Tag Archives: thrillers

The Hills Are Alive

The Devil to Pay

by Hope Madden

I’ve long felt that pre-film text-on-screen quotes are a cinematic crutch, often pretentious musings that rarely capture the essence of the film about to unspool.

Then, over a colorful vista of misty Appalachian mountaintops and plaintive banjo strings I read about the hardy folk populating those peaks, the descendants of criminals and oppressed alike who sought refuge in this inhospitable place.

As shadow creeps across the landscape, the quote:

“They want nothing from you and God help you if you try to interfere.” – 2010 census worker

Welcome to The Devil to Pay, Lane and Ruckus Skye’s lyrical backwoods epic, grounded in a lived-in world most of us never knew existed.

The tale is anchored with a quietly ferocious turn by Danielle Deadwyler (who also produces) as Lemon, a hardscrabble farmer trying to keep things up and wondering where her husband has been these past days.

Deadwyler’s clear-eyed efficiency is matched with the hillbilly condescension of one Tommy Runion (Catherine Dyer, flawless), whose homespun advice and cheer mask a dead-eyed, sadistic sense of right, wrong and entitlement.

One of the most tightly written thrillers in recent memory, The Devil to Pay peoples those hills with true characters, not a forgettable villain or cliched rube among them. The sense of danger is palpable and Deadwyler’s commitment to communicating Lemon’s low-key tenacity is a thing of beauty.

Hell, the whole film is beautiful, Sherman Johnson’s camera catching not just the forbidding nature of Appalachia, but also its lush glory.

Yes, the cult that lives just outside the county line does feel a tad convenient, but again, the Skyes and their outstanding cast carve out memorable, realistic and terrifying characters.

The Devil to Pay remains true to these fascinating souls, reveling in the well-worn but idiosyncratic nature of their individual relationships—a tone matched by sly performances across the board. And just when you think you’ve settled into a scene or a relationship, The Devil to Pay shocks you with a turn of events that is equal parts surprising and inevitable.

It’s a stunning film and a rare gem that treats Appalachians, not as clichés, but certainly not as people to be messed with.

Dead Air

On the Line

by George Wolf

About halfway through On the Line, Mel Gibson stops the film’s traffic with a gem of self-awareness.

“What kind of B grade movie bullshit is this?”

Well, “B” grade might be generous, but more of that wink-wink vibe would have been helpful.

Mel is Elvis Cooney, host of an overnight radio talk show in L.A. On one fateful night, a caller reveals that he has broken into Elvis’s home and taken his wife and child hostage. To save their lives, Elvis will have to own up to a few past misdeeds, then play some survival games while trying to piece together clues to the caller’s identity.

Writer/director Romuald Boulanger has a surprise or two in mind, but everything from the film’s forced dialog to the telegraphed shot selection and generic staging screams unsurprising TV drama. Mel and co-star Kevin Dillon ham it up good, while the rest of the ensemble mostly seems self-conscious.

I’ve been lucky enough to work in radio for over thirty years, but there’s no point in nitpicking over the biz details. The bigger problem is that On the Line is a half-hearted mashup of 2 or 3 better films that I won’t mention for fear of spoilers.

But when Elvis’s call screener (Alia Seror-O’Neill) makes a crack about sex with a man his age, you remember the B-movie line and realize this might have been idiotic fun if it just didn’t take itself so seriously.

Now here’s some Supertramp.

Whack a Mole

All the Old Knives

by George Wolf

Blending a modern worldview with a slow-burn vibe, All the Old Knives reveals itself as a well-constructed thriller that often recalls those classic espionage yarns from the 70s.

The underrated Chris Pine gives another standout performance as Henry Pelham, a CIA vet who’s directed by his boss (Laurence Fishburne) to reopen a painful case from the past.

Back in 2012, they both were stationed in Vienna when counter-terrorism efforts to thwart a hijacking went tragically wrong. But new information has emerged that suggests the terrorists had help from a fellow agent, so Henry must revisit members of the team – including his old flame Celia (Thandiwe Newton) – to root out the mole.

Based on the best seller by Olen Steinhauer (who also pens the script), the film is admittedly heavy on dialog, but director Janus Metz (Borg vs. McEnroe, True Directive, Armadillo) proves masterfully adept at fleshing out important contrasts in past and present.

His camera remains purposefully static for the modern settings, while a more free-flowing approach to the flashbacks helps to offset all the descriptive recollections by pulling us into crisply detailed reenactments.

The ensemble (which also includes the great Jonathan Pryce) is top notch. Each actor digs in to the intelligent wordplay, picturesque locales and shadows of doubt on the way to crafting complex humans with something to lose.

The third act may bog down just a touch, with a hand that’s tipped perhaps a beat or two early, but none of that keeps the film from sticking its landing. There’s plenty of blame to go around in the often nasty business of global politics, and All the Old Knives makes that history lesson personal.

Love Is a Battlefield

Deep Water

by George Wolf

Adrian Lyne hasn’t directed a movie in twenty years. It’s been twice that long since the 1957 source novel by Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley) has been adapted for the big screen.

They’re both back with a new vision for Deep Water, a sometimes frustrating erotic thriller that can never fully capitalize on all of its possibilities to be either erotic or thrilling.

Vic and Melinda Van Allen (Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas) are living a life of luxury in New Orleans with their young daughter Trixie (the incredibly cute Grace Jenkins). Vic developed a computer chip used for drone warfare, so his days of early retirement are mainly filled with watching Melinda openly flaunt her affairs at parties.

When one of Melinda’s past lovers turns up dead, Vic lets her latest boy toy (Brendan Miller) know that he’s the murderer. But Vic is only trying to scare the kid away, right? Neighbor Don (Tracy Letts with another standout supporting turn) is suspicious early on, and when another of Melinda’s lovers (Euphoria‘s Jacob Elordi) drowns at a pool party, plenty of others are looking at Vic as the prime suspect.

Screenwriters Zach Helm and Sam Levinson provide Lyne with undercurrents of subtext that are never fully explored. We assume Vic doesn’t want to subject Trixie or his finances to a messy divorce, but the deeper we dig, it’s clear this marital arrangement is feeding some need for both parties and fostering a concerning worldview for their child. Lyne showcases the aimless privilege of their daily lives to hint at a lesson on the rot of wealth, then pivots, often to Vic’s creepy but uneventful hobby of raising snails.

And though Lyne has made his name on the steamy sexual politics of 9 1/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction and Unfaithful, there’s more smoke here than fire. And water, water everywhere.

You won’t notice grand chemistry between Affleck and de Armas, which is a credit to both. This is a marriage of psychological warfare, and it is Vic and Melinda’s contrasting plans of attack that keep us invested, especially in the early going. De Armas embodies the cruelly uninhibited as well as Affleck brings the condescending and calculated, which is a major reason the major twist to Highsmith’s original ending works as well as it does.

For these two, it feels right.

But only for a moment, because strangely, Lyne doesn’t let it linger. Instead, he quickly cuts from the credits to a performance from the adorable Jenkins singing along to a cheery pop ditty from the 1970s.

If it’s an attempt at chilling humor, it falls hard, becoming another anchor weighing down Deep Water just when it starts cruising.

More Geezer, Less Teaser

Gasoline Alley

by George Wolf

“Hey, Bruce Willis, how many movies do you have coming this year?”

“Yes.”

In the month or so since the last Willis project with writer/director Edward John Drake – American Siege– was released, I’ve learned of the term “Geezer Teaser,” which is a perfect summation of how this genre usually operates. An aging star is featured heavily in the marketing, while their tangential character often just disappears midway through the film due to the star’s 1-day shooting schedule.

The good news for Gasoline Alley is that Willis hangs in ’til the end, and it’s clearly the best of the Willis/Drake collabs.

Luke Wilson joins in this time as well, playing Detective Vargas to Bruno’s Detective Freeman, and these two guys have four big problems. The bodies of four dead hookers have turned up, and a lighter found at the scene leads the two cops to Gasoline Alley, the L.A. tattoo parlor of ex-con Jimmy Jayne (Devon Sawa). Jimmy was also the last person seen with the dead hooker named Star (“If you forget it, just look up”), but do you think Jimmy’s going to sit back and just accept being framed?

Damn right he’s not. He’s going to let Willis and Wilson (Willison!) take some scenes off while he conducts his own investigation, sleuthin’ and shootin’ with an ever-present cigarette dangling perfectly from his steely pout.

Most everything about Drake’s films is varying degrees short of authentic. And though Gasoline Alley shows progress, details such as the set design, score and faux news reports still seem carelessly thrown together, which don’t give the forced noir dramatics much of a chance to cast a spell.

But if you’ve seen all of the Drake/Willis (Drillis!) catalog (and this is number five, with another currently in post-production), Gasoline Alley is a pleasant surprise.

Drake’s script (co-written with Tom Sierchio) has moments of self-aware humor – even poking fun at one of his previous films. And while Willis is again on autopilot, Wilson seems to be enjoying the “no F’s to give” attitude of his character, Sawa is commendably committed and Veep‘s Sufe Bradshaw turns in some fine support.

Is it ridiculous, overwrought and amateurish in spots? Sure, but this one is actually watchable.

Bravo, fellas, keep it up.

Downtown, Waiting For You Tonight

Last Night in Soho

by George Wolf and Hope Madden

A pair of Beats headphones is Last Night in Soho‘s first clue that you’re not where you think you are.

The sights and sounds of young Ellie’s (Thomasin McKenzie) bedroom scream 1960s London. And though that’s where and when she’d really like to be living, Ellie is a modern-day British country girl, brought up by her Grandparents after her mother’s suicide years earlier.

Ellie dreams of a career as a designer, so she’s thrilled by an acceptance letter from the London College of Fashion. But once in the big city, the shy “country mouse” has trouble adjusting to the pace and the pressures of city life.

Her refuge becomes vivid dreams from the swinging 60s era she celebrates, detailed visions that put Ellie alongside Sandie (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young singer looking for fame and fortune among a sea of predatory men.

As Sandie’s trust in nightclub manager Jack (Doctor Who‘s Matt Smith) leads her down a dark and dangerous path, Ellie’s dreams turn truly terrifying. And the deeper Ellie is drawn into Sandie’s world, the more she believes a creepy old dude from her local pub (Terence Stamp) is really present-day Jack, who needs to pay for his past misdeeds with a succession of starstruck London girls.

Director and co-writer Edgar Wright slows his often frantic pace this time, trading those trademark edits for a more languid, appropriately dreamy vibe. His love of color is still front and center, and a giallo pastiche is just one in his Soho arsenal. There’s a time-hopping mystery here, sitting at the center of bloody thrills and a Black Swan-esque exploration of female trauma.

Wright hooks you early with delightful period details and – of course – some effortlessly hip throwback tunes for the soundtrack. His camera is nimble and his faming is precise, often using mirrors to exquisitely blend Ellie’s dreams with Sandie’s past.

McKenzie is doe-eyed perfection as the naive Ellie, an innocent somehow working out her own issues through the tragic past of a kindred spirit. Taylor-Joy is equally wonderful, bringing sad authenticity to Sandie’s quick descent from confident talent to broken soul. Stamp and Smith provide terrific support, eclipsed only by the bullseye casting of Diana Rigg (in her final role) as Ellie’s landlady.

Last Night in Soho is an often glorious mashup of settings and genres, and though you’ll recognize all of them, the package still carries a postmark that’s uniquely Wright’s. Maybe that’s why the resolution lands as curiously rote.

As was the case with the darling zom-rom-com Shaun of the Dead, it seems as if Wright doesn’t have the meanness to make a scary movie. He understands them, clearly, and bends their tropes to his will. Here he pulls apart Hitchcock and Argento to invert the genre’s fetishistic relationship with violence against women. Wright does this with such panache for 2/3 of the film that the final act feels abruptly tidy, too clear a reversal.

Does it spoil the Soho experience? Don’t be silly, baby! This film is a gas, but one that leaves you with with a little reminder that Wright’s most perfectly groovy film is still to come.

Drug Problems

Sweet Girl

by George Wolf

You know that feeling when someone comes out of a security door at the precise moment you’re trying to come in without a key?

Or when a major cable news show puts your call right through to the air on the very same day you find a uniform in exactly your size hanging up and waiting for you to blend in somewhere you don’t really work?

Me neither. So while Netflix’s Sweet Girl calls attention to a very real problem in America, the narrative that drives it trades authenticity for gimmicky contrivanace.

Through a frequently changing timeline we meet Ray Cooper (Jason Momoa) and his daughter Rachel (Isabela Merced). Tragedy hits their Pittsburgh-based family when wife/mother Amanda Cooper’s life is cut short by cancer. Amanda fights hard, but finally succumbs when a promising new drug is withheld by obnoxious Pharma Bro Simon Keely (Justin Bartha).

While Keely and Congresswoman Diana Morgan (Amy Brenneman) are on live TV debating prescription drug prices, Ray calls in to blame the price-gouging Keely for his wife’s death, and to promise violent revenge.

Ray’s nationwide threat seems to only arouse the interest of an investigative reporter on the trail of a Big Pharma conspiracy, and when Ray’s meeting with the writer turns unexpectedly bloody, father and daughter become fugitives hunted by both the cops and the killers.

In his feature debut, director Brian Andrew Mendoza utilizes Momoa’s hulking charisma via some standard fight choreography, but the gifted Merced seems wasted. Writers Gregg Hurwitz (The Book of Henry) and Phillip Eisner (Event Horizon) serve up a journey of convenience on the way to a third act twist that will define how smoothly the film goes down.

If you can keep your eyes from rolling, this film may feel like the franchise kickstart it aims to be. Otherwise, Sweet Girl leaves a pretty sour aftertaste.

Buyer Beware

The Night House

by George Wolf

The Night House rests on a trusted horror foundation that’s adorned with several stylishly creepy fixtures. But it’s a terrific lead performance from Rebecca Hall that becomes the support beam preventing total collapse.

Hall plays Beth, a New York teacher still reeling from the recent death of her husband Owen (Evan Jonigkeit). As Beth drifts through her impressive lakefront house trying to adjust, new discoveries bring unexpected questions about her late husband’s outside interests.

Though Beth’s neighbor (Vondie Curtis-Hall, always a pleasure) and best friend (Sarah Goldberg) both warn her not to fill the void in her life with “something dark,” the dark keeps calling. The more Beth digs into things Owen left behind, the more signs point to an unsettling secret life, and to the possibility that Owen may not have entirely moved on.

Director David Bruckner (The Ritual, The Signal) and screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski (Super Dark Times) each have resumes showing impressive results within limited budgets. Stepping up a bit in class, their metaphor for the fog of grief and depression is familiar but well-crafted, with soft-pedaled jump scares and effectively spooky visuals.

Bruckner fuels the standard what’s real/what’s-in-her-head questions with some nifty camera tricks that make the house come eerily alive with forced perspectives and Dali-esque illusions.

As solid as the film’s construction may be, it falls on Hall to make sure the reveals waiting in the third act land with more emotion than silliness.

She’s more than up to the task. Early on, Beth’s sustained grief, and her indignation toward everyone who’s not Owen, carries an authenticity that gets us squarely behind Beth’s personal journey. And that pays dividends once the film relies on our belief in what Beth believes. Thanks to Hall, we end up buying in.

Looking ahead to 2022, Bruckner, Collins and Piotkowski will team up again for the Hellraiser reboot. That means that while there’s enough in The Night House to satisfy horror fans today, there’s also plenty here to get us hopeful about the future.

New Travel Agent Wanted

Beckett

by George Wolf

The jury may still be out on the level of acting chops passed from Denzel to John David Washington, but Beckett proves once again JDW can handle a physically taxing role as well as anybody in the business.

He’s taxed early and often as the titular man on the run in Netflix’s Beckett, a moderately satisfying throwback to political thrillers of the 1970s.

While on a “get far, far away from it all” vacation in the mountains of Greece with girlfriend April (Alicia Vikander), Beckett loses control of their car on a steep curve. Crashing through the door of a remote home below, Beckett catches a glimpse of something he’s not meant to, and the threats on his life soon begin.

The local police tell Beckett that April is dead, but they won’t let him see her body, which is the least lethal reason he quickly realizes these cops can’t be trusted. The U.S. embassy in Athens is hours away even by car, but Beckett sets out on foot to beg, borrow and fight his way to safety – and the answer to why he’s a marked man.

As capably as Washington handles the action, he’s never quite able to get Beckett’s frantic paranoia to a level that rings true. And once he gets help from a determined activist (Vicky Krieps), the bad guys become easier to spot and the lack of overall intensity brings a sluggish feel.

Director/co-writer Ferdinando Cito Filomarino delivers some picturesque and well-staged set pieces, but the political conspiracy that’s brewing underneath wears thin despite worthy intentions. The point about how easily anyone can become a marginalized pawn in the game becomes a bit frayed, lost in workmanlike global thriller threads.

Exit Stage Willis

Midnight in the Switchgrass

by George Wolf

This is the third Bruce Willis film so far this year. That leaves 13 more in production, and 1 in development. And if you’ve seen even a few of the titles in Bruno’s output over the last several years, you can assume a couple things about his latest right away.

First, regardless of his presence in the poster and/or trailer, Willis will only show up for a few scenes in the actual film. And secondly, his character won’t be that integral to the story.

Both assumptions prove true with Midnight in the Switchgrass, a thriller that manages to work itself a notch or two above most films in the “Exit Stage Willis” subgenre.

Willis is Karl Helter, the old and tired FBI partner of agent Rebecca Lombardi (Megan Fox). Rebecca’s been going undercover as a hooker to try and catch the serial killer (Lukas Haas) stalking truck stops and roadside motels around Pensacola, Florida (a character inspired by real life “Truck Stop Killer” Robert Rhoades).

There’s a string of similar cold cases dating back several years, a fact that still haunts Florida state police officer Byron Crawford (Emile Hirsch). When a new victim turns up, Byron is compelled to assist Rebecca and Karl any way he can.

Well, he assists one of them, anyway, because Karl conveniently bails before Rebecca is kidnapped by the killer and events turn mildly interesting.

This is the debut feature for both writer Alan Horsnail and director Randall Emmett, though Emmett’s long tenure as a producer appears to have honed his ability to craft a generic crime drama that imitates more gripping films – one in particular.

A killer’s identity that is never in doubt, paired with parallel storylines and certain other flourishes I won’t mention for fear of spoilers, all bring a serious Silence of The Lambs vibe.

That’s rarefied and ambitious air that Switchgrass can’t live in, though it does carve out a few respectably tense manhunt moments. Fox and Hirsch rise above some heavy-handed dialogue – even Bruno seems halfway interested while he’s around – and Haas is effectively creepy.

Add it all up, check the scorecards, and on the sliding scale of Willis its rank is roughly equal to Citizen Kane.

Midnight in the Switchgrass is available on VOD July 23rd.