Thursday Movie Picks: Psychological Thrillers

ThursdayMoviePicksHappy almost Friday! It’s TMP time! The Thursday Movie Picks blogathon was spearheaded by Wandering Through the Shelves Blog.

The rules are simple simple: Each week there is a topic for you to create a list of three movies. Your picks can either be favourites/best, worst, hidden gems, or if you’re up to it one of each. This Thursday’s theme is… Psychological Thrillers.

This is a very popular sub-genre and I’m actually surprised how many I’ve seen. This time I’m going with a theme-within-a-theme so I’m picking mostly those with a strong female lead, and three out of four leads are nominated for Oscars. Here they are in the order of release:

Sleeping With The Enemy (1991)

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A young woman fakes her own death in an attempt to escape her nightmarish marriage, but discovers it is impossible to elude her controlling husband.

I saw this the year it was released with my older brother, my cinema buddy at the time as I was still in high school in Jakarta. Given Indonesia didn’t have regulations like MPAA, kids of any age could pretty much see any R-rated movies. I even saw risqué stuff like Basic Instinct, 9-1/2 Weeks, Wild Orchid, etc. in the theater, with my brother, no less!

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In any case, I remember this movie being quite suspenseful. I still remember when Julia Roberts‘ character pretended to drown so she could change her identity from her possessive husband. Just a year after Pretty Woman was released, she’s definitely flexing her dramatic muscle and I think she’s pretty good here. Patrick Bergin made for a pretty scary villain who’d stop at nothing to get his wife back.


Primal Fear (1996)

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An altar boy is accused of murdering a priest, and the truth is buried several layers deep.

I’m breaking my theme-within-a-theme of movies with a female lead, as I really wanted to include this film!

This might have been the first time I saw Edward Norton on screen, which happens to be his feature film debut. The main draw for me was Richard Gere as the Chicago defense attorney who takes on the case pro bono. It’s a role that fits Gere nicely and I think he’s a more versatile actor than people give him credit for. But the star here is definitely Ed Norton who apparently beat out over 2000+ actors who auditioned for the role of Aaron Stampler, including Matt Damon.

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It turns out to be a career-making role that earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination and Golden Globe win. I think he was scary good in this role… his shy mannerism, stammer, etc. feels believable and like Gere’s character, you wanted to believe he’s innocent. This movie’s got one of the most chilling ending a la The Usual Suspect.

Interesting Trivia:

Pedro Pascal stated in a 2014 interview that his first ever audition was for the role of Aaron Stampler.


Black Swan (2010)

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A committed dancer struggles to maintain her sanity after winning the lead role in a production of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake”.

I’m a huge fan of ballet and even took some ballet lessons as a kid. I even remember going to see a Russian Ballet performance of Swan Lake in high school and met some of the male ballerinas backstage. There’s something so alluring and mystical about this graceful dance that takes such an insane amount of rigorous training and unrelenting dedication.

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It’s a perfect subject matter to exploit for Darren Aronofsky, a filmmaker with a predilection for dark, disturbing films. It’s perhaps one of Natalie Portman’s most memorable roles since Léon: The Professional and V For Vendetta. I think her Oscar win is well-deserved, though I think Vincent Cassel‘s haunting performance is also pretty Oscar-worthy. Barbara Hershey as her dominating mother and Mila Kunis as her rival ballerina are also memorable, I particularly remember Kunis being quite the comic relief in an otherwise somber and unsettling affair.

Interesting Trivia:

Natalie Portman met her future husband, choreographer Benjamin Millepied, on the set of this film. Portman herself pointed out the irony that his character in the film scoffs when asked if he’d have sex with Nina, and joked that obviously he was a good actor.

Gone Girl (2014)

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With his wife’s disappearance having become the focus of an intense media circus, a man sees the spotlight turned on him when it’s suspected that he may not be innocent.

I was already familiar with Rosamund Pike as she’s one of the Bond girls in the godawful Die Another Day, Jane in 2015’s Pride & Prejudice, as well as supporting turns in An Education, Jack Reacher, etc. She’s always been good but she’s exceptional here in an Oscar-worthy role. David Fincher + Gillian Flynn colab is certainly the perfect ingredient for a solid thriller, and Fincher was on a streak as most of the actors kept getting nominated for Oscars under his direction. I was rooting for Amy the whole time, even after the reveal of what she did, which is a testament to Pike’s amazing performance as an antiheroine.

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The supporting cast is an interesting mix. Ben Affleck‘s casting is perfect here as a handsome, somewhat charming but not-so-bright husband. Then there are Tyler Perry (who I had never seen before on screen at that point) and Neil Patrick Harris. I’m still baffled by Harris’ casting to this day, especially for a scene so sexual and bloody.

Interesting Trivia:

Ben Affleck would constantly sing ’80s songs in between takes. Impressed, Tyler Perry decided to start a game that ended up lasting the entire duration of filming. Perry would start to sing the most random song he could think of to see if Affleck would start singing along. According to Perry, Affleck knew all of the words to every single song Perry threw at him, including Broadway showtunes and songs by Barbra Streisand.


What do you think of my picks? What are YOUR favorite psychological thrillers?

Weekend Roundup: ‘Black Swan’ review

Summer is certainly a busy month and this past weekend was another one jam-packed w/ activities. Last weekend I mentioned about the Fill Their Plate Run 5K/10K, well this Saturday morning my friends and I volunteered at a meal-packing event for Kids Against Hunger, a humanitarian food-aid organization which mission is to significantly reduce the number of hungry children throughout the world. There were about 60 something people in our shift and we packed about 12,000 meals to be sent to Haiti.

We didn’t have time to make it to the cinema but managed to watch Black Swan which I put in our Netflix queue quite a while ago. But before I get to my review, I’d like to remind everyone of an upcoming blog-a-thon called Morality Bites, spearheaded by my pals Ronan of Filmplicity and Julian of DirtyWithClass blogs. It’s a blog-a-thon that ask the burning question:

Does a filmmaker have a moral responsibility?
The rules are simple: Publish a post on your blog in response to this question or simply post your response on the page wall and email us a link to your post.

Click on the graphic to go to the Facebook page for more information or sign up on the FB wall. Hope you all will participate this Wednesday.

Now, on to the review…

BLACK SWAN

Obsession is a dangerous thing… even more lethal when you are obsessed with perfection. Nina Sayers is a beautiful ballet dancer who nabs the much-coveted lead role of a new production of Swan Lake. She’s perfect as the delicate White Swan, her teacher repeatedly tells her, but struggles to pull off the darker, more provocative part of the Black Swan. The stage performance tells of a tragic story where the Black Swan seduces the White Swan’s Prince which leads to the heartbroken White Swan killing herself.

This is the role of a lifetime — and like everyone in the grueling profession, Nina’s life is completely consumed with ballet and the dream of being cast in such a prestigious production. To make matters worse, she lives with a controlling mother, Erica, who was a former ballerina herself. Nina’s practically suffocated by her mother’s constant barrage of questions and demands, but at the same time, she is all she has because Nina’s got zero social life outside of her rigorous training. The ultimate tragic figure, director Darren Aronofsky takes us on a psychological ‘thrill of terror’ ride as Nina descends into madness the more she embodies the sinister side of the Black Swan.

Nina’s life is chock-full of complicated relationships — with her mother, her instructor, her main rival Lily, and ultimately with herself. As Leroy astutely whispers to her just before she goes on stage, “The only person standing in your way is you. It’s time to let her go. Lose yourself.” Her relationship with the free-spirited Lily is particularly intriguing. Nina is jealous of Lily because she easily personifies the sensual nature of the Black Swan, whilst at the same time being fascinated as well as threaten by her.

I’ve been warned by several people that this is a movie that messes with your mind… the line is blurred between reality and dreams/nightmares, one can’t tell when the illusions ends and reality begins. It’s a fair warning as the movie is not only spooky but can be frustrating at times as we’re always guessing what’s in Nina’s head and what actually happens.

This film was nominated for a slew of awards including Best Picture Oscar. After seeing this, I do think the accolades are well deserved. I was quite astounded that the movie had a measly $13 million budget as the production quality made it look more expensive than that. Aronofsky depicts the enigmatic world of ballet with a keen eye and the whole camera movement, choreography, the music by Clint Mansell and even use of color scheme captures the eerie and spooky mood throughout.

The casting is spot on all around as well. Parisian thespian Vincent Cassel is perfectly creepy but brilliant teacher, Barbara Hershey as the control freak mother, and even Winona Ryder as the cast-aside Swan Lake star Beth is unforgettable in her small role. Props for the casting agent for finding actresses who look believable as ballerinas. Mila Kunis is spot on as the sexy Lily who’s quite the comic relief in the movie. Her role the antithesis of the high-strung Nina though I don’t know if it’s really much of a stretch for Kunis as I feel she’s played this type of roles before.

As for Portman, she impressively carries this movie as the tortured soul protagonist. The amount of physical and emotional effort she puts into the role is nothing short of astounding. Her melancholic face suits the role well, as it seems that throughout the film she’s confined into looking either nervous or frightened. But there is one scene during her stage performance where she has this sinister look on her face as she becomes ‘possessed’ by the Black Swan. I’ve never seen that side of Portman before, and that last fifteen minutes of the movie really floored me [as I was already at the edge of my seat the whole time!]

So, did I enjoy the movie? Well, now that is an another question entirely. This is one of those movies I truly appreciate and am glad I’ve seen it because it was really well-crafted. At the same time, because there are lots of scenes that are extremely uncomfortable to watch, I don’t think I want to see this again. I find the world of ballet quite fascinating – I took a couple of lessons as a wee kid [fortunately I never dreamed of becoming a ballerina!] and have enjoyed a few ballet performances in my life. Yet because of the high suspense and state of mind when watching the film, I couldn’t quite enjoy the beauty of those performances… it’s as if Nina’s persistent state of twitchy restlessness rubs off on me as I keep anticipating something bad is about to happen.

Still, I think Black Swan lives up to the hype and for that I’m giving it a high grade. It’s one of those movies that lingers long after the end credits, oh and even the end credits segment itself is beautiful and if I had seen this at the cinema, it would be worth staying around for.

4 out of 5 reels

So what did you see this weekend? I feel like I’m the last person to see this movie, so most likely you’ve seen ‘Black Swan’ already.  If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.

Guest Post: The Red Shoes (1948) Review

Special thanks to my buddy Vince Caro for his excellent contribution!


With the anticipated release of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, the somewhat unmarketable genre (at least in recent years) of the ‘ballet movie’ has been reinvigorated with high expectations. The last such movie I’d seen was The Turning Point (1977), an uneven melodrama which stayed within the subject’s borders: love triangles, competition between diva dancers, leaving the profession and the art’s physical toll on the dancer’s body. Seeing an aging Anne Bancroft as a nearly washed up ballerina sorta gave me the heebie jeebies (in a Betty Davis kinda way). That same year, Dario Argento literally conveyed that creepiness in full with Suspiria with some classic 70s gore.

Moira Shearer as the ballerina Vicky Page

But there is one ballet movie that transcends all others in terms of beauty, tragedy and intelligence but still reminding us of the dancer’s Faustian dedication to their art. The Red Shoes is derived from a Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name, where a demon shoemaker gives a young girl a pair of magical red dancing shoes which forces her to dance against her will, and ultimately to her death.

In the film, aspiring dancer Vicky Page (the riveting Moira Shearer) is discovered by ruthless theater producer Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) who casts her in a ballet rendition of the Red Shoes. She falls in love with the ballet’s composer Julian (Marius Goring). Lermontov, fueled by his jealousy of the two lovers, forces Vicky to choose between her love for Julian and her love for dance – with tragic results.

The film is shot beautifully in lush color and directed by famous collaborators Emeric Pressburger and Michael Powell, with magnificent and dreamlike dance sequences. [According to Wiki, to create a realistic feeling of a ballet company at work, and to be able to include a fifteen minute ballet as the high point of the film, they created their own ballet company using many dancers from Britain’s The Royal Ballet.] The film carefully carries us into a magical fairy tale, but never repressing the darkness of human cruelty and obsession. At their first meeting, Lermontov asks Vicky: “Why do you want to dance?” She replies, “Why do you want to live?” This is the core of the film’s heart: when your life depends on your art – what then?

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RTM’s note: Wow, I’m really curious about this now. I just might try to catch this one over the weekend as it’s on Netflix’s Watch Instantly. I love ballet in movies but Black Swan might be too bizarre for my taste. Those who’ve seen this movie, feel free to add your thoughts in the comments below.