Basic Instinct (1992)

 

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I think she’s the fuck of the century.  Paul Verhoeven’s film was notorious even prior to release – 25 years ago! – when word of the highly sexualised story got out.  Then it caused an uproar with a shot of Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs:  she’s not wearing any underwear. And the gay community in San Francisco in particular (where it’s set) didn’t like the portrayal of a psychopathic bisexual writer Catherine Tramell (Stone) – albeit we don’t know if it’s her, or her former and slighted lover, police psychiatrist Beth Garner (Jeanne Tripplehorn), who’s the murderess in this tricky, explicit neo-noir. That sub-genre really had a moment in the 90s, with this and the films of John Dahl – remember Linda Fiorentino in The Last Seduction?! Wow. Stone goes all-out here as the millionaire authoress whose books have a basis in true crime. Michael Douglas is the controversial ‘shooter’ detective Nick Curran who’s assigned to investigate the violent death of an old rock star – a murder we see in the opening scenes, bloody, sexy and ending with an ice pick applied to his neck. It’s the plot of one of Catherine Tramell’s lurid thrillers – she writes them under the surname Woolf.  Everything points to her being the guilty party. Now she wants to study him too. He got his nickname after accidentally killing tourists while he was high on cocaine. Catherine hangs out with jealous girlfriend Roxy and an old woman called Hazel Dobkins. Both of them have an interesting past. After Nick avoids being killed by Roxy when she sees him and Catherine having sex, he finds out she killed a bunch of kids when she was 15. And Hazel?  She murdered her children and husband back in the 50s. The fact that she’s played by Dorothy Malone gives you the meta-picture here:  this is practically a dissertation on the Hollywood blonde, a Hitchcock film with extra sex. Nick’s also been involved with the police psychiatrist who it turns out knows Catherine too, from when they went to college together a decade earlier.  And they may have had a relationship. This knotty tale of seduction, deception, copycat killing and betrayal leads cleverly to two very clear – and alternate – conclusions. It’s wrapped in extraordinarily beautiful and brutal imagery and the narrative ambiguity merely compounds its legend. Written by Joe Eszterhas in 13 days it earned him a record-breaking $3 million.  Yet as he stated so lucidly in his memoir, he is a militant screenwriter-auteur and the most memorable bit of the film was shot without his knowledge – and apparently Stone’s. Interpret this how you will. Some people might say that the real crime here is one against fashion – Douglas’ v-neck at the club is really something. Stone is stunning: she’s something else!

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The Wizard of Lies (2017)(TVM)

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Do you think I’m a sociopath? I’m not a psychiatrist, Bernie Madoff, but I do know you’re a thief who committed larceny on a grand scale that specifically targeted Jewish retirees, most of whom ended up living hand to mouth in trailer parks as a result of your actions – if they were lucky.  You can understand the attraction of this project – looking at the man behind the biggest Ponzi scheme in history – and the family structure behind him. This after all is the guy whose own sons turned him in. When it happened it was at the height of the financial ‘mismanagement’ that caused the world’s economy to crash.  When Madoff pleaded guilty nobody  – certainly not the POTUS – wanted to see his friends in the major institutions jailed. Diana Henriques is the New York Times journalist who had access to Madoff and interviewed him in prison and her book provides the basis for a screenplay by Sam Levinson, Sam Baum and John Burnham Schwartz, with Henriques playing herself, opposite Robert De Niro. This is a despicable man with absolutely no redeeming features. There is no explanation as to what drove him. His behaviour to everybody is horrendous, rude, arrogant and nasty, even to waiters. The narrative chooses to focus not on the bigger context – or the horrors inflicted on his victims – but on the humiliation meted out to his sons Mark (Alessandro Nivola) and Andy (Nathan Darrow) who apparently didn’t know what went on on the 17th floor – a destination that has almost horror-story significance. In reality it was a crowded office populated by undereducated sleazes who kept the accounts of all the little people whom they sandbagged and robbed blind, led by Frank DiPascali (Hank Azaria) an utterly reprehensible character. Wife Ruth (Michelle Pfeiffer, looking a little different again, as is her wont…) is another supposed innocent, whose relationships with her sons suffer because she keeps visiting one-dimensional Bernie in jail. Bernie simply refuses to offer any explanation for any of his actions and Mark trawls the web to find offensive comments (the one called ‘Weekend at Bernie’s was blackly ironic) while Andy’s wife urges distance between the brothers. Nobody sees Mark’s suicide coming. Then Andy succumbs to lymphoma. Ruth simply changes her phone number. Confining the drama to a dysfunctional family dynamic may have seemed like clever writing – even an attempt to make it some sort of Shakespearean allegory – but in doing so it totally misses the bigger picture:  not on the scale of fiscal destruction purveyed by the Madoff Advisory of course but it seems irresponsible and kind of pointless storytelling with nothing new that we all don’t know.  Look at The Big Short for a really stylish and shocking interrogation of this scenario;  or The Wolf of Wall Street:  this can be tour de force filmmaking in the right hands.  What a shame. Directed by Barry Levinson.

Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

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Judge not, that ye be not judged. Spencer Tracy arrives in the rubble of the great city of Nuremberg after the bombs have fallen:  this is what remains of a once-proud metropolis in the wake of Hitlerism. He’s the chief military judge in one of the trials taking place there in Abby Mann’s adaptation of his TV play and Maximillian Schell replays his role as the German defence counsel. The case involves four judges in the Nazi courts who had people executed and sterilised and otherwise punished for not being Party members: it’s a representative slice of what actually occurred aided in no small part by what we might call stunt casting.  Burt Lancaster is the one judge who acknowledges what he’s done is wrong. Marlene Dietrich is the widow of the man already executed whose home Tracy occupies and after whom he hankers a little. Judy Garland and the incredible Montgomery Clift testify in court. Clift is a former Communist whom one of the judges had sterilised. His scene in the stand is unforgettable. Schell does a great job as the frustrated counsel, eager to prove the overwhelming logic of the judges’ work;  Richard Widmark has his day in court showing the films shot by Allied troops liberating the camps. Naturally the Germans think this is a cheap shot. This film shocked me as a child and it shocks me no less today, particularly when Tracy, having sentenced the men, is asked to visit Lancaster and has to explain to him why he came to his decision. He is our conscience, arguing for the value of a single human life in the face of ruthless German logic. The end credits include the reminder that by the time this film was made not a single Nazi convicted at Nuremberg remained in prison despite life sentences handed down. That’s right, they’re all running the Fourth Reich in a Germany that’s been on the rise ever since. Be afraid. Directed by Stanley Kramer.

True Deception (2016)

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Aka The Adderall Diaries. Written and directed by Pamela Romanowsky this James Franco-starrer (he also produced) is an adaptation of a misery memoir by ‘orphaned’ writer Stephen Elliott whose inconveniently live father shows up to wreck his reputation and publishing deals. At the same time he becomes obsessed with a murder case involving millionaire Hans Reisner (Christian Slater) who’s accused of killing his wife;  and sexually involved with a journalist (Amber Heard) who’s had a bad childhood herself. Much of the story is compressed into conflicting montages and competing flashbacks squeezed into a relatively short running time of 83 minutes so it’s hard to reconcile the somewhat wasted star power with the narrative. The mirroring idea of the villainous murdering father on trial is a rather obvious metaphor, real or not, and the writer’s block being solved by a true crime is verbally compared with Capote and Mailer. But the writing process remains mysterious and the scenes with Slater are fairly perfunctory. Cynthia Nixon shows up as one of the few drug-free actors in this narcissist’s psychodrama. One wonders why Franco was drawn to playing this role following True Story (2015). However the main interest here and maybe for him is seeing two very pretty people in an S&M relationship with some scenes rather reminiscent of Madonna’s great embarrassment, Body of Evidence. Memories are made of this. Sigh.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

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How innocent do JR’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door fantasies appear in the welter of sexual spectacle on display here. Stockbroker Jordan Belfort’s memoir of his outrageous drug and sex-fuelled exploits on Wall Street at his firm Stratton Oakmont are pure outrage:  nothing succeeds like excess. It’s in your face from the first moment in Terence Winter’s adaptation for director Martin Scorsese, his last film to date. Leonardo DiCaprio’s fifth collaboration with the NYC filmmaker is nothing if not exact:  he shepherded the project into production over a prolonged period and his performance is extraordinary – and he’s matched by Jonah Hill as Donnie the totally crazed acolyte who has married his own cousin and publicly masturbates upon first sight of Jordan’s new crush, Margot Robbie, whom he marries after cheating with her on his wife. The scene when Jordan and Donnie ingest out of date super ludes has to be seen to be believed:  DiCaprio’s voiceover explaining his trip straight to cerebral palsy is just … beyond description. Trouble is, FBI agent Kyle Chandler and the Securities Commission are onto Jordan and people start getting careless in their sales methods and there’s so much money they’re running out of hiding places. The viewer is effectively subjected to an onslaught of nudity, sex, drug-addled mania and hilarity in this horrific inversion of Horatio Alger. If your eyes don’t explode your brain will. (Remember all the little people whose money they took…) Nothing less than brilliant.

True Story (2015)

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Michael Finkel was an acclaimed New York Times journalist when he was fired for obscuring a story about slave children in Africa to make a better story (combining five stories into one for dramatic and emotional effect – kind of what screenwriters get paid to do.) A man accused of murdering his wife and three children, Christian Longo, was caught hiding out in Mexico using Finkel’s identity. When Finkel was told he started visiting Longo in prison and became enmeshed in his story – getting a book deal in exchange for the true story and teaching Longo how to write. There doesn’t seem much at stake – until an hour in, when at the pre-trial hearing Longo pleads guilty to just two of the murders. And during the trial uses language that Finkel used. Jonah Hill plays Finkel, James Franco plays Longo. Finkel’s wife (Felicity Jones) fears that her husband is being played.The chill of recognition eventually hit me when prosecutor Greg Ganley (Robert John Burke) asks Finkel, Who’s using who? Because Longo could be set free to murder again. When I was a kid a neighbour murdered his wife the night that Fatal Vision was screening on TV, the mini-series about how journalist Joe McGinniss was used by a marine surgeon to vindicate him when he was supposedly wrongly accused of the murder of his wife and children (in writing about him and digging deeper, JMG discovered he was guilty – there’s a whole slew of books about this.) My neighbour was also reading the book at the time. When he was released a few years later (political pressure, allegedly) he was found to be diarising his plans to murder his children, who still lived at the family home. Every woman in the neighbourhood was terrified of him until he died a few years ago. There is of course an element of similarity here to the JMG Fatal Vision situation – it was no accident that Longo picked on Finkel’s name – he knew he was someone who needed redemption. These men are in a sense mirror images of each other but somehow the powerful story gets lost in translation in the screenplay adapted from Finkel’s memoir by director Rupert Goold and David Kajganich. An opportunity missed.

The Face of an Angel (2015)

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The films of Michael Winterbottom tend to be either of two varieties – good or verging on the unwatchable. This … falls between those two stools. It concerns a filmmaker (Daniel Bruhl) who goes to Italy to use a court case as the material for his new film. The court case is obviously based on the Meredith Kercher/Amanda Knox farrago and he finds himself ’embedded’ with journalists who have already made up their minds, for the most part deciding the lack of motive or circumstantial evidence convicts the angelic Knox, the American teenager who found herself in the eye of a very unpleasant storm with her new Italian boyfriend just a few weeks after moving to Italy on a gap year. He has a personal hell to deal with concerning his ex-girlfriend, a famous actress, a daughter who lives with her and a cocaine habit which he indulges courtesy of an English student (Cara Delevingne) on a gap year herself and who leads him into the Inferno, angelic face ‘n’ all. Then he sleeps with the journalist (Kate Beckinsale) who’s written about the case and sides with Kercher/Elizabeth. This is not a great film about filmmaking nor does it enlighten us as to why the Italian police are so inept and corrupt or their press so utterly mediaeval (Knox was called a witch and a whore on a daily basis). Likening the filmmaker’s personally indulgent druggy paranoia to Dante’s meditation on love is just stupid. There are great films about filmmaking and they are made by Fellini and Truffaut. This is not one. Quite degrading for all involved. The fact that it is dedicated to Kercher indicates what motivated the production. A travesty.

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Robert Wise is notorious for his mishandling of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) – editing the life of it whilst Orson Welles was on a government-directed wartime propaganda filming mission south of the border. However Wise turned out to be a pretty nifty director himself, if hardly the genius that Welles clearly was. This Robert Louis Stevenson adaptation has always been admired, and not only for the performance by Boris Karloff as the cadaver supplier to the Edinburgh medical school.