She Wants More
by Jen Johans
Using a breathy voice to read back the license plate owned by the hot older guy that her best friend crushes on to the DMV, Lisa (Staci Keanan) tells the man on the other end of the phone that she wants more info on the man behind "WNTMORE." A trick that the precocious, boy-crazy fourteen-year-old learned by watching Magnum P.I.
— which makes her think that she and her friend Wendy (Tanya Fenmore) could be real life private eyes — all we have to do is spend a few minutes with Lisa to discover that this is a girl who wants more, wants much more herself.
The daughter of an overprotective single mother (played by Cheryl Ladd) who was forced to leave her whole family behind when she became pregnant as a teen, now that Lisa is becoming a woman, the florist is determined not to let her make the same mistakes. Having invoked a rule that her daughter isn't allowed to date until she's sixteen, Katherine (Ladd) is unwilling to break it when Lisa and Wendy are invited by classmates on a double date.
Taking Wendy's declaration that everyone's going to think she's weird if she has to wait two more years to date to heart, the lonely Lisa focuses most of her romantic energy falling for and then following unavailable men like "WNTMORE" around, not yet realizing that perhaps such men are better appreciated as mere objects of fantasy.
Gathering intel and a picture of the men along with late '80s heartthrobs like George Michael and Tom Petty to place inside her top secret crush scrapbook, Lisa finds a new object of desire in the handsome, polished Ken doll ready stranger Richard (D.W. Moffett) who she bumps into in the dark. Returning home from a grocery errand for Katherine, Lisa might've had her mother's keychain with the mace ready for her protection but once Richard smiles, she opts to use her charm instead.
"Last night," she tells Wendy, "I met the most beautiful man I've ever seen." Using her wiles once again to track him down, rather than just file away his info in her scrapbook, she grows bolder. Calling him for an anonymous chat, the teenager smooths out the girlish edges of her voice and drops her tone down to a soft purr.
"Hi, Rick. It's been a long time," Lisa begins with confidence since right now, she's the one in control. Continuing to phone the stranger, once Wendy finds out what her friend's been doing, she warns Lisa not to let her guard down but by then, things have escalated enough that we fear she might be too late.
In Gary Sherman's 1990 thriller, we know long before Lisa does that even though her first instinct upon meeting the man was to reach for her charm, she should've gone for the mace instead. Richard, it seems, might be GQ
cover handsome but as screenwriters Sherman and Karen Clark reveal as soon as the movie begins, he's a real lady killer in every sense of the word.
In an intriguing link that's never explored as well as it should be, Richard, like Lisa, has a history of stalking his victims from afar and then phoning them, not to flirt as she does, but to leave a message that he's in their apartment and going to kill them. A delusional murderer who sets a romantic stage for each of the slayings in a way that's earned the man the moniker Candlelight Killer, there's a fascinating scene in Sherman's movie where Lisa and Wendy follow Richard, hoping to snap a photo at the exact same time he's eyeing his next target.
What could've been a mystery about voyeurism, attraction, and how quickly and devastatingly an idol can fall for grace a la Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt
or Caruso's Disturbia
, turns into a veritable Lifetime movie as it continues, once Richard predictably mistakes Katherine for his mystery caller. Likewise, introducing us to Katherine's own secret love interest before vanishing him from sight, we can't help but wonder how much better Lisa
might've been if it had compared and contrasted the issues of trust and control in the mother's real relationship with the same points in her daughter's burgeoning faux one.
Although it shortchanges us on real suspense by refusing to let the girls in on the fact that Richard might be the murderer until we've been deposited into a ridiculously fast denouement, the film never fully spirals out of control, thanks to a wholly convincing turn by Staci Keanan who anchors Lisa
by conveying complex, multilayered emotions throughout in this, her feature debut.
Revealing too much too soon regarding Richard, when it might've been more interesting if we weren't sure which one of a handful of the girls' crushes was the killer, as a mystery lover and writer, my mind was involuntarily flooded with ideas as to how Sherman and Clark could've turned their otherwise clever script around. In that sense, it's reminiscent of the way that Magnum P.I.
spurred Lisa to think outside the box when tracking down a suspect's identity. Even though it doesn't quite work overall, thanks to a spellbinding performance by a wise beyond her years Keanan and a few ingenious plot points that are introduced (before they're sadly buried), it's well worth a look for genre fans.
On the one hand wise about its subject matter, as it prepares to toss its characters to the wolves, Lisa
tries overly hard to manufacture melodrama. Going from A to Z at the drop of a hat in terms of Lisa's relationship with her mother, it's admittedly awkward to see it change from friendly and sweet to dubiously sour in an instant before Katherine makes a halfhearted attempt to write everything off on hormones.
But even though the film feels like a museum piece now with its old technology of home phones, answering machines, and no caller ID, it could work just as well today in the Instagram era. Yet, in any setting, Lisa
's ideas are timeless, as are the struggles between girl and friend, mother and daughter, woman and man, and stalker and prey.
Conceived by Sherman and Clark, the film definitely understands that — in the words of Megan Abbott's Dare Me
— "there's something dangerous about the boredom of teenage girls," especially when they're as bright as Lisa, they can't wait to grow up, they want more, and they're not afraid to put down the scrapbook and camera to call up and ask for it.
The words go straight to Frank Penny's central nervous system. Adrenaline engaged, with his heart going double time since the location of the fleeing suspect is in his direct vicinity, Penny's walk becomes a jog and then a run.
Information ricocheting from ear to ear, when the police officer (played by Aaron Eckhart) catches sight of the suspect's hoodie in front of him, his pursuit ramps up. Following him down crowded streets, through a church, out a window, and wherever the man will take him, in Penny's mind, "officer down" instantly trumps the command "stand down" that comes over the air multiple times as he reports his progress.
And when the extended chase sequence puts two more cops on the ground, Penny knows he's officially done listening. Trying his best to arrest the man when he corners him in an alley, he's forced to draw down on the man instead when the suspect aims his gun directly at the veteran officer and starts to fire. Staring up at Penny in defiance, the man looks Eckhart in the eyes as he dies and says, "ask him, ask him what it's like to lose everything."
A cruel comeuppance to an earlier exchange Penny had had with an inquisitive neighborhood boy who asked him if he'd ever shot anyone which resulted in a silence so long that you just know there's a story there, just ten minutes before this shooting, Penny gave the kid a sly "not today" before telling him it was still early yet.
What was early for Penny then, however, is late for everyone else, which he quickly deciphers when he reports to his former partner turned police Chief Volk (Giancarlo Esposito) and is informed that the man he shot was their only lead to the whereabouts of Volk's eleven-year-old kidnapped daughter Claudia. As if on cue, a video link comes through with temporary proof of life for Claudia, which is set to expire when she does in sixty-four minutes as water begins to fill the glass box in which she's being held.
Turning in his weapon as required, Penny blows off reporting to IA and taking his two day suspension when he finds the suspect's car. Looking to chase down clues like he chased down the perp in order to find Claudia, he gets more than he bargained for when — in need of a car — he acquires an unlikely new partner as twenty-two year old enterprising citizen reporter, Ava Brooks (Courtney Eaton) comes along for the ride.
Livestreaming the entire thing so that director Steven C. Miller's real-time thriller cycles through multiple points-of-view and lenses as people tune in on their devices, the inventively timely if utterly illogical gimmick ensures that Line of Duty
continues running at the exact same pace that Eckhart did during the first act's bravura chase.
Striving to keep the energy up while cycling through a bunch of politically correct talking points about police, procedure, and community, although the actors are first rate, Eaton and Eckhart's jokey give-and-take banter feels like it belongs in an '80s buddy cop comedy as opposed to this high stakes drama.
Coming as it does right after Penny has killed a stranger, seen images of an eleven-year-old girl he knows on her way to death by drowning, and had a heated exchange with Brooks about his split second decision to kill the suspect (where he pointed an empty gun at her head on camera), the film's tonal 180 moves fast enough to give you whiplash.
Nonetheless, one of the most impressive direct to digital Lionsgate features that I've seen in recent memory, when Steven C. Miller's ridiculous film works, it's ridiculously entertaining. A truly effective real time thriller that, at times, is on par with Cellular
, Line of Duty
prevents you from dwelling on how little sense it makes by ratcheting up the tension with jaw-dropping action set-pieces involving shootouts, car crashes, helicopters, fire, and bombs.
Reminiscent of a video game for both better (as it consistently raises the stakes) and worse when it comes to an eventual villain — exceedingly well-played by an against-type Ben McKenzie — who seems to have more lives than Jason Voorhees, it comes as no surprise to discover that the film's screenwriter has a video game writing credit to his name.
Falling back on Gen X action movie cliches while trying to frame them through a contemporary viewfinder, the film features a painfully misguided, homophobic fight sequence with a gay, black body builder named Bunny that — played for laughs — feels like a scene left on the cutting room floor by a smart editor tasked with chopping a mid '90s film from Michael Bay.
Unable to figure out precisely which chord to play, Jeremy Drysdale's script strums along, trying to keep the beat during his otherwise engaging action scenes, and we hear Drysdale's struggle in Eckhart's lines of dialogue. Vacillating between friendly neighborhood cop and hotheaded cowboy, as one of our strongest character actors, Aaron Eckhart tries his best to sell all of the conflicting sides of his character, which never feels more strained than when he morphs into Dudley Do Right and is forced to tell another adult to stay still because a bomb could blow their "basketballs" off.
No stranger to being one of the saving graces of an otherwise average film (or in the same turn, stealing a stellar one), Eckhart fights to stay emotionally true throughout and doubly so when the script's words betray him. And while it's a nice change of pace to have his character partner up with a member of the opposite sex without any kind of sexual agenda, the film never knows quite what to do with Eaton's character and just as Eckhart turns into Mr. P.C., she comes off as a young woke millennial stereotype. Still, an easily likable presence who gives Duty
a lift when needed, it's easy to imagine that with the right part, Eaton will do wonders.
Yet even more than the actors, the same can definitely be said for the filmmaker, as throughout, I kept wondering how Miller was able to deliver such a polished, expensive looking actioner on a modest budget. Having worn a number of hats behind-the-scenes from camera operation to editing and beyond in the past, Miller's deft skill helming other low budget Lionsgate pictures like First Kill
is clearly evident here. It'll be exciting to see what he can accomplish with a little more at his disposal, starting, of course, with better material.
Fighting to keep us entertainingly distracted whenever the naive soundbytes or rapid shifts in tone call too much attention to themselves, Line of Duty
swings for the fences, and hits far more than it misses. Playing on our central nervous system, Miller, actor-producer Eckhart, and others ratchet up the tension so that much like Officer Penny, we're more than eager to jog, then run, as we begin the pursuit, and join him on the hunt.
A fiery Chinese flag-waving disaster movie inspired by the Xingang Port Oil Spill of 2010, The Bravest
serves up intense, eye-catching cinematography and incredible special effects, but sadly, little else for us to connect with from start to finish.
Following an exciting introduction to our two main characters after they battle a blaze at a hotpot restaurant that goes tragically wrong, Fire Brigade Captain Jiang Liwei (Xiaoming Huang) is left disgraced and replaced by his second-in-command Ma Weiguo (Jiang Du). It doesn't take long however, for director Tony Chan to put us in the line of fire once again.
Culling from author Bao'erji Yuanye's book Tears Are the Deepest Water
, which was based upon interviews with 188 Chinese firefighters, the film trades Xingang (or Tianjin) for the fictional northern seaport of Bingang, where a pipeline explosion threatens to not only wipe out all eight million of the area's residents but also cause catastrophic effects to the environment. As the spill from the blast reaches nearby tanks of crude oil and chemicals, the firemen get to work, putting life and limb on the line as they try to close the two open valves still flowing toward a large tanker.
More than eager to prove himself, perhaps as both a form of penance for losing a man under his command at the restaurant fire as well as a way to confront his new diagnosis of PTSD (which his supervisor told him made him unsuitable for action), Captain Jiang Liwei grabs a smoke before he jumps to it. Fighting to complete 8,000 manual rotations to seal off the tanker for good so that his men's firefight isn't in vain, as the captain tries to withstand the enveloping flames, the men advance toward the blaze, trying their best to contain it even when their water runs out.
Layering other heroics on top of the captain's — as is often the case with disaster movies — whenever Chan abandons the fire to follow the captain's family in their quest to leave the port and reach safety, the pace of the film screeches to a dead halt. Treating an asthma inhaler like a gun we see early on that's bound to go off later on, we anticipate one of the melodramatic complications facing the captain's wife and son before they even set out on their journey to get the hell out of Bingang.
From a woman in labor to an engaged firefighter couple whose relationship off the clock is used to try to add more melodramatic significance to the roles they play when they're on the job, Yonggan Yu and Chao Wang's predictable script checks off all of the boxes that we would expect as they aim to humanize the proceedings but The Bravest
remains stale. Additionally telegraphing events to come with its loud, insistent, bombastically intrusive score, the film makes it obvious which members of the cast will live or die shortly after they're introduced.
Stopping to fight the fires just long enough to give a few rousing speeches about duty and sacrifice, and using every moment available to insert a meaningful military salute to one another, it's clear that the film's heart is in the right place. Yet just when it lets us in enough to care about a character's plight, we leave the scene and immediately jump to another half-baked, underdeveloped subplot.
Preferring to talk at us rather than to us, by the time we get to a key third act sequence where the fiance of the fire inspector is supposed to keep the water flowing to the fires by diving into the sea, despite wanting him to succeed, it's hard to overlook the fact that we have little to no idea what's really going on. Similarly baffled by the number of times the guys just turn their backs to the fire to chat or the way that we go from a harrowing scene where the pregnant lady's water breaks to suddenly assuming they're okay because we're now in a hospital, between the hopscotching edits and the sparse script, The Bravest
needs a serious overhaul.
Obviously inspired by both Ron Howard's seminal Backdraft
as well as disaster movies of the Roland Emmerich variety, even though we'd love to be more invested in the goings on, when it comes to the genre, storytelling problems are nothing new. So for this new Chinese film, I'll go ahead and translate. As long as you're not interested in pesky things like who the supporting characters are outside of the two minutes we see them onscreen or what they're doing and why — for its claustrophobic, red hot visuals that bring heat to your TV — The Bravest
is thrilling filmmaking from a technical perspective alone.
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"When We Were Gone Astray"
by Jen Johans
Hovering on a Chicago rooftop in the darkness looking out, the first time he sees her, she's standing in the light. Arms outstretched like the statue of Jesus she'd just seen — that she tells her co-worker made her want to run into deity's arms — her pose in the window across the street from where the suicidal hitman is positioned seems to have the same effect on the man. After Frank (Michael Keaton) takes out his target in an office nearby like a sniper, he scans the windows of her building once again. Looking for Kate (Kelly Macdonald), he discovers that she's already gone . . . or at least, that's what he thought.
Standing on the ledge of the building in his second suicide attempt of the day, Frank finds himself distracted from violence yet again by those same arms and that girl. Seeing her under a streetlight this time, she looks up to where he's standing, senses his intent, and screams — causing him to fall backwards onto the rooftop to safety — as the sound pierces through the falling snow into the night sky.
Having fled an abusive husband in a different state in a brave attempt to leave the darkness of her past behind, Kate is the type of person who usually keeps her head down. New to Chicago, she seeks solace in the peaceful little things, like the gentle kiss of winter on her outstretched arms in an evening snow or a Christmas tree she picks up on a whim, to which she can't wait to add decorations and lights.
The only person she encounters who intuits enough about her past not to ask about the remnants of a bruise from her husband's fist still hovering around her eye, after the events of that fateful night where she saved a nondescript man on a ledge, Frank wants nothing more than to meet his guardian angel. Posing as a man visiting friends in her building since there's no way she can place his face from that brief glance in the dark, Frank tries to return the favor in The Merry Gentleman
by freeing Kate from her newly purchased Christmas tree that's pinned her to the ground.
"I found a girl under a tree," Frank muses in their first real conversation. Chiding himself that it's dumb, he explains, "you know, you find presents under a tree; I found a girl under a tree." Smiling, getting it — and cutting through the awkwardness like the people pleaser she is, but this time an interested one — Kate tells him with a little laugh, "well, you must've been a very good boy."
Given the way that the man who poses as a gentleman's tailor by day really earns his living, obviously nothing could be further from the truth. But yet, quiet, tender, slow, and protective, something about the way he is with Kate makes it clear that he yearns to be the man reflected in her eyes, especially when she informs him, "so far we've been pretty good for one another," after only seeing him three (okay, really four) times.
Instead of leaving the tree in the dumpster after Christmas, he takes it with them on a long romantic drive at sundown to burn the once majestic tree in a field. While watching this symbolic thing that brought them together die together in a Malick-worthy mercy kill — without even understanding the dark irony about his expertise in the area — Kate tells Frank in earnest, "You just might be the sweetest man I've ever met." And in moments like this, even in spite of everything we've witnessed thus far from the man onscreen, we're inclined to agree.
But like a candle that burns down to the wick, you can only stay in the light for so long before the darkness returns. Bogged down by real world pressures such as a love quadrangle instead of a triangle, in The Merry Gentleman
, Kate is pursued not only by the right man on the wrong side of the law but two wrong men — cops — on the right side of the law. Wrong does come in varying degrees, however, in this existential, modern noirish fairy tale. When the first man with a badge in Gentleman
— her abusive husband played by Bobby Cannavale — shows up to beg for another chance, the second man with a badge, Dave Murcheson (Tom Bastounes) is there to answer her 911 call.
A would-be romantic suitor that Frank inadvertently brings into her life, Kate meets Dave early into the film when she calls the police about the unidentified man on the ledge and he connects it to the contract killing Frank had carried out just before he almost jumped. Taking her to dinner under the guise of following up on her report, unlike Frank who says only what he means, when that is, he speaks at all, Dave feels the need to fill every second of silence that passes between them. Telling her what she wants to hear, and then belying his words with his actions, it doesn't take long for Kate to realize that she can't believe much of what's coming out of the Chicago police officer's mouth after all.
Layering in spiritual symbolism, The Merry Gentleman
knows that while some viewers will respond to the film's undeniably christian iconography with Kate-like adoration, others — like Kate's co-worker who says she isn't a religious person but she is a romantic — will not. And to its immense credit, this dark yet understated love story about good, evil, peace, and trees respects and appeals to both types of film fans.
Sophisticated, subtle, and suitably somber, but with sparks of dry wit, old-fashioned grace, and Kelly Macdonald's incandescent aura suddenly bringing even the most serious of scenes to sparklingly buoyant life, this ensemble drama is far more concerned with people than plot. Adhering to the lyrics of the eponymous Christmas carol, it fixates on those most in need of "comfort and joy" who've "gone astray."
Understanding that behavior is far more interesting than just talking to combat silence, in his bold screenplay for The Merry Gentleman
, Ron Lazzeretti takes a cue from his often quiet main character to incorporate dialogue only when he must. Augmented by the chemistry of the couple at the film's core and directed with sensitivity by Michael Keaton in his feature filmmaking debut, Lazzeretti's decision, it seems, was well worth the risk. Although I encountered the film for the first time back when I covered the Phoenix Film Festival in the spring of '09, Keaton's Gentleman
has continued to fascinate me on Blu-ray a full decade later.
A highly verbal actor whose skill and speed in delivering paragraphs of comedic dialogue with athletic precision has delighted audiences since the 1980s, it's both incredibly compelling and initially, a little startling to see Michael Keaton dial back his energy and bravado. In a daring turn that's wonderfully out of his comfort zone, he moves down from a Ron Howard or Harold Ramis ten — not to a Tim Burton five — but a mostly silent one.
Emotionally and physically ill at the start of the film, which was shot in just under a month, Keaton's Frank finds himself slowly coming to life for the girl who saves him twice. But still, given the gravity of things that have been left unsaid, most importantly, where Kate really saw Frank for the first time — arms stretched wide, with falling snow between them instead of her meet cute tree — the film's intelligent enough to know that these two people can't just ride off into the sunset.
An arthouse standby with the ability to infuse even minor roles — like the wife in No Country for Old Men
— with goodness and warmth, Kelly Macdonald has long been one of my favorite actresses. I'm especially fond of her major turns in Two Family House
(which I loved so much that I actually programmed and hosted a screening of it in Scottsdale), as well as the acclaimed yet under seen The Girl in the Cafe
, which shares a cinematographer with Merry
's DP Chris Seagar. Thematically similar to Gentleman
and propelled by two unpredictable, opposites attract fueled narratives, both House
would play very well alongside The Merry Gentleman
A woman of humanity and good humor who, thankfully, gets to use her own Scottish accent for the film, since to see Kelly Macdonald is to love her, she's the true heart of Michael Keaton's Chicago set tale. Therefore, it's easy to see why she'd be so instantly magnetic to so many men, both right but wrong and wrong but right alike.
Benefiting from an insightful script by Lazzeretti, who was going to direct the movie until a ruptured appendix found Keaton stepping up to the plate, Gentleman
also boasts a strong supporting turn by producer-star Tom Bastounes as Dave. Making sure that we never write the Chicago cop off completely, Bastounes fills his scenes with wit and pathos while playing a role that Keaton, in his comedy heyday, might've easily gravitated to in the past.
Perhaps bored by the kind of men he's already played, it's a courageous move for Michael Keaton to branch out and doubly so to step behind the camera to take on the behind-the-scenes lead role he'd been eyeing for quite awhile. And despite a frivolous lawsuit by the film's investors who foolishly tried (and failed) to blame the director for the indie not making a big profit in its 2009 limited run, this eye-opening, critically acclaimed sleeper is so good that it makes you wish that Keaton would return to direct once again.
And while, with that history, you can totally understand why he might not, in a weirdly fitting way, it actually makes sense for the film to be undiscovered. Like the tormented Frank who, in tracking down Kate, is cautiously, tentatively optimistic about a peaceful future with somebody he can be quiet with (at least for a little while), once you manage to pull The Merry Gentleman
out of the darkness, you'll find yourself wanting to share it with others and help bring Keaton's labor of love to light.
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Sympathy for the Devilish
by Jen Johans
It isn't just the video camera that he bought simply because it was on sale. An ardent acquirer of things he doesn't really want or need — such as the fiancé he picked up simply because he didn't want to lose the security blanket of having a girlfriend — Michael is a man whose buyer's remorse includes his whole life.
Far beyond his tentative gait and careful diction, as Michael in Bad Influence
, there's a spark of desperation that fills James Spader's eyes from the very first moment he appears onscreen. Delighted and disgusted by chaos in such a way that it's begun eating at his insides, Michael doubles over in pain at the office after he's sabotaged by a coworker jockeying for the same promotion he has his heart set on and his fiance postpones their wedding by a month.
Starting the conversation off by stating she's having second thoughts — as if playing chicken with his true nature — with her seriously long '80s hair weighing her down, Ruth (Marcia Cross) misjudges his look of panic as disappointment and reaffirms her intention to marry the L.A. stock analyst within the year. But it's not the pacification he wants.
Bogged down by WASPish politeness and consumerist yuppie pride, in Michael, we see a man who wants to assert himself but always backs down. Going to a bar to clear his head (if not his stomach), Michael eagerly steps up to play the chivalrous hero for a lovely stranger but the feeling lasts a mere two minutes before his head is pushed down and he finds himself in need of a savior as well.
With the boyfriend of the upset woman Michael bought a drink manhandling the young man and ready to start some static, Rob Lowe's cocksure Alex swoops in and intervenes on his behalf. Not content just to take things right up to the line (the way that the submissive Michael has done all day), Lowe's dominant Alex brandishes a broken beer bottle in his hand, eagerly looking for any excuse to cross it.
Strangers on a beach instead of a train, in Bad Influence
, Michael acquires not another object this time but a new magnetic friend in the form of Alex who, like all magnets, attracts as much as we ultimately discover he repels while helping him break bad. Bringing Spader's spark of desperation to the front burner and setting it ablaze like a stick of dynamite, Alex goes from giving Michael advice on how to handle his workplace bully to taking active, radical steps to blow up the unassuming professional's well-ordered life.
Hidden behind one of the charismatic Lowe's megawatt smiles, not to mention a career best performance by the former teen heartthrob, Alex's influence in Influence
sends the two into a thrill-seeking life of crime in order to give Michael — at one point hopping up and down like a coked up rabbit on a trampoline — an even greater high.
Unfortunately, as his black sheep older brother Pismo (Christian Clemenson) warns, when you get in bed with the devil, "sooner or later you have to fuck." And that's a realization that Michael comes to way too late, and long after he brings home a randy art gallery patron himself and — with Lowe just one floor away — does just that in a thinly veiled moment of Strangers on a Train
like Hitchcockian homoeroticism. Of course, the fact that his conquest involves a videotape given Spader's breakout role in Steven Soderbergh's groundbreaking 1989 indie smash Sex, Lies, and Videotape
is a wonderfully meta layer of intertextuality.
Following up director Curtis Hanson's stellar 1987 Rear Window
-esque effort The Bedroom Window
, which he also wrote, by the time Bad Influence
was released, the filmmaker had discovered the perfect genre niche that would serve him well in future hits such as The Hand that Rocks the Cradle
, The River Wild
, and L.A. Confidential
. Hanson's mature yet tongue-in-cheek handling of screenwriter David Koepp's startlingly clever existential allegory of good vs. evil at the start of the 1990s makes Bad Influence
the rarest of guilty pleasures. It's a film that's as trashy as it is classy.
Elevated by the sultry, sun-drenched, and shadow filled neo-noir visuals of Paul Thomas Anderson's regular cinematographer Robert Elswit — here in his first of three collaborations with Hanson — as well as the dynamic, fully committed, marquee level turns by its two leads, Bad Influence
is a highly compelling adult thriller from the era that churned them out with assembly line efficiency.
Even when Koepp's script pushes things too far towards the terrain of camp as Lowe's character seems to be hosting a game show called "Yuppie Punk'd," the film is filled with some truly masterful sequences that pull us right along. From one scene where Michael discovers that his hand is bloody and doesn't remember why to another where he nervously hides a dead body as a couple (who could discover him at any time) fights nearby, we're right there with the empathetic Spader as we wonder just what it is he might be capable of and what, of course, he might already have done.
Putting us in the dress shoes of our conflicted, morally tested lead, the level to which we hold our breath and try to plot our way out of the men's toxic relationship is a credit to the strength of Koepp's work and foreshadows his future mastering moments like precisely like that in tense thrillers including Jurassic Park
and Panic Room
Daring to subvert audience expectations so that even when we see a game Michael start to make out with a woman at a party, it doesn't appear as though he's fully aroused until he catches Alex from above watching him score, there's a lot going on beneath the surface in a film that could, in other hands, have merely served as fodder for a sleazy Cinemax movie after dark.
A powerful early indicator of the talent involved both in front of and (especially) behind the lens in Hanson, Elswit, and Koepp, Bad
remains sophisticated, even when it occasionally succumbs to the basest instincts of a by-the-numbers erotic thriller, including a blink-and-you-missed it denouement.
And while the '90s were a largely hit or miss time for the two leads — particularly Lowe, following his own Sex, Lies, and Videotape
scandal at the DNC — it's an absolute treat to see the two desperately try to acquire everything in sight before realizing they're not only desperate but devilishly fucked.
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