Tag Archives: Thriller

Dwight Little’s Murder At 1600

What if someone were murdered in the White House? Dwight Little’s Murder At 1600 explores this notion with considerably less flair that Clint Eastwood’s Absolute Power but is still a solid, enjoyable thriller that doesn’t break new ground but works mostly thanks to a terrific leading turn from Diane Lane and a good one from Wesley Snipes. He’s a DC homicide cop, she’s an ex Olympic sharpshooter turned Secret Service agent and together they’re tasked with finding out why a mystery girl turned up savagely killed in the wee hours. Of course any murder in such a high profile location is going to be one elaborate mystery filled with many agendas, that of the president himself (a surprisingly low key Ronny Cox), his kid (Tate Donovan), his top general (Harris Yulin), secretary of defence (a scheming Alan Alda), the shady head of secret service (Daniel Benzali) and others. Does it all add up and make sense once the final bullet has been fired? Well, technically yes but there’s a few cliche eye roll bits along the way, like that classic final beat where the bad guy, all but thwarted, makes a last minute dash for someone’s gun and causes one final ruckus. The story works well enough and although it kind of dips into hectic, run of the mill action later on it still holds interest enough. Honestly Diane Lane makes it worthwhile, I could watch her in anything, she’s that good, and the earnestly platonic chemistry she has with Snipes works big time. I enjoyed a nice cameo in the opener from SNL vet Charles Rocket too, who died under weird circumstances and I’ve always enjoyed as the sleazy bad guy in Dumb & Dumber. Decent flick.

-Nate Hill

PAST THE POISON: A Look at Rene Perez’s THE INSURRECTION by Kent Hill

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Right off the bat, I like pictures that make you think. Nicholas Meyer once said that movies have the dreadful propensity of doing it all for you, leaving nothing for later like some greedy kid turned loose in a chocolate factory. In the era where everything old is new again – dusted off, repackaged and marketed to an audience for whom, the first time it was released, isn’t a part of their lexicon – it falls upon us to turn to those filmmakers working outside the mainstream; the place where stories that entertain, provoke thought, and evoke the magnitude of the how insurmountable power and the forces that wield it engulf us…constant willing victims that we are.

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Though Rene Perez (as he once told me) might be near the bottom of the barrel when it comes to cinematic voices in the tempest that is the modern day film industry, to me, he is a tirelessly, self-sufficient auteur. His pictures – while made for the VOD market (not unlike the VHS boom before it) and designed for the casual scroller in search of an evening’s mild amusement – are more than mere formulaic forays in genre.

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With The Insurrection, Perez comes out with all guns blazing, literally, but with the timeliness and the gravitas of the message he is projecting. Michael Paré (Eddie and The Cruisers, The Philadelphia Experiment) is a military veteran. Strong, determined, and not afraid to stand tall in the crossfire, yet burdened by regret for the life and family he neglected while serving in the line of duty. This makes him the ideal candidate as well as the only choice, and hope, for the magnetic Wilma Elles’ (Playing with Dolls: Havoc, The Fourth Horseman) Joan Schafer. More than your garden-variety whistle-blower, she is a part of the grand plan, a loyal servant of the ‘Ruling Class’. After securing Paré’s release from prison, Joan tasks the warhorse to keep her alive long enough to tell all – not just of her own private torment, but primarily of a plan that began long ago…to make slaves of us all. And it is for these bold words – how we are but pawns for the powerful, the hungry masses that heartily sup upon the most potent of elixirs supplied by the small glowing screens we carry in our pocket – that she is now targeted for termination by her former overseers. The first casualty, when war comes, is truth, and because of this truth…she must not be allowed to live.

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Schafer’s truth also encompasses the concept that we, the controlled masses, are victims of the promise, the carrot, dangled by the influential. She presents the fact that, no matter the microcosm of society in which we dwell, whether it be the real world or the one manufactured on that luminous rectangle that hangs before us in the darkened movie theatre – whether it be Romero’s Land of the Dead, Anderson’s Logan’s Run or Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel – the promise our own ivory tower, our place among the Gods, is far too alluring a bait…as opposed to love, family…life’s simple wonders.

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As parallel duels of words and weapons rage, you will be equally gripped the story unfolding as you will by Perez’s dynamic camera and fluid editing. These combine, serving as an absorbing delivery system for a tale of the price those who choose to stand alone against the rising tide of the media-saturated, cynical world that consumes us, ultimately pay. Paré’s steely gladiator projects authority through his silence; a strong accompanist to Elles’ articulate argument relating to how easy it has been, and how easy it still is, for the mighty to suppress any and all beneath them.

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It is a thought-provoking work of intensity and depth that we have before us with The Insurrection. In the tradition of action-thrillers like Peter Hyams’ Narrow Margin and Harold Becker’s Mercy Rising, Perez and his team bring us a splendid declaration of the courage it takes to fight for freedoms we, all too frequently, take for granted.

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Composer’s Corner: Nate’s Top Ten original scores from Tangerine Dream

The 80’s are coming back in a big way within film and television and with them comes the always awesome sonic synth sounds of that era. One of the pioneering musical influences and inspirations in this movement is German electronic group Tangerine Dream, consisting of group members Edgar Froese, Paul Haslinger and a whole host of others who contributed over the years. They literally have hundreds of albums due to the simple fact that they loved to experiment with sound and release all sorts of eclectic material, first on tactile vinyl and these days strewn across the internet like hidden treasure. They also worked heavily in film, lending their pulsating, ethereal, gorgeous and incomparable aesthetic to many genre cult films throughout the 80’s. They are my favourite film composers of all time and it’s hard to pick but I narrowed their work down to ten of my favourite original compositions for film! Enjoy:

10. Rainbow Drive (1990)

This is admittedly an unspectacular film, an L.A. noir starring Robocop’s Peter Weller as one tough cop caught up in your garden variety political conspiracy complete with extortion and murder. The score here is driving, grungy while still airy with just the right hints of menace and murky danger. Favourite track: the moody, slow crawling opening theme.

9. Flashpoint (1984)

Another noirish conspiracy flick, this is set in the New Mexico desert and sees two opportunistic border guards (Kris Kristofferson and Treat Williams) run afoul of dark forces headed by a cynically corrupt federal agent (Kurtwood Smith) and apparent ties to the Kennedy assassination. The work here is arid, dusty and atmospheric, accenting the remote, lonely locations well and swelling up portentously when danger looms over the sun n’ sand drenched horizon. Favourite track: Highway Patrol, a clap of rolling backroad thunder that suggests the danger to come.

8. Ridley Scott’s Legend (1985)

This old school fantasy is mostly remembered for a young Tom Cruise as the hero and Tim Curry as evil itself with a demon getup that puts the Devil from Tenacious D to shame. Dream composes a lyrical, melodic playlist here that holds the beautiful imagery and special effects onscreen nicely. Favourite track: ‘Loved By The Sun’, a particularly lovely passage of ambience.

7. William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977)

This fierce, arresting adventure film sees several lowlifes and hard-cases from around the world transporting giant trucks loaded with volatile nitroglycerin through the South American jungle. You can imagine the fun that Dream would have composing this score and they don’t disappoint, their score doesn’t properly kick in until we first see the trucks nearly halfway through the film, but when it does you feel it like a sonic boom. Favourite track: ‘Betrayal’, an intensely affecting, dark hued composition.

6. Michael Mann’s Thief (1981)

The elemental group goes decidedly more urban in Mann’s early career crime masterpiece about an expert safecracker (James Caan) taking one one last heist. The music is moody, dark and nocturnal to suit Mann’s blooming aesthetic we know so well today. Favourite track: ‘Final Confrontation’, a sweeping piece that plays overtop a blisteringly cathartic slow motion shootout and carries over into the end credits with epic grit and grace.

5. Mark L. Lester’s Firestarter (1984)

Drew Barrymore and David Keith battle nefarious government forces in this thrilling Stephen King adaptation, made more so by Dream’s rhapsodic score, which suits the supernatural, trippy tone of this story so perfectly. Favourite track: ‘Charley The Kid’, a layered, star speckled composition that has a forceful edge appropriate for the character but also a playful curiosity that reflects her childlike mind.

4. Steve De Jarnatt’s Miracle Mile (1988)

A film about a potential nuclear attack on Los Angeles seems like it would have a traditional Hollywood-esque score but this is the brilliant, unconventional cult classic that is Miracle Mile and it greatly benefits from the talents of Dream to make it so. Their proverbial surname fits like a glove here because there is an overall dreamy aura to this nocturnal neon nightmare, I’ve had a few dreams myself about impending, inevitable nuclear or otherwise inflicted disaster, probably why I connect so well with this material. The score may seem counterintuitive but there’s a momentous drive to it and lighter, brisk areas to underscore the very sweet romance at its core. Favourite track: ‘Running Out Of Time, which sets the ‘anything can happen’, pins and needles apprehensive mood just amazingly.

3. Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto 5 (2013)

Any hardcore GTA fan knows that the main musical component that everyone looks forward to and remembers are the car radio soundtrack choices, but there’s also original scores deftly layered into the action, missions and cutscenes. Everything from heists to shootouts to plane rides to car chases to boat derby’s and every spectacle in between is outlined here in a California-lite series of compositions that see Dream slightly evolve out of their 80’s synth sensibilities yet still retain the essential soul that says ‘this is our work.’ Favourite track: ‘North Yankton Memories’… because I couldn’t count the amount of times this brilliant piece kicks in the minute I do something naughty, that two star wanted level pops up and the LSPD come careening down the highway after me.

2. Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987)

Atmosphere haunts this cult vampire western about a young cowboy (Adrian Pasdar) seduced by a gorgeous waif (Jenny Wright) and swept you in the brutal nomadic lifestyle of her roving clan. Desert sunsets, blood on chrome, choking smoke, hurtling police vehicles and the occasional moment of nocturnal solitude, it’s a rigorous, ravishing aesthetic and Dream gives it their all with an intermittently droning and ariose work. Favourite track: ‘Mae’s Theme’, a low key, hovering piece that accents the tragic nature of her character.

1. Michael Mann’s The Keep (1983)

This film is something of an artifact, hacked to pieces in the editing process by the dipshits at Paramount, causing Mann to disown the film and yank any distribution rights. One day he’ll cool off and we’ll get a decent Blu Ray. It’s a stunning piece of pseudo Lovecraft WWII supernatural horror and one of my favourite films. Dream’s score echoes throughout the halls of this Romanian structure as German soldiers, metaphysical warriors and Jewish historians try and piece together the meaning behind this ancient place. Favourite track: ‘Gloria’, a synth laden piece with orchestral strains and beautiful vocal work, full of mystery and reverence.

-Nate Hill

The Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems

There’s a certain gleeful, masochist rush in watching a protagonist who is essentially an irredeemable piece of shit circle the proverbial drain of a self inflicted downward spiral for two hours and then, by his own hand, disappear down it. These stories are often relentlessly stressful and hellishly unpleasant and that goes to a certain degree here but because Uncut Gems is a film by Josh and Benny Safdie we are treated to something absolutely fucking spellbinding and told in such a breathless, unique fashion that the ugliness just becomes somehow tolerable. These are two filmmakers who understand movies, clearly have many films from back in the day in mind when they stylistically craft their work from credit font to score cues to editing, have a clear and inspired grasp of storytelling, sound design, music, cinematography and as such no matter how depressing, dire or distressing their films are in tone or subject matter, they are always gems themselves.

Adam Sandler acts up such a storm here I was periodically afraid that he’d have a stroke playing NYC jeweller Howard Ratner, a man with a mile wide gambling problem, apparent adrenaline addiction and a self destructive streak that blows a crater into both his personal and professional lives. Howard owes a shit ton of money to many people including loan shark Arno (Eric Bogosian, isn’t it nice to see him in stuff again?) who has dispatched his best goon Phil (Keith William Richards in a stunning debut performance) to harass, terrorize and pursue him all over the big apple. He’s got a wife (Idina Menzel) who hates him, a girlfriend (Julia Fox, who could be Debi Mazar’s daughter) who loves him, or hates him or perhaps both, she’s at that age where even she probably can differentiate between the two. He makes the mistake of showing NBA superstar Kevin Garnett (Kevin Garnett) a raw fire opal that’s worth many monies and soon it’s off to the races in a series of chases, confrontations, verbal standoffs, close quarters violence and scenes of irresponsible gambling that most definitely don’t fall into the ‘know your limit, play within it category.’ Howard is addicted to the mad rush of the bet, so much so that he’s willing to put his life, marriage, relationship and entire career on the line nearly without hesitation and if you’ve reached that point in your addiction, well… you are past the event horizon the way I see it.

The Safdie brothers have a way of bringing their environments, namely New York City, thrillingly alive in ways that one might not always think to infuse into the art of motion picture. Their casting is a deft mix of beloved Hollywood talent and people right off the streets that have no experience acting whatsoever, a choice that could cause tonal clashes in someone else’s hands but for them seems effortless and simply the way they were meant to make films. Take Phil for example, the violent goon who chases Howard until he’s simply had enough of his bullshit and provides the films biggest WTF surprise. Apparently they just spotted non-actor Williams heading to the L train in NYC and casted him right from there, or so the IMDb trivia page claims. The guy is pure fucking charisma, with touches of Frank Gorshin, Michael Rooker but possessing his own ruthless tough guy essence that doesn’t just steal scenes, but murders them with sinewy, real world magnetism. Hollywood’s highest paid casting director wishes they found this guy. Innovation and inspiration like that is what has put these two filmmakers ahead of the pack so far in their work. Gotta mention the score by their collaborator Daniel Lopatin too, for a film grounded on the streets of NYC there’s a beautifully ethereal nature to this composition full of swoops, swirls, synths, hisses, surprise choral passages and experimental sensibilities that tie into the intro and outro of the film, both presented in abstract form and are two of the most wonderful sustained transitions I’ve ever seen used to tell a story. Great film.

-Nate Hill

TNT’s Salem’s Lot

I have not read Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot nor have I seen the 70’s film adaptions but damn I have to say this 2004 TNT miniseries version is one lazy pile of garbage. It’s one of those shows that they released onto DVD as one movie and as such it has a runtime of like three hours not separated by episodes. That length of time seemed empty and devoid of story, they could have just as easily told this in a 90 minute slot, but that’s the least of its issues, really.

Rob Lowe is a weird choice to play an introspective, lone wolf writer who returns back home to a small town under threat from a malevolent force. That’s not to say he’s incapable of more intense work that shirks his pretty boy image, it’s just that someone less flashy and obvious would have made more sense here. He also narrates the thing like he’s casually reading a teleprompter over coffee, I didn’t think anyone would be able to make Stephen King’s rich prose sound like stereo instructions but his inner delivery is flat and soulless. He plays Ben Mears, a disgraced journalist researching domestic trauma in his childhood burg, but discovers something way worse. A spooky old antiques dealer (Donald Sutherland) has some backhanded deal with ancient vampire Kurt Barlow (Rutger Hauer) and is flooding the area with unspeakable evil. This is in amongst a tangled cobweb of stupid subplots, atrocious acting from the no name supporting characters and just an overall murky, lazy, drab feel.

I mainly tracked this down for Hauer, who is reliably fine as the supernatural villain but isn’t given nearly enough screen time and just somehow feels like a cameo, as does Sutherland who hams it up a bit but still can’t raise a pulse for this thing. James Cromwell has enough grit to play vampire slaying preacher Callahan who I fondly remember from the Dark Tower novels. Andre Braugher and Samantha Mathis are not bad as other townsfolk swept up into the incomprehensible threat but the acting pedigree stops right there, they hired some seriously deplorable people for the rest of the roles and at times it’s hard to watch. I will give the music some props though, it’s an atmospheric composition with beautifully eerie lyrics from Lisa Gerrard (Man On Fire, Gladiator) that honestly deserves a way better outlet than this mess. One of the only good things I can say about it is that it has the mid 2000’s cozy late night cable TV feel to it, and I have some mad nostalgia for that but even then it’s kind of my bias and that compliment can’t be accredited to the success of the project itself, which is largely nonexistent. Boring, mumbly, not even remotely scary, overcast and rainy but not even in the cool ambient way, awkward, shitty bargain basement CGI, clunky, about an hour and a half too long, man the list of shit just goes on. Avoid.

-Nate Hill

Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria

I’m not usually too lenient on remakes of my favourite films and 1977’s Suspiria would have been a deal breaker, but holy goddamn if they didn’t do it justice and then some with 2018’s fierce, austere, unrelentingly gruesome update. It shouldn’t even be called a remake anyways as besides title and general premise, it’s an entirely different beast possessing of its own unique aesthetic and themes far removed from Dario Argento’s vision. Italian director Luca Guadagnino is not a voice I’m familiar with, I haven’t seen a single other film he’s done and looking at his credits it seems this is his first venture into the horror genre, a winning first stroke for sure.

The visual atmosphere here is decidedly different and that’s part of what makes this such a piece all its own. Argento’s neon bathed, opulently saturated colour and lighting is traded in for bleak greys, browns, sickly beiges and suffocated hues that breed uncomfortably onscreen for something less attractive yet far more unsettling than the bejewelled beauty of its predecessor. It also fits the late 70’s Berlin setting which as history reminds us was pretty fucking grim. Young Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) journeys from an Ohio Mennonite community to the prestigious Markos dance academy, which as fans of this story know, is front for a nasty coven of ancient witches. Things go awry almost from the second she arrives but the film plays deftly with who and what it means to be a protagonist here and we see a dynamic shift from other girls (played solidly by Mia Goth and Chloë Grace Moretz) who get suspicious and then wish they hadn’t. The school is run by angular, mercurial shryke Madame Blanc, played by Tilda Swinton in one of three roles, because apparently she can do anything.

So is this a better film than Argento’s original? There is of course no right answer to that and I don’t even think they should be compared alongside one another, they may as well be from different galaxies, let alone genres. There’s a sense of diseased malfeasance to these witches, who go out on the town, drink and party just like anyone else but are anything but human. I loved the decision to change Susie’s character from doe eyed heroine to an eerily intuitive avatar with a seemingly dark destiny already written in blood years before. The film wanders about in draft filled hallways, echoey dance studios and chilly, depressing Berlin streets for much of the runtime until the climax arrives, and holy fuck I was not expecting this to go the whole nine yards into outright wanton, surrealistic chaos horror mode. There’s a crazily violent collective piece of mania that happens deep within the bowels of the school building that might be one of my new favourite set pieces in any horror film ever. It tells this story through image, impression, carnage, lighting and fantastic performances from all involved including a terrifying cameo from the grim reaper itself. All set to a hauntingly unconventional score by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, it’s not a sequence I’ll soon forget and propels the overall film into classic territory. What an experience.

-Nate Hill

The Glass House

The Glass House is one of those silly, sensationalist, bombastic pieces of melodramatic domestic turmoil branding itself as the slickest thriller on the block. It thinks it’s a lot smarter, more suspenseful and shocking than it actually is and despite the fact that it’s a total riot of bad movie cliches and overcooked hoo-hah, I still had a bit of fun with it. The main reason it kind of works is casting; Diane Lane and Stellan Skarsgard are just watchable in anything no matter the quality, and here you get to see them play the world’s worst foster parents to two wayward orphans (Leelee Sobieski and Trevor Morgan). They at first seem like nice, caring folks: they’re rich, well put together, hospitable and live in a big old house atop a hill that’s just secluded enough to come in handy later when things go wrong. Soon it becomes apparent these two are whackos though. Skarsgard’s Terry is a dangerous manipulator who is hellbent on nabbing the kid’s four million trust fund left by their parents, while Lane’s Erin is an unstable junkie prone to weird outbursts and scary behaviour. It’s tough since no one really believes these kids and the whole thing circles the drain to one of those hilariously over the top forgone thriller conclusions that has a chase, several implausible fights, some cat and mouse stuff and plenty of villainous posturing from the two leads. Sobieski is always solid (see Joyride for a much better thriller starring her), Skarsgard no stranger to playing unhinged psychos and Lane although cast against her sweetheart type rocks the batshit chick aesthetic well. They’re all just stuck in such a formulaic, dull ass, waterlogged script that doesn’t step an inch out of line or do anything different than we’ve seen loads of times before. The only thing that really stands out beyond being adequate is the lighting, which really cracks on blu Ray. Other than that and the game performances it’s a trip through mediocrity town.

-Nate Hill