Tag Archives: Thriller

Stephen Gaghan’s Abandon

Sometime an artists whose primary output is writing tries their hand at directing, with mixed results. In the case of Stephen Gaghan’s Abandon, the results are flat out miserable, all across the board when you consider that he wrote the thing too. Katie Holmes headlines the murky tale of a girl whose mysterious ex boyfriend (Charlie Hunnam) resurfaces to creep her out after disappearing years before. The film is steeped in darkly shot, choking scenes of mumbling gloom that I suppose were an attempt at atmosphere but just cloud perceptions and numb over any chance of tension or thrills. Holmes has always been a huge talent and she does her best here but you can only do so much with material this bad. Benjamin Bratt plays a hunky detective who gets a bit too involved in her case than he probably should, and ends up standing around looking confused most of the time. Hunnam, whose acting style has always irked me, tries to do the deep dark brooding bad boy thing here, and comes across as listless and bored, his motivations never made clear beyond lurking with vague intent. Just as an example of how humdrum it all is: Fred Ward plays Bratt’s superior officer and when he’s introduced in a dimly lit precinct, he’s literally just sitting on the floor against his desk, looking like he gave up with the script, tossed it in the dustbin and is waiting for them to yell cut so he can call his agent and finally get the next Remo Williams film underway instead of appearing in gothic Hallmark trash like this. It’s interesting because Gaghan showed great promise after this by directing the phenomenal Syriana, then subsequently waded back into the mires of mediocrity with his next feature, Gold. He’s uneven as a director, and this is the lowest point for him. The whole thing fits the title, really; it’s like they Abandoned any hope of making this half decent and just cloaked it in as much hollow, portentous energy they could muster up and hoped no one would notice that there’s no substance to back up the style. The ending is as empty as the rest of it, there’s no resolution, twist or aha moment, it just ends in thin air. Avoid.

-Nate Hill

Advertisements

Simon West’s The General’s Daughter

The General’s Daughter is one of those films that’s well acted and staged enough from a technical standpoint that the excessive, overcooked script, self righteous snark and needlessly perverse plot could almost be forgiven. Almost. This is a lurid, sweaty southern gothic military murder mystery, and as amazing as that sounds, it’s actually quite an unpleasant piece to sit through. Based on a book by Nelson DeMille (crown prince of airport novel thrillers), and directed by Simon West (Con Air), it’s given the subtlety of a sledgehammer and the nuance of a rogue missile. At least the acting is decent, starting with jumped up John Travolta as a private investigator called to a military base after the daughter of a powerful General (James Cromwell) is found dead on the property in… a compromising way. The suspects are lined up neatly like ducklings and include the General’s faithful aide (Clarence Williams III), an arrogant high ranking officer (James Woods, practically assaulting the dialogue), another officer on base (Timothy Hutton) who went to Westpoint with her and naturally the General himself. Travolta is joined by another investigator (Madeleine Stowe) who he has a romantic history with, because of course he does. They’re threatened by unseen assailants here and there, and stalled by a local redneck Sheriff (the late Daniel Von Bargen) who has it in for him. The investigation gets so weird, convoluted and messed up that it’s a wonder the writers could even keep track of their own work when scotch taping the third act together. When the inevitable flashbacks show up to tell us just what happened to her, we wish we didn’t know. The poor girl, played by Leslie Stefanson, is humiliated, brutalized and murdered in a way that’s miles beyond bad taste, totally unnecessary to show in graphic detail other than for the film to reiterate what a miserable display of ‘too much’ it is in every category. The scene doesn’t even stand to serve her character arc either, as we’re informed she has a history in S&M type shit. The depravity is there simply to exist on its own and turns a relatively run of the mill thriller into something deranged. It’s a spectacle, you won’t be bored, it’s well mounted and acted by a solid cast, but is it a good film? Nowhere close.

-Nate Hill

B Movie Glory: Wind Chill

Emily Blunt is at well earned mega star status these days and gets handpicked for all the prolific projects, but early on in her career she could be found in cheapies like Wind Chill, a spooky little snowbound ghost story that teeters right on the average line. She plays an awkward college girl who catches a ride with a fellow student (Ashton Holmes) home for the holidays, and their route happens to pass along a desolate, snowed in section of highway where something eerie is watching, following and messing with them relentlessly. The interaction between the two is odd, strained and tense, accented by two performances that are just somehow uncomfortably pitched, particularly Blunt’s. Things flow a bit more naturally when the car inevitably breaks down and she finds herself alone against the elements and whatever else is out there. It’s like a twilight zone episode a bit, the rules of time start to bend and she has strange encounters with an ominous highway patrolman (Martin Donovan) and a lone snowplow driver (Ned Bellamy), both of whom may or may not even be real. It works here and there and strives to focus on atmosphere, Blunt always has a presence and keeps us occupied as the supernatural occurrences reveal a freaky tale dating back decades. Nothing more than a distracting TV movie level horror flick, but watchable enough. Gotta give Blunt credit for climbing a tall ass telephone pole wearing heels though, even in cheaper films like this she gives it her all. The locations are also fantastic, kicking off at UBC here in Vancouver for the intro and moving to the gorgeous mountains of Manning Park for the snowy bits.

-Nate Hill

Gregory Hoblit’s Fracture

The judicial system has never been played so hard as it has by Anthony Hopkins in Gregory Hoblit’s Fracture, a thriller that’s written, acted and directed to high heavens but scored into oblivion. I’m not kidding, a hotshot courtroom gig of this caliber should sound great but the musical composition here by the Brothers Danna makes it sound like a TV movie and really doesn’t do it any favours. Odd, when you consider the fact that they are Oscar winners for previous scoring work. Hopkins is the murderous rich prick who shoots his wife (an underused Embeth Davidz) in the face when he finds out she’s having an affair with a cop (Billy Burke). Then in a spectacularly nasty move, he sets it up so the detective is first on scene to find her just so the old bastard can see the look on his face. After that, no one seems to be able to make the case stick to him, and it’s passed off to young hotshot prosecutor Ryan Gosling, who underestimates the sheer diabolical resolve of Hopkins and sails straight into his net. It’s pretty preposterous and overblown in terms of what’s allowed, not allowed and plausible in events surrounding such a high profile court case (why would they let him so close to his comatose wife right after such a suspicious acquittal?), but employ suspension of disbelief and this vicious little narrative is a lot of fun. Hopkins has a ball with this role, relishing the moment every time he royally fucks someone over and cooking up a stinging blend of laconic sociopathy and bubbling mirth. Hoblit gathers an impressive supporting cast including perennial silver-fox David Strathairn, Bob Gunton, Fiona Shaw, Cliff Curtis, Xander Berkeley, Zoe Kazan and slinky Rosamund Pike as a love interest from a rival firm. It’s a bit of a shame because the script, performances and story are all very well orchestrated, but the score and certain details just seem glossed over when there could have been more grit and depth. Those lacking elements give it an airy feeling of incompleteness where it should have been deeper and tighter drawn.

-Nate Hill

Drew Goddard’s Bad Times At The El Royale

Although not quite the dense, delicious narrative feast I envisioned based on marketing, Drew Goddard’s Bad Times At The El Royale is an impressively mounted period thriller with gorgeous late 60’s production design, fantastic performances from a variety of players and a hard boiled, ultra violent storyline loaded with equal helpings of melodrama and pulp. Somewhere along the Nevada/California state-line lies the ornate El Royale, a retro pop funhouse with a giant chandelier, soda jerk sensibilities and and a jukebox that doesn’t quit. The rooms in California cost an extra dollar a night than those in Nevada because of course they do. A handful of strangers show up one fateful day in 1969, the motives, pasts and true temperaments of which are slowly revealed throughout the rainy night via an elliptical tale that weaves forward, backwards and flows past many perspectives and angles to show what is actually happening. Jeff Bridges is the salty preacher with memory issues, Jon Hamm the chatterbox salesman who moonlights as a clandestine federal agent, Lewis Pullman the dodgy hotel clerk, Dakota Johnson and a scary Cailee Spaeny two hippie sisters on the run and Cynthia Erivo in the film’s best and most human performance as a fledgeling singer just trying to survive the crazy night. Alliances shift, flashbacks sometime prove reliable and sometimes not, people are killed graphically, the rain pours down, intentions are laid bare and that jukebox keeps on keeping on. The soundtrack they’ve amassed is something else here, an old time collection of Mo town, sun n’ surf and heartfelt solos by Erivo that give the film a vibrant personality. And yes, Chris Hemsworth is in it too, playing a volatile, Manson-esque cult leader with a short temper, long hair and a button down shirt that conveniently never gets buttoned down (anything to fill those seats). The character is a bit much and sort of takes over the wheel in the third act, but Chris is too young to pull something that magnetic off as well as others could and I couldn’t help feeling like he was miscast. The film sort of suffers from what I call Hateful Eight syndrome a bit; when you have an Agatha Christie sort of tale to tell, the setup is always a tantalizing mystery that, once unravelled, has to feel worth the build and earn its revelations along the way. The payoff here is better than Hateful Eight and the film overall is stronger too, but I felt just a smidge underwhelmed once everything was laid bare and the wrap up rolled around. Nevertheless, this is a surefire piece of thriller entertainment with many elements that work terrifically, namely acting, dialogue and production design. Erivo seems to have come out of nowhere and also impressed me in Widows earlier this year, she grounds the film in reality and serves as the moral compass of sorts in this miasma of reprehensible human behaviour, I hope to see more of her and hear more of that singing voice in the future. Spaeny too was excellent, playing a pitch perfect acolyte with an unbalanced edge and a dead eyed stare that was truly chilling and definitely reminiscent of what I’d imagine a freaky ass flower power cult chick would have come across as back then. A fine piece of entertainment that wasn’t as deeply plotted as it could have been, but blasts by with admirable energy and streamlined ambition.

-Nate Hill

Bruce Robinson’s Jennifer 8

‘Darkness descends on a small town’, the tagline of Bruce Robinson’s Jennifer 8 warns us. No kidding, this is one rained out, bleakly lit, forbiddingly gloomy thriller. Although not without noticeable editing and pacing issues, I love it for the thick, nightmarish atmosphere it produces, the drab northwestern small town feel and a well rounded cast of leering character actors who all may be suspect in the harrowing central murder mystery. Andy Garcia is big city cop John Berlin, called in by his veteran detective buddy Freddy (Lance Henriksen, almost incapable of not stealing every scene) to investigate possible serial killer after a woman’s severed hand is found at the local dump. Talk about your rainy movie scenes, the part in the scrapyard seems like they set up sixty rain towers in a circle and ran them full blast for a deafening monsoon that almost drowns out the dialogue. From there on in it’s a murky whodunit populated by cops, reporters, coroners and and other skeleton crew occupants of this understaffed town, many of whom have skeletons of their own in the closet or just may be the killer. Clues lead to a young blind girl (Uma Thurman, radiant in one of her very first roles) who attracts the killer like moth to a flame, as well as Garcia who acts as guardian angel and love interest to her. I guessed who the murderer is way before the final twist, but that’s not to say it’s a dead giveaway or lazily written, I just have a knack for recognizing actors anywhere right down to the bit players and saw traits in a brief physical reveal, but the mystery is still decently shrouded and pretty much plays fair against scrutiny. Garcia, Henriksen and Thurman are supported by a thoroughbred roster including Paul Bates, Kathy Baker, Kevin Conway, Graham Beckel, Nicholas Love, Bob Gunton, Jonas Quastel and Twin Peak’s Lenny Von Dohlen as the local newspaper scribe. Oh yeah, and John Malkovich weirdly shows up out of the blue as some eccentric, obsessive Fed who has it in for Garcia and puts him through a hilariously faux intense interrogation monologue. Director Robinson (the famed Withnail & I) apparently only wrote and directed this one in hopes of whipping up a mainstream commercial hit to raise dough for more brooding artsy stuff, but the joke was on him because from what I hear, this royally tanked and even went direct to video across the pond. Well it ain’t a perfect film but I love it anyways, there’s too much eerie rural atmosphere and too many stalwart actors to write it off, it fits squarely in amongst my top serial killer mysteries.

-Nate Hill

Steve De Jarnett’s Miracle Mike

Ever had one of those clammy nightmares where you’re dead sure that some catastrophic disaster is imminent, but are next to powerless to do anything about it, run or escape what’s coming? Steve Dejarnett’s Miracle Mile captures that feeling uncannily well, and is now one of my favourite films for that as well as many other reasons. It’s not that that sensation is pleasant or at all enjoyable to relive outside of a dream, but it’s so hard to tangibly recreate on film that what Miracle Mike achieves is a rare commodity among mood-scapes. The film is disarmingly benign as it opens: a young man (Anthony Edwards) and woman (Mare Winningham) meet and fall in love outside a neon adorned diner in dreamy, pastel hued Los Angeles. They make plans for later that night, and a whimsical note takes hold. We’re treated to some of the most inspired foreshadowing I’ve ever seen involving a pigeon, a lit cigarette and an open power line. As night descends on the Miracle Mile neighbourhood of LA, Edwards finds himself back at the diner when the pay phone outside rings. He answers it, and a frantic voice warns him that nuclear attack is coming to the city in just over an hour. What would you do? Who would you tell? He races right back into the diner and, panicked, informs the rogues gallery of oddballs you’d find at such an establishment after midnight. Naturally they all freak out too, and as soon as that cat is out of the bag, it’s a feverish, mad dash to exit the city before the threat arrives, if indeed it is a credible danger. That’s part of the beauty here; whether or not this is a hoax is not clearly revealed until the absolute last minute of the film, but would you risk not taking it seriously? These characters react in a variety of ways, but Edwards just wants to find that special girl he met earlier when things felt so sunny and full of possibility, to find her and escape together. It’s one of those ‘real time, one night in the crazy city’ films that unfolds over a short period of time but couldn’t be more full of instances, encounters and the kind of strange occurrences only the witching hour has to offer. The romantic angle, usually played to the hilt of melodrama in these kinds of films, is somehow so frank and truthful that we buy it, we care about these two kids and it makes the thought of apocalypse all the more dreadful. For all it’s focus on death and potential destruction, this is a beautiful film that is so full of life and character, a sly cross section of LA’s invisible working class under the nocturnal skies and a bubble gum, eye popping display of colour, design and eccentricity. The cityscape is populated by an ever present cast of brilliantly used character actors including O Lan Jones, Robert Doqui, Kurt Fuller, Mykelti Williamson, Edward Bunker, John Agar, Lou Hancock, Denise Crosby, Kelly Jo Minter, Allen Rosenberg, Earl Boen, Brian Thompson, Peter Berg and a quick but badass cameo from Aliens’s Janette Goldstein, once again waving around a big gun in exuberant fashion. A film needs a good score, and whenever Tangerine Dream is hired to compose, unfiltered magic happens. Their music here is a driving force to the action, an atmospheric lullaby that exudes both beauty and danger in its synth laden, melodic pulse. This is such a unique film, such a deft melting pot of genres that the recipe can’t really be defined as anything but a flavour all it’s own, an experience that makes you feel primal fear while wowing you with cinematography, editing and one shots that practically pull you right into the action. Points also awarded for bravery in pulling off that ending without compromise. The very definition of a forgotten gem, and a film that should be on every shelf.

-Nate Hill