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?

Guest Review: NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (2016)

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Written/Directed By: Tom Ford
Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson
Runtime: 1 hr 56 minutes

It is hard to adequately describe the opening scenes of the psychological thriller Nocturnal Animals (2016) but you will not forget them quickly. Picture, if you will, images of completely naked and generously sized women writhing rhythmically to a heavy beat with various body parts moving simultaneously in different directions. They slowly progress in size, with lighting and makeup that makes them resemble what could be described as artistically grotesque burlesque, all with the opening credits still rolling in the background.

If you are still watching, you are being prepared for a film that explores a twilight world of sexual transgression. It may help to know beforehand that there are three criss-crossing plotlines and you can easily lose your sense of what is happening. Gallery director Susan (Amy Adams) is an insomniac with a crumbling marriage and a disinterested career. Spoilt by wealth, she can indulge her sense of emptiness and her regrets over having cruelly dumped her first husband whose modest career as a writer was never going to meet her aspirations. Having once labelled him a loser, out of the blue he sends her a manuscript for a book she cannot stop reading.

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The dramatization of the book is a gripping stand-alone thriller. Formulaic but brilliantly acted and filmed, it is about a family driving on a deserted road at night who encounter a carload of crazed thugs. The driver is helpless as his wife and daughter endure horrific crimes, and the story becomes the quest for revenge or justice depending on your moral viewpoint. As Susan reads the book it triggers flashbacks about her previous marriage for which a flame still burns, and she begins to sense that the story is a vengeful metaphor for her own emotional and moral weakness. While these twin narrative layers twist and turn, Susan also struggles with her shallow life in the pretentious present tense of the Los Angeles art world.

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The narrative framework of this film can feel like a tangled mess but it is not. It shifts from one layer to another without warning to create a fine balance between logic and confusion while creating a powerful montage of haunting scenes. The converging motifs of sleeplessness and night trawlers equate Susan’s culpability with those of murderous road stalkers and hint darkly that while some wrongs are beyond the law they are never beyond primal vengeance. The story of Nocturnal Animals is told through Susan’s eyes and with a top-quality support ensemble. The cinematography is striking and many scenes could be framed as artworks in Susan’s gallery. This is a challenging and engaging film that echoes the message be careful what you wish for.

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cinemuseRichard Alaba, PhD
CineMuse Films
Member, Australian Film Critics Association
Sydney, Australia


Have you seen ‘NOCTURNAL ANIMALS’? Well, what did you think? 

TCFF 2016 Indie Horror Spotlight: Lake Runs Red – interview w/ director Jason Riesgraf + producer Jeff Fuller

Those who read my blog regularly knows I have such feeble nerves that I can’t handle most horror movies. But I’m always up for supporting indie films, especially Minnesota-made films! So when I got the chance to interview the filmmakers behind Lake Runs Red, I jumped at it. It’s a home-invasion horror + psychological thriller produced & filmed in the state, specifically in Atkins, which is about 2 hours north of the Twin Cities.

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Two college girlfriends go to their parent’s secluded northern Minnesota lake cabin to prepare for final exams. An uninvited visitor stops by. He isn’t there to study.

Director: Jason Riesgraf
Writers: J. Dan Moores and Jason Riesgraf
Cast:
 Kaci Wegleitner, Lauren Morris, C.J. DeVaan
Runtime: 66 min

Check out the trailer:


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Q: First of all thank you Jason and Jeff Fuller for chatting with me about your film. Talk about that title. I love that it has the word ‘lake’ in the title, the fact that we’re in the land of 10000 Lakes. So how did you come up with that?

Jason:  Yeah it was a very difficult process to come up with it. When I started writing it was actually called Panic, and that was kind of the title. And then that ended up sticking for a while. And then we did we kind of did with Jeff, our marketing director. We kind of did some you know some Google searches and realized that that wouldn’t be the best way to hit a target audience. So we kind of we kind of left it at that for a little bit and as we left it, we spent a while coming up with what would signify this film…  you know, lake is an obvious choice. You know in Northern Minnesota, everybody knows that… and then you know it’s because it’s a horror movie, we kind of played some with some words and then we came up with Lake Runs Red.

Jeff: Yes, in fact I spent about nine hours researching and coming up with those titles. We have this gigantic list, but yeah, this one works well in our favor. We love it.

Pictured: Lauren Morris | Photo Credit: Mike Ascher
Pictured: Lauren Morris | Photo Credit: Mike Ascher

Q: Indeed it’s a great title, I love it too. So what inspired you to this story?

Jason: The biggest inspiration, I mean the [sub] genre of the film is actually home invasion, and home invasion to me is my biggest fear. Home is where he feels safe home is where you feel comfort, and when somebody invades that it’s not a fun feeling. And so I kind of played out my own fears and wrote it you know, from my perspective of what a home invasion would feel like. And coincidentally enough we actually, my wife and I had our house broken into while we were filming. So it kind of you know, I actually lived that what that fear is. And I’m hoping that that’s what the audience sees when they see it in the picture.

Q: Is this from the perspective of the invader or the invadee, if there’s such a word, I mean the people who were invaded?

Jason: Well, it’s not really from anybody’s perspective. It follows two college seniors and what happens after these traumatic events happen to them at the cabin.

Jeff: But the invader is one of the main characters.

Jason: So yeah, we have one main villain and then we have two college seniors.


Q: The reason I’m asking is the recent box office home-invasion horror/thriller Don’t Breathe starring Stephen Lang was from the perspective of the invaders. 

Jason: Yes I saw and it was worked very well. So yeah you can kind of use that spin on it if you want to. Except that this is in a cabin, so ours is a lot more secluded.

Q: Which in a way is scarier I think. I was just telling someone earlier, I’m actually not a big horror fan. I don’t have nerves of steel like most people, I get scared very easily. I also get really a headache if I watch those found-footage type movies. So what’s the filming style of this one?

Jason: We had very minimal very minimal tripod, we only used tripod where it was appropriate. We we don’t have the found-footage, shaky cam, we do run on a steady cam. So the steady cam we use was weighted, but it still showed kind of traumatic camera shots.

Q: So you wouldn’t categorize this film as a found-footage film then? 

Jason: No, no, I won’t categorize it as that at all. It’s not like Blair With where the shots are very shaky. You know my plan going into this is I don’t want to make people sick by the camera. It can take too much focus out of the story. You have to be wired for that kind of stuff.

Pictured: Kaci Wegleitner | Photo Credit: Mike Ascher
Pictured: Kaci Wegleitner | Photo Credit: Mike Ascher

Q: Ok, make sense. Now my question for you Jeff. You wore multiple hats here, you were the producer, art director, camera department and editor. What’s that experience for you?

Jeff: It’s been an amazing experience. You know I’m so glad to do this with one of my best friends Jason. And he was nice enough to bring me on this film. It’s a funny story, like when we started this it was like ‘Oh, so we’re really doing this! Let’s go for it!’ I think it’s probably the best experience to wear these different hats, from editor to producer to all that, you get such a ingratiated role into the whole process. It’s just been absolutely tremendous.

Q: Now, question for both of you. What’s your most memorable experience from making this, whether good or bad moments from filming?

Jason: Well, probably the most memorable is when we were actually at a production meeting and my house was burglarized. I mean that’s life imitating art you know. That was probably the most traumatic for me, and most unique experience that we had while filming.

Jeff: Oh, relive that experience when you drive home from the shoot one night and you got stopped…

Jason: That’s a great one too yeah. We actually we’re wrapping up from a quick little couple pickup shots up in Northern Minnesota. Getting up there you actually take a lot of very secluded roads, which if anyone knows northward it’s always the case. You know you take a left here and you go out the gravel road for 14 miles and that’s kind of it. And it turns out for some reason that night, it was I think it was maybe mid August, beginning August. My alternator went on my car and I was stranded on a the world’s most disgusting road, literally next to a barn for three hours waiting for a tow truck. I’m by myself and I had no cell service to look anything up. So all I had was my dying battery because I had no battery left in my car enough to call my wife and tell her you’ve got to give me a tow truck and I’m in the middle of nowhere and trying to explain to them where I am. I mean if it’s going to happen to anyone, it’s going to happen to me.

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Q: Oh my, well I’m glad to see you are okay! Now, last question… I was on your Twitter and you have a huge following on social media (12.3K followers). Is that a big part of your marketing and how did you build that huge following prior to the film opening?

Jason: I knew more about the physical parts of making a film. Marketing I didn’t know much about it. When I talked to Jeff about how we’re going to market this film, it’s like I don’t know. Then he said, I tell you what, I’ll take care of your marketing for you. I think within a year we were already have like 6 or 7000 followers. And I don’t know how he did it or what he does, but he handles most of that. I don’t watch him do it because that’s not really my thing.

Q: I feel like Twitter is sort of the water cooler, the internet water cooler, so it’s good to have that presence for your film. 

Jason: I’d say Twitter is our biggest success, by far.

Jeff: Yeah, I would say that social media has been the cornerstone of our marketing right there. It’s kind of the greatest equalizer on the Internet which Twitter was smarter our number one just because you can have conversations with the fans directly. Correct. We’ve had so many friends and some of the particular fans who still to this day constantly ask us hey how’s the movie going and stuff.

Jason: We’ve been on YouTube channels doing interviews me and some of the cast and crew, my co-writer and some of the cast and crew we’ve been on. We were featured on some humongous horror websites, Modern Horror, Movie Pilot, etc. So that was all Jeff, he took what we talked about marketing with a grain of salt and he took it as far as he could with it.

Q: So are you both horror fans yourself?

Jason: I am. I’ve been since my first four movies and really when I was nine or so, Nightmare On Elm Street, it has been in my blood. I mean there’s nothing really that I can’t handle. I mean there’s some stuff that makes me squirm, which is what I love. So Jeff, I actually brought him, so the last one he ever saw was when he saw with me and he couldn’t really handle it.

Q: What is it?

Jason: It was Hostel. After he saw that he kind of like you know what, I’m done watching horror movies with you. Yeah, you have to take that on your own.

Q: Oh slasher flick is a whole other genre entirely that I avoid.

Jason: Ours is more psychological thriller. It’s the home invasion aspect, about not knowing really what’s going on in our head.


THANK YOU Jason and Jeff for chatting with me about Lake Runs Red!

Check out some behind-the-scenes photos of the film:

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What’s in store for Day 10 of TCFF!

Stay tuned for more TCFF reviews and interviews…
and the finalists of TCFF Awards!


FlixChatter Review: Stoker

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Though this film was not on my radar until a few months ago, I was quite intrigued when I first saw the trailer. If you haven’t seen this yet though, I’d say stay away from the latest trailer.

As you’ve perhaps read my Asian directors post, this is Chan-Wook Park‘s English language debut. It’s not only a first for Park, this is also Prison Break‘s Wentworth Miller’s debut screenplay. I’d say he’s quite a talented writer. The film centers on India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), who’s mourning the sudden death of her father. As if that is not a major life-changing event for the reclusive teen, her uncle Charlie (Matthew Goode) who she never knew existed now comes to live with her and her unstable mother Evelyn (Nicole Kidman). Right of the bat we know there is something strangely peculiar about Charlie and India thinks so too, right from the moment she noticed him standing on a hill at her dad’s funeral. The Stokers certainly gives a whole new meaning to dysfunctional family, one that’d make your blood turns cold.

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Much to India’s chagrin, Evelyn seems to be fascinated by her long-lost brother-in-law who claims he’s been traveling all over the world. India is naturally suspicious of Charlie, and he gives every reason for her to be with his creepy mannerism and frequent glances towards her. Initially, she tries to ignore his unhealthy attention, but Charlie is quite relentless. Despite the warning of one family member, Evelyn doesn’t mind her brother in-law staying with them and let’s just say Charlie intends to keep it that way, and would stop at nothing to keep his secret safe. I’m going to stop giving you the synopsis as the less you know about the plot the better. Not that Park is too concerned about plot twists however, I feel that he’s more interested in building a certain state of mind for the audience as they watch things unfold.

To say this movie is unsettling would be a giant understatement. The sinister atmosphere practically ricochet off the high ceilings of the secluded woodsy estate where the Stokers live. The tension intensifies every time Charlie appears and Park is able to establish suspense with minimal frills. Even the seemingly ordinary event such as two people playing the piano or having dinner is so eerie and you’re at the edge of your seat waiting just what’s going to happen. Even the humorous parts are not without tension, such as the part when the Ray-Ban-wearing Charlie stalks India on her way home from work in his black convertible whilst the girls on her school bus are giggling and fawning over him.

A few reviewers say this film is not as bloody as Park’s other films and I’m certainly glad for that most of the violence happen off screen. That’s not to say there are no brutal scenes, it’s certainly not in short supply for my taste, but it’s not so gory that it makes my stomach churn. What really strikes me about Park’s direction is his creative camera angles and how he frames the scene. It’s truly a gorgeous film and beautifully-shot by Park’s longtime-collaborator Chung-hoon Chung, both clearly have such keen eye for detail that enhance the mysterious ambiance of the film. There are also some interesting metaphors used here, such as the choice of Charlie’s car, a Jaguar, seems to signify that he’s a predator on the lookout for his next prey.

Clint Mansel‘s foreboding score also works very well here, I quite enjoy the classically-tinged music used throughout. The music certainly enhances the mood, but it also plays a role in the story. There is one memorable scene where Charlie and India playing piano together that perfectly captures the disturbing nature of their relationship.

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The three main actors did an excellent job, particularly Wasikowska who manages to be convincing as a 17-year-old despite being five years older than her character. The talented Australian has this otherworldly presence that is perfect for the role and she has proven to be a capable leading lady. Goode is so perfectly creepy as Charlie, his preppy good looks makes him all the more menacing. I read that Colin Firth had been cast in the role but dropped out, I actually think Goode’s youthfulness is perhaps more suitable for the role than Firth, plus he resembles Dermot Mulroney who plays Mia’s late father Richard, who appears only in flashbacks. Kidman’s icy demeanor is put to good use in depicting a selfish and detached mother. I like the International flavor of the film. The director and cinematographer are Korean, the composer, screenwriter and lead actor are from the UK and the two main actresses are Australian.

Being that this is my first Chan-wook Park’s film I saw, I’d say I’m quite impressed with his direction and style. I do think that the filmmaker perhaps place aesthetics above narrative that it felt like the film’s on the brink of style-over-substance. It’s also a cold film that appeals more for the brain but little for the heart as all the characters are impossible to root for. That said, Stoker definitely works as a cerebral, atmospheric psychological thriller. Thriller fans looking for a spooky and suspenseful roller-coaster ride should not be disappointed.


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What are your thoughts on this film? I’d love to hear it!