Volume 3, Number 7
This Week's Reviews: Basic Instinct, Down to Earth, Shower.
This Week's Omissions: Recess: School's Out, Sound and Fury, Sweet November.
(Dir: Paul Verhoeven, Starring Michael Douglas, Sharon Stone, George Dzundza, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Denis Arndt, Leilani Sarelle, Bruce A. Young, Chelcie Ross, Dorothy Malone, Wayne Knight, Daniel von Bargen, Stephen Tobolowsky, Benjamin Mouton, and Bill Cable)
BY: DAVID PERRY
It has become kind of a stereotype now, but the type of kinkiness that was found in Basic Instinct when it was released in 1992 was something to note. No, it was nothing along the lines of Caligula or A Clockwork Orange (boy, Malcolm McDowell was one busy man back in the day), but it was in a place all to itself. It was devilishly sexy. The story proper was a side note -- not as a distraction from the occasional sex but admittedly an excuse for its existence.
And, in this month that praises black history, presidents, and love, why don't we take a look at a film that has no black characters, makes no reference to any president, or defies every sanctimonious belief in love. Basic Instinct is that guilty pleasure of the early nineties. Some find it degrading, others phenomenal.
The film jump-starts with a famous rocker having sex with a voluptuous blonde. Just as things seem to come to a halt, she ties him up to the bed posts and stabs him to death -- 31 wounds including one to the eye (which is shown in the director's cut). The mayor of San Francisco is up in arms over the scene of the crime, where the regular donator to the city is found in a sadomasochistic position and with cocaine knocked onto the floor beside his bed.
The detectives on the case are clueless. They only have one person to look at, the girlfriend -- interestingly a sexy blonde named Catherine Tramell (Stone). The best lead is that she had written a novel earlier under the name Catherine Woolfe, where a musician is killed in the exact same fashion -- even the same white silk scarf to time him to the bed. But who would commit such a crime when there is such irreversible evidence to point at her? Could she be a crazed femme fatale, or might it be someone that wanted to frame Catherine of the murder?
Michael Douglas was fresh off of Fatal Attraction when he made this film, which has always raised some eyebrows in reference to his choices in films during those years (he would also find himself in a demented relationship in 1989's The War of the Roses, 1994's Disclosure and 1998's A Perfect Murder), but this always seems to be the one that comes to mind first. I don't know if it's the indelible rear shots that we get of him, or the ultimate range he proves in what could have easily been a third tier erotic thriller, but he does make this film better than would have been expected.
Yet, the person that will always have a place in history from this film is Sharon Stone, who has yet to recreate the stir that this one role made. She is the bond that keeps this film flowing during its length. I'm not automatically going to the attraction of her (which, she undeniably uses to its limit in Basic Instinct), but there is a sex appeal there. We know she is no saint, she knows it, pretty much everyone involved knows it, but that does not keep everyone from being enticed by her. She tried the same role in Sliver and Diabolique, to no avail. It looks to me like Catherine Tramell was a one-time deal. Though, something tells me that she will not be forgotten regardless of this fact.
Director Paul Verhoevan hasn't the slightest restraint from making this film into a teenager's wet dream, something that he has proven himself at being the auteur of. When people, myself included, dismiss his films, we are too quickly looking beyond the motivation of his filmmaking process. It could very well be that each of his films succeeds in the mode that he's going for even though we do not find the film as a whole to work (like, Starship Troopers, which has been heralded by others though many critics detested it).
One of the reasons that this film succeeds well beyond Sliver
or Diabolique or Jade is that it never becomes heavy-handed. It is one
film that is quite nonchalant about being such a disposable perk. The finale alone is as
contrived as possible, but it works in that strange little way. With the flick of an edit,
the film could have had a completely different resolution in the last scene. One edit!
This has caused the ire of some critics (Roger Ebert automatically comes to mind), though
I think that it is yet another reason that Basic Instinct should be pardoned for
its crimes to storytelling. It's smart and sexy, a little manipulative, and very
interchangeable, but it fashions itself for the purpose of its existence.
|Down to Earth
(Dir: Chris and Paul Weitz, Starring Chris Rock, Regina King, Mark Addy, Frankie Faison, Chazz Palminteri, Eugene Levy, Greg Germann, Wanda Sykes, and Jennifer Coolidge)
BY: DAVID PERRY
There are many bad moments in Down to Earth -- so many that I do not have the space to transcribe them all in this review -- but not a single one is as damning as one of the first credits cards to come up when the film comes to an end. After the credits remind you that this was a film from the Weitz brothers (or, as I shall hereby call them, les directeurs de sibling incompétents), a card comes up with the writing credit: "Based on the film Heaven Can Wait by Elaine May and Warren Beatty."
There are some moments in which you can only feel bad for those involved, especially when their involvement was involuntary. Beatty and May are two greats of acting and writing -- there is no reason that they will forever be mentioned on credits listings for a horrible remake like Down to Earth. I can safely say that if they had been given the chance to read the screenplay for this film, they would have happily waived their 'adaptation from' credits.
Though the end credit tells you otherwise, this is actually the third time this story has come to the screen. Not only did Elaine May and Warren Beatty write it in 1978 for Heaven Can Wait, Sidney Buchman and Seton I. Miller wrote Here Comes Mr. Jordan for director Alexander Hall, itself an adaptation of a Harry Segall play. The story, one of love and reincarnation, is something that could be reworked for various times and various characters -- hence, the reason that it worked for a boxer in 1941 and a football player in 1978. And it should work for a standup comedian in 2001, but it doesn't. The fault is not on the story but on the writing for this third screen excursion.
Screenwriters Chris Rock, Lance Crouther, Ali LeRoi, and Louis C.K. need some serious work on writing funny things for their screenplay. It is kind of disconcerting when a film about a comedian gives him nothing funny to say. I probably laughed twice during the entire film -- the only memorable one being a nice use of the song "All by Myself."
Rock, filling in the extremely talented shoes of Robert Montgomery and Warren Beatty, is fresh off of a really good performance in last year's Nurse Betty, where he stood gracefully with the likes of Renée Zellwegar, Aaron Eckhart, and Morgan Freeman. In that film, where brilliant performers surrounded him, he was good, but in Down to Earth, where the most able people in the entire cast are B-list comedians Chazz Palmintari and Eugene Levy, he stinks. How is this? Denigration is not the best way to jump-start a career.
Each person in this film has two predecessors, both of whom make these people look like hacks. Edward Everett Horton and Jack Warden pass Eugene Levy, John Emery and Charles Grodin pass Greg Germann, Evelyn Keyes and Julie Christie pass Regina King, Rita Johnson and Dyan Cannon pass Wanda Sykes. And there are the two most important characters. I like Chazz Pamintari sometimes, but he is nothing compared to Claude Rains and James Mason as Mr. Jordan/King.
But, no matter how much I pain for a great performance in the niche of Robert Montgomery or Warren Beatty, I can only cringe at Chris Rock. He has made a career playing caustic, antiestablishment characters, where he has found a semi large fan base, but in Down to Earth he tries too hard to be the sympathetic nice guy. If this film had been less interested in making him a happy-go-lucky guy, this film might have had an edge that is dearly needed.
The Weitz brothers, sorry, les directeurs de sibling
incompetents do their best to make something worse than their sadly overrated 1999
hit, American Pie (which Paul directed and Chris produced) and they have
succeeded. After seeing both of them giving fine performances in last year's art house hit
Chuck & Buck, I thought that perhaps we were looking at a fine future from
these two. Instead they have given reason for the 'incompetents' in les
directeurs de sibling incompetents.
(Dir: Zhang Yang, Starring Pu Cun Xin, Zhu Xu, Jiang Wu, He Zeng, Zhang Jin Hao, Lao Lin, and Lao Wu)
BY: DAVID PERRY
The past year has been filled with Asian imports -- most heralded in levels that could never be expected for most other foreign films. Just look at the acclaim that has come for Not One Less, Shower, Yi Yi, In the Mood for Love, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. For heaven's sake, this is the first year that an Asian film has received a nomination for Best Picture at the Academy Awards -- and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has pretty good chance of winning.
When the year came to an end, I looked at the list of productions from China, Japan, and Taiwan that I had either missed or had yet been able to see. For that reason, I have spent some time catching up (just rented Not One Less) and getting hyped for those not yet unveiled (In the Mood for Love in particular -- Wong Kar-Wai is a cinematic genius). Needless to say, I was quite happy when I learned that there was going to be a local theatrical reissue of Shower.
The film Shower is a slow, but memorable little film that looks at a country living the slight life in Beijing after the decline of communism and the surge of capitalism. The characters of this film live a life embracing what is slowly leaving their grasp. As more and more people head into the metropolis for a corporate job, they continue in their small town routines, seeing friends on a daily basis and living life at an easy pace.
The people that patronize the film's central location, a Chinese bathhouse, stay in this house for hours a day, bathing with friends, resting from life, fighting their crickets. In here, they are free from the day-to-day problems they see in their jobs or their family lives. One man stays there to get away from the wife he is ashamed of -- another hides inside from the mobsters outside.
The bathhouse is owned by elderly Master Liu (Zhu Xu), who raised his two boys while running this business. Over the years, his youngest son, Er Ming (Jiang Wu), has become more like a best friend. Er Ming is slightly retarded and has become proud to remain home to take care of the business with his father. He's like the bathhouse mascot -- bringing everyone together in his attempt to keep everybody happy.
Liu's other son, Da Ming (Pu Cun Xin), has grown distant from his father. For years they have been estranged, with Da Ming fleeing to the city of Shenzhen to be one of the capitalist bigwigs that frown on the close-knit bonding found in his own childhood home. But, an ambiguous postcard from Er Ming causes Da Ming to race home thinking that his father is dead. He finds that the patriarch is still in great health and looks to leaving as soon as possible. But, as things must always go in these situations, he sees the error of his way and the importance of his past. With the impending destruction of the Beijing shop district, he must decide whether it is more important to stand against the extreme corporate mind that has influenced him for years or to join the roots of his early years.
At first glance, there is little importance to what happens in Shower, but as the film progresses it becomes more and more apparent that it is an intensely made and beautifully created film. It does have some politicking that might not be noticeable, but that is a far better choice than to make this an intense pro-Mao film. Truthfully, had they gone on that road, I would be the first person to make a comparison to The Contender.
There are some small moments that are a little irksome -- I
was especially unhappy when the film took a turn towards melodrama. Admittedly, it was a
story arch that could be seen from the film's first act, but it was a storytelling choice
that I hoped would not happen as the film continued. But all is made well in the film's
finale, which goes a far better route than Not One Less (which actually commits
artistic suicide by making a final social statement) by continuing in a fashion that made
the first half so good. Shower is not as good as some of the other imports this
year, but it is still nothing to frown on.