14 posts categorized "Psychological Thriller"

May 22, 2016


ElleCannes, France —Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle” is a diabolically gleeful black comedy brimming with sly social commentary and traumatically induced sexual fetishes. It is an exquisite film. The director of such instant classics as “Starship Troopers” and “Black Book” uses Philippe Djian’s novel “Oh…” as a launching pad for an erotic suspense thriller packed with thematic material regarding the thin line between sociopathic and psychopathic behavior.

Isabelle Huppert is the only actress in the world who could pull off such an incredible high-wire act, and she does it with delicious aplomb. The ubiquitous Huppert plays Michele, an anti-heroine unlike anything you’ve ever imagined. Her occupation as the head of company that creates bizarre video games is an ideal outlet for her unique set of social skills that tend to involve her voracious bi-sexual appetite.

Michele’s highly polished survival instincts derive from a trauma she suffered when she was 10 after her father went on a neighborhood killing spree that claimed 27 human victims and many animal fatalities before he returned home to Michele whose assistance he employed in burning down the family residence. Her psyche is as pre-disastered as her ego is well defended. Still, Michele is not immune to attack. After being raped by a masked intruder, Michele toughens up even more rather than involve the police. Michele’s childhood experiences with law enforcement have forever soured her from seeking assistance from Johnny law. She’d rather fantasize about exacting revenge against a rapist that she correctly presumes will return for more. Michele treats friends, family, and employees with equal ironic disdain. The effect is dark hilarity. The tone of the film aligns with Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Yasmina Reza’s “Carnage,” but has a looser, more inclusive, feel to it.


Compositionally, the picture is exquisite. Director of photography Stephane Fontaine (“Rust and Bone”) provides detailed depth to Michele’s deceptively dangerous bourgeoisie surroundings. Michele’s murderous reveries take on an element of BDSM fantasy that hit dramatically composed high notes of thematic resonance.

It seems doubtful that “Elle” will win the Palme d’Or for its Cannes competition debut, but its inclusion in the festival’s grand arena sends the right message. “Elle” will confound some viewers just as “Starship Troopers” did. Michele takes no prisoners, and neither does Verhoeven in a film that flauts conventional wisdom about degrees of misogyny, feminism, sexual intrigue, and individuality. Daring, ribald, and scathing on every level, “Elle” is a movie that sets a standard that 21st century cinema should aspire to. It kicks Hollywood in the teeth without lifting a finger. Glory.

Rated R. 130 mins. (A+) (Five stars — out of five / no halves)

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August 14, 2013


Dont-look-nowIt’s a wonder that Alfred Hitchcock didn’t lay claim to Daphne du Maurier’s short-story “Don’t Look Now.” Hitchcock’s successful 1963 adaptation of du Maruier’s “The Birds” proved a powerful follow-up to “Psycho” (1960). The master of suspense also adapted her novels “Jamaica Inn” and “Rebecca” into films.

Nevertheless, it was maverick British filmmaker Nicolas Roeg’s destiny to transform du Maurier’s strange psychological thriller into an emphatically mysterious tale of second sight and looming death in 1973. Fresh from the success of his first two films (“Performance” 1970, and “Walkabout” 1971) Roeg cast international stars Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland as a married couple coming to grips with the death of their daughter.

Roeg draws liberally from his innovative stylistic editing embellishments to infuse the narrative with visual elements that pull the viewer deeper into the story. Water, glass, mirrors, and the color red present palpable images systems of a paranormal reality. The audience is led to question the synchronistic effect of events taking place before, during, and after Roeg’s dynamic field of vision.


John Baxter (Sutherland) is an art expert living on a spacious English countryside estate with his doting wife Laura (Christie) and their young children Johnny and Christine. John studies a projected slide image of a Venice church interior where a red-hooded figure sits in the pews facing forward. A cigarette burns in an ashtray. Outside in their backyard, Christine plays near a pond dressed in a red Mackintosh rain-slicker. We view her reflected upside-down in the reflection of the pond. John spills a glass onto the projector tray, causing the red color from the hooded figure to melt across the slide like a giant drop of gathering blood. It is the moment of his daughter’s death by drowning. He runs for the pond but is too late. The red-and-white rubber ball that Christine played with floats calmly on the surface, mocking his desperate attempt to rescue his dear daughter.  


The couple sends Johnny to stay with relatives while they travel to Venice during the winter. John has accepted a commission from a local bishop to assist in restoring an ancient Catholic church. John’s and Laura’s atheism isn’t an issue, or is it?

While lunching together in their hotel’s restaurant Laura faints after assisting two elderly sisters, Heather and Wendy — one of whom is blind. The sisters claim to be psychic. They tell Laura that her daughter is with her, and attempting to communicate from beyond the grave. They later invite Laura to a séance in order to connect with Christine. A warning is given that John is in danger in spite of his own second sight ability. An air of death hangs over everything. A serial killer is at large in the tiny Venice alleyways.


The film’s celebrated centerpiece sex scene between John and Laura — artfully intercut with them getting dressed — momentarily anchors the story in a way that later dramatizes the its theme of unexplained loss. John and Laura take two divergent but intersecting paths toward attaining closure in a mystery that must remain open.

Rated R. 110 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)

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January 30, 2013


Side-effectsSoderbergh’s Swan Song: 
Big Pharma as the Ultimate MacGuffin

Steven Soderbergh’s last feature before his retirement from the movies (he'll still do theater and TV) is a milestone psychological thriller comparable to Hitchcock’s best work. Operating with a deft screenplay by recent collaborator Scott Z. Burns (“Contagion”), Soderbergh works the suspense-driven narrative through fits of satire and protagonist switcheroos that keep the audience off-balance until the film’s final revelation.


A master of mood, the filmmaker who broke the independent film standard open in 1989 with his provocative “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” takes advantage of expressive lighting and Dutch camera angles to draw the viewer into lead character Emily Taylor’s (Rooney Mara) depression. Like Hitchcock, Soderbergh guides the audience where he wants us to focus. First he earns our trust. Then he shows us that what we think we know is a lie. Next he imposes an emphasis, where we are allowed to believe even more strongly in new assumptions we are led to buy into. Layers of ambiguity fill “Side Effects” like in a carefully crafted crime novel. For what it's worth, Soderbergh deserves brownie points for crafting one of the best trailers in recent memory. Nothing is given away.


Emily’s hunky husband Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) is freshly out of prison for insider trading, yet nothing can keep Emily’s blues at bay. A troubling “accident” puts Emily in the care of psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). No other actor would have been better cast to play a character as fraught with ethical challenges and simmering inner turmoil. Dr. Banks puts Emily on an SSRI (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitor); sadly the pills fail to achieve their desired effect of quelling her suicidal, and even homicidal, thoughts.


The movie raises ethical questions about how pharmaceutical companies market, test, and sell their wares. The film’s title sets up expectations about undesirable symptoms that can lead to death. But what begins as a diatribe against Big Pharma morphs into a battle of wits between Dr. Banks and his strangely motivated patient.


Here is a film that plays two thematic sides against the middle. Caught in a spiraling depression, Emily is a victim of her own mind. She is desperate and unpredictable. Her family-man doctor is caught up in his own struggle to stay above water financially by taking on more patients and by whoring himself out participate in high-paying clinical trials for new mind-altering meds with unknown side effects. Both characters are working an imperfect system to benefit their own agendas. Big Pharma’s position as one of the biggest profit-producing models operating under modern capitalism naturally makes it subject to all kinds of blind angles for opportunists of various stripes to make their fortunes. Causalities are of little concern until the media gets involved.


Catherine Zeta-Jones turns in an impressive bit of acting as the last shrink to look after Emily before Dr. Banks takes over. There are plenty of twists and surprises in “Side Effects” to keep you guessing. The first real movie of 2013 has arrived. Repeated viewings may be necessary.

Rated R. 105 mins.

5 Stars

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