Showgirls (1995)

This review doesn’t link in with any theme weeks (except a very old one that I did for ‘films about filmmaking’, which this tangentially is). It’s rather because the London Film Festival starts next week and my first film is You Don’t Nomi, a documentary about Showgirls that I hope will be illuminating about its long legacy, as it comes up on 25 years old. I will be trying to post regular updates from the Festival in between other theme week reviews.


It’s difficult to imagine, looking at some recent reviews by cinephiles on Letterboxd (at least those of them that I follow), that this was considered one of the ne plus ultra turkeys of its year — not a financial disaster perhaps, but certainly a critical one. It’s fair to say most of Verhoeven’s films have been underappreciated or just flat out misunderstood by critics and audiences upon their release, but it’s equally hard to say that in this case it was all misplaced. After all, it does feature some truly dreadful acting and a fairly limp script (albeit with some, perhaps unintentional, zingers that have probably aided its long gestation as a cult classic).

Still it very much has now been rehabilitated and it’s just as well, because there’s a lot going on in this film worth talking about (and not just being pointed and laughed at, as many contemporary responses seemed to prefer to do), even if its thematic throughline — the seemingly endless exploitation, carnality and corruptibility of American capitalist society — is hardly original. In fact, this is very much in the territory of filmmakers looking with poisoned self-regard at their own art, a form which stretches back further than Peeping Tom (1960); I’m pretty sure that even as cinema was first being formulated, there were directors being cynical about its artifice. Of course, overlaid on that is the artifice of Las Vegas, the perfect setting for such a story (again, hardly new), and the power dynamics of the sex industry. But while men in positions of power hardly get let off the hook here, neither does anyone else — not least women of colour, who seem to bear the brunt of the violence. Indeed, aside perhaps from Molly (Gina Ravera), the costume designer friend of aspiring star Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley), nobody acts with anything approaching a moral compass, and everyone is on the grift. And those like Molly who do have morals get punished for them in the end.

It’s a coruscating film, at once flashy in its style and pointed in its criticism. The characters in the film aren’t the only ones getting punished, for so does the viewer, because the film at every level resists being easily loved: for every sharp thematic critique comes something lascivious and exploitative, a Me Too story heaped with a side of misogyny, because that’s just how the American Dream is packaged. It’s how it came in 1995, just as it does now, and so it’s a film that hasn’t lost any of its kitsch-drenched melancholia.

Showgirls film posterCREDITS
Director Paul Verhoeven; Writer Joe Eszterhas; Cinematographer Jost Vacano; Starring Elizabeth Berkley, Gina Gershon, Kyle MacLachlan, Gina Ravera; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Thursday 26 September 2019 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, November 1999 and January 2002).

ABCD 2: Any Body Can Dance 2 (2015)

The most obvious point here is that Bollywood dance film ABCD 2 is hardly sparklingly original, though bringing together the modern dance film genre with Bollywood’s strong tradition of dance does seem like an obvious step (and indeed this is a sequel to 2013’s ABCD: Any Body Can Dance). So here we have a group of young dancers, led by Suresh (Varun Dhawan) and Vinnie (Shraddha Kapoor), who are at first disgraced on national TV, and then must compete at the World Championships in Las Vegas to redeem themselves, tutored by the older and mysterious Vishnu (Prabhu Deva). It steals influences most obviously from the Step Up series (whose entry last year, Step Up: All In, went to Vegas too), but also fairly liberally from most other recent young-people-compete-for-success-against-the-odds films like Pitch Perfect 2 (the bad guys are always Germans), StreetDance and Bring It On, amongst plenty of others. It’s a Disney film, so even the darker plot strands (like Vishnu’s alcoholism) never rise much above the anodyne, and everything inevitably turns out pretty well for everyone, but along the way it’s difficult to fault the infectious cheerfulness of the young cast in their many dance (and some song) sequences.

ABCD 2 film posterCREDITS
Director Remo D’Souza रेमो डीसूजा; Writer Tushar Hiranandani तुषार हीरानंदनी; Cinematographer Vijay Arora विजय अरोड़ा; Starring Varun Dhawan वरुण धवन, Shraddha Kapoor श्रद्धा कपूर, Prabhu Deva பிரபுதேவா; Length 154 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 24 June 2015.

April 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up

Herewith some brief thoughts about films I saw in April which I didn’t review in full. It includes a couple of films I actually saw in March but had thought I’d write up in their own posts (I didn’t).

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, USA)
The Book of Life (2014, USA)
En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence) (2014, Sweden/Norway/Germany/France)
Insurgent (aka The Divergent Series: Insurgent) (2015, USA)
Notting Hill (1999, UK)
Pitch Perfect (2012, USA)
Premium Rush (2012, USA)
Wild Card (2015, USA)

Continue reading “April 2015 Film Viewing Round-Up”

Step Up: All In (2014)

There seems to be a fair amount of critical sniffiness about the Step Up series of modern dance masterpieces. A lot of the reviews I skim past on Rotten Tomatoes seem to think the acting is bad, or the whole enterprise is somehow fundamentally flawed, but yet I don’t see it. The quality of the acting may not be comparable to the stuff that wins awards, but comparing them would be a foolish undertaking. The acting is perfectly matched to the setting, to the genre and to the ambitions of the producers: the acting is perfect. What this latest instalment of the franchise does that’s new is that it brings back the leads from previous films to star together. Thus far, each film has had two (admittedly white) lead characters, a man and a woman, who over the course of the film come to respect and finally love one another through their shared passion for dance. So far, so generic, and it’s a formula slavishly followed here. Now two of the best of them return, somewhat like the filmic equivalent of one of those reality TV shows like Top Chef where periodically they do a season featuring previous season winners. So we have Ryan Guzman as Sean from the Miami-set Step Up: Revolution (2012) and Briana Evigan as Andie from Baltimore-set Step Up 2: The Streets (2008) — which incidentally are also the two strongest films from the franchise so far, in my opinion. Backing them is an ensemble featuring plenty of familiar faces to viewers of the series, including the adorable “Moose” (Adam Sevani) after his cameo in Revolution and larger role in Step Up 3D (2010), as well as his now-partner Camille (Alyson Stoner).

The previous film’s pretensions of connecting to current trends in media (YouTube and mobile phone filming) and the rise of protest movements are dialled down with this chapter, though with the character of Alexxa Brava (Izabella Miko), there remains a cogent critique of the media circus and its manipulativeness in search of ratings and success. As this TV-host ringmaster whose Las Vegas dance competition brings the two leads together, Miko is acting on a completely different planet from most of the film, as if she saw Elizabeth Banks in The Hunger Games and considered her performance just too naturalistic and muted. It certainly makes the task of the leads that much more difficult, and though Evigan does (ahem) step it up, I wasn’t convinced by Guzman, who is given a rather overextended emo sequence towards the end where his character is put right by the magic wise words of the generic European parent-figures.

What the film does well — and I admit this is rather the obvious point — is the dance setpieces, starting from the opening credits sequence (who knew films still did those) with its parade of dance-hopefuls trying out to bored producers, through to the epic final battle, which is obviously enhanced through montage and doesn’t convince at all as a filmed live reality show (though perhaps this is just another subliminal tip of the hat to the manipulativeness of modern television). Along the way we get a sense of how pursuing a career in dance can be a draining and difficult experience (something that was also a theme in the third film), from Sean’s voiceover during the opening auditions, to the glimpse at the crappy low-end service industry jobs everyone needs to take in order to make ends meet. His crew from the Miami film, now relocated to Los Angeles, soon disperses at the lack of opportunities and work, leaving Sean alone to recruit a new crew. Yet so expendable are these day jobs that everyone he reaches out to quickly ditch them for the slender prospect of something in Las Vegas. It’s only Moose who seems to acknowledge any commitments beyond dancing, in one of the film’s more affecting sequences.

Sure, it may be no actual bona fide masterpiecce, but this fifth film in the series is one of its strongest yet. There’s a colourful visual palette to go along with the kinetic energy of the dance sequences, and underlying it all is a cheerful optimism in the power of movement to overcome doubt and worry. The plotting and structure may fit into a long line of predictable genre exercises (this series and the contemporaneous High School Musical films as examples), but everyone attacks the script and the setpieces with the energy of people doing it all for the first time, and I find that a winning combination.

Step Up: All In film posterCREDITS
Director Trish Sie; Writer John Swetnam; Cinematographer Brian Pearson; Starring Ryan Guzman, Briana Evigan, Adam Sevani, Alyson Stoner, Izabella Miko; Length 112 minutes.
Seen at Vue Westfield [2D], London, Thursday 7 July 2014.

Now You See Me (2013)

Magic and cinema have always seemed to be a good fit, though the kinds of things that will impress a crowd in the live setting are obviously different from those depicted on screen; after all, we flatter ourselves that we understand a little bit of how image makers can manipulate reality. Movie magic depends on a different alchemy, and unfortunately it’s one that the makers of Now You See Me aren’t quite up to providing, though for the most part it’s a jolly ride.

The story introduces four illusionists with different skills: Daniel (Jesse Eisenberg), whose chief skill appears to be supercilious smugness; Merritt (Woody Harrelson), a louche ‘mentalist’, very good at reading people; Henley (Isla Fisher), an escapologist; and Jack (Dave Franco), whose expertise I’ve already forgotten. They are recruited by a shadowy hooded figure into teaming up as the Four Horsemen to engage in a series of high-profile robberies, redistributing their filthy lucre from banks and insurers to others in society who are less fortunate. Obviously this becomes a cue for the movie to drop all kinds of hints and misdirects as to who this mysterious arch-manipulator might end up being. Is it Michael Caine’s insurance magnate? Morgan Freeman’s embittered ex-magician turned internet debunker of magic acts? Grumpy federal agent Dylan (Mark Ruffalo) or his mysterious French partner Alma (Mélanie Laurent), both of whom are in hot pursuit of the four?

The movie is breathlessly propulsive in its forward momentum, staging grand magic acts on a variety of stages (from Las Vegas to New Orleans to New York), car chases, heists, breathless pursuits across rooftops, and the like. However, these amount to mere parlour tricks for distracting the viewer’s attention, much as in Star Trek Into Darkness or Olympus Has Fallen (my other candidates for silliest film of the year, comparisons which will either be heartening or depressing depending on your own point of view). Director Leterrier’s style appears to be never letting the camera stay still. There are swooping crane and helicopter shots interspersed with dizzying spins around actors. At the very least it is disorienting, at its worst it can just be confusing. The script at times doesn’t reach much further, and there are supporting characters whose dialogue is entirely formed from crime film clichés, which would be a Godardian provocation if you didn’t suspect they’d just run out of ideas.

What is a bold provocation is making your four leading characters so unlikeable; indeed, Laurent as the French detective is probably the only sympathetic character in the film. Perhaps all illusionists are similarly cursed, but I suspect it’s a side effect of having to play tricks on people for your livelihood. For the film this could have been a fatal flaw, but for the protagonists’ crimes being against an even less sympathetic group: financiers. Thankfully, too, the actors bring some big screen charisma to these cast-offs, and there’s occasional delight in their ability to get one over the gruff Ruffalo and the incompetent forces of the state.

It’s a difficult trick to perfect: taking your time and money and making you thankful for that, and I can’t say Now You See Me entirely succeeds. And yet, whatever its drawbacks, I did enjoy it. It may not linger in my memory for very long, but there are worse ways to pass a few hours.

CREDITS
Director Louis Leterrier; Writers Ed Solomon, Boaz Yakin and Edward Ricourt; Cinematographers Mitchell Amundsen and Larry Fong; Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Morgan Freeman; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Monday 17 June 2013.

Behind the Candelabra (2013)


NEW RELEASE FILM REVIEW || Director Steven Soderbergh | Writer Richard LaGravenese (based on the book Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace by Scott Thorson and Alex Thorleifson) | Cinematographer Steven Soderbergh (as “Peter Andrews”) | Starring Matt Damon, Michael Douglas, Scott Bakula, Rob Lowe, Debbie Reynolds | Length 118 minutes | Seen at Cineworld Fulham Road, London, Tuesday 11 June 2013 || My Rating 3.5 stars very good


© eOne Films

If Side Effects earlier this year was billed as Soderbergh’s last film, it seems as if Behind the Candelabra may actually turn out to be. Perhaps it didn’t ‘count’, what with being made for the cable subscription channel HBO, but it holds up well as a cinematic work. By the nature of the central characters’ lives, it’s a bit of a chamber piece, being restricted largely to interior sets — Liberace’s stage at Las Vegas, and his ornately kitsch home — but like all Soderbergh’s films, it boasts an excellent ensemble of actors.

Continue reading “Behind the Candelabra (2013)”