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Friday, Dec. 17, 2010

'Burlesque'/'Desert Flower'

Naked self-expression is fine, but what about the plot?


Who knew that the movie-going public was simply dying for a remake of "Showgirls," the 1995 disaster that nearly sank Paul Verhoeven's career? Well, canny souls obviously studied that much- ridiculed film's long-term success in the rental market, where it grossed over $100 million, and along comes "Burlesque," which is basically "Showgirls" in Los Angeles instead of Las Vegas. Same plot, same campy dance numbers — less nudity though.

Burlesque Rating: (2 out of 5)
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MOVIES
A scene from "Burlesque"

Director: Steve Antin
Running time: 118 minutes
Language: English
Opens Dec. 18, 2010
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Christina Aguilera plays a small-town girl named Ali who moves to the big city in hopes of striking it big. There she finds herself attracted to an underground burlesque lounge on Sunset Strip, where the performers entertain and titillate the clientele in flashy cabaret-style shows.

Our heroine befriends metrosexual bartender Marcus (Eric Dane) and harasses the club's matriarch Tess (Cher) into giving her a chance on stage, much to the chagrin of veteran dancer Nikki (Kristen Bell). Stanley Tucci flutters around as Tess' gay BFF/stage manager, while Peter Gallagher looks suitably browbeaten as her ex-husband, warning that the bank will soon foreclose on the mortgage. But, but, but! Couldn't one more show save the day?

You could write the rest of the plot in your sleep. While the "new burlesque" scene in the United States has loads of uniquely talented performers (personal fave: Kristina Nekyia), what director Steve Antin gives us looks a lot like all those other brash, loud movie musicals where people dance in their undies, such as "Chicago," "Cabaret," or "Nine." It's also similarly over-edited, ripping the carefully coordinated dance choreography into flashy little MTV moments.

That said, there's nothing particularly off-putting about "Burlesque"; Tucci is, as always, a joy to watch; Alan Cumming gets a cameo; and Cher's big spotlight moment ("You Haven't Seen the Last of Me") is sure to be a hit in drag bars the world over. Aguilera, for her part, is a much more appealing presence than Elizabeth Berkley's spooky impersonation of a mannequin in "Showgirls."

On the other hand, there's no one who exudes the sheer, sultry, fangs-bared sensuality that Gina Gershon brought to Verhoeven's film. As for "Burlesque," rarely have so many babes in skimpy lingerie been deployed to so little heterosexual effect.

Desert Flower Rating: (3 out of 5)
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MOVIES
A scene from "Desert Flower" © DESERT FLOWER FILMPRODUCTIONS GMBH

Director: Sherry Hormann
Running time: 127 minutes
Language: English, Somali (subtitled in Japanese)
Opens Dec. 25, 2010
[See Japan Times movie listing]

I've remarked before that Hollywood suffers from a total lack of a sense of irony: Just see "Avatar," with its back-to-nature message embedded in the most technologically dependent movie ever made. "Burlesque" is also blissfully unaware of its own contradictions. Ali convinces Tess that actually singing the songs on the stage is way cooler than just lip-syncing to them (as most burlesque dancers do), yet every song in the movie itself is clearly lip-synced. In a later plot development, Tess is pleased when Ali decides to keep it real and underground and not move on to a bigger, showier club, yet Cher herself is nothing if not addicted to celebrity: Just imagine the insane amount of plastic surgery required to have that Photoshop-smooth face at age 64.

A lack of irony also rears its snaky head to bite "Desert Flower" on the bottom. This movie — "based on an autobiographical novel," if you can wrap your head around that oxymoron — purports to tell the rags to riches tale of Waris Dirie, a penniless Somalian emigre who went from living on the street in London to supermodel celebrity. She would then go on to use her fame as a platform to campaign against the brutal practice of female circumcision in eastern Africa.

Director Sherry Hormann wavers between "Cinderella"-style every-girl wish fulfillment and po-faced consciousness-raising issue flick. The film milks a bit of humor out of the culture shock between Waris (Liya Kebede), who came from a conservative desert-nomad upbringing, and her far more liberal and sexually free friend Marilyn (Sally Hawkins). And the ever-reliable Timothy Spall turns up as a fashion photographer who scouts Waris at the burger joint where she's washing floors.

The film flounders, though, as Waris trades in her flip-flops for six-inch heels. The model-agency boss played by Juliet Stevenson is supposed to be a dragon-lady of the "Devil Wears Prada" type, but when this imperious white woman orders her terrified black charge to lift up her dress and display her body, the filmmakers seem almost entirely unaware of the disturbing echoes of slave auctions or the legacy of colonialism. Fortunately, Stevenson doesn't pry open the girl's mouth and check her teeth.

Waris soon becomes financially beholden to her boss, and the chaste and vulnerable young woman is persuaded/bullied into doing a nude calendar shoot. That, apparently, is the cost of freedom from sexual repression in Somalia — sexual objectification in the West. (Not that there's anything wrong with nudity, but the coerced type is a different story.)

The film tries to portray this as some kind of sexual awakening for Waris, the first time she's comfortable with her body, and that could well be true, but the irony still hangs in the air like a waft of Bill Blass' Nude perfume.

"Desert Flower" builds to its stunning conclusion of . . . a speech before concerned-looking U.N. delegates (zzzzz . . . ), proving yet again that good intentions don't always make for electrifying filmmaking.


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