REVIEW: United 93

Soon enough, we’ll be able to talk about “9-11 movies.” The protective airtight do-not-touch seal on the subject comes off, for movies anyway, this year. “Too soon” or “not soon enough” are irrelevant. Get used to it. Sooner than you think, we’ll be having conversations about “9-11 movies.” Which ones are better, which ones are less so, protrayals and repeat characters and so on and so forth.

But not yet. Right now, it’s only the beginning. Right now, Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” is not “a 9-11 movie.” It’s THE 9-11 movie. It’s patient-zero: The first big screen film to recreate events of that day in detail. So, right now, any attempt to simply “review” it is going to seem somehow insubstantial. What else can it be compared to? From what do we draw reference? Even the IDEA of holding it up against other “disaster” movies… or even calling it a “thriller”… seems somehow small and almost vulgar.

Relating the facts (along with some studiously-careful conjecture) of United 93, the fourth plane hijacked on 9-11 that crashed in Pennsylvania following an (apparently) successful attempt by it’s passengers to overwhelm the terrorists and stop them from hitting their target (believed to have been Washington, D.C.), Greengrass pushes his now-famous semi-documentary style of quivering cameras to it’s logical extreme: The film plays from the perspective of a fly on the wall. There’s no “manipulative” music, no visible story-structure, no “money shots” or “applause lines.” We don’t learn most of the characters names, nor do we glean but slivers of backstory. It exists entirely in the moment, NOTHING before and only a series of explainatory title cards after. This isn’t just adaptation, it’s re-creation.

This is probably the only way that “THE 9-11 movie” could have been made and worked as well as it does, (the time for more story-driven, conventional-narrative versions is later) but I’d hazard a guess that a (near) universally-experienced event like this is the only way audiences would ever willingly endure a film in this style. Contrary to the preachings of militant-realists like Robert Altman, characterization, visual markers and musical-nudging aren’t just cheats for cheap manipulation: Most films require such simply to engage the audience, to give them a frame of basic reference to “anchor” themselves within the film. “United 93”, however, requires no such anchor: From the moment a waiting-hijacker glances out one of the plane’s windows and casually spies the Twin Towers still standing, the film has you’re attention by the throat. You remember where you were, what you saw, and what you must now prepare to see again…

…except for one thing. The film promises you that this time, at least, you will see something different. The outcome will be what you remember, but if you can endure it this time… this time… you’ll recieve a moment of catharsis. You’ll see one or more of the terrorists thrown to the ground, overwhelmed and (dare you hope) pounded mercilessly by one of his intended victims. That this eventually feels heroic is without question, whether or not it is truly cathartic remains in the eye of the individual.

The cast is largely unfamiliar faces, and much of the air-traffic and military-command personnel play themselves, so trying to talk about performance because nearly impossible. Suffice it to say that no one ever betrays the movie-ness of the situation.

In the end, there are no pauses for applause or instructions on how we’re supposed to feel; and that’s possibly what’s most remarkable: No traditional tropes of the heroic film are on-display, but the real-enough actions of it’s heroes provoke the gut-reaction of hope and support anyway. A more fitting tribute I cannot fathom.


REVIEW: American Dreamz

Now HERE is one weird, fascinating odd-duck of a movie. I’m not sure how to describe it other than to call it a drama that’s somehow been cast with SNL-issue caricatures in all of the lead roles.

It’s story reads like some kind of cross pop-cultural fan-fiction: President Stanton (Dennis Quaid doing an affectionately dead-on George W. Bush riff) wakes up the day after re-election and decides he should try reading a newspaper in lieu of his usual briefing. Stanton, a well-meaning but not-brilliant man, becomes overwhelmed by the sheer volume of things in the world he doesn’t know and vanishes from public life, locked in the White House surrounded by growing stacks of books and newspapers. The Chief of Staff, (Willem Dafoe as sooo-totally-not-Dick-Cheney,) who fancies himself the “power behind the throne,” sees this newfound intellectual curiosity on the president’s behalf as a threat to his control; so he uses a regimen of mind-altering medication and earpiece-microphones to manipulate Stanton onto a media-fluff P.R. blitz, culminating in the president guest-judging the finale of “American Dreamz.”

“Dreamz” is, of course, a stand-in for “American Idol” and, like it’s real-world cousin, is a worthless but incredibly-popular televised talent show overseen by an unctuous, amoral Brit (Hugh Grant.) Named Martin Tweed, he puppeteers the winners and losers to keep the most ratings-friendly contestants in the running. His big hook this season is to split the frontrunners between a blonde all-American girl, a Hasidic Jew and… wait for it… an Arab! The songstress is Sally Kendoo (Mandy Moore) a soulless fame-obsessed harpy playing at all-American sweetness. The Arab, through a series of coincidences, is Omer (Sam Golzari.) A would-be terrorist (really!) kicked out of Al Qaida for being too sensitive (he’d rather sing showtunes than murder-bomb people,) Omer lucks into the contest and is suddenly re-united with his “brothers”: They know that President Stanton will be on the finale, and they want Omer to get that far so that he can blow him up!

This is a DENSE plot, even for a broad satire, and all of these characters and storylines strain to fit into a single film when most of them are crying out for a feature of their own. There’s more, too: Whole subplots focusing on Stanton’s genuinely loving relationship with his wife (Marcia Gay Harden,) Sally’s heartless treatment of her “boyfriend,” (Chris Klein) a wounded Iraq War vet who genuinely adores her but whom she only strings along because dating him makes her look patriotic, and Omer’s non-terrorist relatives: A happily-assimilated Arab American family. And there’s the matter of Tweed and Sally’s creepy growing-attraction to one-another: Both are immensely in love with their mutual awfulness of character.

With this much going on in a stylistic structure that’s remarkably offbeat to begin with, it’s understandable that “Dreamz” winds up being kind of a mess. It’s characters are sketch-comedy archetypes, either broad caricatures or sharp celebrity parodies, but the storyline eventually wants us to take them and their arcs seriously. Even Tweed and Sally Kendoo, ostensibly two of the villians of the peice, are afforded moments of reflection and depth (though Dafoe’s psuedo-Cheney is a baddie to the core.)

I can’t say that this is a film that really “works” as a whole, but as a unique creature unto itself it’s endlessly engaging and kind of brilliant in spots. Most surprising is Quaid’s turn as the Bush-like president: You’re expecting a scathing satire but instead it’s closer to affection and wishful thinking. Stanton is a good man, trying to be better, far from the anti-Bush “attack” many would be anticipating.

Director Paul Weitz, late of “American Pie” and “About a Boy,” has MUCH more venom, apparently, for “American Idol” and the popular culture that rewards such idiocy with huge ratings than he does for America’s oft-maligned commander in chief. There’s a scene in the 1st act where Stanton is meeting the Premier of China and tries to discuss the fact that his research into North Korea is giving him (literal) nightmares rather than exchange state-visit platitudes, only to be undercut by Dafoe’s scheming that’s kind of heartbreaking in an odd, affecting way. And there’s something… horrible… about a later scene where the Chief of Staff “handles” his president like some kind of literal object as he fine-tunes a hidden earpiece. Weitz even gives his would-be Bush a speech at the end which is at once an act of attempted heroism, a signal of Stanton’s coming into his own as a REAL leader and, it can be surmised, a talk-to-the-audience statement of the writer/director’s intended message about America in the age of reality TV.

Also problematic but frequently gutsy is the way the story veers without warning into moments of real darkness: You keep waiting for Tweed and Kendoo to reveal some level of human decency, but instead they only get more and more loathsome as the story goes on; leading inexorably to a pitch-black finale wherein the film’s dueling representatives of pure-evil and too-good-for-ones-own-good reach a disturbing mutual fate. And even then, the focus dives back and forth from that darkness to the sugary hopefulness of Omer’s rejection of terrorism, and to the touching realization of where (and whom) Stanton needs to turn in order to find his redemption and strength.

This movie is messy, sloppy, full of big dreams and grand ambitions. It doesn’t “hold together” as well as lesser works of lesser ambition, but it’s trying it’s ASS off to be something unique and capture a moment in time in the context of a comic-drama. It’s worth you’re time to see it for yourself.


REVIEW: Silent Hill

SPOILERS herein. Warned, you have been.

You’re the adoptive parent of a young child, who is suffering from reccurring nightmares. During these nightmares, you discover, she often sleepwalks into life-threatening situations and randomly screams the name of a small, isolated coal-mining town in Virginia. You Google this place, and discover that it is an infamous “ghost town,” abandonned and in decay, imperiled by stilll-burning underground fires, the site of some horrible unspoken tragedy.

Do you:
A.) Research the matter further, so as to discover exactly what is going on?
B.) Contact professionals and experts in such matters?
C.) Take the kid, get in your car and drive there in the middle of the night, even if you have to crash through a gate and outrun a police officer to do so because you’re just that curious?

As “Silent Hill” is a horror film of the supernatural variety, and such films can rarely function under the strictures of hard logic, you’ll probably be unsurprised to learn that Rose DaSilva (Rhada Mitchell) promptly opts for “C” when her adopted daughter Sharon (Jodelle Ferland) nearly sleepwalks herself off a cliff while babbling about the titular burg. Such seeming lapses in basic human logic would be the death knell for film’s concerned with the realm of reality… fortunately, for itself and for it’s audience; “Silent Hill” is concerned with no such thing. Resting comfortably at the intersection of H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King, this is a film that takes possibilities that it’s events may (or may not) be occuring at the behest of a semi-omnipotent demonic force as a license to hitch the bulk of it’s narrative to dream logic. Nightmare logic, really…

This openly-acknowledged break with the constraints of the real are helpful to a film which aims to unsettle with warped rythyms of time and space, and horrify with the images revealed therein. There are sights and sounds in “Silent Hill” so fearsome that the fact that many of them can’t possibly be real offers no sense of reassurance: Since the whole film is fixed in unreality, that makes them possibly as real as anything else going on… I can’t quite explain why “Pyramid Head” is so scary, he just is. (That’ll make more sense once you see it)

It also, it has to be said, allows for ample wiggle room as the film works to reconcile it’s present as a narrative film with it’s origins as an interactive video game. For awhile, it’s principal players spend an intriguing amount of time (for a horror film) digging through drawers, memorizing maps, piecing together clues and negoiating mazes, corridors and awkward platforms invariably set above deep chasms. In tandem, director Christophe Gans (late of his masterpeice “Brotherhood of The Wolf,”) works himself raw recreating the game’s unique camera angles and visual scheme. To fans of the game, these will be knowing nods (“ha! they got the flashlight!”) while to the casual audience they aim to alternately serve as further moments of disorientation and overall weirdness.

Not that it’s DEVOID of story: Following a near-miss car crash, Rose wakes up in Silent Hill to find Sharon missing, and takes off after her into the seemingly-deserted town. She’s soon backed-up by a tough lady cop (a butched-up Laurie Holden), who at first plans to leave but finds that rather impractical: The roads into and out-of town have been blocked by huge, bottomless canyons that… ulp… weren’t there a minute ago…

This isn’t good for them, as Silent Hill is somewhere you don’t want to be stuck for any period of time: It’s trapped in perpetual fog, and eerie ashes constantly fall from the sky. Periodically, an air-raid siren blows, and the whole place turns into an even worse version of itself; one made out of flame, barbed-wire and rust… and crawling with horrible monsters of all shapes and sizes. Meanwhile, Rose’s husband Christopher (Sean Bean) also searches Silent Hill for her in yet another version. Uh-oh…

This all has something to do with vengeance from beyond the grave, alternate realities, religious fanatacism and the reccurring nugget about Silent Hill’s founders being self-appointed Witch Hunters in addition to miners and, truth be told, it eventually makes a decent amount of sense at least in terms of the rules it writes for itself. In practical terms, it’s successful in creating solid rationale for it’s heroes to continually find themselves trapped in dark, hopeless situations and threatened by snarling beasties, which is about the most you can reasonably ask of it. That it’s visually gorgeous, mentally engaging and glued together by some pretty powerful themes and interesting ideas (once “everything” is revealed, at least.)

Most importantly, it’s the first horror film in awhile that understands how to be both gory AND genuinely scary: Scenes during “The Darkness,” wherein the monster creeping up behind you is only slightly more ghastly than the one standing in front of you, are nerve-shreddingly scary; while in other scenes Gans piles on the viscera and vomit as though hoping to out-gun “The Story of Ricky” as the bloodiest movie of all time. At least two “kills” are instant Fangoria photo-spread classics, and the prolonged “all hell breaks loose” climax is reminiscient of legendary horror finales found in the likes of “Dead Alive” or “Society.”

If you’re any kind of horror fan, “Silent Hill” DEMANDS your attention. Reccomended.


REVIEW: Scary Movie 4

That the “Scary Movie” franchise has actually reached a fourth installment is at once surprising and innevitable. It’s original Wayans Bros.-created film was a more amusing-than-expected lowbrow spoof of then-recent slasher films, notable exclusively for the sheer R-rated audacity of it’s gross-out sex gags. A throwaway sequel followed quickly, doing so-so boxoffice but providing inspiration to it’s studio: Done at proper efficiently, quickie “spoofs” both summarizing and making broad “hey! that’s from ______” jokes at the expense of the notable movies of the past year could provide a profitable franchise with an inexhaustible supply of reference material. Enter David Zucker, who helped invent this genre with “Airplane,” who took over from the Wayans to deliver a newer, broader, PG-13 hit with “Scary Movie 3.” Zucker returns for #4, alongside the impossible adorable series-mainstay Anna Faris.

This time around the gags are less rapid-fire than previously, zeroing in on “War of The Worlds,” “The Grudge,” “Saw” and “The Village,” with brief side digs at “Million Dollar Baby” and, of course, “Brokeback Mountain.” The “War” riff takes up the majority of the story, so Faris finds herself sharing screentime with Craig Beirko doing a scary-good goof on the public and onscreen faces of Tom Cruise. Charlie Sheen cameos from the previous installment for a scene while spoof-specialist Leslie Neilsen reprises his turn as a dimwitted President who’s big scene MAY be a riff on “Fahrenheit 911” but, since it’s goofing on actual footage, could possibly be called the first “9/11 joke” in a mainstream comedy. Shaquille O’Neil and Dr. Phil re-enact the goings on of “Saw;” but the most “meta” gags come from Bill Pullman, relating to his being the only main actor appearing from one of the films BEING spoofed.

Most of it’s funny, some of it’s not, none of it’s classic. Overall, the cleverness the film shows in making a (mostly) cohesive story out of recreations of disparate other movies is usually funnier than the jokes themselves. Zucker is a pro, and the production manages to be damn good at making their parodies look and feel like the genuine article. The “WOTW” bits are both the funniest and the most faithfully-adapted.

There are some missteps: The obligatory “Brokeback” swipe is funny, but shoehorned awkwardly into the narrative as a flashback and really isn’t any more clever than the thousands of spoofs the ubiquitous “gay cowboy movie” has already inspired for over a year now. And while I’m laughing at the spot-on “Village” shredding… how many people really remember that much about “The Village” other than it sucking so terribly?

This is the cute diversion it wants to be, Bierko is starting to look like a real character-talent… as a time-waster, I’d say reccomended.


REVIEW: Take The Lead

The great unspoken quirk of the documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom” was that it’s story of an idealistic teacher who won the hearts of ghetto problem-children through unconventional means (he taught them competitive ballroom dancing) sounded so much like that of a cheezy feel-good movie… but was actually true. In simply making a cheezy movie out of it, that quirk is lost and we’re left with the latest “wacky teacher makes good” garbage for the woodpile. Aspiring screenwriter’s take note: If your movie can be accurately described as a crappier chick-flick version of “Only The Strong,” your movie is going to SUCK.

Antonio Banderas plays Pierre DuLaine, a ballroom dancing instructor with a genius-level acumen for social graces and the ability to speak six languages (“all of them with a Spanish accent, of course.” ha ha!) but a total lack of backstory, any kind of characterization or even a logical thought-process. Upon witnessing a local high schooler vandalizing his principal’s car, DuLaine is apparently is siezed by the call of Civic Duty: He marches into said principal’s office and offers to rescue the “school rejects” through the healing magic of ballroom dance instruction.

DuLaine is provided with the usual Baskin Robbins flavor-assortment of racial/gender/lifestyle types in the form of an extended detention class, and… oh, screw it. Does ANYONE really need this summarized? Kid’s with comical problems solve them humorously, seriously problems are addressed and left to hang, “tough choices” are made, Knute Rockne speeches are given, lessons are learned, etc.

Yup, DuLaine is forced to face down an angry room of disgruntled parents with the gall to insist that his methods may be foolish. Yup, everything comes down to a big competition showdown between DuLaine’s free-spirited squad of street-hipsters and lily-white vanguards of tradition. Through all of this, Banderas works his ASS off in a valiant effort to carry a film entirely devoid of merit with only the strength of his own “coolest man on earth” charisma to aid him.

There is no way to parse it: This movie is COMPLETELY worthless.


REVIEW: The Benchwarmers

The wind-up:The Benchwarmers” arrives courtesy of Adam Sandler’s Happy Madison production outfit, and bears all the usual hallmarks thereof: It’s a low-budget comedy, stars a crew of Sandler’s compatriots from SNL and boasts a plot straight out of a family film factory “goosed up” with PG-13 gay, racial and scatology humor. You know what you’re getting into if you go see it, though this time it’s not actually all that bad.

And the pitch: Landscaper Gus (Rob Schneider) is the nominal leader of a three perpetual-loser buddies, also including possibly-retarded paperboy Clark (Jon Heder, aka Napolean Dynamite) and geeky/sleazy video clerk Richie (David Spade.) When the trio observe members of the local little league team roughing some of the local “nerds,” they challenge the bullies to a scrimmage game and end up winning thanks to Gus’ previously-undisclosed athletic expertise. This leads to more challenges and more wins, news of which reaches the ears of nerd-turned-BILLIONAIRE-NERD Mel (Jon Lovitz) who approaches the three with a proposal: That they challenge the entire leagues’ worth of teams, whupping their asses in the name of all athletically-challenged “benchwarmer” youngsters with an ultra-modern baseball stadium as the winner’s prize.

It’s a cute premise, further flavored by a keen (if broad) grasp on the bully/bullied dynamic and an obvious affection for the “nerds” in question: The Benchwarmer’s exploits are covered on websites, and they develop an army of followers drawing inspiration from their “taking on” of the jock-ocracy. Little touches, like Mel’s collection of scifi-memorabilia and the pleasantly strong results of casting the oft-grating Schneider as the straight-man, lift the film considerably. And it plays things interestingly subtle (for the most part) in regards to a plot-mystery involving Gus’ character: After all, it’s a little strange that a guy who pals around with the geek set and is so attuned to the suffering of school-aged misfits is so great at sports himself, not to mention skilled in the arts of bully-fu, no? Hm…

Nice touches aside, it can’t exactly overcome the general problems of Happy Madison’s output: The adult jokes don’t really fit with the overall story, which is more like something out of Disney in the early-70s, and as far as structure goes, well… it doesn’t really have much of one. It’s heart is in the right place, and it’s probably Schneider’s best role, but it doesn’t add up to much.


REVIEW: Ice Age 2: The Meltdown

Most of the time, you can’t see Manny’s mouth.

Manny, voiced by Ray Romano, is more-or-less the lead character of both “Ice Age” films so far. Being that he is a Wooly Mammoth, and thusly a massive and powerful creature covered in bushy hair with his offensive weapons (tusks) perpetually jutting out in front of him, it makes sense that he come off significantly on the “gruffer” side compared to most of his cuddlier, zanier brethren in the fellowship or cartoon animals.

But there’s more to it than that. The original film cast Manny with one of the darker personas in cinema-for-the-young: Brooding and bordering on suicidal (as the first film opens, he’s walking AGAINST the migration away from the certain doom of the advancing ice) after his wife and children were killed by human hunters. And there’s Romano’s terse, to-the-point delivery and the storyline which made him both the brains AND most of the muscle (being, essentially, an eleven foot-tall walking tank with giant spears sticking out of his face) of his comic trio… and, yes, thanks to the trunk-obscured shape of a Mammoth’s face you usually can’t see his mouth; resulting in a default expression resembling nothing so much as Clint Eastwood’s grim ambiguity in the “Dollars” cycle.

So, while the “Ice Age” franchise so far doesn’t quite have Pixar’s polish or “Shrek’s” crossover grace, it CAN boast digital animation’s mas macho hero, which is certainly something.

It can also boast a certain unique design and oddball energy all it’s own, started off in the first film by Chris Wedge and continued here by co-director Carlos Saldhana. (Wedge remains as the voice of “Scrat”.) Set among anthropomorphized Megafauna (large-scale prehistoric mammals) during the titular period of global cooling, the overriding contrast of bulky quadropeds moving amidst whited-out snowscapes or sparse forestland ensures that it doesn’t look too much like anything else out there.

Plotwise, the franchise has thus far distinguished itself by grounding it’s plots in the tradition of mission-oriented “journey” stories with the added flavor of “guy movie” male-bonding: When last we left, Manny had formed a makeshift herd with wacky sloth Sid (John Leguizamo) and stealthy sabre-toothed tiger Diego (Dennis Leary) to help shepherd an orphaned human baby back to it’s tribe, complicated by Diego’s shifting loyalty to his human-hunting tiger brothers.. though, naturally, that was worked out. Having learned to work together (and to deliver a timely message about alternative families without being preachy) the trio here re-join us, now living comfortably in a hospitable valley among a grab-bag of other species…

…except that “hospitable” part doesn’t last long. As our main story begins, the animals discover that the “doomsday” predictions of the local nuts are correct: The Ice Age is ending, and a rising ocean is three days away from spilling back into the valley and drowning them all. And so we’ve got our new mission: Get to the other side of the valley, where the salvation of a “boat” supposedly awaits, and in the interim solve Diego’s newly-revealed fear of water and Manny’s growing concern that he may be the last of his species… a concern that is relaxed, only to reveal new issues, by the discovery of female mammoth Ellie (Queen Latifah) who has, let’s say, “identity issues.”

It’s not as emotionally compelling a setup as the prior film, but that’s not entirely unexpected. More problematic is the lack, this time around, of a compelling villian. Oh, “the elements” remain the primary antagonist (ice in the first film, fire and water this time) but Goran Visjnic’s evil tiger from #1 is sorely missed. In his place are a vulture flock acting as a ticking-clock to armageddon, and a pair of voiceless aquatic dinosaurs unthawed by the melting ice and released into the already unsafe waters. This lack of a central “big bad” mostly harms the film in terms of narrative cohesion: Without one, the story becomes a series of vignettes, though the leviathan duo serve their purpose in providing Manny with a pair of action-hero setpeices.

Among the new cast members, Queen Latifah has the most fun, finally once again allowed to play an actual character and not just Queen Latifah. And, as with the first film, the main story is occasionally interupted for the adventures of squirrel-like Scrat, still locked in his Sisyphean pursuit of the perfect acorn.

As sequels go, it’s more “Temple of Doom” than “Empire Strikes Back,” but it’s engaging and clever and the re-assembled cast is still lots of fun. I’ll say reccomended.


REVIEW: Basic Instinct 2

A little bit of Film History 101 for those for whom cinema-consciousness doesn’t extend back to 1992: The original “Basic Instinct” was the nominal high-point in a pair then-booming Hollywood trends: The “erotic thriller” (read: murder mystery with lots of nudity) and “neo-noir” (1940s-style crime/detective dramas transplanted into modern settings.) When it went into production, the “big deal” was that screenwriter Joe Esterhaz had been paid a then-astonishing $3 Million for his work, helping touch off the L.A. screenwriting “spec boom.” When it was being marketed, the “big deal” was that seemingly every major starlet had turned down the aggressively-sexual lead role, instead seeing it go to Sharon Stone, at the time a B-lister. When it actually came out, the “big deal” was that gay-rights activists were protesting the film due to the “plot twist” that had Stone’s character as a bisexual (this make shock those of you under the age of 16, but circa-1992 “girl-on-girl action” WASN’T something you were garaunteed to see in every sexually-explicit movie; and this is the flick that helped fix that grave injustice.) Oh! Um… it was ALSO kind of a “big deal” that you could see Sharon Stone’s bare pussy when she uncrossed her legs in the film’s most famous scene.

Finally, when the film had come and gone as a boxoffice-igniting smash-hit, the “big deal” was that Stone aggressively turned on it, declaring that the starmaking role had “typecast” her as a seductress. Eventually, she went so far as to claim that director Paul Verhoeven had “tricked her” into the now-legendary crotch-flashing scene. She placed herself in the public role of the victimized actress, ignored for her talent and exploited for her body by Hollywood… unlucky for her, America treated this role the same way it treated every single role she had had other than Basic Instinct: Namely, it didn’t give a damn.

Now, here we are, FIFTEEN YEARS LATER, and the “big deal” is… no longer Sharon Stone. So, now, likely hoping to inject some life into a career that has, sadly, gone pretty ice cold, she’s “made up” with the “Instinct” franchise and stepped back into the role of seductress/murderess Catherine Tramell… and she’s hit the talk-show circuit hard on it’s behalf, touting the positives of the role she not-that-long-ago fled at the mention of. Turns out, yesterday’s “exploitation” is today’s “celebration of the sex-appeal of the older woman.” Who knew?

Hate to break it to you, Mrs. Stone, but if “Basic Instinct 2” works as a celebration of anything, it’s as a celebration of how lucky we were that “Basic Instinct 1 turned out as good as it did. This sequel jettison’s everyone and everything from the original save for Stone and her nudity, and the result serves as an ultimate rebuttal against the argument that said original rose and fell by said nudity alone: She’s doing the same routine, and she’s just as naked, but without Paul Verhoeven’s considerable directorial flourish or Esterhas’ functionally-lurid imagination, and only a sampling of Jerry Goldsmith’s excellent score, this sequel is even more useless, empty and uninspired as one might’ve guessed. The characters are blanks and the “mystery” is uninteresting; it’s just an expensive stage from which a one-time sex symbol pleads for our attention.

There’s really nothing to see here. The much-touted “explicit” scenes are almost-nonexistant, no doubt waiting to see light on DVD. The new London setting provides little excitement, save the fun of seeing reliable Brit talents like David Thewlis and Charlotte Rampling try very earnestly to pretend there’s a worthy film in here, somewhere. Not so lucky is Brit TV mainstay David Morrissey, stuck in the thankless role of a psychiatrist who diagnoses Tramell as a “risk addict,” only to find her slinking her way into his already-messy personal and professional life.

As for Sharon Stone… look, it’d be both easy and churlish to point out that a film that primarily exists as a showcase for a “still sexy past 40” female physique, but… the phrase “ridden hard and put away wet” leapt to mind a few times, which would sound flattering given the genre until one remembers that phrase refers to improperly-groomed racehorses. Stone is, no question, a lovely woman, but that’s a bit of a leap from the “sex goddess” the film asks us to accept her as. What’s more, her overall acting ability (never really her key selling point to begin with) hasn’t improved… in fact, she seems to have forgotten even how to act sexy. Her Tramell still has a perky-pair and a potty-mouth, but the sexy-swagger has been supplanted by a kind of phony desperation that comes off as, well… skanky. And that’s a big problem when the entire film hinges on Morrissey’s character being driven (literally) mad with desire.

It’s a foregone conclusion that you can find infinitely more explicit “erotic thrillers” than “Basic Instinct 2” lining the DVD shelves or cropping up on Cable. But it’s surprising, and a little alarming, that most of them will also be better overall films as well.