The buildup: In a post-apocalyptic, fenced-in Chicago, society has broken down into five factions to maintain order and balance: Candor, Amity, Erudite, Abnegation, and Dauntless. When young Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) leaves her family’s selfless (and ruling) Abnegation faction to train with the brave, militant Dauntless, she must keep her status as an abnormal Divergent secret lest she be killed be the powers that be. Even worse, she uncovers a conspiracy by another faction that threatens her family and the whole society. Being a teenager can really suck sometimes.
The breakdown: While it’s received its share of criticism, Divergent, despite whittling down many moments for its supporting characters from Veronica Roth’s novel, is an engaging YA adaptation that offers a strong heroine who grows, matures, and even acts as a savior for the male Dauntless trainer (Theo James) whom she falls for. It has its Hollywood-ized moments, but the emotional core of the story is strong, and Prior offers a good role model for young women. It also looks spectacular.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2 (2014)
The buildup: Our favorite wisecracking webcrawler (Andrew Garfield) returns for another super powered adventure as he takes on Electro (Jamie Foxx), a lonely, nerdy electrical engineer transformed into a power hungry villain (literally). Also at stake is Peter Parker’s relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), whom he wants to protect from her father’s fate and who wants to study abroad, and the life of young Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), who has inherited his father’s fatally degenerative disease.
The breakdown: The rebooted Spider-Man franchise, while unnecessary, has admirably chosen to revamp the narrative core, returning it to its roots in some ways and modernizing it in others. There is actually plenty of dramatic meat to chew on between all of the high speed and slow motion CGI craziness; the action sequences really do look like video games more than anything else. Garfield and Stone have good chemistry, but the other characters could have used a little more fleshing out. In the end, there is pathos amid the chaos and some enjoyable moments, although somehow the film feels like it needed a little more development to make it really stick.
SECRET STATE (2012)
The buildup: Amidst a scandal in which a British oil refinery owned by American corporation PetroFex explodes, killing and wounding scores of English citizens, the British Prime Minister is killed in a plane crash. Thus Deputy PM Tom Dawkins (Gabriel Byrne) must step up to take control of the country and battle the obstinate, secretive PetroFex. Adding to his woes are political cabinet members vying for his job, various press agents, and a growing conspiracy.
The breakdown: This three-hour British miniseries, inspired by Chris Mullins’ 1982 novel A Very British Coup, is a compelling dramatic narrative with a fine cast that also includes Charles Dance (Game Of Thrones), Gina McKee (The Borgias), and Rupert Graves (Sherlock). While this kind of territory has been tread upon before, Byrne is intensely driven as an idealist who wants to change the system while dealing with devious and highly believable political machinations. The interweaving of corporate influence on political bodies has become a sad reality today, and Secret State accurately depicts that unpleasant marriage.
The buildup: When he is abducted and brought to ConSec’s secret corporate facility so he can learn about and control his telepathic abilities as a “scanner,” Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) is convinced by Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) to seek out Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), a renegade scanner who has declared war on ConSec. But as Vale gets deeper into his mission, he begins to question both sides in this private but very deadly war over a group of people that society remains unaware of.
The breakdown: David Cronenberg’s superb sci-fi/horror chiller gets the Criterion treatment, and it looks and sounds fantastic. The twisted story is still chilling today, and the reissue comes loaded with wonderful bonus features, including an in-depth essay by Kim Newman, a recent chat with Lack, a great new interview with Ironside about the film and his career, and a vintage TV interview with Cronenberg from 1981, who was just then still writing his next cult film Videodrome.
THE QUIET ONES (2014)
The buildup: An obsessed university professor (Jared Harris), his two student helpers, and a young cameraman (Sam Clafin) try to help a young woman (Olivia Cooke) who believes she is possessed by a spirit named Evey. Is she really under ghostly influence or is she simply generating the poltergeist events herself to deal with some past trauma? Once the rogue group loses their funding and relocate to a spooky old house, things get more tumultuous from there.
The breakdown: One of the new wave of Hammer Films releases, The Quiet Ones combines the company’s classic Gothic horror with the found footage genre. But don’t worry, not all of it is shot from that vantage point. This is familiar scare territory and the ending is not as grand a revelation as one might desire, but the film is well acted and has its moments. Haunted house and possession movie aficionados might want to give it a whirl. Pun intended.
The buildup: An intense and sleazy film director (John Vernon), seeking the ideal actress for a movie about a crazed character named Audra, invites six young actresses to his secluded home to audition them for the part. (One of them is former Avengers co-star Linda Thorson.) Problems arise when the actress meant for the part (Samantha Eggar), who is the director’s former lover, shows up uninvited to commandeer the part. Soon the ladies start getting bumped off one by one, bringing literal meaning to the cliché “I’d die for the part.”
The breakdown: This cult slasher film is known to many genre fans, and its reputation has swelled over time, particularly due to its lack of availability. It’s actually not the best fear flick ever made—the in-depth documentary shows how a little more than half of the movie was shot by director Jonathan Stryker (real name: Richard Ciupka) and the rest was shot two years later by producer Peter R. Simpson—but it offers a few startling moments despite some bizarre plot holes. Synapse Films’ Blu-ray is a superb transfer that should please Curtains devotees.
SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1987)
The buildup: Still mourning the death of her brother and father in a boating accident from years earlier, withdrawn young teen Angela Baker (Felissa Rose) attends overnight summer camp with her cousin Ricky. Even though the shy guy girl finds a blossoming romance, she is repeatedly picked on by various young campers and authority figures, and the offending people start meeting grisly ends. Is she responsible or is a guardian angel of death watching over her?
The breakdown: This stalk and slash chiller is a mixed bag but has earned its cult reputation due to its realistic depiction of camp, a creepy pedophile cook (sadly also realistic) who gets quickly dispatched, unusual kills (bees and curling iron among them), some decent performances from many of its young stars, and perhaps the most controversial ending to a slasher film ever. (You’ll be combing the internet for reactions afterward.) James Earl Jones’ father has a small role as a cook, and Edward Bilous’ atmospheric, Friday The 13th-esque score carries some weight. Scream Factory gives the reissue the deluxe treatment with a great transfer and an in-depth documentary that features many illuminating stories from the cast and crew.
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956)
While this story has been retold numerous times by Hollywood, Don Siegel’s original film perfectly encapsulates the conformism and political paranoia of the ’50s, a time when America was booming after World War II, a Communist scare had taken over Washington, and people were desperately trying to fit into a whitewashed societal ideal. The premise of pod people quietly taking over a California suburb—in essence, lifeless clones of people that show no individuality and follow the same path—remains compelling today, perhaps even more so now. Kevin McCarthy is fantastic as the beleaguered doctor trying to unravel the creepy conspiracy, and the movie is still a great exercise in style married to substance. What also intrigues is the way in which interpretations of the film can vary in spite of its central theme.