Looking for a smart, slick Sci-Fi thriller that has the emotional heartbeat to keep you caring right through the narrative? Check out Gregory Hoblit’s Frequency, a brilliant little high concept mind bender that’s aged so well they even recently rebooted it for TV, which I’m a little dubious about. Like it’s celestial Sci-Fi premise, the film is kind of a lightning in a bottle type flick where they captured the exact recipe of magic, character relationships and plot points that resulted in something really special, and I’m doubtful the new one could come close. Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviesel are awesome as father and son separated by both time, space and even death, until a miracle comes their way. Frank Sullivan (Quaid) is a firefighting, fiercely loving family man in the 70’s who is crazy about his wife (Lost’s Elizabeth Mitchell) and young son. Flash forward thirty years or so, his son (Caviesel) is grown up and now a cop, haunted by the past, and his dad has died in the time since. One year there’s a particularly powerful set of Aurora causes by sunspots, right when Caviesel happens to be tinkering around with a HAM radio. It’s delightfully farfetched, but this cosmic occurrence allows him as a grown up to communicate through time thirty years previous, reconnect with Quaid and try to set his family on a less tragic course. The reason it works so well is the dynamic between the family; Quaid, Mitchell and their young son (Daniel Henson) are so thoroughly believable and adorable as a family that we stick by them with each beat and deeply care about their outcomes, which are constantly shifting every time the past is changed via the future, and vice versa. Quaid has two friends (Andre Braugher and Noah Emmerich) who revolve around the character development too and have their parts to play, as does Shawn Doyle as a menacing serial killer who crosses their paths. Quaid loves to pick out these high concept Sci-Fi scripts it seems, he’s been appearing in them throughout his whole career from InnerSpace to Enemy Mine to Dreamscape to Pandorum, the amount of interesting stuff in his filmography is inspiring and this is one of his best. This is a tale to get lost in and revel at the sheer escapism it throws your way, a clever twist on time traveling that puts it’s two charismatic protagonists at dual control panels and gives them the power over fathomless phenomena, connected by an astrological two way radio that knows no bounds of space or time. A classic for me.
Gregory Hoblit’s Primal Fear does a fine job of using opaque marketing to conceal it’s delicious, devilish secrets, a tactic that many films recklessly abandon and ruin far too much in trailers or posters. This is a careful exercise in serpentine plotting. Is it courtroom drama? Supernatural shocker? Psychological thriller? Pot-boiling procedural intrigue? Check it out and be as floored as audiences were for the first time back then. Richard Gere holds his end well as a legendary hotshot defence attorney in Chicago, one with a tarnished reputation and a penchant for defending unscrupulous clients. A weird case comes his way in the form of mentally challenged alter boy Edward Norton, accused of murdering someone high up in the clergy and causing a political hailstorm throughout the city. This is one of those thrillers that does genuinely keep you guessing, until literally the final frame, using human interaction and intimate performances to instigate reactions, rather than a barrage of special effects or manufactured narrative gimmicks. I’m being deliberately vague because this is the one film you don’t want spoiled for you ahead of time, it’s that cool. This was, I believe, the role that put Norton on the map, and he’s a gale force of electric energy, giving everyone else onscreen a huge run for their money. It’s fun watching Gere, an assured and confident pillar of law and order, slowly unravel and find himself at the mercy of malicious curveballs he doesn’t even see coming until they’ve hit. The cast is dynamite, with rockin’ turns from fiery John Mahoney as the worst mayor in Chicago’s history, Laura Linney as Gere’s hot tempered rival, Terry O’ Quinn, Alfre Woodward, Andre Braugher, Jon Seda, Frances McDormand, Maura Tierney, Joe Spano, Tony Plana and a slick Steven Bauer as a mob don with ties to Gere. This has all the trappings of a big, overblown thriller drawn from broad strokes, but Hoblit wisely brings it in in places, giving us a nuthouse claustrophobic shivers to go along with the big league intrigue. One of the best thrillers of the 90’s, and one that should get mentioned more often. I’ll also say it has to have one of the coolest DVD special edition covers ever, it’s always nice to see extra effort put into that arena.
Passengers is a low key supernatural drama that came and went with little fanfare or attention back in 2008. Part of the reason for that could have been that it was marketed as a thriller, which is not so much the case. There is an eerie vibe to it, and certainly a paranormal component, but it’s quieter and much closer to the chest than advertising might suggest. It wasn’t reviewed very well, branded as predictable and derivitive. Some of its plot devices have been used before in the past, to be sure, but I greatly enjoyed the film and loved the way in which it’s story unfolds, told very well by its sturdy cast. Like Mark Pellington says, fuck the people, that’s why there’s 31 flavors. Anne Hathaway is excellent as Claire, a grief counselor who is tasked with looking out for a handful of people who have survived a catastrophic plane crash. She’s new to her profession, her eagerness laced with self doubt, yet she remains hopeful. All of a sudden, the patients in her cate begin to disappear mysteriously, and she starts to question the situation, as well as her own reality. The survivors are damaged and not fully willing to open up to her, collectively scared of some unseen threat. Claire has repeated run ins with a unknown and very distressed man (Andrew Wheeler, local vancouver actor and former teacher of mine) who has ties to the accident. It’s all hush hush and quietly unsettling, until we slowly begin to realize what’s actually happening, and the it changes gears and becomes very touching and thoughtful. Clea Duvall is great as one of the skeptical survivors, Patrick Wilson solid as always, and there’s work from Dianne Wiest, William B. Davis, Andre Braugher and briefly David Morse. Sure, this type of story has been done to death time and time again, draining new efforts of some of their effect, but if one comes along that gets it right, tells it’s story in a way that holds both my emotion and interest in its spell, I’m all ears. This one did just that.