The set-up: African-American photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) journeys outside of NYC to visit the wealthy, secluded suburban family of his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams). But when he sees that the allegedly liberal clan has unnervingly subservient black servants and that their almost exclusively white friends try too hard to connect with his ethnicity, he becomes unnerved. And after Rose’s mother’s attempt to hypnotize him to curb his smoking leads to dark thoughts, he suspects something horrible is about to transpire. And he’s right.
The breakdown: Comedian Jordan Peele really tapped into his dark side in writing and directing this psychological horror film that owes more than a passing nod to The Stepford Wives. By balancing the creepiness with funny quips, he finds a way to keep us off-balance as we try to ascertain whether Chris’ plight is real or some twisted fever dream. Peele delivers a satirical and scathing commentary on the state of race relations in modern America. His thriller hits the right notes, will incite debate, and is definitely one of the best films of the year.
The set-up: On his way home for his young daughter’s birthday, a South Korean car dealer named Jung-soo (Jung-woo Ha) gets trapped by a full-on collapse in a new tunnel. His calamity leads to a massive rescue effort as well as photo ops for all the public servants vowing to help him. But with limited water and food, can he last the many days it will take for his rescuers to bore through the rubble to free him?
The breakdown: If you can get past essential but flawed plot components—a cell phone gets good reception 150 meters underground through rubble; car and phone batteries have long lives—then you’ll find writer-director Seong-hun Kim’s survival tale to be compelling and frustrating. While authorities at first sincerely want to save Jung-soo, excavation operations on a nearby tunnel are being delayed and costing the country millions of dollars. The ultimate question it comes down to: How much is one human life worth? What gives Tunnel an extra layer of drama are the bureaucratic machinations that threaten to hamper his rescue while its team leader desperately seeks to prolong the interminable and dubiously handled operations.
The set-up: The tragic and infamous sniper attack on the students of the University of Texas, Austin in 1966 is recreated in this documentary which blends together animated actor recreations of survivor stories along with live action footage of those same people today. Since there is not extensive newsreel footage of the actual events available, the rotoscopic animation helps director Keith Maitland tell the compelling story from multiple perspectives.
The breakdown: This innovative documentary is incredibly timely given how gun violence has spiraled out of control in America, but Maitland does not beat us over the head with an anti-gun message. Instead he focuses on how people banded together to help one another during the crisis, how law enforcement coped with it, and its ultimate effect on its survivors and the city of Austin. (Many of the victims were reunited through the making of the film.) One of the bonus features shows the dedication of a stone memorial to the victims, which inexplicably took 50 years before it was unveiled. It is sad that our society cannot be collectively jolted by mass murder today like we were decades ago. Tower reminds us of that.
DONNIE DARKO (2001)
The set-up: Suburban high schooler Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a depressed and and heavily medicated teen coping with friction from his siblings, Republican parents, and Catholic school classmates. Just before a jet engine falls on his bedroom while he is out, Donnie begins to experience hallucinations about a man in a creepy bunny suit named Frank warning of impending apocalypse who encourages him to quietly commit acts of destruction in his community and also stokes an interest in time travel possibilities.
The breakdown: Richard Kelly’s beloved cult movie was one of the first films to be a tepid box office performer but a hit on DVD thanks to the medium’s economic revolution at the time. This lavish, four-disc Arrow box set includes both the theatrical cut and the director’s cut that is 20 minutes longer and delves deeper into the time travel philosophy. The extra material is meant to make the narrative any clearer, although part of its appeal is its oblique nature that encourages discussion long after it is over. The new footage enhances the film’s central concepts without simplifying them. The bounty of bonus materials includes documentaries, commentaries, deleted scenes, beguiling black and white postcards, a foldout poster, and a 92-page hardcover book featuring numerous essays. This an ideal collectible for hardcore fans of the film and a serious steal at $30.
The set-up: A telepathic man (David Keith) and his young pyrokinetic daughter (Drew Barrymore) are on the run from the government agency called “The Shop” whose experimentation created his powers and lead to hers, and who also killed his telepathic wife (Heather Locklear). The devious intentions of the agency’s leader (Martin Sheen) and its perverse assassin for hire (George C. Scott), who both want control of her, bode a terrible fate for the nine-year-old and her father. Once captured, they desperately seek a way to escape.
The breakdown: Directing this Stephen King adaptation penned by Stanley Mann, Mark L. Lester (Class Of 1984) found the right blend of family melodrama and supernatural action. It’s not so much a horror film as a sci-fi thriller, and while it screams Eighties at various points—such as the wind-blown hair signaling the girl’s pyrokinesis—it is still a charming if sinister story with great special effects and a furiously fiery finale that is impressive. It is mainly organic not optical wizardry that makes the ending work, and it looks good on Blu-ray. Despite none of the stars being involved, the 52-minute making of, fueled by recollections from recollection and other cast and crew, is still illuminating, and the bonus materials featuring former Tangerine Dream member Johannes Schmoelling will please fans of that pioneering German electronic group who were soundtrack titans back of the Eighties.
ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966)
The set-up: After a caveman (John Richardson) is brutally ejected from his savage, survivalist tribe, he takes up with a more “civilized” and welcoming clan at the behest of one of its beautiful members (a young Raquel Welch). He soon gets the boot from them too, but when she seeks out him and becomes kidnapped by his original tribe, he strives to save her and becomes embroiled in a battle between the two groups. One could jokingly call it a clash between political parties.
The breakdown: Like many silly caveman movies of the time (and after), there is one simply reason to watch this Hammer hooey: Raquel Welch. She is stunningly beautiful (and perhaps the first cavewoman to wear mascara), and her natural presence in front of the camera heralded a long career in Hollywood. The amazing Canary Islands locations and Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion effects also make this flick tolerable. Kino’s bonus features include archival interviews with Welch and Harryhausen and a new one with cast member Martine Beswick, as well as the 91-minute American cut and the original 100-minute international cut that is a bit sexier. Welch and Beswick good naturedly and humorously recall their experiences, and Beswick shares some fun Harryhausen tales.
TRAIN TO BUSAN (2016)
Vicious zombies on a train. As a fast-acting virus mutates normal people into vicious people eaters all across South Korea, a small group of normal humans fight to stay alive on their train as the conductor seeks a safe haven for them to disembark. The death roll mounts rapidly and infection paranoia swells among the survivors. (And of course, those we care about take longer to turn rabid.) While not working with a new concept, the film’s central storyline gives it heart and steam as a selfish day trader (Gong Yoo), emotionally estranged from his caring, sweet young daughter (Kim Su-an), learns to be less selfless through their shared crisis. The surprisingly poignant finale makes for a good payoff.