Thursday, March 22, 2007


I've always been a sucker for the films of David Mamet. And the phrasing of that sentence is intentional, as his films often involve the mechanics of the confidence artist. In the most literal sense in House of Games and Heist, as Hollywood in State and Main (and Wag the Dog), as salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross as military homeland security in Spartan (and a re-write of Ronin) and as corporate business in The Spanish Prisoner.

For some reason the film I keep coming back to is The Spanish Prisoner. Perhaps it is the strangely off-kilter acting or the low-key aspects of the film (the artificiality is part of the point), or that I just like to see Campbell Scott starring in anything (note one of the very first KBT screenings - Roger Dodger). Steve Martin is in the film as well and is finely cast against type, with nary a smile or over-the-top slapstick gag in sight.

The story follows a mathematician, Joe Ross (Scott) who works for a large corporation. He has invented (but not yet patented or protected) a financial process that is going to make the corporation a lot of money. Mamet plays coy in that he never reveals what the process is, how it works, or even what function it will serve. Alfred Hitchcock used to call this a MacGuffin. It doesn't matter what it is, only that a lot of people want it. While celebrating its completion on a tropical island, Ross meets a mysterious millionaire (Martin). Over drinks, the millionaire plants the seed in Ross's head that the company is going to take both the process, and the credit, away from him. Once trust is lost in the company, all sorts of deceptions and double crosses take place. The movie is at once impossible to assemble, and jarringly obvious.

That professional magician Ricky Jay has a small role in the film is evidence that an illusion of the highest order is being crafted. The very title of the film is explained at one point, something that has lived on in the form of internet spam, with the Spaniard being replaced with a Nigerian. Of course the dialogue and delivery is artificial and electric in that special way only David Mamet is capable of. For those who want their brains to fire on all cylinders while watching a film more for the exercise of just thinking than anything else. The Spanish Prisoner provides an unusual workout.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


I love a good paranoid thriller that goes no holds barred into the concepts of conformity, identity and the consequences of stepping outside ones own molded existence. An existence built one baby step at a time unknowingly and unplanned shaped by subtle external forces. I'm an unabashed lover of all three versions of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956, 1978, and 1993). Throw in the evils of 'the government' or 'corporate interests' (or even better, both of 'em simultaneously!) and tell the story both subtly and aggressively and I'm in heaven. Yes, I put on Nineteen Eighty-Four or The Trial for fun. In the literary world the go-too guys are Kafka, Poe and Phillip K. Dick. In the film world would movies like Pi, Fight Club, Cube, Primer and even lesser efforts like Cypher and The Clonus Horror exist without standing on the shoulders of John Frankenheimer's Seconds? Maybe. Maybe not.

The story of Seconds is simple and Frankenheimer takes his time setting up the tone in such a way to turn the film on its head more than once. Arthur Hamilton lives a comfortable if dreary, upper middle class existence. He did the 'right' things to get where he is, but pines for something more. What went wrong with his life? When offered a chance to be re-born by a secretive company that erases his previous existence for a chosen new one complete with complicated plastic surgery and a jet-set bohemian life style, what choice do you think he makes. And the company works hard to make this happen. The questions is: How many people can live this 'dream' without eventually thinking back to the previous existence and the safety net of the 'real' identity vs. the very different new lifestyle.

I like to think of Seconds as the proto-type for the mind bending science fiction thriller where someone goes after the Faustian (EULA-ian?) bargain and may or may not pay the heavy dues. Of course, Frankenheimer made a career of the paranoid thriller from 1962's The Manuchrian Candidate, which is much more well known (and it got a remake a couple years ago with, um, you guessed it, an evil corporation) all the way up to 1998's Ronin, but he went much deeper and darker with Seconds which came out in 1966. Like nearly all good science fiction films, it flopped hard at the box office.

The film features flat out fantastic camera work, a tone in perpetual flux (a wine-stomping orgy has to be seen in light of the rest of the movie just to understand how wild things can shift), and harnessing great performances from John Randolph (before), Rock Hudson (after) and Will Geer as the benignly creepy company handler. Some may argue the film is depressing, but Seconds gets points for going all the way with its titular concept. The film has aged exceptionally well.

Thursday, March 01, 2007


Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers is a film that had people tearing their hair out back in 1997. Either it was the lovers of Robert Heinlein's book that loathed the creative liberties taken by the screenwriter and director or it was the fans of pulpy science fiction films who expected big action and could not look past the soapy Melrose Place elements of the film and the inferior acting. The movie was a big expensive blockbuster which barely made half of its near-100 million dollar budget back; and this was years before you could cut your losses with DVD sales.

But there were a few of us that saw the movie as one of the great genre mash-ups of the 1990s. The film is part war film (complete with requisite training camp, a la Full Metal Jacket), part shoot 'em up science fiction (taking cues from James Cameron's Aliens), part teen melodrama (in the vein of several Aaron Spelling TV shows popular at the time) thrown into a cinematic gumbo with a healthy dose of social and political satire as the key spice.

The story is set in a future fascist state of a single world government where humanity is at perpetual war with a race of gigantic bugs. It follows three high-school friends as they join the army as fresh faced cadets. Johnny Rico (cinemas walking Ken Doll, Casper Van Dien), whose path the film follows more than anyone else, is an athletic but not too bright rich kid who enlists into the marines to spite his parents. His girlfriend, Carmen (fittingly, cinemas walking Barbie Doll, Denise Richards) gets a position with the space fleet and his best friend and telepathic genius, Carl (somehow even more fittingly, TV's Doogie Howser) signs up for the Schutzstaffel-esque secret ops branch of the military. With these three threads on the go, Starship Troopers functions as war-time cultural potpourri from the slaughter house of the front lines to the ludicrously stuffy and incompetent military command to the woefully misinformed home front.

Taking cues from heavy handed World War II brainwashing of both the axis and the allies, Verhoeven has re-imagined those war-time newsreels as a sort of television-internet hybrid. He uses the same deft satirical touch as he did with the local-news broadcasts scattered throughout his previous (and similar) sci-fi satire RoboCop . Here we have a movie that revels in showing extreme violence and dismemberment of the soldiers in the media footage contained within, but puts a large black censorship box over the killing of a cow. The kids at home are encouraged to step on the local bugs to "Fight Back" against the enemy space-bugs. In a very eerie premonition of 9/11, the reaction of humanity to the bugs destroying Buenos Aires in Starship Troopers was not unlike the New York attack. A distinct call for immediate retribution ('I'm from Buenos Aires, and I say kill 'em all! ') and loads of concessions to military might at the cost of personal freedoms resonates in the obvious ways. In the future of the film, democracy has failed and the only way to vote (and be a 'citizen') is to do military service.

The film also spends a fair bit of time in Rico's basic training which focus on turning the fresh-faced recruits into the very mindless, conforming bugs that humanity fights. It throws out the jingo-ism with a catchy glee that makes the film a heck of a lot more fun that one might think though. The brilliance in casting Clancy Brown (Yes, the Kurgan from Highlander) as a wacko drill instructor and Canadian creepy guy, Michael Ironside, as the one-armed high-school teacher turned grizzled lieutenant allow for great line readings like "Something given has no basis in 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."

I am quite convinced that Verhoeven wanted the cherry blossom performances out of the lead actors. He takes an unusual path of turning fresh innocent faces into over confident drones, ripe for the slaughter of a government that just doesn't know when to pull out and cut its losses. Humanity here has bought into the bunk it has been force feeding its own innocent youth for so long that it is to the point where there is no choice but to go on recruiting younger and younger kids as the supply of grunt fodder is steadily diminished. Starship Troopers is not as depressing as that last sentence, it means to mock that last sentence with its every frame, often at the expense of character, but certainly to the delight of those who love a good satire. The eye-candy special effects and ridiculous levels of gore and violence make for a movie that is not for everyone, but the number of folks that praise this movie these days has been steadily growing over the past decade.

Come out Thursday Night and enjoy this epic satire that is not afraid to lay on the old ultra-violence in between Beverly Hills 90210 antics and Tour of Duty cliches. Drinks at 8:00pm. Trailers and Showtime at 8:30pm.

Would You Like to Know More?
The Provocateur Auteur
ESSAY #2: Heinlein, Verhoeven, and the problem of the Real