Some home video labels are lazy with their double features. "Here's a horror flick, and...I don't know, here's another one, I guess. Double feature!" "I think Alan Arkin is in both of these. Double feature!"
Nope. Not Shout Factory. They get creative. Earlier this year, they treated us a double bill of The Video Dead and TerrorVision: two slices of '80s schlock with monsters from beyond using TVs as a gateway into our world. I know, right? That's what a double feature oughtta be. Their latest one-two punch pairs together The Hot Spot and Killing Me Softly. The common
thread here...? They're both mediocre, erotic-tinged thrillers with big name actresses getting all kinds of naked. I'm not just being crass here. Look at the cover art, for crying out loud. So, anyway...
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The Hot Spot
Director Dennis Hopper sets out to reinvent film noir, and instead, he delivers...well, this. Stripped down to bare metal, The Hot Spot really does have all the right elements. There's the atmosphere of this speck on the map baking under the searing Texas sun. You have a mysterious loner (Don Johnson) who strolls into town, charming all the women around him and tormenting damn near everyone else. Madox has one eye on the pure, unspoiled teenager in the front office (Jennifer Connelly), and the other's fixated on the bank in the middle of town that's awfully easy pickin's. It'd be simple enough for Madox to wrap his hands around both, only he's caught in the crosshairs of a femme fatale (Virginia Madsen) who just so happens to be his boss' wife. Before it's all said and done, you're looking at sex, blackmail, arson, robbery, embezzlement, and murder.
I want to like The Hot Spot. I certainly share Hopper's fascination with classic noir, the bluesy score is tremendous, and I appreciate the emphasis on atmosphere. This is one of the most visceral recreations of a tiny Southwestern town this side of Paris, Texas, to the point where you can almost feel the triple digit heat radiate from the screen. Then again, The Hot Spot is a thin, formulaic B-movie stretched out to a glacial 130 minutes. Don Johnson is the Anti-Hero, Jennifer Connelly is the Good Girl with a Secret, and Virginia Madsen is the Possessive Vamp, with next to nothing in the way of characterization beyond that. The plotting's too loose and overly familiar to be involving. The sex scenes are awkwardly staged and not especially tantalizing, and the inevitable nudity is generally isolated from any grunting and sweating. There really isn't any pervasive sense of danger either. I've watched The Hot Spot several times over the past decade or so, and my reaction is always the same: it's a movie I respect in some ways but can't honestly say that I enjoy.
Killing Me Softly
What's Killing Me Softly about? About 100 minutes of Heather Graham and Joseph Fiennes screwing each others' brains out. That's, uh, pretty much all the plot you're gonna get here.
Okay, okay, I'm
being a little unfair. Graham stars as a new media specialist, designing CD-ROMs and websites for big corporate clients shilling refrigerators and whatever. She goes home every night to a white bread live-in boyfriend who eats Cheerios in his underwear. I know! Alice had trekked all the way from Indiana to London, and this is the best she can do.
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Enter Adam (Joseph Fiennes). Dashing. Mysterious. Wealthy. Adventurous. Revered as a hero. Alice is immediately smitten. This was the romance she'd dreamt of. This is what she'd been aching to fill that void in her...well, I could finish that sentence in a figurative or triple-X literal way. Anyway, Alice more or less discards the life she'd built for herself in London. Somewhere around fifteen seconds after first speaking with Adam, Alice is spread-eagle on his living room floor, and she has a wedding ring on her left hand about a week and a half after that. There's plenty of passion and kinky sex to go around, but what does Alice really know about Adam? The more she digs into her newly-minted husband's dark past, the more she fears for her life.
Killing Me Softly is basically one of those Shannon Tweed erotic thrillers my roommates and I would rent for 99 cents at Moovies in college, just with a more recognizable cast and a little more money thrown in its general direction. I respect what a raw, exposed performance this is by Heather Graham. Even having made Boogie Nights a few years earlier, the sex scenes here are frenzied and intense, hardly the soft lighting and bleating saxophones of Red Shoe Diaries or whatever. On the other hand, Alice has basically no personality, largely defined by what she does and who she's doing it with. Aside from a willingness to bare her breasts and to let Fiennes thrust his pelvis into her over and over and over and over and over, Graham's character is more or less defined by not being defined at all. I could buy that as deliberate -- Alice as a blank canvas trying to discover who she is -- if Graham weren't so damned wooden. The mystery about whether or not Fiennes is the man he makes himself out to be is woefully uninvolving. The thrills are tepid. What little plot Killing Me Softly bothers with is really just an excuse to string together some graphic sex scenes. The whole thing is pretty slow and tedious, Graham and Fiennes have passion to spare but no real chemistry when their clothes are on, there are some really sloppy continuity errors... Ugh.
...but there are a whole lot of jiggling breasts, so if that's a huge selling point for you, there's that. It's also worth noting that this is the unrated version of Killing Me Softly. Without the onslaught of sex and nudity as a distraction, I don't even know how anyone could wade through all this dreck.
The Hot Spot has clearly been minted from a more recent master than the thirteen year old DVD that's been collecting dust on my shelf. Highlights are less blown out, the image has been cast in a cooler, bluer tint, flecks of dust appear in different spots, and the overall framing is slightly different. It kind of goes without saying that this high definition presentation is sharper, considerably better defined, and more richly detailed as well. Still, there's quite a bit of speckling, and things get really soft and excessively grainy under lower light. We're not talking about a world-class remastering job or anything, but it's a solid effort.
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Killing Me Softly, meanwhile, is saddled with a somewhat digital appearance. Definition and detail are okay but fail to impress all that much. Colors occasionally pop but more frequently settle into something more drab and grey. Contrast is flat and lifeless. Again, there's a lot of speckling as well. Killing Me Softly generally looks more like something I'd have caught on HDNet Movies in 2003 rather than a shiny, new Blu-ray disc.
BD-50. AVC. 1.85:1.
Both The Hot Spot and Killing Me Softly feature 24-bit, stereo DTS-HD Master Audio tracks. The Hot Spot fares the best of the two. Dialogue is reproduced well and is flawlessly balanced in the mix. The blues-driven score -- featuring performances by John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis, among many others -- sounds magnificent. Every punch thrown between William Sadler and Don Johnson connects like a slug to the gut, and cracks of gunfire and a burning building crumbling into ruin sound
colossal in scale. Killing Me Softly, meanwhile, doesn't really have any showcase moments. It's a perfectly adequate soundtrack whose main flaw is heavy clipping during more loudly shouted dialogue, with the climax suffering from the heaviest distortion.
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No dubs. No alternate mixes. No subtitles. No commentaries. No nothin'.
Absolutely nothing. The original DVDs from MGM only had trailers, so you're not missing out on much.
The Final Word
One half of this double feature is a polarizing neo-noir, dropping its potboiler premise into a steamy, atmospheric, and very, very, very slow quasi-art film. The other half is a direct-to-video-grade erotic thriller with a few more recognizable faces in front of the camera. Neither are all that easily recommended. Best suited for a rental unless it's gonna be part of your Jennifer Connelly, Heather Graham, and/or Virginia Madsen high-def nudity archive, which...no. Even with the very reasonable asking price of $14 at the usual suspects online, my vote would be to Rent It, and even that's kind of pushing it.