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Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: The sorry state of the glossy thriller

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Movie blogger Dominic Corry says Paranoia and Justin Timberlake's Runner Runner show the once-great glossy thriller genre is in sad shape.

Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake in 'Runner, Runner'. Photo / AP
Ben Affleck and Justin Timberlake in 'Runner, Runner'. Photo / AP

I love a good glossy thriller. While there are no rigid parameters to such a film, I tend to define a glossy thriller as a slickly-produced studio melodrama in which bad things happen to wealthy, attractive people. It is always fun watching them squirm.

Hollywood has excelled at this kind of film in the past, but there hasn't been a decent example out of America in years.

This week sees the New Zealand release of Runner, Runner, which now challenges last month's Paranoia as the most generically bland thriller of the year.

Runner, Runner - which stars Justin Timberlake as a gambling genius who gets mixed up with a shady online poker magnate played by Ben Affleck - had the potential to be a fun glossy thriller, but it fails to do anything remotely surprising.

No suspense whatsoever is generated, and try as I did, I never once cared about the fates of the main characters, even the one played by Gemma Arterton.

I had a similar reaction to Paranoia, which was also content to play off tired dynamics and predictable, sub-Law & Order reversals. The ability to embrace familiar conventions without seeming stale is key to this sort of film, and neither Paranoia nor Runner, Runner distinguish themselves in this regard.

Both movies speak to the sorry state of the modern glossy thriller.

I justify a lot of what I write in this space on the films I grew up on, but few would deny that the late '80s and early '90s represented a golden period for a certain kind of Hollywood thriller. Films like Fatal Attraction (1987); Bad Influence (1990); Pacific Heights (1990); Single White Female (1992); The Hand That Rocks The Cradle (1992); The Firm (1993); Malice (1993) and many more.

These films usually fit into a sub-genre I have deemed 'Yuppies In Peril'. Resplendent kitchens always feature; as does a charmed domestic existence which comes unstuck via the introduction of the story's invariably convoluted conflict. Which may or may not take the form of a psychotic nanny and/or secretary.

Despite their schlocky cores, these were very well-made movies which often hold up better than their more critically-lauded contemporaries.

It's a kind of film Hollywood used to do better than anyone else, but the best modern examples all come from Europe - French films like Tell No One (2006) and Anything For Her (2008) or the underrated Norwegian delight-with-bite, Headhunters (2011).

Plus with the proliferation of shows like Revenge; Damages and the upcoming Betrayal, modern English language renditions of these kinds of stories nowadays are often the domain of television - where the stories are squeezed dry of any real stakes and the kitchens are never quite as impressive as their cinematic equivalents.

Why did these kinds of films go out of popular fashion? It's hard not to draw a connection between the materalistic undercurrents of the movies I cite and the era in which they were most successful, but there are enough glossy thrillers that work outside of that context to proves the sub-genre is able to evolve.

I'm going to go ahead and attribute the current dearth of these kinds of movies to that cover-all blame-tarp behind everything wrong with modern popular cinema (but which I still eagerly suck at the teet of): the business-minded studios and their desire for four quadrant family-friendly blockbusters. The money those tentpoles suck up doesn't leave much left for mature thrillers aimed at grown ups, and when they do sneak in, the result is turds like the Harrison Ford thriller Firewall. It was while watching that 2006 flop that it first really hit me that Hollywood had all but forgotten how to make these kinds of movies.

A couple of years later, I had high (lowbrow) hopes for the 2008 Hugh Jackman/Ewan McGregor film Deception - the profoundly forgettable title (shared with 13 other IMDb entries) should've tipped me off. Despite the seemingly can't miss Bad Influence-meets-The Game plot, this would-be glossy thriller about an international shagging club for beautiful high flyers had all the sheen of a lollipop that fell on the ground.

2011's The Roommate speaks to the quality level of the films currently trying to fill the glossy thriller niche. This unofficial remake/rip-off of Single White Female is shameless in its targeting of a younger audience, who appear to have been deemed unable to comprehend anything but the most stultifyingly obvious story.

I'm not against a new version of Single White Female in principle, but The Roommate made the minor 2002 hit Swimfan, which similarly pilfered from SWF forbear Fatal Attraction, look halfway not terrible. And it was definitely terrible. Even if it had a Shihad song playing over the end credits. When they were called Pacifier.

Although the 2010 remake of the 1987 suburban classic The Stepfather never really had a chance, it still managed to squander the opportunity to pay the lasting Terry O'Quinn original any kind of respect.

I look to the justly-derided 1994 Michael Crichton adaptation Disclosure as a turning point for the glossy thriller. Michael Douglas, the patron saint of Yuppies In Peril, stars as a businessman accused of sexual harrassament by Demi Moore, who actually did the harrassing.

Beyond the problematic gender-baiting, the film features a laughable subplot involving a ridiculous virtual reality filing system that renders the film impossible to take seriously.

There have been good glossy thrillers made since then, just not a lot. Notable (and lonely) post-Disclosure examples include 1997's The Game (with Douglas in top form) and 2002's Panic Room, both directed by David Fincher. I really wish he would stop with his serial killer obsession already and make another glossy thriller.

The most recent glossy thriller I truly enjoyed is 2009's A Perfect Getaway, written and directed by underrated journeyman genre filmmaker David Twohy (Riddick; The Trigger Effect). Steve Zahn and Milla Jovovich star as a couple honeymooning in Hawaii who get mixed up with another pair who may or may not be escaped murderers.

A Perfect Getaway confidently presented the kind of escapist fun that was easy to take for granted during the heydey of the glossy thriller. And also showed that its not necessary to completely reinvent the wheel to create something satisfying along these lines.

Other recent films that kinda qualify as not-terrible glossy thrillers include the 2007 Shia LaBeouf vehicle Disturbia and the Hilary Swank/Jeffrey Dean Morgan film The Resident. Neither work is particularly memorable, but each hit enough of the right notes to satiate my unyielding hunger for movies that feature characters in nice houses with creepy neighbours.

Steven Soderbergh's recent effort Side Effects - which went straight to DVD here earlier this year - was marketed as more of a drama, but turned out to be a pretty nifty glossy thriller.

The new Halle Berry movie The Call recently went straight to DVD here after proving something of a minor box-office hit in America. The overall cruddiness supercedes its valiant attempts at being a glossy thriller.

I anticipated August release Stoker as being much more of a glossy thriller than the artful, Lynchian nightmare that resulted, but it very much met my needs on the kitchen front.

Stoker's Nicole Kidman teamed up with Nicolas Cage for 2011's Trespass, a potentially amusing glossy thriller which ended up stinking highly of the aforementioned Firewall.

The last really pure Yuppies In Peril movie I can think of is 2005's Derailed, which manages to embrace its conventions with an increasingly rare competence. Clive Owen stars as a stressed-out family man whose life spirals out of control after he hooks up with a fellow commuter played by Jennifer Aniston. I quite liked this film, predominantly for how much it seemed like it could've been made in 1989.

While good glossy thrillers are few and far between, their genre counterpart - grimy thrillers - are doing better than ever with the likes of the masterful Prisoners, which also opens this week. Prisoners has heavy stakes; superlative suspense and a whole heap of dread. No nice kitchens though.

Next week: 'The ten best Yuppies In Peril movies'.

Do you like the kind of glossy thrillers I am referring too? Which ones? Can you cite any other decent modern examples? Comment Below!

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