Monday, February 22, 2010

Showgirls (1995)

I've seen a lot of awful movies over the years. Some of them I've reviewed here, some of them I want to review in the future. But out of all those bad movies, none of them are as sleazy as Showgirls. One of the most famous (infamous?) box office disasters ever, Showgirls is a crude adventure into the tawdry, the vulgar, and the borderline obscene. It is the result of a Hollywood studio wanting to make a commercially viable NC-17 movie without considering just how stupid the actual movie was. The movie is so utterly trashy that you feel like you need a shower and some STD medication after watching it. And while Showgirls has become something of a cult classic thanks to its camp value, it is so amazingly terrible that it almost needs to be seen to be believed.

As the movie begins, we're introduced to Nomi Malone (Elizabeth Berkley) as she hitchhikes to Las Vegas with dreams of joining a chorus line. But her arrival in Sin City isn't a pleasant one, as her ride promptly drives off with her luggage and money as soon as he drops her off.

But her bad luck is counterbalanced by some good luck as well. Nomi almost immediately strikes up a friendship with Molly Abrams (Gina Ravera), a local seamstress who takes her in as a roommate. Now with a roof over her head, it isn't long before she ends up getting work as a stripper at Cheetah's Topless Club.

It is at Cheetah's where she catches the eye of Zack Carey (Kyle MacLachlan), the entertainment director at the Stardust Casino. As Nomi's prospects quickly rise, she also develops a rival in Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon), Zack's girlfriend and the star of the Stardust's cabaret show. And from there, we get general bitchiness, backbiting, and catfighting as Nomi claws and scratches her way to the top.

I won't lie to you; I feel dirty even thinking about Showgirls. It isn't sexy, it isn't erotic, it isn't titillating, and it isn't pleasant to look at or listen to. It's just a waste. I'm not only embarrassed to admit I've actually seen Showgirls, but I'm also embarrassed for everyone involved with its production. I'm certain they didn't go in expecting the movie to suck, but for it to have ended up as a miserable failure and the butt of so many jokes in 1995... damn.

But where did it all go wrong? It's a combination of things. Part of it is due to the direction, courtesy of Paul Verhoeven. His work here is unimpressive to say the least, which is a real shame considering that his prior résumé includes awesome movies like Total Recall and RoboCop. It's like if Martin Scorcese decided he wanted his next movie to be a shot-for-shot remake of Manos: The Hands of Fate.

The real problem is that the movie is just plain ugly. There are a few rare instances of some nice cinematography, but watching the movie is the cinematic equivalent of staring at the floor of a filthy truck stop men's room for two hours. For all the flashing neon lights and all the naked women and all the sex, Showgirls is not very pleasant to look at. You'd think a movie that's supposed to be sexy might try to be, but Verhoeven manages to completely drop the ball.

It doesn't help him that he was working from a rather pathetic script too. Written by Joe Eszterhas, who previously teamed with Verhoeven to create Basic Instinct three years earlier, the script is lousy from beginning to end. Its attempts at being edgy and scandalous are just laughable, like a little kid doing a bad job pretending he's a tough grownup.

Everything Eszterhas has written is just ghastly. The characters are irritating, the dialogue is banal, and the story itself is beyond pitiful. If it can be done badly, Eszterhas is all over it. The worst thing about the script, though, is its characters. With Showgirls, Eszterhas has created some of the most repellant, unlikable characters that I have ever seen in any movie ever. You will find yourself hating just about every character in this piece of crap. That's not an exaggeration.

To summarize, Nomi is a psycho that will throw a temper tantrum at the drop of a hat, Zack is a sleazy douchebag who trades sex for success, and Cristal is the Ice Queen from Planet Catfight. I've seen movies where the main characters are rapists, killers, and psychopaths, but I could still get invested in them. Movies like The Devil's Rejects and American Psycho proved that it's possible to do so, but somewhere Showgirls missed the boat. A writer with the tiniest sliver of talent could have made these characters intriguing or remotely interesting. Eszterhas can't even do that, and we end up with characters that are so repulsive that it'll take you right out of the movie.

It even spreads to the supporting characters, who are as equally unlikable. You do get a small glimmer of hope with Glenn Plummer's character, who is one of the rare characters who isn't out to get Nomi and is actually friendly. But then you find out that what he really wanted was to get in Nomi's pants. So yeah.

That leaves us with just one character who is a genuinely nice person from start to finish, that being Molly. She's the only character who doesn't do anything bad to anyone else, and is a generally pleasant character altogether. So you know what that means, right? Eszterhas has to have something bad happen to her. And I mean really bad. I usually try to avoid spoilers if I can help it, but since most of the reviews I've read online have mentioned it, I'm just going to come out and say it: Molly gets violently gang raped.

The scene is set when Nomi pulls a few strings and gets Molly invited to a party that her favorite singer is attending. She ends up setting Molly and the singer up, only for the singer and two of his buddies to beat the crap out of her and violate her. The rape comes late in the movie, sending it spiraling downward from dumb campy fun into pure irredeemable garbage. Did it serve any purpose? No, unless the purpose was to make Showgirls something I never want to watch again. It marks an unnecessary shift in tone that only makes things even worse.

And somehow Showgirls keeps finding ways to suck harder, because the cast is absurdly atrocious. The worst offender is the movie's leading lady, Elizabeth Berkley, who was expecting Showgirls to be her big breakout role following her job on Saved by the Bell. Instead, it ended up killing her career. And thank God for small miracles, because Berkley is a terrible actress. She is so unbelievably awful that she makes you want to jump into the movie and hit her.

The role of Nomi is written as a conceited toddler that is stuck in the body of a adult, and Berkley plays her with such frustrating earnestness that I absolutely hated her. There's no middle ground with her, either. At one point, she can be as happy as a clam, then snap! A switch flips and she's so angry that she vomits all over herself before running out into traffic. And then, just as quickly, she's giving some stranger a hug. I don't know how much of it was Eszterhas and how much was Berkley, but Nomi's bipolar madness can and will leave an unsuspecting viewer screaming with rage.

Berkley's acting style seems to alternate between maddening, laughable, and creepy. I say "creepy" because I don't think she blinks once during the entire movie. I don't know why that bugs me so much, but it's like I was hoping she'd blink to prove she was real and not some robot built to be naked and act badly. And I have to tell you that it's actually really hard to tell the maddening and laughable parts apart, because they often overlap. You might find yourself laughing at Berkley's performance and yelling profanities at the same time.

If anything, I can tell you which part I thought was the funniest: the sex scene. If you ever needed an example of "so bad, it's funny," it's this. Nomi and Zack hop into his swimming pool for a little romantic interlude, and at one point, Berkley starts flopping around like somebody threw a toaster into the pool with them. I'd have actually felt kinda bad for her if I wasn't laughing so hard. The funniest thing about it is that somebody watched the dailies of that scene during production and thought, "Yeah, that's good! Let's leave it in the movie!"

But here I've spent so much time making fun of Berkley's awful acting that I've completely forgotten about the supporting cast. None of them are as bad as Berkley, but that isn't enough to earn them a reprieve. So let's start making fun of them instead, okay? Let's begin with Kyle MacLachlan, who I'm disappointed to see in this movie. The guy isn't a bad actor at all, but it seems like he just started doing nothing but bad movies after Twin Peaks got cancelled.

What's so sad about it is that Showgirls is so bad that it brings him down with it, resulting in a performance that's embarrassing to watch. MacLachlan is so stiff that it makes me wonder what his thought process was during filming. Maybe it was something like, "Oh no, I'm stuck in this horrible movie and I can't get out! Maybe if I half-ass it, they'll fire me. That'll totally work, won't it?" Sorry, Kyle, it didn't work. It would have been great if it had, though.

In the role of Nomi's rival is Gina Gershon, who plays the role as if she were the cattiest bitch you've ever seen in your life. Gershon is almost fun in the role because of how hammy she is at times, but then you remember poorly the character is written and you start turning against her. It's weird.

I also got the impression that Gershon didn't really want to know what she wanted to do with the character. The reason I say this is because Gershon suddenly takes on a Southern accent about halfway through the movie. Why? Beats me. There's a throwaway line at one point where the character mentions she's from Texas, but the fact that Gershon picks up her accent out of nowhere is still confusing. Maybe she came up with a reason for it during production, like Matthew Goode's in-and-out German accent in Watchmen, I don't know. It's easier for me to simply believe it's a mistake on her part.

The rest of the cast is forgettable. At least I'd like to forget about them, that is. None of them have any sort of substantial bearing on what little plot there actually is. The actors who aren't bad are simply going through the motions. And if they can't be bothered to care, then neither can I.

It's amazing just how pitiful Showgirls is. The direction is lazy at best, the writing is idiotic, the actors are irritating, and the dancing — the movie's biggest focus (after all the nudity, I mean) — features some really lousy choreography. Showgirls is the complete opposite of what it was intended to be, which results in a movie that is practically unbearable to watch. How it became a cult classic, I have no idea. I'm having a hard time believing anyone would want to watch Showgirls, even to make fun of it. It's that bad. The final score on the "Sutton Scale" should be obvious: one star, and a definite recommendation to avoid it at all costs. If you do choose to watch Showgirls, be forewarned that you'll end up hating yourself afterwards.

Final Rating: *

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Saw VI (2009)

You just can't keep a good horror movie villain down. As long as the audience wants to see them, they'll keep popping back up. That's one of the big reasons why Frankenstein's Monster has appeared in dozens of movies that date as far back as 1910. Modern villains like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger popped up in numerous movies over the course of the '80s, but by the time the new millennium rolled around, classic horror villains started making less and less appearances.

But then Lions Gate Films and Twisted Pictures made their own villain for modern horror fans. When Saw made an unexpectedly huge splash at the box office in 2004, the sequels kept coming like clockwork. And they're still coming, as we've already reached the movie we're here to discuss now, Saw VI. The latest chapter in the story of Jigsaw and his apprentices, Saw VI continues the path laid forth by its five predecessors and sets things up for the road ahead in this perfectly acceptable sequel.

Detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) is now free to fully take over where Jigsaw (Tobin Bell) left off, having eliminated Agent Strahm while framing him for the murders. While he tries to make absolute certain that all his tracks have been covered and cover up any evidence connecting him to the crimes, it's time for him to begin the next game.

With a little help from Jigsaw's ex-wife Jill (Betsy Russell), Hoffman captures William Easton (Peter Outerbridge), a health insurance executive that routinely denies claims to people who actually need them. The game William will have to play will also involve numerous employees from his firm, all of them put into life-or-death situations in order to teach William that life is of greater value than money.

The Saw franchise hasn't ever really felt the need to deviate from its basic formula. All the movies need are plenty of grotesque death traps and plot twists that would make M. Night Shyamalan say, "Whoa, cut back on the twists." Five movies have used that formula, but Saw VI decided it was going to be different. It uses the formula, but chooses to add a little heavy-handed social commentary into the mix. And it actually makes the movie stand out from the others because of that attempt at making a statement.

But we'll get to that in a moment. My reviews have their own formula, so let's stick to it and begin with the direction. Handling those duties is Kevin Greutert, the editor of the first five Saw movies. This is his first feature-length movie as a director, and while there isn't anything groundbreaking about his work, there doesn't need to be.

Greutert does a better job than I expected, though, especially in the cases when he goes against the franchise's usual color palette of dark grays, blues, and greens. Some of the traps the primary victim encounters are lighted with reds, oranges, and yellows, which I thought really helped to set the movie apart from its predecessors. However, there are times when felt his direction was a touch uninspired. It is these instances when it seems as if he's just duplicating what James Wan, Darren Lynn Bousman, and David Hackl had done with the previous entries in the series.

Next up is the cast. I have to admit that I'm not quite sure if there's a point in doing so, because I doubt very many people are watching the Saw movies for the acting. And really, it's all more of the same anyway. But because I'm a slave to the routine, let's break it down regardless.

Tobin Bell pops up for the sixth straight movie, and he once again contributes a solid performance. He gets a little hammy at times, but he's still good in the role. But I do wonder how often he's thought about just phoning it in. He got killed off in Saw III, so there's no real forward movement for the character. The only reasons Jigsaw has been in the movies since then are to fill in plot holes and add to his background. Any other movie would have left Jigsaw's origin story to the viral marketing, but not the Saw franchise. But I'm just happy that Bell has remained relatively consistent throughout the series.

Moving on to the rest of the cast, I did like Costas Mandylor as our primary villain. He comes off a bit stiff at times, but I thought it worked well for the character. The character of Hoffman is a cop trying to hide the fact that he's the murderer he's supposed to be hunting, so Mandylor being stiff could always be excused as what happens when a snake pretends he isn't one.

Moving along to the supporting cast, I thought that Betsy Russell contributed a fine performance as Jill. Her work here is understated, calm almost to the point of being creepy, but it only serves to make the character more intriguing. Russell makes the viewer wonder what's going on inside Jill's head, wonder what her thought process is and what she's planning or scheming. I was a bit apprehensive about the character going down the path she has taken, but that won't be a problem as long as Russell's performances stay constant in the sequels.

Playing the movie's primary victim is Peter Outerbridge, whose work I wasn't exactly thrilled with. It's not that he's bad, but he didn't strike me as being too good either. I guess part of it is because his subplot not only seems preachy, but superfluous as well. If it were me, I'd have dropped the whole thing and made the whole movie about just Hoffman and Jill. But that's just me, I guess. Anyway, Outerbridge doesn't do a bad job, so he's got that going for him. Unfortunately, he struck me as just being kinda there most of the time.

The rest of the supporting cast doesn't really make much of a splash, though. I will say, however, that I thought Devon Bostick — who plays Outerbridge's character's son — is really bad, and I though Tanedra Howard's performance as a trap victim early in the movie was almost laughable thanks to her overacting. Then again, Howard's only in the movie at all because she won the part on a VH1 game show, so maybe lame acting was to be expected? At least Shawnee Smith was watchable in her brief appearances through flashbacks.

However, what makes this entry into the Saw franchise stand apart from the ones that preceded it is the writing. Penned by the returning duo of Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan, the script sticks to the franchise's usual formula while bringing in that social commentary I mentioned previously. The whole thing is an indictment of greedy health insurance companies, and it gets so preachy that you can practically feel the movie trying to hit you over the head with their smarmy attempt at some sort of message.

I'd have no problem with it if it weren't done so overt. But Melton and Dunstan don't even bother with subtlety. They whip it out and practically beat you to death with it. Okay, insurance companies are ripping people off, I get it! If I wanted to watch someone's condemnation of the nation's health programs, I'd go rent that Michael Moore documentary Sicko. This lack of subtlety is astounding enough, but part of it feels like a cheap excuse to justify half of Tobin Bell's scenes. Granted, it's nice to see the Saw movies try expanding beyond the formula, but I just wish it hadn't been done in such a heavy-handed way.

The other half of the plot, however, is better written. I thought the story of Hoffman trying to cover all his bases and contend with Jill was a more intriguing story, and as I said previously, I'd have much rather seen an entire movie based on that than having to balance it with the insurance executive's gauntlet of horrors. It not only helped further along the franchise's overall arc, but also tied up a lot of the loose ends that had accumulated over throughout the last few entries in the franchise. It was very well done, which I felt was in stark contrast to just how lame the other storyline is.

While I'm on the topic of the script, I wanted to bring up an interesting subtext that Melton and Dunstan bring up yet never fully explore. It's really only brought up at the beginning of the movie, when two people forced to play a "game" must mutilate themselves in order to live. One doesn't survive, while the other (played by the aforementioned Tanedra Howard) only does so after hacking an arm off at the elbow. She's questioned by Detective Hoffman at the hospital, who asks her just what she learned from her experience. Her response: holding up the stub where her arm once was and shrieking, "What am I supposed to learn from this?"

Jigsaw's whole gimmick has always been to teach people the value of human life by making them face their own deaths. But his grand scheme hasn't really worked out that well. Not very many people survive his games, but the survivors that turn up in later entries into the series never seem to learn anything. The one I mentioned in the previous paragraph, for example. The most prominent evidence of this — Jigsaw's first apprentice, Amanda — became a murderer whose traps never gave victims the same chance to live that Jigsaw gave her. And even Hoffman is depicted as being particularly coldhearted, quite unlike Jigsaw, who seemingly does feel at least a little compassion for his victims even while putting them through the ringer. That subtext is one that I wish the movie had examined further, because it could make for some compelling storytelling if done right.

As a whole, Saw VI is a mishmash of good and bad that, while most assuredly not flawless, is at least a step up from the two sequels that it followed. It's not a great movie, or even really a good movie. But when taking it for what it is, as the sixth movie in a movie studio's cash cow horror franchise, it's not bad. And judging it as such, I'll give it three and a half stars. It isn't the best of the sequels, but it does throw a much-needed speed bump in the downturn the Saw franchise had been taking. It's at least the best entry into the second trilogy. And if it is successful at anything, it definitely made me want to see Saw VII in October.

Final Rating: ***½

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Orgazmo (1998)

Superhero movies are big business nowadays. Even the mediocre ones can make a respectable amount of money. But before they were guaranteed successes, it was harder to find a successful superhero movie. The only A-list heroes who could get their movies released theatrically were Superman in the '70s and Batman in the '90s. The rest — based on relatively unknown properties like Howard the Duck, Judge Dredd, Barb Wire, Tank Girl, and Steel — were critical and financial failures. But among these terrible movies, there was a flick that was actually good.

Conceived by South Park co-creator Trey Parker, Orgazmo was an attempt at spoofing both superheroes and pornography. But the movie, released in only ninety-four theaters thanks in large part to its NC-17 rating, only managed to gross 600,000 dollars at the box office. Despite Orgazmo's financial failure, Parker's second live-action movie (following his student film Cannibal! The Musical) is actually an entertaining flick that should receive more credit than it does.

As the movie begins, we're introduced to Joe Young (Parker), a Mormon missionary from Utah spreading the good word throughout Hollywood. One day, he stumbles across the home of famous porn director Maxxx Orbison (Michael Dean Jacobs), who tries talking Joe into appearing his newest movie. Joe is reluctant due to his religious beliefs, but when Orbison promises a $20,000 paycheck and the use of a body double for the sex scenes, he agrees. After all, he needs the money if he's going to give his girlfriend, Lisa (Robin Lynne), her dream wedding.

Joe takes on the role of a superhero named Orgazmo, who fights crime alongside his sidekick Choda Boy, played by Ben Chapleski (Dian Bachar). The movie proves to be so popular that it becomes a mainstream blockbuster, a success that Orbison capitalizes on by announcing that a sequel will begin production immediately.

Things get hairy, however, when Lisa comes to Los Angeles to visit Joe. She is disheartened to learn that he'd been lying to her about the acting job he'd gotten, and to make it up to her, Joe tries quitting the sequel and leaving the porn world behind. But Orbison refuses to let him go, going as far as kidnapping Lisa to ensure his participation. That just pushes Joe to his breaking point. He and Ben team up to become Orgazmo and Choda Boy for real, and are going to take Orbison down by hook or by crook.

What is there to say about Orgazmo? Just that title and the plot synopsis are probably more than enough to convince you whether or not you want to see it. I guess the only thing I can do with this review is tell you what you're in for if you do give the movie a shot.

Writer/director Parker had only one million dollars with which to make the movie. Such a low budget actually works in his favor, as it helps make the movie look like the cheesy sex flicks it's parodying. The costumes look like they were made from scraps from a thrift shop, the sets look like they were borrowed from a local college's theater department or were donated by people who wanted their locations in a movie, the props look homemade, some moments feature obvious stuntmen (or stunt dummies), and the explosion at the end of the movie is clearly a miniature house set on fire.

But that's all part of Orgazmo's charm, though, because it just wouldn't have worked any other way. The sheer absurdity of it all makes it hard to take seriously, which I'm sure Parker had in mind all along. It's not great direction, but for the sake of Orgazmo, Parker's all aces.

Next on my list is Parker's screenplay. If the plot synopsis didn't really sound up your alley, then the humor won't be for you either. I say that because it's raunchy to a nearly unconscionable degree. The MPAA gave the movie an NC-17 based on sex jokes alone, after all. Even the title of the movie tells you what kind of comedy to expect.

The thing about the script is that not every joke is laugh-out-loud funny. Some of them just fall flat, if I can be perfectly honest with you. Where the real humor lies is with how utterly ludicrous everything is. A straight-laced Mormon cast in a porno movie as a superhero whose sidekick's costume is basically just a jockstrap and a helmet with a large dildo on it? A porno movie so popular that it inspires a line of action figures, plays in theaters as a triple feature with E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Citizen Kane, and so financially successful that it rivals Jurassic Park and Star Wars? Yeah, that happens here.

The good thing is, though, that it is stays lighthearted about everything. It may tease the porn industry, the state of Utah, and Mormonism, but the jokes never get mean-spirited. It's irreverent and immature, but never mean. Knowing how South Park can be sometimes, you might go into Orgazmo expecting the targets of its lampooning to be absolutely ripped to shreds. But no, Parker is more good natured in his ribbing. Yeah, the movie can be offensive in some places if you're a bit on the uptight side, but I didn't think it ever got outright insulting. And that's not a bad thing at all.

All that's left for me to break down is the cast, a mixture of "legitimate" actors and such porn luminaries as Ron Jeremy and Juli Ashton. The acting isn't really anything to write home about, but before you go thinking that's a bad thing, you should remember what movie I'm talking about. The acting being cheesy or over the top was probably the intent all along, considering the subject matter. And you know what? It works.

In the lead role is Parker, essentially playing the straight man surrounded by the wackiness of a world he isn't accustomed to. He plays Joe as unassuming and innocent, with a charming naïveté that makes him both amusing and endearing.

Playing our antagonist du jour is Michael Dean Jacobs, whose overacting knows no bounds. He screams practically every line of dialogue he's given, and goes through the whole movie with a perpetual scowl on his face. But it works for the character. You'd expect him the character to be like that if he existed in real life. If I met a porno director named "Maxxx Orbison," I would actually be upset if he wasn't a total sleazeball that was always screaming at everyone. So I guess Jacob's performance was exactly what it needed to be.

Rounding out the movie's major players is Dian Bachar as Joe's faithful sidekick. Bachar is perhaps the most entertaining member of the cast, mainly due to how much enthusiasm he shows. He looks genuinely excited to be there, even if he has to wear a ridiculous costume and beat people up with sex toys. That excitement is evident, and it makes Bachar a lot of fun to watch.

So that's my review of Orgazmo. Like I said, you probably already made up your mind about the movie before you even started reading this review. But should you choose to check it out and you have the right sense of humor, you hopefully won't be disappointed. Granted, Orgazmo is not a perfect movie, but it's serviceable enough for what it is. The movie never tries to be more than the sum of its parts, and that's really all you can ask for sometimes. My final rating is three and a half stars and a recommendation. If you're a fan of South Park or even just Team America: World Police, Orgazmo will probably be up your alley. If not, you more than likely wouldn't be watching it anyway.

Final Rating: ***½