Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Gotham Episode 15 'The Scarecrow' Review

The police search is still on for Dr Crane after his murderous rampage in the last episode. Meanwhile the Penguin is attempting to reopen Fish’s nightclub, although Maroni may have other plans for him. Fish herself has more concerns than the loss of her nightclub when she wakes up in an underground prison, surrounded by violent criminals.

So this episode, ‘The Scarecrow’ spends the majority of its runtime resolving last week’s cliffhangers. The various plot strands of this episode resolve around the concept of fear, rather appropriately. A lot of the episode follows the Crane family, filling us in with a lot of much needed backstory. We learn to sympathise somewhat with Gerald Crane, who we learn is trying to “cure” himself from having fear. A sympathetic villain is far more engaging and the successes he has with his methods do add some slight grey tones to his ‘madness’. An interesting drug addiction metaphor is used to equate Gerald’s desperate need to rid himself of fear with that of an addict needing their fix.

The fact that his son, Jonathan, does not want to follow in his father’s footsteps adds an element of pathos to the episode. I like that the interruption by the police is the main reason that Jonathan’s fear removal goes wrong. A feeling of inevitable destiny follows all of the classic Batman characters who appear in ‘Gotham’, from the moment they appear their fate is sealed. It’s interesting when the character is sympathetic as we find ourselves rooting against the destiny of the character. The origin of ‘The Scarecrow’ is well handled but the Crane family owning an old scarecrow in their garden is a little on the nose.

Most of the Penguin parts of this episode are relatively unmemorable due to the fact that they barely feature the Penguin. We get several scenes with Maroni and Falcone talking about how cool/terrible the Penguin is but Oswald is absent from these scenes. The scenes we get featuring Robin Lord Taylor show him redecorating his nightclub, hardly his finest moment. We do get one incredibly awkward moment where Oswald and Edward Nygma meet for the first time. I’m sure that this scene sent their respective fan girls crazy but it really doesn’t add anything to the episode aside from embarrassment.

Fish Mooney’s scenes also suffer from a lack of motivation. Fish is not a character that can exist in isolation. Without her gang and club she is a far less credible villain. The prison like dungeon she wakes up in feels like an attempt to reboot her character, forcing her to regain her empire from the ground up. Without her scheming against Falcone and her confrontations with Oswald, she really isn’t that dynamic a character. Hopefully when she returns to Gotham City itself she will regain some of her purpose within the show.

We also spend time in this episode following Bruce Wayne. Bruce is trying to continue a family tradition, without his family. In these moments with Bruce we are shown that he is learning to cope by himself. This change from child to young adult is an important part of Bruce’s development into Batman. ‘Gotham’ is also developing the character of Alfred in an interesting way. We are given the impression that older repressed parts of the Alfred character, that of the soldier, are being brought to the fore in his attempts to connect with Bruce. Hopefully future episodes will continue this trend.

So ‘The Scarecrow’ is a slightly above average episode of ‘Gotham’. The moments with the Crane family are very well handled and raise interesting questions about the natures of medical experimentation. Unfortunately experimental angles have been taken with the characters of Fish and Penguin which don’t entirely work. Penguin has been given power and Fish has had hers taken away, neither of these are a good fit for the characters as they have been established. I suspect that future episodes will restore the status quo to some extent. This would be a shame as character development is never a bad thing, even if in these cases it may need a bit of a reworking to truly work.

Monday, 9 February 2015

'Starship Troopers 4: Invasion' Review

The ‘John A. Warden’ Starship has gone missing. At last sighting the ship was plotting an unknown course and had turned off all communications. A team of Mobile Infantry soldiers are brought in to locate and investigate the ship but will they be ready for what is waiting for them on-board?

So I’ve now willingly watched three straight to video sequels to ‘Starship Troopers’. How I managed to get to this point, I’m not entirely sure. I found ‘Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation’ ok if not a bit over ambitious and ‘Starship Troopers 3: Marauder’ ambitious and not at all ok. So without a huge amount of enthusiasm I found myself watching ‘Starship Troopers 4: Invasion’. Now ‘Invasion’ differs from the other films in the series by being animated. Does the computer generated approach help revive the movie series, or is it an attempt to reanimate a corpse?

So these realistic CG movies haven’t had the best track record with me. I’m yet to see one that truly captures the humanity in its polygons that makes a story really engaging. Now I’m about to say something that is damning this film with about as much faint praise as I can, this is the best CG animated ‘realistic’ film I have seen. Now before you uncork the champagne and release the banners I should explain a few things. I am not saying that ‘Starship Troopers 4: Invasion’ is a good movie, I am however saying that it is A movie. We have a plot, we have characters and we have more than the usual 2 hour render benchmark tests these sorts of films rapidly become.

So this film continues the trend set by the previous two sequels of solidly crafted films being let down by weak scripts. As with the previous sequels we start the film being introduced to a huge variety of different characters, all of whom we are meant to become engaged with emotionally. As with the previous films we are simply introduced to too many characters to truly care about them as much as we should. To its credit, smart direction does manage to make a few of these characters stand out but these few should have led the film from the beginning. This approach would have given these characters an opportunity to breath and would have made the film considerably more engaging.

The general plot of the film could have used another draft also. The script is filled with moments where I found myself trying to work out the logic of the characters. For example we see several commanding officers choosing to go on suicidal rescue missions with their teams. This in itself wouldn’t be weird if they weren’t always risking more soldiers than they could ever save in doing so.

Big Boss Rico
This problem reaches fever pitch when Johnny Rico takes six members of his team to save five, even though the rescue mission will endanger Paris and the millions that live there.  Seriously they have the option to destroy the ship before it gets anywhere near the City and Rico decides to take the chance. At least in ‘Saving Private Ryan’ we get the excuse that the mission will be used as propaganda to inspire others. I hardly doubt that “We saved five guys!” is going to console the people of France much. As it is Paris survives entirely by chance, so Rico can look like a hero and avoid another military hanging…. “Hoo-ah!”

From a technical perspective this film is surprisingly impressive. Although made at a very low budget various efforts have been made to hide this fact. For Example the Mobile Infantry have to enter spaceships without oxygen, so they are wearing power armour with life support. This power armour makes the huge amounts of soldiers incredibly similar in appearance, saving hours in 3D modelling time.

Clever direction is used to hide the lack of budget also, with the cast often reacting to impressive things we will not see until we absolutely have to. Impressive lighting and camera angles also do a lot to create an impression of a location, without having to show it in depth. The entire film feels as if it is being overseen by somebody with a stopwatch, doing everything they can to save on expense when possible. For this reason ‘Starship Troopers 4: Invasion’ feels very large in scope and looks very impressive. However it doesn’t need somebody with experience in CG to notice the budgetary decisions that are holding the film together either, with a slight feeling of repetition plaguing the copy/paste attitude of the film.

So ‘Starship Troopers 4: Invasion’ has many of the same issues that plagued the previous sequels. That being said it also manages some things that the other films didn’t. Despite having quite a large cast several characters stand out from rest and make a genuine impression. Smart direction also gives the film some genuine moments of emotional resonance, abandoned areas feel peaceful, frantic battles feel frantic. This movie will not win any awards but it is easy to see the huge amount of work and heart that went into it. The people who made this film obviously cared about it and wanted to make something special. They didn’t entirely succeed, not by a long shot, but this film is one lost ship worth investigating.  

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Gotham Episode 14 'The Fearsome Dr Crane’ Review

So with Maroni having learnt of the traitor in his midst from Fish Mooney, has Penguin’s luck finally run out? Meanwhile a support group for people with phobias are being targeted by a man obsessed with fear. How many of the group will survive ‘The Fearsome Dr Crane’?

It’s a credit to Robin Lord Taylor that he subtly changes his Penguin performance depending on who he’s dealing with. As Maroni questions and breaks down Penguin’s defences, we see the transition from weak victim to confident threat. The scenes with Maroni and Penguin are nice but the conclusion, Penguin’s escape from certain death, stretches credibility to breaking point.

The meat of this episode focusses on Dr Crane and his experiments on the phobia group. The opening shots of the episode show him dangling a man with a fear of heights off the side of a building, before hanging him off the side. Bullock’s interest in the case increases exponentially when he meets Scotty Mullens, a woman in the group suffering from a fear of drowning. Unfortunately Bullock is not the only one to have taken an interest in Mullens... So I’ve got mixed feelings about this episode. The concept of the fear group being attacked by their greatest fears is interesting but the execution leaves a lot to be desired.

For example, the first murder of the man terrified of heights is chilling and sets a certain dark tone. This dark tone is then completely undermined by a scene of Dr Crane menacing a man with a piglet, the man in question having a fear of pigs. I appreciate that we need to establish that the groups’ fears are a mixture of the understandable and the outlandish but this phobia really doesn’t work within the episode. A fear of heights and a fear of drowning are both very easily understandable, even by people not crippled by them. A fear of pigs is only threatening to somebody with a fear of pigs. These scenes are played out to be comedic in tone. A comedic tone does not mix well with a psychotic man killing people by their greatest fears.

I appreciate the introduction of the Crane family, with the suggestion that the son of this Dr Crane will become the Scarecrow of Batman lore, but I wish that they had been treated with a bit more reverie. I am also curious about the introduction of a love interest for Detective Bullock. I’m interested in what this will mean for the future behaviour of the character.

A smaller subplot focuses on the suspension of Edward Nygma from the GCPD. Nygma has been caught investigating outside of his job remit one too many times and is punished. It’s nice to see how easily Nygma ruins a man’s life in order to rectify this situation. It’s a nice nod towards the psychology of the man who will become the Riddler.

So this is another place holding episode of ‘Gotham’, one that seems to be more interested in establishing fallout for future episodes than telling its own story. I feel that the handling of Dr Crane and his obsession with fear should have been better handled, particularly since the episodes featuring Jack Gruber seemed a lot more unnerving. Overall however this episode worked pretty well, despite having the stupidest cliffhanger of the season yet. Hopefully the setting up from this episode will play nicely into the next episode, titled simply ‘The Scarecrow’.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

'Starship Troopers 3: Marauder' Review

So with the Federation's war with the Bugs still underway, a new threat appears in the sudden religious conversion of a high level commanding officer. With outspoken religion being against the law within the Federation, is this man merely breaking the law or is their more at stake?

So the universe of the Starship Troopers franchise can be many things it seems. The first film in the series was a satirical action film, the second a bodysnatching horror. With the third film in the series, ‘Starship Troopers 3: Marauder’, the series goes back to its roots of combining action with a social message. Unfortunately this attempt to relive the glory days of the ‘franchise’ is what brings it down as a film.

So the first ‘Starship Troopers’ had a lot of subtle undercurrents to its story. The second film was less subtle but had some deepness at its core. This third film makes a severe attempt to carry a message and seemingly decides to do it out in the open, foregoing any subtlety or subtext in the process. So the message to ‘Starship Troopers 3: Marauder’ is that religion is being used by the Bugs and Federation alike to control their citizens. Now as a concept, working in religion to this universe has a lot of potential, what with the nature of religious war with crusading heroes. As it is, without subtlety we get painfully awkward moments where characters explain the nature of faith to each other, ignoring comically large holes the writer allowed for the audience to laugh at their faith.

Now I’m not a religious man, so I’m not offended by the anti-religious vibes off this film. I am offended however by bad writing. Imagine if the religious conversations/speeches of True Detective were rewritten to remove the intelligence from them, that’s what you get with ‘Starship Troopers 3’. The script is constantly nudging the audience, waiting for a reaction as if it is trying to actively offend.

Starship Troopers without any subtext just comes across as obnoxious. In addition to that it also loses any sense of knowing novelty which holds it together. The universe these movies take place in is dumb, it barely makes sense. However as a parable story of human nature it can exist as an idea, as a concept, without concerning itself with truly making sense.

This damaging lack of subtlety is most evident in the fake news reels which have become a staple of the series. Previous films made an effort to make these news articles seem realistic to the universe, to subtly suggest the problems with the politics of the world which made them. The news reels in ‘Marauder’ literally stop to ask the audience their opinion of the events, asking them if they agree with what is happening. This is particularly terrible as a major plot point of the film is how the public are having their political and religious views suppressed. So to summarise, the Federation have sponsored a news outlet to publicly condemn religion and free expression, while asking the public if they agree with them doing so…

I’d love to say the above problems were the only issues with the script but the entire thing barely holds together, it’s full of plot holes and half developed story strands. I wonder if the script was stitched together, Robotech style, from a variety of different unrelated scripts. The story lacks any real focus, jumping from place to place with no obvious sense of direction. One minute we’re in a gunfight, the next we’re in a secret base looking at experiments. The film seems to run out its time and just end, as if it was a general sightseeing tour of the universe, not a narrative story.

An effort was made to get back Casper Van Dien to reprise his role of Johnny Rico from the first film. I honestly don’t understand why they did this however; considering the character seems to be completely different to the Johnny Rico we left in ‘Starship Troopers’. It’s hardly surprising, considering he seems to be about five different Johnny Rico’s just within this one film. He isn’t the only one to have this issue, as every characters’ motivation and attitude constantly changes for no reason. Well I say no reason but that isn’t true, they change to further the plot.

Technically this film also suffers from a lot of issues. The special effects are noticeably worse than even the effects in ‘Starship Troopers 2’, despite this film having three times the budget to play with. Now I could forgive bad visual effects, after all the sets for this film look quite expensive. I can’t forgive a large number of shots being out of focus however. I was genuinely amazed at how many close up shots of the cast seem to be instead focused on the blank wall behind. To see this type of simple mistake in a film of this scale is really, really bad.

So obviously I didn’t much like ‘Starship Troopers 3: Marauder’. I really don’t understand how the writer of the first two films could write this? I’m genuinely puzzled. The script has some interesting ideas but they are so badly handled. If you really love the universe of ‘Starship Troopers’ and I mean love it unconditionally like a mother, give this a go… That being said I liked ‘Starship Troopers’ enough to watch two straight to video sequels and I didn’t like this film.

Monday, 2 February 2015

‘Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation’ Review!

A unit of the Mobile Infantry find themselves stuck in a remote outpost, surrounded by Bugs. As they explore the building further they find a prisoner, Captain Dax, who killed his commanding officer. As the siege continues it becomes increasingly clear that some of the soldiers may not be entirely what they seem and Dax may be the least of their problems.

So a few things need to be got out of the way immediately, ‘Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation’ was made on a very small budget for the straight to video market. Therefore it needs to be accepted that this film is not going to be as ‘Hollywood’ as its predecessor, which cost 15 times more to make. This isn’t to blindly defend it, but to acknowledge that certain parts of it are bound to feel cheap in comparison.

Obviously some aspects of the film are not going to be confined by the budget, such as the quality of the script. The narrative of this film is a basic base-under-siege story. This is a pretty standard structure for low budget sci fi/horror films as it makes the budgetary limitation of a single location a benefit to the story. However once you have stranded a group in a location, against an attacking foe, you have to make both the defence and offence of the siege compelling for it to work. ‘Starship Troopers 2’ handles both sides surprisingly well.

The humans are reasonably interesting and the threat to them convincing. The subtle undertones of the original film, comparing the nature of the army to that of a hive insect, are instead replaced by a less subtle, more direct approach. This isn’t entirely a bad thing as the sequel is going for a different, darker tone; personally I miss the more comic like approach of the original film but this new attitude isn’t bad. Although reasonably well written the script hasn’t got much to it that feels hugely original, however the actors deliver their lines with a lot of enthusiasm which sells some of the more hackneyed moments.
Butch? What are you doing outside Gotham?
The cast of this film do a lot to make the story engaging, although we really have too many characters to follow. The original ‘Starship Troopers’ got some flak from me for focussing on two characters, the sequel tries to follow about six. This film is at its best later on in the running time, as members of the team have been picked off. This situation allows us some breathing room to get to know the survivors better. ‘Starship Troopers 2’ is trying to be like ‘Aliens’ with its ensemble cast but it fails in this attempt. James Cameron created his characters using the big book of archetypes, allowing them to be easily understood and sympathised with. ‘Starship Troopers 2’ attempts to have a large amount of more complex characters and simply doesn’t have the running time to make the audience understand them.

A certain amount of the issues with the cast being hard to empathise with rests with the director Phil Tippett. The performances from the actors are very strong but they a lack a sense of place within the film, as if they are unsure of what they are meant to doing. Many of the cast seems to awkwardly stand in place while delivering lines, removing a lot of the realism the script attempted to add. I suspect this is because the performances Tippett had previously coaxed came from puppets and stop motion creations, not humans.

This disconnect is particularly evident during the opening, which may be one of the worst openings of a film I have ever seen. We are introduced to the cast of the film mid battle; we quickly jump from soldier to soldier without knowing who any of them are, or what they’re doing. These scenes of complete confusion last about 15 minutes and almost caused me to switch off the film.

I will give Tippett a lot of credit for his direction from a special effects point of view however. This film doesn’t look like it cost $7 Million Dollars, if I hadn’t known the budget I’d have guessed at a figure at least twice as high. Many smart steps have been taken to make the creatures look as good as possible. For one thing the film takes place at night and during a dust storm, hiding the creatures as silhouettes for the majority of the film. 

When the few practical effects are used, they are used for close ups to further hide the lack of budget. Despite the CG on the bugs being a bit ropey for 2004, ‘Starship Troopers 2’ funnily enough doesn’t look much worse than the original ‘Starship Troopers’. This is partially due to the above tricks and also due to the simple advancements in computing power over the 7 years between the films. The odd effect is a big dodgy, such as the light bulbs on the guns but overall this film looks surprisingly good.

So ‘Starship Troopers 2: Hero of the Federation’ isn’t perfect, not by a long shot. The script is far too complex and the actors spend a lot of the running time looking confused about where they should be standing. That being said, the script is still pretty strong and the performances pretty believable. ‘Starship Troopers 2’ is flawed but has a lot to enjoy about it and considering the budget it is remarkably strong.   

Sunday, 1 February 2015

'Starship Troopers' Review

So with Earth at war with a race of insectoid aliens nicknamed ‘Bugs’. It’s up to the army of the federation, the ‘Starship Troopers’ to stop them. We follow a group of idealistic high school students as they enlist and realise that war is not everything they had been told it was in the media.

So I’ve always been interested in watching ‘Starship Troopers’ but the incredibly mixed reception has always put me off. I love ‘Robocop’ and ‘Total Recall’ so I always had an inkling that another Paul Verhoeven directed, science fiction film must have some merit at least. So having finally watched it, is ‘Starship Troopers’ ready for battle, or ready to be put out of its misery?

So ‘Starship Troopers’ has some issues, issues which are apparent very quickly. For one thing the film takes a very long time to get started, choosing to spend a lot of time showing us the civilian life away from the army. It took almost an hour for ‘Starship Troopers’ to fully engage me, with too much time being given to set up the, frankly archetypal teenage characters. Seeing these people live out their teenage high school lives also shows how out of place they are, given that they are played by actors clearly pushing thirty. These scenes feel more like ‘Power Rangers’ than anything else. When war breaks out however, everything falls into place very well, I just wish it had been twenty minutes earlier.

The term ‘Verhoeven-Esque’ has entered the filmic lexicon to indicate any films which feature extreme unrelenting explosions of gore. You are in no doubt while watching ‘Starship Troopers’ that Paul Verhoeven is at the helm, blood and guts constantly fly in all directions. Unfortunately the blood and guts are often generated using CG. I appreciate that, given the special effects heavy nature of the film, this was somewhat unavoidable, although it really doesn’t have the same weight as practical gore. The gore is also somewhat constant throughout the film, which undermines the dramatic effect of it. In ‘Robocop’ or ‘Total Recall’, the violence is used to shock and upset us, in ‘Starship Troopers’ it is an everyday part of war. An everyday part of that we quickly get conditioned to, as the soldiers themselves do.

The direction of ‘Starship Troopers’ is very smart in ways such as this, as is the production. We as an audience follow the characters as they make their way through the army. We follow them from their first day to, on occasion, their last. They develop to what happens around them and our attitude towards them changes as they do. This active communication with an audience is a hard thing to get right and the best moments of ‘Starship Troopers’ are when this crossover between artist and audience occurs.

Unfortunately this is also where the primary issue comes with ‘Starship Troopers’. A lot of time is put into making us care about Johnny Rico, we spend the majority of the film following him after all. Unfortunately we also spend a lot of time following his girlfriend, Carmen Ibanez, who we barely get to know. I found myself wanting to learn more about the Mobile Infantry and Johnny, I found myself becoming frustrated whenever the narrative would leave him to follow her. I know that Paul Verhoeven understands character well, so I wonder if this was deliberate. Johnny’s major journey is to move on from Carmen and grow up. I wonder if we spend time with her to see just how uninteresting she is, so we get over her also? Hmmm, I may just be over thinking it but with Verhoeven at the helm I can’t be sure.

‘Starship Troopers’ is incredibly 90’s. Every part of the film reeks of a production made during that time. This extreme dating will increasingly be in the films favour as more time passes however. Any film that is entirely stuck in the moment of time it was created tends to date quite well. It is the films which try to be futuristic or historical which date the worst. ‘Starship Troopers’ not only captures the fashions and dialogue of the 1990’s but also the politics and changing face of technology. The rolling news reels which punctuate the film have clickable online adverts for example. In much the same way that ‘Robocop’ captured the militaristic rise of corporations, ‘Starship Troopers’ shows their occupation over the masses via media control.

So ‘Starship Troopers’ feels a bit messy at times. When it works, as it does during the battle scenes, it works brilliantly. When it doesn’t work, it drags quite badly. Overall ‘Starship Troopers’ wins out for a recommendation. It is still an impressive film visually, despite having been made almost twenty years ago and the story and characters are likeable and engaging, for the most part. ‘Starship Troopers’ feels like a propaganda film. Any film that rouses you to fight against a fictional ‘enemy’ is one worth giving your time.