J-Horror cash-in: One Missed Call (Takashi Miike, 2003)

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I’ve done my best to question the first reaction I had to One Missed Call: that it’s not much more than a dull cash-in on the J-horror craze of the early 2000s. This questioning is based less on the film, and more on the fact that I want to give the genre itself the benefit of the doubt. The high-profile American remakes made repetition feel inevitable, and viewing black-haired, white-robed female ghosts as stale simply misses the cultural context of these type of spirits. Besides, enjoying a genre comes from appreciating how well a film uses its familiar elements and in recognising how it does something new. Post-Ringu, there’s still a lot to be done with technologically aided curses. But does this film manage it?

The plot of One Missed Call won’t surprise anyone who’s seen any J-horror at all: a curse spreads amongst a group of young people through their mobile phones. Each victim receives a phone call from themselves that gives a premonition of their final words and violent deaths. One woman, Yumi (Ko Shibasaki), tries to understand the curse and its origins.

The first hour or so of the film is hard to get through, not just because so much of it is familiar, but because Miike seems to be going through the motions. There’s no energy or sense of inspiration, and the grey colour palette adds to this. The deaths rely on questionable CGI and aren’t remotely scary. There’s also nothing interesting about the acting or the dialogue, and scenes drag on and on. Watching this emphasises just how well Ringu and Ju-On made a virtue of the mundane. Those films also managed to maintain tension in the lead up to their various death scenes, which were just as inevitable as the ones here.

As a viewer way ahead of the characters in understanding how the curse works, it’s impossible not to nitpick. One victim has an outright lame reason for speaking his final words, which is hard to believe, given that he had listened to his message multiple times and feared the curse. The cutesey, melodic ringtone that the curse uses is nowhere near as threatening as a traditional, piercing “ring, ring”. And why does the curse use one victim’s severed hand to dial the next victim, but later seems to use some sort of barely visible, ghostly force to accomplish the same task?

The film improves once it reaches a sequence in which a death is exploited and captured live on TV. Whilst the death is broadcast directly onto screens above Tokyo’s crowded streets, no one outside the studio pays much notice. The victim, realising no one can save her, says, “I’m all alone,” which is almost more horrible than what the vengeful spirit does to her.

One Missed Call’s derivative nature becomes more egregious, however, as its focus shifts towards motherhood, or, more specifically, to bad mothers. Abuse leads to more abuse, and breaking the cycle comes at a price. One Missed Call cannot, however, come close to depicting these ideas as powerfully as Dark Water. That film had an emotional impact that overrode its flaws, and it’s a little nauseating to see One Missed Call try something so similar.

One Missed Call has another decent sequence, set in a hospital, once it stops focusing so much on the curse’s mechanics. The lighting is markedly improved, the curse takes different forms, and the plot is no longer so predictable. The real question is whether or not the ending is going to be so bleak as the ones in other films of this genre.

The film concludes with some puzzling events that are unclear about which characters are dead, alive, possessed or at peace. It demands that the viewer think back through what they’re already seen. However, there’s not enough clues to come up with an answer that’s mentally or emotionally satisfying. This ambiguity may be a Miike flourish – but it’s meaningless if it doesn’t conclude a strong film. Thinking about One Missed Call leaves me feeling that it was not made with ambition or respect for the audience. It’s not entirely dull or without merit, but it is certainly a cash-in.

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Listless Parisian romance: Man of the World (Richard Wallace, 1931)

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Man of the World features William Powell and Carole Lombard, and given what later transpired between them personally and professionally, you’d be forgiven for having some high expectations of them. You may assume that two actors who gave many excellent performances, who co-starred in My Man Godfrey, and who married shortly after making this film, would have some visible chemistry here. Sadly, in all this, you would be mistaken.

Powell is Michael Trevor, an American journalist who fled to Paris after taking the blame for someone else’s indiscretions. Having grown cynical and world-weary, he uses his gossipy newspaper to blackmail some of the many people in Paris who are themselves indiscreet. The city’s full of Americans looking to have a good time, including wealthy Harry Taylor (Guy Kibbee). Trevor poses as a go-between and blackmails Taylor, whose neice, Mary (Lombard), is also visiting Paris. Trevor’s associates, Irene (Wynne Gibson) and Fred (George Chandler) convince him to put Mary in a compromising situation. Of course, the fake romance soon turns into a real one.

After the film’s first third or so, all the energy drops out of it. The romance has no spark, with Powell playing his downtrodden character at the same low note all the way through, and Lombard being so dull that it’s shocking. It’s not entirely their fault, though; most scenes meander about and the script doesn’t give Mary any real reason to fall for Trevor, beyond proximity.

Kibbee shows some verve, and although Gibson delivers her dialogue stiffly, her physical mannerisms are thought through. Her piercing glare and the decorous, impractical way she dons a fur-trimmed wrap give some life to the scenes she’s in, even if the character is unpleasant. It’s no wonder that these two actors had plenty of pictures ahead of them, but Powell and Lombard are, on the basis of this film alone, quite forgettable.

Man of the World makes a decent effort, for its time, at depicting a facsimile of Paris, though the polished production values can’t compensate for the dull plot. The downbeat ending gives the story some edge, but the rest of the film is hard to get through.

Rampaging through Tokyo: You’re Under Arrest! The Movie (Junji Nishimura, 1999)

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This film comes between the first and second seasons of the police-centred anime, and I struggle to think that even a committed fan would enjoy it. Even if they’re familiar with the characters, the film has, by its end, devolved into something so dull and so silly that it’s near impossible to like.

Officers Tsujimoto and Kobayakawa, traffic cops in Tokyo’s Bokuto precinct, are our protagonists. A routine inspection of an abandoned car leads to far larger consequences for them and for the city. The film starts reasonably well, looking like a standard police procedural that happens to be animated. I’m a sucker for anime depictions of mundane Japanese locations, and so was perfectly happy to enjoy the film for its aesthetics.

A TV series that gets turned into a film, however, needs to have high stakes. It may be for this reason that You’re Under Arrest! steadily gets more and more ridiculous. The Bokuto Station’s chief is arrested for having a connection to the man who seemingly devised plans for a terrorist attack on Tokyo. Some terrorists attack the station to get the plans, and before you know it, their violent threats have brought Tokyo to a standstill.

Tsujimoto and Kobayakawa are weirdly attached to their patrol car and even take it along on a boat when they pursue the bad guys through Tokyo’s waterways. Things get more confusing here as they try to trap the terrorists between themselves and a larger ship, which involves raising a bridge that has been stationary for decades. There’s no tension in these sequences, partly because the film doesn’t make the progression of events clear enough, partly because the budget limitations on the animation become starkly obvious, and partly because Tsujimoto and Kobayakawa seem able to handle things on their own anyway. One of them even rips a tyre free from its securing ropes and hurls it at the baddies to slow them down.

Tsujimoto and Kobayakawa are competent, non-sexualised characters. The film’s treatment of the other policewomen is questionable, however. Are they portrayed as weak, or are they simply in over their heads and trying their best? Points must certainly be taken away for the scene in which all of the women in Bokuto Station prepare for a gunfight by ripping their skirts for better ease of movement, with their boss goggling at how far up the rips go.

The film is less than 90 minutes long, but the quality drops so much during the second half that it feels interminable. There’s too many broken laws of physics, too many unearned feel-good character moments, and too many static shots of Tokyo streets. (Yes, even I got sick of them after a while.) This is certainly the last time I go near the franchise.

Noir melodrama: Violent Saturday (Richard Fleischer, 1955)

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Violent Saturday mixes small-town melodrama with film noir. Bisbee, Arizona stands in for Bradenville, a place with an oddball on every corner. Boyd (Richard Egan), a wealthy boozer, drinks away his sorrows while his wife Emily (Margaret Hayes) sleeps around. Nurse Linda (Virginia Leith) is brazen about wanting Boyd, and happy to take on Emily to get him. Bank manager Harry Reeves (Tommy Noonan) is a full-blown peeping tom. Librarian Elsie Braden (Sylvia Sidney) snatches purses to pay off her bank loan. Shelley Martin (Victor Mature) is comparatively normal, but his son is upset that Shelley’s an engineer, not a war hero.

In the midst of all this fetid to-ing and fro-ing step three crooks, played by Stephen McNally, J. Carroll Naish, and Lee Marvin. They’re planning a bank heist on Saturday, which is going to turn violent whether anyone likes it or not. An Amish farmer will be the only one who can save the day—good thing he’s played by Ernest Borgnine.

The hiest and its aftermath are reasonably entertaining, generating a certain amount of suspense. Marvin’s sadistic but insecure Dill is good sick fun (the moment where he steps on a child’s hand is rather nasty). His confrontation with Borgnine is not their best (how could it be?) but it’s a memorable one.

The melodrama is where the film falls down. Few of the characters are likeable, and most aren’t written or acted vividly enough to leap off the screen. Harry’s deserved come-uppance never arrives – which would be less egregious if Linda didn’t forgive him for spying on her at night. That this scene comes right before a sappy moment between Shelley and his son just doesn’t mix well.

Violent Saturday‘s genre play and eclectic cast make it a worthwhile curio, but it doesn’t measure up as a strong example of anything much.

Formative years: Another Country (Marek Kanievska, 1984)

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If Another Country seems like the backstory for a John le Carré character, this speaks to that author’s espionage experience and knowledge: the film is based on the life of Guy Burgess, one of the Cambridge Five Soviet spies. Adapted by Julian Mitchell from his own play, it stars Rupert Everett as Guy Bennett, who’s coming to realise he’s not going to grow out of his attraction to other boys. Meanwhile, his Marxist best friend, Judd (Colin Firth), longs for an uprising against the British class system, and their school is unsettled by the suicide of another homosexual student.

Another Country verges on being a slight film, based more on picturesque settings and an attractive cast than anything else. The pace is slow and the story feels play-like, not just because it’s talky, but because its progression and resolution rely more on dialogue than action.

What saves the film, however, is the broader-reaching implications of the characters’ actions. Where these schoolboys remain loyal, compromise their ideals, tread upon others to get their way, or choose to simply conform, they’re clearly displaying the behaviour they’ll carry into their political and beaurecratic careers. When Guy blackmails the students he’s had liaisons with, he’s even fulfilling the fears surrounding closeted homosexuals in the Cold War. These students are Britain’s future.

Guy initially has no interest in Marxism. He’s a selfish character who only turns on Britain when he realises it won’t accept him. Judd is the one who wants to overturn the status quo; his arc is about realising where to be less rigid. He and Guy make for a complementary pair; Guy’s romance with Harcourt (Cary Elwes) has far less depth. Everett superbly captures Guy’s weak and soulful qualities, but Firth (shockingly young) all but steals the film with his dry humour.

Off the trail: Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, 2010)

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Meek’s Cutoff has an esteemed cast, an original premise, and laudable goals. All of this is obscured, however, by the approach director Kelly Reichardt took in making it. As a story about settlers struggling to reach Oregon, the film concentrates far too much on the drudgery and frustration of the experience, severely trying the viewer’s patience.

The settler party is led by Solomon Tetherow (Will Patton) and guided by Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood). Despite Meek’s inability to find fresh water, let alone a trail, only Emily Tetherow (Michelle Williams) is able to express her lack of faith in the mountain man. When the group captures an Indian (Rod Rondeaux), the group must decide whether or not to put their survival in his hands.

Meek’s Cutoff’s overriding theme is the lack of agency given to women in this historical place and time. Conversations between the men are filmed from a distance, the sound low, while the women watch. At a crucial point, the men vote on a decision and exclude the women (who work as hard as the men) as a matter of course. Emily refuses passivity, however, taking action wherever possible. She can handle a gun and challenge Meek in an argument. She repairs the Indian’s shoes to try and obligate him to her. Eventually, she will have the final say over the Indian’s life.

In all of this, Meek’s Cutoff is an intriguing film. More intriguingly still, it keeps the race relations involved in this situation complex and on edge. Emily may need the Indian, but that doesn’t stop her from having contempt for him. Meanwhile, his trustworthiness remains in question. Some of his dialogue, when translated, gives clues about his intentions, but even then, we don’t know if this is a true alliance.

The film has little dialogue, distancing the viewer. Scenes that give further background to the characters appear briefly in a making-of featurette, but most of these did not make the final cut. Many scenes simply show the settlers walking, with a wagon wheel emitting a continual, irritating squeak.

Meek’s Cutoff has a strong sense of realism, and this sometimes adds to the storytelling. When Emily first sees the Indian and shoots into the air to summon the men, the time it takes her to reload adds tension to the moment. Similarly, the process whereby the settlers belay their wagons down an incline is painfully slow and difficult, with the cost of failure high. This is as exciting as Meek’s Cutoff gets, however. Want to watch the likes of Williams, Greenwood, Shirley Henderson and Paul Dano cook, sew and move wagons about? That’s mostly what this film is.

The viewer’s time could be paid off if the film had a conclusive ending. Conversely, its final ambiguity could be worthwhile if all that proceeded it had some sense of dynamism. As it stands, however, Meek’s Cutoff offers little reward and leaves a sense of wasted possibilities.

A wuxia curio: The Delightful Forest (Chang Cheh & Hsueh Li Pao, 1972)

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The Delightful Forest is a Shaw Brothers wuxia film that probably won’t win over anyone new to such things. It’s one of several movies the studio made based on the epic Chinese story The Water Margin, a tale easily long enough to support all of these. While the first, The Water Margin (also directed by Chang Cheh and Hsueh Li Pao in 1972) involved a huge cast of characters, TDF focuses on just one of them, acting as a prequel.

Wu Sung (Ti Lung) is renowned for killing a tiger with his bare hands. When he also kills his sister-in-law and her lover, to revenge his brother’s death, he is imprisoned. He is aided by the prison owner’s son, Shi En (Tien Ching), in return for ridding the town known as The Delightful Forest of the brutish Chiang Chung (Chu Mu). Getting rid of Chung isn’t so easy when he has a corrupt official on his side.

While The Water Margin is a film long enough to do its plot justice, TDF feels stretched out, moving slowly, with little sense of tension. Moreover, Song is not a complex character, and his superhuman feats are often rather silly. For most of the film, there’s no doubt he’s going to win every battle.

TDF’s strongest aspect is Lung himself. One of Shaw’s best martial arts stars, he’s pure class, strong both at acting and in action. He wrings everything he can out of the role.

This film is curious for a couple of other reasons. The soundtrack is taken straight from Morricone’s spaghetti western scores. That’s not uncommon for Chinese films of this era, but the tracks are used badly here. Meanwhile, it’s a laugh seeing Ching in this role – he tends to play sneaky characters (including in The Water Margin!) and it’s quite a change for him to have some moral fibre here.

Although most of the fights in TDF are not inspired, and there’s a couple of jarring edits, the last battle is excellent in its own right. It takes place in a wealthy household, with Song fighting Chung, two beaurecrats and a host of guards. Chang Cheh films often show their heroes fighting their way through hundreds of extras, but this is more believable in such close quarters. The fight unfolds with elegance and brutality. It’s a shame that the story has been so thin, without developing any emotional investment.

Song could quite plausibly not walk away from this fight. However, the film ends with him donning the monk’s disguise that the character wears in The Water Margin and its sequel, All Men Are Brothers. And so, TDF fails as a standalone film, ensuring that completionists are its best audience.

Ham-fisted action: The Professional (Georges Lautner, 1981)

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Not to be confused with Leon: The Professional, this film stars Jean-Paul Belmundo as Josselin Beaumont, a hitman betrayed by his own government. At times, Beaumont almost seems to be framed as the French Rambo, which is rather silly considering that Belmundo was, by this point, 48 years old. Worse, the film itself is meandering, dull and repulsively sexist.

The film has a few interesting aspects that are not well followed-through. The plot begins as a reasonable commentary on France’s post-colonial international meddling: Beaumont’s target is an African president whose political standing with France has little to do with how tyrannically he rules his country. The film also attempts to create in Beaumont a world-weary figure who, having lost his ideals, has no reason to live other than revenge (and getting laid a few last times).

Beaumont is difficult to sympathise with. His insistence on visiting his wife, Jeanne (Elisabeth Margoni), brings her to the attention of Inspector Rosen (Robert Hossein), who Beaumont knows full well will treat her brutally. Elisabeth faces some physical violence and is almost raped by a WPC (a shameless excuse to get the actress naked, and to use lesbianism in a pandering way). Beaumont exacts revenge on her behalf, but the fact remains that she only had those experiences because of him. As he proceeds towards his goal, the film still pretends that Beaumont’s likeable, but guilt doesn’t seem to be reason enough for old and new friends to help him.

Visually, The Professional looks lacklustre, barely above a TV production. This carries through in the action scenes, which are almost all clumsy. The comedic touch they often receive detracts from any sense of tension or from the bleak outlook the film attempts to portray. Beaumont’s original jail break is so poorly staged that it’s complete nonsense. A car chase in which some quite good stunt drivers tear through Paris streets, even below the Eiffel Tower, is the one bit of decent action in the film.

The last straw is that way The Professional uses Ennio Morricon’s “Chi Mai”. It is, in a word, incessant. It might have been enough to ruin the movie – if the movie was any good to begin with.

Silent but not deep: The Silent War (Felix Chong & Alan Mak, 2012)

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The Silent War takes place during the conflict between the China Republic Government and the Kuomintang in the 1950s. Despite the massive team and extensive equipment at their disposal, espionage unit 701 somehow can’t track down enemy mastermind “Chungking”. They need the aid of a blind man, He Bing (Tony Leung), who has a superhuman sense of hearing. This plot veers into improbability and spoils the period drama that The Silent War seemed initially to be.

The actual espionage in this film is complicated and, at times, surprising and quite gripping. I had to pay close attention to keep up with unfolding events and even with the subtitles (something that rarely happens). However, the character of He Bing is just silly. His Daredevil-esque abilities cheapen the feats of intelligence and bravery that other characters possess. Scenes where he intently listens to enemy signals are sensationalised through camera swoops, slow-mo, and overlaid images. His “eccentric” japing around also isn’t funny in the slightest. Leung is fine but not notable in the role.

Almost everything good about this film comes from Zhang Xuening. She’s a totally dedicated operative, played with great restraint and subtlety by Zhou Xun. The pointless love triangle in which Xuening deflects Bing’s attractions (and subsumes her own feelings) by pairing him up with decoder Shen Jing (Mavis Fan) is only made watchable through Xun’s performance. Not to mention, her fashion sense is impeccable throughout. It remains puzzling, however, that Xuening can ascend to the leadership of 701, and still pursue solo missions that put her out on the front lines…

Aside from Xun, the costuming, and the plot twists, there’s not much else to like about The Silent War. The pace is a crawl for most of its middle. The overall context of this conflict is ignored. Even the Kuomingtang’s dastardly goal is only revealed a little before the end. The film could have benefited from having some le Carré-style cynicism and subtlety in its approach to this inherently low-key espionage – but given that Chinese cinema now plays a duel role of propraganda, that was never going to happen.

Whoopi’s post-The Color Purple blues: Fatal Beauty (Tom Holland, 1987)

Fatal Beauty is a messy, obnoxious, and really quite stupid movie. There’s something fascinating, though, about its tonal mishmash and sheer 80s loudness. Whoopi Goldberg plays Detective Rita Rizzoli, an LA cop who’s bent on cleaning drug dealers off the streets, any way she can. When a botched batch of coke lives up to its name, Fatal Beauty, and starts killing everyone who tries it, she has her sights set on meteoric businessman Conrad Kroll (Harris Yulin). Kroll sends his head of security, Mike Marshak (Sam Elliott), to keep her in line. Disbelieving Rizzoli’s suspicions about his boss, but quickly growing to like her anyway, Marshak takes his orders seriously and is a great help in her encounters with psycho dealer Leo Nova (Brad Dourif). Rizzoli hates Kroll enough, however, that she tries to stay resistant to Marshak’s charm.

Tell me you ever expected to see a movie starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sam Elliott and I will call you a LIAR.
Tell me you ever expected to see a movie starring Whoopi Goldberg and Sam Elliott and I will call you a LIAR.

Goldberg made several action comedies after her Oscar win for The Color Purple, none of them good. She’s given a raw deal with this script and barely manages to carry it. I want Rizzoli to be a tough, capable cop who’s devoted to protecting vulnerable women, but the movie quickly shows she can’t be both. Disguised as a hooker, Rizzoli blows a sting while defending one of her female informants from a beating. More than that, a guy kicks the crap out of her while using the N word with quite a bit of enthusiasm.

Charles Hallahan and M. C. Gainley onscreen at the same time? I’m freaking out!
M. C. Gainley and Charles Hallahan raise the film’s character actor quotient.

Fatal Beauty fails almost totally as a comedy, in no small part because Rizzoli faces constant, brutal misogyny and racism. The put-downs she deals out in return rely on lazy jokes about dick size, leaving me exasperated both at how she’s being treated and by the writers’ inability to make her a genuine wise-ass. The overwhelming majority of the movie’s jokes fall flat; a facial expression from Elliott that did make me chuckle was quickly followed up with a line that over-explained something he’d just capably expressed on his own. There’s also some racist jokes about Mexicans and the Japanese that show just how blind the writers are to what they’re doing.

Is this outfit supposed to impress me? I can’t tell.
Is this outfit supposed to look good? I can’t tell.

Fatal Beauty’s thoroughly dated style must be the first thing the viewer notices. The soundtrack has a typical 80s sound while having no distinctive songs whatsoever; it’s stock music with lyrics. The costumes, meanwhile, are a neverending cavalcade of neon, sparkles and spandex. The hair, of course, is big all round. You won’t be able to look away.

Despite the movie’s silliness, the subject matter gets quite bleak. Dozens of people are killed by drugs, and many more are gunned down. Rizzoli’s back story is as dark as it gets, even if the writers’ decision to have her reveal it all in one exposition-dump monologue makes it as hard to take seriously as Phoebe Cates’ famous scene in Gremlins. Fatal Beauty isn’t a gritty cop drama, and it isn’t a fun comedy. It wants to be both, and the conflict between them tugs the movie in too many directions.

A few actors in the movie seem to know what they’re doing. (Goldberg just about has the right attitude, but the aforementioned terrible jokes let her down; she does better in scenes that rely on tension instead.) Elliott in particular is giving his role far more credit than it deserves. Rizzoli treats Marshak worse than she needs to, but Elliott sells Marshak’s growing affections for her, as well as his moral conflict.

Checks and houndstooth? We're dealing with a madman.
Checks and houndstooth? We’re dealing with a madman.

The other actor of note in Fatal Beauty is Brad Dourif. One of the big problems with the movie is that there’s not enough of him, in fact. There’s too many needless characters in the script, and it’s not always clear which villain is the real threat. It’s got to be Dourif: he’s the one who manages to be funny and threatening, who fits best into this live-action cartoon of a movie. Kroll isn’t interesting at all, and the other villains can’t get the right goofy/nasty balance. If the subject matter was lightened up a bit, and the story was centred around Leo, Fatal Beauty would be much more coherent and enjoyable.

The writers seem to have some sort of grasp on the fact that Leo is the most arresting villain here; he’s the last one standing. His final line is undoubtedly the best thing about the whole movie. Seriously, go here and skip to 11:15. Creepy, crazy and hilarious. Rizzoli’s retort is pretty good, too.

Okay, I like this outfit.
An outfit with genuine style.

Dourif would have the last laugh. A year later, Tom Holland made Child’s Play, with Dourif in the role of Charles Lee Ray, or rather, Chucky. It was Holland’s experience with Dourif in making Fatal Beauty that led to this casting. With his obscenity screaming and running-while-shot acting, there are some similarities between what Dourif’s doing in both movies. There’s no puppet here, though.

Chucky became a horror icon, but who remembers Fatal Beauty? To its credit, it is entertaining. This is a movie where people don’t die without letting off a hail of bullets first, and where you can’t see the lead character near a swimming pool without intuiting that she’ll wind up punching someone into it. The romance involves her shooting out the guy’s tires, turning down his gift of a $5000 dress, and punching him in the crotch. Meanwhile, several of the actors do good work regardless of what’s going on around them, and of how well the script serves their characters. Fatal Beauty isn’t boring. It’s a movie that doesn’t know what it’s trying to be but sure makes a lot of noise doing it.