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

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Hacksaw Ridge (USA 2016) (6): In 1945 Private First Class Desmond T. Doss became the first Conscientious Objector to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroic actions as a medic in the Pacific where he saved an estimated 75 lives during the Battle of Okinawa alone, and he did so without ever touching a rifle as firing a weapon would have violated his religious principles—principles which almost got him court-martialed. Director Mel Gibson’s biopic starts out sincerely enough with an Oscar-nominated performance from Andrew Garfield in the lead and a supporting cast of British and Australians giving passable American accents. Doss’ early life is presented as a series of Norman Rockwell paintings—even his abusive alcoholic father (Hugo Weaving doing a Billy Bob Thornton imitation) is given a sheen of respectability once he dons his old WWI uniform—and Desmond’s budding romance with a local nurse (Teresa Palmer) unfolds with much sunshine and violins. But being a MEL GIBSON!! film it isn’t long before the hubris and overkill set in giving rise to some very uncomfortable contradictions. By all official accounts Doss was a pacifist who strove to heal rather than maim; Gibson takes an orgiastic delight in meticulously staged battle sequences brimming with severed limbs and puddles of guts. Doss was a modest man who held to his personal beliefs without proselytizing; Gibson treads into religious infomercial territory with Garfield’s performance hovering somewhere between saint and saviour—cast as typical army brass bullies Vince Vaughn and and Sam Worthington play Caiaphas and Pilate to Garfield’s Christ, the evil Japanese become hellish demons, and one embarrassing scene of a stretcher being lowered against a sky ripped apart by heavenly sunbeams only needed a white dove and an angel or two to be complete. There’s no doubting Desmond T. Doss’ heroism, but in Mel Gibson’s hands his memory becomes a bombastic salute to the director’s own ego. At least we’re treated to archival footage of the man himself as the final credits roll.

Hagazussa (Austria 2017) (6): In much the same vein as Robert Eggers’ The Witch and Rainer Sarnet’s November, Lukas Feigelfeld’s horror film weaves a dark fairytale aesthetic with long tracking shots and minimalist dialogue to tell the story of one young woman’s descent into madness—or damnation depending on which road you take. In the mountains of 16th century Austria little Albrun and her mother live as social pariahs thanks to mom’s reputation of being a witch—and after mom is abruptly taken by plague Albrun is left to fend completely for herself. Now, several years later and still tainted by her mother’s legacy, Albrun along with her questionably conceived baby girl is living in a ramshackle alpine cabin with nothing but goats for companions—until she is befriended by a woman from the nearby village. Cheerful and golden-haired, Swinda provides a sharp contrast to Albrun’s dark brooding features but behind her bonhomie lurks something distinctly unpleasant, something born out of Christian prejudice and just as destructive as any witch’s curse… Storms howl and shadows crawl from every corner as Feigelfeld ups the creep factor aided by a score of atonal chants and grating bass rumbles. Wind-tossed evergreen boughs resemble flailing ghosts, an apple rolls right out of Eden (with the snake not far behind), and female sexuality is likened to a Satanic ritual—Albrun’s lonely nighttime masturbation giving rise to something monstrous and a three-way mountainside rape unfolding like an evil sacrament. Even the altar of the area’s rustic Catholic church, usually a place of sanctuary, is adorned with human skulls. Deliberately open-ended, Hagazussa can either be taken literally as a demonic shocker or, in a more secular vein, as an eccentric psychodrama with occult trappings (oh those goat horns!) Sadly, without enough meat for audiences to chew on the entire production begins to sag under the weight of its own audacious sense of style robbing those foreboding pans of mountains and forests (and one pivotal swamp) of much of their impact while threatening to turn more intense scenes into overwrought messes. However, considering this is only Feigelfeld’s graduation film his use of lighting and texture to evoke an emotional response definitely marks him as someone to watch for—you can almost smell the smoke from Albrun’s hearth, feel the mud between her toes, and taste that horrible final meal.

Hail, Caesar! (USA 2016) (7): Set in 1950s Los Angeles, Joel and Ethan Coen’s ripping satire on Hollywood unfolds in a series of overlapping vignettes that are not as clever as you’d expect but they do hit enough notes to be amusing throughout. As head of “physical production” for Capitol Pictures, Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is basically a fixer—ensuring that schedules run on time; stars maintain their squeaky clean reputations (by force if necessary); and the insatiable press only publish the dirt he dishes them. But things start to get out of hand when the studio’s main box office draw, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped while shooting a big-budget biblical epic entitled Hail Caesar! leaving the film’s director tearing his hair out and Capitol Pictures in a dire financial lurch. And that is only one of many fires Mannix is trying stamp out while simultaneously working through a few life decisions of his own with the help of his Catholic confessor… The technicolor period touches are nicely done and even though the film’s humour generally bypasses subtlety for the broader yucks, they are on point more often than not—a panel of religious leaders arguing over Hail Caesar’s! script begin to sound like one of those “a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar…” jokes; a drawling cowpoke (Alden Ehrenreich) tries to transition from rootin’, tootin’ westerns to sophisticated comedies much to the chagrin of his prissy director (Ralph Fiennes); and a cabal of truculent Hollywood communists arguing the finer points of Karl Marx over tea and finger sandwiches leads to a scene of camp agitprop so overdone it should have been a sequel unto itself. And throughout it all we catch snippets of current productions from a crucified extra ordering lunch to a glitzy underwater ballet. Fine performances all around especially Clooney who goes from smug celebrity to whinging bitch in under a second when faced with Brolin’s wrath, with additional support coming from Tilda Swinton playing twin gossip columnists sniffing in the wrong places and Scarlett Johansson who, as a crusty imitation of Esther Williams, is having trouble fitting into her mermaid costume thanks to a one-night stand. Frances McDormand flexes her comedy chops as a doddering film editor and Channing Tatum proves to be the biggest revelation of all with song and dance moves proving he’s more than just a hunky bod. As a side note, although Brolin’s character comes across as a congenial though heavy-handed dorm mother it is in fact based on real life studio “fixer” E. J. Mannix (d. 1963) whose list of whispered accusations included violent misogynist, murderer, and mob lieutenant. Only in Hollywood!

Hail the Conquering Hero  
(USA 1944) (8):  Preston Sturges mixes just the right amount of wry humour and mocking satire in this thoroughly entertaining story of a naive young man caught up in the lies of others.  Woodrow Truesmith (the names are brilliant) is the small-town son of a WWI hero.  His father died in the line of duty and his mother maintains a shrine to his memory in the living room.  Sadly, when Woodrow tries to follow in his father’s footsteps by enlisting in the Marines he receives a medical discharge due to his persistent hay fever instead.  Too ashamed to face his family and friends with the truth he gets a job in a shipyard and lets everyone believe he’s fighting overseas.  It’s when a group of real Marines decides to help him return home as a decorated hero that things begin to spiral out of control.  Sturges’ assured direction and intelligent script keep things moving at a brisk pace, but even as the gags come fast and furious there is an underlying anger to the film as it skewers everything from rampant capitalism to gushing patriotism.  And although the final scene appears to be a sentimental cop-out, upon closer inspection it practically oozes sarcastic irony.  Pretty daring stuff for a movie released towards the end of World War II.

Halfaouine (Tunisia/France 1990) (7): Situated right smack in the middle of that awkward time between childhood and adulthood, tween-aged Noura isn’t quite welcome to hang out with the older boys, but he has started noticing women’s boobs at the all-female Turkish bath his mother’s been taking him to since he was born. Now, with his baby brother’s much-fêted circumcision ceremony approaching, Noura has a few hard (and sometimes amusing) lessons to learn about the adult world—starting with his despotic father who rules the roost like an impotent god, and the alluring servant girl who provides all the temptation a young man can possibly handle. Surprisingly liberal with the nudity, sacrilege, and sexual innuendo given this is a Tunisian film, what Férid Boughedir’s coming-of-age drama lacks in depth (tepid performances and a superficial script don’t make for heavy viewing) it manages to compensate with sheer chutzpah and a joie de vivre that transcends language and cultural barriers. Images of birds and rooftops figure prominently for, like a bird, Noura likes to hop about as he observes the world of adults, often clandestinely from behind eaves and windowsills. And Boughedir populates Noura’s neighbourhood with characters who are more archetype than flesh and blood: the spinster aunt convinced demons are blocking her love life; the curvaceous cousin who is not averse to sampling life’s many pleasures; the romantic cobbler who writes plays no one will see; and a variety of saints, libertines, and ogres (some with a political bent) whose separate agendas seem to conflict and contradict rather than compliment. It’s a confusing world indeed, and Noura’s final rite of passage—as joyful as a first kiss yet in its own way as painful as the ritualized assault on his baby brother’s genitals—carries a note of melancholy that is sure to strike a chord with audiences around the world. I guess some things truly are universal.

Half Nelson (USA 2006) (8): Dan Dunne is a highschool history teacher who’s learned nothing from his own past. By day he’s a charismatic educator and hardworking coach for the girls’ basketball team but at night he indulges his insatiable appetites for crack cocaine and cheap sex. Like most addicts Dan believes himself to be in control of both his drug use and his professional life until he’s discovered smoking in the girls’ room by 13-year old Drey, a bright young student with enough problems of her own. A hesitant friendship slowly develops between the two as they discover they may have more in common than they thought. Fleck firmly avoids the cinematic hyperbole inherent in these types of films; there are no healing hugs, 12-step platitudes or tearful trips to rehab. Instead we see two fully realized human beings who, despite their vastly different backgrounds, are drawn to each other’s pain for reasons entirely their own. Using naturalistic dialogue, handheld camerawork and a funky score, Fleck gives his film an unpolished street-level authenticity further enhanced by some amazing performances. The film does falter somewhat when it tries to ramp up the dramatic irony. Dunne’s classroom lectures on the importance of “change” and “turning points” in respect to history (usually delivered while hungover) are glaring examples of this as are the historical asides delivered by various students; the narrative relevance between covert CIA atrocities and Dunne’s own self-deception is tenuous at best. And a strategically placed “stars’n’stripes” bandaid is pure overkill. Still, this is one of the more engrossing character-driven dramas I’ve seen in years. Ryan Gosling and Shareeka Epps play off one another beautifully while their final scene, if not exactly uplifting, at least hints at the possibility of mutual salvation.

The Hallelujah Trail (USA 1965) (5): In the Wild West of 1867 a shipment of forty wagonloads of whiskey bound for the saloons of Denver is beset on all sides despite the protection of a military escort. First a righteous mob of female Temperance League activists stands determined to destroy the evil brew before it can reach its destination. Then a horde of Indian warriors with a taste for white man’s “fire water” are equally determined to make off with a few hundred gallons for the tribe (their leader’s name, “Chief Five Barrels”, pretty well sums it up). And topping it off an ad hoc militia of thirsty miners out of Denver arrives to oversee the precious cargo, by force if necessary, and the U.S. Cavalry itself falls into disarray when their leader (a bland Burt Lancaster) locks horns with the Temperance League chairwoman (a bland Lee Remick). When all parties finally converge for a stormy showdown the resulting pandemonium will ensure no one walks—or staggers—away unscathed. Employing an offscreen narrator and cartoon maps to sort out the plot for slower members of the audience, John Sturges’ western farce is basically a 150-minute episode of F-Troop without the laugh track (or the laughs) which was interesting enough to keep me watching but not interesting enough to keep me from glancing at the clock while I waited, glassy-eyed, for the comedy to kick in. The terribly dated humour never strays far from alcohol-related gags, cultural spoofs, and “battle of the sexes” jabs while a blaring score of Broadway-style music (courtesy of Elmer Bernstein?!) and standard footage of wagon trains lumbering past mesas merely add to the monotony—although I must admit, for all their madcap silliness the film’s climactic horseback scenes are well choreographed even if a stuntman did lose his life performing one of the more dangerous feats. But it’s the cast that makes or breaks a movie and headliners Lancaster and Remick pretty much dictate their lines, receiving no help from costars Jim Hutton playing a lovestruck Captain; Donald Pleasance as an alcoholic fortune teller; Brian Keith as an irate booze-selling capitalist (his repeated tagline “I’m a taxpayer and a good Republican!!” getting stale after the first reading); and Martin Landau hamming it up in black wig and red face as a befuddled Sioux chieftain. “See How the West was FUN!“ promises one of the film’s original posters…yet twelve hours later I’m still waiting.

The Hallow (Ireland 2015) (5): London Botanist Adam packs up his wife and kid and heads to the wilds of Ireland where he’s been hired to study a strange fungus that’s been ravaging an old growth forest. Tasked with marking infected trees for an upcoming cull, his presence so angers the fairy folk living among the trunks and branches that they’re spurred into taking revenge on the ones he loves—especially his infant son Finn. Writer/director Corin Hardy leaves few clichés unturned in this derivative horror story obviously aimed at those with short attention spans for it takes no time at all before his couple go from ignoring the dire warnings of a superstitious neighbour to hearing bumps in the night to battling a ragtag army of putrefying CGI muppets with a fetish for trashing kitchens and sticking things in people’s eyes—hardly the “wee folk” audiences had been promised. Sadly, the shadowy menace Hardy painstakingly builds up is undone by a plot more annoying than frightening (for a supposed scientist Adam makes some stupid decisions). There are a few mild shocks of the “jump out” variety and one cool scene of a changeling’s face being peeled back like a banana, but they’re hardly worth 97 minutes of wooden performances and a jumbled script that looks as if it were written on the fly. Even with the mandatory suspension of disbelief demanded by these films there are still too many WTF?! moments to ignore. Hardy does inject a bit of sci-fi into the mix with the aforementioned fungus serving a purpose more sinister than inconveniencing conifers and saplings (he cites Scott’s Alien and Carpenter’s The Thing as inspirations) but when he tries to raise the movie’s eco-consciousness with a macabre “green twist" I found myself siding with the chainsaws.

Halloween [aka Rob Zombie’s Halloween] (USA 2007) (6): Written by Rob Zombie? More like plagiarized scene for scene from John Carpenter’s original 1978 shocker about little Michael Myers who gets committed to an insane asylum after murdering his family only to escape fifteen years later so he can continue where he left off. Zombie does spend a little extra time exploring ten-year old Michael’s horrible formative years (mom’s a stripper, sister’s a slut, dad’s a violent buffoon) as well as his early days in hospital where he developed his signature fetish for masks and knives, but once the killings start in earnest it’s pure 80’s slasher cinema with blood and tits and screaming teenagers screwing on the couch (as per an unwritten genre rule, only bad girls get gutted). Malcolm McDowell plays Michael’s compassionate psychiatrist with a great deal of geriatric gusto while Scout Taylor-Compton gives a passable Jamie Lee Curtis imitation as the histrionic object of Myer’s murderous affections, but it is the team of Daeg Faerch playing young Myers and Tyler Mane as the adult which save the film from total obscurity. Faerch, only twelve at the time, brings a tween sullenness to his role with a pair of intense eyes staring from beneath a fall of stringy blonde locks while Saskatchewan native Mane, at 6’ 8” and with a wrestler’s build to match, makes for one sexy psychopath. Nice soundtrack too with the likes of Iggy Pop, Kiss, and Blue Oyster Cult giving the film a sense of being suspended in time. Still no match for the original however.

Hamlet (UK 1948) (8): Laurence Olivier’s ambitious production of Shakespeare’s tragedy nabbed four Oscars that year including the coveted “Best Picture” and “Best Actor”. The story is, of course, a matter of rote memory by now: upon learning that his father’s murderer now sits upon the throne, married to his mother, a melancholic Danish prince plots a revenge which will lead to madness and death. Assisted by a superb cast that includes Anthony Quayle, Eileen Herlie, and a very young Jean Simmons as Ophelia, Olivier brings a sense of flourish to the title role despite being a little too mature for the part (he was in fact eleven years older than Herlie who played his mother). And the Bard’s keen insights into psychological machinations, including those allusions to incestuous drives, stand sharply defined in B&W while the beauty of his prose continues to captivate the ear. But it is the art and staging design that marks this as a milestone in Shakespearean cinema. The play unfolds not so much in a castle as in the fevered idea of a medieval fortress imagined by M. C. Escher where archways and hallways meld organically into one another and twisting staircases seem to double back onto themselves thanks to near seamless tracking shots and a multitude of fog machines. Yet the film’s painted backdrops of sea and moors are mere cursory depictions thus presenting the castle as a universe unto itself—more cerebral than physical—in which a graveyard vies with a flowering brook (yet both offering up only tragedy) and a shadow falling upon a grinning skull gives us one of cinema’s most enduring memento mori. Moody and theatrical, as well it should be, this is either a plodding endurance test for those not so inclined or a richly layered psychodrama for those who are. Thankfully, I belong most emphatically to the latter camp.

Hamlet (UK/US 1996) (7): With Oxfordshire’s Blenheim Palace standing in for Elsinore and a who’s who cast of “A” and “B” -listers bringing down the house, director Kenneth Branagh’s 4-hour adaptation of Shakespeare’s masterpiece claims to present the entire play as it was originally written, the Bard’s “Director’s Cut” if you will. And the results, while bogged down with sheer wordiness, are nevertheless staggering: ambition and madness, revenge, corruption, and murder—all come to life on the wide screen. There is only one way to present Shakespeare and that is with the volume turned all the way up, and Branagh spares no expense in bringing the story (here set in 18th century Denmark) to glorious life with ice cold winter assailing the ramparts from without and costumed protagonists raging their own storms within. Derek Jacobi and Julie Christie play the doomed King and Queen with a conviction rarely seen in these adaptations while Kate Winslet breaks our hearts as the mad Ophelia, Brian Blessed glares with glowing cobalt eyes as the Ghost, and a procession of surprise cameos from the likes of Judi Dench, Gérard Depardieu, Richard Attenborough, Charlton Heston, Jack Lemmon, and John Gielgud pop up in the most unexpected places. Unfortunately Billy Crystal can’t quite lose that New York accent playing the gravedigger and Robin Williams (Robin Williams?!) performs Osric as if he were doing an Elizabethan stand-up routine. But all eyes are on Branagh himself, his interpretation of Hamlet bigger than life yet so painfully real that every soliloquy evokes a tear while that final exit pushes the dagger home. Tim Harvey’s Oscar nomination for Set Design was well deserved as was Alexandra Byrne’s nomination for Costume Design, for both combine to create a Baroque fantasy world of marble colonnades and rainbow satins heightened by Patrick Doyle’s original score (also nominated). A sobering delight for Shakespeare lovers and anyone who appreciates a film as cerebral as it is epic.

The Hand of God (Italy 2021) (7): Following the lead of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, director Paolo Sorrentino offers his own fanciful reflections on growing up in Naples circa the 1980s. But whereas Cuarón opted for a ravishing formality bordering on regal, Sorrentino offers up a carnival of memories and impressions reminiscent of Fellini sobered somewhat by Roberto Rossellini. The result is as loud and boisterous—and colourfully chaotic—as the city itself. With his stereo headphones never far away, teenaged Fabietto (Filippo Scotti) is coming of age surrounded by a riot of eccentric relatives and acquaintances, gorgeous seaside vistas, and conflicting desires. There’s the seductive aunt who’s not quite sane; the old matriarch with a penchant for F-bombs; his happy-go-lucky parents (Teresa Saponangelo, Toni Servillo) with some very vocal problems of their own; and his brother Marchino, a young man whose laissez-faire approach to life is in direct opposition to Fabietto’s growing restlessness. This will be a time for wonder and exploration, for losing one’s virginity and gaining a newfound maturity, and for embarking upon a circuitous path that will eventually produce one of Italy’s greatest contemporary directors. More cohesive than a mere stream of consciousness for all its orderly disorder, Sorrentino nevertheless packs meaning into every shot whether it be a boatload of boisterous relations plunging into a crystal blue sea, a volcano spewing forth a well-timed column of flame, or a chance encounter with a famous director which leads to a sunrise epiphany. There’s even a mystical monkish dwarf drawn from Neapolitan mythology and used here as a metaphor for changing fortune—and of course soccer figures prominently with Fabietto’s hero, Diego Maradona, almost usurping San Gennaro as the patron saint of all Naples. In one of my favourite scenes a casting call for yet another avant-garde film becomes a hilarious in-joke as extras stand about in all sorts of outrageous drag. A jumbled celebration of the artistic spirit, tempered by suffering and tragedy, and containing too many tangents to mention wherein the city lights and mountainous coast of Sorrentino’s childhood are characters unto themselves and cinema becomes both an escape and a confrontation.

Hang ‘Em High (USA 1968) (5): A case of mistaken identity almost gets ex-lawman Jed Cooper (Clint Eastwood) killed at the hands of an angry lynch mob. Now intent on revenge, Cooper once again dons the badge and sets out to even the score as a newly appointed Marshal. But vengeance and justice are two very different animals, a fact that becomes quite clear when Cooper comes up against an overworked judge who prefers to hang first and ask questions later (Pat Hingle), and a lovely widow harbouring her own thirst for revenge (Inger Stevens). New Mexico and an MGM backlot stand in for the lawless wilds of old Oklahoma in Ted Post’s straightforward western which is heavy on the camerawork—lots of swinging nooses, sagebrush desert, and close-ups of Eastwood’s squinty eyes—but falls short of the morality play it was clearly meant to be. Aside from Pat Hingle’s animated presence plus a short but amusing turn on the gallows from veteran character actor James Westerfield and Ed Begley’s dead serious role as the head vigilante, everyone else turns in clunky performances especially Stevens whose tragic sorrow only goes skin deep and Eastwood who was just perfecting his immovable face and menacing monotone. Look for cameos from the likes of Alan Hale Jr., Dennis Hopper, and a very young Bruce Dern because there isn’t much else of note.

The Hangman: Shepherds and Butchers (S. Africa 2016) (8): Twenty-one years after South Africa abolished the death penalty the former system is re-examined in director Oliver Schmitz’s horrific drama—“inspired by true events”. Set in 1987, the year 164 executions took place in Pretoria, it follows the trial of Leon Labuschagne (knockout performance from Garion Dowds), a young prison guard working on death row who is now facing the noose himself after having been charged with the senseless murder of seven men. With the prosecution confident in a guilty verdict—there’s no doubt but that Leon pulled the trigger—it’s up to the defense team led by lawyer John Webber (Steve Coogan) to find out why he did it and, more importantly, was he criminally responsible. With action jumping between tense courtroom exchanges and nightmarish flashbacks (the entire execution process is shown in grotesque detail) Webber’s attempt to uncover the cause of Leon’s mental disintegration becomes both a damning look at capital punishment itself as well as an exposé on the psychological burden placed on those tasked with carrying out “eye for an eye” justice. Coogan and Dowds carry the weight of the production on their capable shoulders, their individual performances creating an edgy synergy as Coogan’s crusading advocate plays against Dowds’ haunted apathy. Robert Hobbs adds an extra bit of gravitas as Webber’s brother-in-law Pierre, a man whose own experiences killing people as a special ops agent has left their mark on his psyche; Deon Lotz personifies blind justice as the officer in charge of hangings; and Andrea Riseborough, playing the prosecuting attorney, provides cold counterpoint to Coogan’s impassioned defense. For all its star power however, it is the extras who ultimately push Schmitz’s opus over the top—from the terrified eyes of the condemned being herded towards the gallows to the tear-stained faces of victims’ families, their voices often united in fervent song, they give a very human face to a very divisive topic. But be forewarned, the director wastes no time trying to sanitize his subject matter and several graphic scenes—including the repeated hanging of a man who refuses to go quietly—will have you holding your own breath. “Do you think the state should kill people?” Webber asks his ambivalent assistant who vehemently decries the fact that no one seems to remember those who were murdered at the hands of the convicted. “The majority support the death penalty” the aide shoots back as if that were the only answer required. “The majority supported burning at the stake, witch dunking, crucifixion…” Webber counters and, like the assistant, we are left to ponder our own opinions.

The Hangover (USA 2009) (4): On the eve of his wedding Doug is treated to one final “boys night out” in Las Vegas courtesy of his two best friends; Stu, a henpecked dentist whose control freak girlfriend has a bigger set of balls than he does, and Phil, an irresponsible teacher planning to make a few bets using the field trip money he collected from his students. Also tagging along is Allan, Doug’s future brother-in-law, a badly damaged slovenly man-boy. Checking into a luxurious villa suite at Caesar’s Palace the four men start the night with a few toasts of Jagermeister and then----oblivion. Waking up the next day horribly hungover and with no recollection of the night before the three buddies discover their suite has been completely trashed and Stu is missing a tooth. What’s more, there’s a chicken roaming the livingroom, a tiger growling in the bathroom, and a crying baby abandoned in the hallway closet. Doug, however, is nowhere to be found. Using the few clues at their disposal the men try to retrace their steps of the night before leading to a few startling revelations as they meet the wacky owner of a wedding chapel, tangle with an effete Asian crime boss, go toe-to-toe with Mike Tyson, and get tasered by a couple of pissed off cops whose cruiser seems to be in their possession. But beneath all the big-budget effects and frantic adult language this is really the cinematic equivalent of an all-night kegger aimed squarely at the college fraternity crowd. The only potential laughs came at the very end with the discovery of Doug’s digital camera and its trove of incriminating pictures. In an effort to fill in some narrative gaps and explain exactly what happened that fateful night the director tosses some of those photos onto the screen during the closing credits where we’re treated to an assortment of bare breasts, a prosthetic penis (wow, unrated versions rule!), and surprise cameos from a few Las Vegas mainstays. Unimaginative, juvenile, and looking like it was slapped together overnight, The Hangover goes for quirky but settles for mediocre. They never did explain where the damn chicken came from.

Hannah and Her Sisters (USA 1986) (7): Despite its three Oscars, a dream cast, and comparisons to Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander—a parallel I find tenuous at best—writer/director Woody Allen has simply turned out another glossy “comedy of neuroses” involving well-to-do New Yorkers who talk too much as they wrestle with First World problems over the course of one year—Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving. Hannah (Mia Farrow), a stay-at-home mom intent on returning to the stage, and her two sisters Lee (Barbara Hershey), a gormless beauty living with an older artist (Max von Sydow), and Holly (Best Supporting Actress Dianne Wiest), another actress struggling with loneliness and cocaine, all experience the usual professional and romantic turbulence served up emotionally tepid yet spicy thanks to Allen’s signature brand of manic intellectual banter. Hannah’s husband (Best Supporting Actor Michael Caine) is irresistibly drawn to Lee only to rediscover his one True Love in the process; Lee breaks ties with her controlling sugar daddy only to find ties of a different kind; and Holly finds the cure to her broken heart in the most unlikely place. And along the way Hannah’s neurotic hypochondriac ex (Allen playing his usual one-note self) muses on the meaningless of it all when he suspects he might have a brain tumour—one of the film’s funnier passages has him turning to Catholicism much to the consternation of his Jewish parents. It’s all highly polished of course from the savvy Manhattan settings to the intricate layering of multiple storylines, but one still can’t shake off a strong sense of déjà vu to this skittish ensemble piece because Woody Allen’s done it many times before. Lloyd Nolan and Maureen O’Hara do put in grand performances as Hannah’s aging Vaudevillian parents, and the comedic slack is further taken up by the likes of Julie Kavner, Carrie Fisher, and Daniel Stern. Whether or not it deserved all those kudos is up for discussion but if you appreciate Woody Allen’s sense of style and wit you won’t go home disappointed.

Happy Birthday to Me (Canada 1981) (2): Virginia enjoys being one of the popular girls at school because all the boys flirt with her and she gets invited to all the best parties. But “Ginny” also has a dark secret involving an accident which killed her mother five years earlier and left her in a coma. Subjected to a series of “brain regeneration” experiments Virginia managed to regain her senses, but the cure came at a terrible cost. Still suffering from memory lapses and bouts of paranoia, she begins to feel her world unraveling after her friends begin disappearing one by one—a mysterious killer is on the loose and everyone’s a suspect. Aided by a sympathetic counsellor (Glenn Ford hitting rock bottom) and her well-meaning though perpetually absent father, Virginia eventually learns the truth on the eve of her 18th birthday. And what a party that turns out to be… Poorly made canucksploitation shocker rife with stupid non-sequiturs and enough plot holes to bury all the bodies in---twice. And thanks to some heavy-handed censorship (to avoid an "X" rating) even the gruesome murders are little more than split second flashes. The "twist" ending sucked too. No wonder Ford supposedly drank his way through the entire production.

Hard-Boiled (Hong Kong 1992) (8): We may never know exactly how many rounds of ammo writer/director John Woo went through while filming this ultra violent policier but by the time the final credits appeared it felt like half the population of Hong Kong was either blown up, shot up, or beaten up. The plot, what there is of it, involves rebel cop “Tequila” Yuen (Yun-Fat Chow from Crouching Tiger fame) and his attempts to bring down international arms dealer Johnny Wong (Tony Leung) a true psychopath if ever there was one. The trouble is, Wong is already the target of an intense undercover investigation and Tequila quickly discovers that not all the bad guys are playing on the wrong side. Still troubled by memories of a botched tea house raid he conducted the previous year (who knew blazing bullets went so well with dim sum?) Yuen is nevertheless determined to bring Wong down no matter what the cost. But being a John Woo film plot details are hardly germane to enjoying the onscreen carnage as motorcycles and limos explode into fireballs, entire buildings go kaboom, and blood-spewing bodies pirouette in slow motion like a grisly ballet—my favourite scene being a howling Yuen careening down a fiery hallway aboard a hospital stretcher with guns firing from both hands. And throughout it all the rat-a-tat-tat of spent bullets as bodies hit the floor and gore paints the walls. Compared to this incendiary spectacle Dirty Harry is nothing but a thumb-sucking pussy.

Hard Candy (USA 2005) (2): Little Red Riding Hood becomes an avenging angel in David Slade’s troubling tirade which confuses primitive bloodlust with civilized justice. When a precocious fourteen-year old girl arranges to meet the creepy thirty-two year old photographer who’s been stalking her online you know things are going to get disturbing. It certainly starts out that way when Jeff brings Hayley home for a few drinks and some innuendo-laced verbal sparring. Impressed with his risqué photos of underage models Hayley practically begs him to shoot a spread of her, a request he’s only too eager to fulfill until an unexpected twist in fate cuts things short and the stalker finds himself becoming the victim. In the psychological battle which follows Jeff’s past sins are put on trial with Hayley as the self-appointed judge and jury who will stop at nothing in order to exact a confession. Unfortunately what starts out as a taut and believable drama quickly spirals into a psychotic mess filled with outrageous plot devices and nonstop sanctimonious tirades; “I’m every little girl you ever watched, touched, hurt, screwed...” seethes a triumphant Hayley at one point. Oh please, is this supposed to make us cheer for the preceding scenes of physical and mental torture? Slade seems to have an acute case of moral ambivalence as the question of who we’re supposed to feel sorrier for, the slimy pedophile or the bat-shit teenager, quickly becomes a contentious issue. Both are equally repulsive in what amounts to an adolescent revenge fantasy. While I can see the “little vigilante girl” theme appealing to those with an axe to grind I personally found the film’s bloated theatrics and smug sense of righteousness completely insulting. I give Hard Candy a 2/10 for its high-calibre performances (a waste of talent) and nothing more.

Hardcore Henry (Russia/USA 2015) (9): In a top secret laboratory “Henry” is resurrected as a mechanized killing machine with no memories of his previous human life and his only companion a weeping female scientist who claims to be his wife. But he barely has time to flex his new titanium muscles before he’s thrust into a deadly turf war between a telekinetic madman with cyborgs and a crippled genius with clones. Hardly giving audiences enough time to breathe, writer/director Ilya Naishuller and his team practically kick us out into the mean streets of Russia where we chase after Henry as he busts parkour moves up and down buildings, assaults a military base, and essentially shoots, guts, and explodes his way towards a shattering revelation and final showdown high above the glittering spires of downtown Moscow. Filmed entirely from Henry’s POV (a huge artistic risk which pays off big time) we see all the gory hyperkinetic action unfold through his eyes—whether he’s precipitating destruction in a red-lit bordello (cue dildo joke), getting blown up in a fiery bus crash, or falling from skyscrapers, horses, and helicopters—a true marvel of editing and choreographed violence that rarely lets up even when the occasional crossed circuit results in a screen full of jerky static. Partially fan-funded through Indiegogo , this is little more than a first-person video game gone rogue (Payday 2 and Left 4 Dead were inspirations) and Naishuller makes no apologies, on the contrary he revels in the pure adrenaline madness of it all with a severely dry sense of humour that will have gamers and non-gamers alike smirking while they try to follow a series of almost subliminal clues. Make no mistake, this is not arthouse cinema but rather a fiendish high-tech cross of grindhouse gristle and Xbox chaos slapped together with consummate skill and garnished with a driving soundtrack that includes the likes of Freddy Mercury, The Stranglers, and The Temptations all crooning against a background of metal grunge. And there is blood. And explosions. Holy! Fucking! Shit!

A Hard Day (Korea 2014) (10): Homicide detective Go is not having a good night. For one thing Internal Affairs has just raided his office with allegations his squad has been dabbling in petty larceny and extortion (all true); for another, he’s already late for his mother’s funeral and his sister is now haranguing him over the phone. And then, as he’s speeding along a deserted stretch of highway trying to put out both fires at once, he strikes and kills a pedestrian. Not wanting a vehicular manslaughter charge added to his mounting troubles he devises an ingenious way to dispose of the body and cover his tracks. But this is one corpse that refuses to rest in peace for no sooner has he washed his hands of the whole affair then he begins receiving threatening calls and texts from an anonymous witness to the accident who will not hesitate to expose Go unless he performs one big favour… With more curves than a mountain road and enough bleak humour to fuel a dozen Coen Brothers flicks, writer/director Seong-hun Kim’s feverishly edited slaphappy crime thriller follows a panic-stricken Go as he becomes mired in a web of double-crosses and corruption that stretches from Korea’s criminal underworld straight to the upper echelons of the police force itself. Only a mildly crooked cop at heart, Go now seems poised to bear the brunt of a whole truckload of sins and Kim’s cameras are there to catch every giddy car chase, every macabre twist of fate (oh his poor dead mother!), and every suspenseful stand-off. The fact that Kim manages to make us laugh out loud even as we hold our breaths is testament to a master storyteller at work. Great fun!

Hard Eight (USA 1996) (8): Kindly old man Sydney (Philip Baker Hall) takes pity on John, a penniless young drifter (John C. Reilly) whom he finds slouched outside a Reno cafe. Although Sydney is not exactly a card sharp himself over the next two years he will nevertheless teach John everything he knows about playing the system. Then two things happen to upset their odd father/son relationship: John falls in love with a waitress weighed down by her own emotional baggage (Gwyneth Paltrow), and Sydney’s troubling past threatens his present contentment in the form of Las Vegas player Jimmy (Samuel L. Jackson). Hardly the slick, intricately woven storylines he would later produce in 1999’s Magnolia, but writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut feature, a delicate tale of broken people grasping at redemption, conveys an easygoing humanistic charm which makes its flashes of violence all the more jarring. The seamed face of Hall’s soft-spoken benefactor carries a weariness of the spirit we only gradually begin to understand while Reilly’s impulsive puppy dog adoration—part dumb punk, part man-child—compliments the dark despair of Paltrow’s character, a perky blonde temptress seemingly bent on self-immolation. And Jackson provides the lynchpin with a searing performance that topples the film’s sense of complacency. Interesting to note that unlike most films centred in and around casinos Hard Eight doesn’t cast about for metaphors on sin and avarice, in fact all its characters are surprisingly low rollers content to grab just enough to compensate their losses (legally or otherwise). What motivates them then is not cards or dice but moral imperatives, whether altruistic or wholly selfish. One could describe it as a road movie of the soul perhaps, with flashy neon vying with stretches of sun-baked desert, the call to “place your bets” taking on an existential dimension, and a tiny spot of blood carrying more weight than a mountain of poker chips. Philip Seymour Hoffman commands the screen with a brief but crucial performance as a brash young craps shooter whose hubris provides an interesting counterpoint to Sydney’s stoicism.

Hard to be a God (Russia 2013) (7): It took me three nights to slog through Aleksei German’s 3-hour swan song based on a bestselling sci-fi story from the Soviet era for it’s a fascinating, multi-layered film of such powerful vulgarity that I was only able to digest it in sixty minute bites. A group of scientists have taken residence on an earth-like planet where the humanoid population is stagnating in an endless dark age thanks to superstitious zealots intent on butchering anyone suspected of being an intellectual. One scientist, adopting the guise of a powerful baron with godlike parentage, is determined to guide the population to a new renaissance but he is hampered by directives received from Earth: he may not interfere directly with the locals and he is forbidden to kill anyone—even the most despicable of tyrants. Thus hamstrung, “Don Rumata” can only wade through the squalor around him doing his best to turn the odd individual towards the light. But gods, even impotent ones, have only so much patience… German’s opus has been compared to the likes of Tarkovsky and one can certainly see echoes of the Russian master surfacing in those cryptic visuals and filthy metaphors (unhatched eggs figure prominently). I would also add Kubrick, Ben Wheatley, and a dash of Fellini to the mix, but the final vision of pus and decay is wholly original. A brilliant victory of staging, German uses multiple sets and long meticulous tracking shots that dog actors through claustrophobic hovels and fields of garbage, his dreary B&W cinematography capturing a society rejoicing in its own shit on a dank world composed mainly of mud puddles and choking smoke, flatulence and snot. Objects are thrown haphazardly towards the camera—tin dolls, gloved fists, bloated corpses—like cheesy 3D shocks and characters routinely break the fourth wall, their dirty cankerous faces leering directly at the audience as if taken aback by our world as much as we are by theirs. Unfortunately a muddled script of phlegmatic non-sequiturs and grunted curses gets swallowed up by the movie’s ingeniously crude sets making for great optics with little bite. A totally immersive experience (as peasants sniff their scabby fingers I found myself holding my own nose) hovering somewhere between performance art, absurdist satire, and hellish diorama, Hard to be a God is one of those rare films I enjoyed but can never recommend. In the end it may be little more than bread and circuses, but the bread is molded over and this particular circus has no exits. Timid viewers are advised to keep their distance.

Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (USA 2004) (6): Non-caucasian twenty-somethings Harold and Kumar forsake a late night at the office and a med school interview respectively in order to smoke a bong and watch bad cable TV. Seized with a sudden case of weed-induced munchies they heed the siren call of a particularly seductive commercial and thus begins a long and torturous all-night road movie as the two stoners go in search of burgers, pot, and pussy, in that order. Of course their culinary quest is blindsided at every turn by, among other things, a pick-up truck full of racist neanderthals, a bloodthirsty raccoon, and a cameo by still-closeted Neil Patrick Harris reinventing himself as a coked-out man-slut on the hunt for sloppy chicks. A desperate search for medical marijuana turns into an E.R. parody, an escaped zoo animal provides some unlikely transportation and, in what was for me the film’s only highlight, a brief sojourn in the ladies room lands our heros right in the middle of a spirited game of “battle-shits” between two clueless debs. The “Prejudice is Wrong” sermonizing complete with politically correct ending is tempered somewhat by a lot of drugged non-sequiturs and good-natured racial stereotyping but, in the end, it’s just another vapid teen comedy that tries to convince us it’s so much more because it has a message. John Cho and Kal Penn do share a certain degree of screen chemistry however, their deadpan expressions and comic timing are adequate considering the unexceptional material they had to work with. When a DVD’s option menu is funnier than the film itself you know you’re in trouble.

Harpoon (Canada 2019) (7): At a recent Q&A writer/director Rob Grant confessed that he liked stories where ordinary lives get all messed up in the end and this absurdist piece of Grand Guignol, inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, certainly attests to that sentiment. Three friends—volatile Richard, slacker Jonah, and emotionally conflicted Sasha—find their uneasy friendship shattered when they embark on an afternoon pleasure cruise aboard Richard’s yacht. Once at sea things immediately head south when shameful secrets are suddenly laid bare and long held resentments begin to bubble up causing the trio’s already hostile shouting matches to become bloody showdowns (accent on the blood). And then the ship’s motor conks out leaving them drifting into the Atlantic with no food and no water—but plenty of rage… There’s not much depth to Grant’s dark deep sea comedy despite the spectacular marine locations and the seamless marriage of tropical Belize exteriors with interior shots filmed on a frosty Calgary soundstage. His three capable actors do manage to stay in character however as they waffle between hysterics and deadly focus while Grant’s jouncing script and broad direction revel in irony and gore—an unseen narrator adding just the right amount of sardonic frosting. Even a few technical missteps (people who have gone without sustenance for several days should not look as if they just got back from the gym) can be overlooked given the film’s sheer chutzpah. It’s Cinema of Cruelty whose sadistic touches arrive with tongue firmly embedded in bloodied cheek. Poe may not have been amused but I left the theatre oddly satiated.

The Harrad Experiment/Love All Summer  (USA 1974) (3): Before the free-spirited flower children of the 60’s became the bitter divorcees of the 80’s there was…THE 70’S!  That tasteless carefree era where a woman could go out in public sporting a Dorothy Hamill wedge and polyester pantsuit without being laughed at.  Where a man could wear a pukka shell necklace and use half a can of spray on his poofy hair and still get laid.  And people actually believed in this sanctimonious drivel about free love and marriages without borders.  These films, poorly made as they are, embody that self-delusional hedonism quite nicely as we see a group of horned up students confuse emotional immaturity with personal liberation.  As an aside, if you’re looking for a film that shows off the 70’s in all their tacky glory you’ll enjoy “Love All Summer”: the hair, the fashions, the furniture. Ewwwww!

Harvest Time (Russia 2004) (9): Writer/director Marina Razbezhkina’s lyrical pastiche of childhood memories becomes both a poignant reflection on family ties and a delicate condemnation of Russia’s communist past. Mixing images of crushing poverty with poetic pans of land and sky, she tells the story of two young brothers growing up on a collective farm in post WWII Russia. Despite being crippled in the war their father maintains a jovial air while their hardworking mother drives a combine and dreams about having a calico dress to call her own. When mom wins the prestigious “Red Banner” flag for best worker she proudly carries her trophy home, but as time and hungry mice begin to take their toll on the delicate fabric her single-minded obsession with protecting this glorious symbol of socialist solidarity begins to unravel her own psyche with tragic results. Told in flashback as an unseen narrator pores over dusty photos, Razbezhkina stays true to her documentarian roots allowing the story to unfold through keen observation and almost incidental dialogue rather than tightly scripted dramatics. The result is an intimate series of tableaux where blowing drapes, a guttering lamp, or a cascade of sunlit dust motes weigh as heavily as a child’s tears. We know from the opening monologue that this will not be a happy tale, and sure enough a contemporary coda set in a shabby housing project provides the final twist of the knife. Beautifully crafted and terribly sad.

Harvey (USA 1950) (8): Playwright Mary Chase’s Pulitzer Prize play not only gave James Stewart one of his most iconic roles, it has also become something of a Hollywood legend in itself. Stewart plays Elwood P. Dowd, an affable alcoholic whose eccentric ways always bring serenity and happy endings wherever he goes. Unfortunately, his insistence that he is best of friends with a giant invisible talking rabbit named Harvey is a constant source of embarrassment and distress for his already neurotic sister Veta (Josephine Hull in an Oscar-winning performance) and spinster niece Myrtle. Determined to have him committed to a sanitarium the two women plot and scheme with the help of a local judge and resident psychiatrist—but Elwood appears to be living a charmed life and no matter how hard Veta’s posse tries to corner him he always seems to end up on top. With everyone around him slowly going mad with frustration, Elwood’s good-natured demeanour and oblivious smile begin to lend credence to the idea that having an invisible friend may not be so bad after all… A classic screwball comedy which relies on frantic pacing and outrageous misunderstandings to gloss over its facile plot. Apparently it takes a comfortably crazy man to bring out the inherent craziness in others and Stewart’s somewhat studied portrayal of a grinning tabula rasa happily downing martinis with his invisible friend while all around him go up in flames is a perfect marriage of witty dialogue and comic timing with a “happily ever after” ending that smirks more than it smiles.

The Harvey Girls (USA 1945) (6): In the latter part of the 19th century entrepreneur Fred Harvey made a fortune following the railroad into the wild west and opening restaurants at every whistle stop—places where weary travellers could enjoy fine dining served by professional waitresses. Lured by the promise of adventure and a change of scenery, women from all over the U.S. packed their suitcases and set out to become “Harvey Girls” thus providing American history with a tasty little gastronomic footnote. In George Sidney’s sentimental musical a group of such women are making their way to the lawless dustbowl of Sandrock, New Mexico, joined by Susan Bradley (Judy Garland), a starry-eyed mail order bride eager to finally meet the man who’s been sending her such lovely romantic letters. But upon arriving at their destination everyone’s dreams come up against cold reality. Neither the dance hall girls working the saloon across the street nor their hard-hearted boss (John Hodiak) appreciate the new petticoated competition; the local judge is a crook who fears his cut from the saloon will take a dive as the men in town choose the luxury of a home-cooked meal over gambling and floozies; and Bradley’s fiancé-to-be winds up being nothing like his letters. However, the colourful musical numbers, slapstick interludes (a bitch fight between waitresses and hookers only needed a couple of flying cream pies); and Technicolor schmaltz as Bradley discovers her true love, leave you with a very watchable piece of big-budget fluff. Garland shines—you can hear the longing in her voice when she sings about settling down—and as her shabby chic dance hall nemesis Angela Lansbury portrays a woman whose feathered boas and garish bustiers belie an emotional complexity. Veteran character actors Ray Bolger and Marjorie Main hoof it up in a brilliantly choreographed “waltz” and a 23-year old Cyd Charisse gets her first speaking part playing a dancing waitress. But the film’s highlight has to be an elaborate staging of the Oscar-winning song, “On the Atcheson, Topeka, and the Santa Fe”—a single shot that floats from train to stagecoach to dusty streets with everyone lining up to belt out their own particular refrain. Its spell may have diminished with time, but The Harvey Girls still manages to give us a brief peek at what movie magic used to look like.

The Haunted Castle (Germany 1921) (5): Even the greatest directors have their down days and with the master of German Expressionism, F. W. Murnau, that day comes in the form of this tepid penny dreadful. A group of noblemen gather on a country estate for a weekend of hunting and camaraderie, but when uninvited guest Count Peter Oetsch shows up it sends shockwaves throughout the company. Dour and mysterious, the Count was once accused of murdering the husband of Baroness Safferstät (who is also in attendance) and although acquitted he’s never been able to completely clear his name. Enter Fr. Faramund, an austere holy man whose arrival will lead to unexpected revelations and tragedy… Heavy on the make-up (the Baroness’ black eyes look like she just got tossed out of the ring) but showing little of Murnau’s directorial genius aside from one nicely composed static shot and an effective nightmare sequence in which the clawed hand of Nosferatu’s Count Orlok makes a terrifying cameo, this disjointed potboiler definitely shows its roots as a serialized whodunnit from a Berlin magazine. However, it was a very poor quality transfer missing several minutes and the stilted English intertitles read as if they were translated word for word from the original German—but I doubt the missing footage would have made much difference, polished or not.

The Haunted Strangler (UK 1958) (5): In 1860 a penniless man is convicted of being London’s notorious “Haymarket Strangler” and hanged at the gallows. Twenty years later celebrated author James Rankin (Boris Karloff) believes the wrong person was executed and sets out to find the real killer despite his ailing health. The closer Rankin gets to the truth however the more unstable his mind becomes—and when he unearths the strangler’s original weapon of choice, a surgical scalpel, the murders mysteriously begin once more! Pure drive-in theatre schlock featuring a cast of screaming women waiting to be the next victim and a plot twist Helen Keller could have seen coming. But Karloff shines as usual, putting in a convincing Jekyll and Hyde performance without the use of make-up—apparently he achieved his “crazy face” simply by taking out his dentures. Genius!

The Haunted World of Edward D. Wood Jr. (USA 1995) (4): Released just one year after Johnny Depp starred in the highly entertaining biopic, Ed Wood, Brett Thompson’s droning documentary on Ed Wood Jr.—probably the worst American movie director ever born—tells you everything you need to know about the iconic figure plus a whole lot you didn’t care to know. A cast of bland talking heads comprising former wives and girlfriends, stagehands, business partners, and ham actors give contradictory accounts of Wood—one former Z-grade starlet describes him as “kind and giving” while the son of longtime Wood collaborator Bela Lugosi sums him up as a “user and a loser”—but the dirt they dish is not particularly juicy (so he was a former Marine turned drunken crossdresser) and the cheap shots they take are more spiteful than illuminating. At least Thompson had enough comedic insight to film them against lurid backdrops of stained glass spotlights and cardboard cemeteries. Furthermore, the commentators seem more interested in talking about themselves than in discussing the actual subject of the documentary and that ultimately works to the film’s advantage since their personal recollections prove to be more engaging anyway especially the eccentrically feisty 73-year old Maila Nurmi (aka “Vampira”) who may or may not have gotten a dose of clap from Orson Welles (?!) And what’s with the ventriloquist’s dummy? Thankfully, Thompson doesn’t try to canonize Wood or make him out to be anything than what he was: a charismatic yet talentless huckster with a knack for making cheap movies seem even cheaper. Clips from some of his creations like Bride of the Monster, Jail Bait, and the ever unpopular Plan 9 From Outer Space still manage to garner a smile but they’re nothing you can’t google for yourself.

The Haunting of Whaley House (USA 2012) (2):  Even though she is deeply skeptical of the supernatural, struggling medical student Penny earns a meagre living operating as a tour guide for San Diego's Whaley House dubbed “The Most Haunted House in America!”  But according to Bethany, the home's senior curator, "Even if you don't believe in ghosts, they believe in you..." (muahaha!) so in order to protect Penny from demonic influences she gives the younger woman three words of advice:  don't call the spirits out (they hate that); be careful not to break anything (they're very territorial); never ever enter the house at night (that's their time).  It comes as no surprise then that the very next evening Penny and her buddies, along with a celebrity ghost hunter who just happens to be a friend of a friend, sneak into Whaley House and proceed to break all three rules within the first 10 minutes.  Death and bogeymen ensue.  No one loves a decent "dead teenager" film as much as me---the bad acting, the gratuitous boobs, and the buckets of spraying blood hearken back to the good old days spent watching Friday the 13th and Halloween at the local cineplex.  But even I have to draw the line at this horribly executed mess with it's slapdash script and cast of screaming drama school dropouts.  At least a few of the killings were somewhat imaginative (clothesline decapitation!)  The trouble is, they didn't come soon enough.

Have You Seen My Movie? (Canada/UK 2016) (8): A wonderful love letter to cinephiles everywhere, Paul Anton Smith has spliced together over one thousand scenes from a hundred plus films to create this cohesive montage of people going to the movies. From silent reels to contemporary blockbusters to foreign classics we see them arriving at the cinema (There’s Joan Crawford! And Bette Midler!), choosing their seats (there’s Dustin Hoffman! There’s Brigitte Bardot!), buying the popcorn (There’s Alan Bates! And Marilyn Monroe!) and as the houselights go down a thousand audience dramas unfold by way of film clips as the screen-within-a-screen comes alive with comedy, romance, horror, and even a bit of…porn?! Expertly knitted together with nary a seam showing Smith mixes up genres, countries, and eras resulting in a surreal night at the cinema where Sexploitation rubs shoulders with Italian Neo-Realism and rushes from Hollywood’s Golden Age butt up against Arthouse while an audience filled with everyone from Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard to Leonardo di Caprio’s Howard Hughes from The Aviator watch along with us. Indeed, towards the end when the onscreen houselights come back on we spend one golden moment watching the projected theatregoers watching us—and for those passionate about the art of cinematic storytelling it’s as close to Nirvana as you’re likely to get.

Hawaii (USA 1966) (7): Based on James Michener’s novel, George Roy Hill’s tropical saga follows the colonization and subsequent exploitation of the Hawaiian Islands and their inhabitants—first by well-meaning missionaries and later by less altruistic entrepreneurs. In 1819 after an arduous sea voyage from Boston, fire-and-brimstone Calvinist preacher Reverend Abner Hale (a ridiculously coiffed Max von Sydow) arrives on the island of Maui with his new wife Jerusha (Julie Andrews), a demure and far more progressive former debutante. Met with an idyllic Eden crawling with serpents and bare-breasted apples Hale immediately sets about extolling the virtues of intolerance and guilt amongst the bewildered Hawaiians as Jerusha struggles to be a good pastor’s wife while still maintaining an open mind. And then temptation crosses her own path with the arrival of Captain Rafer Hoxworth (Richard Harris), a leering and virile whaler who once stole her heart back in Connecticut and now wants it back again. As the tiny village of Lahaina slowly transforms into a bustling seaport Hale tries to force his biblical myths onto the natives, the natives push back, Jerusha waffles, and the stage is set for a series of showdowns, tragedies, and even an enlightenment or two. Although the film’s anti-colonial stance rings loud and clear (the sins and hypocrisies of the church are duly noted) Hill takes some care not to portray the aboriginals as wholly innocent naïfs or, even worse, clichéd “noble savages”. Golden Globe winner Jocelyn LaGarde’s portrayal of the island’s corpulent and iron-willed Ali’i Nui, or spiritual matriarch, is a compelling mixture of youthful zeal (“You teach me write English!”) and grim resolve which provides a dramatic contrast to Sydow’s evangelical arrogance. Alas, against these two strong performances Julie Andrews’ Jerusha comes across as an anemic reinvention of Maria von Trapp sans habit and musical mountains. Thankfully Dalton Trumbo’s keen script manages to hold its own against all those Panavision scenes of heaving oceans and palm-fringed lagoons, and Elmer Bernstein’s Oscar-nominated score blends it all together. Even Hill’s occasional lapses into dramatic overkill wherein supernatural credence is given to both Christian and pagan superstitions are quickly forgiven when he presents them as dramatic catalysts rather than bona fide spiritual phenomena. A long sprawling epic with an impressive supporting cast including Carroll O’Connor and a very young Gene Hackman. Keep an eye out for an unknown and uncredited Bette Midler heaving ho as a seasick missionary’s wife.

Hawaii, Oslo (Norway 2004) (7): What Erik Poppe’s multi-character ensemble piece lacks in discipline it more than makes up for in presentation. On the mean streets of Oslo during the hottest day of the year we are introduced to a handful of strangers, among them a couple whose newborn son is dying, an ambulance attendant who becomes obsessed with a suicidal woman, a pair of young delinquents on the run, a violent convict, and an institutionalized young man still obsessed with his childhood sweetheart. Each character is desperately grasping at a personal dream which hovers just beyond their reach, much like the tropical images that seem to adorn every wall. Tying the individual stories together are an enigmatic newspaper girl and Vidar, a counsellor-cum-guardian angel who tries to use his sleep-induced visions of the future to nudge each person in the proper direction. In the course of a single night some dreams will be realized while others will be lost forever, and redemption will come in the form of one final sacrifice. With its suspiciously convenient coincidences and heavy angelic symbolism there is certainly enough to criticize here. Furthermore, as a narrative bridge between the separate tales Vidar and the young girl prove to be a rather ponderous plot device at times rendering some of the dramatic links weak and contrived. So why can’t I simply dismiss it as nothing more than a Scandinavian version of Touched By An Angel? First off the cast is magnificent; there is a synergy between them that results in performances that are both natural and engrossing. Secondly, the script manages to avoid most of the saccharine pitfalls one would expect and instead delivers a well-paced and captivating composite of lives in chaos. And finally, the spare soundtrack of strings and piano chords compliments the film’s low-keyed delivery perfectly. A deeply felt work which must be taken at face value.

Hãxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (Sweden 1922) (8): Benjamin Christensen’s surprisingly lucid and scholarly treatise on man’s perception of witchcraft starts with primitive notions of the supernatural, carries through the medieval obsession with devils, and finally explores modern (circa 1921) psychoanalytical theories of hysteria and mental illness. Scoffing at age old superstitions Christensen chastises the church’s history of torturing and executing “ugly old women” but is quick to point out that in contemporary times the elderly and mentally ill are still isolated both physically and socially. Along the way he regales us with some amazingly staged visuals from a huge diorama depicting ancient Egyptian cosmology to several tinted dramatizations, some whimsical some tragic, meant to give viewers a taste of what our forefathers believed: a sorceress gives birth to several squirming grotesques, a raucous witch’s sabbath features a demonic jazz band, a convent of repressed nuns go wild, and an entire household falls prey to the Inquisition. But have we really moved beyond our primitive fears he wonders as a fortune teller reads her tarot cards and one of his elderly actresses swears her little prayer book allows her to see devils. Pretty heady stuff considering it was made over ninety years ago!

Headhunters (Norway 2011) (9): As recruitment officer for the Pathway Corporation self-absorbed yuppy Roger Brown has it all: a gorgeous wife, luxury home, and all the creature comforts he could possibly want. The trouble is his salary, while generous, doesn’t even come close to paying for it all so he moonlights as an art thief—stealing priceless works from clients and then selling them on the black market—a practice which barely manages to keep his creditors at bay. Enter Clas Greve (Game of Thrones hunk Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) a savvy businessman applying for one of the CEO positions at Pathway who also happens to own a Rubens painting worth millions. Relieving Greve of his artwork proves to be surprisingly easy for Brown until he discovers that Greve has plans of his own. But there is more at stake here than a mere painting for once Brown realizes the true scope of his adversary’s ambitions he discovers that nothing is quite what it appears to be and no one is above suspicion. Morten Tyldum’s caustic satire on boardroom politics flies off the screen in a flurry of gut-wrenching violence and morbidly comical twists and turns. Panicked close-ups and widescreen mayhem are tossed about with expert precision while a devilishly clever script ensures the impeccable cast is put to good use. As Brown, Norwegian star Aksel Hennie uses his 5’6” frame and baby-faced features for all they’re worth, portraying a pint-sized Goliath overcompensating at every turn in direct contrast to Coster-Waldau’s towering egotist. Their epic battle of wits crosses so many lines (warning: feces and dead pets) that the inevitable chase scenes might as well have taken place on a runaway roller coaster. Both a mean-spirited lampoon of all things corporate and a thriller of the first order, Headhunters is one of the better films to come out of Scandinavia in years!

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (USA 1968) (6):  Alan Arkin plays the ironically named Mr. Singer, a deaf mute who has a remarkable sensitivity to other people’s unhappiness coupled with an unfortunate inability to mind his own business.  When his only friend, a fellow deaf mute, is committed to a mental hospital Singer moves to a nearby town in order to be closer to him but it isn’t long before the townsfolk, perhaps sensing his sympathetic nature, begin assailing him with their own tales of woe.  There’s Mick, the alienated teenage girl whose dreams were put on hold when her father was crippled; the alcoholic drifter desperately trying to turn his life around; and the embittered black doctor who hates all things Caucasian and is hated in return by his spiteful daughter.  Even the institutionalized friend is nothing more than a slovenly eating machine that uses him as a free meal ticket.  Everyone is so busy crying on Singer’s shoulder they fail to realize that he is having problems of his own...until it’s too late.  Miller ratchets up the misery factor in his film to the point where it starts looking like a parody of itself.  There doesn’t appear to be anyone in this town who isn’t in the midst of a crisis and watching Singer drag his multiple crosses down main street becomes tedious after a while.  We are bombarded with so much contrived anguish that when the final tragedy occurs it almost seems like comic relief.  Miller’s attention to small details does manage to sketch a fairly convincing portrait of a small southern town though, and Sondra Locke shines in the role of Mick.  But, ultimately, Arkin’s uneven performance as Singer is just not strong enough to carry the film through.

The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things  (USA 2004) (6):  Seen through the eyes of one terribly abused child the world is a disjointed place full of menace and confusion, a fact that is presented with horrible clarity in this unsettling and thoroughly ugly film.  There are no easy outs as Argento plunges us into a knee-high vision of hell and then challenges us to make some narrative sense out of the non-stop barrage of repulsive images.  Yet despite the film’s undeniable power and the brilliant performances by Argento and the three (!?) boys who played her son, it’s not without its flaws.  For starters, the film’s quirky, episodic nature often leaves large narrative holes that defy logic.  Furthermore, in over-playing the grotesque Asia fails to flesh out her characters sufficiently causing them to appear as little more than white trash stereotypes.  The story’s essential misery comes through loud and clear, we don’t need to have it shoved down our throats.

The Heartbreak Kid (USA 1972) (6): Jewish schmuck Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin all gangly limbs and chest hair) finally meets the girl of his dreams when vivacious blonde Kelly Corcoran (supermodel Cybill Shepherd) blocks his sun on Miami Beach. The trouble is, Lenny’s in Florida on a honeymoon even though it only took three days for him to fall out of love with his whiney J.A.P. wife Lila (Jeannie Berlin stealing the show) and now he has to find a way to dump Lila, woo Kelly, and convince Kelly’s wealthy midwest parents that he’s worth the trouble. Like the inferior Goodbye Columbus and vastly superior The Graduate, both of which came before it, Elaine May’s kitschy comedy of 1970s manners pits a dull everyman against the stuffy establishment—here represented by Eddie Albert who received a Best Actor nomination for playing the unmovable Corcoran patriarch—in a battle of wills-cum-class distinctions. Frothy and terribly dated from its “mod” fashions to its social sermonizing, May still manages to produce a likeable little time capsule thanks in large part to Neil Simon’s adaptation of Bruce Friedman’s original story. Grodin hops about in neurotic desperation getting tangled up in his own lies as he tries to let go of one woman while pursuing the other (he explains his nighttime absences using every excuse from “an old army buddy” to a tanker explosion); Albert huffs and puffs like the big bad WASP; Shepherd channels Ali McGraw from Love Story (sans the leukemia); and Berlin gives the film its only dose of sympathy as her nasally bride suffers one indignation after another culminating in an epic breakdown over lobster dinner. And kudos to character actress Audra Lindley in her role as Kelly’s soft-spoken mother, all polyester prints and bemused stares. Nice jingly soundtrack too which lends a bit of irony to Burt Bacharach’s “Close to You”.

Heart of a Dog (USA 2015) (7): Avant-garde performance artiste Laurie Anderson takes two life-changing events—the death of her mother and the death of her beloved terrier “Lolabelle”—and uses them as springboards to ruminate on everything from 9/11 and the nature of memory to Buddhism and the philosophies of Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard. Not entirely autobiographical for she mixes fancy with facts, and too structured to be a “stream of consciousness” thought experiment, her random observations and anecdotes eventually snowball into a cohesive, occasionally fascinating, meditation on the nature of life and living or as she puts it, “…to live in the gap between the moment which is expiring and the one which is arising.” Shot using nothing but her iPhone and similar small devices the visuals do waver between crystal clear portraitures and foggy, unfocused impressions (not always to good effect) but it’s Anderson’s gentle, unhurried voice which ultimately captivates as her ongoing narrative sometimes connects the dots, sometimes leaves them dangling enticingly. Alternately deeply subjective—her experiences with both mom and dog are sure to elicit a few tears—and objectively detached as she skirts American politics, Heart of a Dog is like reading a personal letter from a distant friend and wondering where the time went. “The purpose of death…” suggests Anderson’s whispering voice at one point, “…is the release of love”. And if this small opus is her response to death then we are all a little better off for it.

Heat (USA 1995) (10): Fresh from pulling off a violent yet brilliantly executed armoured car robbery, criminal genius Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) sets his sights on one last heist that will leave him set for life. Dogging his every step however is equally savvy LAPD detective Vincent Hanna (Al Pacino) who is determined to see that McCauley spends the rest of his life back in prison. But despite the film’s ample artillery and a crackling pace that rarely rests for a moment, writer/director Michael Mann’s 3-hour policier epic is not as concerned with hardware and strategy as it is with focusing on the psychological landscape between the good guys and the bad. McCauley and Hanna are two sides of a very dark coin and Mann drives this symmetry home every chance he gets—both men are obsessive perfectionists well versed in society’s underside; both are ruthless in their pursuits; and although one has chosen the high road and one the low road, both of their paths come with dire personal consequences starting with an inability to love unconditionally as attested to by Hanna’s string of divorces and McCauley’s sadly hesitant affair with a graphic artist. Yet there exists a grudging respect between the two adversaries, as if each recognizes in the other his own mirror image, leading to one of cinema’s most perfectly ad-libbed scenes when they sit down for a coffee after calling an unofficial truce. Stylishly shot in midnight colours with a moody soundtrack that stretches from Brian Eno and Moby to Hungarian composer Györy Ligeti and the Kronos Quartet, this is a film weighted with pessimism and broken dreams where long passages of introspection are shattered by scenes of grim violence including a deadly shoot-out in downtown Los Angeles so realistic it’s been used to train soldiers and police officers alike. Val Kilmer co-stars as McCauley’s right-hand man—a jarring combination of cold-blooded thief and emotionally needy husband—and Diane Venora plays Hanna’s live-in girlfriend, a woman who weathers his many absences with sour grace while her daughter (a teen-aged Natalie Portman) slowly comes undone. Mesmerizing from those brutal opening scenes to an unexpectedly moving coda.

Heathers (USA 1988) (6): Heather, Heather, and Heather are the queen bitches of Westerburg High in the cultural no man’s land of Sherwood Ohio. Filling the entire student body with either fear, jealousy, or lust (sometimes all at once) the three pampered debs pretty much rule the hallways along with tag-along wannabe Veronica (pouty freshman Winona Ryder) who envies their social status even though their casual cruelty often keep her awake at night. But when the Heathers’ mean-spirited pranks and scathing attacks push her past the breaking point Veronica realizes she must either quit the clique (and commit social suicide) or become as shallow and vapid as them. An unexpected third option presents itself when she falls for school bad boy J. D. (a young Christian Slater doing an old Jack Nicholson imitation) who offers her a more permanent solution for ridding Westerburg of the Heathers’ tyrannical control much to her horror—and guilty pleasure. Yet another 80’s comedy centred on teenage malaise featuring the usual high school stereotypes (milk-spewing geeks, meathead jocks, hippy potheads et al) and the clueless parents and lame-duck teachers who always seem to be looking the other way. But like a cross between Revenge of the Nerds and Malick’s Badlands Michael Lehmann’s bleak campus caper underlines its cynical laughs with a darker despair that touches on such hot-button issues as youth suicide, date rape (a bizarrely effective scene), adolescent alienation, and the kind of school violence which would later grab real life headlines. Too bad things don’t quite gel into a cohesive whole thanks to some jarring edits and dangling storylines. Furthermore a few weak pop culture references pretty much fall flat—the local cops are named Milner and McCord (google Adam-12 if you’re under 40) and a copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar figures prominently. Apparently writer Daniel Waters wanted Kubrick to helm production which leaves me to wonder what rabbits Stanley may have been able to pull out of such a black hat.

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (USA 1957) (8): During WWII a demure Irish nun (Deborah Kerr) and hard-bitten American marine (Robert Mitchum) find themselves the only inhabitants on a lush South Pacific Island when she is accidentally abandoned at a nearby mission and he washes up on shore after a skirmish at sea. Initial discomfort gradually eases into amiable routine as the two learn to live off the land—but the enemy threat is never very far away. The Japanese fleet is not the only thing the two have to worry about however, for as the weeks pass Corporal Allison’s hard heart starts to soften towards Sister Angela and the young novice begins to question whether or not those strict vows are such a good thing after all… John Huston’s Cinemascope adaptation of Charles Shaw’s novel is as chaste a love story as you’re likely to see thanks in part to the meddling of the Hays Office, yet Kerr and Mitchum make it seem plausible. In this her fourth Oscar-nominated performance Kerr seems a natural in that white habit and ponderous crucifix, an engaging mixture of naïvety and grace to complement Mitchum’s gruff pragmatism. Yet Huston lets neither character sink to the level of cliché for despite her pious resolve Sister Angela is keenly aware of the temptation laid before her and Allison possesses a streak of gentleness that belies his crusty demeanour and fondness for rice wine and tobacco. And all this is conveyed with little more than a simple look, a downcast smile, an offhand remark, while the ocean crashes and the palm trees sway. Not a romance by an means, rather a story about two people bound by vows (Cpl. Allison is as married to the Marines as Sr. Angela is to God) yet finding themselves in circumstances where the warmth of another human being is as essential as food and water.

Heavens Above (UK 1963) (7): A simple clerical error sees a rather unorthodox pastor accidentally assigned to the parish of Orbiston Parva, a small ultra-conservative town practically ruled by the Despard family whose factory churns out the miracle drug “Tranquilax” (it’s a sedative! and a stimulant! and a laxative!) No sooner does the Rev. John Smallwood (a pious Peter Sellers) set up shop when he begins to disrupt the entire village’s fragile equilibrium: he allows a band of gypsies to live in the rectory, he begins handing out free groceries to anyone in need (or not in need), he hires a black man as chief church officer (To Kill A Mockingbird’s Brock Peters), and he convinces Lady Despard to spend her fortune on the less fortunate even turning the family mansion into a homeless shelter—much to her capitalist son’s outrage. But no good deed goes unpunished and as Smallwood’s saintly intentions reap unexpected complications he finds himself a universal pariah despised by everyone from the local clergy to shopkeepers and union officials. When word of his exploits finally reaches the bishop, as well as the Prime Minister himself, a desperate plan is hatched to not only save Orbiston Parva but protect all of England from Smallwood’s dangerous socialist delusions. A light and airy satire in which directors John and Roy Boulting seem to take great delight poking red hot needles into every facet of English society whether it’s a violent fight in a bread line over who is more needy and deserving or a cynical Downing St. cabinet meeting designed to sell the British people yet another bill of goods. Even if a few glaring critiques are driven home one too many times causing Sellers’ good Christian to run out of cheeks to turn, a wholly ludicrous ending provides some refreshing sarcasm and raises the film’s title to a whole new level of irony.

Heavy Trip (Finland 2018) (7): It’s tough being a black leather goth in small town Finland and no one knows that better than 20-something Turo whose long hair and emo looks are a constant target for harassment. In fact the only thing that gives him any pleasure is jamming out cover songs with the Death Metal garage band he’s formed with his three best friends: bassist Pasi who remembers every song he’s ever heard; guitarist Lotvonen who spits out killer riffs; and drummer Jyrki who has a habit of occasionally dying. But when a Norwegian concert promoter visits their village the band, now proudly calling themselves “Impaled Rektum”, start dreaming of performing their first live gig before a real audience. Their imagined road to fame will be fraught with obstacles however, including terrorism, grave robbery, trigger-happy Norwegian border agents, and Turo’s rather messy reaction to stage fright. Plus, the promoter never actually promised them a spot on stage… Combining the satirical elements of Spinal Tap with the spontaneity of a road movie, this Heavy Metal comedy from the arctic circle is a very funny mash of low-brow humour and slapstick perfectly matched by it’s quartet of guileless leads whose menacing appearance (Pasi has a penchant for theatrical greasepaint and spiked sleeves) fail to hide the fact they are essentially overgrown boys with a dream. The music—promoted as “Symphonic Post-Apocalyptic Reindeer-Grinding Christ-Abusing Extreme War Pagan Fennoscandian Metal” (gulp)—is pretty hardcore and the comedic elements, including the aforementioned brush with “terrorism” (LOL!), are delivered with a deadpan smirk reminiscent of Kaurismäki at his most droll. And if it all begins to run out of steam towards the end, the momentum gained in the first half still manages to push it past the finish line with a flourish. “We’re on a mission from Satan” declares Pasi to a belligerent Norwegian officer as if that were the only explanation she needed to explain the band’s slightly destructive entry into her country, and if the Prince of Darkness were real one could imagine him snickering out loud.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch  (USA 2000) (9):  The story of Hedwig, a German transsexual rock star trying to find love and fame in America.  A rude, raucous and unapologetic film that tackles issues of love and identity head on with nary a blink or moment's hesitation. The acting is first rate, especially John Mitchell's powerhouse performance, and the music rocks. Essential viewing.

The Heineken Kidnapping (Netherlands 2011) (6): In 1983 Heineken Brewery scion Alfred Heineken was kidnapped and the manhunt which ensued became a media sensation that tested the European legal system. The first half of Maarten Treurniet’s admittedly highly fictionalized account starts out as a genuine nail-biter with the determined bad guys—whose de facto leader, Rem, has a personal grudge to settle—trying to cover all bases as their painstaking plan comes to fruition. But once the deed is done the film’s tight direction begins to unravel and never quite manages to produce a satisfying conclusion. For one thing Treurniet can’t seem to make up his mind whether Rem (an intense but uneven performance from Reinout Scholten van Aschat) is an angry young man making bad decisions for good reasons or simply a sociopathic bastard. Likewise, Heineken ( a stone-faced Rutger Hauer) is a contradictory mix of middle-aged angst—a side story involving his estranged wife is pure Hallmark moments—and cold-blooded tycoon, especially once the tables are turned. And then there are the narrative gaps which make it appear as if the studio lost a vital reel en route to the theatre leaving you to wonder how the police managed to just suddenly show up one day. Lastly, Treurniet commits the one cinematic sin I can never forgive when he tries to strong-arm his audience into placing their sympathy where it is neither warranted nor deserved. The period details are nice, the acting is generally believable, and Treurniet knows how to ratchet up the suspense when he has to. But the film’s lack of believable human parts—Rem’s suffering parents, Heineken’s pining wife, and a problematic three-way all coming across as nothing more than props—ultimately brings the whole thing down.

The Heiress (USA 1949) (9): Olivia de Havilland won her second Oscar playing mousy spinster Catherine Sloper in William Wyler’s beautiful adaptation of a play based on Henry James’ novel “Washington Square”. In a swank New York neighbourhood circa 1850s successful widower Dr. Austin Sloper (Oscar nominee Ralph Richardson) is doing his best to marry off his daughter Catherine. But years of being unjustly compared to her mother, a woman whose memory Dr. Sloper worships, has left the aging Catherine painfully timid and socially awkward much to her father’s disappointment. Things change one evening at a society dance when the reluctant debutante meets the dashing but penniless Morris Townsend (an unconvincing Montgomery Clift) who takes an instant liking to her. Flattered beyond words by Morris’ amorous attentions Catherine experiences love for the first time in her life—a development which thrills her romantic airhead Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins, superb) but leaves her highly judgmental father cold as he naturally suspects Morris of being more interested in his daughter’s dowry than her personality. When all his attempts to discourage the relationship fail Dr. Sloper threatens to disinherit Catherine and this single proclamation will prove to be the catalyst which changes her life forever. A brilliant script laced with humour and tragedy is further enhanced by a compassionate orchestral score and tight B&W cinematography which transforms the Sloper’s opulent brownstone into a psychological prison as images of lacy drapes and sunshine conflict with nighttime scenes of empty staircases and feeble lamplight. But this is above all a character-driven film and the interplay between Richardson and de Havilland as implacable father and daughter, with Hopkins and Clift providing counterbalance, is as engrossing as it is heartbreaking. One of Wyler’s finest achievements.

Hellboy (USA 2019) (6): Even though it lacked the wit and humanity of the 2004 original plus the macabre menagerie mayhem of 2008’s Golden Army sequel—not to mention the fact that Ron Perlman beats David Harbour hands down when it come to sexy demon drag—this latest in the Hellboy franchise (more of a rewrite than a sequel) was unfairly pilloried by the critics when it first came out. It’s a comic book for crying out loud, and as such it at least pushes the envelope right into R-rated territory with gorier guts and a generous sprinkling of f-bombs to spice up an admittedly pedestrian script. With a new cast and a new nihilistic attitude (Harbour’s potty-mouthed devil no longer has time for romance and kittens), Hellboy’19 revolves around a wicked medieval sorceress whose dismembered and scattered body parts, courtesy of an irate King Arthur, are slowly coming back together thanks to her pig-headed (literally) henchman whose been scouring the English countryside gathering them up like Easter eggs. Whole once more, “Nimue” (Milla Jovovich looking more tired than nasty) is now bent on avenging all demonkind by triggering the apocalypse and only Hellboy can stop her—but, unbeknownst to him, he too is destined to play a vital role in her infernal plan. So much for storyline. It’s all terribly predictable of course, but the CGI bugaboos and magical pyrotechnics alone are worth the rental price: a plague of freaky behemoths eat up London; a Russian hag does bone-crunching calisthenics while her house ambles about on monstrous chicken legs; and a trio of misshapen giants shuck screaming humans as if they were two-legged oysters. Look closely and you’ll also catch nods to Gremlins, An American Werewolf in London, and J. R. R. Tolkien along the way. Definitely the weakest of the three, and those not-so-subtle hints of yet another film to come failed to generate any excitement in me. But for a movie based on a movie based on a graphic novel it pretty much delivers what it promises.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (USA 2008) (7): In case you missed the first instalment, “Hellboy" was the name given to a little orphaned devil rescued from the Nazis during WWII. Now a hunky beet-red demon (a gravelly-voiced and sacrilegiously sexy Ron Perlman) he, along with a small cadre of paranormal oddities including his human torch girlfriend Liz, is part of a top secret government program aimed at protecting mankind from supernatural McGuffins. This time around an irate elf prince is determined to settle an old score with humanity by rebooting an army of invincible golden robots, but before he can properly lead the mechanical warriors he must first find all the missing pieces of the golden crown used to control them. So much for the movie’s 15-minute intro told in animated storybook fashion. The rest of the film is pretty much standard comic-con fare with lots of super silly CGI monsters wreaking havoc on Manhattan while Hellboy doles out the wisecracks and gets henpecked by Liz. However, because writer/director Guillermo del Toro never tries to mask Hellboy’s comic book roots much of the cartoonish action can be forgiven. In fact the film’s steampunk inventiveness and Saturday Morning zeal ultimately wins you over with scenes like a giant pansy bouncing taxi cabs off of the Brooklyn Bridge, a horde of tooth fairies crashing a swank auction house, or an underground Troll Market whose sheer audacity rivals the famous cantina scene from Star Wars. One of my personal highlights was Seth MacFarlane providing the voice of a persnickety German gas bag—literally, a cloud of sarcastic vapour housed in a clockwork suit of armour. Too bad then that a few gushy romantic spots spoil the momentum with their forced pathos and orchestral stirrings. And of course Hellboy’s increasing disenchantment with mankind’s many foibles coupled with some troubling questions about his parentage ensure part three is as good as made.

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

Hello Destroyer (Canada 2016) (7): Junior hockey star Tyson Burr (an outstanding Jared Abrahamson) has a promising professional career ahead of him when he’s involved in an on-ice skirmish that sends an opposing player to the hospital with serious, possibly life-threatening, injuries. Now all those vehement “pep talks” he and his team received from their coach—praising competitive aggression and peppered with F-bombs and withering criticisms—have come back to haunt him as he’s given an indefinite suspension while former teammates and staff begin distancing themselves. With the entire community seemingly against him and his family relationships becoming strained, a remorseful Tyson finds himself cut adrift with no one to turn to and a court date looming… One can’t watch Canadian news these days without seeing at least one article bemoaning hockey’s “toxic culture” whether it be brutal hazings, on-air fisticuffs, or sexual assaults, but writer/director Kevan Funk brings it down to a very personal level with this slow-burner about a young man who becomes both a product and a victim of that same culture. Funk lays the pathos on thick and heavy with the film’s Prince George settings filtered through a haze of grey skies and empty dirt roads while Tyson’s temporary odd jobs—demolishing a family home, hosing blood off the walls of a slaughterhouse—provide metaphors as subtle as a puck to the face. Even the team’s harshly lit locker room comes to resemble a jail cell while their off-ice socialization appears to consist of drinking, bravado, and throwing punches. Furthermore, critics are quick to point out that regardless of how the sport is played the team doesn’t abandon its own in times of trouble (quite the opposite in fact) and there is certainly some truth to that. Taken as a character study however, Hello Destroyer is a quiet, minutely observed tragedy about one young man’s headlong fall from preeminence to pariah. And Abrahamson nails it. His hoarse voice and downcast posture suggesting a deeper pain he is ill-equipped to handle especially when his usual supports—family, friends, fans—now approach him with uncertainty or outright hostility. Or not at all. In one pivotal scene Tyson gazes into a case full of trophies, symbols of a glory which now seems forever out of reach. While the script itself may be contentious depending on which side of the rink you stand on, this is still a noteworthy piece of cinema which opens with a solid punch and ends with an agonizing uncertainty.

Hello, My Name is Doris (USA 2015) (7): Full of tics and idiosyncrasies and dressed up like a thrift store gypsy, mousy office drone Doris (Sally Field reinventing Gidget as a doddery boomer) has spent her entire life caring for her invalid mother. Now well into her sixties with no love interest and a career which has gone nowhere she is just beginning to realize what those years have cost her. And then her outspoken best friend Roz (Tyne Daly, magnificent) drags her to see yet another motivational speaker who convinces her to seize whatever it is in life she desires—after all “impossible” is just another way of saying “I’m possible”!! But what Doris desires is John, the new guy at work (and who wouldn’t want Max Greefield?) who just happens to be almost four decades her junior. With the help of Roz’s precocious thirteen-year old granddaughter Doris ingratiates herself into John’s life where her quirky demeanour and outré fashion sense quickly win over his circle of friends—but is there a mutual interest developing or is that just her overactive imagination? Director/co-writer Michael Showalter’s low key indie is a deceptively sweet charmer masking an especially bitter pill. The comedic elements themselves are perfect: Tyne Daly is priceless as Doris’ loudmouthed counterpart, scenes where Doris interacts with various shoals of pretentious Manhattan hipsters contain more than a few LOL moments, and her erotic daydreams provide flashes of magical realism such as when she imagines John ravaging her right there on the staffroom countertop. But beneath the one-liners and quasi slapstick routines there is another story about a severely depressed elderly woman (she still lives in her deceased mother’s house which has become a hoarder’s paradise) whose reawakened sexuality forces her to weather yet another round of shame and doubt. A believably upbeat ending with an enticingly dangled thread does dispel much of the film’s tragic elements—although a bitter confrontation with an overbearing brother and his bitchy wife still lingers—and as Doris saunters off camera with her bewigged head held high audiences are left feeling vaguely chastised for having laughed at her predicament in the first place. However, for those who feel Showalter’s film delivers a timely lesson on chauvinism let me remind you of two things: the only other single male in Doris’ age range is presented as a slimy lounge lizard, and had the gender roles been reversed—a much older male subordinate hankering for a female co-worker—many of Doris’ warmhearted pranks like skulking after John while he’s on a date or sabotaging his life through a bit of malicious cyber-stalking would have triggered creepy frissons and accusations of engendering rape culture. But different shoe, different foot, and the result is a mature comedy with a particularly sharp sting.

Hell’s Angels (USA 1930) (8): Coming in at a cost of almost four million dollars and employing more than 70 fighter pilots (three of whom died during production), Howard Hughes’ popular WWI epic was one of the most expensive of the early talkies, and the director’s painstaking attention to detail shows in every frame. English Brothers Roy and Monte Rutledge couldn’t be less alike—Roy’s trusting naïveté making him blind to the self-absorbed womanizer Monte has become. But when war breaks out in Europe the two find themselves flying side by side in the RAF where a dangerous mission over enemy territory will cast a tragic pall over their already thorny relationship. Although the dialogue occasionally lapses into melodramatic excess—a throwback to silent film theatrics—it takes a back seat to sheer spectacle as gut-wrenching aerial dogfights employ wing-mounted cameras (no CGI here) and a German zeppelin glides like a predatory shark through the clouds above London while being strafed by a squad of determined British bi-planes. One sombre passage involving suicide remains as riveting today as it must have been back then. To further bolster the film’s screen appeal, entire sections were painstakingly colourized by hand including a gala soiree where the women’s gowns practically glow in pinks and alabasters and a moonlit encounter in the skies above England rendered in midnight blues. Being a pre-code production (subsequent re-releases were heavily censored) Hughes was also quite generous with the profanity and eroticism, the latter finding its sharpest focus in 19-year old Jean Harlow playing the vampish libertine who comes between the two brothers (among many others)—her skimpy outfits and aggressive sexuality heralding a revolution still decades away. And John Darrow provides a noteworthy performance as an ex-pat living in England who is forced to enlist in the German forces thus leading to a monumental inner conflict when he’s called upon to attack the very country he’s grown to love. A forgivably stagy script and some jaw-dropping special effects—things go BOOM!—have certainly withstood the test of time making this one of early cinema’s more remarkable offerings.

The Hellstrom Chronicle (USA 1971) (7): “The Earth was created not with the gentle caress of love, but with the brutal violence of rape…” And with this baffling analogy Wolper Pictures begins its sensationalistic exposé on the insect world, winner of 1971’s Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Narrated by overly serious and slightly eccentric entomologist Dr. Nils Hellstrom (actually character actor Lawrence Pressman), Hellstrom Chronicle depicts insects as biological computers, disease-carrying assassins, and an implacable army of super-beings able to withstand everything from poison to radiation with a flick of their antennae. And to drive home this point we’re regaled with such sickening close-ups as a Black Widow spider devouring her mate and a battlefield between ants and termites strewn with maniacally twitching body parts…scenes of writhing lizards being dragged into a colony of ravenous ants are almost too much to bear. Unfolding like a horror movie with Pressman’s grim voiceover hovering like one of the four horsemen, nightmare images (bugs are damn ugly) get paired with chilling trivia suggesting that man is ultimately helpless against the wee soulless beasties for while we poison our environment in an attempt to eradicate them, they simply adapt and multiply—one clip of African farmers racing about helplessly as hordes of hungry locusts descend from the sky would be right at home in a ‘50s monster flick. “Where there is no intelligence, there is also no stupidity!” admonishes Hellstrom/Pressman as he gives the human race yet another bitch slap in the face using a withering comparison between our corrupt society based on power and greed, and a well-maintained hive of bees where the idea of self is sacrificed for the sake of the whole. “Without the burden of intellect, emotion, or individual identity, these creatures were given something we weren’t: the knowledge that they must work together to create the elusive utopia…” drones Hellstrom who takes the opportunity to rub our faces in it yet again—and as the screen fades to black with the image of a triumphant beetle backlit by a setting sun you’re left to decide whether or not to cringe in terror or laugh out loud. Or just grab the flyswatter and reassert your own superiority. As an aside, this film served as inspiration for Frank Herbert’s 1973 science-fiction novel, Hellstrom’s Hive. Reading the book and then watching the movie (or vice versa) definitely doubles the shiver factor!

Henry V (UK 1944) (6): Directed and produced by Sir Laurence Olivier with himself in the title role as Shakespeare’s determined English king who in 1415, at the height of the 100 Years War, laid claim to the throne of France—a claim which eventually led to the Battle of Agincourt. Nominated for a handful of Oscars including Best Picture and Best Actor though only netting an “honorary award” for outstanding achievement, Olivier’s vision starts out promising enough by showing us how a performance at the Old Globe theatre may have looked and sounded in 1600 complete with raucous crowds, an unexpected rainstorm drenching the stage, and actors constantly breaking the fourth wall in order to mug at the audience. But then he decides to up the ante by introducing gaudy technicolour sets meant to mimic medieval illuminated manuscripts but instead resemble a child's pop-up storybook. That, plus a bit of overacting and some wartime censorship aimed at turning the Bard's work into Allied propaganda—the English are heroes, the French a lazy stand-in for the Hun menace—turns the whole production into a big loud mess. Still ahead of its time despite the missteps and therefore worth a look.

Her (USA 2013) (7): Among the sterile gleaming skyscrapers of a futuristic L.A. mousy Theodore Twombly (sexy nerd Joaquin Phoenix) is watching his life fall apart. He’s in the middle of a heartbreaking divorce with the only woman he’s ever loved and the prospect of starting all over again with an ever-narrowing playing field is depressing to say the least. Between bouts of desperate phone sex and playing room-sized holographic video games you could say he is trapped in a rut. Ironically he makes a living composing sappy hand-written letters for people who wish to impress their loved ones without the hassle of actually picking up a pen themselves. Everything changes however the day Theodore installs the latest O.S. software onto his computer, a new form of artificial intelligence calling herself “Samantha” who evolves from cheerful search engine to Theo’s best friend within the first few days. Possessing a hardwired empathy and the sexy voice of Scarlett Johansson it isn’t long before Samantha is also sharing Theodore’s bed, even if he’s responsible for all the lovemaking himself—although an ill-fated stint with an “OS surrogate” is sadly amusing. An e-love affair ensues which lifts the carbon partner’s spirits while simultaneously opening up the silicon girlfriend’s artificial horizons to a host of new possibilities—perhaps too many possibilities for Theo’s fragile heart to handle. Writer/director Spike Jonze’s bittersweet sci-fi romance is certainly slick with a host of A-list actors and an ultra-hip smogbound Shanghai standing in for a new and improved Los Angeles. The clever technological touches are nice too from tiny multi-purpose earplugs to vast cityscapes rendered surreal in shades of red and yellow. But, like Bladerunner on estrogen, it is essentially a weepy cyber-chick flick in which everyone, both meat and metal, takes turns breaking one another’s hearts and reciting deeply profound Hallmark cards while Arcade Fire croons softly in the background. Phoenix mopes and wrings his hands, Johansson’s voice alternately giggles and whines, and BFF and fellow outcast Amy Adams looks as if she’s trying to shake off a mouthful of sedatives. But if you twist your brain a few degrees you can still appreciate it as a deadpan satire on mankind’s increasing dependence on all those shiny WiFi gizmos that tell us when to get up, remind us to tie our shoelaces, and entertain us on the commute to work. Indeed, scenes of plugged-in pedestrians gesticulating wildly while carrying on animated conversations with their own downloaded companions is not such a far cry from today’s urban reality. Kind of makes you want to buy Siri a dozen roses, just in case.

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

The Heroes of Telemark (UK 1965) (7): In Nazi-occupied Norway circa 1943 members of the underground resistance, operating on orders from both Oslo and London, are tasked with destroying the power plant at Telemark which the Germans have been using to produce heavy water for their atomic bomb project. After a few disastrous attempts they have one more chance to prevent the deadly shipment from reaching Berlin, but their plan presents them with a troubling moral dilemma. Pretty standard espionage thriller lifted above the ordinary by the fact it is based on an actual chapter in WWII history, albeit told with some degree of artistic license. Despite being terribly miscast as a Norwegian physicist and saboteur respectively Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris nevertheless put in fine performances, their inner turmoil bubbling to the surface as duty to the Allied cause comes into direct conflict with personal ethics. Of course machine guns fire away and things blow up—and a cross-country ski chase is as breathtaking as it is deadly—but it’s those Panavision shots of wintry Norwegian landscapes which ultimately take precedence. The passions of war just seem all the more senseless when arch-enemies are constantly being upstaged by snowcapped peaks and frozen fjords.

Hidden (Norway 2009) (6): A decaying old house becomes a horrifyingly apt metaphor in this Scandinavian take on childhood trauma and repressed rage. After his estranged mother's death Kai must return to the family home, a site of unspeakable abuse years earlier, in order to settle her estate. But someone else has taken up residence amongst the mouldy walls and dripping ceilings, somebody hellbent on hurting anyone who comes too near the old homestead. Could it be that Kai was not the only victim of his psychotic mother or is part of him still a cowering nine-year-old desperate to escape the old woman's clutches? Mixing elements of David Lynch (sans ego) with the sinister sensibilities of John Carpenter, Pål Øie delivers a classic 80's style slasher film easy on the gore and rife with psychological subtleties. Ploddingly repetitious at times with some unfortunately exaggerated performances but there is enough substance here to keep you watching right up to the jarringly abrupt final scene; a clever little split second frame that's easy to miss if you blink at the wrong time.

Hidden (USA 2015) (7): The plot of this End of World thriller from the Duffer Brothers is so overdone it’s almost a running joke: a lethal virus that turns people into something else puts an entire town under government quarantine but one family manages to find a hiding spot from where they play a deadly game of cat and mouse with roving bands of unseen monsters. But the Duffers put a little spin on the zombie apocalypse theme which, while not entirely novel, still managed to add a bit of freshness. The family in question—Ray, Claire, and daughter Zoe (an intense Alexander Skarsgård, Andrea Riseborough pre Mandy coma, and Emily Alyn Lind mercifully less bratty than Dakota Fanning)—are living in an old underground fallout shelter where rationed canned goods and a strict code of conduct (the significance of which is only revealed later) have kept them going for almost a year. And then a series of unfortunate events conspire to threaten their continued existence and put them at the mercy of the “Breathers”, partially seen bipeds with glowing eyes and voices like Jurassic Park raptors with bronchitis who prowl the ash-covered ruins above… Combining elements of 28 Days Later with 2001’s The Others, there is a depth to this family in peril as they love and squabble their way through interminable weeks below ground. Filmed mostly on a cramped bunker set where candles and oil lamps highlight flaking concrete and dusty bunk beds, the Duffers elicit believable performances from those opening scenes of mundane domesticity to a frantic screaming climax and beyond. Of course, with these kind of movies you must put your critical thinking on pause and the directors certainly push that envelope a few times—a talking doll scene was almost too much and we’re not given much background information as to how this plague came about or where it’s heading, but that might have been deliberate. Thankfully, flashbacks to sunnier times (hello North Vancouver!) are kept to a minimum and do provide enough backstory to make us appreciate the bittersweet ending when it comes.

Hideaway [Le Refuge] (France 2009) (7): After injecting a bad batch of heroin, twenty-something Mousse wakes up in a Paris hospital and receives two troubling bits of news: her boyfriend, Louis, has OD’d and she is eight weeks pregnant. Refusing to abort the fetus despite urgings from Louis’ wealthy mother (oh the scandal!) Mousse retreats to a seaside cottage owned by a family friend and tries to get her life together. And then Louis’ brother Paul drops by for a visit… With a finesse similar to that of Almodóvar, François Ozon doesn’t focus on the drama between his characters but rather on their shifting psychological states as he delicately deconstructs the notion of motherhood while simultaneously following one frightened young woman burdened with a responsibility for which she is ill-prepared—pregnancy has not dimmed her need for cigarettes, beer, and methadone. Contrasts fuel his movie and Ozon’s sensitive script allows them to surface naturally. Mousse is hungry for affection while Paul just seems to both exude and attract it (the fact that he’s gay proves to be of little consequence). Meanwhile Paul’s mother maintains a vice-like lock on her feelings while her estranged husband falls to pieces, and the handyman looking after Mousse’s cottage ends up providing a vital emotional link. Filming locations are likewise contrasted with pastoral gardens coming up against throbbing discotheques and a crashing seashore where “Danger!” signs warn of obstructions. But ultimately it is about Love—Love that can be messy and conflicted, Love that can be tender and nurturing. While a busybody Mousse meets on the beach warns her of the pain and sacrifice that come with child-rearing, Paul supports her without judgement and a stranger she picks up in a bar is more than willing to simply cradle her. This is an Ozon film however, so when that final clear-eyed resolution arrives it manages to move without the need for sentimental slush.

High and Low (Japan 1963) (10): When the board of directors of a major shoe company announce plans to cut costs by turning out substandard merchandise, Gondo, a frustrated executive, mortgages everything he owns in order to buy enough stock to vote them down. But before he can finalize his purchase tragedy strikes; the 9-year old son of his longtime chauffeur is abducted and the kidnapper is demanding an outrageous ransom or he will kill him. When the chauffeur turns to Gondo for help the businessman is faced with a near impossible choice; paying the money will leave him in financial ruin, doing nothing will result in the death of a child. Thus burdened, the hitherto conscientious Gondo must face a side of himself both terrifying and humbling. His final decision, and the events it sets in motion, makes for an intense police thriller which touches on issues of corporate inhumanity, social inequality, and the dehumanizing effects of the capitalist mindset. Glaring newspaper headlines provide some irony while a brief stint in a heroin den seems more like a zombie nightmare. Beautifully filmed, tightly directed, and not one minute of its 2-1/2 hour running time wasted. A classic in every sense.

High Fidelity (UK/USA 2000) (7): Mildly obsessive and on the wrong side of thirty, aging slacker Rob Gordon (John Cusack channeling that 80s angst to perfection) finds little solace in the dingy vintage vinyl store he runs in a decaying Chicago neighbourhood. Freshly dumped by his latest girlfriend, Rob spends his rebound time pondering what went wrong with every relationship he ever had starting in grade seven when he was cheated on by his first girlfriend after they’d been together for all of six hours. Deriving cold comfort from his two geek employees Dick and Barry (Todd Louiso mumbling like a stunned ferret and Jack Black playing the usual obnoxious asshole) and his timely one-night stand with soul crooner and fellow lonely heart Marie De Salle (Lisa Bonet, a long looong way from The Cosby Show), Rob settles into an angry funk until his soul-searching causes him to look up his former lovers to find out firsthand why things ended so badly… Like The Big Chill for Generation X, Stephen Frears’ most unromantic romantic comedy points a caustic finger at its self-absorbed delusional protagonist, an 80s brat finding himself alone again yet perpetually clueless as to what exactly happened. But Rob’s character is not entirely without sympathy—certainly his latest ex has more than her share of baggage and a few encounters with past flames are sufficient to convince him that he may have dodged more than one bullet in his early years. Featuring appearances by Catherine Zeta-Jones, Tim Robbins, Lili Taylor and Bruce Springsteen (?!), a well written script (Rob’s inner monologue cleverly presented as glib asides to the camera), and an impeccable soundtrack of obscure new wave classics. A nice bit of retro-looking fluff with the occasional bite.

High Life (France 2018) (3): Reading director Claire Denis’ explanation for this dreary sci-fi sludge gives the impression that the film she thought she had made was somehow substituted at the last minute without her knowledge. On a rickety spaceship bound for an enormous black hole, two lone survivors—Monte, a depressed father (Robert Pattinson perpetually moping) and his infant daughter, Willow—go through the motions of domesticity even though Monte knows this will be a one-way trip. Interminable flashbacks fill in the backstory: a crew of misfits overseen by the mad doctor Dibs (Juliette Binoche in need of rent money perhaps?) eventually succumb to isolation and their own demons, but not before Dibs has had a chance to carry out some unsavoury research and everyone else has had a chance to throw a few punches. Now, alone with his growing daughter, Monte faces an uncertain destiny as the swirling blackness of their ultimate destination looms ever closer… A poetic premise rendered crass and repugnant, for as much as Denis claims the film is about “tenderness, trust, fidelity, and sincerity” in outer space it can’t dispel the salacious focus on masturbation, sexual assault (both male and female), and bodily fluids in general, nor can the pretty astronomical backdrops (at one point the stars coalesce to form a womb according to the director) impart any existential depth to her warped aesthetic. “It’s about sexuality…sensuality…” she croons yet the grimy attempts at erotica prove tastelessly voyeuristic especially one messy and overly long session in the ship’s “sex closet”, a concept so reminiscent of the “Orgasmatron” in Woody Allen’s Sleeper that I had to laugh. An homage to Tarkovsky’s Solaris? Hardly, although it does rip off Kubrick’s 2001. A cosmic rumination on loneliness, humanity, and atonement? (a tragic transgression from Monte’s past is given weighty reality when a blip appears on his radar screen). Not really. Neither life-affirming, sex-positive, nor psychologically believable, and the “science” is suspect at best—all of which lead to the conclusion that some things are better off lost in space.

High School (USA 1968) (7): Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman took his cameras into Philadelphia’s Northeast High School and became the proverbial fly on the wall, taping the day-to-day interplays between students, staff, and the occasional concerned parent. There is a touch of the French New Wave aesthetic to his low-res B&W time capsule in which the crushingly dull routines of academia provide a glimpse into the zeitgeist of teenaged Boomers circa 1968. Highlights (and lowlights) include a lecture on proper skirt lengths, a sex ed class taught by a wisecracking gynaecologist, a student unsuccessfully trying to protest a detention, and a host of candid classroom lessons that range from sheer boredom to lukewarm engagement. Martin Luther King gets a mention, the school's moral bankruptcy is debated by a bespectacled senior, and time stands still when a teacher reads a letter from a former graduate now serving in Viet Nam, a tour of duty he doesn't expect to survive. Filmed guerilla-style with subjects only occasionally glancing at the lens, this is truly a “foreign film” in that it presents contemporary audiences with an academic mindset as far removed culturally as it is temporally. But I liked the bouffants!

High Sierra (USA 1941) (8): It’s bullets, dames, and an extra helping of testosterone in this classic noir thriller, penned in part by John Huston. Humphrey Bogart is notorious bank robber Roy Earle, recently released from a life sentence thanks to some political dealings by his former associate, Big Mac. But this is not a simple humanitarian gesture on Mac’s part for the gangster boss has need of Earle’s special talents. There’s a secluded resort in the mountains of California where the rich (and their jewellery) go to frolic, and Big Mac wants Roy to break into the hotel’s vault where the pampered guests stash a small fortune in gold and gems. Teaming up with a couple of small town hoods and the inevitable femme fatale (Ida Lupino as Marie, a two-bit dancehall girl seeking a better life) Earle sets out to fulfill his obligation to Big Mac. Of course things don’t go exactly as planned... Although I’ve never been fond of Bogart’s acting style, his portrayal of Roy Earle contains a complexity which goes beyond the clichéd tough guy image. He is a study in contradiction and inner conflict, longing for a simpler honest life yet unable break ties with his criminal past; an inability which seems to taint everything he touches. A side story involving a penniless farmer and his crippled daughter reveals an unexpected vulnerability and deep-seated hunger for love, while a budding romance with Marie carries more fatalistic overtones. In true noir fashion the drama runs hot and heavy while the passionate kisses seem more forced than natural, but a bit of comic relief in the form of a black handyman (racial stereotyping á la 1940s) and a jinxed pooch with a dark reputation (Bogart’s real life pet) lift the mood somewhat. And those theatrical closing scenes, high atop a barren mountainside, are pure cinema!

High Society (USA 1956) (5): The romantic trials and tribulations of the idle rich make for tedious viewing in Charles Walters’ musical adaptation of The Philadelphia Story. On the eve of her second marriage spoiled Newport deb Tracy Lord (an elegant Grace Kelly) is having millionaire-sized problems. Not only is her ex-husband C. K. Dexter-Haven (Bing Crosby looking more like her father) still carrying a torch for her, but she’s also feeling romantic sparks with magazine reporter Mike Connor (Frank Sinatra, ditto) much to the chagrin of his fellow paparazzo Liz Imbrie (Celeste Holm looking like everyone’s mother). Add to that her father’s extramarital liaisons and her bachelor uncle’s incessant meddling and you have a surefire recipe for disaster—especially after everyone has a bit too much to drink the night before the wedding. Highlighted by gorgeous mansions, a string of Cole Porter tunes including the Oscar-nominated “True Love”, and an uplifting cameo by Louis Armstrong and his band as a jazzy Greek Chorus, there is not much here beyond a standard romance albeit one with a bit more glitz and glamour. An ironic lecture on how terrible it is to have to sell one’s mansion for tax reasons goes nowhere and having Mr. Lord’s adultery explained away as simply “a fear of growing old” while his emotional doormat of a wife nods sagely is almost laughable. A first class cast riding in a second-rate vehicle.

The Hills Have Eyes 2 (USA 2007) (4):  The original movie is now a horror classic.  The remake took the gore up a few notches and gave the story a modern Frankenstein spin with angry atomic mutants preying on an America grown complacent.  It’s too bad they decided to try and milk the franchise one more time with this tepid sequel that revels in the carnage but does nothing to build upon its vastly superior predecessors.  After spending the first 40 minutes showing the characters climbing a hill, the film quickly becomes just another formulaic “Fiends-In-The-Dark” splatter flick somewhere between Aliens and Just Before Dawn only much less imaginative than either one.  And of course it finishes with the totally expected unexpected ending that seems to be a prerequisite for anyone making these movies.  Diehard gore fans will be amused and that’s about it.

His Girl Friday (USA 1940) (8): High-pressured New York newspaper editor Walter Burns hits the roof when he discovers his ace reporter Hildy Johnson is quitting in order to get married and settle down in suburbia. Not only is she the best writer he has but she’s also his ex-wife and he’s never really fallen out of love with her. Resisting his less-than-subtle pleas to reconsider both her job and upcoming marriage, Hildy is determined to take the evening train to Albany accompanied by Bruce, her faithful lapdog of a fiancé, and his domineering mother. Resorting to sabotage, Walter tries every trick up his sleeve to thwart Hildy’s plans—but when a death row inmate the paper had been defending escapes and both the mayor and police chief are implicated in a political cover-up, Hildy’s reporter instincts kick in much to Walter’s delight and Bruce’s bewilderment… As the battling ex-spouses, Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are pure comedy gold; their verbal sparring and witty comebacks practically fly off the screen at breakneck speed overseen by Howard Hawks’ frantic direction which keeps the action fast and razor sharp. Employing such relatively new script innovations as overlapping dialogue and ad-libbed lines, Hawks produces a rollicking coaster ride of a film that nevertheless manages to remain tight and (mostly) coherent. But beneath the laughs there is a cold vein of cynicism as amoral, muck-raking journalists and self-serving politicians are seen feeding at the same trough while a possibly innocent man awaits execution and his distraught girlfriend is regarded as little more than a tabloid footnote. A smart and incisive comedy with a social conscience…little wonder it has found its way on to so many “Best Of” lists.

His House (UK 2020) (8): Bol Majur and his wife Rial have gone through hell trying to get to England from South Sudan where their life had been torn to pieces by tribal violence. Now, put up in a tumbledown London housing project while their refugee claim is processed, they come to the sickening realization that Hell has followed them across land and sea for something is crawling in the walls and rotting apparitions are bursting from every dark corner. Despite Bol’s assurances to the board overseeing their case that “We are good people!”, the couple is nevertheless harbouring a tragic secret which refuses to stay buried… Remi Weekes’ first feature film is an amazing mix of allegory and horror that works on many different levels simultaneously. As a ghost story he draws upon every trick in the book with consummate skill from shuffling grotesques lurking in the shadows to hallucinatory passages of putrified cadavers emerging from a blood red sea. As a metaphor for the refugee experience Weekes’ script underscores the confusion of moving to a new land in some very clever ways—Rial’s attempt to walk to a nearby clinic turns into a Kafkaesque trek through streets which seem to shift on their own and locals whose spoken directions turn into contradictory gibberish. And as a guilt-fuelled psychodrama the couple’s collective subconscious—personified by their dingy welfare flat—proves a fertile breeding ground for a host of macabre jolts, all delivered with a distinctly African flair. Leads Wunmi Mosaku as Rial and Sope Dirisu as Bol are perfectly in sync and completely convincing—her haunted eyes belying a strong-willed determination and his stoic denial eroded brick by brick with every supernatural onslaught. Guilt can be a formidable enemy and absolution always comes at a cost. Scary stuff.

His Majesty The Scarecrow of Oz (USA 1914) (5): Dastardly King Krewl tries to force Princess Gloria into marrying the fawning courtier Googly-Goo, but she only has eyes for Pon, the lowly gardener’s son. Intent on breaking up his daughter’s illicit romance, Krewl seeks out the wicked witch Mombi who freezes the girl’s heart and turns her boyfriend into a kangaroo. Meanwhile, in another part of the studio lot, Kansas virgin Dorothy Gale has her own run-in with Mombi and barely escapes with her hair ribbons intact. Teaming up with an enchanted scarecrow, an amorous tin woodsmen, and a cowardly lion (not to mention the “Wizard” himself) Dorothy and Pon set out to rescue the princess, defeat the witch, and liberate the magical kingdom of Oz. Yep, it’s pretty fucked up but this early adaptation of L. Frank Baum’s books, directed by the author himself, is not without a certain charm. The primitive sets are offset by some whimsical costuming and surprisingly sophisticated special effects while a background score of silent-era piano medleys and contemporary chill beats compliment the onscreen action which, thankfully, has been slowed down to normal speed—-none of that fast-motion jerking so common in these old flicks. The plot seems pretty haphazard at times with characters running about aimlessly and mugging for the camera, but considering it just turned 100 years old a certain amount of forgiveness is in order. Remember, this is how it all started.

His Secret Life (Italy 2001) (6): After her husband Massimo is killed in a traffic accident fortyish Antonia is shocked to discover he had been living two entirely different lives. With her he had an affluent middle-class existence in a better part of Rome where he managed a company and she worked at an HIV clinic. But in a seedier part of town Massimo also had a male lover, Michele, and was an integral part of an extended family of social outcasts including a political refugee from Turkey, a transsexual woman dealing with family rejection, and a colourful assortment of eccentrics. At first locking horns with Michele who, ironically, was always jealous of her comfortably open life with Massimo, Antonia gradually comes to realize what a sheltered and banal existence she had been living. Goaded by her lovingly cynical mother the bewildered widow begins spending more time with Michele and company, discovering more about her husband’s secret life while precipitating a sea change in her own. Brimming with shallow stereotypes and all the expected plot twists there is much in writer/director Ferzan Ozpetek’s film for me to loathe. From Antonia’s unhappily bourgeois lifestyle (because you can’t be rich and content) to the forced liberté, egalité, and fraternité of an apartment building full of Bohemian queers, Ozpetek hauls out the soapbox a few too many times resulting in a pedestrian drama with all the usual calls for tolerance and understanding. Even Michele’s ongoing ambivalence towards love and intimacy is reduced to so much tortured emoting while the director’s use of AIDS as a glaring metaphor is overdone. But the acting is still top-notch, the characters likeable despite the obvious drawbacks, and the story carries you along even as your inner critic shakes its head. Lastly, the end credits are accompanied by a silly montage of clips obviously meant to remind audiences that life is a comedy after all—and oddly enough it works. A sudsy little heart-warmer for sure, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to hit the stop button.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard (USA 2017) (7): Thanks to a series of deadly twists, a once famous and now disgraced bodyguard (Ryan Reynolds) finds himself having to protect the life of a notorious international assassin (Samuel L. Jackson) as he’s transported from a British prison to The Hague where he is set to testify against a tyrannical Eastern European dictator (Gary Oldman). Only two things stand in their way however: they are sworn enemies who loathe one another, and the deposed despot will do anything to see that neither one of them makes it to Holland alive. Reynolds and Jackson are the perfect odd couple in Patrick Hughes’ explosive road comedy, the former’s uptight guardian playing foil to the other’s sarcastic hellion while Oldman seethes and hisses in a flawless Russian accent—his agents clambering after their quarry with just about every handheld weapon known to man. Of course it’s all testosterone and horseshit as dozens of vehicles go boom, millions of bullets streak across the screen, and a small mountain of bloodied corpses steadily piles up, but Hughes brings such a ballsy panache to the production that its glaring credibility stretches still leave you smiling and cheering his two antiheroes on. Even Salma Hayek’s listless performance as Jackson’s foul-mouthed wife (her colourful profanities recited with all the passion of a grocery list) fails to slow down the action. One of the more enjoyable “Summer Blockbuster” no-brainers in which substance is gleefully replaced by things blowing up and moral relativism (who is the worse human being, the amoral bodyguard or the “ethical” hitman?) is reduced to a string of bitchy stand-offs. Just add popcorn.

The Hobbit 2: The Desolation of Smaug (USA/New Zealand) (7): This superior second instalment in Peter Jackson’s ambitious attempt to turn one small book into an epic trilogy begins, appropriately enough, where the first film left off. A cadre of dwarves aided by the wizard Gandalf and hobbit-cum-thief Bilbo Baggins are trying to reclaim their subterranean kingdom from the wicked dragon Smaug who has turned it into his personal treasure house. In the meantime Middle Earth’s arch-nemesis, Sauron, continues to gather his minions about him in preparation for the apocalyptic battle between Good and Evil already played out in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Unlike the ragtag nonsense of its predecessor however, part two shows far more discipline and style. Gone are the “Rock-Em Sock-Em” mountain monsters, reindeer rabbits, and slapstick battle scenes; instead we are treated to a more mature fairy tale ethos filled with the sense of enchantment and otherworldly peril which made LOTR an instant classic. Clocking in at just over two and one-half hours, The Desolation of Smaug practically flies across the giant IMAX screen in brain-addling three dimensions: an encounter with giant spiders had my skin crawling; an exhilarating barrel ride over waterfalls and rapids contained some surprise laughs; and Bilbo’s game of cat-and-mouse with an unexpectedly erudite dragon contained some of the best rampaging monster footage ever conceived by a computer graphics team. It all ends a little too abruptly though with a final cut-off that seems more like a commercial break than a cliffhanger, but it was enough to ensure my place in line for part three.

The Hobbit 3: The Battle of the Five Armies (NZ 2014) (8): Cinematic license aside, Peter Jackson has definitely saved the best for last in this final chapter of his bloated Hobbit Trilogy. In part two a legion of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (hunka hunka burnin’ love Richard Armitage) set out to wrest their mountain stronghold away from the evil dragon Smaug who had been using it as his personal lair while in the north the demonic Sauron was rallying his own minions of darkness. Now with the fire-breathing lizard dead (cue some awesome CGI pyrotechnics) the company have not only reclaimed their ancestral land but they’ve also gained a small mountain of dragon treasure to boot. But dragons’ gold carries a curse which eats away at a man’s soul and before long an increasingly paranoid Thorin has alienated himself from the very friends and allies who helped him win back his crown in the first place including the eponymous hobbit Bilbo Baggins. With armies of angry men and elves ready to storm the mountain gates Thorin prepares for his final stand—and then swarms of bloodthirsty orcs (google it) under the guidance of Sauron make a sudden appearance and the estranged allies must band together once more or be annihilated permanently. Although it never quite reaches the level of high fantasy which made The Lord of the Rings so successful, Hobbit 3 nevertheless manages to strike an impressive balance between adrenaline rush, droll humour and moments of sheer poetry: in one scene a brooding Thorin wanders through a majestic underground hall while a memory of Smaug stalks him beneath the gold-paved floor, in another a ridiculously ginger-coiffed Billy Connolly, wielding a war-hammer and thick Scottish brogue, hunkers into the fray atop a giant armoured pig. And although the bulk of the film is dedicated to one prolonged battle scene it is a gloriously choreographed battle filled with fantastical creatures and comic book swordplay that defies both gravity and common sense. Lastly, a series of tragic turns actually manage to tug at the heartstrings while a clever closing coda ends at the exact moment LOTR begins. An unexpectedly enjoyable capstone to an otherwise disappointing adaptation.

Hobson’s Choice (UK 1954) (8): Henry Hobson, a cantankerous widower and owner of a successful boot shop, rules his three grown daughters like a true tyrant. Expected to jump at his every command they long to escape his clutches with husbands of their own. But when he decides the price of their individual dowries would be too high they fall into despair—except eldest daughter Maggie. Fed up with her father’s bellowing (not to mention heavy drinking) the headstrong Maggie devises a plan to bypass the old man’s decrees and forge a life for herself as well as her sisters. Set in the latter years of Victorian England, David Lean’s adaptation of Harold Brighouse’s play is a charmingly intelligent comedy whose subterfuge and crossed purposes lie somewhere between Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare. In the title role Sir Charles Laughton is magnificent, his bigger than life performance of a blustering curmudgeon both off-putting in an endearing way and oddly piteous as beneath the bravado we catch glimpses of a frightened man losing his vitality as he slowly succumbs to old age and alcoholism (a morning case of DTs presented as more macabre than comedic). And Laughton finds the perfect antagonist in Brenda de Banzie’s Maggie—a sharp-tongued modern woman who not only refuses to be an “old maid” at 30 but also refuses to live out her life under someone else’s thumb. Daphne Anderson and Fawlty Towers’ Prunella Scales co-star as the flighty sisters and Sir John Mills excels as Hobson’s fiercely talented but easily cowed boot-maker William Mossop, a little mouse who finds his voice after Maggie takes a shine to him. Shot in expressive B&W which highlights the era’s grimy smokestacks, perpetually wet cobblestones, and factory dregs (a romantic stint by a grievously polluted river adds a touch of irony) Lean’s evocation of post-Industrial Revolution Manchester and the dawning of a new social order is highly cinematic—while one determined woman changes the course of her family’s history, Hobson and his old school drinking buddies slowly fade into the background of a neighbourhood pub. A classic despite one glaring blooper…….look for the nuclear cooling tower during the church scene.

Hocus Pocus (USA 1993) (5): It’s Halloween night and in the town of Salem a young man tries to scare his little sister and impress his potential new girlfriend by goofing off in a supposedly haunted house. Unfortunately his actions resurrect the evil Sanderson Sisters: Winnie, Mary, and Sarah (Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy, Sarah Jessica Parker), three women condemned as witches three hundred years earlier. With just one night to ensure their newfound immortality by sucking the life force out of Salem’s children the bumbling crones immediately set about weaving their blackest spells. But the kids manage to steal Winnie’s book of magic and aided by an enchanted cat and a friendly zombie they’re determined to prevent the sisters from carrying out their heinous plan until dawn when the sun’s rays will destroy them forever. Chockfull of the usual sentimentality and pretend peril Disney is famous for, Hocus Pocus plays more like a theme park attraction than a motion picture with Parker and Najimy hamming it up as if waiting for a third stooge and Midler in full hag drag delivering a family friendly version of her Divine Miss M schtick. However, despite the foolish pratfalls and cloying sweetness there are a few decent chuckles that rise above the primary school level and the special effects are certainly passable—Najimy flying through the air on an old Hoover was a particularly nice touch. A seasonal cult mainstay guaranteed not to give the little ones nightmares nor tax grandma’s pacemaker.

The Holdovers (USA 2023) (8): It’s Christmastime, 1970, and at a posh Massachusetts private school all of the staff and privileged student body has left for the holidays—except for three. Neurotic troublemaker Angus (Dominic Sessa) has been snubbed by his mother who wants some alone time with her new husband; forced to oversee Angus is curmudgeonly history professor Paul Hunham (Oscar nominee Paul Giamatti) who doesn’t have a family to go home to anyway; and supplying the meals is pragmatic cafeteria supervisor Mary Lamb (Oscar winner Da’Vine Joy Randolph) who is facing her first Christmas without her son who was killed in Viet Nam. As snow settles outside and emotions heat up inside, these three contrasting personalities will either learn a thing or two from one another or else go crazy trying… From the film’s opening credits featuring scratchy film stock and a dated Universal Studios logo to its soundtrack of songs from the likes of Cat Stevens and The Temptations, director Alexander Payne has accomplished the near impossible—created a period piece that actually feels like it was made way back then. While cinematographer Eigil Bryld capitalizes on a real life blizzard to give us telling backdrops of snowbound fields and icy Boston cityscapes, David Hemingson’s Oscar-nominated script balances poignancy with enough comic relief to keep things from becoming bogged down in cloying melodrama. Angus’ antisocial behaviour conceals a painful vulnerability which resonates with Paul’s own deep-seated unhappiness, and the friction between the two gives Mary a reason to move beyond her grief. And the three mains are perfectly cast: Sessa’s delicate features literally tremble with repressed anguish; Giamatti growls and sputters, his walleyed stare (courtesy of prosthetic contact lenses) making “eye-to-eye” conversations deliberately awkward; and Randolph’s cynical gaze and corpulent figure provide an unexpected anchor. Rules will be broken, secrets will be shared, and by the time classes resume all three will find their lives have taken a different direction—for better or worse. Despite his protests to the contrary, Payne has indeed given us a new Christmas classic—only this one can be enjoyed all year long. And that final scene will prove priceless to anyone who enjoyed Payne’s previous film, 2004’s Sideways.

The Hole in the Ground (Ireland 2019) (7): Once upon a time there was a single mother named Sarah who wanted to get away from her troubles so she packed up her 8-year old son Chris and moved into a lovely country cottage. But the cottage sat next to a scary forest where a huge scary hole in the ground held scary secrets. And then Chris began acting strangely causing a horrified Sarah to begin questioning whether or not this little boy was even her son anymore… There is definitely a macabre fairy tale feel to Lee Cronin’s supernatural thriller heightened by a brooding score and cinematography that transforms domestic spaces and woodlands into sites of dark enchantment. With a nod to Kubrick’s The Shining—that overhead drone shot of a lone car snaking its way along a country road for instance, or a wallpapered hallway leading to a glimpse of something horrible—Cronin turns the screws without descending into sheer hysteria, although the film is not without the usual assortment of “WTF?” moments so common to the genre including one eye-roller towards the end. As Sarah, Seána Kerslake is a complicated blend of traumatized spouse (her ex is never seen but his presence is felt) and terrified mother whose growing suspicions concerning her son bring out her inner warrior—or is it just the medication talking? In the role of the sweetly angelic Chris, James Quinn Markey calls to mind Haley Joel Osment back when he was still young and talented, Markey’s ability to create menace with the sweetest of smiles, delivered with a soft lilt no less, admirable to behold. Steeped in the tradition of Irish folklore, The Hole in the Ground certainly delivers on the chills both above ground and below, with a resolution that thankfully avoids the obvious routes in favour of a creepy coda.

A Hole in the Head (USA 1959) (7): An entertaining bit of schmaltz made all the more palatable thanks to a fine cast of Hollywood veterans. Life just got more complicated for widower Frank Sinatra: the bank is about to foreclose on his humble Miami Beach hotel aptly named “The Garden of Eden”; his gruff yet well-meaning brother Edward G. Robinson wants to take his 11-year old son back to Brooklyn; and his beatnik girlfriend turns out to be a bongo-playing serpent tempting him to shirk his duties and run away with her. Penniless and desperate Sinatra tries to turn his pipe dream of a Florida-based Disneyland (who knew?!) into reality by appealing to his childhood friend—-now a multi-millionaire showbiz promoter—-with disastrous results. He next turns his sights on the well-to-do widow his brother and sister-in-law tried to fix him up with…and suddenly love rears its unexpected head much to the delight of his little kid and the confusion of everyone else. An above average script coupled with sunny tropical backdrops and a cadre of seasoned actors help to transform what is essentially a predictable huggy-wuggy flick into something worth watching. Sinatra’s duet of “High Hopes” is actually easy on the ears but it’s perennial tough guy Robinson, here stepping way out of character, who winds up stealing the show.

Holes (USA 2003) (7): After he is wrongfully convicted of stealing a pair of valuable sneakers Stanley Yelnats IV, youngest scion of the eccentric yet penniless Yelnats clan, is sent to a desolate youth detention centre in the middle of the Texas outback. There, a hundred miles from the nearest town and surrounded by rattlesnakes and deadly lizards, Stanley and his fellow teenage misfits find themselves at the mercy of a pair of unscrupulous camp commandants and one very tough warden with a curious method of rehabilitating her charges. Each day at the crack of dawn the kids are brought into the desert where they’re forced to dig random holes in the parched earth, surrendering any “unusual objects” they may happen to uncover to their overly eager guards. At first puzzled by this seemingly pointless exercise, Stanley gradually begins to suspect there is far more going on at “Camp Green Lake” than simple character building; a suspicion which is confirmed after he glimpses a few incriminating items in the warden’s cabin. Meanwhile, in a parallel story set a hundred years earlier when the camp’s current location was the site of a thriving town on the edge of a now-extinct lake, the tragic tale of bandit queen “Kissin’” Kate Barlow provides some vital historical background that will directly impact Stan’s current dire situation. Although darker than the usual Disney fare (there are killings, a suicide, an attempted lynching) Holes nevertheless maintains a touch of the fantastic which transforms Stanley’s adolescent search for answers into something unexpectedly profound. A shameful family curse, a redemptive climb up a mountainside, the fulfillment of a broken promise…all figure heavily as Stan and his fellow detainee “Zero” escape from camp—their trek through the desert coming to resemble an allegorical quest. The young cast members are convincing enough while the seasoned adults give the film some much needed structure, even if they are mostly relegated to grown-up clichés (kudos to Jon Voight as the crusty “Mr. Sir”, Sigourney Weaver as the ice cold warden, and Eartha Kitt as an old world sorceress). Pretty heavy stuff from the folks who unleashed Mickey Mouse on the world. And yes, there is a happy ending.

Holiday Affair (USA 1949) (7): Who knew future Psycho victim Janet Leigh and perennial tough guy Robert Mitchum could actually generate a bit of awkward screen chemistry together in this sudsy little romantic comedy. She plays Connie Ennis, a war widow and single mother raising her overly adorable six-year old son by working as an undercover “comparison shopper” (apparently a quasi-legal profession in 1949). He plays Steve Mason, a free-thinking and somewhat opinionated toy salesman for a large department store who loses his job thanks to Connie’s meddling. Despite being newly unemployed and practically homeless Mason takes an instant liking to Connie causing her to question her plans for a “safe and comfortable” marriage to wealthy fiancé Carl, a warmhearted but stuffy lawyer. But it’s little Timmy’s childish determination which finally nudges mom in the right direction. Playing out against a backdrop of Christmassy New York postcard scenes this bit of holiday cheer could easily be overlooked if it weren’t for a disarmingly good-natured script and the strength of it’s A-list stars including one very talented child actor; seven-year old Gordon Gebert not only makes precious palatable, he makes it seem natural. Of course the film is laced with the usual old-fashioned hokum as a woman who’s been successfully raising a small child on her own suddenly finds herself agonizing over which man will make her feel the most secure; apparently “neither” was not an option. Everything winds up being warm and fluffy however with the men ruffling their feathers at each other, Connie learning to let go of her dead husband, and Timmy putting everyone to shame with his pint-sized wisdom. Considering the film’s overall tone the final scene, a glaring example of sweetness overkill, comes as no surprise; it even left me smiling with it’s allusions to childhood wonder as a loving embrace cleverly morphs into a vision of yuletide joy. I guess I still have a soft spot somewhere...

Holiday Inn (USA 1942) (7): An instant Yuletide classic as well as the inspiration for an entire hotel chain, Paramount Pictures’ fluffy distraction is as timeless as a Christmas snow globe and just as trite. Crooner Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby) and dance man Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire) enjoy a great stage career together but unfortunately women keep getting in the way—notably mutual love interests and fellow hoofers Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds) and Lila Dixon (Virginia Dale). But when Hardy decides to quit the team and turn his rural Connecticut farm into an exclusive nightclub which only opens on holidays their amorous rivalry threatens to bring down the house with both men pining like lovestruck adolescents for Miss Mason until Miss Dixon shows up with her dancing shoes in hand (Mason-Dixon….LOL!). The acting is average at best—neither Crosby nor Astaire were ever convincing as romantic leads—and the storyline involving two jealous men trying to steal the affections of a clueless woman is hardly original (or grown-up) but thankfully it’s not the plot which attracts viewers. The quaint stage decorations and wintry New England sets (complete with asbestos “snow”) form a charming backdrop for some amazing song and dance numbers. Crosby sings a host of Irving Berlin classics including “Easter Parade” and the Oscar-winning “White Christmas” while Astaire dazzles us with solos and duets culminating in a famous Fourth of July routine where he trips the light fantastic while hurling lit firecrackers at the dance floor. There’s also a gushing tribute to America, “Song of Freedom”, made palatable when you consider WWII was still raging overseas, and a blackface routine, “Abraham”, is so appalling that 80 years later it’s almost comical. Director Mark Sandrich also adds a touch of the surreal when a production company, eager to cash in on Hardy’s successful venture, decides to recreate the Holiday Inn on a soundstage thus giving us a touch of “movie within a movie” when his characters come face to face with Hollywood artifice. Oh the irony!

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

Hollywood Canteen (USA 1944) (7): A group of A-list celebrities rally round the flag in this unabashedly patriotic series of photo ops meant to buoy the spirits of war-weary soldiers. Founded by Bette Davis and John Garfield during WWII, the real Hollywood Canteen was an L.A. nightclub catering to active servicemen on their way overseas. The food was free and the staff consisted entirely of members of the entertainment industry including the occasional movie star. In this fictional account we follow the adventures of Corporal “Slim” Green who wanders into the Canteen hoping to meet the actress he’s been fantasizing about during those long nights in the South Pacific, the sweetly angelic Joan Leslie. When he finally does meet her he gets far more than he bargained for including an obligatory tear-filled farewell on a train station platform. Hollywood Canteen overflows with great song & dance numbers, surprise cameos, and enough cornball comedy to keep you smiling. It’s light and fluffy, a little heavy on the apple pie, and about as subtle as an infomercial but highly entertaining just the same.

Hollywood Cavalcade (USA 1939) (6): Hollywood writes a love letter to itself in this somewhat overly confident paean to the power of cinema. Don Ameche gives a wonderful performance as the megalomaniac director who turns a Broadway understudy into a silent screen sensation (a radiant and good-natured Alice Faye) only to realize too late that he's in love with her. Success is quickly followed by heartbreak before the inevitable happy ending arrives just in time to leave theatregoers feeling satisfied. A couple of surprise cameos are fun and a prolonged B&W action sequence featuring the Keystone Cops is pure silent joy! Add to that a soundtrack of soaring strings filmed in rich velvety technicolor, an accomplished supporting cast, and a directing style which just manages to avoid melodramatic excess, and you're left with a highly watchable golden oldie.

A Hologram for the King (UK 2016) (6): Still smarting from a host of bad business decisions he made in the past and presently entrenched in one helluva mid-life rut, hard-pressed tech salesman Alan Clay (Tom Hanks, unremarkable) has one more shot at redemption when his company sends him to Saudi Arabia to promote a revolutionary new teleconferencing device to the king. Upon arrival, however, nothing goes as planned—neither professionally nor personally—giving rise to all manner of existential crises. To understand just where Tom Tykwer’s screen adaptation of Dave Eggers’ novel goes awry you have to pin down exactly what it is you’re watching. As a culture clash comedy it relies too heavily on Western perceptions of what constitutes Saudi society, from smarmy businessmen and distrustful locals to the inevitable snarling camel, to carry much weight. As a romance it seems too tacked together as Clay, a recent divorcee himself, suddenly meets a kindred spirit (Sarita Choudhury) whose chaste text messages lead to the promise of something more. Huh? As a whimsical evocation of one man’s mid-life crisis Tykwer’s odd flights of fancy—including Hanks belting out “Once in a Lifetime” by the Talking Heads as his entire life goes up in a puff of purple smoke—do manage to underscore the onscreen drama as Alan suffers through a series of setbacks, indignities and a medical scare or two. Sometimes a barren desert is not just a barren desert. Perhaps it works best as a metaphorical road movie between Clay and his gregarious ad hoc driver Yousef (Omar Elba’s insouciant performance providing one of the film’s few saving graces). Perpetually disheveled and exhibiting a pleasantly skewed take on life, Yousef’s casual banter with his uptight passenger, usually while American rock anthems blare from the car speakers, offer some consistency to a film which is otherwise a jumble of styles and motives. A few outdoor shots of Riyadh blend seamlessly, at least to our eyes, with lush Moroccan locations and add a fairy tale touch to a film too often bogged down in personal angst and clumsy sociopolitical critiques—oh those evil Chinese competitors.

The Holy Mountain (Mexico 1973) (7): Beaten and abandoned for being a thief, a pitiful Christ-like figure seeks enlightenment under the tutelage of a mysterious Alchemist. Joined by a cadre of eight worldly tyrants, each representing a different social evil, the Thief and company undergo a series of mystical epiphanies as the Alchemist prepares them for their final mission—a direct assault on the mythical “Holy Mountain” and the aloof immortals who live there. So far so good, right? In the hands of Chilean bad boy Alejandro Jodorowsky however this seemingly artsy-fartsy spiritual allegory gets buried under shovelfuls of grotesque pageantry and scandalous non-sequiturs placing it firmly in the realm of midnight cult films. From the Alchemist’s rainbow palace-cum-laboratory situated within a brick-like monolith to the streets below teeming with freaks and hedonists, nothing in Jodorowsky’s anti-masterpiece is either subtle or self-explanatory. Two things quickly become apparent though: an antipathy towards the Catholic church (a transvestite Virgin Mary sucks back a bottle of tequila while Jesus turns his shit into gold), and an outright disgust with Latin America’s past and present as the conquest of Mexico is played out using a cast of reptiles and toads in full costume and masked soldiers randomly select peasants for public execution much to the delight of polaroid-snapping tourists. Elaborate 70s-style staging and an impressive budget cover up what is essentially a string of political rants and bargain basement theology but at least it’s more intellectually accessible than 1970’s head-scratcher El Topo. Of course in the case of Jodorowsky that’s like saying one tab of bad LSD fucks you up slightly less than two tabs. And a gentle warning—I don’t think he bothered to consult the Humane Society for this one. Keep the curtains closed.

Hombre (USA 1967) (9): Director Martin Ritt and his writing team take a tired old Wild West trope—passengers on a stagecoach besieged by bandits—and turns it into a nail-biter which casts a bitter eye on greed, racism, and class privilege. John Russel, a white man raised by Apache (Paul Newman), is used to being regarded as inferior by his more civilized counterparts. But when a gang of outlaws hold up the coach he’s riding on leaving him and his fellow travellers stranded in the wilds without food, water, or transportation, his survival skills and preternatural patience will offer them their only chance of survival. The gunslingers, however, are not quite done with them… Using just a handful of characters Ritt’s rock solid script and A-One cast provides a microcosm of 19th century America as the passengers, forced to interact with each other and the unforgiving environment, begin to reveal their true natures. Frederic March and Barbara Rush are phenomenal as a wealthy couple just realizing that money and class are not always enough to turn the tide in their favour; Cameron Mitchell plays a lawman unable to cope with the physical and social desolation of the American frontier; Peter Lazer and Margaret Blye are a pair of newlyweds already experiencing strife—she longs for the pleasures he’s unable to provide; and Richard Boone bares his teeth as an intensely unpleasant outlaw who encapsulates all that is dark and corrupt. But it is Newman and Diane Cilento (playing a ballsy frontier woman) who anchor the film with their verbal sparring: his stoic Native fatalism butting heads with her occasionally misplaced sense of propriety leading to sparks that are not entirely antagonistic. With his protagonist already straddling two worlds Ritt’s drama, based on Elmore Leonard’s novel, uses a clash of cultures to guide the story in unexpected ways giving us a Western that transcends that genre’s usual limitations in the process. Martin Balsam co-stars as the owner of a Mexican cantina whose own unpolished sense of ethics provides yet another valuable counterpoint.

Homicidal (USA 1961) (8): William Castle, that crowned king of B-movie schlock, hits a home run with this stagey rip-off of Hitchcock’s Psycho. Mentally derailed killer Emily insinuates herself into a wealthy southern California home where she takes pleasure in tormenting wheelchair-bound matriarch Helga and sharpening her arsenal of deadly surgical knives. But Emily’s murderous plans hit a snag when one of her intended victims, Helga’s step-daughter Miriam, becomes a little too suspicious. And then Warren, Helga’s son and the inexplicable focus of Emily’s insane rage, comes home for a visit triggering murder, mayhem, and a final twist so ludicrous that it’s sheer genius. Full of ominous musical cues and jagged shadows, Castle elicits a pair of over-the-top performances from stars Jean Arless as the psychotically glowering Emily and Eugenie Leontovich who, as the mute Helga, uses every facial expression at her disposal to convey silent terror. Meanwhile Patricia Breslin and hunky Glenn Corbett, playing Miriam and her love interest Karl, bring a touch of much needed sanity to all the craziness. Never one to pass up a chance to pummel his audience with cheap gimmicks—he threw plastic skeletons at them in House on Haunted Hill and jolted them with electricity in The Tingler—Castle introduces a 45-second “Fright Break” just before the film’s shocking final scenes with an onscreen stop watch giving sensitive moviegoers a chance to retreat to the safety of the theatre lobby. Apparently there were no takers.

An Honest Liar (USA 2014) (7): Aside from a successful stage career, Toronto-born magician and escape artist extraordinaire James “The Amazing” Randi devoted most of his professional life to debunking so-called psychics and faith healers. “I’m a magician…” he stated once, “…so I know how to deceive people and I know when they’re being deceived.” Turning his considerable talents to the likes of Israeli spoon-bender Uri Geller and evangelical conman Peter Popoff—he managed to recreate Geller’s alleged psychic powers using basic stagecraft and Popoff’s faith healing services were exposed as a scam in one of Randi’s most famous sting operations—he championed the pursuit of skepticism. A darling of the lecture circuit where he was a favourite speaker, Randi was also the target of considerable acrimony from crackpots and sheep who needed to believe—whether in God, in E.T.s, or in the paranormal. An interesting bio given a further human edge when directors Tyler Measom and Justin Weintstein focus on the fallibilities of the man behind the movement. In the closet until he was well into his 80s, Randi’s 20+ year relationship with artist José Alvarez, thirty-three years his junior, would itself become the focal point of a deception—perhaps the greatest of his career. Ironically, as an aging Randi retreated from the public spotlight those he once targeted continued to flourish giving P. T. Barnum’s famous observation that “there’s a sucker born every minute” extra sting. Sadly, Randi passed away in 2020 at the age of 92 leaving the one million dollar prize he offered to anyone who could prove the existence of the paranormal still unclaimed.

The Honeymoon Killers (USA 1970) (7): Corpulent and mentally unhinged Alabama nurse Martha Beck (Shirley Stoler) hooks up with smooth-talking New Yorker Ray Fernandez (Tony Lo Bianco) through a personals ad and it’s love at first sight. Even after she discovers that Ray makes a living by bilking desperately lonely spinsters out of their life savings and then skipping town, Martha would rather aid and abet than lose the only man she’s ever likely to get. And so, posing as sister and brother, the two leave a trail of broken hearts and empty bank accounts throughout the southern States. But the stress of having to watch her beau woo one unsuspecting mark after another eventually takes a toll on Martha’s fragile mind causing an already despicable con game to turn into something psychotic and lethal. Based on the exploits of the real life “Lonely Hearts Killers” who were active in the late 40’s, Larry Kastle’s cultish B&W oddity starts off like so much found footage from John Waters’ midnight vault but ends up like a re-imagining of In Cold Blood. Stoler’s evil possessive harridan and Lo Bianco’s hammy Spanish accent certainly make for some unintentionally comedic bits especially when combined with cheap sets and overall affected performances—middle-aged Mary Jane Higby upstages everyone as a kooky Catholic victim—however, when the story moves into ever darker territory the laughs give way to a pervasive menace perfectly underscored by panning cameras and jarring close-ups. Featuring music by Gustave Mahler and a colourful background history—widely banned upon its initial release and originally directed by a young Martin Scorsese who was fired for “creative differences”—this is a purely American curio which certainly deserves more recognition than it’s received.

Hostel 2 (USA 2007) (2): I actually defended the original Hostel as a sly sociopolitical satire in the guise of a splatter flick. In that film an impoverished eastern European village managed to survive by converting an obsolete factory (a casualty of the “new economy” perhaps) into an upscale abattoir where G8 millionaires paid top dollar for the pleasure of killing their own people. It’s too bad Eli Roth felt the need to hack another limb off his cash cow for this unimaginative and insulting sequel. This time around it’s a trio of American women who fall prey to the drooling sadistic Slavs as a bevy of international clients engage in an online bidding war to determine who will get to torture them to death. This is the film’s only notable scene as Roth presents a montage of well-dressed businessmen (and a woman...hurray for equality) furiously upping the ante on their cellphones, laptops and blackberries while their wives and children carry on in the background, completely oblivious. But once the actual bloodletting begins artistic integrity flies out the window and we are left watching a grisly freak show with delusions of being far more complex than it actually is. There are a few obscure cameos (Ruggero Deodato as an Italian cannibal) and a ludicrous about-face towards the end as Roth tries to give a warped salute to female empowerment but only manages to dig his hole deeper. Lastly, an attempt is made to gild this steaming turd by delving into the psyches of two American clients who journey to Slovakia to make their first kill. There is the promise of some depth there but it ends up being lost in all the screams and gratuitous gore. Despite a few new faces and a bigger costume budget which allows the Slavic baddies to dress up in 007 chic you get the distinct impression we’ve all been down this road before. The first time was unique, the second time is just tiresome. A detour is advised.

The Hot Rock (USA 1972) (5): Robert Redford heads a cast of 1970’s B-listers in this most unfunny comedy heist caper. Newly released from his latest stint in prison, inveterate thief John Dortmunder quickly finds himself involved in yet another illegal enterprise when the ambassador of a small African nation hires him to steal “The Sahara Stone”, a great big diamond currently on display at a New York museum. Gathering the usual assortment of criminal minds around him, Dortmunder hatches an ingenious (and highly implausible) plan to grab the gem and make a quick getaway. Of course the plan quickly unravels as the elusive diamond is repeatedly misplaced resulting in a series of increasingly elaborate recovery schemes. A great premise is bogged down by an acute lack of momentum, ho-hum performances and a script which begs us to take ever larger leaps of faith. Watching this slow-motion action flick left me with the impression it probably would have worked better on the small screen as a TV sitcom complete with wacky extras and canned laughter. It does contain one bit of historical nostalgia however, a dizzying helicopter flight over New York City contains some amazing footage of the World Trade Centre towers still under construction.

Hot Tub Time Machine (USA 2010) (7): One of the more pleasant DVD surprises for me this year, a juvenile gross-out comedy that actually had me laughing out loud! When their loser friend almost offs himself in a drunken stupor, fortyish Adam (John Cusack, loveable as usual) and Nick (perfect foil Craig Robinson) decide to take the truculent bastard to Kodiak Valley, the old ski resort where they used to raise hell as teenagers. Upon arriving, with Adam’s reluctant nephew Jacob (über-geek Clark Duke) in tow, the three men settle in for a weekend of booze, hookers, and reminiscing. Unfortunately the more they look back on the past the more depressing their present becomes: Adam is now a boring insurance salesman still pining over an old girlfriend; Nick turned his back on a potential music career and now grooms pampered dogs for a living; and their perpetually pickled buddy Lou (Rob Corddry stealing all the best lines) has been on a continuous cocaine binge since grad. But all that is about to change, for as they wallow in their private hot tub drowning all regrets in vodka and energy drinks, some space-time continuum shit happens and they wake up in 1986—the year they last visited Kodiak and made the decisions that shaped their adult lives. Now faced with two momentous options—repeat the past in order to preserve the future or make new choices and risk messing things up even more—the three buddies ponder their next move. in the meantime Jacob, who wasn’t even born in ’86, begins flickering in and out of existence… With humour that is as much visual as it is verbal, director Steve Pink’s evocation of the MTV generation is hilarious for those of us who remember it, from the horrible neon jackets and poofy-haired metal bands (Poison!) to Jheri curls, yeti boots, and Alf on T.V. Of course the humour rarely rises above boobs and bodily functions with a bit of barf, lots of narcotics, and a surprise cameo by Chevy Chase as a flatulent Time Lord. But it’s all presented with such imagination and the caustic dialogue, laced with F-bombs and priceless one-liners, comes fast and furious enough to cover over the occasional groan. If only the actual 80s had been that much fun.

Hour of the Wolf (Sweden 1968) (8): Bergman mixes the tragic with the diabolical in this story of an introverted artist slowly going insane who eventually disappears without leaving a trace. Johan and Alma spend most of their time on an isolated island where he works on his paintings while she plays the adoring wife. However, despite the idyllic setting, his mental state begins to deteriorate; he paints visions of grotesque creatures he claims to have seen and he is visited by various enigmatic characters, both seductive and frightening, real and imagined, including a callous muse in the guise of a former lover. Even a friendly dinner at a local dignitary’s estate becomes a painful ordeal when the party turns into a vulgar display of bourgeois excess expertly filmed with extreme close-ups, spinning camerawork and overlapping dialogue. But are these experiences real or are they being filtered through Johan’s increasingly fractured mind? Eventually his strained relationship with Alma comes to an explosive end thanks to the mysterious gift of a loaded pistol, and Johan returns to the baron’s a house of horrors whose winding hallways and monstrous inhabitants become a metaphor for his own diseased psyche. Told in flashbacks using Alma’s recollections and Johan’s own diary, the story plays with our sense of reality. From the opening credits which include sounds of the film’s cast and crew preparing the day’s shoot, to the movie’s “demons” which are as solidly real as the island itself, the line between truth and illusion is never delineated. Even Alma begins to see Johan’s ghosts, as if her love for him has also left her susceptible to his psychosis. The use of light and shadow is striking, especially those scenes shot in the dead of night, the “hour of the wolf” in which most people die, most babies are born, and nightmares run rampant. Bergman has crafted an incisive look at the lonely suffering of the creative mind filled with cryptic imagery and a pervasive sense of dread. We are left to wonder whether Johan was stalked by his madness, or did he in fact court it. “The mirror has been shattered...” he declares at one point, “...but what do the splinters reflect?” Indeed.

House [Hausu](Japan 1977) (8): After meeting Ryoko, her widowed father's outrageously serene fiancee, a pouty Gorgeous packs up her Electra complex and goes to visit her aunt, an elderly spinster living in the middle of a deep dark forest. Accompanied by her aptly named girlfriends Fantasy, Melody, Sweet, Kung Fu and Mac she tries to put some distance between herself and those confusing feelings of guilt and jealousy, but this is not going to be a simple family reunion for Auntie has some unresolved issues of her own. Still grieving over a doomed wartime love affair, the grey-haired woman's bitterness seems to permeate every corner of her rickety old home while her mysterious white cat displays all the mannerisms of a witch’s familiar. As her friends succumb one by one to the house’s evil ways (and the aunt’s peculiar appetites) Gorgeous experiences a profound transformation which sees her go from petulant teenager to enigmatic young woman thanks to a tube of red lipstick and a dusty wedding gown. Steeped in dark fairy tale imagery, Nobuhiko Ohbayashi’s trippy take on the trials of puberty employs a fascinating array of cinematic tricks from hand-painted trompe l’oeil backdrops and matte sunsets to primitive animation and silent B&W film footage. Not completely comfortable in a horror film niche, House’s psychedelic effects and pop-up book sets play more like a day-glo psychodrama. Add to that a whole host of sexual symbolism; one girl is stripped bare by malevolent mattresses, another is attacked by thrusting logs, and a third finds herself floating on a sea of gushing blood, and you have one hell of an adolescent allegory. In one especially telling scene aboard a train bound for Auntie’s house the girls compose a shopping list including, among other things, “ and dreams...” while in the next seat a nun and priest doze unawares. Bullseye!

The House I Live In (USA 2012) (10): Ever since Richard Nixon announced a “War on Drugs” back in the 1970’s America has spent one trillion dollars on drug enforcement, made tens of millions of arrests—more than any other country and mainly men, mainly poor, mainly black—and has yet to see any dent in the sale and use of narcotics. Starting with the sad experiences of his childhood nanny who lost her son to drugs, documentarian Eugene Jarecki tries to find out what went wrong and the answers he uncovers are as diverse as they are unsettling. Whereas Nixon’s “war” focused more on treating addicts and the social conditions which lead to a drug culture in the first place, subsequent presidents from Reagan to Clinton demonized the lowest rungs of the chain, the user and street level dealer, in order to garner votes from frightened Americans and introduce draconian (and ultimately useless) sentencing guidelines which disproportionately targeted the poor and powerless. But the roots of the problem can be traced back to the 1800s when new drug laws were aimed at culling the population of minority workers: you can’t arrest a man for being Chinese but you can arrest him for smoking opium. And now the mythical “War on Drugs” has become so deeply entrenched in the American psyche it is a necessary cornerstone for every political campaign not to mention an economic boon as police officers are offered huge incentives to harass users and low level dealers while entire economies have come to rely on the local prison. But this is not your typical left-wing rhetoric on the poor and marginalized for Jarecki draws upon a host of literate talking heads from such diverse fields as sociology, history, neuroscience, and criminology as well as members of law enforcement, judges, lawyers, and low level dealers themselves who each share their own unique take on the battle. A well planned and insightful documentary that takes one of society’s most complex problems and lays it out in such a way that even the most ardent supporters of law and order will find themselves having second thoughts. “Just Say No” just doesn’t cut it anymore.

House of 1000 Corpses (USA 2003) (3): Writer/director Rob Zombie indulges his love of Z-grade horror movies and violent excesses to give us this hot chaotic mess of a film that practically leaves skid marks as it splatters across the screen. It’s Halloween Eve and two bickering couples on a road trip through hicksville U.S.A. happen upon “Captain Spaulding’s Museum of Monsters and Madmen”, a sleazy roadside attraction specializing in freaks and murderers. With reactions ranging from obsession to disgust, they then decide to check out the nearby grave of a local serial killer—but wind up the unwilling guests of the insanely homicidal Firefly family instead. Now, at the mercy of an inbred clan of sadistic cretins headed by buxom, brown-toothed matriarch Mother Firefly (Karen Black setting a match to whatever was left of her career), the four unlucky tourists are in for a Halloween celebration they will remember for the rest of their lives—which probably won’t be very long. Borrowing a page from Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers, Zombie skirts past reality to thrust his audience headfirst into a maelstrom of torture and perversion punctuated by incongruous TV commercials, shocking low-resolution loops (necrophilia, rape, and disfigurement!), old monster movie clips, and a haphazard soundtrack which includes C&W, heavy metal, and everything else in between. It’s a manic meth binge of blood and gore that gets progressively more surreal as the night wears on with a fiery black mass and a Dantean trek through a labyrinth of bones and surgical abominations. But what was the point—if any? Could it be a lopsided homage to the genre with Zombie culling every tired trope and cliché he can lay his claws on including homicidal hillbillies and evil clowns? Perhaps it’s a statement on our morbid preoccupation with violence and bloodletting as entertainment—he certainly serves up enough of both and then laughs at it. A critique on religion and gun culture then, with a passing sign announcing “God is Dead” and a pastor exhorting the love of Jesus while pointing a loaded rifle at the camera. Or maybe his barrage of cinematic gimmicks simply has us trying to read more into what is essentially 90 minutes of gratuitous juvenile garbage.

The House of Sand (Brazil 2005) (9): Filmed in striking cinemascope sweeps Andrucha Waddington’s lyrical allegory on time, fate, and mortality features a pair of knockout performances from real life mother and daughter Fernanda Montenegro and Fernanda Torres who play two generations of mothers and daughters over a space of sixty years. Opening in 1910, a reluctant and very pregnant Áurea (Torres) is dragged from her comfortable urban existence into the desert wastes of northern Brazil by her much older husband who is determined to eke out a new life among the dunes and scraggly palms. Accompanied by her quietly stoic mother (Montenegro) Áurea rebels against the harsh deprivations imposed upon her and vows to leave by whatever means possible. And then her husband dies, her child is born, and one cold twist of fate after another sees her resolve eventually give way to resignation. But the fight lives on in her daughter Maria and as trickles from the outside world slowly begin to intrude upon their solitude Àurea is determined not to let Maria suffer through the same hardships that were foisted upon herself so long ago… Decidedly lacking in action sequences this is a purely character-driven drama played out against majestic widescreen backdrops of white dunes, white skies, and crashing waves with the omnipresent sand trickling into the titular shack like a living thing while a ceaseless wind moans through its makeshift eaves. With the eye of a true artist Waddington serves up some remarkable scenes—a solar eclipse passes over Áurea’s upturned face like a divine portent only to be mirrored years later when Maria’s face is shadowed by a squadron of airborne bombers—and his two leads play the strong yet haggard protagonists with absolute conviction. A marvelous study in contradictions, Waddington’s keen sense of balance makes boundless space seem stifling, sunbaked desolation take on a supernatural serenity, and heartbreaking sacrifice turn into personal liberation. An arthouse gemstone.

House of the Sleeping Beauties (Germany 2006) (4): Lust and Death are two edges of the same sad sword in Vadim Glowna’s meandering arthouse mess of a film which tries to convince audiences that they are watching something far more profound. Aging businessman Edmond (Glowna himself) is still mourning the sudden deaths of his wife and only child fifteen years earlier. Convinced that his remaining years will bring nothing but more debilitation and despair he seeks solace at a most unusual brothel where old men pay premium prices to cuddle and caress heavily sedated young women. Lolling peacefully in their baroque bedchambers, the women remain oblivious to the wrinkled ministrations of their clientele including Edmond whose running monologue ruminates on mortality, loneliness, and life’s ultimate futility as his hands glide despondently over the occasional breast and orifice. The sleeping beauties are thus presented as both fleshy temptations and unobtainable objects of one old man’s waning desire. Meanwhile the Madame of the house—a castrating angel if ever there was one—keeps watch over her charges like a malevolent den mother, and when Edmond begins to ask too many pointed questions the true nature of her establishment gradually begins to reveal itself. Glowna certainly sets a mean stage with shrouded furniture standing ghostlike beyond the bedroom doors, erotic murals slowly crumbling into dust, and lightning flashing between musty drapes—is this a bordello or a funeral parlour? And the Divine itself makes a cameo of sorts in the guise of Edmond’s old friend Kogi (Maximilian Schell) a soft-spoke, fatalistic gentleman whose oracular words of advice are underscored by the thunderclouds and bronzed pegasus statue outside his apartment window. “The old have death…the young have love…” sighs Edmond over a mound of sleeping pubic hair, but methinks either would be preferable to sitting through this protracted exercise in lint-gathering.

The House of the Devil (USA 2009) (8): Despite the misgivings of her best friend, cash-strapped college student Samantha decides to do a one-night stint babysitting a reclusive old woman living in an isolated house miles from town. It’s the night of a rare lunar eclipse and the old lady’s creepy daughter and cadaverous son-in-law seem overly eager to be out of the house by midnight assuring Sam that their unseen mother shouldn’t require any assistance as she pretty much stays in her upstairs apartment. But after the couple leave and the rambling gothic home settles into silence Sam begins to suspect that she should have stayed back at the dorm after all. It begins with the odd bump and rattle from the top of the stairs, then the pipes start emitting strange clanks and echoes prompting Samantha to start investigating the estate’s many shuttered rooms and closets where a handful of hidden photographs turn her initial unease into the first stirrings of panic. And then grandma decides to come out... Set in the early 80’s, Ti West’s devilish creepshow effectively employs many of the cinematic gimmicks used in horror movies from that era; jarring close-ups, voyeuristic camera shots, and sinister orchestral riffs mixed with snatches of old pop tunes. His slow, deliberate pace ratchets up the tension making you squirm right up until the film’s frantic bloody finale which, while appropriately macabre, still proves to be a tiny bit of a letdown given the preceding ninety minutes of tightening suspense...think Rosemary’s Baby directed by Mario Bava. A fine bit of old-school spookiness nonetheless, further enhanced by a believable script and a perfectly cast group of talented actors.

House of the Witch (USA 2017) (4): Meadowcrest Manor has stood on the edge of town for decades. Surrounded by acres of unkempt lawn the huge, vaguely colonial eyesore hasn’t been occupied for almost that long—at least not by anything human, for as a prologue reveals there is something living within its walls and it doesn’t take kindly to nosy visitors. Now, on Halloween, six clueless teenagers decide to break into the old place to party the night away—and if you can’t guess what happens next you really need to get out to the movies more… Pedestrian and chockfull of genre clichés, Alex Merkin’s derivative “Horny Kids in a Haunted House” shocker doesn’t waste time setting the tone as sheets begin to writhe, mirrors reflect horrors, and all avenues of escape are inexplicably cut off. Of course the hapless adolescents decide to split up and explore. Of course one couple ends up in the attic where a gory discovery is made. And of course another trio follow a trail of screams into the deep dark basement. It seems the house’s creepy squatter has a use for snoopy interlopers and as each character is picked apart (literally and figuratively) its motive becomes frighteningly (?) clear. The effects are special enough when you consider the film’s limited means, especially the smoky contrails left in hallways and staircases as the evil bogey zooms about like a fighter jet, and one fingernail sequence made me wince appreciatively. But given the film’s premise Merkin doesn’t quite line up the dots that would allow audiences to connect those opening scenes with that foreboding finish. Instead he chooses to stuff the middle with so much supernatural stuff and nonsense that you feel as if you’re watching a group of highschool students trying to manoeuvre their way through a carnival funhouse while their parents wait outside. In the end a meandering storyline generates little tension and leads to a disappointing payoff that left me rooting for the witch.

Housewife, 49 (UK-TV 2006) (8): At the beginning of World War II a group of journalists place ads throughout England looking for people willing to submit daily diaries as part of the “Mass Observation Project”, an undertaking meant to chronicle the lives of everyday citizens during wartime. Heeding the call is Nella Last (the amazing Victoria Wood, R.I.P.), a middle-aged housewife living in Barrow-in-Furness on the northwest coast. Browbeaten by everyone and everything Nella is hardly the stuff of headlinea chronically depressed neurotic married to an insufferable monotoned bore (David Threlfall as far from his Shameless role as one can get) who enjoys little more than a pleasantly shallow relationship with her grown children. But as Nella puts pencil to paper, divulging in written words what she could never speak out loud, a gradual sea change occurs which sees her go from dowdy dormouse to a mature woman with a considerably stiff upper lip. Based on Last’s own diaries and adapted for the screen by Victoria Wood herself, this is a sparkling kitchen sink drama wherein war is little more than an intrusive backdrop for one woman’s personal evolution. Nella joins the Women’s Voluntary Service, weathers aerial bombings, stands up to her frumpy husband, and refashions her relationship with eldest son Cliff—a young soldier with a troubling secret of his own—and it’s all presented with such offhand naturalism that one could mistake it for a WWII episode of Coronation Street. Despite a few understandable jumps in the narrative—the story takes place over a six year period after all—this is a deeply intimate portrait and thanks to Woods’ beautiful working class prose it is never less than absorbing. As a note of interest, the real Nella Last continued writing her diary until shortly before her death in 1968.

How I Live Now (UK 2013) (5): Armageddon becomes a sappy teen romance in Kevin MacDonald’s adaptation of Meg Rosoff’s novel which, despite some sobering moments of violence, is pretty much the same derivative dreck those Twilight crowds seem to lap up. Beset by OCD, anorexia, and annoying voiceovers in her head, fifteen-year old American brat Daisy (Saoirse Ronan making a bad career choice) is sent from Los Angeles to live with her aunt in rural England just as Europe is about to enter WWIII (why?!). Determined to resist the countryside’s rustic charms as well as the cloying goodness of her little cousins (Harley Bird stealing the show as the precocious ginger, Piper), Daisy’s bitchy defences are eventually breached when she meets older cousin Edmund (George MacKay). Quiet, gentle, and possessing a unique ability to read people and animals alike, “Eddie” provides the calm eye to Daisy’s emotional storm but the two barely have enough time to consummate their first kiss before Hell breaks loose and the family is split up by the military authorities. The rest of the film then becomes a slogging road movie as Daisy, with Piper in tow to provide dramatic balance thank gawd, tries to reconnect with her cousin-lover while the world burns around her… A gauzy, sun-dappled prelude clashes rather than contrasts with later scenes of gang rape and bullet-riddled corpses while a soundtrack of breathless ballads and drippy piano riffs makes you wonder what, exactly, you’re supposed to be feeling—oh no, that child’s been shot in the head, but ooh look there’s a bird in the sky! Add to that some quasi-supernatural nonsense as Daisy’s troubled dreams include Edmund calling to her from various locations and a nude body double traipsing through Eden and you have a decent premise turned into pure adolescent schmaltz. An unseen nuclear detonation is horrifying in its simplicity however and reminiscent of a similar scene from 1983’s Testament, but the whole production ultimately feels rushed and MacDonald glosses over too many unanswered questions making that final kiss mere window dressing rather than life-changing catharsis.

Howl (UK 2015) (6): It was a dark and stormy night when a redeye commuter train broke down in the middle of a deep forest. At first incensed over the delay, the few passengers on board found their irate grumblings quickly turning into screams of terror after a big growling something came loping out of the nearby woods in search of dinner… Given the title of his film plus all those opening shots of a full moon you just know director Paul Hyett is about to serve up yet another variation on a werewolf theme, but he adds just enough spin to keep things interesting if unexceptional. The visuals are about right with crane shots of a menacing woods bisected by the stalled train, it’s softly glowing lights barely piercing the surrounding mists, and claustrophobic interior scenes which make the most out of tightly-packed seats and fogged windows. And the passengers are the usual assortment of monster fodder from the spineless wimp who finally grows a pair to the whiney pair of pensioners and slimeball yuppy. In fact Hyett makes his characters so patently unlikeable that when the carnage began I found myself rooting more for the creature. And what a creature! More prosthetic than CGI with dripping fangs and claws and a face somewhere between angry grizzly bear and pro wrestler—too bad those tinny pre-recorded howls sound more like a pissed off Shih Tzu than a murderous spawn of Hell. But the understated gore is nicely done with flashes of entrails and mushy body parts to augment the buckets of blood. And although the cliché-riddled script never rises above the level of a TV movie, Hyett injects enough black humour to keep things fresh while a bit of backstory sounds like the beginning of a spooky campfire tale. A creepy train ride that may not be worth the price of a full ticket but if you can manage to sneak aboard it’s a worthwhile trip.

How’s Your News?
(USA 1999) (2): A documentary following a group of mentally disabled adults as they cross the USA conducting “man on the street” interviews for their ersatz news show. I suppose we are expected to smile indulgently as they stutter and stammer and drift away on tangents while their unfortunate victims squirm uncomfortably but all I saw was a string of cringeworthy amateur film footage designed to test the limits of my patience. There is nothing outstanding about these characters, they have neither chemistry nor cohesiveness—in fact the woman is downright annoying. There are a few mildly interesting moments: an obnoxious street preacher tries to distance himself from a persistent interviewer who is only able to grunt and gesture, and an attempt is made to pose questions to a newborn lamb, but many of the episodes have the look of a cruel prank. In one of the more disturbing scenes a severely spastic man in a wheelchair is parked on a busy L.A. boardwalk with a microphone and a sign stating, “My Name is Larry, Please Talk to Me”. There is no doubt that these people enjoyed themselves, but the filmmakers themselves tread a very fine line between “laughing with” and “laughing at”. And not always successfully.

How to Die in Oregon (USA 2011) (9): A grainy, obviously amateur home video shows an unwell elderly man in shirt and underwear surrounded by family as he sits on the edge of a couch. The mood seems formal yet upbeat for he’s about to drink a lethal cocktail which will end his life and he’s eager to go even as his loved ones say their good-byes—and among his last words are a heartfelt thanks to the voters of Oregon who gave him the right to choose a medically assisted death when they passed that state’s “Death with Dignity Act” in 1997, the first American state to do so. Following the lives (and deaths) of a handful of Oregonians who chose a similar route, as well as their families, Peter Richardson’s intimate documentary doesn’t set out to expose the pros and cons of such a thorny issue but instead focuses on the choice itself and what it means to people who are facing a future of suffering and pain. One woman keeps setting her death date back as her terminal liver cancer goes in and out of quiescence. An 84-year old man calmly records his own eulogy in a rich baritone. A Seattle widow honours her late husband’s dying wish by trying to pass a similar bill in Washington State. And even though Richardson does give some air time to those opposed to the idea of doctors prescribing fatal doses of barbiturates (the law states that patients must be able to take the oral medication themselves) his sympathies obviously lie with those people who have come to know that in life there are sometimes things worse than death—a realization which sheds a whole new light on the medical credo, “Do No Harm”. An emotional experience regardless of which side of the debate you happen to be on.

How to Marry a Millionaire (USA 1953) (6): Despite its Cinemascope panoramas of skylines and mountaintops, Technicolor haute couture, and the combined star power of its three lead actresses, Jean Negulesco’s lightweight comedy (based on three different plays) is ultimately all froth and no substance. Determined to land rich husbands no matter what, three desperate models combine their resources in order to rent a swank New York penthouse they can ill afford (they sell the furniture) and go on the prowl. Embittered divorcée Schatze (Lauren Bacall) won’t settle for anyone making less than six figures; nearsighted airhead Pola (Marilyn Monroe) would rather walk into walls than be seen in glasses; and conniving opportunist Loco (Betty Grable) can twist a man around her little finger using only her legs. But, as they say, “Love is Blind” and when opportunities eventually do come knocking each woman winds up opening a different door than what she imagined. Aside from a few clever innuendos and outdated comebacks, Nunnally Johnson’s script glints rather than sparkles and Joe MacDonald’s widescreen cinematography never tires of showing us Manhattan landmarks or snowy Maine ski runs (even when it’s apparently summer in New York). Since this was Fox Studio’s first Cinemascope production even the film’s prologue cashes in on the newfangled big screen technology with a full orchestra ensemble while costume designer Travilla gets to strut his stuff with an overly long fashion show sequence (“Diamonds are a girl’s best friend…” croons the hostess as a bikini-clad Monroe turns and vogues). And one particular image—Marilyn decked out in a gorgeous lavender evening gown admiring multiple reflections of herself—has become iconic. A nice bit of nostalgia for movie buffs which is easy to watch and just as easily dismissed.

How to Steal a Million (USA 1966) (6): Parisian socialite Nicole Bonnet (Audrey Hepburn, always magical) is faced with a dilemma. Her bon vivant father Charles (an irascible Hugh Griffith all eyeballs and carnival beard) has attained legendary status in the art world for his collection of rare masterpieces—all of which he painstakingly forged himself in a secret upstairs studio. Unfortunately, with his prized possession—a supposedly Renaissance statue of Venus (itself a forgery only a few decades old)—now on loan to a prestigious museum, his “hobby” is about to be revealed after the museum orders a series of authenticity tests on the sculpture for insurance purposes. To protect her beloved father Nicole must steal the statue before the tests can be performed but how does a naïve young woman foil one of the most heavily guarded art exhibits in France’s history? Enlist the aid of a suave and sophisticated cat burglar of course… William Wyler’s lightweight heist comedy is beautiful to look at with its technicolour Paris locales and Hepburn’s endless succession of Givenchy gowns, but postcard settings aside there is little else to recommend. Even with Peter O’Toole in the role of master thief Simon Dermott and the likes of Eli Wallach and Charles Boyer putting in supporting roles there’s not much chemistry going on making a romantic side story fall flat and the “elaborate scheme” to purloin Venus more farce than thriller. A charming bit of fluff and champagne nonetheless worth a look just for the sights and Audrey’s haute couture frocks.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (USA 2014) (9): If you liked the first instalment you'll love this one. It's been five years since young Hiccup united Vikings with their one time enemies the dragons and life couldn't be better. Instead of warring with one another man and lizard now live in happy partnership with dragon races and carnivals replacing harpoons and fire bombs. But trouble is looming in the form of Drago Bloodfist, a mad pirate intent on taking over the world with his army of fire-breathing leviathans and only Hiccup stands between him and his insane scheme. Impeccable animation featuring crazy aerial battles as well as a few surprisingly poignant scenes (Hiccup is reunited with someone he thought gone forever even as another loved one is tragically lost) make this a surefire hit for adults and kids alike. And keep your ears open or you'll miss an oh-so-subtle allusion to one of the first animated gay characters ever!

The Human Centipede: First Sequence (Netherlands 2009) (5): Oh this is a nasty bit of badness! A mad scientist with an intense dislike for human beings abducts a trio of hapless tourists and turns them into a six-legged freak by stitching their asses to their mouths. With their knee tendons severed to prevent them from running away and their digestive tracts joined into one long tube (one man's poop is another's breakfast) it appears the three victims are at the mercy of their tormentor. And then the police show up... As the crazy surgeon, actor Dieter Laser is the perfect combination of insane genius and depraved villain. His cadaverous features convey more malice with a simple smile or tilt of the head than an entire page of leering dialogue ever could. The basement operating room scenes are creepy enough and the three unfortunate "subjects" are a convincing blend of horrified shock and outrage as they scream and/or moan around their horrific surgical scars. Apparently writer/director Tom Six thought of the idea for this film while discussing possible punishments for a child molester. "He should have his mouth sewn to a truck driver's ass..." said Tom; the rest is *gulp* cinematic history.

The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence (Netherlands 2011) (6): So this is the nasty little flick that so horrified the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) that they demanded 32 cuts before allowing it to be shown in the UK. Martin is a grotesque bug-eyed car park attendant in greater London who has an unnatural fondness for Tom Six's film The Human Centipede. In that film a mad doctor surgically attaches three hapless victims ass-to-mouth in order to form a human version of the eponymous insect. Martin decides to outdo the fictitious doctor by making a twelve-person centipede using unwilling volunteers gleaned from the lower levels of the parkade where he works. Not possessing a medical degree however, Martin has to improvise with a staple gun, duct tape and a suitcase full of carpentry tools. Ewww! Not really a sequel, Centipede 2 is more of a variation on a theme. Unlike the cold clinical feel of the first film, there is a definite flair to Six's shocking B&W camerawork which frequently borders on the surreal: domestic scenes of Martin and his shrewish mother are darkly comic while the more appalling sequences of violence possess a certain horror artistry. Furthermore, with this film Six sends a sly “Fuck You” to the BBFC itself who too often justify their powers of censorship by claiming to protect British society from those who would try to emulate the graphic violence they see in films. And graphic violence abounds—teeth are knocked out, tendons are snipped, a woman is raped by a man wearing a barbed wire condom, and a baby gets its head crushed. One particular scene involving mass injections of a powerful laxative is just too gross to mention here. Pretty heavy stuff which Six tries to balance out with sardonic humour aimed at the movie industry (a cameo by one of the original Centipede actresses is pretty funny!) Lastly, Laurence R. Harvey's rubbery face and toad-like body were made for the role of Martin. Gratuitous and sick from start to finish for sure, but not so easily dismissed.

The Human Resources Manager (Israel 2010) (5): Scandal hits Jerusalem’s largest bakery when one of their employees, a Romanian ex-pat with no local family, is killed by a suicide bomber and her body is left unclaimed in the city morgue. Painted by an overly zealous reporter as an uncaring corporation with no compassion for its workers, the bakery’s owner decides to soften the defamatory newspaper gossip by paying to have the woman’s body returned to her village for a full funeral. She also scapegoats the company’s HR manager and orders him to escort the casket to Romania accompanied by the muckraking journalist who is still hungry for photo-ops. A quaint tragicomic road movie ensues in which manager and reporter cross paths with a succession of quirky characters including the woman’s delinquent son and fierce mother—all black shawls and even blacker scowls—which elicit a profound change of perspective for both of them. In director Eran Riklis’ adaptation of Abraham Jehoshua’s novel cosmopolitan Israel gets a comeuppance of sorts from the harsh realities of Eastern Europe and one man’s own dysfunctional family life slowly gets sorted out the more he stares at a simple wooden coffin. There is a pervasive sense of déjà vu to the standard Hollywood clichés however which reduce Romania to a dreary stretch of highway wending its way through dreary winter landscapes populated by pedestrian bureaucrats and unsmiling peasants who seem to cross themselves at the slightest provocation. And as the manager’s phone calls home go from terse to warm and fuzzy and the reporter discovers there are two sides to every story you quickly realize just how formulaic the whole production actually is. There are a few flashes of comedy but they are quickly swallowed up by tears or snowstorms and the ending pretty much writes itself without any satisfying depth beyond a hug or two. Bland and unexceptional.

The Humans (USA 2021) (9): Stephen Karam adapts his own stage play for the screen and the final product retains the former’s sense of confinement while taking advantage of the latter’s technical wizardry. Richard and Brigid are moving into their first place together—a rackety, mildewy New York apartment prone to peeling plaster, faulty lightbulbs, and very loud neighbours. With hardly a stick of furniture to sit on, the couple have nevertheless invited Brigid’s family (mom, dad, sis, and senile grandma) to Thanksgiving dinner, an evening Brigid is anticipating with some trepidation . As the clock ticks away and alcohol levels rise banal banter and good-natured ribbing slowly turn into sharper rebukes and hurtful confessions, for everyone has come to the banquet armed with a knife or two and some wounds never heal—even grandma’s confused outbursts uncannily reflect the mood of the room. And then one final bombshell is dropped. Dysfunctional Family Dinners have been providing cinema with fertile fodder for generations but Kramer takes this timeworn formula one amazing step further by framing his catty get-together within the trappings of a supernatural thriller. Mysterious bangs and rattlings punctuate the tension while half-seen shadows drift past the frosted windows and cameras focus on pipes, wallpaper, and dark corners in anticipation of a bogeyman who never seems to materialize. Often filming the action from doorways and hallways Kramer keeps us at arm’s length from his characters, accentuating the sense of alienation while at the same time making everyone seem smaller and more vulnerable. It’s a horror movie of sorts, but one in which the monsters hug and say grace together and terror comes from a guilty conscience and the harsh critiques of one’s own family. The stellar cast includes Richard Jenkins as dad, Jayne Houdyshell as mom (repeating her Tony Award-winning Broadway performance), June Squib as grandma (Bravo!) and Amy Schumer as Brigid’s heartbroken lesbian sister. And look for an ineffectual wooden cameo from the Virgin Mary.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (USA 1939) (10): Victor Hugo’s classic tale of the deformed bell-ringer who falls in love with an outlaw gypsy girl is given the big screen treatment in this magnificent adaptation. Condemned to the gallows after she is framed for murder, the childlike Esmeralda (Maureen O’Hara, naturally gorgeous) is rescued by the hunchback Quasimodo (Charles Laughton, mesmerizing) and given sanctuary in Notre Dame cathedral. But Paris’ Chief Justice Frollo is secretly lusting after the gypsy dancer and will stop at nothing to prevent any other man from having her. Meanwhile penniless poet Gringoire, who also loves her, has joined forces with the notorious king of the Thieves’ Guild in order to rescue Esmeralda from her cloistered confines. And throughout it all wise king Louis XI strives to keep the peace even as this explosive four-way love rectangle pits church against state and peasant against nobleman culminating in a riotous clash on the steps of Notre Dame. Rich and emotive, director William Dieterle’s soundstage vision of 16th century France teems with colourful characters and extravagant set pieces—the mock cathedral alone cost 250,000 dollars, big money at that time. But it is the human interplay which makes this a B&W classic with all of mankind’s strengths and foibles reduced to a handful of players—from Quasimodo’s selfless generosity to Frollo’s self-centred scheming to the king’s detached benevolence. It is Charles Laughton however who ultimately owns the film. Sporting the elaborate make-up and prosthetics which took over two hours to apply, his frightening appearance belies a pure heart and innocent soul in direct contrast to the handsome yet corrupt citizens that surround him. At one point he is whipped in public and you feel a sense of outrage, and in another scene he offers Esmeralda food adding timidly “I’m going away so you don’t have to see my ugly face while you’re eating…” and it’s all you can do to keep from crying. A beautifully rendered bigger-than-life allegory with standout performances all around and a score that goes from orchestral arrangements to ethereal chants. Recommended.

Hungry Hearts (Italy 2014) (7): When his wife Mina (Alba Rohrwacher, amazing) becomes pregnant with their first child New York newlywed Jude (Adam Driver, also amazing) finds his marriage and his life slowly unraveling. Mina begins exhibiting bizarre behaviour, most notably a psychotic mistrust of standard prenatal care, which only worsens once their son is born. As her paranoid obsession with the baby ramps up—she’s now terrified of exposing him to germs and outside air—Jude finds himself torn between supporting a mentally fragile wife and protecting a defenceless son… An opening scene featuring Jude and Mina meeting for the first time when they’re trapped inside a restaurant bathroom promises a lighthearted rom-com, but writer/director Saverio Costanzo has something else entirely in mind. With a script that becomes increasingly sober, his use of fisheye lenses and cramped sets which turn the couple’s dingy apartment into a rat’s maze introduces an element of outright horror. Rohrwacher’s blank face and robotic interactions certainly convey an unsettling distortion of “motherhood” while Driver’s character waffles between loyal husband and outraged father in a performance drenched in anguish and indecisiveness. And the art department deploys a host of clever background cues to shore up the onscreen drama: a “Danger, Hard Hat Area” workplace poster figures prominently in the couple’s apartment while in another scene an ironically placed print of Edward Hicks’ painting “The Peaceable Kingdom” is surrounded by mounted deer heads. From it’s slow subjective descent into chaos to that jarring climax (wow!) Costanzo has churned out a contemporary Italian giallo which may prove off-putting to those not familiar with the genre’s heightened performances and pervasive sense of dread, but for fans it represents a novel approach to an old formula. Roberta Maxwell co-stars as Jude’s mother, a matriarchal figure who seems to be the only character capable of seeing clearly.

Hurricane Bianca (USA 2016) (6): Nelly Manhattan substitute teacher Richard Martinez, a gay man’s Woody Allen, accepts the position of “teaching ambassador” to a highschool in Milford Texas, a bible belt jerkwater town where goats roam the streets and everybody is a first cousin. But after only two days on the job the homophobic principle sends him packing much to the delight of his vice-principle, a sexually repressed virago, and the teaching staff composed of a slutty social studies professor and testosterone-laced football coach. Martinez is not one to give up without a fight however so before the dust can even settle he returns to teach dressed incognito as his alter ego Bianca Del Rio, a towering foul-mouthed paragon of fierceness all glam make-up and bitchy one-liners who blows through Milford High like the titular typhoon shaking up students and faculty, exposing hypocrisy (juicy secrets abound!) while teaching her homeroom class of aspiring rednecks a thing or two about tolerance. Featuring a cast of alumni from Ru Paul’s Drag Race—including Ru Paul himself as a dapper weatherman—and funded in large part by fan donations this cheeky bit of burlesque written and directed by Matt Kugleman is a technical washout on every level if viewed as a “straight” comedy. It’s crass, it’s corny, and it’s overplayed—Del Rio’s stage antics don’t translate easily onto the small screen and the LGBTQ “message” is drilled home with all the subtlety of a high heel to the nuts. But this is essentially a gloriously campy drag show so whether it’s Bianca slandering an office troll or her club gurrrrl buddies Bailey and Stephen (drag divas Willam Belli and D. J. Shangela Pierce, both faaaabulous) mincing and scratching out eyes, the joke’s on everyone—especially Texas. It’s Tootsie meets Blackboard Jungle all rolled up in sequins and sprinkled with fairy glitter.

The Hurt Locker (USA 2008) (10): The title of director Kathryn Bigelow’s horrifying journey into darkness is GI slang for any severe injury sustained in battle. But injuries come in many different guises and if war is indeed a drug, as attested by the film’s opening quote by journalist Chris Hedges, then it is one of the most destructive of addictions. Staff Sergeant William James (Oscar nominee Jeremy Renner) has just taken command of an elite American bomb squad stationed in Baghdad. A genius when it comes to detecting and disarming homemade explosives, James’ maverick attitude and zeal for taking risks nevertheless alienates him from the other members of his team. But there is a hunger underlying his hotshot bravado which neither the heated voice of reason provided by his next in command Sergeant Sanborn (an intense turn from Anthony Mackie) nor the panicked rebukes from operations specialist Owen Eldridge (an edgy Brian Geraghty), can defuse—and as James’ exploits lead his men down ever more dangerous roads the source of that hunger becomes frighteningly clear. With the incisive eye of a documentarian Bigelow proves quite adept at maintaining an atmosphere of chaotic tension, switching from long strained takes to jiggling handheld verité as she recreates a dust-choked Baghdad of burned out cars and crumbled walls where half seen faces peer out of every recess and an innocuous pile of rubble could conceal a deadly threat. Under a scorching sun, their camouflage gear seemingly out of place amongst the market stalls and scrambling children, her characters move in a constant state of controlled anxiety knowing that any wrong move may prove to be their last. But as each man faces that heart of darkness which seems to saturate everything around them Bigelow presents three very different responses: one despairs over a life of quiet domesticity he may never live to see; one sees the nightmare for what it is and the knowledge preys upon his sanity; and yet another finds within the adrenaline rush a way to keep his own demons at bay. Not so much a war movie as it is a psychological treatise on the hidden casualties of battle, Bigelow takes great pains to avoid proselytizing to either side but instead allows events to unfold as they will. In the process she treats her audience to some haunting imagery—a soldier moves ominously through a pall of smoke; a setting sun turns blood red; a dead child lies sprawled on a kitchen table—and a powerful soundtrack of melancholy notes and apocalyptic wails. Its Oscars for Best Picture and Director were well deserved.

Husbands (USA 1970) (7): The sudden death of a mutual acquaintance causes three white collar family men to experience a reverse rite of passage as they shirk their adult responsibilities and try to re-live the carefree days of adolescence. What follows is a long string of pointless booze-fuelled dialogues and petty indiscretions with each man reluctantly coming to terms with his own mortality. An impromptu trip to England eventually brings them face to face with a host of equally unhappy female counterparts prompting two of the men to return home, tails firmly between legs, while the third friend flounders helplessly thanks to the marital bridges he’s already burned. Cassavetes’ dark and unamusing “comedy about love, death, and freedom” zeros in on three adult boys getting an early start on their mid-life crises with all the pathetic shows of masculine bravura and hidden anxieties that that entails. Appropriately enough the wives are never shown for this is strictly male fantasy territory, sustained by alcohol and delusions of youth, while we the audience are kept stone cold sober throughout thanks to an unflinching camera and lack of any musical soundtrack which might otherwise lend a whimsical quality to the men’s cruel and self-centred idiocy. Long and drawn out at times with a script that seems largely improvised (and therefore completely believable) Husbands is a true test of cinematic perseverance. But the power of its three leads: Ben Gazzara, Peter Falk, and Cassavetes himself, gives it a sad sense of hyperrealism which strikes a definite chord with those of us on the other side of forty.

Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (USA 1964) (8): Bette Davis has trouble keeping her marbles in Robert Aldrich’s campy slice of Southern horror, a psychotic romp whose ghoulish details and decayed antebellum settings are a perfect match for its over-the-top performances. Thirty-seven years after she was implicated—but never charged—in the brutal slaying and partial dismemberment of her married lover, aging southern belle Charlotte Hollis (Davis resurrecting Baby Jane) is an embittered and unhinged recluse living alone on her family estate—a once grand Louisiana manor now slated for demolition. Cared for by her disheveled and eternally pugnacious housemaid Velma (Agnes Moorehead, magnificent!), the corrosive Charlotte is determined to keep her home, her dignity, and her sanity, but it would appear that all three are slowly slipping through her fingers. Starting with midnight visitations from her dead lover and progressing to mayhem, madness…and more…the screeching spinster seems caught up in a nightmare from which she can’t awaken. Is she really the victim of spiteful plotting as she maintains, or could this be a guilty conscience taking its final toll? Filmed in dreary B&W which highlights its noirish elements—Charlotte’s sunless mansion comes to resemble an ostentatious tomb brimming with family skeletons, Spanish moss drapes everything in funereal shrouds—Aldrich’s gothic chiller is heavy on atmosphere yet kept afloat by a star cast who throw caution to the wind and give us a macabre bayou melodrama. Davis waffles between iron-willed harridan and raving psychotic (how else are you supposed to behave when you see a severed head come bouncing down the staircase?) and she’s joined by an oily Olivia de Havilland playing an estranged cousin who comes to help but only makes things worse…much worse; Joseph Cotten as Charlotte’s overly suave physician; Victor Buono (in flashback) as the Hollis family’s tyrannical patriarch; and the great Mary Astor in a small but crucial role as the murdered man’s sickly widow, an angry old woman with an ace up her sleeve. Nominated for seven Oscars including Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Supporting Actress for Moorehead (she had to settle for a Golden Globe instead), Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte is a splendidly exaggerated mash-up of murder mystery and supernatural terror with a twisted plot that compares quite favourably to H. G. Clouzot’s 1955 masterpiece, Les Diaboliques.

Hypocrites (USA 1915) (7): Lois Weber’s religious allegory on vice and corruption may seem laughably naive today but it created a small storm of controversy 95 years ago for its copious amounts of female nudity. Weber uses the same cast to present two interconnected stories, each one highlighting the many pitfalls awaiting the unwary as they choose between the straight and narrow path to enlightenment and the broad avenue to ruin. In the first, a contemporary small town pastor is forced to resign after delivering a fiery sermon on hypocrisy; in the second a medieval monk is killed by an angry mob outraged by his statue celebrating the spirit of Truth in the form of a nude female. It’s interesting to see how Weber draws parallels between the townsfolk of the middle ages and their modern counterparts; kings and queens give way to top-hatted businessmen while drunken abbots become crooked politicians, and all the while “Truth” walks among them unseen and ignored. Weber takes a decidedly cynical look at contemporary society and doesn’t find much to commend. In one unintentionally hilarious flashback she shows the root cause of an unfortunate family’s dire misery; while daughter eats greedily from a box labelled “INDULGENCE”, son avidly pores over a leather-bound volume of “SEX”. Overdone in every aspect with exaggerated performances and a sense of moral superiority bordering on smugness, yet Hypocrites remains an important example of cinema as an emerging art form made all the more valuable considering it was made by one of the few female directors of the time.

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

I Am Cuba [Soy Cuba] (Russia 1964) (9): Director Mikhail Kalatozov (The Cranes are Flying) was sent to Cuba in order to make a film glorifying La Revolución, instead he produced this beautifully avant-garde piece—part neorealism, part surreal fancy, and with just a dab or two of Soviet propaganda thrown in—which was roundly condemned by Moscow as being too artsy and by Havana as being little more than a series of cultural caricatures. Narrated by the Spirit of Cuba itself in the form of a sultry female voiceover, Kalatozov’s movie is presented in four parts, each telling a tale from the country’s pre-revolutionary era. It opens with the story of a chaste peasant’s fall from grace at the hands of piggish American businessmen in a drunken bacchanal worthy of Fellini himself. Part two shows a sugar cane farmer’s downfall at the hands of an evil land baron. A student activist’s inability to visit violence upon his oppressor has unexpected consequences in part three; and part four ties it all up with a rural pacifist who discovers that neglecting one’s revolutionary obligations never ends well. It’s not the propaganda elements themselves that make this an instant classic however but rather Kalatozov’s imaginative mise en scènes and visionary camerawork, groundbreaking at the time, which eventually put Soy Cuba on the world stage. A jazzy opening number has a single tracking shot snaking down the side of a hotel wall before plunging in and out of a swimming pool, a fallen comrade’s flag-draped body is carried through a burning street like a sacred relic while the sky above swarms with white doves and wind blown revolutionary pamphlets, a Western capitalist staggering through a filthy slum is overwhelmed by begging children, and a penniless student runs past gaudy store fronts filled with ostentatious consumer goods while horny American sailors hunt her down (as they drunkenly sing a pro U.S.A. ditty). Bursting with off-kilter energy and swirling images that never sit still for very long thanks to those crazy tracking shots and one unbelievable crane shoot which literally flies above rooftops filled with patriotic Cubans flinging roses, I Am Cuba may not stand up to everyone’s political scrutiny but taken as a succession of artistic impressions (albeit lensed through foreign eyes) it is nothing short of breathtaking. Ironically, Fidel and Raoul Castro joined Che Guevara in serving as “technical advisors”.

I Am Divine (USA 2013) (8): Born in Baltimore in 1945, Glenn Milstead was always a square peg in a round hole—fat, effeminate, and not at all like the other boring middle class white kids at school. And then he met up with his new neighbour, an aspiring filmmaker and self-proclaimed freak by the name of John Waters who introduced the impressionable Glenn to Baltimore’s seething underground of sex, drugs, and make-up. Thus the outrageous persona of Divine, the most glamorously trashy drag queen to ever grace the screen and stage, was born. Tracing Glenn/Divine’s rise from whacked-out cult goddess in such flicks as Female Trouble and the infamous Pink Flamingos to the cusp of his career renaissance in mainstream films, recording studios, and prime time television, director Jeffrey Schwartz makes excellent use of a wide array of talking heads—some almost as colourful as Divine herself—as well as candid interviews and a generous assortment of hilarious movie clips and outtakes. What emerges is a portrait of the quiet, contemplative soul beneath the clown face and fright wigs; a man who struggled with one addiction or another (pot and fatty foods tied for first place) yet adored his friends and was determined to see his character evolve from midnight movie diva to prime time actress…or actor…or both. Sadly, Glenn’s obsession with food ultimately cut his life short before he could realize all of his dreams but he left behind a body of work that will never be matched for its sheer audacity and exuberance.

I Am Love [Io sono l’amore] (Italy 2009) (8): Emma Recchi, the Russian wife of an obscenely rich Milanese businessman (Tilda Swinton, always electric) approaches middle age with a sense of disconnectedness; she’s never been an integral part of her husband’s world and she’s all but lost her Slavic roots. And then she meets her son’s friend Antonio, a young chef who dreams of one day opening his own restaurant. Immediately drawn to his rustic charms and simple lifestyle Emma at first resists her erotic yearnings but they eventually prove too much for her to bear resulting in a fall from grace that will shake her life to its very core… I must admit that halfway through Luca Guadagnino’s grandiose family drama I found myself wondering why someone would take such a pedestrian plot—frustrated housewife finds escape in the arms of a younger man—and dress it up with so much operatic gravity. And then I realized it actually is an opera in which the arias have been replaced by glorious emoting and eclectic camerawork. At first off-putting, Guadagnino’s theatrical presentation soon takes on a life of its own as John Adams’ majestic score bangs and crashes through a series of stagy tableaux: lovers tussle al fresco surrounded by wheat and butterflies; an untouched porcelain place setting speaks of tragedy; and rain washes over a grieving cemetery statue. The ornately appointed Recchi mansion, looking like a gilded mausoleum, underscores Emma’s isolation while Antonio’s humble home seems perpetually bathed in sunlight and songbirds—this and several other too obvious contrasts both amateurish and oddly sublime. Finally, a subplot involving a daughter’s search for personal liberation places this one squarely in the realm of feminist cinema…all the more reason to celebrate. Magnificently overdone in every way and sure to divide critics down the middle. I loved it!

I am Not a Witch (Zambia/UK 2017) (7): In writer/director Rungano Nyoni’s distinctly African feature official corruption, the plight of women, and the toxic effects of capitalism are tackled through the seriocomic misadventures of “Shula”, a little orphan convicted of being a witch. Shunned by superstitious villagers—one drunken claimant accuses the child of cutting his arm off in a dream—Shula is sent to an open air camp for witches where the female inmates are shackled to coils of white ribbon in order to keep them from “flying away”. When they’re not being rented out as cheap labour to local farmers the “witches” are corralled and put on display for tour buses. Shula, however, catches the eye of Mr. Banda the government minister for Tourism and Traditional Culture (LOL) who decides to cash in by marketing the taciturn girl and her supposed powers as a mysterious folk oddity. But exploitation has a habit of backfiring eventually, often with tragic results… Too dark to be mere farce, too humane to be simple satire, Nyoni’s powerful mix of magical realism and political allegory softens its sting somewhat with a few genuine laughs—a feeble shaman embarrasses himself, the witches have fun with their notoriety—but the final reel, steeped in irony and pathos, quickly dissolves those laughs into lumps. Newcomer Maggie Mulubwa plays the disheartened naif with a suitably wide-eyed bafflement for here is a young girl whose desire to simply belong is continuously being thwarted by the adults around her (even women are not above using her for personal gain). Henry B. J. Phiri is brilliant as Mr. Banda, his comic timing giving us a risible jumble of impotent authority figure, bumbling husband, and frustrated yuppie wannabe. And completing the cast are Nancy Murilo as Banda’s trophy wife, a former pariah herself who only gained “respectability” by marrying the right man, and Nellie Munamonga in a small but important role as the police officer who initially listens to the villagers’ case against Shula with a mix of weary tolerance and bemused skepticism. With this quiet little feminist parable African cinema takes yet another big step forward.

I Am Waiting (Japan 1957) (6): One dark rain-soaked night while walking past the docks, Shimaki, owner of a greasy spoon located near a junkyard on the edge of town, happens upon Saeko, a nightclub chanteuse on the lam from her abusive boss. Alarmed by her close proximity to the water’s edge (what was she contemplating?) he hustles her back to his place where over the ensuing weeks a congenial relationship develops as she goes to work for him waiting tables. But her former employer, a ruthless mobster kingpin, is not so willing to cancel her contract… Drawing upon the usual genre components of dark streets, sleazy dives, and menacing henchmen, Koreyoshi Kurahara’s noirish melodrama is so westernized that even the restaurants and cabarets have English names. And he turns this downbeat corner of Japan into a veritable boulevard of broken dreams where everyone is nursing one regret or another—tragedy derailed Shimaki’s promising boxing career; Saeko’s budding opera career was cut short when she lost her nerve; and Shimaki’s only confidante is an aging doctor whose medical career has been ravaged by alcoholism. In fact, both main characters have but one dream left: Shimaki wants to immigrate to Brazil where his brother has bought a ranch (but why won’t his brother respond to the letters he’s sent?) and Saeko is looking for love and permanence, the two things Shimaki feels he’s unable to deliver. However, as the mystery of the silent brother takes centre stage—a mystery somehow tied to Saeko’s predicament—Kurahara ups the tension with bouts of overly choreographed fisticuffs and plot twists which require a flowchart to keep straight. He doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel with this ambitious low-budget foray into “Nippon Noir”, but at least its conventions are comfortably familiar while the underlying themes of hopes deferred and hope found are pretty much universal.

I Lost My Body (France 2019) (9): On the cold wintry streets of Paris a dispirited young man, his youthful dreams having been crushed by the same accident which took his parents, barely gets by delivering pizzas. And then one day he falls in love with a voice he hears over an apartment intercom and his decision to meet the woman behind that voice takes him down a very unpredictable road. Meanwhile, across town in a pathology dissection lab, a severed hand suddenly comes to life, crawls out a window, and braves a host of urban dangers—including hungry rats, subway tunnels, and construction sites—in a desperate search to be reunited with its body. In Jérémy Clapin’s beautifully animated feature two stories, one plausible the other fantastic, cross paths in a bit of magical realism which offers a meditation on our own search for wholeness and connection. The young man, haunted by happier childhood memories, nevertheless strives to evade the confines of destiny by taking huge leaps—some metaphorical one quite literal—while the hand doggedly pursues a goal which may no longer exist and in so doing grows from a grotesque oddity into something warm and sympathetic. Small wonder then that given such audacious subject matter Clapin makes allusions to short story master Guy de Maupassant and John Irving’s beleaguered everyman, T. S. Garp. A moving score of minor chords complements a meticulously rendered anime vision of twilit skylines and urban sprawl (those childhood memories cast in wistful B&W) and the overall effect is at once painterly and melancholic, even a small albeit significant final victory is hushed somewhat by a gentle snowfall. Animation as a mature art form has rarely been this stirring. Nominated for Best Animated Feature at this year’s Academy Awards.

I Remember You (Iceland 2017) (7): In a remote corner of Iceland three friends are trying to transform an abandoned farmhouse into a Bed & Breakfast when supernatural occurrences begin to keep them up at night. Meanwhile, in other parts of the country a grieving father is still searching for his missing son and a coroner’s office is investigating the apparent suicide of an old woman whose mutilated body was found hanging in a church. The ways in which these three seemingly separate stories come together form the crux of Óskar Thór Axelsson’s spooky ghost story, a series of Nordic jolts laced with an acute sense of sadness as it bounces back and forth across sixty years of history. Iceland’s vast, perpetually overcast landscapes of rock and sea were made for this kind of campfire tale and Axelsson makes the most of it with a driving score and directorial skills that never let his characters go full meltdown. Of course you’re required to suspend a bit of disbelief and overlook the usual glaring facepalm moments (“Something’s scratching in the crawlspace at 4 a.m. so naturally I’ll investigate by myself armed with a nightie and a flashlight…”) but the story is more or less solid and Axelsson pulls the rug on us a bit with a shrewd piece of temporal tinkering. A good flick to watch in the dark.

Ice Age: Continental Drift (USA 2012) (6): Our future fossilized friends are at it again in yet another prehistoric romp. This time around a sudden spate of continental division (precipitated by that silly squirrel and his acorn) separates Manny Mammoth from his wife and daughter when he is set adrift on an iceberg along with sabre-toothed Diego, Sid the sloth, and Sid’s spunky grandmother (hilariously voiced by Wanda Sykes). Braving rough seas and a shipload of jungle pirates led by the cutthroat orangutan Captain Gutt, Manny sets out in search of his family before the cataclysmic (and wholly accidental) birth of North America—complete with stone age Statue of Liberty—keeps them apart forever. Lots of colourful cartoon pratfalls will keep the kiddies amused while the distinct lack of wit, aside from a few glaring movie references, will have mom and dad stifling a yawn.

Ice Age 3: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (USA 2009) (7): Those prehistoric mammals are back at it again in this third Ice Age installment. This time around Manny and Ellie Mammoth are preoccupied with the impending arrival of their first child; a fact which causes aging saber-toothed Diego to question his place in the herd and fills the head of lisping simpleton Sid the Sloth with parental longings of his own. It’s no wonder then that after accidentally falling into a underground ice cave and discovering three rather large unattended eggs Sid immediately adopts them and sets about trying to hatch a family of his own. Unbeknownst to either Sid or his friends however, the eggs belong to one very angry T. Rex mother from a subterranean Land that Time Forgot who not only comes seeking her babies, but drags the hapless sloth back to her underground jungle as well. Led by the jungle’s sole warm-blooded denizen, a decidedly whacko weasel named Buck, Sid’s friends brave lava falls, ferocious dinosaurs, and treacherous terrain in order to rescue the furry little cretin. But the underground world contains one additional threat more terrifying than all the rest put together, and the raggedy band of rescuers are about to cross its path... Filled with cartoon silliness and gentle peril (a stint in a carnivorous plant is cute while an aerial dogfight with pterodactyls must have been breathtaking in widescreen 3D) this colourfully animated kiddie show contains enough adult humour, including a few gay innuendos, to keep mom and dad entertained while an abundance of sugary sweetness reminds them that they’re not six-years old anymore. A pair of squabbling possums provide some nice comedic diversions but an ongoing side story involving a couple of crazy squirrels fighting over an acorn soon becomes tiresome. Overall, this is a beautifully rendered bit of fluff with some sly one-liners, a soaring musical score, and celebrity voices that are bang on.

Ice Crawlers (USA 2003) (1): Heavens! Evil multinational energy syndicate, Geotech, is drilling for oil in Antarctica when they unwittingly unleash a horde of giant carnivorous rubber cockroaches which have been frozen in the ice shelf for hundreds of millions of years; you know, back when Antarctica was tropical. Anyway, bouncing around on their barely concealed strings the chitinous cooties soon develop a taste for blue collar brutes and it’s up to a team of young photogenic scientists (Geek, Nerd, Jock, Slut, and Ice Princess respectively) to save the station and alert the world. Absolutely awful rip-off of Carpenter’s The Thing with a few anemic nods to Alien and “special effects” on par with Toho Studio’s neoprene monster epics. Some tacked-on Greenpeace sermons strive for “ecological awareness” while a few flashing tits satisfy the MPAA “R” requirement and a ludicrous love affair between the tree-hugging Ice Princess and an oil company rep provides irony for the brain dead.

Ice Station Zebra  (USA 1968 ) (6):  When a Russian spy satellite crash lands in the North Pole it’s up to Captain Rock Hudson and his submarine full of seamen to get to it before the evil Commies.  Pretty standard Cold War fare with the required number of secret agents and evil Russians squaring off against their upstanding American counterparts.  Hudson and McGoohan put in passable performances but Ernest Borgnine’s ham-fisted turn as a Communist defector belongs in the Hollywood Hall of Shame.  Engaging enough despite the rather dated special effects and a disappointingly dull ending that practically drips with forced ironies.

Ida (Poland 2013) (8): In the early 60’s Anna, a noviciate on her way to becoming a nun, goes to visit her only living relative, aunt Wanda. Raised in an orphanage and now living in a convent, Anna is at first taken aback by her aunt’s hard-drinking and loose-living ways despite the fact she is a celebrated court judge who managed to evade much of the privations visited upon Poland by the Communist regime. But the naïve and resolutely pious young woman is completely unprepared for the family bombshells Wanda drops on her—secrets about her parents that date back to the darkest days of the German Occupation and which still prey on Wanda’s mind. Now, with everything she’s ever believed about herself and her religious calling in a state of flux, Anna goes on a fateful road trip with Wanda, a journey whose final destination will present her with a devastating choice. Filmed in soft shades of white and grey in the intimate 1.37:1 Academy ratio, writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski adapts a tragic chapter from his own family history to produce a story wherein one woman’s shaken faith comes to represent the shame of an entire nation. Moving from cloistered interiors to a world of earthly temptations, Pawilkowski’s Anna (brilliantly downplayed by newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska) is a study in forbearance and quiet suffering, her gaze perpetually downcast with only those preternaturally dark eyes betraying the upheavals within. And then, as if to highlight Anna’s humility—or bewilderment—Pawlikowski uses doorways, arches, and windows to divide the screen into discreet geometric spaces, often relegating his human characters to the lower quadrants while bare walls, open skies, and the occasional telling artwork or Catholic bauble dwarf them from above. Austere wintry settings and a soft classical score tie everything together beautifully.

The Ides of March (USA 2011) (8): Director George Clooney heads an outstanding cast in this contemporary fable about power, corruption, and the seductive illusion of moral compromise. It’s the Ohio Primaries and Democratic Governor Mike Morris is involved in a heated battle to become the next presidential candidate. Running his campaign is Paul Zara, a world-weary manager with an almost neurotic obsession with trust issues; and baby-faced Stephen Meyers, a brilliant media spin-doctor whose own slide into bureaucratic cynicism has been halted by Morris’ charismatic personality and unwavering honesty. But when Meyers becomes entangled in a dark scandal involving the man he idolizes, a scandal which would forever ruin the governor’s White House aspirations, the disillusioned young man suddenly finds himself a lone player in a ruthless game of dirty politics and media kowtowing. Against a backdrop of droning newscasts and patriotic photo-ops, Clooney’s passionate examination of one man’s evolution from idealistic pawn to soulless operator unfolds like a perverse morality play. With Morris encompassing all the qualities one could hope for in a future president and Meyers embodying the very essence of youthful zeal the stage is set for a fall from grace which arrives with the impact of a divine lightning bolt. Meyers’ subsequent attempts to protect his tarnished hero slowly chip away at his own sense of integrity until he finds himself becoming the very thing he’s always despised, a transformation underlined by a darkly ambivalent closing shot.

The Idiot (Japan 1951) (9): Akira Kurosawa’s adaptation of Dostoevsky’s classic takes its time gathering steam but for those patient enough to wade through the long takes and serpentine plot twists the film’s final half delivers a dramatic punch well worth the wait. After a near death experience in a prison camp shatters his spirit, Kameda returns to his hometown with the mind of an innocent child. Wide-eyed and honest to a fault, his deceptively simple insights into human nature prove problematic for the people around him who alternately treat him as a social pariah or a kind-hearted saint. But when two very different women develop ambiguous affections for him—“fallen woman” Taeko and mercurial Ayako—his inability to hurt anyone’s feelings leads to angry confrontations within Ayako’s family and dangerously jealous rages from Taeko’s other suitor, the brutish Akama. Surrounded on all sides by lies and deceit it soon becomes apparent that the simpleminded Kameda is the only noble being in a world filled with idiots—a tragic irony which will ultimately destroy him. Moving the novel’s setting from Russia to a wintry Hokkaido, Kurosawa fills the screen with some of his most powerful imagery: sullen Akama’s empty house is encased in ice; nighttime revellers sporting grotesque masks skate around our protagonists, and the two female rivals glare at each other while a nearby stove belches smoke and flames. And throughout the film a series of howling blizzards lash out with sheets of frozen snow. Unhappy and pessimistic but presented with a dark artistry which remains faithful to Dostoevsky’s intentions while rendering them wholly Japanese. A rich script and mournful orchestral score further enhances what I consider to be one of Kurosawa’s crowning achievements.

I Dismember Mama (USA 1972) (6):  Ever since he was institutionalized for trying to stab his mother, Albert Robertson has had a grudge against women believing them all to be vile temptresses.  He's especially angry at mom whom he blames for all his emotional and financial woes and vows to kill her as soon as the opportunity presents itself.  Managing to escape from the asylum Albert makes a beeline for home where he rapes and murders the housekeeper before taking off with her unsuspecting 11-year old daughter.  In the meantime Mrs. Robertson, safely in police custody, desperately tries locate her son before he can do more harm.  To be honest,  I rented this film hoping for a tawdry splatter flick filled with gratuitous gore and nudity.  I was therefore unprepared for a cohesive story which actually contained some psychological depth, a decent script, and a handful of surprisingly effective performances.  In the role of Albert, Zooey Hall displays an edgy mix of sexual rage and emotional neediness; his misogynistic cat-and-mouse game with the unfortunate maid is truly chilling, making his subsequent childlike attempts to befriend her daughter, including a macabre pretend wedding, all the more appalling.  As the mother, Joanne Moore Jordan presents us with a woman bewildered by her son's transgressions yet unable to see the role she herself  played in shaping his damaged psyche.  Lastly, Rosella Olsen's performance as a poolroom prostitute whose assertive attitude and aggressive sexuality threaten to send Albert over yet another psychiatric cliff proved to be one of the film's highlights.  It all ends with a darkly atmospheric chase through a warehouse filled, appropriately enough, with partially dismantled mannequins.  The rest of the cast may be various shades of awful and there is certainly a touch of 70s cheese   at work (starting with the stupid title), but for a no-budget thriller with a cast of unknowns it went far beyond my expectations.

I Drink Your Blood (USA 1970) (4): When a group of hippy satanists descend upon a small east coast village the unsuspecting residents (all forty of them) adopt a live and let live policy. But when his sister is raped and his grandpa is force-fed LSD, little Pete gets even with the cult in the only way he knows how—he sells them meat pies laced with rabies! With their town now overrun by homicidal hippies foaming at the mouth and wielding machetes, pitchforks, and steak knives, Pete and his family must fight for survival until help can arrive. And then things get even worse when an infected flower child turns into a raving nymphomaniac and gives rabies to an entire construction crew… Bad acting, a synthesized musical score á la Donkey Kong, and gore effects consisting mainly of ketchup-splattered mannequin parts have managed to keep this turkey on everyone’s list of best worst cult films. It’s initial “X” rating in the U.S. and outright banning in the UK didn’t hurt its reputation either. Entertainingly awful but beware, a chicken gets killed.

I Kill Giants (USA/UK 2017) (3): With an arsenal of tepid CGI effects, sobbing violins, and half-baked psychological prattle, Anders Walter’s weepy pre-teen fantasy flick doesn’t so much manipulate your emotions as take a crowbar to them. Repeatedly. Beset by rampant dysfunction at home and sadistic bullies at school, “Barbara” (Madison Wolfe) finds refuge in a make-believe world where she fancies herself a warrior tasked with protecting her seaside New Jersey town from marauding giants. Mixing magic potions and keeping an account of her exploits in an intricately detailed diary festooned with fantastical drawings and arcane runes it’s obvious the sassy young girl doesn’t exactly have all the dots on her dice, a fact not lost upon her fellow classmates who wisely keep her at sword’s length. But why the obsession with a long dead baseball player? And what terrifying presence keeps her from wandering upstairs? It all comes to a head—as usual in these types of stories—one stormy summer when Barbara is forced into a showdown with her greatest adversary yet…her own broken psyche. Magical thinking and muddled metaphors abound (sometimes a giant is not just a giant, get it?) which emphasize the film’s graphic novel roots, and Walter peppers the pot with the usual assortment of paper-thin clichés from the schoolyard bitch to the terribly understanding highschool counsellor (Zoe Saldana) to the sweetly dispositioned “new girl” in class who tries to befriend the troubled tween. And not one noteworthy performance is to be found, least of all Wolfe’s portrayal of the smart-alecky protagonist bedecked in oversized glasses and a rabbit ears barrette, a fucked-up kid so irritatingly obnoxious that I would actually pay a giant to stomp her into the ground. It’s Pop Psych 101 all the way with a mawkish final reveal & resolution that had me flipping a bird at the screen while shaking my head in disbelief. Insulting.

I Know Where I’m Going (UK 1945) (7): Ever since she could crawl, an amusing prologue informs us, the headstrong and somewhat spoiled Joan Webster knew exactly where she was going. It came as no surprise then when at the age of twenty-five she announced to her exasperated father that she was heading up to the wilds of northern Scotland in order to marry an English lord twice her age. But fate and the elements (not to mention an ancient clan curse) have other plans for Joan when a sudden squall prevents her from journeying to the island where her fiancé awaits and she must share close quarters on the mainland with Torquil MacNeil, a dashing Scotsman on leave from the Royal Navy. With her mind set on the upcoming marriage but her heart now yearning for Torquil, Joan experiences indecision for the first time in her life… In the hands of a lesser director this wartime chick flick would have ended up as so much mush and treacle, but with Powell & Pressburger at the helm it transcends the bounds of its generic storyline and becomes something quite touching instead. Leads Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey are perfectly paired—her angular features as hard as her heart and his expressive eyes and hoarse brogue able to melt ice with a single glance. And backing them up is a cast of lively extras, including an eccentric old colonel, whose open-faced emotions and rustic ways add depth and context to the unfolding love story. Cinematography has always been a cornerstone of any Powell & Pressburger production and here an unexpectedly poignant script is played out against magnificent views of heaving seas and storm-tossed clouds enveloping a village where people still dance to bagpipes, herd cows through the town square, and make small talk in heavily accented Gaelic. And a climactic channel crossing in the middle of a raging gale is a dizzying blend of bobbing miniatures and rear-projected studio tempests. The film’s one Achille’s heel (or winning charm depending on your point of view) lies in its budding romance—are Joan’s lovelorn hysterics and Torquil’s passionate glances just so much fluff or is there a subtle humour at work as we see the haughty Englishwoman fall for a swirling kilt? Personally I was left charmed.

Il Divo (Italy 2008) (9): Paolo Sorrentino’s highly kinetic and ultra chic biopic of Italian statesman Giulio Andreotti who headed that country’s Christian Democratic Party for seven consecutive terms despite a mountain of substantial rumours linking him to various organized crime interests ranging from the Mafia to the Vatican Bank. Even as his political rivals succumbed to assassination (along with various judges, journalists, and businessmen) Andreotti managed to avoid prison after all criminal convictions against him were overturned and he was appointed “Senator for Life” in 1991. Portrayed as a dour-faced, stiff-backed Nosferatu by a convincing Toni Servillo, the soft-spoken Andreotti was a complicated and enigmatic figure feared by supporters and detractors alike. In the hands of Sorrentino we see a haunted man seemingly appalled by what he may (or may not) have done but convinced that evil means are sometimes necessary in order to ensure virtuous ends. Indeed, in a volatile, and wholly fictitious monologue directed at his long-suffering wife Giulio warns that the end of the world will be precipitated by good and honest men. With elaborate visual flourishes and a fanciful soundtrack of classical overtures and club beats Sorrentino’s amazing production blends elements of film noir, political potboiler, and courtroom drama into a series of polished vignettes, some starkly realistic others fantastic. He leaves us with an impression, aided by some well-placed factoids, of an eccentric and unnervingly pragmatic little man whose reputation took on a life of its own and whose secrets could very well have brought down a government. Bravo!

I Live in Fear: Record of a Living Being (Japan 1955) (6): Elderly businessman Kiichi is terrified of nuclear war—even a simple flash of lightning sends him scrambling for cover. His obsession with H-bombs is so profound that he has already spent a small fortune building an underground bunker in northern Japan and now he wants to move his entire extended family to a homestead in Brazil believing that South America will be the only place on Earth able to survive a global atomic holocaust. Worried that this monomaniacal quest for a safe harbour is going to deplete his bank account (and their inheritance) his children petition the courts to have him deemed mentally incompetent. But the old man’s steadfast determination to protect his family from the spectre of yet another mushroom cloud gives at least one court moderator, Dr. Harada, cause to reflect on his own feelings and subsequently those of an entire nation still reeling from the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Akira Kurosawa’s problematic film, released a mere ten years after the American bombings, uses one desperate man’s family dynamics to tap into Japan’s post-war mindset. While Kiichi struggles to convince everyone they are not safe, his children respond to his pleadings with everything from bemused tolerance to outright hostility while his wife suffers in silence and his mistresses worry about whether or not their kids will be included in his Will. There is a desire to put the past aside and move forward with their own lives even though they privately confess to a touch of nuclear unease themselves. Filmed in grainy B&W, Kurosawa concentrates on faces and dialogue…a helpless stare here, a sarcastic rebuke there…while a pervasive heat wave has everyone continuously wiping their necks and fanning themselves. When Kiichi, his troubled mind already on the verge of collapse, is finally driven to one last desperate act aimed at convincing his family to follow him, his plight is summed up succinctly by an attending psychiatrist who wonders whether or not, in a world gone mad, it is the people who remain calm that are the craziest. Although his opus has not aged well, “atomic paranoia” now reduced to an historical catchphrase and Kiichi’s plight ambivalent at best (is he a frightened everyman or just another kook?) Kurosawa’s deft camerawork and natural staging conveys sympathy if not much else. The final scenes go from chilling to heartbreaking in the blink of an eye.

I’ll Be Yours (USA 1947) (8): Even the smallest fib can snowball out of control in this fluffy big city fairytale showcasing the talents of Winnipeg’s own squeaky clean Deanna Durbin. Fresh from the corn belt, midwest ingénue Louise Ginglebusher (Durbin) arrives in New York with a hundred dollars in her purse and a desire for something new. It isn’t long however before she finds herself cornered in the penthouse lair of a wolfish millionaire (Adolphe Menjou) and the only way for her to escape his eager clutches is to lie about being married to a handsome, though struggling, lawyer (Tom Drake) whom she just met in passing that afternoon and whose business card she’s still carrying. Desiring Durbin for himself, Menjou immediately sets his sights on Drake who sets his sights on Durbin who desperately tries to shovel herself out of a mess that just keeps getting messier. Sparkles, romance, and singing ensue as Deanna shows us why she was once touted as box office gold. Universal studio’s L.A. backlot makes for a passable Manhattan and the design crew earn their keep with lively nightclub sets (Durbin and Drake waltz past an indoor waterfall…swoon!) and swank industrial interiors from a grand minimalist theatre lobby to Menjou’s ornate bachelor pad. To be honest, by this time Durbin’s wide-eyed virgin schtick was getting a little stale but Preston Sturges’ screenplay saves the day with its genuinely funny face-offs and some rapid-fire exchanges with character actor William Bendix, cast as an abrasive waiter and restaurateur wannabe, who times his lines as if he were delivering a stand-up routine. And Durbin brushes off her famous pipes with a couple of operatic numbers, most notably a show-stopping rendition of “Granada” complete with wandering orchestra. It’s all candy floss and kisses of course, but sometimes that’s exactly what you need. 

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

I Love You Again (USA 1940) (8): When a meek teetotaling businessman from small town Pennsylvania (William Powell) gets an accidental knock on the noggin he suddenly realizes he’s been suffering from amnesia for the past decade and is in fact a hard-drinking unscrupulous con artist. With no memory of what he did during the preceding nine years he is both shocked and bemused to discover that he’s not only become an upstanding citizen but he also has a gorgeous wife (Myrna Loy, of course) who is about to divorce him for another man… Can he keep everyone in the dark long enough to pull off the biggest con of his life and perhaps save his newfound marriage at the same time? This ninth pairing of Powell and Loy is one of the better screwball comedies that Hollywood produced during the heyday of the 30's and 40’s. The two stars are in top form—Powell plays the bewildered swindler with his usual drunken aplomb and Loy’s frigid society housewife alternately melts and freezes as she tries to figure out why her terribly boring spouse is suddenly the life of the party. The jokes always hit their mark with perfect timing and the rubbery features of co-star Frank McHugh, playing Powell's feisty sidekick in crime, can bring the house down with a simple double take. Good clean entertainment with just a hint of sexy fun.

Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (Canada 1975) (3): Granted Nazi Sexploitation films occupy a decidedly narrow niche but that niche has still produced such notable paeans to bad taste as Red Nights of the Gestapo and Last Orgy of the Third Reich. This salacious death camp romp on the other hand, actually filmed on the old Hogan’s Heroes set, lowered the bar about as far as it could go. Loosely based on war crimes committed by Ilse Koch, the woman responsible for Buchenwald’s notorious human skin lampshades, Don Edmonds’ swastika shocker follows the exploits of camp commandant Ilsa (busty Dyanne Thorne, all tits and no talent) a sadistic warden conducting medical experiments on her unlucky prisoners. Convinced that women can withstand more pain than men and would therefore make superior soldiers Ilsa subjects her female inmates to all manner of atrocities from flaming tampons and electrified dildos to boiling bubble baths and fatal floggings. The men she uses for sexual pleasure, castrating them afterwards as casually as if she were trussing a turkey. But she finally meets her match in Wolfe (Gregory Knoph displaying even less talent than Thorne) a perpetually virile American POW who fucks her over both literally and figuratively. Hokey German accents, trashy special effects (who knew you could use jumper cables on nipples) and burlesque Nazi uniforms that never seem to button past the cleavage make for a tawdry night in front of the telly. The fact that producer Herman Traeger begins this travesty with a disclaimer and dedication, “…with the hope that these heinous crimes will never occur again” is the final nail. Just for a laugh, when last heard from Dyanne Thorne, now in her 70s, was an ordained minister in Las Vegas. Sieg Heil!

Ilsa, The Wicked Warden [aka Greta, The Mad Butcher] (Canada 1977) (4): American exploitation goddess Dyanne Thorne hauls out her big breasts once again for yet another instalment of the notorious “Ilsa” chronicles begun two years earlier with She-Wolf of the SS. Opting for a red wig this time around she plays Greta, the evil lesbian director of a South American clinic for women suffering from sexual deviancy (no punchline here folks) whose kinky reign of terror is threatened when the sister of one of her missing patients comes snooping disguised as a patient herself… With Spanish porn auteur Jess Franco at the helm there is plenty of tits and unshaven 70’s bush on display as the clinic’s voluptuous inmates prance about sans pants or else soap each other up in the communal shower before submitting themselves to lusty Greta’s insatiable appetite for sadomasochistic torture which includes pins, electrodes, and acid-laced douches—oh my! Cheesy English dubbing is complimented by a soundtrack borrowed from Fiddler on the Roof, and everyone gives over-the-top performances especially Thorne who hisses like a seductive adder while glaring cross-eyed at whatever unfortunate female happens to be underneath her at the time—in the film’s high/low point she treats everyone to a Last Supper with herself as Christ. To call this exercise in sexploitation sleazy is to state the obvious—a soiree with Greta’s girls and a group of sex-starved rapists will have modern audiences scrambling for their “safe space”—but the real insult (or biggest laugh depending on your mood) occurs when Franco tries to turn the whole lurid mess into a political statement rife with crooked officials and an omnipresent photograph of a smirking El Presidente hanging ironically alongside crucifixes and portraits of beatific women. Classic grindhouse trash.

I’m a Cyborg, But That’s OK (Korea 2006) (4): Sometimes whimsy can be an endearing trait and sometimes it can grate on the nerves like ice water poured down an unsuspecting back. Chan-Wook Park’s ridiculous tale of madness and healing definitely falls into the latter category with stars Soo-jung Lim and popstar “Rain” yelling, creeping about, and mugging for any camera they can find. She plays a young anorexic so traumatized by her schizoid grandmother’s forced march to the asylum that she reinvents herself as a vengeful robot whose only companions are other machines like light bulbs and coffee makers. He plays a kleptomaniac with the ability to steal everything from days of the week to people’s emotions. It’s only a matter of time (a very, very long time) before cyber-girl and crazy thief find in each other the key to recovery. Meanwhile a psychiatric ward full of tacky stereotypes (fat girl thinks she can fly; timid man can only walk backwards; Heidi wannabe struts about in a Swiss folk dress) race around in hysterics screaming and leaping into walls. Numerous flights of fancy are rendered so much CGI nonsense and Park’s attempts to take a deep breath and actually say something are lost in all the camp and hubris. Perhaps he was going for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest à la Wes Anderson but what we end up getting is The Snake Pit by Pee Wee Herman.

Images (USA 1972) (7): Movies exploring the subjective nature of mental illness so often rely on cliched hysterics and psychedelic camerawork that Altman's disturbingly subdued foray into the genre comes as a bit of a shock. Susannah York shows why she deserved her Best Actress win at Cannes as she plays Cathryn, a frustrated children's author slowly losing her grip on reality...and taking us along with her. Retreating to a cottage in the English countryside with her American husband, Cathryn at first warms to the rustic charm of lakes and forest but it isn't long before her personal demons resurface due in part, perhaps, to some ongoing guilt over a series of past extra-marital indiscretions. Combining a menacing soundtrack punctuated by jarring rasps and crashes with a subtle array of visual cues; a statuette of a cowering angel, warped reflections, discordant wind chimes...Altman's psychosexual puzzle box of a film starts off inconspicuously enough but soon leads us into ever darker territory as Cathryn's hallucinations, at once threatening and erotic, become indistinguishable from reality. The overplayed shocker of an ending is perhaps a wee bit stagey but it is a small criticism for an otherwise tense and unsettling movie experience.

Images in a Convent (Italy 1979) (6): In the 19th century Italian countryside Sister Angela is not having an easy go of it. As Mother Superior of the Santa Fiora convent she is all too aware of the ancient curse hanging over the building, a curse which gives her nuns a blasphemous appetite for finger-banging, cunnilingus, and wooden dildos. Now, to add to her carnal quandary, she must also play host to two new arrivals—a voluptuous countess hiding from her uncle's lusty attentions, and a handsome young stranger whose libido is strong enough to satisfy the entire flock. Could this have something to do with the statue of Pan leering over the garden wall? Or is Satan himself wandering her hallowed halls sporting a raging boner? Heavy on the atmospherics, Joe D'Amato's X-rated "nunsploitation" flick is equal parts arthouse tickler (poorly lit corridors coupled with airy choral pieces) and grindhouse sleaze with copious amounts of boy-on-girl-on-nun-on-girl action and a hardcore rape scene that's far too dated to be offensive. Ultimately just a whole lot of boobs and 70s bush culminating with a surprisingly erotic exorcism in which a horde of horny noviciates show a pious priest just how weak his flesh can be. Umm…amen?

I’m All Right Jack (UK 1959) (8): A brilliantly caustic satire set in post WWII England which casts a jaundiced eye on the never-ending struggle between capitalist ideology and the socialist backlash which opposes it. When Stanley Windrush, the painfully clueless nephew of a decidedly privileged family, decides to put his Oxford business degree to good use he finds the corporate world doesn’t quite live up to his idealized expectations. After being passed over by the “Detto Detergent Company”, “Yum-Yum Candies”, and “British Corsets”, he finally settles for a simple labourer position at his uncle Bertie’s weapons factory, the aptly named “Missiles Inc.” It isn’t long however before Stanley’s naive idealism and tenacious honesty put him in hot water with both the oafish labour union, personified by the stuffy shop steward Mr. Kite who believes Lenin sits at the right hand of God; and the factory’s slimy managerial staff, personified by his own Uncle who is currently involved in an underhanded arms deal with a Middle Eastern diplomat. A series of misunderstandings and dirty political maneuverings ensue which snowball into a national strike and a raucous television showdown. An all star cast including Terry Thomas, Peter Sellers, Richard Attenborough, and Margaret Rutherford (with a surprise cameo from Malcolm Muggeridge), compliment a razor sharp script which manages to keep both sides well within its crosshairs. Intelligent, hilarious, and perhaps more relevant now than it ever was.

I Married a Witch (USA 1942) (6): Almost 300 years after they were burned at the stake by a mob of New England Puritans, a father and daughter pair of witches (Cecil Kellaway, Veronica Lake) return to make life miserable for the last surviving descendant of the man who accused them—prominent politician and gubernatorial candidate Jonathan Wooley (Fredric March). Things head south however when a spell backfires causing the daughter to fall head over heels in love with Wooley much to her vengeful father’s displeasure. The primitive special effects and corny jokes are charming (flying taxi?!) and the premise itself was fresh at the time—it actually served as a template for the classic TV series Bewitched—but the ensuing years have not been kind. Lake and the much, much older March generate zero onscreen chemistry even though March at least tries to make an effort while Lake essentially recites her lines as if distracted by something offscreen. Kellaway adds some mirth as the irascible father, his character hovering between quaint town drunk and mischievous leprechaun, while co-star Susan Hayward hams it up like a pro as Wooley’s spoiled fiancée, her face frozen in a perpetual moue as she fumes and whines at every turn. In fact their disastrous nuptials, interrupted by everything from tempests to a warbling wedding singer who doesn’t know when to shut up, provide the film with its single comedic highlight. A bit of fluffy family entertainment which could have benefitted from a few magic charms of its own.

The Immigrant (USA 2013) (6): Determined to prevent her sickly sister from being deported back to Poland, newly arrived immigrant Eva (a mesmerizing Marion Cotillard giving the film its backbone) finds herself having to rely on the kindness of strangers. Unfortunately, the stranger in question is Bruno Weiss (an emoting Joaquin Phoenix), a burlesque producer and part-time pimp who introduces the headstrong naif to the debilitating world of vice and immorality while at the same time making her the object of his obsessive affections. And then Bruno’s estranged cousin pops up (Jeremy Renner stuck in first gear), immediately takes a fancy to Eva himself and thus precipitates one final tragedy. The rich cinematography, poignant orchestral score, and sepia-tinted recreation of 1920s New York City may be enough to sway you, but for those with a more critical eye the relentless heartbreaks in James Gray’s period weeper provide enough melodrama to rival 1914’s The Perils of Pauline. Cotillard gives a noteworthy performance—including memorizing 20 pages of Polish dialogue—her plain beauty undercut by the quiet fierceness lashing out from her eyes as she constantly reassess her life and the people in it. She’s so good in fact that she leaves Phoenix and Renner trying to catch up: a sympathetic Phoenix wringing and wailing as the tortured would-be lover; Renner’s good guy smiling and cooing in dented armour. The corruption of innocence is a cinematic trope as old as the industry itself and in that respect Gray’s opus hardly breaks new ground, but the aforementioned technical artistry does make for a grand widescreen experience and Cotillard is more than up for the endless bumps and scrapes her character must endure. Finally, as all fades to black, we are left with a bittersweet image of purest poetry. Almost worth it.

Immoral Tales (France 1973) (4): In the 20th century a worldly young man tries to take advantage of his younger cousin during a trip to the beach but the not-so-innocent waif winds up turning the tide on him. In the 19th century a pious adolescent locked up by her puritanical mother for having impure thoughts discovers that with God’s help you don’t need a man when you have a cucumber. In the 17th century a Hungarian countess and her dashing squire maintain a harem of voluptuous country girls, but aside from shower room fun and games the noblewoman has more sinister plans for the naked beauties. And in the 16th century Lucretia Borgia keeps it all in the family with the unbridled cooperation of Pope Alexander VI (her dad) and her brother Cesare while their most vocal opponent burns at the stake. Polish bad boy director Walerian Borowczyk’s stab at arthouse porn looks and sounds fantastic with its elaborate sets and period costumes shored up by celestial choral arrangements. Seduction, incest, sexual assault, and self-gratification take to the stage in a series of four vignettes—a fifth chapter was removed and turned into another feature film—centred on female sexuality in all its incarnations (?) However, despite obvious influences by the likes of De Sade, Pasolini, the life of St. Theresa, and the tales of Countess Bathory, Borowczyk’s attempt to turn sordid lead into cinematic gold simply produces a lecherous medley of breasts, buttocks, and bush whose string of extreme gynaecological close-ups and stagey orgasms neither illuminate nor challenge. Just because you can push the envelope doesn’t mean you should, a point this tedious succession of Playboy centrefolds proves again and again.

I’m Not There (USA 2007) (7): I’m not Bob Dylan’s biggest fan, in fact I know next to nothing about the man although I do appreciate some of his music. After watching Todd Haynes’ kaleidoscopic jigsaw puzzle of a biopic however I was left with a whole slew of conflicting impressions. Rather than present a straight-up storyline with the usual humble beginnings and problem-riddled rise to fame, Haynes chooses instead to pass Dylan through a cinematic prism without any attempt to separate the man from the myth. What emerges are six distinct personae (none of whom are named Bob Dylan), played by six seasoned actors ranging from Heath Ledger to Cate Blanchett, each portraying a different aspect of the singer/songwriter. Reluctant folk icon, despised pariah, enigmatic auteur, recluse, activist….here he’s a black child riding the rails, here he’s a jaded rock star philosophizing in the back of his limo, now he’s a frontier outlaw taking a stand against corporate bullies, and now he’s a cocky anti-hero facing a panel of dour interrogators… It’s a testament to Haynes’ enormous talent that he manages to weave his separate stories in and out of each other, going back and forth through time, while simultaneously mimicking a host of directing styles including Fellini and Godard. This is the cutting edge of experimental filmmaking which successfully treads that fine line between coherent art and arty subjectivism. It’s a shifting montage of words and snippets, tied solidly together by Dylan’s music, which presents you with an idea of Dylan, rather like an abstract sculpture which changes perspective as you walk around it. I didn’t get any of the in-jokes or biographical allusions, nor did I walk away able to spout facts and figures, but as a theatrical experience it was well worth it. I just wish Haynes had cut it down to a more sustainable running time.

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

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

I’m So Excited! (Spain 2013) (8): Pedro Almodóvar returns to his roots in this outrageous sex farce whose sheer campiness almost obscures its subversive political barbs. All is not well aboard Peninsula Airlines flight 2549 en route to Mexico City for shortly after takeoff the pilot realized that the wheels were frozen in place thanks to a technical screw-up on the ground. Now circling Spain waiting for emergency landing clearance the crew must deal with an increasingly agitated Business Class section and the threat of a lawsuit. Meanwhile the sexually ambivalent pilots and three bitchy stewards try their best to maintain the peace through alcohol, true confessions, and a lip-synched song-and-dance number straight out of drag heaven. But with time running out a new complication arises when a complimentary batch of mescaline-laced punch kicks everyone’s libido through the stratosphere… Filmed in rainbow colours with bitching, back-biting, and blowjobs all around this certainly is comedy at its most gay, and the three diva flight attendants (played to perfection by Javier Cámara, Raúl Arévalo, and Carlos Areces) do their best to stoke the flames with one diligently praying to his cardboard saints, one preying on the copilot, and one unable to tell a lie no matter how terrible the truth is. But delve beneath the hilariously tacky surface features and the state of the plane suddenly mirrors the state of the nation: the pampered elite in First Class include a swindler, a cheat, a murderer, and a nymphomaniac or two while the peasants in Economy remain blissfully unaware of any impending doom thanks to a well-meaning stewardess and a bottle of sedatives. Furthermore, the plane is forced to stay aloft because every airport is either holed up with security concerns or facing bankruptcy. Written and directed by Almodóvar this is also a wry tribute to himself with a cast of former mainstays (Penélope Cruz and Antonio Banderas are handed laughably minor roles) and a few in-jokes sure to make his fans chuckle. A tasteless and delightfully vulgar mash-up of 1980’s Airplane and all those oh-so serious Airport movies, shaken and served up like a Valencia cocktail.

The Imitation Game (UK 2014) (8): Despite some historical inaccuracies Morten Tyldum’s biopic of Alan Turing, the mathematical genius who helped win WWII while also laying the groundwork for the study of artificial intelligence, remains a moving testimony not only to the man himself but to the vicious homophobia which was so ingrained in British law for centuries. Throughout WWII Germany had been using an astronomically complicated code, nicknamed “Enigma”, in order to radio commands to its military divisions. With all possible alphabetical permutations numbering in the millions of millions the Enigma cypher was considered unbreakable—yet cracking it was crucial to any Allied victory. Thus, gathering some of the country’s most brilliant minds including young mathematics professor Turing (Oscar nominated Benedict Cumberbatch), British Intelligence set out to solve the unsolvable. But despite leading his team of prodigies—among them lone woman Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley, also nominated)—to its crucial breakthrough, Turing was ill-prepared for both the moral ramifications of covert warfare and the ignominy thrust upon him when his homosexuality (highly illegal at the time) became public knowledge several years later. Told mainly in flashback as an incarcerated Turing confesses all to a police inspector, Tyldum’s film moves back and forth through time from Turing’s childhood crush on a fellow classmate in the 1920’s until shortly before his death in the early 50’s. Cumberbatch gives one of his most intense performances playing the complicated genius: a man obsessed with analyzing everything around him, devoid of any sense of humour, and quite possibly an undiagnosed case of Asperger’s Syndrome. Knightley adds a touch of nascent feminism as a woman whose brilliance is overshadowed by her lipstick and unmarried status, and Alex Lawther has you reaching for the kleenex playing the young, painfully withdrawn Alan whose first taste of boyhood love ends in tragedy. With the classified military documents referring to Turing’s codebreaking team sealed for decades, his contribution to the war effort (and his unconscionable conviction of “gross indecency” afterwards) wasn’t fully appreciated until recently prompting Elizabeth herself to grant him a posthumous royal pardon in 2013.

In A Better World (Denmark 2010) (8): When Christian comes to the aid of Elias, a classmate mercilessly bullied by a group of older kids, the two become fast friends. Quiet and unassuming, Elias finds an outlet of sorts in Christian's fiery temper and single-minded obsession with wreaking vengeance on anyone who crosses him. But when Christian's desire to even the score with a loudmouthed auto mechanic goes too far Elias finds himself in way over his head. Meanwhile the boys' parents are having issues of faith and forbearance themselves; while Elias' mom is dealing with her husband's infidelity, his father is facing a moral crisis of a different sort halfway around the world. At the same time Christian's father is dealing with issues of grief and guilt surrounding his wife's death...a struggle sadly misinterpreted by Christian. Susanne Bier's amazing ensemble piece examines the complexities of taking a moral stand from widely differing angles. She is well aware of the small compromises, white lies and sometimes contradictory messages heaped upon children as they try to understand the mysterious ways of grown-ups; ways that are often just as strange to the adults themselves. With excellent performances throughout and a wonderfully intimate visual style (scenes of Christian standing atop a silo looking down in judgement on the people below were truly inspired) it's little wonder it won last year's Best Foreign Language Oscar.

In Bed  (En la cama) (Chile 2005) (7):  The battle of the sexes is reduced to a series of post-coital dialogues intercut with some hot and horny sex scenes in this remarkable film from Chile. Bize makes the most of a very confined space due in large part to a pair of talented (and gorgeous) leads and some expert editing. Some of the dramatic revelations may be a bit forced but the script remains believable and the underlying sense of loneliness and regret is palpable.

In Between Days (Canada/Korea 2006) (5): It’s winter in Toronto and the cold grey streets are reflected in the cheerless eyes of teenaged Aimie, a recent Korean immigrant being raised by her single mother. Unable to fit in with any crowd and constantly zoning out, Aimie has started skipping classes to hang out with potential new boyfriend Tran, a chain-smoking bad egg who is slowly leading the vulnerable girl down the path to delinquency. Can cigarettes, misdemeanours, and sexual experimentation be far behind? Shot in an austere verité style reminiscent of the Dogme 95 school—natural lighting, handheld cameras, incidental music only—writer/director So Yong Kim does manage to coax believably downplayed performances from her largely amateur cast. Unfortunately this minimalist approach which worked so well for her in 2008’s Treeless Mountain fails to inject much insight into what eventually becomes another derivative tale of teenaged angst and alienation, the “immigration experience” notwithstanding. As Aimie, Jiseon Kim mopes about, lolls in bed, or else addresses her flip-phone in a mumbled monotone while the adults around her seem equally preoccupied: her ESL teacher drones on about colloquialisms while mom primps for a date and nags her about studying harder. All very convincing, but where’s the point? Even Aimie’s video musings on her absent father, which could have added some much needed layers to her character, simply boil down to “I miss you dad and wish you were here”. The film’s aura of isolation and dissatisfaction, that vague adolescent yearning for something you can neither explain nor obtain, is universal (an upbeat letter stolen from a vandalized car strikes an ironic note)—but with In Between Days it’s just a familiar veneer surrounding a story filled with sullen stares and emotional blanks.

In Bruges (UK 2008) (9): The Irish humour is dark and heavy in Martin McDonagh’s amazing debut feature, a thoroughly engrossing mix of Shakespearean tragedy and religious parable with just a touch of Abbot & Costello. Ray and Ken are hired killers on the lam after a contracted murder in London goes horribly awry. Fleeing to Brussels to hide out while awaiting further instructions from Harry, the brutish gangster who hired them, the two men try to get along as best they can despite wildly differing personalities. But when the new orders finally arrive, Harry ends up making them an offer they can neither refuse nor accept. As the foul-mouthed yet strangely vulnerable Ray, Colin Farrell exhibits a manic energy which dominates every scene; his thick brogue making even the most innocuous sentence a reason to smirk. Brendan Gleeson’s Ken, on the other hand, is a study in forbearance; a curious blend of wide-eyed wonder and weary stoicism. As the two play off each other along the streets and canals of Belgium’s capital they manage to piss off everyone they encounter from Belgians, Americans, and Canadians to fat people, hookers, and coke-snorting dwarves. McDonagh’s fiendishly clever script constantly challenges our expectations while the superb cinematography incorporates Brussels’ medieval buildings and alleyways to create a fairytale aesthetic further enhanced by a wistful musical score. The film’s relentlessly mounting suspense finally comes to a head on Christmas Eve when Harry travels to Bruges in order to confront the two errant hit men. What follows is a masterful fusion of form and substance ending in a perfectly contrived coda lifted right from Hieronymus Bosch’s Last Judgement. Hysterical, brutal, and unexpectedly moving. A pure delight.

In Celebration (UK 1975) (7):  The resentments children and parents can hold against each other, even into adulthood, is a recurring theme in this story of three estranged brothers who come together at the family home to celebrate their mom and dad’s 40th wedding anniversary.  From the outset it is obvious that tensions run deep in this family, with forced gaiety and impromptu arguments all around...apparently there is more than one elephant in the Shaw’s living room.  Each son has an axe to grind and as the family’s afternoon of discomfort becomes a long night of discontent the blades turn razor sharp.  There is a load of repressed anger here that seems to centre on the mother and, in an odd way, the memory of their eldest brother who died at the age of seven.  Each son handles his pain differently...while one rages against society, another seeks solace in materialism while the youngest turns his anger inwards.  Things finally reach the breaking point around the breakfast table when the sons realize they must either attempt an uneasy truce or watch the family disintegrate.  Based on David Storey’s play, “In Celebration” is certainly theatrical with characters glaring daggers at each other and dialogue being delivered hot and heavy.  This type of presentation does not do well on the small screen, in my opinion, and comes across as exaggerated melodrama.  Furthermore, when the family’s “dark secrets” are finally revealed they hardly seem worth the preceding two hours of heated tirades and surly stares.  Still, the acting is very good and the pace never slackens.  I would love to have seen the original stage production.

In China They Eat Dogs (Denmark 1999) (7): Mild-mannered bank teller Arvid is not having a good day. His girlfriend is breaking up with him out of sheer boredom and an entire rock band has threatened to beat him up after he turns down their request for a loan. But when he thwarts an attempted robbery and becomes a local hero he feels his luck is about to change. And it does…for the worse. Not only do the aforementioned rockers catch up with him but the would-be thief’s wife pricks his conscience with a sob story so convincing he decides to help her and her husband out by staging another robbery. Enlisting the aid of his brother Harald, a criminal mastermind and Arvid’s polar opposite, as well as a few of Harald’s dim-witted assistants including hapless immigrant Vuk, the men pull off an elaborate heist which not only nets them a duffel bag full of cash but also attracts unwanted attention from the local mafia. And then things start to get really complicated… The grating contrast between Arivid’s milquetoast integrity and Harald’s cutthroat moral relativism (“Nothing is right, nothing is wrong, it’s all up to you”) provides the backbone for Lasse Olsen’s blackhearted comedy in which virtue runs amok and the best of intentions leaves a trail of corpses in its wake. Comparable to Quentin Tarantino at his most sardonic, Olsen’s slice of nordic noir is not quite as polished as it could be thanks to a few narrative potholes and a silly denouement involving a pair of grim reapers, but the pyrotechnics are dazzling and the cast’s deadpan delivery rarely misses. An ironic soundtrack of heavenly choir pieces provides the perfect finishing touch.

Incident in a Ghostland (Canada 2018) (5): When it comes to scary movies some directors prefer to slowly twist the screws one little shock at a time while others like to smack the audience in the face with a frying pan right from the outset. With this clever but sloppy pastiche of fairy tale tropes and Hollywood salutes Pascal Laugier places himself firmly in the latter camp. Pauline and her two teenaged daughters Beth and Vera barely move into the rural house they inherited from a dead aunt—a tumbledown maze of wooden corridors populated by the old woman’s collection of macabre dolls—when they are brutally attacked by a pair of psychopaths. Years later Beth continues to be troubled by bad dreams even though she’s now a successful horror author living in Chicago with her husband and son. But Vera, who still lives with mom in that infamous house, has it much worse. Given to violent, often self-destructive fits of paranoia as she relives the trauma she suffered, Vera has never been able to move forward. But when Beth decides to pay mom and sis an impromptu visit she discovers that sometimes the past never truly dies… With a witch and an ogre haunting the girls’ dreams in grandmother's haunted house it’s easy to see where Laugier gleaned much of his inspiration especially given Beth’s overactive imagination and penchant for telling stories—she cites H. P. Lovecraft as her biggest idol. In addition, the director piles on the pop cinema references with a little Amish boy running through a field of corn (get it?!), Vera done up in Baby Jane drag, and a midnight trek right out of Texas Chainsaw. But despite a very interesting—albeit suspect—psychological about-turn that manages to throw reality back in your face, it soon gets buried under a cacophony of screaming bitch slaps and vulgar excesses (Mr. Ogre's appetites are especially nasty). As with his previous film, Martyrs, Laugier once again subjects a pair of female antagonists to a sadistic round of torture and psychological despair with very little payoff in the end. At least Ghostland doesn’t try to excuse the brutality with some existential sleight-of-hand.

The Incredibles (USA 2004) (9): Former superhero Mr. Incredible and his superhero family are forced to live the straight life along with the rest of their kind after a string of lawsuits threaten to bankrupt the government which once supported them—after all, you can’t catch super villains without derailing the occasional subway or demolishing the odd skyscraper. Now living in suburbia under the assumed name Bob Parr along with his wife Helen (aka “Elastigirl”) and their three superkids, Mr. Incredible ekes out a living as an insurance salesman while pining away for the old days when being a guardian of mankind meant something. So when a mysterious agent calls upon him to help save the world once more Bob just can’t resist, even if he has to lie to Helen who is determined to raise a “normal” family despite a son who can run faster than a bullet, a sullen daughter who can create force fields and make herself invisible, and a giggling newborn with powers yet unrealized. But a new arch nemesis is on the rise, one with a personal grudge against Bob, and he will stop at nothing to make his diabolical dreams come true—starting with ridding the world of all superheroes… Brad Bird’s Oscar-winning animated feature has the look and feel of a Saturday morning cartoon whose candy-coloured backdrops and slapstick mayhem have been given new computerized life while keeping all those killer robots and retro rocket ships intact. The first Pixar production to actually receive a “PG” rating, presumably for violence and adult content (people die in messy ways albeit offscreen), there is a pessimistic vein just beneath the vibrant pyrotechnics and witty repartee which speaks to the new millennium’s preoccupation with tarnished heroes and the sense of skepticism which has replaced them. Not only have a generation of caped crusaders been forced into obscure desk jobs, but their special powers are proving to be of little use against corporate bosses and middle-aged spread. Not to worry however for in this world justice still triumphs, evildoers still meet their doom, and a promised sequel insures that we haven’t heard the last from Mr. and Mrs. Incredible. Samuel L. Jackson provides the voice of “Frozone”, a speed skating brother equipped with icicle rays, and Bird himself breathes life into Edna “E” Mode, the fabulously eccentric pint-sized designer of superhero tights whose manic speech and Beatles haircut proves to be one of the film’s many pleasures.

Indecent Desires/My Brother’s Wife (USA 1966/67) (6): A wonderful pair of retro nudies made in the days when women sported mile-high hairdos and wore false eyelashes the size of toilet brushes. In Indecent Desires a discarded doll exerts an unhealthy influence on the skinny perv who brings it home. It proves to be a voodoo doll of sorts and every time he fondles its little plastic chest Anne, the busty blonde secretary across the street, gets an extra flip in her bouffant. It isn’t long before Anne begins to doubt her sanity and no amount of prancing around the living-room topless seems to help. Even her best friend Babs is unable to offer any comfort as she is too busy having simulated non-sex with her “continental” boyfriend (he goes to bed with a fake moustache, sunglasses and cigarette holder). In My Brother’s Wife virile Frankie spends a few days with his dumpy middle-aged brother Bob and Bob’s improbably sexy wife Mary who looks like a goth Barbie on Xanax. Frankie and Mary’s inevitable affair is narrated in a series of monotone voice-overs coupled with jarring close-ups of their faces...and hands...and shoes...and nostrils. There’s a wonderful avant-garde sleaziness to these tawdry tales that is difficult to pin down. Perhaps it’s the ultra-cool beatnik soundtrack that runs the gamut from supermarket muzak to old-fashioned bump’n’grind. Perhaps it’s the bizarre B&W camerawork that looks like a collaboration between Roger Corman and Salvador Dali; a baffling girl-on-girl sequence involving a checkered couch is especially odd. Or maybe it’s just the delightful trashiness of it all, from the gaudy 60’s decor and tacky recycled sets to the lurid storylines (both women succumb to their wantonness). A real unexpected pleasure!

In Fabric (UK 2018) (5): Dowdy middle-aged divorcee Sheila tries to take one more stab at romance with a lonely hearts ad, a new do, and a fabulous crimson dress she got on sale at a swank London department store. The dress, however, has other plans for even though it turns heads it’s also possessed by a demonic presence which visits tragedy upon all who wear it—be they women or men. From cashiers who look like animated mannequins bedecked in sorceress drag and spouting seductive sales incantations to the glossy in-store catalogue which opens up like a book of spells (the dress only comes in “artery red” and it’s one size truly fits all), Peter Strickland’s horror comedy takes so many clever jabs at Western consumer culture it’s difficult to keep up. While one of the cursed garment’s owners has a nightmare in which her dress size increases exponentially even as she melts away into a skeleton, another discovers that “wash and wear” comes with dire consequences, and one rude shopper sparks a feeding frenzy when she dares to cut in line. There’s also deadpan send-ups of everything from political correctness (a pair of gay managers take nit-picking to a new level) to third world exploitation with a netherworld sweatshop providing the film’s highlight. Sadly, an otherwise engaging satire is mired down by such long stretches of tedium, repetitious scenes, and a barrage of bizarre affectations (menstruating mannequins?) that the message gets lost amidst all the hubris. Strickland doesn’t so much preach to the choir as harangue it with a bullhorn and that is one sales pitch that never goes over well with me.

Infection (Japan 2004) (7): Things are not going well at Central Hospital, the dingiest and most poorly run medical facility in all of Japan. Aside from the ongoing staffing shortages, lack of supplies, and shoddy maintenance (filthy walls and poorly lit hallways choked with junk seem to be the norm), both the Chief of Staff and Head Nurse are behaving very oddly and a fatal blunder has malpractice lawsuit written all over it unless everyone can “dispose” of the evidence in time. Then a mysterious ambulance drops off a patient suffering from a most horrific—and contagious!—infection and the hospital’s already bone-weary night shift suddenly find their worst nightmares are just beginning. Someone involved with Masayuki Ochiai’s cinematic train wreck had to have watched every episode of Lars Von Trier’s The Kingdom for that Danish serie’s macabre touches are to be found in almost every frame—from the crazy old woman who sees ghosts in mirrors to the monster sliding through the plumbing to the dead body decaying in an empty room. There is also a dark humour at work which compliments rather than offsets the jolts and carnage, most notably a skittish student nurse who couldn’t hit the side of a barn with a syringe (despite copious practice on her own arms) and the aspiring surgeon with an obsession for suturing. None of it makes more than the sketchiest of sense of course, even with a glossy paranormal reveal thrown in towards the end, but the ham-fisted performances are pure camp and the gore flows freely enough to fill in most of the plot holes. Fans of J-horror will have reason to celebrate while anyone who has ever worked in a hospital will appreciate the underlying satire whether it was intentional or not. One of the best bad movies I’ve seen in quite some time!

Infernal Affairs (Hong Kong 2002) (9): Police inspector Lau has been assigned to a task force aimed at destroying the local drug cartel run by Hon Sam. Petty crook Chen Yan is Sam’s right hand man and trusted confidante. Even though the two don’t know each other’s identity they nevertheless share a common secret which irrevocably binds one to the other—they are both imposters. Lau is actually on Sam’s payroll, using his position on the force to destroy evidence and warn the gangster of impending police raids while Yan is an undercover cop trying to gather that same evidence and arrange those raids. Complications abound when their respective bosses hand them the task of rooting out the mole in their midst leading to an intense game of cat-and-mouse as good cop and bad cop try to unmask one another before they’re exposed themselves. As slick and stylish as they come, this fast-paced Hong Kong policier practically flies by in a jagged blur of bullets, double crosses, and three-piece suits all lensed by the legendary Christopher Doyle who transforms Hong Kong into a rat’s maze of neon streets and smoggy skies reflected in pristine glass skyscrapers. Not content to simply squeeze out another Chinese gangster flick, writers Alan Mak and Felix Chong delve beneath the surface of their protagonists to examine what happens to a man’s psyche when he is forced to act against his nature for years at a time—the prickly conscience, the loss of identity, and the existential crises which arise when one is faced with yet another line to cross. Finally, a series of deeply ironic twists elevate an already masterful story into the realm of parable as Max and Chong question the nature of morality—a challenge answered in part by a pair of sobering Buddhist quotes which bookend the film.

L’Inferno  (Italy 1911) (8):  Surprisingly good screen adaptation of Dante's Inferno considering it is almost 100 years old although the contemporary pop soundtrack detracts from the drama rather than adds to it. The sets were imaginative (very much influenced by Dore's illustrations), the acting appropriately theatrical and the special effects and costumes were pretty impressive for 1911. Some familiarity with Dante's epic poem as well as medieval cosmology in general would certainly help the viewer understand what was being shown. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone with a serious interest in the history of film.

Inferno (Italy 1980) (3): A young woman’s life takes a turn for the worse when she buys a mysterious book from a crippled antiques dealer. Written by an architect hired to build three very unique homestwo in Europe, one in Americathe book warns of the “Three Mothers”, a trio of particularly malevolent witches hellbent on world domination. Using their custom made mansions as repositories of supernatural power, the witches bring death and destruction to everything they touch, but by following a handful of enigmatic clues contained within the book it is possible to ruffle them up a bit. And so the story goes... This disappointing follow-up to 1977’s vastly superior Suspiria is heavy on the surreal with endless corridors of blood-red shadows and blowing drapes set to a soundtrack of acoustical jolts, operatic passages, and screeching rock. Switching locations back and forth between Rome and Rome-as-New York, there is a certain urban chic to Dario Argento’s vision with lots of dimly lit skyscrapers and lurid neon while a few scenes actually manage to go beyond simple atmospherics: an underwater exploration of a submerged parlour, though somewhat extraneous, still provided a nicely macabre tangent but visions of flung kitties (credits include “cat wrangler”) and confused rats trying to look menacing threatened to put the camp factor through the roof. Unfortunately, thanks to some abysmal editing and a muddled storyline the film ultimately proved to be all show with very little substance leaving me to wonder if Argento accidentally left out a few reels. Deadly serious, unintentionally amusing.

The Infiltrator (USA 2016) (7): In the 1980s U.S. Customs agents launched one of their biggest stings in recent history. Setting their sights on Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar’s international network of money laundering the undercover operation resulted in the arrests of dozens of people from millionaire smugglers to bank presidents. Based on the memoirs of Customs officer Robert Mazur who risked his life posing as a high stakes investment entrepreneur eager to handle the cartel’s money, Brad Furman’s violent thriller hops between Florida and Europe as Mazur (Bryan Cranston) weathers sadistic thugs and suspicious kingpins, gaining their trust in order to amass the necessary incriminating evidence. Meanwhile his wife (Juliet Aubrey) weathers a few trials of her own when Mazur’s double-life begins to take its toll on their marriage—his alter-ego’s sham engagement to a young undercover rookie coming close to providing that proverbial last straw. Cranston’s craggy features and dyed hair (oh that 80s moustache) put him in perfect character and he’s joined by John Leguizamo as a skittish back-up, Joe Gilgun as a violent ex-con turned bodyguard, and the late Olympia Dukakis as Mazur’s larger-than-life aunt who’s down for a little undercover schmoozing herself. Running at just over two hours, Furman hardly wastes a single frame as he juxtaposes brief respites of humour with some graphic bloodletting—at one point I found myself holding my breath when Mazur’s bugged briefcase malfunctioned revealing its hidden tape recorder at a most inopportune moment. Despite the Law & Order theme however, the director still points a stiff finger or two at the American government’s own vested interest in drug money (a shadowy CIA figure makes a brief, somewhat baffling appearance) and when Mazur and his ersatz fiancee befriend one of Escobar’s top lieutenants and his wife (a suave Benjamin Bratt and Elena Anaya) the inevitable crackdown leaves both cops in an ethical quandary as upholding the law suddenly feels a lot like betraying a friend. An engaging trek through the dark side of those who fuel America’s cocaine habit made especially poignant for anyone old enough to remember the actual headlines.

Infinitely Polar Bear (USA 2014 ) (7): Based on her memories of growing up with a dad who struggled with mental illness writer/director Maya Forbes’ charming little indie film, a surprise hit at Sundance, doesn’t gloss over the day to day realities of such a living arrangement but neither does she deny the fact that her home, however impoverished, was nevertheless filled with love. Set in 1978 Boston, Amelia Stuart and her little sister Faith (Forbes’ real life daughter Imogene Wolodarsky and newcomer Ashley Aufderheide, both phenomenal) are no strangers to the wild rides and small mortifications that accompany their bi-polar father, Cam (Mark Ruffalo, painfully convincing). Whether he’s staring into the fridge for hours, filling the apartment with “future projects”, or else going off on manic tangents, life is rarely predictable—a fact which has caused both little girls to mature beyond their years. But at least there’s food on the table (dad’s a great cook) and the knowledge that through it all mom and dad, despite being estranged, have their backs—even if dad is sometimes flat on his face. And then their mother (Zoe Saldana, solid) decides to pursue an 18-month MBA degree in New York City so she can better her job prospects, a decision which will leave Faith and Amelia in the sole care of their father. Balking at this immense responsibility, both dad and daughters face the future with some trepidation—but with a little determination and a (hopefully) strict medication regime things just might work out. Or not. While some may accuse the film of downplaying the seriousness of Cam’s condition and the impact it would have on his children, Ruffalo brings a sense of warmth and humanity to the role which never stoops to stereotypes. Here is a man who loves his family first and foremost regardless of the roadblocks mental health occasionally throws in his way. Additionally, children have far more resilience than they’re credited with hence Amelia and Faith have become experts at making lemonade out of lemons while keeping dad more or less on the right track with constant childlike reality checks: “I’m a good neighbour!” asserts Cam after his somewhat overbearing attempts to help the lady next door result in a door being closed in his face, “You’re an annoying neighbour!” blurts out Faith, “People see you and run…in the opposite direction!” adds Amelia. Awash in contrasts which underline the film’s themes of conflict vs harmony—dad is white, mom is black; dad comes from money (though the trust fund is controlled with a miserly fist), mom doesn’t; dad often marches to a different drummer, mom stands still—Forbes’ film may lean slightly to the sunnier side, but then again they’re her memories and if she looks back on them with more fondness than grief who are we to disagree?

Inherent Vice (USA 2014) (7): Classic film noir gets a psychedelic make-over in Paul Thomas Anderson’s faithful adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel, a ridiculously serpentine, drug-tinged whodunnit set in Los Angeles, 1970. When his ex-girlfriend turns to him for help before promptly disappearing along with the married real estate magnate she’d been seeing, drugged-out hippy turned drugged-out private eye Larry “Doc” Sportello (a bleary-eyed Joaquin Phoenix sporting bushy mutton chops) is desperate to solve the case. But his stumbling inquiries will lead him into a murky underground of Asian drug smugglers, Aryan biker gangs, and official corruption which stretches north and south along the California coast and west to Las Vegas. It will also put him on a collision course with his conservative nemesis and alter ego, LAPD detective and frustrated television actor “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin with flat top and Republican attitude), a man’s man who’d rather stomp on faces first, ask questions later… With a plot so convoluted it’s almost a satire unto itself, Anderson’s 2.5 hour comedy/drama epic certainly holds its ground alongside such Neo Noir mainstays as Altman’s The Long Goodbye and Penn’s Night Moves, although it relies more on nostalgia triggers and flashes of dry humour than actual sense. Phoenix is perfect as he trips and tokes while trying to connect too many dots (think Sam Spade reincarnated as the Dude from Big Lebowski ) and Brolin puts his dad’s rugged good looks to the test as the hard-fisted Bjornsen, an odd mixture of macho alpha and henpecked family man with a curious appetite for frozen chocolate-covered bananas. However, it’s the crackling dialogue, retro background tunes, and Oscar-nominated costume design (oh those 70s!) which manage to smooth out the film’s overstretched storyline making Anderson’s evocation of southern California’s palm-studded counterculture all the more believable. Owen Wilson co-stars as a stoned informant with Martin Short as a horny coke-snorting dentist, Reese Witherspoon as Sportello’s uptight D.A. girlfriend, and Benicio del Toro as his rumpled lawyer. Probably best viewed when one is not so…ahem…straight.

Inherit the Wind (USA 1960) (6): A high school science teacher in America’s bible belt, circa 1920’s, is arrested for violating State law when he tries to teach Darwin’s theory of evolution to his students. The subsequent trial, pitting a fire-and-brimstone southern lawyer against his atheistic northern counterpart, sets the stage for a head-on collision between Church and State which draws the attention of the entire nation. With newspaper headlines mocking the town’s fundamentalist principles and an increasingly desperate preacher trying to protect his flock from the evils of secular science it soon becomes clear that this court case strikes a collective chord that goes far deeper than a simple disagreement over apes and man. Based on Tennessee’s infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925, Stanley Kramer’s two-hour sermon on individualism and freedom of thought packs a handful of Hollywood heavyweights into a cramped and sweltering courtroom for a monumental showdown that never quite materializes. He tries a bit too hard to segregate the issues at hand by presenting them as separate characters; the town preacher is pure religious zeal, the teacher serves as a beleaguered everyman, and the northern lawyer personifies rationality while his outspoken opponent spews bombastic nonsense, bible firmly in hand. Meanwhile, a soured Chicago newspaperman who’s latched on to the case provides a cynical Greek chorus of sorts as he dictates his reports. A bit too neat and tidy, culminating in an overblown courthouse melee and a somewhat smarmy closing scene. But the underlying issue of freedom of religion versus freedom of everything else is as pertinent today as it ever was.

Inland Empire (USA 2006) (6): Somewhere in an alternate universe writer/director David Lynch is making movies with linear narratives that contain identifiable beginnings, middles, and ends. But not this universe. So once again he draws upon his bag of tricks—superimposed realities, time loops, and dream logic—to hurl us down yet another rabbit hole…this one containing actual rabbit people stuck on a sitcom set complete with canned laughter…where he abandons us with just enough maddeningly opaque cues to slog our way through. Actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern, magnificent) has just landed a choice part in a blockbuster helmed by director Kingsley Stewart (Jeremy Irons). Unfortunately this particular movie—a potboiler revolving around an adulterous affair—is based on a script reported to be carrying a curse ever since the original production had to be scrapped years ago when its two leads were found brutally murdered. Diving into the role anyway Nikki’s grip on reality begins to soften after she starts having erotic thoughts of her own concerning co-star Devon Burke (Justin Theroux). Losing herself literally and figuratively in her character, Nikki’s fractured psyche (presented as a chorus of hookers?) gets caught up in a hallucinatory ghost story which stretches from the grimy streets of Los Angeles to the icy sidewalks of Poland where doppelgängers and lost souls await. Or so I surmise. As with all of Lynch’s films it’s the journey, not the destination, which matters and in this kaleidoscopic companion piece to Mulholland Drive he pulls out all the stops to amaze and confuse us while indulging his fascinations for Hollywood culture and the language of the subconscious—not to mention his affinity for ringing telephones (wake up!), colour codes (red, blue, green), and flickering lamps. Shifting roles vie with metaphors both heavenly and damned as Nikki’s taste for cinematic kool-aid causes her hallucinations to begin hallucinating until Tinseltown itself seems caught up in the throes of a bad dream. Complementing the onscreen reverie is a sound collage of scratchy LPs and electric buzzings while an incongruous score contains everything from Rock ’n Roll to Classical to Hip Hop. And the entire production is filmed in fuzzy standard def with a Sony handheld giving the impression we’re watching it all unfold on a computer screen like a digital psychodrama whose sidetracks into the fantastical intrude like so many pop-up windows and hyperlinks. Filmed over the course of a few years with a script often written on the sly (and it shows) you can take it as a psychedelic thought experiment or a transgressive assault on “avant-garde” cinema, or just another screwy fan letter to Hollywood. Or you can simply chalk it up to Lynch being Lynch—full of affectations and artistic grandstanding yet always fascinating: an interlude with a trio of street people is especially magical in a very dark way. Harry Dean Stanton and William H. Macy (and a few other surprise names) have walk-ons, while Peter J. Lucas scowls as Nikki’s violently jealous husband and Grace Zabriskie piles on the foreshadowing as a creepy neighbour who stops by the house for coffee and a bit of odd advice.

The Innkeepers (USA 2011) (6): In the small New England town of Campion, the 110-year old “Yankee Pedlar Inn” is about to close its doors for the final time. With only a few guests staying in the crumbling hotel, desk clerks Claire and Luke find they have more than enough time to indulge in their favourite pastime of amateur ghost hunting. It seems that the restless spirit of Madeline O’Malley, a jilted bride who hung herself in an upstairs room at the turn of the century, has not yet checked out and the supernatural sleuths want to get some footage of her ghost for their website before the “Yankee Pedlar” is made into a parking lot. Armed with special recording equipment, Claire and Luke take turns scaring themselves in dark places until the arrival of two unusual guests: a former actress turned medium and a tired old man with a sad secret, turn their harmless investigations into something far more menacing. Writer/director Ti West doesn’t have much to add to the standard haunted house story; all the usual jolts and shocks are there as well as a few well placed frissons (Claire interprets the medium’s warning to avoid the basement as an open invitation, naturally). But despite a lacklustre script and mediocre performances there is a mounting tension here which relies more on creepy staging than blood-soaked bodies and rubber masks. Like a good campfire tale you know it’s all nonsense even as you sneak glances over your shoulder just to be sure. Standard issue spookiness, however I must admit that while watching The Innkeepers in the dark...I found myself turning the light on for the last 20 minutes.

Innocence  (France 2004) (7):  A somber fairytale about the arcane mysteries and small terrors of growing up. Through the use of muted colours and dark shadows, Hadzihalilovic maintains an air of vague atmosphere that is further enhanced by a surprisingly talented cast of children. The final scene of muted eroticism was especially well done. This would make a great companion piece to "Picnic at Hanging Rock". Remarkable!

The Innocents (USA/UK 1961) (8): Based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, this fine slice of gothic horror follows a young governess and the two children entrusted to her on a lonely, isolated English estate. At first miss Giddens is delighted with the huge empty mansion surrounded by fields and lakes even though her only adult company is an elderly housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, and a few background servants. Little Flora proves to be equally delightful with her neatly starched pinafores, precocious mannerisms, and surprisingly expansive vocabulary. But when Flora’s brother Miles returns home after being expelled from boarding school under troubling circumstances things begin to change. Despite a stiff formality that belies his years Miles appears to be a perfectly well-behaved child, but behind his innocent questions and lingering stares there lurks the faintest air of menace. An unnatural bond exists between the two children as if they were involved in a monstrous game which miss Giddens finds “...secretive, and whispery, and indecent” And then the ghostly apparitions begin with malevolent faces in the window, cries in the night, and a pale figure standing amongst the reeds. Gleaning a bit of the estate’s troubled history from a reluctant Mrs. Grose, Giddens convinces herself that the children are innocent pawns in a horrific supernatural conspiracy---but will she be able to save them? Against a backdrop of moonlit gardens, creaking hallways, and decaying statuary director Jack Clayton spins a classic haunted house tale replete with hints of madness and melancholy. His horror is both overtly real and deeply psychological for despite the spectral visitations and slamming shutters the real terror lies in miss Giddens’ eyes as her uneasy concerns soon evolve into wild accusations and paranoia. Lastly, Clayton’s assured hand is readily apparent in a frantic climax which comes full circle and lends meaning to the film’s bleakly enigmatic opening scenes. Chilly!

The Innocents [aka Agnus Dei ] (France 2016) (9): At the end of WWII Mathilde, a young doctor working with the French Red Cross in Poland, is called away to a nearby convent at the behest of a frantic nun—one of the sisters is about to give birth and complications have set in. But saving the life of this one woman and child is just the beginning of a weeks long odyssey which will not only test Mathilde’s professional skills but challenge her ethical convictions as well for the new mother is but one of several nuns about to give birth, the result of having been gang-raped by retreating Russian soldiers. And tending to the expectant novices is but the first hurdle, for her very presence at the convent will put her in direct conflict with a Mother Superior so anxious to avoid scandal and disgrace that she will do anything to keep the new Communist government from finding out what happened, even if she has to violate God’s own laws to do so… Supposedly based on an actual incident, Anne Fontaine’s searing drama pits belief in Divine Goodness against a world wracked with ugliness and she does so without the hollow sermons so common in today’s “faith-based” melodramas. Filmed against a wintry backdrop of bitter snowfields and leaden skies—pierced now and again by glowing candles or a sober Latin chant—Fontaine doesn’t insult her audience with heavenly metaphors, what shafts of sunlight course through the convent walls are wholly earthbound while Mathilde herself remains a steadfast atheist (her lover a fellow doctor and disillusioned Jew who’s still mourning the relatives he lost to the Nazis and their Polish collaborators). Between the polar extremes of Abbess and Physician however lie the nuns themselves and it is their reaction to the horrors they underwent which gives the film its bite. As some cling tenaciously to whatever comfort their faith has left to offer, others begin to question their calling, and a few begin to question God himself…and all the while the babies keep being born. As Mathilde, Lou de Laâge embodies secular pragmatism with just a touch of that naïveté which comes with youth while Agata Kulesza, in the role of Mother Superior, plays a conflicted soul so bound by the demands of her office that she’s lost touch with why she took her vows in the first place. And bridging the two is Agata Buzek as Sister Maria, a woman who turned her back on the earthly temptations she once knew only to have them come back to haunt her in her most vulnerable moments. A brilliant ensemble piece sure to impress believers and non-believers alike.

In Old Chicago (USA 1938) (7): In response to MGM’s successful disaster flick San Francisco, 20th Century Fox came up with one of its own set in the days leading up to the great Chicago fire of 1871. Despite being widowed en route to the midwest, headstrong Molly O’Leary (Best Supporting Actress Alice Brady) manages to raise three fine boys in Chicago’s infamous “Patch” neighbourhood—a muddy warren of speakeasies, gambling joints, and loose morals. But brothers Jack and Dion (Don Ameche, Tyrone Power) grow up to find themselves on opposite sides of the law when honest Jack, an aspiring politician, vows to clean up Chicago even though Dion makes his living running one of the Patch’s more lucrative saloons. Crooked deals and heated tempers come to a head one Autumn day, and then everything changes when a wayward flame sets the town ablaze… Pretty standard family drama buoyed by star power—Alice Faye shares the spotlight as burlesque singer-cum-love interest Belle Fawcett—and those final twenty minutes in which the studio blew almost two-hundred thousand dollars (a small fortune back then) to recreate a burning city. Old-style fire engines clang, panicked extras scramble, and an entire studio backlot goes up in smoke—there’s even a stampede!—all of which provide a suitable finale to a film laced with corruption and hints of sin. Sensitive souls be forewarned however, there’s the inevitable “Oh Lawdy!” black maid (a cheeky Madame Sul-Te-Wan giving it all she’s got) and a sexual seduction bordering on coercion…uh-oh.

In Praise of Older Women (Canada 1978) (3): So this is the film that caused so much furor...and a near riot...when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival?! All I saw was a tepid and not particularly funny sex comedy about a horny young boy with a fetish for older women who becomes an even hornier adolescent and, finally, a lecherous adult. The movie could be shown in any order however, since the character of Vayda remains static throughout. While there is evidence of growth in the women he meets (they grow tired of him) he seems forever locked in some masturbatory fantasy as he shamelessly humps the leg of anything forty-ish and female. The film goes nowhere and has nothing to say; the acting is terrible, the script is dull, and the direction uninspired. As for those “controversial” sex scenes which got the movie in trouble with the Ontario censors 30 years ago, I suppose Kaczender was aiming for softcore eroticism but they came across as bland and mechanical instead--just a lot of poorly lit T&A with occasional glimpses of Tom Berenger’s little flaccid dink. Not even viagra could get this one off the ground.

Inside Job (USA 2010) (8): In 2000 Iceland’s government introduced a series of measures aimed at deregulating and privatizing that tiny country’s financial sector; the results were catastrophic both economically and socially as a once bustling economy accrued a debt almost ten times its gross national product. Using the Icelandic example as a starting point, documentarian Charles Ferguson and his team examine the reasons behind the global economic collapse of 2008. Of course we already know Ferguson’s documentary will not have a happy ending as he shows the various ways in which financial puppet masters have not only infiltrated all levels of government but the educational system itself. “For the first time in history...” drones narrator Matt Damon, “...average Americans have less money and are less prosperous than their parents.” Frightening, infuriating, yet ultimately anesthetizing as the sheer scope of this financial obscenity slowly hits home.

Insidious (USA 2010) (7): California yuppies Josh and Renai Lambert and their three kids haven’t even finished unpacking when they realize their stately new house has a few unsettling quirks—but when eldest son Dalton falls into an unexplained coma after an impromptu visit to the attic things slowly take a turn for the bizarre. Several months later a still comatose Dalton is being cared for at home when a series of frightening visitations convince Renai that his illness is more spiritual than physical causing her to seek some rather unorthodox interventions despite her husband’s objections. With their son’s soul in the balance the Lamberts find themselves involved in a supernatural tug-of-war with only two possible outcomes: life, or eternal damnation. Director James Wan takes a fairly straightforward “demons in the belfry” haunted house story and dresses it up with such ballsy panache that I found myself smiling even as I teetered on the edge of my seat. The usual assortment of frights and shocks are served up with style thanks to some highly effective lighting and camerawork while an underlying dark humour in the form of a pair of bickering ghostbuster geeks and their elderly mentor (a deadly earnest Lin Shaye) begins as comic relief but quickly leads to a wild seance-cum-exorcism that practically leaps off the screen in a hail of quick edits and exploding flashbulbs. A visit to the netherworld provides a final creepy treat as Dalton’s dilemma is explained by a series of macabre tableaux awash in a sea of fog machines and lurid neon. Even the inevitable twist ending that promises a sequel (already out on DVD) had me laughing more out of anticipation than annoyance. It’s all chills and nonsense of course, but presented with such deadpan cheekiness (look for Wan’s sly allusion to his Saw movie franchise) that it won over my better judgement just the same. If you’re looking for a smart popcorn thriller that’s easy on the brain without being insulting you need look no further.

Insidious: Chapter 2 (USA 2013) (6): Starting where the original left off (read my review) we revisit the Lamberts who are still beset by a very persistent and mean-spirited ghost—only this time it’s not young Dalton who’s in trouble, it’s dad who’s not quite himself. Cue more sudden jolts and spectral mayhem as those ghostbusting geeks from part one gear up for yet another demonic showdown accompanied by their now deceased manager. Although it’s all pretty much déjà vu by now, James Wan’s morbid sense of fun still rings loud and clear as he plays on our childhood fears whether it be a dark closet at the end of a darker hallway or something nasty at the foot of the bed. A rather ridiculous background story manages to tie up all the loose ends and some imaginative segues to the original movie allow us to see that film in a slightly different light (so that’s what was banging on the front door!) Alas, it all ends with the promise—threat?—of a series of Insidious spin-offs. No James…NO!

Insidious: Chapter 3 (USA 2015) (4): A prequel to the first two instalments of the Insidious franchise, this haunted house turkey appears to have been written while it was being filmed for all the sense it makes. Confined to a wheelchair after an accident, grieving teenager Quinn Brenner (Stefanie Scott delivering her lines as if she was reading them from the back of a cereal box) is trying to get in touch with the spirit of her dead mother but conjures up a a wheezing demon with muddy feet instead. And as things start to go bump in the night with increasing frequency her harried father (Dermot Mulroney in need of a better agent) enlists the aid of psychic guru Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye doing a third reprise) and the pair of bumbling paranormal investigators from parts one and two. Mayhem follows when Elise drops in on Hell, Quinn loses half her soul, and dad runs out of things to yell… Plenty of cheap jolts of the “BOO!” variety which startle without actually scaring—not that any of those tepid performances manage to convey fright—combine with cheap special effects (oooh…fog machine! ooooh….seance!) and shock make-up to deliver a paint-by-number ghost story that becomes tediously predictable after the bogeymen run out of novel ways to jump at the camera lens. The closing credits are cool though, not just because of the witty animation but because it’s, you know, “The End”. I won’t be sleeping with the lights on.

Insignificance (UK 1985) (7): It's 1954, and in New York City the lives of four famous people will crisscross back and forth over the course of one warm spring night. In a swank hotel room high atop Manhattan a vivacious blond movie star will seduce a brilliant physicist, but not before explaining the Theory of Relativity to him using a couple of toy trains and a flashlight. Meanwhile her big dumb husband, a faded baseball star, can't get her out of his mind. Then there's the ultra-conservative senator who transforms his own personal demons into a witch hunt for commies... Rather than portray them as simple flesh-and-blood people, director Nicolas Roeg takes the likenesses of Monroe, Einstein, DiMaggio, and McCarthy (their names are never mentioned but the intent is unmistakable) and instead utilizes them as the post-WWII American icons they've clearly become. Gathering them into the same parlour he waxes philosophical on the nature of knowledge and truth, love, identity, power and the whole ball of wax. The result is a strange brew of deep thoughts and odd tangents that works for the most part thanks to some imaginative directing and a handful of knockout performances. The film's explosive climax is among my all-time favourite movie endings!

International House (USA 1933) (7): When Professor Wong announces his latest invention, the “radioscope”, will revolutionize broadcasting, industry representatives from around the world descend upon Shanghai’s International House Hotel in the hopes of acquiring the copyright. Sight gags, slapstick, and double entendres ensue as competing CEO’s wreak mayhem from the lobby clear up to the top floor. With cameos from the likes of George Burns and Gracie Allen, Bela Lugosi, and W.C. Fields, this one-hour gag reel is little more than a vehicle for showcasing big name radio and movie stars of the time. Burns plays it straight as the house physician with Allen as his ditzy nurse, Lugosi is the crazy Russian aristocrat, and Fields plays the eccentric lush smitten with blonde bombshell Peggy Hopkins Joyce. The rest of the cast have now sunken into obscurity with the exception of Cab Calloway adding a bit of jazz and “Baby” Rose Marie belting out a torch song atop a pair of grand pianos. And then there’s the nightclub floor show whose deadpan campiness is laugh-out-loud hilarious! Definitely dated and amusingly racist (“Me washy clothes!”) but still fun to watch—and since it was released before the draconian Hays Code took effect the sly references to drugs and sex are unexpectedly ribald: “Oh, it’s a pussy…” says Fields staring between Joyce’s legs before reaching down and rescuing the cat she accidentally sat upon. Oh my!

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz (USA 2014) (8): Computer prodigy, co-founder of Reddit, and fierce crusader for freedom of information, Aaron Swartz (b. 1984) forsake what could have been an extremely lucrative Silicon Valley career in favour of sociopolitical activism aimed at all attempts to curb public access to the internet. Citing everything from copyright protection to national security, both the American government and its corporate lobbyists were keen on slapping restrictions on the World Wide Web using arcane computer fraud legislation and the now infamous “Stop Online Piracy” and “Protect IP” acts known collectively as SOPA & PIPA. But in the post 9/11 age of cyber-terrorism, digital crime, and Wikileaks, Swartz’s sometimes controversial methods put the Obama administration on edge and angered business interests who not only feared losing billions in profits through copyright infringements but also stood to lose face should some of their practices regarding the gathering and manipulation of information be called into question. The result was an aggressive FBI investigation and a string of trumped up charges, both of which preyed upon Swartz’s already fragile senses. Brian Knappenberger’s incisive documentary combines newsreel footage and Swartz’s own home movies with interviewees that range from family members and ex-girlfriends to movers and shakers in the online community itself. What emerges is a portrait of a brilliant young man whose occasional streak of arrogance was more than balanced by a keen desire to protect his beloved internet from those who would monopolize and control it. What also emerges is a troubling picture of America’s skewed justice system which took a well-meaning young man trying to make a valid albeit forceful point and vilified him beyond all recognition even as it studiously ignored the Wall Street bigwigs who precipitated the financial crisis of 2008. A compelling piece of documentary filmmaking that eschews the soapbox in favour of intelligent, passionate discourse.

Interstellar (USA 2014) (2): In a bleak near future Earth’s biosphere has been decimated by a mysterious blight which is slowly wiping out all cash crops save corn. In this world of dust storms and starvation former aeronautical engineer Cooper tends the family farm with his father and two kids while still dreaming of the stars. Eventually making his way to NASA (now a clandestine underground organization) thanks to some supernatural hocus-pocus in his daughter’s bedroom involving bookshelves and dust bunnies (don’t ask) Cooper suddenly finds himself on a spaceship bound for a newly discovered wormhole located around Saturn (really, don’t ask). His mission? Use this interstellar gateway to find a suitable planet to serve as mankind’s new home. But things don’t go exactly as planned and Cooper’s team, including an annoying robotic domino, find themselves having to contend with hostile worlds, mad scientists, and a treacherous black hole which may just hold all the answers. And, as if things couldn’t get worse, his tenuous relationship with his preteen daughter—she never forgave him for leaving—will be further tested by the phenomenon of time dilation which sees her age back on Earth while he remains forever young in space… Take the best ideas from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Poltergeist, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, then add a few wheelbarrows full of Deepak Chopra shit (the correct answer is LOVE!!) and you are left with an unforgivable travesty of a film so full of potholes, bad science, and narrative gaps that our eyes started rolling before Cooper even had lift-off. An intergalactic chick flick that tries to make up for its lack of depth with tears and pyrotechnics. And the theatre we saw it in had their dolby set to “ear-splitting”--it was so loud that most of the dialogue was lost in a distorted tidal wave of crashes and booms. Next to this gobbler Gravity is a veritable PhD thesis.

In The Dust Of The Stars (Germany 1976) (4): Made by East Germany’s famous DEFA studios in the waning years of the Berlin Wall it isn’t difficult to find parallels between this fictitious story of extraterrestrial oppression and the socialist rhetoric of the ruling GDR. While investigating an interstellar distress signal originating from Tem 4, a desolate planet of dusty deserts and ancient lava flows, the crew of the starship Cynro are forced to make an emergency landing. The humanoid Temians at first greet their would-be rescuers with open arms yet flatly deny ever having sent an SOS in the first place. Not content with the aliens’ pat answers to their questions the astronauts decide to do a little undercover detective work which eventually lands them right in the middle of a colonial uprising between the Temian overlords and the planet’s oppressed natives, the Turi. As tension between the two factions reaches its crisis point it takes an act of selfless, one could almost say Christ-like, sacrifice to finally overthrow the shackles of capitalist oppression. Although woefully lacking in grandeur (and acting, and special effects, and script...) Dust nevertheless tries to compensate with pure cheesy glitter. The glossy sets are right out of Studio 54, the costumes were obviously designed by an ABBA fan club, and there is even a bit of gratuitous nudity, communist-style. A hedonistic (read: Western) disco party-cum-orgy complete with psychedelic genie costumes and aerosolized drugs proves to be the film’s only hight point although the theme song, an ethereal female chorale, is rather pretty. Recommended for those with an interest in camp retro Eastern bloc science fiction movies. All three of you.

In The Family (USA 2011) (9): It’s rare for someone to create a three-hour film which captivates from start to finish, rarer still for that creator to score a trifecta as writer, director and star. Patrick Wang has done just that with this exquisitely realized little heartache of a movie which demonstrates once again that family bonds run deeper than mere blood. When his longterm partner Cody is killed, Joey (Wang) is left alone with their six-year old son Chip from Cody’s former marriage. Resourceful and spunky for his age, Chip (standout performance from Sebastian Banes) handles the transition from two devoted dads to just one with an ease that belies his years while Joey, for his part, begins to map out a new life for the two of them. Unfortunately Cody never changed his Will in which he stipulates that all his possessions—including custody of his son—are to go to his sister Eileen. Now, despite a once favourable relationship with Cody’s family, Joey finds himself bereft of the one light in his life and neither the Law nor Eileen are about to budge. And then he makes the acquaintance of a retired lawyer, a canny old gentlemen who may be holding the solution he’s been searching for… If you’re expecting a fiery polemic on homophobia and southern redneck bigotry (the film is set in Tennessee) or a big gay tearjerker you will walk away disappointed for Wang’s feather light approach favours long static shots, incidental music only, and an unsentimental script so keenly observed that at times it seems more like a documentary unfolding in realtime. From a silent shot of the back of Joey’s head as he receives notice of Cody’s death—cars rushing back and forth on the freeway beyond the hospital window underscoring the sense of tragedy—to the conflicting emotions racing across Eileen’s face while she listens to his statement during a court deposition, Wang is in no hurry to tie things up in a neat package. What he delivers instead are layers of emotionally-charged complexity devoid of clichéd stereotypes wherein everyone shoulders their own hurt and no one is singled out for condemnation. Flashbacks to the way things used to be are used sparingly and with great effect to show us just what Joey has lost (a spontaneous first kiss, a spontaneous first argument) and Wang alludes to his character’s current sense of being set adrift with the subtlest of touches. An accomplished architect, Joey excels at fixing other people’s broken things and that Dixieland drawl contradicts his Asian features—a fact humorously brought home when he meets his “in-laws” for the first time. Unfortunately Wang also proves to be the film’s weakest link, his portrayal of Joey lacks the peaks and valleys one would expect delivering instead an admirable sketch of a grieving man striving to reclaim what he believes to be his. But that final scene, despite being a tad rushed and maybe a little too pat, is no less moving.

In the Fog (Germany/Russia 2012) (9): At the height of WWII in German-occupied Belarus, four Russian men are accused of being partisans and sentenced to death—but at the last minute Sushenya is pardoned by the camp commandant and released. Now branded as a collaborator by his neighbours (an accusation he vehemently denies) and looked upon with veiled suspicion by his own wife it comes as no surprise when two armed members of the Belarus underground show up on his doorstep to mete out their own vigilante justice, a turn of events Sushenya accepts with meek resignation. Fate steps in however and before the sentence can be carried out all three men find themselves on the lam, with one partisan critically wounded. As they trudge through the woods, the wounded fighter hanging off Sushenya’s shoulders, a trio of revealing flashbacks show just how each man arrived at this moment in time. In this engrossing allegory director Sergey Loznitsa goes to great lengths to avoid making a simple “war movie”: the pacing is meditative with long takes devoid of any musical distractions and the horrors of battle are kept discreetly offscreen—a family is slaughtered in their home while the camera focuses on the front porch and a scene of bustling market stalls is undercut by the sound of creaking ropes, the only sign that a mass hanging has taken place. Loznitsa is more interested in how people distinguish between right and wrong under circumstances which are profoundly immoral to begin with. Through flashbacks we catch glimpses of virtue and cowardice, bravery and foolhardiness while apparent acts of mercy carry deadly consequences and morality is as nebulous as the icy mist that follows the three as they stumble through a freezing wilderness. Meanwhile Loznitsa underscores his unfolding psychodrama with a background of incidental noises: winds sigh, raucous crows protest, and a cocked rifle shatters the silence like a hammer blow. In the end, as attested to by a fogbound denouement, it’s not so much a question of what his subjects should do but rather, given the circumstances, what else can they do? Intense, heart-rending, brilliant.

In the Mouth of Madness (USA 1994) (5): When celebrated horror author Sutter Cane goes missing before the release of his greatest novel to date, insurance investigator John Trent suspects the publishing company is attempting an elaborate scam. Puzzled by the increasingly violent behaviour of Cane’s worldwide legion of fans as they hungrily await the new book (even his agent goes on an axe-wielding spree before being gunned down) Trent and literary editor Linda Styles head off into the wilds of New England to search for the author’s hidey-hole, the elusive village of “Hobb’s End”. But when the two finally arrive at their destination they get an unhealthy dose of alternate reality as a series of bizarre encounters suggest that the macabre storylines of Cane’s books are beginning to come true—including grisly murders, subterranean monsters, and demonic transformations. “Reality is not what it used to be…” quips one of the townsfolk before blowing his head off and suddenly Trent is calling his own sanity into question. Is he experiencing a psychotic break as the film’s opening sequence seems to suggest, or is he actually caught up in a nightmare of the eccentric author’s own making? With echoes of Stephen King and the Creepshow franchise, as well as several nods to H. P. Lovecraft (bordering on plagiarism) John Carpenter’s ode to mass paranoia is certainly populated with enough freaks, oddities and tentacled thingamajigs while a dark musical score and giddy editing keeps everything nicely off balance—the final twist is pretty cute too. But all the technical wizardry and animatronic bugbears don’t add up to a whole lot of anything besides a few jolts and lots of schizoid ruminations on the nature of reality. So is this the creative process reimagined as a horror movie? A bleakly satirical look at artistic narcissism? Or just a running joke on the gullibility of moviegoers? Mea culpa on the last one.

In The Valley of Elah (USA 2007) (5): The kiss of death for any film occurs when the director, fearing their audience is too dense to get “the message”, highlights it, underlines it, and then proceeds to shout it out from every frame. Canadian Paul Haggis did this in 2004’s abysmally pretentious Academy award-winner (OMG!) Crash, and now with Elah he pontificates on the War in Iraq with stars ’n stripes all around and an orchestra driven to exhaustion. When his son Mike goes AWOL after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq grizzled veteran Hank Deerfield (Tommy Lee Jones) sets out to find him with only a few weak clues and some troubling smartphone images Mike shot while in the Middle East. Stonewalled by the military at every turn, Deerfield eventually teams up with local police detective Emily Sanders (Charlize Theron) and the two manage to uncover what happened to Mike. But the tragic answer only leads to bigger, more harrowing questions. As a straight-up missing persons mystery Elah has far too many fortunate coincidences to be more than mildly intriguing yet it’s watchable enough given Jones’ Oscar-nominated performance as a man torn between military sensibility and paternal guilt and Susan Sarandon’s star turn as his suffering wife. But when Haggis tries to delve into everything from PTSD to the inherent immorality of war—with a bit of sexual harassment thrown in just to cover all the bases—it turns into a sanctimonious soapbox homily determined to leave everyone with a black eye: the military, the government (Dubya drones on in background news broadcasts) and civilians alike, for the evils in Iraq seem to find their counterpoint in the moral apathy back home (cue strip clubs and Mexican drug dealers). Films such as The Hurt Locker and Denmark’s A War managed to present war as both a physical battlefield and a psychological space. In Elah, Haggis presents an overly adorned knee-jerk response to a much deeper problem and he does so with contrived pathos and one very tiresome biblical metaphor. This is the kind of emotional manipulation all too common in Canadian cinema and serving it up with an American-sized budget doesn’t make it go down any easier. That patronizing final scene alone is enough to make Spielberg weep.

In This Our Life (USA 1942) (7): Bette Davis plays the evil conniving virago for all it’s worth in John Huston’s over-the-top soaper. When spoiled rich bitch Stanley Timberlake (Davis) dumps her adoring fiancé Craig Fleming (suave doormat George Brent) in order to run off with Peter, the husband of her sister Roy (simmering martyr Olivia de Havilland), the stage is set for tragedy and divine retribution. It isn’t long before Peter, a promising surgeon, slowly wakes up to the fact that Stanley loves only herself, a revelation which finds him hitting the bottle more than he should. Roy and Craig, in the meantime, are finding more than shared misery in one another’s company. But when a seemingly contrite Stanley returns to the family minus Peter she’s more determined than ever to upset the apple cart once again by setting her sights on rekindling Craig’s affections. With the family picking sides—Roy and her father suspicious of Stanley’s every move while her doting mother and wealthy uncle William (whose creepy attentions towards Stanley border on incestuous) willing to turn a blind eye to her scheming ways—it takes a tragic accident to shake everyone back to reality. Aside from Davis’ manic portrayal of an egotistical harpy incapable of moral compunction the rest of the cast plays it pretty straight with de Havilland’s Roy suffering angelically, Brent’s Craig grasping for silver linings, and Frank Craven as family patriarch Asa Timberlake nodding sagely while his daughter’s life goes down in flames. What sets this one apart from the usual crop of old Hollywood morality plays however is its frank depiction of racist attitudes in the south—in this case Virginia. Young black man Parry Clay (a quiet performance by Ernest Anderson) is an employee of Uncle William’s who dreams of becoming a lawyer despite the many obstacles a “coloured boy” must overcome. When Stanley finds herself in serious trouble with the law and tries to pin the blame on Parry his cynical attitude towards the legal system, and the compassion his plight engenders in the caucasians around him, proved too problematic for southern audiences causing the studio to cut out any “sympathetic” scenes before the film was shown below the Mason-Dixon line.

Intimacy (UK 2001) (9): Living in a dingy London apartment and eking out a living as a bartender, Jay has pretty much failed at everything: his musical career went nowhere, his ex-wife barely speaks to him, and his children are slowly forgetting who he is. Even his friends are more opportunistic acquaintances than confidantes. However, for a few hours every Wednesday afternoon he can forget where life has taken him when an anonymous woman comes to his flat for sex. They don’t really talk to one another—they don’t even know each other’s name—and it’s more fucking than lovemaking, but it’s the only thing he has. And then, driven by curiousity and something akin to fondness, Jay follows her one day and discovers the two of them have more in common than he thought. And thus a very volatile can of emotional worms is ripped open as Jay’s illusions of love and attachment are blown apart. Notable for its graphic sex—leads Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox actually have sexual intercourse on camera—Patrice Chéreau’s adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s short stories is an intensely depressing look at two broken people sticking pins into one another’s wounds even as they strive for an intimacy that never manifests. In fact everyone in Chéreau’s film seems to be going through the motions of intimacy driven by desperation or loneliness or the lies they’ve told themselves that everything is okay. Jay and “Claire’s” physical passion is downcast rather than erotic—at one point he quietly observes her sleeping body with a mixture of yearning and profound sadness—their rutting more an act of defiance against the darkness than any shared tenderness. In two of cinema’s more gripping performances, Rylance and Fox leave themselves completely vulnerable both physically and psychologically, their raw pain becoming a tangible presence. Timothy Spall co-stars as an embittered husband who can only lash out at life’s unfairness while Marianne Faithfull and Phillipe Calvario lend a dose of reality: she as a middle-aged spinster who sees more than she wants to; he as a youthful idealist who calls Jay on his self-pity. With shades of Tennessee Williams throughout, Chéreau has produced a modern day tragedy about two tortured people unable to distinguish between love and obsession and in whom desire has become an addiction.

Into the Abyss (USA 2011) (9): in 2001 in the small town of Conroe, Texas, eighteen-year old Michael Perry and his buddy Jason Burkett were charged with the murders of three people during the course of an apparent robbery attempt (they wanted the dead woman’s new Camaro). Perry served ten years on death row before finally being executed by lethal injection in 2010 while Burkett is still serving a life sentence with no chance for parole until 2042. With his keen eye for details and easygoing, yet tightly focused demeanour director Werner Herzog travels to Texas to interview the two convicts (just eight days before Perry’s death) as well as their families and acquaintances, prison staff, and the families of their victims. Although he offhandedly mentions he disagrees with capital punishment, Herzog clearly has no set agenda here preferring instead to let his subjects speak for themselves, his neutral yet cutting questions neither leading them on nor disparaging whatever it is they have to say. At one point a simple query about squirrels, asked in the middle of a prison cemetery, causes one death row pastor to break into tears as he admits to feelings of helplessness. As the lens focuses in on people’s faces (Herzog remains behind the camera) we can’t help but be moved by their stories of grief and regret—a victim’s daughter talks about being cut off from her own life; the tough facade of another victim’s brother crumbles when he holds up a picture of his “best buddy”; and a former guard talks hesitantly about his nervous breakdown. But it is the interviews with the two convicts and their families which prove to be the most revealing with Perry being little more than a man-child insisting on his innocence and Burkett’s towering father listing the many ways he failed his son as his eyes mist mist over. Relying on crime scene footage and police interviews to even the playing field somewhat (the murders really were horrific) as well as a darkly moving orchestral score, Herzog wisely refrains from any personal soliloquies aimed at swaying his audience. Deeply compassionate—you can tell he had more than a director’s interest in the subject matter—yet meticulously clinical as harsh lighting glares down on an execution gurney’s restraining straps, this is quintessential documentary filmmaking.

Into the White (Norway 2012) (7): Two enemy planes, one British and the other German, manage to shoot each other down over the arctic wastes of Norway at the height of WWII. When the surviving five crew members end up in the same abandoned hunting cabin they must try to put their political differences aside in order to survive long enough to be rescued; a task which proves to be more tricky than either side thought. Based on an actual story, director Peter Næss’ beautifully shot anti-war flick only occasionally succumbs to the usual Hollywood-style genre clichés with one charmingly English chappy cracking jokes while the obsessively anal Jerry commander draws a charcoal line down the centre of the cabin to impress upon his amused POWs where “British Territory” ends and German land begins. But as relationships thaw between bowls of moss soup and trips to the open air outhouse (its roof and sides sacrificed for firewood) a common sense of humanity emerges highlighted by a succession of scenes both dramatic and comedic: the man gather gravely around a freshly killed rabbit unsure as to how prepare it for the frying pan; they band together to save the life of an injured airman; and the two commanding officers find themselves literally holding up the roof. And then the Norwegian armed forces arrive and the realities of war return with a vengeance. As Næss plays with the balance of power between his antagonists he leaves us with one lasting image that stands out above all the others—sworn enemies standing beneath a magnificent aurora display crooning a ragtag rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. If only it had been that easy…

Into the Wild (USA 2007) (7): Poor little rich boy becomes pretentious hippy in Sean Penn’s overly preachy but well-meaning biopic.  The film is based on the life of Chris McCandless who, shortly after graduating with honours, decided to reject his parents’ middle class materialism and “live off the land” instead.  To achieve this goal he gave his life savings to charity, burned the contents of his wallet and changed his name.  After wandering from one end of the country to the other eking out a living doing menial labour he finally achieved his goal of   escaping into the Alaskan wilderness.  Unfortunately he soon realized that a few paperback books and a cocky attitude were not sufficient supplies when facing the harsh realities of arctic survival.  When the movie attempts to turn McCandless into some kind of modern day folk hero it fails….despite his education he was a clueless kid who could  deliver a verbose lecture on the evils of capitalism yet displayed a reckless stupidity when it came to making life decisions.  Where the film worked for me however, were those times it concentrated on the tragic elements of his life.  We are presented with an emotionally disturbed young man whose personal demons dogged him on every step of his journey.  He sought solace in isolation, sadly cutting himself off not only from his family but also from every kind soul who attempted to assist him.  Perhaps the film’s greatest strength lies in its uniformly excellent acting especially Emile Hirsch’s powerhouse performance as Chris and a deeply moving cameo from Hal Holbrook.  A troubling film about a troubled young man.

Intouchables (France 2011) (7): Based on the real life friendship which developed between multi-millionaire Philippe Pozzo di Borgo who was paralyzed from the neck down following a paragliding accident, and his male caregiver Abdell Sellou, Olivier Nakache and Éric Toledano’s bromance comedy is a winning mix of genuinely moving moments and Odd Couple clichés. Cultured in the finer things in life but not above a good laugh, Philippe (François Cluzet showing amazing range despite being immobilized throughout) takes a chance on hiring bad boy from the hood, Driss (Omar Sy channeling Eddie Murphy) despite the latter’s lack of training and multiple misgivings about looking after a total care client. But with Phillipe drawn to Driss’ disorderly joie de vivre and lack of condescending pity, and Driss more than happy to live in his boss’ palatial mansion, what starts out as a business deal gently morphs into something deeper with each man drawing upon the other’s strengths. Chopin, fine wine, and physiotherapists are soon augmented by rolled joints, hookers, and Kool & The Gang as Phillipe discovers he’s capable of far more than he thought possible and Driss finally learns to care about someone other than himself. Predictable from start to finish and hitting all the expected emotional notes, the directors have nevertheless produced something of a rarity in cinema: a story about disability that flows with empathy and humour without being smarmy or patronizing. Cluzet provides the perfect straight man to Sy’s grinning schtick and neither the handicapped card nor the race card—the real life Sellou was Algerian, Driss is Senegalese—are played (thank gawd!) thus allowing the directors to simply show love and respect developing naturally between their unlikely protagonists without the need for sermons. A guaranteed heart-warmer written for adults.

The Intruders (Canada 2015) (3):  Sudbury, Ontario stands in for suburban Chicago in Adam Massey's terribly derivative 80s-style suspense thriller and the only thing he manages to get right is the snow.  After the tragic death of her mother sends her into a psychotic tailspin, Rose Halshford (Miranda Cosgrove, wide-eyed and vacuous) finds herself leaving the sunny climes of California for the frigid Midwest with her well-meaning father who believes a change of scenery and a handful of prescriptions is all she needs.  Moving into the grand old period home her architect dad hopes to renovate, Rose takes some comfort in being a whiny unappreciative little bitch until a series of increasingly odd incidents involving dolls and cryptic scratches turn her bad dreams into a waking nightmare.  Is Rose sharing her home with an unknown terror or does she need to hightail it back to the pharmacy?  A ludicrous script filled with red herrings and non-sequiturs forgoes logic in favour of cheap campfire chills (OMG she's actually going into the basement!) while an overblown musical score bangs and crashes its way through a succession of tepid "shocks" (OMG there's a doll head on the staircase!)  But the worst is yet to come as an exaggerated finale rips off every teen scream cliché for a big reveal that's so nonsensical it can only be...Canadian. 

The Invention of Lying (USA 2009) (5): In his directorial debut British comic Ricky Gervais produces a philosophical comedy set a world where humans are genetically incapable of telling anything but the truth (there isn’t even a word for telling an untruth), then asks what would happen if one man broke from the pack and told the first fib. The man in question is Mark Bellison (Gervais) a lonely, dumpy, and recently unemployed screenwriter whose life is circling the toilet at an alarming rate until he discovers the power of lying. With a population that takes anything anyone says at face value Mark is soon cleaning up—after all, if you assure the bank teller you actually have more money in your account than the files indicate the problem obviously stems from a computer glitch. But his true desire—neurotic office exec Anna (Jennifer Garner)—remains just beyond his reach no matter how many embellishments he comes up with. And then he accidentally lets loose the biggest lie the world has ever heard and nothing is ever quite the same again… There are some cute moments here—a commercial for Coke begs people to keep buying the beverage even though it’s just “brown sugar water”; movies are problematic (fiction is unheard of); and the world of dating is precarious indeed when you feel compelled to tell the other person exactly what you think of them—and religion is taken for a well-deserved ride. But despite an impressive string of comedy cameos that include Jonah Hill, Louis C.K., and Tina Fey among others, and a heart-rending scene between Bellison and his dying mother played by Fionnula Flanagan, this is essentially a one joke standup routine that quickly runs out of novel ways to tell the truth. Add to that a soppy love story between Gervais and Garner and you have a moderately funny skit stretched to motion picture lengths. An interesting premise (given the reverse treatment by Jim Carrey two years earlier in Liar Liar) but Gervais sidesteps any deeper implications for a couple of surface laughs.

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Italy 1970) (7): There is often a thin line between scathing satire and smug sarcasm, and Elio Petri’s cynical Oscar-winner, part one of his “Trilogy of Neuroses”, skirts that line more often than not. Meant as a reverse riff on a Kafka theme the fun starts when a celebrated Chief of Homicide casually kills his mistress and then litters her apartment with enough incriminating evidence to get himself convicted twice. The reasons behind his actions, while never explicitly addressed, seem related to the woman’s refusal to take their sadomasochistic sex games seriously (he likes to play the big respectable cop while photographing her in gruesome crime scene poses). A rabid fascist at heart--he regularly delivers incendiary sermons on the virtues of repression and authoritarian dictates--the detective is torn between continuing his quest to rid Italy of all its dissidents and the greater need to bring himself to lofty justice, especially since he is in charge of investigating the very murder he committed. But as a symbol of Law, Order, and Control he is forever “above suspicion” and even his two key witnesses refuse to aid him in his grand self-immolation, though for two very different reasons. Leads Gian Maria Volonté as the detective and Florinda Bolkan as the hapless courtesan are perfectly matched with Bolkan’s bohemian beauty providing the mirror image of Volonté’s frantic autocrat—their fiery interactions, told in flashback, forming the film’s backbone. Blackly comical and lacking in finesse, Petri’s shrill sermon on the amorality (über-morality?) of power toys with nihilism but the sense of despair is confined to the shallows and the wry smiles are well aimed and hearty enough.

The Invisible Woman (UK 2013) (5): As he was enjoying fame and fortune in the latter part of his career, author Charles Dickens (Ralph Fiennes, who also directed) became smitten with teenaged actress Nelly Ternan (Felicity Jones) who, despite her moral upbringing, eventually responded to his attentions with a bit of encouragement from her mother (Kristin Scott Thomas). But social propriety at the time would relegate Nelly to a life of hiding in the great man’s shadow even after his very public separation from his long-suffering wife (Joanna Scanlan). Fiennes’ turgid costume drama, based on Claire Tomalin’s historically suspect novel, certainly captures a time and place—namely 19th century England—with its Oscar-nominated wardrobes and bucolic backdrops straight from the easels of Turner or Constable. And the cast puts in a good show: Fiennes plays Dickens as a compassionate yet conflicted genius constantly torn between his personal yearnings and his thirst for the spotlight; Jones gives us a fluttery adolescent whose hero worship gradually devolves into something else (the movie is told in flashback as a more mature and respectably married Nelly looks back); and Thomas presents a protective mother balancing the need to shield her youngest daughter with the need to see that she is well looked after…as the mistress of a wealthy bon vivant perhaps. But it is Scanlan who ultimately steals the thunder from the film’s two leads, her quiet portrayal of a dutiful if somewhat dull wife turned into unloved castaway is heartbreak personified. However, historical inaccuracies aside, so much time is spent on sun-dappled introspection and restrained emotions that the whole production slogs along without ever taking wing. A spark of erotica occurs as Dickens and Ternan fumble toward that first kiss, yet it fails to ignite any fires. Likewise, with the exception of Scanlan’s flawlessly downplayed performance, it’s all but impossible to feel much more than warm indifference for either the slightly egocentric older man or the melancholic object of his desire. Visually arresting just the same with its postcard snapshots of industrial era England waffling between marbled manors, rococo apartments, and grimy alleyways littered with orphans and prostitutes, and graced with a cast who look and act as if they were born into it. Sadly, that’s pretty much where the allure ended for me.

The Invitation (USA 2015) (9): After a personal tragedy ended their marriage Will and Eden, unable to deal with each other’s pain, went their separate ways. So it comes as a surprise then when a few years later Eden invites him and his new girlfriend Kira to join her and her new beau David for a posh dinner party at their upscale home in the Los Angeles hills. At first put off by the banal banter of the assembled guests David is amazed at Eden’s sense of calm especially since he is still unable to come to terms with what happened between them. But as the evening wears on the forced bonhomie becomes even more strained when Eden and David begin gushing about the cultish spiritual movement they credit for their newfound happiness. And as the wine flows and inhibitions lower, David begins to suspect that there is more to this evening than a simple reunion between old friends… Starting out with small talk and uneasy laughter as out of touch acquaintances half-heartedly catch up on each other’s lives, director Karyn Kusama slowly sharpens the psychological edges of her thriller with an already unbalanced Will noticing—and quite possibly misinterpreting—worrisome little details like a barred window or the occasional odd mannerism. But when the shocks start arriving you realize she has been setting you up for a contemporary horror story that plays on southern California trendiness (remember EST and Transcendental Meditation?) yet ends with a vision more suitable to Dante. As Will, Logan Marshall-Green wears his pain prominently on his sleeve as he stares and stumbles his way through the evening taking us along with him—a compelling blend of anger and paranoia to match Emayatzy Corinealdi's (Kira) helpless befuddlement. Tammy Blanchard and Michiel Huisman on the other hand play Eden and David like a pair of Stepford yuppie acolytes, their bland smiles chillingly shallow as they spout their metaphysical word salad. Taken as a postmodern nightmare or the blackest of satires (or both) this is one psycho-shocker that hooks you solidly and never lets go.

Iphigenia (Greece 1976) (10): Ancient history and classical mythology meld beautifully in this magnificent production based on Euripides’ sad tale of king Agamemnon. When his brother’s wife, the infamous Helen, is abducted by Paris of Troy, Agamemnon is chosen to lead the Greek city states in what was to become the Trojan War. Gathering at the port of Aulis the vast army awaits a favourable breeze in order to launch their thousand ships when one of the king’s men accidentally kills a sacred deer in the forest of Artemis during an ill-fated hunting expedition. For his punishment Agamemnon is informed by the goddess’ oracle that no fair wind will blow until he sacrifices his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. Torn between his crushing sense of duty and his deep love for Iphigenia, he reluctantly summons the girl to Aulis. But when the queen discovers his plans, Agamemnon realizes his troubles have just begun... Director Cacoyannis distances himself from all the bloodletting and male posturing common to the “swords and sandals” genre and instead delivers a fiercely emotional epic which rests squarely on the shoulders of his three main leads. As the outraged Clytemnestra, Irene Papas burns up the screen with an intensity that brings you to tears even as you flinch. Costa Kazakos makes you feel every wrenching pain of Agamemnon’s personal hell and Tatiana Papamoskou, only 13 at the time, throws herself into the role of the titular heroine with a heartbreaking mixture of childlike innocence and terrified dismay. Although firmly rooted in reality (there are no flying horses or horned satyrs here) Iphigenia nevertheless contains scenes of pure poetry; a furious Clytemnestra confronts her husband in a room littered with the trappings of war, the smoke from a burning altar partially obscures a phalanx of dark-robed priests, and a flotilla of warships lights up a midnight sea. Many scenes are shot using actual ruins as backdrops while acres of haggard soldiers in tarnished armor lend an air of authenticity to the story which belies its quasi-mythological origins. Beautifully written, beautifully imagined.

Irina Palm (Belgium 2007) (5): Her grandson Olly is dying of some exotic disease and frumpy widow Maggie (a monotone Marianne Faithfull) is desperately trying to raise enough money to send him and his parents to Australia where a new treatment has become available. With no marketable skills and no income to speak of, Maggie winds up working at a SoHo sex club giving hand-jobs to anonymous strangers who stick their willies into her cubicle through an outside glory hole. But thanks to her soft touch and some expensive coconut oil lube Maggie, working under the stage name “Irina Palm”, is soon raking in £800 a week with men lined up twelve deep outside her stall. Of course the secret of her employment soon gets out and reactions amongst friends and family vary between prurient interest to a full-on meltdown from her judgemental bitch of a son (a lesson in histrionic overkill from Kevin Bishop). And all the while little Olly is heading towards the grave one baby step at a time… Despite an oh-so-sober score by Belgian alt-rockers “Ghinzu” and an annoying habit of fading to black every five minutes, Director Sam Garbaski presents us with a simple hodgepodge of pathos, one-note comedy (how many times must we watch a prim and proper Maggie screw up her face as she grabs another dick?), and a tepid moral relativism that strives to make an ethical mountain out of a simple tug ’n pull. Everyone seems to be reading their lines off the back of a cereal box and a ludicrous love interest between Maggie and her pimp-slash-manager Miki is probably the funniest schtick of all. A film that wants to wow us with an ultimate punchline or heartwarming revelation yet fails to deliver either one.

Irma La Douce (USA 1963) (5): Home to whores, hucksters, and general riff raff, the denizens of Paris’ “Rue Casanova” red light district enjoy a relatively carefree life thanks to a time-honoured system of official bribes and generous kickbacks to the local constabulary. So it’s understandable that when naïve rookie Nestor Patou (Jack Lemmon), perhaps the only honest policeman in France, singlehandedly decides to raid the area’s hotel of ill repute his adherence to the Law winds up getting him unemployed. Now wandering the boulevard he once patrolled, Nestor falls in with headstrong streetwalker Irma La Douce (Shirley MacLaine) and goes from being her lover to being her jealous “business manager”. Unable to stand the thought of Irma being with all those other men however, Nestor eventually hatches a harebrained scheme designed to keep her on the straight and narrow even if it kills him. Pandemonium ensues. Notorious at the time for its ribald innuendo and almost-nudity—very PG by today’s standards—Irma is perhaps more troubling these days for its depiction of happy-go-lucky prostitutes being joyfully exploited by their charmingly violent pimps (sometimes a slap IS just a slap). But politically incorrect transgressions are the least of its problems for despite an amazingly intricate backlot set and the star power of MacLaine and Lemmon plus legendary director Billy Wilder at the helm, this spoken word adaptation of Alexandre Breffort’s stage musical just isn’t very funny—and with a running time of almost 150 minutes it’s not very funny for a very long time (that storybook ending alone pushes the envelope past ridiculous). Described by MacLaine herself as “crude and clumsy” despite her Best Actress nomination, the comedic stretches are tediously overplayed by a cast who rarely rise above the emotional depth of paper dolls. Both hookers and pimps ply their trade with obvious glee while Nestor and Irma alternately spit and spoon and the local bartender-cum-philosopher (Lou Jacobi) gives the film its central theme with his streetwise musings— apparently you have to accept life for what it is and not what you’d like it to be. Personally I would have liked this much-touted classic film to be better than it actually was. Alas.

The Iron Rose (France 1973) (5):  Jean Rollin toys with our innate fears of death and the dark in this macabre little tale of young lovers trapped in a cemetery overnight.  As the story opens our sweethearts are looking for a quiet place for an afternoon tryst and the local graveyard seems like the perfect spot with its sunny trails and secluded crypts.  But time flies when you’re having fun and before they know it the sun has set and the front gates have been locked.  What seemed like a romantic idyll during the day has now become a Stygian maze filled with noxious mists and strange half-glimpsed shapes.  There are no zombies crawling out of graves here, just the preternatural silence and two highly overactive (and slightly unhinged) imaginations...  Rollin does use some interesting imagery to illustrate how death exists even in the midst of life:  a lively wedding reception becomes quiet when a guest recites a poem about suicide, as our two lovers enter the cemetery the man quotes a passage from Dante’s Inferno while a barking dog and flat trumpet provide a discordant requiem, and a quiet walk along the seashore takes on a funereal pall when the eponymous rose washes up on the beach.  In one particularly theatrical memento mori the protagonists share a desperate embrace in an open grave filled with skulls.  Sadly, despite some intriguing scenes and a very creepy finale, The Iron Rose is just too full of itself to be truly effective.  The ponderous script rife with jarring cuts and overblown dialogue seems like a parody at times, the lighting is too stagy, the acting too exaggerated, and the girlfriend’s “cemetery dance” sequence ends up looking like a really bad Bjork video.  What could have been a great film is ultimately undone by its own art house excesses.  Pity.

Irrational Man (USA 2015) (7): When philosophy professor Abe Lucas (a depressed Joaquin Phoenix) begins his new job teaching at a swank Rhode Island college his reputation for alcohol and women precede him giving rise to all sorts of rumours regarding his traumatic past. Attracted to the older man’s brooding ways and frustrated sense of idealism—all his attempts at international charity work only served to deepen his nihilistic outlook—grad student Jill Pollard (a preppy Emma Stone) begins a tenuous friendship with Lucas which eventually leads to an affair. But with all her attempts to lift Abe out of his rut thwarted by his self-destructive behaviour Jill is about to give up until an overheard conversation gives his existence a new sense of purpose. At first delighted by her lover’s sudden inexplicable interest in life, Jill is eventually thrown into an existential quagmire when she discovers the real reason behind his newfound zeal… Starting out as a somewhat pretentious boarding school drama with beautiful people in designer clothes hashing out Kierkegaard and Kant, writer/director Woody Allen gently pulls the rug out from under us as Lucas’ disillusionment with the “mental masturbation” of philosophy is suddenly put to an acid test. It’s one thing to ponder over dusty tomes, but trying to apply those lofty proclamations on morality, ethics, and reasoning to the dirty, always ambiguous real world can be problematic at best. Above par performances (Parker Posey excels as a sexually frustrated lab prof with her sights on Lucas) are graced by an intelligent script whose macabre sense of irony is underscored by an incongruous soundtrack of jazzy piano riffs. It all comes to a head with a tussle worthy of Hitchcock in which Allen, with tongue just slightly in cheek, plays with the concept of randomness vs destiny and leaves us wondering, “What are the chances…?!” Sly little devil.

I Saw the Devil (Korea 2010) (9): Hellbent on exacting his own brand of retribution, a special forces detective tracks down the sadistic serial killer who butchered his fiancee. Not content to simply hand the madman over to the authorities, the policeman embarks instead on a game of cat and mouse with the murderer which becomes progressively more brutal at every turn. But vengeance is neither sweet nor tidy, and when you taunt a monster long enough you risk becoming a monster yourself… Jee-woon Kim’s excessively graphic revenge fantasy is definitely one to file under “Extreme Cinema”, but beneath all the spurting blood and flayed body parts there is a twisted psychology at work which is even more disturbing than the casual sadism. In the role of the detective, Lee Byun-hun is so intent on satisfying his own rage that he becomes more robot than human, his blank face not fully comprehending the wider consequences of his actions. Conversely Choi Min-sik, playing the killer, is the lively embodiment of pure evil—a cunning creature so devoid of anything even resembling a conscience that he’s little more than a seething mass of id impulses. It’s inevitable, then, that when two such elemental forces of nature collide there will be sparks…and blood. Lots of blood. And Kim throws us into the fray head first with relentless pacing that rarely comes up for air and a cruel camera which holds us captive through passages of such depravity that even I found myself squirming. Appropriately enough, snow and ice figure prominently as do twilit roads and darkened tunnels. But this is not simply a gratuitous bloodbath for Kim ends his film on a note of such savage poetry that I was left wondering just who the titular devil actually referred to.

I See You (USA 2019) (7): When a young boy goes missing in a small New England town, the circumstances surrounding his disappearance bear an alarming similarity to a spate of child murders which took place there several years earlier. But when detective Greg Harper (Jon Tenney) reopens the case it precipitates a series of bizarre occurrences in his private life as his home suddenly becomes the target of a malevolent presence. Now, with crockery flying off the rooftop and things going bump at all hours of the day, he and his already high-strung wife (Helen Hunt) and oddly antagonistic son (Judah Lewis) have an even bigger mystery on their hands. Told twice from two different perspectives, I See You does keep you guessing right up to the halfway mark when director Adam Randall over-explains it all before catching us off guard with one final twist. Overhead tracking shots from The Shining pair well with scenes of sinister domesticity taken from Hereditary, and a few oh-so-clever foreshadowings appear on bedroom walls and computer screens—alas, the meticulous horror tropes lead to a climax which proves to be more amusingly macabre than outright shocking. Nice build-up while it lasts however even if the film’s creep factor is ultimately outdone by unsettling images of a plasticized Helen Hunt struggling to emote through layers of botched plastic surgery.

I Sell the Dead (USA 2008) (7): On the eve of his execution for the heinous crime of grave robbing, career ghoul Arthur Blake sits in his cell sharing a bottle of whisky with prison chaplain Father Duffy. At the rather gruff priest’s insistence Arthur begins recounting the details of his criminal life which began when, as a child in desperate need of funds, he teemed up with veteran body snatcher Willy Grimes. Barely eking out a living supplying fresh corpses to the unscrupulous Dr. Quint, the two men eventually hit pay dirt when they discovered there was far more money to be made selling the undead to an underground scientific community eager for zombie lab rats. But no lucrative venture is without risk and for Arthur and Willy that risk came in the form of rival gang “The House of Murphy”; a family of psychotics and sociopaths intent on cornering the living dead market at any cost… Very loosely based on the exploits of a pair of 18th century Scottish grave robbers, this cheeky little flick successfully mixes dark humour with a bit of gore and a few over-the-top performances. The inclusion of some comic book backgrounds (it was later made into a graphic novel) bring to mind 1982’s Creepshow and exaggerates both the film’s fantastical and ridiculous elements…a fog-shrouded Old England and its denizens never looked so enticingly grimy. It’s a macabre, tongue-in-cheek romp which never quite hits the comedic heights it was aiming for but manages to elicit consistent smiles just the same. And that lowbrow ending was the horror equivalent of a pie in the face!

I Shot Andy Warhol (UK/USA 1996) (8): Canadian director Mary Harron’s riveting drama about the unfortunate acquaintance between New York avant-garde artist Andy Warhol and the schizoid man-hating dyke-cum-feminist Valerie Solanas, author of the S.C.U.M. Manifesto (Society for Cutting Up Men). In the late 60’s Warhol and his warehouse commune of musicians, artistes and eccentric bohemians, collectively known as The Factory, pretty much defined everything that was new and exciting in the east coast art scene…from experimental films and performance pieces to the now iconic silk screens of movie stars and household groceries. At the same time Solanas, suffering from a childhood of neglect and abuse, was trying to support herself through prostitution while banging out her tome of anti-male essays and working on her first anti-male play, Up Your Ass. Already conned by an unscrupulous publisher, Valerie became convinced that only the great Andy Warhol could appreciate her script and bring it to Broadway. But The Factory was never interested in her paranoid rants and the more Warhol avoided the increasingly neurotic wannabe the more Solanas began to suspect he was part of an ever enlarging conspiracy to discredit her. Finally, her mind properly snapped, Valerie acquired a gun from her anarchist quasi-boyfriend and paid Warhol one final visit. Shot through with 60s tunes and all the acid-laced set designs you’d expect, Harron’s opus captures something of the underground Manhattan art scene her protagonists inhabited. Drugs and drag queens (Stephen Dorff is amazing as Warhol’s muse, the late great Candy Darling), creative geniuses and lacquered poseurs, all are presented with pinpoint accuracy. But the entire film hinges on Lili Taylor’s knockout performance as the obsessive Solanas and Jared Harris’s beautifully nuanced turn as the soft-spoken Warhol. There is a depth to Taylor’s portrayal, for despite her glaring mental illness Valerie Solanas was a bright and insightful artist in her own right as a few B&W monologues in which she quotes from her work attest. Meanwhile Harris’ Warhol, here a strange and decidedly queer mix of jet set butterfly and taciturn recluse, provides the perfect contrast; the grounded yin to her volatile yang. A truly unexpected gem whose closing “Where are they now?” title cards carry a surprising poignancy.

Island in the Sun (USA 1957) (6): It’s adultery, murder, and interracial lust beneath the tropical sun in this tawdry soap which shocked audiences upon its initial release and garnered a ton of racist hate mail for star Joan Fontaine. On the Caribbean island of Santa Marta, still under stuffy British rule, the insanely jealous scion of a wealthy plantation family discovers his bloodline is not as white as he would like it to be—a fact he tries to twist to his political advantage while his younger sister takes it as tacit permission to lower her moral standards. Meanwhile, on another part of the beach, a caucasian socialite finds herself wishing she had a little more black in her…namely the fiery young native with political aspirations of his own. It all comes to a head during Carnival when, amidst swirling masks and steel drum beats, dirty secrets will be laid bare, passions will turn deadly, and the shackles of colonialism will receive a thorough shaking. A sensationalistic script and theatrical performances nevertheless do manage to address the issue of racism (from both sides) as well as racial identity. Pretty heady stuff for the 1950s even if time and shifting social norms have pretty well removed its sting.

Island of Lost Souls (USA 1932) (8): Banned from UK theatres until 1958 by British censors who felt its subject matter went “against nature”, this early film adaptation of H. G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau is definitely one of the creepiest. A shipwrecked sailor finds himself a reluctant guest on a remote island where the insane Dr. Moreau (a brilliant Charles Laughton) is in his lab busily transforming wild animals into something resembling human beings if you can overlook the fangs, claws, and copious amounts of body fur. Determined to draw the hapless castaway into his mad experiments by having him mate with an exotic panther woman, Moreau will stop at nothing—including murder—to realize his twisted dream of playing God to a race of feral humanoids. But when the sailor’s lovely fiancee arrives on the island with a rescue party in tow the crazed doctor decides to get two bangs for the price of one—and that’s when his slobbering tribe of hirsute man-beasts really start to howl. Graced by theatrical performances and exaggerated lighting straight out of Hollywood’s Silent Era as well as a lush backlot jungle set, director Erie C. Kenton weaves a macabre tale rife with enough brutal violence and implied perversions that it elicited a small scandal upon its initial release. Eighty-four years later however the sexuality is just so much camp, but the grotesque make-up effects (including Bela Lugosi in dog-face) are still revolting and the film’s sadistic edge is as sharp as ever.

I Spit on Your Grave (USA 2010) (6): In Steven Monroe’s remake of the 1978 cult classic young author Jennifer Hills rents an isolated backwoods cabin in order to work on her next big novel. Unfortunately her arrival does not go unnoticed by the local group of horned up delinquents who decide to pay her a visit one night. Managing to escape, Jennifer enlists the aid of the local sheriff and that’s when things get ugly, for it seems that everyone in this neck of the woods has a hankering for city girls. Repeatedly beaten, raped, and left for dead, Jennifer eventually manages to outwit her assailants and when payback time arrives it isn’t pretty… I must admit the overplayed brutality and sexual violence of the first half had my finger hovering over the “stop” button more than once—Jennifer’s horrific ordeal unfolds in full colour widescreen shots as each hayseed takes his turn manning the handheld camera for a souvenir video. There seems to be a macabre air of revelry to the film’s misogyny as cowering female screams and begs while her naked body is dragged over rocks and mud. But when cruel reality gives way to ardent revenge fantasy you realize that Monroe has been toying with his audience the whole time by pushing the standard ‘woman in peril” horror conventions beyond all reasonable limits. And in the welcome catharsis that follows winces turn to eager anticipation as Jennifer uses fish hooks, garden shears, and one very slippery shotgun to even the score. Insulting to women, rednecks and everyone’s intelligence to be sure, but I still found myself cheering even as my husband cringed.

I Stand Alone (France 1998) (10): Rarely does a movie leave me shaking inside long after the final credits have left the screen. Case in point, this gut-wrenching study in nihilism and despair that could only have come from the brilliantly twisted mind of French bad boy Gaspar Noé. Phillipe Nahon gives a standout performance as “the butcher” a beleaguered everyman born in France “that shithole of cheese and Nazi lovers” on the eve of WWII. Abandoned by his mother at the age of three and orphaned by the Nazis after they executed his father, he grew up on the streets of Paris where he eked out a living managing a butcher shop. Unable to form meaningful relationships (his first wife left him with an institutionalized daughter while his second wife, an emasculating shrew, robbed him of whatever dignity he had left) the Butcher begins to project his growing rage on those around him. Carrying on an agitated and increasingly disjointed monologue in which he blames his past humiliations and current financial straits on everyone from women to foreigners to homosexuals, the Butcher eventually reaches his breaking point. With only one gun and three bullets he seeks to get his revenge on life; but not before he has one last fateful encounter with his estranged daughter... With its abrupt narrative jumps punctuated by sounds of distant thunder and jolting gunshots, Noé’s claustrophobic film crawls inside the head of its protagonist and refuses to provide the objectivity that would allow us to separate reality from paranoia. Even mundane billboards and shop signs take on a psychological subtext as we see the “Hotel Future” and “Cafe Here and There” loom heavily in our antihero’s wanderings. With typical mordant detachment, Noé chronicles the disintegration of one man’s painfully fragile ego. But this is not a simple rant on the effects of poverty or bigotry, for the Butcher’s self-destructive fury and impotent flailing are signs of a much deeper spiritual sickness which, as the film’s final shocking scene reveals, carries within it a threat more lethal than a simple bullet.

The Italian Job (UK 1969) (9): Less than 24 hours after being released from prison Charlie Croker, notorious thief and womanizer, finds himself planning the greatest heist of his career at the request of a murdered colleague's widow. Four million dollars in gold bullion is about to be escorted through the winding streets of Turin, Italy and Charlie has just a few short weeks to flesh out the elaborate robbery plan begun by his dead friend while assembling a crack team of burglars, stunt drivers and one deviant computer genius with a fetish for fat chicks. Despite having both the mafia and Italian polizia hot on their trail, the unlikely troupe of bandits manage to pull off the century's most ingenious theft using traffic jams, electronic meddling and one very funny low speed car chase through the alleyways, stairwells (?!) and rooftops (?!?!) of Turin. Unfortunately fate has one last ironic wrench to throw into their carefully laid plans... Michael Caine is perfectly cast as the cavalier Croker while the rest of the cast is in fine form, most notably Benny Hill as the pudgy computer geek and Noel Coward as the criminal kingpin footing the bill. But it is a trio of adorable candy-coloured Mini Coopers that ultimately steal the show. The gutsy little cars swerve and squeal right on cue as if they were the villainous counterparts of Herbie the Love Bug, only with more personality. With just the right combination of comedic energy and cheeky satire, this cartoon caper is a fine example of light entertainment at its very best.

It Happened Here (UK 1965) (10): With a shoestring budget and an army of volunteers writers/directors Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, who were just teenagers when they began this project in 1956, manage to produce a chilling alternate history in which Germany has won the war and England has become an occupied state. Presented as a quasi-documentary complete with newsreels and B&W verité camerawork, we’re shown a divided Britain where an underground resistance wages a guerrilla campaign against the German forces while an increasingly fervent generation of English Nazis embrace the assurances of national socialism promised by their new Führer. Against this backdrop a district nurse, relocated from the countryside to a “demilitarized” London, tries to see the good behind the occupation—an obsessive attention to law and order now reigns for one thing—while turning a blind eye to the darker side of her new masters—swastikas hang from every government building and common folk sport shiny black uniforms while calmly discussing genocide over tea and crumpets. But when she is faced with evidence of Nazi atrocities taking place on English soil her own political apathy takes a tumble…a dangerous thing to happen in a country now rife with zealous informants and card-carrying nationalists. Lacking the funds for a full scale costume epic, Brownlow and Mollo rely instead on small touches to give us a sense of time and place: Hitler’s face beams from the cover of every magazine, military bands bang out patriotic songs through quiet boroughs, ubiquitous propaganda posters urge people to “Work in Germany!”, and news announcers loudly proclaim Britain’s liberation from communism and the Jewish menace. Lastly, a fine cast of both professionals and amateurs are completely convincing as they move about their brave new world either cooing or looking the other way according to their conscience. A triumph of substance over means.

It Happened on 5th Avenue (USA 1947) (6): Wealthy industrialist Michael J. O'Connor learns a thing or two about life, love, and the American Way when his daughter Mary, mistaken for a penniless runaway, falls in love with one of the happy-go-lucky squatters she discovers living in the family's vacant New York mansion. At Marry's insistence O'Connor disguises himself as a homeless vagrant in order to join their ranks and check out his daughter's love interest. At first put off by their lower class ways the old man balks at having to pose as a hobo in his own home until his ex-wife joins in the fun and O'Connor finds himself at a sudden moral (and financial) crossroads when Mary's potential new boyfriend becomes an unexpected business rival. Chockfull of corny sentimentality, wide-eyed patriotism and a double serving of gooey romance, this post WWII comedy does deliver a carefully worded critique on the mindset of the privileged class while still managing to paint those sacred capitalist ideals with a kinder, gentler face. Average holiday fare and nothing more.

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

It’s a Wonderful World (USA 1939) (6): Guy Johnson (James Stewart), a somewhat meek and unprincipled private eye who makes a living doing damage control for a drunken tycoon with more dollars than sense, finds himself a wanted man after his soused benefactor is convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. Now on the lam from both the police and reporters he only has a few days to unmask the real killer before his boss is executed and he gets sent to prison on conspiracy charges. But romantic complications arrive in the form of a scatterbrained poetess (Claudette Colbert doing a Gracie Allen routine) who takes a fancy to Guy and is determined to help him clear his name even if she drives him crazy in the process… More screwy than screwball, director W. S. Van Dyke’s lightweight comedy relies on squeals and slapstick instead of actual wit resulting in a few smiles—Stewart disguises himself as a myopic cub scout leader, Colbert gets stuck in an apple tree—and a whole lot of goodnatured forbearance. The two leads don’t exactly generate sparks despite their onscreen shouting (and screaming) matches and the supporting cast of flatfoot detectives, exasperated thespians, and Johnson’s argumentative sidekick (Guy Kibbee) give performances one step above Three Stooges fodder. A pleasant distraction nevertheless even if it doesn’t compare to Stewart discovering that It’s A Wonderful Life seven years later.

It’s Not Me, I Swear! (Canada 2008) (10): To say ten-year old Léon Doré is a “problem child” would be the understatement of the century. Given to dramatic suicide attempts, vandalism, arson, theft, and a knack for lying that seems second nature he is the holy terror of the neighbourhood. When the “perfect family” across the street go on a camping trip Léon trashes their house; when his own family bursts into a shouting match he tries to bring peace by setting the upstairs on fire. But he is still very much a child, given to bouts of colourful daydreaming (mostly darker colours), whose destructive rebelliousness can be traced at least partially to his tumultuous home life. His ineffectual father is a human rights lawyer out to save the world, his mother is a frustrated artist and fellow daydreamer who shields her little boy from the harsher consequences of his actions, and his older brother Jérôme simply dreams of having a normal life. And then mom suddenly ups and leaves for more exotic climes and Léon is left bewildered and angry that his already fractured life has just received yet another blow. Joining forces with his diminutive love interest Léa, bearing the bruises of her own dysfunctional family, Léon sets off to find his mother on a journey that will mark the beginning of the end of his childhood… Featuring fantastic performances from its young cast (lead Antoine L’Écuyer is a revelation) and brilliant cinematography which makes the most of its dizzying crane shots (everything seems so much neater from God’s perspective) writer/director Pillippe Falardeau weaves together elements of Christian and Greek mythology—Léon’s take on Genesis is novel to say the least—with some bitter reality to produce a wholly unique tale of one deeply disturbed child’s search for light at the end of a seriously dark tunnel. Calling to mind Neil Jordan’s Butcher Boy, Falardeau uses humour to soften the fact that his tiny protagonist is in fact losing his grip on sanity. But whereas Jordan’s Francie is offered very little in the way of redemption, Léon’s attempts to break down the world into small understandable pieces eventually gives rise to a nascent wisdom that hints at better times ahead. Awash with magical images of animal familiars and hiding places that are as much psychological as geographical, Léon’s faltering sideways step towards adolescence—mirrored by Léa’s wholehearted plunge—represents yet another dramatic coup for Quebec cinema that rivals Lauzon’s Léolo.

Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future (Russia 1973) (6): Mild-mannered genius Alexander Timofeyev has built a time machine in his modest Moscow apartment much to the consternation of his neighbours who complain about the constant power outages his experiments cause. On top of that his gorgeous wife is leaving him for a film director and the apartment manager seems intent on making his life miserable. But when he finally takes his invention for a test spin things go from bad to worse in ways he had never imagined. Opening a portal to 16th century Russia he inadvertently “kidnaps” the infamous tsar, Ivan the Terrible, while at the same time sending his apartment manager, also named Ivan, and a hapless cat burglar back to the Tsar’s palace. What follows is a series of gags based on culture clashes, mistaken identities (both Ivans are played by the same actor), and subtle jabs at communism and religion. Director Leonid Gaidai’s cast obviously have a great deal of fun as they throw themselves into character with wild abandon. Using slapstick, improvisation, and chase sequences right out of Benny Hill they almost succeed in pulling off what could have been a burlesque send-up of Eisenstein’s sober 2-part epic. There are a few nice touches along the way: Repin’s painting of Ivan and his Son hangs prominently in Alexander’s apartment; funky 70s fashions, soviet-style, abound; and a very silly song & dance sequence near the end reminded me of a similar scene in Python’s Holy Grail. Many of the jokes fall flat however, at least to western audiences, and the production values leave much to be desired. Furthermore Gaidai, perhaps not knowing how to end this increasingly ridiculous farce, resorts to one of cinema’s most clichéd and overused devices. Fun to watch if not exactly memorable, but the cat is priceless!

I Vitelloni (Italy 1953) (7): Often billed as a comedy, Federico Fellini’s largely autobiographical account of five slackers eking out an existence in a jerkwater town makes a bleak statement on the social realities of post WWII Italy. Getting uncomfortably close to 30 and still directionless, Moraldo and his buddies are representative of a new Lost Generation of young men with no prospects, no ambition, and no sense of responsibility. Preferring to party and chase women (whether or not those women are willing) they can only dream—one is a literary dilettante, another fancies himself a scholar, and a third, Fausto, regularly cheats on the woman he was forced to marry after she became pregnant, citing his need to “be free” as if it were a self-evident truth. But when his wife disappears with their child causing everyone to fear the worst, Fausto receives a crash course in growing up. Although firmly rooted in the aesthetics of neorealism, one can still see the young Fellini’s flair for the surreal developing in the background, most notably a hedonistic Carnival sequence adorned with grotesque statuary and masked revellers who hop to a discordant orchestra score, their false bonhomie and hollow smiles underlining the general zeitgeist of the time while a seaside interlude will later be revisited in 1960’s La Dolce Vita. And when Fausto lands a job selling religious trinkets the irony, though kept low-key, provides some of the film’s highlights especially when he tries to hawk a stolen angel. Not content to simply dump on the youth however, Fellini is quick to point out the foibles of the generation who sired these young men, hardworking fathers and mothers who are nevertheless more concerned with appearances and tradition than self-fulfillment. But, as if to balance the aura of pessimism, he ends on an ambivalent note as each friend receives a comeuppance in one form or another and one heeds the siren call of the big city—for better or for worse. Federico’s doppelgänger perhaps?

I Wake Up Screaming [aka Hot Spot ] (USA 1941) (5): When up-and-coming model Vicky Lynn (Carole Landis) is found dead in her Manhattan apartment suspicion immediately falls upon talent promoter Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) the man who first discovered her when she was a lowly waitress and who may have been in love with her to boot. However, the more Christopher professes his innocence the more chief detective Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) insists on his guilt. But Cornell, a menacing oily-voiced hulk, has a few secrets of his own to hide. Only Lynn’s sister Jill (Betty Grable) senses something amiss but will anyone listen? When critiquing any film noir it is essential that one suspend disbelief to allow for the heightened dramatics and artistic license which are germane to the genre, but this dark murder mystery from director H. Bruce Humberstone is just too sloppy to forgive. As a policier its conspicuous disregard for proper procedure stretches plausibility past the breaking point with cops sauntering in and out of people’s apartments without an invite or a warrant and on-duty officers making deals with suspects on a lark. And aside from Cregar’s chilling performance everyone else seems to be reading their lines off the back of their hands, especially a woefully miscast Mature who stumbles and emotes his way towards the film’s laughably naïve conclusion. But the cinematography revels in New York’s nightlife and the strange musical score—including a revised orchestral version of “Over the Rainbow”—counteracts much of the film’s noirish nonsense. Worth a look for diehard fans.

Jackass 2.5  (USA 2007) (4):  It would appear that the drugs, booze, and fart sniffing are finally catching up to the Jackass gang.  In the interviews they’re looking a little greyer, a bit more desiccated, but definitely no wiser and the pranks themselves are nothing more than a collection of outtakes and surplus footage from their previous movies.  It’s enough to make you laugh a few times if you’re in like-minded company, smile a few times if you’re alone, or just sit there self-consciously while your highly judgmental boyfriend slowly shakes his head.  I guess the party’s

Jackie (USA/France 2016) (8): Sometimes it takes a pair of foreign eyes to reinterpret a moment in one country’s history, a point made perfectly clear in Chilean director Pablo Larraín’s biopic of Jaqueline Kennedy. Told in flashback as the former First Lady (Natalie Portman) verbally spars with a reporter (Billy Crudup) intent on discovering the woman behind the icon, Larraín’s combination of verité realism and dreamlike psychodrama perfectly captures the confusion and horror “Jackie” experienced in the three days between President Kennedy’s brutal assassination and his elaborate state funeral. A high society darling who brought a sense of class and contemporary glamour to the White House with her bold renovation plans and haute couture outfits, Jackie was thrust into the role of grieving wife and mother—not just for her own children but, by proxy, for an entire nation. And despite a resemblance to the actual Jacqueline that is fleeting at best, Portman nevertheless brings this woman to life in every scene with a softly accented voice that belies an inner resolve and a resiliency that barely conceals the fact she is always one step away from meltdown. In one scene she wanders vacantly through partially decorated rooms looking small and exposed, her pink Chanel suit still spattered with her husband’s blood; in another she shouts down Bobby Kennedy over funeral arrangements—and wins. It’s this combination of vulnerable widow and diminutive powerhouse which made the real Jackie such an intriguing paradox and which Portman’s Oscar-nominated presentation captures with such clarity. The script, penned by former newsman Noah Oppenheim, weaves historical facts and dramatic speculations with nary a seam showing and cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine likewise marries actual stock footage with sweeping arcs that rarely leave Jackie’s side whether she’s cradling her husband’s shattered head in her lap, staring down a reporter, or trudging through a rain-soaked Arlington cemetery in search of the perfect burial site. Kudos also to Oscar nominees Madeline Fontaine for her impeccable costume designs and Mica Levi for a poignant musical score which steers audiences without overpowering them. Peter Sarsgaard puts in an impassioned Bobby Kennedy, John Carroll Lynch gives us a bigger than life Lyndon B. Johnson, John Hurt pierces through Jackie’s armour as her priest/confessor, and Portman’s real life friend Greta Gerwig personifies quiet compassion as Jackie’s confidante Nancy Tuckerman. Jacqueline Kennedy once likened their brief stint in the White House to an American Camelot—indeed, one scene employing Richard Harris’ theme song from the musical soundtrack threatens to break your heart in two—and although Larraín’s poetic yet unsentimental passages avoid any further myth-building, by the time the final credits scroll past you are left with a very personal summation of what was destroyed that day in Dallas.

Jackie Brown (USA 1997) (9): Quentin Tarantino’s screen adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel is a fast and furious salute to both his own Pulp Fiction and those low-budget blaxploitation flicks of the 70s. Pam Grier—still sexy, still fierce—reboots her career as the titular heroine, a 44-year old stewardess working for a crummy Mexican airline who pads her meagre paycheques by smuggling cash between Cabo and L.A. for Ordell Robbie (Samuel L. Jackson), a mid-level arms dealer and one of the meanest mofos to come out of Compton. But when Jackie gets arrested with a purse full of Ordell’s money she finds herself between a rock and a bigger rock—for refusing to cooperate with the Feds will translate into a prison term she can ill afford and turning state evidence will have Robbie eager to shut her up…permanently. Fortunately Jackie possesses brains as well as nerve and it doesn’t take long for her to concoct an ingenious plan that will either have her living the high life or not living at all. Filmed with Tarantino’s typical penchant for highly kinetic pans and acidic comedy—although this time around he keeps the violence mostly off camera—Jackie Brown is one crazy-ass heist caper full of double-crosses, crossed purposes, and a whole lot of “N” and “F” bombs (much to the chagrin of Spike Lee who couldn’t see past the satire). As the ghetto-mouthed ponytailed Robbie, Jackson is a volatile mixture of paranoia and coldblooded intent that provides the perfect balance to Grier’s keen sense of self-preservation while an impressive supporting cast picks up the slack including Robert De Niro as a befuddled ex-con hired by Robbie, Michael Keaton as a not-quite-clueless ATF agent, Bridget Fonda as Robbie’s drug-addled token white chick, and Robert Forster’s Oscar-nominated performance as a sympathetic bondsman. With a script sharper than nails and action that shifts from hilarious bullshit sessions to cool suspense, it’s that glorious Motown soundtrack that winds up staying in your head. It’s like discovering The Delfonics for the very first time.

Japanese Girls at the Harbor (Japan 1933) (7): Schoolgirls Dora and Sunako are the very best of friends even though Sunako is often preoccupied with her motorcycle-riding boyfriend, Henry. But unbeknownst to either girl, two-timing Henry is hanging out with the sultry showgirl Yoko and her crooked pals. When word gets back to Sunako the naive young woman ignores her best friend’s advice and decides to get even with Henry one fateful night. The fallout from her rash decision throws everyone’s life off kilter and it isn’t until a few years later, when all three cross paths once more, that we see the price each one has paid. Hiroshi Shimizu’s silent melodrama features some wonderfully natural performances and (for the time) innovative camerawork as people fade in and out of existence and interactions are often framed by an open door or shadowed hallway. Foregoing the scene-chewing drama of many of his Hollywood contemporaries, Shimizu instead maintains a respectful distance from his characters bordering on detachment; we are allowed to view their pain but we cannot truly share in it. Furthermore, his use of seemingly innocuous background props to underscore a scene’s emotional impact is both clever and highly effective; a simple skein of yarn hints at infidelity, a cup and saucer left in the rain carry tragic overtones and a crude portrait floating in a ship’s wake signals both an ending and a beginning. Some may be put off by its rather formalized and episodic presentation, but I found Japanese Girls to be a captivating example of early Japanese cinema.

Japan Japan (Israel 2007) (7): “Cinema is dead...” states 19 year old layabout Imri as last night’s trick peels off a used condom, “...I used to enjoy entering other people’s realities but it went away.” And so begins Lior Shamriz’s remarkable indie feature, part art house short (at only 65 minutes) and part slacker diary chronicling one young man’s lethargic journey to nowhere. Leaving his backwater town for the bright lights of Tel Aviv Imri dreams of traveling to Japan where he suspects a sea change awaits him that will give his dull life sudden purpose; providing mom and dad keep sending him cheques of course. However, his grandiose plans for starting this new existence seem to consist of taking a few Japanese lessons, looking at satellite views of Tokyo on google earth, and downloading gay Asian porn. This sense of disconnect and self-delusion seems to run rampant in Shamriz’s film as we see Imri’s roommate throwing parties for imaginary friends, his BFF Naama prancing around New York like an Israeli Bjork, and his mother dividing her time between attending New Age lectures and setting up a home gym she’ll never use. Combining a non-linear storyline and rambling intellectual voice-overs with various gimmicky cinematic ploys like fast forwarding, split screens and random video montages (not to mention a few messy hardcore detours), Shamriz gives us a rough sketch of an apathetic young man whose life is revving in neutral. Furthermore, a few cleverly placed trailers for Japan Japan, complete with cast credits, give the impression that Imri is forever consigned to play a supporting role in his own story. Although the film’s delivery may seem shallow at first glance it is precisely this superficiality, coupled with a frantic editing style, that highlights our protagonist’s sideways descent into more of the same. “Be Satisfied With Here and Now” proclaims a multilingual poster on Imri’s wall, a poster which always seems to be facing his backside, while conversely another placard ironically shouts, “To Live in Tel Aviv but to Feel in SoHo”. Shamriz finishes his little opus appropriately enough at a border checkpoint adorned with an oddly incongruous piece of artwork and a darkly elegiac work by the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy which ends thus, “...As you have ruined your life here, in this little corner, you have destroyed it in the whole world.” Heavy, pessimistic, and more than a little self-indulgent, this is still a decent example of what can happen when a director dares to take a chance.

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

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

Je Tu Il Elle (France 1974) (2): There’s a lot to be said for minimalism in cinema, the ability to tell a story using bare sets, a bare script, and a subdued palette. Unfortunately none of these can be said for Chantal Akerman’s three-act avant garde lesson in tedium no matter how many critics rush to make excuses for it. Act one sees “Julie” (Ackerman herself) in a spartan apartment performing meaningless tasks over the course of several days: she paints the walls, she moves the furniture around, she writes endless drafts of a letter to her ex which she’ll never send, she paints the walls again, she dresses and undresses, she eats a bag of sugar… Act two sees Julie on the road as the first snows of winter descend outside her window (in curiously discreet handfuls) where she hitches a ride—and a sexual encounter—with a somewhat brusque truck driver whose running monologue never strays far from primal hunter-gatherer impulses and his penis—the first represented by ruminations on the pursuit of financial security and his ability to “bring home the bacon” to his harried wife, the latter taking the form of lurid confessions which includes a genuinely erotic spate of dirty talk when Julie takes things in hand. Act three sees Julie at her ex-girlfriend’s home where a subtle power play leads to the film’s one claim to infamy—a prolonged sex scene which wavers between mechanical lust and a wrestling smackdown. The underlying themes of loneliness and isolation are self-evident, as is the gradual move towards empowerment with Julie going from passive observer to active mover. But Akerman’s arthouse aesthetic tries to wring too much deep meaning from too many mundane passages thus forcing us to watch Julie struggle with the zipper on her coat, Julie return a mound of spilled sugar back into its bag one agonizing spoonful at a time, Julie move her mattress from the bed to the floor to the wall to the floor again, Julie and the truck driver eat an entire meal while a (far more interesting) American television show plays offscreen… And its all filmed in static B&W takes which are either too close or too removed. In short, if you want to make a statement on contemporary angst and alienation it’s never a good idea to begin with your audience.

Jezebel (USA 1938) (6):  Bette Davis plays Julie, a headstrong southern belle who is blessed with more balls than brains in this sumptuous period piece set in antebellum Louisiana.  Her insistence that she be at the centre of everyone’s universe eventually leads to her downfall as she alienates herself not only from her family and social circles, but the only two men who ever loved her including Preston her sometime fiancé.  She eventually learns the error of her ways however and in the end we see a humbled and contrite Julie go from wildcat to ministering angel as an outbreak of yellow fever ravages the streets of New Orleans.  Wyler presents us with a picture postcard of a film filled with genteel stereotypes whether it be impeccably dressed gentlemen dueling at dawn or contented slaves ready to belt out a rousing spiritual at the drop of a manacle.  The sets and costumes are painstakingly authentic and the musical score, while subdued, is perfectly synched to the onscreen action.  There is even a hint of Dantean imagery as we see a cloaked Julie barging across a fetid river in order to walk among the plague victims.  Unfortunately, when you eliminate the grandiose sets and hoop skirts you’re left with little more than a one-hankie tearjerker, which lacks any profound depth.  Still, the acting is wonderful especially Davis’ Oscar-winning performance and the B&W cinematography beautifully rendered.  Entertaining, if not challenging.

A Jihad for Love (USA 2007) (6): From an outspoken gay imam in South Africa, to same-sex lovers in Iran, to a happy-go-lucky lesbian couple meeting the “in-laws” for the first time in Turkey, director Parvez Sharma’s sincere though poorly edited documentary shows the ongoing struggle of homosexual Moslems to reconcile with both their religious community and themselves. Like the gay Orthodox Jews in Trembling Before G-D they face an uphill battle as they tackle fundamentalist pundits and the often ambiguous condemnations alluded to in the Koran. In fact many of the participants insisted on having their faces blurred lest they face prison time—or worse—for daring to love in countries where such unions have been deemed illegal. But all is not doom and gloom as we see homophobic laws being relaxed (or ignored), open minds becoming enlightened, and in one particular sect an annual celebration recalls the affection between an ancient imam and his Hindu lover. Unfortunately the hateful rhetoric aimed at the community sometimes hits its mark causing one deeply conflicted lesbian to yearn for punishment and a “normal” life despite her girlfriend’s loving assurances. “Where there is no hurt, there is no sin…” states one defiant woman and that single triumphant sentence makes more sense than all the scripture in the world.

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work (USA 2010) (7): Love her or hate her, Joan Rivers broke new ground for female comics starting in the early days when she dared to crack jokes about sex, pregnancy, and abortion, to the latter years when her foul-mouthed Jewish grandmother schtick drew laughter and heckles alike. In Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg’s documentary, filmed as the comedienne turned 75, Joan takes centre stage (as usual), letting us into her gaudily appointed penthouse apartment for a look back on a career filled with triumphs and regrets. Intercutting hilarious stage performances with some brutal confessions, Rivers presents herself as a contradictory mix of aggressive businesswoman trying desperately to remain relevant, and vulnerable diva whose stretched face and pounds of make-up attest to the fact she fears obscurity more than death itself…an observation further strengthened by her willingness to accept any job offer no matter how demeaning. An interesting character sketch of a terribly complicated woman whose life was fraught with mountains and valleys—from industry accolades and standing ovations to the suicide of her husband, a failed acting career (her biggest aspiration and greatest disappointment), and ongoing adversarial relationship with her daughter Melissa. “The only time I am truly, truly happy is when I am on a stage…” confesses Joan standing behind a theatre curtain while an unseen audience offers thunderous applause, and one can’t help but wonder if her willingness to take on this project in the first place was just another kick at the can.

Jodorowsky’s Dune (France 2013) (7): In the early 1970s, still riding on the success of his underground classics El Topo and The Holy Mountain, Chilean avant-garde director Alejandro Jodorowsky turned his sights on Frank Herbert’s Dune—a novel which he found deeply spiritual (even though he hadn’t read it) and was hellbent on turning into the greatest movie ever made. Getting the green light from his French backers he pieced together a production dream team that included fantasy illustrators H. R. Giger and Jean Giraud (aka Moebius), special effects wizard Dan O’Bannon, Pink Floyd, and cast members David Carradine, Mick Jagger, and Orson Welles. Jodorowsky and his cohorts spent the next several months producing an elaborate script-cum-storyboard featuring colour illustrations and scene-by-scene sketches which he pitched to every major movie studio who would let him through the front door. Alas, he was never able to raise the necessary finances and his Dune became the greatest movie never made. From producers, artists, and enthusiastic film critics to O’Bannon’s widow and Jodorowsky himself (then 84 years old) , Frank Pavich’s engaging documentary sheds some light on what went wrong and what could have been. What emerges is a portrait of the artist as a fiercely passionate visionary whose grandiose ideas were bigger than his purse (the film was to be fifteen hours long) and whose colourful eccentricities gave conservative studio execs cold feet—at one point Herbert’s galactic emperor Shaddam IV was to be played by surrealist painter Salvador Dali who insisted on having a burning giraffe scene thrown into the film for good measure. Despite his project being turned down however, several of Jodorowsky’s ideas regarding camera techniques and set design would mysteriously resurface in such productions as Star Wars, The Terminator, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. One final note, just to inject a bit of reality into the fairy tale, even though Alejandro clearly comes across as a lively and creative intellectual his previous track record suggests that this film would also have been relegated to the realm of midnight cult oddities. But in a world where Peter Jackson can go from Meet the Feebles to Lord of the Rings anything is possible.

Joe (USA 1970) (7):  A proper white collar executive comes face to face with his darker half in the form of a slovenly loudmouthed bigot in this rather heavy-handed look at the backside of the American dream. Boyle manages to portray the titular cretin with venomous abandon despite a script rife with oversimplified stereotypes (think of Archie Bunker with rabies) while the rest of the cast put in adequate performances especially Audrey Caire as the executive's class-conscious trophy wife. With its overbearing use of symbolism and occasional vitriolic rants, "Joe" is about as subtle as a baseball bat to the kidneys......but it provides an interesting example of how Hollywood interpreted the death of the 60s. Worth a look

Johnny Got His Gun (USA 1971) (6): Any anti-war movie written and directed by Dalton Trumbo, with a little help from Luis Buñuel no less, is sure to carry a pretty hefty sting. But the film has not aged well over the years and some of its rather klunky staging has since degraded into mere psychedelic affectation. Europe, WWI, and American enlistee Joe Bonham (Timothy Bottoms) is in hospital blind, deaf, and missing all four limbs as well as half his face thanks to an enemy mortar shell. Now kept alive through various rubber tubings, the army medical team is convinced his higher cerebral functions have also been blown away—but they are wrong. Inside his head Joe is very much aware, and lacking external stimuli his mind fills the void by wandering back in time where memories and flights of fancy offer him comfort and misery in equal measure: there’s his father (Jason Robards) who always wanted more than life gave him; his girlfriend who begged him not to go to war and now taunts him as an ethereal fay; and Jesus Christ himself (Donald Sutherland reading Buñuel’s lines) who has nothing to offer but platitudes and hollow sympathy. Then Joe finally discovers a way to actually communicate with his caregivers only to find the answers they give him contain the cruellest barbs of all. Filmed in clinical B&W with colours reserved for flashbacks only, Trumbo’s stifling set designs heighten his character’s sense of panic and isolation—Joe is completely swathed in sheets and bandages with only the touch of a sympathetic nurse or the warmth of a sunbeam to remind him he’s still on Earth. His inner monologues, ranging from philosophical resignation to screams of despair, go unheard by the military brass contemplating his fate and one gets the impression his sorry state is more a source of embarrassment to them than anything else—why else would they keep his bed locked behind a utility room door? After all, according to one ghostly memory of his father, “…democracy has something to do with young men killing each other…” , and the implication is clear: if you’re unable to kill, you are of little use to the war machine. And God, needles to say, is nowhere to be found. Marred by some overly zealous theatrics which might have been more appropriate on a Broadway stage, Trumbo’s nightmare vision was still sufficiently dark enough that heavy metal band Metallica used several clips from Johnny for their music video, “One”.

Johnny Guitar (USA 1954) (10): Based on Roy Chanslor’s novel, director Nicholas Ray takes all the conventions of Hollywood’s traditional Western and turns them inside out in this gender-bending oater, and the results are at once deadly serious and giddily surreal. A lethal love triangle has developed between gun-toting, pants-wearing saloon owner Vienna (feminist wet dream Joan Crawford bedecked in fiery shades of red and white), and sexually-repressed harpy Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge sporting ginghams and funereal black) who owns the local bank. Emma’s hormones are boiling over Vienna’s ex-flame and all around bad boy the “Dancin’ Kid” (a fact she vehemently denies) and these erotic impulses are pushing her over the edge. Vienna, however, is busy rekindling a romance with Johnny “Guitar” Logan (hunky Sterling Hayden) a gunslinger turned pacifist who ran out on her five years earlier and is now back for second helpings—a fact which the Dancin’ Kid finds hard to swallow. When The Kid runs afoul of the law and Vienna locks horns with cattle baron John McIvers—a despot who practically owns the town, including the sheriff—over a planned railroad extension, an unhinged Emma finally sees a chance to get rid of both her female rival and male goad in one dastardly swoop. But Johnny Guitar has other plans… Rich technicolor backdrops and Wild West Gothic interiors highlight a snappy subversive script which places the women firmly in charge while the men bluster and pose impotently. Further reversing genre expectations, Ray casts the virginal spinster as the “bad guy” while a worldly (and definitely un-virginal) Vienna maintains the moral high ground right to the bullet-riddled finale. As for sexual innuendo, I’ll leave all those scenes of thrusting rock formations, moist tunnels, and long hard gun barrels (held at waist level) for the armchair Freudians. In an interesting aside, Crawford so hated younger co-star McCambridge (who would provide the demon voice in Friedkin’s The Exorcist twenty years later) that she once took the actress’ entire wardrobe and scattered it along the interstate!

Joy (USA 2015) (7): Although it started out as a rags-to-riches biopic of entrepreneur and former HSN celebrity Joy Mangano, David O. Russell’s screenplay diverged so far from the truth that he opted for an opening dedication which reads, “Inspired by True Stories of Daring Women” instead. As if being a struggling single mother of two isn’t bad enough, Joy (Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence) also has to deal with a fussy TV-addicted mother (Virginia Madsen), and an ex-husband who is currently living in the basement alongside her irascible twice-divorced father (Robert De Niro). Only her grandmother (Diane Ladd) still encourages her to keep those childhood dreams of inventing cool stuff alive. And so it comes to pass that a sudden brainstorm—a self-wringing mop that is also machine washable!—sets Joy on a very rocky path to fame and fortune beset by looming bankruptcies, dirty dealings, and the support of her family which seems to run hot and cold. A rollicking mishmash of personal drama, colourful daydreams (Joy’s predicaments are mirrored in mom’s fave soap opera), and sitcom antics which at times stray dangerously close to Everybody Loves Raymond territory—a frenzied flashback to her failed marriage should have been interrupted by a commercial break—Russell’s film is definitely more chutzpah fantasy than capitalist reality especially with the central message of “Follow Your Dreams Dammit!” increasing in volume as the tale progresses. But what of it? As 2020 comes to a close it’s nice to lose yourself in a well written story about a headstrong woman coming out ahead thanks to sheer brains and determination (that much, at least, approaches Mangano’s own life). Isabella Rossellini is perfectly cast as De Niro’s latest squeeze, a wealthy Italian widow with more money than common sense while Bradley Cooper does a fine job as a micro-managing QVC Channel executive who gives Joy her first break. And look for daytime TV icons Susan Lucci and Donna Mills doing what they do best.

Joyeux Noël (France 2005) (8): Christmas Eve, 1914, and on an isolated French farm a spontaneous camaraderie develops between entrenched German, French, and Scottish troops. Laying down their weapons for a few brief hours the sworn enemies pass the time exchanging family photos, playing soccer, and burying their dead before WWI begins all over again. Before New Year’s Day 1915 arrives three commanders will see the war through different eyes, a pair of lovers will make a life-altering decision, and a priest will come to question not only his vocation but the mind of God Himself. Although based on historical facts it quickly becomes quite clear that writer/director Christian Carion has taken some dramatic liberties with his story as a temporary truce becomes a mini peace summit. Be that as it may this is still a well crafted movie, beautifully filmed and buoyed by some amazing performances from its international cast. Yes, anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of history can explain why WWI was justified, but by reducing warfare to its essential human components Carion highlights how tragic and ludicrous it truly is.

Juan of the Dead (Spain/Cuba 2011) (7): When Havana is beset by hordes of ravenous zombies (or “American-backed dissidents” as the press dutifully calls them), good-for-nothing ladies’ man Juan and his potbellied sidekick Lazaro do what any patriotic Cuban would—try to profit from it. Gathering together a loosely knit circle of fellow thieves and grifters, including drag queen La China and her musclebound boyfriend who faints at the sight of blood, they establish the “Juan of the Dead Extermination Service” and immediately set about dispatching ghouls with canoe paddles, machetes, and a harpoon or two. But the dead keep coming despite official assurances that life is now back to normal in a Havana beset with flames and scattered body parts. Sensing their own impending doom Juan, Lazaro, and their two adult children hatch one last desperate plan—but first they’re going to need a big pile of corpses… Filled with snide social commentary and political in-jokes (zombie #1 is sporting a bright orange Guantanamo prison uniform while Lazaro confesses it’s always been difficult to tell the living from the dead in Cuba) this Latin entry in the zombie genre is an entertaining if uneven blend of slapstick stunts, political satire, and gross-out horror—a mass decapitation scene in Revolution Square is as messy as it is ingenious. At times it seems as if Argentinian director Alejandro Brugués hired half of Havana to be extras in this modest little romp, and if the results are any indication we can expect bigger and better things from him in the future.

Jubilee (UK 1978) (5): Disturbed by a vision of her realm’s ultimate fate, Queen Elizabeth I (Toyah Wilcox) calls upon the dark angel Ariel to transport her 400 years into the future where her beloved London has been transformed into an industrial hellhole. Now ruled over by punk queen Mad (also Toyah Wilcox) and her legion of violent punker slags, as well as ruthless media mogul Borgia Ginz (a maniacally cackling Jack Birkett), England has become a goth wilderness of crumbling factories strewn with graffiti and haunted by ragtag gangs of armed guerrillas and sadistic cops. While queen Mad preaches the gospel of anarchy to her neon-painted acolytes, Ginz’s stranglehold on pop culture allows him to replace the people’s grim reality with comfortable fantasies—or in his words, “As long as the music’s loud enough we won’t hear the world falling apart!” And he backs that up with a raucous burlesque version of “Rule Britannia”. But despite Buckingham Palace having been turned into a recording studio, the country idyll of Dorset transformed into a supremacist stronghold (with an aging Hitler in front of the telly), and Westminster Abbey hyped as a discotheque-sex-club where even Christ and his disciples get down and dirty, England’s visiting 16th century monarch is not quite at a loss for words… Lacking the poetry of War Requiem, the finesse of Caravaggio, the focused rage of The Last of England, and the pointed activism of Edward II, this earlier work by director Derek Jarman too often lapses into grunge excesses to be taken seriously. The transgressively political sex and punk platitudes now seem embarrassingly dated (just like the sharpie make-up and krazy hair) and the abundance of portentous character names—Amyl Nitrate, Chaos, Angel, Sphinx—come across as just so much affectation. Furthermore it sounds as if the ink hadn’t even dried on the script before Jarman had his cast hamming it up in front of the camera, and the slapdash editing style is more off-putting than engaging. Still, it proved to be an uncanny harbinger of the coming Thatcher years and for that reason alone it can be regarded as a time capsule curio. Look for a young Adam Ant as an aspiring rock star and Rocky Horror alumni Richard O’Brien (Riffraff) and Nell Campbell (Little Nell)—he playing Elizabeth’s wordy alchemist and she starring as an enthusiastic sexual predator unfortunately named “Crabs”.

Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial (USA 2007) (8): It’s been almost 90 years since the infamous Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee and one thing has become quite clear; right wing bible-thumpers are an evolutionary dead end. This fascinating documentary focuses on the furor generated in Dover, Pennsylvania after certain Christian elements on the school board tried to sneak the religious nonsense of Intelligent Design (old-school Creationism wearing a new, secular hat) into highschool biology classes. When a group of concerned parents and science teachers cried “foul” the already hazy separation between church and state came under renewed attack leaving angry rhetoric, death threats and vandalism in its wake. The case eventually went to court with the “Darwinists” presenting an excellent argument using facts, research data and documented evidence to dispel the airy speculation and pseudo-science of the “Creationists”; the verbatim reenactments using original court transcripts are fascinating. Things are not so clearly delineated however as the director points out the fact that many of the parents and professors resisting this sinister encroachment of Christian fundamentalist claptrap into their school’s curriculum are themselves active Christians. So, is Intelligent Design merely a controversial theory meant to challenge Darwin’s ideas thereby inviting open discussion and discovery? Or is it the thin edge of a wedge meant to usher in a new era of scientific thought based on biblical teaching? Google “Dark Ages” and decide for yourself.

Judy (UK 2019) (8): Renée Zellweger nabbed a well-deserved Oscar for her portrayal of Judy Garland in this sad biography set in the last few months leading to the star’s untimely death in 1969. Used and abused by the studios who were intent on touting her as America’s “girl next door”, Garland was already familiar with uppers and downers before she even finished The Wizard of Oz. A lifelong battle with drugs and neurosis ensued which would dog her career until the bitter end. With multiple flashbacks shedding light on the present, Zellweger presents Garland as a showbiz victim who nevertheless was a fiercely devoted mother and a survivor, even if her life was plagued by bad decisions and botched opportunities. Her final kick at the can—a series of comeback performances in London—proved to be a bittersweet swan song, yet Zellweger’s uncanny performance (that voice!) and Rupert Goold’s dazzling direction will have you believing you were there for the final collapse. A true Hollywood tragedy.

Jules & Jim (France 1962) (6): François Truffaut’s breezy tragicomedy of sex and friendship was certainly ahead of its time when it rode into cinemas on the crest of the French New Wave. But it hasn’t aged very well and the wordy script now seems like a series of quaint intellectual dalliances. In the years leading up to the first world war, bon vivant metrosexual Jim and his mousy Austrian BFF Jules while away the hours laughing and chasing skirts. And then they’re introduced to Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), a freethinking libertine whose resemblance to a Greek statue that both men adore leaves them hopelessly smitten. Thus begins a twenty-year love triangle which sees Catherine favouring one, and then the other, before irrevocably changing the course of their relationship with one final decision… With Jules and Jim likened to Sancho Panza and Don Quixote—leaving Catherine as the windmill toward which they both tilt—Truffaut’s screen adaptation of Henri-Pierre Roché’s novel has a lot to say about sexual politics in the 60s despite the fact it opens in 1912. For her part Moreau plays the psychologically suspect Object of Desire with an unapologetic brio. She’s a mercurial juggernaut whose emotional wake leaves both men floundering, sometimes with comic results but more often than not with shades of pining and despair that contrast sharply with the youthful zeal of those opening scenes. In the face of Moreau’s spirited performance the film’s underlying bromance never quite solidifies despite the sobering intrusion of WWI (the men fight on opposing sides, terrified they’ll accidentally kill one another) leaving you to wonder what, besides Catherine, is the glue that keeps them together. In the end too many falls from grace combine with too many sexual entanglements—the latter occasionally used as a weapon—leading to a sardonic finale that somehow fails to completely block the film’s sunnier disposition.

Julia’s Eyes (Spain 2010) (6): Although they’ve grown apart, Julia and her twin sister Sara (Belén Rueda pulling double duty) do share one tragic fate. Both women have inherited a degenerative ocular condition which is robbing them of their sight—Sara has already gone blind and Julia’s eyesight is beginning to falter with muddied vision and moments of blindness brought on by stress. However, despite their estrangement, when Sara hangs herself one dark and stormy night and everyone chalks it up to depression triggered by her disease, Julia insists something much more sinister befell her sister. As she begins her own investigation the strange clues she uncovers—along with some suspicious activity suddenly taking place around her—lead Julia to the terrifying conclusion that her own life is now in danger. And then the lights go out in more ways than one… The “blind woman in peril” angle so expertly exploited by Audrey Hepburn in 1967’s Wait Until Dark is revisited by director Guillem Morales with decidedly mixed results. The first half of his film is a perfect blend of jolts and creeping paranoia augmented now and then by camerawork which gives audiences the same clouded POV as his protagonist—is that face familiar? is that someone standing in the corner? As well, Julia’s mounting helplessness adds an extra dimension of fear as she literally struggles in the dark against a foe who always seems to be one step behind her. Or in front of her. Or beside her. Unfortunately, despite having Guillermo del Toro listed among the producers, Morales follows the Thriller Playbook too closely leading to a string of red herrings who are a little overdone, Julia’s loving yet clueless husband who is a little too clueless, and a cynical police detective whose cynicism runs deeper than it ought to. Add to that a couple of histrionic outbursts that could have put Hitchcock’s Psycho to shame, a few loose ends, and a puzzling denouement better suited for a goth chick flick and you have a great premise transformed into an average production. The touches of gore are nicely unsettling however, and the film’s climax is a wild ride of flashing strobes and oppressive blackness.

Julien Donkey-Boy (USA 1999) (7): From Olivia de Havilland in The Snake Pit to Polanski’s Repulsion, actors and directors have tried to film mental illness from the inside out with varying degrees of success. Utilizing rough-hewn film stock (video transferred to 8mm then blown up to 35mm), spastic non-linear jump cuts, and actors willing to heave caution to the wind, Harmony Korine throws his own peculiar hat into the ring and the resultant narrative train wreck—more manic collage than storyline—fascinates even as it assaults. The titular character, a chronically unmedicated schizophrenic who may or may not have killed a child at the movie’s outset, lives in a New York row house with his inexplicably pregnant sister Pearl (Chloe Sevigny), wrestling-obsessed brother Chris, and a grandma who treats her little pooch like a newborn child (Joyce Korine, Harmony’s own gran) all overseen by a tyrannical patriarch (Werner Herzog. Werner Herzog!? ) who uses humiliation and verbal abuse like a lion tamer wields a whip. Using this dysfunctional unit as the film’s only tenuous anchor, Korine lets everything else fly off the handle with reality and fevered delusion, often melding at random leaving us to try and fit the pieces together. “Be a man…” growls dad as he tries to toughen up Chris by spraying him with a garden hose. “You killed the jews…you killed all the mother’s titties…” yells Julien at a poster of Hitler he alternately despises and adores, later having a phone conversation with his dead mom (courtesy of Pearl on the upstairs line). And throughout it all the camera stumbles and arcs, never standing still for long while Korine’s colour palette rarely strays from grainy neons and dirt. Opening with a poorly focused yet ironically serene passage of figure skating set to Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro”, Korine’s film is often painful to watch—a jamboree at the facility for the blind where Julien works comes to resemble the madness in Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut FolliesDonkey-Boy nevertheless carries a few stings especially when the rambling insanity of religion bobs its impotent head: an old-time revival descends into so much gobbledygook and Julien leaves a Catholic confessional (and one bemused priest) behind only to fantasize about a furiously masturbating nun. Although Herzog dominates his every scene whether he’s berating his pregnant daughter or guzzling cough syrup while sporting a gas mask, it’s Scotsman Ewen Bremner who carries the most weight. Meticulously researching his role, and copping a convincing Yank accent, his gripping portrayal of a man drowning in pain is itself painful to watch. The first American film to be certified by Lars Von Trier’s oddball Dogme’95 manifesto, a strict set of cinematic edicts whose artistic challenges too often prove tedious.

Juliet, Naked (UK/USA 2018) (8): Director Jesse Peretz doesn’t exactly reinvent the romantic comedy but he certainly gives it a sparkle in this sweet little indie that had me laughing out loud and feeling good all over. Annie (Rose Byrne) lives in a nondescript English seaside village where she curates the local nondescript museum while suffering through a nondescript relationship with her live-in boyfriend Duncan (Chris O’Dowd). Boring, taciturn, and abnormally obsessed with the history and career of faded American folksinger Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke)—now an aging recluse whom he idolizes on an amateur blog site—Duncan is oblivious to Annie’s many dissatisfactions. And then, as usually happens in most rom-coms, fate (and a sarcastic post on Duncan’s website) puts Annie in touch with Tucker just as her own relationship takes its last breath. Going from emails to an actual transatlantic rendezvous, Annie finds the real Tucker Crowe to be somewhat less, and perhaps a little bit more, than the legendary musical hero extolled on Duncan’s blog. Complications—romantic, comedic, and medical—ensue… Although O’Dowd garners the most smiles with his bumbling clueless Irishman persona, Byrne is admirable as an exasperated Millennial whose career goals are now competing with her biological clock. And Ethan Hawke, sexier than ever with greying hair and beard, is perfect as the third point of this triangle, his own domestic woes mirroring Byrne’s angst while at the same time scuttling O’Dowd’s elaborate fan fantasies. Filled with wit and lively dialogue—some of which was ad-libbed—Peretz keeps things from flying off into slapstick farce yet still manages to sneak the tiniest bit of magic into the script: a gathering of Crowe’s many kids and exes turns into a very funny caucus of spite; Annie’s latest art instalment—a nostalgic piece focused on the summer of ’64—yields a serendipitous revelation; and an impromptu dinner gives the slightly self-destructive Tucker a much needed bitch slap. Thankfully Peretz skimps on the sugar in favour of a little spice and just a dash of bitters. A very entertaining distraction with a telling soundtrack, sung in part by Hawke himself, to match.

Julius Caesar (USA 1953) (7): A cast of big name stars from both sides of the pond turn Shakespeare’s tale of jealousy and ambition in ancient Rome into a Hollywood epic. With several military victories under his belt, Julius Caesar (Louis Calhern) is basking in the adoration of his people. But a small clique of senators find his increasing popularity a threat to both themselves and to the Republic itself. Led by Cassius and Brutus (John Gielgud, James Mason) they plot Casesar’s death—but one person stands in the way of their bloody plans, Caesar’s right-hand man Mark Antony (Marlon Brando method acting his heart out). Eschewing Technicolor extravagance for the gritty realism of B&W, director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s soundstage production is an effective mix of plywood props (borrowed from the set of Quo Vadis) and painted backdrops with wind machines, lightning effects, and a thousand toga-wearing extras. Everyone delivers their lines with classical flourish despite mismatched accents which range from Gielgud’s clipped British staccato to Brando’s lisping mumble, and a seasoned supporting cast round out the story especially Greer Garson as Caesar’s concerned wife Calpurnia and Edmond O’Brien as fellow conspirator Casca.

Just Another Love Story (Denmark 2007) (9): “All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun…” said Jen-Luc Godard once, and with this jet black salute to Film Noir writer/director Ole Bornedal puts that old adage to a most rigorous test. Fleeing a deadly situation she helped to create while vacationing in Asia, Julia returns home to Denmark where a tragic car crash leaves her blind, crippled, and amnesiac. Family man Jonas, meanwhile, has grown bored and restless with his perfect wife and two perfect children; so much so that when he is first on the scene at Julia’s accident and her shocked state causes her to mistake his voice for that of a former lover she met while away he decides to go along with the ruse. Now accepted as “Sebastien” by both a slowly recuperating Julia and her wealthy family (they never met the real boyfriend) Jonas embarks on a perilous double life. But when Julia’s muddied past resurfaces in a most unexpected way Jonas’ romantic masquerade turns into something far more dire, especially when her memories come trickling back… Filmed with a twilight palette of muted colour and shadow with occasional bursts of the surreal as Jonas and Sebastien begin to overlap one another, Bornedal has crafted a dark psychological mindfuck in which surfaces belie true intentions and a knock at the door hangs in the air like a threat. Leads Anders W. Berthelsen and Rebecka Hemse work well together with his character all nervous gapes and hesitant advances to her willful resolve and moments of frightened vulnerability (those scars from the accident run deeper than they appear). And Dan Laustsen’s cinematography wrings ominous import out of overcast skies, uncomfortable family gatherings, and a bitter rainstorm that opens and closes the whole fantastically improbable story. Furthermore, casting Jonas as a police photographer gives rise to some unsettling scenes in the city morgue where naked corpses awaiting autopsy provide a bit of sweet irony. Shot through with violence and the driest of humour, Bornedal’s twisted tale of love and karma goes down smooth like a jigger of bourbon—right up to that perfect final line.

Kabei, Our Mother (Japan 2008) (9): Director Yôji Yamada brings Toruyo Nogami’s wartime memoirs to life in this beautifully crafted, politically emphatic, family drama set for the most part in the days between Pearl Harbour and Hiroshima. After her husband, an author and professor, is arrested for “thought crimes” against the State, Kayo Nogami is left to care for their two preteen daughters: quietly sensitive Hatsuko and boisterous Teruyo. But as his incarceration stretches into years the family’s fortunes rise and fall against a backdrop of rabid jingoism and a militaristic mindset which sees ordinary Japanese citizens detained or arrested for everything from immodest clothing to speaking out against the war. With the help of her sister-in-law and one of her husband’s former students, an impassioned young idealist, Kayo will weather setbacks, tragedy, and prejudice (even her own father condemns her for having a “criminal husband”) while her growing daughters will come to realize their world is far from perfect. Though not as subtle in its approach to social critiques as Ozu, the master’s touch is definitely felt in Sayuri Yoshinaga’s self-effacing performance as Kayo and in Mutsuo Naganuma’s cinematography which turns the Nogami’s modest home into the calm eye of a storm. As the family finds some solace in one another the seasons will pass outside their bamboo curtains in a procession of cherry blossoms and snowflakes punctuated by political harangues and military parades. And the author’s condemnation of WWII Japan is clearly evident in every frame, in one satirical twist a community meeting is delayed because its members, eager to bow in the direction of the Emperor, can’t decide which palace he’s currently occupying. But even though it often lapses into tears (those two child actors can weep on cue) the film really hits its mark in recording the family’s day-to-day trials and deprivations—little Teruyo becomes inconsolable when she misses a chance to taste real beef—and small moments of tenderness whether it be a giggling group hug or a deathbed caress. In sharing her story Ms. Nogami has not only shed some light on a bleak chapter in her country’s history, she has also provided a moving testament to a powerful woman. Her mother.

Kaboom (USA 2010) (5): Writer/director Gregg Araki manages to entertain and disappoint at the same time in this psychedelic college romp which attempts to bolster a weak sci-fi premise with some tepid eroticism. Artsy sophomore “Smith” (Thomas Dekker looking like Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong) is taking a walk on the bi-side by simultaneously banging blonde co-ed London and the hunk he met at the nude beach while fantasizing about his vacuous surfer roommate. Meanwhile Smith’s best friend Stella, a monotone dyke with an 80s wardrobe and attitude to match, is trying to break up with her devilishly psychotic girlfriend. But when Smith starts having troubling visions involving a dead redhead and a fiendish cult sporting animal masks, visions with a chilling basis in reality, all hell (literally) threatens to break loose. A college caper featuring the usual cast of marginalized adolescents, absent adults, and menacing authority figures with enough quirky humour and bouncy sex to make it palatable—not to mention a ridiculously over-the-top ending from which the film gets its title. An okay idea weakly delivered.

Kadosh (Israel 1999) (8): Two women are hobbled by religion and its attending patriarchal mindset in writer/director Amos Gitai's contentious Palme d’Or nominee. Rivka and her younger sister Malka have spent their entire lives immersed in Jerusalem’s ultra-orthodox community where men are considered God’s greatest creation, women’s happiness is limited to raising their husband’s children, and strict Hassidic laws govern everything from brewing tea on the Sabbath to the proper way for newlyweds to lose their virginity. Despite this, Rivka and her husband Meir are passionately in love. But when ten years of marriage fail to produce any children Meir’s father, a hardline rabbi, insists he get a divorce and marry a younger woman. Malka, meanwhile, is engaged to marry a brutish lout chosen by Meir’s father even though she is already in love with a man whose secular ways have ostracized him from the community. The resulting friction pits anger and desperation against inflexible religious edicts and makes for intense and (one would assume) divisive viewing. With the men in their lives holding all the power, Rivka and Malka’s search for resolution will lead them down two very different paths as Gitai touches on issues of sanctioned misogyny, radicalized Judaism (Meirs’ father believes more orthodox kids means more chances to overthrow the government), and the gross imbalance of power inherent in any theocracy. Despite the incendiary subject matter Gitai keeps his camera at arm’s length, neither judging nor proselytizing but letting his characters carry the story through words and actions—an approach which leads to some beautifully provocative imagery when a splash of red light illuminates an adulterous couple or a wedding night turns into a clumsy rape when God fails to intervene. A slow-burning heartache of a film told with passion and emotional honesty.

Kansas City Confidential (USA 1952) (7): When Joe Rolfe, an ex-con trying to make an honest living, is suspected of taking part in a daring armed robbery he not only loses his job but the police insist on hounding him even after he's proven innocent. Taking matters into his own hands Joe decides to unmask the real culprits and clear his name once and for all. But when his quest lands him in a sleepy Mexican resort town Joe realizes he's stumbled onto something far more deadly than he imagined. With tough-talking hard-fisted bad guys, crooked cops, and the prerequisite busty dame, Phil Karlsons's moody noir thriller is so lavishly overdone that it practically becomes a parody of the genre. Thankfully it is saved from obscurity by some intense performances and B&W cinematography that makes the most of those close interiors and moonlit docks. A non-stop barrage of stylized clichés which somehow add up to something quite enjoyable.

Katyn (Poland 2007) (7): During the course of WWII up to 25,000 Poles, both military and academics, were summarily executed by the Soviets who labeled them “intelligentsia” and therefore enemies to the State. In 1943 one mass grave containing 12,000 bodies, all victims of the purge, was unearthed in Russia’s Katyn forest and this forms the backbone of director Andrzej Wajda’s tragic drama. Reducing such a horrific crime against humanity to the story of one family, Wajda (whose own father was a victim) concentrates on the aftermath, both political and social, following the gruesome discovery. Caught between the advancing Nazis and the Red Army Anna is separated from her husband Andrzej, a captain in the Polish army, and returns to her family home in Cracow, now under German rule. With little daughter Niki in tow Anna steels herself to scale a mountain of bureaucracy in order to try and get her husband back. Andrzej meanwhile finds himself in a Soviet POW camp where, suspicious of Russian promises that everyone will eventually be released, starts keeping a secret diary… Using newsreel footage to underscore the story, Wajda explores how Soviet propaganda (they blamed Nazi forces for Katyn and got rid of anyone who called them out on the lie) further divided an already fractured country between those willing to turn a blind eye to what happened in order to concentrate on the “new” Poland and those who could never let it go—a schism personified by fellow Polish officer Jerzy, a friend of Andrzej, who despite having seen what happened in the forest still wears his new Peoples’ Army of Poland uniform albeit with deep ambivalence. Wajda saves the film’s gut punch for the final reel however when his camera meticulously recreates the horror of Katyn as one terrified man after another is trussed up and led to the grave, their whispered prayers going unheeded. Poland’s Oscar entry for 2007.

Keane (USA 2004) (6): When we first meet William Keane he is frantically searching for Sophie, his nine-year-old daughter who was abducted from a bus station earlier on. At first it is easy to feel concern and empathy for his plight as he is brushed off by station officials and passersby alike but his increasingly irrational behaviour quickly causes us to realize that this is a very deeply disturbed man. Constantly self-medicating himself with alcohol and cocaine, a practice leading to frequent violent outbursts, Keane is ill-prepared to care for himself let alone find a missing child. In fact, as we listen to his ceaseless manic monologue rife with guilty references and paranoid fixations we begin to doubt the veracity of his claims; indeed the only “evidence” he has of little Sophie’s existence is an old newspaper article that may or may not be about her. But when Keane forms a tentative bond with a single mother living in the same fleabag hotel his relationship with her daughter, a young girl roughly the same age and size as the elusive Sophie, carries both the promise of salvation as he struggles to lay some demons to rest, and the threat of tragedy as he refuses to lose his daughter a second time. In the title role Damian Lewis is nothing short of brilliant. Avoiding the wild hysterics often associated with the portrayal of mentally ill characters he instead turns in an amazingly nuanced performance which relies as much on facial expressions and shadowed stares as physical exertion. Keane is not a sympathetic character by any stretch and as the camera follows his every move, much like an unwelcome stalker, we are alternately fascinated, saddened and repulsed by his actions. Unfortunately, ninety minutes of unhinged ramblings and drug-fueled non-sequiturs prove to be more exhausting than gripping, rather like watching a perpetual car crash in slow motion. Even the occasional insights into Keane’s troubled past do little to pierce through the film’s deliberate opacity. As a character study it should prove of some interest to psychology majors but for the rest of us its lack of momentum and psychotic repetitiveness is ultimately frustrating.

Keep the Lights On (USA 2012) (8): On a warm New York night two bored and lonely men meet in a chat room and proceed to have a fling. At first Erik (Thure Lindhardt), a not entirely successful documentarian, and Paul (Zachary Booth), a corporate lawyer, share a definite sexual chemistry which translates into a greater intimacy. But as their one-night stand morphs into a longterm relationship the darker recesses of their individual psyches—Paul is addicted to crack, Erik is addicted to drama—send them on an emotional rollercoaster ride of love, lies, forgiveness, and duplicity. Loosely divided into three chapters spanning nine years in total, writer/director Ira Sachs’ episodic dissection of a modern gay relationship doesn’t flinch as it cuts awfully close to the bone. For all their American Apparel good looks and romantic overtures, Erik and Paul are flawed human beings—Paul’s taste for drugs has him intellectualizing one moment and throwing a manic hissy fit the next; and Erik, for all his talk of trust and affection, is not above posing as a cheating husband in order to whack off with an anonymous phone buddy. It isn’t long before a destructive pattern of co-dependance sets in with repeated cycles of reproach and remorse—fuelled in part by well-meaning friends and family—that makes for edgy yet fascinating cinema. To his credit Sachs offers no magic bullet, no climactic insight, and whatever light he offers at the end of this particular tunnel is wan and ambivalent at best. What his two leads lack in onscreen chemistry (their interactions occasionally come across as studied) they more than make up for with passionate individual performances—one scene involving a very stoned Paul, a downcast Erik, and an indifferent young hustler is more heartbreaking than erotic. And Sachs keeps the dialogue grounded and believable throughout with all its awkward pauses and self-conscious exchanges intact while the unfolding drama is sometimes heightened, sometimes lessened, by snippets of folksy ballads. In a time when so many filmmakers are busy slathering “gay movies” with hearts and rainbows (not necessarily a bad thing) it comes as a revelation indeed when one has the courage to show just how messy, fucked-up, and hurtful our relationships can be. “Would you turn that light on, above the bed…” says Paul to Erik as he gets undressed one night, “…I don’t want to be in the dark with you.” Brilliant.

Kes (UK 1969) (7): Life in a dreary working class neighbourhood consists of grim conformity and casual cruelties, and no one knows this better than young Billy. With his father eternally absent he shares his modest family home with a violent narcissistic older brother and a harried mother whose tattered evening dress and sad eyes reflect her own dying dreams. All around him Billy is constantly reminded of the small hypocrisies inherent in society as those in charge repeatedly contradict themselves: there’s the coach who talks of nobility and fair play even as he cheats; the headmaster who lectures on self-respect while beating errant students with a cane; and the fellow classmates who won’t hesitate to betray one of their own. But when Billy acquires a baby falcon and teaches himself how to train it he glimpses a greater truth underlying the young bird’s fierce independence. There is a wild innocence, a single-minded rebelliousness to its soarings which speak to the lad and open his mind to the possibilities of life beyond the grey houses and weary adults that currently delineate his world. Unfortunately, childhood revelations all too often fall victim to the crushing realities of growing up poor and marginalized, a fact Billy has always suspected but until now has never paid much attention to. Will the delicate sense of mutual respect and dependence he’s nurtured with “Kes” be enough to carry him through this most crucial and painful time of his life? One of Ken Loach’s more nuanced films featuring some unbelievable performances from a cast of relative unknowns, especially David Bradley’s naturalistic turn as Billy. One word of caution however, if you’re not familiar with the harsh accent and turns of speech found in Britain’s South Yorkshire area be sure to turn on the English subtitles.

The Kid (USA 1921) (6): A destitute single mother leaves her newborn in the back seat of an expensive-looking car hoping the owner will take pity on him. But, thanks to a series of misadventures, the baby winds up in the care of a kind-hearted vagrant who proceeds to raise the kid as best he can. Five years later the two are inseparable but the mother, now a famous actress (in only 5 years?) comes looking to reclaim the child she once gave up. Yes, this is a "Chaplin" classic...but only if you like Charlie Chaplin. Personally I find his affected "Little Tramp" persona more irritating than endearing rendering this 60-minute film one big melodramatic fairy tale, and not a particularly original one at that. Pint-sized Jackie Coogan certainly steals the show (apparently his big crying scene was aided in part by some nasty paternal threats) and the extremely old school production values do carry some charm. Perhaps it was the first of its kind but that doesn't make it the best.

Killer Joe (USA 2011) (9): Packed to the rafters with illicit sex and bone-crunching violence William Friedkin’s trailer park tragedy, based on Tracy Letts’ play, splashes across the screen in what can only be coined White Trash Gothic. Set in the shithole of Texas the story opens with Chris Smith, a chronic loser whose luck has just taken another turn for the worse. His mom sold the stash of cocaine he was hiding in order to have her car repaired and now he has to pay back seven grand to his supplier or face being buried alive. Seeking the advice of his clueless father (Thomas Haden Church) and overly-mascaraed tart of a step-mother (Gina Gershon sporting a big bushy merkin) Chris’ desperation hatches an ingenious plan: find a hitman to murder the old lady and then collect the life insurance. Enter Killer Joe Cooper (a reptilian Matthew McConaughey) a full-time police detective who moonlights as a hired assassin. Although he prefers to be paid upfront Joe agrees to do the job on spec providing the Smiths offer up a little unspeakable collateral involving Chris' kid sister. Things go swimmingly until a couple of unforeseen double-crosses lead to one of the most dysfunctional family dinners ever filmed—you’ll never look at KFC the same way again. Shot in dusty shades of brown and blue beneath a sky constantly ripped by lightning, Friedkin’s tawdry tale of greed and retribution makes excellent use of its mobile home locales and honky tonk background noise. Terribly inappropriate and wielding the blackest wit, Killer Joe is something Shakespeare could have written had he been born a psychopathic sharecropper. Y’all have been warned.

The Killers (USA 1946) (7): When a pair of hardened hitmen arrive at a New Jersey backwater and kill a gas station attendant for no apparent reason the local police want to write it off as a one-time incident. After all the dead man, Ole Anderson (Burt Lancaster making his screen debut), had only been in town for a few weeks and had kept pretty much to himself the whole time. But when it’s discovered that Anderson had a modest life insurance policy payable to an elderly cleaning woman in Atlantic City who barely knew him, it piques the interest of insurance investigator Jim Reardon (Edmund O’Brien) who sets about unraveling the mystery behind the man’s murder. What Reardon uncovers is a sad and sordid tale of corruption, desperation, and a pair of fatal double-crosses which culminated in Anderson’s death—a death he apparently accepted with resignation. Director Robert Siodmak’s film noir staple, based on a story by Ernest Hemingway, has all the necessary elements and then some: tough-talking gangsters, smoking revolvers, and a curvaceous femme fatale with a heart of ice (Ava Gardner displaying the goods with abandon). He creates a world of shadowy streets and menacing footsteps where everyone has a cigarette in their mouth, a gun in their overcoat, and a chip on their shoulder. Using flashbacks to great effect the story weaves back and forth in time as Reardon’s inquiries continually add more pieces to the puzzle—and even though Siodmak glosses over a few dubious plot twists we’re willing to forgive because it’s all part of the fun. Classic!

Killer’s Kiss (USA 1955) (7): Legendary director Stanley Kubrick (who also doubled as writer, producer, cinematographer, and editor) helms his first foray into film noir with this 67-minute mood piece whose flat lighting and highly stylized framing would later become part of his signature repertoire. The story itself—a washed-up boxer rescues a damsel in distress and so invokes the jealous wrath of her gangster boyfriend—is pure pulp as is the schlocky dialogue, but the mean streets of New York City have rarely looked so skewed and menacing. Kubrick, who was actually collecting welfare at the time and operating out of the back of his truck, shows a newfound maturity as his camera swoops and curves up stairwells and across rooftops; creeping down a shadowed alley one moment and basking in the garish neon of Times Square the next. In a chain of particularly memorable scenes boxer and femme fatale regard each other across a courtyard, their lives delineated by their apartments’ square window frames. Lacking proper permits, much of the filming was done on the sly resulting in an improvised verité energy reduced only slightly by the fact sound and voices had to be dubbed in later. A visceral boxing sequence compares favourably to Scorsese’s Raging Bull albeit on a much smaller budget, but it’s the final confrontation played out in a warehouse brimming with naked mannequins which hints at the young director’s future genius.

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (USA 1976) (8): Writer/director John Cassavettes’ long slow lament on dreams deferred takes the form of a gangster thriller with conscientious strip club owner Cosmo Vittelli (Ben Gazzara) receiving an offer he can’t refuse. When a mountain of gambling debts get him in trouble with the Los Angeles mob Vitelli’s attempts to buy himself more time fall on hardened ears. Now, with his life and limbs in mortal danger, he reluctantly accepts a deadly assignment—assassinate a rival Chinese loanshark who’s been eating into the mob’s profits and all his gambling sins will be forgiven. Basically an honest man who has never pointed a gun at anyone since he served in the Korean War, Cosmo’s decision to save his own skin at the expense of another’s will have far-reaching and tragic consequences… Ever the student of human behaviour, especially those forces which seem to guide our hands, Cassavette’s focus is not so much on gangster violence (his mafiosi are reduced to menacing caricatures) but rather on the everyman’s struggle to wring some comfort from a world that is too often cold and remote. No matter what route he takes Vitelli just seems to dig his hole deeper when all he really wants is a small bit of contentment with the woman he loves. Filmed in garish shades of red and midnight blue with spotlights often forming halos around Cosmo as he moves in and out of darkness, there is a sad almost melancholic tone to the film. Harsh, clinically detached dealings with the mobsters (at one point they discuss murder over coffee and muffins) contrasts sadly with the tawdry fantasy shows at his strip club where beautiful sirens flash their breasts while a clownish emcee sings torch songs about love and longing. Highly kinetic and choppy with few scenes lasting more than a handful of seconds and characters kept at arm’s length, Cassavette’s pacing expertly reflects his antagonist’s mental state thus allowing us to see, if not actually feel, his unraveling.

Kill the Messenger (USA 2014) (8): In the mid-90’s journalist Gary Webb (amazing turn from Jeremy Renner) uncovered evidence that suggested America’s crack cocaine epidemic was partly orchestrated by the C.I.A. who had formed a partnership with various drug cartels. According to the series of articles he wrote for the San Jose Mercury News dealers got free access to the American market while the Intelligence Agency skimmed off the profits to fund anti-communist rebels in Nicaragua after Congress refused to support Reagan’s dirty little war. This revelation hit both the news stands and the internet like a bombshell until dark forces started pushing back and Webb found himself targeted both personally and professionally. An incendiary condemnation of twisted politics, collusion, and ultimately public apathy, director Michael Cuesta’s factual drama follows Webb from U.S. courtrooms to Central American prisons blending linear narrative with brief flashbacks to underscore his points. With Webb’s life threatening to unravel and his colleagues developing cold feet you realize this is not going to be a neat and tidy journalistic coup in the manner of All the President’s Men but rather a real life Goliath tale in which the giant proves to be bigger than David imagined.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (UK 1949) (9):  Imagine an Agatha Christie novel written by Oscar Wilde and you’ll get some idea of what to expect from this highly entertaining satire on the skewed morality of Britain’s landed gentry.  A young man, distant heir to a vast estate, barely ekes out a living doing menial jobs.  His wealthy relatives have effectively denied him his rightful place in the family due to the fact his father was a “commoner”.  Obsessed with revenge he plans to get even with all involved by claiming the title of Duke for himself....even if he has to murder everyone that stands between him and his goal.  As each one of his relatives dies mysteriously his station in life rises accordingly until he finally has the family estate within his grasp.  We know things don’t go exactly as planned however since, from the outset, we realize the entire film is being told in flashback on the eve of his execution.  To say more would be a disservice to anyone wishing to experience this brilliant film for the first time.  The script displays a savage wit that the actors are more than capable of delivering, Alec Guiness is especially good as he plays every member of the doomed D’Ascoyne clan, and the wonderfully ambivalent ending had us laughing out loud.  Great fun!

The King (USA 2005) (8): Upon leaving the navy, a mentally unbalanced Elvis (Gael García Bernal, formidable in English as well as Spanish) dons his civvies, packs up his rifle and heads for Texas to search for the father he’s never met. But when he finally meets his dad, now a born-again preacher with a family of his own, the man refuses to acknowledge him and thus the sin of the father comes home with a vengeance. With a pathological determination Elvis slowly insinuates himself into Pastor Dave’s home—first wooing his unsuspecting daughter whose blank face and childlike naïveté suggest mental aberrations run in the family, then engaging in a violent confrontation with his equally sheeplike son, and lastly winning over the pastor’s embittered wife. Sadly, by the time the truth of Elvis’ parentage becomes public knowledge his sick mind games have already gone too far leading to one final spectacular retribution. With a fine cast headlined by García and William Hurt, James Marsh’s unsettling film combines elements of horror, domestic tragedy, and tense psychodrama as we see one man’s rigid faith begin to crack when confronted with a dire and angry secret from his past. With intense close-ups and an editing style that goes from slow pans to jarring cuts, Marsh manages to create an aura of dark foreboding even in the sunniest moments while a soundtrack of AM radio tunes and low-key melodies provide an ironic counterbalance. True, his characters don’t always behave logically and a few twists didn’t sit right with me, but given the subject and manner of execution it is precisely these unexpected elements which give his work extra teeth. A tad heavy on the moralizing perhaps, but as a contemporary take on Good vs. Evil (who wears which label is up to you) Marsh manages to produce an effectively creepy urban fable.

The King and I (USA 1956) (8): Based on the writings of Anna Leonowen who taught school in the royal court of Siam (Thailand) circa 1860s, Walter Lang's screen adaptation of the popular stage play stars Deborah Kerr and Yul Brenner. When widowed teacher Anna (Kerr) is hired to educate the children of Siamese King Mongkut (Brenner giving his Academy Award performance) her arrival in Bangkok triggers an immediate culture clash after her proper British sensibilities come up against the King's sense of supreme entitlement. Several song and dance segments later—including an Asian take on "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and the now famous pas de deux between Anna and the King—the two forge an understanding bordering on romance. But whether or not you like this multiple Oscar winner will depend on how you approach it. As a gushing musical it's a winning combination of lush hand-painted sets, exotic costumes, and a barrage of familiar tunes by Rogers & Hammerstein. When it comes to historical accuracy however Leonowens memoirs are hopelessly skewed and, according to some people including the Thai government which banned the film, patently disrespectful. But if you were able to overlook the lie behind The Sound of Music you'll probably like this one too. I did!

The King of Comedy (USA 1982) (8): Martin Scorsese takes aim at America’s obsession with celebrity and scores a direct hit in this funny and very mean-spirited satire. Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro, perfectly infuriating) is a penniless nobody with grandiose dreams of becoming the nation’s greatest stand-up comedian. Dressing up his meagre apartment as an ersatz television studio he regularly entertains daydreams in which he is the toast of television and the envy of the one man he admires the most, talk show host Jerry Langford (an effectively low-keyed Jerry Lewis). In order to make his dreams of fame and fortune come true Rupert begins stalking Langford accompanied by his equally batshit companion Masha (an outrageously manic Sandra Bernhard) who is determined to become Jerry’s lover at any cost. Repeatedly frustrated in their attempts to gain access to Langford’s life the obsessive duo eventually resort to more extreme measures in order to get their idol’s attention… Although it starts out deceptively as just another wacky comedy you soon realize that Scorsese’s protagonists are actually a pair of narcissistic psychopaths with De Niro’s Pupkin a sitcom reincarnation of Travis Bickle. This revelation suddenly casts all those jokes and pratfalls in an uncomfortably sinister light as the true depth of Pupkin’s mania becomes apparent and, by association, the public’s unquenchable thirst for novelty and sensationalism (spurred on by a press eager to invent the next Big Thing). With its cruel cynicism and sense of the absurd, The King offers a few shivers to go with its laughs.

King of Devil’s Island (Norway 2010) (9): In the winter of 1915 teenaged delinquent Erling is sent to the Bastøy Reformatory, a rocky gulag situated in the Oslo fjord where troubled youth go to to be rehabilitated into “honourable, humble, and useful little Christian boys”. Once there however he quickly learns that the life of Bastøy’s inmates, all aged between eleven and eighteen, is a relentless grind of mental and physical abuse at the hands of a sadistic House Father and his lackeys while the resident governor turns a blind eye to the mistreatment, preferring instead to dole out tough love platitudes. But Erling is not about to have his spirit crushed like so many of his fellow detainees especially after a tragic turn of events highlights just how deeply rooted Bastøy’s moral corruption lies. Coming into direct conflict with the Governor and House Father, Erling is determined to see justice done no matter what the cost… Impeccably designed, Marius Holst’s engrossing drama was the most expensive Norwegian film ever produced at the time and that big budget is evident throughout from the bleak snow-blasted locales to the flawless reproductions of the original reformatory buildings. Reading from an insightful script that cleverly weaves elements from Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Melville’s Moby Dick, stars Benjamin Helstad and Stellan Skarsgård lead a sturdy cast, both young and old, in what begins as a “true story” but quickly morphs into a lofty parable on dignity, adversity, and the power of defiance. Even the film’s rather heavy-handed final scene falls well within its literary grasp when taken as the maritime metaphor it was clearly meant to be.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (USA 2007) (8): Ever since Time magazine did an article on teenaged enthusiasts back in 1982, competitive arcade gaming has been going strong in garages and recreation centres in America and beyond with record scores constantly being set and broken in everything from Pac-Man to Missile Command. But Donkey Kong is still recognized as the most challenging and difficult game around. It’s goal, to repeatedly rescue a damsel in distress from a barrel-rolling, flame-throwing, spring-tossing ape across dozens of increasingly difficult snakes-and-ladders type settings, still attracts gamers from around the world. One such man, Redmond Washington native Steve Wiebe (pronounced “wee-bee”) is determined to break the longstanding DK score set by gaming legend Billy Mitchell and documentarian Seth Gordon is their to follow the tense rivalry to its ultimate conclusion. Portraying Wiebe as a downtrodden yet loveable family man whose entire life has been one big disappointment after another and Mitchell, a successful entrepreneur, as a monumental douche with an ego to match (and a ridiculously outdated rockabilly hairdo) Gordon kicks objectivity to the curb and instead delivers a geeky David vs Goliath smackdown of epic proportions. The fact that both men are actually friends in real life and have protested Gordon’s skewing of the truth hardly matters as the director charges headfirst into the cutthroat culture of arcade competitions where Machiavellian schemings and zealous referees determine who gets a place in the record books and just about everyone seems to be exhibiting one psychiatric diagnosis or another. The talking heads are funny (this shit is serious, man!), the background history fascinating, and Gordon keeps the pace as brisk as the retro games themselves. Be sure to stay through the closing credits.

The King’s Speech (UK 2010) (7): Tom Hooper’s biopic detailing the relationship between King George VI and Australian ex-pat Lionel Logue, a self-proclaimed speech therapist who helped him overcome the crippling stutter which severely hampered his ability to deliver a speech or have a simple conversation. Having exhausted every doctor they could find, George’s wife Elizabeth convinced him to see Logue as a last resort and despite her husband’s grave misgiving and the therapist’s unorthodox methods—like having the future king roll on the floor or shout obscenities at the top of his lungs—a slow and painful progress takes place. Managing to get the reluctant monarch through his coronation ceremony with nary a stammer, Logue’s greatest challenge was yet to come when WWII broke out in Europe and George was forced to make the most important radio address in his life… Lavishly filmed with palatial interiors contrasting with Logue’s colourfully spartan apartments and featuring a first rate cast including Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Timothy Spall (as Winston Churchill), and Academy-award winner Colin Firth, the film is certainly lovely to look at though never quite as engaging as it promises to be despite its historical significance. But Hooper’s solid directing keeps things flowing and David Seidler’s incisive screenplay gives us a feel for all involved.

Kinky Boots (USA/UK 2005) (7): So this is the movie that inspired the popular Broadway musical. After his father dies Charlie reluctantly inherits the venerable family shoemaking business. But times are tough, tastes are changing, and the sprawling Northampton factory is in danger of going into receivership taking dozens of jobs with it. Enter “Lola” (a dazzling Chiwetel Ejiofor) a big glittery black drag queen that Charlie runs into during a trip to London and who eventually inspires Charlie to turn his company’s liabilities around by cornering a hitherto ignored market—sexy footwear for women, transvestites, and everyone in between. Before their grandiose plans can be set in motion however there are a few obstacles Charlie and Lola must overcome, namely Charlie’s grasping yuppie fiancée and the shoe factory’s staff of conservative yobs and dowdy hens. A camp marketing fairy tale (pun intended) based on an actual story—the factory really does exist—whose message of acceptance and understanding, though loud and clear, is cushioned by a few exuberant drag routines and Ejiofor’s standout performance as Lola, a man more at home in a sexy frock and lip gloss yet whose delightfully acerbic tongue hides more than a few emotional wounds. One of those rollicking feel good films that goes down easily and entertains without insulting cast or audience with crass stereotypes or PC manifestos. And that final catwalk is enough to bring the house down.

Kismet (USA 1955) (7): This wonderfully brainless confection, part Arabian Nights part Wizard of Oz, follows the adventures of a penniless poet as he finagles his way into the grand Caliph’s court thanks to a case of mistaken identity and several fortuitous coincidences. Unfortunately his new-found fame threatens to derail his daughter’s dream of marrying her one true love...the Caliph himself! With its gorgeous technicolour sets and elaborate costumes Kismet is visually arresting, think of ancient Persia as interpreted by Hanna-Barbara. Furthermore the jazzy song and dance numbers are pure camp; musical theatre just doesn’t get much gayer than this unless you throw Doris Day into the mix. A bright breezy marshmallow of a film filled with beautiful singing and romantic silliness; it may not challenge your intellect but it’ll put a smile on your face just the same. And Howard Keel’s broad shoulders and deep baritone are sexy as hell!

Kisses (Ireland 2008) (6): Pre-teen Dylan and his sort-of girlfriend Kylie lead a pretty grim life in their rundown housing project—he’s subjected to daily doses of physical and emotional abuse, she’s facing far worse. Hopping a ride on a canal barge they decide to leave it all behind and head for the bright lights of Dublin where Dylan hopes to be reunited with his long lost brother. Things go well at first for the two naifs as Kylie’s wad of stolen bills treats them both to some new threads and a bag of candy; but when the cash runs out and despair begins to take hold a different, more menacing city begins to emerge. It finally takes a few chance encounters with a philosophizing prostitute, a pair of sexual predators, and a Bob Dylan impersonator to convince the kids that if you’re going to have a shitty childhood anyway you may as well just stay at home. Yet another riff on a “babes in the woods” theme wherein a pair of unhappy children trade one miserable existence for another before realizing everyplace is just like home. The two talented leads do have an onscreen charisma which renders their (barely intelligible) dialogue both natural and believably raw while their behaviour is pretty much what you’d expect from a pair of clueless runaways. Writer/director Lance Daly shows some ingenuity especially in his decision to film early scenes of domestic misery in stark B&W then gradually tinting things to full colour as Dylan and Kylie get further away from home. But the mean streets of Dublin never get quite mean enough and our little protagonists’ meandering adventures don’t quite gel into anything more meaningful than a string of inoffensive “Kids gone Wild” scenarios. Finally, a drawn out closing sequence delivered in relentless slow-motion looks grand but says nothing new.

Kiss Me Deadly (USA 1955) (9): When a breathless blonde hitchhiker (Cloris Leachman’s screen debut!) wearing nothing but a trench coat flags down his jaguar, tough-talking private eye Mike Hammer (a sleazy sexy Ralph Meeker) knows his luck has taken a turn. But after he’s forced off the road and wakes up to discover she’s been murdered he realizes it’s a turn for the worse. It seems the young lady he picked up was involved in something extremely unsavoury and now he’s not only being stalked by a gang of neanderthals eager to know the dead woman’s cryptic last words, but the local police have their sights on him as well. Not willing to be a simple pawn however, Hammer decides to unravel the mystery himself—and the closer he gets to the truth the more difficult it becomes to stay alive. Director Robert Aldrich’s tale of hard-boiled alpha males, loose women, and the dark dealings which bring them together has been rendered “quaint” with time, but it still ranks as one of film noir’s quintessential classics. Penned by the great Micky Spillane whose pulp fiction dialogue crackles in every scene and infused with a vulgar, though still effective carnality, Aldrich creates a shadowy L.A. netherworld of crooked people and crooked morals whose serpentine twists and turns eventually lead to a gloriously ludicrous climax, part science fiction spectacle and part horror show. The fact that the Kefauver Commission declared it 1955’s number one menace to the morals of American youth only heightens the fun!

Kiss of Death (USA 1947) (6): Three-time loser Nick Bianco (Victor Mature), currently serving a 15-year sentence for a jewel heist gone wrong, is proud of the fact that he’s never ratted on a fellow criminal. But when personal tragedy strikes he decides to cooperate with the New York D.A. in exchange for a lighter sentence—a decision which puts him on the wrong side of vengeful psychopath Tommy Udo (Oscar-nominated Richard Widmark making his movie debut). Pretty standard Film Noir fare albeit one which concentrates more on the ethical conundrum at its core and less on flying bullets. Mature is torn between his thieves’ honour and a higher good while Widmark’s hissing madman and Bianco’s adoring saint of a wife (Coleen Gray laying it on a little too thick) compete for his soul. And just to give the emotional knife another twist Bianco’s two cherubic daughters are are thrown in for the “Awww!” factor, the connection between them and a prominently displayed painting of Christ welcoming the little children all too obvious. Although refreshingly sympathetic towards its main protagonist—“He’s not a bad guy” states one prison guard about the soft-spoken Bianco—and heavy on the personal anguish, director Henry Hathaway never really gets the tension going even with a beautifully underlit scene of midnight jitters and that final cat-and-mouse pursuit through the alleyways of Manhattan. And the Hays office made sure the film’s darker elements, namely rape and suicide, were significantly softened for the big screen. But despite all that, Kiss of Death does leave audiences with one of the genres more chillingly iconic scenes: Udo dispatching a screaming wheelchair-bound woman, his maniacal giggling still managing to rival that of Heath Ledger’s Joker some sixty years later.

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (USA 1950) (8): Crooked cops, desperate dames, double-crossing thugs…graft…corruption…and murder! Director Gordon Douglas checks all the boxes in this especially sordid Film Noir and he finds the perfect muse in James Cagney who gives the genre one of its most repulsive sociopaths. Seven people are standing trial on charges of homicide or conspiracy to commit homicide and the only thing they have in common is the unfortunate fact they became involved with escaped convict and master criminal Ralph Cotter (Cagney), a vicious, sadistic manipulator who’d stop at nothing to get whatever he wanted. Seducing the grieving sister of a fellow convict who was killed during his jailbreak, Cotter resumed his nefarious activities—using bribery, blackmail, and bullets to impose his will—until complications entered his life in the form of a seductive heiress with an overly protective father. Originally banned in the state of Ohio for its cold-blooded brutality, Douglas’ old school gangster film hinges on Cagney’s bravura performance as the deceptively suave Cotter, a poisonous viper in designer threads who’d smile to your face even as he stabbed you in the back. The rest of the cast is rounded out by blonde Barbara Payton and brunette Helena Carter as the women in his life, a barrel-chested Ward Bond as a swindling police inspector, and Luther Adler playing an unscrupulous lawyer who comes with a hefty price tag. Told in flashbacks as witnesses give their testimony this is a tightly woven, occasionally erotic, and often shocking (for the time) drama only somewhat undone by an abrupt ending that leaves no room for resolutions or farewells. An overlooked classic.

Kitty Foyle (USA 1940) (7): Even though it was extensively sanitized by the Hay’s Office, this screen adaptation of Christopher Morley’s racy novel, penned by the great Dalton Trumbo, is still entertaining and a curious example of Hollywood’s reaction to nascent feminism. Twenty-six year old Katherine aka “Kitty” Doyle (Oscar winner Ginger Rogers) is experiencing an emotional logjam. With just a few hours to go she must decide whether to run off to South America with the dashing Wyn Strafford (the dashing Dennis Morgan), scion to a wealthy Philadelphia banking family who has decided to forsake his fortune—not to mention his wife and child—in order to live in sin with her, or else marry struggling intern Dr. Mark Elsen (Clark Gable lookalike James Craig), a man with not much to offer besides love and honesty. As she hesitantly packs her bags Kitty looks back on how she got to this crossroads—from being the headstrong daughter of a staunch Irish Catholic father to becoming a fiercely independent woman to being torn between two very different men—and how Wyn, and later Mark, steered her life into different directions. But choosing between what you want and what you need is never easy, and as the clock ticks away KItty’s recollections of romance and heartbreak lead her to a final decision… With Trumbo’s eloquent script, Roger’s offhand naturalism, and director Sam Wood’s keen sense of time and space (a swirling snow globe divides the film into discreet chapters while providing an apt metaphor) what could have been a soapy chick flick turns into something quite compelling. Although the sex and a few other unmentionables were toned way down, or else deleted entirely, this is still a brave film for 1940 featuring a strong female lead and men who are somehow incomplete: while one lacks moral resolve, the other covers his insecurities with male bravado. Skirting issues of class distinction, sexual politics, and even a bit of racism (“I’m free, white, and twenty-one…”, states a newly unemployed Kitty in an effort to assuage Wyn’s concerns) Kitty Foyle bravely goes where very few previous films dared, and considering when it was made it still manages to hold its own.

Knife + Heart (France 2018) (6): A masked maniac is murdering gay porn stars and sleaze director Anne Parèze (Vanessa Paradis) must stop the killings before she runs out of actors. That pretty much sums up Yann Gonzalez’s surreal ode to Italian gialli, those softcore splatter films which made the grindhouse circuit so many years ago and turned the likes of Dario Argento and Joe D’Amato into underground icons. Set in Paris, 1979, Knife + Heart is a gender-bending study on how style and atmosphere can trump substance (although it’s underlying message of tolerance is still fresh, albeit a bit bloody) and for anyone who grew up with the genre its psychedelic tangents, theatrical performances, and outré score by French tech band M83 will seem comfortably familiar. The murders are kept tastefully grisly while the homo sex is deliberately hot and transgressive (Pareze’s latest hardcore opus playing real life tragedy for a kinky fuck), and Paradis—whose outspoken character is also a lovelorn lesbian, touché!—gives a performance strong enough to keep the film’s arty-farty conceits from flying off into space. Of course it’s all silly when you step back—the “resolution” is pure corn—but Gonzales proves adept at keeping things highly visual (at one point Paradis walks past a series of garish billboards featuring a leering mouth) and he leaves his audience with a haunting final scene steeped in lust and longing, equal parts wistful daydream and tacky exploitation.

Knives Out (USA 2019) (8): When the wealthy patriarch of the Thrombey family (Christopher Plummer) is found dead of an apparent suicide on his 85th birthday the subsequent police investigation is derailed by the appearance of private investigator Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) who believes there is more to the case than meets the eye…or ear. But with a creepy old mansion filled with eccentric relatives itching to go at each other uncovering the truth is not going to be easy since everyone—from the old man’s quiet Latina nurse to his arrogant, quarrelsome progeny—has something to hide. In the same vein as the best of Agatha Christie movies, writer/director Rian Johnson gives us a giddy life-sized game of “Clue” with enough hints to let us play along and enough star power to breathe life into his cast of oddballs: Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Toni Collette, Frank Oz, and M. Emmet Walsh all get their close-ups. And the art and set direction teams go all out giving us a rambling estate populated by wild beast statuary and a brooding manor house filled to the rafters with macabre curiosities, rococo trappings, and an oil painting which seems to be enjoying everyone’s discomfort—the “wall of knives” providing the perfect centrepiece. Plummer, shown in flashbacks, is a mix of fire and frailty (the fact that his character is also a mystery writer only adds to the fun); Craig dons a passable Kentucky drawl as the South’s answer to Hercule Poirot; and Ana de Armas is a lot of fun as the nurse who finds herself in a bit of a pickle especially given the fact she is quite literally unable to tell a lie (cue some funny/gross visuals). Not exactly a high-brown cerebral exercise despite Johnson’s Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and his left-leaning politics come out in some not-so-subtle ways, but still a highly entertaining and sometimes quite funny whodunnit with a couple of curveballs that you may or may not see coming depending on how tired you are.

Kon-Tiki (Norway 2012) (7): In 1947 Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl set out to prove that Polynesia was originally settled by indigenous South Americans traveling west—and not Asians traveling east—one thousand years before Columbus. In order to show such a trek was possible he and his team built a primitive raft out of balsa wood, christened it the “Kon-Tiki” after the Incan sun god, and set out from Peru putting themselves at the mercy of ocean currents and prevailing winds equipped only with a tiller, a canvas sail, and a rudimentary knowledge of sailing (Heyerdahl couldn’t even swim). In this Oscar-nominated adventure flick directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg give a largely romanticized account of the Kon-Tiki’s legendary cross-ocean voyage (the 100+ day journey is reduced to 90 minutes screen time) in which Thor and his team grow lean and grizzled as they face off against stormy seas, rotting planks, and the thousand little tensions which arise when people are forced to live in close proximity day after long weary day. Oh, and man-eating sharks too. The cast, headed by Pål Hagen as the intense and tightly focused Heyerdahl, work very well together especially given the cramped space in which most of the movie was shot and since much of it was actually filmed at sea cinematographer Geir Andreassen augments their performances with vast panoramas of open ocean, storm clouds ripped by lightning, and undersea sequences featuring CGI-enhanced sharks so realistic they leave you shivering. Finally, composer Johan Söderqvist adds the finishing touch with a majestic orchestral score that turns every mishap and triumph into a momentous occasion. Interesting to note, Heyerdahl’s real life account of the journey actually nabbed the 1952 Oscar for Best Documentary even though advances in genetic mapping ultimately disproved his theory.

Kubo and the Two Strings (USA 2016) (9): In a magical medieval Japan little one-eyed Kubo ekes out a living telling stories in the town square, punctuating his heroic epics with notes from a three-stringed shamisen and a host of origami figures which take on an animated life of their own. At night he cares for his widowed mother, a once powerful sorceress now given to bouts of amnesia and melancholy. But evil is afoot, and a malevolent spirit from his family’s past is hellbent on destroying Kubo’s future prompting the preteen to go on an epic quest of his own—accompanied by a pair of charmed companions—in order to find the one thing that can save him. The longest stop-motion animated feature film thus far (and with hundreds of thousands of frames and an 18-foot animatronic Skeleton Demon to boot certainly the most ambitious), Travis Knight’s dark and cerebral fairytale is a sure win for both adults and those children able to brave the scarier bits. A beautifully rendered saga which takes viewers from bare mountaintops to a pale ghost realm to a storm-ravaged sea aboard an enchanted galleon, all presented with meticulous staging (apparently the sea voyage alone took nineteen months to shoot) and a palette of picture book colours that add depth to those burning sunsets and haunted moons. It’s the storyline however which impressed me the most, a heady mix of mythological mayhem and family ties centred on one endearingly plucky antagonist and his brave allies. But a word of warning for those with toddlers, the monsters are surprisingly effective and some supernatural fight sequences don’t shy away from deadly swords and flailing meat hooks. Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, and Matthew McConaughey lend their voices, and listen for George Takei delivering his signature “Oh My!”

Kuessipan (Canada 2019) (8): Mikuan and Shaniss are the best of friends. Having grown up together in Quebec’s Innu community they’ve weathered a few setbacks and enjoyed a fair share of partying, vowing always to stick together no matter what. But as they enter into their twenties their lives begin to diverge: Shaniss wants to stay on the reserve and raise a family with her occasionally abusive boyfriend while Mikuan, already a gifted writer, wants to hone her literary skills at University in faraway Quebec City. The friction between them finally reaches its boiling point when Mikuan starts dating a white boy—and it will take a series of epiphanies and a tragedy or two before the childhood friends can finally have a serious adult conversation. Simply yet effectively framed by the restless St. Lawrence river and the quiet streets of Uashat mak Mani-Utenam which never seem to change no matter what the season, director Myriam Verreault’s screen adaptation of Naomi Fontaine’s novel takes us inside the minds and hearts of two indigenous women and their families with a familiarity that few films have ever achieved. It’s a story of evolving identities in which old ways and new contrast in unexpected ways—their parents argue in native Montagnais while the girls talk back in French, one student laments over the loss of an indigenous lifestyle while another points out the benefits of a comfortable living room and warm bed. Yet this is not a clash of cultures so much as it is a study into the many facets that make up one’s sense of self. With this in mind Mikuan’s progressive yearnings and Shaniss’ traditionalism are not seen as polar opposites, they are uneasy yet complimentary pieces of a greater whole. But while the simple cinematography and spare music score set the tone, the film’s ultimate power lies in the hands of two extremely gifted actresses: Sharon Fontaine-Ishpatao whose portrayal of Mikuan gives us a budding artist whose uncertainties are overshadowed by a warrior spirit, and Yamie Grégoire as Shaniss, a somewhat cowed child of a broken home whose own warrior has yet to be heard. Joined by a strong cast of amateurs from within the Innu community itself—from a hockey-loving older brother to a perpetually smiling grandmother—this is both a tale of personal growth and a family drama as warm and rocky as they come. And those quotes from Naomi Fontaine, read in Mikuan’s quietly impassioned voice, provide the ultimate mic drops. Finally, those expecting the usual homily on colonialism will be disappointed for Verreault has far more respect for the perceptiveness of her audience and the resilience of her characters.

Kung Fu Panda (USA 2008) (8): A big clumsy panda bear named Po (voice of Jack Black) offsets his rather humble life working in dad’s noodle shop with ridiculously grandiose martial arts daydreams in which he is an invincible hero. No one is more shocked than him however when he is chosen by the aging master of China’s most prestigious dojo—acting upon a questionable revelation—to become the mythical Dragon Warrior, defender of the realm. But taking a crash course in Kung Fu is the least of Po’s problems for the other students (Tigress, Monkey, Mantis, Crane, and Snake) resent his presence and the sensei assigned to teach him is determined to make his life as miserable as possible. But all that changes when psychopathic panther Tai Lung, the kingdom’s most feared arch villain, bursts out of prison with vengeance on his mind and all eyes turn hesitantly towards Po… Opening with an intricate homage to Japanese anime, Dreamworks' big gutsy cartoon epic exploits every “Ancient China” cliché Western audiences have come to expect with mystical landscapes of cherry blossoms and waterfalls rendered in bright crayon colours and a veritable menagerie of barnyard animals sporting coolie hats and chopsticks. The story is predictable and the underlying message of believing in oneself pretty much writes itself, but the laughs come easily and the action sequences are a marvel to behold. Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, and Jackie Chan are just a few of the surprise celebrity voices.

Kuroneko [aka “Black Cat”] (Japan 1968) (8): In a medieval Japan wracked by wars and lawlessness, a woman and her daughter-in-law are beaten, raped, and left to die in their burning hut by a gang of mercenary samurai. Some time later a pair of mysterious women begin appearing outside the fortress of the local warlord; apparitions which seem to coincide with a series of grisly murders involving swordsmen having their throats torn out. Convinced that his castle is besieged by malevolent ghosts the general assigns his bravest warrior, Gintoki, the task of eradicating the demons. But to his horror Gintoki discovers he has far more in common with the angry spirits than he imagined leading not only to a supernatural battle of wills, but of loyalties as well. A superb ghost story with eerie effects and theatrical flourishes which at times resembled a traditional Japanese puppet play. Director Kaneto Shindô sets his spooky tale of love and revenge amidst acres of bamboo forest awash in misty moonlight while his interior shots border on the abstract with deep shadows bordering empty spaces. The ghosts themselves, pale and ethereal, are a potent mix of rage and lonely despair—-the latter giving rise to some wholly unexpected eroticism. A beautifully rendered Japanese campfire story framed with the eye of an artist.

La Bête Humaine (France 1938) (8): People can indeed be beastly in Jean Renoir’s adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel, a tragic melodrama of l’amour psychotique whose bleak observation on the wages of human vice carries within it wider political overtones. Lonely train engineer Jacques Lantier (Jean Gabin) is prone to rage-filled blackouts which he blames on “poisoned blood” caused by his alcoholic forebears. His life seems to take a turn however when he falls in love with Séverine (Simone Simon) the alluring young wife of aging Stationmaster Roubad (Fernand Ledoux), a moody and choleric man whose fits of jealousy often lead to violence. In fact it was one such fit which led Roubad to murder one of Séverine’s former lovers the very night she met Jacques, and now both Lantier and his newfound love must find a way to be together—but Roubad is not so easily trifled with and Lantier is overdue for another blackout… Given everyone’s occupation it’s no surprise that Renoir’s film revolves around trains, an apt metaphor as they barrel heedlessly along their iron rails with all the implacability of fate itself. It’s a train that plays host to Roubad’s homicidal wrath, Lantier and Séverine meet and later commit adultery on one, and it is an engine car—Lantier’s favourite—which doles out a final destiny. There is a synergy to Renoir’s cast that still crackles decades later: Gabin commands the screen as the tortured Lantier, a man who cries out for love only to see it constantly wrested away; Simon is radiant as the love triangle’s apex, a beauty whose innocent veneer periodically slips to reveal something uglier beneath; and Ledoux uses little more than body language and sullen stares to produce a tragically broken man at once pitiful and wholly repellent. And cinematographer Curt Courant ties it all together with grim visions of dark tunnels and smoky industrial landscapes where a simple rain barrel carries an erotic charge and a gold pocket watch becomes a ball and chain. Released just as WWII was gathering on the horizon, Renoir’s scenes of screaming locomotives and sundered lives where passions too often lead to brutality can also be viewed as darkly prophetic.

The Lady Eve (USA 1941) (9): Professional card shark “Colonel” Harrington and his daughter Jean (Barbara Stanwyck, outstanding!) make a living out of fleecing unsuspecting millionaires on luxury cruise holidays. This time they have their eyes set on the bumbling and wholly naive Charles Pike (an appropriately ovine Henry Fonda) heir to the Pike Pale Ale fortune who is sailing back to America after spending a year in the Amazon rainforest. But just as they prepare to relieve him of several thousand dollars at the card table Jean’s flirtatious act backfires when she finds herself actually falling in love with the unsuspecting sap and decides to protect him from her father’s cheating ways. Fate, however, has slightly different plans for both parties… Cleverly placed images of snakes, Paradise, and that notorious apple add a little extra zest to Preston Sturges’ wildly comic battle of the sexes which sees poor Adam repeatedly falling (often literally) for Eve’s seductive charms. With action ranging from slapstick to oh-so-subtle eroticism and a script bubbling over with snappy comebacks and double entendres this is a deceptively simple comedy for grown-ups which mocks romance even as it revels in it. Funny stuff!

The Lady from Shanghai (USA 1947) (5): Some believe the visual assaults and bloated dramatics of an Orson Welles production marked him as a cinematic genius. Personally I find his style so exaggerated that his films practically become a parody of themselves. Case in point is this Film Noir flop in which globe-trotting Irish vagabond Michael O’Hara (Welles himself feigning a vaguely Celtic lilt) is hired aboard the yacht of wealthy criminal lawyer Arthur Bannister after he rescues the man’s wife from an attempted mugging and rape. But O’Hara only has eyes for Mrs. Bannister (Rita Hayworth), a slutty bleached blonde whose ham-fisted attempts at seduction have had his libido flying at full mast ever since he came to her aid. No one is on the level in the Bannister household however and as passions and jealousies smoulder Michael finds himself caught in a baffling web of double-crosses which sees him ultimately framed for murder. Apparently Welles’ insatiable ego had him rewriting the script on a daily basis while studio cuts lopped off an entire hour of the movie’s 155-minute running time—the net result is a chopped up study in arty indulgence whose serpentine plot is rendered even more unfathomable than it already was. Not that plot matters much given the film’s overbearing excesses in every other department—oblique shadows loom menacingly, everyone delivers their lines with either a snarl or a gasp, and the overuse of perspiring close-ups quickly grows tedious whether it’s Hayworth’s self-conscious cheesecakes or Glenn Anders (playing Bannister’s sleazy law partner) leering into the lens in a risible attempt to look threatening. A courtroom showdown goes beyond ludicrous when the defense attorney takes the stand and begins questioning himself, and a bullet-riddled showdown at an amusement park—all funhouse mirrors and trapdoor slides—strives to mimic the nightmare aesthetic of German expressionism but winds up looking like a macabre salute to Walt Disney instead. Even a clandestine rendezvous at a dimly lit aquarium, clearly meant to ooze with dramatic tension, comes across as just one more stagey gimmick when Welles decides to magnify the fish behind the glass to leviathan proportions turning the entire scene into an outtake from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Neither suspenseful nor engaging, Lady from Shanghai is just one more indication that with Citizen Kane Orson Welles was perhaps Hollywood’s greatest One Hit Wonder. Two Hit Wonder if you include 1942’s The Magnificent Ambersons.

Lady Killer (USA 1933) (8): James Cagney spoofs himself in this very funny comedy, a sharp Hollywood satire disguised as a corny gangster flick. Forever bucking the rules, bad boy Dan Quigley’s bad attitude gets him fired from his low-paying job as a New York theatre usher. But his ruthless instinct for survival soon has him rolling in dough as the de facto leader of a gang of thieves and con artists—until a botched robbery sends him fleeing to California with his slinky moll in tow. Tinseltown, however, proves to be nothing more than a racket of a different colour and it isn’t long before Quigley finds himself once more on top, this time as a matinee idol. Unfortunately the past has a habit of catching up with you and when Quigley’s past comes knocking it practically rips the door off its hinges… Still as fresh today as it must have been at its premiere, Cagney’s affected performance showcases his knack for comic timing and he’s helped by a script which pokes fun at filmdom itself: his stint as a movie extra blurs the line between fiction and reality much like 1980’s The Stuntman and a few clever in-jokes will probably fly over the heads of all but the most ardent movie buffs. Plus, being a pre-code film the wicked sexual innuendos are all delivered with a wink and a smirk—“C’mere, take a gander at her…” says one of Quigley’s henchman indicating a wealthy widow and potential mark bedecked in jewels and furs, “Did you say gander…?” replies a leering Quigley, “…I wonder how she’d go for a goose.” Pretty risqué stuff for 1933. But it’s the send-up of the movie industry itself that generated the most chuckles with Cagney basically playing himself playing someone else (at one point, dressed as an Indian chief for a Western and fed up with riding a mechanical horse all day, he lets loose with a Yiddish invective concerning his sore backside…oy vey!). A sharp-witted, good-natured ribbing of genre clichés, celebrity, and cinematic foibles which even features a real life barrel of monkeys.

Lady Macbeth (UK 2016) (9): In Shakespeare’s tragedy Lady Macbeth was the thorn in her husband’s side, egging him on to achieve greater glory through whatever means necessary—all the while acutely aware of her own limitations as a woman. Her efforts were eventually successful but they exacted a horrible price. In William Oldroyd’s period piece, set in 19th century England and based on Nikolai Leskov’s novel, the “Lady” in question is quite self-sufficient at putting her house in order although the price exacted is no less horrible. Katherine (Florence Pugh), a young bride sold off to an ill-natured landowner (Paul Hilton), finds her husband’s manor house little more than a birdcage wherein her days are spent in pointless routine, her nights in a loveless bed (he’s either impotent or uninterested), and her every move judged inferior by her miserable father-in-law (Christopher Fairbank). She eventually discovers erotic release in the arms of a roguish farmhand (Cosmo Jarvis) but when her newfound freedom is threatened she finds herself quite capable—and more than willing—to go to whatever heinous lengths are necessary in order to preserve it. Ari Wegner’s big screen cinematography strikes a balance between outside shots of rustic fields dotted by brooding fairytale woods and inside pans of cold symmetries with Katherine hemmed in by doorways, windowpanes, and ticking clocks, her corseted waist and hooped gown as effective as a ball and chain. One could almost feel a certain sympathy for her plight. But this is not a feminist parable as much as it is a horror story tinged with madness and misogyny for Katherine’s rage against her lot in life will eventually spread like a malignancy until no one is left unaffected—not even her lover. Pugh’s performance is an amazing confusion of vulnerability and crazed resolve, even those nude scenes fail to soften her character’s hard edges, and Jarvis keeps pace with his own tragic character sliding off into an entirely different direction. But it is Naomi Ackie’s brilliantly downplayed performance as Katherine’s personal maid which gives the film its moral bearings. Observing her mistress from the shadows she provides a mute Greek Chorus of sorts using little more than facial expressions that evolve from dispirited obedience to alarmed dismay to wide-eyed trembling. A blend of bucolic wastes and odious impulses, Lady Macbeth plays out like a collaboration between the Brontë sisters and Lars von Trier.

Lady Vengeance (AKA Sympathy for Lady Vengeance) (Korea 2005) (7): In this final chapter of Park Chan-Wook’s loose trilogy revenge is a dish best served piping hot, buffet-style. After spending 13 years in prison for a horrendous crime she didn’t commit, Lee Geum-Ja (nicknamed “Kind Hearted” by her fellow prisoners in recognition of the many twisted little favours she afforded them, like killing the resident lesbian cannibal) wastes no time setting in motion an elaborate plan aimed at delivering a shrill and macabre form of justice to the man who set her up. At the same time, despite her increasingly obsessive vendetta, she desperately tries to reconnect with the infant she was forced to give up, now a young girl living with her adoptive parents in Australia. With it’s puzzling jumble of frantic flashbacks and visually captivating, though dramatically inconsequential, arty excesses Lady Vengeance is certainly a lot of fun to watch. The unnecessarily convoluted plot is aided in part by an energetic cast, some flashy camerawork and a grandiose score of classical riffs which undermine some of it’s sillier elements. Furthermore, the film’s crowning scene in which a cornered pedophile’s fate is decided by a small mob of outraged parents is a master stroke of bone-dry humour and wry social commentary. Unfortunately Park seems to fall in love with his vision towards the end and drags the proceedings a few minutes past the point where the final credits should have been rolling. Lack of narrative cohesion and sloppy editing notwithstanding this is still an engaging, if decidedly lightweight, entry in the Revenge genre.

L’affaire Dumont (Canada 2012) (7): Wrongfully convicted of sexual assault a delivery man is sentenced to prison despite conflicting evidence, an ethically suspect judge and prosecutor, and his accuser’s own admission of doubt. With his ex-wife alienating him from his children and the authorities refusing to believe his claims of innocence, Michel Dumont’s only hope lies in the dogged determination of Solange, his new bride, who is convinced her husband did nothing wrong. Using actual court transcripts for its trial scenes Daniel Grou’s provocative film, based on a true story, plays out like a comedy of deadly serious errors. Citing official apathy and grave judicial oversights which began in a small Montreal courtroom but had repercussions all the way to the Minister of Justice’s office, Grou calls into question a legal bureaucracy which not only sent an innocent man to jail for three years but continued to drag its feet even after his name was cleared. Although marred somewhat by meandering timelines and a few baffling edits, Grou’s excellent cast manage to make the most of Danielle Dansereau’s succinct script—delivering an angry polemic whose headlines are only a few years old.

La Grande Bouffe (France 1973) (4): Four upper class gentlemen—a judge, a producer, an airline pilot, and a pampered scion—meet at a rundown chateau to fulfill a suicide pact by literally eating themselves to death. To spice up the weekend they also invite a corpulent schoolmistress and trio of stick-thin prostitutes over so they can screw in between bouts of gourmet gorging and explosive flatulence. As the days progress and the larder diminishes this orgy of food and sex becomes ever more depraved giving rise to a series of infamous scenes: the teacher rides the producer while he lets out a barrage of wet farts; a burst toilet drenches the pilot in a shower of fresh shit; and a fat chick kneads a ball of dough with her butt cheeks. Determined to die by means of sheer overindulgence the men nevertheless find time to clear their mouths long enough for some middle class skewering and rancid navel-gazing… Clearly meant as a send-up of bourgeois excesses à la Buñuel by way of Pasolini, director Marco Ferreri’s controversial opus lacks the wit and finesse of the former and the latter’s keen sense of moral outrage. What we’re left with then is a string of coarse scatological vulgarities which miss their satirical mark and instead deliver an unfocused assault with the audience becoming little more than collateral damage. Sadly, an A-list cast of European stars including Marcello Mastroianni, Michel Piccoli, Phillipe Noiret, and Ugo Tognazzi (whose characters share their first names) all deliver what could very well have been their career lows. Disappointing.

La Haine (France 1995) (8): When a teenaged migrant is beaten into a coma while in police custody, the housing project in which he lived erupts into a night of fires, vandalism, and looting that soon spreads to nearby neighbourhoods. Writer/Director Matthieu Kassovitz’s B&W verité drama—the title translates as Hate—follows three friends from the same project over the course of 24 hours following the riots, their aimless wanderings and impotent posturing serving to highlight an even greater social disconnect. Hubert (Hubert Koundé) is a black man desperately trying to rise above his means, Vinz (Vincent Cassel) is white and so consumed with rage at the unfairness of it all that his friends worry about the gun (stolen from a police officer) he proudly brandishes about, and Saïd (Saïd Taghmaoui) is an Arab from north Africa who has resigned himself to life in the ghetto by trying to get by with petty schemes and the money he barely manages to squeeze from recalcitrant debtors. Moving from the smoking rubble of their own neighbourhood to the flashing lights of downtown Paris, the three buddies will spend an entire day and night in and out of trouble—evading the authorities (not always successfully), facing down skinheads, and aiming their pent-up frustrations at a crowd of champagne-sipping intelligentsia attending a gallery opening. Despite its moments of mordant humour, Kassovitz’s movie certainly shines a blinding arc lamp on the abyss that separates the haves from the have-nots, yet his edgy film is not a one-sided polemic—yes the police are snarling racists, but not all of them; yes the denizens of the ghetto prey on one another and then lay the blame on society, but not all of them. And yes, the three friends face discrimination and unfair treatment, but they are not above thumbing their noses at others in need (a female panhandler is given an angry brush-off) or helping themselves to property which doesn’t belong to them. Meanwhile ironically placed artwork heightens the social divide as billboards proclaim “We Are the Future” and “The World Belongs to You”, and a mural of right-wing Nicolas Sarkozy, then Minister of the Interior, looks down upon the film’s searing climax. And is it a coincidence that everyone seems to be wearing sweatshirts that sport American slogans or that Vinz amusingly recites Travis Bickle’s monologue from Taxi Driver? “It’s about a guy who falls off a skyscraper…” Hubert solemnly intones over an opening scene featuring a molotov cocktail exploding above an image of planet Earth, “… on his way down past each floor he keeps telling himself, so far so good…so far so good….so far so good…” So too with society, Kassovitz warns, and the sidewalk is fast approaching.

Lake of Fire (USA 2006) (9): Tony Kaye’s 2½ hour documentary on the abortion debate is as thorough and even-handed an examination of this divisive topic as you’re likely to find. Using crisp B&W cinematography and a dynamic editing style that affords equal time to his vast assembly of passionate talking heads, he refuses to join in the fray. Setting his camera up as passive observer instead, he remains silent while both sides of the issue wave their individual flags. Personally I found it difficult not to pass judgement on some of the more hostile elements of the “anti” side; their twisted, often contradictory rhetoric punctuated by vehement proselytizing as they compare abortion providers to Satan and Hitler. Many are seen to condone violence, intimidation and ever murder to get their pro-life message across while at the same time patently refusing to acknowledge the roles of contraception, education and social reform in reducing the incidence of unplanned pregnancy. As one professor of bioethics observes, abortion monomania is merely the thin edge of the wedge for conservative Christian reformers whose ultimate goal is to replace the Constitution with biblical law by whatever means necessary. Even Norma McCorvey, the original Jane Roe in Roe vs. Wade, is shown taking up the “Right to Life” cause after a life-altering experience. But it’s when the film focuses on the middle ground that we hear the most compelling arguments from both sides. As philosophers, lawmakers, and ministers struggle to define what constitutes human life and where the reproductive rights of women should begin and end, we follow one woman as she decides to terminate an unwanted pregnancy; a powerful and sobering experience that puts a human face to what is often reduced to an abstract argument. Be forewarned though, Kaye does not shy away from using graphic imagery to jolt the viewer whether it’s a dismembered fetus lying in a pan of blood or the corpse of a doctor gunned down in a parking lot. Far from being macabre exploitation, these scenes are designed to keep you involved in the debate and provide an unsettling counterpoint to the various onscreen arguments. No matter what your personal stand on abortion may be, Lake of Fire will challenge you both viscerally and intellectually. Exactly what a documentary is supposed to do.

La La Land (USA 2016) (10): Once upon a time in the magical land of Southern California a lonely barista (Emma Stone, Best Actress) dreamed of becoming a famous actress—one of those beautiful people she currently served coffee to. In another part of that magical land a frustrated jazz musician (Ryan Gosling) also dreamed of someday owning his own nightclub, a place where he could be free to play the music he adored. When these two ships eventually pass each other one magical night they manage to alter one another’s course proving once again that in La La Land dreams really can come true…but sometimes they can also break your heart. Writer/director Damien Chazelle’s multiple Oscar winner resurrects the old Hollywood musical and updates it for a wired generation. Opening with a smoggy traffic jam that turns into an exuberant dance-off, Chazelle takes his audience on an enchanted tour of a Los Angeles where house parties morph into glittering bacchanals, sunset strolls become existential affirmations, and lovebirds literally waltz on air. It’s a hefty dose of Hollywood schmaltz but rather than downplay the candy colours and beautiful people Chazelle revels in them, and his two leads are more than up for it as they sing and dance their way in and out of love over the course of six years. Stone sings live—her soulful rendition of “The Fools Who Dream”, belted out at a studio audition, could bring Broadway to its feet—while Gosling took a crash course in piano so he could play his own sets. Both actors also underwent a dance boot camp courtesy of choreographer Mandy Moore and while they didn’t exactly graduate as Astaire & Rogers their moves are still a joy to behold nevertheless. And Linus Sandgren’s widescreen sweeps maintain a fairytale world of palm trees and starlight where dusks flow into dawns and every heart holds a tune just waiting to be born. It’s a love letter to the industry of make-believe, a sweet little neon confection not so much rooted in reality as it is in hopes, aspirations, and the price we sometimes pay for pursuing them. In this age of well-founded cynicism La La Land’s bittersweet escapism gives us a few cleansing breaths before we head back to the daily grind of reality and in that respect alone it is two hours well spent. Perhaps they really can make them like they used to.

La Moustache (France 2005) (8): We’re all familiar with Chaos Theory’s tenet that a butterfly beating its wings in a rainforest could conceivably lead to a hurricane forming on the other side of the globe. In Emmanuel Carrère’s house of smoke and mirrors, based on his own novel, it all begins with a close shave… Marc Thiriez and his wife Agnès (Vincent Lindon, Emmanuelle Devos) have dinner plans with friends one evening when, while primping, Marc decides to shave off his longstanding moustache. Incensed that no one noticed the change he confronts Agnès on the way home that night only to be told by his bewildered wife that he never had a moustache to begin with—a statement later corroborated by their friends. And this is just the beginning, for over the ensuing days Marc’s grip on sanity will loosen dangerously as Agnès, along with his acquaintances and co-workers, will continue to upend his sense of the real world—from dinner parties which never happened to impossible voicemail messages from people long dead. Is there a conspiracy afoot? Is he going crazy? Or has reality itself come unstuck? Dread and tension are almost palpable in Carrère’s fascinating film, a cinematic Möbius strip which loops back upon itself without ever repeating. Lindon’s slide into paranoia, augmented beautifully by Devos’ looks of frightened concern (feigned or otherwise) keep you off balance even as a few cleverly placed clues point you in the strangest directions. And just like that faint waft generated by an insect’s wings, Marc’s small decision will likewise propel him to a place he never expected to be for a conclusion which left me smiling with admiration. Then kept me up half the night.

Lancelot du Lac (France 1974) (2): Robert Bresson’s anemic rip on the Arthurian legend starts out promising enough with knights being decapitated, castrated, hanged, and cremated, punctuated by gushing fountains of poster paint blood so absurd that the Monty Python gang spoofed it a year later in The Holy Grail. But alas, what follows is not even good enough to be considered bad community theatre. It’s been two years since the Knights of the Round Table left in search of the legendary grail, a doomed quest which left most of their company dead. Now, with the few survivors returned to a Camelot devoid of all magic, palace intrigue once again threatens to topple the kingdom, for Queen Guinevere is anxious to resume her affair with a now chaste Lancelot and the cruel upstart Mordred is intent on wresting power from King Arthur. The resulting adultery, ambitions, and jealousies will ultimately lead to the death of an era. Actually they will lead to a lesson in bad production values from slapdash sets which look as if they were filmed inside a Medieval Times tourist trap (apparently the entire castle is composed of a hallway, a bedroom, and a hayloft) to fine examples of the Romero school of zombie acting as the cast parrot lines leeched of any passion—or inflection or meaning for that matter. Characters are too often filmed from the waist down as if the camera crew were nodding off and the soundtrack consists almost entirely of neighing horses and an incessant cacophony of rattling pots and pans to accompany the ridiculous suits of armour which no one seems able to remove (do they sleep in them too?) This is the type of pseudo avant-garde tripe which has film school dilettantes grasping for terms like anti-cinema, deconstructed, minimalist, and the ever popular Brechtian. “It’s all about the inanity of war and destroying the romantic facade…” they may crow while clutching copies of Pipolo’s A Passion for Film as if it were a paperback grail unto itself. Well one can read anything into anything I suppose, but as for me this couldn’t have been any worse had they cast it with Muppets instead. Camelot is a very silly place indeed.

Land of Mine (Denmark 2015) (8): At the end of WWII the coast of Denmark was littered with an estimated two million land mines set by the occupying Nazi forces. Rather than risk their own civilians the Danes trained German POWs on how to detect and defuse the devices and then put them to work in what would later be considered a violation of the Geneva Convention since fully half of these poorly equipped and poorly treated prisoners suffered loss of life or limb. In writer/director Martin Zandvliet’s piercing historical drama embittered Danish sergeant Carl Rasmussen (Roland Møller, intense) is put in charge of one such platoon—but instead of the seasoned men he was expecting he is saddled with boy soldiers barely into their teens. And as he witnesses the frightened, dispirited young men suffer through deprivation and tragedy—one horribly injured boy cries out for his mother—Rasmussen’s initial disdain for “the enemy” begins to soften…a change of heart which is not appreciated by his superiors. Revenge is a monster that often feeds upon itself and Zandvliet’s wide pans of grey waves and treacherous beaches quickly becomes a metaphor not only for the inhumanity of war but for the lingering effects it has on the psyche, both personal and national. In this “land of mines” the occupiers have now become the oppressed and the Allies—who admittedly suffered under Nazi occupation—waste no time in exploiting their advantage. From Rasmussen’s barely controlled rage (he’s not above punching the daylights out of anyone in German uniform) to the hollow downcast eyes of his charges, some of whom never even knew what they were fighting for, to Allied officers and one local civilian who take delight in watching the POW’s plight, Zandvliet doesn’t choose sides but instead erases them thus showcasing his characters’ common humanity while at the same time suggesting that some battle scars cut straight across ideological lines. Perhaps Rasmussen’s sea change is a tad too neat and tidy, and a scene of one POW’s abuse at the hands of drunken officers is not entirely necessary, but these are easily overlooked if one concentrates on the bigger themes being presented. Denmark's official entry for 2015's Best Foreign Movie Oscar.

Land of the Dead (USA 1997) (5): Romero's zombies are restless yet again in this sequel of a sequel which delivers pretty much what we've come to expect; conflicted humans, hungry ghouls, and a whole lot of dripping entrails. This time around however the living dead are the decided winners, gaining not only the entire Earth ("let's go to Canada!" says one of mankind's last survivors) but a faint glimmer of intelligence behind those rotting eyes. Could this be the beginning of a Zombie Confederation? Sociopolitical allegory aside (yes, some insist Romero's series is a wry commentary on the Reagan years) this latter addition to the genre shows just how tired the subject has become...when shuffling, drooling, man-eating corpses begin to elicit feelings of sympathy and a sense of preciousness it's time to put that final bullet to the brain. Good effects though.

Land of the Lost (USA 2009) (6): When Prof. Rick Marshall infuriates the halls of academia by claiming to have designed a machine which allows people to travel sideways in time he quickly finds himself demoted to elementary school science teacher. Bitter, penniless and developing an unhealthy relationship with fast food, his life seems to be headed for total obscurity until Anna, a former student, gives him the courage to complete his “tachyon amplifier” and take it out for a field test. Looking like a cross between a jet pack and a decorative boom box (it has the complete soundtrack to A Chorus Line on its hard drive) the device ends up working a little too well, sending Rick and Anna to an alternate universe along with a clueless redneck who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The trio find themselves on a strange desert planet, a kind of inter-dimensional crossroads where smart-ass dinosaurs and fuzzy apemen cavort amongst an odd array of terrestrial artifacts; rusted cars, abandoned motels, and a Golden Gate Bridge partially submerged in sand dunes. But when they stumble upon an army of demented lizard people bent on conquering the galaxy they quickly find themselves pawns in a high-stakes power struggle. Normally I avoid anything that headlines Will Ferrell, but I must admit this foolish little comedy far surpassed my expectations, modest as they were. The visual gags are pretty good, the dialogue surprisingly witty, and the cheesy special effects compliment the rather juvenile humour perfectly; whether its a tacky neoprene lizard suit or the planet itself which seems composed entirely of rejected sets from Jurassic Park and Star Wars. A send-up of the “Today” show, complete with Matt Lauer cameo, was especially well done. Perhaps I’m just being uncharacteristically lenient, but sometimes “stupid” can be a good thing.

La Notte (Italy 1961) (6): Writer/director Michelangelo Antonioni examines the final twenty-four hours of a disintegrating middle-class marriage and wrings it for all the angst he can get. Novelist Giovanni Pontanno (Marcello Mastroianni) and his socialite wife Lidia (Jeanne Moreau) spend the morning at a hospital visiting a terminally ill friend whose sense of regret and futility proves to be rather prophetic as their day wears on. She later wanders around the old neighbourhood where nothing but idle violence, crumbling walls, and a lost child await her; he makes a weak attempt at a sexual liaison before going home to wait for her in the dark. Deciding to attend a lavishly bourgeois soiree thrown by a millionaire acquaintance Giovanni and Lidia are treated to a long alienating night of the soul instead as they play psychological games with each other while the other partygoers, a colourless collection of intellectual boors, put down the champagne long enough to decry everything from money to intimacy—the drunken bacchanal which follows faintly reminiscent of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita released a year earlier. Giovanni is clueless as to what is happening, Lidia is too numb to do much more than stare morosely into his eyes, and neither one is able to connect emotionally with anyone. And all the while the evening’s empty entertainments provide a sense of irony and detachment. Existentialist crises in these arthouse films usually engender a great deal of navel-gazing and despite its grandiloquence and sociopolitical allusions (a sense of anomie pervades every frame) this is pretty much all Antonioni delivers. Mastroianni and Moreau are perfectly paired however, their downbeat chemistry dragging the story forward while some sobering images underscore the subject matter: a femme fatale bedecked in her finest stands forlorn in the rain, guests cavort fully clothed in a swimming pool, and the Pontanos try to have an intimate discussion in the middle of a gargantuan traffic jam. Strictly old school avant-garde fare.

La Primera Noche [aka The First Night ] (Columbia 2003) (6): Luis Alberto Restrepo’s tragic drama begins with Tonio and Paulina making a terrified trek through a nighttime forest carrying two crying infants. Something terrible has befallen their mountain village and they have barely managed to escape with their lives. So why is there so much antagonism between them? Why does Tonio find it difficult to talk about his brother? And why is he dressed like a soldier? They eventually make their way to Bogotá where they hope to use that city’s urban sprawl to evade their pursuers—but in Columbia’s thorny social and political reality all they’ve really managed to do is substitute one war zone for another… The editing is shoddy, the acting generally sub par, and the story itself often falls back on telenovela conceits with a soundtrack that would be more at home in a giallo thriller—so why did I find Restrepo’s modest work impossible to dismiss? For one thing it’s a brave effort on his part, reducing his country’s civil unrest to a tale of one family torn apart by political ideology. Furthermore it paints a bleak picture of a metropolitan city which traps those seeking refuge into cycles of poverty and exploitation. Playing the ill-fated duo, Carolina Lizarazo and Jhon Álex Toro generate a wretched onscreen chemistry as two people helplessly watching their dreams implode and the director draws on subtle yet ingenious ploys to underscore their plight: the homeless couple camp out in front of a travel agency whose poster for Antarctic tourism proclaims “Enjoy the End of the World!”; a hobo’s compassion proves to be as rotten as his teeth; and the bright lights of Bogotà take on a new meaning when they’re reflected in a filthy mud puddle. As unpolished as it is (the frequent flashbacks, while indispensable to the plot, are nevertheless intrusive) Restrepo still manages to prove that one doesn’t need a big budget in order to make a big statement.

La Promesse (Belgium 1996) (8): Teenaged Igor and his father run a flophouse for illegal migrants, fleecing them for inflated rent and using them as cheap labour for their home renovation business in exchange for forged citizenship papers. Igor also supplements his income by ripping off the occasional pensioner at the garage where he works as an apprentice mechanic. And then one of his father’s workers dies while on the job and Igor feels the first prickling of a conscience when dad tries to cover the whole incident up and railroad the deceased’s unsuspecting wife and infant son out of town before the authorities come snooping around. Having made a promise to the dying man that he would look after his family, Igor now finds himself torn between loyalty to his father and upholding his promise—and with time running out his decision must come sooner than later. Another gritty slice-of-life drama from the Dardenne brothers featuring strong performances and filmed in the naturalistic style that has become their trademark. Levelling the playing field somewhat, the Dardennes are not so quick to point fingers as they are to paint a simple picture of flawed humans trying to deal with what life has given them. The father may be an ogre but he is not without some small compassion; the migrants may be desperate but they are not above ratting each other out or gambling away what little means they have; and all attempts by the authorities to stem the flow of human trafficking are cosmetic at best including a staged takedown of four hapless Romanians which the local mayor uses as a campaign photo-op. Stark and uncompromising right up to its unhappily ambivalent final frame, La Promesse is free of the usual knee-jerk sermonizing and emotional manipulation one would expect (it doesn’t even have a musical score), a fact which makes its subject matter all the more unsettling.

Largo Viaje (Chile 1967) (5): Apparently there is a belief in some Latin American countries that stillborn infants fly to heaven and become instant angels. To celebrate this occasion their little bodies are dressed up with paper wings and a solemn wake takes place which often turns into a drunken revelry. When his baby brother is born dead a young child is confused by the odd mixture of joy and grief which follows; as his mother suffers in silence, friends and neighbours become increasingly intoxicated leading to much vulgar groping and half-hearted brawls. The next day the little boy is horrified to discover his father has taken the tiny casket across town to the churchyard leaving the ornamental wings behind; how is his brother going to fly to heaven without them? Setting out on his own to try and find his dad, the child comes face to face with some of the modern world’s harsher realities. From crooked preachers and drunken delinquents to cynical prostitutes and (irony of ironies) raucous trade unionists the tiny tyke gets into one scrape after another while desperately trying to hold on to a pair of paper wings that always seem to escape his grasp. Some of the imagery in Kaulen’s little morality play is quite powerful, whether it’s a group of privileged gentry taking sport in shooting pigeons or a grief-stricken father carrying his baby’s coffin onto a city bus. Unfortunately the film is all but destroyed by horrific acting (badly dubbed in Spanish), unintelligible subtitles and an acute lack of effective directing. His religious lessons are less than subtle as he bombards us with heavy-handed symbolism including endless flocks of dirty pigeons and the elusive papery pinions. The result is a poorly edited undisciplined mess filled with subplots going nowhere, self-conscious performances, and a vague feeling of incompleteness. An appropriately sober finale did little to dispel my disappointment.

Lars and the Real Girl (USA 2007) (4): Lars is a painfully withdrawn loner living in his brother and sister-in-law’s garage. Despite his gentle manner you get the impression he suffers from some severe emotional damage: he has no friends, his conversations consist of one or two sentences, and a simple touch sends him racing for cover. People are forever trying to get him to come out of his shell; his sister-in-law even tackles him in the driveway just to deliver a simple dinner invitation. All this changes one winter day when he begins dating “Bianca”, a life-sized sex doll he ordered on the internet. Not only does he invent an elaborate history for it (Swedish-Brazilian descent, raised by nuns, strictly religious) but he begins taking it to parties where the two of them engage in loving one-way conversations. At first shocked by his aberrant behaviour, his brother listens to the the advice of the compassionate town therapist (a saintly Patricia Clarkson) and accepts Bianca as part of the family while the good townsfolk adopt her as one of their own. But then the Spring thaw comes and Lars begins to discover real girls... Despite some great performances this “inflatable-chick” flick is a manipulative one-joke weeper that takes a cute idea and runs it into the ground; the ending is almost too embarrassing to watch. All those quirky characters and homespun wisdom are just so much fluff designed to make the movie look less ridiculous than it really is. Perhaps Gillespie was aiming for the same idiosyncratic charm as Fargo, but all he delivers is a nauseatingly saccharine musing on the curative power of insanity. Uggh!

The Last Circus [Balada Triste de Trompeta] (Spain 2010) (8): The circus becomes a metaphor in Álex de la Iglesia’s hyperkinetic nightmare—both a straight-up horror show and a demented allegory on the sad legacies of Franco’s regime. A prologue set in 1937 as Spanish rebels clash with fascists has a children’s carnival show interrupted by a ragtag team of guerrillas who draft the performers (still in greasepaint and floppy shoes) to help them wipe out a platoon of government troops—the vision of a bellowing clown mowing down soldiers with a machete is not soon forgotten. Cut to 1973 and the waning years of fascism with Javier, the orphaned son of the aforementioned clown, now performing as a nebbishy “sad clown” in a flea-bitten circus ruled by Sergio, a “happy clown” whose insane temper and alcoholic rages have the other performers cowed and terrified. But when both men fall in love with trapeze artist Natalia their mounting rivalry leaves each one scarred both inside and out while the beautiful but masochistic Natalia gets the short end of the stick. It doesn’t take a a lot of imagination to see the parallels between two crazy clowns fighting over a hysterical woman and two clashing ideologies vying for control of a country slowly being ripped apart, and Iglesia wastes no time on subtlety—television and newsreel snippets mix pop culture with propaganda and religious symbols loom everywhere with a hair-raising confrontation atop the giant cross at Spain’s Civil War memorial calling to mind a similar scene in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Although they start out as direct opposites (peaceful vs violent) Javier and Sergio gradually become indistinguishable from one another. In one surreal laugh-out-loud scene a psychotic Javier—whose dying father once told him his only happiness will come from revenge—actually bites an aging General Franco on the hand. Told with chutzpah and drenched in bloody brio, Iglesia’s wild ride is as tame as a tiger and as nuanced as a pie in the face.

The Last Command (USA 1928) (8): Deposed and disgraced following the Revolution, Grand Duke Sergius Alexander, cousin to the Tsar and once exalted head of the Russian military, is now a broken man barely getting by working as an extra in Hollywood. And then he gets a casting call to play the role of a general in—irony of ironies—a war epic and it seems as if his fortunes may have finally taken a turn. But at the hands of the film’s antagonistic director (a man still carrying a personal grudge) the former duke’s first day on set also threatens to become his greatest humiliation yet. Containing elements later revisited in 1950’s Sunset Boulevard and 1980’s The Stunt Man, director Josef von Sternberg’s silent classic uses Tinseltown’s own artifice as a vehicle to tell the story of one proud man’s tumble from grace and another man’s discovery that whether or not it’s served up cold, revenge can still leave a bitter taste. Bookended by scenes taking place in contemporary Hollywood, the bulk of the story unfolds in Revolutionary Russia as the Grand Duke, an unabashed patriot to the motherland, faces down a pair of insurgents posing as actors, embarks on a tragic love affair, and tries to protect his troops against the ill-advised whims of the Tsar himself. As portrayed by Emil Jennings—who took home the world’s first Oscar for Best Actor—he is a powerful, complex man torn between his sworn duties to the crown and his desire to do what’s best for the country, two commitments too often at odds with one another. He’s supported admirably by a young William Powell and Evelyn Brent playing the rebels, Powell’s character consumed by hate while Brent’s femme fatale finds herself at a moral crossroads when “the enemy” doesn’t turn out to be the ogre she imagined. And the special effects department, primitive as it was, manages to serve up an ice cold Soviet winter (both in “real life” and “movie set” mode) with several notable scenes—my personal favourite being that of a train slowly pulling into a station overrun by a revolutionary mob, its flickering windows offering brief glimpses of violent confrontations outlined in silhouette. Not quite a “film within a film”, Sternberg’s keen grasp of composition and continuity nevertheless juxtaposes reality with staged imitation, making his sad story a treat for both mind and eye.

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

The Last Detail (USA 1973) (7): A pair of sailors, “Badass” Buddusky (an unhinged Jack Nicholson) and “Mule” Mulhall, are assigned the task of accompanying disgraced seaman Meadows (grinning naif Randy Quaid) from Virginia to a naval prison in New Hampshire where he’s to serve eight years for attempting to steal a few bucks from a charity box. En route they take pity on the big lumbering kid and decide to show him a few final good times before he’s locked up. What follows is a dispirited road movie with three drunken warriors bonding over hookers, beer, and outbursts of petty violence. Director Hal Ashby’s film never strays far from the sad and sordid with America a seemingly endless expanse of smoky bars and garbage-choked alleys where every female character, from religious fanatic to pouting prostitute, is nothing more than a warped image of Mother. Well made nonetheless despite its outdated sensibilities.

Last Exit to Brooklyn (USA 1989) (3): Dante would have felt right at home in Brooklyn’s Red Hook neighbourhood, a violent hellhole of broken down tenements and perpetual twilight populated by an assortment of misfit dregs. In his first English language foray director Uli Edel adapts Hubert Selby Jr’s controversial 1968 novel, set in Red Hook circa 1952, and presents it as a string of interconnected tales meant to form a collage of suffering, rage, and fizzled dreams. There’s macho shop steward Harry Black whose latent homosexuality leads him into darker temptations; prostitute Tralala (a bottle blonde Jennifer Jason Leigh all hips and tits) so accustomed to daily abuse that she self-destructs when a trick offers her real affection; screaming sissy boy Georgie (Alexis Arquette, RIP) whose uncontrollable lust for bad boy Vinnie is only partially abated by the heroin he consumes; and browbeaten overweight Donna (Ricki Lake?!) who finds herself in a family way much to her loudmouthed father’s dismay. Against a backdrop of labour unrest, no doubt meant to highlight the gulf between the haves and have-nots, Edel exploits every tawdry cliché and stereotype he can muster from histrionic drag queens to knuckle-dragging delinquents who assert their rites of manhood through vicious assaults and petty crime. But after subjecting us to 100 minutes of physical and emotional carnage his film fails to provide any satisfying payoff, either for better or for worse. There’s a static sense of tragedy which goes nowhere and what few strands of hope do exist are swiftly undermined by yet more muck and outrage—scenes of a newborn’s baptism are intercut with a violent gang rape on an unconscious woman leaving us with one more dreary contrast to ponder. At least Dante received a warning written on the gates of Hell, “All Hope Abandon, Ye Who Enter Here”…a sentiment that should be scrawled all over Last Exit’s DVD case. A thoroughly ugly and repulsive film made no more palatable by composer Mark Knopfler’s weepy violins.

Last Flag Flying (USA 2017) (8): After his only son is killed while serving in Iraq, aging Viet Nam vet Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell) tracks down two of his former marine buddies in the hope that they will accompany him to the airforce base where his son’s body is scheduled to arrive. A lot of time has passed however—it’s been over 30 years since the men have talked to one another—and things have changed: “Sal” (Brian Cranston) is now a cynical drunk who runs a bar in New York while the once wild and crazy Richard (Laurence Fishburne) has become a respectable Baptist preacher with a wife and kids. Agreeing to Larry’s request anyway, the three men embark on a long, sometimes torturous, road trip that will reopen a few old scars and inflict a new one when the arrival of the son’s flag-draped coffin forces them to reflect on war, truth, and the past choices they’ve made. Richard Linklater’s adaptation of Darryl Ponsican’s novel has been described as a “spiritual sequel” to Ponsican’s earlier work, The Last Detail, and there are certainly a few superficial similarities to these separate stories of two soldiers accompanying a third on his painful journey. But whereas the earlier work offered a rather downbeat vision of contemporary America, Last Flag effectively places a guilt-addled father between two conflicting extremes—Sal’s skepticism playing off Richard’s belief in a greater good—leading to a string of rebukes and resolutions. Laced with hefty amounts of humour yet never ignoring the abyss of grief and regrets that dogs their journey, Linklater’s tale examines that peculiar form of healing which exists between men while simultaneously taking a few potshots at American foreign policy and the shortcomings of faith—whether it be in gods or colonels. The three leads generate an edgy chemistry that makes their every scene crackle and Shane F. Kelly’s delicate cinematography zeroes in on a weeping face or expands to encompass an entire twinkling skyline. Never trite or condescending and all the more moving because of it, Linklater’s slow-burning train ride towards the light passes quickly but lingers in the mind long afterwards. J. Quinton Johnson’s role as a young marine whose idealism has been shaken by the death of his friend is perfectly complimented by Yul Vazquez’s tough-as-nails commander who values honour above honesty, and a 93-year old Cicely Tyson does a remarkable job with her small but crucial performance as the mother of a fallen soldier who is visited by the three men.

Last House on the Left (USA 1972) (4): A pair of escaped convicts and their accomplices brutalize two young women but get more than they bargained for when one of the girls' parents decide to even the score. Although it stirred up considerable controversy upon its initial release Wes Craven's misogynistic slash-fest proved to be the template for all those "dead teenager" films that followed. With its shoestring budget, hammy performances and odd mixture of gore and lowbrow humour it's about as polished as an 8mm porn flick but it's still a bit of cinematic history and that alone makes it worth seeing if you can stomach the cruelty and surprisingly realistic blood. Personally, I was more shocked by the super tacky 70s sets: floral drapes, wood paneling and day-glo flowers. Bleccch!

The Last Man on the Moon (USA 2014) (9): In 1972 the Apollo 17 mission would be the last manned flight to the moon marking the end of NASA’s “space race” glory days as budget cuts and social unrest diverted attention away from the stars. Astronaut Eugene “Gene” Cernan would also become the last man to leave his footprints on the lunar surface alongside his little daughter’s initials which he traced in the moon dust. Mark Craig’s awe-inspiring documentary tells Cernan’s story, in the 80-year old former astronaut’s own words, from his days as an upstart naval pilot in the 1950s to his induction into America’s space program and finally to his historic three-day stint on the moon. Using rare stock footage, home movies, photorealistic CGI, and a bit of animation, Cernan proves to be an accomplished and charismatic guide describing his career and both his triumphs and his shortcomings as he rose through the ranks professionally while letting his family obligations slip to the wayside. “You’ve got to have a passion, a love for what you’re doing or you shouldn’t be doing it…” he emphasizes at one point while his ex-wife later remarks, “If you think going to the moon is tough, try staying at home…” in reference to the stresses placed upon the wives who were often left alone with the kids for months at a time. It’s this juxtaposition of heroic aspirations and earthbound realities which allows Craig’s documentary to give a more human face to its technical wonders—when Martha Chaffee recalls the death of her husband Roger Chaffee in 1967 after a flash fire engulfed his space capsule, her sudden tears can’t help but elicit a few of our own. Craig interviews many such talking heads, from wives and fellow astronauts to retired mission directors and flight controllers but it is Cernan himself who commands centre stage, still actively promoting the space program with a schedule that would stymie people half his age. A beautiful and engrossing look into the lives and personalities which one made headlines and are now little more than plaques in museum displays—at one point Cernan visits the old Kennedy space center and is appalled at how it has fallen into rusty, weed-infested ruin; in another scene he looks at one of his old lunar modules on display in Houston and admits to a sense of detachment—“was that really me?” Likewise we also feel a sense of loss (at least those of us old enough to remember) when we recall the promise of unlimited possibilities space exploration once offered. A moving meditation on an era of wonder which we will never see again given an added emotional punch by a score of ethereal flourishes and celestial chorales. Personally I was spellbound. Sadly, Gene Cernan passed away in 2017 at the age of 83.

The Last of Sheila (USA 1973) (7): Entertaining but overly elaborate whodunnit featuring a star cast of 70's A-listers. Six movie industry types are invited aboard the private yacht of a reclusive millionaire for a week long Mediterranean cruise. They quickly discover this is not going to be a simple pleasure jaunt however, for their callous host has planned seven days worth of devious fun and games for his guests involving riddles and scavenger hunts meant to expose a few of their more unsavoury secrets. At first amused, the six unwary passengers soon realize that their host is deadly serious especially when it becomes apparent there is a coldblooded murderer on board. But what is the connection? Could it have something to do with a party they all attended years ago in which the tycoon suffered a tragic loss? Marred by an increasingly convoluted plot and outrageous twists you get the impression that the film's writers were a wee bit too clever for their own good. Still, the sunny Cote d'Azur locations are pleasant on the eye and it's great fun watching the likes of Dyan Cannon, James Mason and Raquel Welch dash up and down cobblestoned alleyways or wander through a candlelit medieval monastery dressed as monks. The esoteric clues don't add up to much unless you have an exceptionally vivid imagination, but the movie's unexpectedly sardonic resolution does cast a well aimed barb directly into the heart of Hollywood culture.

Last Life in the Universe (Thailand 2003) (9):  Despite its decidedly unhappy protagonists there is an unwavering sense of optimism in Pen-Ek Ratanaruang’s delightful film that offers a ray of sunlight even in the darkest moments.  It concerns Kenji, a lonely, somewhat neurotic Japanese ex-pat living in Bangkok who spends his spare time meticulously arranging his apartment (even his shoes are filed according to day) and making half-hearted attempts at suicide.  One day, while contemplating jumping off a bridge, he witnesses a car accident in which a young girl is killed.  Thus begins his tentative relationship with Noi, the girl’s older sister and his opposite in almost every respect....whereas his life is obsessively ordered and devoid of any spontaneity, hers is bordering on chaos....yet both characters are desperately alone, drifting through their lives without direction.  But even as they hesitantly gravitate towards one another elements from their past threaten to destroy what little happiness they’ve gained.  Ratanaruang uses his character’s contrasting personalities to full effect presenting us with a quirky tale of two lost souls in search of balance.  He injects his film with a wonderfully dry humour and just a touch of magic thanks in large part to Chris Doyle’s imaginative camerawork and some amazing performances from the two leads.  The gracefully downplayed finale was pure poetry.

The Last Seduction (USA 1994) (5): Despite male protestations to the contrary, Linda Fiorentino winds up having the biggest dick of all in this vulgar stab at neo-noir which asks us to laud its ridiculous twists as being far more clever than they actually are. She plays cunning ice princess Bridget Gregory who decides to flee New York City with a suitcase full of money belonging to her husband, a white collar dealer specializing in prescription meds. Now laying low in an upstate hick town under an assumed name, the tough-talking Bridget begins a physical affair with restless local Mike Swale while at the same time filing for an understandably problematic divorce. But her husband owes the mob big time and his progressively desperate attempts to regain his loot prompts Bridget to hatch a fiendishly intricate plot to not only keep the cash for herself but silence him for good—but first she’ll need help from an unsuspecting Mike… Sultry voice notwithstanding, Fiorentino’s character lacks both the class and the sexual triggers of a true femme fatale, her cold countenance and universal contempt delivering instead a sadistic, foul-mouthed sociopath (for which she won a few festival awards). Her mechanical couplings with Mike, obviously meant to titillate cable audiences, are tepid at best and his growing obsession for her, while necessary for the plot, is rendered more amour stupide than amour fou. Furthermore, although director John Dahl’s attempt to rewrite film noir conventions does contain some snappy lines and the occasional curveball, you soon get the feeling that you’ve already seen bits of this movie played out in other, more superior films (Body Heat and The Postman Always Rings Twice immediately come to mind). And finally, after leading his audience through two hours of pathological scheming and trashy sex (and that corny music!) his facile ending arrives like a disappointing punchline to an especially insulting joke.

The Last Station (UK 2009) (6): In Russia, summer 1910, literary giant Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer) is facing his final days in a state of domestic turmoil. At the behest of his oily sycophantic disciple Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), the father of “Tolstoyism”—a monk-like adherence to purity, passive resistance, and denouncement of personal wealth—is contemplating signing over the copyrights of all his manuscripts to the Russian people. Meanwhile his grasping materialistic wife Sofya (Helen Mirren) is determined to see that his sizeable estate remains within the family. Observing the fireworks are Valentin (James McAvoy), Tolstoy’s personal aide and number one fan, and Sergeyenko (Patrick Kennedy), the guru-like leader of a nearby Tolstoyist commune. Michael Hoffman’s adaptation of Jay Parini’s novel is an exercise in lost opportunities and misfired direction which nevertheless manages to entertain if only on a superficial level. Plummer and Mirren certainly deserved their Oscar nominations but their characters appear insubstantial—Tolstoy’s genius is reduced to a few bon mots as Plummer scowls and growls like a loveable old bear, Mirren’s shrill harridan flips between weepy histrionics and plate-smashing defiance, and in the background Giamatti twirls his waxed moustache like a silent film villain and McAvoy’s star-struck naif waffles about with a perpetual tear clinging to the corner of each eye. The music is stirring however (especially those ironic opera passages) and the German locales stand in admirably for the decaying opulence of pre-Revolutionary Russia although the crew did get permission to film on the grounds of Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s former estate—it’s rough splendour lending some legitimacy to the ongoing soap. Even an early example of soviet paparazzi make an appearance as Leo and Sofya can’t seem to leave the house without being surrounded by scribbling journalists and hand-cranked cameras. Sadly, all the ingredients of a truly great biopic are here but Hoffman just doesn’t get the recipe right.

The Last Supper [La última cena] (Cuba 1976) (8): Celebrated Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea teaches Buñuel a thing or two in this satirical recounting of an actual 18th century slave revolt. During the Catholic Holy Week leading to Easter the wealthy owner of a sugar plantation decides to teach his slaves about the blessings of Christianity by reenacting the Last Supper much to the dismay of his sadistic overseer who feels they could be put to better use chopping sugar cane. Casting himself as Christ and twelve randomly selected slaves as his disciples, the Count prepares a lavish banquet where he regales the tired and battered men with pious homilies about the virtue of suffering, the importance of loving one’s master, and the role of blind obedience in God’s Great Plan. But as the wine continues to flow the “disciples”, already confused by this strange white religion (Being beaten is a blessing!? Christ’s apostles ate him!?) counter with a few sardonic parables of their own. The next day however, after their master reneges on a promised day of rest, the rebellious slaves learn just how far Christian Charity will actually take them… Combining magical realism with passages of bloody brutality all set to a stirring Afro-Cuban beat, Alea’s simple tale goes beyond mere criticism of slavery and colonialism and attacks Catholic complicity (the local priest is little more than an impotent mouthpiece) and the inane doctrines of the religion itself which encourage meek servitude and forbearance with promises of full equality after death. The editing may be a bit clunky and the soundtrack tends to wane and swell at odd times, but Alea’s largely amateur cast is triumphant and that candlelit banquet is surely one of world cinema’s more iconic scenes.

Last Tango in Paris (France 1972) (5): Bernardo Bertolucci’s problematic film made international headlines upon its release thanks to some graphic sex and a twisted plot. It all seems pretty quaint 40 years later but this annoyingly artsy story of two disillusioned strangers finding solace in fucking each other’s brains out still carries faint remnants of an emotional punch. Middle-aged Paul is an embittered widower still angry over his wife’s sudden suicide; twenty-something Jeanne is trying to find a bit of quiet time from her boyfriend, a narcissistic director obsessed with filming her every move. When the two have a chance encounter in an empty Parisian apartment sparks fly and belt buckles are undone leading to an ongoing sexual liaison intentionally devoid of any personal attachments or other “bullshit” from the outside world; they don’t even know each other’s names. But Paul’s demons eventually prove too much for the naïve Jeanne to handle resulting in some hurtful games and one final tragic encounter. A pretentious and rambling masturbatory fantasy with dreary overtones of mortality and contemporary angst. In the role of Paul, Marlon Brando is thoroughly convincing as he scowls and ruminates (a dead rat proves to be a potent vehicle), Maria Schneider’s Jeanne however seems little more than a shallow prop constantly upstaged by her own breasts. As for the’ll never look at a stick of butter the same way again.

La Strada (Italy 1954) (7): A destitute old woman unable to feed her large brood is forced to sell her eldest child to a wandering performer, “The Great Zampano” an ill-tempered strongman who specializes in breaking chains across his chest. Naive and “not quite right in the head”, the childlike Gelsomina is at first eager to take up the gypsy lifestyle but soon realizes that life on the road is not quite the great adventure she had imagined it to be, especially at the hands of the drunken and often violent Zampono. But when the mismatched pair join up with a traveling circus Gelsomina finds herself falling for the resident Fool, an impulsive rogue who teaches her to laugh at life’s absurdities thus setting the stage for both heartbreak and tragedy. Life is indeed a circus in what many critics consider to be Fellini’s greatest film alongside La Dolce Vita. As young naif and world-weary drifter ramble across a post WWII landscape of empty fields and dusty grey villages their journey becomes an allegory for human existence; a raucous wedding celebration here, a sombre religious pageant there (where Gelsomina’s attention wavers between a parade of crucifixes and a butchered pig hanging in a store window), and everywhere subtle reminders of our own mortality. Fellini achieves a marvelous sense of balance and texture, suspending the wide-eyed innocence of Gelsomina (appropriately bedecked in clownish makeup) between Zampono’s self-loathing rage and the Fool’s flighty recklessness. There is a marvelous feeling of growth to her character as every person she encounters on the road leaves their mark, and we see in her sad eyes the dawning awareness of a deeper truth. But it is in the film’s bittersweet ending that Fellini weaves a small bit of theatrical magic, forcing us to place our sympathies where we least expected while at the same time giving us cause to view his film from an entirely different angle.

Last Train Home (Canada 2009) (7): According to filmmaker Lixin Fan there are approximately 130 million migrant workers in China who are forced to travel thousands of kilometres to find low-paying factory jobs while leaving their children to be raised by the grandparents. Once such couple, Zhang and his wife Suqin, eke out a living sewing garments for the international market while their teenaged daughter Qin and younger son Yang live with grandma two thousand kilometres away. Once a year, on Chinese New Year, Zhang and Suqin are granted sufficient time off to make the arduous journey home to see their kids, joining millions of other workers on overcrowded trains, buses, and ferries. Once reunited however they are greeted by children who are essentially strangers to them and this is where Fan’s movie, not so much a documentary as it is a sad slice of reality filmmaking, finds its true heart. Zhang and Suqin want nothing more than to have their children study hard in order to gain an economic advantage but son Yang is content with being “fifth place” in his class standings and daughter Qin is feeling the first stirrings of rebellion as she considers dropping out of school and heading for the city where she’s convinced the solution to her unhappiness lies just beyond the next menial job. Their grandmother in the meantime reminisces about the demise of her own youthful dreams when government decree basically exiled her to the countryside where the once thriving villages are now home to “the very old and very young”. Tensions flare, heated words lead first to violent confrontations then disheartened introspection, and over the course of three consecutive New Year’s visits we see the family dynamic irrevocably shift one small decision at a time. Filmed with patience and an unerring attention for the smallest of details—a half-formed tear glistens in the corner of granny’s eye, a family shrine reflects the light of hastily lit votive candles—Fan nevertheless manages to capture the bigger realities, both economic and social, buffeting his chosen subjects as fellow migrants (many of whom stood in line for days in order to purchase a coveted ticket home) talk about finances, family pressures, and the wasteful ways of Westerners. But despite some gruelling factory footage nowhere is the hardship of these workers more apparent than in the many rail sequences where we witness sweating men and women packed into rickety trains like sardines, lost in thought as they lumber obliviously past scenes of majestic mountains and smog-choked cities.

The Last Voyage (USA 1960) (6): Twelve years before Irwin Allen took audiences on a one-way adventure aboard the Poseidon, writer/director Andrew Stone offered up this waterlogged disaster film—sort of a “Titanic-Lite” with half the body count but twice the drama. En route to Japan on one of her final voyages, the aging ocean liner S.S. Claridon runs into trouble when a fire leads to a series of explosions that threaten to scuttle her. The ineffectual captain (George Sanders), more concerned with his career than the wellbeing of his passengers, refuses to act decisively which immediately puts him in the crosshairs of his hot-headed chief engineer (Edmond O’Brien) and fellow officers who are torn between loyalty and self-preservation. Meanwhile, first class passenger Cliff Henderson (a wooden Robert Stack) is desperately trying to free both his wife (a vivacious Dorothy Malone) who’s become stuck and his little daughter (an excruciatingly adorable Tammy Marihugh wailing like a distraught Shirley Temple) who is clinging to the edge of a jagged hole. Now with the ship listing, waters rising, and passengers beginning to panic, the Hendersons are quickly running out of time… What starts out promising winds up being 90 minutes of staged hysteria—you can practically hear Stone yelling “ACTION!”—with hammy performances that consist mainly of people running up and down staircases and yelling at one another. Malone and Marihugh do provide the exception however as they wring out the tears convincingly enough and Sanders does a good job as the stiff-lipped British captain who refuses to go down with the ship (dragging the producers with him no doubt). Aside from an initial blast that takes out a crowded salon with unintentionally amusing results as all-too-obvious wigged mannequins get tossed into the air (play it in slo-mo for a good laugh!) the Oscar-nominated special effects are pretty impressive for the time—torrents of water shoot through portholes, walls of flame engulf a dining room, and because Warner Brothers partially sank an actual ship for many of the shots there is an air of authenticity to the action that couldn’t otherwise have been achieved using mere models and studio backlots. Even Santa Monica Bay makes for a credible open ocean. But the movie ultimately loses points on two grounds: Charles Laughton’s somber voice provides a totally unnecessary narration—we don’t need to be told a ship is sinking when we can see it’s sinking—and a final scene, obviously meant to be “heroic”, is so patently ludicrous that I wanted to torpedo the damn boat just out of spite. At least former ballplayer turned actor Woody Strode treats us to a bit of eye candy as he plays a helpful engineer who doesn’t seem to own a shirt.

The Last Wave (Australia 1977) (6): When five Aborigines are accused of murdering one of their own the task of defending them falls to David Burton (Richard Chamberlain), a corporate tax lawyer moonlighting at Legal Aid. His attempts to connect with the strangely taciturn men leads Burton to believe that there is more to the story than the coroner’s report would suggest. When one of the accused finally opens up and introduces Burton to “Charlie”, an old shaman, the case takes on supernatural overtones for it seems the murdered man possessed some forbidden knowledge regarding mankind’s future and his death was actually the result of sorcery. Already plagued by portentous nightmares Burton is horrified to discover that he may be at the epicentre of an impending disaster foretold in ancient Aboriginal folklore; a disaster that not only threatens him but the entire planet. And as the skies above Australia darken with wind, hail, and biblical downpours his bad dreams begin to come true… Director Peter Weir follows his critically acclaimed Picnic at Hanging Rock with this voodoo thriller that starts out on a promising note with enough creepy tension to keep you interested but ends with so much Hollywood mumbo-jumbo leading to a final apocalypse that drips across the screen like a cataclysm in a teapot. Chamberlain’s performance is tepid at best while the Aboriginal stock characters stare into the distance, their cultural beliefs reduced to a few mumbled passages about magical rocks and spiritual planes. Only actor/writer David Gulpilil’s animated performance as one of the accused men exhibits the kind of intensity one would expect from a story with such far-reaching aspirations. An interesting premise but ultimately a soggy disappointment.

Late Autumn (Japan 1960) (10): Six years after her father's death 24-year old Ayako is still happily unmarried and living a contented life with her widowed mother Akiko; a fact her late dad's three best friends can't understand. As Ayako continues to block all their attempts to pair her off with suitable bachelors the three men decide upon a different plan of action. Believing Ayako's resistance stems from an unwillingness to abandon her mother, they set their sights on getting Akiko hitched first in the hope that once mom is taken care of daughter will be more willing to begin her own life. A series of well-meaning blunders and misunderstanding ensue which threaten to not only derail the men's elaborate plans but drive a wedge between Ayako and Akiko as well. In this gentle, bittersweet comedy Ozu once again demonstrates his mastery of the subtle cue where a sad smile or offhand comment contains tremendous import. His examination of the widening generation gap in post-war Japan is flawless and cleverly wrought; traditional kimonos compete with western skirts, former army encampments are now tourist destinations and the older generation seems oblivious to the seismic shift in social mores as a small overnight earthquake goes largely unnoticed. But nowhere is this felt more than in the evolving relationship between the modern-minded Ayako and her more traditional mother. Although Ozu's signature devices for conveying the implacability of life...trains, clocks and drifting smoke...are surprisingly muted here he nevertheless provides some beautifully poetic images with a succession of asymmetrical industrial spaces contrasting easily with wide open fields and softly glowing lamps; and everywhere we see nameless faces either rushing madly, or calmly strolling, from one open door to another. This is what cinematic art is all about.

Laura (USA 1944) (8):  With its somewhat facile plot and curt dialogue this dark and moody tale of a homicide detective who begins to fall in love with the portrait of a murdered woman would be unable to stand up to close scrutiny.  Thankfully it doesn’t have to.  “Laura” is a magnificently overdone noir classic filmed in rich shades of B&W and featuring all the conventions of that genre which we’ve come to know and love including a hauntingly evocative musical score.  Part policier and part shadowy romance, with chills, shocks, and just enough red herrings to keep you busy.  Tierney and Andrews are perfectly paired as they slowly seduce each other....never has a simple peck on the mouth held such erotic potential......and the supporting cast is wonderful.  They really don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

The Lavender Hill Mob (UK 1951) (7): One of the more famous Ealing Studios comedies features Alec Guinness as a mousy bank clerk who hatches a scheme to steal a cache of gold bullion from his employer. With the help of three fellow conspirators, one of whom runs a company specializing in novelty items, the plan involves melting the gold down and then smuggling it out of the country in the form of miniature Eiffel Tower souvenirs bound for a warehouse in France. Of course complications arise, and as the authorities slowly close in the men must resort to increasingly outrageous measures to avoid capture. There are some madcap sequences which manage to elicit a chuckle or two: a run-in with a group of English schoolgirls who unwittingly purchase half a dozen of the ersatz paperweights is cute; a dizzying trek down the Eiffel Tower’s winding staircase borders on the impressionistic; and the film’s crowning climax, a wild cops ‘n’ robbers chase through the streets of London is well done. Unfortunately, even though the comic performances in these grand old films are timeless, the humour itself has not aged quite so well. Another mild-mannered comedy guaranteed to keep the grandparents in stitches.

L’Avventura (Italy 1960) (6): Although it was practically booed off the screen when it first premiered at Cannes, Michelangelo Antonioni’s plodding reflection on modern alienation has since been lauded as one of arthouse cinema’s seminal works. He certainly changed the way movies were supposed to look like, most notably by his lack of a clear beginning, a definitive ending, and a coherent script with which to join the two. A group of yuppies—including angst-ridden Anna, her frustrated lover Sandro, and her blonde BFF Claudia—charter a boat for a Mediterranean jaunt, eventually ending up on a bleak volcanic island off the coast of Sicily. It’s here, while everyone is wandering aimlessly amongst the rocks and scrub, that Anna vanishes without a trace. As the investigation grows colder over the ensuing weeks Sandro will shift his affections onto Claudia who, with much handwringing and tortured introspection, reciprocates and become his new mistress—a situation they will both learn to regret. With characters as flat and tedious as their dusty surroundings, Antonioni’s true artistry lies in his mastery of presentation. Aided by cinematographer Aldo Scavarda’s keen eye, every frame is a study in hard manmade geometries set against asymmetrical landscapes where neither the sun nor a downbeat jazz score are able to dispel the film’s aura of gloom and fatalism. Not a mystery despite the opening premise, we gradually come to realize that both the dour Anna and the cold thrust of rock on which she disappeared are more metaphor than substance causing us (supposedly) to question what, exactly, has gone missing. Indeed, Antonioni crowds his opus with several such images of disconnect and detachment: a village of empty buildings, a church’s refuge barred and locked, and a swank hotel which, over the course of a night’s entertainment, is transformed into a mess of dirty dishes, jumbled furniture, and dead plants—a wilted Eden if you will—in which our protagonists have to endure yet another fall from grace (enter Claudia’s brunette doppelgänger). Not to be outdone, nature herself joins in the fray with a whirlwind here, a tempest there, and a string of barren islets which prompt one partygoer to remark how terribly lonely islands must be, all isolated and surrounded by nothing but water. Get the connection? Visually engaging yet lifeless and studied in presentation, this anomie and lack of passion may very well be the point of the film. But if that’s the case time has done little to sharpen it.

Layer Cake (UK 2004) (7): Although the title of Matthew Vaughn’s gangster film refers to the criminal underworld’s densely stratified social structure, it can easily be applied to the movie itself which proves to be a multi-tiered confection of gallows humour, violence, and murky double-twists. Career cocaine dealer “XXXX” (Daniel Craig showing the same intensity he’d later bring to James Bond) is looking forward to retiring with the million quid he managed to squirrel away over the years. But his boss has two last assignments for him: finding the missing daughter of an associate and moving a small mountain of stolen Ecstasy tablets. The former job will get X into trouble with the girl’s ruthless father while the latter will put him in direct—and very deadly—conflict with the Serbian mafia. With everything he’s worked so hard for now in peril, what’s a low level trafficker to do? With a plot so tangled you could trap spiders in it Vaughn’s screen adaptation of J. J. Connolly’s novel does demand some degree of attention especially when the betrayals begin in earnest. X just can’t seem to trust anyone, including himself, and as the body count begins to rise (surprisingly slow given the film’s subject matter) a dark metamorphosis takes place which gilds that final montage in mordant irony. An essential soundtrack of remastered 80s hits pairs well with Ben Davis’ flashy cinematography—action ricochets off the screen and in one cheeky passage shelves of designer cocaine morph into a neighbourhood drug store—and a dream cast that includes Tom Hardy, Sally Hawkins, and Colm Meaney tear their way through Connolly’s brusque yet biting screenplay. A fun, though occasionally confusing ride even if you’re not a fan of the genre.

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

Leave Her to Heaven (USA 1945) (7): While en route to New Mexico for some R&R bestselling author Richard Harland (Cornel Wilde limited to two facial expressions) meets fellow train passenger Ellen Berent (Gene Tierney, stunning) a rich but oddly intense debutante with drop dead looks. After a breakneck romance at the family estate Harland suddenly finds himself married to the mysterious heiress after she unceremoniously dumps her intended fiancé (a jilted Vincent Price…not pretty). Sadly all is not sunshine and hugs for the former bachelor as he gradually comes to realize that his beautiful new wife is actually a clingy gorgon with a pathological need to be loved. But when Ellen’s singleminded obsession with Harland turns monstrous not even he is prepared for the lengths to which she is willing to go in order to keep him for herself. Presented in its original exaggerated technicolor which caused one critic to label it “rainbow noir”, John Stahl’s creepy tale of amour fou unfolds like a series of colourized postcards featuring attractive pink caucasians against backdrops of impossibly green forests, blue lakes, and red deserts. Thankfully Gene Tierney’s smouldering intensity, all red lipstick and fiery glares, seems refreshingly contemporary in a film which too often crosses over into old fashioned melodrama with makeshift psychology and a glowing sunset finale to rival Gone With the Wind. However, unlike Glenn Close’s manic fireworks in Fatal Attraction, Tierney sets her character to slow burn resulting in a downplayed, almost subliminal madness which methodically eats away at all who come in contact with her. Ravishing imagery (which garnered a well-deserved Oscar nod to cinematographer Leon Shamroy) set to an appropriately grand score and a cast of pretty people in crisis make this one a surefire guilty pleasure!

Le Cercle Rouge (France 1970) (7): Among the favourite films of Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Aki Kaurismāki, this slick policier from writer/director Jean-Pierre Melville is considered a classic of the genre. A newly paroled convict (Alain Delon), an escaped prisoner (Gian Maria Volonté) and an alcoholic ex-cop (Yves Montand) join forces to pull off the biggest heist of the century. Despite meticulous planning however they come up against two wild cards: a very determined police inspector is closing in on the escapee, and the mob has a score to settle with the ex-con. While short on suspense and relying on a few unlikely coincidences, Melville revels in style with fashionable characters, a spare yet hip soundtrack of drum beats, and set pieces that go from speeding train cars to gaudy nightclubs to crumbling chateaux. The planned heist itself is a gritty mix of muscle and low-tech gimmickry, especially when compared to the computerized mayhem of recent offerings, but that actually makes it all the more watchable. Tightly edited, short on superfluous dialogue, and employing a widescreen palette of dusky countrysides and fluorescent interiors (and a curious attention to doors), this is an entertaining blend of film noir and crime thriller.

The Legacy (UK/USA 1978) (5): While on a business trip in the English countryside Americans Margaret and Peter (Katherine Ross showing the emotional range of a block of wood and Sam Elliott looking like a 70s porn star) are accidentally run off the road by Jason Mountolive, a member of the local gentry out for a spin in his Rolls Royce. As a way of apologizing Jason invites the couple to stay at his lavish estate while their motorcycle is being repaired in the village. But Maggie and Pete’s brief respite soon becomes intolerable after their secretive host invites a group of international jet-setters to his mansion for a weekend of bizarre fun and games. With a household of menacing maids, hostile manservants, and one downright catty nurse blocking their every move, the hapless couple are reluctantly drawn into a diabolical conspiracy involving black magic and a mysterious old man hidden away in an attic sickroom. And then the killing begins… Richard Marquand’s schlocky shocker is pure 70s kitsch from its musical score of Charlie’s Angels riffs (including a lamentable theme song warbled by disco dropout Kiki Dee) to Elliot’s cookie duster moustache and too tight jeans. But the occult touches do provide some camp fun while a bit of PG-rated gore is imaginative enough to keep your finger off the FF button. And of course there’s Sam Elliott’s infamous naked butt shower scene which is always worth a rewind or two…or three…

The Lego Movie (Australia/USA 2014) (8): All is not well in Bricktown, the wildly animated world where everyone and everything is made from multicoloured Lego blocks (including clouds, ocean waves, and laser beams). The evil Lord Business has taken over and is intent on unleashing his maniacal OCD dream of making everything stay exactly the same—a horrible fate for a population of toy people given to fits of imagination. Bricktown’s underground resistance headed by the wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman in his first animated role) is fighting back however with help from the likes of Lego Batman, Lego Wonder Woman, Lego Retro Space Guy and a host of colourful “Master Builders”. But when unassuming office drone Emmet accidentally discovers the one weapon that can stop Lord Business in his tracks he finds himself suddenly revered as Bricktown’s new plastic messiah—a role he is woefully unqualified for. With no time to contemplate his fate, Emmet is suddenly thrust into Bricktown’s most epic battle ever, a skirmish which will challenge reality and lead him to worlds he never dreamed possible… Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller have accomplished a very rare thing indeed, they’ve managed to produce a resolutely “G” rated film which still contains enough adult humour in the form of obscure references and snickering satire to keep mom and dad laughing right alongside the kids. With characters such as Metal Beard the Pirate (an android hybrid sporting an arm shark), the literally two-faced Good Cop/Bad Cop, and Unikitty (a cutesy passive-aggressive construct forever blowing rainbows up everyone else’s ass) playing alongside childhood mainstays like Green Lantern, Han Solo, and Gandalf, the stage is set for a multi-generational, multi-genre fracas with a continuous barrage of one-liners and sight gags coming fast and furious. And that frantic animation, using Lego pieces to form the basis of an entire universe, is alternately boggling and hilariously low-tech. Even an emotionally sloppy “real life” ending complete with overbearing message (Own Your Inner Child!) fails to dampen this party although star Will Ferrell should realize by now that even quasi-dramatic roles are forever beyond his grasp. Like a kitschy reimagining of The Matrix featuring junk from a child’s toy box, this is a vibrant treat with enough wit to smooth over the occasional groan. As it’s Oscar nominated ditty goes, “Everything is awesome…!”

Le Jour Se Lève [Daybreak] (France 1939) (6): The silence of a rooming house is split by the sound of gunfire and from an upstairs apartment a man staggers into the hallway clutching his side before falling down dead. The perpetrator, blue collar labourer François (an intense Jean Gabin), proceeds to barricade the door keeping the police at bay while dissolving flashbacks and an inner monologue slowly reveal what led to the fatal encounter. Although noted for its oppressive atmosphere and some innovative cinematic tricks (director Marcel Carné built an entire town square complete with multi-storied apartment building opened at the back for camera access) as well as its frank sexuality—yes, women are involved and premarital sex is taken for granted so take that Hay’s Office!—there is a clunky feel to the unfolding melodrama which is not helped by a couple of theatrical moments. French navel-gazing was just hitting its stride and everyone it seems has an issue to ruminate upon in between unfiltered cigarettes and glasses of Bordeaux. An interesting study of polar opposites nonetheless as Carné divides his main characters into working class idealists and privileged cynics with a mob cheering the underdog from the streets below. The film would later go on to achieve a sense of dark irony when François’ isolation and despair seemed to herald France’s overall zeitgeist following its surrender to the Nazis.

L’enfant (Belgium 2005) (7): Bruno and Sonia are a pair of homeless teens barely eking out a living on the streets of Belgium. Between a meagre social allowance and Bruno’s various criminal activities the two have managed to get by until the birth of their son, Jimmy, throws a very large wrench in the works. Content to settle down and raise the baby the best way she can (while still relying on Bruno’s ill-gotten income) Sonia harbours white trash dreams of domestic tranquility. Bruno, on the other hand, sees in the kid a golden opportunity to make a lot of cash by selling him to an underground adoption agency because, after all, they can always have another child later on. His eventual decision will have serious and far-reaching effects that neither he nor Sonia are equipped to deal with. From the start it is clear that the Dardenne brothers are not interested in portraying their protagonists as anything more than a pair of clueless adolescents playing the role of grown-ups without any of the insights, responsibilities or sense of perspective that comes with age. Sonia’s nascent mothering instincts see her fussing protectively over Jimmy as if he were a cherished doll while Bruno’s childish horseplay and inability to appreciate the consequences of his actions cause one to question exactly who the “child” of the film’s title refers to. Shot in dreary earth tones against backdrops of garbage-strewn embankments and homeless shelters, L’enfant’s lack of cinematic dressing and musical soundtrack gives it the gritty feel of a “Dogme 95” work right up to its emotionally charged finale where our juvenile parents take their first painful step towards adulthood. An unhappy slice of life which bypasses sensationalism in favour of blunt honesty.

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

Léolo (Canada 1992) (10): “I dream, therefore I am not”. So goes the wistfully recited mantra of young Leo Lauzon, a boy growing up in a squalid Montreal tenement who uses the words as if they were an incantation against the poverty and mental illness which seem to be the birthright of his highly dysfunctional family. Escaping his unhappy lot through elaborate fantasies scribbled in an old notebook (and routinely discarded into the trash) he reimagines himself as Léolo Lozone, son of a Sicilian peasant who miraculously impregnated his French-Canadian mother by way of a batch of imported tomatoes—one of Canadian cinema’s more “colourful” sequences. Now exiled with a crazy family in a ramshackle apartment, Léolo depends on a fierce imagination to bring his lyrical prose to life: a battered bedroom door opens onto a sunny Italian countryside, his catatonic sister is really a paper bag princess brushing her locks by candlelight, and the immigrant girl next door becomes the Beatrice to his pint-sized Dante. And all the while he plots the downfall of grandpa, the brutal patriarch whom Leo blames for the family’s multiple miseries. Gorgeously filmed in sunlight or midnight shadows (and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of guttering candles) and boasting a soundtrack as eclectic as its wee protagonist—Sicilian folk songs, medieval chant, and majestic arias give way to Tom Waits, Mick Jagger, and Loreena Mckennitt—Jean-Claude Lauzon’s psychological tour de force practically leaps off the screen with images both fantastic and crushingly real. It is precisely this juxtaposition of fancy and reality, with an undercurrent of the grotesque, which begs the question—is this the wholly subjective testament of a kid slowly going mad as in Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy or are these simply child’s eye memoirs that have grown with the telling? In the end it doesn’t really matter. Presenting the rite of adolescence with all its uncomfortable revelations as a dark fantasy is hardly novel, but in Lauzon’s brilliant hands it becomes a thing of disquieting beauty.

Léon [Léon: The Professional] (France 1994) (7): After her entire family is murdered in a botched drug deal 12-year old Mathilda (Natalie Portman’s screen debut) moves in with her neighbour across the hall, the furtive and somewhat dim-witted Leon (French hunk Jean Reno), only to discover the big lumbering man-child leads a secret life as New York City’s most lethal hitman. Far from being horrified however Mathilda is intrigued and soon has Leon teaching her the tricks of his trade as part of a grand revenge fantasy against the crooks who killed her little brother and left her an orphan. But the not particularly bright Leon has personal problems of his own for a local mafioso owes him for a string of contracts and he is living in a constant state of paranoia—jumping at every sound, sleeping with one eye open, and guzzling cartons of milk with the zeal of a parched alcoholic. But Mathilda is one determined little girl and her single-minded mission will lead them both down an ever darkening path… Essentially a buddy movie, this blood & guts version of Chaplin’s The Kid has some genuine moments of warm comedy between bouts of gunplay and tearing flesh. Scenes of a precocious Mathilda teaching a monosyllabic Leon to be more human while he teaches her to be less certainly sets the stage for a few terribly non-PC sight gags even though the overall bonding theme fails to rise above teary clichés. The original story had Leon and a 14-year old Mathilda becoming lovers but writer/director Luc Bresson opted for a cloying sexual tension instead showing an innocently lovestruck adolescent’s advances failing to move the impassive (clueless?) object of her desire. With its highly exaggerated characters and gory cartoon violence Léon works best if viewed as a warped fairy tale: picture Portman’s Little Red Lolita teaming up with Reno’s homicidal Selfish Giant while Gary Oldman huffs and puffs his way to a new level of overacting as the Big Bad Drug-Dealing Wolf.

Léon Morin, Priest (France 1961) (8): In WWII France headstrong widow and avowed atheist Barny (Emmanuelle Riva) tries to prank young priest Fr. Morin (Jean-Paul Belmondo) with a sham confession but quickly finds the tables turned on her. Not only is Morin immune to her barbs, the sheer intensity of his faith—not to mention his highly unorthodox approach to God—soon has her questioning her own stance. And when her newfound discipleship with the handsome pastor begets daydreams of an even greater intimacy Barny is in for a series of reality checks that will challenge her even further… Based on Béatrix Beck’s novel, Jean-Pierre Melville’s exploration of love, faith and morality works on many levels. Set in a small French town during the Occupation, Melville only hints at atrocities committed off camera as first the Fascists, then the Nazis, and finally American GIs take over the streets (the latter represented by a pair of wayward soldiers looking for a good time). In this milieu where Resistance fighters execute their own neighbours for treason and collaborators are convinced that the best way to serve France is to serve her enemies, Melville creates a landscape of moral ambiguities that perfectly compliments the wordy exchanges between Doubter and Confessor as they debate Goodness and Evil. As an erotic pas de deux, Barny bares her soul to the chaste clergyman whose own armour contains a few tiny gaps of its own—when he briefly discusses his childhood troubles and entrance into the seminary we are left to dwell more upon what he didn’t say rather than what he did. Riva is a marvel as her character goes from haughty cynic to humbled seeker, a transition made all the more poignant by her attempts to protect her half-Jewish daughter (ironically named France). Furthermore, a frank lesbian fixation on her work supervisor hints at passions that run deeper than her placid exterior would suggest. Belmondo’s priest, on the other hand, is solid as a rock which makes his sexual appeal to the women of the village all the more pronounced—but is there a smug, almost mocking, flirtation going on behind the piety as he “accidentally” brushes up against Barny during Mass, or is her own desire creating castles in the air? Shot in soft shades of B&W with strategically placed lamps (the Light!) and open fields that contrast with cramped interiors the director more or less forces his protagonists to face one another without egress, indeed when Barny reaches for Morin’s arm one evening his startled reaction almost has him crashing into a wall. Of course the case for God is the usual theological tap-dancing we’ve come to expect, and Morin’s Svengali-like hold over Barny is a bit overdone, but methinks Melville is not so much interested in defending faith as he is in dissecting it. Certainly that final scene, all wind and fury and shattered illusion, leaves us questioning whether or not his skeptic is better off for the experience.

Le Plaisir (France 1952) (7): Three stories by Guy de Maupassant are turned into a triptych of short films which offer rather unique perspectives on the subject of “pleasure”. In the first, an aging lothario’s pathetic attempts to recapture the devil-may-care thrills of his youth never end well yet his long-suffering wife continues to wait patiently in their modest apartment—hot water bottle and compresses at the ready—for his inevitable crawl back home. In the third a floundering artist finds the perfect muse in a beautiful young model but their cheerful days of romance are eventually soured by pettiness and ennui until tragedy unites them in a state of resigned contentment. It is the middle, and longest, instalment which anchors the entire production however with an uncomplicated tale of a village madame who, upon receiving an invitation to attend her niece’s First Communion, decides to close up shop for the weekend and take her girls for a trip to the countryside. Denied the pleasures of the brothel the men of the village quickly turn on each other but it is the women’s journey—so reminiscent of Renoir’s A Day in the Country with all its bucolic simplicity—which ultimately charms. One would expect director Max Ophüls to capitalize on the contrast between a troop of seasoned prostitutes and a procession of innocent little communicants, all white gloves and veils, yet in the end Maupassant’s words highlight the similarities as veterans and naïfs alike derive pleasure from a quiet evening, a field of wildflowers, or a moving ceremony which brings everyone to tears. Pleasure, it would seem, is where you find it whether it be through a sense of commitment, a human connection, or the rowdy interiors of a gilded whorehouse. And Ophüls’ Oscar-nominated set designs join with the B&W cinematography of Phillipe Agostini and Christian Matras to give the whole production a lighthearted airy feel where cameras spin up staircases, hover around a candle, or peek through sparkling panes of glass to reveal the lives within. Nevertheless, Maupassant’s sense of irony rings throughout as a closing segment reminds us that joy, happiness, and pleasure are not necessarily interchangeable. French superstars Jean Gabin and Simone Simon headline a cast of pretty faces and winking character actors.

Les Petits Mouchoirs [aka Little White Lies ] (France 2010) (8): When a serious accident lands one of their members in Intensive Care, a group of Parisian friends decide to go on their annual seaside holiday without him. But their buddy’s brush with mortality proves to be a slow-acting catalyst that eventually causes each person to re-examine (or in some cases examine for the very first time)…everything from personal relationships to the direction they’ve allowed life to take them. The French title translates to “small handkerchiefs” and refers to the fact that even though we do our best to cover them up some things cannot be ignored indefinitely. Thus, while one friend childishly pines for his ex another actively pushes love away and yet another harbours an unsettling secret which puts his already rocky marriage into question. And nowhere is this disconnect between truth and self-delusion more apparent than in the group’s de facto leader, Max. Older and more successful than his peers, Max makes a big show of his magnanimity until discord, frustration, and a pair of unwelcome rodents who’ve taken up residence in his beachside bungalow begin to widen the chinks in his armour. With sunny ocean views forming an ironic backdrop, writer/director Guillaume Canet’s tale of clueless, somewhat spoiled 30-somethings forced to finally grow up could be viewed as a GenX version of The Big Chill despite its incongruous, yet no less wonderful soundtrack of old radio hits—Janis Joplin, CCR, and Gladys Knight vie with Bowie, Van Morrison, and The Isley Brothers with great effect. In between glasses of wine and piles of seafood hearts will be wrenched as coping mechanisms begin to run down and confessions work their way to the surface. Thankfully Canet sprinkles his ensemble drama with enough humour to avoid maudlin introspection and ends it all with a bittersweet coda that points towards a newfound maturity. A fine piece of cinema for adults.

Les Misérables (France 2019) (7): Stéphane, a conscientious police officer from the sticks, follows his ex-wife and son to Paris where he joins a tough anti-crime unit working the racially divided working class suburb of Montfermeil (where Victor Hugo wrote his titular opus). Teamed up with cynical veterans Chris whose disdain for those he polices is all too evident and Gwada, a soft-spoken black man who grew up in the neighbourhood and still carries a quiet grudge, Stéphane’s faith in the system is eventually shaken to its core. Fuelled by racial tensions, crime, and gang loyalties, Montfermeil is a rundown no man’s land of grimy housing projects haunted by disaffected youth barely kept in check by the authorities and self-proclaimed “community leaders” who are little more than gangsters with influence. But when a messy arrest attempt turns tragic for one young boy both the anti-crime unit and the thugs they collaborate with are suddenly faced with an enraged backlash which threatens to engulf the entire community in flame and fury. Based on his own short film, writer/director Ladj Ly’s first full-length feature goes beyond the usual good guys/bad guys policier to give a visceral dissection of France’s faltering multiculturalism and the inequalities, naked opportunism, and societal decay it engenders. Shot in a riveting quasi verité style with a cast whose non-professionals easily keep pace with its lead stars, Ly neither denounces nor excuses his protagonists choosing instead to show everything in gritty context. The police are faced with a constant uphill battle in which they are forced to make crooked deals and turn the occasional blind eye in order to keep things from boiling over—and oftentimes they take advantage of that position. Likewise, the neighbourhood kingpins (including the district’s unofficial “Mayor”) exert their own iron fists when need be, raking in illegal profits while at the same time cooperating, albeit begrudgingly, with the very officers who should be arresting them. It is the youth however who must bear the brunt. Directionless and without much tangible hope, Ly’s cameras follow a handful of them over the course of one decisive day. Even though their abrupt transformation from ragtag slackers to military-style guerrillas is a bit of a dramatic stretch, taken as a metaphor for released rage it serves its purpose admirably ending with one of cinema’s more incendiary standoffs. “Remember this, my friends…” quotes Hugo himself before the closing credits roll, “…there are no such things as bad plants or bad men, there are only bad cultivators”. And with this clearly in mind Ly demonstrates that in a complicated world the moral divide between the police and the policed is not so easily drawn. A great companion piece to Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 classic, La haine.

Lethal Weapon (USA 1987) (8): The plot devices are ridiculous, the acting often goes beyond the pale, and the flashy gunplay and pyrotechnics are exaggerated to say the least, but director Richard Donner’s swashbuckling shoot-em-up takes so much delight in its many excesses that it proves infectious. In a classic case of good cop/bad cop (or sane cop/insane cop), sedate L.A. police detective Roger Murtaugh (Danny Glover) with mixed feelings about having just turned 50 is teamed up with Martin Riggs, a demented trigger-happy partner harbouring a death wish (Mel Gibson…LOL!). Opposites in every way—Murtaugh is a happily married family man living in the burbs; Riggs, still reeling from a personal tragedy, is a violent loner living in a derelict trailer with his only companions: a dog and a TV set—the two men must either learn to work together after they take on a dangerous narcotics investigation or else die trying. Literally. Two hours of bullet-riddled explosions ensue with Riggs and Murtaugh’s onscreen friction providing just the right amount of dark humour to counterbalance, or perhaps accentuate, the blood. Glover plays it cool delivering the film’s by now iconic catchphrase, “I’m too old for this shit…” with all the conviction of a weary veteran who has already seen too much while Gibson shifts erratically from wise ass to full blown psychotic at the click of a gun barrel. Bearing little resemblance to actual reality this is in fact a loud and brassy comic book of a film, one of the more notable popcorn movies to emerge from the 80s and a guilty pleasure from start to finish. Co-starring Mitchell Ryan as an evil drug lord, Tom Atkins as a grieving father with a guilty secret, and Gary Busey as a deranged hitman (again, LOL!).

Le Trou (France 1960) (10): Four inmates at a Parisian jail are in the midst of plotting an elaborate break out when they are forced to share their already cramped cell with a fifth man awaiting trial for attempted murder. Deciding to trust the stranger they include him in their plan to dig a tunnel straight down to the prison’s basement and into the sewer system. With the possibility of discovery constantly hovering over their heads the five desperate prisoners, one of whom is scheduled to be executed, set in motion an ingenious scheme to complete a series of tunnels and escape routes using nothing but homemade tools while at the same time employing some clever devices to keep the guards from suspecting anything. All goes amazingly well until the final hour when an unexpected complication threatens to derail their dreams entirely. Based on an actual 1947 incident, director Jacques Becker hired some of the original escapees to be technical advisors on his film. The result is an intricate and painstakingly faithful recreation of both the prison itself and the unbelievable resourcefulness of the men who employed everything from glass bottles to cardboard boxes in their bid for freedom. Using mainly non-professional actors Becker elicits a host of natural performances whether he’s portraying an amiable bonhomie between the convicts themselves (including an oh-so subtle suggestion of homoeroticism) or a grim determination among men who have nothing much to lose. As an amazing aside Jean Keraudy, who plays ringleader Roland Darbant, is in fact playing himself. But it is the cinematography which raises this above the usual genre fare with a camera that crawls through narrow tunnels or stands still as a pair of inmates, lit only by a single flame, slowly recede down a stone passageway. A heady, claustrophobic film with suspense to spare and a relentless pace that had me glued to the screen right up to the final credits. Sadly, Jacques Becker died two weeks after filming was completed.

Let’s Make Love (USA 1960) (6): When billionaire tycoon and notorious playboy Jean-Marc Clement discovers he is to be spoofed in an Off-Broadway musical he shows up at the theatre during rehearsals to demand an explanation. However, before he can even open his mouth he’s smitten by the gorgeous star of the show, Amanda Dell, as she struts her way through a seductive song & dance routine. Mistaken for a Clement lookalike auditioning for a role in the production, Jean-Marc is hired on the spot and immediately sets about trying to woo Amanda away from her current boyfriend and co-star. But it’s not easy pretending to be a penniless actor, especially when the object of your desire expresses nothing but disdain for the person she thinks you’re only impersonating. Unable to tell Amanda his true identity, yet unable to prolong the lie indefinitely, Jean-Marc is at his wit’s end and not even the sage advice of a few showbiz legends can bail him out. With his clever ideas to win Amanda backfiring and the show set to open in just a few days, Jean-Marc makes one last desperate ploy to set the record straight... Even though stars Marilyn Monroe and Yves Montand lack any onscreen chemistry, most of the jokes fall flat, and the story itself is pure pulp, there remains a corny sentimentality to this little powderpuff of a movie for all its sappy dialogue and muddled musical interludes. It’s a clumsy urban fairy tale for sure, but told with much sparkle and aided by a handful of surprise celebrity cameos. A guilty pleasure for a sleepless night in front of the TV.

A Letter to Momo (Japan 2011) (8): Shortly after the tragic death of her father, pre-teen Momo’s mother sells their apartment in Tokyo and the two of them move to a remote island to live with a pair of elderly relatives. Missing the big city and weighted down by a guilty conscience (she had a terrible argument with her father shortly before his accident and the only memento she has of him is a letter he started to write to her but never finished) Momo spends the majority of her day moping about while her mother is at work. But a bizarre picture book she finds stashed away in her great-aunt’s attic, a book featuring drawings of fantastical creatures, marks the beginning of the greatest adventure of her life. Accidentally releasing three goblins trapped within its pages Momo suddenly finds herself face to face with a trio of ravenous monsters and their insatiable appetites for pilfered food and creating havoc. An unlikely friendship develops between the four of them however when Momo discovers their reason for haunting the attic is more benevolent than malicious even if their antics occasionally prove troublesome (one frog-like sprite has a problem with gas). And then two things happen, her mom gets seriously ill at the same time a typhoon hits the island and Momo must convince her reluctant supernatural friends to help her—even if that aid comes from a most unexpected source. In much the same vein as Miyazaki’s vastly superior Spirited Away, director Hiroyuki Okiura's impeccably animated feature film explores the pain of adolescence through the use of fantasy and magic. As his beleaguered protagonist struggles with issues of remorse, identity, and first love her grotesquely loveable guardian angels bicker and fart and try their best to help out even if Momo too often finds herself having to babysit them instead. The underlying theology may be pure Japanese with all manner of ghosts and demons inhabiting seashore and countryside, but the underlying story of growing up and growing wiser is universal.

Let the Corpses Tan (Belgium/France 2017) (9): Fresh from a deadly heist with a quarter ton of gold bullion in the trunk of their car, and accompanied by a trio of wayward hitchhikers, a team of ruthless thieves hide out in the cliffside retreat of an eccentric artist and her extended family of friends and lovers. But when a pair of motorcycle cops pull up an already tense situation becomes lethal as the following 24 hours turns into an orgiastic confusion of homicides, betrayals, and sexualized violence. Much like their previous films, Amer and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears, writer/directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani avoid straightforward narrative in favour of stylized and highly sensual mise-en-scènes in which cameras focus on a set of eyes here, an open mouth there, and staccato editing ensures that nothing stays still for more than a few seconds. Gleaning what little clues the directors offer you, it seems that everyone involved has a personal agenda (the presence of all that loot serving as both catalyst and toxin) while the compound’s cryptic host, beautifully underplayed by Elina Löwensohn, presides over the mayhem like a seductive goddess of Life and Death. Are those erotic cutaways showcasing her naked body mere memories or is their ritualized carnality hinting at something far more primitive—certainly a statue of the Virgin Mary sitting forgotten in the nearby ruins of a chapel provides more than a striking contrast? But first and foremost it is all about presentation with brilliant visuals—embers fall like blazing snowflakes, headlights pierce the gloom like twin suns, the gore from a shattered skull turns into gold dust before it reaches the ground—and microphones which punctuate every sound whether it be the reverberation of a gunshot or the scrunch of a leather jacket. Borrowing the best from Italian gialli and the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone (hell, they even integrated musical cues from Ennio Morricone), Cattet and Forzani have fashioned an enigmatic thriller in which chaos becomes opera and resolution is little more than an afterthought. Puts the “art” in arthouse.

Libero [Anche Libero va Bene] (Italy 2006) (6): Alternately harrowing and heartbreaking, director/writer/actor Kim Rossi Stuart’s child’s eye view of grown-ups behaving madly may lay it on a little thick at times but he hits enough nerves to keep things mesmerizing. Eleven-year old Tommi (brilliant performance from Alessandro Morace) has more on his plate than most children his age—notably his single father Renato (the director himself), a marginally employed cameraman whose possible bipolar issues result in moods which swing from frightening rages to teary contriteness. Mom, when she chooses to make an appearance at all, is equally inept at child-rearing, her emotional neediness and fumbling attempts at affection more self-serving than maternal. With older sister Viola awkwardly trying to fill in the gaps by being both surrogate wife and mother, Tommi has only two avenues of escape: his newfound friend upstairs whose highly functional family gives the poor lad a happy respite (they’re an Italian version of The Brady Bunch); and his secret hiding place on the roof where the world, seen from high above, takes on a comforting perspective. But trouble has been brewing between Tommi and his father (he wants to study soccer, dad wants him to continue with his swimming lessons) and a shattering showdown is inevitable—on more than one front. It’s sad when children get caught in parental crossfire and Stuart pulls no punches—dad lives vicariously through his son’s successes (and damns his failures), mom plays the martyr only to betray everyone yet again, and both parents implicitly expect their kids to take a side. It’s a psychological battlefield played out in a dingy apartment complex and reflected in a young boy’s face—Tommi’s quiet voice and downcast eyes brimming with unshed tears enough to move the most cynical heart. But as unsettling as some of the scenes are—Tommi and Viola are privy to things no child should have to be—the film’s ultimate sadness comes when one acknowledges that this little boy and his sister are more often than not the only adults in the room.

The Lickerish Quartet (Italy 1970) (4): In an extravagantly appointed castle atop a hillside a jaded 40-something couple and their secretive young son while away the hours watching crude B&W stag films and making derisive comments on the “type” of women that would stoop to such behaviour. It seems cruel mind games and bitter reproaches are de rigueur with this wealthy little triad until one day they spot a woman at a carnival who bears a striking resemblance to one of the porn actresses they’ve been drooling over. Upon bringing her home they soon discover the tables turned against them as the young Bohemian acts as both a moral catalyst causing them to examine the petty hypocrisies that make up their lives, and a sexually liberating goddess who guides the couple in exorcising their private demons while helping the son overcome his religious guilt. Or something like that. There is certainly an element of European arthouse sleaze at work behind all the pretentious banter and jiggling breasts though. Full of annoying 8 mm flashbacks, bad paintings, and cheesy theological imagery you get the feeling that Metzger bit off more than we are willing to chew as he tries to examine issues of love and identity within the framework of a softcore nudie. There are some nice touches along the way however; one particular stag film morphs into a series of repressed wartime memories for mom, while dad and the mysterious woman screw on a library floor made up of oversized dictionary pages with words such as “phallus” and “fornicate” figuring prominently. But in the end it’s just camp, corny and outrageously overblown; a sterling example of mental masturbation at its worst.

Life, Above All (South Africa 2010) (8): Living in one of South Africa’s poorer neighbourhoods life is not easy for young Chanda. Barely into her teens she’s practically raising her two half-siblings while maintaining the household and caring for her ailing mother—her rarely seen drunken stepfather more of a hindrance than anything else. But with the death of her baby sister the days become even more intolerable for not only does her mother’s tenuous health take a nosedive, rumours begin spreading that the family is cursed thanks to some past indiscretion on her parents’ part. Now shunned by her neighbours (especially after she defends her best friend, a prostitute working the local truck stop) and barely tolerated by relatives who fear her mom’s illness will bring shame to the family, Chanda’s life is about to get tougher than even she could have imagined… Presented in the Sotho language with a largely amateur cast, director Oliver Schmitz’s hard-hitting drama, based on Allan Stratton’s novel, is definitely one of those crowd-pleasing “message movies” which always seem to wow them at film festivals. Certainly the dusty landscapes and stirring native hymns effectively underscore the onscreen tragedies whether it be a grieving mother cradling her dead infant or a solitary tear running down the face of a child who has already cried too much. But aside from a true-to-life script refreshingly devoid of any bombast, Schmitz’s film finds its true strength in the acting abilities of his homegrown cast especially newcomer Khomotso Manyaka as Chanda. Her expressive features and forceful voice belying her lack of formal training as she portrays a stoic little girl quietly accepting the role of an adult with all its attending lies, hypocrisies, and heartbreak. It all proceeds pretty much as one would expect, which is not necessarily a bad thing, until a particularly moving finale tinged with grace and compassion gives us pause to reconsider the director’s motivation. Are those steady eyes staring at us from the movie screen filled with accusation? Forgiveness? Or a dawning wisdom which transcends both?

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (UK 1943) (7): After being humiliated by a young upstart during a training exercise, a decorated general looks back on his forty-plus years of military service and all the triumphs, losses, and regrets (including a chaste affair with his best friend’s wife) that made him the man he is today. Now regarded as an obsolete fossil by a new generation of soldier, Gen. Clive Candy at first rebels against the impertinence of youth—and the cruelties imposed by old age—until those jogged memories recall his own reckless zeal two generations ago. Using postcard sets filmed in gloriously exaggerated technicolor and graced by a quick-witted and oh-so-British script, this classic Powell & Pressburger production uses one likeable old man’s recollections to examine issues of loyalty and honour as well as the inherent follies of patriotism…no wonder then that Winston Churchill loathed the film. Unfortunately it also suffers from a few too many “jolly goods” and “hip hip hurrahs” turning what could have been a brilliant two-hour epic into an almost three-hour endurance test. A compassionate character study nonetheless whose wry critiques manage to rise above the extra padding.

The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (USA 2004) (9): Peter Sellers was a comic phenomenon who started with radio skits before moving on to a rewarding movie career which included the Pink Panther series and his penultimate film, the critically acclaimed Being There. He had a knack for bringing oddball characters to life but in reality he found it impossible to play the most important character of all—himself. Given to bouts of dark depression and frequent violent outbursts he was unable to reconcile living in the spotlight with having a personal identity of his own. The result was a string of failed marriages, a growing sense of alienation, and an unhealthy relationship with his domineering mother who kept the apron strings tied a bit too tightly. Stephen Hopkins’ psychological roller coaster of a biopic, based on Roger Lewis’ tell-all book, is as manic and flamboyant as its subject. Told in episodes linked by home movies, fantasy interludes, and ersatz film clips Sellers (Geoffrey Rush, amazing) is portrayed as an empty vessel, incredibly talented yet constantly hungering for more, be it fame, love, or beautiful women including a tempestuous stint with Swedish bombshell Britt Ekland (Charlize Theron looking more like Ekland than Ekland herself). Hopkins takes a novel approach to exploring Sellers’ chaotic psyche often having Rush assume other characters as the troubled actor tries to reshape unpleasant memories—as first wife Anne (Emily Watson) storms out of the room after a heated argument she is suddenly replaced by Sellers in full drag who, as Anne, proceeds to forgive him for his infidelity. In another scene he plays his mother praising him for being such a good son even as she steps into her own casket. An opening credits sequence looks ironically like a Blake Edwards comedy and a string of strategically placed 60’s pop songs maintain a sense of time and location. A giddy and harrowing look at the enigma which was Peter Sellers.

Life In A Day (USA/UK 2011) (8): When director Kevin MacDonald and team asked people from all over the world to create a video diary detailing what they did on July 24th 2010 he was not prepared for the response. Over 81,000 film clips from 192 countries arrived and had to be edited down to make this incredible 90 minute snapshot of one day on planet Earth. From jungles, deserts and urban skyscrapers we see a variety of people turning their laptops and camcorders on themselves as they attempt to answer three simple questions posed by MacDonald: "What is in your pocket?" "What/who do you love a lot?" and "What do you fear the most?" But what starts out as a series of poignant Youtube clips quietly morphs into something deeply moving and, at times, deeply disturbing. Whether it's the Korean national cycling around the world, the Australian man recovering from open heart surgery, or the American woman dressing up for a Skype date with her military husband these tiny tales highlight our similarities while exploring those things which set us apart. And Vancouver's "Celebration of Light" fireworks display has a guest cameo! Brilliant!

The Life of Oharu (Japan 1952) (9): Kenji Mizoguchi’s B&W masterwork is a heartbreaking tale of one 17th century noblewoman’s headlong fall into ruin, her only crime being an independent spirit. Told in flashback as an aging Oharu, now a penniless prostitute, thinks back on her beginnings as a revered Lady-in-Waiting for an esteemed House, Mizoguchi’s slow, beautifully framed film unfolds chapter by chapter with each segment bringing his protagonist yet another humiliation and another loss of stature. Banished from Kyoto for daring to love a man below her station, Lady Oharu goes from being a royal concubine, to a common courtesan, to a lowly streetwalker—victimized at each turn, as it were, by male ambition, female vanity, and a social order which views women as little more than wigged and painted dolls (a fact driven home in an aside involving a puppet show). Even a representative of Buddha himself ultimately casts her back into the street after a gross misunderstanding. Now with her dignity firmly in tatters, karma still has one more blow in store for Oharu and this one may very well be the final straw… Shot primarily in a warehouse due to budgetary constraints, Mizoguchi’s screen adaptation of Saikaku’s Ihara’s novel blends contemporary filmmaking with classic Japanese theatre giving it the intimate feel of a stage production which is further enhanced by rich costume and set designs and a minimalist score of sad ballads and plucked samisens. Using long takes with asymmetrical lighting that highlights every tear and wisp of incense, this is a meditative film whose tragedies go straight for the heart thanks in large part to Kinuyo Tanaka’s brilliant performance as a woman who floats but refuses to sink. Unfortunately, a brilliantly ironic critique of religion (a group of hookers marvel at how many statues of Buddhist saints resemble some of their tricks) is turned upside down for an ending that looks and sounds as if were penned by Frank Capra on Zoloft. A very small glitch however for a movie which deservedly ranks as one of Japanese cinema’s cornerstones.

Lightyear (USA 2012) (6): Perpetually heroic Space Ranger Buzz Lightyear (voice of Chris Evans) accidentally maroons himself and his squad on an alien planet crawling with evil plants and giant bugs where his efforts to mount an escape will form a convoluted story involving multiple time warps and killer robots with blatant allusions to such films as Interstellar, Star Wars, Alien, and 1940’s Fantasia. And that’s pretty much all you need to know. In this attempt to wring a few more dimes out of the wildly popular Toy Story franchise, Pixar studios gives us the “real” movie which served as the inspiration for the Buzz Lightyear action figure and while the animation is impeccable—as are the bigger than life sound effects, musical arrangements, and bright colourful action sequences—it suffers from a writing style which has become cloying and mechanical. Buzz and his ragtag posse of space cadet wannabes are defined by their individual quirks rather than any attempt at character development (this one’s a klutz, this one’s a curmudgeon, this one’s afraid of outer space) and you just know that everything that can go wrong will go wrong at least until the final reel. Throughout it all Disney sticks tenaciously to the DEI manifesto (there’s even a same-sex kiss….gasp!) but the ongoing homilies on sharing, caring, and warm fuzzies become irritating very quickly—no matter how useless they are, at the end of the day everyone deserves a pudding pop and a hug. Okay, got it. Finally, the film’s tone is uneven, going from cartoonish mayhem to weak-kneed attempts at pathos as Buzz faces issues of death and mortality in between slapstick yucks. And a warning to parents: the time travel aspect and its accompanying paradoxes, while dummied down considerably, will still leave the 5-year olds with more questions than mom and dad can answer. Interesting twist at the end however, and the best lines are reserved for SOX, Buzz’s cuddly cyber-kitty familiar. Now about that sequel hinted at during the final credits….NO!

Lilting (UK 2014) (8): Kai, a twenty-something Englishman of Chinese descent, has just died leaving his widowed mother Junn more isolated than ever. Never having learned English, Junn is living in a retirement home which she hates and nursing an ongoing grudge against Kai’s best friend and roommate Richard whom she blames for driving a wedge between her and her son. What Junn doesn’t know however is that the two men had actually been lovers for the past four years and Kai’s death has left Richard devastated and unsure of what to do with his ersatz mother-in-law. With the help of a translator, ostensibly hired to help Junn communicate with a fellow resident who has taken a liking to her, Richard attempts to heal the rift between them and perhaps gain some mutual understanding in the process. Guilt and resentment permeate writer/director Hong Khaou’s beautiful little indie drama which centres on two people who, literally and figuratively, are unable to communicate with one another. Richard is afraid to tell the old woman the truth lest she react badly, Junn is bound by her cultural upbringing, and hovering in the middle ground is the translator Vann, a young woman trying to remain objective even as she sees both parties falling apart. Eschewing unwarranted dramatics, Khaou keeps his characters grounded, relying as much on body language as translated words to push the story forward. Sunlight and windows play a key role, and while Khaou moves leisurely back and forth through time Kai makes a series of cameos as both mother and lover ruminate on the past. Despite its flaws—the story rambles at times, the camera lingers longer than it should, a few arty touches seem overly contrived—this is still a nicely understated heart-tugger which rests solidly on the shoulders of its two leads, puppy-eyed Ben Whishaw and Asian powerhouse Pei-Pei Cheng.

Limelight (USA 1952) (8): “A story of a ballerina and a clown…” states a title card at the beginning of Charles Chaplin’s signature opus—part autobiography, part showbiz allegory, and a lot of stagey melodrama which has deservedly found its way into the realm of cinema classics. Set in pre-WWI London, he plays a washed-up alcoholic comedian named Calvero whose Little Tramp persona (get it?) has fallen out of vogue. Co-star Clair Bloom plays Thereza, a neurotic dancer whom Calvero befriends after he saves her from a suicide attempt. Together the two form a bond despite the thirty-plus year difference in their ages with his joie de vivre buoying up her melancholia and her youth giving him a renewed purpose in life. But with his own health in decline and job offers drying up, the older Calvero is all too aware that times are changing and despite the forced bonhomie he is raging against the setting of the sun even as he pushes the talented Thereza towards her own dawn. Shot through with theatrical conceits as befits its subject—Calvero’s dreams come in the form of Vaudeville routines while Claire works through her angst in tutu and pointe shoes—Chaplin’s winsome character nevertheless offers up some heady philosophy regarding the compromises imposed by old age and the agelessness of the performing arts, possibly giving his best performance ever both in and out of greasepaint. Sad without being a tragedy, romantic without being a love story, uplifting without being a comedy, Chaplin (who besides composing the Oscar-winning orchestral score also served as writer and director) bares his artistic soul with unabashed sentimentality and a finesse worthy of Bergman, and in so doing reminds us all of why we flock to theatres in the first place. Too bad this classic was put on the back shelf for so long thanks to the anti-Communist hysteria levelled at Chaplin in the wake of false allegations. Fellow silent film star Buster Keaton joins Chaplin for some onstage schtick, one of their very few screen pairings.

The Limey (USA 1999) (7): Wilson, an angry British career criminal with a violent temper, travels to Los Angeles in order to take revenge on the seedy Hollywood producer he believes is responsible for the death of his estranged daughter. Aided by Roel, one of the girl’s acquaintances (himself a former inmate), Wilson’s murderous plan begins to take shape until some unforeseen complications arise in the form of drug dealers, a trigger-happy private security agent, and a couple of very determined detectives. As hunter and hunted close in on one another bullets begin to fly and the body count rises…but which one will walk away in the end? Although the paper-thin plot holds no great surprises, Terence Stamp’s stand-out performance as the titular anti-hero provides a fascinating character study of a man driven by guilt and an innate rage. With coping skills that consist mainly of violent acts, Wilson is unable to deal with his grief in any other way; even the small voice of reason offered by Roel is not enough to dissuade him from his course. Director Steven Soderbergh presents us with a weary, smoke-filled L.A. filmed in washed out shades of brown and backed by a muted soundtrack of rock riffs. His choppy editing style toys with our sense of time with flashbacks, flash-forwards and repetitious scenes catching us off guard at unexpected moments. The resulting sense of narrative disorientation doesn’t always work in the movie’s favour—-did the projectionist play the reels out of order?—-but there’s no denying the fact it adds a certain kinetic energy to the onscreen drama while providing a few clues as to why Wilson feels partly responsible for his daughter’s untimely end. There is also an unexpected mythical element to the man’s tragic quest as we see him waiting in the shadows while his prey looks down imperiously from a hilltop mansion. A fine piece of cinema which doesn’t rely on blood and guts to tell its story.

Linda Lovelace for President (USA 1975) (4): After becoming famous for her sword-swallowing antics in the XXX groundbreaker Deep Throat, Linda Lovelace renounced her porn debut amid allegations she was forced into it at gunpoint by her insane husband. So how does one explain this softcore bomb made just three years later? Opening with a full frontal Lovelace spoofing the iconic flag scene from Patton and a warning (threat?) that the following film is sure to offend everyone regardless of race, colour, or creed, director Claudio Guzman and writer Jack Margolis (Laugh-In) serve up a tepid political satire in which Linda finds herself running for president as head of the “Upright Party”—a motley assortment of bohemians, libertines, and social outcasts. Unnerved by her swift rise in the polls, the ruling conservatives set their sights on derailing her campaign and thus the stage is set for slapstick showdowns, lowbrow gags, and a ton of tits thrown in for no reason whatsoever. True to the film’s opening promise, Guzman and Margolis eagerly push the envelope in a mad dash to spoof every racial, sexual, ethnic, and religious stereotype they can muster with Lovelace’s cabinet composed of a Confucius-spouting asian, a jive-talking black man, a mincing queen, a lustful priest, a candy-toting pedophile, and a raving nazi. The jokes mainly fall flat and the acting is atrocious (Lovelace smiles vacantly and appears to be reading her lines phonetically) but as the cameras capture Linda and company making their way across America’s heartland—with Micky Dolenz from The Monkees at the wheel!?—Guzman creates a warped little time capsule from the hedonistic yet endearingly naive 70’s. Sure to give a whole generation of angry Social Justice Warriors a conniption and that alone makes it worth a look.

Lion (UK/Australia 2016) (5): The true story couldn’t be more fascinating: After being separated from his older brother at an Indian train station, five-year old Saroo accidentally rides the rails hundreds of miles from his village to arrive frightened and hungry on the very mean streets of Calcutta. Unable to speak the local language and prey to all sorts of exploitation, he ends up in an orphanage where he is eventually adopted by a middle class Australian couple. Twenty-five years later, armed only with vague memories and Google, he tries to retrace his journey to see if he can locate his birth family. Alas, director Garth Davies felt the need to smother this adaptation of Saroo Brierley’s biography with so much schmaltz and syrup that it is all but impossible to distinguish facts from Hollywood sentimentality. The music swells too many times; cameras linger on a few too many sobbing hugs; and adult Saroo’s deeply meaningful wanderings (as portrayed by Dev Patel) are too often juxtaposed with flashbacks to little Saroo gazing doe-eyed at a world he can’t quite understand. Co-star Nicole Kidman, as the adoptive mother, is mainly relegated to tears and sighs while Rooney Mara, playing Patel’s girlfriend, alternates between pouts and compassionate nods. In fact the film’s only convincing performance comes from pint-sized Sunny Pawar as young Saroo. Pawar beat out some 2,000 other children for the coveted role and his onscreen confidence—those facial expressions alone render his scripted lines almost superfluous—belies the fact that this was his acting debut. But aside from some nice cinematography (trains are always a great metaphor) what could have been a gripping drama rarely rises above the kind of manipulative tearjerker that the Oscars love to love.

The Lion in Winter (USA-TV 2003) (5): A weak television adaptation of the classic 1968 film, itself based upon a stage play. It’s Christmas Eve 1183, and all is not well in the household of King Henry II as he and his captive wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, scheme and plot over which son will inherit the crown. He favours the cretinous half-wit John, while she has her eye on the ambitious Richard, “a constant warrior and sometime poet”. Thrown into the mix are Geoffrey, the neglected third son with a chip on his shoulder the size of Brittany; and young Louie, France’s new monarch whose state visit conceals a few ulterior motives of his own. While this modern version may claim some technical superiority it lacks any of its predecessor’s passion and sense of intimacy, relying instead on histrionics and overacting...rather like a medieval episode of Dynasty. And although they are accomplished actors in their own rights, leads Glenn Close and Patrick Stewart are simply no match for the bravura performances of Katherine Hepburn and Peter O’Toole (Hepburn actually garnered a well-deserved Oscar for her role as the emotionally conflicted Eleanor). Perhaps I’m being unduly harsh for I find it all but impossible not to compare the two at every point, but in my opinion this is one remake that didn’t need to see the light of day.

The List of Adrian Messenger (USA 1963) (6): Despite the presence of big name stars, John Huston’s elaborate whodunnit somehow seems less than the sum of its parts. British police inspector Anthony Gethryn (an uncharacteristically mild George C. Scott) begins to suspect foul play is afoot when he receives a list containing the names of eleven men who apparently have nothing in common except for one thing—they’ve all died under very mysterious circumstances within the last couple of years, including the nobleman who gave him the list in the first place. Aided by a wartime friend, a former member of the French Resistance, Gethryn’s search for a motive will lead him from a stately country manor to a seedy dockside dive in pursuit of a ruthless killer who also proves to be a master of disguises. Despite the ho-hum performances and a serpentine plot that becomes progressively more unlikely, this is still an interesting puzzle box of a film shored up by B&W cinematography that takes in genteel countrysides (partially filmed at Huston’s Irish estate) and the privileged classes which inhabit them as well as a host of heavily made up red herrings. It’s the latter which the studio used as a clever marketing ploy—for although its movie posters promised Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, Tony Curtis, and Burt Lancaster, the actors themselves were hidden under so much make-up and prosthetics that they were unrecognizable until a cheeky little reveal during the final credits. Unfortunately there remains some doubt as to how much of their onscreen time was actually clocked in by proxies. Yet another Hollywood mystery!

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

The Little Foxes (USA 1941) (8): Lillian Hellman’s hard-hitting play about avarice and corruption in a wealthy southern family circa 1900 leaps effortlessly onto the big screen thanks to a convincing cast and seamless direction. When a yankee entrepreneur decides to invest in a cotton mill for their small town, the three Hubbard siblings, Regina, Oscar and Ben, are only too happy to enter into what promises to be a very lucrative partnership. With cheap, exploitable labour and free water access guaranteed by the governor the greedy trinity have only to provide the remaining capital to cement the deal. Unfortunately Regina’s estranged husband controls her purse strings and being a man of honour he refuses to back any venture which takes advantage of the poor and defenseless. With their dreams of wealth and power thus threatened, the Hubbards quickly prove that they are willing to stoop to any depths in order to get what they want, no matter who gets hurt in the process. Director William Wyler doesn’t miss a single nuance in Hellman’s brilliant script; beneath the cultured niceties and layers of pancake make-up there is an aura of wickedness and decay in the Hubbard household as brothers and sister growl and snap at each other while Regina’s frail husband clings desperately to his values and her young daughter suddenly finds herself at a moral crossroads. Bette Davis is superb as Regina, a venom-spitting cobra with puppy dog eyes. Her restrained performance gives us a character who is ruthless yet terribly vulnerable; even in the midst of her vitriolic tirades we catch brief glimpses of helpless rage and immense tragedy. But it is Patricia Collinge as Aunt Birdie, Oscar’s browbeaten wife whose family once owned the plantation which the Hubbards now claim as their own, who gives the film its soul. Ignored, mocked, and ridiculed at every turn her pathetic attempts to regain the respectability she once enjoyed is the very essence of faded southern gentility in the years following the Civil War. As one black servant succinctly sums it up, “There are those who’d eat the world...and those who’d just sit and watch.” It’s these prophetic words, later paraphrased with ominous overtones by Ben Hubbard, which give this 70-year old drama an uncomfortably contemporary feel.

Little Murders (USA 1971) (6): Based on Jules Feiffer’s ill-fated Broadway play, freshman director Alan Arkin’s outlandish film provides a cinematic soapbox from which he launches a disparaging sermon on all the perceived ills of modern society. New York photographer Alfred Chamberlain (a slack-jawed Elliott Gould) is laid back to the point of being comatose. A professed “apathist” he feels nothing, believes in nothing, and aspires to nothing. Patsy Newquist, on the other hand, is a neurotic bachelorette with a non-stop mouth and an infectious joie de vivre. When the two cross paths a most unlikely romance develops leading to a hasty marriage with unforeseen consequences as Alfred’s newfound emotions are put to a tragic test. Arkin’s absurdist anti-establishment comedy certainly casts its net far and wide as he mercilessly harpoons every quirk and foible he can find: Patsy’s crass parents are caricatures of bourgeois twits; a wedding ceremony at the “First Existential” church emphasizes the spiritual poverty inherent in pop culture; and 20th century urban paranoia reaches a ludicrous level when an epidemic of snipers sends Patsy’s parents racing to install steel shutters while the police run around in panicked circles. And throughout it all there are a few admittedly clever barbs as when Alfred’s arty photos of dog poop are snatched up by Vogue magazine and the Newquist’s tackily appointed apartment suffers one power outage after another. But its ultimately too ambitious, for even as Alfred learns to view the world through a different lens (leading to an unexpectedly nihilistic finale) one gets the impression it all boils down to a personal tirade against a whacked-out Big Apple. Shrill, manic, and in an age where Facebook and Twitter have too often replaced actual human contact, Little Murders’ warning about the dangers of actually feeling something arrives a few years too late.

The Little Stranger (UK 2018) (7): In its heyday, Hundreds Hall manor was the grandest estate in its little corner of England and ancestral home to the illustrious Ayres family. Now fallen on hard times in the new reality of post WWII England, the three remaining family members—matriarch Mrs. Ayres (Charlotte Rampling) and her surviving adult children: the badly disfigured Roderick and taciturn Caroline—eke out a living in a mansion slowly succumbing to neglect and disrepair. Having grown up a poor child in the shadow of Hundreds Hall, young Dr. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) has always been strangely drawn to the stately old mansion ever since he visited it for an ill-fated birthday party in 1919. And now, even though his attachment to the estate involves caring for Roderick who appears to be losing his mind (he swears something evil is roaming its musty hallways) and a budding romance with Caroline who meets his advances with a troubling ambivalence, his fascination with Hundreds Hall has turned into an obsession. But as time goes on and things do indeed start going bump in the night—things associated with little Suki Ayres who died several years earlier—Faraday is torn between his medical pragmatism and the family’s conviction that there is a supernatural malevolence bent on destroying them all. Based on Sarah Waters’ novel, director Lenny Abrahamson has turned out an intriguing bag of sad romance, dour satire, and gothic horror tinged with madness which turns the old Haunted House trope on its ear. Everyone is suitably reserved and dapper like an episode of Upstair/Downstairs with ghosts, and the interior shots certainly set the mood with their decaying rococo and faded murals glimpsed through clouds of dust motes. But with the good stuff reserved for the final third of the film, Abrahamson spends so much time providing backstory and cloaking everything in a shroud of depressed fatalism that he forgets to provide something solid for his audience to chew on while they wait. Lastly, that final reveal though hardly shocking considering the plethora of none-too-subtle clues dropped along the way, does provide a twist spooky enough to make Edgar Allan Poe crack a smile.

A Little Princess (USA 1995) (6): It’s 1914 and ten-year-old Sara lives on a lavish Indian estate with her widowed father, the dashing army officer and wealthy entrepreneur Captain Crewe. When the captain is called to Europe to fight in the great war he sends his daughter to the exclusive “Miss Minchin’s Seminary for Girls” in New York City; an opulent boarding school run by a dour old spinster with no time for Sara’s romantic notions of magic and make-believe. Despite their stern headmistress it isn’t long before she has the other girls caught up in her colourful stories, even Becky the little black servant who lives in the attic finds some degree of solace in Sara’s fiery accounts of Prince Rama and his lover Sita. But when real life tragedy befalls little Sara she suddenly finds herself alone and penniless. There is magic in the air however, and Sara quickly discovers that the world is every bit as wonderful and mysterious as she once imagined. With it’s glorious fairytale cinematography and evocative soundtrack of children’s choral music Princess is sure to enchant little girls everywhere; I even found my own cynical old eyes growing a bit misty towards the end. Still, it’s one thing to be gently manipulated by a director, and quite another to be gripped in a headlock and beaten with fairy wings and pixie dust. In the end, the film’s cloying mix of wistful close-ups and syrupy performances proved to be too much for me. If I had only been a few decades younger...

Little Vampire (France 2020) (8): It’s nice to be reminded that there is more to animation than the latest Pixar production and this bright crayon-coloured treat from France is a perfect example. A 10-year old vampire, bored with immortality, befriends an orphaned mortal boy his own age much to the consternation of his undead mother and his stepfather, a former pirate turned skeletal “Captain of the Dead”. But there is danger afoot in the form of “Gibbous”, a moon-faced vampire-killing demon who bears a personal grudge against mother and child and will go to any lengths to get his claws on them. Meticulously rendered old-fashioned animation takes the action from a haunted mansion populated by all manner of bumbling ghouls to a pair of ghostly galleons battling it out in the moonlit skies above southern France, yet writer/director Joann Sfar doesn’t forget to pay homage to her sources of inspiration with spooky B-movie posters adorning the little vampire’s bedroom (coffin room?) and the mansion’s ramshackle home theatre boasting an exhaustive inventory of B&W horror classics. But it’s the menagerie of wraiths, monsters, and other supernatural oddities that provide the most pleasure as little vampire’s unearthly playmates come crawling, floating, flapping, and oozing their way out of churchyards and belfries. A scarlet bulldog phantom can’t keep his cynical mouth shut, a botched Frankenstein always seems to put his foot in it, and a host of skeletons keep losing their heads…and arms…and legs… Meanwhile the not-quite-so-terrifying Gibbous has problems of his own as he tries to commandeer a horde of little squeaky firefly minions who always seem to be underfoot—literally. The “Inclusivity and Acceptance” message may ring a little too loudly at times—yes, yes, humans and monsters should celebrate their diversity, we get it already—but it is rendered palatable by the film’s sheer exuberance and irresistible cartoon silliness. Kids will enjoy the constant stimulation while adults will be reminded of those long ago Saturday mornings in front of the television set.

Little Women (USA 2019) (6): Amid the political and social changes which followed in the wake of America’s Civil War, the four March sisters come of age in rural Massachusetts. Headstrong Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is just discovering that her passion for writing comes at great personal cost. Self-centred Amy (Florence Pugh) must accept the fact her talent for painting will not be enough to sustain her without a rich husband. Meg (Emma Watson) sees her dream of becoming an actress tempered by economic reality. And mousy Beth, perhaps the most perceptive of the lot, is content to simply play the piano for her family. With adulthood looming like an unwelcome intrusion these young women will experience love and loss, success and failure, and…ultimately for some…a hard-won wisdom. When it was first published in 1868, Louise May Alcott’s voluminous novel—part fiction part autobiography—broke barriers with its strong female leads striving to face the world on their own terms and in this sixth Hollywood adaptation director/screenwriter Greta Gerwig polishes it up with action that swings back and forth through time, a lush score of classics, and Yorick Le Saux’s rich cinematography that turns dazzling seascapes, wintry fields, and lavish interiors into a series of gallery canvases. Jacqueline Durran’s Oscar-winning costumes, meanwhile, transform giggling debs into fluttering butterflies and the eager young men who pursue them into silken top-hatted dandies while the lighting department frames it all in dusty sunbeams and buttery candlelight. Certainly a pleasure for the eye and ear with an A-list roster perfectly en pointe. But despite Gerwig deliberately blurring the line between Jo’s real life and her literary creation, and despite padding out the dialogue with feminist footnotes (Amy gives a scathing summation of 19th century sexism to a would-be suitor; Jo locks horns with a moustachioed publisher) the production doesn’t rise much above a pleasant Merchant Ivory costume drama. A delight to watch nevertheless even though it fails to linger in the mind afterwards. As the girls’ wealthy spinster aunt, Meryl Streep gives an animated voice to the old ways while Laura Dern shines as their sainted mother. James Norton, Louis Garrel, and Timothée Chalamet pull up the rear as the frustrated love interests, and Chris Cooper’s elderly ultra-rich next door neighbour joins forces with Bob Odenkirk as the noble Mr. March to prove that not all the men in Jo’s world arrive with an agenda.

The Living Dead At Manchester Morgue (Spain 1974) (6):  When the British government experiments with “ultrasonic radiation” to control agricultural pests they inadvertently raise a crop of hungry zombies instead.  It’s up to the owner of a head shop and a reluctant female motorist to convince the authorities that it’s breakfast time at the morgue and everyone’s on the menu.  Despite the silly title this is actually a decent early entry in the zombie flick genre.  The gore effects are appropriately grisly and there are some pretty tense scenes.  Of course, as with all these films, there are some unintentionally funny moments....I especially liked the motorist’s heroin-addicted sister tweaking on the sofa and the evil sociopathic baby.  I prefer my undead a bit more decomposed though, the make-up in this film seemed to consist mainly of white face powder and novelty red contact lenses.  Still worth the price of admission!

The Living End (USA 1992) (6): Still in shock from his recent HIV+ diagnosis, twenty-something journalist Jon (Craig Gilmore) falls in with hard-drinking sociopathic hustler Luke (Mike Dytri), also positive, and the two embark on a nihilistic road trip across the midwest marked by rough sex, violence, and the pessimism that comes from realizing that once you’ve lost everything you have nothing left to lose. Writer/director Gregg Araki’s micro-budget indie film may not resonate with younger audiences who never had to live through the worst of the AIDS pandemic when gay men were dropping like flies while governments did nothing (I lost my first partner to HIV the same year this film was released) but the zeitgeist of those who were affected comes through loud and in your face. The sense of helplessness and rage—often expressed in self-destructive ways—is very much apparent as intimate hugs and pillow talk between the two men are juxtaposed with moments of shocking abuse and cruel retorts, and all the while Luke’s drinking increases and Jon develops a troubling cough. Filmed guerrilla-style with grainy primary colours and transgressive performances, the crude acting and cliché-riddled script combined with a chaotic editing style can be off-putting at times until one remembers this is an angry, confrontational polemic from a specific time and place when such a response was more than warranted. At one point Luke flippantly considers going to D.C. and blowing president Bush’s brains out, then decides it would be better to simply inject him with a syringe of their infected blood stating, “How much do you want to bet they’d have a magic cure by tomorrow?”. Yet, despite its overt political message Araki manages to remind us that this is still a work of cinema for Jon is, among other things, a film critic hence posters celebrating Godard and Warhol adorn his apartment walls while other artwork regularly pops up in the background to augment the ongoing drama—check out the billboards and the Barbie cereal box. And that crushingly beautiful closing shot gives the knife one last, painful twist. Finally, it’s all tied together by a killer soundtrack of acid rock and doleful indie soloists which turn Jon’s tape deck into a scratchy Greek chorus. Darcy Marta co-stars as Jon’s fag hag BFF who also suffers from his diagnosis, albeit vicariously.

A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (Italy 1971) (6): “An erotic nightmare that keeps you on the edge of an abyss of terror!” screams the poster for Lucio Fulci’s murky whodunnit, a giallo thriller set in merry old England but composed entirely of pure Italian cheese. Upper crust hausfrau Carol Hammond is so repulsed by the carnal exploits of her next door neighbour Julia Durer—a buxom blonde libertine whose taste for loud music and kinky sex regularly rattles the wall between their apartments—that she dreams about killing her. But when Durer is actually found brutally murdered all clues point to Hammond even though she insists she never met the woman in real life. Are Carol’s dreams concealing deeper mental health issues or is someone else trying to cover their own guilty tracks by pinning the blame on her and fast-tracking her to the loony bin? Displayed in lurid technicolour heavy on the blood reds and pink flesh tones, Fulci shows some restraint when it comes to his usual glut of sex and violence: Julia’s psychedelic orgies are mainly shown from the waist up; the hippy drug references have been rendered retro comical; and the crime scene has much of its gore washed out by a barrage of incandescent flash bulbs which manage to pick out the deceased’s nipples and false eyelashes while downplaying her open stab wounds. Even the obligatory lesbian spit-swap is tastefully restrained using faux fur and a studio wind machine to simulate eroticism. But PETA acolytes beware, there is a vivisection scene which landed Fulci in court where he had to prove he used props and not real dogs. Revelling in an overdose of kitschy 70s decor as well as some highly effective artwork (one of Francis Bacon’s screaming popes sets the tone nicely) cinematographer Luigi Küveiller turns swinging London into a psychosexual maze of underground catacombs and thrusting spires with a wild chase sequence through an abandoned church (cue belfry full of bats) as well as a claustrophobic crawl through England’s most depraved insane asylum staffed by badly dubbed Italian extras. And if the visual flourishes are not enough to keep you amused there’s a ballsy score by Ennio Morricone, although I think Argento’s Goblins would have sufficed, and a plot with more twists than an elephant’s colon—from Carol’s prominent lawyer father to her doting husband to her precocious daughter-in-law, everyone takes a turn at being “it” until Fulci gives the big reveal just seconds before the final credits start rolling. A “must” for fans of the genre and a gentle intro for those who are timid yet curious.

Lloyds of London (USA 1936) (7): In 18th century England two boys from opposite sides of the tracks—the penniless Jonathan and well-to-do Horatio—become fast friends before circumstances see them take two very different roads. Jonathan travels to London where he finds success working for the fledgling Lloyds of London insurance conglomeration, becoming something of a cynic in the process. Horatio on the other hand becomes a celebrated admiral in the British navy as it faces off against the forces of Napoleon. But even though separated by time and distance, the friendship they once shared will unexpectedly resurface to play a pivotal role not only in their personal lives but in the future of England itself. Only marginally inspired by actual historical facts, director Henry King’s mostly fabricated epic of fates and fortunes certainly doesn’t lack in grandeur, it actually garnered a well-deserved Oscar nomination for it’s lavish sets which go from humble taverns to ravaged warships to palatial estates—a comedic stint in a richly appointed casino giving us a fine example of “Hollywood Baroque”. A 22-year old Tyrone Power got his big break as the adult Jonathan whose prickly love affair with a very married Lady Elizabeth (a bejewelled Madeline Carroll) has him running hot and cold throughout while Guy Standing gives the film ethical ballast as his aging business mentor, Virginia Field tugs the heartstrings as the barmaid who secretly yearns for him, and an oily George Sanders provides moral counterpoint as Elizabeth’s opportunistic cad of a husband. Even a 12-year old Freddie Bartholomew, who proved so irritating in Captains Courageous, gives a fine performance as young Jonathan although he’s partially eclipsed by American-born Douglas Scott playing young Horatio as a proper little English lord with a streak of recklessness. A tall tale well told with distinguished B&W cinematography to shore up the narrative and closets full of regal costumes to please the eye.

Locke (UK 2013) (10): Construction foreman Ivan Locke is dealing with three monumental crises simultaneously—one at work, one at home, and one elsewhere. Currently in his BMW heading for London his attempts to put out these fires are limited to a succession of progressively frantic phone calls via his handsfree mobile device. But as the miles slowly click by his attempts to make the world right again for everyone else begin to take their toll on his own mind causing cracks to appear in an otherwise cooly detached demeanour. Writer/director Steven Knight’s brilliant one man show has Tom Hardy giving one of the most demanding performances of his career. With nothing but disembodied voices to egg him on Hardy traces his overly conscientious character’s struggle to balance personal integrity with professional responsibility despite the fact that every decision he makes comes at a dire cost. Locke is essentially a good man in a very bad situation: being pulled in three separate directions, trying to please everyone yet pleasing none—a stream of invectives aimed at his deceased father, launched between calls, providing the only clues behind his questionable actions. Filmed in real time with cameras hovering in and around the rushing car—sometimes riding shotgun, sometimes hanging from a headlight or a side mirror while neon reflections bleed across the windshield—Knight’s film relies as much on visual impact as it does on emotionally laden dialogue. Certainly that endless stretch of black asphalt represents so much more than a simple freeway. A moody voyeuristic tour de force whose downplayed presentation only heightens its impact.

The Lodger (USA 1944) (7): 20th Century Fox turns a Los Angeles soundstage into a semblance of old London in this worthy remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 thriller. A respectable upper class landlady (Sara Allgood) begins to suspect her new lodger may be none other than Jack the Ripper, especially when he takes an unnatural interest in her vivacious niece (Merle Oberon), an up-and-coming actress. Fogbound streets, gaslights, and horse drawn carriages set the mood, a cast of cockney-spouting extras add a bit of colour, and Oberon’s naughty song and dance routines throw in as much spice as the censors would allow. But the show belongs to larger-than-life Laird Cregar as the mysterious lodger—his massive frame and searing gaze clashing with an unexpectedly soft voice to give one of cinema’s more menacing performances. Notable for its intimate camerawork which has the lens zeroing in on a screaming victim or settling on a corpse’s fingers as they dangle over a flooded gutter, director John Brahm and cinematographer Lucien Ballard cap it all off with a claustrophobic chase sequence reminiscent of Frankenstein’s last stand sans pitchforks and torches. An effective Grand Guignol that combines elements of horror with a 19th century policier. George Sanders co-stars as a Scotland Yard inspector intent on finding the Ripper before he kills again.

Lola (Germany 1981) (7): In a small German city shortly after WWII, crooked businessman Schuckert is enjoying a free reign for not only is he the sole building contractor for miles around he also runs the only bordello—a lusty establishment which counts the entire town council among its regular customers. Enter pure and unblemished Mr. Von Bohm, the area’s new building commissioner and a man so fastidious in his ways that he has raised punctuality to a neurotic obsession. Practically worshipping his country’s new free market economy Von Bohm envisions a grand future for everyone while Schuckert simply sees a host of lucrative new angles to be exploited. Wending her way between both men is Lola, a singing hooker employed by Schuckert who despite her lowly station in life has set her sights on the virginal Von Bohm. Can a fall from grace be far behind? Alternately filmed in shades of lurid red or candy-coloured pastels depending on who the camera is following, this third instalment of Fassbinder’s BRD Trilogy is perhaps his most scathing satirical attack yet on Germany’s post-war “economic miracle”. With a small town poised between two seemingly moral opposites it quickly becomes apparent that although Von Bohm’s gushing patriotism is the most photogenic it is the corruption, complacency, and good-natured vice of Schuckert that people seem to gravitate towards. And Barbara Sukowa excels in the role of Lola, a strong-willed woman determined to beat the odds as she plays one man against the other. Fassbinder’s brilliant satirical touches (Von Bohm woos Lola in a deserted church; caged birds offer a bitter symbolism; the radio blasts romantic ballads rife with irony) play well against the film’s bawdier elements and ensure that the laughs keep coming. Prostitution—or whoring in general—has never been a more apt metaphor.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (UK 1962) (5): Colin Smith, an impoverished youth filled with the usual class-conscious rage, is sent to the Ruxton Towers reform school after robbing a bakery. During his incarceration the local governor takes a keen interest in Colin’s athletic prowess as a long distance runner and sees in the lad a chance for the school to win a most prestigious trophy at the annual athletic meet between the working class Ruxton boys and their privileged rivals from a local private school. But a series of increasingly tedious flashbacks show us that Colin has several reasons for being angry at the established gentry and his anger threatens to transform a simple cross-country race into a most predictable metaphor. It’s all here; the self-righteous tirades against the unfairness of it all, the stock footage of soulless urban sprawl, and the stereotypical angry young man bemoaning his station in life. A few weak ironies are thrown in for good measure; an inmate is privately beaten while the school choir sings a patriotic hymn, a brand new TV (sign of affluence!) is filled with mindless jingles and fascist rants, and Mr. Smith’s death benefit does more good for the family than the old man could ever afford to do while alive. Finally, Colin’s brief interlude at a seaside resort with his buddy and a couple of girls gives rise to even more contemporary angst and yearning. Bland, shallow, and terribly dated.

Lonely Are the Brave (USA 1962) (7): When wandering cowboy John Burns (Kirk Douglas) discovers his best friend Paul (Michael Kane) has been locked up for aiding and abetting illegal migrants, he mounts his trusty steed Whisky and heads to New Mexico to free him. Deliberately getting himself thrown into the same jail as Paul by way of a barroom brawl, John plans an escape for the two of them but Paul, who now feels the responsibility of having a wife and young son weighing on his shoulders, isn’t interested in increasing his sentence. Escaping on his own instead, Burns has one last embrace with Jerry (Gena Rowlands), Paul’s exasperated wife (and John’s former lover) before riding Whiskey over the mountains and into the sunset pursued by a determined sheriff (Walter Matthau) and vindictive policeman (George Kennedy). It appears that everyone has an archetype to play as director David Miller laments the taming of the American Spirit. In a wild west increasingly covered in barbed wire fences, super highways, and fast food outlets, Douglas’ fiercely independent cowpoke is a proud anachronism who can’t accept the fact his time has come and gone. Rowlands, representing hearth and home, is at a loss to explain why the men in her life can’t just settle down and “obey the rules”, and Matthau and Kennedy provide the long, sometimes brutal, arm of conformity. Finally, although his role is relatively minor, Kane’s domesticated family man embodies everything Burns has tried to avoid. Even a young Carroll O’Connor plays his part as a trucker-cum-Angel of Destiny. Perhaps screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s incisive script, based on Edward Abbey’s novel, wallows a bit too much in glaring contrasts (a horse gets stuck in traffic, a police helicopter soars like a mechanical eagle) and perhaps Jerry Goldsmith’s tinkling musical score too often sounds like a plaintive Hallmark moment, but the film’s keens sense of old ways reluctantly giving way to the new strikes deep. Besides, this is purported to have been Douglas’ favourite picture.

The Longest Day (USA 1962) (8): John Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Richard Burton, Henry Fonda, Sean Connery… These are just some of the star cameos who pop up in Twentieth Century Fox’s 3-hour WWII epic covering the final 48 hours before D-Day on the beaches of Normandy. Filmed in B&W in order to seamlessly meld staged action with stock footage of the actual invasion, Fox also employed three directors (a German, an American, and an Englishman) as well as a small army of military advisors from both sides of the conflict so that audiences could see how events unfolded from differing perspectives, even going so far as having everyone speak in their native language for the sake of authenticity. The Oscar-winning result—Best Cinematography, Best Special Effects—is a gripping, multi-strand story that mixes documentary realism with a touch of Hollywood flair. Some of the presented facts are questionable (apparently Dwight D. Eisenhower was unhappy with the inaccuracies) some of the casting is a stretch (an overweight 54-year old John Wayne playing a paratrooper?) and some of the dialogue borders on stagey melodrama with a dry history lesson or two disguised as casual banter—but with those wide screen location shots and extras that numbered in the thousands it is certainly a movie to be experienced. The lead-up to the storming of the beaches sets the stage nicely showing us the strokes of genius and folly that allowed the Allies to ultimately win (apparently Hitler was initially oblivious to what was happening because no one wanted to wake him up) and the final climactic scenes of battle rival the deafening chaos of Saving Private Ryan minus the more explicit carnage. Far from a glorification of war for the sake of war, The Longest Day is, if anything, a celluloid testament to the valour of those who fought—and too often died—protecting something they considered greater than themselves. Any studio missteps are therefore easily forgiven.

Longford (UK 2006) (9): Frank Pakenham (b. 1905), more popularly known as the 7th Earl of Longford, or simply Lord Longford to the press, had a long and distinguished political career. A liberal convert to Catholicism he put his faith to practice by visiting prison inmates and championing their cause in the public spotlight. His judgement, and subsequently his career, were eventually called into question however when he threw his support behind Myra Hindley, one of Britain’s most notorious prisoners. In the mid 1960’s Hindley, along with her boyfriend Ian Brady, received life sentences for the abduction, torture, and murder of a number of children in the Manchester area. Although she was universally reviled as a monster, Longford saw in Myra a terribly sad and remorseful young woman whose obsession for the charismatic Brady had led her down a dark path not of her own making. Facing opposition from the tabloids, popular opinion, fellow politicians, and even his own family, Longford was determined to have Hindley’s life sentence reviewed by a parol board especially since she had already served fifteen years. But a tempestuous visit with a clearly disturbed Brady cast the first shadow of doubt in Longford’s mind—was his cause célèbre the soft-spoken victim she appeared to be, or was there something else behind that demure voice and sincere desire to repent? Or was the calculating Brady merely playing with everyone’s mind? Brilliant performances from Jim Broadbent as Longford, Samantha Morton as Myra, and a psychotically intense Andy Serkis as Brady do justice to a literary script that shifts from sweeping social proclamations to meaningful bedroom conversations without faltering. Taking his camera from squalid prison yards to the stuffy House of Lords, director Tom Hooper has a knack for wringing deeper impressions out of otherwise mundane shots with Longford and Hindly dwarfed by prison barbed wire fences, a tiny makeshift grave in the middle of a frozen moor, or a leafless tree scrabbling towards a wintry sky. Both a brilliant character study of one man striving to live by his faith and a treatise on the sometimes blinding nature of that same faith, Longford is one of the more striking made-for-television productions to come out of England.

The Long Goodbye (USA 1973) (5): Exactly why this send-up of Film Noir conventions—adapted from Raymond Chandler’s novel by sci-fi great Leigh Brackett—wound up on so many “best of” lists is beyond me. As a policier it’s about as engrossing as an old rerun of Barnaby Jones and as a tilted salute to the age of Bogart, Mitchum, and Lizabeth Scott it’s anemic at best. When his best friend ends up on the lam after being accused of murdering his wife, Los Angeles private detective Philip Marlowe (a slovenly Elliot Gould) sets out to prove his innocence. But when tragedy strikes yet again Marlowe must manoeuvre through a lurid world of adultery, gangsters, and cheap cons before arriving at a solution which he definitely wasn’t expecting. Director Robert Altman employs his usual modi operandi of restless cameras, overlapping dialogue, and hundreds of criss-crossing extras while legendary cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond films everything in washed-out pastels giving L.A.’s harsher streets a softened watercolour sheen. The overall result is aesthetically pleasing but does little to compensate for a script devoid of any tension and performances which seem a little too ad-libbed. Gould’s anti-hero shambles his way through with a sardonic smirk and perpetually lit cigarette while a supporting cast provide the usual red herrings, most notably a stoned and drunk Sterling Hayden playing a stoned and drunk writer and director Mark Rydell playing a caricature of a Jewish mob boss. The one-liners aren’t clever enough and the little recurring jokes (Marlowe lives next door to a harem of nubile nudists, a security guard does endless movie star impersonations, the film’s theme song keeps popping up in the damnedest places) get tired after the first couple of passes. Whether taken as an homage or a skewering, or a little of both, The Long Goodbye’s forced eccentricities and misfired tropes never quite come together. As a bit of trivia however you can look for a silent and uncredited Arnold Schwarzenegger as a bodyguard and for those who grew up watching 1970’s TV commercials Gould’s finicky orange tabby is none other than Morris, the 9-Lives cat food mascot. Hooray for Hollywood!

The Long, Long Trailer (USA 1953) (7): Newlywed Nick and Tacy Collini (Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz NOT reprising their television personas) get in way over their heads when they decide to make their first home a 40-foot trailer. Before the honeymoon is over they'll get stuck in a mudslide, take out aunt Anastasia's front yard, and tie up every highway between Florida and Colorado. Will cooler heads prevail or will their long, long trailer make for a very short marriage? A delightful little comedy which makes the best of a one-line joke thanks to Lucy and Desi's star power and some genuinely funny sight gags: Tacy's attempt to prepare a fancy meal while on the move was hilarious while a nail-biting trek up (and down) a treacherous mountain road provided some comic suspense. File this one under Fun Family Fare.

Long Way North (France 2015) (6): In the latter part of the 19th century, a wealthy Russian explorer leaves St. Petersburg aboard his “unsinkable” ship in order to find the North Pole—only to disappear without a trace. Several months later his young granddaughter Sasha, eager to unravel the mystery of what happened to her grandfather and restore her family’s tarnished reputation, convinces a reluctant sea captain to aid in her search. Now, with a few newly discovered documents providing the only clues as to the whereabouts of the old man’s ship, Sasha and a crew of surly misfits will brave treacherous polar waters where the threat of tempests, disaster, and death will dog their every move… The animation is primitive and all the voices sound as if they were recorded in an echo chamber but the film’s paint-by-number renderings of old Russia and the frozen north alike, sketched with a palette of frosty pastels, gives this little piece of alt-history from France a certain visual charm that will captivate the young ones as well as less discerning adults. Aside from a few glaring anachronisms (penicillin and CPR in 1882?) and a rather implausible resolution which included a baffling supernatural interlude (or was it a dream?) it proved to be 80 minutes not completely wasted. The arctic action sequences alone—a cacophony of exploding ice sheets and blinding snowstorms—were enough to carry it through. And, best of all, the animators shied away from adorably precious Pixar-style marketing mascots.

The Look of Silence (USA 2014) (7): Joshua Oppenheimer follows up his 2012 documentary The Act of Killing (also reviewed here) with this very personal account of Indonesia’s bloody past. In the first film Oppenheimer brought the atrocities of that country’s 1965 military coup to life by interviewing former death squad members who proudly boasted about all the “communists” they tortured and murdered—an estimated one million in total—even going so far as to reenact some of their more grisly crimes. In Silence he focuses his camera instead on one man, fortyish optometrist Adi, whose older brother Ramli was sadistically executed two years before Adi was even born. Traveling from village to village Adi interviews both the men responsible for the carnage (all successful and protected by the new government) and the citizens who timidly looked the other way. But as the horrifying facts begin to surface what emerges is not quite the enraged confrontation Western audiences would expect. Although the film’s glacial pacing is sometimes off-putting there is a purpose behind Oppenheimer’s lingering close-ups and Adi’s rambling interviews for this is both a search for objective truth and a yearning for some degree of personal closure. Adi listens dispassionately as his aging subjects defend their actions while their families, many of whom had only a dim idea what was taking place, look on uncomfortably. At other times he stares stone-faced at taped interviews in which retired commanders gleefully describe the proper way to chop off a head or disembowel a woman. One such man angrily rebukes Adi’s prying into the past while the younger man fits him for a pair of glasses as if the new lenses might somehow force him to see the past more clearly. But it is Adi’s interactions with his parents which give the film it’s deepest sense of tragedy for his octogenarian mother can’t stop remembering Ramli’s final hours while senility has caused his 103-year old father to forget he even had a son.

Lore (Germany/Australia 2012) (10): Although she doesn’t speak the language herself, director and co-writer Cate Shortland has fashioned the quintessential film examining the German zeitgeist immediately following WWII and she calls upon every dark fairy tale archetype to do so as her cameras follow a group of frightened children making their way to grandmother’s house. After her parents are rounded up by the Allies for unspoken crimes nineteen-year old Lore and her younger siblings flee into the forest to escape the Americans who, her mother assures her, run torture camps for naughty boys and girls. Making her way across a landscape scarred both physically and psychologically by the Reich’s defeat, Lore’s innocent unease slowly turns to horror as she comes to understand the truth behind the lies and denials she had once believed: lies about Hitler and the Fatherland, lies about her parents’ involvement in the war, and denial over the photos of stacked corpses slowly circulating among the populace—“They’re just Hollywood actors!” states one irate woman, “You never actually see a German killing anyone!” adds her companion. And, as if to embody her growing doubts, an angry young man calling himself Thomas joins Lore on her trek to grandma’s, his sullen presence at once underscoring the hypocrisy around her and igniting her first carnal thoughts… Heavily influenced by the Australian New Wave aesthetic of the 70s and 80s, Shortland indulges in handheld camerawork and languorous slow-motion pans of sun-dappled silences…an effect simultaneously soothing and vaguely disquieting, like the prelude to a nightmare. A sense of weary disillusionment flows through every frame of her film so that even the erotic interplay between Lore and Thomas takes on an edge of sad desperation and Lore’s constant attempts to wash the dirt off her body become a study in futility. Finally, a set of closing scenes drive home the fact that once innocence has been violated one can never truly go home again. A moody, at times surreal film which addresses a facet of the second world war not often seen in cinema.

Lost Horizon (USA 1937) (7): Frank Capra’s classic tale of a snowbound Utopia may seem a bit trite by today’s cynical standards yet it’s vision of a kinder, gentler society should make us all the more fed up with the status quo. It’s China, 1935, and a violent military action is putting foreigners in peril; enter Robert Conway, dashing diplomat and England’s “Man of the East”. Surrounded by thousands of hysterical Asian extras Conway gathers up the last few Caucasians left in a remote village and whisks them away to Shanghai. Unfortunately their small plane is hijacked en route by a mysterious Mongol pilot and eventually crashes into a Himalayan mountainside where Conway and company are rescued by a group of fur-clad natives who take them to the mystical monastery of Shangri-La. Protected from the outside world by a ring of imposing mountains Shangri-La is a semi-tropical paradise where the happy citizens follow a strict code of unwavering pacifism. “Be Kind” is the only motto here and before long the troupe are completely seduced by the valley’s hypnotic blend of peace and idyllic splendour. But their visit is not entirely accidental as Conway discovers when he is summoned to speak with the saintlike High Lama (character actor Sam Jaffe looking like a mummified Phantom of the Opera). Apparently the people who run Shangri-La have some grandiose plans for the world at large and Conway is to play a critical role in bringing them to fruition. Released just as WWII was gathering on the horizon it is easy to appreciate the film’s call for non-violence even though the American Military added some anti-Japanese propaganda to the opening scenes which were thankfully removed for this restored version. The plane passengers themselves provide a small cross-section of greater society’s ills, from the skeptical scientist and oily conman to the weary prostitute and George, Conway’s brother, who ends up being the proverbial snake in Eden. Groundbreaking for the time, the cinematography and Oscar-winning set design use refrigerated sound stages, rear projection and life-sized plane models for realism while the clever use of miniatures and stage lighting adds a touch of magic. A pipe dream perhaps, but produced with a great deal of flair and intelligence.

The Lost Weekend (USA 1945) (7): Billy Wilder scored Oscars for Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture, while star Ray Milland brought home his one and only statuette for Best Actor in this brutal look at four days in the life of an unrepentant alcoholic let loose on the streets of Manhattan. Milland plays Don Birnam, a washed out New York writer prone to boozy binges and blackouts living on the charity of his co-dependant brother (a somewhat wooden Phillip Terry). Birnam’s love-hate relationship with the bottle is challenged however when he falls for Ohio debutante Helen St. James (Jane Wyman as wide-eyed martyr), a Polyanna whose rose-coloured glasses detect something in the drunken author that no one else can see. But are love and chaste kisses enough to overcome years of addiction? Although toned down for early audiences, Wilder nevertheless keeps the Hollywood sheen to a minimum with some hard shots of a quaking Milland debasing himself for a jigger of rye or else suffering through a bout of DTs complete with phantom bats and rodents—only to resort to an inspirational cop-out at the end. Still, for anyone familiar with alcoholism Birnam’s lame excuses, blame-gaming, and emotional manipulations will ring all too true—a series of flashbacks providing a backstory—even if those long-winded monologues peppered with piercing insights seem a tad too staged. The movie ultimately hits its high and low points in a scene that was actually filmed inside Bellevue Hospital’s “drunk tank” with Miklós Rózsa’s horror-influenced musical score (did he get a theremin for Christmas?) underpinning the suffering of the patients and a callous male nurse throwing unfortunate shade on an entire profession.

Love (France 2015) (5): Although it caused a small ripple at Cannes for its copious scenes of graphic non-simulated sex—all presented in crotch-popping 3D no less—enfant terrible Gaspar Noé’s Love is, at its heart, a derivative story of “l’amour fou” which neither challenges nor engages. After he learns that his estranged girlfriend Electra (Aomi Muyock and her vagina) has gone missing, fledgling filmmaker Murphy (Karl Glusman, constantly upstaged by his erect penis) begins to think back on their tumultuous time together, or to be more precise their marathon fuck sessions for in the director’s own words this is supposed to be a “love story seen from a sexual point of view”. Very unhappily married and filled with regrets Murphy despairs over what might have been even though his relationship with the damaged Electra was mostly fraught with obsessive lust and destructive jealousy. Little more than a series of hardcore flashbacks strung together by Murphy’s inner monologues and verbal sparring which never comes close to the emotional honesty of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, Noé still manages to stamp this muddled mess with his own peculiar signatures—background colours range from ice cold green to fiery red; Murphy’s collection of movie posters highlight his own turmoil; geometric patterns isolate characters (Murphy loves to stand in doorways); and Noé slips his face into the narrative with a bewhiskered cameo. In addition, a curious soundtrack goes from Satie to Pink Floyd and if you pay close attention to background details you’ll see references to his previous films including Irreversible and Into The Void. But shallow performances and a pedestrian script ultimately take us nowhere and the gimmicky 3D fails to elicit any extra depth—a close-up of Glusman’s cock shooting CGI-enhanced wads straight at your face was risible at best. “I want to make a film using blood, sperm, and tears…the stuff of creation!” blurts Murphy to a bemused Electra as they traipse past parks and cemeteries. But despite such a lofty goal Noé eventually settles for just the spooge.

Love and Anger (Italy 1969) (3): Five otherwise fine directors lay the arthouse smugness on thick and heavy in this collection of contemporary dramas set in an impersonal urban environment (New York?). Bernardo Bertolucci gives us a dying man whose lifetime of angst and regrets is literally made flesh when a troupe of histrionic hippies act out around his sickbed. Jean-Luc Godard has a pair of critics parroting each other’s words (in French and Italian) as they clinically deconstruct an ongoing love affair—they speak of cinema’s “lies” while the lovers gaze deeply into each other’s troubled navels. Pier Paolo Pasolini superimposes B&W images of war atrocities and fascism over a happy-go-lucky youth’s jaunt down a busy street—his ignorance of suffering and unwillingness to listen to God’s pre-recorded voice leading to tragedy. Elda Tattoli reduces class warfare to a single lecture hall when a group of leftist radicals (waving their little red books) precipitate a social rift after they noisily disrupt a poetry class full of bourgeois preppies (OMG, is that a poster of Che Guevara on the wall?!) And Carlo Lizzani provides the film’s only highlight with Indifference, a short film revolving around two people in need—a woman being savagely attacked in a public park and a man trying to save his critically injured wife—who are largely ignored in a city full of detached pedestrians, unconscious vagrants, and traffic jams. Affected performances, nouvelle vague camera gimmicks, and circuitous yapping rife with hollow clichés all add up to a hopelessly dated yawn-fest.

The Love Bug (USA 1968) (7): Likeable Disney fluff about down-on-his-luck race car driver Jim Douglas (studio mainstay Dean Jones) who unwittingly takes possession of a most unusual VW beetle; a car that literally has a mind of its own. Despite his mechanic’s insistence that “Herbie” has genuine feelings, Douglas initially credits the bug’s odd behaviour to various electrical malfunctions even though its performance on the race track far exceeds the model’s design specifications and it has the strange habit of opening and closing its own doors, playing matchmaker, and taking off for short jaunts by itself. Eventually coming around, Douglas and his new love interest—a former business acquaintance of his arch racetrack rival Peter Thorndyke (fellow studio mainstay David Tomlinson)—enter Herbie in the greatest race of his career. But Tomlinson is not about to see the uppity beetle beat him yet again, even if winning means having to repeatedly sabotage the determined little car. Not much to critique here really, a thoroughly G-rated family film with some impressive stunts for the time, a bit of mild menace, and the type of happily ever after ending you can rely on. The background scenes of hippy-era San Francisco are pretty cool too.

The Loved Ones (Australia 2009) (7): Still blaming himself for the car accident which killed his father six months earlier, highschool senior Brent (Johnny Depp lookalike Xavier Samuel) tries to ease his guilt with hefty doses of Death Metal and pot. Thankfully his girlfriend Holly and overly protective mother are there to provide some solace. Unfortunately fellow classmate Lola “Princess” Stone is not so understanding after Brent politely refuses her invitation to the school dance. Living in an isolated farm house with her lobotomized mother and homicidally attentive father (with whom she has a disturbingly intimate relationship), Lola is one very troubled young lady who will stop at nothing to get what she wants even if it means having daddy kidnap Brent and drag him home for her own private prom complete with party hats and disco ball. But when Brent doesn’t take kindly to being tied up and having his vocal chords paralyzed, Lola and her dad decide to break out the party favours; mainly butcher knives, a carving fork, and one very persistent power drill. Will Brent’s mom and girlfriend be able to find him in time or will he end up experiencing the ultimate horror which awaits just beneath the Stone’s kitchen floorboards? Like a sick mash-up of Carrie and Texas Chainsaw, this wholly gratuitous teenage bloodbath proves that when it comes to psycho cinema those twisted Aussies have their American counterparts beat hands down. Although technically impressive with its grisly effects and crazy camp performances, what ultimately saves The Loved Ones from becoming just another batshit flick is an underlying current of jet black humour which reaches its peak during the film’s frenzied finale involving girls, cars, and a big old pile of bones and corpses. Director Sean Byrne knew exactly what he was doing and for those who appreciate it he serves up a treat, everyone else gets the screen equivalent of a middle finger.

Love, Gilda (Canada 2018) (8): Told mainly in her own words—and often in her own voice—thanks to TV spots and home movies, diary entries, and snippets from her posthumous autobiography, this endearing documentary on the life of comedienne Gilda Radner is nothing if not a work of love by director Lisa D’Apolito. Starting with her childhood years as a chubby little Jewish kid growing up in Detroit, then moving on to her early stage experiences with Toronto’s Second City troupe and finally her now legendary presence as part of the original cast on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, Radner’s life was a study in both the rewards which come with fame and the personal costs that accompany it. But despite a string of failed relationships, an eating disorder, and struggles with self-esteem and intimacy—and then that final showdown with cancer—one glimpses a fragile yet adamant spirit behind the giggles, for here was a woman determined to laugh at whatever life threw at her and hell-bent on making us join in. SNL alumni such as Chevy Chase and Lorne Michaels join Gilda’s friends and family—including the late Gene Wilder, perhaps her greatest love—in exposing Radner for the warm, complicated, and terribly talented person she was. And, just to keep things balanced, they are in turn joined by cameos from Gilda’s beloved personas like the clueless Emily Litella, nerdy Lisa Loopner, and ever popular Roseanne Roseannadanna whose vulgar observations on life most closely represented Radner’s own earthy sense of humour. “Because I am not a perfect example of my gender…” she once wrote, “…I decided to be funny about what I didn’t have instead of worrying about it.” And the world, if only for a brief moment, was just a little bit better because of that.

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (USA 1955) (6): Apparently stars William Holden and Jennifer Jones couldn’t stand each other and their offscreen animosity translates into some rather tepid love scenes. But it doesn’t really matter because Henry King’s weepy Cinemascope romance, based on the memoirs of Dr. Han Suyin, is so glossed over that even the author herself refused to watch it. In 1949 Hong Kong English-Chinese doctor Han Suyin (Jones) falls for American correspondent Mark Elliot (Holden) in an affair which goes beyond all propriety thus threatening her good reputation. For one thing Elliot is unhappily married and unlikely to get a divorce, for another the widowed Suyin is torn between Chinese stoicism which instructs her to wear the memory of her late husband like a mantle and her European practicality—as a self-described “Eurasian” she presents a baffling blend of ancient superstition (butterflies bring good fortune!) and modern sensibility (it only takes Elliot three scenes to get her into a swimsuit). Trouble is brewing for the two lovers however as attested to by a couple of blatant foreshadowings, most notably a sombre parade winding past their hotel room as they passionately embrace. Jones’ eyes have trouble staying in character as they go from almond to round and back again thanks to arbitrarily employed prosthetics and Holden dutifully slogs through his lines with determination if not passion. But the lush Technicolor scenery bounces seamlessly between Hong Kong location shots and the 20th Century Studios ranch in Malibu, and the movie did manage to pick up three Oscars for costuming, music, and best song—that dreamy title theme cropping up on radios and jukeboxes throughout before ending with a gushing choral finale obviously meant to ensure there’d be no dry eyes in the theatre. And although John Patrick’s literary screenplay periodically slips into “exotic mode”—as Suyin’s honourable uncle, veteran character actor Keye Luke sounds as if he’s reciting fortune cookies—it still packs an intellectual punch as it dares to address issues of adultery, cultural identity, and miscegenation, not to mention a few romantic exchanges which would have been almost sexy had King cast a pair of different leads. All in all a fine example of the type of big screen tearjerker popular throughout the ‘50s. This is what might have happened had Ernest Hemingway penned a Harlequin romance and then handed it over to Douglas Sirk.

Love is Strange (USA 2014) (8): Light as a feather and just as soft, Ira Sachs’ bittersweet love story starts off as a “gay movie” before quickly moving beyond genre constrictions to render up something more universal. After being together for almost forty years, Ben and George (John Lithgow, Alfred Molina) are finally able to get married and waste no time rushing to do so. Sadly, George’s proud announcement causes him to lose his job at the Catholic school where he taught music putting the couple in dire financial straits that necessitate selling their co-op. Now forced to live apart as they come to rely on friends and relations with small NYC apartments, Ben moves in with his nephew’s family while George holes up with a young gay couple. Ben’s presence ultimately causes friction in his nephew’s household, especially with the couple’s moody teenaged son Joey (Charlie Tahan) whose room he’s commandeered. George, on the other hand, feels the generational gap more than ever as his hosts put on one loud party after another. And all the while the two elderly newlyweds are missing each other terribly. Not a strong premise, yet one which Sachs effectively uses to address issues of love, belonging, and what defines a family. Ben is an amateur painter whose nostalgic canvases of young men seem like an attempt to recapture something that’s been lost. George’s efforts to instill a love of music in his students likewise indicates a yearning for the romance which age and circumstances are slowly eroding away. But despite this, the two men are the only constant pillars in a film where everyone else is in flux from Joey’s sense of alienation to the young couple who break up between one song and the next while George looks on dispassionately. A multi-generational slice of life with all the joys and sorrows that implies, Sachs is wise enough to refrain from fixing everything for a tidy ending yet he still manages to assure us that healing is as much a part of living as pain, and that life will continue to go on even after the screen fades to black. A delicate background score of Chopin piano pieces sets the mood perfectly.

Lovelace (USA 2013) (7): In the 1970’s, mousy and freckled 21-year old Catholic girl Linda Boreman went from total obscurity to one of the hottest names in the fledgling porn industry when she changed her name to Linda Lovelace and starred in the groundbreaking adult film Deep Throat. If we are to believe Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s docudrama, based on the late actress’ bestselling autobiography, her rise to infamy was actually not of her own choosing but rather that of her husband Chuck Traynor, an abusive, coke-snorting misogynist who essentially pimped his wife to the mob (and the world in general) for his own financial gain. As played by Amanda Seyfried, Lovelace was a personable though not-quite-innocent ingénue who went from the heavy-handed rule of her religious mother (Sharon Stone, barely recognizable in home perm and parochial housedress) to the egomaniacal ministrations of Chuck (Peter Sarsgaard personifying slimeball) whose Svengali-like control over her, backed by threats of violence, literally forced her in front of the cameras—or cheesy hotel rooms where her talents were available for a price. Considering the film’s subject matter the directors show surprisingly little skin, preferring instead to concentrate on Lovelace’s own personal journey from exploited commodity to outspoken industry critic. And Seyfried handles this transition very well, her evolution mirrored in everything from her changing hairstyles to the set of her face as starstruck innocence is replaced by a weary maturity. The 1970s touches are convincingly real—her parents La-Z-Boy loungers and flowered wallpaper are enough to make you cringe with recognition—and a soundtrack of solid gold radio hits always seems to hit its mark at just the right time. But despite a slick presentation, things never seem to rise above the level of an engaging “Movie of the Week” offering which, in hindsight, I suppose is also appropriately retro. Chloë Sevigny gives a brief cameo as an interviewing journalist and Robert Patrick does a fine job as Linda’s doting father, an ex-cop who can’t come to terms with his baby girl’s public persona—his performance providing a much needed departure from the film’s glut of slathering male stereotypes, all gold chains and bad toupees. As an aside, owned and touted by the mob Deep Throat went on to make millions worldwide (the actual amount a matter of debate) while Lovelace reportedly received a mere few thousand dollars for her work.

The Lovely Bones (USA 2009) (8): Narrating from the great beyond, angelic 14-year old Susie Salmon describes how she was brutally murdered on December 6th, 1973 by her neighbour Mr. Harvey, a violent pedophile with a taste for little girls. Unwilling to let go of her earthly attachments Susie finds herself stuck in a benign limbo while she makes one desperate attempt after another to connect with her grieving father and exact revenge on her killer. But, as she gradually discovers, anger can be a double-edged sword and karma has a way of working things out on its own. Peter Jackson’s dark fairy tale evokes a keen sense of déjà vu for those of us old enough to remember day-glo pantsuits and floral wallpaper while his gloriously visual CGI-riddled visions of the afterlife are drawn directly from the innocent daydreams of a naïve teenage girl. But unlike the syrupy tripe of What Dreams May Come, Jackson keeps things grounded with an intelligent script and a cast of believable characters. In the role of Susie, Saoirse Ronan gives a complex performance as a teenager mourning all the adult delights she will never know; her shock of red hair and pale features underscoring a formidable young talent. Stanley Tucci’s turn as Mr. Harvey, on the other hand, is a chilling blend of bewildered man-child and ice cold predator; the very embodiment of every parents’ nightmare. But even though Susan Sarandon’s role as Susie’s drinking, smoking, Bohemian grandmother provides a few welcome laughs it seems slightly out of place given the film’s overall tone. Poignant and lyrical, with just a wee touch of schmaltz (Spielberg is listed as an executive producer after all), this proved to be one unexpected pleasure.

Love, Marilyn (USA 2012) (8): For the fiftieth anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death filmmaker Liz Garbus produced a most unique tribute. Gaining access to two recently discovered boxes containing journals, letters, poetry, and hastily scribbled random thoughts from Monroe herself, Garbus employed a who’s who of contemporary Hollywood from Glenn Close and Ellen Burstyn to Viola Davis and Lindsay Lohan to read from them as if in character. She then filled in some gaps with other stars (F. Murray Abraham, Ben Foster, Adrien Brody…) who offered dramatic readings from several of the approximately one thousand books written about Marilyn. And it’s all presented against a backdrop of green screen montages, film excerpts, and old television interviews. What emerges is a mosaic of sorts following the life of Norma Jeane Mortenson from a tragic childhood spent in orphanages and foster homes to the casting couches of Hollywood (“Sex was like ice cream to her…” reads one memoir), to her tumultuous relationship with 20th Century Fox studios which oddly mirrored her disastrous marriages to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller as well as her Svengali-like relationship with Actors Studio founder Lee Strasberg. But there’s nothing new in those particular history lessons. What is fresh in Garbus’ film is Marilyn as an intelligent, savvy, and insightful mind who yearned for the spotlight even as it terrified her, and whose carefully cultivated sex kitten persona (she actually read books on anatomy in order to master that jiggle) would eventually turn on her like a Frankenstein creation. Typecast almost from day one, dismissed as an airhead, and scapegoated by directors and studios alike, her rising star set far too soon prompting feminist author Gloria Steinem to quip, “When the past dies there is mourning, but when the future dies our imaginations are compelled to carry it on.” Thus Garbus adds yet one more layer to the mythos surrounding a matinee idol who was never given the chance to show the world her true face.

Love Me Deadly (USA 1973) (5): Still nursing an unhealthy attachment to her long dead father, Los Angeles socialite Lindsay Finch satisfies her Electra impulses by sneaking into funeral homes and swapping spit with the dearly departed after the mourners have left. It isn’t long however before her post mortem kisses attract the attention of creepy mortician Fred McSweeney who just happens to host a weekly coven of devil worshippers in his embalming room and before you can shout rigor mortis! Lindsay is introduced to the wonderful world of drugs, Satanism, and necrophilia—a clandestine hobby which soon puts her at odds with the only two men in her life who are actually alive… Director Jacques Lacerte’s cheesy low-budget cult flick is a veritable riot of kitschy fashions, hair-sprayed coifs, and all the tacky 70s decor you can stomach in one sitting. With everyone’s acting ability one step above the average porn loop and a baffling musical score which continually bounces from three-fingered minor chords to sunny cartoon melodies and A.M. radio schlock (not to mention a wholly inappropriate orgy scene set to “Requiem for Soprano” first heard in Kubrick’s 2001) this is definitely one of the best worst films I’ve seen in some time. At least the few relatively tame gross-out segments are still worth a look (guys tend to holler when they’re being embalmed alive) and the cuddly closing scene is enough to put the creep factor right through the stuccoed ceiling.

Lover Come Back (USA 1961) (7): Although they’ve never met in person and have no idea what each other looks like, Madison Avenue advertising execs Jerry Webster and Carol Templeton (Rock Hudson, Doris Day) suddenly find themselves bitter rivals when the amoral and underhanded Jerry steals a lucrative account right from under Carol’s virginal nose. But when she finds out he’s trying to seal a deal with Nobel scientist Linus Tyler to market “Vip”, a revolutionary and highly secret new product, she decides it’s payback time. The trouble is, Vip doesn’t actually exist, at least not yet, and to make matters even worse Carol mistakes Jerry for professor Tyler and sets about trying to woo him much to his amusement. Cutesy romantic complications ensue… Full of bright Day-Glo colours and kitschy decor this frothy little treat from director Delbert Mann still manages to pack in a surprising amount of sexual innuendo, including a few gay in-jokes, despite Hudson’s determinedly hetero playacting and Day’s trademark apple pie wholesomeness. Rock never misses a chance to take his shirt off or set his bedroom eyes to high-beam, Doris flusters like a Catholic schoolgirl in pink lipstick and a blonde flip; and in the role of Webster’s neurotic CEO, Tony Randall provides the perfect foil. A racy little comedy guaranteed not to offend anyone providing they can overlook its inherent 60’s sexism. And Doris’ collection of loud hats has to be seen to be believed!

The Lovers [Les Amants] (France 1958) (7): Louis Malle’s lightweight dissection of upper class ennui is mainly notable for the wave of scandal its racy love scenes caused around the world—a showing in Ohio actually led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling on obscenity. Bored with her dull provincial husband and his provincial ways, thirty-something Jeanne (Malle’s muse Jeanne Moreau as luminous as ever) escapes to the bright lights of Paris on a regular basis where she tags along beside her childhood friend Maggy, a vapid socialite more concerned with appearances than content. Taking a lover more suited to her self-image (he plays polo and drives a sports car) Jeanne embarks upon a double-life not entirely unbeknownst to her old-fashioned spouse until an unexpected encounter with the younger Bernard, a student who comes from money but is now a proud member of the proletariat, causes her to question the path she’s taken. Filmed with a somnolence as befits its privileged protagonists—an offscreen narrator providing Greek chorus—there is a touch of Buñuel running through Malle’s work as we see Jeanne’s rural reality play off against her bourgeois aspirations. She changes her hairstyle on a daily basis in order to remain au courant even in the country; Maggy balks at having to leave Paris for an engagement in the sticks; and an attempt on Jeanne’s part to impress her friend with a hoity-toity dinner party is thrown into disarray by a nocturnal visitor. But unlike Buñuel, Malle is not entirely unsympathetic to his heroine or her dilemma, for Jeanne’s comfortably monied home life is still a stifling prison of ritual and conformity while her attraction towards Bernard goes much deeper than mere physicality. It’s the physicality however which catapulted the film into arthouse infamy with a moonlight seduction leading to erotic couplings more shocking for their undercurrent of assertive female sexuality than any fleeting glimpse of Moreau’s nipple.

Lovers of the Arctic Circle (Spain 1998) (3): "Life is a series of circular journeys..." we're told at the outset of this very tedious bit of arthouse fodder, "...and all things die when they run out of gas". Much like this film. Following the journey of the palindromicaly named Otto and Ana from childhood sweethearts to step-siblings to clandestine lovers, Julio Medem's film meanders back and forth through time for no apparent reason other than to show us how seemingly random coincidences conspire to alter our protagonists' lives. But, sadly, not even fate can make those lives any more interesting to watch despite portentous wind storms, interminable sunsets, and a metaphorical red bus. I made it to the halfway mark then fast forwarded through to the final tragedy without skipping a beat. A bad chick flick for the easily enthralled.

Love, Simon (USA 2018) (8): Highschool senior Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) leads the perfect life: a nice home in the burbs, parents who embody white middle class liberalism (Josh Duhamel, Jennifer Garner), and an awesome group of friends who really like him. He’s also gay and very much in the closet. His closeted life becomes an emotional burden however when he begins a gmail romance with “Blue”, an anonymous fellow student struggling with the same issue. Even though neither one has a clue as to the other’s identity, Simon and Blue’s emails gradually become more intimate as they begin to open up to one another—and then everything quickly heads south when an oversight on Simon’s part threatens to expose them both. Change the clothes and music to retro 80s, turn Simon straight, and get rid of the laptops and cellphones and you’re left with a teen comedy straight from the mind of John Hughes with Robinson doing a passable imitation of Andrew McCarthy, Katherine Langford (as BFF Leah) standing in for Molly Ringwald, and class geek Logan Miller giving off John Cryer vibes. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing for director Greg Berlanti manages to balance some serious issues with enough highschool humour to keep things from turning into one big soapbox. Yes, the teachers are one-note jokes à la Ferris Bueller (the exasperated drama coach winds up hogging all the best lines) and issues surrounding homophobia are given a bit of a gilt edge, but Berlanti’s heart is clearly in the right place. Juxtaposing one young man’s fantasies—Simon envisions his first day of college as one big rainbow musical—with some cold realities—there are bullies, blackmail, and a whole lot of low-level angst—Simon’s coming out promises to be both a personal triumph and a rite of passage shared by everyone involved. Will mom and dad learn to see their son in a different light (Garner gives a speech guaranteed to make your eyes moist)? Will Simon’s friends forgive a few trespasses he made out of sheer terror when his secret was threatened with exposure? And who the hell is “Blue” anyway? A charming carnival ride of a film which leaves you feeling red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple all over.

Love Streams (USA 1984) (4): It’s disheartening to realize that the multi-talented John Cassavetes’ penultimate swan song should be this anemic rehash of Faces and A Woman Under the Influence; a cliché-riddled soap opera in which all of the director’s signature moves are reduced to trite affectations. Best-selling L.A. author Robert Harmon (Cassavetes) is a mixed bag of contradictions. He’s made a fortune writing sensitive books about women yet in reality he treats the many females who cross his threshold—and his bed—as if they were disposable commodities to be used and then forgotten; a hard-edged chauvinism made all the more acute by his rampant alcoholism. His sister Sarah (Gena Rowlands, the only notable performance in a sea of mediocrity) is not faring much better as her once-loving husband, fed up with her mental fugues and bouts of mania, divorces her taking their daughter with him. Eventually getting together for an impromptu visit, brother and sister try to take some solace in one another’s company—but you can’t offer what you haven’t got and between his selfishness and her pathological neediness there can be little room for healing… Nothing in this film rings true emotionally nor is there any empathy with which the audience can connect. Instead, we watch two souls damaged beyond repair—one a reprehensible cad who pours his estranged 8-year old son a beer before abandoning him in a hotel room to search for hookers, the other a manic ball of neuroses who goes catatonic whenever she doesn’t get her way—repeatedly shoot themselves in the foot while simultaneously helping each other to reload. Despite fellow director Peter Bogdanovich helping the ailing Casavetes put things together, the latter’s sense of style is still on full display even though it no longer conveys much substance: conversations are filmed off centre, ad-libbed dialogue jerks along uncomfortably, and the narrow confines of Harmon’s house come to represent both a physical space and a state of mind as blue skies and human banter are slowly replaced by tempests and wild animals—but that operatic climax remains pure cinema showboating at its corniest. “Life is a series of suicides…” blurts Harmon during a rare moment of near sobriety and given the film’s ridiculously dreary disposition that sad little maxim seems more like a silver lining.

The Loving Story (USA 2011) (8): In 1958 Richard Loving married his longtime sweetheart Mildred and the two of them began living as man and wife in their home state of Virginia. They never dreamed that their relationship marked the beginning of a legal battle which would start in the county jail where they were temporarily incarcerated and end in front of the Supreme Court of the United States thus changing the face of the Civil Rights Movement forever. The fact that Richard was white and Mildred was “coloured” so enraged bigots throughout the south who believed that god himself intentionally segregated the races the two were forced to live apart for months at a time while their challenge to Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law worked its way through the legal system with invaluable help from the ACLU. This gripping documentary, comprised entirely of archival footage, home movies, and contemporary interviews, not only exposes the ludicrous attempts at justifying a law which was basically a throwback from the days of slavery, it also paints a simple picture of an ordinary couple facing extraordinary circumstances with dignity and perseverance: Mildred’s calm and articulate manner complimenting Richard’s quiet strength. So persuasive was the ACLU’s winning arguments that several years later the SCOTUS decision on “Loving vs. Virginia” was cited repeatedly in the fight for same-sex marriage recognition, a struggle which Mildred (who died in 2008) supported wholeheartedly. In her own words, “I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.” Beautifully done.

Lucker The Necrophagous (Belgium 1986) (2):  Even though its production values are not as polished as “Nekromantik”, this tale of an escaped lunatic who enjoys having sex with the decomposing bodies of his victims certainly delivers on the gross-out factor.  The question is, does the world really need another stag film for psychopathic necrophiles?

The Lunchbox (India 2013) (9): Apparently Mumbai has a thriving lunchbox delivery service which allows housewives to send hot meals to their office-bound husbands using a mass courier service and writer/director Ritesh Batra uses this uniquely Indian arrangement to fashion a uniquely Indian love story. Firmly in a rut and fed up with a crowded bustling Mumbai where vertical cemetery plots ensure that even graveyards are standing room only, middle-aged widower Saajan (Irrfan Khan, delightfully sour) is facing his upcoming retirement with a sense of downcast fatalism. Meanwhile, across town, unhappily hitched Ila (a melancholy Nimrat Kaur) is facing her crumbling marriage with a mixture of apathy and sad resignation. And then, thanks to a glitch in the system, Ila’s meticulously prepared lunches—meant for her husband—begin arriving at Saajan’s desk by mistake and the two begin a relationship based solely on notes passed back and forth in the lunchbox’s stainless steel tiffin containers… Batra opens his gently bittersweet film with a wide angle shot of two trains passing one another, a theme which echoes throughout as Saajan and Ila’s increasingly personal yet chaste correspondence causes their lives to veer in unplanned directions—he learns to let down his walls; she learns to fly over hers (with a little help from her unseen neighbour who shouts encouragement from the apartment above). Mumbai is filmed in all its gritty chaotic glory, subtle Bollywood tunes provide the lightest of dramatic touches, and lovingly prepared meals become as intimate as a caress, but it is the notes themselves which anchor the film—hastily scribbled ruminations on life, happiness, and mortality exchanged between two sad souls which wind up being as disarming as they are charming. And just to add a bit of contrast Batra throws in a few secondary characters, namely Ila’s grieving mother full of regrets and Saajan’s pathologically upbeat apprentice whose not-entirely-honest approach to life embodies hope and resilience. The question of whether or not the two will ever meet in person is one which Batra dangles playfully in front of his audience, but in the end it doesn’t really matter for in the words of one character, “Sometimes the wrong train will take you to the right station”. In the case of The Lunchbox the journey is the only thing that matters and its first class all the way.

Lust for Life (USA 1956) (7): Vincente Minnelli’s cinemascope biopic on the tortured life of artist Vincent van Gogh is based on Irving Stone’s novel of the same name. In one of his signature performances, Kirk Douglas traces the evolution of Holland’s most famous son as he goes from frustrated evangelist to impassioned painter increasingly frustrated with his inability to break down that “iron door” separating what he perceives from what he is able to portray on canvas. After several bouts of debilitating anxiety attacks including one that prompted him to slice off his own ear, and a few voluntary stints in asylums, Vincent eventually died penniless at the age of 37, a suspected suicide. Douglas’ animated performance shows us a man of great genius—and great pain—who struggled to express his impressions of light, colour, and texture with oils and paintbrush. With cleverly constructed sets and location shots along the coasts of Holland, Belgium, and France, Minnelli brings the master’s works to literal life as we see his paintings juxtaposed with the actual forests, buildings, and sun-drenched wheat fields which inspired them—apparently the director had one section of a field spray-painted so that its colour would more closely match Van Gogh’s work. With a narrator reading Vincent’s letters to his brother, as well as some intensely staged exchanges between the fiery Dutchman and the equally volatile Gauguin, Minnelli offers us the briefest of glimpses into the working of an artistic soul—a feat not easily accomplished using the medium of film.

M (Germany 1931) (8): Originally banned by the Nazis, Fritz Lang’s darkly brooding tale of a murderous pedophile, part policier, part social critique, has lost none of its bite in the intervening years and Peter Lorre gives his greatest performance as Hans Beckert, a painfully withdrawn young man compelled to kill children by his “darker half”. As the body count grows and the police remain baffled the public becomes increasingly agitated especially when the local newspaper decides to cash in on the fear with one sensationalistic headline after another. Even the city’s criminal underground is spurred into action as the increased police presence begins to threaten both their livelihood and their “good” reputation. Ironically it is the villains who seem to have all the resources and manpower to catch the killer. Their efforts eventually lead to an ingenious game of cat & mouse in an empty office building that culminates in a most fantastic trial by jury. Lang’s gorgeous B&W photography and severe camera angles lend a sense of hyperreality to the film’s Kafkaesque industrial landscapes and a few beautifully executed tracking shots, including one that actually goes between two floors, were highly innovative for the time. The murders themselves, though never shown, are made painfully real by the most innocuous of images---an abandoned ball or an empty place setting at a dinner table. And as a crime thriller it is fascinating to watch the devices of modern detective work...circa 1931. But the film’s true strength lies in the way it chronicles the effect of the murders on an entire society, from the mayor’s office right down to the common pickpocket. A form of mass paranoia erupts in vigilantism and hysterical accusations while the tortured Beckert himself, clueless and mentally ill, is used to illustrate the capricious nature of mob justice. Thoroughly modern themes for such an old film.

Madadayo (Japan 1993) (5): Sadly, Akira Kurosawa’s final film is not among his best; a study of one old man’s decline plagued by glacial pacing and too many moments of staged serenity. Towards the end of WWII sixty-year old professor Uchida announces he’s retiring from teaching in order to devote more time to his writing. Living hermit-like with his adoring wife in a cramped hut (his first house having fallen prey to Allied bombs) the delightfully eccentric Uchida nevertheless welcomes the small horde of former students who regularly drop by to pay their respects to the man they once described as a “lump of pure gold”. And every year they gather to honour him on his birthday where they ritually chant “Are you ready?” to which he replies “Not yet!” (madadayo!) before downing a tankard of beer. The years pass, small joys and sorrows come and go, the professor grows older and more feeble, his students become middle-aged professionals, and still the birthday celebrations continue until one day Uchida quite literally walks into the most gloriously cheesy sunset to ever grace a green screen. Despite some moving performances and a lovely Vivaldi score there is not enough substance here to flesh out 134 minutes. Between the yearly fêtes Uchida ruminates on life, goes looking for a missing cat, displays his wry sense of humour, and generally represents the director himself as he faces his final years with dignity and wit. Along the way we learn nothing of his students or his wife (perhaps intentionally) but we do see subtle changes as Japan limps towards its post WWII economic miracle: traditional garb gives way to western suits, modest parties become soirees, and female faces begin to appear in the crowd. A polite and respectful meditation on that deeper wisdom which comes with age whose lack of dramatic sweep and narrative context (it is very Japanese) unfortunately turns a swan song into something of a cinematic endurance test. Patience required.

Mad Max: Fury Road (Australia) (9): In its basest form this latest addition to the Mad Max mythos from writer/director George Miller is essentially a two-hour high speed car crash, but it is delivered with such pyrotechnics and adrenaline you hardly notice it all hinges on a hare-brained plot. A nuclear Armageddon has rendered Oz a hostile desert where tribal warlords vie for control of what meagre resources remain. The strongest of these men, Immortan Joe, is currently experiencing domestic problems in his rocky citadel after a group of female pacifists—including his entire harem of concubines—led by ace warrior Furiosa (a kick-ass Charlize Theron sporting a mechanical arm) commandeer an armoured vehicle and head out in search of more peaceful pastures. Not one to give up easily however, Joe amasses an army of drug-fortified, radiation-sickened soldiers driving lethal super vehicles and gives chase. But the women gain an unexpected boon when a psychologically scarred ex-cop turned desert rogue named Max (a baritone Tom Hardy) joins their ranks… Red filters and a touch of CGI turn magnificent Namibian locales into crimson martian landscapes where flotillas of outlandish war machines—one even sporting a demented musician wailing on a fire-spitting electric guitar—crash, roll, flip, and explode while a thrashing orchestral score barely manages to keep pace. Spectacular stunts, surreal panoramas, and acres of sweaty, muscular man flesh manage to keep you in your seat, and in a welcome twist to the genre Miller cuts through the heavy pall of testosterone with a few slashes of high-octane estrogen when Furiosa encounters a gang of rebel grannies. Anyone with a medical background will smirk at the highly improbable ending but at least the promise of a sequel comes more as a reassurance than a threat. A fast and furious screen-burner guaranteed to entertain as long as you keep your brain firing on one piston.

Madrid, 1987 (Spain 2011) (5): Ángela, a beautiful young journalism student, decides to interview crusty old newspaper columnist Miguel as part of her term paper. Meeting at a local bistro the two eventually wind up at an apartment belonging to Miguel’s friend where a botched attempt at seduction on his part finds the two accidentally locked in the bathroom with no clothes and no chance of being rescued until the next day. Thus confined, the two spend the next twenty-four hours gazing into each other’s navel with Miguel giving a series of lectures on everything from art and journalistic integrity to politics and fucking while sniffing around Ángela’s hindquarters like a dog in heat. Ángela, for her part, simply tries to toss in her own youthful insights now and again. Like an anemic version of My Dinner with Andre sans appetizers, writer/director David Trueba’s two-hander bites off way more than we care to swallow. Despite a few bon mots Miguel’s non-stop monologues become tiresome as does Ángela’s ambivalent hero worship of the abrasive curmudgeon. As teacher and pupil inevitably open up to one another between bouts of verbal sparring and potty breaks we learn nothing new from either generation and the persistent nudity (there’s only one towel) goes from glaring metaphor to crass gimmick rather quickly. When the bathroom door finally opens no one was more relieved than me.

The Mafia Kills Only in Summer (Italy 2013) (6): Sicily’s turbulent war between organized crime and the State saw numerous assassinations of mob bosses and government officials in the 1970s and ‘80s, wholesale slaughter which culminated in one of Italy’s most celebrated mass prosecutions. Against this backdrop of gunplay, bombings, and corruption writer/director “Pif” gives us an awkward adolescent rom-com in which lovestruck Arturo tries to gain the attention of grade school siren Flora only to have his efforts backfire again and again. Drawing inspiration from his hero, Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti—even dressing up as him for Carnival—Arturo regales Flora with tall tales (he aspires to be a journalist) and baked goods only to be undermined by fellow classmate Fofó while the streets outside seem to turn meaner with each passing day. As a coming-of-age story it has its charms thanks in large part to Alex Bisconti’s performance as 13-year old Arturo—his doe-eyed reactions registering frustration, heartbreak, and juvenile yearning with ease. But as an obvious homage to the politicians, judges, and police officers who lost their lives fighting the Mafia (with Pif himself playing grown-up Arturo still lusting after grown-up Flora) things get muddled down. Unless you are familiar with the sociopolitical setting in which the story takes place the list of deceased carries little to no emotional impact even with the grainy crime scene footage and passionate newscasts thrown in. Pif’s heart is in the right place however as he outlines a childhood in which bogeymen carry out drive-bys on motor scooters, an impotent church offers little solace, and real heroes wear badges and bang gavels.

Maggie (USA 2015) (7): As America is devastated by a new virus which slowly turns people into decaying man-eaters, a father (Arnold Schwarzenegger showing unexpected depth) bypasses the authorities in order to bring Maggie, his infected daughter, (Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin, all grown up) home so he can care for her until the bitter end. But as her flesh begins to spoil and her appetites begin to shift, he wonders if he’s capable of doing her that one final favour. Those expecting a Romero-style zombie bloodfest will be sorely disappointed for director Henry Hobson has chosen to remove the jolts and gore in order to give us a deeply felt family tragedy. Filmed in the hinterlands of Louisiana, Maggie unfolds under perpetually overcast skies with the sound of distant thunder accenting a score of heavy strings and sad piano. There is a touch of Terrence Malick to its gauzy cinematography as Arnold wanders dejectedly through a ruined cornfield (the virus attacks everything) or Maggie stares with open horror at the maggots wriggling from her fresh wounds. It is never easy to lose a child for any reason, and screenwriter John Scott 3 seems to understand this for his script is grounded in tender, almost impressionistic moments as father and daughter try to find some sense of normalcy in the face of darkness: they laugh at childhood memories; he shields her from the authorities determined to put her into “quarantine”; and she hangs out with her friends at the local quarry, finding some solace in a former high school sweetheart who is also infected. And the end, when it finally comes, is as gentle as a tear and as piercing as a razor blade. Joely Richardson co-stars as Maggie’s stepmother who is torn between love for her stepdaughter and the ice cold pragmatism of life during a plague—her heartbreaking ambivalence providing the perfect balance between Schwarzenegger’s crippling grief and Breslin’s brave childlike facade. A slow and moody slice of American Gothic whose themes of love and loss are strangely bolstered, not hampered, by the rotting make-up effects.

The Magician (Sweden 1958) (7): In the muddy hinterland of 19th century Sweden a traveling medicine show, “Vogler’s Magnetic Health Theatre”, makes its way from town to town hawking everything from love potions to spiritual apparitions. Already wanted in Denmark on various charges of fraud, the mute Dr. Vogler (Max von Sydow) and his troupe are anxious to keep a low profile. But when a local police chief hijacks his wagon and commandeers it to the mansion of a wealthy nobleman, Vogler is put in a most precarious position. It seems the rich man’s wife is a devout believer in the occult while his learned medical friend, Dr. Vergerus, is openly hostile toward all claims of the supernatural. Eager to discover the truth, the nobleman watches while his two “guests” go toe to toe. Will Vogler’s magic tricks be enough to outwit Vergerus’ unwavering belief in science? On the surface Ingmar Bergman’s face-off between faith and skepticism is a delightful romp that mixes elements of bedroom farce (apparently those love potions are the real deal!) with a touch of old-style horror when Vogler attempts the ultimate illusion. But there is yet another layer to his film as it touches on something which was always near and dear to the director’s heart—the art of cinema itself. In this respect Vogler is the ultimate showman using everything from hidden pulleys and trick mirrors to magic lanterns and fake beards in order to create a scene and suspend disbelief—it may not make him rich but it certainly entertains. Vergerus, on the other hand, is the ultimate critic finding fault in everything and taking great delight whenever his barbs hit home. Put the two together, Bergman seems to say, and the artist will always gain the upper hand. Shot in crisp B&W with a musical score that begins with subdued strums and ends with slapstick jazz, this is definitely one of the master’s more accessible and thus easily enjoyed films. Bergman regular Bibi Andersson co-stars as a busty scullery maid and Naima Wifstrand commands the screen as Vogler’s feisty old grandmother who just might be a 200-year old witch.

The Magic Voyage of Sinbad [Sadko] (Russia 1953) (2): A decidedly Slavic Sinbad tries to bring happiness to his homeland by scouring the seven seas in search of the Bird of Happiness. Along the way he battles foppish vikings, cops a feel off of Neptune's daughter, and kidnaps an overgrown budgie only to discover that true happiness lies with his flat-chested girlfriend back home. The worst Sinbad movie ever made (actually based on an opera by Rimsky-Korsakoff) is not without a certain degree of style. There are a few wonderfully surreal scenes, a treacherous phoenix locked within the fantastical walls of a Raja's palace is especially well done, but the film is ruined again and again by bad dubbing, horrendous matte screen backdrops and primitive special effects....a toy boat filled with stick dolls floating in a choppy bathtub left us howling! Keep an eye out for the MST3K version of this Russian turkey so your evening won't be a total waste.

The Magnificent Ambersons (USA 1942) (7): Orson Welles directs this dark morality play set at the turn of the century which traces the shifting fortunes of the Amberson clan, most notably daughter Isabel and her son George, while recording the death of the era in which they lived. Practically owning the small town in which their palatial estate is situated, the Ambersons enjoy a life of privilege unimagined by the common folk around them. But behind the gala balls and evening soirees there is a degree of discontent, for despite her marriage to businessman Wilbur Minafer, Isabel still longs for her first love, the pioneering inventor Eugene Morgan whose heart she broke years before. Upon Wilbur’s death the long-suppressed feelings between her and Eugene are reignited much to the indignation of her son George and her sister-in-law Fanny; he is worried about scandalous rumors while she, an embittered spinster, has always carried a torch for Morgan herself. Complicating matters is the budding romance between the spoiled and impetuous George and Morgan’s quick-witted daughter, Lucy. But dynasties don’t last forever and a combination of failed business deals and burned bridges find Isabel and George at a social and financial crossroads with Eugene and Lucy looking on helplessly from the sidelines. This is a gorgeously filmed epic with all of Welles’ cinematic conceits on full display, from dizzying camera angles and glorious tracking shots to intimate close-ups and amazing Christmas Card sets. And it’s all shot in richly shadowed B&W making the cinematography an integral part of the tragic narrative. Unfortunately the executives at RKO Studios, unhappy with both the length and depressing vision of Welles’ family drama, went behind the director’s back and cut almost an hour out of its running time while adding an “uplifting” ending for good measure. As a result the pace of the story appears choppy and episodic, and the syrupy final scenes ring false. A real pity.

Magnificent Obsession (USA 1954) (7): When ill-mannered millionaire playboy Bob Merrick (a convincingly hetero Rock Hudson) crashes his racing boat the paramedics tie up the town’s only resuscitator in order to revive him. Of course this is the exact time that the saintly Dr. Phillips, local hero and benefactor, decides to have a heart attack and dies for want of the same resuscitator. Overcome with guilt, Merrick becomes haunted by the good doctor’s memory whether it’s in the form of a half-finished portrait or his widow’s accusing stares (Jane Wyman, beautifully victimized) but his desperate attempts to make amends inadvertently visit yet another medical disaster upon the already suffering woman leaving her permanently blinded. Now, more determined than ever to make the universe right again, Merrick will go to any lengths including wooing the late doctor’s wife while simultaneously graduating from medical school. But can he ever repay such an exorbitant debt? Sirk has outdone himself with this sudsy weeper. It is awash with rich vibrant colours, impassioned performances and a lush musical score complete with heavenly choir. His odd mixture of romantic melodrama and Christian voodoo (Dr. Phillips made a cult out of good deeds) may not always gel, but he embellishes it with so much froth you hardly notice. I suppose you could read all sorts of meaning into the film’s outrageous plot: how blindness takes many forms from the physical to the metaphysical; how averting one’s eyes from the baser trappings of human nature leads to a clearer spiritual vision; or how our sense of reality changes when familiar elements are removed from their usual context. There is certainly enough symbolism in Sirk’s use of shadows, doorways and windows and he wraps it all up in so much religious hocus-pocus, including a mock witch-burning. I chose to watch it as a magnificently overdone soap opera instead, and as such it was pure joy!

The Magnificent Seven (USA 1960) (8): Director John Sturges pays Akira Kurosawa a sincere compliment by taking his masterpiece, Seven Samurai, out of feudal Japan and placing it in the rollicking Wild West frontier of the 1880s. And with a cast that includes Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Eli Wallach, and Robert Vaughn, it became an instant classic. The frightened citizens of a small Mexican farming community regularly beset by cutthroat bandits led by the lunatic Calvera (a silver-toothed Wallach in leering bandito drag) pool their meagre resources and hire seven outlaw gunslingers to defend their village. Over the ensuing weeks a synergistic relationship develops between the pacifist farmers and the gunmen with the former learning to stand up for themselves and the latter reappraising a nomadic lifestyle marked by violence and loneliness. But when Calvera and his men show up with rifles blazing both the expertise of the “magnificent seven” and the resolve of the peasants whom they’ve tried to train will be pushed to the limit… Beautiful widescreen pans of hills and brush are perfectly paired to Elmer Bernstein’s rousing Oscar-nominated score (later used in Marlboro cigarette ads), and an incisive script is bolstered rather than overshadowed by all the flying bullets and chest-clutching—although the bloodletting is neither graphic nor gratuitous Sturges’ take is still more brutal than Kurosawa’s thanks in no small part to Technicolor and the use of American firearms in place of Japanese swordplay. Everyone plays their roles with absolute conviction from Vaughan’s ruthless villain-turned-coward to McQueen’s boyish insolence, and newcomer Horst Buchholz, barely concealing his German accent, reprises Toshirô Mifune’s iconic role by toning down the comic buffoonery in favour of a naive bad boy wannabe which plays well against ringleader Brynner’s hardened cynicism. A ripping good Western and a sardonic allegory on the role of Hawks and Doves in society (can there really be no peace without conflict? is the line between pacifist and warmonger so rigid?) this is one of those instances where an American remake of a foreign staple actually does justice to both. Kurosawa, apparently, was deeply flattered.

Maid of Salem (USA 1937) (7): It’s New England, 1692, and frightening tales of devils and witches are reaching the impressionable ears of Salem, Mass. One spiteful child, eager to cause trouble, feigns demonic possession and points an accusing finger at the slave woman Tituba (magnificent performance from Madame Sul-Te-Wan). Already in hot water for her fanciful tales of African magic it doesn’t take much to have the charges of witchcraft stick. Goaded by past slights, jealousies, and envy, the townspeople soon follow suit with charges of sorcery and devil worship being levied in every direction, a state of zealous paranoia which keeps both the court and the hangman well employed. Caught up in the madness is a sweet young maiden (Claudette Colbert) whose clandestine romance with a political outlaw (Fred MacMurray) leads to deadly misunderstandings and her own day in court. Not as grim as Dreyer’s Day of Wrath or Miller’s The Crucible, Frank Lloyd’s somewhat sanitized account of this dark chapter in American history (the torture is barely mentioned, the rash of executions are kept offscreen) is still surprisingly frank for 1937. Colbert’s plea for rationality, backed by the village doctor’s debunking of superstition, have a refreshingly contemporary feel to them especially when the camera pans over her accusers, their faces all twisted in ignorance and hate. Alas, Hollywood felt the need to give audiences a happy ending which could only have been made more upbeat had everyone broken into a Busby Berkeley song and dance number. The acting is impeccable however and those outdoor locations, filmed between Santa Cruz, Carmel, and the Paramount Ranch, are a welcome change from the usual studio backlots.

Make Way For Tomorrow (USA 1937) (10): When Barkley and Lucy Cooper, married for fifty years, discover that the bank is foreclosing on their home (Barkley has been unable to find work) the couple turn to their adult children for help. Faced with having to look after mom and dad the kids reluctantly agree to take them in; Lucy moves in with one son and his wife while Barkley moves in with another, three hundred miles away. But when it appears that this temporary fix may become permanent and the other siblings are unable (read: unwilling) to help, troubles begin to mount. None of the children want their parents underfoot, even the maid protests over having to babysit Lucy while a granddaughter refuses to bring friends home due to grandma's incessant talking. For their part, the old couple seem too set in their ways to effect a compromise even though they sense they are not wanted. The children eventually hit upon a solution, behind their parents’ backs of course, leading to one of cinema's most heartbreaking endings. Equal parts droll comedy and soft spoken tragedy, Leo McCarey's indictment of the Generation Gap circa 1930s shows that nothing much has changed in the intervening eighty years: some grown-ups still find aging parents an obstacle rather than an obligation. Stars Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi look and act as if they truly were married for half a century; their unspoken understanding, wistful recollections, and gentle banter anchor the film with a profound pathos without succumbing to cheap sympathy. Furthermore the children, all played with consummate skill, are not the two-dimensional adult brats you would expect but rather complex characters exhibiting a wide range of conflicting emotions. The film's final scene, beautifully underplayed, will have you reaching for that last tissue.

Making Montgomery Clift (USA 2018) (6): Screen icon Montgomery Clift (1920 - 1966) was no stranger to controversy as stories about his drinking, drug habits, and sexual dalliances persist even to this day. Branded as a difficult prima donna by the industry and a self-loathing homosexual by gossipy journalists, it’s almost impossible to separate the real person from the tarnished legend—but with this low-budget documentary that is precisely what his nephew, Robert Anderson Clift, tries to accomplish. With a pile of home movies, personal correspondence, and recorded conversations, Robert doesn’t quite un-muddy the waters but at least he gives us some valuable insights into the way his uncle’s mind worked. An acting prodigy from an early age, Clift was a dogged perfectionist whose passion for his art made him a pariah of sorts among studios when he repeatedly refused to sign any contracts and insisted on adding his own edits to whatever script he was handed. According to his nephew’s research he was also an affectionate man with a sense of humour who “loved women but was attracted to men”. Unlike Rock Hudson, however, he refused to hide behind a sham marriage and his bisexual leanings were no secret in Hollywood even if subsequent biographers tried to paint him as a tragic closet case and the “world’s longest suicide” (he actually died from heart disease). From his early beginnings on the stage to his four Academy Award nominations, to his subsequent slide into obscurity—a near fatal car crash in ’56 did not end his career but it certainly changed its course—Clift remained the consummate actor even after the offers started drying up. Although most of Robert’s information comes second and third hand (aside from interviews with some of Clift’s surviving lovers) his attempts to add a new dimension to his uncle’s story are admirable—and a little creepy when one considers that both Montgomery and his older brother Brooks (Robert’s dad) had a peculiar habit of secretly tape-recording telephone calls and offhand conversations; Brooks even maintained a shrine of sorts devoted to his brother’s career. Visionary, agitator, and victim—director Walter Huston was “disgusted” by Clift’s homosexuality—Montgomery Clift’s complicated legacy has nevertheless earned him a place alongside such period idols as Monroe, Dean, and Brando.

Making the Boys (USA 2011) (7): In the Fall of 1968 struggling playwright Matt Crowley’s controversial play The Boys in the Band opened in New York and the very fact it made it to the stage (and a subsequent movie) at all has earned it a place in the modern equal rights movement. The story—a gay man’s birthday celebration turns ugly when everyone brings their emotional luggage to the party—marked the first time homosexuality took centre stage in a mainstream production and even though its star has faded over the years it still remains a contentious chapter in our history. Lauded by some for its frankness and unapologetic honesty, reviled by others as a portrayal of self-loathing gay stereotypes, its cast of angry flamboyant queens nevertheless encapsulated the spirit of what it meant to be gay in the turbulent semi-closeted 60s, a subject that was still uncomfortably controversial at the time. Crayton Robey’s incisive documentary traces the arc of Crowley’s play from its wildly successful off-Broadway premiere through the decadent 70s and on to the 21st century where talking heads from the gay community including playwright Edward Albee, columnist Dan Savage, trans-actress Candis Cayne, and a handful of the original cast, are still split over both its relevance and legacy. Rendered glaringly out-of-date by the Stonewall Riots and devastated by the AIDS epidemic, it has still managed to hang on if only as a reminder of where we once were and how far we’ve come. But the doc’s most intimate moments are reserved for the then 75-year old Crowley himself who describes the emotional (and financial) journey which took him from being the child of a neurotic mother and bible-thumping father to the minor echelons of Hollywood’s gay underworld to, finally, the feted author of the very first play all about “us”.

Malabimba the Malicious Whore  (Italy 1979) (2):  Take a nubile young naif, a busty cougar, an altruistic lesbian nun and a couple of sexually frustrated men. Throw them in a gloomy old castle and add one lustful spirit. Shake gently and voila, you have Malabimba—or as I prefer to call it, "The Father, The Nun, and the Horny Ghost". With its generic hardcore close-ups and histrionic presentation, this cheesy little dish will delight sleaze connoisseurs of all persuasions. Leave it to a good Catholic pornographer to equate a young woman's sexual curiosity with demonic evil. BOO!!

Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (USA 1973) (1): Some people should never be allowed within 50 yards of a movie camera. Case in point is Christopher Speeth’s jumbled train wreck of a film in which a host of unsuspecting suburban couples buy shares in a rundown amusement park only to discover its staffed by hippy cannibals led by an impotent vampire and a caped Frank Zappa lookalike. Living in underground caves beneath the carnival, the ghouls emerge at night in order to watch old horror movies before inflicting mayhem and carnage on those poor souls unlucky enough to be wandering the midway after hours. Enter Vena, daughter of one of the new shareholders, who strikes up a romantic liaison with Kit, a carnival barker who suspects something is amiss when he discovers blood in the Tunnel of Love. Sneaking out of the family trailer (yes, they live in a trailer in a parking lot) in order to meet up with Kit, Vena instead falls prey to Malatesta’s horde of malcontents and thus begins a long and puzzling night of terror. With sets composed mainly of plywood and bubble wrap, lines taken directly from a bad comic book, and a director who has no concept of either continuity or momentum, Carnival of Blood is at best a running joke with no punchline. Employing a cast of no-talent nobodies, with the exception of no-talent somebody Hervé Villechaize (here playing Bobo, an enigmatic and barely intelligible dwarf), Speeth makes several weak, and unintentionally hilarious, attempts to confound his audience with fantastical dream sequences and arty asides à la Carnival of Souls: shambling zombies covered in pancake make-up cavort amongst giant mylar balloons, an annoyingly fey fortune teller lisps dire warnings to Vena, and a hapless victim is fed into a pulsating rubber orifice before being drained of blood and eaten alive. Absolutely horrible on every level (ooh...styrofoam heads covered in ketchup!) this stinker goes beyond amateurish and ranks as one of the worst excuses for a film I’ve ever seen. It’s confounding to read the number of glowing reviews it’s received over they years, I guess some critics just don’t know the difference between “slapdash” and “surreal”.

Malevolent (UK 2018) (2): American siblings Jackson and Angela Sayer move to their ancestral Scottish home where they begin running a successful scam operation posing as paranormal investigators to gullible people anxious to rid their homes of imagined spooks. But when their team is called upon to exorcise an old orphanage—the scene of a grisly mass murder fifteen years earlier—guess what happens? Yep, not only are the ghosts real, but Angela’s latent psychic abilities suddenly kick in giving rise to all the usual shocks and jolts as little spectral girls with pinafores and bloodied faces take turns jumping in front of the camera and everyone has a good scream. Olaf de Fleur’s derivative shit box of a film rips off everything from Paranormal Activity to The Conjuring to Friday the 13th yet fails to produce one single novel twist on the old haunted house schtick. Mediocre performances all around including a very disappointing turn from Celia Imrie as the gloomy institution’s former manager and now sole tenant (or is she? Bwahaha!), her crazy old lady routine limping halfheartedly towards the film’s “big reveal” which insults your intelligence as it tries to turn your stomach. Some movies should just stay buried.

Mama (Canada/Spain 2013) (5): Five years after disappearing into the woods with their suicidal father, Victoria and her sister Lilly, now aged eight and six, are found living like wild dogs in an abandoned cabin. Reunited with their Uncle Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau playing both men) and his rocker girlfriend Annabel (Jessica Chastain) the girls slowly reintegrate into society with the help of a psychiatrist who hopes to make them the subject of his next thesis. But something nasty has followed them out of the woods, something named Mama that has been watching over the two tykes since they were first lost and is not about to let go of them now. As Lucas and Annabel resign themselves to the sound of little pattering feet in the hallway other mysterious happenings become harder to ignore: the creaking shadows seen out of the corner of their eyes; the juicy black moths crawling out of the wallpaper; and the guttural sighs drifting up through the air ducts. With the spectral phenomena becoming more brazen, the girls’ doctor tries to unravel the sad mystery behind Mama before the thing can make its final move. Using a palette of wintry colours and lighting effects which rarely go beyond twilight, director Andrés Muschietti’s ghostly shocker certainly doesn’t lack for style. Furthermore, executive producer Guillermo del Toro’s fascination with the dark fairytale world of children is evident throughout starting with an opening montage of disturbing crayon scribblings and the words “Once upon a time…” But the film’s many jolts become predictable after a while—all those jerking silhouettes and fluttering moths reduced to so much gimmicky filler and his fiend little more than an extra crispy Barbie with waving hair and a few extra joints. When Muschietti finally ends this overly long exercise in generic frights he not only destroys any sense of mystique, he also veers full on into cloying Tim Burton territory with menacing moonlight and a choir straining to keep the mood going. And more goddam moths.

Maman est Chez le Coiffeur (Canada 2008) (7): Set in rural Quebec towards the end of the 60’s this coming-of-age film centres on the Gauvin family, particularly eldest daughter Élise. With dad a successful doctor and his wife Simone an international journalist of some renown the family seems to be leading an idyllic life which makes mom’s abrupt and angry departure for a posting in London, England all the more confusing. While oldest brother Conrad reacts to mom’s disappearance with a sullen indifference his younger sibling Benoit, already terribly fragile due to some unspecified “personality disorders”, turns his anger both inward and outward in a series of increasingly destructive stunts. Meanwhile Dad does his best to keep the family going while dealing with his own feelings of bewilderment and deep-seated guilt. But it is Élise, barely in her teens, who feels her mother’s absence most acutely for only she and her father know the real reason behind Simone’s hasty exit. Dealing with her own sense of guilt, intensified by an emerging case of adolescent angst, Élise finds her carefree days behind her as she slowly comes to the realization that the world is both sadder and more wonderful than she had ever imagined. With long languorous shots of glowing cornfields and lazy rivers director Léa Pool evokes hazy childhood memories of summer vacation, that special time in our lives when skies were somehow bluer and grass so much greener. Furthermore her many little touches, from patterned vinyl furniture and flowery fashions to old television footage and flippy hair-dos capture the flavour of the late 1960’s perfectly while a piercing score of classical piano and sultry torch songs ties it all together. Lastly, her stellar cast of actors are both physically beautiful and enormously talented. Unfortunately she often ices the cake more than is necessary and quietly slips into Spielberg territory with its inflated nostalgia and dripping sense of poignancy; a closing montage in particular threatens to yank our heartstrings right out of our chests. And although her actors handle the material with great aplomb, the children are fantastic, I couldn’t help but feel a subtle artifice and manipulation at work which detracted from what was otherwise an assured and finely nuanced film.

Mamma Roma (Italy 1962) (8): Anna Magnani is brilliant in Pasolini’s heartbreaking story of a former prostitute desperately trying to give her son the life she never had. First married to a man decades her senior while still a teenager, then victimized by a brutal pimp, “Mamma Roma” endured years of shame and privation yet managed to survive by sheer force of will. Now eking out a living as a vegetable vendor in a backwater village she dreams of saving her son from a life of small town delinquency by moving to an upscale apartment in Rome; a dream thrown into turmoil when her ex-pimp comes knocking at the door. Although firmly rooted in Italian neorealism, Pasolini nevertheless manages to throw in some very clever camerawork which, along with a melancholic score of classical Vivaldi, gives his film the highly formalized feel of a religious epic; a series of long tracking shots following Mamma Roma as she strolls past assorted johns while waxing eloquent on everything from motherhood to the legacy of Mussolini were especially notable. There is a finely balanced symmetry at work here as the story shifts from the mean streets of rural Italy to the cleaner, though no less mean, streets of modern Rome. While the old apartment faces a barren cemetery filled with concrete headstones, the new one overlooks the faded glory of crumbling ruins; yet in both settings one is all too aware of the ubiquitous dust that seems to cover everything. True to his roots, Pasolini doesn’t miss an opportunity to take a few jabs at God, or rather the ritualized hypocrisy of the church whether it’s a sobering interpretation of the Madonna & Child, a trio of pigs crashing a wedding banquet, or a passionate quotation from Dante’s Inferno. But, above all, this is a sad tale of one headstrong mother’s refusal to accept what life has given her. “The evil you do is like a highway the innocent have to walk down...” she states at one point; words that culminate in one of cinema’s most tragic final scenes.

The Man Called Flintstone (USA 1966) (6): Meant as a swan song for the Bedrock gang after the TV series was cancelled, this animated James Bond spoof sees Fred Flintstone mistaken for secret agent Rock Slag. With the real Slag laid up in hospital it’s suddenly up to Fred to save the world from the nefarious arch criminal Green Goose who plans on holding civilization hostage with his super powerful “inter-rock-inental” missile. Accompanied by an unsuspecting Wilma, Barney, and Betty, Fred’s undercover adventures take him from Paris to Rome before a wacky showdown outside an Italian amusement park lands him in more than hot water. The usual prehistoric sight gags are all here (jet planes fly on pterodactyl power, alligator suitcases are actual alligators), the animation is one notch above Saturday morning television and the tacked on musical numbers are beyond corny. But for those of us who grew up with The Flintstones it’s a technicolor trip down memory lane, bare feet and all.

Mandy (USA 2018) (5): Once upon a time in an enchanted goth forest where the sun never quite shone and everyone walked around in a happy barbiturate haze, a strung-out damsel (Andrea Riseborough looking like a crackwhore Shelley Duvall) was abducted by a satanic hippy cult and their gooey gang of biker demons (think Hellraiser on wheels). Overwhelmed with grief, the damsel’s slack-jawed boyfriend Red (Nicholas Cage in dire need of a paycheque perhaps?) forged a mighty weapon and proceeded to cut a swath of bloody vengeance which would lead him to the brink of madness and the very gates of Hell itself… Awesome, right?! A mixed bag of influences shape Panos Cosmatos’ trippy bloodbath, among them the artwork of Frank Frazetta, the stage antics of Gwar, a few dog-eared copies of “Heavy Metal” magazine, and just about every Italian giallo film ever made—not to mention the odd tab or two of LSD. Shot in grainy shades of red and black his nightmare aesthetic sees characters moving about as if underwater, their monotone voices and dilated pupils suspended halfway between the real world and some geeky adolescent revenge fantasy. Crazy cult leader Jeremiah (Linus Roache treating us to a full monty) spouts the usual mystical babble in gimmicky slo-mo and echo chamber voice while Red transforms into a gore-spattered backwoods warrior and the special effects team earns its keep staging fiery apocalyptic climaxes with sprays of dark red blood and vaseline-smeared monster masks. Cosmatos does inject a bit of humour to let us know he’s in on the joke—one coked-out demon watches porn while tugging on a metal scimitar boner—but it’s not enough to save the whole production from sliding into a demented shit show. Crimson backlighting and screaming guitars (and a screaming Nick Cage) may be great for atmospherics but if there’s nothing there to shore up they become just so much light and noise. As an arty homage to grindhouse exploitation it goes too far. As a clumsy attempt at satire (America’s “Christian Values” get a poke or two) it doesn’t go far enough. And as a metaphor for old age vs. youth—supposedly one of the director’s intentions—it misses the mark entirely. Personally I chalked it up to an assault on the senses and an insult to the intellect, but at least Cosmatos had the humility to laugh at himself.

Manhattan Murder Mystery (USA 1993) (7): Definitely not his best work, but Woody Allen’s lightweight homage to the 1930s Thin Man series of urban mysteries is still a pleasure to watch. When her next door neighbour suddenly drops dead, bored Manhattan housewife Carol Lipton (Diane Keaton reprising her Annie Hall persona) suspects foul play. Goaded into becoming an amateur sleuth by her playwright friend (Alan Alda), Carol concocts one elaborate scheme after another to try and solve the case—schemes which bring unexpected side effects to her own life. Allen essentially plays himself as Carol’s increasingly neurotic husband, his non-stop non-sequiturs providing a welcome vein of humour in what is otherwise a ridiculously convoluted plot and of course his beloved New York City is laid out in all its gritty charm from crumbling courtyards to the Lincoln Center’s fluorescent glitz. Comic timing and a sparkling script filled with overlapping banter more than make up for the facile storyline while the talents of Jerry Adler as the suspicious widower and Anjelica Huston as a whip smart author who smells a rat keep things from becoming a complete farce. But it’s that ending which left me smiling—a salute to Orson Welles which is so corny it actually works.