Movies »Shadow of a Doubt

directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1943)

In many ways Shadow of a Doubt is Hitchcock’s most mundane film. Compared to his more signature works, there’s not too much style in this a straight forward, less paranoid and pre-heavy psychology thriller but it’s still one of his best. Even the director himself called it his favorite American film. I love Joseph Cotten, and here he has as much charm as ever which makes the darkness of his character, Charlie even more sinister. A widow killer on the run, he is also a much loved Uncle to an all American small town family, with whom he decides to lay low with. The strong willed and lovely daughter, also named Charlie, admires him the most and feels a special bond with her dapper Uncle, but this also means she can see through his lies and slowly uncover his dirty, violent secret as much as she wished she could deny it.

One of the several writers that worked on the story before Hitchcock and his wife wrote the script was Thornton Wilder, author of Our Town who no doubt was a perfect match for the seemingly comforting small town setting. This idyllic and recognizable place is shaken by the introduction of evil. But as Uncle Charlie himself says “Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you rip off the fronts of houses, you’d find swine?” – not all that America held dear at the time was as pristine as it looked. In fact, the character of Uncle Charlie was based on serial killer named Earle Nelson, a real life monster that was actually far more horrendous than his fictional counterpart.

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Posted on September 12, 2010

Movies »Breakdown

directed by Jonathan Mostow (1997)

Breakdown is one of those Sunday afternoon TV movies, that catches its audiences between far too many car and prescription drug commercials. It deserves a second look as a bit more than that – not much more mind you, this is pure B-movie fun that feeds of urbane fears of the rural, but there’s so few movies that fit the bill like this, that it’s great in it’s simple effectiveness.

How often do you just want a tense, enjoyable thriller, that isn’t dumb, but doesn’t require too much thinking either? And how often can you find such a movie? (I’ve found, not often enough – and sadly, never again from director Mostow who helmed the forgettable Terminator 3 and Surrogates). Well as we suffer through this intense summer weather, now is a perfect time to tune into this fast paced Kurt Russell flick on instant netflix along with some AC.

Not only is the dimpled handsome in to his usual solid leading man mode but you’ll find great character actors including M.C. Gainey (you may recognize him as Tom in Lost) looking every bit Lemmy as a threatening redneck and the far more quietly menacing truck driver, JT Walsh, who passed away from a heart attack after the movie was shot.

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Posted on July 11, 2010

Movies »Videodrome

directed by David Cronenberg (1983)

Videodrome is a singularly bizarre film about mess media, body mutation, hallucination, and sadomasochism. Surely not a treat for every movie goer but one of my all time favorites – which is why I was surprised to find I had not recommended it (well, at least not in the pages of Brix Picks) before.

An appropriately sleazy James Woods and a stunning brunette Debbie Harry star in Cronenberg’s finest hour. The movies jumps head first into it’s down the rabbit hole story and rapidly becomes stranger with each scene.

Woods is a programmer for a television channel that focuses on violent and explicit programming and willfully falls into a world of either highly bizarre mind control conspiracy or utter life crippling hallucination after viewing a snuff like pirated program called Videodrome. Along the way he makes out with a television set, buries a gun into his own chest, and meets a cult like leader named Brian Oblivion who only appears on TV on TV.

It’s beyond surreal but grounded in such an imperfect, realistic world of trash strewn hotel rooms, peeling basement studios, and crappy soft core porn, that the fantasy is accepted and it’s ok that the movie tells it’s wild story with a straight face.

If the stills below/after the jump and my highest recommendation don’t peak your interest this appropriately stylish but way off kilter trailer just might.

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Posted on June 13, 2010

Movies »The Hurt Locker

directed by Kathryn Bigelow (2008)

There’s not too much I can add to the dialogue about Kathryn Bigelow‘s little movie that could, The Hurt Locker. It’s won almost every critical award, including the Oscar for best picture and when I say it’s suspenseful, spare, intriguing, action packed, and phenomenal, I am sure a thousand other people have said it before me. Of course, the hype doesn’t make any of the praise any less true. It’s a great movie worthy of it’s reputation.

The only thing I can possibly disagree with is the surprise. Jim and I have always known that Bigelow knows how to direct action!! – her Point Break foot chase is one of the best chases put to screen. I was surprised however by the cast of cameos in the film who alongside the less recognizable actors fleshed out realistic human beings without the “character establishing” tropes of most Hollywood movies in place.

You’ve probably already seen it, but if not, it’s well worth your time.

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Posted on May 23, 2010

Movies »The Eyes of Laura Mars

Directed by Irvin Kershner (1978)

While I didn’t notice the first time I saw Eyes of Laura Mars years ago, but it’s an American version of a Giallo if there ever was one. And as such it’s got the genre’s shining points and flaws: technicolor red blood, dramatic music cues, silly plot twists that end in a preposterous conclusion, a high body count, and style, style, style! There’s plenty to recommend this 70’s hit despite moments of mediocrity (like a terrible Babs song).

First, the cast. Faye Dunaway is in her prime of easy glamorous wide eyed star power, Tommy Lee Jones brooding is more charming than usual, in an all too brief appearance Raul Julia is the ultimate deadbeat gold digging ex, supermodel Lisa Taylor plays herself, and perhaps most importantly the film opened by eyes to the awesomeness of perhaps my favorite actor, Brad Dourif, who is here the foxiest creep ever put to film. Bomber jacket, jeans, flannel and a chauffeurs hat have never come together so perfectly.

That brings us to the second point: every scene has something fantastic to look at. The styling had me asking myself minutely “hmm, do I need a _____ (hat, blouse, skirt, hairdo, apartment, etc) like that in my life?” The answer was invariably “yes”.

Third, the centerpiece of the movie visually is the provocative work of photographer Helmut Newton. One of my favorite artists who sets the aesthetic tone.

You can watch it now with Netflix on demand.

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Posted on May 2, 2010

TV Shows »Callan

Originally Aired 1967-1972

Callan is a serious minded and intelligent spy show that came out of Britain in the late 1960s. Edward “The Equalizer” Woodward plays a reluctant, obstinate but gifted (and handsome) killer who works for a shadowy government agency called The Section. Morals, plots and allegiances are ambiguous and you’ve really got to pay attention to appreciate the twists and plotting.

The thrills here are more subdued and psychological and Callan lacks the gadgets, cars and big explosions of typical spy fare. Not surprisingly, the recommendation came from good friend and spy aficionado Matthew (of the blog Double O Section) who also set us up with the similarly intelligent and complex Sandbaggers, which came to BBC a decade later.

Only the third series, the first in color, and subsequent are released on DVD, so if you do Netflix these prepare yourself to be dropped in the middle of major story arch – but don’t worry, you’ll figure out what’s going on in no time.

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Posted on April 18, 2010

Books »I Married A Dead Man

by William Irish (1948)

An implausible thriller containing train collisions, stolen identities, pasts reemerging, and doomed romances, I Married a Dead Man is the stuff of classic Hollywood noir. No surprise, considering author Cornell Woolrich (using the pen name William Irish) is the author of the books that Rear Window, The Bride Wore Black, Mississippi Mermaid, and Cloak and Dagger (to name just a few) were based on.

Woolrich is also the author of one of my best book of the year picks, Rendezvous in Black and while I Married a Dead Man lacks the darkness, strangeness, and suspense of that gem, it’s still a satisfying noir that’s a quick read for summer time.

The book was made into a 1950’s Barbara Stanwyck film, No Man of Her Own and (with less success) loosely adapted into the 1992 comedy called Mrs. Winterbourne starring Ricki Lake and Brandon Frasier.

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Posted on April 11, 2010

Movies »Blue Velvet

directed by David Lynch (1986)

Blue Velvet is an example of the work of an artist with a singular vision at its best. Next only to the first season of Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet is David Lynch’s tightest, most dynamic, haunting and effective work. Still, it manages to be surprisingly unseen even by people who claim to be fans of Lynch’s work. As a girl I was obsessed with the movie long before I even saw it, I’d speculate about the plot based on the poster until my parents relented and let me watch it years later in my early teens.

In this highly symbolic tale of the dark side of small town America, a remarkable cast (Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern, Dean Stockwell, Brad Dourif, and Jack Nance) acts out a disturbing melodrama turned on its ear (both figuratively and literally). Even with the deliberate pacing – and as those of you who have seen it can attest, everything about this film is deliberate: from the color of the hallways, the angle on the stairwells (only Lynch can create scary stairwells, see Laura Palmer’s house) to the hum and tone of the rooms – the action moves rapidly. It’s a wild ride, not unlike the joy ride a certain insane character demands.

It’s a Lynchian film through and through and unlike anything else you’ve seen, though it’s not for everyone. I can’t quite believe I’ve failed to recommend it before now, but better late than never. And if you’ve seen it before, it only gets better with each subsequent viewing.

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Posted on January 24, 2010

Books »A Good and Happy Child

good and happy childby Justin Evans (2007)

Psychiatry and demonic possession collide brilliantly in Justin Evans’s debut thriller, A Good and Happy Child. Partially set in modern day New York, where a young father is seeking help for the crippling fear of loving his baby son and partially set in that man’s youth spent in a Virginia college town, the novel swings back and forth between adulthood and childhood; faith and reason – Evans’s greatest achievement is that you can enjoy the book no matter where your personal beliefs fall.

The back of the paperback would lead you to draw comparisons to The Exorcist and The Little Friend,  but I consider those masterpieces, and A Good and Happy Child didn’t draw me in quite as much – still, it’s well written, often tense and would, in the right hands, make for a pretty great movie in the tradition of The Omen. Imagine character actor extraordinaire Tom Noonan as Tom Harris.

Evans did a lot of research on cases of demon possession and drew from his own childhood in Virginia growing up with a belief in and experiences with ghosts to create a rich story that is leaps and bounds above your average demon filled paperback out for quick and easy thrills. Well worth the five years it took to write. I look forward to reading more by this author.

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Posted on January 10, 2010

Movies »Red Road

red roaddirected by Andrea Arnold (2006)

Few films manage to sustain tension and suspense as well as Red Road, a thriller that causes the viewer to continually wonder what’s exactly is going on, manages to. Jackie is a security camera operator in a very, very bleak housing estate of Glasgow (can’t imagine the Scotland tourism board endorsing this one) who observes the people around her at a distance without their knowledge. One night, she is shaken by a face she recognizes on her screen.

Most of the film is fueled by the constant surprises. Who is this man, and what is his relationship to Jackie? Why was she so upset at the sight of him, yet he doesn’t know her face? As in any thriller built around a tower of questions, the answers are not always as fulfilling as the asking, but in this case, the reveal changes the entire tone and message of the movie. Thought you were simply going to get scared and see some vengeance? Try a totally raw sex scene (the closest I’ve seen to realistic doing it on film in some time) and redemption. I have to admit, it initially turned me a bit off until I accepted that it was a different film than I expected.

But to say Red Road is merely a sum of its plot elements is unfair. Through the dogme techniques, director Andrea Arnold paints a very tactile and realistic world. She manages to make not only sex, but parties, breakdowns, bars, and fights feel like you’ve just stumbled into them. Quite a feat for a directorial debut.

The movie is available on netflix instant, a great way to discover films you might otherwise never hear about.

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Posted on December 13, 2009

TV Shows »The Last Enemy

last enemywritten by Peter Berry (2008)

I wrongly assumed this available-on-Netflix-instant BBC miniseries would be boring and dry, but The Last Enemy is a taut thriller set in a slightly altered modern day where surveillance in the name of protection has become sci-fi-ishly all encompassing.

While the reluctant hero is such a cliche at this point, the archetype is masterfully written and played by Benedict Cumberpatch (a British name if I ever heard one) as an uptight, anti-social germaphobe – perhaps the least likely person to become embroiled in the political mess that his recently killed brother has left behind.

Small mysteries lead to larger ones, and while the series has a bit of a hard time making all the answers satisfying and sustaining the suspense of the first part, it’s over all a truly smart and compelling piece with layers of surprises and intrigue. It’s quite long, so it works perfectly for a hung over Sunday, so long as you have the brain power to follow the action and plot twists.

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Posted on November 15, 2009

Books »Twisted

Jeffery Deaver, best known for his novel The Bone Collector, has compiled the most edible thrillery popcorn into the short story collection Twisted; I haven't had this much fun with mindless reading in a while. Like a horror anthology (though much better than those you can usually find on TV – in fact, this book could easily become the only really good horror anthology of the decade if someone good got behind it) each brief thriller starts out one way (you think a woman is about to meet with a serial killer, a dad is about to be murdered, a jealous husband is about to enact bloody revenge, etc) and then… Bam! There's a twist!

The language and style can best be described bare bones (lazy at worst: every female character is described as resembling either Pamela Anderson or Michelle Pfeiffer) but Deaver really really knows just how to cut to the chase and tease the best out of his highly satisfying and effective formula. The twist-ending game might get a little tedious after sixteen stories, but I have to admit: I couldn't always figure out what was coming, which keeps it fresh.

This is perfect beach reading for non beach reading weather – so maybe we can call it 'sofa and hot cocoa reading'. In response to the overwhelming popularity of this collection, Deaver put out a second volume ingeniously titled More Twisted.

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Posted on October 26, 2009

Movies »Strangers on a Train

For a long time I kind of felt less than inclined to actually watch Strangers on a Train, having been so clued in on the plot from the many films that are inspired by and reference it, but there's real joy to be had, even if you know what's going to happen, in watching a Hitchcock film that's so perfectly on; there are some ingenious visual sequences here that prove again (as if it were ever disputed) that he can be an amazing master of film making with clever simplicity.

Aside from the iconic directing, the dandyish performance by Robert Walker as crazy Bruno is spectacular. In a favorite scene, he claims to be late for an appointment fully dressed in slippers and a robe, and saunters off with a smirk upstairs. There are few villains more fun to watch on screen while still maintaining a genuine feel of insanity and danger under behind their pearly whites.

Bruno's foil, the male lead (played by Farley Granger), is perfectly fine as a dumb tennis player with a reasonably pretty and politically connected new girlfriend. But again, it's the villainy role that's the juiciest: the slutty, mean-spirited and, critically, bespectacled Kasey Rogers (billed as Laura Elliott) is great as a woman that you can actually imagine yourself wanting to kill.

The film is based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, whose work is always prime for great adaptations (see the Talented Mr Ripley), though there is one major difference in the book's plot?

Here's the trailer

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Posted on August 17, 2009

Movies »All the President’s Men

all the presidents menMaking All the President's Men into a taut, suspenseful, and intelligent political drama was no small feat for director Alan J Pakula (who proved to be an expert in the poli-thriller genre with the equally great Parallax View) considering that everyone knows how the story ends and that most of the two hour plus running time consists of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman making phone calls, taking notes, running around and trying desperately to extract information from unwilling sources.

I saw this movie when I was a kid and learned what this whole 'Watergate' thing I'd heard so much about actually was. I also grew a fond of corduroy suits thanks to the utterly charming (as usual) Robert Redford, who has the hair of a god. Thanks to other young viewers, it's since become known as “the movie that launched a thousand journalism careers” with its accurate and respectful depiction of all the hard work that goes into revealing the truth.

Of course, since the films release in 1976, the entire world of traditional newspaper journalism has been pushed to the brink of obsolescence by the easy access to information offered by the internet; several major publications have already folded (recently my homestate's Rocky Mountain News). The film is nostalgic, then about the days when newspaper journalism was still considered vitally important and could actually change the world.

The informant known as Deep Throat, played by a sinisterly smokey Hal Holbrook in the film, has since been revealed to have been Mark Felt, the FBI's number two man.

All the President's Men is currently available for instant viewing on Netflix.

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Posted on April 27, 2009

TV Shows »The Sandbaggers

the sandbaggersJim and I espouse the virtues of the incredible George Smiley TV adaptations (based on the John Le Carre novels) every chance we get. And, even though very few people have taken our advice and actually watched these complex spy dramas, they're just so good that we can't help but keep pushing them. Spy aficionado and good friend Matthew over at Double O Section has been just as persistently forceful with us about The Sandbaggers, a late 70's British television series that I feared would be a dated and possibly even corny show for spy lovers only but, I'm thrilled to report, that it is in fact the closest thing to the Smiley shows I've ever seen.

It's a serious and seemingly realistic look at the world of the British secret service in the late golden years of the Cold War. Neil Burnside, played by Roy Marsden, is the dashing and acutely intelligent director of an elite unit of “Sandbaggers”, special agents that get things done. Burnside's a man who means business and the show, which is surprisingly mature and intricate, means business too.

Fighting the secret war, Burnside sends Sandbaggers Willie Caine, Jake Landy and Alan Denson behind enemy lines; out to haul in potential defectors to be tried; parachuting out of planes; and plans political assassinations. But this is absolutely not James Bond, something the characters actually declare early on. Like the work of Le Carre, the traditional fictionalized spy universe of high-ttech gadgets, world travel, and easy strangers who are incredibly hot is totally debunked. These spies are real people forced into high stakes situations by petty political pressure and commands from higher ups who haven't got the slightest idea what they're doing. The war's fought behind desks through extensive planning and re-planning – not in the driver's seat of an amphibious Lotus with a rocket launcher.

The show was created by Ian Mackintosh, who had been a Scottish naval officer before devoting his talents to writing for the small screen. The tone of the show was so authentic that it sparked speculation over possible espionage-oriented experiences Mackintosh may have taken part in during his naval career. Speculation that only grew when Mackintosh and his girlfriend mysteriously vanished while flying near the Alaskan/Russian border in 1979.

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Posted on April 6, 2009