Tag Archives: thrillers

Secret Obsession

Jennifer (Brenda Song) is frantic for escape: it’s dark, it’s raining, she’s clearly terrified. Dashing from a payphone to an abandoned building, she’s eventually hit by a car, unconscious at the side of the road, and we still don’t know what or who she’s running from. Her husband Russell (Mike Vogel) arrives at the hospital while she’s still in surgery, unable to explain why she was so far from home, at an abandoned service station with no car or ID. When she wakes up, her memory is compromised. She doesn’t remember the accident OR her husband.

Frank (Dennis Haysbert), the detective on the case, is having a rough week. It’s his daughter’s birthday, but she disappeared when she was 10 and he still beats himself up for not finding her as he weeps in a closet with years worth of wrapped gifts. His guilt and grief push him to work this case more obsessively than usual.

In the meantime, Jennifer’s been discharged, headed back to a life she doesn’t remember with a husband who’s a virtual stranger. They have a beautiful home, but it is remote, and we constantly get that little tickle at the back of our necks that indicates that some sort of danger may still be out there.

Amnesia is a great way to create tension because the protagonist’s experience is ultra unreliable. Jennifer must question everything, and anything she fails to question is of course something that we, the audience, must sweat. And we end up sweating all the small stuff! You can’t trust anything, which is a very tenterhooky way of watching a movie.

So yeah, we’ve got a lot invested in Detective Frank. I mean, not as much as Jennifer does. She’s fearing for her life and I’m just kind of stressed out watching a movie that I’m technically allowed to stop or pause or walk away from, and unlike Jennifer, I’m not hobbled from a mysterious accident.

For Jennifer, recovered memories are a blessing and a curse. While every bit of information remembered is helpful to understanding her situation, it’s often quite distressing stuff. I think I’d prefer the bliss of ignorance myself. So yeah, Secret Obsession is a pretty suspenseful movie. It is not remotely original and it doesn’t really try to hide any of its twists and turns – this movie doesn’t so much keep you guessing as make you a jumpy pack of nerves.

Writer-director Peter Sullivan is known for making Hallmark movies, and while this movie is a step above, it’s also perhaps a step below what might normally get released in theatres. Of course, this movie is a Netflix original, so the standards are a little different. Maybe it’s not great, but it’s new, and sometimes that’s enough.

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The Guilty

How many times in your life have you called 911? I hope the answer is none, but for some of you it will be higher than that, and chances are, it wasn’t exactly a happy occasion. Even if you’re calling on behalf of a stranger, you must believe that it’s an emergency situation, and those tend to be adrenaline-filled and on the harrowing side. I call 911 on a very regular basis, and I’m always grateful for the patient expediency of the person on the other end. Mining someone’s abject panic for important, potentially life-saving information, is not an easy thing to do. Distilling that information into its most salient components while managing someone’s fear and distress takes precision and control. Dispatchers will sound cool and confident on the phone, but that doesn’t mean their job isn’t getting to them. They assist people through the darkest of circumstances. They experience vicarious trauma. The Guilty is one of their stories.

Asger Holm (Jakob Cedergren) is working what seems like a normal shift when he gets a call from what seems like a wrong number. A woman named Iben (Jessica Dinnage) is calling, pretending to be on with her young daughter. Because of his training, Asger manages to ask the right questions in the right way. Iben is making this phone call in front of her abductor, and trying to do it stealthily.

Asger gets more and more attached to the case as he speaks to Iben, to her abductor, to her daughter Mathilde who is not even 7 but home alone covered in someone else’s blood after having seen her mother be dragged violently away. He goes beyond the bounds of his position in order to fulfill a promise to Mathilde to get her mother home safely.

How do you think you’d stack up as a 911 dispatcher? They test for inductive (using specific observations to make broader generalizations) and deductive (using the info you’ve collected to come to a logical conclusion) reasoning, plus memory recall and the ability to read maps and a good old fashioned psych evaluation. And then there’s just necessarily personality quirks like the ability to be still in the face of chaos.

Asger is a flawed hero and not necessarily the best at his job. But he cares about this woman. Tonight, his job goes from hard to nearly impossible. It’s disturbing. The movie will break your heart in a million ways. But if you think it’s hard to watch, imagine how hard it is to live, to take these calls for 12 hours or even 24 hours at a time, day after day, weekends and holidays. It’s a lot to ask of anyone, and Asger is pure proof of the toll this job can take.

Jakob Cedergren is excellent, as he must be, acting almost exclusively against voices over the phone. Through the arc of one telephone call, he experiences a major shift, and almost every high and low on the human spectrum. Director Gustav Moller keeps things very simple and straight-forward, allowing the story’s natural tension to take centre stage.

Us

“Why is nice Jordan Peele making such scary movies?”

As is often the case, Jay’s question is one that I can’t answer. But f you thought Get Out was too much, like Jay did, you will want to skip Us altogether. Maybe see Captain Marvel again while you wait for Dumbo, because Peele has clearly decided he’s made us giggle enough and now his goal is to induce heart attacks instead of belly laughs.

And yet, I still have to tell you to see it, even though you will kind of hate every minute. Us is just too good to miss. Like Get Out, there is a lot going on under the surface of Us, and like Get Out, it works as a thriller so if you want, you can ignore all the subtext and just enjoy the ride, or cringe in terror until the ride ends. In Us’ case, the ride is both metaphorically and literally a hall of mirrors, as a vacationing family is forced to face off against their evil twins. It’s like goateed Spock four times over, only in Us it is clear that the family from the mirror universe is out for blood and won’t stop til they get it.

Peele writes, directs and produces here, and in his sophomore outing as director he has already proven to be a monumental talent. He doesn’t appear as an actor but he’s imparted many of his mannerisms to Winston Duke, the family’s easygoing dad who seems more than anything is excited to get out on a rented motorboat that hangs slightly left. Duke provides a welcome dose of comic relief even as he does whatever is necessary to protect his family. He is equal to Lupita Nyong’o, and that’s the best anyone can ever do, because she brings it every time. Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex, as their kids, are both great as well. It’s awesome seeing them work together to survive as the stakes get raised higher and higher by the minute. Even more impressively, those four, and almost everyone in the movie, play dual roles, and there’s not a weak link to be found.

Us is one of those rare movies that stands above by being better executed, more thoughtful, and shamelessly cleverer than the rest of its genre. And like Get Out before it, Us is not a typical Oscar contender but it better get some attention next February. Because Peele and company deserve to be praised for what they’ve given us with Us: a brilliant film that manages to be brutal and restrained, and one that 24 hours later I still haven’t fully digested or shaken.

TIFF18: Homecoming

Has TV been more exciting than movies lately? People have been saying so for some time and, given that we aren’t Assholes Watching Television, the idea sometimes makes me a little defensive. I have to admit though that the first four episodes of Homecoming were the most challenging and exhilarating two hours that I spent at TIFF this year.

The current legitimacy of episodic television is hard to deny when Julia Roberts, one of the biggest movie stars in my lifetime, starts turning to tv for interesting roles. In the new series directed by Mr. Robot creator Sam Esmail, Roberts plays a counselor in a facility whose mandate is ostensibly to help American soldiers returning from their deployments to adapt to life back home. It’s clear from her first phone call with her superior (Bobby Cannavale, as awesome as ever) that there’s something more nefarious or at least more secretive going on at this facility. What is less clear is exactly what that is. Things start to reall get interesting when Julia’s favourite patient (If Beale Street Could Talk’s Stephan James, who will almost definitely be a huge star this time next year) starts to suspect something is amiss.

Homecoming may not be quite the best thing I saw at TIFF this year. That honour probably goes to Widows. But it’s definitely the most original. Just like in Mr. Robot, Esmail’s strange choice of camera angles and Maggie Phillips’ score which often doesn’t seem to match the tone of what we think we’re seeing all contribute to the feeling that there’s so much more going on here then we realize. I can’t wait for the show to finally air in November so I can watch the rest and find out what that is.

Somehow, Homecoming is an adaptation of creators Eli Horowitz and Micah Bloomberg’s podcast which I’ve never listened to nor do I understand what it could possibly be. Together with Esmail, they have assembled an impressive cast that also includes Sissy Spacek, Alex Karpovsky, Shea Whigham, and Dermot Mulroney. Together they have made one of many compelling examples of how television can be just as creative and satisfying as an Oscar season feature film.

Searching

Searching Pie

1999. It was the summer that I graduated high school, started preparing for CEGEP, and took my first trip across the country without the parental units. If ever there was a summer that felt like I had my whole life ahead of me, that was the one and- even though it was that same summer that I saw The Goddamn Matrix for the first time, the movie that really brings me back to that feeling- the movie that I saw four times- was American Pie.

Looking back on that scene where three teens repeatedly scream “MILF” at a picture of Stiffler’s Mom, I’d call it misogynist. But 19 years ago, that didn’t stop my friends and I from laughing our asses off. And to this day (and I’m sure this would make him so happy) I can’t look at John Cho without thinking of “MILF’ Guy #2. (Wait, who was “MILF” Guy #1 then?).

It’s almost depressing to think about how long ago that was. Times have changed and a lot of those changes are good. Jason Biggs doesn’t have to watch scrambled porn anymore and Cho can find work without having to lick a framed photo of Jennifer Coolidge. And I’m proud that my sense of humour has gotten a little more sophisticated and hopefully a lot less sexist. Still, I don’t know many people who love thinking about how many years have passed since high school while they weren’t looking and in his new movie John Cho is back to remind me of just how old I’ve gotten by playing the father of a 16 year-old girl.

Searching 1

That Cho is now old and mature enough to carry a tense thriller about a father’s desperate search for his missing teenage daughter isn’t even the most obvious way that Searching reminds us of what a strange and different world we’re now living in. First-time director Aneesh Chaganty shot the entire movie from the point of view of a mock computer screen. So as Cho’s David Kim talks to his daughter’s friends and searches for clues on her laptop, the whole story is told through Google searches, text history, Facebook posts, Skype, and YouTube videos.

Searching 2

My first response to Chaganty’s experimental approach during the first few minutes of Searching was “Alright. I’m impressed so far and am on board for now but can easily see how this can get old pretty quickly”. It’s a testament to Chaganty’s storytelling that the novelty never wears off and is rarely distracting. It’s not a perfect film. I’m not sure all of the laughs it got at my Fantasia screening were entirely intentional and as a thriller one or two of the twists may be a little too far-fetched.

Not all of the changes since 1999 are great and Searching is at its best as an exploration of what a double-edged sword the internet can be. It shows how it can make it easier both to reach out and to retreat into our. How easy it is both to reveal and conceal our true selves. And, most importantly, how useful a tool the internet is for concerned parents and stalkers alike.

Despite its flaws, Searching is a much more gripping and emotionally satisfying experience than you’re probably imagining and Cho nails what I can only imagine must have been a challenging role. I highly recommend it.

The Vanished

When director Chang-hee Lee saw Oriol Paulo’s 2012 film, The Body, he enjoyed it, but he also saw how he would make it differently, and perhaps more importantly, how he could inject it with some Korean spice. Chang-hee Lee introduces the film to us at Fantasia Film Festival, and appears overwhelmed to have traveled all this way for his first feature film, awed at the reception, abashed at the applause. After greeting us in French (garnering immediate rock star status), he reassures us that this is not so much a horror film as a thriller, and so of course the opening scene causes me to pee just a teeny, tiny, barely perceptible bit. It was hella scary.

OF COURSE it’s scary: a night security guard goes down to the basement DURING A BLACKOUT on a rainy night BY HIMSELF armed with only a flashlight TO A MORGUE where he sees – what? a woman? a body? a ghost? We don’t know, because someone (or something) shadowy gives him a crack on the head, and when the police arrive it’s night really the security guard who grabs their attention, but the empty drawer in the morgue.

Yoon Seol Hee, newly dead, formerly a young, successful CEO, has gone missing. Well, her corpse has. Bad-boy detective Woo Joong Shik is on the case, and he’s cynical as hell and casts an accusatory eye at her “trophy husband”, Park Jin Han, although he’s more concerned with murder than mere body snatching. Of course, since Park and Yoon run MV5BOTk0ZDAzOTMtMTg3NS00Y2Y3LWI4ZDYtNjE2MGU3NTRkNTc4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzI1NzMxNzM@._V1_with an elite crowd, the higher ups are cautioning Detective Woo to back off – but he’s much too much a loose canon to respect authority, isn’t he? You know he is. Meanwhile, if Park is looking inadequately grief stricken, he’s overly concerned about his wife’s missing body. And pretty soon he’s frantically claiming that she’s responsible for her own disappearance, and is somehow still alive.

The cool thing about this movie is that it takes place over the course of just one night, which gives it a real sense of urgency. Movie detectives are often of this variety, the old “renegade cop” trope, the guy who plays by his own rules. He’s tough, a bit of a cowboy, a definite anti-hero, often with a side of alcoholism or anger (mis)management. But there’s something about seeing this Detective among his much more restrained, polite, effacing, perhaps more stereotypically Korean colleagues that’s intriguing and fresh. No one quite knows what to make of him, and he definitely shakes up the investigation.

Even if you’ve seen the original Spanish version, you’ll still get a kick out of The Vanished; the Korean setting of course makes for quite a change, but circumstances and even outcomes have been rearranged as well, for your viewing pleasure. And to be honest, it was quite a pleasure. I can’t believe this is a first feature for the director. It looks slick and cool and there are lots of visual details to admire, we get a sense of his style and aesthetic and the whole thing just glows. The cinematography is beautiful. As I mentioned, this film takes place over the course of a night, so DP Lee Jong-youl coats it in a cold blue wash that lends just a touch of creepiness to an already creepy scenario. But in flashbacks he floods us with warm, natural lighting, which is a bit cruel actually – it gives us a false sense of comfort when really we should never let our guard down.

The thing about The Vanished is, it’s a very compelling puzzle. And even if you’re very clever and you manage to slot all the moving pieces into just the right places, you’ll find it’s one of those trick puzzles that only look complete – actually it just unlocks like 3 more puzzles to solve! The veteran cast (Kang-woo Kim, Hee-ae Kim, and Sang-Kyung Kim as the rumpled Detective) close ranks and draw us in with their institutional politeness – but something stinks in this morgue, and it’s certainly not the dead body. Because, you know, it’s missing. And maybe not even dead.

Our House

Our-House-TrailerOur House is a retelling of the age-old cautionary tale about the dangers of science. As we all know, science experiments’ most common outcomes are monsters, ghosts, and superviruses, with temporal paradoxes or dimensional portals being all-too-common as well.

Despite the known risks of science, Ethan (Thomas Mann) has to experiment and push the envelope anyway, consequences be damned, as he works on his wireless electricity machine. The Fly poster on the wall of Ethan’s garage/lab is a sure sign that his science project is a risky one, bound for disaster, and he should know better. Even so, for a while it seems like Ethan’s project might actually work, since when his machine is on his little sister can talk to recently deceased loved ones, but inevitably, much more sinister beings begin to make their presence felt.

IMG_2042Full disclosure: I was fortunate  to watch this film with a ferocious guard dog on my lap, so I knew I could handle whatever scares were thrown my way. You likely will not have that same advantage, at least while Our House is in theatres. But even without the dog, the first hour of this movie will be bearable for everyone, including scaredy-cats like Jay. There’s not any significant tension in this film until the final third of the movie, but that last third contains a very suspenseful sequence that made me wish the intensity had been raised sooner, to allow for a longer showdown with the ghosts.

Leaving me wanting more is not a bad thing, and the movie is right to lean heavily on the family drama aspect with its very strong young cast including Mann, Percy Hynes-White, and Kate Moyer. It’s just that a few more ghosts would have made this movie more memorable, because it’s when those ghosts are actively pursuing Ethan and his family that Our House is at its best.