Reviews

Perfect Stranger (2007)

While it begins dully enough for an investigative thriller, Perfect Stranger quickly skids off into abject foolishness.


Perfect Stranger

Director: James Foley
Cast: Halle Berry, Bruce Willis, Giovanni Ribisi, Gary Dourdan, Nicki Aycox, Patti D'Arbanville
Distributor: Sony
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Sony
First date: 2007
UK Release Date: 2007-04-13 (General release)
US Release Date: 2007-04-13 (General release)
Website
Trailer
I will go down with this ship.

And I won't put my hands up and surrender.

-- Dido, "White Flag"

Rowena (Halle Berry) lies for a living. Making her way into a U.S. Senator's office at the start of Perfect Stranger, she poses as a friendly representative of Family First, cozying up to the Senator's own conservative self-image. Suddenly, she reveals that she's a journalist armed with evidence that her host has been having sex with his male interns. Urrgh for Senator Mark Foley Stand-In.

Pleased with her triumph, Rowena, who writes under the name "David Chase," heads off for an evening of toasting the "little people" she's protecting with shots and beer with her best friend Miles (Giovanni Ribisi). But no! When she learns the story has been squashed by her publisher, the half-drunk Rowena has a bit of a meltdown in front of her boss, quitting her job and protesting that the decision is another instance of "Powerful men protecting powerful men." (She even tires to make the point topical, by asserting, "We're supposed to be reporting the news, not covering it up. It's like not showing the dead bodies coming from Iraq. If you don't see it, it didn't happen!")

Striding away into the night -- Miles is apparently left whimpering and alone at the bar -- Rowena is instantly spotted by a childhood friend, Grace (Nicki Aycox). This incredible coincidence, at New York's Christopher Street subway station, hardly surprises Ro. She looks mostly bored until she learns that Grace is grumpy about her own recent betrayal by a powerful man, namely, multimillionaire advertising exec Harrison Hill (Bruce Willis). As Grace tells it, she met him online, shared a bout of wild sex, and was then summarily dumped. Bastard! She comes equipped with a paper file of emails to convince Rowena to help her get revenge. Now that's a super-coincidence.

Almost as soon as Rowena says she'll think about it, Grace turns up dead. To only does Ro have to go down to the morgue to identify the grisly body (it's been in a river, its eyes are wrecked by poison), Grace's very sad mom shows up. It appears that Ro suddenly has all kinds of motivation to jump into this extremely personal investigation. (This point is underlined in feeble fashion, when Rowena's reconsideration of events turns into a flashback sequence of Grace images you have just seen, like, a minute ago: this is thriller-making for stupid viewers, assuming you can't keep up even that long.)

While it begins dully enough for an investigative thriller, Perfect Stranger quickly skids off into abject foolishness. Her scheme to nail Hill is increasingly nonsensical, a series of disconnected setups to get Halle Berry into variously sexed-up situations and outfits. Her first step is to engage Hill online, though even that seemingly straightforward deception quickly turns odd. Engaging computer-whiz Miles' help to get through Hill's firewall, she also starts chatting with him (Miles does have the good sense to laugh out loud at Hill's "seductive" email: "I'm gonna fuck you so hard, I'm gonna split you in two" -- what is this, To Catch a Predator?). A clever boy as well as arrogant, Miles tricks out Ro's machine with samples of Hill's voice, so when he types, you get to hear him ("Are you turned on?" he asks, wittily), just as she helpfully reads out loud all her own typing to him ("Yes").

Because typing (not to mention reading out loud) is hardly an effective visual (see: You've Got Mail), the movie lurches into plot two, in which Ro dons a tight skirt and lands an undercover temp job at Hill's advertising agency (where the primary account just so happens to be Victoria's Secret, allowing for plenty of product placement by way of models in bras and panties). As they flirt in person during the day, she continues to flirt with him as "rocketgirl" online at night, that is, when she's not having stand-up-against-the-wall hot-hot sex with her ex, Cameron (Gary Dourdan). This half a plot with Cam seems designed to complicate Rowena's relationship with Grace (the dead girl), as he was sleeping with her, but Perfect Stranger drops that detail and then summarily abandons it.

Except for one bit of that detail, which is that Miles objects to Cameron, because he has his own mighty crush on Ro. Not only does he program her laptop to repeat, parrot-like, "Miles is sexy," but he also insinuates himself into her email conversations with Hill. This makes him awfully creepy even as it ensures his utter dedication to enabling her various deceptions, so their occasional arguments don't carry much in the way of menace or import. Instead, the movie turns more and more inside Rowena's exceedingly private pathology -- most often by flashbacks suggest she was sexually abused by a white father or stepfather ("You know how daddy likes bath time!"), while her black mother looked on in horror, at least at first. These fragments are an obvious device, but they do reveal, however heavy-handedly, that Ro has longstanding reasons for wanting to take down powerful men.

But Perfect Stranger can't actually be bothered with characterization or worse, development. And so it plunges ahead, granting Rowena moments of cryptic wisdom ("All it takes to commit a murder are the right ingredients at the right time") as well as corrections to Miles' biblical citations (it's not money that's the root of all evil, she chides him, but "the love of money") and a snappy beret she wears when she goes spying on Hill's trysts. For no clear reason, Rowena actually looks interested in Hill, plying a fellow Victoria's Secret gift bag stuffer, Gina (Clea Lewis), for the scoop. Oh, his wife keeps him on a short leash, she says. But still, he's "into some very kinky shit." Which brings up yet another half-a-plot: Hill is policed at the office by his assistant, an "Amazonian" lesbian named Josie (Daniella Van Graas) -- or, as Gina snipes, "Cu-Josie." If only Gina were the film's focus. She appears to have a rudimentary sense of humor.

2

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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