Wednesday, September 23, 2015


About five years ago I made my way over to Montana Street in Santa Monica to attend a screening of Paul Verhoeven’s magnificently loopy adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica. The screening was a star-studded affair, featuring Verhoeven in an on-stage with Ed Neumeier, the film’s screenwriter, and a couple of the other artists and craftsmen who were involved in the making of the film. (They were stars to the packed house anyway, even though I can’t for the life of me remember who comprised the panel.) Before the screening, Verhoeven set up shop to sign copies of his recently published book, the somewhat controversial Jesus of Nazareth, a historical account of Jesus’ life written with matter-of-fact detail and iconoclasm from Verhoeven’s singular perspective as a member of the group of biblical scholars known collectively as the Jesus Seminar.

Of course I had to get a copy of that, and since he was signing ones purchased on site I thought, well, an autograph would be nice, yes? But the lineup of film nerds at Verhoeven’s table  (of which I was certainly one) had more than just copies of the book in hand to sign— they came bearing posters, record albums, CDs and of course DVDs, all related to the director’s prodigious (mostly American) film output and all wanting for Verhoeven’s signature in Sharpie. I too took advantage of the opportunity. When my turn came, he signed Jesus of Nazareth, but I also presented him with my copy of the Showgirls 15th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray and asked him if he would autograph it as well. He enthusiastically agreed, and as he began scratching out his name on the cover I told him that of all the movies of his which I admired, I thought Showgirls was his very best. He looked up, a mischievous twinkle in his eye, leaned in to me as if he were about to impart a scandalous secret, laughed and said, "So do I!"

It’s an admission that certainly dovetails with his attitude toward the film as expressed in an interview for the current issue of Rolling Stone in which he describes the impetus behind the making of the film, which he considers “perfect” and “the most elegant movie I’ve ever done,” as well as the critical crucifixion that awaited not only Verhoeven and screenwriter Joe Ezsterhas, but especially star Elizabeth Berkeley, and the responsibility he accepts for guiding her performance, which was precisely the one he claims he wanted:

People have, of course, criticized her for being over-the-top in her performance. Most of that comes from me. I pushed it in that direction. Good or not good, I was the one who asked her to exaggerate everything — every move — because that was the element of style that I thought would work for the movie.”

The movie, of course, is perceived as being heavily stylized. Well, Verhoeven’s not having any of that:

I asked David Stewart of the Eurythmics, who was our composer for the film, to write the music for the big Vegas shows in a kind of banal way, because I was thinking an American audience seeing a show called 'a musical' was probably expecting these numbers to be written by Leonard Bernstein and choreographed by Jerome Robbins. So I didn't do that. I wanted to push the fact that it was all not-so-good stuff. I won't say ‘shit,’ but that's what it would be. It was basically over-the-top Vegas. And I'm responsible for a lot of those things. I always felt that it was what you might call a hyperbolic approach to filmmaking. Yes, it was over the top. And that was on purpose. The environments were very flashy. There were too many lights, too many idiotic things, and too much Vegas — not only in the surroundings, but 'Vegas' in the way the people behaved, in the dialogue, in the acting. As for the finished product: I thought it was perfect. Otherwise I would have changed it.”

The Rolling Stone piece is timed as a commemoration of the movie’s release 20 years ago, on September 22, 1995, and, of course, as a tribute to its longevity— though it was perceived initially as a box-office failure and one of the most significant nails in the coffin of the NC-17 rating as a viable alternative to the stigma of porn associated with the “X,” the movie has been a huge hit on home video, has become a cult midnight movie attraction and even spawned a stage musical.

Nine and a half years ago, a group of bloggers, myself included, gathered on January 11, 2006 in the vapors of the newly coined blogosphere to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the movie’s release in Verhoeven’s home country of Holland. It was one of the first blogathons in the heady early days of what some of us like to think of as Movie Blogging’s Golden Age, and we had a great time revisiting and discussing Verhoeven’s controversial epic. I was particularly looking forward to seeing it again, because I hadn’t much liked it when I first saw it some two years after its theatrical run, on that grand old format so beloved by movie geeks, the laserdisc. And I was very surprised by what I found, on the screen in front of me, and in my own reaction to it, when the movie finally began to unfold for me again.

What follows is the article I posted on January 11, 2006, originally titled "The Glorious Excess of Showgirls," here reprinted with only slight cosmetic modifications. It’s a movie which has been misunderstood, avoided, dismissed and derided, and yet it has blazed forth beyond its reputation with a gaudy, hyperbolic energy completely appropriate for its gaudy, hyperbolic subject. Happy 20th birthday, Nomi Malone and company! Here’s to a continued revision of opinion that will bring Showgirls ever more of the respect befitting a glittery, glorious, grotesque and genuinely American original.


One of the major bonuses of living in the DVD/home theater age is the relative ease of revisiting films from our past which we remember with fondness, or sometimes more accurately, those for which we have fondness that we don’t remember so well. It’s a chance to confirm and re-experience what it is about the film we loved so much in the beginning, and see what time has added to that experience. And, of course, sometimes it’s an exercise in demonstrating how time and the events of our own lives will serve to subtract from a film’s overall effect and its hold on our sensibilities.

But in the recent past I’ve begun to discover that, opposed to reapproaching beloved films, it’s often even more interesting and rewarding to go back and have a look, divorced as one can render oneself from the attendant hype generated by the distributing studio and filmmakers, as well as the ossified consensus (which only grows more rigid with time) arrived at by the entertainment press and even the general critical community, at a film which one felt pretty strongly about in the negative upon the first (perhaps only) viewing. 

I recently took up a challenge from a fellow writer whom I respect who has always loved Body Double, a film by a director (Brian De Palma) whom we both admire which I had always found repellent, ill-advised and deficient, both from a narrative and visual standpoint, given the filmmaker’s usually high standards. Revisiting the movie, I still found it largely ill-advised and lacking in both narrative and visual consistency, but also not nearly the misogynistic crime it seemed in 1985. My admiration for Body Double hadn’t increased significantly, but it was a valuable opportunity to test my own sense of how a movie “changes” in one’s mind over the years.

In fact, I suppose it’s not all that uncommon to revisit a reviled movie and have one’s initial reactions confirmed. And I’m never too surprised, whenever I take another look at a beloved film from my past, if it either holds up well against my memory, or even if it is revealed as less than what I once thought, as merely an ethereal byproduct of my nostalgic imagination or fond recollections of the time and place in which I first took it in, or colored by thought processes that have been perforated and exposed by the passage of time.

The rarest circumstance, however, at least in my experience, is one in which I choose to revisit a movie that I hated upon first viewing, and then see it again some years later, only to have my eyes opened, my blinders stripped away, in order to discover the terrific movie that was there all along. The most obvious occurrence of this phenomenon in my moviegoing life was my complete turnaround on Nashville, a film I hated (and one which I was not equipped to comprehend) when I saw it at the tender age of 16. A couple of viewings later, during my university days, and Nashville quickly became my favorite film, one which I saw three times in one day my senior year of college, one which has held that “favorite film” status for 26 years.

But that experience with Nashville could be chalked up to simple immaturity. How often does it happen that you revisit a film by which you were initially repulsed as an adult, your critical faculties presumably alive and engaged and ready for bear, only to find out that you were completely and utterly wrong, that you were either a victim of or a willing participant in a smothering groupthink that seeped into your mind, forming unshakable preconceptions and preventing you from seeing the movie that was right in front of your eyes?

Most people, I’d wager, who comprised the meager audiences that turned out in theaters for Showgirls when it was first released in the U.S. in September of 1995, were fully aware of all the brouhaha over the NC-17 rating, director Paul Verhoeven’s previously announced intentions regarding the project (something about fully erect penises on view—or was that Basic Instinct?—and a no-holds-barred look at Vegas show life), and screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’s reputation as an overpaid sleazemeister, and by the time the first print actually screened the film’s early critical reputation as a notorious bomb, a reeker on the order of Myra Breckenridge or Plan Nine From Outer Space-- a candidate, in other words, for Worst Movie Ever—became generally accepted as fact. 

(After its U.S. debut, it trickled out all over the world over the next few months, into January 1996—in fact, on this very day, 10 years ago, it made its debut in Verhoeven’s homeland The Netherlands, by which time negative reaction to the film had become a toxic fog bank of conventional wisdom. 

I didn’t see it myself until it arrived on laserdisc, sometime in 1996. By then that fog bank was mighty thick, and my initial reaction wasn’t so much repulsion as boredom. Verhoeven had made a movie that was as packed with nudity as I’d ever seen, but rather than getting me excited about all that flesh constantly on display, Showgirls had succeeded, through sheer visual repetition and matter-of-fact presentation, in numbing me to its presence. I was repulsed, however, by the berserk, feral presence of Elizabeth Berkley, or more accurately by the use to which she was put—completely unmodulated, in-your-face attitude and (surprising to me) an entrenched hostility shoved front and center within that big Panavision frame. (That rape scene, and the subsequent violent reprisal it inspires, was no pretty picture either.) 

Of course, I saw Verhoeven’s Vegas as a tawdry condemnation of the values of show business and, by extension, American taste, and I’ll admit I got my back up about someone from another country, to whom America had been quite generous, from a career and financial standpoint, making such a bold and corrosive “statement” about the tackiness and bad taste of the entire nation, especially when the statement was apparently being made by Verhoeven and Eszterhas, two men never known for subtlety and nuance. (At least Verhoeven made his movie in America-- right, Mr. Von Trier?)

I had been quite comfortable ignoring Showgirls after that screening, relatively assured that my reaction, although strong, was justified. Then, in March of 2004, Charles Taylor, at the time the senior film critic for Salon, published an appreciation of the film (unattached, as far as I’m aware, to any DVD release or other Showgirls-themed event that would have sparked a synergistic impulse in his editor’s mind) that, despite my initial insistence on eyeball-rolling, resisted my condescension though the sheer clarity of his response and argument for the film. His argument was reasoned, reasonably pitched, and convincing. But how convincing would it be after having actually watched the film a second time?

Nearly two years after Taylor’s piece, which pricked the skin of my interest in revisiting Showgirls, I got an invitation to write a piece which would stand as a commemoration of the 10-year anniversary of the movie’s Netherlands release date (January 11, 2006), a commemoration intended to extend over as many blog sites as wished to participate. There was no stipulation as to the attitude of the piece, negative or positive; it only had to be about Verhoeven and Estzerhas’s notorious spectacle. I printed out Taylor’s article, vowed not to read it again until after I’d seen the movie, settled in on my couch a couple of evenings ago, at the end of a very long day, and invited Showgirls into my home theater one more time.

What an embarrassment. And I’m not talking about the movie. I’m talking about having to face up to perhaps my most egregious misread of a movie since dismissing Nashville. Showgirls turns out not to be a work of found comedy, of two sleaze merchants pitching an earnest drama and missing the plate by a mile, but an uninhibited melodrama that dares to not condescend to its subject matter—the backstage milieu of Las Vegas, where sex (or at least nudity and the trappings of sex) are ritualized (or choreographed into routine) and funneled into gaudy stage productions. I really wonder how many of the people who have made a point of slamming Showgirls over the past 10 years would think nothing of plunking down big dollars for a Vegas weekend, perhaps one centered around a “classy” topless show like “Goddess” (the show that makes Berkley’s Nomi Malone a star), take the whole package at face value and enjoy the hell out of themselves. Well, by modeling their story on the backstage musicals of the ‘40s (Brian Darr over at Hell on Frisco Bay provides some excellent context for those jumping-off points in his Showgirls entry), as well as inverting All About Eve and telling their tale of show business back-stabbing and rivalry not from Margo Channing’s perspective, but from the conniving Eve’s, the filmmakers do just that—they provide a narrative context in which to observe the everyday goings-on in the world of these splashy nightclub productions, through which Nomi, the film’s protagonist, attempts to outrun her mysterious past and redefine herself.

But in the process, Verhoeven thankfully forgets to skimp on the vulgar amusements that are one of the defining elements of Las Vegas itself, the neon buzz that fuels Nomi’s frenetic dancing, her relentless ambition, and he doesn’t hold that ambition to anyone’s standard but Nomi’s. As Taylor observes, Verhoeven doesn’t hold her feet to the fire either and insist, per the familiar formula of such tales, that she pay for her ambition and misdeeds. Indeed, Showgirls recognizes that Las Vegas allows Nomi to become, through her ascendance to stardom within this strange show business microcosm, exactly who she seems destined to become, and Verhoeven assures, by acknowledging the charge, the dirty thrill she gets from performing and becoming a part of that world, that any value judgments placed on that ascension will come from the audience, not from him. 

Unlike my initial reaction to Showgirls, I came away from my most recent brush with the film thinking that Verhoeven is not condemning Las Vegas or Americans for reveling in bad taste. On the contrary, he’s reveling in it himself, drawing parallels between himself, as a participant in American show business, and the characters on screen, and he’s not making any excuses for anyone’s behavior. But he’s doing so in a much less obvious way than, say, John Waters has in the past, and therefore he runs the risk of being dismissed as a simple vulgarian or a crude camp satirist. I don’t think he’s exclusively either, though to suggest that Verhoeven here is not vulgar or exhibiting a satiric sensibility would be to, again, miss the point. In Showgirls, Verhoeven the visual stylist, with only the slightest exaggeration, heightens the melodrama of Eszterhas’ script with gleeful sexuality (and vulgarity) and deranged life by presenting Vegas as the new model microcosm of the American dream, and Nomi as one of its prime dreamers, and encouraging us to experience the city and its milieu through those wide brown orbs hidden, as they almost always are, behind glitter-encrusted eyelids. 

Pointedly, not one single close-up of Nomi or any of the other women in full production regalia allows us to back off of the extremity of the costumes and makeup—in this movie, you see just how exaggerated, how scary, and yet at the same time how sexy these women can look from five feet away in sparkling getups designed to dazzle the back row of the theater. At times Berkeley’s overreaching lipstick and pancake makeup applications make her resemble nothing less than a slimmed-down R. Crumb cartoon come to life, or a Nick Park creation with pumps and a G-string.

Seen through Nomi’s eyes it makes sense that nudity and sexuality would be seen as everyday, that it would be made routine, less than special, even numbing. Verhoeven and Esterzhas, despite what you may have heard, aren’t too interested in fueling male fantasies much beyond the lap dance Nomi gives to Kyle MacLachlan’s Zach Carey, and Nomi most certainly isn’t. Showgirls is far more concerned with tracking how this hostile girl with a hair-trigger temper sees the world in which she’s chosen to navigate—she attacks everything from dancing to eating fast food to having sex with the same violent, clipped, unfocused energy, and she has very little patience with anyone who doesn’t, can’t, or won’t play with the same energy. (Her impersonation of a boat propeller during the infamous swimming pool sex scene with MacLachlan is ridiculous, but intentionally so, a parody of porn excess.) 

She even moves up the ladder into the top spot on the “Goddess” show by literally pushing its star, Cristal Collins (Gina Gershon), down a flight of stairs. Yet again, Charles Taylor correctly observes that she’s never punished for her transgressions because they are recognized as part and parcel of survival in the movie’s brutalizing show business world—Cristal herself is revealed to be every bit the schemer Nomi is by her hospital bed confession (and subsequent reconciliation with Nomi, her “friendly” archenemy) that she grabbed the spotlight for herself in exactly the same way Nomi has.

Nomi’s past, however, and her attempts to closet it, add an extra element of uncertainty about her which works in the movie’s favor and provides a little more context for her seemingly relentless hostility. At one point Carey dangles her criminal record in her face—prostitution, possession of narcotics, assault with a deadly weapon—and I thought to myself, “And that’s just what she got caught doing!” As played by Berkley, Nomi comes across as potentially homicidal at times, so much so that when she puts the stiletto heel to craven pop star Andrew Carver (William Shockley) after he facilitates and participates in the gang rape of her best friend, Molly (Gina Ravera) I had no trouble believing that, if she didn’t feel she couldn’t escape the charges, she’d have no problem putting one through this guy’s eyeball and being done with it.

Too bad Elizabeth Berkley never had the opportunity to dispatch some of her harsher critics in the same way. She, of course, ended up taking the brunt of the abuse for the box office (and perceived artistic) failure of
Showgirls, and her brash, unseasoned performance, which is exactly what the movie calls for, however you feel about the level of rage with which she imbues the character, was an all-too-easy target. Any reasonable viewer ought to be able to see that Verhoeven saw the raw ambition in her that was perfectly realized in Nomi, and that Taylor probably rightly suggests was a source of inspiration, and fear, for Berkeley herself. Why wouldn’t an actress, known mostly for a supporting role on a kids’ TV comedy (Saved by the Bell), who suddenly found herself the focal point of a big budget (but at $40 million, not that big) movie that was itself being held up as the litmus test for the success or failure of the NC-17 rating, feel a little pressure? Fair enough. But heaping blame squarely on her shoulders for what became the Showgirls debacle seems patently unfair, based on what’s on screen, especially when what’s on screen has itself been pretty shamefully misjudged from the word “go.” If Showgirls ever got as fair a shake upon its initial release as it is getting today, through the network of bloggers who are attempting to reshape opinion, frame honest reconsideration in some small way by singing its praises, or perhaps even continue the negative appraisals in the clear light of day, then we probably wouldn’t be gathering forces like this to celebrate the existence of one of modern cinema’s most (unjustly) reviled totems of excess.

I’m really glad Showgirls is out there. I’m glad for Charles Taylor standing up for it from the beginning, and for writing a terrific piece that led me to my own reappraisal of the movie. I’m exceedingly glad to have been invited to participate in this forum (even though my entry is a tad late in the day). And I hope that by reading this, or one of the many great pieces that are available on line through this celebration, that someone else might at least be able to take another look, with fresh eyes, without the pressure of insistent and official opinion ringing in their ears, at a genuinely terrific movie that has been cloaked in ignominy and derision for 10 years. 

As Eric Henderson stated in his outstanding article about the film which headed up the Showgirls tribute blogathon (and for which I cannot find a current link), “I'd probably be a lot more worried about the possibility that I'm overselling Showgirls if it wasn't already patently clear that most people have already closed themselves off to the pleasures the film has to offer.” In that spirit, I invite you to check out Showgirls again on DVD, and if you’re like me and you didn’t before, do it this time with eyes wide open. You might not like what you see, but then again you might.


Thursday, September 17, 2015


 “This 1966 western… has the expertise of a cold old whore with practiced hands and no thoughts of love. There’s something to be said for this kind of professionalism; the moviemakers know their business and they work us over. We’re not always in the mood for love or for art, and this movie makes no demands, raises no questions, doesn’t confuse the emotions. Even the absence of visual beauty or of beauty of language or concept can be something of a relief. The buyer gets exactly what he expects and wants and pays for: manipulation for excitement. We use the movie and the movie uses us.”

-         - Pauline Kael on The Professionals, from her collection Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

I’m not speaking from direct experience here, you understand, but I would imagine that old whores, cold or otherwise, could be pretty entertaining, not only in their professional mode but also with some of the stories they could tell, should they somehow be coerced to kick back with a smoke or a drink and start talking. And speaking of storytelling, there have certainly been plenty of opportunities since 1966 to be entertained by movies that had nothing more on their minds than to give the audience what it seemed to want, often begged for, with ruthless proficiency and little concern for nuance or subtlety. To run with Kael’s metaphor for just a sentence or two longer, there’s little doubt in this age of movies as pure sensation that technique is just as crucial to the roughed-up customer in a movie theater as to the one in a well-run brothel. I daresay perhaps even more so. After all, really good foreplay, the sustaining of the pleasure of action, is part and parcel of any memorable exchange between a ticket-buyer and a filmmaker; down at Madame Fifi’s or in an alley off of Santa Monica Boulevard, maybe not so much.

As a young reader who hadn’t seen The Professionals anywhere but on Sunday afternoon TV when I was growing up, Kael’s comments always seemed somewhat harsh. The movie I remembered was a good, solid example of the sort of picture that could sustain a viewer like me during a boring day cooped up inside because of bad weather, or when I didn’t feel like doing much more than cooling off after a morning’s worth of running around outside, enacting my own outdoor adventures with pals. I certainly wouldn’t have even known what Kael was talking about if I’d been aware of her comments when I first saw the movie, probably around age 10 or 11. And even when I read Kiss Kiss Bang Bang in college I recall being struck by her use of what seemed to me a strange sort of backhanded praise for the movie, which by then I hadn’t seen for several years, and never without the showing being perforated by commercials for used car dealerships and Doan’s Pills.

Encountering The Professionals as a card-carrying (AARP) adult, and having now experienced about 45 years at the hands of cinematic professionals the likes of which she was referring, it’s a little easier to see what Pauline Kael meant. I still think the movie is plenty lively and entertaining— how could a movie starring Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, Woody Strode, Claudia Cardinale and Jack Palance be dull? But as directed by Richard Brooks (In Cold Blood, Elmer Gantry, Bite the Bullet, Looking for Mr. Goodbar), not the first filmmaker I think of when it comes to style or a light touch, the movie is as matter-of-fact and no-frills as an iron skillet to the back of the head. The movie gets under way in such a clipped fashion that I felt like I might have already missed something. Brooks stages silent vignettes beneath the opening credits to abruptly introduce the principal professionals in their lives before being recruited to this latest cause-for-hire-- rescuing the wife of a railroad magnate kidnapped and held for ransom by a ruthless Mexican general. This method seems crude and blunt even for a movie dealing with mercenaries on the outskirts of the Mexican revolution, but it’s a good indicator of Brooks’ approach, which goes beyond no-frills and no-nonsense almost to the primitive.

The Professionals gives its audience what it wants, all right—plenty of shooting and betrayal and hollering, men toughing it up for a test of strength, endurance and wiles, and women toughing it up too. Marvin and Lancaster both have a history fighting with Palance’s loco General Raza before he went really loco, and they don’t show near the reservations Ryan’s horse expert does when it comes to dispensing violence or measuring the morality of who they’re fighting, either for or against. Strode is along for the ride ostensibly for his talent with a bow, which comes in real handy when a stick of dynamite is attached to the accompanying arrow, but also because he looks so damn cool stretching the string. Cardinale, thankfully, is her customary spitfire self as the kidnapped wife who may not exactly be the unwilling victim her saviors have been led to believe she is. (She is, however, costumed in one of the most unattractive outfits of her career.) But she is not the only dust storm in a skirt on the movie’s cast list. As Chiquita, Marie Gomez (Barquero) wears bullet belts crisscrossing her breasts as the ultimate lethal accessory, and she doesn’t hesitate to throw herself into the fray for Raza, which makes her the perfect match for Lancaster’s slightly tilted dynamite expert. Their final confrontation, punctuated by a deadly shot and a revolver held to the throat, is the movie’s best approximation of a love scene.

Unfortunately, measured up against movies like The Dirty Dozen, The Train, The Wild Bunch and Once Upon a Time in the West, all much more fiery and passionate showcases for these actors, The Professionals seems to suffer from Brooks’ comparative lack of style and disinterest in genre. Where Aldrich brings psychosis and delirium, Frankenheimer patience and a slow burn, Peckinpah elegiac poetry, and Leone all those qualities together in a magnificent, synthesized landscape all his own, Brooks takes the Panavision frame and makes it look boxy and overdeliberate. The movie is workmanlike, in its dialogue as well as its visual style, but it’s devoid of lyricism, and those wide-screen frames never sing the way they can in the great westerns.

To that end, Kael’s comment about the absence of beauty in The Professionals, which seems somewhat perverse on its surface, is entirely apropos.  How can a movie starring two of the cinema’s great beauties, Burt Lancaster and Claudia Cardinale, themselves only three years removed from the lush environs of Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, and shot by one of the movie’s great cinematographers, Conrad Hall, be itself so bereft of the impulse to capitalize and expand on the natural loveliness of its actors, their environs and its meaning?  Brooks seems content to skate across the surface, get the shot, piece it together, indulge his actors’ natural chemistry, give them a few good lines sprinkled among the vastness of the more perfunctory ones, and call it a good two hours. That might be the modus operandi of the average whore, all right, and just like the oldest professional The Professionals lives up to its title and undiscerningly delivers the goods. But after a while a stick of dynamite and an explosion is just a stick of dynamite and an explosion. The Professionals makes you long for the shiver of real movie love, the sort that a cold old whore doesn’t have the time for or interest in, the sort that a real beauty like The Wild Bunch or Once Upon a Time in the West generates with every frame.


Thursday, September 10, 2015


For anyone who cringes at the words “found footage,” especially when applied to the recent glut of variable-quality horror movies like REC, V-H-S, Diary of the Dead, Cloverfield and the Paranormal Activity franchise, the idea of a scare picture taking place on, and entirely restricted to, the busily fragmented screen of a MacBook might just seem like the reductio ad absurdum of corner-cutting, visually unimaginative filmmaking. But in the hands of producer Timur Bekmambetov (Night Watch) and director Levan Gabriadze, the low-budget, high-concept idea behind Unfriended, in which a group of entitled, obnoxious but not entirely unlikable high school kids discover their Skype chat session has been hacked by what just might be the unsettled spirit of a dead friend who committed suicide one year ago today after being maliciously cyberbullied, proves to be an electronic gateway not only to honestly earned scares, but also to a means of examining and even critiquing the way communication is navigated and abused in the virtual age.
Which is not to try and make Unfriended sound excessively high-minded—its primary goal is to scare the shit out of anyone who has ever multitasked in front of the glowing screen of a laptop, teenagers and adults alike. And by immersing the viewer into the perfectly realized landscape of that laptop screen, where the click of a mouse, the hesitant sound of fingers at a keyboard, and even the familiar protocol of an IM session take on an eerie ambiance, Unfriended harvests chills and mounting dread better than any more conventional American horror film has in a long time. (This from someone who thought It Follows was way on the overrated side.) In Unfriended, the images transmitted and recorded by laptop cameras which represent these kids to their friends may themselves be static, but there’s wit involved in the way they electronically jerk and hesitate, refracting and briefly dematerializing the talking heads in a way that suggests the kids are already ghosts themselves. These selfie shots split and fritz to great effect when each one makes their gruesome exeunt too.

The way Gabriadze choreographs the frantic multi-window surfing adds almost unbearable tension as the movie’s ostensible lead and presumed final girl, Blaire (Shelly Hennig), begins directly communicating with the dead girl via Facebook, jumping to other sites to get advice on the pitfalls of making promises to a poltergeist or privately IMing her boyfriend, who she desperately hopes is orchestrating a very sick practical joke. (Those pop-up ads you find so frustrating during late-night surfing sessions will generate screams here.) Turns out that the safe haven of private chat groups and the relative anonymity that can give users a sense of insulation, and certainly isolation, from the world and its prying eyes doesn’t mean a whole lot when a vengeful ghost starts hacking your Facebook account, posting humiliating pictures and promising not only to reveal each of the dirty little secrets you and your friends are harboring, but also pledging that anyone who logs off the chat session will log off for real.  
The plot machinations of Unfriended will seem very familiar to anyone who has survived Terror Train (1980) and seemingly thousands of similarly sketched revenge-tinged horror scenarios made since then. The dead girl, whose gruesome suicide is seen near the beginning of the movie as a YouTube post recorded on a bystander’s cell phone, offed herself after being publicly humiliated online, and of course part of the movie’s gruesome tease is in watching the layers peel away to reveal the special tortures and humiliations devised for each kid on the Skype session, Blaire included, all of whom of course will turn out to have played some role in prompting the girl’s awful demise.
But there’s also an unexpected moral force at play in Unfriended that is strengthened by its offhanded dramatization of how false security and anonymity can feed into technological bullying, and how that onslaught could possibly become too pervasive and overwhelming for its victim to feel anything but hopeless despair. Online shamers take their licks here too, piling on the indignant Facebook OMGs when the ghost makes one girl’s awful involvement in the humiliation forever public. The movie’s central conceit—another wronged victim keeping an eye on the calendar and taking advantage of a meaningful anniversary to exact revenge—may be old hat, but the way it conveys its ideas is through an apt overload of up-to-the-minute social and personal high-tech concerns. If that means that even as soon as next year viewers end up looking at Unfriended as a quaint time capsule of the way things used to be, then so be it. But for right now the movie stands as an exceedingly clever reinvigoration of exhausted slasher movie tropes, and perhaps an even more potent and unforgiving glimpse on the multiple windows through which Internet-weaned young people can see the world.
Kids these days, amirite? Log off.
 (For further reference, check out this article from IndieWire detailing just how the laptop screen artifice of Unfriended was pulled off.)


Monday, September 07, 2015


Sometimes our homegrown double bills don’t seem to make sense from a programming standpoint, but they often gel in surprising and unexpected ways as they unfold, like two great tastes that, hey, taste great together. (“You got angsty social drama in my mindless chase comedy!” “Well, you got mindless chase comedy in my angsty social drama!” “Mmmmmm!”) And then sometimes, like last night’s impromptu pairing, they don’t go together at all, yet they both serve their own sweet and seasoned purposes just the same…


Comedy is so subjective that at least the knee-jerk response to it is almost beyond criticism—you either laffs or you don’t laffs, and it’s often as simple as that. Hot Pursuit got scathing, war crime-type reviews when it came out earlier this summer-- “Painfully unfunny!” “Aggressively lazy!” “An equal-opportunity fiasco!”-- but it sure did tickle my inner yahoo, and it made me wonder how many of those reviews came prejudged. The already high-strung Reese Witherspoon is amped to the red zone as a hyper-intense cop charged with motoring Sofia Vergara, a high-profile witness who can put a Colombian drug lord in prison, to court before snarling Latin baddies and surly, corrupt Texas detectives can stop them. Of course there’s hardly a plot element in it you haven’t seen a hundred times before. But Vergara and Witherspoon are both sly, sharp comedians, and if they’ve ever made you cackle in the past—Vergara on Modern Family or in the Farrelly Brothers' take on The Three Stooges, Witherspoon in Freeway or Election or even Legally Blonde-- then this loud, enjoyably crass, deftly assembled comedy, in which the two prove to be a jolly match, should make a safe bet for more silly laffs than the average summer comedy. I pretty much thought Hot Pursuit was a riot, and without the usual clunking and wheezing-- it's breezily directed by Anne Fletcher, who a few years ago came up with the similarly surprising Sandra Bullock vehicle The Proposal.


Marion Cottilard barley cracks a smile in Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes’ latest emotional ordeal, Two Days, One Night, and why would she? She’s Sandra, a married mother of two who is about to be laid off from her job at a solar panel assembly plant, but only if her coworkers vote a hefty bonus for themselves in exchange for her firing. The film chronicles Sandra’s desperate attempt over the weekend before the final vote to individually dissuade her colleagues from accepting their short-term windfall over her long-term prospects for making ends meet, and as usual the Dardennes key us into every humiliation, writ small and muted and closed in, in Sandra’s agonizing one-on-one process of survival. At first Cottilard’s presence seems as though it might be distracting—star power is not a phrase usually associated with films made by these Belgian brothers—but she’s a marvelously intuitive and trusting actress, and each wound inflicted over this long weekend is registered on her face with tiny cuts, not broad slashes. (Those subtle wounds are also apparent in the pained body language of her coworkers, themselves forced to choose between selflessness and self-interest.) Cotillard conspires with her directors to elevate the premise beyond its masochistic foundations— in their hands, and without sentiment or heavy-handedness, the movie becomes a parable of how the experience of misery can result in self-understanding and even improbable moments of happiness. It achieves its own sort of lightness of being.


Friday, September 04, 2015

WES CRAVEN (1939-2015)

There was also another exit made this week, one far more painful to acknowledge than the conclusion of a landmark television series. Director Wes Craven, who as one of the pioneering directors of a new strain of crude and often psychologically brutal horror in the 1970s fearlessly burrowed into the subconscious dread of his audience, died earlier this week at the age of 76 after a long struggle with brain cancer.

After making his way from academia (he was, for a time, a college humanities professor), Craven made his way to New York into the wilds of pornography and, eventually, more mainstream exploitation filmmaking, and the fledgling director’s first feature belied the cowardly implications of his surname with an unrelenting fury. Last House on the Left (1972), which recast Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring with relentless, pitiless sexual violence, refused to look away from either the misery of its two central, female victims, raped, mutilated and murdered by a gang of thugs in the woods, or the angry vengeance rained down upon them by one of the girls’ parents, and the movie, inadvertently or purposefully, reflected the dark undercurrent of political and social tension tearing at the country during the Vietnam era. The filmmaking was raw, artless and sometimes inept, qualities which actually served the film’s purpose of simultaneously implicating the audience in the horror and submerging them into a much more immediate, difficult-to-digest experience. (Last House on the Left was, of course, the movie whose advertising encouraged potential audiences, when the going got rough, to continually keep repeating to themselves, “It’s only a movie… It’s only a movie…”)

In 1977 Craven unleashed The Hills Have Eyes, in which a vacationing family is stranded in the desert and subjected to assault and terror at the hands of a deranged mirror-image clan of cannibals surviving in the desert hills, themselves victims of mutations brought on by exposure to nuclear radiation. Again, Craven’s unrefined approach was perfectly appropriate for keeping the audience under his thumb, and the movie’s lack of superficial finish makes it look even better, and play far scarier, in comparison to the slick, up-to-the-minute ghastliness of the 2006 remake and its even more revolting 2007 sequel. (Craven himself directed a 1984 sequel to THHE which is also held in low regard.)

But it was when he dared to invade the audience’s dreams—specifically, the nightmares of the kids in the audience—that Craven managed to up his game as a storyteller and an image maker, in the process delivering the first truly frightening serial killer of the slasher era. In A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund), scraping the elongated finger blades of his gloves along the walls of an abandoned boiler room in pursuit of yet another sleeping victim, built a legacy of horror on, of all things, the foundation of a child’s prayer (“If I should die before I wake…”) and turned the respite of slumber into the absolute worst refuge a terrified teenager could take. (The director would return to that same prayer at the end of his career which far less resonant results.)

The culture took to Craven’s monster on a first-name basis, and Freddy became not only a figure of genuine fear, but also one who opened up the possibility of self-awareness within the genre with his penchant for pitch-black wisecracks and the outright glee he took in punishing the younger generation for the sins of their mothers and fathers. Sequel after sequel, most of which Craven was only tangentially involved with, eventually diluted the effectiveness of the concept, until the director was moved to revisit Kruegerland with his New Nightmare (1994), which brilliantly deconstructed the Freddy mythology, and the very idea of the morbid attraction of the slasher phenomenon, in the process pointing the way to Craven’s last great achievement in genre subversion.

In the wake of the first Nightmare, Craven seemed to be satisfied working themes of racism and classicism and social justice into an uneven string of pictures like Shocker (1989) and The People Under the Stairs (1991), the best of the bunch being his weirdly earnest and unsettling look at the world of Haitian black magic in The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), which was based on the first-person accounts of anthropologist and author Wade Davis.

But it was in Scream (1996) that he seemed to find the perfect distillation and balance between sincere genre practice and the detailed examination of same, and he brought his own sort of pop-anthropological sensibility to the party in spades. Here was a movie which succeeded in having fun with conventions that had become worn-out and tired from overuse, an exhaustion to which Craven himself had contributed, that was at the same time deadly serious about the violence and the emotional toll inflicted upon its cast of characters. That Craven and writer Kevin Williamson would subject this most self-aware of franchises to the same sort of process of diminishing returns over the course of three sequels was one irony that went largely unacknowledged within the movies’ increasingly convoluted plots.

It’s unfortunate, too, that he also seemed, as he attempted to move further into the mainstream, both pre- and post-Scream, to have so much trouble shepherding good material past the meddling influence of the suits. Movies like Vampire in Brooklyn and Cursed may have been bad ideas to begin with, but studio tampering surely did little to ensure that Craven would deliver on the promise of his reputation as a horror master. But even in acknowledging that reputation, there’s a whiff of desperation about movies like Shocker and especially My Soul to Take, both of which saw Craven angling for new horror franchises based upon faint, anemic echoes of past glories rather than attempting to craft solid stories to tell. (In 1999 the director even made a bold attempt to separate himself from his stature as a horrormeister by directing Meryl Streep as a music teacher in the middle-of-the-road would-be Oscar contender Music of the Heart, but few seemed to notice.)

Thankfully, Craven will instead always be remembered for his successes, and he can lay claim to creating some shocking, potent, original horror imagery during a period when much of what was coming out of American efforts in the genre was satisfied with the simple repetition of worn-out plots and ideas. A friend of mine posted on Facebook upon learning of his death that “(Craven) made his mark, more than once, and it's a mark that is uneraseable,” and such a claim seems about as undeniable as anything that has or will be said about the director upon the occasion of his death.

Wes Craven seemed to me more a meat-and-potatoes storyteller who had an undeniable talent for occasionally tapping into resonant, zeitgeist-flavored themes than an artist driven by personal expression. But when he was in peak mode, he was among the genre’s most fertile and socially engaged practitioners. His influence upon a generation of self-aware and self-examining horror filmmakers may be a double-edged sword (as Tarantino’s has been as well), but I suspect his unique penchant for creeping past their defenses into the dark corners of the audience’s collective fear centers will continue to be the envy of upcoming directors for a long time to come. “The first monster you have to scare the audience with is yourself,” Craven once said, and at his best he cast an unblinking eye on the sort of unforgiving horror that on its most fundamental emotional and visceral levels could only be described as personal.



The three-year run of Hannibal, one of the most visually and narratively innovative series ever to air on television, broadcast or cable, came to a breathtaking conclusion Saturday night. I have already confessed to a bit of selfish melancholy that there will be no more surprises, no more opportunities to get lost in the show’s radical approach to reimagining Thomas Harris’s well-known and well-trodden scenarios, and no more sweet, agonized anticipation over what form the show, probably the most envelope-pushing of any network show ever aired, might take in its own becoming.

But I must also confess that I couldn’t be more satisfied with the way Hannibal, all three seasons now fully unveiled, was orchestrated to a beautifully modulated finish that illustrated the truly expressive and even transcendent (of the limitations of a more audience-friendly, more comfortingly linear structure and tone) achievement of Bryan Fuller’s series. (Matt Zoller Seitz, linked below, likened it to the most bountiful possible fulfillment to date of the concept of “a novel for television.”)

The feeling faithful viewers were left with Saturday night was one that wholly resonated and complemented the vision of Fuller and his collaborators, and our faithfulness – Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham joining forces in an exquisitely choreographed menage-a-trois dance of death with Frances Dolarhyde, a.k.a. the Red Dragon, and then in each other’s arms, in the bloody repose of that dance’s aftermath, making clear what was barely subtext to begin with, that Hannibal has been, from the very beginning, a love story. Hannibal’s final chapter unfolded as if it were always meant to end in exactly this place, at exactly this pace, its possible season-ender now a perfectly satisfying series finale, in which Will chooses to hurl himself and Lecter, both horribly wounded, over a cliff and into the sea rather than continue on with a life which has now, in killing Dolarhyde, allowed Will to become Hannibal’s true soul mate.

And as it was here at the end, so has it always been. Even though the show was a product of the rigors and frustrations and disappointments and occasional glories of telling stories in a medium governed by corporate influence, deliriously entangled finances and the fickle instincts that inspire the ratings chase, Hannibal’s richness, of design, of experimental narrative surety, and an unwavering refusal to underestimate its audience, has always lent it a completeness that is shared only by those shows, some great, some good, some uneven, which seem to understand that not all stories must linger and dribble and continually echo past glories in the name of longevity.

In its way, without ever addressing the strengths and/or weaknesses of other forms and stories, the way Fuller approached retelling the Lecter story exposed the vain, self-consciously transgressive, overstuffed grab-bag nature of something like American Horror Story, which season-to-season remains bereft of the sort of cohesive grandeur and purpose that Hannibal sported in glorious excess. Compared to Fuller’s daring formal structure, AHS feels even more like a vanity project that the writers are making up out of cheap cloth as they go along week to week. The staying power that Hannibal can claim has everything to do with it being a sensual, allusive, disturbing and even moving approach to a story contained within three seasons that can be returned to like a favored novel, revealing more and more layers of meaning, of humor, of resonating terror, of genuine pleasure with each new encounter.

And speaking of transcendence, perhaps Hannibal’s greatest achievement is how thoroughly it seems to have eclipsed previous cinematic incarnations of Harris’s popular tales, in its casting, of course— few who have regularly luxuriated in the monstrously smug entitlement and megalomaniacal, omnipotent ambition of Mads Mikkelsen’s Hannibal Lecter will likely clamor to return to Anthony Hopkins’ entertaining but more conventionally realized portrayal—but also in the very way it spins the seductive details of its sinister dreamscape into a lingering and inevitable dance of death between psychological profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Lecter, turning Hannibal’s grim beauty in service of what ends up becoming one of the most revealing, unlikely and weirdly powerful love stories ever told.

In the couple of days since the finale, I’ve had a chance to read a couple of really fine essays encompassing personal reaction, analysis, interpretation and emotional reckoning with the fact that Hannibal, as we have now come to know and appreciate it, will spin no more. Both Matt Zoller Seitz and Jeff Jensen articulate their responses with passion, alongside the moments that inspired those responses, and very early on in reading them I realized any attempt on my part to do the same would fall far short and wanting. It is well enough for me to point you in their direction and allow them to amplify your experience of Hannibal in the way they did for me. Here is Seitz in Vulture on one of the many elements that makes Hannibal great, a likely candidate for posterity in the annals of television:

 The sophisticated aesthetic developed by Fuller and his many collaborators… is the reason why, despite being the most gruesome drama ever aired on network TV, Hannibal never felt unacceptably brutal to me. It is, no question about it, ultraviolent, but not in the manner of a cheap slasher film. It is ultraviolent in the manner of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill and The Fury, and Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and A Clockwork Orange (which Hannibal quotes by scoring Jack's beating of the doctor to Gioachino Rossini's "The Thieving Magpie") and touchstones of religious painting, such as Tintoretto’s 1565 painting of Christ’s crucifixion. It is ‘studied’ in the best way, i.e., thoughtful, considered. It is concerned mainly with exploring what violent actions mean (to us, and to the story) rather than simply attempting to replicate the physical experience of suffering (although it does that, too; every wounding and death on the show is viscerally jolting and also often carries an emotional charge). And it pays equal attention, sometimes greater attention, to emotional violence, showing how characters (usually Hannibal, but not always) coolly scrutinize their targets, then push certain buttons to ensure a particular outcome that’s often destructive for all involved. The physical violence represents a continuation of emotional violence.”

The entirety of Seitz’s commentary can be read here, and if you are a “fannibal” you really must read it while the images and sounds of the series finale are still glowing white-hot in the memory, or again after encountering it on Blu-ray in the coming months.

However, the first piece I read after actually seeing and absorbing the show for myself was Jensen’s, and I especially appreciated it for being what is possibly the most observant piece to ever bear the Entertainment Weekly banner. Jensen reckons with sharpness the way Hannibal seems to comment not only on its own mythology, but on its own precarious status as network product, and even on the people who made up its small but loyal audience. In doing so, he describes the brief epilogue that tags the final episode:

“We saw long-suffering Dr. Bedelia Du Maurier (Gillian Anderson), the bride and beard of Hannibal, sitting at a table set for three, waiting for her groom and his true love to join her. She had prepared quite the meal for them: Her own leg. She represented us, the fan hoping for more helpings of a dish we’ve grown to love. But she also represented to the worst possible scenario for Hannibal and its devoted fans. Do we really want to see the show sacrifice valuable bits just to get more of it? No. To borrow from Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Final Problem and a line from Moriarty: `It has been an intellectual treat to me to see the way in which you have grappled with this affair, and I say, unaffectedly, that it would be grief to me to be forced to take any extreme measure.’”

(Read the entire piece here .)

But despite Jensen’s convincing analysis re the satisfaction of Fuller’s conception of the climax to which he and his collaborators have managed to bring the show, there are still rumors, this time of a cinematic continuation which would in part recast the Clarice Starling/Silence of the Lambs portion of the Lecter saga in the mold of the radical reimaginings Fuller has already forged from Harris’s vast source material. It’s a tantalizing possibility, but the reassuring thought remains that we have already enjoyed a self-contained, fully realized masterpiece of television, and when the third season Blu-ray release arrives we really will be able to return to it like a novel, or a 39-hour feature film, and appreciate anew the ways in which Fuller and company have reshuffled the deck, raised the bar on the ways stories can be told on television, and their artistic possibilities. Farewell, Hannibal, and thanks for the often seemingly inescapable nightmares which held their own very rich and perverse pleasures. We’ll be seeing you again very soon.