The set-up: After TWA pilot Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) gets caught by the CIA while smuggling Cuban cigars, they enlist him for dangerous aerial reconnaissance missions in Latin American, eventually getting him to ship guns to the Contras. But he also goes on the take when Colombian drug runners hire him to smuggle drugs into the U.S. With all the money flowing in, Seal, his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright), and their young kids are living larger than rock stars. But crime and politics are volatile enterprises, and Seal finds himself getting in over his head.
The breakdown: Based on the real-life story of Seal from 1978 through 1986, American Made came to life when screenwriter Gary Spinelli originally sought out material for a great gangster movie. Americans love their outlaws, and the charismatic Seal seized every moneymaking opportunity he could. But his laissez-faire attitude towards his illegal activities and his wife’s eager compliance point to deeper issues that never get fully addressed in the film, particularly when their family becomes threatened. Seal used his excess wealth charitably to became a pillar of his community, as his youngest son Aaron attests in a bonus interview, bringing shades of gray to his story. Although its moral implications are troubling, Doug Liman has created a compelling, entertaining film that represents an era when one could afford to be politically neutral or even naive. Today it’s a different ball game.
Happy Death Day (2017)
The set-up: A pampered, snobby sorority girl nicknamed Tree (Jessica Rothe) mistreats nearly everyone in her life, then gets a nasty comeuppance when she is murdered one night…only to awaken and relive the same day over and over with the same fatal result. It is up to her to break this vicious cycle and turn the tables on her mystery killer.
The breakdown: If you’ve been craving a romance, sorority satire, and a slasher film bundled up in a Groundhog Day framework, then Happy Death Day will be your new jam. My initial perception of this was that it might be more an outright fear-fest, but it focuses equally on laugh count as jump scares. To be honest, you’ll probably figure out who the murderer is halfway through the film, as well as its predictable trajectory towards redemption story, but Rothe delivers her starring performance with such gusto that it will charm you anyway. Happy Death Day is certainly a fresh twist on a long-running genre that focuses more on character than the murderous mayhem that is contained with a PG-13 context.
The set-up: In a dystopic, decaying Russia, a man known as Stalker (Aleksandr Kaidanovsky) covertly takes people into a sequestered area called The Zone, a mysterious region thought to have been the site of a meteorite crash but which actually houses a magical place called The Room, that will grant people their innermost desire. Feared by the authorities, The Zone is deemed off-limits, and against the wishes of his wife, Stalker takes two new clients (The Writer and the Professor) into this mysterious and dangerous place. Will they find what they are seeking or discover something frightening?
The breakdown: Billed as a sci-fi picture, Stalker is really an allegorical tale that works on different levels: religious, societal, and political. To that end, director Andrei Tarkovsky contrasts the sepia tones of the regular world with the lushly colorful world found within The Zone; both places, however, are filled with decaying buildings and machines. As Mark Le Fanu notes in his excellent liner notes, the film invokes the concept of escaping the restraints of the Communist society which the director grew up in. The idea of prisons both literal and figurative emerge amid the philosophical debates running through the trio’s journey. It is also spooky how the film invokes a post-Chernobyl landscape seven years before that nuclear reactor disaster transpired – talk about foreshadowing. Loosely adapted from the novel Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, Stalker certainly deserves its heralded status among critics, particularly its beguiling landscapes transformed into something alien. However, viewers who thrive on high octane superhero and action movies will find this slow moving, 160-minute epic to be a chore to get through. (Critic and devotee Geoff Dyer admits his first viewing was tough.) If you’re open to it, Stalker has plenty to offer.
A Stephen King Quartet
(Two on Blu-Ray and two via Netflix)
Dolores Claiborne (1995)
The set-up: Ambitious, dysfunctional journalist Selena St. George (Jennifer Jason Leigh) must unexpectedly leave New York when her estranged mother Dolores Claiborne (Kathy Bates) is suspected of murdering the elderly woman she cared for in rural Maine. Their uncomfortable reunion stirs up uncomfortable childhood memories for Selena as she tries to ascertain whether her mother, who was acquitted of her father’s “accidental” death 18 years earlier, is actually guilty of this crime.
The breakdown: While author Stephen King is known for works of supernatural terror, this psychological mystery plays out as a gothic character drama. Bates may be known for her psycho performance in the intense adaptation of King’s Misery, but this role is even more nuanced as the story fluidly shifts between gloomy scenes and colorful flashbacks. The tension between the antagonistic mother-daughter relationship sometimes gets too prickly, but in the end Taylor Hackford’s film is a brooding drama with a truly feminist slant and a satisfying conclusion.
The set-up: A group of childhood friends who call themselves “The Losers Club” live in a small town where the disappearance of children and teens is way higher than the national average. The culprit is a demonic clown who re-emerges every 27 years to prey on the town’s young, and with their clueless or abusive parents impotent to stop the threat, the club sets out to stop their sinister stalker who preys on their greatest fears.
The breakdown: Some people who love the original 1990 television miniseries adaptation of this Stephen King epic may not accept this remake, but director Andy Muschietti (Mama) and sinister star Bill Skarsgård (portraying Pennywise the Dancing Clown) deliver a potently creepy new rendition that is reportedly closer to the original book than the Tim Curry version. The superior effects allow for some wild and bloody sequences, the overall vibe is intensely menacing, and the child cast easily slips into their agitated roles. Unlike the TV version, this movie covers only the first half of the book, which leaves room for a sequel that will definitely be coming in light of this movie’s $700 million worldwide gross.
Gerald’s Game (2017)
The set-up: Troubled couple Gerald and Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino and Bruce Greenwood) seek to reignite the romance in their fraying marriage with a weekend of sex games at an isolated country house. Unfortunately, his pervy bondage games turn her off, and before he can remove her handcuffs he dies of a heart attack, leaving her alone and at the mercy of a starving dog that comes inside to slowly devour his body. Jessie knows she has limited time to escape, and as she ruminates on her options she hallucinates that both her dead hubby and a stronger inner version of herself are there to critique her every move.
The breakdown: This King adaptation was a wise move for Netflix given that it has only two leads and two supporting characters (one of which is a dog). It’s an intense psychological drama that mostly plays out inside Jessie’s head as she tries to figure out how to free herself before she starves or becomes dog chow. Although King has a penchant for kink, it’s used merely as a ruse here to explore how one woman must learn to overcome both her immediate situation and lifelong fears. Gugino gives a great performance, and the sinister Moonlight Man adds another creepy element to her character’s dilemma.
The set-up: A 1920s Nebraskan couple (Thomas Jane and Molly Parker) are at odds over their future after she inherits land from her late father. Do they move to the city and escape a dreary life of farming or stay true to the husband’s lifelong occupation? Caught in the middle of their rift is their teenage son (Dylan Schmid) who pines for the girl next door and whom the father enlists to kill the mother, convincing him that she is a danger to their way of life.
The breakdown: What elevates King’s fare over other authors is the way he strongly establishes character, mood, and motivation early on. That translates well through Zak Hilditch’s direction and screenplay — 1922 is as much an American tragedy as an American Gothic tale, with the widespread consequences of the murder wreaking havoc on the family and its closest associates. The supernatural aspects to the story are perhaps more metaphorical than literal, and the inevitable ghostly visitation is unusual in its execution. It’s not mind-blowing, but 1922 is a solid chiller that stands out from the oodles of horror flicks filling up people’s Netflix queues these days.