Starship Troopers -1997-

2014-03-27 Starship Troopers

Directed by Paul Verhoeven. 129 mins.

Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Arclight Hollywood)

While waiting for the screening to start, some dingus behind me remarked, “Starship Troopers is my favorite so-bad-it’s-good movie.”

No, no, no. Starship Troopers is a great film without qualification, and it’s a bummer to know that the film continues to go right over some folks’ heads.

At the risk of bestowing undeserved praise upon it, Troopers is the closest film to Dr. Strangelove to come out of the 90s. Those who are quick to point out the many over-the-top moments and campy dialogue (which often feels more at home in a teen romantic comedy) completely miss the forest for the trees. While the movie follows the same premise as Robert A. Heinlein’s arguably pro-fascist novel of the same title, Verhoeven screenwriter Edward Neumeier adapted Troopers to be a rebuke of its own source material. Neumeier, who previously wrote Verhoeven’s classic RoboCop, injects nearly the same level of violence, hilarity, and cynicism into this darkly comic space opera / soap opera.

Troopers is one of the only (and certainly one of the most interesting) depictions of a post-racial, post-gendered society and I’ve seen on film. The movie never flat-out says that its world has moved beyond race and sex, but it’s pretty darn clear. Sadly, Neumeier’s future is far from rosy, and the erosion of oppressive constructs is made possible only by the development of even more rigid ideas of “the other.” All of humankind is split between common “civilians” and “citizens,” the ones who wield political power – essentially all power as industry and communication appear state-run. This world remembers democracy and individual rights as failures, and war is the institution on which all else is built.

The caste system divides humanity, but the threat of the Bugs unites it. Despite the jarring physical differences, both Bug-kind and humankind live for collectivism and endless war. Biology professors teach their students that in many respects (such as teir lack of ego or knowledge of death), Bugs are the superior species. Nevertheless, they are the ultimate Other and must be destroyed at all costs.

Troopers’ visuals still hold up 17 years after its release. The film is CGI-heavy but also makes use of plenty cool conventional SFX. The film’s subtext and visuals are the real stars – none of the players are particularly engrossing apart from the always-fun Michael “Richter” Ironside. Then again, the likes of Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards aren’t exactly famous for their acting skills.

Aside: Troopers invented “clickbait” about 15 years before the real thing appears. Would You Like To Know More?

(Seen and written on 2014-03-27)

300: Rise of an Empire -2014-

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Directed by Noam Murro. 102 mins.

Worth my time? No. (Seen at AMC Promenade 16, Woodland Hills)

I take no pleasure in writing about such an underwhelming movie, but I am sworn to do so. Arriving eight years after legions of teenaged boys gave their final “THIS IS SPARTA!” battle cries, 300: Rise of an Empire feels like a collection of nixed subplots and deleted scenes from Zack Snyder’s original. It’s Resident Evil 3: Nemesis to the Resident Evil 2 of 300, except Nemesis was actually worthwhile. Rise of an Empire is a film composed entirely of dead weight.

Rise of an Empire has a promising start, misleading the viewer into thinking that the film will tell the story of how Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro, one the highlights from both films) ascended to the status of God-King and expanded the Persian Empire. That woulda been a pretty neat movie. But that stuff is wrapped up in a matter of minutes. The rest of the film deals with what the Athenians, led by Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), were up to while Leonidas and his Spartans were busy fighting at Thermopylae.

Themistocles, I knew Leonidas. I was friends with Leonidas, and you are no Leonidas.

The Athenians are wet noodles in comparison to their quasi-fascist Spartan bretheren. There are a few decent moments during naval battle scene (most of the film is at sea), and Eva Green delivers a menacing intensity (as well as a decent hate-fucking scene) as a feared Persian general. Still, you’d be better off rounding up your bros and watching the original at home.

(Seen on 2014-03-13, written on 2014-03-14)

The Act of Killing -2013-

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Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. 159 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Seen at Landmark’s Nuart Theater)

 Wow, I have been really tardy with my write-ups. I just returned from New York, and The Act of Killing was the last film I saw in LA just before my departure. Given the delay, everything I write regarding the film will be old news.

 But in case the hype hasn’t convinced you, believe it. The Act of Killing is probably the best (and certainly the most unique) non-Herzog documentary I’ve ever seen. Unsurprisingly, ol’ Werner was an executive producer on the film.

 Everyone and his mother has helmed a doc on the subject of genocide, and most of them speculate as to what the perpetrators were thinking as they committed their atrocities. Few of them take The Act of Killing’s approach of asking the actual killers what it was like for them. None of them (until now) allow the killers to reenact their crimes in any way they wish. The result is nightmarish display of theatrics and disregard for human life, as if John Waters had directed Shoah.

 The film is long, but I didn’t feel it all that much. There were several occasions when I desperately wanted the movie to end because the reenactments are so jarring. These actors / directors aren’t simply pretending. These are real people – and possibly the closest thing to real monsters this planet contains – gleefully recreating their crimes as they remember them. I wouldn’t call The Act of Killing “entertaining” in the conventional sense of the word, but it’s certainly unforgettable.

 (Seen and on 2013-07-30, written on 2013-08-13)

Slaughterhouse Five -1972-

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Directed by George Roy Hill. 104 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

 A nutty, nearly-great piece of New Hollywood. I somehow made it through fours years of UC Berkeley without reading Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, so I went in blind.

 SPOILER ALERT: The eponymous slaughterhouse doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time.

 The biggest draw is editor Dede Allen’s seamless transitions between moments in the life of Billy Pilgrim (Michael Sacks), a World War II veteran who spontaneously “time-trips” between his childhood, his death, and into eternity. Sacks’ performance isn’t all that compelling (there’s a reason the dude quit acting and now works on Wall Street), but Pilgrim’s life has lots of great moments – which is pretty much all that makes life worth living. Hill (and Vonnegut, I suppose), beautifully illustrate humanity’s tendency to progressively envelope itself in memories and fantasies as it ages.

 I’d love to watch a Slaughterhouse Five / Johnny Got His Gun double-feature since both of them deal with dissociative veterans. Also, the overlapping timelines and juxtaposition of similar events demonstrate that The Fountain, Cloud Atlas (I wish that film was half as good as its trailer), and a gazillion other movies owe a debt to Slaughterhouse Five.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-07-09)

Come and See -1985-

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Directed by Elem Klimov. 146 mins.

 Worth my time? Yes. (Watched on DVD)

 When I was thinking about how I was going to describe seeing Come and See for the first time, I was kicking around the idea of using one of a number of rhetorical clichés. “It shook me to my core” was nearing the top of my list.

 I am far from alone in experiencing the urge to describe the film with tropes that would utterly fail to do it justice. The DVD packaging features critical blurbs such as “Spellbinding” and “A Tour de Force.” Unspeakable atrocity, it seems, brings out the Gene Shalit in us all.

 If nothing else, I hope that my inability to articulate my experience watching Come and See is a testament to how good a film it is. So well does this movie utilize the medium of cinema that describing the experience in words alone (namely, my words) is to draw a four-dimensional tesseract. Analogy is the best for which you can hope (that’s why all the clichés spring up), but precise description is impossible.

 The Europeans have a talent for depicting the nightmare of war in a way that the American film industry has yet to match and probably never will. Apocalypse Now comes close, but aside from that, I can’t think of any American war film that even approaches the completely absorbing madness on display in Come and See. Don’t misunderstand me – there are lots of great American war films. The difference lies in their approach to the subject; they are films about war rather than films of war. Kubrick’s Paths of Glory is expertly crafted yet it has a narrative that is intentionally legalistic and detached from much of the experience of the Great War’s trenches. Malick’s The Thin Red Line has a poetic beauty and remains one of my all-time favorite films, but it is clearly the work of a philosopher who had no firsthand experience of war. I don’t know much about Elem Klimov’s biography, but his depiction of Belarus in 1943 was so effective and jarring that I almost stopped watching the film (something I never do).

 Aleksey Kravchenko, who portrays the teenage Florian, delivers such a great performance that I sincerely feared for his (Kravchenko, I mean) sanity at several points in the film. The role alone would be worth the price of admission, but every other aspect of Come and See blends together to form a whole that, as I said, is beyond words. If you aren’t faint of heart, please check it out.

 – The Nazi lemur possesses an adorable menace. Watch the film and you’ll know what I mean.

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-03-10)

Southern Comfort -1981-

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Directed by Walter Hill. 105 mins.

 Worth my time? No. (Watched on DVD)

 Walter Hill’s second collaboration with Keith Carradine is a little bit of Fear and Desire (Kubrick’s seldom-seen debut) and a whole lotta Deliverance. Sadly, it features neither the low-budget charm of the former nor the suspenseful genius of the latter. At five films deep into the Hillmography, Southern Comfort is definitely my least favorite of the bunch.

 The great roster of character actors that accompanies Carradine on this National Guard training exercise from Hell are largely put to waste. I was excited to see that the film starred veterans such Peter Coyote, Powers Boothe, Fred Ward, And T.K. Carter, but none of their characters are likeable or even marginally interesting. There are no believable humans onscreen, just numbskulls making stupid decisions (like, slasher film “Don’t-go-into-the-unlit-basement” stupid) and trying to out-badass one another with smack talk. As far as I can tell, Hill and his co-writers made the script by filling out a book of Military Mad Libs.

 Most of the film is a long slog through a swamp, literally and figuratively. This is an ugly movie – lots of greys upon greys and indistinguishable locations. Maybe this is an accurate depiction of the Louisiana bayou, but come on, Walter. You aren’t exactly a naturalistic filmmaker – liven this shit up, for Pete’s sake.

 The film does pick up with a tense sequence in the final act, partly because the action leaves the swamps and partly because most of the really annoying characters have died. Additionally, Ry Cooder returns with a score just as good as in The Long Riders. However, neither of these highlights are adequate rewards for sloshing through all this mediocrity.

 Next up in the Hillmography: 48 Hrs.

 

 (Seen and originally written on 2013-01- 27)