Tag Archives: Thriller

Sundance Sensation “Ponyboi” is Unexpected Protagonist

Esteban Arango’s rollicking rollercoaster of a Sundance Film Festival entry Ponyboi (B+) features an unconventional intersex protagonist who shows there’s no clear pathway to forge between point X and point Y when it comes to the thrill of a crime caper. This neon-illuminated film glides successfully on the resplendent and deeply touching performance of River Gallo who is a force to be reckoned with and also the writer and producer behind the work. Gallo plays a resilient Jersey Shore sex worker caught up in a series of misadventures on a berserk Valentine’s Day; soon life on the streets of the turnpike becomes an all-out getaway and a big choose-your-own-adventure between a full escape and an unexpected invitation home by a formerly unsupportive parent. Other familiar cast members are Dylan O’Brien as a vile pimp and drug dealer (he’s magnificent), Victoria Pedretti as a wannabe ally and Murray Bartlett as a mysterious cowboy who may or may not be the titular character’s saving grace. Arango consistently raises the stakes through locales ranging from laundromats to diners and nightclubs; there’s an absorbing sequence in a pharmacy where favors are traded for hormones mid-way through a gangster chase, and viewers simply haven’t seen this exact series of predicaments before. This film is poised to be a gritty hit indie and will hopefully break through for those up for something radically different in a familiar genre.

In Battle of the Sexes of “Fair Play,” the Audience Doesn’t Win

It’s Trader vs. Trader in the consistently watchable but ultimately off-the-rails dramatic thriller Fair Play (C+), a Sundance  sensation written and directed by first-time filmmaker Chloe Domont and debuting on Netflix. Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich portray the compelling central couple secretly dating while working together at a ruthless NYC hedge fund firm managed by a terrifying character played by Eddie Marsan. An unexpected work promotion pushes the lovers’ workplace relationship to the brink while simultaneously shifting the balance of their romantic domestic life. This brisk and buzzy film is gorgeously shot in the contemporary hues and tones of modern Manhattan and spends its running time blurring gender and power lines in an intriguing game of brinksmanship up until the machinations of the plot become fully preposterous. There’s a more subtle story here about gender dynamics in the workplace and a more entertaining erotic thriller afoot begging to break free from the confines of the film structure that’s actually presented. Dynevor is especially effective in her characterization  until it seems she is trying to deliver some ludicrous lines and making strange character decisions. Ehrenreich too gives his all but is defeated at times by the words and actions of the script. Side characters have scant development, and it becomes unclear who’s actually the protagonist at times. The film ultimately has less on the mind than it seems at first. Ultimately nobody gets off scot free including the audience.

The Younger Cronenberg’s Horror Thriller “Infinity Pool” Makes You Want to Dive in to its Dishy, Dizzying Madness

Premiered at Sundance Film Festival from Neon Films. Released via video on demand 2/14/23.

Tropical resorts seem to be the modern milieu for disassociating with one’s central humanity, and auteur Brandon Cronenberg’s horror thriller Infinity Pool (B-) is the latest instance of a not so innocent abroad discovering he’s not feeling completely himself. Without spoiling the labyrinthine plot, expect curious customs in a foreign land, relentless violence, the appearance of doppelgängers and an array of hedonistic detours. Unfortunately Alexander Skarsgård doesn’t command the screen with enough gravitas to justify his journey, but his co-star Mia Goth is an unhinged sensation as the seductress who brings out his primal instincts. She’s proving to be the follow-her-anywhere marquee star of horror shows. There’s a point in this film where a very original premise gets lost in a fog of Altered States meets A Clockwork Orange tropes, but Cronenberg ultimately reins it in and lands his thesis. Beyond the bizarre brushes with ultra violence, there’s a compelling message about wealth and power and creating one’s own moral universe. The tale could be tidier but is fairly engrossing.

“Missing” (2023) is Screen-in-Screen Suspenseful, But Let’s Slow the Roll on This Format

In theatres January 20.

There ought to be awards for best supporting apps as Siri, Taskrabbit, Google, Instagram, YouTube and many of their cyber companions become utility players in Nick Johnson and Will Merrick’s computer screen mystery thriller Missing (B). This standalone sequel to Searching follows a teenager (Storm Reid) who wields various technologies to find her missing mother (Nia Long) after she disappears on vacation in Colombia with her new boyfriend (Ken Leung). Reid is effective in the central role and lots of fun opposite Joaquim de Almeida as a deputized detective of the gig economy. The format popularized during the pandemic shows some signs of strain at first, but the co-directors weave an impressive and nail-biting narrative as the intrepid teen endeavors further down the linked looking glass. Film flourishes including webcams and cracking codes keep the action less desk-bound. Ultimately the successful story transcends the form and trumps initial trepidation about the story-told-on-a-synced-desktop trope.

Adriane Lyne Returns to Erotic Thriller Origins With Perplexing “Deep Water”

Now playing on Hulu streaming service.

A bad pulled-quote for a modern erotic thriller is “impenetrable,” but it’s an apt description of the film and the marriage at the center of Adrian Lyne’s Deep Water (C-). This tepid slow-burn examines the loveless union of a hangdog husband Ben Affleck seemingly nonplussed by the multiple affairs being enjoyed by his sexy but mostly sloshed wife played by Ana de Armas. The oddly non-specific Louisiana atmosphere, an adrift supporting cast including a perplexed looking Tracy Letts and a few hook-ups depicted mostly off-screen do very little to amp up the sultriness or suspense.  Close-ups of snails don’t help either. The mystery is sometimes alluring except it doesn’t go anywhere. The two leads have very little to do except stare at each other in disbelief. A series of crimes don’t make sense. The closing credits don’t make sense. Ultimately it’s a tease but not the guilty pleasure it could have been.

Steven Soderbergh’s “Kimi” a Pandemic Adventure in a Minor Key, Solid Showcase for Zoë Kravitz

On HBO Max.

Director Steven Soderbergh puts the WTF in WFH in his minor key paranoid thriller Kimi (C). Stepping into the Rear Window/Blow Out role as the protagonist who unwittingly uncovers a crime, a winning Zoë Kravitz is a homebound but electric-blue hair sporting computer analyst who works in an overly appointed Seattle apartment correcting voice assistant command results for a pre-IPO tech startup and discovers a snippet with a twist. The film takes place in a somewhat modern day metropolis with pandemic and political undertones, but Kravitz’s character is also agoraphobic, so there are double the reasons for her character to not want to leave home despite an ultimate wild goose chase of requirements to solve the central conundrum. The plot gets increasingly lively but can’t mask its status as a running retread. Soderbergh appears to be saying something about the human disconnects of a technically tethered world, but mainly his creation here is an under-baked trifle with an appealing central performance and a few cool suspense sequences. Even lesser Soderbergh contains some winning shots and ideas, but this one simply sneaks into the slipstream of mediocrity.

M. Night Shyamalan‘s “Old” Doesn’t Deliver

Photo credit: Blinding Edge Pictures.

This summer writer/director M. Night Shyamalan invites you to his private coastal paradise for a reverse-Cocoon Geriatric Park with the potential to push every Benjamin Button of your patience. The film Old (D) is a disorienting suspense thriller with about one and a half intriguing ideas very poorly executed including the notion of accelerated aging as a plot device and its effect on a bevy of unsuspecting vacationers. The ensemble including the talented Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps and Rufus Sewell seems as adrift as the viewers in this filmmaker’s typical parade of nonsense followed by final act reveals. Without a clear protagonist and in some cases with the same characters played by multiple actors, this seaside spectacle is a cacophonous cavalcade for most of its duration. Shyamalan can occasionally stage an interesting action sequence or a supernatural Twilight Zone-esque twist, and it’s a game attempt at terror in the daylight, but he neither nails the play nor the payoff this time around. After a few films of creative redemption since his lowest point with the waterlogged Lady in the Water, the director’s latest aquatic fare is to be avoided like a Baby Ruth in the country club swimming pool.

Joe Wright Falters with Netflix Thriller “Woman in the Window” (2021)

Known for his handsomely produced period pieces, director Joe Wright proves so wrong at the helm of a modern-day Hitchcockian thriller. A pleasant enough but wildly uneven and ultimately unsatisfying popcorn thriller, Wright’s The Woman in the Window (C) is a genre exercise occasionally uplifted by a committed central performance by a game Amy Adams as an agoraphobic therapist who notices something is going down with the brownstone family across the way. Nearly every supporting actor in the film – particularly Gary Oldman and Julianne Moore as the new neighbors – is wasted in roles not worthy of their talents, and the director tosses in handsome production colors and strange twists and transitions to patch up his dramatically inert house of cards. Adams consistently toils to try to make the film work and is particularly good in sequences opposite Wyatt Russell as a mysterious tenant and Brian Tyree Henry as an investigator. The film can’t decide if its tone is genuine suspense or campy shtick, especially evident in its unhinged final act. Neither scary nor dramatic enough to add up to much, the film’s unreliable narrator turns out to be its director.

“Possessor” Shows Horror Film Skills Run in the Family

Now available to purchase or rent.

Talk about a son possessed – and often obsessed – with the topics fascinating his famous father! Director Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor (B) follows in the footsteps of his filmmaker dad David Cronenberg, with both men specializing in intellectual tales of psychological trauma played out against the human body as a bloody and phantasmagoric canvas. Expect rage and repercussions. Andrea Riseborough is ostensibly the star of the film although her character is largely inhabiting the mind and body of Christopher Abbott, who gets the real juicy part, in a film that also features Sean Bean and Jennifer Jason Leigh in effective small roles. The plot involves assassinations carried out through a diabolical mind control process, but it’s largely style over substance as memories and intentions collide in some epic suspense showdowns. Wall to wall with hallucinogenic imagery and graphic violence, the film is catnip for fans of thriller and horror genres. The set-up is strong, set pieces superb and stakes high throughout. The film can’t quite bear the weight of both its protagonist and parasite, but it’s boldly audacious nonetheless. The auteurist apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and it’s rotten to the core in the best possible way.

Mulligan is Terrific in Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman”

Now on demand.

Writer/director Emerald Fennell’s debut film Promising Young Woman (A-) is an absorbing hybrid dark comedy thriller with an unforgettable storyline and a fiercely focused central performance by Carey Mulligan as a one-woman avenging force. As the wronged protagonist, Mulligan shape shifts into a variety of show-stopping personas in stunning episodes to underscore her poignant points, and the themes are never preachy or pedantic. In fact, the satire is so sharp, the movie continually blurs lines between genres and leaves viewers fairly unsure of what’s coming next. The film’s unconventional, entertaining script helps showcase and sell a story which otherwise might have been marginalized into well-meaning long-form essays or flash-in-the-pan hashtags. Fennell’s creative, symmetric, candy-coated aesthetic is countered and complimented by some of the most unhinged and provocative dialogue set to film about toxic male culture. Escaping the main character’s burn book (bit parts include Adam Brody, Christopher Mintz-Plasse and Max Greenfield) is Bo Burnham’s character who gives a fleeting glimmer of hope into the male psyche. The filmmaker also employs phenomenal music choices ranging from pop tunes to Broadway anthems to punctuate the proceedings. This will go down as a definitive movie about the ramifications of sexual assault on both victim and perpetrator and will surely speak to a generation to think twice before being complicit in micro-aggressions and beyond. It’s a smart and sneaky surprise and not for the faint of heart.

Link to Silver Screen Capture’s video review of Promising Young Woman.

“Fatale” is Best Forgotten

In theatres from Lionsgate films.

It’s not a certified fact that Deon Taylor watched too many ‘80s Showtime After Dark films growing up, but judging by his latest directorial product for the big screen, Fatale (D), he leans into a bygone genre crafting a guilty pleasure with more of the guilt than the pleasure. Like Zalman King’s secondhand princely protégé, Taylor summons Dante Spinotti’s glossy L.A. cinematography and Geoff Zanelli’s aggressively on-the-nose score for a convoluted story of adultery and double crosses. This mild orchid of a noir features a flat-out terrible performance by Michael Ealy as a sports industry business mogul and a committed but bonkers piece of acting by Hilary Swank as the titular femme with her share of secrets. It’s not entirely obvious which of this dreadful duo is the protagonist; they’re both pretty significantly flawed and jawdroppingly inconsistent. There’s scant chemistry in the love scenes, little suspense in the thriller moments and nearly zero believability in the way the characters generally behave. Still, the single audible scream one sequence invoked in this moviegoer signaled that some of the proceedings held a hint of intrigue. Overall though, this is definitely not the forbidden film worth seeking out in a pandemic.

You Can “Run” From This One

Now streaming on Hulu.

The ambitious Aneesh Cheganty, who directed the elegant and engaging cyber-mystery Searching, loses steam in the sprint of his sophomore effort, Run (C+), a decent PG-13 starter horror movie for tweens but hardly new territory for anyone else who has seen a feature film before. The timing is pretty prescient for a lockdown thriller, but the result here is muted and mixed. Run is greatly enhanced by the presence of glorious newcomer Kiera Allen, an intuitive and expressive actress whose home schooled character is confined to a wheelchair while living with a controlling mom played with campy ferocity by Sarah Paulson. Much of the mystery revolves around this relatable heroine finding out facts while her mother is away for very brief spells, which is a taut and terrifying device until it is not. A fairly mesmerizing first act devolves pretty rapidly thanks to some far-fetched plot devices and surprises you can anticipate without a doubt at each corner. Allen’s character is so ingenious most of the time that it’s a wonder she gets thwarted Coyote and Road Runner style as many times as she does when the screenplay needs to level the playing field. See Ma, Misery or the original Carrie for a far more absorbing take on this type of “crazy lady in the cabin in the woods” material. It’s never a good sign when you say to yourself, “Well, I guess this could be seen in a way as a guilty pleasure.” Cheganty is a talented director undone in this case by a script that doesn’t measure up. He earns his steps for most of the effort but stumbles when it matters most.