This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Agony Booth review: Starship Troopers (1997)

My recent article for the Agony Booth discusses the film Starship Troopers, which I felt wasn't as great as the other Paul Verhoeven science fiction movies, Robocop (1987) and Total Recall.

Starship Troopers is director Paul Verhoeven’s adaptation of the 1959 sci-fi novel of the same name by Robert A. Heinlein. I must confess, I’ve always disliked this movie, but I was never really sure why. I suppose I should start by comparing it to Verhoeven’s previous excursions into science fiction: the masterworks RoboCop and Total Recall. Both of these films, like Starship Troopers, had great production values, not to mention moments of extreme violence. But neither of them would have worked were it not for the performances of their lead actors, Peter Weller and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In RoboCop, Weller plays an instantly likable policeman who’s savagely gunned down in the line of duty. He’s then resurrected as the title character, now with superhuman strength and cool powers such as the ability to look through walls. But this resurrection story has its downside, as RoboCop begins to remember the family life he lost. The most moving scene in the movie is when he flashes back to his loved ones as he walks through the home they once shared.

Likewise, in Total Recall, Schwarzenegger plays an average working man who suddenly realizes that the life he’s been living is not his life at all. For me, this is the movie that proved for all time that Arnold truly can act, because while there are action scenes aplenty, Arnold mostly wins us over with his determined and frantic performance as he maddeningly searches for answers.

It’s these performances that help make both RoboCop and Total Recall unique among the great science fiction movies, and therein lies the main flaw of Starship Troopers. It’s got lots of action and lots of beautiful women, but its cast is mostly made up of wooden actors, with the most wooden of the bunch (Casper Van Dien) as our lead, despite possessing no actual screen presence whatsoever.

Starship Troopers was likely meant to be a dark satire in the same vein as Verhoeven’s other sci-fi action pictures, but our central actor is just so blank and lacking in interior monologue that you can’t help but take the whole story at face value. And if the movie was truly meant to be satire, as many of its fans insist, it’s poorly done satire, because there’s very little in the way of actual wit or insight that might distinguish this film from other entries in the genre.

The film opens with a military recruitment film explaining how humanity has colonized other worlds in the future, but alas, this has led to contact with malevolent, gigantic bugs from the planet Klendathu. There’s a war going on between bugs and humans, with the bugs’ weapon of choice being meteors that they pull from their local asteroid belt and send hurtling to Earth.

One person who wants to make a difference in this war is Johnny Rico (Van Dien), who’s finishing up high school in Buenos Aires. He and his girlfriend Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards), along with their friends Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris) and Dizzy Flores (Dina Mayer) plan to enlist in the military after graduating. Heinlein’s original novel featured many characters of various ethnicities, but despite the Argentinian locale and last names like “Rico”, “Ibanez”, and “Flores”, the movie’s central cast looks like your typical whitewashed all-American homecoming court.

We get the gist of Rico and Carmen’s relationship from the beginning, as they clandestinely flirt in class, much to the annoyance of their one-armed history teacher and soon-to-be comrade-in-arms, Lieutenant Jean Rasczak (Michael Ironside). Rasczak is truly a barrel of laughs here, as he praises the bombing of Hiroshima and makes blanket proclamations like, “Naked force has resolved more conflicts throughout history than any other factor!”

Later, Carl shows us that he’s even more annoying than Doogie Howser when he broadcasts Rico’s low test scores to the entire campus. And if this school isn’t fun enough for you, we next get a scene in (what I assume is) biology class where students are gleefully dissecting—what else?—bugs! Specifically, “Arkellian sand beetles”. The instructor is going on about how intelligent they are, as Carmen becomes more disgusted with the entrails she’s holding, until she finally throws up and bolts.

Rico later leads his high school team in a game of Jump Ball, which appears to be a hyper-violent version of arena football that occasionally involves somersaults. He then gets pissed off when he sees rival player Xander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon) trying to chat up Carmen. This leads to a brief scuffle between the two before Rico’s team wins the game. The two men get into another tiff over Carmen during the subsequent dance. Just what we didn’t need: science fiction with a dash of Melrose Place (ironically, both Richards and Muldoon made appearances on that show). Also at the dance, we find out Dizzy has been pining away for Rico for years, but he coldly rebuffs her.

After graduation, our four main characters follow through on signing up for the military: Rico joins up with the Mobile Infantry, Carmen goes to Flight School, Carl goes into Military Intelligence (where he’ll be able to put his psychic abilities to good use), and Dizzy decides to join up with the Mobile Infantry too, just to be closer to Rico. There, they make friends with a recruit named Ace Levy (Jake Busey), who can really play a mean neon green electric violin, but the less said about that, the better.

In the middle of Rico’s training, Carmen sends him a Dear John video letter (which arrives in the form of an ultra-futuristic mini-CD). She intends to pursue a career as a pilot, which means they can’t be together. And as an added bonus, she’ll be serving under Xander (ouch!).

Next, we find Rico leading the recruits in a training exercise using live ammo. This tragically leads to the death of one of the recruits, and somehow, Rico is blamed for it. As a result, he’s flogged publicly and resigns his commission.

But then the bugs send a meteor that destroys Buenos Aires, including Rico’s entire family. Naturally, he wants to be let back into the Mobile Infantry so he can personally fight the bugs. The ensuing battles mostly involve Rico and his fellow soldiers running around in a huge pack and shooting at anything that moves, which seems like a less than ideal strategy. Eventually, Rico is wounded and presumed dead, which I think means we’re supposed to feel bad for Carmen. But whether it’s due to the kinetic tone of the movie or just lame characterization, we don’t care at all what she, or any of the others, feel about Rico’s alleged “death”.

Rico is brought back to health without much fanfare, and he and Ace and Dizzy are reassigned to the Roughnecks, commanded by Rico’s former teacher Rasczak, who’s now been fitted with a mechanical arm. Here, the three recruits bond with another soldier named Sugar Watkins (Seth Gilliam). The group travels to “Planet P” in response to a distress call, and another tired cliché is trotted out as Dizzy confesses her love for Rico and they have sex just before the next big battle, which surely means somebody’s about to die.

Alas, said distress call turns out to be a trap set by the bugs themselves. The soldiers find corpses with their brains sucked out, and slowly realize the bugs are acquiring human intelligence. Just then, the team is swarmed by bugs, and both Rasczak and Dizzy die before Rico and the others are rescued by (what are the odds?) Carmen and Xander.

At Dizzy’s funeral, Rico, Carmen, and Carl reunite. The latter, who’s now a high-ranking intelligence officer (geez, way to be a prodigy at everything, Doogie) informs them that there’s a super-smart “brain bug” which has been the one sucking out brains and directing the other bugs. Carl tells Rico that he has to go back to Planet P and capture it. Despite seeing both his mentor and his one night stand become bug fodder, Rico is more than willing to get onboard with this plan.

During the next battle, Carmen’s ship goes down, and she and Xander get into an escape pod. They crash land on Planet P near some tunnels and end up getting captured by the bugs. Carl uses his psychic powers to divert Rico, Ace, and Watkins to their location.

Carmen and Xander are brought before the huge, disgusting brain bug (which was clearly designed to look like a giant vagina). It promptly makes short work of Xander by sticking one of its tendrils into his skull and sucking out his brain (not that he was using it, anyway). Carmen proves luckier as she cuts off the tendril with a knife before she too can get her brain sucked out.

Just then, Rico arrives, and with a small nuclear bomb as leverage, the humans are given free passage out of the tunnel. The bugs then give chase, and Watkins heroically blows himself up with the bomb to allow the others to escape.

After they make it to the surface, there’s an anticlimactic moment where we learn the brain bug has already been captured. This somehow means that the bugs are no longer a threat, so I guess there’s only one brain bug, then? Carl then makes physical contact with the thing (eww!) to read its thoughts, and he triumphantly announces, “It’s afraid!” Duh, and that makes two of us, but not for the same reasons.

The movie ends with clips showcasing the brain bug getting experimented on, and Rico, Ace, and Carmen showing off their military prowess in order to encourage others to recruit. What makes this outfit unique is that the grunts are so damn shiny.

This leads right back to what is, for me, the film’s Achilles’ heel: the characters. The main characters in RoboCop and Total Recall were instantly likable, so the viewer was immediately drawn into their plights. But all the characters here do is either blow shit up or engage in silly teenage theatrics.

Starship Troopers has it fair share of defenders who claim the whole film was meant as a satire of war films. The recruitment ads shown throughout the film (each concluding with the tagline, “Would you like to know more?”) seem to bear this out, but there’s one problem: The “satire” in these ads is painfully unsubtle and just plain silly. For example, one ad shows kids “doing their part” as they stomp bugs into the sidewalk. And these are small bugs here on Earth, not the giant ones that humanity is at war with. Another ad has a captured alien slashing up a cow, a lá Jurassic Park. If this is supposed to be satire, it’s not terribly clever satire.

And outside of the recruitment ads, this movie gives us almost nothing in the way of humor. It’s been argued that Verhoeven deliberately added stupid war-movie clichés and intentionally elicited terrible performances from his actors as a way to play up the satire. But if that’s true (and I certainly have my doubts), in the end we’re still watching a dumb, badly-acted, cliché-ridden film that’s mostly indistinguishable from the movies it’s supposedly satirizing.

In the plus column, Michael Ironside, who was a great villain in Total Recall, is terrific as a tough-as-nails sergeant. The film also understandably turned both Denise Richards and Dina Meyer into sex symbols, and the Carmen-Rico-Dizzy triangle (which wasn’t in the book, where Carmen is just a friend and Dizzy is male) may have been more interesting had these characters possessed more personality.

Another positive is the movie inspired the less-gory, but more-enjoyable animated series Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles, which aired from 1999-2000. But then again, the movie also inspired, at last count, three direct-to-video sequels of diminishing quality, so perhaps we should call it a wash.

As is customary with Verhoeven’s movies, the violence here is extreme, to say the least. Now, I’m not the sort who gets turned off by a movie just because it has gore. For instance, I can happily enjoy a meatball hoagie while watching The Fly. But the gore here is simply off-putting, mostly because it doesn’t seem to have much of a purpose and just feels gratuitous.

But the movie is never boring and, one could say, more exciting than the 1959 book of the same name, even though Verhoeven freely admits he didn’t finish reading it before making the movie. Both the movie and the book have vastly different takes on fascism. Whereas Heinlein has been accused of glorifying war and fascism, one can pretty easily see where Verhoeven stands on the issue, with obvious Nazi allusions throughout (Doogie Hitler MD dressed up like the Gestapo, Riefenstahl-esque propaganda in the recruitment films), but allusions on their own do not make a movie great. Starship Troopers is still a mostly silly film with a weak cast, and while it does entertain, I can’t quite list it as a favorite.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

"You don't really know much about Halloween. You've thought no further than the strange custom of having your children wear masks and go out begging for candy."
-Conal Cochran.



As I once noted, 1982 was an amazing year for science fiction and fantasy films. It was also a pretty good year for horror films. In addition to Poltergeist and The Thing, two of the most successful horror franchises of the decade came out with their respective third entries. The more successful of these, Friday the 13th Part 3D, had not only 3D, but, as Friday fans will tell you, this is the one in which Jason acquired his famous hockey mask.
The other, less successful film was Halloween III. This is because the Friday film, like almost all sequels, simply covered the same ground as its predecessors. Halloween III, on the other hand, actually did something quite bold. It did not have its serial killer, Michael Myers, at all. The story was completely unrelated to the Halloween entries that have come before or since.
Halloween's director John Carpenter and producer Debra Hill, after Halloween II became successful, decided to leave Michael Myers behind and attempted to make the series an anthology of sorts by having each entry be a different story pertaining to the Eve of All Saints.
This film, which was co-written by Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale(who was not credited), begins with Dr. Dan Challis (Tom Atkins) cutting his visit to his ex-wife (Nancy Loomis) and their two children short when a frantic man is brought to his hospital, holding a Halloween mask of a jack o'lantern. Challis treats the man, one Harry Grimbridge (Al Berry), before a man mercilessly kills him, and then kills himself.
Challis later compares notes on the incident with Grimbridge's daughter Ellie (Stacey Nelkin). They go to her father's store and learn that his last stop was at the factory which creates the masks, such as the one Harry was holding, in Santa Mira. This factory, called Silver Shamrock Novelties and headed by Conal Cochran (Dan O'Herlihy), is basically the reason the town is thriving and, for Halloween, the company is enjoying success with the glow-in-the-dark masks, of which there are two other versions: a witch and a skull.
The lovers' (yes, they take the time to become that) inquiries into the factory lead to Ellie being captured. Dan is likewise captured when he attempts to save her, but he learns that Cochran's men, some of whom resemble the one who killed Harry, are really androids.
Cochran then reveals his plans to kill all children on Halloween night with his masks, which he plans to have them wear when a giveaway he has planned airs on TV.
He gives Dan a demonstration of this in the film's most shocking scene when Cochran kills his salesman Buddy Kupfur (Ralph Strait), his wife Betty (Jadeen Barbor) and their (ham-handedly named) son Little Buddy (Brad Schacter).
Dan finds Ellie and destroys Cochran and his factory. But his attempts to alert authorities to the impending mass slaughter are initially deterred when Ellie turns out to be an android. After he defeats her, Dan goes to a gas station and desperately tells the networks to cancel the broadcast.
This movie is certainly not perfect. For instance, I find it hard to believe that so many kids would buy the same damn masks for Halloween. I also wonder why Ellie didn't wait until after Dan destroyed Cochran and his factory before trying to stop him.
But this movie deserves credit for trying something different in a way that no film series ever has. Indeed, the only reference to the original Halloween is seeing TV spots for it during this film.
Director Tommy Lee Wallace stated that the film may have been more successful if it didn't have Halloween III in its title. I can certainly understand that because there are some tense moments in the movie, especially the moment when Cochran kills Buddy and his family. It's also bizarre that Cochran wants to go to all this trouble just to bring back the original spirit of Halloween. I mean, Charlie Brown disliked how Christmas was commercialized, but you didn't see him try to wipe out children everywhere on December 25.
I also liked the nods to the classic movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers(1956). Like that film, this one takes place in a town called Santa Mira. Wallace stated that the final scene, with Dan desperately screaming that the commercial be stopped, is another nod to Snatchers.
Alas, the failure of this movie led to a return to the status quo for the Halloween series for its next entry Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers(1988). The good news is that that movie, which rightly turned its stars Danielle Harris and Ellie Cornell (both of whom I've had the pleasure of meeting if you refer to the pictures below) into beloved horror icons, was quite entertaining, and its success ensured that there would be more Halloween sequels (I must confess, though, I didn't care for Rob Zombie's Halloween flicks, even though Danielle was in them).
Hence, if any film could be considered a noble failure, it's Halloween III.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Favorite Guilty Pleasure Films

We all have films that are guilty pleasures for us; I'm certainly no exception. A while back, I wrote an article on TheCelebrityCafe.com detailing five movies which are guilty pleasures of mine. Those five are:

1. Basic Instinct (1992):
This Paul Verhoeven film may top the list for me because, for one thing, it stars Michael Douglas (can’t get more A-list than that) as a detective who becomes involved with the prime suspect in a murder (Sharon Stone, who deservedly became a star with this film). Douglas is tough with his colleagues but, even when he should throw the book at his suspect, she manages to get him into bed repeatedly. The fact that the object of his desires likes romancing both genders made this film unique (among thrillers anyway) and controversial because gay rights groups protested the film, calling it homophobic. Still, as I've noted before, the stars and the atmospheric Jerry Goldsmith score make it as entertaining as Verhoeven’s best films: Robocop (1987) and Total Recall (1990).

2. Wild Things (1998):
Like Stone, Denise Richards became a star playing a manipulative woman who prefers the company of both genders. In this film, she plays a rich girl who accuses a teacher (Matt Dillon) of assaulting her. Another student (Neve Campbell) later comes forward with the same accusation. This draws the increasing interest of the cop on the case (Kevin Bacon). Just when it looks like Dillon is finished, however, we find out that there is a lot more to the story than meets the eye. The later character revelations prove as entertaining as they are contrived. All four stars are great, but the scene stealer is Bill Murray as Dillon’s lawyer.

3. Cocktail (1988):
Tom Cruise spent most of the 1980s playing roles which required him to use his famous smile extensively. The most transparent (story-wise) yet most entertaining film of his from that period is this one. He plays a down-on-his-luck bartender who is taken under the wing of a pro (Bryan Brown). His confidence regained, Cruise relocates to Jamaica, where he falls in love with an artist (Elizabeth Shue). Like all characters in films like this, we have to wonder how they make ends meet since all they seem to do is mope at home or enjoy the nightlife. What makes this watchable, though, are Cruise and Shue, who are as appealing as ever. Interestingly, Cruise’s other 1988 film was the Oscar-winning drama Rain Man. Many of his subsequent films, happily, have matched that one in terms of quality.

4. Moonraker (1979):
Let’s face it, once Bondmania kicked into high gear with Goldfinger (1964) and the budgets on all subsequent Bond films just got bigger and bigger, sending 007 into outer space was inevitable. Here, Bond (Roger Moore, in his fourth outing in the role) must stop an evil industrialist (Michael Lonsdale) from killing all human life from his space station, from which he then intends to rule Earth with his master race of people. In fairness, this film is great fun (and no more outlandish than most other 007 films) if you just remove the stupid girlfriend the writers decided to give the villainous Jaws (Richard Kiel), in the same way that It's Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown(1977) is as much fun as the other Peanuts specials if you remove the scenes where Peppermint Patty & Lucy blame Charlie Brown for something Lucy did. The SFX and music are first rate, and the best part is the film is never boring, unlike its polar opposite, Licence to Kill (1989).

5. Obsessed (2009):
Imagine the overrated thriller, Fatal Attraction (1987), only with the male lead (here played by Idris Elba) as a decent individual, and his wife (Beyonce Knowles) taking matters into her own hands by fighting with the woman (Ali Larter) who wants to destroy their marriage. That is what makes this one watchable. I wonder, though, how things would have played out for this couple if they didn’t have that nice big house for two beautiful women to fight in.