Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez. A Review

KILLER INSIDE: THE MIND OF AARON HERNANDEZ

There has been a surprising and sudden rise in interest in the story of New England Patriots tight end and convicted murderer Aaron Hernandez a mere two years after his suicide. At least three documentaries and docudramas have been released chronicling Hernandez's life, alleged crimes, death and postmortem revelations. Reelz Channel had both Aaron Hernandez's Killing Fields and even a sequel of sorts, Aaron Hernandez: Jailhouse Lover Tells All. The Oxygen Network has a rival docudrama: Aaron Hernandez Uncovered.

Not to be outdone, Netflix has its own documentary series. Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez probably gained the most attention due to both coming from a more well-known broadcaster and for the salacious revelations that the disgraced NFL player had a secret homosexual life. The dichotomy of the very macho football player and sexual, perhaps even romantic relationships with other men is something that only Hernandez could give definitive answers to. Killer Inside is surprisingly free of tawdry elements, but after watching all three episodes the entire tragedy of every aspect of Hernandez's life, let alone those who had the misfortune of coming into contact with him, comes into focus.

Killer Inside covers both Hernandez's life and career on and off the field. A football prodigy, Hernandez came from a family of players, until a series of catastrophic events twisted the gridiron hero. There was his father's sudden death when Aaron was 16. There was his mother's affair with a family friend that broke up the marriage. There was the lure of other family members who brought him into contact with unsavory people.

Dennis SanSoucie Claims He Had A Relationship With Aaron Hernandez ...
And then there was his very secret, very private, very hidden homosexual encounters. Killer Inside features Dennis SanSoucie, Hernandez's high school football quarterback who, almost casually, admits that he and Aaron from the 7th grade to their junior year in high school had a sexual relationship. It was part experiment, part physical pleasure, but was it part or wholly love?

Aaron Hernandez kept making poor decision after poor decision, perhaps in part to drown out his deep personal traumas. He went to the University of Florida rather than nearby University of Connecticut, where he could have been with his brother. U of F was more seductive in that there he could indulge in activities both sensual and criminal despite the ostensibly Christian oversight of quarterback Tim Tebow and coach Urban Meyer. Already highly emotionally immature when he graduated early to play for the Florida Gators, U of F exacerbated his

He next managed to get drafted by perhaps the worst choice for him: the New England Patriots, where he could reconnect with the bad company he kept before going to FSU. From that, despite a long-term relationship with high school sweetheart Shayanna Jenkins and fathering a daughter, Hernandez still had various issues that his exceptional football career masked. While drugs were an issue, it was his continuing violence off-the-field that was the most dangerous.

That culminated in the murder of Miss Jenkins' sister's boyfriend Odin Lloyd. Hernandez became the prime suspect, was arrested and quickly dumped by the Patriots. The Lloyd murder was when Hernandez was finally charged with a crime, but soon previous actions including past murders came to light. Convicted of Lloyd's murder, another murder case brought an acquittal. While in the midst of his appeal, he was "outed" on a sports talk show with various crude remarks about "tight ends" and "receivers" on April 17, 2017. On April 19, Aaron Hernandez was found dead.

Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez (2020)Killer Inside builds its case that Aaron Hernandez was a perfect storm of troubled individual and essentially serial killer. Director Geno McDermott does an excellent job weaving the various interviews and archival footage. The episodes end with excellent cliffhangers that keep the viewer both interested and intrigued into both the various crimes and the man himself, troubled and troublemaking.

The factors that drove him to horrifying acts are presented, but Hernandez does not come away as either victim or villain. Instead, Hernandez comes across as a man shaped by both the external and internal, from the loss of his father to his sense of entitlement, we see the individual with virtues and terrible flaws.

Killer Inside is part mystery, part biography, and to its immense credit it doesn't forget the primary victim of Hernandez: Odin Lloyd. One could argue that the portrait of Lloyd is perhaps rather loving, someone who apparently had no flaws apart from associating with Hernandez, but at least the docu-series recognizes Lloyd's life and death and not treat him as an afterthought.

In the whole tragic, tawdry story of this talented but troubled player, we hear his jailhouse telephone recordings and can see how his family shaped him to where he ended up in. His mother Teri at times seems caring, at other times selfish. On one call, she tells her son "Give me a million dollars and I'm set for life!". His father Dennis pushed him and his brother D.J. to excel but also literally pushed them around violently. His cousin, whose husband ended up having an affair with Teri, stayed loyal to Aaron until her dying day, but also introduced him to criminals who had a hand in his downfall.

Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez (2020)The big reveal, the big shock, is the issue of Aaron Hernandez's sexuality. Only Aaron Hernandez could say whether he was gay or bisexual. He was openly homophobic, and the suggestion that he feared his true sexuality would be exposed is presented as a possible motive for the Lloyd murder (one of a series of murders Hernandez may have committed). Killer Inside also reveals in Episode 3 that he was sexually abused as a child, and that Hernandez feared this "turned" him gay.

Killer Inside, however, cannot answer whether Hernandez could love a man romantically. He may have had sex with other men. He may have desired other men sexually. However, could he love a man? Could he even have loved his longtime girlfriend Jenkins? On matters of the heart versus the body there can be no answer, only speculation.

We hear often from Ryan O'Callahan, a former NFL player who came out as gay shortly after Hernandez's suicide. While it is good that O'Callahan can embrace his identity, his interviews come across as from a whole other subject. We can take SanSoucie's word that he and Hernandez had a long-lasting sexual relationship, but nowhere does the term "love" come up. Hernandez, I would argue, loved his daughter and according to his longtime girlfriend never gave indications that he may have been attracted to other men.

It would be too simple, too pat, to place internalized homophobia as the driving factor in Hernandez's actions. As one of the interviewees states, "The decisions lie with him. The consequences lie with him". Killer Inside allows for the idea that whatever factors internal or external drove him, in the end it was Aaron Hernandez who made those fateful and fatal decisions.

Perhaps the best summation for the saga of Aaron Hernandez is by Hernandez's lifelong friend Stephen Ziogas. "I think the biggest misconception is he was someone who had everything and threw it all away. What is your definition of being happy? From what we know now, can you ever really define that he was happy? Can you ever really define that he was content? He did everything he thought he needed to do to be happy".

We are all on the outside looking in, and as journalist Kevin Armstrong observed, "The why is the story here". Killer Inside is as close to seeing that "why", even though we ultimately will never fully know it. Sharp, insightful and ultimately tragic on so many levels to so many people, Killer Inside is the rare docu-series that one can binge on while learning that not all that glitters is truly golden. 

9/10

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Irresistible (2020): A Review

IRRESISTIBLE

On the Jeeves & Wooster series, the spoof of British Fascist Sir Oswald Mosley, Sir Roderick Spode, attempts to recruit our valet into his Black Shorts movement by suggesting Jeeves is the perfect man to appeal to "the working masses". Jeeves, nobody's fool, is not amused, rebuffing Spode's offer by stating that he and "the working masses" have barely a nodding acquaintance.

I imagine Jon Stewart, writer/director to the political comedy Irresistible is similarly on barely a nodding acquaintance with the working masses. Judging by the film, Stewart is also on barely a nodding acquaintance with the art of cinema. What Stewart appears to think is a sharp, witty send-up of how money corrupts American politics is in reality not funny, not bright and not worth anyone's time be he/she viewer, cast or crew.

Devastated by his failure to help get a woman who'd been running for President for sixteen years elected President and losing to a moron, Democratic political strategist Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell) thinks he has found the savior of the Democratic Party in as Irresistible puts it on-screen, "Rural America, Heartland USA" (later identified as Deerlaken, Wisconsin). He's retired Colonel Jack Hastings (Chris Cooper), whom Zimmer identifies as "looks conservative, sounds progressive" thanks to Hastings' impassioned speech opposing ID laws for non-citizens.

It's off to the wilds of Wisconsin, where Zimmer must contend with all the yahoos who live there in an effort to convince Colonel Hastings to run for Mayor. His agonies are endless: no Wi-Fi, no locks on the doors, the men having an informal beer club and the women forcing him to drink coffee not to his liking. The potential success of a gun-shooting liberal winning a mayoral race in a red community apparently so alarms Republicans that they soon start flooding longtime Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton) with cash, along with their own master operative Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne). The GOP can't have a candidate described in one of his ads as "A Redder Kind of Blue" winning lest they lose their rural strongholds. As the two battle it out with their swanky fundraisers, Super PAC fronts and general dirty tricks, Hastings and his daughter Diana (Mackenzie Davis) look on with a mix of amusement and puzzlement.

At last, it's Election Day, but alas, it's a case of who's zoomin' who: the entire election was a scheme cooked up by the good folks of Deerlaken to flood their community with millions of campaign dollars to keep their town alive. In the end, Zimmer and Faith see they really do deserve each other.

Jon Stewart's 'Irresistible' Is The Movie We Don't Need Right NowWhat the viewer deserves is a good movie, which Irresistible is not. Its problems start with the characters. I am at a loss to understand why Stewart thinks ridiculing the rural citizens is the same as ridiculing the "swamp" creatures of Zimmer and Faith. The film suggests at the end that the Deerlaken citizens were playing up the stereotypes of rural Americans, but there is an undercurrent of contempt for them in Stewart's script for them. Rather than come across as "dumb as a fox", the Deerlaken residents just came across as tired caricatures.

One in the series of faux-ads for Mayor parodies Republican ads that play on fears of violence and terrorism, but this seems so idiotic to think a small-town mayoral election where Mayor Braun has been elected often would suddenly take on the trappings of a Presidential election. If, perhaps Stewart had opted to make it a House election where there are national repercussions the political commentary he so desperately wants to make might have worked. However, if this took place in reality it is highly unlikely that either national Democratic or Republican operatives would even care about some one-horse hick town.

As a side note, I genuinely wonder if Jon Stewart has even ever been to Wisconsin or thinks, like Zimmer, it's some kind of foreign land where dial-up Internet is still the norm, at least for those who know what the Internet actually is. I went to Wisconsin last year, Appleton to be precise. While I can testify to the friendliness of Wisconsinites I can also say that even rural Wisconsinites are aware of the world. Irresistible is the type of film that thinks "connecting" with rural Wisconsin means listening to Glen Campbell and watching footage of one Green Bay Packers game.

OK, on the last one he's probably right, but I digress. 

The series of ads, made to mock the front organizations that create them, are frankly too dumb to mock. Stewart's suggestion of powerful old men who pay for sleazy campaigns is frankly cringe-inducing. Hasting's sugar daddy Sir Elton Chambers (Bill Irwin) is a ghastly vision: a virtual auto-animatronic figure that looks like it wandered off a Z-level science-fiction film, complete with robotic sing-song voice. Why Stewart thought any of this was hilarious makes one question his very sanity. We get a tiny hint of a Koch-like pair of brothers, completely with scooters, but they were literally there for show.

Jon Stewart movie 'Irresistible' isn't getting great reviews. How ...
The performances are almost equally appalling. The alleged repartee between Carell and Byrne is so forced and fake it they went beyond phoning it in to texting. Carell is so flat at times he looks genuinely bored, unsure or perhaps unwilling to bother making Zimmer a functioning character let alone human. Byrne isn't much better but at least she appeared to enjoy looking foolish. Cooper's main qualifications for being "A Redder Kind of Blue" is being an old white guy, but Hastings never convinced he had a genuine motive for "running" for Mayor even before the jig was up.

Even in his very and mercifully brief appearance, Bill Irwin should be embarrassed.No one is THAT desperate for money, or at least should be.

Surprisingly, Mackenzie Davis is the only one who spares herself any shame with her Diana, a woman who comes across as bright and caring. However, Irresistible suggests there may be a romance with Zimmer despite her saying she's 28 and him being considerably older. There isn't enough chemistry there to make that remotely plausible. Also, in real life Davis is 33 and Carell is 57, making him old enough to be her father. That he bizarrely ends up with Faith despite there being no chemistry between either the characters or actors is another insult to the audience.

Irresistible creates a scheme so outlandish that it doesn't even make sense in its own world, let alone the real one. It certainly thinks its clever in its "takedown" of politics as usual with the fundraisers and talking heads, but it is surprisingly toothless in its critiques. A scene where Hastings attempts to raise funds from a group of liberal elites could have mocked "radical chic". Instead, despite the possibility of evenhanded ridicule Stewart opted to not go for the jugular in spoofing Upper East Side New Yorkers.

To be fair this did have a good moment for Cooper where he quietly condemns them for having to ask for money from outsiders of his community, but that moment is a lost opportunity in a dull political satire that isn't satirical or intelligent but lazy.

Irresistible has a fixation on money in politics, particularly with Super PACs that routinely run campaign ads for a candidate under the guise of not being in cahoots with said candidate. I would recommend Jon Stewart channel his efforts into a documentary versus something as unfunny as Irresistible.

DECISION: F

Monday, June 22, 2020

The Way Back (2020): A Review

THE WAY BACK (2020)

Whatever the merits of The Way Back, which had the misfortune to be released just as the Covid-19 pandemic/panic closed theaters, it has a shockingly generic title. The title seems to fit, as The Way Back is a shockingly generic film, one filled with tropes, lazy characterizations and pretty bad performances.

Former basketball phenom Jack Cunningham (Ben Affleck) is now a thoroughly dissolute man. Working construction, with an estranged wife and a terrible tragedy revealed as the film goes on, Jack's days begin and end with alcohol (he literally drinks a can of booze while showering). To say he's a functioning alcoholic is putting it mildly: given how much he actually drinks, it's a wonder he can even stand.

Nevertheless, his former Catholic high school thinks Jack will be the perfect coach to the struggling team for the remainder of the season. Jack reluctantly takes this apparently volunteer job (he still goes in to his construction job) and begins to slowly lead his ragamuffin team to victories. However, while it looks like his personal demons and alcoholism are put on hold, another tragedy triggers his own deep one and off the wagon he goes. Eventually forced out due to his alcoholism, Jack goes to therapy and rehab while his team wins one for their Coach Jack.

The Way Back (2020) - IMDbThe Way Back is the first film I saw in an actual theater as movie houses slowly started reopening (don't tell the relatives, who assume anyone going to the movies now will drop dead before the end credits roll). As I watched The Way Back, a certain cynicism took hold thanks to screenwriter Brad Ingelsby's solid determination to make it some kind of inspiring redemption tale. It is not a good sign when, what is meant as a climatic three-point shot that will get Bishop Hayes High School to the playoffs, I started shouting "MISS! MISS!".

The theater was empty, so it was all right.

The Way Back has a lot of tropes that almost make it play like a spoof of these "inspirational" sports films. The entire basketball team is comprised of kids from the Cliched School of Hip-Hop Teens. There's Kenny (Will Ropp) the ladies man who woos three cheerleaders simultaneously, Brandon (Brandon Wilson) the quiet player who is another phenom, Chubs (Charles Lott, Jr.) the jolly one who starts the team with a pre-victory dance, Marcus (Melvin Gregg) the tallest player who begs to return after being thrown off for being late. All the team players are stereotypical trash-talking, casually disrespectful young men who feel free to curse in front of the team's chaplain.

Most of The Way Back's subplot involves Brandon, but even that seems more like an afterthought, as if it was left over from a previous draft. We have a scene where Jack goes to Brandon's father to talk about getting recruited by universities and is instantly rebuffed. It's no surprise that at a climatic game Brandon's father shows up.

THE WAY BACK - Official Trailer - YouTubeBrandon's story, like Jack's alcoholism or the reason behind it, seems to come and go whenever the film needs an injection of drama. Granted, I rarely if ever drink and may not understand Jack's tolerance for alcohol, but I find it incredibly hard to believe one scene where he apparently finished off what might have been a twenty-four pack as he rehearses his initial rejection of the coaching position and still managed to sound relatively coherent and steady on his feet.

I get that The Way Back wants to say that Jack is finding both redemption and purpose in his coaching, but for someone who was that deep into booze, his almost cold-turkey abstinence seems a bit hard to believe.

I did not see Ben Affleck give a performance as his performance seemed to consist of looking sad or yelling a curse storm in front of the kids. Again, I've never believed Ben Affleck is an actor though an excellent director. He was flat throughout, and when he tries to be deeper or dramatic such as with his estranged wife he never convinced me Jack was a troubled soul.

The interesting thing in The Way Back with regards to the basketball games is that we mostly get the final scores and very few actual games. This lack of games, along with the thinnest of characterizations for our cliched team members, robs this viewer of a truly vested interest in Bishop Hayes' basketball team. It's as if we are asked to care about them without knowing much if anything about them.

The Way Back brings to mind that Ben Affleck had been originally cast as Don Haskins in Glory Road until he dropped out, Josh Lucas replacing him in the lead role. Perhaps he now wanted his own basketball film. Unfortunately, everyone seems to have gotten lost in The Way Back

DECISION: C-

Saturday, June 20, 2020

And Then We Danced: A Review

And Then We Danced (2019) - IMDb

AND THEN WE DANCED

And Then We Danced was surrounded by controversy and scandal in Georgia (the country, not the state) where it is set due to its subject matter. The mere suggestion that traditional Georgian dance could have any homosexuality either in its rhythms or performers is too obscene to even consider, at least openly. While And Then We Danced may not break new ground in gay representation, it does have strong performances and insight into another culture that makes it worth a look.

Merab (Levan Gelbakhiani) is still working to be part of his family's tradition of traditional Georgian dance. He faces several obstacles: the hostility of his tyrannical instructor Aleko (Kakha Gogidze) who has a disdain for Merab's family, Merab's more talented but less driven brother David (Giorgi Tsereteli) and now Irakli (Bachi Valishvili). Irakli is a newer, more rebellious but talented dancer whom Merab takes an instant dislike to.

However, they soon become fast friends after Irakli helps Merab with his technique and shows himself a nice guy, albeit one who like David also drinks to excess. There's a sudden opening for the main troupe after another dancer is sent off when his same-sex attraction is discovered, and both Irakli and Merab find themselves on the audition shortlist.

Things between them culminate though when they go out of Tbilisi to celebrate the birthday of Merab's longtime dance partner Mary (Ana Javakishvili). One night, they stimulate each other, the next it is a full-on sexual encounter. Irakli suddenly departs, leaving Merab confused and conflicted, plunging into dark areas. What will become of Merab, his dancing dreams, and perhaps his own life?

And Then We Danced' Review | Hollywood ReporterAnd Then We Danced brought to mind other gay-themed films such as Brokeback Mountain and Call Me By Your Name in that there seems to be a common thread among so many of them. It is that of "young or youngish man, perhaps unaware of or unwilling to admit his true sexuality, is sexually awakened by a more assertive/open man that comes into his life". I can't say whether this is how things usually go when a gay man discovers his same-sex desires, but there it is.

Like Brokeback Mountain and Call Me By Your Name, Merab gives no indication that he has any homosexual desires or interests until Ikarli comes, and even that comes about slowly. He doesn't show any desires (romantic or sexual) towards Mary or any woman, but neither towards any man. Merab may even be closer to asexual, and Irakli's appearance at first seems more hindrance than lustful.

It's to writer/director Levan Akin that he drew strong performances from his cast, in particular from Gelbakhiani making his acting debut as Merab. There are subtle moments that slowly indicate that Merab may be finding in Irakli someone more than a friend: a smile when Irakli puts his head on Merab's shoulder, him smelling Irakli's shirt (again, a nod to Brokeback Mountain?).  Gelbakhiani has an almost innocent face, one that fills with conflict, even guilt, until in his climatic dance scene, where his dancing may not be "masculine" but it is authentic to himself.

And Then We Danced review – heady tale of forbidden desire | Film ...As Irakli, Valishvili has that devil-may-care manner that sets him out as more rebellious to tradition (for heavens sake, he wears an earring!). They work well together, showcasing the differences between the dancing goals of Merab (who wants technique) and Irakli (who wants joy).

This is not to say though that as I watched And Then We Danced, some things did puzzle me. I find that there is a sharp difference between love and sexual desire, and try as everyone did I did not sense that there was genuine love. Perhaps it is because I saw both men as people who were perhaps closer to "friends with benefits" than genuinely in love.

It is also due to how Merab exploring his same-sex desires after Irakli's sudden departure came across as almost dark, plunging metaphorically if not literally into a demimonde of drag queens and flamboyant men.

Other elements, such as Merab's holding and eventual returning of Irakli's earring as almost a talisman of love seemed if not a bit cliched somewhat predictable.

On the whole though, And Then We Danced dares explore a forbidden world, at least forbidden in Georgia. I think it's a bit structured in how it all plays but it works well enough.

DECISION: B-

Saturday, June 6, 2020

You Don't Nomi: A Review

You Don't Nomi (2019) - IMDbYOU DON'T NOMI

When released in 1995 Showgirls became one of the most infamous mainstream films to grace theaters. The first major film to be shown under the NC-17 rating (formerly the notorious X rating), Showgirls featured nudity and graphic sex scenes. It also bombed with audiences and critics, both of which savaged the film for bad acting, at times incoherent story and general sleaziness.

However, like all things, Showgirls has undergone a reevaluation. Said reevaluation and appreciation for Showgirls as both a cult film and perhaps a legitimate feature is the subject of the documentary You Don't Nomi. Does it make its case that Showgirls is not the cinematic disaster of reputation but perhaps a genuinely well-crafted film? Not to me, but You Don't Nomi does suggest that perhaps things are a bit more complex than one might think.

Using off-camera interviews with various film scholars, Showgirls fans and stars of the Showgirls musical parody, You Don't Nomi explores three possible interpretations of our notorious film. It could be a Piece of S**t. It could be a Masterpiece. It could be a Masterpiece of S**t. The documentary has its combatants make their own cases as well as explore their individual love for Showgirls. That love ranges from crafting a Midnight Movie presentation to one of You Don't Nomi's best segments.

That revolves around April Kidwell, an actress who stars as Nomi Malone in the Showgirls musical spoof. Again off-camera (all the interviews are as such), Kidwell tells her story. Starting from a Mormon upbringing, she came to New York to pursue a singing and acting career but was viciously drugged and raped. The emotional and physical scars started to heal when she was cast in spoofs of the two best-known characters in Showgirls star Elizabeth Berkley's oeuvre (Saved by the Bell's Jessie and Showgirls' Nomi) metaphorically saving her.

You Don't Nomi' Review | Tribeca 2019 | Hollywood ReporterYou Don't Nomi also allows for wildly different interpretations. One film critic waxes rhapsodic about the use of mirrors, suggesting there's some kind of artistic meaning behind it. Right after, another seems to mock such ideas, suggesting that such interpretations are downright silly.

Director Jeffrey McHale allows the film to kind of ramble and there doesn't seem to be a firm structure. One moment we can look at the problematic use of black characters in Showgirls, almost serving as "magical Negroes" whose whole purpose is to help our white protagonist. The next we go to the gay subtext and fandom for Showgirls. Another time we explore the filmography of Showgirls' director Paul Verhoeven and how certain elements in Showgirls were almost a running motif for him.

Granted, if that is the case one wonders exactly what Verhoeven finds so fascinating about vomiting, but there it is. Other, darker elements such as the brutalization of women in Verhoeven films are touched on but not deeply explored.

There are some fascinating elements in You Don't Nomi. One interesting take is how other cult films like Valley of the Dolls and Mommie Dearest have certain similar elements with Showgirls. All these films are about strong women fighting to get to the top. They were done with total sincerity in their stabs at being serious drama. They also were all overwrought in terms of the acting. Still, at times it is hard to figure if You Don't Nomi was attempting a Showgirls reevaluation or a Showgirls mockery.

Despite not having actual new interviews with anyone involved in Showgirls outside archival footage, you sense that those involved in this fiasco at least are embracing its sordid reputation. The film mentions how Kyle MacLachlan broached the subject of Showgirls at a tribute versus hiding from it. Unlike Faye Dunaway with Mommie Dearest, Elizabeth Berkley has somewhat embraced Showgirls' infamy, down to introducing the film at a special screening. Whether she actually enjoys being collateral damage to such a notorious flop, one that caused her career great damage, we do not know.

Then again, can one every really Nomi?

DECISION: B-

Friday, June 5, 2020

Showgirls: A Review

SHOWGIRLS

Before reviewing the documentary You Don't Nomi, I opted to first watch the film which inspired the documentary's exploration of it. Showgirls, in all its figurative and literal naked glory, is tacky, tawdry, sleazy and at times flat-out bonkers. My late friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. and I had hoped to see it together after having seen it separately but alas that was not to be. As a dramatic feature, Showgirls is hilarious. As an erotic film, Showgirls is devoid of eroticism. Despite its awfulness, I can see why so many enjoy its almost gleeful brazenness.

A drifter calling herself Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) has arrived in Las Vegas with dreams of being a dancer despite knowing nobody and having no resources. She quickly finds both a best friend in Molly (Gena Ravera) and a job as a stripper at Cheetahs. Molly works as a costumer at the posh Stardust Hotel, where Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon) rules the Vegas Strip with her erotic stage show Goddess.

Nomi soon yearns to be in Goddess, but exactly in what capacity is unclear. Will it be as a mere chorus girl? Does our temptress have designs on Cristal's boyfriend, Stardust executive Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan)? Does Cristal have designs on Nomi? As Nomi and Cristal soon start a cold war, Nomi's ruthless nature leads her to shocking acts. With Nomi now as the new Goddess, she must make a final, fateful decision after Molly is brutally assaulted by Molly's idol.

Showgirls (1995)So much of Showgirls is so wildly misguided that any sane person would look at it with at minimum bemusement, at most with almost uncontrollable howls of laughter at how serious they were trying to be and failing spectacularly at it. I confess that within six minutes into the film, I started laughing at Showgirls, which is a strange thing given that it was meant as a serious drama.

At least I figure the cast of Showgirls did not deliberately play things for laughs, but director Paul Verhoeven opted to tell his cast to be BIG, almost cartoonishly so. Of particular note is Berkley, whose performance had an almost unhinged and desperate quality to it. Everything Berkley as Nomi did was so BIG, so exaggerated and almost insane that you wonder if either Berkley or Nomi were in fact literally crazy. Every reaction Nomi had no matter what seemed to be so massively intense that you felt she was attempting 3-D acting to literally reach out and thrust herself onto audience members. Everything from her dancing to her face in any situation both erotic and vaguely innocent had this hardness, this fierceness that became hysterical in every meaning of the word.

Berkley was so overdramatic and histrionic in Showgirls, where every aspect of her performance both dramatic and dancing had some kind of crazed intensity. It is a mesmerizing performance, but that is not a compliment.

10 Unintentionally Funny Movie Sex Scenes – Page 8
Not that just about anyone else in Showgirls left the project with any semblance of dignity in this ultimate fiasco. Perhaps one can give grudging respect to Gershon, who acted as if she knew Showgirls was utter trash and went full vamp camp, so hilariously over-the-top as our Vegas Queen. It's almost as if Gershon might have been the only one who was in on the joke and behaved accordingly, because her performance was anything but straight.

Kyle MacLachlan seemed at least willing to play all this nuttiness as if it were a legitimate drama, but I cannot imagine that the "lurid" pool sex scene gave him any hopes that this would elevate his career. Alan Rachins has extraordinary range, going from the uptight lawyer on L.A. Law to the hippie dad on Dharma & Greg with equal ease. As Goddess impresario Tony Moss though, he was another unintentionally hilarious figure. "I'm erect. Why aren't you erect?" he taunts Nomi when he examines her breasts. I figure the line was meant to be serious, but as written by Joe Eszterhas and delivered by Rachins, its end result is more laughter. Why the dancers would blanch in shock at Moss barking out "SHOW ME YOUR TITS!" when Goddess is a topless revue one can only guess at.

Showgirls (1995)Eszterhas was reportedly paid over $3 million for writing Showgirls, and one wonders what the actors must have thought when they were asked to deliver such lines as "You f**k 'em without f**king them!" and having conversations about eating Doggie Chow. There are so many odd turns and strange subplots that drift in and out with no sense of logic. We get bits about James (Glenn Plummer), a choreographer with an erotic and dance fixation on Nomi that is totally irrelevant to Nomi's actual story. We also get another subplot involving rival Goddess dancers that might have been more interesting than Nomi's actual story.

Add to that the wildly contradictory nature of Showgirls. One of the Goddess dancers is meant to be shown sympathetically by showing she's a mother with two small children, but she later deliberately injures her rival, making the stab at sympathy irrational. However, the worst element is with Ravera's Molly, the only actually decent character and only genuinely good performance in the whole film. One can quibble with how quickly she came around to any of Nomi's idiotic to criminal acts, but Molly's brutal assault bordered on sadistic. It was an ugly thing to see, and seemed to be there because Showgirls simply ran out of whatever passed as plot and they needed a last-minute suggestion that our wicked Nomi had some semblance of morality.

On just about every level, Showgirls is horrible. Goddess is what a Las Vegas revue would look like if the Las Vegas Motel 6 ever had a floor show. It is beyond laughable that Cristal Connors would be any kind of draw, that Goddess would be such a major Vegas Strip show (or perhaps "strip" show) and especially that Paula Abdul or a pre-Super Bowl Janet Jackson would even consider being the star of Goddess. The stage show Goddess pretty much reflects Showgirls as a film: it shows a lot of skin but is incoherent, unerotic and laughably bad whenever it tries to be elegant or sophisticated.

Wildly misguided and misdirected (again in every sense of the word), Showgirls is not the drama it imagines itself to be. Despite the bad acting, oddball story, wild leaps of logic and general sleaziness, I cannot condemn the film completely. There is something almost mystifying about Showgirls, like a ranting lunatic racing nude across the freeway. You are horrified, appalled, even frightened but you can't completely look away.

DECISION: D- 

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Confessions of a Nazi Spy: A Review


CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY

Warner Brothers, for all its reputation as a studio that specialized in gritty urban crime stories, was fearless when it came to confronting the impending evil of Nazism. Confessions of a Nazi Spy is nowhere near subtle, but it is an interesting time capsule of a time and place where the growing menace was still, theoretically, far off.

Respected physician Dr. Kassell (Paul Lukas) is overt about his love for the Third Reich. As both a naturalized American citizen and head of a local German-American Bund, he routinely spouts propaganda supporting the Nazi regime and wishes it could work in the United States too.

Dr. Kassell also spreads Nazi propaganda at their behest, and said propaganda starts luring in disgruntled loser Kurt Schneider (Francis Lederer). He turns to espionage to get some money from the Reich, and as "Sword" gets his Army buddy Werner Renz (Joe Sawyer) to betray his country.

All this nefarious activity eventually attracts the attention of the FBI. One of its top agents, Edward Renard (Edward G. Robinson) is convinced that "Sword" is part of a Bund Society. Eventually Renard tracks down Schneider, who gives up his German contacts through flattery versus force. Some of the Nazi agents are caught and tried, while others, like Kassell, are repatriated by the Gestapo most unwillingly. This bungled Fifth Columnists all fall into the hands of American justice.

Buy Confessions of a Nazi Spy - Microsoft StoreConfessions of a Nazi Spy is less than its daring title promises. I think it is because it is so overt in its storytelling that today it veers a bit close to kitsch. Of particular note is the ending where Renard and a fellow agent discuss the trial. To the growing swells of America the Beautiful, both wonder out loud about the greatness of our system.

Again, subtle it is not.

One thing that I kept wondering was whether having so many accented actors made Confessions of a Nazi Spy a bit too outlandish to believe, even if the story was based off news articles detailing such activities. You had Lukas and Lederer with strong accents as these nefarious accomplices, but then you had the very light and pleasant manner (and more American-sounding) Werner Renz. It did make me wonder whether director Anatole Litvak might have been better served to have Americans as the spies.

I think it is because it would be too easy to accept "foreigners" or at least foreign-sounding people be part of a conspiracy. It might also perhaps have helped if perhaps Lukas' Dr. Kassell had been more a dupe than an overt agent. It is a bit too easy to believe the foreign Schneider was already sympathetic, but perhaps if the one seduced to the Fatherland's worldview was a more "all-American" type, it would have made it more plausible to go undetected.

One thing that wasn't thought of then that might be thought now is how Confessions of a Nazi Spy could feed suggestions of disloyalty from naturalized citizens. It might be that having non-native born Americans implies that all non-native born Americans are suspect, a mindset that sadly led many Japanese-Americans to internment camps. To be fair, the film is not responsible for such acts and focuses on German versus Japanese agents. However, is it that far of a stretch to see how "foreignness" of the Germans in the film might make the "foreignness" of the Japanese suspect?

As a side note, Confessions of a Nazi Spy went off into curious territory. There was a whole subplot about Kassell's private life with a wife and mistress that seemed to be from a whole other film. What Kassell's bed-hopping has to do with anything one can only guess at.

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A final issue is the similar-sounding names. You have Schneider meeting his German contact Schlager (George Sanders) and pretty soon one can be forgiven for trying to figure out who is who. Seeing Sanders here one wonders where he goes, along with who gave him such an awful haircut.

If there is a saving grace in Confessions of a Nazi Spy, it is the surprisingly small but effective role of Edward G. Robinson as the shrewd FBI agent. It's nice to see Eddie on the right side of the law for a change, and in his quiet but firm manner he makes Agent Renard a formidable figure. He rarely if ever rages, and certainly not in his confrontations with Schneider. Here, the scenes between Robinson and Lederer are excellent: how the ego of one is manipulated by the other into delivering said confessions.

This cannot be said for most other performances, which seemed to border on camp. Lukas seemed to be almost cartoonish as Kassell and at times Lederer too seemed to be overdoing the "I'm EVIL" bit. A scene involving Ward Bond as an American Legion member disgusted by the Bund meeting is surprising but effective. Also to the film's credit, it does show that some Germans were appalled at the Nazis behavior and condemned it.

Confessions of a Nazi Spy feels a bit of a slog given its running time, and it probably would qualify as propaganda now. Still, strong performances elevate it and offer a view of a time when Nazis were seen as a nuisance versus the menace they really were. 

DECISION: C+