Category Archives: Movies

Starship Troopers: Loser? Winner!

Starship Troopers
Image From WonderCon 2011

Writing in Giant Freakin Robot, Drew Dietsch recounts that the now-classic movie Starship Troopers was originally a dud at the box office, as well as a critical failure. Crowds looking for big-name stars didn’t find any in the film adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s novel, and critics thumped it as poorly acted, empty entertainment. Roger Ebert, for example, judged it to be “the most violent kiddie movie ever made.”

What changed our view of this now-beloved classic? The cult movie’s secret, says Dietsch, is that both audiences and critics slowly realized the movie committed that most grievous of sins in cinema: overachieving. Over the years, fans recognized Starship Troopers as an over-the-top satire of militarism.

For example, when Earth declares war on Klendathu, a planet populated by giant bug-like creatures, humans prove their patriotism by stomping on real bugs. I laughed out loud at that scene. (A number of English kicked dachshunds in the streets of London at the outbreak of World War I, and the US Congressional cafeteria changed the name of French Fries to Freedom Fries after France declined to join the US in attacking Iraq.)

Dietsch insightfully points out how the film’s characterizations are actually right on target:

When it comes to the widely criticized acting, that viewpoint seems to miss the forest for the trees. These characters are written to be iterations of the kinds of heroes you’d see in classic propaganda stories. Their supposed vapidity is essential to the larger satire at work, but the characters and actors themselves can’t play the roles that way or the picture would come off as disingenuous. By committing to these cardboard vessels for ridiculous propaganda, the cast is totally succeeding at being the exact characters this movie needs.

The result is a powerful statement against mindless jingoism. One of the most gripping scenes comes toward the end. Colonel Carl Jenkins, a psychic from the Terran Federation’s Ministry of Paranormal Warfare, approaches a dying enemy bug and reads the creature’s thoughts:

CARMEN
Look… they got it.

GENERAL
What’s it thinking, Colonel?

CARL
It’s afraid.

The troops cheer at the news the enemy is not just physically broken, but psychically as well. That cheer sent a cold ripple down my back. What a vivid display of the ugliness of triumphalism.

5 Ways to Earn Your Audience’s Loyalty

audience loyalty

At her Helping Writers Become Authors blog, K.M. Weiland has shared some marvelous insights for both writers and readers. It’s her latest in a series of posts analyzing the success of Marvel comics and movies, and as a long-time fan of both, I must agree with all of her major points. (Hint: The secret is not the special effects, not the marketing, not the acting, though those elements are outstanding. It’s the writing.)

Bottom line: You’re cheating yourself if you don’t read Weiland’s post. It’s well worth your time as a reader and writer.

I was especially impressed by her second point, that the most engaging, emotionally satisfying stories arise not from pandering to the audience, but from remaining true to one’s vision as author. As Weiland puts it:

Sometimes you’ll hear fans talking about getting the story “we deserve.” To this, I say phooey. The only thing audiences deserve is a good story well-told. They don’t deserve to have all their personal theories or wishes validated.

While there’s no formula for crafting a good story, there is a fundamental principle you can’t ignore, and that comes down to the author being in control of a story they find compelling. In Weiland’s words, the author “must be the story’s single greatest fan.” Yes! Write stories you want to read. And the strange thing is that the most personal works achieve the greatest public appeal.

Of course, there are those other little details in learning and perfecting the craft, such as reading a lot and writing a lot. But without the author’s emotional investment, a work lacks life, lacks purpose. Our job is to make the story real.

Woman at War

Woman at War Last night, the Charlotte Film Society screened a fascinating movie titled Woman at War. It’s the tale of a music and yoga teacher who’s determined to sabotage an aluminum plant in the Icelandic wilderness.

Halla, the protag, wages war against a noisy, smelly, and sprawling collection of gritty metal cubes and towers unnaturally plopped onto the mystical Icelandic grassland. Add in the aromatic hydrocarbons and mutagens the plant belches out, and it’s easy to understand why a person who cherishes nature would take up arms against such a monstrosity. Business leaders and the government see the plant as an economic blessing; Halla sees one of William Blake’s dark Satanic mills.

Despite the film’s issue-packed premise, it doesn’t preach. Halla ranges the Icelandic grassland like Artemis with her bow, fulfilling her self-appointed role as the modern-day protector of nature. As is appropriate for a Greek goddess stand-in, she’s followed by a chorus that not only reflects her emotional reactions, but also provides comic relief.

The film is much more than a plea for clean air. Nearly surrounded by the police, Halla is rescued by a gruff farmer who becomes her accomplice. The two quickly realize they’re most likely related. So the movie’s primary conflict is between those with deep ties to their land and foreign investors who care only for the raw materials the land can produce. It’s the local and ancestral versus the global and rootless.

Woman at War was a hit at the Cannes Film Festival but failed to snag an Academy Award. If it comes to a local art cinema, check it out. It’s a hidden gem that deserves a wider audience.

Where the Western Meets Crime Fiction

John Larison argues that despite the different tropes they use and the different worlds they occupy, crime and Western stories share many structural similarities:

Both are about the triumph of good over evil. Early in a novel of either genre, we will see our protagonist encounter an injustice, usually the victim of crime (who may or may not still be breathing). Both novels will end when the scales of justice have finally been righted; the perpetrators of evil have met their due punishment. In a crime novel, justice usually comes in the form of a court of law. In the western, justice tends to be delivered by a bullet through the heart.

That’s a good start, but there’s more substance, nuance, and grit in both genres. Crime fiction includes many sub-genres, including cozies (Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple tales) and classic whodunits (Ellery Queen). The reader can settle down with one of these books knowing that justice will inevitably prevail, just like in the Westerns. But then there are hardboiled and noir crime stories. While both feature violence in gritty, naturalistic settings, only hardboiled tales come close to the worldview of classic Western adventures.

In hardboiled crime tales, the protagonist shoots it out with the bad guys to protect the innocent and restore justice. Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer is an updated John Wayne battling the bad hombres of New York City. However, in noir tales, traditional justice is just as hard to find as an innocent victim. For example, Raymond Chandler paints a bleak view of human nature in his novels, with both the criminal underworld and the “respectable” upper class up to no good. In such a world, the protagonist has to settle for upholding his personal code of honor, justice for the innocent proving too elusive, if not illusory.

Some of the “crime-westerns” Larison cites in his article certainly don’t end with the good guy riding into the sunset after protecting the righteous and punishing the wicked. Just to name one example, Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country For Old Men” ends with the bad guy, a sociopathic hit man, virtually unscathed and free, leaving behind the corpses of almost all the sympathetic characters. The sheriff who failed to catch the killer or protect the innocent acknowledges his uselessness at the end, and dreads the evil that’s spreading across the land he once loved and knew. Not exactly “Shane.” But, as Larison says, still wildly entertaining.

A Quiet Place

As my wife and I settled into our dollar-movie-theatre seats, I was pleased to recall that yet another sci-fi film had received glowing audience and critical acclaim. Minutes after it started, I realized the reviews don’t give a clue about how good, how intelligent, and how soul-stirring this movie is.

Yes, it’s entertaining, and yes, it breaks conventions. Some of the breaks worked for me. Making it a (mostly) silent movie transformed it into much more that a “scary” movie. And scary it is, with plenty of white-knuckle scenes as a rural family cowers from a blind but ruthless predator that locates and attacks its victims when they make the faintest sound. The scant dialogue revved up the power of the visual tension to nearly unbearable levels. (At one point, a lady a few seats behind me whispered to her husband that she couldn’t take any more, and scampered out of the theatre.) Some of the conventions it broke left me feeling a bit cheated and shocked. Think a tale about a loving family struggling to survive will end without any casualties? The movie breaks that one in the first scene.

So it’s a hard film to watch at times. But “A Quiet Place” is a masterpiece of cinematic storytelling. Also, it tackles some themes head on in ways I found deeply moving and agreeable. It’s a pro-natalist, pro-sociobiology adventure; both the mother and father courageously do what they must to preserve the family. Despite the danger and the sacrifice, the husband and wife decide to have another baby. (And remember – babies cry!) At one point, the mother asks her husband, “Who are we if we can’t protect our children?”

That’s the key question of our age – just as it is in any age.

“The Endless” – A Lovecraftian masterpiece

Last night, my wife and I attended the Charlotte Film Society’s screening of “The Endless,” the latest project from indie filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead. When the closing credits rolled, we quickly agreed that in an age of sternum-rattling surround sound and blinding special effects, this film was truly something different: It pulled us in and held us with first-class writing and acting.

Think that filmmaking approach will catch on? We can only hope.

In the movie, brothers Justin and Aaron (yeah, cute!) have hit rock bottom. Years earlier, they’d enjoyed notoriety after they escaped what they described to the news media as a “UFO death cult.” But now, their notoriety has faded, and they’re barely making a living in their cleaning business. Collection agencies hound them, they can’t make friends, and the young ladies they meet aren’t interested in dating ex-death cult members. When younger brother Aaron decides he can’t stomach any more normalcy and wants to visit the old commune, Justin reluctantly agrees.

What could go wrong?

The film opens with this quote from H. P. Lovecraft: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” That quote is a nod to the profound influence Lovecraft has exerted on Benson and Moorhead. (In the closing credits, they pay special tribute to Guillermo Del Toro, another Lovecraftian storyteller.)

What makes “The Endless” stand out is its unforced but relentless buildup of details that lull and mislead. When the seemingly commonplace path you’re following suddenly twists around and scares the daylights out of you, you can only wonder how you could have been so blind. “The Endless” had an effect on me similar to “Rosemary’s Baby,” with its clever presentation of clues that could be dismissed as merely odd that suddenly add up to unspeakable terror.

Now THAT’S entertainment.

Quote of the day

del Toro

“And I want to tell you, everyone that is dreaming of using the genre of fantasy to tell the stories about the things that are real in the world today – you can do it! This is a door. Kick it open and come in!” – Guillermo Del Toro, accepting an Oscar for The Shape of Water.

By GuillemMedina – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=66203883

The Final Word

Obit

My wife and I caught a pre-screening of the documentary “Obit” last night. It introduces the general public to the people and the process of crafting the obituaries of both famous and significant people who have died.

Now from that lede, you’re probably thinking this must be a yawner of a movie. In fact, it’s not only one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen in years, it’s also an illuminating commentary on writing. In the picture above, New York Times reporter Margalit Fox fields questions from the audience. She’s the “baby” of the obituary staff, and gets much face time in the documentary.

She shared a few insider jokes that reveal much about writing. One involved a talented newcomer to the news business. He was not only a gifted writer, but took pride in thorough research. Despite his heroic efforts, he kept getting angry calls from readers about inaccurate statements in his stories. When he sought the advice of an old-timer, the pro sat back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, and said, “Kid, it’s real simple. Quit putting in too many facts.”

Margalit offered a useful example of what the old pro meant. In one of her first obits, she identified the deceased’s father as a “Democratic congressman from Illinois.” An irritated relative informed Margalit that her uncle had in fact been a Republican. “I assumed he was a Democrat because he was from Illinois,” confessed Margalit. “But my obit would’ve been just as good if I’d only described the deceased’s father as ‘a congressman from Illinois.'” Lesson learned: Less is better.

Another joke was about an experienced reporter whose editor told him to write a short report on a breaking story. “I can give you a 5,000-word story,” said the reporter. “I don’t have enough time to write a short report.” He had a point — short works are hard to do.

Bottom line, don’t miss this documentary. The characters (starting with the madcap manager of the New York Times’s morgue), the tension created by meeting deadlines while treating the bereaved family with respect and sympathy, and the fundamental difficulty of “getting the words right” make “Obit” a must see. Highly recommended.