thriller

R is for Rope (1948)

Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip (Farley Granger) attempt to prove they’ve committed the perfect crime by hosting a dinner party after strangling their former classmate to death.

I’ve currently only watched like three Hitchcock films but this is definitely my favourite. It has so many tropes I love like the plot just being contained to one location and disaster gays because yep, this film from the 1940s is one of the gayest things I’ve ever seen. Honestly, I went into Rope knowing nothing about it and 10 minutes in I had to pause it and google “Rope Hitchcock gay” as I wasn’t sure if I was reading too much into it from a modern perspective but nope, turns out it was understood to be pretty gay in the 40s too.

This comes from the relationship between Brandon and Phillip, two friends and flatmates. Dall and Granger have great chemistry and their relationship is fascinating. While Phillip slowly starts to unravel as the guilt and tension gets to him, Brandon relishes in their crime and the fact their dinner guests are unaware that the missing guest is currently dead and in a chest in the middle of the living room they’re all sitting in.

Rope is so gripping as you spend most of the film in the murders shoes and not wanting them to get caught because they are both very likable. Brandon’s effortlessly charming, though he can make a biting comment now and then, and Phillip is sweet and as he gets stressed about their situation, so do you.

It’s Rupert (James Stewart), their former school housemaster, who poses the biggest threat to the murderers. A lot of the theories about morality that Brandon buys into he learnt from Rupert and as he knew them both when they were younger, Rupert is likely to be the one to figure out when something’s not quite right.

Filmmaking-wise Rope is just great. It’s just set in their New York apartment and so much of the action takes place in the living room, with the chest with a body inside a presence in the room that as the viewer, you’re always aware of. Rope is comprised of a lot of long takes, each are often five minutes long or more, and it’s so interesting when you realise what’s happening. It makes the film feel like everything’s happening in real time and therefore the tension builds organically. The way the camera and actors move around the set is like a dance and a lot of the cuts are “hidden” so it zooms into the back of someone’s jacket before moving out again or something similar.

While obviously Dall, Granger, and Stewart are the main focus of Rope (though Stewart doesn’t actually appear on screen until almost 30 minutes into this 80-minute film) the supporting cast are a good too and the characters feel and act as they would at a slightly awkward dinner party. I loved Janet (Joan Chandler), Phillip and Brandon’s friend and the girlfriend of the missing party guest. She has a wry sense of humour and isn’t afraid to call out Brandon’s sly comments.

Rope is just a really interesting film. It’s a tense film with a great cast and the homoerotic subtext between Brandon and Phillip just adds extra layers to it all. 5/5.

P is for Psycho (1960)

Secretary Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) steals $40,000 from her employer, goes on the run, and checks into a remote motel run by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins), a young man with a domineering mother.

Due to pop culture osmosis, I knew the general gist of Psycho and a lot of the twists before watching it. That doesn’t mean it didn’t surprise me though and I was thoroughly gripped throughout. Seeing how those famous pop culture moments unfolded was probably just as thrilling as if I knew nothing at all about it.

As soon as the opening titles appear accompanied by that iconic score by Bernard Herrmann I was enthralled. The fact that it starts with that unsettling and creepy music puts you on edge from the very beginning. The music, along with it being a Hitchcock film, makes you unsure who to trust long before anything really bad or suspicious happens. When Marion is leaving town with the money and encounters a police officer, the way he’s framed and the fact she can’t see his eyes because of his sunglasses makes it feel like he’s always watching her. His presence makes her act more nervous and guilty and that makes his presence felt even more.

Anthony Perkins is just brilliant as Norman Bates. He’s young and good-looking, and he has that boy next door kind of charm to him so when he does become serious it feels more unnerving. He does a great job of juggling the various shades of Norman’s personality and Psycho is one of those films that wouldn’t have worked so well with someone else in the role.

It’s kind of fascinating watching Psycho now, sixty years after it was made because it’s clear that it’s the inspiration of so many other films and the filmmaking feels ahead of its time. The silent by imposing police officer reminded me of the T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day and so many of the scares have been riffed on in other films and shows but seeing the original now just demonstrates how great it actually is.

I’m very pleased I’ve finally watched Psycho. It’s a classic that lives up to its reputation; it’s creepy, foreboding and just fantastic filmmaking. 5/5.

G is for The Good Shepherd (2006)

Edward Wilson (Matt Damon) loves and believes in America and will sacrifice everything to protect it, but as one of the covert founders of the CIA, Edward’s youthful idealism is slowly eroded by his growing suspicion of everyone around him.

The Good Shepherd is Robert De Niro’s sophomore film and it sure is a well-directed film and De Niro has an eye for detail that’s impressive. However, good direction doesn’t necessarily make an interesting film.

The Good Shepherd is set in the 1960s as Edward looks for a mole inside the CIA but there’s a lot of flashbacks to his father’s death, his student days, and how he’s recruited and works in counter intelligence in Europe during the Second World War. So, while The Good Shepherd is framed as the origins of the CIA, it’s more about Edward’s life and how he’s involved with various elements of the CIA and historical events. I had to google to see if Edward was a real person and he’s not but apparently the character is loosely based on a man called James Jesus Angleton who was chief of counterintelligence in the CIA from 1954-1974.

Angelina Jolie plays Clover, Edward’s wife, and she’s given the thankless task of being the typical dutiful wife at home that’s kept in the dark about everything her husband does. It was pretty jarring having Eddie Redmayne play their son in the 1960s. Considering Jolie is only six years older than him and Damon is 11 years older than him, it looks weird every time the three of them are on screen together as he looks too old/too close to their own ages to be their university-aged son.

The Good Shepherd is juggling a few things with Edward’s life story, family drama and life in the CIA, but it doesn’t really make any of them particularly interesting. In fact, for a so-called spy thriller, it actually becomes quite tedious. The hunt for the mole storyline has a few decent moments and Michael Gabon as Edward’s university professor and mentor is one of the most engaging characters, but overall, it’s not a film that really grabbed my attention for its two-and-a-half-hour runtime. 2/5.

F is for Firefox (1982)

When the Russians create Firefox, a prototype jet that’s invisible to radar and can be commanded by the pilot’s mind, the West send pilot Mitchell Gant (Clint Eastwood) to the Soviet Union to steal it.

The plot to get Gant into Moscow is convoluted and the plot moves from him to the Russian high command to back to mission control in the West and none of it’s particularly interesting. Or when it does have the potential to be interesting it moves from that group of characters to another suddenly. Some scenes seem too long and just fizzle out while others don’t have enough context to be worthwhile.

As well as the KGB being a threat to him, Gant also has PTSD and panic attacks that can make him freeze up. The way these panic attacks are shot is kind of interesting with the sound and camera movement as well as overlapping scenes of the incident that gave Gant this trauma. It was kind of nice that while other characters including Gant’s superiors knew of his mental health issues they aren’t really talked about negatively and he manages to deal with them to the best of his ability.

Firefox is one of those 80s films that’s almost futuristic. While it’s definitely set in the 80s with the Cold War paranoia, the fact that the jet can fire missiles and pick out targets with just the thought of the pilot is a kind of sci-fi twist. It feels very 80s that they thought that technology could even progress to that point.

One thing that amused/annoyed me was that one of the reasons Gant got chosen for this mission was that he’s fluent in Russian, but whenever he talked to a Russian when he was pretending to be Russian, he still talked in English and didn’t even put on a (potentially awful) Russian accent. It made sense for him to talk with his own American accent when he was pretending to be an American tourist but when he was infiltrating the base as a supposed Russian it just felt really wrong.

Firefox ticks a lot of the standard Cold War thriller trope boxes but it doesn’t do anything to make it stand out from other films in the genre. The first half of the film is often boring and in the second half, while naturally the fighter plane sequences look dated now and though it becomes a bit long there are some sparks of potential excitement in them. It’s like the film tried to be two things at once; serious Cold War thriller and fun sci-fi action film. The two tones don’t really mesh together.

On a personal note, I enjoyed seeing Freddie Jones in this. He played Aubrey, one of the British Intelligence officers involved with the mission. It was another instance of seeing an actor almost 40 years younger than I’ve ever seen him before as until fairly recently he was a regular on the British soap Emmerdale which I grew up watching.

Firefox is Clint Eastwood’s eighth film as a director so while you could blame some of the film’s shortcomings on it being an early film of his, Eastwood had directed Play Misty for Me and The Outlaw Josey Wales by then which are both great. Maybe this is an instance where a director can only do so much with a dull screenplay overstuffed with exposition. 2/5.

D is for Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)

Richard (Paddy Considine), a soldier, returns to his small hometown to get revenge on the small-time drug dealers and thugs who tormented his mentally challenged brother Anthony (Toby Kebbell) while he was away.

Dead Man’s Shoes is one of those DVDs that has been sitting on my shelves for years. Honestly, I could have had this film for close to ten years without watching it. Now I finally have and boy was it an intense but great viewing experience that I don’t think I’ll want to repeat anytime soon.

Paddy Considine is just fantastic. The fact he’s nearly always calm and measured when talking to people means he’s unsettling and threatening but you can’t quite put your finger on what it is exactly about him that makes you feel this way. He has all this bottled up rage, just simmering underneath the surface and the moment when you can see the rage in his eyes you know someone is about to suffer.

Toby Kebbell also does a great job portraying Anthony who is a bit simple, naïve and trusting. It’s hard for actors and scripts to portray this kind of role well and realistically, without becoming an insensitive cliché but Kebbell manages it.

What really pulled me in was the dialogue. The script is great as all the dialogue between the gang members especially feels natural and conversational and the actors’ performances are naturalistic too. Perhaps I shouldn’t be too surprised by that as it’s a Shane Meadows film and he is a director who can get natural and engaging performances from his casts. You definitely don’t feel sorry for the gang members as Richard gives them a taste of their own medicine but it’s easy to feel caught up in their desperate bid to survive even when everything is falling apart around them.

While it’s clear they are horrible people, Dead Man’s Shoes treads a fine line to begin with as Richard’s brand of justice almost seems disproportionate to what we see happened to Anthony in black and white flashbacks. But as his quest for revenge continues, we see more and more of what Anthony went through is revealed you start to wonder if there’s a limit to the violence Richard is willing to dish out.

Dead Man’s Shoes is brutal and intense and a very well-made film. The cast is brilliant and script that feels real and honest about how strong a brother’s love can be and Considine’s powerful performance really does anchor the whole thing together. 5/5.

B is for Blue Steel (1990)

Trigger warning for rape and domestic abuse.

After an armed robbery goes awry, rookie cop Megan Turner (Jamie Lee Curtis) finds herself as the target when a witness (Ron Silver) becomes obsessed with her.

I went into this film knowing very little, in fact the reason I had a DVD of it was because it’s directed by Kathryn Bigelow and I’d been meaning to watch more of her films.

Blue Steel is a bit of a strange film in a way. It’s mostly framed as a typical cop action/thriller but as it progresses it almost becomes a slasher film – having Jamie Lee Curtis, Final Girl extraordinaire herself, as the lead sure does help cement that feeling.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Jamie Lee Curtis does give a great performance as Megan, showing her vulnerability as well as her strength, but it’s a bit difficult to understand Megan’s motivations for becoming a police officer. Anytime someone asks her reasons she makes a quip about shooting people or shoving them face first into a wall. It seems like she wants to have power and some of her actions are questionable. The villain of the film alludes to the fact that they aren’t so different and you can see some of those similarities he’s talking about. It makes her as a hero interesting, because sometimes it’s almost as if you want her to survive just because that’s how the general narrative of these sort of films usually work, not because she’s a character you become attached to.

The slasher element comes when Megan is being stalked by the witness. He makes himself a part of her life before showing her who he really is, though very few people believe her. He is suitably creepy and unsettling as you’re never sure what he’s going to do next. Plus, as bullets start flying, he almost seems to be indestructible as he shakes off injuries pretty quickly and just keeps coming after Megan. He puts her some mental and physical torture. The way in which he doesn’t stop is reminiscent of the slasher villains who never seem to stay dead. This kind of stretches the realm of plausibility as for the most part Blue Steel seems grounded in reality.

I in no way mean this as an insult but the score from Brad Fiedel is a great example of a 90s thriller/action score. The sound of it kind of encapsulates that time period and those kinds of films. It’s an unsettling score at times and compliments the action on screen, amping the tension well, but it also feels like a product of its time. It just instantly made me know what kind of film I was watching and when it was made. It’s quite the skill really.

Clancy Brown as the leading man is different (he played a detective and Megan’s reluctant partner) though I didn’t really believe in his relationship with Megan. It seemed to move too fast and was almost contrived. I think that’s the thing with Blue Steel, its ninety-minute runtime helps cover some of its flaws, as does the performances from the leads, but the story doesn’t really follow real world logic. If you think about it too long, you’ll probably like it less. 3/5.

As a side note, Blue Steel is one of those films I get enjoyment from just because of the cast. There were so many actors in this where I was like, “I recognise him” before realising that I was used to seeing them with white hair and looking 30 years older.

READ THE WORLD – Montenegro: Milena & Other Social Reforms by Olja Knežević

Translated by the author.

Trigger warnings for drug use, rape, and human trafficking. Milena & Other Social Reforms is also based on a real woman’s life.

Milena thinks she has it all when she lands a job as the President’s interpreter. Bright, young, beautiful, willing to take a chance, she is the embodiment of the new Eastern Europe. But a bold new title comes at a cost. As a country suffers the growing pains of greed, Milena is caught up in the machinery of crime, corruption and human trafficking.

Milena & Other Social Reforms spans over five years or so from the early 2000s when Monetnegro is young and finding its feet after Yugoslavia was dissolved, to the mid-2000s after the country has gotten its independence in 2006. It jumps between two times and places too. In Montenegro when Milena is working as an interpreter and getting to know various politicians and important and well-connected people in the country, and in London years later where she’s started a new life as a nanny for a wealthy Russian family.

It takes a while to really understand just what Milena’s life was like in Montenegro as how her job went from just being an interpreter to almost being a prostitute for the President of the country in order to get information from those he considers both allies and enemies, seemed to be one of those things that happened slowly then all at once. Things snowballed for her but because she had an intimate idea of how the politics and rules of the country worked due to having been in so many important meetings, it sometimes felt like an almost foregone conclusion that this is the position she’d end up in even though she definitely didn’t want it. It’s shocking and sad to see the depths of the corruption Milena encountered, with the police framing people, politicians being involved in everything and elections being fixed.

I liked how the story went between her life in Montenegro and her new life in London. Even though you don’t know the extent of what she went through to begin with, in the London sections it’s clear she’s still not OK and is sometimes struggling to deal with her past. The fact she often hangs out on the roof of the block of flats when she can’t sleep and one of her flatmates is concerned about her doing so is proof of that.

Milena is a smart and resourceful young woman but Milena & Other Social Reforms shows how that is not enough when faced with powerful and cruel men and corruption everywhere. Milena can’t trust the police or doctors or anyone who could be bought off, instead it’s other women that help her. Women who have escaped being trafficked or women who have some international political power (because there’s very few Montenegrin women in politics) or once she’s in London, women from other Eastern European countries who are looking to make a better life for themselves for whatever reason.

Milena & Other Social Reforms can be a tough read at times – in part because this self-translated, self-published novel doesn’t always have the correct English words, spellings or phrasing – but also because it shows the underbelly of the politics of a new country that is trying to show itself in the best light to the rest of the world. Still, it’s an interesting and thought-provoking read and it never shies away from the horrors of corruption and what people (often women) are left to face when they’re just trying to make a better life for themselves. 4/5.

READ THE WORLD – Costa Rica: Cadence of the Moon by Oscar Núñez Olivas

Translated by Joanna Griffin.

A series of murders committed with dreadful sadism by a psychopathic killer shakes Costa Rica like one of the earth tremors that periodically bedevil Central America. The police and press compete to uncover the murderer’s grisly trail – leading to a passionate encounter between a detective and an astonishing female reporter whose charms are her most powerful investigative tool.

Cadence of the Moon is a multiple POV story with it sometimes jumping from one point of view to another in the same chapter – though at least there’s line breaks to give you a hint something’s different. It’s mostly in third person a part from one point of view that’s in first person. I don’t know if I missed something early on but I didn’t figure out what character the first-person narrative was from until near the very end of the book where it revealed it. There may have been clues I missed before but I was so unsure that for a while I thought they might be the killer as they definitely seemed somewhat obsessive as the killer had been profiled.

Gustavo is the main detective and he is almost a reluctant detective. He’s smart and good at solving puzzles but he didn’t join the police because he wanted to but rather because he needed a job with a decent pension. He doesn’t quite fit in with some of the other detective and he clashes with his boss who has political aspirations.

As things slowly unravel and the police and the press follow different threads of the investigation it becomes clear there’s layers to this crime. The murders are gruesome but there’s also talk of secret societies, political intrigue and police corruption. Cadence of the Moon can be frustrating for the reader and for some of the characters as they are never given enough resources to make an impact on this case, and that might be deliberate.

Something I had trouble with was how women are described in this book, especially the journalist Maricruz Miranda. Not to generalise but it did feel very typical of a male author, especially a male author in the crime/thriller genre. Just the way her appearance and attitude were described in an often sexual way made me feel uncomfortable, like she was an object rather than a person. It’s something that did put me off Cadence of the Moon for a while and after reading the first 50 or so pages I put it down and didn’t pick it up again for over a month.

It was not just Maricruz, all the women are described by their appearances and a few male characters are quick to fall into bed with them or lust over characters who have no intentions of being with them. It’s as if all the women’s main purpose was to be a subject of male attention and then be a journalist, judge or whatever second.

I found Cadence of the Moon a slow read but it ended up being an interesting one. It’s based off the true story of Costa Rica’s first serial killer which is a compelling premise and how characters who were driven by moral and professional ethics were stumped by the corruption and lies of the real world presented a decent conflict of interests.

REVIEW: Black Widow (2021)

After the events of Captain America: Civil War Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run but soon her past catches up with her as she’s reunited with her sister Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) and learns that the Red Room she thought she’d long destroyed is still active.

After all this time Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow finally gets her own movie. While I’m certainly pleased that the character, and Scarlett Johansson who has more than a decade with this character, has finally gotten their time to shine, as a film it also feels a bit redundant. Having it set between the events of Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War means that there’s no real stakes for Natasha as we know we see her again. However, while her physical safety may be assured, Black Widow does allow more time to examine her psyche and she a few other characters certainly go through the emotional ringer – whether all those emotional beats land is another matter.

The fight sequences are great and having so many aerial shots make the movements seem fluid and helps these scenes standout more compared to other fight sequences in the MCU. The initial confrontation between Natasha and Yelena who haven’t seen each other for decades is a highlight. There’s the usual big explosions and car chases but it’s the one-on-one fight sequences which are the best and highlight how Natasha differs to her fellow superheroes.

With Natasha unable to turn to her Avenger family, she is forced to reconnect with a family from her past. Her dynamic with Yelena is interesting as while Yelena is clearly a more than capable spy and combatant, Natasha quickly falls back into the older sister role. Alexei (David Harbour) is the only Russian super soldier and Melina (Rachel Weisz) round out this family unit as the slippery scientist who you’re never quite sure where her allegiance lies. There’s an easy chemistry between the four actors but Florence Pugh steals just about every scene she’s in. Her Yelena is sarcastic and funny but she’s also hurting from her own experience in the Red Room. She’s also struggling to compartmentalise what this family unit means as she was so young when they were last together and to her, while it was a family of spies and double agents, it felt real.

Black Widow is a simpler MCU film. It’s Natasha facing her past and while the hundreds of Black Widows out there can certainly cause a lot of damage, it’s not framed as the end of the world type scenario. Instead, it’s about saving these young women from a life of trauma and control. However, the idea of the Red Room and these young girls being trained, and even brainwashed, to become master spies and assassins is a dark one and Black Widow never really goes into it more than at the surface level. Natasha’s past is dark and while Johansson does a good job at slowly revealing the layers of Natasha’s guilt and pain and love that’s all mixed together with her feelings for the Red Room and this unconventional family of hers, it often feels like something is missing.

Black Widow is an enjoyable action/spy thriller and there’s some good character work for Natasha and Yelena. While characters like Alexei are fun when they’re on screen (he’s much of the films comedic relief) they’re not particularly memorable afterwards. 3/5.

REVIEW: The Untouchables (1987)

During the era of Prohibition in the United States, Federal Agent Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) sets out to stop ruthless Chicago gangster Al Capone (Robert De Niro) and, because of rampant corruption, assembles a small, hand-picked team to help him – veteran beat cop Jim Malone (Sean Connery), trainee George Stone (Andy Garcia) and accountant Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith).

From the opening credits I was instantly intrigued by The Untouchables and that’s thanks to Ennio Morricone’s score. The harmonica slowly amps up the tension and intrigue while the drumbeat gets your heart pounding. It’s an example of one of the main action themes that is present throughout the film and you soon learn that when you hear that sound, something big is about to happen.

The whole cast is great in their roles. Costner brings the almost naivety to Eliot Ness, who has a big task ahead of him going after Al Capone. As Ness and his team close in on Capone’s operation, you see the steely determination come through and how far Ness is willing to go for justice. It’s unsurprising that Sean Connery won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as he steals pretty much every scene he’s in. Malone is Ness’ guide and the scene with the two of them in a church, discussing how far they’ll go is a standout. Garcia’s Stone is a sharpshooter but honest while Martin Smith’s Wallace is more of a nerdy guy but the pair of them round out this unlikely team well.

The raids, shootouts and stakeouts are all a great balance of tension and payoff. The shootouts are exciting and entertaining but it’s the quieter moments like when a character is being stalked by another that really puts you on edge.

The filming techniques used in The Untouchables help make this film stand out in the crime drama genre. The scene with Ness and Malone in the church is filmed with a Split Diopter lens, making both characters in focus, there’s extreme closeups of Ness’ eyes at key moments, the camera sometimes acts like a characters point of view, only giving you the viewer so much information, and slow-motion is used to great affect in one of the final shootouts in the film. While The Untouchables is certainly a slick, crime drama it’s these little touches that help elevate the film. The costuming deserves a mention too as everyone’s suits add to their characters – Stone’s leather jacket is a personal highlight.

The Untouchables is slick, tense and thrilling as Ness and his men battle corruption and Capone’s men at every turn in order to bring the man to justice. The characters are all great individually but it’s how these four men work together and put aside any differences that’s really compelling. 5/5.