Movie Review ~ You Don’t Nomi


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Showgirls was met by critics and audiences with near universal derision and this documentary traces the film’s redemptive journey from notorious flop to cult classic, and maybe even masterpiece.

Stars: Elizabeth Berkley, Joe Eszterhas, Gina Gershon, Joshua Grannell, April Kidwell, Kyle MacLachlan, Haley Mlotek, Adam Nayman, David Schmader, Paul Verhoeven

Director: Jeffrey McHale

Rated: NR

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Arriving with a storm of controversy and the dreaded NC-17 rating, Showgirls was released in theaters across the country on Friday, September 22 1995. That was 25 years ago now but I remember exactly the new movie I saw in cinemas that opening weekend: Seven.  That’s right, The MN Movie Man was underage so he could see Seven with his dad (who let me see a whole bunch of movies I shouldn’t have) but wasn’t old enough to catch the movie he really had his eye on.  Oh, it killed me not to be able to know what was going on inside Screen 4 at the Edina Theater when I was right next door seeing Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman hunt down a devious serial killer.

Alas, my exposure to Showgirls came later on VHS when I was allowed (again, yay permissive parents) to see it after much negotiating.  To say it met all expectations was an understatement and over the last two decades I’ve been an ardent support of its merits.  Sure, it’s camp and trashy but it’s essential viewing at the same time – and aside from a gruesome scene of sexual violence near the end, a fairly entertaining watch, too.  Thrashed by critics and bombing out at the box office, Showgirls seemed destined to go down as another turkey, a trivia factoid game shows would use as a 400-dollar question.  Yet its home video release caught fire and once its creators began to embrace its ridiculousness, the studio leaned into the growing popularity and the movie earned back its budget (and more) after the fact.

In the new documentary You Don’t Nomi, director Jeffrey McHale cleverly examines Showgirls, using fans, critics, archival interviews with the stars, and the career of its director Paul Verhoeven to show how the film has rose from the ashes.  Evolving from a disaster no one wanted to talk about to a calling card of pride, you can’t change the cold fact the film is problematic from the jump and struggles with its own identity throughout but in hindsight…was it really THAT bad?  Aside from just talking about it’s place in halls of camp cinema (which the soon to be released Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All-Time: Volume 3 Comedy and Camp does quite nicely) this is a slightly more serious take on a film you can hardly ever take seriously.

It would be easy just to chart the creation of Showgirls from the beginning, when top Hollywood screenwriter Joe Eszterhas decided to put his own spin on the big MGM musicals that had gone out of fashion.  However, anyone watching this documentary likely is coming to it with some working knowledge of the film and doesn’t need this refresher course in specific detail.  Instead, McHale weaves in this origin story alongside Verhoeven’s ascent from Oscar-nominated filmmaking in the Netherlands to infamous director of provocative properties in tinsel town.  This helps form a picture of Verhoeven’s more European approach to sex and violence in his films and how it influenced numerous aspects of Showgirls.

The production of the film is covered as are the critical reactions and original box office run that left star Elizabeth Berkley as the unfortunate scapegoat.  Where the doc gets really interesting is anytime it’s exploring the after effects of Showgirls and how it has had an impact, positive and negative, on people’s lives.  There’s Berkley, whose movie career was ended before it ever began, given a small but overdue reprieve at a 20th anniversary celebration of the film.  In the same segment, we meet the performer that spearheaded the Showgirls musical, a popular stage show who entered into the production as a way to reclaim power after a personal setback.  These moments (a deep dive cinematographic breakdown of a scene between Berkley and Gina Gershon is revelatory and fun) and more aren’t just straws grasped at to illustrate why the movie is relevant…they’re engaging examples of how the film has come to justly earn its cult status.

For a movie that’s chock full of sex and nudity, Showgirls is widely regarded as one of the least sexy movies ever and it’s hard to argue with that.  Still, in the same breath you also can’t say it’s not well made or incorrectly put together.  In a most respectful way, You Don’t Nomi invites us to take another look at the film and see it for more than just its sordid history, restricted rating, and critical consensus.

Movie Review ~ Shirley


The Facts
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Synopsis: A famous horror writer finds inspiration for her next book after she and her husband take in a young couple.

Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Odessa Young, Logan Lerman, Michael Stuhlbarg, Steve Vinovich

Director: Josephine Decker

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  It seems a little too easy to label Shirley Jackson a “horror writer” but that’s largely what many of the press clippings and mentions of the author have done over the years since her death in 1965.  True, a number of her works leaned toward the dark, supernatural, and unnerving, delving into psychological paranoia for good measure.  However, her short stories and novels have remained startlingly timeless because they regularly uncover the ambiguity of societies pleasantries and expose what’s underneath a pallid façade. I loved The Haunting of Hill House and it’s as much about the inner demons of the lead character as it is about any ghosts that may roam around the titular mansion.  Then, of course, there is The Lottery, a much discussed and oft-taught allegory of the deadly cost of following without questioning.

The Lottery is a good place to jump off for Shirley as well, as the movie begins just after Jackson’s short story was published in the late 1940s.  Rose (Odessa Young) is reading the issue of the New Yorker in which it appeared as she travels with her husband Fred (Logan Lerman, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) to Bennington, VT.  It’s here that Fred will serve as the teaching assistant to Professor Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg, Call Me by Your Name)…who happens to be the husband of the reclusive and usually boozily bed-ridden Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss, The Invisible Man).  Rose and Fred wind up living with the older couple, with Rose tending to Shirley and the household duties as the men are teaching.  When a young girl on campus goes missing, Jackson is inspired to begin work on a longer piece which creates tension as her process is…intense.  The longer she writes, the more out of control the household becomes and the lines between reality and fiction are continually blurred.

It’s important to note that those approaching Shirley hoping to get a better idea of who the author was should look elsewhere for their fact-finding mission.  This movie is based on Susan Scarf Merrell’s 2014 novel of the same name, which fictionalizes the relationship between this younger couple and Jackson/Hyman.  From what I’ve inferred, the story has been further bifurcated by screenwriter Sarah Gubbins who changed the time, locale, and critical elements of Jackson’s family life to better streamline the story she and director Josephine Decker are trying to tell.  The result?  A movie that feels a lot like the author herself: initially interesting but eventually exhausting.

There’s always something intriguing about an alternative take on a real life figure and I think it’s curious that not only did Jackson become a character in Scarf Merrell’s book but that the same book itself had an alternative take.  That’s double (or triple?) meta for you.  The problem with digging down that deep is that somewhere you’re going to lose the focus and that’s what sadly happens about halfway through Shirley. No matter how many creative camera angles Decker’s cinematographer Sturla Brandth Grøvlen employs or how often the spikey music from Tamar-kali jangles us, it can’t keep our minds from drifting.  Instead of being swept up in the parasitic relationship that develops between Shirley and Rose (the sallow Jackson at the beginning seems to glow the more Rose’s complexion turns gray) the audience struggles to keep up with Decker’s paths that lead nowhere.

Jackson’s bouts with severe anxiety were well documented but they’re presented here as mental instabilities, given all the more strain by Moss’s mannered performance.  Though she’s made a career over the past few years of playing similar complex women proving there’s no tic she can’t tackle, she comes up short here.  The delivery feels like schtick, something planned instead of performed and while Moss working so awfully hard is to be commended, it leaves no room for anyone else to get a nuance in edgewise.  Not that it stops Stuhlbarg from trying, gnashing his teeth on the scenery as exactly the kind of pompous literate we think a collegiate professor worth his salt would be.  Lerman is mere set decoration so it’s up to Young to steal what moments she can from Moss and she takes what scraps are allowed and runs with them quite nicely.

I’ve a feeling there will be two camps where Shirley is concerned.  First are those that buy what Moss is selling and can forgive the film for its hazy gaze at history and eventual descent into drab psychological drama.  Then there are the others, like myself, who don’t mind a little revisionism…as long as its done with purpose or reflection.  The real Shirley Jackson wrote about things that scare us, the movie version doesn’t even know where to begin.

Movie Review ~ Becky (2020)


The Facts
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Synopsis: A teenager’s weekend at a lake house with her father takes a turn for the worse when a group of convicts wreaks havoc on their lives.

Stars: Lulu Wilson, Kevin James, Amanda Brugel, Robert Maillet, Joel McHale

Director: Jonathan Milott & Cary Murnion

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  When I was in my early 20s, I accompanied my parents on a trip to Las Vegas where we gambled, hit the buffets, and saw some shows.  It being our first time in the city, we did all the things the tourists do and by the time the week was drawing to a close, all my parents wanted to do was to take a night off and relax in the room.  I wanted to see one more Vegas show so I grabbed a last minute ticket to some random extravaganza playing at one of the off-brand hotels.  Sitting in my seat, I couldn’t believe my luck when before the show an announcer came on to tell the audience that going on between acts would be Kevin James!  Wow!  The King of Queens himself!  I waited through the dreary first half only to find out that a) it wasn’t the Kevin James I thought it was and b) this Kevin James was a lousy magician.

You’d understand, then, why I was trepidatious when reading the plot summary of Becky which listed Kevin James as an escaped neo-Nazi prisoner that terrorizes a family.  I mean, surely this time it really wasn’t the same guy, right?  Could the magician have gone into acting or was this really the funnyman known for his comedy turns on television and a string of half-hearted attempts to be a movie star?  Was James making a play for a more hardened character, distancing himself from the silly Adam Sandler umbrella he’s stayed safely under for more than a decade?  Admirably, Becky shows a new side of James but unfortunately for him the performance is part and parcel of such a repugnant film that the effort hardly seems worth noting.

Ever since her beloved mother died, Becky (Lulu Wilson, Annabelle: Creation) has had trouble adjusting to the new normal.  Her father Jeff (Joel McHale, The Happytime Murders) has tried to let his emotional daughter have her space to grieve but he’s decided to take steps to move forward, announcing his engagement to single mother Kayla (Amanda Brugel, Suicide Squad) at the start of what was supposed to be a father-daughter weekend at the family lake house.  Annoyed at the arrival of Kayla and her young son, Becky storms off to her tree fort in the woods…right about the time escaped prisoners Dominick (James, Pixels), Apex (Robert Maillet, Pacific Rim), and a few of their old friends show up on the hunt for an item stashed away.

As the audience, we’ve already seen the extent to which Dominick will go to get his way after his bloody flee from custody and a grisly crime that’s thankfully only hinted at.  He may have met his match, though, because Becky is an easily aggressed powder keg waiting to blow and doesn’t take kindly to the violence she witnesses going on in her home.  Thus begins less of a cat and mouse game but something more akin to two lions circling one another, with each devouring anything less important that gets in their way.  Becky uses her problem solving quick thinking and knowledge of the area to her advantage while Dominick relies on brute force to draw her closer, leading to a blood-soaked showdown.

The movie I’m describing sounds like an appealing and clever home invasion thriller and I bet the script from Nick Morris, Lane Skye and Ruckus Sky had some snap to it when it was originally conceived.  It wouldn’t be hard to sell me on a Home Alone meets survival horror movie but it’s a question of taste that has to be examined.  Under the direction of Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion Becky is about as repulsive an endeavor as you’re likely to see in 2020.  The bad taste on display is so egregious, from violence against animals to violence against children, it’s just absolutely no fun to watch and not even that fun to write about after the fact.  I’ve seen enough of these types of films to know that I don’t need to watch one that involves grown men beating up underage kids and killing pets – is that the kind of entertainment we’ve found ourselves craving and wanting to celebrate as a good time?

Honestly, it doesn’t help matters that Becky herself is awful – rude, dismissive, stubborn, and nihilistic, it goes beyond the typical beleaguered teenager and invites you to not so secretly want to root against her.  There’s the suggestion that maybe Becky has an evil streak in her as well, but no one involved behind the scenes was thoughtful enough to explore that more intriguing side to the character.  You get the feeling Wilson was trying to give her a sinister edge that wasn’t entirely on the page, but it’s largely silenced by Milott and Murnion’s glee for gore.  Instead of finding moments to see deeper within Becky’s psyche, we’re treated to another horrific bit of sleaze, often involving a sharp object and viscera.

Having two comedians (McHale and James) in dramatic leading roles also gives the movie a strange imbalance because there’s a sense of waiting for one of them to break during the deadly serious scenes.  McHale just isn’t cut out for dramatic acting and even his comedic turns are skating on thin ice, at least James does something with his part that feels like some homework was put in.  It’s not a revelatory performance but it’s a fine effort that should be noted and explored in further films down the line.  If the other supporting players offer little in terms of surprise, it’s only because there isn’t much space allotted to them seeing that Becky and Dominick suck up the air from most scenes.  Let’s also not forget that the entire movie hinges on Dominick being after something (I won’t reveal what) that makes precious little sense to anyone but him.  That all these characters should be swept up in the nonsense simply adds to the pointlessness of the whole exercise.

I felt really gross watching Becky and if it was something I’d casually picked out on Netflix, I probably would have turned it off twenty minutes in.  While I like the concept of what the script had laid out, it skewed too young and overly irresponsible for me and that left it feeling vacuous, like an experiment that failed to meet its potential.  It’s bloody and it’s brutal so gorehounds will likely sniff this one out fairly quickly, but will the connoisseurs of revenge thrillers go for a film served up with such foul ingredients?