Nomi licks the poledancer's pole

The film that ruined a lot of careers, Showgirls has a reputation it only partially deserves (though there is that sex scene in the swimming pool). Since it debuted in 1995 it’s been a soft target for any prurient soul looking for an easy win. Look – naked women! Its actual failings are far less regularly mentioned.

Sleazy, camp, sexist and so on. It’s none of these, but it does portray a sleazy, camp and sexist world in a bracingly honest way, and there are plenty of commentators with an agenda only too willing to deliberately confuse the two.

It’s an A Star Is Born story, with Elizabeth Berkley as the wannabe turning up in Las Vegas and working her way up from lapdancer to chorus girl to star of one of those cheesey Vegas shows that’s all about the dancers’ bodies rather than artistic expression.

Paul Verhoeven directs, with the sort of pizzazz and maniacal gleam in the eye you’d expect from the man who made Total Recall and Basic Instinct. When the film’s meant to be erotic, it’s erotic, when it’s meant to be tender, it’s tender, Verhoeven hits all the emotional beats (though there is that sex scene in the swimming pool). With just enough ironic distance, he presents the big stage spectaculars as the fun, overblown nonsenses they are. Vegas is tacky, and so are the people in it. Shoot the messenger – for his efforts Verhoeven won the worst director and worst picture Razzie. He didn’t deserve to, but he did at least turn up to accept. Pretty gracious, in the circumstances. The film went on to win the worst film of the decade, laughably beating out The Postman.

Verhoeven hadn’t even wanted to make the film. He hadn’t liked Joe Eszterhas’s original script, which Eszterhas rewrote to add an All About Eve thriller element to the existing story. Verhoeven still didn’t really like it, but took the gig to try and help out producer Mario Kassar, whose Carolco production company was in financial difficulty. In the event, the failure of Showgirls and Cutthroat Island in the same year would turn out to be Carolco’s death knell.

The film’s failings are all Eszterhas’s. Whatever he says he did during the rewrite process, the finished screenplay looks as if all the requested All About Eve elements had been simply dropped into what was already there – a formless Pilgrim’s Progress tale of one woman’s journey through sleaze. As in John Bunyan’s 17th-century original, Eszterhas’s pilgrim, Nomi (Berkley), undertakes a journey through her own Slough of Despond, Valley of Humiliation and Doubting Castle before reaching the Celestial City.

Nomi lapdances for Zack
Nomi shows Zack her assets

As to Bunyan’s chapter on The Delectable Mountains, let’s talk about Elizabeth Berkley’s body, and the film’s nudity. Undoubtedly gifted when god was handing out physical equipment, Berkley is also in her prime here, aged around 22, and we get to see a lot, a-lot-a-lot, of her tits. This is a film about lapdancers and Vegas showgirls, and much of it takes place backstage, where performers often get changed, so in a way it would be odd if we didn’t. Verhoeven takes a European-nudist-beach approach to it all, rather than the usual snickering peek-a-boo approach favoured by the supposedly more moralistic Hollywood mainstream. In Verhoeven’s world, sometimes being naked is normal.

Berkley’s performance is as mad and exaggerated as the lipliner overemphasising her mouth, but it’s deliberate. Nomi is a woman unhinged by events in her past, it turns out, though we don’t learn any of this until it’s way too late – Eszterhas again. The joy of watching All About Eve is knowing that Eve is a sly little minx who is after the star’s top billing. With Nomi we’re not even sure that she’s really the bad hat in this fight, especially when the star whose position she’s tilting at is the brassy and entitled Cristal Connors (Gina Gershon, giving it the full grand dame, as much as you can in sequins with your nipples on display).

It looks great. Shot in lurid, winking Vegas neon by Verhoeven’s regular DP Jost Vacano, it’s soaking in that mid-80s-to-mid-90s cocaine-fuelled, lobster-and-champagne ethos of so many films of the era – see 9 1/2 Weeks or Wall Street. Secretly it sympathises with the bad guys, in other words, or more to the point, it has no time for the little guys. Hence the dismissive treatment of Molly (Gina Ravera), the friend Nomi makes immediately on arriving in Vegas, the only properly decent human being in the film, who’s sidelined by Eszterhas’s screenplay until the time comes for her character to suffer the sort of treatment that is entirely undeserved and advances the movie not one jot.

Other “little guys” – Glenn Plummer as the dick-driven but sweet guy with a thing for Nomi, Kyle MacLachlan as Vegas showrunner Zack – also get toyed with in a half-in, half-out way.

As for the vague lesbian subtext, it’s all a bit tokenistic and feels like a middle-aged screenwriter’s girl-on-girl-action fantasy rather than a genuine relationship borne out of real emotion. There’s not much real emotion in Showgirls.

Ultimately, the film’s real problem is that for all its glorious over-the-topness, the endless buffet of excess starts to fatigue the viewer. What, more tits? More showstopping show numbers? Cut half an hour out – from the second half – and you might have something. How about that, Mr Verhoeven, a director’s cut?

Showgirls – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


Max von Sydow, Patrick Stewart, Kyle MacLachlan and Jürgen Prochnow

Dune. Not Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 behemoth, that pleasure still awaits. But David Lynch’s 1984 version, the only film in his career that he wished he hadn’t made and will not talk about in interviews, except to say he shouldn’t have made it.

And not the theatrical version either, but the “extended” one worked up for TV so it could be shown in two 90 minute chunks. Lynch hated this one so much he had his name taken off the credits. So welcome to another “Alan Smithee film”.

Acutally Lynch originally had a four-hour cut in mind but had managed to get the running time down to three hours. Not short enough for his producers, who were worried that anything over two hours and 17 minutes would mean one fewer showing per day in the cinemas. And so two hours 17 minutes it is, and comprehensibility be damned. Which is why I turned to the TV version, hoping against hope that three hours would fill in some of the gaps.

The vastly sprawling plot can be distilled down to: the Emperor Shaddam IV (Jose Ferrer), anxious that his barons are gaining in power, sets two houses – Harkonnen (boo) and Atreides (hooray) – against each other in a divide-and-rule contest over who will control the mining and trade of Spice, a magical substance with bitcoin-meets-crack allure found only on the planet Arrakis (aka Dune), a sandy waste where killer monster sandworms hold sway.

Think of Harkonnen as the Empire and Atreides as the Rebel Alliance, if you want a Star Wars hook to hang this film on, and young Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan in his debut) as a Luke Skywalker type growing in stature from callow youth to mighty warrior as he faces down the Harkonnen and uncovers the Emperor’s treachery.

On the planet Arrakis, aka Dune
On the planet Arrakis

Both Star Wars and Dune are in hock visually to the 1930s Flash Gordon films but David Lynch seems to have been drinking deeper from the cup than George Lucas ever did. The faintly militaristic look, the art nouveau styling, the hair just so, the way everyone speaks in awed sci-fi tones about concepts that must be everyday to them, that all connects directly to the era of Buster Crabbe’s Flash and Jean Rogers’ Dale Arden.

Lucas, his scrolling preamble aside, found clever narrative ways to explain the who, what and where of what was going on in his film in a way that Lynch never manages. This film is heavy with explication, with a voiceover narrator (some of it added for the TV version, admittedly), internal monologue from characters and a tendency for every new interaction between people to begin with an explicatory preamble contextualising what the characters are about to discuss.

Villeneuve’s film has broken Frank Herbert’s original novel into two halves, and watching Lynch trying to get all of its plot onto the screen in 1984 you can’t help feeling he (or the De Laurentiises, who produced) would have done better to do the same. This Dune is drowning in guff.

Blame Herbert’s book, if you like. Personally, reading it was the moment when I broke with sci-fi, which until then I’d associated with pithy, ideas-driven stories from the likes of Asimov, Le Guin, Dick, Heinlein and Bradbury. Dune, by contrast, was a soap opera in space. And long. The original book was 400 and something pages, with more volumes forming a traffic jam behind. Call it an attention span disorder but I gave up around the halfway mark.

This is not a good film, not at any level. Lynch is not an action director, the look of it is shonky, even with the great Freddie Francis as DP, the sets are frequently wobbly, and though vast amounts of money have clearly been spent on the mostly practical effects (there are some crude early CG moments), it’s been wasted. Toto’s soundtrack is senseless – it brings to mind the vamping Lynch would get from a later musical collaborator, Angelo Badalamenti, which is fine for odd open-ended dramas but does not work here, where a bit of ta-daa and boom is needed rather than airy blah.

There are good things to be found. MacLachlan is fantastic as the wide-eyed youth growing into the nobility already possessed by his father (Jürgen Prochnow). Francesca Annis as his mother has that fatalistic Lady Macbeth thing going on. Siân Phillips is a fantastically swivel-eyed priestess. Max Von Sydow in warrior attire is dignity incarnate. Sean Young, underused but welcome in a Princess Leia-ish role as Paul Atreides’ love interest. Jose Ferrer, not in it half enough, makes a great and commanding Emperor, and Kenneth McMillan as Baron Harkonnen, face covered in pustules and with a tendency to float off into the air, seems to be enjoying himself in his pantomime role.

Imagine if Ridley Scott had made this, as was mooted at one point (he made Blade Runner instead). That would have freed David Lynch up to make Return of the Jedi, which he turned down to make this. Right there, two alternate-reality sci-fi scenarios.

Dune – Watch /buy the theatrical version at Amazon

David Lynch box set at Amazon – Includes Dune, Blue Velvet, Eraserhead, Lost Highway, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

Giant Little Ones

Ballas and Franky on bikes

Franky is a buff swimmer and from the moment Giant Little Ones kicks off it seems fairly certain, from the way the camera is lingering on his upper body as he wakes up in the morning, that it’s a gay drama we’re watching. Why a camera can’t have a female gaze, I don’t know. Discuss.

Anyhow, Franky is popular with the other guys in the swim team, has a girlfriend “with a fine rack” according to one of his friends, and what’s more she’s very keen to lose her virginity and Franky seems like the guy to do it. All this changes after Franky’s birthday and a late-night, very drunken, stoned fumble with his oldest bestie, Ballas (Darren Mann). Soon the news it out – Franky is a faggot. Girlfriend Priscilla (Hailey Kittle) dumps him, the homophobic swim team shun him, his mother is understanding but bewildered. Only Franky’s dad seems in any way supportive, and that’s the last thing Franky wants, since dad (Kyle MacLachlan) walked out on the family for reasons that are only revealed when we’re already knuckle deep in revelations and consequences.

If all this sounds a bit spoilerish – most plot summaries of the film seem to be coy over the “incident” – it’s all dealt with up front, briskly. It’s what happens next that the film is really about.

Shunted out of the elite hetero world, Franky starts to move around in the shadowy outer reaches, where characters like the extremely dykey Mouse (Niamh Wilson) are experimenting with prosthetic penises, and Ballas’s sister, Natasha (Taylor Hickson) is dealing with the aftermath of a sexual disgrace that’s got her branded as a whore.

Two possible dramatic routes seem to open up here. Either Franky is going to “accept who he really is”, which is vaguely the way his mother (Maria Bello) is nudging him, or he’s going to resist identity-politics tags entirely. Giant Little One’s fascinating wrestle is with the notion of being defined by a sexual act. Is calling yourself gay really an identity, or is it all really a lot more complex (or a lot simpler) than that?

The genius of writer/director Keith Behrman’s drama is to keep both those possibilities up in the air right to the final moments of the film, asking questions rather than pushing characters into boxes. And once Ballas’s sister Natasha has been more firmly roped into the action and she and Franky have started hooking up for mutual support and perhaps a bit more, then Franky’s choice takes human flesh. Franky can accept himself as gay (the Ballas direction), or he can refuse to be defined like that (the Natasha direction). Whichever way he goes, Behrman’s screenplay seems to be insisting, the important thing is for Franky to regain control of his own narrative, assuming he makes a choice.

Natasha and Franky
After: Natasha and Franky

It’s a lot less schematic than it sounds. This is down to Behrman’s writing, but also the extremely agile acting by all concerned. Josh Wiggins has that all-American big open face, a Matt Damon kind of look, and is entirely believeable as the sporty kid who’d just rather the world butted out of his affairs. Darren Mann as the feisty Ballas works his way through a series of protesting-too-much straight-boy attitudes. Bello is excellent as the concerned mother whose liberal views are being tested, while Kyle MacLachlan gets a totemic role as the angry alienated dad who holds the key to it all. Further back, Taylor Hickson as the wronged Natasha – who might just actually be a slut anyway – she’s subtle as you like, as is Peter Outerbridge as her (and Ballas’s) father, a man who never says “I hope this gayness isn’t contagious” but it’s written all over his face.

Lovely, lovely stuff.

Somehow, amid all the suburban carnage and gnashing of teeth, grinding of sexual gears and different layers of anguish, Giant Little Ones also manages to be funny – Franky’s scenes with Mouse are all light-hearted explorations of sexuality which lightly mock Mouse’s extreme butchness without tilting over into being nasty. Franky, meanwhile, in these exchanges with her, makes a broader point about sexuality and teenage lads – they boast of sexual conquests with their mates but the last thing they want to do is talk about sex seriously. And that’s the straight guys. Why should gay/curious/bisexual/whatever guys be different?

Giant Little Ones is nimble, fast-moving, gives us food for though and manages to both conclude in a satisfying fashion and also leave things a touch tentative. It’s a great drama that somehow manages to dodge all the cliche bullets.

Giant Little Ones – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021


Stephen Baldwin plays a clone in sci-fi thriller Xchange



Here’s one of a number of interesting sci-fi films produced in Canada in the wake of Vincenzo Natali’s Cube. It’s a low-budget body-swap futureshocker with three different actors (Stephen Baldwin, Kyle MacLachlan and Kim Coates) all vaguely playing the same man, a “floater” refusenik named Alvin Toffler. There’s a joke in that name if you’re a dyed in the wool sci-fi fan. Possibly also funny is that in this futureworld if you’ve swapped bodies (that’s the “floating” bit) with someone but can’t get back to your starting position you can park yourself inside a clone while everything is sorted out. Enter Stephen Baldwin as the empty vessel waiting to be filled. So when Alvin’s real body (he originally looked like Kim Coates, until he swapped and started looking like Kyle MacLachlan) is hijacked by a terrorist, he’s forced to jump into Baldwin’s body, shelf-life a mere two days, and get looking for the bad guy. At which point the film does admittedly turn into something of a futuristic action thriller, making the last 20 minutes or so a far more familiar ride than the first 80 or so. But if we discounted all the films that couldn’t pull off a satisfying finish, there wouldn’t be many left. And until Xchange takes its slight turn to the routine, it has delivered plenty of interesting ideas and it’s even managed the odd good joke. When it came out, it went straight to video and I remember thinking it was an absolute dead cert for a big-bucks remake. Maybe the time is right about now. Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt could star. No, hang on, that’s Looper.

© Steve Morrissey 2013


Xchange – at Amazon