Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, 1997)


Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers is an exemplary action-fantasy, frame after frame overflowing with compositional exactitude and beyond-the-call-of-duty detail; there’s never a moment of apparent corner-cutting, of Verhoeven’s immense focus and willpower even momentarily faltering. If it’s generally viewed (despite major defenders) as lying outside the top drawer of modern genre classics, that’s partly because of the relative blandness of the foreground, relying on somewhat blandly attractive leads put through conventional narrative arcs of self-discovery. But that’s also the source of some of the film’s most mind-boggling resonances: the sense of young and inexperienced recruits thrown into situations for which they’re barely prepared (and which, in some cases, they have little rational chance of surviving) suggests that the war of the future, however technologically advanced, will demonstrate little moral or ethical advance on our brutal past (modern-day debates about the propriety of drone warfare are beyond the movie’s scope). Even more remarkable is the evocation of Fascism, most explicitly in the scientist character played by Neil Patrick Harris (!), strutting around in black leather and justifying any amount of human loss for the sake of strategic advancement, focused specifically on sinister scientific experiments, all of this ultimately presented as positive and virtuous, and intertwining with a bracing notion of “citizenship” as something that’s no longer a matter of birthright, but that has to be earned through various forms of service, most prominently the military kind. The film concludes on a note of interim rather than total success, which seems here less like laying the ground for sequels (although of course it does that too) than leaving the viewer somewhat off-balance, with every indication that the splashy celebration of military triumph will be paid for in part with wrongs and atrocities elsewhere, daring us not to succumb to the momentary sense of triumph.

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Love Unto Waste (Stanley Kwan, 1986)


The 1986 Love unto Waste, the second film by Hong Kong’s great and mostly underappreciated Stanley Kwan, sounds conventional in its outline, but becomes steadily more evasive and unreadable as it goes on, the implications of its title only fully coming into focus at the very end. Tony Cheung (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) is first seen getting flamboyantly drunk at his birthday party, vomiting over young model Billie (Irene Wan), whom he nevertheless rapidly ends up dating, and through her becoming part of a quartet which also includes the actress Liu (Elaine Jin) and singer Chiu (Tsai Chin). When Chiu is brutally murdered in her apartment, detective Lan (Chow Yun Fat) enters the orbit of the remaining trio, his methods flamboyantly eccentric and unfocused (he cites Columbo as an inspiration), but rapidly seeming more interested in hanging out with them than in solving the case. The film continually muses on matters of cultural identity and self-definition, with the characters debating the meaning of a particular word, or how best to express a certain thought (it’s likely that even more subtlety than usual is lost in the subtitling here), all of which intertwines with the work in progress of their personal and professional identities; when the trio takes Chiu’s ashes to her family in Taiwan, and into a milieu where two of them don’t speak the language, the existential investigation almost entirely displaces the criminal one. The film ends far from where it began, both narratively and tonally, with the group having dispersed, and a key character visiting another who’s now dying from cancer, the two summing up their achievements and finding them wanting, marked by too much wasted time and possibility. It’s an ending that puts the film’s moments of joy – karaoke and drinking and laughing and smoking and flirting and cooking (a chicken inside a pig’s stomach!) – in poignant, haunting perspective.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

Tale of Cinema (Hong Sang-soo, 2005)


Entirely by coincidence, I watched Hong Sang-soo’s Tale of Cinema the day after the “Joan is Afraid” episode of Black Mirror, a juxtaposition which made Hong’s film seem, if not prophetic, then at least beautifully attuned to art/life paradoxes which take on a new edge in an era of CGI, AI, quantum computers, 24-hour connectivity, and whatever else you want to blame. Of course, Hong’s film contains nothing which obviously constitutes “special effects” (the English title at least evokes Eric Rohmer, which doesn’t seem too out of place tonally speaking), but halfway through it provides a purely cinematic thrill, when one realizes that everything we’ve watched up to that point represents a film that has just been viewed by Dongsoo, the protagonist of the film’s second half, and which he later claims was largely based on his own experiences. He spots the actress from the film in the street, and follows her as she revisits one of the locations; later on they go drinking together, and things develop somewhat as they did in the movie in which she starred, although eventually art and life inevitably diverge. It’s beautifully ambiguous whether Dongsoo’s claim about the past is entirely or partially true, and in turn whether he’s trying to ape what he saw in the film, or reliving a past experience, or finding something unlocked in himself, or some combination of all three; as such the film elegantly expresses the complexity of our interaction with movies. It wouldn’t have been a great surprise if Hong had rebooted a second time; the final note though warns against the allure of such rabbit holes, emphasizing the importance of thinking, of rationality, of applied intent. And indeed, it’s the kind of film that in its unpreachily graceful but detailed way makes you want to reexamine yourself and your coordinates, and to change them for the better.

Thursday, October 5, 2023

The Conversation (Francis Coppola, 1974)


The details of Francis Coppola’s 1974 film The Conversation may be superficially dated (even at the time, a competitor throws barbs at Gene Hackman’s Harry Caul for using outmoded equipment), but the themes of lost control and corroded sense of self remain enormously resonant in an age of online identity theft and accelerated AI. Caul is a professional surveillance expert, engaged by a corporate director to record an open-air conversation between the director’s wife and another man, achieved by synthesizing the recordings from several different microphones; as he works on polishing the tape, he becomes ambivalent about completing the assignment, partly because of past occasions when his work triggered unforeseen and violent outcomes. The film feels overly schematic in some ways, such as the strenuous artificiality surrounding its conception of “the director” and his sinister assistant, but this must be offset against the sensationally detailed and layered conception of Caul, a marvelous amalgamation of paranoia, Catholic guilt, ego, fear, and underserved desires. If the film stands as one of the key works of the 70’s, it’s partly because it feels to be in, indeed, a conversation with the surrounding culture: an extended scene of late night shenanigans evokes Cassavetes, some of its more baroque moments evoke De Palma, the presence of Harrison Ford as the assistant seems like a harbinger of new populist waves to come, and so on. Not unusually for its period, the film’s perspective on women is limited, viewing them primarily as appendages to a world of male intrigue, defined largely by sexual availability; even here though, Coppola strikes some productively mysterious notes, suggesting that Harry doesn’t entirely grasp their agenda, or the full extent of what they know about him. Indeed, the narrative ultimately turns on the fundamental likelihood of the self-assured biter, even the most powerful biter (even entire societies of them) eventually becoming the painfully bitten…