Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Ruminations on Paul Verhoeven and Black Book

Like many people my age my first steps into the world of director Paul Verhoeven was as a pre-teen in the form of RoboCop. My parents, especially my dad, were pretty liberal in what they allowed me to watch after I turned 9 or so. I got to see Beverly Hills Cop when I was 9 -- I think that was the first R rated movie I'd seen in the theater. But compared to RoboCop, which came out two years later, Beverly Hills Cop might as well be Stop or My Mom Will Shoot!. It might have simply been my dad pulling a fast one on my mom, she refused to let me see Aliens when that came out, but there I was 11 or 12 years old watching a guy who just snorted coke of a hooker's tits getting his knee caps blown off.

People often refer to Terminator as a touchstone for the violent action movies of the '80s, citing its ridiculous body count. Well, as many people who may have been shot in Terminator, the opening 15 minutes of RoboCop, with our protagonist getting everything short of defecated upon (Verhoeven makes up for that aplenty in Black Book) is more brutal than all three Terminators combined. Taking a cue from Blade Runner (I think 90% of the movie takes place at night), he created a bleak near future that's overrun with violence (or that may just have to do with it taking place in Detroit), and it's his unflinching camera that still feels a bit shocking even seeing it today. There's no quick jump editing, there's no soft lighting or diva actors, it's all nasty grime and body fluids and you feel just about anything violent can and might happen.

What separated Verhoeven and RoboCop at that time, besides the unflinching violence -- and it’s something he continued to use as a sharp tool, is his use of satire. He would work again with writer Ed Neumeier again with the subversive Starship Troopers which also used darkly funny commercials aimed towards children and absurd news footage to reinforce a view of a future filled with fascism and violence as entertainment. Pretty sly.

RoboCop was followed by Total Recall. In the pantheon of Schwarzenegger movies, it’s pretty good. At the time of its release it was definitely one of those movies where the special effects were enjoyably impressive and the violence and gore was still surprising. All the kids loved the scene with Arnold yanking that tracking beacon out of his nose, using that dead guy as a human shield and pounding the shit out of Sharon Stone. And as far as Philip K. Dick translations go – well, it could’ve been a lot worse. It wasn’t as gritty or bleak as RoboCop, but there was still a certain amount of intelligence and winking cynicism going on behind the big budget sheen.

And that takes us to the one-two punch of Basic Instinct and Showgirls. Verhoeven and writer Joe Eszterhas seem like a natural, winning combination. Both are talented, idiosyncratic Hollywood outsiders who like to subvert the art form and have a healthy predilection for sex and violence. At first their goals seemed simple – a mind twisting neo-noir serial killer movie with a whole lotta sex. Worked like gangbusters and made everyone involved superstars.

Basic Instinct works on many levels – there's the actual mystery that lies at its center and it was 1992 so the t & a and sex stuff was actually something that every teenager didn’t have at the click of a mouse -- not to mention that sex was a good portion of what the movie was about. Basically, it succeeded at delivering cheap thrills while at the same time being an impeccably shot, suspenseful, first rate thriller. It was like a perfect storm of conditions coming together to form a pop culture superfecta. The stars aligned and it spawned years of direct to video and Cinemax soft core fodder.

What made Basic Instinct worked goes right to the point of what made Showgirls a relative failure. The central story to Showgirls couldn’t be any less interesting. Well, I suppose it could, but then I doubt it would qualify as a “movie”. But anyone who bought the wonderfully sleazy Showgirls box-set will tell you that the movie didn’t fail completely. Quentin Tarantino said something to the effect that once Elizabeth Berkley pulls the knife out you realize Verhoeven has made the most gloriously expensive exploitation movie ever. It's trashy, poorly acted nonsense but it's disturbingly watchable and entertaining on the basest of levels.

When one movie suddenly makes you the most powerful writer/director team in Hollywood, you know your next one will probably end that reign just as quickly. No one stays on top for more than a couple years in Hollywood – the happy endings are reserved for the movies. So three years after Basic Instinct, Showgirls really looks like Verhoeven and Eszterhas taking any goodwill they might have garnered and throwing it back in Hollywood’s face while having a nice long laugh. They were never going to make that prestige picture or that demographic friendly PG-13 blockbuster. Instead they were going to spend millions of dollars showing off just how much they could get away with. Say what you will about the finished product but it’s nothing if not exactly the movie Verhoeven set out to make. It's one of the most enjoyable bad movies ever made. The only shame is that Verhoeven may never be able to shake off the notoriety that came with the release of this movie.

Paul Verhoeven had been making movies for close to 30 years before he made Showgirls. His 1980 Dutch movie Spetters was his last movie made in the Netherlands (before his return with Black Book) and it cemented his reputation as a generation's spokesperson for sexual liberation and as the guy who made Rutger Hauer an icon and sex symbol. After Showgirls he was now the butt of a joke. He returned to sci-fi with Starship Troopers and while it was largely a successful movie I think it marked the beginning of the end for Verhoeven and Hollywood. That end took the form of Hollow Man. To be fair, I've only seen bits and pieces of Hollow Man (the same goes for his first Hollywood picture Flesh + Blood) but it recently got a "directors cut" so maybe I'll take a look at it one of these days, but the general response what either a luagh or a shrug. It seemed someone had finally stepped in the way of Verhoeven, the end result leaving a lot of fans feeling like this was diluted, neutered Verhoeven.

It was the last we'd see of the man until just this past year. He'd returned to his Dutch roots and came up with a historical, "based-on-true-events" WWII picture called Black Book filled with sexy espionage and plot twists. The general response from critics were positive and seemed to trumpet a bold return to cinema from one of their favorite wild cards. But for some reason I can't generate much more than a mild "ok". Part of me chalks this up to recently seeing Army of Shadows another movie that deals with resistance fighters and daring escapes from the clutches of the Gestapo. I know it's wrong to compare a Verhoeven movie to a Melville movie but adding a strong female center, some healthy doses of nudity and a few gallons of fecal matter to the dutch version of the same story doesn't add up to much.

It's not that it isn't an interesting story (or even the same, really) -- in Black Book we have a Jewish woman in hiding, Rachel, played by Carice van Houten who gives a wonderful performance. In an effort to get herself and her family to safety she ends up witnessing the Gestapo gun down her family and a boat load of other refugees. Through some of her family's connections she ends up with an opportunity to help the resistance and get revenge on the people who killed her family. This leads to her actually infiltrating the Gestapo headquarters and falling for the man in charge. This of course leads to some problems.

The tone is very melodramatic, which could work, the movie is shot beautifully in a way that reminds you of the romantic war movies of the past (just look at the poster), but often times it's overbearing and weighs down the movie. The same can be said for the number of plot twists. In a movie like Basic Instinct, it's fine, it's fun, throw them at me. The mystery part of Black Book only starts to gain momentum in the final third of the movie (and it's not a short movie at about 2 1/2 hours) and by this time I'm ready for the thing to wrap up and instead it's throwing these red herrings at me and I couldn't really care. Part of the problem is that you're waiting for over an hour for people to figure out something that is obvious to the viewer in the first 30 minutes, while the other part is the absurd heights of preposterousness that it goes to. By the end of the movie I'm really wondering if by "based on a true story" means that yes, there was a war, and yes, there was a Dutch underground resistance.

Maybe it's because I'm not used to Verhoeven taking himself this seriously or shedding his satirical edge, maybe it's because I don't know his earlier Dutch film work, but for all the beautiful shots and performances I couldn't get past the cliches and soapiness of the movie. I don't want to be the guy who says I don't like it when a director goes out to do something outside his norm, and that's not really the case here, I think this is perfect material for Verhoeven to excel in and I'm sure it was a personal film for him, but it all falls flat for me.

A Verhoeven picture should not be dull. I believe that is the main point of this dissertation. And until Black Book, that was the rule. For all the naked van Houten, twisteroos, head wounds and cauldrons of poo, the end result is a while lot of nothing new. Verhoeven always excels in new -- producing something you've never seen before -- something that sets trends. While he's supposedly lining up a remake of Topkapi (that will be under the guise of a sequel to the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, natch), I'm not exactly thrilled, but I'm in full belief that it will be a return to the fun/inventive Verhoeven. Lord knows the guy can pull off a hot-damn heist picture.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

December's Beer of the Month - Stone Coast's Jamaican Style Stout

Mmmm... stout. Who doesn't love a good stout or a porter on a cold winter night? Sure, certain beer folk will tell you that a porter is just as good on a sweaty summer day and well, I'm not going to tell them to shove it but I'll put it this way. I like to attempt to cook with beer. It's fun. I splashed some Allagash White on my asparagus one evening and haven't looked back since. But would you make a stew with a crisp summer ale? Nah, you'd probably add some stout to that stew. And nothing says winter to me more than getting the dutch oven full of some lovin'. What I'm trying to say is 'tis the season to find a good stout. And Stone Coast's Jamaican Style Stout is just the thing. I mean, this brewery is from Maine -- they should know what to drink in the winter time, no?

Pitch black (or brown). Can't see any light through the glass but there's a bit of red around the edges. Sticky light brown head that leaves the proper rings around your glass as you imbibe. A little bit of a Heath bar aroma and taste. A bit more pronounced when you drink it than the smell would lead you to believe. Very tasty with a kiss of the hops - more than your average stout. It's a subtle beer, especially since its ABV is 7.4% and you can't tell at all. It's not a creamy stout like a Guinness -- it's thinner, velvety, and a bit lighter than the kind of stout you might be used to. In fact this is the perfect kind of stout for the summer.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Paris Je T'aime

Every once and a while at RFC, we do a little housecleaning. You know, sweep up the floor, dust off the processors (I think that's what powers this deal), and remove the cigarette and coffee stains from the monitor. We (or at least I) also tend to find reviews of movies that we saw, liked, intended to review, and just plain forgot about. Like today's review, Paris Je T'aime (that's "Paris, I Love You" for the isolationist, homophobic, culturally starved French-bashing idiots), which was written last summer when the movie was in theaters. So, without further introduction, here is, ash marks and all, some thoughts on a movie I liked a few months ago:

Paris Je T'aime (2006 in France, 2007 in the Good 'ole United States)
Viewed from: The Balcony, but now available on DVD

Dirs: As you will see, quite a few

Sometimes a contrived and hokey idea works out. In the case of Paris Je T'aime, a collection of short films about the world's most romantic city directed by some of the world's best directors, the result: c'est magnifique! (ok, last corny use of French).

The contrived idea is that each story takes place in a separate arrondissement of Paris, showing that the Paris love story does not necessarily = Amelie or Chocolat. So while we do get at least one story of a young, attractive couple in Monmartre, Paris also shows us the less known aspects of Parisian coupling: A vampiress and her victim, two mimes who meet in prison, a stabbed street musician and the paramedic he loves, a washed out actress and drug dealer; a grieving mother comforted by a cowboy, a...well, you get the point. (I've intentionally limited the mention of actors, directors and writers because things just would get too confusing - for a complete list, click here.)

While it was the A-list directors that interested me in the movie (the Coens, Cuarón, Gus Van Sant), their efforts tended to be more workmanlike and obvious than the lesser known directors. Steve Buscemi is great in the Coens short on the dangers of a wandering eye on the Paris metro, but Cuaron and van Sant end up making little more what would be short clips from their own movies, with Cuaron's especially annoying indulgence of a pointless continuous shot the most boring part of the film.

But there are more revelations here than disappointments, including Oliver Schmitz's brilliant story from the 14th about the unrequited (and unacknowledged) love of an African street musician for a local woman. The woman arrives on the scene coincidentally as a paramedic after the man has been stabbed for his guitar, and his love for her is told through a series of quick flashbacks. By the end, it is clear that the woman knows as well about the dying man's love, though our only clue is the shaking tray of coffee she holds in the last shot as the man dies.

Immigration and immigrants are, not surprisingly, a large part of the movie, though the treatments range from nuanced (a story about a local boy and a Muslim girl meeting by the Seine) to obvious (a beautiful but now tragically type-cast Catalina Sandino Moreno leaving her baby to clean rich people's houses).

However, as anyone who has traveled to France knows, there is a worse experience in France than to be an immigrant: to be a tourist. It would be too simple to generalize all of these films, but the one consistent theme does seem to be alienation, or at the least, a feeling of being out of place, whether as a salesman in Chinatown (a brilliant and odd short by Christopher Doyle) or American Steve Buschemi waiting for the Metro. In short, being a tourist in Paris sucks, yet everyone does it. Why?

The best answer may come from the final short of the movie, Alexander Payne's spot-on story of a red-stater's trip to Paris and her attempts to get beyond the tourist traps and the long lines. Narrated in a butchered French with an accent so Americanized even I could understand it, Margo Martindale travels by herself from Denver in search of adventure and freedom, but finds only condescending Frenchman and crushing loneliness.

While Martindale is clearly a representation of the fat and naive American tourist (she reports seeing the grave of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simon Bolivar), her innocence and openness also remind me of what makes Paris so great; how much possibility the city contains. Martindale may never be cool enough to make it in Saint Germain, but she still has something to offer the city, her sincerity. While Paris may have been built by a jaded working class and an elite jet-set, without the wide-eyed tourists and immigrants, it loses much of its purpose; Paris needs the stupid Americans as much as the stupid Americans need Paris. The quirky love stories and the unforgettable moments from Paris Je T'aime (and Paris itself) are not just the gift of a city to the rest of us, but the product of rural optimism and urban sophistication. Put simply, if everyone were as urbane as Parisians, Paris would lose much of its charm. The outcasts and oddballs depicted in Paris, then, are not simply the fringes of the cultural capital of the world, but it's heart.