Monday, February 9, 2009

The Psychology Of The Lens

I didn’t make it to the recent midnight show of BASIC INSTINCT at the New Beverly but that was partly because I’ve seen the film so many times already. I think it’s fantastic, hugely entertaining, but just didn’t feel like seeing it again. With that fresh in mind, I decided to take another look at Sharon Stone’s immediate followup to that blockbuster, SLIVER. It’s pretty much forgotten about these days, but the sexual thriller was the subject of a great deal of publicity when it first came out. It even was a major Memorial Day release from Paramount (opposite HOT SHOTS! PART DEUX if I remember right), a good indication of how much the business has changed, but there was terrible buzz swirling around it and the final product didn’t even get screened for critics. It’s possible that all the attention at the time helped add to the negative reviews and the domestic box office topped out at a meager $36 million, though the foreign take was considerably heftier. But now, when the film can be watched free of all that controversy…it’s still not any good. Actually, just speaking for myself, SLIVER comes off as being a pretty intolerable piece of work.

Shortly after beautiful Naomi Singer is pushed to her death from her apartment high up in New York’s Sliver building, recent divorcee Carly Norris (Sharon Stone) moves into that very apartment. It doesn’t take long before she begins to meet some of her fellow tenants which include younger Zeke Hawkins (William Baldwin) and crime novelist Jack Lansford (Tom Berenger) both of whom set their sights on Carly almost immediately. What Carly doesn’t know is that there is someone in the building able to watcher her—and everyone else’s—every move on hidden video cameras and soon enough more dead bodies begin turning up. As Carly begins an affair with Zeke, she begins to wonder who is really behind the mystery.

I’ll be honest. I watched SLIVER and started to write this nearly a week ago now. The only thing is, every time I started to think about what to say about the film and my response I felt like I was dying a little inside. Sometimes a bad movie can be fascinating to study to see what went wrong and maybe you can still find worthy elements to it, but at other times the experience just causes your brain to shut down as you wonder what exactly you’re doing with your life. SLIVER was written by Joe Eszterhas (like Stone, hot off BASIC INSTINCT) from the Ira Levin novel of the same name and directed by Phillip Noyce in between PATRIOT GAMES and CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER. To add to its prestige, it was also produced by legendary producer Robert Evans during his mini comeback of the mid-90s. The whole thing is as slick as imaginable but it’s also completely, absolutely empty. Sure, it pretends that it’s about certain weighty themes but ultimately it’s really just about getting Sharon Stone into another sex vehicle at the height of her BASIC INSTINCT fame. Not that there’s anything wrong with that or even the concept of the star vehicle in general--it's no doubt exactly what Robert Evans wanted out of it. But here it’s in the service of a movie that has nothing to it, including a spectacularly dull plot and a leading couple in Stone and Baldwin who have less than zero chemistry. The script isn’t one of Eszterhas’s better efforts (and it’s a waste of time to think about the vague ROSEMARY’S BABY echoes)—there’s a discussion about how one of the characters can’t live without caffeine which feels like an attempt to redo the smoking stuff from BASIC INSTINCT but ultimately comes off as half-hearted, like he’s just trying to get the draft done with so he can start on his next big spec sale. Why are we wasting our time listening to any of this dialogue? Has there ever been a less engaging group of characters in a movie? Phillip Noyce certainly isn’t a bad director but he seems to have nothing to bring to this and can’t make stupid scenes where Stone takes off her panties in a restaurant to please Baldwin into anything clever. Without somebody forceful at the helm, the film has no real flavor, with none of the ferocity Paul Verhoeven brought to BASIC INSTINCT or even the daringly misguided dissection of the genre that William Friedkin would bring to JADE a few years later. SLIVER just doesn’t have anything to it worth discussing--it’s the filmic equivalent of a bagel that someone was about to put in the toaster in the morning, but then it was forgotten about and now it’s just been sitting in the break room all day, waiting to be thrown out.

Photographed by the great Vilmos Zsigmond, it’s definitely a slick, attractive looking movie—I particularly like the continuous feel of rain through the second half—and there is the occasional striking composition, although the DVD for some reason crops the Scope imagery which doesn’t help matters. When the plot moves into the character of Carly Norris being attracted by the idea of staring at a bank of monitors intruding on private lives, we’re apparently supposed to be shocked but there’s no real punch to any of it. With these elements as well as a Columbia professor who speaks of teaching a course about ‘the psychology of the lens’ it’s obviously striving for significance (YOU LIKE TO WATCH, DON’T YOU blared the poster) but all it makes me do is wonder why I’m wasting my time watching this thing. And why am I writing about it? Is there anyone out there really waiting to read something on SLIVER? Would it be a better use of my time if I just banged my head against the wall for a while? Even worse is that the movie doesn’t seem to care about any of its thematic goals—the shell game of who the killer is (and it’s never even clear if all the people who turn up dead were actually killed) was famously tinkered with before release. The production problems extended to extensive reshooting and recutting—including the axing of the original ending, so Baldwin musing how he would someday like to fly into a volcano never pays off. An Entertainment Weekly article from the time that can be found online is surprisingly frank about many of the issues and Eszterhas’s autobiography “Hollywood Animal” is even franker about some of the offscreen shenanigans that were going on. The DVD available is of course an unrated version adding several minutes to the sex scenes that had to be cut down to secure an R rating. I saw this in the theater but of course I can’t remember what the specific differences are and, frankly, I don’t care. But they go on for a long time. It’s really just a lame movie that I get next to nothing out of, except maybe what it would be like to attend a cocktail party in Sharon Stone’s apartment with Martin Landau. Sometimes you look for the pleasures where you can get them.

Stone, playing a book editor whose job seems to consist of coming up with snappy answers to questions like, “Where are you with the James Dean bio?”, feels miscast in this film centered around her, only adding to the feeling of genuine miscalculation. She’s not always shot or costumed in the most flattering way, but the bottom line is that Sharon Stone as a screen persona is most interesting when she is playing someone who has or is trying to get the upper hand on somebody. To see her playing such a meek divorcee just feels like it’s not making the best use of her abilities. There’s nothing shocking about seeing her give into her inhibitions to William Baldwin—after BASIC INSTINCT, how could anything about what she does be shocking?—and it just feels like a waste of time trying to convince us that there is. William Baldwin, who always looks like a Mad Magazine caricature of himself, doesn’t have the screen presence to help any of this. Stranded by the plot, there’s nothing Tom Berenger can do with his role—I think Kurt Russell turned down this part, something that probably seemed like a mistake until the film actually opened. There’s not very much to say about the array of good actors also lost in this thing. Martin Landau gets high billing for a role that has absolutely no bearing on the plot. Colleen Camp probably deserves a medal for playing the most annoying ‘best friend’ role in film history. Amanda Foreman, years before playing a college student on FELICITY, appears as Stone’s assistant. Polly Walker, also from PATRIOT GAMES, plays Stone’s coke-fiend neighbor and gives the impression that she might bring some real spark to her role but she barely even gets noticed, maybe another casualty of all the cutting.

It’s just a bland, blah movie even with the lengthy sex scenes and it’s probably not even deserving of all the hatred I’m displaying towards it. It’s not that interesting. It’s not bad enough to be that good. The lack of chemistry between Sharon Stone and William Baldwin extends to the very end, with the infamous, idiotic final line that Joe Eszterhas insists in his book that he didn’t write. The way it’s delivered, it suddenly gives the added subtext that Sharon Stone has had it with this younger, more immature actor she can’t stand and just get the hell out of there to go star in a movie with someone more her equal. You know, something like THE SPECIALIST. It has nothing to do with the rest of the movie but at least it’s thematically consistent in how absolutely inconsistent it is. And hey, they were able to make their Memorial Day release date. All I know is, after seeing SLIVER again I think I want to spend some time seeing some films that I’m probably not going to hate. I hope I deserve that much.


Unknown said...

Very funny review and I share your apathy for this film. You write:

"including a spectacularly dull plot and a leading couple in Stone and Baldwin who have less than zero chemistry."

hah! aint' that the truth. Between SLIVER and BACKDRAFT, someone was trying to make William Baldwin into an A-list movie star and fortunately it didn't happen for the reasons you cite in your post.

And yet, strangely, over time he seems to have gotten a bit better. I quite enjoyed his small role in THE SQUID AND THE WHALE so go figure.

As for Sharon Stone... I didn't think it was possible for her to sink any lower than SLIVER and then I saw BASIC INSTINCT 2. Yikes...

Emily Blake said...

Hey I liked Sliver.

That might be because Billy Baldwin is hot in that movie and he keeps taking his clothes off.

EFC said...

I remember an interview with Philip Noyce where he said that he always screens the finished cut to his daughter first for her honest opinion.

So he shows her Sliver (she's 12 or 13 years old at the time, BTW) and afterwards asks for her thoughts on it. She asks Noyce if he's already signed on for his next film yet. He says no, he hasn't. She then suggests that he doesn't show Sliver to anyone until AFTER he's already signed on for his next project.

Uncle Gustav said...

For someone who thought he had nothing to say about Sliver, you sure had a lot to say about it!

I saw this the day it opened. Sharon beckoned me. She was the lifeforce of Total Recall (notice how that film dies after her character does) and the personification of eroti-cool in Basic Instinct. Who knew from that point on she'd essentially trash her career with poor script choices?

If I recall, Sliver made the bulk of its gross on opening weekend. Word of mouth quickly killed it.

Nonetheless, the film fascinated me for a while. I once called it "the greatest film Roman Polanski never made." It had all the ingredients for a Polanski film: Ira Levin novel, Bob Evans producing, a lone woman in an apartment facing a potential breakdown, a ménage à trois (Stone-Baldwin-Berenger) wrought with conflict... Rosemary's Baby meets The Tenant meets Knife in the Water.

But Phillip Noyce is no Polanski, and Joe Eszterhas is no Gérard Brach.

But with that long, goofy face, William Baldwin could be related to Stan Laurel.

Anonymous said...

I was actually thinking of writing something about Sliver because as you point out Peel, it really is one of the biggest Hollywood clusterfucks of all time. The ending was scrapped and reshot, Stone hated Baldwin and nothing in the movie except the glimpses of Martin Landau or Polly Walker is worthwhile.

I would not cast the net any farther than Philip Noyce and Vilmos Zsigmond to shoot my Hollywood blockbuster, but you're right, they bring nothing to this material. Robert Evans seemed gonzo to cash in on the success of Basic Instinct and the movie has little else on the brain.

You made some great observations about Sharon Stone. I liked her and it's too bad she very rarely got access to material that played to her strengths. She lucked out with Basic Instinct and Casino. The rest of her career, not so much.

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Glad you enjoyed the piece. BASIC INSTINCT 2 is definitely worse. Actually, I think it's a lot worse, which is saying something.


Really? Really? Well, all right. I hold no animosity towards him. He's probably my second favorite Baldwin. I once stood behind him in line at the Paramount commissary and he seemed all right. That's really all I've got.


Noyce has made a few really good films like DEAD CALM and THE QUIET AMERICAN but if the material isn't there then it doesn't seem like there's much he can do beyond making it look pretty. His daughter was obviously a smart one.


I've always been a big fan of Stone and the whole Lana Turner-old movie star vibe she exudes but man, she's made some lousy movies. I get the fascination with the movie--I think I've had it--but boy, it just sits there. Robert Evans has said that he wanted Polanski but Paramount wasn't interested--they just wanted to get the movie made and didn't want to go off to Paris or wherever to do it. Too bad. It's a nice daydream.


Clusterfuck is right! And the fact that you, like me, had to search really hard for things that Walker and Landau were doing really says something. For whatever reason, when Landau tells Sharon Stone that she's throwing a great party it feels like just about the most natural bit of business in the entire film. Again, I really like Sharon Stone--something like THE SPECIALIST might be lousy but it at least uses her right--but it feels like we should have gotten a few more (or a few better)starring vehicles from her during her peak. At least there's CASINO.

Uncle Gustav said...

If you're into Polly Walker, Enchanted April is due out on DVD in a month or two.