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Crime/Mystery

From 'Basic Instinct' to 'Showgirls': The rise and fall of the erotic  thriller

We were sitting down last night to eat Chinese, ready to watch the finale of The Alienist on HBO Max, when this popped on.  As I looked at my kung pao, and then at my wife, none too proud of myself, I asked, “Can we keep watching this until we see Sharon Stone’s genitalia?”

She acquiesced.

Sadly, that scene had passed, but we did watch the rest of the picture.  A few thoughts:

1) This is a “pre-proliferation of-internet pornography” picture, and even without the glimpse of Stone’s privates, I was impressed by the ample nudity (a lot of Stone, her girlfriend, and tons of Michael Douglas butt) and the extended sex scenes.

2) The film has aspirations to Hitchcock, but it is weak and often, hilariously mannered, and it essentially phones in any real suspense, substituting beautiful, inconvenient San Francisco locales for people to meet.

3) It is also rife with tropes, like the drunken buddy cop partner (George Dzundza), the sex so good your back gets scratched by fingernails, the hard-bitten cop who doesn’t need pencil-pushing headshrinkers messing with gut street instincts, and various versions of, “You’re way over the line, mister!”

4) It tries for a Suspicion-like ending but fails, with unintended comic results (how many times can Sharon Stone have an orgasm and at its peak, throw her hands down towards Douglas as if she were going to stab him with an ice pick?)

5) Michael Douglas has to be the most successful dick of a leading man in history,  Granted, he got his Oscar as Gordon Gekko, a true villain, but by leading man, I mean someone who is supposed to engender empathy and he rarely does that.  Sure, you felt bad for him in Fatal Attraction, but not really bad, even though woman boiled his pet rabbit, kidnapped his child and tried to murder his family. He’s always at least half a dick.

6) The film has so many lazy turns, they are difficult to count, but my favorite is how no one ever takes Douglas “off the case” (sure, he is suspended, but he’s really up in the investigation to his naked butt) despite sleeping with the suspect; killing her girlfriend (and providing a wildly implausible lie about how that happened); sleeping with his psychological counselor who works for the police; and beating up a colleague who later that night is found with a bullet in his temple.

Yet, the one time he is sidelined by his partner (“hey man, you can’t come up there with me, you’re suspended”), Douglas agrees and the partner gets fileted.

Plus, apparently, Douglas has “history” – 5 shootings in 6 years, two of which were tourists “caught in the crossfire.”

That’s one helluva a police union.

Anyway, the movie is bad, guilty pleasure watchable, and, as noted, overly dependent on Sharon Stone’s vagina.


The Way of the Gun is one of my favorite smaller, less heralded crime pictures, and this opening scene is a master class in getting your attention while introducing protagonists. I stumbled on it recently and thought I’d re-post or write some reviews on some of my favorite small crime flicks. The criteria necessarily rules out epics like The Godfathers, Goodfellas and Casino, or any of the Hitchcock pictures, as well as anything from Tarantino, whose first two pictures were the gold standard of crime pics. His notoriety, however, makes a recommendation of Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction a waste of typeface. I want to focus on pictures that may have gone unnoticed.

With The Way of the Gun, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie assuredly expended the juice he’d earned writing The Usual Suspects to helm this noir-ish tale of a couple of fuck-ups (Benicio del Toro and Ryan Phillipe) who engineer a kidnapping with slapdash bravado and brutality. They have no idea the forces at play, and the greatest joy in the flick is their dogged aplomb as shit just gets worse and worse. These two losers are decent in the moment, but as exemplified in the movie’s best exchange, not exactly master planners:


Scenes like this one exemplify McQuarrie’s insistence on rejecting the cool in favor of the absurd. But that doesn’t mean he can’t direct an action sequence, and the final shootout is one for the ages. The film is also aided by Joe Kraemer’s moody, understated and anticipatory soundtrack (one of his firsts).

COMING UP FOR CAPSULE REVIEW OR RE-POSTING OF UPDATED REVIEWS
Layer Cake
One False Move
Hell or High Water
Point Blank
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three
The Long Good Friday
To Live and Die in LA
Internal Affairs
Menace II Society
City of Industry
The General
The Limey
A History of Violence
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Eastern Promises
In Bruges
Blue Ruin
The Long Goodbye

The Parallax View (1974) - IMDb

A regional reporter (Warren Beatty) stumbles on not so much a plot as an institutionalized corporate conspiracy of assassination.  The closer Beatty gets to the source, the more he realizes that what he initially deemed ludicrous is in fact a chilling reality.  

Alan Pakula’s paranoid thriller was probably more relevant upon its release.  With the shooting of JFK in ’63, Malcolm X in ’65, RFK and MLK in ’68, George Wallace in ’72 (a mere 2 years before the picture’s release), political assassination was preeminent in the mind of your average filmgoer.  And no one does paranoia quite a well as Pakula (Klute, All the President’s Men, Presumed Innocent). 

The picture is creepy and certainly makes the viewer feel anxious,. In particular, the movie potential assassins are required to watch in order to gauge their suitability/brainwash them is in and of itself overpowering.

But the film suffers from two significant handicaps.  First, the Beatty character is a cypher.  He is dogged and cynical, but he is invested with no backstory, motive or any other compelling feature.  Given how things turn out, this may be part of the message, but it makes for some stifled yawns as we travel his route to dawning.  Second, the plot is a mess.  Sure, I fully understand an assassination corporation maybe knocking off a true existential political threat once a decade. The Parallax Corporation, however, kills two United States senators and attempts to kill a third, in the space of three years, and even when they have done the good work of pinning it on a brainwashed loner stooge (the corporation’s m.o.), they threaten their entire operation by wiping out potential witnesses after the deed.  I’m not talking one or two witnesses.  After the film’s opening a scene (a gripping assassination on top of Seattle’s Space Needle), nine “witnesses” (it’s not clear they actually see anything) are taken out, a number extraordinary enough that Beatty is drawn in to dig deeper. In the final assassination, a sniper takes down a senator in front of an entire marching band.  That is going to be one helluva cleanup.

This is no way to run a railroad.           

Twilight (1998 film) - Wikipedia
Still of The Night: Amazon.fr: Meryl Streep, Roy Scheider, Jessica Tandy,  Joe Grifasi, Sara Botsford, Richmond Hoxie, Rikke Borge, Josef Sommer,  Irving Metzman, Larry Joshua, Randy Jurgenson, Robert Benton, Meryl Streep,  Roy

Robert Benton was no slouch (Kramer v. Kramer, Places in the Heart). Indeed, he wrote and directed one of my favorite films (Nobody’s Fool), and I could watch Paul Newman sell Tang. Throw in Susan Sarandon, Gene Hackman and James Garner (and super young Reese Witherspoon and Liev Schreiber) in a noir-ish tale of an old Hollywood murder and it seems can’t miss. But miss Twilight does. Sarandon is too young for the role of the former grand dame and the love story between her and Newman is unconvincing. Worse, the mystery is just not that intriguing. Still, the picture has Newman, who is wry and world-weary in that Newman way. Hackman is fantastic, as always, and Garner is just the right mix of folksy and sinister.

As for Still of the Night, it alternates between psychological thriller and moody, smoldering romance. It is terrible at both and badly cast as well. Roy Scheider is best caustic and as a man of action, a terrible choice for a quiet, introverted psychologist. Meryl Streep as a breathy young ingenue wrapped up in a murder is all wrong. She’s many things, almost all good, but carnal and smoldering ain’t in her bag of tricks. Her performance nears a Saturday Night Live character.

The film is drab and clunky. It has aspirations to be Hitchcockian, but it lacks all of the care.  The romance is preposterous, and the score is sickly sweet. And as a whodunit, the killer can really only be one person.

Both on Amazon Prime.

Win A Copy Of The Gentleman On Blu-ray - Life of Dad - A Worldwide  Community of Dads

Guy Ritchie doing what Guy Ritchie does best, this is a rollicking, smart and often times hilarious caper film. The cast is fantastic, Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) personifies the modern meld of sexy and capable, the soundtrack rocks from the opener and Hugh Grant, who I used to deride as a pouty, hair flipping, mincing one-trick pony, shows why he is perhaps one of the best character/lead actors around.

On Hulu, Amazon Prime.

What a strange find on Amazon Prime. A 1970s black comedy with John Huston playing the Joseph Kennedy character and Jeff Bridges playing Bobby, if Bobby was sweet tempered and had no political ambitions after the death of his brother. Of course, this is not the Kennedys, but the Kegans, and little brother Bridges is swept up into a re-investigation of his half brother’s assassination after a lone gunman has been fingered by the equivalent of the Warren Commission. In essence, Bridges goes on a dangerous wild goose chase (egged on by his father, who hopes this will propel the son into heroism and political fortune) to find the real powers behind the killing, after a second shooter confesses.

The film is absurdist, and doesn’t really work as either a comedy or a thriller. But uneven as it is, you have to be somewhat in awe of its ambition. The rumor is that the Kennedy family was none too pleased with the feature back when it had the power to squelch it, but the film is so uneven, it likely didn’t need any opposition from the dynasty. Bridges is winning, and Huston is a gas as the corrupt, sybarite of a patriarch, and the whole thing is best when it is trippy.  Worth the time.  

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I’ve heard this film is essentially Taxi Driver meets a Christopher Nolan Batman, but its roots also lie in Martin Scorsese ‘s King of Comedy and even in Death Wish.  Not bad company and it shows. Todd Phillips’ vision is fully realized, there is a consistent and compelling narrative, and you can’t take your eyes off of Joaquin Phoenix.  The movie also alternates between Joker’s madness and his reality, which keeps you off balance without being gimmicky while expertly recalibrating the Joker-Batman origin story.

But the movie is also dull in stretches, thoroughly depressing, a little more politically elemental than it perhaps knows, and ultimately, chooses shock over sustenance.  Perhaps most problematic, it’s really hard to give a shit about a protagonist who, when all is said and done, is just a loon with a crazy giggle off his meds. How much fun is that?

Implicit in that last criticism is the presumption of an old fogie that even super hero villain stories should have some level of joy or whimsy. But if the future is Lex Luthor kicking a meth habit, Thanos having been molded by the cruelties of urban foster care, or Venom’s molestation at the hands of her uncle, so be it. The film has made over $1 billion globally and it leads all pictures in Oscar nominations.  Who am I to thwart progress?

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Rian Johnson’s (Brick, Looper) modern update to the Deathtrap/Murder on the Orient Express-style whodunnit is clever, tight, witty and consistently engaging. The wealthy family of a famous mystery author (Christopher Plummer) is suspected of having offed him at a get-together in his ornate mansion (a cop observes “Look around. The guy basically lives in a clue board!”) and the investigation centers on his nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), who is alternatively claimed and condescended to by the clan. The investigation is a wellspring of black humor, biting cynicism and hilarious family drama. Everyone (and everyone seems to be in this) is excellent, particularly Daniel Craig as a Southern drawling Hercule Poirot.

Two nits. First, in a mystery, having a character who is congenitally incapable of lying is an egregious cheat. If it weren’t for Johnson’s ingenious plotting, I’d have been more put off. Second, the politics are for the most part deft but also a little clunky. The family fighting about Trump was funny and authentic, with its hypocritical righty who digs Trump and treats Marta as a maid and his lefty cliche’ amping to 11 and invoking the Nazis. It was also even-handed – a leftie social justice warrior who has befriended Marta ends up being a true Judas . Still, Johnson rhetorically over-dunks on the lot of the Richie Riches at the end, which is the only misstep in what is otherwise a seamless, lively flick.

021D93F8-A0C1-48D7-B998-A5E178118D6AFrenetic, excessive and nerve-wracking, one of those movies where you turn to your son with the “are you fucking kidding me?” look when you’re not crouched in your chair wincing. The recipient of your empathy is Adam Sandler, a New York jeweler in the diamond district, juggling a disaffected wife and three kids, a mistress thirty years his junior, and a gambling addiction.  He is perpetually robbing Peter to pay Paul and thinning the skin of his teeth as the film progresses.  This is one of a handful of serious roles for Sandler and he’s terrific (if you thought Al Pacino was terrific in Scarface – I did).  Kevin Garnett plays himself, turns in a great deal more than you’d expect from a non-actor and is particularly affecting in a scene where Sandler likens his drive to make a financial score with that of a pro athlete.

On the downside, the film is so histrionic, it’s hard to find people you can actually identify with.  You root for Sandler primarily because you want a particularly tense situation to resolve.  And the soundtrack – a blend of Vangelis and the hum of an 80’s video game arcade – is distracting, discordant, and near-unforgivable.

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Awfully slow and occasionally deadly dull. It’s 3.5 hours, 1.5 hours of which is trying to get Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino) either to his senses or a meeting.

The length and pace, however, may be the least of the film’s problems.  The movie depicts the rise of mob killer and union boss Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro) and his relationship with his mob sponsor (Joe Pesci) and Hoffa. The novelty is the technological ability Martin Scorsese uses to make his actors younger, but the effect is only so successful. They can only make them so young.  So, you have a 76 year-old man playing a 40 year old man who looks like a 56 year old man who has a six-year-old daughter. Worse, when they are rendered young in the face, they remain old in the body. One scene, where a digitally younger De Niro beats a man, emphasizes the point.  It looks like Bad Grandpa is delivering an ass kicking.

But perhaps the worst part of the film is the fact that there is simply no drama, no tension. Every single character is the exact same person he was from beginning to end. In Goodfellas, De Niro and Pesci were a constant force, but the drama came from watching Ray Liotta and Lorraine Bracco rise and then try to survive.  In Casino, the entire film centered around the significant changes to the personalities of De Niro, the bookmaker made casino king in fledgling Vegas, and Pesci, the enforcer who gets too big for his britches and in-over-his-head alone in the desert.  The history of those films was compelling, but it did not have to do all of the lifting.

Here, De Niro is the same throughout. Sociopathic, steady, soulless and somnambulant.  It does not make for enthralling viewing.  Your eyes will move to the IPhone more than once.

It looks good, though. Damn good. I’ll give it that.  And there are a few exchanges in Steve Zallian’s (Moneyball, A Civil Action) script that are subtly sharp. But it’s not nearly enough.