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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Oasis of the Zombies
(France 1981) (2): Sleaze auteur Jesus Franco turns his sights from tits to terror in this incredibly bad zombie rip-off. A retired German commander, a group of spoiled college kids and a documentary film crew descend upon on a remote Saharan oasis in search of buried nazi treasure. The huge cache of gold comes with one rather significant caveat however---it’s guarded by a cadre of dead stormtroopers with a taste for entrails. During the course of one harrowing night, obviously filmed at high noon, some will be eaten while others will be eaten out (yes, even in the midst of a zombie attack Franco is still able to insert a few lukewarm scenes of desert nookie), and one young man will “mostly” find himself. Where to begin? The lamentable dubbing of a godawful script? The cheap papier mâché zombie masks? The even cheaper zombie muppet-on-a-stick? The monotonous soundtrack of two-finger organ chords? Or the distinct lack of any appreciable blood & guts? The only scene that even approached euro-splatter standards in gore involved a brief glimpse of bloodied deli meats being manhandled by a trio of bored ghouls. If ever a movie cried out for a bullet to the brain...

Obsession (UK 1949) (8): Driven to distraction by his wife’s endless marital indiscretions, eminent psychiatrist Dr. Clive Riordan (Robert Newton menacingly dapper) has vowed to kill the next man who hangs his hat on her bedpost. Sadly, he doesn’t have to wait long for the opportunity when he catches her in the arms of a brash American. But rather than settle for a quick bullet and possible death sentence Riordan has something far more elaborate in mind, something that will not only allow him to get away with the perfect murder but also subject both his wife and her lover to a merciless form of psychological torture in the process. His grisly plans hit a pair of snags however in the form of a relentless Scotland Yard inspector and one very precocious pooch… Dark and macabre, but shot through with that impeccably proper British-ness which sees everyone dressed to the nines and being oh-so obtuse about it all, Edward Dmytryk’s odd little thriller certainly falls outside the usual drawing room dramas so prevalent at the time. It also must have presented something of a headache to the censors with its allusions to rampant female sexuality and grotesque demises. A great deal of fun nonetheless especially with C. M. Pennington-Richards’ ominous cinematography going in and out of cellar doors and a tense score by none other than Nino Rota himself. The stunning Sally Gray is all ice and blonde curls as Riordan’s wife Storm (cool name!), Naunton Wayne is perfectly cast as the mousy inspector with a mind like a rat trap, and canine co-star Monty the Dog hams it up right on cue. This is film noir as envisioned by Edgar Allan Poe and served up with a glass of scotch.

Oculus (USA 2013) (7): Eleven years ago Tim Russell was confined to a mental institution for shooting his father after the old man went off the deep end and did bad things to their mother. Now twenty-one and declared sane by his doctor he is happily reunited with his sister Kaylie—but their joy is marred by the fact they both carry very different memories of what exactly happened all those years ago. While Tim’s therapist has convinced him that he suffered a nervous breakdown from which he is now fully recovered, Kaylie remembers something far more sinister involving an antique mirror which once hung in their father’s study... To truly enjoy this twisty tale you of course have to forgive the usual nonsensical horror conventions common to any haunted thingamajig story and writer/director Mike Flanagan manages to squeak by with a handful of satisfactory explanations couched within a script that is unexpectedly hair-raising once it gets going. But, above being an effective ghost story, Flanagan manages to pull off a small dramatic coup by running two parallel stories simultaneously—showing what really happened to the children all those years ago while at the same time showing an adult Tim and Kaylie entering the supernatural fray once again. The result is a dizzying montage of past and present as we see the kids running up stairs and hiding in bedrooms while their grownup selves do pretty much the same, all giving rise to an increasingly monstrous reveal which Flanagan wisely saves for the end. And those glowing-eyed creepies which seem to be around every other corner are pure nightmare fodder. Good scary fun!

Oddball [aka Oddball and the Penguins] (Australia 2015) (5): When an island colony of little fairy penguins is threatened by hungry foxes who have learned how to swim, conservation officer and single mother Emily Marsh (Sarah Snook) is at her wits’ end. If the colony is wiped out not only will she lose her job—and life’s work—but just to make matters even worse, Middle Island has already been slated for the home of a new whale observatory by a local town council hungry for tourist dollars. Her cheerfully hot-tempered father (Shane Jacobson) has an idea however—together with his resourceful nine-year old granddaughter (Coco Jack Gillies) they successfully teach his otherwise clumsy and ill-trained Maremma sheepdog, Oddball, to guard the penguins each night. But even as their plan comes to fruition, other forces are at work to undermine it all… Since Stuart McDonald’s film is based on a true story insofar as there is a Middle Island off the southeast coast of Australia, there is a penguin colony on it, and the colony is guarded by Maremma sheepdogs, I should have liked it more than I did. Unfortunately he drowns the facts with so much syrup from postcard backdrops and slapstick shenanigans (oh that Oddball is such a character!) to a manipulative musical score reminiscent of the worst of Disney, that it devolves into nothing more than a series of precious moments. Add to that the stock characters of a lovingly irascible old man, a lovingly precocious tyke, a lovingly disastrous doggy, and a tacked-on love story as mom is mildly torn between her idyllic small town life and the promises offered by her entrepreneurial American boyfriend (Alan Tudyk), and you have a recipe for a big ol’ slice of sugar pie that may go down well with the wee ones but is sure to pose a choking hazard for most adults. But just to prove I’m not a total ogre, I’m happy to say the penguin colony is thriving and you can learn more by visiting Have a nice day!

Odd Thomas (USA 2013) (7): Odd Thomas sees dead people, a talent which has helped the local police chief (Willem Dafoe) solve more than one crime. But Odd also sees “bordachs”, otherwise invisible harbingers of death and destruction who always show up shortly before a particularly grisly demise. Now his small town of Pico Mundo is literally crawling with thousands of the gelatinous monsters indicating something horrible is about to go down and Odd only a few days to figure out what it is so he can try and prevent it. And then a peculiar stranger stumbles into town… Based on Dean Koontz’s series of novels, director Stephen Sommers’ supernatural detective flick feels like something out of the 80s—complete with shopping mall, young love, and an ice cream shop—and that’s not a bad thing. There’s definitely a touch of comic book to his production where actions loom larger than life (is that a doorway to HELL?!) and the bad guys are so thoroughly despicable you want to hiss at the screen. Sommers, to his credit, is not only aware of this he actually revels in it thereby giving audiences a wild ride full of CGI bogeymen, rotting body parts, and a weepy twist that chokes you up even though you can see it coming from a mile away. The late Anton Yelchin does justice to the role of Odd, playing the short order cook-slash-psychic crusader with a hammy “aww shucks” abandon and the supporting cast are all down with the joke. A few laughs, a few macabre jolts, and a sense of déjà-vu nostalgia for everyone that remembers those old teen scream matinees. Fun stuff, silly script and all.

Ode to my Father (Korea 2014) (9): Mixing just the right amounts of pathos and everyday humour, JK Youn’s enthusiastic big screen weeper looks at fifty years of contemporary Korean history through the eyes of truculent septuagenarian Duk-Soo. Opening in the winter of 1951, Duk-Soo and his family are fleeing their northern village ahead of the invading Chinese forces when both his father and younger sister are separated from the others in the frightened confusion—but not before dad lays the grave responsibility of being “head of the household” onto his ten-year old head. Over the ensuing years Duk-Soo will strive to keep his remaining family solvent by whatever means possible whether it be working in the grungy coal mines of West Germany along with thousands of other economically desperate ex-pats or serving as a technician in war ravaged Viet Nam where the plight of another brother and sister will reflect his own traumatic childhood. But with precious little time for either love or the pursuit of his own dreams, Duk-Soo’s recollections always arouse a wistful nostalgia tinged with bitter regret, an ambiguous combination that no one around him seems to understand, except perhaps his stoically uncomplaining wife. Grandiose cinematography that has audiences flying over battleships or zooming in on a flitting butterfly is shored up by a script that flows naturally despite the occasional maudlin lapse (a weeping orchestra seems to stalk Duk-Soo wherever he goes) and Youn wrings meaning out of the simplest of things, like a pot of bubbling stew or a dusty old jacket. And even though the cameras are firmly focused on one family he makes a few pointed comments on his country’s social and political growing pains—xenophobia and nationalism contrast with Korea’s ambivalent attitudes toward the West, and the generation gap yawns very wide indeed—while pivotal scenes of families (and by association an entire generation) trying to reconnect years after being torn apart by war even had me reaching for a tissue or two. Little wonder it’s become one of the biggest domestic box office draws in Korean history.

Oedipus Rex [Edipo Re] (Italy 1967) (6): Sophocle’s tragedy about Oedipus, the foundling who gained the throne of Thebes then discovered he’d unwittingly murdered his father and married his mother, is given a slight contemporary twist by Pier Paolo Pasolini. Initially set during Mussolini’s reign with an Italian officer consumed by murderous jealousy over his wife’s attention to their newborn son, it abruptly shifts into an antique daydream set in ancient times where an abandoned baby, left to die in the desert, is rescued and raised by King Polybus and Queen Merope in the palace at Corinth. Growing into a handsome young man, Oedipus is horrified to learn of his incestuous fate from the Oracle at Delphi and so leaves home before it can come true. But a combination of cruel fate and personal weakness eventually leads him to ruin… With a cast of unknown professionals and fidgeting amateurs, and a jerky handheld cinematography that tries to make the most of those sun-drenched Moroccan locations, Pasolini’s enigmatic film is part autobiography—his own childhood was not exemplary—and part social critique, though the lines between the Fall of Thebes and pre-Fascist Italy are sketchy at best. One does not try to decipher a Pasolini film however, best to simply revel in it’s esoteric mix of poetry, myth, and politics. His actors emote as if on a Greek stage (Silvana Mangano is brilliant as the Queen, Franco Citti less so as Oedipus) while extras parade around in outrageous costumes ranging from indigo thawbs to elaborate headdresses made from plaster, scrap metal, and branches. But it’s those sere desert locations that ultimately make up for much of the movie’s potholes with mud cities baking beneath a blinding sun which glares down upon kings and peasants like an impersonal eye. A low-budget pageant and a worthy addition to Pasolini’s omnibus.

The Official Story (Argentina 1985) (7): Buenos Aires, 1983, and Argentina’s junta-sponsored reign of terror—known as “The Dirty War” and linked to America’s “Operation Condor”—has just ended leaving a legacy of brutal suppression, torture, and thousands of men and women who simply disappeared. But for comfortably bourgeois history teacher Alicia it is little more than a memory of unpleasant inconveniences, cushioned as she was by the finagling of her husband Roberto, a prominent right-leaning lawyer. Alicia’s sanitized view of recent events takes a double hit however with the arrival of two jarring revelations: a shocking confession from one of her oldest and dearest friends, and a growing suspicion regarding the parentage of her adopted daughter, five-year old Gaby. Alicia’s attempts to uncover the facts surrounding Gaby will eventually put her at odds with Roberto who is determined to let the past remain buried. Luis Puenzo’s Oscar-winning drama is a tense jumble of social realism and political castigation which was largely filmed on the sly due to threats aimed at cast and crew. By casting Alicia (a bravura performance from Norma Aleandro) as a willful naif and then pitting her against Roberto (a dour Héctor Alterio) he creates two polar extremes—one painfully turning towards the truth, the other intent on facing the other way—which sum up the Argentinian zeitgeist of the time. Street protests and classroom clashes (Alicia is shocked when one student attacks the history books she so adores) contrast with Roberto’s boardroom intrigues (it’s no coincidence many of his associates speak American English), and a gossipy highschool reunion dinner turns into a microcosm of middle class apathy. Suffering in part from erratic editing and plot points which require some pre-reading, Puenzo’s outspoken condemnation of his country’s human rights atrocities still makes for powerful viewing especially when one considers the abusers themselves were not entirely without power when filming began.

Of Time and the City (UK 2008) (8): Writer/director Terence Davies presents us with a highly subjective hallucinatory slideshow of words and images as he recalls growing up gay, Catholic, and angry in post WWII Liverpool. Snapshots and snippets of video show a city of crushing poverty rubbing shoulders with Royal excesses and religious pomp while the common folk go about the business of simply living. Davie’s own recollections, written in muscular prose and spoken with all the solemnity of a high mass, describe a city both menacing and banal, robust and sadly vulnerable. Filling in the narrative gaps with quotes from the likes of Jung and Engels and smoothing it all over with an eclectic soundtrack of pop tunes, mournful arias and majestic choral pieces, Davies leaves us with an emotional collage of conflicting feelings which is a far cry from the working class fantasyland of The Long Day Closes. Piercing, sardonic, occasionally tender, yet always compelling, Of Time and the City makes for an unsettling piece of cinematic art.

O. Henry’s Full House (USA 1952) (7): O. Henry was the pen name of William Sydney Porter (1862 - 1910) an American author whose masterful short stories, culled from his experiences travelling the backroads of North and Central America, presented ordinary people reacting to extraordinary circumstances. Witty and playfully written, his tales ran the gamut from comedy to stark drama yet always contained that little ironical twist at the end which became his trademark. In this cinematic collection five directors take turns bringing one of his stories to life aided by a who’s who of Hollywood stars. From The Cop and the Anthem in which a panhandler suffers through one of the worst days of his life to The Last Leaf detailing a curmudgeonly artist’s ultimate sacrifice to save a young woman’s life and the almost unbearably saccharine frosting of The Gift of the Magi wherein a pair of penniless newlyweds gush over each other while going to great lengths to secure that perfect Christmas gift this is a mixed bag that doesn’t always work. But with a cast that includes names like Marilyn Monroe, Charles Laughton, Farley Granger, and Anne Baxter it’s well worth a look. And did I mention it’s all narrated by John Steinbeck himself?

The Old Dark House (USA 1932) (9): It’s a dark and stormy night on the Welsh moors as squabbling couple Phillip and Margaret, along with their friend Roger, seek refuge in a gloomy old manor. Here they come face to face with the appropriately eccentric Femm family: dour bible-quoting Rebecca, her swishy and cadaverous brother Horace, the oddly asexual patriarch Sir Roderick, and Morgan the brutish handyman (Boris Karloff looking like a cross between Frankenstein’s monster and the wolfman). As the storm worsens two more travellers come knocking at the door: loudmouthed capitalist Sir William and his animated gal pal Gladys. Settling in for the night the stranded visitors try to establish an uneasy rapport with their creepy hosts, but sinister things are afoot. It seems the Femm family are having a rather difficult time keeping their skeletons in the closet and it isn’t long before all hell breaks loose... James Whale’s short film is a masterpiece of characterization and atmosphere. He’s created the quintessential “haunted” house replete with shadowy stone corridors, banging shutters and endless flights of creaking stairs; but beneath the gothic trappings there lurks a darkly comic, and decidedly queer, psychodrama. Pitting Rebecca’s repressed sexuality, Horace’s nelly hysterics and Morgan’s animal carnality against one another, Whale finds ample opportunity to revel in some brilliantly bitchy dialogue while using his five reluctant houseguests as anchors to keep the film from flying off into pure camp. Lastly, Arthur Edeson’s amazing cinematography makes the most of wind, rain, and flickering candles. Whether he’s filming a backseat seduction or a menacing monologue reflected in a warped mirror, his keen eye and sense of style gives the movie an unexpected contemporary feel. Remarkable!

Old Joy (USA 2006) (6): With the passive-aggressive consent of his pregnant wife Tanya, twenty-something Mark heads off for an overnight camping trip to a secluded hot springs with his highschool buddy Kurt whom he hasn’t seen in years. But when Kurt begins the journey by bumming money off of Mark in order to buy some marijuana it quickly becomes apparent that more than water has passed under the bridge since the men last met. Mark is now a responsible, steadily employed husband and father-to-be who listens to political talk radio, does volunteer work, and never fails to pick up whenever Tanya calls. Kurt, on the other hand, has one foot in the past (“I really really miss you…” he laments to Mark at one point) and his head in the clouds as he prattles on about everything from quantum physics to urban blight between lungfuls of pot smoke while Mark stares ahead and makes non-committal replies. But when they finally reach the hot springs Kurt makes one last clumsy attempt to re-bond with his old friend which is at once jarringly uncomfortable and terribly sad. Writer/director Kelly Reichardt’s small indie gem looks at the roles time and personal choices play in the disintegration of a friendship and she does so with the same naturalistic flow she would later exhibit in Wendy and Lucy. Although her attention to small details is admirable—a crow perches ominously, forest streams rush ever onward—it is the widening breach between her two characters which takes centre stage. At one point they become lost in the wilderness, both literally and figuratively, before setting up camp next to a makeshift garbage dump and you get the clear impression from Kurt’s aimlessness and Mark’s unease that this is probably the last time the two will ever get together. Indeed, a pair of closing shots show the men returning to two very different realities. Unfortunately Reichardt’s strict adherence to naturalism often works against her with the banal chatter sounding too ad-libbed and the endless montages of country roads and mossy trees coming across as deliberate and studied. But the oppressive silences are perfectly maintained and Yo La Tengo’s unobtrusive score of strumming guitars is shot through with melancholy.

The Old Man and the Gun (USA 2018) (5): Beginning at the age of 13 when he was placed in juvenile detention for stealing a bike, career criminal Forrest Tucker (not the actor!) made a name for himself not only for his daring bank robberies but for no less than sixteen ingenious escapes from custody including sailing away from San Quentin on a boat he fashioned out of odds and ends. In writer/director David Lowery’s gushing tribute, touted as Robert Redford’s swan song, a 74-year old Tucker (82-year old Redford), still on the lam, is joined by a pair of fellow grey-haired bad guys (Danny Glover, Tom Waits) on a spree of gentlemanly bank robberies—he always smiles and never draws his gun—across the midwest, pursued by police detective John Hunt (a mumbling Casey Affleck) who can’t seem to decide whether to arrest the loveable codger or place him on a pedestal. And just to muddy the waters Tucker has also discovered the possibility of love with a no-nonsense Texas widow (Sissy Spacek) whom he has conned into thinking she’s dating a traveling salesman. Staccato editing and ticking sound effects promise a crime thriller that never materializes but is instead undone by long golden Hallmark moments with outlaw and widow staring coyly into one another’s eyes across a diner table or against a setting sun. This is not a biopic but rather an idealized dream of what Forrest Tucker should have been like, tailored specifically to match Redford’s onscreen temperament. Between themselves Redford and Spacek do create a palpable chemistry for both are finely seasoned actors with impressive pedigrees, and in the role of Tucker’s truculent associate, Tom Waits proves yet again he is more than just a raspy voice. But Affleck and Glover just look bored and a supporting cast of detectives, bank tellers, and good ol’ boys are little more than cardboard props. In the end however, the film suffers from too many stretches (a fictitious restroom encounter between cop and robber is just plain stupid as is a penultimate car chase stuck in second gear) and the idea of romanticizing a wrinkled old sociopath into some sort of folk hero—a horseback scene would be more at home in a Clint Eastwood western—is vaguely repugnant.

Old Men in New Cars (Denmark 2002) (8): Lasse Spang Olsen’s outrageously tacky sequel to In China They Eat Dogs (also reviewed here) once again unites bad boy thug Harald with the clueless Martin, Peter, and “accident-prone” immigrant Vuk. Fresh from his latest stint in prison, Harald doesn’t even have time to unpack his things before troubles come knocking once again. He still owes the Serbian mafia millions of kroner, his restaurant business is going to hell, and his beloved foster father Munk is actively dying but not before making one last request—he wants to meet Ludvig, the biological son whom he abandoned years ago. Unfortunately Ludvig is now a psychopath currently locked up in Sweden’s tightest security prison. But an undaunted Harald is determined to grant Munk his dying wish so, accompanied by Martin and Peter, he manages one of the most brazen (and hysterically funny) jail breaks in Scandinavian history. Of course things go from bad to worse and before the closing credits Harald and the boys will pull off a couple of explosive heists, steal a plane, run afoul of a suicidal hostage, and destroy half the police cars in Sweden and Denmark. A laugh-out-loud combination of brilliant pyrotechnics and blatantly offensive humour makes for one very guilty pleasure. Expertly edited and written with sadistic zeal, Olsen barely gives his audience time to breathe between high-speed chases and flying bullets; and he spices things up with enough politically incorrect passages to keep the more delicate types cringing inside their cardigans. Brash, juvenile, and resolutely unapologetic for surebut I still laughed my head off!

Oliver & Company (USA 1988) (8): I admit that whenever I see the Disney logo attached to a production my inner cynic automatically comes to the forefront, and usually for good reason. But this four-legged cartoon interpretation of Dickens’ Oliver Twist set in contemporary Manhattan definitely exceeded my expectations. Frightened and alone on the mean streets of New York, a raggedy kitten (voice of Joey Lawrence) is taken in by a gang of colourful canine ne’er-do-wells and their slovenly yet affable human leader, Fagin. The dogs eke out a living stealing whatever they can and the kitten soon learns the ropes—until Jenny, a lonely little rich girl, takes him in and offers him a permanent home and a name, Oliver. But the dogs and their human are in serious trouble—he owes money to a mob boss who is determined to collect—trouble which soon ensnares Oliver and his newfound owner in a dangerous ransom scheme. The early computer enhanced animation is beautifully rendered in bright watercolours which give each character, animal and human alike, a distinct personality and set of expressions from the regal bulldog Francis (Roscoe Lee Browne) to the lovable slob Fagin (Dom DeLuise), although it’s the edgy Chihuahua, Tito (Cheech Marin) who steals the show every chance he gets. And the Manhattan backdrops are small pieces of art in themselves as they provide the perfect stage for a host of impromptu songs which include the rollicking “Why Should I Worry?” as Oliver and his dog companion Dodger (Billy Joel) cavort through rush hour traffic, and “Perfect Isn’t Easy” belted out by Georgette, Jenny’s snobbish poodle who’s long overdue for a comeuppance (Bette Midler). A couple of snarling dobermans may be a bit intense for the single-digit crowd, as is a deadly confrontation atop a pair of elevated subway tracks, but rest assured there’s a happy ending for everyone who deserves one. And with a running time of only 75 minutes it’s easily digestible for all but the most hardened of skeptics.

O Lucky Man (UK 1973) (6):  Not a single social institution escapes unscathed in Lindsay Anderson’s three hour tantrum aimed at all things authoritarian.  The story follows the picaresque adventures of Michael Travis, a young naif determined to make his fortune by becoming the best coffee salesman in northeast Britain.  It isn’t long before he discovers that the world isn’t quite the oyster he thought it would be however and the convoluted, oddly surreal tale that follows becomes a caustic Pilgrim’s Progress for modern times.  After being wrongfully convicted and sentenced to prison Travis undergoes a complete change of heart, discarding his capitalist credo in favour of a more humanitarian approach to life.  Unfortunately he soon realizes that this new-found faith in mankind may be unwarranted as he is victimized by the very people he sets out to help.  Anderson aims for the same wry satire that Kubrick achieved a few years earlier in A Clockwork Orange but in his mad dash to piss on every altar he can find he instead delivers a series of  sarcastic rants with no big payoff in the end although I must admit the ending was fun in its own way.  I did appreciate some of the film’s little touches---the fact that he had the same actors play multiple characters, and the musical interludes that served to fill in the gaps and provide some sense of continuity.  There is definitely food for thought here, if only he didn’t try to force feed us.

Once Upon a Time in America (Italy/USA 1984) (8): Director Sergio Leone takes the same sense of epic mythology he once applied to his westerns and applies it to America’s Jazz Age in this convoluted 4-hour saga that combines grittier elements from The Godfather with gauzy childhood memories reminiscent of Radio Days (only with sex, bloodshed, and F-bombs). Four childhood friends growing up in the Jewish quarter of New York City’s lower east side circa 1920s, “Noodles”, “Patsy”, “Max” and “Cockeye”, make a living through various petty crimes. But as they grow bigger so do their aspirations leading to betrayals, shifting allegiances, and eventual tragedy… Leone’s fluid timeline flows between the ‘20s where we see the boys weathering adversity and cementing what was supposed to be a lifelong friendship; through to the ‘30s where they are now established mobsters dallying in bootleg liquor, graft, and prostitution until a fatal decision upsets the apple cart; and finally the ‘60s where an aging Noodles (Robert De Niro), still hounded by that decision, returns to the neighbourhood in an effort to lay some old ghosts to rest. Despite its tangled plot lines and a few forays into pure melodrama (it’s interesting to see an American gangster film unfold through a European’s eyes) Leone imbues the entire production with a grandiose sense of time and place. Cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli’s sepia-infused visions of bygone New York call to mind old daguerreotypes with teeming masses framed between massive brick buildings and Brooklyn Bridge looming in the distance like a modern Colossus. The Art, Costume, and Production Design teams likewise take us back in time to smoky speakeasies, elaborate opium dens, and interiors of burnished wood and stained glass where gentlemen and gangsters alike strutted in vests and ties while the women milled about like porcelain butterflies, all pearls and taffeta. And topping it all, the great Ennio Morricone provides the perfect score with plaintive strings and muted brass eliciting a sad nostalgia. A period piece with teeth however for Leone punctures the romanticism with flashes of brutal violence—brains are blown out, faces are punched to a bloody pulp, and a sexual assault is filmed from start to finish. James Woods co-stars as Max, Noodles’ unstable best friend and lifelong nemesis, while William Forsythe and Jame Hayden round out the foursome as Cockeye and Patsy respectively. Elizabeth McGovern has a key role as the unobtainable object of Noodles’ adoration (and obsession). Finally, the cast is rounded out by Treat Williams as a union leader based on Jimmy Hoffa, Danny Aiello as a crooked police chief, Tuesday Weld as Max’s disheartened moll, and Joe Pesci as (what else?) a Detroit mafioso. Rarely have I seen four hours slide by so fast.

Once Upon a Time in The West (Italy 1968) (9): Partially penned by giallo maven Dario Argento with music by maestro Ennio Morricone, and then brought together by director Sergio Leone, this is one of the best “spaghetti westerns” ever to emerge from Rome’s Cinnecittà Studios (with gorgeous onsite locations filmed in Mexico, Utah, and Arizona). A young frontier bride (Claudia Cardinale) joins forces with two desperados (Jason Robards, Charles Bronson) in order to exact vengeance on the hired assassin (Henry Fonda putting that squeaky clean image to rest) who, along with his gang, gunned down her husband and stepchildren. But as the plot thickens—involving a crooked railroad tycoon and shifting allegiances—one realizes that everyone involved has secrets they’d rather not divulge. Filmed in long panoramic takes, with flashes of bullet-ridden violence and his signature fascination with tense facial close-ups, Leone celebrates rather than downplays those Wild West archetypes and the result is an arthouse oater where the bad guys really do wear black, the good guys (relatively speaking) wear tan, and the wealthy live in gilt and rococo cages—in this case the ailing tycoon travels in his own elaborate rail car. Vistas of crimson buttes and blue desert skies are bolstered by Morricone’s eclectic score of operatic passages (with the occasional electric guitar riff), and themes of fate and corruption find artistic outlets in the most fascinating ways: a train barrels along the track like destiny itself, images of clocks appear on saloon walls, and divine justice assumes the guise of a simple mud puddle. And that dream cast of A-List actors are consistently on point. Leave it to an Italian to show Americans how to make a cowboy movie.

Once Were Warriors  (New Zealand 1994) (8):   "Once Were Warriors" opens with an idyllic landscape of clear blue water and lush green hills, but when the camera pans away we realize we’ve been watching a garish billboard overlooking a filthy slum.  It’s this constant juxtaposition of the serene with the tragic which gives the film much of its strength.  Tamahori’s brutal look at the effects of personal apathy and cultural anomie on a Maori community is nothing less than harrowing. The men, descended from the proud warriors of the title, have now adopted fist-fights, petty crime and drinking binges as their new rites of manhood while the women seem resigned to a life of domestic violence and poverty.  Within this setting he offers us an intimate glimpse into the life of one specific family.  While she suffers at the hands of her abusive husband, Beth is drawn to the memories of her culturally rich childhood.  Her eldest daughter, on the other hand, looks to the future by writing stories based on Maori legends.  With one son in a gang and another seized by social services it takes a horrible tragedy to jar Beth out of her helpless stupor...  A powerful and demanding film.

101 Dalmatians (USA 1961) (10): Faithful dalmatian Pongo is determined to find suitable mates for both himself and his “pet human” Roger, a struggling musician living in London. He finally gets his wish when, after a disastrous first encounter in the park with fellow dalmatian Perdita and her own pet human Anita, wedding bells are soon ringing for the homo sapiens and a litter of fifteen pups are on the way for the dogs. But everyone’s happiness is short-lived for Anita’s old highschool friend, the rich and outrageously wicked Cruella De Vil (picture an anorexic Tallulah Bankhead snorting a bushel of cocaine), has diabolical plans of her own for the puppies and she will stop at nothing—including dognapping—to get them. So when the spotted little furballs eventually do go missing it’s suddenly up to Pongo and Perdita, aided by a surprisingly organized canine underground, to rescue them from Cruella’s clutches before she can turn them into a fiendish fashion statement. The highest grossing animated feature up until that time, this charming bit of pre-CGI Disney used a xerox photocopying process to produce a look both crisp and visually complex. The result is a storybook London filled with jazzy spires and blinking neon surrounded by a countryside of watercolour snowdrifts and star-speckled skies. The characters themselves, both two-legged and four, are portrayed with a depth and personality not often seen in cartoon features whether it be a romantic kiss between humans, a horde of fascinated puppies jostling in front of a TV set, or De Vil’s maniacal psychosis as she storms from one disaster to another. And then there’s all those surprise canine cameos from 1955’s Lady and the Tramp! A big warm fuzzy whose heart tuggers and slapstick action have managed to entertain two generations and counting.

The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (Sweden 2013) (8): Director Felix Herngren is firmly entrenched in Wes Anderson territory with this quirky series of tall tales, part road movie and part fantastical biopic. On the afternoon of his 100th birthday the stodgy yet amusingly off-kilter Allan Karlsson slips out the window of his retirement home in search of something different. A few hours later, thanks to a gross misunderstanding at the train station, he finds himself on a bus headed for the dullest town in Sweden unwittingly dragging a suitcase crammed full of mob money behind him. Allan eventually discovers his windfall and joins up with a disgruntled railroad conductor, a lacklustre geek (he “almost” has a degree in any discipline you care to mention), and a fiery-tempered ex moll who happens to be in possession of a stolen circus elephant. Hitting the road, this unlikely foursome will wend their way towards a most unlikely destiny while being dogged at every turn by both a vengeful gangster and an overly conscientious police detective. En route, as if the film’s premise isn’t already silly enough, a stone-faced Karlsson regales his traveling companions with highly improbable stories from his youth in which an early love affair with explosives combined with an affinity for outrageous coincidences propelled him from a stint in an insane asylum when he was nine to “accidentally” changing world history by rubbing shoulders with the likes of General Franco, Joseph Stalin, Robert Oppenheimer, and Herbert Einstein, Albert’s dumber brother. Playing the multi-generational Karlsson, Robert Gustafsson had to endure countless hours being fitted with prosthetics and special make-up (which garnered that department an Academy Award nomination) and the results are well worth it. As his character matures from a clueless adult into an equally clueless yet oddly wiser centenarian, Gustafsson is backed by a capable supporting cast that manage to fill in the gaps nicely as well as a playful script full of deadpan deliveries and gallows humour whose vivid hyperboles engage the audience without insulting their intelligence. An eccentric mishmash of offbeat adventures and alternate history that will either leave you rolling in the aisle or just rolling your eyes. Or perhaps something in between.

The One I Love (USA 2014) (5): What is it about the ones we love that make us love them? Can we quantify their individual qualities and foibles and build upon them or, as with the ship of Theseus, will we be left with something else entirely? In this weird little indie flick director Charlie McDowell (Malcolm’s son) attempts to deconstruct a relationship in order to test this hypothesis. Following the advice of a creepy counsellor, troubled couple Ethan and Sophie (Mark Duplass and Elisabeth Moss about as engaging as a pair of wet dishrags) rent a mountain getaway in order to work on their marriage. But the house comes with a distinctly surreal caveat not mentioned in the brochure that will have them facing their problems like they never have before. And that’s as far as I can go without spoilers. Suffice to say McDowell introduces a metaphysical gimmick that might have worked for a thirty-minute Twilight Zone episode and unfortunately tries to stretch it into a full-length feature instead. While the premise is interesting the execution becomes maddeningly repetitious with a smug sense of cleverness that comes awfully close to being obnoxious. Ethan is a cad, Sophie is a victim, and as the house works its questionable magic I actually became less and less interested in their angst-driven exchanges (a lot of it ad-libbed, and it shows) nor did I much care where this was all heading—not that the little twist at the end wasn’t entirely predictable. “You can drive yourself nuts trying to derive meaning from things that have no meaning…” says a character at one point. “It’s not that interesting” counters another. And there you have it.

One of our Aircraft is Missing (UK 1942) (7): During WWII six crew members of a British bomber are forced to bail out over occupied Holland when their plane is strafed by Nazi artillery. Linking up with the Dutch underground the men attempt to make their way back to Britain using one ruse after another with the Germans never far behind. Not the best from directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, but the duo still manage to turn out an entertaining wartime film which bypasses the usual genre expectations. Beautiful B&W cinematography combines with convincing miniature sets to put you in the cockpit during a bombing raid over Stuttgart with smoke and explosions far below and streaking flak above or else bobbing on a creaky buoy in the North Sea (assistant director John Seabourne reportedly seasick the entire time). Meticulously placed light and shadow mark every frame whether it be an interrupted church service bathed in stained glass sunbeams or a perilous trek through secret tunnels, and the evil Nazis are confined mainly to the occasional starched uniform or disembodied voice coming through an open window while the stiff upper-lipped Brits and their fearless Dutch allies (headed by an impressive Googie Withers oozing female empowerment) keep the nationalistic jingoism to a believable level. What impressed me most however were the small moments: the onboard banter, the whispered plotting, and a good-natured humour in the face of deadly odds—at one point village women can’t help but giggle when one of the officers resorts to drag in order to sneak past the watchful enemy. Pretty well sanitized of course with an ending obviously meant to shore up the morale of troops and civilians alike, but considering it was shot three years before the war even ended all can be forgiven. A barely recognizable 21-year old Peter Ustinov plays a village priest and future director extraordinaire David Lean does duty as film editor.

One Touch of Venus (USA 1948) (7): Belittled by his millionaire boss and henpecked by his clingy fiancée, humble department store window dresser Eddie Hatch (Robert Walker) is in a constant state of frayed nerves. Then one evening as he’s fixing up the store’s latest display—a priceless statue of Venus his boss recently acquired—he kisses the marble goddess out of frustration and one clap of thunder later she turns into a living breathing woman (Ava Gardner) who is immediately smitten with him. Misunderstandings follow as his attempts to conceal the giddy Venus have his boss accusing him of theft, his fiancée accusing him of infidelity, and his best friend (Dick Haymes) accusing him of having lost his mind. Like a bubbly glass of champagne, William A. Seiter’s screen adaptation of the Broadway musical comedy is a delightful diversion with airy performances and a trio of hummable songs. Walker is appropriately antsy as he goes from stuttering to smooching and Gardner is ravishing as the toga-clad deity with the seductive eyes and voice to match. Co-stars Olga San Juan plays the jumpy fiancée, Tom Conway is the lecherous store owner vying for Venus’ attention, and Eve Arden gets the best lines playing her usual persona—a plucky secretary with a few romantic yearnings of her own. Good fun!

One Way Passage (USA 1932) (8): Dapper gentleman Dan Hardesty (William Powell) meets impulsive socialite Joan Ames (Kay Frances) while on a luxury cruise from Hong Kong to San Francisco and the two immediately fall madly in love. But each is keeping a dark secret from the other—she is suffering from a terminal illness and he is a convicted murderer facing execution in the States (his “cabin mate” is actually a police guard). But a lot can happen in three weeks and as the two lovebirds coo over one another Joan starts ignoring her doctor’s advice to lay low as Dan plans his next escape with a little onboard help from high society swindler “Barrel House Betty” and her drunken sidekick “Skippy”. But will they ever trust one another enough to tell the awful truth? If the premise sounds more corn than romance the actual film is a pure delight from its fluffy opening scene where Dan and Joan literally bump into one another to its oddly moving final fade to black. The art deco backdrops and slinky gowns are beautiful and even though the actors’ emotive performances belie their silent film roots (as does the orchestral score) Robert Lord’s Oscar-winning script saves the day with a fine balance of passion, pratfalls, and pathos. Aline MacMahon and Frank McHugh are especially good as Betty and Skip, she posing as a faux countess and he stumbling in and out of trouble while looking for his next drink—in fact the abundance of alcohol and sexual innuendo marks this production as strictly pre-Hays code. Just grab a deck chair and enjoy!

Onibaba (Japan 1964) (7): The story opens with a crane shot overlooking a field of wild reeds swaying in a stiff breeze. But their seemingly random movements suddenly take on a sinister pattern as if something invisible and monstrous were cutting a swath toward the camera. And so begins Kaneto Shindô’s landmark Japanese film, a heady mix of horror, psychosis, and erotica whose blatant scenes of carnality so frightened the British censors at the time that they initially banned it before removing the more contentious scenes and slapping it with an “X” rating. Medieval Japan is being ripped apart by civil war but in the depths of an overgrown marsh an old woman and her daughter-in-law, Kichi, manage to survive by killing unwary samurai and selling their gear to a local black marketeer. The balance of power shifts however when Hachi, a friend of Kichi’s husband, returns from the war and informs the young woman that her man is dead. Now drawn towards the brusque and virile newcomer the widowed Kichi enters into an illicit affair, her frantic midnight couplings with Hachi drawing a deadly reaction of jealousy from the old woman who’s own sexual yearnings are tempered by a fear of abandonment. And then one dark and windy night she’s visited by a menacing stranger wearing a macabre mask and all hell suddenly breaks loose… Despite the slow pacing of the movie’s first half, once Shindô sets his bodies in motion things heat up quickly as lust competes with paranoia and even nature gets in on the act with thunder and tempests raging overhead. A beguilingly complex psychodrama brimming with sensual metaphors—a yawning pit speaks of death and transformation, swaying reeds seem to caress the naked bodies running through their midst, and lost in a libidinous fever a vengeful old crone comes to realize that sometimes a tree trunk is not just a tree trunk— Shindô’s resolutely dark and oppressive allegory addresses both the outward depravities of war and that other kind of enemy which lurks within our own minds. Kudos to Kiyomi Kuroda’s sharp B&W cinematography that turns everyday muck and weeds into things both threatening and ethereal, and a special nod to Hikaru Hayashi whose eclectic musical score of pounding drums, human gasps, and downbeat jazz keep things perpetually off balance.

The Onion Field (USA 1979) (6): Cop turned author Joseph Wambbaugh’s screen adaptation of his novel, itself based on actual court documents, examines the aftermath of a policeman’s murder in 1963 Los Angeles. When a pair of plainclothes officers pull over a suspicious car they suddenly find themselves at the mercy of unpredictable sociopath Greg Powell (a convincing James Woods) and his neurotic sidekick Jimmy Smith, a petty thief fresh out of prison over whom Powell maintains a ragged psychological control. The two men force the cops to drive them to an isolated farm where one officer winds up dead while his partner manages to escape. The murder itself is tragic enough, but what follows is a cynical and angry indictment of a judicial system so full of loopholes that, in the words of one naïve public prosecutor, “Lawyers can deem fantasy is real and lies are the truth.” Powell, quick-witted, shrewd, and wholly narcissistic, decides to defend himself using every legal trick he can glean from the prison library while Smith, forever cowering in Powell’s shadow, finds that manipulating the system isn’t so hard after all. As the case drags on year after year the surviving officer, wracked with guilt and subjected to professional scrutiny, suffers the effects of post traumatic stress disorder eventually losing his job, his sense of dignity and, in what has to be the film’s most powerful performance, his very will to live. Wambaugh’s passions are evident throughout as he casts a jaundiced eye on a legal system more concerned with motions and appeals than justice. To his credit he does manage to steer clear of the usual stereotypes; his lawyers are just as conflicted, his criminals carry an intensity which belies their brutal appearance, and the veteran policemen who hover in the background display a subtle cynicism which hints at deeper battle scars. Furthermore, he cleverly derails our expectations of a neat and tidy Hollywood ending, giving us instead a bittersweet series of resolutions which may not completely satisfy yet ring far more authentic. Unfortunately he tries too hard to get his points across resulting in some awkward sermonizing and a few needlessly theatrical moments. The subject matter is gripping enough and, in the hands of a very talented cast, the film’s momentum could have carried itself without all the dramatic prodding.

The Onion Movie (USA 2008) (6):  In the spirit of Tunnel Vision and Kentucky Fried Movie comes yet another film composed of unrelated skits tied together by the barest of plots. This time around The Onion, that infamous group of slackers who make a living out of mocking everything from world events to western pop culture, try their hand at moviemaking with mixed results. What little story there is revolves around a seasoned anchorman trying to resist the growing corporate influence on his nightly newscast. As the suits in head office try to turn the evening news into an ongoing commercial for the station’s parent company he becomes increasingly frustrated in his attempts to deliver “fair and balanced” journalism. Most of the film’s humour is derived from the newscast itself with video clips and sight gags spoofing everything from television commercials to “human interest” stories. It's hilarious when it works. I've always felt that The Onion’s sharp satire is best served in small doses however, whether it’s a short clip on their website or a two-paragraph article in one of their publications. It’s impossible to keep the pace going for 80 minutes and the strain soon becomes evident. The ongoing parody of Steven Seagal’s latest blockbuster, “Cockpuncher” got tired real fast and the lame wackiness of the National Lampoon-style ending elicited little more than a chuckle. Still, it was worth the three bucks just to see Meredith Baxter deep-fry a kitten on a TV cooking show. Now THAT was funny!

Only Angels Have Wings (USA 1939) (4): In the sleepy Central American seaport of Barranca, ace American pilot Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) is making a go at running an air freight service with a hangar of aging planes and a crew of hotshot wingmen. It’s a dangerous and dirty business but with a lucrative contract up for grabs the rather hard-hearted Carter is willing to risk anything, even his own life as well as the lives of others, in order to remain solvent. But complications arise when traveling cabaret singer Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) finds herself in Barranca with a few hours to kill in between sailings—just enough time to fall madly in love with the callous airman. Further complications ensue in the form of an old flame (Rita Hayworth) who also breezes into town on the arm of her new husband (Richard Barthelmess), a disgraced pilot who’s come looking for a job in Carter’s outfit. And then a tropical storm moves in… Everyone is terribly miscast in Howard Hawks’ turbulent soap opera which never quite falls into a comfortable groove even though he swore every word and ridiculous twist was based on real life events—are we watching a comedy, a tragedy, or a thriller? Grant and Arthur look like they accidentally stumbled out of a George Cukor farce as they alternately spit and spoon; Barthelmess skulks and glares in what has to be a very bad Petter Lorre impression; Hayworth emotes by the numbers; and Oscar winner Thomas Mitchell is reduced to being Grant’s hop-along sidekick. The only saving grace to the whole tedious melodrama is the cinematography and special effects which were both nominated for Academy Awards. Joseph Walker’s aerial sequences are breathtaking for the time, his cameras swooping over jagged peaks or else plunging through roiling fog banks while technical wizard Roy Davidson et al. use their skill (and some convincing miniature models) to place you in a rollicking cockpit or make you witness first hand a horrendous plane crash. But despite the combined efforts of these two men the film itself simply limps down the runway before stalling altogether.

Only Lovers Left Alive (USA 2013) (9): Jim Jarmusch is not among my favourite directors but this long languorous daydream, laced with melancholy and passion, is one of the hippest arthouse vampire flicks I’ve seen in some time. In an abandoned part of Detroit sits a ramshackle manor house bathed in moonlight and surrounded by the distant sound of howling dogs. It’s the home of reclusive rock star “Adam” (Tom Hiddleston) who spends his nighttime hours composing goth anthems and ruminating on the uselessness of it all. Meanwhile, half a world away in Tangiers, his pasty-skinned tangle-haired wife “Eve” (Tilda Swinton) spends her evenings exchanging bon mots with best friend Christopher Marlowe—the original Marlowe—(John Hurt) while downing little aperitif glasses of ruby red blood which hits them both like a shot of purest heroin. Adam and Eve (no relation) are vampires, as is Marlowe, and between the three of them they have witnessed two thousand years of zombie history—their pet name for humans—with feelings that range from profound depression in Adam to detached amusement in Marlowe, to Eve’s supernatural forbearance. But a delicate balance is upset when Eve travels stateside to be with Adam and her somewhat impulsive sister shows up after an absence of almost ninety years—an arrival which triggers a couple of most unfortunate events… Those expecting the action-packed bloodbath of From Dusk Till Dawn or the screeching fiends of 30 Days of Night will be sorely disappointed for Jarmusch is not out to make another monster movie. His undead are among the most literate, highly refined intelligentsia to ever walk the Earth—Adam has rubbed shoulders with the likes of Lord Byron and Mary Wollstonecraft; Eve can read several languages at a time; Marlowe is still writing even though his physical strength is waning—and all three have an uncanny affinity for flora and fauna, rattling off binomial nomenclature in flawless Latin. Fangs make a cursory appearance, blood is acquired from a lab rather than a jugular, and ghoulish behaviour is limited to a few brief yet significant scenes. As with all his productions Jarmusch likes to play with names (Eve books a night flight as “Daisy Buchanan” Adam visits the blood bank as “Dr. Faustus”) and he underlies it all with a vein of humour that runs deep and dry—pun intended. Swinton and Hiddleston are a perfect match as the eternal lovers, Hurt is a winning combination of piercing intellectual and crusty old man, and the late Anton Yelchin shows his budding talent as Adam’s longhaired metalhead gofer. A story of immortals dealing with the terrifying prospect of their own immortality told with visual flair and a great deal of dramatic restraint.

The Only Son (Japan 1936) (9): Disappointment is almost palpable in this early work by the great Yasujirô Ozu, his first true “talkie”—a small family drama showing how each generation tends to pin its hopes on the next. In a small Japanese village circa 1923 widowed mother Tsune sacrifices everything in order to send her son Ryosuke to boarding school in Tokyo so he can become a “great man”. Cut to 1935 and Tsune, now greyer and more stooped, travels to Tokyo to visit her son only to discover he has failed to live up to her dreams and is instead eking out a meagre living teaching night school and trying to provide for his own family. With mother and son vainly trying to hide behind happy faces it’s going to take some painfully honest dialogue and a personal confession or two before they are able to reappraise their relationship. Quietly contemplative in nature, Ozu’s gift for revealing life’s harsher truths while maintaining a sense of dignity and compassion for his characters is on full display here. Tsune is hardly the demanding harridan one would expect in a Western film but rather a determined mother whose provincial ideas of what constitutes big city success may have been naïve from the outset. Ryosuke, for his part, is a good man at heart (a medical emergency opens Tsune’s eyes to her son’s true worth) who was completely unprepared for Tokyo’s ruthless rat race—a vague political statement on the director’s part perhaps? But in typical Ozu fashion there is no melodrama beyond a poignant late night crying session and his beloved metaphors—drifting smoke, dust motes, an unlit lamp—are there to showcase the fleeting nature of both happiness and sorrow. Even Ryosuke’s infant son provides a wry statement as he calmly sleeps throughout the entire film like a little dormant seed unaware of the expectations he will be shouldering one day. “Life’s tragedy begins with the bond between parent and child” states an opening quote by Akutagawa and by movie’s end you realize that sober axiom is not so much a decree as it is a challenge—and it cuts both ways.

Only Yesterday (Japan 1991) (7): Past and present leapfrog one another in Isao Takahata’s animated adaptation of Yuuko Tone’s manga series. Tokyo office worker Taeko, almost thirty, spends the summer picking safflowers in the country dogged—quite literally—by her grade school memories circa 1966. The past weighs quite heavily indeed as adult Taeko takes a shine to local organic farmer Toshio while ruminating on her childhood benchmarks: her first crush, her first period, the class outcast who refused to shake her hand, and the struggles which came from being the youngest child in the family. The Studio Ghibli animation is impeccable ranging from richly coloured sequences in which grown-up Taeko manoeuvres her way through crowded Tokyo or marvels at a pastoral sunset, to delicate pastel recollections where her younger, more carefree self lives entirely for the moment—staring with momentous anticipation at a fresh pineapple (an expensive rarity for Japanese households in the 60s) to floating in mid-air all the way home after the class cutie shows an interest in her. Anyone who has ever had a childhood will appreciate the poignancy of her vivid memories but at its core this is a chick flick for boomers and Taeko’s meandering woolgathering ultimately required the kind of Zen-like patience I was unwilling to give it. Still beautiful to look at and the wistful closing sequence is aimed squarely at the romantic in all of us.

On Moonlight Bay  (USA 1951) (5):  Doris Day and Gordon MacRae fall in love and sing a lot in this technicolour musical set in 1917. The film tries to match the panache of “Meet Me in St. Louis” but fails to capture any of that classic’s lighthearted exuberance.  The acting is forgettable, the script mundane and, aside from a rather nice arrangement of “Silent Night”, the songs are unremarkable.  Besides, watching a 29-year old Doris Day play the role of a precocious tomboy is just a little bit creepy.

On My Way (France 2013) (8): “Life goes on!” is the cheeky mantra throughout writer/director Emmanuelle Bercot’s quixotic road movie in which a middle-aged woman reassesses her priorities while finding out it’s never too late to surprise yourself. Betrayed by her lover, henpecked by her mother, and dogged by creditors, former beauty queen Bettie (Catherine Deneuve), now the frumpy owner of a failing restaurant, drives off one day in search of smokes (she also failed at quitting nicotine) and never looks back. Motoring at random through the hinterland of rural France Bettie crosses paths with an assortment of oddballs—a decrepit old man still mourning the death of his first love, a pack of drunken cougars, a lovestruck gigolo—butts heads with her estranged daughter, and forms an unorthodox alliance with her precocious eleven-year old grandson (a promising turn from Bercot’s own son Némo Schiffman) before being blindsided by the promise of a new beginning coming from a most unexpected direction. Light and airy in tone yet still taking its central theme of crisis and transformation seriously, Bettie’s long journey of reflection is gilded with enough humour and uncommon sense to keep everyone’s eyes off of their navels while that wonderfully muddled soundtrack of international indie chill keeps things just a tad off-kilter. Deneuve’s sense of timing has never been better as she goes from pathetic weeping to sardonic smirk to open-faced cluelessness and a supporting cast of eccentrics and common folk alike ensures everything stays anchored—a reunion between Bettie and her fellow “Miss France 1969” hopefuls provides some wry insights without being cruel. A gentle reaffirmation that life does indeed go on no matter how many wrenches we throw at it.

On the Avenue (USA 1937) (5): A rakish Broadway producer (Dick Powell) stages a blockbuster revue in which New York’s richest family is mercilessly satirized much to the delight of audiences and critics alike. The family patriarch however is not amused and tries to launch an unsuccessful lawsuit against the theatre. Meanwhile, his outraged daughter (Madeline Carroll) decides to confront the producer personally—and immediately falls in love with him instead. Hoo boy… But this threadbare plot is nothing more than a weak link used to join a series of song and dance routines in 20th Century Fox’s anemic musical where the jokes fall flat, the acting falls flatter, and a host of Irving Berlin songs never rise above lukewarm. Nice staging though especially the elaborate “He Ain’t Got Rhythm”, the bittersweet “This Year’s Kisses”, and a slapstick version of “Slumming on Park Avenue” with the Ritz Brothers hamming it up in drag. Alice Faye makes an appearance as Powell’s co-star whose unrequited love throws a wrench into his budding romance and controversial Vaudevillian character actor Stepin Fetchit (real name Lincoln Perry) elicits some self-conscious laughs as a shuffling, mumbling, black stagehand. Interesting piece of Hollywood history: Perry continues to divide critics to this day—some saw his overtly racist caricature as a pariah standing in the way of civil rights while others saw a sly, subversive component to the clueless Uncle Tom persona who somehow always managed to evade taking orders. In real life Perry would bankroll his “yassuh” schtick into a million dollar fortune even after changing attitudes rendered it obsolete. A fortune he sadly squandered over the course of a few years leaving him broke and destitute until his death in 1985.

On The Waterfront (USA 1954) (9): Elia Kazan’s multiple award winning morality tale was apparently a personal attempt to make amends for his collaboration with Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist witch hunts. Marlon Brando plays former boxing contender Terry Malloy, a conflicted dockworker whose passive acceptance of organized crime in the Longshoremen’s Union is tested when he falls in love with the sister of a murdered whistleblower. Rod Steiger plays his older brother Charlie, a man already bought by the local crime boss (Lee J. Cobb) in exchange for job security and a bloated income. Karl Malden plays a priest on a mission to rid the waterfront of corruption. And Eva Marie Saint plays Brando’s naïve love interest, a mousy young woman blinded to the darker side of life by her insular Catholic school upbringing. When Malloy is subpoenaed by a grand jury investigating the mafia his loyalties are put to the test and his final decision may very well mean the difference between life and death. Steiger and Brando are pure cinematic gold, with a guilt-riddled Charlie trying to protect his younger sibling while at the same time indoctrinating him into the mob’s ranks, and Terry still smarting over the fact that his older brother sabotaged his promising boxing career for the sake of a rigged bet. Saint, for her part, plays the bewildered ingenue to perfection (although erotic sparks fly with that first kiss) and Cobb growls and paces like a wounded grizzly. Unfortunately Malden’s crusading preacher delivers one too many fiery sermons, albeit with the best of intentions, which only add more mass to a film already heavy with moral quandaries. Lastly, Boris Kaufman’s brilliant B&W cinematography and a grave musical score by Leonard Bernstein transform the film’s drab Hoboken settings into a Dantean landscape of smoke and decay with the ubiquitous presence of pigeons and hawks overhead underscoring the central theme of predator vs prey. A classic in every sense.

Open Grave (USA 2013) (6): On a dark and stormy night a man wakes up to find himself in a pit filled with rotting cadavers and no recollection of who he is or how he came to be among the dead. Escaping the mass grave with the help of a mysterious mute woman he makes his way towards the lights of a country estate where five strangers, also suffering from acute amnesia, are already holed up. Who are these people? Why do they seem to think they may know each other? And why do they exhibit talents they didn’t know they possessed—while one is an expert marksman another discovers he can read several languages. Mutual suspicion gradually gives way to reluctant cooperation as the six tentatively explore the nearby countryside. But the further they wander the more sinister their predicament becomes for the surrounding woods are strewn with corpses and an abandoned institution down the road holds some horrifying answers to questions they never thought of asking. Despite an intriguing premise Gonzalo López-Gallego’s apocalyptic thriller has too many potholes preventing an audience from completely suspending their disbelief. The international cast, while pretty to look at, just can’t maintain enough suspense and they get no help from a script rife with genre clichés and a few too many clever-clever twists—it’s like looking at a condensed version of a SyFy channel mini-series. But the big reveals are worth the wait and the film’s messy conclusion is certainly a novel take on an otherwise tired formula.

Open Hearts (Denmark 2002) (7): Twenty-something Cecilie (Sonja Richter) has her life gutted after a traffic accident leaves her fiancé Joachim (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) an embittered quadriplegic. Now hospitalized and wallowing in self-pity, Joachim no longer wishes to see Cecilie despite her protestations, a fact which causes her to seek some solace in the company of hospital physician Niels (Mads Mikkelsen) who just happens to be the husband of the woman who ran into Joachim. But kind words and a shoulder to cry on inevitably lead to something more problematic when a triangle of love, loneliness, and desperation develops between Neils, Cecilie, and Neils’ wife Marie (Paprika Steen) whose guilty conscience at first blinds her to what is going on. Joachim, meanwhile, is having an epiphany of his own. Uniformly brilliant performances which border on verité realism coupled with writer/director Susanne Bier’s directorial restraint cut straight to the heart without turning into soap opera mush. And the fact that Bier mostly adheres to the curbs imposed by Von Trier’s Dogme 95 manifesto (there’s a few questionable flourishes involving thermal cams and pop tunes) keeps everything emotionally raw and off balance. If it were an American film the script would practically write itself in a crescendo of acid tears and hysterics, but this is European arthouse fare and that means our pat Hollywood expectations fail to materialize. Instead Bier presents a complex psychodrama devoid of villains and martyrs where grief and discontent make abject bedfellows—Cecilie’s misery strikes a chord with Neils whose own relationship may not be as perfect as it seems—while those left on the periphery are caught up in the undertow as Marie tries to hold on to what she is losing and Joachim reluctantly adjusts to his new reality. Rounding out the cast is a superb performance from Stine Bjerregaard as Neils and Marie’s teenaged daughter, an adolescent whose own brush with heartbreak has rendered her even more susceptible to her father’s betrayal. Bier may not close her film on the happiest (or saddest) of notes, but as the turmoil settles and passions give way to truth you realize she couldn’t have ended it any other way and still remain credible.

Opening Night (USA 1977) (8): After an unusually ardent fan dies while trying to see her, celebrated actress Myrtle Gordon (yet another star turn by Gena Rowlands) finds her life unraveling at the seams. Already struggling with alcohol and the fact she’s getting older Gordon sees in the teenager’s death a metaphor for her own fleeting youth—an unsettling prospect made all the more poignant by the fact she’s starring in an upcoming Broadway play about a woman who’s life is imploding as she approaches middle age. While everyone around her seems resigned to their greying hairs and extra creases, especially sixty-year old playwright Sarah Goode (a punchy Joan Blondell), Gordon is acutely aware of the fact she is utterly alone after having alienated herself from every man who ever loved her including co-star Maurice Aarons and director Manny Victor (John Cassavetes and Ben Gazzara). As her despair gives rise to fanciful hallucinations and too many tips of the bottle Gordon’s mental health begins to suffer leading to the film’s pitiful climax and—just maybe—the hard won wisdom that comes from knowing the difference between”...what you dream about and what’s really there.” Echoes of Bergman can be felt in writer/director Cassavetes’ powerful booze ’n cigarettes drama about loneliness, grief, and aging gracelessly. Certainly his love of both stage and cinema is clearly on display with a clever play-within-a-film approach while his use of unflattering lighting and looming close-ups strips the movie of any false sentimentality—little wonder that garish mirrors figure prominently. Gutsy and filmed with the immediacy of an improvised documentary, this certainly ranks as one of Rowlands’ and real-life hubby Cassavetes’ best collaborations.

Open Season (USA 2006) (6): In the small backwoods town of Timberline, Boog the grizzly bear has it made. Living in the garage of the ranger who rescued him as a cub he never wants for food or attention, and all he has to do in return is put on a daily performance for tourists at the nearby national park. But when he saves Elliot, a somewhat impulsive deer, from Shaw, the town’s most notorious hunter, the overly thankful stag leads him on one too many destructive adventures giving the ranger no choice but to release him into the wilderness. Having only known the comforts of civilization Boog finds himself literally lost in the woods with only scatter-brained Elliot for companionship. Not sure how a bear is supposed to act (or where he’s supposed to poop even…old joke) Boog finds his new surroundings more than a little intimidating especially when his mild manners are mocked by the ethnically diverse forest denizens including a pair of whacked out French ducks, sassy Latina skunks, and a school of leaping ninja salmon…although McSquizzy, the truculent Scottish squirrel (voiced by Billy Connolly) has the best lines. But with hunting season approaching and Boog’s bumbling presence causing all the animals to be more vulnerable than usual, the kind-hearted bear unwillingly finds himself the last bastion of defence between woodland creatures and the hordes of gun-toting rednecks driving up from town—including Shaw who is thoroughly convinced that Boog and company are part of a global animal conspiracy. A spectacular showdown between man and animal ensues… Pretty much by-the-numbers animated offering featuring all the usual cultural references and Hollywood in-jokes (McSquizzy does a Braveheart routine while a little porcupine speaks in E.T. monosyllables) but the visual gags are a few notches above average and the colourful characters are actually very funny although die-hard hunters may not appreciate their neanderthal cartoon counterparts. It was enough to make me laugh out loud a few times, and that’s saying a lot.

Open Water (USA 2003) (6): Yuppie couple Susan and Daniel leave their hectic lifestyle behind and head to the Bahamas for a little overdue R&R. But a scuba-diving expedition turns a dream vacation into a nightmare when their tour boat accidentally leaves them behind thanks to a faulty head count. Finding themselves suddenly alone in the wide open ocean the two react first with worried disbelief which soon becomes a growing terror as the hours drag on and ominous fins begin to appear in the water around them… A simple premise loosely based on the real life experience of an American couple diving off the Great Barrier Reef, writer/director Chris Kentis’ soggy shocker plays on our fears of deep water, unseen monsters, and utter helplessness in a way that has you acutely aware of your legs dangling unprotected over the edge of the couch. Despite the tepid performances of his two main actors and a lead-up consisting of tedious domestic flashes—they chat on their cells, they eat breakfast, they brush their teeth, Susan shows her boobs, Daniel swats a mosquito—once the action moves into the water he quickly goes from thriller to full-blown horror and the wait is almost worth it. Wide-angle vistas of endless waves and maddeningly distant smokestacks alternate with intense close-ups of the couple trying to reassure each other while looking above and below the surface for predators which can be seen lurking in increasing numbers. A flash of fin here, a stifled scream as “something” brushes against a leg, and an intermittent background score of island tunes reformatted as funeral dirges all add up to one creepy day at sea. And when night falls a sudden squall lights up our protagonists’ struggle in strobes of lightning and utter darkness. Too bad then that Kentis didn’t spend more time on script and continuity as scuba gear changes colour, sea conditions range from choppy to calm to sunny to cloudy in a matter of seconds, and a banal argument over who is more to blame threatens to slide into satire. He did use a real ocean with real sharks though (the actors wore protective gear and a “shark wrangler” handled the beasties) and a macabre ending was effective if technically suspect. A scary bit of cinema for those willing to forgive, a complete miss for those who can’t.

Open Your Eyes
(Spain 1997) (6): César is a vainglorious yuppie who has never had to work very hard for anything be it money, prestige, or women, including his best friend’s girl Sofía (Penélope Cruz). But he finally gets his comeuppance when Nuria, a psychotic ex, decides to crash her car with him in it—she dies and he is left horribly disfigured. Hiding his monstrous face behind a rubber mask César wallows in recriminations and self-pity until the dreams begin: he dreams he is whole again thanks to a brilliant plastic surgeon; he dreams he is in an insane asylum on a murder rap; he dreams that Sofía is someone else; and he dreams that he is dreaming. With the help of a psychiatrist César tries to unravel the mystery behind his loosening grip on reality and their sessions will lead both men to a truth more devastating than either was prepared for. Alternating between tense close-ups of eyes and faces and fanciful cityscapes writer/director Alejandro Amenábar’s slow-burning psychological mindfuck challenges the ways we distinguish truth from fantasy. With its serpentine plot twists and shifting timelines he keeps his audience off guard even as his characters struggle to make sense of it all. César is at once a cowering victim and insufferable egotist—appearing to be the object of a psychotic conspiracy theory while at the same time possessing an uncanny ability to manipulate everyone around him including a tavern full of boisterous partygoers who inexplicably fall silent when he decides that their revelry has become too loud. Sadly, with such an intriguing build-up it comes as somewhat of a letdown when Amenábar’s big reveal turns out to be a tired old sci-fi cliché that even a cast of beautiful people and some evocative camerawork fail to reinvent. But to be fair, Tom Cruz’s American remake, Vanilla Sky, is reported to be even worse.

Operation Crossbow (UK 1965) (7): A box office success in Europe, less so in America, Michael Anderson’s wartime thriller—partially penned by Emeric Pressburger—boasts an impressive cast and some top notch 1960s special effects. When the Allies uncover evidence that the Nazis are planning to attack England with flying bombs, they airdrop a trio of multilingual spies behind enemy lines with orders to infiltrate the factory making these “V2 rockets”. Assuming the identity of deceased collaborators, the three men (George Peppard, Tom Courtenay, Jeremy Kemp) find their dangerous mission made even more precarious when a traitor is uncovered and the ex-wife of one of the dead collaborators unexpectedly makes an appearance (Sophia Loren, then married to producer Carlo Ponti, making a brief cameo). Tightly edited despite a few dragging moments, Anderson relies as much on developing his characters as he does on explosions and his elaborate yet believable underground laboratory sets thankfully steer clear of any James Bond techie nonsense. Apparently he got permission to blow up some actual buildings which were slated for demolition anyway resulting in a few impressive air strike scenes—images of “buzz bombs” zooming past the cliffs of Dover en route to London are harrowing—but his attempts to blend movie action with stock footage from WWII is less successful as the switch from colour to B&W proves jarring and the grainy bits don’t quite meld with the smooth Panavision. To his credit however, he gave the production a further air of authenticity by insisting his Nazi characters speak German with English subtitles rather than relying on theatrical accents to distinguish the good guys from the bad. A decent espionage flick with a couple of unexpected twists and an ending that is as tragic as it is thrilling. Anthony Quayle, John Mills, and Trevor Howard co-star.

Ordet (Denmark 1955) (8): In his previous films, Day of Wrath and The Passion of Joan of Arc (both reviewed here) Carl Dreyer used bold widescreen imagery to explore how religious zeal carries within it the propensity to inflict pain and despair. With Ordet he brings this message closer to home as one stubborn man’s ideological feud with an equally pigheaded neighbour threatens to tear his family apart. Big and colourful patriarch Morten Borgen practices an easygoing form of Lutheranism, believing each day is a call for celebration and wonder. His dour yet prayerful neighbour Peter Petersen, on the other hand, follows a far more conservative path to salvation consisting of modesty and austerity in all things. Rounding out the Borgen household are brothers Mikkel, an avowed agnostic despite the tender ministrations of his pious wife; Johannes, a deeply disturbed theology student now convinced he is the risen Christ after having read Kierkegaard; and Anders, a soft-spoken teenager whose misfortune it is to fall in love with Petersen’s only daughter, the equally demure Anne. Irate over their children’s budding relationship the two fathers ardently split dogmatic hairs in an effort to prove who is closer to God until a tragic wake-up call arrives. Always respectful of his characters, Dreyer never judges but instead allows them to grow and mature over time. Much like the biblical story of Job, he uses suffering and adversity to seek out spiritual truths whether it’s one man’s quiet acceptance of God’s implacable Will or another’s realization that there is more than one path to redemption. Equal parts family drama and religious epic, there is a keen sense of light and symmetry at work here which, along with some languorous tracking shots and highly formalized staging give the impression of a Renaissance painting come to life. But it is Ordet’s highly contentious final scene that steals the show. Dreyer comes straight out of left field and delivers an ending so outrageous (and oddly touching) that it not only challenges our own religious convictions but pushes the limits of cinema as an art form to boot. No wonder Carlos Reygadas chose to offer Dreyer the sincerest form of flattery when he copied it for his own film, 2007’s Silent Light (also reviewed here).

The Ornithologist (Portugal 2016) (7): The trials and temptations of Anthony of Padua —the 13th century saint who wandered through the wilds assaulted by demons and tempted by visions of earthly flesh in order to prove his spiritual purity—are played out in the countryside of contemporary northern Portugal with director João Pedro Rodrigues tacking on a rainbow twist for good measure. After his kayak capsizes in unforeseen rapids, birdwatcher Fernando regains consciousness to find the once serene countryside now suddenly turned menacing with phantasms and animal familiars. Thus lost in a dark forest populated by yowling beasts and devilish pagans the atheistic Fernando embarks on a spiritual awakening which will see him bound by a pair of cackling Furies, propositioned by a trio of bare-breasted Amazons, and succumb to the heavenly charms of one very good shepherd… Rodrigues obviously did his catechismal homework for the film makes interesting, occasionally clever, allusions to the legends surrounding St. Anthony be it the symbolic wild boar (pig fat was used to anoint the sick) and avian cameos (infernal owls and a virtuous dove vie for attention) or Fernando—now considering a name change—offering his own version of Anthony’s “sermon to the fish”. And of course memento mori abound with our awakening protagonist stumbling upon a tomb and a grinning skull…and a resurrection of sorts. Admittedly it’s all very Catholic—even if the “Love of Christ” was taken a bit too far (the goats were scandalized)—but it could also be taken as a complex psychodrama detailing one man’s emotional metamorphosis, his only link to the “real world” a bottle of prescription pills and a series of worried texts from a lover back home. Finally, in the title role hunky French actor Paul Hamy gives rise to more than a couple of unclean thoughts himself.

The Orphanage (Spain 2007) (7):  Juan Bayona presents us with a ghost story that challenges our sense of reality by blurring the line between objective truth and subjective experience.  Thirty years after being adopted from the “Good Shepherd Orphanage”, Laura Sanchez returns with her husband Carlos and young son Simon.  She intends to buy the mouldering old building, long since abandoned, and turn it into a group home for children with special needs.  One day however, after exploring a seaside cave, Simon claims to have met a new friend hiding in the shadows.  This is hardly surprising as the overly inventive child already has two imaginary playmates; but when he invites “Tomas” home with him things start going bump in the night, doors mysteriously slam shut, and Simon ultimately disappears without a trace.  Bayona realizes that children and adults inhabit very different realities and that adults will often indulge a child’s magical view of the world with little white lies and fanciful stories designed to shield them from some of life’s harsher lessons.  But sometimes make-believe can backfire and an innocent game can develop ominous overtones...  This film packs some very well-placed jolts aided by creepy camerawork and unsettling sound effects.  It has an air of gothic horror about it that is truly chilling.  Regrettably, Bayona asks us to take some pretty large leaps of faith:  an elaborate game of dress-up towards the end seems like overkill; a scene involving psychic researchers recalls the excesses of Poltergeist ; and the dark secret at the heart of the film, involving a myopic nanny and sinister flour sacks, has too many holes in it to be effective.  All the clues do add up in the end, but the Peter Pan finale left me feeling vaguely cheated.

Orphans (UK 1997) (9):  Peter Mullan takes a close look at the small tyrannies and petty power struggles inherent in all families, then blows them up to outrageous proportions in this searing drama that is at once darkly comic and uncomfortably familiar.  Four adult siblings, three brothers and a wheelchair-bound sister, come together on the eve of their mother’s funeral.  But as the sun sets and rain clouds gather on the horizon it becomes obvious that her sudden death has stirred up an emotional hornets’ nest.  What follows is a dark and stormy night of the soul with divine portents raining down from the sky and streets awash with everyday saints and demons.  As each sibling becomes separated from the others they begin their own unique journeys toward the light.  One gives in to rage while one succumbs to despair; one seeks solace through martyrdom while one learns a harsh lesson in humility.  It is only after the lights go out and the whirlwind has passed that they begin to see clearly.  There is nothing subtle in this amazing film where the spiritual and the secular collide head-on, where temptations and benedictions pop up in the most unusual places and where adults become frightened orphans lost in a storm.  But just when you think Mullan has lost control of the proceedings and allowed things to spin into chaos, he expertly reins everything back in for a quietly sunlit finale which oddly mirrors the film’s opening scene and brings the whole movie to a beautiful, if emotionally exhausting, finish.  Bravo!

Orphee [Orpheus] (France 1950) (6): Jean Cocteau's avant-garde interpretation of the Greek myth follows Orpheus, a frustrated Parisian poet who finds his own personal muse in the form of a sexy vampish Grim Reaper much to the consternation of his long-suffering and secretly pregnant wife, Eurydice. When Ms. Reaper (aka "The Princess") winds up claiming Eurydice, Orpheus enlists the aid of one of her netherworld henchmen in order to journey to Hades and bring his wife back, but he finds himself torn between his dutiful love for Eurydice and his passionate obsession for the Princess. Tears, self-sacrifice, and one terrible caveat ensue. Cocteau's use of contemporary post WWII French culture (The Princess' demonic goons are leather-clad bikers; Orpheus receives poetic inspiration via short wave radio broadcasts a la Radio Free Europe) coupled with some highly experimental camerawork makes this a solid arthouse mainstay. Considered by many to be a semi-autobiographical work, "Orpheus" examines both the inner workings of an artistic mind as well as the societal pressures exerted upon it. It's all very rich in detail, and symbolism practically oozes from every frame but, despite its many critical accolades, I still found it rather dry and meandering. À chacun son goût.

Osaka Elegy (Japan 1936) (6): With her father about to lose his job unless he pays back the small sum he embezzled, and her brother about to be kicked out of university on the eve of graduation unless he can pay the rest of his tuition, twenty-something Ayako saves the day by giving in to her lecherous old boss’ advances and becoming his mistress. Emboldened by her newfound power over men she decides to extract a little cash from yet another unhappily married man so she can run away with her fiancé—-but her plans backfire and she winds up being labelled a “delinquent” much to her (now financially secure) family’s shame. Kenji Mizoguchi’s somewhat jumbled little morality play still manages to conceal a few satirical barbs as one woman’s fall from grace casts a glaring spotlight on the hypocrisy and double standards inherent in Japanese society; from Ayako’s ungrateful family (even her little sister whines about losing face at school) to her wimpy boyfriend’s fear of being associated with a “fallen woman”. Even the boss’ wife, a headstrong virago who mocked his earlier threats to carry on an affair, is suddenly reduced to a blubbering shrew when her place in high society is threatened by her husband’s indiscretion. Yet, despite its tragic overtones this remains a dark comedy with Ayako shaking her head at the petty dramatics around her even as she struggles to shoulder her own scarlet letter.

OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies (France 2006) (9): Five years before they tap-danced their way to the Oscars for 2011’s The Artist, Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo teamed up for this side-splitting James Bond spoof, one of the funniest films of that particular ilk I have yet to see. Set in 1955, he plays special agent OSS 117, a French spy whose suave mannerisms and devilish good looks belie the fact he’s basically a clueless, insensitive, and egotistical boor while she plays his undercover contact in Cairo where he’s been sent on assignment. And when the two of them get caught up in a dangerous international mess involving Nazis, Russian arms dealers, Egyptian terrorists, and an angry deposed princess the laughs start piling up in earnest! Lampooning every espionage movie trope he can think of, director Michel Hazanavicius and his team of writers mine everything from cultural differences and religion to the battle of the sexes to expose a mother lode of comedy. The sexual innuendos (including 117’s questionable leanings) are as corny as they come—sometimes a loaded pistol is not just a loaded pistol, 117’s cultural ignorance is groan-inducing (his attempt to shout down a Muezzin whose call to prayer disturbed his sleep is broadcast all over Cairo), and a botched assassination in a chicken factory ends in a flurry of feathered missiles (PETA beware!). And that smackdown bitch fight between princess and female operative, involving torn dresses and gratuitous lingerie, adds a smirk to the worst excesses of the Bond franchise. For her part Bejo plays it mostly straight, her character looking on with increasing hostility as a blissfully ignorant 117 repeatedly sticks his foot in his mouth until she just can’t take it anymore… A thoroughly enjoyable flick rife with visual gags and corny one-liners all tied together with a sharply satirical script, and Hazanavicius’ decision to film the entire production using 1950s technology—poorly made miniatures, shamelessly obvious rear projection screens—makes it all the more hilarious. Ian Fleming would have been livid but Hitchcock, I believe, would have smiled.

The Other Side of Midnight (USA 1977) (8): Although it fizzled at the box office thanks in part to being overshadowed by the premiere of Star Wars, this magnificently operatic soap opera from 20th Century Fox may be trashy and overdone but director Charles Jarrot pulls it off with such panache that it is also hugely entertaining. Beginning in 1939, the lives of two women from opposite sides of the Atlantic are set to collide with tragic consequences. In Paris, penniless beauty Noelle Page (Marie-France Pisier) is determined to claw her way to fame and fortune no matter what—or who—she has to do in the process. Meanwhile in New York, homespun country girl Catherine Douglas (Susan Sarandon) is likewise working her way up the corporate ladder albeit with a tad more class than her French counterpart. But the two women, strangers to each other, unknowingly have one thing in common: they will both fall disastrously in love with the same man—American air force officer Larry Douglas (70s heartthrob John Beck), a dashingly handsome rogue who specializes in breaking hearts. But these two hearts are not so easily put off setting the stage for a sordid tale of lust and sex, betrayal and revenge, and finally a twisted and highly theatrical serving of justice. The music soars, the opulent scenery shifts from Paris to New York to Athens where Noelle’s dalliance with a Greek tycoon carries overtones of classical tragedy, and everyone gets a turn emoting for the cameras. Beck plays the seductive Lothario well despite his distracting good looks while Sarandon plays a sacrificial lamb with teeth and Pisier gives us a bloodless Gallic spin on Medea. Poignant, occasionally erotic, and always engrossing despite (or perhaps because of) its corn-tinged dramatics, this is a 3-hour guilty pleasure from that sober opening scene to a final over-the-top encounter.

Otto; or, Up With Dead People (Germany 2008) (3): There are those members of the gay community who insist on branding themselves as sexual outlaws, using transgressive sex as a form of political protest. In this occasionally clever film-within-a-film Canada’s own bad boy director Bruce La Bruce takes this mindset to his usual extremes and the results, though hardly jaw-dropping, are at least novel. Otto is a shambling, milky-eyed, twenty-something zombie in tight jeans and a preppie sweater. Not exactly sure how he came to be undead he nevertheless seems to have vague recollections of a doomed love affair with a handsome classmate and a strained relationship with his hulking father. Reviled by the local townsfolk and regularly harassed by teenage gangs, he eventually stumbles into documentarian diva and anarchist extraordinaire Medea Yarn who just happens to be filming a “political” zombie flick in which hordes of living dead homos decide to lash out against repressive societal norms and rampant capitalism. Or something like that. Fascinated by Otto’s death-related delusions (is he, or isn’t he?) she decides to make him the focus of her next big project---a decomposing symbol for intolerance and injustice everywhere. Otto, meanwhile, has an agenda of his own... Of course there’s the usual blood-soaked nonsense one comes to expect from this genre of film and true to his porn roots La Bruce spices things up with lots of tumescent zombie dick (a boy-on-ghoul orgy is particularly odd). But the “marginalized undead” metaphor is weak at best. The film is further marred by hammy acting, an overblown script and some jarring sound and visual effects. As a director La Bruce has trouble keeping characters and storyline organized; his constant shifts in mood and style become tedious and eventually wreck what could have been a painfully poignant ending. However, as the final credits rolled I was left with one nagging this day of equal rights and increasing mainstream acceptance is this type of film even relevant anymore?

Our Children (Belgium 2012) (9): Newlyweds Murielle and Mounir are very much in love having tied the knot after a brief but blissful courtship. But with the birth of their first child subtle changes begin to occur in their relationship: arguments erupt over little things; there never seems to be enough time; and Mounir’s foster father and former immigration sponsor, Dr. André Pinget, uses his offers of financial aid to exert a psychological grip on the couple. By the time their fourth child arrives Murielle, quite possibly suffering with severe postpartum depression, is at her wit’s end for not only has Mounir grown cold and indifferent (he’s dealing with financial problems and pressure to help his family back in Morocco) but Pinget’s need for control is beginning to resemble a megalomania. With her therapist more concerned with prescriptions and professional decorum than actually listening, Murielle’s feelings of isolation and shame spin out of control and tragedy seems inevitable. Joachim Lafosse’s riveting family drama uses tight spaces—interiors are often framed in such a way that people are confined to small squares of light—and a score of sorrowful choral pieces to heighten its sense of sad disconnect. Images of children happily at play clash jarringly with adults hurting one another while either overlooking Murielle’s deteriorating condition or, worse, blaming her for it. A devastating study of one woman’s unchecked descent into mental illness (the original French title translates as “To Lose Reason”) overlaid with delicate political overtones as Dr. Pinget insists on equating foreign aid with foreign ownership. Harrowing.

Our Kind of Traitor (UK 2016) (7): Another John le Carré thriller is brought to the screen with all the usual gaps and stretches, but director Susanna White keeps things brisk and exciting with a starry cast (Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgård, Naomie Harris, Damian Lewis) and highly photogenic locations shots which range from Morocco to London to the French alps. British couple Perry and Gail (McGregor, Harris) are on holiday in Africa when Perry becomes uneasy chums with boisterous Russian mobster Dima (Skarsgård) after a chance meeting at a swanky restaurant. Taking the naïve Brit into his confidence, Dima talks Perry into acting as a liaison between himself and British Intelligence—his ultimate goal to exchange incriminating evidence regarding the mafia’s overseas dealings in exchange for asylum for him and his family. Now caught between the Russian mob and a taciturn MI6 agent (Lewis)—neither of whom they can trust—Perry and Gail find their own lives on the line. Unlike the usual glut of le Carré adaptations that rely on dark corners and oppressive spaces to ramp up the tension, cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle revels in alpine panoramas, decadent desert oases, and gilded hotel lobbies while screenwriter Hossein Amini finds what suspense he can in a deadly stare or the offscreen howl of a dying dog. Very much a three-handed film with McGregor looking for validation (he feels as if he’s walking in his successful lawyer wife’s shadow), Skarsgård seeking redemption, and Harris letting down her barrister’s detachment to reveal a little more humanity.

Out In The Dark (Israel 2012) (7): Many films have tried to encapsulate the tensions between Israel and Palestine but Michael Mayer reduces them to the story of a cross-border gay romance and the result, while highly watchable, seems a little too facile. When Israeli lawyer Roy meets Palestinian student Nimer in a Tel Aviv gay bar erotic sparks are inevitable for both are personable and eager to improve their stations in life. An affair soon turns into a relationship but the powers that be cast a long, dark, shadow over the pair’s happiness—Roy’s parents have a hard enough time accepting his homosexuality let alone his Arab boyfriend; Nimer must lead a double life between Roy’s apartment in Tel Aviv and his own family in Ramallah lest he be ostracized or worse (his brother Nabil dallies with terrorists); and the Israeli Security Force introduces yet another wedge between the men when they decide the best way to Nabil is through Nimer himself. But whether or not love can scale the wall and conquer generations of mistrust and anger is the question Mayer pursues as his protagonists face conflict from their families, the government, and ultimately each other. Nicely shot along the rooftops and urban sprawl of Tel Aviv with two photogenic leads falling in and out of bed, it’s easy to get caught up in the film’s hard-edged sentimentality. But Mayer propels his story forward by damping down social and political complexities in favour of clearly defined good vs evil choices—Nabil and his cronies stand in for the violent fedayeen while Israeli Security (here shown as one homophobic commander and two hairy goons) are the big bad wolves. Caught up between these two opposing forces Roy and Nimer’s relationship will follow a rocky course indeed. In the end it’s a novel twist on Romeo & Juliet which sheds some sympathetic light into corners Western audiences don’t often see.

The Outlaw Josey Wales (USA 1976) (8): After Union soldiers murder his family and burn his house to the ground, Missouri homesteader Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood replacing his usual cigar with chewing tobacco) joins a guerrilla unit of Confederate outlaws in order to exact his revenge. Eventually winding up a one-man vigilante, Wales follows the renegade soldiers—who are simultaneously trying to hunt him down—all the way to Texas where a series of encounters will forever change him… Clocking in at over two hours, Eastwood’s wild west odyssey doesn’t skimp on the bullets and bodies, nor does he miss an opportunity to capture the appropriate scenery as cowboys and Indians canter past grasslands, buttes, and dunes. But there is a quasi-spiritual edge to Wales’ quest which was initially born out of a desire for retribution only to become something much more fundamental after he crosses paths with a disaffected native elder (an endearingly fuddled Chief Dan George), a native woman who has learned to shoulder her own pain, a Comanche warrior, and a family of settlers still reeling from their own tragedy. When the final showdown eventually does come to pass Wales will discover that forgiveness, much like vengeance, is a sword that cuts both ways. Despite the usual Western trappings (enough with the tobacco-spitting, yecch) this is a film of unexpected depths with admirable performances—even Eastwood’s affected monotone seems somehow relevant—and a restrained, vaguely military score which earned composer Jerry Fielding an Oscar nomination. Still unusual for the time, the film also imbues its indigenous characters with a sense of humanity far removed from the usual “hollering redskins” of Hollywood’s bygone days—and those key roles are filled by actual native actors: as Wales’ philosophizing sidekick Chief Dan George (Squamish) regularly steals Eastwood’s spotlight, Will Sampson (Creek Nation) brings a sense of dignity to the warrior, and Geraldine Keams (Navajo) exudes a sense of pride and iron resolve without ever speaking a single world of English.

Out of the Furnace (USA 2012) (8): Despite a stint in prison which cost him the woman he loved, Russell Baze (an intense Christian Bale) is determined to make a life for himself working in a small town Pennsylvania mill like his father before him. But his kid brother Rodney (Casey Affleck, impressive) doesn’t share his simple aspirations. Four tours in Afghanistan have damaged something inside Rodney, filling him with rage and a desire to run as far away from his childhood home as possible. Finding an outlet of sorts in the underground world of bareknuckle fighting Rodney gains something of a reputation for himself until he runs afoul of Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson, overdoing it) a sadistic promoter, drug dealer, and addict with more than a few scores to settle. When Rodney goes missing and the police investigation gets bogged down in red tape Russell takes it upon himself to find his brother and settle a few debts of his own. Filmed in grimy shades of blue with a town that seems little more than smoky skies and boarded up storefronts, Scott Cooper manages to lift a generic blue collar thriller into something of note thanks in large part to an amazing cast (including Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, and Forest Whitaker) and a score that runs from heavy orchestral passages to Pearl Jam. Perhaps he plays the testosterone card a bit too freely with Bale swinging a rifle like it was his third arm and a snarling Harrelson heading up a pack of thoroughly repulsive backwoodsmen, but when taken as a contemporary American folk tale all that macho chest pounding becomes easier to accept. Cooper may not have reinvented the genre but he certainly contributed something that stands out from the usual crop.

Out of the Past (USA 1947) (9): When Jean-Luc Godard said, “To make a movie all you need is a girl and a gun…” he could very well have been talking about director Jacques Tourneur’s brooding B&W piece now widely considered to be something of a noir classic. A few years ago shady private eye Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) was hired by gangster gambler Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to track down Sterling’s runaway mistress Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer, with a gun)—an assignment which almost cost him his life when he fell in love with Moffat himself. Now living the straight life running a gas station near Lake Tahoe where he’s engaged to a woman so pure and wholesome that even her shadow is white, Bailey is trying to forget the past. But the past strong-arms its way back into his life when Sterling offers him a job he can’t refuse involving burglary, extortion and murder…and Moffat mysteriously reappears to rekindle an old flame… Mitchum and Douglas are a perfect pair with the former’s icy reserve playing off the latter’s fiery impulsiveness while Greer portrays a sexy femme fatale so twisted she’d double-cross herself if she could. And Tourneur keeps the mood appropriately bleak and volatile with knife-edged shadows, a script that practically spits venom, and cameras which always seem to find the darkest corners. It’s tough-talking machismo, dangerous dames, and smouldering sexuality all wrapped up in a plot so convoluted you’ll need a map to find your way out. Quintessential film noir.

Out of the Past (USA 1998) (7): In the mid-90s Utah highschool student Kelli Peterson, still coming to terms with her own sexuality, decided to start a campus support group for gay, bi, and lesbian students and their supporters. Calling it the “Gay-Straight Alliance” she submitted her proposal to the school authorities never imagining the avalanche of bigotry and homophobia her dream would unleash. With opposition stretching from the Salt Lake City school board to the state legislature, Kelli’s legal odyssey would make international headlines and propel her to the vanguard of the gay rights movement. Using this plucky young woman’s determination as a focal point, director Jeff Dupre puts her experience in a historical context by comparing it to the struggle faced by such heroes of equality as Henry Gerber who founded the first Gay Rights organization in 1925 (he was arrested and lost his job), Bayard Rustin who at one time was Martin Luther King’s right hand man during the civil rights movement (his sexuality became a political hot potato), and Boston socialite Annie Adams Fields who along with her lover, the author Sarah Orne Jewett, moved freely through 19th century high society until changing social mores, fuelled by psychiatric babble, cast a disparaging pall over their relationship. “If we don’t exist in history then we don’t really exist in the present…” states the narrator in an opening monologue, and bolstered by personal letters and a panel of talking heads which include historians, clergy, and politicians, Jeff Dupre’s short documentary suggests that we’ve been LOUD and PROUD for a lot longer than we think. Gwyneth Paltrow, Edward Norton, and Linda Hunt lend their voices.

The Outsiders (USA 1983) (3): Francis Ford Coppola doesn't miss a single rebellious teen cliché in this cornfed mash-up of "West Side Story" and "Rebel Without a Cause" starring an entire cast of Tiger Beat heartthrobs. In a dried up little Oklahoma town circa 1965 the upper crust "Socials" gang enjoy all the privileges and no-iron polyester they can handle while their arch-rivals from the other side of the tracks, the "Greasers", have to make do with torn blue jeans and domestic violence. When a young Greaser accidentally kills a Social in self defense it sets in motion a series of events leading to tragic epiphanies, unexpected heroics, and the requisite police shoot-out. But Coppola is not John Hughes; C. Thomas Howell, who plays wistful poetry-spouting Greaser "Ponyboy", is not James Dean; his sidekick Ralph Macchio is not Sal Mineo; and the songs of Stevie Wonder, Van Morrison, and Elvis Presley are not the teen anthems Coppola was aiming for. Hackneyed, blatantly manipulative, and overplayed to the point of satire. But the sunsets were lovely.

Overlord  (UK 1975) (8):  An interesting mix of staged scenes and old archival footage give this story of one young man’s transformation from naive recruit to disillusioned soldier a level of credibility rarely seen in this genre of film.  Cooper forgoes all but the barest of storylines and instead concentrates on creating a series of impressions....the emotionally restrained farewells; the impersonal tedium of boot camp; the desperate longing of a wartime crush; and finally, the naked terror of a D-Day landing.  The ravages of war are shown in all their stark cruelty yet there are also dreamlike sequences of poetic intensity.  Cooper avoids the macho hubris inherent in so many films about war and instead delivers a heartfelt elegy to the thousands of “unknown soldiers” whose stories can never be told.

The Ox-Bow Incident (USA 1943) (9): In the waning days of the wild west a small Nevada town is besieged by a gang of cattle rustlers. With no idea of who the thieves might be the townsfolk are understandably suspicious of every stranger that comes and goes. But when a local rancher is shot during an apparent heist the deputy sheriff puts together a posse of angry locals and sets out in search of the killers. Happening upon a trio of travellers camping out in the woods the bloodthirsty rabble decides to take the law into their own hands and execute all three with nothing but a mock trial to determine their guilt. Only seven men stand between the lynch mob and the accused men who’ve been condemned on the most circumstantial of evidence. What follows is a gut-wrenching showdown between conscience and the base need for bloody revenge as a black minister and elderly businessman plead for cooler heads and the would-be executioners are whipped into a righteous frenzy by an overly zealous cavalry officer and the dead rancher’s grieving friend. And all the while three nooses are being made ready… Shot entirely on sound stages William A. Wellman’s Oscar-nominated morality play proved problematic for the studio when it was released. Its frank depiction of man’s inherent ability for ugliness and disregard for the civilized rule of law made more than a few execs uneasy especially when the censors took exception to the distinct lack of redeeming qualities in some of its key characters. In other words, its essential truthfulness made for uneasy viewing among wartime theatregoers hungry for happily ever after endings. Nevertheless there is a terrible beauty to Arthur Miller’s B&W cinematography. He films this long dark night of the soul using menacing silhouettes and twisted tree trunks to reflect the human drama below while a heavenly sunrise provides a moving backdrop for those decisive final moments. A troubling parable which still hits close to home over seventy years later. Henry Fonda stands out along with Dana Andrews and Anthony Quinn.

The Oyster Princess: A Grotesque Comedy in 4 Acts (Germany 1919) (7): Before he emigrated to the United States, silent film legend Ernst Lubitsch directed this scathing—and very funny—satire on the excesses of American capitalism. When pampered debutante Ossi Quaker (irony!) discovers one of her contemporaries has married into European royalty she threatens to tear daddy’s New York mansion down brick by golden brick unless he finds a bona fide prince she can call her own. Turning to local matchmaker Seligsohn, Mr. Quaker manages to scrounge up Prince Nucki, a penniless aristocrat now living with his manservant Josef in a rundown tenement. But thanks to a gross misunderstanding Ossi’s long-awaited marriage doesn’t quite go as planned leading to more tantrums, more chaos, and the beginning of a loveless honeymoon… Tacky gilded sets and gross decadence abound reaching their zenith during the wedding reception where maids and butlers outnumber the guests ten to one and a spontaneous “foxtrot epidemic” breaks out after the orchestra leader loses his mind. And then there’s the meeting of the local Temperance League which opens with a champagne toast only to end in fisticuffs. But despite its patently Hollywood ending there’s no moral to Lubitsch’s sixty-minute screwball caper because the principal characters are already beyond redemption to begin with: Ossi is a spoiled brat so used to getting her own way that it has become the norm; Prince Nucki is the very epitome of a European monarchy gone to seed (his “throne” consisting of a rickety chair placed atop an orange crate); and Mr. Quaker himself is a fat lazy leviathan doted on by liveried footmen including an inner circle of black servants who feed him and wipe his nose. In fact, had he lived today he could very well have been the King of Wall Street.

Pacific Rim (USA 2013) (7): In the near future an inter-dimensional rift under the Pacific Ocean allows mammoth aquatic beasts called “Kaiju” to enter our world and wreak havoc from San Francisco to Manila. Mankind responds to this extraterrestrial threat by building skyscraper-sized killer robots called “Jaegers”, each controlled by two human pilots. And Earthlings appear to be gaining the upper hand until the Kaiju start morphing into something bigger, meaner, and even more destructive. Now, with the fate of the planet hanging in the balance, it’s up to ace pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam practically choking on his own testosterone) and a small cadre of sweaty meatheads to kick some alien butt before they kick ours… It’s easy to dismiss Guillermo del Toro’s crazy-stupid sci-fi thriller at first glance—after all the derivative storyline is preposterous and the script never rises above adolescent comic book schlock. But then you realize that beneath the glaring neon gewgaws and flash-bang effects this is actually a lovingly cheeky homage to every Japanese monster movie ever made. Sure, the hokey neoprene body suits have been replaced by high-tech models and CGI (the multi-eyed Kaiju resemble scaly King Kongs with the noggin of a Joe Dante gremlin), and the old cardboard and balsa wood mock-ups of downtown Tokyo have given way to digitally rendered cityscapes and elaborate Toronto sound stages, but this is still a universe in which Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan would feel right at home. Emoting seems to be the cardinal rule here and del Toro’s over-the-top special effects are paired with equally exaggerated performances especially by Idris Elba as a stone cold commander, Rinko Kikuchi as the little Japanese girl who could (and Becket’s squeeze), and the team of Charlie Day and Burn Gorman camping it up as a pair of slapstick scientists who couldn’t have been sillier had they been played by Laurel & Hardy. Even B-Movie mainstay Ron Perlman has a cameo of sorts playing a black market entrepreneur pimped out in gold-plated shoes and wire goggles. The destruction is awesome, the fight sequences hilarious, and the whole production makes you feel like a kid sitting through a super cool Saturday afternoon matinee. Either take it for what it is or give it a pass because del Toro offers no middle ground.

Paddington (UK 2014) (7): First created by author Michael Bond in the late 50’s, marmalade-loving Paddington Bear and his misadventures have gone on to become a British icon. Now director Paul King brings the beloved teddy bear to CGI life in this live action comedy and the results truly look like a bedtime story. Having journeyed from the forests of “darkest Peru” to the hustle of London in search of a new home to call his own, our diminutive ursine hero finds himself stranded at Paddington Station—from whence he eventually gets his “English” name—with nothing but a battered valise and ragged red hat. Eventually brought home by the Brown family the well-meaning Paddington proceeds to turn the household upside-down thanks to his unfamiliarity with everything from indoor plumbing to scotch tape (kids, never clean your ears with a toothbrush!). Now, with his welcome wearing thin and dark forces on his tail in the form of a sadistic museum curator who thinks the talking bear would look fabulous stuffed and mounted (Nicole Kidman doing a Cruella De Vil imitation), Paddington and his newfound family are in for their biggest adventure yet. A nice mix of warm fuzzies and sheer ridiculousness (Kidman’s character really is too much) with more than a touch of magical whimsy as wallpaper comes to life, a movie screen becomes a doorway, and the Brown residence morphs into an antique dollhouse. The CGI mayhem is impeccable—a police chase through the suburbs is a triumph of fancy vs reality—and that little bear with his duffel coat and proper English accent is just so gosh darn huggable you’ll want to run out to the nearest toy store before the end credits finish rolling. Michael Bond himself makes a cameo playing a tea shop patron who raises a cup as Paddington’s cab whizzes by.

The Pagan King (Latvia 2018) (5): When the Pope sends his evil bastard son Maximillian—“Max”—to conquer the pagan kingdom of Semigallia (now the Baltic States), things don’t go as planned. Even though Max successfully assassinates Semigallia’s king, the dying monarch still manages to pass the symbol of his office—an ornate metal ring—to Namejs, a fiercely loyal yet inexperienced young warrior. Now tasked with uniting Semigallia’s bickering tribal leaders against the common enemy of Rome, Namejs will eventually face off against Max in a battle of wits and brute force which will determine the fate of an entire people. There is much to dislike about writer/director Aigars Grauba’s lacklustre historical epic, so much so that for the first 30 minutes my finger hovered over the “stop” button. The acting, some of which is dubbed, is stagey at best (like a college production of Vikings) which only underscores a sophomoric script teeming with clichés—the Christian crusaders are so evil, the Semigallians are so proud and bold. And the medieval trappings are cursory at best with everyone appearing much handsomer—and cleaner—than they have any right to be, and tumbledown sets looking as if they were slapped together using plywood and glue (those menacing “war boats” more like dinghies with attitude). Furthermore, thanks to budgetary constraints which probably limited the number of extras Grauba could hire, it would appear that the entire “kingdom” numbers some three dozen men and women while the papal forces don’t fare much better. So what kept me watching to the end? Once you overlook the technical shortfalls the film’s sheer melodrama is easy to get caught up in especially with leads Edvin Endre and James Bloor going at each other—Endre’s singleminded good guy proselytizing like a hunky blond Prince Valiant; Bloor’s reptilian bad guy so entertainingly overdone he only needed a black top hat and cape. And then there’s the action sequences—clearly the movie’s highlights and biggest budget drain—which have Endre (or his stunt double) doing aerial backflips and impossible feats of swordsmanship while Christians and pagans go at each other’s throats…and eye sockets…and heads…and bellies…and anything else they can can cut, hack, and maim. One particular battle scene unfolding on a stretch of beach obscured by fire and smoke becomes a surreal montage of death and despair. Flawed at almost every level from dialogue to editing to performances, Grauba’s attempt to tell a tall tale gleaned from his country’s ancient past was nevertheless well-intentioned and wholly respectful. Unfortunately his vision exceeded both his reach and his purse strings.

Painted Fire [Chi-hwa-seon] (South Korea 2002) (5): Biopic covering the tumultuous life of famed artist Jang Seung-up (d. 1897) who defied artistic convention in order to create his own passionate ink and watercolour pieces. A peasant by birth, Jang’s natural talent was recognized early on and under the tutelage of a series of patrons he quickly gained notoriety with his ability to mimic other painters before finding his own artistic voice. Of course, as with all geniuses Jang had more than his fair share of demons which he attempted to appease through alcoholic binges and violent outbursts usually aimed at those who cared for him the most. Meanwhile, Korea itself was suffering from an identity crisis both from within as internal political struggles took their toll, and from without as Japan and China eagerly picked over the bones. Shot with the eye of an artist, Kwon-taek Im’s film is visually impressive with wide-angle vistas of fields and forests alive with autumnal shades of red and gold suddenly shifting to candlelit domestic interiors or pools of still water. But the story suffers from erratic editing, confusing timelines, and a lack of context for anyone not well versed in Korean history. Furthermore, Jang himself is seen more as a lazy and petulant alcoholic rather than the suffering artist the director clearly wanted to portray. The artwork, however, is gorgeous and a sudden ending is appropriately poetic.

The Painted Veil (USA 2006) (8):  It is England, 1925, and Kitty, a self-centred young socialite is about to marry an adoring, though emotionally repressed doctor in order to appease her stuffy upper-class family.  Immediately after the wedding he takes her back to Shanghai, China where he’s been working in a local medical laboratory.  It isn’t long before she finds the love she craves in the arms of another man leaving her husband disillusioned and bitter.  As an apparent act of revenge he threatens to expose her adultery unless she accompanies him to a remote village where an outbreak of cholera is decimating the local population.  It’s here, amidst a backdrop of natural beauty and human misery that they are finally able to take the first tentative steps towards a reconciliation.  This is a gorgeous old-style tearjerker full of lush cinematography and exotic locales.  Naomi Watts and Edward Norton are perfectly paired as the unhappy couple who long for affection even as they inflict pain upon one another.  There is a synergy between them in which a casual glance can convey a sad reproach or a subtle eroticism.  In fact the entire cast is completely convincing which makes the final scenes all the more powerful.  A beautiful fusion of sublime imagery and succinct dialogue that rings true right up to the final credits.

Paint Your Wagon (USA 1969) (6): Even though Joshua Logan’s ambitious widescreen musical about life in a California gold rush town bears only a passing resemblance to the original stage production it nevertheless contains a certain transgressive charm with its rustic panoramas and kinky morality. Grizzled prospector Ben Rumson (Lee Marvin, can’t sing), a drunk given to bouts of melancholy, forms an unlikely partnership with hapless pioneer Sylvester “Pardner” Newel (Clint Eastwood, can’t sing either) after the two strike it rich and create the town of “No Name”—a lawless collection of oversexed male vagabonds and fortune hunters hungry for gold and starving for female companionship. Sharing everything from mining profits to a Mormon wife that Ben wins in a bidding war (Jane Seberg, dubbed) the two men settle into a comfortable ménage à trois while No Name grows in both wealth and decadence thanks to an influx of millionaire wannabes and hijacked prostitutes. But when a family of god-fearing Christians stumble into town they introduce the most destructive force of all—virtue—and No Name will never be the same again. The genre was already dying when this big-budget flop was released and one can see how Paint Your Wagon may have provided the final nail in that coffin. The tepid musical numbers and off-key warbling do little to propel a rather tired story, although a heavy-hearted rendition of “They Call the Wind Maria” is admirable and Marvin’s gravelly voice brings a rough solemnity to his solo of “Wandering Star”. The scenery is beautiful however with cinematographer William Fraker wringing all he can out of those mountain settings and there is a definite synergy between Marvin, Eastwood and Seberg which keeps the rest of the cast in decent form. Take it as a breezy adult parable, if you will, about the wages of too much freedom and too little responsibility wherein the town of No Name comes to represent Every Place. Besides, who wouldn’t want to share sheets with Lee Marvin and a pre-batshit Clint Eastwood?

The Pajama Game (USA 1957) (5): All is not well at the Sleep-Tite pyjama factory as militant union members go toe-to-toe with the company's hardheaded management over a contentious 7½ cent raise. But things get even more complicated when the fiery head of the Grievance Committee (Doris Day) falls head over heels in love with the new Supervisor. Will love conquer all or will their differing ideologies tear them apart? The Technicolor sets are pretty and some of the songs went on to become classics ("Hey There", "Steam Heat", "Hernando's Hideaway"), but the real star of the show is Bob Fosse's wonderfully complex choreography. The rest is just so much fluff and frosting with a bit of sanitized socialist rhetoric thrown in for good measure.

The Paleface (USA 1948) (5): In order to evade a lengthy prison sentence, wild west gunslinger Calamity Jane (Jane Russel, boring) agrees to go undercover for the government. Someone is supplying illegal arms to the restless Natives and it’s her job to unmask the culprits—but a single woman traveling alone will arouse too much suspicion. Enter “Painless” Peter Potter (Bob Hope, slightly less boring) a bumblingly inept country dentist whom Jane, posing as a helpless damsel, tricks into a marriage of convenience. Misunderstandings follow as Peter believes he has the makings of a gunfighter, Jane has second thoughts, and the bad guys mistake the dentist for a dangerous secret agent. A most unfunny spoof of the Western genre whose humour is derived almost entirely from Hope’s hammy performance and corny one-liners—a stint involving laughing gas failed to elicit so much as a chuckle. Russell recites her lines as if she has something more important on her mind, a cast of garishly dressed Hollywood “Indians” shamelessly whoop it up on cue, and the old west is pared down to backlots and painted mountains (with a brief sojourn at the Paramount ranch). With the yuks as dated as the eye-searing Technicolor and the film’s only claim to fame—its Oscar-winning song “Buttons and Bows”—no more than a trite ditty, this is strictly one for Bob Hope fans only. Alas, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour fail to make an appearance.

Pandora’s Box (Germany 1929) (8): With her trademark bob and smokey eyes, Louise Brooks was one of the most beautiful silent screen stars to emerge from the Flapper Era. Those looks and acting talents are put to good use in Georg Pabst’s scathing morality play in which a free-spirited gold digger singlehandedly destroys her wealthy lover’s family and reputation. Riding on a wave of affluent “benefactors”, Lulu has managed to survive in style but her one dream, to become a theatrical sensation, continues to elude her. To make matters worse her current lover, newspaper editor and prominent media figure Dr. Ludwig Schön, is dumping her in order to marry a more acceptable society girl. Enter former mentor Schigolch who introduces her to a shady talent agent with promises of fame and fortune. She’s to star in a musical revue penned by Alwa Schön, Ludwig’s son, with help from mutual acquaintance Countess Anna Geschwitz, both of whom have amorous designs on her. Seeing an opportunity to even the score with Ludwig and make a name for herself on stage, Lulu uses her considerable charms to ensnare both father and son while manipulating everyone around her. But karma is a bitch, and like the mythological coffer referred to in the title Lulu’s actions will unleash all manner of evil leading to her eventual downfall at the hands of the only man capable of resisting her allure. With its themes of sexual politics and brazen amorality, not to mention frank depictions of adultery, white slavery, and lesbian lust, Pandora’s Box had censors lunging for the scissors upon its initial release. Of course the general public was not ready to accept the film’s protagonist, a curvaceous femme fatale wielding more power between her legs than all her male counterparts combined and thus she was cast as a sexual carnivore; a fallen Eve forever tempting a string of wholly innocent Adams. But there is an artistry to Pabst’s vision with its evocative B&W staging and dramatic tension where a shadowy glare shouts murder and a furtive squeeze drips with erotic potential. In one scene a snow-white lily blooms ironically next to the couch where Lulu spreads her wares, while in several others a bas-relief of a struggling saint (or damned soul) figures prominently in the background. The story may have been told a thousand times, but this 85-year old film’s tale of obsession and madness still manages to speak to a contemporary audience. And that is what cinema is all about.

The Panic in Needle Park (USA 1971) (7): Originally banned in the UK for its explicit portrayal of drug use, Jerry Schatzberg’s thoroughly depressing, heroin-laced love story was actually filmed in and around New York’s infamous Sherman Square, dubbed “Needle Park” by the addicts haunting it’s nearby streets. Newly arrived from Fort Wayne Indiana, lonely straw-haired bohemian Helen finds herself pursued by Bobby, a petty thief, low level pusher and full-time junkie who seems to offer her the love and security she craves. At first attracted to his manic energy and spontaneous personality Helen is able to overlook the squalor and coked out friends that seem to hover around Bobby. But when she goes from sharing his bed to sharing his needle a destructive pattern of dependency and despair sends her life spiralling out of control leading to one final desperate act of betrayal. With street level camerawork, garbage-strewn sets, and soundtrack of urban clamour, Needle Park’s unrelenting aura of hopelessness provides one of cinema’s most convincing anti-drug messages. With the exception of Kitty Winn’s anesthetized performance as Helen, the supporting cast’s portrayal of lives best not lived is at once morbidly fascinating and deeply repellant with Al Pacino’s standout performance dominating every scene. Keeping his characters at an emotional arm’s length, Schatzberg neither romanticizes the drug culture they’re immersed in, nor demonizes it. As the dispassionate lens of his handheld camera captures every fleeting joy and tragic turn of the story he challenges us to reconsider our own opinions while at the same time providing no easy answers. The mindset and lingo may be dated at times and the narrative jumps a bit abruptly (perhaps on purpose?), but this contemporary urban tragedy remains powerful 40 years later.

Panic in the Streets (USA 1950) (7): When a stowaway is found murdered on the docks of New Orleans the resulting autopsy shows that he was carrying more than a few bullets in his chest—he was also in the last stages of pneumonic plague, a deadly and highly contagious respiratory disease with an incubation period of just 48 hours. Now, with only two days to track down and treat everyone who came in contact with the doomed man before they can precipitate a lethal epidemic, Lt. Commander Clint Reed M.D. of the U.S. Public Health Service is facing an uphill battle for not only are the police reluctant to swing into action, but the very people they’re looking for have good reason to remain hidden. Director Elia Kazan’s “medical noir” features a fine performance from lead Richard Widmark as Reed, a man desperate to avoid a catastrophe even as he begins to succumb to stress and frustration. Long shots of seedy wharves and the seedier people who inhabit them are underscored by snatches of doleful jazz while an Oscar-winning script keeps us from confusing the good guys with the bad. Epidemiologically suspect, the Centre for Disease Control was only four years old after all, but tightly directed and highly watchable from the first hail of bullets right to the final cat-and-mice chase through a decaying dockyard. Widmark is supported by Barbara Bel Geddes as his dutiful wife and Paul Douglas as a gruff police captain with Zero Mostel and Jack Palance (in his screen debut) as a neurotic thief and brutal underworld sociopath respectively.

Papillon (USA 1973) (8): In 1933 convicted murderer Henri Charrière—nicknamed “Papillon” (Butterfly) for the tattoo on his chest—was sent to the infamous penal colony in French Guyana despite his strenuous pleas of innocence. Surrounded by swamps, malaria, and an ocean teeming with sharks and deadly currents he nevertheless attempted several jailbreaks, even making it all the way to Colombia where he was adopted by a tribe of natives before being recaptured. His flights led to increasingly dire punishments from the camp commandant until, several years later, he was finally able to take one last stab at freedom as he planned an escape from Devil’s Island itself. Based on Charrière’s bestselling memoirs (which have since fallen into disrepute as mounting evidence suggests he may have fabricated many of his adventures) Frank Schaffner’s grand prison epic still manages to entertain and enthral thanks in large part to Dalton Trumbo’s visceral script, elaborate tropical sets (shot in Jamaica), and the combined star power of leads Steve McQueen as Papillon and Dustin Hoffman as fellow prisoner and loyal sidekick Louis Dega. Starting with a march of shame through the streets of Paris as the prisoners are boarded onto ships bound for South America, Schaffner goes heavy on the grit and squalor: the trip to Guyana resembles a migration of slaves, the prison itself is rife with dangers both natural and human, and everyone from the guards to a morally suspect Mother Superior is on the take. Papillon’s incarceration is shown in wretched detail, especially a harrowing two-year stint in solitary confinement in which he shared his narrow cell with bats and supplemented his meagre diet with centipedes and cockroaches. Juxtaposing these jail scenes with widescreen panoramas of palm-fringed beaches and impossibly blue skies Schaffner makes you feel his protagonist’s intense yearning for freedom as well as his soul-crushing defeats as plans fall apart and an implacable prison staff seem intent on breaking his mind, body, and spirit. Even if the “true story” on which it is based is suspect, this remains both an affecting tale of one man’s perseverance against impossible odds and a condemnatory statement on man’s ability to inflict cruelty on others. Highly watchable.

Paradise: Faith (Austria 2012) (8): In the first instalment of Ulrich Seidl's trilogy, Paradise: Love, a group of flabby forty-ish women travel to Africa for a sex vacation hoping that the illusion of romance will offer them some degree of personal validation. In part two he turns his attention to the empty promises of religion. Maria has joined a grass roots organization intent on converting a multicultural Austria back to Catholicism. By day she goes door to door cradling a statue of the Virgin Mary, eager to introduce immigrants and sinners alike to God's mom. By night she whips the lustful thoughts out of herself while at the same time showing Jesus just how much she loves him. But when her estranged husband (a paraplegic Moslem no less) makes a sudden appearance Maria begins to suspect that God has left the building. Satire doesn't come any drier than this.

Paradise: Hope (Austria 2013) (7): Writer/director Ulrich Seidl caps his trilogy of unhappy women looking for connection by coming full circle. Gone are the exploitations of Paradise: Love and sad blasphemies of Paradise: Faith, replaced instead by a surprisingly restrained look at the wounds inflicted by first love. While her mother vacations in Africa (a direct reference to Paradise: Love) chubby thirteen-year old Melanie is enrolled in a weight loss camp. There, surrounded by other teens dealing with issues of body image and dysfunctional parents, she experiences her first sexual stirrings when she develops a crush on the camp doctor, a grey-haired gentleman almost old enough to be her grandfather. A chaste yet increasingly alarming exchange of affections takes place (the good doctor has a few emotional pathologies of his own) but despite encouragement from her more worldly campmate Verena, Melanie’s journey towards adulthood is about to hit its first pothole. Refreshingly devoid of lurid voyeurism and “fat kid” gags—these young people are made of sturdier stuff than that—Seidl's penchant for cool observation is softened by a real compassion for his characters. “Bee Who You Wanna Bee!” states Melanie’s whimsical t-shirt, to be replaced later by one featuring a sleeping kitten, and telling artwork features unobtainable mountain peaks or a frightened clown fish taking shelter in a bed of stinging anemones. Giggling exchanges with Verena call to mind the sweet naiveté of adolescence while a brief encounter in a local tavern reveals its more perilous side. Lastly, a creepy woodland rendezvous bypasses our pessimistic expectations and delivers up a scene of genuine, if very awkward, warmth instead. As with many Austrian films the acting is deliberately wooden at times and there is that pervasive sense of conformity as scene after scene depicts the kids herded and lined up like trained horses. Furthermore the downplayed ending may disappoint those hoping for tears and epiphanies (or something more prurient) but life doesn’t play out that way, a fact which Seidl is all too aware of.

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (USA 1996) (8): In May of 1993 the bodies of three eight-year old boys were found near the Robin Hood Hills area of West Memphis, Arkansas. They had been hogtied, tortured, and then mutilated in various ways (one was castrated) before being dumped into the local river. Police were quick to get a full confession from seventeen-year old Jessie Misskelley who claimed to have helped fellow teens Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin commit the murders so, against a backdrop of outrage and cries for vengeance, the three young men went to trial. Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky spent ten months following the courtroom proceedings and interviewing the accused and their families as well as the families of the victims. In much the same vein as Errol Morris, they take a backseat to their own production letting subjects speak for themselves while presenting enough evidence to thoroughly confound their audience—for what emerges is a sinuous, at times contradictory tale of justice not quite deferred but certainly warped. For starters the mentally handicapped Misskelley produced a sworn testimony with enough glaring inconsistencies to suggest faulty interrogation techniques on behalf of the investigating detectives. Secondly, both Echols and Baldwin were cast as outsiders who listened to heavy metal music and had more than a passing interest in the Occult which in this low-rent bible belt town was practically an admission of guilt. And then there’s the question of why apparently key evidence was either glossed over or ignored entirely. But as experts and laymen alike take the stand to be either bolstered or shot down by the lawyers, what started out as a series of charges based on pure hearsay and conjecture becomes even murkier. And throughout it all the accused display a naïve apathy, either looking at the floor or staring with seeming incomprehension as the trial reaches its conclusion—at one point Echols, faced with the possibility of a death sentence should he be found guilty, takes some comfort in the fact that future generations of children will remember him as the bogeyman of West Memphis. The trial scenes are absolutely riveting, the interviews both illuminating and heartbreaking (crime scene photos are almost unwatchable), but the sense of sloppy jurisprudence from both sides is inescapable. Seldom has a documentary exploring the question of guilt or innocence been so absorbing. Note: this is the first part of a trilogy exploring the trial and subsequent fallout of the so-called “West Memphis Three”.

Paradise: Love (Austria 2012) (9): Fat, lonely, and on the wrong side of forty, Austrian divorcee Teresa decides to treat herself to a seaside holiday in Kenya. There, surrounded by other corpulent sunburnt Europeans she discovers that the virile natives are more than willing to look beyond her “sagging breasts and fat ass” and provide her with the unconditional love she craves. But then come the inevitable hard luck stories as the men make increasingly aggressive demands for funds to help a destitute sister…or an ill niece…or an aging father…or an injured brother… As she finds herself spread out in one dingy hostel room after another Teresa’s romantic fantasies swiftly give way to an angry cynicism which only serves to heighten her despair. Featuring a fearless performance from lead actress Margarete Tiesel who bravely bares her soul as well as her extra pounds, Ulrich Seidl’s unflinching (and uncomfortably graphic) film blurs the line between exploiters and exploited. Yes there is an aura of colonialism as we see a makeshift fence dividing the beach between pampered white tourists and the black hawkers waiting to descend upon them, and a private birthday bash comes to resemble a slave auction when the drunken women haggle over who can give the negro stripper an erection. But there is another, more subtle prostitution at work here as the savvy Kenyans home in on Teresa’s personal weaknesses be it fear of abandonment (“Love is forever…”), or poor body image (“Baby I can’t stop, you got me so turned on…”), or just plain loneliness (“No, you’re not old…). It’s this intricate power play that seems to fascinate Seidl and gives his movie an unexpected poignancy. Often filmed as a solitary figure against an empty swimming pool or endless stretch of beach, Teresa’s unhappiness plays on that note of insecurity we all carry within ourselves thus giving Paradise: Love a far more universal punch than one would expect. Neither the men nor their female targets are bad people really, they’re just out to get whatever they can before going back to their respective corners. It’s a dance of sorts, a game of words and actions, and to ignore the rules is to put oneself in emotional peril as underscored by the film’s brilliantly sardonic final shot (and post credits coda). Confrontational, at times repulsive, but in the end sadly compassionate.

Paranoiac (UK 1962) (5): After their parents die in a plane crash and their older brother commits suicide, Eleanor and Simon find themselves the sole remaining heirs to the vast Ashby estate. Unfortunately Simon is a boorish alcoholic and Eleanor may very well be mad. But when their supposedly dead brother Tony comes looking for his share of the money we discover the Ashby family has more skeletons than closets to put them in. A macabre whodunnit filled with false leads and a no-star cast of red herrings featuring an overwrought Aunt, a seductive (and barely intelligible) French nurse, and a young accountant with a shameful secret. Things start out intriguing enough but it eventually sinks into a gothic soap opera with Oliver Reed giving the performance which should have netted him a lifetime Razzie award for awfulness. A great choice if you’re wide awake at 2 a.m. with absolutely nothing to do.

Paranormal Activity (USA 2007) (6): Yuppie couple Katie and Micah have just moved into a comfortable San Diego townhouse when things start going bump in the night. No stranger to spooky manifestations (she’s been having them since she was eight) Katie consults a psychic who confirms her worst fears---something evil is following her and it’s starting to get pissed off. Micah refuses to let his girlfriend be harassed by an invisible bogeyman however, and sets up his camcorder in order to capture any “weird shit” going on. Of course things start off with a red herring or two until the couple start placing their camera on the dresser while they sleep at night and that’s when the creep factor threatens to go through the roof starting with rippling sheets and mysterious shadows—and then Micah decides to explore the attic at 3 a.m. making you want to dive behind the couch. Presented as a series of home movies, Paranormal Activity combines the choppy verité style of Blair Witch with the non-Disney elements of Poltergeist. Director Peli frames his shots just right and then ratchets up the suspense until you squirm, those nighttime scenes especially had my skin crawling; who knew looking at nothing could be so frightening? Unfortunately the actors are not quite up to the task especially with a script consisting mainly of bad improv and running up and down staircases. There are too many illogical plot devices (“Gee, something demonic is running amok so let’s keep the lights off as we film the apartment and then go back to bed…”) and a cheap Exorcist rip-off towards the end left me groaning. This type of horror is best played out in the audience’s imagination where subtlety is the key; by bombarding the screen with exaggerated visuals Peli ends his film with the diabolical equivalent of a car chase. When it works it leaves you covered with goosebumps, but when it doesn’t the whole production goes down like a flaming Ouija board.

Paranormal Activity 2 (USA 2010) (6): Packed with more devilry, more slamming doors, and more static video footage this slightly superior follow-up to 2007's lukewarm hit is not so much a prequel as it is a re-imagining. After Daniel and Kristi Rey's dream home is apparently ransacked by burglars they have surveillance cameras installed in every nook and cranny while their Spanish-spouting housekeeper, believing there are more diabolical forces afoot, runs around chanting prayers and burning incense. Of course there's the obligatory few days of grace where nothing much happens as the cameras record domestic trivialities between the Reys and their two kids, teenaged Katie and infant Hunter. Then stuff begins to happen: a pot falls off a hook, a light winks out, and the family dog suddenly seems preoccupied with the cellar door. Something's in the house and it isn't camera shy... Although more polished than its predecessor (bigger budget?) PA2 follows the same general formula---first slowly drive the tension up notch by notch using the suggestion of a demonic presence rather than an actual physical bogeyman. Next, reinforce that suggestion with some low-key effects; the pool vacuum crawling out of the water was too creepy. Then blow it all to pieces with an over-the-top screamfest ending and promise (threat?) of another sequel. Once again we're expected to suspend our disbelief to the breaking point (why do they stay in an evil haunted house? why does everyone walk around with a digital camera in hand? how come the housekeeper understands English but only speaks Spanish?) and once that point is reached the spell is broken. Scary while it lasted but ultimately disappointing.

Paranormal Activity 3 (USA 2011) (7): Presented as yet another series of "found tapes", this time from 1988, this third instalment in the Home Movies From Hell franchise pretty much follows the same tired old premise as its predecessors: young family with kids move into a scary demonic house, things bump and crash, youngest child develops an unhealthy relationship with an invisible friend...but instead of jumping in the car and GETTING THE HELL OUT OF THERE, dad decides to set up video cameras in order to figure out just what the bogeyman wants (huh!?). Despite the many illogical plot devices this one is still genuinely creepy with enough jolts and excruciatingly tense static shots to have you reaching for every light switch you can find. Plus, in a rather obvious yet clever closing twist the directors make a sincere effort to clear up some of the narrative holes from parts 1 and 2. It's all rather silly of course, but I still spent the night on my husband's side of the bed much to his annoyance.

Paranormal Activity 4 (USA 2012) (3): This fourth kick at the video devil can follows the events of part two (the far superior third instalment being relegated to mere background fodder) which ended with little toddler Hunter Rey being abducted by his demon-possessed aunt Katie. Cut to small town Nevada five years later where teenaged Alex and her boyfriend Ben have become intrigued by Robbie, the strange kid who just moved in next door. When Robbie’s mother is rushed to the hospital one night Alex’s parents take the weird tyke in where he quickly befriends their young son, Wyatt. It soon becomes apparent that Robbie is no ordinary child for not only does he wander the house in the wee hours staring at nothing, he also talks to an invisible friend who seems to be the cause of all those scary noises and slamming doors. Alex and Ben begin to suspect that Robbie’s friend is not so imaginary after all and before you can yell...“There’s an evil spirit in the house that wants to kill us so let’s set up hidden cameras and film some cool shit!”...they proceed to do just that. The rest of the film consists of all the usual shocks, ad libbed terror, and jarring home movie footage, including some night vision nonsense obviously designed to scare the hell into us (ooh, the knife is levitating!!!) but only serve to elicit a few smirks as we realize just how tired and clichéd the whole “found video footage” schtick has become. Personally I wish the fucking demon would just take out a Facebook page and be done with it.

Paranormal Activity 5 [aka Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension] (USA 2015) (3): Why do I even bother writing reviews on this franchise anymore when I can just copy and paste my previous comments? Once again…a family with young child in tow move into a faux mediterranean box house in a Santa Rosa suburb. And then weird stuff happens—drapes move, lights flicker, the kid starts talking to an increasingly malevolent invisible friend—and, once again, instead of running away screaming dad decides to set up video cameras instead, especially when he finds a cache of old VHS tapes taken by the home’s previous owners and a magical camcorder which can “see” demons as wisps of black smoke with skull faces. What does the big bad devil from parts 1 through 4 want this time around? Why do the little girls in the old videos seem to know all about the home’s new owners even though they were taped over twenty years ago? And why is that silly old Catholic priest trying to exorcise the house using witchcraft? Aside from a few well placed jolts and a nicely convincing performance from its young actress I really don’t give a shit anymore.

ParaNorman (USA 2012) (8): Norman Babcock sees dead people. And dead animals. Not only that, he also engages them in animated conversations whether it be his deceased grandmother whose taken up residence on the family couch or the civil war vet riding his spectral horse down main street. Needless to say this supernatural talent has earned him a reputation: his family can’t decide whether he needs to see one shrink or two and the school bully is always eager to remind him of what a freak he is. But all that is about to change, for Norman’s hometown is under a curse placed by a vindictive witch executed there three hundred years earlier (a fact local merchants use to lure tourist dollars) and as the anniversary of her death approaches an unearthly storm descends upon the village releasing a horde of angry zombies intent on mass destruction—and only Norman has the wherewithal to save the day. Accompanied by his airhead sister, fellow pariah Neil, and Neil’s hardbodied neanderthal brother, Norman prepares to do battle with the forces of darkness—but even he is not ready for the truth behind the witch’s vengeance. A delightfully macabre bit of 3D animation with enough icky humour to keep the kids happy (a tug-of-war with a corpse is bizarre enough without the “toilet ghost” sequence) while writer/director Chris Butler throws in enough grown-up laughs to earn a “PG” rating—apparently a little gay zinger towards the end had conservative bloggers burning up their keyboards. Add to that some sly little visual gags and one-liners and you have a highly entertaining cartoon fable that abandons the usual claptrap about “tolerance” for those who are different and instead goes straight for full-on acceptance. And the wonderfully retro closing credits, complete with toe-tapping musical accompaniment, provide the icing on the cake.

Paris, Texas (Germany/France 1984) (7): A panoramic view of sunbaked desert narrows to an extreme close-up of a shambling vagrant making his way towards a lone gas station, the only thing that passes for civilization in this valley of death. His name is Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) and he disappeared mysteriously, along with his wife, four years earlier leaving their three-year old son Hunter to be raised by brother Walt (Dean Stockwell) and sister-in-law Anne. Alerted by the local authorities Walt flies out from Los Angeles to pick up his oddly withdrawn brother and bring him home where he is reunited with a son who barely remembers him. And as Travis and Hunter begin the hesitant process of bonding once more the mystery of what happened to his wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski) prompts father and son to embark on one more journey—a road trip to Texas which will ultimately break one heart while mending another. Beautifully photographed and impeccably acted, German director Wim Wenders’ bittersweet tale of persons in flux and lives reconnecting moves at the pace of a slow heartbeat. Travis is a man so conflicted with the past that he seems emotionally paralyzed in the present—his first self-conscious attempts to be a father are almost comical while his final interaction with Jane (a powerfully presented monologue) seems like a plaintive whisper from the abyss made all the more poignant by the various panes of glass which prevent them from actually touching. But this is strictly European arthouse fare transplanted across the Atlantic with its expressive dialogue and artistic mise en scène conveying a fanciful old world impression of the American heartland—endless highways punctuated by ironic billboards, dusty mesas, and dustier dives, and everywhere ubiquitous images of dreams deferred whether it be a faded mural of the Statue of Liberty or the contrived interiors of a seedy peep show where women perform against backdrops like “Diner”, “Hotel”, and “Poolside”. Even if his Euro sensibilities don’t always fit their southwest settings, Wenders’ understanding of what prods the human soul is universal in scope and haunting in presentation.

Parrish (USA 1961) (6): It’s sex, lust, and avarice beneath the blazing New England sun in Delmer Daves’ tawdry soap opera, based on Mildred Savage’s novel—a lurid potboiler so overbaked it’s actually entertaining. Eager for a new lease on life, widowed Ellen McLean (Claudette Colbert in her final big screen appearance) takes her hunky grown son Parrish (Troy Donahue trying to get by on looks alone) to the tobacco fields of Connecticut where they both find employment at the estate of plantation owner Sala Post. But it doesn’t take long—about 10 minutes, actually—before the perpetually aroused young man begins bedding the foreman’s slutty daughter (Connie Stevens) before moving up to Post’s own slutty daughter (Diane McBain) while mom, chaste for the past ten years, begins romancing Post’s sworn enemy, wealthy tobacco entrepreneur Judd Raike, a pathologically hateful despot driven by profit margins and a need to control everyone around him (Karl Malden, spitting venom and dispensing judgement like the Almighty himself). As passions ignite and old hostilities reach the breaking point, this promises to be one long hayride no one will ever forget…least of all Raike’s sons who’ll do anything to gain their dad’s approval and his pubescent daughter Paige (Sharon Hugueny) whose own torch for Parrish is just beginning to smoulder. Whew! Donahue sulks like a James Dean wannabe, Stevens and McBain lick their lips, and everyone else either rages or placates accordingly thanks to a script so stuffed with innuendo and clichéd theatrics that it couldn’t have been any cornier had they added a studio soundtrack of “oohs” and “aahs”. Strangely enough, although it runs almost 150 minutes there’s still a rushed feeling to the story as Donahue rises through the ranks, does a puzzling military stint, then returns home for a final comeuppance—all without messing one strand of his blond locks. As a dramatic vehicle it stalls at every turn, but if you’re looking for an old-style camp melodrama this one is firing on all cylinders.

Particle Fever (USA 2013) (8): The idea sounds deceptively simple: take two streams of protons going in opposite directions, accelerate them to near light speed and then smash them into one another and see what emerges from the subatomic carnage. The implications however are vast for not only could this experiment reveal the building blocks which make up the building blocks which make up the universe, it could also reveal that most elusive of all elementary particles, the Higgs-Boson (unfortunately dubbed the “God Particle”) which holds everything together. To this end a small international army of scientists, engineers, and overseers built a seventeen-mile multi-ton underground ring in the Swiss countryside, the largest machine ever built by man and the biggest gamble ever undertook by science. Director Mark Levinson’s engaging documentary follows the people at CERN’s LHC (Large Hadron Collider) project during the hectic final weeks before the big event as their excitement grows and the world press eagerly gathers to report on either a triumphant victory or a crushing failure. Interviewing a series of amicable personalities from a post-doc student who compares the atmosphere at CERN to a bunch of six-year olds awaiting the best birthday party ever to an ebullient project manager dividing his time between fretting over alarm bells and doing kitchen science experiments with his children, it quickly becomes apparent that everyone even remotely involved with the LHC possesses an infectious enthusiasm for discovery which makes all those boring old highschool physics classes suddenly seem monumentally worthwhile. Making his subject’s esoteric chalkboard scribbles even remotely accessible to the educated layman is no easy task and Levinson doesn’t quite achieve it, but the talking heads do manage to convey a clear sense of what it is they’re looking for and its far-reaching implications concerning the nature of everything we refer to as “reality”. Far from presenting dry formulae and academic doublespeak, Levinson manages to delve behind a sea of university degrees to show the human side of the equation with theoretical physicists engaged in a jocular rivalry with their experimental counterparts, press conferences turning into PR stand-up routines, and the man who predicted it all in the first place, British professor Peter Higgs now in his 80s, wiping an anticipatory tear from his eye as a press conference reveals CERN’s initial findings. “Why do humans do science, why art?” ruminates one distinguished academician only to answer himself with his next sentence, “The things that are least important for our survival are the very things that make us human.” Sadly, a bigger and better LHC had been planned for Texas but congressional blustering effectively mothballed it and its skeletal framework is now home to cobwebs and juvenile graffiti.

Party Monster (USA 2003) (6): It’s hard to warm up to Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato’s big sloppy mess of a film. The crappy digital format and blank-faced performances make it look as if John Waters attempted to make a music video and failed leaving us with nothing more than outlandish costumes and blaring disco. And then, when you finally realize that that was precisely their point, you begin to see it in an entirely different light. In the final two decades of the last century, New York City was ground zero for “Club Kids”, a social phenomenon whose legions of disaffected twenty-somethings would crawl out of the urban woodwork every night, slam back a small mountain of pills, and haunt the seedier dance clubs dressed in strident homemade outfits like so many sparkly wraiths and drag demons. One such leader of the pack, James St. James (Seth Green), unwillingly takes cornfed newcomer Michael Alig (Macaulay Culkin) under his wing little suspecting that Alig would eventually eclipse him as the city’s next big highly lucrative party boy. But Alig’s drug-fuelled transition will come at a cost as he spirals down into addiction, paranoia, and eventually murder… Based on St. James’ tell-all book Disco Bloodbath, Bailey and Barbato plunge audiences into a raggedy netherworld composed entirely of facades, glitter, and glow-in-the-dark clown make-up, where kids pop pharmaceuticals as eagerly as they apply their eyelashes and an overdose is treated like a bad joke. And for a passing moment the media fell for the illusion leading to television interviews and talk show appearances where, in one telling moment, a visibly muddled Alig looking pathological in greasepaint and platforms is defended by his mother (Diana Scarwid), a small town matron still chirping over the fact that she got to ride in a real live limo. Although Green’s performance easily outweighs that of Culkin, the two still generate chaotic sparks as they swan about each other like a pair of bitchy hens—their consistently pointless banter as off-putting as a crackhead’s podcast, their lack of anything resembling moral conviction discomfiting. Rounding out the cast are Chloë Sevigny as Alig’s fawning co-dependant (he was gay), Dylan McDermott as a morally inconsistent nightclub owner, and Marilyn Manson as a messy old drag queen—a scene involving “Christina” trying to commandeer a semi while strung out on MDMA and wearing chunky heels is a sight. Take it as a superficial corruption of All About Eve steeped in ketamine and heroin with a touch of Sid and Nancy thrown into the mix, though I’m not sure whether those two would have stooped quite that low. The period music is hot (Nina Hagen, Ladytron, Scissor Sisters) and some of the primitive cinematography approaches arthouse—neon nightmares vying with wavering skylines and garbage. Not a great film, perhaps not even a good film in the eyes of many viewers, but sometimes the best way to describe a train wreck is to show a train wreck.

Passengers (USA 2016) (8): An interstellar ship is on its way to mankind's latest colony world, a journey of 120 years, with thousands of passengers and crew in suspended animation when a computer glitch causes engineer Jim Preston (the incredible edible Chris Pratt) to awaken 90 years prematurely. Unable to go back into hibernation Jim faces the prospect of growing old and dying alone with only a gregarious android bartender (Michael Sheen) for company. Succumbing to an overwhelming sense of isolation after spending a year exhausting every diversion the ship has to offer, Preston revives fellow passenger Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence), a sleeping beauty whom he fell in love with through the glass of her frozen sarcophagus. But just as this desperate ploy for human contact begins to unravel (Lane is understandably pissed) the two face an even greater danger when the ship itself throws a few sinister wrenches into their plans. Technical stretches aside (this is science fiction after all) Passengers is a beautifully crafted tale of love and loneliness played out against a backdrop of galactic proportions. As a thriller it has its moments—the special effects team goes into overdrive when the ship's gravity cuts in and out and a spacewalk looks incredible in widescreen 3D—but at its core it is an unexpectedly moving romance.

Passing Fancy (Japan 1933) (6): Kihachi, a kind-hearted lout, barely manages to support himself and his ten-year old son Tomio. Romantic possibilities present themselves one day however when he crosses paths with the beautiful yet destitute Harue, a penniless young woman living in the streets. Kihachi manages to find Harue a place to stay and a job at a local restaurant run by Otome, a middle-aged widow with her own designs on the impulsive bachelor. But, alas, Harue only has eyes for Jiro, Kihachi’s dashing young friend who, for his part, couldn’t care less. As the adults strive to make their lives ever more complicated, young Tomio looks on with a bemused mixture of jealousy and juvenile cynicism. This early silent film by Ozu is a bit of a jumble with elements of broad comedy, melodrama, and heartbreak thrown together seemingly at random. As in all his works, the parent/child relationship is central while underlying themes of fate and impermanence pervade every frame. Not his best work, but the likable performances and natural staging speak of greater things to come.

The Passion of Anna [aka: A Passion] (Sweden 1969) (5): It’s sex, lies, and nervous breakdowns all around as Ingmar Bergman crams enough contemporary angst and self-delusion onto one small island to fuel a half dozen suicide notes instead of just one. Bitter divorcé Andreas Winkelman (Max von Sydow) has turned his back on human interaction and lives a hermit-like existence on one corner of the island. New neighbours Eva and Elis Vergerus are having troubles of their own: he’s a cynical architect who compensates for his lack of empathy by photographing humans behaving badly while she is an empty shell who feels as if her very existence is nothing but an offshoot of her domineering husband’s ego. Nihilistic sparks fly when Andreas is introduced to the recently widowed Anna (Liv Ullman) a woman crippled both physically and psychologically whose warped memories of her late husband, a callous and abusive man, have elevated him to near sainthood. Both Anna and Andreas are harbouring darker secrets and when the skeletons are finally laid bare it proves to be the proverbial last straw for all concerned. And just to highlight everyone’s moral blindness someone on the island has begun mutilating innocent animals and leaving them for dead… Whew! Graced by strong performances and Sven Nykvist’s stark cinematography which takes savage delight in all those dreary icebound landscapes, Bergman’s paean to the futility of it all (he had just broken up with star Liv Ullman) certainly leaves no room for ambivalence. Clocks tick, church bells peal, and an ad-libbed dinner party (one of the film’s stronger scenes) manages to chastise artistic affectation, the concept of “truth”, and God himself before the coffee even gets cold. But it ultimately falls prey to its own affectations with rambling monologues, histrionic posturing, and Bergman’s willingness to break the fourth wall by periodically interrupting the film so that his actors can discuss what makes their characters so unlikeable—a pretension he would later regret. A curious little arthouse ensemble piece examining the various ways we lie to ourselves and to one another which has not aged well despite the timelessness of its message.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (France 1928) (7): Hailed by many as one of the silent era’s last great masterworks, a copy of this long-lost work by director Carl Dreyer was eventually discovered in a Danish psychiatric hospital and painstakingly restored. Based on actual court transcripts from the trial of Jeanne d’Arc, one of France’s most beloved patron saints who was martyred at the age of nineteen, it is both a taut courtroom drama and overt condemnation of a bigoted church hierarchy. Despite leading several successful campaigns against the English and being honoured by Charles VII, Joan’s eccentric ways proved troublesome to the established clergy; she claimed to have celestial visions, heard voices, and insisted on dressing like a man until her voices told her otherwise. She was eventually arrested on charges of witchcraft and heresy, tortured, humiliated, and ultimately burned at the stake when she refused to renounce her personal beliefs. In the role of Joan stage actress Maria Falconetti brings a frightening intensity to the screen; her face exhibiting an unsettling mixture of tenacious faith and mortal terror (with a touch of mental illness?) as she struggles to understand the charges being laid against her. Her ordeal begins to mirror the passion of Christ as she is mocked and ridiculed by her accusers, at one point a length of coiled rope is placed on her head like a crown of thorns. Dreyer deliberately films all his characters without stage make-up causing every wart and blemish to stand out in high relief, the result is both austere and vulnerably human. Furthermore, the spartan sets heighten the movie’s sense of gravity while focusing our attention on the fierce emotions playing out on the actors’ faces. The use of extreme close-ups may be overdone at times, some unnecessarily awkward camerawork doesn’t always work (the inverted crane shots were especially baffling), and the occasional anachronism reminds you that it is not 1431, but there are moments of pure cinema throughout; a prolonged scene of Joan’s burning corpse sliding down the stake while angry peasants revolt in the streets was undeniably powerful. Although Dreyer’s later film, Day of Wrath revisited the topic of church atrocities with greater effect (review posted), this early work still manages to hold its own eighty years later.

Past Lives (USA/Korea 2023) (5): First love is just blossoming between schoolgirl Na Young and her handsome classmate Hae Sung when her family decides to immigrate to Canada from Korea. Twelve years later Na Young, now going by Nora, is a struggling playwright living in Manhattan and Hae Sung is an engineering student when they hook-up briefly on social media, but even though a small spark is reignited Life ends up getting in the way and it will be another twelve years before they actually meet in person. A lot can happen in twenty-four years however and this reunion between two former childhood sweethearts, now separated by time and culture, will lead to a bittersweet weekend exploring the vagaries of destiny, love, and the choices we make. The I-Ching meets the Hallmark Channel for this rambling exercise in navel-gazing and teary philosophizing which may strive for the depths of Linklater’s dialogue-driven Before Sunrise but winds up firing a bunch of emotional blanks instead—long misty stares and whispered confessions just don’t add up to a whole lot given a script overrun by romantic clichés and mushy sentimentalism. Listening in on Nora and Hae Sung’s repetitive ruminations as they take in the Manhattan scenery becomes tedious even with writer/director Celine Song throwing in a few flashy metaphors (a carousel goes round and round, a subway car rumbles along a preordained track) and leads Greta Lee and Teo Yoo evoke no onscreen chemistry whatsoever. But at least Yoo throws some restrained passion into his character when compared to Lee’s wooden performance (was Nora supposed to be medicated?) And John Magaro, playing the “other man” in Nora’s life, tags along as a self-conscious third wheel. The only people missing were Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda as the BFFs.

Pat and Mike (USA 1952) (7): Katherine Hepburn plays Patricia “Pat” Pemberton, an all-American athlete with a natural talent for golf and tennis. Spencer Tracy plays Mike Conovan, a decent enough sports promoter who’s not above trying to fix a game in order to appease his underworld stakeholders. When the two come together sparks turn to flame and a new contest slowly emerges with Pat having a definite advantage. There’s only one snag—Pat is still intimidated by her alpha male fiancé Collier to the point that whenever he shows up to watch her play his presence causes her to panic and lose the game. Will Pat and Mike still be able to make a love match with Collier and a couple of impatient mob bosses hovering in the wings? A likeable comedy buoyed by a lively script and the undeniable screen chemistry of Tracy and Hepburn which makes a lighthearted attempt to address the deeper social concern of gender inequality and women’s independence. The prolonged sports scenes are surprisingly gripping, especially a whimsical segment in which an agitated Pat imagines the tennis net getting progressively higher while her opponent’s racquet looms enormous and her own shrinks to the size of a paddle. A few “before they were famous” cameos from Chuck Connors and Charles Bronson round out a competent cast which also includes a number of actual pro athletes, both male and female. Good late night viewing.

Paths of Glory (USA 1957) (9): In the midst of WWI three French soldiers are charged with cowardice after their regiment’s attempt to capture a German stronghold ends in disaster and retreat. Only their commanding officer-cum-defense attorney Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) stands between them and the firing squad but he knows the deck is already stacked against them for they are nothing more than scapegoats meant to teach their comrades a lesson. Furthermore, the generals who planned the assault in the first place knew it was doomed from the beginning but one regarded it as a matter of national pride and the other saw it as a means to further his own military career. With the clock ticking and morale ebbing Dax must defend his charges as best he can before an army tribunal sentences three innocent men to death for the sins of others. From two pompously bedecked generals buttering croissants while callously discussing how many men will die the following day to a cowardly booze-soaked lieutenant saving his own reputation at the sake of another man’s life this is perhaps Stanley Kubrick’s most scathing damnation of war’s many inanities. Lacking both the nihilistic cheekiness of Doctor Strangelove and the vulgar sarcasm of Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick’s straightforward approach involved transforming a farmer’s field into a pitted smoking vision of Hell with apocalyptic explosions raining dirt upon the frightened faces of men huddled in foxholes and trenches while their superiors exchange pleasantries in a richly appointed chateau turned headquarters. Unrelentingly angry and far too bitter for mere satire it’s little wonder that France and its allies banned the film for years in order to save face. Ralph Meeker and Adolphe Menjou round out a sterling cast and Kubrick’s flair for tracking shots and intrusive lighting adds a touch of the surreal.

Patton (USA 1970) (7): By all accounts American WWII general George S. Patton Jr. was a complex fellow. A true hawk among doves he had a reputation for being stubborn and insubordinate, an inveterate warrior on all fronts. He also attracted much controversy for his gruff demeanour (including a colourful vocabulary) and alleged anti-semitic views—plus his hatred for cowardice got him in hot water when he physically assaulted a pair of soldiers who were suffering from what we would now diagnose as PTSD. Set during the waning years of the war as a frustrated Patton butts heads with everyone from President Eisenhower to his good friend general Omar Bradley (Karl Malden) over how the war in Europe should be fought, George C. Scott’s Oscar-winning portrayal of the man behind the medals is a guts ’n glory biopic that occasionally strays into hero-worship yet never sanitizes the ugliness of battle itself. Winner of seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Director, Franklin J. Schaffner’s three-hour widescreen epic features some amazing special effects heavy on military hardware, fiery explosions, and mutilated bodies which are balanced by ersatz B&W newsreels and moments of fierce dialogue as Patton alternately rages against the powers that be and loses himself in quiet contemplation—he was also a poet who believed his warrior soul had been reincarnated over and over again from the battlefields of ancient Carthage to the Napoleonic wars. An oddly melancholic film about a fading soldier (although not shown in the film he died the same year the war ended) whose unorthodox ways and obsessive mindset forever set him at odds with everyone in his life. Jerry Goldsmith’s Oscar-nominated score provides the perfect accompaniment consisting as it does of muted fanfares and distant trumpets.

The Peanuts Movie (USA 2015) (10): I’ve been a diehard Charlie Brown fan ever since I was old enough to read my first Peanuts strip. I also believed that when it came to animating Charles Schulz’s immortal characters nothing could ever top 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas for sheer cartoon magic. With this endearing feature director Steve Martino has proven me wrong for he manages to bring the whole gang to computerized life with such love and whimsy that I felt as if I was four years old again. Presented in bright candy colours with a cast of familiar voices and an amazing 3D process that combines the best of CGI effects with a retro comic book appeal (think old ViewMaster reels), Martino has created the definitive Peanuts motion picture. Charlie Brown is determined to rise above his wishy-washy reputation in order to impress the new girl in class but despite the support of his faithful dog fate always seems to throw him a curveball. Snoopy, in the meantime, indulges in a WWI fantasy as he scours the French countryside in his flying doghouse searching for the evil Red Baron who has kidnapped Fifi, his one true love. Against these two main stories the rest of the Peanuts clan experience their own trials and tribulations especially Snoopy’s klutzy avian sidekick Woodstock who always seems to be one faithful step behind his canine friend. A playful script written in part by Schulz’s son and grandson remains faithful to the Peanuts mythos while at the same time offering a bit of contemporary enlightenment to Charlie Brown’s perpetually bruised ego. And lastly, a couple of loving touches are sure to elicit a wistful smile from those of us old enough to remember the original Christmas special that started it all—a few bars of Vince Guaraldi here and there; Lucy’s tirade over “dog germs” repeated almost verbatim; and Bill Melendez’s original vocalizations for Snoopy and Woodstock given new life seven years after his death. In a word…adorable!

Peeping Tom (UK 1960) (9): Mark Lewis is a seriously introverted cameraman working for a big studio and supplementing his income by doing pornographic photo shoots on the side. He is also a serial killer who is compelled not only to film himself murdering his female victims but to record the subsequent police investigations as well. Suffering from the horrendous mental abuse he suffered at the hands of his austere father, a famous neurologist who used his son as a guinea pig in a series of experiments examining the fear response, Mark is unable to form meaningful relationships with the opposite sex, preferring instead to gaze longingly at them through the eyepiece of his 8mm camera. But when he begins a hesitant relationship with Helen, a young woman living in his building (much to the consternation of her suspicious mother) the conflicting emotions which ensue threaten to overwhelm his obsessively ordered world. With the police closing in and his fledgling girlfriend asking uncomfortable questions, Mark’s tenuous grip on sanity is driven to the brink... Years ahead of its time, this daring psychological drama examines the intricate power play between voyeur and subject, stalker and stalked, and the role of media, in this case home movies, in creating emotional distances. Cleverly set in the make-believe world of cinema...and pornography...director Michael Powell delves beneath surface appearances to reveal some uncomfortable truths; at one point Mark refuses Helen’s innocent request to be filmed as he does not want to see her “that way”, in another scene one of his cheesecake models asks to be photographed so that the bruises inflicted by her jealous fiancé are not readily apparent. In the role of Mark, Karlheinz Böhm is completely captivating, his awkward naïveté and childish attempts to socialize contrasting sharply with his murderous interludes; a man well aware of the demons which poison his life yet powerless, or unwilling (?), to exorcise them. An overlooked cinema classic with a truly chilling finale.

Penguin Highway (Japan 2018) (7): What does the Theory of Relativity, perky boobs, and penguins have in common? A whole lot unless I read too much into Hiroyasu Ishida’s debut anime feature, a charming mash-up of wacky sci-fi and prepubescent metaphors. Bookish pre-teen Aoyama is fascinated with life’s everyday mysteries and makes a point of writing all his observations down in the little black notebook which never leaves his side. Determined to be a true Renaissance Man when he grows up—and equally determined to marry the one true love of his life, dental hygienist Onê-san whose breasts have piqued his interest—Aoyama takes it all in stride when a slew of otherworldly phenomena suddenly appear in his little town. Penguins have begun popping out of vending machines and mailboxes, monsters are slithering through the forest, and a giant watery sphere is sloshing mere inches above a hidden meadow. Joining forces with fellow brainiac Hamamoto (his female counterpart) and timid dormouse Uchida, Aoyama’s investigations will cause him to suspect that all roads somehow lead to Onê-san—but first there are bullies to overcome and clueless adults to outwit… The fact that Aoyama’s village is beset with supernatural wonders at the same time his latent hormones begin to stir is certainly a clue of sorts, but this is not a simple adolescent daydream. Brightly lit and irresistibly cute, Ishida’s sunny fantasy remembers what a first crush feels like as well as those awkward tween moments when youth was still tinged with magic even as adulthood loomed on the horizon (Aoyama keeps careful track of how many thousands of days remain before he becomes a grown-up). At almost two hours in length and packed with cryptic passages it may be a bit of an endurance test for the kiddies—I’m still scratching my own head—but Penguin Highway’s ebullience and wistful sense of optimism should be enough to carry most viewers to The End.

Penny Dreadful (USA 2006) (7):  Ever since she was involved in a horrific traffic accident years ago, Penny Dearborn has been unable to ride in cars without having severe panic attacks.  As our story opens she is in the middle of a therapeutic road trip of sorts accompanied by her psychiatrist who is trying to help her face her fears head on (no pun intended).  But when the doctor accidentally wings a hitchhiker with her BMW and feels obligated to offer the poor soul a lift to the nearest campground Penny quickly finds car phobia is the least of her worries... This is the kind of tall tale we used to scare each other with around the campfire when we were kids and in order to truly appreciate what Brandes has done you need to overlook the more blatant inanities and get to the film’s underlying psychology and subtle humour.  He taps into some universal fears; the dark, being trapped, abandonment, being lost, claustrophobia, and the bogeyman in the window.  Even though he utilizes some tired old horror mainstays he still manages to throw in the odd shock and keep the film’s overall atmosphere close and creepy.  Both female leads are good, especially Rachel Miner as Penny who makes full use of a very confined space.  Her performance is appropriately over-the-top and pretty much carries the film.  The use of music and jarring cuts is effective and the opening credits are very cool.  Despite its rather unimaginative ending, Penny Dreadful still provides a chilling treat.

Penny Serenade (USA 1941) (5): “Maudlin” pretty much sums up George Steven’s two-fisted weeper about a couple (Irene Dunne and Oscar-nominated Cary Grant playing well together) trying to eke out some happiness in a universe determined to see them fail every chance it gets. Despite a promising honeymoon, Roger and Julie’s marriage has hit too many snags along the way for he’s a dreamer who’s best intentions are constantly sabotaging their finances—but when real tragedy strikes it successfully drives that final nail into the relationship. Now, on the verge of leaving him for good, Julie goes through their impressive collection of phonograph records and with each tune she spins memories in the form of flashbacks begin flooding the screen. And then Roger comes home. And then the phone rings… Morrie Ryskind’s sappy soapy script practically trips over itself in its zeal to set the hapless couple up just so it can bitch slap them right back to square one again. Throwing subtlety aside, every glimmer of hope contains a dagger and even a child’s sickeningly sweet grin (aimed directly at the audience) promises heartbreak to come. This blatant manipulation reaches its zenith during a school Christmas pageant which couldn’t have been more precious had Christ himself made a tearful cameo. But Stevens saves his emotional ace for that final scene, a three alarm hankie-fest as contrived as it is improbable. Beulah Bondi and Edgar Buchanan co-star, she playing a spinsterish guardian angel of sorts and he providing some much needed levity as the couple’s lovable handyman, a precursor to Petticoat Junction’s uncle Joe perhaps? To be fair, a sequence of clips poking fun at parental jitters is genuinely funny (apparently it takes three pairs of hands to bathe a ten pound baby) and that soundtrack of old crooners is nice. Unfortunately it was the forced pathos that wound up giving me the biggest laugh of all.

People Will Talk (USA 1951) (7): Following the rules and doing the right thing are not always synonymous, an observation which forms the backbone of writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s odd little drama that hovers somewhere between heart-warmer and farce. Based on Curt Goetz’s stage play it stars Cary Grant as the unorthodox physician Dr. Noah Praetorius, an esteemed university lecturer whose questionable past threatens to catch up with him after he marries Deborah Higgins (Jeanne Crain) a former patient and unwed mother-to-be. Already at odds with the established medical community for believing that patients should be cared for as human beings and not just human bodies, Noah comes under further fire when it is revealed his faithful manservant Shunderson (an enigmatic Finlay Currie) may have a checkered history of his own. Hounded by jealous colleague Prof. Elwell (Hume Cronyn) Praetorius will either have to defend his methods before a college board or face dismissal—but he has a few wild cards to play that not even Elwell could have imagined… With Cronyn playing Judas to Grant’s smugly self-assured Christ, Crain giving a demure Mary Magdalene, and Curries’ Shunderson going for Lazarus (his not-quite-believable backstory giving the film an unexpected bite), Mankiewicz’s satire about a charming maverick bucking authority must have hit a chord or two when it was released during America’s McCarthy era. Premarital sex may not be the scandal it once was, and the role of women in Praetorius’ life seems trite in these liberated times (where would those gals be without him?!) but the dialogue still crackles with witty insights and Grant’s underdog is still worth cheering. Character actor Walter Slezak co-stars as a jovial physics professor whose wisdom stretches beyond atoms; Sidney Blackmer plays Deborah’s dad, a failed everyman figure whose hopes and dreams now reside in his daughter; and an uncredited Margaret Hamilton plays a wicked witch of a different kind.

Permanent (USA 2017) (6): Bad hair makes for a weak metaphor in writer/director Colette Burson’s low-income comedy that seems to aim for the white trash aesthetic of Gummo or even Napolean Dynamite but rarely comes close. It’s 1982 and with the first day of school just around the corner highschool freshman Aurelie Dickson (Kira McLean) desperately wants a curly perm so she can look like Farrah Fawcett. But, thanks to her cash-strapped parents, she winds up with a $20 beauty school experiment that looks as if an electrocuted poodle died on her head. Thus marked as fair game by the redneck bitches in her class (all sporting soft waves and phoney drawls) Aurelie must either make a stand or resign herself to four years of bullying. In the meantime, her constantly squabbling parents are having troubles of their own: dad (Rainn Wilson) wants to become a doctor but is so obsessed with his cheap toupee that he might not make it past the first class and mom (Patricia Arquette?!) is an emotionally labile dormouse whose interests include butter dishes and marine mammals. The cast pretty much act as if they were auditioning for something better and the script itself is a mush of one-note jokes and tired idiosyncrasies—a pregnant teacher regards her fetus as if it were an extra student, dad fusses over his wig. Finally, the film’s decidedly “quirky” buildup does provide a few good laughs—most notably Aurelie’s classroom adventures and mom’s whiney non-sequiturs—but the punchline never seems to arrive and instead we get one of those hug-filled moments of validation with happy music and smiles all around. The late Michael Greene co-stars as the Dickson’s next door neighbour—a questionably qualified family counsellor and mom’s dirty old muse whom she occasionally mistakes for God, while Nena Daniels does a fair job as a honky-hating black student who, in keeping with the film’s central schtick, keeps her own wild hair tightly bound in uncomfortable braids. As an indie comedy it works often enough to keep you amused but there’s probably more inspiration to be found in a box of Miss Clairol.

Persona (Sweden 1966) (7): Ingmar Bergman’s highly affected psychodrama has found its way on to just about every avant garde “Top 100” list and its enigmatic themes have had critics reaching for a thesaurus ever since it was released. In the middle of a performance celebrated actress Elisabet Vogler (Liv Ullmann) suddenly becomes mute. Finding no obvious mental or physical reason for her inability to talk her psychiatrist prescribes a seaside holiday accompanied by junior nurse Alma (Bibi Andersson). There, amid ceaseless waves and rocky shores, the two women undergo a metamorphosis with the silent Elisabet providing a sounding board for Alma (Spanish for “soul”) as she fills the silence with prattle about her sexual escapades and a potpourri of other personal secrets. Gradually coming to resent Elisabet, Alma starts to lose her own sense of self as the days wear on. In a nutshell. Like any abstract painting what one sees in Bergman’s opus is entirely subjective. An opening barrage of split-second film clips suggests this is a movie about moviemaking, indeed, some cinematic conceits—there’s a cutaway to a camera crew, the whole production begins and ends inside a projector—would seem to support this. In critiquing the artificiality of stagecraft wherein people pretend to be something they are not Bergman is also addressing our inability to communicate honestly—the doctor assures Elisabet that she understands “…the hopeless dream of being, not seeming, but being…” and one can’t help but compare the actress’ inscrutable silence to the nurse’s shallow chatter. And then there’s the director’s pet bugaboo, the existential angst of our own mortality with Elisabet horrified by a newscast on the Viet Nam War and Alma quoting nihilistic dogma. Andersson and Ullman give fine performances throughout, displaying a sensuous fluidity to their movements as they orbit about one another. Technically a brilliant film in which Bergman exploits B&W for all its artistic potential—light and shadow figure prominently as open doors and windows hint at a deeper symmetry—while cinematographer Sven Nykvist concentrates his talents on maintaining a mood of unease with tense close-ups and a brilliant tracking shot along a restless beach. But for all its artfulness you are still left with the impression that this is a film you’re supposed to love even though time and imitation have diminished much of its initial impact. An arthouse centrepiece for sure, but definitely not my favourite Bergman film.

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

The Petrified Forest (USA 1936) (6): While trying to evade the police, four desperate gangsters hold a diverse group of people hostage in a remote desert diner. Among the unwilling guests are Gabrielle Maple, the owner’s daughter who dreams of becoming an artist in Paris; her colourful grandfather; Boze, the dumb jock handyman with a crush on “Gabby”; wealthy banker Mr. Chisholm and his bitter aging trophy wife; Gabby’s rabidly patriotic father; and Alan Squier, an insufferable angst-ridden milquetoast grown tired of a world which has no place for Art. With their precisely delineated lives as fossilized as the wood outside it isn’t long before this small band of characters forms a microcosm of contemporary American society so that when the inevitable shoot-out with the law comes a final sacrifice ensures that no one’s life will ever be quite the same again. With an over-the-top script rife with tortured soul-bearing and avant-garde social critiques things get bogged down pretty quickly; a deeply metaphorical sandstorm borders on sheer overkill. If it were made today I’d give this film a much lower mark but, for some reason, these old B&W classics possess an ageless quality that is almost sacrosanct. There is an earnestness to them which allows me to overlook all but the most glaring faults; like Bogart’s performance. I just can’t see why his portrayal of gang leader Duke Mantee is touted as being a “breakout” role; his muddled monotone and self-conscious shambling (at one point he appears to be paralyzed from the waist up) seem pretty lame. But I suppose that was then, this is now and who am I to argue with the making of a Hollywood legend?

Peyton Place (USA 1957) (7): Set in 1941, Peyton Place is a sleepy New England whistle-stop where they set their clocks by the four seasons, where the locals are whiter than white and the dreams of youth are quietly sacrificed in order to maintain the town’s WASP conformity. It’s the kind of place that would make Garrison Keillor long for the lights of Broadway. But all is not as it seems as the camera slowly peels away the respectable affectations to expose the town’s darker side. Taking the form of parallel storylines that gradually converge, the movie contains enough controversial topics to fill ten lesser films; from rape, suicide and abortion to murder, teen pregnancy, and pre-marital skinny-dipping. Even a wholesome birthday party turns into a seething cauldron of flaming teenage hormones thanks to a small bottle of liquor and a 78 rpm of Blue Moon. This is a sprawling big-screen soap opera featuring some splendid performances and an over-the-top script that is nonetheless intriguing; the explosive courtroom scene towards the end was especially well done and Robson doesn’t miss a single nuance as even the most fleeting of glances can trigger an entire strings section. He may not show the technicolor flair of Douglas Sirk but this unsparing critique of Middle American social and moral conventions rarely misses its target.

Phantasm 2 (USA 1988) (5): Set a few years after the events in the original Phantasm (1979) this disappointing sequel starts off as a z-rated monster flop redeemed somewhat towards the end by a campy B-movie finale. In the original classic Mike and his friends discover a grisly secret in the local mortuary; an otherworldly fiend known only as the Tall Man is robbing graves and turning their inhabitants into squishy little zombies before teleporting them to his hellish home world as cheap labour. They fail of course. In this chapter Mike lies his way to freedom, teams up with his old pal Reggie, and hits the open road in order to track down the Tall Man who has left a string of razed towns and plundered cemeteries in his wake. Along the way they’re aided by Liz, Mike’s new love interest who he’s only met in his dreams; Alchemy, a mysterious hitchhiker; and Father Meyers, a neurotic priest who’s been trying to stop the Tall Man using Catholic voodoo and shots of Jack Daniels. Their final showdown in a creepily ornate mortuary is a fine example of clichéd horror movie overkill complete with chainsaws and a homemade flamethrower (look for the sly “cameo” by Sam Raimi). But it’s all made palatable by some glorious overacting and director Don Coscarelli’s acute sense of his film’s many shortcomings; if audiences are going to laugh anyway then you might as well give them something to laugh at. The two male leads provide a fine pair of bumbling antiheroes while Angus Scrimm’s return as the cadaverous Tall Man is reason for cinema geeks everywhere to celebrate. And don’t worry, the subpar special effects will still satisfy the gorehounds—those little round flying Cuisinarts from the first instalment are back with a vengeance and an unfortunate incident involving embalming fluid and hydrochloric acid is worth a rewind. For a three buck rental you could do worse.

Phantasm 3: Lord of the Dead (USA 1994) (4): Picking up shortly after the previous installment ended, this terrible sequel of a sequel once again reunites friends Reggie and Mike as they scour the countryside in search of The Tall Man, that towering malevolent super being with the Buster Brown haircut who’s resorted to murder and grave-robbing in order to flesh out his army of the dead. This time around Mike is kidnapped by the forces of evil and it’s up to Reg to rescue him aided by Rocky, a sassy nunchuk-wielding diva; Jody, Mike’s dead brother whose spirit is now confined to a flying pinball; and Timmy, the amazing homicidal wonder brat. Together these four mismatched heroes will face down flesh-eating dwarves, crawling hand monsters, and a hearse full of mischievous zombies who won’t stay dead. Of course it all culminates in yet another showdown in yet another creepy mortuary leading to yet another puzzling non-ending and the promise (threat?) of yet another sequel. Lacking both the originality of the first film and the sometimes amusing self-parody of the second, this amateurish little turd explosion features lamentable acting skills, lacklustre directing, and a script that comes across as bad improv. Director Don Coscarelli does throw in some nice gore effects however, and lead actor Reggie Bannister’s butt looks damn good in those tight jeans; but one is left with the impression the studio still doesn’t realize the cow they’re desperately trying to milk is already dead.

Phantasm: Ravager (USA 2016) (5): It is almost impossible to objectively critique this final chapter in the Phantasm series since you either love it, hate it, or couldn’t care less. Begun in 1979 it tells the overly long tale of ice cream vendor Reggie Bannister and his dealings with the otherworldly necromancer known as “The Tall Man” (Angus Scrimm, R.I.P.), a growling cadaverous old man and his army of zombie midgets who has captured Reggie’s BFF. Desperate to rescue his friend Reggie travels through time and space armed with nothing but his own determination and a rucksack full of weapons while the Tall Man always manages to stay one small step ahead. In Ravager longtime collaborators Don Coscarelli and David Hartman (who also directed) bring the series full circle in a murky twisting story that opens with a grizzled Reggie, who may or may not be suffering from dementia, slipping in and out of various realities—is he wandering alone through a California desert? fighting the undead in a post-apocalyptic future? scrambling across a deadly blood red planet? or simply raving in a sanitarium bed? And the sphinx-like Tall Man is there to taunt him at every turn with his sepulchral voice and flying horde of metallic killer robot orbs. With the exception of Scrimm’s leering malevolence the performances are uniformly hokey and the special effects hover just a few notches above youtube. Yet there exists a childlike exuberance in Hartman’s dark comic book vision as he leads us down one rabbit hole after another, forcing us to either derive our own meaning from the open-ended finale (hallucination, revelation, or supernatural armageddon?) or simply yawn and turn the channel. I did appreciate the 80’s cheesiness however and those clumsy metaphysical digressions were interesting enough though hardly novel. But I can’t recommend it to anyone except diehard fans even if I couldn’t quite bring myself to hit the “stop” button.

The Phantom Carriage (Sweden 1921) (7): With shades of A Christmas Carol evident throughout, Victor Sjöström’s macabre silent classic would eventually inspire the likes of Ingmar Bergman and Stanley Kubrick. It’s New Year’s Eve and Sister Edith, a pious Salvation Army matron, lies dying of tuberculosis—her last earthly wish being to see wayward drunk David Holm, the man she spent her entire short career trying to turn around, one more time. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, having forsaken his wife and kids and ignoring Edith’s pleas Holm sits in a frozen graveyard with his drinking buddies regaling them with the tale of “The Phantom Carriage”. Apparently, the first person to die at the stroke of midnight on NYE is doomed to drive Death’s carriage for an entire year--a ramshackle (and eerily transparent) funeral wagon, pulled by an emaciated horse, in the back of which newly departed souls are stacked like kindling. A drunken fight breaks out, David is killed, the clock strikes twelve, and the carriage arrives. Meanwhile, still waiting to speak to David before she dies, Sister Edith is preparing to take her final breath… Thanks to some meticulous restoration and the addition of both a modern score and a tinting process which lends certain key scenes hues which range from golden yellow to midnight blue, this wonderful wintry tale of sorrow and redemption is perhaps more vibrant now than when it was released almost one hundred years ago. Not giving into the dramatic excesses so common to the silent genre, Sjöström (who also plays David Holm) elicits surprisingly natural performances from his cast as they play the gamut from tragedy, pathos, and hope to a restrained horror—images of the ghostly carriage and its cowled driver moving silently down cobbled streets or into the surf to seek a drowned man are still creepy all these years later. A nicely crafted morality play whose inventive camerawork and compelling story should make it standard holiday viewing.

Phantom Lady (USA 1944) (5): New York businessman Scott Henderson sits on death row awaiting execution for the murder of his wife, a crime he swears he didn’t commit. Unfortunately his only alibi, a mysterious woman wearing a peculiar hat whom he met at a bar around the same time his wife was being killed, seems to have disappeared. Only his faithful secretary, “Kansas”, believes in his innocence but her amateur sleuthing has run into a serious snag—every potential witness she pursues either winds up unable to remember the woman in question…or dead. Wisecracking cops and shifty extras that run the gamut from hard-nosed bartender to fiery Latina chanteuse wade through a cornball script in Robert Siodmark’s noir thriller, a film so full of clichés it becomes a camp parody of the genre. As the wrongfully convicted Henderson, Alan Curtis displays the emotional range of a marionette and Ella Raines doesn’t fare any better as his secretary in a performance that runs as shallow as her lipstick. Only the great Franchot Tone proves he’s up to the task giving us a chilling portrayal of a disturbed sculptor both terrified and seduced by his own demons—check out that artwork! Kudos to cinematographer Elwood Bredell and the design department however for creating glimpses of Manhattan reminiscent of the German Expressionists—in one notable scene cut-out skyscrapers loom over a midnight subway platform, their few lit windows peering through the mist like feral eyes; in another a prison visit becomes a study in textures as wan sunlight through a dusty window slices shadows across walls and floor. And, even more notable, is the film’s raw sexuality which finds its focus on Kansas’ interaction with one particular suspect, a perpetually horny drummer (Elisha Cook Jr.) who may have seen Henderson and his phantom date at a musical revue the night of the murder. Posing as a floozy in order to extract a confession from the leering musician, Kansas shows off her fishnet nylons while being treated to a manic drum solo in which the man’s sweaty face contorts into an orgasmic rictus so intense it borders on pornographic—pretty risqué stuff for 1944. As an example of film noir Phantom Lady certainly ticks all the boxes, now if only it could have moved a bit beyond those boxes.

Phantom Museums [Short Films by the Brothers Quay] (UK 1987) (7): Kafka corrupts Disney as all our subconscious hobgoblins are allowed to run rampant in this collection of bizarre stop-motion shorts where mutant dollies, mechanical constructs and everyday trash take on sinister overtones, both erotic and grotesque. It's all terribly avant-garde of course, and frustratingly obtuse, but there is no denying the Quay brothers' uncanny ability to fascinate even as they disgust. An entire DVD set is a bit much however because, as with all nightmares, their work is best taken in small doses.

The Phantom of Liberty (France 1974) (8): Buñuel’s skewed view of contemporary middle class values begins, oddly enough, with the execution of Spanish rebels by Napoleon’s forces during the Peninsular War, an incident made famous by Goya’s painting “The Third of May 1808”. “Down with liberty!” shouts one of the condemned before the bullets silence him and it’s this apparent contradiction which sets the tone for for the loosely connected collection of absurdist skits that follow. A bourgeois couple enlist the police to help search for their missing daughter even though the little girl has never left their side; a group of intellectuals sit around a dining room table discussing current affairs while relieving themselves on toilets; and a prayer meeting turns into a poker game which turns into a public S&M flogging. Mercifully, Buñuel doesn’t leave us hanging in confusion for a clue is to be found within a Police Academy lecture when a professor tries to explain Margaret Mead’s theories on cultural and moral relativism and their impact on law and human behaviour while his classroom of constables carry on like a group of five-year olds. Not quite as surreal or angst-ridden as, say, Roy Andersson’s work, but Buñuel’s social scalpel is as sharp as ever.

The Phantom of the Opera (UK 1962) (7): Set in Victorian England, this is one of the better screen adaptations of the French classic. The plot is pretty straightforward of course; a mysterious masked character stalks the halls of a theatre wreaking havoc as the resident company rehearses for an upcoming opera production. Smitten by lead singer Christine Charles, the “Phantom” is determined to help her develop her amazing vocal talents even if it means sequestering her to his underground lair. Christine’s young beau Harry, meanwhile, sets out to rescue his sweetheart and bring the reclusive madman to justice. The period sets are impeccable including the Phantom’s abode which is an eclectic combination of Bat Cave and carnival sideshow while the chills and thrills are surprisingly effective. Director Terence Fisher further foils our expectations by eliciting an unexpected sympathy for the titular protagonist. Once the reason behind his monomaniacal obsession with the theatre is explained his grotesquely disfigured character takes on an aura of tragic romanticism. We see a misunderstood genius who was horribly wronged in the past now forced to lurk in the shadows due to the facial scars he acquired trying to exact an unsuccessful justice. The opera scenes themselves, taken from a fictitious production detailing the life of Joan of Arc, were quite good for a B-movie and lent an undercurrent of sad irony to the story. Artistic license aside, this was still an unexpected pleasure.

Phantom of the Paradise (USA 1975) (8): Brian De Palma takes Gaston Leroux’s gothic mainstay about a disfigured madman who haunts a Paris opera house and updates it with a big tacky dose of 70s kitsch in this rip-roaring stab at both the Machiavellian music industry and the artistic narcissism it engenders. What he lacks in stature diminutive record guru Swan (Paul Williams, whose score was nominated for an Oscar) more than makes up for in cold-blooded cunning. Stealing the life’s work of struggling songwriter Winslow Leach—a “rock cantata” based on Faust—and leaving the poor man disfigured, insane, and possibly dead, Swan decides to make it the opening act for his elaborate new nightclub, The Paradise. But when a frighteningly transfigured Leach, now sporting a cape and bird mask, begins throwing deadly wrenches in Swan’s plans the exec does the only thing possible—he hires him! With clever spins on the works of Shelley, Goethe, and Oscar Wilde thrown in along with a few subtle in-jokes and a loving smirk at Alice Cooper, De Palma presents a rock operetta that rivals Rocky Horror in sheer campiness. The songs are pure AM radio gold, the performances appropriately theatrical, and the elaborately cheesy trappings pay homage to the era of disco dust and polyester. If you’re old enough to remember the 70s this is sure to put a guilty smile on your face.

Phenomena (Italy 1985) (6): Every so often I come across a film which is so awful yet so brilliant at the same time that I find it all but impossible to give it a rating. Such is the case with this highly atmospheric, highly operatic cheese platter from Dario Argento. Fans of Italian gialli in general, and of Argento in particular, know exactly what I’m talking about. For everyone else, steel yourselves for a wild ride filled with blood, psychosis, and ridiculously emotive performances whose already stilted dialogue is rendered priceless thanks to poor dubbing. An insane murderer is stalking the campus of an exclusive all-girls academy nestled in a corner of Europe known as “the Transylvania of Switzerland” and only American freshman Jennifer Corvino (future Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly!!) has the wherewithal to stop him. Blessed with the ability to communicate with insects (she actually made a beetle horny), Jennifer is led through a series of clues thanks to her little six and eight-legged friends, until she finds herself trapped in a final house of horrors where all will be revealed. There are hints of 1977’s Suspiria at work here most notably in the menacing girls’ academy and its staff of slightly unhinged matrons, and there’s more than a whiff of the supernatural as Jennifer regularly enters into fugue states where she summons hordes of bugs to do her bidding—one highly effective scene shows a black cloud of buzzing nasties covering the top floors of the school while Jennifer’s abusive schoolmates cower behind closed windows. It is the cinematography, in fact, which ultimately swayed me for if nothing else Argento knows how to frame a shot with every shadow in its place and every drop of gore accounted for—a spooky underwater sequence at a lake is pulled off so well you hardly even notice they’re in a pool. Hampered, or perhaps bolstered, by overwrought performances and the occasional flub (unnaturally bright lighting washes out backgrounds and when a sudden storm breaks why is it only raining on one side of the school?) this is Argento at his macabre best churning out a little bedtime story filled with stabbings, decapitations, a pool of rotting body parts, and buckets and buckets of maggots. Veteran actor Donald Pleasance lends a tiny bit of credibility as a crippled Scottish entomologist who teams up with Jennifer, but it’s his chimpanzee assistant Inga—looking and acting like a little furry Igor—that deserved to walk away with an award for Best Primate in a Supporting Role. Laced with hysteria and dominated by an overbearing soundtrack of screeching arias and heavy metal (musical credits include Iron Maiden, Motorhead, and Argento’s frequent collaborators, “Goblin”) this is definitely one of the more unique best-worst horror flicks to come crawling out of the 80s. You’ve been warned and/or encouraged.

Philomena (UK 2013) (9): Overly cynical journalist Martin Sixsmith reluctantly tackles a dreaded “human interest” story when he agrees to help an elderly Irish woman find the son she was forced to give up fifty years earlier. Through flashbacks we learn that Philomena Lee (Judi Dench proving there’s nothing she can’t do) was raised in a strict convent school where the girls were kept completely ignorant about sex and procreation. As a result the seminary housed a small population of unwed mothers, much to its Catholic shame, and an “orphanage” where the nuns adopted the children out to wealthy families for a convenient fee. Now approaching seventy Philomena, an endearing mix of childlike innocence and unexpected flashes of pragmatism, renews her search for “Anthony” with equal parts excitement and trepidation for what she may find. At first approaching his assignment with cool detachment, Martin soon finds his professional distance narrowing as Philomena’s story unfolds—the discovery of a small cemetery behind the convent containing the mothers and babies who didn’t make it thanks in part to poor medical care (“suffering is their penance”) further galvanizes his resolve to see some degree of justice (and vengeance) done. But as the search for Anthony takes them abroad and his fate gradually reveals itself both Martin, a confirmed atheist, and Philomena, a devout Catholic, will have their beliefs challenged in ways they never expected. A magnificent ensemble piece, inspired by a true story, whose punch is heightened by the fact it refuses to elicit an emotional response through cheap theatrics. Crisp cinematography, complemented by random loops of home movies and an evocative musical score, propel the story forward while at the same time keeping the characters grounded in reality. And those occasional welcome bursts of wry humour manage to soften the film’s sadder elements making the final reveals all the more believable. A gem.

Phoebe in Wonderland (USA 2008) (5): Nine-year old Phoebe Lichten (Elle Fanning) has a rich imagination…perhaps too rich. Controlled by crippling self-imposed rules of conduct she can’t descend a staircase or traverse a sidewalk without observing elaborate rituals, and her interpersonal skills are hampered by tics and bizarre outbursts. Her loving but ineffective parents—mom is a bit of a shrill neurotic, dad is a smiling doofus—steadfastly refuse to see anything wrong with their daughter’s behaviour and the staff at her school are almost comically useless. Always obsessed with Wonderland (Carroll’s not Jackson’s) Phoebe is over the moon when she lands the role of Alice in the annual school play—a stroke of good fortune which puts her obsessive behaviour into dangerous overdrive while at the same time introducing her to sphinx-like drama teacher Miss Dodger (Patricia Clarkson), a bohemian spirit who embraces artsy kids while looking with disdain upon “horrible normals”. Now suffering from self-inflicted injuries and Wonderland-inspired hallucinations (mom becomes the Red Queen, the insufferable child psychologist morphs into Humpty Dumpty) Phoebe is heading for a great fall and even a final diagnosis may hot put her together again unless she can find her own way through the Looking Glass… Mental illness becomes cloying in Daniel Barnz’s bittersweet child’s-eye drama wherein adults scurry about uselessly (except Miss Dodger who sits still and dispenses Flower Child platitudes) and Lewis Carroll metaphors are ground into the audience’s collective skull. Unabashedly preachy, Barnz has Mrs. Lichten (Felicity Huffman) explain to both Phoebe’s psychologist and us how children are unfairly categorized, and when a little gay classmate is bullied for wanting to play the Red Queen Miss Dodger treats everyone to a sermon on the role of crossdressing in Elizabethan theatre. For her part Elle Fanning avoids looking like a princess headed for rehab, her grounded performance making the most of a trite script while Bailee Madison chews up the scenery as her bratty little sister Olivia. Everyone else seems little more than paper cut-out characters with one note to play especially Campbell Scott as the school’s spineless principal and Madhur Jaffrey as one of Phoebe’s many busybody teachers. Even Patricia Clarkson, an actress I admire, reads the script in a Delphic monotone which gives her pat lines more weight than they actually deserve. A well-meaning drama which jumps in over its head only to wade into the shallows for an abrupt ending which could be taken as either deliberately ambiguous or a sign that Barnz simply ran out of ideas.

Phone Call From a Stranger (USA 1952) (7):  After walking out on his unfaithful wife a successful Indiana attorney decides to grab a flight to L.A. in order to sort out his feelings.  En route he forms a friendship of sorts with three fellow passengers:  the failed actress trying to mend her broken marriage; the alcoholic doctor with a dark secret; and an obnoxious traveling salesman with a suspiciously gorgeous wife.  They wind up exchanging phone numbers so they can meet up again someday.  Unfortunately the plane makes an unplanned stop into the side of a tree and the lawyer is the only one left standing.  When he decides to phone the grieving spouses of his fellow passengers in order to offer them some comfort by describing their loved ones final hours he ends up becoming more involved in their lives than he had planned...  With its hokey script and blatant overacting this melodramatic tear-jerker would be laughed out of theatres if it was released in this day and age.  But there is an innocent sincerity to these old B&W classics that is pretty much lost upon today’s cynical popcorn munchers.  I found this simple story quite captivating despite...or perhaps because’s flaws.  It’s a tall tale told well and the little flashes of unexpected humour were wonderful.

Pickup on South Street (USA 1953) (7): By its very definition Film Noir is an exaggerated glimpse into the dark heart of man filled with corruption and laced with sex. But that definition fails to adequately describe writer/director Samuel Fuller’s Cold War thriller—a noir so noir that it practically invents its own sub-genre. Low level subway pickpocket Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark putting the slime in slimeball) sneaks his hand into the wrong purse when he steals a woman’s wallet containing top secret microfilm destined for a Soviet spy ring. Now pursued by the NYPD, the CIA, and the ruthless spies themselves, McCoy is determined to cash in on his unexpected windfall—provided he doesn’t get killed first. So overdone on every level it goes from bad to great without missing a beat, Fuller’s twilit world of dirty commies, stalwart yanks, and amoral grifters is beautifully rendered in B&W. Dingy New York cityscapes overlook a ramshackle harbour and sin walks hand-in-hand with patriotism as loyalties change and the stakes get deadlier. Widmark exudes menace as the emotionally unpredictable thief, his oily personality repulsive yet sexy as hell at the same time. Richard Kiley sweats and frets as Joey, a wannabe traitor growing more desperate by the minute as both Moscow and Washington begin to close in. And Jean Peters throws herself into the role of Candy, the slutty airhead torn between ex-boyfriend Joey’s cry for help and Skip’s sadistic attentions. But it’s Thelma Ritter’s supporting role as a busybody stool pigeon which garnered the film’s only Oscar nomination. Shockingly violent for the time (slaps and punches all around!) and possessing an erotic undertone that barely made it past the censors—a seduction scene turns up the heat even though the camera never goes below the neckline—Fuller’s lurid tale gushes with just enough stars ’n stripes (oh them rotten Russkies!) to have given Joe McCarthy wet dreams for a week.

Picnic (USA 1955) (6): When handsome drifter Hal Carter (William Holden, too old and too drunk for the part) breezes into a small Kansas town his bare chest and virile ways open a big can of sexually repressed worms among the local women especially beauty queen Madge Owens (a lifeless Kim Novak) who’s unhappily dating the local playboy, her bookworm younger sister who’s experiencing her first flush of hormones, and Rosemary Sydney the desperately lonely school teacher constantly horrified to find herself on the wrong side of forty (a knockout performance by Rosalind Russell). But Carter has a few shameful secrets of his own and his presence at the annual Labor Day picnic will prove to be too much for some as pretences are stripped away and emotional baggage is flung open for all to see. Joshua Logan’s ironically titled film, based on the stage play, examines the gulf between practicality and passion which often causes people to make the wrong decisions for all the right reasons. Laced with hysteria and an eroticism which belies its widescreen Norman Rockwell backdrops as well as a completely fabricated ending (the director’s idea, not the playwright’s) Picnic has become a terribly dated and overblown soap opera which nevertheless makes for some enjoyable late night popcorn munching.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (USA 1945) (10): Oscar Wilde’s wildly inventive novel, an existential horror story which tackles issues of art, morality, and our preoccupation with the beauty of youth, transfers to the big screen with considerable success in this big budget MGM production. The story—a London dandy enjoys eternal youth, and all the excesses that go with it, while a beautiful portrait of himself shows the ravages of time and sin by slowly morphing into something grotesque—sparked quite a scandal when it was released in the 1880s thanks to its elements of amorality. In director Albert Lewin’s adaptation the sex and drugs are strongly suggested (offscreen, of course) but it is the cumulative effects of privilege and licentiousness that take centre stage. Freed from the effects of age and decay—both anathema to Wilde’s idea of art as beauty—and goaded by the cynical ruminations of his mentor Lord Henry, Dorian’s perpetual springtime eventually leads to moral apathy and outright cruelty as he is repeatedly disappointed by the weaknesses of others. Every life he touches seems to spiral into disaster (Angela Lansbury shines as a naïve saloon singer with a fatal attraction) and even the vilest of distractions eventually elicit little more than a weary boredom. Yet Gray remains forever young while the painting, which he keeps locked up out of shame, reflects the true state of his soul by gradually transforming into a leprous goblin covered in warts and blood. Impeccably shot in B&W (for which it won an Oscar) with fleeting moments of Technicolor whenever it focuses on Dorian’s picture, this is a heavy, brooding film whose gravitas is maintained beautifully by a near perfect cast especially Hurd Hatfield who plays Dorian Gray with a soft-spoken psychopathology and George Sanders who, as Lord Henry, steals all of Oscar’s best lines. Donna Reed co-stars as the adoring siren whose own innocence and beauty lead to a fatal epiphany. A Hollywood classic despite a bit of studio sanitization.

Pieces (Spain 1982) (2): When a crazy, sexually repressed mother discovers her young son assembling a jigsaw puzzle of a naked woman she tries to bitch slap the dirty thoughts right out of his head. Unfortunately she also slaps away his sanity for when she orders him to bring her a garbage bag so she can get rid of “this filth” he grabs an axe instead and proceeds to make a jigsaw puzzle out of her! Cut to a prestigious Boston college forty years later where buxom co-eds are being gruesomely dispatched by a serial killer wielding a chainsaw much to the chagrin of investigating police detective Bracken and undercover cop Mary Riggs (real life couple Christopher George and Lynda Day George). Who could the killer possibly be? Why are they targeting young women? And why is each victim missing a different body part? In this cheesy American slasher/Eurotrash giallo hybrid, director Juan Piquer Simón piles on the gore and boobs, mixes them with some horrible English dubbing and low-rent special effects (apparently real slaughterhouse blood and guts were used for the carnage scenes), and tops it all with some of the hammiest performances to ever grace a grindhouse screen. The result is a silly mess of plagiarisms including Shelley Duvall’s washroom scene from The Shining and a ridiculous finale straight out of Carrie, and lots of horror affectations—Lynda’s screams of frustration sound more like she’s in labour, the non-professional “victims” screech as if they’ve just seen a mouse rather than their impending death, and Paul L. Smith (playing creepy groundskeeper and major red herring, Willard) has trouble blinking his eyes in unison. And then producer Dick Randall grabs an extra from one of his current kung-fu movies to add a bafflingly pointless martial arts sequence. “I don’t know what came over me…” chuckles the Bruce Lee lookalike after dancing around Lynda Day George for a full minute, “…I must have eaten some bad chop suey!” Actually, by the time the closing credits finally ended this fiasco I felt the same way.

Pieces of April (USA 2003) (9): Sporting a shock of funky dyed braids, piercings and wild jewellery, April Burns (Katie Holmes) is as far removed from her suburban WASP family as it is possible to get. Ever since she was a toddler she’s been her parents’ biggest disappointment and now that she’s living in a dreary New York City walk-up with her black (OMG!) boyfriend both sides are finding the geographical distance immensely reassuring. Her sister Beth is an obsessive neurotic, her brother Tim is a slacker who lives through the eye of his camera lens, and her father finds himself in the uncomfortable position of constantly defending his wayward daughter in front of her siblings. But it is April’s rocky relationship with her mother Joy (an Oscar-nominated performance from Patricia Clarkson) that fuels writer/director Peter Hedges’ heartfelt dysfunctional comedy. Once a free-spirited woman, a diagnosis of terminal cancer has turned mom into a tired and persnickety old woman who speaks her mind a bit too much while flying off on one tangent or another. But Joy’s limited days prompt April to offer an olive branch of sorts when she invites the whole family, including senile grandma, to New York for Thanksgiving dinner with her and her boyfriend. The trouble is, neither one of them knows how to prepare a meal and when their stove breaks down April finds herself relying on the kindness of her highly eccentric neighbours in order to cook the damn bird before everyone arrives… Made on a shoestring budget over the course of two weeks, Peter Hedges has combined the best elements of a classic road movie (the Burns’ trek to the big city is fraught with hilarious complications) with a poignant family drama which elicits the occasional tear between all those chuckles. His cast practically live their roles and their efforts are made all the more believable by a low-keyed cinematography that makes the most of its natural settings whether it be a quiet interlude in a snowy woods or a collection of sad balloons hanging from a peeling stair bannister. A bittersweet slice-of-life movie whose comical elements never stray too far from the heart.

Pierrepoint [The Last Hangman] (UK 2005) (7): Dark and disturbing biopic of Albert Pierrepoint who was a nondescript deliveryman by profession but, like his father before him, moonlighted as one of England’s most prolific hangmen dispatching over 600 condemned criminals in a career spanning 22 years. In the beginning we see Albert as a fresh young face justly proud of his skill with the noose. His clinical approach to determining how much rope to use based on a person’s physical stature and profession (manual labourers have stronger necks) ensured a clean kill every time thus earning him the respect of prison officials everywhere and making him the Home Office’s first choice when it came to the assembly line executions of Nazi war criminals at the end of WWII. “The State wants them dead...” he explains to a junior assistant at one point, “...we just do the job.” But the cumulative weight of all those ghosts eventually takes it’s toll and Pierrepoint finds it increasingly difficult to resume his normal life each time he exits a prison by the backdoor. A harrowing confrontation with the distraught mother of a death row inmate coupled with a personally devastating encounter at the gallows prove to be the final straws that end his career shortly before capital punishment was abolished in the U.K. In the lead role Timothy Spall puts in a powerfully understated performance as a man of some honour who finds himself going from celebrated hero for hanging evil Germans to reviled pariah for the execution of a single mother. His desperate belief that the people he killed have “paid the price” and are now innocent once more gives him little solace; in one touchingly macabre scene he gently washes the nude body of a woman he executed minutes beforehand, as if washing her dead flesh will somehow remove the blood from his own. In the able hands of director Adrian Shergold Albert’s own personal dilemma finds some reflection in English society at large as we catch glimpses of an unyielding morality and the hypocrisy it engenders. Even his own wife proves her somewhat duplicitous nature when, drunk and in tears, he pleads for some reassurance that he is a good person only to have her pull away in revulsion unable to discuss his “other” job despite the fact she has no problem accepting the extra money it puts in their coffers. Grim, depressing and presented in sombre funereal colours, Pierrepoint is both a fascinating character study and an unflinching look at a form of punishment which, in Albert’s own words, was “nothing but revenge.”

Pieta (Korea 2012) (6): Gang-Do is a ruthless money collector, working for a smalltime loan shark, who takes righteous satisfaction in crippling debtors so he can collect on their health insurance claims—a severed arm here, spinal cord injury there…it’s all in a day’s work for the perpetually angry young man who sees the entire world in shades of black. Enter meek yet fiercely devoted Mi-Son, an older woman claiming to be the long-lost mother that abandoned Gang-Do when he was just a baby and who has now returned in order to make amends. At first refusing to believe her Gang-Do tests Mi-Son’s resolve with a few horrific tests of his own until, eventually satisfied, he takes great delight in finally having a mom to call his own. Softening his evil ways, Gang-Do tries to become the good son but the past is not so easily laid to rest and Mi-Son has a tragic secret of her own… Writer/director Ki-Duk Kim’s somewhat scattered psychodrama is a grab bag of pop psychology and pseudo religious riffs which don’t quite gel into a comfortable whole. There’s an unhealthy dollop of Freud’s Oedipal Complex as mother and son cross that fine line a few times (ever see Bertolucci’s Luna?), a little bit of Buddhist mysticism involving ice cold Karma wherein attachment to worldly goods—in this case money—is the root of all suffering, and some good old divine punishment and martyrdom straight from the bible as Mi-Son and Gang-Do take turns looking down on each other from a great height. A cruel film whose emotional detachment and casual sadism ensure audiences are kept at arm’s length, neither railing against its protagonist’s transgressions nor revelling in his agony. Great performances however, and a macabre ending that hints at how good the production might have been.

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Sweden 2014) (9): Although his lengthy career has only produced a handful of eclectic films, Roy Andersson is still one of my all-time favourite directors. Exposing humanity’s ridiculous foibles through the use of loosely connected absurdist vignettes has always been his calling card and this outrageous collection is no exception. The misadventures of a pair of depressed novelty salesmen (“We like to make people laugh”) provide the catalyst as Andersson guides his blank-faced troupe of actors, appropriately made up in funereal white face, through a succession of deadpan skits examining contemporary anomie and societal dysfunction—a ship’s crew worry over what to do with a dead passenger’s uneaten lunch, Charles XII and his army descend upon a modern roadside diner on their way to defeat the Russians, and a dying woman is determined to drag her jewellery into heaven. But just as he has his audience comfortably bemused Andersson pulls the rug out with a shockingly confrontational penultimate scene in which the activation of a monstrous music box sums up all of mankind’s darkest deeds. Cooly sardonic and drier than dust, this is what a collaboration between Ingmar Bergman and Monty Python might have looked like.

Pillow Talk (USA 1959) (7): An interior decorator (Doris Day) shares both a telephone party line and a mutual dislike with a womanizing songwriter (Rock Hudson). Even though the two have never met fate and a few white lies eventually land them in each other's arms. Pretty adult humour for 1959 (including some ironic gay innuendo), great technicolor New York settings and it's all as corny as it sounds. Fun!

Pink Floyd London 1966/67 (5):  A poorly lit, poorly framed hodgepodge of video clips set to a jarringly discordant soundtrack doesn’t add up to much in this acid-laced homage to “swinging” London.  The celebrity interviews are interesting however, and Peter Whitehead’s impressionistic “60’s Experience” montage does manage to convey something of what it must have been like.  Not as groovy as it could have been.

Pinky (USA 1949) (8): In much the same vein as "Imitation of Life", Elia Kazan's challenging film addresses issues of both racism and racial identity in this story of a light-skinned black woman who returns to her southern roots after having passed for white up north. Upon graduating from nursing school in Boston, Patricia "Pinky" Johnson is at first delighted to be home again in her grandmother's clapboard shack nestled in the shadows of a faded plantation. Sadly, her sense of nostalgia soon sours after she realizes that all the privileges she once enjoyed as a caucasian, including the company of her unsuspecting white fiance, no longer apply to her new "coloured" status. When her grandmother's employer, the ballsy old matriarch living in the mansion across the field, falls terminally ill Pinky is hired as her nurse and a tentative friendship forms between the two. But when the old crone leaves Pinky her entire estate, much to the chagrin of her scheming cousin, the resulting court case exposes the town's deep-seated bigotry and forces Pinky to come to terms with her own self-deception. Pretty touchy stuff for 1949 but Kazan pulls it off with aplomb. His three leads are magnificent (although some may balk at a decidedly white Jeanne Crain playing the lead) and his supporting cast of mixed race extras defy southern stereotypes. Pinky's own personal dilemma, to either be true to oneself or escape into a comfortable lie, is keenly portrayed as grandmother and fiance tug her in different directions while distant train whistles underscore her sense of isolation. Even though any astute viewer will be able to guess the film's outcome from a mile away the ending, when it arrives, is nevertheless moving without being patronizing.

The Pirate (USA 1948) (5): Set on a fictitious Caribbean island in the 19th century Vincente Minnelli’s soundstage musical follows the fate of island deb Manuela (Judy Garland, nowhere near Kansas) a bored ingenue who tries to spice up her existence by fantasizing about a life of adventure in the arms of legendary pirate Macoco, a dashing buccaneer she’s only read about. But alas, the humdrum maiden is due to be married to local mayor Don Pedro, a portly and somewhat oily man several years her senior who promises her a life of comfortable banality. Enter the handsome scoundrel Serafin (Gene Kelly looking very fine) who’s just arrived in port with his traveling band of minstrels. A seasoned showman with an eye for the ladies Serafin immediately falls in love with the overtly naïve Manuela and decides to throw a wrench into her arranged marriage—even if it means masquerading as the nefarious Macoco himself. Music and romantic complications ensue. Aside from a bit of erotic innuendo and a few rousing song & dance routines inspired by Noel Coward’s music—most notably a fiery piratical number with Kelly showing off the goods in a pair of too-tight shorts, and a gymnastic version of “Be A Clown” which was banned in the South because it featured blacks and whites sharing the stage—it’s just a whole lot of technicolor fluff and nonsense with hammy performances and a flimsy script. Little wonder it bombed at the box office.

Pirate Radio [aka The Boat that Rocked ] (UK 2009) (7): In the 1960s, fearing it would evoke a tidal wave of immorality and drug use, the conservative British government banned radio stations from playing rock ’n roll. But with a population hungry for the sounds of Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, and Dusty Springfield, enterprising DJs took to the high seas where they were able to broadcast their forbidden records from retrofitted cargo ships. In this unapologetically “Feel Good!” movie, writer/director Richard Curtis takes us aboard the fictitious S. S. Radio Rock where a crew of hippies, rogues, and airwave rebels—and one impressionable teenager—are taking great delight in snubbing their noses at the establishment by playing the kind of pop tunes that get everyone from schoolgirls and nurses to maids and accountants tapping their feet and shaking their hips. It’s not all smooth sailing however, for a stuffy member of parliament (Kenneth Branagh barely recognizable in conservative haircut and horn rims) has been tasked with sinking their offshore studio by year’s end and he’ll do anything within his power to accomplish that goal. Blatantly sentimental, especially with its non-stop soundtrack of classic 60s tracks which seems to offer just the right song for every dramatic twist, Curtis’ evocation of Britain’s Carnaby Street era may occasionally lean towards idealized fantasy (those silly splashy final scenes are pure joy!) but there is no mistaking his love for the music and the people who spread it around. Branagh’s character is appropriately cartoonish while his floating nemeses are appropriately bewhiskered, bedraggled, and impishly defiant—their clashes serving to define an emerging zeitgeist which was unstoppable even before The Kinks ever mentioned Lola. Philip Seymour Hoffman co-stars as a cynical American DJ who realizes these will be the best years of his life; Bill Nighy struts and crows as the station’s manager; Emma Thompson makes a brief appearance as a well-to-do ex-groupie; and the long list of subversive disc jockeys is rounded out by the likes of Nick Frost, Chris O’Dowd, and Rhys Darby. It may not be an entirely accurate history lesson, but as the cinematic equivalent of a pleasure cruise it will leave you smiling.

Pitfall (Japan 1962) (5): On the lam from the authorities with his little son in tow, an army deserter and petty crook seeks refuge and a possible job in an isolated mining town. Upon arriving however he finds the place uninhabited save for a crazy shopkeeper who spends her days rearranging her rotting wares while dreaming of a better life that never materializes. But when the miner is murdered by a mysterious man in white his ghost is left to wander the streets, now teeming with silent spirits, and rail against the unfairness of it all. Soon joined by other victims of the pale assassin the man’s confused anguish quickly turns to impotent rage even as we the audience are tossed a few clues as to what really happened. And all the while his now orphaned son runs aimlessly between the town’s empty shacks trying to wring some childlike sense out of his new reality. Slow, wordy, and lacking in suspense, Hiroshi Teshigahara’s minimalist drama is not so much a murder mystery as it is a stark and unsympathetic critique on life itself. If existence is unjust, he seems to say, non-existence is even more so. If there is no god to set things right in the end, neither is there a devil to stir the pot—just poor corruptible human beings doing what they do best in both this world and the next. Alas, despite its unhappy supernatural twists and some inspired B&W cinematography which transforms a ragtag village into a subtle hell on earth, Pitfall’s glacial pace and disconsolate navel-gazing ultimately tries to make too much out of too little.

Pit Stop (USA 2013) (8): In a blue collar Texas town two gay men deal with love, loss and longing. Forklift operator Ernesto’s former boyfriend lies comatose in a nursing home following a car accident two years ago and Ernesto still sits by his bed reading him Cosmo articles and reminiscing. Meanwhile his current ex is living in the spare bedroom and bringing home sex dates; a situation Ernesto finds increasingly intolerable. On the other side of town contractor Gabe is helping his former wife raise their six-year old daughter while pining away for the man that left him a few months earlier. When Ernesto and Gabe finally do cross paths sparks don’t exactly fly, but a slow ember is definitely ignited… Sound like the making of a queer chick flick? Guess again, for in the capable hands of writer/director Yen Tan what could have been a superficial weeper actually becomes a subtle and low-keyed slice of life as two lonely men slowly gravitate towards one another despite a beautifully enigmatic ending to remind us that nothing in life is ever certain. Believable performances all around (the male leads are almost too gorgeous) are further enhanced by a background score of soft country-western ballads and a simple script free of bitchy drama. From the pains of breaking up to the steamy scenes of first-time sex there is nothing here that we can’t relate to and Tan knows exactly when to stroke the heartstrings and when to simply let his characters breathe—there are no weeping close-ups or crashing violins here. A slow-moving ensemble piece filled with heavy silences and uncomplicated emotions that rings truer than Brokeback Mountain ever will.

The Place Beyond the Pines (USA 2012) (10): Steeped in spiritual metaphors and packing a series of emotional punches, Derek Cianfrance’s powerful tale of remorse and atonement is presented as a trio of interrelated chapters, each ending with a momentous decision, that resemble three lost episodes of Kieslowski’s Dekalog. “Thou Shalt Not Steal” could be the subtitle of the movie’s first hour in which we see pugnacious motorcycle stuntman Luke (Ryan Gosling, amazing) give up the carnival circuit in order to help raise his infant child, the result of a one-night stand a year earlier. But with the baby’s mother already living with another man and job prospects scarce Luke turns to armed robbery in order to make ends meet—a decision which will affect his family for years to come. In part two, related to “Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness”, small town cop Avery (Bradley Cooper, also amazing) is hailed as a hero after a shootout with a dangerous felon leaves him injured and the perpetrator dead. The accolades don’t sit quite well with him however for not only is he struggling with guilt over the other man’s death, the shooting incident itself leads to some troubling revelations regarding rampant corruption within the police force. Treated as a celebrity by the media yet feeling soiled within, Avery must decide between collusion or activism—and both choices come with a heavy price. Lastly, in what could be dubbed “Honour Thy Father and Thy Mother”, two highschool stoners, A.J. and Jason, form an unlikely friendship which ultimately leads them down a dark and dangerous path, especially after it’s discovered that they have more in common than they first thought. Gorgeously filmed with dampened colours and low-keyed dramatics delivered by a sterling cast, Cianfrance takes his time building tensions and forming tenuous bonds between one story and the next. The result has all the solemnity of religious parables which he then enhances with a piercing soundtrack of sacred choir pieces and forlorn acoustical arrangements. Bleak at times and overlaid with a pervasive sense of melancholy, but shot through with flashes of grace and poetry. Impressive.

Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea (USA 2004) (6):  The Salton sea, in California’s Imperial Valley, was created over 100 years ago after heavy rains caused the Colorado river to overflow its banks and flood a low-lying area known as the Salton sink.  Once touted as the “California Riviera”, it was a tourist mecca for those seeking to escape the urban sprawl of Los Angeles.  Developers were quick to cash in on what seemed like a sure bet; subdivisions were planned, lots were sold and marinas were built.  Unfortunately the bubble began to burst towards the end of the 50s due to a combination of poor planning and bureaucratic double-dealings.  Today it is a large polluted saltwater lake surrounded by ramshackle towns populated by a host of colourful eccentrics and those with nowhere else to go.  Despite some well-meaning efforts to restore the sea to its formerly pristine condition not much has changed in over 30 years.  Mezler and Springer’s documentary is not as engaging as I had hoped.  The interviewees are more than eager to get in front of the camera but we are left with a series of monologues that seem to go in circles while the sporadic narration contains none of the sardonic wit you’d expect from John Waters.  The vintage newsreel footage and promotional videos were pretty funny though, but not enough to maintain my interest for long.  Where is Errol Morris when you need him?

The Plague Dogs (USA/UK 1982) (7): Life is tough for the animals at a secret research facility hidden away in England's Lake District. Subjected to painful, debilitating and, ultimately, fatal experiments by a cadre of sinister "white coats" the little furry victims seem resigned to their short unpleasant lives. But when a careless custodian leaves a cage door unlatched two desperate dogs make a mad dash for freedom. Rowf, an embittered labrador, and his docile companion Snitter, an addled terrier sporting a horrific skull incision soon find themselves lost in unfamiliar terrain until a little fox with questionable intentions comes to their rescue. In the meantime their escape creates a storm of controversy in the English Parliament as animal rights activists square off against the government and rumours begin circulating that the little pooches may be harbouring some rather nasty germs. With its compelling, often brutal storyline delivered by a cast of talented voices this animated feature, based on Richard Adams' novel is definitely not for the kiddies. There is a bleak sense of hopelessness to the dogs' trek that intensifies even as they near their ultimate goal, a semi-mythical island where they can be truly free. Not as preachy as one would expect, director Martin Rosen limits his human characters to background voiceovers and instead focuses on the bewilderment of the animals themselves as they struggle to understand the unfairness of it all; "Why do they do it Snitter?" implores Rowf at one point, "I'm not a bad dog." Although the crude animation is just one small step above Saturday morning fare, it's washed out watercolour vistas and dark silences do manage to augment the film's brooding atmosphere. Unfortunately a heartbreakingly surreal final scene is marred by a trippy-hippy anthem overkill.

The Plague of the Zombies (UK 1966) (5): Sir James Forbes, eminent professor of medicine, travels to a small Cornish town accompanied by his lovely daughter in order to help one of his former pupils solve a most diabolical mystery. The young men of the village are dying for no apparent reason and their bodies are disappearing from the local churchyard as fast as they can be buried. Following a trail of clues which lead to the palatial estate of the local magistrate, Forbes and his young protégé are drawn into a terrifying conspiracy. Can they set things right before Sir James’ daughter becomes the next victim? Another wonderfully giddy Seven Arts/Hammer Pictures period piece featuring the usual cast of suspicious country hicks inhabiting the same old 19th century sets enhanced by stockpiles of fog machines and combustible miniatures. The addition of a tacky voodoo altar complete with jamming African drummers and play-doh devil dolls adds just the right amount of cheese while the titular “plague” consists mainly of shuffling cretins in pancake make-up and monk’s robes. The underlying story of zombie exploitation is somewhat novel (if it were made a few years later one could draw comparisons to Thatcherism), but only if you can overlook a plethora of nonsensical plot devices and logic gaps. Finally, despite an effective decapitation scene and creepy dream sequence involving the dead crawling from their graves, there’s not much here to keep you from a peaceful night’s sleep.

Planet of the Vampires (Italy 1965) (8): After a suspicious computer glitch forces the spaceships Argos and Galliott to crash land on the mysterious fog-enshrouded planet they had been investigating, initial unease quickly turns to horror as the crew members find themselves being stalked by an invisible evil. With their numbers dwindling and chances of escape becoming slimmer by the minute, the surviving astronauts must solve an age-old alien mystery before they become its next victims—but who can you trust when you can’t even trust yourself? If you’re able forgive the gaudy leatherette spacesuits (Hell’s Angels meet Count Dracula?) and some lamentable outer space special effects of the “plastic-model-on-a-string” variety this sci-fi giallo by legendary director Mario Bava quickly makes up for its technical shortfalls with genuinely creepy set designs and a story which, although not novel for the genre, still packs a few surprises including a double-twist ending that left me smiling. Almost surreal in its presentation, the planet’s surface is a dimly lit nightmare of organic rock formations, moaning winds, and multi-coloured mists which occasionally part to reveal half-seen wonders or terrors—a bubbling lava field is a riot of crimson shadows, an apparition of malevolent zombies brings to mind Carpenter’s The Thing, and a trip to explore the menacing ruins of an ancient starship from another world draws favourable comparisons to a similar scene in Ridley Scott’s Alien, filmed fourteen years later. A truly effective little chiller which seems to revel in its low-budget cosmos, bless its little dubbed heart!

Planet Terror [ aka Grindhouse: Planet Terror ] (USA 2007) (10): For those of you unfamiliar with the genre, “grindhouse” is a collective term used to describe the glut of tawdry exploitation films released back in the 70s and 80s which screened as double bills in the nation’s seedier cinemas. Revelling in blood and tits they were generally low-budget productions that lured young men into the theatre with promises of explicit violence, hot chicks, and lots of softcore humping. In this brilliant homage, writer/director Robert Rodriguez has taken the genre to dizzying new heights while still maintaining the guts ’n sleaze factor for a new generation to enjoy. Thanks to a botched paramilitary raid a small Texas town is exposed to a deadly nerve gas which transforms people into melty dripping zombies with an insatiable appetite for human flesh. Into this cannibalistic melee are thrown a host of survivors including an ex go-go dancer with a wooden leg (Rose McGowan, sexy crazy); a psychotic ER doctor (Josh Brolin, sexy sexy); the doctor’s unfaithful lesbian wife; a one-man vigilante with a fetish for bullets; and a troop of heavily armed bad guys with a horrific agenda of their own. Who will survive the night in one piece and who will simply end up in pieces? Lots of cheesy cheap-ass gore with exploding heads and gutted torsos is augmented by a script rife with clichés and one-line groaners (“She could suck the bend out of a river”) and it’s all served up with such low-brow panache that you can’t help but laugh along with it—those scenes of Rose McGowan flying through the air, her stump now fitted with a high-calibre machine gun-cum-grenade launcher spraying death in every direction, are surely some of cinema’s all time high/lows! Rodriguez obviously sat transfixed through a few grinders himself for he captures the look perfectly right down to the celluloid scratches and spliced jump cuts which suggest film stock that has been played long past its expiry date. Spectacular explosions, repulsive special effects, and a slew of surprise celebrity cameos (Quentin Tarantino as an oversexed zombie soldier?!) take me back to my own adolescent days when I used to sneak across the border to Detroit in order to see these films in all their uncensored glory. I guess they really can make them like they used to…..if that’s even a good thing.

Platinum Blonde (USA 1931) (7): Class warfare and clashing temperaments form the backbone of this early comedy from Frank Capra, and even though the performances still smack of silent film emoting the humour has survived mostly unscathed. Rakish newspaper reporter Stew Smith (Robert Williams) falls for high society heiress Ann Schuyler (Jean Harlow) leading to elopement and a hasty marriage. But although the newlyweds initially fawn over one another their individual upbringings—so very different from one another—soon spell trouble. Ann is a privileged debutante determined to mould Stew into a proper gentleman; Stew is a cynical blue collar worker whose fragile ego can’t withstand the teasing of his co-workers who now refer to him as “Mr. Schyuler”. Arguing over everything from where to live to which friends to keep, the two hardheads dig in with Smith determined to wear the pants in the family and Ann unwilling to give up even one diamond… Theatrical sets jump from a luxurious mansion to a humble apartment highlighting the growing rift and each spouse’s cadre of acquaintances form a cheering section—Ann’s stuffy family grimaces at the sight of Stew’s droopy socks, and an impromptu visit to the estate by Stew’s fellow journalists turns into an all-night bacchanal after the butler unlocks the liquor cabinet. Harlow is Harlow, here softening her severe bombshell image by playing a character whose gaudy trappings don’t quite conceal the girlish vulnerabilities beneath. Williams proves to be a master of comedic timing and body language, his muttered comebacks and devilish confidence en pointe as he shrugs and winks his way through each scene. And an 18-year old Loretta Young gives a performance beyond her years as Smith’s BFF, a woman he considers as “one of the guys” but who’s nevertheless carrying a secret torch for him. It’s good clean fun with a dash of sparkle and a note of sadness when one discovers that Robert Williams died from peritonitis shortly before the film was released (he was 37) and Jean Harlow followed a few years later when she succumbed to “uremic poisoning” at the age of twenty-six.

Play Misty for Me  (USA 1971) (6):  This film would go on to serve as a template for many of the "Jilted-Psycho-Stalker" films that followed. Unfortunately it is firmly rooted in 1971 and has aged very poorly......from Eastwood's poofy hair and neon sans-a-belt slacks to the ridiculous sex scene in the middle of a pond with Roberta Flack crooning in the background. It played like a late-night cable adaptation of a particularly bad Jackie Collins' novel.

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

Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (USA 1960) (4):  Doris Day plays her trademark coiffed doormat in this vacuous cupcake of a movie that makes you feel as if you should be laughing out loud even as you stare glassy-eyed at the TV screen.  David Niven is terribly miscast as her husband, a former professor turned big theatre critic whose new-found celebrity begins to take precedence over his familial duties much to Doris’ sad dismay.  When the two of them decide to move from the glamour of NYC to a home in the sticks, accompanied by their endearingly bratty kids (one of whom is kept in a cage) and obligatory precious pooch you’d expect all sorts of wholesome hijinks to ensue.  They don’t.  Virtually every joke falls flat, including the Rock Hudson reference, and the two musical interludes serve no purpose other than to provide just enough time to walk to the kitchen for a snack.  The only bright spot is Janis Paige in her role as a Broadway vamp who tries to seduce Niven.  She brings a sexy comedic presence that is pretty much wasted here. One expects a certain amount of sugary sweetness in any Doris Day film but this one’s enough to give you a mouthful of cavities.  (As an aside, check out the big lesbian veterinarian who comes to visit....what was Doris thinking?!)

The Pledge (USA 2001) (5): With a cast that includes Jack Nicholson, Benicio Del Toro, Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, and Patricia Clarkson, it’s hard to believe that director Sean Penn actually fumbles the ball in this adaptation of Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s novel. On the eve of his retirement police detective Jerry Black (Nicholson) becomes involved in the investigation of a brutally murdered child—an involvement which becomes an all-consuming obsession when he makes a solemn vow to the dead girl’s parents that he will find their daughter’s killer. Exactly why he suddenly develops this idée fixe is never satisfactorily explored, a fact which weakens the ensuing drama even further. Anyway, even after the police believe they’ve apprehended the suspect Black sets off on his own armed with the flimsiest of evidence yet thoroughly convinced the murderer is still out there ready to strike again. And so begins a journey—part policier, part psychodrama, part character study—that will lead Black closer to the truth even as it takes its toll on his own sanity. With the interior of British Columbia an unconvincing stand-in for Nevada, this is a moody atmospheric piece which attempts to smooth over its credibility stretches with postcard vistas of misty lakes, slow-motion birds in flight, and idiosyncratic characters, all set to tinkling piano keys and droning strings. The mystery does deepen however, but only until you realize this is not a standard thriller but rather a Greek Tragedy that focuses on our would-be hero as he’s slowly undermined by his own flaws, in this case a fixation on fulfilling the pledge he made no matter what the cost. And that cost finally arrives in the form of an ironic flip-flop whose grandiose sense of tragedy aims for mythical proportions but settles for a faintly ridiculous Deus ex Machina gimmick instead. Arty to the point of distraction, Penn ultimately spends too much time building up to an anti-climax which is hardly worth the preceding two hours. Robin Wright co-stars as a single mother and love interest unwillingly caught up, along with her child, in Black’s personal mania.

Point Blank (USA 1967) (6): After pulling off a minor heist grizzled gangster Walker (Lee Marvin) is double-crossed and left for dead by his partner-in-crime who runs off with both the money and his wife. Now intent on revenge Walker travels from San Francisco to Los Angeles determined to not only kill the man but recover his rather paltry share of the loot. Vengeance does not come easily however for his partner is involved in the “Organization”, a shady underworld of big business where each layer of corruption leads to to yet another like the skin of a rotting onion and cash has given way to electronic transfers and credit cards. Drawing heavily on European arthouse motifs director John Boorman’s screen adaptation of David Newhouse’s novel The Hunter practically drowns in its own style with puzzling dream states, liquid timelines, and some striking architectural angles highlighting downtown L.A.’s wonderland of concrete slabs and swaying palms. In one scene Walker flattens a pair of thugs at a nightclub while an onstage slideshow flashes images of cringing women, in another his heavy footsteps echo down a corporate corridor providing counterpoint to scenes of his unfaithful wife daubing make-up onto her weary face. He’s an anachronism who still believes that all one needs to get what they want is a pistol and a sense of outrage. But in 1960s California trench-coats and fedoras have been replaced by business suits and computer keyboards and as he bullies his way past one impeccably dressed racketeer after another his quest becomes ever more pathetic—not so much David vs Goliath then as David vs Hydra, with each new head more sinister than the previous one. Unfortunately the acting is woefully uneven with Marvin and co-stars Carroll O’Connor, Lloyd Bochner, and John Vernon putting in admirable performances while Angie Dickinson pulls up the rear as Marvin’s troubled love interest and Sharon Acker, as his wife, gives the impression she can’t even spell “paper bag” let alone act her way out of one. And finally, all those arty embellishments may look fine in French films but transcribed to an American setting they come across as polished affectations.

Pollyanna (USA 1960) (7): When little orphaned Pollyanna (Golden Globe winner Hayley Mills) is sent to live with her wealthy aunt Polly (Jane Wyman) in Vermont she’s in for a bit of a culture shock. Used to the austere life of her missionary parents she is at first gobsmacked by the opulence of her new home until she gradually comes to realize there is not a lot of happiness in the small town of Harrington, especially within the walls of aunt Polly’s imposing mansion. She is one determined waif however and her unwavering belief that there is “always something to be glad about” eventually weaves a spell over the citizenry from cantankerous recluse Mr. Pendergast and bitter old hypochondriac Mrs. Snow (Adolphe Menjou, Agnes Moorehead) to the lonely and spinsterish Aunt Polly herself who rules the town with an iron fist. But when Pollyanna finds her own sunny disposition threatened, the people of Harrington stand poised to lose their newly found smiles… Not quite the Disney treacle-fest one would expect thanks in large part to Mills’ believable moppet and those meticulous 1913 set designs (oh that train!), David Swift’s screen adaptation of Eleanor H. Porter’s novel offsets its many “fluffy bunny” moments—I can still taste that cloyingly sweet ending—with some good old-fashioned family entertainment brimming with inoffensive childhood mischief (Pollyanna climbs a tree!) and a generous dollop of patriotic Americana in the form of a town square celebration. Karl Malden also adds some needed gravitas as a socially inept fire-and-brimstone preacher who discovers a gentler way to save souls thanks to Pollyanna’s sage advice. Veteran character actors Reta Shaw, Mary Grace Canfield, and Donald Crisp round out the cast with hunky Richard Egan providing a love interest and a very young Kevin Corcoran stumbling through his lines as a rambunctious inmate of the Harrington Orphanage. Even though Santa Rosa, California and Disney’s Burbank studios do not exactly conjure up a convincing New England, Pollyanna’s rose-tinted joie de vivre still proves infectious to the point I actually found a tear in the corner of one eye. Goddamn you Walt Disney!

Polyester (USA 1981) (8): Her teenaged daughter is an out-of-control slut dating a punk rocker, her son is a criminally insane stalker with a foot fetish, her pornographer husband is having an affair with his skanky secretary, and her own mother is an abusive shrew intent on emptying her bank account. Is it any wonder then that overwrought Baltimore housewife Francine Fishpaw (Divine) is drinking heavily and just one step away from the loony bin? But then a handsome and mysterious stranger (Tab Hunter?!) enters her life and things finally seem to be going her way at last…or are they? With this first foray into “mainstream” cinema, transgressive writer/director John Waters eases up on the more vulgar and salacious elements that made his earlier body of work such a succés de scandale and creates instead a kitschy R-rated suburban soap opera which allows the late great Divine—sporting the body of a beluga whale and the sniffing nose of a bloodhound—to fully showcase his comedic talents. From the canned music and tacky 70s furniture to Francine’s closet full of frilly Valu Village knock-offs this is vintage (albeit somewhat toned down) Waters, and for a touch of nostalgia he also casts a few familiar faces from his underground days namely Mink Stole playing the nympho secretary, Jean Hill as a gospel singer turned bus hijacker, and Miss Edith Massey (sporting her two remaining front teeth) playing Francine’s only friend and confidante, the sweet but mentally challenged Cuddles. Of course amidst the low-brow jokes and tasteless gags Waters throws in his usual bit of social critique in the form of screeching anti-pornography protestors, a pro-life Karen who is not above bitch-slapping a pregnant teen “for Jesus”, and a pair of sadistic nuns running a halfway house for wayward girls. My personal favourite though was the avant-garde drive-in theatre and its snobbish clientele…LOL! But the film’s biggest claim to infamy was “Odorama”. In a salute to director William Castle whose own films always came with a gimmick to lure people into the theatre, Polyester audiences were given scratch’n sniff cards loaded with ten different scents; when prompted to by a flashing number onscreen they would scratch the corresponding box on their card in order to get a whiff of everything from pizza and skunk juice to fresh farts. God bless you Mr. Waters.

Pom Poko (Japan 1994) (6): A dark, and not entirely successful “eco awareness” anime from Studio Ghibli about a band of wild raccoon dogs determined to keep human developers from destroying their beloved forest. Until the bulldozers and steam shovels arrived, Shôkichi and his furry brethren were content to simply eat, play, and mate, among the trees of their hillside woods. Now, with their ancestral home threatened by a sprawling Tokyo suburb, they decide to fight back using their magical ability to shape-shift into whatever form they choose—be it a concrete barrier, traffic cop, or scary demon. But humans are not so easily discouraged and as the stakes become more desperate the feud between striped canids and people begins to exact a terrible toll. Despite a very stagey Halloween-style guerrilla assault on the town by raccoons posing as monsters and outer space aliens (and a few Ghibli cameos if you look close enough), the subpar animation seems more suited for a television audience while a meandering script doesn’t quite seem to know which direction to take. As a rebuke against habitat destruction it presents a very anemic argument indeed with a sour ending that seems to suggest if you can’t beat them, try using denial. As family entertainment there is a tad too much roadkill for the tykes, not to mention the raccoons’ supernaturally versatile scrotums which they proudly wield as weapons, picnic blankets, and flotation devices (cue cartoon testicles galore). And as a sardonic look at the machinations of big business (a shape-shifting fox fits quite nicely into the human world of corporate boardrooms) it fizzles without ever popping. Ultimately a sad tale of cross-species exploitation, assimilation, and gentrification whose fatalistic tone touches on a truth which remains uncomfortable no matter how many legs you walk on.

Ponyo (Japan 2008) (6): When 5-year old Sosuke rescues a most unusual goldfish from the beach near his home he has no idea of the danger he’s introduced into the world. As it turns out the small girl-faced creature is the amazing offspring of an embittered marine biologist now operating out of a magical undersea laboratory, and a watery goddess charged with overseeing the oceans’ welfare. Enchanted with life above the tideline the little bit of sushi, named “Ponyo” by Sosuke, decides she’d rather be human but her father has different plans for he’s dedicated his life to returning the world’s oceans back to their prehistoric glory with the aid of an enchanted well; a move which will dramatically end all life on land especially those ignorant polluting humans. But in the midst of this mystical eco-showdown there is a glimmer of hope as both Ponyo and Sosuke come to realize that true friendship involves sacrifice. Despite its charming score and visual flourishes (an opening shot of billowing jellyfish floating through a sunlit sea was superb) this is the most Disneyesque, and hence my least favourite, Miyazaki creation. Unlike the piercing insights of My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away which examined the tiny joys and terrors of growing up in the most wonderfully imaginative ways, Ponyo’s rather flat, and at time confusing, presentation seems content to simply dole out the standard lessons in love, hope and responsibility. The timeless sense of magic we’ve come to expect from Miyazaki is missing here, replaced instead by a cuteness overload which gives the film a Saturday Morning Cartoon feel. Nevertheless, the animation remains impeccable and there are more than a few artful touches whether it be a scene of monstrous waves beneath a starlit sky or a gaggle of old ladies rediscovering their youth in an underwater meadow. Too bland for adults, too baffling for the young ones.

Population 436  (Canada 2006) (2):  "Deliverance" meets "The Stepford Wives" by way of "The Village" in this clumsily written bit of stupidity. We've seen "Rockwell Falls" in countless bad horror movies......the suspiciously slack-jawed locals, the TERRIBLE SECRET that everyone refuses to talk about, the meddling outsider who teams up with the local pariah in order to solve the mystery......and MacLaren does nothing to build upon this tired old formula. Then, as if to add insult to injury, he throws in a ludicrous ending with an oh-so-clever little twist that Helen Keller could have seen coming. Jeremy Sisto needs to fire his agent.....and Fred Durst should stick to amateur sex tapes.

Porcile (Italy 1969) (2): The bourgeois son of a crooked German industrialist (and possible war criminal) turns his back on human relationships and finds solace in the hooves of a local pig herd. In a tandem story a medieval loner hones his taste for human flesh, slowly gathering a circle of acolytes in the process. Both eventually come to ruin—the former is (literally) consumed by his passion, the latter gets eaten up by the Catholic church. Painting in strokes far too crude and clumsy for effective satire, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s exercise in poor taste is further hampered by a script weighed down with pretentious chinwagging and a slapdash cinematography which looks as if the cameraman was constantly on the verge of tripping over a cable. When even the actors themselves appear baffled by the lines of doublespeak issuing from their mouths you know a rewrite should have been in the offing. A few nicely composed shots nonetheless as a pair of quarrelling would-be lovers discuss ideologies from opposite sides of an ornate pool, and the volcanic wasteland of 1969’s Teorema is revisited although with far less impact. Tedious.

Porco Rosso (Japan 1992) (7): Set in a quasi-fictitious post WWII Europe where fascist states and flying "seaplane pirates" vie for control of the Mediterranean, Miyazaki's thoroughly charming feature follows the adventures of Porco Rosso--aka The Crimson Pig, aka Marco Rossellini--former ace pilot in the Italian airforce now scraping a living as an airborne bounty hunter. He's also a short, ungracious, moustachioed pig thanks to a strange heavenly encounter. When Rosso's life and livelihood are threatened by an alliance between sky pirates and the corrupt governments who support them it's up to a handful of his quirky friends, led by a very young airplane engineer, to give him the edge he needs in order to win one final showdown... Studio Ghibli has turned out yet another winning combination of old school animation and slightly outlandish storyline with a few piercing observations thrown in for good measure. This time around Miyazaki sets his sights on male chauvinism (it seems Porco is a pig in every sense) so it's no surprise that women play a major role in the story, including that 17-year old engineer whose innocence and wit save the pig in more ways than one. Although it may not be on the same level as Spirited Away or My Neighbour Tortoro, Porco Rosso's bright colours, wonderfully terse dialogue, and nicely realized action sequences...the aerial dogfights are choreographed perfectly while an aside involving truant schoolgirls is pretty funny...are sure to entertain kids of all generations.

Pornografia [Pornography] (Poland 2003) (7): It's 1943 and two Polish intellectuals are whiling away the summer on an idyllic country estate. Bored with their little bourgeois diversions Fryderyk and Witold decide to hedge a bet; can they corrupt the youthful innocence of their host's seemingly angelic daughter, a blonde pig-tailed ingenue engaged to a promising young attorney? At first an amusing game, their attempts to have her fall from grace with the family handyman begin to take on sinister tones leading to a final tragic conclusion. And all the while WWII rages just beyond the rustic gates. Despite its plodding pace and copious amounts of symbolism, this caustic parable possesses a visual flair not often seen in Eastern European cinema. Director Jan Kolski's heightened use of natural elements provides both a dark counterpoint to the film's sunnier moments as well as an ominous foreshadowing; moths wearily circle a kerosene lamp, a midnight storm of biblical proportions flashes violently overhead, and an unseen pack of dogs howl in the woods where Nazis and resistance fighters hunt each other relentlessly. A final coda involving divine retribution and a piercing insight into the black recesses of one man's heart was as powerful as it was unexpected.

Porn Theatre (France 2002) (6):  In the dark auditorium of a dilapidated adult cinema a motley group of men converge for what seems like a weekly ritual. While some sit alone masturbating others engage in a series of fleeting sexual alliances while paying only cursory attention to the images of feigned ecstasy on the screen. And all the while tired old drag queens haunt the aisles like dispirited Muses. The men in Nolot’s theatre exist in a world of illusion and denial…from the closeted basher to the gay man with the fake wedding ring. In the dark they are free to explore the “other half” of their sexuality (the only real woman in the film being the verbose cashier in the ticket booth) yet there is a sad desperation to their shadowy couplings that vanishes as soon as the lights go up (or the cops appear). There is one scene that seems to transcend the film’s inherent pessimism however. We see a burgeoning friendship develop between the cashier, the decidedly hetero projectionist, and an elderly gay man that may or may not lead to some sexually liberating experimentation. But even that is given a sinister twist as we realize that both the woman and the gay man have hidden agendas. Despite having some interesting insights and a novel approach I still found this film problematic. Does the world really need another movie about lonely angst-ridden homosexuals rutting in toilets and dim hallways? Like the vastly superior, “Good-Bye Dragon Inn” Nolot attempts to use the physical space of a movie theatre to explore the ethereal nature of the human spirit. Unfortunately he winds up giving us little more than a sordid peep show filled with wasted opportunities.

The Possession of David O’Reilly
(UK 2010) (6): A surprisingly effective psychological horror romp considering it borrows more than it should from the likes of Blair Witch Project and the Paranormal Activity franchise. Sweethearts Alex and Kate are settling down for a night in front of the telly when Alex’s friend David shows up unannounced. Clearly distraught, David confesses to Alex that he’s just discovered his wife has been cheating on him and he needs a place to crash for a few days while he gets his head straightened out. At first the young couple obliges, but as David’s behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre it is clear there is more going on here than a heartbroken husband. Apparently David is being pursued by things; monstrous decomposing things that slither up driveways, rattle doorknobs, and glare at him from behind darkened windows. Skeptical at first, Alex and Kate gradually begin to question whether their friend’s elaborate delusions may contain a grain of truth especially after Alex thinks he may have glimpsed something in the kitchen. And that’s when the lights go out... There is much to admire here as directors Andrew Cull and Steve Isles ratchet up the tension using tight camera angles within confined spaces; the camera seemingly perched on characters’ shoulders one minute, then drifting off to concentrate on a menacing stairwell or shadowed curtain the next. Their musical score of deep bass and strained chords, punctuated by a few auditory jolts, follows the onscreen action perfectly while the three talented leads trace their descent into group paranoia with gusto. Not willing to give easy answers, Cull and Isles instead drop a few cryptic clues along the way: a simple newspaper becomes a Ouija board, a personal diary hints at madness, and a succession of lurid tabloid clippings threaten to give the whole game away. Some of the narrative devices are tired (oh look, the computer camera recorded...umm....something!) and the chaotic closing scenes, filmed in jerky handheld video, occasionally cross the line between controlled pandemonium and free-for-all screamfest, but there’s no denying a definite sense of tension and dread as things quietly go bump in the night and shadows seem to move just out of the corner of our eye. Of course, as with all these films, suspension of disbelief and a willingness to forgive are mandatory.

Possessor (Canada 2020) (7): Tasya Vos is a most unusual hired assassin. The shady syndicate she works for has the ability to take over people’s minds via forcefully inserted brain implants thus allowing her to use them like a puppet master—they/she committing the murder then covering up any evidence with a convenient suicide. Already hovering on the edge of psychosis thanks to too many assignments (sharing another’s headspace takes its toll) Tasya runs into trouble when she inhabits the body of a man who is not so easily manipulated resulting in a mental tug-of-war and a pile of collateral damage. In his previous film, Antiviral, writer/director Brandon Cronenberg shared something of his father’s predilection for body dysmorphia and physical mutation. This time around he applies that fascination to a psychological landscape with identity fusion and gender-flipping taking on lurid detail as the struggle between his two antagonists gives rise to grotesque images of melting faces, hallucinatory strobes, and coital nightmares. Primarily filmed in shades of blood reds, frozen blues, and jaundiced yellows with macabre flashes of grisly violence and psychosexual gymnastics (gotta love those “unrated” versions) this is not so much a high-tech thriller as it is a non-stop journey through one female sociopath’s disintegration and rebirth as something potentially even more monstrous. And the fact that the “bad guys” are primarily women while the “victims” are mostly men is a detail that does not go unnoticed. Also apparent is Cronenberg’s ambivalence towards technology and its impact on how we’re evolving: a child’s computer-controlled toy automaton suggests wider implications and a billionaire data miner amasses his fortune by peering through people’s webcams to see what kind of consumer goods they’re buying. In the role of Vos, Andrea Riseborough looks like a younger and more psychotic Tilda Swinton—and that’s a good thing. Her intense multi-layered portrayal of an emotional mutant trying to appear normal is at once pathetic (attempts to bond with her estranged husband and son become an exercise in futility) and chilling when her vacuous eyes stare into a mirror and see another’s face. Christopher Abbot does a fine job as the drone Vos tries to bend to her will, his convincing performance going from cooing boyfriend to frantically conflicted killer with no pause in between. And Jennifer Jason Leigh is perhaps the movie’s biggest monster as Tasya’s boss, a soft-spoken pit viper whose reassuring smiles practically drip poison. Sean Bean also appears in a small but crucial role as a wealthy scumbag with a price on his head. Psychedelic passages meant to highlight mental torment could have been trimmed a bit—all those staccato edits and flashing arc lights become repetitious—but it’s a minor flaw in an otherwise transgressive film that haunts rather than shocks, and seduces even as it repels.

Postal (USA/Germany 2007) (7): Director Uwe Boll sets out to offend as many people in as little time as possible in this vulgar attack on all things politically correct. And God bless him! Tired of being accosted by panhandlers, intimidated by corporate slimeballs, and cuckolded by his fat slovenly wife, redheaded “Dude” decides to get even with the world. Teeming up with his sleazy Uncle Dave, the crooked guru of a new age cult which combines the excesses of Branch Davidian with cleavage from the Playboy Mansion, Dude attempts to steal the latest shipment of wildly popular “Krotchy” dolls in order to sell the little penis-shaped toys at an inflated price on eBay. Meanwhile, in another part of Paradise Falls, a local cell of Moslem terrorists have more nefarious plans for the little playthings involving global plague and divine retribution. When the inevitable showdown between the two groups takes place the resulting hail of bullets and flying guts brings tastelessness to a new low. Despite being a rather ham-fisted attempt at satire, it is based on a video game after all, Boll nevertheless succeeds in lampooning some of America’s more endearing quirks. From gun culture and coffee culture to right-wing nut cases and conspiracy theorists, he manages to place all his stereotypes in a row and then blows them away one by one. It begins with an outrageously inappropriate spoof of 9/11, ends with a surprisingly surreal vision of armageddon, and in between we are treated to some very wicked scenes involving Asian drivers, Arab fanatics, black cops, and cheap white trash. Boll himself has a cameo as the proprietor of a nazi-themed amusement park, while guest star Verne Troyer shows off his little electric dildo before being gang-raped by a mob of manic monkeys. George Bush and Osama Bin Laden lookalikes figure prominently, and Canada’s own Dave Foley is shown full frontal scratching his bare balls and taking a dump. It’s crass, sacrilegious, and repugnant to the extreme. Personally I laughed my head off, but don’t blame me if you decide to rent it. You’ve been warned...

The Postman Always Rings Twice (USA 1981) (6):  When a hot-blooded drifter with a criminal past is hired to be the resident mechanic at a truck stop diner it isn’t long before he takes more than a passing notice of the boorish owner’s sexually frustrated young wife.  The two go from smokey stares to punching each other to screwing their brains out within days.  As their affair heats up they soon realize that the only obstacle standing in the way of their happiness is the woman’s husband.  And that’s when the plot thickens...  Despite the authentic 1930’s sets and costumes nothing else rings true in this remake of the 1946 noir classic; the sex scenes, while daring for the time, are stagey and lack any passion while the cast come across as stock characters from a cheap novel...whether it’s the cigar-chomping lawyer, the sleazy insurance agents, or the obsessive lovers themselves.  There is a lack of momentum here that drains the film of any tension and turns what could have been a  dramatic finale filled with irony and divine retribution into a simple tear-jerker.  There is an art to making a noir thriller with just the right amount of eroticism and dark suspense, but Jessica Lange’s torn panties and Jack Nicholson’s trademark leer just didn’t do it for me.

Post Tenebras Lux (Mexico 2012) (5): Carlos Reygadas’ maddeningly opaque stream of consciousness (the title translates as “After Darkness, Light”) starts out with two toddlers having bad dreams. Little Rut dreams she is surrounded by wild animals and big bad wolves during a doomsday lightning storm—actually farm livestock and dogs but the metaphor is clear. Meanwhile, in the bunk above her, Eleazar dreams of a devil complete with horns, tail, and glowing pink skin sauntering into mom and dad’s room with an ominous toolbox in hand. What follows is a series of ruminations—filmed in the box-like Academy ratio with prismatic visual effects—on the struggle between the dark and the light which focuses on a single middle class family: Rut, Eleazar, and their parents Juan and Natalia. Dad is a loving father who is also addicted to porn, given to bouts of violence, and prone to precipitating a row with Maria who often cries alone afterwards. The two kids are a happy admixture of id impulses and clingy dependance, scaling rocks one moment and crying for mommy the next. Moving fluidly back and forth through time we see the two adults in various stylized settings—a boorish dinner party, an AA meeting where Juan insists he doesn’t have a problem, and a European sex spa where Maria is brought to orgasm by a group of eager Frenchmen while Juan looks on impassively. And throughout it all Reygadas struggles to maintain that precarious balance between good and evil, or human kindness vs human foibles if you will, as he highlights the best and the worst in his larger cast of characters amid surreal visions of apocalypse and salvation—a macabre suicide and sanguineous rainstorm on one hand, a sunlit picnic and final embrace played to Neil Young’s “It’s A Dream” on the other. Semi-autobiographical (Rut and Eleazar are actually played by Reygadas’ own kids) and off-putting in its subjectivity (a non-sequitur involving an English boys’ rugby match is thrown in for no other reason that to show that teamwork is a good thing) this is sure to divide audiences despite the fact it netted Reygadas the Best Director award at Cannes. A masterwork of great depth and creativity or the kind of cinematic gobbledygook that wows arthouse crowds too intimidated to question its artistic integrity? Perhaps a more apt title would be Pop-Corn et Prétention.

Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead (USA 2006) (9): When General Lee Roy paves over an ancient Indian burial ground to make room for one of his “American Chicken Bunker” fast food franchises he not only raises the ire of local green activists, but pisses off some drunken spirits as well. However, when a carton of very strange eggs suddenly appears in the kitchen things quickly go from bad to worse and before you can yell “McNugget!” satanic chicken monsters are crawling out of people’s asses, customers are turning into feathered flesh-eating zombies, and the floors are slick with gallons of vomited green ichor. It’s up to the geeky restaurant staff; Denny, Carl Jr., Arby (get it yet?) and Arby’s sometime lesbian girlfriend Wendy, a card-carrying member of “Collegiate Lesbians Against Mega-conglomerations” or C.L.A.M., to make a stand against the clucking hordes of fiendish fowl before they lay waste to America. Where can I possibly begin? It’s a titty teen comedy, a frat house gross-out, and a corporate satire so glaringly awful it’s shameful. On top of that it blatantly rips off everything from Night of the Living Dead and Gremlins to Alien, and Pet Semetery. And it makes you love every moment of it! With its bad puns, stupid one-liners and disgusting sight gags Director Kaufman goes for the jugular but ends up lopping off the entire head instead. Among the film’s low points: a grotesquely obese Jared (supposedly from “Subway” fame) paints an entire bathroom with explosive diarrhea; a hillbilly bones a chicken carcass before being impaled by a broom handle; a crew of possessed waiters use cleavers, meat slicers and a deep fat fryer on unlucky patrons; and a veiled waitress is the butt of enough Moslem jokes to spark a dozen jihads. Even porn legend Ron Jeremy has a brief cameo but manages to keep his own cock under wraps for a change. Crude, rude, disgusting, ignorant, gratuitous, and sure to deeply offend PC types everywhere. And the damn thing’s a musical too! Grade A!

The Power of the Dog (NZ 2021) (8): As sober as a Greek tragedy and just as outrageous, Jane Campion’s piece of Western Gothic—a heady mix of forbidden passion, sibling rivalry, and macabre retribution—slowly unfurls like a clap of divine thunder. In 1920s Montana brothers Phil and George have inherited the family’s highly lucrative cattle ranch, but even though they must work closely together they couldn’t be less alike. Taciturn and truculent, the older Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch, amazing) seems to take great delight in tormenting the younger George (a soft-spoken Jesse Plemons) and his new wife, the widowed Rose (Kirsten Dunst, a study in angst) as well as Rose’s awkwardly effeminate teenaged son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee, utterly convincing). Phil, however, has one huge Achilles’ heel and as his surly attacks on George’s new family intensify it could very well mark the beginning of his own downfall—from a most unexpected source. With the majestic peaks of New Zealand’s Otago region standing in for America’s midwest, Campion has fashioned a biblical parable in which an isolated farmstead becomes a world unto itself haunted by grief and chimeric visions and inhabited by dusty characters whose plain appearances belie their mythological roots. It’s a heady brew for sure, and one which welcomes favourable comparisons to her breakout feature, 1993’s The Piano.

Predestination (USA 2014) (9): A time-travelling cop (Ethan Hawke) is sent back to New York City circa 1975 to thwart a mad bomber who will be responsible for killing thousands of civilians in a January attack. Posing as a bartender while he bides his time he makes the acquaintance of a mysterious young man with an incredible tale to tell—a tale which will lead to a twisted temporal goose chase that gets more baffling at every turn. Time travel paradoxes are a mainstay of science-fiction and in the Spierig brothers’ Gordian knot of a film, based on a short story by sci-fi great Robert Heinlein, they come fast and merciless. As Hawke’s character jumps back and forth through time in pursuit of his elusive quarry, his temporal leaps begin to take their toll on his mental health—apparently psychoses and dementia are not uncommon in his profession—while the taciturn bar patron throws a few ingenious wrenches into the plot and the audience scratches its collective head bloody. Naturally there is a bit of scientific license (a time travel device that fits in a violin case?) and some background information on the furtive X-Files government agency behind the time tampering would have been interesting though hardly germane to the story. But the Spierigs do deliver a rip-roaring head-slapping actioner with far more IQ points than most Saturday night popcorn features—and those clever little clues they toss along the way only reveal themselves in retrospect.

President (Denmark/USA/UK 2021) (8): In 2018 Zimbabwe prepared for its first democratic presidential election since a military coup ousted longtime dictator Robert Mugabe. Throwing his hat in the race was Nelson Chamisa, an idealistic young lawyer fed up with his country’s ongoing economic crisis brought on by decades of violence and government corruption and who, along with his Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) party, was determined to put power back into the hands of the people. Unfortunately he was running against incumbent president and former Mugabe crony Emmerson Mnangagwa, a man who attained his office by force and was determined to keep it using whatever means he felt necessary—legal or outright illegal. Thus faced with an unscrupulous regime whose influence stretched from the army and police to the electoral commission to the courts themselves, Chamisa and his supporters prepared for an uphill battle while the world watched… For this scathing exposé documentarian Camilla Nielsson was granted unprecedented access to Chamisa and the MDC party, following him from one rally to the next as well as recording the intimate minutes of his strategy meetings which started to resemble a war cabinet after Mnangagwa began flexing his political muscle. Unscripted and shot on the fly in true verité style, Nielsson captures the zeitgeist of a country hungry for change yet still shackled by governmental collusion and authoritarian dictates. While the reigning president, convinced he cannot lose, puffs himself up for photo ops and the modest Chamisa campaigns before cheering crowds, Nielsson sets the stage for a very African “David vs Goliath” showdown at the polls—only this particular Goliath seems to hold all the cards. Opening with a charismatic rally before rural villagers and closing with a court challenge that is little more than political theatre, this is an absorbing chronicle of deception and criminality in high places which draws uncomfortable parallels from around the globe.

Pretty in Pink
(USA 1986) (5): One more formulaic teenage fairy tale from John Hughes with the same faces, same dilemmas, and same resolution. Poor girl Andie (Molly Ringwald of course) is just smart enough to graduate from an elite highschool despite being constantly harassed about her funky clothes and introspective ways by the spoiled rich bitches in her class. Her best friend “Duckie” (John Cryer embodying every 80s cliché he can find) is carrying an unrequited torch for her but she only has eyes for uber-yuppie Blane (the perpetually startled Andrew McCarthy). When Blane finally asks her out to the prom Andie feels she has it made until Blane’s slimy friend Steff (James Spader) begins to sow the seeds of doubt—rich boys don’t date poor girls after all. Horribly dated (those clothes! ), predictable from the very start, and crammed with forced sappiness—how do you even find a misty moonlit parking lot in Los Angeles?—this one is strictly for the nostalgia buffs. Co-starring Annie Potts as the wacky girlfriend with the best advice and Harry Dean Stanton as Andie’s gushing father.

Pride (UK 2014) (8): In 1984 the British coal industry was crippled first by the draconian dictates of Margaret Thatcher and secondly by a tumultuous strike by the nation’s miners. Finding similarities between the plight of the miners and the sad state of gay rights in the UK (both parties harassed by the police and demonized by the press) queer activist Mark Ashton began a grass roots fundraising campaign within the gay community aimed at helping unemployed miners and their families. Picking a nondescript town in southern Wales, Ashton and his motley assortment of friends started making cash deliveries but they were ill-prepared for the deeply entrenched homophobia they received from the very people they had set out to help. In the spirit of recent English feel-good movies Matthew Warchus’ effervescent little dramedy, based on actual headlines, milks much warmth and humour from its central theme of two opposing cultures coming to understand one another. The miners are all gruff machismo (although the most hateful voice is female) while the gays react with camp wit despite shaking like fish out of water. There’s all the expected watershed moments you’d expect—someone comes out of the closet, someone gets bashed, AIDS rears its ugly head, and small acts of tolerance lead inexorably toward camaraderie—but the swanning is kept to a believable level and no one is relegated to stock cliché. Of course it never happened exactly this way although the LGSM (“Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners”) did raise thousands of pounds causing hundreds of miners to show their gratitude by marching in London’s 1985 Gay Pride Parade. Hollywood manipulations aside, this charming feature is ultimately lifted from the mainstream by a crackling script and editing that never leaves you sitting idle. And the cast, above all, shines in every frame. A fine piece of humanist filmmaking in which blue collars and pink glitter prove once again that there is strength in solidarity.

Primary Colors (USA 1998) (6): Henry Burton, an idealistic young black man whose grandfather was a civil rights pioneer, joins the campaign team of charismatic southern senator Jack Stanton and his tough-talking wife Susan (John Travolta and Emma Thompson doing an admirable impersonation of the Clintons) as they vie for the democratic presidential nomination. Despite the misgivings of his activist wife Henry takes charge of Stanton’s campaign along with a sleazy advisor (Billy Bob Thornton true to form) and a host of ministerial eccentrics. However, as election time draws nearer Burton’s Great White Hope turns out to be less than perfect as a couple of key marital indiscretions provide stumbling blocks and his “good old boy” persona fails to hold up to close scrutiny. But what’s a political romanticist to do when the opposition proves to be no better or worse? With surprise cameos from the likes of Larry King, Geraldo Rivera, Charlie Rose, and Rob Reiner, Mike Nichols’ droll comedy could have been a scathing satire on Washington politicos and the art of spinning the truth. He instead opts for the myth of “honesty on the campaign trail” halfway through and turns it all into a shamelessly gushing paean to apple pie patriotism bursting with Old Glory and cascades of red, white, and blue balloons. At least Larry Hagman is convincing as Stanton’s humble adversary with a tarnished past and Kathy Bates steals every scene in her Oscar-nominated role as a psychologically unbalanced investigator whose own 70’s idealism is sorely tested after she’s hired by Stanton to protect his image. Good for a few laughs and a whole lot of soul-crushing irony when you consider what’s haunting the Oval Office in 2017.

Prime Cut (USA 1972) (7): “Mary Ann” (Gene Hackman), the crooked owner of a Kansas City slaughterhouse, is not above siphoning profits into personal bank accounts and auctioning off sex slaves on the side. But when he runs afoul of the Chicago mob they send their number one enforcer Nick Devlin (Lee Marvin) to have a chat with him. The trouble is, every enforcer they’ve sent thus far has wound up dead in very unpleasant ways (mobster sausage?!)…will Devlin be any different? Fresh from his Oscar-winning performance as a straight and narrow cop in The French Connection, Hackman once again displays his acting prowess this time playing a trigger-tempered sociopath with a winning smile and a small army of redneck henchmen. Marvin, meanwhile, is his usual cool and sexy alpha with eyes that could melt lead and a voice that rumbles like a small earthquake. You just know that when these two veterans finally clash there’s going to be bullets, blood, and gut punches all around, and director Michael Ritchie certainly delivers the goods with macho posturing and a grand finale involving runaway trucks and a field of sunflowers. From the big hair and slinky fashions to the “burnt orange” furniture and sculpted wall-to-wall carpeting this is pure 70s kitsch preserved in all its glory—a whiff of nostalgia for some, a terribly dated time capsule for others. But the action sequences still hold up—ever see a car get eaten by a combine?—and the film’s sheer star power propels it past a script rife with genre clichés and a dash or two of humour (a visit to a county fair is pure Rockwell Americana, only with guns). Gregory Walcott co-stars as Hackman’s dim-witted hulk of a brother; model turned actress Angel Tompkins throws herself into the role of Mary Ann’s sluttish wife with shameless abandon; and a 23-year old Sissy Spacek makes her big screen debut as an unwilling member of Mary Ann’s female herd, a goggle-eyed naif whose daddy issues has her falling for Devlin’s sexy charms despite the fact he’s more than twice her age. Even Marvin had a problem with that particular twist.

Prince of the City (USA 1981) (6): Despite the sloppy editing, murky plot lines, and a terrible performance from leading man Treat Williams, Sidney Lumet’s tale of one well-meaning police officer’s fall from grace, based on Robert Daley’s novel, still gets its multiple points across. Even though he’s not above a little graft and perjury himself in the course of his duties, NYPD narcotics detective Daniel Ciello (Williams) still considers himself to be one of the “good ones”. So when he’s asked by the DA’s office to aid in their ongoing investigation of police corruption he’s torn between his loyalty to his friends on the force and a conscience grown heavy by years of looking the other way. Ultimately his decision to cooperate with the feds will come at a tremendous price both personal and professional… Clocking in at almost three hours Lumet gives us lots to ponder beginning with the almost unbreakable code of silence which exists between officers—a sense of “us against them” underlined in various dramatic ways as Ciello rages against a system in which cops are shackled by the same laws which allow perpetrators to sidestep justice (often, ironically, with the aid of crooked officers). Furthermore, as Ciello becomes more involved in the investigation he begins to realize he’s little more than a pawn being used by lawyers and politicians to further their own agendas—he’s certainly passed around from one suit to another with such regularity it bogs down the story with enough surplus characters to make a separate movie. Ultimately Lumet tries to keep too many balls in the air simultaneously, from Daniel’s strained marriage to his shifting allegiances to a baffling side story involving a mobster cousin, that the film begins to lose momentum through sheer overload. And Williams’ ham-fisted portrayal hearkens back to the worst of William Shatner’s Star Trek days as he mopes and screeches, wrings his hands and punches out, and generally emotes as if he thought this was a silent film and his voice didn’t count. Not sure if the Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay was warranted, but Williams’ “Stinkers Bad Movie Awards” nomination for worst actor should have been a shoo-in.

Prisoner of the Mountains (Russia 1996) (6): The waste and woe of war is encapsulated in Sergei Bodrov’s Oscar-nominated film, itself drawing inspiration from a short story by Leo Tolstoy. During the Chechen conflict two mismatched Russian soldiers—Sacha, a hardened cynic and Vanya, a timid pacifist—are taken prisoner by a village chieftain who intends to use them as hostages in order to free his son from prison. Despite the wishes of the other villagers who simply want to execute them, Abdul cares for the shackled men as best he can and as the days pass a curious dynamic takes place which sees Sacha and Vanya bonding while Dina, Abdul’s adolescent daughter, becomes increasingly conflicted when her fondness for Vanya begins to interfere with her father’s plans. Shot in Dagestan, not more than twenty miles from the actual front lines, Bodrov’s anti-war plea is told in a series of breathtaking shots which make the most of the area’s bare dusty mountains—going from dizzying overhead pans to ground level scenes of toiling villagers dancing and harvesting while Russian bureaucrats snarf down caviar and try to maintain order in the midst of chaos. The performances are impeccable, especially thirteen-year old newcomer Susanna Mekhraliyeva as the doe-eyed Dina, a young beauty whose character exudes a spirited mix of childish curiousity and mature resolve. A meeting between Abdul and Vanya’s mother, who traveled from Russia to plead for her son’s life, crackles with unspoken tensions and Vanya’s handmade gift to Dina—a wooden crane in flight—makes a subtle allusion to Kalatozov’s 1957 B&W classic. But Bodrov downplays everything to the point of stasis with the two Russians' verbal sparring little more than jock talk and a series of sad twists never really digging beneath the film’s surface.

The Prisoner of Zenda (USA 1937) (6): Of all the screen adaptations based on Anthony Hope’s novel this one, directed by John Cromwell, is considered by some to be the best. When the future king of an Eastern European country (Ronald Colman) is drugged into a temporary coma on the eve of his coronation by his jealous half-brother Michael (Raymond Massey) who wishes to steal the crown for himself, his loyal aides enlist the help of visiting Englishman Rudolf Rassendyll (also Ronald Colman) who, being a distant cousin to the royal family, bears an uncanny resemblance to the indisposed monarch. Temporarily standing in for the real king so that the coronation can proceed, Rudolf manages to fool everyone thanks to some prompting from the palace aides, but the royal ruse is threatened with exposure when the real king is kidnapped by Michael’s henchman (Douglas Fairbanks Jr. despicably suave) and Rudolf falls for Princess Flavia (Madeleine Carroll) the king’s intended fiancée. A swashbuckler whose twin Oscar nominations for musical score and art direction were well earned—the string section alone is enough to make you lean forward in your seat while magnificent castle interiors are highlighted by a crane shot over a sprawling ballroom and the candlelit shadows of two sword fighters looming large across a dungeon wall. But Colman was already too old to play a dashing romantic lead and the movie’s ham-fisted theatrics too often go over the top with exaggerated performances that hearken back to the silent film era—Massey scowls and hisses, Fairbanks sneers and strikes a pose, and Colman and Carroll threaten to bring down the palace with a cringeworthy scene of weepy embraces. Genre classic or overbaked melodrama? Definitely the former even though it contains too much of the latter for my particular tastes.

Prisoners (USA 2013) (5): When Keller Dover’s little daughter Anna and her best friend Joy Birch go missing right after Thanksgiving it proves devastating to both sets of parents. But when the police let their prime suspect, Alex Jones—a taciturn recluse with the mind of a ten-year old—go free for lack of evidence it causes Keller, already an ardent “survivalist”, to go full throttle vigilante. Kidnapping Alex in order to extract a confession, Keller’s violent zeal eventually infects Joy’s otherwise pacifist parents. Meanwhile Detective Loki, the officer investigating the girls’ disappearance, is facing roadblocks of his own both professional and personal as his inquiries lead him to a defrocked priest, a desiccated corpse, and a hooded stalker with a penchant for petite size fashions… Thanks to Roger Deakins’ Oscar-nominated cinematography Denis Villeneuve’s moody whodunnit at least looks good with leaden skies hailing down sleet and wisps of ice fog drifting through a leafless forest. Unfortunately it all falls apart under the weight of its own gravitas as the director, so eager to convey a message, throws in red herrings, clever-clever clues, and serpentine twists which seem more concerned with highlighting his protagonists’ demons rather than presenting a logical policer. Keller’s bravado is covering up his feelings of impotence; his wife is surrounded by prescription bottles; the Birches’ moral compass is spinning; and Loki is dealing with memories of the childhood trauma he himself suffered. Wow, it seems Anna and Joy are not the only prisoners here and Villeneuve fills every frame with intrusive images of angels and dangling crosses, stately stags and hastily whispered prayers just to make sure we understand there is a spiritual dimension at work beneath all the angry hysterics. As Loki, Jake Gyllenhaal is a conflicted mix of clinical cop and pained participant which never quite rings true while Viola Davis and Terence Howard have better luck as the Birches, their raw suffering providing the film with some much needed ballast. Even Melissa Leo’s small but pivotal role as Alex’s aunt, a woman who has already seen too much pain, is almost enough to fill in a few potholes. But in the role of Keller, Hugh Jackman’s raging ball of male machismo is just too much to bear as he bellows and smashes his fists into whatever is handy—I kept waiting for Wolverine’s knives to sprout from his knuckles. In the end, an otherwise sterling thriller is undone by Jackman's stagy emoting and a string of closing solutions which pushed the envelope a bit too far.

Private Fears in Public Places (France 2006) (7): A real estate broker is infatuated with his devoutly Christian secretary, a situation exacerbated when she unintentionally sends him a very mixed message. She, meanwhile, moonlights as a caregiver for a miserable old man whose not-quite-available adult son has caught her attention. Elsewhere in the city a frustrated woman has answered dozens of singles' ads with the same disappointing results and a bickering couple are discovering that falling out of love can be just as emotionally complex as falling in. With a winter storm settling over Paris these six lonely hearts will intersect and diverge in random ways leading to a possible lifeline for some and a sad confirmation for others… Obstructions figure prominently in Alain Resnais’ adaptation of Alan Ayckbourn’s play—screens, walls, and curtains always seem to crop up between characters while windows look out onto frosted streets where the snow offers both a fairy tale sheen and a blast of cold reality. In several scenes a swank hotel bar, all gilded in fiery neon, provides the perfect metaphor with its passionate veneer only accentuating the despondency of its key patrons, and in one clever twist Resnais actually moves the snowstorm indoors. Secrets also weigh heavily with one person crippled by a past mistake, another lamenting a dead lover, and a third satisfying their repressed libido in the only way they know how. But despite its comedic elements this is by no means a romantic film where everything falls together neat and tidy in the final reel for love and yearning don’t always work that way, a fact which the 84-year old Resnais was well aware of. Although marred by some sloppy editing and rather clunky religious asides the film is shored up by a fine cast—an awkward first date is embarrassingly accurate—and a script whose honesty and wit manage to survive translation. And Resnais juggles these fragile stories with care allowing encounters and missed opportunities alike to flow naturally across the screen. A poignant statement on contemporary disconnect perhaps best summed up by Mick Jagger almost forty years before it was made: “You can’t always get what you want…”

The Private Life of Don Juan (UK 1934) (8): An aging lothario in 18th century Spain discovers his reputation has taken on a life of its own in Alexander Korda’s pointed comedy which softens its many barbs with moments of broad farce. Hounded by his loving yet pragmatic wife and riddled with debt, infamous ladies’ man Don Juan attempts to hide out in Seville but it isn’t long before word of his presence spreads faster than a dose of clap. Now greyer in the hair and with quite a few more wrinkles—though no more wiser—the great lover who once left a swath of satisfied women and cuckolded husbands in his wake finds himself competing with an exuberant imposter trying to cash in on his reputation plus the dawning realization that the savvy females of Seville are more in lust with the legend of Don Juan rather than the tired middle-aged man he’s become—even his surefire pick-up lines have now grown stale. Douglas Fairbanks dominates the screen in the title role, his comic timing and expressive features lampooning his previous roles as a swashbuckling man’s man and Merle Oberon keeps pace as a smitten nightclub dancer…her castanets hammering away like a telltale heart. Risqué for the time, Korda takes great delight in making oblique references to such taboo subjects as adultery, orgies, female sexuality, and male impotence—were the censors even awake?—while at the same time injecting a bit of sympathy for a formerly virile bed-hopper now struggling to accept the fact that he’s going to seed (one intended conquest ruins the mood after she takes to him like a father figure). When a misunderstanding leads the town to believe Don Juan has died the resulting “funeral” is a brilliant satire of grieving mistress wannabes and Korda mines comedy gold when a playwright decides to turn the “deceased” horndog’s life into a fanciful stage play whose opening night doesn’t quite go off as planned. If only he had been able to see this film beforehand I’m sure Mozart would have written a very different opera…(wink wink).

The Private Life of Henry VIII (UK 1933) (9): As one of cinema’s quintessential Tudors, Charles Laughton alternately bellows and coos (and burps and belches) his way towards a well deserved best actor Oscar in this surprisingly frank historical romp. Starting with the execution of his second wife Ann Boleyn (an intensely moving Merle Oberon) and carrying on through to doddering old age and wife number six, Alexander Korda’s early talkie makes up for its rather modest sets with opulent location shots, intricate costumes, and a marvelous script that goes from courtly formalities to bawdy innuendo in a heartbeat. The cast is in top-notch form including the appropriately dashing Robert Donat as Thomas Culpepper, the man who cuckolded Henry with wife number five. But as the crafty Anne of Cleves, the fourth wife who not only managed to rid herself of Henry but acquired a small fortune and kept her head in the bargain, Elsa Lanchester is priceless. Presented as a toned down mix of royal bad boy, artful statesmen, and perpetually lovesick bachelor, Henry’s blustery rants and clever bon mots betray a man whose crown weighs a little heavier with each passing year as personal desires and demands of the realm seem to be at odds more often than not. Despite a comparatively meagre budget (the castle interiors are mostly limited to a few whitewashed chambers) Korda nevertheless offers some inspired visuals as when a raucous crowd gathers for yet another execution or wrestlers cast splayed shadows across an immense tapestry. Even though more pedantic scholars may balk at the film’s bit of historical license this is still a hugely entertaining picture from filmdom’s burgeoning golden age.

Private Romeo (USA 2011) (4): With their commanding officers and most of the student body away on manoeuvres, a handful of impressionable cadets find themselves with plenty of time to study, work out, and read passages of Romeo and Juliet to each other in English class. However, over the course of a few days, the spirit of Shakespeare’s tragedy begins to manifest itself in real time as the young men go from quoting the play to living it, and a pair of star-crossed gay lovers slowly emerge much to the consternation of their peers. I appreciate it when a filmmaker takes a risk and writer/director Alan Brown’s decision to place the fair streets of Verona within the hallways of a military academy did lead to some interesting modifications: Romeo’s confrontation with Tybalt takes place on a basketball court, the famous balcony scene plays out in a moonlit dormitory, and the lovers deliver their climactic embraces atop a classroom desk. With handheld camera shots, tinkling piano passages, and a palette that goes from drab khaki to romantic technicolor there is a definite air of experimentation to his work. But his cast of giggling club boys trip over the Bard’s badly edited prose with neither conviction nor comprehension while a poorly reimagined finale ignores Shakespeare’s original intent thus robbing the production of any dramatic sting. Furthermore, the inclusion of some music video non-sequiturs left me scratching my head and the end credits sequence featuring a baby-faced private “Juliet” crooning “You Made Me Love You” to the camera was just plain corny. Not even the cast of Glee would stoop this low.

Project Nim (UK 2011) (7): In 1974 a newborn chimpanzee at an Oklahoma primate compound was forcibly taken from its mother and whisked off to Columbia University as part of an ill-planned and poorly executed experiment. “Nim” was to be raised as a human child in the household of Stephanie and Wer LaFarge—presumably learning human interaction skills and picking up American Sign Language (ASL) in the process. The goal was to test the “Nature vs Nurture” hypothesis and see whether or not meaningful interspecies communication was even possible. Fraught with personal and academic conflicts almost from the start, “Project Nim” went through a series of upheavals until a combination of funding problems and Nim’s aggressively emerging adolescence derailed it altogether. Despite amassing an impressive ASL vocabulary which allowed him to carry on simple conversations with his handlers and despite the dedication of a few staff members, Nim never garnered much attention with the public aside from a Newsweek article and “interview” with Dr. David Suzuki. Now, with this documentary, James Marsh uses talking heads, film footage, and a few well staged re-enactments (à la Errol Morris) to finally tell the story of the little monkey who (almost) could, and the mixed bag it engenders ranges from cuddly youtube-like clips to heartbreak and outrage over the human egotism and myopic research models that plagued the years-long experiment. “We exploited Nim’s humanlike characteristics…” confesses one former staffer, “…while disregarding his chimpanzee nature.” A sad, perhaps cautionary tale of science overstepping ethical boundaries to garner results which were ultimately questionable at best, criminal at worst. As an ironic aside, human actor Peter Elliott donned a chimp costume for some of the re-enactments.

Prometheus (USA 2012) (6): In the latter part of the 21st century a team of archaeologists uncover tantalizing evidence that extraterrestrials have periodically visited Earth in order to oversee our development. From ancient Egyptian carvings to neolithic Scottish cave paintings, the team discovers eerily similar depictions of tall beings pointing towards a distant planetary system while men kneel reverently before them. Lured by the possibility of contacting these ancient "Engineers" the crew of the starship "Prometheus", backed by an aging industrialist, head towards this alien home world. Upon arriving at their destination, an earth-like moon circling a ringed gas giant, the crew discover enormous ruins filled with mysterious clues, grave enigmas, and an unexpected malevolence. It would appear that the Engineers were not quite the altruistic benefactors our ancestors made them out to be and the earth crew's sudden appearance may very well herald our own destruction. With its strong use of mythological archetypes and heavy religious overtones, including an obscure reference to Christ, this tepid prequel to the hugely successful "Alien" franchise plays more like a bungled creation myth than a straightforward sci-fi thriller. Indeed, elements of the Hindu trinity figure prominently from the very first scene as we witness a mystifying Alien ritual atop a primordial waterfall. The ruins themselves bear a striking resemblance to ancient temples, but why are they filled with skeletal remains and casks of organic ooze? Director Ridley Scott avoids too many overt explanations, often at the expense of narrative cohesiveness, and instead drops just enough hints to allow us to figure it out for ourselves. Of course for those who prefer not to dwell too much on a film's deeper meaning there are plenty of ultra hip techno marvels (the robotic "mapping hounds" were especially cool), awesome CGI effects, and lots of explosions in gloriously overdone 3D, while the sensuously organic sets, inspired by original "Alien" artist H. R. Giger, are amazing. Sadly however, despite its lofty spiritual aspirations the film is just too full of unrealistic plot devices and contrived drama to be taken seriously; a side story involving a sinister robot on a mission goes beyond cliché. It's as if the writers started out with a decent premise and then padded it with so much Hollywood razzle-dazzle in order to attract a more lucrative demographic of popcorn munchers. Marvellously presented, mildly challenging, poorly written.

Promises! Promises! (USA 1963) (2): Jayne Mansfield’s tits are the only high points in this cheesy, insipid and completely unfunny high seas sex comedy. Sandy Brooks is determined to become pregnant while on a round-the-world cruise with Jeff, her bookish husband. Unfortunately not only is Jeff’s libido deep-sixed but, unbeknownst to Sandy, he is also sterile thanks to an adolescent bout of mumps. In the cabin next door are the Brooks’ good friends, hunky actor King Banner and his wife Claire, also dealing with baby issues of their own. When Jeff seeks help from the ship’s doctor he’s given a few samples of what he believes to be a powerful aphrodisiac/fertility drug (actually just plain aspirin dispensed with a great deal of hype). Hilarity supposedly ensues as Jeff accidentally doses King, Claire doses herself, and everybody wakes up pregnant. Virtually everything in this farce falls flat; the acting is horrible, the jokes are stale, and the frothy little musical numbers will make you want to heave ho. Furthermore, Mansfield’s infamous nude scenes are silly, repetitious and blatantly gratuitous; small wonder they were later made into a Playboy spread. And as if all that wasn’t enough there are a couple of stock characters thrown into the mix which serve no purpose whatsoever, especially “Babette” the gay hairdresser with a penchant for wigs who provides some tired old queer clichés. Despite the wonderfully kitschy artwork and a few nice theatrical touches involving split screens and overlapping dialogue I still found myself praying for an iceberg. Alas, it never came.

Proof (USA 2005) (6): Robert Llewellyn (Anthony Hopkins) was a brilliant mathematician and professor until a deteriorating mental condition ended his career. Now, on the eve of his funeral, his 27-year old daughter Catherine (Gwyneth Paltrow), a promising academic herself, is facing a number of crises which threaten to overwhelm her. Having put her own aspirations on hold for the past five years in order to care for dad she’s not quite sure how to reboot herself; Harold, one of her father’s grad students (Jake Gyllenhaal), is showing an interest in her which may or may not be genuine, and she’s terrified that she may have inherited the same condition which led to her father’s madness. Finally, just to make matters more dire, her overbearing sister Claire (Hope Davis) has breezed in from New York intent on uprooting Catherine and selling the family home. John Madden’s screen adaptation of David Auburn’s multiple-award winning play is a mixed bag of intense character studies which toy with notions of memory, reality, and interpersonal dynamics as Catherine slowly reconnects with the world of the living. Her deep bond with Robert is revealed through flashbacks and the sporadic waking dream while the antagonistic sparring with her sister and ambivalent attraction to Harold take place in the ice cold here and now. And throughout it all the vagaries of life find a lukewarm metaphor in reams of mathematical formulae—especially one groundbreaking treatise discovered in her father’s desk drawer yet of questionable authorship. Is she losing her mind? Or is she simply adapting to the everyday insanity of living (certainly those banal television snippets suggest the latter). Paltrow does a fine job portraying a brilliant young woman trying to steer her own course despite being blindsided by grief, guilt, and a touch of clinical depression, and Hopkins is all fireworks and obsessive passion in an unwavering performance that provides counterpoint to Paltrow’s own reticence. But Gyllenhaal's puppy-eyed schoolboy doesn’t quite convince as a math prodigy-cum-love interest and Davis’ bossy big sister sometimes plays out like Mommie Dearest only without the claws and fangs. A complex psychodrama that occasionally runs in circles (c’mon Catherine, chin up already) but is saved by a lucid script and a firm directorial hand which keeps things from sliding into pure melodrama.

The Proposition (Australia/UK 2005) (9):  In the searing Australian outback of the 1800s police captain Stanley (Ray Winstone a million miles away from Nil By Mouth) has just captured two members of the brutal Burns gang--sullen Charlie (Guy Pearce) and his halfwit brother Mikey.  But Stanley is really after oldest brother Arthur (Danny Huston) a psychopathic madman responsible for a string of atrocities who has so far managed to elude the authorities.  Striking a bargain with his captives Stanley promises to grant them both pardons if Charlie will hunt down his brother and bring him to justice.  But one does not make a deal with the devil so easily and Stanley's decision to bend the law will exact a horrendous price.  With a screenplay by Nick Cave, known for his dark and moody song lyrics, director John Hillcoat draws on Old Testament allegory and Zen mysticism to deliver a languorous waking nightmare combining all the moral ambiguity of a John Ford production with the dreamlike artistry of Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock.  Filmed in hellish shades of ochre and crimson with a soundtrack of whispered ballads, this is a three-handed morality tale pitting captain Stanley's troubled sense of ethics against Charlie Burns' personal code of honour and the local magistrate's lust for bloody retribution.  And, as if to highlight the film's sense of light and darkness (sunsets and sunrises figure heavily), Arthur Burns' naked savagery provides a polar contrast to the naive innocence of Stanley's wife Martha (Emily Watson), a good Christian woman who fusses over teapots and is only dimly aware of the evil that lies beyond her immaculate white picket fence.  A visually stunning film whose flashes of sadistic violence are balanced by heavy silences and the occasional lapse into arty prose only serves to heighten its sense of the ethereal.

Psycho Goreman (Canada 2020) (2): Much like their parents, Luke and his kid sister Mimi couldn’t be more unalike—he’s a wimpy wuss and she’s an obnoxious little bitch (one of the most irritating child performances you’re likely to see in this lifetime). However, the power imbalance between them gets even bigger when the two siblings accidentally release a galaxy-destroying warlord who was imprisoned on Earth and Mimi comes to possess a magical crystal capable of controlling him. Now forced to obey her commands, the monstrous alien nicknamed “Psycho Goreman” by Mimi (or “PG” for short) endures one childish humiliation after another—but Goreman’s release has triggered alarm bells throughout the cosmos and a fleet of powerful beings are on their way to Luke and Mimi’s backyard for a final showdown between good and evil….but mostly evil. Writer/director Steven Kostanski’s no-budget salute to the ‘80s B-Movie certainly contains enough cheesy blood ’n guts effects to elicit one or two chuckles and the imaginative costumes and make-up look as if an episode of Power Rangers had been crossed with Pee-Wee's Playhouse and a Gwar concert—there’s a mechanical brain in a jar, what looks like a washing machine filled with entrails, and PG himself looks like a low-rent version of The Creeper from Jeepers Creepers. Unfortunately the sketchy production values and uniformly horrendous acting make it too godawful to be an homage while the glut of lame sight gags and stupid dad jokes doesn’t even raise it to the level of kitschy spoof. But it was when the director decided to treat us to a Scooby-Doo musical montage of PG and the kids hangin’ out and being silly that I started pounding the Fast Forward button. And the final nail was an insufferable turn from Nita-Josée Hanna as Mimi who gave a ham-fisted performance so bad it practically begged for a Razzie award. And to think I was actually starting to reconsider my poor opinion of English-Canadian cinema…

PVC-1 (Columbia 2007) (10): After a middle class home invasion fails to net them the small fortune they had been hoping for, a group of ruthless thieves fasten a remote controlled pipe bomb around the neck of the family matriarch. With only a few hours in which to gather up fifteen million pesos before the bomb explodes the woman begins a nightmarish cross-country trek, accompanied by her distraught husband and eldest daughter, to find someone in authority who can remove the device and save her life. And all the while the pipe around her neck continues to beep… Shot in real time using one continuous take writer/director Spiros Stathoulopoulos delivers one of the most devastatingly suspenseful tales I have seen in years especially considering it was based on an actual case. With nothing but natural sounds and a whirling camera he dogs his characters through forests and across rivers before planting them in the middle of an isolated village where a final deadly gambit had me biting my nails right up until the film’s last few seconds. An excellent cast keeps the action teetering on the edge of hysteria and a spare yet solid script doesn’t offer any respite despite a few flashes of mordant humour when the police “bomb squad” arrives and a crowd begins to gather. Despite one puzzling paramedic scene that came across as superfluous the rest of the film is a study in torturing your audience and making them love you for it. Bravo!

The Quake (Norway 2018) (7): So you can essentially take my review for 2015’s The Wave and replace “tsunami” with “earthquake” to get an idea of what this Scandinavian disaster movie is all about. Once again neurotic geologist Kristian Eikjord (Kristoffer Joner looking like a homeless Jesus), still suffering with PTSD from the tidal wave fiasco three years ago, sees a troubling pattern in the seismic activity around Oslo. His suspicions are given some credence when a few small tremblers rattle windows, power lines go off the grid, and rats start behaving badly. But will the authorities listen to his dire warnings before the BIG ONE hits? And will he be able to save his now estranged wife and two kids yet again? Superior to the first movie in every way, director John Andreas Andersen keeps the sentimental treacle and eye-rolling stretches to a minimum and instead builds the tension one tremor at a time until he practically splits the screen with a grand climax that sees city streets buckling and skyscrapers falling like dominos. And that big family crisis—high atop the slanting skeleton of a once luxury hotel—is pure nail-biting cinema. A shot of theatrical adrenaline that had me hooked right from the very first rockslide and left me wondering how Fantefilm Studios will destroy Norway next. How about a kick ass volcano right in the middle of Trondheim?!

Quantum of Solace (UK 2008) (7): Picking up where Casino Royale left off, this second instalment of EON productions’ James Bond saga sees a haggard Daniel Craig hot on the trail of “Quantum”, a multinational shadow organization with wicked plans to control the planet by controlling what we value most. It is far from business as usual however for this time around Bond, still grieving over his lost love, is driven by a very personal vendetta which puts him at cross purposes with not only his own superior (Judi Dench as “M”), but a pair of ruthless CIA operatives as well. Of course the rather twisty plot takes a back seat to all the flash-bang-crash special effects starting off with a deadly car chase through northern Italy then proceeding to a parkour trek across the rooftops of Siena, a fiery maritime pursuit in Haiti, and a breathtaking aerial dogfight over a South American desert. Craig’s 007 is a sometimes off-putting but always watchable blend of iron-fisted determination and psychopathic nightmare as he kills and screws his way towards the film’s final sequence of gunfire and pyrotechnics, his ice cold stare and haunted countenance enough to make Sean Connery and Roger Moore’s incarnations soil their impeccably tailored suits. But if the comic book escapades bypass credibility the film’s underlying message of ecological devastation and government complicity (the CIA gets a big black eye and even Canada’s own CSIS is reduced to a one-night stand) tints all those screeching brakes and awesome explosions with a weighty cynicism—in fact the murder of one unfortunate character is a very apropos rehash from 1964’s Goldfinger. The opening credits rocked too.

The Quare Fellow (Ireland 1962) (8): Patrick McGoohan is superb as Thomas Crimmen, a rookie prison guard whose naive views on crime and punishment are severely tested when he becomes involved with the wife of a condemned murderer. At first content in his belief that justice always prevails and laws always protect the innocent, he is paired up with Mr. Regan, a 17-year veteran and former political prisoner whose first-hand experiences with capital punishment have caused him to lose faith in a legal system which condones killing within prison walls even as it denounces the act of murder itself. At first puzzled by the older man’s cynicism, it isn’t until the wife of the death-row inmate, the quare fellow of the title, comes to him personally with evidence that may save her husband from the gallows that he finds himself having to face some extremely uncomfortable truths. Arthur Dreifuss’ sharply focused B&W film, based on the play by Brendan Behan, paints a grim picture of the Irish penal system circa 1950’s. It is a warren of petty corruption and gross inequality while both church and state look on with blank indifference; as one man has his death sentence commuted thanks to some influential friends another, in desperate need of psychiatric attention, is given a Holy Card and a few empty platitudes instead. Strategically placed religious paintings add a bleak irony to the story while the prison’s steel bars seem to extend beyond its walls and into the nearby town. It soon becomes apparent that each character is trapped within their own private cell whether due to the harsh dictates of social conformity or the blind demands of governmental bureaucracy. Finally, the ethicality of the hangman’s noose itself is scrutinized from all sides, by jailors, townsfolk and inmates alike, and found wanting. Indeed, in one scene the very presence of the notorious rope causes a near riot in a neighbourhood pub. As in the stage production, the face of the prisoner in question is never seen thereby turning him into a true everyman figure who comes to represent far more than one frightened and lonely convict. Controversial for its time, The Quare Fellow is still a bold and absorbing drama four decades later.

Quartet (UK 2012) (7): Dustin Hoffman proves he’s almost as talented a director as he is an actor in this mild British comedy about the transcendent power of music. The elderly residents of Hammond House, an opulent retirement home for aging musicians, are getting ready to stage a gala fundraiser to celebrate Verdi’s birthday. There’s more at stake than simple showmanship however, for their home has fallen on difficult financial times and the monies raised from this event will help keep the taxman at bay. Unfortunately a wrench is thrown into the works with the arrival of Jean Horton (the brilliant Maggie Smith), a former diva extraordinaire who once packed opera houses worldwide and is now reduced to a penniless yet indomitably proud old woman. Her entrance proves to be too much for longtime resident Reginald Paget whose heart she once broke decades earlier, and the friction between the two begins to affect everyone around them. But Cedric, the feisty octogenarian in charge of directing the upcoming musical soirée, wants to use Jean’s fading star power to boost ticket sales through the roof—-if only he and the others can help her overcome a most terrible case of stage fright. Reginald, in the meantime, begins to realize that his feelings for Jean have never really gone away… With a cast of well seasoned actors (many of the film’s extras are actually retired singers and musicians) and a poignant script which strives to tread that fine line between realism and treacle, Hoffman serves up a “feel good” movie which celebrates the autumn years of those who dedicated their lives to their craft without glossing over some of the harsher truths of aging: the regrets over paths not taken, the loss of independence, and the multiple physical humiliations inflicted by time. After all, as one wrinkled diva fighting the effects of senility puts it: “Growing old is not for sissies.” Although the story does occasionally dip towards schmaltz, Hoffman manages to keep things afloat (with Bill Connolly’s lecherous old gentleman providing some much needed earthiness) while pastoral scenes of rolling gardens and polished bannisters are beautifully enhanced by an operatic score of drifting arias and chamber pieces. A swan song in every sense of the word.

Le Quattro Volte (Italy 2010) (10): It is a rare thing indeed when such a small film manages to pack such a metaphysical wallop—throwing together elements of theology, mortality, and the whole circle of life with the ease of an old man untying his shoelaces. Shot around a medieval village nestled in the hills of Calabria, director Michelangelo Frammartino’s silent meditation on the nature of everything is free of dialogue relying instead on pastoral landscapes and the shuffling quotidian pace of the people and animals who inhabit it. An aging shepherd struggles to tend his flock, a tree is felled, a goat is born, and everywhere are scenes of religious devotion commingling with pagan ritual yielding results sometimes comical (a dressy Easter pageant goes awry), sometimes oddly moving (the old man tries to cure his ills by drinking water mixed with sweepings from the chapel floor). Bookended by two crucial scenes of fiery transformation Michelangelo presents his audience with three little deaths, each one subtly connected to the others, giving the impression of an unbroken cycle of life and rebirth stretching from past to future. It is this transient nature of existence that saturates every frame of his remarkable opus and Frammartino captures it all with the eye of a poet, filming light reflecting off dust motes as they settle on a church altar with the same solemnity as he does a dying man taking his final breath. And in one amazing eight-minute take he pans significantly up and down a rustic road while a yapping border collie proceeds to steal the show. Le Quattro Volte translates as “The Four Turns” and where those divisions lie is cunningly implied. Gentle and unassuming yet presented with the mastery of an oil painting, this is one picture that comes pretty close to being perfect.

Queen & Slim (USA/Canada 2019) (4): Slim, a devout Christian man who always strives to see the good in people, and Queen, a fledgling lawyer who concentrates mainly on the bad, are on their way home after a disastrous first date when Slim’s car is pulled over for a minor driving infraction. The behaviour of the officer, at first just brusque, swiftly escalates into violent antagonism leading to a struggle in which Slim accidentally kills him. Surely a clear-cut case of self-defense—but this is Ohio, the officer was white, and Queen and Slim are black. Convinced they’ll never be believed in court, the two take off on a road trip straight down America’s racial divide with one side lauding them as heroes of the new Civil Rights struggle and the other convinced their racial biases were correct all along. And therein lies the fatal flaw of director Melina Matsoukas’ first foray into motion picture territory. In her eagerness to point a glaring torchlight at institutionalized racism she sacrifices depth and subtlety (and narrative logic) in favour of a series of abject lessons on intolerance. While stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith do spark some onscreen chemistry, each character they encounter becomes little more than a soapbox: there’s Queen’s pimp uncle and his stable of sullen ‘ho’s who present African American empowerment as an impotent charade; the black mechanic who finds comfort in the status quo; the indignant youth who feels imitation is the sincerest form of flattery; a store clerk who practically embodies gun culture; and the white liberal who laments about “the war out there”. And if these cut-outs were not facile enough, Matsoukas piles on the irony with Slim’s faith reflected in the crucifixes which seem to adorn every wall and the two fugitives making sweet love in a graveyard completely unaware that a public protest in their honour is about to turn deadly. And check out Queen’s tiger print dress—growl! But the ultimate insults come in the form of a ridiculous Thelma & Louise style passage and a manipulative montage of weepy eyes and staged defiance. With a plot so resolutely black and white it’s a wonder Matsoukas even bothered to film it in colour.

Queen Christina (USA 1933) (7): Rouben Mamoulian’s mostly fabricated historical weeper centres on the politically problematic romance between Sweden’s Queen Christina (1626 - 1689) and Spanish envoy Don Antonio. Orphaned when her father King Gustav fell on the battlefield, Christina ascended to the throne at the tender age of six where she proved to be an apt pupil in everything from philosophy to statecraft. Sick of Sweden’s constant wars with its European neighbours the adult Christina invited key foreign dignitaries to Stockholm in an effort to hammer out a series of peace treaties. One such dignitary, Spaniard Don Antonio (a Catholic), bypassed Christina’s court and landed squarely in her bed—a liaison which didn’t sit well with her Protestant subjects. Thus torn between her duties of state and her love for Antonio Christina was forced into making a decision that would change her life forever. With a supporting cast of angry peasants and scheming nobles to offer some historical context the luminous Greta Garbo (looking nothing like the actual queen who was in fact a pockmarked hunchback) vogues for all she’s worth while leading man John Gilbert struggles, and fails, to keep up. There are allusions to Christina’s fierce intelligence and beneficent support of the arts, Garbo’s final throne room scenes certainly carry an air of dignity, but so much emphasis is placed on soft focus close-ups and straining hormones (the Hays Office must have had a field day with all that implied sex) that any relation to historical fact seems almost incidental. But the cinematography is wonderful with sunbeams slanting across regal chambers and snowy ramparts alike, and a shockingly erotic interlude involving firelight and grapes. In short, it’s one hell of a story if only it was true.

A Quiet Place (USA 2018) (9): With only two dozen lines of spoken dialogue in its 90-minute running time, director John Krasinski’s monster movie makes excellent use of camerawork, sound editing, and an electro-pulse score that beats like a frantic heart. The result is one of the scariest fright flicks to come slithering out of Hollywood in years. Earth has become infested with carnivorous outer space bugaboos which, although completely blind, possess supernaturally acute hearing that allows them to pick off any human unlucky enough to drop a plate or step on a twig. In America’s heartland the Abbotts (Krasinski and real-life wife Emily Blunt) and their kids have learned to cope with the invasion by taking extraordinary steps to ensure silence: pathways are coated with sand, painted footprints bypass creaky floorboards, and thanks to their hearing impaired daughter (Millicent Simmonds who’s managed to turn her own deafness into a selling point), everyone is fluent in sign language. But even the most fastidious planning can’t anticipate every possible scenario and when the accidental noises start they may as well be dinner bells… Let’s start with the monsters—misshapen CGI creatures precariously balanced on long boney claws, hovering between spiders and midnight bogeymen—the perfect nightmare creations to go with the film’s rural setting of tangled forests and dark starry nights. With so much quiet to go around, Krasinski heightens every incidental sound, like a stifled scream or the scrape of hideous claws ascending a staircase, in order to wring maximum terror from a minimum of decibels. It’s the cast however who give the knife its most agonizing twists for their silent masks of horror prove to be more effective than the film’s obligatory jolts. Of course there’s the few physical and technical stretches that go with the genre, but unless you’re an obsessive purist you won’t even notice them as you hold your breath and reach—quietly!—for the earplugs.

Quinceanera  (USA 2006) (8):  Poor Magdalena, on the eve of her most important birthday she discovers she’s been blessed with an apparent immaculate conception much to the dismay of her bible-thumping father.  Meanwhile her tough streetwise cousin is having a menage with the gay couple upstairs and old Uncle Tomas is being faced with eviction.  This sparkling little indie feature plays out like a telenovela yet possesses more wit and genuine emotion than most big budget flicks I’ve seen.  It’s not often that I’ve actually smiled and cried at the same time while watching a film.  It’s nice to know that I still can.

Quiz Show (USA 1994) (8): TV quiz shows came under fire in the 1950s when it was discovered that favoured contestants (the ones who improved network ratings and boosted sponsor profits) were being supplied with the answers beforehand, a revelation which led to a series of senate subcommittee hearings and put the entire industry in turmoil even though no laws were actually broken. Director Robert Redford gives us an acute, almost whimsical sense of time and place—New York City’s NBC studios during television’s infancy—to tell the tale of two such contestants: geeky know-it-all and all around schmuck Herbie Stempel (John Turturro) who was breaking the bank on the popular game show “Twenty-One”, and Ivy League All-American WASP Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes) who was slated to dethrone him much to the delight of a television audience who producers felt were getting tired of an “annoying Jewish guy with a sidewall haircut”. At first reluctant to cheat his way to fame and fortune, Van Doren ultimately succumbed and made out like a bandit—but Stempel was not about to go gently. Well acted all around with spot on performances by Johann Carlo as Stempel’s frumpy wife, Rob Morrow as an idealistic attorney, David Paymer as a soulless production chief, and Oscar-nominated Paul Scofield as Van Doren Sr., a stuffy intellectual with an unwavering moral compass. Despite its overall quasi-comedic feel however, Redford’s film highlights an emerging industry mentality which believed truth didn’t really matter as long as “…the sponsor makes out, the network makes out…and the public is entertained”. Sobering words in this Bread and Circuses age of packaged reality shows and fake news.

Quo Vadis (USA 1951) (8): Upon returning to Rome after a successful military campaign, decorated general Marcus Vinicius (Robert Taylor and his hairy chest) falls in lust with fair Lygia (a doe-eyed Deborah Kerr), the adopted daughter of a retired nobleman. But, although she initially spurns his brusque advances with chaste reserve, there are other, more insurmountable obstacles to be overcome. For one, Lygia is a Christian, that newly formed cult on which the mad emperor Nero (a convincingly unhinged Peter Ustinov earning an Oscar nomination) has taken a dim view. Secondly, Nero’s ruthless wife Poppaea (Patricia Laffan, ice cold and twice as deadly) has decided that if she can’t have Vinicius for herself then no one can. Against a backdrop of religious loyalties, barbaric spectacle, and political intrigues, will Vinicius and Lygia have their mutual attraction come to fruition or will fate and circumstance keep them forever apart? Set in the year 64 A.D. this grand “swords & sandals” epic earned eight Academy Award nominations and is credited with singlehandedly saving MGM studios from impending bankruptcy. With all of Rome’s sprawling Cinecitta studios at his command, director Mervyn LeRoy employed over 30,000 extras—each clad in authentic costume—and monumental set pieces which must have been eye-popping at the time, to bring ancient Rome to life in all its bloody glory. The script is appropriately grandiose and although the cast manage to make their stagey lines seem plausible, it’s Ustinov and Laffan which carry them to the next level. As Nero he exhibits a manic energy and unpredictable demeanour that wavers erratically between self-aggrandizement and paranoid suspicion while her empress is a cunning reptile whose elaborate coif and pastel gowns do little to soften her stony features. But it’s the Oscar-nominated work of the art and cinematography teams that push Quo Vadis over the top. Intricately staged tableaux of marble columns, towering statuary, and thousands of billowing gowns are rendered in such searing Technicolor they come to resemble Pre-Raphaelite canvases, and LeRoy applies this same meticulous attention to detail in the film’s more contentious chapters whether it be Christians used as lion fodder (passages which garnered it a British “X” rating) or a prolonged scene of fiery conflagration so intense you can almost feel the flames (some primitive green screen techniques notwithstanding). The only fly in the ointment, for me at least, was the droning message about Christianity’s many blessings that at times came close to being a Catholic circle jerk—God shines through a copse of trees like a nuclear flash, St. Peter shuffles and proselytizes like a kindly white-haired Gandalf (although his own demise is shown with explicit cruelty), and even Jesus makes a cameo in a gauzy flashback to the shores of Lake Galilee. However, if you’re willing to turn that particular cheek, the rest of the movie is dazzling. Leo Genn also received an Oscar nomination for his role as Vinicius’ ethically-minded uncle forced to tread a fine line in order to stay in Nero’s favour, and pro wrestler Buddy Baer provides 6’6” of loin-clothed eye candy as Lygia’s unofficial guardian.

Rabid (Canada 1977) (5): 70’s porn start Marilyn Chambers stars in writer/director David Cronenberg’s second commercial venture. She plays Rose, a woman badly burned in a motorcycle accident who undergoes a highly controversial skin graft procedure which leaves her with a ravenous appetite for human blood (huh?). Sporting a brand new anus-like orifice under her armpit equipped with a fleshy needled appendage (another unfortunate side effect from her surgery) Rose goes on a stinging spree leaving behind a trail of victims who quickly turn into foaming bloodthirsty zombies thanks to some unnamed virus she also happens to be carrying. With hordes of murderous psychopaths now roaming the streets of Montreal, martial law is declared as the government scrambles to contain the epidemic before it’s too late. Cronenberg’s twin fascinations for medical procedures and body morphing are on full display in this low-budget Canucksploitation shocker sometimes referred to as “venereal horror” thanks to Rose’s habit of passionately embracing her next meal before infecting them. There are also definite sexual connotations to that puckered sphincter pulsating beneath her arm and the elongated tube which springs from it when she feeds. As in many of his later films Cronenberg combines sexual desire with physical mutation producing results both unsettling and strangely depressing. Unfortunately his production values don’t quite live up to his vision and we are left with a cult mainstay that contains a few jolts (a homicidal rampage on a metro train is well done) and one guilty laugh (Santa gets caught in the crossfire). Thankfully Miss Chambers proves that she has what it takes to be a low-budget leading lady—with or without her top on.

Race With the Devil (USA 1975) (8): While en route from San Antonio to Aspen for a long awaited ski vacation couples Roger and Kelly (Peter Fonda and Dark Shadow’s own Lara Parker) and Frank and Alice (Warren Oates, Loretta Swit) accidentally witness a grisly satanic backwoods ritual. Pursued by the coven of devil worshipers the four travellers jump in their deluxe RV and hightail it to the nearest town where they alert the authorities—unfortunately for them however the bible belt seems to be crawling with Satanists these days and before they reach their destination they will have to deal with a small army of diabolical cowboys intent on silencing them forever. Although the plot of this road movie-cum-occult thriller is beyond ludicrous its execution is a pure adrenaline rush with some of the best car chase sequences I’ve ever seen as well as a very convincing aside involving rattlesnakes. Using little more than a crooked smile or extended stare, director Jack Starrett continually stokes the paranoia until it appears that everyone and their uncle is in league with Beelzebub—even a brief respite at a seemingly innocent trailer park contains undertones of dark foreboding as the local hicks all but sprout horns. But it is the final scenes of highway warfare between the embattled RV and a squadron of evil yokels driving anything on four wheels that sets your pulse pounding and almost makes up for one very stupid ending. Pure drive-in movie fodder that still looks smart on the small screen.

Rachel Getting Married (USA 2008) (6): It’s a weekend of reckonings all around when Kym (Oscar nominee Anne Hathaway) is discharged from rehab just in time to attend the upscale wedding of her sister Rachel (Rosemarie DeWitt). Never an easygoing family, the two women immediately start poking one another—Rachel accuses Kym of being an attention whore, Kym bemoans her mistreatment at the hands of everyone—and when their divorced parents start weighing in things go from a slow simmer to a rolling boil. Mom (Debra Winger, magnificent) is a passive-aggressive controller while Dad (Bill Irwin) is deep in denial especially when it comes to the biggest elephant in the living room: the tragic death of Rachel and Kim’s younger brother. And meanwhile the big day is less than 48 hours away… Jonathan Demme’s unabashed tribute to Robert Altman certainly captures some of the latter’s style with handheld camerawork giving the impression of a reality TV episode, music limited to live incidental, and dialogue coming from every angle with the spontaneity of improv. But for all its sincerity and darkly comedic elements the production is riddled with too many potholes to be anything more than a flattering imitation. Hathaway is a one-note wonder as she lashes out leaving the rest of the cast in a constant state of having to react. If she wasn’t there would anyone have anything to say? And in a curious casting decision screenwriter Jenny Lumet (daughter of Sidney) makes some very strange bedfellows as Rachel, an uptight Connecticut WASP, marries into a free-wheeling Jamaican family in a tacky faux-Indian ceremony immediately followed by a reception where everyone dutifully dances to everything from Brazilian beats and garage grunge to rap and 80s-style ballads. Not so much a wedding then as a United Colours of Benetton photo op. And it’s all way too long with too many side trips like a ridiculous pissing contest between father and son-in-law to determine who can load a dishwasher more efficiently, a dragged out segment whose sole purpose (a dramatic reveal so Irwin can have his 15 seconds of emoting) is not worth the wait. The idea of contrasting a celebration of unity with one woman’s acute sense of familial estrangement is effective enough and when it manages to focus it hits like an emotional hammer—a climactic comeuppance between Kym and her mother goes for the gut—but those moments when it doesn’t the story is left floundering in search of a thread. The fact that the closing credits include heartfelt thanks to Robert Altman and Roger Corman is interesting to say the least.

Radio Days (USA 1987) (9): Woody Allen’s animated New York lilt narrates this near perfect comedy, a cartoonish autobiography culled from his memories of growing up a poor Jewish kid in Brooklyn. Presented as a series of anecdotes set in the early ‘40s, we follow the misadventures of Allen’s 10-year old alter ego Joe (a very young Seth Green) who shares a modest walk-up with a colourful extended family that includes his lovingly quarrelsome parents and perpetually lovestruck aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest). Anchored by a couple of historical turning points—Aunt Bea gets dumped during the “War of the Worlds” broadcast and the bombing of Pearl Harbour interrupts a soap opera—Allen employs a heady mix of nostalgia and magical realism to bring his recollections to vibrant life. There’s the cousin who just loves to listen in on the neighbourhood party line; the pork-eating, Sabbath-breaking communist next door (Larry David) who corrupt’s Joe’s uncle Abe; the ditzy cigarette girl who becomes a national celebrity (Mia Farrow); and a motley assortment of naked substitute teachers, German U-Boats, and a high society scandal or two. And uniting everyone at every level are the ubiquitous radio sets glowing in every corner as they pour out gossip, melodrama, and a non-stop parade of golden pop songs. Rightfully nominated for the best Art and Set Design Oscar, Radio Days painstakingly recreates New York City during the Big Band Era with glowing neon billboards and kitschy nightclubs aswirl with haute couture (or plain cotton dresses and gingham tablecloths for the less hoity-toity) and a host of surprise cameos keep the party going—Kenneth Mars as a truculent rabbi and a very brief stint by Diane Keaton as a torch singer immediately come to mind. Warm and gauzy, this is one Woody Allen film that will make you pine for the good old days no matter when you were born. “Forgive me if I romanticize the past…” states Woody during the opening monologue and rarely has a director been in less need of absolution. Julie Kavner, Jeff Daniels, and Danny Aiello also star.

Rafiki (Kenya 2018) (8): Kena and Ziki couldn’t be less alike if they tried. Dressed in drab tees and preferring the company of male friends, Kena is the embodiment of tomboy while Ziki is all rainbow braids and day-glow shifts. But when romantic sparks ignite between them—something strictly frowned upon in Kenyan society—they must decide whether to follow their hearts or their common sense, especially after once friendly neighbours decide to become judge and jury. And just to stir the pot a bit further, their fathers also happen to be political rivals. Influenced by director Wanuri Kahlu’s predilection for Afrobubblegum (a school of artistic expression which embraces a fun, frivolous, and fierce representation of African society) yet possessing all the gravitas of two women fighting for their right to exist, this bittersweet love story doesn’t have many new twists to add to the genre other than the fact it led to a supreme court case aimed at Kenya’s homophobic laws and that alone is cause enough to cheer it on. Beautifully filmed in vibrant colours that burst off the screen—a dance floor turns into a psychedelic celebration, Kena is willingly led into temptation past clotheslines draped with fantastically printed sheets—Kahlu makes excellent use of patterns and textures to further the film’s narrative whether it be a leopard print blanket covering Kena’s right-wing mother or her own transformation from jeans and t-shirts to coloured scarves and flowered blouses. Of course religion plays a heavy hand with “God’s Law” shown for the hateful patriarchal voodoo it actually is and scenes of delicate birds in flight (and one determined hawk) juxtapose with a helicopter criss-crossing the Nairobi skyline like the angry, and ultimately impotent, eye of Yahweh. An exuberant movie buoyed by a pair of convincing leads (Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva) whose journeys take different paths only to lead to a common destination. And if Kahlu decides to throw in a small spoonful of sugar every now and then, it's a bit of sweetness served with warmth and hope. The fact that her brave vision (an adaptation of Monica Arac de Nyeko’s short story) even made it onto African screens in the first place is a small miracle in itself.

Rage (Spain 2009) (5):  Columbian migrants José and Rosa are having trouble fitting into Spanish society.  His violent temper has put him on the wrong side of his construction foreman and she is earning minimum wage as a live-in maid for the wealthy Torres family while fending off the sexual advances of Alvo, their boorish son.  But when José finds himself on the lam after accidentally killing his boss he decides to hide out in the only safe place he knows--the mansion where Rosa works.  Here, unbeknownst to either his girlfriend or her employers, Jose settles into the largely unused upper floors of the stately old home:  stealing food from the kitchen, calling Rosa using the phone in the guest bedroom, and eavesdropping on the family's day to day dramas.  His clandestine existence is threatened however after he receives a couple of shattering revelations regarding Rosa, one of which brings his temper to the boiling point.  Anger and desperation eventually lead José down a very dangerous path which will not only threaten his future but those of Rosa and the Torres family as well who are unaware of the rage growing just above their heads.  Not sure what director Sebastián Cordero was aiming for with this gothic thriller which is heavy on the atmospherics (kudos to the trained rats) but comes up woefully short on logic.  Is it supposed to be a head piece using a compartmentalized house to reflect the protagonist's fractured psyche?  A sociopolitical statement decrying the treatment of immigrants (the "unwanted guests" in our midst)?  Or just a misguided attempt at maintaining suspense by asking the audience to take a few leaps of faith?  Despite some tight camerawork which rarely leaves the front door and lighting that juxtaposes sunny exteriors with dusty attics, it amounts to little more than a telenovela weeper with a teary ending so over-the-top the DVD should have come with a complimentary box of kleenex.

Ragnarok (Norway 2013) (7): Convinced that the Viking grave he’s been studying contains the answer to a momentous secret, archaeologist Sigurd journeys into the wilds of Norway accompanied by his two children and a couple of fellow scientists. Following the runic clues on an ancient stone tablet Sigurd and company eventually find themselves on a small island in the middle of a mysterious lake where a subterranean cave not only yields a few troubling answers but leads to an encounter with a diabolical evil straight out of Norse mythology. Could this signal the beginning of Ragnarok, that final battle between gods and demons? A sweeping orchestral score and widescreen flyovers of mountain peaks and yawning fjords promises an adventure epic to rival Jackson’s LOTR, but Mikkei Sandemose’s family-friendly monster yarn delivers a Walt Disney adventure instead—and not a particularly clever one at that. A victim of too many stretches and convenient coincidences, Ragnarok’s cookie-cutter cast and cartoon perils don’t add up to anything memorable since we’ve all seen this story before, only bigger and better. But dad and the kids are so gosh darn loveable (little Brage places internet ads to find his widowed father a new mate!) and the CGI shocks are effective enough to keep you interested: a rappel across the lake has you holding your breath while a creepy sojourn in an abandoned bunker will give the tots nightmares for weeks. Nothing remarkable here, but still worth a rental if you’re in the mood for Horror Lite.

Ragtime (USA 1981) (6): Milos Forman takes E. L. Doctorow’s big sprawling novel scrutinizing the American zeitgeist pre WWI and cuts it down to a bite-sized 2½ hours with limited success despite its eight Academy Award nominations. Centred on a representative cross-section of society in and around New York City, Ragtime chronicles the fortunes of a select few over the course of several months as they weather all manner of tribulations from murder and adultery to explosive civil rights issues. A well-to-do family is thrown a curve ball when a problematic baby is abandoned on their front lawn; a black musician suffers one too many humiliations and decides to take a violent stand; a penniless Russian immigrant discovers the wonders of cinema; and a ditzy divorcee goes from riches to rags and back again. Cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek captures the feel of a bygone era with wide pans of stately homes and streets bustling with Model T’s and horse drawn carriages while the costume and art design departments lay it on thick (Art Nouveau and Belle Époque everywhere!) and Randy Newman’s nominated score overlays jazzy piano numbers with just a touch of wistfulness. The separate stories don’t quite dovetail however and even though it looks nice on screen Forman doesn’t quite achieve the grandiose statement he was reaching for—was that opening and closing pas de deux aiming for irony? In turns funny and tragic but without ever achieving that vital emotional connection with its audience, Forman’s glittering kaleidoscope of a film is still pretty—and pretty flat. The one true highlight though was watching an obviously ailing 81-year old James Cagney in his final role as Chief of Police. Despite being confined to a wheelchair (never hinted at thanks to clever editing) his performance of a gruff yet privately amused lawman who has seen it all is the perfect capstone to one of Hollywood’s more distinguished careers. Howard E. Rollins, Mary Steenburgen, Brad Dourif, and Mandy Patinkin round out the cast with surprise cameos from Donald O’Connor and Pat O’Brien.

Rain (USA 1932) (8): A shipload of tourists find themselves unexpected guests on the tropical island of Pago Pago after a case of cholera grounds their boat. Among the passengers are Sadie Thompson (Joan Crawford looking like Tony Curtis in Some Like it Hot ), a streetwise call-girl who has spent her entire life on the wrong side of the tracks, and Alfred Davidson (Walter Huston), a fire-and-brimstone missionary who along with his bible-spouting shrew of a wife (Beulah Bondi, magnificently strait-laced) hopes to wreak salvation on the island’s natives. But when Davidson discovers Sadie is living a life of debauchery right under his nose (she dares to drink and dance on the Sabbath among other things) he turns his evangelical sights on her with a vengeance. Of course Sadie responds to his self-righteous zeal with all the venom she can muster but despite the moral support of the islanders and a troop of American soldiers stationed nearby, Davidson’s political connections soon have Thompson on the defensive. A taut psychological battle ensues between an increasingly vulnerable Sadie and Davidson who is obsessed with saving her soul even if it means destroying her spirit. Her soul, however, may not be the only thing the fiery pastor covets—and as an apocalyptic storm envelopes the tiny South Pacific Eden in sheets of driving rain, passion and damnation collide head-on… Combining the glorious overacting of the recently defunct silent era with a soundtrack of pagan drums and crackling thunder, Lewis Milestone’s bitter indictment of moral hypocrisy masquerading as religion is perhaps more apropos today then it was eighty years ago. Using a cast of virtuous natives as a benchmark he makes grim comparisons between their primitive contentment and the emotional deceptions played out between his two “civilized” protagonists. As Davidson wrestles with his own feelings while looking down on Sadie (literally and figuratively) from his room at the top of the stairs, she in turn feigns a joie-de-vivre long ago destroyed by too many late nights and faceless men. Unfortunately what could have been a brilliant film from the beginning of Hollywood’s golden era is taken down several notches by a patently ludicrous ending that rings false on every level. Or was it meant to be ironic? Still an amazing piece and well worth renting.

Rain (New Zealand 2001) (9): The summer of ’72 proves pivotal for 13-year old Janey as she spends yet another holiday at the family’s lakeside cottage. Mom is an adulterous alcoholic who’s set her eyes on Cady the virile hunk moored offshore, Dad is bewildered with self-pity, and the awkward advances of Janey’s would-be boyfriend are more annoying than encouraging—especially since she’s vying for Cady’s attention herself. Only her kid brother Jim seems to be untainted by the games and deceptions going on around him, marking him as an innocent lamb among tired wolves and sheep too far gone to care anymore. Presented in colours that shift from bleached pastels to saturated primaries and framed in a boxlike aspect ratio that mimics home movies, director Christine Jeffs’ adaptation of Kirsty Gunn’s novel is a brilliant experiment in sound and texture which captures the mind of a young woman on the cusp of adolescence. Watching her parents slowly crumble to pieces while at the same time struggling with her own newly heightened emotions Janey is beginning to see the adult world for what it truly is and Jeffs pulls a few risky cinematic ploys in order to project her inner struggles onto the screen—and for the most part they work admirably. Passages of slow-motion are punctuated by surreal touches yet the film never flies off into arthouse indulgence: a close-up shot of whiskey slowly splashing over ice is almost carnal in its intensity; a post-coital shower filmed in B&W is wracked by guilt and pain; and the horizon is smudged by storm clouds carrying the promise (or threat) that this will be a vacation no one will ever forget, a sentiment echoed in the sour lemons which always seem to be scattered around mom’s bottle. And throughout Jeffs employs images of water—baths that never seem to cleanse, a placid lake that harbours temptation as well as treachery, a wet dress sensually dripping across a wooden tabletop—an oft overused metaphor here given new life. But a story is only as good as its cast, and once again Jeffs cashes in big time. Alicia Fulford-Wierzbicki is brilliant as Janey, a mixture of pouty defiance and clingy dependance while Sarah Peirse and Alistair Browning excel as the parents—you can feel the sadness and tension between them coming right off the screen. Marton Csokas plays the forbidden object of desire with a quiet eroticism and Aaron Murphy, nine-years old at the time, anchors everything as the freckle-faced Jim whose innocence adds poignancy to the unfolding drama. A perfect marriage between sight and sound—the sensuous visuals pairing well with a soft soundtrack of retro tunes—and one of the few films to successfully usher audiences into the psyche of its young protagonist.

Raining Stones (UK 1993) (8):  Ken Loach’s wonderfully rooted working class drama centres on the chronically unemployed Bob who barely manages to support his wife and daughter by supplementing his welfare cheque with the occasional odd job; whether it’s stealing a sheep to sell to the butcher or bouncing at a local rave bar.  But when his daughter sets her sights on an expensive dress for her first communion  Bob’s pride refuses to let him accept charity and he soon finds himself getting deeper and deeper into debt.  As financial pressures mount and job prospects dry up his options become dangerously limited...  Shot in a street level verité style which  gives it all the immediacy of a documentary, this deeply human film boasts some amazing performances from its very talented cast.  Loach offsets the pervasive pessimism with occasional flashes of humour and his subtle use of religious imagery is put to good use as Bob, a staunch Catholic, develops a crisis of faith which culminates in a most illuminating discussion with the local priest.  I also appreciated the film’s sense of balance; it opens with a sacrificial lamb of sorts, then follows Bob as he responds to various temptations, and finally ends with a gentle scene of absolution.  Very well done.

The Rainmaker (USA 1956) (8): The harsh realities of life and the soothing comfort of dreams learn to co-exist in this screen adaptation of Richard Nash’s Broadway play. Set during the Depression in a tiny midwest town besieged by drought, “reality” is personified by the Curry family of ranchers. Eldest son Noah (Lloyd Bridges) is so obsessed with controlling everyone’s lives that he’s forgotten how to dream; his brother Jimmy (Earl Holliman) is a man-child who compensates for his lack of common sense and Noah’s bullying with a childlike sense of optimism; daughter Lizzie (Katherine Hepburn) dreams of romance but fears she may be doomed to spinsterhood. And patriarch “H.C.” (Cameron Prud’Homme) tries to rule the roost with as much wit and compassion as he can. Enter Bill Starbuck (Burt Lancaster), an amiable drifter and con-artist who has nothing to offer but dreams—in this case the summoning of rainstorms…for a price of course. With the Currys wrapped up in their various earthbound problems Starbuck’s magical spiel—delivered with all the stagecraft of a seasoned carnival barker—will bring about something far more interesting than a simple cloudburst… A delightful tale of wishing upon a star (check out the pattern on Starbuck’s shirt!) given weight by a script that doesn’t shy away from loneliness and tears, especially when Lizzie and Starbuck both let their guards down long enough to reveal the trembling souls beneath. And director Joseph Anthony sticks to the play’s theatrical roots with simple yet effective Technicolor soundstage sets somehow reminiscent of Dorothy’s Kansas homestead. Holliman nabbed a Golden Globe (and most of the film’s laughs) with his portrayal of a lovable naif who happens to harbour more wisdom than anyone expected. Despite being way too old to play a lovestruck sister, Hepburn nevertheless injects her character with enough passion (both bitter and sweet) to warrant her Oscar nomination. And Lancaster mugs and struts with complete abandon in a performance he would later revise with far more cynicism in 1960’s Elmer Gantry. Wendell Cory co-stars as Lizzie’s secret crush—a man hogtied by his own share of hurt; and Yvonne Lime dazzles as the thoroughly modern object of Jimmy’s desire—a headstrong blonde driving a sporty roadster painted, appropriately enough, bright cherry red.

The Rain People (USA 1969) (7): Counted as one of his personal favourites, Francis Ford Coppola was only 29 years old when he wrote and directed The Rain People, a road movie which reduces the zeitgeist of the 60s down to a Pilgrim’s Progress across the heart of America. Feeling so trapped by marriage and impending motherhood, Natalie (Shirley Knight, phenomenal) gets up one morning, writes her husband a note, and heads out west in the family station wagon thus beginning a cross country drive as psychological as it is physical. Her first encounter is “Jimmy” (James Caan), a charmingly naïve drifter whose promising football career was cut short by a serious head injury which left him vulnerable to the vagaries of the big bad world—including Natalie’s own capriciousness which runs hot and cold throughout. Jimmy sees simplicity where she sees only chaos. Next up is state trooper Gordon (Robert Duvall) a masculine authoritarian figure to whom Natalie takes an immediate shine. But Gordon’s machismo is nothing more than a thin veneer concealing a great deal of loneliness and frustration. As these two polar opposites impact her journey in various unexpected ways Natalie is forced to reevaluate her own life decisions—starting with the realization that freedom is not a destination and liberation is not synonymous with irresponsibility. A simple story simply told without all the unnecessary garnishes of a more polished production, although the constant parade of silent flashbacks meant to fill in the blanks could have been toned down a wee bit. Knight delivers one of her career highs as a confused and frightened housewife so alienated from her once carefree single life that she’s begun referring to herself in the third person. She’s a dormouse longing to roar yet only able to squeak out lame excuses to her bewildered husband from various phone booths along the highway. Caan and Duvall are equally strong, one’s open-faced innocence playing off the other’s broken cynicism in an unstable dynamic of which Natalie feels the brunt. Marya Zimmet and Tom Aldredge round out the cast by adding extra breadth to Natalie’s unhappy odyssey: she mirroring Natalie’s own situation in miniature as a neglected yet headstrong child, he providing the snake in an already corrupted Eden as a dishonest business owner.

A Raisin in the Sun (USA 1961) (10): The precarious equilibrium of an impoverished black family living in a Chicago slum is thrown into chaos when elderly matriarch Lena Younger receives a life insurance benefit of ten thousand dollars courtesy of her late husband. Coming from “five generations of slaves and sharecroppers” Lena sees this as an opportunity to help her family achieve some modest success in the world. Her son Walter Lee however, tired of being chauffeur to a wealthy white couple, wants to invest the roll in a questionable get-rich-quick scheme hoping that the resulting cash bonanza will establish his worth as both a black man and a husband. On the periphery Walter’s demoralized wife Ruth is tired of hearing about her husband’s pipe dreams, his sister is breaking all the rules by studying to be a doctor while “celebrating” her African roots by dating a wealthy Nigerian and playing dress-up, and Walter’s school-aged son is basically a tabula rasa absorbing everything he witnesses. Taking its name from Langston Hughes’ poem Harlem which begs the simple question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” director Daniel Petrie’s adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s play casts a passionate eye on prejudice, identity, and the cold edicts of capitalism. The Younger family’s various dreams are indeed deferred—or crushed or largely forgotten—as Lena’s small inheritance teases them with promises of either deliverance or downfall. A generational schism opens between Walter’s cynical pursuit of the American Dream no matter what the cost and his mother’s implacable sense of dignity, borne out of her early experiences in the South. The final showdown between them, when it arrives, is both heartrending yet unexpectedly poignant. Reuniting most of the original broadway cast Petrie elicits knockout performances from his three leads Claudia McNeil, Sidney Poitier, and Ruby Dee, while Charles Lawton’s crisp B&W cinematography turns a cramped tenement apartment into a fractured battleground. Pure cinema.

The Rambler (USA 2013) (6): After a four year stint in prison an unnamed rambler (Dermot Mulroney, perpetually stone-faced in wranglers and aviator shades) is released into a strangely transformed southern landscape populated by freaks and geeks, dead men, monsters, and supernatural apparitions where reality itself is curiously prone to sudden jump cuts and bursts of video static. Slowly hitchhiking his way to Oregon where he hopes to hook up with his estranged brother, his stygian journey will see him bum a ride with a wandering mortician who claims the ability to capture people’s dreams on VHS tape; enter into a mephistophelean partnership with a most inept poker player; and have his every move dogged by a seemingly indestructible blonde siren. Bland dusty backdrops assume a nightmare quality as the rambler, cracking neither a smile nor a frown, interacts with a population as dry and deadly as the desert they inhabit. But as he approaches his final destination the unseen Fates decide to play their final ace and that long lonesome highway is suddenly not so benign anymore… Filled with images both grotesque and morbidly amusing its difficult to decipher exactly what writer/director Calvin Reeder had in mind. Is this a cowboy Dante trekking his way through a Midwest netherworld? Is the film merely taking the piss out of every overused horror cliché ever invented? Or does Reeder simply enjoy jerking off to David Lynch? It flops on practically every level of course, but as a prime chunk of cinematic roadkill it defies us to avert our eyes even for a second. And that, I suppose, is what this journey is all about.

Ran (Japan 1985) (9): Wishing to enjoy a comfortable retirement, aging warlord Hidetora divides his kingdom between his three sons and in so doing unleashes the dogs of war as brother schemes against brother for a bigger piece, neighbouring kingdoms smell blood in the water, and everyone sets their sights on retiring the old man permanently. Meanwhile a thoroughly humiliated Hidetora, accompanied by his ruthlessly honest court jester and haunted by ghosts of his own past misdeeds, slowly succumbs to madness. As he did with Macbeth in 1957’s Throne of Blood, director Akira Kurosawa places Shakespeare’s King Lear in feudal Japan and the resulting widescreen epic is nothing short of majestic. Although he was going blind at the time his eye for melding poetry with spectacle is fully honed with elaborately coloured costumes against a landscape of harsh geometries—blocky wooden castles are backlit by blood-red clouds, green cliffs recede into blue horizons, and battlefields come alive with multi-coloured pennants while blood explodes onto walls and balustrades. Staying true to Shakespeare’s themes of nihilism and the corruption that springs from pride and reckless ambition, Kurosawa’s dramatic marriage of Western and Eastern styles finds the perfect balance in Tatsuya Nakadai’s portrayal of Hidetora, his exaggerated expressions and ghost-like make-up finding their roots in classical Noh culture while Mieko Harada as the scheming wife of Hidetora’s son Jiro could give Lady Macbeth herself a lesson or two in tyranny. Reportedly influenced by man’s endless cycle of violence and revenge, and with memories of Hiroshima still intact, Kurosawa creates a world of chaos, futility, and base desires where godlike virtues are sorely lacking and everyone learns their lesson only after it’s too late. And he ends it with one of the most striking yet sadly befitting visual metaphors of his career.

Random Harvest (USA 1942) (7): As the citizens of a small English town celebrate the end of WWI, a shell-shocked soldier suffering from complete amnesia (Ronald Colman, memorable) slips out of the local asylum and wanders the streets in a daze until he crosses paths with a spirited stage performer who takes an instant fancy to him. Running away to the English countryside in order to evade the hospital staff searching for him, Paula and “Mr. Smith” inevitably fall in love, move into a little dream cottage and begin raising a family. Fate has other plans for the happy couple however for a few years later Smith is accidentally knocked unconscious; a nasty bump on the head which manages to restore his past but erases all memories of what happened after he left the trenches. Returning to his wealthy family Smith, real name Charles Rainier, picks up where he left off totally unaware that he has a wife and son waiting for him elsewhere. It is now up to Paula to win back the love of a man who can’t remember her ever existing... With a musical score of weeping strings, a plot that goes beyond ludicrous, and an over-the-top performance by Greer Garson whose Paula shifts interminably between lovestruck stalker and moping martyr, director Mervyn LeRoy uses every cinematic trick in the book to rip those heartstrings out of our chests. This is one film that should be thoroughly trashed; so why did I find myself smiling even as my eyes repeatedly rolled upwards in the sockets? Because those old directors knew how to pour on the syrup without cloying their audiences to death, that’s why. It’s all romantic fluff and dust bunnies of course, but Garson and Colman’s star power keeps it afloat while the rich B&W cinematography has you reaching for the kleenex; whether to dry your eyes or stifle a yawn is entirely up to you. Let’s just pray Hollywood doesn’t decide to unleash a remake.

Rango (USA 2011) (8): When his human owners make a series of high-speed swerves to avoid hitting an armadillo, a pet chameleon is forcibly ejected from the car’s rear window. Finding himself stranded in the middle of a burning desert with only the bisected, yet mysteriously still alive, armadillo for company the timid reptile must rely on his wits and innate acting ability to survive. After evading one very determined hawk the chameleon finds himself in the parched town of “Dirt”…an amalgamation of discarded boxes and bottles inhabited by wild west desert animals in desperate need of a hero. It seems their sole source of water has inexplicably dried up and lawlessness is threatening to destroy everything they’ve managed to build thanks to a gang of renegade prairie dogs, a gunslinging rattlesnake, and a crooked mayor. A budding thespian at heart, it isn’t long before the chameleon reinvents himself as “Rango”, the fastest gun on four legs and Dirt’s newest sheriff. But there’s more to being a hero than wearing spurs and spinning a tall tale and Rango soon realizes he may very well have bitten off more than he can chew. Despite a slow somewhat generic start (kooky critters, kooky voices, kooky pratfalls) it quickly becomes apparent that Gore Verbinski’s little animated feature is aimed more at mom and dad and less at the wee ones. Some biting adult humour and no-nonsense cartoon violence coupled with glaring spoofs on everything from Star Wars to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to every film Clint Eastwood has ever made, not to mention a bit of New Age mysticism, will definitely have adults giggling while the kiddies gape at the pretty colours. And those colours are pretty indeed with impeccable animation picking out every hair on a mouse’s face and every feather on the band of mariachi owls who serve as the story’s Greek chorus—an aerial dogfight with dive-bombing bats was especially well choreographed. The entire production looks and feels like a Sergio Leone duster (it isn’t that difficult to reimagine Lee Van Cleef as a villainous viper after all) and the combined vocal talents of Johnny Depp, Ned Beatty, Ray Winstone (as a cockney Gila Monster) et al ensure that all those one-liners remain sharp as tacks. A wicked little antidote to Frozen.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Finland 2010) (8): When an American research team discovers the tomb of the real Santa Claus buried deep beneath a mountain on the Russian-Finnish border they unleash a lot more than goodwill towards men. It seems the tomb is guarded by hordes of flabby naked pickax-wielding elves with a nose for gingerbread and an insatiable appetite for naughty children. Furthermore, the frozen (but quickly thawing) Spirit of Christmas himself turns out to be twenty feet tall and bears more of a resemblance to a horned demon than the jolly red-robed St. Nick in all the storybooks. With his friends disappearing and his nearby village in a state of siege, it falls down to plucky little 10-year old Pietari to not only save the day but devise a plan to put Father Christmas back where he belongs. With shades of Carpenter’s The Thing, a touch of Spielberg, and a big dollop of mordant Scandinavian wit, this delightful little holiday mood-killer is sure to make you laugh out loud even as you set a bear trap in the chimney. The cast of cute kids and hunky dads is perfectly matched while an army of wrinkled extras running through the snow wearing full beards and nothing else is eye-popping to say the least. The spare CGI effects are well done (a nighttime helicopter chase towards the end is breathtaking) but it is the film’s clever coda, from which it gets its title, that left me howling. This is one cinematic treat you’ll want to open before the 25th!

The Raspberry Reich (Germany/Canada 2004) (5): Reminiscent of the transgressive Danish films of the 60s, Bruce la Bruce’s occasionally funny send-up of the revolutionary mindset is a bizarre mix of Marxist diatribe and hardcore pornography. An underground cell of bumbling activists (“we’re not terrorists!”) calling themselves “The Raspberry Reich” have kidnapped the handsome son of a wealthy German banker and are threatening to kill him unless his father meets their socialist demands. However, unbeknownst to Gudrun their ideology-spouting leader, not only has the industrialist previously disowned his gay son but the son is currently involved in a hot love affair with one of her own henchmen. Thus begins a wild ride of sexual experimentation (“heterosexuality is the opiate of the masses!”), ridiculous socialist rhetoric (“corn flakes are counter-revolutionary!”), and a few sobering history lessons regarding covert C.I.A. operations; all punctuated by the occasional blow-job and flying cum shot. As revolutionary euphemisms scroll and flash across the screen we are treated to a few amusingly ironic scenes thanks in part to Gudrun’s floor-to-ceiling wallpaper depicting her political one particularly odd little passage a terrorist wannabe performs fellatio on a loaded rifle while Che Guevara poses on the wall behind him. As per La Bruce’s penchant for confrontational sex and disregard for social norms things sometime go a bit overboard, and the cast of Euro porn stars are not quite up to the task of actually acting without a penis in their mouths, but when the satirical barbs occasionally hit home they do so with a vengeance. “The tyranny of the bed is counter-revolutionary...” screams Gudrun during an athletic sex marathon with her boyfriend which takes them from bed to hallway to elevator, “...sexuality is a force of nature that cannot be contained by a mattress or a sheet. Now fuck me for the revolution!!” Amen, sister.

Rat Race (USA 2001) (1): “Borrowing” its plot directly from 1963’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World this most unfunny comedy concerns a motley group of petty Las Vegas gamblers who are given a challenge they can’t refuse: two million dollars is stashed in a locker at a New Mexico train station several hundred miles away and the first one to get there, by any means possible, wins. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, eccentric casino owner Donald Sinclair (a toothsome John Cleese) is wagering his own bets on who will win the race with a roomful of international high-stakes gamblers… With such names as Rowan Atkinson, Whoopi Goldberg, and Seth Green in the credits I expected a laugh-out-loud homage to screwball comedy, what I got instead was the cinematic equivalent of sticking pins in my eyes. I made it through the first half hour of this steaming dump before I started fast-forwarding to see if it actually got funny. It didn’t. Not since Anchorman have I ever run across a film whose ignorant and juvenile attempts at humour managed to insult the intelligence of both cast and audience alike. Better to have watched an ice cube melt.

Rawhead Rex (UK 1986) (1): Not even a script by Clive Barker can save this steaming dump of a film, a horror travesty so ridiculously awful that it prompted Barker to take a more active role in any future movies based on his work. With his young family in tow, American archaeologist Howard Hallenbeck is scouring the British Isles looking for material to put in his upcoming book on pre-Christian pagan sites. In a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, they arrive at a small Irish village just as a local farmer unwittingly releases an ancient demon from its subterranean prison and now the monster—nicknamed “Rawhead” and looking like a snarling animatronic Donkey Kong with rabies—is on the prowl searching for souls and human flesh and it’s up to Howard to put it back in its place. George Pavlou’s grand turkey misfires on just about every level from its cheap ass sets, intrusive music, and flat lighting to the creature itself, a slapdash construct of rags and battery-operated rubber mask. No single performance stands out as particularly awful since they’re all terrible, but in the role of Hallenbeck native Californian David Dukes seems to have just one game face to cover every emotion whether it be lust or terror, and he delivers his hokey lines as if reading them from the back of a cereal box. Not one genre cliché is missed either—the cynical police chief wears a fedora and chews cigars, religious gobbledegook is delivered with all seriousness, and there’s a gratuitous titty scene when a woman’s dress mysteriously falls off while she’s being pulled kicking and screaming from an overturned trailer. But it’s the not-particularly-special effects that provided the most entertainment as the technical team uses up a whole box of magic markers to create swirls and laser beams and one helluva superimposed storm. One scene did manage to sum up the whole experience rather nicely—a possessed priest writhes on the ground as Rawhead takes a piss in his face. I know exactly how the poor guy felt.

Ray & Liz (UK 2018) (10): With this infinitely sad stream of consciousness photographer Richard Billingham tries to make some kind of peace with a childhood marked by abuse and neglect. Opening in a dingy one-room apartment littered with wasps and beer bottles, a lonely old man whiles away the hours drinking, smoking, and looking at the rusted urban landscape outside his flyspecked window. But as he drifts in and out of fitful bouts of sleep his mind travels back to an earlier time when he and his slovenly wife were living in a rundown council flat with their two young children, the days filled with petty arguments and random cruelties and the nights offering little reprieve from the crushing sense of hopelessness. The boys, meanwhile, were mostly left to grow up on their own with Richard finding some solace in academics and younger Jason seeking comfort in animal familiars from goldfish and a rabbit to a Tupperware container of snails under his bed. Episodic and drifting languorously across timelines from Thatcher’s England to the present—seemingly at random—Billingham does not provide his audience with a linear story they can cling to but instead paints the screen with memories and impressions much like Terence Davies’ much lauded Distant Voice, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes. A cheap lithograph of Christ healing the blind hangs unnoticed in a squalid living room, a compassionate stranger’s touch carries more warmth than one’s own parents, a child’s solitary trek home along a moonlit street comes to resemble a horror film, and everywhere images of eyes bear silent witness to the devastating effects of poverty whether they stare from a tattered painting or an unfinished jigsaw puzzle. Mesmerizing and ethereal, but no less heartbreaking for all its artistry, Billingham’s film seeks neither redemption nor closure for it’s not about a fall from grace (where do you fall to when you’re already at the bottom?) but rather a sideways roll into darkness.

The Razor’s Edge (USA 1946) (6): Edmund Goulding takes W. Somerset Maugham’s novel and turns it into a lush soap opera examining the zeitgeist of post war America. Beginning in 1919 where society deb Isabel Bradley (Gene Tierney never lovelier draped in Oleg Cassini frocks) has her heart set on marrying penniless WWI vet Larry Darrell (Tyrone Power) despite objections from her snobbish ultra-capitalist uncle Elliot (Clifton Webb). Isabel is content with baubles and creature comforts but war has made Larry restless for those things which money can’t buy: peace, knowledge, and personal salvation. Eventually parting—she weds a stock broker, he travels from Paris to India looking for the meaning of life—the two are reunited ten years later and despite Larry’s new monk-like demeanour the uncomfortably married Isabel discovers the torch she once carried for him never really went out… Grand sets take the action from a soundstage New York to a soundstage Paris to a Tibet stitched together from Colorado stock footage, but the characters which inhabit them are little more than archetypes. With the Great Depression serving as backdrop Tierney sulks and schemes over what she’s lost and cannot regain; Webb remains painfully conscious of social status as he huffs and puffs; and Anne Baxter won Best Supporting Actress for her role as Tierney’s former childhood friend, once happily lower middle-class now reduced by tragedy to a drunken cynic. And in the eye of this sociopolitical storm floats Power’s unflappable pseudo-guru believing he can cure everything from headaches to a shattered heart with smiles and spiritual babble, and Herbert Marshall as W. Somerset Maugham himself, hovering in the periphery documenting the follies and foibles of these curious 20th century yanks. Pleasing to look at but its facile message is delivered via sledgehammer.

Ready Player One (USA 2018) (8): In the year 2045 video games have replaced religion as the opiate of the masses. In order to escape the drudgery of overcrowded cities and a depressed economy people don headsets, body suits, and cyber-gloves in order to enter “Oasis”, a fantastical online VR world where you can be anyone or anything you want and do anything you desire providing you have enough coinage. And now common citizens have been given an even greater incentive to play because shortly before his death the childlike co-founder of Oasis, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), set up the greatest challenge cyberspace has ever seen: find three magical keys embedded throughout the game world and you stand to inherit not only his estate worth billions, but the Oasis platform itself. With his mind on the prize, impoverished teenaged geek and Halliday worshipper Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) plugs himself in and sets about solving the puzzle aided by a few mystifying clues and his cadre of fellow misfits. But there is an evil corporate force afoot—both virtual and very solid—who’ll do anything to solve it first… With real life and CGI action that explodes off the screen in a million different colours, Steven Spielberg’s big screen fantasy is packed with so many retro pop culture references that you’ll have to slap the pause button repeatedly in order to catch them all. Elm Street’s Freddy Kreuger, RKO’s King Kong, and Chucky from Child’s Play are there as well as every rocket ship, hot rod, and robot from the past eighty years of summer matinees—my favourite sequence being a long spoof of Kubrick’s The Shining (LOL!) And, despite his signature penchant for warm fuzzies and sparkly resolutions, Spielberg keeps the action going at a fair clip whether it’s taking place on elaborate real life sets (vertical stacks of mobile homes are the new white trash condos) or an online world of dazzling landscapes and crazy cosplayers shooting lasers beams out of every orifice while 80s radio hits blare from the sky. But beneath the sound and light show there is a sobering subtext playing out, for what kind of future awaits a society that has pretty much given up on the idea of improving reality in favour of a comforting illusion? Olivia Cooke co-stars as an online badass and love interest; Ben Mendelsohn hisses as a ruthless CEO; Simon Pegg does a fair American accent playing Halliday’s former business partner; and providing the wheedling voice of cyber-villain I-R0k (get it?) T. J. Miller is given some of the script’s best lines. So put your brain on PAUSE and just hit PLAY!

Rebecca (USA 1940) (8): While on assignment in Monte Carlo with her wealthy employer, a timid secretary is swept off her feet by dashing millionaire Maxim de Winter who marries her before transporting her to Manderlay, his luxuriously appointed though cheerless seaside estate. Sadly, her fairytale romance comes to an abrupt end when she discovers that the memory of de Winter’s late wife Rebecca, by all accounts a beautiful and vivacious force of nature, is still very much alive not only in her husband’s thoughts but especially in the heart of Mrs. Danvers the psychotic housekeeper who insists on maintaining her late mistress’ boudoir as if it were a shrine. Unable to compete with a ghost, the new Mrs. de Winters slowly sinks into despair aided by an obviously unhinged Danvers who goads her into contemplating suicide. But Rebecca had some dark secrets of her own which Maxim slowly reveals to his new bride—secrets that could either save their floundering marriage or destroy it forever. Alfred Hitchcock’s first Hollywood film (and only Oscar winner) is an over-the-top gothic love story laced with fog and shadows; where steely glances cast daggers and a pervasive sense of gloom threatens to snuff out any hint of happiness. Although Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier are perfectly cast as the newlyweds, her squeaky little dormouse playing against his grief-stricken stoicism, it is Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers who steals every scene—her not entirely sane glares hinting at evil intentions and forbidden desires as she jealously berates the helpless bride while fawning lovingly over the dead Rebecca’s collection of fur coats and panties. Unintentionally camp by today’s standards but that only makes it more enjoyable!

[Rec]2 (Spain 2009) (5): Directors Balagueró and Plaza’s disappointing follow-up to their 2007 horror hit (also reviewed here under “VIFF 2008”). In the first film the residents of a Barcelona apartment complex come down with a mysterious malady which turns them into rampaging zombies, and a TV anchorwoman finds herself trapped in the middle of a nightmare when she and her camera crew accompany an Emergency Response Team into the building. In this sequel, more of a continuation actually, the action picks up a few minutes after the first film ends as a heavily armed SWAT team equipped with guns and video cameras storm the building. Led by the mysterious Dr. Owen, the officers begin searching the complex room by room looking for survivors and victims alike; but when they stumble upon an abandoned laboratory littered with files outlining horrendous experiments carried out under direct orders from the Vatican, their routine search takes on terrifying supernatural overtones... All the elements which made the first film so effective; the jarring handheld camerawork, screaming close-ups, and sudden ghoulish shocks, somehow seem tired and derivative this time around although a pivotal scene using green-tinged night vision is pretty clever. It’s as if the directors lost their momentum in the intervening two years and now find it all but impossible to simply start where they left off. Add to that a few nonsensical plot devices, some overly theatrical performances, and a superfluous side story involving mischievous teenagers and you have all the makings of a killer video game. It’s The Exorcist, directed by George Romero, and presented on a Sony Playstation.

[Rec] 3: Genesis (Spain 2012) (5): It’s Koldo and Clara’s wedding day as seen through the lens of filmmaker Atùn, guest of the groom, who busies himself with recording everyone and everything. Here’s grandpa with the defective hearing aid and there’s uncle Pepe nursing a mysterious dog bite on his wrist even though he insists he’s okay. It’s all boring home movies (or “cinema verité” as Atùn insists on calling it) until the reception when an increasingly ill Pepe spews a puddle of blood just before tearing his wife’s throat out with his teeth. Cue zombie apocalypse as carnivorous waiters descend on the wedding party turning bridesmaids and best men alike into flesh-eating monsters while survivors, including the newlyweds, try to make their way to safety… This third instalment in director Paco Plaza’s undead series bears little resemblance to its predecessors causing me to question why he even bothered in the first place. As a horror film it lacks both suspense and fright factor; as an occult thriller it fails to elicit any supernatural chills aside from a few bible quotes and a brief cameo by the creature from parts one and two; and a weak attempt to turn the story into some kind of comedy misses the mark entirely. At least there are a few cute scenes—finding himself in a church Koldo fashions a makeshift battle suit out of holy relics while on the other side of the reception hall Clara finds a chainsaw to go with her wedding gown—and the gore factor is pleasingly messy including a demonic Bonnie & Clyde finale. Alas, Part 4 has already been released.

Red (Switzerland 1994) (8): This third instalment in director Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours Trilogy, based on the colours of the French flag, presents an interesting take on the notion of Brotherhood (“fraternité”). When Geneva fashion model Valentine (Juliette Binoche lookalike Irène Jacob) accidentally runs over a dog she sparks a chain of events which ultimately affect a young lawyer, his girlfriend, and a retired judge with a fetish for eavesdropping on other people’s lives. Taking artistic delight in the various ways we try to connect, Kieslowski here uses cellphones and electronic bugging devices to replace face-to-face communication while conveying one of the film’s life lessons by way of a garish billboard. Everyone, it seems, is a voyeur of one stripe or another and while some try to assuage their loneliness by living vicariously through answering machines and headphones others try to simply run away from it. As in the previous two films, White and Blue, Kieslowski saturates the screen with the titular colour—red intrudes into every scene whether it be a ticket jacket or painted walls—and he mines it for every metaphor he can for even though red is the colour of love, it can also signal danger. A gentle though slightly chilled look at humans in flux which ends with a sly wink to his fans. Sadly, it was also his swan song.

Red Eye (USA 2005) (6): When her flight home is delayed Lisa Reisert, a lovely but somewhat mousy desk supervisor at a swank Miami hotel, decides have a drink with a fellow passenger, the suave yet creepy Jackson (last name Rippner. Jack Rippner. Welcome to Foreshadowing 101). When their plane finally does take off Lisa is at first delighted to have Jackson sit next to her until she discovers his true nature; he’s a sociopath who arranges assassinations and right now he has his sights set on a political bigwig staying at Lisa’s hotel. In order to eliminate the government bureaucrat in question however, Jackson needs Lisa’s help; help she refuses to give until he makes her an offer she can’t possibly refuse... Wes Craven’s foray into straight-up thriller is a mixed bag at best. The impressive cinematography takes us from the close confines of an airplane lavatory to the sweeping vistas of a penthouse suite, the resulting interplay of claustrophobic spaces and agoraphobic vulnerability takes you off guard at times and ratchets up the tension nicely. Unfortunately, even though they are talented performers on their own, Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy produce very little screen chemistry here as they plod through a generic script accompanied by a cast of stock characters from every Airport movie ever made. Of course the tables will be turned more than once, the usual twists will occur and we’ll be expected to accept some enormous gaps in logic. But even though Red Eye’s gaps start out small enough they quickly become bottomless chasms that threaten to swallow you up, popcorn and all. Perhaps Craven should have stuck to what he does best; simply seat Freddy Krueger in first class, have everyone fall asleep, and let the slashing begin...

Red Headed Woman (USA 1932) (3):  Jean Harlow plays a gold-digging slut with her eye on the boss’ happily married son in this silly blend of sexual politics and camp drama.  She uses everything in her arsenal from garter belts to an annoying baby voice to get a rise out of the poor sap, but when she finally lands him she realizes that life on Easy Street is not quite what she expected.  A battle of wills soon erupts between her and his nauseatingly angelic wife that she is simply not equipped to handle.  So what’s a poor girl to do?  Try to screw someone richer of course!  I suppose one could see some twisted form of female empowerment circa 1930s at work here, especially when you consider how little real power women held outside of the bedroom but the characters rarely rise above cartoon stereotypes while the script is as cheap and shallow as its protagonist.

Red Joan (UK 2018) (5): 80-year old Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) is arrested and charged with being a spy during WWII when she allegedly leaked data from Britain’s atomic bomb program to Russian agents. Cue flashbacks where Joan (Sophie Cookson), then a promising young physicist working for the government at the start of the war, falls in and out of love with a radical socialist (Tom Hughes)—a rocky love affair which will cause her to question where her own loyalties lay… Very loosely based on the real life bio of Melita Norwood, Russia’s oldest living U.K. spy when she was apprehended in 1999, director Trevor Nunn’s espionage thriller is certainly a slick production with its sepia-tinged cinematography and an understated performance from Dame Dench who gives us a tottering yet fiercely opinionated old granny. And the zeitgeist of the time—from atomic hysteria to the birth of the arms race to the foundations of Cold War stalemates—is examined from both the Left and the Right with misplaced student idealism coming up against the harsher realities of Stalin’s emerging Union (a pair of bright red heels adds a bit of symbolism). But the movie trips up too many times in its zeal to “tell the truth” giving us a stagey soap box instead. Maybe it’s “presentism” on my part but it’s hard to believe that such a bright young woman could also be so insufferably gullible whether it be her pitifully naïve sense of altruism or the heart she seems to lose at every corner—her trite love affairs seemingly tacked on for dramatic purposes. Secondly, the inclusion of 1940s-style sexism is so glaringly apparent (one research manager tells her all about the laundry room’s new tumble dryer as if he were explaining a toy to a toddler) that I felt obligated to roll my eyes right on cue. And a final showdown between Joan and a particularly rancorous group of reporters couldn’t have been much cornier had everyone suddenly stepped out of character to join hands and sing “Give Peace a Chance”. Better to simply read Jennie Rooney’s source novel instead.

Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1974 (UK TV 2009) (7): When a young schoolgirl goes missing in the north of England cub reporter Eddie Dunford is assigned to the case. But when her mutilated body is found on a construction site owned by a local real estate magnate Dunford finds his fledgling investigation suddenly stonewalled at every step, especially when he uncovers similar abductions going back six years. With the police openly antagonistic, his editor threatening to reassign him, and even key witnesses slamming the door, Eddie realizes he may be on to something larger and more horrible than he first imagined… In this first instalment of a trilogy based on David Peace’s novel director Julian Jarrold examines a string of child murders and the effect it has on the normally reserved citizens of a sleepy Yorkshire town circa 1974. As a straight-up investigative thriller however it contains too many illogical elements and unexplained twists to really hold together. Jarrold tries, with limited success, to fill in these narrative potholes with jarring timeline shifts and arty non-sequiturs that look as if they were filmed through sheets of sun-dappled gauze. But when viewed instead as a series of psychological impressions following Eddie Dunford’s journey from eager truth-seeker to disillusioned and unhinged cynic it becomes a Kafkaesque nightmare of corruption and depravity wherein every avenue of escape seems to lead right back into the maelstrom. A dark and unrelenting film whose violent climax is more epitaph than catharsis.

Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980 (UK-TV 2009) (6): Based on David Peace’s quartet of books about crime and corruption in the north of England, this second instalment in the Red Riding Trilogy takes place six years after the tragic events of 1974 (see my review). After another sex trade worker falls prey to the notorious Yorkshire Ripper, Manchester’s Chief Constable Peter Hunter is sent to Leeds in order to head up his own inquiry into the murders much to the chagrin of the local constabulary who have more than a botched homicide investigation to cover up. Much more. As Hunter and his team strive to uncover the truth they are increasingly intimidated by the cops, including the Chief Inspector, who will stop at nothing to get rid of him and the uncomfortable questions he is dredging up. Could their mounting hostility have anything to do with an unsolved nightclub massacre which took place in their district back in 1974—a killing spree that Hunter also investigated? And if so, how is that related to the string of butchered prostitutes? And then the intimidation turns deadly and Hunter begins to realize just how deep evil runs in the seemingly quaint north country. Peace wrote four books on the subject but due to budgetary constraints the second volume, set in 1977, was dropped from the televised series. Because of this omission director James Marsh was forced to rely on muddled flashbacks in order to fill in the gaps but he is only partially successful in smoothing out what proves to be an exasperatingly tangled storyline even for those of us who sat through part one. It is still an effective policier however full of gloom and doom, where seemingly every soul is corrupt beyond redemption and a sombre pall permeates the landscape like a choking fog. Murder, adultery, and a perverse sense of horror that too often pushes the envelope make for one confusing, albeit wonderfully moody, psychodrama.

Red Riding: The Year of Our Lord 1983 (UK 2009) (5): As with the previous two instalments of this trilogy, the final chapter begins with a disappearance—a 10-year old girl on her way home from school. The publicity garnered from her possible abduction harkens back to a spate of child murders that occurred nine years ago and which resulted in the very public trial and conviction of a mentally disabled man. But with the supposed perpetrator firmly behind bars uncomfortable questions begin to surface which seem to suggest a heinous cover-up. Now, determined to uncover the truth, a disgraced lawyer and a guilt-addled police officer—often working at odds with one another—must contend with a thoroughly crooked constabulary, an evasive clergyman, and a string of former witnesses that have either been bought or cowed into silence…or worse. A hopelessly muddled plot is further marred by too many flashbacks and blind alleyways so that despite having watched the first two films I still found myself needing to backtrack and reorient on more than one occasion. But the aura of corruption and moral damnation that earmarked the series thus far reaches its zenith in this last episode. That, along with the overcast skies and nuclear towers which loom over everyone and everything, gives the impression that England’s Yorkshire countryside is teeming with nothing but evil intentions and murder. The writers even saw fit to revisit a female psychic whose cryptic visions now prove eerily accurate. Huh? The performances are top-notch however with a cast that includes Sean Bean, Peter Mullan, and a perpetually scowling Jim Carter—but even they are not enough to make up for a meandering storyline whose tragic reveals and sun-dappled finale still leave too many dangling threads to be satisfying.

The Red Shoes (UK 1948) (10): Powell and Pressburger’s glorious technicolour epic based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale about a vain young girl forced to dance by a pair of enchanted shoes, is both a heartfelt homage to the world of theatre and a stunning allegory on the suffering of the artist. Wealthy debutante Victoria Page dreams of being a professional dancer to the exclusion of all else. When the world renowned ballet impresario Boris Lermontov shows up at one of her aunt’s society parties Victoria immediately sets out to impress the coldly aloof maestro with her skill, eventually becoming his star performer. He even commissions an entire ballet, ironically based on Anderson’s short story, to be written just for her; a role which promises to cement her reputation as the world’s foremost prima ballerina. But, unbeknownst to Vicky, Lermontov’s feelings go much deeper than those of a benevolent benefactor, feelings which are dashed when she falls in love with Julian Craster, the company’s idealistic resident composer who wrote the score for her trademark ballet. Torn between the domestic contentment offered by Julian and her dedication to the stage, here embodied by Lermontov’s icy determination, Victoria finds herself forced to make a painful decision on the eve of her greatest performance. With its gorgeous sets and breathtaking cinematography that stretches from London’s Covent Garden to the cliffs of Monte Carlo, The Red Shoes is a bold departure from the run of stuffy dramas being produced in the UK at the time. The lovely redheaded Moira Shearer breathes life into the role of Vicky, her classic good looks and theatrical presence combined with her consummate skill as a professionally trained dancer set the screen on fire. The film’s highlight, a beautifully expressionistic performance of the titular ballet, is surely one of the most amazing dance sequences ever filmed. For all its melodrama and occasional excesses this still stands as a fine example of pure movie magic. Brilliant!

Red Sparrow (USA 2018) (6): The Cold War is served up hot and spicy—or at least lukewarm—in this clunky violent espionage thriller that tries to combine the twists of John le Carré with the steamier bits from a Harlequin romance. The result, while only moderately gripping, is at least watchable for its entire 180-minute running time. After an accident sidelines her career as a prima ballerina, Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence, all grown up) is recruited by her uncle, a low-level bureaucrat in Russian Intelligence, to help in a sting operation. But when she witnesses something she shouldn’t have she’s given a choice: either commit to the Intelligence Service herself or be killed. Deciding on the former, she’s sent to an isolated state school which specializes in turning runway models into sexy spies—dubbed “sparrows”—as adept at blow-jobs as they are at picking locks (apparently a real thing in Russia) from which she emerges an embittered seductress whose newly weaponized sexuality is both an asset and, ultimately, a vehicle for something else when her very first assignment goes askew. Tasked with seducing CIA operative Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton) in order to learn the name of a Russian mole working for the Americans, Dominika will have everything she’s been taught turned inside out after Nate produces a few unexpected moves of his own… The old East vs West clichés are on full display throughout as the evil Russkies growl and garrotte one another while the valiant Yanks defend Freedom and the American way. The State School itself is pure grindhouse daydream run by a severe matron (Charlotte Rampling?!) who encourages students to practice their carnal skills in front of the class while regaling them with Soviet platitudes on the decadent West and the glories of Mother Russia. Lawrence and Edgerton manage to generate a few sparks but the trajectory of their story seems forced and the sex perfunctory at best. However, the source novel was written by a CIA veteran so I’ll give some of the film’s more far-fetched elements a pass, and director Francis Lawrence never lets the pace lag as he jets his characters between London, Budapest, Vienna, and an ersatz Moscow (Slovakia). The mostly A-list cast is further rounded out by Ciaràn Hinds and Jeremy Irons as Russian Intelligence bigwigs, Mary-Louise Parker injecting a bit of bleak humour as a crooked senatorial aide, and hunky Putin lookalike Matthias Schoenaerts as Dominika’s sleazy uncle. Finally, the serpentine plot does have a nice sting at the end and the whole production goes down smoothly enough. It’s only when you think about it too much that you start to choke.

The Reeds (UK 2009) (6): In Nick Cohen's mixed bag of a ghost story revenge is a dish best served cold...and wet. When a group of friends rent a boat for a drunken weekend they unwittingly become entangled in a twenty-year old murder mystery involving some nasty waterlogged victims who refuse to stay anchored. Some highly improbable scenes (how come the bottom of a murky marsh is so well lit even though it's midnight?) are nonetheless presented with a certain brio and the creepy antagonist looks pretty cool in his grim reaper raincoat and blood-soaked wellingtons. An interesting twist on an old plot but the looping timelines and repetitive handheld mayhem may give you a nasty case of seasickness.

Reflections in a Golden Eye (USA 1967) (6): On an army base in the deep south circa 1940’s, obsession, perversion, and forbidden passions lead to madness and murder in John Huston’s lurid adaptation of Carson McCullers’ novel. Spoiled rich bitch Leonora Penderton (Elizabeth Taylor) is being stalked by an enlisted man, Pvt Williams, who has started sneaking into her boudoir at night in order to sniff her lingerie while she sleeps. Meanwhile her brooding hulk of a husband Major Weldon Penderton (a mumbling Marlon Brando) has focused his own latent homosexual desires on Williams and begins a little stalking of his own. And just to complete the circle of lust and deceit Leonora is having a torrid affair with Lt. Col. Langdon (Brian Keith) who’s been kicked out of the conjugal bed by his frigid and increasingly psychotic wife Alison (Julie Harris) and she in turn is lavishing all her attention on the couple’s outrageously fey Filipino houseboy Anacieto. If it all sounds like a salacious soap opera, it is—but beneath the southern melodrama there are some acute observations on sexual repression, emotional sadism, and the cult of machismo. Leonora taunts Weldon incessantly about his lack of manhood, making cruel comparisons between him and the prize stallion she makes a point of riding every day; Weldon, horrified by his carnal urges, overcompensates with macho posturing and an almost fanatical adherence to army discipline and social order; Langdon responds to his wife’s demand for a divorce by having her committed. And all the action revolves between two polar opposites: the menacingly virile Williams and the overtly queer Anacieto. The title refers to a peacock’s eye in which all the world is reflected in grotesque miniature and as if to drive home that concept each scene is saturated with a washed out golden haze causing the occasional splash of colour to stand out like a klaxon horn—an interesting gimmick which only served to confuse early audiences. Finally, after putting his characters through an emotional blender for the better part of two hours, Huston throws them all together for one final psychosexual showdown as bullets begin to fly… It’s enough to make Tennessee Williams take the first train north.

The Reivers (USA 1969) (6): In the Mississippi summer of 1905, eleven-year old Lucius McCaslin is about to embark on his first big adventure when his parents and grandfather attend a funeral in St. Louis leaving him in the care of the family maid. Coaxed off the straight and narrow by his no-good adult friend Boon and Boon’s equally roguish friend Ned, Lucius purloins his grandfather’s latest prized possession—a brand new canary yellow “Winton Flyer” automobile—and the three set out on a joy ride bound for Tennessee. But with their first stop being a Memphis brothel where Boon is smitten with one of the girls, it doesn’t take long for young Lucius to learn a thing or two about life beyond his family’s white picket fence. Before their four-day road trip is over he’ll also catch an ugly glimpse of southern bigotry and sexism, experience his first broken heart, and discover just how painful remorse can be. Quaint period touches and a story that rambles along at a decent pace manage to keep your interest but aside from the star power of Steve McQueen as Boon and Will Geer as Lucius’ wise old grandfather (not their best work) there isn’t much else to recommend. In fact if you remove the cussing, fighting, and hookers you’re left with little more than generic Disney family fluff. A charmingly forgettable adaptation of William Faulkner’s novel.

Relic (Australia 2020) (7): When gran goes missing her daughter and granddaughter get the police to launch a search in the nearby woods. Sadly, the old woman has been slightly off her rocker for a while now causing both of them to fear for the worst. But when she suddenly shows up in her kitchen—bruised and filthy but otherwise okay—the mystery of her disappearance takes on a supernatural dimension. Something, it seems, has followed grandma home and as things start to go bump in the night, walls begin to shift, and mold takes hold on every surface, both daughter and granddaughter come to suspect that the family matriarch is no longer herself... Something unique to the horror genre, a genuinely scary film which doesn't rely on leaping bogeymen and camera jolts to make audiences sweat. It's also something of a hybrid, for beneath the creepy demonic effects there is a tragic metaphor at play as one old woman's encroaching dementia becomes a haunted house unto itself. Fear, abandonment, and the crippling dependance that comes with age and illness all find their expression in Natalie Erika James' impressive feature debut, a multi-generational shocker in which the real monster elicits more tears than screams.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (USA 2012) (7): Despite a degree from Princeton and a dream job as a financial analyst living and working in Manhattan, Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed) finds himself torn between the allure of the American dream and the call of his Pakistani roots. And then 9/11 happens and his loyalties are pushed past the breaking point. Now living with his lower middle class family in Lahore he finds himself a prime suspect when an American professor is kidnapped prompting both the CIA and cynical Western reporter Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber) to come calling. “Things aren’t always what they seem…” Changez states to Lincoln at the beginning of a very long interview as political storm clouds gather outside—the film unfolds mainly in flashbacks—and his story goes on to affirm that opening epithet all too well. Both one man’s search for identity in a time of global hysteria and a watered down thriller as Khan and Lincoln become mindful of the ticking clock, Mira Nair’s big screen adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s novel works best when it concentrates on Khan’s individual relationships rather than the “bigger picture” his life is obviously meant to mirror. Loving America yet also angry at that country’s covert operations in his own, Khan’s interactions with the people around him say more than any polemic could. His father (the great Om Puri) embraces the old ways, his privileged New York artist girlfriend (Kate Hudson) highlights cultural misunderstanding with a post 9/11 gallery exhibit that appears to mock their relationship in a most cruel way, and Lincoln himself (ironic name) carries a hidden agenda while at the same time trying to appear objective. Canada’s own Kiefer Sutherland plays the Ugly Capitalist as Changez’s ruthlessly pragmatic former boss. And of course there’s the usual assortment of churlish Americans and outraged Moslems—the peaceful Khan suffering various humiliations at the hands of the former, and a cautious empathy with the latter. But with everyone in the film swinging their fists, Nair wisely chooses to focus her camera on just a few choice bruises.

Remember (Canada 2015) (5): As if English-Canadian cinema needed another nail driven into its coffin perennial one-hit wonder Atom Egoyan comes up with this psychologically suspect, intellectually insulting riff on Memento. Ninety-year olds Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau) and the recently widowed Zev Guttman (an Oscar-calibre Christopher Plummer) share a common tragedy, they are both Jews who survived Auschwitz even though their respective families did not. Now neighbours in a New York nursing home the two men are about to set in motion an elaborate plan to hunt down and kill the camp commandant who made their lives a living hell seventy years earlier. Having escaped to North America under the assumed name of Rudy Kurlander, the former Nazi could be any one of four Kurlanders now residing in the States and Canada and the two men intend to follow each lead until they find him. They face two main obstacles however, Max is on oxygen and confined to a wheelchair so he cannot leave the care facility, and Zev, while mobile, is suffering from the early stages of dementia and must constantly rely on the highly detailed letter he carries to remind him of what his mission is and what he must do next while Max arranges his hotels and transportation via telephone. With his brain misfiring and his physical health frail at best, Zev slowly makes his way across America with a list of addresses and a loaded glock… Despite its ridiculous premise and more than a couple of potholes in logic the first part of the film is actually quite watchable thanks to meticulous editing and Plummer’s phenomenal performance as the soft-spoken, often muddled man on a mission. However, after an encounter with a kooky cop (a sterling example of overacting if ever there was one) things go downhill quickly culminating in one of Hollywood’s more lamentable twist endings which will elicit either gasps or groans depending on how gullible the audience is. As a study in survivor mentality it is simplistic at best, as a straight-up thriller it requires too many concessions to be truly effective. The only time I feel offended by a movie is when it insults my intelligence and while Remember didn’t exactly leave my common sense mortally wounded, it certainly was bruised.

Renoir (France 2012) (6): Approaching the end of his life and severely crippled by arthritis, celebrated painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir (magnificent performance by 87-year old Michel Bouquet) finds some platonic solace in his latest muse, aspiring actress and model Andrée. But when his son, future film director Jean Renoir, returns to the family estate in order to recuperate from a war wound Andrée finds herself balanced between the older man’s stubbornly optimistic pursuit of all things beautiful and Jean’s more sober outlook gained from his experiences in the trenches. Gauzy sets and filtered light filled with heat shimmers and flower petals certainly make Gilles Bourdos’ period piece look like one of the master’s oils: in one scene a drop of ochre paint slowly unfurls in a glass of water with all the gravitas of a deathbed confession, in another sunlit bathers turn surreal when filmed from below. But aside from Bouquet’s César-nominated turn as the crusty artist plagued by both disease and grief for his deceased wife, everyone else delivers pretty basic performances with the possible exception of Thomas Doret who, as Renoir’s youngest son Coco, views his father’s ongoing legacy with a very un-childlike cynicism. “The pain passes…” confesses Renoir during one of his low points, “…but beauty remains.” And given the film’s rather bland impact audiences are left with little more than gorgeous Côte d’Azur backgrounds and a moody orchestral score by Alexandre Desplat.

A Report on the Party and Guests (Czech 1966) (7): Disguised as an absurdist farce, Jan Nemec’s fiercely anti-Stalinist satire earned it the distinction of being “banned forever” by the Soviet state two years before the Prague Spring ushered in a new era of liberalization. A group of bourgeois picnickers are waylaid by a gang of thugs led by an officious dandy who subjects them to a series of humiliating mind games. But the thugs are themselves cowed by a higher power in the form of the “Host”, a jovial emperor-like character who emerges from the brush to invite everyone to a lavish outdoor banquet. But the Host’s magnanimity barely conceals an autocratic zeal when it becomes apparent that partaking in his generosity is mandatory and detractors will not be tolerated. Awash in clever innuendos (why do the picnickers submit so willingly to authority even to the point of turning on each other?) and visual tropes (the chaotic banquet is a study in complacency while a trek through the forest carries political overtones), Nemec mocks a world where everyone is literally put in their place and even the dogs are part of the social order. It’s no wonder that this subversive little gem stood on the back shelf for so long.

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

Requiem for a Heavyweight (USA 1962) (10): From Rod Serling’s blistering script to Arthur J. Ornitz’s theatrical B&W cinematography to the superlative performances of its four leads, Ralph Nelson’s back-alley tragedy is one of Hollywood’s overlooked classics. Once a contender for the World Heavyweight boxing title, Louis “Mountain” Rivera (Anthony Quinn) is now an unemployed has-been at the age of 37. And to make matters worse, seventeen years of being pummelled about the head have left him with nothing but a face full of scars, an addled brain, and fading memories of past glory. With his life at a crossroads he is now torn between loyalty to his promoter Maish Rennick (Jackie Gleason) and the possibility of a new life with a potential love interest (Julie Harris). But Rennick is being pursued by the mob for an ill-advised bit of gambling and his only ticket out is to continue using Rivera even though the man is just one knockout away from being completely incapacitated. Quinn is amazing as an emotionally labile giant whose slurred speech and cratered face belie a fragile sense of honour; Gleason is pure sleaze and desperation as a Svengali-like figure who sees his meal ticket slipping away; and their performances are further bolstered by Mickey Rooney as Rivera’s trainer and only true friend, and Julie Harris as the woman who wants to see more in Rivera than what is actually there. Starting with a POV boxing sequence in which Rivera, suffering from yet another concussion, is manhandled into his dressing room while the world goes in and out of focus (a glimpse into a mirror offering a jolt of horror), the camera never strays far from the cast as it highlights every bloodied cut and drop of sweat. Whether it’s the abject seediness of a fleabag motel room or a line of arc lights washing over a boxing ring, it takes consummate skill to transform the film’s gritty set pieces into works of static art and that is precisely what Ornitz does, his keen eye for detail as integral to the story as Serling’s impassioned dialogue. Look for actual boxing legends like Jack Dempsey and Cassius Clay (the future Muhammad Ali) making imposing cameos and a hulking androgynous Madame Spivy turning gender on its ear as a female mob boss. A perfect companion piece to Scorsese’s Raging Bull released eighteen years later.

Restless (USA 2011) (2): Emotionally scarred by the death of his wealthy parents when he was a child, teenaged Enoch Brae now spends his days haunting cemeteries and crashing memorial services. Lacking any marketable social skills he pretty much keeps to himself, his only friend being Hiroshi, the ghost of a WWII kamikaze pilot whom he met when he was in a coma following the car crash which killed his parents. Love eventually does enter his life however when, at yet another anonymous funeral, he meets the sunny and lighthearted Annabel, a young girl with a keen interest in evolutionary theory and a passion for water birds (they’re the only birds who can go anywhere). Unfortunately Annabel only has three months to live, a fact which at first intrigues Enoch but ultimately causes his abandonment issues to resurface. Nevertheless, with Hiroshi’s encouragement, Enoch and Annabel use her last few weeks to wring as much happiness out of life as they can...a journey which heals all three in very different ways. With sophomoric performances bordering on Highschool Musical territory, a script rife with hokey sentimentality (they rehearse her death scene with taped bird noises in the background...isn’t that precious?), and enough strained pathos to send an entire theatre full of Twilight fans into wailing hysterics, this inane stab at teen angst rings false and contrived at every turn. A soundtrack of airy-fairy folk ballads only serves to highlight just how blatantly manipulative it tries to be. Furthermore, it’s impossible to feel any sympathy towards the two protagonists; he’s a petulant brat, she’s a free-spirited airhead, and their entire relationship is one big vapid attempt to wax philosophical on life’s greater mysteries while scarfing down Halloween candy and playing dress-up. I find it hard to believe that Gus Van Sant, the man who gave us such films as Milk, Paranoid Park, and Elephant could be responsible for this mushy maudlin mess. Artificial, ridiculous, and intellectually insulting.

Restless Natives (UK 1985) (5): Stuck in Edinburgh with no money and no prospects Ronnie and Will are going nowhere fast—until they hit upon a novel idea to make a few quid. Armed with rubber masks and toy guns they begin robbing tour buses in the Scottish highlands where their polite mannerisms and generosity (with other people’s money) turn the marauding “Clown and Wolfman” into both national celebrities and a political headache. Of course the dream can’t last forever especially when the overly ambitious and slightly unhinged Ronnie begins hanging with the wrong crowd and Will falls for a tour guide causing his crisis of conscience to increase tenfold. Helmed by American director Michael Hoffman this flakey comedy has been compared by some to the works of Bill Forsyth but I’m not quite sure that is a compliment…to Forsyth. The bleak scenery and soundtrack of “Big Country” tunes are pleasant enough, but the “quirkiness” is forced throughout and the humour flatlines too often to be considered clever. A high-speed encounter with a Japanese camera crew which could have been hilarious if handled correctly is instead thrown in like so much insipid slapstick. Shored up by the usual roster of clichés—bratty sister, clueless parents, inept cops, stupid Americans—leads Vincent Friell and Joe Mullaney go through the motions without generating much in the way of chemistry. Nor is their sudden popularity adequately explained despite some lip service given to the Working Class and a pointed jab at Maggie Thatcher. Too lightweight to be satire and too bland to be farce, Hoffman gives us a serving of mildly amusing mediocrity instead. Likeable yet entirely forgettable. Ned Beatty co-stars as a big bumbling American investigator trying to simultaneously juggle a long distance divorce, an itchy face rash, and Scottish-style culture shock.

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

Revenge of the Living Dead Girls (France 1987) (4): A big sloppy mess of a film that seems to have something to do with toxic waste, corporate blackmail, and three dead chicks who refuse to stay buried. The cast of Eurotrash nobodies plod through a script that is so awful it’s good; the seduction scenes are especially hysterical. Of course there is the usual bit of gore…a woman gets a high heel in the eye, a man has his “other” head bitten off…and, as an added bonus, we’re treated to some hot girl-on-girl zombie action where we learn that a samurai sword makes a lousy dildo. The ending is so outrageous the director felt compelled to flash a notice on the screen begging audiences not to give it away. You’ll just want to wave your hands in the air and yell “Vive les Mortes!!”

Revolver (UK 2005) (6):  There’s a great saying that goes, “The fact that no one understands you doesn’t make you an artist”.  A fitting epitaph to this ostentatious display of psycho-babble and flashy pyrotechnics.  The story centres on Jake, a hard-nosed player newly released from prison and bent on getting even with Macha, the gangster who set him up.  Just as he’s about to exact his revenge however, he discovers he only has three days to live due to some rare disease (huh?)  Enter Zach and Avi, two mysterious loan sharks who promise to help him settle the score with Macha.....for a price.  The rest of the story consists of double-crosses, bloody shoot-outs and hefty dollops of Freudian psychology with a little Jung on the side.  Apparently the “real” enemy we face is our own ego which often manifests itself as an external threat.  Wow.  Guy Ritchie’s ego is certainly on display in every frame as he tries to convince us that style equals substance and trite aphorisms can become profound insights if they’re repeated often enough.  He even throws in some talking heads from the field of psychology as the end credits roll as if to prove to us that we just sat through something amazingly brilliant.  I will say this though, “Revolver” looks great in a Quentin Tarantino/John Woo sort of way, the music is interesting, and the performances above par.  It’s just not as clever as all the hype would have us believe.

Rhinoceros (USA 1974) (5): Usually drunk, lazy, and undependable, meek officer worker Stanley (Gene Wilder) is nevertheless alarmed when the people of his small town begin turning—quite literally—into rampaging rhinos. Beginning with his blowhard bourgeois friend John (Zero Mostel reprising his Tony-winning performance), the epidemic of rhinoceritis eventually affects everyone Stanley knows despite his efforts to warn them. Managing to avoid the transformation himself, Stanley nevertheless begins to wonder whether it would be better to simply join the bellowing herd rather than fight it… Although originally aimed at societal conformity and the rise of fascism in pre-WWII Europe (and the post war reverence for Communism held by the French intelligentsia) Franco-Romanian playwright Eugène Ionesco’s absurdist comedy is equally at home critiquing the “Me” generation of the 70s as in this American Playhouse production, or today’s fake news vs political correctness mob mentalities. Certainly the struggle of an everyman figure to maintain his individuality in the face of mounting pressure to conform socially, morally, and culturally is more or less universal. But whether or not you can appreciate the message is dependant upon how much “absurd” you’re willing to deal with. Hysterics, grunting, and smashing props take up most of the production’s running time (Mostel repeatedly tears the house down in bouts of sweaty rage) while Richard Nixon leers from a poster, television sets show nothing but war and violence, and clichéd slogans pop up on wall hangings—“What On Earth Are You Doing?”, “You Better Not Compromise Yourself…” Yes, yes, yes, I get it already.

Rich Hill (USA 2014) (8): Andrew Palermo and Tracy Tragos’ award-winning doc (Sundance 2014) follows the lives of three adolescent boys whose families are living in the shadow of the American dream. Filmed in the impoverished midwest town of Rich Hill, Missouri, we are first introduced to Andrew, a likeable kid living with a mother addicted to prescription sleeping pills and a father who drags the family all over the country following a series of get rich pipe dreams which never seem to materialize. Accepting his lot in life (“I’m just a kid, the adults control what happens…”) Andrew dabbles in football, horseplays with his kid sister, and patiently waits for God to answer his prayers. Appachey, suffering from an alphabet of mental disorders from ADD to OCD and possibly Asperger’s Syndrome, lives in a squalid house with his siblings and a single mother who gave up on her own dreams long ago. Lastly, the medicated and perpetually angry Harley is shuffled between grandparents while his mother completes a prison sentence (a conviction directly related to his anti-social behaviour) while at the same time shouldering a horrifying family secret. Intense and voyeuristic, with occasional passages of sadly poetic imagery—a meagre 4th of July fireworks display and neon-lit county fair merely highlight everyone’s plight—Palermo and Tragos refuse to judge their subjects thus avoiding having the film turn into a white trash horror show. Letting the kids, parents, and other adults speak for themselves instead, sometimes directly to the camera, a picture gradually emerges of human beings in flux partially due to their own bad decisions and partially due to the crushing economic realities around them. Garnering neither sympathy nor condemnation, Rich Hill’s snapshot of other peoples’ lives nevertheless leaves its audience with a few indelible memories like Andrew’s father using an electric skillet, kettle, and clothes iron to heat up enough water to fill the bathtub (the gas was shut off because of non-payment) or Harley enjoying his weekly phone conversation with his jailed mother. Sobering stuff.

Ride the High Country (USA 1962) (7): Not much of note in this early oater by director Sam Peckinpah other than it was the swan song for stars Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, and it marked the screen debut of Mariette Hartley. Aging U.S. marshal Steve Judd (McCrea) is hired to transport a cache of gold from a frontier California mining town to a bank vault several miles away. Teaming up with his old war buddy Gil Westrum (Scott) and Westrum’s hotheaded young sidekick Heck (B-movie hunk Ron Starr), they’re joined along the way by runaway Elsa (Hartley) who’s fleeing her fanatically religious father in order to marry a local prospector. Complications eventually arise for Judd when Westrum and his protege decide the gold would be better in their own pockets and Elsa discovers she’s marrying into a nightmare. Standard Western fare follows with drunken brawls and gung-ho shoot-outs, although two scenes do stand out—Elsa’s macabre brothel wedding turns into a swirling bacchanal straight from the mind of Fellini, and a now iconic sequence featuring McCrea, firearm blazing, as he gallops through clouds of gun powder straight at the camera. Sadly, Hartley’s character doesn’t really grow beyond the level of meek chattel despite a couple of attempted rapes and a supposedly headstrong attitude. It’s ultimately a story of transitions, with the Wild West giving way to businessmen and old heroes riding off into their various sunsets. But the real star of the film ends up being George Bassman’s gushing musical score, it’s sad melodies adding a touch of romanticism to Lucien Ballard’s Metrocolor panoramas of mountaintops and pine forests.

Right Now, Wrong Then (Korea 2015) (6): Sang-so Hong’s 122-minute endurance test is actually composed of two one-hour shorts which doesn’t make it seem any less long. While on location for his next film, director Ham Cheon-soo makes the acquaintance of local artist Yoon Hee-jeong and the two spend the day chatting about art, life, and the intricacies of the human heart while slowly becoming smitten with one another. But as evening falls Hee-jeong invites him to a dinner party where a combination of too much alcohol and a few dirty secrets threaten to ruin the evening. In the second half of the film time loops upon itself and the two meet for the very first time once again, only this time around things proceed with a bit more candour and emotional honesty (and the alcohol elicits slightly different results). In his 17th film Hong’s penchant for putting fraught relationships under the microscope is in full force and the added novelty of twin trajectories gives him an opportunity to explore the question of “what might have been if only…” A pair of handsome leads give finely nuanced performances (twice) even to the point of getting themselves drunk in real life in order to present the partially improvised script with as much authenticity as possible. And Hong utilizes a few clever tricks to accent the symmetry between stories: the film opens in a temple and closes in a theatre; colours shift in minute ways, and background movie posters remind us that we’re watching one ourselves. Fans of the director will revel in this one even though Hong has nothing new to say—but despite the impeccable cinematography and a playful script that comes across as wholly natural I still felt like a captive third wheel on two really boring dates.

Rigor Mortis (Hong Kong 2013) (8): Fans of the 1980s Mr. Vampire series have reason to celebrate as director Juno Mak reunites some former cast members for this grisly and darkly humorous homage to the Chinese “hopping vampire” genre. When a suicidal actor checks into a dilapidated apartment complex he’s not prepared for the supernatural goings on that seem to be an everyday part of life (and death) for the eccentric tenants. A pair of vengeful spirits haunt the flat across the hall, an old lady is raising a zombie in her bathtub, and a cadre of tattered demons wander the hallways every eveningjust to name a few. But when a wall-crawling, bunny-hopping bloodsucker is set loose the morose leading man finds himself allied with the kindly noodle vendor downstairs who also happens to be a vampire hunter… A serpentine plot and several confusing twists, at least for those of us not familiar with this brand of horror, eventually make some kind of sense, but logic takes a back seat to the colourfully acrobatic CGI effects and ghoulish Kung Fu showdowns. Mak takes great delight in filling the screen with as much hocus-pocus as he can: gossamer ghosts defy gravity while trailing a network of writhing tentacles behind them, black-eyed banshees scream from within mirrors, and the Asian-style Nosferatu is one chilling cadaver as it leaps and spins in its monk’s robes. The somewhat abrupt ending proves to be a head-scratcher (is there a bit of Jacob’s Ladder at work here?) but it was enough to make me want to rent the original prototype!

Rio (USA 2011) (5): Blu, a rare Spix’s Macaw owned and loved by Minnesota bookshop owner Linda, is actually the last male of his kind. Now, in order to save the species from extinction, the head of a Brazilian bird sanctuary talks Linda into bringing her pampered bird (he doesn’t even know how to fly) to Rio de Janeiro where he hopes to breed him with a captive female. But things go south in more ways than one when the headstrong female turns out to be less interested in romance than she is in escaping her confines and a wildlife smuggler suddenly sets his ruthless eyes on the valuable pair… 20th Century Fox certainly ticks all the right boxes in this animated feature: a lively score of original songs, bright crayon colours, and a screenful of adorably marketable characters for starters—oh those naughty little monkeys! They also managed to employ a handful of recognizable celebrities with Jesse Eisenberg and Anne Hathaway voicing the main avians, Wanda Sykes and Jane Lynch as a pair of obnoxious geese, Jamie Foxx and as a rapping pair of feathered sidekicks, and Jemaine Clement as a homicidal cockatoo. Plus there’s the usual wink-winks with Angry Bird cameos, a sanitized misquote from Die Hard, and a painful reference to family jewels which the kids probably won’t get. But despite all the makings of a decent film—some Vegas-style showstoppers would have wowed them in 3D—the “precious factor” is set a few degrees too high and all the jokes pretty much fall flat on their beaks. There’s nothing here that’s either new or memorable, and the one-note storyline could have been condensed into a 30-minute Saturday morning cartoon. Apparently the studio edited out some “off colour humour” in order to avoid the MPAA’s dreaded PG rating and that’s a pity for those lost jokes could have made a bit of difference. Or not.

Rio Bravo (USA 1959) (8): A classic oater directed by the legendary Howard Hawks and starring a drawling, swaggering John Wayne at his quintessential best. When frontier Texas sheriff John T. Chance (The Duke) throws the no-good brother of a crooked land baron in jail on charges of murder he knows he’s in for a rough time. It’s going to be a week before a U.S. marshal can collect the prisoner and in the meantime Chance will have to guard both himself and his small jailhouse against a growing gang of outlaws hired by the baron to bust his brother free. And the odds are against Chance for the only people on his side are a pair of inept deputies—one a drunk in perpetual D.T.s (a downplayed Dean Martin) the other a crippled old curmudgeon (a toothless Walter Brennan living the role)—plus an adolescent gunslinger (baby-faced teen idol Ricky Nelson on hiatus from Ozzie & Harriet ). For all its lack of originality Hawks keeps the action going with tense showdowns both big and small, comedic breaks (Brennan’s truculent non-stop monologue almost seems ad-libbed), and a bit of awkward romance when a young woman with a checkered past breezes into town and sets her sights on the sheriff (Angie Dickinson, twenty-five years Wayne’s junior). Marked by wide open cinematography that cashes in on its Arizona locations—cacti and widescreen sunsets galore—and an evocative score by Dimitri Tiomkin, Rio Bravo manages to avoid most of the genre clichés even though the bad guys do wear mostly black and wild west shootouts are okay as long as the criminals bite it. Science Fiction author Leigh Brackett co-wrote the screenplay—unusual for a woman in those days—and perhaps it’s this female perspective that lifts it from the usual string of cowboy platitudes into a work of classic cinema.

Rise of the Guardians (USA 2012) (10): When Pitch Black (aka The Bogeyman) unleashes a plague of bad dreams upon the world’s children the enigmatic Man in the Moon calls upon Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, Sandman, and a reluctant Jack Frost—-collectively known as “The Guardians”—-to defend the little ones from harm. But the very existence of the Guardians is dependant upon kids believing in them and as Black’s evil begins to turn that innocent belief into cynical doubt Santa and the gang find their magical powers becoming seriously depleted. Will they be able to thwart the Bogeyman in time, or will fear and skepticism become the new childhood norm? As it turns out the answer arrives from a most unlikely source… A big colourful comic book of a film with brightly animated characters, riotous action sequences, and a delightful sense of whimsy which feeds into some of our earliest childhood fantasies: from a big boisterous (and decidedly Soviet) Kris Kringle and his rocket sleigh to an endearingly somnolent Sandman adrift on a cloud of golden dust, a rainbow-hued Tooth Fairy and her flock of little hummingbird helpers, and an ill-tempered Easter Rabbit armed with boomerangs and a thick Aussie accent. And then there’s that supporting cast of muttering yetis, clumsy elves, two-legged pastel eggs, and a menacing herd of fiery-eyed nightmares. But it is the interplay between Pitch Black and Jack Frost which takes centre stage for both are pariahs in their own right and both yearn to become real in the eyes of preschoolers everywhere, albeit for two very different reasons. A clever script replete with sly visuals and presented with the kind of youthful zeal that makes you wish you hadn’t grown up quite so fast.

The Ritual (UK 2017) (8): After the tragic death of their friend, four buddies decide to take a hiking tour through the wilds of Sweden. Caught in a torrential rainstorm while traversing a deep dark forest, they seek overnight refuge in an old ramshackle cabin strangely adorned with runic symbols and a pagan altar of sorts. And that’s when the nightmares—both real and imagined—begin as a bloodthirsty something begins stalking them through a forest suddenly grown impenetrable… David Bruckner’s highly effective chiller, based on Adam Nevill’s novel, borrows a bit from Blair Witch, Evil Dead, and The Hills Have Eyes, yet still manages to produce something that can make audiences jump especially when the sun goes down and the shadows lengthen. Garnering most of his frissons from creepy music and sound effects with a few grisly shocks along the way, Bruckner also throws in a keen psychological dimension as main character Luke (a moody Rafe Spall), still blaming himself for the death of his friend, begins to confuse supernatural hauntings with a guilty conscience. Although a sojourn in a creepy deep woods village comes dangerously close to M. Night Shyamalan territory the final reel remains a satisfying mix of spooky and cerebral. A scary ensemble piece with all the usual jolts plus a refreshingly unexpected depth.

The Road (USA 2009) (8): In the wake of a global disaster (was it nuclear war? a comet strike?) America is reduced to a grey landscape of incinerated trees and ruined cities beneath roiling skies permanently choked with cinders. Through this desolation of skeletons and silence, decked out in rags and hauling their few possessions on a makeshift barrow, a man and his young son (Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee, both magnificent), slowly trudge along, heading towards the coast where the father believes some semblance of civilization may still exist. Living off whatever scraps they can find while braving apocalyptic storms, wildfires, and marauding bands of tribal cannibals, their relationship comes to represent the fracturing of mankind itself—the man tortured by golden dreams of the past while the boy, who was born after the disaster, faces a twilit future where death and deprivation are as common as the ubiquitous soot that covers every surface. A couple of defining encounters with fellow survivors, one a tired old man (Robert Duvall) and one young and desperate, will further highlight the ideological rift between father and son with the kid reaching out while dad clings zealously to his gun and its two remaining bullets even as he tries to impart some sense of nobility to his child. Will they reach the coast? And will it contain the promise of salvation they’ve pinned their hopes on? Based on Cormac McCarthy’s novel, director John Hillcoat’s sobering account of life after the fall is as far from the testosterone-laced idiocy of Mad Max as one can get. Much like 1983’s Testament in which a woman stoically faces The End with her children by her side, Hillcoat reduces man’s final bang and whimper to a single family unit (the mother, Charlize Theron, having given up earlier on). But this is a grittier, more appalling look at what can happen to the human animal once civilization’s veneer is ripped away. The film’s pall of violence and depravity, though never presented gratuitously, nevertheless imparts a bleakness more disheartening than all those images of blasted forests and crumbling country homes. “Keep the fire alive!” pleads dad at one point while choking on a lungful of ash, and in the shrouded silence this simple supplication resounds like a benediction.

The Robber (Austria 2010) (5): The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner takes a turn for the sinister in Benjamin Heisenberg’s adaptation of Martin Prinz’s novel, itself based on the notorious real-life exploits of Johann Rettenberger. Fresh out of a Viennese prison after serving a six-year sentence, adrenaline junkie and all around sociopath Rettenberger immediately begins indulging in his twin addictions: training for marathons and armed robbery—the first garnering him a couple of national titles, the latter providing him with an intense rush worth more than the garbage bags full of euros hidden under his bed. Growing ever bolder—and deadlier—in his modus operandi, it doesn’t take long for the police and his girlfriend to catch on. Only this time Johann is determined not to go back to jail… Hailed by some as an “existential crime drama,” Heisenberg definitely favours minimalism in his approach with a spare script that relies more on incidental noise, stretches of silence, and facial tics to drag the story along. In the lead role, Andreas Lust has the gaunt features and lifeless eyes common to this type of villain (apparently the real Rettenberger was an even bigger prick) while Franziska Weisz dutifully mopes about as the requisite dumb chick blinded by love. But emotive performances and nice scenery aside, this is a shallow exercise in character building whose few forays into arthouse symbolism (a cross looms on a mountain top, a helicopter traverses the sky like an angry god, a hole in the ground provides refuge) come across as mere window dressing rather than germane plot devices. And if the character of Rettenberger was meant to stand for anything other than a despicable creep of a human being it was lost in translation. At least it has a happy ending.

The Robe (USA 1953) (3): According to Christian mythology, as Jesus lay dying on the cross the Roman guards assigned to carry out his crucifixion gambled with dice to see who would get to keep his homespun robe. According to director Henry Koster’s bloated religious spectacle the leader of those soldiers is Tribune Marcellus Gallio, a loyal Roman who had only recently arrived in Judea accompanied by his Greek manservant Demetrius. Winning the robe just as Christ takes his last breath, Marcellus is suddenly consumed by a crippling sense of guilt which follows him all the way back to Rome where his troubled conscience and incipient belief eventually put him on a collision course with newly crowned emperor Caligula—a man slightly mad and vehemently opposed to the growing cult of Christianity… In a film so uniformly awful it’s difficult to know where to begin a critical post mortem. Could it be the cheesy matte backgrounds? The blaring soundtrack of trumpets, screeching violins, and angelic alleluias? The strained sense of religious ecstasy that has characters staring dreamy-eyed into the heavens as if they just took a hit off a big ol’ Catholic bong? For me it was the abysmal performances which delivered the final nail (pun intended). As Marcellus Gallio, Richard Burton displays the emotional range of a wooden marionette while Victor Mature as the born again Demetrius reads his lines as if he were reciting stats from the back of a bubblegum card. Then there’s Michael Rennie as the apostle Peter revising his role from The Day the Earth Stood Still sans spacesuit; Jean Simmons fussing and mewling as Marcellus’ girlfriend Diana; and Jay Robinson stealing every scene as Caligula, a cartoon villain skulking across the faux classical sets hissing and spitting like a wet cat. One expects a certain amount of dramatic hyperbole from these faith-based “epics” but Koster uses up his quota within the first fifteen minutes leaving the remaining two hours looking like a gaudy Christian infomercial (oh that final scene!) while the metaphor of the eponymous robe itself—changing lives as it changes hands—is pretty much lost amid the overblown pageantry. And this Cinemascope gobbler actually won two Oscars and was nominated for three more including “Best Picture” and “Best Actor” for Burton?!?!

Robin and Marian (USA/UK 1976) (8): Fairy tales are always supposed to end with “happily ever after…” so perhaps this partly explains why Richard Lester’s bittersweet coda to the legend of Robin Hood received such a lukewarm response upon its initial release. After having spent twenty years fighting in the Crusades alongside the late King Richard, a greyer and wearier Robin (a perfectly cast Sean Connery) returns to a Sherwood Forest that has somehow grown smaller and less magical. His longtime foe the Sheriff of Nottingham (a sadistic Robert Shaw) now reigns supreme and his former band of merry men have all moved on. Even his one true love, the maid Marian (a glowing Audrey Hepburn), has forsaken the world and become abbess of the local convent now under siege by a Pope-hating King John. But while Robin’s remaining followers slowly begin to trickle back into the forest a December passion rekindles between the Prince of Thieves and his Lady as they try to make up for two decades of separation. Unfortunately, although the years have also taken their toll on the Sheriff the animosity between him and Robin has not diminished making one final confrontation inevitable. A few narrative jumps cause the film’s pace to stumble now and again and John Barry’s intrusive musical score too often borders on gushing treacle, yet there is a solidity to James Goldman’s script which tinges its romantic centrepiece with sadness and a yearning for what might have been. As Robin and Marian embrace we sense their disenchantment with a world they once delighted in for they’ve both become all too aware of the ugliness which lurks beneath: Robin’s experiences in battle have left more than physical scars on his once perfect body and Marian’s crushing loneliness came close to destroying her. Even a supposedly heroic battlefield scene toward the end comes across as pointless and pathetic. Only Robin’s lifelong friend Little John (Nicol Williamson) seems unaffected by the passing years. Having followed Robin to the Holy Land and back we see in John’s eyes a devotion that perhaps goes far deeper than mere friendship making Robin and Marian an unorthodox kind of love triangle. Pensive and unashamedly nostalgic, this is one heart-tugger that had me in the palm of its hand right up to that emotionally draining final scene. Richard Harris, Denholm Elliot, Ian Holm, and Ronnie Barker round out the stellar cast.

Robinson Crusoe on Mars (USA 1964) (5): Stranded on Mars with only a pet monkey, an American astronaut tries to make the best of it despite an errant asteroid, an alien invasion, and an escaped slave from another world. Bad special effects and even worse science (to be fair, the film was released a year before Mariner 4's historic fly-by of the red planet) render this flick little more than a cinematic curiousity. At least Paul Mantee is easy on the eyes.

Rocketman (UK 2019) (8): Once upon a time at the Betty Ford Clinic a group of patients were gathering for their nightly support group when in burst a loud and angry man dressed in a ridiculously camp sequins & feathers devil costume. Taking a seat in the healing circle he began to regale the inmates with his sad tale of a terribly talented but emotionally neglected little boy whose gift for music shot him to stardom, yet whose ill-fated search for true love led him down the path of addictions: to drugs, to sex, and to fame itself. The man, of course, is Elton John (amazing performance from Taron Egerton) and Dexter Fletcher’s biopic—an engaging mix of burlesque and musical drama—proves to be as raucous and flamboyant as the rock icon himself. Starting with a 10-year old Reginald Dwight belting out “The Bitch is Back” while his dancing neighbours twirl about their modest cul-de-sac, you know this is going to be a film with one foot firmly planted in the ether, but Fletcher manages to keep a tight hold on the reins throughout. The result is an entertaining and highly watchable mash of music video, true confession, and old-fashioned story edged with fairy dust and glitter.

Rock of Ages (USA 2012) (6): Set in 1987, Adam Shankman’s rock ‘n roll musical follows the adventures of songbird Sherrie Christian (she’s just a small town girl) who leaves the dim lights of Tulsa Oklahoma to seek her fortune on L.A.’s Sunset Strip. Ending up waiting tables at the infamous Bourbon Room, Sherrie falls for Drew Boley, another singer wallowing in obscurity, and together the two face down adversity and heartache as they strive to make a name for themselves. Along the way there will be run-ins with an egotistical rock legend (Tom Cruise?!), a slimy talent agent, and a moral crusade of Orange County housewives led by the mayor’s suspiciously puritanical wife. Of course the cookie cutter plot takes a distant backseat to the non-stop barrage of 80’s metal anthems, but if Shankman was trying to do for big hair bands what Julie Taymor did for The Beatles in 2007’s Across The Universe he doesn’t even come close. Whereas Taymor’s film combined some amazing tunes with a cleverly conceived story, Shankman merely churns out an overly long music video which, thankfully, doesn’t take itself too seriously. Some of the staging is well done as when strip club owner Mary J. Blige belts out “Any Way You Want It” while her girls defy gravity on the dance poles, but most of the numbers are just plain silly fun...picture Russell Brand and Alec Baldwin as aging metal-heads falling in love with each other while crooning “Can’t Fight This Feeling”. If the movie itself is completely forgettable the soundtrack will keep you humming for days and the little splashes of 80s memorabilia, including a few wrinkled cameos, will make those of us old enough to remember crack a smile. Or just cringe.

The Roe’s Room (Poland 1997) (8): Lech Majewski’s autobiographical opera about growing up with his parents is brought to the small screen in this beautiful production made for Polish television. Faintly reminiscent of Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes, in spirit if not in presentation, Majewski offers up a succession of nonlinear, highly formalized mise-en-scènes designed to invoke the magical and impressionistic qualities of childhood memories in which a drab hallway carpet becomes a verdant meadow or a dusty library is transformed into a mysterious jungle. Using the four seasons as a template he traces the inevitable evolution of his own family. In spring and summer all is tender caresses and sunlit windows with green vines poking through the plaster walls, young deer roaming the living-room and a bubbling spring erupting in the middle of the dinner table. Yet by winter the plants have withered, the deer have fled, and the aging parents are frozen by an icy blizzard howling from an open fridge. Along the way the son experiences his first sexual stirrings as he gazes upon the carnal exploits of his downstairs neighbour; and a dawning spiritual awareness as he vaguely wonders about the well-being of his prayerful upstairs neighbour. Majewski’s use of incidental objects to add subtext to the film’s disjointed narrative is marvelous; whether it’s an enigmatic painting by Chirico partially obscured by blowing curtains, or the passage of time indicated by the father’s collection of stamps showing the phases of the moon. Filled with obscure rituals and stagy theatrics this film is definitely not for everyone, but I found it completely absorbing. And the music is magnificent.

Rogue (Australia 2007) (8): A group of tourists out for a day of sightseeing in Australia’s Northern Territories are stranded on an island in the middle of a rising river when their boat is attacked by a giant crocodile. With the water level creeping ever upwards and the giant reptile prowling just offshore they embark on a desperate gambit to reach safety before they are either drowned or eaten. Writer/director Greg McLean, the man who set the “Ozploitation” genre on its ear with his Wolf Creek instalments, gives us an exciting Aussie spin on Jaws with seven metres of scales and snapping teeth determined to make a snack out of the usual assortment of horror dramatis personae. But what sets this flick above the others is an enthusiastic cast who throw themselves (literally) into their roles, an unexpectedly evocative soundtrack of strings and percussion, and some majestic widescreen vistas of wild Australia. Of course you are required to overlook a few lapses in logic and a wee bit of artistic license, this is a monster movie after all, but the CGI effects are enough to make you flinch and a final showdown in a subterranean lair is a small triumph of editing and special effects choreography.

Rojo (Argentina 2018) (8): A well-to-do lawyer gets involved in a ridiculous class struggle when an agitated vagrant demands he give up his restaurant table…words lead to actions and three months later he finds himself a person of interest after the vagrant is reported missing. Set in Argentina circa 1975 at the beginning of the American-backed “Dirty War”, the ensuing police investigation provides little more than a backdrop for Benjamin Naishtat’s deadly comic skewering of his country’s sociopolitical skeletons. It seems no one is entirely innocent, aside from the few who mysteriously “disappear” during the film, and Naishtat takes great delight in tossing out politically charged non-sequiturs throughout whether it be a troupe of visiting American cowboys greeted as saints (the local governor gives them a silver chalice, they give him a leather whip), a crack aimed at Catholic hypocrisy, or the eccentric detective investigating the disappearance—a Chilean TV cop with a “God & Country” fetish. Even old television commercials weigh in with a bourgeois fop who’d rather commit murder than share his candy. The acting is impeccably downbeat with a musical score that waffles between Spanish ballads and upbeat classical arrangements, and the director’s camera always seems eager to corral his actors regardless of location—the interiors are crowded, the exteriors are either hemmed by austere desert or heaving ocean (where an impromptu solar eclipse momentarily colours everyone blood red). Apparently no one is worthy of salvation and since Naishtat opens his movie with eager proles looting the house of a dead man and closes it with a musical salute to colonialism, no prisoners are taken either. Ouch.

Rollerball (UK 1975) (8): Norman Jewison’s sadly overlooked science fiction classic is perhaps more pertinent now than it was forty years ago. In a future utopian society run by a global Corporate Government and its ruling class of “executives”, all of mankind’s historical ills…poverty, disease, avarice…have been eradicated. Kept happily anesthetized by their boardroom overlords through the use of recreational narcotics, erotic distractions, and shiny techno toys, the people only have one law they must observe…never ever question the actions of those in charge. The population’s one aggressive outlet is the enormously popular televised sport of rollerball; a dangerously violent high-speed variation of roller derby in which armoured players use any means at their disposal to cripple the opposing team as they try to gain possession of a steel ball. But when the sport’s most charismatic player, Jonathan E., is asked to retire at the height of his career he refuses to blindly obey the executive council and instead begins asking some very uncomfortable questions regarding the government’s motives and the true nature of the game—-a move which leads to tragedy and some horrifying revelations. With elaborate sets stocked with futuristic kitsch (day-glo furniture and computer punch cards?) and a classical soundtrack of sad strings and pounding organ solos (Bach’s Tocata und Fugue in D Minor figures prominently) Jewison’s vision of one man’s battle against a flawed Eden looks charmingly retro yet carries within it some chilling comparisons to today’s headlines. This is a disarmed society, dependant upon high tech bread & circuses to keep it amused and content to uphold the status quo as long as its basic needs are met. Libraries, overseen by corporate computers, contain appropriately censored and condensed literature; multiple television screens adorn every room; and aphrodisiacs are passed around like breath mints. In one especially telling scene a group of bored elite, hung over from the previous night’s bacchanal, seem lost when they wander out into the natural world…until they decide to make a game out of setting fire to a stand of pine trees. And all the while the game of rollerball becomes increasingly lethal as the rules governing it are slowly pared away and the fans begin responding with violence of their own. A deadly serious social satire or cautionary political allegory? Both I’d say, and more.

Roma (Mexico 2018) (10): Culled from his own childhood experiences growing up in middle class Mexico City circa 1970, Alfonso Cuarón has given us what may very well prove to be his career masterpiece. Presented in rich shades of black and white this quasi-impressionistic stream of memories finds its focus in Cleo (a knockout performance from Yalitza Aparicio), the indigenous maid tasked with looking after the home of Antonio, Sofia, and their four privileged children. Weathering crises both familial and personal Cleo proves to be the glue which holds everyone together even when her own life threatens to come undone. Meanwhile, as if to mirror the smaller family drama, civil unrest and social injustice play out in city streets where protesting students are shot by their own peers, and on country estates where the elite sip champagne while the forest burns. But if Cuarón’s skill at directing manages to elicit a compelling story it’s his cinematography which propels the film into the realm of poetic art. Using wide screen panoramas, his camera slowly and methodically pans back and forth capturing his actors seemingly off guard going about their daily business and imbuing the slightest nuance with enormous import whether it be a succession of distant passenger jets bisecting the sky or piles of dog shit dotting an otherwise pristine courtyard. Apparently the director regularly sprang surprises on his cast resulting in performances whose occasional sense of bewilderment was genuine. There is a controlled restlessness to Roma as it unfolds with the clarity of a waking daydream, a study in contrasts as Cuarón (guided by his wandering recollections) captures images of deadly riots and compares them to an overflowing delivery room—one scene of childbirth in particular deserving a place in cinematic history—or else pairing scenes of domestic tranquility with emotional torment as Sofia’s marriage dissolves right before Cleo’s downcast eyes even as she deals with her own heartbreak. With every scene an art gallery photograph and a soundtrack enriched with background noise and pop radio, Cuarón’s opus is many things at once: an intimate diary; a paean to his own nanny (on whom Cleo is based); and above all a passionate love letter to cinema’s ability to transport and transform. Bravo, bravo, bravo!

Roman Holiday (USA 1953) (8): Winning Oscars for costume design, writing, and best actress for a relatively unknown twenty-four-year old Audrey Hepburn, director William Wyler's wistful romantic comedy has found its way onto many "best of" lists including Steven Schneider's "1001 Movies to See Before You Die" and the American Film Institute's "Greatest Genre Films". Shot entirely in Rome and using that city's exotic backdrops to full effect, it tells the story of a very bored Princess Ann (of no affixed country) who becomes so desperately vexed by endless state duties that she sneaks out of her palatial digs during an official stopover in Italy in order to wander the streets of Rome incognito. Falling asleep on a park bench she piques the interest of American newsman Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck) who reluctantly takes her under his wing. And then Joe finds out who this demure young waif really is and realizes he just may have stumbled onto the most lucrative story of his career. Joining forces with his photographer buddy Irving (Eddie Albert), Joe takes Ann---who has no idea she's been recognized---on a giddy 24-hour tour of the Eternal City while Irving snaps clandestine pics of her enjoying her first true tastes of freedom, from smoking a cigarette to joining in a dance hall brawl. But Rome tends to weave a spell on young couples and before the day is over naive sovereign and cynical civilian will discover they have much more in common than they first thought... Filmed in gauzy B&W, Wyler's bittersweet tale of improbable love revels in amour while at the same time keeping one foot firmly fixed in reality. For all his acting prowess Peck never could play a convincing romantic lead but this shortcoming is hardly noticeable as Hepburn lights up the screen with every appearance, her delicate beauty and sense of grace giving the entire project a heart of pure enchantment. Dreamy, playful, but not without a note of sadness, this is one bit of old school romance which has withstood the test of time.

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (USA 1961) (8): After her husband’s sudden death aging actress Karen Stone finds herself adrift in Rome—a city which, like herself, exists largely in the past. He had been twenty years older than her and that age gap, plus a circle of flattering friends, allowed Karen to ignore some harsher truths about herself: she had more personality than talent, and she was quickly approaching middle-age. Alone for the first time Stone falls prey to the wiles of Contessa Magda, an embittered relic of European nobility now peddling illusions of romance to rich lonely women (and men) in the form of dashing young gigolos. One such rent-boy, Paolo, slowly works his way past Karen’s defences threatening both her personal stability and very public reputation in the process. A lush technicolor adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ tragedy headlined by Vivian Leigh (whose personal life mirrored much of Karen’s) and a shockingly young Warren Beatty who sabotages his own good looks with a ridiculously affected Italian accent. True to Williams’ style everyone seems to exist within a comforting bubble of unreality from Paolo’s pathetic attempts to rise above his station in life to Stone’s own fragile vanity as she wills herself into believing she’s finally found love and passion. Reality, however, is never far away for Karen’s future is literally shadowing her through the streets and alleyways of Rome. A fine cast is rounded out by screen great Lotte Lenya as the Contessa, a cynical dowager who mocks the very women she purports to be helping, and Jill St. John as Barbara Bingham, a shallow starlet who embodies everything Karen feels she has lost. A sad tale presented with style and flair.

Rome Adventure (USA 1962) (6): Suzanne Pleshette and Troy Donahue can’t decide whether they’re starring in a love story or a two-hour travelogue for Tourism Italia in this sweet little bowl of romantic mush. She plays Prudence Bell, a chaste librarian at an exclusive Connecticut girls’ college who rebels against her school’s stifling sense of morality by quitting and heading for Rome in search of love. He plays Don Porter, an American student studying abroad who’s just had his heart torn in two by a man-eating femme fatale and is now desperately on the rebound. Looking for consolation in each other’s company Prudence eagerly wraps her legs around Don’s vespa and the two embark on a whirlwind series of postcard adventures. But even as they fall head over heels for each other complications loom on the horizon; Don’s first love slinks back for an encore while Prudence discovers she has a few more suitors than she bargained for including the debonair (and way too old) Rossano Brazzi. With its derivative plot, misty-eyed performances and mawkish dialogue, Rome Adventure often plays like the screen adaptation of a “True Romance” comic book. With all that innocence and heartbreak being bandied about it’s a wonder anyone has time to listen to the droning voice of Prudence and Don’s tour guide as she points out several of Italy’s wonderful sights, (I wonder if they had travel agents standing by at the back of the theatre?) However, despite all that there remains a certain dated charm to this film which actually made me care about what happened to the two overly attractive lovebirds. Pleshette is convincing as the sweet naif while screen hunk Donahue registers heartache like a pro; their scenes together combine just the right amount of innocent playfulness and sexual tension. Furthermore a capable supporting cast including Constance Ford as a sage bookstore owner and Iphigenie Castiglioni as the kindly owner of the pensione where everyone is staying add a nice dose of reality. Lastly, legendary trumpeter Al Hirt manages to make an awkward cameo even more awkward while the glories of Rome provide a beautiful backdrop. It’s all mush of course, but tasty sexy mush just the same.

Rome, Open City (Italy 1946) (8): Roberto Rossellini’s magnificent film about life in Rome under Nazi rule was in the vanguard of the Italian neo-realism movement and is as powerful now as it ever was. Although his professional actors are incredible (Anna Magnani can do no wrong) his cast of non-professionals, including actual German POWs in the role of enemy soldiers, is wholly believable; small wonder when you consider the real Occupation was still fresh in everyone’s mind. Over the course of a few days we’re introduced to a wide cross-section of people including a Catholic priest drawn into the resistance armed only with his faith, a young widow planning her wedding in the midst of chaos, a bitter actress turned collaborator, and a world-weary German officer who regards his “master race” with a jaundiced eye. Rossellini strikes a perfect dramatic balance between hope and despair, softening the film’s many tragic moments with flashes of comic relief to remind us that life goes on. Although heroes and traitors are given equal time a series of inspirational soliloquies leave no doubt as to where his sentiments rightly lie; it’s this lack of the usual bombastic sermons that truly highlights the everyday courage of his characters. Despite it’s stark realism Open City nevertheless contains some truly cinematic moments as when a group of children solemnly walk away after witnessing an execution, or the image of an ostentatious German officers’ club which backs onto a torture chamber. The portrayal of a heartless Nazi moll as a predatory lesbian didn’t sit well with me however, was her homosexuality supposed to indicate how utterly depraved she was? This implied homophobia is a small, albeit troubling criticism for a film that is otherwise pretty near perfect.

Romper Stomper  (Australia 1992) (4):  Well meaning but poorly conceived mess of a film lacking any real insight and taking itself far too seriously. A supposed statement on racism and violence, it tends to revel in the very thing it sets out to condemn......with Russell Crowe shamelessly mugging for the camera and endless sequences of frenzied yobbos smacking each other and smashing things. The final scene with our little neo-nazi Romeo and Juliet rolling in the surf while a busload of Asian stereotypes look on was so poorly done it was laughable.

La Ronde (France 1950) (8): Max Ophul’s lighthearted merry-go-round of a movie follows the romantic exploits of its circulating cast as they go through the rigors of love; from seduction to heartbreak to eventual rebound with another willing player. Guided by the film’s omniscient narrator who wields the power of fate in his hand, each separate story segues smoothly into the next as characters switch partners and love begins anew. Prostitutes and soldiers, poets and mistresses, Counts and scoundrels; all take part in a marvelously circular danse d’amour while a swirling background waltz maintains a steady rhythm like the beating of a heart. Ophul adds some colourful touches along the way; plaster cherubs and satyrs peek out of bushes, every scene includes a clock to mark the passage of time, and a whimsical carousel spins round and round in the centre of town...stopping only briefly when one character experiences a temporary bout of impotence. Filled with theatrical conceits and sexual innuendo (sometimes a sword is not just a sword) this is a bright breezy film delivered with a playful insouciance that has aged beautifully.

Room at the Top (UK 1959) (7): Despite its uneven performances and heavy-handed moralizing, Jack Clayton’s working class melodrama sports a literate script and enough taboo-breaking that it earned a strong “X” rating from the British censors. In a mad dash to rise above his station in life dissatisfied office clerk Joe Lampton (a wooden Laurence Harvey) sacrifices the the one woman who truly loves him, the older unhappily married Alice (Oscar winner Simone Signoret), in favour of pursuing a dalliance of convenience with Susan, the naïve daughter of a wealthy factory owner (Heather Sears all sugar and spice and a head full of helium). But be careful of what you wish for, as the adage goes, for just as Joe stands poised to have it all the flimsy house of cards he built through scheming and deception threatens to crash down upon him. From Susan’s class-conscious parents to the righteous hypocrisy of Alice’s philandering husband, Britain’s strictly tiered society is dissected to reveal the moral desert behind the monied facade. Frustrated at every turn, Joe soon realizes that in post war England (the film takes place in 1947) those born into a lower caste aren’t even allowed to dream of cake let alone eat it. Daring at the time for its frank depictions of adultery and (gasp!) sexual pleasure, Clayton presents a most unflattering vision of an industrialized north choked with smog, littered with brick smokestacks, and crawling with soot-covered children in raggedy clothes. But the film really belongs to Signoret who sets the screen to smoulder with her depiction of a fully fleshed sexual being whose passionate embraces barely hide the anger she feels at being used as a pawn by the two men in her life. Dated, but still entirely watchable.

Rope (USA 1948) (10): Banned from several theatres upon its initial release due to a great deal of implied homosexuality not to mention allusions to justifiable genocide, Alfred Hitchcock’s first colour film remains one of his best—a dark and unsettling study of one upper class sociopath’s evening of psychological games. Roommates (and probable lovers) Brandon and Phillip feel they have just committed the perfect murder when they entice former classmate David to their Manhattan penthouse, strangle him, and then stuff his body into an antique trunk which they keep in the living room. But whereas the high-strung Phillip suffers from crippling remorse immediately afterwards the ice cold Brandon feels only elation on successfully executing the “perfect killing” of a second-class human being—murder, after all, doesn’t apply if you are the victims intellectual and social superior. To celebrate his triumph Brandon hosts a dinner party that night using the old trunk as a macabre serving table. Among the invitees are David’s father, his girlfriend, and the girlfriend’s ex beau…David’s former romantic rival who still carries a torch for her. Also invited is Rupert Cadell, one of the men’s professors from college (James Stewart in fine form), a shrewd and observant creature who doesn’t miss a thing... Famous for being filmed entirely on one indoor set (true) using one continuous take (not true) this is definitely one of Hitchcock’s more striking productions with a voyeuristic camera smoothly gliding from room to room, seemingly in real time, as it follows first one character and then the other. Masterfully directed, Hitchcock manages to make eighty minutes seem like an entire evening’s worth of tension and suspense starting with the murder itself and ending with a somewhat ingratiating homily perhaps meant to dispel some of the film’s more controversial elements. A fine ensemble piece which plays out like live theatre.

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

The Rose (USA 1979) (6): Bette Midler overdoes the Janis Joplin schtick in Mark Rydell’s rock ’n roll tragedy about a foul-mouthed superstar whose stage antics and bigger than life persona barely conceal a private life being ripped apart by alcohol, drugs, and histrionics. Decked out in raggedy Stevie Nicks dresses, a frizzy perm, and perpetually smeared mascara, Mary “The Rose” Foster shrieks and stumbles her way from one sold out gig and consequent meltdown to another all the while tearfully professing her need for love and stability. She seems to find both when a drunken one-night stand with a chauffeur (Oscar nominee Frederic Forrest) turns into a passionate on-again off-again affair—until he realizes just how much baggage she’s really carrying. Midler received an Oscar nomination for her role as the booze-soaked emotionally grasping diva but watching her character circle the drain for two hours proves to be a bit of an endurance test even with a sordid backstory from her youth thrown in to help explain a few things as well as add an edge of poignancy to a certain upcoming tour date. However, when she takes to the stage for the film’s numerous full-length concert scenes Midler shifts into pure “Divine Miss M.” mode shaking the screen with a soulful rendition of Midnight in Memphis, a raucous nightclub performance of Seeger’s Fire Down Below backed by a stage full of adoring drag queens, and even though we all know how it’s going to end this doesn’t stop her from bringing down the curtain with a cover of Joplin’s Stay With Me Baby so raw that Pearl herself would have given it a standing ovation. And of course there’s the title song which haunted airwaves long after the movie left town. Also nominated for Best Sound and Editing, the concert scenes could very well stand alone thanks to thousands of screaming extras and cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond’s ability to capture Midler (and her band) in every flattering spotlight. The rest is just generic “price of stardom” melodrama one can read about in any back issue of Rolling Stone magazine…or People. Alan Bates shares the screen as Rose’s unrelenting manager, but whether he’s her beleaguered handler well on the way to a first ulcer and heart attack or a heartless controlling monster is up for debate.

The Rose Tattoo (USA 1955) (8): Three years after the tragic death of her truck driver husband, Serafina Delle Rose (Oscar-winner Anna Magnani) is still in mourning: refusing to leave the house, get dressed, or socialize. But three things arise to shake her out of this pathological lethargy—her teenaged daughter Rosa (Oscar-nominee Marisa Pavan) shakes off her mother’s gloom and falls in love herself; Serafina begins to suspect that the man she once worshipped was not the god she made him out to be; and a new man enters her life in the form of Alvaro, a marginally employed yet manically happy truck driver (Burt Lancaster overdoing it a bit). In Tennessee Williams’ raucous stage play set in the American south life has a habit of going on despite one unhappy woman’s attempts to stop the clock and director Daniel Mann’s impressive screen adaptation illuminates her journey with lush tropical cinematography and a brilliant script that balances heartache with a touch of eroticism and generous dollops of humour. In this her first English-language role, Magnani is a powerhouse of grief and sensuality playing a woman constantly peeved that the world refuses to tiptoe past her door. Her passionate performance (and perfect comic timing) generating sympathy and smiles as she rages against her perceived lot. Pavan provides counterpoint as a young naif who still believes in romantic love despite the roadblocks her mother puts in her way while Lancaster bridges the gap as a muscular free spirit unable to dwell on life’s downs for more than a few moments. And the ubiquitous roses—seen on tattoos and wallpaper, in gardens and people’s names—are there to remind us that love (both carnal and emotional) may be thorny at times but it endures whether we stop to smell them or not.

Rosetta (Belgium 1999) (8): This troubling Dardenne brothers’ film not only won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, its bleak presentation of childhood poverty also caused Belgium to rethink its child labour laws. Teenaged Rosetta (Émilie Dequenne—best actress, Cannes) is a resourceful and honest young woman so determined to escape her squalid home life that her search for gainful employment is bordering on a manic obsession. Living in a trailer with no running water and an alcoholic mother who is not above turning the occasional trick for a case of beer, she is both a reluctant caregiver and sporadic breadwinner. Wary of everyone and trusting no one, not even the hesitant young man who attempts to connect with her, Rosetta sees holding down a real job as her only route to salvation and normalcy. But with only a string of temp positions to her name (she’s let go before her position can become permanent) hope is eroded by a creeping pessimism and each failed attempt to rise above her station precipitates yet another meltdown… Filmed in jarring verité style with natural sounds and handheld cameras that never stray far from Rosetta’s shoulder, the Dardennes maintain a heartbreaking intimacy with their battered protagonist as she trudges into one brick wall after another while vainly trying to hide her poverty from the world. Fighting against odds that seem forever stacked against her she finds sad consolation in repeating her childish mantra, “I won’t be left by the wayside”, before closing her eyes at night. Confrontational and immersive from the very beginning, this is a discomfiting experience right up to its darkly ambivalent final frame which begs the question, which route do you take when all roads seem to lead nowhere?

A Royal Night Out (England 2015) (7): It’s VE day 1945 and all of London is erupting into spontaneous parties and conga lines to celebrate the end of WWII. But from the windows of Buckingham Palace young princesses Elizabeth and Margaret can only dream of joining the commoners in the streets for their days are to be filled with interminable receptions and stuffy gala lunches. Miraculously they somehow manage to convince the king and queen to allow them to leave the palace grounds in order to attend a party at an upscale nightclub—and even more miraculously they manage to evade the military escorts assigned to them and head out on their own instead, completely incognito. Overwhelmed by the throngs of people, “Mags” and “Lillabet” quickly become separated and thus begins a royal night of madcap adventures and sobering revelations. As a tittering inebriated Margaret drifts from party to party she eventually finds herself in a notorious opium den on the arm of a dashing officer with only one thing on his mind. Meanwhile Elizabeth, accompanied by an AWOL soldier, scours the city in search of her sister while the two military escorts originally assigned to protect them fret over what they’re going to tell the parents… Needless to say it’s mostly make-believe and nonsense only loosely based on an actual event but taken as a fluffy piece of alternative history Julian Jarrold’s innocent caper goes down surprisingly well. As the royal sisters Sarah Gadon and Bel Powley gape and sparkle like something out of a Hayley Mills comedy, Emily Watson and Rupert Everett play the majestic mom and pop with stiff-lipped aplomb, and thousands of revelling extras give us an idea of what it must have been like. In the role of Jack, the AWOL soldier and Liz’s unsuspecting companion for the evening, Jack Reynor brings a certain degree of gravitas to the proceedings as the sad tale of his war experiences give the future queen something to mull over. Naturally Jarrold had to tread a fine line when embellishing a story about the royal family so not to worry, Elizabeth’s adventures are as chaste as can be (a quasi-platonic peck on the lips with Jack is mostly implied offscreen) and despite passing out in a wheelbarrow Margaret arrives on the Palace steps with her virginity safe and sound. In fact, if it weren’t for the hookers and the dead horse this fun little romp would be downright Disney.

The Royal Tenenbaums (USA 2001) (6): After an absence of seven years Royal Tenenbaum, the curmudgeonly patriarch of an eccentric New York family (Gene Hackman), tries to reconnect with his estranged loved ones. But wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) has a new career and a new paramour and his three grown children—once child prodigies and now neurotic adults—hardly know him and prefer to keep it that way. There’s failed playwright Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow) a chain-smoking recluse, Wall Street whiz Chas (Ben Stiller) now an overly obsessive single father of two charming mopheads, Richie (Luke Wilson) a former tennis pro now living in disgrace; and longtime family friend Eli (Owen Wilson) a mediocre author and coke head with designs on the married Margot. Aided by his would-be assassin and now loyal sidekick Pagoda, Royal resorts to subterfuge and emotional manipulation in order to regain his family’s love but the Tenenbaum clan proves to be a tougher bunch of nuts to crack than he bargained for. Directed and co-written by Wes Anderson, this kaleidoscopic montage of quirky visuals and stilted dialogue moves at such a breakneck pace you hardly notice the dearth of emotional content beneath all the gimmickry. The all-star cast (including Bill Murray as Margot’s doormat husband) emote and grimace on cue but aside from Hackman and Huston they’re all idiosyncrasy without much substance. Royal was a terrible father and his children are paying the price, that much is clear, but without more illumination the scars they bear are just so much cinematic excess—Stiller rants and pouts, Paltrow stares and pouts, Wilson just pouts. Anderson’s signature panache is in full evidence however as New York is given a capricious fairy tale sheen and everyone seems suspended in a retro time bubble. Unfortunately this is a film in need of an anchor, or at least a cohesive point of reference, and without either one its actors are left in limbo and all those final resolutions seem pat and dry.

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

Rubber (France 2010) (9): Some films take themselves far too seriously, others not seriously enough. And then there’s Rubber, Quentin Dupieux’s seriously fucked up homage to “No Reason” which doesn’t seem to give a shit either way. Deep in the American southwest a discarded car tire with homicidal tendencies shakes itself into consciousness and begins rolling through the countryside with killing on its steel-belted mind, (it has telekinetic powers which make things go boom—-like bunny rabbits and human heads). But complications arise in the form of love interest Sheila, a raven-haired drifter for whom the rubber killer develops an erotic obsession, and a posse of rather ineffectual state troopers who would just as soon step out of character and go home. And just to remind you that the movie’s premise is every bit as nonsensical as you think it is, a crowd of Comic Con geeks hang around in the nearby desert critiquing the story as it unfolds through their binoculars. In fact the film can’t end as long as they’re alive and watching it…a complication which the director tries to remedy in his own infernal way. Supremely silly, amusingly gory, and one of the most wickedly original works I’ve seen in some time. Watching a simple rubber tire (no big special effects budget here) as it longs for a girlfriend, takes out its revenge on an errant motorist, and then helps itself to a motel shower, is so ridiculous that I found myself laughing as much out of enjoyment as embarrassment. And that outrageous final scene sticks it to the movie industry as few indie films ever have. Gives “Goodyear” a whole new meaning.

Rudderless (USA 2014) (6): Two years after his son, Josh, was killed in a school shooting former business exec “Sam” (Billy Crudup) is still mired down with anger and grief—and it has cost him his job, his wife, his home, and his friends. Now living on a boat and working a dead end job, Sam’s life takes a u-turn when his ex-wife delivers a small load of his late son’s possessions—among them a box of demo tapes featuring songs Josh wrote but never published. Unaware that his boy had such a talent for writing and composing, Sam begins performing his music at a local bar where a neurotic young guitarist in the audience (Anton Yelchin) convinces him to form a band. But if Sam was seeking some kind of catharsis through belting out Josh’s words on stage the band’s growing popularity proves to be far more problematic… Crudup does a fine job as the film’s protagonist, a drunken embittered mess who remains non-sympathetic despite his personal tragedy; Yelchin (R.I.P.) plays his surrogate son to a tee, a high-strung musician with problems of his own who nevertheless dreams of success; Felicity Huffman adds a note of reason as Sam’s ex who has managed to move on, and Selena Gomez gives a brief yet pivotal performance as Josh’s heartbroken girlfriend. The locations, filmed in and around Oklahoma City, are appropriately small town midwest and the music—actually performed by Crudup, Yelchin, and company—is shockingly good as they glide from poignant ballads to stomping rockabilly. But the film doesn’t seem to know where it wants to go starting out as it does on a theme of pathological grief and then, after the twist arrives, deciding to tackle guilt, truth, and redemption instead. Director and co-writer William H. Macy (who also plays the proprietor of the local watering hole where Sam performs) takes some very complex questions and offers a slew of rather pat answers which may appear moving on screen but are in fact as predictable as a sympathy card and just as trite. Not a bad film thanks to some great acting and singing, and its central premise is certainly unconventional if flawed, but if you took away the few F-bombs you’d have another inspirational heart-tugger to grace the Hallmark Channel.

Ruggles of Red Gap (USA 1935) (8): Set in 1908, Leo McCarey’s Academy Award nominated comedy of cultures follows the adventures of a proper English butler after he is set adrift in the wilds of the American west. Faithful and fastidious to a fault, Ruggles (Charles Laughton, magnificently mousey) has been the personal valet of the current Earl of Burnstead (Topper’s Roland Young) all his adult life, just like his father and grandfather before him. But when the Earl “loses” him in a game of poker to a wealthy American couple—social upstart Effie Floud and her husband Egbert, an unapologetic mountain man who’d rather drink whisky and spit tobacco than wear a top hat and spats—Ruggles finds himself bundled up and headed for Red Gap, Washington; a booming hick town of cowboys, saloons, and boorish nouveau riche. Mistaken for a revered officer of the English army, Ruggles is immediately set upon by Red Gap’s gaggle of upwardly mobile society wives and quickly becomes the toast of the town much to the dismay of Effie and her snobbish brother-in-law—and the secret amusement of Egbert and Maude, her no-nonsense mother. Torn between the dictates of his strict class-conscious upbringing and his newfound desire to partake in the American Dream, Ruggles has a monumental decision to make. Overflowing with clever one-offs and hilarious asides (Effie’s attempts to speak le français are priceless as is her allusion to the “Mayor of Canada”), McCarey directs with tongue firmly in cheek as he plays the stereotype card for all it’s worth—whether it’s a stuffy exchange between British aristocrat and lowly manservant or a raucous tavern of drunken cowpokes trying to remember “What did Lincoln say?” until hushed to sudden sobriety by Ruggles’ recitation of the Gettysburg Address. A big loveable farce from Hollywood’s golden age which has lost none of its sparkle or underlying wit in the ensuing decades.

The Rules of the Game  (France 1939) (9):  "The Rules of the Game" is on many critics' list of greatest films, and rightfully so. It's a richly textured examination of a privileged society rife with hypocrisy and moral apathy that extends from the mightiest tycoon down to the lowest servant. Renoir's expert direction is a feast for the eyes as he manipulates light and shadow in order to guide your attention from frame to frame. It is a film that plays on two levels.......the action in the background giving an ironic twist to the story unfolding in the foreground. A timeless classic.

Rumble Fish (USA 1983) (6): In Francis Ford Coppola’s paean to juvenile delinquency downtown Tulsa is transformed into a working class purgatory with banks of inexplicable smoke blowing down every street and exaggerated shadows splashed on every wall. Based on S. E. Hinton’s novel, it concerns the plight of teenaged Rusty James (Matt Dillon tripping over James Dean’s footsteps), a sweet-faced, somewhat vacuous punk pining away for the good old days of mindless gang violence while he wastes his youth downing chocolate milk at the local soda shop and groping his virginal girlfriend. But when his older brother “Motorcycle Boy” (Mickey Rourke substituting blank gazes for emotional depths) breezes back into town Rusty’s own raison d’être is turned upside down causing an already established downward spiral to get even steeper. Motorcycle Boy was something of a legend among Tulsa’s burgeoning population of dropouts and the bane of local authority figure Officer Patterson, and Rusty was leader of the pack thanks to his sibling’s reputation. Now reunited under the same roof with their alcoholic father (Dennis Hopper living the role) the two young men find themselves at odds—Rusty’s eagerness to be the biggest fish in a very small pond conflicting with his brother’s advice to leave the water altogether before he becomes the latest casualty in a family chockfull of losers. And then during one drunken night on the town the fate of one brother will forever impact the other and Tulsa just won’t be the same. Filmed in dreary shades of B&W, the only flashes of colour coming from the eponymous fish of the title and a brief yet crucial glass reflection, Coppola seems influenced by both Robert Wiene’s expressionism and David Lynch’s elaborate affectations. Clouds speed by overhead, clocks loom in every corner, and midnight revelries come to resemble Dantean bacchanals while lopsided camera angles manage to keep us off balance. But to what purpose? There are certainly a few clever tricks up Coppola’s sleeve such as the B&W cinematography alluding to Motorcycle Boy’s colour blindness—his inability to distinguish one hue from another having definite moral and perhaps psychiatric implications. However it seems like a whole lot of smoke and mirrors to tell a simple tale and a host of wooden performances delivering a hackneyed script make it a rather uninteresting one at that. Nice early cameos from the likes of Diane Lane, Nicolas Cage, and Vincent Spano though, and it all looks wonderful on the big screen.

Running with Scissors (USA 2006) (5): How can someone take a dream cast giving their best shot and still churn out such a disjointed mess as this sloppy adaptation of author Augusten Burrough’s sensationalized childhood memoirs? Apparently Ryan Murphy can and the results are disappointing to say the least. Raised by a flakey feminist mother who fancied herself a poet laureate (Annette Bening going beyond neurotic) and an emotionally constricted alcoholic father (an angry monotone Alec Baldwin), Augusten rode out the 70s in a conflicted environment of monied privilege and pathological neglect. But when his parents finally divorced and his increasingly incoherent mother pawned him off to be raised by her eccentric quack of a psychiatrist (Brian Cox doing a comic book Freud), young Augusten’s life took a slide into the surreal. Living like hermits in a rambling hoarder’s paradise of dirty dishes, garish knickknacks and desiccated Christmas trees, Dr. Finch and his shambling drudge of a wife (Jill Clayburgh. Jill Clayburgh??) were raising their two adolescent daughters (Evan Rachel Wood, Gwyneth Paltrow)—one who wanted to watch the world burn, the other who received psychic messages from her cat—while treating a slew of deranged clients including a violent schizophrenic (Joseph Fiennes) who wound up providing Augusten with his first taste of gay sex… And so it goes. There is no faulting the actors here as everyone puts their best foot forward most notably Bening’s perpetual meltdown and Cox’s messianic guru who proudly shows off his masturbation room and dispenses valium as if it were Holy Communion. But much like Tony Richardson’s The Hotel New Hampshire, Murphy’s forced zaniness becomes tiresome very quickly leaving you to wonder how much of his source material is actually based on memories versus cuckoo fantasies. And why are there palm trees and giant phycus growing in New York State? Perhaps Wes Anderson’s dry sense of humour could have salvaged something watchable from all the batty pandemonium but as is it felt like I was watching a movie based on a rather kinky Roald Dahl book. A wonderful soundtrack of 1970s radio hits turns out to be the film’s one saving grace.

Run Silent Run Deep (USA 1958) (8): At the height of WWII a section of ocean off the coast of Japan has come to be known as “The Graveyard” due to the number of American submarines blown apart by the wily commander of a Japanese destroyer. The captain of one such ill-fated sub, Rich Richardson (a fossilized Clark Gable), is so eager for revenge that he manages to commandeer his way onto another submarine much to the resentment of its displaced captain, Jim Bledsoe (an unfossilized Burt Lancaster), and head back to sea for a rematch despite official orders to avoid The Graveyard. What follows is a taut drama of strained loyalties and frayed nerves as Richardson and Bledsoe square off under enemy fire while the crew begin to wonder who is really in charge. Filmed almost entirely within the claustrophobic spaces of a submarine using highly innovative (for the time) underwater effects and authentic set pieces, this is one of the better B&W wartime dramas to surface in the 50’s. Despite being too old for their roles, Gable and Lancaster share an onscreen chemistry, perhaps fuelled by their purported offscreen animosity, which maintains a dramatic tension and hones the performances of an impressive supporting cast including a very young Don Rickles making his film debut. The full screen battle sequences are convincing enough and the constricted onboard cinematography is a marvel of cramped spaces and narrow corridors with the ever-present mechanical pings and clicks heightening the suspense. Somewhat reminiscent of Melville’s Moby Dick, with Gable’s Ahab single-mindedly pursuing his ironclad whale no matter what the cost.

Rushmore (USA 1998) (3): Max Fischer is a successful playwright, a persuasive statesman, and a charismatic entrepreneur all rolled into one. He’s also fifteen years old and an inveterate con artist whose failing grades and manic extracurricular activities are making his future at the prestigious Rushmore Academy for boys tenuous at best. And as if that weren’t enough he’s begun stalking the recently widowed grade one teacher, Mrs. Cross, and seems intent on ruining the life of Herman Blume, the father of two of his classmates whom he views as a romantic rival. As tensions escalate and a round of retributions between the adult Blume and the naïve man-child Fischer threaten to destroy everyone’s life, a series of new opportunities present themselves to Max when he is relocated to an inner city public school. Director Wes Anderson’s flair for eccentric comedies featuring quirky characters fails him miserably in this off-putting, faintly disturbing tale which confuses crazed obsession with precociousness and features an endless parade of affected monotone performances. In the lead role Jason Schwartzman exhibits zero screen chemistry, his character’s set countenance and gleaming stares more suggestive of mental illness than endearing charm while fellow star Bill Murray delivers his usual deadpan SNL persona. A thoroughly unlikeable film about unlikeable people repeatedly being made fools of by a psychotic little shit. And the soundtrack’s assortment of rock and folk ballads sounds woefully out of place too. D-minus.

Sabotage (UK 1936) (7): An early Hitchcock thriller which, despite its short running time, still packs in more mood and atmosphere than many full-length features. A cabal of foreign saboteurs are planning a deadly attack on London and it is up to undercover Scotland Yard detective Ted Spencer (a dashing John Loder) to uncover their diabolical plans. All roads lead to the germanic owner of a downtown movie theatre (hulking Viennese actor Oskar Homolka, all scowls and eyebrows) but with time running out will Spencer be able to save the day and still manage to woo the evil man’s unsuspecting and desperately unhappy American wife (a radiant Sylvia Sydney)? Hitchcock had the fog machines working overtime on this one with dank, menacing nights and overcast days beautifully expressed in B&W. At 37 his mastery of texture and composition was already established with raucous crowd scenes drenched in suspense as an overhead clock approaches zero hour or a fiendish rendezvous in a dimly lit aquarium, the silhouetted characters planning death and destruction while fish swim lazily past the viewing ports. But it’s in the way Hitchcock downplays the potential horror that gives the film its macabre edge: a child’s delight with a playful puppy twists the knife and the would-be killer’s struggle with a guilty conscience actually makes him more monstrous. I must admit the film’s climax caught me off guard and that puzzling denouement, almost surreal in its irony and simmering rage, puts this early work in a league of its own.

Sabrina (USA 1954) (7): Billy Wilder’s sparkling romance follows the travails of Sabrina Fairchild, a lowly chauffeur’s daughter with a lifelong crush on David Larrabee, the devilish playboy son of her father’s multi-millionaire employer. Ignored by David and gently admonished by her dad who warns her not to reach for the moon (the unspoken American caste system is alluded to throughout), Sabrina reluctantly moves to Paris to study cooking. Two years later she returns a more sophisticated and confident young lady, a fact not lost upon David who immediately sets about wooing her despite being engaged to a sugar cane heiress as part of a marriage-of-convenience scheme concocted by his older brother Linus. Compared to David’s wild and carefree nature Linus is all corporate meetings and stock market quotes, so when his younger brother’s dalliance with the hired help’s daughter threatens to topple his plans Linus takes it upon himself to drive a wedge between the would-be lovers. But love knows no bounds and even as Linus experiences a change of heart he also realizes he may have feelings for Sabrina himself leading to difficult decisions all around. While the story may read like a copy of True Love magazine, Wilder’s deft direction and Audrey Hepburn’s charming performance keep things somewhat credible. William Holden’s portrayal of David Larrabee is just the right amount of dashing good looks and careless spontaneity, the perfect foil to Hepburn’s reserved zeal. If only it were easier to overlook a miscast Humphrey Bogart’s wooden performance, dumpy demeanour, and grandfatherly wrinkles. But this is a fairy tale romance after all, filled with moonlit nights and champagne kisses all backed by an ubiquitous orchestral score. “I’ve stopped reaching for the moon…” says a dreamy Sabrina to her doting father, “…and decided to let the moon reach for me.” And they all lived happily ever after.

The Sacrifice (USA 2005) (1): HORRIBLE! Local goth kid with personal issues joins local preppie with personal issues in order to uncover the awful truth about a witches’ coven operating in their sleepy New England town. Apparently director Jamie Fessenden got a rad new video camera and some plastic skulls for Christmas and decided to shoot this totally awesome horror movie starring his highschool buddies and their families including nelly old uncle Jim as the lisping antagonist. Halfway through filming he discovered the camera came with an instruction booklet so he threw in some cool effects using filters and double exposures and then got the kids in band class to compose a couple of creepy chords for like, you know, atmosphere. And get this, the two teenage leads get all gay on each other and start making out and one of them even takes his clothes off at the end and tries to act all evil and stuff while covered in pink Karo syrup and shaking a rubber head from the drama department! Amateur to the extreme with a cast that definitely should not give up their day jobs, this crapfest looks as if it was shot over a long weekend and then released directly to DVD without any editing (look for the cameraman’s reflections!). And this got an 8.1/10 on! Oh wait, two of the three reviews were written by friends of the director. Be sure to check out the sequel, The Resurrection, coming nowhere soon.

Sadie McKee (USA 1934) (7): With Joan Crawford headlining, Clarence Brown’s grand soap opera is delivered with such earnestness and features such good performances that it is easy to forgive its dramatic embellishments. Despite his sketchy employment record and general unreliability, working girl Sadie (Crawford) is so smitten with her longtime beau Tommy that she runs off with him to New York City to get married even though they only have $17 between them. Alas, true to form, Tommy leaves her holding the license after he receives a better offer. Now living in a rundown boardinghouse and working at a nightclub Sadie meets, and eventually marries, perpetually drunk millionaire Jack Brennan (Edward Arnold, dominating the screen). But in spite of Brennan’s inebriated attempts to make her happy, Sadie continues to pine for Tommy until fate causes their paths to cross one more time… Beautiful cinematography captures opulent interiors and modest flophouses alike in soft shades of black and white—a wintry snowfall has never conveyed such sadness—while a savvy script, based on Viña Delmar’s novel, lightens its pathos with a bit of humour and some snappy one-liners. Crawford, only 28 at the time, alternates between rock hard determination and mushy vulnerability with such aplomb that you’d swear those tears are genuine, and she’s supported by a phenomenal cast: Arnold’s monied lush shows an unexpected depth; Jean Dixon, playing Sadie’s roommate, conveys a world-weary wit; and Esther Ralston channels Mae West as a Vaudeville chanteuse and home-wrecker. Released before the draconian Hays Code began sanitizing Hollywood productions, Sadie McKee is also notable for its allusions to premarital sex, prostitution, and rather frank depiction of alcoholism which was shown as a debilitating illness rather than a vehicle for tipsy sight gags. The film’s moral high road and unlikely coincidences may not fly with today’s batch of cynical moviegoers, but time and pedigree demand we accept it on its own terms. Franchot Tone, the future Mr. Crawford, co-stars as the scion of a wealthy family who has to hold his own feelings inside as he watches Sadie’s rise and fall.

Safety Not Guaranteed (USA 2012) (6): The laughs don’t exactly come fast and furious in Colin Trevorrow’s northwest slacker comedy, but at least the smiles come easily enough. With no skills, no motivation, and no future to speak of, millennial poster child Darius (poker-faced Aubrey Plaza) lands a job as an intern at the less-than-prestigious Seattle Magazine where she hauls packages and cleans toilets. And then the magazine decides to run a feature on a mysterious personal ad placed by someone looking for a partner to join them on a time travel odyssey, “safety not guaranteed”, and Darius is chosen to accompany ace reporter and all-around douchebag Jeff and his browbeaten lackey Arnau. Traveling to the godforsaken hick town of Ocean View the three manage to track down Kenneth, the ad’s author, but what starts out as a bit of flippant investigative journalism turns into something more sobering when Darius begins to take her subject seriously. Meanwhile, in the background, Jeff’s overt sexism receives a timely comeuppance when he tracks down an old highschool sweetheart and the mousy Arnau finally finds a cure for his terminal virginity. But do Kenneth’s time travel claims actually hold any validity or is he as crazy as all the evidence suggests? Between Darius’ monotone mumblings, Arnau’s timid squeaks, and Jeff’s macho blustering Trevorrow finds enough situational humour to elicit a few giggles and a developing romance seems almost plausible. But the sci-fi slant comes across as a quirky add-on—the film’s underlying theme of regretting the past notwithstanding—and the final twist is more shaggy dog than resolution. Okay for a discount rental but if you pay full price you’ll probably want to go back in time and stop yourself.

Sahara (USA 1943) (7): After a disastrous encounter with German forces in north Africa, U.S. army sergeant Joe Gunn (Humphrey Bogart) is forced to retreat with only one tank and a dozen American and British survivors as well as two POWs. But with miles of burning desert to cross and water in woefully short supply their survival is not guaranteed—and just to make their situation even more dire they are being pursued by an enemy battalion which outnumbers them ten to one. But Sgt. Gunn has a plan… Filmed among the dunes of Arizona and southern California, director Zoltan Korda’s Americanized remake of an earlier Soviet “red western” is both a standard wartime morale booster and a highly theatrical survival thriller pitting a diverse group of men against one of the harshest terrains on the planet. Relentless heat, sunbaked ruins, and blowing sand so meticulously filmed you can almost feel it in your mouth make this a near immersive experience hence its two Oscar nominations for Cinematography and Sound; a third nomination went to J. Carrol Naish for his impassioned role as an Italian POW who experiences a change of heart when he’s forced to bunk with a captured Nazi officer. But it is the interactions between the men which generates the most drama with seemingly impromptu dialogue covering everything from self-sacrifice to the women left behind to casual bigotry with celebrated black actor Rex Ingram’s portrayal of a devoted Sudanese Major serving to build a bridge of understanding with his fellow officers and face down the inherent racism of his Nazi prisoner. Of course being released right in the middle of WWII you have a good idea of how the entire drama will play out yet the usual “Stars ’n Stripes” grandstanding so common to the genre is practically non-existent here as Korda and his writers choose instead to pare tragedy and triumph down to purely human levels.

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea (UK 1976) (5): Lewis John Carlino’s sloppy cerebral film—based on the letter if not the spirit of Yukio Mishima’s novel—wobbles unconvincingly between an Oedipal nightmare and a Nietzschean episode of The Little Rascals. Thirteen-year old Jonathan Osbourne lives with his widowed mother in a big house overlooking the Devon coast where he attends school and she runs her late husband’s antique shop. Although a dutiful son, Jonathan also belongs to a secret cabal of kids run by a psychopathic moppet referred to as “The Chief” who regularly harangues them with heated polemics on the moral superiority of the strong and the betrayal which results when creatures upset the natural balance—highlighting the latter point by making a gruesome example out of the family cat, a once feral hunter which he now despises for becoming a fat house pet. Just entering puberty and filled with the Chief’s Übermensch hogwash, Jonathan’s hormones are already spinning out of control when his mother decides to take a quiet American sailor as her lover. Outraged by their domestic couplings yet drawn to the man’s tall tales of the sea, not to mention the troubling masculine presence he brings to the house, the disturbed teen is desperate to restore balance to his world by any means necessary, but first he needs just one small push… Filled with treacly music and enough technicolor montages of smiles and sunsets to make Douglas Sirk heave ho, Carlino’s macabre melodrama is psychologically suspect on every level. His pathological children are completely unconvincing as they spout Nihilism and puff on dad’s cigars—a Lord of the Flies sequence set in a proper English greenhouse is laughable. Tween tots, no matter how precocious, simply do not behave like this which makes the film’s much lauded “shocking” finale all the more preposterous. And leads Sarah Miles and Kris Kristofferson share no screen charisma whatsoever. She does an admirable job playing the emotionally starved widow hungry for a second go-around, but even though his piercing eyes and dishevelled beard provide erotic counterpoint to her repressed sensuality Kristofferson is little more than a wooden prop who appears lost in a fog half the time. Their sex scenes, controversial at the time, seem mechanical these days but those little dashes of symbolism (check out the poster on Jonathan’s bedroom door) are worthy of a smile if you have the time. The scenery is lovely too.

Saint [aka Sint aka Saint Nick ] (Netherlands 2010) (7): One of the most closely guarded secrets of the Catholic church is the fact that Saint Nicholas was not the benevolent holy man who gave rise to the legend of Santa Claus, but rather an evil renegade bishop who roamed the medieval Dutch countryside with his band of cutthroats murdering adults and kidnapping children. And even though irate villagers burned Nicholas and his posse to death, their twisted souls still return every time a full moon falls on December 5th (St. Nicholas Eve) in order to exact bloody vengeance. Cut to December 5th in modern day Amsterdam and disgraced police officer Goert Hoekstra, whose own family fell prey to “Sinterklaas” thirty-two years earlier, is gearing up for a supernatural battle royale for there is to be a full moon tonight and he appears to be the only man in all of Holland who knows what is going to happen… Take the brooding atmosphere of Carpenter’s The Fog, the gory mayhem of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, and the macabre yuletide whimsy of Dante’s Gremlins, and you have this tongue-in-cheek Dutch splatter film where cheery Christmas card sweeps of snow-covered eaves and beaming children compete with severed heads and flying guts. To watch writer/director Dick Maas’ crispy zombie Claus—decked out in full Kris Kringle gear—astride his decomposing horse galloping across rooftops carving out a swath of death with his wickedly sharp staff while rotting “elves” seek out chimneys and open windows is to re-experience the joy of watching a brainless Saturday matinee popcorn shocker back when you were a kid. And Maas never misses an opportunity to eviscerate, decapitate, and generally mangle anyone (or anything) that gets in the way. A wicked sense of humour makes up for a few dry spells and some spotty plot devices and the whole production comes with that obligatory threat of a sequel which, thankfully, has yet to appear for this is one Christmas that need only come once in a lifetime.

St. Elmo’s Fire (USA 1985) (4): It’s Georgetown 1985 and seven newly graduated future yuppies are horrified to discover that life ends at twenty. An unbalanced Kirby (Emilio Estevez) is still stalking the senior girl who broke his heart; white trash Billy (Rob Lowe) avoids responsibility by chasing skirts and playing sax; perpetually blank-faced Kevin (Andrew McCarthy) is a frustrated writer and avowed cynic whose lack of a love life has everyone questioning his sexuality; party girl Jules (Demi Moore!) is a coke-snorting train wreck with a pink apartment; politically savvy Alec (Judd Nelson) is practicing to be a neo-con by cheating on his dishrag of a girlfriend (Ally Sheedy); and Jewish American Virgin Wendy (Mare Winningham) is still wearing chastity panties while nursing a crush on bad boy Billy. Over the course a few days their group friendship will be tested by painful revelations, infidelity, and the fact that they are all basically obnoxious. Like a new wave version of The Big Chill director Joel Schumacher tries to cram the minds of world weary retirees into the bodies of overgrown school kids and then have them spout petty euphemisms about the vagaries of life and love as if they were facing middle age with a trunkful of regrets. Whether they’re getting drunk and comparing scars at the film’s eponymous watering hole or staring meaningfully into the camera while the grievously overplayed “Man in Motion” kicks it in the background, the ensemble cast just doesn’t gel; the assorted crises and tidy resolutions are wholly contrived for the big screen and the vain attempts to be hip 80s-style are now terribly dated. Or maybe I’ve just grown up. But there is a certain amount of perverse pleasure in watching some of today’s has-beens back when they were yesterday’s up-and-comers.

The Salesman (Iran 2016) (8): When ominous cracks and shattered windows begin appearing in their apartment building thanks to nearby construction, married actors Emad and Rana Etesami are forced to relocate to new digs. But their new flat proves to be unstable in quite a different way for the ex-tenant was a woman of ill repute who not only left behind a pile of personal belongings she also left a string of gentlemen callers, some of whom were not aware that she had moved. Just such a caller comes snooping around one night while Rana is alone taking a shower and her resulting assault—rape?—threatens to topple her already shaky marriage. Consumed with anger and quite possibly self-pity as if the attack was a personal affront, Emad launches a one-man vendetta against the unknown assailant seemingly oblivious to Rana’s fragile emotions… Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar winner is sure to disappoint those looking for a straightforward vigilante thriller for lead actor Shahab Hosseini’s character bears no resemblance to Charles Bronson’s righteous urban crime fighter. Opting for low-keyed performances and a discomfiting metaphor or two he instead explores the deleterious effects of male machismo and, by extension, the rigid social order inherent in any patriarchal society. That backhoe we see resolutely chipping away at an apartment building’s foundation during the film’s opening scenes resonates throughout the film as Emad’s jealousy and indignation (Rana’s assault was, after all, a reflection on him) cause him to ignore her pleas and bypass the police in his singleminded quest for revenge. “How does one become a cow?” asks one of his students while studying a particularly esoteric passage (he teaches officially approved literature on the side), “Gradually…” is his response and Farhadi pauses to let the import of that sink in. The fact that Emad and Rana are currently starring in a heavily censored stage production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman almost seems superfluous until the film’s climax—a volatile three-way confrontation weighted with sad ironies aimed at class and gender expectations. A film about violence and its aftermath for sure, and a sardonic critique of Iranian society for those willing to look beyond the scripted words. But The Salesman is also an admonition against a mindset which continues to violate one woman long after her stitches have been removed. It would appear that the spirit of Willy Loman is equally at home in the streets of Tehran.

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Italy 1975) (7): Pier Paolo Pasolini’s swan song (he was murdered before its release) takes an 18th century S&M classic penned by the Marquis de Sade and sets it in the northern Italian town of Salò circa 1944 when it was the de facto seat of power for Mussolini’s fascist regime. Viciously depraved and unflinchingly cruel, his cinematic attack on capitalism, totalitarianism, and the hypocrisy of morality remains to this day one of the most divisive of arthouse films and one of the few to push the envelope beyond all measures of decency. In the waning years of WWII four wealthy Italian libertines forcibly round up 18 youths (nine boys, nine girls) and imprison them in a richly appointed manor house where, over the course of four months, they are subjected to humiliation and rape, torture and mutilation, and in one lavish banquet scene forced to eat their own excrement. Taking great delight in their positions of power the four men mete out mercy or punishment depending on their whims while the captives slowly gravitate toward becoming either sacrificial lambs or willing collaborators. It’s a difficult watch, often revolting to the point of nausea, but Pasolini’s steady camera and cold direction assures that there will be no ambivalence to his message. The men in charge—a judge, a bishop, a duke, and a president—are clearly metaphors as is their “Book of Rules” which lays down the law while simultaneously recording the names of those who break it. The house itself is a decaying echo of past decadence festooned with priceless artwork and religious pieces in which saints and angels either have their eyes tightly shut or else focused on Heaven. Indeed, more than one cry for divine intervention falls on deaf ears in both this world and the next. And the young victims, all seized from bourgeois homes, are a clear lesson on the corrupting effects of privilege—those favoured by the libertines advance, those not are subjected to horrors which grow progressively more sadistic as the film lopes towards its nihilistic conclusion. Excess in all things is strictly observed, ethics are twisted into something hideous, and every social convention—from love and marriage to crime and justice—are gleefully pissed on. And the next generation bears the brunt. With influences from the likes of Dante, Nietzsche, Proust, and de Sade himself, Pasolini gives us not so much an impassioned denouncement as one long and not entirely coherent scream of rage. A profoundly ugly film of questionable necessity, but given the current state of the world the debate over whether or not he crossed a line is still far from academic.

Samsara (USA 2011) (6): Ron Fricke’s follow-up to 1992’s Baraka was filmed in two dozen countries over a period of five years to give us a visually impressive cinematic poem based on the endless cycle of death and rebirth. Under his meticulous direction natural wonders give way to glaring cityscapes, ancient ruins are juxtaposed with devastation from modern disasters, and scenes of peace and serenity are constantly jarred by depictions of contemporary vices. Here an African tribeswoman quietly nurses her child, there a nuclear American family poses with its home arsenal; a sped up camera turns worshippers at Mecca’s Kaaba into a swirling vortex while an assembly line of rubber sex dolls is laid out all headless torsos and gaping orifices. In one notable passage an image of humans working robot-like in endless office cubicles is replaced by images of humanlike robots staring at the camera as if contemplating a universal truth. But it ultimately boils down to beautiful scenery paired with nice music to assure us once again that war is bad, technology is suspect, and spirituality trumps all—and mankind gets to repeat everything again and again throughout the ages. Too bad the subtle confrontation of Reggio’s superior Koyaanisqatsi (which Fricke photographed) is exchanged here for a series of overt sermons—a grotesque performance piece seems more fitted for an avant-garde Fringe Festival and a man is buried in a casket shaped like a handgun (get it?) Gorgeous to watch but In the end Fricke simply winds up preaching to his own choir.

Samurai Spy (Japan 1965) (6): 16th century Japan is a confusion of competing warlords whose networks of ruthless spies leave a trail of bloodshed and betrayal in their wake. One such spy, master samurai Sasuke, has become disillusioned with the dogs of war and yearns for a return to peace. But peaceful aspirations, unfortunately, are not enough to negate his sworn obligations nor keep personal tragedy at bay… Fifteen minutes into Masahiro Shinoda’s low-key epic and I gave up trying to follow the plot for his ongoing rapid-fire rundown of names, allegiances, and interconnections would confound all but the most meticulous of flow charts. Thankfully Shinoda’s eye for visual drama and cinematographer Masao Kosugi’s artistic flair provide enough of a distraction from the perplexing storyline that one can simply enjoy the presentation itself. Filmed in crisp B&W, interior shots are meticulous studies in geometry as silk screens, lacquer chests, and low slung tables divide everything into sharp symmetries (a curling orchid stem contrasts beautifully against a grid of bamboo slats). Counterbalance is achieved by asymmetrical landscapes where every hillside, every tree, and every rock seem both random yet highly formalized—dazzling moonlight and a bank or two of drifting smoke turning otherwise unremarkable combat scenes into surreal choreography. And for genre fans there’s more than enough leaping ninjas and flashing blades even if I found it all but impossible to follow who was killing whom and for what reason. Baffling to follow, lovely to watch, and a small treat for the ear as well with traditional Japanese percussion complimenting a bar or two of Western horns and strings.

San Andreas (USA 2015) (3): When a series of devastating earthquakes wipe out most of Los Angeles and San Francisco you know you're in for a big special effects marathon and director Brad Peyton certainly delivers with skyscrapers tumbling, bridges collapsing, and a big ol' tsunami crashing up Market St. Unfortunately he also throws in a cloying storyline about a hunky L.A. fireman (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson proving his best performances were in the ring) who calls a temporary truce with his soon-to-be-ex wife in order to rescue their daughter--can you guess what happens next? Lots of slo-mo tears and inspirational hugs set against a sky bursting with sunbeams while Old Glory unfurls in the background. Oh for fuck's sake

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

The Sandpiper (USA 1965) (7): Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton prove once again that chemistry can rise above substance in this unabashed weeper that looks great as long as you ignore its sillier components. Taylor plays Laura Reynolds, a free-spirited artist living on the coast of southern California with her impressionable nine year old son. When the kid gets into trouble with the authorities one time too many (he shoots a deer to see if it is fun) he is ordered to attend a religious boarding school run by the soft-spoken yet somewhat stuffy Reverend Doctor Edward Hewitt, a surprisingly convincing Burton. Of course when the respectable married clergyman meets the wild Bohemian sexpot you just know sparks are going to fly and a fall from grace is just around the corner. This is when an otherwise decent story begins to slide into maudlin chick-flick territory complete with teary reproaches, theatrical monologues, and endless scenes of restless surf. Eva Marie Saint is especially annoying as the martyred wife who always seems to find just the right outfit to go with her bloodied cross. Make no mistake, this is pure Hollywood soap, but it is done with such panache...from the magnificent widescreen cinematography to the sappy theme song...that it remains highly watchable just the same. And Taylor’s Big Sur bungalow is to die for!

Sapphire (UK 1959) (8): Eight years before To Sir With Love had Sidney Poitier facing racism in swinging London, the Rank Organization released this bitter indictment of black/white relations which, despite its hand-wringing theatrics, somehow bites down harder and deeper. The body of a white college girl is found in a respectable London Park prompting Chief Inspector Hazard (Nigel Patrick) to launch a murder investigation. But when it is discovered she was actually of mixed race the entire tone of the inquiry alters as prejudices begin crawling out of every corner—from police bias to suddenly hostile witnesses to mixed feelings from all echelons of the black community itself towards those who “turn white”. And then her boyfriend, a respectable young man from a working class caucasian family, falls under Hazard’s scrutiny causing an already sensitive situation to come apart at the seams. A frantic jazz score underlines the film’s heavy-handed presentation and a palette of Eastmancolor pastels actually highlights the all too apparent shades of ebony and ivory throughout. Despite the gravity of the subject matter however, there remains a certain naiveté to the script as screenwriter Janet Green goes to a few unnecessary lengths to spotlight racial divisions: the dead girl’s mixed heritage is emphasized by the fact she wears racy neon knickers under her conservative tweeds, and the owner of a “coloured” nightclub assures inspector Hazard that no matter how badly some of his patrons try to pass for white they just can’t resist the beat of a bongo drum. But given this was released in 1959 England one can forgive the emoting and occasional faux pas (and that pidgin English), for director Basil Dearden was able to start a dialogue on institutionalized racism decades before BLM ever took to the streets.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (UK 1960) (7): Albert Finney plays Arthur Seaton, a selfish, unsympathetic lout in one of the more famous “angry young men” films to emerge from 1960’s England. Fed up with the pointless working class existence he’s inherited from his “dead from the neck up” parents, Arthur rebels via a series of equally pointless drinking binges, adulterous affairs and juvenile practical jokes; “I’m out for a good time...” he confesses to the camera at one point, “...all the rest is propaganda”. And when it comes time to take responsibility for a personal crisis he helped precipitate he proves to be a man of his word. Shot in dreary shades of grey and white which serve to highlight the endless tedium of Arthur’s reality, Karel Reisz’s rather depressing film presents an exaggerated urban landscape of crushing conformity and muted desperation where a trip to an amusement park is rife with angst and a futile rant against suburban sprawl provides a grim irony. It’s all terribly dated of course, and obviously tailored to a generation of future hippies, but the performances are pretty near flawless and Seaton’s vitriolic musings occasionally hit home.

Saturn in Opposition (Italy 2007) (7): In much the same vein as his earlier work The Ignorant Fairies (aka His Secret Life, also reviewed here) writer/director Ferzan Ozpetek once again puts together an ensemble cast of gay men, damaged women, and one loud Turkish immigrant, then sits them around a dinner table and lights the fuse. Davide and Lorenzo are a pair of gay yuppies; uptight hetero couple Antonio and Angelique are having marital difficulties much to the consternation of their precocious children; lonely Sergio is a self-proclaimed “old fag”; Roberta has a heart of gold and a purse full of narcotics; and feisty grey-haired Neval has a habit of saying the wrong thing at the right time. Like a downbeat episode of Friends, Ozpetek follows these mismatched companions as they wax philosophical on life, love, and infidelity in between heaping platters of pasta before a climactic tragedy finally pushes the limits of their friendship. Not as preachy as His Secret Life and thankfully lacking the tedious navel-gazing of his other work, Steam: The Turkish Bath, this time around Ozpetek is able to strike an amicable balance between humorous asides, heart tugs, and that gravitas which comes from acknowledging—as Lorenzo succinctly puts it—“…forever’ doesn’t exist”. If you can sit through a rather slow and disjointed first twenty minutes the film eventually does find its rhythm and the emotional pay-off is worth the wait.

The Savages (USA 2007) (9): When their estranged father begins to exhibit early signs of dementia siblings Jon and Wendy Savage not only face the uncomfortable prospect of having him institutionalized, they must also come to terms with a lifetime of resentments, disappointments and unresolved anger. Wendy, a histrionic drama queen and frustrated playwright, covers up her rage by doting on the old man even as her own life circles the drain. Jon, a drama teacher specializing in Bertolt Brecht, tries to distance himself from his own feelings by adopting a coldly rational approach to the situation even though a simple plate of fried eggs can bring him to tears. Meanwhile, dad looks on in a state of helpless bewilderment... Writer/director Tamara Jenkins' excellent family drama combines tense emotional confrontations with just enough mordant humour to allow her audience some breathing space. A beautifully rendered, deeply felt three-hander that rests squarely on the powerful performances of its main leads; Philip Seymour Hoffman, Laura Linney and Philip Bosco.

Save the Tiger  (USA 1972) (8):  Above average drama examining the death of the American dream and the casualties left in its wake. Jack Lemmon leads a very impressive cast as an everyman figure....lamenting the loss of society's integrity while at the same time lamely justifying his own moral corruption. The final scene tied the whole film up nicely.

Saving Mr. Banks (USA 2013) (8): Disney Studios pats itself on the back in this largely fictitious account of Walt’s attempts to acquire the movie rights to P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins books. Used to getting whatever he wants, Disney (Tom Hanks) meets his match in Travers (Emma Thompson) a prim and obsessively fastidious woman who, despite her dwindling bank account, is absolutely opposed to seeing the story of her beloved nanny transformed into a sugary Magic Kingdom mainstay with bouncy musical numbers, animated penguins, and (shudder!) Dick Van Dyke. But there is more to Travers’ resistance than simple artistic egotism and frequent flashbacks to a childhood in turn-of-the-century Australia reveal a loving but tumultuous home life with her father (Colin Farrell), a wildly inventive Irish immigrant prone to fits of depression and alcoholism. As the pair of powerful personalities continually circle one another they eventually hit upon a common chord and the rest, as they say, is history. Director John Lee Hancock resurrects a rosy vision of the 60’s with bouffants, party dresses, and candy-coloured attractions providing an intrusive counterbalance of sorts to Travers’ bittersweet childhood memories. Thompson and Hanks are perfectly matched, his unchecked zeal coming up against her dour sense of propriety, and a supporting cast of studio songwriters, a bubbly secretary, and one insightful chauffeur (Paul Giamatti) soften the central tug-of-war without resorting to fluffy distraction. A charming tale of “what if” given some weight by a dark psychological edge.

Sawdust and Tinsel (Sweden 1953) (8): When the flea-bitten traveling carnival “Circus Alberti” rambles into a small provincial town a round of revelations and betrayals threaten to tear the troupe apart. Ringmaster Albert Johansson, a growling bear of a man, has grown tired of his transitory existence and now longs for the domestic stability represented by the wife and two children he originally ran out on years earlier. His shrill and insecure mistress Anna, sensing his thoughts, tries to find a more permanent caregiver in the arms of local actor Frans. Both become disillusioned for Albert’s ex has forged a life free from his angry tirades and Frans has nothing to offer but contempt and empty promises… All the world is a dark and dreary stage indeed in Ingmar Bergman’s tragicomic look at human foibles and our endless search for something resembling love. Starting off with a fanciful flashback in which a circus clown is cuckolded by his seductive wife when she goes skinny-dipping with a cadre of soldiers (sometimes a cannon is not just a cannon) Bergman proceeds to make jesters of all his characters as they shamble in and out of the spotlight sharing a bit of drunken wisdom or punching each other in the face. A meeting between Albert and Mr. Sjuberg, a seasoned thespian and head of the neighbourhood theatre group, leads to a lecture on art versus artifice while a decisive confrontation between the ringmaster and his ursine alter ego ends with both a bang and a whimper. And throughout it all we catch glimpses of Sjuberg’s troupe rehearsing their latest play, a tragedy which ironically mimics Albert’s own quandary. The stage may be adorned with sawdust and tinsel but the players ultimately walk away smelling faintly of manure. Ain’t life a bitch?

Sayonara (USA 1957) (7): During the Korean war when thousands of American servicemen were stationed in Japan, it was Uncle Sam’s official policy to actively discourage romantic liaisons between U.S. soldiers and Japanese women by imposing draconian sanctions including a law forbidding G.I.s from bringing their “Oriental” brides home to the States; a policy which many Japanese nationals applauded. As the story opens, top gun pilot Major Lloyd “Ace” Gruver (Marlon Brando looking especially hot in his dress blues) has just been assigned to a cushy desk job in Kyoto thanks to his girlfriend Eileen’s father, a four-star general and personal friend of the family. Gruver is pure stars & stripes and apple pie; he doesn’t know the difference between a pagoda and a sushi roll, nor does he care. But when he’s asked by his good friend and fellow airman Joe Kelly (a marvelously understated Red Buttons) to be his best man as he marries a local girl his convictions are put to the test. His decision to stand by Kelly not only derails his relationship with Eileen and her family, but also threatens his military career as he becomes a target of the air force’s ingrained racism. Alone and disillusioned he finds himself smitten by an aloof Japanese cabaret performer, Hana-Ogi, and thus begins his own forbidden love affair. Like Gruver and Kelly, Hana-Ogi, is also bound by unfair social conventions. She is legally “owned” by the theatre company and therefore barred from marrying, or even dating. As pressures mount against the two couples events come to a final climax which leads to tragedy for one, and a courageous stand for the other. Contentious for its time, Sayonara openly criticized both the military and the American public for their narrow-minded bigotry. It’s message has mellowed considerably over the years however and what we are left with is a lightweight western tear-jerker with colourful Japanese trappings, including a ludicrously miscast Ricardo Montalban in Kabuki drag. Fun to watch, easy to forget.

The Scalphunters (USA 1968) (7): In the wild wild west of 1860 resourceful trapper Joe Bass (Burt Lancaster) is relieved of his pack horse and collection of furs by a tribe of irate Indians who accuse him of trespassing. In return they saddle him with the highly educated though somewhat verbose runaway slave Joseph Lee (Ossie Davis) who turns out to be more of a hindrance than a bargain. Fixated upon retrieving his stolen goods, Bass and Lee follow the tribe only to watch them slaughtered by a gang of “scalphunters”—outlaws eager to cash in on a government bounty for native scalps. With a tenacity now bordering on the monomaniacal Bass turns his attention to the hunters’ leader (Telly Savalas) and a rugged battle of wills ensues in which a pile of mangy furs become more important than Jason’s golden fleece. Joseph Lee, meanwhile, tries to play both sides to his advantage as he slowly discovers that being a slave is merely a state of mind… The traditional Western is probably my least favourite genre of film but Sydney Pollack’s treatment of William Norton’s screenplay transforms this tale of singleminded determination into twin fables on the folly of pride and the destructive powers unleashed when obsession trumps common sense. Thankfully they wrap it all up as a very droll satirical romp through the American southwest with the three-way conflict between indignant slave, stubborn trapper, and unhinged bandit becoming progressively more outrageous even as the coveted pelts continue to slip past everyone’s grasp. Pretty heady stuff for a Saturday afternoon oater.

Scandal Sheet (USA 1952) (8): Mark Chapman (a growling, scowling Broderick Crawford) is a cold-hearted cynical bastard. He’s also the editor for one of New York City’s fastest growing tabloids where his nose for sensationalism is attracting readers by the hundreds of thousands. Not above printing lurid crime scene photos or exploiting the city’s sad and lonely, Chapman is fast becoming a valuable asset to his publishers until his own scandalous past resurfaces in the form of a woman who knows too much and isn’t afraid to tell. Heated words are exchanged, she winds up dead, and Chapman ruthlessly covers his tracks as best he can until—irony of ironies—two of his paper’s ace reporters (John Derek, Donna Reed) start covering the murder investigation and he realizes that unless he can throw them off the trail it will eventually lead to him. Director Phil Karlson is in fine form with this film noir classic whose scathing critique of tabloid journalism was years ahead of its time. Crawford’s bigger than life as the egotistical editor who gets caught up by his own unchecked ambition while Derek and Reed are convincing as the mismatched reporters—his callous attitude (mimicking that of Chapman whom he worships) constantly grating against her sense of decency and compassion. In Karlson’s downbeat film, based on the book by Samuel Fuller, crime may not pay but it damn well sells newspapers. It also makes for one hell of a good movie.

Scarlet Street (USA 1945) (9): Despite being widely censored, or outright banned, upon its initial release due to “immorality and licentiousness”, this tragic story of obsession and deceit was one of director Fritz Lang’s personal favourites. Milquetoast accountant and frustrated amateur artist Christopher Cross (Edward G. Robinson acting against character and nailing it) is approaching middle age with nothing to show for it but a dead end job and a nagging shrew of a wife. But then, one dark and stormy New York night, he comes to the aid of a beautiful young woman in distress and is immediately smitten when she responds to his kindness with more than passing gratitude. Of course things are not what they seem for “Kitty” March (bombshell Joan Bennett, prettier than a gold coin and more twisted than a snake) has mistaken the sweet-tempered Cross for a man of means and, goaded by her abusive lover-cum-fiancée Johnny (Dan Duryea packing extra venom into his usual slimeball role), she intends to take the elderly gentleman for everything she believes he’s got… Shot in noirish B&W with Greenwich Village reduced to its elemental bricks, asphalt, and winking neon, Lang’s tale of amour fou sees corruption spread like a plague—beginning with Kitty’s amoral temptress and Johnny’s misogynistic bravado, it seeps into Chris Cross (get it?) who finds himself driven by lust and loneliness into doing things he never would have dreamed of before. Even when kismet finally reveals itself in the guise of a forgotten face and, ironically, Chris’ own artwork, it doesn’t exactly bring down the justice we were expecting. This is the kind of big theatrical melodrama they stopped making decades ago, a classic tragedy (based on André Mouëzy-Éon’s novel and play) in which dreams turn sour, redemption is forever just out of reach, and God is colder than a block of ice. Margaret Lindsay co-stars as Kitty’s cynical roommate and Rosalind Ivan is pure spite as Cross’ wife, a spitting harridan in housedress and fake pearls.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (USA 2019) (5): For years the old abandoned Bellows mansion has towered over the small town of Mill Valley, Pennsylvania. Once the residence of the fabulously wealthy Bellows clan it is now home to spiders and dust—and a terrible secret. Apparently youngest daughter, Sarah, was so hideously deformed the family had her locked away in the basement where she whiled away the hours writing macabre stories (in blood!) and luring local children to their deaths. At least that’s how the legend goes. Now, on Halloween night 1968, goth teen Stella and her friends decide to break into the old place for a lark, but things quickly go awry when they stumble upon Sarah’s book of scary stories—stories which write themselves then proceed to come to life with a murderous vengeance… Based on the books of Alvin Schwartz whose imaginative tales embraced everything from demonic scarecrows to decapitated bogeymen, André Øvredal’s spooky anthology reads better than it plays which is disappointing when you consider Guillermo del Toro helped with the screenplay. The ingredients are all there—moonlit cornfields, creepy corridors, and a haunted house that could put Disneyland’s to shame—but whether it’s the campy performances or a derivative script filled with 80s-style schlock the horror level never goes beyond Goosebumps and the movie’s episodic nature fails to mesh. Further dragging things down is an unfolding backstory in which Stella’s own troubled history parallels that of Sarah’s ghost leading to a climax which is more chick flick that shockfest. And aside from Nixon on the television, a vintage bus, and a rendition of Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” playing in the background, 1968 winds up looking like Generation Z playing dress-up—and not very convincingly. Annabelle could eat this film for breakfast.

The Scent of Green Papaya (France 1993) (5): Saigon 1951, and 10-year old country lass Mui, wide-eyed and innocent, has just arrived in the big city where she’s hired as a domestic by an upper middle class family. Life is good, the work is easy, and because she resembles her mistress’ dead daughter Mui also enjoys a few special privileges. But the life of the relatively rich is not as grand as she imagined for grandma has been an upstairs hermit ever since her husband died, the lady of the house seems to be the sole breadwinner, and her spouse has a habit of grabbing the cash box and taking extended tours of Saigon’s many brothels. Furthermore, the middle son has made a hobby out of torturing insects while the youngest is determined to make Mui’s life as difficult as possible. In other words, they’re bourgeois. But our plucky little heroine is so in tune with nature (she smiles at ants!) and her noble peasant ways that she barely notices the little brat farting in her general direction. Ten years later the kindly mistress, now a forlorn widow, reluctantly lets Mui go with a bit of cash meant for her daughter. Still sporting that vacuous smile (only as an adult it looks less endearing and more like brain damage) Mui eventually finds love and honour. Yes, this Cannes winner and Oscar nominee boasts some amazing cinematography filled with bright vibrant colours and warm tropical locales (actually filmed entirely on a Parisian sound stage) but its snail’s pace challenged my patience throughout while a jaw-aching sweetness practically oozed from every frame. Contrived and emotionally unconvincing, this is a Vietnamese Pollyanna whose rich visuals barely mask a core of pure cinematic syrup. Spielberg would weep.

Schizo (UK 1976) (5): Newlywed Samantha (Lynne Frederick) is being terrorized by crank phone calls and a stalker who somehow always manages to get into her apartment when she’s alone. Convinced that this escalating harassment is somehow related to the man who brutally murdered her mother fifteen years earlier when she was just a child, her frantic pleas for help are largely downplayed by the police who are unable to find any evidence to support her claims, her best friend and new husband who likewise believe she is delusional, and a psychiatrist who chalks it all up to stress. But when her acquaintances start to die off—victims of a sadistic serial killer—it may already be too late! You pretty well know whodunnit within the first 20 minutes (an opening voiceover does everything but write their name on the wall) but that doesn’t prevent this British giallo from entertaining audiences…if only in a curious roadkill sort of way. The attempts at generating suspense produce a few squirms which are promptly dispelled by the usual illogical devices—“I think I just saw a knife-wielding maniac outside the bathroom door so I’ll finish soaping up my breasts, throw on a skimpy towel, and examine every square inch of the apartment.” Naturally. And the murders themselves, a nice combination of POV angles and victim close-ups, are certainly grisly enough to have given the old nannies at the BBFC cause to grab the scissors—I especially liked the “knitting needle” scene. But the film’s sole red herring fails to add any mystery to an already superficial plot and the uneven performances range from fair to middling with Queenie Watts (playing the couple’s feisty housekeeper) coming out on top and Stephanie Beacham (playing Samantha’s old school chum and romantic rival) oozing 70s chic. Unfortunately, the whole production relies largely on Lynne Frederick’s reactions as the distraught Samantha and she can’t even faint convincingly. But the real star of this little cheese platter is clearly the decor! The couple’s apartment is a study in loud and tacky fashion abominations from the horrid patchwork wallpaper and shower-curtain curtains to the purple walls, burgundy bedspreads, and dollar store tchotchkes, the design department clearly went out of their way to ensure that nothing matched anything. It’s like watching a slasher flick unfold inside a warehouse filled with kitschy castoffs and thinking “if the murderer doesn’t kill them that living room set certainly will”.

Score: A Film Music Documentary (USA 2016) (8): As a diehard cinephile I have always been aware of the role music plays in augmenting a storyline, skewing an emotion, or setting the tone for a particular scene. From those menacing three notes in Jaws to the grandiose evocation of Darth Vader in Star Wars, composers have always been a vital part of cinema even during the Silent Era when musicians provided live accompaniment to the onscreen action. In Matt Schrader’s fascinating documentary we actually get to meet some of the creative minds behind those iconic chords and hear what they have to say about a painstakingly creative process that stretches from inspirational idea to full orchestra (or synthesizer). Utilizing everything from pots and pans to native African instruments to iMacs, and spanning every genre of music, film composers have come a long way since the days of lone theatre organists, and the sounds they’ve created have evolved right alongside cinema itself. The artists are a joy to watch—the doc’s talking heads also include critics and a clinical psychologist with an interesting take on the power of music—while a multitude of film clips will make you listen to movie tunes with a newfound appreciation. A must-see for anyone with more than a passing interest in the magic of filmmaking.

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

Screamers (Canada 1995) (5): It’s the year 2078 and on the frontier planet Sirius 6B a civil war has erupted between the evil N.E.B. Corporation and the Alliance of Miners. The trouble started, so we’re told in an opening scroll, when the company began ignoring the safety concerns of its miners in order to exploit a rich vein of berynium, the most powerful energy source in the universe. Now in its fourth year, the war has decimated the civilian population leaving behind a token Alliance stronghold involved in a perpetual stalemate with their N.E.B. counterparts. However, the Alliance has one extra dirty trick up their sleeves: a miniature army of self-replicating, semi-intelligent robots equipped with whirling blades and a penchant to attack anything with a heartbeat. But when the so-called "screamers" start going off the grid, both the N.E.B. forces and the Alliance find themselves up against a common enemy neither one of them could have imagined. With anemic nods to Bladerunner and The Thing, Christian Duguay’s outer space shoot-’em-up takes a fairly interesting spin on the Frankenstein myth and bogs it down with some substandard CGI effects and a host of hammy performances; Quebec’s own Roy Dupuis is especially terrible as a bile-spitting hired gun. Still, there are some nice otherworldly backdrops, cool hardware, and enough blood and guts to pad out an otherwise threadbare narrative. A few macabre twists are mostly predictable, but a fiery shoot-out with a horde of murderous kindergarteners was pure delight!

A Screaming Man (Chad 2010) (7): The sin of the father is visited upon the son only to return tenfold in writer/director Mahamet-Saleh Haroun’s low-key political allegory set in modern day Chad. Fifty-five year old Adam has faithfully tended the swimming pool at a posh foreign-owned hotel for years and is now teaching his twenty-year old son Abdel the ropes. Sadly, economic realities see him suddenly demoted to gatekeeper while Abdel maintains the far more prestigious job of pool-boy. Bitterly jealous towards the younger man Adam’s sullen demeanour and angry silence don’t go unnoticed by either his wife whom he has kept in the dark or by Abdel who tries his best to placate the old man while still defending his new promotion. But when the local chieftain begins pressuring Adam to do his part for the country’s ongoing struggle against rebel insurgents he realizes that even though he has no money and is too old to be drafted, Abdel is quite another story… Against a backdrop of civil war in which the piercing drone of unseen fighter planes intrude on almost every scene and television is rife with images of bloodied corpses and patriotic jingoism, Haroun uses one family’s tragic divide to paint a broader picture of contemporary Africa. Adam’s next door neighbour is constantly “borrowing” without ever returning; his village chieftain rattles a fine sword until he actually has to face the enemy; and Adam’s livelihood is determined by foreign stakeholders he’s never met. Furthermore, his prideful decision to put his own needs before those of his son will give rise to consequences he never imagined. “I still believe in God…” says one elderly friend who has just lost his job at the hotel, “…but I’ve lost faith in him.” And as the sun sets on the film’s final frame these words underscore a far deeper despair. Passable acting all around and a natural script that manages to overcome its few minor embellishments.

The Sea (Ireland 2013) (6): John Banville adapts his own Booker prize-winning novel for the screen and in the process it loses much of its lyricism—and sense—in favour of peevish drama and affected scenery. Still grieving the death of his wife, sixty-ish author Max Morden (Ciarán Hinds) rents a room in the same seaside town where he used to spend magical summer vacations as a child. Drowning his anguish with alcoholic binges, the widower’s thoughts begin weaving back and forth between one particular childhood summer and his wife’s agonizing final months. And the memories thus dredged up are equally steeped in longing and sorrow, though for very different reasons as we gradually discover. Director Stephen Brown tries to remain true to the book’s stream of consciousness motif as Morden’s daydreams intrude upon his bleak reality—that long ago summer where he had his first sexual stirrings aimed at Mrs. Grace, his new friends’ mother, filmed in shades of bronze; his wife’s bitter decline tinged with indigo. Both scenarios carry tones of nostalgia and tragedy, childlike incomprehension and angry self-pity, for the young Max’s first glimpse into the emotionally tangled world of adults (The Graces and their two children were a complex family of sexual impulses and little white lies) sets the stage for his latest good-bye. Hinds does a fine job as a tortured man trying to find peace in the least likely of places, and he’s buoyed up by the likes of Charlotte Rampling playing the inn’s landlady, a woman who shares some of Max’s memories; Sinéad Cusack as the dying wife whose swan song reverberates throughout; and Natascha McElhone as Mrs. Grace, an unsettling combination of domestic goddess and seductive siren. True to the title the sea provides Brown’s film with a common thread—those thundering waves as ceaseless as fate, as implacable as God—and cinematographer John Conroy makes the most of water and sky by turning his seasides into striking canvases while Andrew Hewitt’s score keeps pace with one crashing orchestral crescendo after another. Beautiful to look at, like a piece of visual poetry, but in the end it’s a whole lot of psychological Sturm und Drang which oddly enough kept me at arm’s length instead of engaging me.

The Seagull’s Laughter (Iceland 2001) (7): Director Ágúst Gudmundsson’s screen adaptation of Kristin Marja Baldursdóttir’s novel is a devilishly black comedy pitting elements of Norse folklore and nascent feminism against a backdrop of domestic abuse and adulterous husbands. Set in a small fishing village outside Reykjavik circa 1950 it tells the story of prodigal daughter Freyja who returns to the fold after her American GI husband suddenly drops dead. Moving in with her adoptive granny and three plain Jane cousins—slow-witted Ninna, drama queen Dodo, and maliciously precocious Agga (Christina Ricci lookalike Ugla Egilsdóttir playing an Icelandic version of Wednesday Addams)—Freyja wows family and friends alike with her suitcases full of stateside haute couture and exotic perfumes. But true to her mythological namesake (the alluring goddess associated with sex, beauty, and death) working class Freyja’s darker nature soon has her righting a few old wrongs and scoping out the town’s most eligible bachelor much to the chagrin of his well-to-do fiancée. But when idle gossip of sexual impropriety turns to more sinister whispers, only Agga holds the truth for she's witnessed the older woman’s mysterious midnight sojourns into the nearby rocky hills where magic is said to reside… Delightfully deadpan in the way it tackles social maladies of the time (is every man in the village a drunken cheat and every woman a victim of one form or another?) with the vaguely ethereal Freyja upsetting the established order by empowering the women, bewildering the men, and in a telling final jab setting the prepubescent Agga on a brand new path. Droll Scandinavian satire served up cold as ice and dry as old bones.

Sea Marks (USA 1976) (9): Directors Ron Maxwell and Steven Robman bring Gardner McKay’s two-character stage play to the small screen and the result is one of the more moving love stories I’ve seen in some time. Remembering a woman he spied at a wedding party a few years before, gentle-natured Irish fisherman Colm Primrose (Missouri native George Hearn affecting a decent accent) looks up her address and mails her a simple letter of introduction. The woman, Timothea Stiles (Veronica Castang elegantly downplayed), can’t remember having met Primrose but she is so impressed with his simple yet lyrical descriptions of daily life in the small coastal village where he grew up as well as his philosophical musings on life’s bigger questions that she responds in kind. Letters eventually lead to a meeting which leads to much more when Colm joins her in Liverpool. Problems arise however when Stiles wishes to use her position at a large publishing company to share Colm’s letters, which she regards as poetry, with the world much to the consternation of Primrose who feels his inner soul ebbing the longer he’s separated from his beloved coastline… A lovely and deeply felt romance whose edge comes not so much from culture clash—she’s an urban divorcee, he’s a country virgin—but rather a clash of hearts and minds. Although they love one another, neither will ever feel completely at ease in the other’s world: Timothea tries to forget her poor Welsh roots as she seeks worldly success in the big city whereas Colm continues to feel the tug of the sea calling him home, even in his dreams. At times rhapsodic as when the fisherman’s primitive prose is set against images of a raging seashore (filmed on location in western Ireland), at others playfully erotic as the two fumble their way to bed. Yet alongside the emotionally laden words and expressions of affection there runs a sense melancholy, for we know their differences stand poised to overwhelm the bridges they’ve built. A bittersweet story of two lonely people in search of a safe harbour that is as tender as a shaft of moonlight through an apartment window and as powerful as an ocean swell. Part of the Broadway Theater Archive collection.

Seance [Kôrei] (Japan 2000) (7): Sato and his wife Junko are not your ordinary suburban couple: he’s a sound effects engineer for a local production company and she’s a part-time waitress and full-time medium who sees dead people at the most inopportune times. Lately their lives have become more peculiar than usual for his recordings of natural sounds have yielded some very unnatural results while she is finding it increasingly difficult to serve customers a cup of coffee when there’s a faceless ghost glaring at her from beyond the sugar bowl. So when a detective, on the recommendation of a parapsychologist, comes seeking Junko’s services in order to locate a kidnapped girl the couple see it as a welcome diversion, especially Junko who dreams of cashing in on her psychic abilities. But what starts out as a promising collaboration quickly turns into a nightmare when she discovers the lost girl is closer (in body and spirit) than she first suspected putting her and Sato firmly at odds with both the supernatural world and the local police department. Despite a few forgivable flaws in logic—it’s a ghost story after all—this made-for-television thriller, a twisted Japanese hybrid of The Sixth Sense and Seance on a Wet Afternoon, has enough bumps and jolts to keep you peering over your shoulder throughout. However, unlike most entries in the Asian horror genre the obligatory creaking, limp-haired phantoms take a back seat to some marvellously eerie atmospherics: ghostly klaxons peal in the night, lightning illuminates a curtained window, and spectral shadows spill from a partially opened doorway accompanied by the sound of rushing wind. The pseudo-scientific background is shaky at best (did I mention this is a ghost story?) while the lightweight attempts to plumb the couple’s psychological motivations provide little more than a dramatic footnote, but for sheer creepiness it still had me reaching for the light switch.

The Sea of Trees (USA 2015) (2): The one unforgivable sin a director can levy at me is treating me like a gullible idiot. Gus Van Sant crosses that line so many times in this sappy pseudo-religious fluff that it’s a wonder I even managed to choke my way through to the end. Nestled at the foot of Mount Fuji lies the infamous Aokigahara Forest, an immense old growth woodland filled with twisting paths and stony outcrops which has been infamously dubbed the “Suicide Forest” because it is a favoured destinations for those looking to end their lives. Frozen with guilt following the tragic end of his tragic marriage—cue insufferable flashbacks to life with a financially successful but emasculating alcoholic bitch (Naomi Watts)—American college professor Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey) travels to Aokigahara with a bottle of pills and a death wish. But he only manages to get a few tablets down when he happens upon a dazed and bloodied Japanese businessman (Ken Watanabe) who is desperately trying to find his way out of the forest. Deciding to help the poor man, Arthur puts his own suicide on hold and the two wend their way through a serene yet increasingly chaotic landscape suddenly filled with graveyard omens and rays of hope so intense they’re almost……ummmm……purgatorial! Fans of DEEP SYMBOLISM will quake at all the nicely framed images of ascending stairways, sepulchral caves, biblical floods (after only three minutes of gentle rain?), and a little storybook that just happens to arrive in the post. And wait until you hear the names of the businessman’s wife and child! Gilded with spiritual aspirations and healing energy but hollow to the core—oh those final twists of the emotional knife—Van Sant does manage to achieve something of a cinematic anomaly: a chick flick with an all-male cast. No wonder it had audiences booing when it premiered at Cannes. Run away!

The Searchers (USA 1956) (7): Historical revisionism aside, John Ford’s glorious widescreen Western, often seen near the top of many critics’ “best of” lists, manages to mold the usual genre tropes into something approaching spiritual allegory. John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a weary Confederate soldier returning to his brother’s Texas homestead at the end of the Civil War. The happy family reunion is cut short however when a roving band of Comanches raids the farm killing most of Ethan’s family and making off with his little niece Debbie. Consumed with rage, Ethan sets out to rescue the girl and exact his revenge accompanied by young Martin Pawley, the “one-eighth Comanche” man he rescued from a similar raid when Martin was just an infant. But neither Ethan nor his motives are as honourable as they first appear for his hatred of all things Indian goes far deeper than first suspected (keep your eyes open for clues as to why) and he regards anything touched by them as tainted, including Debbie. Against a backdrop of soaring buttes and impossibly blue skies Ethan’s singleminded journey is as much psychological as physical; a few subtle hints suggest a man already burdened with a checkered past now anxious to redeem himself and make the world right again. Facing outlaws, harsh landscapes, and an increasingly antagonistic relationship with Martin who provides a small but persistent voice of reason, Ethan’s quest brings him face-to-face with a few of his own demons. A final showdown with the Comanche chief does not become the straightforward good versus evil struggle we expect, but rather an angry contest of wills and an airing of past sins. Much has been said of the film’s apparent racist overtones in portraying Ethan’s Indian nemesis as an ignoble savage, but when both men are viewed as archetypes rather than simple characters, Ford’s vision becomes abundantly clear. This is a parable for adults which begins with an open door and ends with that same door closing like the final page of a storybook. However, the real impact of the film lies in its wide angle cinematography which makes full use of those Utah settings: sunbaked deserts, crimson sunsets, and candlelit domestic scenes, all rendered in rich technicolour, give The Searchers a quasi-mythological feel and help distract the viewer from some rather mediocre performances. John Wayne, after all, was more of a screen icon than an actor.

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (UK 2015) (7): If you’ve seen the first instalment of John Madden’s star-studded romantic fluff about a group of aging Brits living out their final years in a charmingly ramshackle Jaipur hotel, you’ve pretty well seen all that part two has to offer. Which doesn’t mean it’s not worth a look, for the characters remain endearing and the script is a pleasant blend of humour, pathos, and a dash of Bollywood pizzazz. Proprietor Sonny Kapoor (UK-born Dev Patel hamming up the Hindu schtick) has his heart set on opening up a second Marigold Hotel if he can only secure the proper funding—cue a trip stateside with his acid-tongued partner Muriel (Maggie Smith in top form) and a host of gags when he mistakes a new hotel guest (Richard Gere, aging handsomely) for an undercover loans assessor. Upon this central thread Madden tacks on a host of side stores from a pair of seasoned octogenarians reaching for a second chance at love (Judi Dench, Bill Nighy) to a two-timing grandmother with room for a third (Celia Imrie) to Sonny’s abrasive mother (Lillete Dubey all class and sass) learning to let down her own defences. But of course the best lines are reserved for Ms. Smith as a wrinkly old pit bull who’s bark hides a few secrets of her own. And it all ends on an adorably silly musical note to rival anything out of Bombay. Namaste!

Second Skin (Spain 1999) (8): When his wife, Elena, discovers that he’s having an affair with another man, Alberto furiously backpedals even further into the closet. In the meantime, unable to fall out of love with him, Elena tries to ignore her embittered mother’s crusty advice while taking a brief hop off the monogamy wagon herself. But when Alberto’s clandestine lover Diego (Javier Bardem, ¡muy guapo!) finds out about the wife…and kid…Alberto’s meticulously maintained double lives finally cross paths sending the already neurotic family man crashing headfirst through the closet door. Having spent his entire life lying about more than just his sexuality, Alberto is ill-prepared for the emotional showdowns which ensue as both wife and boyfriend draw lines in the sand and demand a final decision. No one, of course, is prepared for what comes next… There are so many reasons I should not like this homo version of a chick flick (dick flick?) For starters, the orchestral score of swelling strings practically pounds the pathos into your skull while gauzy tear-stained close-ups and puppy dog stares ensure that heartache gushes from every frame. If Barbara Cartland had been born a drag diva this is precisely the kind of Harlequeen romance she would have been famous for. And any astute observer will be able to see the ending barreling down from a mile away. So why did I find myself sighing and nodding my head sympathetically? Well, director Gerardo Vera does manage to avoid most of the mushier pitfalls inherent in the genre while his trio of talented actors do justice to an insightful script which, despite its melodramatic elements, stays sharp and believable. Also, he gives his film a spicy kick by including a little softcore man-to-man erotica that almost looks as if it wasn’t rehearsed a thousand times beforehand. And lead actors Bardem and Jordi Mollà are almost too gorgeous for their own good. A guilty pleasure which nevertheless rings truer than Brokeback Mountain ever could.

The Secret in Their Eyes (Argentina 2009) (9): A young woman is raped and murdered in a Buenos Aires suburb and the police inspector assigned to the investigation, Benjamin Esposito, finds his inquiries hampered by bureaucracy and a judge who seems more intent on a quick fix than actual justice. Twenty-five years later the newly retired Esposito, still obsessing over what has now become a cold case, decides to create his own sense of closure by writing a novel about his experience. But his attempts to recreate the past open an old wound as he recalls the dead woman’s grieving husband whose painful longing begins to mirror Benjamin’s own unrequited feelings for Irene, the department chief whom he loved from afar. And then his recollections offer up some new clues and an old crime suddenly comes to life once more… Flowing dreamlike between past and present Juan José Campanella’s gentle meditation on love, regret, and the creative process strikes an intricate balance between straight-up policier, bittersweet romance, and biting social critique (the murder eventually shedding light on some monstrous government corruption). Going beyond the obvious Campanella also explores the many faces of grief with Esposito and Irene pining over missed opportunities, the widower’s shaky stoicism hiding a deeper hunger for revenge, and Esposito’s partner Pablo continually trying to drown a lifetime of frustrations at the local pub. Everyone, it seems, is haunted one way or another by the past. If the film occasionally lapses into melodrama—a passionate farewell at a train station should have been shot in B&W—it is only a testament to the director’s art as he causes us to wonder whether or not we are watching Benjamin’s memories of things as they actually happened or as he wanted them to happen. Beautifully shot with long meticulous takes that give heightened importance to people’s faces (the eyes!) and a background score of sad violins, this is one film that actually deserved its Oscar win.

The Secret Life of Pets (USA 2016) (8): Did you ever wonder what your pets get up to when you’re not at home? Well according to Universal’s big crayon box of a cartoon it’s more than you think including raiding the fridge, catching up on TV, hosting rave parties, and saving the human race. Pampered pooch Max (voice of Louis CK) and his big shaggy new “brother” Duke (Eric Stonestreet) get lost in downtown Manhattan where they run afoul of crazy rabbit Snowball (Kevin Hart) who, along with his army of abandoned pets now inhabiting the sewers of New York, is plotting mass revenge on the humans who deserted them. Can Max and Duke evade Snowball’s wrath long enough for their furred ’n feathered friends to stage a rescue? And can the city survive a sudden onslaught of angry birds, reptiles, amphibians, arachnids, and homicidal mammals who not only know how to drive a bus but can also bust a few karate moves as well? Children should love the non-stop action and adorably anthropomorphized little critters but aside from a few Hollywood allusions and one quick yet clever video game sequence there’s not quite enough “adult wit” to engage older audiences for long. Not to worry however for the film’s sheer energy and manic pacing (spectacular crashes! amazing escapes! madcap chases!) is enough to carry you along right through to that awwww-inspiring widescreen epilogue. Dana Carvey gives voice to a wise old wheelchair-bound bloodhound, Albert Brooks brings a creepy falcon to life, Lake Bell is a sassy cat, and Jenny Slate shines as a lovesick Pomeranian.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (USA 2013) (6): Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller, yawn) is a shy recluse who manages the photo negatives department at Life magazine’s New York headquarters. Spicing up his otherwise humdrum life with elaborate daydreams Walter’s in the habit of zoning out at the oddest times—staring blankly in the middle of a conversation while he fantasizes about rescuing a damsel in distress or thwarting his super villain boss on the streets of Manhattan. Needless to say this peculiar habit has made him the butt of more than one jokester, especially Ted Hendricks the douchebag manager in charge of downsizing the company as Life abandons its magazine format and goes digital. But when Walter is entrusted with the periodical’s final cover picture supplied by a famous globe-trotting photojournalist, he loses the negative and thus begins a real life adventure which sees him fighting sharks in the north Atlantic, braving volcanoes in Iceland, and hiking through the Himalayas as he tries to track down the notoriously elusive shutterbug. Despite some clever opening credits and fantasy sequences, touristy views of Iceland and Greenland (Iceland again), and a few star cameos, this remake of the 1947 Danny Kaye classic is a predictable hodgepodge of “self realization” riffs (Walter’s adventures abroad expand his horizons!) and romantic fluff—his online pursuit of a fellow employee (Kristen Wiig, another yawn) giving rise to a couple of silly E-Harmony schticks. Not quite the imaginative epic it sets out to be but it did manage to keep me mildly amused.

The Secret of the Grain [La graine et le mulet ] (France 2007) (9): Slimane Beiji has spent most of his life working in the dockyard at Port Sète, first as an unregistered immigrant and then as a full-fledged citizen. Now in his latter years he finds he doesn’t have much to show for it—his company is cutting his hours causing an already precarious financial situation to turn dire, he’s become impotent with his girlfriend, and his adult children are the only bridge between him and his embittered ex-wife. His biggest regret however is the fact that he never managed to fulfill his lifelong wish of opening a floating restaurant (a veritable “ship of dreams”) specializing in “fish couscous”, a traditional dish his former spouse makes to perfection. Spurred on by his lover’s headstrong daughter Rym (a multiple-award winning performance by newcomer Hafsia Herzi) Slimane decides to gather his meagre resources and take a stab at that dream after all. Wading through a maze of municipal bureaucracy, not to mention a reluctant loan officer, Slim manages to secure a rusty old fishing boat and with the help of family and friends—including his girlfriend and ex-wife—the restaurant slowly becomes a reality. Throwing a fund-raising gala on the newly remodelled boat, Slimane invites one hundred of the town’s most influential bigwigs to come and sample his wares. But just as things seem to be going his way the unthinkable happens and it’s going to take a miracle or two, and perhaps a small sacrifice, to keep his dream from being destroyed for good. Writer-director Abdellatif Kechiche’s seriocomic parable about hope and adversity is presented with such natural energy and disarming dialogue that at times it sounds like an ad-libbed reality show. Characters swirl around each other offering encouragement or rebukes, gossiping around the dinner table, and occasionally offering profound insights into life, love, and the meaning of it all. Lead actor Habib Boufares plays Slim as if in a daze, a man who has seen too many disappointments to take much pleasure in a bit of luck when it presents itself. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the film’s astonishing multi-layered finale where we see a disheartened Slimane tormented, quite literally, by a trio of mocking Fates even as more powerful forces are at work on his floating eatery. At 150 minutes Grain takes its sweet time getting to the point and I must admit I found some of the prolonged banter tiresome, but this is a film that demands your full attention and once you get into its groove the journey proves to be one of those rare cinematic delicacies.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (USA 2012) (3):  With a huge asteroid scheduled to destroy the Earth in three weeks' time, newly single and terribly lonely insurance salesman Dodge (Steve Carell, already limp and lifeless) has resigned himself to dying alone and unloved.  But when he crosses paths with brokenhearted downstairs neighbour Penny (Keira Knightley, aiming for quirky but settling for unbalanced) and abandoned mutt "Sorry" (best performance by far) his short life finds some meaning after all.  Both characters are searching for something to validate their existence--he wants to hook up with an old flame, she wants to reunite with her folks in England---and in the long, tedious road trip to nowhere which follows they discover that all they ever wanted is sitting right there in the seat beside them.  Lorene Scafaria's "End of Days" love story starts out with so much promise as we see society preparing for its impending demise with a mordantly amusing mix of despair, violence, and everyday banalities:  "Some upper level management positions have suddenly become available!" spouts a chipper HR rep at a sparsely attended staff meeting while bodies fall out of windows and buildings burn.  But in the end all we get is a standard, and oh so boring, romance populated by flat characters and the usual plot twists: Penny meets up with an ex while Dodge heals old wounds with his estranged father.  Furthermore, the abundance of illogical plot devices make the whole apocalyptic theme seem like a weak afterthought:  utilities and television broadcasts continue uninterrupted, "widespread" rioting seems limited to one city block, and in one completely nonsensical passage a trans-Atlantic flight aboard a two-seater Cessna is actually contemplated.  Doesn't even come close to the complexity of Don McKellar's far superior Last Night and by the end I found myself just wishing the damn asteroid would hurry up.  At least the classical rock soundtrack was easy on the ears.

The Selfish Giant (UK 2013) (8): Clio Barnard takes Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale of the same name and turns it inside-out in this drama which juxtaposes bleak social realism with moments of unexpected beauty. Growing up in a dirty Yorkshire town, best friends Arbor and Swifty find some solace in each other’s company. Prone to fits of ADHD which make his school attendance spotty at best, Arbor shares a social housing unit with his violent drug-dealing brother and loving but powerless mother. Swifty’s lot is not much better for his unemployed parents are stuck with too many children and the family furniture is slowly disappearing thanks to the debt collectors who always seem to be knocking at the door. Making a few extra pounds by collecting metal (often illegally) the boys fall in with local scrap dealer “Kitten”, a growling bear of a man with a weakness for race horses and ingrained dislike for children. Recognizing Swifty’s gentle way with horses, Kitten begins to favour him—a situation which the hyperactive Arbor finds intolerable. This growing rift between the boys, coupled with Arbor’s increased neediness and greed (his thieving becoming ever more bold), sets the stage for exploitation and eventual disaster… Barnard elicits performances from her remarkable young leads which ring true on every level. From their quotidian jostling right up to that horrendous climax, Conner Chapman (Arbor) and Shaun Thomas (Swifty) exhibit a streetwise savvy and pathetic naïvety which seem as natural as the abandoned warehouses and rickety apartment blocks that delineate their lives. In the pivotal role of Kitten, Sean Gilder becomes the giant in miniature with a locked gate and snapping dog protecting his garden of rusting metal wherein shady deals are made and youth is corrupted. Yet Barnard still sees a poetic beauty amidst the grime as sheep and horses graze contentedly beneath skies either strewn with stars or laden with grey mist through which cooling towers drift in and out of focus. And running throughout the countryside ubiquitous power lines crackle and hum like an implacable force of nature unto themselves. Even the film’s final tragedy is gentled somewhat into a transformative event which may not lead to Paradise as in Wilde’s tale but at least opens up the possibility of an earthbound deliverance. Beautifully realized and emotionally jarring. A warning however: if you’re not familiar with the Yorkshire dialect be sure to enable the subtitle option.

$ellebrity (USA 2012) (8): Starting with their humble beginnings as polite and deferential photographers willing to observe strict studio rules to the obnoxious carrion vultures of today, there is no doubt that the paparazzi have played a major role in how celebrities and the general public view one another from Rock Hudson’s homosexual cover-up to Liz Taylor’s very public divorces. But Kevin Mazur’s insightful doc goes beyond the usual scenes of harried movie stars being stalked by rogue lenses to reveal something much more insidious at work, namely how the once lauded Free Press—and by association, democracy itself—have been partially hijacked by online gossip-mongers and supermarket tabloids willing to pay upwards of $500,000 for an unflattering snapshot of Roseanne Arquette’s cellulite or Britney Spear’s latest meltdown. And just where do they get that much money in the first place? Well, according to Mazur’s succession of industry talking heads, from a homegrown consumer base whose insatiable appetite for scandal has turned guerrilla “journalism” into a billion dollar business while at the same time relegating actual world events to the back burner. Interviewing stakeholders from both sides—Salma Hayek talks about being accosted by an aggressive photog while carrying her infant son; a self-proclaimed photojournalist claims he’s creating “history”—Mazur keeps the playing field more or less even, making sure to include opinions from reality slags Snooki and Heidi Montag whose own careers relied solely on flash photo-ops and fake news. Celebrity status was as much about packaging as it was talent, and listening to surprisingly candid insights from the likes of Elton John, Jennifer Aniston, Kid Rock, and Sheryl Crow (who was pretty much ignored until she was diagnosed with breast cancer) leaves you with the distinct impression that in the manufactured world of tabloids, where fact-checking takes a backseat to publishing deadlines and tact bows to profit, one picture is worth a thousand lies.

A Serbian Film (Serbia 2010) (5): Former Balkan porn sensation Milos is now happily settled down with a wonderful wife and precocious preschool son, his past little more than a shelf full of old videos which he occasionally dusts off when he’s in the mood. But there are bills to be paid, a drinking habit to maintain, and a child to raise so when a former acquaintance from the business offers him a gig in a “sexually artistic” adult film for an unbelievable salary he reluctantly comes out of retirement one last time. Meeting up with slimy director Vukmir who shoots his arthouse erotica on a heavily secured estate with armed guards for cameramen, Milos is put off by the man’s reluctance to share details about either the production itself or the select audience to whom it is targeted. Unfortunately the whisky and the money sway his misgivings and by the time Milos realizes that his Faustian bargain with Vukmir requires him to do more than simply fuck (much much more) it is already too late… In much the same vein as Pasolini’s Salò or the 120 Days of Sodom, director Srjdan Spasojevic wallows in brutally graphic violence and degenerate sex in order to deliver a political polemic. But whereas Pasolini’s scatological opus shook its well-aimed fist at the dehumanizing effects of fascism, Spasojevic seems to hate everything about his country from its warrior mindset to the way its people willingly devour one another in order to gain even the slightest advantage. And even though the stark fluorescent lighting and score of subsonic jolts emphasize the director’s sense of despair and outrage, those horribly convincing scenes of incest, necrophilia, and child rape ensure his film crosses the line before it even leaves the gate. Sadly, this overuse of shocking imagery ultimately distracts causing the audience to concentrate not so much on Spasojevic’s shaking fist, but rather on the blood and jizz dripping off of it.

The Serpent and the Rainbow (USA 1988) (5): In the waning days of Doc Duvalier’s regime a freelance American scientist, Dennis Alan, is sent to Haiti by the powerful Biocorp pharmaceutical corporation in order to discover the secret of “zombification”; the process whereby ordinary people are apparently killed and then brought back as mindless automatons. By studying the complex drug cocktail involved in the process Biocorp hopes to develop a revolutionary new surgical anesthetic thereby cornering the world market and boosting their profits. But Alan’s snooping around Port-au-Prince soon attracts some unwanted attention from Captain Peytraud, chief of the local secret police who has a few black magic secrets of his own. Anxious to protect those secrets, Peytraud subjects the hapless scientist to some nasty torture both physical and mystical in order to get him to leave the island. Not so easily swayed, Alan joins forces with a benevolent witch doctor and an attractive psychologist (cue love interest); but will their combined power be enough to defeat the evil Peytraud or will Alan become yet another one of his victims? Filled with racial and cultural stereotypes against a background of increasingly silly mumbo-jumbo (a zombie bride shoots snakes out her mouth, a dinner party of Bostonian wasps turns into an impromptu exorcism) this little foray into the spiritual realm, inspired by true events (oh my!), wanders as aimlessly as the living dead it portrays. Star Bill Pullman lacks the onscreen energy needed to build up any credible suspense and his supporting cast of colourful sorcerers and Mardi Gras revellers look more like a Bayou tourist attraction. The film’s fiery climax, a hokey voodoo showdown replete with swirling ghosts and burning skulls, was all Hollywood flash with no substance. In the end, aside from some creepy cemetery scenes, The Serpent and the Rainbow is not so much a horror movie as it is a twisted travelogue.

The Serpent’s Egg (USA 1977) (5): Bergman’s overblown period piece proves that bigger budgets don’t always translate into better films, even in the hands of a master. In 1920’s Berlin an unemployed, alcoholic Jewish-American trapeze artist (oh Ingmar...please!) moves in with his former sister-in-law after his brother commits suicide for no apparent reason. Life isn’t easy for Abel and Manuela; jobs are scarce, food is a luxury item, and a young upstart named Adolph Hitler is busy sowing seeds of discontent. Abel steadfastly refuses to acknowledge the rising tide of German xenophobia and anti-semitism, choosing instead to numb himself in a haze of alcohol and look the other way; he even vandalizes a Jewish storefront for good measure. But as times become more desperate reality begins to encroach upon his progressively fragile mind; his friends and acquaintances are ending up in the morgue, the police seem to be shadowing his every move, and throughout it all he is bothered by the sound of distant machinery that no one else can hear. When the inevitable breakdown comes, involving mad scientists and heinous conspiracies, we are no longer sure what is real...nor do we very much care. To be fair, Bergman does offer up some striking scenes which heighten the film’s sense of spiritual despair; a funeral procession wends its way through rush hour traffic, a political rally is held outside a cemetery, and a verdigris-encrusted angel stares helplessly at Abel as he is interrogated by police. Furthermore, garish burlesque shows highlight a society sliding into chaos and add an air of dark irony. But the acting is hopelessly uneven and the script rife with histrionic non-sequiturs. Even viewed as a completely subjective psychodrama Serpent’s Egg is little more than a paranoid cabaret.

Serpico (USA 1973) (7): Director Sidney Lumet sticks to the seedy side of New York in this biopic of whistleblower Frank Serpico who made national headlines after he went public with accusations of rampant corruption among his fellow NYPD officers. Upon completing his police training, promising young rookie Serpico hits the streets eager to serve and protect only to find the rank and file regularly supplementing their income through threats and extortion while their leaders turn a blind eye. Refusing to accept bribes, Serpico finds himself a professional pariah shuffled from one precinct to another while being stonewalled by his superiors every time he tries to alert them to the gross misconduct he’s witnessing. With pressure from work beginning to affect his personal life he finally decides to take his concerns to the next level—a decision which will not only threaten his career but his very life as well. As the grungy, bearded Serpico (he preferred to work undercover), Al Pacino’s Oscar-nominated performance is a hyperkinetic mix of streetwise cop and outraged crusader whose frustrated tirades belie a deeper sense of betrayal as he sees his childhood ideals of what a policeman stands for shattered one by one. Supported by a cast of B-list mainstays and an evocative score by Mikis Theodorakis, this simple tale of an honest everyman going up against a dangerously complacent bureaucracy becomes a contemporary take on David & Goliath made all the more compelling because it really happened.

Seven Beauties (Italy 1975) (7): Lina Wertmüller’s follow-up of sorts to Swept Away once again examines the brittleness of male machismo and the disparity between what we actually are and what we think we are. Only this time around she goes for the jugular as farce gives way to grim tragedy. In the years leading up to WWII, Neapolitan dandy Pasquale Frafuso (Giancarlo Giannini, superb) has become so obsessed with personal honour that he’s unable to grasp the fact he’s never really had any to begin with. Slicking back his hair and donning a cheap suit (with loaded pistol tucked prominently) he struts about town imagining himself a ladykiller, thus the irony of the title—he feels his given nickname, “Seven Beauties”, refers to his sexual prowess but it could also refer to the fact he’s the self-appointed patriarch to seven big ugly sisters all of whom seem destined for the whorehouse. When his eldest sister actually does begin frequenting the neighbourhood bordello a botched showdown with her pimp over family honour leads to a manslaughter charge and subsequent stint in an asylum—much to his shame Pasquale feigns insanity in order to avoid execution. But this is not the end, for his involuntary hospitalization (and rape of a bedridden patient) leads to Pasquale being conscripted into Mussolini’s forces which leads to his incarceration in a German concentration camp where in order to survive he forces himself to woo the camp commandant—a slovenly, stone-faced whale of a woman who takes sadistic delight in doling out his final heartbreaking humiliation when she gives him a gun and a mission. Images of strong emasculating women abound in Wertmüller’s Oscar-nominated dramedy: a painting of the Madonna looks down from high atop a wall, his mother’s presence reduces Pasquale to a blubbering child, and the prison commandant (bravura performance from American Shirley Stoler) chews up his masculinity and spits it back in his face while he grovels over a floor marked by a giant swastika. Even his much maligned older sister ends up possessing more mettle than her simpering brother. But Wertmüller has bigger fish to fry than one egotistical Italian male who regularly confuses self-preservation with self-respect, for an opening montage of war atrocities mocked by lines of beat poetry indicts an entire national mindset—“The ones who worship the corporate image, oh yeah!…the ones who say ‘we Italians are the greatest he-men on Earth’, oh yeah!…the ones who never get involved with politics…Pow!…oh yeah!” Suffering from jarring edits and suboptimal dubbing (in both Italian and German), Seven Beauties doesn’t quite carry the punch it once did and some of the more graphic scenes of Holocaust carnage smack of overkill given the film’s subject, but Wertmüller’s hooks remain sharp and her observational critiques still carry considerable weight. I doubt Fellini himself could have done much better.

7 Boxes (Paraguay 2012) (7): As part of his dream to become a television star teenaged Victor is obsessed with owning a brand new cellphone with built-in camera. But working as a delivery boy in Asunción’s sprawling outdoor market only earns him a few pennies per day, not even enough to make a downpayment. And then his luck seems to take a turn when a local businessman offers him a huge cash bonus for doing one baffling yet simple task: load his delivery barrow with seven sealed boxes, cart them around the neighbourhood for a few hours, and then return them. Of course things don’t go as planned and before a new day can begin Victor and his friend Liz will be hunted by the police, threatened by gang members, and see their worst nightmare come true when Victor decides to peek inside box number one. With minimal means and a cast of virtual unknowns (at least in North America), directors Juan Carlos Maneglia and Tana Schembori have come up with a good old-fashioned thriller whose clever script and macabre sense of humour keeps you engaged while offering a sly wink or two at our pursuit of celebrity—indeed, a final montage gives an undeniably sardonic spin to the old “fifteen minutes of fame” adage. Some frenzied editing and a memorable music score all add to the fun especially when a climactic wheelbarrow chase past deserted market stalls begins to rival any big budget automobile showdown. Not as polished as a Hollywood remake would be, but in the end that is where 7 Boxes derives most of its charm.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (USA 1954) (5): It’s 1850 and in the untamed wilderness of the Oregon Territories life is harsh; the winters are interminable, the wildlife dangerous, and eligible bachelors outnumber available females ten to one. It comes as no surprise then that wives are a scarce commodity worth fighting (or at least singing and dancing) over. But when big bearish frontiersman Adam Pontipee, head of the Pontipee clan, comes to town looking for a bride the gruff redhead has no problem marrying Milly, the most desirable bachelorette for miles around. Milly’s dreams of conjugal bliss are quickly shattered however when she discovers her homemaking skills will not be limited to Adam alone, but to his six bewhiskered and uncivilized brothers as well. With a fierce determination that belies her diminutive stature Milly sets about turning the six Pontipee boys into proper gentlemen just in time for the annual Barn Raising Dance where they are able to out-pirouette the city slickers and so win the hearts of the town’s six bachelorettes. But alas, the townsfolk are not about to part with their women so easily prompting Adam to concoct a most brazen and oh-so politically incorrect scheme to win them back. Much chaste singing and dancing ensue… One of the more famous Cinemascope musicals featuring hunky Howard Keel and mousy Jane Powell in the leads, backed by a cast of mainly nobodies including a pro baseball player and male ballet dancer. The painted backdrops and plywood frontier sets are cheesy, but the musical numbers are athletic enough even if the dubbed songs themselves are completely forgettable. It’s the sheer campiness of it all that appealed to me though; the strutting cowboys, the awkward lyrics (“A man can’t sleep when he sleeps with sheep…”), and an all-girl lingerie cat fight featuring sexy bloomers and corsets. “It’s indecent if you ask me…” laments a shopkeeper’s portly wife, “…one lone woman with seven scroungy backwoodsmen.” I guess one woman’s nightmare is another man’s dream come true. Musical cinema just doesn’t get any gayer than this.

Seven Days [Les sept jours du talion] (Canada 2010) (7): Dr. Bruno Hamel, a prominent Montreal surgeon, and his wife Sylvie realize every parents’ worst nightmare when their 8-year old daughter Jasmine is found brutally raped and murdered. Blaming both themselves and each other (this is the one day Bruno didn’t drive his daughter to school because his wife wanted a little morning sex) their relationship disintegrates into a series of heated incriminations and icy distances. But when the man responsible for Jasmine’s death, a known sex offender and pedophile, is finally caught Hamel decides to work through his rage and guilt in a more direct route. Kidnapping the suspect from police custody thanks to some elaborate planning Bruno transports him to an isolated cabin where he spends the next seven days, ironically the week leading up to Jasmine’s ninth birthday, exacting his own retribution using a combination of household tools and surgical instruments. In the meantime a Montreal detective, suffering from the effects of a violent crime himself, races to discover Hamel’s location before charges of kidnapping and torture escalate into homicide. Filmed in grim shades of blue and grey with isolated figures set against wide empty spaces, Daniel Grou’s bleak drama treads a fine line between graphic realism and sordid exploitation. What saves his film from becoming just another bloodletting revenge fantasy however is its emotionally volatile script and a host of powerful performances. Although he courts no sympathy for the pedophile, popular opinion definitely leans in favour of the vengeful father’s actions, Grou gradually reveals the true price of vigilante justice as every scar Bruno inflicts upon his daughter’s killer opens a fresh wound in his own psyche, wounds he attempts to anesthetize with hefty doses of alcohol. At first outraged with his wife’s telephone pleas to give himself up, Hamel is spurred into furious action when the mother of another little victim voices her own disapproval...a fury which leads to both a tense encounter and a grief-stricken epiphany. “Holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”, goes the anonymous saying, and watching Grou’s tragic protagonist slowly pollute his own soul makes for some harrowing cinema.

Seven Days in May (USA 1964) (10): Since it premiered in the early ‘60s director John Frankenheimer’s incendiary political thriller, based on Fletcher Knebel’s novel, has not lost its keen edge. If anything it has grown sharper over the years. In a near future America (set in 1970) United States president Jordan Lyman (Frederic March) attempts to ease the Cold War by signing a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. Naturally his decision is met with ambivalence by both the public and his military advisors especially the staunchly patriotic Gen. James Scott (Burt Lancaster), head of the Joint Chiefs, who vehemently insists the U.S. is playing into Russian hands. But Scott’s hawkish rhetoric runs deeper than mere words causing his personal aide Col. Martin Casey (Kirk Douglas) to suspect that Scott, along with a few key generals, is planning a military coup which will see him replace the duly elected president. Now, with little more than rumours and a few shreds of evidence to go on, Lyman and his staff have less than a week to verify their suspicions and come up with a plan of their own before Lyman can initiate his own… Opening with a brilliant scene in which pro- and anti-government protestors go for each other’s throats in front of the White House, Frankenheimer never eases up on the tension thanks to a cast of Hollywood legends and a biting script penned by Rod Serling. Meanwhile cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks never misses an opportunity to incorporate Old Glory into a frame; the wardrobe department keeps Scott dressed in dark colours while Casey and Lyman dress light; and Jerry Goldsmith’s music underscores the film’s gravity. Lancaster’s character may be a charismatic narcissist but his anti-Communist exhortations, delivered with all the calm certainty of a true believer, certainly touched a nerve in the American psyche which was still quite raw during those days of unfettered nuclear proliferation. March’s president, conversely, practically embodies the spirit of the Constitution as he strives to uphold the ideals of Life, Liberty, and Happiness even as circumstances force him to consider bypassing them out of sheer desperation. And Douglas bridges the gap between them, his character torn between duty to his superiors and duty to the country he swore to protect. Rounding out the cast are an Oscar-nominated Edmond O’Brien playing a rough hewn Georgia senator whose love for the bottle hasn’t dulled his common sense; Martin Balsam as a presidential aide reluctant to believe treason is afoot; and Ava Gardner as Scott’s former mistress who may or may not hold a vital key. Originally released as a chilling piece of speculative fiction Seven Days in May is now as real as today’s headlines—only its existential crisis has since solidified into something more recognizable.

Seven Psychopaths (UK 2012) (7): Alcoholic Irish screenwriter Marty (Colin Farrell) has a great idea for a new movie: seven individual psychopathic men learn a lesson in life or something or other, he’s unsure as to the details. He doesn’t even type up the first scene however when he finds himself up to his eyebrows in actual psychopaths—all of whom have an idea for a really great story. And it all starts with a stolen Shih Tzu. To simply refer to writer/director Martin McDonagh’s exercise in imagination and tastelessness as “quirky” would be a gross disservice for amidst all the flights of fancy and cartoon violence (both real and scripted) his attempts to wrap our heads around the creative mind of his protagonist and his circle of mad muses succeeds more than it falters. Skewering cineplex culture at every turn—“you can’t let animals die in a movie…only the women”—as well as American audiences’ taste for blood & guts & vengeance (we’re treated to a few drafts of his “final shootout”) McDonagh casts stones at the Hollywood aesthetic while ironically basking in its many clichés like a poor man’s Quentin Tarantino. Sam Rockwell co-stars as Marty’s manic actor friend Billy who runs a dognapping ring on the side. Woody Harrelson plays a sadistic mobster whose beloved purloined pooch leads to a mountain of woe for everyone involved, and Christopher Walken plays it straight as Billy’s sedate accomplice who has a few script ideas of his own. In addition there are surprise cameos from Tom Waits, Harry Dean Stanton, and Gabourey Sidibe. Sure to alienate those who prefer their farces to be a little more genial, McDonagh wastes little time on pretension, treating us instead to a WTF?! double shock before the opening credits even have a chance to finish. And those southern California backdrops are perfectly paired to an amazing soundtrack of indie artists and soft rock classics.

Seven Samurai (Japan 1954) (8): In the wild wild west of 16th century Japan a village of rural farmers hires seven professional swordsmen to defend their land from a roving gang of bandits. Over the course of several weeks the samurai, whose temperaments range from philosophical to truculent, attempt to organize the villagers into something resembling a ragtag militia—but when the bandits finally come knocking, will their efforts prove to be enough? Touted by many critics as “the greatest Japanese movie ever made”, writer/director Akira Kurosawa’s rollicking 3½-hour Western is certainly a testament to his gift for intimate drama and large scale punch. Avoiding soundstages as much as possible, his shabby thatched sets and dusty costumes (both nominated for Oscars) look absolutely authentic when coupled with those fields and mountains, and his cast of extras fret about in their rags and bandanas as if they were born to be feudal peasants. Blending moments of near slapstick humour with tragedy and a touch of sensuality (a village girl’s tussle with a samurai disciple is partially illuminated by a trembling campfire) Kurosawa revels in the genre without glorifying the violence—the final clash between farmers and marauders is a master class in controlled chaos where grisly slayings are suggested rather than scrutinized and nary a drop of blood is shown. Covering familiar territory of loyalty, idealism, and the corrupting nature of warfare, Seven Samurai is also a study in texture as Kurosawa draws upon everything from the snick of a sword to pummelling rainstorms to the pounding of hooves on a dirt road to augment a minimalist score whose grand orchestral moments take a backseat to single tension-filled notes. But, for all its artistry, the film belongs to star Toshirô Mifune as a well-meaning though slightly unhinged samurai wannabe. Leaping and posturing throughout—usually while bare-assed—he spits his lines as if they were curses, laughs like a madman, and constantly has his rowdy bravado undermined with one comeuppance after another. Seven Samurai may or may not be the “greatest” Japanese film of all time, but Mifune’s performance is certainly one of cinema’s finest.

1776 (USA 1972) (7): Director Peter Hunt’s widescreen adaptation of Sherman Edward’s Broadway musical, based in turn on Peter Stone’s book, imagines the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Filmed in a wonderfully reconstructed Philadelphia of colonial brick and colourful hawkers, much of the action (and singing and dancing) takes place inside a makeshift congress where representatives from each fledgling colony hash it out under the benevolent eye of congressional president John Hancock (Dark Shadows’ David Ford). With a fiery John Adams from Massachusetts (St. Elsewhere’s William Daniels) and a hunky Thomas Jefferson from Virginia (Ken Howard) pushing for secession from the British Empire while representatives John Dickinson (PA) and Edward Rutledge (SC) representing the South push back, the stage is set for one dramatic musical showdown after another with a bit of comic relief provided by a wisecracking Benjamin Franklin (Howard da Silva). Of course women take a far backseat as a demure Abigail Adams exchanges letters with John and Margaret Jefferson sings a ditty about her husband’s violin. But as the calendar inches towards the fourth of July and letters from General George Washington convey doom and gloom on the front lines, individual agendas slowly inch toward a consensus but not before one last flourish—a sombre number over slavery wherein Adams demands its abolishment while Rutledge calls everybody out on their hypocrisy. Even if its historical accuracies are sometimes sketchy and the songs and choreography less than memorable, there remains a glow of patriotic passion which runs throughout it’s almost three-hour length as a cast of spirited actors raise the founding of their country to near-mythological status.

The Seventh Continent (7): Georg and Anna Schober are a comfortably middle-class couple with a darling daughter and lovely home who, for reasons not entirely clear, choose to throw it all away one day. Their decision, influenced perhaps by a series of bleak revelations and cryptic insights, proves disastrous for all concerned. Since this is a Michael Haneke film neither the Schober’s dilemma nor their personal solution should come as any shock to those familiar with a director whose name has become synonymous with “social dysfunction”. What sets this film apart however is Haneke’s excellent use of quick edits and his determination to avoid easy answers. Rather than delve into the Schober’s psyches ad nauseam he instead follows them over the course of three unexceptional days, each day separated by a year. With his trademark detachment he shows us how their lives are defined primarily by material possessions and mundane rituals, whether it’s buying groceries or feeding a tank of pet fish. By further separating these rituals into their component parts and concentrating on tasks rather than feelings, he creates a suffocating sense of contemporary apathy and despair; rarely has tying a shoelace conveyed such angst. As you would expect, the minimalist script is heavy with contradictory messages and repressed rage while the camera dutifully avoids any intimacy with the characters who are often filmed without heads. Moral blindness, hollow materialism and futile daydreaming all find their metaphorical counterparts here, (a carwash and tourism billboard figure prominently while a flushed wad of cash causes Western audiences to squirm), and the cast pull it off beautifully especially Leni Tanzer as the daughter; her portrayal of a young innocent tainted by her parents’ demons is heartbreakingly real. Loosely based on a true story, Haneke presents us with a cool, clinical montage of a couple in crisis and then challenges us to make sense of it.

The Seventh Seal (Sweden 1957) (9): For many the quintessential Bergman film which has been copied and parodied so many times it has become something of an arthouse icon. After a long torturous crusade in the Holy Land, dispirited knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) returns home to a medieval Sweden teeming with fear and superstition. The Plague is claiming victims up and down the coast while an implacable church harangues the frightened masses with tales of Judgement Day. Upset with the apparent meaninglessness of life and death, as well as God’s unwillingness to show himself (“Why does he hide in a cloud of half-promises and unseen miracles?”) Antonius is undergoing a major crisis of faith when a most unlikely, yet not entirely unexpected, traveler pays him a visit—none other than Death himself, ghostly pale and draped in black. Not wanting to die until he has accomplished something of true value Antonius challenges Death to a game of chess, winner take all. Meanwhile, not far away, a band of jovial actors wend their way towards the nearest town and their own date with destiny. Perhaps one of Bergman’s most personal films, purported to be amongst his favourites, we can hear within Block’s eloquent rails against the Almighty Ingmar’s own spiritual angst as his knight demands proof of God’s existence only to be met with emptiness and Death’s sardonic grin. His troupe of actors on the other hand seem unfettered by supernatural concerns and instead approach life with lust and enthusiasm—their leader ironically receiving visions of the Virgin and Child while Block stumbles in darkness. This constant juxtaposition of light and dark (joy and despair, faith and doubt) proves to be a winning combination as Bergman paints the screen with some of cinema’s most memorable scenes: a skeletal shepherd keeps watch over a non-existent flock, a plague victim is bathed in a sudden burst of sunlight, and the Grim Reaper leads a band of dancing souls towards the grave. And topping the list, Death and the Knight are shown contemplating their chessboard against a darkling sea, their silent musing rendered in gothic black and white. At once distancing and strikingly intimate, The Seventh Seal is a triumphant blend of philosophical discourse and pure storytelling wherein the entire world is reduced to a game board with everyone a pawn. Heady stuff.

’71 (UK 2014) (8): Northern Ireland circa 1971 becomes a hellish urban landscape straight from the mind of Hieronymus Bosch in Yann Demange’s tragic nail-biter. When a door-to-door search for weapons turns especially nasty, naïve British soldier Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell, brilliant) finds himself cut off from his retreating platoon. Suddenly alone in the hostile streets of Belfast and with an IRA vigilante group hunting him down, Hook must survive a night of violence, bloodshed, and—most horribly—betrayal, for the deeper he sinks into the dark heart of The Troubles, the murkier the line between good and evil becomes… Whether its handheld cameras following a breakneck chase through backyards and alleyways or sobering widescreen pans of a nighttime Belfast reflected in the infernal glow of a dozen raging fires, Demange keeps things tense and chaotic—an ongoing military subterfuge seems as if it could have been penned by John le Carré while a scene of Hook reeling from the fiery ruins of a blasted building is tinged with a nightmarish hysteria reminiscent of Gaspar Noé’s Climax. Lost on a brutal playing field filled with nothing but pawns and devils, Hook’s trek comes to resemble a Dantean odyssey straight through the gates of Hades wherein even a chipped statue of the Virgin is too busy looking the other way to intervene when a gunman, barely out of his teens, saunters by her makeshift shrine. But unlike Dante’s Comedy there is no Paradise waiting at the finish line for this is a manmade Hell which seems doomed to forever loop back upon itself.

The Seven-Ups (USA 1973) (6): When one of his team is killed during a routine surveillance operation, the head of an elite undercover police unit (Roy Scheider, always a pleasure) goes on the offensive and winds up entangled in a murky gangland operation involving kidnapped mobsters and phoney cops. Pretty standard 70s-style policier in the same vein as 1968’s Bullitt, only less so as a cast of gravelly-voiced mafiosi and leering henchmen get set upon by a kick-ass Scheider sticking to a paint-by-number script curiously devoid of any swear words stronger than “shit”. At least the gritty NYC locations, from dingy diners to upscale avenues, add some authenticity and the by now obligatory car chase squeals and screeches dramatically as it tears through several boroughs before crashing over a bridge and into oncoming traffic. Tony Lo Bianco is effective as a sketchy informant with a secret but that overbearing musical score by Don Ellis sounds as if it were borrowed from a horror movie.

Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll (UK 2010) (8): Matt Whitecross’ garish, psychedelic whirlwind of a biopic traces the life of Ian Dury who, along with his back-up band “The Blockheads”, became something of a punk rock sensation in the 70s and 80s. From his early life as a recovering polio victim languishing away at a sate run sanatorium to his brief burst of success playing in front of crowds eager to experience his outlandish stage antics, Whitecross touches on Ian’s emotionally fraught relationship with his father, his rising and falling fortunes, his broken marriage, and the problematic bonding with his own children—most notably young son Baxter. Told in flashbacks and flash-forwards with raucous musical interludes that are part political burlesque and part psychotic cabaret, Whitecross uses everything from animated backdrops to flights of working class fantasy to create a mesmerizing collage of his subject. And star Andy Serkis gives one of the greatest performances of his career thus far, his portrayal of Dury a heady mix of white trash poet, flamboyant provocateur, and drug-huffing wreck as he chugs along with his leg brace and shock of greasy hair. A piss-filled celebration of punk’s middle-aged warrior that is as crass and unapologetic as Dury himself.

Sex Drive (USA 2008) (7): High School senior Ian has more than a few problems. First of all he’s the only person in his class who hasn’t been laid. On top of that he is constantly terrorized by his testosterone-drenched older brother; romantically upstaged by his 14-year old younger brother; and ignored by Felicia, the object of his desire, who wants to be “just friends” while she actively pursues his suave and sophisticated best friend, Lance. So what’s a poor boy to do? Search for sex on the internet of course, where he quickly develops a steamy cyber-relationship with blonde bombshell “Tasty” who lives several states away. “Borrowing” his brother’s prized 1969 GTO Ian sets out on a road trip, with Lance and Felicia in tow, to meet Tasty and finally lose his virginity. Along the way they have a run-in with a damaged cashier and her pathological boyfriend, go wild with a mob of Amish party animals, engage in some impromptu watersports with an angry hitchhiker, and get arrested for damaging an endangered species. But when Ian finally meets up with his dream date everything that could possibly go wrong does. And then some. Starting off with an intentionally lame intro by director Sean Anders and writer John Morris who promise a bonanza of gratuitous flesh, the film rarely rises above juvenile gags and prurient humour; but it does so with such gleeful abandon that it won me over despite my better judgement. With its witty script, shameless performances and scenes involving dangling testicles, pointless nudity, and a talking doughnut with a could anyone not love this movie?

Sex in Chains (Germany 1928) (5): Chronically unemployed engineer Franz is eking out a living selling vacuum cleaners to rich bitches with pampered cats while his wife Helene helps out by selling cigarettes at a swank nightclub. Things seem to be going well for the happy couple until one fateful night when a persistent club patron makes a few too many unwelcome advances at Helene causing Franz to come to her rescue. A short fistfight later and the customer lies dying in the hospital while Franz is handed a three-year prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter. Thus begins William Dieterle’s lurid tale of “sexual desires among prisoners”. Denied vaginal visiting rights the convicts make do with a lot of anguished overacting, little sex dolls fashioned out of bread crumbs and, occasionally, each other. Clinging zealously to his marriage vows Franz heroically resists temptation amusing himself instead by desperately sniffing one of Helene’s perfumed hankies. She, on the other hand, goes into hormonal overdrive and no amount of rubbing her face with her husband’s spare pants can satisfy her. She eventually has a one-night stand with the boss (an ex-con friend of Franz) leading to an early morning walk of shame and a vow to confess all. But, unbeknownst to poor Helene, Franz has already fallen head over ankles for Alfred, the new kid on the cellblock... Despite the theatrical emoting and overdone storyline (this is a silent film after all) there are still some remarkable elements to this movie. The call for prison reform, including conjugal visits, was years ahead of its time and the subject of homosexuality per se was handled as well as could be expected; “unnatural acts” amongst inmates are decried yet the character of Alfred is presented almost as an innocent romantic with genuine feelings for Franz. There is an hysterical eroticism here which occasionally works; a chaste visit between husband and wife practically burns with repressed desire and an extreme close-up of Franz and Alfred touching hands for the first time is heavy with sexual tension. Unfortunately it all blows up in the end with an angst-laden confrontation and ludicrously “moral” finale. Thankfully the “God’s Laws” sermon is limited to a small cursory appearance.

Sex Life in L.A.  (USA 2000) (6):  Dispassionate look at a handful of men caught in the dark side of the Hollywood dream who, despite some surprisingly philosophical insights, still find themselves having to market their pecs and genitals in order to pay the bills.  Hick avoids the tired old “exploiters vs. exploited” dichotomy and instead approaches his subjects on neutral ground, employing a cool sincerity that allows them to tell their own stories.  Some may be put off by the film’s frankness, including a wholly gratuitous (but still appreciated) masturbation scene, but as a gritty street-level series of character studies it manages to rise above its flaws.

Sex/Life in L.A. 2: Cycles of Porn (USA 2005) (4):  “In America it’s all about the size of your dick...making sure people know how big it is, or if it isn’t big then lying about it” laments one frustrated writer/porn diva in Jochen Hick’s disappointing followup to Sex Life in L.A. It’s a resigned form of cynicism which seems to permeate this look at Southern California’s gay porn industry as it chews up fresh young boys and spits out disillusioned drug-addled old men.  Hick concentrates most of his attention on the residents of an online reality-based hotel as they perform for paying customers in lieu of rent and a real job...think of Big Brother starring naked twinks.  He gives equal time to HIV-positive bodybuilder Cole Tucker who, at the age of 42, decided to revel in his good health and good looks by making several adult films before quietly retiring to Palm Springs.  From clueless kids who believe porn will be their gateway to fame and fortune, to irresponsible asswipes who make a killing (pun intended) doing bareback videos Hick tries to show the various sides of an industry most of us are not aware of...nor care about if we’re being honest.  Unlike his first foray into this territory which strove to get under the skin of its subjects, this sequel is all surfaces and clichés served with gratuitous dollops of hardcore asides.  An attempt is made to put the lives of these young men in context by showing them interacting with family members at home but it results in so much meaningless banter...or worse.  “If I wasn’t his mother...” quips one middle-aged woman poring over her son’s magazine spread, “...I’d go for him myself!”  EWWWW!

Sexual Parasite: Killer Pussy (Japan 2004) (5): It’s every straight man’s nightmare as a jungle parasite that turns otherwise docile vaginas into carnivorous castrating machines is unleashed upon Japan! Brought back from an ill-fated Amazon expedition inside the cooter of a hapless marine biologist (ladies, always look before you sit) the slippery beast and it’s reluctant host are frozen and stored safely inside a secret underground vault until a group of horny college dudes and their mostly naked girlfriends unwittingly thaw them out. What follows is a gratuitous smorgasbord of oiled breasts, rubber entrails and toothy beavers as each boy takes a one-way trip through the golden arches. But can the last girl left standing defeat the muff monster long enough to put her bra back on and escape? At just over 60 minutes Killer Pussy manages to combine the worst excesses of softcore sexploitation with some unbelievably lame special effects; the parasite itself is nothing more than a sock puppet looking like a cross between a catfish and a big black dildo. Still, there are some very (unintentionally) funny moments and a few clever devices...the vaginal canal POV camerawork was certainly inspired. Vulgar, indefensible, and lacking any artistic merit whatsoever. A perfect Saturday night party movie!

Seytan (Turkey 1974) (3): Throughout the 70s and 80s Turkish cinema was notorious for churning out poorly made rip-offs of popular American classics from The Wizard of Oz to Star Wars. Case in point is this horrendous scene-by-scene forgery of The Exorcist complete with snatches of Mike Oldfield’s signature score and a mangled Turkish version of Blatty’s original script; e.g. “Let the servant and believer men to crouch down your grace which you never grudge from your all creations” (about halfway through this mess the translator obviously gives up and implores us to simply “google it”). But the terrible special effects, terrible cinematography, terrible acting, and increasingly bitchy subtitling (screen: “The End”, subtitle: “At Last!”) do make for one very funny bad movie!

Shadow of a Doubt (USA 1943) (8): Living in the perfectly average town of Santa Rosa, with a perfectly average family (dad works in a bank and revels in grisly murder mysteries, mom bakes a cake) and perfectly average friends, teenaged Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright) feels stifled by the sheer ordinariness of her life. All that changes after her prayers to be delivered from boredom are apparently answered when her mother’s beloved brother Charles (from whom Charlie got her name) arrives unexpectedly from the east coast. Uncle Charles (Joseph Cotten) represents everything Charlie feels is lacking in her own life: he’s sophisticated, well traveled, and seems to obey no rules but his own. In fact Charlie is so smitten with him she’s convinced they share a form of telepathy which allows her to sense his thoughts and moods. It is this psychological connection which eventually causes her to suspect the oddly reclusive Charles is not quite the gregarious bon vivant she first made him out to be. And then a few disturbing incidents involving her uncle—a macabre newspaper article here, a piece of mysterious jewellery there, a faint pall of hidden malevolence everywhere—turn her suspicions into cold panic especially when a couple of strangers begin dogging Charles’ every move and his true nature slowly reveals itself to her. Although it did poorly at the box office, this dark tale of innocence corrupted by the arrival of evil was purported to be among director Alfred Hitchcock’s favourite collaborations. So strong is its sense of menace that it borders on horror causing more than one critic to compare the character of Uncle Charles to Bram Stoker’s Dracula in his ability to twist the minds of those around him especially his naïve niece who seems to be the only one capable of seeing the monster in the living room yet is helpless to sound the alarm. Filled with sunshine and small town American values which only serve to highlight the skulking wickedness in everyone’s midst, this is perhaps Hitchcock’s most ironic film and should therefore be on every fan’s “must see” list.

Shadows (USA 1959) (7): John Cassavetes’ directorial debut uses an impressive collage of Manhattan’s beatnik scene to focus on interracial ties, lost dreams, and the mindset of the thriving counter-culture movement. A white man falls in love with a one-night stand not knowing she is a light-skinned black woman. Meanwhile her brothers head down two very different paths with one searching for chicks and trouble in the company of his delinquent white friends and the other, a struggling singer, reduced to emceeing a cheap burlesque show. Shot guerilla-style in B&W with a hand-held 16mm camera, Cassavete’s mostly improvised script and cast of non-professional “night people” gleaned from New York’s underground is a fascinating time capsule from the beat era of the late 50’s. Not a masterwork by any stretch—the acting is woefully uneven, the jarring edits all too obvious, and the ad-libbed performances get stuck in the occasional rut—this experimental film nevertheless provided a low-keyed watershed of sorts for American independent cinema. The free-style jazz score, frank sexuality, and erratic narrative threads (the various plot lines seem to begin and end in the middle) were a bold innovation for a generation grown used to cohesive plots and tidy resolutions and the passing years haven’t dimmed its sense of freshness.

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (USSR 1965) (5): Notable for the fact it was one of the first Ukrainian language films to fly under the radar of Soviet censorship, Sergei Parajanov’s Carpathian fairytale has garnered awards and rave reviews wherever it has played. Puzzling, since all I saw was a slapdash arthouse mess of sloppy editing, tinny sound, and lifeless performances. Set in a remote 19th century mountain village, the story follows the tragic life of a handsome young peasant named Ivan whose sad adventure begins when his father is killed in a brawl. Desperate for love, the grown Ivan is given two chances at happiness only to have them snatched away—once by nature (God?) and once by the Devil. Using this bare bones narrative, Parajanov fleshes out his movie with so much local pageantry that the already thin plot gets waylaid in favour of a prolonged dance sequence or yet another poorly focused pan of colourful peasants trudging through snow-choked forests. Interesting in that it delves into the culture of the Ukraine’s ethnic Hutsul people—the elaborate woollen costumes are authentic; both a marriage and a funeral ceremony are shown in detail; and a soundtrack of clanging bells, whistling flutes, and Orthodox choirs seems almost organic—but the primitive production standards and apparent lack of qualified film editors make it look as if it was shot on the fly and then later dubbed in an echo chamber. Spinning cameras evoke more nausea than interest and a cacophony of mumbling voiceovers—an attempt at a Greek Chorus perhaps?—makes it sound as if you’re watching two different movies simultaneously. A confusing hodgepodge of cheap cinematic tricks and Soviet travelogue which one critic succinctly diagnosed as “terminal artsiness”.

Shaft (USA 1971) (7): While searching for the missing daughter of powerful Harlem crime boss Bumpy Jonas, private investigator John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) gets caught up in a turf war between Bumpy’s gang, a violent black activist group, and the east coast Mafia—none of whom he can trust. It’s jive-talking brothers with afros vs. sleazy Italian gangsters with fedoras in Gordon Parks’ grandaddy of all blaxploitation flicks even though time and tastes have rendered the script a cornball mix of old school slang and urban clichés. With Isaac Hayes’ electro-funk soundtrack twanging in the background and Urs Furrer’s gritty cinematography turning New York city into a deliciously edgy garbage dump, Roundtree plays the quintessential bad motherfucker with Moses Gunn riding shotgun as the gravelly-voiced Jonas and Charles Cioffi bringing up the rear as a hard-nosed yet sympathetic white detective. From the psychedelic interiors to the crocheted vests (and oh those tacky sex scenes!) Parks’ film has never left the 70s, but if it feels terribly dated it does so with enough style and substance to give older viewers a whiff of nostalgia and younger audiences a glimpse of what on-screen empowerment used to look like. All in all it’s a well-paced actioner with attitude and a bit of social realism, but Hayes’ Oscar-winning theme song sums it up the best: “Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks…SHAFT! Who’s the cat that won’t cop out when there’s danger all about…SHAFT!” Can you dig it?

Shame (Sweden 1968) (8): When Sweden is torn apart by civil war, married couple Jan and Eva Rosenberg (Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann) flee the city and head to their rustic farmhouse on a remote northern island. Polar opposites in many ways—Jan is a meek pacifist in denial who’d rather not listen to bad news on the radio while Eva is more a cynical pragmatist alway looking for the advantage—the two former musicians eke out a respectable living selling produce to the locals. But when troops begin invading their pastoral sanctuary and neighbours are forced to take sides the escalating tension not only forces Jan and Eva to recognize their marriage for the tenuous partnership it actually is, it also compels them to commit acts both shameful and horrific in their bid to stay alive. Considered by some to be among his masterpieces, Ingmar Bergman’s polemic on the dehumanizing effects of war refuses to take a moral stance. We are never told why the country is so bitterly divided and in the end it doesn’t really matter for despite their different ideologies both sides end up looting, murdering, and blowing things up with equal conviction. It is the effects of this war on his two protagonists however that piques Bergman’s interest as mild-mannered Jan warps into something monstrous and level-headed Eva falls prey to numbing despair. Despite a shaky first half—was Bergman aiming for nightmare or reality?—this dark parable quickly descends past fear, anger, and madness (with a sombre allusion to The Seventh Seal ) until it finally lingers over a series of macabre closing shots torn straight out of Dante’s Inferno. Beautiful and terrifying.

Shame (UK 2011) (9): By all appearances Brandon is a privileged executive with a cushy job and a chic Manhattan apartment. But his private life is dominated by a serious addiction to sex and pornography which sees every hard drive he owns (including his work computer) crammed with degrading images, his credit card charges going towards cybersex sites, and a parade of listless prostitutes taking their share of his disposable income. Like all addictions the more he feeds it the hungrier it becomes rendering him pretty much incapable of having a normal relationship with women as a sadly awkward first date and subsequent hook-up quickly reveal. And then his kid sister, a struggling singer, pays him an unexpected visit and Brandon’s already toxic lifestyle is shaken to its very core. The fact that “Sissy” has a few self-destructive habits of her own is readily apparent from the old and new scars on her wrists and a pleading phone conversation with her ex that spirals into an emotional meltdown. But it is the relationship between Sissy and Brandon, fraught with recriminations and simmering hostility, which gives this remarkable film its tragic centrepiece. “We’re not bad people…” sobs an inconsolable Sissy at one point after yet another showdown with her brother, “…we just come from a bad place”—and that single cryptic sentence hints at the greater sadness underlying all their anger and self-loathing. Things finally come to a head when, after a rock bottom night of orgiastic excesses, Brandon crawls home to find his life irrevocably changed—but will it be for the better? Reading from a script so natural it sounds ad-libbed leads Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan bravely bare body and soul. Their incredible performances give writer/director Steve McQueen’s profoundly unhappy story about two isolated souls seeking connection a dramatic punch that leaves you sitting glassy-eyed through the closing credits. Scenes of explicit sexuality are rendered melancholic, a score of orchestral arrangements and disco tunes sound funereal, and Carey Mulligan’s unbelievable torch song rendition of “New York, New York” even has co-star Fassbender wiping unrehearsed tears from his eyes. Compassionate towards its characters yet never lenient, Shame’s sense of grief and emotional sabotage backed by impersonal urban settings may not leave you feeling good, but it will leave you feeling.

Shanghai Express (USA 1932) (9): In the middle of China’s turbulent civil war an assortment of first class passengers board a locomotive bound for Shanghai. During their four-day journey hidden agendas will be revealed, beliefs will be tested, and passion will be re-ignited—all under the malevolent gaze of warring factions. One of the grand old films to emerge from Hollywood’s nascent golden age, Josef von Sternberg’s smouldering melodrama features lush performances and Oscar-winning cinematography that moves from cramped train corridors to bustling stations where thousands of Cantonese-speaking extras turn Paramount backlots into revolutionary China. A dazzling Marlene Dietrich, wreathed in cigarette smoke and giving us more face than a Madonna video, plays a shameless man-eater whose past catches up with her when a former lover takes the next compartment over. Chinese-American matinee idol Anna May Wong defines “sultry” as a headstrong courtesan, her intense gaze both erotic and dangerous (the latter proving itself in the film’s vengeful climax). They’re assisted by Louise Closser Hale playing a fussy American socialite with a pampered pooch; Warner Oland in Charlie Chan drag as a half-white Chinese businessman with a dark secret; and gravelly voiced character actor Eugene Pallette playing a crusty old gambler whose wit, along with Hale’s persnickety affectations, provide the film with some welcome levity. In the role of Dietrich’s old flame however, Clive Brook is perhaps the movie’s biggest disappointment—his unmoving features seemingly set in stone (rumour suggests he was recovering from a facelift) and his stilted performance about as passionate as a block of ice especially when up against Marlene’s aggressive sexuality. Lastly, Lawrence Grant’s character—a fire-spitting evangelist—was rewritten at the behest of the censor board thus giving faith and prayer more of a spotlight than they’d otherwise deserve. But luminous scenes of Marlene Dietrich, her long manicured fingers wandering sensuously through those impeccable blonde locks as she beseeches the Almighty, generate something other than pious reverence. A true classic.

Shaun the Sheep Movie (UK 2015) (10): Bored with the routine of farm life, Shaun the wayward sheep hatches a plan to lull the farmer to sleep so he and his flock can run wild in the fields. Naturally his plan backfires hilariously and the sheep find themselves having to rescue the farmer who is now wandering around the big city with a bad case of amnesia thanks to a bump on the head. Aided by the farmer’s disgruntled dog as well as a homeless mongrel, and pursued by a relentless animal control officer, the ovine posse narrowly avoid one disaster after another in their quest to recover their owner—an operating room mix-up spells dire trouble for one unconscious patient and a lunch date at a snooty French bistro almost lands everyone in doggy prison. Meanwhile, back on the farm, the pigs are discovering it’s far more fun to behave like humans… Impeccable stop-motion animation that took six years to complete plus an endearing storyline laced with wit and clever pop culture references (Silence of the Lambs, Cape Fear, a salute to The Beatles) make this a delightful piece of entertainment for all ages. And the fact that it all unfolds with no dialogue whatsoever is a testament to the brilliance of the entire production team. Guaranteed to make even the most cynical face crack a smile!

She Done Him Wrong (USA 1933) (6): Apparently Mae West had to be sewn into her slinky gowns in this bawdy comedy famous for two things: at just over one hour in length it is the shortest film to ever be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, and the “National League of Decency” cited it as one of the reasons it had to bring in tougher censorship laws. It also saved a floundering Paramount Studios from bankruptcy. She plays “Lady Lou”, a Vaudeville singer with a checkered past whose curvaceous figure and sexual magnetism have men drooling all the way to her boudoir door. Despite having an insanely jealous boyfriend in prison (as well as a few other male “acquaintances”) Lou can’t help teaming up with any man rich enough to keep her in diamonds including the crooked proprietor of the nightclub where she’s currently the star attraction. But when she tries to seduce the virtuous young man who runs the gospel mission next door (a baby-faced Cary Grant) his cool reception sets her hormones to slow simmer. Set in the 1890’s this screen adaptation of the infamous stage play Diamond Lil faithfully recreates a bygone New York, if only for a few brief scenes, but time has rendered its raciness quaint while West’s scandalous double entendres would probably fly right over the heads of today’s target movie demographic (although they may bristle at the black maid’s racist caricature). There will never be another Mae West however, and that makes it a classic in its own right.

(USA 2007) (5): Zach is a surfer dude and struggling graffiti artist living with his sister Jeanne and her five-year old son Cody in the seedier side of San Pedro. His best bud Gabe is a privileged trust fund kid who enjoys hanging out, getting stoned, and talking about chicks ad nauseam. Having just broken up with his girlfriend (yet again) Zach is content playing babysitter to Cody while spray-painting his artwork all over town—and then Gabe’s older brother Shaun comes to town for a prolonged visit and things get complicated. A frustrated screenwriter from Los Angeles, Shaun is not only drop dead gorgeous but he also takes an instant liking to Zachary whom he barely remembers as a gangly teenager on rollerblades. Buddying up, Zach and Shaun begin spending an awful lot of time together until one fateful night when Zach realizes that his attraction for Shaun goes far deeper than friendship—an attraction that appears to be mutual… A well-meaning though hopelessly sophomoric gay love story which, had it been made thirty years earlier, would have been considered cutting edge. Nowadays however its derivative script and two-dimensional characters are simply a nice-looking rehash of every queer crush film ever made. Zach wallows in denial; Shaun is still mending a previously broken heart; Jeanne is a chain-smoking neurotic dating an abusive neanderthal; and just guess which two people Cody adores the most? Slo-mo montages of Zach and Shaun surfing and gazing into each other’s eyes are shored up by folksy ballads and widescreen sunsets but the pre-packaged angst seems mere affectation and the emotional depths run rather shallow. At least we’re spared the usual gay predator vs. closeted prey plot line (their couplings are spontaneous and photogenic if nothing else) and the gauzy views of Southern California are unapologetically sentimental.

Sherlock Holmes (USA/UK 2009) (8): Guy Ritchie’s ballsy reinvention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s super-sleuth turns out to be a thrilling comic book of a film, heavy on the action if a little questionable on the science. When Sherlock Holmes’ recently executed nemesis Henry Blackwood—a homicidal British Lord with a taste for the occult arts—rises from his grave with a diabolical plot to overthrow nothing less than Western democracy itself, it’s up to the master detective and his resourceful assistant Dr. Watson to make sense out of a string of startling clues which seem to suggest black magic is afoot. But their personal lives take a toll on their teamwork with Watson engaged to a rather prim governess and Holmes’ former lover, an arch villain in her own right, suddenly showing up under peculiar circumstances… As far from Basil Rathbone’s dapper character as possible, Robert Downey Jr. (who took home a Golden Globe) plays Holmes as a disheveled, hyperactive genius who can deduce a person’s life story simply by looking at their earlobe yet is beset by paranoia and a manic obsession with details—the famous cocaine habit mentioned in Sir Doyle’s books receiving a few subtle affirmations. Jude Law, on the other hand, provides much needed balance as the grounded and more even-tempered Watson whose loyal yet thorny relationship with Holmes injects a welcome chemistry into all the derring-do and fantastical plot twists. Kelly Reilly and Rachel McAdams add a bit of colour as the women in their lives, Eddie Marsan plays a disgruntled police inspector, and Mark Strong’s Blackwood is the quintessential villain with his unblinking stare and dark megalomania. But it is the technical wizardry which ultimately seals the deal with 19th century London sets hovering somewhere between Victorian Gothic and Steampunk. Thoroughly convincing CGI backdrops have you practically smelling the coal smoke which seems to cast a pall over everything while bold panoramas of the town itself are a succession of gilded interiors and bricked facades blackened with soot. Holmes’ lauded laboratory-cum-apartment alone is a fascinating jumble of primitive CSI bric-à-brac, bullet holes, and dirty dishes—kudos to the art department. The Thames has never looked older or more used while the partially constructed Tower Bridge looms menacingly on the horizon awaiting its climactic cameo. And for aficionados of Sherlock Holmes there are enough in-jokes and literary references to maintain a perpetual smile. A perfectly edited, nicely scored adrenaline rush which sweeps you along so effectively you’re willing to forgive the hero’s greatly exaggerated powers of deduction and frequently bogus scientific stretches (for this is fantasy after all). One of those few films for which a sequel is actually welcome.

She’s a Boy I Knew (Canada 2007) (7): In 2000 clean-cut jock Steven Haworth began a four-year journey that would see “him” become Gwen Tara Haworth, a spiky-haired trans woman with a penchant for doc martins and alternative girlfriends. Looking back on her childhood and transitional period through home movies and contemporary interviews with friends, family, and an ex-wife, Gwen holds nothing back as she talks about her struggles with gender identity and acceptance issues; struggles which often hurt the very people who loved her. Although well-spoken and honest to a fault, Gwen’s long list of confessions is thankfully upstaged periodically by her parents, especially mom whose candid thoughts on her new daughter (and wistful recollections of her now defunct son) range from wry observations to intensely personal revelations. As Gwen herself admits, “How much courage does it take to give up the dreams we have for our loved ones in order to invest in the dreams they have for themselves?” A brave and intimate video diary of one person’s often painful evolution.

Ship of Fools (USA 1965) (7): Based on Katherine Anne Porter’s book, Stanley Kramer’s ambitious film takes every virtue, cruelty, and vanity mankind has produced and places them squarely on the shoulders of a motley group of cruise ship passengers. It’s 1933 and a second-rate German ocean liner is making its way from Mexico to Europe carrying an eclectic group of travellers who pretty much cover all seven of the deadly sins. From the clownish nazi and naively stoic Jew to the embittered divorcee who finds solace in a shot glass, the disgraced social activist who finds her true love too late, and the ethically conflicted lovers who can only agree between the sheets, it appears everyone on board has something to regret, extol, envy, buy, or sell. And just to add a bit of moral ballast the ship’s lower deck is teeming with hundreds of unwashed migrant workers returning to Spain, their sobering presence contrasting with the first class couple who enjoy feeding their slobbering pooch steak from the captain’s table. Before they reach their final destination romance will bloom and die, friendships will be forged and enmities stoked, and God himself will be challenged. A sterling international cast featuring Vivian Leigh (making her swan song), José Ferrer, Oskar Werner, and Simone Signoret shine despite the occasional dramatic hyperbole and director Stanley Kramer manages to forge his collage of separate storylines into something streamlined and cohesive as his camera tracks characters from deck to deck and cabin to cabin. And having the diminutive Michael Dunn, here playing a dwarf either ignored or reviled by his fellow passengers, step out of character in order to bookend the film was a stroke of inspiration—he may not be the mouse that roared but his roguish smile and mocking laugh add yet another layer of irony. Unfortunately it is the film’s ironic excesses and thinly disguised sermons which keep it from being truly exceptional with a Jewish salesman downplaying Germany’s new wave of anti-semitism, a kindly grandmother whose son proudly displays his swastika armband, and a shipboard costume ball in which everyone wears their heart on their heads (the aforementioned nazi sympathizer whirling around the dance floor sporting a pair of devil horns). A grand ensemble piece just the same buoyed by a host of assured performances and a crisp B&W cinematography that makes the most of those swelling waves and distant horizons.

Ship of Theseus (India 2012) (8): The Ship of Theseus Paradox is an ancient thought experiment which raises the question of whether an object that has had all of its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object, such as a ship which over the years has received new planks, new oars, new rigging and so on yet still retains its original shape. In writer/director Anand Gandhi’s metaphysical triptych three unrelated people each undergo a profound physical change which in turn affects their outlooks on justice, spirituality, and the nature of art. A celebrated photographer is forced to reappraise her work after her failing eyesight is restored. Following an operation a politically apathetic young man passionately pursues a criminal cause célèbre only to discover the roles of victim and perpetrator are not so easily defined. A pacifist monk dedicated to animal rights is forced to either betray his convictions or die defending them. Combining the best of European arthouse cinema yet never straying too far from the colourfully harsh bustle of Mumbai’s streets and alleyways, Gandhi proves adroit at disguising profound philosophical discourses as friendly chitchat and transforming everyday scenes into ethereal snapshots—at one point the monk and his cynical companion discuss karmic retribution while strolling past strategically placed urban graffiti, in another segment two men make their way through a sunlit slum whose twisting pathways come to resemble a sacred labyrinth, and in my favourite passage wandering holy men are dwarfed by the massive wind turbines towering above them. Gandhi eventually ties his stories together in a most remarkable and fitting way and then dangles the question of whether or not these are the same three people we met at the film’s beginning. For that matter one could also ask the same question of the audience itself. Heady stuff.

Shock Corridor (USA 1963) (5): B-Movie icon Peter Breck gives The Snake Pit’s Olivia de Havilland a run for her money in this zero-budget noir about murder and insanity. He plays ace newspaper reporter Johnny Barrett who’s determined to win a Pulitzer Prize by going undercover at the local psychiatric hospital and solving a cold case murder that occurred there earlier. With the help of his editor and faithful stripper girlfriend Cathy (Constance Towers, who also treats us to a cheesy song and dance non-sequitur) Johnny poses as the asylum’s newest patient—a man with unhealthy, often violent appetites for his sister—in order to gain access to the three insane men who witnessed the murder: an army deserter who believes he is General E. Lee’s right hand man; a black man with a penchant for KKK drag; and a nuclear physicist who traded in atomic research for a box of crayons. But the closer Johnny gets to uncovering the truth the more his institutional surroundings take their toll on his own psyche until a series of involuntary shock treatments and an unfortunate gang-grope at the hands of a “nympho” gang from the women’s wing threaten to push him over the edge entirely… To be fair there are some novel effects to the flick (an indoor thunderstorm was inspired), the high contrast B&W is all shadows and nightmare, and a bit of deep thinking obviously went into a mostly hackneyed script as occasional periods of lucidity among the psychotic inmates reveal a surprising humanity—the former physicist waxes philosophical on paranoia in the atomic age while the black man’s affinity for the Klan makes discomfiting allusions to internalized racism. Unfortunately the film too often indulges in scenery-chewing campiness and cornball dialogue: “You think I like singing in that sewer with a hot light on my navel?” wails Cathy as she tries to talk Johnny out of his crazy plan, “I’m fed up with playing Greek chorus to your rehearsed nightmare!!” Oy! But Breck does bring an exaggerated intensity to the role as he emotes his way to a nervous breakdown and Towers is all nail-biting and running mascara as she looks on helplessly. However, the film ultimately belongs to Larry Tucker who, as the rotund aria-spouting Pagliacci, actually makes his madness believable. It ain’t art folks, but as an example of 60’s “transgressive cinema” it remains an entertaining curio.

The Shock Doctrine (USA 2009) (8): Author Naomi Klein’s bestseller examining the social and economic fallout of “disaster capitalism” around the world makes for an engrossing documentary. Starting with the infamous CIA-backed psychological experiments carried out on unwitting Montreal volunteers which proved that induced shocks, whether physical or mental, can lead to heightened complacency and weakened resistance, Klein goes on to show how those same principles have been applied to economies around the world with disastrous results. She does offer a bit of hope in the end, but judging by the failed “Occupy Wall Street” movement and the continuing marginalization of all those who dare to challenge the bastions of capitalism, it is a small offering indeed. Infuriating stuff, especially in this age of "evil immigrants" and "fake news".

The Shoes of the Fisherman (USA 1968) (7): After having served twenty years in a Siberian gulag for refusing to renounce his faith, Archbishop Kiril Pavlovich Lakota (Anthony Quinn) is mysteriously released under the auspices of Vatican City. Whisked away to Rome and immediately promoted to Cardinal despite his claims of unworthiness (the Pope’s motives being more political than spiritual) he sets about reacquainting himself with a world that has grown larger and more dangerous during his imprisonment. But when the old pontiff drops dead a Vatican impasse finds an overwhelmed Lakota crowned history’s first Russian Pope. Modest and deeply humble, Kiril the First spends his initial days in office comforting a dying Jew, soothing the passionately heretical Fr. Telemond (Oskar Werner), and saving the crumbling marriage of a distraught British doctor and her philandering American husband (Barbara Jefford and David Janssen). His true test however will come when world leaders call upon him to avert WWIII after China, suffering from a famine of biblical proportions, begins rattling its sword at both East and West. Taken as a lush costume epic—it even has an overture and entr’acte!—director Michael Anderson’s 160-minute Roman Catholic fantasy is pure big screen entertainment. Cutting seamlessly between stock footage of St. Peter’s square thronged with faithful tourists and Cinecittà’s glorious papal sets it practically oozes pomp and ceremony not to mention some fascinating trivia on how the Church’s inner sanctum operates. Apparently Quinn had his own brush with Jerusalem Syndrome while filming and it shows in his intense performance as a soft-spoken shepherd with a few revolutionary ideas of his own who is suddenly called upon to shout, metaphorically if not literally. Whether heaping Christian charity upon godless communists or trying to grasp Telemond’s vision of a “Cosmic Christ”, Lakota is first and foremost a man of deep spirituality whose years of deprivation have only served to heighten is compassion for mankind. Not exactly Dr. Zhivago, yet not the Catholic propaganda I was expecting either despite a few misty moments and Kiril’s ludicrously inconceivable plan to ease global tensions. And what was that Dr. Strangelove control room beneath the Kremlin all about? Well-written at least and filmed in majestic cinemascope sweeps, this is big budget drama of the old school variety. Co-stars Sir John Gielgud as the dead pope, Laurence Olivier as the Russian Premier, and Vittoria de Sica as a fellow cardinal—character actor Burt Kwouk, looking like Lenin doing a bad Mao impersonation, struts and hisses as the Chinese Chairman.

Shortbus (USA 2006) (8): “New York City is where everyone comes to be forgiven…” states one character in writer/director John Cameron Mitchell’s controversial opus. And no place offers absolution quite like the Shortbus nightclub, an oasis of non-conformity in the heart of Manhattan run by drag queen-cum-mother figure Justin Bond where people of all sexualities and genders come together for sex and camaraderie, their “sin” consisting of nothing more than being different. Among the clientele passing through the club’s taffeta curtains are a sex therapist who’s never experienced an orgasm; a terminally depressed young man who can only communicate his pain through a video diary he tapes for his adoring partner; a dominatrix who yearns for a conventional relationship; and a lonely voyeur who falls in love vicariously. Mixing pathos, humour, and healthy dollops of hardcore sex Mitchell takes us down a few less traveled roads as his subjects talk and fuck their way toward a host of personal epiphanies while the Big Apple itself—here represented by a cleverly crafted cardboard model of day-glo buildings and fairy tale bridges—gears up for an electrical orgasm of its own. Joining a select few movies such as 9 Songs and Intimacy, Shortbus manages to incorporate explicit sex into a non-pornographic narrative and in so doing attain a sense of rapport few mainstream movies ever achieve as each character takes a turn at being naked and therefore vulnerable both literally and figuratively—even the director has a full-on cameo during a group sex scene. Alternating between tender honesty and goofy abandon (one man hums “The Star Spangled Banner” with his face buried in another’s arse) Mitchell knows full well that physical sex can heal on many different levels—look for an ingenious nod to The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, I’m sure C. S. Lewis never thought of that angle when he was typing away! Cathartic and playful in turn I expected to be amused, even titillated. What I wasn’t expecting were the tears in my eyes.

A Short Film About Killing (Poland 1988) (8): Legendary director Krzysztof Kieslowski takes an instalment from his Decalogue series and pads it out into a feature length film about crime and punishment whose graphic depiction of a state execution sent tremors through the Polish government. On the mean streets of Warsaw, transformed into a twilit world of greens and ochres, twenty-year old drifter Jacek is sentenced to death for the horrific murder of a taxi driver. As the young man is led to the gallows his lawyer Piotr, fresh out of law school, experiences a moral crisis as his own personal sense of morality comes up against the dispassionate dictates of the law he has sworn to uphold. Kieslowski is not really interested in motives or courtroom drama here (both perpetrator and victim are decidedly unpleasant people and the trial is skipped entirely) but rather in a seemingly contradictory legal code which punishes murder with yet another murder meant to deter people from committing further murders. He draws uncomfortable parallels between Jacek’s coldblooded preparations as he winds a rope around his fists (the taxi driver is strangled) and the prison staff’s equally mechanical preparations of the noose and trap door, and in doing so he challenges us to condemn one yet defend the other. Perhaps a bit heavy-handed in his moralizing—drunken sports fans proudly beat their chests, a prison priest seems bored with the whole affair, the cabbie has a penchant for hurting animals—Kieslowski certainly pulls no punches when it comes to depicting suffering and human brutality presenting us with some of arthouse cinema’s more discomfiting scenes of death and dying. You may not agree with his conclusions but you can’t fault the power of his argument especially when Piotr proffers a quote from Communism’s poster child Karl Marx, “Since Cain, no punishment has been capable of improving the world.”

A Short Film About Love (Poland 1988) (7): Krzysztof Kieslowski expands upon a theme he first explored in Dekalog #6: obsessive love in an age of anomie. Nineteen-year old Tomek has been stalking Magda, the beautiful loner who lives in the building across from him, for over a year. At first content to simply observe her through the lens of his telescope he has recently begun sabotaging her life in order to sour her romantic liaisons while setting the stage for a series of “chance encounters” with her at the post office where he works. Although his methods are decidedly aberrant his passionate attraction to the woman of his dreams is both chaste and, in an odd way, quite sweet. But when he finally makes a full confession to Magda her unexpected reaction proves to be more than Tomek’s fragile ego can handle. Although the original wielded a greater emotional impact within a shorter time frame, this padded version offers up a few new revelations especially in the character of Tomek’s adoptive godmother, a woman all too familiar with loneliness and regret—her soft-spoken presence underlining the individual desperation felt by Tomek and Magda. A fine chamber piece given further depth thanks to a few delicately placed religious metaphors (“Magda” is short for “Magdalene”…you connect the dots).

Short Term 12 (USA 2013) (8): Writer/director Destin Cretton stretches his successful 2008 short into a feature length film and the effort pays off big time. Twenty-something Grace works on the supervisory staff at a California group home for troubled teens. The epitome of compassion when dealing with her often difficult charges, Grace’s calm, controlled exterior nevertheless takes a beating when new resident—self-destructive Jayden—begins dredging up memories of her own horrible childhood, memories which now endanger Grace’s personal well-being and threaten to undermine her relationship with fellow supervisor and offsite boyfriend Mason. Filmed with a verité candour reminiscent of Von Trier’s Dogma 95 and featuring an unpretentious script which always seems spontaneous, Cretton avoids the emotional bombast and touchy-feely moments one usually associates with “Kids at Risk” movies and instead aims for a low-keyed realism which proves far more effective. Leads Brie Larson and John Gallagher Jr. both give quiet, unaffected performances—his open-faced honesty and her taciturn moods setting off sparks—while a supporting cast of emotionally fragile residents, including real-life rapper LaKeith Stanfield as an abused youth terrified of adulthood, provide the backdrop against which Grace’s personal drama unfolds. Refreshing in its lack of histrionics (the kids are troubled, not possessed) and almost completely believable if you allow for just a wee bit of dramatic license, Cretton’s little indie proves yet again that you don’t need big names and big budgets in order to achieve maximum effect.

Shot Caller (USA 2017) (7): While serving a prison sentence for a fatal DUI, white collar family man Jacob Harlon (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) falls in with the resident skinhead gang, doing whatever he has to do in order to survive on the inside. Once he’s released however those same criminal ties continue to dog him thus barring any chance he might have had to go straight—including a possible reunion with his ex-wife and son. Now, with a major crime in the offing, Jacob discovers he still has a few shreds of his former decency left…but will those shreds be enough to save both himself and his estranged family? By all rights I really shouldn’t have enjoyed this prison drama as much as I did, the main sticking point being the implausible transformation of a pampered L.A. stockbroker into a tattooed shiv-wielding gangbanger seemingly overnight. Yet Coster-Waldau makes it easy to believe with little more than an alteration in voice, physical bearing, and eye contact while writer/director Ric Roman Waugh uses flashbacks to contrast the sea change between clean-shaven yuppie and moustachioed thug. Although the penitentiary scenes differ little from other genre offerings—cue cast of buff bikers and crooked guards—Waugh nevertheless brings a bit of intelligence to the table most notably Harlon’s ongoing psychological struggle as he tries to let go of his old life, and the leader of the skinheads (Jeffrey Donovan) whose “human animal” philosophy underscores a montage of violence and chest-beating. But despite the paperback theatrics Waugh’s film races along raising tension, dashing hopes, and throwing the odd curveball along the way supported by bleak cinematography (a row of solitary cages in a prison yard resemble a zoo in more ways than one) and a musical score that manages to ride shotgun for the duration. Omari Hardwick co-stars as a hard-bitten cop able to smell a rat a mile away; Holt McCallany makes a brief but intense appearance as a merciless gang leader; and Lake Bell elicits just the right amount of sympathy as Harlon’s former wife, a determined woman torn between her memories of the past and her need for a brighter future.

Shut In (Canada 2016) (5): Recently widowed child psychologist Mary Portman (Naomi Watts) lives in the wilds of New England (Quebec) with her 18-year old stepson Stephen (Charlie Heaton) who has been in a vegetative state ever since he was involved in the car accident which killed his father. Between counselling her wee clients and providing total care for a comatose Stephen Mary has little time for anything else. But with a winter storm on the way her own psychological health is called into question when she begins having visions of one of her patients—a little deaf boy who has gone missing—and her house suddenly comes alive with mysterious bangs and crashes in the night… Make no mistake, this is a bad movie. Insultingly bad. Its cheap jump scares quickly become tedious and that silly “twist” sets the stage for such ridiculous melodrama it’s almost comical. Then there’s the derivative plot devices—the romantic red herring, the doctor who refuses to believe her—and the yawning gaps in logic as a few puzzling turns go unexplained. But for all its genre shortcomings director Farren Blackburn does know how to squeeze out a decent no-brainer chiller thriller which kept me watching even if I occasionally rolled my eyes. The snowy isolation is a perfect backdrop for a tale that grows creepier with every slamming door, and if you’re able to tweak your critical thinking for 90 minutes the tension grows exponentially as Mary heads for the basement (of course) or peers through a darkened window. Watts gives us a convincing damsel in distress and the lighting department makes sure that there are enough darkened hallways and sputtering candles to turn her Maine getaway into a picturesque haunted house. I suppose one could try and excuse it as a psychodrama with Oedipal overtones but that would be a stretch even for me. Best just to turn the lights down, grab the popcorn, and prepare to be pleasantly underwhelmed.

Shutter Island (USA 2010) (8): Mystery and mayhem at the madhouse may not be the most original plot device in movie history but Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel proves to be an irresistible blend of policier, psychological riddle, and gothic chiller. It’s 1954 when shellshocked and recently widowed WWII veteran Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio in fine form), now a U.S. Marshall, is sent to investigate the disappearance of a female inmate at the imposing Ashecliffe Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Located on a remote island off the coast of Massachusetts and locked down like Fort Knox it seems impossible that the woman could have escaped from the facility at all, a fact which immediately raises the suspicions of Daniels and his inexperienced partner (a suitably clueless Mark Ruffalo). Indeed, the asylum’s staff and directors do seem uncomfortable under his gaze as they evade questions and stonewall his investigation—could there actually be any truth to the monstrous conspiracy rumours reaching the detective’s ears? With a hurricane bearing down on the island and his own mental wellbeing suffering from wartime flashbacks and memories of his deceased wife, Daniels slowly sorts through the few cryptic clues he has, especially a hastily written note left by the vanished inmate. But the solution, when it finally arrives, may make him wish he had never left home in the first place. Scorsese delivers the goods with full force, foregoing subtlety in favour of thundering winds and hallucinatory side trips awash in blood and ashes. Brilliantly filmed, Ashecliffe becomes an organic space alive with ominous shadows and half heard whispers where a struck match flares like a doomsday torch and a desperate stopover in a rain-soaked mausoleum provides some delirious Hollywood overkill. Thankfully, a strong supporting cast (Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Max von Sydow) keeps things creepy yet grounded as they lead us down one blind alley after another. If Scorsese occasionally eclipses the credibility gap, he does it with such gusto that we are more than happy to take the leap with him.

Shut Up and Sing  (USA 2006) (7):  Starts out looking very much like a promotional video for the Dixie Chicks but gradually evolves into a surprisingly intimate portrait of the band as they weather the conservative backlash to a seemingly innocuous little remark. We see them trying to back-pedal their way out, watch them attempt to appease the rabid masses, and finally adopt an F.U. attitude as they restart their world tour. A bit self-indulgent perhaps, certainly in need of editing, but interesting nonetheless. Thankfully the images of inbred southern hicks, their tiny brains firmly embedded up their backsides, are kept to a minimum.

The Sicilian Girl (Italy 2008) (7):  Taken from 1990’s headlines, Marco Amenta’s true story about a mafia daughter turned informer is as heartbreaking as it is infuriating.  Growing up in Sicily with a father whom she admired for being an “honorable” mafioso boss—one who always settled conflicts peacefully—little Rita Atria is shocked when he is murdered by the very people he called friends.  But when the mob strikes her family yet again, an older Rita decides to fight back by going to the police; an unforgivable sin in a society where the underworld is both judge and jury and cops are seen as the real enemy.  Now in a witness protection program and shunned by her own mother, Rita slowly comes to realize that doing the right thing comes at a horrible price for not only does the mafia fight back with a terrifying vengeance, she is also forced to accept some uncomfortable truths about her late father.  With her safety tenuous at best and the case against the men she accused going badly, Rita decides on one last desperate gambit to try and ensure justice is done…  A host of stellar performances deliver a painfully believable script (based on actual court transcripts) to tell the tale of one woman’s journey from laissez-faire supporter to passionate adversary.  Vengeance and Justice are never the same thing, and in Amenta’s capable hands this lesson is delivered with deadly accuracy.

Sid & Judy (USA 2019) (7): From her turbulent showbiz childhood at the hands of a ruthless stage mother to her tragic demise at the age of 47 there was nothing very ordinary about Judy Garland, a fact which shines forth from Stephen Kijak’s somewhat sanitized and blatantly biased documentary. Born Frances Gumm—the name “Judy Garland” was later coined by comedian Georgie Jessel—her story has become an iconic Hollywood Fable with the retelling. Beginning with her ruthless indenture at MGM studios where she was first introduced to the drugs which would later addict and then kill her, Judy’s public life was delineated by a string of disastrous marriages, trips to rehab, and a rollercoaster ride of triumphant comebacks followed by sensationalized falls. But throughout it all she was the epitome of what it meant to be a Star. Employing the usual gamut of film clips, studio recordings, and offscreen talking heads, Kijak also includes personal logs and taped phone conversations, using voice actors to fill in the blanks as needed—Jennifer Jason Leigh doing a passable Judy and Jon Hamm’s grumbling bass standing in for Garland’s third husband and narrator, Sid Luft. And therein lies the problem, for Sid presents himself as a saviour figure to the self-destructive Judy yet the facts would seem to suggest otherwise. Nevertheless this is still a respectful paean to her memory and while the glimpses into her personal life—told in B&W photos, candid interviews, and diary entries—offer very few surprises they at least confirm what fans have known for years: here was a fiercely talented, tragically complex woman who gave everything she had and left far too soon. It’s a pity then that Kijak chooses to end the film on a rather silly note with a graveside showing of The Wizard of Oz featuring a crowd of cosplay Dorothys and assorted activists who have turned her memory into a kitschy banner.

Side Effects (USA 2013) (7): When a deeply disturbed woman commits a brutal crime while under his care, psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (an intense Jude Law) suspects her actions were the result of a toxic side effect related to the new antidepressant he prescribed. Suddenly the subject of public scrutiny and shunned by the pharmaceutical company that supplied him the drug in the first place Banks finds both his professional and private life slowly unraveling especially after a damaging revelation from his intern years is revealed. But as he continues to work with his now institutionalized patient he starts to believe that there is more to her case than he first thought, a suspicion further compounded after the woman’s former therapist takes a renewed interest in the case. Against a backdrop of corporate complicity and hidden agendas, where doctors and patients alike pop happy pills as if they were candy, director Steven Soderbergh spins a tall tale of deceit and paranoia as one man’s obsessive search for the truth leads him down a very dark alley indeed. Noteworthy performances all around and an inventive plot that keeps you glued to the screen. It’s just too bad Soderbergh asks us to swallow a few too many whoppers along the way causing that suspension of disbelief to weigh a little heavier as you approach the film’s dubious yet cruelly satisfying conclusion.

Sideways (USA 2004) (6): As his friend’s wedding day approaches, eighth-grade English teacher Miles (Paul Giametti) decides to take him on a road trip through southern California for a little bit of golf, a little bit of male bonding, and a whole lot of wine-tasting. But his buddy, semi-employed voiceover actor Jack (Thomas Haden Church), is more interested in getting laid one last time before matrimony ends his sex life altogether. Enter Maya and Stephanie (Virginia Madsen, Sandra Oh), two women the men encounter on their travels and before you can utter Cabernet Sauvignon the complications begin to mount. Jack falls for Stephanie who has no clue about his upcoming marriage; Maya, who also appreciates a fine wine, takes a renewed shine to Miles (they’ve known each other as acquaintances in the past); and Miles, still smarting from a divorce two years ago and currently frustrated over his inability to get a manuscript published, can’t pop the Xanax fast enough. Pithy banter and drunken revelations punctuated by drama and a bit of slapstick quickly follow… In Vino Veritas takes on a hip contemporary spin in what could well be Hollywood’s first oenological romantic dramedy as bottles of the red and white liquid become something of an overbearing metaphor: a cherished bottle of Cheval Blanc ’61 precipitates a life change and a droning monologue on pinot grapes—they’re terribly delicate yet nurtured properly they produce the finest vintage—pretty well speaks to everyone. But Giamatti’s insufferably neurotic wine snob garners little sympathy (think Woody Allen dropped into the middle of a vineyard) while Church’s clueless man-slut starts to get on your nerves after the third or fourth sexual reference. Despite a host of Oscar nominations this is a movie whose aging angst-ridden protagonists seem to hearken from a different era, like a Gen X version of The Big Chill served between glasses of Syrah and Chardonnay. And unless you’re totally into viniculture the endless wine references are just so much fermented grape juice.

Sightseers (UK 2012) (8): Bland and blank-faced Tina decides to crawl out from under her domineering mother’s iron fist and embark on a caravan tour of northern England with Chris, her brooding and anally retentive boyfriend of three months. They no sooner begin their dreary vacation however (one of the highlights is a visit to a “pencil museum”) when Chris’ rants about rude people and the British class system take a turn for the psychopathic causing Tina to register that her new beau’s still waters run deeper and more dangerous than she thought. But that’s okay because our mousy little anti-heroine has a few bones of her own to pick with the universe and as the blood begins to flow she comes to realize that there are more things in heaven and earth than were ever dreamt of in her timid philosophy. Like Malick’s Badlands rewritten by the Python gang, Ben Wheatley’s dark and vicious deadpan shocker can’t quite decide if it’s a black satire or a horror film shot through with gruesome chuckles. Either way the surreal vistas of overcast wastes coupled with some ironic 80’s anthems (Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Power of Love” is used with great effect) and a largely improvised script bordering on the freakish make this one very enjoyable head-scratcher. It’s a testament to Wheatley’s skill that he can make us smile even as he repeatedly sticks bloodied pins in his cast.

The Silence (Germany 2010) (8): In the summer of ’86 an eleven-year old girl is raped and murdered in a farmer’s field then dumped into a nearby lake. Obsessed with the case, police detective Krischan Mittich neglects his own marriage in order to track down the killer but no arrest is ever made. Twenty-three years later another young girl, Sinikka, disappears under identical circumstances and Mittich, now retired, is convinced it is the work of the same person. Joining forces with rookie officer David Jahn (who is still reeling from the recent death of his wife) to track down the killer the two men experience one dead end after another in their investigation. In the meantime Sinikka’s parents are falling apart, the first victim’s mother is having old wounds ripped open, and their department chief is breathing down their necks. There is one man however who knows what really happened but he is reluctant to come forward because although his information would solve the case, it would also destroy his own life in the process. Director Baran bo Odar’s bleak policier is not so much a thriller—we know who did it from the get-go—but rather a dark meditation on conscience, obsession, and the destructive power of remaining silent. Whether it be through despair or mental illness or sheer frustration, all his characters seem frozen in place and Odar’s long tracking shots of grieving faces and lonely fields heighten this sense of isolation beautifully. In the role of Jahn, Sebastian Blomberg’s unresolved anguish over his dead spouse spirals into so much theatrics and hyperbole (at one point he wallows on the kitchen floor wearing her housedress), but everyone else puts in convincing performances including Ulrich Thomsen as a bad guy, a pathetic human being who would be pitiable were it not for his monstrous appetite. Overacting aside this is an unsettling ensemble piece, well filmed and tightly directed.

Silent Hill (Canada 2006) (5): Rose Da Silva’s squeaky-voiced daughter Sharon is in the habit of sleepwalking to the edge of whatever bottomless ravine happens to be nearby before collapsing into hysterical fits. She’s also begun using her crayons to draw very disturbing scenes of blood and mayhem which seem to be centred on a specific place. When Sharon eventually goes missing following a traffic mishap Rose follows her to the creepy village of Silent Hill, an abandoned town covered in ash and perpetual twilight now inhabited by kooky members of a krazy kult and all sorts of fantastical monsters which literally ooze out of the woodwork at the worst possible moment. Rose’s mission: solve the mystery behind Silent Hill, find Sharon, and steel herself for the inevitable sequel. Based on a popular video game…and about as deep…Christopher Gans’ schlocky spook show does feature some notable special effects like big growling cockroaches, mummified scalpel-wielding hip hop nurses, and walls which alternately burn, bleed, and peel away to reveal hidden horrors. But the characters move about as if they were still being controlled by a joystick (can Rose manoeuvre those steel girders in order to effect a rescue?!) and the game’s—oops, I meant film’s—great big diabolical conspiracy theory would even have Stephen King rolling his eyes. The fact that the final reveal has to be explained to Rose-slash-The Audience by a twelve-year old pretty much says it all. The talents of Sean Bean are wasted as Rose’s nonplussed husband, Alice Krige spits mild venom as the cult leader, Canada’s monotone wonder Deborah Kara Unger manages to inject just a tiny bit of emotion into her insanely distraught ex-cult character, and in that too-tight police chick uniform Laurie Holden looks as if she should be spinning ‘round a strippers’ pole rather than kicking paranormal butt as Rose’s sidekick. Interesting ending however, and the aforementioned effects are above par, but I’ll pass on part two.

Silent House (USA 2011) (7): Teenaged Sarah is helping her dad and uncle Peter fix up the family's lakeside retreat which has fallen into disrepair thanks to years of neglect and the occasional squatter. Filled with dust and mould, and without any power thanks to rats chewing through the wires, their work is cut out for them. But when Peter takes off leaving Sarah and her dad on their own, things take a turn for the wierd. Apparently they are not the only ones home and when dad goes to investigate the upstairs rooms he doesn't return leaving Sarah alone in the dark... Sure to disappoint those expecting a straight-up bogeyman movie this psychological house of cards, based on an earlier Spanish film, starts off creepy enough; things go bump, adults disappear then reappear, and a frightened adolescent plays cat-and-mouse with a potential killer...a gratuitous trip to the basement had me turning the lights on. But when the big twist comes towards the end I must admit to being a wee bit put off at first for having the rug pulled out from under me---until I thought about it some more and suddenly all those illogical plot devices (why is every door and window locked from the inside? How difficult can it be to catch a rather loud kid carrying a very bright lantern?) made perfect sense. Directors Kentis and Lau have fashioned a tight suspenseful thriller with a cerebral pay-off in the end. The appearance of being shot as one continuous real-time take (kudos to Elizabeth Olsen's bravura performance) was at once disconcerting and wholly absorbing; imagine continuously looking over someone's shoulder as they live out their worst nightmare. Perhaps some of the symbolic props were overdone, but the overall effect was quite disturbing. Chilling stuff.

Silent Light (Mexico/Netherlands 2007) (8): After a beautifully executed opening scene of dawn spreading over a verdant countryside accompanied by the distant braying of unseen livestock, the camera cuts to the kitchen of a simple farmhouse where Johan, Esther, and their five children sit around the breakfast table, heads bowed reverently in silent prayer. Thus begins Carlos Reygadas’ quietly poetic film about love and adultery in an isolated Mennonite community. Although Johan loves his wife he can’t help feeling his marriage to Esther was a mistake ever since he started seeing Marianne, a clerk at the local ice cream parlour. Esther is well aware of his indiscretions and tries to wear a brave face hoping her husband will eventually come to his senses. Meanwhile, Johan’s father insists this is the work of the devil and tells him of his own brush with temptation years earlier, while his best friend suggests that perhaps God had something to do with Marianne entering his life. The conflict between Johan’s emotional needs and spiritual beliefs threaten to overwhelm him until an unforeseen tragedy throws his life off balance and brings everything into painful focus. Reygadas tells his tale in slow, carefully composed takes awash with natural sounds and a delicate light which gives the most mundane images a sense of profound significance whether it’s a conspicuously ticking clock or muted sunlight falling against a curtained window. He deftly avoids sentimentalism and overt religious spectacle, filming some key scenes from a detached distance while relying more on charged silences than dramatic dialogue. The highly cryptic final segment, wherein the two women finally meet, is both intensely moving and certainly open to much spirited debate. Sadly, although his three non-professional leads are more than up to the task the same cannot be said for the others who turn in rather stilted, self-conscious performances. At just under 2½ hours of pained stares and breast-beating, Silent Light is definitely not for everyone; but for the patient viewer its extraordinary visuals and deliberate pacing pay off big time.

The Silver Chalice (USA 1954) (2): Arguably the worst “religious epic” to ever crawl out of a Hollywood backlot, Victor Saville’s epic failure is notable for one thing: it marked the screen debuts of Paul Newman, Natalie Wood, and Canada’s own Lorne Greene. The true miracle however is that it didn’t mark the end of their careers at the same time—Newman himself panned the film and strove to distance himself from it. After his wealthy adoptive father passes away Basil, a talented sculptor (Newman showing no talent whatsoever), is usurped by his jealous uncle and sold into slavery. But he is rescued by the apostle Luke and brought to Jerusalem where he is commissioned by the late Jesus’ disciples to build a silver chalice in which to house the battered tin cup used by Christ at the Last Supper. Political intrigue and romantic complications follow as anti-Christian forces strive to destroy the cup while at the same time two women battle for Basil’s affection—Joseph of Arimathea’s weepy Christian daughter Deborra (Pier Angeli tripping over her own accent) and lusty blond cougar Helena (Virginia Mayo in sequinned negligees and circus make-up) whom Basil rescued from slavery when he was just a child. Lazy writing of the “It is written…” variety coupled with lamentably self-conscious performances call to mind the worst of high school drama class while the ridiculous choreography (oh those sword fights! oh that orgy!) proves to be the final nail. No wait, the final nail would have to be the apostle Peter (Lorne Greene. Lorne Greene?!) giving his bloated closing monologue on how the Holy Grail, now lost, will resurface when the world needs it most (cue Monty Python?) Some credit is due to Franz Waxman’s gushingly overripe musical score, the perfect accompaniment to all that ham, as well as Howard Bristol’s magnificently abstract set designs composed of forced perspectives and surreal angles reminiscent of either Chirico or Dr. Seuss depending on how forgiving you are. And kudos to the costume department for turning out a “classical collection” that would be the envy of any drag queen. Co-starring a terribly miscast Jack Palance as magician and messiah wannabe Simon, southern California as the Holy Land, and at least two dozen sandal-clad extras as “the crowd”.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (USA 1977) (2): When Prince Kassim is turned into a baboon by his evil stepmother Queen Zenobia so that her own son can claim the throne, Kassim's sister, Princess Farah, enlists the aid of her maritime boyfriend Sinbad in order to save the day. Joining forces with the powerful alchemist Melanthius, the two lovers along with the simian prince journey to the north pole where the secrets of an ancient temple may be able to return the prince to his human form. But Zenobia won't give up without a fight leading to all sorts of tiresome mayhem involving poorly animated bugs, monsters, and mythical beasts. Using cheap Mardi Gras costumes, cartoonish effects, and performances which go beyond abysmal, Sam Wannamaker's fantasy flop doesn't even come close to matching it's predecessor, 1958's classic The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, despite being filmed in the "miracle" of Dynarama (translation: lots of bad green screen backgrounds and even worse stop motion sequences featuring some moth-eaten action figures from the back of Ray Harryhausen's closet). Wannamaker can't even get his mythology straight resulting in a confusing Disneyland jumble of Egyptian pyramids, Arabic minarets, and Yankee accents. However, in the role of Sinbad, Patrick Wayne (John's son!) is extremely easy on the eye, if somewhat grating on the ear.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (USA 2014) (8): “Death is just like life in Sin City…and love doesn’t conquer anything at all…” And that pretty well sums up the tone of Frank Miller and Robert Rodriguez’s crazy violent pseudo-animated faux noir prequel-slash-sequel to 2005’s Sin City, both based on Miller’s graphic novels. Like the moving panels of a comic book all decked out in razor sharp black & white with the occasional splash of neon colour to emphasize a female form or a gouged eyeball, Miller and Rodriquez return to the titular metropolis—a rundown berg so rife with cruelty and corruption it’d make downtown Mosul look like a Florida retirement community—to churn out a handful of tales involving crooked politicians, seductive man-eaters, and an acrobatic squad of deadly ninja hookers. Eva Green plays the ultimate femme fatale revelling in her ability to drive men mad; Powers Boothe is a psychopathic senator who plays a very mean game of poker; Jessica Alba takes to the runway as a homicidal stripper on mission; and Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a charmed gambler about to be shit on by Lady Luck. And tying the various strands together are Bruce Willis as an unhappy spirit and a barely recognizable Micky Rourke playing a one-man death machine with the face of a rabid bull and a body to match. The dialogue is pure pulp fiction corn lacking any true wit but it’s all beautifully stylized to look like pen and ink illustrations come to life and the glut of extreme brutality is entertainingly shocking—heads and limbs are casually lopped off, faces are crushed, arteries are severed, and fountains of pure white cartoon blood erupt like geysers while electric guitars wail. And of course, staying true to its target demographic, Sin City also adds hefty dollops of fantasy female flesh to its noirish mix of grungy cityscapes and sexy firearms. Not recommended for the pure of heart or weak of stomach.

A Single Man (USA 2009) (10): It’s Southern California circa 1962; the Cuban missile crisis is looming, atomic paranoia is everywhere, and a new generation of adolescent boomers is beginning to feel the first stirrings of dissent. Against this backdrop of fear and upheaval we’re introduced to George Falconer, a tenured English professor who’s finding his life increasingly without meaning several months after the tragic death of Jim, his lover of sixteen years. Despite the demands of academia and the awkward attempts of his best friend Charley, herself an embittered divorcée, to provide some solace George finds the void left by Jim’s passing too immense to overcome. Emptying out his safety deposit box and buying some bullets for his antique handgun George decides to end his pain permanently until a series of chance encounters with a persistent student opens his eyes to a different possibility. Based on the novel by Christopher Isherwood, Tom Ford’s beautifully executed film is a near perfect blending of art and narrative. Employing long dreamlike takes paired with a score of melancholy strings he manages to evoke not only a keen sense of time and place, but of mind as well; a drunken dinner date with Charley reveals a shared pain while a brief exchange with a young hustler achieves an unexpected intimacy. With extreme close-ups (eyes and lips figure heavily), slow motion passages, and a shifting palette which goes from delicate B&W to radiant colour depending on George’s mindset, Ford imbues the story with a sensuality that is alternately erotic and heartbreakingly poignant. Filled with sadness and longing, but never insulting the audience with self-pitying sermons, the ironically titled A Single Man is the tragic love story that Brokeback Mountain only pretended to be.

Sinister (USA 2012) (7):  Anxious to pen another bestseller, true crime author Ellsion Oswalt (an annoyingly intense Ethan Hawke)  moves his family to a small Pennsylvania town.  Peace and quiet are not Oswalt's primary concerns though, for unbeknownst to his wife and kids their new house was actually the scene of a horrific killing spree a few years earlier in which four members of a family were hanged in the backyard while the fifth member, a little girl, was abducted never to be seen again.  Hoping to gain inspiration from the home's grisly past as he writes about the murders that took place there Ethan sets about digging for dirt aided by an eager deputy sheriff and a few bottles of Jack Daniels.  But the chance discovery of a box full of 8mm home movies and some bizarre children's artwork suggests darker forces were behind the deaths; forces which have struck in the past and now seem to be rallying once more.  As with all supernatural thrillers it is imperative to dampen one's expectations of sense and logic (when some thing is running about the house in the dead of night people naturally want to keep the lights off while they stumble around in the dark using their cellphones as a flashlight...sheesh!)  However, for those of us able to suspend that pesky disbelief, Sinister winds up being an effective blend of spooky ghost story and psychological teaser with some well placed jolts and lots of things bumping along midnight hallways.  There is a macabre undercurrent to the story which contains elements both terrifying and darkly poignant, and director Scott Derrickson proves he is able to deliver a chillingly good yarn despite a rather unimaginative premise (think The Ring meets Amityville Horror ).  Furthermore, some creepy camerawork coupled with a soundtrack of crashing chords and scratchy goth beats heighten the hideous while helping us to ignore some of the film's sillier devices.  A good Halloween flick!

Sinister 2 (USA 2015) (5):  Battered housewife Courtney Collins and her two bruised children are on the lam from her sadistic husband when they take refuge in an old farmhouse.  But the house comes with a brutal history of death and madness (See my review for Sinister) and it isn’t long before little Dylan and his brother Zach begin receiving nightly visitors in the form of ghostly children and a lanky mean-spirited bogeyman.  Meanwhile a private eye investigating the house’s murderous past comes snooping around the Collins’ backdoor triggering a whole lot of tepid chills as the forces of evil come oozing up the basement stairs threatening to precipitate yet another familial bloodbath.  This inferior sequel recycles most of the former’s jolts but none of its sense of horror as a few initial frissons quickly give way to stretches of tedium punctuated by things dutifully jumping out at the camera.  As in the original Sinister the writers rip off The Ring series with the spectral kids forcing Dylan to watch a collection of nasty corrupting home videos, and this time around they take an unabashed stab at King’s Children of the Corn when a nearby farmer’s field sets the stage for a fiery videotaped climax.  But the film’s greatest shock comes at the very end after director Ciarán Foy threatens to unleash Sinister 3.  GOOD GOD NOOOOO!!!

Sir! No Sir! (USA 2005) (9): Throughout the 60s and 70s several well documented rallies were held stateside protesting America’s military involvement in Viet Nam. What wasn’t widely publicized however was the homegrown anti-war movement amongst the enlisted men themselves. Angry and disillusioned by the atrocities they witnessed both overseas and in the VA hospitals back home, a growing number of soldiers began to question why they were fighting and dying for a cause that seemed questionable at best and downright criminal at its darkest moments. David Zeiger’s fascinating documentary traces this GI peace movement which started with a few underground newspapers distributed in off-base coffee houses and soon blossomed into marches, public protests, and open defiance of official orders—in extreme cases a few commanding officers were actually murdered by their own men. The army quickly responded with court-martials and lengthy prison terms but with growing public condemnation, a changing political landscape in Viet Nam, and an increasing reluctance on the part of draftees to fight in a war they disagreed with, the writing was already on the wall. An engaging mix of talking heads including veterans, family members, and Peace! poster girl Jane Fonda herself (her anti-war road show here seen as an antidote to Bob Hope’s patriotic propaganda tours) are enhanced by smoothly edited archival footage taken from home movies and the evening news—an especially effective opening and closing sequence depicting a napalm attack along a palm-fringed coastline draws immediate comparisons to Apocalypse Now. Passionate, respectful, and well documented, Zeger manages to correct a few misconceptions while adding yet another valuable chapter to the story of America’s involvement in Viet Nam.

The Sisters Brothers (France 2018) (8): It may not be as striking as Sergio Leone’s spaghetti offerings, but with his first English feature French director Jacques Audiard gives the world its first…“Pâté Western”?…and it proves to be a refreshing take on some old tropes. The wilds of Spain and Romania are transformed into a believable 1850s Oregon in his tale of two ruthless assassins—psychopath Charlie Sisters and his overly analytical brother Eli (Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly generating a volatile chemistry)—hired to track down and kill a young gold prospector (Riz Ahmed) at the behest of their malevolent benefactor. But the prospector finds an unlikely ally along the way thus turning what should have been a straightforward search and destroy operation for the Sisters into an illuminating journey that will revisit old wounds and cause each to view their chosen profession—as well as each other—in a new light. Although steeped in violent imagery and some Wild West hyperbole (did those old revolvers really shoot out so much smoke and flames?), at its core this is an existential horse trip addressing the often fraught bond between brothers, between sons and fathers, and between conflicting ideologies as the brothers’ coldblooded pragmatism comes up against the prospector’s altruistic dreams. Phoenix and Reilly spar like pros, mixing wit, humour, and pathos in between murders as they gallop their way towards a destiny neither anticipated. Ahmed is perfect as the soft-spoken idealist forced to realize that charitable intentions are too often not enough. And Jake Gyllenhaal, playing a bounty hunter hired to keep tabs on the brothers’ quarry, is a complex mix of intellectual dispassion and struggling conscience. Beautifully shot and edited to make the most of those wooded alpine panoramas and carrying a script that is as subtle as it is acerbic, Audiard’s star-studded oater opens with fire and darkness and closes with sunlight in an intricate single take that loops through a series of gentle curves. As the Sisters’ evil employer Rutger Hauer provides a malignant father figure, and UK-born Rebecca Root, playing a frontier mayor-cum-madam, makes the term “trans-actress” obsolete. Good viewing all around.

Sisters of the Gion (Japan 1936) (6): Daring by western standards at the time, Mizoguchi’s sad tale of female exploitation has lost most of its sting although the underlying message is just as pertinent today. Geisha sisters Umekichi and O-Mocha ply their trade in the “pleasure district” of Kyoto. When Mr. Furusawa, one of Umekichi’s regular clients, falls on hard times he decides to move in with the two women much to O-Mocha’s displeasure. Although her older sister looks upon the newly bankrupt and unhappily married Furusawa with pity and compassion, O-Mocha has become embittered to the way men “pay money to treat us as playthings” and insists that Umekichi dump the penniless man and look for a wealthy benefactor to support her instead. To this end she concocts a series of underhanded schemes, using men the way they’ve used her, to not not only get rid of Furusawa but land both her and her sister a pair of rich patrons in the process. Of course things go terribly awry and both women are taught a harsh lesson on how little their lives mean to the men who seek their services. A cold and unhappy tale which has its heart in the right place but nevertheless ends with an angry monologue by O-Mocha which sounds more like a prepared statement than a howl of despair.

Six Degrees of Separation (USA 1993) (6):  John Guare’s hugely popular stage play makes an uneven and not entirely successful transition to the screen.  Flan and Ouisa are a pretentious upper-class couple who’ve made millions buying and selling other people’s art collections.  When a young black man shows up at their penthouse door, bleeding from a recent mugging and claiming to be a good friend of their children, they initially react with guarded skepticism.  But it isn’t long before the charming young Paul has them eating out of the palm of his hand with his witty ripostes and clever banter.  When he casually mentions he is the son of Sidney Poitier he has them hooked.  All is not as it seems however and a few days later they discover that they are not the only Upper Eastside couple to be visited by “Paul Poitier”.  What starts out as a farcical look at the banality of Manhattan’s privileged gentry soon takes a serious turn as the couple begin to peel away Paul’s facade to reveal the true motives behind his actions.  Indeed, facades loom heavily in this somewhat one-sided sermon against petty bourgeois values.  In trying to emulate the wealthy lifestyle he so desires Paul acts as a mirror in which some characters begin to see the various charades they play in their own lives....the crooked deals, the forced bonhomie, and the amusing strings of anecdotes that serve as a substitute for actually living.  Paul may be an impostor but he ends up being the only “genuine” person in the entire movie.  This is when things get bogged down.  The ensuing rhetoric has a certain air of self-righteousness about it as revelations are made and angry indictments are leveled.  It would seem that anyone with a top-floor view of Central Park is just a big phony.  To  be fair, the script is certainly clever and Schepisi makes the most of his Manhattan settings.  Furthermore there are some commendable performances, most notably Stockard Channing in the role of Ouisa.  I guess some plays just don’t translate well into movies.

1612 (Russia 2007) (8): Vladimir Khotinenko's magnificent costume epic is a heady mix of historical revisionism and romantic fantasy with a tragic love triangle thrown in for good measure. Set during Russia's "Time of Troubles" at the beginning of the 17th century, the story revolves around the bloody struggle for the Tsar's throne left vacant after the ruling Gudenov family was assassinated. With the Polish military laying siege to Moscow and a brutish Polish nobleman determined to force the last remaining Gudenov, Princess Kseniya, into an arranged marriage it falls down to young Andrei, a lowly serf with a lifelong crush on Kseniya, to turn the tides of war and rescue the object of his desire. The film's gorgeous widescreen cinematography moves effortlessly between candlelit tunnels and blood-soaked battlefields while a few magical touches add a subtle fairytale sheen to what is essentially historical mythmaking. And the male leads are hunky perfection! A perfect popcorn movie.

6ixtynin9 [A Funny Story About 6 and 9 ] (Thailand 1999) (7): After losing her corporate job, another victim of the Asian economic crisis, Tum struggles to make ends meet with her few remaining baht. Her luck changes one day however when she discovers a small fortune tucked inside a noodle box and left outside her apartment door. Not wasting too much time wondering about where the money came from, Tum begins to plan a new life for herself with some sage advice from her scatterbrained friend. But when the villainous owners of the cash come snooping around, as well as their enemies and the police, an increasingly distressed Tum sees her dreams of financial independence thwarted time and again. And as if being at the centre of a simmering gang war isn’t enough everyone that comes calling on her, cop and criminal alike, has the unfortunate habit of meeting a messy demise in her living room… With deadpan delivery, absurd plot twists, and just a touch of noir, director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang has fashioned one of the darker comedies to ever emerge from Asia. Pale and perpetually dumbstruck, Lalita Panyopas is perfectly cast as the desperate antihero trying to hold on to her ill-gotten gain while circumstances beyond her control push her in directions she’d rather not go. The supporting cast is appropriately loud and crass, especially a nosy neighbour who suspects Tum of screwing her police boyfriend (one of the film’s funnier sequences), and it all ends with an outrageous Thai version of the old Mexican standoff. Some jarring edits and a few odd fantasy sequences aside, this is still one hell of an evening’s entertainment!

The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales (Mexico 1960) (8): A bit of Buñuel drifts through Rogelio A. González’s darkly comic Grand Guignol, a macabre satire which has you chuckling even as you grimace. When he’s not stuffing dead animals, genial taxidermist Dr. Pablo Morales enjoys nothing more than downing a few pints with his buddies and horsing around with the neighbourhood children. His wife, on the other hand, is a frigid shrew and hypochondriac who divides her time between praying to the many saints that adorn her bedroom wall and thinking up new ways to torment her long-suffering husband—even going so far as to garner sympathy by making false accusations of domestic abuse. But when she finally crosses a line, the even-tempered Pablo begins plotting the perfect crime to free himself from her clutches forever… Filmed in heightened shades of B&W with off-kilter lighting that accents every scowl and diabolical grin, this is film noir with a colourful twist and González’s cast plays it straight right to the end. As the ill-matched couple Amparo Rivelles and Arturo de Córdova provide each other’s foil beautifully—her screeching martyr finding counterbalance in his slow, methodical burn—but it’s Antonio Bravo as the dour parish priest who gives the film its sting. Spouting fire & brimstone at every opportunity, yet able to pull a pious face when necessary, Bravo’s Padre Familiar provides some caustic religious parody as his righteous suspicions regarding the fate of Mrs. Morales go up against Pablo’s ice cool confidence. Irony proves to be the movie’s ultimate lynchpin however leading to one helluva wicked ending!

Skyfall (UK 2012) (7): When watching a James Bond film one must expect a patently ludicrous storyline with lots of stuff blowing up and Skyfall is certainly no exception. But the enjoyment lies in the execution and this instalment practically flies by in a riot of gunfire, explosions, and a few welcome cameos from Daniel Craig’s rock hard pecs. This time around agent 007 is hot on the trail of a stolen hard drive containing top secret NATO information while at the same time his employers at the British Intelligence Agency are under attack from within after their computer system is hacked by a mad genius (a fey golden-locked Javier Bardem looking as if he’d be more at home on the set of Austin Powers). And then Bond discovers that the attacks may be directly linked to a dirty secret held by his personal boss “M” (Judi Dench still kicking ass at 77) and the revelation proves less than comforting. The plot however simply provides a framework in which to showcase all those eye-popping (or eye-rolling depending on your sensibilities) action sequences: a wild motorcycle chase along the rooftops of Istanbul; a fire & brimstone showdown over the Scottish moors, and a surreal confrontation atop a neon-lit Shanghai skyscraper are just some of the highlights. But say good-bye to the suave sophistication and ingenious gadgets of Sean Connery or Roger Moore; Craig’s Bond is a coarse and sullen wild card with haunted eyes and a quick trigger finger facing his declining years with a mixture of stubborn resolve and perhaps a few unvoiced regrets. If you can ignore some yawning plot holes (a puzzling sexual dalliance starts nowhere and goes nowhere), fantastical plot devices, and 007’s uncanny ability to dodge hundreds of bullets (save two), you may just walk away feeling as if you’ve gotten your money’s worth. Great opening credits sequence too!

Slaughterhouse Five (USA 1972) (8):  A decent adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s semi-autobiographical novel about a man suffering from extreme dissociative behaviour following his experiences in a German POW camp.  Billie Pilgrim is literally lost in time, he never knows when he’ll be pulled from his affluent middle-class existence in order to relive the horrors he witnessed in WWII. Both realities are confusing to him---the senseless destruction of the past, and the comfortable banality of the present with its silly social conventions and a family that is little more than a group of strangers.  Not only is he lost in time then, he is also lost culturally and spiritually.  It’s not until he’s kidnapped by a race of aliens that he finally experiences the peace of mind that has eluded him.  Ironically, it is this third reality (a complete departure from reality actually)  that contains the least amount of true freedom---he’s cooped up in a sparsely furnished glass bubble surrounded by a poisonous atmosphere. Pilgrim’s subsequent attempts to impart his newfound alien philosophy to a planet full of fellow Earthlings proves disastrous, for prejudice, hatred and blind revenge are obstacles that may be too strong for mankind to ever overcome. Decent performances and kitschy special effects are buoyed by a literate script.

Sleepaway Camp (USA 1983) (5): Every now and then there comes a movie so perfectly terrible in every conceivable way that it actually gets by on sheer awfulness alone. Case in point is this ultra-cheesy “Dead Teenagers” flick from 1983, a production so bad it was elevated to cult status almost overnight. Thirteen-year old weirdo Angela Baker accompanies her overly protective cousin Rick to summer camp where her refusal to talk, eat, or join in any activities, coupled with her creepy habit of sitting still and staring at people for hours immediately makes her the target of every camp bully from the oversexed tweens in the boys’ cabin to the queen bitches in the girls’ dorm. But when people start dying off in very grisly (and amusingly imaginative) ways the camp’s proprietor finds himself busy hushing things up while trying to unmask the killer by himself..! Where to begin? Let’s start with the awkward dialogue and affected runway poses which pass for acting. One would be hard pressed to award a trophy for Worst Performance since they are all so uniformly bad: Desiree Gould as Angela’s eccentric Aunt Martha sounds like she’s reading her lines for the first time; Katherine Kamhi as Meg the Camp Slut gives a master class in hamming it up while flipping a ponytail back and forth; Owen Hughes as the camp’s disgustingly horny pedo cook gives a surprisingly good scream; and Felissa Rose as Angela perfects the art of the monotone drone. I’d also give an honourable mention to Dan Tursi and James Paradise’s “gay scene” for I’ve never seen a pair of actors generate more awkward onscreen discomfort. Then there’s the embarrassingly hilarious ‘80s touches with head bands, short shorts, and cut-off tank tops all around. Of course, being a slasher flick there’s little attention given to logic since just about every murder could have been easily avoided if the victim had only [insert obvious course of action here]. But the deaths are pretty cool as our mystery assailant grabs everything from curling irons to beehives in order to punish the wicked while writer/director Robert Hiltzik blows his meagre budget on special effects. And, last but not least, there’s that controversial BIG TWIST at the end which horror aficionados still recount with much fondness—an overwrought reveal accentuated by a frozen demonic grimace and bestial snarls. Recommended for hardcore fans of Z-grade shockers only.

Sleepers (USA 1996) (5): In the summer of 1968 four young friends living on the mean streets of New York’s Hell’s Kitchen get caught up in a bit of juvenile delinquency that goes way too far. Sent to an upstate reform school, the boys are subjected to months of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of four sadistic guards who seem determined to make their lives pretty near unbearable. Cut to 1981 and the boys, now young men, have gone very different routes—one is working for a newspaper (Jason Patric), one is a fledgling lawyer with the District Attorney’s office (Brad Pitt), and two have become drug-addled enforcers with a local street gang. But they all share one thing in common, they’ve kept the horrors of what happened at the detention centre to themselves out of a communal sense of shame. And then the two gang members happen upon one of their former tormenters eating in a restaurant and words lead to bullets and twin murder convictions. Hearing of their plight, the lawyer and newspaperman decide that with one down and three more to go it’s payback time for all concerned… What starts out as a poignant tale of good kids going bad during the Summer of Love (the 60s touches are perfect) quickly segues into a juvenile horror story with slimy turnkeys led by a leering Kevin Bacon and lots of off-camera screaming. As gripping and painful to watch as the first half is however, the second half proves to be far more problematic. With Patric and Pitt trying to rig their friends’ trial with the help of a conscience-stricken priest (Robert DeNiro) and an alcoholic lawyer (Dustin Hoffman) as well as planning the downfall of the other guilty parties, director/screenwriter Barry Levinson sinks to the level of righteous vigilantism and holier-than-thou proselytizing. Somehow crooked deals and ice cold revenge get confused with a higher moral plane while the edicts of a local mafia boss—himself responsible for countless murders—ring out with all the authority of Lady Justice herself. And just to make sure that the audience feels guilty about questioning the film’s smug sense of virtue Levinson browbeats us with monochromatic flashbacks of brutalized kids—one even trying to say the rosary while being assaulted. Manipulative as hell, especially with John Williams’ syrupy orchestral score, and in light of America’s increasing preoccupation with guns and street justice a subversive film for all the wrong reasons. As an ironic footnote, all claims that the source book was based on the real life experiences of author Lorenzo Carcaterra have long since been debunked. In other words, he lied.

Sleeping Beauty (Australia 2011) (5): University student Lucy (a very brave Emily Browning) approaches life with a cynical detachment bordering on nihilism whether it be her lackadaisical performance at work or the tawdry sexual encounters she engages in afterwards. In fact the only time she lets her emotional guard down is when she’s in the company of her housebound drug-addicted fiancé…but it’s questionable which he craves more—her or the booze she provides him with. When a highly lucrative job becomes available at an exclusive bordello-cum-supper club Lucy jumps at the chance to strip down to her skivvies and serve rich old men (and lesbians) caviar and brandy while they look down on her as just another piece of animated furniture (“Make sure your lipstick matches the colour of your labia…” advises her nearly nude mentor). And then her reluctant madam offers her the best deal yet—thousands of dollars stand to be made if Lucy will allow herself to be drugged, stripped, and placed in an ornate bed so that elderly clientele can have their way with her unconscious body providing they observe the house rules: no penetration and don’t leave a mark. At first revelling in her cash windfall Lucy begins to wonder what exactly goes on when her lights go out so she invests in a miniature spy camera and discovers, much to her horror, that the high-end brothel also offers one final service. Although it is an uneasy marriage of Eurosleaze exploitation and arty excess, Julia Leigh’s problematic film does contain some piercing insights into the politics of love vs desire vs regret. The underlying irony here is that even when a sleeping Lucy is at her most vulnerable she still wields the most power as her various would-be rapists succumb to the ravages of old age whether it be impotence, melancholy, or a slipped disc. Forever shut off from her mind they must make do with her smooth flawless body alone and that one fact goads them mercilessly…”I’m going to fuck you with my big horse cock…” seethes one old codger as he struggles to stay atop her inert form, his tiny penis nestled uselessly between his legs. Unfortunately, aside from Browning’s bold performance as the unhappy protagonist who keeps her feelings sedated in one form or another, the rest of the cast get mired down in the script’s inflated gravitas giving it the aura of a sombre student film. At its best Sleeping Beauty’s fairy tale aesthetic exhibits a warped feminism which questions the balance of power even as it sets misogyny on its ear, but at its worst you can practically hear Leigh purring as she is repeatedly seduced by the sound of her own voice. A pity.

Sleep Tight (Spain 2011) (10): César (heartthrob Luis Tosar) is the handsome soft-spoken concierge at a chic Barcelona apartment building. He is also an ice cold sociopath completely lacking any human empathy whatsoever. Constantly dogged by suicidal thoughts, César’s only respite comes from playing malicious pranks on the tenants; deriving some degree of mirthless satisfaction by making others miserable. He meets his greatest challenge however in Clara, the perpetually optimistic young woman upstairs, and no matter what he does—-seeding her apartment with cockroach eggs, injecting lye into her face cream, hiding under her bed with chloroform in hand waiting for her to fall asleep—-she remains oblivious to the monster behind his false smile. The only witnesses to his wicked activities are the little girl across the hall whose juvenile attempts at blackmail eventually backfire; and his institutionalized mother who, paralyzed and mute following a stroke, can only weep as he whispers every sordid detail of his plan to destroy Clara’s life. But when Clara’s boyfriend discovers a few incriminating clues, César’s tenuous hold on sanity begins to crumble and his mean-spirited games suddenly turn deadly… Shot almost entirely within the confines of an aging condo complex, Jaume Balagueró’s sadistic urban nightmare plays on many different levels: as a straight-up thriller it contains passages of almost unbearable tension as Balagueró slowly raises the stakes; as a psychological horror film its casual cruelty is both repellent and morbidly fascinating; and as the blackest of comedies its diabolically twisted ending left me chuckling more out of disbelief than amusement. A perfectly choreographed assault on modern insecurities which puts a sinister spin on that last bastion of safety—-our homes (and beds). Sweet dreams!

Slither (USA 2006) (9): When a meteorite crashes in the middle of hick town USA (Vancouver!!) it's carrying a most unusual passenger; a slimy barb-shooting slug with a voracious appetite for fresh meat and a frightening ability to control people's minds. Soon pets are disappearing, the town millionaire is sporting a couple of tentacles and the local tramp has been turned into a corpulent bug factory. Will the woefully inexperienced police chief and his band of bumbling deputies be able to destroy the outer space menace before it destroys us? James Gunn's loving homage to 80s horror flicks borrows heavily from the likes of "Alien", "Night Of The Living Dead" and "The Thing". His winning combination of amazing special effects and old-fashioned storytelling has produced a wonderful mix of chilling shocks, deadpan humour and enough spewing blood and mucus to satisfy the most ardent gorehounds. One of the better popcorn movies I've seen in some time.

Slow West (UK 2015) (9): When Rose, the woman he loves, is forced to flee with her father from the rugged coast of Scotland to the wild west of 1870s America, Jay Cavendish (a likably cadaverous Kodi Smit-McPhee) decides to cross the pond himself in search of her. Accidentally teaming up with a gun-slinging outlaw (Michael Fassbender who also narrates when needed), the ill-prepared Jay plods his way over the hills and through the woods to Rose’s cottage on a trail suddenly populated by wolves of every shape and stripe—all of whom have a keen interest in finding the girl themselves. Bringing an international cast to the rugged plains of New Zealand, Scottish writer/director John Maclean fashions one of the more oddball “American” westerns I’ve seen in some time. His simple road movie is heightened by mythological references and storybook characters that turn the everyday into something wondrous and skewed: a campsite turns into a raging river, a farmer’s crop becomes a bloodied Elysium Field, and the path to true love takes a very unexpected detour. But don’t let Maclean’s light touch and macabre humour lull you into thinking this is just another quirky indie flick (a literal reference to “salt in the wound” had me torn between laughing and squirming), for if the film’s setup is reminiscent of a truculent Wes Anderson the finale is darkest Shakespeare delivered with a smirk. Kudos to cinematographer Robbie Ryan for those fairy tale panoramas of forests, meadows, and snow-capped peaks, as well as Jed Kurzel’s award-winning score. Game of Thrones’ Rory McCann co-stars as Rose’s protective father and Aussie Ben Mendelsohn plays a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Literally.

Small Town Gay Bar (USA 2006) (7): Director Malcolm Ingram takes his camera down south to document the reality of living and partying gay in the butthole of the bible belt. Concentrating on rural Mississippi he introduces us to the patrons of “Rumors” in Shannon (pop: 1,657) as they let loose after spending Monday through Friday “working for Republicans”. Drawing on a colourful assortment of drag queens, lesbians, circuit boyz and regular old gays-next-door a picture emerges of a defiant subculture tired of having to fit in with the status quo yet strangely at home amongst the rednecks and bible-thumpers which surround them. There’s the usual tales of sexual indiscretions and falling in love, being harassed and fighting back, all told with surprising candor considering the fact that just having their faces on celluloid means taking a big personal risk for many. In one particularly wrenching departure from the film’s overall sense of playful optimism the mother of a young gay man brutally murdered and then set on fire expresses her teary bewilderment at the cruelty of others. Unfortunately too much airtime is given to Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps and his ilk as they spew their ignorant backwoods poison; but in the end even their passionate vitriol fails to dampen the spirit of these gutsy men and women as they fight hate with courage, humour, and pure fabulousness. Snap!

Smashed (USA 2012) (7): Movies about people working through addiction are something of a Hollywood mainstay and although writer/director James Ponsoldt offers no new perspectives his script, downbeat yet never maudlin, does bring a new freshness to the subject while leads Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul definitely bring a dysfunctional chemistry to the screen. Alcohol is the glue that bonds school teacher Kate (Winstead) to her layabout husband Charlie (Paul). Living in the quaint L.A. bungalow his parents bought for them, their time together is usually spent doing shooters at home before getting hammered at nightclubs—and whether she’s wetting the bed (again) or having a hangover barf in front of her grade one class (she tells everyone she’s pregnant) Kate feels she’s happy and in control. Until she isn’t. Now attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings after a couple of harsh epiphanies, Kate is forced to reevaluate her life thus far including her relationship with a perpetually soused Charlie… Shot through with comedic elements which sometime work—the “pregnancy ruse” backfires miserably—and sometimes don’t—a sexually charged exchange with her vice-principal (a one-note Nick Offerman basically playing himself) is just plain awkward—Ponsoldt neither drags Kate through the mud nor elevates her to virtuous superwoman. However, despite this decidedly light approach the transformation he elicits in Winstead’s character is nevertheless painful in its slow progression yet admirable in its scope. One can even look past the tributes to AA, especially with Octavia Spencer starring as Kate’s sponsor and confidante. There are no excuses here, Kate is fully responsible for her downward slide and upward rebound, and Ponsoldt is not really interested in the whys of her alcoholism concentrating instead on the hows of her recovery. And in that respect one could almost refer to the finished product as “charming” despite its messy bits. Think of it as Days of Wine and Roses updated for a more savvy audience. Mary Kay Place does an admirable job as Kate’s mom, an embittered passive-aggressive divorcee with some skewed opinions of her own.

Smash His Camera (USA 2010) (7): Leon Gast’s savvy documentary chronicles the life and work of Ron Galella, self-proclaimed king of the paparazzi, whose fifty year career has yielded more than three million celebrity photographs which he lovingly stores in a basement archive. From Greta Garbo and Mae West to KISS and Pee Wee Herman no one escaped his roving lens, but he harboured a monomaniacal obsession for Jackie Onassis—chasing her around Manhattan, jumping out of bushes to catch her with her children, and hiding behind coat racks to film her on dinner dates. This constant harassment eventually resulted in a restraining order against him which lasted four years. Galella himself is seen as a very enthusiastic septuagenarian goodfella type incapable of appreciating the effect his behaviour has on the VIPs he regularly stalks…he even had himself locked up in a London warehouse for a weekend so he could take pictures of Liz and Richard while their yacht was anchored in the Thames. Fancying himself a “photojournalist” working in the public’s interest, he and his wife-manager have made a small fortune hawking his ill-gotten photos to tabloids and magazines—enough to buy a small mansion in New Jersey which he tackily adorned with plastic flowers and bunny statuary. But where does freedom of speech end and intimidation begin? Exactly how public should public figures be? Cited as a “personality profiteer” by one photographer and “the price tag of the first amendment” by a constitutional lawyer, it would seem the critics are divided on the issue. There is a certain candid energy to many of his pics, so unlike the hasty smartphone snaps one sees on magazine racks today, that has earned him some degree of notoriety among collectors and art galleries alike; where else can you get a mug shot of a tipsy Bette Davis scowling her way out of New York’s Studio 54? But is it artistry which renders his snapshots so intriguing, or is it simply the subjects themselves that make you want to look twice? And do the means always justify the ends? “In another fifty years the name of Ron Galella will have been forgotten!” says one detractor, and as if to emphasize the point Gast films a giggling teenager at one of Galella’s gallery showings who fails to recognize even one celebrity face. Beleaguered champion of free speech or opportunistic bottom feeder, Gast certainly gives enough fodder for both arguments. Personally my opinion was summed up quite succinctly by Marlon Brando who, after being followed by Galella for several blocks, gently called him over and proceeded to break his jaw.

The Smiling Lieutenant (USA 1931) (5): A dashing officer in the Austrian army (Maurice Chevalier) falls head over heels for the violin-playing conductor of an all-girl orchestra (Claudette Colbert) but thanks to a series of ridiculous misunderstandings finds himself engaged to a mousy princess instead (Miriam Hopkins). Comedy results as the lieutenant tries to avoid the wrath of the King by courting his virginal daughter while at the same time fiddling his fiddler on the side. Obviously made before the draconian guidelines of the Hays Office came into effect, this lighthearted farce drips with none too subtle sexual innuendos as it celebrates adultery, premarital sex, and wholesale promiscuity, not too mention some racy lingerie scenes à la 1931. But even though Colbert and Hopkins put in admirable performances and the whole production is helmed by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch, Chevalier comes across as more fop than romantic lead, that gallic accent sounding like he’s trying to enunciate around a mouthful of mashed potatoes, and no one shares any onscreen chemistry whatsoever. However, the film’s final nail comes in the form of some horrible musical asides which seem to spring out of nowhere: “You put glamour in the grapefruit…” croons Chevalier to Colbert over a post coital breakfast, “…you put passion in the prunes…with every bit of liver, I start to quiver…” Cheese and ham all around.

The Snake Pit (USA 1948) (9): Drawn from author Mary Jane Ward’s own experiences following a nervous breakdown, Anatole Litvak’s gut-wrenching story about one woman’s struggle with mental illness was the first motion picture to deal with the subject candidly and realistically. Shortly after her marriage, blushing newlywed Virginia (a star performance from Olivia de Havilland) begins exhibiting paranoid delusions and alarming outbursts of violent accusations. Finally hospitalized by her bewildered husband Virginia is teamed with the progressive psychiatrist doctor Kik who is determined to uncover the reasons behind her erratic behaviour—traumatic events from her past which are so thoroughly repressed that it may take months to reveal them all. In the meantime Virginia undergoes various treatments, including electro-shock therapy, while languishing in a state asylum so overcrowded and understaffed that the harried nurses barely have enough time to herd the patients from one appointment to the other. But despite many setbacks Virginia continues her lonely trek towards mental health as a series of flashbacks begin to fill in the blanks. Bleak institutional sets populated by a convincing cast of extras displaying everything from paranoid schizophrenia to nymphomania drive home a sense of isolation and unreality. Defined by locked doors and steel bars, Virginia’s shrunken world is a haze of doctor’s visits and confused encounters, frightening in its complexity as her mind struggles to make sense of it all. At one point she stands alone while the ward around her erupts into a madhouse with agitated patients casting wild shadows on the walls and the camera slowly panning upwards as if she were at the bottom of a pit. Although cutting edge at the time some of the psychoanalysis scenes are now quaintly outdated (A framed photograph of Freud glares from Dr. Kik’s wall), and the nursing staff are unjustly portrayed as mean-spirited handmaidens. But when you take into consideration that not only was this the first film of its kind but it sparked a host of mental health reforms to boot, these are small criticisms indeed. A true tour de force.

Snoopy Come Home (USA 1972) (6): When Snoopy receives a letter from “Lila”, a little sick girl begging him to come visit her in the hospital, he immediately sets out on a cross country trek with a clumsy Woodstock in tow. Braving everything from thunderstorms to a manic kid with a fetish for collecting pets (not to mention the ubiquitous “No Dogs Allowed” signs which seem to be posted everywhere they want to go) the two slowly make their way to her bedside. Meanwhile, Charlie Brown and the gang are left wondering just who the heck Lila is and whether or not Snoopy will ever return. Based on a plot first presented in a Peanuts comic strip and then padded with a non-stop barrage of cutesy songs which range from passable jingles to cringeworthy ballads, this early feature-length animation bombed upon its initial release due in large part to the production company’s flailing fortunes. All these years later the primitive 2D artwork retains a certain retro charm and some of the side stories (a boxing match with Lucy; a visit to the library with Sally; a teary farewell party) manage to capture a bit of the old magic first seen in A Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s just not very interesting, especially given that overuse of musical tangents (where’s Vince Guaraldi when you need him?). Nice use of bright crayon colours however, but unlike the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine Bill Melendez’s touches of psychedelia are more sugar rush than LSD.

Snow Cake (UK/Canada 2006) (3): Following a horrific accident in which the young hitchhiker he picked up is killed, a British tourist with a few dark secrets tries to make peace by moving in with the young girl's badly autistic mother while finding release of a different kind with the woman next door. A healing trinity is formed and, thanks to the power of mental illness, everyone walks away transformed. This story of one guilt-ridden man's journey into light has a great premise but in typical Canadian fashion it is overly mawkish, arty and rife with dime store symbolism (ooh, metaphorical wallpaper and snow globes!) Great for those who like having a film’s message rammed down their throats with a jackhammer.

Snowpiercer (Korea/Czech Rep/USA/France 2013) (8): There’s something for everyone in writer/director Joon-ho Bong’s rollicking sci-fi parable which, true to its graphic novel roots, is a highly entertaining mash of grit, gore, and mordant humour at times bordering on slapstick. After man’s ill-advised attempt to reverse global warming by seeding the atmosphere with a chemical agent, the entire Earth is plunged into an epic ice age with accompanying mass extinctions. In this frozen world of 2031, all of humanity has been reduced to a few hundred survivors living aboard an ultra high-tech train which speeds along its globe-spanning track making one complete circuit of the planet every year. However, in order to ensure survival of the species and avoid chaos, a draconian class system is strictly enforced with the privileged elite inhabiting the luxurious forward cars and the unwashed masses huddling in squalor at the very back. Several revolts have been attempted in the past but this time around the people of the rear, led by visionary activist Curtis, are determined to seize control of the train and confront “Mr. Wilford”, the quasi-mythical Engineer who runs it all. But first Curtis and his ragtag group of freedom fighters will have to contend with a few devilish surprises… A sterling cast of international stars including John Hurt, Kang-ho Song, and Octavia Spencer seem to have great fun slashing and yelling as their elaborate train sets careen past dead cities and treacherous mountain passes sending up great spumes of ice and snow along the way (bravo to the CGI department!). And Tilda Swinton more than earns her salary as Mr. Wilford’s lisping, buck-toothed emissary. But there is more going on here than mere comic book thrills, although that aspect alone is well worth the price of admission. As a political allegory with ecological overtones Snowpiercer couldn’t be more obvious especially after Swinton delivers a fiery speech to the coach class denizens on the importance of “knowing one’s place on the train”. But as Curtis strives to rise above his station in life, moving ever forward through cars that offer glimpses into hell or heaven, his journey towards the remote and manifestly cruel Godhead at the very front becomes a spiritual quest. A richly layered metaphor whose big screen excitements make its deeper elements all the more captivating.

The Snowtown Murders (Australia 2011) (9): Hovering somewhere between documentary realism and disjointed nightmare, Justin Kurzel’s recounting of serial killer John Bunting’s exploits in South Australia during the 1990s is one of the more horrifying works of cinema you’re likely to see. In the small town of Snowtown the three Vlassakis brothers, aged 13 to 17, are still reeling from the sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of their mom’s ex-boyfriend when a new man enters her life. Handsome and intensely charismatic, John’s anger over the crime and relatively light sentence handed down by the courts inflames the locals who follow his lead and harass the ex until he finally leaves town. But John’s show of moral outrage is nothing more than the respectable veneer of a cold-blooded psychopath whose hatred of anyone outside the norm, be they pedophiles, homosexuals, addicts, or simply “weak”, compels him to murderous violence. Exerting an unhealthy influence on seventeen-year old Jamie Vlassakis (already made fragile by abuse and neglect) Bunting proceeds to tear the family inside out… Keeping the gore factor to a minimum—a bloodied bathtub or rucksack full of grisly tools hinting at unseen depravities—Kurzel knows how to keep his audience on tenterhooks as a deadly calm Bunting (bravura performance from Daniel Henshall) morphs from upright family man to evil incarnate dragging a bewildered Jamie (Lucas Pittaway, magnificent) down to Hell with him. Episodic and deliberately weaving as if to keep audiences off balance, Kurzel applies the screws one appalling twist at a time while his backdrops of suburban squalor and white trash extras keep the storyline grounded and believable. Ending on a terrifying note, the film’s final fifteen minutes are almost unbearable to watch not for what is shown but rather for what is merely implied. This is the stuff of bad dreams made palpably real.

S.N.U.B.! (UK 2010) (3): After terrorists nuke London a small group of survivors find themselves cooped up in a decommissioned government bomb shelter where they set about keeping house while waiting for the authorities to find them. Something does eventually come banging at the front door but (horrors!) it is not the official rescue party they'd been hoping for. As its members are messily picked off one by one the frantic group of atomic refugees come to the frightening realization that they are not the only ones to survive the blast and that nuclear fallout may well be the least of their worries. Director Jonathan Glendening certainly provides some amazing visuals from the detonation itself spreading shockwaves through the heart of London, to the bomb's fiery aftermath as hurricane winds swirl burning embers against a lurid blood-red sky. Unfortunately this seems to be where his grand vision ends. The cramped set is populated with the usual suspects: slimy politician, army hero, hysterical girls, mop-haired tyke; all of whom spout their cliched lines and dutifully scream on cue. The lacklustre camerawork and sluggish directing fail to elicit any tension whatsoever leaving us instead to watch a gaggle of actors run up and down hallways, hide behind bureaus, and feign an air of menace. Lastly, when the final reveal comes, it is just plain dumb.

Society (USA 1989) (7): Although born into southern California’s privileged über-wealthy, teenaged Bill Whitney still can’t help feeling like an outcast. Mom and dad are preoccupied with his sister Jenny (too preoccupied) especially now that her gala “Coming Out” party is approaching, and all their interactions appear calculated and superficial—qualities mirrored in the circle of fantastically rich judges, business tycoons, and politicians that surround them. Bill’s unease is not entirely unfounded however for every now and then he witnesses something he shouldn’t (was that a pulsating blob on Jenny’s back? did mom just eat a garden slug?) prompting him to seek help from a psychiatrist who may or may not believe him. But when people start disappearing—people who share Bill’s misgivings—his suspicions turn to flat out panic as the true nature of High Society reveals itself… Set among greater L.A.’s pampered palaces and impeccably trimmed lawns where women flutter about like taffeta butterflies and tuxedoed men puff on oversized cigars, Brian Yuzna’s corrosive satire on class identity plays off a script that could have been co-written by H. P. Lovecraft and Luis Buñuel had they shared a joint before getting down to business. Yuzna’s bourgeoisie may not be as discreet as Buñuel’s but his determination to lampoon them as being a breed apart (quite literally) does give rise to some gleefully grotesque special effects including an elite soiree which turns into a throbbing gelatinous orgy straight out of Salvador Dali’s best wet dream. Yet, if the satirical elements press the message of social inequality with a bit too much force, the film’s greatest strength ultimately rests in the director’s ability to make us feel Bill’s paranoia as the once familiar slowly becomes strange and hostile—not surprising given the fact he lists Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby as one of his inspirations. Looking upon the proles which surround them as a barracuda might observe a school of tasty anchovies, Society’s rich are filthy indeed—a tired old truism that Yuzna manages to twist into a macabre parody of itself.

Sollers Point (USA 2017) (6): Being under house arrest at the home of his estranged father wasn’t easy for 26-year old ex-felon Keith (McCaul Lombardi), and now that his ankle bracelet has finally been removed he’s more determined than ever to set his life right. But the old neighbourhood is still filled with the same temptations—from drugs to thugs—and despite his honourable intentions he begins to feel his former life dragging him back… Shot on a shoestring budget with (mostly) natural performances that ring true to life as they flow across the screen, writer/director Matthew Porterfield’s small character study is free of the Hollywood bluster one generally associates with its timeworn story of a former con trying to go straight. Lombardi is a study in suppressed anger and coiled reflexes as he instinctively reacts to his environment—whether through violence or casual sex—while Jim Belushi, playing his negligent father, provides some backstory with little more than an offhand insult or disparaging glance. The trouble is Porterfield becomes a little too thorough as he paints everything in various shades of despair. The small section of Baltimore where the film unfolds is apparently inhabited exclusively by whores and junkies, punks and gangbangers—where everyone is either using someone or else being used. Keith’s picaresque journey likewise boils down to a series of encounters with the usual stock characters like a tweaking hooker who opens up to him about her miserable life a mere ten seconds after she gets into his car, or the crazy Illuminati-style cult leader who rages on about reality and the “inner eye”, or the drug-dealing gunrunner who couldn’t have been more sleazy had he been twirling a handlebar moustache, or the disheartened ex who’s sort of moved on. Even a showdown with dad involves the requisite profanities and smashed crockery. And that’s too bad for every now and then I glimpsed a greater vision from Porterfield, most noticeably in the film’s anticlimactic final reel where a downcast irony managed to sidestep my somewhat cynical expectations. Still highly watchable however with its vérité editing and soundtrack of rap and death metal—but in the end it’s little more than a road movie whose protagonist tries to keep his eye on the horizon while spinning doughnuts in his own backyard.

Solo (Argentina 2013) (5): Perhaps a better title for this loopy gay thriller would be Scrolling For Mr. Gaybar, for it’s little more than a tired old trope revamped for a Grindr generation. After enduring a messy break-up, preppy office worker Manuel searches the internet for a bit of companionship and winds up with the bewhiskered and brooding Julio. Hitting it off at street level, the two retire to Manuel’s apartment where their date follows the expected trajectory: small talk, romantic confessions, fucking, and in the waning afterglow the usual glut of lame excuses designed to cut the evening short…”You have to leave because my friend Vicky is coming over” and “I’ll call you sometime”. At least on Manuel’s part. But Julio, cutting through Manuel’s bullshit, proves to be a tough houseguest to get rid of and that’s when Manuel begins to wonder if bringing him home was a wise decision after all… Obviously acquainted with the emotional games and dishonest politics of one-night stands, writer/director Marcelo Briem Stamm tries to spice things up with lukewarm sex and vague suggestions of darker motives at work—who is that mysterious voice on Julio’s cellphone? Why is he so interested in Manuel’s living arrangements? And just who is this “Vicky”? False starts abound as the two men circle one another, passion jostling with mistrust, while all that heartfelt pillow talk gets thrown into a sinister light once Stamm yanks the final rug out from beneath our feet. But the poorly subtitled dialogue clunks along and the two handsome leads fail to achieve that erotic synergy which would have made the film’s big twist somehow less nutty. Finally, when a director feels the need to explain his cleverness in minute detail (cue flashbacks which turn offhand comments into ironic double entendres) you know the mark has already been missed.

Solomon Kane (UK 2009) (4): A supremely silly movie, director M. J. Bassett’s dark 17th century costume fantasy manages to stumble into just about every narrative pothole the genre has to offer. Yet despite the overripe performances, the swashbuckling clichés, and the derivative CGI gimmickry, her production somehow manages to be more watchable than the sum of its parts would otherwise warrant. High seas brigand Solomon Kane (a comic book James Purefoy) never lets morality get in the way as he butchers and maims all who get between him and whatever treasure he happens to be stealing at the time. But an uncomfortable brush with the Devil himself persuades him to forswear his wicked ways and become a man of peace. Bad timing on his part, for as he piously walks the gardens of the monastery he now calls home a legion of hellish ghouls begin terrorizing England forcing him to once again take up the sword and pistol—especially after a young woman is abducted by demonic minions and her dying father beseeches Kane to rescue her. But the rescue mission will lead to a horrible twist (gasp!) when it brings him face to face with a most uncomfortable chapter from his own past…(double gasp!) Based on a story by Conan the Barbarian creator Robert E. Howard, Bassett’s gothic “horseback & sorcery” tale unashamedly borrows elements from the likes of Stoker, Tolkien, and even Romero’s zombie compendium, with blood and guts to spare and a pedestrian storyline whose surprise revelations can be guessed at long before they arrive to supposedly confound us. Tepid green screens do create a gloomy countryside of crumbling castles and darkling tors however, while the costume/make-up teams do a decent job on unwashed peasants (with perfect teeth), flesh-eating ghouls (with pointed teeth), and black-eyed armies of the possessed (with rotten teeth). And that final confrontation—literally composed of smoke and mirrors—is fun to watch if hardly original. The film’s biggest shock however is that the director managed to snag Max von Sydow and Pete Postlethwaite for supporting roles—and look for a young Rory McCann (Game of Thrones) as a good-guy mercenary. Passable as a stand-alone bit of violent fluff until Bassett, having meticulously set up Solomon Kane as a born-again battler of supernatural wickedness, goes and has the gall to threaten us with a sequel. Thankfully it never materialized.

Sombre (France 1998) (7): Relentlessly arthouse in its presentation, brutally explicit in its execution, Phillipe Grandrieux’s highly experimental film chronicling the disintegration of a serial killer has been dividing audiences and critics alike despite its limited release. Sexually frustrated and deeply disturbed, Jean (Marc Barbé personifying every mother’s nightmare) is in the habit of strangling the women he picks up after subjecting them to increasingly violent foreplay. But his murderous rages are tempered somewhat after he meets stranded motorist Claire and, later, her sister Christine. Repressed and virginal, Claire’s innocence is the direct opposite of Christine’s more open sexuality and that contrast touches a chord in Jean’s troubled mind. Yet as the three begin an awkward interaction we discover Claire may be the most damaged one of all… It is never easy to film the mind of a sociopath from the inside out but Grandrieux gives it his best shot with jagged editing, tumbling handheld camerawork, and a host of darkly fanciful non-sequiturs meant to highlight his dissociation from reality—a theatre of children scream enthusiastically at a scary puppet show, a dance club turns tribal, and frenzied passages of blowing wind and blurred mayhem speak to Jean’s mounting agitation. Even the sexual assaults themselves, while graphic, are strewn with chaotic jump cuts and contradictory moments of pitiful tenderness. Poorly lit throughout and with little attention to continuity—an exact mirror of his protagonist’s mental state—Grandrieux leaves narrative cohesion behind for this film is clearly meant to be a snapshot without explanation. And thus emerges its moral quandary for in Claire’s unexplained willingness to stay with Jean, even after she and her sister are subjected to his true nature, the director presents a woman complicit in her victimhood who needs what her would-be assailant is offering as much as he does. Not to let audiences off the hook entirely however, Grandrieux also throws in a tracking shot of blank-faced pedestrians which speaks directly to the films thorny element of voyeurism. And Little Richard vies with Bauhaus in a background score as erratic as the movie itself. Cinematic art at its most problematic.

Something for Everyone (USA 1970) (9): Handsome drifter Konrad Ludwig (Michael York) breezes into a small Austrian village and immediately sets about ingratiating himself into the home of the Countess von Ornstein (Golden Globe nominee Angela Lansbury), a faded aristocrat now living in the shadow of the once opulent family castle she can no longer afford to keep. Striking up sexual dalliances with both the countess’ teenaged son and the daughter of the boorish yet wealthy city-dwelling Pleschke family, it quickly becomes obvious that behind Konrad’s disarming smile there beats a cold and calculating heart. But his intricate game of social-climbing is not without a few snags however, for Konrad may not be the only player in town… Based on Harry Kressing’s novel, Harold Prince’s darkly satiric fairy tale is so malicious at times it frequently borders on horror. Pitting York’s golden-haired übermensch against the old guard and the new leads to a chain of uncomfortable observations and terribly witty polemics laced with bitterness as Lansbury’s snobbish countess never misses an opportunity to disparage her own peers as well as the nouveau rich Pleshkes. And all the while Hitler’s bleak legacy can still be found lurking in the darkest corners. Knowing when to stick pins in his characters and when to simply let things unfold naturally, Prince gilds his film with so much alpine scenery and Oktoberfest extras that when the final twisted ending arrives the irony is almost too much. Eva Maria Meineke shines garishly as Frau Pleschke and Jane Carr dominates the screen as van Ornstein’s precocious daughter.

Something Wild (USA 1961) (6): On her way home from classes one night college student Mary Ann (Carroll Baker) is dragged into the bushes and raped. Unable to tell a soul, she embarks on a fugue, leaving her comfortable family home and taking up residence in a fleabag tenement building in one of New York’s seedier neighbourhoods. At her wits’ end, she comes very close to ending it only to be rescued by a passerby (Ralph Meeker) who bundles her off to his own meagre one-room flat. But despite his show of compassion “Mike” is not quite the good samaritan he appears to be for he has issues of his own including a crushing loneliness which he tries to drown with nightly liquor binges. Free to stay with her rescuer, but not so free to leave, Mary Ann must reassess where her life is heading… Jack Garfein’s adaptation of Alex Karmel’s novel certainly paints a dreary picture of two disconsolate souls crashing headlong into one another, a mood further enhanced by Eugen Schüfftan’s morose B&W cinematography that makes Manhattan itself appear diseased with garish neon assaulting pedestrians and strewn garbage everywhere. Even Mary Ann’s dreams are similarly poisoned as she envisions herself trapped in a museum, horrified by an oil painting depicting “The Rape of the Sabine Women” while a gaggle of faceless schoolgirls mock her. And Garfein’s supporting cast lend no warmth to his protagonist’s odyssey, from her whiny shrew of a mother (a superb Mildred Dunnock) who judges the world’s woes by how they affect her personally, to fellow tenement resident Shirley (a pre-Edith Jean Stapleton) whose life seems to revolve around men, booze, and loud radios. It’s Baker and Meeker who anchor the movie however, two broken people in an emotionally ambivalent stalemate where the gentlest intentions bespeak violence and blindness—both real and metaphorical—figures prominently. But undeniably powerful performances and a script that refuses to talk down to its audience cannot dispel the film’s dated psychology and that head-scratching epilogue. Whereas romantics may strive to define it as a story about healing, I saw a self-centred alcoholic desperate to find the co-dependent of his dreams in a woman whose PTSD has her confusing Stockholm Syndrome with True Love.

Something Wild (USA 1986) (8): If the cast of Jonathan Demme’s unorthodox rom-com drama were fifteen years younger at the time it could have passed for a John Hughes film, albeit one with an unaccustomed “R” rating. It still succeeds in capturing a slice of 80s zeitgeist however, from the funky-clunky outfits to a perpetual smirk aimed at all things conformist. Uptight New York yuppie Charles Driggs (a suitably dapper Jeff Daniels) limits his “wild side” to the occasional lunch break dine ’n dash. And then he meets edgy, antisocial siren Audrey Hankel (Melanie Griffiths vacillating between Louise Brooks and Marilyn Monroe) who, over the course of the following 48 hours, will introduce him to the liberating kicks of petty crime, kinky adultery, and mental instability as her personas change almost as often as her trendy wardrobe. Posing as his wife, or girlfriend, or mistress depending on the company they’re keeping, Audrey takes a more than willing Charles on a wild ride through the looking glass—until a dangerous secret from her past brings their make-believe dalliance to a screeching halt. But Charles is not without his own secrets, and as the sun begins to rise both parties will have to face a hefty dose of reality. Or pseudo-reality, because not much in Demme’s film actually rings true: no one is really willing to risk their entire future for a bewigged scatterbrain, are they? Then take it as a metaphor alluding to one man’s pre-midlife crisis after a chance meeting with a wild spirit (some might even say “schizoid”) makes him realize he’s been stuck in a rut he never knew existed. The Manhattan locations—including those prominent Twin Towers—are pure urban chic; the soulful soundtrack of reggae, 80s tunes, and David Byrne capture the mood; and Griffith’s fashion show runs the gamut from Afro-Caribbean punk to Dior rip-off to prom queen Gidget. Perhaps the trappings have been rendered quaintly retro, but the underlying message of dissatisfaction with the status quo especially when life is so short should still resonate with a new generation. Ray Liotta is perfectly cast as an unhinged ex-con, and both John Sayles and John Waters make surprise cameos.

Sometimes a Great Notion (USA 1979) (8): The Stamper family have been logging their stretch of the Oregon wilderness for generations and they are not about to let an industry strike keep them from working—a fact which puts them at odds with their unionized neighbours who are feeling the economic pinch. But pigheaded patriarch Henry (Henry Fonda) doesn’t know when to quit and when to compromise, a stubborn streak he has passed on to his son Hank (Paul Newman) and nephew Joe (Oscar nominee Richard Jaeckel). As the logging season begins to wind down and resentment among the unemployed townsfolk threatens to boil over into violence the Stamper’s face yet another stressor when youngest son and black sheep Leeland (Michael Sarrazin), whom Henry sired with a former mistress, returns to settle a few scores of his own. With conflicts mounting both inside and outside the Stamper homestead you just know tragedy is in the air, but when it finally arrives it doesn’t quite come from the direction you expect. Despite some right-of-centre politicking (rogue independents good, unionized labour bad) director Paul Newman has produced a fine family saga worthy of the big screen and he is helped in large part by cinematographer Richard Moore’s grand Pacific Northwest vistas and a cast of top notch actors not the least of which is Lee Remick as Hank’s quietly dissatisfied wife, a woman whose own restlessness is amplified by Leeland’s sudden appearance. Big, boisterous, and boasting one of cinema’s more colourfully macabre endings, this is a fine story well told. A word of caution to environmentalists however—many trees get injured.

Son Frère (France 2003) (5): Despite having had nothing to do with each other for years, estranged brothers Luc and Thomas do share one thing in common; they both have issues with trust and abandonment. The gruff and taciturn Thomas tends to keep people at arm’s length, including his own family, while the younger, more sensitive Luc is still coming to terms with being gay. It comes as no surprise then that when a pale and sickly Thomas suddenly shows up on the steps of Luc’s Parisian apartment claiming he has a fatal illness and looking for some brotherly comforting he doesn’t quite get the warm embrace he was yearning for. In fact Thomas’ unnamed malady incites a string of emotional showdowns with everyone patiently awaiting their turn to have a go at him as he lolls about on various deathbeds, from his neurotic parents and weary girlfriend to Luc’s overly virtuous (and perpetually unclothed) boyfriend. But the biggest sparks fly between the two brothers themselves for they have a lifetime of resentments to settle before Thomas draws his last pitiful breath. Family battlegrounds make for some gripping cinema, but in the hands of director Patrice Chéreau we’re served up a maudlin and manipulative tearjerker instead. Aside from some painfully realistic medical scenes (with only one glaring faux pas) little else rings true. The characters’ emotional responses seem fabricated and fit together a little too conveniently while some symbolic banter about the sea goes on way too long and a dream sequence in which the brothers exchange roles borders on the ridiculous. There are a few choice lines about the fragility of family ties which struck a personal chord in me, and the film’s closing scenes do give an impression of what a good movie this could have been with proper directing and a few script rewrites. By going for the emotional jugular Chéreau delivers a tearful head-butt with an ending too weak to justify it. But Marianne Faithfull’s throaty rendition of “Sleep” was magnificent.

Song at Midnight (China 1937) (6): Teeming with misty moonlight and revolutionary rhetoric, this early Chinese take on The Phantom of the Opera plays like a communist infomercial that thinks it’s a gothic romance. Song Daping is a promising young actor whose socialist ideologies gets him in trouble with the local capitalist landowner. But when he starts seeing the man’s lovestruck daughter, Xiaoxia, her father has him sprayed with nitric acid. Horribly disfigured, Daping retreats to the attic of the local theatre while Xioxia, believing him dead, goes mad with grief. Still deeply in love with the now insane young woman, Daping eases her fevered mind by serenading her with a “song at midnight” whenever the moon is full. Not content to be so cruelly separated from his sweetheart, Daping sees an opportunity when a visiting troupe of actors take temporary residence in the decaying old theatre. Can he convince Ou, the company’s promising young male lead, to take his place in Xiaoxa’s life and become her suitor? There are many drawbacks to this film; choppy editing, quirky subtitles and unreliable sound quality to name a few, although some of these may be the effects of age on the original film stock. Furthermore, the exaggerated performances and shadowy atmosphere would probably fare better in a silent film while the odd snatches of classical music seem out of place. There is a dead earnestness to the production, however, and I soon found myself warming to its Chinese Opera aesthetic where passionate young lovers solemnly pose against painted dawns and nights are dark and stormy indeed. Director Weibang presents us with a kinder, gentler phantom whose motivations spring more from love (and Party ideals) than revenge which causes me to disagree with other critics who cite Song at Midnight as being China’s first “horror” film. Despite it’s occasional awkward moments it remains a fine example of cinematic excess in the grand tradition.

A Song for Martin (Sweden 2001) (6): In much the same vein as Michael Haneke’s Amour, writer/director Bille August explores the effects of dementia on a marriage. But whereas Haneke kept his characters at a clinical distance, preferring to let the story progress under its own momentum, August seems compelled to poke and prod us into a reaction every step of the way. Famous composer and conductor Martin and first violinist Barbara fall in love (truly madly deeply in love according to August’s heavy hand) and after groping each other in a hotel room waste no time in divorcing their respective spouses much to the theatrical dismay of Barbara’s adult children—she makes the happy announcement just five days before Christmas as if to twist the knife an extra turn. In the next frame they are cavorting on their Mediterranean honeymoon like a pair of horny teenagers with only a tearjerking background score played in a minor key to remind us that we are being set up for heartbreak. And so it comes after a few frightening bouts of memory loss and confusion lead to Martin’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease which sees the couple’s jolly relationship turn into a harrowing nightmare. In the role of Martin, Sven Wolter puts in a bravura performance as he slowly descends from a gifted artist and loving husband to a shuffling, incontinent stranger in his own home—his blank eyes and furrowed brow offering a glimpse into the mental horrors he’s suffering. Viveka Seldahl’s turn as Barbara starts out convincing enough as she struggles to cope with Martin’s worsening condition first by lovingly ignoring the symptoms and covering up for him, then expressing anger and resentment as she sees all those dreams of wedded bliss slipping between her fingers. It’s when her character morphs into a perpetually burning martyr constantly throwing herself onto the pyre that things go from sympathetic to irritating, especially when she and Martin start making spectacles of themselves at one public outing after another. And then the final reel arrives and August ramps up the pathos even further with Barbara’s anguish turning into a heroine’s resolve while the orchestra gushes. What started out with such promise—the couple’s early desperate attempts to stay connected were beautifully done—spirals into a wide screen soap opera that diminishes any impact it may have had. At most it should get people talking and that alone may be worth the rental fee.

Song of the Sea (Ireland 2014) (8): Ben leads an idyllic existence on a grassy island with his lighthouse keeper father and six-year old sister Saoirse (pronounced “SEER-see”) not to mention Cú his big shaggy sheepdog. Sadly, his relationship with Saoirse has always been strained for his mother passed away the night she was born and he’s blamed her for that ever since. Dark-haired and frail, Saoirse has never spoken a word in her short life but her steady gaze suggests a deeper wisdom which seems to be closely connected to the sea that surrounds her home. But when she wanders off one night and is later found soaking wet and nearly dead from cold by the water’s edge Ben’s grandmother insists on taking the two children to her home in the city; a decision Ben’s dad reluctantly, even mysteriously, agrees with. It’s while staying with grandma however that Ben first begins to realize there is more to his little sister than he first suspected especially after she is abducted first by a trio of urban sprites, and then by a darker supernatural force intent on quashing her nascent powers forever. Intent on rescuing Saoirse, Ben embarks on a perilous journey which will take him from contemporary Ireland right to the very heart of Irish mythology. Unfolding like a series of beautifully childlike watercolours, writer/director Tomm Moore’s animated feature mixes adult themes of grief and loss with a whimsical fairy tale innocence steeped in Celtic folklore. The result is an enchanting bit of cinema that holds its own with the best of Studio Ghibli—keeping the very young in their seats and the not-so young smiling nostalgically. And a soundtrack of Gaelic lullabies and folk songs complement the film’s more fantastical elements perfectly. Its Oscar nomination was more than deserved.

So Proudly We Hail! (USA 1943) (9): Having survived the Japanese invasion of Bataan in the South Pacific, a group of bone weary army nurses are en route back to America when they begin to reminisce about their experiences. Despite the gruelling hours caring for thousands of injured soldiers, and the ever present horrors and deprivations of war, the women still managed to find a bit of humour, a few brushes with love and heartbreak, and a hundred everyday opportunities to display their bravery and valour. Filmed not long after Pearl Harbour and just a few years before Hiroshima, Mark Sandrich’s small epic is surprisingly free of the apple pie patriotism one usually sees in movies of this genre. Although it does lean unapologetically towards the Stars ’n Stripes (and rightly so) the occasional sermons—whether delivered by a pacifist chaplain or exasperated caregiver—are more concerned with the pursuit of peace and, if you listen between the lines, a condemnation of war itself. In addition to this forward thinking the film’s focus on the enlisted women who served at the bedside was refreshing in that it told their stories without the brandishing of weapons or storming of hills—for there is no greater antithesis to combat than caring for the dying and the injured, regardless of what side they’re on. And what a cast! Headliners Claudette Colbert stars as an RN driven to near catatonia by too many tragedies; Oscar nominee (Best Supporting Actress) Paulette Goddard shines as a man-crazy nurse who can’t recognize Mr. Right when he finally appears; and Veronica Lake (showing full face for a change) is intense as an embittered woman whose hatred for the enemy becomes dangerously personal. George Reeves and Sonny Tufts add a bit of beefcake as the love interests, and veteran performer Mary Servos commands the screen as a no-nonsense matron whose hard shell barely conceals the softest of hearts. But it is the Academy Award-nominated cinematography and special effects teams which prove to be the biggest revelations. Turning southern California into a Philippine stronghold is the least of their accomplishments as they set the screen on fire with a couple of aerial bombardment sequences so terribly realistic they’ll set your teeth on edge. And unlike the usual glut of propaganda films from this time period Sandrich does not shy away from the brutality of armed conflict whether it be a horrified young pilot agonizing over his amputated legs or corpses sprawled about an ambushed jeep. A tough and beautiful film about a segment of the war effort too often skimmed over, and a bit of healthcare history that makes me proud to be…Nurse Bob.

Sorcerer (USA 1977) (8): Four desperate men on the run—a terrorist, an embezzler, a thief, and an assassin—find themselves hiding out in the same dirty South American backwater working on a gas well for slave wages. With no chance of ever being able to earn enough money to leave their wretched surroundings the men settle into a daily routine of hopelessness and despair. But when salvation presents itself in the form of a dangerous assignment, they practically leap at the chance. In order to cap a raging gas fire the oil company needs four men to transport a cache of unstable nitroglycerine aboard a pair of ramshackle trucks across two hundred miles of primitive roads in exchange for permanent citizenship and forty thousand in local currency to be shared equally among whoever survives. What starts out as a potential suicide mission however slowly takes on deeper spiritual overtones as the men are forced to deal with their own innate character flaws while navigating a terrain teeming with infernal metaphors from treacherous bridges and bottomless gorges to swamps, jungles, and howling tempests. And all the while images of winged observers, be it a circling condor, a corporate logo, or a native petroglyph, keep watch over their plight with cold detachment. William Friedkin’s painstakingly rendered odyssey, part thriller part quasi-religious allegory (he claims the title refers to the fickle god of fate, I sense something more diabolical), takes Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear and updates it with some spectacular special effects…a trek across a decaying suspension bridge actually had me holding my breath. His international cast, though not headliners in their own right, quickly develop an onscreen synergy making Sorcerer one helluva road trip with a darkly ironic final destination. And a synthesized soundtrack by German techno group Tangerine Dream imbues the onscreen action with just the right amount of mysticism.

Sounder (USA 1972) (7): In the backwoods of depression-era Louisiana, sharecropper Nathan Lee Morgan and his wife Rebecca (Paul Winfield, Cicely Tyson) are barely managing to keep their three children clothed and fed. So when Nathan Lee ends up in jail on a trumped up charge it falls to eldest son David Lee (Kevin Hooks) to take his place as man of the house. But David is nursing a few dreams of his own, born out of school lessons and book reading, dreams he is not even aware of until he meets a charismatic young teacher. In a movie concerning an impoverished black family living in the old South day-to-day racism is pretty much a given, but in director Martin Ritt’s adaptation of William H. Armstrong's novel the bigotry is little more than background noise for this is not a film about oppression but rather personal liberation and the unbreakable bonds that exist within families. Taking its name from the Morgan’s old hound dog who somehow manages to bounce back no matter what happens to him, Ritt’s camera follows David Lee’s slow transition from cowed young boy to perceptive adolescent whose exposure to society’s double standards and everyday indignities cause his jaw to be set a little firmer, his gaze to become a little more penetrating. Whether he’s grappling with a copy of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers or undertaking a cross country trek to find the prison camp where his father is incarcerated (“coloured folk” weren’t allowed to know where their family members were being kept) David Lee’s various struggles toward adulthood are as much existential as they are physical. But it’s not about victimhood for the Morgans are a strong, resilient family able to counter hardship with love, determination, and a bit of humour. Nor are the white characters portrayed as slobbering bigots—for while the town sheriff is psychologically unable to see beyond Jim Crow (a sad statement in itself), a respectable widow risks public disgrace and legal ramifications when she overcomes her own innate racism in order to offer the Morgans a helping hand. Winfield and Tyson shared Best Actor/Actress Oscar nominations playing the unbreakable parents—his bigger than life father figure intent on seeing his children get a better life; she embodying dignity and grace with little more than rags and resolve—14-year old Hooks imbues David Lee with a wisdom beyond his years, and composer Taj Mahal entertains as an easygoing neighbour with a guitar. Rounding out the film’s four Academy Award nominations were ones for Best Picture and Best Screenplay.

Sound of Noise (Sweden 2010) (5): Contemptuous of the piped muzak and bland recitals that pass for musical entertainment, a group of guerrilla percussionists decide to stage their own production of “Music for One City and Six Drummers”—a series of impromptu concerts combining avant-garde performance art with public vandalism. Using everything from the unconscious body of a kidnapped anchorman to a bank vault full of crisp Euros to generate their discordant beats, the renegade musicians cause an increasing stir amongst the usually sedate inhabitants of Malmö. Tone-deaf police detective Amadeus (haha!) Warnebring is assigned to the case but the closer he gets to nabbing the musical anarchists the more he realizes their tactics could actually aid him in fulfilling his own music-hating agenda… With dull conformity coming up against artistic narcissism, Sound of Noise