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Starship Troopers (1997)
Saw it again; still no substance
Before you ask, seeing this again was the price of maintaining a long-distance friendship.
I still can't figure out what Paul Verhoeven was trying to do with this picture.
SCIENCE FICTION ? Decidedly not. We're supposedly 200+ years into the future. Think back to the weaponry of, say, the US Revolutionary War. Compare it to current weapons. Now make a leap of similar magnitude beyond that, and what do we get? Heinlein postulated MI in powered-armor suits, dealing death in a dozen ways as personal as a punch in the nose. Verhoeven has our troopers still fighting with machine guns and hand grenades. No "smart" weaponry whatsoever, not even hand-held energy beams, and communication systems that are still blocked by canyon walls and bugged with static. Food service is still slop served with spoons from a heated aluminum tray. Bathing is still bar soap rubbed on by hand under a shower of running water. Finally, how did only 200+ years of immigration wipe out the genetic heritage of Buenos Aires? I see no influence of the original natives, only Carmen bears Spanish features, and nobody shows any of today's huge mixed-Japanese population.
THE HORRORS OF WAR ? Forget it. First of all, the technical and continuity errors left this a slapstick affair. Second, to get me to feel the horrors, you have to engage me in the characters. The shallow formula characters continuously reminded us that they're only cardboard cutouts of people. Even John Wayne got better character depth. Third, you have to engage me in the plot conflicts. Verhoeven needed to decide whether or not he had time to work on relationship tension -- four lines to work out a deep emotional attachment just doesn't cut it, and merely exposes the development problems. As for the war itself, we never get any real tension of battle or long-term planning.
PARODY OF WAR MOVIES ? Perhaps. War action scenes with stupid tactics even at the squad level ("They can spit napalm: let's bunch up!"), one technical error or discontinuity after another ... and after that's established, we have to suspend belief in *those* "world rules" whenever there's a mano-a-mandible close-up (note the changes in pace of battle and troop reaction time). Even then, some great foreshadowing and set-up opportunities go by unharvested, and the utterly superfluous shower scene defeats its own purpose.
SPECIAL EFFECTS ? Nah. The formula stuff in action films gets standard-of-the-art computer simulation; the day-to-day details are incredibly cheap. For instance, when Rico is recovering from his leg wound, they give him a huge floatation tank, some cute wound-knitting creature, but force him to breathe through a gas-can hose and lie inconvenienced for "three more days". At first, I wondered why their established Name Actor (Neil Patrick Harris) was shuffled to a peripheral role. I finally figured it out: if they hadn't, Dr. Doogie would never have let them get away with all the errors in human physiology. With Carl out of the way, we get the classicly hilarious brain-sucking scene and Carmen's Polyanna attitude some 5 minutes later (when she should be bleeding heavily while Rico radios for a medic).
Overall, "Starship Troopers" erratic, sloppy, and ill-planned.
Blind Date (1987)
Technically uneven, but fun
Blake Edwards is in his element, but the script is too choppy for the cast to maintain a veneer of credibility. Nadia's motivations appear to be utter fantasy much of the time, taking away from Basinger's excellent portrayal. The various technical goofs and discontinuities should have been repaired before shooting began; instead, they go to the silver screen.
This should have been a career milestone for Willis and Basinger. Instead, the relationships are a few cents short in development, and the final product is a second-rate laugher.
(1) Ted and Nadia have separately warned Walter that Nadia can't handle alcohol. In response, Walter pressures Nadia to drink 2-3 glasses of champagne just before a critical business meeting.
(2) David rams through 3 storefronts during the movie, ending up covered with the store's product. Twice, this requires a right-angle turn, at speed, in the middle of a city street, caused by his merely taking his eyes off the road for 1-3 seconds.
(3) After each of these accidents, he somehow manages to track Walter & Nadia down at their next stop -- through LA traffic, without knowing where they were going. Also, despite these three storefront accidents, he punctures nary a tire (nor his radiator).
(4) In one evening during the work week, our lucky couple manage to (a) meet at her hotel after dark (b) attend an art show and escape from her ex (d) attend a taping session (e) get most of the way through a fancy business dinner (f) stop for gas (g) drive significantly elsewhere in the LA area and get mugged (h) and STILL make it to a society party in full swing. Given the daytime weather, this appears to happen in less than 5 hours.
(5) On the basis of one disastrous date, in which they rarely connected on a personal basis, Nadia and Walter decide they can't get along without one another and make life-changing sacrifices with almost no encouragement from the other side.
Slightly weaker than the 1982 version
The role of Miss Hannigan was made for Carol Burnett or Bette Midler; Kathy Bates is merely above average for the part. Alicia Morton is good in the title role, with excellent mugging for the camera, but isn't any more believable as an orphan than Aileen Quinn was. Victor Garber has a wonderful voice for musicals, but his acting is quite inconsistent for Dady Warbucks, a classic Silas Marner role that requires very quick development. Overall, the cinematography, choreography, and set design felt as if they were merely adapted from "The Wizard of Oz" and "Mary Poppins", with perhaps a bit of "Beauty and the Beast" (Disney version) thrown in. When someone with a lot of money remakes a well-known picture, I expect a better treatment than this. It's worth 90 minutes to watch, but I won't see it a second time.
The Parent Trap (1998)
Used & improved on the original
I read the book club paperback in the late 60s, saw the 1961 movie (note that this is *not* the 1950 original) in the 70s, and this 1998 remake last night. I enjoyed all thoroughly; the remake is the superior movie because it gave tribute to its forebears and built well upon the 1961 version. The most memorable cinematography from the original movie were reprised in the remake, and several points of acting and direction were improved.
I've long been a fan of Haley Mills (and her older sister); Lindsay Lohan has done an excellent job of studying both Mills and Patty Duke (several of the Hallie/Annie interactions were lovingly stolen from Patty/Cathy Lane). She acts like a young Jodie Foster, which brings credible depth to a role that is easily left shallow (ref. Olsen twins in "It Takes Two").
There were a few weak points. First of all, the first "tingly" scene, where Annie deduces that they're twins, has the slow timing aimed solely at the younger audience. This is one of the few points where the direction fails to accomodate the wide range of ages who will love this flick. Next, although split-screen technology is much improved, those of us who grew up with the play-my-own-twin genre get a little tired of the uncreative cuts and framing after about an hour; George Lucas taught us how to do better. Also, a "family" movie should not have a single word of vulgar profanity, but this version slips one in (the example is left as an exercise for the viewer).
In keeping with the 90s, the parents are much more developed, and Meredith is played much better than Vicki was, especially as she steals a few mannerisms from Glenn Close in "101 Dalmatians" (which origianl also appeared in 1961), and gets appropriately tagged for it. Not to be left behind, Joanna Barnes (1961's stepmother-to-be) reappears as "Vicki Blake" (Meredith's mother), and repeats her 1961 interpretation for an excellent cameo (as well as supporting Meredith's characterization).
I heartily recommend that you see both Disney versions of the film. Start with the 1961 version (or the 1950 German version if you're a real cinema lover) so you can properly appreciate the updating. Keep in mind that this movie was made in the "Ozzie & Harriet" days, when divorce was rarely discussed and a shame on the children, and movie characters could be rather well defined by a single tragedy such as this. Enjoy it for what it is ... and then see this remake. It certainly beats a Raiders-Packers game on a Sunday afternoon.
What Love Sees (1996)
Inconsistent execution lets down a great story
This is a guaranteed heart-warmer about the romance and marriage of two blind people in the early 20th century. The screenplay is an excellent vehicle for the story, but the character direction comes up short. The supporting characters are generally formula reactions to the circumstances, bringing nothing extra that makes us feel they are real people instead of merely actors in the lives of the young couple. Also, the reactions of the main couple themselves are often tempered for some reason I could not fathom.
Some scenes showed that the supporting cast are quite capable of the pathos and execution the script deserved; for some reason, the director chose not to insist upon excellence in every scene. Because of this, the occasional critical scene or line would fall short of its full potential, and the overall product suffered therefrom.
That stated, do take the time to see this once or twice. It's a worthy way to spend a couple of hours with the family.
The Karate Kid (1984)
Classic formula, great until the end
Pat Morita (Mr. Miyagi) and William Zabka (Johnny) are excellent in their roles; I hope they find Oscar-nomination vehicles some day. Ralph Macchio does a credible job as the protagonist, especially as he avoids maturing too much during the movie.
The classic formula is done well, although the bad guys are just a touch overdone for my taste. I've seen the movie 4 times over the past 14 years, and the story still holds up very well. The character backgrounds are good, nothing is overdone, and the movie progresses at a very good pace.
The movie's one glaring error is the ending. It works for the USer audience naive in karate-do, while screaming "SELL-OUT" to those trained in the art.
Faerie Tale Theatre: Cinderella (1985)
Delightful rendition of the classic tale
This is the best of Shelley Duvall's high-quality "Faerie Tale Theatre" series. The ugly stepsisters are broadway-quality comedy relief, and Eve Arden is the personification of wicked stepmotherhood. Jennifer Beals does an excellent job as a straight Cinderella, especially in the garden scene with Matthew Broderick's Prince Charming. Jean Stapleton plays the fairy godmother well, although I'm not sure I liked the "southern lady" characterization with some of the lines. Steve Martin's comedy relief as the Royal Orchestra Conductor is quintessential Martin, but a tiny bit misplaced in the show's flow.
As is customary with the series, there are several wry comments thrown in for the older children (ages 15 and up). With a couple of small bumps, the show flows well, and they live happily ever after. Children up to age 8 will continue to watch it after the parents finally get tired of it -- I found 3 times in one day to be a little too much.
Practical Magic (1998)
A fun movie, despite a few weak points
It appears that director Griffith Dunne tried to keep this film from being as powerful as it could have been. The movie fails to fully develop the town's overt fear of witches (missing only slightly), the full foreboding of "something wicked this way comes" with Jimmy (although the script lets them get away with it), and the magical love bond between Sally and Gary. A few small changes, such as more supportive background music, would have made these points support and counterpoint the lighter parts of the flick.
Bullock and Kidman are very good as the central characters, very believable as different-but-bonded sisters. Kidman is a little too flaky at times to be a fully credible witch, but this characterization runs well enough in context. Channing (whom I rarely enjoy) and Wiest are excellent in major supporting roles, outdone only by Webb and Wood (Sally's daughters) who show their abilities by *not* overacting their potentially cutesy roles. Instead, they do a great job in stating variations on their mother and Aunt Gilly.
Overall, I think most aspects of direction and production could have used one more iteration of quality improvement. Still, the movie is quite enjoyable, and worth watching again some time.
Wait for the rental: great FX, bad script, wooden acting
SPECIAL EFFECTS: Nothing less than we have come to expect from Industrial Light & Magic. The close-up work, the computer-generated scenes of massing armies, the battle scenes, all stand up to pretty close scrutiny. The only true giveaway is that they are a little too perfect, lacking the sense of chaos from floating smoke, tiny variations in mechanical response, etc. This aspect is well worthy of an Oscar nomination, and probably another statue for Lucas & Co.
SCRIPT: The starting point for creation of a movie, and the weak link in most of the Star Wars series. The script is *supposed* to be minorly complex swashbuckling, but Phantom Menace is more like "Fan-Tome Minus". We have several prominent characters and at least 5 clashing cultures to build and resolve, but the script gives most of them criminally short shrift. The dialogue is unforgivably choppy. It was pretty schmucky in the original Star Wars, but consistent and smooth enough that competent, campy acting carried the show and made a legend. This script is a poor excuse for a plot outline.
CHARACTERIZATION: Weak, weak, weak. The Gunga and Naboo cultures are poorly developed cartoons of something indefinite. Two early scenes, perhaps 90 seconds of movie, could have filled out the two mass protagonists and allowed full use of Jar Jar Binks, Queen Amidala, and Padme. Note the hints dropped early in the movie to establish the reputation of the Jedi; then, note how similar comments are missing for the Naboo and Gunga. These are *major* lacks in the movie, especially when a couple of the battle scenes could have been cut by a few seconds to help the pacing. Darth Maul is a (expletive) waste, a plastic bad-guy ninja with no character and no discernible internal motivations, not even those inherited from his Sith master. Wasting a pivotal character on this two-shot plot element was a horrible writing mistake. If he is *supposed* to be a non-entity, support it in the surrounding characters -- the Sith master should make a comment like "There are more where he came from" right after the Jedi council question which Sith was destroyed. Similarly, Queen Amidala is poorly written. I was immediately looking around for the true Naboo leader. Padme was about as subtle as a bonfire under crepe paper. Finally, the Jedi council are not believable. I get no sense of The Force acting in that room, whereas the old Obi-Wan wore it like a second skin. Also, Yoda is the only council member who uses English in a distinctly different manner -- the others are Anglic characters in various shapes and colors. I get no sense of senior wisdom, no sense of arcane capabilities at work. Personally, I thought that the stupidest moment of the movie was near the end, when Yoda and Obi-Wan are alone in chamber. Yoda delivers the council decision ... but he's PACING THE FLOOR! Gimme a break -- I've worked in a "disagree and commit" culture. The senior Jedi master would not lose that much control and pace the floor.
ACTING: Wooden. There are a few individual moments of hope with Shmi Skywalker and Padme. Jake Lloyd gives overall reasonable life to his character. Ian McDiarmid sets a decent pillar for others to act around, but nobody picks up on it -- and he can't carry it alone in this setting without maturing his role too early for the long-term effect he has to have on the Star Wars series.
MUSIC: John Williams did a wonderful, classical job of matching themes and modes to the characters and action in the first Star Wars movies (although he pilfered the theme from a 1930s sound track, this, too, is somewhat in keeping with classical tradition). In FanTome Minus, he lived down to the quality of the script. Anakin is represented by simple juxtaposition of Luke & Leia's themes; this lack of imagination is repeated all through the movie. There is little variation on the early themes, and not much consistency in application. Why aren't those themes played for Amidala? The critical point of foreshadowing would have been when Padme and Anakin declare how much they care for one another, that physical souvenirs are unnecessary. *That* would have been the time to trot out a Luke/Leia contrapuntal sequence from legato strings.
First Monday in October (1981)
Excellent rapport between stars
Clayburgh did a fantastic job of balancing Matthau's usual strong performance. The two struck a rapport that I never expected, and they ran off with the movie. I gave it an 8 instead of a 10 mostly because the script and cast couldn't keep up with them. Also, they have some weak spots when they go for light-hearted comedy. For me, the real shining light of the entire show was the way the two managed to continue an understandable discussion of the hot issues in jurisprudence of that time -- at least fifteen minutes of viewing are justified by that historical perspective alone. In short, it's heart-warming, well-acted in the leads, and technically tighter than most viewers would realize.