During a week in which a nation-shaking epidemic shutdown has managed to become a concern secondary to curfews, social chaos, and military-dictatorship-type responses to protests against police violence…which public wildfires continue to have gas poured on them by He Who Shall Not Be Named…well, there’s not much this column can do but recommend some industrial-grade escapism.
At least a couple hours’ disengagement from pressing political realities may be necessary for your mental health at present. Although if you simply want to dig in further, let it be noted that new releases this week also include a documentary about gun reform activism (Parkland Rising) and a semi-fictive feature about immigrant advocates managing to permeate a real-life Florida detention center for the undocumented (The Infiltrators). Also a little more than we felt like dealing with at present is a bestseller-derived courtroom/revenge thriller (The Collini Case) about the systemic downplaying of citizens’ Nazi pasts in postwar Germany. [Editor’s Note: There’s also a great list of essential Black films from the past 30 years here.]
But onward with some movies that in one way or another offer some escape from the press of, er, current affairs. All are available on streaming platforms as of Friday June 5:
YOU DON’T NOMI
The go-to celluloid guilty pleasure for many, and many San Franciscans in particular, is the 1995 WTF known as Showgirls, in which director Paul Verhoeven and scenarist Joe Eszterhas (following the popular success of their SF-shot and SF-picketed Basic Instinct) managed to convince a major Hollywood studio to spend $40 million on an NC-17 Las Vegas softcore musical…of sorts. Jaws have not stopped dropping since. Generally reviled upon release, Showgirls was just too flabbergasting to be forgotten like any ordinary flop. It was soon back in midnight showings, drag homages, a successful musical-theater spoof, and more.
This is not the time or place to debate whether Showgirls is just bad, monumentally bad, beyond good and bad, or a “misunderstood masterpiece” as some will actually tell you with a straight face. And it’s unnecessary anyway, since now Jeffrey McHale’s documentary is here to do those things for us. You Don’t Nomi approaches its subject from myriad angles, but mostly that of serious admirers (including our own Peaches Christ, who pioneered Showgirls’ late-night theatrical revival), film scholars, and critics (like Barbara Shulgasser, who originally reviewed it for the San Francisco Examiner). Showgirls’ genesis, production, publicity, public immolation, eventual re-evaluation, its placement within the pantheons of Verhoeven movies (it’s noted he went from making films too shocking for Holland to ones that bit the Hollywood hand which fed him) and general camp cinema (from Cobra Woman and Plan 9 to Valley of the Dolls and Mommy Dearest) are all given serious but by no means stuffy consideration.
Who we don’t hear from, outside archival interviews, are the people who actually made it. And no wonder: Not only do they still not seem to fully grasp what they wrought, their story keeps changing to accommodate shifting perceptions. Kinda like Tommy Wiseau started calling The Room an intentional “comedy” when he realized people were never going to stop laughing at it.
We can still dream that one day a tell-all book might reveal the real story behind what one observer muses might be a moviemaking story “about two men who maybe did a lot of cocaine and found themselves drunk with power in Hollywood after making a shitty movie about a lesbian icepick killer.” But meanwhile Showgirls goes on, needing no introduction and no explanations. Or perhaps it remains so inexplicable in its shrill, misogynist, racially weird, “unapologetically tacky” valley of ultra-slickness that to an extent we don’t even want to know how it happened.
You Don’t Nomi is one of those rare movies about a movie that (like Room 237 or The Disaster Artist) goes beyond simple “making-of” or glorified fan rave to encompass something larger—just as the film it discusses transcends 131 minutes of prurient dreck by being exactly that, albeit more vehemently than you’d ever thought possible.
Abel Ferrera’s first narrative feature since 2014’s Pasolini (though that movie didn’t reach the US until last year) seems to be an autobiographical fiction reflecting his own status as an expat American artist now living and working in Rome. As the titular alter ego, his frequent collaborator Willem Dafoe sports other real-life overlaps: Tomasso is an ex-addict, has a much younger wife (Cristina Chiriac as Nikki) and little daughter (played by actual daughter Anna Ferrara), with a past including a broken prior marriage and two adopted children he’s estranged from.
A looser, lower-key personal 8 1/2 with fewer (and less flamboyant) fantasy elements, the long film drifts along from day to day, following Tommaso as he attends AA meetings, takes Italian lessons, teaches an acting class, works on a screenplay, goes shopping, and so forth. Dafoe has aged like a fine wine; so watching him perform these simple tasks in an often ebullient, perhaps semi-improvisational mode is a pleasure. But the film also feels like a directorial indulgence that is at once egotistical and less revealing than it thinks.
Tommaso’s primary source of angst is that he sometimes feels shut out by his wife, a Moldovan emigre herself who needs to assert her own independence. OK, sometimes she is distant and thoughtless, but he’s also frequently petulant and demanding. Besides, he’s in the classic Rich Famous Old Dude predicament, which earns little sympathy: If he wanted a mature soulmate, why did he marry a model-looking woman half his age? You choose a shiny package, don’t whine that it lacks content. Eventually this conflict leads the film to drive off one of several narrative cliffs, with the viewer uncertain whether they’re meant to be taken literally or not.
Given Ferrara’s own turbulent history, it’s welcome (as well as somewhat surprising) that he’s still alive and creating. But despite Dafoe and the confident craftsmanship on display, I’m not sure this tortured artist self-portrait does anything but make its creator look like another perpetual manchild, still whining that he can’t “have it all” while pushing 70. A few extraneous scenes of unidentified-female nudity don’t help dispel the notion that even this late in life, Ferrara still prefers his “muses” young, nekkid, and blank. Does a bongo come with that old-school beatnik-artiste crap, daddy-o?
Even hoarier: This is the kind of movie in which the director’s stand-in figure actually, truly does assume an eventual “Christ on the cross” pose…and I’m pretty sure it’s not meant as a parody of the stereotypical Pretentious Artist. Nope: That Abel Ferrera, he’s the real thing. Streaming rentals through Roxie Virtual Cinema (here) and Rafael Film Center (here) benefit those local venues.
A much better portrait of madness as artistic method is this latest from Josephine Decker, whose prior features (notably Madeline’s Madeline two years ago) had a poetical wooziness that was distinctive but also bit exasperating. It turns out, however, that her sensibility is exactly right for what is anything but a straight biopic of Shirley Jackson, self-destructive late author of such classic contemporary Gothic tales as The Haunting of Hill House and short story The Lottery.
Elisabeth Moss, fresh off her smashing turn in The Invisible Man, is back in nettlesome Her Smell terrain as this alcoholic, misanthropic New England recluse, who’s bullied by her professor husband (Michael Stuhlbarg as Stanley Hyman) but also dishes it out in return. It’s a fine, showy performance, yet this isn’t the star vehicle you might expect. Instead, it’s a gleefully perverse psychodrama that utilizes the real-life couple’s mutually abusive dynamic as fictionalized fodder for a four-way in which they draw a young couple (Logan Lerman’s teaching assistant, Odessa Young’s equally bright newlywed wife) into their domestic purgatory, then toy with them as cats do mice.
It’s sort of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? mixed with the ambiguous menace and unsettling laughs of early Harold Pinter, as filtered through Decker’s dreamlike visual imagination. Shirley isn’t perfect, but it’s arresting and frequently inspired—a movie that, not unlike You Don’t Nomi, ultimately has more to say than simply addressing the real-life thing that it’s ostensibly about. It’s also available through Roxie Virtual Cinema. More info here.
THRILLERS: BECKY AND HAMMER
If you’re looking for something more in a less complicated mode of genre chills and thrills, these two new indie features are each a cut above average. Cary Murnion and Jonathan Milott’s Becky stars Lulu Wilson as a 13-year-old only child whose fury at her cancer-robbed motherlessness and dad’s (Joel McHale) moving on with girlfriend Amanda Brugel gets a whole new outlet when their lakeside vacation home is raided by four dangerous escaped convicts—the worst of them played by comedian Kevin James, no less.
They are bad, violent people. But surprise!: Becky is a girl aching for an excuse to wreak major mayhem, which these villains all too soon provide her with. Not quite a black comedy, though it certainly requires a certain suspension of disbelief, this vigorous little number does not spare the gore, yet one must admit its revenge fantasy is quite appetizing nonetheless.
Likewise raising some plausibility issues, although within a more serious action-suspense context, is Christian Sparkes’ Canadian Hammer. Here, a hijacked drug deal leads prodigal son Mark O’Brien straight to the doorstep of Will Patton, the father who’d distanced himself from junior’s considerable substance and criminality problems. Once the shit hits the fan, however, they reach together for those Handy Wipes.
Over the course of a few very hectic hours, the two men, O’Brien’s very angry ex-friend (Ben Cotton), a not-so-innocent little brother (Connor Price), and others are pulled into an ever-escalating crisis from which there will surely be a body count. The screenplay may be a bit overloaded with incident, but the strong performances and execution keep Hammer’s 81 minutes strung taut.