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the revisit

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
Written by Dale Launer and Stanley Shapiro & Paul Henning
Directed by Frank Oz

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Lawrence Jamieson (Michael Caine) has a good thing going. He lives in a beautiful mansion in Beaumont Sur Mer, on the French Riviera. He makes his money bilking foolish wealthy American women by convincing them he is exiled royalty from a fictional Eastern European country. Everything starts to fall apart when Freddy Benson (Steve Martin) comes to town. Freddy is a rude, loud, obnoxious con man who thinks he’s impressive getting a woman to buy him a dinner. Lawrence and Freddy face off to determine who is the better criminal and end up crossing paths with Janet Colgate, an unassuming American beauty (Glenne Headly).

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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.

Supergirl (1984)
Written by David Odell
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc

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Kara Zor-El (Helen Slater) lives in Argo City, a hidden haven for Kryptonians…under water…in another dimension? Um, okay. Well, she has a friend in the elderly artist Zoltar (Peter O’Toole) who has…stolen the city’s energy source? It’s called the Omegahedron, and he’s using it to make…art? Kara is playing around with, screws up and it goes hurtling out across space and time. As everyone panics at their impending doom with the Omegahedron missing, Kara launches herself out across a 2001-style psychedelic space tableau. Arriving on Earth, she mimics her famous cousin’s fashion style to become Supergirl and seek out the MacGuffin that can save her people.

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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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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.

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.

 

Unbreakable (2000, dir. M. Night Shyamalan)

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I can remember exactly when I decided I needed to see Unbreakable. I was in my sophomore year of college, and my friend Sam had seen the film over Thanksgiving Break. He insisted that I needed to see it because of my love of comic books. That struck me as odd because nothing I had seen in the promotion materials had made me think of comic books and superheroes. I had really loved Shyamalan’s previous film, The Sixth Sense, so I was totally up for it. We went to the theater a couple days later.

Rewatching Unbreakable, I was astonished at how many images from that film are burnt into my psyche. I loved the picture after that first viewing, purchased it as soon as it was DVD and watched it dozens of times for the next couple years. I was very likely over-hyped when Signs came out and found myself underwhelmed. Like many filmgoers, the following decade will cause the director to lose most of his cachet with the audience. But Unbreakable serves as a reminder of how amazing a director Shyamalan was/is/could be again.

What struck me the most on this viewing was how measured and quiet the film was. This was a couple years before Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man would shift the movie superhero paradigm and the late 1990s were very unkind to the genre. There is a deliberate sense of grounding the fantastic, but not in a way that disparages their roots. Comic books are lauded through the picture, but the conceit of the film is these four-color tales are exaggerations of a more sedate reality. Yes, David Dunn is incredibly strong but that means he can lift around 400 lbs not and entire jet airliner. The super heroics of Unbreakable are not global or against alien hordes. The evil that is being pointed out is racism, rape culture, sociopathic violence.

I also found myself reconnecting with every character in the film. The aforementioned quiet moments are always character-centered and are intended to build on what we know, either adding to our knowledge or subverting it. We deeply understand the strained relationship between David and Audrey, the admiration of Joseph for David, the tug of curiosity Elijah elicits from David. No character ever makes a move that feels contradictory to what is previously established and so you find yourself floating effortlessly through this organic story. There is the now cliche Shyamalan twist, but it doesn’t play as contrived. It fits with the groundwork lain through the entirety of the film. It also does something I find myself to drawn to more these days: forgoing having a purely black and white conflict.

The villain of Unbreakable isn’t even really the bad guy. He does evil things, but we spend a lot of time getting to know him, not as much as David, but the moments in his life we’re shown establish humanity and a particular, though skewed, perspective. It’s a perfect example of empathy, which is not agreement but understanding a perspective different than your own. You feel sorry for this person despite the horrible things they have done. I cherish that sort of internal conflict as a viewer, not being able to come down hard one way or another on the character.

I find this period of Shyamalan to be comparable to Nolan in the first part of his career. Both directors have an unyielding sense of aesthetics and the sort of stories they want to tell. They both enjoy building up expectations and then subverting them to varying degrees of success. Where they differ is in Shyamalan’s ability to connect the audience with the characters on an emotional level. He is much less interested in the gritty details and technicalities of the world and more in how these fantastic elements emotionally affect our characters. Nolan is very talented with building intelligent plot machines that unfold in exciting and interesting ways, but ultimately fail to make me feel anything about the characters. The closest I could say Nolan ever got to that was with The Prestige. I don’t think there is any argument that Shyamalan has not ended up with the level of critical acclaim Nolan has garnered, but these early films feel emotionally stronger than Nolan’s work.

If you haven’t watched Unbreakable recently, I highly recommend it. It has definitely held up, better than a lot of films from the early 2000s. It still has relevant things to say about the superhero genre and stands an example that the Marvel formula, as fun as it is, is not the sole method to tell these stories. With the buzz that Shyamalan is working on a direct follow up to Unbreakable, I really hope he understands that the tone and focus on characters is what made us fall in love with the picture in the first place. It would be an incredible shame if he ignores those facts and tries to deliver a more action-oriented film.