Battleship (Peter Berg, 2012) – Peter Berg’s Battleship has been constructed to do nothing more than act as a loud, noisy ass kicker of a movie. Almost nothing like the board game it gets its name from, it’s a tricked out, comically overblown American muscle car of a movie. Sleek, stylish, well-maintained, driven by pretty boys, fun to look at, but possibly annoying and tiresome if you have to stand next to one that spins its wheels for too long. It dispenses with things like “narrative credibility,” “reality,” and “science” within seconds of starting and it never looks back. It’s brazen, brash, and surprisingly far more entertaining than those Michael Bay Transformers films it will get compared to. It won’t stick in the viewer’s mind for very long, but if you’re willing to give in to its “go big or go home” style, you’ll be in for a real empty headed treat.
Lazy layabout Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) has been mooching off his military commander brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgard) for too long when he gets tazed by the police for breaking into a Hawaiian convenience store to steal a frozen chicken burrito for a random hottie in a bar. Fed up with his shenanigans, Stone forces Alex into joining him in the Navy where he’s a chronic screw up on the verge of getting kicked out. He’s also about to marry the girl from the bar (Brooklyn Decker), who just so happens to be the daughter of his commanding officer (Liam Neeson).
While out at sea (embarking from Pearl Harbor, no less) on the “military ballet” that is the RIMPAC naval championships involving navies from around the world (but really just Japan and the U.S.), a real threat arises when an alien threat from a “Goldilocks planet” (meaning not too hot, not too cold, and just the right distance from the sun) named Planet G lands in the ocean thanks to some nearby satellites that can help them take over the Earth or some shit like that. They set up a force-field around themselves, fly around in heavily fortified ships, and lay waste to most of the destroyers in the area, taking numerous lives. It’s up to the previously responsibility averse Alex to rise up and save the day.
Let’s get the elephant in the room out of the way early before we proceed, because thanks to the participation of Hasbro the Transformers comparisons won’t go away until we talk about them. Unlike the humourless and often icky work of Michael Bay, Berg (The Rundown, Hancock) understands how ridiculous his film is. Sure, there are some obvious surface level comparisons in terms of the film’s plot, creature design, and fawning over the military, but what it’s missing is Bay’s annoyingly right wing political viewpoint, his somewhat racist tendencies, and his sexualizing of female characters. Not once does the film stop to show some “loathsome” peacenik saying that there should be a diplomatic solution getting thrown under the ship, and the female characters are just as wooden and ill-defined as anyone else on the ship. Also the hilariously implausible and conceptually inane final act shows more love for the armed forces than any five seconds of any Bay film.
None of this means that Battleship isn’t overkill, though. The film does showcase its explosions and visual effects better than it does in the trailer, but after a while it becomes almost exhausting to watch no matter how good it looks. The sound design, oddly enough, might be the thing that divides audiences the most. It’s meant to be played as loudly as possible to the point of being deafening. It’s probably as close to a sea battle as most filmgoers are going to get, but there was a whole lot of cringing at the screening I attended from people who simply couldn’t take it. (For the record, I really dug the sound design and its Oscar for that category is probably already in the mail.)
The cast isn’t much of an entity here since there isn’t much room for performance around such constant spectacle, but Berg does know exactly how to use Kitsch as a leading man thanks to their time bonding on TV’s Friday Night Lights. He’s an affable, mercurial dumbass simply there to learn a few lessons and move the plot along. Neeson’s role barely registers above a cameo, but fans of the actor will get a kick out of just how cool he can act when the world is under attack by aliens. Decker and pop star Rihanna are really just there, with the former serving more as a last minute plot saviour and the latter doing what she does best by glowering and looking serious.
It’s quite telling that the scene that most closely resembles the board game would be the dullest in the film, but it’s almost a welcome respite from the film’s almost hyperactive desire to jostle the audience by any means necessary. Thankfully, the film comes devoid of the unrelenting mean streak and self-righteousness that Michael Bay would have brought to such a similarly themed production, but to compensate for that, everything else is as unrelenting as possible, including its almost joyful stupidity. At nearly two and a quarter hours, it’s a bit much, but if you can get behind a film where enormous bombs whiz improbably close to people’s skulls and the film’s greatest scientific mind (played here by, of all people, indie film darling Hamish Linklater) acts like a cross between Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park and Professor Frink from The Simpsons, there’s some enjoyment to be had. Battleship couldn’t be more upfront about what it’s trying to do, and it’s something you’ll either go along with or you should stay away from entirely. While I appreciated how much the film cops to its own stupidity, the final choice is ultimately yours on this one.
The Blu-ray comes with some of the best picture and sound quality of any release this year to simply underline the overkill involved. It can by just as deafening at home as it was in theatres with the proper sound system. The features package also offers seven featurettes (including a look at the USS Missouri, the battleship the film’s climax largely takes place on) that mostly get recycled for the vastly more impressive picture in picture commentary with Berg, that utilizes a second screen technology closer to what’s currently being used by Disney on their Blu-releases. It’s lengthy, informative, and appropriately self-effacing, which makes sense since Berg, you know, made a movie based on Battleship.
Edwin Boyd: Citizen Gangster (Nathan Morlando, 2012) – When someone uses the term “Canadian history lesson” when talking about national cinema, often times the mind wanders to thoughts of television station bumpers and grainy, sub-NFB quality filmstrips. Even when considering most feature films dealing with historical Canadian icons, the results have been less than promising. So it’s with great thanks and generous praise that first time director Nathan Morlando delivers Edwin Boyd: Citizen Gangster, a shoestring budgeted period piece with great performances and real drama surrounding a culturally notable thief that never once plays up its Canadian-ness.
After returning home from WWII and losing his job as a TTC driver, Toronto based folk legend Edwin Boyd (Scott Speedman) watches his dreams of becoming an actor go up in smoke. Using his flair for theatrics and some of his wife’s make-up kit, Boyd starts robbing banks to provide for his struggling wife (Kelly Reilly) and children. After getting pinched and thrown in jail, Boyd makes some connections (Kevin Durand, Brendan Fletcher, and Joseph Cross) to create an infamous gang that enthralled the national press throughout the 40s and 50s, giving the charismatic Boyd all of the notoriety he wanted as an actor, but no way to enjoy the full glory of his illegal pursuits.
Making a film with this much period detail on a very Canadian budget, Morlando has his work cut out for him. Shooting in Sault Ste. Marie instead of the vastly more modern Toronto of today and in the dead of a very cold looking winter, Morlando has to constantly frame the film in just the right ways, and he totally pulls it off. Sticking mostly to impeccably period designed interiors and sparse, almost black and white looking exteriors, Morlando delivers a true cinematic experience with a fully realized vision of a place and time that’s not our own. This isn’t slap-dash, “make do with what you can” Canadian filmmaking that this could have easily been, but rather a poetic look at a man’s relationship to his environment and circumstances.
Utilizing his own boy next door charm and slightly askew grin, Speedman delivers the performance of his career as the confounding Boyd. It’s a hard wire to walk when trying to balance arrogance with the traits of a down to earth family man, but Speedman embraces both parts of Boyd’s almost bipolar personality with great energy and warmth. The audience might not always agree with Boyd, but they want to see him succeed. The supporting cast also gets to shine, especially the imposing and often underrated Durand as a man who could and should probably be heading up his own gang instead of following Boyd’s marching orders. Reilly also does nice work to make sure that Boyd’s wife isn’t a one-note caricature of a 50s mother, and Brian Cox shows up briefly and delivers a typically strong turn as Eddie’s police officer father.
The script from Morlando could stand to be a little tighter and possibly even a little bit longer, since the one cliché that the film willingly gives into is showing a lot of the work done by the Boyd gang in rapid succession. It feels like there could be a little more depth at the heart of the film, and it could stand to be slightly more anecdotal in telling the story since there’s no shortage of material that Morlando clearly did his homework on. By that same token, there’s very little superfluous material in this film but not at the expense of making sure that the characters – the real centerpieces of this movie and not the robberies and prison breaks – all get equal footing behind the titular figurehead. Morlando also deftly infuses a great deal of wit that the cast picks up on nicely to make it feel less like a noir and more like the period piece it should be.
The lone special feature on the DVD is a 25 minute making of documentary, but not much more is needed since Morlando and producer Allison Black have some great insight about the production and the history behind the source material.
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, 2011) – The Paradise Lost documentaries almost deserve a special Academy Award for what they’ve accomplished. In the early documentaries filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky flew down to West Memphis to film the story of a triple homicide attributed to three teenage boys. They assumed they’d be filming the story of three teen murderers, but stumbled into a terrifying miscarriage of justice that sent two of the innocent teens to jail for life and put the other on death row. The film instantly sparked a groundswell of support for the West Memphis Three and though they spent almost 20 unjust years in prison, they were suddenly released last August (unsurprisingly just before this new documentary was set to premiere and bring the story back into the public eye for the first time in over a decade). The films Berlinger and Sinofsky made are directly responsible for that release. Without them, the story would have disappeared into obscurity long ago like so many forgotten death row casualties.
Paradise Lost 3 picks up ten years after the second film and is essentially about how the slow wheels of justice have kept the three men in prison despite a massive outpouring of public support and newly discovered evidence. It’s a compelling third chapter in the story (particularly for the bizarre update from longtime series antagonist John Mark Byers) even if the West Memphis Three’s long overdo release came so late in the process that it ends up being tacked on to the end of Berlinger and Sinofsky’s latest film. It’s unfortunate that the filmmakers didn’t get a chance to delve deeply into the absurdity of a release that required the innocent men to take guilty plea and be released on time served before one of them took the death penalty. That movie will come out later this year in West of Memphis by another filmmaker. In a way it’s a sadly appropriate end to the Paradise Lost series. Given how directly tied these films are to the case, the abrupt and confusing ending is almost appropriate because, well, it was an abrupt and confusing ending to a story of failed justice. While it would have been nice if these filmmakers had been able to finish the story themselves, after 20 years bringing in a new set of eyes to the story isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Berlinger and Sinofsky crafted their third film in such a way that no prior knowledge is required and it serves as a decent introduction to the story, while anyone familiar with the previous movies can relax in knowing that the filmmakers mostly dug into the archives for previously unseen B-footage to catch up the audience so there isn’t too much repetition. The film hits home only on DVD, which is fine given that the video-shot doc relies heavily on decades old archival footage that wouldn’t benefit much from HD. On the special features front there are a few excised sequences highlighting lost evidence, the infamous faulty confession, a ridiculous testimony from 1994 claiming one of the boys was part of a cult, and an old lost sequence from the original film showing the lawyers compete behind closed doors about an ultimately useless piece of evidence. There are also highlights from the film’s press day featuring interviews with the recently released West Memphis Three as well as a brief, but dense interview with the filmmakers. As far as documentary DVDs go, it’s a pretty solid package for the final chapter in a sadly surreal and tragic true story. Paradise Lost 3 is a strong film on its own, but seen as part of the overall series, it’s one of the most devastating and powerful documentaries ever made. (Phil Brown)
Starship Troopers: Invasion (Shinji Aramaki, 2012) – Technically the fourth entry in the Starship Troopers franchise and the second to be told using CGI animation – with the most recent three going direct to DVD, despite this entry getting a Japanese theatrical release – Invasion, from Appleseed director Shinji Aramaki, holds a little closer to the storyline of the original film and the book by Robert Heinlein, but definitely not in tone. It’s the best of the sequels, but that’s not saying much and a bit of faint praise.
Following a rescue mission at a Federation outpost under attack from the nasty bugs that plague everyday life by ripping humans limb from limb, the newly promoted Dr. Carl Jenkins (originally played by Neil Patrick Harris in the first film, but we aren’t lucky enough to have any original cast members providing voices here) takes a reclaimed starship on a rogue mission to conduct experiments, endangering the crew of the Alesia who will have to stop a bug invasion of Earth.
Things don’t start off promising, looking like cut scenes from a Halo game with more frantic editing, which is a shame since the animation is pretty smooth and clean looking despite obvious budgetary constraints. The story feels oddly like it discounts the previous entries in the franchise to return to the roots of the first film (which is a definite prerequisite if anyone wants to know just what the heck is happening in this film), but it still misses the satirical tone and over the top nature that made the first film enjoyable. Invasion keeps the Hard-R edge of the original, but it doesn’t do anything interesting with it, amounting to nothing more than a Saturday morning cartoon with cursing and nudity.
The DVD comes with a pretty extensive extras package, but it could do without two pointless deleted scenes and a forced faux gag reel. There’s also a subtitled filmmaker commentary that isn’t all that insightful aside from discussing changes from the books and simply restating what’s going on. The real winner here for fans will be an 11 part making-of documentary that tracks the project from the novels, to concept, and filming, but the best part is a section where the filmmakers get a chance to go into the Sony archives to look at all of the concept art, costumes, and thousands of blueprints that Paul Verhoeven used for the original film. It might make viewers wish they were watching the original instead, but for a film nerd it’s absolutely delightful.
A Beginner’s Guide to Endings (Jonathan Sobol, 2010) – Jonathan Sobol’s directorial debut feels like some sort of unholy cross between Snatch and The Royal Tenenbaums. It’s a dysfunctional family comedy with genre movie underpinnings that attempts to find a sweet spot between violent dark comedy and a one-liner packed quirk fest. That combination of elements is just as odd and mismatched as you’d think and is ultimately both the main strength and weakness of the movie. Scenes awkwardly crash into each other with conflicting tones that feel like they belong to two completely different movies, yet watching Sobol try to pull off the balancing act via relentless pacing, a grab bag of stylistic tricks picked up over a lifetime of movie geekery, and a pretty fantastic cast is undeniably entertaining. It might not all work, but the passages that do are strong enough to make the whole thing worthwhile. You’ll probably come out feeling somewhat battered from the slingslot nature of the film’s tonal shifts, but better that than exiting the movie bored by something you’ve seen too many times before.
The movie opens with Harvey Keitel’s deadbeat dad Duke White walking down the Niagara Falls strip with a noose around his neck tied to a broken tree limb held under his arm. So, he clearly botched one suicide attempt and has plans for another. We soon find out why via montage and flashbacks. A degenerate gambler and father to five sons who he barely cared for, Duke finally goes one step to far even for him. A few years prior, he had signed three of his sons up to test experimental medication that now seems to have drastically shortened their life expectancy. As compensation, each dying son was given a check for $100,000, which Duke quickly lost at the track trying to win them an even bigger fortune. That was enough for it to be suicide time and the sons all find out about their fate at the will reading held by Duke’s priest brother Pal (JK Simmons, who instantly makes any film better just by showing up).
Duke’s three kids are each hit pretty hard by the news and react in their own insane panicky way. The oldest son Nuts (The Daily Show’s Jason Jones, almost unrecognizable behind a powerful moustache) decides to revive his boxing career despite the years and pounds that have added up since his glory days. When he realizes that he probably won’t last long in a big fight, he trains his cartoon-character-stupid brother Juicy (Jared Keeso) instead, knowingly sending him into the ring to be pummelled. Cal (Scott Caan) inherited his father’s serial dating ways and decides it’s time to finally settle down, but unfortunately he decides to hook up with an old flame Miranda (Battlestar Galactica’s Tricia Helfer) who has developed a reputation for wedding men who die in mysterious ways. Then there’s Jacob (Paulo Costanzo) the one responsible kid in the family who reacts to his impending death by quitting his job and embarking on a bucket list of irresponsibility, buying cars, engaging in dangerous stunts, and wearing ridiculous costumes along with his kid brother Todd (Siam Yu). Sobol weaves between the stories at a rapid pace, mixing violent dark comedy with gentle gags and slapstick before trying to pull it all together with a magical grand coincidence ending that almost works and is at least ambitious.
For the most part the film lives and dies by the cast and what they are able to do with their screen time. Jason Jones probably fairs best, getting laughs out his usual improv timing while also playing the character surprisingly straight at times and proving to be a far more capable, multi-dimensional actor than he’s typically allowed to show. Scott Caan does his immature, bickering smooth-talker thing from the Ocean’s Eleven series. At first his character feels like a one-note afterthought until he gets involved with the psychotic Miranda (played with sadistic/seductive glee by Helfer) and ends up in a hilarious board n’ nail fight with her 7-foot tall hyper-articulate biker ex-boyfriend (just as absurd and hilarious as it sounds and possibly the comedic highlight of the movie). Keitel doesn’t get much screen time with his character being dead and all, but having an actor of his stature in the role helps make his presence felt throughout the film. The only character who doesn’t really work is Costanzo’s uptight guy on the rampage. The performance is fine, but the character is a one-note cliché and his irresponsible adventures never register the laughs they should.
The hit-to-miss ratio of the jokes in A Beginners Guide To Endings isn’t particularly high overall and generally speaking the laughs come more from the performances than the script (let’s face it, JK Simmons could make being diagnosed with cancer funny). However, Sobol makes up for the lack of laughs with relentless pacing to ensure his movie is never boring even when the jokes aren’t landing. The earlier comparison to Snatch is apt because like Guy Ritchie, Sobol never stages a scene without some sort of editing gimmick or moment of show off cinematography. The director mixes film stocks, employs split screens, piles montages within montages, and empties out the bag of stylistic tricks he’s wanted to try over the years. At times it feels like overkill, but the tone of the film is so heightened that for the most it’s oddly appropriate. This is definitely a flawed film that is never quite as funny or clever as it thinks it is. But thankfully, Sobol’s kitchen sink approach is at least funny and clever enough to be an entertaining debut and a goofball ride through crime and indie comedy tropes. If the director can pull together a cast this strong and make a production this slick his first time out, then he’s officially a Canadian filmmaking talent to watch at the very least. First movies can often be overrun with ideas by filmmakers wanting to try everything once in case they aren’t allowed to step behind the camera again. If Sobol calms down and gets more focused during his next time at bat, the guy could end up with a pretty damn entertaining flick.
The DVD comes with a pair of featurettes featuring Sobol talking about the production in general in one and the other about learning to direct a feature for the first time. Both are as congenial and occasionally thoughtful as a film. (Phil Brown)
Jersey Shore Shark Attack (John Sheppard, 2012) – I really need to stop picking films to review based on titles alone. With a title like Jersey Shore Shark Attack, one would hope that this made for the SyFy channel production would have some over the top fun and at the very least stupid laughs, but instead it’s just dull, deathly unfunny, thoroughly annoying, and devoid of even a single moment approaching anything that could be seen as an approximation of entertainment. In short, if you pick this up based on the title, you deserve everything you asked for, but in the worst possible way.
This flimsy, shoddy, and low rent production that even people at The Asylum would shit on and that Roger Corman would straight up choke a motherfucker over (and shockingly produced by grindhouse kingpin and sleaze master Fred Olen Ray, who should still know better), the Jersey community of Seaside Heights finds itself under attack from deadly and unconvincing CGI bull sharks brought up by way of an illegal drilling operation and its up to a lonely band of guidos and guidettes to stop it.
What the film’s four (!) writers don’t seem to grasp is that as a pop culture entity, Jersey Shore is already beyond parody, so stick so close to the actual conceit and characters of the show doesn’t do your awful horror movie any favours. None of the people involved can act worth a damn, nor do they particularly seem to care. All their whooping, grunting, gesturing, and cursing seem like afterthoughts. It also doesn’t help that there isn’t a single person in the cast that doesn’t look a day over 45. Cameos from Paul Sorvino, Joey Fatone, and William Atherton are so depressing I almost didn’t want to mention them.
I don’t even want to talk about this any further. There’s a commentary track and a featurette, but I never made it that far. I threw the disc out a fifth story window as soon as it was over. Then I picked it up and felt bad about littering. Then I started to burn it and I felt bad about the emissions from the fire. Then I started stabbing it with an exacto knife and realized I looked like a psycho. Then I just sat back and cried.
A Little Bit Zombie (Casey Walker, 2012) – Zombies might be played out and searching for new life now that the second season of The Walking Dead (review coming in two weeks) has now arrived on Blu-ray and the third season is just around the corner, but writer-director Casey Walker has sheparded his labour of love, the horror comedy A Little Bit Zombie, into production and release over the course of seven long years and his persistence pays off with a delightfully funny, low-budget cabin in the woods romp that should leave genre fans grinning from ear to ear.
Kindly, mild mannered Steve (Kristopher Turner) finds himself one week away from getting married to Tina (Crystal Lowe), a woman who vascilates wildly between being a caring partner and a bridezilla from hell. Together with his sister and his frat boy best friend, they settle in for what should be a relaxing weekend in the woods, but when a mosquito that recently drank zombie blood infects Steve, he turns into a zombie that still manages to have some sense of self control, and he’s faced with the choice of trying to make things work with Tina and his friends, or simply giving in and enjoying being a brain dead killing machine. Compounding their troubles are a douchy and arrogant zombie slayer (Stephen McHattie) and his long suffering assistant.
Walker does a nice job of working with what he has, and his script has some genuinely funny parallels between a man losing his humanity and losing his freedom by way of a possibly doomed marriage. The cast really goes the extra mile to make the film work, with Turner effortlessly blending physical comedy and dramatic work to create a real sense of empathy for Steve. The real scene stealer here has to be McHattie, though, who never gets a chance to be this funny on screen, and he attacks his role with demented, shotgun toting glee. He becomes the older, whiter Terry Crews from the Old Spice commercials at times.
The Blu-ray package also stands as one of the best and most comprehensive that Anchor Bay has put out for an independent film in quite some time. A 30 minute documentary traces the productions origins as one of the first crowd sourced films ever made up through the release. The documentary might not be long, but it’s edited to give the basic facts. There are still 6 other featurettes, several video diaries from Walker, and a commentary track to go even deeper. There’s also a gag reel, a fake public access paranormal news show, and one of the greatest fake commercials ever made (that even has its own outtake real) featuring McHattie shilling for a canned bacon product. Walker has made a silly, fun movie on his own terms, but the Blu-ray shows just how much hard work went into the making of something many people would just dismiss as pure entertainment. It’s all very admirable and worth a look.
Also out this week: The super delightful The Pirates: Band of Misfits, which is also a great time to revisit our interview with director and Aardman animation stalwart Peter Lord, and Zac Efron continues to do whatever it is he’s been doing in The Lucky One.