Tag Archives: Thriller

Jordan Peele’s Us

The idea of doppelgängers has been explored before in film, but never in a fashion quite as twisted as Jordan Peele’s Us, a furiously entertaining horror show that gets weird, wild and so refreshingly unpredictable in a genre where the climate tends to flatline with endless Conjuring universe carbon copies and what have you. There’s a ton of ideas at play here and it makes the film hard to pin down as one thing or the other, but it works beautifully as a breathless, streamlined home invasion shocker with deeply unsettling undercurrents and implications that can be read many different ways. When Adelaide Wilson (Lupita Nyong’o) was a young girl, she had a terrifying encounter within a shadowy hall of mirrors on Santa Cruz beach, an encounter which will herald the arrival of feral versions of her, her husband (Winston Duke) and two children (Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex) as they vacation at their summer house a stone’s throw away from that very same beach. The prologue with her as a kid is set in the late 80’s and has a retro horror feel as Peele uses his favourite scary movies as both fuel and inspiration for the style on display here. The home invasion of these shadow selves is a brilliantly staged piece of white knuckle suspense and impressive physical acting, especially by Lupita as both shellshocked Adelaide and her other self Red, a growling fiend who is the only one of them that can talk. She rasps enigmatically about stuff that seems like both straightforward exposition and cryptic allegory, hinting at the secrets in store for the third act. Elizabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker are flat out hilarious as the Wilson’s bickering neighbours, bringing uproarious comic relief before confronting their own set of homicidal visitors. Lupita gives the strongest performance here in both her characters, a frantic dual role knockout that holds the film in panicky distress with her wide eyes and instills deep terror with what she does to her voice, she’s a consistently brilliant actress and I love her work in this. This is clearly a passion project for Peele, the imagination on display is something else and fresh new scripts like this are always welcome for me. Some may have issues with certain things in the third act like explanation and climactic resolution, but he deliberately leaves a lot of it for us to ruminate on instead of telling us every detail about what we just saw. There is a scene where Lupita’s Red imparts some of it but it’s still somehow told in a roundabout way and not laid open bare in spark-notes fashion. Some may find this frustrating, but I loved it. This is probably the best horror film I’ve seen since 2014’s It Follows, and definitely one of the most original. A shock inducing siege thriller, an acidic jab at personal identity and a quietly discomforting look at the rifts you can see beginning to form in the world today. Great stuff.

-Nate Hill

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DJ Caruso’s Taking Lives

Angelina Jolie as a cop hunting down a ruthless serial killer who uses especially grisly methods is a great premise for a film, but you may as well skip DJ Caruso’s Taking Lives and just go revisit Phillip Noyce’s The Bone Collector, a great film that did the concept way better. Lives is a poor excuse for thriller material, a drab, dank and musty slog through a narrative that doesn’t seem to give two shits about its characters and frequently makes little to no sense, not to mention fails heavily at holding interest. Jolie plays a hotshot FBI profiler who is consulted by French Canadian police when their efforts to nab an elusive murderer fail. This is a guy you never really see because every time he kills, he takes on the identity of the victim, blending in and leaving few clues. Jolie searches back through records from decades ago and tried to piece together this guy’s past to find him, but he himself has noticed her and taken an interest. This all sounds terrific on paper but the film they’ve made is a messy, overwrought lump, like a particularly bloody episode of criminal minds without the ‘mind’ part to give the criminal activity any weight. Jolie is joined by Ethan Hawke as a colleague as well as Olivier Martinez, Gena Rowlands, Tcheky Karyo, Paul Dano, Justin Chatwin and more, but none make a huge impression. Kiefer Sutherland shows up as a nasty piece of work who is so obviously a red herring it hurts to see his painfully limited arc come and go like a breeze. Don’t even get me started on the final twist either because it’s too ridiculous. This has the grungy, incisive visual aesthetic of David Fincher’s Sev7n but with none of the pace, doom laden atmosphere or brains to back it up. The only cool thing is the title, which of course refers to the killer’s penchant for both murdering and assuming the lives of those he targets. Neat premise, wicked title, dope cast… shit awful film.

-Nate Hill

Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs

What kind of heist flick is it where we don’t even see the heist? The best kind. The Quentin Tarantino kind. Reservoir Dogs has aged incredibly well, it’s his leanest and meanest film to date and stands as the blood soaked crash course leading to the sustained, verbose historical epics we have come to know him for these days. Many consider Pulp Fiction to be his official breakout but the magic first took flight here on the outskirts of LA as a band of marauding jewel thieves in identical suits tries to smoke out a rat from their very midst. Like a bizarro world version of the Rat Pack, this profane, volatile murder of ex-con crows discuss Madonna, tipping waitresses, The Lost Boys and more before erupting together in a cascade of yelling and bloodshed that remains as exciting now as it no doubt was in the initial theatrical run. Dialogue runs the show here, whether between Harvey Keitel’s Mr. White and Tim Roth’s Mr. Orange, Chris Penn’s Nice Guy Eddie and his gangster father Joe (Lawrence Tierney) or Michael Madsen’s Mr. Blonde and whoever he’s decided to intimidate on a whim. Madsen gives the performance of his career early on and Blonde is a character for the ages, a self appointed psychopath who tortures an LAPD hostage (Kirk Baltz) more out of vague amusement than outright malice in a scene that has since been inducted into time capsules everywhere. When we meet these guys, they’re casually having breakfast in a greasy spoon diner, chattering on about everything under the sun except the jewel robbery they’re about to commit. It’s only after the stylized opening credits and the hectic aftermath of said robbery that Tarantino flashes back to scattered exposition and backstory for these guys, and it’s that kind of deliberate editing that has not only become a hallmark for the filmmaker, but keeps his stories so fresh and enthralling. The audience knows almost right off the bat who the rat is, but the fun is in observing paranoia levels rise in their ranks as they each begin to suspect the man next to them and turn on each other like a pack of hyenas in the Serengeti of industrial Los Angeles. From the iconic torture scene set to Stuck In The Middle With You to the tense Mexican standoff to the frantic escape and firefight with LA’s finest, this is one gritty slice of life crime piece that the years have been most kind to. Tarantino has evolved and adapted as his career has moved forth, but its always nice to come back to the scrappy little picture that started it all, see how it’s influenced countless other filmmakers over the decades and bask in the bloody, expletive filled, dialogue heavy bliss again every once in a while. An all timer.

-Nate Hill

Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects

I’m usually a nut for anything that Steven Soderbergh has made, but Side Effects was a big ol’ dud. I think it had something to do with expectations, really; I was sold on a smart, scary psychological thriller that explored the unnerving fallout behaviour of trial drugs and shady products snuck into consumerism by Big Pharma. What I got turned out to be a lurid, trashy exercise in deception and Basic Instinct shenanigans, the kind of back end to a film you’d find Eric Roberts or Mark Harmon starring in on HBO back in the day. Not that that’s a bad thing per se, it was just definitely not what I expected from a filmmaker as thoughtful as Soderbergh, but I guess this was his playful side taking over the wheel in the third act. Rooney Mara plays a young woman whose husband (Channing Tatum) has just been released from prison, an event which seems to coincide with her recent depression and suicidal behaviour. Her psychiatrist (Jude Law) prescribes her an experimental new drug, likely not yet even approved by the FDA, and things go from bad to worse when she kills hubby in a freaky sleepwalking episode. The drug is shelved, Law is disgraced, the trial stops right there. End of story, right? I wish. The good doctor just has an inkling that something else is going on, something involving both Mara and another shady practitioner played by Catherine Zeta Jones. If I had some idea going in that this was inevitably going to ditch the ideas it claimed to be making a film about and get cheap and sleazy I might have been more receptive, but as is the plot gets so steamy and ridiculous I couldn’t believe I was watching the same film that I started out with. There’s a few twists too many, a lack of believable character action and and a kinky subplot that had me laughing, and not in the good way either. Hard to say much more without spoiling it, but it’s one outlandish turn of events, like a car on the way to a college conference that suddenly veers off an exit to the strip club without warning. I expected more from everyone involved.

-Nate Hill

Wolfgang Petersen’s Shattered

Wolfgang Petersen is known for directing some of the biggest Hollywood blockbusters over the years including Air Force One, The Neverending Story, The Perfect Storm and Troy. One thing he hasn’t done much of is writing, other than the melodramatic, Hitchockian 1991 thriller Shattered, which is kind of a mess. Whether it’s the source novel by Richard Neely that’s dodgy or Petersen’s screenplay that dropped the ball, this film doesn’t quite clearly delineate it’s plot points, many of which are so far beyond plausible it’s hard to really get a grip on the story or keep a straight face. Tom Berenger plays a powerful businessman who accidentally launches his car off a highway outcrop into a spectacular swan dive that leaves his face looking like a dirt bike track and his memory more absent than of Jason Bourne’s. After some facial reconstruction he’s back on his feet and in the arms of his wife (Greta Scacchi), but something just doesn’t quite seem right. The memories she tells him of before the accident don’t seem real to him, he starts gathering clues relating to some kind of infidelity or cover up and his intuition just tells him he’s being thrown for a loop. This is where the film’s narrative sort of imitates that car and drives right over the edge of comprehension; The serpentine twists and turns employed are sort of fun but have absolutely no place in the real world, let alone even a hard boiled thriller like this. Bob Hoskins is fun as a snarky veterinarian who moonlights as a PI, trying to help Berenger fit the pieces together. Corbin Bernsen listlessly plays yet another smarmy role as his ex business partner, I sometimes wonder if they’ve ever given that guy a role worth his salt or if his career is cursed with playing the annoyingly extroverted debonair who has zero depth. Joanne Whalley Kilmer shows up as some psychic who throws around vague threats and acts like she knows something but isn’t even sure herself what it is, which is the feeling the script gives you. By the time the final revelations make themselves known and we see what really happened after the accident it’s kind of fun but also just riddled with inconsistencies and eye roll moments. It isn’t a bad film though, and has a few moments. There’s great cinematography of Oregon and San Francisco as well as a foggy shipwreck that holds a few secrets and gives off spooky ambience. The score by Alan Silvestri is steamy in places, rousing in others and gets the job done. It’s just the story that sort of treats us like we’re idiots, and as if we not only haven’t seen this story done before, but seen it done better.

-Nate Hill

Richard Donner’s 16 Blocks

Bruce Willis is the type of action hero who is never idealistic, chipper, optimistic or overtly upbeat. There’s always a sarcastic reluctance whenever he gets pulled into a gunfight, hostage situation or standoff and I think that’s the quality that has made him such an endearing star presence. In Richard Donner’s 16 Blocks he plays an NYC Detective named Jack Mosley, who is a burnt out, sardonic alcoholic who couldn’t give a shit about his job anymore, let alone the motor mouthed convict (Mos Def) he’s assigned to escort the titular distance to testify against some mob bigwig. Jack can almost be seen as the same Willis character we’ve been watching our whole lives but after all the others, a progression that has lead to this one portrayal where the archetype has just reached the end of his rope. It’s a wonderful performance from him and a strong, solid suspense thriller. Def’s character is an annoying, fast talking hustler who we just want to deck right in the face, but I suppose that’s kind of the point of him here so we can see Jack’s tolerance boil over and eventually warm up to the guy. There are forces aligning against them though, factions on both sides of the law that have stock in Def not making it those 16 blocks with his pulse still going, and Jack must dust off his old reflexes to take on what appears to be the entire New York City police force, along with a fellow detective and old friend who has gone rogue, played with affable menace by the always awesome David Morse. This is a terrific thriller with well drawn, relatable characters stuck in one shit show of a situation, it’s minimalist without being too low key and fired up without being overblown or silly. The photography by Glen McPherson makes great use of looming NYC architecture, narrow streets and artifices that could get shattered by a rain of bullets any second, and the exciting score by Klaus Badelt sets a nervous mood of urban menace while introducing Willis with a melancholy twang. This was Donner’s last film before going on apparently permanent hiatus and I’m not sure why, I’ve always loved his work and would love to see a comeback. Willis gets a lot of hype for guys like John McClane and Butch Coolidge who are definitely legends, but Jack Mosley is one of his best creations, a hard bitten boozer with a compassionate lining under the scruff and a brutal resilience in the face of overwhelming odds, it’s his version of Eastwood’s Ben Shockley in The Gauntlet and an underrated character in his canon. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Flashpoint

What do corrupt Texas border guards, missing cash, a Kennedy assassination conspiracy, buried bones and a long derelict crashed Jeep in the desert have in common? Check out Flashpoint to find out, a dusty, forgotten old 80’s thriller with a dope cast, diabolical story and one kicker of a score by Tangerine Dream that only makes the vast desert of the Southwest seem more eerie, and the dirty deeds done under its sun seem dirtier. Treat Williams is the cocky young hotshot patrolman, Kris Kristofferson his salty superior, and after the discovery of the Jeep and it’s dangerous cargo, they’re embroiled in a scary attempted coverup that includes murder, lies and a careful political smokescreen. It doesn’t help that a greedy fellow colleague (Miguel Ferrer) sets his sights on the cash too, heralding the arrival of Kurtwood Smith’s Carson, a pragmatically evil Fed with big plans for anyone who knows about the discovery. Throw Kevin Conway, Jean Smart, Guy Boyd, Tess Harper, plus Rip Torn as a local sheriff and you’ve got a diamond of a cast. Kristofferson is great as the wily veteran who knows a cautionary tale in the making when he sees it, but Smith steals the show and is downright scary as the worst type of guy to be in that position of power, who isn’t even above arguing the twisted morality of his job. This film is as lost to the sands of time as that Jeep sitting out there in the middle of nowhere, but like the Jeep its waiting to be rediscovered. A powerful morality play, a taut thriller with a killer good script and one certified forgotten gem.

-Nate Hill