The setup: In turn of twentieth century England, Edith, the literary young daughter (Mia Wasikowska) of a wealthy banker, is seduced by an ambitious inventor (Tom Hiddleston), who sweeps her back to his isolated, decaying mountain estate where he lives with his ill-tempered sister (Jessica Chastain). The vibe of the place is all wrong, and when supernatural entities begin haunting Edith, she suspects that her new life is soaked in deception.
The breakdown: Director/co-writer Guillermo del Toro can be hit or miss, and Crimson Peak falls into the latter territory. The imagery is great, the cast is strong, and the direction very confident, but this sinister mountain adds up to a hill of beans thanks to a plot twist that will have you rolling your eyes at its clichéd nature. There is no doubt that del Toro has a vivid imagination, but the story here needed more work before hitting the screen.
The set up: When Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan), the son of his deceased boxing rival Apollo Creed, comes to him seeking serious training, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) takes on the role of trainer to help the feisty contender overcome personal and professional hurdles and take on the arrogant welterweight champion of the world.
The breakdown: This spin-off of the long-running Rocky series is better than you might imagine. Director Ryan Coogler utilizes many long takes to add a sense of realism to the fights, and casting three-time former ABA heavyweight champion Tony Bellew in the nemesis role of light heavyweight champion “Pretty” Ricky Conlan brings extra grit to the film. While in some ways it is a modern remake of the original tale, the characters are strong and Stallone in particular gives an inspired performance.
WE ARE TWISTED F**KING SISTER! (2014)
The setup: Eleven years before they took over the world with their multiplatinum 1984 album Stay Hungry, Twisted Sister started life as a bar band playing glam rock covers. Originally co-founded by guitarist Jay Jay French, the group brought on vocalist Dee Snider in 1976, and as he took over the reins as frontman and songwriter, the group began their slow ascent, contending with failed record deals, broken promises, critical derision, and insane club gigs in a way that is mythic.
The breakdown: Director Andrew Horn interrogates the group’s members and other key players to show just how rough a ride these guys had on their way to the top. It’s unlikely that any band today could achieve what these self-proclaimed dirtbags did: playing up to 3,500 people per night with no record deal, performing consistently throughout the year in local venues, and racking up over 2,000 shows (up to five sets a night) before finally making it. From internal conflicts to literal club demolition by fans, it depicts a compelling story that even non-fans will appreciate. There is also five hours of bonus material, including extra interview footage, live performances, and director commentary.
DEATH BY HANGING (1968)
The set up: After a Korean murderer and rapist survives a hanging in a Japanese execution chamber, the various officials present determine what to do when he awakens and cannot remember who he is or what he has done. Can they hang him again when he claims to have no recollection of his identity or crimes? Should they let him go free? Has his soul left his body and left him an empty shell? As the various officials and a priest try to help him remember his crimes through ridiculous re-enactments and harsh statements, the story takes on a weirdly satirical tone.
The breakdown: Director Nagisha Oshima is likely best known to many Americans as the director of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, one of the late David Bowie’s early films. Death By Hanging starts as an intense statement about capital punishment and turns into a farcical look into the prejudices, perversities, and hypocrisies inherent in a country (Japan) that has been oppressing immigrants from a country it has subjugated (Koreans). The film runs too long and gets bogged down in wordy if poetic dialogue, but it has some striking moments (including a gruesome opening) and is definitely for hardcore film buffs and Oshima enthusiasts. However, a half-hour interview with film critic Tony Rayns offers great insight into the director, the film, and the real world events that inspired the story.
THE WRONG MAN (1956)
The set up: Inspired by a true story, this lesser known Alfred Hitchcock movie stars Henry Fonda as a hard-working jazz bassist and family man who becomes erroneously fingered as a local hold-up man in Queens. His agitated wife (Vera Miles) and two young boys try to cope with the crisis as he is indicted and seems to have little way to convince the powers that be that they have arrested the wrong man.
The breakdown: Unlike other Hitchcock tales, there is no subversive narrative twist or sinister plot underlying the story here. It is simply a tale of mistaken identity, albeit one enhanced by classic Hitchcock devices: tracking shots, intense close-ups, and a pervading sense of paranoia. It also feels like a basic guide through the justice system. TheWrong Man is not classic Hitchcock—the pace lags in the middle and the wife’s nervous breakdown is rather melodramatic—but the assured direction and the stars’ performances make it worthwhile for devotees of the Master Of Suspense.
THE ICE PIRATES (1984)
The set up: In the future, a water-deprived galaxy is controlled by the ice-hording Templars of Mithra, and a select band of ice pirates led by Jason (Robert Urich) seek to steal from their stash and profit by it. But when the whimsical pirates are captured, a beautiful princess (Mary Crosby) frees them so they can help her on a mission to find her lost father.
The breakdown: Sending up both interstellar sci-fi sagas like Star Wars and post-apocalyptic films like The Road Warrior, The Ice Pirates is notable mainly for its cast—particularly, a bemused Urich, ass-kicking warrior Angelica Huston, and a young Ron Perlman. (Huston even decapitates one bad guy.) Overall, The Ice Pirates is schlocky, low budget fun not meant to be taken seriously. It’s for genre buffs embracing their inner ’80s child and fans of the cast, although the movie scores points for the funny, sped-up time warp battle sequence at the end.
GHOST STORY (1981)
The set up: The four old men of the Chowder Society (Fred Astaire, Melvyn Douglas, John Houseman, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr.) like to scare each other with ghost stories but are also experiencing real-life terror as the spirit of a decaying woman (the deliciously scary Alice Krige) persecutes them for sins committed in their youth. When her presence leads to fatal accidents and threatens one of their sons, it is clear that they must dig up the past to end the madness.
The breakdown: Based on Peter Straub’s novel, Ghost Story is one of the greatest spook tales put on film. It’s tautly wound, well written, lushly photographed, and impeccably acted. The creeping sense of dread that pervades the entire film will linger late after the last frame fades away, and the practical effects of Rick Baker and Carl Fullerton are darkly magical.
The set up: Daniel Craig returns for Bond 24 (the fourth in his timeline), and the results are spectacular. From the stunning Day Of The Dead festival sequence in Mexico at the opening through a wild African train ride to its demolition-fueled finale, Spectre finds 007 going rogue on a secret personal mission and uncovering uncomfortable revelations about his past and his job, which is threatened by a new global intelligence network that could make him obsolete, along with the rise of the sinister Spectre organization.
The breakdown: While it is hard to truly surprise Bond fans with new plot twists after 50+ years, the cast and creative team behind this entry give it their all anyway, delivering bombastic action sequences and reflective moments that question 007’s place in an ever-changing world. The film looks gorgeous (it better for $300 million), and Craig really lives and breathes the role even if in real life he thinks Bond is a misogynist prick. A great 20-minute documentary shows how the opening sequence was created (they employed over 1,000 extras), and it’s awesome to see people accomplish things in the real world and not through endless digital trickery.