Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Movie Review: Basic Instinct 2(2006)

Well, after a hairy few weeks here in Muirville, I decided to kick back with my wife yesterday and go see a movie. I thought it would be fun to be one of the ten people in the civilized world who had seen Basic Instinct 2 in a theater.

This was probably a mistake, because there was a loud psychopath in the seat behind my wife who kept cackling through the previews and speaking very loudly. He was particularly roiled by the V for Vendetta trailer, for some reason. This is what we get, perhaps, for going to a second run theater. We moved quietly to the other side of the room after one of the patron's gleeful and disturbing howls.

Just...don't...make...eye contact...

Anyway, having moved from one end of the auditorium to the other, I was able to ponder briefly that this nut-job is just one of the reasons why DVD is becoming a preferred venue to theaters...

But onto the movie.

I'd read all the reviews and knew that Basic Instinct 2 had been widely and venomously panned. What bothered me about so many of these reviews is that they were penned by male critics who focused basically on one point: that 48-year old Sharon Stone is just too old to play a sexy seductress. The critics offered snarky jibes about "Botox," about "grandmothers," about the actress being "past" her "prime." Basically - it seemed to me - that mainstream critics were using the opportunity of a sequel to trash an aging actress and air their own dirty laundry/biases about age. Nice, huh?

There are many grounds to dislike Basic Instinct 2 (and I'll enumerate my quibbles with the film momentarily...) but it truly says something about how mean our popular culture has become (and how illiterate the critics have become...) that the vast majority of these writers decided to heap all their scorn on Ms. Stone's age and appearance.

Since that's the battleground they chose, let's start there. They're liars. Sharon Stone looks terrific. She's gorgeous and in great physical shape. Anyone who claims differently has an agenda (or is so poor a movie critic he or she picked the easiest target rather than looking in-depth at the movie.). Does Sharon Stone look 18-years old? No. Of course not. Does she look thirty years old? Uhm, no. She's a mature forty-eight. But she's a damn fine forty-eight. I guess people over forty aren't allowed to be sexy? Is that the point? Everyone over thirty should report to Carousel immediately for Renewal!

For me, the "sexiness" equation is based on a whole lot more than merely looks. It involves the manner in which a person carries herself (or, I guess, himself...); it involves intelligence too, or wit, even. Looks are vital, but I'm baffled by the critics who think Stone isn't beautiful or sexy or completely in control here. She is all three. And she uses her body - literally - as a lethal weapon in this film.

My point, I suppose, is that I saw no mainstream critic complain at the time of either Hannibal (2000) or Red Dragon (2001) that Anthony Hopkins had simply grown too old (and too corpulent) to reprise the role of the vital, dangerous serial killer, Hannibal Lector. In fact, Hopkins was playing Hannibal in a prequel (Red Dragon) to Silence of the Lambs even! Why is he off the hook? Sharon Stone plays a very similar character in these Basic Instinct films, a "popular" serial killer (we suspect...). Yet there's a double-standard evident in the media. I guess Hopkins can play the lightning-fast, super-strong, virile Hopkins (matched with younger actresses such as Julianne Moore) until he's well into his seventies. But Stone is out as "sexy" before she's fifty. Interesting.

Personally - if you ask me - Sharon Stone rocks in this film. She's the absolute best thing about it. She doesn't play Catherine Trammell for laughs; she doesn't act like not a day has passed since 1992; she purely and simply (and honestly) resurrects - with a kind of go-for-the-throat gusto - the sinister, manipulative character who jump-started her career all those years ago. What's great about the performance is that Stone doesn't try to make more out of it than what was there to begin with. She doesn't make a grab for relevance or emotional significance. Trammell is a mind-fucker pure and simple, and this is a trashy movie - as the original was a trashy movie - and Stone runs with it. She's campy only in the sense that the whole enterprise (which includes orgies, bi-sexuality, and masturbation) is campy.

Why would you go to a theater to see Basic Instinct 2? I mean, seriously? What would you expect? I went in expecting a trashy good time - not Shakespeare or Pinter - and that's exactly what Stone and director Michael Caton-Jones served up. Critics who went in expecting something more are - seriously - fools of the highest order.

My main beef with the movie doesn't involve Sharon Stone. It involves the disappointing way movies have changed since 1992 and since the first picture in the franchise. Go back and watch Paul Verhoeven's original. I did so before seeing the sequel. It boasts an amazing, Hitchcockian score by the late Jerry Goldsmith (which is resurrected for spells in the sequel), but also a classicism in terms of how it was shot. The camera angles and motions revealed as much about the characters as the dialogue did. Go back and watch Basic Instinct and experience the hair raising sea-side cliff car chase (shot with helicopter at points...) or watch that famous "interrogation" sequence to detect how the director alternates between long-takes and intense close-ups (and then starts moving the camera faster as the scene becomes more intense...). The film established its characters and situations with more than a modicum of flair. A great film? Perhaps not, but it looks great, thanks to Verhoeven's skill with mise-en-scene and the like. It has aged well simply because there's a classic, cinematic sense about it.

But Basic Instinct appears to be an absolute high-watermark of formalism compared to Basic Instinct 2. Today, audiences apparently require no cinematic skill in our movies (the pervasive impact of television, I believe...) and the result is a movie that feels like a TV show. Basic Instinct 2 is choppy (just perfect for commercial breaks...), the film spends too much time with close-ups and two-shots (the bread-and-butter of TV), and not nearly enough time establishing location, mood or suspense.. It's like filmmaker's today can't be bothered to create an "experience" for movie-goers anymore. Everythng has to be delivered quickly, in the most rudimentary fashio possible. All style is filtered out (it might confuse people!!), leaving movies - like reality shows - to feel nothing more than "immediate." On too many TV programs today a "shaky" cam substitutes for real film style; engendering immediacy...but absolutely nothing else. A hand-held shaky camera is what filmmakers use when writers can't create characters we identify with. It's a substitute that makes us "feel" close without the hard-work of believable dialogue.

If critics want to rag on Basic Instinct 2; that's the reason to go after it. The director is unable to effectively build or sustain a mood or transport the audience back visually into Catherine's ambiguous world. CGI effects just don't manage the trick. This failure leaves Sharon Stone to do much of the heavy-lifting by sheer force of will and the miracle of Basic Instinct 2 is that she nearly accomplishes that task. There are times when Stone takes the screen and - with diabolical intensity and focus -unleashes long, devious monologues that are really kind of stunning. These moments further establish the essence of the Trammell character: we never know if she's a murderer or just a champion mind-fucker. Stone plays Trammell like a puppet master, an Iago - whispering seductive things in hero Hugh Dancy's ears - in the process so baffling and confusing him that the audience is left with absolutely no idea if what she's saying is true or false.

I also give Basic Instinct 2 some serious credit for not becoming "The Catherine Trammell Show," which would have surely been a temptation. Put Sharon Stone on screen in various stages of undress and let's see her killing people! Whammo, you've got a movie! But that isn't what happens here. In the film, Trammell never kills anybody on screen. There's an accident in which she's involved, but that doesn't count. Instead, the film maintains the original's sense of ambiguity and never reveals its cards. There's even a scene (in a hot tub, no less), in which Trammell confesses to every crime committed in both films. But - of course - she's playing. By this point in the film, it pays for her to confess and so she does. It's still a game, and the audience doesn't believe what she says. Everything can be interpreted two ways here, and astoundingly - on many occasions - three ways. How many trashy thrillers can make that claim?

Look, I'm not claiming that Basic Instinct 2 is a great movie. It's a trashy movie that is wholly enjoyable, but the critics didn't play fair with it. They couldn't let themselves "like" a movie called Basic Instinct 2 (yet they fawn all over self-important films such as Crash...) because it has no aspirations to greatness or meaning beyond its own sleazy, film noir agenda. Critics also couldn't handle it because they apparently would have preferred one of the Olsen Twins or Lindsay Lohan in a starring role, rather than Sharon Stone. Shame on them, on both counts.

Basic Instinct 2 has it share of problems. It's filmed like a TV program, and Hugh Dancy is never able to transmit the internal battle raging within him, and thus makes for only a moderately successful foil for Trammell. And yet, this movie is not a betrayal of Basic Instinct's thematic aesthetic (only its visual one). Given how badly movies are made today (and again, I'm talking about visuals), it's a legitimate continuation that's worth seeing if you liked the original and understand that you're seeing a sequel to Basic Instinct, not "An Enemy of the People" or some such thing.

I'm not just being a contrarian. I expected this to be one of the worst movies ever made based on the criticism I read (and it will no doubt "win" a gaggle of Razzies) but I also expected the movie to be trashy and over-the-top. Indeed, that's precisely why I plunked down my $1.50. I wanted to see a little gratuitous sex and violence, and I wanted to see Sharon Stone resume the role that I had enjoyed her in years ago.

Again, critics who went in expecting high-art are idiots. Sorry, but it's true. A responsible reviewer must take a movie on its own terms and judge it successful or failed based on the tenets the movie establises. To expect Basic Instinct 2 to be a meaningful art film is patently absurd. The critics who wanted that never gave this movie a fair hearing.


  1. Anonymous8:01 PM

    After 14 years, the time had long passed that there was any demand for a sequel. It seems that every critic has made a point about Stone's age. A double standard to be sure; no one ever complained that Michael Douglas was in his mid-fifties when he appeared in the buff in Basic Instinct (his backside surely wasn't a pleasant sight). Also, what was shocking in 1992 isn't today (especially considering what is available on the internet). The first film attracted enormous attention because women's groups and lesbians protested the first film (because of the character of the lesbian killer). Many people saw the film to see what all the fuss was about.

    Virtually no buzz surrounded the sequel. I'll definately watch it when it shows up on cable. Sharon is still a beautiful and classy woman!


  2. Anonymous12:30 AM

    You have nailed down one of my biggest problems with movies today...the shot like a TV show thing.

    I haven't seen a modern movie with excellent pacing, angles, lighting, in a really long time. Movies just don't suck me in anymore, and what I'm left with is feeling like I'm WATCHING a movie in front of me, like when I'm watching TV. But I'm not INVOLVED in it.