SHOWGIRLS and MARKED FOR DEATH Blu-ray Reviews

     June 25, 2010

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Showgirls has attained the cult status that it was always destined for, fifteen years after release. It is rightly infamous. Elizabeth Berkley’s performance as Nomi, the dancer who’s not a stripper, has inspired thousands to re-watch the film over and over, to see her tussle with Gina Gershon and Kyle Maclachlan, to see her push things over and act pouty. It’s a career-defining performance, that’s for sure, as her Nomi Malone comes to understand the machinations of the Las Vegas showgirl life. It was also the beginning of the end for Paul Verhoven, who directed another masterpiece in Hollywood that was misunderstood (Starship Troopers), and then turned to lesser titles before heading back to Europe to write a book and direct Black Book (great film, btw.)

Whereas Steven Seagal has achieved a different sort of cult following for his film Marked for Death. Battling Jamaican drug lords who went after his family, here Seagal teams with Keith David to fight evil. My reviews of both Showgirls and Marked for Death on Blu-ray follow after the jump.

I saw Showgirls first run when it came out, I had just hit college, and like many of my fellow dorm-mates was curious about this bizarre NC-17 rated musical would-be erotic melodrama. It had already stirred up controversy, but when it came out, it hit like a wet blanket. What the hell was it? Elizabeth Berkley’s performance as Nomi, the girl from nowhere who wants to be a dancer, has exactly two gears: would-be erotic and would-be upset. Berkley does a fairly poor job at acting as anything but the Saturday morning sitcom star she was – it’s truly an amazingly bad performance, to which audiences have come to accept (especially post-Starship Troopers) was intentional.

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Nomi Malone comes to Vegas with a bag and a switchblade, but is immediately ripped off. She makes friends with Molly Abrams (Gina Ravera) who then lets Nomi stay with her. Nomi works at The Cheetah as a stripper (but Nomi won’t admit she’s a stripper, she tells everyone she’s a dancer), while Molly works at the Stardust hotel as a seamstress where Crystal Connors (Gina Gershon) headlines the show “Goddess” and dates the possibly sleazy, possibly honest Zach (Kyle Maclachlan). When Nomi and Crystal cross paths, Crystal is intrigued as she makes no secret of her bisexuality (leaning more toward the ladies), so Crystal brings Zach to the Cheetah, and the two ladies enter into a game of one-upmanship that leads Nomi to an audition for Goddess.

The film steals quite a bit from All about Eve, so you can see where it’s going. Their competition leads to Nomi eventually taking/stealing Crystal’s place, and meeting Molly’s dream guy Andrew Carver (a Michael Bolton clone) who is not what he appears to be. Along the way it tries to sexually titillate, but such scenes often end in ways that are completely un-erotic. To wit, when Nomi goes home with nice guy choreographer but failure James Smith (Glenn Plummer) she tells him that it’s her time of the month. Not only does he check, but says he doesn’t mind because he has a number of towels. Nomi also goes home with Zack, in one of the great highlights of the movie. Zack has a swimming pool with neon palm trees, and when the two copulate, Nomi does a bunch of spastic movements whilst under a waterfall that would seem to suggest something pleasurable, but convey the exact opposite sensation.

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And what stays with the viewer the most in watching Showgirls is the audacity of its straight face. Such moments are legion in the film, and every five minutes there’s a failed bon-mot or bit of business that must be seen to be believed. Only a handful of performers seem to know what movie they are making, and Berkley is so out of her depth that it becomes a joke on her that she becomes uniquely terrible in the film. But then again, that could possibly be Verhoven’s genius in that this is what he thinks of Vegas and the dream of becoming famous – casting someone so hopelessly trying to please but failing miserably is commentary. In the end, everyone is a whore. I don’t know if the film congeals as Verhoven intended, I don’t know how much it works because of or in spite of the material (written by Joe Eszterhas at his worst, which is saying something), but there is no denying the formal control of Verhoven’s plan – the film is expertly shot and put together. And that fission is why the film has lasted.

MGM’s Blu-ray release also comes with a DVD copy including all of the same content. The film comes widescreen (2.35:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1. The transfer is immaculate, and this has always been a handsome looking film, but the new transfer does make this a worthy upgrade. The film comes with a commentary by David Schmader, a fan of the film who recognizes its unique terribleness. This film also comes with a trivia track, featurettes “Pole Dancing: Finding Your Inner Stripper” (12 min.) and a lap dance tutorial by the girls of Scores (5 min.) There’s behind the scenes footage presented as a “Showgirls Diary” (11 min.), and the film’s theatrical trailer.

Marked-For-Death-movie-image-Steven-SegalMarked for Death has a completely opposite camp appeal. Seagal runs around and kills people in this Dwight H. Little film, but it comes from his prime period, and this is a solid, if unspectacular entry in his body of work. Having read Vern’s must-read book Seagology, it struck me that I’ve always been more of a Van Damme man, in that JCVD always had more flavors when it came to narratives. Yeah, he rocked “twins with mistaken identities” thing once or twice, and often went back to the Bloodsport well, but Seagal is usually a lawman, or authority figure of some sort who has to come in and take care of business either with the help of a few other officers or by taking the law into his own hands.

After a dangerous career in the DEA, Seagal’s John Hatcher is looking to settle down, but when he comes to his family’s neighborhood he sees that Jamaican drugs lords are peddling crack to the kids at school. The dealers are led by Screwface (Basil Wallace), who believes in weird voodoo shit (which gives it at least something more than just Seagal taking on criminals, here he’s taking on voodoo criminals). Well, it’s not long before John’s family is put in danger and Hatcher teams up with his old buddy Max (Keith David) to clean up this town.

The action is good to great, the characters are reasonably drawn out, and between Keith David, Danny Trejo, and Kevin Dunn, this has a fairly solid supporting cast. There’s also a great moment where Seagal slows down to reflect and clean and oil a gun, and a chase that ends up with the drivers crashing into a jewelry store, which then leads to a fist fight. And then for no apparent reason Jimmy Cliff shows up. There’s also a great twist at the end, in regards to Screwface’s early death. Basically, if you like Seagal, this is a top five film of his, and if you don’t, then this is one of the few films of his that actually is more than just the sum of its ass-kicking pieces.

Twentieth Century Fox’s Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (2.35:1) and in DTS-HD 5.1. The transfer is clean, and though it was a modestly budgeted production, it looks solid. Alas, there are no extras with this title.

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