/Starship Troopers/ (1997, Paul Verhoeven): 65
MEDIC!!!! First half still brilliant, pushing po-faced satire to deliriously giddy heights; second half still comparatively tedious, with way too much mindless shoot-em-up. That the video-game aspect also has a satirical purpose doesn't make it any less enervating—if you've seen one giant CGI pincer-insect splattered into dozens of bright-orange pieces, you've seen 'em all, and here you almost literally will see 'em all. But it's also, I think, that the bugs work far better as a metaphor for the dehumanized enemy when you're seeing them only in brief glimpses via propaganda newsreels, rather than as an actual rampaging horde with no apparent culture or even tools. (It's not clear to me how they're managing to fling asteroids at Earth, since they seem to have the technological prowess of army ants.) You may find that overly literal, and maybe it is, but the movie is just so much richer and more pointed before the war proper breaks out, when Verhoeven simply plays Heinlein's jingoism straight and lets deliberately inappropriate casting and the thinking (left-leaning) viewer's natural revulsion do most of the work. Still not sure what to make of the gender politics, though (especially given that it's all invented; there are no female soldiers in the novel)—on the one hand, you have the co-ed shower and Carmen's decision to end her relationship with Rico in favor of career advancement, but on the other you have Dizzy choking out "At least...I got...to have you" as she dies, which is so pathetically retrograde that it has to be an intentional punchline. I for one would like to know more.
\The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu\ (2010, Andrei Ujică): 38
Essentially a three-hour avant-garde work organized around a structuring absence, which works fine for me in theory but again (I bailed at Toronto 2010) proves utterly stultifying in practice. Apparently others actually enjoy watching endless footage of Ceauşescu speaking for the public record, with all the mighty passion and charisma that state functionaries commonly exude, and/or never tire of looking past the margins of the frame to consider the deprivation and abuses we're not being shown. After about half an hour, though, isn't the point pretty firmly made? Can anyone make a solid case for why the film needed to be three hours long, but would suffer from being, say, eight hours long (assuming there's that much available footage)? Perhaps the most damning thing I can note is that I literally did not remember a single moment as I rewatched the first 40 minutes—that's how profoundly uninteresting political speeches and photo-ops almost invariably are. (Admittedly there are a few memorable interludes later on, notably the volleyball game and that insane stadium placard tribute in North Korea.) It's as if somebody were to make an epic documentary called Mississippi, 1964, entirely composed of mundane archival footage of white folks having picnics or watering their lawns or whatever, with not a single image of or even verbal reference to African-Americans for the entire three hours. Maybe you could appreciate the rhetorical force of the concept, but do you actually want to sit through it? I dunno, maybe some of you do.
/Nothing Sacred/ (1937, William A. Wellman): 77
Lacks the passionate wallop of the truly great screwballs, which have an undercurrent of genuine pain beneath the fast-talking breeziness. It does however bring the funny and the biting, playing for comedy more or less the same idea that Billy Wilder would make grotesque a decade and a half later in Ace in the Hole. Hecht's witty script speaks for itself, but Wellman, pace his reputation as something of a journeyman hack, contributes a beguiling (if somewhat mystifying) formal playfulness, repeatedly placing obstacles between his actors and the camera. Are we being chided for voyeurism, in keeping with the film's patent disgust at the public craning its collective neck to see Hazel bravely dying? I'm not sure there's a shot from the '30s more perverse than the one in which March and Lombard have a conversation with their heads entirely obscured by an enormous tree branch, or a first kiss less fetishized than Wally and Hazel's, witnessed only via their feet sticking out of a dockside crate. (The camera movement that dollies around the crate to view them lying together in shadow though the slats is aces as well.) Lombard was better playing less ingenuous types, but makes the utmost of her sock-in-the-jaw moment and her curt nods at the Eastern European doctors; March's slightly seedy mien puts an edge on Wally's sacrificial devotion. (Hecht's smartest move was to give him not even the slightest pang upon discovering Hazel's been shamming—a beat you'd think even the old-time moguls would've demanded.) Most of all, I'm still happy that there's a film from 1937 that includes the line "Oliver Stone is worse than radium poisoning!" Uncanny.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011, Rupert Wyatt): W/O
Um, I don't get it. This just seemed like standard-issue mediocre Hollywood blockbuster franchise reboot stuff. Right? Isn't it? Granted, I didn't make it to "Why cookie Rocket?" or indeed much of Serkis' performance, so I imagine there's something to admire further on. But after thrilling to Cruise actually scaling the Burj Khalifa, these blatantly insubstantial CGI apes leaping weightlessly around the frame just seemed tiresome—and retrograde, really. (I was equally bored by Jurassic Park, and that was almost 20 years ago now.) Also, with all due respect to Mr. Serkis, isn't putting him opposite a slumming James Franco setting the bar for emotional expressiveness kinda low?
/Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol/ (2011, Brad Bird): 69
Up nine points, from B- to a solid B. Third act seemed less of a letdown, for one thing—there's real Birdlike ingenuity in the parking-garage showdown (which of all the setpieces most resembles something you'd see in a Pixar movie, cf. the climaxes of both Toy Story 2 and Monsters, Inc.). More than that, though, I found myself unaccountably moved by the denouement, which had actively irritated me the first time to the point where it kinda soured me on the entire film. Theo "I can't be bothered anymore unless prodded" Panayides suggested a starteurist reading in which Cruise, repeatedly foiled by technological failures, ultimately "must go in as himself, leading through a process of emotional unmasking to the glimpse of human contact in the coda—the [SPOILER], briefly glimpsed from a distance—all the more affecting for being so minuscule (it's like Tom Cruise is saying 'This is the best I can do.')." Watching the final scene again with that last parenthetical in mind—and having also just revisited the first M:I, with its utter absence of any sexual tension between Cruise and Béart despite the whole plot being predicated on same—I suddenly got teary. Even the shaggier, I-ain't-old-yet haircut Cruise wears at the end became weirdly plangent. And then he vanishes into a cloud of steam. There's some self-awareness here, methinks. Best of the lot.