Tag Archives: Thriller

Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching

For a film that’s confined to the visual format of social media screens, Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching is one dynamic thriller with suspense, momentum and twists that blindside you. The premise is simple: David Kim’s (John Cho) daughter is missing. She hasn’t answered his calls, texts or FaceTime and communication from her end has gone dead. He now has to break into her laptop, scour through apps, feeds and chat rooms to gain clues about her whereabouts, with the help of an intrepid Detective (Debra Messing). Every frame of this film is some sort of technological facet, from chat alerts to messages to candid footage to news updates to webcasts and more, and against all odds it really, really works. When you’re restricted by format to that level you have to make every inch of your story count, and Chaganty has produced a winner. Right off the bat we are introduced to a family history via stored footage that has us caring for both David and his daughter immensely, before she even goes missing. Cho’s performance is panicked, desperate everything a father in that situation should reflect. The suspense is brilliantly placed and as the story rounds each new curve and doles out a few well earned wow moments, it remains unpredictable and aside from a few minor quibbles and one eye-roll of a red herring, believable as well. I’d love to see this continue into an anthology of sorts, with more mysteries and thrillers told from the perspective of technology/social media. It rules many aspects of our lives and is present wherever we go, whatever we do and I’m fascinated by how they have integrated it into the medium of cinema here. Great film.

-Nate Hill

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Tony Scott’s Man On Fire

Tony Scott’s Man On Fire is one of those films I can watch time and time again and never get tired of, a magnificently melancholy tale of south of the border justice, criminal intrigue and a tequila shot of pulpy, blood soaked style that gets me every time. It’s loosely based on a 1987 film of the same name starring Scott Glenn, Jonathan Pryce, Danny Aiello and Joe Pesci (there’s a random lineup) but Scott intrepidly branches off into new territory, and thank the gods for his vision. This was the first film where he really explored that sketchy smokehouse of an aesthetic that he would later take to angelic heights with Domino. Colors blur and saturate, editing rockets by with the force of a bullet in a storm, subtitles appear arbitrarily and seemingly of their own volition. It’s a jarring tool set that he employs, and many abhor it. I’m as in love with it as he was though, and whether to throw us right into the protagonist’s psyche or simply because he felt the need to paint his pictures this way, the rest of the films in his remaining career carried the DNA, in varying doses. Fire is the key word for this film, in many of it’s forms. There’s a smoldering ember in Denzel Washington’s John Creasy that is fed by the winds of corruption as the film progresses, erupting into a blazing inferno of violence and fury. Creasy is a broken man, haunted by the questionable, never fully revealed actions of his military past. “Do you think God will ever forgive us for what we’ve done” he grimly asks his old war buddy Rayburn (a scene stealing Christopher Walken). “No” Rayburn ushers back curtly. It’s at this heavy nadir we join Creasy, lost in a sea of alcohol and guilt, an unmooored ship with a shattered hull looking for both anchorage and repair. Rayburn hooks him up with a bodyguard gig in Mexico City, keeping the young daughter of a rich businessman (Marc Anthony, terrific) safe from the very real threat of kidnapping. Dakota Fanning is compassionate, precocious and endearing as young Pita, who spies the wounded animal in Creasy right off the bat and tries to make friends. Creasy draws back in reluctance, but eventually warms up. I love the pace of this film to bits. It spends nearly half of its hefty running time simply getting to know these two characters, forging a bond between them before the inciting incident even looms on the horizon. And when the kidnapping occurs, as it must, the stakes are high as can be and our investment level in the situation is paramount. Setting up character is so key, and Scott nails it with scene after scene of quiet and careful interaction. Then he yanks the lid off the pot, as Pita is snatched in broad daylight, Creasy is shot and the kidnappers vanish into thin air. Pita’s mother (a soulful Radha Mitchell) works with the dodgy Mexican authorities and her husband’s lawyer Jordan (a sleazy Mickey Rourke). Creasy has other plans. Once healed, he embarks on a mission of fury and vengeance, knocking down doors, removing limbs, inflicting gratuitous bodily harm and using every technique in his training (believe me, there are some interesting ones) to track down those responsible and get Pita back. Washington does all this with a calm and cool exterior, letting the heat emanate from every calculated syllable and intense glare. The descent into Mexico City’s criminal underworld is a grisly affair, and all sorts of ugliness is exposed, shredded through the caffeinated prism of Scott’s lens. Two cops do what they can to help Creasy, idealistic Guerrero (Rachel Ticotin) and battle hardened Manzano (the always awesome Giancarlo Gianninni). It’s Creasy’s show though, and he blasts through it like a righteous hurricane of blood and bullets. Scott’s films have a knack for ending in over the top, Mexican standoff style shootouts, but the man subverts that here, going for something far more sorrowful and atmospheric, ending an intense tale on notes of sadness and resolute calm, gilded by the aching tones of songstress Lisa Gerrard and composer Harry Gregson Williams. Walken provides both comfort and catharsis, the only beacon of hope for Creasy other than Pita. Unlike John, Rayburn has moved on from the horrors of their past, but one still sees the trauma in his soul when he looks John in the eye and gets hit with what is reflected back. Tough stuff to get right, but hey, it’s Walken we’re looking at here, and he’s brilliant. Rourke has little more than an extended cameo, but his flavor is always appreciated, and he’s great too. I had no idea Anthony had the chops he exhibits here, but I loved his arc as well and he holds his own in a blistering confrontation with Creasy. Washington is an elemental beast, shadowing what’s left of his humanity under a cloak of booze and brooding contemplation, until he’s coaxed out by the life saver Pita is. Then he’s a lion, riding guns out into a ferocious swan song of a sunset that may just hold rays of redemption for him. This is Scott at his best, his unique brand of storytelling at its height, his creative juices a canister of lighter fluid set aflame with genius and innovation. A masterpiece.

-Nate Hill

Stephen Hopkins’s Blown Away

As far as mad bomber movies go, Stephen Hopkins’s Blown Away has to be one of the finest, a personal favourite of mine and a scorching, atmospheric thriller that has aged like fine wine. It had the unfortunate luck of being released the same year as fellow bomber flick and mega-hit Speed which kind of eclipsed it, but for my money this is the better film. Some suspension of disbelief is naturally required to enjoy this story of a psychopathic former Irish radical (Tommy Lee Jones) on a wanton path of destruction as he employs a personal vendetta against an old alliance (Jeff Bridges), who is now a hotshot in the Boston bomb squad division. After a disagreement years ago that led to hellish destruction and Jones’s incarceration for nearly two decades, the two face off in an incendiary game of cat and mouse set against the Boston backdrop, with everyone Bridges has in his life serving as collateral damage in his ruthless adversary’s sick game. Jones clearly had a dialect coach to say certain phrases and his accent slips generously here and there, but he plays his super baddie role with gleeful menace and steals every scene. Bridges always shines in any role and his caged animal intensity fires up the dire situation he finds himself, his family and colleagues in. Lloyd Bridges is fantastic as his old Irish uncle, Suzy Amis nails crucial scenes as his wife who gradually learns about his violent past, while Forest Whitaker does a fine job as the bomb squad’s rookie officer. Hopkins always does well in thriller territory (check out The Ghost & The Darkness for another brilliant outing from him) and the direction here is big, bold but never too far over the top, despite some theatrically elaborate set pieces involving the bombs. Alan Silvestri cranks up the orchestral grandeur for a thunderous, rousing score that’s nearly half the fun of the film. All involved do excellent work in not only making this a gorgeous film to look at but to create genuine suspense for more than one sequence, which isn’t easily achieved in this desensitized viewer. There’s probably a Blu Ray floating around out there and that’s fine, but there’s a smoky ambience and atmospheric 90’s feel to this film that I feel lends itself a bit better to the loving grain of DVD, the format I own it on. I remember watching bits and pieces of it on TBS Superstation back when I was younger and loving it, it’s a great film to keep revisiting.

-Nate Hill

Off Limits aka Saigon

What do you think of when the Viet Nam war comes up in conversation? Platoon? Apocalypse Now? Born On The 4th Of July? All great films, but one I like to call attention to is Off Limits, a sweaty, disturbing murder mystery set in the heat of Saigon during the height of the war. Someone is brutally murdering prostitutes in the brothels, raising enough of a stir that Army cops Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines are called in to investigate all fronts. Because this is war and anything close to an organized procedural is hopeless, there’s a creepy, lawless feel to their work as they probe American GI’s, shady local characters and even US military honchos. This is an unpleasant, royally fucked up film that isn’t easy to sit through or warm up to, but it’s brilliantly made and the sheer level of feverish intensity kept up by everyone involved has to be commended. Dafoe is reserved but lethal when necessary while Hines brings the humour as a guy who creates a flippant smokescreen to hide just how sharp he really is. Fred Ward plays their commanding officer of sorts terrifically but it’s Scott Glenn who lays down one absolute WTF of a performance as a psychopathic American colonel with some disgusting extracurricular habits, one hell of a nasty attitude and probably the single funniest and most unnerving death scene I’ve ever seen. Keep a lookout for Richard Brooks, David Alan Grier and Keith David in solid turns as GI’s who are immediately suspects because in a climate this volatile, everyone is. A fantastic film that fires on all cylinders, is exceptionally well made and very overlooked but be warned: you’ll want to take five or six showers after those credits roll.

-Nate Hill

Roger Donaldson’s White Sands

Somewhere out there in the gypsum dunes of New Mexico there’s White Sands, a long lost, slightly unfinished yet captivating neo-noir about small town law enforcement, big time gun runners and everyone else who gets caught up in between. Willem Dafoe is Ray, a bored rural sheriff who sees a way out of the dusty hum drum when an apparent smuggler turns up dead on his watch out there in the national park, prompting him to steal the guy’s identity and dive headlong into the illicit arms business with no real crash course or idea of what he’s doing. A risky move that propels the film down an exciting, sexy, ambient journey of untrustworthy alliances, atmospheric shootouts and a dangerously charming Mickey Rourke as Lennox, the kind of reptilian criminal who’s so good at seducing you into the lifestyle that you don’t realize you’re in the snake pit until it’s almost too late. Dafoe and Rourke have shared the screen aplenty before and while my favourite team up has to be their cartel duo in Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon A Time In Mexico, this film certainly takes second place honours. They just work so well on camera together, a shaky bromance built on Ray’s deception and Lennox’s unpredictable penchant for violence that proves electric as the narrative weaves around them. The always phenomenal Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio plays an underworld connection who Ray unwisely gets steamy with in probably one of the hottest sex scenes of the 90’s and a complete false advertisement for the success rate of getting it on in the shower. Samuel L. Jackson has a fantastic early career villain role as the kind of corrupt FBI agent in whom it’s very unwise to place trust, and watch for others including the great Maura Tierney, M. Emmett Walsh, James Rebhorn, Beth Grant, Miguel Sandoval, Jack Kehler, Mimi Rogers and a sneaky unbilled double cameo from Fred Dalton Thompson and the inimitable John P. Ryan as slick arms dealers. The setting of White Sands park plays such a role in atmosphere here; the ghostly sight of white sand dunes brings about the thought that something is out of place, rare in nature and the same can be said for Dafoe’s affable sheriff thrown into a mixing pot of big city psychos and genuine menace, a fish out of water shtick that pulls you in the more accustomed to this netherworld the man gets. How about that knockout original score from Patrick O’Hearn too, who only composed for a handful of things since, it’s a hazy, melodic set that suggests both the beauty and danger lurking out there in the Sands, especially in the simmering climax where several characters meet poetically grisly fates. I do have a few minor issues with this film, it could have been at least fifteen minutes longer and rounded out the epilogue with Dafoe’s arc clearer, it almost feels like there’s a missing reel or some editing glitch that marred the final product just a tad, but it doesn’t hurt the film too much overall. This is a lost classic for me, a gorgeously specific film noir with some of my favourite actors giving some of their most fun, playful work, the aforementioned score and some cinematography that won’t quit. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Bille August’s Smilla’s Sense Of Snow

Smilla’s Sense Of Snow begins with a specific inciting event: a young Inuit boy plummets off the roof of a multi storey building in Copenhagen, to his death. The only person who seems to care is Smilla (Julia Ormond), a girl who lives in the complex, is half Inuit herself and did her best to take care of the poor kid when his mother drowned in alcoholism. From there the film spirals into curious, unexpected thriller elements that seem to have left many viewers baffled (reviews over time haven’t been so kind), but it’s the uniqueness of this story that appeals to me, the way we find ourself wondering how such a simple and straightforward incident can lead to the kind of sequences you’d find in a Bond film. That’s the mark of an absorbing thriller, no matter how ‘out there’ people complain it is. Smilla deliberately cloaks herself in a facade of coldness not dissimilar from the snowy northern landscape around her and comes across as initially unpleasant, but when we see how far she’s willing to go and what she will risk to uncover the truth around the boy’s death, we realize there’s a heart in there and Ormond creates a mesmerizing protagonist. There is indeed a clandestine web of secrets, coverups and conspiracies revolving around the whole thing, and it’s great fun watching her follow the breadcrumb trail to where it all leads. She’s a withdrawn, introverted person, and these qualities don’t lend themselves to hands on detective work, but therein lies the gold mine of character development for her as she discovers perhaps one of the most bizarre string of events I’ve seen in a thriller. The supporting cast is full of gems, starting with Gabriel Byrne as her neighbour and love interest, just darkly charismatic enough to suggest that he may not be who he says he is. The late great Robert Loggia makes a stern but soulful appearance as her powerful father, who pulls some strings to help her out. Soon she’s led to a shadowy scientist (Richard ‘OG Dumbledore’ Harris) with ties to it all, and other appearances from Jurgen Vogel, David Hayman, Bob ‘Clever Girl’ Peck, Vanessa Redgrave, Ona Fletcher, Tom Wilkinson, a quick cameo from one of the Doctor Who actors and an excellent Jim Broadbent in full exposition mode. The eventual premise here is set up in an arresting prologue concerning a lone Inuit hunter observing a meteor fall to earth and cause an almighty mess on the tundra, serving to inform us right off the bat that although this film initially sets off on the trajectory of a straightforward murder mystery, there will be elements of the fantastical. Said elements proved to be either too far out there or too removed from the grounded opening for people to grasp hold of, but not me. I love the journey this one takes, I love the heroine we get to take it with, I’m awed by the stunning arctic photography every time and the story always draws me in. Great film.

-Nate Hill

Hans Petter Moland’s Cold Pursuit

Cold Pursuit won’t be what audiences are expecting it to be, and these days in Hollywood, that’s a really good thing. There’s a whole string of Liam Neeson genre films since Taken that for the most part are generic vehicles for him to run around in and beat people up. Fortunately, every so often one breaks the mould and turns out to be a fresh, distinguished animal from the rest of the pack, and this is one of them. Yes it’s about a snow plow driver in a small mountain town whose son is murdered by drug dealers. Yes, Neeson plays him as the lone man who takes his revenge in a series of violent encounters and action sequences. But that’s just the blueprint, and honestly director Hans Petter Moland, remaking his own 2014 film, seems far more interested in showing us the casual eccentricities and personal lives of all of these characters, particularly the dealers, than focusing on action alone. Neeson’s initial rampage causes quite a bunch of confusion in the ranks when the local outfit mistakes his mayhem for the actions of a rival Native American gang from Denver, and that’s when the snow really hits the fan. Tom Bateman is a coked up dervish as Viking, head of the local boys, the kind of guy who caps off his own people before breakfast and encourages his son to hit bullies back harder, ‘just for starters.’ The Native American dealers are my favourite part, adding a mystic deadpan quality and distinct class that makes the film seem just this side of a regular action flick. Tom Jackson is charismatic and scary as their leader White Bull, and Raoul Trujillo does a hilarious turn as Thorpe, his second in command. Emmy Rossum is good but slightly underused as an enthusiastic local cop, while John Doman gets a few of the film’s funniest scenes as her less enthusiastic partner. It’s terrific to see the great William Forsythe on the big screen again as Neeson’s ex criminal brother Wingman, an old dog who knows the ropes and seems both worried and amused at his brother’s drastic actions. Speaking of underused though, they’ve thrown Laura Dern a thankless role as Neeson’s wife who simply disappears from the plot like halfway through. A little Dern goes a long way, but she’s given almost nothing to do here. As Liam picks these guys off one by one and they all wonder just what the shit is happening, I found myself much more entertained by the precious little sideshow moments concerning all the criminals, narrative excursions that take huge liberties with the film’s pacing, a choice that I have no problem with. Viking has intense squabbles with his ex wife (Wind River’s Julia Jones) over their son’s ridiculous diet, Thorpe and his crew have a hilarious interaction with a hotel clerk who uses the word ‘reservation’ in a context that makes for the funniest joke in the film, and one of Viking’s boys has interesting ideas about how to bang hotel maids. My favourite is when the film stops dead in its tracks to show White Bull and his guys simply playing in the snow, watching skiers practice and getting one of their guys to hang-glide off the mountain. It’s that sense of playfulness, the care in stepping off the beaten path and giving us something we don’t often see in Hollywood films that sets this aside and makes it something special. It doesn’t particularly work as a thriller because it’s too funny, and won’t land with an emotional impact for the same reason. That doesn’t matter much though, because it’s just fine as a screwy black comedy full of really interesting side characters, offbeat situational comedy and high spirited, naturalistic comedic timing. A barrel of fun if you’re tuned into the abstract frequency. One last thought: I really wish they’d kept the title ‘Hard Powder’ instead of the much less tongue in cheek Cold Pursuit, which feels too run of the mill for a film this idiosyncratic.

-Nate Hill