Molly’s Game (2017)
The set-up: After her Olympic skiing career gets derailed following a brutal accident, Molly Bloom (Golden Globe nominee Jessica Chastain) falls into running high stakes poker games in Hollywood after being introduced to that world by a sleazy, verbally abusive producer. As the players get more prominent and the stakes get higher, Molly contends with big egos, petty squabbling, and a criminal element that could ruin everything. The story is told in flashbacks as Bloom brings in a sympathetic yet skeptical lawyer (Idris Elba) to clear her name once the Feds raid her underground establishment and bring her up on major racketeering charges.
The breakdown: Writer-director Aaron Sorkin adapted Bloom’s autobiographical account for the film, and the energy and passion that he, Chastain, and Elba bring to the material keeps it compelling despite its lengthy two and a half hour running time. Kevin Costner turns in a solid supporting role as Bloom’s overbearing therapist father, and Michael Cera is great as the prickish Player X. (Who, as it turns out, is a hybrid of A-list actors including Tobey Maguire. It seems that Spider-Man isn’t so nice after all.) There is at least one controversial incident that has been expunged from the movie, likely because some Hollywood insiders did not want this film getting made, but none of this should surprise anyone. With great power often comes great reprehensibility.
Black Panther (2018)
The set-up: Having lived secretly amid their African brethren for decades, the technologically advanced people of Wakanda (with their powerful Vibranium) have quietly thrived. But after Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) succeeds his father as King, he is challenged by his long-lost relative Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) over the right to rule. If Killmonger gets his way, he will subjugate the globe and expose Wakanda to the world, setting the stage for war and a chaotic culture clash.
The breakdown: While he certainly provides the flashy effects and non-stop action that Marvel fans have come to expect, director/co-writer Ryan Coogler combines the Black Panther’s humble comics roots with later, more high-tech incarnations. He injects plenty of social commentary about gender, race, and one’s responsibility to their community and the world at large, elevating this with deeper subtext than your standard superhero fare. The more intimate character movements offset the expected melees that accompany, and sometimes weigh down, even the best Marvel fare. Both Black Panther and Doctor Strange are bold steps forward for the MCU, which is currently besieged by the all-encompassing Infinity War. Let’s hope that some of these movies scale back a little in the future. Strong movies like Black Panther show that is possible.
Killer Klowns From Outer Space (1988)
The set-up: A small town gets overtaken by an invasion of homicidal clowns from another planet. They ensnare victims with cotton candy cocoons, weird popcorn critters, and creepy shadow puppets, while a cranky, misanthropic police sergeant (John Vernon) misguidedly thinks the whole thing is a prank being played on him. By the entire town. It is ultimately up to a young couple and two goofy brothers to save the day.
The breakdown: When I first caught this movie on TV in the late ’90s, I thought it was a hilarious B-movie send up with inventive sets, costumes, and effects, and the Chiodo Brothers lone feature effort has held up well. It’s certainly a product of the ’80s with some goofy performances, but it’s still so fun to watch, so colorful and trippy, and at times creepy, especially for people who don’t like clowns. The catchy, titular Dickies anthem is classic. This latest, colorfully packaged Blu-ray version includes a new 4K transfer along with the extensive bonus features of past editions — pretty much every aspect of the production is covered — and new HD transfers of the brothers’ short films made in their youth. A new documentary delves into those formative years.
The House That Dripped Blood (1971)
The set-up: While investigating the disappearance of a movie star, a detective from Scotland Yard (John Bennett) scares up stories from local police and a realtor about the strange house the actor was staying in. Thus unfolds a series of four weird tales of tragedy befalling the previous tenants and the currently missing celeb. Ultimately, the disbelieving cop must go to the ominous abode to sort things out for himself.
The breakdown: Amicus Productions was the competitor to Hammer Films back in the day, and they produced a number of above average anthologies like this one (which was written by Psycho author Robert Bloch). The various segments include a maniacal killer, a sinister waxwork, a sweetly sinister child, and the missing actor (played by the original Doctor Who, Jon Pertwee) who inherits a vampire’s cloak in a story that is played as fanged camp. While uneven in execution, the cinematography and the cast (including Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Ingrid Pitt, Denholm Elliott, and Nyree Dawn Porter) compensates for its shortcomings. (The vampire tale turns silly by the end.) The House That Dripped Blood is of its time but still fun for fans of old school British horror.
Dead Man (1995)
The set-up: After killing a man (Gabriel Byrne) who has shot at him and murdered his one-night stand, meek accountant William Blake (Johnny Depp) must make his way west from Nevada to Oregon as he flees from three killers (including Lance Henriksen) hired by the man’s father (Robert Mitchum) to avenge his death. With “white man’s metal” lodged dangerously close to his heart and wanted posters up everywhere, Blake seems like a goner, but a compassionate Native American called Nobody (Gary Farmer), who mistakes him for the famous English poet, tends to him and keeps him moving. Whether Blake can survive is the key question.
The breakdown: Writer-director Jim Jarmusch applies his slow pacing and black and white wizardry to this unusual Old West tale, which subverts genre expectations entirely. The “Indians” are really the good guys and the “cowboys” clearly the bad guys. No sense of law and order prevails. Stripped of color, the landscapes are as much ominous as majestic. Neil Young’s predominately electric guitar score rends the stillness asunder. In the special features, Jarmusch addresses the inaccuracies and racism of old Hollywood Westerns and his desire to correct that, while also acknowledging that by not shooting in color as they wanted, producers gave him a more restrained budget than he needed. Farmer discusses the special opportunity granted to him to create an authentic Native American portrayal rarely seen on screen. Dead Man may not be for everyone, especially those who love their cliché, macho shoot ’em ups, but it is an original journey worth taking.
Lost In Space (2018)
I’m usually not a fan of TV reboots as they stink of cash and exploitation, but Netflix’s re-imagining of Lost In Space works. (This coming from someone who loved the original as a kid.) The original ’50s series focused on the nuclear Robinson family and their unwanted stowaway Dr. Smith as they got lost on their way to colonizing Alpha Centauri. The new version deals with a fractured clan trying to keep it together when they get stranded on an unknown planet with other human travelers. The main differences here are that the mother and girls have stronger roles, Will’s friend The Robot is a human murdering alien with amnesia that has somewhat unintendedly switched allegiances, and the prissy Dr. Smith (who was fun) has been transformed into a shrewder female (but don’t worry, you’ll still love to hate her). The tone of the show is also darker, reflecting our current society. Major West and the kids can be irritating at times, but the impressive sets and effects, nice human touches, and the revival of a classic John Williams theme make up for that complaint.