Archive

1990s

The Astronaut’s Wife (1999)
Written & Directed by Rand Ravich

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Spencer Armacost is a NASA astronaut sent up for a routine mission, repairing a satellite among other scientific pursuits. An accident occurs while he and his crew are in orbit, but he returns home to his wife Jillian no worse for wear. He quickly decides to quit NASA in favor of the private sector and arms development for a corporation based out of New York City. Jillian begins to suspect something is wrong with her husband and learns something happened above the Earth and that this man may not be her husband.

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Twin Peaks wasn’t the first. I had seen Dune, broadcast on a local channel, the extended television cut. That is where I first remember Kyle MacLachlan from. The blue-eyed Paul Atreides, savior of the desert planet Arrakis. What I remember most though is the nightmarish Duke Vladimir Harkonnen brilliantly played by Kenneth MacMillan. These would come to be the two sides of David Lynch I would get to know: the staid hero and the dark evil beneath everything.

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The Revisit is a place for me to rewatch films I love but haven’t seen in years or films that didn’t click with me the first time. Through The Revisit, I reevaluate these movies and compare my original thoughts on them to how they feel in this more recent viewing.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992, dir. David Lynch)

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1992. It was a year since the television series Twin Peaks had ended and fans were clamoring to see director David Lynch’s feature film follow-up. The reaction had the Cannes Film Festival months earlier had been remarkably negative though. When the picture finally opened in theaters, the fan reaction was overwhelming negative as well. Fire Walk With Me didn’t feature the cast of citizens they’d come to love from the show. Also, it didn’t follow up on the shocking series finale that left the show’s protagonist in peril. Fire Walk With Me was seen as a critical and box office failure, a somber final note for a show that helped redefine the cultural landscape of television. Twin Peaks’ small life continued as the topic of niche internet discussion boards, and that seemed to be that.

Fire Walk With Me is a pretty confounding film, especially if you come in with lots of preconceived expectations of what you want it to be. Lynch essentially telegraphs his feelings about working the series in the opening shot: a sledgehammer smashing down on a static-filled television set. There is a very clear-cut narrative division in the film: The first thirty minutes and the remaining two hours.

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Showgirls (1995, dir. Paul Verhoeven)

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The things I do for you, Twin Peaks…*sigh*.

We first meet Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley) hitching a ride to Las Vegas from somewhere in Colorado. With breakneck speed, the script takes us from there to her being scammed, finding a roommate, getting a job at a strip club, and having a dream to dance in a show at a casino/hotel in just about ten minutes. The rest of this *over TWO HOUR movie* feels like your standard All About Eve/A Star Is Born plot but terribly written, acted, directed, lit, scored, etc.a strong, etc.

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The Revisit is a place for me to rewatch films I love but haven’t seen in years or films that didn’t click with me the first time. Through The Revisit, I reevaluate these movies and compare my original thoughts on them to how they feel in this more recent viewing.

Starship Troopers (1997, dir. Paul Verhoeven)

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The late 1990s was a weird time in cinema. On the independent side of things, you had some interesting work produced, while on the studio big budget side there was some awful dreck being churned out. Take for instance 1997; the year Starship Troopers came out. Boogie Nights, L.A. Confidential, The Fifth Element, and Lost Highway were released, All films that I would argue are vital pieces of work from their respective creators. Simultaneously you have Batman and Robin, The Lost World, George of the Jungle, Spawn, and Spiceworld the Movie. All films that I would argue represents studio executives shaping films. In the middle of all this, you have Starship Troopers.

I think the first time I saw Starship Troopers was my first night in the dorm my freshman year of college. It was 1999, and the guy across the hall had the VHS tape so as about six of us were hanging out we decided to watch it. I hated this movie. I hadn’t done my deep dive into films yet, but I remember being very turned off by the cheesy nature of the movie and god awful acting. It was the ending especially that created friction with me. Something felt off and wrong about it. In my naivete, I discounted it as simply a bad film and have never actually revisited it til now. I was making up my list of movies to review for The Revisit and came across Starship Troopers. I had read things since 1999 that hinted at the film not being what it appears to be the surface level. It’s believed now that the audience has grossly misinterpreted the picture. So, I decided to give it a shot.

Paul Verhoeven, despite having a career directing films since the 1960s to the present. He was responsible for Elle, a film that came out last year starring Isabelle Huppert that has garnered significant praise (though I have not yet seen it). But for most of us that came of age in the 1980s and 90s, he feels like a director of that period. That is when he was hitting his peak as a big-budget director. Robocop. Total Recall, Basic Instinct. Showgirls, The Hollow Man. Those are the films his name is commonly associated with, but to understand Starship Troopers, you must understand some other things about Verhoeven.

He was born in the Netherlands in 1938, showing up just as the Third Reich began their march across Europe. War struck incredibly close to Verhoeven’s family. They lived near an installation for V1 and V2 rocket launchers so Allied forces bombed the area. His parents were almost killed. However, Verhoeven says as a child he viewed war as an adventure.Verhoeven states that he remembers the sight of charred corpses vividly and hollowed out buildings, but admits because his parents lived and he was not Jewish he doesn’t hold the trauma that others do. That sense of war as an exciting adventure existing alongside horrific violence and mutilation is a the core of Starship Troopers.

The opening frames of Starship Troopers are unquestioningly satirical. This is the first of many newsreels that will be used as an ingenious exposition device throughout the film. Each time one of these appears an unseen newsreader will click through related links to the videos we see unfolding before us. The important thing this first video establishes is the dichotomy between being a Citizen and a civilian. In the world of Starship Troopers, Citizenship is only obtained after serving in the armed forces. With Citizenship comes the right to vote as well as other rights that Americans and other developed nations currently hold as inalienable. One recruit gives her reason for joining is that one day she would like to have kids and getting a license to do so is much easier when you are a Citizen. We’re in a world where even nature is under the boot heel of the government. But for being such a dictatorial society we never truly see our protagonists question it.

Only one character speaks up against Rico, the protagonist, joining up with the Federal Service. Rico’s father has a brief moment where he chastises his son for choosing that path post-graduation. Later, both of Rico’s parents are killed by the enemy bugs who strike Earth with an asteroid launched from their system. The message of the film’s world is that Rico’s parents were wrong to question him and now he is emboldened to bring the wrath of humanity down on the bugs truly.

It is funny to think back at my reaction and the reactions of critics and audiences to Starship Troopers. From the start of the film, it is glaringly obvious what Verhoeven is saying about this world. Michael Ironside plays first the high school teacher to and commanding officer of Rico. In his Social Studies class at the opening of the film he states the following:

“This year we explored the failure of democracy. How our social scientists brought our world to the brink of chaos. We talked about the veterans, how they took control and established the stability that has lasted for generations since. You know these facts, but have I taught you anything of value this year? […] Why are only citizens allowed to vote? […] Something given has no value. When you vote, you are exercising political authority, you’re using force. And force my friends is violence. The supreme authority from which all other authorities are derived.”

A few moments later the teacher has this exchange:

Dizzy: My mother always told me that violence doesn’t solve anything.
Jean Rasczak: Really? I wonder what the city founders of Hiroshima would have to say about that.
[to Carmen]Jean Rasczak: You.
Carmen: They wouldn’t say anything. Hiroshima was destroyed.
Jean Rasczak: Correct. Naked force has resolved more conflicts throughout history than any other factor. The contrary opinion, that violence doesn’t solve anything, is wishful thinking at its worst. People who forget that always die.

Starship Troopers is not glorifying fascism or even oblivious to its presence in the film. The entire work is a direct commentary on fascism, and even further I believe the film is meant to be a piece of meta-fiction. We are watching a propaganda film made in the universe of Starship Troopers that is aimed at impressionable high school students.

The cast of “high school” students are apparently grown, adults. The acting is stiff and artificial. The music is overly bombastic. The characters exhibit no signs of empathy. Both the male and female lead lose people the film tells us they are romantically linked to, but at the end, they march off triumphantly. The meaningless nature of human death is highlighted even further in the newsreel segments. A cow is devoured by one of the Arachnid bugs and is censored. In the end, the brain bug has a tool inserted into her apparently vaginal mouth, and that is censored. One thing that is never censored throughout the film and the newsreels are human casualties. This is because one purpose of this propaganda is to desensitize the young viewers to the sight of human death. No one is ever truly grieved; the protagonist never appears to suffer any emotional or long-term physical consequences. As the teacher said, violence is the best way to solve every problem.

There is so much more I could write about Starship Troopers and eventually, I may. One big takeaway I did have was thinking about games inspired by material like Troopers and that they completely miss the point. Verhoeven did not intend for people to be inspired to run around and shoot bugs. I personally think this is one of the most transgressive studio films ever produced. He wanted us to be appalled through our laughter at the absurdity of fascist thought. He wants us to see what the characters fail to see, that this way of thinking leaves you blind to understanding the horrible implications of your actions on the world around you.

Funny About Love (1990, dir. Leonard Nimoy)

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There was a kind of movie made in the late 1980s through the mid-1990s that grates on me. These films were usually set in New York City and focused on a wealthy white person experiencing some mid-life crisis or first world problem. The soundtracks were bouncy and goofy in the beginning and then when some maudlin moment occurred, they would switch to a mournful and grating harmonica to underscore the wistful turmoil. Of course, the films would ensure a happy ending for their already entitled protagonist leaving the audience with little to nothing to think about. These films have evolved over the years now star actors fishing for dollars apparently. They are films made by directors like Nancy Meyers (It’s Complicated) or Charles Shyer (Father of the Bride). They are not intentionally offensive movies, but their whitewashed landscapes and conflict based on economic lives that are living at the peak of Maslow’s Hierarchy ring incredibly false. Funny About Love is one of those films.

I can’t say what possessed Wilder to take this role. He has chemistry with Christine Lahti, but the material he is given to work with is horrendous. In comedy, it is important to establish the tone you are going for early on. Audiences want to know if this will be a light comedy, cerebral, dark, etc. Funny About Love veers back and forth through its interminable one hour and forty-seven minutes. There is the soft, playful banter between our co-stars which signals a light, romantic tone. Twenty minutes later a character is crushed by a falling stove, and this is played for laughs? The film is based on an article from Esquire titled “Convention for the Love Goddesses” where writer Bob Green gives a speech at a sorority convention. That does happen in the film, the third act for about 15 minutes. I strongly suspect we are dealing with a script that was butchered, reshaped, and revised by studio executives. The impetus of the plot revolves around having children and with the style of the film’s poster I suspect Look Who’s Talking had an influence on the film’s direction. While we remember Leonard Nimoy’s passing as the man who played Spock, we must also acknowledge the incredibly terrible films he made outside of the Star Trek franchise, this being chief among them.

There is no reason to dwell on this particular film; it does not merit much study or discussion. However, due to it being the second to last Wilder feature film, we can use it as a point of meditation. How did Gene Wilder go from being in the golden era of Mel Brooks and commanding a very charismatic leading man performance in films like Silver Streak to a procession of milquetoast WASP-y duds? There was a moment in the late 1970s/early 1980s where his career took this turn. Post-Silver Streak, his films had middling success, Stir Crazy was the one box office success in a sea of bombs. I suppose it could just be an instance where an artistic eye and mind change over time, influenced by the movie business, encouraged to make decisions because of the prodding of others.

Wilder’s final theatrical film, Another You which I reviewed here, is such a horrible period on the sentence of Wilder’s career. It was likely a good thing he began to fade from the spotlight at this time. He’d do a single-season run of an NBC sitcom in the 90s, Something Wilder, which I nostalgically remember with positive vibes but suspect I’d hate if revisited. When he passed, Wilder was talked about in the context of Willy Wonka and Young Frankenstein. We have a remarkable penchant to cling to the positive images of those film faces from our past. And that’s a good thing. The worst of Wilder’s career has been forgotten, the only drug out occasionally by people like me, but then to quickly fade from memory again. It is better that we hold with fondness our memories of Wonka and Dr. Frankenstein because that is the Gene we love.

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I have a complicated history with anime. First off, I am not an anime fan. There are specific works that I have enjoyed, but as a genre I rarely seek it out. In childhood, I got caught up in the super sentai (think Power Rangers) cartoon serial Ronin Warriors when it aired in syndication one summer. In college I saw the standards (Akira, Vampire Hunter D, lots of Miyazaki). It was in college that one of my roommates rented Ghost in the Shell, but decided to watch it at 3am in the morning and I only remembered faint images. With the upcoming Scarlett Johanssen adaptation I thought it would be good to sit down and watch this now classic anime film.

Motoko Kusanagi is a team leader in Section 9, a paramilitary police organization in an unnamed urban sprawl of the future. Kusanagi is a full body cybernetic being, meaning she was once a human with an organic body who went through a process to transfer her consciousness into a Shell, a la she is the Ghost in the Shell (words are fun). The main case that our protagonist is pursuing is to track down the Puppet Master, a notorious terrorist hacker who has caused deadly trouble across the globe. This leads her into an exploration of her understanding of what makes her human and in turn what she will become.

There’s no argument that Ghost in the Shell is visually stunning. There is minimal computer generated animation, used in the internet and map visualizations. For the most part this is gorgeous hand drawn cel animation and reminds us what a glorious craft and art that style of animation still is. At the halfway mark, there is a famous break in the action for a tour of this future cityscape. This sequence could be cut and out and used as complete short film. As a piece of animation the film stands as a work that transcends the idea of animation as a exclusively children’s genre or something that is schlock.

When we get the themes of the film I start to get less enthusiastic. There is no way you can miss the themes of the film because they are wielded like a sledgehammer. Characters regularly talk in a hyper-philosophical manner, not as terrible as The Architect monologue from Matrix Reloaded, but in the same vein. The film was based on a manga so I suspect, as I found when I read Akira after seeing the film, volumes of content had to be cut to make the run-time. The brevity of the film also left me feeling little connection to the characters. I understood who the Puppet Master was and what happens to Kusanagi but it felt like it all happened so fast I had little time to connect with them.

I am able to see why Ghost in the Shell is such an important work, it builds upon groundwork laid by Philip K Dick and William Gibson in positing not just the technical conceits of our future, but in the philosophical and psychological future of humanity. It also has obviously inspired directors like the Wachowskis and James Cameron in the way they explore notions of human consciousness and altering our forms. I can see revisiting this film in the future to glean more and I am even inclined to delve into the manga to see this world fleshed out further.