KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017)
The set-up: It’s the end of the Vietnam War, and Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) is itching for one more mission. Boy, does he get one—a “geological survey” (led by John Goodman) that turns into a monster hunting adventure on a far-flung, uncharted island inhabited by vicious giant creatures including that great ape Kong. When Kong decimates a majority of his team and all their helicopters, Packard risks the group’s escape and butts head with their tracker (Tom Hiddleston) in his thirst for revenge.
The breakdown: This latest take on King Kong subverts the classic elements of his cinematic mythos to kickstart a new continuum, one that will tie in with the recently resurrected Godzilla. It’s got a notable cast (including Goodman, Brie Larson, and John C. Reilly) and impressive effects to counteract a flimsy narrative and lapses in logic. Is it a great Kong movie? No. But if you’re willing to settle for a pumped up monster mash it’s a fun ride.
The set-up: An alcoholic writer named Gloria (Anne Hathaway), given the boot by her big city ex, retreats to her rural hometown to regroup and reconnects with her childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), a lonely bar owner who is smitten with her. At the same time, a monster begins appearing nightly in Seoul, Korea, scaring the populace and unleashing destruction. When Gloria realizes that the monster is connected to her psyche and that she can control it, she ponders what this means and how she can change things. But then Oscar later manifests himself as a robot there and the two begin clashing in monster and human form, the situation spirals to a dangerous level.
The breakdown: Deftly skirting genres, writer-director Nacho Vigolando serves up a movie whose central conceit can be interpreted on multiple levels—struggles with alcoholism and with abuse, grappling with self-forgiveness, and the larger consequences of one’s seemingly small actions. The movie’s tonal shifts can throw you off-guard, but it keeps Colossal engaging and sets the stage for a dark finale that elevates the film beyond just being a quirky kaiju flick. Let’s face it: it’s no coincidence that the two protagonists grapple as Seoul-destroying alter egos.
THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948)
The set-up: A young prison escapee named Bowie (Farley Granger) meets a hard on the outside, sweet on the inside young lady named Keechie (Cathy O’Donnell) after he breaks out of prison with two other cons. With loads of cash in hand, the newly smitten lovers want to escape to a safe, quiet place where they can really begin their lives. But his jail friends need him for more bank jobs, and he is soon misidentified by the media as their murderous gang leader. The clock is ticking as Bowie and Keechie try to outrun the law and his past to gain freedom.
The breakdown: Seven years before he brought Rebel Without A Cause to the big screen, Nicolas Ray directed this crime drama that subverted film noir expectations by focusing on hopeful young love in a landscape of treachery and deceit. Indeed the film is as much Romeo and Juliet as Bonnie and Clyde. While this is not a tragic romantic epic on the scale of those two tales, They Live By Night works because of the endearing chemistry of its two leads. It isn’t quite classic but remains impressive as Ray’s directorial debut.
THE PIED PIPER (1972)
The set-up: A performing troupe wandering the British countryside during the time of the Black Death find providence in a secured city where they will perform at a highly anticipated royal wedding. Unfortunately, plague rats begin to infest the city, and the social hierarchy begins to crumble. The Pied Piper (folk rock icon Donovan) may be the key to their salvation.
The breakdown: Directed by Jacques Demy (Lola) and shot by Peter Suschitzky (The Empire Strikes Back), this retelling of the titular tale starts off whimsically and closes with a gruesome tone. Because there are few close ups in the film (the rats get many), one can feel detached from the action at times especially as the pace drags at the start. But co-stars John Hurt, Jack Wild, and Donald Pleasence lend dramatic credibility to this well designed period piece, and in spite of its inconsistencies, The Pied Piper serves up some memorable moments including the grim, thought-provoking finale and a scene where rats burst forth from the wedding cake. This is an interesting curio for cult film fans.
LOST IN AMERICA (1985)
The set-up: After getting fired for castigating his boss when he loses the promotion he feels he deserves, L.A. yuppie David Howard (Albert Brooks) convinces his wife Linda (Julie Haggerty) to quit her equally soulless job. They liquidate their assets, then hit the road in an RV to discover America and themselves before settling down someplace picturesque and affordable. But once they hit Vegas, their quest goes awry.
The breakdown: Rex Reed once called Albert Brooks the West Coast Woody Allen, yet while Brooks also has a penchant for self-absorbed kvetching, he is more relatable to me. The Howards come off as irritating at first, but as their existential and marital crisis deepens it becomes easier to empathize with their plight. They desire freedom from the shallow materialist culture that consumes their adult lives and threatens their happiness. Brooks has always been a shrewd comedian—Defending Your Life is a classic film in my life—and Lost In America provides insightful commentary on anxious American Dreamers of the 1980s. His chat with filmmaker Robert Weide in the bonus features offers further insight into his life and creative process.
THE PARTY (1968)
The set-up: Following his dismissal from a Hollywood movie for wreaking havoc on the set, an Indian actor (an inexplicably brownfaced Peter Sellers) is unintentionally invited to a party at the studio chief’s home. Once there, his awkward attempts to interact with his peers creates enough chaos to transform the evening into a calamitous night to remember.
The breakdown: Sellers and director Blake Edwards collaborated on two Pink Panther films prior to re-teaming for this Tinseltown farce, which takes place mostly in one location and worked off of a thin 63-page script scaled back to allow the cast to ad-lib amid the antics. The droll, understated comedy of the first two-thirds of the film will have you thinking, “WTF am I watching?” But the last act pays off with mayhem spawned by an increasingly drunken waiter, the beleaguered hosts, exuberant teenagers with a painted baby elephant, and a massive bubble bath that consumers an entire floor of the house. Casting Sellers as an Indian actor raises eyebrows on a couple of levels (those days are thankfully over), but his ultimately endearing portrayal passed muster enough for the late Prime Minister of India, Indira Ghandi, to fondly quote one of his lines.
I AM THE PRETTY THING THAT LIVES IN THE HOUSE (2016)
A skittish young nurse named Lily Saylor (The Affair‘s Ruth Wilson) is hired to care for an elderly, retired crime/horror writer Iris Blum (Paula Prentiss), who has been stricken with dementia. Lily learns that Iris’ suburban home may be haunted by the ghost of a young woman who inspired one of her novels and becomes increasingly petrified as she digs into this mystery. Director Osgood Perkins and cinematographer Julie Kirkwood summon an eerie atmosphere where barely lit interiors leave just enough light for us to constantly wonder what we may be looking at, as if we may indeed conjure our own ghosts in the frame. Eschewing the hyper horror clichés prevalent now, the slow pacing and skeletal narrative are deliberate and purposeful in this existential spook story as we move towards the tragic, preordained climax. The jolt at the end is worth waiting for.