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

~ ~ ~ ~

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!

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.

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!

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 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.

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 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!

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 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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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 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.

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 involving black magic and an old abandoned mine. 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.

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?!)

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!

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 the woman is merely conspiring with the older man to help him obtain the object of his desire and that he, in turn, is not forthcoming about his HIV status. 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.

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!

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.

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. On the eve of prom night Blane gets cold feet, Andie is heartbroken, and Duckie does what best friends are supposed to do. 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.

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 Russian’s verbal sparring little more than jock talk and a series of sad twists never really digging beneath the film’s surface.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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 Thompson 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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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 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 whispers of murder only Agga holds the truth for she believes she’s seen evil in Freyja’s seductive eyes and 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.

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 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 a screen icon and not 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 which 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 mournful, 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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 to him.  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 while  his benevolent captors, who have a very different concept of joy and pain, urge him to mate with a fellow abductee.  Pilgrim’s attempt to impart his newfound alien philosophy to a planet full of fellow Earthlings proves disastrous.  It appears that prejudice, hatred and blind revenge are obstacles that may be too strong for mankind to overcome. Decent performances and kitschy special effects are buoyed by a literate script.

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.

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!

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 animated film 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 is ostensibly a social comedy. Images of heavily armed SWAT teams rounding up street musicians as if they were terrorists and Warnebring’s selective deafness cancelling out anything he doesn’t want to hear would certainly point in that direction. But the humour is too broad and the satirical digs too clumsy to elicit more than a few opening chuckles before it all falls flat. Sometimes silence really is golden.

Source Code (USA 2011) (5): Army helicopter pilot Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes up in the body of a strange man who is riding a Chicago commuter train about to be blown up as part of a terrorism plot. But when the explosion comes he discovers he’s actually part of a military experiment in time-alteration with the ability to put him back aboard the ill-fated train again and again until he finds the identity of the bomber—and he’s only allotted eight minutes at a time to do so. Uncertain of how he got to be in this situation and with a million unanswered questions weighing on his shoulders Colter follows his own trail of clues and the answers he uncovers are unsettling to say the least. A little bit of Die Hard and a whole lot of Groundhog Day make Duncan Jones’ second foray into science fiction (after the much lauded Moon with Sam Rockwell) a somewhat engaging Chinese puzzle of a film—how do you solve a crime that hasn’t happened yet when you have to re-live the same brief stretch of time repeatedly? But the techie explanations are shoddy at best rendering everything more fantasy than science and a repetitive love story (he only has eight minutes per mission to woo the doomed woman in the seat across from him) add an unnecessary chick flick element to what is ultimately a Search & Destroy thriller. And not a very good one at that. Gyllenhaal acts as if someone just woke him up from a deep sleep and object of desire Michelle Monaghan seems content to simply watch the passing scenery. Only Vera Farmiga, playing a mission controller with a conscience, adds a degree of credibility when her starched military demeanour gives way to compassionate concern but she isn’t given nearly enough lines. “Change The Past. Save The Future” reads the movie’s tagline—better to change your mind and save your money instead.

Soylent Green (USA 1973) (8): One of the great overlooked films to come out of the 70’s, Richard Fleishcer’s darkly pessimistic sci-fi thriller, based on Harry Harrison’s book, plays out like yesterday’s headlines. New York City circa 2022 is a crumbling home to forty million people, half of whom are unemployed and living in whatever alley or stairwell they can find while the rich look down from their luxury towers. In this overcrowded world of polluted resources and global warming the temperature never dips below sweltering, strict rationing ensures that food riots are commonplace, and euthanasia centres are run like day spas for the disenfranchised (perhaps the film’s most poignant passage). Only the Soylent Corporation, maker of the plant and algae-based foodstuff soylent green, is able to keep mass starvation at bay. But when William Simonson, one of its top board members, is found bludgeoned to death police detective Thorn (a blustering Charlton Heston) and his sidekick Sol (a heartbreaking final performance by Edward G. Robinson who died of cancer ten days after filming ended) suspect there is more to this homicide than the evidence would suggest—suspicions that are confirmed when their ongoing investigation is met with deadly resistance. Stubbornly following his leads Thorn manoeuvres his way through a web of political and corporate corruption until he solves Simonson’s murder and in so doing uncovers a conspiracy too horrible to believe. Imaginative set designs utilize elements of 70s chic and urban decay to invoke a retro futuristic look where rotting tenements guarded by armed landlords house the teeming masses and lavish penthouses are adorned with garish mobiles and faux fur sofas, not to mention larders filled with such astronomically priced delicacies as beef and celery. Gleaned from the pages of Harrison’s novel, Fleischer envisions a cold mechanistic society where unruly crowds are dispersed with bulldozers and corporations have become the new gods. Not a pretty future in 1973 and uncomfortably familiar in 2015.

Spartacus (USA 1960) (5): Executive Producer Kirk Douglas’ pet project—a 3+ hour epic revolving around the ringleader of a first century BCE Roman slave revolt—was doomed to be an epic mess from the beginning. For one thing, despite their onscreen presence, stars Laurence Olivier and Charles Laughton hated each other in real life and most everyone else put in abysmal performances including Douglas who merely parodied himself in the lead role and his love interest Jean Simmons who played a slave girl impersonating an English school matron (Peter Ustinov did deserve his Supporting Actor Oscar however as the pampered owner of a gladiatorial training camp). Tony Curtis, who brought his Bronx accent to the role of houseboy Antoninus, reportedly demanded to know who he had to fuck in order to get out of the picture. Then there’s blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo’s politically charged script which was accused of being commie propaganda by the ironically titled “League of Decency”, a crass musical score more suited for a rip-roaring Western, and Douglas’ ongoing hissy fits with cast and crew—Stanley Kubrick took over the reins from ousted director Anthony Mann but he’s there in name only for the finished piece bears none of his signature artistry. Historically inaccurate and falling prey to every syrupy Hollywood ploy from soft-focused schmaltz to the now famous “inspirational” scene where a mob of slaves proudly proclaim “I AM SPARTACUS!” to the Roman interrogators eager to identify him for execution, this restored version can only boast an epic battle sequence containing all the gory bits originally censored out and an oh-so subtle attempt at gay seduction between Olivier and Curtis which had also been excised. And this won four Academy Awards (and two more nominations) as well as a place on numerous “Must See” lists? Oh Spartacus…

Spellbound (USA 1945) (6): Resident psychiatrist Constance Petersen finds her cold heart warming to Dr. Edwardes, the new head of Green Manors sanitarium—-in fact, after a single afternoon’s stroll the two fall hopelessly in love. Sadly, Constance quickly discovers that Edwardes is not only harbouring a dark secret, but he may not even be the man he claims to be…if only he could remember. Suddenly finding herself involved in a murder investigation (did he or didn’t he?) a lovestruck Petersen flees to New York with her amnesiac lover in the hopes of unlocking his memories and clearing his name before the police dragnet closes in… Hitchcock’s stylish whodunit was touted as the first serious “psychoanalytical” film upon its initial release, by today’s standards however its mental health slant comes across as so much naïve psycho-gibberish, although a dream sequence designed by surrealist Salvador Dali serves up a visual treat while a colourful patient session with a sexually repressed man-hater adds a little spice. Furthermore the film’s subtle sexism (“Women make the best psychoanalysts until they fall in love. After that they make the best patients”) becomes annoying real fast. Hitchcock’s signature flair for pairing rousing orchestral scores with eye-catching cinematography is evident throughout but too many outrageous twists and gimmicks involving ski slopes, dream interpretation, and a giant papier-mâché hand push the envelope past credibility and towards the ludicrous. If it were not for the star power of leads Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck I would give this one a pass.

The Spiderwick Chronicles (USA 2007) (6): Still smarting from a messy divorce, Helen Grace packs up her three kids and moves into the old family estate left vacant after crazy aunt Lucinda was committed for telling too many tall tales regarding her encounters with supernatural creatures; creatures she insists abducted her father 80 years earlier. At first the Grace kids view their musty new surroundings with varying degrees of resignation until a series of odd occurrences lead to the discovery of a most unusual book which sparks a battle royale between the little folk living on the Spiderwick estate and the despotic ogre residing in the nearby woods with his army of toad-like minions. For the book, compiled by Aunt Lucinda’s late father, contains some dangerous information and powerful spells which could devastate all life on earth, mortal and mystical alike, should they fall into the wrong hands (or claws, as it were). Filled with flowery fairies, rhyming brownies and drooling goblins in pirate drag, all carrying the prerequisite Harry Potter-like names of course (Thimbletack, meet Hogsqueal) this is at best a lukewarm serving of the “children’s fantasy” genre. The CGI effects are passable, the acting less so, and a rather bland script keeps any sense of peril, or wonder, consistently dampened for the single-digit crowd. Not a total waste of time, but with the likes of Joan Plowright and Nick Nolte I expected so much more.

The Spiral Staircase (USA 1945) (7): A serial killer is stalking a quaint New England town circa 1900 and he’s targeting women with physical or mental disabilities. Bad news for Helen, the mute live-in caregiver of Mrs. Warren (Oscar-nominated Ethyl Barrymore) the cantankerous bedridden matriarch of the Warren estate, for the murderer has followed her home with the intention of making her his next victim. But who could it be? Professor Warren, the old woman’s somewhat stuffy son? Steve, his playboy brother whose rare visits always seem to spell trouble? Oates, the gruff and taciturn groundskeeper who likes to skulk about in the rain? Or could it be someone else entirely? And why is Mrs. Warren so desperate to have Helen leave the house that very night? With a violent storm brewing and gas lamps flickering Helen finds herself in a deadly game of cat and mouse—and she can’t even scream for help. Taking place inside a gloomy old mansion with the killer’s wild bloodshot eye glaring out of darkened corners (an ocular cameo from director Robert Siodmak) and the eponymous staircase twisting crazily from shadowy basement to candlelit upper floors, The Spiral Staircase is an effective combination of gothic horror and film noir menace. An opening murder, reflected in the madman’s eye, almost seems like a macabre dance between stalker and victim—an unsettling effect revisited towards the end without losing any of its initial punch. Lead actress Dorothy McGuire proves that actions can speaker louder than words as her silent character goes from coy grins to wide-eyed terror and an impressive supporting cast including Elsa Lanchester as a boozy maid and Kent Smith as the family doctor and Helen’s love interest provide some welcome relief from the mounting tension. But it is Ethyl Barrymore’s turn as the crusty Mrs. Warren which grounds the film and provides some much needed dramatic depth. Pretty much predictable before you even reach the midway point, but it all unfolds with a cruel zeal that’s still fun to watch seventy years later.

The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water (USA 2015) (5): Based on the Nickelodeon program created by marine biologist Stephen Hellenburg this latest animated endeavour features all the kooky cartoon characters from SpongeBob SquarePants (yep, he’s a kitchen sponge who wears boxed shorts) in a new adventure above and below the surf line. The underwater town of Bikini Bottom is thrown into post-apocalyptic turmoil when the secret formula for their highly addictive Krabby Patty Burgers is stolen by the pint-sized one-eyed super villain Plankton. But hare-brained burger flipper SpongeBob suspects there is more to the recipe’s disappearance than people suspect so, along with a reluctant Plankton, he embarks upon a series of whacky exploits which will take him and his fishy posse from the Pacific basin to the far reaches of Outer Space with real-life stops in Hawaii and southern Georgia along the way. I must admit to not being a fan of the original series and seeing this big screen treatment hasn’t changed my mind much. The colourful animation does have a retro Polynesian feel to it with flower patterns and tacky trunks but the perpetually unhinged characters (including a morose squid, capitalist crab, and demented squirrel in a diving bell) grate after a while. Even a couple of anemic nods to Mad Max and The Shining, some thinly veiled drug references, and a fully fleshed Antonio Banderas in ridiculous pirate drag can’t stop the production from looking like Pee Wee’s Playhouse with all of the hysteria but very few laughs. Some things just belong on cable.

Spotlight (USA 2015) (9): In the same style as All the President’s Men, Tom McCarthy’s true-to-life journalism thriller follows the events leading up to one of the biggest scandals the Catholic church has ever had to hush up. When a crack team of reporters for The Boston Globe newspaper decide to revisit an old story regarding a pedophile priest, they are not prepared for the startling revelations which follow. As they probe deeper into the story—interviewing victims, ex-priests, and evasive lawyers, as well as dredging up old files—a picture begins to emerge of widespread sexual impropriety involving dozens of priests going back decades and an even bigger cover-up orchestrated by forces both religious and secular. Garnering Oscar wins for Best Picture and Screenplay as well as three more nominations including Best Supporting performances for Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo, both playing reporters, McCarthy’s angry exposé starts off slowly with a flashback to 1976 then gradually builds momentum until the final round of accusations and condemnations. A taut and perfectly paced drama with a dream cast that also includes Michael Keaton as the lead investigator, Liev Schreiber as the paper’s new editor-in-chief, and Stanley Tucci as the only lawyer in town willing to go up against the archdiocese. Winnipeg-born Len Cariou also puts in a fine performance as a crooked cardinal while Billy Crudup becomes the embodiment of a slippery defense lawyer. The tales of abuse are pitiful but the resultant trail of lies and official shirking are infuriating especially after one weary character sums it up with, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to molest him.” And the fact that it really happened (and continues to happen around the world) makes you want to whip a brick through a stained glass window.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring (Korea 2003) (7): Although framed by the passing seasons, the title of Kim Ki-Duk’s low-key Buddhist parable refers more to the seasons of man. In “Spring” we find an elderly monk living on a floating shrine in the middle of a lake along with his young acolyte, a boy of seven or eight. Their long tranquil days are spent in prayerful meditation, religious instruction and gathering medicinal herbs from the surrounding forest. In Summer the arrival of a beautiful young pilgrim introduces the disciple, now a robust adolescent, to worldly temptations sparking a difficult journey through the next two seasons. The film is certainly pleasing to look at with sweeping views of lake, forest and mountains; its highly formalized structure more scripture than script. There is an uncluttered beauty to its simple sets and spartan dialogue, with freestanding doorways and humble statuary figuring prominently. Alas, Kim occasionally takes religious imagery to some ponderous, even silly, extremes which threatens to turn the entire “circle of life” theme into something superficial and contrived. Between the monk’s rotating menagerie of pets which had me googling “Buddhist Symbolism” for over an hour, and the disciple’s anguished emoting, the film began to feel more like a karmic soap opera rather than the spiritual metaphor it was clearly meant to be. Richly detailed nonetheless with a satisfying, if somewhat strained, conclusion.

SS Hell Camp (Italy 1977) (2): Is there nothing those zany nazis won’t do in the name of world domination? Batzella’s shameless sexploitation flick follows the escapades of the aggressively bisexual Dr. Ellen Kratsch, looking like a particularly nasty Lufthansa stewardess, and her two jaded assistants. When she’s not perfecting her serum which turns men into big lumbering rape machines, Ellen moonlights as an SS interrogator who terrorizes male members of the Italian resistance with an odd combination of improvised lap dancing and castration while their women are subjected to some extreme indignities involving flaming trash cans, jumper cables, and a pair of ravenous guinea pigs. Will the surviving partisans triumph in the end? Will Dr. Kratsch get what’s coming to her? Will the hairy man-beast ever realize that oral sex doesn’t involve a knife and fork? This is a truly awful movie that looks as if it were filmed in someone’s backyard with a few loops of stock war footage tacked on for good measure. The dubbing is unusually atrocious with the “Italian” underground speaking in accents that range from a clipped British staccato to a slow southern drawl, and the action sequences are so amateurish you almost expect to hear a laugh track in the background. In fact, remove the film’s more contentious scenes and you are left with a terribly mediocre story that’s not even good enough for late night cable. There are some very entertaining entries in the “sex and swastikas” sub-genre of film but this is definitely not one of them.

The Stanford Prison Experiment (USA 2015) (9): In the summer of 1971 Stanford psychology professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo launched one of that university’s most controversial social experiments. Turning the upper levels of an empty school building into a makeshift “jail” complete with cells and solitary confinement, he recruited two dozen campus volunteers and arbitrarily divided them into “prisoners” and “guards”. Starting with a mock arrest, the prisoners were strip searched, assigned a serial number instead of their name, and forced to wear demeaning uniforms while the guards were issued sunglasses, batons, and official outfits. The guards were also given complete control over the prisoners with full impunity to do as they pleased (within the parameters of a pre-signed contract). Designed as a two-week study on the psychology of authority and submission, the experiment ran into trouble within forty-eight hours as both groups began to internalize their roles and initial playacting turned into something dangerously real. Meanwhile Zimbardo and his assistants watched things unfold through video cameras and microphones, unaware that their passivity had made them part of the experiment itself. Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez and his top-notch cast deliver intense performances which lend Tim Talbot’s already biting screenplay an air of authenticity. What starts out as an almost comical piece, complete with tacky 70’s hair and stoned expressions, quickly spirals down into unsettling passages of brutality and humiliation where the occasional naïve quip elicits more pity than humour. It is Billy Crudup’s turn as Zimbardo however that proves to be the most chilling as he stares godlike through his hidden lens. Convinced that his grand experiment will change the world, his academic narcissism temporarily blinds him to the fact that there is a difference between people and lab rats. Engrossing and infuriating, yet there is no denying that Zimbardo’s work shone an uncomfortable light into the darker recesses of the human psyche—a topic on which he continues to lecture.

Stardust (UK 2007) (7): The tiny English village of Wall holds a rather unusual secret. Just beyond the surrounding forest there stretches a low stone wall separating England from the magical realm of Stormhold, and a small closely guarded breach in that wall provides the only gateway between the two worlds. When English teenager Tristan Thorn observes a falling star landing just beyond the wall he decides to enter Stormhold in order to procure it and thus impress Victoria, the aloof object of his adolescent infatuation. But he is not the only one searching for the celestial object—now transformed into a sparkly Claire Danes—for a trio of evil sorceresses want to eat her heart which has the power to grant immortality and a quartet of ruthless princes need the enchanted jewel she wears around her neck before they can lay claim to the throne of Stormhold left vacant by their recently deceased father. Luckily Tristan finds the somewhat argumentative twinkler first and although the two share an initial animosity a series of close calls and deadly encounters, including a brief sojourn aboard a flying pirate ship, will turn their hostilities into something completely expected for anyone who grew up reading fairy tales…especially after Tristan’s unique pedigree is revealed. Based on Neil Gaiman’s book, Matthew Vaughn’s swashbuckling fantasy succeeds for the most part despite Robert De Niro being horribly miscast as a sissy pirate captain—egads! To be fair though Ricky Gervais’ hilariously improvised turn as a crooked shopkeeper more than makes up for it. The swords and sorcery special effects are nothing new, we’ve seen them in countless other forays into the genre, but they are played out with such zeal it’s like having a storybook come to life with an airborne galleon sailing through a thunderstorm and a wicked Michelle Pfeiffer in hag drag shooting green lightning out of her fingertips. Definitely not for the kiddies—animals are gutted and throats are slit while a chorus of disfigured spirits keeps score—but if you like a little meat to go with your Hocus Pocus and Princess Bride you could do worse.

Stardust Memories (USA 1980) (9): After critics slammed his attempt to emulate Bergman in 1978’s Interiors, Woody Allen shot back with this fantastical and highly kinetic ersatz Fellini about a filmmaker on the verge of a nervous breakdown, appropriately presented in washed out shades of black and white. While reluctantly attending a retrospective of his movies at the Stardust Motel, famed comedian turned director Sandy Bates (guess who!) daydreams about his childhood as a gifted magician and the various lovers who have served as muses throughout his career, especially the intense and psychologically labile Dorrie (a stunning Charlotte Rampling) and the glamorous French siren Isobel (Marie-Christine Barrault). As these reveries intrude into his everyday life Bates finds himself lost amidst a surreal crush of sycophants and wannabes, medicated divas and pedestrian producers, snobbish critics and intellectual boors, all of whom begin to blur the line between reality and the films being screened. A ruthlessly intelligent script is enhanced by some striking visuals—enlarged photographs suddenly appear on Sandy’s walls to lend subtext; a giant gorilla carries off a particularly annoying fan—and the swirling mob of jabbering extras that constantly surround him deliver a nonstop verbal assault of praise and criticism. Although Allen vehemently denied claims that Stardust Memories was in any way autobiographical, his disdain for cinema culture in general and critics in particular is evident throughout especially when the paparazzi, puzzled by Bates’ attempts at “serious filmmaking”, keep harping on his earlier, funnier work—“What do you think the Rolls Royce represented?” asks one confused moviegoer upon exiting the theatre, “I think that represented his car” chimes her equally confused date. Self-indulgent, sarcastic, brilliant, and (irony of ironies) very funny.

Stargate (USA 1994) (4): In 1928 archaeologists make a baffling discovery while excavating an Egyptian tomb—a giant ring made of some unknown metal and covered in cryptic symbols which has lain under the sand for thousands of years. Cut to 1994 and crack Egyptologist Daniel Jackson (a stunned James Spader in it for the money) is suddenly drafted by the US military to work on a top secret project. The mysterious ring, it turns out, is a gateway leading to other worlds and Jackson is needed to translate the instructions. Accompanied by a squad of marines under the leadership of Colonel Jack O’Neill (a monotone Kurt Rusself looking sexy-stupid in a ginger brush cut) Jackson passes through the newly restored stargate where he finds himself trapped on a remote planet of serfs ruled by a malevolent E.T. and his flying pyramid (The Crying Game’s Jaye Davidson looking like a cross between Miss Clairol and Emperor Ming with a muddled synthesized voice to boot). Will the troops be able to thwart E.T. before his nefarious plans also include the Earth? Will Jackson be able to unravel the final secret of the stargate before it’s too late? Will Davidson wear the same gaudy outfit twice? Yawn. A bargain bin assortment of special effects and tacky faux Egyptian flourishes don’t add up to much in Roland Emmerich’s flatline sci-fi “epic” despite its overbearing orchestral score and rousing pans of cheering aliens (many of whom were actually mannequins due to budgetary woes). His cast mouth their lines while trying not to look embarrassed and his plot, though painstakingly laid out as if aimed at an audience of imbeciles, is still clumsy and paper-thin. Ponderous and nowhere near as clever as its television spin-off, it all boils down to the usual shootouts and derring-do played out amongst southern California’s sand dunes which at least afford a bit of pretty scenery.

A Star is Born  (USA 1976) (2):  Truly one of the great bad movies from the 70's. With its cornball script and awful soundtrack (I've heard supermarket muzak with more energy) it never misses an opportunity to appall. Streisand delivers her lines as if she were the only person in the room and Kristofferson just looks bored. Mind you, anyone who could actually do a passionate love scene with Babs without losing his lunch deserves not only an Oscar but a purple heart as well. Yecch!

Star Trek (USA 2009) (10): Starting a few years before the beginning of the original series, this prequel of sorts follows all the old familiar faces back when they were just starting their careers and before they became established as the crew of the newly christened Enterprise. As our story opens, Starfleet is under attack by an unknown Romulan super-ship bent on destroying every planet of the Federation for some unknown reason. Among the young officers drafted into emergency duty are a rebellious James Kirk, an uncharacteristically emotional Mr. Spock and a smoking hot Uhura…later joined by one Dr. McCoy and engineer extraordinaire Montgomery Scott. In a wonderfully convoluted story involving time travel and revenge, Abrams burns up the screen with some very impressive effects while at the same time paying equal attention to the little details that had fans laughing and cheering; whether it was Spock’s upturned eyebrow or McCoy’s trademark crustiness. He doesn’t simply present us with an early version of an already established cast but rather develops them as fully fleshed characters unto themselves, allowing their camaraderie to develop naturally. The result is a completely engrossing outer space adventure that is at once exhilaratingly fresh and warmly familiar. This is a magnificent wide-screen blockbuster of a film that needs to be seen in a big theatre (we saw it at the Cinerama in Seattle). Guaranteed to bring a nostalgic tear to old-time Trekkers and a new enthusiasm to those who never even heard of William Shatner. Beam me up!

Star Trek: Beyond (USA 2016) (7): In this third episode featuring the reimagined crew of the USS Enterprise, Kirk and company are sent into the heart of an unstable nebula (??) to rescue shipwrecked aliens only to become trapped themselves on a mysterious planet curiously filled with old Federation artifacts and ruled over by the cantankerous Krall (Idris Elba in reptilian drag). Obsessed by a deep-seated grudge against humanity, Krall has hatched a deadly plan to even a past score and only Kirk, Bones, Scotty, and Spock, accompanied by stranded warrior woman Jaylah (Sofia Boutella in Marilyn Manson drag) can throw a wrench in the works before it’s too late. Despite a liberal sprinkling of references to former Star Trek films as well as the original TV series—most of which will only be caught by fanatical fans anyway—Gene Roddenberry’s grand future vision is not very evident here. Kirk (Chris Pine) hotdogs it with wild abandon, Scotty (Simon Pegg) flusters, Bones and Spock (Karl Urban, Zachary Quinto) spar, but the bonhomie which came so easily to the original cast seems forced and obligatory in this chapter of the franchise causing jokes to fall flat and characters to become mere facsimiles—Urban cocks his eyebrow just like DeForest Kelley! Quinto looks bemused just like Leonard Nimoy! Zoe Saldana opens hailing frequencies just like Nichelle Nichols! And that plot! Suffering from far too many Hail Mary escapes and comic book technology (more science huh? than science fiction) just to bring us to a big letdown and cursory epilogue. But being directed by Justin “Fast & Furious” Lin and produced by JJ Abrams there is no shortage of pyrotechnics with things blowing up in your face, super cool toys (Jaylah’s holographic Amazons and Krall’s space bees!) and edge-of-your-seat showdowns which owe a debt of gratitude to Lucas’ Star Wars. And Lin’s fast and furious editing is almost enough to distract us from the many inanities while Krall’s planet, a combination of CGI and BC backcountry, is pretty to look at though hardly “alien”. I appreciated the little gay touch as well even if George Takei didn’t. As an instalment in the Star Trek omnibus, Beyond is a weak link indeed—but as a silly summer popcorn muncher it streaks across your retinas with all cylinders firing. Who could have dreamed that the Beastie Boys would one day save the universe? Ha!

Star Trek: Into Darkness (USA 2013) (8): J. J. Abrams does it again in this old-fashioned big-screen popcorn movie destined to be one of the best this summer has to offer! This time around the reinvented crew of the USS Enterprise find their loyalties put to the test when they're called upon to enter a restricted military zone in order to capture a dangerous fugitive; a move which not only reveals a darker side of The Federation but one which could spark a catastrophic war with the Klingon Empire as well. Borrowing a few key storylines (and a long list of in-jokes) from both the old series and the original motion pictures, Abrams spins a tall tale with just the right blend of humour and audacity to keep you smiling even as you grip the sides of your seat. The script is appropriately grandiose, the action sequences breathtaking, and the excessively adorable cast manage to deepen that special chemistry they began in the first installment. And stuff blowing up never looked so cool in IMAX 3D! The film’s closing credits, a loving homage to Alexander Courage’s original score, is sure to bring a tear to the eyes of diehard trekkers everywhere.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (USA 2015) (9): Ostensibly a sequel to 1983’s Return of the Jedi, Disney’s latest addition to George Lucas’ legacy is essentially a rehash of A New Hope, the film which started it all. Once again evil threatens the galaxy and some old mainstays are joined by a few fresh faces as they confront their destiny, light sabres in hand. But the wholly derivative plot is delivered with so much flash bang and widescreen wonder that I found myself cheering at the comic book heroics even as I joined the older members of the audience in groaning at the clever little in-jokes culled from the first trilogy. Despite director J. J. Abrams overindulging his fetish for blowing things up in spectacular ways he still manages to capture the space opera aesthetic of the 1977 original right down to a distant phalanx of Imperial Walkers and a rowdy interlude in a space bar complete with google-eyed blues band. And even though they look worse for wear, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill ramp up the nostalgia along with Chewbacca and the robots. But it’s BB-8, the newest little droid rolling around like a high-tech soccer ball who ends up stealing one scene after another. I guess sometimes you really can believe all the hype. May The Force Be With You...again!

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

State of Play (USA 2009) (6): A newspaper team investigating the suicide of a prominent senator’s mistress realize they have more on their hands when the clues they uncover seem to link her with the murder of a petty thief a day earlier. Following the trail a conspiracy theory begins to emerge involving bribes, crooked politics, and a sinister defense contractor currently under investigation by the dead woman’s lover. As the team continues to flesh out the story the head reporter begins to have a conflict of interest for not only is he a personal friend of the senator, he also has a romantic history with the man’s wife. Kevin Macdonald has fashioned a tightly paced potboiler simmering with adrenaline and mounting paranoia, and with stars Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck playing off each other it’s certainly easy to watch. Too bad he expects us to accept a string of convenient coincidences, a rather lame twist, and an ending awash in genre clichés. This is the type of thriller the admen like to label as pulse-pounding and breathless, I just found it tired but still watchable.

Steambath (USA-TV 1973) (4): Heaven’s anteroom is a rundown New York City sauna and God is a truculent Puerto Rican handyman named Morty in this controversial PBS offering which was the first American television production to feature nudity and swearing. Bill Bixby stars as Tandy, a young man who has just gotten his life on track when he chokes to death in a Chinese restaurant and winds up in his underwear sweating with a host of other unhappy spirits. Not content to abide by the “Will of God” however Tandy tries to goad the diminutive wise-cracking Almighty into letting him have his life back before he’s ushered, along with the others, through that final door from which there is no return. The only problem is, Tandy’s life was not quite as rosy as he recalls leading to a host of unwelcome epiphanies while an increasingly impatient God prepares for the next batch of wretched souls. Featuring a handful of forgettable sitcom actors, a pair of cartoonish faggots, and a mostly naked Valerie Perrine trying to act her way out of the proverbial paper bag, this cheesy example of disco-era existentialism is just too damn shallow to warrant any outrage over its blatant sexism and homophobia. Golly, with the two homos worrying about their looks, Perrine whining over the fact she’s only had one orgasm, and a former stock broker realizing he spent his entire life betting on the wrong horse, it seems as if absolutely everyone has wasted their earthly existence and Jehovah just doesn’t give a rat’s ass—could there be a lesson here? Vapid, intellectually stifled, and permanently dated.

Steam: The Turkish Bath [Hamam] (Italy 1997) (3): When his aunt dies at her home in Turkey and leaves everything to him, Italian businessman Francesco flies from Rome to Istanbul in order to sell off the old lady’s estate as quickly as possible. To that end he hires a somewhat smarmy Turkish lawyer who arranges a meeting with one of Istanbul’s more powerful real estate magnates. Once on the ground however Francesco makes a few discoveries that threaten to derail his life altogether. For one thing his aunt also owned a rundown hamam, a traditional bathhouse for men where gentlemen gather for some steam, soap, and relaxation. For another Francesco discovers a pile of letters his aunt wrote (but never mailed) to his mother detailing her love for Istanbul and the erotic kick she received from spying on the men in her hamam. Steam, she observed, not only relaxes the body it also relaxes inhibitions causing men to do things with one another they otherwise would not—a startling revelation Francesco discovers for himself when he starts dropping the soap in front of the caretaker’s handsome young son. But when Francesco’s neurotic beanpole of a wife decides to pay her husband an impromptu visit the closet doors are blown right off their hinges leading to a few sordid confessions and some life-altering decisions. An overblown Italian soap opera which relies far too heavily on “deeply meaningful” close-ups and dragging silences—here Francesco wanders through the hamam noting the sensuous curves of its architecture, here his wife wanders through the rain tugging at her wedding band, and here the two of them wander angrily down the street taking turns denouncing one another. Add to that some jarring edits and a melodramatic subplot involving a ruthless businesswoman and you have one of those arty “gay films” that everyone’s supposed to like but few actually do. At least the soundtrack of middle-eastern beats was groovy enough.

The Stewardesses in 3D (USA 1969) (3): Billed as the world’s first 3D sex comedy, this little cheese platter follows the adventures of five oversexed and under-talented sky sluts on an extended layover in Los Angeles. While number one doles out a mercy shag to a Viet Nam vet number two tries to sleep her way into a lucrative modelling contract. Meanwhile number three mixes LSD with skim milk and finds herself on surprisingly intimate terms with a table lamp. Finally, number four seduces number five by convincing her that really boring lesbian sex is an awful lot like swimming. As a bonus there’s a bar fight, some groovy music and an incomprehensible murder/suicide. And throughout it all the director doesn’t miss a single 3D cliché as everything not nailed down gets shoved in front of the camera; from pool cues and bullet bras to barking dogs and yawning beavers. Although the novelty of watching all those unfocused boobs float hazily in front of you wears thin pretty quickly a side trip to an amusement park does provide some pretty cool funhouse footage. Too bad the script plods along and goes nowhere, the laughs are non-existent, and the softcore sex scenes are just plain dull. Not even 3D glasses can give this turkey any depth.

Still Alice (USA 2014) (6): When middle-aged linguistic expert Alice Howland (Oscar winner Julianne Moore) discovers she has early onset Alzheimer’s disease the revelation sends ripples through her entire family. Husband John, a research professor, tries to advance his career and keep the home fires lit at the same time while reactions from their three adult children range from eldest Anna’s neurotic fussing to rebellious daughter Lydia’s fatalistic acceptance. As for Alice, she adopts a gallows humour as she uses every means at her disposal—post-it notes, calendar apps, recorded messages—to delay the inevitable as long as she can. And for that time when the inevitable finally does arrive she’s already hidden a lethal dose of sleeping pills in her dresser drawer… Directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland take neuroscientist Lisa Genova’s lengthy debut novel and telescope several months’ worth of deterioration into a mere 100 minutes leaving us with little more than a series of highly depressing Hallmark moments in which Moore goes from forgetting a word, to wetting her pants, to staring incomprehensibly while Lydia recites a passage from Angels in America to her: ”It’s…about…love…” drawls Alice as Lydia puts the book down and you can imagine an entire audience reaching for their tissues. Unlike A Song for Martin or Amour, two films that refused to blink when dealing with dementia, Glatzer and Westmoreland concentrate a bit too much on sunshine and hugs instead of plumbing the emotional minefield such a diagnosis engenders. As John, Alec Baldwin puts in a stony performance—laughing or turning sombre on cue—while Kate Bosworth in the role of Anna seems constantly on the verge of screaming and Kristen Stewart’s Lydia is caught in a perpetual scowl. Moore, however, does as much as she can with the material handed to her and gives a fierce performance as a woman trying to manoeuvre between a rock and hard place even as the map disintegrates in her hands. Flawed for sure, but still a worthy addition to the growing list of films and documentaries dealing with this tragic epidemic.

Still Mine (Canada 2012) (9): When his wife of sixty years begins to deteriorate both mentally and physically, 87-year old Craig Morrison (a bravura performance from James Cromwell) decides to build a smaller, more convenient home for the two of them on their rural New Brunswick ranch. But despite his technical savvy he quickly runs up against a mountain of red tape as the government housing office cites him for one ridiculous building code violation after another. With Irene’s condition worsening (Geneviève Bujold, equally amazing), his well-meaning children questioning his every decision, and the local building inspector refusing to be placated, Craig decides to follow his heart even if it puts him at odds with the law. Writer/director Michael McGowan is in no hurry as he allows this beautifully unembellished drama to unfold like a bittersweet love poem, his two leads sparking such onscreen chemistry as they head into their twilight years that at times it seems more of a documentary—it is in fact based on a true story. Cromwell and Bujold bring the octogenarian couple to life with a delicate yet abiding intimacy which goes from tears of anger to knowing smiles and moments of passion (oh yes, there is sex) while Julie Stewart and Rick Roberts play two of their children with a touching mix of long established exasperation and deep concern. And finally, a simple background score of poignant strings provides the perfect compliment to Brendan Steacy’s cinematography, his rolling hills and quiet seashore as enduring as Craig and Irene themselves. Perhaps the building inspector’s role was a bit two-dimensional in its bureaucratic zeal and the closing ballad by Mumford & Sons leaned on the emotions a bit too hard (although I would disagree) but considering how much disdain I usually hold for English-Canadian cinema—pandering, derivative plots and terrible acting—it lifts my heart whenever I see one of our own get it right for a change. Bravo!

The Sting (USA 1973) (8): During the latter half of the Depression two petty con-artists bite off more than they can chew when they unwittingly steal a sizable sum of cash belonging to a vengeful mobster. After one partner is murdered for his part in the theft, the remaining man escapes to Chicago where he hooks up with an acquaintance of his dead friend; a one-time master grifter now living in a squalid waterfront dive. Together the two plot a most ingenious revenge on the gangster responsible for their friend’s death. As their elaborate scam takes shape, involving rigged poker games and fake bookie joints, nothing is quite what it appears to be...but will it be enough to fool a master criminal? This is a briskly paced, colourful tale featuring wonderful performances from its star-studded cast while the detailed sets, costumes and musical score bring 1930s Chicago to life with a vibrancy that is part fact, part wistful nostalgia. The ending may not come as a great surprise, Hill offers up too many clues beforehand, but the journey there is thoroughly enjoyable.

Stonehearst Asylum (USA 2014) (7): In the winter of 1899 psychiatric resident Edward Newgate travels from Oxford to the bleak north country in order to further his studies at the Stonehearst Asylum. There, under the tutelage of Dr. Silas Lamb, he is introduced to a most unorthodox method of treating chronic insanity, namely setting aside the more barbaric forms of contemporary therapy and instead letting the patients interact with one another freely without the use of restraints, drugs, or locked cells. At first put off by the thought of allowing the mad to wander the halls and corridors with only minimum supervision it soon becomes apparent to Newgate that Lamb’s controversial experiment holds some merit for the asylum’s inmates seem to have bonded into one big happy—if not entirely healthy—family. But two things occur which cause him to reevaluate his opinion once more: he falls in love with a beautiful patient whose troubled demeanour hints at darker secrets, and an impromptu visit to the cellar offers up a revelation so horrifying that it not only threatens Newgate’s own sanity, but his very life as well. Based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe, director Brad Anderson doesn’t hold back on the gothic touches—the lunatics caper and cavort like a medieval bacchanal, interior shots are all faded elegance and candlelight, and the asylum itself rises from the barren landscape like a saurian House of Usher constantly besieged by fog and lightning. The film is buoyed however by grim touches of humour à la Tim Burton (a formal Christmas dinner alternates between the sinister and the comically grotesque) and a stellar cast featuring the likes of Ben Kingsley, Michael Caine, and Jim Sturgess. Furthermore a score of minor keys and darkly whimsical flourishes are reminiscent of the best of Wes Anderson. A wonderfully macabre tall tale which, despite a predictable final act, nevertheless ends with a couple of sweetly ironic twists.

Stonewall Uprising (USA-TV 2010) (8): A well crafted PBS documentary detailing the birth of the modern gay rights movement in June of 1969 when the patrons of New York City’s Stonewall tavern, fed up with police harassment, met violence with violence after the NYPD showed up for yet another routine raid. Shedding some light on the mindset of America prior to Stonewall, directors Kate Davis and David Heilbroner show the horrors many homosexuals had to endure—including sterilization, electro-shock aversion therapy, and even lobotomies—as a society steeped in religious bigotry and homophobia tried to “cure” them of their deadly perversion. Seamlessly blending B&W re-enactments, news footage, so-called educational films demonizing gays, and a host of aging eyewitnesses this is a winning combination of social history and stories from the front line. Affirming and enraging at the same time, the effects of the Stonewall Uprising still reverberate to this day, especially now that the forces of hate and oppression are once again rearing their ugly heads in Trump-era America. Essential viewing for persons of all stripes.

Storm (Sweden 2005) (5): As a rare hurricane rages over southern Sweden, smartass slacker Donny Davidson (“DD” to his acquaintances) is in for a night of puzzles and revelations. It all begins when he finds himself unwillingly sharing a cab with a damsel in distress, in this case a red-haired ninja on the lam from an unsavory posse of black-clad ghouls and their mentally unhinged leader. This seemingly random encounter leads to several more and before the night is over DD will be implicated in a murder investigation, pursued by both the Stockholm PD and the ghoulish posse, and entrusted with a mysterious silver cube which apparently holds all the answers. With low-budget nods to The Matrix, Lara Croft, and his own Underworld, Måns Mårlind’s graphic novel of a film employs flashy special effects to dress up what would otherwise be a bland and unexceptional psychodrama. As hinted at the film’s outset, DD is struggling with some repressed childhood memories; traumas which have not only robbed him of the ability to feel genuine emotion, but to feel any tactile stimulation whatsoever. Mårlind’s uneasy pairing of sci-fi aesthetics with a Psych 101 script in order to explore his protagonist’s inner turmoil does make for some interesting twists however as we see DD travel back to his childhood neighbourhood, now reinvented as a menacing landscape of subtle horrors; and his struggle with a guilty conscience almost achieves the superhero status Mårlind was obviously aiming for. But in the end it proved to be a whole lot of flash and sizzle with very little substance to chew on.

Storytelling (USA 2001) (7):  Life imitates art...then art turns around and kicks life in the balls in Todd Solondz’s mean-spirited pair of tales mocking artistic narcissism and upper class complacency.  In the first part a young woman composes a heartfelt story based on a disturbing sexual encounter she had with the professor teaching her creative writing class.  When she presents it to her classmates, however, she doesn’t quite get the reaction she was hoping for.  In the second part a wannabe director tries to make a serious documentary on a troubled teenager but his motives become suspect after it is shown to a test audience.  Solondz explores the various ways we lie to others, and to ourselves, as we try to reconcile the differences between the person we actually are, and the person we believe we should be.  Along the way he employs his signature brand of caustic humour, whether it be a derisive allusion to American Beauty or the cutting remarks of a blissfully self-absorbed child; the latter becoming the very embodiment of the director’s own world-weary cynicism.  Unlike his previous films which elicited some degree of sympathy for the characters, Storytelling goes straight for the jugular and takes no prisoners.  In fact the final scene is a firm F. U. to filmmakers and audiences alike...followed by a jaunty little closing song that pokes fun at the movie itself.  This is the type of film Michael Haneke would make if he had a sense of humour, but Solondz’s tone is just too bitter to pull it off completely.  Instead of the biting satire it could have been he delivers a cruel and sarcastic polemic instead.  There are still some brilliant moments here, but he’s done better.

Straight Time (USA 1978) (7): Some guys feel safer locked up, explains newly paroled Max Dembo (Dustin Hoffman) to his glassy-eyed potential new girlfriend Jenny (Theresa Russell), because out here people judge you by what’s in your pockets, in jail they judge you by who you are. An interesting viewpoint considering Dembo is a career loser whose been in trouble with the law since he was 12 years old. Now, having just finished a six-year stint for armed robbery, the pressure of freedom is already getting to him in the form of a slimy parole officer and a dead end minimum wage job. Reacquainting himself with friends from his criminal past—none of whom have gone completely straight despite their suburban appearances—Max finds the allure of living the thug life quickly outweighing whatever feeble perks his newfound liberty can offer. Based on Edward Bunker’s novel, director Ulu Grosbard’s gritty slice of life doesn’t rely on gunplay and violence to propel itself forward, although they do play an integral part, but rather on the inner conflict playing across Max’s face as he convinces himself the good life for Jenny and him is just one easy heist away. Indeed, when it comes to dramatic impact scenes of Max waving guns and bellowing threats pale in comparison to a single shot of him nestled against Jenny’s naked breasts like a restless child seeking consolation. A taught script is aided by a cast of young unknowns—Kathy Bates, Gary Busey—as well as such seasoned standbys as Harry Dean Stanton and M. Emmet Walsh, and Grosberg’s direction keeps things flying along despite an incongruously lighthearted score by David Shire (were they aiming for irony?) For those poor souls hardwired for self-destruction crime does indeed pay, but it’s a currency most of us would gladly avoid.

The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (Belgium 2013) (4): An ornate Brussels apartment building becomes a psychosexual house of mirrors in Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s deconstructed giallo. The story, what there is of it, involves harried executive Dan Kristensen who arrives home after a brief business trip to discover his wife is missing under suspicious circumstances. Desperate to find her, Dan approaches his bizarre neighbours, his taciturn landlord, and an overtly hostile police detective, all of whom have their own sad tales of woe and abandonment to tell in lurid flashbacks and cryptic bursts of dialogue. This is when the narrative jumps the track completely and we are led on a kaleidoscopic and maddeningly repetitive goose chase composed of staccato edits and jarring sound effects filmed in either flat B&W or stained glass shades of red, green, and blue. With art nouveau murals of nude women adorning the walls and hidden passageways echoing with screams and orgasmic sighs, the camera assaults us with one-second flashes of tits and eyeballs, slashed throats and pierced skulls, gaping mouths and split-screen faces while drops of blood congeal and an unnaturally shiny knife literally rings with metallic menace. Sidestepping a solid plot, Cattet and Forzani instead give us the impression of a thriller with gory dispatches and hallucinatory sequences to suggest mental states, both of which provide a trail of anemic clues. But it all seems more like an unhinged pastiche of Mario Bava and Dario Argento than anything original. Their previous foray into slasher psychedelia, the infinitely superior Amer, used its exaggerated giallo tropes to embellish an actual story with psychological overlays—in Tears they not only put form before substance, they completely replace it leaving us with a big blob of garish frosting but no cake.

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (USA 1946) (9): Small town heiress Martha Ivers is stuck in a sexless marriage to up-and-coming D.A. Walter O’Neil. The only thing that seems to keep them together is the fact they share a couple of horrific secrets from their past—-secrets that fuel Martha’s drive for material success while her guilt-addled husband practically sleeps with a bottle of scotch. Enter Sam Masterson, Martha’s childhood sweetheart whom she hasn’t seen in almost twenty years and who may or may not know her dirty secrets. It isn’t long before passions are rekindled, jealousies are ignited, and suspicions escalate into a murderous paranoia which threatens to topple Martha’s carefully constructed empire. A stellar cast (Barbara Stanwyck, Van Heflin, Kirk Douglas) give scene-stealing performances in this sterling example of why we love Film Noir. It’s all here: a dark and scandalous plot, stylish dialogue laced with testosterone and erotic innuendo, and the kind of emotionally charged theatrics which practically define the genre—-Lizabeth Scott is especially good as Masterson’s potential new love interest; a husky-voiced siren with a few skeletons of her own. Director Lewis Milestone’s B&W cinematography, filled with stormy nights and fireside seductions, is accompanied by an appropriately menacing orchestral score which propels the story forward without missing some of the finer visual nuances (sometimes a burning log is not just a burning log). Great fun!

Strange Magic (USA 2015) (4): There is an uneven truce between the sunlit Land of Fairies and the murky denizens of the Dark Forest. All that is about to change however for the king of the forest is hellbent on destroying all the magical flowers which grow along his border. These flowers provide the key ingredient for a powerful love potion and the morose king wants to destroy all traces of that particular emotion. He meets his match in fairy Princess Marianne who, unlike her boy-crazy sister, is also soured on the notion of romance thanks to an egotistical suitor but will not tolerate trolls and goblins entering her daisy-cluttered realm. Skirmishes, kidnappings, and cartoon peril ensue as each side tries to outfox the other while puffs of love dust complicate everything. Supposedly based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (they’re kidding, right?) it’s hard to believe that George Lucas and Industrial Light and Magic are behind this derivative piece of sugar & spice with its X-Box animation and gut-wrenching remixes of tired old pop tunes. While there is some imagination to the forest monsters (whispering mushrooms, a mouse-like imp, and several variations on a frog) the fairies are basically Barbie dolls with butterfly wings and a tin ear who flit from one generic bloom to another—although an animated elf (voice of Elijah Kelley) is very well done. Some of the action sequences were interesting and a few one-liners actually made me smile, but the bubblegum rock soundtrack and cloying sweetness left my stomach flopping.

The Strange One (USA 1957) (8): Based on novelist Calder Willingham’s experiences as a cadet in South Carolina’s military academy, director Jack Garfein’s scandalous piece of pulp fiction, considered by some to be an overlooked classic, is a master class in toxic masculinity and sexual repression. Ben Gazzara gives filmdom one of its slimiest antiheroes as senior cadet Jocko De Paris (if ever there was a porn name…), a charismatic sociopath who takes sadistic delight in pitting fellow cadets against one another in Machiavellian schemes that see one innocent student expelled and a senior officer dishonourably discharged. Aiding him are his sycophantic roommate and a pair of new recruits bullied into his service—one a toadying doormat, the other a conscious-stricken idealist (George Peppard making his screen debut). But tyrants are only as strong as those willing to obey their orders, and when Jocko finally crosses a line his reign of intimidation and manipulation becomes precarious indeed. From Lord of the Flies to Taps, using an all male setting as a microcosm to examine the interplay of authority and submission is not new to cinema and in that respect The Strange One is not so strange after all. But Garfein’s low budget B&W production adds a vague psychosexual twist in the form of Perrin McKee, a senior cadet and budding author whose attraction to Jocko goes beyond mere hero worship and who has taken it upon himself to chronicle the object of his desire in a series of fictionalized accounts which strike a raw nerve in De Paris’ otherwise impervious hide. With McKee’s stories eerily reflecting reality (his protagonist is given the alias “Night Boy”) and Jocko’s psychological sway waning, it only remains for the final chapter to be written… Opening with a homoerotic drawing of a partially dressed cadet worthy of Tom of Finland and not shying away from glimpses of skivvies and sweaty pecs, Willingham’s screenplay is not so much about homosexuality as it is about the magnetic attraction between the weak and those they perceive as powerful. Despite the buxom centrefolds adorning the walls, Jocko’s alpha male nevertheless elicits a fawning deference, tinged with growing resentment, from those under his influence—in essence they’ve become lovers in all but thought and deed. A lurid and operatic oddity, yet one whose themes of corruption, control, and comeuppance are as pertinent today as they were back then.

The Stranger (USA 1946) (6): Escaped Nazi heavyweight Franz Kindler (a perspiring Orson Welles emoting his socks off) finds the perfect cover posing as a college professor in an upright Connecticut town—even going so far as to marry the local magistrate’s daughter (a jittery Loretta Young jumping at shadows). But when a detective specializing in hunting down war criminals blows into town (Edward G. Robinson playing the good guy like a bad guy) Kindler must use every trick at his disposal—including MURDER!—in order to avoid suspicion. Welles was never noted for his subtlety as either a director or an actor and nowhere is that more apparent than in this ham-fisted noir, a film so noirish that it becomes a parody of the genre. Shadows loom menacingly, icy stares bore holes through walls, clocks tick away the hours, and everyone takes a turn on the dais with Welles giving a monologue on the German zeitgeist, Young defiantly welcoming Kindler’s murderous advances as long as they don’t involve touching, and Robinson growling something or other about concentration camps, nervous breakdowns, and justice. The final scenes, set atop the town’s quaint church, hearken back to the worst excesses of 1931’s Frankenstein. But at least in that film the monster kept his mouth shut.

Stranger by the Lake (France 2013) (9): It’s the height of summer and blonde pretty boy Franck likes to frequent an isolated stretch of lakefront where men come to doff their clothes, catch some rays, and occasionally wander into the nearby woods for a bit of old school cruising. There he meets up with Henri, a flabby middle-aged loner of indeterminate sexuality who is dutifully ignored by the beach’s more chiseled denizens. The two develop a satisfyingly platonic friendship but Franck really has his eye on the new guy Michel, a moustachioed hunk with a porn body and libido to match and before long the two men are heading into the forest themselves. For Franck it’s love at first tumble despite Michel’s aloof attitude and insistence that they keep their relationship confined to the beach. And then Franck secretly witnesses something horrible and he suddenly sees Michel in a new and highly dangerous light. However, despite warnings from Henri, he can’t quite bring himself to flee the man who has now become a psychosexual obsession… Beautifully framed with static wide-angled shots full of sun, surf, and naked sprawling bodies, writer/director Alain Guiraudie’s minimalist tale of amour fou has achieved two seemingly contradictory goals: first he normalizes casual gay sex as a form of social interaction complete with its own rituals and rules of conduct yet, at the same time, he manages to expose its petty, shallow, and highly judgemental underbelly. With unattractive but personable Henri at one pole and gorgeous but emotionally dead Michel at the other, Guiraudie expertly suspends Franck between substance and lust (and never the twain shall meet, apparently) and he places them all in an erotically charged Garden of Eden bordered by forest, lake, and telltale parking lot. Only in this garden the whispering trees stand like indifferent angels, forbidden fruit beckons from the bushes, and God himself appears in the form of a cadaverous police detective whose piercing eyes and incisive questioning force Franck to reappraise his knowledge of good and evil. Despite its bucolic setting, Guiraudie’s Paradise harbours a deadly snake indeed and love is truly blind—but is it also recklessly destructive? An ambivalent final scene, pure genius on the director’s part, stretches tension to the breaking point and leaves you questioning your own convictions. This is the type of fare Hitchcock would have brewed up had he been born a queer provocateur.

Strangers on a Train (USA 1951) (9): Classic Hitchcock! While en route to his home in Connecticut, tennis star Guy Haines is approached by a fellow train passenger, a very persistent man who seems to know more about him than he’d like. Aware of Guy’s extremely messy divorce proceedings as well as his budding romance with a senator’s daughter, Bruno Antony makes him a most murderous offer; he’ll kill Guy’s two-timing shrew of a wife if Guy will kill Bruno’s wealthy overbearing father. After all, reasons Bruno, having each murder carried out by a total stranger while the only person with a real motive is conveniently somewhere else is foolproof. Dismissing his would-be conspirator as a simple flake Guy gets off at his stop and forgets the whole thing unaware that Bruno has already taken steps to fulfill his part of the “bargain”. With the increasingly psychotic Bruno dogging him like a guilty conscience, the police eyeing him suspiciously and his new girlfriend not knowing what to think, it isn’t long before Guy’s world begins to close in on him. Hitchcock pulls out all the stops in this over-the-top noir romp; from the giddy camerawork rife with shadowy faces to the wonderfully theatrical performances, most notably Robert Walker’s intense turn as the low-keyed psychopath. A carnival stalking provides some creepy chills while the film’s whirling finale is enough to make you swear off merry-go-rounds for life. They really can’t make ‘em like this anymore. I miss you Alfred!

Stranger Than Paradise (USA 1984) (7): Horse races and cheating at poker pretty much define Willie’s slacker lifestyle until his Hungarian cousin Eva comes to visit him in his one-room New York fleabag. Taciturn and poker-faced herself, Eva’s monotone criticisms begin to grate on the hipster and, after ten days, he is only too happy to see her finally leave for their aunt’s place in Cleveland. One year later Willie and his buddy Eddie “borrow” a car and head to Ohio to meet up with Eva once more spurring an impromptu joy ride to Florida where their fortunes will ebb and flow in a most unusual way. Jim Jarmusch’s deadpan comedy, composed of 67 static scenes each separated by a few seconds of blackout and all shot in a grainy B&W mix of grunge verité and artless mumblecore, is arguably one of the best American indie films to emerge from the 80s. His largely unknown cast pretty much personifies apathy as they smoke and gamble, kibitz and bullshit, and generally face life with a yawn and a stare—although it’s 86-year old amateur Cecillia Stark as Aunt Lotte who garners the most smiles despite having the least screen time. Not a film for lovers of either action or witticisms (it is, after all, a thirty-minute short blown up to ninety) but the aura of deadbeat lives and urban grit gains a momentum of its own and that final double twist couldn’t have been funnier if it had come with a laugh track.

Strapped (USA 2010) (7): Upon leaving his latest trick’s apartment, personable young hustler Alex—all winning smile and smooth pecs—finds himself unable to leave the building. This sparks the beginning of an all-night sex adventure for the pretty but pessimistic prostitute whose search for an exit brings him face to face with every facet of gay culture suddenly made flesh. Queens and closet cases, bashers and grey-haired activists, Alex meets (and subsequently does) them all until he hooks up with a struggling poet who shakes his cynical shell to its very core. Even though director Joseph Graham’s characters never quite come across in three dimensions (the bitter coke-addled fairy for instance) and occasionally spout dialogue that borders on homo homilies, he has nevertheless crafted a highly likeable queer romp which could have been titled Alex in Wonderland. His protagonist is more metaphor than man—one older hook-up compares him to a portrait of St. Sebastian, young yet timeless—and even though he displays something of the sardonic worldview we expect from such a character (he’s gay but not that gay and he’ll offer up anything for a buck except intimacy) he’s not a cliché so much as a tabula rasa able to learn a little something from each encounter. It’s a low-budget traipse down the gay rabbit hole and back again, not grand enough to be called an odyssey but rather the story of Little Pink Riding Hood searching for grandma’s house but finding the woodsman instead.

Street of Shame (Japan 1956) (7): Kenji Mizoguchi’s unsentimental look at the daily tribulations endured by sex trade workers at a brothel in Tokyo’s red light district has been cited as one of the reasons Japan outlawed prostitution shortly after the film’s release. The “Dreamland Lounge” is home to a small cadre of women who spend their evenings aggressively luring clients through the front door and their days trying to make sense out of how they ended up having to sell their bodies in the first place. Weighed down by crushing debt and familial obligations—one young girl becomes the family breadwinner after her father is injured at work, another older woman is past her prime and considered damaged goods—they also have to struggle with rampant sexism, ageism, and moral hypocrisy as polite society gives them a wide berth even as it supplies them with a steady stream of regulars. Starkly lit and filmed so that the women often appear trapped by hallways or door frames, Mizoguchi’s only glaring misstep is an odd musical track of science fiction warbles which he thankfully keeps to a bare minimum. By the movie’s end one woman will succumb to the pressure of it all, another will ruthlessly connive her way off the streets, and a nervous recruit will reluctantly peddle her virginity to passing strangers. And all the while their pimp extols his role of guardian and social worker as politicians endlessly waffle back and forth on the issue. Frank yet never lurid, sympathetic yet never stooping to cheap romanticism, Mizoguchi’s protagonists are strong-willed survivors for whom sex has become a retail business and their bodies little more than a commodity. “I’m so glad we chose not to commit suicide…” says one exhausted prostitute cradling her son while her husband wolfs down both their shares of an already meagre dinner, and the irony of that simple offhand remark arrives like a cold smack in the face.

Strip Nude for Your Killer (Italy 1975) (4): Another lurid, poorly dubbed, giallo thriller filmed in Vagin-O-Vision and served up hot and cheesy as only the Italians can do it. A fashion photographer specializing in breasts becomes concerned when his colleagues begin dying around him in very messy ways. But who could the killer be? Is it the slutty model? The big lesbian CEO? The other slutty model? The nympho secretary? The other other slutty model? And what’s the link between the victims and the woman who died from a botched abortion at the film’s outset? As the murderer works their way through the cast and the local police inspector narrows down the remaining suspects you suddenly realize you don’t really care ‘cause if you’ve seen one of these sleazy gobblers you’ve seen them all. Still, they do retain a certain 70’s charm with the bell bottom slacks, twangy jazz music, and softcore nonsense. And did I mention all the tits?

Stroszek (Germany 1977) (9): Recently released from his latest stint in prison, alcoholic simpleton Bruno Stroszek (Kasper Hauser’s Bruno S. basically playing himself) falls in with his aged neighbour Scheitz, and Eva, a battered prostitute on the lam from her sadistic pimps. Finding nothing of value to keep them in Berlin, the three decide to seek their fortunes in America where Scheitz’s nephew has promised them jobs and a place to stay. Ending up in a rural Wisconsin backwater of truck stops and railroad tracks they soon discover that life in the U.S. of A. doesn’t quite live up to their dreams and before long all three find themselves homeless, penniless, and without value—or as Bruno sums it up, in Europe the abuse is physical whereas in America they kick you spiritually even as they flash you a friendly smile. Clearly writer/director Werner Herzog gleaned his images of life in the United States from soap operas and sad C&W songs for the countryside is rife with hidden murderers, beer-guzzling cowboys perform their own dentistry, and the landscape is a frozen dustbowl right out of Grapes of Wrath. But this America is intended to be more allegorical anyway and as our hapless trio find themselves drifting apart and coming undone those aforementioned friendly smiles loom ironically. In typical Herzog fashion the humour is served bleak and dry as bone whether it be Bruno’s skewed observations on life or a foiled bank robbery that is as sad as it is funny. But it’s those final scenes, crammed full of anger and imploded dreams, that arrive like a gut punch to remind us that Herzog never intended this to be a comedy. Of course I would expect nothing less from a man who manages to begin a tale with a newborn babe struggling to live only to end it with a dancing chicken.

The Stunt Man (USA 1980) (7): On the lam from the police and suffering from PTSD, Viet Nam vet Cameron stumbles onto the set of a WWI epic being shot by tyrannical director Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole). Entering into a Mephistophelean deal with Cross, Cameron is offered the safety of anonymity in exchange for taking on the gruelling role of stunt double for the film’s main star—the original double having recently perished in an unfortunate technical debacle. Paranoia soon sets in however as the line between reality and cinematic illusion blurs with Cameron leaping off buildings, dodging bullets, and getting blown up over and over again while Cross hovers in his elevated director’s chair alternately cajoling or spitting verbal lightning bolts like an Old Testament Yahweh. And throughout it all the object of Cameron’s desire, tantalizing screen siren Nina Franklin, eggs him on with promises of carnal delights. Movies about Hollywood artifice are nothing new but director Richard Rush takes things to another level as his waylaid protagonist begins to rebel against the Cross he bears and grandiose biblical allusions mock our notions of predetermination and divine (or otherwise) intervention—Cross’ first name actually translates as “God” (wink wink). Deliberately pretentious and overplayed throughout (O’Toole received an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the blustery, bellowing Deus ex Machina), this intriguing allegory unfortunately suffers from sloppy editing which sees it’s breakneck speed too often skid to a grinding halt. Certainly not your usual mainstream fare, but this worthy adaptation of Paul Brodeur’s novel certainly deserves its solid cult status.

Submarino (Denmark 2010) (7): Nick and his younger brother are still reeling from the abuse they suffered at the hands of their perpetually drunk mother back when they were kids. Now having just finished a stint in prison thanks to his violent temper, the hulking Nick is living in a halfway house where he seems destined to follow in his old lady’s alcoholic footsteps. His younger brother, in the meantime, is eking out a living as a single father while indulging in the only two things he cares about in life: his cherubic son Martin and his addiction to heroin. When their estranged mother suddenly drops dead leaving them with property worth a small fortune the two men finally have a chance to straighten out their lives, but reconnecting with one another and rising above their individual demons proves more difficult than they had ever imagined especially with the memory of a shared childhood tragedy still haunting them both… The sun is always shining on the other side of the street in Thomas Vinterberg’s stubbornly pessimistic downer which seems determined to smack its protagonists sideways no matter which way they turn. Frozen cityscapes choked with snow only highlight the gloomy atmosphere as Nick rages in the gutter with hookers and rapists while his brother passes out on living room rugs and bathroom floors—a needle still stuck in his arm and a dejected Martin gazing from the shadows. Despite a host of standout performances Vinterberg’s insistence on piling misery atop misery strains sympathies dangerously close to the breaking point thus robbing an otherwise poignant final scene of much of its impact. There is still an admirable film here however and the downplayed delivery of its two male leads manages to offset much of the manufactured pathos.

Sudden Fear (USA 1952) (9): Joan Crawford’s signature shoulder pads and caterpillar eyebrows take centre stage in this deliciously camp noir thriller that will have you simultaneously cheering and snickering! She plays Myra Hudson, a fabulously wealthy heiress turned Broadway playwright who believes she’s found the man of her dreams when bit actor Lester Blaine (an angular Jack Palance) whom she previously had fired from one of her productions crosses her path once more on a westbound passenger train. Poetry and starry cuddles soon lead to romance and marriage and for the first time in her life Myra feels happy and alive. But Lester’s love proves to be false when Myra discovers he and his bleached blonde mistress (a slutty wise-cracking Gloria Grahame) are planning her imminent demise so he can inherit her vast estate. Unable to go to the police with any credible evidence Myra must rely on her own wits to not only survive the next few days but even the score with the murderous duo as well. To those ends she devises a most ingenious scheme to divide and conquer, but not even she is prepared for the complications that ensue when her elaborate plans are unexpectedly thrown into disarray. Tightly controlled with magnificently theatrical performances all around, director David Miller knows exactly how to up the suspense until you’re squirming in your seat. Adding to the fun is a pounding score of strings and jazzy riffs and some good old noirish cinematography with an emphasis on dimly lit interiors and dizzying shadows; in one particularly effective scene the camera zooms in for an extreme close-up on Ms. Crawford’s face while the shadow of a swinging clock pendulum plays back and forth across her granite features. Delirious and overdone at every turn, like a good film noir should be, this is a definite treat for genre fans and newbies alike. Immensely entertaining!

Sullivan’s Travels (USA 1941) (10): Preston Sturges’ sparkling satire on class, privilege, and artistic conceit proves to be one of the smartest comedies to emerge from the 40’s with sharp insights that still ring true today. When millionaire director John Sullivan (western mainstay Joel McCrea proving his versatility) decides to helm the definitive film about social inequality and the plight of the poor he is abruptly reminded that his privileged upbringing negates all attempts at empathy with America’s downtrodden despite his fiery rhetoric. So, in an attempt to connect with the lower classes, Sullivan borrows a hobo outfit from the wardrobe department and sets out on the road with ten cents in his pocket. But with a bus full of aides and reporters (not to mention personal physician and chef) keeping pace right behind him Sullivan soon finds that all roads lead right back to Hollywood. Eventually fleeing his studio watchdogs he reluctantly teams up with a disillusioned wannabe actress (an endearing Veronica Lake) and together they discover all the beauty and ugliness life without hope has to offer. Of course his multi-million dollar bank account is only a phone call away rendering their journey somewhat sanitized—until one final Christ-like attempt to help the poor sets Sullivan on a course he could never have imagined, giving him a big fat dose of “reality” in the process. Brimming with witty exchanges and sardonic irony, and just a touch of uplifting slapstick, Sturges’ brilliant film plays with its audience even as it appears to mock itself—one key scene involving convicts shuffling into a backwoods church while an all-black congregation solemnly croons “Let My People Go” is so over-the-top you begin to wonder…are we still watching Sturges’ movie or is this the movie Sullivan intends to make? But then they all sit down to watch a Disney cartoon and the answer becomes readily apparent. Despite a tidy little “happily ever after” ending á la Frank Capra (more irony?) there are still plenty of clever barbs here—and even more treats—to keep you smiling throughout.

Summer 04 (Germany 2006) (8):  Miriam and André are a comfortably bourgeois couple enjoying the summer at their seaside cottage along with their moody son Nils and his leggy 13-year old girlfriend, Livia.  Their days are filled with sailing, outdoor dinners and genial conversations that go nowhere.  But when Livia, a precocious and surprisingly mature Lolita, begins to flirt with Bill, the handsome stud down the road Miriam’s protective instincts kick in....or is it merely a jealous resentment?  Livia proves to be a catalyst of sorts, upsetting the couple’s precariously balanced life and causing all around her to re-examine the forces that motivate them....whether it’s Miriam’s unspoken discontent or Nils’ dawning awareness of the lies and small hypocrisies of adulthood.  When a sudden tragedy strikes everyone is thrown off balance and things are never the same again.  “Summer 04” is a beautifully restrained ensemble piece with great performances and cinematography that puts those hot summer days and quiet nights to good use.  Krohmer approaches his characters with a sense of detached compassion, never judging yet never making excuses for their behaviour.  The final scene, played out in the restaurant of a swank hotel, is a master stroke of deep irony underscored by a funky musical coda.  Good viewing!

Summer Hours (France 2008) (6): Hélène has lived in the same rustic country estate outside Paris since she was a child. Having shared it with her uncle, a famous painter and art collector, she is now surrounded by expensive memorabilia and objets d’art which are of tremendous sentimental value to her but mean little to her adult children who have only vague memories of their great-uncle. Recognizing the fact that her home has become something of a mausoleum to her uncle’s memory and that her kids now have lives of their own, Hélène chooses her 75th birthday party to make her final wishes known—upon her death eldest son Frédéric, acting as executor, is to donate a few pieces to museums and then sell off the bulk of the art along with the house and split the proceeds with his younger brother and sister. But when she eventually does die several months later the reactions of her children are immediate and polarized—Frédéric wants to keep things exactly as they are out of a sense of duty; younger Jérémie, a businessman living in China, needs the money to better the lives of his own family; and sister Adrienne (Juliette Binoche), a designer dividing her time between New York and Tokyo, doesn’t feel the need to live in the past with a bunch of dusty paintings and a crumbling home no one has time to visit anymore. And as their parents haggle incessantly over what to sell and what to keep the grandkids are more interested in just partying with their friends… Time marches on in writer/director Olivier Assayas’ drama about fading memories and family dynamics wherein old ways give way to the new, sometimes reluctantly, and observing tradition competes with the desire to forge one’s own way. His skillful use of artwork throughout the film then goes on to provide a series of metaphors highlighting these themes: Hélène revels in the nostalgia they bring (even a broken Degas sculpture, a victim of her sons’ horseplay, reminds her of bygone days); Frédéric sees an enduring legacy he can leave to his kids; Jérémie and Adrienne see a source of much needed income; the grandchildren simply see old paintings from another era. Unfortunately the film too often rambles repetitiously from one intellectual squabble to another with Frédéric spinning his tires in the mud while everyone else checks the time and plans their escape. To his credit he does favour practicality over sentimentality, but the film’s unrelenting quaintness gets boring rather quickly.

Summer Magic (USA 1963) (6): Disney presents Pollyanna 2.0 with Hayley Mills once again cast as a pathologically optimistic minor spinning rainbows wherever she goes. After the death of her husband, Bostonian socialite Margaret Carey (an elegant Dorothy McGuire) finds herself financially strapped necessitating a move to rural Maine with her three children in tow: Nancy (Mills) all tall tales and blonde curls; ginger-haired Gilly who dreams of being a composer; and wee Peter (future cinematographer James Mathers) decked out in Prince Valiant haircut and Buster Brown threads. Setting up in a humble rented house, the Careys gradually smile and sing their way into the hearts of everyone especially jovial caretaker Osh Popham (a loveable Burl Ives) and his miserable shrew of a wife (Una Merkel). Despite the occasional urge to bitchslap that sugar & spice off everyone’s face—the kids are “precious”, the songs pure saccharine slush—Disney once again manages to produce a palatable family film through single-minded determination. Set during the ragtime era of a century ago, director James Neilson envisions a small town America where charming cottages sit like iced cakes and happy white people parade about on bicycles or jaunty jalopies which honk and sputter and scare the horses—the kind of town where both Mary Poppins AND the Stepford wives would feel right at home. But for all its treacle and happy endings that old Disney magic remains strong. From the candy-coated cinematography to Hayley Mills’ winning performance as a teenager who cannot see the clouds for the silver linings, Summer Magic does manage to capture something of the hope and innocence we once wished were commonplace. Deborah Walley co-stars as uppity cousin Julia, the bane of the Carey kids whose tiresome vanity hides a broken heart which eventually succumbs to Nancy’s indomitable good cheer.

A Summer Place (USA 1959) (8): White people’s problems abound in this soapy upper-class riff on Romeo and Juliet starring yesteryear’s teen heartthrobs Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue. Star-crossed lovers Molly Jorgenson and Johnny Hunter meet at Pine Island, a posh East Coast resort, and immediately rev their libidos into third gear despite their parents’ disapproval. Johnny’s dad owns the island getaway but has fallen on hard times thanks to poor financial sense and rampant alcoholism, a double whammy which his wife endures with the patience of a flaming martyr. Molly’s dad, a former employee of Mr. Hunter, is now a self-made millionaire who’s returned to the Island as a guest along with his wife, a frigid, social-climbing virago who will stop at nothing to secure a place amongst the island’s elite guests, even calling in a doctor to ensure her daughter is still a “good girl” after she and Johnny return from a suspiciously prolonged sailing date. But just as everyone settles in for a long summer of icy stares and innuendo Mr. Jorgenson and Mrs. Hunter decide to complicate things even further by rekindling an old romance via nightly visits to the boathouse. Heartbreak and scandal ensue... Rich cinematography and a syrupy score emphasize a script rife with horny teenage angst, racy 50s-style sex talk, and scads of gauzy close-ups; who else but Sandra Dee could survive a shipwreck with hairdo and lipstick intact? Naturally the film’s heady mix of lust and guilt set against a backdrop of crashing waves seems terribly dated by today’s standards rendering some of its more dramatic moments unintentionally humorous, but despite the inherent corniness and overwrought theatrics I still found it immensely entertaining.

Summer Storm (Germany 2004) (5): Yet another gay coming-of-age story with all the usual clichés and stock characters present and accounted for. Tobi and Achim are on the same highschool rowing team along with their respective girlfriends Anke and Sandra. But, unknown to anyone, the deeply closeted Tobi is actually in love with Achim and the fact that the two budding adolescents do practically everything together—including the occasional wank session—doesn’t make it any easier. When the team heads north for a national regatta the two boys wind up sharing a tent which puts Tobi’s hormones on high alert despite Achim’s express desire to spend more time with Sandra. Anke, in the meantime, is becoming suspicious over Tobi’s unwillingness to respond to her own open invitation. Then an openly gay rowing club, the “Queerstrokes”, set up camp next door and as a violently metaphorical thunderstorm rolls in everyone gets thrown into the blender to emerge challenged if not completely changed. Director and co-writer Marco Kreuzpainter’s derivative queer love story has nothing new to say, in fact it simply rehashes a lot of tired old themes. The gay boys flirt with the straight boys (their team leader comes off as a creepy teenaged predator), the straight boys are bemused (one sexually confused member runs screaming into the woods after an unwelcome kiss borders on assault), and everyone eventually settles for a host of euphemistic gestures concerning tolerance. Of course there’s an uncomfortably hokey boy-on-boy sex scene followed by a weak attempt at pathos, and the anticlimactic rowing competition itself (there are only two teams?) panders to the liberal in all of us. Preachy and politically correct all over but at least no one gets hurt and the soundtrack of smooth croons and retro club cuts is a welcome distraction.

Summer and Smoke
(USA 1961) (8): Yet another melancholic tale of southern belles and dreams deferred from the pen of Tennessee Williams rendered in rich technicolour with a knockout Oscar-nominated performance from Geraldine Page. Miss Alma Winemiller’s life has never been easy. Being the only child of a small town Mississippi minister she was expected to be the very picture of virtue despite her growing crush on next door neighbour John Buchanan (Laurence Harvey). Now, with her adolescence long behind her, she’s had to assume all the social duties of a pastor’s wife thanks to her mother’s debilitating nervous breakdown leaving her no time to either live, love, or laugh. But when Buchanan arrives back in town after graduating from medical school Alma’s hopes soar once more despite the obvious differences in their temperaments—she’s a prim and sexually repressed neurotic on her way to an early spinsterhood while he seeks solace in gambling, whisky, and loose women. After a few ill-fated attempts at romance with Alma, Buchanan leaves town to complete his studies and upon his return Alma decides to finally reveal her true feelings—but it may already be too late for the object of her desire has had an epiphany of his own. Shot against a backdrop of long languorous summer days and nights that seem to stretch on forever Williams’ piercing prose examines three small tragedies: Alma unable to give voice to her dreams; her mother whose dreams have long since died; and Buchanan who realizes he’s been chasing the wrong dream all along. As if to underscore her plight, Alma’s journey begins and ends in the town square where the sculpture of a stone angel entitled “Eternity” leans with its hands forever outstretched—but whether it is in supplication, pity, or simple mockery is left for the viewer to decide. A sad story told with style and compassion.

Summer Wars (Japan 2009) (6): Pokemon vs Tron in Mamoru Hosoda’s well-meaning bit of fluff which ultimately takes too long to say too little. Roped into posing as a classmate’s fiancé for an uncomfortable family reunion (she wants to impress her 90-year old grandmother), teenaged math prodigy and all around geek Kenji is suddenly called upon to help save humanity when a malicious hacker begins infiltrating Oz, the world’s largest social media network with billions of subscribers and links to everything from Wall St. to nuclear silos. Aided by friends and family—including the feisty grandma and a host of online avatars—Kenji and a rather truculent computer whiz reluctantly prepare to kick some cyber-butt… With anime reminiscent of those old Astro Boy toons and a cast of cute little virtual emoji characters (the squirrel looks like something from Happy Tree Friends, the bunny belongs on Xbox, and the big bad hacker hovers somewhere between a Hindu super villain and the demon from Disney’s Fantasia) there is certainly a bit of retro charm at work. But the story too often gets mired down in familial sweetness and silly plot devices as the message of “People Stick Together No Matter What!” is repeatedly hammered onto our corneas—and those video game showdowns, while colourful, soon begin to loop back on themselves. Children will get the message and then forget it once the disc ejects while older kids will giggle at the cartoon violence and occasional cuss word.

Sunflower (Italy 1970) (7): There’s an element of simple human warmth which runs through Vittorio De Sica’s bittersweet film that saves it from becoming just another two-hankie weeper—and the combined star power of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni doesn’t hurt either. After her soldier husband Antonio (Mastroianni) fails to return home at the end of WWII, Giovanna (Loren) refuses to believe he’s dead and instead clings to the army’s official “missing in action” status as if it were a talisman. Years pass without any word until, acting on a hunch, she journeys to Russia where he was last seen trudging through the snow with his retreating battalion… Told mainly in flashbacks De Sica starts off on a playful note with Antonio and Giovanna devising one harebrained scheme after another to keep him from being conscripted, their romantic entanglements given a wistful air by Henry Mancini’s melancholy score. But as an angry Giovanna tries to discover what became of her man the tone turns darker as De Sica avoids hysterical emoting to prove you can convey more pathos through a simple curve of the lip or a heavy silence—and Loren’s expressive beauty is more than up for the task. A sombre montage of battlefield brutality culled from the memories of the last soldier to see Antonio delivers an anti-war message while the film’s powerful closing shots remind us, somewhat emphatically, that despite our hearts’ most fervent desires life plays out according to its own rules. Beautifully filmed throughout, De Sica gives us one of cinema’s most poignant scenes as a determined Giovanna wanders through a rustic cemetery whose makeshift crosses stretch towards the sky.

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (USA 1927) (8): It’s summertime and in an idyllic resort town a simple farmer is lured away from his infant son and golden-haired wife (an angelic Janet Gaynor) by the seductive charms of a brunette temptress from the Big Bad City. Forsaking all he once held dear the man prepares to follow his lover wherever she may lead but first he’ll have to follow her advice and sell the farm then get rid of his adoring wife by staging a boating accident and letting her drown… F. W. Murnau’s silent classic is a heady mix of dark melodrama, erotic potboiler, and light comedy, all tied together by some amazing visual effects (an urban carnival takes on surreal overtones) and a lively orchestral score. Not one for understatement, Murnau splashes the small screen with fanciful images of pastoral bliss and moonlit embraces which he then contrasts, sometimes jarringly, with scenes of howling tempests and metropolitan chaos—his “big city” actually an elaborate outdoor soundstage. A beautifully overdone morality play whose grandiose staging and powerful performances make its somewhat facile message of love and forgiveness all the more palatable.

Sunshine (UK/USA 2007) (7):  In the year 2057 the sun is starting to burn out prematurely causing an eternal ice age on earth.  A crew of eight astronauts is sent on a mission to explode a huge mega-bomb in the sun’s upper layers in an attempt to “create a star within a star” thereby re-igniting the solar furnace and saving the world.  This is mankind’s second attempt to do this, the first crew having mysteriously disappeared before they could complete their mission.  What follows is a grand entry in the sci-fi genre with elements reminiscent of 2001, Alien and Event Horizon.  Boyle splashes the screen with gorgeous sensual images which convey not only a sense of  wonder but also explore the various ways technology and spirituality impact each other.  The talented cast is well-balanced and play off each other with a high degree of believability thanks in large part to a strong director and tight script.  While there is some definite artistic license regarding the underlying physics (this is science FICTION after all) the accompanying commentary by  Dr. Brian Cox offers some interesting theories regarding the film’s premise.  Well deserved praise aside, the film is not without a few glaring flaws.  The “Bogeyman in the Airlock” subplot was a bit of overkill, and Boyle seemed to fall in love with his own pyrotechnics towards the end resulting in a finale that bordered on the self-indulgent.  Despite these faults, Sunshine is still an exhilarating ride worth taking.

Sunshine Cleaning (USA 2008) (6): Rose (Amy Adams) has problems. Her elderly father (a nicely crusted Alan Arkin) is falling for one get rich scheme after another; her ne’er-do-well sister Norah (Emily Blunt) is busy sabotaging her life; the man in her life has no intention of leaving his wife; and her problem child needs a private school. That’s a lot for one woman to handle especially when her only source of income comes from a dead end housecleaning job. Her fortunes turn for the better however when she takes a stab at the highly lucrative business of crime scene sanitation—cleaning up the blood and guts left over from suicides, murders, and traffic accidents. It’s macabre and often malodorous work, but with Norah in tow the two start to make a name for themselves. Unfortunately, fate and circumstance seem to have different plans for the plucky entrepreneur… Emotionally, Christine Jeffs’ film is all over the map. As a black comedy it elicits a few smiles mostly centred on gory mattresses and crawling maggots, and as a drama it fails to engage on anything but a superficial level—Norah finds one cleaning assignment hitting too close to home; Arkin reprises his Little Miss Sunshine role as he mentors his grandson in the ways of crooked business dealings; and Rose pines for her boyfriend (Steve Zahn treating us to a butt shot) while feeling the sting of falling from head cheerleader in highschool to impoverished single mother post graduation. Pretty pat and dry plotting with everyone taking a turn at having their own personal revelation and more or less happy endings all around including a potential new love interest that audiences can see coming from a mile away. Sweet but forgettable.

Superbad (USA 2007) (7): Highschool seniors Evan (a virginally perplexed Michael Cena) and Seth (an F-bombing Jonah Hill) have been BFFs since kindergarten. Now faced with the prospect of going to different universities the two are experiencing the first pangs of separation anxiety, especially the corpulent Seth who’s never had that many friends to begin with. When the two are invited to the biggest kickass grad party in town AND promise to supply the liquor thanks to a fake ID recently acquired by geeky sidekick Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse stealing every scene), they set themselves up for a harrowing night of farcical detours especially when they cross paths with Southern California’s most unorthodox pair of cops (Bill Hader and co-writer Seth Rogen). From Adventures in Babysitting to Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle, “Teen Quest” comedies are nothing new and Superbad has nothing new to offer. As Seth, Evan and Fogel desperately try to make their way to the party there’s plenty of gross-out conversation centred primarily on tits and blowjobs, the usual lampooning of authority figures (Officers Slater and Michaels cavort like two stooges on crack), and a hefty dose of underage drinking and groping if no actual nudity. Despite this lack of originality the adult content is still funny enough to make older audiences smile and there is a warm if superficial vein of camaraderie underlying the slapstick antics as our two boyhood chums grow up just a little bit. But it was the prolonged and extremely juvenile flashback montage featuring a very young Seth going through his “penis drawing” phase (even George Washington gets a hefty wang) that provided the guiltiest laughs.

Super 8 (USA 2011) (9): In the summer of 1979 a group of kids are out way past their bedtime filming the latest scene in their amateur zombie flick when they witness a horrendous train derailment. Grabbing their camera gear they hightail it for home but not before they cross paths with the crash’s lone survivor and notice some very strange cargo spilling out of the overturned cars. Within hours their small Ohio town is crawling with military types intent on blocking any attempts by the local sheriff (one of the kids’ father) to investigate what really happened. But even the military are unable to hide the fact that mysterious things are afoot especially when the nights are suddenly filled with ominous howls and spontaneous explosions. At first reluctant to even discuss what they saw that night, the young filmmakers are spurred into action when one of their own goes missing. What follows is a delightful child’s eye adventure in which a handful of precocious tweens do their best to outwit a town full of authority figures who are either too evil or too clueless to appreciate them. Following a trail of clues and hunches the gang stumbles upon a deadly government secret while at the same time managing to hurl colourful insults at each other and maybe grow up just a little. Writer/director J. J. Abrams keeps the pyrotechnics going as hardware tumbles through the air, glass storefronts implode and vintage cars are turned into fiery scrap. He also exhibits an appreciation for what keeps audiences glued to their seats; his plucky pre-teens are sure to make contemporary kids snigger and aging boomers smile nostalgically as they recall watching the likes of E.T., The Goonies, and Gremlins for the first time. Unfortunately an otherwise very cool ending is marred by an overdose of Disneyesque schmaltz, probably courtesy of producer Steven Spielberg. But the film’s late 70s setting is impeccable, the young cast superb, and the soundtrack of old rock anthems pitch perfect. Be sure and sit through the final credits!

Superhero Movie (USA 2008) (5): When young Rick Riker is bitten by a genetically enhanced dragonfly while on a class field trip he suddenly finds himself endowed with super powers. Meanwhile, across town, evil business magnate Lou Landers has been developing powers of his own. When the two men finally confront each other the fate of Empire City hangs in the balance… The team that brought us the “Scary Movie” series apply their tired old formula to the superhero genre with mixed results. There is nothing fresh here, the jokes are stale, the plot (based loosely on “Spiderman” with a little “X-Men” thrown in) is derivative and wholly predictable, and the visual gags juvenile at best. But I have to admit it had me rolling off the couch more than once. I guess I’m just a sucker for a bad spoof.

Supernova (USA 2000) (6): In this science fiction thriller the crew of the deep space Medical Rescue Vessel "Nightingale" are diverted from their usual duties in order to respond to a garbled distress call from a remote corner of the galaxy. Coming out of hyperspace they find themselves in the gravitational grip of a massive star just hours away from annihilating itself in a powerful supernova explosion. Narrowing the S.O.S. signal to a rogue moon circling the unstable star they rescue the lone survivor of an ill-fated mining operation, a handsome young man whose identity strikes an unpleasant chord with the Nightingale's resident physician. But all is not what it appears to be for the young miner has a few secrets of his own, secrets which seem to revolve around a most unusual piece of carry-on luggage. With his damaged ship threatened from both within and without, the Nightingale's rookie captain is forced to make some difficult decisions whose ramifications reach further than he could ever have imagined. Although much maligned by critics upon its initial release, Supernova nevertheless presents an interesting, if hardly exceptional, story of first contact gone awry. The cast of beautiful people wear their roles well while some frantic editing and rocket ship sets bathed in glowing shades of blue allow us to suspend our disbelief for the full ninety minutes. However, the underwhelming CGI effects probably look better on a home screen and a host of energetic performances still fail to breathe life into a lacklustre script. Furthermore, whether this was intentional or not, the ship's robotic handyman, Flyboy, bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Woody Allen's clunky android in Sleeper. A hauntingly surreal denouement and one tantalizingly unresolved thread ultimately save the film from total obscurity.

Suspiria (Italy 1977) (7): A young American dancer travels to Germany to attend a prestigious ballet school but encounters madness, murder and black magic instead. It would appear that the school's faculty have some very nasty secrets hidden away within the institution's crumbling walls and it's up to the plucky new girl to get to the bottom (or top) of things. With its gothic chic sets drowned in dark shades of lurid red, histrionic performances, and blaring musical score by The Goblins (think Mike Oldfield vs Skinny Puppy) Argento's undisputed master work is a gloriously overdone tale of contemporary witchcraft. A bit dark at times (as in not enough light) this is still one of the best giallo horror films ever made. Argento's signature penchant for the macabre is clearly evident but this time around he couches it in pure artistry; shadowy hallways framed in stained glass, growling figures silhouetted against white sheets, and everywhere a sense of malevolence and decay. One helluva guilty pleasure!

Sweet Country (Australia 2017) (7): “The rule of law was the last to arrive…and the first to be broken” stated Aboriginal filmmaker Warwick Thornton on the colonization of Australia. With this in mind his much feted feature film, based on an actual court case, becomes both a tense drama and a sobering history lesson. In the wild west Outback of 1929 an Aboriginal ranch hand shoots and kills a white man before fleeing into the wilderness with his wife. The fact that it was in self-defense and the dead man was cruel and mentally unstable—a side-effect of having served in WWI perhaps—means little to the constable assigned to track him down, a fellow war veteran whose racist worldview is very much limited to Black and White. Using the pursuit and subsequent trial as springboards, Thornton highlights some uncomfortable truths about his country’s beginnings and he does so with all the panache of an early John Ford. The twentieth century hasn’t quite reached the Northern Territory yet leaving his characters suspended in time and allowing him to examine the forces shaping them. Little better than slave labour, the black natives are the subjects of scorn and abuse, often taken from their homeland and forced to acknowledge King and Country—a situation some rebel against while others seem to adapt to as a way of getting ahead in changing times hence one young boy gleefully robs his white overlords while his elder is eager to help them hunt down the fugitive. Their white counterparts, meanwhile, seem torn between maintaining the status quo and quelling a growing sense of shame (one rancher alternately beats and rewards the Aboriginal youth he’s more or less adopted while a white missionary humbly offers them the empty promises of Christianity). With wide open deserts and salt flats serving as backdrops Thornton and his largely native cast and crew inject just a touch of mysticism to the story—oddly placed flashbacks and flash-forwards mimic dreamtime and dusk turns already exotic scenery otherworldly—but bring us back to ice cold reality as the accused is led before an outdoor tribunal in chains, the presiding judge barely able to silence catcalls coming from the vengeful townsfolk. A deceptively straightforward story which uses a tragic flashpoint to highlight cultures in collision yet leaves us with one of Australian cinema’s more inspired shots—a heartbroken man wanders aimlessly into the desert while in the sky above him storm clouds and rainbows vie for dominance.

Sweet Movie (Canada/France 1974) (3): A most repulsive film, Dusan Makavejev’s scatological rant against conformity, social taboos, and political ideology caused the usual stir when it premiered at Cannes, was immediately banned from UK cinemas, and led to one star being ousted from her native Poland for seven years. Disjointed and pointedly anarchic in nature it involves two unrelated storylines that neither converge nor particularly compliment one another. In the first tale an American tycoon hosts an international beauty pageant for virgins in order to find himself a suitable wife willing to have her chastity confirmed onstage. After enduring a horrendous wedding night at the hands of the germ-phobic billionaire and his gold-plated penis, the winner (Miss Canada!) finds herself exiled to Europe where she falls prey to a subversive Austrian commune whose members use infantilism and bodily functions as a form of social protest (note: if you are adverse to watching people puke, shit, and piss all over themselves at the dinner table this is your cue to fast forward). In the adjoining tale beaming socialist Captain Anna Planeta pilots her big boat, adorned with a weeping Karl Marx figurehead, through the canals of Amsterdam. Inside her decrepit vessel lies a virtual treasure trove of candy, including a huge flat of sugar which doubles as a lovemaking pit. Luring young men and boys aboard her ship with promises of sex and sweets she proves to be not quite as benevolent as she appears... To fill in the gaps between his narratives Dusan throws in some horrifyingly explicit B&W newsreels detailing the WWII atrocities at Katyn for reasons I’m sure made perfect sense to him at the time. It all comes together in the final reel where a pair of cynical endings show the virginal Miss Canada now transformed into the ultimate consumer whore and Planeta getting her just desserts while her victims return for a final bow as if to remind us it’s just a movie after all. Makavejev certainly has the proper credentials growing up as he did in communist Yugoslavia where he studied psychology at a leading Serbian institute, and his film does contain a few memorable scenes as when a group of nuns, happening upon a copulating couple, suddenly form a pious tableau straight out of a Renaissance painting. But in his zeal to skewer everything from socialist utopias and capitalist daydreams to the creative restraints placed upon artists (like himself no doubt) he exhibits the same kind of narcissistic arrogance he’s supposedly condemning. If you don’t appreciate his often subjective film with its obscure references and puzzling symbolism it’s obviously because you’re not smart enough to recognize his genius. Any reasonably well read viewer will quickly get the gist of what Makavejev is carrying on about and then just as quickly shrug it off as a terribly dated piece of guerrilla filmmaking which was once confrontational and is now just an affront. Finally, I can take all the potty scenes, mock castrations, and bouncing genitalia he cares to throw at me but when a mostly naked Planeta writhes and lap dances for a group of rapt nine-year old boys a line is definitely crossed, artistic expression or not. A thoroughly sour experience.

Sweet Smell of Success (USA 1957) (10): In today’s age of tabloid gossip and paparazzi muckraking Alexander Mackendrick’s darkly cynical look at the corrupting power of celebrity is perhaps more relevant now than it ever was. Burt Lancaster is superb as J. J. Hunsecker, a despotic Broadway columnist whose fame has led him to believe that he is above such trivialities as morality and ethics; even politicians and the police are at his beck and call. Circling him like a faithful lapdog is press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis, equally brilliant) a fawning sycophant who will do anything in order to get his clients a favorable mention in J. J.’s column, even agreeing to sabotage the budding romance between Hunsecker’s sister Susan and Steve Dallas, a promising young musician whom J. J. views as an unwelcome rival (his brotherly concern hints at something far more grotesque). As Steve’s reputation is suddenly targeted by a newspaper smear campaign Susan begins to suspect the truth, but years of conditioning have left her unable to stand up to her brutally overbearing brother. With Hunsecker desperately trying to maintain control and Susan experiencing the first stirrings of rebellion, the stage is set for one final confrontation... A contemporary tragedy of Shakespearian proportions, Sweet Smell of Success pits tyranny against naïve innocence in a world awash with noir archetypes, glittering neon, and garbage strewn streets. Its crisp B&W cinematography captures a cold and heartless city while a cruel script is rife with barbs and hidden knives. But ironically the film’s most piteous victim is Sidney Falco, an everyman whose hunger for fame and fortune has led him down a very dark path indeed. Watching him stare with a mixture of apathy and horror as the last pieces of his soul are devoured is truly chilling. An American masterpiece.

Swimming Pool (France 2003) (8): Charlotte Rampling is superb as Sarah Morton, a rather frigid British crime novelist whose artistic juices are experiencing a bit of a drought. Retreating to her publisher’s lush estate in the south of France for some much needed R&R Morton begins working on her next big novel only to be interrupted by the arrival of Julie, the publisher’s Lolita-like daughter who proceeds to turn Morton’s staid life inside-out. Representing everything Sarah is not, Julie has no qualms about traipsing around the pool naked, flaunting her sexual conquests each night, and leaving a trail of dirty dishes and discarded panties in her wake. Both repulsed by and obsessed with the beautiful young woman—even helping herself to the girl’s secret diary—Morton gradually discovers there is a dark underside to Julie’s partying and before she can even bang out her next chapter the two become involved in a real life crime thriller… Exactly what goes down in François Ozon’s erotic head-scratcher—feminist psychodrama? artist’s allegory? off-kilter whodunnit?—is entirely up to you but with patience and observation it’s sure to be remarkable. In the role of Rampling’s publisher, Charles Dance brings a dominating male presence to the film, a firm thumb under which Morton’s creativity energy must limit itself only to those pursuits which promise to be the most profitable…for him. Yet finding a muse in Julie’s wanton abandon (and nursing a secret envy) is both a liberating experience and a harrowing adventure for the spinsterish Brit who feels her wild exploratory days are long gone. And then there’s Julie’s succession of sex partners, all generic male egos except for the one hunk that puts Sarah’s own libido on simmer. Central to Ozon’s puzzler of course is the enigmatic swimming pool around whose cobalt depths—sometimes murky, sometimes all too clear—the two women spar and share and ultimately transform. If you’re unfamiliar with Ozon’s style this would be a good place to start, if you’re already a fan then welcome home!

Swiss Army Man (USA 2016) (2): A shipwrecked Hank (Paul Dano) has his life saved by a flatulent corpse (Daniel Radcliffe?!?!) who happens to wash ashore just as he’s about to do himself in. But this is no ordinary cadaver for it possesses several supernatural abilities including fart-powered jet ski, fresh water fountain (just push on his tummy) and magical compass (his post mortem boner always points the way home). Still reading? Okay, then… “Manny” can also talk but he’s a complete tabula rasa who has forgotten what being alive was like so it’s up to Hank to jar his memory on everything from chicks to masturbation to love. And while the two make their way back to civilization Manny’s naiveté about life causes Hank to reevaluate his own—cue soaring a cappella ballads as Hank heals and Manny lets loose a string of squeakers. So, it’s Weekend at Bernies coupled with Castaway though less funny than the former (which wasn’t funny anyway) and less interesting than the latter (which wasn’t very interesting to begin with). Add a little bit of Gilligan’s Island as Hank tries to recreate the real world for Manny using trash and flotsam, and you have the kind of juvenile drivel that wows them at the MTV Awards while the rest of us see it for what it really is: a three million dollar fart joke. Trying to view this insultingly stupid mess as either a spoof or a grand metaphor doesn’t help either for I’ve seen reruns of Beavis & Butthead which offered more social insight with far more finesse. And worst of all, it leaves you with a host of disturbing visuals not the least of which is Dano in garbage dump drag dancing with Radcliffe who’s suspended from a tree by wires. Cast and crew reportedly taped their own bouts of flatulence for use on the soundtrack and that alone should be the only warning you need.

Swiss Family Robinson (USA 1960) (5): During the reign of Napoleon a resourceful couple and their three sons flee war-ravaged Europe for the promise of a fresh start in the fledgling colony of New Guinea. En route however they wind up being shipwrecked on a deserted island where they immediately set about creating a tropical idyll with supplies and livestock salvaged from the sinking ship. But with the nearby jungle full of wild—and apparently very tameable—African animals (on a South Pacific island?!) and the surrounding waters home to sharks and cutthroat pirates, the Robinsons will have to rely on their wits and ingenuity in order to survive! Walt Disney guts yet another piece of classic literature, in this case Johann Wyss’ 1812 novel, and turns the remains into a kindergarten fantasy with cutesy critters, cartoon peril (the pirates look like an Indonesian drag revue), and the coolest treehouse ever built. Parents John Mills and Dorothy McGuire assume the proper gender roles—he saws logs, she coos over gingham drapes—while the two older boys struggle with adolescent hormones (James MacArthur looking just fine sans shirt) and the youngest runs wild and free (Kevin Corcoran cloying audiences to the point of nausea). It all ends happily ever after of course and some of the wildlife sequences are superbly filmed even though the rough treatment of the animals would be illegal today. Sure to charm the preschoolers but I liked the Robinsons better when they were lost in space.

The Sword of Doom (Japan 1966) (6): Beautifully filmed in B&W, Kihachi Okamoto’s tale of madness and possession in 19th century Japan takes on a quasi-expressionistic sheen with swirling snowstorms, misty forests, and labyrinthine interiors full of shifting screens and shadows. Set during a time of political and social upheaval as the old shogunate system gave way to the new Empire, it tells the story of master swordsman Ryunosuke Tsukue, a ruthless and amoral man whose unconscionable acts eventually lead to his downfall. Mentally unhinged and quite possibly under demonic control, Tsukue hires himself out as a valuable mercenary, but as the body count goes up so too does the number of personal vendettas against him… Impeccable acting all around especially Tatsuya Nakadai’s stone-faced performance as the unearthly samurai and Michiyo Aratama as the vengeful wife of one of his victims who ends up reluctantly sharing his bed. The real star of Okamoto’s epic however is cinematographer Hiroshi Murai who adds a touch of magical realism to all the bloodletting whether it be a group of assassins flitting past a snowy cemetery or a surreal fight sequence filled with fire and illusory ghosts. Unfortunately much of the historical background is lost on western audiences and an abrupt ending leaves too many dangling storylines and unexplained twists—apparently this was meant to be the first instalment of a trilogy that was never completed hence the overall feel of something left unfinished.

Synecdoche, New York (USA 2008) (10): Caden Cotard is a modestly successful stage director obsessed with death. It doesn’t help that his mailbox is filled with cancer magazines, his newspaper is filled with obituaries, and the cartoons his child watches seem to mock his fears. Even the milk in the fridge is long past its expiry date while the wallpaper in his cluttered kitchen bears a ghostly figure. Between interminable visits to specialists who take a bleak interest in his intermittent lumps, bumps and bloody stools, he works on an ironic production of Death of a Salesman while at the same time trying to save his failing marriage. But when he receives a huge arts grant he decides to embark on his biggest project yet—no less than recreating the city of New York in an abandoned hangar and populating it with hundreds of anonymous extras, including stand-ins for everyone he’s ever known or loved. Before long however, the actors begin to take on lives of their own necessitating a few hasty rewrites... Combining the audacity of Fosse’s All That Jazz with the cryptic details of Anderson’s Magnolia, Kaufman draws on theatrical hyperbole to highlight one man’s rage against his own mortality. Using telescoping timelines, overlapping characters and an odd dream logic, he creates a skewed reality which is both seductive and mystifying. “Fate is what you create...” bellows a character at one point, “...every choice you make changes everything...and you only get one chance to play it out!” Fuelled by his own artistic narcissism and an overriding fear of obscurity, Caden attempts to challenge this dictum using doppelgängers and phantoms. But you can’t change the past and all people, no matter what their station in life, arrive at the same final destination. Kaufman’s brilliant script is constantly catching you off guard with its unexpected turns and sly allusions (google “Cotard Delusion” and “synecdoche” for starters). He then fills his elaborately layered sets with tantalizing clues and visual tropes, whether it’s the briefly glimpsed title of a book or a chronically smouldering house. Puzzling, enigmatic, and impossible to fully appreciate with one viewing, we may not grasp all the finer tricks but Kaufman’s sympathetic portrayal of a painfully flawed everyman can’t help but strike a chord.

Tabloid (USA 2010) (8): Back in the late ‘70s former Miss Wyoming beauty queen Joyce McKinney’s fat dumpy Mormon boyfriend left her in order to attend missionary school in England. Not used to being jilted, she became so convinced that the church had abducted and brainwashed him that she hired a pair of accomplices and journeyed across the Atlantic in order to abduct him back—by any means necessary—then deprogram him and make him fall in love with her once more—again, by any means necessary. And this is where Errol Morris’ delightfully lurid documentary gets even more risqué especially after the British tabloids got hold of the story and turned it into a cause célèbre for it contained all the necessary ingredients of a good old fashioned scandal: a buxom kidnapper, Scotland Yard, and kinky sex. With a small cadre of talking heads ranging from an outspoken ex-Mormon and a pair of journalists to a Korean cloning specialist (yes, you read that right) Morris prompts and cajoles his subjects into revealing far too much information and then augments his interviews with campy film snippets and some of the salacious headlines (“Mormon in Manacles!”) which graced the front pages of The Daily Express and Daily Mirror, two UK tabloids that competed with each other to get the “true story”. Still perky and clueless after all these years McKinney (with a stated IQ of 168) alternately condemns and exonerates herself while Morris gleefully keeps pace and everyone else smiles and shakes their heads. Who was this lovestruck pageant winner? What was going through her mind at the time? And what to make of all that titillating evidence the Mirror managed to dredge up in Los Angeles? The answers are only a DVD away…!

Take Care of My Cat (Korea 2001) (7): With the comfortable certainties of childhood behind them three young women, friends since grade school, face the vagaries of the adult world with emotions that range from quiet despair to a kind of guarded optimism. While one selfishly pursues a corporate career armed only with a sense of self-delusional narcissism, another contends with parental pressures that threaten to derail her dreams of being an artist, while the third, raised by her destitute grandparents, faces a bleak future of dead-end jobs and poverty. As each girl reaches a crisis point in her life, heralded by the arrival of the titular kitten, she finds herself forced to make a momentous decision that will alter her life for better or worse. In the meantime there are families to deal with, deadlines to meet, and a whole lot of growing up to do... Jae-Eun Jeong has fashioned a very smart, if slightly unrealistic, snapshot of young lives on the cusp. Aside from the urban fairy-tale ending her film has a refreshingly unsentimental feel to it with its gritty cityscapes and funky minimalist score punctuated here and there with some dreamlike sequences. I was especially intrigued with the recurrent use of geometric shapes, especially squares...whether it was a table inlay, a window design or one girl’s mandala-like doodles; it reminded me of endless timetables and reinforced the film’s underlying theme nicely. And of course there is the omnipresent sound of cellphone ringtones. It seems the majority of the film’s communication is in the form of voicemail and text messages, a phenomenon that Jeong exploits with a sly wink. Lastly, there’s the cat. Originally a birthday gift, the little feline ends up being shuffled from one woman to the other as priorities change and circumstances arise. It quickly becomes both a symbol of responsibility and a metaphor for an entire generation trying to find its place in the world. A bit overdone at times, oversimplified at others, but a sincere effort nonetheless.

Take Shelter (USA 2011) (8): Curtis is a dedicated family man living in rural Ohio with his wife and young, hearing impaired daughter. Life seems pretty good for him until he begins having apocalyptic nightmares involving monstrous storms and murderous stalkers; dreams that seem to linger long after he's leapt out of bed. Something bad is going to happen, of that he's convinced, but are these truly visions or is he following the same path as his mother who was institutionalized with schizophrenia when he was only ten years old? No longer certain as to where the dividing line between reality and delusion lies Curtis begins constructing an elaborate tornado shelter in the backyard (a job the family can ill afford) while at the same time making a few hesitant visits to the local mental health clinic. His erratic behaviour soon begins placing a strain on both his marriage and his job, a strain that begins to take its toll on his already fragile mind. Jeff Nichols' amazing film, part psychodrama part social metaphor, is rife with contemporary angst. In fact fear seems to saturate every frame as Curtis obsesses over his family's security, his personal health, and an uncertain future punctuated by ominous portents that only he can see. The film's visuals are arresting and the intense performances uniformly excellent but, given its overall sense of mounting tension and paranoia, the thundery climax comes across as a bit too tidy...until Nichols plays his ace. In what has to be one of the most enigmatic codas I've seen in some time he pulls a small cinematic coup which forced me to reinterpret the preceding two hours yet again. I like it when a director does that!

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (USA 1974) (8): A group of heavily armed men take a subway car full of passengers hostage threatening to kill one person every minute unless their demands are met. A smart, tightly edited thriller with an all-star cast that manages to keep the action moving right up until the unexpectedly comical ending. Flipping back and forth between claustrophobic interiors and widescreen cityscapes, director Joseph Sargent ratchets up the suspense while keeping the plot simple and believable. A few non-PC moments may make overly sensitive contemporary audiences squirm (listed among the closing credits are "The Homosexual", "The W.A.S.P." and "The Hooker" ha! ha!) but hey, it was the freaking 70s!

The Tales of Hoffmann (UK 1951) (7): The dynamic duo of classic British cinema, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, team up once again with the legendary Archers production company for this sumptuous screen adaptation of Offenbach’s opera. Hoffmann, a struggling writer, is smitten by Stella, a prima donna with the local ballet company who has agreed to meet with him at a local tavern. But city councillor Lindorf has an inexplicable grudge against Hoffmann and does everything in his power to prevent their rendezvous. In the meantime a group of students descend upon the pub and between rounds of drinking encourage the lovelorn man to regale them with tall tales of his past romances. Thus begins a series of flashbacks in which Hoffmann and his trusted friend Ncklaus, along with Lindorf and Stella, take on various guises as three separate stories unfold. In the first, Hoffmann is a student who loses his heart to a clockwork ballerina; then he’s a rogue who loses his soul to a Venetian courtesan; and finally, a poet whose love for a doomed singer helps him to find his own true Muse. Apparently the film that prompted George Romero to enter the business and now painstakingly restored by the Martin Scorsese Film Foundation, Powell & Pressburger’s gloriously overdone production, presented with an English libretto, overflows with striking images: a swirl of dancing marionettes comes to life; a soundstage Venice is all gauzy backdrops and guttering candles; and a lonely Greek isle is lifted straight from a classical painting. But the elaborately camp set designs and extravagant performances, all presented in eye-gouging Technicolor, limit this one to diehard fans of opera and ballet as well as those who love a bit of fey cinema now and again. The music is magnificent however, and star Moira Shearer’s ballet sequences alone are worth the rental price.

The Taming of the Shrew (Italy/USA 1967) (7): Even though Zeffirelli took many liberties with Shakespeare’s caustic comedy, paring away much of its complexity in the process, this brash costume epic still manages to float thanks in large part to the combined star power of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. In prosperous Padua wealthy merchant Baptista is eager to marry off his two daughters. Young Bianca, beautiful and demure, has no shortage of suitors—-in fact a few overly eager bachelors have resorted to outrageous subterfuge in order to win her hand. But alas, according to custom Bianca cannot wed until her older sister Katharina finds a husband of her own. And therein lies the film’s comedic wellspring for “Kate” is a foul-tempered, acid-tongued dragon who terrorizes her family and sends all eligible men running for cover. Kate eventually meets her match however when the drunken opportunist Petruchio stumbles into town looking to “thrive and wive” and is immediately steered towards the surly maiden and her handsome dowry. What follows is an all out Elizabethan battle of the sexes in which Katharina, the cards already stacked against her thanks to her gender, goes head-to-head agains the gruff and implacable Petruchio who is determined to bring her to heel at any cost. One of Shakespeare’s more problematic plays, at least to 21st century sensibilities, Kate’s transformation from fiery hellcat (or independent spirit?) to domesticated hausfrau can be interpreted as either a straightforward example of 16th century sexism or, with a small stretch of the imagination, a subtle rebuke steeped in irony and satire. Certainly Kate’s closing monologue concerning a woman’s happy subservience to her lord and master will forever be open to heated discussions—and that closing pan of Taylor and Burton being whisked away by a bacchanal presents an interesting twist. But no matter, this is still a lively, raucous free-for-all full of pageantry and rich Renaissance backdrops all set to an airy score by Nino Rota. Although lacking the lush romanticism of his later Romeo and Juliet (1968), Zeffirelli nevertheless manages to infuse a spirited passion into this film adaptation. And when those sparks begin to fly between Burton and Taylor the erotic overtones are unmistakable.

Tammy and the Bachelor (USA 1957) (7): Seventeen-year old bayou naif Tammy (a twenty-five year old Debbie Reynolds trying to sound like Elly May Clampett) lives an idyllic life along the Mississippi river with her pet goat and crusty old grandfather (Walter Brennan), a part-time preacher and full-time bootlegger. But Tammy’s white trash paradise begins to unravel when she and grandpa take it upon themselves to nurse injured pilot Peter Brent (preppie hunk Leslie Nielsen) back to health and the presence of so much recuperating male flesh sets her hormones to slow boil. Bidding a teary farewell to Peter as he returns to his own home, our little swamp princess resigns herself once more to a life of fishin’ and gardenin’ until one day grandpa gets arrested for selling one too many bottles of moonshine and he decides to take Peter up on his offer to care for Tammy should she suddenly find herself alone. Upon arriving at the Brent estate Tammy is shocked to discover Peter’s family lives in a sprawling antebellum mansion (cue token black maid) and that he is unhappily engaged to a Louisiana ice princess when all he wants is the simple life of a farmer. Despite herself Tammy is drawn to Peter’s broad shoulders and puppy dog eyes while he is drawn to her simple charms and budding cleavage. Annnnd… can pretty well guess the rest. Notable only for it’s syrupy Oscar-nominated theme song and for featuring one of Fay Wray’s final big screen appearances as Peter’s faded southern belle mother, Tammy and the Bachelor is one of those ridiculously innocent chick flicks that nevertheless manage to charm the smug smirk right off your face. Perhaps it’s the wistful music and exaggerated technicolor; or maybe it’s watching two pretty people fall predictably in love; or maybe, after a diet of so much “realism” when it comes to sex and violence, it’s fun to treat yourself to some cinematic floss where carnality is reduced to a sunset kiss and the only crisis is forgetting to milk the goat. If only.

Tangled (USA 2010) (9): Disney once again rewrites a classic fairy tale, this time Rapunzel, but does it with such sparkle that I found myself smiling and humming along with all those cute animated characters just the same. Locked in a tower ever since she was a baby by the nefarious “Mother Gothel” because of her magical hair’s ability to grant immortality the kidnapped princess Rapunzel has nothing but her imagination and precocious pet chameleon to keep her company. Leery of the outside world thanks to Gothel’s exaggerated accounts of the villains and monsters which inhabit it the princess, now eighteen, nevertheless wonders about what lies beyond her stone walls. When the charming thief Flynn Rider accidentally winds up in Rapunzel’s tower room she finally sees a chance to escape her dreary captivity and experience life for the first time—but Flynn is in a bit of trouble himself thanks to one very vengeful horse and the naïve princess soon realizes she may have bitten off more than she can chew. Gothel, meanwhile, will stop at nothing to get her ridiculously long-haired “daughter” back… Featuring impeccable animation and a host of surprisingly catchy tunes that range from exuberant slapstick—a Monty Python-style song & dance number at the “Snuggly Duckling” tavern is priceless—to wistful cartoon romance as thief and princess sing to each other beneath a sky glowing with paper lanterns. Made for little girls, but I liked it too!

Targets (USA 1968) (8): Peter Bogdanovich’s first film, and arguably his best, is a disturbingly realistic drama which sets the horror genre on its ear as it examines America’s twin fascinations with gun violence and celebrity. Byron Orlok (Boris Karloff essentially playing himself) is an antique actor known for his macabre roles who, feeling the weight of his years and all too aware of the diminishing shock value of his classic tales of terror when compared to contemporary newspaper articles of senseless killings, decides to make one final public appearance at a Los Angeles drive-in theatre showing one of his golden oldies. Meanwhile, in a converging story, a mild-mannered insurance salesman murders his family before calmly embarking on a shooting spree, eventually ending up at the same drive-in, arsenal in hand, as Karloff’s character. A tense confrontation between horror icon and homicidal psychopath ensues… Made all the more terrifying by its sheer ordinariness—at one point the sniper takes a break between killings to enjoy a sandwich and a Dr. Pepper—Bogdanovich’s constant juxtaposition of nightmarish reality and Hollywood peril (incidental television screens air menacing films throughout) reaches a surreal climax at the outdoor theatre where the gunman, hemmed in by a very real Orlok on one side and a twenty foot screen Orlok on the other, is unable to distinguish which one he should be trying to kill. An amazing and prophetic film which is perhaps more pertinent now than it was forty years ago.

The Taste of Tea (Japan 2004) (9): Hope springs eternal in Ishii’s long languorous daydream of a film that revels in life’s small joys and unspoken fears. The Haruno family live in a quiet pastoral village nestled between towering mountains and sun-dappled fields. It’s a place where being a misfit is the norm and people seem to have no more than a casual acquaintance with life’s harsher realities. While mother Satomi spends her days trying to restart her career as an animator, her psychotherapist husband Nobuo tries to lift people out of the ordinary through hypnosis. Meanwhile eldest son Hajime is experiencing his first tastes of love and heartbreak; little sister Sachiko longs to be grown up; and uncle Ayano is slowly coming to terms with a failed relationship. Each character sees the world filtered through their own personal dreams; whether it’s Hajime chasing trains that always seem to elude him or Sachiko constantly being followed by a huge version of herself which compounds her feelings of inadequacy. Then there’s Ayano who finds himself unable to cross the bridge that leads to his ex-girlfriend’s shop. Only grandfather Akira, eccentric and perhaps a bit demented, lives for the moment, relishing each day as if it were a precious gift. And throughout it all there’s the ubiquitous cups of tea that seem to be poured at just the right moment in order to bring the family together, soothe a jangled nerve, or welcome a weary guest. Ishii saturates each frame with fantastic imagery and a passion for his characters which, although sincere, never takes itself too seriously. Through the long sunny days and soft moonlit nights one feels an underlying sense of harmony at work which gives each person the courage to hope. There is a wonderfully layered look to his film, with separate narrative strands taking place in the foreground, middle ground and background, often simultaneously. If things occasionally move at a glacial pace it is only to allow us ample time to smell the many roses along the way.

Tekkonkinkreet (Japan 2006) (8½):  Beautifully crafted anime about a streetwise orphan named Black and his innocent young sidekick White, who patrol the skies and alleyways of Treasure Town guarding their turf while eking out a living through petty theft.  When a powerful crime syndicate tries to take over the neighbourhood they’re in for more trouble than they bargained for as they come up against these two pint-sized ninjas and their superhuman abilities.  The gripping storyline is an interesting blend of film noir and Saturday morning cartoon that will appeal to older children yet contains enough depth and pathos to keep adult fans of the genre captivated.  Treasure Town itself is a colourful rat’s nest of garish attractions and decaying storefronts reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s vision of L.A. in “Blade Runner”.  Arias has captured the spirit of the original manga perfectly.  His intelligent script is further enhanced by some incredible animation and a very cool soundtrack of original music.  Highly recommended.

10 Cloverfield Lane (USA 2016) (7): This follow-up to 2008’s Cloverfield is not so much a sequel or prequel as it is an alternate companion piece. After suffering a freakish car accident, twenty-something Michelle wakes up chained to a wall in a concrete room with a badly sprained ankle and a few bruises. The room is just part of an elaborate bomb shelter manned by psychotic conspiracy theorist and former navy officer Howard (John Goodman?!) and his other “guest” Emmett who are both convinced that Doomsday has been visited upon America in the form of a devastating attack from either Russia or Mars. Believing she is the prisoner of a madman Michelle tries her damnedest to escape until some discomfiting evidence makes her realize that there may be more to Howard’s articulate rants than mere delusion. Circumstances, however, eventually force her to decide between two equally terrifying options: stay put with an increasingly agitated Howard or take her chances with what lies beyond the bunker’s double steel doors… Considering it was produced by J. J. Abrams, director Dan Trachtenberg’s riff on the monster movie is surprisingly restrained when it comes to things blowing up. Filmed almost entirely within the cluttered confines of a survivalist shelter his three-handed horror show relies instead on ratcheting tension and the occasional curveball to keep us off guard. While Howard, Emmett, and Michelle maintain a wary camaraderie in their underground hidey-hole there is just enough input from above to keep you on edge whether it be a mysterious rumbling or a frightening view through a plexiglass window. True to the genre it’s all supremely silly if you take the time to think about it, but it’s such an entertaining silliness delivered with so much deadpan seriousness that you’re willing to forgive and enjoy. Besides, it’s refreshing to see a resourceful female protagonist who doesn’t resort to flashing her boobs and screaming every time she’s in peril.

Tenebre (Italy 1982) (7): When an American mystery writer visits Rome on a book promotion tour his arrival sparks a series of grisly murders which bear an uncanny resemblance to the misogynistic slayings in his latest novel. Soon he is receiving fanatical phone calls and cryptic notes from the twisted killer as the pair of homicide detectives assigned to the case run around in circles. With everyone dying around him it’s only a matter of time before the author becomes the next victim, but who could the murderer be? As the red herrings are messily picked off one by one the plot becomes increasingly diabolical culminating in a dark and stormy showdown bursting with hysterical screaming, fountains of crimson gore and a double ending that had me rolling on the couch. Gloriously overdone in every way this is classic giallo from Dario Argento, one of the genre’s undisputed masters. Not for every taste to be sure; there are no cerebral plot devices here, precious little logic and the cast of B-list actors are outshone by the manic performance of one very persistent doberman. But if you like a bit of sex and guts to go with your cheese then light up the bong and hit “play”.

Ten Tiny Love Stories  (USA 2001) (2):  Did you ever have to sit and listen to some casual acquaintance drone on and on about all the boring minutiae of her insignificant life until all you could think of was tearing your eyeballs out of their sockets so at least you'd have an excuse to run away screaming? Watching this film is kind of like that only you have to go through it 10 times. Despite some good acting this is still the kind of syrupy treacle that gives chick flicks an even worse reputation than they already have. Run away, RUN AWAY!!!

Teorema (Italy 1969) (6): Viewing Pier Pasolini’s socio-religious allegory is akin to wading through a lake of molasses blindfolded—you’re never sure in which direction you’re heading and it takes an awfully long time. The bare bones story begins with a charismatic young man (Terence Stamp) who inexplicably arrives at the doorstep of a wealthy Italian family and proceeds to sleep with each and every occupant of the household, starting with the maid and working through brother, sister, mother, and father. Then, as abruptly as he arrived he leaves and in the psychic wake left by his sudden absence no one is ever the same again: one member gives in to temptations of the flesh while another achieves sainthood, one is consumed with artistic mania, one becomes catatonic, and the patriarch himself becomes a born again Marxist. We know Stamp’s character represents a god because Pasolini said so but surely the director, an avowed atheist, was not aiming for spiritual inspiration despite those religious flourishes which too often border on camp conceits. What then? Is this a dead sober parable on the transformative power of socialist ideology? The film certainly opens with enough communist rhetoric as a news crew questions the fate of the middle class while interviewing factory workers. Or is Pasolini taking a broad swipe at the fragility of the bourgeoisie when he shows one such family crumbling after a single brush with the “divine”? Off-putting in its use of apparently haphazard editing and penchant for flowery yet wooden performances and utilizing a strange musical score of sad jazz and godly choirs watered down so as to sound deliberately subliminal, this is a difficult movie to like let alone recommend. Furthermore, the years have only served to exaggerate its avant-garde eccentricities without shedding any further light on Pasolini’s motives. But flat tone and esoteric metaphors aside there is a captivating quality to his vision which welcomes analysis—however fruitless—and that final scene of a nude figure stumbling and screaming across a landscape of smoke and ashes has become iconic in arthouse circles. Irony of ironies, the movie actually received an award from the Catholic Film Office which was later rescinded after the Pope grumbled about it.

Terribly Happy (Denmark 2008) (10): One of the most ferociously biting films to come out of Denmark in years, "Terribly Happy" plays like a strange mash-up of David Lynch and the Coens. After suffering a nervous breakdown Robert, a Copenhagen cop, is assigned to a tiny backwater in the middle of nowhere, the kind of place where "nothing much happens". Only things do happen, bad things, and the nearby bog holds more secrets than anyone is willing to admit. When Robert gets involved with the abused wife of the local bully his brief brush with l'amour fou leads to an unforeseen tragedy which not only threatens to end his career permanently, but quite possibly his life as well. Director Henrik Genz's macabre little puzzler draws its inspiration from seemingly disparate genres; film noir, westerns, and the best of Euro avant-garde. His characters, at once believable and completely bizarre, seem to inhabit a world just slightly skewed from the norm where the most mundane of things carry tremendous import; a little girl's toy stroller becomes the voice of conscience, a summer storm breaks with heavenly wrath, and a simple game of cards costs a man his very soul. A strange and wonderful little flick that toys with our expectations and then delivers its final punchline with a wink and a smirk. The lead actor is a total hunk too....woof viking!

Terror is a Man (Philippines 1959) (6): Seaman William Fitzgerald finds himself stranded on a small island off the coast of South America where he becomes a guest of the mysterious Dr. Girard and his bullet-breasted wife Frances. Immediately warming up to his tropical surroundings (and Frances' ample charms) Fitzgerald settles in to wait for the next supply ship to arrive. But it isn't long before his relaxing respite turns into a fight for survival for the good doctor has been conducting an unwholesome experiment in his basement involving one very angry leopard man with a knack for escaping... Despite it's ultra-low budget this strange hybrid of "Frankenstein" and "The Island of Dr. Moreau" is surprisingly big on atmosphere and tension thanks to some creepy camerawork and a well-placed thunderstorm. Although the script is only a few notches above standard B-movie fare, director Gerardo de Leon compensates nicely with tight editing (the "creature on a rampage" scenes are chilling), unexpectedly sympathetic performances, and a pair of lead actors that are very easy on the eye. Furthermore, the monster itself is an intriguing mix of pitiful victim and repulsive creation, a nice departure from the usual assortment of neoprene ghouls we've come to expect from this type of film. A pleasant surprise all around even with the tacky "warning bells" which alert you to close your eyes during one particularly gruesome scene.

Terrorstorm  (USA 2006) (5):  The events of 911 have certainly polarized popular opinion and both sides have their outspoken mouthpieces. At first Alex Jones comes across as both passionate and well informed....he hits upon some key points and offers compelling evidence. And then the proselytizing begins......the rants and sheer speculation. He offers mountains of accusations, often supported by molehills of actual facts. I do believe there is far more to 911 then the official story......but "Terrorstorm" simply clouds an already contentious issue with even more innuendo and hearsay.

Terror Taxi (Korea 2000) (4): Cab driver Gil-Nam is not having a good day. His estranged girlfriend Yoo-Jung is being harassed by loan sharks, his best buddy is a heroin addict and, to top things off, he ends up dead after being forced off the road by a ghostly driver. But even the afterlife proves to be disappointingly anticlimactic for Gil; aside from the fact his taxi now contains a beating heart and runs on blood he finds himself back on the streets competing with other spectral cabbies for elusive customers, both living and dead. Deciding to get even with the ghost who killed him Gil enlists the aid of an outrageously eccentric group of fellow dead drivers as well as an enigmatic little girl who has a knack for showing up at just the right time. What follows is a series of frantically choreographed car chases, flying taxis, and unfortunate accidents; apparently ghost drivers don’t really care if their fares arrive alive and well. There is some Laurel & Hardy type comedy from a couple of clueless cops, a few unexceptional CGI effects, and a whole lot of crazed yelling before everything runs out of gas and coasts to a painfully slow stop. You’d be further ahead taking the bus.

Tess (UK/France 1979) (7): Pride necessarily goeth before the fall…repeatedly…in Roman Polanski’s beautifully photographed, emotionally muted adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s 19th century weeper, Tess of the d’Urbervilles. When a drunken penniless field worker discovers that he is related to a now defunct line of medieval aristocrats the news doesn’t bring him any riches but it does spell the beginning of the end for his eldest daughter, Theresa. Eager to cash in on her husband’s lineage, Tess’ mother sends her off to the estate of a wealthy landowner who shares the same family name in the hope that the potential relative will show some generosity toward distant kin. But instead of open arms the painfully withdrawn Tess begins an odyssey of seduction, exploitation, and tragedy beginning with the landowner’s boorish son and ending with a kindly lover who nevertheless judges her past by a different set of standards than he does his own. With a palette of earth tones and shadowed pastels, cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth’s vision unfold like a series of watercolour landscapes while Phillipe Sarde’s score tints them all with sadness. A strawberry becomes forbidden fruit, a threshing machine resembles Leviathan, and scenes of Tess peering through doorways and windowpanes reflect her attempts at moving beyond her station. Unfortunately Nastassja Kinski’s somnolent performance lacks the fire one would expect from such a character. Even though it is a tale of Victorian rigidity, class hypocrisy, and the sorrow of women, Kinski still mewls and pouts like a sullen puppy thus dampening much of the film’s emotional punches. Still a worthy example of literary filmmaking however, and the fact Polanski bookends it with two scenes of ancient British paganism lends an added dimension while at the same time gently thumbing a nose at the era’s pompous and ineffectual clergy.

Thank Your Lucky Stars (USA 1943) (7): Warner Brothers does its part for the war effort with this frothy musical comedy in which the barest of plots —- three showbiz wannabes try to finagle their way into an all-star charity revue —- provides the studio with an excuse to parade some of its biggest talent for a string of fun cameos. Highlights include Bette Davis getting slammed during a jitterbug routine, Errol Flynn proving he can neither sing nor dance, and Humphrey Bogart getting dressed down by an irate orchestra conductor. Olivia de Havilland, Ida Lupino, John Garfield, and Dinah Shore also make appearances. The song & dance routines range from rousing to pure camp ending with a stagey salute to Optimism while Vaudeville veteran Eddie Cantor’s dual roles (as himself and as a tour guide who looks like Eddie Cantor) provide just enough cornball humour to keep you smiling. Satisfying and wholesome, like a big old piece of American apple pie with a side of ham.

That Evening Sun (USA 2009) (8): 80-year old Abner Meecham decides he's had enough of the nursing home so he packs up his bags and heads back to the east Tennessee farm where he used to live. In the three months he was away however his son, a big city lawyer, has leased the land to Lonzo Choat the local drunk and all around failure who's determined to scrape enough cash together to buy the property outright so he can begin providing for his young family. Refusing to leave what he considers to be his land Abner moves into the rundown shack behind the main house, a former slaves' quarters, where he sets about being an increasingly irritating thorn in Lonzo's side. A series of escalating showdowns between the two men eventually lead to consequences both tragic and darkly comic. Themes of anger, regret and powerlessness abound in this quiet rural drama as both men rage against the forces that oppose them. While Abner refuses to accept the limitations imposed by illness and old age, Lonzo feels forever branded by the mistakes he's made in the past. Only their respective children seem to grasp the truth behind all the posturing; Paul Meecham's memories of growing up with his dad are a little different than Abner's while sixteen-year old Pamela Choat senses the true source of her father's destructive outbursts. A final fiery confrontation, followed by an unexpectedly subdued coda, thwarts our Hollywood expectations and brings everything to an appropriate, if bittersweet, conclusion. The cast is magnificent.

That Obscure Object of Desire (France 1977) (7): At a Seville train station middle-aged Parisian businessman Mathieu unceremoniously dumps a pail of water on a distraught woman much to the shock of the other passengers sharing his compartment. Then, during the long ride to Paris, he regales them with his sad tale of l’amour fou which led to the unfortunate scene they just witnessed… The first time Mathieu met eighteen-year old Conchita she was working as a domestic at his cousin’s sumptuous Paris apartment and he was immediately taken by her beauty and seductive manner. In the months that followed Mathieu used every social advantage at his disposal, from money to prestige, to woo her into bed. But Conchita thwarted his every attempt at seduction while at the same time stringing him along—encouraging his attentions one moment, spurning them the next, and disappearing for long stretches only to resurface when he least expected it. With Mathieu’s sexual frustration reaching the breaking point and Conchita showing no signs of abandoning her coquettish ways (or her virginity) things could only go from bad to worse. Meanwhile, almost as an aside, terrorism groups are blowing things up and a plague is descending upon Barcelona… In this his final film 77-year old director Luis Buñuel once again indulges his fascination with the intricacies of sexual passion and how it compares to everything from violence and civil unrest to economic inequality and class struggle. Mathieu holds all the privilege that comes with money and position, Conchita holds “that obscure object of desire” between her legs, and everyone else seems to be using either one or the other to get their own needs fulfilled. Of course there’s the usual jabs at religion (one terrorist cell is named after the baby Jesus and Conchita’s real name is “Concepcion”) and it is no coincidence that Mathieu’s spellbound audience on board the train is composed of a judge, a woman, and a psychologist who just happens to be a midget. But Buñuel’s genius is most evident in his decision to cast two women in the role of Conchita—one demure and sulking, the other fiery and unpredictable—who tag team their way in and out of Mathieu’s affections. Add to that some very clever conceits utilizing mirrors, bloodied lingerie, and emotional baggage suddenly made material and you have a mordantly funny, slightly sadomasochistic, satire that keeps your eyes rolling right up to its ludicrous finale.

That Touch of Mink (USA 1962) (6): Romantic sparks fly after a disastrous encounter on the streets of Manhattan introduces a twenty-something unemployed computer operator (Doris Day pushing forty) to a suave billionaire lothario (Cary Grant pushing sixty). But their mutual attraction is at cross purposes for Grant is just looking for a mistress he can pamper with fur coats and world cruises while Day has her vagina locked down tighter than Fort Knox and only a wedding ring will open those pearly gates. So what’s a professional virgin to do when the chance of a lifetime comes knocking but the wedding bells remain silent? Packed with more risqué innuendo than the usual Doris Day confection but with all the erotic tension of a Sunday afternoon bingo game at the nursing home, Delbert Mann’s frothy little comedy of sexual manners is so outdated that time has rendered it’s blatant sexism somehow quaint as Doris tries to prove she’s a worldly woman without busting her hymen in the process. “Oh, if only he would just hit me!” she laments after derailing Grant’s lavish attempt to get between her legs and he accepts his defeat like a gentleman causing her no end of guilt and embarrassment. Can you just guess how it’s all going to end? The candy-coloured postcard views of New York and Bermuda are dreamy and an amiable supporting cast manage to make Doris’ dilemma seem slightly less ridiculous—notably Audrey Meadows who gets all the best lines as her delightfully cynical roommate; Gig Young as Grant’s neurotic financial advisor and voice of conscience; and John Astin as the sleazy welfare officer who’d love to seize the Day himself. Surprise cameos from New York Yankee legends Micky Mantle, Roger Maris, and Yogi Berra too!

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

The Theory of Everything (UK 2014) (8): James Marsh’s overly romanticized biopic on the life of celebrated physicist Stephen Hawking, based on the autobiography of former wife Jane Hawking, is saved from the ordinary by a script which never descends to mawkishness and a pair of Oscar-nominated performances from Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones (he won, she didn’t). It opens in 1963 when Hawking, then a 21-year old gangly geek with a lopsided grin and sense of humour to match, was just beginning to impress his Cambridge professors with some outrageous theories on time, the universe, and everything. This was also the time when two pivotal moments in his early life took place: he met his future wife Jane who was working on a PhD in medieval poetry at the time and he was diagnosed with motor neuron disease, a typically fatal degenerative condition which would eventually confine him to an electric wheelchair unable to speak or care for himself yet leave his remarkable mind untouched. Despite being given a scant two years to live Hawking beat the odds, raised a family, authored a number of books, and is still active in academic circles. Focusing more on Hawking’s private life—the challenges of a deteriorating body, the dissolution of his thirty-year marriage, his evolving personal philosophy—Marsh elicits amazing performances from his two leads. Eddie Redmayne went to great lengths when preparing for the title role and it shows in the subtleties of voice and gesture as he goes from loveable nerd to world renown theoretician, his bodily contortions almost painful to watch as the disease takes its toll. For her part Felicity Jones plays the faithful wife with a mind of her own to great effect, her initial adoration turning to something more sober as two years stretch to a dozen and more. Complimented by a beautiful musical score from Jóhann Jóhannsson this is a fitting homage to a most remarkable life.

There Was a Father (Japan 1942) (8): Unable to forgive himself after one of his students accidentally drowns during a class trip Shuhei Horikawa, a widowed highschool professor, turns his back on teaching and returns to his hometown with his young son Ryohei in tow. But supporting the two of them proves to be tougher than he thought so he enrolls the boy in a boarding school and heads off to Tokyo in search of more lucrative employment. The years pass, the father grows old, the son becomes a teacher himself, and the two look back on a relationship lived out mainly in letters and weekend visits. With his characteristically warm detachment, director Yasujirô Ozu examines the ways parents live through their children and one generation helps shape the next. Distant trains, wafting smoke, and stone monuments mark both the passage of time and the inexorable hand of fate, while some cleverly constructed camera angles speak of life’s continuity; father and son often reflecting each other’s movements while in the background a river flows or a monk patiently grinds wheat into flour. But Ozu is also quick to point out that sons are not mere copies of their fathers, a fact brought out with droll humour as we watch Shuhei lecture his class on the symmetrical nature of angles while years later Ryohei teaches his own class about the explosive nature of dynamite. Lastly, a wistful closing scene gently reminds us that sometimes children learn more from their parents’ mistakes...

They Came Back [Les Revenants] (France 2004) (7): Dressed in slacks and plain house frocks, a ragtag crowd of the newly departed shuffle past the cemetery gates, their blank faces and dazed eyes making them look as if they’ve just been jolted awake from a particularly deep sleep. So begins Robin Campillo’s most unorthodox low-keyed film which adamantly refuses to be a zombie flick, offering up a poignant exercise in “What if…” instead. On a grand scale the sudden appearance of seventy million extra citizens (thirteen thousand in one town alone) threatens economic stability as they must be clothed, fed, and either employed or put back on the pension payroll much to the resentment of those already struggling from paycheque to paycheque. But it is on the personal level that Campillo’s tall tale excels admirably with former friends, family, and sweethearts now faced with the presence of those they already laid to rest both physically and emotionally whether it’s a grieving couple whose relationship is threatened by the return of their six-year old son or a guilt-ridden girlfriend who now finds herself shadowed by a formerly deceased lover. And to make matters worse the dead themselves have changed—although they retain fragments of their former memories they remain oddly withdrawn and seemingly out of sync with the living, behaving like idiots savants at best and reticent conspirators at worst as the film slowly builds towards an unexpectedly emotional finale laced with suspense and pathos. Whether taken as a metaphor for Europe’s ambivalent relationship with its teeming population of immigrants or a cautionary tale on the pitfalls of wish fulfillment, They Came Back’s clever script and downplayed presentation will have you thinking long after you’ve returned the DVD.

They’re Watching (USA 2016) (7): A Los Angeles artist and her foreign boyfriend buy a rundown farmhouse in the Eastern European jerkwater of Moldova as part of an American home improvement television show. Six months later the show’s bitchy director and her team of slackers journey back to Moldova in order to see how the artist’s renovations are coming along, but what starts out as a simple follow-up TV episode turns deadly when the superstitious locals, convinced that the farmhouse is haunted, decide to destroy both it and anyone who tries to get in their way. Yet another one of those “filmed as it happens” horror movies in which jerky handheld shots and skewed nighttime angles are de rigueur and the jolts come fast and furious. Writer/directors Jay Lender and Micah Wright are well aware of the fact they are not the first to exploit this gimmick however so they wisely throw caution to the wind and take a tongue-in-bloody cheek approach with deadpan visuals and one-liners which don’t quite parody the genre yet still provide a couple of hearty laughs to offset all that shock and gore (and demonic frogs!). The big reveal can be seen coming a mile away but the pyrotechnical finale—a freaky cross between Ghostbusters and Blair Witch—is a must-see and America’s preoccupation with fame whores and reality television receives a diabolical twist.

They Were Expendable (USA 1945) (7): Starting with the attack on Pearl Harbour and ending with the fall of Bataan (both events reduced to bleak radio announcements), John Ford’s patriotic WWII epic concentrates on the role of the newly invented “Motor Torpedo Boats” or MTBs in the war against Japan. Small, sleek, and lethally equipped with mounted machine guns and torpedoes, the boats were deemed too tiny to be effective by the naval brass and were instead used as a glorified taxi and messenger service. But a few key victories changed all that and the little highly manoeuvrable ships (also called PT boats) earned their rightful place alongside the navy’s biggest destroyers. With Florida standing in for the Philippines the usual cast of loveably scruffy officers and baby-faced recruits is headed by Robert Montgomery as the unflappable commander, John Wayne as his hot-tempered second-in-command, and Donna Reed as the virginal nurse who represents everything the men are fighting for. A rather flat script is redeemed by some breathtaking battle scenes as Wayne and Montgomery guide their men through bullets and exploding waves while enemy aircraft strafe them from above. Understandably sympathetic to his characters, Ford avoids glorifying war for its own sake and instead concentrates on the brave (and simultaneously frightened) men faced with a grim task and determined to carry it out no matter what the consequences. A fine example of the war movie genre.

Thief (USA 1981) (7): Frank, a master jewel thief (James Caan), has spent most of his earning years in prison and is now intent on pulling off as many jobs as possible in order to pad his personal retirement fund, marry his girlfriend Jessie (Tuesday Weld), and finally lead the life of leisure he has so meticulously imagined. When a local Mafia kingpin approaches him regarding a very lucrative but highly complicated heist involving a fortune in diamonds locked away in an ultra high-security vault Frank decides this will be his final illegal endeavour before settling down with Jessie and their newly adopted son. But one does not make a deal with the devil and after the gangster goes back on his word Frank decides to even the score—even if it costs him everything, including his own life. Director/screenwriter Michael Mann’s highly atmospheric neo-noir thriller is an often muddled hodgepodge of dark psychodrama and even darker policier. Hiring actual cops and ex-cons as technical advisors Mann leaves his moral compass at home for it seems everyone in Frank’s world operates on threats and violence: the bad guys are beyond ruthless; the police punch first and ask questions later; and Frank himself is an angry confrontational loner prone to sudden outbursts. Pretty standard Charles Bronson fare with affected performances all around (Thief received several “Razzie” and “Stinkers” nominations). What saves Mann’s film from relative obscurity however is its keen sense of style and meticulous attention to detail. Shot in murky shades of blue with an intrusive electro soundtrack by Tangerine Dream, Thief’s perpetually rain-soaked neon landscapes call to mind Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner while the occasional foray into sunlit suburbia provides the necessary contrast between Frank’s grungy reality and domestic dreams. The high-tech burglary scenes themselves, involving actual tools of the trade, are fascinating.

The Thief (Russia 1997) (9): Born six months after his father was killed in the war, little Sanya never knew the man in person although he occasionally sees his ghost waving to him from a doorway or a passing train. Now, in 1952 at the age of six, Sanya and his mother Katya are riding the rails from an uncertain past towards an uncertain future when they meet Tolyan, a handsome and very charismatic army officer who takes them both under his wing (as well as taking Katya to bed). But as the three move from one dingy apartment building to another Katya’s domestic dreams quickly evaporate for despite his ample charms Tolyan is nothing like what he appears to be and his callous manipulative nature soon takes it’s toll on her, both mentally and physically, as well as the impressionable Sanya whose childish adoration of his new father figure clashes with Tolyan’s selfish indifference—his “lessons” on how to win through intimidation and violence jarring against the boy’s gentle personality. Of course tragedies are inevitable and as a weary middle-aged Sanya narrates his own life story we see how cruelties, both small and large, shape not only individual lives but, by inference, entire societies as well. Writer/director Pavel Chukhray has accomplished what only a select few have ever done—he’s made a genuinely authentic film about childhood trauma and by casting diminutive actor Mikhail Filipchuk as Sanya he also found the perfect vehicle for telling it with those wide eyes and a perpetual sense of puzzlement mirroring the adult confusion around him. The political statements are there of course but Chukhray keeps them subtle—a tattoo of Stalin over Tolyan’s heart; wealthy party members inhabiting the upper floors of a building while “cooperative apartments” are consigned to the basement—and they never overshadow the family tragedy playing out in the foreground. Sanya’s evolution from innocent child to shattered adolescent and finally haunted adult, told simply and without bombast or unwarranted drama, showcases one of the more genuinely heartbreaking rites of passage in modern cinema.

The Thief Lord (UK 2006) (5): Fed up with their respective foster homes, newly orphaned Prosper and his kid brother Bo break out and head for the open road. Pursued by a pair of rotten relatives and a bumbling private eye the little fugitives make a beeline for the grand canals and serpentine alleyways of Venice, a city much revered by their late mother who believed it was tinged with magic. It is here they fall in with Scipio, the infamous Thief Lord and his band of diminutive pickpockets and purse snatchers who've formed a family of sorts amidst the ruins of an abandoned theatre. At first reluctant to make a living dealing in stolen goods Prosper eventually befriends this ragtag band of fellow unwanted children until a shocking confession from Scipio threatens to tear the little flock asunder. In the meantime Bo begins seeing fantastical beings winking at him from pedestals, fountains and waterways, creatures which may have something to do with a magical carousel his mother once told him about. Could the enchanted carousel be here in Venice? Could it have something to do with the enigmatic Count who has hired the children to steal a most peculiar artifact? And will the mystery be solved before Prosper and Bo are apprehended and dragged back to England? Based on Cornelia Funke's bestselling book director Richard Claus presents us with an uncomplicated world where excruciatingly precious moppets wage gentle warfare against a population of big fat stupid adults. It's a saccharine place of comic book malice (hence no dramatic tension), happy endings and warm fuzzy hugs all around; the cinematic equivalent of a Rice Krispie square. Although the touches of fantasy are well played and the Venetian locations beautiful (why do the locals all speak with a clipped London accent?) this one remains strictly for the single-digit crowd.

Thieves’ Highway (USA 1949) (7): Hellbent on revenge, Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) drives a big rig from Fresno to San Francisco in order to settle a score with the crooked produce wholesaler (Lee J. Cobb) who robbed Nick’s truck-driver father and left him a cripple. But when he arrives in the city he’s plunged into a dockside netherworld of corruption, menace, and carnal temptation in the shape of a worldly prostitute (Valentina Cortese) with a weak spot for virtuous men. Not quite sombre enough to wear the noir moniker comfortably, Jules Dassin’s quintessentially American melodrama pitting good against evil under dark California skies is less of a crime thriller—the police make only a cursory appearance—than it is a noble quest with Conte’s rickety flatbed standing in for a white steed, a fuming Cobb doing a fine dragon imitation, and Cortese’s resourceful streetwalker a not quite distressed damsel. Comedy great Jack Oakie is perfectly cast as a gruff trucker with a conscience, his lovable mug adding a touch of humanity to all those archetypes. The action is sometimes stilted, the dialogue ranges from ad-libbed naturalism to genre clichés, but the moral fine points are left appropriately grey and the wholly predictable ending makes you smile just the same. Very watchable.

The Thing (USA 2011) (6): The CGI effects may be slicker, and the cast of big burly Norwegians easier on the eye, but this inferior prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic plays more like a weak rehash than an original vision. American paleobiologist Kate Lloyd arrives in Antarctica at the request of a Norwegian scientific expedition and gets far more than she bargained for. It seems the Scandinavians have uncovered an enormous prehistoric spaceship and its one lone occupant, a vaguely malevolent shape firmly encased in a block of ice. Taking the frozen specimen back to their makeshift lab the Norwegians unwittingly allow it to thaw only to discover that it wasn’t really dead at all and now they have to contend with one big angry E.T. equipped with killer claws, a bottomless gullet and a very nasty ability to mimic any life form it comes in contact with. Faced with the prospect that any one of their numbers could in fact be a “thing” in human guise the survivors must find a way to flush it out while at the same time avoid becoming its next meal. Director Matthijs van Heijningen tries to copy Carpenter’s original mood with dark claustrophobic interior scenes set against a backdrop of bleak mountains and endless snowfields; he even plagiarizes the opening title shot and much of the original musical score. However, although the creature sequences themselves are gruesomely effective as it morphs and melts into grotesque parodies of the humans it has ingested, he has nothing new to say. In fact, several key scenes seem to be copied directly from Carpenter’s film while the alien ship’s interior appears remarkably similar to the one found in Ridley Scott’s Alien. In the end we are left with a few jolts, some nightmarish visuals, and an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. At least the dog escaped...

Things To Come (UK 1936) (8):  H. G. Wells’ screenplay covers 100 years of “future history” starting with a catastrophic global war in 1936 (WWII actually began just three years later) through the decades of barbarism and petty fiefdoms which followed civilization’s collapse (the dark ages of the ‘60s) and, finally, the rise of a utopian society ruled benevolently by a cadre of scientists and philosophers.  But even as mankind’s shiny new cities rise from the ashes, peace is once more threatened by a growing movement of disaffected Luddites...  This is an ambitious film with impressive special effects that must have been considered breathtaking 70 years ago.  Furthermore there is a wonderfully retro feel to the elaborate set designs which combine elements of both ancient Rome and ‘30s art deco.  But beyond the ill-fitting togas and flashy gizmos there is some very serious sermonizing by the great author himself.  Wells leaves no doubt as to where his sympathies lie....scientific inquiry and rational thought are essential to our survival as a species.  It comes as no surprise then that church steeples are noticeably missing from his vision of an advanced society.  The film certainly has its theatrical moments, after all Raymond Massey was never known for his subtlety, but considering when it was made “Things to Come” is a classic of speculative fiction.

The Third Man (UK 1949) (10): Lured by the prospect of a lucrative job offer, American author Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) travels to Vienna in order hook up with his friend, successful entrepreneur and ex-pat Harry Lime. Upon arriving however Martins is shocked to discover Lime has just died in a rather suspicious traffic accident and everyone he talks to, including the local British military authority, provides him with a different account as to what happened. Teaming up with Lime’s former lover Anna, Martins is determined to solve the mystery of Lime’s death—but the truth he uncovers is far from what he expected. Shot in Vienna itself, a partitioned city still reeling from WWII, director Carol Reed’s moody and highly stylized noir thriller is a riot of canted shadows and damp cobblestones where suspicious stares peer from behind shuttered windows and sinister footsteps echo down every alleyway. Reed taps into the post war zeitgeist of weary pessimism with Cotten swimming upstream against a current of damning revelations even as he tries to forge some sort of intimacy with a grieving Anna. A masterpiece of light and sound, his use of oblique camera angles turn the Austrian capital into a tilted rat’s maze in which even the smallest noise reverberates with menace. A climactic chase through the city’s underground sewers, a masterful combination of onsite locations and soundstage recreations, is one of the most revered sequences in the history of film; a triumph of closed space cinematography and seamless editing. No wonder it appears on so many “best of” lists.

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

13 Ghosts (USA 1960) (5): William Castle, the P. T. Barnum of Saturday afternoon matinees, had a gift for combining razzle-dazzle showmanship with cheap gimmickry and this ludicrous haunted house story is one of his more infamous achievements. When cash-strapped Professor Cyrus Zorba inherits a spooky old mansion from his eccentric uncle Plato he believes his money woes are finally at an end. Ignoring the warnings from his late uncle's solicitor (apparently the old man had a penchant for all things occult and made a hobby out of collecting angry spirits) Cyrus moves his family into the crumbling estate only to discover that he's inherited far more than an old house full of dusty furniture. Armed with his uncle's last invention, a pair of goggles that lets the wearer see ghosts, Cyrus finds his family under siege from a variety of papier mâché ghouls and flying groceries. But what is the message uncle Plato is trying to deliver from beyond the grave? And what's with all those hundred dollar bills on the carpet? This turkey is crammed with so many horror movie cliches and cheap shocks you get the impression it was written by a couple of boy scouts around a campfire. Yet it is precisely this naivete, coupled with some nicely skewed camerawork and stagey lighting, that lends it a certain charm; you just know this would have given you nightmares when you were seven and that's part of the fun! Besides, a sly cameo by the great Margaret Hamilton will leave you chuckling. NB: This film was originally presented in "Illusion-O" wherein theatre patrons were give a pair of "ghost viewers" which allowed them to see the onscreen phantoms by looking through coloured lenses. Now how cool is that?!

The Thirteenth Floor (USA 1999) (7): In 1990s Los Angeles elderly professor Hannon Fuller and his business partner Douglas Hall are close to completing their greatest achievement—a wholly immersive virtual reality world modelled on southern California circa 1937 which allows users to interact with computer-generated characters so lifelike that they are indistinguishable from actual human beings. However, just as the two men are applying the final touches to their creation Fuller is brutally murdered and Hall is forced to enter the faux L.A. program in order to unmask the killer. But all is not as it seems in this computerized landscape for even though the evidence he uncovers proves to be unsettling including the sudden appearance of Fuller’s mysterious daughter, Hall uncovers a further truth which will literally rock his world. Josef Rusnak’s film, based on a 1964 science fiction bestseller, takes an already far-fetched premise and stretches it to near ludicrous dimensions with all the requisite high tech bells and whistles in tow—the “immersion couch” which allows scientists to enter the V.R. program is a riot of disco lasers and neon readouts. But he presents it all with such stylized panache—tough-talking detectives, sexy femme fatale, and a perpetual thunderstorm overhead—that the term “cyber-noir” suddenly springs to mind. Add to this the fact that lead actor Craig Bierko is just too gorgeous for his own good and you have an old-fashioned sci-fi thriller with a clever, if somewhat glib, twist at the end.

30 Days of Night  (USA 2007) (7):  A simple, occasionally clever, rehash of plot devices taken from every zombie and vampire movie ever made and all played out in a setting borrowed right from Carpenter’s “The Thing”.  Slade adds nothing new to the mythos but he bombards the screen with so much razzle-dazzle that you could almost mistake it for something fresh.  From the giddy camerawork to the well-choreographed action sequences this is one of the more entertaining no-brainers I’ve seen in some time.  I may even rent the inevitable sequel.

This is England (UK 2006) (8): It’s England 1983, and while the draconian dictates of Maggie Thatcher are unravelling the social fabric at home, a contentious war in the Falklands is also taking its toll on the national psyche. Against this backdrop of political unrest and rising unemployment eleven-year old Shaun is having problems of his own. Having to deal with schoolyard bullies on a daily basis and still grieving the loss of his father who died in the war, Shaun falls in with a group of well-meaning delinquents who introduce him to the joys of petty vandalism, ska music, and his first real kiss. Watching her son find a cherished sense of family with his rude boy friends, Shaun’s mother reluctantly allows him to wear his new doc martens and red suspenders, even turning an almost blind eye to his shaved head. But when Shaun crosses paths with Combo, an ex-con and hardened skinhead, the highly impressionable boy is seduced by the older man’s xenophobic rants and fanatical devotion to all things English (read: caucasian). Based in large part on director Shane Meadows’ own childhood experiences, This is England mixes moments of sheer nostalgia (the fashions and pop music are spot on) with passages of precipitous violence which, while deeply provocative, are never gratuitous. And throughout it all we catch televised glimpses of Falkland carnage and the Iron Lady herself launching a missile or decrying the “socialist state”. What sets Meadows’ amazing film apart from similar ruminations on Thatcher’s legacy is the sense of style he brings to the screen: slow-motion sequences trace Shaun’s various evolutions, his protagonists are fully fleshed human beings (even Combo is presented as more demonized than demonic), and scenes of wartime horrors contrast sharply with a background score of mediative instrumentals and soft-spoken ballads. Although there are a few narrative gaps (where was the mother while the son was running wild?) this still remains one of the better films dealing with the nascent wisdom of childhood. And in the role of Shaun, fourteen-year old Thomas Turgoose is a born natural.

This Filthy World (USA 2006) (8): Infamous film director John Waters is taped live delivering his one-man show before a New York audience in Jeff Garlin’s side-splitting concert documentary. Emerging from a church confessional onto a stage littered with garbage and garish bouquets Waters immediately launches into a rapid-fire monologue about his peculiar parochial childhood, his early career as a guerrilla filmmaker responsible for such underground horrors as Pink Flamingos and Multiple Maniacs, and his later life as an older, wiser, but no less skewed Hollywood anti-icon capable of releasing mainstream cineplex fare like Hairspray. Laced with hefty doses of transgressive humour and delivered with his usual candour, Waters’ urban trash philosophy waxes eloquent as he discusses everything and anything including Catholicism, 9/11, sexual kinks, the government, political correctness, censorship, and the inherent joy that comes from crossing every line. But it is the tall tales and juicy anecdotes which provide the most fun from his adventures with lifelong friend Harris Glenn Milstead (aka “Divine”) to his filmmaking exploits and ensuing run-ins with the law. A filthy time capsule written by one of the industry’s more unique minds that goes down like a cheap cocktail—refreshing and just a little bit odd.

This Must Be the Place (Italy 2011) (8): With his shock of black hair, pancake make-up that highlights rather than conceals his haggard features, and halting childlike falsetto, middle-aged “Cheyenne” (Sean Penn never fails to amaze me) looks like a wizened and emasculated Edward Scissorhands instead of the 80s goth rock sensation he once was. Despite being adored by his loving wife and revered by a new generation of well-fed little nihilists, Cheyenne basically spends his days shuffling listlessly around his Irish mansion on the outskirts of Dublin regarding the world through eyes that have already seen too much and doling out little nuggets of naïve wisdom at the most unexpected times. Now shouldering the effects of a lifetime of excesses not to mention the guilt over a pair of fans who took his fatalistic lyrics too literally, the former crooner exists in a state of perpetual ennui, abandoned by his mournful muse and out of touch with the world at large. But when he travels back to New York to attend the funeral of his estranged father whom he hadn’t talked to in thirty years he realizes just how much he’s really lost. A former inmate at Auschwitz (he told his young son the tattoo on his arm was a “phone number”), Cheyenne’s dad spent his entire life trying to track down the prison guard who once humiliated him seventy years ago and is now an old man hiding somewhere in the States. Taking up his father’s quest Cheyenne begins a Quixotic journey into a somewhat clichéd American heartland where chance encounters with other hurting souls ultimately deflect his goal from revenge to something altogether different. Director Paolo Sorrentino again displays his knack for the visual and narrative pyrotechnics which made 2008’s Il Divo such a quirky success. His stylized characterizations of conflicted Dubliners and stereotyped Americans (an avid gun enthusiast explains the joy of killing with impunity) are offset by gorgeous images of spacious skies and amber waves of grain. Although not as tight as Divo and a bit too obvious in its message—a young boy’s fear turns to courage, a distraught mother’s longing for her lost son mirrors Cheyenne’s situation, and a chance encounter with a buffalo (huh?) says something about purity of vision—This Must Be the Place still proves to be an addictive watch. And the soundtrack is wonderful…look for a cameo by the now snowy-haired David Byrne!

This Sporting Life  (UK 1963) (9):  Richard Harris and Rachel Roberts are perfectly matched in this bleak working class drama about a well-meaning lout vainly trying to rise above his station in life.  When a brash young miner is given the opportunity to make it big as a rugby star his reckless pursuit of fame and fortune threatens everything he ever valued, including the tenuous relationship he’d been forming with his widowed landlady.  Harris’ character is a complex contradiction of arrogant cockiness and painful vulnerability that brings to mind a young Marlon Brando.  Roberts portrays the grieving widow  as a woman who yearns to be loved yet cannot let go of her husband’s memory, terrified to get close to another man lest he leave her as well.  Their scenes together swing wildly from cold civility to frustrated outrage to a desperately intense passion.  Anderson’s gritty B&W tragedy is beautifully filmed and its central story of a beleaguered Everyman raging against the forces that oppose him is ageless.

Three Days of the Condor (USA 1975) (8): Robert Redford is Joseph Turner, a low-level CIA operative specializing in scouring bestsellers for hidden military secrets who returns from lunch one day to find his co-workers murdered; victims of a professional assassin squad. Suspecting this was an inside job and he is next on the list, Turner finds himself on the run not only from the mysterious hitmen but his own people as well. Commandeering his way into the apartment of an unwilling accomplice (Faye Dunaway) Turner tries to stay alive long enough to solve the mystery as to why he's being targeted in the first place. Although the "high tech" 70s gadgetry may be amusingly quaint by today's standards, and the tacked-on romance between Redford and Dunnaway more of a box office ploy than integral plot device, this tale of covert machinations and paranoia within the American Halls of Power still packs enough of a wallop to make contemporary conspiracy theorists squeal. Furthermore, the film's tense denouement in which Redford's character has a verbal showdown with his immediate superior on a crowded New York sidewalk bears an eerie resemblance to today's headlines. Well done!

The Three Faces of Eve (USA 1957) (7): Joanne Woodward took home a well-deserved Oscar for her portrayal of a Georgia woman suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder, but despite an opening monologue by journalist Alistair Cooke assuring audiences that this is a “True Story”, it still suffers from a bit of Hollywood glam. When her bizarre behaviour garners the attention of psychiatrist Curtis Luther (Lee J. Cobb), mousy housewife Eve White further astounds the doctor when she begins manifesting three distinct personalities, all of whom go by different names. There’s the doormat Mrs. White married to an abusive husband, the vivacious boozehound Eve Black who insists she’s single, and a demure though slightly confused “Jane”. Nunnally Johnson’s film—based on the memoirs of doctor Thigpen who cared for the real patient, Christine Costner Sizemore—follows Luther’s sessions with the three different personalities over the course of two years as he tries to uncover the root cause of Eve’s fractured psyche. Cobb and Woodward give depth to what might otherwise have been a mental health soap—his gravelly voice and level stare complimenting her standout performance playing three different women with seeming ease. Of course the actual facts don’t quite support the scripted drama (Sizemore went on to write two books about her ordeal) and the film’s climax was completely fabricated, but rumour still has it the studio had each one of Sizemore’s personalities sign a waiver so they couldn’t be sued by any one of them. Aside from the occasional voiceover which makes you feel as if you’re watching an episode of Dragnet and some 1-2-3 presto you’re hypnotized! movie psychiatry Johnson avoids sensationalizing Eve’s affliction and instead relies on Woodward’s superb ability to transition between her three different personas using little more than voice inflection, posture, and a face that goes from animated to downcast in a heartbeat. It’s like watching a kinder, gentler version of The Exorcist in a party dress.

300 (USA 2006) (8): Zack Snyder creates a glorious CGI vision of ancient Greece in this rewrite of the Battle of Thermopylae that is devoid of historical accuracy but heavy on the comic book gore. Through the use of post production wizardry he melds live action with virtual sets to give us a film whose washed out colours and golden lustre recall the graphic novel on which it is based. When Spartan king Leonidas (Gerard Butler, not even trying to mask his Scottish brogue) finds his meagre forces grossly outnumbered by a vast Persian army led by the elaborately effeminate King Xerxes, he and his men defy the odds and hold their own for three days before finally being defeated; a defeat which was later avenged at Plataea. Snyder