaper, and here comes a smarmy observation on the wages of greed delivered with all the finesse of an axe to the head. Little more than a hasty sketch of a good film that could have been made but wasn’t, Bresson’s insistence that less is more intentionally bleeds the story of all emotional references leaving audiences to glean whatever meaning they can from a rather blasé puppet show.

Army of Darkness (USA 1992) (5): When Ash, an overbearing hardware salesman, comes across an ancient edition of the Necronomicon, the accursed "Book of the Dead", he can't help but dabble in a little black magic much to his regret. Not only does his meddling in the black arts cost him his girlfriend and his right hand, he also inadvertently opens a time vortex which lands him in the year 1300. There, through a series of misadventures, he becomes involved in a war between the local kingdom and a putrefied army of the dead over that same copy of the Necronomicon--the king needs it to defend his people against the ghouls, the zombies need it in order to rule the world, and Ash needs it in order to return to the 20th century. Armed only with his trashed car, a chainsaw, a shotgun and a couple of science textbooks Ash prepares for the biggest showdown of his life. Rife with inside jokes, nerdy humour and inane Three Stooges-style slapstick, Sam Raimi's horror/comedy flick plays like the idiot offspring of The Evil Dead and Monty Python's Holy Grail though far less gory than the former and definitely less funny than the latter while a few feeble nods to the likes of Star Wars and The Day the Earth Stood Still elicit little more than a blink or two. Where the movie excels however is in the final half when an epic battle between a ragtag brigade of medieval knights and an animated horde of skeletal warriors provides a skewed homage to the works of Ray Harryhausen (or is it Jim Henson?). Although this DVD transfer was a bit too dark and fuzzy, watching these two armies hack and insult each other (some of the visuals and one-liners are pretty funny) almost made up for it. A bona fide cult hit with the Tech Support crowd but after all the hype I was left feeling vaguely disappointed.

Army of Shadows (France 1969) (7): Focusing on a cell of the underground French Resistance during that country’s Nazi occupation, Jean-Pierre Melville’s adaptation of Joseph Kessel’s novel destroys the romantic notion of handsome young men performing gallant acts of bravery while maintaining the moral high ground. Both Melville and Kessel were actively involved in the defence of France during WWII, in the military and the Resistance, and this unsettling insiders’ view of how the Underground worked is perhaps more accurate than a dozen Hollywood blockbusters. Living with the constant threat of torture and execution should they be caught by the Germans, a small cadre of French fighters wage a clandestine war against the enemy aided in part by British allies. From midnight parachute jumps over hostile territory to elaborate rescue schemes, there’s nothing they won’t do in order to hasten the liberation of France. But the danger and risk of exposure doesn’t come without a price—namely an obsession with secrecy bordering on paranoia and an ice cold sense of justice for anyone (even their own) who violates the rules. In this “army of shadows” courage and brutality necessarily exist side by side—a scene in which three men must carry out a death sentence on a former friend turned informant is especially gruelling to watch. Presented in a near verité style which makes it look as if it were filmed on the fly, Melville paints a sobering picture of lives upturned by war and morals compromised out of necessity—for in a time where happy endings are a luxury even heroes can emerge tarnished. As one of the group’s leaders, Lino Ventura is a study in duty and implacable resolve while superstar Simone Signoret dominates the screen as a fellow agent with a gift for making the impossible possible.

Arn: The Knight Templar (Sweden 2007) (8): Based on the books by Jan Guillou, this spirited costume epic set in medieval Scandinavia follows the shifting fortunes of Arn, a Swedish Knight Templar sent to defend the Holy Land for a period of twenty years as a form of penance after he falls in love with and impregnates a local chieftain’s daughter. For her part in the affair the daughter, Cecelia, is consigned to a nunnery for an equal length of time and has her newborn son taken away from her. While in Jerusalem Arn proves himself to be an exceptional warrior winning the respect of not only his superiors but his sworn enemy, the legendary Muslim leader Saladin with whom he forms a tentative friendship. But his heart yearns for Cecelia and the hope that one day they will be united once more. Meanwhile back in Sweden, Cecelia holds onto the same desperate hope; but with the Crusades raging in the Middle East and the Danes threatening war from the south, tragedy seems inevitable. With glorious widescreen cinematography that makes the most of its European and Moroccan locations, an international cast of seasoned actors, and an intelligent script that shifts effortlessly between English, Swedish and Arabic, Peter Flinth’s assured film seamlessly combines a rousing historical adventure with a heartbreaking love story. Even in the midst of clashing armies his camera manages to capture the subtlest nuance; a hungry stare or a bloodied crucifix, while scenes of battlefield carnage and desert sandstorms give way to quietly lit chapels and gentle snowfalls. Perhaps he relies a little too heavily on slow motion brooding and soaring chorales, but it’s a small critique for something that kept me captivated for over two hours.

Around the World in 80 Days (USA 1956) (7): Eccentric London businessman Phileas Fogg wagers a sizable bet with his fellow Reform Club members that he can traverse the entire globe in 80 days, quite a feat for 1872. Accompanied by one small suitcase, a satchel full of cash and his multi-talented manservant Passepartout, Phileas begins a journey that will take him soaring over the Alps in a balloon, trekking through an Asian jungle on the back of an elephant, and traversing the American Wild West by steam locomotive. Along the way he and Passepartout will also manage to rescue a doomed princess and fight savage Indians. But forces are afoot to ensure that Fogg fails in his quest; for the stuffed shirts back at the Reform club are not above a little international sabotage in order to protect their investment while a tenacious private investigator is determined to implicate Phileas in a most ingenious crime. Jules Verne’s fantastical story is reduced here to a series of mildly engaging skits separated by prolonged travelogue footage obviously meant to wow audiences with the film’s then brand new 70mm widescreen format. Of course many of the supposedly exotic locales were actually filmed on American sound stages with painted extras giving them that precious “Hollywood Postcard” appearance, but the cinematography is still lovely to look at and the dozens of surprise celebrity cameos (a term coined by producer Michael Todd) will keep movie buffs on their toes. A big ambitious film filled with colourful flourishes and charming period details which nevertheless fails to rise above light entertainment.

Arrhythmia (Russia 2017) (6): Oleg is a paramedic 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.

The Artist (France 2011) (7): When silent screen star George Valentin accidentally bumps derrieres with an ardent fan, fresh-faced chorus girl Peppy Miller, romance seems inevitable. Weighed down by a loveless marriage, George is drawn to Peppy’s insatiable optimism and joie de vivre while the young ingenue’s much publicized flirting with the older celebrity jumpstarts her own motion picture career. Unfortunately it’s almost 1930 and the age of silent films is coming to an end as “talkies” begin to make their first appearance. Refusing to compromise his artistic integrity for the sake of this latest cinematic fad, Valentin sees his own star power quickly diminishing while Peppy suddenly finds herself the toast of Tinseltown. With his latest film dying at the box office, his assets eaten away by the Great Depression, and only his little dog for companionship (he fired his faithful manservant), Valentin begins nursing his self-pity with unhealthy doses of alcohol; but Peppy has other plans for George, including a most ingenious job offer. Can love truly conquer all or is yesterday’s matinee idol destined to become tomorrow’s tragic headline? Although filmed entirely in English, The Artist has become one of the most celebrated French films in years. This meticulously crafted tribute to Hollywood’s silent era, complete with intertitles, a jazzy score, and rich B&W cinematography, definitely has the appearance of an old classic with a few modern tech twists thrown in; a “full sound” nightmare was especially clever. Furthermore, with his slicked hair and pencil moustache and her permed curls and flapper dresses, handsome leads Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo exude that golden era movie star quality. Add to that a strong supporting cast, some sly references to vintage films, and an eye-popping musical finale, and you have all the makings of a fun night in front of the big screen. But despite the loving attention to period detail and genre motifs (the signature styles of old-school directors are aped throughout), this is not 1930 anymore. They really can’t make ‘em like they used to, nor should they, and all that fluffy romantic melodrama ultimately comes across as elaborate imitation, flattery notwithstanding. Besides, the Best Actor Oscar should have gone to the dog.

The Artist and the Model (Spain/France 2012) (5): The often thorny relationship between the creative mind and its various muses is put under the microscope in writer/director Fernando Trueba’s B&W film—a pastoral piece aiming for allegory but settling instead for a series of dry lectures. As WWII rages, aging sculptor Marc Cros (a curmudgeonly Jean Rochefort) is content to simply observe the world around him from the relative peace of his studio in the French countryside. But when his wife (an older, classier Claudia Cardinale) brings home a secretive young Spanish girl she found sleeping in a doorway, Cros’ artistic juices begin flowing once again. Doffing her clothes in exchange for room and board “Mercé” begins posing for the artist and as the days linger on learns a thing or two about the nature of art while Cros—having created what may be his signature piece thanks to Mercé—encounters a yawning void when his Latin muse decides to move on. Peppered with wry dialogue in which the artist delivers mumbling lectures on observation and technique (a simple pen drawing by Rembrandt brings him to tears with its glorious simplicity), Trueba confines most of the film to a rustic studio wherein Cros wanders among half-finished statues of nude women as sunlight falls upon Mercé’s naked flesh. This constant juxtaposition of dusty remnants from the past with a vivacious living body turns an otherwise unremarkable workshop into a psychological space in which an old man’s sensual memories are stirred once again and an artist’s blocked mind is pierced by sudden inspiration. It’s a potent drama which may have made a great short story but as a feature-length film it too often felt as if I were simply watching the plaster dry. Chus Lampreave provides some much needed comedy as the couple’s bug-eyed Spanish housekeeper and Götz Otto points at the transcendent quality of art playing Cros’ best friend and disciple—a German officer whose military affiliation doesn’t hinder his admiration for beauty and the people who can create it.

The Art of Love (France 1983) (1): The final instalment in Borowczyk’s “Immoral Trilogy” and supposedly based on the work of Ovid. It is 8 A.D. and in one wealthy Roman household it’s adulterous liaisons and tepid orgies all around. Before the day is over a tumescent statue will receive some oral service, a man in bull drag will mate with an ersatz cow and a lethargic maiden will loll about in a fish tank with all the erotic conviction of someone who’s just fallen into a toilet. From the ludicrous script (badly dubbed) to the glaring soundtrack of singing centurions and disco muzak there is nothing even remotely titillating going on here. And, as a final insult to his audience, Borowczyk ends this gobbler with one of the lamest “twists” I’ve seen in some time. It’s a good thing Ovid is already dead because this turd sandwich would have killed him for sure.

As Above, So Below (USA 2014) (6): There are more than 200 miles of tunnels beneath the streets of Paris crammed with the skeletons of six million people which were moved underground centuries ago when the surrounding cemeteries became overcrowded. Drawn to these dusty catacombs in search of the Philosopher’s Stone, that elusive metal which grants unlimited power and immortality, a young archaeologist leads a ragtag documentary crew armed only with headlamps and a few arcane clues. As the team wends its way deeper into the maze of bones strange things begin to happen, things that seem drawn from their collective memories: a childhood piano appears around one corner, a ringing telephone around the next. But when they pass through a forbidden tunnel (ignoring the implicit warning carved directly above it of course) shit gets real as the subterranean necropolis reveals its darkest secret yet. Filmed in that shaky handheld camera style that nauseates as much as it disorients (everyone has their own helmet cam so the audience doesn’t miss a single jolt) this underground treasure hunt cum demonic puzzler plays like a cross between Tomb Raider and Blair Witch as imagined by Dante Alighieri. Of course as with all such horror expeditions its ability to frighten is dependant upon one’s willingness to suspend disbelief—and there are enough “WTF?” moments to make the less forgiving reach for the “eject” button. But for those willing to go along for the ride there are adequate bumps and shocks to keep your interest including an existential head-scratcher of an ending. And the fact that it was filmed in the actual Parisian catacombs themselves with real live bones (the first feature to receive such clearance) is just icing on the cake.

The Ascent (Russia 1977) (9): As the film begins we are faced with an arctic vista of sleet and ice when suddenly, out of a snowbank, a ragtag group of Russian partisans slowly rise like dispirited wraiths amongst the bare trees and frozen earth. Thus begins Larisa Shepitko’s grueling story of two soldiers struggling to stay alive in WWII Russia while still remaining true to their principles. The two men, Kolya and Sotnikov, are sent on a quest by the partisan commander to try and procure much needed food and supplies for the suffering troop. Their journey quickly becomes an odyssey as they encounter the many faces of war; from an elderly collaborator to a struggling widow with three young children to feed. But it is when they are captured by German forces that they face their greatest challenge in the form of a Russian Nazi interrogator who offers them life in exchange for denouncing their beliefs and betraying their comrades. As one man steadfastly refuses to break faith with his cause, even unto death, the other begins to waiver in his convictions, terrified at the prospect of torture and execution. This is when the film takes an unexpected spiritual turn as events in the German detention centre begin to mirror the Passion of Christ complete with temptations, betrayals, and the long march to Calvary. Rife with religious imagery played out against bleak winter landscapes, Shepitko uses B&W cinematography to wring every nuance out of a fall of snow or a trembling shadow. She shifts effortlessly between a handheld verité style and long dreamlike passages which are visually arresting yet do not weaken the film’s underlying gravity. The final scenes of salvation and damnation are delivered with such overpowering intensity I was tempted to hit the pause button just to catch my breath. A classic whose influence can be seen in later films such as Come and See and Aleksei German’s The Last Train.

A Serious Man (USA 2009) (9): What do Schroedinger’s Cat, Jefferson Airplane, and the sufferings of Job have in common? Quite a lot, at least in this wonderfully surreal, Oscar-nominated parable from the Coen brothers. In the biblical account Satan asserts that man is only good because he desires heavenly favours—God disagrees and to prove the devil wrong he allows him to smite the pious Job with all manner of plague, pestilence, and personal tragedy. Never losing faith, Job nevertheless begins to question divine wisdom causing Yahweh, in a pique of theodicy, to assert his moral superiority once and for all. Relocating the biblical epic to a middle class Jewish neighbourhood in 1967 Minnesota (the kitschy touches are perfect!) the Coens’ film revolves around Larry Gopnik, a mild-mannered physics professor who suddenly finds his comfortable existence turned upside-down when his wife demands a divorce, his tenure at the university is put into question, and infernal temptation arrives in the form of a Korean exchange student willing to pay for a passing grade. With his world imploding and a trio of comical rabbis unable to offer any useful counsel, Larry eventually finds himself balanced on the edge of a crushing moral dilemma—and like Schroedinger’s mystical cat the universe can go either way… Although steeped in Judaic folklore and idiosyncrasies (an 18th century Yiddish prologue sets the tone) there is ample spiritual and secular crossover to allow the average goy to follow along and the Coens inject enough deadpan humour, including fanciful dream sequences, to keep the laughs going—a stoned bar-mitzvah is worth a rewind. But an answer to the central question of how a just and loving god can allow evil and suffering to exist remains appropriately opaque. A great cast balances gravity and satire while a plethora of divine metaphors ranging from TV antennas and whirlwinds to Grace Slick’s apocalyptic voice keep things just this side of suburban fantasy.

Ashes and Diamonds (Poland 1958) (7): During the German occupation of WWII Polish forces loyal to Russia allied with their counterparts in the Polish Resistance in order to fight the Nazis. But with the end of the war and subsequent fall of the Third Reich their common enemy disappeared overnight leaving in its wake a leadership vacuum which both sides were determined to fill. Hovering somewhere between tragedy and bitter satire, Andrzej Wajda’s unsettling film spans the first 48 hours following the German retreat in May of 1945. A new Communist representative from Moscow is en route to Warsaw and a band of former Resistance fighters is determined to stop him thereby sending a clear message to the Kremlin—but they wind up killing the wrong people instead thus setting in motion a long night of recriminations, soul-searching, and personal catastrophe. Wajda distills both sides down to two people: the party secretary himself, a soft-spoken older man who has seen his share of politicking; and the young guerrilla sent to kill him whose sense of duty is now at odds with his increasingly troubled conscience (played by the striking Zbigniew Cybulski once touted as Poland’s answer to James Dean). Obviously influenced by the earlier works of Orson Welles, Wajda proves a master at intricately staged interior shots where lofty ceilings dwarf the people below and light bursts through doorways like a runaway locomotive, this juxtaposition of light and shadow establishing a common theme throughout. Although his protagonists are on opposite sides of the political divide Wajda is quick to point out the ties that bind—the upstanding secretary’s estranged son is definitely not a chip off the old block; the would-be killer’s infatuation with a local barmaid offers a peace he cannot accept—and it is this sense of moral ambiguity which provides the film with its most startling visuals. A victim collapses into the arms of his assassin as a garish display of fireworks lights up the sky; a debate on right and wrong unfolds in the bombed ruins of a church where a blasted figure of Christ slowly swings upside-down; and a dying man twitches unnoticed in the middle of a fetid garbage dump. But Wajda casts his net even wider to produce one of European cinema’s more caustic passages when a drunken banquet featuring disheveled loyalists, rebels, and fair weather politicians turns into a stumbling waltz of sorts after the orchestra begins a screeching off-key Polonaise. Blind loyalty cuts both ways, idealism sours, and Poland’s post-war rebirth—as observed by one director at least—ends up being a complicated and painful delivery.

As It Is In Heaven (Sweden 2004) (2): After a near fatal heart attack cuts his career short a world-famous maestro retires to the small village he left at the age of seven; a move which stirs up a few unhappy childhood memories. At first delighted to have Daniel take over as conductor for their amateur church choir, it isn't long before his big city presence and standoffish manner begin to rankle some of the locals' small town sensibilities. Exaggerated rumours concerning the new choirmaster are soon circulating thanks in large part to one jealous spinster and an emotionally repressed pastor; rumours which threaten to not only divide the community but break up the fledgling choir just as it's on the verge of gaining international notoriety. But, thanks to the power of music, wondrous things begin to happen: an abused wife finds courage, an emotionally scarred woman falls in love, and a pair of former bullies show remorse. Alleluia! This movie is so full of bullshit Hollywood cliches and forced sentimentality it's little wonder it was chosen as Sweden's official entry for Best Foreign Language Oscar. From Daniel's healing affair with the town slut (she teaches him to love again...and ride a bike!) to the glaring religious references, everything about this film rings false and stagy. There are a few memorable lines when the errant pastor receives a tongue-lashing from his furious wife but the final scene at an international choir competition is so blatantly manipulative I had to hit "pause" until I could stop laughing. American-style dreck with a Swedish accent.

A Song is Born (USA 1948) (5): If you experience a sense of déjà vu while watching Howard Hawks’ tedious musical romcom it’s not your imagination at work for it’s basically a scene by scene remake of his slightly more successful Barbara Stanwyck/Gary Cooper vehicle, Ball of Fire, with a couple of jumping jam sessions tacked on. Part-time nightclub singer and full-time gangster’s moll Honey Swanson (Virginia Mayo plodding through a Stanwyck imitation) is on the lam from the police who want to question her regarding her boyfriend’s involvement in a murder. She finds refuge of sorts in an elaborately appointed Manhattan music institute, home to a group of eccentric old professors who believe she’s come to help them understand modern jazz. The fun supposedly starts when she begins to fall for one of the men, a high-strung bachelor with raging hormones (a limp and lifeless Danny Kaye) at the same time her violent boyfriend comes knocking. Billy Wilder tweaks his original script from 1941 and Hawks tries to liven things up using eye-watering Technicolor, but even with swinging jazz numbers and cameos from the likes of Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Louis Armstrong, the film ends up hitting nothing but flats. Mayo and Kaye lack any onscreen chemistry, the acting rarely rises above bad community theatre, and the cliché-riddled script reads like a series of lead-ups in search of a punchline. Interesting to see some Big Band era names hamming it up onscreen though, and the culture shock between a jive-talking Honey and her seven stuffy academics is charming—at least until the joke grows stale.

The Asphalt Jungle (USA 1950) (9): Newly released from prison, notorious master thief Erwin “Doc” Riedenschneider is already planning the biggest heist of his career—one million dollars in gems locked away in the vault of a swank jewellery store. To this end he gathers a small cadre of local crooks bankrolled by a prominent lawyer with a taste for the good life, including a very expensive bleached blonde mistress (an unknown Marilyn Monroe). However, despite Doc’s meticulous planning things begin to fall apart almost from the beginning thanks to a few technical mishaps and the inherent greed of his cohorts. But when the double-crosses begin in earnest everyone’s future begins to look increasingly grim… John Huston’s quintessential noir classic features knockout performances from a cast of Hollywood heavies and enough moody atmosphere for a dozen lesser movies. Shooting in expressive B&W that transforms his unnamed city into a concrete wasteland of littered streets and grimy back rooms, Huston populates his film with crooked cops, backstabbing gangsters, and the prerequisite beautiful women; from Marilyn’s brain-addled temptress to Jean Hagen’s naïve showgirl whose unrequited love for one of Doc’s posse brings her nothing but heartache. An intelligent script crackles with enough angst and menace that Huston wisely refrained from garnishing it with an unnecessary soundtrack…in fact the entire film only contains six minutes of background music heard during the opening credits and returning for the ironically pastoral closing scene. “Crime is nothing but a left-handed form of human endeavour…” says the morally bankrupt lawyer at one point and, despite a tidy little “law and order” service announcement delivered by the city’s upstanding chief of police, Huston’s pessimistic foray into mankind’s darker side would seem to bear that out.

A Star is Born (USA 2018) (7): Bradley Cooper makes an impressive directorial debut in this remake of a remake of a remake, and sharing the spotlight with him Lady Gaga proves that she is made of more than just crazy props and make-up. Jack (Cooper) is a C&W singer on the way down thanks to drugs, alcohol and childhood trauma who embarks on an emotionally fraught relationship with talented naif Ally (Gaga). Watching over the couple are Jack’s older brother (Sam Elliot) who, given Jack’s addictions, is more of a babysitter than road manager, and an unscrupulous producer intent on turning Ally into the next big pop star even if it compromises her artistic integrity and drives a wedge between her and Jack. Cooper plays his own guitar and belts out live performances like a pro, Gaga plays against type and nails it, and together they create a definite onscreen chemistry which makes every duet soar and every tragic turn shred those heartstrings. Elliot expands his range dramatically—yes those are real tears—and a supporting cast includes Dave Chappelle being dead serious for a change, Andrew Dice Clay (?!) playing Ally’s middle-aged dad like a blue collar Robert Young, and RuPaul alumni William Belli and Shangela ad libbing the house down as Ally’s drag queen BFFs. Although some of the symbolism tends to be overbearing (a billboard foreshadows an unhappy twist, Gaga whistles “Over the Rainbow” as she traipses up a brick road, a poster of Carole King hangs prominently) Cooper handles his twin stories—rags-to-riches intertwined with riches-to-rags—with an unexpected depth that made those final moments of tragedy and triumph strike with documentary realism. A fine effort all around which definitely deserved its eight Oscar nominations—including “Best Song” win. And speaking of songs, the music is pretty amazing.

Audience of One (USA 2007) (6): Richard Gazowsky, a charismatic Pentecostal minister based in San Francisco, claims to have received a message from God instructing him to film the world’s greatest biblical-based science fiction epic. Gathering his friends and family around himnone of whom have any film experiencehe mortgages his home and culls his meagre flock for all the dimes and nickels he can get in order to form “WYSIWYG” (What You See Is What You Get) Christian Pictures and begins work on Gravity, a film he describes as “Star Wars meets The Ten Commandments”. Traveling between Italy and California with a ragtag crew and some drunken actors he found on Craigslist, Gazowsky quickly realizes that filming the next big thing is not as easy as the Lord led him to believe. With shoddy equipment continuously breaking down, a drug-addled leading man threatening to mutiny, and a mountain of overdue bills piling up (including a lawsuit from the city of San Francisco over unpaid rent), it’s going to take a miracle to get Gravity off the ground. What begins as a lighthearted and often amusing documentary gradually spirals down into something rather sad and pathetic as we see a severely disillusioned wannabe director desperately trying to attain his dream even as he insists it’s “God’s movie”. Tearful prayer sessions calling upon divine monetary intervention are rendered somewhat insincere as we see him try to bluff and lie his way out of one jam after another. In one particularly disturbing scene Gazowsky attends an industry convention in Las Vegas where he brags about his two-hundred million dollar budget and the filming he plans to do all around the world. In another scene we catch a glimpse of his grandiose delusions as he tells his dwindling congregation about the Lord’s eight-fold plan for him which includes an airline, a television empire, and an outer space colony. Meanwhile his mother, who founded the church he now presides over, looks on with a mixture of sadness and regret. Cunning con artist, deluded dream-chaser, or perhaps a little bit of both, one is still left with the distinct impression that the small voice of God in the back of Gazowsky’s head sounds an awful lot like his own insatiable ego.

Audrey Rose (USA 1977) (3):  John Beck’s gorgeous blue eyes and tight butt are the main attractions in this tepid spin on an “Exorcist” theme in which the only mystery is not the existence of reincarnation but rather how a group of seasoned actors managed to wade through such a corny script without giggling.  The story opens with little Audrey Rose dying in a fiery car crash.  Cut to Manhattan 11 years later where Ivy, the googly-eyed daughter of  upper-class parents, is having disturbing nightmares of being burned alive.  When Audrey’s dad (a distracted Anthony Hopkins) shows up on the scene claiming Ivy is really his reincarnated daughter and demanding visitation rights all hell should break loose.  But it doesn’t.  What follows is a lot of spiritual mumbo-jumbo, 70’s style, culminating in a ludicrous court trial and an ending that is unexpectedly bleak though equally ludicrous.  The director could at least have had Beck take his shirt off just once, dammit...

August: Osage County (USA 2013) (10): A family crisis causes the three Weston sisters to return to their Oklahoma home where they are forced to contend with Violet (Meryl Streep), their caustic mean-spirited mother—an aging shrew whose barbed tongue is further loosened by chemotherapy (irony of ironies, she has “cancer of the mouth”), chronic pain both physical and psychological, and a monumental addiction to prescription drugs. There’s flighty Karen (Juliette Lewis) whose string of failed relationships has her forever lost in a romantic daydream; reserved Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) who has grown tired of being Violet’s handler; and bitterly cynical Barb (Julia Roberts) whose own failing marriage threatens to turn her into a carbon copy of the mother she loves yet hates. And they’re joined by Violet’s sister, Aunt Mattie (Margo Martindale), a matronly chatterbox with more than a few things to say about everything. Everyone, it seems, has arrived at the Weston homestead armed for battle with plenty of ammo to spare—but when the haggling begins in earnest bombshells are dropped which threaten to rip the family apart at the very seams. I have a weakness for stage productions and ensemble dramas, and director John Wells’ star-bedecked adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer-winning play does not disappoint. With the Weston home appropriately situated in the middle of nowhere during the hottest month of the year there is little to distract from the ongoing self-demolition as daughters and mother whip knives at one another under the bewildered gaze of their not-quite-perfect husbands (Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Dermot Mulroney), Barb’s highly impressionable 14-year old daughter (Abigail Breslin) hovering in the background like a sacrificial lamb, and Violet’s stoic Native American housekeeper (Misty Upham) whose small but crucial role provides the calm eye of the storm. But the film ultimately belongs to Streep and Roberts as the fiercely vulnerable, hard-headed mother and daughter duo. Slicing away at each other with the skill of a surgeon—each verbal slash hurting themselves as much as each other—they prove yet again why they are screen icons. In the hands of a lesser crew this could have spiralled into just another clamorous dysfunctional free-for-all, but Letts’ words cut to the heart, Well’s directorial skill maintains an uncomfortable intimacy, and a dream cast of A-Listers generate enough emotional pyrotechnics to shake the very walls of their two-story ranch house set. Sam Shepherd and Benedict Cumberbatch co-star, the former playing Violet’s long-suffering husband who knew her better than she knew herself, and the latter as aunt Mattie’s anxiety-riddled son who ends up being a bigger thorn in the family’s side than anyone—including himself—imagined.

Au Hasard Balthazar (France 1966) (4): A young girl’s pet donkey provides a hairy metaphor in Robert Bresson’s glaringly obvious religious allegory. Loved by his first owner, the virginal Marie (get it?), Balthazar is eventually pawned off to a succession of owners including a thief, a murderer, and a miser, before ending up back in Marie’s stable. Along the way he will be alternately used and abused, reviled and cherished, as his placid eyes behold every vice and virtue mankind has to offer—including Marie’s repeated falls from grace. Viewed by one grieving mother as a saint of sorts, Balthazar patiently brays and snorts while his human counterparts wax philosophical on everything from human vanity to the nature of sin before he finally meets his own little Calvary in a field full of bleating sheep (get it yet?). Marred by a stilted script and a host of lifeless performances, Bresson’s opus is further weighed down by a few too many narrative gaps and an overabundance of symbolism (oh look, he’s carrying gold and frankincense!). In the hands of a director like Luis Buñuel or Carl Dreyer this tale of an ass elevated to sainthood would go in the most obvious of directions but Bresson asks us to take it all at face value and that is one direction I’m not willing to go.

Au Revoir Les Enfants  (France 1988 ) (9):  In WWII France a privileged young boy becomes separated from his classmates during a school outing. He suddenly realizes that outside the walls of his comfortable Catholic boarding school lies a dark and threatening forest filled with wild animals.....some of which walk on two legs. This is perhaps the defining scene in Louis Malle's beautifully understated opus about the loss of childhood innocence amidst the horrors of war. Malle imbues his film with a sense of tragic irony.....children play silly war-like games while real atrocities occur a few miles away; images of Christ and the Virgin look down helplessly upon scenes of petty theft and everyday cruelty; and betrayal comes in the form of an innocent glance. A sad, gentle film free of artifice and bombast, which makes the final farewell all the more tragic.

Autobiography of a Flea (USA 1976) (8): Hypocrisy in its basest forms...moral, sexual and religious...forms the cornerstone of this period romp based on a 19th century erotic manuscript. Opening with the susurrant strains of a harpsichord the camera pans an immaculately appointed boudoir before focusing on a pampered pooch vigorously chewing its ass. This is when we are first introduced to the film’s narrator, a verbose body louse who has a keen interest in the puzzling behaviour of humans. Jumping through a convenient keyhole he finds a new home for himself on Belle, a curvaceous yet maddeningly naive debutante who’s just discovering her own sexuality. What follows is a series of lighthearted adventures involving lusty priests, lecherous uncles and oversexed hayseeds as Belle’s chastity falls into disrepair and is replaced by an increasingly cunning libido. In one of the more interesting scenes, a spartan church rectory plays host to a wholly secular gangbang (with John Holmes showing off his gift from God); while in another segment the flea saves Belle from an unwanted advance by delivering a well placed bite on her attacker’s dangling bits. It may lack the darkly salacious wit of the Marquis de Sade, and the faux Victorian dialogue gets tiresome after a while but the elaborate sets and costumes are well done and the energetic performances fun to watch even if the actual acting is hopelessly uneven. A good effort and certainly one of the better porn flicks to emerge from the 70s.

Autopsy (USA 2008) (2): Part of the After Dark Horrorfest’s 8 Films to Die For this little stink bomb has neither the wit nor the humour to raise it above the level of juvenile trash. A car load of hysterical teenage archetypes end up in a creepy hospital run by a staff of kooky horror film clichés who view their patients as being somewhat less than the sum of their parts. Here they must endure the usual cheap shocks and gratuitous gore until the only one left standing is the one you predicted would survive at the film's outset. The carnage is about what you’d expect although the “hanging guts” scene had a certain nasty charm and the “girl gone wild” twist at the end was mercifully brief. Has the genre really sunk this low?

The Autopsy of Jane Doe (UK 2016) (8): The father and son coroner team of Tommy and Emile Tilden are in for a rough night when the sheriff brings them the body of an unidentified woman found half buried at the scene of a multiple homicide. Remarkably pristine and with no obvious signs of trauma, the corpse of “Jane Doe” presents something of an enigma—especially once the autopsy gets underway. From the very first incision the Tildens are caught up in a terrifying mystery as the woman’s body yields one macabre secret after another from strange packets to impossible mutilations. Meanwhile a vicious storm is brewing outside and the lab's FM radio has started picking up some very unusual stations. And then the lights go out… Norwegian director André Øvredal’s first English language film is a master class in skin-crawling horror and suspense which mixes hefty doses of explicit gore (cinematographer Roman Osin’s camera crawls right inside Jane Doe’s rib cage) with terrors barely seen (what exactly is that thing shuffling down the dark hallway?) With the special effects team conjuring infernal firestorms and prosthetic innards, screenwriters Ian Goldberg and Richard Naing keep everything on track with a tight script that contains some welcome curveballs and only a few genre tricks—beware the close-up and never ever peer through a hole in the wall. Kudos to Scotsman Brian Cox as the elder Tilden who produces a passable midwest accent and Olwen Catherine Kelly who, as a most convincing cadaver, had the hardest part of all simply lying naked and still on a cold slab. In 2010’s The Troll Hunter, Øvredal made an old-fashioned monster movie which tickled the funny bone even as it sent the occasional chill down your spine—with Jane Doe he bypasses the bones altogether and grabs you straight by the guts. Definitely not one to watch alone.

An Autumn Afternoon (Japan 1962) (7): Ozu’s final film (he died a year later) explores much of the same territory as his earlier Late Spring; namely the disintegration and reintegration of the nuclear Japanese family post WWII. Once again an aging widower is concerned over his daughter’s refusal to marry due to her filial obligation to look after him. Afraid that 24-year old Michiko will miss out on the happiest time of her life, Mr. Hirayama enlists the aid of friends and family to find her a suitable mate even though the prospect of losing her is taking a greater toll on his peace of mind than he’s willing to admit. Ozu’s usual assortment of visual cues are here with train whistles and drifting smoke reminding us that the clock is ticking; but there is an undertone of pessimism at work (or is it just resignation?) not usually seen in his family dramas. A reunion with a former high school professor reveals an old man trying to alleviate his many life regrets through alcoholic binges; a contentious pair of golf clubs bought by Hirayama’s cash-strapped son casts a glaring eye on Japan’s emerging consumerism; and some wartime recollections in a smokey bar hint at a deeper cynicism. An appropriately bittersweet ending, sad yet oddly comforting, provides the perfect capstone for one of cinema’s more distinguished careers.

Autumn Leaves (USA 1956) (8): The staid and colourless life of a lonely spinster (Joan Crawford) begins to blossom when a handsome young stranger (Cliff Robertson) takes an acute shine to her. But what starts out as a whirlwind romance turns into something more sinister when she begins to notice discrepancies in what he tells people about himself—was he in the army or not? is he from Wisconsin or Chicago?—and her attempts to uncover the truth only lead to heated evasions and more inconsistencies. And then she receives a visitor who proceeds to turn her newfound happiness upside down…but who is really telling the truth? Rife with melodramatics, director Robert Aldrich’s intense soap opera nevertheless shines a mature spotlight on such taboo (for the 1950s) subjects as mental health, domestic abuse, and May-December romances with the film’s sense of foreboding giving way to chills and tragedy before moving on to the warmest compassion. Perfectly cast despite the seventeen year difference in their ages (or perhaps because of it) Crawford and Robertson dominate the scenery—her cautious old maid gradually letting down her guard; his lovesick gallant raising his as the past comes back to haunt them both. Graced with a sharp script in which even the most heated exchanges flow naturally, and directed with a consummate skill that neither rushes the story through nor bogs it down with excess pathos, this is truly a love story for adults—the occasional narrative stretch notwithstanding. Lorne Greene and Vera Miles co-star as a pair of complications, character actress Ruth Donnelly shines as Crawford’s no-nonsense landlady, and Mr. Nat “King” Cole croons the soulful title song.

Avanim [Stones] (Israel 2004) (5): Thirty-year old Michale’s time is divided between being a secretary at her father’s accounting firm, being a wife to her overworked husband, and being a mother to her little toddler. She’s also having an affair with a handsome young man—a physical arrangement involving cheap hotel rooms and hasty good-byes. But when her lover dies under tragic circumstances she suddenly finds herself very much alone with no shoulders to cry on and no way to express her grief without rousing suspicion. Her pent-up misery will eventually poison her relationships with everyone in her life as she begins to question the various roles she’s been forced into. Or something like that. Writer/director Raphaël Nadjari’s plodding verité style and bare bones narrative don’t really take a stand as much as suggest a host of interpretations. Is this a story of one woman coming undone…or rising above? As portrayed by Assi Levy, Michale is certainly not a sympathetic character—dour, selfish, and passive-aggressive—nor is she exactly an oppressed martyr. Could there be a social critique in the way her devout father cooks the books a bit so that a conservative religious group can receive more funding than they’re entitled to? There is certainly a focus on Jewish orthodoxy in the way its members bemoan the rise of secularism and see their role of teaching the Torah as a form of revitalization (never mind their questionable business dealings or the fact one of them gets away with something far worse). A feminist parable? Michaela rebels against male authority figures, refuses to cover her head when meeting a revered rabbi, and her only ally defends her at a cost. All are equally valid yet none are expressed with sufficient finesse to kick the story out of first gear. Granted, there may be facets to Nadjari’s no-burner which will resonate with Israeli audiences yet get lost in translation when viewed abroad. But as an outsider trying to look in I found the experience rather flat and listless.

Avanti! (USA 1972) (7): Notable for flashes of nudity, colourful language, and post “sexual revolution” morality, it’s difficult to decide which part of Billy Wilder’s “fish out of water” farce is ultimately most appealing: the star chemistry between leads Jack Lemmon and Juliet Mills, or the Isle of Capri’s lush photo ops. Wendell Armbruster Jr, the punctilious son of an American business magnate (Lemmon, earning a Golden Globe), is forced to take an unexpected flight to Italy after his vacationing father dies in a car crash. Once there however the complications begin before he even has a chance to clear customs; but the real shocker is waiting for him at the hotel. As it turns out dear old Dad did not die alone—he was with his secret mistress of ten years—and when the dead woman’s daughter (Mills) arrives from England to claim her mother’s body from the same morgue, things get really complicated. Playing Lemmon’s morally uptight businessman against Mill’s slightly neurotic bohemian provides some fertile comedy ground (he’s shocked by the infidelity, she finds it romantic) which Wilder further augments with exaggerated culture clash jokes as a fastidious Armbruster tries to adjust to rural Italy’s more laissez-faire sensibilities. To that end, New Zealand character actor Clive Revill provides the missing link as a harried hotel manager who tries to cover everyone’s tracks while also dealing with an irregular kidnapping, an impromptu murder, and the red tape intricacies of a society wherein getting anything done at all is predicated upon who you know, not what. And it’s all given a sensuous technicolor sheen by sun-drenched backdrops of sea, sky, and swaying palms set to a wistful melody. The laughs may be dated, the shocks dulled, but as a sparkling romantic comedy it’s still thumbs up all the way.

Away From Her (Canada 2006) (8):  A soft, gentle film about a couple coming undone due to Alzheimer’s disease.  As Grant enters his autumn years, Fiona slowly retreats into an eternal springtime of sunshine and fading memories.  Pinsent plays the husband with great restraint, often using nothing more than a glance to convey the depths of the man’s despair while Christie brings a sense of graceful dignity to Fiona, holding her head high even as she fades away.  But it is Dukakis’ crusty yet practical Marian that keeps the film firmly anchored and prevents it from slipping into maudlin sentimentality.  Polley accents the film with subtle shifts of timelines, a keen eye for shadows in a wintry wood, delicate wildflowers covered in frost.....and a few sly elements of pure Canadiana that let you know this film belongs north of the 49th.  A remarkable achievement.

The Awful Truth (USA 1937) (8): Cary Grant and Irene Dunne are perfectly matched in this sparkling little confection voted one of the top comedies of all time by Premiere magazine. They play Jerry and Lucy Warriner, New York socialites whose marriage is coming undone thanks to a few innocent fibs and a general mistrust of each other. With only ninety days to go before their divorce settlement becomes final the former lovebirds try getting into the dating scene once more, she with an Oklahoma oil tycoon and he with a ditzy nightclub singer and sullen debutante. But, the awful truth is they’re actually ambivalent about ending their relationship and thus spend way too much time trying to sabotage one another’s attempts at finding new love. A partially improvised script crackles with witty comebacks and double entendres as the Warriner’s verbal sparring goes from casual insults to a catty game of one-upmanship. In two of the film’s funnier scenes Jerry sets his soon-to-be ex up for a dance floor fail and she later retaliates by arriving at his new girlfriend’s estate pretending to be a drunken sister. A chic urban comedy sure to put a smile on your face! And yes, the Warriner’s dog, “Mr. Smith”, also played Asta in The Thin Man series.

Ayar (USA 2021) (5): Floyd Russ tries to breathe new life into an old formula and the resulting arthouse curio certainly has its moments of clarity, but they are ultimately undone by too much gimmickry and too little substance. Single mother Ayar left her newborn daughter in the care of her mother so she could seek her fortune performing on the Las Vegas strip. But, alas, a combination of COVID shutdowns and questionable talent scuttled her dreams before she could realize them. Returning to her hometown intent on becoming a part of her growing daughter’s life, she must now contend with her own mother who is reluctant to surrender the child to the daughter who abandoned her in the first place. Finding herself at a psychological crossroads, Ayar is forced to examine where her life decisions have led her… The emotionally fraught bonds between mothers and daughters, here spread out over three generations, may not be a new idea in screenwriting but Russ’ two leads (and co-authors) do put in adequate performances. As Ayar, Ariana Ron Pedrique wears her distraught heart on her sleeve while Vilma Vega, playing the stoic mother, injects a note of bitterness as she recalls having to sacrifice her own dreams—including leaving a comfortable life in Mexico—in order to give Ayar a chance for a better life in America. But somewhere along the way the film leaves the rails and becomes an avant-garde “experimental piece” with cast members breaking through the fourth wall in order to engage with one another as well as the audience. Why, exactly? Their impromptu bios don’t really mirror those of their characters (unless contrasting reality with fiction is the point?) and rather than adding a layer of insight the informal gab sessions end up looking like so many failed screen tests. Yes, Ayar has played many roles in her life—from absent mother to star-crossed dreamer—and being an actress in her own story could be seen as just one more, but the film’s narrative just isn’t strong enough to accommodate such an affectation. Then there’s the primal screams (thankfully muted), the ponderous camerawork, and the ubiquitous ivy that suddenly begins sprouting from every nook and cranny like a pushy metaphor. As the saying goes: sometimes it’s not what you say but how you say it. And sometimes you simply try to say too much.

The Baba Best of Baba Alla (Russia 2006) (2): With her toothless grimace, sagging breasts and fat unwiped ass, Baba Alla has certainly earned the title of world’s oldest and ugliest whore. In Yakov Levi’s collection of juvenile short films we see the shambling grotesque as she squeezes her fungus-yellowed toes into a pair of disco pumps, waves a crusted feminine pad at passing teenagers, and cleans cockroaches out of her vagina with a toilet brush. Aided by Penisella (the chick with a dick) and Dinkerbell the Cock Fairy, Levi’s theatre of disgust is a mostly unfunny mishmash of flabby guts, tonsillar close-ups and grossly exaggerated faux cumshots which make the works of John Waters seem like pure genius. Add to that a pair of completely gratuitous asides involving haunted matroshka dolls and a trio of busty co-eds who raise the ghost of the Marquis de Sade and you are left with two good laughs, a few groans, and a whole lot of blank staring.

The Babadook (Australia 2014) (9): Single mother Amelia is having trouble with her precocious son Samuel, a hyperactive six-year old who not only believes in monsters but takes elaborate steps to protect the two of them by fashioning homemade dart guns and booby traps in the basement of their old home. Born on the same day his father died—a horrendous accident which still haunts his mother—Sam has become extremely sensitive to the opinions of others, his erratic behaviour alternating between violent tantrums and forlorn withdrawal. Now, thanks to an especially scary storybook that he found on his bedroom shelf he’s more convinced than ever that a malevolent spirit is hellbent on destroying him and his mother. Presented in threatening rhymes and illustrated with macabre pop-up illustrations the book tells the tale of “Mr. Babadook”, an evil man in top hat and coat who sneaks into houses at night and wreaks havoc before turning his sights on the unlucky inhabitants. Despite assuring Samuel to the contrary, Amelia begins to suspect that this most inappropriate bedtime story is responsible for more than just a few childish nightmares. And then her own bad dreams begin… Childhood angst and unresolved grief come together to form a most diabolical bogeyman in writer/director Jennifer Kent’s first feature film; a taut psychological mindfuck that’s equally effective as a straight-up ghost story. Playing like every campfire tale you’ve ever heard, there are enough bumps in the night—not to mention one very scary armoire—to keep you whistling in the dark for weeks. Not content to simply rely on standard genre jolts however, Kent elicits much of the movie’s sense of dread through old clips (as Amelia flips through late night TV stations she encounters everything from big bad wolves and sex ads to Italian giallo) and clever camerawork including some of the most evocative dream sequences since Mia Farrow turned out the lights in Rosemary’s Baby. But there is a deeper unease beneath the film’s wicked chills, one that speaks of a widow’s despair and a child’s fear of abandonment—for the horror in the house presents a very different face to mother and son. Finally, even though her film’s final moments pay due respect to The Exorcist and Poltergeist, Kent brings it all together for an unexpected finale with a distinctly feminine sensibility. And the performances are amazing too.

Babes in Arms (USA 1939) (6): One of Busby Berkeley’s cornier musicals is this low-rent extravaganza meant to showcase the talents of teenagers Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. When the advent of talking pictures puts their Vaudevillian parents out of work, a group of talented kids under the tutelage of budding singer/songwriter Mickey Moran (Rooney) and his sweetheart Patsy Barton (Garland) decide to wow friends and neighbours by staging a show of their own. Renting an old barn and a couple of dusty costumes they set about making their Broadway dreams come true—but trouble is waiting in the wings in the form of town busybody Martha Steele (Margaret Hamilton playing yet another witch) who thinks the kids would be better off in trade school and intends to get a court order to that effect. Can Mickey, Patsy, and the gang manage to sway public opinion before the school buses arrive? Will youthful zeal win out over grownup cynicism? And will Patsy get the big break—and marriage proposal?—she’s been dreaming of or will talented upstart and new star of the show “Baby” Rosalie Essex (contortionist extraordinaire June Preisser) beat her to the punch? Rooney is hyper-manic as he mugs and cackles for the cameras (did he borrow a couple of Judy’s “diet pills”?) in a performance which earned him his very first Oscar nomination, Garland just seems preoccupied, and a cast of future Hollywood footnotes strut their wares through one insufferably cheerful musical routine after another. A bit of gravity is introduced with Mickey’s stage veteran father (Charles Winninger) sinking into a bitter depression over the unfair prejudice aimed at old theatrical “has beens” but even that is eventually given an ironic tug, at least to modern audiences, when the kids’ big opening number turns out to be an outlandish minstrel show with Rooney and Garland singing about “Ala-bammy” while shuffling around in nappy wigs and blackface. And with WWII just beginning it’s no surprise that this whole Great White Way fairy tale comes with a gaudy salute to Old Glory and Mom’s Apple Pie as the entire company gushes over “God’s country”, the land of opportunity and freedom!! Entertaining in a kitschy way with songs that are memorable if nothing else, my personal highlights include an awkward dinner date between lower middle-class Mickey and upper crust Rosalie (he fumbles over the silverware then chokes on a cigar), and Rooney giving amusing impersonations of Clark Gable and Lionel Barrymore.

Baby Blood (France 1990) (5):  When a malevolent pork sausage makes a home for itself in an unsuspecting woman’s uterus, “Female Empowerment” takes on a whole new meaning in this French splatter film.  It isn’t long before the little cocktail weenie has her chugging back the gallons of fresh human blood it needs in order to survive and grow into the  big bad monster it always wanted to bethink of a phlegmy calzone designed by H. P. Lovecraft.  Despite the poor editing, bad performances, and lacklustre script there are still some admirable elements here.  For one thing, the ongoing telepathic dialogue between woman and worm has a certain wry wit to it and some of the underlying humour manages to hit the mark, although the sandwich board advertising “Baby Blood 2” was a bit obvious.  Lastly, the gore effects are a pretty cool mixture of George Romero and Monty Python.  I’ve seen worse.

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer (USA 1947) (7): Buoyed by an Oscar-winning screenplay and an all-star cast (Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, Shirley Temple) this screwball comedy of misunderstandings and misplaced affections is sure to make you smile, if not exactly laugh out loud. When a roguish artist is put in a precarious position by a lovestruck teenager her older sister, a circuit court judge, makes him an offer he can't refuse; pretend to date the young girl until she can get over her infatuation or else face a number of trumped up charges. Things get complicated however when the judge begins to have romantic feelings of her own and her wannabe boyfriend, an assistant D.A., decides enough is enough. A final showdown in a swank nightclub involving shouting matches and birthday cakes is truly funny!

Bad Day at Black Rock (USA 1955) (8): Towards the end of WWII a one-armed man breezes into the tiny desert community of Black Rock; his identity unremarkable, his purpose unknown—and immediately we’re aware that something is not quite right. Greeted with suspicion and outright hostility by the town’s dozen or so inhabitants, John J. Macreedy (a soft-spoken Spencer Tracy) is nevertheless determined to seek out the man he’s come to find despite being stonewalled by the sheriff and threatened by the local land baron and his posse of goons. It seems Black Rock has a terrible secret to hide and no one wants to see Macreedy live long enough to discover it. Filmed in widescreen Cinemascope with vistas of endless sand and towering mesas to heighten its sense of isolation, John Sturges’ tale of an ugly small town and the even uglier people who live there paints a dire picture of patriotism’s other side—the xenophobia and racism, and the righteous mindset of the pack. Although a bit too extreme to be considered a microcosm of America at large (unless you concentrate on the civil rights travails of the South) Bad Day certainly casts an unwelcome light on one of that country’s darker wartime legacies. Presenting his film as a dry and dusty chamber piece featuring a cast of A-list character actors, Sturges slowly ramps up the tension using long, almost languorous shots under a burning sun. The result is a dim and pessimistic parable set in a West more villainous than wild.

A Bad Day to go Fishing (Uruguay 2009) (7): Uruguay’s official entry for 2009’s Foreign Language Oscar is this little secular parable which uses the wrestling ring as an odd metaphor to touch on issues of personal adversity and salvation. Perpetually drunk and quite possibly brain damaged, former world wrestling champion Jacob van Oppen (Finnish strongman Jouko Ahola, built like a bull and quiet as a mouse) has been reduced to touring obscure Latin American towns where he reluctantly grapples for money in exhibition bouts arranged by his manager-cum-nursemaid “Prince” Orsini. Unbeknownst to Jacob however is the fact that Orsini is practically penniless and has been manipulating the fights so that his client never loses, not that the local competition poses much of a threat to the hulking and highly volatile Van Oppen. It is an unlucky day when the pair blow into the village of Santa Maria however for not only does the local newspaperman recognize a scam when he sees one but the man chosen to fight against Jacob is bigger, younger, and being mercilessly goaded into winning by his financially strapped fiancée. As aging champ and desperate newcomer face each other down you just know only one will be leaving the ring under his own power… There is an oily Mephistophelean quality to Orsini (Scotsman Gary Piquer playing a thoroughly convincing Spanish conman) as he chides and cajoles the depressive wrestler into one ring after another. He’s not an evil man per se but rather a benign parasite who lives off of Jacob while at the same time nursing him through his frequent psychotic episodes. The brooding Ahola on the other hand is perfectly cast as a giant man-child who, like his biblical namesake, is wrestling with a few angels of his own namely addiction, mental illness, and the Svengali-like Orsini (Van Oppen translates as “from upstairs”). As their story unfolds one wonders which character is more dependent on the other—or more in need of deliverance—for Jacob always seems to be one step from madness yet it would appear Orsini is nothing without his headline act. A curious mix of low-key drama and dry comedy with a quasi-religious twist or two (a high stakes poker game brought Bergman’s The Seventh Seal to mind) made me think of The Wrestler had it been produced by Wes Anderson.

Bad Education (Spain 2004) (7): It’s Madrid, 1980, and thirty-ish Enrique Goded is making a name for himself as an up-and-coming film director. Enter Ignacio Rodriguez (Gael Garcia Bernal), a former schoolmate now a struggling actor hungry for work who bursts into Goded’s office with a homemade movie script in hand. Agreeing to read the script Enrique is at first intrigued and then obsessed, for the story—revolving around two Catholic school boys in love with each other whose abuse at the hands of a predatory priest irrevocably alters their lives—mirrors his own childhood experiences growing up with Ignacio. But when he agrees to shoot the film with his former friend in the lead he’s shocked to discover the script contains a few deadly curveballs including an “alternate ending” that not even he saw coming… What a tangled web he weaves when Pedro Almodóvar sets out to deceive and this dark, twisted homage to American Film Noir and campy Spanish películas of yesteryear is no exception. Presented as a film within a film and generously laced with drugs, fluid identities (masks and make-up figure heavily), and transgressive homo lust—not to mention a bitter blast directed squarely at the church—all played with an unwaveringly grim straight face, one can get caught up in the film’s downbeat subterfuge without ever noticing the sardonic humour which underpins everything. From posters alluding to Almodóvar’s other films to a harrowing scene of priestly stalking which looks as if it belongs in a Friday the 13th sequel to all those little queer touches (Bernal actually looks damn convincing in drag) this polished telenovela has Pedro’s signature all over it, a fact which makes its many loops both refreshingly offbeat and so-so predictable. First and foremost however, like All About My Mother that came before it, this is a love poem to the art of filmmaking.

Bad Grandpa (USA 2013) (7): When his drug-addicted daughter is sent to prison yet again, puerile octogenarian Irving Zisman is saddled with the task of transporting his 8-year old grandson across country to live with his slovenly crackhead father. Recently widowed and perpetually horny, Irving resents little Billy’s “cock blocking” presence and tries his damnedest to balance his guardianship duties with getting laid any way he can…often involving the kid in some highly questionable pranks along the way. As for Billy, although he willingly goes along with his grandfather’s harebrained schemes he secretly longs for a brand new family… Straight-up adolescent comedy, right? WRONG! This is a Jackass production, that giggling troupe of comedy neanderthals who unleash their offensive stunts and grotesque bodily function humour upon unsuspecting rubes which they then secretly film à la Candid Camera. Star Johnny Knoxville, (forty-three going on twelve) is completely convincing in his layers of old man make-up while young Jackson Nicoll plays the foil with a wide-eyed innocence that’s almost criminal. Substituting a series of non-PC gags for dramatic narrative Knoxville and his pint-sized accomplice cruise the open highways of America, hidden camera crew in tow, grossing out/offending/enraging as many people as they can and capturing it all on tape for our perverse amusement. Among the high (low?) points: a farting contest at Denny’s gets messy; grandpa dangles his rubbery nut sack at a ladies’ club; and the two instigators, with Billy in full circuit queen drag, conspire to tear the “Carolina Cutie Pies’ Young Miss Pageant” a new arsehole. I won’t even mention the sexual encounter with a vending machine or grandma’s most unfortunate memorial service. Disgusting, childish, and a sure indication of just how low popular entertainment has sunk. It’s also funny as hell! So I’ll watch something by Bergman tomorrow…bite me.

Bad Santa (USA 2003) (6): With over 300 cuss words including a whopping 170 F-bombs crammed into its 99 minute running time, Terry Zwigoff’s spiteful Christmas caper is definitely the antithesis to such frothy holiday fare as Capra’s Wonderful Life. Billy Bob Thornton, true to form, plays Willie, a child-hating alcoholic ex-con with a suicidal streak who wastes most of the year stealing, getting pickled, and indulging his fetish for heavyset women. But every December marks a moral low point on his calendar when he and diminutive sidekick Marcus (Tony Cox managing to insert “fuck” into every sentence) hire themselves out as mall Santa + elf—a racket which allows them to case each store’s security system so Willie can practice his safecracking skills later on. And then, while working a shopping centre in Arizona, Willie is force to hide in the opulent home of a precocious and utterly naïve ten-year old (is there an Oscar for most annoying child performance?) and his life takes a drunken lurch to the right as something resembling a conscience tries to crawl out of his tequila-soaked brain. An overriding fixation with bad taste seems to be the prime motivator in Zwigoff’s thoroughly nasty flick and Thornton’s malicious forays into petty crime and booze-fuelled outbursts—usually while decked out in his jolly red suit with a doe-eyed tyke balanced on one bony knee—are funny in a cringeworthy sort of way. And Cox certainly picks up the slack with a seemingly endless supply of colourful foul-mouthed comebacks. But watching a rock bottom loser continually implode over the course of an hour-and-a-half grates on the mind and that cornball ending suggests a screenplay that wrote itself into an uncomfortable corner. Worth a rental nevertheless if only to get a healthy dose of political incorrectness, for the only snowflakes in this film are on the ground. Look for John Ritter in his final role as a mousy floor manager and the late Bernie Mac as a crooked store detective.

Bad Santa 2 (USA 2016) (7): F-bombs and toilet humour rule the day in this low-brow scatological sequel to 2003’s anti-Christmas flick. Hard-drinking, perpetually horny safecracker Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) is once again talked into an uneasy alliance with his mutinous former partner-in-crime the elfish Marcus Skidmore (Tony Cox) who has his wee heart set on robbing a crooked charity based in Chicago (Montreal). But a few wrenches are thrown into the plan beginning when Willie discovers that the yuletide caper is being masterminded by his estranged mother (Kathy Bates sporting tattoos and a trucker’s mouth), then the wife of the charity’s CEO worms her way past his zipper, and finally Thurman Merman—his ersatz son from part one now twice as big and three times as stupid—begins dogging his every step (a tedious one-note performance from Brett Kelly). Will the trio get away with it this time or will Willie’s rock bottom luck ruin the day yet again? As in the first instalment the plot takes a backseat to a script determined to piss on every politically correct sensibility with crass jokes taking aim at midgets, white trash, addiction, and Christmas itself—an enraged Willie in Santa drag beats up another Kris Kringle using a “weapon” borrowed from a nearby manger scene. Strictly frat house dialogue with visuals that emphasize the “gag” in “sight gag” (Kelly bares his lumpy butt, Cox poses with a scrotum, Thornton pukes and pisses) but oddly enough it all works for the most part especially if you set your expectations really low from the outset. Part 3, however, is definitely NOT on my wish list.

The Bad Seed (USA 1956) (8): After her military husband is called away to Washington for a month, Christine Penmark (Nancy Kelly, bringing down the house) is left to look after their precocious eight-year old daughter Rhoda (Patty McCormack making The Omen’s Damian look like Cindy Brady). Always a bit of a sugary sycophant around adults, Rhoda is also capable of flying into intense rages whenever things don’t go her way, a trait of which her exasperated mother is only too aware. But when tragedy strikes during a school picnic Christine begins to suspect—with mounting horror—that her outwardly sweet, pig-tailed cherub may actually be a cunning psychopath. Going directly from the Broadway stage to the big screen, Mervyn LeRoy’s adaptation of Maxwell Anderson’s play (based on William March’s novel) is a pint-sized gothic chiller that manages to maintain most of its live performance impact thanks to the original cast who reprise their roles with theatrical abandon. With action mainly taking place inside the Penmark’s living room, the ghastly details are left offscreen as LeRoy concentrates instead on the psychological fallout between an increasingly hysterical Christine and a coldly manipulative Rhoda—both actresses oscillating between awkward shows of affection and bursts of hand-wringing. And it’s all shored up by a supporting cast who emphasize the iceberg developing between mother and child: the landlady ( Angela Lansbury lookalike Evelyn Varden) who thinks Rhoda is nothing but sugar & spice; the caretaker (Henry Jones) who thinks he knows an evil kindred spirit when he sees one; the absent father (William Hopper) who has put his little girl on a pedestal; and a grieving mother (Eileen Heckart stealing the show with only two brief scenes) whose drunken accusations are flung like knives through Christine’s heart. At times so over the top, especially Kelly’s monumental foundering and McCormack’s screeching brat, that it sweeps you up like a cinematic tidal wave before leaving you vaguely disappointed with its pat ending. Apparently the powers that be were not happy with the play’s original finale so LeRoy had to concoct a harebrained alternate ending so risible it could have had its own laugh track, this followed by a puzzling curtain call obviously meant to dispel any bad taste the film may have left in the audience’s mouth. Still an interesting psycho thriller if you can imagine Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm crossed with Silence of the Lambs.

The Bad Sleep Well (Japan 1960) (9): Akira Kurosawa’s angry film noir not only examines corporate corruption in high places but is also highly critical of the mindless loyalty engendered in Japanese workers; some of whom would willingly kill themselves rather than face the humiliation of testifying against their crooked bosses. When one such man is shamed into committing suicide after he discovers his superiors are up to their eyebrows in a scheme involving rigged government contracts, his enraged son Nishi decides to go deep undercover in order to expose the men responsible. Going so far as to change his identity and marry the boss’ crippled daughter, Yoshiko, in order to gain the old man’s confidence, Nishi uses his meagre inheritance to unleash an ingenious plan aimed at gaining confessions from all concerned. But not even he is prepared for the lengths criminals will go to in order to protect their own—for not only do wicked men sleep peacefully, they have trouble distinguishing the light from the darkness. in the meantime his wholly innocent wife and hot-tempered brother-in-law are having some distressing revelations of their own. Brilliantly scripted and accompanied by a hip jazz score, Kurosawa’s critical eye follows his characters from opulent hotel suites and boardrooms to the desolation of a bombed factory; a crumbling remnant of Japan’s military defeat just fifteen years earlier. As the story progresses however you come to realize that the lines between “good” and “bad” are not so easily drawn, for Nishi’s memories of his father aren’t quite as golden as he would like and his marriage of convenience to the trusting Yoshiko carries within it the same aura of unscrupulousness he’s vowed to expose. Furthermore, in his single-minded zeal to wreak vengeance (and ease some personal guilt) Nishi is only too willing to step outside the law himself. A complex and cynical film whose bleak ending once served as a wake-up call but now, sadly, seems more of a prophecy.

Bait (Australia 2012) (5): As if to prove that the SyFy channel is not the only source of Z-grade chills, those wacky Australians have combined The Mist with Jaws to give us a waterlogged thriller that’s as much fun to watch as it is to slam. When a tidal wave wipes out an idyllic beachfront community a handful of survivors find themselves trapped in a flooded supermarket with a pair of hungry great white sharks patrolling the aisles (I kid you not!) Cut off from the outside world the plucky shoppers—including a delinquent daughter and her policeman dad, a pair of robbers, a love triangle, and a bickering couple trapped in a car with their yappy pomeranian (best actor by far)—must devise a plan to outwit the giant fish and escape while the director tosses a coin to see who gets eaten next. Despite some regrettable CGI effects which probably looked better in big screen 3D, the submerged grocery store sets are pretty convincing and there’s enough squishy gore to make you either heave or howl depending on your sensibilities. The weakest link however is a bumbling script delivered by an amateurish cast desperate to prove that they can too act and a ridiculously grandiose musical score that merely serves to underline the film’s silliness—a pair of “Rambo: Shark Killer” sequences are unintentional (?) comedy gold. It still serves up a cheesy treat though…who needs Sharknado when you’ve got Sharknami? And yes boys and girls, there is indeed a sequel on the way…

Ballad of a Soldier (Russia 1959) (7): When a nineteen-year old signalman stationed at the Russian front singlehandedly turns back an enemy tank invasion he is rewarded with a six day pass—just long enough to journey back to his little village and spend a day with his mother. But Alexei’s trek by train, foot, and automobile will turn into an odyssey of sorts as he offers a crippled soldier a new lease on life, eases the mind of a dying father, and pricks the conscience of a wayward wife. In addition, thanks to a number of missed connections, he will also encounter fellow traveler Shura who is on her way to see her injured fiancé and the two of them will fall madly in love only to have fate and circumstance threaten their future happiness. And all the while Alexei’s six day leave is quickly coming to an end and he has yet to reach his village… A fine piece of Soviet agitprop cast with the usual assortment of brave warriors defending the motherland and stoic peasants threshing grain beneath a glorious sky. Unlike other directors of the time however Grigorly Chukhray puts aside the hammer and sickle and fashions a beautifully sad love story instead as two young idealists literally pass in the night. A wistful musical score underlines both love and tragedy alike while Chukrhay’s keen eye pulls off a couple of gorgeous cinematic coups: a battleground comes to resemble one of Dante’s hellish circles; a lone woman runs through an endless field of wheat; and two lovers embrace against an explosion of sunbeams. Perhaps a bit self-conscious at times, and a droning voiceover towards the end needlessly pushes the point, but still a grand old entry from the heyday of Mosfilm Studios.

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.

The Band Wagon (USA 1953) (7): Writers Adolph and Betty Comden completely rewrite an old 1930’s stage hit and in the hands of director Vincente Minnelli it’s turned into what many critics consider to be one of the quintessential MGM musicals. Former matinee idol Tony Hunter (an aging Fred Astaire) is well aware of the fact his star has all but faded as times and tastes have changed. But when his playwright friends Lester and Lily Marton (Nanette Fabray, Oscar Levant) offer him a chance to star in their latest Broadway revue he’s at first reluctant even though it’s to be directed by the legendary Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan). He eventually gives in and that’s when the troubles begin: Tony and ballerina co-star Gabrielle Gerard (a stunning Cyd Charisse) take an instant dislike to each other, the rehearsals are a technical disaster, and a pretentious Cordova insists on taking the Marton’s play—a frothy musical comedy about a children’s author—and revamping it into a contemporary version of Faust with fire and brimstone and tortured souls galore. Can everyone settle their artistic differences before the entire production becomes an even bigger flop than it already promises to be? Marvelous technicolor sets are steeped in 1950’s modernism yet the song & dance numbers are charmingly old-fashioned from the now iconic “That’s Entertainment!” to the pure country corn of “Louisiana Hayride”. But the show belongs to Astaire and Charisse who seem to float on air as they swirl and swing across the stage beginning with a fanciful pas de deux in Central Park and ending in a rather odd but watchable jazz number about a Manhattan murder mystery. The rest of the cast perform admirably and despite a forced love interest between its two stars the film still gives off enough sparks to assuage all but the most cynical of viewers.

Barcelona (USA 1994) (7): It’s hard being an American abroad in writer/director Whit Stillman’s oh-so-droll comedy of manners and morals, part of his loose trilogy which also contains Metropolitan (1990) and The Last Days of Disco (1998). Set in Barcelona, 1987, during the waning days of the Cold War, the film centres on neurotic ex-pat WASP Ted (Taylor Nichols giving a Presbyterian version of Woody Allen) working for a Chicago-based marketing agency who is suddenly forced to endure a prolonged visit from his boorish cousin Fred (Chris Eigeman), an American naval officer working on behalf of NATO. Seemingly opposites in every way—uptight Ted aspires to a moral code which precludes dating “attractive” women; Fred is a shallow, opportunistic lout who’ll bed anyone and just as quickly forget their name—the two men will spend a most revealing few days together dredging up the past while discussing love & sex, politics & diplomacy, and freedom vs commitment even though neither appears to have a clue about any of them. And while they wrangle over the finer points of everything from shaving to American foreign policy (comparisons between the USA and a colony of ants are as confusing as they are amusing) their Spanish contemporaries offer a few pithy—and not entirely on base—observations of their own. Set against a backdrop of anti-US sentiment where graffiti urges “Yankee dears go home” and bombs seem to go off like clockwork, Stillman is not so concerned with the sociopolitical machinations behind the resentment as he is with the cultural misunderstandings which provoke it. And there are misunderstandings galore in this high-brow, dialogue-driven satire that makes 1963’s The Ugly American look crass by comparison. It’s not easy to take an intentionally vacuous script and have it convey something more profound but in his own sly way Stillman manages to do just that, leading us down the garden path laughing all the way.

The Barefoot Contessa (USA 1954) (4): Celebrated movie star Maria D”Amata (an unconvincing Ava Gardner) has died after making only three films. As acquaintances gather in the Italian countryside for a modest funeral three mourners look back on her meteoric rise and tragic death: writer/director Harry Dawes (an unconvincing Humphrey Bogart) who knew her when she was an unknown Spanish flamenco dancer named Vargas and has acted as her mentor and guardian angel ever since; PR man Oscar Muldoon (Edmond O’Brien, convincing enough to snag an Oscar) who admired her from afar while a pair of international tycoons fought over her like a bone; and wealthy Italian count Vincenzo Toriato-Favrini (a ham-stuffed Rossano Brazzi) whose love stole her heart yet led to her tragic downfall just the same. In the process we are treated to three self-indulgent bouts of post mortem navel-gazing as each man beats his breast while Ava, in flashback after interminable flashback, tries to embody the object of their individual obsessions through stilted mannerisms and a bargain basement Latina accent. A ludicrous soap opera script supposedly borrows elements from the real life bios of Rita Hayworth and Gardner herself (poor girl gets a break, finds fame, marries rich) adds a touch of Pygmalion (check out that tombstone statue) then proceeds to garnish it with so much Hollywood flotsam and affected monologues that had it been handled slightly better—or slightly worse—you could almost enjoy it as a satirical take on the film industry itself with characters constantly reminding one another that reality is not a script, dammit! In once scene, perhaps the film’s most shamelessly awful, Brazzi’s tortured count explains to Maria why he won’t be joining her in their conjugal bed and when she runs to Harry Dawes with a hare-brained scheme to make her unhappy husband smile again he counters with “You’re talking mawkish nonsense you’ve remembered from cheap films!” If ever a pot called a kettle black…

Baron Blood  (Italy 1972) (2):  A little slice of fromage from Mario Bava about a stupid tourist visiting the family estate in Austria who unwittingly raises his evil ancestor from the dead.  Naturally the reanimated Baron goes on a killing spree and it’s up to the idiot and his bimbo sidekick to have him put down...again. I remember seeing this film as a child and it scared the HELL out of me.  Thirty-five years later and it all looks so corny--from the uneven editing and poor continuity (it’s daytime, no, it’s nighttime, no wait, it’s daytime) to the awful acting and mediocre effects nothing seems to work.  Add to that a paint-by-number script and a musical score that sounds like it belongs in a stag film and you have all the makings of a bad movie.  Sadly, it’s not quite bad enough to be good.

The Baron of Arizona (USA 1950) (7): In the late 1800s former office clerk James Reavis produced official documents dating from the 1700s proving that he and his wife were the sole heirs to the entire territory of Arizona, as granted to their ancestors by the king of Spain. With his evidence seemingly airtight he was within a hair’s breadth of becoming a bona fide North American Baron much to the chagrin of the US State Department who had been considering the territory for admission to the union. But it was all a carefully planned ruse, for Reavis was in fact a master con-artist and unabashed liar who spent years painstakingly forging documents and altering others in order to create a fake lineage. Writer/director Samuel Fuller takes this fascinating footnote from American history and twists it into a western swashbuckler with Vincent Price playing the suave sociopathic Reavis as if he were a 19th century James Bond villain. Told in flashback with a narrator filling in the holes, many of the facts remain intact—Reavis really did go to extraordinary lengths to shore up his claim—but, perhaps to bolster ticket sales, Fuller tacks on a soapy orchestra score and a few feats of derring-do (Reavis drives a team of horses over a cliff; takes up with gypsies; woos a diplomat’s willing wife) as well as a gushing love story with Ellen Drew in the role of his doe-eyed wife and unsuspecting accomplice. Even a tense climax involving an angry mob of displaced homesteaders owes more to James Whale’s Frankenstein than actual historical accounts. But as a piece of quasi-fiction, Price and Drew play off each other nicely—his cool indifference contrasting with her misplaced ardour—and the story clips along so smoothly you’re almost able to overlook its rushed resolution and moments of treacle. Nice cinematography too, especially Reavis’ office where a giant wall map of Arizona overshadows everything like the Holy Grail itself.

Barry Lyndon (UK 1975) (7): Stanley Kubrick’s sumptuous three hour costume epic follows the rise and fall of Redmond Barry, an 18th century Irish libertine who manages to rise far above his humble station in life as he goes from penniless criminal to military hero to kept husband of a wealthy widow. But his single-minded pursuit of the good life, coupled with the insular mindset of the aristocracy with whom he tries to ingratiate himself, lead to his ultimate undoing. If the story is hardly original its glorious widescreen presentation more than compensates. Utilizing a new lens technology which allowed him to capture key scenes using only ambient light, Kubrick fills the screen with soft pastel landscapes and baroque interiors awash in golden candlelight. Elaborate costumes and make-up coupled with meticulous period sets, apparently inspired by the paintings of Thomas Gainsborough among others, give the film a gauzy romantic feel complimented by a musical score of lilting Gaelic ballads and sombre orchestral movements. A lacklustre script does manage to deliver a few choice lines, but Ryan O’Neal’s leaden performance (his appointment had more to do with studio politics than artistic merit) is ultimately distracting; his portrayal of Barry being neither sympathetic nor engaging. A pity considering everything else was pretty well spot on.

Basket Case (USA 1982) (7): Every now and again a horror film comes along which is so godawful terrible that it should be dismissed before the opening credits finish scrolling—yet it’s made with such childlike (and slightly sadistic) zeal and is terrible in so many right ways that you find yourself cheering the beleaguered director on even as you break out in fits of laughter. Such is the case with Frank Henenlotter’s zero-budget “video nasty” about Siamese twins Duane and Belial (one normal, one monstrous) forcibly separated in their teens and now wandering the sleazy streets of Manhattan seeking vengeance on the doctors who performed the operation. Hiding his stunted brother in a wicker basket that he carries with him everywhere, soft spoken Duane (Donovan lookalike Kevin Van Hentenryck), sets up base in a fleabag hotel off of Times Square and begins plotting one messy murder after another. However, despite a crippling psychic connection with Belial (who looks like a mutant scrotum with fangs and claws) Duane nevertheless finds time to start dating vacuous blonde receptionist Sharon, a love interest which turns Belial green with envy and sets in motion all manner of good bloody fun. Cheap and tawdry from the squirts of fake gore to Belial’s stop-motion styrofoam rampages, there is a definite sense of humour at work in Henenlotter’s film as if cast and crew knew exactly what they were doing and only gradually let their audience in on the joke. Featuring B-movie performances all around and enough grotesque effects to make even the most jaded viewer crack a smile although, ironically, it was the panty-sniffing scene and not the eviscerations that grossed me out the most. Small wonder it was released by “Analysis Films”.

Battle in Heaven (Mexico 2005) (5): Pudgy, middle-aged chauffeur Marcos has a few things on his mind. Not only is he having an affair with Ana, his wealthy employer’s rebellious daughter, but he and his wife have accidentally killed their friend’s baby in a botched kidnapping attempt—a murder he casually mentions to Ana one day while visiting her at the brothel where she moonlights as a prostitute. With his wife urging him to keep his mouth shut and his young lover insisting he turn himself in, a moral tug-of-war takes place in Marcos’ head with a guilty conscience waging war against self-preservation. His inner turmoil begins to colour the world around him as Mexico City suddenly teems with portentous images both sacred and grotesque: an impatient mother manhandles her child, a procession of pilgrims file past singing hymns, and a subway passenger sports a devilish mask. Things finally come to a head prompting Marcos to make his ultimate decision... Reygadas’ strange aesthetic (a poor attempt to emulate Gus van Sant?) is evident in every frame of this bombastic mishmash of half-baked ideas. There are long takes including a 360° pan off a balcony, annoying sound effects with ticking clocks and oddly placed classical music figuring prominently, and some explicitly carnal non-sequiturs featuring chubby bums and sweaty genitals. Images of conflict abound, whether it's a cadre of armed guards or a spirited soccer game, and there are more than a few subtle digs at both religious fervour and blind nationalism. The overall effect may be disquieting but any attempts at achieving greater depth are ruined by the flat and lifeless performances of his hopelessly amateur cast. Despite its grandiose title and some dazzling visuals, Battle in Heaven comes across as an experimental film gone terribly awry. Shallow, indulgent and emotionally sterile.

The Battle of the River Plate [Pursuit of the Graf Spee] (UK 1956) (7): At the beginning of WWII, Germany patrols the Atlantic with a small fleet of “pocket battleships”; small, fast and highly maneuverable warships able to conduct raids on Allied convoy routes and then make their escape before reinforcements can arrive. One such ship, the Admiral Graf Spee, is especially troublesome in the waters of the south Atlantic where it is responsible for sinking several merchant vessels. Caught in a clever ambush by three British gunships off the coast of Uruguay, the Graf Spee is badly damaged despite its superior fire power and forced to limp into the harbour at Montevideo. Being a neutral country Uruguay is required by international law to assist the Germans in making their crippled ship seaworthy, without providing any ammunition or weapons repairs, after which its captain is obligated to leave their waters. Meanwhile just off the coast, with only three ships to their name and over a hundred miles of ocean to patrol, the British are preparing for a game of cat and mouse with the damaged battleship once it re-enters international waters. As both sides engage in heated diplomatic negotiations with the Uruguayan government (and some public opinion propaganda on the side) the deadline for the Graf Spee’s departure is quickly approaching... Powell and Pressburger’s fine tale of duty and honour under pressure defies the usual flag-waving conventions we’ve come to expect from war dramas and instead seeks out the human component beneath the uniforms. There are no lionhearted heros or loathsome villains here but rather a handful of commanding officers, three British, one German, bound by conflicting sets of principles to carry out their separate missions to the best of their ability. An air of mutual respect develops between them despite the fact their orders are to attack one another, a respect which makes the brief yet gripping visions of battle carnage all the more tragic. In one particularly poignant scene a group of shipboard P.O.W.s are given boxes of Christmas decorations to brighten up their holding cell, while in another scene captured officers salute the coffins of enemy sailors killed during a particularly heavy assault. A most un-warlike battle film in which adversity is met with quiet courage and a victorious celebration is tempered by a profound sense of loss. The understated musical score and wide horizon cinematography are marvelous.

Battle Royale (Japan 2000) (7): In the near future a global stock market collapse and record unemployment has pushed Japanese society to the brink of total chaos and nowhere is this more apparent than in the school system. With truancy and juvenile delinquency reaching dangerous levels the government is forced to pass the Battle Royale Act which effectively allows the state to randomly kidnap groups of students, place them on a deserted island, and give them 48 hours in which they must either kill or be killed with the last kid standing declared the winner. Thus it is that forty-two unlucky grads from Tokyo wake up from a drugged haze to find themselves equipped with basic military rations, a “mystery weapon”, and two days to off each other. As a bonus incentive they’re also fitted with explosive dog collars to prevent escape and encourage full cooperation because in the unlikely event that more than one person lives past the deadline, everyone’s head blows up! It’s Hunger Games served up sushi-style with extra helpings of graphic teen-on-teen violence and a pervasive sick sense of humour which leaves you chuckling even as the body count rises. Director Kinji Fukasaku taps into everyone’s dark highschool fantasies as old classroom resentments explode in a hail of knives and bullets, sweethearts become killing duos, and the class geek plans to even the score with every authority figure he can find. Plus, just for fun, Fukasaku also throws a relentless psychopath and murderous nymphomaniac into the mix. But, blatant social satire aside, it’s ultimately all about the violence; from an hilariously deadpan indoctrination video in which a perky co-ed welcomes the unwilling recruits to the island, to the final bullet-riddled comeuppance. Perhaps a bit problematic in this age of school shootings (the film was released in Japan…with official disapproval…just a year after Columbine) but with the great “Beat” Takeshi Kitano playing a disgruntled professor-cum-camp commandant how can anyone take this seriously?

The Battleship Potemkin (Russia 1925) (8): Sergei Eisenstein’s breathtaking piece of Soviet agitprop is just as engaging ninety years later even if the Communist posturing elicits more irony than insurrection these days. When sailors aboard the battleship Prince Tavrichesky (nicknamed “Potemkin”) stage a mutiny to protest their poor living conditions they manage to subdue the commanding officers but not before one of their own members is shot dead by the captain’s guards. When news of seaman Vakulinchuk’s martyrdom reaches the port of Odessa, a city already gripped in revolutionary fervour, its citizens take to the streets in a peaceful show of solidarity—peaceful that is until the Czar’s troops arrive… Banned in France and the UK until the 1950’s due to a fear of working class unrest this masterful silent classic has gained a rightful place on countless “best of” lists including Premiere magazine’s “100 Movies That Shook The World”. From painterly views of ship’s cannons backlit by glorious clouds to a string of close-ups showing zealous sailors and peasants alike embracing the party line, there is nothing subtle about this movie especially when a tense naval stand-off takes an unexpected turn. But propaganda aside, the true genius of Eisentstein’s vision can be summed up in its climactic bloodbath scene shot on the great steps of Odessa when the military began firing indiscriminately into the crowd. Directing hundreds of extras into a coherent pandemonium you can sense the panic and horror as rifles go off and bodies fall leaving us with two iconic images: a distraught woman confronts the Czar’s forces while cradling her dying child, and a baby carriage careens down endless flights of concrete steps after the child’s mother falls prey to a bullet. I wonder what Eisenstein would make of Communism’s modern legacy.

The Bay (USA 2012) (5): Although no stranger to creating stories for the small screen, writer/director Barry Levinson’s attempt at the found footage genre, a kind of eco-conscious monster movie, is just too staged to be passed off as “real” and instead resembles nothing more than a rigorous workout from the improv studio. Millions of dead fish and seabirds are showing up along the New England coast and the official cause is listed as an algae bloom. But fledgling news reporter Donna (a not quite convincing Kether Donohue) knows better because she was at ground zero when all hell broke loose at a fourth of July celebration on Chesapeake Bay. Now possessing several hours’ worth of classified video thanks to a dark web hacker site, she is determined to deliver the real story of death, mayhem, and environmental crimes to the world. What follows is a montage of dashboard cams, smartphone captures, and security camera footage as Donna pieces together the disaster as it unfolded. Occasionally effective—some underwater scenes are very creepy—but a few bloopers manage to get past the editing department (palm trees in Delaware?) and despite some intentional humour there were just too many moaning extras in shock make-up jostling for a close-up to suspend my disbelief. In addition, a “top secret” big screen video conference between Homeland Security and the CDC is more slick than it should be and a doctor’s home movie pushes the envelope even further. It’s Jaws meets Blair Witch as envisioned by Greenpeace, with a message relentlessly rammed into our corneas. At least the special effects are pleasingly gross.

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.

Beau Père (France 1981) (6): After her mother dies in a traffic accident, 14-year old Marion foregoes moving in with her alcoholic father and instead chooses to stay with her stepfather Rèmi, a somewhat irresponsible, sporadically employed nightclub pianist. But there is more behind the young girl’s decision than mutual grief, for fancying herself a full grown woman Marion has decided to take Rèmi as her lover. In Bertrand Blier’s erotic comedy—originally banned by Ontario’s squeamish censors—a wily young Lolita wages a game of seduction that the older object of her desire can’t hope to win. As Rèmi sputters and trips towards that inevitable first kiss and Marion demurely plays the innocent naïf—she always seems to be towering over him—complications will arise in the form of her biological dad who just won’t go away, and the beautiful single mother next door who plays on Rèmi’s guilty conscience (he’s hot for his stepdaughter, she’s a loving mom to her own 5-year old) while deepening his already considerable inferiority complex (he tinkers at the piano keys, she’s a virtuoso). And it doesn’t help that his apartment is filled with photographs of his late wife, a former model, which always seem to be staring at him. The humour is definitely low-key, a fact not helped by performances that are awkward and perfunctory—as Rèmi, Patrick Dewaere delivers all the emotional punch of someone waiting for a bus and 15-year old Ariel Besse’s Marion walks through her lines as if she just borrowed a couple of mom’s Ambiens. There is a certain envelope-pushing charm to the film however and that final scene in which the stage is set for a possible future transgression arrives like a sobering alarm bell.

Beau Travail (France 1999) (8): Director Claire Denis takes Melville’s Billy Budd off the high seas and sets it down in east Africa where the drama unfolds at an outpost of the French Foreign Legion. Sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant) is a career soldier whose unwavering adoration for his commanding officer suggests more than mere professional respect. But when the commander begins heaping praise on new recruit Gilles Sentain—a fresh-faced young man who quickly wins the favour of officers and enlisted men alike—Galoup’s jealousy becomes a deadly obsession to break Sentain’s spirit at any cost… Told in flashbacks as a disgraced Galoup sits brooding in his Marseilles apartment, Denis trades in straightforward narrative for a fevered stream of consciousness where disconnected memories gradually come together to tell us what happened next. Impressionistic and dreamlike, she strings together random vignettes and static tableaux to impart Galoup’s worsening emotional state and she does so with the delicacy of a sculptor: a trio of shadows unfurl across a patch of rock; sunlight picks out a discarded tire submerged on a sandbar; brightly dressed local women sway dispiritedly on a makeshift dance floor; and half-clothed soldiers perform their morning calisthenics as if it were a pagan ritual—their sensuous movements underlining the film’s pervasive homoeroticism. And it’s all set to an ingenious score that flows from club beats to Neil Young to operatic dirges. A tale of male bonding and un-bonding, of loyalty gained and lost, and of one sad little man coming to realize just how empty his life actually is—all played out under a hot desert sun. With this distinctly masculine parable (an opening sequence calls to mind a neolithic cave painting) Ms. Denis emphasizes the “art” in arthouse.

Beauty (South Africa 2011) (9): Sure to raise eyebrows and hackles among those expecting the relative safety of a “gay film”, writer/director Oliver Hermanus’ agonizing character study of one man raging in a Hell of his own making nevertheless took home the Queer Palm at Cannes. Built like a bull and with a temperament to match, Afrikaner businessman François van Heerden (a brooding Deon Lotz) seems to have it all: a comfortable marriage, a successful lumber mill, and healthy doses of racism and homophobia. Homophobia directed towards effeminate queers that is, certainly not the clandestine circle of like-minded men he gets together with now and again for some secretive man-on-man group sex. Having thus far managed to keep his sexual appetites separate from his role of patriarch and breadwinner François is thrown a curve ball when, at his daughter’s wedding, he meets and falls in lust with Christian, the decidedly heterosexual son of a former business partner. Infatuated with the handsome young man François is at first content to engage in chance encounters and genial small talk, but there is a darker, unbalanced side to the desperately closeted older man and what began as a passing fancy swiftly becomes a dangerous obsession with tragic possibilities… There is a hint of Michael Haneke’s emotional disengagement in Hermanus’ sometimes clinical approach to storytelling and his brilliant use of long static shots which show little yet speak volumes compares favourably to the very best in contemporary Romanian cinema. Long takes of François, outlined in red strobes, fidgeting in a gay disco or staring with singleminded intensity at the object of his desire from across a sunlit beach cause the first stirrings of tension while an innocuous scene of him cleaning out a stagnated swimming pool carries a sinister overtone—and throughout the movie images of long poorly lit corridors, physical barricades, and happily out gay couples cavorting just beyond his reach provide appropriate visual metaphors. The closet is a terrible place to be, and in the case of François it can also be ultimately destructive. A despairing and uncomfortable film, masterfully told right up to its harrowing climax and deliberately open-ended coda.

The Beauty of the Devil (France 1950) (9): Director René Clair’s cheeky adaptation of the Faust legend stars legendary Swiss character actor Michel Simon (a Gallic version of Monty Woolley) as the boisterous demon Mephistopheles who comes to Earth seeking to buy the soul of unhappily aging Professor Faust (also played by Simon). Newly retired and despondent over having wasted his life pursuing nothing but academia, Faust gladly accepts the second chance at youth, fortune, and romance offered by Mephisto…seemingly at no obligation. But the devil is in the details and the elderly doctor, now a dashing young man, quickly discovers that being twenty again isn’t all it’s cracked up to be especially with a crafty old demon intent on separating him from his eternal soul with every kind of trick and temptation imaginable. With his dreams turning to dust and damnation awaiting him, it’s going to take a miracle—and perhaps a bit of stupid luck—for Faust to deny the devil his due. Told with much humour and diabolical subterfuge, Clair’s film belongs squarely to Simon whose blustering presence and good-natured evil carries everyone through the occasional dry spell—his overly confident Mephistopheles both the instigator of chaos and its collateral victim. The rest of the cast, notably Gérard Philipe as the young Faust and Nicole Besnard as his gypsy love, put in fine performances aided in large part by a musical score of choral arrangements and Michel Kelber’s grandiose cinematography which spins between 18th century cobblestone streets, pastoral countrysides, and the royal palace itself. Blasphemy is rarely this much fun!

The Beaver (USA 2011) (2): Walter Black is the worn out CEO of a failing toy company whose descent into depression and alcoholism seems destined to end in suicide, just like his father before him. His wife can no longer relate to him, his youngest son has become invisible and his eldest son is keeping a checklist of all his dad's peccadillos so he can avoid becoming like him. All seems lost until Walter happens upon a discarded puppet lying in a trash bin. Quickly becoming his aggressive alter ego, the comical little beaver soon puts Walter’s personal and professional life in order while Walter, no longer able to speak for himself, gives full rein to the puppet which never leaves his arm for a second. Meanwhile his eldest son, who's also making a living of sorts by pretending to be someone else, is slowly sinking into the same abyss as his father. Things come to a head when Walter realizes the Beaver is not as benevolent as it pretends to be and a violent confrontation leads to lots of group hugs. This is the kind of insipid crapfest that festival audiences insist on crediting with profound psychological depth instead of seeing it for the shallow one-trick tearjerker it actually is. As the drunken schizoid Walter, Mel Gibson (playing more of a cameo than an actual role) mopes and mugs his way along while feigning some nondescript British accent for his hairy sidekick. As his long-suffering wife Jody Foster (miscast!!) just stares and weeps into the camera. There are a few meaty bits along the way, a valedictorian's speech towards the end has some merit, but it's all lost amidst the dramatic cliches and unintentionally hilarious showdowns; watching Gibson and the Beaver duke it out had me howling! Terrible!

Becket (UK 1964) (6):  Lackluster historical soap opera recounting the tempestuous relationship between Henry II and Thomas Becket.  Gross historical inaccuracies and artistic license aside, the film is just plain dull.  Burton delivers his lines in a flat monotone as if he were nursing a perpetual hangover (which he probably was), and O’Toole portrays the young king as if he were a bitchy old queen.....although he would do a better job of it a few years later in “The Lion In Winter”.  The rest of the talented cast is pretty much wasted, except for John Gielgud’s feisty turn as King Louis of France.  Even though some of the sets are impressive and the cinematography appropriately grandiose it was still a royal letdown.

Bedazzled (UK 1967) (9): Timid short-order cook Stanley Moon (Dudley Moore at his mousiest) dreams about making a move on Margaret, the strangely coiffed waitress. Alas, dream is all he can do thanks to a terminal lack of self-confidence, a fact that drives him to the brink of suicide. Help of a sort arrives in the form of George Spiggot (Peter Cook, brilliant!) a suave, smooth-talking con artist who also goes by the names Lucifer, Beelzebub, and Satan. Spiggot offers to grant Moon seven wishes in exchange for his measly little soul, an offer Stanley finds too good to be true. But, as the sayings go, be careful what you wish for and the devil is in the details for Satan quickly proves himself to be a most devious genie. As Stanley doggedly tries to win the heart of the elusive Margaret, Spiggot manages to twist his every wish into something vulgar causing the hapless burger-flipper to find himself transformed into everything from a snobbish cuckold to a common housefly to a lesbian nun. In the meantime God, portrayed here as a somewhat less than divine Voice, has a few plans of his own for the errant angel. Moore and Cook have penned a side-splitting satire that manages to skewer religion, politics, and consumer culture all at the same time. Cook’s silver-tongued Satan is a perfect blend of mischievous imp and heartless capitalist who takes great pride in his work whether he’s swindling old ladies, stealing souls, or simply taking a hammer to a shipment of bananas. Aided by the Seven Deadly Sins (including Raquel Welch as a convincing Lust) he runs the Rendezvous Club, a sleazy vice joint with no shortage of clientele. In the role of the naive and bewildered Stanley, Dudley Moore provides the perfect foil for Cook displaying the flexibility and sense of timing that made him a comedic mainstay. A cheeky satirical romp whose flamboyant performances and sparkling script have managed to withstand the test of time.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (USA 1971) (6): At the height of WWII, a bumbling apprentice witch living on the coast of England (Angela Lansbury, charming) finds herself saddled with a trio of war orphans being evacuated from London. At first Miss Price and the kids eye one another warily --- she doesn’t like children, they don’t like her cooking --- but sweet smiles and the wonders of magic eventually win out. When Price receives the terrible news that her Correspondence School for Witches is closing its doors without sending her the one final spell she desperately needs, she and the kids travel to London via a flying bed in order to confront the school’s founder, Professor Emelius Browne. Although the professor’s assistance proves to be somewhat less than satisfactory, he agrees to join Price and the tykes as they search the globe for the missing incantation, a journey highlighted by a stint on the wholly animated island of Naboobu, a technicolor land ruled by animals; and ending with a sorcerous encounter between a cadre of bumbling German invaders and a castle full of enchanted armour. Guess who wins? Disney enlivens a rather dull script with some well choreographed cartoon sequences (an underwater dance between Lansbury and co-star David Tomlinson amidst swirling bubbles and fishy waiters is nicely done), the songs are catchy though hardly memorable, and the final showdown between Nazis and ghostly battalions from England’s past borders on creepy. Thankfully, the usual dose of Disney treacle is kept to a minimum, it’s just too bad they didn’t maximize the editing...a raucous jungle soccer game goes on way too long while a song & dance homage to the hawkers of Portobello Road begins to resemble a series of outtakes from Mary Poppins. Fine fare for the single-digit crowd and a bit of syrupy nostalgia for their parents (or grandparents).

Beefcake (USA 1999) (6): Want to see what your bachelor uncle used to look at behind a locked bathroom door back before you were born? "Beefcake" is an occasionally funny, always campy look at the heyday of the "physique" magazine, those softcore, homoerotic publications that claimed to be nothing more than manuals for fitness fanatics. The performances are generally convincing, the guys are easy on the eyes and the clever melding of old B&W stock footage with the contemporary actors is almost seamless. Unfortunately it suffers from a great deal of uneven editing and the talking head cameos seem superfluous. A good effort that doesn't quite hit the mark.

Before Midnight (USA 2013) (8): Richard Linklater brings his romantic drama trilogy to a satisfying close with this cerebral, though no less affecting, look at a couple in turmoil. It’s been 18 years since Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) first laid eyes on each other as adolescents vacationing in Austria. Now, one divorce and a set of twins later, the two are experiencing a very different holiday in Greece after a visit from Jesse’s stateside son sets off a chain reaction of guilt, resentments, and self-analysis. Jesse regrets being so far away from Hank, Celine feels she’s being blamed for the estrangement, and on a final night meant for romance and lovemaking both partners begin tossing long held emotional baggage at one another instead. And their aim is ruthlessly on the mark. Brilliantly co-written by Linklater and his two stars, this is a savvy tale for grown-ups set in a seaside Eden littered with the kind of snakes and apples that all relationships must eventually face—from past regrets and transgressions now hastily resurrected in the heat of argument to ice cold appraisals of what the future may hold. But throughout it all there remains that undercurrent of passion which made the first two instalments so compellingly watchable, for even at this late hour we still have our fingers crossed. And, as always, Linklater’s cast makes it all painfully believable with a trenchant script that never stoops to cheap melodrama. In one perfectly conceived passage taking place at an impromptu brunch the director actually manages to encapsulate all three films when Jesse and Celine are suddenly surrounded by reflections of themselves—the young couple on their left are still blushing with first love; the husband and wife across from them are trying to keep the flame alive; and the widow and widower to their right recall their lost loves with sad fondness. If Before Sunrise featured fresh-faced naifs taking off into calm blue skies and Before Sunset achieved altitude with the first signs of turbulence, then Before Sunset shows our two protagonists finally coming back to Earth for a precarious but nevertheless hopeful three-point landing. A superb piece of cinema all around.

Before Night Falls (USA 2000) (7): Schnabel’s ambitious biopic traces the life of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas from the dire poverty of his early years in Cuba to the dire poverty of his final years in America. Born into a household of “unhappy women”, the young Reinaldo quickly learned to equate having nothing with having absolute freedom. Chastised by his grandfather for writing poetry and seeing no hope for gainful employment in his future, the young writer ran off to join the revolution at the age of fifteen. After Castro came into power Arenas, like his fellow writers, enjoyed a brief revival of the arts before the new government clamped down on certain key freedoms. “People who make art are dangerous to any dictatorship...” states his benefactor at one point, “...artists are escapists and therefore counter-revolutionaries.” Jailed for his defiance of Castro’s regime and harassed for his homosexuality, Reinaldo spent a year in one of Cuba’s most notorious prisons before finally receiving permission to emigrate to the United States, along with Cuba’s other “undesirables”. In the meantime his major oeuvre, written while incarcerated and smuggled out chapter by chapter, won a prestigious literary award in Europe. Schnabel’s film is saturated with brilliant colours and a mesmerizing score composed of classical piano, mellow strings and hot Latin beats. He combines straightforward narrative with languorous passages of visual poetry which takes the viewer from sun-washed beaches to the dimly lit filth of a stone cell to a freezing tenement in New York. Using old newsreels and contemporary Mexican locations, he recreates post-revolutionary Cuba and shows it to be a contradictory mix of kinetic energy and spiritual torpor laced with an edgy sexuality. Being openly gay, it seems, was both an attempt to integrate into the fledgling society and an act of political defiance which was not limited to those living on the fringe as a naked nighttime romp with a cadre of horny soldiers attests. Unfortunately, the last half of the film gets stalled by repetitious scenes and a final coda that seems to go on far longer than it should. Furthermore, although Javier Bardem’s powerhouse performance shines throughout, the bizarre cameos by Sean Penn and Johnny Depp come across as superfluous and gimmicky. Despite its flaws, Before Night Falls remains an honest and respectful tribute.

Before Sunrise (USA 1995) (8): While traversing Austria two young strangers (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy crackling with onscreen chemistry) meet on a train—he has a flight back to America which departs Vienna the next day, she’s on her way back to Paris. As idle banter turns to innocent flirting, she decides to keep him company and so they spend the next twenty-four hours wandering through the capital together. Richard Linklater’s utterly charming feature takes the simplest of premises and turns it into a meditation on life, love, and the million choices which shape our destiny. As Jesse and Céline head towards that first kiss their conversation likewise wades into deepening waters—he’s a pragmatist still smarting from an emotional wound, she’s a romantic reacting against her privileged upbringing—and together they compare notes on everything from intimacy and indifference to the politics of life and death. “Isn’t everything we do in life a way to be loved a little more?” she queries. “I kind of see love as this escape for two people who don’t know now to be alone…” he shoots back even as their fingers entwine a little tighter. And as the sun sets over Vienna the city transforms into a magical netherworld alive with portents—a fortune teller sees past their palms and into their hearts; a gypsy’s dance puts Céline in mind of creation; an old woman hobbles past like Mother Time herself; and in the background trains and trolleys pass each other going in opposite directions. It’s these subtle visual cues—a visit to a quiet cemetery provides counterpoint to the raucous nightclub the two visit next—coupled with a disarmingly natural script which couches heavier philosophical musings inside featherweight chatter that makes Linklater’s opus so irresistible. That, plus the voyeuristic glow—simultaneously erotic and melancholy—which comes from watching two handsome strangers drift towards each other knowing that their time together is measured in mere hours. A study in what might have been—or what may be to come for this is but the first instalment of a trilogy—that one can’t help but apply to their own experience. What would your life be like if you had done this instead of that?

Before Sunset (USA 2004) (7): The sequel to Richard Linklater’s slightly superior Before Sunrise in which a chance encounter between American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and French Celine (Julie Delpy) on a European train led to a 24-hr romance in the streets of Vienna before the two had to part ways. In that film the fledgling lovers agreed to meet again at the same train station even though they neglected to exchange phone numbers. Nine years later Jesse, on tour promoting his bestselling novel, stops at a Paris bookstore and is reunited with Celine despite the fact their planned Viennese reunion never happened. With just over an hour to spend before Jesse has to be whisked away to the airport, the two wander around Paris comparing the paths their lives have taken and brooding over how things could have been different. Jesse is a successful author drowning in a dead marriage (his novel, ironically, a romance mirroring his encounter with Celine), Celine is a social activist who has yet to find the love she needs and the endlessly disappointing search has left her former sunny outlook on life marred by a bitter fatalism. Shot in real time with the two strolling and chatting, small talk gradually segueing into deeper ruminations and unhappy confessions, Linklater’s superb script once again explores “what might have been” as the couple’s old flame, tempered by circumstance and regret, begins to rekindle. And, as in the first film, the chemistry between Hawke and Delpy remains a convincing blend of candour and guarded intimacy. Balanced between two offhand remarks by Celine—“If you don’t believe in any kind of magic or mystery you’re as good as dead” and, “Memories are wonderful things, if you don’t have to deal with the past”—audiences are likewise left yearning for a romantic resolution yet made all too aware of reality and the passing of time right up to that ambiguous final line. As an interesting aside, Miss Delpy wrote and sang her own songs for the film.

Before the Rain (Macedonia 1994) (7):  A young monk undergoes a crisis of faith when a Moslem girl, wanted for murder, seeks refuge in his cell.  A married woman must make a painful decision whether to continue her comfortable existence in London or follow Aleksander, her Macedonian lover, back to his homeland.  Her lover, meanwhile, seeking a return to a simpler past finds the village he grew up in transformed by ethnic hatred into something terrible.  These are the stories that make up Manchevski’s circular triptych on the many casualties of war in which blood begets blood, brother turns against brother and the innocent are often caught in the crosshairs.  As a successful photojournalist Aleksander traveled the globe documenting the horrors man inflicts upon his fellow man.  But when the violence comes to his doorstep he realizes that there is no such thing as a neutral observer and his silence equals tacit consent.  Manchevski presents us with a parched desert landscape where goodness is often overwhelmed by vindictiveness and a simple gesture of compassion can lead to tragedy.  When the rain finally does come however, it is not the healing shower we expect but rather a torrent of bitter tears.  Before the Rain is visually gorgeous employing a series of highly stylized painterly tableaux that seem almost impressionistic.  Some scenes are perhaps a bit too composed, as if the film were staggering under the weight of its own portents, and the use of narrative symmetry, wherein certain lines and situations are repeated, seems forced at times.  Still a beautiful and heartfelt work that deserves to be seen...and heard; the music is wonderful.

Before Tomorrow (Canada 2008) (8): Directors Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Madeline Ivalu make perfect use of their arctic locations to tell this tale of an ill-fated Inuit family, a follow-up of sorts to 2001’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. It’s high summer circa 1840 and in 10-year old Maniq’s village life goes on as it always has with hunting, mending, and storytelling from the elders—grandfather’s tall tale about white men in a strange boat the only hint that Europeans are on the move. Things change irrevocably for Maniq however when he accompanies his grandmother Ninioq (co-director Ivalu) and her frail ancient friend Kuutujuk to a remote island in order to dry fish and caribou meat for the coming winter. During these last few weeks of summer Maniq will harpoon his very first seal, Kuutujuk will draw her final breath, and Ninioq will entertain the sleepy boy with fanciful stories about cavernous whales and impish ravens. But when the snow begins to fall and the men of the village fail to come back for them Maniq and his grandmother must set out on their own to discover what happened… Cousineau and Ivalu’s cast of aboriginal non-professionals put in such natural performances that at times the film resembles a documentary especially with those amazing backdrops of rocky shores, rolling tundra, and sheets of ice glistening beneath a frozen sun. Whether it be a dying Kuutujuk savouring a bowl of berries or an anxious Ninioq seeking solace from her dead husband’s memory, the directors wring a bit of magic from even the simplest scenes. Those expecting an action adventure movie will be sorely disappointed however, for just like one of grandmother’s bedtime stories told round a guttering oil lamp, Before Tomorrow is a slow progression of quiet moments and everyday metaphors whose underlying message—the devastating cost of colonialism—is delivered in a hushed whisper.

Begotten (USA 1989) (3): Christianity and paganism go mud wrestling as E. Elias Merhige shits out his very own Creation Myth and presents it in glorious monochromatic Snuff-O-Rama. Opening with a sombre warning advising “language bearers, photographers and diary makers” to forsake their “frozen memories” and pay heed to the “incantation of matter” (translation: if you don’t understand my film it’s because I’m way too clever for you) we see a bound and hooded creature spastically disembowel itself. According to the closing credits, God has just committed suicide. But from the dripping offal emerges Mother Earth, suitably clad in a Lone Ranger mask and hula skirt, to digitally inseminate herself from Jehovah’s phallus. And the evening and the morning are the second day. On the third day we are subjected to all sorts of poorly focused atrocities with a salacious emphasis on genital mutilation and dismemberment eventually leading to a montage of seedlings emerging from the ground as the earth is reborn. Merhige uses a series of post production techniques which not only give the film a grainy, under-exposed look but add a jerkiness to the characters’ movements. Coupled with a voiceless soundscape of dripping faucets, surgical suction, and incidental noises the overall effect is of a silent movie filmed in Hell, which is probably where it should have remained. Grotesque, macabre, and excessively repellent, but not without a certain pathological charm. No wonder Marilyn Manson cannibalized parts of it for one of his music videos.

Behind the Candelabra (USA 2013) (8): Steven Soderbergh’s bitchy drama about Liberace and his former lover Scott Thorson (based on Thorson’s tell-all book) unfolds like an episode of Dynasty—only with way more make-up and rhinestones. Opening in 1977 when the fabulously flamboyant pianist (Michael Douglas, amazing) first met the 18-year old boy toy (Matt Damon, convincing despite being 24 years older than his character), Soderbergh pulls no punches as he films the two men going from enthusiastic bedmates to comfy companions to resentful exes—the bewigged and controlling Liberace succumbing to plastic surgery and his insatiable taste for young men, Thorson spiralling his way through addiction, jealous rages, and some needless surgery of his own. And much of it is filmed on location amid the late entertainer’s kitschy rococo mansions loaded to the rafters with golden columns, tacky knick-knacks, and enough animal fur to depopulate several zoos. Titillating and lurid—neither Damon nor Douglas shy away from butt shots and saliva-swapping—this is not exactly a poison pen exposé for Thorson’s memoirs elicit a certain sympathy for the fey Liberace who was one of showbiz’s most open closet cases. Playing on the libidos of the old women who came to see him while backstage playing the sugar daddy for a succession of pretty male faces, Douglas presents his character as a complex contradiction of material wealth and emotional poverty, flashy confidence and crippling doubt. Damon, meanwhile, nails it as the quintessential California blond seduced by the older man’s promises of bright lights and financial security. But, true to its subject matter, Behind the Candelabra is mostly fading sparkles and queer theatrics despite a sobering deathbed coda. It is done so well, however, that that alone was enough to keep me glued to the screen. Scott Bakula, Dan Aykroyd, and Debbie Reynolds are almost unrecognizable as a barroom pickup, business manager, and Liberace’s mom respectively, and Rob Lowe oozes sleaze as an unscrupulous plastic surgeon. Interesting to note that while Soderbergh’s film was released in theatres around the world it was limited to cable in the United States after studios considered it “too gay”. Bitch, please…

Being Julia (Canada/UK 2004) (9): London, 1938, and unrivalled queen of the stage Julia Lambert (Annette Bening, brilliant) is terribly bored of it all and wants her husband-slash-producer Michael (Jeremy Irons all stiff upper lip) to end her current West End blockbuster early so she can seek some real excitement abroad. Despite protests from the play’s backer, whose wife has more than motherly feelings towards Julia, Michael considers giving in to her pleading. And then “real excitement” winds up finding her instead when she begins a sudden affair with someone half her age, a penniless young American who has adored her since he was a teenager. Now with the blush of love on her cheeks Julia takes a renewed interest in love and life, much to the exasperation of her faithful maidservant who has seen it all before. But when her paramour proves to be not quite the dashing knight she envisioned—well, as they say, “Hell hath no fury…” All the world is indeed a stage in director István Szabó’s charming adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s novella, and his immaculately primped protagonist glides through it as if she never left the theatre—unconsciously quoting lines while trying to hold an actual conversation and shocked to discover real tears on her cheeks as she feels genuine emotions for perhaps the first time in decades. Glittering sets and a shamelessly romantic score by Michael Danna, punctuated here and there by Cole Porter and Noel Coward, set the mood perfectly while Bening’s Oscar-nominated performance—culminating in a hilariously theatrical revenge—makes this an actress’ film through and through. Lambert may have her weaknesses but her years of experience and innate sense of self-preservation prove more than formidable for anyone trying to cross her—including a young upstart who fancies herself the next big star only to discover the reigning queen is nowhere near ready to abdicate. An ebullient celebration of one woman coming into her own whose humour is both thoughtful and intelligent and whose occasional forays into pure fancy (Michael Gambon plays Julia’s dead mentor who still coaches her from the sidelines) add just the right amount of magic.

Be Kind Rewind (USA 2007) (4):  When the owner of a ramshackle video rental outlet goes on a short vacation he leaves his inexperienced assistant in charge of the business.  The boss is only gone a few hours when the assistant’s schizoid friend accidentally erases all the VHS tapes in the store (he was apparently “magnetized” while trying to blow up a power plant or something.  Never mind, it’s not important).  Anyway.  Rather than toss out the store’s entire inventory the two men decide to use the erased cassettes to tape their own versions of the lost  films.  Unbelievably their cheap amateur 20-minute remakes prove to be very popular and business is soon booming with eager customers lining up to buy the “sweded” versions of everything from “Driving Miss Daisy” to “Last Tango in Paris”.  It doesn’t take long for the bubble to burst however. Not only are the men slapped with a series of copyright infringement lawsuits from the major studios but the city serves notice that they intend to demolish the building in which the store is located unless the owner can come up with sixty thousand dollars for repairs.  Their solution?  Make an original movie starring everyone in the neighbourhood to try and raise the necessary cash before the bulldozers move in.  I really wanted to like this film....not only does it satirize America’s “Blockbuster” mentality but it also throws a few well placed jabs at corporate Hollywood in the process.  Unfortunately it is just not that good.  Gondry often sacrifices logic for a silly gag or mawkish sentimentality and Jack Black joins Adam Sandler and Jim Carrey on my list of extremely annoying character actors.  In it’s own strange way though it is a love letter of sorts to the magic of cinema......a poorly worded letter with lots of spelling errors and written in crayon.......but sincere nonetheless.

The Belko Experiment (USA 2016) (5): Eighty ex-pat Americans working in a Bogotá office complex find themselves unwilling pawns in Greg McLean’s satirical psycho-bender—a shoot-em-up with far more guts than brains. At first shocked to find their building abruptly turned into an armoured cage (à la Transformers), the unlucky co-workers’ unease turns to terror when a mocking voice on the PA system goads them into a deadly game of kill or be killed. Quickly falling into loose groups of hawks and doves (or pragmatists and idealists if you prefer) with one lone dissenter trying to avoid a bloodbath, fear and desperation—and an arsenal of knives, guns, and surprisingly lethal office supplies—start the body count rising while the unseen tormentor continues to raise the ante… Yet another riff on the Battle Royale theme, albeit more political with nasty American posturing and allusions to globalization and militarization (funny how that ad hoc vigilante squad springs up so quickly), McLean piles on the symbolism: skull masks, lucky talismans, and the company motto “Business Without Borders” all figuring prominently while an operatic score tries to raise the arthouse bar. He even takes the idea of Battle’s explosive neck collars and substitutes it with explosive microchips previously embedded in everyone’s head supposedly as a tracking device in case of kidnapping—cue exploding skulls and spattered walls. But despite the madhouse pacing and chaotic tension Belko doesn’t have much more to offer beyond colourful gore, for when its central puzzle is finally resolved the answer is so smug and facile that I wanted to kick in the TV screen—irony and all.

Belladonna of Sadness (Japan 1973) (7): Heavily influenced by the psychedelic poster art of the 60s and 70s not to mention the pervasive drug culture, Eiichi Yamamoto’s scandalous animated feature unfolds like a series of LSD-laden watercolours set to a trippy score of discordant jazz and melancholy piano. It tells the story of Jean and Jeanne, two chaste lovers living in medieval Europe whose lives are forever altered when the local land baron takes it upon himself to rape Jeanne on the eve of her wedding. Nursing a burning hatred towards the man, Jeanne enters a pact with the devil in order to wreak vengeance upon the entire village while her listless husband sees his own fortunes rise and fall. Shot through with nudity and a graphic yet surreal carnality, Jeanne’s dalliances with a persistent Lucifer (he’s one horny devil) show her that the road to perdition is not only life-affirming, it can also be downright…orgasmic. Putting Christian voodoo on the back burner, this remarkable film is first and foremost a multicoloured celebration of female empowerment and sexual awakenings with Jeanne’s journey from battered victim to erotic goddess unfolding against a hallucinatory background of bloody revenge, writhing couples, and moist genitalia . In this universe God is little more than a limp noodle while Satan rears up like a big stiff prick. It’s enough to make Fritz the Cat blush.

The Belles of St. Trinian’s (UK 1954) (8): St. Trinian’s school for girls has a rather notorious reputation among the surrounding towns; whenever its students are on the warpath shops board up their windows, policemen hide in jail cells and the very mention of its name causes the local school superintendent to reach for the aspirin. To say the girls are “horrid” would be an understatement unless you consider betting on the horses, making bootleg gin in chemistry class, and winning athletic competitions by doling out concussions to the opposing team part of a legitimate curriculum. Then there’s the constant pranks involving cans of paint and medieval weaponry. Think of it as a Hogwarts for future delinquents. And overseeing it all is the terminally optimistic, and morally myopic, headmistress and school founder Miss Millicent Fritton. Having seen her school go from its glory days in the 1920’s to its current state of disarray thanks to a disastrous mix of unpaid bills, bounced cheques and shoddy hiring practices (the staff are either drunk, neurotic or wanted for questioning), Miss Fritton is determined to keep its doors open come what may. But when the fabulously wealthy Sultan of Makyad unwittingly sends his daughter to St. Trinian’s with a pocketful of cash and a prepaid tuition the school’s normally anarchic atmosphere erupts into a series of hilariously madcap misadventures involving amateur gangsters, Zulu warfare and a stolen racehorse which not only divide the student body but pit the indomitable Miss Fritton against her unscrupulous brother Clarence with the fate of St. Trinian’s itself hanging in the balance. For all its silliness and slapstick gags this is an extremely likable comedy whose wonderful cast and witty script are aided by director Frank Launder’s keen sense of comic timing. The rich B&W cinematography and lively score keep the action flowing while dozens of shrill-voiced extras in school uniform provide just the right amount of chaos. The real star of the show however is the wonderful Alastair Sim who does an amazing job in and out of drag playing both Millicent and Clarence Fritton. His portrayal of the frumpy headmistress is a joy to watch and attests to his formidable acting ability. Crosby and Bergman would be aghast!

The Bells of St. Mary's  (USA 1945) (9):  “The Bells of St. Mary’s” is one of those timeless movies that seem to exist in a bubble.  If it had been made at another time, with different actors it would have been just so much corny sentimentality and sugary sweetness.  Luckily for us it was made at just the right time with the perfect cast.  Bergman is positively luminous in her role as Sister Benedict, and only Bing Crosby could have reprised the role of Fr. O’Malley with such effortless grace.  We can forgive the film’s wide-eyed naiveté because it is just so well done, from the warm and cozy sets to the rich B&W cinematography.  And that final scene has got to be among Hollywood’s top 100 tearjerkers.

The Belly of an Architect (UK 1987) (6): The emblematic belly in question belongs to Stourley Kracklite, a husky, overbearing American architect who, along with his nasally-voiced trophy wife, makes a pilgrimage to Rome. Supposedly hired to oversee the construction of an exhibition honoring obscure 18th century French architect Etienne Boullée, his personal hero and a man with whom he shares more than a few things in common, Stourley instead finds himself embroiled in a power struggle with a wealthy Italian upstart and a host of strangely hostile officials. As deadlines loom and his wife’s behaviour becomes increasingly suspicious, Kracklite begins to suffer vague abdominal symptoms coupled with an odd temporal dislocation wherein the intrigues of long-dead Roman emperors begin to mirror events in his own life. Concerned about his failing health, and plagued with doubts regarding his wife’s fidelity and his own self-worth, Stourley’s initial sense of unease threatens to turn into absolute paranoia...but is it completely unfounded? As with all of Greenaway’s projects, Belly of an Architect unfolds with a cinematic bravura that takes full advantage of Rome’s magnificent scenery. Blowing drapes, piercing stares, and ancient artifacts compete with the film’s pounding score while the director’s penchant for stark symmetries and puzzling allegory is evident throughout. Unfortunately, the rich visuals are not always supported by a leaden script that too often wallows in abstruse references and arty chinwagging. The film’s cast is hopelessly uneven as well. Brian Dennehy is perfect in the role of the titular antihero; his larger-than-life frame and booming voice give him the appearance of an imperial statue come to life. He dominates each scene both physically and emotionally at the expense of the other, less talented, actors whose characters become little more than a pallid backdrop. Finally, Greenaway’s preoccupation with birth, death and decay once again takes centre stage but, unlike the cleverly engaging twists and turns of his previous films, Architect comes across as a colourful cerebral exercise with a disappointingly poor payoff in the end.

Belushi (USA 2020) (7): R. J. Cutler’s incisive documentary on the life and death of SNL legend John Belushi follows the usual trajectory—restless young boy follows his dream of fame and fortune only to be undone by the harsh realities of life in the spotlight—but he takes a few novel approaches. To begin with his use of previously recorded voice interviews instead of endless talking heads allows the likes of Dan Aykroyd, Carrie Fisher, Harold Ramis, and other close associates of John (including his widow, Judy) to provide context without interrupting the film’s stream of old TV clips, yearbook photos, and home movies which emphasize Belushi’s formative years as the talented black sheep of a staunch immigrant family. Secondly, Cutler fills in the visual gaps using edgy animated sequences with Bill Hader giving an uncanny impersonation of Belushi’s rasping voice. And, finally, excerpts from Judy’s diary and John’s own tortured love letters, both presented in scrawling cursive, trace the devolution of a once creative and dynamic personality as he succumbs to addiction, despair, and the weight of his own ambition. From smart aleck kid to television phenomenon to Hollywood centrepiece to overdose statistic at the age of 33, Belushi didn’t so much burn the candle at both ends as take a blowtorch to it—but while he blazed he shed a lovely light indeed. R.I.P.

Beowulf  (USA 2007) ( 8 ):  Surprisingly literate adult fantasy that looks like a cross between a playstation game and a Waterhouse painting.  Everything here is presented in heroic proportions from the imposing soundtrack to the elaborate action sequences, which must have looked spectacular in IMAX 3D.  And let’s not forget the hunky protagonists......Ray Winstone and Angelina Jolie never looked so sexy in their computer-generated bods, it’s a shame the technical crew forgot to give them genitalia.  Be sure and check out the “making of” short in the extras section....very interesting.

Bernie (USA 2011) (7): Kind, compassionate, and charitable to a fault—and just a little too light in the loafers—funeral director Bernie Tiede was one of the most beloved citizens of Carthage, a quiet town of upscale rednecks in eastern Texas. Adored by all the little old ladies and admired by the men, Bernie was not only a bastion of solace in times of grief he was also active in local theatre and gave as best he could to any and all humanitarian concerns. So when he started keeping company with wealthy 80-year old widow Marjorie Nugent—accompanying her on first class trips, organizing her social calendar, and acting as valet, butler, and chauffeur (and maybe more)—it raised nary an eyebrow for just about everyone hated the cantakerous old crone and felt pity for the selfless little man who withstood her daily abuse. But when Tiede was charged with murdering the woman people were oddly divided between those who felt he could never have done such a horrible thing and those who felt she deserved it anyway. Based on a true story written up by journalist Skip Hollandsworth, director Richard Linklater’s darkly comic satire of skewed small town values takes a deceptively lighthearted stance on Tiede’s crime. As played by Jack Black, Bernie is a soft-spoken dandy with a weak spot for sob stories who only wants to make people happy. Marjorie on the other hand (Shirley MacLaine at her bitchy best) was a devil in blue rinse who delighted in hurting others and shunned any form of human contact. Riding him like a nazi foreman Nugent made Bernie’s life so unbearable that he had no recourse but to grab the nearest rifle and then cover his tracks as best he could. But as we find ourselves joining the townsfolk in patting Bernie on the back and tut-tutting the mean old prosecuting attorney (Matthew McConaughey all cowboy hats and Texas drawl) you can almost sense Linklater smirking up his sleeve. And just in case he didn’t make his point clear enough he throws in a bunch of colourful ad-libbed interviews with locals who are only too eager to extol the virtues of the charming young man who just happened to shoot an old woman in the back four times. Wink wink!

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (UK 2011) (7): An assortment of proper British retirees heed the siren call of a colourful brochure, pack all their possessions, and head to Jaipur India where the “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful” promises to fill the golden years of foreign pensioners with peace and adventure. Upon arriving however they discover that the crumbling establishment bears little resemblance to the heavily photoshopped pamphlet and it’s up to the hotel’s young and harried proprietor (Dev Patel) to convince them otherwise. An ensuing series of culture shocks provide some meat to an otherwise mawkish West End-style comedy as a crusty old harridan (Maggie Smith) is called out on her racist ways, a timid doormat (Judi Dench) finds some backbone, a tightly wound housewife (Penelope Wilton) threatens to come undone, and the other characters strive to fulfill their own desires though not in quite the ways they expected. An A-list cast including Tom Wilkinson and Celia Imrie keep the sentimentality to an acceptable level and Ben Davis’ lush cinematography presents a nicely sanitized vision of modern India where teeming squalor is reduced to a quaint backdrop against which our lovable seniors cavort, ruminate, and otherwise find themselves. Definitely one of those feel-good warm and fuzzy films made by westerners for western audiences—even a subplot involving mismatched Indian lovers plays out like a happier Romeo & Juliet. But for all that, director John Madden’s screen adaptation of Deborah Moggach’s novel is a guilty delight given some weight by a gentle voiceover as Dench’s character reads from her online blog, her growing sense of self-reliance providing the movie with a much needed anchor.

The Best Man (USA 1964) (10): According to Bertrand Russel, “People in a democracy tend to think they have less to fear from a stupid man than an intelligent one.” And with this quote alone Franklin Schaffner’s acerbic political drama (screenplay by Gore Vidal) ensures it will remain as pertinent today as it was in ’64. Two rival senators vying for the party presidential nomination go head to head at the national convention. Willam Russel (Henry Fonda) is an intelligent, well-educated liberal who believes he can come out ahead through a fair and honest fight. His nemesis Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson) is a muck-raking, conservative “man of the people” who will do anything to achieve the Oval Office. Mentoring them both is outgoing president Art Hockstader (Oscar nominee Lee Tracy) an irascible old cynic who knows all too well how the machinations of power turn in Washington thus making him view both Russel’s rose-tinted ethics and Cantwell’s decidedly unethical plotting with equal disdain. But when the two men uncover dirt on each other—secrets that could shatter a career—the difference between their individual philosophies threatens to turn the convention on its ear. Although the political party is never named, Vidal meant Fonda’s character to be reminiscent of Adlai Stevenson while Cantwell was based on an amalgam of Nixon, McCarthy, and a dash of the Kennedys. Certainly Russel has a softer view on the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness while Cantwell feels the only way to achieve those ideals is by routing out leftist commies, slashing taxes, and building up the military. And of course Russel’s atheism runs afoul of Cantwell’s affected piety. So two incompatible mindsets personified by two presidential hopefuls using a convention floor as a microcosm of America herself. Beautifully directed by Schaffner who segues effortlessly between tense interpersonal confrontations and a swirling chaos of delegates and lobbyists while Vidal’s brilliant script spills over with so many scathing bon mots you may have to rewind. Controversial for the time—both candidates have things to say about segregation for instance, prompting one southern sycophant to remark to his conservative idol, “Nice thing about you Joe, is that you can sound like a liberal, but at heart you’re an American!”—yet timeless in its implications, and remarkably prophetic as one candidate has the audacity to even think about the possibility of a black president, this is the perfect companion piece to 1962’s Advise and Consent despite some unfortunate brushes with homophobia. Edie Adams and Margaret Leighton are perfect as the two spouses—Adams a weary Washington wife tired of the games, Leighton a faded belle two steps from cheap white trash—and Ann Sothern shines as a vacuous socialite eager to align herself with whomever holds the reins, or as Russel describes her, “…the only known link between the NAACP and the Ku Klux Klan”. Should be required viewing during each and every election year.

Better Off Dead (USA 1985) (7): High school senior Lane Meyer (John Cusack) is not having a good life. His clueless parents are an embarrassment (Dad is an uptight WASP, mom is a dingbat whose culinary forays look more like biology experiments—one gelatinous creation actually crawls off the plate); his kid brother is a savant genius who can pick up a roomful of chicks and create a death laser all on the same day; the homicidal paper boy is demanding a pound of flesh in exchange for two dollars owed; and a pair of crazy Asian twins continually beat him at road racing. But the ultimate cherry on his crap sundae is the fact his hot blonde girlfriend (whom he’s pathologically obsessed with—cue funny-creepy factor) has just dumped him for the hunky blonde leader of the downhill skiing club. With no recourse but to end his life Lane discovers, much to his humiliation, that he can’t even commit suicide properly… To be honest, “Savage” Steve Holland’s derivative 80s teen comedy doesn’t have a lot going for it: the sophomoric script overruns with pure corn, the silly sight gags seem borrowed, and the entire plot is so tired it has age spots, but its sheer absurdity combined with touches of good old 80s nostalgia were just enough to keep me smiling and laughing out loud. As dad, David Ogden Stiers provides a passable foil whether he’s facing High Noon with the aforementioned paperboy or making clumsy attempts to bond with his sons while Kim Darby plays mom like a loveable airhead (everyone gets frozen TV dinners for Christmas presents!) Meanwhile across the street Laura Waterbury and Dan Schneider provide comedic relief as the grotesque Mrs. Smith and her son Ricky, she looking like a toned-down Divine he resembling a rotund future serial killer, with Diane Franklin slaughtering the accent as their French exchange student and horrified object of Ricky’s geeky lust. But it’s Curtis Armstrong who ultimately owns the film as Lane’s BFF, a gravelly-voiced druggie who looks like a chimney sweep and is not above snorting strawberry jello in the school cafeteria. For his part Cusack just seems preoccupied with more important things as he reads his lines, supposedly he absolutely hated this film and never talked to Holland again. True to the genre the movie practically writes itself—you know the underdog will triumph, the jock will be humiliated, and the French girl will figure prominently—but this was the decade that brought us Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, and Ferris Bueller’s Day off, so if Holland uses the same cookie cutter he at least turns out a decent batch. Look for the late Vincent Schiavelli as math teacher Mr. Kerber—his classroom scene is a howl especially for anyone who remembers coming to class totally unprepared.

Beyond the Darkness [aka Buio Omega] (Italy 1979) (6): When it comes to trashy exploitation flicks, Joe D’Amato is definitely one of the kings and with this gruesome little nugget he crosses so many lines that they’re not even worth counting. Having inherited a lavish estate from his parents, 22-year old Frank Wyler needn’t worry about money so he pursues his taxidermy hobby instead, hence the legions of little stuffed animals adorning his basement shelves. He is also devoted to his lovely girlfriend—a little too devoted for when she dies from some mysterious illness he realizes he can’t live without her. But what’s a young man to do? Especially a horny young man with an interest in taxidermy? And then there’s Iris the crazy housekeeper who has her own designs on Frank and is not above breastfeeding him like a baby or offering him the occasional handy release. But can a love triangle between two psychopaths and a stuffed corpse ever end well? Trust me, grave robbery is the least of this film’s transgressions as a completely derailed Frank and an equally fried Iris go off on a lark which sees bodies being butchered, guts being ripped out, eyes gouged, and a wee whiff of necrophilia and cannibalism thrown in just to make sure everyone gets a chance to be offended. And, being an Italian giallo, there’s boobs and bush aplenty—both alive and dead. Badly dubbed, badly edited (even the uncut version jumps and skips), and wholly gratuitous, this is one sick cinematic puppy which should amuse fans of the genre while making everyone else feel soiled and contaminated. Video nasty indeed!

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (USA 1970) (7): Directed by big breast enthusiast Russ Meyer and penned, believe it or not, by future film critic Roger Ebert, this is not a sequel to 1967’s potboiler but rather a kitschy parody of the original with even more grass, more tits, and more big, big 70s hair. And for the most part it actually works! Buxom rock star wannabes Kelly, Casey, and Pet, along with their roadie Harris, pile into an old van and head west to seek their fortune among the bright lights of Los Angeles. With encouragement from Kelly’s wealthy aunt and music industry bigwig “Z-Man” Barzell (John Lazar giving Hollywood one of it’s campiest performances ever) the girls’ success seems guaranteed. But that success comes with a hefty price tag written in drugs, sex, and a round of personal heartbreaks. Shot in psychedelic colour by De Luxe and sporting enough mod fashions and tacky day-glo art to fill a thousand thrift shops, Meyer’s pills’n’booze addled soap opera plays it straight-faced throughout. And it is precisely this disciplined approach which sharpens its satirical edges making a wild Hollywood party look like an adult episode of Laugh-In and turning that outrageous climax—a throughly inappropriate riff on Helter Skelter—into the biggest spoof of all. Despite its dated portrayal of mincing homos, depressive dykes (“…their’s was not an evil relationship, but evil did come because of it…”), and psychotic trannies—all of which have to be taken with a weary forbearance—this is still a fun watch and the original songs, including a cameo by 60s group Strawberry Alarm Clock, are not half bad. Lastly, Ebert’s script leaves us with one of B-Cinema’s most memorable lines shouted during a spurned lover’s monumental hissy fit: “You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!” They just don’t write ‘em like this anymore and for that we can all be thankful.

Beyond Tomorrow (USA 1940) (5): One expects a “Christmas Movie” to be somewhat sentimental but this gushingly sweet confection from Academy Productions is enough to put audiences into a sugar coma that’ll last all the way into the New Year. On Christmas Eve in New York City Jean and Jim, a pair of lonely strangers, are brought together thanks to the intervention of three wealthy old men living in a nearby mansion. Sadly, as the weeks pass and romance begins to bloom between the two tragedy strikes and their three benefactors are killed. Returning as ghosts, the elderly trio await their ultimate fate—until Jean and Jim’s relationship begins to falter (his singing voice lands him a lucrative contract and puts him in the crosshairs of a man-eating diva) and the deceased millionaires realize it’s going to take a bit of supernatural intervention to set things right again… In the 80-minute church sermon which follows, director A. Edward Sutherland threatens to bury us under an avalanche of warbling choirs, sickeningly precious kids (Jean works at a children’s clinic), and compulsory cheer while the Almighty makes a series of ham-fisted cameos amid swirling clouds and blinding arc lights. As Jean, Jean Parker alternately weeps and beams like a good little martyr while Richard Carlson, playing James, yucks it up as a Texas yokel seduced by the Big Apple. In fact the only performances of note come from Charles Winninger as one of the tycoons—a feisty Irishman determined to see the good in everyone—and Maria Ouspenskaya playing her usual Eastern European eccentric, this time as a deposed Russian noblewoman now content to serve as housemaid. Trite and manipulative from its opening montage of twinkling ornaments to that final stairway to Heaven this is one holiday platter that will have you muttering “Humbug!”

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

Big Bad Mama (USA 1974) (7): Angie Dickinson (and her breasts) star as Wilma McClatchie, a dirt poor single mother in Depression era Texas who finds herself even more destitute when her bootlegging boyfriend is killed by the cops. Packing up her two sex-obsessed daughters she decides to hit the road in search of infamy and fortune. At first content to simply deliver moonshine to the local hicks, a few twists of fate land her in the company of a machine gun-toting bank robber and suave con artist who introduce her and the girls to the lucrative world of armed robbery. Slowly making their way to California where Wilma hopes to use her ill-gotten lucre to open a legit business, the gang decides to pull one more outrageous stunt guaranteed to make them all filthy rich. Although Dickinson doesn’t quite convince us she’s a hard-edged desperado and William Shatner’s faux southern drawl is cringe-worthy, this is still one of the more entertaining B-Movies to emerge from the 70s; think slapstick version of Bonnie & Clyde with the sleaze factor turned up half a notch. Carver, under the tutelage of the great Roger Corman, keeps things buoyed with plenty of frantic shoot-outs and steamy bed-hopping as mother and daughters take their male accomplices for a few test spins; Shatner and co-star Tom Skerritt even manage to show off some of their assets in a few (almost) nude scenes. Like a string of dirty jokes with some occasionally funny punchlines the humour is decidedly low-brow but the pacing is tight and a supporting cast of dumb sheriffs, horny yokels and religious swindlers keep things interesting. Even the oddly incongruous ending seems more of a sly wink than a glib cop-out.

Big Bang Love, Juvenile A (Japan 2006) (7): With this homoerotic murder mystery Japanese bad boy Takashi Miike has made what could be his most accessible film. Of course with a Miike film “accessible” simply means audiences aren’t left feeling as if they’ve been punched in the face. In a juvenile detention centre for young men, slim and effeminate Ariyoshi has been charged with strangling fellow inmate Kazuki, a violent hulking thug feared and hated by everyone including the warden. The two incredulous detectives assigned to the case are at first baffled by how this could have happened until the clues begin pointing to a solution as sad as it is improbable. Taking place within the prison—or rather the idea of a prison with Miike borrowing a theatrical flourish from Von Trier’s Dogville and merely suggesting a physical enclosure using chalk outlines, plywood walls, and sickly yellow lighting—what unfolds is an exercise in dichotomies: love and hate; desire and disgust; dreams and crushing failure, as his two protagonists orbit each other, their covert glances and single chaste embrace providing a gravitas not entirely eclipsed by Miike’s wildly eclectic style. Time sloshes back and forth like water in a bucket (flashbacks and flash-forwards completing the puzzle) and reality is rendered completely subjective with the view beyond Ariyoshi’s barred window divided between secular aspirations—a gleaming spaceship points toward the stars—and something more esoteric—a fantastic pyramid points toward something entirely different. A simple enough story embellished with enigmas and a destructive masculinity that is at once tragic and deeply vulnerable.

The Big Clock (USA 1948) (8): If you can overlook a couple of credibility stretches you’ll thoroughly enjoy this noir offering from Paramount Studios, truly one of the genre’s unsung classics. Earl Janoth, a tyrannical publishing magnate with a fetish for timepieces (a predatory Charles Laughton), kills his mistress in a fit of pique and then tries to shift the blame onto an anonymous man the woman was seen with the night of her death. In order to find this man he employs one of his editors (Ray Milland), a crime buff with a knack for sniffing out suspects. The twist however is that the editor is the innocent mystery man she was seen with and only he knows the truth of what really happened—but can he stage a mock investigation convincing enough to keep himself off the list of suspects while still managing to gather enough evidence to send his boss to prison? Impeccable performances all around—Laughton is as cold as a snake, Milland sweats it out—and cinematographer John F. Seitz keeps the shadows sharp and crisp with Manhattan skylines providing a chic gloominess, corporate boardrooms alive with kowtowing toadies, and a penultimate sequence inside a giant clock as it ticks away the seconds—literally and figuratively. Apparently Kenneth Fearing, whose novel the film is based on, wrote his story as a form of “revenge fiction” against Time magazine editor Henry Luce with whom he shared an acrimonious working relationship for many years. Whether or not that is completely true, the result is a brisk and entertaining script filled with enough twists and knots to keep you smiling. Maureen O’Sullivan is sugar ’n spice as Milland’s long-suffering wife, George Macready is pure slime as Janoth’s protective right-hand man, Elsa Lanchester hams it up to perfection as an eccentric artist and star witness, and a young Harry Morgan (M*A*S*H’s own Col. Potter) is confusing as a silent tough guy lurking in the wings for no apparent reason.

The Big Combo (USA 1955) (8): For those who like a double shot of noir with an extra side of sadistic hoodlums, two-fisted cops, and the hapless dames who love them both! Coldhearted crime boss “Mr. Brown” (Richard Conte, intensely unlikeable) practically runs the city and police lieutenant Leonard Diamond (a chiseled Cornel Wilde) is determined to put him away for good even if he has to bankrupt his department’s budget to do so. It doesn’t help matters that Diamond is also in love with Brown’s bleach-blonde moll Susan (breathless bombshell Jean Wallace) a woman who is just beginning to realize what she threw away when she agreed to become a gangster’s mistress. Unfortunately Brown is very good at destroying incriminating evidence (or people) and Diamond’s efforts to pin an old murder on him leads both men down a very dark and treacherous path of double-crosses and dirty dealings… Shot in a perpetual twilight of fogbound streets and cheap dives, Joseph Lewis’ B&W evocation of a city seething with angst and corruption is sure to make genre fans squeal with delight. The dialogue is appropriately corny (“I’m going to break him so fast he won’t have time to change his pants”) and the plot is knotty enough to offer up a few surprises before its inevitable conclusion. Helene Stanton does a good job as Rita, Diamond’s world-weary stripper girlfriend (of course) but the biggest shock is Earl Holliman and Lee Van Cleef as a pair of gay hitmen—believe me, subtle hints abound!

A Bigger Splash (Italy 2015) (7): Jealousy, lust, and sexual tensions percolate just beneath the surface of an otherwise idyllic island getaway in Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Deray’s 1969 classic La Piscine, updated and transferred from the French Riviera to southern Italy. Aging rock star Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) is recuperating from throat surgery on a small Mediterranean island with her hunky filmmaker boyfriend Paul De Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts) when her former producer and ex-lover Harry (Ralph Fiennes) rings to say he’s arriving for an impromptu visit—in fact his plane actually passes over the sunbathing couple in what has to be one of contemporary cinemas more clever foreshadowings. Manic and somewhat unpredictable, Harry’s also brought his estranged daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson) along for the ride signalling the beginning of a very bumpy holiday, for Harry is still carrying a torch for Marianne who hasn’t quite forgotten the good old days, Paul is dealing with unresolved conflicts of his own, and Penelope turns out to be a calculating Lolita seemingly intent on playing everyone against everybody—can transgression and tragedy be far behind? Borrowing his title from artist David Hockney’s iconic painting in which the calm surface of a swimming pool has been shattered by the aftermath of a dive, Guadagnino likewise places his characters in a calm subtropical setting and then proceeds to probe beneath surface appearances to reveal a darker psychology at work, often utilizing heavy-handed metaphors to drive home his point—snakes slither through Marianne and Paul’s little slice of Eden; The Rolling Stones croon “Emotional Rescue” and “Worried About You” from the stereo turntable (in between more ominous notes); and characters are never more than a couple of paces from a tempting body of water. Keeping Tilda Swinton’s character voiceless for the most part provides an intriguing counterpoint to Fiennes’ pressured speech while Schoenaerts and Johnson play off each other nicely for even though they both sense wrongness in the air—he’s a documentarian used to searching for the truth, she’s cynical beyond her years—both are caught off guard when emotions actually start hitting the fan, including their own. Fearless performances from Swinton and Fiennes who bares all (literally) in one of his most vulnerable performances—Schoenaerts and Johnson on the other hand seem to have trouble keeping up—and Guadagnino keeps the pace brisk and just a little off-kilter with abrupt edits and seamless flashbacks. Not sure why he tried to tie the plight of African migrants crossing the sea with the main story—the two lines don’t easily connect—but it’s a dangling tangent which doesn’t really affect the film’s overall impact.

Big Hero 6 (USA 2014) (7): Life in the futuristic metropolis of San Fransokyo (like San Francisco only with more architectural gewgaws and cute Disney-fied ethnic types) is tough enough for fourteen-year old engineering whiz Hiro: he’s still reeling from a family tragedy and his application for the city’s most prestigious technical college is about to expire. He’s also inherited “Beymax”, a big loveable klutz of a robot with a blank face and a body made out of balloons. But when a masked super-villain steals his latest invention—an amazing breakthrough in miniature robotics—and uses it to wreak destruction upon the city Hiro realizes he is the only person who can defeat the madman. Transforming a cadre of fellow geeks into a team of superpowered crime fighters the boy wonder prepares to face his arch nemesis with a souped-up Beymax (now geared for violence) at his side… Amazing animation compensates somewhat for the heavy doses of Disney syrup as a boy and his robot discover the meanings of forgiveness, mercy, and sacrifice and a host of annoying sidekicks live out every geek’s superhero fantasies. But Hiro winds up pulling so many high-tech rabbits out his hat (does he have a nuclear reactor in his lunchbox too?) that everything just gets silly towards the end. Without much for adults to laugh at, Big Hero 6 lacks the wit of The Incredibles, the campy science of Frankenweenie, and the endearing nonsense of Despicable Me. Nice lesson in ethics for the kiddies though (if they’re even listening) but a robot pal that shambles about like a leaking hot water bottle just doesn’t measure up to a decent Minion.

Big Man Japan (Japan 2007) (6): Japan’s entry in the “mockumentary” category has a film crew following everyday loser Masaru Daisatô around Tokyo. Chronically underemployed, estranged from his wife and daughter, and with only his cat for company Daisatô nevertheless has one very big secret—zap him with enough electricity and he becomes Big Man, a fifty-foot destroyer of monsters and defender of all Japan. At least that’s the notoriety his father and grandfather enjoyed…nowadays Daisatô’s antics are more annoying than helpful earning him a meagre late-night cable TV slot and legions of angry protestors decrying his wasteful energy consumption and the wholesale destruction he often leaves in his wake. But when an evil horned devil creature brings a new threat to downtown Tokyo, Big Man Japan finally meets his match—but at least his ratings go through the roof. Although its running length could have been trimmed by a few minutes and many of the laughs require a thorough knowledge of Japanese pop culture (those who grew up with the likes of Ultraman and the Power Rangers will have a distinct advantage) director/star/writer Hitoshi Matsumoto’s deadpan delivery and hysterical visuals go a long way in smoothing over some of the film’s more baffling elements—an over-the-top final showdown had me smiling and scratching my head at the same time. Big Man himself looks like a warped G.I. Joe sporting a sky-high afro wig and corporate logos while the assorted CGI monsters range from sweetly grotesque (Baby Monster) to disgusting (Stink Monster in heat) to downright obscene (Stare Monster with a telescopic eyestalk for a dick). A few good laughs surrounded by a tad too much dead space make for a quaint little satire that’s as easy to forget as it is to watch.

The Big One  (USA 1998 ) (1):  Typically self-promoting and hopelessly biased series of hissy fits from the uber-liberals' slovenly poster child. It's amazing how Michael Moore can uncover the sordid underbelly of corporate America just by interviewing a few high school dropouts in a dark parking lot. Perhaps he can take some of the MILLIONS of dollars he's made condemning capitalism and use it to put himself through film school.

The Big Short (USA 2015) (9): For years Wall Street was making a killing by selling junk mortgage bonds as if they were as solid as gold and banks supported the ruse by granting outrageous mortgages to people who had no hope in hell of making their payments. When the defaults finally began it started a domino effect which led to the great worldwide recession of 2007 that saw pension plans, retirement funds, and even entire economies collapse seemingly overnight. But a few savvy investors saw the coming disaster and tried to profit from it by betting against the crazy popular Mortgage Funds using an economic sleight-of-hand called “shorting”. In Adam McKays hyped-up comedy-drama based on Michael Lewis’ book he gives a distinctly sardonic spin to what went down in the months leading up to the Great Fall and his all-star cast—Ryan Gosling as an amoral opportunist, Steve Carell as the only manager with a conscience, Brad Pitt as a big player turned disillusioned hermit; and Oscar-nominated Christian Bale as an autistic wunderkind—are more than capable of maintaining the manic energy McKay’s vision demands. Jarring edits combine flashbacks with stills of Wall Street bigwigs and the newly homeless; freeze frames are laced with intertitles defining the plot’s more technical terms; surprise celebrity cameos from the likes of Selena Gomez and the late Anthony Bourdain explain exactly what’s happening in layman’s terms using everything from blackjack tables to fish fillets as props, and throughout it all the cast routinely break that fourth wall to help us separate fact from fiction. The result is a giddy, quasi-satirical look at the unchecked greed and ridiculously flawed trade dealings—shored up by government oversight and corporate collusion—which determine just how much our life’s savings are really worth. But the film’s comedic elements never quite mask its bitter cynicism, for all the clever turns in the world can’t erase the fact that those responsible for inflicting so much hardship on others not only avoided jail time, they actually got bailed out with tax dollars raised from the very people they hurt. Nominated for Best Picture of 2016 and winner of Best Adapted Screenplay.

Billy Budd (UK 1962) (10): Peter Ustinov not only directed but co-wrote this staggering adaptation of Herman Melville’s final book, a searing allegory on good and evil which takes place, appropriately enough, on the wide open sea. It’s 1797 and able seaman Billy Budd (an Oscar-nominated Terence Stamp in his first film role) is an affably naïve sailor serving aboard a British warship where his self-effacing mannerisms and open-faced honesty quickly gain him the favour of his fellow conscripts as well as the gruff Captain Vere (Ustinov). The sadistic Master-at-Arms John Claggart however (an ice-cold Robert Ryan) quickly becomes obsessed with Budd once he realizes he cannot break the young man’s spirit with his usual array of threats and small cruelties. But then Claggart goads Budd into unwittingly committing a capital offence for which the only penalty is death and his final victory seems secure. With no time for a formal court-martial hearing Captain Vere and his officers are suddenly faced with an insurmountable moral crisis: do they shirk their sworn duties and pardon Billy, or knowingly hang an innocent man? Vere’s conflicted conscience, accentuated by a heaving ocean and an unseen French enemy lurking nearby, casts a glaring spotlight on the often contradictory interplay between the letter of the Law and the spirit of Justice. With Budd’s angelic disposition showcasing man in his purest state and Claggart’s cynical tyranny (fostered by some vaguely suggested life experiences) the exact opposite, both officers and crew come to represent the Everyman treading uncertainly between the two poles vainly clutching whatever moral compass they possess be it a bible, a personal code of ethics, or a big tome of naval regulations. Solid literary performances all around backed by magnificent Cinemascope vistas of foaming seas and starlit skies. An overlooked classic.

Birdman (USA 2014) (7): Actor Riggan Thomson (Oscar-nominated Michael Keaton) was once famous around the world for playing superhero “Birdman” in a trilogy of action-packed comic book thrillers. Now, more than twenty years later, he’s struggling for artistic recognition by staging an obscure Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver story about a man struggling to remain relevant in his own life. But his efforts are dogged by a cynical daughter fresh out of rehab (Oscar-nominated Emma Stone), an abrasively eccentric co-star hellbent on upstaging him (Oscar-nominated Edward Norton), his neurotic lawyer (Zach Galifianakis), and a shallow pretentious theatre critic determined to teach this aging Hollywood upstart a lesson in artistic integrity. Alejandro G. Iñarritu’s highly polished film within a play within a film is a study in contradiction. Even as his protagonist provides that too familiar metaphor of the imaginative soul railing against conformity in a world of social media tweets, his film revels in its own gimmickry: a dangerously unstable Thomson may or may not have real superpowers and an ongoing inner dialogue with his feathered alter ego is highlighted by glossy passages of magical realism. The film itself is a vertiginous swirl of steadicam shots cleverly edited to appear as one continuous take even though it spans three days, and a handful of too obvious references to Phantom of the Opera and Macbeth (a crazed actor screams out the “Sound and Fury” monologue just off of Times Square) drive their points home with theatrical zeal. But this is a film about egos, creativity, and the stage after all which makes Iñarritu’s dramaturgical flourishes not only germane, but indispensable. The fact that it went on to win four Academy Awards is a delicious irony.

The Bishop's Wife (USA 1947) (8):  An overlooked Christmas classic which warms the heart despite its mushy religious sentimentality.  A dapper angel (Cary Grant) is sent to New York in order to help Henry Brougham (David Niven), an Episcopalian bishop whose obsession over building a new cathedral has caused him to neglect the more important things in life like faith, hope, charity, and family.  Passing himself off as Dudley, the bishop's new aide, the angel reveals his true identity to Brougham (but no one else) and sets about making things right one tiny miracle at a time.  In the meantime the bishop's wife Julia (a gushing Loretta Young), long taken for granted by her preoccupied husband, finds herself inexplicably drawn to the heavenly Dudley when he begins lavishing her with the attention she has been denied for so long.  With Dudley falling in love for the first time in centuries, the faithful Julia becoming emotionally confused, and the bishop beside himself with jealousy, the stage is set for a most memorable Christmas Eve...  A cloying bit of fluffiness drenched in yuletide cheeriness but ultimately saved by a trio of fine performances and Gregg Toland's beautiful B&W cinematography which cashes in on snowy stage sets and cozy fireplaces.  As an added bonus the ebullient Monty Woolley gives a twinkling cameo as Professor Wutheridge, a stuffy academic whose brush with Dudley renews his faith in mankind.  Put this one alongside Capra's It's A Wonderful Life.

The Blackboard Jungle (USA 1955) (6): Idealistic war veteran Richard Dadier is excited to land a job teaching English at North Manual Highschool, an inner city boys school dubbed “the garbage can of the educational system” by one of its many harried teachers. But with a student body consisting mainly of thugs, gang-bangers and assorted cretins, his initial enthusiasm is soon dampened to a sullen persistence especially after he’s assaulted in an alley and his precariously pregnant wife begins receiving troubling letters. Beginning to doubt his vocation, Dadier is on the verge of packing it in until a classroom showdown with the school’s head hoodlum provides an inroad of sorts. For the most part Richard Brooks manages to keep his film believable thanks to a very talented cast including Glenn Ford as the beleaguered Dadier and Sidney Poitier as an unexpectedly wise student. Along the way he also makes a few salient observations on the many faces of prejudice, the abysmal working conditions of educators, and the role of society in molding the next generation of taxpayers. Unfortunately, by today’s standards it all comes across as a little too trite and tidy with simple discussions often morphing into sermons and a lukewarm script rife with truisms and clichéd bad boys; one tense scene in which Old Glory comes to the rescue provides a particularly puzzling metaphor. Interesting just the same, and the opening credits featuring Bill Halley and His Comets belting out “Rock Around the Clock” was cool, if somewhat odd.

The Black Cat (Italy 1981) (5): Lucio Fulci, one of the undisputed masters of splatter cinema, turns down the gore factor and adds a few extra smoke machines for this dark and moody supernatural thriller "freely adapted" from Edgar Allan Poe's short story. A series of macabre accidents are killing the inhabitants of a small English village, accidents that seem to revolve around a local psychic and his pugnacious pussycat. Caught up in the mystery are a visiting amateur photographer and a skeptical Scotland Yard inspector who suddenly find their own lives in danger the closer they get to the truth. Despite its creepy crawly camerawork and shadowy gothic sets there are just a few too many loose ends to Fulci's opus to garner it more than a passing nod. How are the victims related, exactly, and why were they killed? How does the psychic's eccentric little "hobby" fit into the storyline? And what about that chamber of horrors in the local churchyard? The P.O.V. cat cam gets annoying after a while but the little black feline itself is just adorable!

Black Christmas (Canada 1974) (8): Filmed in just over a month on a modest budget, Bob Clark’s wonderfully atmospheric slasher film went on to become one of the most famous bits of homegrown cinema, even influencing the likes of John Carpenter. It’s Christmastime in the American town of Bedford (a poorly disguised Toronto despite the two American flags) and the girls at the Pi Kappa Sig sorority have a few problems: one sister is dealing with an unwanted pregnancy, another is slightly unhinged (Margot Kidder, being ironic), and the House Mother is a foul-mouthed drunk. However, on a more ominous note, a homicidal madman is stalking the premises taunting the women with increasingly psychotic phone calls and availing himself of every open window and unlocked door. As her roommates begin disappearing it’s up to Jess (a luminous Olivia Hussey) and police lieutenant Fuller (a bored John Saxon) to unmask the killer before he can complete his crazed agenda. Filmed in rich shadowy earth tones accentuated by candy-coloured holiday lights and a macabre score of jarring piano chords, Black Christmas is a guilty pleasure which makes no apologies for it’s handful of illogical plot devices, including an odd little twist at the end which, if taken as a psychological metaphor rather than a straight-up shocker, does manage to provide one final frisson. The strong cast of B-listers seem to be enjoying themselves while some clever cinematography, including creepy POV killer shots and one especially infamous eyeball scene, have you peering self-consciously over your shoulder. One of the best genre films I’ve seen thus far.

The Blackcoat’s Daughter (US/Canada 2015) (6): The Exorcist meets Picnic at Hanging Rock in writer/director Oz Perkins’ brilliantly stupid horror show which proves Thomas Wolfe was right and you really can’t go home again—even if you’re the devil himself. It’s winter break at a prestigious girls boarding school in upstate New York and everyone has gone home for the holidays except freshman Katherine and senior Rose, both of whom are waiting for parents who never seem to arrive. But the girls have other pressing matters to attend to for Rose may be carrying some unwanted baggage and Kat is having problems of a more…diabolical…nature in the form of menacing phone calls and an unhealthy attraction for cutlery. Meanwhile, in a timeline next door, runaway Joan is hitching a ride with a nice middle class couple with a tragic secret of their own, but not to worry for Joan is carrying the biggest, most bloodcurdling secret of all… What exactly is the relationship between these three young women and is there any truth to the rumours of black magic being practiced by the two old maids who oversee the school? A true triumph of style over substance—not to mention narrative cohesion (don’t worry, it all makes sense eventually)—Perkins takes great delight in exaggerated staging, slo-mo saunters, and enough darkened corridors and banging pipes to flesh out at least one sequel. It all looks great on the big screen especially with an appropriately jarring soundtrack to ramp up the creep factor. But whether your frissons come from the film’s overt supernatural element or its plethora of bad psychology (what exactly is that half-seen wooly mammoth in the corner?) this is one production that will keep you in your seat until the very end…and then have you rolling your eyes all the way home.

Blackfish (USA 2013) (7): Keeping orcas in captivity for the sake of turning a profit has long been a contentious issue but in Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s scathing documentary on the effects of that captivity it becomes tantamount to a crime against nature. Armed with an array of talking heads including a man who used to trap wild whales, a neuroscientist, and a host of former trainers—many in tears as they give their story—as well as damning evidence from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s files Cowperthwaite asserts that taking these intelligent and highly social animals out of their natural environment and training them to do backflips for a bucket of fish not only harms them psychologically but has led to numerous human fatalities in the process. Citing incidents at water parks from Victoria BC to the Canary Islands she zeroes in on one animal, “Tilikum”, and shows how crowded conditions, lack of staff education, and corporate profiteering all played their part in a series of tragic deaths and near deaths involving trainers and orcas “frustrated” from being penned up for years in small concrete pools with other whales not related to them (they have a highly advanced sense of “family” and are often aggressive towards members of other pods). From the barbaric act of capturing baby whales in the wild—now banned in Washington State—to the process of coercing them to act against their nature in theme parks worldwide, nothing in the “black fish” trade is above contempt or likely to disappear as long as there are paying tourists and a market for cuddly plush killer whale dolls. A bit preachy and manipulative at times (cue sombre music) and ignores the good work being done by other marine researchers, but the wrongness of cooping up these bright mammals should be self-evident from the outset.

The Black Hole (USA 1979) (5): While combing the galaxy in search of “habitable life” [sic], the crew of the starship Palomino happen upon a huge derelict ship orbiting the fringes of a black hole. Identifying it as the USS Cygnus which disappeared mysteriously 20 years previous, they decide to investigate further. Upon entering the Cygnus they discover the entire complex is now being run by the eccentric, and possibly mad, Dr. Reinhardt along with a silent crew of homemade androids. It is Reinhardt’s dream to plunge the Cygnus into the heart of the black hole in order to discover what lay on the other side, and he quickly recruits the reluctant crew of the Palomino to help him. But all is not as it seems, for the wild-eyed genius has a few dark secrets he’d rather not reveal. Disney’s box office flop is a weak hybrid of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Star Wars, but does justice to neither one. Although impressive for the time, the special effects are now hopelessly dated consisting mainly of bad matte paintings, plastic models and lots of visible wires. Coupled with that is some ludicrous techno jargon (it’s not a searchlight, it's a micro beam!), garish sets awash in plaid-coloured lights, and enough scientific faux pas to make Stephen Hawking run out of the theatre. And of course, being Disney, there is a pair of adorable robots; one with a Slim Pickens drawl and one sounding like Roddy McDowall huffing helium (neither actor is credited). Still, despite its many drawbacks, there is an aura of childlike wonder to the film which renders it more of an outer space fairytale than a bona fide work of science fiction. Furthermore, the unexpectedly operatic ending was impressive; a kind of last minute collaboration between Stanley Kubrick and Dante Alighieri. Not good enough to be taken seriously, yet not quite bad enough to achieve cult status.

Blackmail Boy (Greece 2003) (7):  While watching this Olympian soap opera with its frenzied bitch fights and gender-bending bed-hopping one can’t help but be reminded of the early works of Almodovar.  The directors employ the same black comedy and broad farce to skewer contemporary Hellenic society while their sly allusions to classical mythology give the movie a dramatic formality that belies its essentially outrageous storyline.  Unlike Almodovar, however, they do nothing to elicit sympathy for the film’s main characters and instead we are left watching a handful of urban pigs wallow in their own muck.  The film does end in a wonderfully overdone tragedy of.....well......Greek proportions though, and that alone was worth the preceding 90 minutes.

Black Mass (USA 2015) (8): Scott Cooper’s slow burner follows the rise and fall of James “Whitey” Bulger, south Boston’s most notorious gangster who went from small-time racketeer to running a crime syndicate that stretched all the way to Miami. It opens in the mid-70s when a turf war between Bulger’s “Winter Hill Gang” and the North End Mafia attracts the attention of FBI agent John Connolly who manages to convince Bulger to supply intel on the Italians in exchange for certain quasi-legal favours. But when you make a deal with the devil you’re sure to get burned for despite being childhood friends who grew up together on the mean streets of Boston, Connolly and Bulger chose very different paths and it doesn’t take long for Bulger, ever the opportunist, to have Connolly questioning where his true loyalties belong… The violence is graphic as is the gutter language, but if you’re looking for another Godfather or Goodfellas you’re sure to be disappointed for Cooper is not so interested in cops & robbers thrills as he is in tracing one evil man’s descent into moral anarchy, and Johnny Depp proves to be the perfect vehicle. In the lead role an almost unrecognizable Depp slithers and hisses—his eyes as dead as his voice—a true sociopath who fouls everything he touches and whose paranoia and murderous rage increase exponentially with his bank account. Trading in his Aussie accent for a decent South Boston twang, Joel Edgerton’s Connolly is a study in conflict torn between his oath to uphold the law and the blood ties he formed as a child. Rounding out the cast is Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger’s younger brother whose position as a prominent Massachusetts senator adds a political twist and David Harbour as a fellow FBI agent who sees Bulger in a different light. Highly polished yet still maintaining a gritty aura of corruption throughout, Cooper films a blood-soaked strangulation as nonchalantly as he does a Miami Beach picnic while images of impotent Catholicism—an empty church ablaze with candlelight, a draped casket—underscore the very soullessness of his protagonist. Commendable performances from Kevin Bacon and Adam Scott on the good team and Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons, and Rory Cochrane on the bad.

Black Narcissus (UK 1947) (10): Shortly after WWII a group of Anglican nuns are sent to an abandoned palace high in the Himalayas, a former harem actually, in order to set up a school and dispensary for the local peasants. At first warming to their task under the watchful eye of newly appointed Sister Superior Clodagh, the women are soon overwhelmed by the sensuous beauty around them; from the intimidating cliffs and mountain peaks outside their door, to the faded murals depicting carnal delights adorning the fledgling convent’s crumbling walls. It doesn’t help matters that the natives have to be bribed into seeking the sisters’ services, nor that the local General’s surly British handyman embodies the very essence of temptation with his too-short shorts and unbuttoned shirt. As their faith in their vocation wavers and unpleasant memories begin to resurface the sisters slowly succumb to passion, despair, and madness; and all the while a cold incessant wind whips at their habits while an ancient Hindu holy man watches impassively from beyond the convent walls... Directors Powell and Pressburger’s gothic melodrama is one of the most strikingly photographed Technicolor marvels the British film industry has ever produced. The interplay of light and shadow, bathed in rich primary colours, lends a painterly quality to their work which often borders on pure expressionism. Choosing to film the entire epic on a UK soundstage rather than on location, they maintain a firm sense of artistic control which sees the wonders of northern India transformed into a series of psychological metaphors and plumbs each scene for its most primitive emotional content whether it be Sister Clodagh ringing the morning bell while perched on the edge of an abyss, or the increasingly neurotic Sister Ruth smearing crimson lipstick across her mouth. This constant juxtaposition between the sacred and the subtly erotic, tinged with elements both tragic and horrific, make for an exhilarating cinematic experience which has not dimmed in the intervening sixty-five years. A masterpiece.

Black Night (Belgium 2005) (8):  Oscar inhabits a Kafkaesque world of dark streets and menacing shadows where the sun makes a weak appearance for only fifteen seconds every afternoon. During the day he works at the Natural History Museum collecting and cataloguing exotic insects--a passionate hobby that carries over into his private life. But at night he has troubling dreams triggered by vague memories of a childhood tragedy involving a young girl who may have been his sister. Then one day his insular world is suddenly breached when he comes home to discover a seriously ill African woman dying in his bed… Oliver Smolders has described Black Night as a film reflected in a broken mirror where the onus is on the viewer to glean some sense from the fractured, non-linear narrative. He has certainly produced an elaborate psychodrama to challenge our sense of what is real and what is metaphor utilizing a bleak fairytale aesthetic that mesmerizes even as it confounds. He does drop tantalizing clues along the way though: Oscar’s memories are presented as grainy 8mm loops played against a toy stage; there is an emphasis on duality (or disassociation): mysterious twins, night/day, black/white; and strong references are made to Belgium’s history of colonialism in Africa. And then there are the omnipresent insects whose combination of beauty and savagery seem to reflect our protagonist’s own contradictory emotions, their silent gaze forever following him. They thrive on death and decay yet carry the ability to morph into something greater; a theme which the movie explores in unflinching detail. Black Night finally ends as enigmatically as it began, with two children on a dimly lit stage. An elegantly crafted nightmare whose cryptic imagery taps into our most primitive fears even as it teases our intellect.

Black Orpheus (Brazil 1958) (9):  The sad tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is played out against Rio’s Carnival in this gorgeous technicolour explosion of music and dancing.  In this version we see Orpheus as a handsome carefree streetcar conductor forsaking his spoiled fiancée for Eurydice, an ingénue from the country who is convinced a murderous stranger is stalking her.  As the jilted woman and skull-masked stalker close in on the two lovers events come to a tragic climax amidst the swirling dancers and colourful costumes of a Carnival parade.  Orpheus’ subsequent search for his lost love is filmed with a classic solemnity that contrasts sharply with the sunny spontaneity of the movie’s first half thereby heightening the sense of grief and despair.  Camus manages to remain faithful to the original Greek tragedy while at the same time making it seem as if it was written for the favelas of Brazil.  I especially enjoyed his sly references to  mythological names and images:  Orpheus’ fellow conductor and guiding force is named Hermes; a guard dog named Cerebus; and Eurydice’s scarf covered in zodiac signs are but a few examples.  Lastly, he brings the whole story to a sad yet hopeful conclusion.  Amazing!

Black Rain (Japan 1989) (7): Shôhei Imamura’s passionate film follows the fate of three family members caught in the atomic blast over Hiroshima. Although they survived, Shige Shizuma, his wife Shigeko, and their adult niece Yasuko are nevertheless scarred by the ordeal, both physically and emotionally, for the rest of their lives. Moving back to their rustic mountain village the three find some comfort in both one another and in the quotidian rhythms of the farming community around them. But as rumors of Yasuko’s exposure to radioactive fallout continue to scare away potential suitors and the Shizumas watch with helpless resignation as friends and fellow victims succumb to the “flash sickness”, all three are reminded of their own uncertain future. Meticulously shot in rich shades of black and white which lend it an aura of authenticity, Black Rain has the feel of a classic film. Imamura exhibits an artist’s eye for texture and composition whether he’s filming a pastoral vista of hills and rice paddies or a procession of burned and bloodied civilians shambling through streets choked with corpses and smoking rubble. His scenes of devastation achieve a poetic intensity while other moments of quiet, individual suffering take on a tragic intimacy. And throughout it all he manages to interject some striking cinematic images; a group of women bathing in the river are partially obscured by smoke from nearby funeral pyres while a shell-shocked veteran has a disturbing flashback amidst a studio filled with stone gods and demons. Although he clearly loves his characters, Shôhei does not spare them, or us, from life’s harsher realities. With neither science nor religion able to offer much solace, Mr. Shizuma sums it up quite succinctly, “An unjust peace is better than a just war...”

Black Snake Moan (USA 2006) (7): The title refers to one’s personal demons and in Craig Brewer’s trashy backwoods drama those demons loom large. Town slut Rae (Christina Ricci, bold and brassy) copes with her traumatic memories of sexual abuse through drugs and casual encounters with every male in town whenever her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake, amazing) turns his back. Ronnie, for his part, can’t cope with loud noises, a PTSD-like disorder which hampers him from pursuing his goal of enlisting in the army. And then there’s aging musician Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson deserving of an Oscar but not even nominated), a crusty old loner still angry over his ex-wife’s double betrayal. When a bad date leaves Rae unconscious and bleeding outside Lazarus’ shack, he takes it upon himself to “cure” her of her self-destructive ways by literally putting her in chains and showing her the kind of platonic compassion lacking in her life—an arrangement which actually begins to pay dividends. And then Ronnie comes back from boot camp and the misunderstandings begin… An admittedly controversial storyline which drew ire from female critics for its likening of one woman’s sexuality to demonic possession (not to mention frank, often violent, sex scenes), yet there is an undeniable sympathy which runs throughout. The relationship between bitter old black man and emotionally brittle white girl is nothing like the exploitation suggested by the film’s unfortunate theatre posters (a bone of contention with Ricci) but rather a dysfunctional therapy of sorts, laced with dark humour and an adamant refusal to pigeonhole either character. She cools down despite being chained to a red hot radiator while he pours out his soul in a series of bluesy ballads, and in the background secondary characters keep things in perspective—a teenaged store clerk embodies innocence, a female pharmacist’s romantic advances give Lazarus a sense of hope, and a preacher provides the calm eye to the storm which is enveloping everyone. A movie about broken people trying to heal in whatever way they can, even if their methods might prove scandalous to more sensitive viewers. Impeccable performances are backed up by soulful music (played and sung by Jackson himself) and a script as sharp as it is tawdry.

Black Sunday [The Mask of Satan] (Italy 1960) (7): In this early work by horror maven Mario Bava, ‘60s scream queen Barbara Steele showcases her ample talents as the 17th century princess Asa who was executed by her own family for being a witch. Before she died (with a spiked mask messily nailed to her face) Asa vowed to return from the grave and wreak vengeance on her family’s future generations. Two hundred years later a pair of curious travellers unwittingly release the witch from her tomb…and mayhem ensues! With a macabre style lying somewhere between Hammer Horror gothic and German Expressionism, Bava’s B&W ghost story is a moody piece of crumbling castles and fogbound cemeteries forever caught in a perpetual twilight. In this vaguely eastern European landscape of dead trees and cobwebs Steele is superbly cast in a dual role as both the resurrected witch and her lookalike descendant, the princess Katia, whose body Asa must possess in order to complete her bloody revenge. Steele’s jet black hair, mascaraed eyes, and clinging period costumes add a touch of unearthly eroticism to counterbalance some of the film’s more grotesque passages—although tame by today’s standards, Bava’s growing proclivity for blood and gore had censors in an uproar when Black Sunday was first released. Accompanied by a suitably eerie orchestral score, the film’s highly operatic mood is further enhanced by a stagy script (badly dubbed into American English) and melodramatic performances which would come across as hackneyed if taken out of context but are right at home given the production’s overall sense of menace which is so inflated it borders on kitsch. An enjoyable campfire tale full of undead malfeasants and secret passageways, where vampire bats leap out of mausoleums and skulls leer from within darkened niches. Rounding out the cast are John Richardson as a visiting doctor and Katia’s love interest, Arturo Dominici as Asa’s zombie henchman, and Ivo Garrani and Enrico Olivieri as Katia’s unlucky father and brother. Based on an 1835 novella by Russian/Ukrainian author Nikolai Gogol which was later remade as the (superior) Soviet film Viy (1967).

Black Swan (USA 2010) (3): Touted as a deeply psychological thriller, Darren Aronofsky’s bird-brained shocker tries to jolt new life into a tired old premise with enough arty hysterics and gaudy effects to flesh out a dozen teen scream movies. The story revolves around Nina Sayers, an up-and-coming prima ballerina who lands the lead role in her company’s controversial new production of Swan Lake; a role which requires her to play both Princess Odette, the virginal white swan, and Odette’s chief nemesis Odile, the evil black swan. Emotionally repressed and pathologically neurotic, Nina at first finds it difficult to tap into that dark part of her nature which the role of Odile demands. It doesn’t help that her mother is a controlling shrew who blames her daughter’s birth for destroying her own stage career; nor that Thomas, the company’s artistic director, is causing her confused libido to run hot and cold with his mixed sexual messages. Furthermore, fellow dancer and arch-rival Lily seems intent on sabotaging Nina’s grand debut by introducing the naive ballerina to the sordid world of drugs, discotheques, and hot lesbian lust. It all comes to a head on opening night when Nina, her last shred of sanity firmly in the toilet, decides to give the audience the performance of her life... This is the type of overwrought melodrama that wows cinematic dilettantes with its trite Freudian allusions and crap symbolism, whether it be the pink butterfly wallpaper adorning Nina’s bedroom, a menacing winged statue standing in a theatre foyer, or the black feathery tattoos on Lily’s shoulder blades (seriously??) Not content to let this cheap psychodrama play out subliminally where it would be the most effective, Aronofsky chooses instead to assault his audience with some unintentionally hilarious CGI effects including Nina’s bone-crunching morph into a malevolent red-eyed gobbler right in front of her screaming mother. Finally, a host of wooden performances (enjoy that Oscar Natalie), slapdash directing, and a comic book script combine to make Black Swan one giant goose egg.

Blancanieves (Spain 2012) (9): Poor little Carmencita. It’s bad enough that her mother has died, but her grief-stricken father, a famous toreador, has disowned her. And it all happened on the same day—the day she was born. Raised by her grandmother, the plucky child is eventually forced to return to her family estate after the old woman dies, a situation that doesn’t sit well with her new stepmother who rules the roost like a haute couture despot. Treated worse than a scullery maid, Carmencita ends up fleeing for her life only to fall in with a traveling troupe of bullfighting dwarves (?!) who adopt her as one of their own especially when she displays an innate talent for the sport. But her stepmother is not done with her yet… Set in 1920s Seville and shot as a B&W silent film, Pablo Berger’s stunning re-imagining of Snow White is a perfect combination of style and substance. With cleverly retro special effects and greasepaint theatrics all framed within a boxlike aspect ratio, he embellishes elements from Golden Age Hollywood epics with a wildly contemporary Spanish flair. The stepmother is more psychopathic than wicked, the dwarves are a colourful lot (one has a talent for drag), and nature itself takes on the guise of animal familiars with a pet rooster provoking a long overdue reconciliation and a snorting bull meting out retribution as if it were Judgement Day made flesh. Aided by incidental sounds and a rousing music track that shifts from melodrama to Flamenco, Berger bypasses our expectations while giving new perspective to the story’s old tropes: stepmom’s “magic mirror” gets a modern interpretation and that poisoned apple leads to something far more heartbreaking than death. But the biggest revelation of all is Berger’s reinvention of the story’s heroic Prince, here shown as a tragic figure less royal yet somehow more noble. A dark and brooding bedtime story for adults which provides counterbalance to Disney’s animated confection. Maribel Verdú is pure ice as the stepmother, Macarena Garcia breaks your heart with a smile as Carmen, and even though he only has a bit part Josep Maria Pou is evil personified as a devilish talent agent.

Blast of Silence (USA 1961) (7): Freelance hitman “Baby Boy” Frank Bono has been hired to knock off a low level New York gangster, one of his more lucrative assignments. But it’s Christmas Eve in Manhattan and a chance run-in with a woman he once had a crush on has Frank rethinking his career choice—not a healthy thing to do when you’re working for the mob. Meanwhile, his deepening ambivalence does not go unnoticed by the ruthless men who hired him and they never take “no” for an answer… Considered by many to be a late film noir classic, Allen Baron’s ultra low-budget B&W downer is a gloomy mix of recycled clichés and a host of stock characters ranging from the troubled assassin (played by Baron himself) to his virginal object of desire to the slovenly corpulent gun dealer with a fondness for rats of all stripes (a delightfully sleazy performance from accomplished writer and producer Larry Tucker). And Bono is dogged every step of the way by an unseen narrator who acts as a combination Greek chorus and voice of conscience. What raises this one above the herd however is Merrill Brody’s brilliant cinematography and Meyer Kupferman’s score of frantic jazz and soulful horn solos. Filmed guerrilla style on the twilit streets of Harlem and the Lower East Side, Brody juxtaposes urban grunge with garish Christmas displays (complete with children’s choirs) with ironic effect while his interior shots are all sharp angles and cold electric light. Dark and despairing from its opening monologue on the rigors of childbirth—brilliantly underscored by scenes of a train emerging from a tunnel—to its final storm-tossed climax filmed while hurricane Donna was battering the eastern seaboard. A fine example of maximum effect with minimum resources.

Blind Chance (Poland 1981) (6): “Every generation needs light...a belief that life can be better”. So states an elderly professor in Kieslowski’s rambling circuitous story in which coincidence, fate, and divine intervention go up against each other with no clear winner. The film is presented as a trio of short films each beginning with the same introduction; Witek, a promising young medical student, is running to catch a train. In two scenarios he misses the train, in one he does not, yet in each case there are subtle differences in the sequence of events which drastically alter Witek’s life. In one timeline he becomes a tentative Catholic whose only desire is for God to be, in another he becomes an anti-government activist, and in the third he puts his faith in neither God nor Man and instead chooses political and spiritual apathy. But the Fates, presented here in various female guises, are a fickle bunch and the film’s ultimate finale is either a scathing look at God’s “mysterious ways” or simply another example of mordant Eastern European nihilism. Questions of free will, idealism and individual choice abound in what is arguably Kieslowski’s most overtly political film; uncomfortable questions which caused the film to be held in limbo for six years by Poland’s communist censors. There is much to chew on here, but the glacial pacing and preachy dialogue had me squirming more often than not, while the unsympathetic characters kept me at arm’s length. Definitely not one of his better films.

Blind Mountain (China 2007) (8): Recent college grad Bai Xuemei is lured into the far north with the promise of a lucrative job offer but winds up being drugged and sold as a wife-cum-slave to a local peasant instead. Cut off from everyone and everything she held dear she must now endure being held captive by a village hungry for young brides, beatings at the hands of a miserable man who will not tolerate disobedience, and the expectation of producing babies—her in-laws even helping out by holding her down while their son rapes her on their “wedding night”. Xuemei is made of tougher stuff however, and with single-minded fervour she attempts one escape after another despite the harsh alpine surroundings (beautifully captured by cinematographer Jong Lin) and cajoling from the village women—some of them former kidnap victims themselves—who try to convince her that things aren’t so bad once you accept your fate. But Xuemei is not so easily broken down… One of the more gut-wrenching and unsettling films I’ve seen in some time, Yang Li’s angry polemic against the buying and selling of brides, set in the 1990s, is sadly rooted in reality especially in sparsely populated regions where female infanticide has led to a shortage of available women. Star Lu Huang gives a remarkable performance as a naïf who goes from wide-eyed innocent to hardened cynic willing to go to any lengths in order to reach civilization and she is supported by a cast of mostly non-professionals as the villagers—an uneducated mob of peasants forever stuck in a centuries-old mindset. But this is not a Western film by any stretch and although Xuemei’s outrage reverberates throughout, the life she’s trying so desperately to regain—where public servants come with a price tag, indifference is a fact of life, and betrayal can be bought with a cigarette—is not so very different from her mountain prison.

Blindspotting (USA 2018) (8): As the opening credits roll a pair of split screens give us a study in contrasts—a neat row of houses go up against a squatters’ camp; street rappers go side-by-side with white men trying to dance—leaving you with the impression that director Carlos López Estrada and writer/co-star Rafael Casal have an agenda to deliver. But in actuality the drama which follows winds up being a convincing urban critique whose sharp edges are softened somewhat by flashes of comedy and brief moments of intimacy. Serving the last few days of his parole, convicted felon Collin (an intense performance from Daveed Diggs) is determined to stay as far away from trouble as possible. He’s managed to land a job with a moving van company, he’s repairing his relationship with ex-girlfriend Val (Janina Gavankar), and he is also trying to fly under the radar at the halfway house to which he’s been assigned. But trouble dogs him constantly in the form of his best friend and co-worker Miles (Casal), an irresponsible trash-talking fuck-up who has a thing for pot and illegal firearms despite having a loving wife and highly impressionable little son. And then one night Collin witnesses the fatal police shooting of a black man and the experience leads him to question not only the status quo but his own complacency… Filmed in and around Oakland, California, where gentrification is taking a toll on neighbours and neighbourhoods alike, Estrada doesn’t deliver the expected sermon on racism and inequality but rather aims for deeper waters as each one of his characters experiences personal epiphanies both affirming and unsettling. The term “blindspotting” refers to how we are conditioned to see things in one way only, leaving us blind to other truths and other realities. In Estrada’s film everyone is eventually forced to confront their own blind spots whether it’s a caucasian Miles seeing his ghetto mannerisms for the facade they are (a revelation that doesn’t go down well) or Val’s inability to see her ex-boyfriend as anything but a released felon. Estrada thus toys with reality and our perception of it—aside from a few unfortunate stereotypes (no, not every white guy is a smarmy suburban hipster) his main characters are books whose covers are too often misread. Diggs, who wowed Broadway audiences in Hamilton, brings a theatrical immediacy to his role going from Miles’ hangdog sidekick to enraged warrior in a climactic face-off delivered almost entirely in slam poetry. Casal is a mixed bag of vulnerable machismo and affected blowhard whose eventual comeuppance leads to a painful rebirth. And Gavankar bridges the gap as a black woman who realizes that she too is not immune to blindspotting. Finally, Ethan Embry plays a small but volatile part as the police officer who fired the deadly shots—although his character only has one line to speak he drops it like a grenade and in the ensuing silence his perspiring face and flushed cheeks register a hollowness that goes beyond fear and guilt.

Bliss (USA 1997) (2): When sensitive yuppie Joseph discovers his neurotic trophy wife Maria is having a few deep sessions with an unorthodox sex therapist he is hurt and angry--until he starts taking a few lessons of his own from the mysterious Dr. Balthazar. Soon Joseph is getting in touch with his inner chakras while helping Maria dispel her childhood demons by poking her sacred spot and pouting a lot. This pretentious little softcore "art" film overflows with enough empty-headed prattle and New Age cliches to fill a dozen Deepak Chopra books. Whether it's the gauzy camerawork which makes everything look like it was filmed through a curtain or the overblown soundtrack of whining violins and lethargic vocals, there is a smug sense of profundity at work here which is not supported by the wooden performances and shallow coffeehouse philosophizing. Maria's final healing catharsis carries the promise of some depth but, like the rest of the movie, falls prey to one too many teary close-up and reproachful stares. The shots of Gastown and the Vancouver skyline are rather pretty though.

The Blonde One (Argentina 2019) (9): Single-father Gabriel (Gaston Re) leaves his young daughter at his parents’ house in order to search for work. He eventually lands a position in a woodworking shop several miles away and moves in with co-worker Juan (Alfonso Barón) who seems to be his opposite in every respect. Whereas the more taciturn Gabriel tends towards introspection, Juan is an outgoing lothario who never seems to want for female companionship. Yet despite their differences, or perhaps because of them, an attraction develops between the two men which slowly smoulders towards a greater intimacy. But it will be a rocky road for both, for even as Gabriel wears his heart on his sleeve Juan proves to be just as cavalier with men as he is with women… Writer/director Marco Berger’s bittersweet love story relies so much on minute observations that its already spartan dialogue is rendered pretty near superfluous. An emotionally charged glance seems to last forever; a furtive caress goes unnoticed by a roomful of homies; sunlight picks out a single tear as it slides down an unshaved cheek—and outside the apartment commuter trains rush to and fro, their sheer implacability mirroring a passion which likewise ebbs and flows. Handsome as hell, Re and Barón are pure dynamite on screen, their hot and cold relationship heartbreakingly familiar to anyone who’s ever allowed themselves to be vulnerable and their mutual lust almost tangible. But it is Malena Irusta, playing Gabriel’s daughter Ornella, who ultimately anchors the production with a pint-sized practicality—her seemingly random banter with dad offering some much needed sunshine especially in that final reel. A tenderly observed drama that is at once painfully human and almost unbearably erotic.

Blood and Black Lace (Italy 1964) (7): Things are not going well for recently widowed fashion designer Christine Como—with her new collection about to be released someone is murdering her top models one by one in various messy ways and then leaving the bodies about as if to taunt her. Could it be the coke-addicted boyfriend? The taciturn dress designer? The big butch diva? And why does everyone want to get their hands on the first victim’s secret diary? It’s up to cool-headed Inspector Silvester to unravel the mystery before there’s no one left to work the runway. Heavy on atmosphere with backlit drapes, a sinister jazz score, and a studio full of blood red mannequins, Mario Bava’s grisly slasher—the granddaddy of every Italian gialli ever made—features enough garter belts and push-up bras to fill a Victoria’s Secret catalogue. There is a lurid artistry to his work however with clever tracking shots either loitering backstage at a haute couture show or keeping pace with a terrified damsel as she frantically tries to manoeuvre a gallery’s dim hallways with a killer hot on her tail. And the ridiculously dubbed dialogue only adds to the fun! Trashy cinema with a chic edge.

Blood Car (USA 2007) (6): Somewhere between a sedated Uwe Boll and a more civic-minded John Waters lies Alex Orr’s ridiculous zero-budget social satire—a 75-minute exercise in poor taste whose moments of inspired parody are offset by its frequent descents into low-brow schtick. When he’s not lecturing his kids on Hiroshima and hippos, eco-aware vegan-friendly kindergarten teacher Archie (Mike Brune) is working on his new invention: a car engine that runs on organic wheat grass juice—a pretty momentous pursuit in a world where gasoline now hovers at $35/gallon. Not having much luck at first, a chance encounter with a piece of broken glass leads Archie to a startling discovery…what his prototype engine really needs is blood! And lots of it! Putting aside his pacifist ideologies for the greater good, Archie begins collecting the precious red commodity any way he can… Orr’s comedic elements are spread pretty thin but the stiff middle finger his film aims at consumer culture is apparent throughout as Archie finds out that being the only man with a functioning automobile makes him a sex symbol with the ladies, a target for status-seeking carjackers (great cameo from “Mr. Malt”), and a person of interest for a shady government agency that’s begun tailing him. Anna Chlumsky co-stars as the mousy proprietress of a tofu stand who carries a carnal torch for Archie and her character is balanced by Katie Orr (the director’s real life wife) who steals every scene she’s in as the owner of a meat stand, a carnivorous slut who’ll screw anyone able to go over 60 mph. The idea of a modest family car with a meat grinder in the trunk is a pretty apt metaphor especially when Orr suggests that keeping the gears of industry running will now require actual human sacrifices. And the film’s outrageous finale, a photo-op dripping with cynicism and irony, finally pushes the envelope right off the table. The camerawork has its moments—an opening pan over a rusting junkyard sets the stage while a psychedelic joyride has a 60s feel to it—the music is a head-scratching mix of Mozart and Vivaldi (?), and the not-exactly special effects are mainly restricted to fountains of blood shooting up like geysers. In Orr’s near future dystopia no one will be spared from good ol’ American ingenuity: not children, not the marginalized, and (horror of horrors!) not even puppy dogs.

Blood for Dracula (Italy 1974) (6):  Andy Warhol collaborator Paul Morrissey's follow-up to the camp classic Flesh for Frankenstein features an emaciated Count Dracula (Udo Kier) being forced to leave his native Romania in search of fresh blood--and only the blood of a certified virgin will do. Pretending to be looking for a wife, Dracula and his henchman Anton find themselves in Italy at the palatial but decaying home of the penniless Marquis and Marquesa di Fiore (and their four nubile daughters) where the Count prepares for a veritable blood feast.  Unfortunately, the virginity of the eldest Di Fiore girls is in question thanks to hunky resident handyman Mario (Warhol stud Joe Dallesandro not even trying to hide his American accent) causing the aging vampire to experience some unsettling GI symptoms and alerting Mario to the fact that there is a monster in their midst...  But when both bloodsucker and handyman set their sights on fourteen-year old Perla Di Fiore, apparently the only virgin in town, someone's going to have to die...  Full of transgressive sex, theatrical performances, and amusingly bloody effects that are as disgusting as they are tacky, this one is strictly for diehard Warhol fans only.  Morrissey does have tongue firmly in cheek however, casting the great Vittorio De Sica as the barely intelligible Marquis and having Dallesandro spout vapid Marxist jingles as he bangs away at his bourgeois employer's willing daughters.  Kier, for his part, portrays a more sympathetic Dracula--conscious of his advancing years as he meticulously dyes his hair and secretly longing for the everlasting peace of the grave.  A cult classic.

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.

The Blood Spattered Bride (Spain 1972) (3): When a man brings his virginal new wife (still wearing her bridal gown no less!) to his ancestral estate in the country things immediately take a turn for the worse. To begin with, every sexual overture he makes puts her into a catatonic state—she’s even unconscious during their wedding night shenanigans—and what’s with the man-hating lesbian vampire who begins haunting her dreams and possessing her waking hours? There’s a dark family curse afoot which seems to be triggered by male-female coitus and when the increasingly psychotic blushing bride gets her dainty hands on a very sharp ceremonial dagger it’ll be every man for himself! Sleaze director Vicente Aranda piles on the boobs, bush, and blood for this sapphic Eurotrash bloodsucker flick which suffers from all the usual genre shortcomings: horrible English dubbing, a cornball script, undisciplined camerawork, and a blaring soundtrack of organ chords more suited to a hockey arena. He does provide an interesting psychological angle however, for this particular vampire is triggered by rage against the patriarchy, institutionalized misogyny (the husband’s erotic fantasies involve abuse), and issues of consent or lack thereof—lofty ideas which quickly succumb to irony given the gratuitous amount of heaving female flesh plus the question of consent between busty vampiress and her frigid victim. One could also see it as an allegory exploring the darker side of female sexuality and the male reaction to it—sometimes a coffin is not just a coffin, same for a long hard rifle and a repeatedly thrusting knife—but that would be giving this turkey more credit than it deserves. Finally, there’s the overbearing metaphors involving trapped vixens (PETA beware), a defaced (literally) painting, and a naked scuba diver. A naked scuba diver? But with lines like, “He has pierced your flesh to humiliate you! He has spat inside your body to enslave you!” (spoken as dead woman goads living woman into action) you realize that simply pinning psychobabble onto a celluloid train wreck is rather like gift-wrapping a turd. With sincere apologies to Jung and Freud.

Blood Sucking Freaks [The Incredible Torture Show] (USA 1976) (2): A truly nasty example of transgressive cinema which caused a small ripple of controversy upon its initial release before being deservedly forgotten. The Amazing Sardu, sole proprietor of “Sardu’s Theater of the Macabre” has a gift for torturing women; when he’s not maiming and murdering them on stage in front of an unsuspecting audience (they think it’s all faked) he’s living out some extremely sick S&M fantasies backstage aided by his little brown sidekick Ralphus. The unfortunate women who manage to survive his sadistic attentions are then sealed in cardboard boxes and shipped out to wealthy businessmen as part of a thriving white slavery ring. But when a renowned theatre critic refuses to review Sardu’s gruesome performance art the stage is set for a most diabolical act of revenge in which kidnapped critic and brainwashed ballerina perform a fatal pas-de-deux in an improvised “Sadism Ballet”. Meanwhile, the dancer’s boyfriend has teamed up with a crooked cop in order to uncover the truth behind Sardu’s theatrical practices and what they find goes beyond their worst fears... With its zero budget, inept performances, and overall sleazy presentation one could compare Freaks to the early works of John Waters, say Pink Flamingos or Desperate Living, but Joel Reed’s grotesque indulgence lacks both the drugged wit and flamboyant cheesiness which make a Waters film so much fun to watch. There is an attempt at satire here as Sardu makes a few snide comments on the state of theater, but for the most part we are subjected to a lurid succession of tits and misogyny: a woman’s bum is used as a dartboard, another has 5,000 volts shot through her nipples, and another has a hole drilled into her skull so one of Sardu’s more ardent fans can suck her brains out through a straw (after pulling out her teeth with a pair of pliers). But seriously, put your feminist outrage to rest for this film is so pitifully done and the performers so self-consciously embarrassed that it’s incapable of offending anyone. Besides, the stable of naked feral cannibal women Sardu keeps locked up in the basement end up having the final laugh anyway.

Blossoms in the Dust (USA 1941) (7): “To a world wracked with desolation and despair...” proclaims the theatrical trailer, “...comes a warm human story of a quiet lady who devoted her life to the nameless, the homeless, and the friendless...” Thus begins this fanciful biopic of Edna Gladney, a former Wisconsin debutante who not only became a champion for the rights of orphaned and unwanted children but a driving political force in eliminating the term “illegitimate” from their birth records; a stigma that often branded them for life. Moving to Fort Worth with her wealthy Texan husband at the turn of the century Edna led the carefree life of the upwardly mobile until a series of personal tragedies changed her life forever. Unable to have a family of her own she eventually turned her attention to the plight of children condemned to “poor farms” where substandard care and social disgrace were the norm. Despite financial setbacks and community pressure her “Texas Children’s Home and Aid Society” was soon placing these unfortunate kids into the arms of loving parents almost as fast as they showed up on the doorstep. There is a wonderful film here if you can get past a few glaring flaws. To begin with, the director chooses to gild Edna’s story with unwarranted amounts of cloying sentimentality and spun sugar; all those lingering shots of rosy-cheeked cherubs and dewy eyelashes set to soaring strings simply get in the way. Secondly, despite their admiral performances Greer Garson is simply too old for the part (she was 37 when she played the part of an 18-year old deb) and Walter Pidgeon, as her one and only love, comes across as neither romantic nor Texan. And lastly, even though I tried to view the whole production from an historical perspective, the cast of yassuh-spouting black domestics began to grate on my nerves anyway. A shamelessly manipulative technicolor tearjerker that nevertheless manages to captivate and entertain. “It’s aimed at your heart...” concludes the trailer, “...and it hits the mark.” No wonder I was pulling arrows out of my chest all night.

Blow Out (USA 1981) (7): Brian De Palma makes murder sexy in this stylish thriller even though time has given it something of a kitschy edge. Sound engineer Jack Terry (a post Grease John Travolta) is out in the Pennsylvania woods with his microphone when he inadvertently records the noise from a speeding car losing control and plunging into a river. Diving to the rescue he manages to pull a young woman to safety but the elderly male driver is already dead. And that’s when his troubles begin for the dead man is a powerful Washington senator, the woman is definitely not his wife, and according to Jack’s recorded evidence the accident was no accident. Now with the senator’s spin doctors trying to keep them quiet, a TV reporter eager for a story, and a homicidal psychopath (creepy sexy John Lithgow) stalking them both, Jack and Sally (80’s icon Nancy Allen) are barely managing to stay one step ahead of the game—but for how long? An obvious allusion to Ted Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick misadventure is tempered by nods to Antonioni’s Blow-Up and just about every cinematic trick Hitchcock has ever pulled from his sleeve including towering crane shots and breathless chase sequences. Oscar-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond even has a few tricks of his own with ceiling cams skewing our perception (Jack’s cluttered work room is reduced to a doll’s house as the camera zooms upwards), 360˚ pans, split screens, and a brilliant low angle shot of a life and death struggle played out against a sky full of exploding fireworks. Laced with paranoia and a sense of the macabre—a restroom strangulation is a study in fetishized suspense—De Palma takes a rather facile plot and drenches it in so much panache that you hardly even notice the plot holes right up to that horribly ironic final segment. A great late night popcorn flick.

Blow-Up (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?

Blue [Three Colors: Blue] (France 1993) (7): After surviving a car crash in which her famous composer husband and five-year old daughter were killed, Julie is incapacitated by grief. Unable to attend their funeral in person (a state affair given her husband’s celebrity status) she can only crawl under her hospital sheets and stare numbly at a video recording of it. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt Julie decides to kill herself by other means: she sells off everything she owns, cuts ties with her friends (including Olivier, her would-be lover), and moves to Paris where she reinvents herself as an idle woman of means. Refusing to fall into the “trap” of loving anyone or anything again, she spends her days engaging in pointless pursuits while avoiding any meaningful human contact. But no woman is an island and despite herself Julie begins to form tenuous ties with the people around her—the prostitute downstairs, her institutionalized mother, a street musician, a persistent Olivier—all of whom are carrying their own load of emotional baggage. Furthermore, what few trinkets she kept from her former life trigger deeper memories and her husband’s unfinished score (he had been commissioned to compose a symphony celebrating the unification of Europe) refuses to leave her head… The first film in director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s trilogy based on the colours of the French flag, Blue (symbolizing “Liberty”) examines both the cost and the illusion of freedom in an increasingly interdependent world. In trying to escape her sorrow—and accompanying anger—through isolation Julie forms a psychological prison which ironically limits her life more than love or grief ever could. “What do you do for a living?” inquires her real estate agent, “Nothing” is her curt reply. Only by opening up to the joys and pains of others, that trap she so desperately tried to avoid, can Julie hope to obtain personal liberation. But, as with all things worth having, there is a price to be paid for as Julie begins to examine her own life, including her marriage, some painful truths are laid bare. Bogged down in places by a few heavy-handed metaphors (the colour blue saturates every scene; mom’s television screen shows bungee jumpers taking leaps of faith; Julie constantly dives into the sapphire waters of a public pool) Kieslowski’s masterful direction, backed by some evocative cinematography and a standout performance by lead Juliette Binoche, still manages to keep things grounded. And that majestic orchestral score gives the whole proceeding an aura of great solemnity.

The Blue Gardenia (USA 1953) (7): After the man she adores dumps her, meek telephone operator Norah Larkin (Anne Baxter) decides to drown her broken heart by going on a date with sleazy pin-up artist Harry Prebble (Raymond Burr). After indulging in a few too many cocktails at the Blue Gardenia Lounge Norah winds up at Harry’s apartment where, in the process of warding off his attempts at date rape, she passes out. Regaining consciousness, Norah stumbles home and wakes up the next day with a killer hangover and only vague recollections of what transpired the night before. But when she discovers that Prebble was found murdered and the police are searching for a mysterious woman more or less matching her description Norah’s fractured memories send her into a spiral of guilt and outright panic… With a plot as believable as a cheap dime store novel and melodramatic performances all around, this 50’s potboiler would be laughed out of the theatres were it were released today. But it wasn’t, thank goodness, and there remains an earnestness to Fritz Lang’s magnificent direction which takes the lean dark streets of Los Angeles and turns them into an alternate reality of suspicious glances and fogbound paranoia using long tracking shots and shaded close-ups. Baxter’s hysterics are credible and she can turn them on and off with the flick of a switch as she goes from gullible doormat to California’s Most Wanted in a swirl of platinum curls and addled wits. Helping her out are Richard Conte as a crusading reporter eager to get the true story before the police do, a perpetually smirking George “Superman” Reeves as the cynical detective determined to find the “Blue Gardenia” killer, and Ann Sothern and Jeff Donnell as Norah’s roommates—one a kooky airhead addicted to crime novels, the other a pragmatic divorcée with a knack for finding a few clues on her own. Even the late great Nat king Cole makes a cameo crooning the film’s theme song. It’s all pretty ludicrous when you take the time to think it out and the “big reveal” at the end is practically handed to you ten minutes after the film begins, but over sixty years later it’s still a lot of fun to watch. Think of it as Film Noir Lite with a side of corn.

Blue Jasmine (USA 2013) (8): Ever since Eminem won a best original song Oscar for his trailer park drivel (and didn’t even have the decency to honour the travesty by showing up in person) I’ve viewed the Academy Awards as a contemptuous joke and not a measure of actual talent. But occasionally they do get it right. Case in point is Cate Blanchett’s emotionally draining performance as Jasmine, a former New York trophy wife with attitude to spare suddenly reduced to a working class peasant when her millionaire husband is convicted of fraud. Now suffering from acute anxiety attacks which cause her to babble to herself at the most inopportune times, Jasmine heads west to San Francisco where she moves in with her estranged sister Ginger, a white trash single mother of two with more than a few reasons to dislike Jasmine and her ex-husband. But trading in country estates, European shopping sprees and gala dinner parties for a dingy apartment, part-time employment, and night school courses proves to be more daunting than she expected, and not even self-medicating with Xanax and vodka martinis can stop her slow slide towards madness. Although it contains some genuinely humorous elements as Jasmine makes pathetic attempts to deny her new circumstances, Woody Allen’s class-conscious drama tracing one bewildered woman’s terrible fall is in fact deeply tragic. Repeatedly blindsided by past memories Jasmine staggers about in an angry haze, her denials and outright lies sabotaging whatever chance at happiness comes her way, while even life on the lowest rung of the economic ladder proves to be beyond her capacities. Ironically Ginger, having learned to accept her own status long ago thanks to her older sister’s imperious critiques, finds in Jasmine’s struggles a new sense of dignity. Intelligently written and presented with great conviction…one of Allen’s finest achievements.

Blueprint (USA 2017) (9): Sometimes the gentler voice carries the most weight and this little under-appreciated indie film from Daryl Wein can certainly bear testament to that. Ever since his best friend was shot dead by police over a tragic misunderstanding, Jerod (co-writer Jerod Haynes) has turned his anger inwards. Drinking too much, working too little, and neglecting the important people in his life—namely his young daughter, estranged wife, and concerned mother—he seems bound to become any one of a number of statistics himself. And his anger is not isolated, for the funeral of one more unarmed black man at the hands of the police has inflamed an already raw nerve in Jerod’s south Chicago neighbourhood. With some proposing armed resistance and others furthering the cause of non-violent engagement, Jerod will have to forge his own path towards the light…but he will need to put his immediate house in order first. Devoid of the usual volatile theatrics Hollywood usually lays on films dealing with racial identity and discrimination, free also of the clichéd bombast that too often accompanies it, Wein and Haynes’ true-to-life script rings so authentic it sometimes feels like we’re eavesdropping on a real family in crisis. True, they manage to inject a few sobering statistics and BLM tenets into the dialogue but they arrive naturally whether it’s a community leader’s call for solidarity or a mother trying to convince a disheartened daughter that her life really does matter. Consistently side-stepping our expectations, Blueprint is an emotionally engaging portrait of one conflicted man that hovers somewhere between street-level realism and allegorical quest. Kudos to Haynes, Tai Davis as his wife, and Jalaiya Lee-Haynes as his daughter (she actually is)—their powerful three-way performance giving the movie a backbone of steel. The only sour point, for me at least, was a chapel scene which downplayed human resilience by crediting it to a god.

The Blue Umbrella (India 2005) (7): Vishal Bhardwa goes heavy on the metaphors in this simple story about the transformative power of innocence and the wages of avarice. Precocious little Biniya (newcomer Shreya Sharma so full of sugar and spice you don’t know whether to hug her to death or just drown her) trades in her precious good luck charm for a beautiful blue umbrella. Since none of the neighbours in her remote northern village have ever seen anything like it before Biniya and her glorious parasol quickly become the centre of attention drawing locals and tourists alike. Shopkeeper Nandu, on the other hand, openly covets the girl’s prized possession, desiring its simple beauty (and ability to attract customers) for himself. Despite his best offers Biniya stubbornly refuses to part with her umbrella causing his jealousy to turn into an obsession. And then the umbrella goes missing, breaking the girl’s heart and throwing the village into an uproar as accusations fly and Nandu protests his innocence. But when he receives an exquisite red umbrella in the mail Nandu finally gains the notoriety he’d been hoping for as all eyes focus on him. Fame, however, can be a fickle thing especially when it is ill-gained… Bland performances and the usual Bollywood hokum are offset somewhat by a fairy tale aesthetic which sees Biniya singing and dancing her way to wisdom while Nandu huffs and scowls through adversity towards redemption. In the end, however, it was the arresting cinematography which finally won me over. Shot in the shadow of the Himalayas Bhardwaj’s film revels in colour and texture whether he’s shooting a wedding procession making its way through a gentle fall of snow or a child draped in scarlet fabric twirling beneath an endless sky. There is a lyrical quality to his parable which glosses over much of its technical shortcomings (like shoddy editing) and makes a rather glib moral all the more palatable. Sweet and easy on the eyes.

Blue Valentine (USA 2010) (7): Dean and Cindy’s marriage is in trouble. What communication they share consists mainly of repetitive arguments and hurtful accusations; even an overnight stay at a tackily appointed “love hotel” meant to provide some quality alone time winds up being just another alcohol-fuelled evening of angry resentments. It doesn’t take long to appreciate the reasons for this unhappy state of affairs for Cindy presents as a passive-aggressive martyr while Dean’s drunken man-child has more in common with their four-year old daughter. A series of flashbacks allow us to trace the couple’s disintegration as we see two naïve and painfully immature souls trying to connect; she’s living at home with her violent domineering father while trying to earn a medical degree, he’s a dim-witted highschool dropout from a broken family who’s been eking out a living doing menial labour. When she finds herself pregnant they decide to do the wrong thing for all the right reasons. This then is not the story of good beginnings gone sour, but rather a marriage which never had a chance in the first place. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are wonderful together; their largely improvised dialogue is completely convincing as banal smalltalk and heated quarrels hint at deeper psychological scars which neither partner is emotionally equipped to deal with constructively. Director Derek Cianfrance keeps the mood low-keyed with muted colours and overcast skies while his relentless camera records love’s final death throes. To his credit he steadfastly avoids any clichéd Hollywood cop-outs presenting us instead with a sad little non-ending and a few visual cues as the final credits roll. Some may see this as a lolling drama going nowhere and featuring unbelievable characters (med student marries loser?) While I can’t say they’re completely wrong, I chose to view Blue Valentine as a piercing character study of two damaged and desperate people making a string of bad decisions. There may be something of the “experimental” in Cianfrance’s work, some scenes definitely have an aura of affectation to them, but Gosling and Williams’ naturalistic performances go a long way in smoothing out the film’s few rough edges.

Boccaccio 70 (Italy 1962) (7): Taking its name from the 14th century author of The Decameron, that licentious work which shed some light on medieval thoughts regarding love and sex, this quartet of short films—each helmed by a noted director—examines the downside of eros in contemporary Italy. Mario Monicelli offers up a sitcom involving newlyweds Luciana and Renzo who are constantly frustrated in their attempts to find time for a wedding night. Federico Fellini addresses sexual repression with a visual circus about an ardent puritan with a fetish for public decency who is terrorized by a giant colossal Anita Ekberg. In Luchino Visconti’s segment a wealthy woman (Romy Schneider) responds to her husband’s latest infidelity by getting a job only to find out she’s qualified for just one thing. Finally, Vittorio De Sica casts Sophia Loren in the role of an impoverished carnival barker who tries to buy a brighter future by holding a lottery with herself as the grand prize. Four directors, four visions each featuring strong women reacting to distress in four very different ways—stoicism, satire, despair, and blazing tenacity—while the men are relegated to background noise (De Sica’s decision to film a group of horny lechers next to a herd of squabbling pigs was certainly no accident). A tad dated and containing a few scenes guaranteed to ruffle modern day feathers, but an interesting time capsule of a film just the same.

Bombon: El Perro (Argentina 2004) (6): Ever since losing his job as a gas station mechanic, kindhearted fifty-something Juan finds himself living on his daughter’s couch while trying to eke out a living selling handmade knives from the back of his truck. One day, as payment for helping a stranded motorist, he is given a fully grown purebred dogo Argentino; a large hunting dog looking like a cross between a pit bull and a boxer. Before long he forms a partnership with a professional dog promoter and in a montage of scenes reminiscent of a canine Rocky, “Lechien” is being trained as a champion show dog; a future which could prove very lucrative for Juan. It all comes crashing down however when it is discovered that Lechien is unable (or unwilling) to mate with other dogs thereby ruining Juan’s chances to profit by hiring him out for stud service. It would appear that Lechien and Juan have one thing in common--in the eyes of the world they are both seen as lacking any intrinsic worth; Juan because of his age, and the dog because of his lack of marketable assets. As this revelation dawns on both man and beast the beginning of a new partnership slowly emerges... Despite it’s open-faced sincerity Bombon suffers from an acute lack of chemistry. Neither actor nor dog radiate any charisma; Lechien dutifully barks and whines on command while Juan’s permanently baffled expression makes him look as if someone dropped a few xanax in his yerba mate. Despite the inspirational soundtrack and long symbolic shots of dusty deserts this remains a road movie forever stuck in neutral.

Bon Cop, Bad Cop (Canada 2006) (8): When the mutilated body of a Montreal lawyer is found sprawled across the Quebec/Ontario border both jurisdictions assign a detective to the case—brusque and slovenly Francophone David Bouchard (Patrick Huard), and fastidious anglophone Martin Ward (Colm Feore). At odds from the very beginning, the two officers must find a way to work together after more bodies begin showing up suggesting the work of a serial killer with a very precise vendetta. Director Erik Canuel has produced one of cinema’s rarer birds: a Canadian film that actually works on all levels. As a thriller the action unfolds with frantic editing backed by a growling soundtrack of heavy metal. As a policier the plot thickens just enough to be interesting. And as a bilingual comedy it plays directly to Canadian funny-bones with a wicked script that wrings humour out of French/English frictions (the two men often swapping languages in mid-sentence), the metric system, Americans, and, above all, HOCKEY!! Among the movie’s many delights are a CBC-style talk show hosted by Rick Mercer doing a Don Cherry imitation that spirals into an NFL brawl complete with sweater pulling and underhand punches, and a bad guy with a heavy French accent attempting Travis Bickle’s mirror monologue from Taxi Driver while wearing a giant beaver costume—who else but Canucks could appreciate the self-effacing humour in this? And it all starts with a scene of the two men play tug-of-war with the first body leading to side-splitting results (literally…yuck!) For their part Feore and Huard are (mis)matched perfectly and they mine their differences for all the comedy gold they can muster even after a potential tragedy galvanizes them into a cohesive unit. But it’s the little asides and in-jokes that had me smiling throughout, for this is not a mere attempt at mimicking stateside dramas but rather a purely Great White North production as loudly Canadian as poutine and a Molson Dry. And Kraft Dinner. Sarain Boylan spices up the plot as Feore’s sexually aggressive sister while Lucie Laurier and Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse round out the cast as Huard’s ex-wife and assertive teenaged daughter respectively.

Bone Tomahawk (USA 2015) (8): Writer/director S. Craig Zahler takes a handful of tried and true horror tropes and twists them into something chillingly fresh, if not quite original. The Wild Wild West is about to become ferocious when a tribe of cave-dwelling cannibals begin picking off the hapless residents of Bright Hope, an otherwise peaceful frontier town. When the savage troglodytes make off with a couple of well known citizens a four man posse led by the erudite, no-nonsense sheriff Hunt (an impeccably bewhiskered Kurt Russell) give chase—but their would-be rescue mission quickly spirals into the stuff of nightmares when the quarry becomes the hunter. With dialogue that is oddly formal verging on stilted and brief flashes of grisly bloodletting, Zahler’s monstrous Western has the feel of a graphic novel especially with those howling sound effects echoing over the sagebrush and hungry fiends all decked out in grey body paint and grotesque piercings. Russell brings his usual intensity to the role of Hunt, a man bound by honour as much as the law, while a supporting cast of ne’er-do-wells and cowpokes flesh the story out, notably Matthew Fox as the town’s dapper yet deadly Lothario; Patrick Wilson as a husband eager to find his captured wife despite hobbling with a broken leg; and Richard Jenkins whose scene-stealing deputy Chicory—a perfect blend of addled geriatric and loyal sidekick—throws some much needed humour into all the gore and tension. And gore, both implied and explicit, arrives in due course including one particularly brutal scene in which a trio of cannibals prepare their struggling evening meal. John Wayne would have pissed his pants.

The Book of Life (USA 2014) (9): Rough ’n tumble Joaquin and artistically inclined Manolo are best friends even though they’ve been in love with the same woman, the gorgeous Maria, since they were kids. Now several years later Joaquin is a decorated hero, Manolo a disgraced bullfighter who plays a mean guitar, and Maria is at a loss as to whom she truly loves. However, unbeknownst to the earthly trio, a pair of netherworld gods have made Maria’s final decision the basis of a diabolical bet—a bet neither one intends to lose. But while both men vie for the hand of Maria in a struggle which will take one of them to Hades and back, their small town of San Angel is about to face its greatest challenge yet as the evil bandit Chakal and his gang of cutthroats decide to pay everyone a visit… Set in a storybook Mexico with action that spans the world of the living and the worlds of the dead, director Jorge R. Gutiérrez’s exuberant animated feature practically leaps off the screen in a swirl of music and cartoon pandemonium. The subject matter (life, death, and what comes next) may be Tim Burton territory but Gutiérrez’s Latin sensibilities eschew the former’s dark palette of greys and blues for an explosion of bright crayon colours instead, presenting us with an Aztec fantasyland where everyone and everything seems to be constructed of wooden blocks and Lego pieces. The humour spans all generations, the kickass songs (including a hit from Radiohead and two originals from Paul Williams) are definitely hummable, and the onscreen adventures suggest a beautifully warped imagination. Cool stuff!

The Book Thief (USA 2013) (6): The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich is witnessed by Anne of Green Gables in Brian Percival's adaptation of Markus Zusak's novel. Torn from her mother, a convicted communist, and sent to live with good Aryan foster parents the quietly reserved Liesel seeks what solace she can in learning to read---finding escape in the pages of every book she "borrows" from people around her. But when her new parents begin harbouring a fugitive Jew in the basement Liesel gains a new sense of responsibility and a mandate to tell her own tale. Curiously narrated by the Grim Reaper himself (?!) who waxes a bit poetic on his vocation, what unfolds is a generic tale of Nazi oppression and heroic resistance with bombs relegated for the most part to dust-shaking rattles and Hitler staring from posters like the Big Bad Wolf. Liesel's shaky transformation from war waif to story-weaving adolescent is shored up by the likes of Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson as her ersatz parents, his kindly grandpa figure playing against Watson's stern yet flappable matriarch. Nico Liersch also does a fine job as Rudy, the Hitlerjugend with a heart of gold and a boy-sized crush on Liesel. Sadly a climactic passage of pure Hollywood heart-tugging is only partially offset by a poignant denouement before it all fades to black. Nicely presented with its snowy streets and rustic homes but quickly forgotten once the lights come up.

Borgman (Netherlands 2013) (7): “…and they descended upon the Earth to strengthen their ranks.” With this faux Old Testament-style quote writer/director Alex van Warmerdam opens his surreal and darkly comic film, a hodgepodge of sadistic puzzler in the vein of Lars von Trier, bourgeoisie skewering á la Michael Haneke, and devilishly sardonic Catholic nightmare straight from the mind of Luis Buñuel. After a vigilante led by an irate priest flushes him out of his underground lair, homeless vagrant Anton Breskens (aka Camille Borgman…names are important here) flees to a genteel suburb of northern Holland where he insinuates himself into the lives of upscale yuppies Richard and Marina, their lithesome Danish nanny, and three picture perfect children. Taking pity on the poor scruff who shows up on their doorstep begging for a bath, especially after her bellicose husband beats him senseless for no good reason, Marina secretly puts Borgman up in the guest cottage where she tends to his wounds and sneaks him dinners. But there is a malevolence surrounding the bearded tramp who seems to derive much pleasure from sowing discord in his host family: Richard’s lucrative job is suddenly in jeopardy, the kids mysteriously tune out, and Marina begins experiencing horrible nightmares of domestic violence which affect her waking hours. And then Borgman’s diabolical accomplices show up and things head south very quickly for the demonic little imp and his posse love to play games and when it comes to winning murder is definitely on the table. The upper class is always an easy target for satire and Borgman is no exception—when he places an ad for a new gardener Richard is appalled by the number of non-white applicants and after youngest daughter Isolde guts her teddy bear Marina lectures her on the poor third-world child who laboured to make it—but Warmerdam’s barbs are edgeless and we’ve heard all these jokes before. As a study in Good vs. Evil however he does manage to make us squirm for he presents a contemporary world devoid of virtue in which darker motives bubble beneath polite facades and wickedness, bearing the mark of the Beast no less, is meted out in the most innocent of packages. Indeed, Borgman only has to blow on the flames that already exist in order to wrack Richard and Marina’s home with all seven of the deadly sins. Finally, a downbeat finale brings forth the true horror of what we’ve been witnessing for the past two hours but even that falls strangely flat. Despite a storyline that at times derails into ad-lib territory and an infuriating smugness (deliberate perhaps?) which seems intent on convincing audiences the film is far more complex than it actually is, there is still an unsettling quality to the production. It’s almost as if the movie were judging you based on your reaction to it and finding therein something shameful. The Netherlands’ official entry for Best Foreign Language Oscar, 2014.

Boris without Béatrice (Canada 2016) (3): Greco-Roman mythology makes for a clunky metaphor in Denis Côté’s high-handed cerebral drama that aims for psychological depths but winds up looking like an arthouse farce instead. Successful Montreal businessman Boris Malinovsky hasn’t achieved his level of wealth by being nice, in fact he’s made being rude, smug, and condescending something of a lifestyle—just ask his mistress, or better yet his wife Béatrice, a prominent cabinet minister who’s in the throes of a depression so severe she’s catatonic and requires a 24-hour caregiver. But an invitation to a midnight rendezvous with a mysterious little man plants the seeds of uncertainty in Boris’ mind when he calls out the entrepreneur on his vanity and hubris, blaming him for his wife’s condition and warning that she will forever be lost to him unless he changes his ways. But who is this diminutive oracle and how come he knows the intimate details of Boris’ life? And will Boris heed his advice, delivered with all the gravitas of a…divine…decree? Clearly Côté scoured the antiquities section of his local library for inspiration given the glaring allusions to Tantalus, Croesus, and Orestes & Electra—and a fey pair of liberal arts majors, done up in white pancake and lipstick, make for anemic muses. Gee, and could the wife possibly be named after that chaste object of Dante’s heavenly desire? A helicopter makes for a puzzling deus ex machina and Côté manages a political dig when he casts the Prime Minister—making a house call on Béatrice—as an inept anglophone. “Even the strong are sometimes brought to their knees…” admonishes yet another incarnation of Boris’ little visitor posing as a museum usher (apparently the gods like to rub it in) and I couldn’t help but think that overreaching directors sometimes suffer the same fate.

Born to Be Blue (Canada 2015) (8): Jazz music is best when it's spontaneous, improvised, and from the heart. Perhaps it’s fitting then that writer/director Robert Budreau’s free-flowing look at the life of legendary trumpeter and lifelong heroin addict Chet Baker—credited with inventing the sound of “west coast swing—relies more on feeling than actual biographical facts. Opening with Chet’s first introduction to smack when he was a gap-toothed kid playing alongside Dizzie Gillespie and Miles Davis in the early 50s (a clever film-within-a-film as an older, wizened Chet is hired to play himself in an ill-fated biopic) and ending with his much lauded comeback attempt in 1966, Budreau takes a non-linear approach to the musician’s life with stagey B&W flashbacks offset by colour sequences detailing a rocky personal life marked by failed romance, violence (a vicious assault just about ended his already faltering career), and an overwhelming addiction to a drug which was both a crutch and a creative muse. Ethan Hawke should have received an Oscar nomination for his role as the passionate yet muddled Baker, and Carmen Ejogo excels as his frustrated lover, a struggling actress who comes to represent all the women in Baker’s life. Downcast and moody, much like Chet’s peculiar brand of music-making, with an eye for sunsets and an ear for sad jazz, this is not destined to be a crowd pleaser. But for those who appreciate a fine ensemble drama shot through with flashes of bleak poetry it’s certainly worth a look.

The Boss of it All  (Denmark 2006) (7):  While watching this caustic corporate satire It’s difficult to tell exactly who Von Trier holds in deeper contempt.  Lawyers?  CEOs?  Thespians?  Danes?  Icelanders?  Anyone who isn’t Lars Von Trier?  He seems to have a knack for thinking up ideas for edgy and intelligent films then ruining them by being stupid.  This time around he delivers a brilliantly funny, if typically mean-spirited, comedy revolving around the unethical and cowardly owner of an IT company......think of a dark Danish version of “The Office”.  He then proceeds to mar the proceedings with cheap gimmicks like stopping the action in order to lecture the audience and using some silly computer program to determine camera angles resulting in a nauseating blend of jarring cuts and off-centre framing.  Great idea for a film though, too bad someone else didn’t think of it.

The Boston Strangler (USA 1968) (8): Between 1962 and 1964 as many as 13 women in the Boston area were found strangled and sexually mutilated. The resulting police investigation eventually led detectives to Albert DeSalvo, a local furnace repairman and father of two small children. Although he was never formally convicted in any of the murders he would end up spending the rest of his life incarcerated for lesser crimes; first in a state mental hospital and finally in a maximum security prison. Fleischer’s engrossing drama features a cast of seasoned actors headlined by Tony Curtis as the deeply troubled strangler and Henry Fonda as John Bottomly, the reluctant law professor charged with hunting him down. Controversial for 1968, the film doesn’t shy away from the more troubling aspects of the case; DeSalvo’s sexual aberrations are alluded to (Curtis’ facial expressions during the assaults speak volumes) and his victims are portrayed with a blunt realism that deepens the sense of tragedy while keeping the grislier details tastefully off camera. Some homophobic slurs do prove troublesome, even when you consider the time and place in which the story unfolds, and it’s difficult to assess whether Bottomly’s overly respectful approach to a gay suspect constitutes genuine sympathy or condescension. What won me over in the end however was the film’s highly innovative camerawork. Fleischer’s frequent use of multiple frames and overlapping dialogue is brilliant; the separate frames sometimes appearing as pieces of a puzzle while at other times forming a mosaic of fear and suspicion as we see images of women locking doors and peering nervously over their shoulders. Furthermore, Bottomly’s tense interrogations of an increasingly psychotic DeSalvo are beautifully enhanced when the killer’s disjointed memories suddenly become interactive with both men moving in and out of reality. Despite some glaring factual omissions, DeSalvo was definitely not the innocuous family man portrayed here, this still remains a highly polished and riveting piece of pseudo-fiction.

Boulevard (USA 2014) (2): An unconvincingly subdued Robin Williams (delivering his Swan Song) gives a one-note performance as a deeply closeted milquetoast whose phobia of hurting other people's feelings has caused him to put his own feelings on hold. Forever stuck in first gear, mousy loans officer Nolan Mack (Williams) divides his time between randomly shuffling papers at the bank where he works, going to the nursing home to stare at his vegetative father, and coming home to a sexless marriage with a listless and permanently depressed zombie wife (Kathy Baker actually showing less animation than one of John Carpenter's undead). But when he suddenly finds himself playing sugar daddy to troubled street hustler Leo, their platonic navel-gazing gives him the courage to shift his life from dull desperation to tedious optimism as he discovers that even at sixty years of age it's never too late to be boring in new and novel ways. Working with a cast of cardboard characters and a script which combines the worst of Woody Allen's dramas with Barney the Dinosaur platitudes, director Dito Montiel is clearly aiming for the heartstrings in this sad little tale of old regrets and new beginnings. Everyone is suffering in his universe: Mack struggles with a long overdue midlife crisis; Leo gets smacked around by his big bad pimp; and Mrs. Mack (named "Joy"...haha irony) is stuck in a sham marriage. But Montiel's aim is completely off and no one ends up suffering more for it than his audience.

The Boxtrolls (USA 2014) (8): The nearly perpendicular town of Cheesebridge is under siege by a subterranean horde of Boxtrolls—jabbering little beasties sporting grocery containers for clothes and possessing an unquenchable thirst for any gewgaw or knickknack they can get their four-fingered hands on. Things have become so bad that mayor Lord Portley-Rind and his white-capped cabinet have hired the venomous exterminator Archibald Snatcher to destroy the creatures once and for all, even agreeing to Snatcher’s exorbitant price: namely a garish white top hat (symbol of power and prestige) of his own. But you can’t judge a box by its label for the trolls are not the drooling monsters portrayed in Snatcher’s tall tales and the exterminator himself has some diabolical secrets of his own involving kidnapping and murder. It finally falls down to Portley-Rind’s headstrong daughter Winnie and “Eggs”, a human child raised by the trolls, to expose Snatcher’s true plans and save the wee bugaboos before they’re eradicated completely. Definitely not for the single-digit crowd, directors Annable and Stacchi’s painstakingly intricate stop-motion animation feature has enough macabre scenarios and outrageous inventions to turn Tim Burton green with envy. Beautifully realized in all its storybook grunginess, the town of Cheesebridge is teeming with eccentrics and grotesques thanks to the vocal talents of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, and Ben Kingsley among others. Snatcher proves to be a formidable cartoon villain with his rotten teeth and fire-breathing mechanical death machine—yet his scariness is balanced with a slightly sick sense of fun (he’s monstrously allergic to cheese, the town’s biggest commodity) and a few unexpected insights on morality provided by his conscience-stricken henchmen who constantly try to assure themselves that they’re still the “good guys”. Dark, eclectic, and shot through with enough imagination to keep adults and older children interested.

Boy (New Zealand 2010) (9): Ever since his mother died in childbirth eleven-year old “Boy” has been busy helping his grandmother raise his younger brother Rocky as well as a few cousins in a ramshackle house on New Zealand’s Waihau Bay where he maintains his hope and sanity through a very active imagination. But the family’s equilibrium is thrown into chaos when gran goes away for a few weeks and Boy’s delinquent dad, Alamein, shows up fresh out of prison with a few of his shady mates in tow. Suddenly faced with the father figure he had always dreamed of Boy sets about trying to mend fences but Alamein is only interested in two things: getting high and finding the stash of stolen money he hid somewhere in a nearby field. Over the next few days both Boy and his father will have some growing up to do, but who will end up being the parent and who will be the child? If the plot sounds clichéd and gloomy writer/director Taika Waititi (who also plays dad) serves it up with such wit and self-effacing charm, not to mention winning performances from his young Maori cast, that you can’t help but smile even through some of the more painful scenes. Unlike the world weary grade-school midgets portrayed in 2005’s 12 And Holding, Waititi’s kids are not mini-adults but rather fully fleshed children with all their silliness and nascent wisdom intact—Rocky believes he has uncontrollable super powers which accidentally killed his mother when he was born; Boy fancies himself a Polynesian Michael Jackson with the baddest moves (the film takes place in 1984); and Boy’s cousin doles out tween ennui while strutting around in an oversized fur wrap and high heels. Waititi still knows how it feels to be a little kid in a big world and his film’s many segues into simple fantasy embellish the story rather than distract whether it’s Rocky’s crayon drawings moving across the page or Boy, upon watching his father being roughed up by a biker gang, imagines him starring in a low-budget version of Jackson’s “Beat It” video instead. And when the children visit their mother’s grave which they covered in their own loving graffiti, it’s difficult to keep a dry eye. If the poverty and neglect seem downplayed it’s only because the camera is filming from the vantage point of an impressionable young lad who can still sense goodness long after adults have given up. With a disarmingly natural script and amiable performances (even dad and his slapstick gang grow on you) as well as those clever touches—with kids named Falcon Crest and Dallas you know television is Waihau Bay’s major source of entertainment—Waititi has produced a real winner. Childhood’s joys, pains, and sundry mortifications are all served up with warmth and just a touch of magic. Be sure to sit through the closing credits…

Boy A (UK 2007) (7): Eleven years after he was sent to juvenile detention for committing a horrendous crime, a young boy—now a young man—is finally released under a veil of secrecy. Given a job and a new identity in a new town, “Jack” slowly builds an assumed life for himself with the encouragement of a fatherly social worker. But the press has a long memory and some people are unable to forgive and forget so it’s only a matter of time before Jack, still plagued by bad dreams, must face his past yet again. In this his film debut, Andrew Garfield plays Jack as a sympathetic naif whose hangdog expression and driving desire to be liked are underscored by flashbacks to an emotionally starved childhood and a most unfortunate friendship with a budding sociopath. Peter Mullan, as the social worker, provides an equally complex character study as a man whose compassion for the young offenders in his care contrasts sharply with the thorny relationship between his estranged son and himself. Director John Crowley’s adaptation of Jonathan Trigell’s novel keeps things low-keyed, only gradually releasing the details of what young Jack did to deserve such infamy, and in so doing he gives audiences a chance to acquaint themselves with the character without pre-judging him. And for their parts Garfield and Mullan share an onscreen chemistry with Mullan’s sage humanity playing off Garfield’s self-doubts and guilty memories. But, unfortunately, both author and director already know where our sympathies should lie and they go out of their way to point us in that direction with a pitiful stab at romance between Jack and an office worker and an unlikely feat of heroism on Jack’s part which garners him a child’s thank-you card dripping with pathos and irony. At least the film’s satisfyingly ambivalent ending doesn’t include torches and pitchforks.

The Boy and the Beast (Japan 2015) (6): After his mother dies, truculent nine-year old Kyuta tries to run away from his pain and anger only to blunder into the Land of Beasts, a low-tech alternate world where anthropomorphic barnyard animals live under the benign tutelage of their supreme lord and ruler. Reluctantly becoming the apprentice of the ill-tempered and bearish Kumatetsu, a minor dignitary aspiring to become the next ruler, Kyuta tries to learn the ways of the warrior. But with their personalities constantly clashing (actually, they are both petulant brats) and the allure of the human world beckoning to Kyuta, a final decisive showdown between student and master is inevitable—until an even greater threat promises to destroy them both unless they can work together… Mamoru Hosoda’s meticulously detailed anime is technically perfect—crowded streets come alive and backgrounds are rendered with photographic realism. As an adolescent metaphor however it stumbles one too many times with characters remaining more or less static (oh, that bickering! ) and a muddy mishmash of an ending mired down in Eastern mysticism and Herman Melville. Plus, at almost two hours in length it’s too convoluted for the kids, even if taken at face value, and too repetitive for adults (another tantrum, another moment of truth, another lesson learned). Perhaps it could have benefitted from a wee bit of trimming.

Boy Erased (USA 2018) (7): After the teenaged son of a prominent southern Baptist minister is outed as a homosexual he agrees to enter into church-sanctioned conversion therapy. Run by “former homosexuals”, none of whom boast any qualifications other than loud faith and emphatic denial, the program’s sole aim is to pray the gay away by any and all means including humiliation, biblical harangues, and abuse both physical and psychological. Reluctant from the start—his decision to enrol due more to fear and guilt than anything else—Jared comes to suspect that he is not the one who is broken…but who will listen to him? Based on the memoirs of Garrard Conley and directed by Joel Edgerton, who co-stars as a fire-and-brimstone counsellor with a prurient interest in the sexual experiences of his charges, this is one of the more disquieting films I’ve ever sat through due in no small part to the fact it actually happened, and continues to do so in several places. To his credit Edgerton does not go for cheap dramatics with two-dimensional characters either brandishing God’s Word or cowering in fear, his approach is more subtle and consequently more powerful. Those who run the program are not evil per se but rather so deluded by dogma they actually believe their twisted attacks qualify as tough love—in one scene a resistant young man is literally beaten with bibles to release his demon; in another an ex-con gives a lesson on how to exude manliness (it’s all in the hips) yet is not above hurling “faggot!” at one young man. Conversely, the attitudes of the people they’re supposedly counselling range from self-loathing and despair to cynical resignation. Lucas Hedges puts in a fine performance as Jared, the story outlining his painful growth from frightened and confused adolescent ill-equipped to unite his nascent desires with the religious guilt imposed upon him, to a young man finally discovering his voice. But the crux of the film is the evolving relationship between son and parents. Played by Aussie duo Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe (both effecting believable drawls), Jared’s folks mirror his own journey as they too struggle with family bonds and outdated Old Testament strictures. Not a perfect film—flashbacks are clunky, revelations come a little too easily, and the final reel is too tidy—but the acting is consistently above par (even the dispirited faces of Jared’s “campmates” are heartbreaking) and Crowe and Hedges practically give off sparks whenever they share a scene. Quebec’s Xavier Dolan co-stars as does singer and Youtube sensation Troye Sivan who contributed a few songs to the movie’s track. Be sure to remain seated for the end credits where snapshots and a couple of “Where Are They Now?” disclosures prove illuminating.

Boy on a Dolphin (USA 1957) (5): Notable only for its Cinemascope views of the Greek islands and the fact it was 23-year old Sophia Loren’s American film debut, this romantic thriller is otherwise a waterlogged washout. Impoverished sponge diver Phaedra (Loren) discovers a priceless statue lying on the seafloor and immediately finds herself torn between two men: an unscrupulous antiquities dealer (Clifton Webb) who promises to make her rich if she helps him smuggle the ancient artifact out of the country, and an American archaeologist (Alan Ladd) who believes it belongs to the people of Greece. And just to make things more complicated, Phaedra finds herself falling for the American even as her Albanian boyfriend, an abusive and greedy cad, begins making plans for all that money… Loren owns the screen as a strongly independent woman who finds herself at the centre of an emotional and ethical storm—her defiant stance and acid repartee easily outshining her more famous co-stars. It’s just too bad that her widescreen personality cannot overcome a lacklustre script where the thrills lie dead in the water and the budding romance between her and the much older, much shorter Ladd spits and sputters without ever igniting. Reportedly the studio actually had her stand in a trench so as to make Ladd look taller. Indeed, finding all the ways they downplayed his short stature provides a pleasant diversion while slogging through this movie: he’s filmed on staircases, rocks, a pier (while others are in a boat), standing (while others are sitting), and in one instance he’s perched on an offscreen box—the scene cuts just as he begins to step off. Equating the removal of ancient artifacts from a sovereign nation with “cultural theft” might resonate with some contemporary audiences, and Phaedra’s argument that the “glory” of donating her find to the national archives won’t change her life by as much as a crust of bread carries some weight, but in the end aside from quaint travelogue footage shot both above and below the waterline there’s not a whole lot to see here.

Boys (Netherlands 2014) (5): There’s no doubt that Mischa Kamp’s heart was in the right place when he directed this gay highschool love story, certainly words like “sweet” and “tender” could be used when describing it. Unfortunately, “derivative”, “cliched”, and “sappy” would be equally appropriate. When a dip in the local pond turns into a first kiss, teen track stars Sieger and Marc become smitten with one another. But whereas Marc is gung ho on becoming boyfriends, Sieger is still very much in the closet, even going so far as to woo ponytailed Jessica for the sake of appearances (really? in 2014?). But on the day of the big championship relay race Sieger will finally be forced to come to terms with his feelings—for better or for worse. Cue violins. With scenes of the two boys bouncing on a trampoline in slow motion while sunbeams assault the camera lens, or stealing a furtive smooch in a moonlit forest under the gaze of two adorable fawns (awwww!) Kamp reaches for the heartstrings but occasionally pokes the gag reflex instead resulting in a paperback romance whose rainbow is too often smothered in corn.

The Boys in the Band (USA 1970) (9): As storm clouds gather overhead a group of men, all gay, gather in a modest New York apartment for a birthday party in honour of their mutual friend, Harold, who has chosen to be fashionably late. There’s the usual generic queer dishing and camping as they await his arrival but when the host’s very conservative and questionably straight college buddy shows up unexpectedly with emotional baggage in tow, a slow fuse is lit that burns brighter and hotter as the evening wears on. When Harold eventually does show up, stoned and uncaring, the stage is set for a series of emotional showdowns. Easy banter soon gives way to some rather sharp and nasty barbs; jealousies and resentments begin to surface and the host’s buddy throws a homosexual panic that almost brings the house down. With a tempest raging outside, the men retreat to the living-room where a cruel game of “Truth or Dare” takes place which strips away defenses and lays bare some painful truths. Based on Mart Crowley’s play, Boys in the Band uses a party as an ironic metaphor to illustrate the realities of being gay in 1970. If you can look past the gucci bags, fruity poodles and chintz curtains you’ll see that he has incorporated a rich variety of sentiments into just a few characters. While the host is poisoned by internalized homophobia one guest acts out his gayness almost as a challenge to the world; while another man risks everything for the sake of love, his partner finds himself terrified at the prospect of intimacy. Even Harold, world-weary and cynical, finds some solace in the hustler hired to be his “gift” for the night; a naive and refreshingly untainted young man who remains immune to the poison darts flying over his head. It would be easy to dismiss this film as just so much homo nihilism, but one must take it in historical context. Released just one year after the Stonewall Riots, it was the first film to show gay men as more than just comedy relief. It came out at a time when being gay was sufficient grounds for losing your job, your home, your family, and your freedom. I see this brilliant film as both a dark celebration and an angry rebuke to society at large. As one character put it, “If we could just learn not to hate ourselves quite so much...” As true today as it was back then. As a sad footnote, five of the original cast members have since died of AIDS.

Boystown (Spain 2007) (8): Madrid's aging Chueca neighbourhood is undergoing a sea change. Gay couples are buying up its quaint little condos and slimy real estate agent Victor is only too happy to oblige them, even if he has to murder every little old lady who refuses to part with her home. When their next door neighbour meets an untimely end at Victor's hands, the bearish Leo and his hunky boyfriend Rey inherit her apartment (Rey was the "son she never had") but instead of selling it to Victor, Rey decides to give it to his miserable bitch of a mother who immediately makes it her business to break up their relationship. Frustrated with this unexpected turn of events Victor sets his sights on the old woman while at the same time driving a romantic wedge between the two men. Meanwhile the neurotic police detective Mila and her closeted sidekick son Luis are hot on the trail of the killer...a trail that seems to be leading them to Leo. Playing like the bastard son of Almodovar and Hitchcock, this rollicking dark gay comedy may lack the former's touch of the subtly absurd and the latter's sense of style but director Juan Flahn knows how to elicit a coarse laugh and a knowing wink. His cartoonish protagonists are all huggable, his yuppie antagonist sleaze personified, and the character of Rey's mother hilariously abrasive. Of course it all ends happily ever after without too many twists or turns, although a final chase through a steamy bath house probably looked better on paper. The men, of course, are gorgeous!

BPM [aka 120 Beats Per Minute] (France 2017) (8): Set in France during the height of the AIDS epidemic, Robin Campillo’s confrontational film focuses on the ragtag members of “Act Up Paris”. Composed mainly of angry militant queers—many of whom were already suffering from the effects of HIV and the few available toxic drugs meant to control it—Act Up took their collective desperation with the status quo and turned it into acts of civil (and not so civil) disobedience aimed squarely at government complacency, corporate politics, and an official reluctance at all levels to disseminate life-saving information. Frank and unapologetic, Campillo’s camera never flinches whether it’s recording a furious rant at a pharmaceutical rep or an intimate night of transgressive sex, for under his direction both come to represent acts of defiance. Nor does he glorify his subjects—their in-fighting proves tedious, some of their public stunts childish—yet there is a fierce dignity to every frame as he portrays these social pariahs literally fighting for their lives…for as long as AIDS was only seen affecting “fags, hookers, and druggies” no one else seemed to care. There is also a love story (perhaps to balance the overt politics?) between two members, one HIV-negative and the other positive, with the latter’s deteriorating health—shown in heartbreaking detail—giving a human face to the cardboard slogans. Filmed in an almost verité style, Campillo manages to smooth out the film’s aggressive tone with moments of pure arthouse: filmed from above, a candlelight protest moves like a singular organism; a disco’s strobe light picks out faces contorted by passion or pain, and dust motes floating above a dance floor morph into T-cells waging a losing battle against viral invaders. With a script that occasionally gets lost in its eagerness to educate (even a running time of almost 150 minutes is not enough to do justice to the complexities of that era) and the aforementioned romance which at times seems more frosting than integral, BPM nevertheless provides us with a fiery moment of silence, however imperfect, in memory of a most unjust chapter in our history. Having lost my own partner to AIDS in 1992, its message rang loud and clear.

Brain Damage (USA 1988) (5): Respectable middle-aged couple Morris and Martha Ackerman are tearing their tastefully appointed New York apartment to pieces searching for their little pet who’s gone missing despite the seven deadbolts on the front door. The pet in question, named “Aylmer”, is in fact a wisecracking twelve inch parasitic worm resembling a big blue turd able to induce highly addictive LSD-style trips in his hosts as long as they keep him supplied with fresh brains to eat, preferably human. In a neighboring apartment, a young man wakes to find his bed covered in blood, the ceiling dripping pleasant psychedelic colours and a smooth-talking, blue-eyed Aylmer attached to his neck. It isn’t long before Brian becomes firmly hooked to Aylmer’s little gift and begins taking the wriggling monster out for late night walks so he can burrow hungrily into the foreheads of unsuspecting victims. Troubles begin to mount however as the body count rises, Brian’s girlfriend begins asking too many questions, and the Ackmermans, now looking like a pair of haggard crackheads, come knocking with a loaded pistol. Director Frank Henenlotter combines a bizarre storyline with a few primitive special effects to produce a mildly engaging little flick which fails to achieve the quirky cult status of 1982’s vastly superior Liquid Sky. Usually a film of this low calibre can at least elicit a bit of 80s nostalgia with all those hairdos and madonna-esque accessories, but here they just look silly and dated; one particular scene involving an ill-fated blowjob at an underground “Goth club” filled with mohawked extras bopping around to lame music is especially embarrassing. Aylmer himself is rather cute as he cajoles and berates an increasingly desperate Brian into finding him one more brain to eat, but the mix of puppetry, cheap animation, and stop motion photography used to bring him to life is woefully inconsistent. Lastly, an odd shower room scene featuring muscle hunk Joseph Gonzales repeatedly soaping up his tight butt is completely gratuitous but appreciated just the same.

Branded to Kill (Japan 1967) (7): “Requiem for a Hitman” might have been a more apt title for Seijun Suzuki’s odd piece of gangster gothic—a mixed bag containing camp elements from The Avengers, violence from The Godfather, and poetic justice from a Shakespearean tragedy. Despite his ranking as the third best hired assassin in Japan, Hanada (Jō Shishido and his signature chipmunk cheeks) nevertheless screws up a major assignment leading to grief from three sides: his shrill wife who’s harbouring an agenda of her own (cabaret dancer Mariko Ogawa having trouble keeping her clothes on); a mysterious vamp with a morbid death obsession (a heavily mascaraed Annu Mari); and an angry mob boss who has hired Japan’s #1 killer to take Hanada out for good… Despite a shaky start in which I gave up trying to figure out who was whom and why, Suzuki eventually hits his stride as the pieces begin to click into place. What emerges is a funky downbeat parable on the price of pride and ambition garnished with surprising amounts of nudity and limp sex, Japanese-style kink (the smell of boiled rice gives Hanada a stiffy), and curiously bloodless shootouts. There can be only one victor as Hanada, eager to avoid assassination and increase his underworld ranking in the process, faces off against #1 (Kôji Nanbara, cool as sushi) in a citywide game of cat & mouse that will pit his desperate strategies against the more experienced man’s psychological tricks. Shot in ultra-hip B&W with a jazzy score and touches of 60s panache throughout (oh those shades and groovy threads!) Suzuki’s quirky sense of style sometimes works—when Hanada and #1 become unlikely roommates the deadpan humour had me smiling—and sometimes left me scratching my head: why do men who have just been fatally shot always seek out a railing to fall over before they die? How can a bullet through a windshield hit a man without breaking the glass? Loud and chaotic for most of its 90-minute running time, Suzuki does manage to rein things in for his grand climax—a riot of shadowy angles and hollow ironies which goes a long way towards forgiving the film’s technical faux pas. Eclectic, electric, and too cool for (film) school, this is quite possibly the director’s masterpiece.

The Brave Little Toaster (USA 1987) (6): Disney takes anthropomorphism to a new level in this animated tale of five abandoned appliances who take to the road in search of their beloved pint-sized master after his family moves to the big city. Along the way they discover an enchanted pond, spend a night in a scary forest and do battle with a malevolent junkyard magnet....only to discover that their master's new appliances aren't exactly pleased to see them. Featuring good old-fashioned animation and some lively musical numbers including a macabre stint in a used appliance store and a death row dirge played amongst rusting heaps of condemned cars. I suppose one could see a subtle jab at our consumer mentality but for the most part it's a lesson on the importance of respect, cooperation and self-sacrifice aimed squarely at the preschool crowd. Jon Lovitz and Phil Hartman lend their voices.

The Brave Little Toaster to the Rescue (USA 1997) (4): Weak sequel to 1987’s so-so tale of animated household appliances setting out in search of their “master”. This time around the precious electrical gadgets rescue a group of cutesy lab animals bound for an evil research facility, give an outdated computer a new lease on life, and help their master (now a college senior) recover his lost thesis on “The Secret Life of Animals”. Lots of cartoon silliness, machine hugs, and slapdash songs to amuse the kids while the underlying themes of faith and perseverance are sweetly summed up in the cloying musical ditty, “Hang In There Kid!”. It’s enough to make you want to kick your toaster right square in the ball bearings.

Bread and Tulips (Italy 2000) (6): In the same vein as Shirley Valentine, Silvio Soldini’s fluffy piece of magical realism features bored and neglected Italian housewife Rosalba who decides to reinvent herself while on a bus tour with her family. After her boorish husband and sullen teenaged boys fail to realize the bus has left without her, effectively stranding her at a roadside cafe, Rosalba has no choice but to hitchhike her way back home. But an unexpected detour to Venice changes everything when she decides to stay in the City of Canals, get a job working for a truculent florist, and share an apartment with a grieving widower (Bruno Ganz) whose quiet attentions ignite feelings she had long forgotten. But her philandering husband is not about to give her up that easily and so hires a bumbling amateur detective to track her down… Shot through with music and flowers, and just a touch of the absurd—Rosalba’s daydreams take on life of their own while the detective gets more than he bargained for—this is a charming fairytale of a film rooted in real life yet milking its picturesque locations and photogenic cast for all the whimsy it can get. Very easy to like and just as easy to forget.

Breath (Korea 2007) (7): Notorious quirk master Ki-duk Kim, able to go from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again at the drop of a clapperboard, takes three of arthouse cinema’s most beloved staples—love, sex, and death—and twists them into something highly watchable if not entirely successful. Aspiring sculptress Yeon is so browbeaten by her philandering husband that she’s taken to midnight fugues along the outskirts of Seoul. Death row inmate Jang Jin has been trying to avoid his upcoming execution by attempting suicide so many times that his latest self-mutilation has made national headlines. Recognizing a kindred spirit (both are dying in one way or another) Yeon bluffs her way into visiting Jang Jin and in a highly improbable but ingeniously cinematic turn of events manages to squeeze a yearlong affair into a few short weeks. But even as the two damaged lovers pursue their doomed tryst Yeon’s husband undergoes a sea change which threatens to upset an already precarious equilibrium while Jang Jin’s obsessive gay cellmate gradually succumbs to jealousy and despair. Taken as a love story Kim’s skewed tale of amour fou rings flat and hollow indeed for he doesn’t even try to inject it with anything approaching credibility. But taken as a psychodrama there is enough sexual yin and yang, not to mention gender wars, artistic conceit, and a touch of the divine, to fuel a dozen heated discussions afterwards. And Kim peppers it all with a barrage of cryptic visuals just to pique your inner artiste: Yeon’s sterile urban apartment contrasts with Jang’s cramped cell where five men huddle beneath makeshift murals of nude women scratched into the concrete walls; the weighty statue of a one-winged angel stares forlornly from behind a television set; a voyeuristic prison warden (tellingly played by Kim himself) watches Yeon and Jang through CCTV cameras, alternately encouraging and then frustrating their amorous advances seemingly on a whim. Beautifully shot in the dead of winter (of course) with long brooding takes that cash in on bare branches, blue snowdrifts, and whitewashed prison walls, there is a touch of whimsy amongst all the melancholy despite a patently downbeat ending. A tragic love poem firmly rooted in unreality that still succeeds in addressing issues of yearning, disconnectedness, and a sad kind of redemption.

Breath (Australia 2017) (9): There is a difference between “coming of age” and “growing up”, a subtle distinction brought out beautifully in this gently nuanced story (based on Tim Winton’s novel and set in the ‘70s) about two teenaged friends who find themselves taking two separate paths. Quiet and cautious “Pikelet” (Samson Coulter) couldn’t be any more different than his best buddy “Loonie” (Ben Spence), a brash and impulsive young hellraiser willing to accept a dare on almost anything. One passion they discover they do share however is surfing—Pikelet drawn to the quasi spiritual sensation of dancing on waves, Loonie taking to the huge breakers as an act of rebellious defiance. But when they forge an unlikely friendship with former champion surfer Sando (writer/director Simon Baker), he becomes something of a mentor and guru to the impressionable boys causing the differences in their temperaments to become increasingly apparent with bittersweet results. Filmed along western Australia’s rugged coastline, Baker employs a small cast and a powerful yet minimalist script to produce an adolescent parable whose ethereal touches compare favourably to the fever dreams of Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock…a sensation further enhanced by a soundtrack of orchestral surges and soft rock. The few grownups in Pikelet and Loonie’s confined world each add a facet to their journey towards adulthood: Sando is a man forever chasing a dream; his wife Eva (Elizabeth Debicki), a former champion skier sidelined by a crippling injury, has all but given up on hers and now finds passion in more self-destructive pursuits; Pikelet’s parents offer domestic stability while Loonie’s home is a hotbed of abuse and neglect. And then there’s the sea. Gorgeously filmed from above and below, its restless swells and thundering waves are a fitting psychological metaphor particularly when the camera focuses on two young men nervously clinging to their wooden boards as they dare the ocean to knock them off. Newcomers Coulter and Spence are superb, exhibiting an onscreen confidence usually seen in more seasoned performers. And Debicki’s turn as a frustrated woman whose internalized anger affects everyone around her (even influencing the weather at times) provides a melancholic counterpoint to the film’s overall themes of self-discovery and self-acceptance—Eva’s scenes with the impressionable yet steadfast Pikelet a veritable study in emotional contradictions. I must admit to approaching a film “about surfing” with few expectations, a personal bias which made the actual experience all the more moving.

Breathing (Austria 2011) (6): Raised by the state after he was abandoned as a child and now incarcerated in a juvenile detention centre for a grievous crime he committed five years earlier, nineteen-year old Roman Kruger is facing his future with a mixture of fear and sullen resignation. Unable to truly connect with another human being he is now expected to find gainful employment or remain in a bureaucratic no man’s land. After a few unsuccessful attempts he finally takes a job transporting bodies for the county morgue where a chance encounter with an emaciated corpse that happens to bear his family name gives him the impetus to confront his past—the most painful journey of his young life. To its credit, writer/director Karl Markovics’ multiple-award winning film about one damaged soul’s first hesitant steps towards adulthood manages to steer clear of emotional excesses. Relying instead on a slowly burning tension Markovics follows Roman through a series of small emotional epiphanies leading to a somewhat predictable final confrontation which is nevertheless handled with a delicate restraint. Unfortunately the movie’s plodding symbolism begins to drag with Roman’s cell representing more than physical isolation, a swimming pool substituting for a womb, and a sad parade of anonymous cadavers symbolizing the ultimate disconnect. Furthermore, a garish transit station billboard (trains also figure heavily) encouraging viewers to “take the plunge” is shown one too many times while a key scene goes for the irony jugular when it is played out amidst the fake domesticity of an IKEA showroom. Some striking imagery and a sombre background score do soften a few of the film’s rougher edges though, and lead actor Thomas Schubert’s reserved performance captures Roman’s dilemma perfectly.

Breathless (France 1960) (7): Arguably more famous for what it isn’t rather than for what it is, Jean-Luc Godard’s grainy low-budget homage to American B-movies forever broke the mould of what movies are supposed to look like and ushered in French cinema’s New Wave aesthetic. Petty thief and all-around cad Michel (Jean-Paul Belmondo hovering between man’s man and lovable sociopath) goes for a joyride in a stolen car, killing a motorcycle cop in the process. Now holed up in Paris with his unsuspecting American ex-girlfriend Patricia (Jean Seberg personifying Beat Generation sexy) Michel whiles away the hours planning an escape to Italy with Patrica while at the same time trying to seduce the headstrong woman all over again. Meanwhile, the gendarmes are slowly closing in… Seemingly shot on the fly with jerky handheld passages alternating with long tracking shots and the then novel use of jump cuts—reportedly used by Godard to remove any tedious bits—Breathless’ hopped up energy is further augmented by a wailing jazz score and some clever, seemingly ad-libbed dialogue—be it Michel and Patricia bringing the Battle of the Sexes into the bedroom or Michel breaking the fourth wall to smirk directly at the audience. Audacious for its time and still oozing hipness sixty years later. Bogart would have either been proud…or confused.

Bride of Re-Animator (USA 1989) (6): That whacky Dr. West and his angst-ridden sidekick Dr. Cain are at it again in Brian Yuzna's decidedly macabre spoof on the Frankenstein myth. This time around the demented duo are collecting spare parts in order to fashion a new girlfriend for Dr. Cain starting with the preserved heart of his former gal pal. Grisly special effects and outrageous plot devices aside (flying head? finger-eyeball monster?) this is a worthy sequel to its darker predecessor made all the more interesting by superior techno wizardry and a perverted sense of humour; yes, beneath all those butchered limbs and slimy entrails there is a dark comedy of sorts accentuated by a musical score that shifts between tense horror and Bugs Bunny cartoon. For pure gross-out entertainment you could do worse...the final basement showdown between the hapless doctors, their buxom creation, and a crypt full of sewn-together rejects is priceless!

The Brides of Dracula (UK 1960) (6): En route to a private girls’ school in Transylvania, French teacher Marianne Danielle’s coach makes an unexpected stop at a country inn where it appears the local patrons have been doing double-espresso shooters all morning. Between jumping at shadows and giving each other quick nervous glances they try to convince her that a hasty return to Paris would be in her best interest. But when the elderly dowager, Baroness Meinster, enters the tavern and convinces Marianne to spend the night at her estate, the innkeeper and his wife bid her farewell with all the finality of a march to the gallows. Living alone with Greta, her butch maid, the Baroness seems content simply to have another live body gracing her table until Marianne makes a startling discovery...the old gal’s son is being kept prisoner in a separate wing of the castle, presumably so she can rule in his stead. Swayed by his oily charms, Marianne helps the Baron escape and before you can say “Nosferatu” young girls are dropping dead with peculiar bite marks on their necks and furry rubber bats are winging their way on not-so-hidden wires. Enter the cadaverous Dr. Van Helsing (horror mainstay Peter Cushing). Armed with a satchel of wooden stakes and a lot of pseudo-religious babble he sets out to defeat the fanged villain before Marianne becomes his next victim. With its glorious overacting and sumptuous colours, this is one of Hammer Studios’ B-movie gems. The wistful recreation of 19th century Transylvania is a curious blend of Bavarian beer gardens and Cockney accents while Castle Meinster embodies the term “gothic camp”. And the cast is almost perfect, from the gruff local priest to Marianne’s wide-eyed innocence, but David Peel’s GQ looks don’t quite fit the role of a bloodsucking fiend. With his poofy blonde wig and lisping accent he approaches his character with all the conviction of a hairdresser on steroids; perhaps they should have renamed it The Beards of Dracula. Great fun anyway!

A Brief History of Time (USA 1991) (7): Even Errol Morris’ one-note documentary style can’t dampen the sense of wonder in this look at the life and passion of Stephen Hawking based on the physicist’s own bestseller. Part biography, part soliloquy, and part theoretical physics lecture, Hawking is joined by family, friends, and fellow scientists as he reminisces about his early life; the crippling reality of living with ALS, the disease which has left him with a vegetative body but an unfettered mind; and his grand theories concerning the birth and ultimate fate of our universe. Narrated in large part by Stephen himself using the computerized synthesizer which has become his trademark voice one can’t help but get caught up in his sense of wonder as he contemplates black holes and exploding singularities from within the confines of his motorized wheelchair. A bit of self-effacing humour helps the more technical discussions go down easily and some vague theological asides are thrown in which seem to challenge God more than bolster him. And of course the inevitable Philip Glass score coupled with the director’s penchant for softly filtered lighting makes all those talking heads appear more cool than they probably are.

The Bridge (USA 2006) (6): Eric Steel’s controversial documentary on those who choose to commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge poses an ethical dilemma which I find impossible to resolve.  He spent months filming the bridge in order to capture footage of actual jumpers, then interviewed some of their family and friends afterwards.  Is this artistic expression or simply cold exploitation, good intentions or not?  The video clips are definitely gut wrenching and the subsequent interviews are tactfully done.  Steel allows his subjects to speak without hindrance, the result is a heartfelt testament to the memory of those that died....but was it necessary to show the fatal leaps themselves?  Watching these troubled people in their last moments of life certainly added to the film’s impact.  It’s the question of whether or not “dramatic impact” is sufficient justification that troubles me.  There seems to be no higher purpose to this film other than documenting a year’s worth of suicides.  Then, as if to add some artistic integrity to the proceedings, Steel intercuts the various stories with time-lapsed images of the bridge shrouded in fog.  The result is a false romanticism that is cheap and repetitive.  As a journalistic endeavour it has its moments, I’ll even accept Steel’s claim that he tried to intervene whenever he could, but there remains a morbidly voyeuristic component to this documentary that I find unsettling.

Bridge of Spies (USA 2015) (9): As the Cold War heats up, Brooklyn insurance lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is recruited to defend convicted Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Oscar-winner Mark Rylance) in what promises to be an open-and-shut case. Vilified as a commie sympathizer by a population already obsessed with nuclear bombs and the Red Menace, Donovan nevertheless sticks to his belief that all men deserve a fair trial as laid out in the Constitution, even if they are working for a foreign power. But matters become politically complicated when U.S. Air Force pilot Gary Powers is captured while flying an aerial reconnaissance mission over Russia at the same time an American student is detained by East German authorities who suspect him of being yet another spy. With the CIA breathing down his neck and military authorities on both sides eager to get their men back, Donovan finds himself in a tug-of-war with Moscow, East Berlin, and Washington as he tries to find a solution that will satisfy everyone. Despite a few of his signature Apple Pie moments, this is one of Director Steven Spielberg’s more captivating films with a literary script penned by the Coen brothers and superb performances from its international cast. Far from the black and white morality of Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan, in Bridge of Spies Spielberg views the Cold War through varying shades of grey. Although they are working on opposite sides both Abel and Powers are conscientious men carrying out their assignments with equal diligence—their own opposing convictions highlighting the overall unease of the late 50s when atomic paranoia, fierce nationalism, and East-West xenophobia was the stuff of headlines. Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography, coupled with an Oscar-nominated score and production design take an already fascinating page in history and turn it into a widescreen epic that hops from the sunny streets of New York City to the snowy ruins of East Berlin—scenes of Powers’ plane being shot down had me gripping the sides of the couch. A highly polished yet old-fashioned political thriller.

The Bridge to Terabithia  (USA 2005) (3):  When the school loner teams up with the quiet new girl in class a peculiar friendship develops.  Soon they are playing deep in the woods where they imagine themselves to be king and queen of an imaginary realm. This movie had lots of promise but unfortunately Csupo gave it a double dose of Disney syrup and turned it into a sappy melodrama for preteens. In choosing to smother audiences with schmaltz and shallow pathos he missed an opportunity to really delve into the dark fantasy world of children....a theme explored with greater effect in films such as "Tideland" and "Pan's Labyrinth". Everything about this film is over-the-top from the ponderous soundtrack to Anna Sophia Robb's cloying little saucer-eyed waif. Not recommended for diabetics.

Brief Encounter (UK 1945) (5): When an emotionally frustrated housewife bumps into an equally desperate married doctor at a railway station a spark is lit that threatens to overwhelm them both. Soon Laura and Alec are frolicking in a rowboat, holding hands over dinner and staring into each other’s eyes at the cinema; but when the opportunity to go all the way finally presents itself the two are forced to examine the path their lives are taking. Told mainly in flashback as Laura composes a fictitious confession to her conservative fossil of a husband David Lean’s three-hanky weeper, based on Noel Coward’s play, is chockfull of the usual cinematic metaphors: trains pass each other in the night, a stone bridge is somehow never crossed, and a furtive pat on the shoulder conveys all the heartache in the world. Sadly, although the film is replete with emotional credibility (it’s sympathetic portrayal of spouses on the brink earned the wrath of Irish censors) it suffers from some terribly florid dialogue and overblown performances which render it more soap than substance. The final obligatory scene of syrupy reconciliation while Rachmaninov plays in the background reduced us to a round of groans and winces.

Brigsby Bear (USA 2017) (7): Abducted as a baby by a pair of well-meaning intellectual sociopaths and raised in a hermetically sealed underground bunker somewhere under the desert, James Pope’s world consists of odd rituals coined by his faux parents, intensive math tutoring, and thousands of VHS episodes of Brigsby Bear. Poised somewhere between Barney & Friends and Dr. Who, Brigsby is a cuddly intergalactic teddy whose ultra-low budget adventures combine Sci-Fi camp with calculus lessons and questionably sage advice (“Curiosity is an unnatural emotion!”). Obsessed with the little furry hero James fills his bedroom with Brigsby memorabilia and spends his nights figuring out how to help the bear get out of his latest jam. And then the FBI come knocking and James, now twenty-five, is thrust into a real world he never imagined and reunited with a real family he never knew. Even the one consistent source of comfort in his sheltered life, Brigsby Bear, turns out to be one big lie. But when he discovers the wonderful world of movies James becomes consumed with putting Brigsby to rest by filming one final episode himself—an idea that doesn’t sit well with the new authorities in his life… Penned by SNL alumni and childhood friends Dave McCary and Kyle Mooney (who also plays James) Brigsby Bear is a unpolished charmer which pokes fun at pop culture while at the same time praising the dreamers and creative minds which spawn it. Considering the film’s dark premise however, McCrary and Mooney bypass any dramatic depth and aim instead for the easy “fish out of water” laughs with James’ culture shock toned down to a series of awkward assimilations and his abductors (Mark Hamill, Jane Adams) no more than quirky eggheads who went too far. But perhaps its this divorce from reality (a continuation of James’ fantasy childhood?) which gives the film its “aww shucks” likability in the first place. I mean, who does’t want to see Mooney’s mop-headed man-child live the dream if only for a few reels? Greg Kinnear co-stars as a cop with thespian aspirations and Claire Danes toggles the charm as James’ cynical teenaged sister.

Britannia Hospital  (UK 1982) (7):  Too bitter to be dismissed as mere farce, too blunt to be simple satire, this final instalment in Lindsay Anderson’s trilogy on the decline of the British Empire is equal parts sitcom and social diatribe.  Like the boarding school in If... we once again see a public institution standing in for the country itself.  This time around it’s a hospital under siege.  As the privileged elite go head to head with unionized labour on the eve of a royal visit, a lone doctor quietly creates a super being meant to replace vastly inferior homo sapiens.  Absurd, angry, and filled with despair, the film ends with a darkly prophetic monologue and a chilling demonstration of man’s “successor”.  Unsettling.

Broadcast News (USA 1987) (7): James L. Brooks’ skewed view of journalistic integrity in the arena of high stakes network news takes the form of a workplace love triangle. Shrewd but boring reporter Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) is carrying a torch for neurotically fastidious producer Jane Craig (Holly Hunter) who is obsessed with charismatic anchorman Tom Grunick (William Hurt), a handsome hunk whose outgoing personality and unwavering honesty mask the fact he is completely clueless when it comes to just about everything. With Aaron and Jane pushing the boundaries of their respective niches and Tom feeling the first stirrings of ambition after a controversial story he covered himself receives positive reviews, everyone is brought to the breaking point both personally and professionally when emotions finally go ballistic just as the station announces massive layoffs. The right combination of biting comedy and honest drama allows Brooks to make a quasi-cynical statement regarding journalism in the age of infotainment without resorting to sarcasm or cliché. He presents an industry where stories of human suffering are gussied up for optimum viewer impact (and commercial breaks), emotions are often rehearsed, and personality trumps substance—yet his three stars (who all received Oscar nominations for their trouble) stumble ever onward convinced that it is all somehow worth it. A fully fleshed, slightly bitter, anti-romance co-starring Joan Cusack as a whacked-out girl Friday and Jack Nicholson in a surprise cameo as the network’s star anchorman whose slightest frown reverberates throughout the newsroom like a heavenly edict.

The Broadway Melody (aka The Broadway Melody of 1929) (USA 1929) (5): Catfights and heartbreak abound in this roaring twenties fairytale which follows the trials and tribulations of two naïve sisters from the American heartland as they vie for fame and romance on New York’s “Great White Way”. This early talkie boasts some terribly camp song & dance numbers along with enough bitchy humour and racy lingerie to keep modern audiences mildly amused. There’s even a mincing homo costumer to show us just how far Hollywood’s gay stereotypes haven’t come in the intervening eighty years. The glitzy deco sets are wonderful but the blatant overacting and mortuary make-up hearken back to the worst days of silent films. A frothy little melodrama that’s as shallow as a producer’s soul.

Broadway Melody of 1940 (USA 1940) (7): Take away the grand sets, the string of Cole Porter tunes, and the dazzling dance routines and you are left with a threadbare plot which holds no surprises. But oh those sets and songs and dance routines! Longtime friends and dance routine partners Johnny Brett and King Shaw (Fred Astaire and future California governor George Murphy) are barely making a living performing in second rate nightclubs when opportunity comes knocking in the form of Broadway talent scout Bob Casey (the Wizard of Oz himself, Frank Morgan) who has his sights on Brett. Unfortunately a case of mismatched identities ensues and it is Shaw who gets the big break instead, hoofing it up on the big stage with leading lady and mutual love interest Clare Bennet (Eleanor Powell dancing rings around both men). Of course it all gets ironed out in the end just in time for the grand finale, a camp South Seas spectacle choreographed to Porter’s “Begin the Beguine”. A thoroughly charming bit of eye candy whose highlights also include a swirling pas de deux between Astaire and Powell in Harlequin drag and cameos from a few forgotten Vaudeville stars: juggler extraordinaire Trixie Firschke, and soprano Charlotte Arren in a side-splitting operatic spoof worthy of Fanny Brice.

Broken (England 2012) (2): Welcome to the most dysfunctional cul-de-sac in Great Britain home of “Skunk” (Eloise Laurence), the diabetic daughter of solicitor and single parent Archie (Tim Roth) a respectable man who happens to be caught up in a romantic triangle with his Polish au pair. Across the street are the Buckleys and their adult son Rick who is not only mentally challenged, he may very well be dangerous. And next door to them is single father Bob Oswald (Rory Kinnear), a hot-tempered asshole whose three lying slag daughters would rather watch the world burn than tell the truth. Over the next few days the impressionable Skunk will witness human nature at its worst as sex, lies, and violence irrevocably change her small world. Plagued by a script marked with ludicrous turns and schoolgirl clichés (that first kiss! that terrible bully! that baffling old adult world!) Rufus Norris’ contrived melodrama tries too hard to mix tragedy with a bit of irony and humour as a nearby auto scrapyard becomes a destructive metaphor and Skunk’s verbal spars with Archie, meant to be precocious, wind up dull and childish. And what’s with those twins tossing bags of shit at people for no apparent reason? Aside from a waste of acting talent everything feels strained and theatrical from the wailing tears to the bloody fisticuffs to a gauzy “spiritual” sequence as one character stands at a crossroads. If you like your pathos served up hot and heavy then get out your napkin and tuck in for Norris has ensured there’s plenty to go around.

The Broken (UK 2008) (6): "Through the looking glass" takes on a whole new meaning when a woman begins to suspect she is being replaced by a malevolent doppelganger from the other side of the mirror. Awash in menacing shadows and claustrophobic camerawork The Broken is certainly stylish. Add to that some great performances, taut direction and a fiendish sense of paranoia and you have all the makings of a great thriller-cum-psychodrama. Too bad it all peters out in the end with a lukewarm twist and a distinct lack of resolution one way or the other. It's the horror equivalent of a shaggy dog story; lots of buildup with a disappointingly bland finale.

The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium 2012) (6): Didier and Elise are a perfectly mismatched couple: he’s a bearded banjo-plucking cowboy in a popular bluegrass band and she’s a bohemian tattoo artist whose body art is a veritable patchwork quilt of her life and loves. As the film opens the two are faced with every parent’s nightmare when their seven-year old daughter Maybelle is diagnosed with leukemia, a stressor for which their relationship is ill-prepared. Based on a play by Johan Heldenbergh (who is also cast as Didier), director Felix van Groeningen moves the narrative back and forth through time showing husband and wife falling in and out of love as Maybelle goes in and out of hospital, her illness providing a guilt-riddled minefield of sorts between her dad, an angry atheist, and her mom’s hippy spirituality. In much the same vein as Clanfrance’s Blue Valentine, Groeningen traces the emotional ebb and flow of a contemporary relationship over a period of several years, from two young people experiencing the first blush of love to a pair of haggard parents and beyond. A well acted and engaging piece of cinema ultimately undone by Heldenbergh’s decision to use it as a podium from which to launch a few very personal YouTube rants. When Didier discovers that the science necessary to save his daughter’s life is being hampered by American evangelicals he launches into a couple of lengthy tirades aimed first at George Bush’s veto of stem cell research, then at religion in general before finally shaking his fists at Yahweh himself. While his sentiments certainly hit the proverbial nail on the head their delivery is both stagey and forced. And the decision to smother his two leads under mountains of unbearable heartache begins to look like mere fodder for a hundred Top 10 country-western weepers—the exaggerated misery rendered almost frivolous in the process. No wonder it was Belgium’s official Oscar contender. The soundtrack of bluegrass ballads however (Heldenbergh and co-star Veerle Baetens use their own voices) is pure heaven, and in the role of Maybelle little Nell Cattrysse delivers the film’s most believable performance.

Broken Wings (Israel 2002) (9):  Beautifully realized film about one family’s disintegration following the sudden death of the husband and father.  While the eldest daughter watches her dreams of becoming a recording artist slip away due to the new domestic responsibilities thrust upon her, the eldest son turns his back on the world and adopts an angry cynicism that keeps everyone at arm’s length.  The two youngest children, perhaps sensing the crippling grief  in the home, develop a sullen petulance composed of tantrums and life-threatening stunts.  And all the while their mother sleepwalks through her day oblivious of the pain around her.  There is an aura of barely suppressed rage and guilt in the Ulman household that seems to poison everything it comes in contact with.  It finally takes another crisis to jolt the older members of the family out of their self-pitying ruts and begin to work towards healing the rift left by the husband’s death.  It’s difficult to believe that this remarkably mature and assured work is Nil Bergman’s first feature film.  He brings a depth of characterization to his movie that is usually associated with far more experienced directors.  Furthermore he realizes that the tiniest of details can be tremendously important to a story’s narrative....whether it’s a honeybee buzzing against a pane of glass or faded murals of happy children surrounding an empty pool.  A wonderfully understated film with natural performances and an ending that is both upbeat and believable.

Bronson (UK 2008) (8): Since he was arrested for armed robbery in 1974, Michael Peterson has spent his entire adult life, save for a few short-lived months of freedom, shuffled between prisons and asylums with most of that time in solitary confinement due to his well earned reputation of being Britain’s most violent criminal. Leaving a trail of bruises and broken bones (but no corpses) in his wake, Peterson—who took the name “Charlie Bronson” in honour of the American actor whose films he never saw—was an unpredictable mad dog with a working class bellow who waged one-man riots that chalked up thousands of pounds in damage yet also produced impressive, though patently disturbed, drawings and wrote essays on everything from physical fitness (he built himself up to bull-size while in confinement) to award-winning poetry. Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn tackles the enigma of Bronson in this schizoid biopic and he finds his perfect instrument in Tom Hardy who mugs and rages with mad glee, his shorn head and handlebar moustache making him look like an insane circus strongman. Narrated by a clownish Bronson (Hardy) as he performs a spirited monologue for an imaginary audience in an imaginary theatre straight out of Rocky Horror, Refn sticks mainly to the facts but he does so with a theatrical zeal suitable to his subject. Hardy’s unstable alpha male stampedes across the screen roaring defiance and messing with people’s heads (often while nude and greased up for a fight) while a soundtrack ranging from Verdi and Wagner to Pet Shop Boys and Glass Candy provide counterpoint. With surreal passages butting up against bone-crunching realism, the whole film passes before one’s eyes like like a bit of psychotic cabaret. Upon seeing the film in 2011 Peterson himself described it as “…theatrical, creative, and brilliant…” I dare not disagree.

The Brood (Canada 1979) (7): At the mysterious “Somafree Institute of Psychoplasmics” patients with deep seated resentment issues are offered a novel way to vent their anger. Under the tutelage of Dr. Hal Raglan (a wonderfully intense Oliver Reed) clients are emotionally goaded to the point where their rage takes on an actual corporeal existence leading to dramatic catharses involving sudden rashes and dripping pustules. But for one particularly disturbed woman the treatment proves to be all too effective allowing her to not only nurse her various murderous grudges, but dress them up in little snowsuits and send them on their bloody way as ability which doesn’t bode well for anyone who’s ever wronged her. Arguably one of Cronenberg’s best films, this fiendish little sci-fi/horror hybrid revels in those dark spaces we’d rather not investigate whether it be a gloomy staircase in an empty house or our own sadistic revenge fantasies. Directing a talented cast against a backdrop of wintry Toronto landscapes Cronenberg slowly ratchets up the tension, jolt by sudden jolt, before bringing it all to a suitably macabre finale...including one particularly nasty postpartum scene which had censors everywhere lunging for the scissors. Grotesque and deliberately provocative á la David Cronenberg, The Brood still remains one of the more intelligent films to emerge from the era of “Canucksploitation” shockers.

Brotherhood (Denmark 2009) (7): After leaving the army amid rumours of sexual impropriety, a despondent blond-haired Lars somehow falls in with a local chapter of White Supremacists where he meets hardcore skinhead Jimmy, a sullen young man bedecked in swastika tattoos and attitude. Rooming together while Lars prepares for his initiation into the Brotherhood, the two men go from sharing a house to sharing a bed—a situation which proves dangerously awkward when they’re discovered and a violent chapter in Jimmy’s past resurfaces once more. If it were helmed by an American production company—or even worse, Canadian—we could pretty well expect this “Gay Nazis in Love” story to be little more than a string of Antifa clichés manipulating us to a final righteous ending. But Danish director Nicolo Donato has a deeper vision to share, plunging us headfirst into the internalized homophobia and unfocused rage which sees his Alt-Right Romeo & Juliet trying to ascend the pit they’ve dug for themselves while implacable forces (in this case Neo-Nazi leader “Fatty” plus an unexpected Judas) cling tenaciously to their pant legs. Some handheld camerawork gives everything an unpolished edge while an accompanying score provides all the right musical cues and stars Thure Lindhardt and David Dencik offer up a fine pair of performances—Lindhardt’s aryan good looks contrasting with Dencik’s brooding features. Starting off with a horrific bashing, Donato barely gives his audience time to recover before he starts amping up the sexual tension between his two protagonists leading to some dark homoeroticism—the vigorous sex scenes rendered ambivalent whenever one of Jimmy’s tattoos come into view. But for all its sincerity Donato’s film suffers from a couple of narrative potholes: Lars’ transformation from pampered Liberal to morally indecisive immigrant-basher is never fleshed out satisfactorily and the movie’s ironic climax hinges on a pair of coincidences which challenge credibility. But Donato still had the balls to jar our complacency, and with this film he asks some tough questions for those willing to listen.

The Browning Version (UK 1951) (7): Michael Redgrave brings a remarkable depth to the role of a public school teacher whose ill health is forcing him to give up his tenure at an upper class boys’ school in favour of a less lucrative position at an institution for troubled teens. Mr. Crocker-Harris, grim and unsmiling, looks back over his 18 years as a professor of Latin and Greek with bitterness and regret. Once a promising young scholar, he slowly let his dreams die one by one until, approaching middle age, he realizes his life is as dead as the languages he teaches. He is pitied by the faculty, scorned by his students, and trapped in a loveless marriage to a woman who views him with contempt even as she flaunts her affairs in his face. Yet there remains one student who seems to sense the old man’s inherent worth, a bright young boy who tries to tap into his fragile humanity and whose farewell gift, from which the movie gets its title, opens a floodgate of repressed emotion. Asquith presents Terence Rattigan’s painfully honest play with great subtlety aided in large part by Dickinson’s poignant B&W cinematography. It’s all so very British, with the characters’ impeccable diction and well-mannered facades barely concealing their underlying anger and despair. Harris’ emotional showdown with his wife, a victim in her own rights, is brilliantly downplayed even as the sky above them explodes with fireworks. Perhaps the film relies too heavily on melodrama at times with its drawn out stares and well-choreographed anguish; and perhaps the allusion to the classical tragedy of Agamemnon, which Harris is teaching his class, doesn’t quite hit the ironic mark it was aimed at. But these are minor drawbacks for a film that many critics hail as a small masterpiece.

Brute Force (USA 1947) (9): Jules Dassin’s deceptively simple prison break flick actually frames a much deeper allegory, namely man’s ceaseless struggle against the cold decrees of God and Fate. Within the walls of the overcrowded Westgate penitentiary a contest of wills is raging between tenacious prisoner Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster) and head of the guards, Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn). Fixated on busting out at any cost Collins sets himself on a direct collision course with Munsey, an oily psychopath whose soft voice and diminutive stature belie a streak of sadistic cruelty. Elaborate escape plans, double-crosses, and one final act of desperation will ultimately pit one against the other with no clear winner in sight… Shot in joyless shades of grey, the world is reduced to iron bars and concrete blocks wherein Collins and his fellow convicts pine away for the freedom that beckons just outside the prison gates while Munsey and his acolytes look down impassively from their towers and walkways. Lancaster dominates the screen with an intense performance that uses every part of his body from those fiery unblinking eyes to the set of his shoulders. Cronyn, equally intense, practically slithers across the screen doling out pain or false assurances with the same venomous intent—his obsession with gaining more power unto himself evident to everyone, including the cowed and ineffectual warden (Roman Bohnen) and the prison doctor (Art Smith) whose disillusionment with the system has led to alcoholism. Shocking at the time, the implied violence is comparatively tame by today’s standards yet no less effective and Dassin offsets it with touches of surprising artistry: a Wagnerian overture covers up the sounds of a beating; Munsey’s office is decorated with telling artwork; and a sketched calendar girl, her eyes forever closed, becomes a makeshift shrine as her blank countenance elicits romantic memories in Collins and his cellmates. Furthermore, a work detail in an underground drainage conduit filled with mud and poisonous air is rife with mythological overtones. A near perfect marriage of gritty realism and spiritual metaphor which compares favourably to 1985’s cerebral prison film, Runaway Train. Ann Blyth and Yvonne de Carlo co-star as the women left behind, heartthrob Howard Duff makes his film debut as a disgraced serviceman, and Trinidad native “Sir Lancelot” (Lancelot Victor Pinard) provides a Greek chorus of sorts as a mild-mannered inmate prone to bouts of ad-libbed calypso.

Bug (USA 2002) (7): A little boy squashing a cockroach on a Los Angeles sidewalk sets in motion a long chain reaction of coincidences affecting dozens of strangers. That one dead bug will eventually lead to one couple's disintegration and another's reconciliation; a man will become a stalker while another one will end up very unwell and a third will find himself in a real jam; a cat will have its nine lives put to the test and a pig will end up in the crosshairs. And in what has to be the film’s biggest stretch everyone will be given a second chance at life and they won’t even know it. Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s lighthearted look at Chaos Theory may lack the pizzazz of Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run but it certainly doesn’t lack in imagination or sheer audacity, and a few familiar Hollywood faces don’t hurt either. Watching how these two men manage to link seemingly innocuous events into an ever expanding picture had me laughing out loud more than once—not all the connections may make perfect sense but then again life itself rarely does anyway. An enjoyable little indie production with wit and charm to spare.

Bug (USA 2006) (7): “Truth” is what you make of it and psychosis is a contagion in William Friedkin’s adaptation of Tracy Letts’ play—a widescreen presentation which somehow manages to maintain the latter’s sense of paranoid claustrophobia. Living in a fleabag motel somewhere in Oklahoma and desperately trying to avoid her abusive ex who’s just been released from prison, down and out waitress Agnes (Ashley Judd, utterly convincing) begins a faltering relationship with taciturn drifter Peter (Michael Shannon reprising his stage role). Both characters are broken in more ways than one: personal tragedy and a violent relationship have left Agnes crushed inside with drugs and alcohol providing only transient relief while Peter is escaping a different kind of abuse, one that has left him suspicious and uncertain of everything and everyone. When the two eventually give in to carnal temptation the morning after proves to be anything but a pleasant afterglow for that is when the bugs begin to appear. At first nothing more than a small bite on his wrist, Agnes has trouble seeing the tiny creatures that Peter insists are infesting the apartment. But as his agitation increases—coupled with a fantastical backstory—she slowly begins to question…everything. Just as the distinction between reality and delusion grows indistinct for his two leads the further they trip down the rabbit hole, so too does the boundary between tightly controlled shots and a chaotic free-for-all as Friedkin’s directorial style intentionally threatens to go off the rails. Going from seemingly rational discourse to the equivalent of tin foil hats is not easy to accomplish in any media, yet cast and crew manage to pull it off taking us along with them as detached observers. We may not know exactly what is happening beneath the stroboscopic effects and grotesque visuals, where a knock at the door induces terror, a ceiling fan turns malevolent, and a simple toothache hints at darker forces, but we know it isn’t good. A tale of two damaged souls plucking madness out of thin air, Bug is a fitting metaphor to describe an age where misinformed zealots reshape the real world in their own image and conspiracy theorists are able to connect dots that don’t even exist. Brían F. O’Byrne co-stars as an unwelcome face from the past; Lynn Collins plays the fading voice of reason as Agnes’ best friend; and Harry Connick Jr. proves he is more than a mellow voice as the dangerous ex, a character bristling with toxic male rage.

Bullitt (USA 1968) (7): Aside from an amazingly choreographed car chase in and around San Francisco and Steve McQueen’s handsome mug, Peter Yates’ gritty policier is pretty much standard fare albeit with a slightly more convoluted plot. McQueen plays Frank Bullitt, an honest cop assigned to protect a star witness who is slated to appear before a senate committee on mob corruption. Unfortunately the bad guys are one step ahead and the witness is assassinated before he can testify leaving Bullitt at the mercy of both a very angry senator (an oily Robert Vaughn) and the chief of police. Determined to find out how the killers managed to track down their target Bullitt launches his own investigation and winds up uncovering a lurid trail of deception and double-crosses. Nice touches of 60’s kitsch, including a host of familiar character actors, add to a compelling if somewhat fantastic storyline and Jacqueline Bisset’s inclusion as Bullitt’s love interest (and nagging voice of reason) provides a sexy distraction. But that aforementioned car chase alone is worth the rental fee.

Bunny Lake is Missing (UK 1965) (6): Freshly arrived in England, American Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) leaves her five-year old daughter Felicia, nicknamed “Bunny”, at nursery school before running off to do some errands. When she returns to pick her up however not only is Bunny missing but the staff have no record of the child having been there in the first place. And then the police become involved and Ann’s initial concern turns to full blown panic for all traces of Bunny seem to have vanished into thin air including her passport and all her clothes and toys. With the police beginning to doubt whether her daughter ever existed at all only Ann’s brother Steven (2001’s Keir Dullea), a journalist living in London, insists that something sinister is afoot… Director Otto Preminger’s tale of mystery and madness starts out as a straightforward policier before taking a sharp turn into darker psychological territory. Much like Mia Farrow’s character in Rosemary’s Baby, Lynley plays a distraught mother in crisis whose cries for help not only fail to reach the right ears, they also cast further suspicion on herself. Filmed in bleak shades of B&W, Preminger keeps most of the action indoors with narrow hallways, locked doors, and dusty corners suggesting frames of mind as much as physical settings. A fine supporting cast provides enough creepy eccentrics to keep you guessing including a cameo by Noël Coward as Ann’s lecherous landlord and Martita Hunt as the retired head of Bunny’s school—a nutty old woman with an unhealthy interest in children’s nightmares—while screen legend Laurence Olivier plays the cynical police superintendent whose investigation into Bunny’s disappearance yields one dead end after another. Unfortunately Dullea’s tepid performance as the outraged Steven is more studied than sincere and that big twist ending is just so much psychotic improv.

The Burmese Harp (Japan 1956) (9): At the end of WWII a regiment of Japanese troops stationed in Burma surrender to British forces and prepare to be transported to a distant P.O.W. camp. Before leaving however, one officer is given the task of convincing a renegade battalion of fellow soldiers firmly planted in a mountain stronghold to lay down their weapons and accept defeat. Sadly he fails to sway their stubborn commander in time to avert an ally counterstrike and tragedy ensues. Suddenly alone and destitute, the young man disguises himself as a monk and begins the 200 mile journey to join his comrades. Along the way his encounters with war’s gruesome aftermath will contrast sharply with the simple humanity of the peasants he meets and his life will be changed forever. Rife with Buddhist allegory and sublime choral pieces, this anti-war parable is one of the most striking examples of Japanese cinema ever made. Kon Ichikawa directs with the eye of a poet and his talented cast perform beautifully. Sad, reflective, and quietly subversive—a small masterpiece.

Burn After Reading (USA 2008) (8): Like a dummied down version of Dr. Strangelove aimed at the YouTube crowd, Ethan and Joel Coen’s screwball satire strives to take the “I” out of C.I.A. while proving yet again that proper style can triumph over a lack of substance. When disgruntled ex-CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich, delightfully unbalanced) decides to record his memoirs for a future book he sets in motion a deadly comedy of errors and mistaken identities after a copy of his unfinished work accidentally falls into the hands of a pair of inept personal trainers. Believing they have stumbled upon a cache of volatile government secrets Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand proving she’s still got it) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt, ditto) quickly give up on the notion of simply returning the incriminating CD and instead decide to sell it to the highest bidder—Linda, a forty-something lonely heart, needs the money to “reinvent” herself through cosmetic surgery while Chad, who obviously rode the short bus to school, just likes playing spy vs. spy. Meanwhile Osborne’s emasculating harpy of a wife (I love Tilda Swinton!) is having an affair with slutty federal agent Harry Pfarrer (a salacious George Clooney) who’s convinced he’s being shadowed by the government which causes him to suspect everyone around him including Linda whom he’s just met through a personal ad while his wife is away secretly contemplating divorce…. And all the while Osborne is getting crazier, Linda’s boss is bent on wooing her, the Russians are mildly interested, and the CIA is walking into doors. In the end everyone involved is either screwing someone else or being screwed themselves, often simultaneously. It’s a madcap mess to be sure, and the separate strands don’t add up to a whole lot despite its tepid Cold War echoes and a few unexpected shocks. Taken as a farce however the laughs come easily, the A-listers provide a host of endearingly idiotic caricatures, and a non-stop barrage of F-bombs spice up a decidedly deadpan script. And even though the all too obvious nods to Kubrick are mostly wasted, they do provide a visual flair which compliments the film’s overall frenetic pace. But the final laugh, which perfectly sums up the preceding ninety minutes, comes from a stone-faced CIA superior who, upon trying to make sense of the conflicting reports crossing his desk, wonders aloud how people could be so damn stupid.

The Burning  (USA 1981) (6):  A cantankerous camp caretaker is horribly burned when a practical joke goes awry.  Five years later, armed with an unusually sharp pair of garden shears, he returns to wreak his revenge on a new generation of stupid kids.  Big hair!  Gratuitous breasts!  Naked shower scene!  Horny teenagers!  Dead teenagers!  Ridiculous bogeyman plot!  Annoying POV camerawork!  Cheap shocks!  Yes kids, this is what used to make your parents scream on a Saturday night.  Now wipe that smirk off your face and pay attention, the 80’s were nothing to laugh at.

Burnt By The Sun (Russia 1994) (7): A sad echo of Chekhov drifts through director Nikita Mikhalkov’s Oscar-winning tale of a decorated Russian veteran unable to come to terms with his motherland’s new reality. Hero of the Revolution and now a loving family man, Colonel Sergei Kotov (Mikhalkov himself who also wrote the screenplay) is spending a relaxing summer at his country dacha surrounded by an ebullient assortment of eccentric friends and domestics as well as his much younger wife Marusya and animated eight-year old daughter Nadya (real life daughter Nadezhda). But this is 1936 and despite the long idyllic days full of laughter and music Stalin’s vicious reign of terror is just beginning to cast its shadow so that when multi-talented Dimitriy—an old acquaintance and Marusya’s former lover—shows up after a long absence abroad, everyone is delighted to see him except Sergei whose military instincts suspect darker motives afoot. Divided by tone into two parts, Mikhalkov first lulls us with a prolonged intro showing the Kotov clan enjoying life in a series of silly, almost satirical vignettes (a showdown between a tank commander and an irate babushka is spot on). With the arrival of Dimitriy however the film makes a u-turn, his haunted presence underlined by troubling metaphors which start out subtle yet grow ever more malignant—mysterious balls of fire drift past windows, a lively piano rendition of Offenbach’s Can-Can turns malicious, and a gigantic portrait of Stalin hovers over a wheat field like the face of God (or Godzilla). Taking its title from the glorious sun of revolution, Mikhaldov has weaved facts and fiction into a vicious polemic bracketed by two standout performances: himself as a once proud party idealist now horrified by what Moscow has become (a photo of Kotov laughing with Stalin sits ironically in the parlour), and his daughter as a yet unblemished tabula rasa who wouldn’t know a dictator from a dormouse. Marred in part by some chaotic editing and too many kooks in the kitchen (Kotov’s household is uncomfortably reminiscent of Capra’s Vanderhof clan in You Can’t Take it With You) it’s still well worth a viewing.

The Buttercup Chain (UK 1970) (6): Since they were kids Margaret and France have always had the hots for each other but since their mothers were identical twins the spectre of incest has prevented them from pursuing their mutual attraction to its logical conclusion. As a consolation prize they enter into a 4-way relationship with tourists Fred and Manny, an arrangement which allows them to air their angst all over Sweden, Italy and Spain as the quartet embarks upon an endless summer holiday. But "free love" can sometimes come with a terrible price including a tragic funeral followed by a hot-blooded showdown on a disco dance floor. I'm sure there's a mature and insightful film here somewhere beneath all the artsy hysterics and counter-culture claptrap but I found myself settling for some gorgeous scenery and soaring violins instead.

By the Light of the Silvery Moon (USA 1953) (6):  Cloying sequel to the insufferable "On Moonlight Bay" which is rendered somewhat more palatable by a handful of memorable pop songs.  WWI has just ended and in anticipation of her sweetheart's return from the trenches eighteen-year old Indiana tomboy Doris Day (she was THIRTY-ONE for crying out loud) is eager to trade in her mechanic's overalls for a frilly wedding dress—much to the bitter disappointment of her kid brother's lovestruck piano teacher.  But alas, her burgeoning hormones are put on ice when fiancé Gordon MacRae decides he needs time to settle down and become established before taking her to the altar.  In the meantime her banker father's professional dealings with a French actress are giving the town gossips a field day and an innocent note is misinterpreted causing everyone to suspect each other of infidelity.  Luckily it all works out in the end thanks to the power of song and a bit of dance.  Of course with all those dollhouse interiors and snowy postcard scenes of smiling caucasians you already knew a happy ending was inevitable.  More wholesome than eating an apple pie in church with Jesus.

Byzantium (UK 2012) (6): If Bram Stoker had penned a chick flick the result might have been Neil Jordan’s moody mash-up of gothic horror and feminist wiles set on the rugged coast of England. Two women on the run from sinister forces hole up in a dilapidated seaside inn. The older Clara (Gemma Arterton) is a ruthlessly practical survivor who has no qualms about dealing with any threat as evidenced by a gruesome opening scene. In contrast, the younger Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) is a quietly introspective teenager given to bouts of melancholy and a strange aura of sadness. Immediately settling in, Clara goes about ensuring their mutual interests by seducing the proprietor and turning his bankrupt hotel into a more lucrative establishment only to see her hard work undermined when Eleanor puts their plans in peril by unexpectedly falling in love. There is a terrible secret both women are protecting—Clara with single-minded fierceness, Eleanor with reluctant ambivalence—so when “Frank” (Caleb Landry Jones) enters Eleanor’s life complications arise that could have far-reaching, and very deadly, consequences. Nicely shot scenes of rocky shores and grey skies frame a somewhat muddled storyline which flows across time and only gradually comes together to make sense largely due to Eleanor’s ongoing diary entries which she hastily jots down in precise calligraphy only to inexplicably destroy in equal haste. Drenched in rich shades of indigo and crimson which lend it an air of Victorian fable—both grandmother’s house and the big bad wolf are there if you look hard enough— Jordan’s slow pace doesn’t rely on suspense so much as it does on building up a strange feeling of pathos for his two leads whose role of perpetrators gradually gives way to something more tragic. Although the mystery around which the film revolves ultimately proves to be nothing we haven’t seen on the screen before, Jordan’s adaptation of Moira Buffini’s play certainly keeps things fresh enough with a couple of novel turns and some bloody good CGI effects. A little stagey perhaps, like a macabre twist on The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and Jones’ portrayal of the oddly idiosyncratic Frank would look more at home in a mad scientist’s laboratory, but for all its gloomy atmospherics Jordan’s team was still able to add a new volume to an old story.

The Cabin in the Woods (USA 2012) (8): With influences as varied as Sam Raimi, Kevin Smith, and Michael Haneke, Drew Goddard’s wickedly original monster movie doesn’t just poke fun at every single horror cliché you can think of, it mercilessly exploits them for its own twisted purpose while at the same time shooting genre fans a big lop-sided grin. Starting out like any other teen scream movie, the usual college archetypes (slut, jock, stoner, virgin, egghead) climb into a van and head for a cousin’s backwoods cabin for a weekend of alcohol-fuelled mischief. But this is not going to be an ordinary getaway for right from the beginning their every move is being monitored and manipulated by a small army of technicians nestled in an elaborate underground complex brimming with high-tech wizardry. From a creepy encounter with a gas station attendant to a pile of unpleasant surprises awaiting them in the cabin’s basement, everything seems to be scripted, right down to the cleverly concealed nozzles emitting mood-altering pheromones. When the scary stuff finally does arrive the unfortunate kids are left to fight for their lives while their cynical observers crack jokes and sip coffee. Only gradually do we become aware of the reasons behind this intricate ruse, and the final earthshaking reveal proves both monstrously evil and brazenly cheeky. Goddard’s impish mix of paranoia, terror, and youtube parody pays loving (if somewhat warped) homage to so many cult favourites I lost count, but sly references to The Shining, Evil Dead, Hellraiser, and Stephen King’s It were unmistakable. A conspiracy theory penned by H. P. Lovecraft, a satirical jab at what makes audiences squirm, or a smug practical joke aimed at our insatiable appetite for the macabre; The Cabin in the Woods is all of these, plus a damned good time to boot!

Caged (USA 1950) (7): Convicted and sentenced for her role in an armed robbery which killed her husband, 19-year old Marie Ellen (a standout Eleanor Parker) is facing one to fifteen years in a state women’s penitentiary. Terribly naïve, frightened, and already two-months pregnant Marie strives for an early parole, but the realities of prison life—from a sadistic matron (Hope Emerson looking like a 7-foot drag queen), to the soul-crushing daily routine, to the dehumanizing criminal system itself—will slowly erode her dreams, threatening to turn them into something much colder. Highly contentious at the time, John Cromwell’s piece of jailhouse noir was itself based on the accounts of journalist Virginia Kellogg who went undercover as an inmate so she could document prison life from the inside. What emerges is a condemnation of a system which rather than correct criminal behaviour merely enforces it, churning out repeat offenders who feel they have no other options. Using sets that resemble a WWII stalag with rickety bunkbeds and the persistent clanging of barred gates and alarm bells, cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie’s use of subdued lighting and narrow spaces heightens the feeling of isolation while drab B&W film stock leeches out any sense of hope: a passing train full of commuters on their way home proves overwhelming for some inmates, glossy magazines featuring contented housewives mock everything they’ve lost, and an abandoned kitten ultimately brings more pain than comfort. Even the comforting idea of “Mom” gets turned inside-out. Parker does for incarcerated women what Olivia de Havilland did for psychiatric patients in 1948’s The Snake Pit, her Oscar-nominated performance tracing her character’s death of innocence with chilling clarity. Agnes Moorehead co-stars as a compassionate warden whose hands are perpetually tied by a male-dominated bureaucracy and outdated opinions (prisons are for punishment only!) and the cast is rounded out by Simone Signoret lookalike Betty Garde as a tough but fair Queen Bee and Grandma Walton herself, Ellen Corby, playing a jovial murderer (“It’s the judge’s fault! He should have arrested me the first time I shot my husband!”) However it’s Hope Emerson who gives the film its most problematic performance as the corrupt matron, a character which comes very close to overkill despite the fact Emerson herself deservedly received a Best Supporting Actress nomination. Her ice cold demeanour and snarling voice threaten to turn the entire production into a lurid B-movie, but as the physical embodiment of all that’s wrong with the system she has a lot to carry on her ample shoulders and she does so with great skill aided by a script which refuses to wallow in too many clichés.

The Caine Mutiny (USA 1954) (9): Newly graduated from Princeton, fresh-faced and privileged mama’s boy Willie Keith does his part for the war effort by joining the Pacific fleet as an ensign. Unfortunately his dreams of high seas adventure are scuttled when he finds himself assigned to The Caine, a rusty old minesweeper with a laissez-faire captain and a crew of ne’er-do-wells who haven’t seen any action in years. Keith’s initial disgust soon turns to hope however when the captain is replaced by Lt. Commander Philip Queeg (Humphrey Bogart), a strict disciplinarian with a reputation of doing things by the book who soon has the sailors properly dressed, clean shaven, and going about their duties with a reluctant enthusiasm. But with the passing of time it becomes apparent that the new captain’s strict adherence to rules and regulations masks something far more disturbing as his military zeal slowly morphs into a paranoid fanaticism which alienates him from everyone on board, including his own officers. Things finally reach a breaking point when his increasingly erratic behaviour forces second-in-command to forcibly take control of the ship. Now facing the death penalty for mutiny the officer must rely not only on the wiles of his lawyer but on the support of his fellow NCOs as well—the latter proving far more problematic than he could have imagined. Released just three years before his death, this powerful WWII drama garnered Humphrey Bogart his third Oscar nomination and for good reason. As the shellshocked Queeg he displays a depth of emotion rarely seen in his previous films, his outstanding performance backed up by fellow stars Johnson, Fred MacMurray, and José Ferrer. Not interested in burning his protagonist at the stake, director Edward Dmytryk (just recovering from his own Hollywood blacklisting) presents us with a conflicted man whose conscientious efforts to do the right thing are constantly undermined by a resentful staff and his own personal demons. Scenes of shipboard life range from good-natured sloth to strained stand-offs and a climactic storm filmed with enough dizzying effects to elicit a case of widescreen seasickness. But it is the controlled tension of the final court martial hearing that delivers the movie’s most dramatic punches as erstwhile friends turn traitorous, recollections become muddled, and Maryk’s noble intentions are called into question even as Dmytryk wrings a surprising amount of sympathy for the beleaguered Queeg. And although it borders on the preachy, a final angry monologue delivered by Maryk’s lawyer puts everything into uncomfortable focus as he calls everyone’s innocence into question—including the woefully inexperienced Willie Keith. Despite a tacked-on romance between Keith and a San Francisco nightclub singer, this remains an intelligent war time drama which goes beyond the usual Stars ‘n Stripes tropes to deliver a psychological minefield of its own.

The Cakemaker (Israel 2017) (6): Berlin pastry chef Thomas falls in love with married Israeli businessman Oren and the two begin a months-long affair, seeing each other whenever Oren’s job takes him to Germany. But when Oren is killed in a traffic accident back home Thomas seeks closure by travelling to Jerusalem where he begins to clandestinely spy on Anat, his dead lover’s unsuspecting widow. Drawn to Anat, perhaps because she unwittingly shares his grief, Thomas takes a job in her cafe where his dessert creations become an instant sensation… Food as metaphor is nothing new to cinema and director Ofir Raul Graizer (himself a cook of some renown) wastes no time in tying the delicate art of pastry making to the film’s fragile sense of sorrow and bittersweet longing. A simple cinnamon cookie becomes both an erotic vehicle and a rallying point of religious oppression when Anat’s orthodox brother-in-law balks at the idea of a non-kosher German goy breaking eggs in her pantry. Unfortunately, like the film’s many flashes of gastro-porn, too much sugar ruins the recipe and in exploring the individual grief of his two protagonists Graizer too often skews his movie’s quiet pathos into outright melodrama with sad music in a minor key and a double-take resolution rooted in identity politics that smacked of artifice. And Thomas’ happy flashbacks to life with Oren consist mainly of the usual naked couplings (looking very awkward indeed) and clichéd chatter revolving around love and loneliness—apparently an ersatz marriage is better than nothing. Tim Kalkhof and Sarah Adler excel as the two widows and a welcome twist towards the end turns the film’s underlying theme on its ear, but the whole production still felt like a gay chick flick aimed at a straight audience.

Calamity Jane (USA 1953) (5): Doris Day piles on the hick routine with a shovel in this ridiculously camp Warner Brothers musical fit only for diehard fans. The rootin’, tootin’ wild west town of Deadwood Dakota is apparently populated by horny old men and one quarrelsome female scout—Doris strutting about in buckskin breeches and confederate cap—who likes to chug down sarsaparilla and hang out with the likes of Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel) when she’s not shootin’ it out with them red-skinned varmints (PC audiences be forewarned). Unfortunately Calamity also likes to tell tall tales so when she promises to bring celebrated midwest chanteuse Adelaide Adams to town for a one-night engagement at Deadwood’s own Golden Garter saloon, she finds herself bound for Chicago—she pronounces it “Chi-coggy”, how quaint—to do just that. But thanks to a case of mistaken identity she accidentally drags Adams’ personal maid Katie (Allyn Ann McLerie) back instead. Dire emotional entanglements follow when Katie not only catches the eye of Wild Bill, whom Jane enjoys a seemingly platonic relationship with, but also piques the romantic interests of dashing Lieutenant Danny Gilmartin (Philip Carey) from the local garrison—a man Jane is secretly smitten with herself… The frontier sets are basic studio backlot fare as are the cowboys ’n Indians outfits, but aside from the Oscar-winning melody, “Secret Love”, the song & dance numbers are lively if nothing else. And when Katie temporarily bunks with Jane the initial chemistry between the two women—they gaze lovingly into each other’s eyes as they turn her rundown shack into a girlie cottage—was enough to receive a sly “wink-wink nudge-nudge” from gay viewers. But Day’s ugly duckling transformation from sassy tomboy to frilly white trash debutante just in time for the annual ball is a stretch and her annoying swagger coupled with Hollywood’s idea of wild west argot (Window, cigarette, and creek get butchered into “winnder”, “ciga-reet” and “crick”) quickly become insufferable. A retro treat for those so inclined, a cloying endurance test for everyone else. Yee-haw.

Caligula (Italy/USA 1979) (6): Malcolm McDowell plays insanity for all it’s worth in Penthouse Films overreaching and salacious historical fuckfest chronicling the rise and fall of Roman emperor Caius Caligula. Following the family tradition of killing all obstacles in his way Caligula dispatches his grandfather Tiberius (a pockmarked Peter O’Toole) in order to claim the title of Caesar for himself. At first content to have the decidedly eccentric upstart in power the army and senate discreetly turn a blind eye to his incestuous love affair and other sundry perversions, but when Caligula begins threatening their own livelihoods his messy demise is only a matter of time. Highly controversial upon its initial release thanks to a mix of big name stars and X-rated non-sequiturs Caligula now seems a camp, if overly violent exercise in big budget exploitation. Sloppily edited thanks to Penthouse editor Bob Guccione’s insistence on mixing pornography with spectacle it nevertheless contains some scenes of inspired lunacy: a thoroughly mad Caligula orders his troops to attack a lake full of bullrushes, Tiberius wanders about a lavish palace overflowing with deviants and grotesques, and an orgy to end all orgies erupts when a host of senators’ wives are recruited to serve in the royal bordello. Even a surprisingly young Helen Mirren takes it up the backside during an Isis convention. Vulgar, gratuitous, and historically suspect—but the overall sense of decadence is palpable while the flamboyant costumes and elaborate sets are amazing. The acme of arthouse sleaze.

Call Northside 777 (USA 1948) (7): When his sweet Polish mother places an ad offering a small fortune in exchange for any information proving him innocent, a convicted cop-killer currently serving a life sentence attracts the attention of cynical newspaper reporter P. J. McNeal (James Stewart). Believing the man guilty as charged, McNeal nevertheless begins to reinvestigate the eleven-year old case and what he uncovers makes him doubt not only the jury’s verdict but the entire judicial system itself. Based on a true story and kept as realistic as possible—the actual newspaperman serves as technical advisor and inventor Leonarde Keeler makes a cameo with his newfangled polygraph machine—this is a fine early example of the “investigative journalism” genre with Stewart giving his usual downplayed performance as a man hungry for the truth backed by a mixed cast of veteran screen actors (Lee J. Cobb as McNeal’s editor, Richard Conte as the convict) and talented newcomers (a 60-year old Kasia Orzazewski wrings your heart as the mother). Director Henry Hathaway also reaches for authenticity with real Chicago locations serving as backdrops, from a dreary tenement project where a crucial clue awaits to an even drearier prison with cells stacked atop one another like a beehive. The final piece of the puzzle is a bit of a stretch though, and in an effort to assure viewers that the system eventually works after all director Henry Hathaway ends it with a small slice of apple pie while an offscreen narrator solemnly declares, “It’s a good world—outside”. Indeed it is.

Calvary (Ireland 2014) (10): In its religious context “Calvary” refers to the Crucifixion where an innocent Jesus was sacrificed for the sins of mankind; in a more secular sense it describes any moment of extreme mental or physical anguish. In this devastating drama writer/director John Michael McDonagh manages to unite both definitions to challenge his audience with a monumental quandary both humanist and theological in scope. Soft-spoken bearish Father James (an amazing turn from Brendan Gleeson) is the parish priest in a tiny seaside village where the inhabitants gleefully indulge in all seven deadly sins, a fact he has grown to accept with quiet perseverance. While hearing confession one Sunday he is confronted by a faceless parishioner who casually mentions that he is going to kill him in one week’s time in order to exact revenge on past sins committed against him. Thus faced with his impending murder James spends the next seven days contemplating everything from the nature of sin and forgiveness to human mortality and the preciousness of existence itself. As if seeing the locals for the first time in his life the good Father is at once outraged and moved to compassionate action by the self-destructive folly around him—and each small epiphany brings him one day closer to his appointment with an angry killer. Relieved somewhat by flashes of very dark yet well placed humour, McDonagh’s rustic Passion play builds upon a succession of revealing episodes in which Father James seems to be the only person actually evolving. The static nature of the characters around him may seem off-putting, even comical, until one realizes them for the biblical archetypes they represent—with the forlorn adulteress and weary rich man rubbing shoulders with the mocking cynic and (in this case) prodigal daughter while Gleeson’s shaggy Christ tries to heal what he can, his own version of Gethsemane played out on an airport tarmac. Filmed with an eye for pastoral charms which belie its sense of impending tragedy, McDonagh uses medieval ruins, stark hillsides, and thundering surf to underline James’ own troubled spirit—the juxtaposition of the solid and eternal with ever-changing seascapes providing a series of poignant metaphors culminating in a sobering montage of people and places. Harrowing and thoroughly engrossing, one of the more spiritual films I’ve seen in some time.

Camera Buff (Poland 1979) (8): The suffering of the artist (or myopic pigheadedness, or sociopolitical obligation depending on your viewpoint) is the focus of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s pre-Solidarity satire which skewers all notions of “official story”. Eager to document the arrival of his first child, Filip Mosz blows two months’ worth of paycheques on an 8mm movie camera. When word spreads of his new toy Filip’s boss is eager to use Mosz as a PR tool, filming happy employees at work and play. But the camera never lies—or rather the person behind the camera films what he wants—and as Filip’s work attracts the attention of social activists and artistes alike he finds the strain of “showing the truth” affecting both his public and private life. “You never know who you’ll help, or who you’ll harm…” says one of his friends who has just lost his job thanks to one of Mosz’s ill-informed five minute exposés, and it would appear truer words were never spoken. Light in tone but carrying a powerful sting, Kieslowski doesn’t condemn Filip’s newfound journalistic zeal—indeed the director himself made a career out of holding up a cinematic mirror to his audience—but there are at least two sides to every story and in the hands of an ardent amateur a camera can be as dangerous as a loaded gun especially when he begins to blur the lines between real-time life and composed images. A wry little gem that revels in its low budget appearance as well as star Jerzy Stuhr’s wonderfully hangdog expressions.

Camille (USA 1936) (9): Set in 19th century France, George Cukor’s grandaddy of all tearjerkers stars the great Greta Garbo as Marguerite, a self-centred Parisian courtesan whose extravagant lifestyle far outweighs her modest purse. Thanks to her seductive looks and carefree attitude however Marguerite is able to charm the francs right out of their owners’ pockets while giving very little in return. But when she finds herself the focus of a passionate triangle her usual aloof attitude comes back to pierce her right through the heart. On the one hand is the austere but fabulously wealthy Baron de Varville who regards Marguerite as a cherished object to be owned; on the other is Armand, heir to a modest estate who practically worships her yet has very little to offer financially. Shifting her attentions between the Baron’s cool stability and the uncertainty of Armand’s ardent embraces, Marguerite’s predicament is made all the more complicated by the knowledge she only has a very short time to live thanks to an unnamed illness that is slowly draining her of life and vitality. When she finally does decide between love and security will it be too late? When discussing the enduring quality of Cukor’s paean to amour fou (based on the novel by Dumas) one can certainly cite the lavish sets and costumes, the lush musical score, and the evocative cinematography that goes from boudoir intimacies to grand ballroom fêtes. And despite the draconian dictates of the Hays code which was firmly entrenched at the time there is a muted eroticism to the ongoing sexual politics whether it be a series of playful kisses or an urgent hug—in one telling scene Marguerite’s innocent birthday party swiftly transforms into a full-blown bacchanal. But it is Garbo’s magnificent performance that makes it all work. She doesn’t so much speak her lines as play with them, toying with the audience even as she toys with her onscreen suitors. Her portrayal of a woman of leisure frightened by the prospect of unconditional love as she faces her impending mortality would be so much overblown melodrama in the hands of a lesser artist—Garbo inhabits the part and makes us believe right up to that final heartbreaking close-up. This is what a movie star looks like.

Camille 2000 (Italy 1969) (5): Sleazemeister Radley Metzger’s arthouse nudie based on Dumas’ La dame aux camélias follows the doomed love affair between Amand Duval, the naive scion of an upper middle class family, and Marguerite Gautier, the voluptuous mistress of an Italian duke. Despite his friend’s warnings that she destroys every man she touches, the lovestruck Duval is immediately drawn to the seductive yet alarmingly frail Gautier. At first put off by her freewheeling sexuality and hedonistic ways Amand eventually gains access to her bed, and ultimately her heart. But everything worth having comes at a cost and in Amand’s case the price of Marguerite’s love may very well be his own heart and soul. Even though the once spicy sex scenes barely touch a 14A rating these days and the story itself is tired and clichéd, Metzger’s lush Italian settings, including a richly appointed Roman villa, are beautifully filmed while the mod 60s outfits and furnishings are pure groovy kitsch. A curious little time warp which neither moves nor titillates yet still remains watchable.

Campfire (Israel 2004) (7): A year after burying her husband, 42-year old Rachel is still feeling the loss. Although she never really loved him he was a good enough man and his presence gave her life the stability she craved. Now feeling the need to move forward she decides to sell his car (which she hasn’t touched since his death) uproot her two teenaged daughters and relocate to an as yet unbuilt controversial new settlement on the West Bank founded by her friend Shula’s husband Motke, an ideological Zionist. Wholly self-absorbed in her own problems Rachel ignores the heated protests of her increasingly cynical eldest daughter Esti and the dangerous liaison forming between her painfully naïve youngest Tami and a local group of male delinquents. Furthermore, she’s so busy waiting for romantic fireworks that she fails to recognize the innate decency of the modest bus driver Shula fixed her up with. It’s not until a series of minor revelations and confrontations occur, including a tragic turn with Tami, that Rachel finally sees what her own self-pity has wrought upon others. Ostensibly told by Tami in few opening voice-overs, Joseph Cedar’s politically-laced family piece—part healing circle, part coming-of-age drama—avoids the obvious melodramatic pitfalls by maintaining a cool distance from its characters while at the same time adding just enough humour and emotional turmoil to keep you connected. Although much of the underlying social commentary may be lost on those of us not well versed in Israeli politics, the human element rings loud and clear from Rachel’s desperate search for a new niche to her girl’s growing resentment of mom’s blinders. Well acted with a restrained cinematography to keep things grounded and a wistful score that wavers between major and minor keys as if to remind us that sometimes life just happens.

The Canal (Ireland 2014) (7): The Grudge. Ringu. Jacob’s Ladder. The Amityville Horror. Paranormal Activity. From demons lurking behind the wallpaper to cursed film stock, from evil homes to waterlogged spirits, there isn’t much writer/director Ivan Kavanagh doesn’t leave out in this panicky, cliché-riddled shocker. Yet, despite its many stumbles I still found myself enjoying the ride far more than I should have. Film archivist David (Rupert Evans) is shocked when he’s handed a scratchy old crime scene reel from 1902 detailing a brutal mass murder that occurred in the very townhouse he now occupies with his corporate wife Alice (Dutch beauty Hannah Hoekstra) and five-year old son Billy (unexpectedly seasoned performance from little Calum Heath). Upon further investigation David discovers the house actually has a very troubling past, one which now seems poised to threaten the present after he begins doubting his own sanity. Strange shadows drift across the room, whispers emanate from behind walls, and a borrowed camera records things that shouldn’t be there. But when he becomes the prime suspect in a bit of foul play, David convinces himself that he’s being targeted by a malevolent force… Jump cuts and strobe effects take centre stage as David’s close encounters with the supernatural begin to unravel his mind—a mucky public washroom provides a rendezvous with horror, a sewer line leads to Hell on Earth—while his sympathetic boss begins to question his innocence and a determined police detective closes in with a warrant. Kavanagh and cinematographer Piers McGrail go full throttle, taking audiences into increasingly narrow spaces as David’s feverish mind runs out of options—is he a victim or a madman? And the special effects department outdoes itself with grimy wraiths crawling out of mud puddles and staccato footage of mutilated bodies that leaps back and forth between grainy B&W and monochromatic shades of blood red. But just as things threaten to spin out of control Kavanagh reins it all in for a hysteria-laced climax followed by a chillingly downplayed coda as sad as it is creepy. This isn’t high art by any means, the pace is rushed and you could drive a hearse through some of its plot holes (why do supposedly smart people do such stupid things whenever they suspect there’s a ghost involved?). Taken as a genre piece however you can write off the missteps especially with such fine performances including Steve Oram as the dyspeptic detective, Antonia Campbell-Hughes as the boss with more than a professional interest, and Kelly Byrne as the live-in nanny who bears the brunt of David’s monomaniacal obsession.

Can-Can (USA 1960) (6): Set in fin-de-siècle gay Paree yet having very little to do with either Paris or the Gilded Age aside from a few gaudy sets, 20th Century Fox’s adaptation of Abe Burrow’s musical comedy is a loud and lacklustre affair all around. The story, what there is of it, centres on a love triangle which develops between headstrong cabaret owner Simone Pistache (a screeching Shirley MacLaine), her sometimes callous lawyer-slash-lover François (Frank Sinatra, about as French as a New Jersey teamster), and Philipe Forrestier, the punctilious judge determined to shut her down even as he falls head over heels for her (Louis Jourdan, French if nothing else). The issue? Simone’s nightly headline act is the scandalous Can-Can dance in which the girls on stage lift their skirts to reveal their bloomers—an act labeled obscene by the local chapter of uptight prudes. Thus, with the gendarmes continually raiding her establishment and her two suitors tugging her in opposite directions—François is committed to defending her but balks at marrying her, Philipe is committed to upholding the law but is willing to make an exception for a kiss and a vow—the stage is literally set for musical high-jinx and choreographed romance. Unfortunately the original Broadway show was gutted for the screen with Sinatra’s character tacked on and some of those wonderful Cole Porter tunes either dropped or reworked and it shows in the clunky dialogue and anachronistic musical numbers which have less to do with 1896 Paris and more to do with 1960s New York beatniks. Maurice Chevalier needlessly drags himself out of retirement to play a sympathetic magistrate and hoofer extraordinaire Juliet Prowse provides the film’s only sparkle as a member of the chorus vying for François’ affections, yet she’s sadly consigned to Shirley MacLaine’s overbearing shadow.

Cannibal (Spain 2013) (5): Terribly shy tailor Carlos adores women—as long as they are properly butchered, pan-seared, and paired with a nice red wine. And then one day a beautiful Romanian migrant moves into his building, a woman who unknowingly shares a twisted connection with him already, and for the first time in his life Carlos feels something towards the fairer sex besides hunger pains. But is it really possible for a cannibal to fall in love with his lunch? The ridiculous premise of Manuel Cuenca’s film would be more palatable were it presented as a comedy, but as a completely sober psychodrama its plodding pace and lifeless script offer neither romance nor chills. Lead Antonio de la Torre portrays Carlos as a mere shell with no backstory other than a few haphazard comments which go nowhere while Olimpia Melinte plays an awkward double role as both victim and sweetheart. The two might as well have been in separate movies for all the onscreen chemistry they share. At least Pau Birba’s moody cinematography shows a good story with close shots of the world passing by Carlos’ barred shop window or huge panoramas of howling snowstorms and rocky crags. With gore only implied, Birba manages to generate a few mild frissons with the first roadside kill and a subsequent seaside stalking—Carlos caressing his victims like an ardent lover as he reaches for the cleaver—but his art is wasted on the film’s overall banality. One penultimate passage does try to reflect something of Carlos’ troubled psyche (love as a wasteland?) but it quickly gets lost among the mountains. Then, seemingly as a desperate last measure, Cuenca throws in some Catholic voodoo with a statue of the Virgin (aka Immaculate Barbie) parading past like the ultimate morsel. And finally, clean out of fresh ideas (?), he ties it up with a resolution so absurd Hannibal Lecter would have spewed his chianti.

The Cannibal Club (Brazil 2018) (5): “Kill the poor to feed the rich” is a sentiment Guto Parente’s blood-soaked satire takes to the extreme, and perhaps a little beyond. Wealthy snobs Otavio and Gilda have two overriding passions in life—satisfying Otavio’s cuckold fantasies using hunky hired hands, and then eating them afterwards. The two are certainly not alone in this for Otavio is also a member of a secret cabal of industrialists and government officials determined to rid Brazil of “scum and pederasts” even if they have to put every last favela on the menu. But the tables are turned when Gilda witnesses a prominent governor in flagrante delicto behind the tool shed and the two predators suddenly find themselves at the top of the quarry list. Sometimes a metaphor can be taken too far and Cannibal Club’s single running joke doesn’t carry it for long especially when Parente insists on grinding his “message” into the audience’s collective face—a rant focused on how the rich are inconvenienced by the lower classes is needless overkill. Emotive performances and predictable ironies turn what could have been a politically charged feast into little more than a modest midnight nosh.

Cannibal Ferox (Italy 1981) (4): Ruggero Deodato’s 1980 “video nasty”, Cannibal Holocaust, had a warped creativity which made its bloody excesses somehow less gratuitous. But this carbon copy rip-off by Umberto Lenzi has no such aspirations as it serves up sadism, animal cruelty, and assorted eviscerations as if they were carnival sideshows. A PhD candidate in anthropology travels to the Amazon with her friends in order to disprove the existence of cannibalism—so the director is familiar with IRONY at least. Their jaunt takes an unfortunate turn however when they meet up with a crazed drug dealer and his injured sidekick who are running away from a tribe of enraged natives. Long story short: no one escapes and the blood (and intestines, and eyeballs, and brains) begins to flow. So-so special effects are pretty much rendered laughable by the cast’s horrendous acting—I’ve seen muppets with a wider range of expression—while the indigenous extras either look bored to tears or on the verge of snickering. Nevertheless, Lenzi’s splatter flick does contain a couple of memorable scenes in which a woman is hoisted up by steel hooks in her breasts and a castrated man looks on in horror as the village chief pops the severed member into his mouth like a stick of Juicy Fruit. Note to the chief: those things are a lot more fun to chew on when they’re still attached.

Cannibal Girls (Canada 1973) (5): Not many people are aware of the fact that Canada churned out a fair number of slasher films back in the 70's and 80's. Case in point is this camp mix of lowbrow horror and campus humour. Sweethearts Clifford and Gloria (SCTV alumni Eugene Levy and Andrea Martin) are vacationing in a small Ontario town when they happen upon a most unique restaurant run by the caped and top-hatted Rev. Alex St. John, his feral handyman, and a trio of beautiful Manson girls. Unfortunately, this particular establishment's signature dishes contain generous amounts of "tourist" prompting the two Torontonians to flee for their lives until they realize that Cannibal Cuisine is more popular in Northern Ontario than they thought. Although the storyline is full of holes, the acting never rises above the level of a dark sitcom and the gore factor is annoyingly tame, there is something endearingly Canadian about this sophomoric little oddity. Perhaps it's the snowy vistas and small town charm, or the dry self-effacing humour which assures the audience that both cast and crew are well aware of what they've produced, but this turkey actually works on some strange level. The addition of gimmicky "warning bells" wherein a submarine klaxon alerts the squeamish to close their eyes before a particularly nasty scene provides the perfect cheesy topping. Not that good, not that bad.

Cannibal Holocaust (Italy 1980) (6): Despite its numerous problematic elements, Ruggero Deodato’s “found footage” shocker—filmed on location in Columbia—hits the screen with such sickening ferocity that you have to admire its crude artistry even if it means wading through reel after reel of disgust. Four American documentarians searching for a tribe of elusive cannibals go missing soon after they enter the Amazon rainforest. Months later anthropologist Harold Monroe (porn star Robert Kerman aka “R. Bolla”) is sent to South America to find out what happened, and after a few harrowing encounters of his own (delicate stomachs and sensibilities be forewarned) manages to recover the lost crew’s film canisters which he promptly brings back to New York. Reviewing the footage with television execs eager to capitalize on the mysterious disappearance, Monroe is horrified by what he sees: the missing filmmakers were not quite the innocent journalists that they claimed to be and their cameras ended up recording their ultimate fate at the hands of outraged natives hellbent on inflicting a terrible revenge… Dominated by grisly scenes of torture, rape, disembowelment, and animal slaughter, the film was so appallingly realistic that Italian authorities believed the director had actually produced a snuff film and had him arrested on charges of murder—charges that were dropped after his actors appeared in court to prove they were all alive and well. And to make the carnage even more gut-churning it’s largely recorded with wobbly handheld cameras where jump cuts and erratically spliced segments only add to the sense of pandemonium. Oddly enough, while the musical score contains the usual electric jolts and sustained chords, the main theme is a breezy orchestral melody more suited to an avant-garde perfume commercial(??) Revolting through and through, this is still more than a simple grindhouse exploitation flick for Deodato uses it to focus a jaundiced eye on the culpability of “objective observers” and tabloid journalism (the documentary crew were truly awful people), the marketability of sensationalism in the days before web browsers made it commonplace, and Western perceptions of indigenous people as hooting savages. But my husband summed it up rather succinctly when he turned to me the next morning and blurted, “What the fuck were you watching last night?!”

Canopy (Australia 2013) (9): During WWII an Aussie pilot is shot down over the forests of Singapore. Alone in an overgrown no man’s land with meagre rations and surrounded by enemy gunfire “Jim” must rely on his wits and blind luck in order to evade capture—or worse. Crossing paths with a Chinese soldier in similar circumstances, the two men begin a high stakes game of cat and mouse in a jungle teeming with Japanese troops. With its slow deliberate pace, lack of dialogue, and refusal to blow things up every two seconds, writer/director Aaron Wilson’s novel anti-war film is definitely not for every taste. There are no Apocalypse Now pyrotechnics or guts’n’glory sermonizing, instead he throws his two protagonists into a fallen Garden of Eden whose lush foliage offers no sanctuary, whose otherwise serene skies are ripped apart by flying shrapnel and where ethereal sunsets are marred by a pall of smoke and ashes. At one point a pair of enemy bombers is reflected in the calm waters of a tropical pond, in another passage the red glow of a flare transforms the nighttime forest into a crimson circle of Hell. Although punctuated now and again by muffled Billie Holliday tunes and sombre bass chords, Wilson’s soundtrack consists primarily of heightened natural sounds and the ever present clash of swords—every birdcall and whining bullet seems to contain within it a deeper spiritual significance which underscores the men’s physical tribulations. Surreal, hypnotic, and unexpectedly complex, it all leads to an ending as lyrical as it is sobering. Arthouse cinema at its most intense.

Can’t Buy Me Love (USA 1987) (7): Ronald Miller (a terribly young Patrick Dempsey) is Tucson High School’s most unpopular senior while blonde cheerleader Cindy Mancini (Amanda Peterson) is the centre of everyone’s attention. But after a lovestruck Ronald comes to the aid of a cash-strapped Cindy one afternoon she reluctantly agrees to “pretend date” him for a month so he can increase his social standing—much to the confusion of her stuck-up girlfriends and his posse of fellow geeks. However, as their four week contractual agreement comes to an end crossed purposes and romantic misunderstandings have Cindy reexamining her feelings while Ron, on the other hand, becomes an insufferable boor thanks to his newfound popularity. Something, obviously, has to change… This is pure 80s schlock from the overly enthusiastic performances and strictly categorized school body (everyone is either a slut, a jock, a valley girl, or a nerd) to the wonderfully horrid fashion sense—neon leg warmers, big feathered hair, sparkly face powder, and top knot ponytails…oh my! And then there’s the three obligatory scenes shown in every teen romcom from that era: the girls’ locker room, the drunken house party, and the big school dance. But, abashed nostalgia and clunky narrative devices aside, it remains a likeable tale of opposites attracting and everyone getting a great big overbearing lesson on inclusivity, tolerance, and the importance of just being yourself. Dempsey fawns and trips over his own feet with conviction while Peterson adds a touch of insight to an otherwise flat character, and a 13-year old Seth Green twirls a non-existent moustache as Ronald’s bratty little brother whose schemes always seem to end with a fart joke. For younger audiences it’s little more than a fluffy time capsule with a few small offences to latch on to (OMG they used the “R” word!) but for those who came of age when this was still premiering in theatres it’s an entertaining example of how Hollywood thought teenaged lives should be lived. It also left me with one of filmdom’s better put-downs: “She’s given more rides than Greyhound”. Bwahaha!

A Canterbury Tale (UK 1944) (7): At the height of WWII three strangers cross paths in a small English village: an easygoing American soldier, his British counterpart, and a young shop girl assigned to agricultural duty by the Home Office. Even though they’ve just met it soon becomes apparent they have a few things in common; two are nursing broken hearts while the third still regrets an unrealized childhood dream. Despite the bucolic comforts of their surroundings, this is a village where the realities of war are confined to a troop barracks on the outskirts of town and the occasional childhood game of “soldier”, they nevertheless find themselves drawn to the nearby cathedral in Canterbury where, like the medieval pilgrims in Chaucer’s tales, blessings and a few everyday miracles await them. With it’s unapologetic romanticism and a script that often veers dangerously close to schmaltzy excess there are at least a dozen reasons I should trash this movie. Yet, in spite of these glaring faults, there is a marvelous sense of innocence and wonder here which defies all attempts to discredit it. Perhaps it’s the lyrical cinematography teeming with windswept clouds and sunny fields, or the sympathetic performances that cut through much of the film’s more syrupy elements. The seemingly strict and inflexible nature of a local magistrate provides some astute social criticism, especially when he confesses his own inner fears, and the directors’ attempt to draw comparisons between these modern pilgrims and those of old is intriguing if ultimately weak. A bizarre storyline involving a mysterious man who assaults women by pouring glue on their heads proves to be an unnecessary plot device however and only hampers the film’s pastoral charms. Hard to recommend, but harder yet to simply dismiss. Note: this review is based on the UK version of the film.

The Canterbury Tales (Italy 1972) (7): Covering all seven of the deadly sins and featuring lusty young bodies, cuckolded husbands, and the lowest forms of scatological humour, Pasolini’s adaptation of Chaucer’s ribald stories never strays far from the common and bawdy, a fact which saw it banned in several countries upon its initial release despite having won the coveted Golden Bear award in Berlin. Containing only eight of the original tales, Pasolini wastes little time introducing the premise (a group of medieval pilgrims on their way to Canterbury entertain one another with fanciful yarns) and instead dazzles the audience from the outset with swirling period costumes in every colour—except for a puzzling ode to Charlie Chaplin—and grandiose sets that incorporate the ruins of ancient castles and monasteries. Although his largely amateur cast have little trouble doffing their clothes for some of the more salacious passages—a free-for-all in a brothel ends with a golden shower from on high—the sobering little ironies Chaucer inserted into each tale sometimes get overshadowed by all the tits and lechery. “The Pardoner’s Tale” in which a trio of arrogant youth go in search of Death only to find him where they least expected proves to be one of the exceptions with its elements of greed and hubris as pertinent today as they were in Chaucer’s time. But Pasolini saves his sharpest vitriol for the Catholic church, all those irreligious barbs culminating in a surreal vision of Hell poised somewhere between Hieronymus Bosch and Terry Gilliam where naked Mardi Gras demons cavort among hills of volcanic ash and Satan himself farts out priests and deacons from between his fiery red butt cheeks. Amen brother, amen.

Can’t Help Singing (USA 1944) (6): Deanna Durbin warbles her way across the Wild West in yet another frothy vehicle meant to cash in on her amazing voice. This time she’s Caroline Frost, the pleasantly spoiled daughter of a U.S. senator who goes against her father’s wishes by running away to California in order to marry her beloved fiancé, a dashing cavalry officer. With dad in hot pursuit Caroline will brave Indian bands and wagon trains while being shadowed by a pair of Eastern European con artists intent on relieving her of her luggage (Akim Tamiroff and Leonid Kinskey providing a few good laughs with their Russian Laurel & Hardy routine). But her resolve falters when she meets a rakish card shark (Robert Paige), a handsome rogue who puts more than a song in her heart… Filmed in eye-searing Technicolor which makes the most of his majestic Utah locations, director Frank Ryan doesn’t exactly reinvent the musical but then again he doesn’t have to for Durbin’s fresh-faced sweetness commands the screen while her vocal cords set the speakers humming—in one tuneful interlude she twirls among pine-covered hills and one can’t help but be reminded of Julie Andrews' similar alpine romp twenty years later. Finally, Jerome Kern’s songs give the film its reason for being ranging as they do from the gushingly romantic “More and More” (nominated for an Oscar) to the unintentionally camp “Californ-i-ay” which gives us lines like: “In gay Californ-i-ay…the hills have more splendour, the girls have more gender…” Oh Jerome, if you only knew.

Can We Take a Joke? (USA 2015) (9): Back in the 60s, controversial comic Lenny Bruce sold out comedy clubs even as he found himself constantly under attack from police and law officials for his on-stage use of dirty words and sexual references. As the obscenity charges and jail time piled up he eventually succumbed to a lethal mixture of stress, depression, and drug abuse—but his life and death did lead to a renewed call for freedom of speech across the USA. Now, according to Ted Balaker’s infuriatingly accurate documentary, in today’s society the role of social censor has passed from lawmakers to the so-called “Outrage Mob” who take offence at the slightest off-colour joke and then use social media like a cyber lynch mob. And sadly nowhere is this more evident than on college campuses, those former hotbeds of anarchy now reduced to soft bastions of political correctness where having an opinion that differs from the herd is cause for expulsion or at least disgrace and public reprimands. From outré comedian Gilbert Gottfried who lost a lucrative deal promoting Aflac Insurance because of a tsunami joke to university student Chris Lee who required a security escort to class after he penned a satirical burlesque on the life of Jesus, the Easily Offended are targeting comedy and they’re using online platforms to quash the first amendment even as they enjoy its freedoms themselves. And it’s not just limited to entertainers as former PR exec Justine Sacco discovered when, en route to South Africa, she tweeted a joke to her 130 followers about AIDS and race meant as a rebuke against North America’s “white bubble” only to find herself fired and the target of thousands of rape and death threats before her flight even landed. How this happened is a question Balaker puts to a succession of funnymen and women and the answers are as diverse as the performers themselves as they talk about misplaced empowerment and a self-congratulatory attitude of being a good person for standing up to jokes which are not safe and pretty. But there is a push back, for just as the hateful ignorance of the Westboro Baptist Church is changing minds in the opposite direction so too are the public hissy fits of the easily offended. “If we as comics steered clear of every topic that might offend somebody we would never open our mouths…” says bad girl comedienne Lisa Lampanelli who views vulgar humour as a way of confronting everything from racism to sexual assault (ironically it was a joke aimed at the 80s band “Journey” that almost got her beaten up) and one can only believe that the ensuing silence would usher in a new puritanical dark age. A bit of a history lesson, a bit of current events (the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris was still front page news) and a highly engaging series of interviews.

Capernaum (Lebanon 2018) (5): Caught between the mean streets of Lebanon and the squalor of an overcrowded apartment ruled by abusive parents, 12-year old Zain does whatever he can to keep his head above water whether it be running errands for local merchants or passing on bogus prescriptions for mom’s drug-dealing side business. But when his parents cross a line the little preteen runs away, eventually moving in with Rahil, an Ethiopian woman who is trying to evade deportation and the seizure of her Lebanese-born baby. Told in flashback as a young Zain—already serving a sentence in juvenile detention for a very adult crime—is back in court suing his parents for being awful people, writer/director Nadine Labaki piles misery upon misery as she tries to cram every social ill she can into two hours of viewing: human trafficking, child brides, the plight of migrants, racketeering, inadequate governance, and the crushing hopelessness shouldered by people who have nothing to their name and nowhere to go. And she almost succeeds. Played by a very talented, mostly amateur cast and filmed with a naturalistic flair reminiscent of Italian Neo-Realism, she gives us a ground level view of lives in perpetual chaos—from Zain’s futile quest for a better life (he believes Sweden to be the Promised Land), to Rahil’s game of cat-and-mouse with immigration, to Zain’s parents who dare the judge to judge them in light of their own struggles. And Labaki makes good use of all those dirty streets and crumbling architecture—at one point a sad carnival of creaking rides provides an apt metaphor. But long before you hit the halfway mark you begin to notice just how adorably photogenic the children are (the little baby smiles and coos on command), how Khaled Mouzanar’s score of melancholy strings and minor chords lets you know exactly when you’re supposed to weep, and how Zain’s vocabulary shifts from contrary little tyke to world-weary adult who’s lived too long and seen too much. In short, it devolves into poverty porn exploitation, the kind of manipulative Oscar-bait that Western audiences are supposed to praise because to do otherwise would be to label oneself an uncharitable monster. There are movies with a heartbreaking message, and then there are movies with an agenda that not only try to rip your heart out but want to beat you up with it as well. There are several far superior films out there that deal with the darkest side of childhood: Nair’s Salaam Bombay!, Klimov’s Come and See, Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, or Koreeda’s Nobody Knows to name but a few. Interesting side note however, the talented young actor who plays Zain (Zain Al Rafeea) was actually a Syrian refugee in Lebanon when he was cast by Labaki and he and his family are now resettled in Norway.

Caprice  (USA 1967) (4):  Doris Day excels at many things...playing a sexy secret agent is not one of them.  This little nugget is too silly even for her, perhaps that’s why the supporting cast deliver their lines with just a hint of self-conscious embarrassment.  Okay, the movie theatre scene was colourful but the rest was just colourfully dull.  A good film to have on in the background while you do your housework.  Or maybe you could just fire up iTunes instead.

The Captain Hates the Sea (USA 1934) (7): Based on Wallace Smith’s novel, Lewis Milestone’s engaging high seas comedy is not quite of the “screwball” variety but it could have served as a template for a Depression era episode of The Love Boat. Determined to start on his new book, washed out author Steve Bramley decides to forsake alcohol and take a Caribbean cruise in order to revive his creative juices. Of course his vow of sobriety lasts as long as it takes him to stagger from the gangplank to the bar, but as the ship leaves New York he finds himself surrounded by enough eccentrics and oddballs to fuel a dozen novels. There’s the hulking private eye who falls in love with the wrong girl; the browbeaten wife who’s losing patience with her abusive husband; and a Latin general on his way to the latest coup. And they’re all presided over by a drunken purser and the ship’s grumpy old captain who hates passengers almost as much as he hates the ocean. A who’s who of silent era character actors bring their voices to the screen—Alison Skipworth shines as a horny dowager with her eye on a handsome thief while Walter Connolly’s captain scowls and blusters like a dime store Bligh—and Milestone keeps the production on an even keel even though half the cast were pickled at any one time. Sadly, the role of Bramley proved to be the last major part for John Gilbert who was slowly drinking himself to death in real life. Look for the Three Stooges making their onscreen debut for Columbia Studios as a three-piece ship’s band.

Captain Phillips (USA 2013) (9): Despite my ongoing “Tom Hanks fatigue” and the Hollywood hyperbole surrounding the actual facts of the case, I still found this idealized account of the 2009 highjacking of an American cargo ship by desperate Somali pirates one of the more riveting actioners I’ve seen in quite some time. Sailing around the horn of Africa en route to Mombassa laden with heavy equipment and humanitarian supplies the Maersk Alabama, captained by New Englander Richard Phillips, finds itself boarded by a pack of armed men intent on taking over the ship and holding both it and the crew for ransom. What follows is a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse as Phillips bargains with the already agitated posse’s deadly serious leader while his hidden crew wage a war of sabotage against their kidnappers. But once the U.S. Navy gets involved with their “no hostages” mandate the stakes suddenly go from precarious to downright lethal. With quick editing, a pounding score, and cameras in perpetual motion, director Paul Greengrass’ high seas thriller moves effortlessly between wide ocean vistas and glaring blue skies to interior shots of metal rat mazes and broiling engine rooms—a tense stint aboard a bobbing lifeboat will have some reaching for the dramamine. But it is the psychological standoff between Phillips and pirate leader Muse (newcomer Barkhad Abdi deserving his Oscar nod) that propels the story forward. Refusing to demonize his antagonists, yet offering little sympathy, Greengrass presents them as beleaguered serfs propping up their courage with mild narcotics and watching their ill-gotten gains go to feed the coffers of local warlords. Captain Phillips on the other hand is a staunch middle class family man who nevertheless senses the moral ambivalence in Muse and, in the end, tries to prevent the bloodbath he fears is approaching. A taut and suspenseful piece of moviemaking…but if you’re hoping for a factual documentary you best look elsewhere.

Captains Courageous (USA 1937) (5): Forced pathos and a glib sentimentality abound in this watery tale of a spoiled rich kid from New York who becomes an insufferably contrite wuss after he accidentally falls off a luxury liner and is rescued by a gruff old mariner. Miles from land and with no hope of returning home until the cod season is over several weeks hence, little Harvey Cheyne (Freddie Bartholomew, not even trying to attempt an American accent) finds himself adopted by Captain Troop and his salty crew of clichéd sea dogs including Manuel Fidello the Portuguese fisherman who pulled him out of the sea (Spencer Tracy sporting a ridiculous accent that makes him sound more like a missing Marx Brother). Under Manuel’s fatherly guidance and the stern yet harmless camaraderie of his new shipmates Harvey undergoes a sea change (bwahahaha!!) in which brattiness is replaced by a sense of conscience and a predictable tragedy leads to a greater appreciation of all things pure and spiritual. Despite an impressive cast of Hollywood A-listers who bravely deliver their hackneyed lines with the utmost sincerity everyone ends up going down with the ship anyway.

Carandiru (Brazil 2003) (7): In October of 1992 Brazil’s infamous Carandiru prison, the largest in Latin America, was the scene of that country’s worst jail massacres as heavily armed riot police stormed the facility indiscriminately shooting inmates, killing over one hundred of them. Based on the book by Drauzio Varella, Carandiru’s doctor at the time, as well as first hand accounts from the prisoners themselves Hector Babenco’s brutal drama strives to attach a human element to the slaughter by putting us on intimate terms with a handful of inmates. Concentrating on kingpins Highness and Ebony who actually ran the prison while the warden looked the other way, Babenco uses flashbacks and impromptu interviews to add depth to each one of his subjects; there’s the hardened killer whose guilt eventually overwhelms him, the petty thief striving to support two wives, the pre-op transsexual in love with a fellow inmate, and the bewildered young naif whose one moment of rage landed him a 25-year sentence. As seen through the eyes of their idealistic resident physician, a skewed social contract has evolved amongst the prisoners fostered by a need to survive Carandiru’s grossly overcrowded and aging facilities. In fact, aside from the odd knifing and constant specter of HIV, life seems remarkably routine within the prison walls until an isolated skirmish between two rival cellblocks escalates into a full-blown siege prompting the authorities to send in the troops. There is a gritty realism to Babenco’s movie which was actually filmed inside an abandoned Carandiru shortly before it was demolished. His standout cast bring a complexity to their characters which contrasts sharply with their bleak surroundings and adds an undercurrent of primal energy to the story. Guilty perhaps of being a bit too sympathetic towards his subjects, these are hardened thieves and murderers after all, he nevertheless refuses to smooth over some of their more glaring faults; they may be flawed but they remain human throughout. Similarly, the film’s highly operatic final scenes of carnage and mayhem pull no punches as we see bullet-riddled bodies piled in hallways and pools of blood dripping down staircases. In the end the reasons behind the massacre are left deliberately vague; was it politically motivated? A series of personal vendettas? Cops gone wild? As one inmate succinctly puts it, “Prisons are no place for the truth”.

Caravaggio (UK 1986) (8): It’s 1610, and in a lowly fisherman’s hut the great Renaissance artist Michelangelo da Caravaggio lies dying, attended only by his loving servant Jerualeme and a few old women from the village. As he floats in and out of feverish dreams he reflects back on a life filled with controversy; from his sensuous, often homoerotic paintings to his various lovers…both male and female…to his many run-ins with the Catholic hierarchy. In Derek Jarman’s fanciful biopic the artist’s more famous paintings come to sumptuous life accompanied by the director’s signature penchant for anachronism and religious ridicule. In this particular version of the 16th century noblemen ride about on motorbikes, critics bang out scathing reviews on clunky typewriters, and priests do sums on old school calculators. The Church is seen as an opulent den of iniquity with drunken Vatican staff parties playing out in underground catacombs while the pontiff himself is portrayed as a crafty old queen. But it is when the camera focuses on Caravaggio, portrayed by a fiery Nigel Terry, that we see Jarman at the height of his skill. There is an intensity to his character bordering on the erotic which suggests a man born out of time, determined to wring as much love and pleasure out of life as he can yet bound to suffer the exquisite pain of the artist. And artistry abounds in Jarman’s work, with half naked models drifting in and out of painterly tableaux, delicate drapes brushing against imposing murals, and a background score that goes from high Renaissance chorales to wild jazz. A plucky, visceral film filled with elaborate conceits which toys with history even as it draws us in.

Carlito’s Way (USA 1993) (8): After serving only five years of a thirty year sentence for various drug and racketeering offences, gangster legend Carlito Brigante (an animated Al Pacino) finds himself back on the streets determined to turn his life around. Buying into a local nightclub his only dream is to make enough cash to move to the Bahamas where a former cellmate has a lucrative (and legitimate) job waiting for him. And just to sweeten the pot the girl he left behind has decided to give him a second chance. But the siren song of the underworld won’t let him go: friends need “special” favours, a new generation of thugs keep drawling lines in the sand, and his coke-addicted lawyer gets him involved in a harebrained scheme that just might land him back in jail—or worse. Carlito’s life has reached a monumental fork in the road and the path he chooses will make all the difference… Set in New York’s disco era Brian De Palma’s gritty story of one remorseful soul’s quest for redemption, based on the books by Edwin Torres, is an antithesis of sorts to 1983’s Scarface. Unlike Tony Montana’s headlong rush towards damnation, Carlito is struggling upstream all the way; a one-time criminal kingpin trying to put his past to rest. A brilliant supporting cast, including an unrecognizable Sean Penn as the manic lawyer, keep Pacino’s character slightly off balance as he struggles to redefine “right” from “wrong” while whirling cinematography and a score of old dance hits propel the action forward. Of course it wouldn’t be a De Palma film without a touch of the surreal and clever allusions to Heaven vs Hell are used throughout—the word “Paradise” pops up in various guises and a climactic encounter involves people going up (or down) escalators. Not your usual gangster film.

Carmen Jones (USA 1954) (8): Bizet’s classic opera is given a fresh American twist in Otto Preminger’s sumptuous widescreen technicolor production based on the Broadway play. Joe, a promising young Air Force lieutenant, forsakes his career, his future, and the only woman who ever loved him when he falls under the romantic spell of Carmen Jones, a fiery seductress who works at a factory adjacent to his barracks. But Carmen proves incapable of remaining faithful to any one man, a fact which will lead to tragedy and a spectacular fall from grace. With an all-black cast headlined by Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge, and Pearl Bailey, plus updated lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein set to Bizet’s classical score, Carmen Jones is one of those rare adaptations which actually manages to build upon its source. Although some of the lip-syncing is poorly timed, a few passages quaintly racist (“Joe, you is my man...”), and the more demanding pieces obviously dubbed (they hired professional opera singers to record the soundtrack), there is an undeniable passion and frank eroticism here which translate seamlessly from 19th century Spain to contemporary Chicago. Olé!

Carol (USA 2015) (9): As he did in 2002’s Far From Heaven, Todd Haynes once again channels the spirit of Douglas Sirk—the stirring score of pop tunes and orchestral movements, the lush Technicolor sweeps—to bring Patricia Highsmith’s novel of transgressive love to the big screen and the results are breathtaking. In 1950s New York mousy department store clerk Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) is irresistibly drawn to wealthy older socialite Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), an attraction which proves to be all too mutual. But as words inevitably lead to actions complications arise: Therese’s wannabe fiancé (Jake Lacy) demands an explanation for her cooling affections and Carol’s estranged husband (Kyle Chandler), all too aware of his wife’s sexual leanings, is about to embroil them both in a bitter custody battle over their little daughter. And the biggest complication of all? It’s the conservative ‘50s and that rainbow flag is still thirty years away. Deserving every one of its six Oscar nominations—from Mara and Blanchett’s intense performances to Sandy Powell’s vintage costume designs—Haynes has fashioned a widescreen romantic soap whose hushed eroticism is underscored by social realities and the pain so often inflicted when emotional entanglements become complicated. Mara plays the smitten naïf with a wide-eyed innocence that nevertheless hints at untapped passions while Blanchett’s seductive provocateur, all sultry voice and cigarette smoke, gradually reveals her own blind spots. Their onscreen chemistry could spark a wildfire and those bold love scenes are as unbridled as they are intimate. Cinematographer Edward Lachman (also nominated) performs a small miracle by turning contemporary Cincinnati into a bygone Manhattan where neon colours passersby and every scene is illuminated as if by gauzy candlelight. Windows also figure prominently, often superimposing rainy landscapes onto faces lost in thought or else blocking out a Winter chill. Haynes’ microcosm, alive with primary colours (oh that lipstick!), is at once cosmopolitan and crushingly puritan—the women are aware of the social sanctions levied against them yet at the same time Therese becomes acutely aware of the appraising stares she’s receiving from like-minded women who seem to be hiding everywhere in plain sight. Refusing to choose sides—the men are also affected by the homophobia aimed at the women—Haynes instead gives us a testament of what Love once had to endure and in doing so fashions a richly textured romance that left this gay male reviewer misty-eyed. And that is saying a lot.

Carousel (USA 1956) (3): Billy Bigelow, former carnival gigolo now deceased and working in a heavenly sweatshop polishing stars, is granted a request to return to earth for one day to help sort things out with his widow, Julie, and the daughter who was born after he died. In flashback we see how the gruff and virile Billy swept Julie off her naive young feet one evening, married her in haste, then turned into a lazy abusive lout while she strove to be the most lovable doormat 1870s Maine had ever seen. But once he found out she was pregnant he decided to become a responsible breadwinner; starting with an ill-fated armed robbery. Returning to earth fifteen years later he sees that Julie has gotten along well without him, his adolescent daughter however is not only having boy trouble but has had to endure years of merciless taunting on account of her late father being a thief and wife-beater. How can Billy instill a sense of pride in his daughter and comfort Julie’s broken heart in the short time allotted him? Whisper yet another sappy song into their ears of course! God knows there’s no shortage of those floating around in this facile and sickeningly sentimental cinemascope weeper, along with some featherweight drama, ham-fisted performances and ridiculously affected New England accents. With the exception of a nicely fluid ballet sequence towards the end the dance routines are clunky and dull (despite the obvious physical prowess of all those twirling gay boys); a choreographed clambake is particularly painful especially when the overzealous cast of extras belt out an impassioned ditty about splitting lobsters in half and sending clams “galloping down their gullets”. Unfortunately the film’s only standout anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” has been hijacked by so many telethons and schmaltzy Vegas acts in the intervening years that it now sounds even more trite than when it first debuted. Not even a feigned sense of nostalgia can excuse Carousel’s syrupy excesses; once around and you’ll be begging to get off.

Carrington (UK 1995) (9): The highly unorthodox yet deeply felt love affair between promising young artist Dora Carrington (Emma Thompson) and the acerbic though congenial gay author Lytton Strachey (Jonathan Pryce) forms the basis of writer/director Christopher Hampton’s beautifully realized biopic. Introduced to each other just as WWI was breaking out, the impressionable painter and much older writer found a kindred spirit in one another which saw them sharing not only a home together but a bed as well, albeit quite chastely. Over the next several years Strachey would become the only constant in Dora’s life, patiently standing by as she drifted through a string of lovers and one ill-advised marriage while his own health and romantic interests wavered. But the somewhat skittish Carrington never realized just how much of a pillar Strachey provided her with until time and circumstance began to take their toll… Set in a post-Edwardian landscape of colourful country cottages and idle rich with the ravages of war reduced to the occasional explosion echoing faintly across the channel, Hampton’s biography skips over the minutiae of Carrington’s life (her lesbian leanings for one) to concentrate instead on the relationship between his flawed but gifted protagonists—their lovingly frank banter and intimate confessions taking place against a backdrop of changing mores and short-term dalliances. Strachey was the rock to which Carrington tethered herself, a fact that became more apparent as the years passed and both matured in age if not outlook. A bit bigger than life in parts as befits its characters, Hampton nevertheless manages to hold the reins steady by balancing his film’s many lyrical passages with doses of candour and wit while his two stars completely immerse themselves in their roles, especially Pryce whose portrayal of the quietly effacing author earned him a BAFTA nomination. Passionate, moving, and almost achingly beautiful.

Cartel Land (USA 2015) (7): The much feted “War on Drugs” is visited by yet another documentary filmmaker, but this time around Matthew Heineman skirts the usual exposé of official collaboration and failed policies and instead focuses his lens on two very different men on opposite sides of the Mexican border who have more in common than first appearances would suggest. In the north Tim “Nailer” Foley has formed a heavily armed citizen’s vigilante group dedicated to patrolling the no-man’s land in southern Arizona where smugglers regularly transport drugs and people while the underfunded border patrol is nowhere to be seen. A thousand miles further south Dr. José Mireles has launched his own crusade against the drug gangs who are terrorizing the small towns of Mexico’s Michoacán province—his own neighbours having been beheaded a year earlier for violating one of the cartels’ many unwritten laws. But both men gradually discover that even the best of intentions often go awry as Foley finds his ranks swelling with the alt right (not that he puts up much of a protest) and Mireles’ “Autodefensa” league, composed of working class men who share his passion, begins to fall prey to the very corruption it swore to eradicate—with the government’s tacit approval no less. Shot in the usual jerky handheld style one associates with guerrilla filmmaking and making effective use of night skies and a fortuitous thunderstorm or two, Heineman concentrates mainly on Mireles (no naïve innocent himself) as his vision goes from heroic liberator to disillusioned martyr and beyond while the drug trade itself seems to receive little more than an inconvenient dent. Cynical with just a touch of despair, Heineman offers no solutions to the endless cycle of poverty, greed, and corruption but rather showcases a few brief victories in an all-consuming battle which shows no signs of slowing down. The fact that he bookends his film with scenes of an outdoor drug lab where masked men stir steaming cauldrons of meth like Macbeth’s witches only heightens the sense of futility.

Carve Her Name With Pride (UK 1958) (6): Violette Szabo was a fair English rose who went from being a headstrong war widow and single mother to one of the most celebrated Allied spies during WWII, receiving a posthumous George Cross from the king himself. Unfortunately, although the exploits of the real life Szabo were remarkable, in director Lewis Gilbert’s gushing biopic she is raised to sainthood in a tale of watered down peril where star Virginia McKenna seems to spend more time falling in love with co-star Paul Scofield than actual spying. The brits display those famous stiff upper lips, the Germans snarl, and Szabo’s heroic last stand is appropriately backlit by sombre clouds pierced through with sunbeams while the strings section goes wild. Nice performances however (McKenna received a BAFTA nomination) and after a meandering start the story takes off at a decent pace.

Casanova ’70 (Italy 1965) (7): Not exactly laugh-out-loud funny, but Mario Monicelli’s little Italian sex comedy still carries you along on sheer exuberance alone. NATO major Andrea Rossi-Colombotti (the incomparable Marcello Mastroianni) is unable to become sexually aroused unless there is an element of danger present, a condition his whacked-out analyst (Enrico Maria Salerna giving a fair Peter Sellers imitation) warns him will only get worse unless he manages to curb his daredevil libido. Nevertheless, Rossi’s need for risky sex will see him getting shot at while pretending to be a burglar in order to frighten his lover, shagging a German beauty in the middle of a museum exhibit, and facing the wrath of a Sicilian vendetta when he poses as a doctor hired to determine whether or not a young bride is a virgin (she most assuredly is not). But he faces his greatest challenge when he runs afoul of two women—one a sworn celibate who’s celibacy is negotiable (Virna Lisi) and the other a seductive vixen (Marisa Mell) married to a murderously jealous nobleman. It’s all froth and bubbles of course with Mastroianni gleefully diving out windows or scrambling up rooftops as he flees cuckolded husbands and enraged family members in his never-ending search for forbidden fruit—namely women who are neither free, nor easy, nor available. The sexual politics may be dated and those sexy lingerie encounters may earn no more than a saucy PG-rating, but it remains a noteworthy example of a genre all but forgotten.

Case 39 (USA 2009) (6): Overworked social worker Emily Jenkins is incensed when her supervisor gives her yet another suspected child abuse case to investigate, but when she visits the Sullivan home for the first time and meets 10-year old Lilith, a pale and timid little waif living in perpetual fear of her dour-faced parents, alarm bells begin to go off. Hostile and taciturn, Lilith’s parents vehemently resent any outside interference, in fact dad can’t even bring himself to speak with Emily directly preferring instead to whisper prompts into his wife’s ear. Lilith, in the meantime, just sits like a terrified doe caught in a pair of menacing headlights. Deeply disturbed by the meeting, Jenkins sets about trying to get the child placed into foster care despite the lack of any real evidence to support her suspicions of abuse. But when the Sullivans try to seriously harm their daughter one night Emily takes it upon herself to sponsor Lilith until the authorities can find her a permanent home. Then things start getting weird. With bad things happening around her and Lilith’s cherubic smiles becoming increasingly decorative, Emily begins to suspect that there is far more to Case 39 than she is willing to accept. Like all supernatural thrillers one must take huge leaps of faith here and ignore the obvious gaps in logic. Having accomplished this you are left with a decent, if unexceptional, shocker featuring appropriately theatrical performances backed by some unsettling effects (a particularly grisly bathroom scene will have you reaching for the earplugs). Director Christian Alvart does show some degree of control as he slowly ratchets up the suspense; unfortunately he leaves no room for either doubt or ambiguity hence you know from the outset where this is all heading but the buildup is chilling enough that you take the journey anyway. Alas, the final series of showdowns is disappointingly predictable (and a bit silly)...luckily we’re not threatened with a sequel. As Emily, Renée Zellweger is convincing as she shifts from naive do-gooder to bewildered dragon slayer while BC’s own Jodelle Ferland’s understated portrayal of Lilith makes The Omen’s Damian look like Bobby Brady on a good day. But it’s Vancouver, in the role of Portland, Oregon, which ultimately shines the brightest.

Cash McCall (USA 1960) (6): By all rights this “corporate romance” from Warner Brothers should have been scrapped before it was even finished. The script itself is a mush of free market dealing and lovestruck clichés while the slipshod editing gives rise to some glaring continuity flubs. Thankfully a dream cast of character actors including E. G. Marshall, Dean Jagger, and Henry Jones, combined with lead stars James Garner and Natalie Wood are enough to make things pleasantly watchable if nothing else. Business maverick Cash McCall (Garner, sexy as ever) has built an empire out of buying ailing businesses for a song and reselling them for a profit. With lawyers, accountants, and consultancy firms in his back pocket he’s not exactly breaking any laws but his methods could use a little ethical oversight. His latest acquisition, a plastics moulding company run by tycoon Grant Austen (Jagger), hits a double snag however when Austen has second thoughts and a rocky romance is rekindled between Cash and Austen’s daughter, Lory (Wood, all aglow). It seems the two met at a party the year before and a budding affair ended rather unceremoniously—cue ridiculous flashback with Natalie’s dress billowing in the wind, a moment of fireside passion, and inexplicable close-ups of eyes, mouths, and noses (did the writers hire a temp?). Anxious to begin where he left off, McCall must now woo the girl anew while making things right with a host of business associates, beginning with Lory’s dad. For you see, at heart he’s not the financial barracuda everyone makes him out to be. Those not familiar with Wall Street machinations, myself for instance, will find the corporate side of the story a tad confusing. Those looking for romance will likewise be disappointed for although they sparkle on their own, Garner and Wood generate little more than a pilot light when they share the screen, their love affair coming across as forced and barely credible—a yearlong obsession after one dance and a flash of skin? But Garner’s character is oh so rich and handsome as hell, a real “man’s man” who knows how to handle women (apparently you have to grab them by the elbow and force them along), while Wood smoulders as a conflicted WASP torn between her love for daddy and a libido that snaps like a hungry pooch whenever Cash enters the room. Interesting as a snapshot of America’s zeitgeist circa late 50s, most notably in the way it tempers capitalist ideology with social awareness—for every white collar deal, blue collar livelihoods are literally at stake. It’s also a prime example of just how rigid Hollywood’s sex roles could be when you compare Garner’s confident bravura with Nina Foch’s portrayal of Maude Kennard, the assistant manger of the hotel where McCall is residing. In the film’s most powerful performance she plays a successful businesswoman who nevertheless dotes on Cash like a giggling schoolgirl only to implode into a thousand bitter shards when she realizes she can’t have him. But, seeing as it's James Garner and all, I can’t say I blame her.

Casino (USA 1995) (9): A gaudily dressed businessman sits behind the wheel of a Cadillac and as he turns the key the car explodes marking the beginning of one of Hollywood’s most iconic opening scenes—a burning body tumbling slowly through sheets of hellfire which gradually resolve into the gaudy neon of the Las Vegas Strip. In much the same vein as his earlier Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese’s 3-hour mafia epic set mainly in the 1970s and loosely adapted from actual headlines traces the rise and fall of two men—once childhood friends now bitter opponents—as they vie for a piece of America’s gambling mecca. Sam Rothstein (a suave Robert De Niro) is a successful casino owner trying to tread a fine line between legitimate entrepreneur and mob associate. His chum Nicky Santoro (a maniacal Joe Pesci) on the other hand is a sadistic, foul-mouthed gangland enforcer determined to own Las Vegas by any means possible. And as the two strong-willed men become increasingly estranged a wild card enters the fray in the form of Ginger (Sharon Stone, phenomenal), a vivacious but dangerously unstable call girl-cum-huckster who steals Sam’s heart…among other things. Scorsese admitted in an interview that “…there’s a lot of action, a lot of story, but no plot…” and to be sure, as the body count rises in various bloody ways it becomes obvious that this is a tale of shifting powers set against a landscape of bright lights and darker corruption where the only direction available is straight down. No epiphanies, no salvation, and no moral edicts to tie it all together. But what it lacks in momentum it more than compensates with pure style from the garish sets and flashy wardrobes to a non-stop soundtrack that wrings ironic counterpoint from the likes of Fleetwood Mac, The Rolling Stones, and Little Richard among others. Mirrors figure prominently, a case of golden baubles becomes an unholy grail, and twinkling facades fail to downplay the villainy of America’s own Sodom & Gomorrah. Sensitive viewers be warned, F-bombs fall like rain and despite being edited down for an “R” rating, the carnage is still visceral enough to put you off your popcorn. James Woods co-stars as Ginger’s manipulative pimp and Sorsese shows some cheekiness by casting former Las Vegas showstoppers in various bit roles: Don Rickles, Alan King, and Frankie Avalon all get their respective fifteen minutes.

Casino Royale (UK 1967) (6): A 007 spoof which is not really that funny despite a slew of in-jokes and an impressive budget. When the evil SMERSH organization sets in motion a plan to take over the world, international leaders convince a reluctant James Bond (David Niven) to come out of retirement by blowing up his country estate. Once on the case however, the staunchly celibate super sleuth finds himself inundated with scantily clad double agents, bumbling accomplices, and a whole lot of high-tech tomfoolery. But with time running out and evil SMERSH leader Dr. Noah about to unleash armageddon, James must use every trick at his disposal in order to save the world without compromising his own newfound virginity. A snappy musical score by Burt Bacharach keeps things lighthearted while some outrageous set and costume designs—a mod mix of German expressionism and Laugh-In psychedelia—practically defines retro kitsch. It’s too bad time has deflated most of the jokes and the sight gags look as if they were inspired by Benny Hill including a supremely silly casino showdown between good guys and bad guys…and cowboys and Indians…and busty models and kilted Scotsmen…and Frankenstein…and trained seals. A cold war schtick doesn’t even come close to Dr. Strangelove while a cast of comedy mainstays, gorgeous leading ladies, and surprise celebrity cameos elicit little more than a smile and a nod—Woody Allen, playing Bond’s inept nephew Jimmy, ends up getting all the best lines anyway. A fluffy bit of nostalgia for those so inclined. As an aside, apparently a psychotic Peter Sellers hated co-star Orson Welles so much that he refused to act alongside him prompting the need for stand-ins and some clever editing.

Casino Royale (UK 2006) (7): This first instalment of a whole new James Bond franchise starts, appropriately enough, at the beginning with the surly Bond (Daniel Craig looking real nice in and out of a dinner jacket) just one killing shy of attaining his coveted 007 status within the British Intelligence service. Assigned to bring down an evil financier whose been backing international terrorism (a perfectly cast Mads Mikkelsen), Bond weaves a path of destruction that stretches from Uganda to Miami only to wind up risking it all in a multi-million dollar poker game. So much for plot. The expected flash bang special effects are out in full force with an opening parkour chase through a construction zone that defies gravity to an airport runway rampage that defies belief to a novel take on Titanic played out on the Grand Canal. It’s all very thrilling to say the least especially with director Martin Campbell’s eye for widescreen mayhem, Stuart Baird’s hyperkinetic editing, and composer David Arnold’s hammering score to fill in the gaps. And Craig’s Bond is a refreshing departure from the suave sex machines of the 60s—here he plays Ian Fleming’s iconic good guy as a brooding conflicted egotist who seems to lose a bit of his soul with every shot he fires and whose relationship with his immediate superior, “M”, (a hard-nosed Judi Dench) is fraught with hostility and confrontation. But a hastily constructed side story involving an ill-advised office romance (enter sultry Bond Girl Eva Green) appears to have no purpose other than to stick a final pin in Bond and after watching Craig beat insurmountable odds over and over and over again—hails of bullets always seem to miss their mark and a ridiculous resuscitation scene commits medical sacrilege—you begin to wonder whether the writers were simply overzealous or did they really think we were that gullible. Still, once you get into the comic book mood of the whole thing it becomes oddly addictive viewing. Besides, watching a buff Daniel Craig saunter onto a Bahamian beach wearing nothing but a clingy bathing suit is even more exciting than watching bad guys blow up.

Casque d’or (France 1952) (8): In rural 19th century France Marie, a gangster’s cynical moll (Simone Signoret, breathtaking), weaves a dangerous web of seduction and jealousy when she becomes the object of desire for three men: her abusive boyfriend; the powerful crime lord who owns him; and the object of her own desires, Georges, a dashing ex-con (Franco-Italian heartthrob Serge Reggiani) now trying to live the straight and narrow as a village carpenter. As each man faces off against the others in an obsessive bid to win Marie’s favour (or else take it by force), tragedy seems inevitable… Panned by critics upon its initial release for a supposed lack of psychological depth, and the cause of some scandal due to its candid allusions to premarital sex, sexual assault, and implied nudity, Jacques Becker’s noirish tale of l’amour mortel is now seen as a classic of European cinema and a precursor to the natural style that would help define the French New Wave school of moviemaking when it emerged in the 60s. Signoret shines as a belle époque feminist, those doll-like crinolines undermined by her set jaw and defiantly mocking eyes—yet she still conveys a sense of vulnerability, even dismay, when events spin beyond her control and stand poised to crush her in the process. Regianni is set to slow burn throughout, his handsome features and soft voice belying a grim resolve to have Marie for his own—one should note he is the only man who doesn’t slap her around. And Claude Dauphin, as the crime boss, is a distinguished gentleman with the heart of a reptile to whom Marie is but one more trinket to be coveted. Shot in hazy tones of B&W that compliment its midsummer setting, Becker’s cameras accentuate every ray of dusty sunshine, every shadowed contour, and the bare emotions that play across his characters’ faces from deadly rage to the gentlest affection as two lovers playfully grapple in a meadow. In one expertly filmed piece of irony Marie and Georges steal into a church where a wedding is taking place, a seemingly happy event until the lens comes to rest on the bride and groom who seem anything but. This is not a Hollywood film however, despite its focus on corrupted lives and downcast romance, a fact made clear throughout by Becker’s lack of sentimentality and an ending which descends like a final curtain.

The Cassandra Crossing (Germany/Italy 1976) (6): Fresh from the attempted bombing of a clandestine European lab, a lone terrorist stows away on a train bound from Geneva to Stockholm. The twist is he’s been unknowingly infected with a highly contagious plague bacteria engineered by the West and now one thousand passengers are at risk. With sick people beginning to collapse in the aisles and the American government attempting a cover-up by diverting the train to a quarantined area accompanied by armed guards with orders to shoot anyone trying to disembark, nerves begin to fray as a host of main characters—including a famous neurologist, the eccentric wife of an arms dealer, a celebrated author, and an amiable Holocaust survivor—fight to save both themselves and others. But the train’s final destination involves crossing a treacherous mountain pass which may pose an even greater risk to the passengers than the bacteria itself… A not entirely successful thriller from the Irwin Allen school of trashy disaster epics which lies somewhere between The Andromeda Strain and The Love Boat, Cassandra nevertheless boasts such names as Sophia Loren, Richard Harris, Ava Gardner, and Burt Lancaster with a few B-listers along for the ride most notably Martin Sheen as a greasy gigolo and O. J. Simpson as a determined lawman (LOL!). A few scientific faux pas and logic potholes notwithstanding this is a brisk and enjoyable no-brainer with lots of high-speed mountain scenery, stagey emoting, and an unexpectedly tense finale that probably kept the special effects team up way past midnight. A worthy late-night popcorn feature.

The Cat and the Canary (USA 1927) (8): It’s a dark and stormy night when the greedy relatives of deceased millionaire Cyrus West gather at his gloomy mansion for the reading of the will—twenty years after his death as per his wishes. But the eccentric old tycoon never really liked his immediate family, knowing that they only saw dollar signs whenever they looked at him, so besides a will he also left a few cryptic letters with his lawyer designed to cast suspicion and unease in their ranks. To his chosen heir however, he also included one ominous proviso: if you are judged to be mentally incompetent the entire fortune will go to another as yet unnamed member of the West clan. Cue a night of intrigue, mayhem, and murder made all the more harrowing by the arrival of a guard claiming an escaped lunatic may be hiding on the estate. Unlike Radley Metzger’s horrid 1978 adaptation (also reviewed here) director Paul Leni creates a beautifully gothic setting of creepy hallways, cobwebbed rooms, and hidden passageways. Using tinted film stock that goes from midnight blue to radiant orange as well as some clever effects, he pays homage to the original stage play with his talented troupe of silent actors emoting amongst elaborate backdrops of billowing drapes and candlelit parlours; a crazy escape attempt on the back of a horse-drawn milk cart was especially well done. And true to the German expressionist school Leni also throws in a few surreal visuals, most notably the exterior shots of West’s mansion rising organically from the surrounding countryside like a haunted castle. Shot through with suspense and unexpected humour, this delightfully spooky classic from the silent film era still manages to hold its own.

The Cat and the Canary (UK 1977) (3): Porn auteur Radley Metzger tries his hand at mainstream entertainment in this limp and lifeless whodunit. It’s 1934 and the adult kin of deceased tycoon Cyrus West have gathered on his estate for the reading of the Will. Actually the “viewing” of the Will would be more apropos as the rascally Cyrus filmed himself reading it shortly before his death. According to his wishes the entire fortune is to go to one lucky heir with the following caveat: if that person is judged to be insane by the following morning the estate will pass to an unnamed next in line whose identity will be revealed in a second tape played over breakfast. And thus the stage is set for a long evening of mysterious hijinks and red herrings (with gay innuendos and implied incest for good measure) as someone begins bumping off the West clan one by one. All the obligatory ingredients are here: a dark and stormy night, creepy mansion, gaggle of eccentric relatives with secrets to hide, and just for good measure rumours that an escaped lunatic who likes to flay his victims alive may be prowling the grounds. Overflowing with genre clichés, this bit of tedium delivers all the thrills and chills of a Scooby Doo rerun despite the half-hearted efforts of its cast of British B-listers. The ending is somewhat satisfying however; not because the mystery is finally solved but because it’s The End.

Cat Ballou (USA 1965) (6): Columbia Studios takes Roy Chanslor’s novel about a Wild West frontier woman gone rogue and turns it into a corny knee-slapper whose comedic elements have dimmed significantly over the years. After her father is murdered by a hired gun for refusing to sell his ranch to a big development company, prim and proper schoolteacher Catherine Ballou (Jane Fonda, looking lost throughout) vows revenge on the company as well as the townsfolk who supported it. But not knowing one end of a rifle from the other herself, she winds up placing her trust in a sad trio of outlaws which includes a perpetually horny con artist and a veteran gunslinger who can only function if he’s sufficiently liquored up (Lee Marvin snagging his one and only Oscar for Best Actor). The generic frontier sets look good nestled against their Colorado backdrops and the addition of a Greek Chorus in the form of a pair of banjo-plucking minstrels (Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye) who sing directly to the audience adds a touch of Vaudeville—but the story itself is more or less a distillation of every revenge-fuelled oater ever made; the inclusion of whimsical songs, a dash of slapstick, and an unconvincing romantic complication notwithstanding. Only Marvin manages to rise above the general mediocrity with a bit of theatre that combines mumbling outbursts and drunken contortions that come very close to performance art—at one point even his horse seems to share in his hangover as its head droops disconsolately over a pair of crossed hooves. At least his character’s transformation from grizzled alcoholic to polished antihero, filmed with all the solemnity of a papal inauguration, manages to garner a weak smile when his assistant struggles to lace up his corset. It’s a shoot-em-up Western farce with a feminist slant (Ballou finds her inner warrior!) that must have seemed fresh when it premiered. Unfortunately that was almost 60 years and three generations ago.

Catfish (USA 2010) (7): New York photographer Nev Schulman begins an online friendship with Abby, a talented 12-year old art prodigy living in northern Michigan, after she does an oil painting of one of his pics. But what starts out as innocent text exchanges turns more intimate when Abby’s older sister Megan takes a shine to him and the two begin exchanging phone calls and sexy emails prompting Nev to travel to Michigan for an impromptu visit. Meanwhile Nev’s brother Ariel and his friend Henry Joost, both budding filmmakers, decide to record the evolving romance after inconsistencies begin to emerge involving Abby, Megan, and their parents Angela and Vince… It’s pretty near impossible to critique Joost and Schulman’s grainy handheld documentary without giving away key points since both the medium and the message are so intertwined. With a running time evenly divided between mumblecore passages seemingly filmed on the fly and electronic screens displaying Facebook pages, a dashboard GPS, and Google searches (even the opening credits feature a roving cursor) it certainly addresses the meta-reality which has emerged with the advent of social media platforms wherein “likes”, “friends lists”, and smiley icons have replaced actual sensory input (or common sense). Unjustly billed as a “thriller”—mostly because of one late night foray into guerrilla filmmaking—what emerges is still highly watchable, though more pathetic than tense, and unfortunately completely predictable. It’s the layers of irony however which won me over, for one gets the feeling that the “documentary” itself is not above suspicion leading Digital Age viewers to further question exactly what the hell is real. “Not based on a true story. Not inspired by true events. Just true” blares the promo, a boast which eventually rings as meaningless as a Youtube clip. Think of it as the “B” side to Courtney Cox’s superior TalhotBlond, released two years later.

Catherine the Great [aka The Rise of Catherine the Great ] (UK 1934) (6): A sketchy and highly sanitized biopic of the little German princess who rose to become Russia’s most ambitious, controversial, and longest ruling Empress. Elisabeth Bergner plays the Tsarina as a headstrong dormouse wailing over her husband’s infidelities yet willing to overthrow his tyrannical rule while Douglas Fairbanks Jr (wearing more rouge than his co-star) runs hot and cold as the mentally unbalanced Tsar Peter. It’s Flora Robson however who ultimately delivers as the aging empress Elisabeth—an 18th century dowager with decidedly 20th century opinions on sex and politics. Despite the advent of sound, the actors’ emoting still hearkens back to the silent era and those fanciful sets and storybook costumes are more Babes in Toyland than grand empire. Still, the British censors must have had conniptions over the film’s frank (for the time) handling of extramarital sex and female empowerment (in and out of the bedroom). One final weak note of praise, although the script doesn’t do the historical Catherine much justice especially with Bergner’s feigned accent that seems to wander all over the place, it at least steers clear of the more salacious urban legends surrounding her sexual exploits.

A Cat in Paris (France 2010) (7): An Oscar nominee, this delightful animated adventure revolves around a little girl and her duplicitous pet cat who unwittingly cross paths with a criminal madman and his posse of bumbling thieves. Resolutely mute ever since her father was killed, Zoe lives in a comfortable Parisian apartment with her senior police investigator mother, her doting nanny, and Dino her big loveable feline companion. But Dino is not quite the lazy kitty he appears to be for when the sun sets he sneaks out of Zoe’s window and joins forces with Nico, a kind-hearted and strangely lithe cat burglar (haha!) whose been relieving Paris’ wealthier residents of their unwanted jewellery. Isolated both psychologically and emotionally (her mother is too involved with catching the evil gangster who murdered her husband to pay more than a passing attention to her silent daughter’s needs) Zoe follows Dino on one of his nightly rendezvous, meets up with a somewhat flustered Nico, and accidentally eavesdrops on the wicked thug Victor Costa as he plans the biggest heist of his career. What follows is a nicely imagined children’s story with kidnappings, daring rescues, and the kind of mild menace which always ends happily. Graced with bright cartoon energy and a jazzy musical score, A Cat in Paris has a wonderful retro look to its primitive animation—-picture Mike Judge studying under Picasso. A nice way to spend 70 minutes with the kiddies, and guaranteed not to cause nightmares.

A Cat in the Brain (Italy 1990) (6): Italian horrormeister Lucio Fulci turns the camera on himself in this deranged, and sometimes amusing, critique on his notorious body of work. He plays a director of unsavoury “sex & sadism” shockers (more of a cameo actually) who finds himself increasingly unable to separate reality from the lurid script of his latest film---did he really witness a topless woman being beaten to a bloody pulp, or was that just a curtain in the window? Unfortunately, the psychiatrist whom Fulci turns to winds up being more of a hindrance than an ally as the body count of dead lingerie models slowly continues to rise. A pretty thin premise for what amounts to ninety minutes of blood, boobs, and body parts all filmed in that delightfully cheesy misogynistic way that only Italian giallo directors seem capable of getting away with. Fulci does challenge our perceptions in a few clever “movie within a movie” ways while at the same time extending a middle finger to those critics who claim his brand of horror leads to real life emulation (are you hearing this UK censors?) Sure to delight fans of the genre while steaming hardcore feminists, it is clear that the grandfatherly Fulci had tongue firmly in cheek. Only in Lucio’s case the tongue is severed and the cheek crawling with maggots. Enjoy!

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.

Cemetery Man (Italy 1994) (5): Rupert Everett plays Francesco, the brooding live-in caretaker of a modest little graveyard which houses an awful secret. It seems the churchyard is cursed with a most inconvenient quirk which causes the newly departed to rise as flesh-eating zombies a few days after they’ve been buried. Afraid to alert the authorities lest he lose his job Francesco and his dull-witted assistant calmly do their nightly rounds, shovel and pistol in hand, dispatching the odd ghoul with a well-placed (and very messy) blow to the head. As a self-proclaimed guardian between the living and the dead, Francesco finds himself uncomfortably poised between both worlds; he can’t relate to the living, and the dead just piss him off. It all changes one day when he becomes infatuated with a voluptuous young widow and decides the living make much better company after all. But the dead, particularly the muppet-like Grim Reaper himself, are not so keen on letting him go. Soavi’s film is an inconsistent hodgpodge of gothic horror, bone-dry comedy, and macabre romance that too often spirals down into the absurd to be taken seriously. He does throw in some nice touches though; Francesco’s full name translates as “Francis of the Dead” (his mother’s maiden name being “of Love”) and his erratic relationship with the widow (she takes on a few incarnations along the way) is intriguing. Moreover, there are some exceptional visuals incorporating elements of the gruesome and the sublime; an erotic coupling takes place amongst the headstones, a fall of red silk brushes against a putrefying skull, and a tableaux of the earth and moon as seen from space resolves into something quite different as the camera pans around. Attempts are made to ruminate on both the relationship between love and death, and the paradox of free will vs. destiny. But, ultimately, the gory effects and twisted storyline (a French kiss with a severed head is particularly nasty) prove too distracting. Enjoyable for what it is, a failure for what it tries to become.

Chained (Canada 2012) (5): A nine-year old boy and his mother are abducted by a sadistic serial killer with an intense dislike of women. Driving them to his secluded home by the edge of an abandoned highway (a dreary cameo by Saskatchewan’s own Moose Jaw), “Bob” immediately sets about dispatching the mother while her terrified son cowers in the back of the car. Over the next several years a twisted mentorship gradually develops between killer and child, now nicknamed “Rabbit”, which sees the boy go from chained slave living off table scraps and cleaning up the aftermath of his master’s conquests to reluctant acolyte struggling with adolescent hormones and an increasingly troubled conscience. But when Bob decides it’s time for Rabbit to get a knife of his own and start meeting girls the young man’s already conflicted psyche goes into crisis mode leading to some drastic decisions and a most heinous revelation. On the plus side, director Jennifer Chambers Lynch proves adept at imbuing tight physical spaces with enough psychological dread that at times Bob’s spartan, boarded-up house (complete with makeshift basement graveyard) seems almost surreal. Vincent D’Onofrio’s burly soft-spoken yet implacable psychopath is the perfect human monster while Eamon Farren’s emaciated good looks and haunted eyes bring the character of Rabbit to sickly life. To her further credit Lynch keeps the most extreme violence off camera where muffled screams and the occasional puddle of blood deliver more impact than a cartload of entrails ever could…apparently this was not so much by design but due to some last minute editing in order to avoid the box office poison of an NC-17 rating. Too bad it all falls apart towards the middle with an already dicey scenario demanding ever increasing leaps of faith. Although D’Onofrio gives an incredible performance the reasons behind his rage, hinted at in grainy flashbacks, are so outrageous that I was more bemused than horrified while the film’s big reveal was just plain stupid. A highbrow slasher flick with dark overtones that barely conceal its shallow roots.

The Champ (USA 1931) (7): If ever there was a Hollywood flick designed to wring sobs from its audience it has to be this shameless heart-tugger which, despite all its blatant manipulations, is still able to generate a soft spot in all but the hardest of hearts. Wallace Beery won his only Oscar playing Andy “The Champ” Purcell, a one-time world champion boxer who in his declining years has succumbed to alcohol and gambling. His only saving grace is his son Dink (nine-year old Jackie Cooper mopping the floor with his tears), whom he raised single-handedly after his wife left him. Wise beyond his years and wanting to see nothing but the best in his dad, Dink has become the Champ’s nursemaid, confidante, and wee little voice of conscience every time he falls off the wagon—which is all the time. But after years of flubbed opportunities and broken promises—Dink’s pet horse comes and goes depending on dad’s luck at the casino—Purcell finally sees a chance to make it up to his son when he’s offered a chance to enter the ring for one final prize bout… Beery is perfect in the title role, his flabby dad bod making him look like a former athlete gone to seed while his rubbery features and soft grumble of a voice turn even scowls into endearing traits. Not surprisingly he’s upstaged at every turn by Cooper’s angelic little moppet, sweet as a bag of penny candy and able to shoot out teardrops like a lawn sprinkler. And though Gordon Avil’s cinematography may soften the rougher edges of Purcell’s world, once the cameras enter the ring the fight scenes fly by in an accelerated whirl of punches and bloody scrapes while the orchestra weeps. Diminutive Jesse Scott pushes the colour barrier as Dink’s best friend and constant companion, and Irene Rich hams it up as his estranged mother eager for a second chance—her maternal emoting sometimes bordering on creepy.

The Changeling (Canada 1980) (7): After suffering a horrible personal tragedy composer and music professor John Russell (George C. Scott?!) leaves New York and holes up in a rural mansion near Seattle (actually an amalgamation of Vancouver and Toronto). But his respite is short lived for the house has a grim history and something in the attic has started to demand his attention with loud bangs, slamming doors, and spectral moans…not to mention a persistent little antique wheelchair hidden behind a wall. Seeking the assistance of a medium (cue creepy seance scene) John begins to uncover the secret behind the haunting—a secret so horrible it stretches all the way to the offices of a respected senator… If you are willing to forgive the usual assortment of genre absurdities and dramatic stretches (this is a horror movie after all) director Peter Medak still manages to pull off a genuinely scary haunted house tale which relies as much on darkened hallways and cobwebbed staircases as it does on ghostly jolts. Russell’s decaying manor provides the perfect setting for all sorts of macabre mischief and an old fashioned score of piano riffs and shivering strings set your teeth on edge. Scott is his usually growly self—imagine General Patton as a Ghostbuster—while co-star Trish Van Devere as his sidekick and maybe love interest manages a convincing scream or two. Spooky stuff from the Great White North.

Changeling (USA 2008) (9): Based on a true story, Clint Eastwood’s gripping mystery concentrates on a botched missing child case which became a notorious cause célèbre in Los Angeles circa 1928. After her nine-year old son Walter disappears one afternoon single mother Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie, luminous) turns to a somewhat reluctant LAPD to help find him. Five months later news comes that the police have picked Walter up in Illinois and are returning him by train. But as an ecstatic Christine rushes to the station platform amid a sea of police and reporters she is horrified to discover that the little tyke waiting for her is not Walter at all. Insisting that she is simply distraught and that “kids change under stress” an increasingly hostile Captain Jones convinces Christine to quietly take “Walter” home and learn to reconnect with him. Refusing to let the matter rest however, Christine launches a one-woman campaign to locate her real son aided by Presbyterian minister and outspoken critic of official wrongdoing Rev. Gustav Briegleb. Unfortunately the LAPD of 1928 is a corrupt organization which doesn’t take kindly to increased public scrutiny and the more Christine pushes, the harder—and more dangerously—they push back. In the meantime Christine continues to care for the strange little boy under her roof while a few troubling clues regarding Walter’s actual whereabouts slowly emerge… A triumph of style and substance, Eastwood’s haunting period piece painstakingly recreates flapper-era Los Angeles with it’s tree-lined streets, concrete skyscrapers, and cherry red streetcars not to mention the detailed costumes and low-tech conveniences. His standout cast and a credible script firmly anchor the film in time and place while a wistful score (credited to Eastwood but sounding more like Vangelis) tinges everything with a sense of yearning and melancholy. Intelligently written and presented with flair.

Character (Netherlands 1997) (7): Dreverhaven the local court bailiff is dead and all suspicion falls on his illegitimate son Jacob whom he sired with Joba, his former housemaid. Hauled before a police inquiry Jacob, just recently graduated from law school, pleads his innocence and through a series of flashbacks we witness the destructive relationship between the deceased and the accused which began with Jacob’s birth. Dreverhaven was a cold-hearted bastard who followed the letter of the law without ever considering the ideals behind those laws. Taking grim satisfaction in evicting people from their homes regardless of their financial or physical limitations his villainy eventually extended to Jacob, the son he never openly acknowledged, when he came after him for a defaulted loan. Meanwhile, instead of rising to her child’s defense, the taciturn Joba offered him little more than criticism and silence. Eventually Dreverhaven’s apparent desire to destroy his son took its toll returning us once more to the film’s beginning, that decisive final encounter which saw the old man dead and Jacob covered in blood… Director Mike van Diem’s tense drama, set in early 1900’s Rotterdam, plunges its audience into one angry young man’s Oedipal rage and does so with gusto. Dreverhaven (brilliantly played by Jan Decleir) seems a force of nature, residing in a top floor office and coming forth only to dispense cruel justice like an Old Testament Jehovah. Hating him, yet perversely seeking his approval, Jacob thrusts and parries with the old man—his youthful passions mirrored by Dreverhaven’s icy contempt—while incomplete mother figures loom in the background whether it be Joba’s cold indifference or the troubling sexual temptations introduced by an office secretary. Explosive performances all around plus a kinetic energy reminiscent of a Wes Anderson production (only more focused). Unfortunately Diem’s attention to the smallest of details, while admirable, does cause the action to drag out in too many places while the central point is driven home with more force than it needed. Still an engaging piece of cinema which definitely earned its Foreign Language Oscar.

Charade (USA 1963) (6): The plot has too many holes and reaches and some of the performances fall flat, but there is something about this undemanding crime caper that keeps you watching and smiling just the same. Maybe it’s the lush Oscar-nominated musical score by Henry Mancini, or the glittering Paris backdrops, or maybe the whole production is just riding on the sheer star power of its two leads? After her husband is murdered aboard a French train, Regina Lampert (a sparkling Audrey Hepburn) is shocked to discover he not only led a questionable double life but he also managed to squirrel away a quarter of a million ill-gotten dollars. Now a trio of ruthless men are after her, convinced she knows where the money is, and her only allies seem to be a taciturn American bureaucrat (a bored Walther Matthau) and a mysterious stranger (a greying Cary Grant) who may or may not have her best interests at heart. Double-crosses and fake identities become the order of the day as an unnerved Regina must decide who to trust and who to run away from. Despite a few rather operatic murders, a bit of mild suspense, and George Kennedy’s hammy performance as a growling one-armed thug, Charade is essentially a contrived May-December romantic comedy with Hepburn and Grant not quite convincing enough to suspend disbelief. But they’re pretty to look at (those Givenchy fashions!) and Charles Lang’s opulent cinematography cashes in on snow-capped alps and twinkling Parisian boulevards. Perhaps it’s fitting then that the film reaches its climax in an ornate theatre all done up in red and gold—but devoid of any audience. Great opening credits sequence though.

Charley’s Aunt (USA 1941) (7): Lord Fancourt “Babbs” Babberley (Jack Benny!?) is the oldest sophomore at Oxford University and if he doesn’t get his degree soon his family will ship him off to a sheep ranch in New Zealand. His two roommates Jack and Charley meanwhile are trying to woo a pair of sweethearts who refuse to be seen with them unless they have an escort (this is 1890 after all). So, in exchange for a much needed academic favour Babbs agrees to pose as Charley’s eccentric aunt Lucia from Brazil, a wealthy widow only too pleased to chaperone the ladies long enough for Jack and Charley to propose to them. But when the girls’ overly protective uncle and Jack’s widowed father both decide to pursue Charley’s aunt—or rather her fortune rumoured to be in the millions—a farcical drag comedy ensues which sees Babbs in and out of petticoats while thwarting his would be suitors’ amorous advances. And then the real aunt Lucia arrives on the scene and an already screwball comedy threatens to fly right off the rails. At forty-seven Benny was already far too old for the part and it shows, as does his corny British accent which he finally abandons (along with everyone else) within the first twenty minutes. The sheer outrageousness of the story however, coupled with a manic presentation which sees everyone running around, slamming doors, and ducking behind walls, manages to keep you off guard just enough to elicit a string of smiles and the occasional guffaw. This is an old fashioned comedy after all, free of any improper innuendo or racy gender-bending—although ersatz Aunt Lucia’s familiarity with Jack and Charley’s fiancées is enough to raise a queer eyebrow or two. A good clean bit of buffoonery overall and certainly worth watching just to see Jack Benny dressed up like a Dickensian spinster.

Charley Varrick (USA 1973) (6): A gang of smalltime bank robbers looking for petty cash make off with far more than they bargained for when they knock over a modest little New Mexico Savings and Loan. It seems the Mob has been using the bank to store some ill-gotten loot, almost 800 thousand dollars’ worth, and they’re determined to get even with whoever took it. Pursued by both the police and the Mafia, the thieves find their options (and membership) steadily decreasing until ringleader Charlie Varrick decides to make one last desperate gambit… A watchable crime flick with some good action sequences, including a cat & mouse chase between a car and airplane, and a cheesy soundtrack of canned jazz that keeps it forever locked in the 70s. In the lead, Walter Matthau shuffles and mugs as usual while mob hitman Joe Don Baker scowls and smacks people around. But Matthau’s character never quite becomes the anti-hero the movie demands as it’s impossible to side with someone willing to kill people for the sake of a few thousand dollars. Strictly movie-of-the-week fare.

Charlie Wilson’s War (USA 2007) (7): By all accounts—including his own—Texas congressman Charlie Wilson (an affable Tom Hanks) was a hard-drinking womanizer who was not above a bit of dirty politicking or the occasional sexual fling. But when the Russians began invading Afghanistan at the beginning of 1980 he was both moved by the suffering of the Afghani people and incensed over what he considered to be America’s lackadaisical response to this latest provocation in the long-running Cold War. With the help of truculent CIA operative Gust Avrakotos (an unlikeable Philip Seymour Hoffman deserving his Oscar nomination) Wilson used his political prowess to not only secure a billion dollars in aid and weaponry for the Mujahideen rebels, he also managed to garner support from such diametrically opposed allies as Pakistan and Israel not to mention a wealthy faction of the Texas bible belt thanks to the interventions of savvy Houston socialite—and sometime lover—Joanne Herring (a tough-as-nails Julia Roberts). But despite his best intentions the fallout from “Charlie Wilson’s war” would have unforeseen consequences for the middle east in general and American foreign policy in particular. Overlooking all the swearing and nudity this fact-based comedy-cum-drama still comes across as a fanciful Disney revisionist piece replete with sparkling personalities and a clearly defined line between the good guys and the bad guys. The American halls of power, here seen as a jocular cocktail party, provide little more than a colourful backdrop to Wilson’s visionary campaign with Hanks downing whiskey shots between bouts of moral indignation and Roberts rattling off political strategies while primping her eyelashes. Hoffman’s character however cuts straight to the heart of the film as a cynical, acid-tongued agent who has seen the results of too many “good intentions” to take much delight in Wilson’s victories. It is Hoffman’s performance, along with the venerable Om Puri as Pakistani president Zia, which give the film a welcome dose of gravitas while history itself provides the scathing irony.

The Child in Time (England 2017) (4): Popular children’s author Stephen Lewis (Benedict Cumberbatch) takes his 4-year old daughter Kate to the supermarket where she promptly vanishes when he becomes momentarily distracted at the checkout. Now three years have gone by and the case has grown cold, much like Lewis’ marriage. Although still on friendly—even intimate—terms, the incident has caused such a rift between him and his wife (Kelly Macdonald) that she’s moved out and moved on leaving him alone to obsess over Kate’s disappearance…an obsession that has begun to colour every aspect of his life. I’m sure Ian McEwan’s source novel offers greater insights (not to mention much needed explanations) but Julian Farino’s screen adaptation takes an incisive piece on grief, guilt, and the effects of loss and muddies the waters with so much existential claptrap and political non-sequiturs that it becomes lost at sea. It would appear Lewis’ world is filled with “missing children” of one kind or another—his publisher inexplicably retreats into a second childhood; his mother recounts a bizarre prenatal experience involving an unborn Stephen; and both he and his wife have teasing visions of Kate. Even his current book about an unhappy young boy who wants to be a fish carries notes of emotional distress. But if his fruitless search for the little girl is meant to be a greater metaphor—innocence lost perhaps, or a way to emphasize the bewildered Stephen as a child “lost in time”—the message is misplaced amid the film’s temporal shifts (flashbacks render it a kind of psychological time travel tale) and sinister intrigues—a heartless Prime Minister with despotic attitudes towards child welfare probably plays a key role in McEwan’s book but is reduced to puzzling background noise in the film. Although well shot with an emphasis on “home” and sporting a fine pair of leads, the end product itself plays out like so many dots in search of a line to connect them. And that closing scene, smacking of absolution and transcendence, ends up pushing the envelope just a little too far.

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

Children of God (Bahamas 2010) (8): Kareem Mortimer’s drama—an examination and condemnation of homophobic attitudes in his native Bahamas—gets off to a shaky start with initially unconvincing performances and a B&W script that promises all the usual platitudes. But once cast and crew hit their stride the film reveals an unexpected depth, addressing issues of race, identity, and desire with scenes that range from hard reality to fragile poetry. In the days leading up to a crucial parliamentary vote on equality the island paradise of Eleuthera is anything but as a trio of separate stories converge beneath its calm blue skies. A neurotic young artist comes searching for his muse only to find something more substantial in the arms of a stranger. An anti-gay preacher comes under the scrutiny of his wife, herself a homophobic crusader terrified that their little boy may be a “sissy”. And a lone reverend, still smarting from the death of his child and his wife’s abandonment, tries to sow peace among the thorns. With snatches of fire & brimstone condemnations competing with island rhythms in the background, Mortimer moves his characters with the utmost delicacy—fleshing them out using subtle changes in attitude, letting chance encounters occur naturally, and wrapping his pleas for tolerance in the most ordinary of dialogue. With an eye for colour and texture he also manages to turn Eleuthera’s natural beauty into something quasi-spiritual—the island’s crystal clear beaches becoming baptismal fonts and its lush greenery suggesting a divided Eden. And his cast evolve right along with the movie, those initial flat presentations blossoming into emotional performances which culminate in one of the most affecting final passages I’ve seen in quite some time. “So why you hating faggots so much?” asks one closeted man to another during a washroom hook-up. “I don’t…” the other man replies, “…but you have to give people something to hate. It brings them together.” And with Children of God Kareem Mortimer argues there just might be another option. An unpolished jewel of a film whose rougher edges fail to dim either its message or the sincerity of its author.

Children of Men  (UK 2006) (9):  In the near future the human race suddenly finds itself suffering from a plague of infertility.  With an aging population and zero birth rate society begins to come apart at the seams. Very well done.....excellent editing and sound effects, some remarkable performances and assured direction throughout. I was especially impressed with the undercurrent of dark satire that always seemed to be lurking just beneath the dramatics. I may disagree with some of the films rather facile politics but as a near-future thriller it succeeded admirably.

The Children’s Hour (USA 1961) (8): The two headmistresses at an exclusive girl's academy (Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn) find their lives turned upside down when one of their students, a spoiled vindictive brat with an overly active imagination, sees and hears more than she is able to process thus giving rise to a vicious rumour suggesting the two women are more than just friends. With students being pulled out of class by their concerned WASP parents and Hepburn's fiancee (James Garner) facing guilt by association, the teachers fight back any way then can. But society's rampant homophobia makes tragedy seem inevitable. Based on Lilian Hellman's play, which was itself based on a one hundred year old Scottish case, this controversial drama goes to great lengths to avoid the word "lesbian" which was still taboo in 60s cinema. Furthermore, a monumental meltdown by MacLaine only seems to reinforce the opinions expressed by the staunchly conservative parents. But taken as a discomfiting time capsule it certainly leaves you with a stark idea of where we were and how far we've come. As an aside, in the role of Mary, the child who started the ball rolling in the first place, diminutive Karen Balkin gives us one of filmdom's most hateful little bitches ever.

Child’s Play (USA 1988) (7): Poor little Andy…all he wanted for his sixth birthday was a “Good Guys” doll, one of those cuddly child-sized moppets with bright red hair, crystal blue eyes, and an electronic vocabulary of three happy sentences. He got the doll alright, but unfortunately his doting mother didn’t realize that this particular action figure was possessed by the soul of notorious serial killer and part-time voodoo enthusiast Charles Lee Ray who was gunned down in a toy store the night before. Now bent on killing everyone who wronged him, “Chucky” is on the loose in Chicago armed with an unusually sharp kitchen knife and no one will believe Andy’s wild tales about the homicidal birthday present with a thirst for blood… Not since Karen Black peeked under the couch in Trilogy of Terror has a creepy dolly elicited so much frightened laughter—but at least her wooden nemesis simply grunted. Child’s Play forces us to endure a huggable cabbage patch kid screaming “Fuck you bitch!” and “You have a date…with DEATH!” while throwing little plastic tantrums. The animatronic effects are pretty effective though and blend seamlessly with the few live stand-in performances. The script is beyond hokey however with 80s good girl Catherine Hicks playing the hysterical mother, Brad Dourif hamming it up as Charles Lee Ray-slash-voice of evil Chucky, and Chris Sarandon as the cynical cop who has a change of heart when Chucky decides to hitch a ride in the squad car. But it’s Alex Vincent, only seven at the time, who keeps things form spinning into total inanity by playing Andy with a supremely straight face and sense of childlike terror. Hicks wrestles a stuffed doll with wild abandon, Sarandon fires at it with all the solemnity of a wild west duel, and the skies above Chicago roil and rumble with matte lightning bolts. Schlock cinema doesn’t get much better than this.

Child’s Pose (Romania 2013) (10): Romanian directors have a knack for showing one thing while actually saying something altogether different. Case in point is Calin Peter Netzer’s Oscar-nominated drama, at once a dark family tragedy and a subtle indictment of societal corruption. When her good-for-nothing son’s reckless driving kills a fourteen-year old child Cornelia Keneres (a devastating performance by Luminita Gheorghiu) uses her wealth and social connections to clear his name. Successfully bribing a greedy witness to change his statement and calling in a few political favours, Cornelia then sets her sights on the child’s grieving family—ostensibly offering to pay for the boy’s funeral while secretly hoping her show of generosity will get them to drop all charges. But her desperate scheming goes awry when the ungrateful son’s vitriolic attitude towards her domineering ways underscores a lifetime of failed mothering and a visit with the dead teen’s parents further unravels whatever pretence she once had of being a “family”. Filmed without a musical score and using mainly handheld cameras, Netzer’s bitter pill of a movie works on more than one level—it’s no accident that Cornelia’s privileged urban lifestyle contrasts so sharply with the impoverished rural reality of the victim’s relatives (she drives up to the police station decked out in furs while the boy’s enraged uncle sports a worn cloth coat) or that the only witness to what really happened comes with a convenient price tag. Furthermore, Cornelia’s inability to cope when confronted with someone else’s grief speaks not only of her own personal disconnect but of a greater social malaise. A sad and unrelenting tale which slowly builds to its shattering climax. This is what the art of cinema is all about.

Chillerama (USA 2011) (5): When his Drive-In theatre is sold out from under him, Cecil Kaufman decides to reward his loyal customers with one final dusk-to-dawn horror extravaganza featuring some of the more obscure titles from his extensive library. In Wadzilla New York City is ravaged by a carnivorous 20-storey spermatozoa resulting in the world's biggest money shot. The innuendo-laced teen musical I Was A Teenage Werebear features a group of highschool outcasts who transform into hirsute leather queens whenever they get a boner. And in a supreme example of political incorrectness Adolph Hitler tries to win the war by creating a monstrous rabbi thanks to The Diary of Anne Frankenstein. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, some popcorn tainted with zombie spooge is turning theatre patrons into a mob of very horny undead (cue tasteless sight gags involving rotting dicks and tits). Directors Adam Green et al know their target demographic of college geeks and freaks well—the gross-out humour never rises above toilet level, the T&A quotient is fairly generous, and a few obvious movie references lead everyone to believe they're more clever than they actually are. There are some genuinely funny scenes for those so inclined, it's just too bad they're forced to take a back seat to a whole lot of juvenile antics. “The power of shit compels you!” yells one overly zealous priest in the feces-obsessed short film Deathication; an apt tagline if ever there was one.

A Christmas Horror Story (Canada 2015) (7): Director/Producer Steve Hoban was growing tired of the same old fluffy holiday fare being released around Christmastime so he decided to do something about it. The result is this weird homage to all those shockers like Gremlins, Creepshow, and Friday the 13th that had us flocking to the theatres in the 70s and 80s, eager to be scared and amused at the same time. It’s a quiet Christmas Eve in the town of Bailey Downs—but not for long—for this night is also known as Krampusnacht when Krampus, the demonic anti-Santa, comes hunting for naughty children (and adults). As the sun sets over snow-covered rooftops three intertwined stories unfold: a family is stranded in the woods after their car breaks down only to discover they are not quite alone; a husband and wife are terrorized by their eight-year old son who has become very naughty indeed; and history threatens to repeat itself when a trio of nosy students investigating a grisly double homicide become trapped in the very highschool basement where the murders took place a year earlier. Meanwhile, at the North Pole, Kris Kringle himself is having labour issues when an outbreak of undead zombie elves turn his candy-coloured workshop into a killing field. And as the camera jumps between storylines drunken DJ “Dangerous Dan” (William Shatner?!) spins the carols in between bouts of slurred holiday cheer. Calling to mind the twisted sentimentality of Tim Burton, directors Hoban, Grant Harvey, and Brett Sullivan go heavy on the twinkling lights, floating snowflakes, and crackling fireplaces which only makes the copious bloodletting and decapitations all the more side-splitting—right up to the final ninja showdown between Santa and a very hunky Krampus (real-life beefcake Rob Archer…woofers!) Of course it’s supremely silly—especially the basement ghost story—but the effects are wonderfully grotesque and the sense of tongue-in-cheek transgression is infectious. Besides, there’s a wonderful twist at the end which even I didn’t see coming and before the night is over Mrs. Claus get’s called a “reindeer-fucking snow whore”. Ho ho ho!

Christmas in July (USA 1940) (8):  Jimmy MacDonald is forever entering contests in the hopes of winning that elusive cash jackpot.  In the meantime he supports himself and his widowed  mother by working as an office drone in a nondescript company along with Betty, his fawning girlfriend.  Then one day his luck changes when he receives a telegram telling him he’s won the $25,000 grand prize in the Maxford House Coffee slogan contest and before you can say “money equals happiness” he’s off on a shopping spree buying gifts for the entire neighbourhood, including a diamond engagement ring.  “The terrible thing about being poor...”, gushes a magnanimous Betty sporting her new fur coat and shiny ring, “ having to worry”.  And everyone’s worries appear to be solved...until the awful truth is revealed.  It seems the telegram was sent as a practical joke by some of his co-workers...  Preston Sturges delivers another sparkling spoof on capitalist manners and the cult of celebrity that packs more charm into 67 minutes than many feature-length films.  Much of the humour is derived from the way people’s perceptions of Jimmy change after he achieves notoriety;  he goes from a faceless employee to smoking cigars with the board of directors who hang on to his most innocuous comments as if they were Delphic proclamations of great import.  Retailers who wouldn’t have given him the time of day now fall over themselves trying to lick his boots, and the neighbours greet him as if he were the second coming of Christ.  Of course it all works out in the end, but not before Sturges throws a few well-aimed barbs at America’s corporate soul and Betty gives an uplifting sermon on the value of hope.  The black cat was cute too!

A Christmas Tale [Un conte de Noël ] (France 2008) (5): It’s Christmastime in Paris and at the home of the wealthy Vuillard family the clan is gathering with enough emotional baggage in tow to satisfy a convention of neurotics. Youngest son Ivan, still suffering from the effects of a teenage breakdown, is hiding an explosive marital secret from his trusting wife. Middle son Henri, a penniless grifter given to bouts of drunken lambasting, arrives with his latest girlfriend, a foreign beauty with an uncanny ability to cut through other people’s bullshit. And eldest daughter Elizabeth, with her occasionally present husband and suicidal son, is a veritable ball of conflicting angsts who once tried to banish Henri from the family altogether due to some unspoken faux pas on his part. Heading the family table are patriarch Abel, huffing and mugging like a congenial toad, and matriarch Junon (Catherine Deneuve resting on her star power) an ice-cold Medea with an ulterior motive behind her smiles and kisses—-she needs a bone marrow donor in order to combat a fatal blood disorder. And casting a shadow over everyone is the memory of eldest son Joseph whose childhood death still gives rise to thinly veiled recriminations. As the family arms themselves for the holidays reputations will be assassinated (again), accusations will fly, and angry skeletons will roam freely while Abel croaks out genteel non-sequiturs and Junon uses her cancer diagnosis as an excuse to be a bitch about everything. Arnaud Desplechin’s thoroughly unlikable dysfunctional family drama features awful people saying and doing awful things to each other for no readily apparent reason. With an overly large cast of characters vying for screen time the separate storylines soon become hopelessly entangled while one face blurs into another. He does try to impose some deeper meaning to his jumbled mess through the ironic use of Christmas music (both classical and contemporary) as well as a few glaringly obvious references to Shakespeare and the Bible…at one point the wee grandkids stage a play about a despotic knight who gets his comeuppance. The overall effect however is more patronizing than illuminating and with a 2½-hour running time all that nastiness and unresolved grief becomes really tedious really fast. Henri’s personal credo: “Don’t act beyond your capacity to repair” could, in this case, be just as easily applied to moviemaking. As an aside, the medical scenes do carry a certain clinical authenticity with actual hospital staff playing themselves.

Chronicle of a Summer (France 1960) (7): Heralded as one of the forerunners of the Cinéma-Verité school, Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch’s unadorned grass roots documentary encapsulates the zeitgeist of disaffected Parisians during the summer of 1960. With WWII still a fresh scar and the Algerian war already in its sixth year, the directors took their handheld cameras to the streets with one simple question: “Are you happy?” But that simple query gave rise to some very complex interviews as everyday citizens reflected on the crushing mediocrity of factory work, the downside of the capitalist dream, and their own personal life disappointments. Among the highlights are a pair of African students who share their takes on colonialism, a young Jewish woman whose horrifying past continues to haunt her present, and an Italian ex-pat whose dreams of big city living have spiralled down into alcoholism and despair—her sad eyes barely able to make contact with the camera lens. Remarkable in that all these years later people’s hopes and fears have changed very little with lack of funds being the main source of discontent while a combination of companionship, stability, and variety still a goal worth striving for. What is most striking however is the film’s denouement wherein the directors host a post mortem of sorts to discuss the role of cinema in either promoting reality or else distorting it beyond recognition. If they only knew where prime time television was heading…

The Chumscrubber (USA 2005) (8): Life sure is tough when you’re a group of overly privileged white teens pining away in the maddeningly dull suburbs of southern California where the streets are lined with identical split-levels and nothing ever changes. And it doesn’t help matters when your parents are self-obsessed middle-class WASPS with their heads perpetually embedded up their backsides. Enter Dean, a morose loner who discovers his only friend Troy has hung himself and doesn’t quite know how to cope with the boy’s suicide. Sadly, Troy’s mother is too busy throwing a party to notice her son is dead and Dean’s parents are too caught up in their own careers to care much—his mom touts better living through vitamins while his dad is a self-help guru who sees his son’s silent cries for help as fodder for his next book. But Troy was more than a friend, he was also the neighbourhood drug dealer and his death inspires school outcasts Billy (his military father punches first, asks questions later), Lee (his parents love the idea of what their son should be), and Crystal (her mom is the town cougar with a closet full of halter tops to prove it) to take his place—but first they must get their hands on Troy’s stash, a treasure trove of uppers and downers they believe Dean has in his possession and for which they will go to any lengths to acquire—even kidnapping and murder… Like an uneasy collaboration between Wes Anderson and Larry Clark, director Arie Posin’s darkly satirical send-up of America’s new generation gap turns a seemingly idyllic slice of suburbia into a toxic battleground where angst-ridden kids flounder while clueless parents grapple with their own neuroses. At times hilarious—a woman is so preoccupied with fears of abandonment that it takes her two days to realize her son has been abducted—at other times filled with barely suppressed rage—Troy’s passive-aggressive mother makes a point of telling everyone in the neighbourhood that she in no way blames them for her son’s death—this is an unsettling mix of offbeat humour and scathing social critique which doesn’t always gel yet still manages to pack a vicious punch or two. A sad tale of mid-life crises gone awry, prescription tranquilizers that no longer work, and a pervasive loneliness of epidemic proportions told with tongue in cheek and teeth firmly gritted. The title, fittingly enough, refers to a popular post-apocalyptic video game heavy on violence and alienation. This is the type of work Bergman may have envisioned had he flunked out of film school and moved to Orange County. Stars Glenn Close, Ralph Fiennes, and Allison Janney.

Cielo (Canada 2017) (4): Science and “spirituality” have never made for comfortable bedfellows and writer/director Alison McAlpine’s strong-arm attempts to force them through the bedroom door results in a hodgepodge of New Age prattle which is only occasionally punctuated by rational observations from astronomers and physicists. Filmed in and around an observatory in Chile’s famed Atacama desert, her documentary follows these scientists at work as they map the heavens amidst a landscape of jagged mountains and perpetually setting suns. Nice to look at, but natives telling tall tales about ghosts and aliens are given the same sober consideration as scientists talking about exoplanets and space travel, and McAlpine’s droning voiceover, accentuated by a tolling soundtrack, tries way too hard to wrestle some quasi-religious mystery out of endless time lapses of the Milky Way—panoramas of spinning stars that begin to look like outtakes from Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi. “If we could ask the stars a question, what would it be…?” Deep thoughts for shallow thinkers.

Cinema of Death (USA 2004) (6):  A collection of five “extreme” short films exploring obsession, madness and suffering.  In Adoration we see a young man’s pathological desire for a woman lead to an ultimate consume-ation.  It is cleverly presented as a film within a film in which we become both observers and observed.  Dislandia  has no overt narrative and is only loosely linear in that it has a beginning and an end.  Its sole character, a painfully reserved child whose face is covered by a grotesque mask, wanders despondently through a sepia-tinged landscape of muted images and discordant sounds.  You can interpret the ending as being happy, but the film’s macabre aura never completely dissipates.  Pig  is a short S&M mind-fuck involving a group of faceless people, an abandoned house in the desert, some surgical equipment and lots of gauze.  Hollywood Babylon spends four minutes looking at a wall of framed photos...oh joy.  Le Poeme proved to be the most troubling for me.  The director films the dissection of an actual cadaver while a voice-over reads a passionate poem by Rimbaud.  He claims he was trying to show how pain and joy exist side by side; joy being the exuberant imagery of the poem, pain being the autopsy I suppose.  He then tries to justify the needless disfigurement of the corpse (the eyelids are sliced off, the heart removed) by stating he gave the dead man “life” by casting him as the narrator.  The body was made available for anatomical study afterwards so no harm done, right?  I’m not so sure the deceased, or his family, would agree.  Art?  Or stylized desecration?  The latter I should think.

The Circus (USA 1928) (7): A brilliantly conceived chase through a hall of mirrors; a magic show that devolves into a slapstick free-for-all; a harrowing high wire act beset by a troop of manic monkeys…these are just a few of the reasons why this Charlie Chaplin film, one of his last silents, has earned a place on so many “top” lists. When a backstage labour dispute threatens to close a traveling circus the unprincipled ringmaster recruits a troublesome vagrant (Chaplin, naturally) to fill in. Of course headaches ensue when the little tramp keeps stumbling into the ring by accident ruining everything from juggling acts to clown shows—but the audience, thinking his antics are all part of the evening’s entertainment, eat it up and demand more. And then the little guy meets lonely trapeze artist Merna, the ringmaster’s unhappy daughter, and love blooms—at least for him. The comedic sequences are perfectly choreographed—it took a lot of practice to make those pratfalls seem so chaotic—and the performances were not without a degree of danger especially when Chaplin had himself filmed inside a cage with a real live lion. But there is also an element of self-deprecation at work, for Chaplin’s little tramp certainly brings the house down through his own ineptness yet when he’s called upon by the ringmaster to be funny on purpose he freezes because, in reality, he’s not very funny at all. The laughter may not be as loud today as it was back in 1928, but there will always be something inherently likeable about this lumbering, blundering everyman as he persistently dodges fate’s slings and arrows, not to mention a bucking jackass. Ironically, Chaplins’ personal life was coming apart at the seams during the filming of The Circus leading to a nervous breakdown before it was even completed.

Citizen Kane (USA 1941) (8): A scandalous box office flop upon its initial release, co-writer/director Orson Welles’ signature opus is now considered one of the benchmarks in modern American cinema launching the careers of such stars as Agnes Moorehead and Joseph Cotten. If the story is simple enough—mega-billionaire Charles Foster Kane (Welles libelling William Randolph Hearst) spends his entire life amassing material possessions only to make a deathbed discovery that the one thing he truly desired was never for sale—its execution is pure cinema magic. Deep focus techniques render backgrounds and foregrounds with crystal clarity, cameras seem to melt through ceilings and table tops, and B&W matte paintings give Xanadu, Kane’s gaudy Florida estate, the aura of a haunted house. Told in post mortem flashbacks as a roving reporter anxious to decipher the meaning of “rosebud”, Kane’s final word, interviews everyone from the tycoon’s best friend to his business associates, butlers, and a drunken ex-wife (Dorothy Comingore libelling Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies), all of whom offer a different glimpse into the man behind the legend beginning with his impoverished childhood and ending with the lonely septuagenarian as decayed as his empty mansion. Big, brash, and unapologetic—much like its creator—and impressively filmed even if the cinematography does occasionally resort to flashy gimmicks and that much anticipated final reveal proves something of a let-down. An interesting pop-psychology foray into what makes a megalomaniac tick (Kane’s brush with politics seems frighteningly contemporary) and the fact that Welles was only twenty-five years old at the time is almost unbelievable.

City Lights (USA 1931) (8): Sir Charles Chaplin spent a great deal of his own money to produce and market City Lights, even going so far as to build a river and a small city (or at least the downtown core of one) on the grounds of his studio. The result—a slapstick comedy steeped in humanism and pathos—is on numerous “Best Of” lists and regarded as his greatest achievement by the likes of Woody Allen, Orson Welles, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Stanley Kubrick. Chaplin’s little tramp falls in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill, luminous) who, through a series of misunderstandings, believes him to be a well-to-do millionaire. Meanwhile he also befriends a real millionaire (Harry Myers)—a drunken, suicidal depressive who gleefully fraternizes with Chaplin when he’s soused but loses all memory of him when sober. Determined to help the flower girl overcome her handicap in any way he can Chaplin, with and without his tycoon buddy, embarks on a series of misadventures that include a drunk driving odyssey through downtown Los Angeles, a most unorthodox boxing tournament, and an intoxicated melee at a swank nightclub. Billed as a “comedy romance in pantomime”, Chaplin ignored the advent of talkie technology thus allowing the silent era to end with a bang. Relying almost exclusively on physical comedy (the only sound being a quaint orchestral score and incidental noises) the perfectly timed sight gags come fast and furious—yet at its core this is indeed a bittersweet love story culminating in one of early cinema’s most moving final frames. Surprisingly pragmatic despite its uproarious tangents and keenly aware of truths both emotional and social (the Great Depression was in full swing) this is lighthearted farce with a passionate bite.

City of the Living Dead  (Italy 1980) (4):  With a title like "City of the Living Dead" and a director like Lucio Fulci I was ready for a great zombie splatter flick. Wrong. A hackneyed script (the gates of hell have opened...oh my!!) some cheap dramatics and abysmal sfx all add up to mediocre late-night cable fare. Think of it as "gore lite" for the brain dead.

City of Women (Italy 1980) (6): On a train bound for some unspecified destination, middle-aged rogue Snàporaz (Marcello Mastroianni greyer but no wiser) is nodding in and out of sleep when he suddenly notices the beautiful woman sitting across from him. After a few sad attempts to seduce her—while a gaggle of school girls mock him in the background—he follows her off the train and into a surreal landscape populated by emasculating feminists, seductive mother figures, and a whole lot of women who just plain need a man like a fish needs a bicycle. Not used to assertive females with minds of their own, a bullied and thoroughly discomfited Snàporaz makes his way to the home of the area’s sole male inhabitant Dr. Xavier Katzone, a brutish lothario who lives in a thrusting stone tower (naturally) and revels in weapons, vicious dogs, and phallic symbols of every kind. There, surrounded by bourgeois party animals including his bitter ex-wife, Snàporaz will receive one humiliating comeuppance after another as he searches in vain for the perfect woman while a host of unsympathetic ladies cut his male machismo into bite-sized pieces. Federico Fellini’s skewed celebration of female empowerment is a fantastical rambling circus of a film seemingly without beginning or end and filled with enough flesh and psychosexual sleight of hand to give Sigmund Freud a stiffy—Dr. Katzone’s photo gallery of sexy backlit females who moan and beg for it at the touch of a button was especially telling. There is no doubt but that Fellini loved women and was in awe of them, but whereas a director like Pedro Almodóvar expresses his own admiration for the fairer sex with dignity and warm humour, in City Fellini approached his subjects with some degree of trepidation often portraying them as avenging Valkyries or hypersexualized carnivores—or in the case of Katzone’s unnatural attraction to a stone bust of his mother, aloof goddesses. Overly long and filled with gaudy detours (a lustful salute to Hollywood’s Golden Age was cute) this is not one of Federico’s better films, but if you’re willing to take it as a dated feminist time capsule it will certainly give you something to talk about afterwards. In the words of an exasperated Snàporaz himself, “What kind of movie is this!?”

CJ7 (Hong Kong) (6): Writer/director Stephen Chow draws on a little bit of Roald Dahl and a whole lot of Steven Spielberg for this Chinese E.T. knock-off whose sense of whimsy is too often overshadowed by schmaltz and corn. It centres on little Dicky Chow, perhaps the sweetest boy in all of Asia (actually played by actress Jiao Xu) and his dirt poor day labourer dad, Ti (the director himself). Living in a one-room hovel the two exist on whatever dad can find in the local garbage dump, be it old clothes for the closet or rotten apples for dessert, and amuse themselves at night by seeing how many cockroaches they can smush. But Ti is determined to see Dicky succeed in life even if it means slaving away at a construction site in order to pay for his private school tuition. Then one night Ti brings home a mysterious green ball he found during his nightly scrounging, a ball which turns out to be a little alien with a furry face atop a squishy green body and a voice somewhere between cooing dove and chattering chipmunk. Comical mischief and a few life lessons follow as the space puppy, nicknamed “CJ7”, uses its extraterrestrial powers—channeled through a glowing antenna reminiscent of E.T.’s finger—to give father and son a new sense of purpose. Or something. B-grade CGI effects have you almost believing the actors are looking at something real and a cast of adorable classroom moppets (including an adult male in schoolgirl drag dubbed with a six-year old’s voice?!) cement the film’s demographic. But watching CJ7 strike Kung Fu poses and pull funny faces is barely enough to sustain an adult’s interest and those stretches of teary pathos, with the orchestra practically falling over itself trying to twist your heart, are a tad too manipulative to be effective. Completely inoffensive for all that, and some of the comedic elements actually work especially Dicky’s dealings with the pint-sized class bully and one high-tech daydream. Family fare that’s decent enough for a 90-minute commitment. And yes, there’s a toy franchise.

Clash by Night (USA 1952) (7): The misogyny may be dated and the pall of angst a little over-baked, but Fritz Lang’s seedy love rectangle practically snaps and pops off the screen thanks to a star cast and a script which apparently never met a noirish cliché it didn’t like. Weary with the world and cynical to the core after her affair with a married politician went south, Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck, outstanding) returns to the little California fishing village she left ten years earlier. Taking up residence with her ill-tempered brother Joe (Keith Andes, ready to punch a hole in anyone or anything) she’s swayed by local fisherman Jerry (Paul Douglas, larger than life) a big lovable bear who adores her. But despite her best efforts to feign domestic bliss, it’s the rakish Earl (a snarly Robert Ryan) who eventually catches her fancy. Very unhappily married and angry at the world because of it, Earl’s deep-seated hatred for the fairer sex speaks to Mae’s own self-loathing in ways Jerry can’t begin to understand. Meanwhile Joe is having problems of his own with headstrong girlfriend Peggy (star performance from a still unknown Marilyn Monroe) whose progressive opinions regarding women have him undecided over whether she should be lectured or strangled. He attempts both. With Earl’s fragile chauvinism and Joe’s open-hearted decency forming opposite poles, Lang takes a somewhat sensationalistic look at how the two women in his film evolve emotionally over the course of a single year—helped in part by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca’s pans of moonlit clouds and thundering waves, and Roy Webb’s plaintive orchestral score. But it’s the dialogue, adapted from Clifford Odets’ stage play, that will leave you either wincing or smiling appreciatively: “Don’t kid me, baby. I know a bottle by the label!” sneers Earl as Mae tries to wrestle from his unwanted embrace. They probably shouldn’t make ‘em like this anymore—but I’m glad they did in 1952. Silvio Minciotti co-stars as Jerry’s father—a man without direction ever since his own true love died—and J. Carrol Naish plays his Uncle Vince, a self-serving serpent who takes comfort in the unhappiness of others.

The Class of Nuke ‘Em High (USA 1986) (2): Tromaville Highschool is located directly in the shadow of the Troma Nuclear Power Plant (the film is produced by Troma studios....get it? Ha!) and over the years the steady exposure to radiation has taken its toll on the student body causing a teacher to become bald and turning a host of former honours students into a gang of rowdy drug-dealing freaks. But when a catastrophic leak of nuclear waste contaminates both the school water supply and the freaks' marijuana grow-op, it leads to all sorts of mutant mayhem including a homegrown radioactive monster in the school basement. Like an episode of Welcome Back Kotter, only with more blood and tits, this amateurish bit of 80's Drive-In fodder isn't even good enough to spoof. The mark of a good "bad" film has always been in the balance between clever and awful, but aside from some amusingly gratuitous gore this poorly made, poorly acted mess is just plain awful. A soundtrack of generic metal tunes plus the threat of a sequel didn't help matters either. Some movies should never have been made.

Cléo From 5 to 7 (France 1962) (7): Celebrated French songstress Cléo has a few hours to kill before a fateful appointment to discuss test results with her pathologist—are those vague stomach pains really cancer? In order to provide some comfort her superstitious secretary engages in silly good luck rituals while her best friend Angèle (get it?) offers good-natured sympathy and courage; but Cléo’s lover is too preoccupied with his own mundane problems to take much notice and an old fortune teller warns of turbulent times ahead. Escaping the conflicting voices around her Cléo seeks respite in the sunlit streets of Paris, now suddenly alive with enigmatic portents both upbeat and discouraging, where a chance encounter with a handsome soldier en route to Algeria not only gives her a new reason for hope, but also reveals an inner strength she never knew she had. Together they slowly make their way to the doctor’s office… Although not quite shot in real time, Agnès Varda’s freewheeling experimental film nevertheless manages to trace its protagonist’s two-hour journey from terrified anticipation to calm resolve with a heady mix of poetic license and crisp cinéma-verité. While friends and acquaintances try to distract her, Cléo’s inner monologue belies a childlike bewilderment as she talks herself into action rather than retreat. The picturesque B&W cinematography and track of pop ballads give an acute sense of time and place while Cléo’s emotional struggle is universal. An unexpected gem from the French new wave.

The Clock (USA 1945) (8): A naïve army corporal from a small town is granted a two-day leave in New York City and doesn’t quite know what to do with himself. Then he accidentally meets a harried young secretary (she trips over his feet) and the two wind up spending the next 48 hours getting to know one another while Cupid works his magic… With a plot surprisingly similar to 1995’s Before Sunrise director Vincente Minnelli’s bubbly romance boasts endearing performances from stars Robert Walker and Judy Garland whose onscreen chemistry sparkles along thanks to a charming script and some innovative camerawork. Garland is a winning mix of big city girl and lonely heart, the boyishly handsome Walker is all innocent appeal, and they’re aided by a cast of seasoned character actors which includes real life husband and wife James and Lucile Gleason as a happily married elderly couple, Ruth Brady as Garland’s busybody roommate, and Angela Lansbury’s mother, Moyna MacGill, as an eccentric diner patron. Keenan Wynn also has a standout cameo as an obnoxious drunk in a perfectly staged single take that lasts almost four minutes. Overhead crane shots and meticulously choreographed crowds take in all of Grand Central Station (both real and recreated on MGM’s backlot) and in one impressive passage the camera dogs the happy couple as they repeatedly lose one another on various subway platforms. But it’s the ongoing dialogue that shines through whether the two are helping an injured milkman do his midnight rounds (cute plot twist) or sharing a private moment in Central Park where a sudden choir of angels treads dangerously close to syrupy overkill. However, as dashing soldier and wide-eyed career girl compare their lives thus far while love seems to bloom all around them one can’t help but feel like a sentimental fly on the wall. A heartwarming tonic for cynical times.

The Closed Doors (Egypt 1999) (7): Teenaged Mohammed has not had an easy life. His father abandoned the family long ago, his older brother is missing and presumed dead in the ongoing Gulf War, and his mother is barely making enough money to maintain their squalid apartment in one of Cairo’s poorer neighbourhoods. Now, with the onset of adolescence, he is further plagued by mood swings and sexual urgings he doesn’t know how to handle. All of which make him a prime target for a group of fundamentalists operating out of the local mosque. Hiding his own fears behind a facade of righteousness, koran firmly in hand, Mohammed sets out to “correct” his strong-willed mother’s sinful ways (she refuses to obey the right wing rhetoric of her son’s new mentors) as well as those of his next door neighbour, an unhappily married woman who makes a few extra pounds as an escort… With production values and performances barely one step above an Arabic soap opera, writer/director Atef Hetata’s exposé of one troubled young man suddenly thrust into a moral crossroads he’s ill-equipped to manoeuvre nevertheless makes for some powerful (and highly contentious) viewing. As a grandiose orchestral score ebbs and floes in the background, political propaganda and religious tirades compete with secular entertainment on TV sets and radios—turning Mohammed’s predicament into a metaphor for an entire nation. Whether it’s the wailing voice of a muezzin interrupting an erotic wet dream (“God forgive me!”) or the sight of a woman’s bare knee pushing temptation to the breaking point, Hetata’s critique of earthly (and entirely normal) desires going up against the overbearing precepts of fundamentalist Islam starts off innocuous enough before snowballing into something none of his characters are prepared for. A confrontational piece of filmmaking despite its modest means.

Closely Watched Trains (Czech 1966) (7): Milos is a slacker from a long line of slackers and eccentrics—his father sits on his ass all day collecting a pension and his uncle died when he tried to use his powers of hypnotism to stop a column of Nazi tanks from invading Prague. Now with the Germans firmly entrenched in Czechoslovakia Milos gets a job as a train dispatcher in the hopes that he can garner a paycheque for doing nothing. But what he really wants is to lose his virginity and despite ample opportunities he’s never quite “up” to it. In the meantime his fellow dispatcher Hubicka is getting laid on a nightly basis and his boss, a sexually repressed family man, is constantly going on about Sodom, Gomorrah, and Armageddon (with pet pigeons roosting on his head). Even the demands of the underground resistance take a backseat to Milos’ raging hormones until he is convinced to undertake a dangerous assignment with hilariously macabre consequences. A fine instalment from the all too brief Czech New Wave, Jirí Menzel’s absurdist comedy managed to poke fun at the Communist mindset in such a roundabout way that it snuck right past the censors. Tedious bureaucracy, boredom, and misguided nationalism are presented with such tongue-in-cheek finesse that at times it is hard to see the sting lurking just beneath the surface, especially with the Third Reich providing a convenient smokescreen. Alternately ludicrous and strangely sobering.

Closet Monster (Canada 2015) (7): Reality and make-believe vie for centre stage in Stephen Dunn’s capricious drama, an odd little coming-out story whose arthouse flourishes both keep it afloat and occasionally threaten to sink it entirely. Nine-year old Oscar Madly (get it?) is traumatized one summer by two separate occurrences: his mother walks out leaving him mostly in the care of his emotionally labile father; and he witnesses a vicious gay-bashing carried out in the local cemetery. Years later, a teenaged Oscar (beautifully layered performance from Connor Jessup) has set his sights on moving to New York City to study special effects make-up when his adolescent hormones are thrown a curveball in the form of fellow hardware store employee Wilder, a Montreal transplant whose smooth pecs and flirtatious mannerisms has Oscar banging on the closet door. But you can’t easily dismiss a lifetime of psychological abuse and the internalized homophobia it engenders, so when Oscar’s breaking point is finally reached it proves monumentally bittersweet indeed… Only twenty-six at the time, writer/director Dunn set out with a firm vision and enough chutzpah to almost pull it off. Making the tumultuous emotions of a closeted young man manifest on screen isn’t an easy task and Dunn pulls a few clever cinematic rabbits out of his hat in an attempt to do so—false faces abound as Oscar practices his make-up techniques on himself, his dad, and his BFF Gemma (a struggling wannabe model); nascent queer lust is given an edge of horror with some imaginary yet graphic body mortifications à la David Cronenberg; and Oscar’s inner dialogue is rendered a two-way conversation with his talking hamster Buffy (voice of batshit Isabella Rossellini), a sage rodent with a few gender issues of its own. When it works it sweeps you up in a moving, emotionally raw psychodrama powered by wishes and nightmares. But when it falters you’re left with so many film school conceits and empty pockets of air—for one thing Oscar’s petulant rage against the parents isn’t supported by dad’s few hissy fits or mom’s lacklustre nurturing skills, and Dunn relies a wee bit too much on slo-mo passages of emoting and staccato flashbacks. “If you don’t hate your parents you’ll become them…” says Wilder one night and although his advice seems unrealistically harsh the theme of having to move away in order to move forward resonates. The backdrops of Newfoundland and Labrador are gorgeous too (cliffs and restless seas always provide good metaphors) and that chill soundtrack of indie songs is impeccably chosen.

Cloud Atlas (Germany/USA 2012) (4): This bloated film adaptation of David Mitchell’s novel about a host of reincarnated souls crossing paths through the ages is so spectacularly awful in so many amazing ways that its three-hour running time practically flies by in a blur of inspirational Hallmark moments. A cadre of international stars headed by Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon and Jim Broadbent gloriously waste their time as they take turns falling madly in love and validating one another’s existence while at the same time waxing sanctimoniously on the undying power of love, the interconnectedness of all things, and the dignity of the human spirit. Meanwhile, just for good measure, Hugh Grant and Hugo Weaving get to be recycled as the perennial bad guys (or girls). Jumping back and forth across 500 years of history we see how small acts of kindness and villainy echo down the centuries: in 19th century Polynesia a kindly lawyer befriends a runaway slave; a brilliant gay composer suffers a doomed love affair in pre-WWII Britain; a crusading reporter discovers the truth behind nuclear energy in disco-era San Francisco (while across the pond a group of feisty Scottish seniors break out of a sinister nursing home); in a future totalitarian Seoul a rebellious clone plants the seeds of a new religion; and lastly (thank God), in a far flung post-apocalyptic America where everyone shuffles around in caveman drag spouting white trash pidgin, love finds a new foothold among the stars. Gag and barf. The widescreen cinematography is appropriately grandiose and some of the futuristic gewgaws are fun to watch, but the transmigratory connections get shoved in your face a few too many times (OMG, there’s that comet-shaped birth mark again! And that haunting melody!) and the teary-eyed soliloquies are enough to make Spielberg wet his skivvies. Still, film geeks will have a ball uncovering the more subtle background clues linking one storyline to another. I was just impressed I managed to stay awake.

Cloudburst (Canada 2011) (8): Hard-drinking, foul-mouthed octogenarian Stella (a thoroughly convincing Olympia Dukakis) is beyond angry when her blind and invalid lover Dot (Brenda Fricker…ditto) is placed in a nursing home by a meddling granddaughter. With no legal recourse at her disposal Stella decides to kidnap Dot and drive up to Canada where the two can become legally married and therefore inseparable. Along the way they pick up handsome young drifter Prentice who’s trying to make it back to Nova Scotia to visit his dying mother. In the big old lesbian road movie that follows Stella and Dot look back on their thirty-one years together and the prospect of finally tying the knot with a mix of cold feet, longing, and an abiding love which has seen them through more tough times than they can remember. Prentice, meanwhile, has a few heartaches of his own to nurse and as the odd trio slowly make their way to the border unexpected bonds are formed while others are changed forever. Besides the endearing performances of Dukakis and Fricker (Dot’s calm yet feisty Irish demeanour is the perfect foil for Stella’s rather imaginative sailor’s mouth), director Thom Fitzgerald’s ability for incorporating natural beauty into his film’s narrative give it an easygoing rhythm which makes the one-liners and sight gags all the more hilarious—for at its heart this is a bittersweet romantic comedy after all (Dot’s unfortunate bedroom encounter with Prentice’s estranged father deserved more than one rewind). Unfortunately it all culminates in the kind of exaggerated “sugar and tears” ending for which Canadian cinema is infamous for—but despite some unnecessary drama the film’s heartfelt message of enduring love (and laughter) still rings loud and clear.

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (USA 2009) (8): When budding scientist Flint Lockwood tries to help his small island community recover from an economic slump by inventing a machine that turns water into food, no one is prepared for the dire gastronomic consequences which follow. Launching his invention into the atmosphere Flint is hailed as a hero by the people of Swallow Falls who are delighted to have pizzas and sundaes rain from the sky, not to mention the millions they stand to make from curious tourists. But the town's greedy mayor decides that more is better and before you can yell "Alka Seltzer" he's pushed Flint's machine beyond its capacity resulting in a mighty edible hurricane of giant mutated victuals that not only threatens the island, but the entire world as well. Based on the children's book this is one of the cleverest and at time laugh out loud funny animated features I've seen since Despicable Me 2 had me chuckling non-stop. Filled with food-oriented sight gags, Hollywood jabs, and witty one-liners (not to mention a well deserved send-up of network sexism) this is one to delight the entire family. The formula may be familiar (failed achiever redeems self, gets the girl etc. etc.) but rarely has it been (re)told with such colourful ingenuity. Besides, where else can you see a talking monkey battle with carnivorous gummy bears on the wings of a speeding jet plane?

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (USA 2013) (7): The original gang is back in this slightly too cute but nevertheless entertaining sequel. This time around über-dork Flint Lockwood has been recruited by television science guru Chester V who, along with a small army of mega geeks and personalized holograms, runs the fabulous “Live Corp Company” an institution devoted to the advancement of science. Flint’s assignment, return to the island community of Swallow Falls and deactivate his malfunctioning invention which turns water into food before the planet is overrun by mutated menu items. But there are two major obstacles in Flint’s path: first of all Swallow Falls is now an overgrown jungle inhabited by fearsome “food animals” (shrimpanzees, watermelophants, and wildebeets...oh my!); secondly, the great Chester V has a few diabolical plans of his own for Flint’s odd invention. Can Flint and company save the Earth yet again or will we all fall prey to a mad scientist and/or armies of toothsome appetizers? The premise may be rehashed, and the adorable factor turned up a notch (“Berry” the strawberry coos like a toddler and poops jelly) but the underlying wit and visual gags remain largely the same…especially those candy-coloured nods to Jurassic Park. You’ll never look at your cupboard shelves the same way again.

Cloverfield (USA 2008) (8): Godzilla meets the Blair Witch as a small handful of hapless yuppies record the ingestion of New York City while fleeing for their lives. It all begins at an upscale party where a loft-full of beautiful people have gathered to bid a fond farewell to the guest of honour. Walking among the clinking beer bottles and dazzling white smiles, video camera in hand, party animal Hud tries to capture every witty remark and drunken innuendo when suddenly...shit happens! Rushing to the rooftop the partygoers witness an enormous explosion in the distance which fills the sky with flaming debris necessitating a hasty retreat to the sidewalk below. But once they join the crowds of dazed pedestrians things start to get really interesting with toppling skyscrapers, monstrous rumblings and tantalizingly brief glimpses of something huge and reptilian wreaking havoc in downtown Manhattan. Reeves has fashioned a fiendishly clever film that combines a good old-fashioned monster movie with a satirical critique on post 9-11 hysteria. The sound effects and CGI-generated mayhem are impeccable while the amateurish video footage maintains a state of claustrophobic panic. Of course there are some awkward plot devices; Reeves doesn’t explain why people who are running in terror would decide to record an ongoing documentary, and we are expected to believe it would take the army only 15 minutes to flood NYC with tanks and battalions. But with a movie so chockfull of awesome destruction and deliriously chaotic action sequences it is easy to forgive. Be forewarned though, Cloverfield’s jerky handheld camerawork is not for the weak of stomach.

The Cloverfield Paradox (USA 2018) (5): With every country on Earth poised to go to war over dwindling energy resources, the multinational crew of on orbiting space station risk everything in a desperate experiment which, if successful, will harness the unlimited power of the universe itself. Unfortunately their unstable particle beam rips a hole in space-time propelling them into an alternate reality instead where an alternate Earth is having problems of its own. Will they be able to get back to their own planet before this new dimension traps them forever? And what other unpleasant side effects could this botched experiment have unleashed? Hint: a television interview with a luddite author warns of “demons”…ooooooh! Of course if you’ve seen the first two Cloverfield movies you already know what’s going to happen and if you haven’t then skip this farcical prequel altogether and consider yourself fortunate. Ultra-cool special effects and futuristic gewgaws fail to mask a comic book script so patently ridiculous that even if you do succeed in suspending your disbelief you’re going to find it all but impossible to suspend your IQ as well. Lots of flashing lights and buttons replace actual science (even if it’s only fiction); running, shouting, and sweaty close-ups stand in for drama; and crazy poltergeist stuff happens with only a few lame hints to give it any perspective (my favourite—a severed arm crawls in search of a magic marker). And what’s with casting Chinese superstar Ziyi Zhang as the vitally important and indispensable engineer who only speaks Mandarin? The interpersonal tensions—love, resentment, sacrifice, betrayal—seem like afterthoughts and that ridiculous resolution offers the film’s only real tie-in with its far superior successors. The slick effects and sheer momentum keep it just entertaining enough for a popcorn night, but you might want to rent Disney’s The Black Hole as a bad movie back-up.

Clown (USA/Canada 2014) (7): When the clown scheduled to appear at a little boy’s birthday party bows out due to a scheduling conflict the tyke’s father, a real estate agent, decides to fill in by wearing a dusty old clown costume he found in the dusty old basement of a house he is selling. But what dad doesn’t realize is that this particular outfit is cursed and slowly turns anyone who wears it into a floppy-footed, red-nosed carnival demon with an insatiable appetite for tender young children…muahaha! Writer/director Jon Watts takes an admittedly silly premise, contrives a novel backstory to explain it (you’ll never guess how Bozo and his ilk got their start…LOL!), and garnishes it with just enough blood, guts, and creepiness to keep us interested. What impressed me the most, however, were the pitch black comedic touches he threw in—a messy encounter at a kid’s arcade gives ball pits a bad name; try shooting a devil clown and you get a wall full of rainbow-coloured gore; and eating cursed props turns Fido into a very bad dog indeed. Simply put, Watts and crew have churned out a savvy tribute to those cheesy horror flicks from the ‘80s with plenty of canned screams, gross effects, and supposedly smart people doing stupid things (“wow, look at all the blood, let’s stay and investigate!”) It’s a silly mix of genre clichés, inappropriate yuks, and a few genuine heebie-jeebies which may not keep you up at night but at least you’ll have fun while it lasts. Pennywise could take notes.

Coco (USA 2017) (10): Ever since great-great-grandfather walked out on his wife and daughter in order to pursue a singing career, the Rivera family has banned all music from their lives. Three generations later, ten-year old Miguel Rivera is chafing at this ancestral prohibition especially after his desire to pursue a singing career similar to his B&W matinee idol Ernesto de la Cruz puts him in direct conflict with his unyielding grandmother. Then, on the eve of Mexico’s “Dia de Muertos”—the one time of the year in which deceased relatives can come visit the living—Miguel enters the Land of the Dead where he sets about trying to understand his family’s history by finding his errant great-great-grandfather with the help of a loveable street dog and a bumbling spirit named Héctor… Pixar Studios score one of their greatest hits with this gigantic candy box of a film that draws its inspiration from such diverse sources as Mayan mythology and medieval poetry (the dog’s name is Dante…wink wink!). Exploding off the screen in every colour imaginable Coco’s animators start small—Miguel’s little village is cartoon quaint without being cliché—and then outdo themselves to create a retro netherworld resembling an infernal Disneyland on acid. Houses in every rainbow hue perch atop each other while antiquated streetcars fly through the air and countless twinkling lights illuminate the sky, occasionally coalescing to form a grinning skull. The dead themselves, culled from Latino folk art, are exuberant stacks of bones in period costumes with a shock of hair here, a dab of make-up there, and rib cages like crazy xylophones as they cavort about, occasionally removing an arm to make a point or juggling a head suddenly come loose while psychedelic spirit animals slither, fly, or lope in and out of neon alleyways. Miguel’s own forebears, a slapstick collection of dour women and browbeaten men, seem determined to keep him from his goal leading to a few welcome twists and revelations. A visual treat for sure, complimented by a lively musical score (including the Oscar-winning song “Remember Me”), but the onscreen fireworks are tempered by an intelligent script and several intimate moments which tug at the heart as they stress the importance of family ties and following one’s dream. Will Miguel’s attempt to find the truth about his family’s roots end in disaster? Will Héctor’s dream of visiting his estranged daughter come true (the dead have to be remembered in order to exist)? And what secrets does Miguel’s wizened old great-grandmother hold in her dementia-wracked mind? A true multi-generational hit and sure to be one of Pixar’s crowning achievements.

Coco Before Chanel [Coco Avant Chanel] (France 2009) (5): Celebrated couturier Gabriel Bonheur aka “Coco Chanel” (1883 - 1971) was a pioneer on at least two levels—she was the first female to make a dent in what was then a male-dominated profession and her edgy sense of style practically defined women’s haute couture for decades. She was also an ambitious businesswoman and patron of the arts who courted some scandal during WWII for her dalliances with the German occupiers. But watching Anne Fontaine’s drab, lifeless biopic you get the impression of a mousy depressive with a taste for straw hats and unavailable men who stumbled upon fashion design when she was bored one afternoon. Beginning with a ten-year old Gabriel and her sister being dropped off at an orphanage by their penniless father, and then proceeding through her early years as a saloon singer, seamstress, and mistress to a boorish millionaire before ending on a lavish mirrored runway, Fontaine offers little insight and no emotional connection whatsoever but rather gives us a pedestrian Masterpiece Theatre rendering of an enigmatic person whose legacy certainly deserved more than a cursory melodrama. Lead actress Audrey Tautou (Amélie) does bear an uncanny resemblance to Chanel but aside from a few fierce words and that permanent scowl her performance lacks the fire one would expect from a woman who seemingly broke taboos as casually as she hemmed a skirt—in an age where appearances meant everything she took on more than one lover and defied fashion conventions with her masculine togs. The rest of the cast offer up readings as lacklustre as the dull countryside cinematography—attempts to disparage France’s idle rich as a bunch of shallow deviants elicit little more than a yawn and Coco’s “passionate” affair with a British opportunist not even that—but at least Catherine Leterrier’s Oscar-nominated costume designs add a splash of much needed colour and sophistication.

Code Unknown (Germany 2000) (7):  On the streets of contemporary Paris a casually cruel gesture has an immediate affect on a disparate group of people and sends emotional ripples across half a continent.  This engaging film uses several cinematic styles to chronicle the stories of these people while underscoring its central theme.....the misery that results from our inability to truly communicate with one another.  This lack of empathy is demonstrated in various subtle ways; from the many instances of misunderstandings to the jarring use of quick cuts, often in the middle of a sentence, leaving the viewer to guess as to what was actually happening.  As usual Haneke’s style is maddeningly cryptic and he delivers his sermon with the customary amount of smugness.  But if you’ve seen enough of his films you already know what to expect.

Coherence (USA 2013) (8): As the nighttime sky above Los Angeles is lit by a rarely seen comet, four couples gather for a relaxed dinner party. Small talk gradually turns to the celestial spectacle overhead after one of the guests recounts an article she once read linking bizarre earthbound phenomena with passing comets. And then the lights go out. Scrambling for candles and glow sticks, the guests venture forth into a neighbourhood suddenly plunged into darkness and silence—except for one peculiar house down the street… Graced by a handsome and talented cast who flesh out their characters with complete conviction, this is one of those films that defy easy classification. It’s science-fiction to be sure but touches of humour and panic-stricken horror, all delivered with mumblecore spontaneity, help propel a story which manages to loop wildly about without ever tripping itself up. You won’t need a degree in quantum physics to appreciate Byrkit’s very clever little brain puzzler but the crazy paradoxes he begins to weave are enough to make Schrödinger’s cat crawl back into its box.

The Collector (UK 1965) (9): Ever since he came into some money, twenty-something Freddie Clegg (a chilling Terence Stamp) has indulged his passion for butterfly collecting so that now one entire room of his isolated country house is filled with trophy cases displaying the beautiful dead insects. But Freddie has another passion in the form of Miranda Grey, the London art student whom he’s been stalking for years (Best Actress nominee Samantha Eggar)—and when you’re a morbidly introverted sociopath the leap from collecting butterflies to collecting pretty young girls is a very small one indeed… Based on the novel by John Fowles, director William Wyler’s dark tale of obsession and paranoia easily bypasses all those “damsel in distress” clichés to deliver a truly unsettling psychodrama with Stamp and Eggar perfectly matched as childlike madman and the terrified focus of his sickness—his single-minded mania to possess her finding counterbalance in her frantic desire to escape even if it means playing his game. Already sporting a gothic edge thanks to the crumbling opulence of Clegg’s 16th century manor house, Wyler juxtaposes funereal organ chords with a recurring melody which is disarmingly wistful—the resulting disparity between sight and sound not only ramping up the overall sense of dread, but adding an undercurrent of melancholy as well. Highly controversial for its day (apparently it was accidentally passed uncut for British audiences because the chief censor nodded off during one particularly contentious scene) Wyler’s Collector is an effective blending of Hitchcock’s suspense, Haneke’s clinical observation, and just a touch of Von Trier’s taste for emotional cruelty.

Collision (USA 2008) (8): Is Christianity good for the world? Religious faith and secular humanism go toe to toe as “Anti-Theist” Christopher Hitchens squares off against evangelical theologian Douglas Wilson in Darren Doane’s gripping documentary. Doane follows the two men as they embark on a series of guest lectures promoting their collaborative book and engaging audiences in heated debates. While Wilson insists all things come from God including our fundamental concept of “right and wrong”, Hitchens steadfastly denies the idea of divine intervention in any aspect of the natural world instead referring to Christianity as a “wicked cult”. However, despite the often passionate verbal sparring onstage the two men share a surprisingly civil and respectful friendship behind the scenes as the camera catches them having a good-natured argument over coffee or exchanging favourite literary quotes in a smoky bar. Highly educated, scholarly, and possessing razor sharp wits, the two men raise the “Faith vs. Science” debate from the usual level of ignorant shouting match to an eloquent repartee which is both entertaining and intellectually challenging. Doane keeps the pace hectic with a choppy editing style, skewed camera angles and colour filtering which goes from harshly exaggerated reds to washed out blues although his MTV-style soundtrack of hip hop nonsense seems woefully out of place. “One of us has to lose the argument and admit moral defeat...” states Hitchens at one point and while viewers may disagree on who deserves the final trophy the arguments presented are fascinating to hear.

The Color of Money (USA 1986) (6): Aging pool shark Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) whose glory days are long over decides to take talented young rookie Vincent (Tom Cruise) under his wing and teach him a thing or two about playing to win. But the cocky young man has his own ideas of how to hustle the game and it isn’t long before a rift develops between master and pupil…a rift with unexpected consequences all around. Martin Scorsese mostly strikes out with this disappointing sequel to 1961’s vastly superior The Hustler even though Newman nabbed an Academy Award for revising his role from that earlier film. His portrayal of an over-the-hill pro—now suffering from poor eyesight and a mid-life crisis—grasping at one last chance for the spotlight (even if by proxy) is certainly convincing enough as he butts heads with an arrogant upstart who reminds him so much of his younger self. For his part, Cruise is an entertaining ball of energy, strutting around dingy pool halls crowing like a prize rooster and busting a few ninja moves in between wins. And balancing out the two is Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio who received an Oscar nomination playing Vincent’s hard-as-nails girlfriend, Carmen—her innate cynicism casting a sardonic eye on both men. But unless you’re terribly interested in billiards and don’t mind a threadbare plot with few twists and no surprises I’d stick with the original. The talents of B. B. King, Eric Clapton, Robert Palmer, Warren Zevon, and Don Henley do make for a cool soundtrack however.

The Color of Pomegranates (USSR 1968) (6): Sergei Parajanov’s biography of 18th century Armenian poet Sayat Nova eschews linear narrative and instead delivers a series of striking dioramas and snatches of performance art meant to trace the artist’s inner evolution from rebellious child to lovestruck adult to devoted cleric and, finally, Christian martyr. The eclectic blend of music, natural sounds, and spoken word compliments some wonderfully abstract staging and lead actor Sofiko Chiaureli’s delicate features seem lifted directly from a medieval icon as he plays multiple roles, both male and female. Unfortunately, unless you have a firm understanding not only of Armenian art, culture, and history but of the life and work of Nova himself, Parajanov’s ambitious opus becomes little more than a succession of beautiful but frustratingly enigmatic tableaux.

Color Out of Space (USA 2019) (6): Based on a 1927 short story penned by horror legend H. P. Lovecraft. When a small psychedelic meteorite crashes into the front yard of their country home, Nathan Gardner (a grizzled Nicolas Cage) and his family find themselves beset by all manner of supernatural phenomena from the sudden appearance of impossible flora and fauna to telekinesis and mental manipulation. It seems the extraterrestrial chunk carried an unwelcome passenger—a being composed of pure light—and it’s now intent on turning the Gardner’s quiet idyll into an alien nightmare even as it twists their minds and bodies. Lovecraft's mastery of the English language is mostly lost amid magenta strobe effects, splattered gore, and Cage's string of screaming meltdowns, yet director Richard Stanley has still managed to produce something watchable despite the derivative Hollywood padding which includes such genre shocks as demonic personality shifts (The Amityville Horror); grotesque physical morphing (The Thing); and crawly bugaboos (Alien). There's a Saturday matinee appeal to Stanley's big screen vision however, his macabre comic book flourishes so reminiscent of 1982's Creepshow. But whether the film’s comedic elements were intentional or not is anyone's guess. Cool ending either way.

Colors (USA 1988) (7): Los Angeles police officer Bob Hodges (Robert Duvall) is a veteran with the anti-gang squad where over the years he has managed to gain a grudging respect from gang members for his even temper and willingness to cut a guy some slack. But when he’s teamed up with overly zealous rookie Danny McGavin (Sean Penn) who believes in punching first and asking questions later, inevitable frictions develop as the old man tries to impart some street smarts into his young partner. Now, with a fatal drive-by shooting threatening to escalate into a full scale turf war, the two men must either come to trust one another or face potentially tragic consequences… In light of current attitudes toward policing, and given the fact Dennis Hopper directed this film back in ’88, it comes as something of a surprise that its decidedly touchy material is handled as sensitively as it is. Even though some gangland scenes look as if they could morph into a Michael Jackson video, Hopper avoids most of the clichéd stereotypes (here come the Bloods! here come the Crips!) and instead addresses both the root causes of gang violence and their sequelae. An incendiary neighbourhood meeting between police and frightened residents raises issues of poverty, joblessness, and the allure of easy money—a sentiment reflected in the film’s soundtrack of cynical rap—while cameras linger over the savage initiation of yet another demoralized youth hungry for a sense of community even if it means carrying a gun. Spray-painted graffiti wavers between inspirational platitudes, personal hubris, and open threats (painting over someone else’s initials is equivalent to a death warrant), and safe places are nowhere to be found, including church. Duvall and Penn are in perfect synch as the old guard and the new reaching for a sense of equilibrium amidst the busts, bullets, and vendettas, and they’re shored up by a strong supporting cast—some of whom were recruited from actual street gangs. Don Cheadle hits the mark as an ice cold killer, Randy Brooks breathes fire as a former gangbanger turned street-level advocate, and celebrated character actor Glenn Plummer brings depth to a conflicted street punk whose eyes show he knows all too well what his options really are. Hopper does hit something of a sour note with the character of barrio homegirl—and Penn’s love interest—Louisa (Maria Conchita Alonso) however, imbuing her role with strength and dignity only to snatch it away with a scandalous confrontation that comes across as tawdry and superfluous. Or was he merely taking a piss on our middle-class Hollywood expectations? A tightly paced policier which asks some tough questions only to answer them with a hardened silence punctuated by spates of gunfire.

Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (USA 1981) (4): Robert Altman’s big screen flop, based on Ed Graczyk’s broadway flop, is literally crammed with faux nostalgia and enough white trash melodrama to make Valley of the Dolls look like an episode of Gidget. At a dusty old Woolworth’s store in a small sunbaked Texas town which time seems to have forgotten, a small group of women slowly converge. It’s 1975, the 20th anniversary of the death of James Dean, and they are the last remnants of his local fan club come to reminisce and swap stories. There’s brassy town tramp Sissy (Cher sporting a padded bra) whose aspirations never got her past the city limits; overly boisterous Stella Mae (a grating Kathy Bates) whose thwarted dreams of motherhood are soothed somewhat by her husband’s big bank account; mousy Edna Louise; unhinged Mona (a berserk Sandy Dennis) with one foot forever planted in the past who swears her twenty-year old son is the result of a one-nighter with Dean himself; and the sultry Joanne (a ridiculous Karen Black) who holds the evening’s biggest secret—all overseen by shop owner Juanita (Sudie Bond giving the film’s best performance) an evangelical Christian whose pious ways hide her own secret shame. With cold beer on the counter and a storm brewing on the horizon, good natured ribbing slowly gives way to tawdry confessions and scathing cat fights as each woman lets loose a barrage of ever more ludicrous revelations. Lurching back and forth between 1975 and 1955 through the use of two-way mirrors and stagey lighting we see just how these women evolved into the drunken embittered bitches they are tonight. And frankly it’s hard to give a damn. Perhaps Altman and Graczyk had a loftier goal in mind—tying together a handful of broken dreams, a small town drying up in the sun, and the tragic death of an idol into a grandiose statement on the demise of idealism and innocence. But whereas Bogdanovich nailed this ethos in his masterpiece, The Last Picture Show, Altman presents us with a shrill and rancorous drag revue. A camp spectacle from a cast of seasoned actresses (including three Oscar winners) who should have known better.

The Comedians (USA 1967) (3):  About a third of the way into this torturous mess you get the distinct impression that someone misplaced the script and rather than rewriting it the director simply told everyone to wing it.  Burton and Taylor are especially disappointing as they mumble non-sequiturs while sucking on each other’s faces and poor Lillian Gish seems to have trouble remembering she’s in a talkie.  It’s amazing that Graham Greene took his own novel about Duvalier’s bloody regime and turned it into a sitting room drama complete with insipid love affair.  It’s 150 minutes of pure tedium.....if it had run any slower it would have been going backwards.

Coming Apart (USA 1969) (7): A psychiatrist of some renown, Dr. Joe Glazer is nevertheless unable to throw himself a lifeline when his relationship with his mistress comes undone. Filled with anger, seemingly towards women in general, Glazer—under the telling pseudonym of Dr. Glassman—sets up an impromptu office in his ex’s swank New York apartment building and begins baiting, bedding, and then cruelly dumping a succession of neurotic female patients, clandestinely videotaping each encounter with a hidden camera focused on the giant wall mirror behind his couch. Ironically, in capturing the ongoing emotional cruelty he ultimately records his own psychological disintegration. Controversial for 1969 where its ample nudity and (mostly) implied kink earned it an “X” rating, Milton Moses Ginsberg’s experimental B&W video diary, filmed in a tiny space using static shots and natural background noise throughout, still manages to impress with its sheer nerve if nothing else. Rip Torn gives a remarkable performance as a man pining for lost love yet unable to connect with another human being except on the most superficial level while the women themselves (and one sad transvestite) provide a range of hippy era angst from the childlike aspiring model willing to do “special poses” for fifty bucks to the neglected high society housewife whose sexual frustrations translate into destructive S&M impulses (Good-bye Mrs. Robinson). And throughout Ginsberg makes good use of that huge living room mirror, often showing us nothing but reflections of his actors as the amateur footage skips, jumps and occasionally fades in and out of black—its damaged reels undermining Glassman’s desire to “film the truth”. The impromptu dialogue falls woefully short of Cassavetes however, the stilted ad-libs consisting mainly of heated banter which only occasionally reveals a deeper truth. But there is an unpolished arthouse appeal to Ginsberg’s work, a hint of Warhol as it follows one man’s downward trajectory beginning with a smug close-up and ending with a literal crack-up.

Coming Home (USA 1978) (9): One of the quintessential films examining the effects of the Viet Nam War on those who served and those who waited at home. When Captain Bob Hyde marches off to battle with dreams of guts & glory his all-American wife Sally dutifully tends the home fires, even volunteering at a veteran’s hospital despite the disapproval of her husband who frowns on anything that threatens his role as man of the house. It’s there she meets Luke Martin, an embittered marine sergeant paralyzed from the waist down who channels his frustrations into the occasional angry outburst and act of civil disobedience. A friendship gradually develops between sergeant and housewife leading to a romantic liaison and eventual love affair. Meanwhile Captain Hyde, unbalanced and disillusioned by the horrors he’s witnessed, returns home a hollow man with nothing to show for his ordeal but a meaningless medal and a head full of ghosts. When Sally’s infidelity is finally exposed it proves to be the final straw for Hyde whose drinking binges and bouts of rage conceal an anguish far deeper than anyone imagined… Beautifully written and flawlessly performed (Jon Voight's and Jane Fonda’s Oscars were well deserved as was Bruce Dern’s nomination), Hal Ashby’s critical look at a system which sends men to fight then seems to forget them when they come back broken focuses on those internal battlefields that exist long after peace is declared; indeed, he restricts images of actual warfare to snapshots and grainy B&W news reports. The tone may be angry and sardonic at times, but his sense of compassion towards his main characters never wavers. There is a balance here with one man rediscovering his humanity while another loses everything he believed in, and in the middle Sally tries desperately to comfort both even though she can’t possibly understand what they’ve been through. The period detail is impeccable, including a brilliantly integrated score of 60’s rock anthems, and a few subtle touches add just the right amount of irony; a yuppie flashing a peace sign (the director’s brief cameo), a TV station going off air to the strains of the national anthem, and a bittersweet closing montage with Tim Buckley’s haunting Once I was playing in the background. As a side note, the love scenes between Luke and Sally, besides being groundbreaking in themselves (the sexual needs of the handicapped were never addressed so honestly before), were filmed with such piercing intimacy they border on erotic art. One of the better films to emerge from the 70s.

Coming to America (USA 1988) (7): In the small but extremely wealthy African kingdom of Zamunda, Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy, who also co-wrote) is facing his upcoming arranged marriage with trepidation. Having grown up the ridiculously pampered son of an overbearing monarch (James Earl Jones) Akeem wants to marry a strong, independent woman and not some obsequious royal sycophant. With this in mind he travels to New York with his manservant (Arsenio Hall) where, posing as a penniless exchange student, he hopes to find the woman of his dreams. What follows is a completely predictable “reverse Cinderella” fairy tale chockfull of inside jokes and culture shock schtick as Akeem meets Miss Right and then must overcome obstacles including her meddling father (John Amos), her pushy boyfriend, and one very irate king. But Murphy and Hall manage to pull it off with a barrage of corny one-liners and expert comic timing which makes even the silliest joke seem funnier than it actually is. And the fact they portray multiple characters throughout is comedy genius with Murphy playing, among other things, a truculent middle-aged barber and feisty Jewish pensioner while Arsenio hams it up as an oily preacher and a brief but hilarious stint as a baritone-voiced barroom diva decked out in gaudy cocktail drag. And they’re backed up by a slew of surprise cameos from the likes of Louie Anderson playing a fastidious burger-flipper, Samuel L. Jackson as a wannabe armed robber, and a young Cuba Gooding Jr. making his debut as a barber shop customer. And a surprise Trading Places reunion is as funny as it is unexpected. From opulent African sets (with choreographed dance sequences by Paula Abdul) to a rat-infested hotel in Queens, director John Landis keeps the tempo brisk enough to prevent you from yawning while Murphy emits some of that old onscreen charisma which made him an 80s movie star. The plot may be tired, the ending a study in “happily ever after” clichés, but cast and crew (nods to the wardrobe people!) deliver what is essentially a silly old-fashioned Feel Good movie and for that I forgive them on all counts.

The Conjuring (USA 2013) (6): Ed and Lorraine Warren, the dynamic ghostbusting duo whose real life experiences at a New England farmhouse gave rise to the Amityville Horror franchise, tear yet another page out of their demonic scrapbook in order to tell the tale of Roger and Carolyn Perron. When the Perrons and their five daughters moved to a new home in rural Rhode Island they had no idea the place had a macabre history involving witchcraft and murder, nor were they aware that a dark presence still resided in the dusty nooks and crannies. No sooner had they settled in then the spooky hijinks began with banging walls and foul odours quickly giving way to eerie visitations and spectral assaults. By the time the Warrens were consulted the Perrons were living out of the downstairs parlour, the only relatively safe place in the entire house. Setting up shop with various paranormal detectors scattered throughout the building and a small team of demon watchers manning the controls, the Warrens and their hosts prepared for a series of spooky all-night vigils—but no one was prepared for the sheer malevolence they encountered…an evil with the ability to stretch far beyond the Perron’s front gate. There is a genuinely scary short film here. The first half of The Conjuring contains all the necessary ingredients for a week’s worth of nightmares with midnight treks into a dark cellar lit only by matches, haunted cabinets creaking open, and a little girl checking under her bed despite my whispered warnings to dive under the sheets instead. ”There’s something standing behind the door!” one child hisses to her little sister as my hand reaches for the light switch yet again. Unfortunately director James Wan decides halfway through that more is better than less and we’re treated to the usual string of Catholic clichés (the crucifix fell on the floor….oh nooooo!), leering rubber masks, and ridiculous images of a possessed Lili Taylor riding a bucking armchair and spitting blood. Not only did I (comfortably) turn the lights back off but the group hug finale had me wishing for a rematch. Where’s Max von Sydow and Jason Miller when you need them?

The Conjuring 2 (USA 2016) (5): Six years after their last haunted escapade demonologists extraordinaire Ed and Lorraine Warren are off to England at the behest of the Catholic church in order to investigate some strange goings-on at the house of single mother Peggy Hodgson and her four kids. It seems the ghost of a cantankerous old man has it in for youngest daughter Janet and his devilish temper tantrums are making the entire family’s life a waking nightmare. Despite evidence that this might be a hoax the ghostbusters sense that there is actually more to this particular haunting than just a few sensational headlines—a suspicion reinforced by Lorraine’s tragic premonitions. Naturally they spend a few nights in the spooky house with the frightened Hodgsons and that’s when all hell decides to break loose as director James Wan blows his budget on every creepy special effect he can muster. The first part is is the most effective as Wan relies on a creaking stair or half seen shadow in order to ice our spines, but when he rolls out the big guns the entire production falls prey to CGI overkill with exploding lightning bolts, walls rent asunder, and a pasty white nun leaping out of the woodwork like Marilyn Manson in convent drag. A plot twist left my eyes rolling and the usual Catholic mumbo-jumbo made it all seem so terribly serious (crosses crosses everywhere!), but Poltergeist did it better and The Exorcist did it first. Based on a true story (LOL!).

The Conqueror [Taras Bulba] (Russia 2009) (2): It's the 16th century and Mother Russia is threatened from all sides by her enemies. Enter the Cossacks, mighty warriors from the Ukraine whose sacred duty it is to protect God and country from the evil Polish warlords and their papist ways. First and foremost amongst these soldiers of Orthodoxy is the grizzled Taras Bulba who, along with his virtuous sons, will lead the fearless Cossacks against the loathsome Poles and their miserly Jewish cohorts. But will Bulba's dwindling army of ruffians and drunks be able to face down the enemy's well-armed and disciplined cavalry? And what happens when one son falls in love with a Polish noblewoman and defects to the other side? Let's leave historical accuracy to scholars of Russian antiquity and just concentrate on why this is such an awful movie. Weak acting, awful script hampered further by haphazard editing, and cheap-ass CGI effects on par with your typical SyFy channel filme-du-jour. It's amazing how many pointless slo-mo sabre fights one can cram into 133 minutes. Furthermore, with its endless train of last-breath soliloquies praising hearth and home, and crude racial/national stereotypes (leering Polacks, cringing Jews) the film's cloying sense of patriotism goes beyond simple propaganda and enters into the realm of pure myth. An epic failure on all counts.

Conquest of Space (USA 1955) (7): “This is a story of tomorrow...” intones the opening narrator, “...or the day after tomorrow.” Thus begins one of the more optimistic science fiction epics to emerge from the Cold War. After months spent training on “The Wheel”, a multinational space station orbiting Earth, a select crew of astronauts under the tutelage of hard-nosed military hero Colonel Sam Merritt and his dutiful son Captain Barney Merritt (blond hunk Eric Fleming) prepare for the human race’s greatest adventure; the first manned mission to Mars. Braving meteorites, privation, and their own personal demons the five plucky men finally set foot on the red planet only to experience a mixed bag of bitter disappointments and potential promise. Despite a few naive assumptions and forgivable scientific liberties, Conquest of Space features some great special effects for its time, a pinwheel space station whirling against a giant backdrop of Earth is quite well done especially when set to an original score faintly reminiscent of Holst’s “Neptune the Mystic.” Furthermore, director Byron Haskin demonstrates a sound understanding of what life in space might be like. “The Wheel’s” multiracial inhabitants must have been eye-opening for contemporary audiences and a couple of futuristic concepts are bang on; overpopulation, dwindling resources, big screen TVs, and the move towards one world government (“free trade” hadn’t been coined yet). But where the film excelled for me was when it explored the downside of space exploration; the longing for home, the interpersonal tensions, and the psychosis brought about by endless responsibilities and confined quarters here referred to as “space fatigue”. A colourful and visionary addition to the retro sci-fi genre.

The Conspirator (USA 2010) (8): Following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth, Northern authorities under the direction of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline barely recognizable in spectacles and muttonchops) charge seven of Booth’s acquaintances with conspiracy, including Mary Surratt (Robin Wright, brilliant), mother of missing conspirator John Surratt and owner of the boarding house where the men allegedly hatched their plan. Although the evidence against her ranges from purely circumstantial to downright questionable the State, eager to set a stern example by staging a mass execution, insists on trying Mary under a military tribunal thereby bypassing many of her civil rights. Enter Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy sans Scottish brogue), a Union war hero turned lawyer who reluctantly agrees to defend Mary despite his own personal bias against her and the South in general. But as Aiken delves further into Mary’s rather complicated story he begins to doubt her guilt, especially after the government repeatedly stonewalls his attempts to uncover the truth. Is Mary really a cunning conspirator or is the State simply seeking revenge by making her a symbolic scapegoat? Writer James D. Solomon weaves actual transcripts from Surratt’s trial into his script and director Robert Redford poceeds to film it all in shades of sepia and leached pastels against CGI backdrops of old Washington; the result is a painstakingly authentic historical drama which unfolds like a series of antique daguerreotypes. Supported by an impressive cast, McAvoy’s transformation from cynical doubter to zealous advocate contrasts beautifully with Wright’s portrayal of a disgraced widow whose downcast eyes nevertheless harbour an iron resolve (and perhaps a troubling secret or two). With the Constitution of the United States not even a hundred years old and the wounds of America’s bloody Civil War still fresh, The Conspirator is a damning exploration of that point where political expediency tries to eclipse the rule of law.

Contagion (USA 2011) (6): Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) returns to the States after a business trip to Hong Kong (and a sexual layover in Chicago) complaining of flu-like symptoms. Twenty-four hours later she is dead, and so are a lot of other people from Kowloon to Minneapolis and the numbers are growing exponentially. By the time the CDC and WHO come on board the mysterious epidemic has already reached around the globe and the race is on to isolate the organism responsible and control it before it’s too late. With civilized society slipping into anarchy, the sick and dying crowding into makeshift clinics, and governments scrambling to protect themselves the fate of millions rests with a small team of doctors and technicians (Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet et al) . Although Steven Soderbergh’s medical thriller doesn’t even come close to the controlled tension of The Andromeda Strain, he still manages to present a watchable drama with enough star power, techno jargon, and beeping machines to gloss over most of the film’s Hollywood hyperbole. Riding on the back of our SARS and ebola paranoia his microscopic McGuffin’s ability to produce a messy demise en masse exposes just how unprepared we are for a global pandemic both economically (“Who’s going to pay for all this?” blurts a health official examining a gymnasium-cum-field hospital); socially (deadly riots erupt when pharmacies run out of a purported herbal cure); and politically (the spectre of germ warfare is alluded to as elected officials scramble for cover and a CDC spokesman becomes a sacrificial scapegoat). And of course the internet fuels the flames with rumours and misinformation tweeted by a prominent douchebag conspiracy theorist (Jude Law) whose fear-mongering proves to be surprisingly profitable. All the ingredients for a modern day horror movie are here, but Soderbergh’s insistence on examining the emergency from every possible angle simply piles too much on to our plates resulting in narrative gaps and underdeveloped characters. Furthermore, attempts to humanize the crisis—a widower (Matt Damon) fights to protect his remaining child, a WHO doctor (Marion Cotillard) becomes a medical hostage in China, a researcher in Atlanta takes a leap of faith—seem tacked on. But the pulsating music score hits the mark and tight editing causes 106 minutes to fly by. Besides, it’s fun to watch a cavalcade of Hollywood darlings sweat, spew, and run for their lives.

Contamination [Alien Contamination] (Italy 1980) (4): It’s Alien served with a big helping of pasta as director Luigi Cozzi takes some outrageous liberties with Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic in order to churn out this tepid thriller. When a mysterious, seemingly abandoned, freighter docks in New York the authorities are in for a very unpleasant surprise for not only has the ship’s crew been turned into sushi but the cargo hold is filled with big glowing eggs that have a nasty habit of spewing forth sticky clouds of greenish goo causing the abdominal cavities of anyone in the immediate vicinity to explode in sickening slow motion. As sexy special agent Colonel Holmes and her team investigate the unearthly cargo they slowly uncover a deadly conspiracy that stretches from the frozen wastelands of Mars to a steamy Colombian coffee plantation where they come face to face with mindless zombies, locked bathroom doors, and a final showdown with a malevolent head of broccoli. Even though it appears Cozzi was working with a slightly bigger budget than most Eurosplatter auteurs, all the familiar trappings of the genre are here; the cheesy soundtrack and dubbed dialogue go together beautifully while the attention to gory detail is delightfully apparent as showers of wet crimson guts gush forth from barely concealed chest prostheses. It’ll have you yelling “Mama mia!” even as you reach for the Fast Forward button.

Continental, A Film Without Guns (Canada 2007) (9):  A middle-aged man on his way home from work falls asleep on the bus.  He wakes up to find the bus deserted in the middle of a deep dark forest.  With no clue as to where he is or where he’s going he sets out into the woods, apparently lured by some mysterious siren song.  This wonderfully understated opening sequence pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the story as we see a handful of characters trying to navigate through their own emotional wildernesses.  Contemporary themes of loneliness, isolation and regret are expertly weaved together, sometimes with deadpan humour, often with sharp poignancy.  There is the hotel clerk, desperate to be needed by another person, who manufactures ersatz relationships using her answering machine; the insurance salesman who “sells peace of mind” while his own life falls apart; the elderly shop owner facing his mortality with a mixture of weariness and despair; and lastly, the missing man’s wife who suddenly finds her well-defined life drastically altered by her husband’s disappearance.  LaFleur layers these stories in some beautiful and imaginative ways.  His juxtaposition of the mundane with the subtly absurd makes for a refreshing and unconventional look at life, which brings to mind the films of Roy Andersson.  He even manages a sly reference to Lamorisse’s “Le Ballon Rouge”.  The film ends on a more or less happy note, but LaFleur is quick to point out that “happiness” can be highly subjective and often comes at a cost.  One of the better films I’ve rented this year.

Control Alt Delete (Canada 2008) (4): Lewis is a chubby socially awkward cyber-geek working at a computer security firm on the eve of Y2K. Recently dumped by his girlfriend after she discovered his extensive cache of internet porn he finds himself becoming increasingly attracted to the one constant in his life that truly accepts him for what he is....computers. With the help of a drill, bubble wrap, some duct tape and a bottle of lube he's soon banging away at more than just keyboards, a clandestine habit that has his disgusted fellow employees searching for the mysterious "computer rapist". Against a backdrop of Y2K hysteria this dry satire tries to say something about being marginalized in an increasingly tech-obsessed society but its lightweight script and cartoonish characters produce little more than a vulgar sitcom. A subplot involving a co-worker gradually becoming numb from the feet up was a wasted metaphor that went nowhere and the "toilet cam" twist was just stupid. Good thing star Tyler Labine is just so damn huggable looking.

Cook Up a Storm (Hong Kong 2017) (6): Ever since his father, a master chef, abandoned him when he was only ten years old “Sky” has been obsessed with becoming a culinary artist himself. Now the proprietor of a modest yet popular little eatery nestled in a Hong Kong suburb, Sky’s reputation comes under attack when a new restaurant opens across the street run by Paul, a Michelin-starred chef trained in France. Sky’s classical Cantonese cooking and Paul’s Western-influenced cuisine make for an intense rivalry which comes to a head when both enter an international culinary competition. However, unbeknownst to each other both men are dealing with personal issues that may torpedo their chances at ever becoming the next “God of Cookery”… Director Wai-Man Yip’s sentimental dramedy with a gourmet twist is a film I definitely shouldn’t have liked as much as I did—the heart-tugging is a bit too forced with slo-mo B&W flashbacks and a tinkling soap opera score, the cartoonish humour barely survives translation, and the plot pretty much writes itself. Add to that some horrid subtitling that strobes across the screen way too fast and you are left with a movie fraught with potholes (at least on this side of the Pacific). But there is a fairytale charm to the bright neon sets and equally colourful characters—that high-tech cooking competition studio is a riot of flash and bang—and stars Nicholas Tse (Sky) and Yong-hwa Jung (Paul) bring a fresh-faced fierceness to the dinner table that makes you want to stick around for dessert. Lastly, those mouthwatering kitchen scenes, filmed with all the brio of a music video, should have come with a warning, “Do Not Watch on an Empty Stomach!”. It’s definitely cinematic fairy dust, albeit fairy dust elevated to a large extent by an eager young cast and tightly choreographed camerawork that cashes in on all the vivid colours and aproned flourishes. Think of it as Iron Chef on estrogen.

Cop Car (USA 2015) (10): Ten-year old buddies Travis and Harrison are barely into their first hour of running away from home when they happen upon an abandoned police car hidden in the middle of a farmer’s field. At first reluctant to go near it, the precocious pair finally screw up enough courage to actually sit in the front seat where the discovery of a set of car keys prompts them to take it on a joyride over fields and onto the open highway despite the fact neither one of them knows the difference between a stick shift and a gas pedal. Their offbeat road adventure soon spirals into nightmare territory however for the sheriff whose cruiser they’ve just stolen (Kevin Bacon at his diabolical best) has several good reasons for not only getting the car back without alerting the authorities, but for ensuring the boys remain silent as well. Like a skewed redux of Stand By Me helmed by Quentin Tarantino, writer/director Jon Watts’ rip-roaring black and bloody comedy is a masterstroke of indie moviemaking. Filmed in the wilds of rural Colorado with nothing but wide open skies and tumbleweeds for props, his clueless naifs (remarkable performances from Hays Wellford and James Freedson-Jackson) provide a darkly humorous contrast to Bacon’s growling moustachioed villain leading to a climax that is both shockingly outrageous and oddly sympathetic. With a constant smirk at America’s appetite for guns and violence—the boys’ fascination with an onboard cache of police weapons leads to some harrowingly funny segments—Watts has produced a coming-of-age road movie that begins with a joke and ends with sirens blaring.

Coraline (USA 2009) (8): Good Mother versus Bad Mother when a neglected young girl finds a mysterious tunnel linking her new house (the aptly named “Pink Palace”) with its identical twin in an alternate reality. Constantly ignored by her yuppie parents and lost in a strange new neighbourhood, Coraline finds herself pretty much alone. She does manage to find some solace in visiting the wacky boarders living in her attic and basement but the only real friend she has is the decidedly geeky boy next door, Wyborne (pronounced “Why Born”...don’t you just love symbolism?) with whom she has a tentative relationship at best. Things change however when she discovers a small secret door hidden behind the wallpaper which leads to a much sunnier version of her own life complete with new and improved editions of her parents. In this happier world mom and dad are all good, completely attentive, and they let Coraline do whatever she wants. All they ask in return is that she become a little button-eyed dolly just like them; Good Mother, it seems, has a definite taste for young impressionable lives. Steeped in Freudian psychology and filled with appropriately macabre prepubescent imagery, Coraline is one of the more complex animated features I’ve seen thus far. As Coraline struggles to break free from the suffocating demands of her increasingly malevolent “other” mother an intense psychodrama unfolds in which childish fantasies give way to troubled nightmares; an adorable circus of dancing mice morphs into a pack of slinking rats, a childish snow globe turns into an icy prison, and an enchanted garden becomes a tangle of horrors. But, in keeping with the film’s underlying subtext of growth and maturation, a talking feline familiar will provide the clear voice of reason while a trio of unhappy ghosts will kindle a newfound sense of responsibility. Of course no work that offers more than a passing nod to Sigmund and Anna would be complete without a few sexual metaphors; an outrageous burlesque show staged by a pair of buxom grannies fits the bill perfectly and heralds our diminutive protagonist’s impending adolescence. The home 3D is pretty damn cool too!

Coriolanus (UK 2011) (7): Shakespeare’s final tragedy is given a contemporary facelift in this adaptation shot mainly in the Serbian countryside, an area still bearing the scars of its own recent conflicts. Having returned to Rome a war hero for his victory over the neighbouring Volscians, Caius Marcius (Ralph Fiennes, also making his directorial debut) is a shoo-in for a seat on the senate thanks to a grateful populace and the machinations of his domineering mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave, strong as ever). But his arrogant disregard for the common people coupled with a headstrong pride leads to his being banished from the country instead. Joining forces with Rome’s enemies under the leadership of Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler whose garbled Scottish brogue proves to be the weakest link), Marcius, now called Coriolanus, descends upon his former homeland bent on revenge until the intercession of his wife and mother causes him to have second thoughts much to Aufidius’ displeasure… The bard’s meaty prose seems perfectly at home amongst tanks and machine guns; it’s allusions to prideful downfalls, reckless rage, and weaknesses of the human heart timeless since the day they were first set to paper. Fiennes directs with the eye of an artist rendering both tearful exchanges and bullet-riddled showdowns with equal passion, and his cast seems to be more than up for the task. Unfortunately this is not one of Shakespeare’s better plays and the somewhat facile plot, although engaging enough, rarely enthrals despite a host of superb performances. The clever twenty-first century touches are well placed however, with mass media taking on the role of Greek Chorus as the story unfolds. A must for every Shakespeare fan.

The Corpse Grinders (USA 1971) (1): The Lotus Cat Food Company (“For cats who love people!”) is compensating for poor sales by using cheaper cuts of meat courtesy of the nearby cemetery. But when household felines begin developing a taste for live human flesh after eating their product local physician Dr. Howard Glass and his buxom sidekick Nurse Angie decide to do a little undercover investigating. Managing to uncover Lotus’ macabre secret, Howard and Angie suddenly find themselves at the mercy of the company’s owners who are determined to see them become Fluffy’s next meal… A cheesy zero-budget groaner that’s not even good enough for the midnight circuit. Porn-level acting, bargain basement special effects (did that rubber arm just bounce?), and a couple of glaring continuity fails make for a grindhouse sleeping aid that had me nodding off throughout. And what was with the one-legged deaf secretary and her fake sign language? The tacky 70s decor was a hoot however, and the gratuitous “bra, panties and a Budweiser” scene was worth a rewind. Like Kibbles ’n Bits for your brain.

Corpus Christi (Poland 2019) (8): Light can sometimes shine forth from the darkest places and, conversely, even the brightest of lights can sometimes be consumed by that same darkness. Freshly released from Juvenile Detention, Daniel (Bartosz Bielenia channeling a young Christopher Walken) is on his way to begin a dead end job at a sawmill when a combination of mistaken identity and outright lying finds him serving as village priest instead. With the regular vicar, a crusty old cynic, off receiving medical treatments Daniel’s unvarnished and ad-libbed homilies and unorthodox approach (he encourages mourners to scream rather than sob) become something of a welcome scandal in a town torn in half by a recent tragedy. The ruse can’t last indefinitely however and when his past comes knocking at the rectory door all Hell threatens to descend upon him. Jan Komasa’s gritty interpretation of The Passion finds the perfect conduit in Bielenia, his boyish open-faced looks evolving from hard-bitten young offender with a taste for raves, cocaine, and fucking (yet who still says his rosary every night), to a soft-spoken mover of mountains drawing upon a strength rooted in his own pain. The biblical parallels are all too obvious to anyone who suffered through Sunday School: the carpenter on a mission who attempts miracles—in this case taking on a town divided—before succumbing to temptation, betrayal, and a very different take on Calvary (look for a brief but brilliant scene as “Pilate” washes his hands). But the body and blood of Komasa’s flawed Christ, while on full display, are purely secular in nature and glorious trappings of Catholic voodoo aside—Komasa doesn’t miss an opportunity to bathe the screen in ethereal sunlight or roaring hellfire—the only spirit moving through his film is ultimately human. Supposedly based on an actual incident, Corpus Christi is Poland’s official submission to this year's Academy Awards.

Corridors of Blood (UK 1958) (6): Boris Karloff is Dr. Thomas Bolton, a 19th century London surgeon sickened by the pain and suffering he witnesses in the operating room and determined to alleviate it by experimenting with different kinds of anesthetizing gases. Using himself as a guinea pig Bolton’s best intentions eventually transform him into an addict given to destructive binges and blackouts. Barred from practice due to his unorthodox activities the good doctor unwittingly falls in with a band of cutthroat body snatchers who promise to procure the chemicals he needs for his research-cum-habit providing he signs a series of questionable death certificates with no questions asked. Sadly, by the time a drug-addled Bolton finally realizes what he’s been doing it may already be too late to save his dream...and his life. With merry old England reduced to a few badly painted backdrops and a dingy pub of smelly threadbare cretins this low budget shocker relies on the star power of leads Boris Karloff (a most convincing pothead), hunky hirsute Francis De Wolff as the crooked ringleader, and a relatively unknown Christopher Lee as a homicidal henchman—and they succeed admirably. Scenes of Karloff’s laboratory manage to steer clear of “mad scientist” conventions although watching him huff nitrous oxide through a rubber hose is unintentionally amusing, and the hospital scenes are sobering enough with agonized screams, phlegmatic coughs, and the briefest glimpse of an amputation which was dutifully censored for delicate British audiences. Not memorable.

A Countess From Hong Kong (UK 1967) (4): A high seas romantic comedy written and directed by Charlie Chaplin and staring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren should have been a sure thing. It isn’t. A complete flop on just about every level, Countess is so colourfully bad it’s actually watchable in a sparkling roadkill sort of way. Marlon, distracted and looking as if he’d kill to be anywhere but there, plays a wealthy businessman en route from Hong Kong to the United States where he’s just been awarded a government position. Sophia, acting as if she wandered in front of the camera by accident, plays the penniless descendant of Russian aristocrats who is intent on escaping to America by stowing away in Brando’s stateroom. She doesn’t want to be sent back and his public persona can’t withstand the scandal of being discoverd with a strange woman, so what follows is basically 120 minutes of the two of them trying to evade ship’s detection by running around his stateroom and slamming doors until they stop long enough to gaze into each other’s eyes. So poorly edited that the story leapfrogs rather than flows, and the uncomfortably wooden performances—Tippi Hedren plays her bit part as Marlon’s estranged wife like she just overdosed on Lunesta—leave you wondering just how much rehearsal time the cast was given before Chaplin yelled “ACTION!” Apparently Loren didn’t like Brando, Brando didn’t like Chaplin, and Chaplin didn’t like anyone, a three-way animosity which colours every frame. And those slapstick elements might have worked had the film been made in the silent era—a wacky episode of mass seasickness left me heaving along with the characters while a “wedding night” between Loren and Brando’s effete butler (Patrick Cargill) drags on like a particularly bad Laugh-In skit. In fact the film’s only saving graces are a truly funny 2-minute cameo from Margaret Rutherford playing a dowdy bedridden hypochondriac (look for future Monty Python regular Carol Cleveland as her nurse), and Chaplin’s musical composition, “This is My Song”, which became a number one single for Petula Clark. The rest is just one big shipwreck.

The Country Girl (USA 1954) (8): Former Broadway star Frank Elgin (Bing Crosby), now an alcoholic has-been eking out a living singing commercial jingles, is given a second chance at fame when director Bernie Dodd (William Holden) offers him the lead role in his latest play. But Dodd’s attempt to revive his one-time idol’s career puts him in direct conflict with Elgin’s much younger wife Georgie (Grace Kelly) whom he perceives as a dour and controlling shrew and the root cause of Elgin’s boozy descent into obscurity. But as his play prepares to debut in New York City Dodd slowly comes to the realization that Frank and Georgie’s precarious marriage is far more complex and piteous than he had imagined and now, with a waffling lead actor on his hands and a nervous producer yelling in his ear, he also discovers his contempt for Georgie is turning into something far more problematic… A profoundly unhappy story about a couple undone by past tragedy whose fragile equilibrium, based on lies and guilt, is now ironically threatened by the promise of a new beginning. Crosby shows he is more than just a sleepy-eyed crooner with his edgy portrayal of a whimpering drunk desperately clinging to rock bottom while Kelly steals the show as his perpetually angry wife, an intense woman whose haunted eyes barely conceal a deeper pain. And Holden, spitting fire and judgement, proves to be the perfect catalyst. Nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, and winning two—one for Grace Kelly’s psychologically charged performance and another for George Seaton’s piercing screenplay—The Country Girl is marred somewhat by a soapy ending but its juxtaposition of cheery onstage musical numbers and offstage drama pulls all the right strings and its cast never miss a beat.

Coup de Grâce (Germany 1976) (5): On a country estate somewhere in the Baltics circa 1919 a small troop of German soldiers are waging a war against communist guerrillas hiding out in the nearby woods. Home to the countess Sophie de Reval and her brother Konrad (one of the soldiers) the manor house is now a ghost of its former glory with blown out windows, backed up sewers, and an amusingly senile aunt living upstairs. Taking an erotic interest in Konrad’s friend, the handsome yet taciturn officer Erich von Lhomond, Sophie is at first mystified then angered with the brooding man’s ambiguous response to her sexual invitations despite the fact he appeared genuinely jealous of her brief affair with yet another serviceman. But when she discovers that Erich only has eyes for Konrad, Sophie’s emotional desperation becomes political causing an already volatile love triangle to become deadly. Based on a popular novel, Volker Schlöndorff’s cinematic adaptation examines the futility of war both objectively (while aid from Berlin ebbs and floes, support for the cause also wanes) and subjectively (as the sounds of gun and bomb waft in through the windows the Reval home itself turns into a psychosexual minefield). Images of death are met with apathy, attempts at mirth appear sadly ridiculous, and an anxious exchange between Sophie and Erich through a locked door comes to resemble a Catholic confession. Filmed in bleak shades of black and white against a backdrop of frozen fields, the entire world seems lovelorn and weary; even the film’s shocking yet downplayed climax can be seen as either a callous act of indifference or the ultimate act of cruel revenge. Unfortunately its plodding pace is further hampered by some puzzling edits and a scattered narrative while a distinct lack of emotional conviction—perhaps intentional—frustrates all attempts to connect with the characters. Thankfully Schlöndorff would visit similar territory with much more zeal in 1979’s The Tin Drum.

La Coupure (Canada 2006) (3): As the film opens we’re treated to a lovely couple engaging in some hot and heavy lovemaking. It isn’t until later that we realize the woman is cheating on her husband, and later still we realize the “other man” is her brother. Christine and Christophe have been getting it on with each other since they were teenagers and twenty years later they still are, despite the fact she’s now married with two adolescent kids. Ignoring the dire warnings from their long-suffering mother and some suspicious queries from the husband, the two siblings go at it like dogs in heat whenever they get the chance. Afterwards they agonize and emote about what terrible people they are with flowing tears and heated recriminations flying indiscriminately; but try as they may they just can’t seem to stop loving each other. Things really get sticky however when Tamara, Christine’s pubescent daughter, develops a crush on her uncle sending Christine into an emotional tailspin. Chateauvert’s tawdry little bit of arthouse drivel is not even good enough to be accused of pretentiousness. It would appear everyone in this mess wants to be a victim as they glare accusingly at each other and speak in teary half sentences, but after watching the two leads spin their wheels and stare into each other’s navels for eighty minutes you realize that he’s simply taken 10 minutes of decent material and stretched it into a feature film. The result is stilted, repetitious and unconvincing. Despite Valerie Cantin’s noteworthy performance and a mercifully abrupt ending, it still wasn’t worth the three dollar rental fee.

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

Cousins (Brazil 2019) (4): There’s no doubt but that the world needs more gay-positive love stories. What we don’t need is another pathologically upbeat teen romance regardless of orientation—and this, unfortunately, is primarily what we get from the team of Mauro Carvalho and Thiago Cazado. Sweetly dispositioned and courteous to a fault, young Lucas has spent most of his life being raised by his aunt Lourdes, a kindly guardian but a bit of a religious flake—she has a saint for everything and a crucified Christ keeps tabs from every wall. But when Lourdes goes away for a few days leaving Lucas to entertain his newly arrived cousin Mario, a cocky young man fresh out of juvenile detention, Lucas finds himself entertaining feelings he never realized he had—feelings that Mario most definitely shares. And then their aunt returns home unexpectedly… Being a Brazilian film there is no shortage of graphic nudity and unrestrained groping, what Cousins lacks however is passion and credibility. Leads Paulo Sousa and writer/director Cazado himself (looking like a young John Cusack) share very little onscreen chemistry which makes their sudden switch from adolescent horseplay to sex-starved rutting hard to believe regardless of how many sappy love ballads play in the background. The premise is further cheapened by the character of Julia, a good Catholic girl whom Lucas is teaching piano, who inexplicably turns into a psycho nympho stalker when she finds out that Lucas is definitely not available—an egregiously insulting performance all around. And then there’s aunt Lourdes (Juliana Zancanaro giving the film it’s only noteworthy performance) a contradictory muddle of charismatic Christian, lonely heart, and neo-liberal matron, who provides a consistent if somewhat puzzling presence to the movie from its bland opening scenes right through to its storybook ending in which the directors spend the final five minutes chasing rainbows with one sweetly contrived resolution after another. Too cloying to be taken seriously despite its relentlessly inoffensive message, this is the type of sentimental fodder that “enlightened” audiences like to be seen crowing over while their more conservative counterparts grumble about indoctrination and “normalizing perversion”. To me it brought to mind one of those After School Specials aimed at pre-teens that used to air on ABC back in the ‘70s—only with more tongue and dick.

The Cranes Are Flying  (Russia 1957) (9):  Striking use of light and composition coupled with an intelligent script lift this film far above the usual war-time weeper and turn it into a piercing study of the human heart.  Kalatozov uses the camera as an artist uses his brush, treating us to some of cinema’s more amazing attempted seduction during a night-time air raid; a dying soldier’s vision of the wedding he’ll never have; a woman quietly grieving her dead lover in the midst of a joyous crowd....the list continues, and it is impressive.  Free from the overt government propaganda of earlier Soviet films and staunchly avoiding maudlin sentimentality, “The Cranes are Flying” remains a powerful and mature work fifty years after it was first released.

Crazy Heart (USA 2009) (7): A washed-out alcoholic who also smokes too much, lives out of his battered truck, and barely gets by performing at bowling alleys and third rate dives, fifty-seven year old former Country Western superstar “Bad” Blake’s life has ironically become a sad C&W cliché itself. He’s hit rock bottom and if the booze doesn’t end what’s left of his career his inability to write any new material will—and to make matters worse the fact that his former protégé Tommy Sweet has skyrocketed to fame constantly eats away at his drunken ego. And then he finds a potential muse in Jean, a single mother trying to get her own journalism career off the ground, and a bleary-eyed Blake thinks he may have staggered into love . But the two of them are carrying enough emotional luggage to pack a pick-up truck and whiskey is a very demanding mistress… Movies about down-and-outers trying for one more kick at redemption are as old as Hollywood itself and director Scott Cooper’s hooch & cigarettes saga, based on the novel by Thomas Cobb, doesn’t really add anything new to the convention. But if the storyline seems all too familiar Jeff Bridges’ Oscar-winning performance manages to turn it into something extra special; his grumbling stumbling portrayal of a man who has done it all yet has nothing to show for it alternately exasperating and deeply compassionate. Hell, he even belts out those soulful T Bone Burnett songs as if he wrote them himself. And backing him up are Maggie Gyllenhaal as Jean, Colin Farrell as Sweet (his Irish brogue hidden behind a southern drawl), and a welcome cameo from Robert Duvall as Blake’s only remaining friend. Gritty as a dirty ashtray and with enough heartbreak to fuel a Tammy Wynette and George Jones duet, Cooper’s long lonesome highway of a film may be rooted in country truisms but his delivery is anything but trite and that final resolution is beautifully unsentimental.

Crazy Love (USA 2007) (7): “Fucked up” would be an apt summary of the decades-long relationship between New Yorkers Burt Pugach and Linda Riss who, over the course of their tempestuous entanglement, went from relative obscurity to infamous tabloid darlings and back again. Dan Klores and Fisher Steven’s noirish documentary doesn’t have to dig very deep to hit pay dirt either for their flurry of headlines, ‘70s talk show excerpts, and cynical talking heads (including Burt and Linda themselves) tell the story all too well. When they first met in the late 1950s Burt, a successful, slightly crooked Jewish lawyer from the Bronx was immediately smitten by Linda, barely out of her teens, who sported a classic beauty somewhere between Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren. But the painfully naïve Linda was ambivalent at best which caused the unstable and dangerously obsessive Burt to escalate his attempts to win her favour—then she became engaged to another man causing those attempts to turn shockingly criminal. And that was just the beginning… Klores and Stevens start with the usual background bios—neither Linda nor Burt had particularly happy childhoods and they both suffered from varying degrees of social awkwardness, but whereas her good looks garnered attention he supplemented his geeky appearance by making lots of money—but once the stage is set, what follows is the stuff of tawdry romance novels (or snuff films). Suffice to say their on-again-off-again relationship was closer to an addiction than love with Pugach a monomaniacal Svengali to Riss’ indecisive damsel-in-distress. The devil, however, is in the details and as the directors hit us with one eye-popping revelation after another (no spoilers!) you begin to realize that the old adage, “There is someone for everyone” is not always a comforting thought. As sensationalistic as a Youtube exposé, as ghoulishly fascinating as a post mortem, Klores and Stevens lighten up their freaky fairytale somewhat with a camp background score that includes such hits as “I Put a Spell on You”, “You Call it Madness (But I Call it Love)”, and “Can’t Get Used to Losing You”. Like, crazy man!

Creep (USA 2014) (3): If one could take this “found footage” horror show as a parody of the genre it might get a weak pass, but writer/director/stars Patrick Brice and Mark Duplass don’t seem to have their tongues anywhere near their cheeks and the result is an insultingly facile shaggy dog story where the big pay-off arrives more like a dippy six-second youtube vine than a proper climax. Videographer Aaron (Brice) tapes himself traveling into the hinterland of California in response to an ad he answered offering a thousand dollars for one day’s worth of filming—“discretion appreciated”. Arriving at his destination, a remote mountain cabin, he’s met by his client Josef (Duplass) who wants Aaron to help him make a video diary for his unborn son, a child he may not live to see. Manifestly eccentric, Josef has Aaron film him taking a bath, frolicking in the woods, eating pancakes, and waxing philosophical about dying and regrets. But as the day wears on Aaron becomes uncomfortably aware that Josef may be a few bricks shy of a load and there may be more to the amateur footage they’re shooting than a simple fatherly memento… Devoid of any tension—its cheap shocks consist mainly of Josef jumping out from behind doorways…eek!—and with an annoying homoerotic undertone that grates like a squeaky hinge this is one gobbler that should never have left the drawing board. It’s not easy to watch movies about stupid people doing stupid things for stupid reasons and Brice’s character certainly deserves a few Darwin awards of his own…not that either one of the painfully ad-libbed performances are particularly believable in the first place. The fact that some promote this piece of work as “psychological horror” is laughable. On the other hand however the idea that there are two more sequels being planned did manage to keep me awake at night.

The Cremator (Czech 1969) (7): Either the blackest satire or most unsettling psychological horror film to emerge from Czechoslovakia’s New Wave. Kopfrkingl is a sombre, somewhat mousy family man given to rambling ruminations on cleanliness, godliness, and bourgeois values circa 1930s Prague. Overseeing the local crematorium he is perhaps a bit too tied up in his work which he regards as a divine calling, for in the flames there is an end to all suffering and a final liberation of the soul as the dearly departed are hastily returned to dust. In fact he sees his ovens as a final solution to all of mankind’s woes so it comes as no surprise that when Nazi forces begin to encroach on his “civilized” society, an increasingly unhinged Kopfrkingl is more than happy to offer up his expertise… With off-kilter camera angles and moody shades of B&W, Juraj Herz’s nightmarish allegory on the roots of fascism combines the visual excesses of Fellini with the mordant introspection of Bergman. The results don’t always fit together smoothly, and some of our protagonist’s observational rants sound more like cynical navel-gazing, but the oppressive sense of impending doom and despair is inescapable.

Cria Cuervos (Spain 1977) (9): Made towards the end of Franco’s regime, Carlos Saura has crafted a brilliant film that is both political allegory and psychological essay. Little Ana, mysterious and taciturn, is still quietly grieving the the death of her mother when she witnesses her father’s demise in the arms of another woman. Left orphaned along with her two sisters she is placed in the care of her strict but well-meaning aunt who moves into the family home bringing the crippled grandmother with her. It is a confusing time for Ana where the magical thinking of childhood meets the harsher realities of the adult world with its contradictory messages and baffling behaviour. She is set adrift in the isolated old house which is haunted with memories of the past whether they be faded snapshots or imaginary visits from her dead mother which bring a smile but little solace. Torn between her authoritarian aunt, her uncommunicative grandmother, and the kind-hearted yet gossipy housekeeper, Ana lashes out with childish abandon at those she feels responsible for her loss of maternal act which inadvertently marks the beginning of her maturation. Saura’s convoluted story moves fluidly between past, present and future aided in large part by the wonderfully understated performances of its two main leads; Ana Torrent as the troubled child and Geraldine Chaplin’s dual role as both mother and adult Ana. Although the ghost of Franco is never far away...military uniforms abound, an air of repression is everywhere, and the ending hints at monumental changes to come...this is also a study in memory. Do we recall memories, or do we manufacture them after the fact in order to justify our actions? By concentrating on Ana’s inner turmoil as she reluctantly lets go of the past and takes her first awkward steps towards adulthood Saura quietly illuminates the many pains of growing up in a way that is universal. Excellent!

Cries and Whispers (Sweden 1972) (9): A woman’s impending death from cancer tears apart the already tenuous relationship she has with her two sisters in Ingmar Bergman’s unhappy look at sex, lies, and anxieties in a fin de siècle Swedish manor. As the dying Agnes (Harriet Andersson, magnificent) alternates between calm reflection and violent outbursts her sister Maria (a glowing Liv Ullman) becomes increasingly detached from her own life, engaging in a petty affair while barely tolerating her despondent husband. Sister Karin on the other hand shrinks from all forms of love and human contact, even taking a piece of broken glass to her vagina as if to mock her husband’s conjugal expectations. Only Anna, the family’s loyal maidservant, seems emotionally equipped to deal with Agnes, cradling the frightened woman close to her breasts while whispering soft comforts—could she be thinking of her own child whom she lost years earlier? As Agnes’ final hour approaches an ice cold chasm opens between each character with Maria and Karin going through the motions of sibling intimacy (the husbands relegated to mere background noise) while Anna dutifully dresses them and prepares their meals. And then Agnes dies and the family dynamics shift one final time… This is not a subtle film by any means—autumn stalks the backyard, sunlight ebbs and floes through curtained windows, and winds sigh around mossy statues. The sisters’ luxurious mansion itself becomes a powerful psychological space with off-white gowns fluttering past walls painted a lurid blood red and everywhere the incessant ticking of clocks. An adulterous kiss is exchanged in a shadowy doorway, a visiting parson’s prayer over Agnes’ body turns into an anguished cry for personal salvation, and in one particularly harrowing scene a post mortem visit between Agnes and her sisters drives home the final wedge. The theatrical flourishes may seem stagey to some, but for those of us accustomed to the master’s touch this is quintessential Bergman.

Crime of Passion (USA 1957) (6): In Gerd Oswald’s magnificently overdone noir melodrama ambitious newspaper reporter Barbara Stanwyck sacrifices everything for a taste of domestic bliss when she falls in love with easygoing homicide detective Sterling Hayden only to discover the crushing horror that is middle class mediocrity. Slowly losing her mind to meaningless dinner parties and the vapid conversations offered up by other policemen’s wives, Barbara realizes that her only hope for salvation lies in goading her staid husband into seeking a promotion. To this end she sets in motion an elaborate scheme involving deception, adultery…and worse! With its lurid jazz score, theatrical dialogue, and stark B&W cinematography that practically oozes sin and desperation Oswald’s potboiler comes dangerously close to being a parody of itself. Thankfully Stanwyck’s knockout performance as a modern woman raging against the social ties that bind manages to lend some gravitas to the proceedings while a few familiar Hollywood faces keep the hysterics to a muted roar.

Criss Cross (USA 1949) (7): Burt Lancaster and Vancouver’s own Yvonne De Carlo are amorous exes in Robert Siodmak’s dark tale of obsession and double-crosses. Returning to Los Angeles after wandering around the country Steve Thompson moves back in with his mother and gets a job driving an armoured truck. Against his better judgement he also begins dogging his ex-wife Anna, an opportunistic tramp who’s become a little too cozy with local crime boss Slim Dundee. As old passions are reignited Steve begins to see a new future with his former spouse—even after she unexpectedly marries the violent yet oh so wealthy Slim. Entering into a partnership with Slim, now his romantic rival, Steve plans to rob his own truck with the mobster’s help and then run off with Anna taking his share of the loot. Fate, of course, has other plans… Brimming with all the usual genre clichés—growling gangsters, sexy dames and smoking guns—and set to a pulsing rhumba beat (an unknown Tony Curtis makes a brief cameo as a dance hall gigolo) Criss Cross has all the makings of a film noir classic. Unfortunately a rather anemic script lacks crackle and the erotic potential between Lancaster and De Carlo fails to elicit more than a faint spark. But the handsome cast is easy to look at and the views of bygone Los Angeles are quaint.

Crónicas [Chronicles] (Mexico 2004) (8): While covering a fatal car accident in Ecuador where an enraged crowd tried to lynch the errant driver, Manolo (John Leguizamo) an ace reporter for a Spanish-language news program receives a tip regarding the possible identity of a serial killer who’s been murdering children throughout Latin America. But when he’s forced to make a tough journalistic decision—one which will have far-reaching consequences that impact his own career—he finds his ethical bearings are not as solid as he thought. Writer/director Sebastián Cordero’s understated thriller takes blistering aim at tabloid journalism and mob mentality as well as the false narratives that feed into both. Surface interpretations too often miss the mark (that opening accident was not quite what it appeared to be) and in an age of infotainment “Truth” is too often packaged as an easily digestible commodity—Manolo’s Miami-based program itself, An Hour of Truth, being little more than a lurid reality show. Cordero thus turns the idea of the heroic reporter on its ear with his protagonist’s personal and professional lives both lacking integrity while the surrounding countryside, as if to reflect this fact, is a mess of muck and weeds. Not really a whodunnit, Cardero’s film instead focuses on tragic ironies and the moral compromises people make when The Truth proves to be more trouble than they can handle.

The Croods (USA 2013) (9): In the dog-eat-dog and everything-eat-man world of prehistory live the Croods, a cave dwelling family overseen by neanderthal patriarch Grug whose paranoid motto of “Never Not Be Afraid” has kept the clan alive if not exactly happy. Daughter Eep is hungry for adventure, Granny spends her days thinking of new insults to hurl at her son-in-law, youngest toddler Sandy thinks she’s part wolf, and son Thunk couldn’t tie his shoelaces to save his life…if he had shoelaces…or shoes for that matter. But the world is changing, and with fiery meteorites lighting the sky and volcanic eruptions destroying everything they’ve ever known the Croods are forced to think outside the cave and reluctantly join forces with Guy, a young loner and his simian sidekick who are seeking safety in the distant mountains and the mysterious lands beyond. Beset by natural disasters and garish menageries of psychedelic carnivores including flying piranha-fish, pastel tigers, and giant man-eating pansies, the Croods and their worldly guide (he knows fire!) slowly make their way towards the dawning of a new age—but with the threat of total annihilation constantly nipping at their heels will they survive long enough to see it? One of the most visually gorgeous and meticulously rendered animated features I’ve seen in some time, The Croods revels in multicoloured pastel sets while herds of outlandish bugs and neon monsters practically leap off the screen (and onto store shelves no doubt). The engaging orchestral score by Alan Silvestri keeps pace with the prehistoric action which is further enhanced by some eye-popping “camerawork” including POV sequences, turbocharged tracking shots and lots of adorable close-ups (awww….reptile dog!). Although squarely aimed at youngsters there is still plenty here to make mom and dad smile and a happy-go-lucky ending actually leaves you looking forward to the inevitable sequel (already in production). A welcome little break from reality. Yabba dabba doo!

Crossed Tracks [Roman de gare] (France 2007) (7): A serial killer escapes from prison. A distraught woman is stranded at a remote gas station by her angry fiancé. A concerned sister calls the police when her husband disappears. And a meek, soft-spoken little man reinvents himself again and again. Meanwhile, in a different chapter, it’s been a while since bestselling author Judith Ralitzer (Fanny Ardant) has penned a hit novel and she is hungry for ideas—and what better place to record potential plot twists than the open road? The trouble is, one can get so caught up in “what ifs” that they fail to notice what’s actually happening right in front of their eyes. Thus life imitates art imitating life in Claude Lelouch’s character-driven dramedy revolving around issues of truth, identity, and artistic integrity with characters shifting their stories—or rather our expectations of them—while lines are drawn linking one to another only to be erased and sketched anew. Although not nearly as complicated as it sounds (Lelouch is no David Lynch) this is still a charming road movie with enough u-turns and false flags to keep audiences amused and a seasoned cast who take to their roles with a wink and a nod. A feigned romance hits a few hilarious snags; foreshadowing gives a momentary chill when a stranger takes a young farm girl for a walk in the woods while a butchered hog squeals in the distance; and an evening’s cruise begets a mystery whose resolution reveals more than one person can stand. There’s a few dangling threads and not all the pieces mesh but then again life, like any other rough draft, is never perfect the first time around.

Cross of Iron (UK 1977) (7): Sam Peckinpah, famous for his blood & guts treatment of everything from westerns to social commentary (The Wild Bunch; Straw Dogs) casts a critical eye on the madness of war in this his only WWII drama. Set along the Russian front during the retreat of 1943 the story focuses on the animosity between two very different German officers: highly decorated Sgt. Rolf Steiner (James Coburn) a legendary solider who secretly loathes his uniform and everything it stands for, and Capt. Stransky (Maximillian Schell) a pampered Prussian aristocrat whose cowardice is matched only by his obsession with obtaining the coveted Iron Cross, Germany’s highest military honour. While Steiner is willing to go to any lengths to ensure the safety of the men entrusted to him, Stransky hides in the background plotting to not only get his medal but bring the much lauded Steiner down by any means necessary… In true Peckinpah fashion violence and mayhem are omnipresent with exploding mortars forming a background score of their own and scenes of battlefield carnage rendered almost commonplace through sheer repetition as if the director, not content to simply decry the inanity of warfare, felt the need to rub the audience’s nose in it. Trudging through a forgotten circle of Dante’s Hell, the two leads face off against a landscape of blasted craters and muddied corpses, the one damning his soul with every bullet he fires the other vainly chasing a trinket he believes will restore his lost honour. Savage and almost farcical in its refusal to bestow a deeper meaning to the onscreen chaos, Peckinpah is not interested in fashioning heroes. Instead he shows us a world where men kill for political whims, youth is corrupted, and even the fairer sex is demoted to a tribe of vengeful valkyries. “What will we do when we have lost the war?” asks one weary officer of another, “Prepare for the next one” comes the curt reply. Also starring James Mason as a colonel desperately clinging to some sense of integrity and David Warner as his cynical captain.

The Crucifixion (UK/Romania 2017) (2): In 2004 a young Romanian nun, supposedly possessed by a demon, died while being exorcised in what has become known as the Tanacu Exorcism. Using this real life tragedy as a springboard, director Xavier Gens and his team of writers proceed to crap out a sophomoric mess of standard jolts from The Exorcist and patronizing “faith based” horse shit straight out of Sunday school. Upon hearing about a botched exorcism in eastern Europe, American journalist and staunch atheist Sophie Cookson (Nicole Rawlins displaying the emotional range of a potato) travels to backwoods Romania in order to expose what really happened. Her investigations lead to the usual glut of taciturn nuns, mysterious locals, and enigmatic priests including the handsome Fr. Anton (Corneliu Ulici trying to keep a straight face) who quickly becomes her de facto spiritual advisor. “God does not fail to answer [prayers]…” he intones over dinner as Sophie bitterly recounts the untimely death of her mother a few years earlier, “…we are the ones who have failed to receive…” And thus are planted the seeds of faith which come to full bloom once the special effects team swings into action. Windows slam shut, beds overturn, flies dive bomb into wine glasses, and musical cues prompt bugaboos to jump out of corners while flashbacks show the doomed nun sporting black contacts and squeezing spiders out of her vagina, all of which serve to make Sophie rightfully question her atheistic ways before the demon comes knocking on her own door. Heaven help us all. As a straight-up horror flick Gens’ heavy hand tries to steamroll over his audience as if pious platitudes and monster make-up are sufficient to suspend our disbelief—they’re not of course, and what shocks do occur are strictly by the numbers (Don’t turn around Sophie! Don’t go in that locked room!) At least a visit to a dreary psychiatric clinic where the nun was once hospitalized attempts to raise the question of mental illness vs superstitious fear, but that too is quickly drowned out by more scream scenes and a devilish nurse. “You can’t make sense out of something that makes no sense…” Sophie whines to her New York editor—probably the most polite critique anyone can muster.

Cruising (USA 1980) (8): Body parts found floating in the waters around New York City are identified as belonging to gay men who have gone missing leading NYPD detectives to suspect a serial killer is on the loose. And when more members of the community are found brutally stabbed to death those suspicions are confirmed. Now rookie officer Steve Burns (Al Pacino) is assigned to go undercover as a gay man in order to flush the murderer out. But as Burns navigates Manhattan’s seedy underside of leather bars and S&M sex clubs the line between work life and private life begins to blur… Based on the “Body Bag Murderer” who targeted New York’s homosexual community in the 70s, writer/director William Friedkin’s highly contentious (for the time) psychological thriller was accused of being homophobic by the city’s gay community who resorted to protests and onsite harassment before filming was even completed. They were wrong. What Friedkin created was a dark and moody American giallo, a Grand Guignol that was equal parts psychodrama and policier. With a resolutely heterosexual Burns dividing his time between the sunlit apartment he shares with his unsuspecting girlfriend (Karen Allen) and the nighttime world of dimly lit dives filled with raw sex and half-naked men, a psychosexual conflict begins to manifest itself in a series of troubling confrontations both personal and professional. In one telling scene he wanders into a club which is holding its weekly “Precinct Night” and finds himself surrounded by patrons dressed (and undressed) as cops—literal sexual parodies of himself. Friedkin relies heavily on dark shades of blue and black, a throbbing soundtrack of punk disco, and brief almost subliminal flashes of pornography (usually accompanying a murder) to create an atmosphere of menace and desire, a subjective maelstrom centred on one man while the actual killer is consigned to the periphery, a threatening yet obsessive metaphor much like the leather and jockstrapped extras writhing about in the background. One is even reminded of his earlier work, The Exorcist, in the way he frames his protagonist using light and shadow or turns a simple staircase into a descent of a different kind. Although Richard Gere was the director’s first choice, Pacino brings a raw fervour to his role, a vulnerability only partially dispelled by those intense eyes and bursts of temper…his final unnerving close-up giving us a study in chilled ambivalence before everything fades to grey. Yes there are moments bordering on cliché—homophobic cops and transvestite hookers make an appearance and little time is given to gay men who are NOT part of the leather subculture—but overall this is a mature piece of work bordering on arthouse. Some aspects may not have aged as well as others, but it’s still a fascinating snapshot forever grounded in a specific time and place. As an interesting aside, the man suspected of being the real-life killer was in fact an extra in The Exorcist which was released a year earlier.

The Cuckoo (Russia 2002) (6): Set in wilds of Finland during WWII, writer/director Aleksandr Rogozhkin’s three-handed satire provides one of cinema’s more astute metaphors for warfare. Two men from either side of the battle line—one a Finnish deserter, the other a disgraced Russian officer—wind up sharing space on a crude homestead run by a young Lapp woman. The Finn is an adamant pacifist despite his Nazi disguise; the Russian has doubts about the Soviet dream; and the woman is simply horny and desperate to get laid. And the punchline? Due to language barriers none of the characters can understand each other. The resulting misunderstandings make for some fertile comedy—the Communist cooks up a stew of poison mushrooms and the pacifist’s well-meaning gesture of peace is grossly misread—but as nerves fray and boiling hormones beget jealousy, things abruptly turn sour and then surreal after the woman breaks out her shaman’s drum for some spirit world tinkering. Sadly, much of the cultural allusions provide in-jokes lost on Western audiences causing us to scratch our heads almost as much as the protagonists.

Cul-de-Sac (UK 1966) (8): The privileged, if terribly dull lives of impotent businessman George and his generally frustrated wife Teresa are thrown into disarray when “Dicky”, a brusque and churlish gangster on the lam, decides to hole up in their crumbling seaside castle while awaiting the arrival of his cohorts. Immediately drawn to the alpha male’s coarse machismo, the milquetoast George finds himself becoming a neurotic lapdog while Teresa’s libido begins to tingle at the thought of finally having a “real man” in the chateau. Meanwhile the somewhat thick-headed Dicky remains perpetually baffled by his eccentric hosts’ increasingly odd behaviour. A tense psychological three-way ensues with destructive fun and games and a growing sense of menace which threatens to not only derail the couple’s orderly life but send it careening into the abyss as well. Under the guise of an absurdist black comedy, and it really is funny to be honest, Roman Polanski explores some weighty territory: the banality of the upper crust (an insufferable lunch party with some boorish friends and their hellish son is pure gold); gentility as a weak facade hiding our true natures; and the power of brutality to incite chaos and madness in even the most civilized settings. George and Teresa’s imposing estate, set conspicuously atop an isolated thrust of rock, speaks of affluence but in reality it is overrun with domesticated chickens and bad artwork while the couple themselves are practically penniless thanks to the cost of its upkeep. Dicky, on the other hand, remains oblivious to the faux opulence around him and instead helps himself to whatever the hell he wants thanks to a loud voice and loaded pistol (ah, symbolism!). But it is in the film’s blazing finale, dripping with violence and grim irony, that Polanski showcases his legendary directorial skills as he brings the story full circle before ending it with one of the more magnificently outlandish series of images I’ve seen in some time.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (USA 2008 ) (5):  A sincere, though misguided attempt to give new meaning to the old saying, "Youth is wasted on the young".  Through a series of deathbed flashbacks it tells the story of Benjamin, who was born with the body of an old man but the mind of an infant.  As he grew older mentally, his body grew younger which led to a few romantic complications as there was only one brief span of time in which mind/body were in synch with one another.  A very interesting premise which this overly long and lightweight drama fails to explore adequately.  Fincher concentrates on the trimmings of the story.....lots of pastel sunrises, "homespun" wisdom, and Brad Pitt's pecs but fails to deliver any real substance, instead distracting the audience with superfluous asides involving blind clockmakers ('cause you never know what's coming for you); dubious hummingbirds (their wings trace the symbol for "eternity" don't you know); and a protracted sequence showing the power of coincidence which reminded me of the opening scenes of "Magnolia"..... (gee, if only her friend had bought a better pair of shoelaces Daisy would still be dancing.....)  This is the type of cloying Hollywood crowd pleaser which lulls you into believing you are watching something profoundly moving, but as the houselights come up you realize you've simply been sold a bottle of cinematic snake oil.

The Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb (UK 1964) (6): Egypt, circa 1900, and a pair of British scientists have unearthed the tomb of Ra-Anteph, the enigmatic Egyptian prince who was murdered by his jealous brother just as he was on the cusp discovering the secret of immortality. Returning to England with the mummy and its treasures, the two men immediately find themselves at odds with their financial backer—a crass American showman eager to make a quick buck by turning Ra into a carnival sideshow. Of course, as with all things dead and Egyptian, Ra’s tomb comes with an obligatory curse damning all who desecrate his final resting place and it isn’t long before everyone is being stalked by one very pissed off (and very dusty) mummy. But what is it really after? And why does it spare the life of the party’s sole female scientist, French bombshell Annette Dubois, and her mysterious new boyfriend? Yet another delightfully hokey production from Hammer Films, the British studio that practically defined “B-Movie” back in the sixties. Despite the laughable plot and tacky faux Egyptian flourishes there is a comic book earnestness to the film which makes you want to laugh with it instead of at it. As Dubois, English actress Jeanne Roland’s gargling French accent (apparently dubbed) is oddly charming and the star of the show looks splendid as it shuffles and wheezes in its musty linen wrappings, especially while carrying an unconscious Dubois wearing her sexiest nightie. A fun flick for late nights in front of the telly!

The Curse of the Werewolf (UK 1961) (6): Poor little Leon; it’s bad enough his conception was the result of his mother being raped by an insane dungeon inmate, but he was born (and orphaned) on Christmas Day to boot and according to the film’s screenwriter any unwanted child born on Jesus’ birthday is practically begging for some evil mojo. It appears he was invaded by an animal spirit when he drew his first breath and by the time he was old enough to talk he was already licking dead squirrels and growing an impressive pelt on his little palms much to his foster parents’ horror. Advised by their parish priest to shower the child with love and affection in order to thwart his lupine proclivities, Leon eventually grows up to be a happy well-adjusted adult until a visit to a local brothel once again awakens the hairy beast within. Will he be able to live happily ever after with the local vintner’s pouty-lipped daughter whom he’s been wooing on the sly, or will his newly acquired taste for dead hooker cast a pall on their planned nuptials? Oliver Reed obviously graduated from the William Shatner School of Dramatic Arts as he shamelessly shrieks and emotes his way through Hammer Films’ one and only werewolf flick. The rest of the cast is suitably overblown while the studio sets, meant to evoke 18th century Spain, are a soothing mishmash of bucolic clichés and peasant argot. When we finally do get to see Reed in wolfman drag however he looks more like Gary Glitter after a week’s bender; he even barks like a little shih-tzu when he should be howling. A wonderful Saturday afternoon monster movie.

Cutter’s Way (USA 1981) (5): One dark and stormy night junior yacht salesman Richard Bone (Jeff Bridges, impossibly cute) inadvertently witnesses the aftermath of a young girl’s murder. At first suspected by the police he is later discarded when his recollections of the incident lead nowhere. Confiding in his friend Alex Cutter (John Heard), a Viet Nam vet whose experiences have left him an alcoholic cripple with a disposition that bounces wildly between embittered cynic and raging lunatic, the two men hatch a plan to solve the case. The guys eventually join forces with the dead girl’s oddly non-grieving sister, against the wishes of Alex’s wifea lackadaisical sot draped in adulterous intentions and a perpetual nightieand their efforts eventually lead them to a final shocking confrontation. Ivan Passer’s drama, based on a bestseller, fails on whatever level you choose to judge it. As a policier it lacks both suspense and mystery leaving you to wonder just where in hell the cops were while all this was going on and there isn’t enough cohesiveness for a decent character study: Bridges stares mildly into the camera (sans shirt thank God!); when Heard is not screaming or sulking, his grizzled croak and exaggerated limp make him sound like a white trash Long John Silver; and the women provide little more than window dressing. Finally, despite its pervasive sense of melancholy and staged outrage, as a moral allegory there is just not enough meat to separate good from evil causing a key love scene to go limp and making an avenging entrance sadly comical. Meandering, tedious, and dramatically overblown.

Daisy Kenyon (USA 1947) (6): Although she was at least ten years too old for the part, Joan Crawford’s bigger-than-life features still manage to dominate the screen in this weepy love triangle. Daisy is a successful commercial artist involved in a tempestuous affair with Dan O’Mara, a brusque and very married attorney. Tired of always being the “other woman” she begins seeing the soft-spoken Peter Lapham, a disillusioned and recently widowed veteran who is Dan’s opposite in almost every way. After marrying Peter on a whim Daisy begins to have second thoughts about Dan, especially after he undergoes a messy divorce and comes sniffing around her door again. Bothered by Dan’s persistence and shocked by Peter’s seeming indifference, Daisy flees to her country cottage where she receives a life-altering epiphany on an icy road which leads to a final confrontation with the two men in her life. With its ridiculous plot, snappy dialogue and fluffy musical score it would be easy to dismiss this film as just another chick flick, but beneath the overly polished exterior Preminger touches upon some contentious topics. The very idea of a strong woman with a fulfilling life and professional career who was not dependent on a man was novel enough; allowing her to explore her sexuality, with a married man no less, was downright shocking. In addition, the issue of child abuse is addressed as Dan’s sexually frustrated trophy wife (brilliantly portrayed by Ruth Warrick) takes out her aggression on the couple’s two daughters. And even though the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder hadn’t been coined yet Peter’s psychological wounds, supposedly due to his wife’s tragic death, are tied-in to some unspoken wartime experiences. Lastly, America’s simmering post-WWII racism is ridiculed as we hear of a Japanese-American veteran returning from Europe to discover his home has been sold from under him. Along the way there are some nice touches; the way Dan turns off the music every time he enters Daisy’s apartment for instance; and it is all filmed in beautifully shadowed B&W. Fun to watch if you can get past it’s sillier elements.

Damnation (Hungary 1988) (10): Master filmmaker Béla Tarr creates yet another small masterpiece in B&W with this tragic tale of unrequited love between a downcast everyman and an ice cold nightclub singer. By day “Karrer” sits by his window facing a bleak and blasted landscape over which an endless procession of mining gondolas laden with coal make their rickety way toward the horizon. By night he listens to his favourite torch singer at the local watering hole, a married woman who has become the object of his romantic obsession despite her snarling animosity towards him and despite the dire warnings to avoid her which he receives from a weary coat-check woman who doubles as his guardian angel. Determined to win her over regardless, Karrer must first devise a plan to deal with her hulking brute of a husband—and then an opportunity presents itself… Tarr works with black and white celluloid the way a sculptor works with marble, using long static shots and slow pans to turn otherwise prosaic set pieces into tightly composed works of art suffused with meaning. And he shores up those austere visuals with ambient background noises that include mechanical clanking, wheezing accordions, a wailing infant, and assorted canine whimpers. Filmed towards the end of Hungary’s Communist rule, Tarr creates a world seemingly composed of concrete, mud, and drizzle, where dispirited dogs root among filthy puddles and locals huddle in a seedy dive (appropriately named “Titanic”) their still forms wreathed in cigarette smoke and despair, their eyes averted as if in mourning. Kafkaesque just begins to describe Tarr’s emphatically pessimistic tone, and it touches everything from a coital encounter devoid of human warmth to a sad parade of drunken dancers stumbling hand-in-hand to an out of tune band. Unlike the studied perplexity of Tarkovsky or Lynch however, Tarr’s work remains accessible even at its most enigmatic perhaps because it touches on that dark corner of the psyche we all share yet seldom acknowledge: the fear of being truly alone, the yearning for things to be something other than what they are, and the impotent fury that comes when dreams whither. Glacial and brooding, angry and despondent, with an ending that calls to mind the shrieks and ashes of Pasolini’s Teorema (in spirit if not in execution), Damnation’s icy touch is as decisive as last call and as irrevocable as a suicide note. Masterful.

The Damned Don’t Cry (USA 1950) (7): With her face cemented into an imposing rictus of eyebrows and acute angles, Joan Crawford was probably the last actress the studio should have considered to star in this maudlin noir about a bullied housewife sleeping her way into high society, but that doesn’t stop her from giving one of her most monumental over-the-top performances. She plays Ethel Whitehead, the impoverished midwest spouse of a surly oil field worker who leaves her husband after tragedy destroys what was left of their marriage. “I want something more than what I’ve got out of life and I’m going to get it!” she hisses from the doorway and in the next frame she’s doing just that in New York City—only in Ethel’s case “getting more” means playing lover to a series of increasingly powerful and dangerous men while recreating herself as Lorna Hansen Forbes, socialite widow of a multi-millionaire oil tycoon. But once a browbeaten housewife always a browbeaten housewife and when “Lorna” finds herself torn between two rival mobsters her precarious house of cards comes crashing down around her. With Steve Cochran and David Brian as the competing gangsters and Kent Smith as the milquetoast accountant who really really loves her (gosh darn), the stage is set for some deliciously corny B-movie lines and theatrical scowls. “He’s promised me the world, Marty, and I’ve got to have it!” laments Ethel-cum-Lorna; “I like a woman who has brains…” croons underworld kingpin George Castleman finding allure in Crawford’s mannish pout, “…but when she also has spirit, that excites me!” Joan goes from domestic naif to strong-willed moll and back again without smearing her signature slash of lipstick, Cochran and Brian beat their chests, Smith mewls like a trampled kitten, and it all ends with a scene of hackneyed pathos laid on as thick and heavy as Crawford’s greasepaint. Warped feminism, overblown morality, and camp overkill come together for one highly entertaining piece of B&W kitsch.

The Dance of Reality (Chile/France 2013) (7): Cult cinema icon Alejandro Jodorowsky maintains “reality” is not subjective but instead springs forth from our own imaginations. It’s therefore fitting that his fanciful autobiography would take the form of a Felliniesque circus awash in metaphors, both moving and profane, inspired by such diverse sources as the Tarot deck, evangelical Christianity, and Karl Marx. Set in the Chilean seaside town of Tocopilla where he was born in 1929, the director wastes no time setting the tone as we see his school-aged self torn between two conflicting parents. Dad (played by Jodorowsky’s own son) is a Jewish-Ukrainian immigrant and stalwart Stalinist determined to beat curly-locked Alejandro into his idea of what a man should be. Mom, on the other hand (bravely portrayed by soprano Pamela Flores), is a buxom Bohemian who counters her husband’s cruel authoritarianism with dabbles into religious mysticism and the Arts—indeed, she sings all her lines as if life were one grand aria. Thus perched precariously between earthbound travails and heavenly aspirations (with Death a constant sidekick), Alejandro can do little more than watch as his parents’ pas de deux plays itself out—dad’s communist zeal taking deadly aim at Chile’s ruling dictator (an obsession which will give rise to a most unexpected metamorphosis) while mom’s spirituality, equal parts faith and everyday magic, leads to a transformation of its own. The film’s stream-of-consciousness approach is sure to frustrate cinematic purists, especially when Jodorowsky himself makes onscreen cameos to share his personal insights directly with the audience while his characters freeze in place; and scenes of ample nudity—some in an emphatically vulgar context—will send others packing. But those intrigued enough to sit through its 133-minute running time will be rewarded with a kaleidoscopic trek through one man’s memories filled with joys and pain, miracles and freaks; where a small child wages battle with the sea, a crippled assassin assumes the colours of the Chilean flag as if it were a pox, and God is as likely to mock as he is to condole (in response to a request for alms from a destitute beggar a disgusted priest hands the man a live tarantula instead). Uncanny, unsettling, yet ultimately satisfying, this is Jodorowsky doing what Jodorowsky does best.

The Dancer Upstairs (Spain/USA 2002) (7): In an unspecified Latin American country Agustín Rejas, an idealistic police detective, is assigned to hunt down Ezequiel, the charismatic leader of a homegrown terrorist cell. Using children and rural peasants as his foot soldiers, Ezequiel has been waging war against the government through domestic sabotage and an increasingly bold series of assassinations which threaten to topple the state’s already tenuous democracy. But hunting down the murderous anarchist proves to be all but impossible for Rejas and his team for despite the absence of an official revolutionary manifesto (Ezequiel’s “platform” consists of little more than fiery Communist jingles) his followers seem to be everywhere. Frustrated at every turn the married Rejas finds some chaste comfort in the company of his daughter’s ballet teacher, a quiet and fragile woman who, in Agustín’s eyes, will eventually come to symbolize both the beautiful potential and tragic disillusionment of his country. Loosely based on the story of Peru’s “Shining Path” insurgency, John Malkovich’s dreamy noir policier, filmed in English, features an outstanding cast of Latin stars set against a nicely framed backdrop of generic palm trees, red-tiled roofs, and junta brass (actually an amalgamation of Spanish, Portuguese, and Ecuadorian locales). Although it works as a straight-up thriller there are great depths here, both political and psychological, as Malkovich examines the fractured mindset of a society in transition; while Ezequiel’s followers mindlessly parrot their leaders’ nihilistic slogans Agustín’s wife agonizes over whether or not to get a nose job, and the ruling government all too quickly decides to impose martial law...yet again. Despite an unnecessarily murky plot and some prolonged navel-gazing, Dancer still proved to be an intelligent and wonderfully stylized piece of filmmaking.

Dancing at Lughnasa (Ireland 1998) (8): Pat O’Connor’s screen adaptation of Brian Friel’s Tony award-winning stage play recounting one boy’s magical summer in Donegal is undeniably Irish in its heady balance of acerbic wit, homespun warmth, and sense of melancholia which seems to underly everything. Young Michael is the only male in a rural farmhouse run by the five unmarried Mundy sisters: spinsterish Maggie and simple-minded Rose who earn a meagre wage knitting woollen mittens; pragmatic Maggie who’s always maintaining the peace; Christina, Michael’s mother, still carrying a dimly lit torch for his seldom seen gadabout father; and eldest Kate (Meryl Streep) a schoolteacher who rules the roost with an iron will that barely conceals her own insecurities. Narrated by a grown-up Michael the story focuses on August, 1936, the month when everything changed forever starting with the arrival of his uncle Jack, a priest who’d been doing missionary work in Africa and was now suffering from the beginnings of dementia. No sooner had Jack begun threatening the family’s equilibrium with his impulsive wanderings and wild pagan tales then Michael’s father visited further chaos upon the home with an impromptu appearance of his own. That, coupled with some sorry economic turns for the sisters, marked a turning point in the Mundy house from which no one would ever fully recover. Gleaned mainly from young Michael’s memories, O’Connor’s gorgeously visual film frames its family drama in a bucolic setting of green hills and mountain lakes where prim Christianity vies with pagan bacchanals (the harvest feast of Lughnasa—pronounced LOO-na-sa—gives rise to drunken midnight revelries) and every heart seems to be tinged with one form of longing or another whether it’s Rose’s ill-fated attraction for a married m