5 under-the-radar 2016 horror films you need to see

It wasn’t exactly a stellar year at the movies, more like a middling one.

One  exception was the horror genre, which more than delivered the devilish goodies in 2016 and did it without much fanfare.

Here are just five standout horror films that came out this year, ones worth seeing beyond “The Witch,” “Hush,” “Green Room” and “The Invitation.”

  1. “Train to Busan”: Tired to death of zombies? I know I am. But this South Korean walking dead thriller with a workaholic daddy fending off flesh cravers to save his daughter breathes life into what’s evolved into an overworked, overdone subgenre. Kick-ass director Yeon Sang-ho doesn’t do anything terribly new, but boy does he know how to put the biter back into nail-biter. This E-ticket ride was one of the best times I had at the movies in 2016. Don’t miss it!
  2. “The Autopsy of Jane Doe”: Andre Ovredal is no one trick pony.  The talented Norwegian director gave us the crazy-good “Troll Hunter” (streaming on Netflix) in 2010. This, his American feature film debut, proves he’s here to stay. Ovredal does crank up the gore for his claustrophobic nightmare featuring father-and-son coroners (Brian Cox and Emile Hirsch) dealing with a temperamental corpse who has plans of her own. Prepare to get the wits scared right outta ya.
  3. “The Eyes of My Mother”: No other film freaked me out more (except for maybe “Elle”) than  Nicolas Pesce’s ferocious debut, a B&W American Gothic chronicling the making of a female psychopath. Atmospheric and bleak, it took us to very dark places  and beyond. 
  4. “The Monster”: An addict (Zoe Kazan) hits the road with her sweet daughter (Ella Ballentine)  on a dark and stormy night and once her car stalls she’s forced to confront demons both literal and figurative. Bryan Bertino’s creature feature is frightening, but it’s also quite moving. Kazan gives one of the most underrated performances of 2016.
  5. “Evolution”: French auteur Lucile Hadzihalilovic amps up the atmosphere in this weird, surreal tale featuring women who only sire sons. Narratively, it’s not always successful, but this it’s still quite effective. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about what it exactly means for days.train-to-busan_still-cut-2

Resolving to get in shape in 2017: Here’s how to start


Every year, there’s a migration. Gyms overflowing with enthusiastic people eager to put  New Year’s resolutions into motion.

I love this time of year, a sense of renewal lingering in the air.

The reality, though, is that being fired up about launching or reviving an exercise program tends to be the easiest part. Where intentions go awry is the month of February, when it gets harder and harder to stick with a workout program.

The cast of interlopers intent on taking our goals down are legion.

Overloaded schedules. Increased demands at work or at home. Commutes that agonizingly get  longer and longer. That hot new series we just have to binge watch overnight and tell all our friends about the next day.

It’s no wonder resolutions buckle can’t keep up.

So here’s one remarkably simple way to extend the shelf on that New Year’s enthusiasm: Pick the most ideal time for you to work out (there’s always one tucked in there somewhere) and then book it as if it were appointment on your phones, laptops, calendars.

Sound too easy? OK. I get it. Here’s where you need to put in a little more effort; treat it then as an essential element of the day, as important as catching that bus to work. Yes, life intrudes and emergencies happen. And if that occurs, just reschedule.

From there, find a class that not only fits your schedule but is one you really  like. Practice yoga. Try TRX. Don’t like group exercise. Hit the weight room. Go out for a jog. Pick up biking. Dance in your living room.

There are so many options out there. The key is to have fun and to stick with it. Then those New Year resolutions will turn into everyday habits for the months and years ahead.img_1416

Review: Animated ‘Long Way North’ is a gem

It’s likely that the little animated gem “Long Way North” will get buried under the massive pile-up of December releases.

And that would be a shame since this import from France not only features one of the strongest young heroines we’ve met this year  but also serves as a gentle reminder that hand-drawn animation is often better than what gets dreamt up on a computer screen.

Animator Rémi Chayé’s first directorial feature is a winner. Set in the late 19th century, it’s an adventure tale anchored around  the exploits of Sasha, who embarks on a bold journey to discover what happened to her explorer grandfather and his ship bound to the North Pole.

Born into Russian aristocracy and facing an arranged marriage, Sasha bucks tradition by flaunting her parent’s wishes and eventually navigating her way into work aboard a vessel headed to the region where her grandfather and his ship disappeared.

Sasha is a spitfire,  a focused young woman who’s both smart enough to outwit the crew and courageous enough to get the job done when they can’t. Throughout her journey from Saint Petersburg to the Arctic, Chayé’s detailed animation makes us feel her unwavering resolve as well as love for her grandfather’s adventurous spirit. 

But what I appreciated most about “Long Way North”  was how it allows time for us to fully experience its atmospheric, evocative images and does so in such an unhurried, non-antic way. There’s no rancorous soundtrack to trigger that certain emotional switch, no rush to explain everything that is happening. And this old-school way of spinning a story — animated or not — is worth not only respecting and preserving but holding ever so dear to our hearts.


3 stars 

1 hour, 20 minutes

In French with English subtitles

PG (for some peril and mild language)

Playing at the Roxie in S.F.Adobe Photoshop PDF

My 2016 picks for best movies

Hollywood studios better up the quality in the years ahead. More and more streaming services are delivering high-quality goods, and that should concern execs. The films that landed on my top 10 list all have these essential elements in common — a bold vision, a smart screenplay and a dynamite cast.

Here then are my Top 10 films of 2016.


A favorite tradition: A half marathon in Oakland

I find comfort in traditions, and one of my favorite annual events — now as much an annual tradition as carving up that big bird on Thanksgiving — is the Chabot Half Marathon.

It’s one cold and tough trail run (a lot of up and down and all around), but it’s also a special event, one that brings families and friends together in the pursuit of doing something active and good for themselves and each other. I so love running with the kids, the teens, the young adults, the parents, the grandparents along those gorgeous trails.

You could say it’s a New Year’s resolution for us to do this every year. (I appreciate it much more than waking up with an aching head and a feeling of regret the day after a wild New Year’s Eve).

Maybe I’ll see you out there at the start of 2017!

If not, I’m signed up for the Oakland Marathon. Care to join me?


‘Passengers’ review: Book a trip elsewhere

The 2016 space bore-dessy “Passengers” raises probing questions, such as what steps would you take to avoid loneliness? Or why does Hollywood continually muck up a decent premise?

The most pressing question, though, pertains to athletic clothing, as in where in the hell can I buy the nifty line of attire Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt look so positively fine in?

Their charcoal-grey, sexy wardrobe is more enticing than anything else in this homogenized, big-budget holiday release, which comes bearing a few gifts  – sensual production design and capable special effects — but can’t persevere over an uneventful, downright tired screenplay that plugs into obviousness after passing the 30-minute mark.

The story has potential, with the leads doing their darndest to sell its half-there premise. Pratt’s easygoing appeal snugly fits the role of Jim Preston, a futuristic traveler whose premature hibernation pod problems shake him awake 90 years too soon on a long journey to a nirvana-like planet. Meanwhile, his fellow travelers doze on with visions of settling a less populated world dancing in their heads.

At first it’s not terrible for a mechanical engineer like Jim to be alone, as he tinkers with the system, goofs off and makes a frat-boy mess out of  a lavish Las Vegas-style suite. But after awhile, Jim feels lonely and wants the pleasure of more company than that of the sassy android bartender (Michael Sheen, so good per usual). Enter feisty journalist Aurora Lane (Lawrence) and soon the two dance, romance and swim a lot since there’s not much in this narrative pond.

Given that Pratt and Lawrence have such kinetic chemistry, it’s a shame the promising commentary early on about crass commercialism is never fully fired and the script plays it numbingly safe, cranking out a blase, gotta-get-it-done action/romance finale that requires the stars to shout out “Watch O-U-T”  with as many exclamation points as they can muster. It’s all for naught.

Director Morten (“The Imitation Game”) Tyldum gives it his best shot, but even his tutelage comboed with an unexpected pop-up appearance from the most welcome Laurence Fishburne can’t propel this derivative exercise into orbit.

It’s not a total loss, really. That activewear/loungewear might just be available for purchase somewhere in the internet universe.


2 stars

1 hour, 56 minutes

PG-13 (for sexuality, nudity and action/peril)

Opens tonight at area theaters

Review: ‘Kicks’ shouldn’t be missed

“Kicks” marks the bold feature-length debut of East Bay-born filmmaker Justin Tipping. His indie drama about a Richmond teen’s search around Oakland for the guy who ripped him off of his cherished Nikes is  a stunner, both visually and narratively. There’s a lot of depth you just don’t see often enough at the movies, from the characters to the visuals.

Come out to Oakland’s Grand Lake Theatre on Sept. 9 when Justin will be doing a Q&A about his film, which was entirely shot in Oakland and Richmond. I’ll be representing the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and moderating the event. Hope to see you there!

Here’s a link to the review published in the San Jose Mercury News and the East Bay Times.

Review: ‘Kicks’ aims high and hits its mark