Monday, May 29, 2017

Black Book (2006)

Looking at Paul Verhoeven’s filmograpgy, its easy to separate his early Dutch period from his Hollywood era films, yet at the same time that would be doing his entire body of work a disservice. Granted it would probably seem odd to compare a film like Katie Tippel (1975) to RoboCop (1987), but the fact remains that an inspection of all of Verhoeven’s films reveals many reoccurring obsessions that bear the mark of a true auteur. For example, Verhoeven’s science fiction efforts feature strong anti-authoritarian attitudes as well as social satire, therefore it makes complete sense that the same director responsible for films like RoboCop and Starship Troopers (1997) would also be behind an over the top satire like Showgirls (1995). Despite the fact that clueless critics have labeled Verhoeven as a misogynist, strong willed female characters have been another constant in his work going all the way back to his debut feature Business is Business (1971) and would feature prominently in Katie Tippel, Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls. After making six films in Hollywood, Verhoeven began to feel, in his own words, “depressed with himself” following Hollow Man (2000). Seeking artistic inspiration, Verhoeven returned to Holland and relocated his muse in a big way with Black Book, a staggeringly brilliant WWII thriller that saw Verhoeven continue to expand upon his favorite motifs while still remaining fresh, resulting in one of his greatest films.

During the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a Jewish woman in hiding is forced to flee after the home where she had been hiding is destroyed and her attempt to flee to liberated territory is ambushed by the Nazi’s. With no other option, Rachel joins the underground resistance. Given the alias Ellis de Vries, Rachel is tasked with bugging the Gestapo headquarters as well as seducing Captain Ludwig Müntze, the head of the Gestapo. Corruption amongst the Nazi’s is soon uncovered, however some miscommunication via wiretap has Rachel’s fellow resistance fighters mistake her for a traitor the same time her cover is blown by the Nazi’s. Complicating matters further, Rachel has fallen in love with Müntze for real and both find themselves with enemies from both sides.

“Gripping” is one choice adjective that tends to get plastered on the posters of many a thriller and Black Book (Zwartboek) is certainly a film that epitomizes the term. So much so that any film described as such had better be at least half as good as Black Book, an unrelenting and provocative film wrought with so much intrigue and suspense that its 2 hour and 26 minute running time flies by like nothing. Given the amount of tension and drama Verhoeven conjures up throughout the course of the film, Black Book is definitely  worthy of comparisons to some of Hitchcock’s wartime thrillers, with the twists and shifting allegiances happening right up until the films final half hour. The execution of course, is pure Verhoeven. Much like Flesh + Blood (1985), Verhoeven’s brutal medieval epic, nothing in Black Book is black and white. This is a film defined by its shades of gray, with there being no distinction between right and wrong, good or bad. This is applicable to both the Nazi’s and the resistance fighters which Verhoeven brilliantly uses to toy with the audiences sympathies. The film is also brazenly transgressive by having a Jewish woman fall in love with an SS officer, the development of their relationship making the film all the more captivating. The film is carried by the astonishing performance by Carice van Houten who, following a long line of Verhoeven female leads, is composed of cunning wit and fierce sexuality and determined to use both to her advantage.

At the time of its production, Black Book was the most expensive Dutch film ever made, a feat which Verhoeven knows something about having set the same record first with Katie Tippel and again with its follow up, Verhoeven’s first WWII themed film Solider of Orange (1977). The film would also go on to be one of the most commercially successful Dutch films, breaking box office records and in 2008 it was voted the greatest Dutch film of all time by the public, seven years after Verhoeven’s Turkish Delight (1973) was awarded that title at the 1999 Netherlands Film Festival. What’s also interesting about the film is that Verhoeven and screenwriter Gerard Soeteman, who also collaborated with Verhoeven on Turkish Delight and Solider of Orange, had been working on the script for at least 15 years before the film was green lit. Even more interesting was that the main character was originally male. Its a rare occurrence when so much praise is heaped upon a film that actually deserves it but Black Book is one such film. The response to the film is a testament to not only the Dutch public's good taste in film but also to the type of filmmaker Verhoeven is, going “back to his roots” so to speak, looking to be re-invigorated. It worked, as Black Book is a incredible film that easily stands alongside Verhoeven's earlier Dutch masterpieces.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Hollow Man (2000)

Despite the extended breaks he tends to take in between projects these days, Paul Verhoeven remains one of the most fierce and exciting directors still working today. Verhoeven has had one of the most fascinating careers imaginable, from causing a major stir in his homeland of Holland with the likes of Turkish Delight (1973), Spetters (1980) and The 4th Man (1983) to arriving in Hollywood and making even more noise with RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990), Basic Instinct (1992), Showgirls (1995) and Starship Troopers (1997). What’s incredible about Verhoeven’s move to America was he was able to make the transition without ever selling out, with each of his Hollywood productions having the same bite as his early Dutch films and some even causing the same amount of trouble, with Basic Instinct causing massive protests just as Spetters had done years before. Verhoeven’s American films also retained a subversive quality with the sociopolitical commentaries of RoboCop and Starship Troopers being widely recognized and the element of satire found in Showgirls managed to completely fly over the heads of critics during the films initial run. 2000’s Hollow Man is to date Verhoeven’s last American film and is very much the black sheep of the bunch. Dismissed by critics and even by Verhoeven himself after the fact, a closer look reveals Hollow Man to be a massively entertaining genre film with Verhoeven’s fingerprints all over it.

Sebastian Caine (Kevin Bacon), a brilliant and egomaniacal scientist along with his team have successfully managed to perfect a serum resulting in invisibility and reversion back to visibility. Although the experiment was a success on animals, it has yet to be tested on humans and against the wishes of his entire team, Sebastian volunteers himself to be the first human test subject. Amazingly, it works, and Sebastian is rendered completely invisible. The revision process however goes wrong and Sebastian is forced to stay out of sight. Confined to the lab, Sebastian’s newfound gift begins to affect his mentality and when his team, whom Sebastian’s resentment towards reaches a boiling point, goes to extreme lengths to keep him from leaving the lab, Sebastian snaps, trapping his colleagues in the underground lab and going on a murderous rampage.  

When compared to some of Verhoeven’s other sci-fi ventures, namely RoboCop and Starship Troopers, Hollow Man certainly sticks out on account of its lack of satire although in the films defense, it doesn’t seem that Verhoeven set out to lampoon anything with the film. While Hollow Man may lack Verhoeven’s trademark satirical wit, it more than makes up for it with its astonishing visual design and sheer visceral quality. Hollow Man is a very angry film, even mean spirited at times. Its certainty the nastiest take on an invisible man scenario. The film is essentially split into two halves with the first dealing with Sebastian becoming invisible and the toll it takes on his psyche. Critics have bemoaned that the film doesn’t go all that in-depth in asking the question of what would one do with the power in invisibility although thanks to the gleefully prickish performance from Bacon, who really sells Sebastian’s egotistical, eventually psychotic personality, there is just enough of that in the film so that the first half works as a great set up to when Sebastian finally loses it and the film really takes off and becomes a slasher. Verhoeven really shows what he’s made of behind the camera during the films third act, masterfully utilizing the confinement of the underground lab for maximum tension and knowing just when to let the jaw-dropping special effects come to the forefront, effects that still hold up wonderfully and show what’s possible with digital effects when used in a forward thinking manner.

In a classic case of an artist being their own worst critic, Verhoeven has voiced his disappointment with the film. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Verhoeven stated“I decided after Hollow Man, this is a movie, the first movie that I made that I thought I should not have made. It made money and this and that, but it really is not me anymore. I think many other people could have done that. I don't think many people could have made RoboCop that way, or either Starship Troopers. But Hollow Man, I thought there might have been 20 directors in Hollywood who could have done that.” With all due respect, not just any Hollywood hack would have approached the material the way Verhoeven did nor would just any director have given the film the edge it has or utilized the state of the art effects in the creative way Verhoeven did. The way contemporary American cinema works these days, Hollow Man feels like a product of an era long past. Its an adult minded popcorn flick with an attitude, a rare species indeed, and a film that modern Hollywood could lean a lot from in terms of how to properly use digital effects. Verhoeven may still hold ill will towards the film, however fans of the deviant Dutchman should find plenty of Verhoeven’s brand name excessiveness to enjoy in Hollow Man.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Flesh + Blood (1985)

AKA The Rose and the Sword

While talking to Senses of Cinema in 1998, pioneering French New Wave director Jacques Rivette spoke in defense of Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls (1995) stating “It’s Verhoeven’s best American film and his most personal… It’s the American film that’s closest to his Dutch work. It has great sincerity, and the script is very honest, guileless… Like every Verhoeven film, it’s very unpleasant: it’s about surviving in a world populated by assholes, and that’s his philosophy.” Rivette was correct in the assessment that Showgirls bares the closest resemblance to Verhoeven’s Dutch films and the philosophy Rivette speaks of is present in virtually all of Verhoeven’s work. Even when he’s in a witty satirical mode ala RoboCop (1987) or Starship Troopers (1997), Verhoeven’s worldview doesn’t exactly appear to be on the sunny side with visions of the future filled with rampant crime and hyper militarism. A film like Hollow Man (2000) could also be seen as having a misanthropic streak despite the fact that Verhoeven feels it to be an impersonal work. Verhoeven’s first English language film, 1985’s Flesh + Blood is a fascinating entry in his filmograpgy. Dressed in medieval costume, the film is yet another example of Verhoeven’s unique take on the human condition, complete with many an exploitive element and while it doesn’t paint a very pretty picture, as always with Verhoeven there is an undeniable honesty amidst all the unflinching medieval brutality.

After a successful military campaign aiding nobleman Arnolfini reclaim a city from which he’d been booted, Martin (Rutger Hauer), the leader of a band of mercenaries, along with his crew of shady land pirates and wenches find themselves sold out when Arnolfini demands they return all the loot they were promised. Furious, Martin and the rest of his soldiers ambush a hunting caravan seriously wounding Arnolfini and making off with the contents of all the carriages including Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the bride-to-be of Arnolfini’s scholarly son Steven. Martin’s gang, along with Agnes soon overtake a castle a begin living like royalty, meanwhile Steven begins assembling an army and launches and attack on the castle in an attempt to avenge his father and rescue Agnes.

Despite the presence of castles and the plot devise of having a dashing young lad set out on a quest to save his beautiful maiden, those who go into Flesh + Blood expecting a happily ever after fairytale are in for a very rude awakening when confronted with Verhoeven’s particular brand of medieval butchery. With Flesh + Blood, Verhoeven dispenses with the whimsical fantasy elements prevalent in so many medieval tales preferring instead to present 1500’s Europe as a plague infested cesspool populated by cutthroats, backstabbers and rapists. Its no wonder the original posters for the film contained a caption claiming the film to be “A mirror of our time”. That’s not to say the film is without its share of exquisiteness, on the contrary. The settings and costumes are phenomenal, the battle scenes and sword play are expertly choreographed as well as a truly astonishing sequences involving the unveiling of an intricate war machine. Verhoeven also brilliantly blurs the line between good and bad early in the film which leads to one of the most interesting aspects of the film, that being the relationship that develops between Martin and Agnes which remains uncomfortably ambiguous right until the final frame of the film. Verhoeven also finds time to pepper the film with instances of odd humor thanks to the antics of Martin’s cohorts, namely the amazing Susan Tyrell as a drunken foul mouthed floozy as well as an exceptionally loony cardinal whom Verhoeven uses as a springboard for his none-to-subtle views on Christianity.      

Flesh + Blood marked the fifth and final collaboration between Verhoeven and Rutger Hauer with Hauer previously appearing in Turkish Delight (1973), Katie Tippel (1975), Soldier of Orange (1977) and Spetters (1980). Although the two were constant collaborators their working relationship was apparently tumultuous as times. In fact, actor Brion James who played one of Hauer’s fellow mercenaries in Flesh + Blood described their relationship as “love/hate” during an interview for the New York City cult cable access program Media Funhouse. James also went on to describe how rough the film shoot was and admitted to arguing with Verhoeven (whom he refereed to as a “smiling demon”) everyday. Among other things, James recalls the winter in Spain where the film was shot being the coldest in 30 years as well as fearing for his life as a result of doing his own stunts with no safety harness on top of a 200 foot castle. Still though, he claims the finished product was the greatest film ever made about the 15th century. Being his first English language film with an impressive international cast, Flesh + Blood no doubt was a catalyst in Verhoeven’s eventual move to America. Even with an already impressive body of work behind him, Flesh + Blood was yet another feather in the cap for Verhoeven and a perfect stepping stone to the game changing films that Verhoeven would soon helm.