Tipping

I despise the institution of tipping for service.  There’s no practical way to escape it (obviously no decent person will stiff a waiter in the service of a principle), it’s degrading to people who are no more “servants” to me in a restaurant than I am to my students, the “expected” tip has been increasing as a percentage of the tab for no reason (because its a percentage, inflation is automatically covered already), and in some contexts (like New York garages and apartment houses) it’s only slightly above extortion.  Furthermore, it’s an invitation to tax evasion.

Here’s the beginning of a worthy trend: some high-end restaurants here are just putting a stop to it, and apparently to everyone’s approval.  Now we just need to increase the menu prices 20% and have done with the whole mess.  I like charging extra for checked bags on an airplane; why should people without bags pay to schlep mine across the country?  But having dinner put on your table is not an optional part of dining in a sit-down restaurant.  Roll it all up together and have done with it; let management manage things like salaries, training, and working hours.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Suspiria

suspiria-Technicolor Halloween is almost here, so I will keep the chills coming again this week by recommending Dario Argento’s ultra-stylish, ultra-bloody and ultra nerve-jangling 1977 movie Suspiria. If it’s possible to make a slasher film for the art house set, this is it.

The plot: American dancer Suzy Bannion (An intrepid and likeable Jessica Harper) arrives in Germany to attend an exclusive ballet school. Everything at the bizarrely designed and decorated school is wrong from the very first, with students disappearing, teachers engaging in strange behavior and an atmosphere of menace suffusing every room. As Suzy begins to investigate her mysterious surroundings, she comes to suspect that some supernatural evil is at the heart of the school and that it will not rest until she is destroyed.

If you judge horror films in the most elemental way, i.e., how scared will I be?, this is a classic of the horror genre. In ways large and small, Argento keeps the audience on edge with very little relief. Much of this is accomplished through an invasive, eerie score, extensive use of anamorphic lenses and other camera trickery, madcap set design and a vivid color scheme (with the accent on red of course…). Even the second time through when I knew what was going to happen, I was still holding my breath and tensing my muscles as I rooted for Suzy to overcome the extraordinary dangers she confronts.

Argento made his bones in a subgenre of Italian film called giallo, and one can see those influences here. However, while giallo is often criticized for its typical sexist plot set-ups (e.g., violent powerful man terrorizes and kills hapless young females), in Suspiria the redoubtable characters — good and bad — are all women. And while there is some astonishingly over-the-top gore, suspense is created much more through mood than through a mere parade of on screen violence.

All that said, the script of the film is remarkably uneven. Certain scenes emerge from nowhere and plot points come and go. For example, a young man at the school shows interest in Suzy and the audience wonders whether a romance will develop. Will he help her survive the terrors she faces? But like other story threads in the film, this one vanishes with no explanation. Maybe the editor was in a slashy mood himself, but I suspect these discontinuities are simply the result of Argento being more interested in theatrics than the underlying story.

In that respect, Suspiria reminds me of no film more than John Stahl’s famous “Technicolor noir” Leave Her to Heaven. Both movies overcome numerous script problems with incredible sets, atmospheric music, intentionally overstated color schemes and a strong leading female performance. Though different in other ways, both prove that sometimes in cinema, style really can triumph over substance. That’s certainly the case for Suspiria, making it ideal Halloween viewing for those who are not faint of heart.

Catching a Catfish

In The Guardian, Kathleen Hale offers her riveting tale story of tracking down an Internet troll who turns out to be a catfish. At one point, she makes a powerful observation on the psychology of those who troll:

Why do hecklers heckle? Recent studies have had dark things to say about abusive internet commenters – a University of Manitoba report suggested they share traits with child molesters and serial killers. The more I wondered about Blythe, the more I was reminded of something Sarah Silverman said in an article for Entertainment Weekly: “A guy once just yelled, ‘Me!’ in the middle of my set. It was amazing. This guy’s heckle directly equalled its heartbreaking subtext – ‘Me!’” Silverman, an avid fan of Howard Stern, went on to describe a poignant moment she remembers from listening to his radio show: one of the many callers who turns out to be an asshole is about to be hung up on when, just before the line goes dead, he blurts out, in a crazed, stuttering voice, “I exist!”.

It’s the best essay I’ve read in awhile, and is sparking debate about the ethics of the author and the troll. Check it out here.

Consider Staying in the Closet

Three phrases I am tired of hearing in the media: “Breaks his/her silence”, “the last taboo” and “comes out of the closet”. The first appears regularly on the magazines at the supermarket checkout. Magazine covers trumpet for example that — at last! — a 3rd rate television star is “breaking his silence” over the failure of his marriage to a 4th rate country and western singer. The implication is that the breaking of the blessed silence is a gift to the world and we should be grateful, but I wish these people would just shut up. Why should strewing intimate details of one’s life be laudable? And why should anyone care about these incontinent bores in the first place?

“The last taboo” and “coming out of the closet” have a parallel existence in journalism. When gay people came out of the closet it was courageous and remarkable. Today, these phrases adorn stories about people — elderporn enthusiasts, those who admit to being beautiful, people who pay to increase traffic to their website, people who hang glide in their underwear — whose coming out is neither dangerous nor it has to be said particularly interesting. Calling them taboo-breakers is at one level media hype and at another, cultural self-congratulation, as if as a society we are only getting more mature as we let underwear-clad hang gliders tell their heretofore hidden story to the world, even though it will no doubt rattle the foundations of the establishment (or at least annoy our parents).

Most of human existence is simply not that interesting and certainly not newsworthy. And in an era where everyone is tweeting what they had for breakfast, being filmed by covert keyhole cameras, putting photos of their latest drinking binge on Facebook and having their naked selfies released from the iCloud, even the most modestly engaging stuff in our lives is being over-shared. We’ve wiped out even more “last taboos” than we have #2 men in Al Qaeda.

This makes me think that the true radicals today, the ones who are actually taking a risk, are those who refuse to dish out their personal details to the world. To those of you who keep something in your life — anything — out of public view, let me express my respect and thanks. May others follow your brave example of staying in the closet.

Now that I am done ranting, I am going to go do a bunch of things that I refuse to reveal here.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Murder by the Clock

vlcsnap-2575882Halloween month on RBC is devoted to movies about ghoulies, ghosties, long-legged beasties and things that go bump in the night. This week, I offer an admittedly off-beat film recommendation from the early days of talkies: 1931′s Murder by the Clock.

The plot centers on the Endicotts, a wealthy family in decline. The parsimonious matriarch of the clan, Julia Endicott (Blanche Friderici), lives in fear of a Poe-style premature burial and laments the fact that her direct heir is a musclebound half-wit (Irving Pichel, in a quasi-Frankenstein Monster sort of role). Julia reluctantly decides to leave the family fortune to her drunken, ne’er do well nephew (Walter McGrail). But his scheming, sexually voracious wife (Lilyan Tashman) isn’t in a mood to wait for Julia to die of natural causes, and begins using her considerable feminine wiles to get multiple men to work her evil will. Murders and mystery ensue.

Fair warning: Movie sound technology was not well-developed when this film was made. Microphones on the set were few in number, often in fixed positions and of low quality. As a result, actors had to talk more slowly and clearly and not move around too much as they did so. This understandably comes across as stilted to modern audiences. But as with the famous Lugosi/Browning Dracula which came out the same year, if you can let those limits of early talkies go and just enjoy a scary story well told, Murder by the Clock will greatly entertain you.

62-lilyan-tashman-554x417In style and plot, this film is an agreeable cross between the haunted house pictures of prior years and the monster movies that were just becoming popular (like Dracula, Frankenstein also came out in 1931). The other enormous appeal of the movie is the campy, vampy work of Tashman, in a part that screams “pre-Hays Code”. Dressed in a series of outfits that leave little to the imagination she sexually disables virtually every male character in the story (Tashman was apparently a sexual dynamo in real life as well, though her energies were usually directed at women rather than men, allegedly including Greta Garbo). Tashman has a lot of fun going way over the top and it’s intentionally funny for the audience too, as were many of the classic monster movies of the 1930s.

The atmospheric photography is another asset of Murder by the Clock, and amplifies the mood effectively. That’s a credit to Karl Struss, one of the first famous cinematographers, who worked with many of the early giants: Murnau, Griffith, DeMille and Chaplin. Struss gives fans of scary movies what they want: eerie shots of dusty secret corridors, foggy graveyards, and killers skulking through abundant shadows

If you just can’t stand the technically-imposed limitations of early talkies, this movie is not for you. But otherwise Murder by the Clock offers creepy, campy fun for the Halloween season as well as being of historical interest for its look and pre-Hays code salaciousness.

p.s. Pachel went on to direct an ever better pre-Hays code film that I recommended here two years ago, The Most Dangerous Game. Note also that Murder by the Clock is in the public domain, and you ought to be able to find it for free online.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Grip of the Strangler

haunted_strangler_poster_02Following Johann’s recommendation of Manhunter last week, I keep our RBC Halloween month tradition alive by focusing in the coming weeks on horror films. When Jean Kent died late last year, I decided to watch one of her films that I had never seen, and came away happy that I did. In one of her many roles as a naughty British lass, Kent is a chanteuse/madam threatened by a serial killer apparently risen from the grave in this week’s film recommendation: Grip of the Strangler (aka The Haunted Strangler).

This 1958 film has a wonderful backstory involving Boris Karloff. Alex and Richard Gordon grew up loving Karloff in the classic Universal horror films made before the war. When the Gordons were young adults, Karloff’s cinema stardom had faded but he was still working on the London stage. The two fanboys approached their idol, and ever the gentlemen, Karloff treated them kindly. When the great man was 70, the Gordons had the chance they had always dreamed of to produce a movie for him.

kentThe plot is spooky and engaging, mixing elements of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jack the Ripper and even Frankenstein. You can also see the beginnings of a return to sexual explicitness in British cinema here, particularly in the scenes in Kent’s bawdyhouse (the champagne spill scene with pinup model Vera Day has to be seen to be disbelieved). But those elements work well in the story, which concerns a moralistic late-Victorian Era social reformer (Karloff) who believes a strangler of attractive women is still at large in the streets of London. He’s a hothouse flower of a man who faints when he sees abuse of prisoners, is terrified of rats and is extremely ill at ease interacting with a woman of Kent’s sensually confident ilk. Yet he is also unaccountably obsessed with the strangler’s brutal sex crimes.

It’s not a big budget film, but you largely wouldn’t know it. Director Robert Day started his career as a cinematographer and clearly learned how to use shadows, fog and lighting to keep the audience from noticing any economies in set design and art direction. The professionalism of the cast helps a good deal too. There are some actors who can’t seem to do a B-movie without somehow conveying to their fans “wink wink, I’m phoning in my part just so you know I’m above all this”. But such self-indulgence was unheard of in this era of British film and the result is a much better movie.

Kent is clearly at home in her showy part, even though it is unfortunately smaller than it could have been. Karloff is nothing less than brilliant, conveying the admixture of desire and repression, rage and sadness present in his character.

This is not a widely-known film outside of the horror film buff community. But it has captured some important supporters, most notably The Criterion Collection, who have made a pristine print available for you to enjoy.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior RBC recommendations.

p.p.s. SPOILER ALERT: Karloff’s physical transformation is even more impressive when you learn that he did it without makeup!

The Only Interesting Thing About Meet the Press

Kevin Drum’s piece altered me to the fact that Jon Stewart was considered to be the next host of Meet the Press. I googled on “Meet the Press Jon Stewart” and found that Kevin’s was one of a tidal wave of pieces weighing in on this earthshattering revelation. The New York Times, Washington Post and US News and World Report were just a small set of the outlets that analyzed this Cuban Missile Crisis-Level near miss that might have destroyed our country forever. The Stewartgate coverage of course followed a good twelve months of virtually every political journalist in the country writing about how then-MTP host David Gregory was in trouble, and who would replace him, and would this person plunge the nation into peril or redeem its lost greatness (Lest you think that the recent spate of Meet the Press-related coverage was just because of Jon Stewart’s media profile, check out the non-Stewart-related MTP coverage at, to name only a few, New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Huffington Post and FoxNews). God, the suspense of having our species’ future hinging on who — Dear Lord tell us, who? — would take the throne as Meet the Press host and thereby do something apparently quite important.

Or not. Seeing all these articles actually made me throw up a little in my mouth because I cannot take another round of journalists treating anything and everything that happens on MTP as more than remotely newsworthy. There are contests to name the most undercovered stories of the year in journalism. The goings-on at Meet the Press deserve the prize for the most overcovered story for several years running.

In the days when Lawrence Spivak walked the earth, Meet the Press developed an innovative concept in television: Have political journalists talk to each other and to politicians about the political events of the day. Since that time, this format has been copied to the point that one could literally watch such shows 24 hours a day every day if one were that masochistic. By Sunday everything momentous and everything trivial in the week’s politics has been chewed over 100 times already, and seeing the soggy orts remasticated on MTP et al. is the television version of experiencing “harsh interrogation methods”.

And alert to journalists: Almost no one other than you watches Meet the Press anymore. The many stories making a big deal about which of the Sunday morning shows is ranked first are analogous to making a big deal over who has the best batting average in Professional Baseball’s Double AA minor league system. Hit shows in the United States draw 10-20 million viewers per broadcast; you can be first among the not-so-vaunted Sunday morning talk show competition with less than 3 million viewers tuning in, counting all the people who are dozing off in the nursing home’s common room.

The only thing interesting about Meet the Press is that so many smart journalists think it’s interesting to anyone other than journalists. Please folks, find something more important to write about, like the war, the economy or what you did on your summer vacation.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Manhunter

The October Hallowe’en season of RBC’s Weekend Movie Recommendations begins. Keith and I will be devoting this month to writing about terrific and ghoulish films. And what better ghoul is there to introduce the theme than the most horrific of them all, the notorious Dr. Hannibal Lecktor? It’s Michael Mann’s 1986 film adaptation of Thomas Harris’ novel Red Dragon: Manhunter.

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A brutal serial killer has a pattern of breaking into his victims’ homes and murdering the entire family as part of a series of grotesque and inexplicable rituals. In addition to shattering every mirror in the victims’ home and placing the fragments in the corpses’ eye sockets, he also leaves behind bite marks that have earned him the nickname ‘The Tooth Fairy.’ This strange M.O. has compelled FBI agent Crawford (played by the ever-impeccably mustachioed Dennis Farina) to lure retired criminal profiler Will Graham (played by William Petersen of CSI fame) back to help solve That One Case.

Graham’s the best at what he does, but his work comes at a price. His unusual capacity to inhabit the mind of the killers he hunts has brought him within harm’s way before, in the case that forced him into early retirement and that haunts him still. Indeed, the specter of one Hannibal Lecktor (played by Brian Cox) looms large, and when Graham is stumped in his search for the Tooth Fairy he is forced to consult Lecktor for advice on how the killer thinks. It is a strange and deeply affecting dynamic, wherein Graham empowers Lecktor to be both his own tutor, while at the same time (unbeknownst to Graham) Lecktor is guiding the Tooth Fairy as well.

This isn’t the first film I’ve reviewed by Mann here at RBC (see my review of Heat here), and this shares two important similarities with that later film: in addition to showing Mann’s idiosyncratic flair for (especially visual) style, both films play an unusual game with the audience’s sympathies. The conceit of that game is identical in both Heat and in Manhunter, as the villain and the antihero both complete one another in perfectly obvious ways. However, while the protagonists in Heat reach a rapprochement through their mutual admiration and dedication to one another’s craft, in Manhunter the relationship between Graham and Lecktor is unambiguously contemptuous: Graham freely tells Lecktor that he believes him to be insane, and in return Lecktor knowingly induces an acute panic attack that leaves Graham desperate for fresh air. And the symmetry between Graham and the Tooth Fairy is conspicuous, too: as Graham’s (willful) descent into the mind of a killer distances him further from his family, the Tooth Fairy’s (uncontrollable and reluctant) violence brings him closer to his first intimate connection with another human being. Therefore, while Graham and his prey are completely antagonistic towards one another, nonetheless they are manifestly incomplete without one another.

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Mann’s preoccupation with the characters’ duality shows up throughout the film in the vivid use of color and carefully considered camera-work that he obviously honed while working on Miami Vice. For some, Mann’s heavy reliance on over-saturated colors (and particularly his use of pastels) may be wearisome. But when compared to the visually drab interpretations of Harris’ sequel Silence of the Lambs by Jonathan Demme or Brett Ratner’s re-make of Manhunter using the original title Red Dragon (both stupendous films in their own right but for different reasons), Mann’s gimmicky style takes on particular value. After all, serial killers with fantastically gruesome rituals of the kind that appear in a Harris novel are hardly meant to be under-stated in the first place. In that vein, Mann’s stylization makes sense as a pretty good visual expression of the chaos of the world he’s constructing. Instead of showing you the killer at work, as do Demme and Ratner, Mann instead draws you into the production of death as though by way of a carefully constructed installation exhibit that you explore after the damage is already done.

Which brings me to the performances. Despite the fact that it appears Petersen showed up for work the day after having undergone a frontal lobotomy, he actually works surprisingly well in the tortured role of Will Graham. This, too, might be related to Mann’s stylization: Petersen’s vapid stares help to ensure that the viewer’s eyes aren’t over-loaded with stimuli on the screen, in much the same way I described Kevin Costner’s subdued delivery as oddly appropriate given the bombastic scenery in Dances with Wolves (review here). Brian Cox is a superb Lecktor, and that opinion stands even after having seen what Hopkins did with the role. He is frightening, compelling, and one can’t help but hope for more screen time with him to indulge the fascination he instills. For his part, Tom Noonan is a commanding Tooth Fairy. He reputedly refused even to introduce himself to other members of the cast until they shot scenes together, as he preferred instead to seclude himself privately and silently in his trailer, in the dark, between takes. Ghoulish indeed.

Unlike Mann’s other films, the denouement of Manhunter isn’t as high-octane as is his wont (as in, for example, Last of the Mohicans or The Kingdom). But the fun in this film is to be had elsewhere, as the main payoff is in the taut chase scenes – even something as banal as a handwritten letter becomes the focus of a superbly-executed mind-game pitting Lecktor and the Tooth Fairy against Graham and the FBI.

Weekend Film Recommendation: Chasing Amy

When I heard that Alison Bechdel had been awarded one of this year’s MacArthur grants, I reflected on some of the films I have reviewed and wondered how many would pass her test for gender bias in film. Recognizing that I unfortunately could think of only very few, this week’s movie recommendation was chosen on the basis of its memorably strong female lead character, in Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy (1997).*

The film is set in a slice of New Jersey and New York that is heavily steeped in writer and director Kevin Smith’s familiar territory of comic books, cuss words, weed-induced munchies, and under-sexed pseudo-intelligentsia. Our two protagonists are bosom buddies and room-mates Holden (played by an uncharacteristically fragile Ben Affleck) and Banky (played by an unapologetically childish Jason Lee), who collaborate on the successful comic series Bluntman and Chronic for a living. At a comic convention, Holden meets the coquettish Alyssa (played by Smith’s muse for this autobiography of sorts, Joey Lauren Adams) and soon finds himself intrigued, then enamored, then hopelessly besotted.

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The challenge for Holden is twofold: Alyssa is both toweringly more intelligent and self-aware than is he (not difficult, given that he really is something of a dolt), and she is also a lesbian. The ‘forbidden fruit’ angle to the story, however, is given attention in this story line only after Holden has successfully bitten into the apple, so to speak: when Alyssa, too, develops strong feelings for Holden, the story focuses less on her struggle with her sexuality (which, in truth, becomes something of a footnote in the film’s plot) and instead looks to Holden’s insecurities and Alyssa’s process of overcoming the ostracism that accompanies her revealing the relationship to her lesbian social circle. A relationship between the two blossoms, and a strain develops in Holden’s relationship with the intensely jealous Banky.

This is one of the tricky aspects to Chasing Amy. On one hand, Alyssa is more mature and socially competent in herself than is any man in the film, by leaps and bounds. And yet, one still gets the sense that gender bias plays out in the oddest of ways. This is, after all, a film about sexuality as told for straight guys by a straight guy. The lesbians in Smith’s world are represented throughout the film either as nameless props to be seduced and lusted over anonymously in the back of a filthy bar, or as elusive prizes who would happily turn straight if only, to borrow one of Banky’s lines, they discover what it’s like to “have a good dicking.” Even physical intimacy itself is represented in a manner that resembles a pubescent fantasy: Smith has no problem showing on screen the passionate embrace, warm kisses, and raunchy attraction between Holden and Alyssa. But on-screen lesbian sex dare not trespass beyond fatuous and fumbling kisses or mere narrative descriptions of the mechanics of sex, lest the viewer become too uncomfortable. (For the record, Smith’s first film Clerks was released with an NC-17 rating, so it’s hardly the case that he simply had squeamish sensibilities.)

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There’s no question that Alyssa is the only character who has her act together enough to know what she wants, and she unquestionably is in the right whenever she and Holden descend into a lovers’ dispute. Yet there remains a nagging suspicion that our impression of women in general, and lesbians in particular, can be reduced either to vindictive friend groups protective of ‘losing another companion to the heteros’ (as does the group that turns Alyssa into a pariah), or to be pointed at with puerile fascination (as does the childish Banky).

Smith’s overly simplistic representation of lesbianism notwithstanding, Chasing Amy is a highly complimentary representation of how a main character like Alyssa with identity issues can be a complex, impressive, and inspirational figure worth watching. Even though Holden and Banky come off as being ultimately unsympathetic characters, the comic conceit of the film relies on more than ‘one smart woman and a bunch of dumb guys.’ For example, the on-screen cameo that Smith brings as Silent Bob, the inspiration for Holden and Banky’s comic, reveals not only the origin of the title to the film but also that Holden’s challenge is to overcome his own vanity and trust in the love he’s found.

 

 

* Testament to the validity of Bechdel’s hypothesis about gender bias in film, Chasing Amy only barely passes. Trivia points to whomsoever can name, in the comments section below, other good films that pass the test. The requirements: name a film with at least two named women characters, who talk to each other, about something besides a man.

Finding and Enjoying Older Movies

In the past three years, about 150 movies have been reviewed on RBC. Johann Koehler is a young, au courant scholar whose reviews include at least some films in recent release (e.g., Fruitvale Station, The Double). In contrast, my knowledge of recent pop culture does not go much beyond being excited about this Bob Bailey guy who recently took over from John Lund in the lead part of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar. Most of my film recommendations as well as some of Johann’s and our occasional guest recommenders can thus sometimes be hard to find. Some RBC readers wrote me about this challenge and asked for suggestions about where to find older movies. This post is my response.

First, although I do not myself own a television, I am given to understand that there are channels that regularly feature older films. One of them is Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which also has a website packed with reviews and commentary on the films the channel shows. Another, American Movie Classics, has broken away from exclusive reliance on showing old films but still includes hours a days of classic film programming. A third possibility is IFC, which shows a mix of classic films as well as arty, offbeat and independent productions, including a number we have recommended here at RBC.

Second, a number of fine films have had their copyrights lapse and are available for free viewing. One place to find most of them is The Internet Archive. At RBC, we have recommended many public domain films, including Railroaded!, Nanook of the North, And Then There Were None and He Walked by Night.

Third, there are services on line that show films either in exchange for watching a few ads, or, charge an annual entry free that gives you unlimited access to their library. Examples include Hulu.com and crackle.com. I personally sign up each year for Amazon Prime, which has let me discover or re-watch many films that I have recommended or plan to recommend at RBC.

Fourth, consider buying DVD amalgamations of old movies. Here is one of many examples: 100 mystery movies for twelve bucks! Sure, some of them are stinkers, but if even only a third of them are good you are gaining fine movie viewing for less than a buck a film.

When sifting through old films that you purchase in this way or see scheduled on TV or a pay for service website, how do you pick the ones you will like? Rotten Tomatoes is one of many sites that provides useful guidance at no charge, as can a used movie guidebook (e.g., by Leonard Maltin or Roger Ebert) which you can usually find in bookstores for a couple bucks. Also of course, you can go through this site’s digest of recommendations for ideas. I have just updated our film recommendation log by adding in capsule summaries and links for all the movies Johann and I reviewed in past six months. Click here to see the list. Regardless of how up to date the digest is at any given moment, you can always get a list of our recent film recommendations by clicking on the FIlm category button on any recent review.

Happy viewing!