Search
Kicking the Tweets
Tuesday
May242011

Dolls (1987) Home Video Review

 

Explosive Plastic

As some of you know, I have a strict policy of never walking out on movies.  No matter how awful a film is--no matter how tempted I might be to turn it off or storm out of the theatre--I owe it to myself to finish anything I start.  This stubbornness can lead to panic attacks and bursts of angry writing; but sometimes, rarely, I'm rewarded for sticking around.  Such is the case with Stuart Gordon's Dolls.

Dolls doesn't have the name recognition of Child's Play or even Puppet Master, both of which followed it in the late-80s "killer doll" boom; but it's the strongest of the three and, aside from the "Living Doll" episode of The Twilight Zone, it's the best example of the Killer Toy horror niche I've seen.  Gordon and writer Ed Naha have put together a funny, creepy, and surprising movie that's not nearly as formulaic as its poster suggests.

But it didn't start out that way.  The opening ten minutes of Dolls is so poorly executed that I couldn't believe I was watching a movie from the same guy who directed Re-Animator and From Beyond.  We meet the Bower family, a trio of miserable Americans road-tripping through the English countryside. Rosemary (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon) is the rich, wicked stepmother to her new husband David's (Ian Patrick Williams) daughter, Judy (Carrie Lorraine).  A sudden storm traps the Bowers in a mud patch, forcing them out of the car and up a hill to a big, creepy house.

I had to infer most of the events leading up to their knocking on the door, as Gordon's visual storytelling didn't do anything to help me understand what was actually going on.  The rain doesn't just start suddenly--the film appears to be missing a few minutes of transition between grey afternoon skies and a dead-of-night downpour.  Also, the car getting stuck was all shown from inside the vehicle, with the actors throwing themselves forward with a bit of the old Star Trek "Red Alert" acting.  The capper, though, is little Judy's hallucination of her teddy bear growing to enormous proportions, stomping through the woods and mutilating her parents.

It's a lousy introduction.  Judging by the huge leap in quality and competence a few minutes later, it's clear that Gordon was just rushing to get his characters inside the house.  They break in through a back door and encounter Gabriel and Hilary Hartwicke (Guy Rolfe and Hilary Mason, respectively), the kindly, old owners who invite them up to the kitchen for tea.  Gabriel tells Judy about his life as a toymaker, and informs her that he hand-crafted the hundreds of dolls that adorn every room of their home.  In the middle of their conversation, another door bursts open, ushering in three more travelers seeking shelter from the rain.

Ralph (Stephen Lee) is also a vacationing American who picked up Brit-punk hitchhikers Enid (Cassie Stuart) and Isabel (Bunty Bailey).  The Hartwickes put everyone up for the night; Judy and Ralph get separate rooms while the other couples pair up.  Since the hosts' quarters are on the other side of the house, the rocker chicks decide to boost whatever antiques they might be able to sell after they leave in the morning.

This doesn't sit well with the house's other residents, the baby-faced plastic-and-porcelain freaks that come to life when no one's looking.  Yes, Mr. and Mrs. Hartwicke are black magicians who've imbued the dolls with the spirits of the damned, and their toy children love getting into mischief.  When Judy sees one of the girls get dragged away by an army of unseen hands, she runs to warn her parents.  They dismiss her immediately, forcing her to confide in Ralph.

That's as far as I'll take this plot summary.  Based on what I've written so far, you can probably guess a lot of what happens next.  But you may be surprised by some of the twists that Gordon and Naha pepper throughout their wicked little film.  They play with the conventions of 80s slasher movies, taking one character in particular completely out of the realm they'd typically be relegated to--even then, they tweak audience expectations until the very end.  I wasn't expecting to be invested in the main characters to such a high degree.  Sure, the villains are pretty one-dimensional, but the idea of which people are the film's antagonists changes a couple of times during the movie.  Sorry for being so vague, but it's difficult to discuss how great Dolls is without giving everything away.

As with many Stuart Gordon movies, Dolls perfectly infuses horror with light comedy.  I'm hard-pressed to think of another director who consistently gets this difficult balance just right.  Occasionally, characters and situations teeter into cheesy territory, but this movie is brilliantly weird enough that there's rarely a chance to groan.  The parents' parts are the only over-the-top distractions, performance-wise, but they reminded me of something I might have seen in HBO's Tales from the Crypt series--another example of tongue-in-cheek entertainment that can also scare the hell out of someone.

The film's only shortcoming is in the dolls' stop-motion animation.  That may sound like a bigger deal than it is, but Gordon wisely spends his creature-effects bullets on key scenes, so that the dodgy execution isn't distracting throughout the movie.  Until about the halfway mark, we don't even see a doll attack; the director does very well with eerie whispers, scampering feet, and camera tricks--similar to (but arguably better than) the way Child's Play kept the evil Chucky doll hidden until just the right moment. Gordon teases us with cutaways and cutbacks of the dolls' expressions changing right in front of unsuspecting people, which is much more effective than seeing them clumsily stalk across the floor.

When we finally see full-on doll mayhem, the effect is alternately laughable and terrifying.  Dave Allen and John Carl Buechler's visual effects and puppet mechanics only work in small doses, and this is one case where I could justify a CG-assisted remake of a film.  There are too many inserts, too many blatant cuts to screaming actors' faces, and not enough extended, full-body shots of the murders to sell these effects.  Though I must give everyone involved credit for inventiveness: I've never seen a woman stumble down a hallway while miniature people saw her foot off.

These are minor complaints.  There's so much more going on here, so many great mysteries surrounding the dolls and the Hartwickes and the survivors of this terrible night, that a few iffy effects didn't diminish my overall enjoyment.  Movies like Dolls shine a harsh light on the crap that passes for modern horror movies, and makes me wonder why Stuart Gordon isn't the genre's most popular and successful mainstream director.

Sunday
May222011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)

Captain Jack Will Make You Sigh Tonight

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is a refreshing movie--if you need a catnap before driving home from the theatre.  Yep, I fell asleep four times watching this the other night, and am not ashamed to admit it.  I think the longest I was out was two minutes, but not once did I kick myself for having missed anything.

"But, Ian, how can you review a movie that you didn't fully see?"

Like so...

At the end of the third (and supposedly final) Pirates film, I was glad to see the franchise sail off into the sunset.  It had become a nest of bloated-to-bursting barnacles whose stories were so convoluted that I doubt even the actors could have told you what their characters' motivations were.  But because the franchise is pure Disney product, we were teased with the prospect of Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) and his former-enemy-turned-frenemy Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) setting out to find the fountain of youth.

I didn't hate that idea.  In fact, I thought scaling back on the epic plots and superfluous characters of the previous films could allow Sparrow and Barbossa to have a fun, original adventure.  When I heard that the sub-title for the fourth installment was On Stranger Tides, I got excited.

Silly me.  The only thing strange about this film is the fact that the screenwriters of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade haven't sued the hell out of Disney and screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio for plagiarism.  Granted, the Tim Powers novel on which Pirates 4 is allegedly based came out in 1987--two years before Last Crusade; but I'd bet my house that more people saw the third Indy film than read that book--meaning someone took a huge gamble on both the audience's apathy and non-existent attention span.

I should warn you that I'm about to spoil the entire movie.  Though you need only turn away if you're one of the five people in the audience who couldn't figure out exactly what would happen before the opening title sequence.  Jack Sparrow sets out to find the fountain of youth.  He finds it.  Barbossa joins up with the Royal Navy to procure the fountain's secrets for the king and settle a score with the fierce pirate lord Blackbeard (Ian McShane).  Barbossa betrays the Brits and briefly teams up with Jack to fulfill a prophecy in which he kills Blackbeard.  He kills Blackbeard.

Actually, he mortally wounds Blackbeard--setting the stage for a dramatic climax where Sparrow performs a ritual involving two chalices that have been filled with the water of eternal life.  Blackbeard must choose the correct one in order to live forever; if he chooses correctly, his daughter, Angelica (Penelope Cruz)--who's also been mortally wounded--will die.  He drinks from the cup and feels fine, until Jack reveals that he actually chose the wrong one; at which point Blackbeard is skinned alive by the winds of fate or something and his skeleton gets blown apart.

A lot more happens in the movie, but none of it means anything.  That sounds like an exaggeration, but I'm serious: None of the side stories or main plot points change the characters from where they were at the end of the last film.  We meet a handsome, young missionary named Philip (Sam Claflin) who helps Jack and Blackbeard transport a supermodel/mermaid named Syrena (Astrid Berges-Frisbey) to the fountain (the fountain's rejuvenating properties only kick in when mixed with mermaid tears).  These attractive but utterly blank and useless kids are meant to fill in for Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom, but reminded me more of Anakin and Padme from the Star Wars prequels.

As for the villain, McShane isn't given anything to do with Blackbeard except look sad when he's not yelling.  He turns a mythical butcher into a recluse who sometimes comes out of his cabin to weave some magic and pine for a relationship with his long, lost daughter.  It's fitting, though, as the quality of this series' antagonists has declined exponentially; this incarnation of Blackbeard doesn't barely registers compared to the wicked Barbossa of the first picture or Bill Nighy's boring-as-a-character-but-interesting-to-look-at Davy Jones from parts two and three.

McShane's visible lack of enthusiasm underscores a huge problem with On Stranger Tides: There are so many modern icons on the screen servicing a barely-written script that I have to wonder if the actors simply have no taste, or are just that easily bought off.  Dame Judy Dench pops up for thirty seconds at the beginning of the film to, I suppose, keep from defaulting on one of her homes between Bond films.

Keith Richards again surfaces as Jack Sparrow's dad.  When Depp revealed a few years ago that his Sparrow character was partially inspired by the Rolling Stones guitarist, everyone thought it would be awesome to see ol' Keith actually play the part.  When he popped up in the third movie, many people enjoyed a solid laugh of recognition, but that was it.  In this film, we don't even get that.  Richards' cameo is as distracting and unnecessary as the amusement-park-robot performance Depp gives for the entire film.

It may be hard to recall, but there was a time when Johnny Depp was an actor, and not just a movie star.  He used to take interesting roles and make bold choices with them--including, I'd argue, the original incarnation of Jack Sparrow in Gore Verbinski's first Pirates film.  Sparrow was a drunk and a rogue, but he was also a serious pirate, a legend.

On Stranger Tides sees Sparrow (and Depp) coasting on that reputation; now he's just a menace-free clown who gets swept along into grand adventure, rather than charting his own course. He's a slurring Bugs Bunny; a boozy, buccaneer Borat--minus the charm or ability to surprise an audience.  So little is required of Depp at this point that I'm sure Disney is looking to trim his $35 million salary (!!!) for the next installment by simply inserting footage from the previous films into whatever tropical locations they've scouted as backdrops.

Sorry if I've rained on anyone's parade. But, seriously, is it too much to ask that I be presented with a nearly two-and-a-half-hour adventure that's actually exciting?  Am I the only one who considers it a bad sign that my enjoyment and understanding of the film was in no way undercut by my having slept through part of it?  All the wacky stunts, finely detailed period costumes and protracted dialogue scenes give the film the illusion of epic heft, but they can't disguise the lack of wit, imagination and soul that some of us still look for in the movies.

Note: I didn't mention director Rob Marshall because there's nothing noteworthy in his direction here. He apparently blew all his pizzazz on Chicago ten years ago, and is now content to match the blandness of the previous two Pirates movies precisely.  I can no more assess his skills as a filmmaker based on this movie than I could judge a fry-making contest at McDonald's.

Friday
May202011

They Live (1988)

He Can't See without His Glasses!

Yesterday, a guy in line at the cafeteria overheard me talking about They Live with my friend, Bill.  He cut in with an enthusiastic, "Yeah! I love that movie!  It's so campy!"

That really bothered me, but I couldn't articulate why.  So, this morning, I consulted my indispensable writing companion, dictionary.com, and found the following definition of the word "camp":

"Something that provides sophisticated, knowing amusement, as by virtue of its being artlessly mannered or stylized, self-consciously artificial and extravagant, or teasingly ingenuous and sentimental."

They Live is none of those things, but I can understand why someone might apply that easy, awful word to this film.  First, it was made in the 1980s, which for most people under the age of twenty-five indicates an inherent lack of seriousness.  The era of action stars, big hair and practical special effects offered nothing compared to the timeless, quality art of, say, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World--which was itself born of 80s and 90s nostalgia (but it had the snarky wherewithal to acknowledge that anything pre-1999 sucked).

The second problem is that the movie stars pro-wrestling superstar "Rowdy" Roddy Piper as a nomadic construction worker fighting aliens.  Sounds awful, doesn't it?  Sounds like the perfect drinking-game movie, right?

Sorry to burst anyone's bubble, but They Live is a serious, paranoid action thriller.  It's fun, but only occasionally in ways that might be considered cornball.  Carpenter turned Ray Nelson's short story, "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" into a screenplay that posits a world view one might consider either conspiratorial or right on the mark.  Like Starship Troopers, this movie predicted events and cultural memes that have come to pass in recent years--minus the alien invasion stuff (I think).

But I've gotten way ahead of myself.  Piper plays George Nada, a drifter who joins a homeless colony on the outskirts of Los Angeles.  He finds day-labor work at a construction site, where he meets Frank (Keith David)--a bitter, struggling man who sees that the surrounding world of privilege is squeezing the middle class to create more unfortunate bums like him and his friends.  On his second night in town, George discovers a group of men conspiring inside a local church, which has been rigged with speakers that project pre-recorded choir music to the outside world.  He also finds a makeshift lab full of sunglasses lenses, and a strange graffiti tag on the back wall that reads, "They Live.  We Sleep."

The following night, an army of police raids the church and bulldozes the entire homeless village.  Cops in riot gear beat everyone they come across, and George barely escapes with his life.  He returns to the church in the morning to find it completely cleaned out--save for a box of sunglasses that was stashed in a secret compartment.  He pockets one of the pairs and walks into town, which turns out to be a very different Los Angeles than the one he'd known before.

The glasses cast everything in black-and-white and reveal a hidden world of messages and grotesque aliens living among us.  Every billboard, magazine ad, and storefront sign is actually a front for propagandist slogans like, "Obey", "Watch T.V.", and "Marry and Reproduce."  As seen through the glasses, hundreds of ordinary citizens become bug-eyed, half-peeled skeletons.  George learns that the alien invaders use a massive television signal to dull regular people's senses, preventing them from seeing the messages or their sinister neighbors' true faces.

George freaks out and goes on a shooting rampage.  He steals weapons from a pair of alien cops and targets any non-human he sees.  This is more difficult than it sounds, however, as each invader communicates George's whereabouts via wristwatches that also act as teleportation devices.  Soon, he's a wanted man, and he enlists Frank's reluctant help in locating the signal to destroy it and wake people up.

They Live works on every level.  As action movies go, it doesn't get much better than watching Piper and David go head to head for what seems like a ten-minute alley brawl.  These guys look like they're really beating the crap out of each other: When George pounds Frank's head into the pavement, we see the peeling pink flesh on the back of his head.  The fight goes on and on, but Carpenter--with, I imagine, Piper's experience as a showman--knows when to pull back, to let the audience believe either man has won, before launching into another round of fisticuffs and pipe-hitting.

This is also a nifty little piece of sci-fi.  The aliens' methods of control are revealed to be grander and grander, and we're left with the open-ended question of what they're really after.  Theories are offered, but unlike the similarly themed TV miniseries V, the invaders don't want us for food.  It's unclear if humans are just amusements or worker bees, and I love that there's not a climactic scene involving an alien overlord who explains everything away.  In fact, the end of They Live is pretty dark--hopeful, but dark in the way the Carpenter's best works tend to be.

The best thing I can say about the movie is that it's more relevant today than it was in 1988.  There's been talk of a remake, but if a filmmaker really wants to drive the point home, he simply needs to adapt Matt Taibbi's Rolling Stone article on Goldman Sachs's scot-free manipulation of world markets and CG a fright mask over Lloyd Blankfein's face.  The idea of a culture wasting away at the teat of thought-dulling media signals, hyper-consumerism and entertainment that pushes setting aside one's personal convictions for the promise of protection and wealth were, I'm sure, cute, far-fetched notions at the end of the "Me Decade".  But in 2011 these freakish things are as commonplace as nipple piercings.

Carpenter's messenger, his wake-up call to all of us, is a blank-faced, gun-toting pro-wrestler who spouts lines about kicking ass and chewing bubble gum.  To you, that may sound campy; but is it any less ridiculous than reality television or presidential campaign posters designed by an artist who made "Obey" an innocuous, pop-cultural meme?

Tuesday
May172011

Defending Your Life (1991) Home Video Review

It's the Chair for You, Kid!

Every aspiring romantic-comedy screenwriter should be forced to watch Albert Brooks' Defending Your Life.  This movie says more about love and the human condition than the last two-dozen such films I've suffered through.  Best yet, it's written for adults.

Brooks plays Daniel Miller, a mid-level ad executive who treats himself to a BMW on his birthday (I can't recall, but I believe it's the "big four-oh").  Zipping along the streets of L.A., rocking out to Barbara Streisand (!), he accidentally smashes head-on into a bus.  He comes to outside Judgment City, a cosmic way station for the recently deceased.  He takes a shuttle bus to a hotel, plops into bed, and awakens the next day to learn that he's about to spend the next four days in a courtroom.  His defender, a boisterous salesman-type named Bob Diamond (Rip Torn), must convince two judges that Daniel has evolved enough since his previous life to be reincarnated as a higher life form.

Representing The Universe is prosecutor Lena Foster (Lee Grant), a hard-edged professional who believes that the recurring theme of succumbing to fear in Daniel's life makes him ineligible to move on. Daniel sits in a swivel chair watching scenes from childhood and adulthood play out on a giant screen, while his lawyers argue over the meaning of "fear", "virtue", and "courage".  From a bullying incident that left young Daniel petrified of confrontation, to his hesitancy to invest in the fledgling Casio corporation, Foster posits that the defendant has lived timidly and could use at least another trip back to Earth in order to correct this dilemma of the soul.

It's not all business in Judgment City, though.  When he's not standing trial, Daniel tours a pleasant, green paradise that's full of all-you-can-eat gourmet restaurants, golf courses and comedy clubs.  While watching a particularly awful stand-up (Roger Behr), he meets Julia (Meryl Streep), a mother of two who died in her pool.  They bond over jokes and a love of food.  Julia's trial goes swimmingly compared to Daniel's, as she has half as many days to review as he does.  Indeed, she seems destined for sainthood: Daniel sits in on one of Julia's sessions, in which she rushes out of a burning house with her two kids in tow; then runs back in to save the family pet.

I'll leave the outcome of Daniel's trial for you to discover.  Defending Your Life is a movie that needs to be seen and appreciated.  I love that Brooks uses his platform to explore big ideas at the same time he's delivering a warm, sharp comedy.  The notion that there is no Hell is quite comforting; at the same time, Daniel's existential dread lies in the possibility of having to live life as a human being all over again. More to the point, he feels he's let himself and The Universe down by not seizing opportunities when he had them. This film is about hindsight, and recognizing key decisions in the smallest choices.

Unlike modern romantic comedies, the leads in this film are pleasant to watch.  Streep is her most natural here, giggling and enjoying the freedom of knowing that she led a good life; Brooks is a nebbishy sad-sack whose humor barely masks the constant regret of not having gone after what he wanted when he was alive.  Their courtship is believable and touching, and it's refreshing to see smart, older adults going on a date without some horrible, Three's-Company-style mishap throwing a third-act curve-ball into the mix.  Daniel's late-developing issue with Julia stems from his insecurities, and watching him fight his demons made my heart soar.

Defending Your Life is a small movie with epic themes, a brilliant slice of self-examination in which the way a person sits in a chair (curled up and cozy versus the strapped-in look of someone who's about to be electrocuted) speaks volumes, and a seeming act of selflessness means nothing.  I've seen fewer films with greater ambition, wit and spirit.  I hope that when the people responsible for Bridesmaids face their final judgment, they're shown this movie and weep forever.

Monday
May162011

Starship Troopers (1997)

How Could You Not See It?

Somehow, I'd avoided seeing Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers until yesterday.  When the movie came out fourteen years ago, I assumed it was a big, dumb pile of sci-fi trash--Aliens for the WB crowd. Indeed, there's a lot of fluff here that I probably wouldn't have appreciated at the time; now that we're at war, however, the film takes on a chilling new context that I doubt I'll be able to shake.

In the distant future, Earth finds itself battling several races of gigantic bugs from deep space. Their spawn arrive buried in waves of giant asteroids that invade our solar system, and it's up to the ultra-fascist planetary entity known as The Federation to keep the planet safe.  Starship Troopers tells the story of three best friends who enlist after high school.  Carmen (Denise Richards) wants to pilot starships.  Carl (Neil Patrick Harris) is an amateur psychic who dreams of communicating with the bugs in order to squash them.  Johnny (Casper Van Dien) wants nothing to do with war, but follows Carmen into service because he's madly in love.

Turns out, Johnny's a natural-born leader; his sharpshooting, determination and strict adherence to orders propel him up the ranks--which is fortunate because A) Carmen breaks up with him to pursue her career and a relationship with her steamy commanding officer, Zander (Patrick Muldoon), and B) a rogue asteroid slips past the orbital perimeter and destroys Johnny's home city of Buenos Aires, prompting an invasion of the bugs' home world.

Like Full Metal Jacket, the film is divided into two distinct parts: The kids' rigorous training and adaptation to military life, and their disillusionment in combat.  What makes Starship Troopers unique is Verhoeven and screenwriter Edward Neumeier's satirical look at the military/industrial complex.  The movie is peppered with recruitment commercials and Internet pop-ups inviting the audience to learn salacious details about the bugs' abilities and carnage; as well as messages of empowerment enjoyed only by Federation enlistees. As the plot unravels, it becomes obvious that the reason service is so highly regarded is that the powers that be have no real plan to combat their enemy, and have resorted to literally throwing bodies at the problem.

The story's genius lies primarily in its lack of a mustache-twirling evil boss or committee.  For the most part, the highest-ranking people we meet are still middle-managers carrying out the bizarre orders of people several rungs up.  This allows us to discover the ineptitude and deviousness of the organization as the soldiers and pilots do--which often happens while being swarmed by creatures they're ill-equipped and under-trained to fight.

But what makes Starship Troopers special is the characters' lack of big-picture awareness.  Despite being ambushed, decimated and lied to, Johnny, Carmen, and their fellow combatants continue to buy the Federation's official line.  Even when Carl shows up towards the end dressed head-to-toe as a space Nazi, everyone is more than happy to follow along with his plan to wipe out what can barely be called a sentient species.  This is the first sci-fi movie I can recall whose climactic human victory and subsequent celebration sickened me.

There's no way Verhoeven and company could have known that they were making a prescient piece of new-century propaganda, but Starship Troopers presages the war on terror and its accompanying voluntary relinquishing of freedoms and military fetishism with brutal accuracy.  I haven't read the Robert A. Heinlein book on which Neumeier based his script, but I can see why the director of Robocop would latch onto it.  The two films could easily occupy different points on the same universe's timeline, with the OCP-dominated Detroit police force acting as the prototype for the Federation's worldwide model.  The key difference, of course, is that in the good old days of Officer Murphy, there were dissident elements inside the organization willing to stand up for decency.

I don't think Starship Troopers would have been as effective were it not for Van Dien and Richards' utterly blank, charisma-free performances.  I'm not that familiar with the actors' other work, so I can't say if the dead-behind-the-eyes delivery was an acting choice or just standard operating procedure--I do know that they fit the story's needs to a "T".  They're the same kind of young dupes we saw in Reefer Madness, relying on Big Brother to tell them what to think.  Even after they've had holes blown in them and lost several friends to awesome strategic blunders, there's still an aw-shucks, all-American kid quality to them that's more Saved by the Bell than Saving Private Ryan.

Even if the film wasn't a fascinating political allegory, it would still be a thrilling piece of science fiction.  Verhoeven knows how to stage a hell of a battle scene, and is so willing to sacrifice members of his main cast that each skirmish carries with it the potential for surprise.  The bugs eviscerate Federation soldiers with whipping claws and massive beaks; some of them are building-sized, fire-breathing sand beetles; some of them, we discover, have wings.  And the Federation soldiers prove little match for them, firing bulky machine guns and small nuclear warheads.  All of the home world skirmishes descend into chaos, no matter how much more prepared the invading armies consider themselves to be.

I just considered something that, if true, could put an even darker spin on the material.  Late in the film, Carl reveals that the reason the bugs are so unbeatable is because they're protecting a "brain bug", an intelligent beast that can not only strategise, but also psychically communicate with every other bug on the planet and surrounding systems.  Carl deploys hundreds of thousands of troops to capture the leader, resulting in more heroism, casualties, and advancement for the science division.

What I didn't realize is that the audience is given no proof of the aliens' mastermind capabilities.  Sure, a number of the bugs' victims have their brains sucked out, and the lower order treat the pulsating master slug with as much reverence as roach-like creatures can muster; but it's unclear whether Carl is right about their intelligence, or if he's simply using circumstantial evidence to bolster the Federation's case for prolonging the war and exterminating "anything with more than two legs".  Until the Buenos Aires attack, the Federation took more of a defensive posture, but the event is used as an excuse for the brass to pursue their cloudy agenda in the name of liberty and survival.

I can't recommend this film enough.  Starship Troopers works well as a distraction for people who just want to see hot actors blow up CGI monsters with cool weapons; but it's also an eerie look at unchecked power and unquestioned patriotism.

Note: For fans of Saved by the Bell, you may recognize Patrick Muldoon as the guy who played "Jeff" on the show.  He was the sleazy college guy who broke up Zack and Kelly; he's essentially the same character here, but with a few hundred more shades of gray.