Wednesday, September 16, 2009


The people who remade the crafty Alfred Hitchcock suspense thriller “Dial M for Murder” (1954) as “A Perfect Murder,” with Michael Douglas, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Viggo Mortensen, clearly knew their business. As cinematic remakes rate, “A Perfect Murder” (*** OUT OF ****) qualifies as a commendably entertaining, often hard-edged, but superior spouse-murdering spectacle which should baffle and captivate any armchair sleuth right up to its explosive, slam-bang finale. Not only have former Steven Seagal action director Andrew Davis and freshman scenarist Patrick Smith Kelly, cleverly updated this vintage but tawdry tale of deceit, but they have also condensed several plot elements so that the story is both more palatable as well as less predictable. Industry insiders claim that test audiences hated the initial ending, so Douglas and Paltrow came back to reshoot a new ending. Consequently, “A Perfect Murder” is never a slavish scene-by-scene remake of “Dial M for Murder,” but a deferential, no-nonsense, white knuckled yarn, with gritty touches of 1990s amorality.

In “A Perfect Murder,” ruthless but financially strapped tycoon Steven Taylor (Michael Douglas) discovers that his elegant but unfaithful wife Emily (Gwyneth Paltrow) is cheating on him with sleazy artist David Shaw (Viggo Mortensen). Emily justifies her extramarital affair because Steven suffocates her with his domineering ways. According to Emily, Steven also fails to fulfill her emotional needs. On the contrary, David quenches Emily’s passion and makes her happy. Steven confronts David early in the movie at a diner party that Emily had planned to attend alone. Changing his mind at the last possible minute, Steven accompanies Emily to the festivity where he catches his wife off-guard as she is chatting with Shaw. David and Steven speak briefly and Shaw states that he received his art degree from Berkeley.

Later, Taylor exposes Shaw for the fraud that he is, and then blackmails him. David turns out to be an ex-con with two strikes against him. Moreover, Taylor threatens to alert the police about Shaw for an unsolved crime hanging over the ex-con’s head. Not only has David lied to Steven about his shady past, but also he has lied to poor Emily. Anyway, Steven offers David a $100-thousand dollars up front to kill Emily, and he promises an additional $400-thousand on completion of the homicide. Incredibly, David agrees. Shaw prefers Taylor’s loot to Emily’s love. Steven details a simple plan. He has stashed a key outside their apartment which David can use to gain access to their apartment without arousing suspicion. While Steven is at his club for the evening playing cards, he intends to call Emily. When Emily answers on the kitchen phone, David can slip up behind and strangle her. After he murders Emily, David is supposed to tamper with the door locks to make it appear as if a burglary had occurred.

Veteran director Andrew Davis (“The Fugitive” and “Code of Silence”) and scenarist Patrick Smith Kelly have revamped the stodgy 1950s’ “Dial M for Murder” scenario and eliminated several problems that hampered the Hitchcock film. Obviously, Hitchcock could not depict the sexual and criminal elements in the story with the same artistic latitude available to contemporary filmmakers. Rated “R” for ‘restricted,’ “A Perfect Murder” contains scenes of implied nudity, simulated sex, murder, and profanity, with 9 “f--k” words, 2 “sh-t” words, and 5 “hells” sprinkled in for local color. People are either stabbing or shooting at each other in “A Perfect Murder,” and the three principle characters stalk each other like rabid gunmen in a spaghetti western. Davis keeps the sex, violence, and profanity at comparably moderate, non-gratuitous levels. Nevertheless, “A Perfect Murder” spills more blood and portrays its violence with great authenticity than “Dial M for Murder,” but nothing approaching the visceral sadism of earlier Michael Douglas outings such as “Basic Instinct” and “Fatal Attraction.” Dutifully, Davis and Kelly have left some things intact. For instance, the key still plays a pivotal part in convicting the killer.

Aside from conforming this minor Hitchcock classic to today’s more realistic standards, Davis and Kelly have actually improved on the plot. In “Dial M for Murder,” Alfred Hitchcock devoted vast intervals of time to setting up the involved story with reams of exposition. Exposition is the vitally important stuff about the story that the audience must know to appreciate the actions of the characters. None of this information, however, is readily accessible, so the characters have to mention it in their dialogue so that the audience will know what is happening. Intricately conceived as “Dial M” was, the characters spent for too much time explaining the story. In “Dial M,” Ray Milland played the role that Michael Douglas took over in “A Perfect Murder.” Milland shares an entire scene with the murderer in “Dial M” where he must remind the killer that they are old school chums separated over the years. He reveals the killer’s wicked past and blackmails him, too. Happily, the loquacity that clutters the dialogue in “Dial M” has been pared down to the absolute, bare essentials, so “A Perfect Murder” doesn’t stall out on dialogue ad nauseam. The characters in “Dial M” stand around and discuss their predicaments, while the characters in “A Perfect Murder” go out to do things.

Just as cinematic morality has changed pervasively since 1954, so too has the technology. Cell phones, for example, have replaced standard wired telephones in Steven’s intricate scheme to kill his wife. Nearly all of the main leads as well as the secondary characters have been changed. Davis and Kelly have either enlarged or shrunken their roles. The murderer and the lover in “Dial M” consist of two entirely different characters. Gone is the lover played by Robert Cummings from the Hitchcock film, while Anthony Dawson’s murderer is combined with the lover. Condensing these two roles, the filmmakers of “A Perfect Murder” streamline the plot and make it more exciting. In “Dial M,” John Williams played the stylist British detective who figured prominently in unraveled the mystery. As Det. Mohammed Karaman, his counterpart in “A Perfect Murder,” David (“Executive Decision”) Suchet occupies less screen time. He doesn’t harass the Michael Douglas villain as much as Williams’ detective did to Milland in “Dial M”. Curiously enough, the producers here make an issue out of the detective’s Arabic heritage. During the interrogation scene, Det. Karaman and Emily share a moment when she converses with him in his native language. As peripheral characterization, this is fine, but the filmmakers never integrate it into the plot. It makes you wonder if this language gimmick played a bigger part in the resolution of the action, but got cut out when the ending changed.

One of the biggest changes in “A Perfect Murder” is wife’s role. Unlike the Grace Kelly character from “Dial M” who remained largely passive, Gwyneth Paltrow plays an aggressive multi-lingual U.N. translator and aide to the U.S. Ambassador. Paltrow’s unfaithful wife gets out often enough to learn incriminating things about her husband that Grace Kelly never did in the Hitchcock original. The scene where Paltrow struggles desperately against her assailant is better than the similar scene where Grace Kelly stabbed her killer with a pair of scissors.

They’ve changed the physical settings, too. The action in “Dial M” strays only occasionally from the cramped quarters of the London apartment inhabited by Ray Milland and Grace Kelly. Transplanting the plot to America, Davis and Kelly open up the action and venture out into the means streets of New York City. Davis and Kelly ditch the expressionistic English courtroom scenes where Grace Kelly’s character was convicted of murdering the man who tried to strangle her, too! In “A Perfect Murder,” Davis and Kelly discard this part of the original plot from Frederick Knot’s play.
Veteran action helmer Andrew Davis keeps the story moving swiftly along so that the complicated plot never decelerates the action. Davis doesn’t let the pacing lollygag. He stages the action for maximum impact. The fight scenes are brutal but brief. Davis and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski often film the action so that the perspective that audiences have implicates them in the skullduggery. Wolski’s dark, brooding Rembrandt lighting enhances the air of danger. The standard shot in “A Perfect Murder” is either a close-up or a medium shot that uncomfortably confines the characters. Davis builds considerable suspense and tension by surprising his audience at intervals with sudden off-screen action that explodes on camera. Characters come barreling off-screen to smash into other unsuspecting characters on screen. These sure fire tactics guarantee that audiences will jump. Along with production designer Philip Rosenberg, Davis creates a murky, hostile environment for his characters to inhabit.

Perhaps the worst flaw in “A Perfect Murder” is the unappealing characters. None of these people deserve much sympathy. A dapper Michael Douglas gives off sinister vibes. Steven Taylor resembles Douglas’s Oscar winning performance as Gordon Gecko from Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street.” Douglas projects an effortlessly cocksure attitude that makes him an ideal thug. He wears dark apparel, and he is constantly in the midst of a scheme and a lie. As his wife Emily, Gwyneth Paltrow comes closest to attracting sympathy because she is the most vulnerable character. Nevertheless, Emily’s extramarital affair set off this chain reaction, so she isn’t entirely whitewashed. Although she wants to do the right thing, Emily is basically as selfish about herself as are both Steven and David. When we first glimpse her, she is wallowing in a spacious but seedy loft apartment with David (‘G.I. Jane’s” Viggo Mortensen). Mortensen delivers another solid performance as a scumbag. Momentarily, David’s vile painter appears to outfox both Steven and Emily. As competitors, David and Steven are almost evenly matched, though Douglas’s screen image wins out over the lesser known Mortensen.

Indeed, the Patrick Kelly screenplay bears its share of implausibilities, but so too did “Dial M.” Obviously, society does not allow movies to glamorize the act of murder, especially by letting a character commit murder without paying for the crime. Consequently, sharp and sagacious as Steven Taylor is, he is outsmarted once by the double-crossing David and later by Emily, who wins the upper hand in one of his inconsistently ignorant moments. Neither of these crucial incidents is telegraphed in the script. They occur straight out of the blue with zero foreshadowing, so that the audiences as well as Steven are caught entirely by surprise. Sure, that’s cheating, but the dramatic revelation that comes with each incident justifies it. Perhaps the biggest flaw in both movies is that a strong man cannot overpower a weak woman. Ultimately, between the two films, “A Perfect Murder” has more flash and headlong momentum than the literate and stage bound “Dial M for Murder.”


Actress Demi Moore shaves her head, dons fatigues, and totes a machine gun in British director Ridley Scott’s opportune but exploitative “G.I. Jane” (** OUT OF ****), a sexual equality polemic about the first female to graduate as a Navy SEAL. This lackluster basic training epic serves up a volatile but exemplary message about equal rights and the armed forces that cost the filmmakers the aid of the Department of Defense. When “G.I. Jane” isn’t preaching gender parity, this cynical but slickly done “Top Gun” clone is gung ho on showing Moore kicking butt in the kind of role her husband Bruce Willis excels. Sadly, “G.I. Jane’s” melodramatic storyline combines with its juvenile heroics to undermine what little credibility it musters as a socially conscious exercise in political correctness.

Writers David (“The Fugitive”)Twohy and Danielle Alexandra collaborated on what can only be called a prefabricated screenplay. “G.I. Jane” marches to the familiar beat that has characterized the formulaic military service picture since the 1920s. Movies such as “Courage Under Fire,” “Heartbreak Ridge,” and “Stripes.” have done what “G.I. Jane” tries to do. Moreover, they have done it better. Basically, the plots and the heroics in military pictures remain the same, only the sex of the hero has changed with “G.I. Jane.”

The Twohy-Alexandra script alternates between Congressional and Naval brainstorming sessions about Lt. O’Neil and the obstacles she confronts at the SEAL training base in Florida. A shrewd but slippery Texas Senator, Lillian DeHaven (Anne Bancroft), cuts a deal with the future Secretary of the Navy Theodore Hayes (Daniel Von Bergan). He’ll snag her vote of approval if the Navy opens its elite SEAL commando school to a woman. Secretary Hayes caves in to Senator DeHaven’s request, but squirms when she demands approval of the SEAL candidate.

DeHaven picks Lt. Jordan O’Neil (Demi Moore) for her physical agility and her keen mind. O’Neil is the kind of woman who makes men nervous. When we first meet her, she is monitoring a satellite transmission with a commando unit trying to escape from enemy country. She arouses the hostility of her male superior officer when she provides the best solution to the extraction problem. But Lt. O’Neil is not a person easily ignored. Neither Senator DeHaven nor Secretary Hayes expects her to finish the course. After all, Navy SEALs are the most demanding and merciless elite combat force in the world. Sixty percent of the recruits who enter the program wash out.
When the press snaps photos of O’Neil on SEAL maneuvers, a controversy erupts in both the Pentagon and Congress. Secretary Hayes and Senator DeHaven sought to keep the project under wraps, but the news wants to interview O’Neil. Suddenly, O’Neil finds herself caught in the middle of a JAG investigation. Trumped up charges of sexual misconduct are brought against her for fraternizing with a non enlisted women. When she asks the JAG officers if they are accusing her of lesbian activity, the guys balk. She wiggles out of that predicament when she learns that DeHaven betrayed her in the name of political expediency. This melodramatic about-face occurs just as her fellow shipmates have grudgingly accepted her only as an equal but also as their team leader.

Guys will relish the last half-hour of “G.I. Jane.” That’s when the bullets start to fly. During a training exercise in the Mediterranean Sea, the SEALs get to help out U.S. troops retrieving a fallen satellite in Libya. This part of the script is straight out of a “Star Trek” movie because the SEAL recruits are the only force close enough to respond to the situation. Nobody else can rescue these troops, so the Master Chief (Viggo Mortensen) takes his recruits into battle. Unfortunately, things go sour and the Master Chief catches a bullet. He sends O’Neil packing, but she refuses to leave him to his fate. Instead, O’Neil figures out the master chief’s escape plan and stages an ambush to wipe out his adversaries. Not since World War II Nazi movies have the enemy been so gullible and easy to kill. These Libyan soldiers present about as much a threat to the SEALs as the Iraqi soldiers did to Charlie Sheen in the “Hot Shots” movies.

Demi Moore knocks herself out as Navy Intelligence officer Lt. Jordan O’Neil. Even her character’s name has a masculine quality to it. When Demi isn’t trying to impress us with her brains, she displays her feminine brawn. The calisthenics that she performs in her tight undies defy gravity. The one-armed push-ups are enough to make you break into a sweat. All of this resembles the grunge side of last summer’s idiotic opus “Striptease,” except that frontal nudity is avoided. Moore’s performance, to her credit here, is both straight-forward and serious even when O’Neil plays toy soldier in the last reel.

As Master Chief John Urgayle, the lean and lupine Viggo (“Daylight”) Mortensen makes a worthwhile, flinty-eyed villain. When he isn’t hassling O’Neil, Urgayle is not above torturing his own wounded recruits to test their mettle. Clearly at odds with Lt. O’Neil throughout the movie, Urgayle refuses to let her status as a woman lessen the brutality of his methods. Mortensen gets the best line of dialogue when O’Neil confronts at his quarters. Before he slams the door in her face, he says: “When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.” The Twohy-Alexandria script allows the Master Chief one moment of redemption. He explains that women in combat do more harm to the men around them than anything positive they can contribute to the fighting. John Urgayle’s relationship with O’Neil changes before fadeout when he leads her team of SEAL recruits into the Libyan desert.

Veteran actress Anne Bancroft of “Point of No Return” shines as the crafty Texas senator whose willing to use as well as abuse Lt. O’Neil to save her own congressional bacon. This is Bancroft’s juiciest role in years, and she plays it to the hilt. Her best scene with O’Neil has Bancroft’s cagey Senator explaining why women in combat will remain a hot issue. According to DeHaven, lawmakers fear the political suicide that television images of dead women being shipped home in body bags would prompt.

As the SEAL training base commander, Scott Wilson gets to blow cigar smoke in Lt. O’Neil’s face and spar with her about the importance of women in the military on his base. Jason Beghe has a few choice scenes with Moore as the clean-cut Navy boyfriend she leaves behind. Although Beghe doesn’t want her to go, he finally accepts O’Neil’s decision and helps her out when DeHaven tries to defame her reputation.
Clearly, the Department of Defense wanted nothing to do with a Hollywood movie that depicts a Navy Master Chief drill instructor as an openly sadistic lout. He beats the pulp out of Lt. O’Neil, crashing her head repeatedly into a pole and smashing her nose. O’Neil manages to return the favor, staggering him with a kick between the legs. Obviously, the military wouldn’t condone this kind of behavior in the ranks, even if allegations as well as convictions about sexual impropriety in the services have made the headlines. Modest in its own right, “G.I. Jane” contains no nude scenes or sexual encounters between O’Neil and the other recruits. Or for that matter any rape scenes. “G.I. Jane” avoids this kind of rhetoric and mentions lesbianism in the military on in passing. Otherwise, the movie might have struck a too realistic stance, and such realism would have distracted from the popcorn plot.

Director Ridley Scott pulls some slick optical tricks to bolster “G. I. Jane,” but they don’t beef up the action. Jiggling his camera during the combat scenes may create disorientation in audience, but it doesn’t trigger a rush of adrenalin. This artsy gimmick doesn’t generate either tension or suspense. Anyway, you know that Demi Moore isn’t going to get a scratch on her because she’s smart enough to dodge the bullets that stupid men are firing at her. Simply, Scott doesn’t make “G.I. Jane” rock and roll. The grueling training sequences are okay, but the final combat scenes resemble Boy Scout antics, compared with even a marginal effort like “In The Army Now.” Ridley Scott has produced some memorable films that deploy women in gender stretching roles, such as “Alien” and “Thelma & Louise.” “G.I. Jane” boasts none of the art, hype, or viscera of those movies. In the commercially oriented market place, if the next movie doesn’t top the last, trouble lies ahead. Compared with last summer’s dignified masterpiece “Courage Under Fire,” “G.I. Jane” amounts to sheer hokum.