Posts Tagged suspense

Eye in the Sky

Directed by Gavin Hood.         Starring Helen Mirren, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Aaron Paul, Phoebe Fox, and Aisha Takow.


The principle of double effect, as proposed by St. Thomas Aquinas,  is frequently discussed both in freshman philosophy classes and in Catholic theology classes. The classic hypothetical which is used in these discussions is when the train is rushing down the tracks and about to go off the rails unless you pull the lever to redirect the train onto the intact tracks. The catch is that there is one guy standing on the intact tracks, and there is a high probability that redirecting the train, and thus saving the lives of all the people on it, will regrettably kill him.

The problem with hypotheticals is that they do not take into account practical, real life scenarios when one has to make the best decision possible within a short time frame under intense duress. While a fictitious film is still a hypothetical, Eye in the Sky plays out in an intensely realistic fashion which gives credence to both sides of the argument and constructs a scenario in which the difficulties of either course of action are vividly realized. Even more remarkably, after making a strong case for one course of action, the film turns around and makes an equally strong case for the opposite.

The hypothetical in question in Eye in the Sky was made clear in the trailer. British intelligence has numbers 2, 4, and 5 on the most wanted list in their sight; through a hidden camera they can see those terrorists assembling two vests for suicide bombings; they have the ability to launch a drone strike eliminating that threat; however, a young girl is in the street next to the house, well within the fatality zone of the missile.

For a scenario which sounds like it could become riddled with clichés and a moralizing sermon regarding the War on Terror and the US drone program, Eye in the Sky avoids both. It explicitly acknowledges the danger that terrorists pose to the world, and it makes what might be the most compelling argument in favor of the drone assassination program. At the same time, the cost of that program on families, nations, and individuals is powerfully realized, so much that even if the principle of double effect justified the proposed strike, one could still question its prudence or legitimacy.

It is rare to see a film that refuses to take sides in an argument and maneuvers through both sides of that argument as skillfully as Eye in the Sky does. In doing so director Gavin Hood tells his story and leaves the conclusion with the viewer. It is easy to understand the reasoning which says drones are the best way to minimize the violence of terrorists, yet the concept that violence begets violence is always juxtaposed with any arguments in favor of using military force.

Hood’s decision to cast himself as an American colonel who calmly weighs all the options, but has no qualms about following orders, however unpleasant those orders may be, carries that balanced storytelling approach to the cast as well. The other cast members are the typical characters one would expect in such a wartime story. There are two green American drone pilots (Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox) who have never had to fire a missile before, one of whom is starting her first day as a soldier as the titular “eye in the sky.” An on the ground agent in Kenya (Barkhad Abdi – Captain Phillips) is trying to get as close to the target as possible to gather information without blowing the cover of the mission. There are various officials, all of whom wish to refer the decision up to their authorities so that they do not have to take responsibility. Finally, Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman portray a colonel and general respectively who wish to avoid as many casualties as they can, yet are both pragmatic enough to dread wasting this opportunity.


The film’s ensemble of characters is admittedly large, but Megan Gill’s sharply focused editing makes it easy to keep track of all the characters and maintains a taut pacing which does not relent. One of the most effective moments is when the British intelligence loses one of their cameras; the cut to black symbolizes the dread and mounting tension perfectly. Similarly, the use of silence in place of music for some of the most harrowing moments makes the tragedy and tension all the more palpable. The commitment of both Mirren and Rickman turns their functionally written characters into complex conflicted human beings torn between two bad alternatives.

Finally, the portrayal of the young girl Alia (Aisha Takow) who will be endangered by a missile strike and her family is a beautiful portrait of the world as it should function and how war destroys that. The opening title card states that truth is the first thing lost in war, and while the film depicts rationalizations replacing the truth, nothing is as tragic as those rationalizations being applied to the potential loss of innocent lives.

The desire to minimize the casualties of war is a moral and necessary impulse. However, the way in which we achieve that is every bit as important. That importance is at the center of the moral conundrum in Eye in the Sky, and the film’s choice to eschew both easy answers and demonizing of different opinions makes the cost of war heavily felt as Eye in the Sky relentlessly accelerates toward the end of its mission.


Content Advisory: Gruesome shots of the aftermath of violence, a few utterances of harsh expletives under duress.                MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment

Personal Recommendation: A


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Perfect Blue (Pafekuto Buru)

Year of Release: 1997     Directed by Satoshi Kon.               Voices of Junko Iwao, Rika Matsumoto, Shinpachi Tsuji, and Emi Shinohara.

“Excuse me…who are you?” Mima Kirigoe (Junko Iwao) nervously repeats her only line as she prepares to shoot her first scene as a television actress. After a successful career as a Japanese pop idol, the young celebrity wants to expand her work to include more serious forms of entertainment. However, change is difficult, and due to obsessive fans and crippling self doubts Mima begins to question her profession and her identity as hallucinations that blur her television series with her personal life cause her perception of reality to start slipping away.

On the other hand, Mima’s hallucinations might not be projections of her uneasy subconscious. It is clear that a devoted fan is stalking her, the threats she has received are very real, as are the murders of those who exploit her vulnerability.

Then again, the police can find little connection between the murders, and by the time they happen, Mima is already so upset and self-conscious that she is sure everything is somehow connected to her. Regarding the obsessive fan, after the opening scene where he threatens a rioter trash talking Mima, no one notices him again. Mima is the only one who sees him loitering in the shadows everywhere she goes.

To compound Mima’s confusion and anxiety, a devoted fan has set up a webpage called “Mima’s Room,” which functions as an online diary of Mima’s daily activities. When she first discovers it, Mima is amused at how well one person knows her idiosyncrasies. However, as the online account deviates more and more from her daily activities as an actress, instead detailing her daily activities when she was a pop star, Mima begins to wonder which version of her life is real. To make things worse, Mima is discovering tangible proof in her apartment of the online account of her supposed activities, activities of which she has no memory.

The driving force behind Mima’s fear is a projection of her subconscious which criticizes every choice she makes, calling her a traitor to her real self. Mima is susceptible to these criticisms, because she does feel uneasy. She misses her friends with whom she used to perform, but more notably, the television executives are writing scenarios that are freakishly similar to her personal life, and they are exploiting her and trying to force her into racy situations that will boost ratings. The first appearance of Mima’s critical subconscious is synchronized with the arrival of a script that demands she film a rape scene. When Mima is tricked into a nude photo shoot, the subconscious informs her that she is no longer the real Mima and that the real Mima (the subconscious) will return to performing as a pop star while the actress fades into obscurity.

Until the very end, it remain unclear whether Mima is being driven insane by a dangerously obsessed fan, whether her own guilt is making her uneasy, or something else entirely. The depiction of this uncertainty and the possible surreal obfuscation of multiple mentalities is what Perfect Blue captures brilliantly. The editing effortlessly fluctuates between different realities, and towards the end, the film begins to show repetitions of the same event. One time it is depicted as it takes place in Mima’s television series, the other time it is within the nightmare of Mima’s subconscious. Each version concludes with Mima waking up in her apartment, distressed and confused, heightening the mystery of what is real and what is not.

Perfect Blue was released in 1997, and director Satoshi Kon makes excellent use of the novelty of the internet. The world wide web was a new phenomenon and obsession, and in the film it is used to manipulate Mima’s perception of reality as well as mirror her uncertainty as she begins a new career. Even five years later, that sensation would have been lost.

The film is also very culturally aware of other horror films, and there are references to two of the greatest psychological thrillers concerning split personalities and character transformations: The Silence of the Lambs and Psycho. The television series Mima is filmingconcerns a serial killer who skins his female victims so he can become a woman, like Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs. Another scene refers to a role that Jodie Foster played before The Silence of the Lambs. And the ending takes a page directly from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 horror masterpiece.

Before his tragic death in 2010 at age 46 from pancreatic cancer, Satohsi Kon directed four feature length anime films and created one anime television show. Perfect Blue was the first of those, and it is an incredible achievement for a debut film, capturing a terrific sense of mystery and showcasing the danger of obsession that twists reality until it is almost unrecognizable.


Content Advisory: Graphic depiction of rape, full frontal nudity, several very gruesome murders, and an atmosphere of horror throughout.                         Not rated, would be NC-17 if it were live action.

Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment

Personal Recommendation: A

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Closed Circuit

Year of Release: 2013     Directed by John Crowley.           Starring Eric Bana, Rebecca Hall, Ciaran Hinds, and Julia Stiles.

Perhaps I am overly lenient when it comes to mysteries and thrillers, but I thought Closed Circuit had just enough strengths to overcome its copious flaws and make for a diverting and mostly enjoyable hour and a half mystery.

The premise is fascinating.  Defense barrister Martin Rose (Eric Bana) has been assigned to a high profile case in which a suspected terrorist is being tried for a bombing which resulted in the deaths of one hundred twenty people.  After the previous defense barrister committed suicide, Martin is selected to pick up the case.  An unusual aspect of the case involves classified information pertinent to the defense that is being withheld from the public, the accused, and the defense on the grounds of national security.  Before the public trial on the bombing, there will be a special closed circuit case in which another defense barrister, Claudia Simmons-Howe, (Rebecca Hall) will defend the right of the accused to have access to all the information being used against him.

However, Claudia and Martin have had a past affair, which compromises their ability to work together on the same case, but they withhold that information from their superiors, because this case is too important for their careers for them to decline it.  As both of them investigate the case, they discover that officials from British intelligence agency MI5 are spying on them and have reason to want this case dealt with as clandestinely as possible.

The biggest flaw with the film is that the plot is rather predictable, primarily regarding the identity of the corrupt government officials and the nature of the mystery.  There are also way too many cuts to the security camera point of view, constantly reminding the audience that someone is watching and spying on the actions of Martin, Claudia, the accused, and his family.  Those cuts give away too much of the plot too far in advance, undermining some of the suspense of the mystery.

As an intelligent barrister, it does not really make sense that it took Martin as long as it did to figure out who was spying on him and Claudia.  He told only one person about the same cab repeatedly picking him up, and then the next cab mysteriously (as he noted) had a different identification number.  That same person is also the only one who knew that he and Claudia had an illicit affair, which MI5 uses to threaten them.  But it takes a couple more slips from the character before Martin figures it out.  The audience is then supposed to be surprised when this spy is seen meeting with the head of the corrupt agency.

Julia Stiles essentially has a glorified cameo as a New York Times reporter that serve two purposes.  She asks the obvious questions that any alert audience member would already be asking, and she makes the semi-obvious parallels to the recent controversies regarding government spying with Snowden and Greenwald.  Her questions are topical, yet the film’s presentation of them is not particularly new or insightful.

All that said, I did enjoy it overall.  The entire cast gives strong performances, and the pace moves along briskly, just fast enough to stay engaging and not so fast as to be overwhelming.

I should add that I thought Closed Circuit had one of the stronger scores I have heard this year (not that I have actually heard any really noteworthy film scores this year.)  The quiet rhythmic piano music had a less is more approach which added to the atmosphere of the film without distracting from it.

As an entertaining mystery Closed Circuit mostly succeeds due to its cast, good pacing, and interesting concept.  Better camera use and fewer early revelations would have helped the film tremendously by creating a stronger aura of suspense.  While the questions it raises about government surveillance are relevant to many recent news stories, the film could also have explored the consequences of such procedures in greater depth rather than abandoning them to the generic mystery.  Nevertheless, a well acted generic mystery with a decent premise is not a bad film.

Content Advisory: Some rough language, a non-graphic murder, two attempted stranglings, and references to an affair.                 MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

Overall Recommendation: B-

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Year of Release: 1950     Directed by Rudolph Maté.         Starring Edmond O’Brien, Pamela Britton, William Ching, Lynn Baggett, Luther Adler, and Neville Brand.

"I want to report a murder."
"Where was this murder committed?"
"San Francisco, last night."
"Who was murdered?"
"I was."

If that opening exchange is not one of the most engaging and fascinating premises for a murder mystery, then I don’t know what is.  After haphazardly walking down the corridor to the Los Angeles homicide headquarters, Frank Bigelow (Edmond O’Brien) demands to see the officer in charge and tell him the details of his murder on the previous night.   The rest of the film is a flashback of the previous thirty-six hours, which are also the last hours of Bigelow’s life.

The flashback begins on the previous morning when Bigelow decided he needed some time away from his work and from his girlfriend Paula (Pamela Britton).  Consequently, he left for a weeklong vacation in San Francisco.  While there, he began flirting with other women at a bar.  The next morning he wakes up with a headache and stomachache.  Bigelow does not believe he drank enough to be hung-over, so he has a doctor examine him.  The news stuns him: within the last twenty-four hours he has received a lethal dose of luminous toxin.

A post credit note informs the viewer that luminous toxin does in fact exist, and all the events in the film are scientifically possible.  A simple Google search reveals otherwise, but a fictitious poison does not undermine the suspense or chilling power of the mystery in D.O.A.

The doctor further informs Bigelow that the quantity of poison that he received could not have been accidental; therefore, he is a homicide victim.  On hearing the news, Bigelow begins his own frantic investigation, which forms the remainder of the film.

Bigelow conducts his investigation with impressive efficiency, which makes sense given that he has no more than forty-eight hours or so to live.  He is alert and carefully reviews all the events that occurred the previous day.  He trusts no one and views everyone he meets as a potential suspect.  Whenever a character mentions something that they should have had no way of knowing, Bigelow instantly calls attention to it.

Unfortunately for Bigelow, every person that he interviews clearly has something to hide, and many of those secrets have nothing to do with his poisoning.  As a result, he is sent down several wrong trails, some of which become nearly as life threatening as the toxin.

There are a few early events in the film which are meant to send the viewer down the wrong trail as well.  Bigelow twice has his drink unknowingly switched on him while in a bar.  While it is obvious that one of these switches was used to poison him, whether the poisoning occurred from the subtle or blatant switch is a plausible mystery until the end.  Bigelow meets many people, and their secret connections are not revealed until the film’s climax.  Even if one correctly guesses the identity of one of the criminals, who else is involved and who is innocent will remain a mystery.

The only small misstep is the film’s ending where it becomes slightly clichéd.  After tenaciously searching for his murderer, Bigelow finally meets him by pure luck.  He solved the mystery through interrogation and deduction, but catching the person behind it was a timing coincidence.  That is a very minor flaw, but it does cause a very slight letdown towards the film’s end.

An aspect of the film that has no flaws at all is Dimitri Tiomkin’s score, which is instrumental in setting the mood throughout the film.  The opening music utilizes a percussion heavy minor march underscoring Bigelow’s final walk to reveal the dark mystery.  The two scenes in the bars both contain live music that temporarily relieves the ominous atmosphere.  All the music matches the scenes and camera work, being perfectly synchronized with the film edits.  When a scene fades, it fades.  If a new scene begins, a new cue begins as well.

Director Rudolph Maté, who was originally a cinematographer, directs the camera very effectively.  He makes frequent use of tracking shots, which follow Bigelow without interruption as he investigates, and the tracking shots place the viewer with Bigelow throughout the movie.  The inherently longer nature of tracking shots adds to the suspense as well.

A murder victim solving his own killing is a clever and exciting idea for a film noir, one which maintains its intrigue throughout all of D.O.A.   The fast moving plot, many characters, and several possible outcomes keep the viewer guessing, and the skilled direction and scoring add to the thrilling nature of the film.

Content Advisory: Some violence and menace, including gunfights and beatings.                              Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Kids and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A

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Ministry of Fear

Year of Release: 1944     Directed by Fritz Lang.   Starring Ray Milland, Marjorie Reynolds, Carl Esmond, and Hillary Brooke.

Fritz Lang crafted a remarkable atmosphere of suspense, tension, and mystery in his 1944 film noir, Ministry of Fear.  The opening of the film sets the mood as the camera focuses on the swinging pendulum of a grandfather clock, underscored by Victor Young’s ominous music.

Steven Neale (Ray Milland) has been patiently watching that grandfather clock as it approaches six o’clock.  Once the hour strikes, his psychiatrist enters and informs him that he is now free to leave the asylum in which he has been living for the past two years.  As Neale exits, his doctor gives him one piece of advice: avoid any entanglements with the police, because that would lead to an unfortunate re-arrest.

Neale clearly intends to take this advice seriously, which leads to classic mystery complications when he inadvertently becomes involved in a Nazi espionage conspiracy.  After winning a cake due to a mistaken identity at a fundraiser, he finds Nazi spies chasing and threatening him.  Since the whole story is very outlandish and would make him appear insane, instead of going to the police Neale hires a bumbling detective, who arrogantly insists he is not some fraud showman “like Sherlock Holmes.”  When the detective mysteriously disappears, the police suspect Neale of foul play.

Meanwhile, Neale has befriended the brother and sister (Carl Esmond and Marjorie Reynolds) who organized the fundraiser, both of whom are concerned that their charity organization is being used by the Nazis to mask a spy ring.  Since they are German, having fled to England to escape the Nazis, Neale is further afraid to alert the police, because he does not wish them to be indicted on account of some of their members who have been abusing the society.

Although Ministry of Fear hits all of the expected plot points for an espionage thriller, it does so with a surprising amount of wit and nail biting tension.  The identity of the Nazi mastermind remains unclear until the final climax, even if an alert viewer will narrow the identity down to one of two characters.  There may or may not be a femme fatale.  It is unclear whether the police can be trusted.  The villains learn damning evidence about Neale’s past, which they use to manipulate him and further complicate the mystery.

Neale’s past legally compromises him without morally compromising him.  The reason for his stint in the asylum and reticence to notify the police was that he was declared guilty of euthanizing his wife.  He was tempted to acquiesce her request for a painless death as she was dying of cancer, but after purchasing the lethal drug he chose not to give into the temptation and kill her.  However, she found the drug and administered it herself.  A woefully inaccurate summary of the events by another character is twisted by the villains as a rationale for their own actions.

There is an interesting parallel between the plight of the brother and sister whom help Neale along with Lang’s own journey as a filmmaker.  In 1934, Lang left Germany after running afoul of the Nazi party and emigrated to America.  It is not unreasonable to speculate that the tension and aura of fear are as poignant as they are, because Lang based them on some of his own experiences.

Throughout Ministry of Fear Lang plays the uncertainty and suspense masterfully, and he does not relent until the final scene.  Even the lead-up to the final confrontation is meant to deceive the viewer.  This level of suspense is the primary factor which makes Ministry of Fear an effective and memorable film noir.


Content Advisory: Intense atmosphere of suspense and menace, references to a contemplation of euthanasia.                               Not rated.

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

Personal Recommendation: A+

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