A Quiet Place (2018) The set-up: Nearly 100 days after a monstrous invasion, a majority of humanity has been wiped out by a race of aliens that are blind but hunt their victims through an acute sense of hearing. One resilient family (parented by John Krasinski and a fictionally pregnant Emily Blunt) help their two children survive by living in silence and through their wits. But as the aural claustrophobia mounts, as the children buckle under the strain, and with a new baby being due, their chances of staying alive decrease. The breakdown: Co-written and directed by Krasinski (who saw that coming?), A Quiet Place immediately became a horror classic, not only because of its original premise, but its focus on its characters. The cat and mouse game between alien and human is just a cover for a deeper story about love, family, and sacrifice. The audience I saw it with was so engrossed by the film that they even kept from gasping loudly, as if they were actually trapped in the movie itself. An illuminating 11-minute featurette about the film’s sound design explores how the cast and crew remained quiet on set, how they became highly attuned to the environmental sound around them, and how Michael Bay’s audio team got to take a holiday from action movie thunder to explore how many “shades of quiet” they could create.
Truth Or Dare (2018) The set-up: Six spoiled American college students go south of the border for one last Spring Break fling. Then a stranger comes onto the one practical person (Lucy Hale) and tricks her and her friends into playing a game of truth or dare in an abandoned convent. And d’oh, they return home to find that the game has followed them home from Mexico in supernatural form. A demonic presence has them individually playing the game with life or stakes — play, be honest or follow through, or die. As the bodies start to mount, the remaining students have to find a way to break the cycle before they all perish. The breakdown: Any movie whose co-writer/director (in this case, Jeff Wadlow) is asked to build a film around a title is likely going to fall for cheap gimmickry, and that is precisely what happens here. The characters are obnoxious pretty people, and while some of their personal secrets make great grist for the story, these serious ideas are exploited for cheap narrative fodder compounded by dubious plot devices. It’s hard not to detect the xenophobia as well as the survivalist perspective running through the entire story. Wadlow and his cohorts could have made a thoughtful horror film about the modern anxiety and fear-mongering that are tearing us apart. Instead, they simply pander to it.
The Big Knife (1955) The set-up: Studio chief Stanley Hoff (Rod Steiger) forces disillusioned movie star Charlie Castle (Jack Palance) to re-sign a long-term contract or he will reveal a scandalous secret that will ruin his life. Castle’s estranged wife is enraged; she resents her husband’s philandering Hollywood lifestyle that is destroying their marriage. But even as Castle tries to win her back, someone else who knows his secret may also spill it and threaten both him and the studio. The breakdown: Adapted from Clifford Odets stage play by James Poe, The Big Knife is based upon Odets’ observations from his time in Hollywood. While the film’s look and vernacular are distinctly ‘50s, the themes remain very relevant today. The political machinations and personal vendettas are all too eternal, and the film does not attempt to sugarcoat them nor provide a saccharine ending. For its time, this movie was a pretty ballsy undertaking, especially with Steiger delivering a vicious performance as a composite of studio heads Harry Cohn and Louis B. Mayer. According to Nathalie Morris’ booklet essay, the film received a mixed reaction and its director Robert Aldrich had to go into a short European exile. But he returned and later directed films like Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? and The Dirty Dozen. Take that, Hollywood.
Super Fly (1972) The set-up: Harlem cocaine dealer Youngblood Priest (Ron O’Neal) is living the high life, but underneath his tough façade lies a burning desire to abandon his life of crime and aspire to something greater. He decides he will undertake one last big job — sell 30 kilos of cocaine, split the $1 million take with his business partner — and then split for a better life. While the plan sounds grand, actually trying to escape his vocation, particularly with associates and corrupt cops needing to keep him in line, proves to be much tougher than he bargained for. The breakdown: Working from Phillip Fenty’s screenplay, director Gordon Parks Jr. took B-movie material and elevated it into something greater. Often shot guerrilla-style around New York, and with rough edges all around including some of the performances, the film, including a cameo and funkilicious score from Curtis Mayfield, reportedly caused a stir among many African-Africans at the time who saw Super Fly as glamorizing drug dealing and crime. But, in fact, the protagonist, while not being apologetic for past sins, seeks freedom from the forces keeping many young black men trapped in a cycle of crime. It’s still about one man more than a movement, but the seeds are being sown. The numerous bonus features from past editions are ported over on the Blu-ray to delve deeper into the making of the movie, which some people consider to be the greatest of the ‘70s Blaxploitation era.
Attack Of The Killer Tomatoes (1978) The set-up: The U.S. government is trying to keep a lid on a growing revolt of genetically mutated tomatoes that have transformed into giant, human-eating monsters. In their dubious wisdom, the Feds enlist an unknown agent and incompetent cohorts (a master of disguise, a soldier who always wears his parachute, and inexplicably, a scuba diver and a Russian Olympic swimmer) to help stop this growing menace. But soon the military must openly fight this fruity enemy, and the key to winning the war comes from a most unusual source. The breakdown: Interviewed 15 years ago for the comedy’s DVD reissue (and included in this Blu-ray package), co-writer/director John DeBello and his associates insist that they purposely set out to make a bad movie (that ultimately spoofs bad movies). The measly $100,000 budget likely helped. The filmmakers also had the (mis)fortune of having an unexpected helicopter crash caught on film; luckily, the stunt pilot escaped without major injury. Regardless of their intent, the use of wacky visual puns and non sequitur humor nearly two years before the release of Airplane! cannot be ignored. Don’t get me wrong: This is a bad movie, but at times it’s a fun bad movie that wavers between juvenile jokes and clever gags. Gen Xers from the ’70s and ’80s will likely appreciate and get its offbeat humor more than Millennials. (Example: the Japanese scientist who actually speaks in English but still gets dubbed over by a generic American voice.) The movie is also notable for having a small role of future Twin Peaks cast member Dana Ashbrook and for a goofy vocal appearance (“Puberty Love”) from future Pearl Jam and Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron. Amazingly, it inspired three sequels, one co-starring a young George Clooney.
47 Meters Down (2017) After being dumped by her boyfriend who found her dull, an insecure young woman (Mandy Moore) goes on a cage dive to watch sharks with her sister (Claire Holt). They want to impress two local guys who suggest it, and to snap some nice Instagram shots to impress her ex. But when their winch cable snaps and the cage plummets down 47 meters (154 feet) to the ocean floor, the siblings must fend off deadly great whites, cope with a rapidly dwindling air supply, and find a way to contact the boat to be rescued. Consider it the ultimate cautionary tale about youthful narcissism and self-esteem issues. While the film’s premise is unoriginal, and the story ignores the physics of diving, this is one of those guilty pleasures that’s fun for when you just want to put your brain on cruise control and take a fun thrill ride. It has its moments.