This movie rocks. It does so by boldly embracing the preposterousness at the core of its story right away, and then moving on to more important things like ultra-nasty sex, hyper-lurid dialogue and a species of over-the-top set design that hasn’t been attempted with this much brio since the early Bond films, or maybe the gargantu-westerns of Sergio Leone. Everything in the movie is too much — and much more, too. Which is why, as I say, it rocks.
Sharon Stone is back as the murderously twisted erotic novelist Catherine Tramell — the role that made her a star in the original “Basic Instinct,” back in 1992. This picture is ostensibly a “sequel” to that one, but there’s no reason you need to have seen that one to be able to get down with this one. It stands — or sprawls lewdly — on its own.
The film takes off with a phenomenal rush. We see a sleek sports car tearing wildly through a London tunnel. Inside, at the wheel, is Catherine Tramell. In the seat beside her there lolls a big, good-looking black man, clearly a little out of it. Catherine is sucking on his fingers and, with her free hand, doing something else down below the steering wheel. The sequence builds to an orgasmic release as the car comes rocketing out of the tunnel and off a bridge and into the Thames, where it slowly begins to sink. Back with the two passengers again, we see water pouring in through every opening. As Catherine’s companion, obviously immobilized, stares at her helplessly, we see her lower the window and maneuver her way out of the vehicle as more water comes gushing in. She watches as the car sinks like a stone toward the riverbed below, and then she slowly swims away.
At Scotland Yard the next day, Detective Superintendent Roy Washburn (David Thewlis) is very suspicious. The cops have found syringes in the recovered car containing a curare derivative that’s known to paralyze the lungs. Catherine is unconcerned — she knows nothing about any syringes. In fact, she has a slick answer for every question. Washburn calls in his friend, Dr. Michael Glass (David Morrissey), a celebrated psychiatrist, to have a look at this cold-blooded specimen. Before Glass can even get started, though, Catherine begins running a speculative eye over him. “You look a little divorced,” she purrs.
Glass is no match for Catherine, naturally. But he does deliver an analysis: “She vacillates between a feeling of Godlike omnipotence and a feeling that she doesn’t exist,” he says. She has “a risk addiction,” and “I suspect the only thing that would stop her … would be her own death.”
He certainly has that right. Catherine likes to do first-hand research for all the sex bouts and brutal murders that fill her novels. As she tells Glass teasingly, she savors the freshness of a crime scene, when “the body’s still warm, the watch is still ticking.” If this were a run-of-the-mill ludicrous movie, the rest of it might consist only of bloody set pieces in which Catherine whacked every other main character, one by one. But the script, by the husband-and-wife writing team of Leora Barish and Henry Bean, is densely, head-hurtingly complex. So while it might seem that Catherine is being stalked by Glass and Washburne, and maybe a celebrity journalist named Adam Towers (Hugh Dancey), it is in fact she who is the stalker, carefully herding each of them into a web of suspicion and dark secrets from which they may never emerge. Along the way, she seduces both men and women (including Glass’ girlfriend: “Denise was good in bed,” she tells him), rips out somebody’s throat, and — in perhaps the movie’s most gloriously gaudy scene — pays a thug to attack her, drag her into an S&M bordello and have rough, sweaty sex with her. (Glass gets sweaty himself looking down on this through a skylight — until he realizes that Catherine is watching him back.)
The English director, Michael Caton-Jones, has set this story amid the up-market, go-go environs of the new London, a city the casual tourist might not often see. And so Glass’s office — a vast expanse of expensive square-footage with two perfect leather armchairs amusingly situated at its center, like a pair of lost sheep, for doctor-patient consultations — is located in the pickle-shaped and delightfully phallic “Gherkin Tower,” in the city’s financial district. And Catherine’s apartment — a huge, luxe cave of a place, with gleaming black stone floors and smooth gray walls hung here and there with paintings of a rather disturbing sort — seems a world away from the cramped, stuffy rooms with which most of us might associate the average English abode.
The Hungarian cinematographer Gyula Pados (“Control”) captures this unfamiliar urban terrain in rich, beautifully muted colors, and with an inventive eye for unusual action perspectives; and John Murphy’s somber score bathes the proceedings with thick, luscious strings. The movie is extraordinarily well-made, and the main players are all top-drawer British character actors. But it’s Sharon Stone, an even lustier sex shark at age 47 than she was 14 years ago, who dominates the film with flamboyant abandon. Actually, she’s completely shameless in what appears to be a headlong yen for a late-in-the-day career boost. Nevertheless, toward the end, when Glass realizes how evilly Catherine has manipulated him, and she says, “Don’t take it so hard, even Oedipus didn’t see his mother coming” — well, there’s no denying how good she still is at being really, really bad.
“The Devil and Daniel Johnston”: The Silver Sufferer
“The Devil and Daniel Johnston” is a documentary that will haunt you all the way home, and into the night. It’s the story of a gifted, delusional cult star, and as he tells us at the film’s beginning, in some old home-movie footage, “It’s my pleasure to tell you about my condition, and about the other world.”
Johnston’s other world, inside his head, is a place of pain and visions, and he charts it in his art — in his childlike drawings and in the score of mostly low-fi albums he’s released over the last 26 years. A lot of people find his adenoidal voice, with its sometimes approximate relation to pitch, impossible to listen to. But if you can get past that, or simply accept it, his songs have a stabbing honesty of expression that’s mesmerizing. And he has many admirers. “The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered,” a two-CD album released in 2004, matches one disc of Johnston originals with a second one of cover versions by Death Cab for Cutie, Teenage Fanclub, Mercury Rev, Bright Eyes, Sparklehorse and the Eels, not to mention Beck and Tom Waits.
Director Jeff Feuerzeig, who won the Best Director award with this movie at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, spent four years making it, and he was fortunate in having access to an abundance of Super-8 film footage that Johnston shot in his youth (he’s now in his mid-forties) and to many of the old cassettes on which he recorded his songs. (His first album’s worth of these tunes, released — or at least handed around — in 1980, was called “Songs of Pain.”)
Early on, the Daniel we see in those old home movies, growing up in West Virginia, is bright and handsome, if noticeably hyper. It isn’t until he goes off to college, a Christian school in Abilene, Texas, that his mental problems begin. Before they derail his life, though, he meets a pretty girl named Laurie Allen, who becomes the one true, unattainable love of his life: She inspired him to write love songs, he says, “and then I knew I was an artist.” (There’s old footage of Laurie, too, and we can hear Johnston, off-camera, coaxing her to say, “I love you, Danny.”)
He continues recording music on his little cassette machine, accompanying himself on a cheap chord organ. As his breakdowns get worse, he actually runs away with a carnival, and in 1985 winds up in Austin, Texas, where a church helps him rent an apartment and he starts opening up for local bands. MTV comes to Austin that year, to shoot a show about the local music scene. Johnston is a part of it, and when the show airs, he becomes a fringe celebrity. Then he starts smoking pot. Then somebody gives him acid. Then he ends up in the state mental hospital. Diagnosis: manic depressive, with delusions of grandeur.
At this point, medication was prescribed, and it helped. But when Daniel didn’t take it, which was not infrequently, he sometimes became violent, breaking people’s ribs and lashing out with lead pipes. He made his way to New York, where he wound up living in a Bowery shelter and opening for fIREHOSE at CBGB. He made friends with the members of Sonic Youth and recorded with Jad Fair, of Half Japanese (a perfect pairing).
Elektra Records came calling, wanting to sign him (the negotiations were carried out in a mental hospital, during one of Johnston’s many institutionalizations). Daniel eventually declined, though — since Elektra was Metallica’s label, he decided the company must be Satanic. He subsequently did sign with Atlantic, however, and recorded one album. It sold 5,800 copies. Atlantic dropped him.
Today, Daniel Johnston is back at home, living with his parents again. His hair is now white, and his belly huge, but he continues recording his music and churning out artwork. (Many of his drawings document his fixation on comic book characters like Captain America and Casper the Friendly Ghost; one of them is titled, with a sort of verbal stutter, “The Silver Sufferer.”) His parents, however, are growing old. When they’re gone, there’s no telling what will happen to Daniel. And as his father says, “Time’s running out.”
Here’s one measure of how moving this picture is: When director Feuerzeig wanted to incorporate into it some resonant scenes from “Broadway Danny Rose,” Woody Allen’s 1984 film about a lovable loser, he knew he could never afford to license them, so he decided to shoot for the moon and take the movie straight to Allen himself. Woody Allen isn’t known to be a soft touch in business matters, but after screening the picture, he simply gave Feuerzeig the scenes he wanted. That’s how moving it is.
“Brick”: High School Confidential
There’s a film-school cleverness to this picture’s concept: It’s a film noir set in a suburban California high school. Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a hard-boiled student, a tough guy, an outsider who knows the score. When he receives a desperate phone call from his ex-girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin), he becomes concerned. Then she disappears, and he sets out to investigate. His search leads him into a confrontation with a gang of befuddled “hash heads” (“I got all five senses, and I slept last night,” he tells them, “which puts me six up on the lot of you”) and then on to an improbably swank high-school house party, where snifters of cognac are swirled beside a quietly crackling fire and melancholy piano chords float softly through the air.
Emily turns out to be dead, which leads Brendan into a confrontation with the local heroin dealer, a character called The Pin (Lukas Haas) whose headquarters are in the cozily paneled basement of his mother’s house. (Mom occasionally flits through offering glasses of apple juice all around, then makes herself scarce.) There’s also a femme fatale, and a considerable amount of punishment meted out to the protagonist; and in the end, when Brendan nails Emily’s killer (“That was you, angel”), the movie does a deep knee-bend in the direction of “The Maltese Falcon.”
I don’t think any of this works. The conventions of films noirs — those deep-shadowed, doom-ridden melodramas of the 1940s and early ’50s — shrivel in the bright California sun. (First-time feature director Rian Johnson shot the picture in his hometown of San Clemente, in and around the high school he once attended.) It’s true that Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” a 1974 neo-noir, was bathed in L.A. sunlight; but that film had an inventively sinister plot, and a dark sexual kink. “Brick” asks us to accept its up-scale high-school students as denizens of an infernal drug underworld, and the idea is visibly ridiculous. As is the strange argot in which they speak, a gaudy patter that’s lifted partly from old tough-guy movies (“I don’t need no blade, shamus”) and partly, awkwardly, from out of nowhere (“I got knives in my eyes, I’m goin’ home sick”). Some of the lines are funny. (“Maybe I’ll just stand here and bleed at you,” Brendan tells The Pin, after a beating.) But mostly you just wonder why they’re talking that way.
Director Johnson, who also wrote and edited the movie, gets maximum props for commitment — it took him seven years to assemble the cast he wanted, and to scrounge the financing he needed to shoot the picture in 35mm. He gets pretty good performances out of the main actors, and in Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who’s moved up from the “3rd Rock From the Sun” TV series to movies like Gregg Araki’s “Mysterious Skin”), he has a hero who can really hold the screen.
But the movie refers to film noir without referring to the thing film noir referred to — the postwar social malaise that was a reaction to the bubbly, forced optimism of so many movies of the 1930s (which were themselves often a desperate reaction to the miseries of the Great Depression). There’s no reason “Brick” should do this, of course — which is to say, there’s really no reason for “Brick.”
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