Aaron Sorkin gets a lot of props for his writing and the guy has done some good stuff but I can’t let him off the hook for Malice, a backwards ass psychosexual melodrama that’s so bad it isn’t even good, it’s just hot fucking mess, twice baked roadkill in summer bad. I wanted to love this because I’m a huge fan of melodramatic 90’s potboilers and also it stars Alec Baldwin, Bill Pullman and Nicole Kidman, three wicked sharp and always reliable stars. But man, this thing is just a fucking mess.
The plot, if you could call it that, revolves around three central characters: a college dean (Pullman), his wife (Nicole Kidman) and a hotshot surgeon (Baldwin) with a severely self proclaimed god complex and generally corrosive, unpleasant personality. After he’s sued big time for malpractice when he wrongfully removes her ovaries in an emergency procedure the plot just completely derails and descends into sleazy lifetime thriller territory. The twists contain zero logic, the characters are nondescript cardboard inserts save Baldwin who does his best to save it but eventually gets cornered by the silly narrative just like everyone else. Oh yeah and there’s a subplot about a serial rapist/killer on campus that’s thrown in there seemingly for the fuck of it as an afterthought, but you’ll guess who it is the moment he shows up just because he’s such a recognizably creepy dude. There’s supporting efforts from Josef Sommer, Bebe Neurith, Peter Gallagher, Tobin Bell, Anne Bancroft, an early Gwyneth Paltrow appearance and George C. Scott himself as a cantankerous old veteran doctor with a Santa beard. Wicked cast, right? Too bad they’re all mostly wasted.
I love a good deception/betrayal/psycho doctor potboiler but the gears all have to click together and come up with something that’s believable or you just end up in Eric Roberts two dollar bin material (sorry Eric but it’s true). This thing is ridiculously plotted right out the ass and what’s worse is we didn’t even care one ounce about these characters from the start so we don’t even get the masochistic rush of seeing people we’ve invested in get flushed down the drain of a bad script. This thing just flatlines, and even the scenes that provide some vague thrill seem episodic and detached from the story overall. The only halfway saving grace is Baldwin who really relishes the grade A asshole role enthusiastically, for the first half anyways until things really begin to disintegrate. I will say he gets one of the best lines of his whole career here though. When second guessed by one of his underlings in the OR, he later growls at them in in the locker room: “If you ever question me again in there I’ll take out your lungs with a fucking ice cream scoop” “I’m not gonna like you much, am I?” His colleague bemoans, to which he affably replies “What are you talkin’ about? Everybody likes me.” It’s a terrific moment and the only sign of life in an otherwise awful film.
As much as the Saw franchise has become a screaming mad runaway train from which there is no escape or slowing down (I think they just rolled out the eighth one? Fucking Christ), sometimes I need to remind myself that the first is in fact an excellent horror film and worthy of the mythic status it has earned these days. Written by and starring Leigh Whannell who has recently branched out to direct this year’s awesome genre bender Upgrade, it’s directed by James Who has gone on to become a superstar in the genre, but it’s a bit ironic because with this he basically pioneered a whole new tributary of gore-centric horror, yet went on to do fright flicks that notoriously toned down the carnage in favour of real scares. In a dark, damp room, a doctor (Cary Elwes) and a smart ass (Whannell) are held prisoner, chained to radiators. They are informed by unseen serial killer Jigsaw that they must either chop off a limb with the rusty hacksaw laying about, or die in captivity. A corpse lies near them as well as several other tools and riddles, both of the men have secrets that will come to light and play a part in the unfolding horrors to come. Elsewhere, a weary police detective (Danny Glover) follows the trail of clues and tries to hunt down the elusive Jigsaw killer. It’s all a wickedly paced mechanization that moves along like one of Jigsaw’s jagged, gruesome traps until it reaches that final staggering revelation that has since become legend. Others along for the ride include Lost’s Michael Emerson, Tobin Bell, Monica Potter and Shawnee Smith as the now infamous Amanda. The key to all this, and something that they forgot when churning out those ridiculous sequels, is that less is more. This was a low budget shocker that largely relied on one location, and the looming threat of grisly violence rather than wanton gore every other minute. I suppose every successful idea gets saturated by money and excess once the ball gets rolling but holy fuck did they ever let these Saw films get out of control. The first two are like being at a bar with a few of your friends having casual drinks, then three and four roll in as those crazy friends of friends who order way too many shots and start breaking stuff, by the time five and six show up everyone is dancing and throwing up all over the bar and you forgot how you even got there, and the seventh (in 3D no less, because that’s what we needed) is the anguished hangover the next morning and by then you just want it to stoooopppp. At least that’s how I felt watching the them. I’d just as soon stick to this one, it’s a dark, surprisingly thoughtful chiller with a strong story and one of the best yuck moments in the genre. People forget how measured and restrained it is compared to the un-contained wildfire that those sequels smothered it with.
The 4th Floor is an odd little horror vehicle starring Juliette Lewis and William Hurt, two big names who you wouldn’t usually find in low budget, bizarre stuff like this. Lewis plays a young woman who moves into an ancient New York apartment building only to find that something malevolent is going on inside. Hurt is her big-shot TV weatherman boyfriend who is resentful about it as he’d hoped she would make the step and move in with him. Anywho, the building is home to a host of creepy types including an awkward caretaker (Austin Pendleton), a woman for some reason named Martha Stewart (Shelley Duvall), a weirdo lock smith (Tobin ‘Jigsaw’ Bell) who doubles as an artist and others. They’re all kind of set up like dominoes and you’re supposed to choose which one is behind the evil what-have-you, but it isn’t all that scary or enthralling. Still, it’s atmospheric enough, has a great cast who do pretty well, and anything with Lewis in the lead role is already sold for me. The film’s strongest point is the twist ending, but it’s such a fleetingly subtle revelation that many probably missed, a last minute thing you’ll either see or you won’t, but changes the dynamic of the entire film jarringly and ends on a nice, tense cliffhanger. Passable stuff.
Wolfgang Petersen’s In The Line Of Fire is as solid as action pictures get, a three course thriller meal, and one of my favourite Clint Eastwood flicks. Starting to show his age here and adopting a brittle, calcified hardness, he plays disgraced secret service agent Frank Horrigan, a quiet, resolute man who is haunted by his failure to protect Kennedy from that infamous bullet. He’s on undercover sting operations with his rookie partner (Dylan McDermott) these days, and is battling some health issues that go hand in hand with getting up there in years. No better time for predatory, mercurial ex CIA assassin Mitch Leary (a terrifying John Malkovich) to taunt him out of retirement with threats against the new president, up for election. Leary is a cunning psychopath who won’t go down so easy, and Frank is just the determined wolfhound to take him down, as a dangerous, violently suspenseful game of cat and mouse plays out. There’s an obligatory female love interest too, but the film shirks the usual ditzy throwaway chick and goes for something classier in Rene Russo, a capable senior agent who initially roasts Frank for his age before eventually warming up. Russo is an unconventionally attractive, intuitively engaging actress whose subtly likeable nature sneaks up on you and the muted chemistry she has with Eastwood is terrific. The three excellent leads are surrounded by a nebulae of awesome supporting players including John Mahoney, the always solid Gary Cole, Fred Dalton Thompson, a sleazy Tobin Bell and scene stealing character actor Steve Railsback in a brilliant cameo as Leary’s shady former Agency handler. Subtlety has never been Petersen’s forte, but his approach works here as he tells the story in big, bold strokes that highlight each set piece with sterling suspense. There’s also a brooding score by the master himself, Ennio Morricone, which takes the solemn, scary route instead of blaring up the Zimmer-esque fireworks. As great as the action is here (that plastic 3D printed gun though), my favourite scenes are the creepy late night phone calls that Malkovich makes to Eastwood, teasing him but also betraying notes of loneliness in his perverted psyche. This is a battle of wills before it even gets physical, and the two heavyweights spar off of each other with calculated portent and restrained, fascinated loathing. A thriller classic.