Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Thomas Anderson (1997)

2. Boogie Nights

Paul Thomas Anderson is fascinated with pornography. In particular, he's interested in the so-called porno chic era. That brief time in the seventies when horny hits like “Deep Throat,” “Behind the Green Door,” and “The Devil in Miss Jones” had the most disreputable of film genres verging towards mainstream acceptance. Anderson's enchantment with hardcore cinema led to him filming a mockumentry, while still in high school, called “The Dirk Diggler Story.” A decade later, that short film would inspire the feature “Boogie Nights.” Initially pitched as a three hour long, NC-17 rated film, “Boogie Nights” would come in twenty minutes under that time and with an R rating. More importantly, it would be the critical breakthrough for Anderson. The film would launch the film career of Mark Wahlberg, still best known as a pop star at the time, and earn multiple awards.

Eddie is seventeen years old. He has dropped out of high school and his home life with his parents is growing increasingly tense. He's also gifted with an enormously large penis. This attribute attracts the attention of pornographic director Jack Horner. Eddie assumes the stage name of Dirk Diggler. Starring in a series of films for Horner, “Dirk” becomes the biggest – rather literally – star in the genre. He forms special bonds with Horner and two of his co-stars, Amber Waves and Rollergirl. Yet the success goes to Dirk's head. He grows distant from his friends. He gets into drugs. The changing nature of the industry makes success hard to hold onto. Soon, the lives of Eddie's and those around him are in shambles.

“Boogie Nights” isn't just a homage to the golden age of pornography. It's a detail rich ode to the seventies themselves. Anderson lingers on the pop culture artifacts of the day. Eddie's bedroom is decorated with posters of Bruce Lee and Farah Fawcitt. Reed, his best friend and frequent co-star, wields nun-chucks. The fashion is heavy on the bell bottoms, unbuttoned shirts, high waists, cuffs, and pastels. Several key scenes take place in discos. The men sport chest hair and sideburns. Yet Anderson doesn't just dot his film with pop culture signifiers as a cheap way to establish the time period. His genuine affection for these things, through his characters. These detail makes the film's world more real, making its events more meaningful.

The director has, somewhat derisively, referred “Boogie Nights” as a film about “a guy with a really big dick.” Yet the movie's actual theme emerges across its run time. “Boogie Nights” is a story about family. Eddie is rejected by his mother, who believes he's worthless. Maggie's ex-husband is keeping her son from her, due to her pornographic alter-ego of Amber Waves. In lieu of actual blood relations, the two create a family of their own. Maggie sees Eddie as a son of sorts and he looks up to her as a mother figure. Jack Horner is a father figure to the boy, seeing his potential and boosting his dreams. Rollergirl is like a younger sister, with a child-like energy that hides a vulnerable side. Anderson subtly weaves together the meaningful connections these people form in the world of pornography.

The short that inspired “Boogie Nights,” “The Dirk Diggler Story,” was mostly farcical. It was the sarcastic rise-and-fall story of a porn star, told with a straight face. “Boogie Nights” is a far more sincere film but does maintain a sly sense of humor. The way Eddie/Dirk constantly references his 'very special gift” marks the movie as a tongue-in-cheek riff on stories about plucky underdogs who use one special attribute to succeed. Except Eddie's vigor and determination aren't what sees him come out on top. Instead, he's simply born with an extra-large cock. The way the film treats Eddie's endowment with religious awe, marking his bedroom skills as almost supernatural, is done with an obvious degree of cheekiness. It's clear that Eddie has little else to offer. His entire career depends entirely on what's in his pants.

Anderson may approach the story with a certain sense of humor but “Boogie Nights” is grounded by a trio of deeply empathetic performances. Mark Wahlberg, before this film, was mostly known for rapping with the Funky Bunch. After this film, Wahlberg would reveal himself as a sometimes deeply sensitive actor. He plays Eddie/Dirk as strangely innocent. Despite making his living by having sex on camera, Eddie always comes off as an overgrown little boy who doesn't really understand how the world works. Wahlberg doesn't play the part as caricature but as a deeply vulnerable individual, desperate to be understood and find some worth in his life. It's a star making turn and it's a shame that Wahlberg has really shown that level of talent since then.

Playing Dirk's surrogate parent figures are Burt Reynolds and Julianne Moore. Fallen Hollywood legend Reynolds was reluctant to make the film, didn't work well with Anderson, and squandered the second chance “Boogie Nights” gave him. As Jack Horner, the good ol' boy charm that made Reynolds a seventies icon is twisted in a different direction. The charisma is still there, as is Reynold's atrophied desire to be taken seriously, but the machismo manifests in ugly ways. Such as when Horner fights with Eddie or beats up a fratboy randomly chosen for a porn shoot. Or in the increasingly sexist undertones of his porn films. Moore, meanwhile, is a raw nerve. A key moment has her rambling a manic fashion while high on coke. Moore exhudes everything sad and desperate about her character, a woman who feels like everything she loves is slipping away from her. Yet her potential for love, the humor and strength she has to give, makes it clear that she deserves these things that are so hard to come by.

Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the great novelist-as-filmmakers. Each of his movies are filled with background characters that could easily occupy their own movies. “Boogie Nights” fills its margins with fascinating characters. Buck Swope is another porn performer who defies stereotypes by loving country music and dressing like a cowboy. This passion gets him fired from his job in a stereo store. His attempts to reinvent himself, by wearing a Rick James wig, are insincere. John C. Reily's Reed Rothchild is fascinated with stage magic and is seen practicing it throughout. Rollergirl is a high school dropout who is haunted by her failures. Scotty, the sound guy who is played with heartbreaking sincerity by Philip Seymour Hoffman, is in love with Eddie. One especially painful moment has him drunkenly admitting his feelings during a New Years Eve party. These moments fill the world of “Boogie Nights,” any one of them worthy of their own movie. Instead, they are examples of how full and developed the film's universe is.

One such subplot concerns Little Bill, the lights technician that works for Horner. Bill's wife, played by veteran porn performer Nita Hartly, constantly cheats on him. She's very nonchalant about her infidelity. When he walks in her having sex with another man, she dispassionately makes him leave. At a party, she has sex in public with another man. She doesn't even stop when Bill finds her. The film treats this as a cruel joke. Bill, played with absolutely perfect sad sack weariness by William H. Macy,  gets piled in a comical way. It's a funny gag... Up until it becomes deadly serious. At the New Years Party celebrating the end of the seventies, Little Bill snaps, murders his wife, her lover, and then kills himself. This marks the very intentional tonal turning point in the film. It's no mistake that this same party is where Dirk is introduced to cocaine. The seventies are over and so are the pornoriffic good times the characters are experiencing.

The extended last third that follows exposes “Boogie Nights'” only real flaw. As the eighties go on, the porn industry shifting from film to VHS forces Horner to sacrifice his vision of a narrative-driven adult film. Eddie has a falling out from his makeshift family, due to his growing ego and growing coke addiction. It's at this point that “Boogie Nights'” darkness begins to induce apathy in the audience. That feeling hits its peak during the moment when Buck stops into a doughnut shop. A robber enters, attempts to empty the cash register, and the entire scene ends in brutal violence. Buck is an unwilling witness. This is the only time “Boogie Nights” overdoes it and comes off as contrived.

Even then, that darker last third has an incredible, stand-out moment. In a sequence inspired by the Wonderland Murders, Dirk and his friends attempt to steal money from a drug dealer. Played with a feverish intensity by Alfred Molina, Rahad Jackson is running on an irrepressible high. The scene is brilliantly scored to a series of eighties pop song, building towards the driving rock crescendo of Night Ranger's “Sister Christine.” This alone would probably be enough to create a jangly atmosphere of nervous energy. Anderson pushes it even further by having a character set off firecrackers throughout the scene. By the time the violence actually happens, the audience is already deeply unsettled. It's not a catharsis. Instead, the seasick feeling the viewer has bottoms out as the worst possible things happen. The sequence is a masterclass in how to build tension and unnerve a viewer, as the story hurdles towards calamity.

In “Hard Eight,” Paul Thomas Anderson displayed an impressive visual sense. The director would build on that style for his second feature. The long takes, characterized by the camera smoothly sliding through a single location, crop up several times. One really impressive scene takes us through a disco club, showing us multiple characters without ever stopping. Once again, that visual smoothness carries through to the film's pacing. Despite running over two hours “Boogie Nights” never seems to slow down, swimmingly transitioning from one event to the next. When not employing his complex editing or brisk shooting, Anderson utilizes a more meta approach. Several scenes in “Boogie Nights” are shot in the aspect ratio, and grainy film quality, of seventies porn films. This further shows the director's commitment to verisimilitude and accuracy, not to mention his love of details.

“Boogie Nights” ends on a happy note. The family is reunited. Jack Horner's porn empire continues. The good succeed. The bad are punished. Yet this positive conclusion is laced with darkness. Anybody who knows the facts about John Holmes knows his late life was soured by crime and drugs, before he died of AIDS. And it's not as if the porn industry was going to stick with film. There's a cloud of uncertainty floating over the final scene. The characters may seemingly be in a happy place now but something worst awaits them all. This implication even continues into the end credits. Michael Penn's music has a circus like tone that slowly involves into something more sinister. Choosing to end the film when he did shows Anderson's restraint, as he trusts the audience to understand what he means.

“Boogie Nights” would gain excellent reviews, be nominated for several Oscars, and win a multitude of other awards. It would truly launch Anderson's career, marking him as a unique filmmaker with something to say. The emotionally powerful script, fantastic collection of performances, and brilliantly executed direction. The movie isn't perfect but it is an impressive motion picture, less about pornography than it is about the commonality of people desperate for love and looking for understanding and acceptance. [Grade: A-]

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Thomas Anderson (1996)

Paul Thomas Anderson is one of the few modern directors to be beloved by both critics, each of his films sweeping up awards, while also maintaining a devoted cult following. His picture's handle big, important themes while also maintaining an odd sense of humor and displaying the director's favorite quirks and idiosyncrasies. (He also has yet to win an Oscar, despite making some of the best films of the last two decades, which causes fans to treat him like a scrappy underdog of sorts.) A retrospective for Anderson has been coming a long time but I've kept putting it off. His films are great but they also leave me emotionally exhausted, making them difficult to write about. Well, it's about time I get over that. Let's dive in.

1. Hard Eight

In 1993, Paul Thomas Anderson would release a 24 minute short film called “Coffee and Cigarettes.” The short starred Philip Baker Hall as a character named Sydney, a mysterious man sitting in a diner. Anderson was obviously interested in Sydney. His first feature film would revolve around Hall's character. He even wanted to cal the movie “Sydney” at first. The studio insisted on the catchier “Hard Eight.” The film would garner positive reviews without getting too much attention. Anderson hasn't discussed his debut much since it came out. Yet “Hard Eight” represents the beginning of many of his stylistic and thematic trademarks.

Two men meet for the first time outside a Las Vegas diner. John is a destitute young man who came to Vegas to win enough money to pay for his mother's funeral. Sydney is an experienced gambler. He teaches John some easy ways to quickly win a lot of cash. They become great friends. Two years later, John and Sydney meet again in Reno. John soon falls in love with Clementine, a cocktail waitress and sometimes prostitute. However, the couple's wedded bliss is cut short by a violent event and some foolish decisions. Sydney is brought in to solve the problem. He succeeds but at the risks of exposing his dark past.

“Hard Eight” is about gambling but also isn't about gambling. There's a handful of scenes devoted to Sydney playing Keno or sitting at the craps tables. The title comes from the risky gamble Sydney performs several time with dice. The Hard Eight is a move that doesn't work often but pays off big when it does. This high-risk/big-payout philosophy informs Sydney's entire life. He has a reason for befriending John, for practically adopting him as a surrogate son. It's s risky endeavor but enriches both of their lives greatly. Before the end of the film, Sydney makes another bold decision, one that could go wrong easily. “Hard Eight' is ultimately about the risks we take in life. The risks we take opening our hearts up to love. The risks we take on what we're willing to live with.

“Hard Eight's” opening scene is, frankly, magical. John is sitting alone in his misery. Sydney swoops in, out of nowhere, and immediately goes about helping the boy. John is skeptical at first. He's expecting Sydney to betray him or rip him off. The audience is expecting this too, wondering what Sydney's plans are. By the end of the evening, realizes that Syndey's motivations are entirely selfless. He helps the guy out and expects nothing in return. At the end of the first act, the viewer feels up-lifted. Sometimes people are good for no reason, just because it's the right thing to do.

Eventually, we do learn that Sydney had a reason for helping John. He has a horrible secret that connects him with John, in a very traumatic, personal well. The dramatic tension in “Hard Eight” balances upon whether or not John discovers this truth. Yet Anderson subverts expectations in an interesting way. “Hard Eight” isn't about dramatic revelations changing the way people feel about each other. Instead, it's about what we're willing to live with. Sydney goes to great lengths, doing very dangerous and questionable things, to ensure John never learns the real reason why he helped him. Yet, the film seems to suggest, maybe this was worth it. Maybe we have to swallow darker stuff to get on with our lives.

This shift in the story matches a tonal shift in the film. The early scenes of “Hard Eight” are relatively light-hearted. When Sydney takes John to the casino, the audience shares in his exhilaration. He even wins some money at a slot machine. When Sydney meets a vulgar friend of John's, he calmly asks the man to leave, not enjoying his crass talk. “Hard Eight” isn't exactly upbeat but it's lived-in, charming. That mood changes suddenly when Sydney gets a call, going to John and Clementine's hotel. They've attacked a man, handcuffed him to a bed, and are crudely attempting to hold him hostage. Suddenly, “Hard Eight” is dark and violent. This sudden change is intentional. The audience is not prepared to follow these seemingly nice people into a dark place but we're dragged along because we care about them.

There's a little thing Paul Thomas Anderson's screenplay does in “Hard Eight” that I really admire. During a pivotal moment, a gun is pointed at Sydney. Usually in movies, when a gun is aimed at someone's head, they remain stoic. Action movie tough guys are never intimidated by being in the cross hairs. Sydney, however, reacts like a real person. He immediately starts panicking. He sinks into his seat, hands up, begging not to be killed. He's scared out of his wits, worried about his life. This realistic touch shows how committed Anderson is to portraying his characters as fully formed human beings.

Philip Baker Hall is a character actor that's been active since 1970. He's one of “those guys,” a face you know but a name you might not be able to place. Hall's greatest talent is his ability to disappear into any role, as acceptable as Richard Nixon as he is a random cop. “Hard Eight” taps into something great inside Hall. The character of Sydney is, more often than not, calm. He goes about his plans with a clear head and a quiet humor. Even when the character breaks down and cries, Hall holds onto Sydney's personality as a low-key guy. An important moment near the end has him admitting love over a phone. Most actors would go big. Hall remains tight and controlled, while clearly revealing the emotions beneath the cold exterior. It's a powerfully understated performance.

Years before his teddy bear lovability and massive charm would make him a comedic mainstay, Paul Thomas Anderson was utilizing John C. Reilly's innate humanity to great effect. As John, Reilly is almost child-like. He doesn't seem to know where he belongs in the world. He's emotional, prone to mistakes, approaching conflicts too simply. Yet even when John does something really bad, like smack his wife's mouth, Reilly's deeply empathetic performance keeps him likable. Gwyneth Paltrow similarly captures something innocent with Clementine. She's forced to prostitute herself to make ends' meet. She makes some pretty big mistakes too. Yet she's also capable of immense forgiveness. There's an immense vulnerability to Paltrow here, the soon-to-be-Oscar-winner appearing like a normal person.

“Hard Eight's” cast is small but features at least two other notable actors. Samuel L. Jackson was probably the biggest name in “Hard Eight,” since the film was released after “Pulp Fiction” made him a household name. Jackson plays Jimmy, a would-be hustler that attempts to extort money from Hall's Sydney. Jackson clothes Jimmy in red leather, which constantly makes him squeak. This draws attention to what a slippery, scummy person he is. Jackson, obviously, has no problem playing the shyster character. Also appearing in the film, briefly, is Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Hoffman appears as a mulleted casino patron who attempts to beat Sydney at the craps table. Hoffman curses, jumps around, and generally has a blast playing as big an asshole as possible.

Even though “Hard Eight” was Anderson's debut film, his astute visual sense as a director is evident. There's a sense of motion driving all of “Hard Eight.” The director utilizes long-shots and handheld cameras to create constant movement. Yet this is never disorientating. Instead, “Hard Eight” seems smoothly assembled. This fits a story that is widely set on the floors of casinos, where people are always moving around. Anderson also knows when to sit still though. He pauses during dialogue sequences or lingers upon important images, allowing them as much impact as they need. In other words, “Hard Eight” looks incredible.

The soundtrack is provided by Jon Brion, who would go on to score several of Anderson's other films. The music frequently recalls the kind of soft listening you might here in casino lounges, drawing on boozy electric organs. This melancholy mood also draws attention to the loneliness and isolation felt by the characters. Occasionally, Brion's music dips into even darker veins. Such as Clementine's theme, a droning dirge accompanied by a funeral-like bell. Brion also co-write the song that plays over the end credits, “Christmastime” by Aimee Man. This was not only Anderson's first collaboration with Mann but also points out that “Hard Eight” is, technically, a Christmas movie.

“Hard Eight” was a difficult production for Anderson. The title change came about as part of an agreement with the producers, so that the director could maintain more creative control of the picture. Seemingly because of these problems, Anderson doesn't talk about the movie very much. The director has even allowed the DVD to go out-of-print. Despite his reluctance to discuss the film, “Hard Eight” is still really good. It displays how strong the director's writing, visual sense, and rapport with actors was strong even from the beginning. Whatever misgivings Anderson might have about “Hard Eight,” it was the first of several extremely good movies he would have a hand in. [Grade: A-] 

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (2016)

16. Elle

In-between 2000 and 2016, Paul Verhoeven only made two movies. Considering he was making a film about every other year for the first three decades of his career, that's a major slow down. Yes, “Black Book” was a hit in Holland and well reviewed internationally but, to many eyes, Paul Verhoeven was semi-retired. Until last year. With the release of “Elle,” Verhoeven would court conversation and controversy in a way that he hadn't in years. The film would generate discussion all over the world. Isabelle Huppert's lead performance would win multiple awards and universal acclaim. Unsurprisingly, “Elle” has been hailed as Verhoeven's comeback vehicle.

Michele, a successful video game producer and daughter of a notorious mass murderer, is raped in her own home by a masked intruder. Michele, at first, seems unchanged by the assault. She is as ruthless as ever at work and in her personal life. She bosses around her lover, belittles her employees, argues with her son, and begins some intense flirting with her next door neighbor. However, her attacker is not done. He leaves vulgar text messages and even enters her house when she's not home. After a second assault, Michele discovers the man's true identity. And then things get really complicated.

“Elle” was going to generate controversy, regardless. The cultural environment of 2017 is more sensitive to the subject of sexual assault than ever before. With Verhoeven directing, a filmmaker with a not always tasteful attitude towards sexual violence, “Elle” became especially contentious. Yet “Elle” grants a rape victim the greatest gratitude: Complexity. Too often in film and television, people who have been assaulted are depicted as weeping victims. Not too mention all the media that uses a woman's rape strictly to motivate a man's story. “Elle” is strictly Michele's story. Moreover, her reaction to being raped is complicated. She goes about her life, yet hides psychic scars. The assault might even awaken something in her. “Elle” is a multi-faceted portrayal of someone living through something horrible. And it deserves major kudos for that.

Some of that complexity is thanks to the director. Michelle is, in many ways, the quintessential Verhoven-ian woman. She's ruthless in her professional life, hard in her romantic and family life, and absolutely determined to succeed. However, I have no doubt that Isabelle Huppert is primarily responsible for making the character come alive so beautifully. Huppert's exterior is chilly. The only vulnerability she shows is a dark sense of humor, an occasional sarcastic aside to her cat. Even after wrecking her car, Michelle remains stoic. On the page, Michelle is almost a mystery. Huppert turns her into a complex, fully formed character. With her body language, a vocal intonation, a glance or a gesture, she hints at the layers within. No wonder some call Huppert the greatest actress alive.

“Elle” was based on a novel by Philippe Dijian. Despite this, the director makes the material his own. In many ways, “Elle” continues the themes Verhoeven has been developing since at least “Basic Instinct.” This is another story about an uncompromising woman and the clueless men in her life. Michelle's son, Vincent, is pushed around by his pregnant girlfriend. He quits his fast food job, despite needing the money. When the baby comes out black, Vincent still assumes the child is his. Michelle's ex-husband, an unsuccessful novelist, is in the grips of a pathetic mid-life crisis, dating a younger woman and desperately trying to stay relevant. Michelle's lover is a complete buffoon, a constantly horny dweeb. Even the rapist is clueless. After being fatally wounded, he asks Michelle “why.” As if she needs another reason to hate him. The film's heroine may be uncompromising, even cold, but the film's men are all totally clueless assholes.

“Elle” doesn't feature the graphic violence of Verhoeven's Hollywood movies. Attitude-wise, it is just as brutal. The film begins with Michelle's assault. The very first scene shows her struggling under her attacker, in an isolated wide shot. Which then cuts to her cat, watching dispassionately and uninterested. This characterizes the world of “Elle.” The later rapes occur just as suddenly, just as unforgiving in their violence. At times, it feels like the universe is conspiring against the protagonist. Because of her infamy as the daughter of a murderer, random people on the street toss food at her. A deer leaping into the road forces Michelle to swerve into a tree, another example of things going badly for her. But Michelle isn't a victim. Only hours after the first assault, she goes to work and oversees a video game cut scene featuring a rather literal mind rape. The world is cruel. She must be cruel to survive it. 

“Elle's” brutality is also present in the way it depicts Michelle's mental state. Outwardly, she shows little sign of trouble. Inside is another matter. During the middle of the day, we are treated to an extended flashback of the opening rape. This is a good portrayal of how random events can trigger traumatic memories. Further on, Michelle has a daydream about the assault going differently. She imagines a scenario where she successfully turned the tables on her attacker. This is also an accurate depiction of the mindset of someone who has survived a traumatic event. That the film cuts between the protagonist's memories and fantasies without warning further shows how an assault can fracture someone's thoughts.

During a dinner party, Michelle casually explains her father's rampage. How he went door to door through their neighborhood, shooting and stabbing twenty-seven people. And, she adds grimly, their pets too. An image of a young Michelle, in her underwear and covered in ash, became the symbol of the attack. No explanation is provided for Dad's killing spree, the same way no explanation is provided by Michelle's rapist. Despite his violent history, Michelle proves stronger than her father. In another example of the film's men being feckless, Michelle promising to visit him in prison prompts her father to suicide. Michelle doesn't have a good relationship with her mom either, an elderly lady who is engaged to a much younger stud. (Who, it's heavily implied, is only marrying her for the money.) Mom insists Michelle visit her father, a notion she rejects. This raises several issues, such as Michelle's reluctance to commit to traditional roles and the question of whether or not anti-social instincts are inherited.

As I said, “Elle” probably would've generated controversy no matter what. Yet one aspect of the script seemed especially contentious. Midway through the film, we discover that the masked attacker is Patrick, the neighbor that Michelle has begun an affair with. Even after discovering this, she doesn't call off the relationship. He helps her out of the car wreck. They have a peaceful dinner. Later, he assaults her again at Michele's insistence, which seems to give her a powerful orgasm. This is another layer of complexity atop “Elle.” Human desire isn't simple. Maybe Michelle is attracted to Patrick because he's different, in a horrifying way, than the spineless men around her. Or maybe it's just another senseless quirk of the universe. The film provides no easy answers, in its striving towards a human-like sense of complexity.

In the lead-up to “Elle's” release, Paul Verhoeven began describing the movie as his “rape comedy.” Which is probably another example of his shock value-laden sense of humor. Indeed, calling “Elle” a comedy is misleading, to say the least. However, one can see the darkest of humor within the film. After a tense conversation, Michelle's mother immediately keels over from a stroke. While mom's in the hospital, Michelle outright asks if the stroke was real or if she's just faking it. As her comatose mother begins to flat line, Michelle is more preoccupied with a malfunctioning TV. That same black humor is present in Michelle's interaction with her clueless son or meatheaded lover.

“Elle” is clearly Isabelle Huppert's film. Still, an excellent supporting cast was assembled. Laurent Lafitte as Patrick has the difficult job of playing a man who is charming in his normal life but, secretly, hides an evil perversity. Jonas Bloquet as Vincent, Michelle's son, also has a tricky role. Vincent must be enough of an idiot that he takes Josie's infidelity without question. He must also have something like an innocent side, coming off as not much more than a big kid. Both actors achieve these goals. Judith Marge as Irene, Michele's mother, displays a weathered sense of humor, having lived a hard life. Alice Isaaz, meanwhile, is perfectly bitchy as Vincent's girlfriend.

Another sign “Elle” is unmistakably a Verhoeven film is the way he litters the story with religious iconography. “Elle” begins around Christmas time. We see the neighbors set up a Nativity, where Patrick's wife comments on how much she loves the image of Baby Jesus. Later, during a party, we see Christmas mass playing on television. This is what spurns on Michele recounting of her dad's murders. All of these references to the Christ child play in contrast to Josie's pregnancy, as she's no Madonna and her child is clearly not the offspring of a virgin birth. I have no idea how this religious imagery plays into the movie's overall themes, other than Verhoeven seeing an excuse to indulge in another of his favorite habits.

Paul Verhoeven's return to Europe has produced some quality films, with “Black Book” and “Tricked” both being very good. “Elle,” however, is sure to stand up as one of his best films. It's a challenging motion picture but in an altogether different way then his other films. It presents a more mature perspective without loosing sight of what made the director special in the first place. Buoyed by an amazing Huppert performance, “Elle” impresses and lingers in the mind, haunting the viewer with the numerous questions – and no easy answers – it raises. [Grade: A]

The critical praise that greeted "Elle" has re-energized Paul Verhoeven's career. His next film has already been announced. "Blessed Virgin" is a fact-based story about a lesbian nun in the 17th century. A story of forbidden sex and religious imagery couldn't be more perfect for Verhoeven.

This Director Report Card has been exhausting at times - covering the RoboCop and Starship Troopers sequels was a mistake - but it has reaffirmed by belief that there's no other filmmaker out there quite like Paul Verhoeven.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: Our RoboCop Remake (2014)

When the remake of “RoboCop” was announced, fans were, naturally, very skeptical. In fact, they were hostile. “RoboCop” is a movie that means a lot to a lot of people. It perfectly represents a bygone era of action, special effects, and concise screenwriting. In our PG-13 era of big budget superhero blockbusters, a new “RoboCop” movie represented something very different. So fans became proactive. A group of organizer brought together over fifty different filmmakers. They would put their own spin on every scene from the original “RoboCop,” fans allowed to change up Verhoeven's classic however they wanted. The result, “Our RoboCop Remake,” was released for free on the internet. The film's tagline - “If anyone is going to ruin “RoboCop,” it's should to be us” – perfectly captures the fan feature's absurdist, home-made approach.

Something that's fascinating about “Our RoboCop Remake” is the diversity of filmmaking styles on display. Just to remind viewers where the story is, scenes from the original “RoboCop” occasionally flash on screen. These scenes are then recreated by the fans. Sometimes, the shots are fairly faithful, until something crazy happens. Other times, a more low budget approach is taken. A foam RoboCop suit puts in frequent appearances. Often, the style shifts entirely. Both hand-drawn and CGI animation are utilized. (One exceptionally crude computer animated scene is from Jon Watts, who made the latest “Spider-Man.”) Some scenes mimic 8-bit video games. Others are recreated with action figures. Everything from puppetry to musical theater to interpretive dance makes up the many scenes in “Our RoboCop Remake.”

When you have so many different filmmakers collaborating on the same film, the outcome will inevitably be uneven. Luckily, “Our RoboCop Remake” is amusing more often than not. A number of scenes cleverly play with the format. One moment features the original dialogue but substitutes Kurtwood Smith and Peter Weller with babies. ED-209 machine gunning an OCP executive into bloody ribbons is recreated with muppet-y felt puppets, gore being replaced with fluff. Later, Murphy's murder scene plays out as a rather graceful dance scene. There are two musical numbers, the second of which rather brilliantly features action figures. Two of the funniest gags replaces cocaine with milk and cookies and has RoboCop writing a Christmas letter to his parents. Another scene has a lawyer stepping in, decrying the fan production, and encouraging the viewer to watch the officially sanctioned remake instead.

This stuff is pretty fun but the funniest moments in “Our RoboCop Remake” tend to focus on freewheeling absurdity. Such as when the cops shooting RoboCop argue about how human he is. Emil's robbery of a gas station is interrupted by his sincere appreciation for philosophy. Boddicker's assassination of Bob Morton dissolves into a cocaine-fueled hooker party. RoboCop discussing his remaining humanity with Lewis, brilliantly, dissolves into a discussion about the band Sublime. Two scenes made me laugh incredibly hard. One features ED-209's life flashing before his eyes, before Murphy explodes with him with the anti-tank gun. Another, which practically became a meme unto itself, escalates the original's near-rape scene into an orgy of gunfire and exploding penises.

Of course, not every segment is going to work that well. A few are awkward. Such as the opening, where the newscasters grossly chew on spaghetti, or a clown being inserted into Murphy's dying dream. The contribution from leans heavily on Spielberg references for no reason. Some scenes are overly occupied with potty humor. Dick Jones and Bob Morton's bathroom confrontation relies too heavily on piss and shit jokes. So does a scene devoted to RoboCop farting extensively. The SUX 600 commercial is transformed into a big dick joke. Several scenes are too clever for their own good. Such as a moment devoted to explaining “deconstruction,” which visually overloads the audience. Or Emil's toxic waste-assisted death, which simply warps the original footage.

Still, “Our RoboCop Remake” made me laugh enough to justify the time spent watching it. The collective filmmakers were obviously targeting the remake. The breakdance filled happier ending features an explicit potshot at the new version. Yet the fan film exist less as a rebuttal to 2014's “RoboCop” and more as a loving homage to 1987's “RoboCop.” The creativity on display by some of the filmmakers is very impressive. Who else but true fans would recreate a life-sized replica of ED-209? Or write a song and dance number about shooting baby food jars? Fans of that level should definitely give “Our RoboCop Remake” a look, if only for a few of the specially inspired moments of lunacy. [7/10]

RECENT WATCHES: RoboCop (2014)

During the last decade, seemingly every beloved eighties property was getting rebooted, remade, or at least a brand new sequel. In this rush by studios to exploit any recognizable I.P. they might have, there was no chance that “RoboCop” was going to remain untouched. A remake was first banded about in 2005. The project really started to move forward in 2008. Darren Afronosky was briefly attached to this new “RoboCop,” one of several superhero-themed projects the art house favorite would pick up and then quickly drop. Eventually, the director's chair would be occupied by Brazilian action specialist Jose Padilha. Fans had their fangs out for 2014's “RoboCop.” It was quickly dismissed as another overly slick repackaging of a beloved, gritty classic. Audiences ignore it. A few years later, does this new “RoboCop” deserve a second look?

In the near future, the super-corporation OmniCorp has great success producing robots for overseas military use. The machines are very effective but a law makes it illegal for drones to operate in America. OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars thinks of a work-around. What if they put a person inside a robot? After cop Alex Murphy is blown up by a car bomb, OmniCorp gets his wife to sign over his body. Murphy is rebuilt as RoboCop, a cyborg designed to fight crime. Yet Alex maintains his humanity. Soon, struggles arise between Murphy's desire to live a normal life, his need to solve his own murder and OmniCorps' hope for a super successful RoboCop.

The original “RoboCop” was about Alex Murphy being turned into a machine and regaining his humanity. Padilha's remake has practically the opposite idea in mind. 2014's “RoboCop” is about a man loosing his humanity. When this Alex Murphy wakes up as a cyborg, he still has his personality. He tries to maintain a relationship with his wife and son. He begs for the sweet release of death. However, this human element runs counter to the corporate objective. Thus, Murphy's free will is slowly stripped away until he only cares about fighting crime. This doesn't make as much sense to me as the original's concept. But at least it's something different. Padilha's “RoboCop” has its own ideas and objectives. It's not just a meaningless retread of the original.

In fact, the “RoboCop” remake is even somewhat insightful at times. Paul Verhoeven's satire of Reagan's America is traded out for something more contemporary. This “RoboCop” takes place in a world where corporations manipulate politics. OmniCorps wants to sell their kill-bots in America so they can make more money. The entire plot is motivated by corporate greed, RoboCop existing as a means to a billion dollar ends. A very Bill O'Reilly-like television pundit is paid to spew the corporation's message. Meanwhile, there's public debate over whether or not machines can be trusted to protect the innocent and uphold the law. This speaks to America in the 21st century, where drones fly the skies, corporations want to privatize basic public needs, and news networks' agendas oppose the truth.

Sadly, everything that's interesting about 2014's “RoboCop” goes out the window halfway through. At this point, “RoboCop” becomes an uninspired modern action movie. Murphy overcomes his programming and pursues his murderers. He uncovers a police corruption plot, which doesn't go anywhere. He chases after the crime boss that set him up, a seemingly important character that is disposed of without much fanfare. The last third is a blur of overly CGI'd action. Padilha's Brazilian films have been praised for their action but his work here is uninspiring. An Infrared shoot-out is hard to follow. The showdown with three ED-209s is weightless, CGI mayhem. Weirdly, the film reels back the chaos at the very end. Its climax is a totally limp stand-off which ends in the most underwhelming way possible.

Like many modern day, would-be blockbusters, “RoboCop” loads its supporting cast with familiar faces. Look at some of these names. Samuel L. Jackson is effectively shout-y as the O'Reilly stand-in, especially at the end when he unleashes his trademark profanity. Gary Oldman is suitably empathetic as the scientist who oversees RoboCop's programming. Jay Baruchel is amusingly weaselly as OmniCorp's marketing executive. Jackie Earle Haley works well as the former military expert who attempts to train RoboCop, an unlikable asshole. Michael Keaton doesn't ham it up as the main bad guy. Instead, he plays the role as feckless corporate douche bag. All these big names can't make up for Joel Kinnaman, the meat-headed, jocko void of charisma inside the RoboCop suit.

That suit is honestly one of the problems I have with the film. As to be expected, this “RoboCop” is nowhere near as interesting to look at as the original. Initially, the new RoboCop design doesn't look that different from the original. It's a fairly stream-lined modern version of the classic suit. That is until they paint the guy black. The remake tries to pass this off as a joke but it can't disguise what a boring design the modern RoboCop is. For another example of the remake's uninspired aesthetic, look at the updated ED-209. This ED is Jeep brown without the personality of the original. The remake mocks the “Transformers” movies which is funny, since its ED-209 looks like he'd fit right in with the Bayformers.

Many die hard “RoboCop” fans hated the remake. Which is an instinct I relate to. Yet the remake doesn't boil my blood. You can actually see the bones of an interesting film in here. The way Padilha's remake updates the original's satire actually makes it truer to Verhoeven's vision than most of the sequels. But, ultimately, those intriguing elements are sacrificed for the kind of boring theatrics people accuse the whole movie of being. The result is a film that is halfway sort of interesting and is halfway totally boring. Which is something “RoboCop” should never be. [6/10]

Monday, May 29, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (2012)

15. Tricked

“Black Book” was a success, both in Holland and abroad. Despite this, Paul Verhoeven still seemingly disappeared from the film world for quite some time. Occasionally, you'd hear about an upcoming project. Such as a long gestating (and controversial) film about the life of Christ, which would eventually take the form of a book instead. In 2012, out of nowhere it seemed to us Americans, a new film popped up on Verhoeven's IMDb page. Entitled “Tricked,” there was very little information about the project. Eventually, the mysterious movie would get a U.S. DVD release, allowing fans of the director to finally figure out what the heck this thing was.

So what is “Tricked,” anyway? It's a fifty minute film that Verhoeven created as part of something called the Entertainment Experience. The idea behind the project was intriguing. The first four pages of the script were written by Dutch screenwriter and actress, Kim van Kooten. After Verhoeven filmed that beginning, the story was opened up, via the internet, to fans. Scripts for the next installment – totaling eight all together – were submitted from all over the country. The director and his team would consider which set of pages were best and proceed from there. In other words, even the filmmakers and actors making the movie had no idea where it would end up.

To boost the fifty minute short to feature length, “Tricked” is packaged with a documentary about its own making. Which, in what might seems like an odd move, plays before the actual movie. Honestly, my favorite thing about this opening documentary has very little to do with “Tricked” itself. Just watching Paul Verhoeven be himself is a lot of fun. Included is footage of the director on the set of “Starship Troopers.” We get to see him running around, yelling and screaming, impersonating the giant bugs that would be added later with CGI. “Tricked's” first half concludes with the director speaking about what the project meant to him, personally. He compares it to Felini's “8½,” saying this is only his 14½ movie. When the interviewer asks him to clarify this, he refuses, with a mischievous grin. No wonder actors talk about how much fun it is to make a film with Verhoeven. The guy clearly enjoys his job.

As with any documentary about making movies, the first half of “Tricked” gets into the challenges every production deals with. There's a lengthy sequence devoted to finding the right house to shoot in. Even after finding the perfect location, there's the trouble of shooting inside a residential building. Houses are made for families, not so much for film crews and all the required equipment. We see the challenges in casting, in auditioning many actors and narrowing it down to the right ones. Verhoeven discusses making a movie with a smaller budget than what he was used to on his Hollywood blockbuster. It's interesting, though the kind of stuff other docs have covered.

More compelling are the challenges unique to this project. Verhoeven quickly discovered that directing a crowd sourced movie was more difficult than expected. The original plan was to use the best submitted scripts. Verhoeven, however, wasn't satisfied with any one script. Instead, he compiled the best ideas from multiple submissions. This was an exhausting endeavor, considering thousands of potential screenplays were submitted. And they did this eight times! He struggled with writers who didn't stick to the tone set by the first four pages. More than one submission apparently dissolved into gun fights. Eventually, Verhoeven gathered some of the writers and gave them simple lessons about structure, construction, and pacing. Which is Writing 101 but, clearly, not all the amateurs knew this.

Eventually, the director discusses how freeing he found the experience. He talks how, without a massive Hollywood budget hanging over his head, he was able to lightly storyboard a film for the first time in years. This led to a more improvisational shooting style, which was further supported by the handheld cameras the crew used. That kind of free wheeling energy is evident in “Tricked” itself. The documentary proceeding “Tricked” is fun, if inessential, yet still give us plenty of insight into the movie's unique production.

Which brings us to “Tricked” itself. The film revolves around Remco, a Dutch businessman, on his fiftieth birthday. Several unexpected events happen at the party. There's some strange tension between Remco and Merel, the best friend of Lieke, his teenage daughter. Two of Remco's business partners are clearly plotting something, burning an important document in the bathroom. Most pressingly, Nadja – one of Remco's former mistresses – shows up pregnant. The next day, Remco discovers that his partners have conspired to sell his own company out from under him. And if Remco signs off on this, Nadja will deny the baby is his. Merel and Tobias, Remco's son, end up sleuthing into this scheme.

Going into “Tricked,” I had no idea what to expect. Very little has been written about the film, so I didn't even know what genre it fell into. All the posters and DVD covers suggest “Tricked” is a thriller. This is misleading. “Tricked” is, in fact, a comedy. Now, certainly, it's a dark comedy. As the title indicates, deception is the primary theme of the story. Each of the eight main characters are misleading each other. Remco is screwing around on his wife. His wife hides how much she knows about his affairs. Tobias is hiding his feelings for Merel. Merel, meanwhile, is hiding her secret lover from Lieke. The story constantly turns, revealing new information every few minutes. Yet the tone remains light and zippy. By the conclusion, “Tricked” is laugh-out-loud funny. A hilarious incident involving a pair of scissors brings the web of lies crashing down. The final frame is an uproarious switcharoo.

At the center of the story is an extremely dysfunctional family. Ineke, Remco's wife, is fully aware of his infidelity. She's always balanced his extramarital activity with their home life. Lieke,  the daughter, is a budding addict. She snorts a few lines of cocaine in one scene and is rarely seen without a glass of wine the rest of the time. Tobias, meanwhile, shows his affection for Merel by photoshopping her head onto pictures of nude models. The patriarch seems totally unaware of these problems. During a tense dinner, he mostly discusses his job, while his children argue with one another. It's clear that there's some problems at home.

You might expect “Tricked” not to feel like a Paul Verhoeven movie, due to its crowd sourced screenplay. Think again. “Tricked” doesn't lack the director's trademarks. There's sleazy sex, male frontal nudity, and a vomiting sequence. Meanwhile, you can easily draw a line from “Basic Instinct” and “Hollow Man” to “Tricked.” All three films deal with macho men being led to doom by their libidos. Remco has a long line of mistresses. The film, however, depicts his philandering behavior as pathetic. It's clear that Rembo is overcompensating for the lack of control in his life by manipulating vulnerable woman. That the character is such a blank makes the implicit criticism clear. “Tricked” is another Verhoeven film devoted to assassinating the fragile male ego.

It's also another Verhoeven film about women using their wiles to succeed. There's two unlikely heroines in “Tricked.” Merel, at first, appears to be another one of Remco's conquests. As “Tricked” goes on, Merel ends up uncovering Nadja's deception. Afterwards, in one of the film's most delightful sequences, she dumps Remco before he can dump her. The second heroine is Ineke, the put upon wife. She takes the action necessary to save her husband's job. The wife and the young mistress come out on top in “Tricked,” surprising and amusing the audience. This puts the film in line with Verhoeven's “Katie Tippel” and “Showgirls,” though its portrayal ends up being more positive than either of those.

“Tricked” has a pretty good cast too. The stand-out performance is Gaite Jansen as Merel. She has an unobtrusive sexuality, slowly charming the audience with her youthful good looks and unassuming attitudes. As the story progresses, Jansen's performance also reveals a skillfully hidden intelligence. Carolien Spoor, as Lieke, is one of the film's funniest performances. Upon discovering her best friend's affair, she has a massively amusing freak out.  Ricky Koole as Ineke has a cooler exterior, only hinting at how cunning she is. The men, almost intentionally, don't seem as well developed. Peter Blok plays Remco as almost goofy, a hopelessly unaware guy. Robert de Hoog as Tobias, meanwhile, plays up the younger brother's bizarre habits.

Paul Verhoeven might have had mixed feelings about the Entertainment Experience. He still succeeded in making “Tricked” his own. The result is an undeniable trifle that still manages to be highly entertaining. At least one more film has emerged from the Entertainment Experience project. Another Dutch film, called “Lotgenoten,” was made from the same material as “Tricked” but by different directors. A Chinese version, possibly helmed by John Woo, has also been kicked around. Though destined to be overlooked, Verhoeven fans should check out “Tricked,” a really fun, if brief, film. [Grade: B+]

NO ENCORES: Starship Troopers 3: Marauder (2008)

Maybe the “Starship Troopers” franchise is cursed. Oh, sure, the first one was great, despite initially negative reviews and could've-been-better box office. But the sequels? Both were made for the direct-to-video market. Which is admirable but deeply unglamorous. Why do I say the series is cursed? Consider this. “Starship Troopers 2” was Phil Tippet's first feature film. It was also, thus far, his last. “Starship Troopers 3: Marauder” was screenwriter Ed Neumeier's first feature film. It is also, thus far, his last. The franchise's screenwriter stepping behind the camera might give you hope that “Starship Troopers 3” will be an improvement over the lackluster first sequel. If I was you, I wouldn't get your expectations up.

Earth's war with the Arachnid menace rages on. Johnny Rico has risen to the rank of Colonel and remains a decorated soldier. Yet there's conflict in the Federation. The residents of the outer colonies, displaced by the war, dislike the military. Protest happens at home. After a gruesome loss, Rico strikes a commanding officer. He is set to be executed for these crimes. This is a cover story and Rico is rescued at the last minute. He's recruited for a top secret mission, leading a mechanized army called the Marauders. Their first mission is to rescued a group of high-ranking officer stranded on a planet with a psychic “God Bug.”

Since “Marauder” is directed by a screenwriter, you might have certain expectations for its story. Neumeier's previous work suggests he knows what he's doing. So why is “Starship Troopers 3” so badly structured? Halfway through, the story is essentially cut in two. The beginning reintroduces Rico, as well as his love interest Lola Beck and Omar Anoke, an Air Marshall and celebrity singer. After Rico is sentenced to death, Beck and Anoke's classified ship gets shot down on a desert world. From this point on, we're following dual storylines: Rico's training to be a Marauder while Beck wanders the alien planet. Maybe this is less Neumeier's fault than another casualty of a direct-to-video budget. This plot construction limits the screen time of star Casper Van Dien and the killer robots. Instead, it gives us much cheaper scenes of people walking around a desert.

“Marauder” does attempt to expand on the film's universe in a somewhat interesting way. Religion wasn't mentioned much in the previous two “Starship Troopers” movies, if at all. However, it's a major theme in this one. The people leading the anti-war protest are explicitly Christians. The flight attendant stranded on the desert planet with Beck is also Christian. The others treat her, and Christianity in general, like a weird cult. Anoke is seemingly converted throughout the adventure but, in actuality, has been psychically brainwashed by Behemecoatyl, the God Bug that lives inside the planet. In the final scene, Christianity becomes the state religion of the Federation, who recognize how powerful a propaganda tool religion can be. These ideas are interesting but, sadly, do not fuse naturally with the story. It's just another weird thing floating inside “Marauder.”

By the way, don't expect that stuff about the peace protest to contribute to the story either. A few scenes are devoted to the anti-war movement – led by a wounded veteran, by the way – during the news broadcast scenes. Neumeier mostly uses the trademark “Would You Like to Know More?” sequences to make the original's subtext text. “Marauder” acknowledges that the Federation is a fascist government. People are discreetly killed to cover up mistakes. Anyone who challenges the military is executed. The leaders are conniving bullies, who knowingly lie and manipulate the public. Amanda Donohoe, from “Lair of the White Worm,” plays a Federation leader as a pompous villain. By winking at the first film's satire, actually making its implications part of the story, Neumeier creates a “Starship Troopers” movie that is way less interesting than Verhoeven's original.

There was a time where I consumed a lot of direct-to-video monster movies. The one aspect that united the entire genre was crappy CGI creature effects. “Starship Troopers 3: Marauder” has lots of that too. The Bugs are mostly brought to life with some extremely soft computer generated imagery. They look like cartoons, big plastic balloons that pop way too easily. The aliens do not look like real, believable threats. The main selling point for “Starship Troopers 3” were the Marauders. The powered armor played a big role in the book but was excised from the previous adaptations. Don't get excited though. The Marauders exist exclusively as sucky CGI machines. Even then, they play a very small role in the film. The giant robots swoop in at the end and save the day. That's about it.

For its countless flaws, I guess “Starship Troopers 3” is mildly better than “Starship Troopers 2.” The sequel includes one or two clever ideas. The Federation has started to heavily merchandise its own heroes. Omar Anoke is a best selling singer, his propaganda songs glorifying dying in combat. In addition to CDs, T-shirts and other collectibles are sold over television. The idea of a “God Bug,” a massive and powerfully telepathetic Arachnid leader, is intriguing. It's also, notably, one of the few practical monster effects in the film. There's also a neat moment that brings back the Brain Bug from the first film, who produces a high pitch shriek so powerful, heads explode. These interesting moments composed about five percent of “Marauder's” way-too-long 105 minute run time.

The diminishing star power of Casper Van Dien was not enough to elevate the “Starship Troopers” franchise again. After “Marauder,” the next entry in the series would be an animated reboot, which is supposedly slightly more faithful to Heinlein's original novel. I checked out “Starship Troopers 3” mostly because some people gave it faint praise, saying it's better than “Hero of the Federation.” Which is true but just barely. In execution, the conclusion of the trilogy is another low budget cash-in. There's no shame in going direct-to-video but shoddy productions like “Marauder” is why that release path has a bad name. [4/10]