Category Archives: Psychological Thriller

Trance (2013) 3/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 76
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Duration: 101 mins
Director: Danny Boyle
Stars: James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel

A suave and tricksy thriller detailing a heist mob’s unconventional attempt to hypnotically uncover the location of a stolen painting amidst emotional turbulence and full-blown crises of identity. Trance offers the best and worst of mercurial director Danny Boyle at about a 30/70 split. Stunningly shot and soundtracked to Rick Smith’s pulsing melodies, it sets out to explicitly defy narrative convention and treat us to a razzle-dazzle experience over old fashioned storytelling. Though we’ve seen attempts like this before, what Trance lacks in originality it makes up for in burning focus and unflinching persistence. And with James McAvoy and the always splendid Rosario Dawson mischievously wrapped up in the deep dark psychological hijinks, the experiment is only enriched. But trippy entertainment only goes so far and with the plot hoisted so brazenly atop of Boyle’s sacrificial alter, not even actors of their class and magnetism can keep us invested in the manner we’d expect and desire from a clever heist thriller.

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Scarface (1983) 4.43/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 79.1
Genre: Crime
Duration: 170 mins
Director: Brian De Palma
Stars: Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, Steven Bauer

Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone’s reimagining of Howard Hawks’ prohibition-era gangster epic replaces the grime of old Chicago with the neon glitz and kitschy glow of 1980’s Miami and sets the scene for one of the most unique gangster movies of them all. Drop Al Pacino into the lead role of Cuban exile come narcotics trafficking kingpin and you can add “most explosive” to that accolade too. Pacino inhabits the gnarly skin of Tony Montero like few actors could or have as he steels the screen with his presence. An unpredictable concoction of balls to the wall attitude and psychopathic viciousness that bubbles to the boil around five minutes in and continues that way until the movie’s gargantuan close. Though everyone else falls in his frothing wake, there’s a lot of fun in their performances from Tony’s partner and incorrigible ladies-man Steven Bauer, to his reluctant self-hating wife Michelle Pfeiffer, to Robert Loggia’s weak-willed mob boss desperately trying to keep his insanely ambitious young charge on a leash.

Much has been made of this remake’s audacious production design and it’s usually this aspect that most detractors set their sights on. But regardless of criticism, there’s no denying that Scarface is its own film. Moreover, the truth is that, alongside Giorgio Moroder’s amusingly profound score, De Palma’s vision goes so far beyond cheesy that the movie exists in a fascinating kind of hyper-real haze of meta-gangsterism. And as is the case with every one of that director’s 1980’s movies, that’s exactly the point! Scarface isn’t a straight gangster narrative even though its works brilliantly as such, nor is it an action film even though its littered with sublimely staged (not to mention rather grisly) set-pieces that dwarf most of that decade’s best. Scarface is a twisted fairytale of greed and ambition funnelled through the intense personality of one of cinema’s most powerful actors at the height of his powers. Through this vessel, Stone’s crazy but endlessly quotable dialogue bristles with the megalomanic intention of a coke-fuelled tyrant and again, like all De Palma’s movies from around that time, it thus becomes a statement on the state of contemporary cinema itself. That it’s a riveting blast to experience just makes it all the more remarkable.

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The Entitled (2011) 3/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 63.8
Genre: Crime
Duration: 91 mins
Director: Aaron Woodley
Stars: Kevin Zegers, Ray Liotta, Laura Vandervoort

Slightly above average thriller involving the abduction of three rich kids by three malcontents who attempt to ransom their prisoners to the three wealthy fathers. A low profile cast add some bite to a well structured screenplay with Ray Liotta bringing his natural snakiness to his fatherly role. The dialogue can struggle to rise to the sharpness of the story but Aaron Woodley’s classy directing fills some of the void. For the most part, The Entitled sidesteps the more formulaic tracks and tickles the audience with the ambiguous morality and strained allegiances found among each of the three parties. It’s that moral coolness that allows the movie to play out to a satisfying conclusion and without ever really catching fire, The Entitled manages a continuous simmer.

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Red Eye (2005) 3.57/5 (4)

 

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Rating: The Good – 73.4
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 85 mins
Director: Wes Craven
Stars: Rachel McAdams, Cillian Murphy, Brian Cox

A hotel manager is co-opted into an assassination plot by the man sitting next to her on the plane when he threatens to have her father killed if she doesn’t follow his instructions regarding a high profile guest staying at her hotel. Wes Craven coolly turned his hand to the art of straight suspense in this metronomic thriller that scores on every level it aims at. Rachael McAdams is the woman who finds herself next to Cillian Murphy’s very creepy passenger from hell and she delivers an admirably even performance as the likeable yet focused young woman. After his character dispenses with the not very deceptively charming persona, Murphy settles into the role of slimy puppeteer and the pair do well to shoulder much of the movie from the confines of the plane. That said, the always solid Brian Cox is on hand as the father on the ground and Jayma Mays is fantastic as McAdams’ nervous assistant back in the hotel. With a concept thriller like this, Carl Ellsworth’s screenplay was always going to be the ultimate decider in whether Red Eye rises above the ordinary and, happily, it sets a tempered balance between the psychological and visceral as Murphy’s threat bombardment intermittently boils over into physical intimidation. Craven uses the small space of the plane to quicken the pace keeping matters especially energised with his typically clever use of character movement. As the movie races to a close, he dips into his time honoured tool bag to generate some modest scares and, while somewhat familiar, they provide a tidy outlet for all that in-flight anxiety. At the production level, the movie boasts a degree of accomplishment that makes it all the more than enjoyable to watch.

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The Temp (1993) 2.86/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Ugly – 64.5
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 99 mins
Director: Tom Holland
Stars: Timothy Hutton, Lara Flynn Boyle, Faye Dunaway

Daft as a brush but forgivably sardonic, Tom Holland’s The Temp is a fast and loose thriller about an executive’s beautiful but sinister assistant whose recent arrival coincides with a number of accidents that move both her and her increasingly suspicious boss up the ladder. Timothy Hutton is the beleaguered exec, Laura Flynn Boyle, his self-appointed but apparently unstable cat’s paw while Faye Dunaway and Oliver Platt play their cut throat co-workers. With its unpredictable plot and outlandish progression, The Temp scores for its sheer uniqueness but with the writer-director of the quirky Fright Night pulling the strings, it’s also a riot of rather well disguised black comedy too. Contrasting dark tones of paranoia with over the top villainy, there’s barely a scene that won’t elicit a crooked smile. However, so unorthodox is its execution that the sarcasm is perhaps too well disguised. As often as not, the movie comes across as a tad unsure of itself and even erratic. In these moments, it can let the audience slip through its fingers despite the best efforts of Hutton and co. In the end, it all unravels rather resoundingly but, at the very least, it maintains its eccentricity.

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Death Wish (1974) 3.33/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.5
Genre: Crime, Thriller
Duration: 93 mins
Director: Michael Winner
Stars: Charles Bronson, Vincent Gardenia, Jeff Goldblum

A milestone in vigilante cinema that doesn’t as much walk the line between right and left wing politics as it draws it. Bronson takes on perhaps his most dramatic role as the liberal architect whose wife and daughter were respectively murdered and attacked in their home. After a slowly realised grieving process, he finds himself increasingly drawn towards the idea of taking matters of self-protection into his own hands. Director Michael Winner ducks and weaves his way through the political hinterland of his drama with a series of right jabs but lands a couple of integral left hammer blows so that he deceives his way to a rather interesting analysis of crime and morality. There’s no rush to the action either as he lays out in meticulous manner Bronson’s remorse and development from fearful citizen to eager vigilante. It’s richly shot in what is clearly one of Winner’s more polished productions and embellished with some outstandingly staged action sequences.

A particular treat however is the cynicism and indeed prescience of Wendell Mayes’ screenplay (adapting Brian Garfield’s novel) which sets the actors on an even strain within Winner’s languidly unfolded drama. The cast blow got and cold however with the normally excellent Steven Keats missing the mark completely as the son in law and a young Jeff Goldblum featuring briefly as one of the most ridiculously unthreatening hoodlums to tumble his way through a murder scene. Bronson too struggles woefully to give his lines the right cadence but his charisma burns through those failings to the point that few could’ve done the job better. On the plus side Vincent Gardenia is fantastic as the bemused police captain in charge of bringing the vigilante to justice.

Not surprisingly, this movie has been both hailed and denigrated as a piece of right wing propaganda but that perception is to completely miss the intricacy of the story being told. From the examination of violence in the television/movie culture, the use of both white and black criminals, to the manner in which Bronsan sets out to lure his victims, there’s little to suggest that self defence against an impoverished underclass is what lay deep in Bronson’s heart. Something else was in play, something much more insidious and interesting from a dramatic point of view. And with that infamous final shot of Bronson smiling at a group of thugs, Winner and co. didn’t just close in style but they had one last go at getting their point across. They made it count!

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The Offence (1972) 4.24/5 (3)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77.8
Genre: Crime, Drama
Duration: 112 mins
Director: Sidney Lumet
Stars: Sean Connery, Trevor Howard, Vivien Merchant

Sidney Lumet is not a man you’d expect to direct a dark psychological drama set in the north of England but The Offence is in many ways one his most brilliant films. Sean Connery plays a hard case veteran detective whose most recent case has finally pushed him past his breaking point. What follows is a dark and disturbing exploration of a scarred and tormented psyche. Connery is superb in a role that shoulders most of the drama and together with Lumet’s gritty direction they slowly reel the audience into that psyche resulting in a fascinating yet deeply uncomfortable experience.

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Hitch-Hiker_Lupino

The Hitch-Hiker (1953) 3.43/5 (2)

 

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Rating: The Good – 75.5
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 71 mins
Director: Ida Lupino
Stars: Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy, William Talman

Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy play two buddies whose fishing trip takes a nasty turn when they pick up William Talman’s murderous hitchhiker. As one of the first women to step behind a camera in Hollywood, Ida Lupino blazed a cinematic trail by penning and directing this relentless film-noir and the fact that it was loosely based on a real story of the time makes the drama all the more chilling. O’Brien and Lovejoy are terrific in different ways and give their characters a believable chemistry. Talmam on the other hand is truly intimidating as the sadistic serial killer with far too many points to prove. It’s the characterisations that make this story so telling with the final scene being particularly perceptive. Lupino does as well behind the camera as she builds an increasingly uncomfortable tension with every passing frame until that breathless finale. The Hitch-Hiker is dark cinema even for the heyday of film-noir but its textbook construction and acting make it just as compelling.

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The Conversation (1974) 4.86/5 (5)

 

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Rating: The Good – 87.7
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 113 mins
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Stars: Gene Hackman, John Cazale, Harrison Ford

The Conversation is a dark and introspective study of a private surveillance expert, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), whose private life becomes increasingly infected by those traits his profession requires, namely, paranoia and anonymity. When Caul comes to believe that his latest subjects’ lives could be in danger due to his recordings, past anxieties emerge to ultimately tear down the fragile order he has created in his life. Hackman is superb in the lead role and gives a breadth of reality to the deeply idiosyncratic Caul. Furthermore, he is well supported by John Cazale, Harrison Ford, and Robert Duvall. Coppola’s taut direction is at its best here as he assembles and disassembles reality primarily through his use of sound but also through his use of darkly lit interiors and ambiguous dialogue. And it is this ambiguity that dominates the film’s theme as Caul’s overconfidence in words and voices become a lesson in the subjectivity of life. The influence of Japanese cinema is all over this film, particularly in the dream sequences and that memorable final scene which strongly echoes the extraordinary ending to Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom.

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Deliverance (1972) 4.43/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 78.4
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 110 mins
Director: John Boorman
Stars: Jon Voight, Burt Reynolds, Ned Beatty

Four weekend warriors attempt to kayak a great southern river in its final days before it’s diverted to a hydropower plant. However, their cockiness and petty snipes at the inbred locals are soon turned on their head when two of the men are accosted by said locals and one of them is viciously raped. Forced into acts of murder to survive, their trip becomes a personal exploration of guilt, anger, and fear. Boorman crafts a haunting and disturbing tale that in no small way parallels the arrogance of modern life with the cruel indifference of nature. But he makes no judgments as he does it and that is the true lasting strength of the film. The four men were excellently cast and each do their part. Jon Voight was the straight man, Burt Reynolds the tough guy, Ned Beatty the arrogant victim, and Ronny Cox played the more sensitive of the four. This isn’t an easy watch because it’s as much a primal scream at the times it was made in as it is a thriller. Nonetheless it works equally well as both.

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Tension (1949) 3.29/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 74.3
Genre: Film-Noir
Duration: 95 mins
Director: John Berry
Stars: Richard Basehart, Audrey Totter, Barry Sullivan

Wonderful if obscure thriller capturing much of the cleverness which defined the best film-noir but perhaps missing out on the genre’s overall dexterity. Richard Basehart is the meek pharmacist working the long night shift to keep his materialistic and altogether distasteful wife (Audrey Totter in true vixenish form) happy. When she brazenly leaves him for a wealthier man, he creates an alter ego who he intends to ultimately kill the interloper and then promptly disappear. To say it all goes pear-shaped and that unintended homicide is involved isn’t giving much away but the audience is dealt an engaging series of twists and turns along the way. Basehart is as good as his limited craft typically allowed him to be while Totter channels the latter side to the femme fatale trope with relish. Pure vinegar and no wine, she might not grasp the necessary complexity of the great cinematic tradition but she nonetheless makes for one hell of a nasty steak of self-regard – and director John Berry and composer André Brevin don’t waste an opportunity to build the movie’s darker more sultry moods around her. Barry Sullivan is great fun as the homicide detective who wines and dines his suspects until he gets what he wants out of them – even if he is central to a bemusing introduction which seems to serve no other purpose thank to explain the relevance of the title.

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Coherence (2013) 4/5 (1)

 

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Rating: The Good – 77.6
Genre: Science Fiction, Thriller
Duration: 89 mins
Director: James Ward Byrkit
Stars: Emily Baldoni, Maury Sterling, Nicholas Brendon

The kind of nimble science fiction that makes hardcore genre fans giddy with excitement is a rare event and one that usually emerges within independent cinema where brains are relied on more than visual effects. Coherence is one such movie. When a group of friends meet in one of their homes for a dinner party, a passing comet causes a power-cut which sets in motion a disturbing unravelling of their reality. Though further revealing of the plot will detract from the experience, suffice to say that loyalties are tested, relationships realigned, and soon everyone finds themselves doing things they never thought they were capable of – precisely because they are worried that they might be! If that doesn’t twist your melon enough, then sit down to the full 90 minutes and you’ll be suitably dizzy by the end. Made over five nights and on a shoestring budget, writer director James Ward Byrkit and his crew nonetheless manufacture an eerie psychological thriller, shot, cut, and produced to a rather plush standard. To that end, restricting the drama largely to the house in question was a crafty decision but, by generating a sense of claustrophobia, it also ends up augmenting the power of the movie’s premise. A premise that the cast, a complementary roster of familiar faces from 90’s TV, are all tied into extremely well and who are instantly successful in their roles of leader, trouble-maker, wacky one, etc. That said, not one of them fails to round off their central character dimensions with a compelling degree of humanity. Where Coherence will inevitably and rather ironically be targeted by demanding sci-fi fans will be in the moments of incoherence that naturally accrue within a complex plot. This is not always an empty criticism though, for a film that requires heavy investment from its audience has an onus to keep it straight. But in the case of this one, there are precious few plot-holes to be concerned with and so Coherence can be considered one of those few modern movies that picks up where the “Twilight Zone” left off and helps carry the baton for all of science fiction.

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