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 ~ Vivarium


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Hoping to find the perfect place to live, a couple travel to a suburban neighborhood in which all the houses look identical. But when they try to leave the labyrinth-like development, each road mysteriously takes them back to where they started.

Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Imogen Poots, Jonathan Aris, Eanna Hardwicke, Senan Jennings

Director: Lorcan Finnegan

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  There’s a great show on Netflix that I’m sure you’ve heard of: Black Mirror.  It’s a nice little analysis of the dark side of advances in technology and while the creators have found interesting ways to drop slight ways that episodes are tied together, they are by and large stand alone tales that are often disturbing and eerily prescient.  Watching the overlong and overstated Vivarium, I kept thinking back to the efficient way that Black Mirror (or even old shows like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits) were able to condense their thoughts and ideas into a concise statement rather than ramble on with little to say above and beyond their logline.  I get a sense that writer/director Lorcan Finnegan and his co-writer Garret Shanley had a good nugget for an episode of a TV show here but unwisely were advised to expand on it and make it feature-length.  The result is a film that begins intriguing but quickly turns tedious.

Young couple Gemma (Imogen Poots, Green Room) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg, The End of the Tour) are looking to buy their first house together and have heard about a new development nearby that might be good to get an early jump on.  A robotic but benign salesperson (Jonathan Aris, All the Money in the World) lists the benefits of the manufactured community but feels it’s better just to show them around the neighborhood instead so they follow him, not paying any real attention to where they are headed.  When the salesperson disappears halfway through the tour and they can’t seem to find their way back to the main road, they are forced to spend the night in the model home…the first of many, it turns out.  Unable to leave the neighborhood and eventually trapped within their own hell house, the couple tries to escape by any and all means necessary.

At 97 minutes, Finnegan and Shanley only have so much room (and characters) to throw at audiences and sadly the usually reliable Poots can’t shoulder the entire movie on her own.  Eisenberg is his typical low-key milquetoast, prone to fits of anger when provoked but mostly an uninteresting presence.  So it falls to Poots to keep us tuned in and there’s just not enough going on in the neighborhood to make us want to stick around.  If it were only 45-50 minutes, I could see this being a tighter and more engaging watch that wouldn’t allow us time to check out watches.  Add in the appearance of a character prone to a deafening primal screech when they don’t get their way and you have the recipe for a movie that gets its eviction notice long before the credits roll.

Movie Review ~ Color Out of Space


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After a meteorite lands in the front yard of their farm, Nathan Gardner and his family find themselves battling a mutant extraterrestrial organism that infects their minds and bodies, transforming their quiet rural life into a technicolor nightmare.

Stars: Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur, Brendan Meyer, Julian Hilliard, Elliot Knight, Q’orianka Kilcher, Tommy Chong

Director: Richard Stanley

Rated: Unrated

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: It may seem like a distant memory now, but there was a time when Nicolas Cage was a bona fide movie star that had clout at the box office and with the notoriously picky voters in several guilds/associations that handed out major awards. Winning an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas in 1995, Cage was always a bit of an odd duck in his approach to his craft and his habit for driving his co-stars nuts (the female ones in particular) has been well documented as more than just idle Hollywood lore. Recently, Cage has seemed to revel in leaning in to the public perception of him and it feels like he pops up in some random movie every other month. I’m not sure when the man has time to sleep or get his well cared for hair system spiffed up but he’s an old school acting workhorse.

Though most of the films Cage stars in are indecipherable from the other, every now and then he finds himself in one that gets people talking. Back in 2018 that film was Mandy, a grim head trip of a horror movie that became a bit of an underground hit – inspiring late night showings and putting Cage back in the good graces of fans that hadn’t seen a movie of his in theaters for years. That movie was very nearly an art project, a true experience into hell that had an impressive style and some bold moves but ultimately didn’t thrill me as much as it did others that were welcoming Cage back into the fold. Now, just a little over a year later comes Color Out of Space, another strange foray into the unknown with Cage in the drivers seat but this time he’s in a vehicle that’s going someplace interesting.

Adapted from H. P. Lovecraft’s 1927 short story “The Colour Out of Space”, this isn’t the first time Lovecraft’s supernatural sci-fi has gotten the big screen treatment. Audiences first saw a version of it via the 1965 Boris Karloff schlocker Die, Monster, Die! and the one I remember fondly, The Curse from 1987 but for some reason within the last ten years it has become a hot property with two other versions floating around. For this retelling, the screenplay comes courtesy of Scarlett Amaris and director Richard Stanley and they’ve done a rather remarkable job updating Lovecraft’s story while maintaining much of his original set-up.  Though modernized, it’s quite reverential to Lovecraft and the nightmare he dreamt up.

The Gardner family has come to the tiny town of Arkham, Massachusetts for a change of pace. Raising llamas while trying to get his gardening business off the ground, Nathan (Cage, Valley Girl) is making the best out of a recent rough patch of setbacks. His wife Theresa (Joely Richardson, Endless Love) may have followed her husband from the city to the country but she hasn’t quite unplugged from her corporate life in doing so. Their children Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur, Big Eyes), Benny (Brendan Meyer), and Jack (Julian Hilliard, The Haunting of Hill House) are all adjusting in their own way with Lavinia opting to fully embrace her Wiccan ways and rituals now that she’s fully ensconced in nature’s beauty.

When Ward (Elliot Knight) a visiting water-surveyor enters the picture, he finds more than just a contaminated stream after a meteor crash lands on the Gardner’s property and begins to have a strange effect first on the flora and then on the family. At first, the changes are barely noticeable. New plants sprout up, unexplained phenomena increase in their occurrences. Then, those that drink from the water in the well begin to exhibit increasingly bizarre behavior until the extraterrestrial force that was contained within the meteor is fully unleashed, bringing with it an otherworldly terror. As the force gains power and begins to spread, the survivors have to evade a deceptive intelligence that aims to trick them into following it into darkness.

I was surprised at how effective Color Out of Space was for the majority of its run time. Largely, it’s a tense bit of entertainment with a heavy dose of the paranoid thriller and credit should be given to Aramis and Stanley for keeping things at a nice simmer for as long as they do. That’s quite a feat considering they have Cage in a role that is ostensibly the lead but who remains a bit in the background until the latter half of the film. You can see Stanley did his best to restrain Cage’s performance and I think editing had something to do with the finished product because Cage comes off quite well here. Sure, near the end he starts to whirl out of control but the film kinda calls for it and no one can swerve off a cliff quite like Nic Cage can. (I do wonder, however, if he was trying to emulate a certain impeached official when his character was having violent mood swings…I mean, it had to have been intentional, right?)

Along with Cage there’s a strong supporting cast with Arthur a real star in the making. There’s a worldly curiosity to her performance that makes for an intriguing character and a snappy rapport between all of the family members made me believe they all liked each other enough to withstand a good teasing. While his contributions are limited, Tommy Chong (Zootopia) is quite funny as a local off-the-grid stoner. It isn’t a stretch for Chong but he sells it with some flair. I continue to find Richardson a very underrated actress who has lived a bit in the shadow of her late sister (Natasha) and famous mother (Vanessa) throughout the years. She’s pretty great, especially when you consider just how far Stanley asks her to go in one scene.  Other actresses might have flinched but Richardson dives right in.

It’s interesting to note this is Stanley’s first feature film since he was famously fired from 1996’s remake of The Island of Dr. Moreau. The legendary tale of Stanley’s ouster from that movie has been recounted a number of times (including the fantastic documentary Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau, which is available on Amazon Prime) and judging by Stanley’s ferocious comeback he’s more than ready to get back to moviemaking without a lot of studio interference. Working with a budget around $12 million, Stanley and his visual effects crew have created an impressive looking world that is both a wonder to behold and frightening, often at the same time. There’s a particularly grotesque effect near the end of the film that should recharge the battery of any horror fan running low on gore fumes.

Though the film begins to lose some energy the further down the rabbit hole it goes and the characters start to make increasingly bad decisions, it’s absolutely one you should see if given the chance. I can see this one following a Mandy trajectory (though I found this far less intimidating and grimy) and finding an audience that responds to its mind-bending visuals, dynamic color palate, and shocking sequences of terror and violence. Even if it doesn’t all make sense all of the time, it’s more entertaining than I ever thought going in.