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Friday, December 28, 2012

2012 In Review: The Year of the Genre Film

Although our uneven current cinematic year hasn’t quite shuffled into history, and several high profile releases remain unseen, one critical truth shines through: the ambitious genre film reigned supreme in 2012. Certainly, genre films have always been a fertile ground for unconventional storytelling, veiled commentary and directorial experimentation, but this particular calendar year saw them stretched, twisted, challenged and celebrated in fascinating and boldly engaging ways. The results were pictures predominantly aimed at general audiences that sought to push the boundaries of what mainstream entertainment can strive for. And, man alive, did movie fans ever reap the benefits.

If Christopher Nolan revolutionized the superhero epic with 2008’s The Dark Knight, 2012 continued the trend of filmmakers tackling iconic characters in order to craft magnificent, reverent blockbusters with (*gasp*) brains. Joss Whedon transformed a canny business idea into the delirious bubblegum nirvana The Avengers, a superhero team-up extravaganza that used lovingly rendered pop characterizations and witty banter to elevate a silly straight-from-the-panels alien invasion story into pure kickass bliss. Picking up where he left off, Nolan returned to the Batman-verse with The Dark Knight Rises, closing out his trilogy with a dense, occasionally messy explosion of real world concerns, spectacle and brooding mythical exploration. Running at almost three hours, the picture nearly buckles under its own weight, yet emerges as an engrossingly compelling portrait of go-for-broke grand-scale moviemaking. Never one to be left out of a party, even James Bond amped up the sophistication factor, barreling through Sam Mendes’ thrilling, thematically rich Skyfall with renewed vigour and… existential angst? Shocking. Positively shocking.

And what of the year’s most insane and rewarding gamble, Cloud Atlas? Helmed by the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer, this genre-hopping sci-fi book adaptation disappeared down a rabbit hole of loosely connected stories with the passionate purpose of making sense of the human condition and the impact we have on one another across time. By turns operatic, campy, exhilarating and sweet, it’s the type of Big Idea filmmaking that rarely exists outside of the art house theatre anymore. Which is a damn shame, as the trio of directors achieve something sublime with Atlas; a work of art that not only nails huge emotional and visceral beats, but leaves the viewer intensely pondering what they themselves take away from the material. Despite disappointing grosses, it’s a unique creation that will deservedly live on and occupy film discussions for decades to come.

Even on the smaller scale, there were gems aplenty to treasure. Brick director Rian Johnson finally
made the leap to the big time, gifting audiences with the innovative Looper, a sci-fi fable that remixed its pop-culture influences into something daring, brainy and original. Joe Carnahan’s bleak, haunting survival tale The Grey saw Liam Neeson battling both a ravenous pack of wolves and his own internal fury with the pitiless world around him. The gleefully bonkers Cabin in the Woods provided director Drew Goddard and producer Joss Whedon with a gore-streaked playground in which to eviscerate and pay tribute to the glories of gross-out monster movie cinema. TV adaptation 21 Jump Street, helmed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, took a terrible buddy-cop concept and, thanks to dynamite comedic duo Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, mined insanely-quotable meta comic gold. And who will ever forget Gareth Evans’ brutal Indonesian martial arts orgy The Raid: Redemption? That film offers definitive proof that Hollywood still has a lesson or two left to learn in the action picture dojo.

Certainly, there were misfires to be mourned and obsessively autopsied. Name a year where there aren’t. However, the majority were felled by storytelling fumbles, not small-minded laziness. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, the most maddening of the bunch, promises so much before devolving into a nonsensical creature-feature mish-mash. The obscenely popular Hunger Games, which boasts a solid dystopian premise and a terrific, layered heroine, fails to coherently adapt the world created by author Suzanne Collins, while Disney’s visually impressive John Carter wanders blindly around in circles trying to figure out how to make Edgar Rice Burroughs’ classic stories relevant to today’s youth.

If nothing else, this year’s genre output stood out as a beacon of hope for intelligent filmgoers; a promising reassurance that – no matter the state of the Hollywood studio system – there’s enough breathing room for movies to take chances and think outside the market-tested boxes. We can still be surprised, touched and awed. 2012 has set a high bar. Come New Year, it’s going to be a lot of fun journeying back into the comforting dark recesses of the theatre to see what wonders are waiting to be discovered. Meet you there.

*Originally published at BeatRoute Magazine.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Film Review - RISE OF THE GUARDIANS

As an animation house, Dreamworks tends to rely heavily on a wash, rinse and repeat formula for its family entertainment, mixing light-weight storytelling with A-list star power and shallow pop culture references. Occasionally, the formula works, as in Shrek or Kung Fu Panda. More often than not, though, the results are instantly forgettable and, in the worst cases (Shark Tale, anyone?), grating. No wonder How to Train Your Dragon was such an abashed joy: it was the rare entry in their catalogue to focus on heart, imagination and storytelling over exhausted market-tested gimmickry.

While their latest, the generically titled Rise of the Guardians (No, the owls of Ga’Hoole do not cameo), never soars to the breathtaking heights of the exhilaratingly loveable Dragon, it nonetheless makes broad, colourful strides in the right direction. Based on William Joyce’s "The Guardians of Childhood" book series, Rise boasts a premise that is ingenious in its kid-pleasing appeal: Santa Claus (called North and played by Alec Baldwin), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman – a cheeky highlight in rugby hooligan mode), Sandman and the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) are a top secret super-team responsible for protecting Earth’s ankle biters. Their greatest foe? Pitch Black (slyly silky Jude Law), better known as the Boogieman, who seeks to weaken the Guardians’ powers by polluting children’s sleep with nightmares.

Once Pitch’s threat is recognized by Guardian head honcho The Man in the Moon, he inducts Jack Frost (Chris Pine) into the group. Resembling a sullen My Chemical Romance fan in his form-fitting blue hoodie and skinny jeans, the reluctant silver-maned Jack longs only for friendship and the recovery of his lost memories of creation. Of course, in order for him to complete his Hero’s Journey and defeat Pitch Black, he must discover the importance of teamwork and, more importantly, his own importance in the fanciful minds of young believers everywhere.

Although the film was directed by longtime storyboard artist Peter Ramsey, executive director Guillermo del Toro’s (Pan’s Labyrinth) darkly quirky presence that looms largest over the film. Rise of the Guardians is a lush visual feast of stunning unusual settings, from North’s Yeti-run toyshop (the dim-witted elves basically just take up space) to Bunny’s Easter Island-like fantasy land of mobile stone eggs and vibrant rivers of decorative dye. Real attention has also been paid to making these established characters feel new. The filmmakers have a lot of fun putting their own spin on seemingly familiar sights, such as the tattooed North’s gravity-defying sled, Tooth Fairy’s cute diminutive helpers and the trails of ornate ice emanating from Frost’s magical staff. The mute Sandman – who speaks in pictographs – proves the greatest spectacle, however, in a climactic sequence that’s utterly breathtaking.

If only the script, by David Lindsay-Abaire (Robots, Rabbit Hole), was as stellar as the sumptuous 3D imagery. After a gorgeously haunting opening introducing Jack, Rise of the Guardians sort of pleasantly plods along, from action beat to action beat, before finding its rhythm around the hour mark. Yet, once the gears have lined up, and the central message regarding the significance of belief and wonder kicks in, the weighty emotions are so warmly communicated that it’s easy to forgive the narrative shortcomings. A few more polishes and this might have been a great movie, as opposed to just a really good one.

Ultimately, this film and its heartfelt themes should play like gangbusters to both its target audience – who will be swept up by the beloved iconic leads and clever eye candy – and their nostalgic parents. Rise of the Guardians may not belong among the best modern animated motion pictures, but its touching, dazzling and dynamic. There’s purity to its intentions and, when it comes to family fare, sometimes that’s the most desirable gift you can hope for.

3.5 out of 5

*Originally printed in BeatRoute Magazine: http://beatroute.ca/2012/12/04/rise-of-the-guardians/

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Film Review - THE SESSIONS

If sexual intercourse is meant to be enjoyed only within the confines of holy matrimony, what is one to do if all hope of a romantic future has evaporated? That’s the haunting question plaguing Mark O’Brien, a devout Catholic writer and poet, whose childhood battle with polio has left him almost completely immobile. Now 38-years-old, a virgin, and yearning to experience that most wondrous human connection, he decides, in a moment of courage, to turn to a trained sex surrogate for relief.

That’s the curious premise of writer/director Ben Lewin’s The Sessions, a frank, funny and heartfelt new drama inspired by the real life O’Brien’s 1990 article “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.” Featuring John Hawkes, in a physically transformative performance of fascinating soulfulness and vulnerability, the film presents its gurney-bound Berkeley, California protagonist as a man desperately in love with the notion of finding true love. Rebuffed in an attempt to woo his cherished caretaker, he turns to matter-of-fact surrogate Cheryl (a radiant, fearless Helen Hunt), who agrees to treat him over six expert erotic sessions. However, as the therapy bumpily proceeds, feelings become complicated, and the two unlikely bedmates find their professional association spilling over into their unfulfilling private lives.

There are landmines a-plenty in this subject matter, and Lewin deserves credit for embracing O’Brien’s story with such genuine warmth and understanding. There’s an endearing purity of spirit to The Sessions that’s infectious; it adores and protects its characters, allowing the central relationship enough breathing room to develop organically. There’s not a mean or immature bone in the film’s body, and its portrait of sex is among of the most honest ever depicted. But it’s not about the function of Mark and Cheryl’s genitals so much as how they emotionally navigate their encounters and the issues they’re dealing with (he’s weighed down by insecurity and Catholic guilt while she’s trapped in an unsatisfying marriage to a dullard intellectual (Adam Arkin).

Running a breezy 95 minutes, The Sessions is frequently hilarious. Lewin’s script recognizes our human impulse to turn into stand-up comedians in the face of personal embarrassment, and Hawkes’ deftly delivers awkward wisecracks that are both humorous and insightful. He’s also often paired brilliantly with William H. Macy, as O’Brien’s priest, who drolly struggles to walk the line between spiritual advisor and encouraging friend. Occasionally Lewin goes a little too far for a laugh – silly conversations between Mark’s new caregiver (Moon Bloodgood) and a suspicious hotel clerk (Ming Lo) are gratingly cutesy – yet even still the quality of the hits far outweigh the odd misses.

Although the film is intimate in focus and ambition, there’s a real crowd-pleasing quality to its underdog story. We root for Mark and want to see him succeed and find peace. Sweet, winning and gentle, The Sessions is a fitting tribute to an intriguing man told with dignity, respect and, yes, love.

4 out of 5

*Originally printed in BeatRoute Magazine.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Film Review - TAKEN 2

2009’s Taken was a product of both limited ambition and intriguing novelty; a cut-and-paste Eurotrash blast-em-up starring respected thespian Liam Neeson as a vengeful father on a bullet-riddled rampage. Like the Charles Bronson Death Wish films, it offered cheap, vicious thrills in a hopelessly square conservative package, suggesting brutal vigilantism as the only viable course of action. But, thanks to cool scenes of the stunt-casted stoic star gravely reciting his special skills, and slick direction from District B13 helmer Pierre Morel, the whole wobbly enterprise gained a moderate level of respectability. It was fun, in spite of its doofy, xenophobic politics and B-movie clunkiness.

Alas, the same cannot be said for Taken 2, a generic, lazy cash-grab of a follow-up that’s only slightly more competent than your average DTV fodder. Rather than take the mean spirit of the original and go broader, darker or, god forbid, weirder, producer Luc Besson and directer Olivier Megaton (not his real last name) have taken the safest, most boring route possible, cranking out a virtual carbon copy that offers nothing new. You can feel yourself rapidly forgetting the picture during every one of its weary 91 minutes.

Picking up shortly after the last adventure, Taken 2 sees retired CIA agent Bryan Mills being targeted by the grieving father (Rade Serbedzija) of one of his many victims. Shortly into an impromptu Istanbul family vacation, our hero and his ex-wife (Famke Janssen) are, yes, taken, leaving their mighty mature-looking teenage daughter (Maggie Grace) to help aid in their escape. Of course, for justice to be truly served, Mills must ultimately track down every one of his greasy captors and efficiently kick their ass off the moral coil.

While the perfunctory, silly script by Besson and Robert Mark Kamen (Mills now has mutant sonar skills!) is pretty dire, there’s no reason Taken 2 couldn’t have sailed by on a tide of breathless violent choreography. However, Megaton (Transporter 3) seems incapable of directing a fight or chase sequence that isn’t a surrealistic, jarring mess of spastically edited chaos. He doesn’t so much show action as aggressively implies it's taking place. This technique, no doubt partly used to disguise the fact the imposing and game 60-year-old Neeson isn’t, in actuality, quite as spry as Jason Statham, robs the action of propulsiveness and impact. There are points when it’s near impossible to tell who is hitting who with what.

Worse, without any rapid-fire tension, we’re less distracted from the grimy sexism of the series, which really oozes to the surface here. In the Taken-verse, women are either virginal, helpless angels who must be protected beyond all sane, socially acceptable reason (Mills’ relationship with his daughter borders on creepily obsessive), or a commodity to be dominated like subhuman sex slaves. It’s an ugly, unhealthy message, and one the clueless screenplay is interested only in exploiting, not exploring.

Yet, to become angered or offended by the movie’s crassness is to show more investment in the material than even the filmmakers could muster. It’s a mite sad the most engaging moments come from music cues swiped wholesale from Drive (a comparison that should never have been invited). One could say Taken 2 fires nothing but blanks. However that would imply it even had the energy to load the gun in the first place.

1.5 out of 5

*Originally printed in BeatRoute Magazine.

Film Review - THE MASTER

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master is a profoundly fascinating and engrossing head-scratcher of a motion picture. Visually lush, cryptically aloof and boasting two of the most absorbing go-for-broke performances of 2012, it’s a chilly, intentionally oblique adult drama that actively challenges the audience to perform some heavy mental lifting. Those who found Anderson’s There Will Be Blood too meditative and enigmatic will be utterly adrift here. However, viewers able to lock on to its unusual wavelength will be treated to a provocative and unforgettable cinematic experience.

Set predominantly in 1950, during the birth of the American dream, the film stars an unrecognizably gnarled Joaquin Phoenix as Freddie Quell, a socially maladjusted Naval veteran drifting through life on an gloomy cloud of homemade booze and pent-up salacious desire. Out drunkenly wandering one night, he crawls aboard a ship occupied by Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an intellectual and charismatic religious leader and author (loosely modelled on L. Ron Hubbard), and his brood of converts. Immediately drawn to this shell-shocked lost cause, Dodd welcomes Freddie into his flock, determined to help guide him to spiritual reawakening.

Of course, being an Anderson film, The Master isn’t particularly story-driven. Rather, it’s a rich character study that uses riveting conversation and behaviour to explore philosophical ideas pertaining to humanity’s suppressed animalistic nature and yearning for community and connection (this isn’t the anti-Scientology screed some had anticipated/hoped for). In Dodd, the anchorless Freddie finds a stable presence of acceptance and equality. The leader, however, looks at his new charge and sees an alternately attractive and repulsive glimpse of the id-fuelled depravity and unrestrained emotions he himself battles to keep concealed from the world, not to mention his severe wife (Amy Adams).

There is a refreshing lack of judgment surrounding the characters. The writer/director knows his two central figures are quite mad, but is more interested in analytically observing them than tearing them down – a far more compelling choice. Working with cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr. (a recent Coppola regular), Anderson uses epic movie sheen to create gorgeously lived-in, mundane environments for their intensely personal discourse. Only Jonny Greenwood’s score hints at any underlying insidiousness.

The Master is a picture to revel in, to take apart, debate and stew over. It defies easy categorization and is exhilarating in its strange and mystifying otherness. A bold, ambitious and original statement, Anderson’s latest reaffirms his status as a preeminent master of the cinematic form. And one worth believing in, at that.

4 out of 5

*Originally printed in BeatRoute Magazine.

Film Review - THE WATCH

What happens when you toss Attack the Block, some Judd Apatow man-child pictures and a Costco commercial in a blender and hit “Generify”? You wind up with a bland, watered down product like The Watch, a shaggy dog alien invasion comedy that aims for weird, wild and wacky territory, yet stalls out with a gasp in the middle of the road. Who would have guessed the sight of Vince Vaughn tenderly tongue-kissing the corpse of a green pincered extraterrestrial Pumpkinhead clone would feel so mundane? Not I, for one.

Vaughn’s loutish Bob is just one of the Glenview, Ohio nincompoops rallied together by anal-retentive, hyper-PC Costco manager Evan (Ben Stiller) after a mysterious attack leaves one of the mega-store’s security guards sans skin. Battling uncooperative police and an apathetic public, the newly formed neighbourhood watch group, which also includes borderline-deranged high-school dropout Franklin (Jonah Hill), and afro’d introvert Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade), inadvertently begins investigating a series of close encounters of the slimy and cow-splattering kind. Can they settle their combustible group dynamics and personal crises long enough to take down the town’s aspiring new reptilian overlords?

Despite a promising opening, Hot Rod helmer Akiva Schaffer’s film quickly loses sight of its raunchy V riff ambitions, filling time with amusing, if unfocused (improvised?), dick joke-filled banter and superfluous subplots involving Stiller’s sterile sperm and Vaughn’s creepy obsession with his daughter’s burgeoning sexuality. The reliable comic star power, and supporting turns by unsettling neighbour, Billy Crudup, and buffoonish cop, Will Forte, ease the bumpy journey, but there’s no bizarro spark or momentum. By the time the routine action climax kicks in, it feels obligatory, not necessary.

To see such a fantastic collection of talent toiling in such unconfident paper-thin material is disheartening. In better hands, this might have been a fun gross-out variation on the Ghostbusters formula instead of a forgettable misfired opportunity. Alas, despite its gooey sci-fi trappings, The Watch couldn’t be any more earthbound.

2 out of 5

*Originally printed in BeatRoute Magazine.

Film Review - BURLESQUE ASSASSINS

Writer/director Jonathan Joffe’s Burlesque Assassins offers blood, bullets, babes and tan-lined Hitler clones. What more could one ever ask from a motion picture?

Quite a bit, unfortunately. How about a quick-witted, engaging story to accompany the non-stop T&A-fuelled hijinx? Or sharp comedic dialogue that doesn’t elicit weary groans? (“You just knocked out Randy!” “What can I say, I’m a real knockout!”)

Alas, the Calgary-made Burlesque Assassins doesn’t so much “Seduce and Destroy” as underwhelm and frustrate.

Starring raven-haired stunner Roxi D’Lite as a 1950s tough gal recruited into a top secret burlesque unit, the film chronicles a covert mission to infiltrate an Alberta cabaret and recover Nazi Atomic Death Ray codes from Stalin (Dusan Rokvic), Mussolini Jr. (Matthew Graham) and Hitler 2.0 (Brendan Hunter).

Attractive back-up is offered by experienced operatives Bombshell Belle (Kiki Kaboom), Katerina Molotov (Carrie Schiffler), and Koko La Douce, portrayed by, naturally, Koko La Douce herself. Playing Charlie to the pasty-sporting fighting force is Johnny Valentine (Armitage Shanks – who was born to star in a flick like this), a cigar-chomping, gravel-voiced ladies man with questionable taste in disguises.

Joffe has an undeniably fun germ of an idea here (a boobier cartoon riff on Inglourious Basterds), but the results tend to be more tedious than titillating; a somewhat exhausting series of creatively-staged, yet energy-deprived burlesque routines and unsuccessful stabs at feverish broad camp.

That said, the film is not without its charms. Betty Boop-esque star D’Lite is a bubbly, ravishing presence, and the film’s intentionally terrible accents (Graham is Italian by way of Chico Marx) and black and white newsreel gags offer welcome amusement.

Ultimately, though, this is a stagebound one-joke sketch concept that, stretched to 90 minutes, strains and unravels like a moth-eaten corset.

1.5 out of 5

*Originally printed in BeatRoute Magazine.

Film Review - TED

Ted, the uneven, taboo-taunting directorial debut film by Family Guy mastermind Seth MacFarlane, seriously strains plausibility. Not in regards to the cursing, boozing, whore-mongering teddy bear title character. No, that part I can believe. But rather that a 35-year-old man would struggle for even a split second to choose between said stuffed animal and Mila Kunis. Madness!

Amazingly, John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg) is just that dunderheaded. He’s a Bostonian stoner man-child, half-assing his days away at a dumpy rental car lot, who won the heart of Kunis’s smart and stunning Lori Collins four years ago by doofishly clocking her on the dance floor. Standing crudely in the way of their relationship’s long-term prospects is Ted (MacFarlane, recycling his Peter Griffin voice), an anthropomorphized plush toy John wished to life one fateful 1985 Christmas day, who now must adapt to a world beyond his best “thunder buddy’s” pot-scented apartment. Can their unhealthy codependent friendship survive?

As far as premises for raunchy R-rated comedies go, Ted has a damn good one. Unfortunately the movie, scripted by MacFarlane, Alec Sulkin and Wellesley Wild, too often feels like a slightly sweeter extended Family Guy episode – packed with characteristic hit-or-miss random pop-culture references (Flash Gordon and Indiana Jones feature heavily), warped cutaway gags and “edgy” offensive punchlines – mated in an unholy union with a generic, flat human-centeric rom-com. And as much as the picture wants us to love Ted, he’s really not spectacularly fun to hang out with; an effective CG presence with inconsistent physical abilities whose non-stop vulgarity isn’t as clever or shocking as his creators appear to think it is.

The film works in fits and starts; a brilliantly strange ‘80s quasi-celebrity cameo here, a perverse produce-penetrating babe-on-bear sex scene there. Yet it never quite gels into the crass, confidently engaging crowd-pleaser it yearns to be. Alas, like it’s fuzzy ‘lil hellraiser, Ted is ultimately pretty much just disposable fluff.

2 out of 5

*Originally printed in BeatRoute Magazine.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Film Review - THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

As the saying goes, all wonderful journeys must inevitably come to an end. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, the rousing final chapter in his Batman trilogy, which began with 2005’s Batman Begins and spectacularly continued in 2008’s The Dark Knight, is a propulsive ten tonne juggernaut of a motion picture; slightly lumbering out of the gate but ultimately smashing across the finish line in unforgettably grand, applause-worthy style.

Those worried that Christian Bale’s last cinematic undertaking as the tormented caped crusader would underwhelm can rest easy. The always reliable Brit helmer, an undisputed master of slickly cerebral cinematic cool, boldly torpedoes the superhero threequel curse, delivering a dense, emotionally resonant comic book epic that captures the imagination like that page-turner graphic novel you just can’t for the life of you put down.

Returning to the streets of Gotham City eight years after the Joker’s mad rampage, The Dark Knight Rises sees Bruce Wayne (Bale) at an all-time low; unkempt, injured and isolated, he’s a purposeless shell of his former self, watching from the shadows as his proud metropolis celebrates another year of relative peace. The Dent Act, named after the tragically deceased Two-Face-d D.A., has provided authorities with a means of successfully thwarting internal corruption and organized crime, essentially putting the Bat out of business. However, while all seems well, a storm is brewing that threatens to expose the well-intentioned lie concocted by the haunted hero and long-suffering GPD Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman, a dignified portrait of world-weariness).

Enter Bane. As inhabited by the brutishly imposing Tom Hardy, he’s a vicious, facial apparatus-sporting revolutionary who charges into Gotham with the supposed intention of taking down the wealthy elite in order to give the city back to “the people.” Of course, true to villainous form, there’s far more to Bane’s plan than just empowering the 99%. His feverish dream is to destroy Wayne body, mind and soul. As the billionaire playboy vigilante struggles to get back into fighting shape to tackle the maniacal mountain of a man, much to the consternation of loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine, dependably heartfelt), he draws the attention of John Blake (Joseph Gordon Levitt), a strong-willed beat cop with a similar history. He also finds himself caught between two wildly disparate romantic interests: environmentally conscious woman of means Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) and periphery-dwelling jewel thief Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway). These distractions prove fleeting, though, once Bane slowly begins stripping away all that Wayne holds dear, forcing the erstwhile masked protector to look inwards and rediscover what it truly takes to become the Batman.

Embracing the Star Wars trilogy playbook, The Dark Knight Rises often echoes Return of the Jedi, re-visiting many of the same narrative elements from the series’s first entry, only across a bigger, more extravagant (IMAX-sized) canvas. This is a massive, plot-heavy film that, in its first hour, tends to operate under a “function over form” philosophy, employing heavy exposition and backstory as a means of pushing all of the pieces into place for the dazzling two hours to come. Although these sections often feel a little bumpy and confusing – side characters, such as Ben Mendelsohn’s snivelling industrialist baddie, come across more like devices than flesh and blood individuals – the talented director does an effective job establishing the escalating sense of doom and gloom that hovers over the majority of the movie. This is not a light-hearted adventure, and Nolan trusts the audience to follow him into the darkest regions of Bane-occupied Gotham which, following a series of breathtaking attacks, becomes a terrorist state that reflects our most paranoid, horror-drenched post-9/11 fears.

Despite the grim atmosphere, Nolan can deliver high octane geeky thrills with the best of ‘em. An opening plane hijack sequence is deliriously analogue in its staging – eschewing heavy CG in favour of stuntmen and daredevil practical work akin to the best Bond installments – as are scenes involving the beloved Batpod (which pulls off some killer hair pin turns). And just wait until you see the Bat, our hero’s tank-sized flying battle station! The film’s climactic half hour is a veritable orchestra of seamless virtuoso action that puts most city-demolishing blockbuster finales to shame.

The script, by Nolan and his brother Jonathan, with story input from David S. Goyer (BladeGhost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance), like its predecessors, does a fantastic job balancing the humanity, intentionally murky hot button political commentary (which will fuel no shortage of debate for years to come on Nolan’s social conscience and perspective on the Occupy movement and the U.S.’s war on terrorism) and go-for-broke action. The occasionally labyrinthine narrative, an oft-inspired amalgamation of vaunted comic-book tales “Knightfall,” “No Man’s Land” and Frank Miller’s seminal “The Dark Knight Returns,” is both intensely compelling and thematically intriguing, weaving in fascinating meditations on redemption, the motivational influence of hope amidst despair, the power of the individual, and the enduring legacy of symbols. It invests us so strongly in its immersive world, and in Wayne’s trials and tribulations, that its skillfully paced 3-hour run-time zips by at a bracing clip. This is very much a third act, making precious few concessions for newcomers – those who haven’t seen Batman Begins will likely be a bit lost – while simultaneously paying off fan expectations and boasting several unanticipated revelations. By the time the curtain triumphantly falls rises, there’s an unusual – given Hollywood’s franchise-milking mentality – sense of genuine completion.

This is arguably Bale’s best turn in the cape and cowl; the extra years and baggage suit him, and imbue the character with a junkie-ish desperation. Wayne, in his current mental state, is nothing without the costume, and armouring up feeds his addiction. At least until his first encounter with Bane, which allows the actor to rebuild his entire Batman persona and close out his take on the crusader with a bang. Supporting him, Hathaway is as ideal an on-screen Catwoman as we’ve seen. Seductive, dynamic and dangerous, she’s a dead ringer for the comic book anti-heroine and nails Kyle’s ability to adapt on a dime, whether theatrically transforming into a hysterical victim or a Bambi-eyed innocent. Levitt excels in a tricky role, portraying an unpredictably complex character that, on the surface, seems like a throwaway.

Tom Hardy had his work set out for him. Tasked with following up Heath Ledger’s iconic, Oscar-winning Clown Prince of Crime, the actor was saddled with a bulky S&M mask that leaves only his eyes visible, and cast as a B-level antagonist who is, frankly, not one of the Dark Knight’s more multi-dimensional rogues. Nonetheless, against these burdensome restrictions, Hardy has created a truly unique emodiment of evil. A rhetoric-spouting, military gear-clad battering ram – he’s more than a match for Batman in hand-to-hand combat – Bane just so happens to be an amusing study in contrasts as well. Thanks to his ever-present demonic headgear, he is, like the masses he aims to provoke, faceless, yet his creepy, mechanical cartoon walrus voice sounds too posh and polished to hail from lower-class origins. For all he may lack the Joker’s rock star charisma, he’s an undeniably hypnotic, unsettling and refreshingly unconventional presence.

It’s doubtful any sequel could have ever matched the hype and artistic alchemy of The Dark Knight, but where Nolan’s new film falters, it more than compensates with jaw-dropping sights, sounds (Hans Zimmer’s pounding, vital score is a crucial co-star) and crowd-pleasing showmanship. A dramatic close to the first great superhero trilogy, this is a tremendous achievement in big-screen myth-making that’s as poignant as it is utterly entrancing. If the Batman must soar into the ominous Gotham sunset, The Dark Knight Rises is a stunning and victorious exit.

4.5 out of 5

*Originally printed at Converge Magazine.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Film Review - THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN

An understandable shockwave of geek-rage exploded in early 2010 when Sony Pictures, amidst rumours of cost-cutting and ongoing arguments over creative direction, scrapped series helmer Sam Raimi’s gestating Spider-Man 4 in favour of a full-on reboot. After all, while 2007’s Spider-Man 3 was a somewhat messy (studio-compromised) disappointment, the film still earned a robust $890 million dollars worldwide and ended on an emotional cliffhanger. Starting over from scratch meant audiences would never witness the ultimate resolution to the rocky romance between Tobey Maguire’s web-slinging Peter Parker and Kirsten Dunst’s fledgling actress Mary Jane Watson. Could any rejiggered origin story, no matter how good, justify such an extreme shake up?

Unfortunately, the end result of this decision, director Marc Webb’s The Amazing Spider-Man, is a pretty lackluster alternative to the heartfelt, bubble-gum-infused joys that Raimi so deliriously wrought. Dressed up in an ill-fitting costume of angsty quasi-realism, it’s a wonderfully cast, meandering and unconfident mixed bag of a superhero extravaganza that follows many of the same beats as its predecessor, with merely a fraction of its high-flying energy. Amazing? Hardly. Inoffensive? Sure. Underwhelming? No doubt about it.

Unlike Maguire’s lovably awkward, cheery-eyed nerd, this latest Peter Parker is a moody, gutsy teenage loner with a chip on his shoulder and a skateboard always in hand. Haunted by the mysterious disappearance of his parents (Campbell Scott and Embeth Davidtz), and solitarily prowling the high school halls, he nonetheless yearns to someday catch the eye of Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), a brainy blonde beauty with serious skills in the science department. One evening, exploring the basement of the home he shares with his kindly Aunt May and Uncle Ben (Sally Field and Martin Sheen), he happens upon his scientist father’s briefcase, which contains valuable, and enigmatic, research. Following a string of clues to Oscorp Industries – which, like most high profile biotech firms, hires high school interns – he encounters his dad’s former partner, Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), a one-armed biologist researching reptilian regeneration, and has a life-changing date with spider-bitten destiny.

Of course, as the Spider-Man mythos demands, just as Parker is getting used to his newfound abilities, and building some snazzy mechanical web-shooters, one selfish decision leads to Uncle Ben meeting a classic Uncle Ben-ian fate. Driven by grief and rage, the unrefined crusader begins a single-minded vigilante quest to catch the crook responsible for his loss, much to the annoyance of Gwen’s NYPD captain pop George Stacy (Denis Leary). However, just as his crime-fighting career is starting to warm up, Dr. Connors, suffering immense inter-office pressure, tests his experimental serum on himself, with disastrously scaly consequences.

The filmmakers have purposefully named their movie after ‘ol Webhead’s flagship Marvel Comics series, yet the more appropriate choice would have been “Spider-Man’s Tangled Web,” as this movie boasts one hopelessly confused narrative. The picture, credited to three writers – James Vanderbilt (Zodiac), Alvin Sargent (Spider-Man 2 & 3) and Steve Kloves (the Harry Potter franchise) – gracelessly unfolds like it was cobbled together in the editing room from mismatching parts. The Amazing Spider-Man has an uncanny aptitude for leapfrogging from plotline to plotline, rarely paying off any. Peter’s investigation into his father’s past? Forgotten. The same goes for his hunt for his uncle’s killer, ongoing conflict with grieving Aunt May (Field is wasted in a nonentity role) and apprenticeship under Dr. Connors. And the shady dealings of Oscorp president Norman Osborn’s lackey (Irrfan Khan)? Wait for the already announced sequel in 2014, I guess.

Whereas the 2002 film picked which points to hit and boldly carried them to their logical conclusion, Webb and his team try to cram in every possible idea, simultaneously making their bumpily paced 136 minute movie feel both bloated and too short. There’s no flow to it’s hero’s journey, only scattered checklist moments and prologue material for future entries. Even the effective and engaging elements, such as the central courtship and the rivalry between Peter and Captain Stacy, are dilluted by all the surrounding filler.

That said, these nagging story problems become infinitely less egregious once the villainous Lizard rears his ugly head. Aggressively contradicting the realistic world the picture has established (imagine Batman Begins with The Incredible Hulk’s Abomination as the central baddie), he’s a tonally jarring all-CG creature with a sinister scheme straight out of the first X-Men movie. Never mind that he’s basically just a one-dimensional, toothier clone of Green Goblin – a tragic father figure scientist who falls victim to his own experimental injection and becomes a split-personality green menace – stripped of his touchingly tragic comic-book backstory. No, Lizard’s greatest sin is that his appearance sends The Amazing Spider-Man careening off the rails into cornball C-grade horror movie land. In a project fraught with issues, his clunky, tail-whipping presence is irredeemably disruptive.

Although he’s at a loss when it comes to wrangling his film’s cartoonish antagonist, director Marc Webb still manages to inject enough charm, if not personality, into the proceedings to pull it back from disaster-land. As evidenced by his debut (500) Days of Summer, he has a clear understanding of how to stage an honest youthful love tale, and, in the relationship between Peter and Gwen, he strikes a pleasantly authentic, sweet vibe. Webb doesn’t aim for big iconic moments – no upside down kisses or, despite a nice set-up, late night swings through the city – choosing instead to capture the witty, earnest intimacy of the union. It works. He also scores on a number of comedic sequences showcasing Spidey’s developing powers, and finds interesting ways to present the character’s unusual poses and approaches to battle. Even if the downbeat tone of the film prevents the action setpieces from being particularly exhilirating or awe-inspiring, the helmer understands effects and knows how to stage a cool moment, such as when our hero tracks Lizard in the sewer by creating a large vibration-sensitive web network. A schmaltzy climactic post-9/11 “New Yorkers united!” scene involving helpful cranes is a bit much, however.

The one area where The Amazing Spider-Man truly excells is in its casting. Garfield isn’t inhabiting a Peter Parker that I’m personally familiar with, but he’s an appealing, physically spot-on presence, easily carrying the unwieldy film on his wiry shoulders. He makes you long to see what he could do with better material. Likewise, Stone – who can do no wrong these days, it seems – vibrantly humanizes Gwen and gives her a spunky can-do spirit. Capable and smart, she’s a heroine who doesn’t fall victim to the usual weary cardboard conventions reserved for superhero love interests. Of the supporting players, on-screen patriarchs Leary and Sheen are the stand-outs. The former, more vinegary than the Captain Stacy of the comic books, is a very fun, imposingly snarky sparring partner for Parker (J. Jonah Jamieson is MIA here), while Sheen, like Cliff Robertson before him, makes Uncle Ben impossibly dignified, warm and sadly unforgettable. As the cursed Dr. Connors, Ifans has a nice academic dryness. It’s too bad he really just gets to give a half performance before the soulless 1s and 0s take over.

If only this well-acted, technically competent endeavour didn’t feel so unnecessary and fundamentally empty at its core. Compared to the first two Raimi films, which were perceptibly fuelled by delighted adoration for our Friendly Neighbourhood Wallcrawler, this picture feels like a calculated, dutiful business move with only slightly diverting diminished returns. The Amazing Spider-Man more or less gets to where it wants to go, but its too reigned in and rickety to cut loose and soar to perilous new unseen heights.

2.5 out of 5

*Originally published at Converge Magazine.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Film Review - ROCK OF AGES

Here we have a prime example of a movie that’s shamelessly entertaining in spite of the fact it’s not very good. Adam Shankman’s off-Broadway play adaptation Rock of Ages is cheesier than a Wisconsin fondue party, and sloppier than Motley Crue’s dressing room, but I’ll be darned if it didn’t win me over with its infectious combination of high energy, go-for-the-gusto performances and straight-faced gee-whiz clich├ęs. This wholly synthetic ode to the (embarrassing) 80s hair metal movement is deliciously ridiculous, boasting a lengthy series of amusingly bombastic movie star karaoke sessions turned up to 11, with dignity and subtlety gleefully drowned out by the power chord nirvana. If you’ve ever wanted to see a tattooed, leather chaps-sporting Tom Cruise drunkenly carouse with lusty groupies while crooning Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” this is the movie for you. All others should consider themselves forewarned.

Set in a Disneyland version of 1987 L.A. – where sex and drugs occur discreetly off-screen and everyone rocks out responsibly with no ill consequences – Rock of Ages stars drop dead gorgeous former Dancing with the Stars champion Julianne Hough as Sherrie Christian, a not-so-bright Midwestern farm girl who travels to the City of Angels to sing and dance. Or something. After having her luggage, which consists solely (!) of treasured LPs, jacked, the pixie-ish blonde princess fortuitously befriends hunky bartender/aspiring frontman Drew Boley (Diego Boneta), and is offered a job at hot downtown nightclub The Bourbon Room. Overseen by burned out owner Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) and his sassy right hand man Lonny (Russell Brand), the financially struggling establishment is mere days away from hosting a register-busting hometown performance by spaced out glam metal legend Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) and his soon to be dissolved band Arsenal.
However, even as excitement for the impending performance reaches fever pitch, complications begin to arise. The mayor (Bryan Cranston) is pushing to clean up the Sunset Strip, and has unleashed his conservative pitbull wife Patricia Whitmore (Catherine Zeta-Jones) on the hard partying problem. Backstage, matters are no better. Jaxx, lost in druggy oblivion and manipulated by his skeezy manager Paul Gill (Paul Giamatti), begins to question his place in the arena of existence just as intrepid Rolling Stone reporter Constance Sack (Malin Akerman) arrives to probe him for hard truths about his current career trajectory. And, of course, new lovebirds Sherrie and Drew quickly discover that love in the rock ‘n’ roll fastlane is not without its considerable speed-bumps. Can the show still go on?! (No points for correct guesses.)

The plot is, to be honest, little more than a crudely strung up clothesline for songs – and only slightly edgier than, say, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s cornball “classic” State Fair – so fortunately former Hairspray helmer Shankman instead focuses on delivering enough flamboyant, head-banging numbers (roughly 20) to satiate those with a taste for gloriously catchy/dopey anthems. Unlike Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine), the director doesn’t dice his set-pieces into MTV-edited spasms of chaotic activity. He isn’t afraid to simply pull back and allow us to watch the performance unfold in basic, unflashy shots.

Shankman also knows how to play to his all-star casts’ strengths. Film leads Hough and Boneta aren’t exactly dramatic powerhouses – their romance consists of off-the-shelf parts that were outdated by the close of the 1950s – but they look fantastic on camera and the director wisely emphasizes their singing and dancing skills over their questionable thespian abilities. Zeta-Jones, in full haughty outrage, summons up some of her fiery Chicago spirit, especially in a church-set rendition of Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” Giamatti milks his trademark Garfield-voiced opportunistic creep and Baldwin and Brand draw huge laughs with an unexpected song collaboration. Bryan Cranston is a hoot as a hedonistic hypocrite, though it’s to Rock of Ages detriment he’s never given a golden chance to belt out a ballad of his own.

All that said, it’s Tom Cruise who’s having the biggest ball here as an Axl Rose-esque decadent nutbar. Flanked by a sassy baboon named Hey Man, and rambling on in nonsensical pseudo-intellectual blitherings, the actor both kids his bizarre real world public persona and creates a magnetically compelling comic creation. And who knew he could sing?! He brings prowling panther attitude to Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” and, alongside hot librarian-styled Akerman, reaches a deliriously funny zenith with a raunchy seductive duet of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is.”

Alas, the script by Justin Theroux (Iron Man 2), Allan Loeb (Just Go with It, 21) and play creator Chris D’Arienzo - which apparently only loosely follows the theatrical source material - is kind of a mess, both tonally and structurally. The film often switches gears between spoof and starry-eyed sincerity without ever finding a comfortable balance. Instead, it’s a slightly too-longish rough assembly of moments that hit the right notes enough times to please, yet could have been greatly improved with some tightening and trimming. Perhaps a little less Baldwin and Brand hijinx (their brief early performance of Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” feels like it was shot on a lunch break), or scenes set inside a never-nude strip club run by tough-edged madam Mary J. Blige. And that bad laugh-inducing “Sister Christian” opening number never should have left the editing room.

At the end of the day, the likelihood of you deriving enjoyment from Shankman’s silly opus will depend on how receptive you are to the picture’s giddy, winking 80s nostalgia campiness and whether you can semi-swallow its assertion that hair metal was rock’s last great artistic movement (never mind that the trash and grunge revolutions that soon followed were a direct response to the superficiality of glam). Rock of Ages is a purely unapologetic guilty pleasure, sailing by on the enduring fist-pumping magnificence of its huge sing-a-long choruses. If you can march along to its outlandish beat it’s a goofy, exuberant fun time at the movies.

3 out of 5

*Originally published at Converge Magazine.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Film Review - PROMETHEUS

There are two movies locked in a stubborn struggle for supremacy in Ridley Scott’s muddled Prometheus, a sorta, kinda prequel to his landmark 1979 classic Alien. On one hand, we have a through-and-through science-fiction horror exercise that, akin to its predecessor, chronicles what happens when a group of unprepared, short-sighted humans step foot on a mysterious planet that couldn’t be any less accommodating. On the flip side, though, the picture also wants to be an ambitious mind-tripping examination of dense philosophical quandaries relating to man, God, consciousness and creation, complemented by breathtaking, impeccable cosmic imagery that evokes the work of heady helmers Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick. Alas, while there are pleasures to be found in both disparate halves, the whole is drained of potency and coherence, leaving behind an astonishing, messy curiosity that tantalizes the senses and aggravates the brain.

Set in the year 2093, the film places us alongside a team of researchers aboard the deep space research vessel Prometheus – named after the mythological Greek Titan who moulded man from clay and gave him fire – seeking to solve the riddle of mankind’s origins. Drawn to the rocky, barren moon of LV-223 by ancient cave paintings, the eccentric group – which includes archaeologist couple Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), sardonic Captain Janek (Idris Elba), tough-as-nails mission director Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and obedient android David (Michael Fassbender, continuing his career hot streak) – investigates a great dome-like cave decorated with mysterious canisters, Olmec-ish statues, tell-tale wall carvings and, most crucially, immense decayed corpses. These bodies belong to a race of tall, muscular, bald aliens – resembling refuges from a Tool video – who, in the movie’s intriguing and somewhat ambiguous opening scene, we see kick-starting life on Earth (?) through a bizarre, hideous ritual. What further secrets do these beings hold? And what is contained within those countless metal containers littering the ground?

Prequels are always a shaky prospect – there’s not a whole lot of drama involved in the business of setting up a well-known pay-off – and Prometheus doesn’t feel confident in where it wants to go. This isn’t an overt prequel ala Star Wars or last year’s The Thing; it appropriates familiar iconography and concepts, yet it isn’t a monster-driven movie, or interested in leading seamlessly into the 1979 picture. Rather, it wants to expand the series’ cinematic universe and tackle decidedly non-Xenomorph ideas, which is a mite strange given the beautifully simple, and thematically rich, modus operandi of the preceding entries (One wonders why the filmmakers didn’t just create an original work). Unfortunately, the undercooked results are more frustrating than rewarding, a two-headed beast that isn’t satisfying enough as a think-piece or as an Alien installment.

For hard, philosophical sci-fi to work, questions don’t have to be answered, however they should be explored. The script, originally by John Spaihts and reworked by Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof, is a hodge-podge of unformed ideas and barely expressed questions. Instead of delving into the mysteries posed by the subject matter, characters throw around buzzwords like “Engineer,” “maker” and “creation” without ever grappling with the consequences of their findings. Take Rapace’s Shaw, a crucifix-wearing woman of faith. She has helped uncover a potential truth that stands to contradict her deepest spiritual beliefs. How does she feel about playing a part in this discovery? How will she adjust to this unsettling reality? Does she feel alone? Frightened? Tormented? The script doesn’t care. Prometheus is content to raise the notion, but too timid to dig in. At one point the character of David, in response to being told he was created for no other reason than because it was possible, ponders how humans would feel if the same answer was given to them. But this ominous implication just hangs there, another fascinating, under-developed suggestion left flapping in a breeze of superficiality, never to lead anywhere truly provocative (*Sigh* Maybe in the sequel?).

It would be easier to tolerate the film’s gussied-up shallowness if the genre story wasn’t such a shambles. Prometheus is fraught with maddening plot holes, dubious science, inconsistent or downright moronic behaviour (Don’t EVER pet the wildlife!) and third act reveals that earn more huhs than wows. Theron’s character’s surprise plot function is a real clunker, and the appearance of a certain talented actor buried alive in a mobile sarcophagus of rubbery make-up proves unnecessary and goes nowhere fast. Even though the picture follows the rough structure of Alien, the sheer number of characters and sub-stories prevents the film from building up consistent energy. Unlike the crew of the Nostromo, where everyone was more or less working on the same page, the small army of scientists, crewman and corporate babysitters aboard Prometheus never coalesce into a compelling unit. Personality is in short supply (although Elba and Theron hold up their ends), and the dialogue rarely rises above the mechanical. And when things do go haywire, there’s no one as charismatic as Sigourney Weaver to latch onto. Fassbender’s David, modelled on Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia protagonist, is the film’s most fascinating and dynamic presence – and in perfect keeping with great past series androids Ian Holm and Lance Henriksen (Winona Ryder, not so much) – except his motivations and actions are left irritatingly murky; a wonderful concept swallowed alive by the film’s confused b-movie plot.

While the framework may be shaky, it seems no one bothered to inform Ridley Scott, who tackles this film – his first sci-fi epic since 1982’s Blade Runner – with the visionary fervor of a young auteur with something to prove. Whereas George Lucas famously brought a sense of homey domestication to his galaxy far, far away, Scott takes his sweeping, ominous universe a step further, into the chilly mundane. This world, with its busy, utilitarian space ships and blackened, ropy-walled caves, feels lived in, tactile and, well, noticeably uncomfortable. As bizarre and captivating as this future looks to us, to these characters its old-hat, and the director effectively portrays their bored working class indifference. As a 3D experience cloaked in mood and atmosphere, Prometheus is pure spectacle, another gorgeous cinematic translation of H.R. Giger’s fetishistic designs and slimy, alarming genitalia-inspired terrors that don’t even know how to let go. The helmer can certainly still crank up the tension when needed too, as proven by one unforgettable scene involving a medical procedure no poor soul should ever be forced to endure.

It’s this energized Scott who hauls Prometheus back from its abyss of mediocrity, imbuing it with enough grim, grand ‘n gruesome artistic craziness to warrant making the trip out to the biggest screen possible. Although this movie may be a disappointment, it’s also a provocative springboard for conversation, analysis and speculation for those who see it. You may depart the theatre with different questions in mind than the filmmakers intended, but there’s still merit in its ability to inspire wonder through pure sensation. It makes you wonder what Prometheus might have achieved with a script that didn’t become hopelessly and irredeemably lost in space.

2.5 out of 5

*Originally published at Converge Magazine.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Film Review - BATTLESHIP

Peter Berg’s Hasbro game adaptation Battleship is an obnoxious all-out assault on the senses and grey matter wrapped up in an insincere flag of American jingoism and military fetishism. This is a picture that paints itself up like a U.S. Navy recruitment commercial - boasting endless gliding shots of state-of-the-art war tech accompanied by a fist-pumping hard rock soundtrack - yet also presents, as its antagonists, a small humanoid alien fleet who only attack out of defence and go out of their way to preserve the lives of innocent, baseball-playing children. Are we supposed to enjoy watching our cadre of jackass protagonists laying waste to these generic, lazily demonized visitors? Visitors who only showed up in the first place because we invited them over? I wish I could say these odd mixed messages speak to some sort of ambitious, subversive idea on the part of the filmmakers, but that doesn’t really seem to be case as this movie is aggressively dumb, dumb, dumb. Exhaustively so.

Using the genuine 2005 discovery of a life-supporting world in the Gliese planetary system as inspiration, Battleship opens with a top secret government science program, the Beacon project, launching a beam across space in hopes of reaching extra-terrestrial ears. Unfortunately, the initiative succeeds in precious little time, and five alien crafts crash down in the Pacific Ocean, smack dab in the midst of an international naval training exercise. Enclosing the area, and a fleet of destroyers, in a circular enforcement field, the otherworldly tourists – who resemble reptile-eyed UFC fighters in HALO suits – immediately provoke chaos as they are drawn into explosive battle with trigger-happy military forces.

Leading the charge against our new alien overlords is Lieutenant Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch), a brash, irresponsible hothead who is mere hours away from being busted down to civilian status by the gruff Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson). Unexpectedly promoted to command of the USS John Paul Jones - which is crewed by, among others, no-nonsense Petty Officer Cora ‘Weps’ Raikes (Rihanna) and the awkward, inexperienced seaman Jimmy “Ordy” Ord (Jesse Plemons) - Hopper quickly finds himself both at odds with his personal nemesis, the rescued Japanese captain Yugi Nagata (Tadanobu Asano), and up against a foe he can’t begin to comprehend. Meanwhile, back on the mainland, his unfathomably hot physical therapist girlfriend Samantha (Sports Illustrated Swimsuit model cum actress Brooklyn Decker) – who just so happens to be Admiral Shane’s daughter – finds her innocuous nature hike with double leg-amputee Lieutenant Colonel Mick Canales (true life veteran Gregory D. Gadson) transformed into a life and death struggle that may just reveal the enemy’s weak spot.

It’s painfully clear watching Battleship (or any of its marketing materials) that it desperately wants to be the next Transformers. Similar to Michael Bay’s terrible trilogy, it’s a graceless unholy marriage of crass, bottom-of-the-barrel storytelling and suffocating CG blitzkrieg. However, whereas Bay’s efforts can be examined with an almost perverse fascination – how much misogyny, racial insensitivity and angry adolescent mean-spiritedness can a grown man cram into a movie?! – this picture plays it safer and manages to be an even bigger chore. Running well past than two hours, the film is essentially a jagged, ugly special effects demo reel paired with a cacophonic orchestra of processed sounds similar to the final death rattles of an antique boiler room. There’s no excitement, innovation or fun, only concussive visual and aural clutter. And occasionally, as a relief, an AC/DC song.

In the right hands, Hollywood effects artists can conjure up astonishing, indelible images. Not so much here, where everything is over-designed to the point of being confusing. There’s a scene that echoes one of Titanic’s most breath-taking moments, in which two characters stand on the stern of a capsizing ship and stare down at the destruction below. Unlike in Cameron’s grand picture, though, there’s no wonder or horror, as the underside of the ship is a mass of fragmented CG projectiles and blurry twisted metal. By going too complex, everything looks utterly fake and unconvincing. Berg also throws in at least a dozen shots of alien ammo being machine-assembled and fired, or giant rolling killer balls, and they’re reminiscent of choppy video game cut scenes. Indeed, all of the battle sequences feel sterile and empty; there’s no humanity or energy. To endure them is to understand how tedious bad blockbuster filmmaking can be.

While the cast is hardly to blame for this bloated dud – partly due to the fact about 50% of their dialogue is incomprehensible military jargon and slang – there’s no doubt this film needed some likable characters. Kitsch, last seen headlining John Carter, is a capable actor stuck playing the antithesis of an appealing protagonist; Hopper is a short-fused, entitled frat jerk who the movie actively loathes for the first hour before trying to redeem, to little avail. We’re given no reason to want to see him succeed, other than the demands of the plot. Surrounding him, Neeson literally phones in his 10 minutes of screen-time, Rihanna utters things like “Boom!” and “Kentucky Fried Chicken!,” Alexander Skarsgard exudes earnestness as Hopper’s Navy hero brother and the blank Decker is fetching in tight tank-tops. Only Asano comes close to achieving gravitas, although his character – awkwardly inserted to help settle lingering Pearl Harbor resentments, it seems – fights valiantly to reach two dimensions. As for disabled non-actor Gadson, watching him I could only think about Harold Russell. Russell, a WWII vet who lost his hands in an explosion, was cast in William Wyler’s wonderful The Best Years of Our Lives and went on to give one of the most powerful performances in cinematic history and win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Regrettably, Gadson will have to settle for getting to whoop a silly mechanized space man senseless.

There was a point in time, following the release of his great football drama Friday Night Lights, when Peter Berg was considered an interesting director. Well, sorry to say it, but interesting directors don’t attach themselves to empty, soulless junk such as Battleship (or Hancock, for that matter!). Watching the filmmaker stage his drearily detached pyrotechnic-laden large-scale mayhem, it’s impossible not to appreciate how effectively Joss Whedon injected emotion and personality into The Avengers’ city-crushing finale, respecting the audience’s intelligence and refusing to simply overwhelm them with pandemonium. Even more embarrassing is an extended sequence, intended to generate tension, where the characters actually play Battleship, calling out coordinates and leaning forward in suspense. This conceit could work on-screen. I truly believe this. Nevertheless, under Berg’s guidance, it drags the pace to an eye-rolling slow crawl.

Berg has crafted a perfect storm of wretched creative decisions and blatant product-placement that's numbing to absorb. This is blockbuster filmmaking at its most charmless and cynical; a cinematic empty vessel that exists solely to boost Hasbro's bottom line. Among the very worst pictures of 2012 to date, Battleship torpedoes any hopes you might have for a rewarding trip to the cineplex into oblivion.

1 out of 5

PS: It’s unforgiveable that Liam Neeson never gets to gravely declare “They’ve sunk my battleship!” What an amazing missed opportunity.

*Originally published at Converge Magazine.