Archive for Basic Instinct

The American Problem

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 14, 2019 by dcairns

The following contains spoilers for Joe Eszterhas’s Number One Plot.

I remember thinking THE MUSIC BOX was OK, but now I’ve watched it again and it’s kind of not.

I think Costa-Gavras thought he could make intelligent political films in the US (post-producing them in France to maintain some distance) but maybe he was wrong. The most pernicious form of censorship, suggested Alexander Mackendrick, is self-censorship.

The screenwriter is Joe Eszterhas but I vividly remember that at the time most of us were not on to him. He had written FLASHDANCE (which I’ve never seen — the Wikipedia plot synopsis, however, is HILARIOUS, just a bunch of random incidents separated by dithering — I’ve been working on editing together old movie serial recaps, and this seems like one of those) and JAGGED EDGE and Costa-Gavras’ BETRAYED.

The big obvious joke with J.E. is that he always writes the same movie. Well, JAGGED EDGE (his signature work, it even shares his initials) is the exact same story as BETRAYED, THE MUSIC BOX and BASIC INSTINCT and I assume JADE. Someone is involved with someone else who may be a monster spoiler alert they totally are.

Though it was fashionable to say that JAGGED E. “kept you guessing to the very end,” I did notice, aged eighteen, that I was not guessing at all at the end. It was obvious to me that if Jeff Bridges wasn’t the killer, they would have to do a lot of tiresome explanation, SUSPICION-style, and also it wouldn’t be as dramatic. Still, let’s give J.E. (the man and the film) credit for doing a version of SUSPICION with the right, and less obviously commercial, ending.

Then he just does it again and again. In MUSIC BOX, for the first time the villain is a father, not a lover, and the crimes are historic. I recall the friend I saw it with back in 1989 saying, “The moment I saw that guy I knew he was guilty, but I was still sucked in.” Which is true. You do need to know how it’s going to turn out.

Flatly, is the answer. The very strong premise of a daughter defending her father on war crimes charges, complicated by the fact that the communist government of Hungary might be framing him because he’s a vocal anti-commie, seems like a good set-up, and it is, but they have no ending up their sleeve other than “Surprise! He’s guilty!” And since we’re not surprised, that’s not very gripping. They know they can’t trump up some kind of fight over a hunting knife and kill the guy. So they’ve got nothing.

I do like how Armin M-S’s credit appears over an animatronic likeness of him.

This being a J.E. script, all the men are inappropriately sweary or sexual, something that is more obvious to us post-SHOWGIRLS (written on the FLASHDANCE random-shit-and-dithering model) but was always a feature of Dirty Joe’s writing (JAGGED EDGE, Peter Coyote: “The guy’s got a rap sheet as long as my dick!”)

Costa-Gavras’ direction is smooth, there are some good-ish shots, but nothing breaks out of the Oscar-bait conventions of the script. When Jessica Lange walks by the Danube in search of inspiration, there are some shots of rippling water, but no cinematic poetry to lift us out of the merely photographic and suggest the emotional process the screenwriter has failed to write.

Freeze-frame ending. Ugh.

Fiona’s main observations: “This script is LEADEN,” and “That’s a really ugly dressing gown.”

Lange refuses the case because she’s too emotionally involved (mythic structure #101) then changes her mind after examining her knees in a mirror. She seems about to go full Sharon Stone. I have no idea what’s going on in this scene.

I like C-G, normally, because he weaves political considerations into rivetting stories, seamlessly, and because he is one of the best storytellers with the camera we have — he doesn’t get enough credit for his dynamic visual language. But it just feels like he has nothing to work with here. It’s like trying to sculpt soup.

And yes, Armin Mueller-Stahl is good, if a bit one-note (everyone is one-note, it’s an Eszterhas script).

Armin Mueller-Stahl’s Oscar campaign.

The best thing Joe Eszterhas wrote, a horrifying, craven piece of unintentional black comedy, is his letter to Mel Gibson. You will scream.

MUSIC BOX stars Dwan; Thronfolger; Hammett; Lyndon B. Johnson; Samuel; and Henry Portrait.

The Sunday Intertitle: Vile Bodies

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on July 14, 2013 by dcairns

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Too hot to write… two hot to read… too hot to watch… we didn’t get a summer in Scotland last year, but this year we seem to have two piled on top of each other like sweaty wrestlers.

Finally caught up with Steven Soderbergh’s MAGIC MIKE, and incidentally also saw BEHIND THE CANDELABRA at the Cameo. It holds up pretty well on the big screen, and was very enjoyable — more so than MM, which is diverting, and moves in a surprising way, its wonders to perform, which is very refreshing, but does it add up to a whole lot? I dunno. I guess it needn’t.

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The male stripper movie is mainly enjoyable for the insight it offers, fictitious though it may be, into a closed world. It’s almost like a Howard Hughes movie, only with penis pump and buttockless trousers. I was fascinated to learn that male strippers are all heterosexual. Surprising, in a way. Maybe it’s like the US army’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy? Show, don’t tell, or something. And all that stuff about steroid abuse? Not true, according to this.

The movie has the most unforgiving sound mix of any film I’ve seen recently — I’d say that if we had been even slightly hard of hearing we’d have been turning on the subtitles — as it is, it took fifteen minutes for us to adjust to the very low volume dialogue (with Channing Tatum a king mumbler), with very loud background noise and music too. It was interesting the way Soderbergh kept the crowd noise way up during the various stripshow acts, with the music heavily distorted, so the scenes play as verité rather than as production numbers. Maybe that made some of it less enjoyable than it might have been, but it integrated the style.

Not so keen on the yellow filtered Floridian exteriors, though, which looked kinda toxic. Reminds me of how he made Mexico orange in TRAFFIC.

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BEHIND THE CANDELABRA has more emotion and more nerve, and slightly more gayness — though there isn’t a lot of mad passionate love — the two leads kiss each other but all too deliberately miss the mouths. The “courageous” aspect of Michael Douglas’s performance is the physical self-exposure. After his ass got very badly reviewed in BASIC INSTINCT, he swore never to unleash it (onscreen) again, but here it is, along with skinny limbs and a rotund abdomen. Respect is due for the abandonment of vanity, especially after the man had just gotten over a life-threatening illness. And I’m very glad that WALL STREET thing wasn’t his last movie.

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Douglas and Damon and Bakula and Rob Lowe and Debbie Reynolds are all excellent. One worries about a straight cast and production team (Soderbergh as director, editor and cinematographer) tackling a subject which inherently presents a grotesque parody of an already stereotyped vision of a homosexual lifestyle — but the film seemed confident enough to be able to say “This is what it was like” — it’s not a comment on anything other than the facts in the case (as presented by one participant’s memoir).

I worry that Soderbergh is now to Douglas and Zeta-Jones as Joseph Losey was to the Burtons. But none of Soderbergh’s films misfire as magnificently as BOOM! — they don’t have the grandiloquence. Soderbergh is too smart and self-aware to commit a howler of that magnitude, but that’s a little sad too — he’d never let himself go, to that extent, either. His best work seems to focus his wit and intelligence onto small subjects, illuminating them until they sparkle.

I think THE INFORMANT! is still my favourite Soderbergh joint.

Still, very glad that Soderbergh’s retirement is essentially in name only — his TV show The Knick will deal with an early twentieth century hospital in New York — Fiona will watch regularly as anything to do with historic medicine is catnip to her. Will I be watching too? I think so.

Worst Case

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on May 23, 2013 by dcairns

Before Fiona decided to write about SIDE EFFECTS, I had written my own piece, covering some similar ground. In the spirit of waste-not-want-not, I present it here. Due to the nature of the film, it is hard to write about meaningfully without spoilers, so those still considering seeing it probably shouldn’t read the following —

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So, SIDE EFFECTS is announced at Steven Soderbergh’s last theatrical feature, and yes, he will be missed. Fiona and I went because of a keen personal interest in what we took to be the subject matter, but the film’s big plot twist, about which much more later (and those thinking of seeing the movie, who have not yet done so, should avoid this whole article like the plague, or the latest Uwe Boll movie) reveals that the subject of the movie is not what it seemed to be.

I’ve just read Bad Pharma, by doctor and journalist Ben Goldacre, which is an impassioned takedown of the way the pharmaceutical industry conspires to prevent doctors and patients from knowing the true effects of the medication available to them. Opinions are bought up, dissenting voices are intimidated and silenced, and we the public, by buying marked-up drugs, pay for the advertising campaigns which mislead us (and the big companies spend far more on ads than they do on r&d).

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All of which seeps nicely into the first act of Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns’ film. In addition, the treatment of mental illness is impressively restrained and sensitive, and the filmmaking typically assured. Rooney Mara evokes the deadening low-affect despair of depression without overplaying it, or boring the audience, or sleepwalking through the role like Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf, say.

Then comes the killing. At this point it becomes quite clear that, in addition to throwing in topical bits like the insider trading that landed Channing Tatum’s character in prison and triggered Mara’s depression, the movie is going to push things towards a kind of melodrama. A crisp, shiny, chilly melodrama, but still a worst-case version of its scenario that pushes events further than they would be likely to go in a typical case. This seems a shame: the film has already shown the ability to find dramatic interest and value in plausible, low-key situations that brim over with natural emotion. But by taking things to such an extreme the film does not lose the ability to make meaningful comment on medicine and mental illness and society and the law. It’s the next plot twist that rules out meaningful comment, as the film stops being about mental illness altogether, and becomes about killer lesbians. From KEANE to BASIC INSTINCT in one reveal.

Soderbergh himself disagrees with me, as you’d expect ~

“So I think Scott’s great idea was to use psychopharmacology in the same way that “Double Indemnity” uses the insurance business. That then becomes the Trojan horse to hide a thriller in. He’s very good at that, at identifying sticky ideas and then stuffing them with other things that make them more, that make them not completely disposable when you leave the theater.”

And he could argue that, since here I am discussing the issues raised in the first half of the film, he’s right — the movie does raise these issues in such a way that we do at least remember them. But rather than taking them to a meaningful conclusion, the movie veers off into thriller territory — Soderbergh cited FATAL ATTRACTION as an influence — so that the questions of depression and treatment become just a smokescreen. nobody’s really mentally ill in the film, and nobody really suffers side effects from their treatment, so it can’t say anything about that. The only issue that remains relevant in part two is insider trading, and that’s tied up in a conspiracy that’s so unlikely you can’t really take it seriously. I mean, it works fine as a wacky plot twist, it just doesn’t have any real-world implications because, although technically it’s all within the range of the possible, it’s not something anyone would ever DO.

The point about the Trojan Horse was it was an innocent-looking wooden horse, but the contents were armed to the teeth. Soderbergh’s film is more like a pack of Greek soldiers which charges on then cracks open to reveal an inert and trivial sculpted stallion.

A woman I met at some social function once asked me over the sausage and mash if I could name a film featuring lesbians in major roles where they didn’t murder somebody or get murdered themselves. My mind went blank. It’s still blank. There are things like GO FISH, for sure, but it’s hard to think of anything in the mainstream which doesn’t marry same-sex female inclinations to homicide, not usually to make any deliberate point but as a function of plot. OK, thrillers tend to swarm with killers and victims, so you could argue that it would be over-optimistic to expect them to buck this stereotype, but consider —

If BASIC INSTINCT ended a couple of shots earlier, the killer would be a straight woman, not a bisexual.

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And if SIDE EFFECTS were re-cast with Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones in one another’s roles, we’d be spared the revelation that Mara and Zeta-Jones are not only (gasp!) murderers but (double gasp!) gay. And we’d be spared the dodgy image of CJZ being led off in handcuffs with her shirt gaping open. Soderbergh treats that moment with discretion, it’s framed in a non-gloating way, but it feels like a gloating scene (paralleled in his distinguished only by the rather distasteful treatment of Ellen Barkin in OCEAN’S 13).

It didn’t have to be about killer lesbians.

Of course, in objecting to the whole thrust of the film’s second half, I’m essentially complaining that Soderbergh didn’t make the film I’d like to see made. Which is arguably unfair, and I’ll admit that — my screenwriter self should probably stay away from my critic self. But I’d still like to see somebody make that other SIDE EFFECTS, the one which has actual side effects in it.