Tag Archives: Thriller

Chastain enlivens political thriller ‘Miss Sloane’

There’s never a hair out of place in “Miss Sloane ,” a painstakingly slick political thriller from director John Madden about a brilliant lone wolf lobbyist consumed with the win. It’s a wannabe Aaron Sorkin-meets-Shonda Rhimes glimpse into the hollow and cynical world of inside the beltway dealings from first-time screenwriter Jonathan Perera that’s never quite snappy, insightful or salacious enough to be as fun or damning as it should be.

All the pieces are there, especially in the film’s subject — the steely Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain), a pill-popping master manipulator who is always at the ready with a perfect quip, biblical verse or history lesson for the moment. She’s the kind of do-it-all wonder woman who is just as comfortable working a room of scuzzy Washington insiders or pleading the fifth at an intimidating congressional hearing as she is directing a team of spooks to illegally surveil someone with a camera-equipped cockroach.

Elizabeth Slone’s mantra is that lobbying is all about foresight and making sure you play your trump card after the other guys play theirs. Our first glimpse of her in action shows her willfully neglecting Senate ethics rules by arranging some luxury travel for a congressman and his family to try to sway him on a palm oil tax initiative. She’s a mercenary who is out for the win at all costs, and she’s the best at it.

But she also has principles, and leaves her top firm for the opposition when a powerful gun group asks her to devise messaging to turn women against universal background checks for gun ownership. Her cavalier dismissal of a massive new client for her firm enrages her boss, a scenery chewing Sam Waterston, and makes the audience a little more intrigued about why this woman does what she does.

Now fighting for the underdogs, an increasingly obsessed, Elizabeth uses everything at her disposal to try to ensure that the background check bill passes, testing the loyalty and limits of those around her (including the firm’s head played by Mark Strong, and an ambitious protege in Gugu Mbatha-Raw) with her sliding morality and deep distrust of others. Relationships are nothing but arsenal (and thus disposable) and she’s the only one who will ever know the grand plan.

The only person who manages to get close to Elizabeth is an inquisitive male escort with a heart of gold (Jake Lacy) who gets her to say that she chose to forgo a simpler life with kids and family and whatnot for her job. That life wasn’t for her in her early 20s and isn’t for her now, in her late 30s, either. It’s not the most revealing conversation, but we’ve let many a male character get away with far less.

While it is fun to see Chastain as a powerful boss lady, raising a martini glass to her competitors (including a sniveling Michael Stuhlbarg) who she’s just publicly embarrassed with another move of political cunning, the story itself just skates along an already well-established surface of corrupt Washington narratives. It fails to add any distinctive flair to the genre, and, despite its sleek composition and top-notch talent (including John Lithgow as a congressman), seems more like prestige television than anything else.

Then there’s the matter of timing. “Miss Sloane” has the misfortune of coming out in this political moment. Crafted in a different climate about a still-relevant issue, it should have been more resonant. Instead, through no fault of its own, it already feels woefully out of date.

‘Ex-Machina,’ ‘It Follows’ breathe life into stale genres

Alex Garland has learned a few things in his years as a science-fiction screenwriter: namely, that money doesn’t always help.

Garland is now making his directorial debut with the acclaimed science fiction film “Ex-Machina,” after earlier scripting the influential zombie thriller “28 Days Later” and seeing his first book, “The Beach,” turned into the Leonardo DiCaprio adventure. The 2007 Danny Boyle-directed space thriller “Sunshine,” which Garland wrote, particularly drove home the lesson.

“The thing I really felt about ‘Sunshine’ almost while we were making it, is that we were spending too much money,” says Garland. “When you’re spending that much money, either consciously or unconsciously, you start to think about recouping. You start to think about the business of film and trying to make it entertaining or trying to adrenalize it at moments when it’s the wrong thing to do.”

Garland’s “Ex-Machina,” which opens in theaters April 10, was made for $15 million, not the $50 million it took to make “Sunshine,” a philosophical journey to the sun that eventually dissolved into more of a monster movie. “Ex-Machina,” however, holds its trance throughout the tale of a young computer programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) who flies to the remote lair of a tech billionaire (Oscar Isaac), and is introduced to a very realistic artificial intelligence (Alicia Vikander).

“The one thing I do know is that I really, really want creative freedom — not just for me but the people I’m working with,” says the British writer-director. “You need to be Christopher Nolan to have creative freedom at that level. That’s what, like, two or three people in the world.”

Instead of fighting those odds, a new generation of filmmakers is breathing fresh life into the often over-commercialized genres of sci-fi and horror. A regular diet of big-budget releases have helped stagnate genre thrills by over-relying on visual-effects spectacle (“Jupiter Ascending,” “After Earth”), while mainstream horror has been overrun by gimmicky shlock (the “Paranormal Activity” series) and familiar retreads (“I, Frankenstein”).

But many of the most exciting horror and sci-fi films in recent years — “Under the Skin,” “The Babadook,” “Her,” “Upstream Color,” the “Black Mirror” miniseries — have come from independent filmmakers working with small or even skimpy budgets, who prize creative control in genres where final cut is scarce.

Janet Pierson, head of film at South By Southwest, where “Ex-Machina” premiered, has regularly programmed inventive genre fare. While she’s witnessed steadily intrepid sci-fi and horror for years, she sees a larger shift.

“What I’ve noticed is that the young people that come in here, particularly more and more of the women, their first love is genre films — which is a real change, which is something that didn’t exist before,” said Pierson. “I come from the more traditional art-house generation.” 

David Robert Mitchell, writer-director of the indie horror sensation “It Follows,” is a kind of combination genre-art house filmmaker. His first movie, “The Myth of the American Sleepover,” was his version of a teen drama that portrayed the quieter moments of adolescence, rather than the melodramatic extremes usually depicted in the genre.

“It Follows” is his stab at horror. The DVDs he pulled off his shelf in preparation make a respectable horror syllabus: “Nosferatu” (the original and the Werner Herzog version), Romero, Cronenberg, Polanski, the classic Universal monster movies, the Hammer classics, “The Shining” and many more.

“There’s a bunch of us that grew up watching what are now seen as classic horror films,” says Mitchell, a Michigan native. “That’s probably affected a lot of us to, if not update them, be inspired by them.”

Mitchell’s deep appreciation of the genre is self-evident in “It Follows,” an atmospheric suburban teenager thriller with a synthesizer score evocative of John Carpenter. “It Follows” has crossed over from art house to mainstream: it expanded last weekend to some 1,200 theaters, despite earlier plans for video-on-demand. It pulled in $4 million at the box office, about twice its budget. 

While he acknowledges “more money would definitely be helpful” and that he may later be interested in directing bigger studio films, “my intention is to kind of take my time with that,” says Mitchell. “And that’s by choice.”

“Ex-Machina” and “It Follows” both create suspense by relying on acting and atmosphere. “It Follows,” in which an unseen, unknown entity is passed like a sexually transmitted disease, works like “Jaws” or “The Evil Dead”: What we imagine is more fearful than anything a movie can physically represent. “Ex-Machina” has the distilled feel of a chamber piece: It’s all questions and mysteries to unravel, none of the fat of special effects set-pieces.

“What that stuff does is it takes the heat off characterization and themes and story,” says Garland. “What a chamber piece does is it leaves you nowhere to hide.”

Shark sightings off Cape Cod a boon for tourism

In “Jaws,” the fictional mayor tried to protect the summer tourism season by keeping a lid on reports of the man-eater lurking offshore.

As sightings of great white sharks mount off Cape Cod in real life, however, businesses in the Massachusetts town of Chatham are embracing the frenzy.

Shark T-shirts are everywhere, “Jaws” has been playing in local theaters and boat tours are taking more tourists out to see the huge seal population that keeps the sharks coming. Harbormasters have issued warnings but — unlike the sharks in the movies — the great whites generally are not seen as a threat to human swimmers.

Among the entrepreneurs is Justin Labdon, owner of the Cape Cod Beach Chair Company, who started selling “Chatham Whites” T-shirts after customers who were renting paddle boards and kayaks began asking whether it was safe to go to sea. 

“I mean, truthfully, we’ve probably grown about 500 percent in terms of the sale of our shark apparel,” he said. The T-shirts, hoodies, hats, belts, dog collars and other accessories bear the iconic, torpedo-shaped image of great whites and sell for between $10 and $45. 

He said his store brings in thousands of dollars in sales of the shark-themed merchandise.

Tourists peer through coin-operated binoculars in hopes of catching a glimpse of a shark fin from the beaches of Chatham. The posh resort town is on the elbow of the cape that has a large population of gray seals — the massive animals whose blubber is the fuel of choice for great white sharks. Local shops sell jewelry, candy, clothes, stuffed animals and beverages with shark motifs.

A study released last month by scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found the number of great white sharks off the Eastern U.S. and Canada is surging after decades of decline. Conservation efforts and the greater availability of prey such as Massachusetts’ seals, are credited with the reversal. 

Shark sightings have soared from generally fewer than two annually before 2004 to more than 20 in each of the last few years off Cape Cod, where the economy depends heavily on the summer tourism season. Despite notices urging boaters and swimmers to use caution, the official reaction has been nearly the opposite of the panic depicted in “Jaws,” the 1975 film shot mainly on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard.

“White sharks are this iconic species in society and it draws amazing amounts of attention,” said Gregory Skomal, a senior marine fisheries biologist who also leads the Massachusetts Shark Research Program, who said people are coming in hopes of witnessing the animals in their splendor. “I have not been approached by anyone who has said to me ‘let’s go kill these sharks.’”

Skomal said sharks have been coming closer to shore to feed on the seals, which he said have been coming on shore in greater numbers because of successful conservation efforts.

Confrontations with people are rare, with only 106 unprovoked white shark attacks — 13 of them fatal — in U.S. waters since 1916, according to data provided by the University of Florida.

Still, officials are wary of the damage that could be done to tourism if one of the predators bites a person. Brochures have been distributed to raise awareness of sharks and safe practices in the event of a sighting.

“You have to make sure people understand,” Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce CEO Wendy Northcross said, “if they go to the beach and they see a family of seals there, that’s probably not the best place to hang out.”

Laurie Moss McCandless of Memphis, Tennessee, has vacationed on Cape Cod every summer since she was a little girl and doesn’t remember hearing about sharks back then. But her son is obsessed with sharks, she said, and she’s hoping to hear more about them on their vacation in Chatham.

“He loves all his sharks paraphernalia,” McCandless, 39, said as she bought a shark-themed sweatshirt for one of her three children. 

Off the Wall Theatre takes on homoerotic aspects of the classic thriller ‘Rope’

Gay-themed erotic thrillers are rare enough in 2014, so audiences in 1929 must have been shocked at the premiere run of Patrick Hamilton’s play Rope, about two college-age male lovers who murder a fellow student in an attempt to commit the perfect crime.

Today, unfettered by the sensibilities and censors of 1929, productions of Rope can overtly present the homoerotic elements implicit in the script and delve into the deeper questions the play asks about human nature, says Dale Gutzman, who’s directing the play at Off the Wall Theatre. Fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s tame 1948 film version of Rope starring James Stewart will see a startlingly different interpretation of the work. 

As originally written, Rope opens in darkness, with its two main characters Brandon (Jeremy C. Welter) and Granillo (Mark Neufang) wrestling the body of the young man they’ve just killed into a large trunk. Only moments later, they’re hosting the dead man’s family and friends for a dinner party, serving them from a buffet placed on top of that trunk.

The plot is said to have been inspired by the most sensational crime of the 1920s — the thrill killing of 14-year-old Bobby Franks by well-heeled University of Chicago students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.

The play’s action centers on the meddling of Rupert Cadell (Randall Anderson), an injured World War I veteran who suspects Brandon and Granillo of the crime and attempts to pry the truth from them.

“It’s called Rope because the tension twists tighter and tighter and tighter as this party goes on,” Gutzman says. The plot slowly narrows down to a confrontation between Rupert and the two murderers.

Gutzman says his interpretation of the script explores the psychological nature of Brandon and Granillo’s relationship more than the text explicitly calls for, emphasizing the dominant and submissive nature of their dynamic.

The production marks the third time Gutzman has staged Rope, and the second time he’s presented it at Off the Wall. Between then and now, Gutzman says he’s learned how to better utilize the space for dramatic effect.

For this production, Gutzman makes his small theater even smaller, constructing a small drawing room for the set and then seating the audience only a foot or two away from all the action. “I want there to be a claustrophobia in the room,” he says, “a tightness.”

Minimal lighting that keeps the stage in shadows adds to the production’s intensity, Gutzman says.

But Gutzman was largely drawn to the script because it rises above the average thriller philosophically. Hamilton poses an existential question, Gutzman says: Why is this murder presented as so abhorrent when the slaughter of millions in World War I earned medals for the killers?


Rope opens at Milwaukee’s Off the Wall Theatre, 127 E. Wells St., on July 17 and runs through July 27. Performances are 7:30 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 4:30 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $25. Call 414-484-8874 or go to offthewalltheatre.com.

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‘Edge of Tomorrow’ – what summertime movies are all about

The time-shifting sci-fi thriller “Edge of Tomorrow” has perfectly encapsulated what it is to be a summertime moviegoer. We’re dropped into a battlefield of digital effects with the fate of the world at stake. Torrents of gunfire and explosions surround. Some alien clonks us over the head.

We black out and it all happens again. And again.

“Edge of Tomorrow,” in which Tom Cruise plays an officer who continually relives a day of combat against extraterrestrials, probably isn’t a commentary on the repetitiveness of today’s blockbusters. Its star, after all, has been the unchanging, unstoppable avatar of big summer movies.

But in the film directed by Doug Liman (“Swingers,” “The Bourne Identity”), the action-star persona of Cruise is put into a phantasmagorical blender. As military marketer Maj. William Cage, he’s thrown into battle against his will by an unsympathetic general (the excellent Brendan Gleeson), and then finds himself stuck in a mysterious time loop.

Cruise dies dozens of times over and over, often in comical ways. Does this sound like a great movie, or what?

The selling point of “Edge of Tomorrow” may indeed be seeing one of Hollywood’s most divisive icons reduced to Wile E. Coyote. He’s like a real-life version of the video game “Contra,” with the code of seemingly endless life. Dying again and again, Cruise has rarely been so likable.

Based on the 2004 Japanese novella “All You Need Is Kill,” `’Edge of Tomorrow” begins in the de rigueur fashion of news clips that catch us up on five years of alien invasion that has – with historical symmetry – encompassed Europe and left the beaches of northern France as the primary point of battle.

Cage is dumped on an aircraft carrier, callously sent into battle by a commanding officer (a very fun Bill Paxton, spouting lines like, “Battle is the great redeemer” in a Kentucky accent), and outfitted in a high-tech exoskeleton he doesn’t know how to operate. When he lands on Normandy or thereabouts, he’s an easy target for the aliens, dubbed Mimics.

The Mimics resemble black, scampering dreadlock wigs or electrified Rorschach Tests. When a particularly big one swallows Cage, his day resets. This is “Groundhog Day” with guns.

This time around, though, it’s not Sonny and Cher that wake him up each day but a drill sergeant calling him “maggot.” Whereas Bill Murray got to learn how to play the piano and fall in love, Cage must become a better killer. He strives to make it through the battle, getting a little further each time before dying. He quickly pairs with the most celebrated fighter in the war (Emily Blunt), who recognizes his strange predicament.

“Edge of Tomorrow,” which was penned by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth, entertains in its narrative playfulness – another entry in the burgeoning fad of puzzle-making sci-fi, as seen in “Inception” and “Looper.” Few filmmakers have Liman’s knack for smart plotting; his much earlier “Go” inventively connected three intertwined stories.

The zippiness does fade in the second half of “Edge of Tomorrow.” And the title (perhaps the most belabored way possible of saying “tonight”) could also use a replay. But among countless sequels and remakes, the high-concept “Edge of Tomorrow” – both a Tom Cruise celebration and parody – is the right kind of a rerun.

“Edge of Tomorrow,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, language and brief suggestive material.” Running time: 119 minutes. Three stars out of four.

Eco-terrorism grips in ‘Night Moves’

In Kelly Reichardt’s spare, eco-terrorist thriller, the two spurts of violence that disturb the placid pine forests of the Pacific Northwest are each hazy with fog. One is a misty nighttime bombing of a hydroelectric dam, the other a fatal encounter in a sauna.

A thick moral cloudiness hangs over “Night Moves,” Reichardt’s fifth film. Three disillusioned environmentalist radicals conspire to send a message by blowing up a dam that has upset the local ecosystem. Clad in wet wool hats, they’re far from romantic terrorists like Carlos the Jackal. One, after all, is played by Jesse Eisenberg.

They can hardly articulate their extremism. Josh (Eisenberg), a taciturn organic farm worker in Oregon, mumbles something about a local dam “killing all the salmon just so you can run your (expletive) iPod every second of your life.”

He’s joined by a reckless former Marine named Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard), knowing in matters of destruction, and Dena (Dakota Fanning), an earnest college dropout rebelling against her family’s wealth.

What Reichardt captures in “Night Moves” is the bitter despair of those fighting the hydra-headed forces of rampant consumerism and environmental destruction. They may be tragically misguided in turning to violence, but they’re spoiling for any kind of tangible action.

Their urgency warps their logic to the point of violence, with unforeseen consequences. Dena, though young and breezy, is almost nihilistic: “It’ll all go fast in the end,” she says, predicting the end of days with a shrug.

A manic, stuttering awkwardness has long been Eisenberg’s stock in trade. But he’s been expanding (he also stars in the recently released doppelganger thriller “The Double”), and in “Night Moves,” he has an atypically quiet intensity. Reichardt’s sparsely naturalistic dramas with Michelle Williams _ the drifter tale “Wendy and Lucy” and the Western “Meek’s Cutoff” were more bare, but “Night Moves” still gets much of its drama from the currents of paranoia and uncertainty that flicker across Eisenberg’s face.

“Night Moves” has a sure-handedness that shows Reichardt is still growing as a filmmaker. The scene at the dam, in particular, is suspenseful, and the rugged Oregon landscapes are vivid. But the movie also sticks mainly to familiar rhythms of such thrillers — the conspiratorial build up and the fractious fallout.

Reichardt, filming the action objectively, doesn’t judge the actions of the three. But the alternative in the film — living peacefully in yurts removed from the rest of the world — also doesn’t feel like a satisfactory answer for Reichardt.      

If pressed, I’d still take 1975’s pulpy “Night Moves,” with Gene Hackman as a private eye, over Reichardt’s film. But “Night Moves” has its own mournful moodiness, heavy with a bleak helplessness about how to defend a Mother Nature beset on all sides.

“Night Moves,” a Cinedigm Entertainment release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “some language and nudity.” Running time: 112 minutes. Three stars out of four.

Re-issues of albums by Jackson, R.E.M. celebrate silver anniversaries

The King of Pop faced a daunting task in following up his bazillion-selling “Thriller” album of 1982. While 1987’s “Bad” fell short of what came before it, including Jackson’s previous Quincy Jones collaboration “Off The Wall” (1979), it wasn’t, well, half bad.

The newly reissued deluxe 25th anniversary edition of “Bad” includes three CDs and one DVD. The set consists of a remastered version of the original album, a disc of rare and unreleased tracks, such as French and Spanish versions of “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” and the bizarre and controversial “Song Groove (aka Abortion Papers)” among others. It also includes the live CD/DVD from Jackson’s July 1988 Wembley concert, a pair of booklets, a sticker and a poster.

“Bad” opens with the title track, retaining the MJ-as-tough-guy spirit of “Beat It” from “Thriller.” The jubilant “The Way You Make Me Feel,” a well-deserved hit single, is a triumph, but “Speed Demon” demonstrates the hiccup singing style that Jackson unfortunately mined until his death. The gushy “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” also ranks among his best and the popular; preachy “Man in the Mirror” was Jackson at his most manipulative. The irony of the song was that Jackson desperately needed to take a look in the mirror.

The pissed-off and rocking “Leave Me Alone,” the final track, is the strongest on the disc and one of the best songs he ever wrote. It’s the declaration of independence that Jackson always needed to make for himself. 

If Michael Jackson was the King of Pop, then R.E.M. was the King of College Radio, later known as alternative music. In a career spanning 30 years, the group from Athens, Ga., led by queer front man Michael Stipe, defined modern rock through its instrumentation and exotic lyrics. On early recordings, from the jangle pop roots of “Murmur” and “Reckoning” to the dark folk of “Fables of the Reconstruction” to the beginnings of R.E.M.’s mainstream pop breakthrough on “Life’s Rich Pageant,” the group paved the way for the multitude of imitators who followed.

The re-released, expanded, double-CD, 25th anniversary edition of “Document,” R.E.M.’s fifth album, could easily be the soundtrack for 2012. Stipe sings presciently about signs of the current times in the aptly titled “Exhuming McCarthy,” including being “Loyal to the Bank of America.” Lyrics such as “vested interest united ties, landed gentry rationalize” might have been written yesterday.

The list of cheerily delivered catastrophes in “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine),” including the eerie line “don’t get caught in foreign towers,” almost suggests there was a crystal ball present when this album was being written. “Document” also featured the modest hit “The One I Love” and a blistering electric edge in “Finest Worksong” and “Oddfellows Local 151.”

The attractively packaged anniversary set includes a 20-track live disc recorded in Holland, a large poster, booklet and postcards.