(On-demand, August 2012) Everything about Battleship is ridiculous, starting with the premise. Adapting a board game by turning it in a movie where the US navy battles aliens? Well, I suppose someone thought it was a good idea. Never mind the pedestrian dialogue, contrived set-pieces, dull characters (too bad, Taylor Kitsch… although Rihanna does a bit better in her big-screen debut), terrible science and suspicious similarities with other films. (This best Michael Bay movie not actually directed by Michael Bay feels a lot like Transformers 3.5, but there are similarities here with everything from Titanic to Independence Day.) The trick, of course, is that by Hollywood’s action-movie standards, Battleship isn’t badly made: director Peter Berg knows how to put together crowd-pleasing entertainment, the action sequences are spectacular, the look at the modern US navy is intriguing and the technical credentials are polished to a fine gloss (the sound design itself is exceptional). But appreciating this kind of film requires a special mind-set: Battleship’s make-or-break moment comes at the beginning of the third act, as a patently impossible “let’s get the band of brothers back together” moment occurs. At that point, viewers will either throw their hands up in the air in disbelief, or rock out to AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck”. As for the rest, stuff blows up real good (nowhere no more spectacularly than during a long uninterrupted shot flying over a sinking ship.) and there’s a lot of detail shown on-screen. For Science-Fiction fans, the pickings are slim: Beyond the excuse needed to pit the modern US Navy against more capable foes, Battleship notably isn’t interested in explaining anything –besides a few mid-story flashes of memory transfer that are never referred to again. But that only makes it a terrible SF movie, not necessarily a bad viewing experience. Anyone with a tolerance, heck, a fondness for the kind of gloriously loud Hollywood action film will get a charge out of Battleship. The soundtrack helps.
(On-demand, August 2012) After the very-loosely-scripted antics of Borat and Bruno, Sacha Baron Cohen is back in a more traditional comedy mold with The Dictator, which follows an arrogant tyrant forced to confront New York City’s harsher realities. Plot is the least of the film’s concerns, though, as it showcases Cohen’s character work and does its best to subvert most of the usual movie-comedy conventions. Don’t expect the dictator protagonist to have a pro-democracy change of heart, don’t expect the heroine to break out of her androgyny, and certainly don’t expect the movie to play nice, because it delights in being as offensive as it can be. There’s something to offend everyone here, but The Dictator at least manages to get a few laughs out of the results. It’s a very uneven film, with humor as worldly-sophisticated as it can be gross-vulgar, scenes that drag on far after they’ve made their point, or recurring gags that clearly aren’t as funny as the filmmakers intended. Some of the targets are easy (including an on-the-nose moment in which parallels are made in-between the USA and dictatorships), “eww” is not a synonym for “ha-ha”, and some of the grosser writing felt lazy. But it works often enough that even the unfunny stuff is bulldozed away by the next rounds of laughs. Cohen is, even in a scripted setting, as fully committed to his role, and he seems to be setting an example for the other actors trying their best to keep up. It’s almost always funny seeing actors like Ben Kingsley in those kinds of dumb comedies, not to mention a quick appearance from Edward Norton. Still, even with the laughter, there’s a lot of slack in The Dictator’s comedy engine, and it’s those kinds of dull moments, leavened by vulgarity, that would make anyone with for a bit more discipline from Cohen or director Larry Charles. If anything, The Dictator shows that Cohen’s brand of comic offensiveness can be sustained on a script… but it would be better if it was just a bit more controlled.
(On-demand, August 2012) Sequels are almost expected to be markedly worse than the original, but even with lowered expectations, it’s remarkable how quickly Species 2 goes rancid. The original may not have been exceptional, but it had some basic competence on display. This isn’t the case here, and it’s exhausting to point at all the reasons why the film is so awful. Despite a few good ideas and an intriguing opening-up of the plot far beyond the original’s scope, Species 2 quickly shoots itself in the foot thanks to terrible writing, no control over tone, overuse of exploitation elements and little conceptual coherency. Perhaps the single funniest aspect of the film is seeing Michael Madsen and Mykelti Williamson play their roles as if they were in a comedy film: Madsen almost seems to be parodying his own role in the original (unlike Natasha Henstridge, who plays it straight) and their ham-fisted antics make for a strange counterpoint to the deadly-serious acting by James Cromwell and Justin Lazar as they try to work out father/son dramatic issues in a film that’s really more interested in sex and violence. The gore and nudity seem far more exploitative here than in the original, to little effect when the rest of the film is so uneven. Some interesting set design can’t compensate for flat direction, a repellent quasi-joking attitude toward serial sexual violence, and gag-inducing dialogue. Cataloguing Species 2’s plot-holes would require more effort than a film of this nature deserves, and that stands as a damning overall assessment. It’s easy to find more than a few recent straight-to-DVD movies that were better than this theatrical release.
(On-demand, August 2012) Unaccountably, I had never seen Species until now, nearly seventeen years later. For some reason, I had filed away this title as a throwaway B-grade monster movie, not worth the trouble to seek out. But the future is now, and the film is only a few buttons away from on-demand viewing! While Species is, in fact, a B-grade monster movie, it’s a slickly-made one, with a few good ideas and some noteworthy elements. Take your pick of the various names featured in the credits: H.R. Giger’s nightmarish creature design (leading to a few “have I really seen this?” moments), a scene-setting performance by young Michelle Williams as a young alien on the run, Michael Madsen’s cocky turn as a special operative, Forrest Whittaker’s good take on a bad “empath” role, Ben Kingsley as a government operative, or Natasha Henstridge’s asset-baring first big-screen performance. In Science-Fiction terms, Species is borderline incoherent nonsense, but it springs from a fairly clever conceit of remote alien invasion via radio-signal DNA sequencing. (Other written-SF stories have tackled the idea, but it’s still relatively original for Movie-SF.) There are also a few nice things to say about the themes of the film, which combine a few rough ideas about predation and reproduction with more standard horror-film tropes. Plot-wise, the film remains a monster chase, but the team of monster-hunters is shown effectively, and the rhythm doesn’t really falter until the last act’s fairly standard subterranean heroics. Species’ dynamic night-time chase sequences show that the film had a decent budget, making the B-movie exploitation elements seem all the more noteworthy. While some of the film is still stuck in the mid-nineties, it hasn’t aged all that badly and rewards casual viewing even today.
(On-demand, August 2012) It’s nonsense to discuss multi-million-dollar movies in terms of earnestness, but Red Tails is difficult to approach otherwise. It’s a well-intentioned, often spectacular attempt to restore glory to the story of the Word War 2 all-black Tuskegee Airmen, but it’s marred by a terrible script with flat characters, gag-inducing dialogue and dramatic arcs that couldn’t be closer to cliché. This mish-mash between good intentions and flat execution makes the film frustrating to discuss, as one threatens to overshadow the other. Admirably, the film was conceived, financed, produced and partially directed by George Lucas, using his Star Wars money to do some good and tell a story that deserved wider recognition. As a piece exploring racism during WW2, Red Tails is far more entertaining than the ponderous Miracle at St-Anna even as it scrupulously avoids getting too unpleasant in the details. Also worth praising are the air combat sequences, shot with crackling energy and showcasing the best of what special-effects technology can now offer to such stock sequences. There’s a lot to enjoy here, even the somewhat pop-corn treatment of the situation: it’s OK, from time to time, to have a movie in which African-American whoop it up while burning Nazis alive. As for historical accuracy, well, this is a Hollywood(ish) movie, after all, where “based on a true story” itself can be fiction. No, what hurts Red Tails a lot more is the amateur script, which doesn’t bother itself with distinctive characters or refined dialogue: everything is on-the-nose obviousness, heard countless times in similar films. The dramatic arcs are all copy-and-pasted from other movies, without too many surprises. Even more disappointing is the film’s fuzzy structure, ending on a note that isn’t anywhere near the triumph it should have been. (“Hey guys, why the funeral?”) Red Tails really comes alive when it’s up in the air, and even then when characters don’t say anything. While the dog-fighting sequences are state-of-the-art, everything else feels far too old-fashioned to be satisfying. But, at least, you can feel that it’s trying really really hard, and kicking the film for what it’s not feels like being unkind to a particularly happy puppy.
(On-demand, August 2012) What a strange film this is. Playing off the elements of the Snow White fairytale, it teeters between fantasy archetypes subversion, camp humor, beautiful visuals and oddly stilted locations. In the hands of director Tarsem Singh, Mirror Mirror is, at the very least, beautiful to look at: Nearly every frame looks polished to perfection, and imaginative visuals are featured throughout. There is some inventive costuming, the actors all seem to have some fun (Armie Hammer’s take on puppy-love is hilarious, while Julia Roberts seems to relish the antagonist role) and some of the funny moments are, in fact, pretty funny. Unfortunately, the flashes of cleverness and humor are intermittent: the script seems to lurch from one mode to another without coherency, and the humor seems sprinkled randomly rather than coming from a unified approach. (As it is, a significant portion of the gags embarrassingly fall flat.) Mirror Mirror remains amiable throughout, but it seems to be trying a lot of things without understanding how they fit together. For a big-budget film, it does seem to take place in a mere handful of locations. The inclusion of modern idiom and hipper-than-thou cynicism seem particularly out of place in a fantasy setting. Thematically, I’m not sure that the stated feminist ideals of the film are actually upheld, especially once the antagonist seems dispatched with a superfluous amount of cruelty. Mirror Mirror’s lack of tonal unity makes it hard to really get into the groove of the film, and easier to notice its flaws. There have been plenty of similar and far more successful takes on such material (Enchanted springs to mind) and what sets them apart is cohesion, not scattered cleverness. [September 2012 Update: This review is a bit too harsh. At least Mirror Mirror is better than Snow White and the Huntsman.]
(Cable TV, August 2012) I wasn’t expecting much from this killer-shark movie, which makes its disappointment even more palpable. Formula monster-movies can’t really hope to impress on the force of their premises, so it’s usually down to the quality of their execution. Alas, while director David R. Ellis has had a few successes in his career, Shark Night won’t rank as one of them: While there are a few interesting moments in the film, those are drowned in flat characters, dumb plotting, mean-spirited deaths and a third-act reveal that adds a useless human component to the shark threat. It all amounts to a curiously tepid “thriller”, one that quickly fades in mind as soon as the credits roll. (It speaks volume that the best part of the film is a dumb post-credit music video in which the cast pokes fun at the film itself.) None of the actors distinguish themselves in interchangeable roles, and while the direction has occasional stuff-jumping-at-you 3D moments, it really isn’t enough to compensate for the missing fun component. As I get farther and farther away from the 18-to-34 demographic profile, my tolerance for meaningless horror movies is quickly fading. While far less offensively gory than last year’s aquatic-threat Piranha 3D, this Shark Night is almost completely empty of anything that could distinguish it, or even make it enjoyable in a trashy fashion. Sometimes, a film is remarkable even in being terrible. Shark Night doesn’t even earn this distinction.