Tag Archives: thriller movies

Light the Corners of My Mind

Minor Premise

by George Wolf

“Don’t make me psychotic. You wouldn’t like me when I’m psychotic.”

Okay, that’s not the exact quote, but science fiction and horror stories have been mining the conflicting personality premise since well before Bill Bixby on 1970s TV. Minor Premise ups the ante in stellar fashion, with no less than 10 identities competing for one man’s consciousness.

Dr. Ethan Kochar (Sathya Sridharan) is a scientist living in the shadow of his late father, but Ethan’s on the verge of a breakthrough that would make his spotlight quite a bit brighter.

His work is centered on mapping memories as physical imprints on neural pathways. If Ethan can isolate sections of the brain, he foresees amazing possibilities such as boosting intellect, erasing Alzheimers and PTSD, maybe even constructing consciousness.

But when Ethan goes full Brundlefly and experiments on himself, his identity is fractured into 10 different emotions – ranging from euphoric to psychotic – each operating at 6 minute increments.

Anyone familiar with 2004’s wonderful Primer will feel right at home, especially after Ethan’s colleague and former flame Allie (Paton Ashbrook) drops by to help him put the pieces of his mind back together. From there, the film becomes a one setting two-hander, as director/co-writer Eric Schultz unveils a feature debut of clever intellect, stylish pacing and claustrophobic, beat-the-clock tension.

Sridharan and Ashbrook make a formidable team, anchoring their wary chemistry and heady dialogue with a “try to keep up” attitude that’s organically right for their characters. They’re brilliant scientists (Schultz, by the way, studied psychology at Harvard) and we’re not, so if you pay enough attention and suspend a little disbelief, Minor Premise crackles with some major sci-fi thrills.

Bottle Feeding

The Empty Man

by George Wolf

Okay, so here’s the story: if you’re on a bridge at night and blow into an empty bottle, you’ll conjure the Empty Man. And in three days, he’ll find you.

Right, so it’s a bit of Candyman, some of The Ring, lots of jump scares and kills for Halloween, got it.

I don’t think you do…unless you’ve read Cullen Bunn’s graphic novels.

Writer/director David Prior adapts the series with James Badge Dale in the lead as James, an ex-cop still grieving from the loss of his wife and son. When the daughter of his good friend Nora (Marin Ireland) goes missing, James sidesteps the local Missouri cops for a rogue investigation of his own.

Prior, a video vet making his feature debut, lays down an atmosphere that gets plenty creepy, but seldom horrific. As James digs in, the film becomes a dark mystery, one full of freaky cult members with aspirations of total consciousness and malevolent chaos.

Dale keeps your interest with a terrific performance full of wounded determination, getting solid support from Ireland (plus Stephen Root in a memorable cameo).

But at nearly two hours and twenty minutes, it’s a bit too much of wandering slog in need of a leaner path.

Come in looking for a tidy little slasher, and you’re going to be disappointed. But if you’re down for a dark and moody rumination on grief, metaphysics and itchy brains, you could conjure up worse than The Empty Man.

Paradise Found

Beasts Clawing at Straws

by Hope Madden

Who doesn’t enjoy a good bag o’cash flick?

Whether it’s the darkly humorous Lucky Grandma or lyrically tragic A Simple Plan, the terrifying innocence of Millions, or the violent masterpiece that is No Country for Old Men modern cinema has proven that you can do a lot with the combination of thrill, hijinks and dread that come along with an unexpected satchel full of bills.

Writer/director Kim Yong-Hoon pieces together just such emotions with his first feature. A nice guy, a missing person, that bag of cash, a mean tattoo, a lucky pack of cigarettes, a cool title—Beasts Clawing at Straws looks like it has it all.

Telling his tale in chapters that disjoint the narrative into a series of six interconnected plotlines, the filmmaker borrows the cinematic language of Tarantino and the Coens. If you’re going to steal from somewhere, you could do worse.

His pacing, framing, use of color and light all give the film its own swagger, though, and whether you guess where it’s all headed or you don’t, you’re bound to remain interested.

Where the filmmaker really strikes it rich is with this cast. Every actor adds a little exaggerated pathos to the mix as we ascend the ranks of smalltime crooks, each looking to score off another, all of them somehow connected to this stuffed Luis Vuitton bag.

Woebegone and hard working, Sung-Woo Bae offers the picture an emotional center. But the mid-film entrance of Do-yeon Jeon—glorious as ever—gives Beasts new life. She offers the chapters a sleek, devious tone the film had been missing.

Beasts Clawing at Straws offers mainly visceral if superficial thrills, but periodically it does ask us why it is we find ourselves rooting for the baddie. In the world created in this film, good and bad are separated by shades of grey and blood stains and no matter how you define yourself, you’re only one big, fat bag of cash away from finding out the truth.

Mother Knows Best

Evil Eye

by George Wolf

Though they live in different countries, Usha (Sarita Choudhury) and her daughter Pallavi (Sunita Mani) talk often, and Mom always seems to have two main things on her mind.

Does Pallavi have a boyfriend yet? And is she remembering to wear her “evil eye” bracelet?

It’s been years since Usha and her husband left the U.S. for their native India, as Pallavi stayed behind with aspirations of writing a novel. Now, as her very American daughter nears thirty, the traditional Usha is getting impatient for a wedding, and trusts in the bracelet to protect Pallavi against any evil spirits preventing her from marriage.

So, when Pallavi begins a serious relationship with the dashing Sandeep (Omar Maskati), she is shocked when Mom objects, and strenuously.

You’d object, too, if you believed your daughter was dating a reincarnation of the abusive boyfriend who tried to kill you three decades before.

Originally a best-selling Audible original, Evil Eye is directors Elan and Rajeev Dassani’s contribution to Amazon’s Welcome to the Blumhouse series. With an adapted script from source author Madhuri Shekar, the film lands as a delightfully cultured mystery. As narrative layers develop, the atmosphere is more supernatural thriller than outright horror show.

Plot turns tend to rely on convenience and in the absence of any sustained tension or outright fear, the real draw becomes the mother/daughter dynamic propelled by the two lead performances.

The veteran Choudhury makes Usha a fascinating conundrum, haunted by her past, fearing for her daughter’s future and forced to question some beliefs she’s long held dear. When the script wavers, Choudhury elevates it, selling every moment with conviction.

Mani, an up-and-comer seen in Glow and the current Save Yourselves!, provides the effective contrast. Pallavi’s modern path is, at first, only mildly affected by her mother’s traditional sensibilities. But when Usha comes west to present her concerns in person, Pallavi must confront her own inner turmoil.

By the time the final twist is revealed, you’ll most likely have already guessed it. But what you’ll remember about Evil Eye has little to do with the mysterious occurrences surrounding this mother and daughter. It’s the humanity flowing between them that sticks.

Rage Inside a Machine

Unhinged

by George Wolf

I remember watching that classic TV movie Duel with my mom in the early 70s. It was tense and exciting (a young Spielberg directed!), but the thing that most unnerved Mom was the fact that…SPOILER ALERT… you never find out why that truck driver was terrorizing a frazzled Dennis Weaver.

Unhinged offers no such ambiguity. Russell Crowe is just really pissed off.

Well, the unnamed driver Crowe plays is, anyway. The Man has lost his wife, and his job, and now he’s in traffic getting beeped at, passed and gestured to by a woman in a big hurry.

The Man catches up, rolls down the window and calmly explains civility to young Kyle in the back seat (Gabriel Bateman from Lights Out and the Child’s Play reboot) while asking Rachel in the front for an apology. She declines, so The Man vows to show Rachel (Slow West’s Caren Pistorius) what a bad day really is.

Things get nasty in a hurry. And though the script from Carl Ellsworth (Red Eye, Disturbia) often flirts with ridiculous, it offers more clever construction that you might expect. The premise certainly recalls Falling Down, but Ellsworth isn’t interested in darkly comic social commentary. This is an overt explosion of murderous male rage, one that also manages – almost as an afterthought – to deliver a blunt cautionary tale about smart phone addiction as effective as any we’ve seen on film.

Director Derrick Borte (The Joneses) keeps the pace moving nicely with tension and bursts of brutality, which is perfectly fine for a disposable thriller. What’s even better, he knows what the real point of all this is.

Russell on a rampage. That’s it.

You want some of that? Crowe and Unhinged deliver it, with all the when’s, why’s, and how’s right up in your face.

You know, so Mom won’t be left hanging.

My Back Pages

The Bay of Silence

by George Wolf

You know those films that make you think, “Man, I bet this was a great book”?

The Bay of Silence is one of those. It has the intrigue, the mystery and the performances to hold your attention, but it feels as if something’s missing. Something like several pages, or even a chapter or two from Lisa St. Aubin de Terán’s 1986 novel.

Design firm exec Will (Claes Bang) and photographer Rosalind (Olga Kurylenko) are enjoying an idyllic getaway in Italy, where Will pops the question with a pull tab (don’t worry, he’s good for a real ring). An opening prologue gives us a glimpse of some trauma in Rosalind’s youth, but it seems like Will, Rosalind and her 8 year-old twin daughters can look forward to happiness as a blended family.

Months later, a very pregnant Rosalind falls from a balcony. Though baby Amedeo is delivered healthy, Rosalind has changed. She’s convinced that she actually delivered another set of twins, and that everyone involved (including Will) is in on the deception.

Ros returns to her photography and her erratic behavior continues, until Will returns home to find his wife, the children, and their nanny (Shalisha James-Davis) all gone.

Will turns to Rosalind’s mother (Alice Krige) and manager/former stepfather Milton (Bryan Cox) for answers, but the mystery of Rosalind’s past, present and future only deepens.

Are we dialing M for madness of murderousness? Director Paula van Der Oest (Oscar nominee for 2001’s Zus & Zo) nails a Hitchcock vibe in spots, but the adapted screenplay from Caroline Goodall – or an editing hachet job order from the studio – leaves too many dangling threads for a completely satisfying payoff.

Rosalind’s fascination with twins is just one of the questions nurtured and then forgotten, apparently in service of a quicker trip to the resolution which is telegraphed pretty early on.

The cast is uniformly splendid (especially Cox, natch) and the locales ooze sophistication. But while The Bay of Silence qualifies as perfectly acceptable adult fare, you can’t help wishing it would have said a little more.

Don’t Call Her Foxy

Traffik

by Hope Madden

A mid-budget action thriller sees a handsome couple alone in an isolated home suddenly at the mercy of a biker gang.

Well, hell, this could be just about any mid-to-low budget thriller from the Seventies. Writer/director Deon Taylor borrows some of the ideas and themes from Seventies exploitation, updating it with a more contemporary style, slicker editing, modern problems and Paula Patton.

That last one might be the real trouble.

Patton plays Brea, a Seattle journalist who may have just lost her job because she’s too interested in telling the whole story. She’s just not one to turn a piece around quickly enough for today’s 24/7 news cycle.

She takes her mind off things with the surprise trip her boyfriend (Omar Epps) planned.

Traffik builds slowly with overly familiar tension, and Taylor makes a handful of interesting choices. These bikers aren’t just racist and bloodthirsty (although they are that). They are the goons of an international human trafficking organization and Brea, her boyfriend and this pointless second couple are in for some real trouble.

The women in Taylor’s film get every opportunity to make a difference, participate in the action and make reasonable decisions—definitely not a staple of Seventies exploitation. Problematically, Paula Patton cannot act.

A lot of action stars can’t, that’s true, but the film really depends upon Patton’s emotional journey and the woman cannot emote.

Taylor makes up for that by simply ogling her body with his camera for 90 minutes. I have never in my life seen a film more preoccupied by one performer’s nipples than Traffik. It would be problematic anywhere, but in a movie where the heroine hopes to save women from sex slavery, it feels wildly wrong-headed.

Given a couple of turns in the script and the film’s overall Seventies vibe, you wonder whether Taylor sees Patton as the new Pam Grier.

She is not.

The film is not terrible. Dawn Olivieri’s turn as a truck stop druggie will haunt you, and even though you basically know what’s coming, Taylor’s game direction keeps you interested nonetheless. There are a couple of decent action sequences—nothing to write home about—and the pace is quick.

Take Paula Patton (and Taylor’s leering filming of her) out of the movie and it’s not a bad little piece of throwback exploitation.