Friday, February 28, 2003

THE NEAR-GREAT MOVIES, VOL III: Previous editions of this feature have reviewed My Best Friend's Wedding and Primary Colors.

This week: the films of Paul Verhoeven.

Verhoeven, 64, is the Dutch-born director of such films as Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and Starship Troopers. None of them critics' darlings by any stretch, none of them seeming to be any more than popcorn flicks -- and in the case of the latter two, not even regarded by most as good popcorn flicks.

But they are. Verhoeven's genius, as I see it is to take b-movie genres and infuse them with a sense of humor and a point of view. There is subtle (and unsubtle) parody going on in each of his movies and a level of camp, investing each of them with smiles beyond the obvious ones. As Verhoeven once said:
There has always been a pleasure of me to work in the B-genre and elevate that, or use that as a vehicle for other thoughts. It’s like the paintings of Karel Appel, our Dutch guy, who was copying all these children’s paintings. That was a heavy influence – or you could even look at Dada. It’s a normal thing in art, to use the ‘mediocre’ and the ‘banal’ to make a statement. That kind of sophistication in art is rare in film-making.

Let's look at each of the five in turn (note: I haven't see Hollow Man):

Robocop: A dystopian future. A privatized police force takes the body of a dying officer and creates a cyborg cop, half-man, half-machine, to rid Detroit of crime. So it's a shoot-em-up, and a particularly violent one at that, but there's more: there is some heavy-duty philosophy going on here, as the Robocop faces the remnants of his humanity. And it's funny as hell: Robocop, as a law enforcer, is unfailingly polite. He says things like "Excuse me, I have to go. Somewhere there is a crime happening."

Verhoeven once said of the movie, his first American film: "Robocop is mostly about the idiocy of American television. These kind of people that flip-flop between extreme sadness, and fun, and a commercial. I always thought that Robocop was my reaction to being thrown into American society, and looking around with wide eyes, thinking ‘this is completely crazy’."

Total Recall is the best Schwarzenegger movie. Period. Terminator and T2 fanboys should get out of my way, because I will hear no argument on this point.

Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick ("We Can Remember It For You Wholesale"), Total Recall is a variation of the brains-in-a-vat Philosophy 101 question: how do we know if our memories are real? Or as Douglas Quaid (Schwarzenegger) puts it in the movie, "If I am not me, den who da hell am I?"

Again, a violent, violent, shoot-em-up, but more. Arnold is an boring, earth-based construction worker, he thinks, in 2084, who dreams of visiting Mars. Real travel is too expensive, however, so he goes to Rekall, Inc., to have memories implanted to believe he went there and had a heroic adventure as a secret agent. Only something goes wrong during the implantation process, and now Arnold's in a real swashbuckling adventure to bring freedom to the Martian colony. Or is he?

The sets are great, asses are kicked in memorable style, and character actors Michael Ironside and Ronny Cox play the bad guys. What more could you need? Finally, it has Arnie's commandment to "Get your aaahhhhhhsss to Maaahhhhhhss." If you've heard it once, you've likely repeated it often.

Basic Instinct is the first of Verhoeven's three great comedies. Comedy? Yes. This movie is not the sexy film noir thriller it was advertised as being. It's too over-the-top for that, with its hypersexuality, gratuitious nudity, ridiculous plot twists and laughable overacting by stars Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone.

Instead, rent it again, but watch it as a comedy this time. Take Stone's performance as the ice queen kinky seductress as a parody of the noir femme fatales played by actresses like Barbara Stanwyck and Lana Turner. Take Douglas's macho cop, "Shooter", as an over-the-top sendup of testosterone-driven detectives on screen. And take all the ludicrous plot twists and double crosses as an inside joke, because anything this contrived deserves our laughter.

Because if you assume Verhoeven knew exactly what he was doing, it's a much better film.

The same goes triple for Showgirls. Yes, it's an awful, awful movie when taken at face value. Verhoeven has said of it, "Now I look at the movie and say, 'How the fuck? Why did I do that?"

Viewed as camp, however, it's an almost-perfect parody of the star-on-her-way-up-makes-compromises-for-fame formula. It's almost perfect. Jen and saw it again recently with a largely gay audience as part of the monthly Chumley and Carlota Movie Nights downtown, and everyone was rolling. Why?

1. Elizabeth Berkeley's acting. She's got two emotions in the whole movie: angry and horny. That's it. And mostly angry. And her character, Nomi Malone (named after screenwriter Joe Eszterhaz's wife), is about the dumbest woman ever put on screen. Dumb enough to have to ask "What's an M.B.A.?" to her boyfriend, to pronounce Versace as "Ver-saise". You don't get that dumb without great writing.

2. Alan Rachins as the asshole Vegas show producer Tony Moss. The audition scene is classic, with him spouting lines like "I'm erect. Why aren't you?" with a straight face.

3. Gina Gershon. Like Stockard Channing in Grease, Gershon thinks she's acting in a much better movie than she is, flinging off her bitchy little lines (she's the lead in the show) like Chinese throwing stars. Darlin', it works. Plus she admits to eating dog food when she was poor.

4. The Elizabeth Berkeley-Kyle MacLachlan sex scene in the pool where Berkeley's wriggling around like a salmon fighting against the current. Brilliant.

Take out the violent rape scene (performed by the character who looks exactly like Joe Eszterhas, ironically), which was really gratuitous in a bad way, and you've got a film classic.

As Verhoeven said, "I think the essence of the [Starship Troopers] is really young kids fighting giant bugs."

And there's that. But the movie was criticized upon release for glorifying fascism and militarism, portraying its impossibly blond warriors (Casper Van Diem, Denise Richards) as heroes of the new millenium in this Heinlein-based film.

Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the movie satirizes those very militaristic values, and not subtly. It's a movie warning about the seductiveness of calls to patriotism, expressing dismay at the blind rush to war without consideration of the consequences. Let Verhoeven tell the story:
Take Starship Troopers, great example, probably the most political statement I've ever made. Five years ago, most of the critics totally trashed that movie. They called me a nazi, saying I was idolizing Leni Riefenstahl. Now, that image has totally changed. A lot of people see now that the film is about the United States. The whole situation in Afghanistan is almost an exact copy of Starship Troopers; the whole gung ho-mentality of bombing everything, blasting the Taliban-forces out of the caves. I put all that in Starship Troopers! The corrupted atmosphere of propaganda, once invented by Goebbels, has now taken over the United States as well. It's extremely interesting to see how the media can besiege an entire nation with propaganda.

Well, I wouldn't quite go that way re: our current situation, but the man has a point.

More importantly, you'll never see bugs as large as these, or see them splattered in quite as cool a fashion. Trust me on that one. It's a crunching good time.

At least, I'd like to think that Verhoeven knew what he was doing in these movies. The alternative? Hollywood keeps giving a guy money to do over-the-top B-movies that are capable of humorous readings only because they're so damn bad. Basically, Ed Wood with a budget. But who'd want to live in that world?

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