THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (2016)
The set-up: An alcoholic commuter (Emily Blunt), stinging from her failed marriage and phone stalking her ex, becomes fascinated with her former neighbors who live next door. She sees them every day from her passing train, but when she begins to uncover clues that become linked to a murder and reports them to police, her own sense of reality and potential culpability come into question.
The breakdown: Psychological thrillers are a dime a Hollywood dozen, but this film, based on Paula Hawkins’ bestselling book, utilizes a clever structure whereby the information comes in a slightly fractured pattern, mirroring the perspective of someone suffering memory lapses. Many of the genre concepts are familiar, but Blunt digs deep into her role while none of the characters come out smelling like roses within the whodunit melodrama. Girl On The Train was received with mix reactions, but it’s a notch above other entries in the genre.
JASON BOURNE (2016)
The set-up: American super soldier gone rogue Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) has resurfaced in Europe working with old agency associate Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles). He seeks more information about his late father which could help him piece together more clues about his mysterious past. Meanwhile the CIA agents tracking him (including Tommy Lee Jones and Alicia Vikander) want to take him out before he potentially takes them down.
The breakdown: Damon’s return to the franchise after a brief lapse—you don’t need to see The Bourne Legacy to watch this—continues the high octane, ultra-paranoid vibe of its predecessors, with a labyrinth of shifting political agendas and loyalties to sift through, which is really what keeps things interesting here. Director Paul Greengrass, while having a tendency to crosscut the action too rapidly at times, knows how to keep things rolling. Despite its flamboyance and hyperactive intensity, the franchise is essentially running on fumes. The first installment is still the best of the bunch because of its strong characters; while fun, this is more of an action junkie thrill ride for franchise followers.
DEAD-END DRIVE-IN (1986)
The set-up: In a Mad Max-like post apocalyptic future where law and order are barely holding on, horny teen layabout Jimmy and his girlfriend Carmen find themselves detained permanently at a drive-in that is a lure for young undesirables that the government wants to lock away. Kept in by a huge wall and electrified fence, the miscreants are kept distracted with a sustained supply of trashy movies, junk food, drugs, and new wave music. While Carmen prefers this illusory life of ease, Jimmy decides he is going to break out and regain his freedom at any cost.
The breakdown: Fueled by lesser known ’80s new wave and post-punk tunes, this Aussie indie (part of the Ozploitation genre) works its seemingly ludicrous premise with panache, style, and some thoughtful dialogue. Director Brian Trenchard-Smith pushes the narrative forward at a good clip and provides plenty of well executed action sequences. He’s also got a crazy car jump stunt at the end that’s truly impressive. A great bonus to Arrow Video’s deluxe reissue is a 30-minute short film about hospital fire safety that Trenchard-Smith made in 1978 as an Australian public service. It features some good stunts and amazing fire sequences, no digital fakery at all.
MAN FACING SOUTHEAST (1986)
The set-up: After a man named Rantés who has no recorded identity (and a talent for organ playing) surfaces at an Argentinian asylum claiming to be an alien visiting from another planet, he not only intrigues one of the top psychiatrists and a local woman he has befriended, but he becomes a magnet for other patients who latch onto him as a beacon of hope. Hospital officials dismiss him as having paranoid delusions, but he makes a convincing case for his claim including possible psychokinetic powers and standing motionless outside for hours at a time facing southeast to receive mental transmissions. What is the truth?
The breakdown: Clearly the inspiration for the imitative K-PAX (the Kevin Spacey movie from 2000), Man Facing Southeast is a far more thoughtful and magical meditation on the concept of sanity, the nature of intelligence, and how we choose to perceive the world. Writer/director Eliseo Subiela manages to imbue his sci fi-esque tale with a romanticism that eschews schmaltziness, and as the story progresses it descends into darker territory. This is the first time this film has received a digital video release, and the Kino Blu-ray includes liner notes and recent interviews with Subiela, lead actor Hugu Soto, and cinematographer Ricardo De Angelis that offer great recollections and insights into a small movie that deservedly reached a wider international audience.
PHANTASM: FIRST AND LAST
Writer-director Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm created a cult movie buzz after its initial 1979 release, and with good reason. It’s a gloomy rumination on death and loss as a young man named Mike (Michael Baldwin) copes with the passing of his parents and the imminent departure of his older brother Jody to another Oregon town. But when he suspects the creepy Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) at the local funeral home is stealing coffins for nefarious purposes, he tries to convince Jody (Bill Thornbury) and his friend Reggie (Reggie Bannister) that something sinister is afoot. While flawed in some respects, Coscarelli’s dream-like tale remains strikingly original, integrating the Tall Man, hooded dwarves, a creepy blonde in lavender, and deadly flying silver balls (Sentinel Spheres) into a deliciously dark mix. The colors and imagery pop on Well Go USA’s remastered Blu-ray, proving how well the low budget was originally made. A vintage cable TV interview with Scrimm and the director is fun too.
The Phantasm series has had a protracted life since then. A bigger budget sequel for Universal was done in 1988 (Baldwin was replaced this one time by James LeGros), followed by Phantasm III: Lord Of The Dead (1994), Phantasm IV: Oblivion (1998), and at long last, Phantasm: Ravager (2016).
Shot on hi-def video rather than film, Phantasm: Ravager offers an intriguing premise and a new character perspective. Reggie, now suffering from the early stages of dementia, is trying to convince Mike that their quest to stop The Tall Man from unleashing an apocalypse on the world was/is real. In this tale of multiple realities, Reggie shuttles between that version and two others; a near present day one in which he continues in his quest to find Mike and Jody while fending off The Tall Man and his Sentinel Spheres, and a future world in which mankind is engaged in a revolution against The Tall Man’s evil minions from another dimension. The storylines and character development are not quite as evolved as they could have been and the future reality gets overly ambitious in scope, but for die-hard fans this is a decent send-off that resonates because of Reggie’s mental quandary. For my money, the first two Phantasm movies are the truly essential ones in the series. Even if it will disappoint some fans and not win over new converts, the ending of this final entry—and it should be since Scrimm passed away a year ago—is rather poignant and an appropriately melancholic way to wrap things up.
OUIJA: ORIGIN OF EVIL (2016)
The set-up: In this superior prequel, set in the same L.A. house back in 1967, a widowed mother running a phony séance business with her two daughters gets a lesson in supernatural comeuppance when her youngest, through the use of a Ouija board, becomes a vessel for a ghoulish presence intent on harming them. The family, with the help of the caring principal of the girls’ Catholic school (E.T.‘s now grown up Henry Thomas) learn that their house harbors some terrible secrets that need to be faced.
The breakdown: While this franchise was clearly created for Hasbro to sell more Ouija boards (they certainly did last time), director and co-writer Mike Flanagan (Oculus, Hush) takes this hearty second entry into more palatable territory. Lulu Wilson is exceptional as the possessed little girl who can unnerve you with a smile. Her creepy presence plays well into a consistent slow burn methodology that Flanagan implements rather than the overt jump scares of this film’s predecessor. It’s a satisfying scare fest that balances its modern, Asian-influenced horror elements with old fashioned chills. As an in-joke to the ’60s setting, an earlier Universal Pictures logo is used and old school reel markers appear every 20 minutes or so.