Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
The set-up: The Resistance may have destroyed Starkiller Base in the last film, but the First Order juggernaut keeps hunting down our heroes across the galaxy. While General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), cocky flyboy Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), and their dwindling fleet of “rebel scum” hold off a perennial assault from enemy forces, Rey (Daisy Ridley) pursues Jedi training from Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and Finn (John Boyega) and Resistance member Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) seek out a code breaker to infiltrate a Star Destroyer and disable its tracking devices. In the midst of all this, a psychic bond forged between Rey and the villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) foreshadows their showdown.
The breakdown: While this second installment of the new trilogy was a global hit, writer/director Rian Johnson took some heat for messing with the Star Wars formula. Or, more accurately, fan expectations. An emotionally tortured Luke Skywalker is not what many preferred. But on second viewing, it is readily apparent that plenty of classic elements remain in Johnson’s take, which serves up fresh Star Wars wisdom and humor, and is also peppered with visual and verbal puns related to the series. Fisher also puts in a strong performance for her franchise swan song. The film’s flaws lie in an overly long running time, an oddly upbeat ending for a story weighed down by tragedy, and an unnecessary last scene that looks like a weird pitch for Newsies In Space. Still, The Last Jedi is a worthy addition to the Star Wars canon, even if we are unsure where the series will go without Fisher.
The Post (2017)
The set-up: During the Nixon Administration, The New York Times gets their hands on top secret documents chronicling 22 years of America’s involvement in Vietnam. They prove that for years the U.S. government and military knew they had an unwinnable war there but still moved ahead it anyway. A court injunction bars these “Pentagon Papers” from being printed by the Times, but then a small family newspaper called The Washington Post also obtains copies of them. Publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) and editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) must then weigh freedom of the press (and potential incarceration) against the potentially fascistic powers of a vindictive White House administration.
The breakdown: Steven Spielberg’s fast-paced and engrossing drama takes a simple narrative thread and explores multiple layers. This is not just a film about the freedom of the press. It chronicles the story of the first female publisher of a newspaper in America (as well as being the first female Fortune 500 CEO). It shows us how The Post made its name on a national scale, portrays how business concerns can influence media reporting, and reminds of just how much physical work used to go into the typesetting, layout, and printing of newspapers. We live in a world of an Internet-driven, 24 hours cycle full of hyperbole and inaccuracies, not to mention cries of “fake news” incited whenever someone does like something that’s been printed. With The Washington Post still battling against governmental abuses, this period piece is not just a great historical tale but also incredibly relevant.
Justice League (2017)
The set-up: The death of Superman (Henry Cavill) has led to the reactivation of three hidden Mother Boxes that herald the return of the bellicose Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds), an alien mercenary who seeks to collect them and remake the Earth in the image of his homeworld Apokolips. Batman (Ben Affleck) is having none of it. He and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) assemble a crack super team that includes Aquaman (Jason Mamoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and the Flash (Ezra Miller). And if you haven’t figured it out by the cover, Superman ain’t dead. Plenty of clashing and carnage ensues.
The breakdown: While Man Of Steel and Batman v Superman were way too dark for their own good, Justice League amps up the humor, fleshes out the characters, and intensifies the drama to deliver a fun ride. This transformation likely stems from the fact that writer/director Joss Whedon took over after Zack Snyder reportedly had to bow out following the tragic death of his daughter. Frankly, Whedon seems to have saved the project, injecting a freshness and greater balance of dark and light (and general fun) into the milieu. There are some good bonus features here like the comic book history of this famed superhero roundtable.
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
The set-up: The death of Odin (Anthony Hopkins) heralds the return of his long-lost firstborn, the deadly and malevolent Hela (Cate Blanchett). When Thor and Loki (Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston) take her on, she blasts them into space and they wind up trapped on the garbage world of Sakaar where Thor is forced to compete in the Contest of Champions against the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Meanwhile, Hela takes over Asgard, and Odin’s sons must find a way to escape Sakaar and topple her rule. But there may be a steep price to pay for this insurrection.
The breakdown: Not only this is the best Thor movie ever made but one of the most fun Marvel movies period. Writers Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost and director Taika Waititi match the epic nature of the story with an equally wicked sense of humor. They poke fun at both heroes and villains and find the mirth within the mayhem. Plus, it has the best use of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” on screen. The bonus short comedy about the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) and his new roommate is cute, while the cheeky commentary track from Waititi is a hoot. This is a man who knows how to have a good time making movies.
Two Thousand Maniacs (1964)
The set-up: Three Northern couples in two separate cars get intentionally detoured into a small Southern town celebrating an undisclosed anniversary that coincides with the end of the Civil War 100 years earlier. The gleeful townsfolk insist on having these people stay as their guests of honor for a big celebration, but they might as well call them their guests of horror because they are tortured and killed one by one for the twisted pleasure of their hosts.
The breakdown: The original “wizard of gore,” the late Herschell Gordon Lewis, pushed the boundaries of onscreen violence long before the slasher movement of the late ‘70s and ‘80s. While the actual quality of many of his films was dubious, this one, despite its technical and acting flaws, stands out for its luridness and the weird, quasi-documentary feel that certainly paved the way for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre a decade later. The kills are pretty inventive, especially for the time. Arrow Video stocks up on bonus features with Lewis and associates that delve into his career and the “hicksploitation” of this film.
Sleeping Dogs (1977)
The set-up: After his marriage falls apart, a New Zealander named Smith (Sam Neill) retreats to a small island to process everything. By a terrible coincidence, he becomes incorrectly identified as an anti-government revolutionary. Upon escaping police detention, he goes on the run and must ally himself with the same group he has been accused of associating with.
The breakdown: This first film from director Roger Donaldson certainly shows he was already becoming the capable action/thriller director who would later helm movies like No Way Out, Species, and Dante’s Peak. The young Sam Neill also displayed the charisma that he would later lend to movies like Jurassic Park and The Hunt For Red October. Even though some of the specifics in the narrative are a little vague, the film’s exploration into rebellion within an alternate, totalitarian New Zealand races along with energy and intensity. The 65-minute “making of” doc with the movie’s key players reveals that military and police agencies were involved in its creation. Evidently, it was a cautionary tale for everyone who participated.