CRIES AND WHISPERS (1972)
The buildup: In Ingmar Bergman’s intense character drama, two distraught, distant sisters (Liv Ullman and Ingrid Thulin) and their empathetic maid (Kari Swylan) watch over their sibling (Harriet Andersson) who is painfully dying of uteran cancer. Shuttered in a large house, the sisters cope with repressed anguish, resentment, and sexual tension between each other and their spouses.
The breakdown: While the above description sounds like a surefire path to depression, if you’re in the mood for its slowly unwinding narrative (told with numerous flashbacks), this film is an intensely engaging psychodrama that explores the dark headspace of all the characters through some very well-crafted performances and powerful camera work (cinematographer Sven Nykvist won an Oscar for his striking use of color). The final act is as creepy as any good horror movie, and watching the ill sister writhing in pain throughout is the antithesis of the way many Hollywood films gloss over terminal illness. There is a surreal quality to the entire story that simultaneously captures the stark realism of the family’s bleak situation.
THE RIVER (1951)
The buildup: An upper middle class British woman (Patricia Walters) raised in India fondly recalls her youth there and the wounded Army veteran Capt. John (Thomas E. Breen) who during her teen years captivated her, an older girl, and a neighbor’s twentyish daughter, creating an unusual romantic quadrangle.
The breakdown: Adapted from Rumer Godden’s novel, director Jean Renoir’s captivating slice of life tale not only serves as a romantic melodrama and coming of age story, but a gateway into Indian culture that Westerners, particularly back then, do not often see. It’s fairly well paced for the period, and the use of color intensifies the mood. In one of the bonus features, Martin Scorsese talks about being beguiled by The River at age nine. It is easy to see why. The depiction of young love is realistic in both its optimism and heartache, and the poetic narration adds another layer of context.
THE DROWNSMAN (2014)
The buildup: A serial killer (Ry Barrett) who drowns his victims has the tables turned on him by one tough survivor, so he meets his maker. Or not, as it turns out. His angry spirit returns to kill again through myriad aquatic locales, from small puddles to sinks, and threatens a group of young women—including one with a deathly fear of water who unintentionally summons him after a near drowning incident—that fights back against his terrible vengeance.
The breakdown: The idea of a murderer who seeks out people through watery means has potential, but the various deaths come off as comical at times, and the Drownsman himself looks like a waterlogged Rob Zombie. While Wes Craven’s Shocker took the idea of an executed killer who traveled through electrical circuits and gave it a tongue-in-cheek flair, Chad Archibald’s genre entry plays it a little too straight to be effective. At least he tried to fashion a new horror icon, something that is harder and harder to do these days.
INHERENT VICE (2014)
The buildup: In 1970 L.A., a perpetually pot-smoking P.I. (Joaquin Phoenix) looks into a murder scheme involving his own girlfriend and a billionaire (Eric Roberts), both of whom soon disappear. Quietly working in tandem with a fascistic police detective (Josh Brolin), he veers through a hazy crime labyrinthe involving an undercover musician presumed dead (Owen Wilson), a notorious hit man, neo-Nazi bikers, and a mysterious schooner called The Golden Fang.
The breakdown: Adapted from the Thomas Pynchon novel, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film feels like he and the cast might have been inhaling a solid dose of second hand pot smoke themselves. The convoluted narrative can be hard to follow (some fans have said it requires multiple viewings to truly appreciate), and the pacing lags at times. It is well made and well played (Phoenix really inhabits the role), but the ultimate pay off is not as rewarding as it should be. I hear the novel is better.
BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: THE DEFINITIVE COLLECTION (1978-1980)
While the reboot of Battlestar Galactica gave the Syfy channel a higher profile and proved definitively that sci-fi TV could resonate with deep and powerful themes, the original was also a fun interstellar adventure conjured in the wake of Star Wars. The storyline is the same: After being routed from the Twelve Colonies of Kobol by the evil Cylons, human survivors flee in a ragtag starfleet to find the fabled thirteenth colony of Earth while being pursued by their robotic persecutors. A distinct difference between the original mini-series and its reboot is the more black and white vision of good and evil and the rather glossy Hollywood look of many of the actors (standard for the time). That said, the original Galactica had a good cast (Lorne Greene made for a sage Commander Adama, balancing out Dirk Benedict as a cocky, Han Solo-ish Lieutenant Starbuck) and some iconic guest actors (Patrick Macnee, Rick Springfield, Fred Astaire, and Jane Seymour among them). And the Cylons were badass for the time. Actually, I still dig ‘em.
Despite initially being a success, the original BSG only lasted one season due to budget overages and declining ratings, but a year later a short-lived sequel series, the lower budget Galactica 1980, emerged. It took place on Earth, with the newly arrived Galactica crew defending the earth from the Cylon threat. The sequel series did not last long either. But the shows spun off book, comic book, and video game adaptations and a slew of merchandising, so it was perhaps inevitable that it would get a reboot, which it did in 2003.
The Blu-ray set Battlestar Galactica: The Definitive Collection includes HD upgrades of the original series, Galactica 1980, and the theatrically released movie that distilled its 148-minute pilot into a two-hour movie and included alternate scenes. If you just want the original two series and not the theatrical cut on Blu-ray, you can snap up The Remastered Collection instead. Both offer special features looking back at the iconic series.