"Manhunter" (1986)

The similarities between this film and the remake that followed sixteen years later are noticeable.  The major delineations between the two are in style and in one element of the protagonist Will Graham.  In “Red Dragon”, Will battles with his inclusion in the case, fearing for a repeat of the past when Hannibal Lecter attacked and nearly killed him.  In “Manhunter”, there is a much more sinister allusion: that perhaps Will Graham possesses a murderer’s mind within him, and the more he allows himself into the mind of Lecter, the further he slips from sanity.  This single element is what makes “Manhunter” tenfold darker than its remake.  Michael Mann is capable of capturing such a dark and sinister world in his films and this one is no different.  It’s a strange and unsettling film, with some superb performances by William Petersen and Tom Noonan in particular.  While this film lacks the dramatic influence of Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, it’s still a unique crime thriller that warrants distinction.  

"The Living and the Dead" (2006)

A grim, bleak film, “The Living and the Dead” is difficult to watch and nearly impossible to enjoy.  The circumstances of the story are meant to draw sympathy for its troubled characters caught in a dilemma but instead it is a maddening exercise in testing one’s patience.  While the schizophrenic son isn’t to blame for his misguided acts, his parents are.  Why is this child allowed to cavort around when he is a danger to himself and others?  Why doesn’t the father make sure the help arrives before he has to leave?  Why isn’t this adult child remanded to a hospital that could care for him?  Why is the father insistent on keeping their grandiose manor when the money could be used to care for his desperately ill wife and son?  His pride, and even that of his terminally ill wife, is disgusting and upsetting.  Their pride prevents this from being a tragedy.  Rather, this is a film about a family getting its just desserts for not respecting the value of their own health.  The only tragic character is the son, who is frankly also the most annoying character.  Despite some remarkable performances, “The Living and the Dead” is a film that offers nothing but frustration and annoyance.  

"X-Men: Days of Future Past" (2014)

Hands down, the best film in the X-Men franchise since “X2”.  The film carries all of the elements that fans of the comics and cartoons will love: crazy action sequences, a litany of interesting mutants, the actual war between mutants and humans (not just talk of a war), time travel and of course, Sentinels.  On top of the excellent action and tremendous stakes, there is a great personal storyline that ties the film together on a “human” level.  While some may to umbrage to the film’s liberal adaptation of the timeline and events of the Marvel Universe, “Days of Future Past” captures the heart of the “X-Men” mutant epic.  Regardless of where the series leads, this film can serve as either a satisfying conclusion or excellent new starting point.  With a cast like James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Lawrence, Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan, it is a daunting task for another superhero film to trump the performances in this one.  

"Red Lights" (2012)

The biggest problem with “Red Lights” is that the film never makes up its own mind what it’s about.  The last minute twist changes the entire intent of the film and no amount of flashbacks to “justify” the outcome will truly forgive the inconsistent character intentions.  Unfortunately, our protagonist’s true intentions play as weak, convoluted and difficult to sympathize with, which leaves a gaping hole in motivation.  It’s a film that leads to a certain payoff that isn’t cinematic, but would be a satisfying narrative.  Instead, the filmmakers went for the cinematic ending that isn’t a satisfying narrative.  It’s an unfortunate waste of performances and content that could have been so much more interesting and deep.  All told, “Red Lights” is the bite of apple with a worm in it; once you notice the offending party, all that came before it is spoiled as well.  

"Godzilla" (2014)

While this film manages to be exciting enough and even tonally magnificent, “Godzilla” comes up short in the story department.  Perhaps it’s all part of the homage to its predecessors but after a certain character’s death, the remainder of the movie is action and heroics, often highly unbelievable heroics at that.  The action is strong, the visuals are beautiful and the sound design and music are spine-tingling.  If only this film had a truly excellent story to go with the rest of the elements of filmmaking, “Godzilla” might be more than just one of the greatest trailers in modern film history; it could have been a great film.  Unfortunately, it was outdone by recent competitor (some say copier), “Pacific Rim.”  Despite its shortcomings, “Godzilla” is still worth a watch, if only as an A+ popcorn flick.

"The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" (1992)

"The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" is a tight, disturbing film that utilizes archetypal family terror to craft a wild yet believable story.  The events of the film are a summation of a mother’s worst nightmare: sexual assault, loss of a child, child molestation, being unseated from the role of motherhood, loss of sex appeal. loss of a husband.  These themes are so universal and enduring, they resurrect themselves in modern French New-Wave horror film "Inside”.  The action set pieces are well thought out and choreographed.  The writing is intelligent and uses character foils to illustrate themes without being overt or heavy-handed.  While the film is jam-packed with terror, it’s the little things the antagonist does that really set the audiences nerves on edge.  Taut, smart and engaging, “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” is worth remembering.

"Cruel Intentions" (1999)

Seating itself on the border of the 2000’s, “Cruel Intentions” is not only a teen-drama/thriller but a time capsule for the time period.  It’s an exciting, sexy movie that has an unmistakable late-90’s style.  However, the plot is too reliant on the flashback and the twist.  The performances are often over the top and melodramatic.  It’s a cartoonish, soap-opera type film that rises above a daytime novella purely on star power and sex-appeal.  While entertaining, just don’t expect a tightly woven tapestry.  It’s more like a sloppy braid.  

"28 Weeks Later" (2007)

The very positive side of the follow up to modern zombie masterpiece “28 Days Later” is that it actually advances the story rather than just being the same situation with different interchangeable parts.  Dramatically, the plot advances and there are new difficulties, new goals and new stakes.  The production value is high for what is considered a low-budget film.  In terms of characters and the narrative, the story may actually be stronger than the original.  In “28 Weeks Later” there is backstory and baggage for the protagonists to overcome.  However, once one of the protagonists turns, the story stops and the plot takes over.  While the plot continues to entertain, it could have been more interesting if there was more than just survival at stake.  Regardless, the film maintains the same tension and fear that the original spawned and “28 Weeks Later” is a solid followup.  Excellent performances really nail it home.  

"Enemy" (2013)

An intriguing but slightly uneven thriller, “Enemy” is simultaneously buoyed by excellent performances and weighed down by questionable storytelling choices.  Perhaps the choice to overtly illustrate the underlying traumas of the protagonist was more of a stylistic choice rather than forcing the subtext on the audience, however it feels very heavy-handed.  The source material by Jose Saramago is excellent and timeless, and Denis Villeneuve does a pretty good job staying true to the heart of “The Double”, which plays at some of the deepest fears of man.  Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is enthralling and incendiary.  All told, “Enemy” is an unsettling and heart-pounding thriller by a director who seems to be churning out quality films.  

"Gattaca" (1997)

A beautiful and smart neo-noir style sci-fi film.  Excellent writing and interesting characters fuel a story driven by a tense future environment.  Visually stunning and emotionally poignant, “Gattaca” is a solid film, start to finish.  Going forward, “Gattaca” will only gain in importance as a film, given humanity’s trajectory toward genetic modification, medical advancements and the advent of sex selection.  Buffered by top-notch performances by Hawke, Law and Thurman, this film remains a unique and powerful science fiction film.

"The Place Beyond the Pines" (2013)

Every aspect of this film is superb.  The performances are dynamic and interesting.  The direction is intelligent and evocative.  The cinematography is inconspicuous but powerful.  Most of all, the film is edited into a masterpiece in three acts.  The film beautifully illustrates the stress and desperation wrought from the pressures of expectation for a father, as well as the expectations of a son and sometimes unavoidable paths set before us.  For a film that isn’t built on a traditional sense of tension in terms of lives being in peril throughout, the emotional aspect of the film carries all the way to the end.  It’s a thrilling, emotional film experience from filmmakers that deserve our attention going forward.  

"Contraction" (2013)

"Contraction" turns a promising start into a dismal, poorly executed film that lacks entertainment value and narrative merit.  Contextual elements of the story are poorly explained, which leads to confusion.  The protagonist is highly unlikable and very difficult to sympathize with.  However, the actions of the characters truly make this film hard to believe and hard to enjoy.  SPOILERS: It’s very difficult to believe our protagonist would let her body deteriorate so badly while so concerned with everything else in her life.  Nor would any doctor assume a patient had a rash and not conduct basic STD or blood testing.  Nor would a restaurant manager allow an employee to prepare food in a state of compromised health.  The film as a whole just becomes an effort in frustration and the end is your punishment for having put up with this mess for so long.  

"The Brood" (1979)

With similar content, themes and structure to Cronenberg’s other works, “The Brood” is a satisfying watch.  The film feels very much like “Scanners” in that there is something so strange and so sinister lingering just below the surface but no one dares admit to it overtly lest they be taken for crazy.  While much of the story and practical effects are engaging and thrilling, the film as a whole seems soulless and hard to sympathize with.  Despite the general emotional blandness of the film, it would appear to be an intentional choice in many Cronenberg films for the protagonist to be the plain, everyman character in order to draw juxtaposition with the weird antagonistic forces.  Although Nola is essentially the conduit for evil in the film, she herself is a pitiable, tragic character that is just as much a victim as the protagonist.  ”The Brood” is an interesting film with a litany of themes to explore but the general emotional vacancy made it an odd film-watching experience.

"Wither" (2012)

"Wither" is a strong little low-budget horror film that has done its homework.  It makes allusions to genre films such as "One Missed Call" as well as a heavy homage to "The Evil Dead".  The music is really good and some of the slower, tension filled portions of the film are really quite excellent.  However, the film struggles to maintain its strong start and devolves into a mediocre splatter-fest.  The hand to hand struggles in the film seem poorly choreographed and come off as false.  While not entirely necessary, it helps if one goes into the film with a contextual understanding of the Swedish creature known as the Vittra, a demon that lives underground and is summoned much the way the demons in “The Evil Dead” are.  Some excellent makeup and practical effects make “Wither” worth a watch but don’t expect anything highly original or groundbreaking. 

"Summer of Sam" (1999)

"Summer of Sam" is a broad story with a strong ensemble cast.  Too broad, in fact.  The film feels stretched to the point that it fails to garner any sort of emotion for any of the characters.  Much like Spike Lee’s "Do The Right Thing", this film attempts to tell the story of a neighborhood in New York at a particular time.  Much the way "Do The Right Thing" used a heatwave as an emotional barometer to tie the stories together, "Summer of Sam" uses the Son of Sam serial killer’s rampage to show the distress and tension between ethnic and social groups at the time.  However, the film feels unsettled, unanchored and unfocused.  It’s more Ken Burns "documentary of the times" than emotional Spike Lee social commentary.  It’s not Spike Lee’s best work, nor does it really warrant much attention from genre fans, period fans, or serial killer-film fans.