Skip to main content

What about the panties?

Sliver
(1993)

(SPOILERS) It must have seemed like a no-brainer. Sharon Stone, fresh from flashing her way to one of the biggest hits of 1992, starring in a movie nourished with a screenplay from the writer of one of the biggest hits of 1992. That Sliver is one Stone’s better performing movies says more about how no one took her to their bosom rather than her ability to appeal outside of working with Paul Verhoeven. Attempting to replicate the erotic lure of Basic Instinct, but without the Dutch director’s shameless revelry and unrepentant glee (and divested of Michael Douglas’ sweaters), it flounders, a stupid movie with vague pretensions to depth made even more stupid by reshoots that changed the killer’s identity and exposed the cluelessness of the studio behind it.


Philip Noyce isn’t a stupid filmmaker, of course. He’s a more-than-competent journeyman when it comes to Hollywood blockbuster fare (Clear and Present Danger, Salt) also adept at “smart” smaller pictures (Rabbit Proof Fence, The Quiet American). Occasionally, he’s gone completely nose-up (The Bone Collector) but few of his movies are devoid of any merit. Even Sliver, for all its terminal incompetence as either a Hitchcockian thriller or a piece dissecting the lurking voyeur within us all, has very, very nice cinematography (courtesy of Vilmos Zsigmond, one of the greats). So much so, I was probably unduly forgiving of the picture the last time I saw it, which was on its cinema release.


Esterhaz’s contributions to the thriller genre worked by diminish returns. His ‘80s work shows versatility within the context of the did-they-didn’t-they thriller that takes in Jagged Edge (a superior version of the later Basic Instinct, just with reversed genders not as much sexiness) and Music Box (Jessica Lange thinks daddy might be a Nazi). Basic Instinct unfortunately was his undoing, leading to a run of erotic thrillers or simple debacles (Showgirls, An Alan Smithee Film, leading to his premature retirement). Here, he adapts Ira Levin’s novel about goings on in a sliver apartment block, where publishing editor Carly Norris (Stone) moves into no sooner has her apartment’s lookalike previous occupant (very Vertigo) plunged to her death at the hands of an unknown intruder.


Levin’s novels/plays have formed the basis for a few good movies (Rosemary’s Baby, Deathtrap) and a few less than masterful ones (The Boys from Brazil, The Stepford Wives). Sliver was published in 1991, and Robert Evans, attempting a career revival, persuaded a reluctant Levin (disenchanted at the results with some previous adaptations) that he would nurse it to screen with due diligence. Yes…


Carly is almost instantly propositioned by residents/potential suspects; William Baldwin’s Zeke (who turns out to be the owner, a younger man with a worrying predilection for pouring over his tenants’ every action on giant banks of TV monitors; he has cameras installed in every apartment) and Tom Berenger’s Jack Landsford (an insufferably self-regarding tool and writer of crappy murder fiction; they say the writer always puts themselves in their work, so I don’t know if Esterhaz was attempting to have fun here). There’s also a smattering of potential victims, who duly buy the farm as the picture progresses, or rather stumbles along (Polly Walker’s Vida, Keene Curtis’ Gus).


What follows is a lot of steamy surveillance of Shazza showering, masturbating, and generally being tastefully and delectably shot in a manner Verhoeven would never have countenanced. Stone looks stunning throughout, of course; Carly is immaculately coiffeured and costumed, an uncostumed, and with Zsigmond’s photography the picture is never less than lustrous-looking. It’s just a shame that’s all it has going for it.


The problem is – and it’s a problem endemic of the Hollywood erotic thriller genre – that no one’s having fun here. This genre is essentially ludicrous, so it tends to need someone with Verhoeven’s pervasive sense of humour and facility for the absurd to bring out its best qualities. Noyce, for all his good qualities, has little in the way of a funny bone, and it leads to an almost entirely po-faced and dreary picture. There are other problems too. It just isn’t thrilling, the mystery isn’t compelling and we aren’t invested in the characters (is that all?) If not Verhoeven, someone like Brian De Palma would have been perfect for this kind of fare, and might even have made its unwieldy plotting a plus point.


To be fair to Berenger, he does a bang-up job playing a complete prick, but he so obviously serves the classic red herring function that, when its revealed he is the murderer, it’s not only anti-climactic but nonsensical (are we really supposed to believe Zeke had that particularly well-paused tape stowed away and never got to the murder bit?) Of course, Jack isn’t the murderer; it’s Zeke (who killed the original tenant Naomi Singer – and the maintenance man who discovers monitoring equipment in the original opening – and Gus, the former because she knew about the cameras and latter for convoluted reasons to do with recognising equipment in Japan that would expose Zeke; Vida could link Zeke to Naomi).


Perhaps the biggest issue, though, is that you need to be very confident of your casting if your going to attempt to bring your audience along through a narrative potentially putting you morally at odds with your protagonist. Hitchcock knew this in Rear Window, Suspicion and Vertigo, that’s why he cast likeables like James Stewart and Cary Grant. To put it mildly, Billy Baldwin doesn’t have the quality, and his presence is, more than any other, responsible for sinking any interest in the picture beyond its narrative limitations.


Sure, he’s a natural at playing a sleazy creep and if you’ve been in search of a prolific slice of hairy Baldwin butt you’re quids in, but the character of Zeke needs to be essentially personable for us to give his multitudinous flaws a free pass. As it is, Zeke is only ever a dodgy onanist so morally compromised he’s willing to watch child abuse and assault and battery habitually on his monitors and only do anything about it to impress the girl. Even with the ending we get (“Get a life”; Esterhaz has recanted for writing it) is scarcely any kind of reckoning or recognition of the kind of guy he is.


And that’s also key to the decision to rejig the ending. It’s no wonder test audiences couldn’t get behind Carly getting together with Zeke and marrying him (while knowing he’s a murderer) and then telling him she knows what he did as they’re about to fly into a volcano on their honeymoon (I know). We need to be able to find some reason for Carly seeing something in Zeke. All Baldwin exudes is essential untrustworthiness, a capacity for taking Shazza from behind against a conveniently placed pillar and a desire to watch home-made porn in her company. Even Cary Grant might have had a hard time pulling that off.


There also needs to be some measure of believability that Carly would turn to the dark side. Her character is barely etched out in any kind of psychologically comprehensible way. She’s coming from a bad relationship, she gets a frisson from watching other couples going at it (“Will you look at her? She’s a voyeur! She cant get enough!” exclaims Jack when Carly spies a couple rutting through a telescope Zeke has anonymously given her), and she’s quickly obsessed with the cornucopia of footage laid out before here when Zeke invites her to his inner sanctum. But we don’t have a clue why she’d condone murder or Zeke’s most anti-social activities. Or why she wouldn’t call the police as soon as she finds Jack lurking in her apartment, come to that.


It isn’t surprising Baldwin and Stone didn’t get on, as there’s zero chemistry between them. This makes the steamy interludes an additional chore (it’s never easy in a traditional narrative movie to make sex scenes actually purposeful, but it at least helps if you’re remotely invested in the characters being together) and the interplay tiresome (the restaurant scene where Zeke asks to see the panties he has bought for Carla, leading to laborious cutting to titillated patrons and waiters as she whips them off). The MPAA originally gave the film an NC-17 (quite why I don’t know, although they’re notoriously prudish when it comes to sex while happy to show all manner of grisliness in a PG-13), but the notion that this caused extensive reshoots seems to be a confusion with test screening reactions to the ending.


One might have thought the age of the Internet (which actually appears in the movie!) and the proliferation of porn would have announced the end of the softcore Hollywood thriller, but it’s alive and well with Fifty Shades of Grey. Sliver is a reminder of more “innocent” times, when the habitual masturbator has to make do with grainy old videotapes (I was going to say VHS, but they’re presumably NTSC, unless he wanted his tapes in superior quality; thinking about it, wouldn’t someone with Zeke’s resources have invested in laserdisc?) It’s a period when anyone looking up an old case had to nip down to the local library and check out the microfiche.


Esterhaz and Noyce singularly fail to etch out anything new with the old voyeurism angle either. There might have been potential with Esterhaz’s original twist, but he hasn’t worked the characters enough to sell it (compare this to the layered interactions between Glenn Close and Jeff Bridges in Jagged Edge). One thing I will say for the picture, though – besides the cinematography – it has a very decent contemporary soundtrack, dating the picture in a complimentary way, making good use of Massive Attack, Enigma, The Verve, Fluke and… Shaggy!


Sliver’s failure (It made Number One on its opening weekend, three weeks prior to the arrival of Jurassic Park, but proceeded to drop like a stone, Sharon) did nothing to dent Noyce’s standing, sandwiched as it was between two Jack Ryan sequels, although the rest of the ‘90s would be patchier for him (the troubled big screen The Saint, and the aforementioned The Bone Collector). Esterhaz had Showgirls to look forward to, while Baldwin made it clear to any doubters (post-Backdraft) that no one was interested in him as a leading man (something compounded by Fair Game with Cindy Crawford a couple of years later).


Stone’s an actress I’ve always found quite watchable, despite her limitations, but she’s all-at-sea in Sliver, attempting to play vulnerable, which doesn’t really suit her. She’d carry on being a star, but a star without a fan base; no one went to see her lead vehicles, although she fared better in ensembles (Casino, Sphere, bagging an Oscar nom for the former). Unwisely sharing the screen with fading leading men (Intersection, The Specialist) didn’t help her prospects, nor did doing a “for your consideration” role (Last Dance). There were nevertheless a few bright spots subsequently – the future-stars-packed The Quick and the Dead, Casino – and she continued to obligatorily shed her clothes for a couple of years, reluctantly recognising her essential lustre, which eventually led to the least-wise decision to go back to an empty well for Basic Instinct 2.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

What ho, Brinkley. So, do you think we’re going to get along, what?

Jeeves and Wooster 2.4: Jeeves in the Country  (aka Chuffy)
The plundering of Thank You, Jeeves elicits two more of the series’ best episodes, the first of which finds Bertie retiring to the country with a new valet, the insolent, incompetent and inebriate Brinkley (a wonderfully sour, sullen performance from Fred Evans, who would receive an encore in the final season), owing to Jeeves being forced to resign over his master’s refusal to give up the trumpet (“not an instrument for a gentleman”; in the book, it’s a banjulele).

Chuffnall Hall is the setting (filmed at Wrotham Park in Hertfordshire), although the best of the action takes place around Bertie’s digs in Chuffnall Regis (Clovelly, Devon), which old pal Reginald “Chuffy” Chuffnell (Marmaduke Lord Chuffnell) has obligingly rented him, much to the grievance of the villagers, who have to endure his trumpeting disrupting the beatific beach (it’s a lovely spot, one of the most evocative in the series).

Jeeves is snapped up into the e…

What I have tried to show you is the inevitability of history. What must be, must be.

The Avengers 2.24: A Sense of History
Another gem, A Sense of History features one of the series’ very best villains in Patrick Mower’s belligerent, sneering student Duboys. Steed and Mrs Peel arrive at St Bode’s College investigating murder most cloistered, and the author of a politically sensitive theoretical document, in Martin Woodhouse’s final, and best, teleplay for the show (other notables include Mr. Teddy Bear and The Wringer).

Don't give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up.

Dark Star (1974)
(SPOILERS) Is Dark Star more a John Carpenter film or more a Dan O’Bannon one? Until the mid ‘80s it might have seemed atypical of either of them, since they had both subsequently eschewed comedy in favour of horror (or thriller). And then they made Big Trouble in Little China and Return of the Living Dead respectively, and you’d have been none-the-wiser again. I think it’s probably fair to suggest it was a more personal film to O’Bannon, who took its commercial failure harder, and Carpenter certainly didn’t relish the tension their creative collaboration brought (“a duel of control” as he put it), as he elected not to work with his co-writer/ actor/ editor/ production designer/ special effects supervisor again. Which is a shame, as, while no one is ever going to label Dark Star a masterpiece, their meeting of minds resulted in one of the decade’s most enduring cult classics, and for all that they may have dismissed it/ seen only its negatives since, one of the best mo…

Ruination to all men!

The Avengers 24: How to Succeed…. At Murder
On the one hand, this episode has a distinctly reactionary whiff about it, pricking the bubble of the feminist movement, with Steed putting a female assassin over his knee and tickling her into submission. On the other, it has Steed putting a female assassin over his knee and tickling her into submission. How to Succeed… At Murder (a title play on How to Succeed at Business Without Really Trying, perhaps) is often very funny, even if you’re more than a little aware of the “wacky” formula that has been steadily honed over the course of the fourth season.

You just keep on drilling, sir, and we'll keep on killing.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)
(SPOILERS) The drubbing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk received really wasn’t unfair. I can’t even offer it the “brave experiment” consolation on the basis of its use of a different frame rate – not evident in itself on 24fps Blu ray, but the neutering effect of the actual compositions is, and quite tellingly in places – since the material itself is so lacking. It’s yet another misguided (to be generous to its motives) War on Terror movie, and one that manages to be both formulaic and at times fatuous in its presentation.

The irony is that Ang Lee, who wanted Billy Lynn to feel immersive and realistic, has made a movie where nothing seems real. Jean-Christophe Castelli’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel is careful to tread heavily on every war movie cliché it can muster – and Vietnam War movie cliché at that – as it follows Billy Lynn (British actor Joe Alwyn) and his unit (“Bravo Squad”) on a media blitz celebrating their heroism in 2004 Iraq …

This here's a bottomless pit, baby. Two-and-a-half miles straight down.

The Abyss (1989)
(SPOILERS) By the time The Abyss was released in late summer ’89, I was a card carrying James Cameron fanboy (not a term was in such common use then, thankfully). Such devotion would only truly fade once True Lies revealed the stark, unadulterated truth of his filmmaking foibles. Consequently, I was an ardent Abyss apologist, railing at suggestions of its flaws. I loved the action, found the love story affecting, and admired the general conceit. So, when the Special Edition arrived in 1993, with its Day the Earth Stood Still-invoking global tsunami reinserted, I was more than happy to embrace it as a now-fully-revealed masterpiece.

I still see the Special Edition as significantly better than the release version (whatever quality concerns swore Cameron off the effects initially, CGI had advanced sufficiently by that point;certainly, the only underwhelming aspect is the surfaced alien craft, which was deemed suitable for the theatrical release), both dramatically and them…

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …