The set-up: After an alien lifeform lands in a lighthouse, it creates a nightmarish no man’s land that the government calls The Shimmer, which has slowly been expanding and could threaten the world. For three years, the U.S. military has kept this quarantined zone under wraps, and now a team of five female soldier-scientists (including Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh) hazard a journey to find the missing soldiers who have entered before and never returned, plus solve the mysteries within. But The Shimmer is full of surprises: genetic mutations, radio wave refractions, and temporal distortions that could overcome them before they have the chance to achieve their goals.
The breakdown: Adapting the 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer, writer-director Alex Garland delivers a suspenseful and visually unsettling sci-fi thriller that resonates with the tumultuousness and disharmony of our times. The film is about grappling with the constant of change and fear of the unknown through the metaphor of fending off strange monsters in an alien landscape whose purpose is puzzling and elusive. The five-woman team find their union discombobulated by their differing reactions to The Shimmer, which, whether intended or not, is reflective of modern society. The six-part, hour-long “making of” documentary digs deep into the making of this unusual and engrossing genre movie.
The set-up: After she unintentionally (or perhaps intentionally) commits herself to a psychiatric ward after suffering PTSD from stalking, Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) becomes panicked and unglued when she discovers that her stalker is now working as an orderly at the facility. But is it really him, or is she delusional? Reaching out to her mother (Amy Irving) for help and allying herself with a fellow patient (Jay Pharoah), Sawyer has to hold on long enough to escape her short-term detention before something horrific happens.
The breakdown: Shot entirely on an iPhone 7, director Steven Soderbergh’s foray into B-movie territory starts off with a familiar premise done in a fresh way, enhanced by skewed camera angles and Sawyer’s questionable state of mind. But once the mystery of “is she or isn’t she crazy?” is definitely nailed down halfway through, the narrative unravels and the film succumbs to contrived psychological thriller tripe. Despite a powerful scene in which a stalking expert (Matt Damon) lays out the harsh reality of scrubbing oneself from the digital world to escape further victimization, the grim reality of the premise is undercut by dicey plotting and ugly survival tactics by Sawyer. Soderbergh has made some acclaimed films, but I call bullshit on this.
Tomb Raider (2018)
The set-up: Seven years after her father (Dominic West) went missing to look for the tomb of an ancient, demonic Japanese queen, aimless Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) stands to inherit his wealth and business empire if she signs paperwork signifying that he is dead. But when she discovers his hidden archaeological office and a message meant only for her, Lara sets off to find him with the help of a Chinese boat captain (Daniel Wu) whose father also disappeared going to the same remote island destination. But what they uncover there sets the stage for an even greater battle.
The breakdown: Inspired by the 2013 reboot of the video game franchise, this new version of Tomb Raider, directed by the colorfully named Roar Uthaug, strips back the sex appeal to focus on a tough twentysomething Croft who goes on a journey of self-discovery in the midst of a dangerous quest to locate her father. Vikander capably handles the role as a young woman who unintentionally becomes a hero while facing death-defying situations at every turn. The story itself is unoriginal and predictable — and some fans of the games have criticized various aspects of this adaptation — but Vikander’s performance is strong and sets the stage for the more familiar Croft persona to come. The scene where she reacts in shock to killing a man with her bare hands is highly effective in the face of the film’s fantastical elements.
King Of Hearts (1966)
The set-up: At the end of World War I, the Germans are in retreat from France, but one battalion is holding off their surrender. Although quietly fleeing, they secretly plot to blow up a small town once Allied forces arrive in it. A Scottish brigade catches wind of the foul plot and sends (i.e.: sacrifices) a confused, French-speaking ornithologist (Alan Bates) to prevent the detonation. The task becomes much harder because the only members of the town who have not evacuated are clueless, escaped mental patients who are living it up in the wake of their newfound freedom.
The breakdown: Director Philippe de Broca’s beloved cult classic really does have the lunatics running the asylum and beyond. At the heart of this comedic war film is the key question of who is truly crazy when the world is at war. Stars Alan Bates (as the befuddled soldier) and Genevieve Bujold (as his “crazy” paramour), along with the rest of the cast, deliver warm, heartfelt performances as lovable loonies who have much to teach sane people. In her bonus interview with journalist Anne Thompson, Bujold reveals how much fun the film was to make, and how it was literally a once in a lifetime experience.
The Reincarnation Of Peter Proud (1975)
The set-up: A California college professor (Michael Sarrazin) experiences recurring dreams and strange physical symptoms that indicate he may be the reincarnation of a murdered womanizer. He tracks down the roots of his alleged past self in Massachusetts, coming into contact with the widowed wife (Margot Kidder) who killed his alter ego and her oblivious adult daughter (Jennifer O’Neill), whom he unintentionally falls in love with. These unsettling entanglements threaten an already precarious situation.
The breakdown: Seventies cinema was ripe with metaphysical horror — demonic possession, hauntings, reincarnation — but whereas the subsequent Audrey Rose invoked creepy chills, Peter Proud plays out like a slightly supernatural melodrama. The premise is engaging, but the slow execution and understated unfolding of the story often undermines the film. Veteran director J. Lee Thompson picked good leads, and composer Jerry Goldsmith crafted an enigmatic score, but it just needed more oomph. That said, I still have a soft spot for ’70s flicks like these.
The Curse Of The Cat People (1944)
The set-up: Six-year-old Amy (Ann Carter) becomes withdrawn in a world of daydreams and fantasy that isolates her from her peers and draws concern from her well-meaning but misguided father Oliver (Kent Smith). When her new imaginary friend turns out to be a ghostly resurrection of her father’s late wife Irena (Simone Simon), the doomed protagonist from the original Cat People, a more disturbing mystery emerges that threatens their family unity.
The breakdown: Unnecessarily and loosely tied in as a sequel and unwisely marketed as a horror film, The Curse Of The Cat People, when taken on its own terms as a dark fantasy drama, is quite enjoyable. RKO Radio Pictures wanted to cash in on the first film’s success, although Irena’s presence here is not really sinister nor does it involve her feline alter ego. Amy’s parents come from the first film (Alice was the one came between Oliver and Irena), and they have tried to keep his late wife’s identity a secret to their child. The horror elements emerge through the underdeveloped subplot in which Amy befriends an old woman who tells her the story of the Headless Horseman and who inexplicably denies that her adult daughter/caretaker is her own flesh and blood. That complaint aside, this is a magical childhood fairy tale that is insightful and sensitive with a few genuinely chilling moments. An interesting half-hour documentary on the disc examines the troubled career of Simone Simon and how Irena became her signature role.