City Paper is not for tourists
Most science-fiction movies are more about the present than the future; it’s far easier to costume contemporary issues in a spacesuit than it is to predict the concerns of tomorrow. Lately, however, sci-fi flicks have been gazing wistfully at the past: Independence Day, Mars Attacks!, and now Starship Troopers present the future as a nostalgia tripthe intergalactic Cold War is back, only with better special effects.
The golden years of bug-eyed monsters were the ’50s, so director Paul Verhoeven’s boldest move is to set the wayback machine for a decade earlier. Starship Troopers revives the monster-bug scenario of such ’50s films as Them!, but it owes more to World War II films, both fiction and documentary; in the introductory flurry of campy TV commercials for Federal Service, the semi-fascist military state that runs future Earth, there’s even an explicit reference to the “Why We Fight” series of propaganda documentaries directed by Frank Capra during WWII. Verhoeven has another favorite director, however: himself. The film’s TV commercials insipidly extolling the privatized future rerun the mocking commentary of his own Robocop.
From this prologue, Starship Troopers shifts to beach-movie territory as it introduces a group of vapidly attractive high-schoolers on the verge of graduation. The kids flirt via videoscreens as their solemn teacher grandly lectures on “the failure of democracy.” The city where the teens live is identified as Buenos Aires, and many of them have Latin names, but both the circumstances and the characters are utterly white-bread: Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) doesn’t have a good enough math score to follow his girlfriend Carmen Ibanez (Denise Richards) into the space fleet, so he joins the mobile infantry. So does Dizzy Flores (Dina Meyer), who has long had a crush on Johnny, while their friend Carl Jenkins (Neil Patrick Harris) qualifies for military intelligence based on his ESP abilities. At the last football game of the season, Johnny meets a new romantic rival, Zander Barcalow (Patrick Muldoon).
Soon Johnny and Dizzy are in basic training, which is more brutal (if even less credible) than G.I. Jane’s. Although teen romance doesn’t seem to have changed much in the future, standards of modesty apparently have: The male and female troops live (and shower) together. Watching the Federal Service’s well-buffed new recruits towel off together, you can’t help noticing that Verhoeven hasn’t entirely put Showgirls behind him.
Opportunities for additional beef- and cheesecake are limited, however, when the plot finally kicks in: The bugsa race of extraterrestrial, well, bugsattack Earth, and the recruits (including Jake Busey’s Ace Levy) are mobilized. The next hour is devoted principally to shots of huge bugs spearing soldiers with their pincers (sometimes the prelude to ripping them apart) and soldiers blowing away big bugs (sometimes the prelude to being covered in dead-bug guts). Nothing about this is believable from either a scientific or strategic viewpoint, but the bug entrails are convincingly viscous. Eventually, the Federal Service brass decides that the savage and seemingly brainless grubs, spiders, and dragonflies must be controlled by a more intelligent creature, so they go looking for the “smart bug.”
This is one of the most special effects-heavy films ever made, and the many FX technicians (almost 11 pages of them in the press kit’s credits) did exceptional work. The extensive battle scenes should hold almost anyone’s attention. The rest of the film, however, is an occasionally clever muddle: Starship Troopers invokes the WWII-era belief that our enemies (especially the Japanese) were subhuman, as well as the Cold War notion that Communists were drones serving a collective overmind. Yet it also portrays our heroes as fascists: Federal Service conveys the Roman-style reward of full citizenship on former combatants, and Carl wears an SS-look-alike uniform once he becomes a leading officer. The equivocal politics are complemented by a goofy hybrid of war movie/romance novel sentiment: One soldier dies happy because she finally got to screw the guy she has long had her eye on.
In his pre-Hollywood days, Verhoeven himself made a solid WWII film. Soldier of Orange was focused by an unambiguous war and Gestapo villains as cold-blooded as any bug. The director is a Hollywood genre-bender now, though. These days, he finds WWII films useful principally for ironic references that most Starship Troopers viewers aren’t even going to get.
Yes, TV news is venal, but look who’s talking. Hollywood’s latest consideration of the crimes of broadcast news, Mad City is competent but superfluous, a takes-one-to-know-one taunt from once-radical director Costa Gavras (Z, Missing) to once-relevant anchormen like Dan Rather. Although it professes to confront a contemporary crisisscripter Tom Matthews says he was inspired by coverage of the Waco siegethe film is actually based on Billy Wilder’s 1951 satire Ace in the Hole, which starred Kirk Douglas as a frustrated small-town newspaper reporter who exploits a cave-in story in his quest for a national audience.
This time the anxious watch is outside a small-town natural history museum, where fired guard Sam Baily (John Travolta, playing roughly the same clueless ex-working man as in White Man’s Burden) goes to ask for his job back. This simple request turns into a hostage situation after Sam accidentally discharges the shotgun he brought to get the attention of the museum director (Blythe Danner in a situation almost as dire as Thanksgiving dinner in The Myth of Fingerprints). Also trapped in the museum are a visiting grade-school class and local newscaster Max Brackett (Dustin Hoffman). The newsman is soon choreographing the show, helping Sam to ready a list of demands and guaranteeing that the siege lasts long enough to get network attention.
This would be funnier, albeit not fresher, if Brackett were more of a sleaze. In fact, the hostage-taker and his exploiter bond, and the latter tries to balance the common good with his desire to get back to a major market. The script softens its point by bringing in another newsie who’s the real villain: network anchor Kevin Hollander (the newly nefarious Alan Alda, who recently committed Murder at 1600). The two have a long-standing feud, dating from an occasion when Brackett, live on national TV after a bloody crash, mocked Hollander for his enthusiasm for accounts of mutilated bodies. In other words, Brackett is really a principled guy, a concession to affability that effectively undermines the movie’s premise.
The corrupting power of live-TV news coverage is played out in the person of Laurie (Mia Kirshner), an intern who accompanies Brackett to the museum. After the two arrive, Laurie assists a wounded man. “I can’t hold my camera and help someone at the same time,” she explains to Brackett, thus formulating the movie’s message in a neat soundbite. By the time the glamorous Hollander arrives, however, Laurie has been transfixed by the career opportunities of a big story, and she happily edits an intentionally misleading segment that Hollander orders.
The film has some fun with the reaction to the media reaction, and Larry King appears (self-mockingly?) as the TV interviewer guaranteed to ask softball questions. But Mad City displays Hollywood’s problems as vividly as it does those of TV news. Even when making an ultimately downbeat film like this, major-studio producers can’t resist going soft in the desperate hope that audiences won’t find their product a bummer. They can’t sustain their likability and make a point at the same time.
There are three main elements to Eve’s Bayou, actress Kasi Lemmons’ feature-directing debut, which turns out to be two more than the film can credibly handle. Lemmons’ portrayal of middle-class African-American life in segregated early-’60s Louisiana is remarkable and distinctive, but when she adds incest and voodoo to the mix, things become a lot less convincing.
The film’s narrator, 10-year-old Eve (Jurnee Smollett) is the worshipful daughter of dashing Louis Batiste (producer Samuel L. Jackson), “the best colored doctor in the parish.” That worship, however, is tarnished during the first scene, a party where Eve discovers what her mother Roz (Lynn Whitfield) already knows: That Louis is a philanderer. Her older sister Cisely (Meagan Good) tries to convince Eve that she misinterpreted their father’s embrace of voluptuous Matty Mereaux (Lisa Nicole Carson), but the girl knows she didn’t.
Eve’s life is further complicated by the influence of her aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), who has “the gift of sight,” is a “black widow,” and casts the occasional spell on the side. (Eve and her siblings are restricted to the house after Mozelle has a vision that a local child will be run over.) When Cisely accuses her father of what’s known in contemporary jargon as “improper touching,” Eve turns not to her aunt but to Mozelle’s arch-competitor Elzora (sitcom veteran Diahann Carroll trying vainly to be ominous). The outcome is suitably lurid.
Despite its depiction of voodoo conjuring and several deaths, the film has a gauzy look that sometimes recalls the slo-mo, fashion-spread ethnography of Daughters of the Dust; this is underscored by Terence Blanchard’s tinkling, new-agey score. For a first-time director, Lemmons attempts some ambitious sequences, notably one where Mozelle walks from the present into a flashback that illustrates the story she’s been telling. The director also gets memorable performances from the cast, especially Jackson as the insouciant Louis. Unlike Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger, however, Eve’s Bayou never makes palpable the sinister folklore of the African-American South. The film is far better at conjuring the everyday than the otherworldly.CP