Wednesday, May 30, 2012

True Grid

Aliens will sink your battleship in Battleship.

* * Battleship. Written by Eric & Jon Hoeber. Directed by Peter Berg.
Americans have always been queasy about sex--except for the eroticism of weapons. An exposed female breast is an object so potentially obscene we cover our children's eyes. The sleek, curvaceous flanks of an F-22 Stealth fighter, however, present guilt-free pleasure, up to and including the moment when it drops a bomb on a building. Put a model in a bikini and you might have a post-worthy image for Facebook; give that model a machine gun and you'll have thousands of YouTube hits, and even attract the ironic attention of Quentin Tarantino.
            Peter Berg's Battleship is supposed to be based on that Baby Boomer-era board game, where players insert little red pegs into grids. In fact, it's really just ordnance porn in the hard body, hard rock tradition of Top Gun. Berg (Hancock, Friday Night Lights) gives us a scenario wherein the US Navy takes on a flotilla of alien ships hell-bent on annexing Hawaii. Along the way we get the usual money shots: guns blazing, planes whooshing, and a 16-inch shell from the battleship USS Missouri popping from its long, hard turret. Pop singer Rihanna, as "Petty Officer 'Weps' Raikes," gets to handle the fire-control stick, as long as she doesn't show anything of the body she deploys so effectively in her videos.
            Scorning a movie as ridiculous as Battleship is easy. Admitting I was fairly entertained by it is harder. Yet, strangely enough, I was. Credit screenwriters Eric and Jon Hoeber for taking a little time to make a character out of hero Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch). Hopper is the classic scamp, the bad-boy maverick who's also a stealth nerd who can quote Homer. If his character seems familiar, he should: Kitsch plays basically the same Captain Kirk character Chris Pine did in the J.J. Abrams Star Trek. The Hoebers even give us the same scene from Abrams' film, where the young Hopper finds himself thrust into command when the aliens kill all his superiors (Rihanna, of course, is his bad-ass version of Uhura). No credit for guessing he becomes the kind of Kirkish leader only Homer-reading mavericks can be.
            There are also a few moments that show a certain ironic intelligence at work. When Berg pumps up the rock 'n roll here, it's not for the usual homoerotic volleyball scene, but for a bunch of veteran amputees hitting their physical therapy routines. The aliens are more humanoid than the damp, slavering bugs often seen in movie sci-fi, yet still plenty scary. The filmmakers even find a non-absurd way to work the board game's grid-based guessing game into the story ("H-3, miss!"). No spoilers on how. Suffice it to say that the science of modern warfare, which is almost always fought "over the horizon", can seem more like the board game than you'd think.
            Though Battleship isn't wholly terrible, its consequences might still be. Now that we’ve devolved to the point where movies-based-on-comic-books are beginning to seem a touch too cerebral, too old-school, we’re now in for a slew of features based on classic board games. Movies of Ouija, Risk, an Adam Sandler Candyland, and (most intriguingly) a Ridley Scott version of Monopoly are in the works. The opening credits for Battleship feature the Hasbro logo. Can the first Milton Bradley epic be far away?
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Dictatorship of the Snarkitariat

* * The Dictator. Written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandel & Jeff Schaffer. Directed by Larry Charles. 

Admiral-General Aladeen and entourage in The Dictator.

If you dare, feel sorry for poor Sacha Noam Baron Cohen. Not too long ago, he had a whole satiric niche to himself, in which he would present himself to ordinary folks and celebrities in the guise of one of  his outrageous "alter egos" (Ali G, Borat, Brüno). His characters were invariably racist, sexist, anti-Semitic pigs, and the unscripted reactions he drew from the haters said volumes about them. Living somewhere in the twilight zone between reality TV and political comedy, Cohen's stuff was edge and funny as hell--especially in the small, punchy does he served up on British TV in Da Ali G Show.
          Unfortunately, then success happened. Nearly everybody got hip to Cohen's shtick after his surprise hit feature Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, and most of the rest after his less-successful follow-up, Brüno. Getting even half-drunk frat boys to expose their foolishness on camera is impossible now, let alone baiting public figures like Pat Buchanan or Ron Paul (whom Cohen got alone in a hotel room for Brüno). Since then he's done small supporting roles--as in playing a character in a scripted story--in such films as Talladega Nights, Sweeney Todd, and Hugo. But Cohen as an ordinary comedic actor isn't half as fun as that other guy, the provocateur who once satirized Islamo-misogyny by boasting he got his Kazakh wife by trading her for a can of gas. 
         Cohen's The Dictator is his first feature since becoming too recognizable to be good. Rumored to be a very loose adaptation of a novel by Saddam Hussein, it features Cohen as "General Admiral Aladeen", the strong-man of the fictional North African nation of Wadiya. The fright-bearded Aladeen is caricature, but only just: an amusing scene where he swears his rogue nation only wants "peaceful nuclear power", but can't keep a straight face while saying it, seems not so far-fetched given the taste for drama of rulers like Ahmadinejad, Gaddafi, and Chavez. Yet there's an air of discomfort in Cohen's wholly scripted comedy. When we watch Aladeen in his palace playing what appears to be an anti-Zionist shooter game (including a Wii-enabled beheading sword and a late-night visit to the Israeli Olympic team), the joke comes off as more funny in principle than in fact.
            The rest of the story, wherein the shaved and unrecognized Aladeen is cut adrift in New York City by his duplicitous general (Ben Kingsley) is hit or miss. Forced to engage in normal human interactions for the first time, the dictator ends up befriending the fervently sustainable manager of a Brooklyn food co-op (Anna Faris). Despite his taste for kicking small kids and slapping impertinent customers, Aladeen soon proves he can make the trains run on time, putting the coop’s Jew in charge of the cash register and the "sub-Saharan" on stock-boy duty.
            The Dictator is rude, but it’s still conventional to a fault. Like Borat and Bruno in their trips through America, the haplessly hateful dictator is supposed to be an x-ray through the chest of American culture, revealing what is busy metastasizing in there. Trouble is, the ignorance being satirized here is just pretend, while real hate, with all its gleaming, wild-eyed fascination, is all too easy to find. (As of this writing a YouTube video has gone viral of a North Carolina Baptist preacher, calling from the pulpit for gays and lesbians to be put in concentration camps until they "die out.”) Compared to shock value of the real thing, Cohen and his three co-screenwriters simply can't compete.
            Given the premise, it's hard to believe Cohen and director Larry Charles didn't have in mind Charlie Chaplin's classic The Great Dictator (1940). Chaplin, as he tried to deflate fascism through satire, never stopped being a Victorian sentimentalist. Channeling his basic optimism in human nature through dictator "Adenoid Hynkel's" final speech, he presented a stem-winding oration on the virtue of peace and the basic dignity of all peoples--in short, exactly the kind of thing the real Adolf Hitler would never say.
            Cohen and Charles punctuate The Dictator with a speech too--but they make a different choice. Instead of affirmation, they opt for sarcasm, suggesting that America must stand for freedom because she "never, ever" tolerates starting wars based on lies, unlawful detentions, or rigged elections. In short, he suggests there’s some moral equivalency between the U.S. and, say, the Islamic Republic of Iran. It’s the kind of wise-ass cynicism we see everywhere these days, from people who prefer to sound smart than make a constructive difference.  
            Indeed, there's more than a hint of romantic authoritarianism in The Dictator, as when Aladeen proves he can run the store better than the do-gooder lefties that loathe him. Laughing at dictators can be subversive--but it can also be the first step toward identifying with them. Given the choice between corrupt, inept democracy and  honest-to-goodness tyranny, The Dictator prefer to keep its options open.
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Nightmare Before Memorial Day

* 1/2  Dark Shadows. Written by Seth Grahame-Smith & John August. Directed by Tim Burton.
Eva Green wakes the dead in Dark Shadows, but not Tim Burton

One trick ponies don’t come less tricky than Tim Burton. For nobody, not even Scoobie-Doo, has gotten so much mileage out of gothic-horror pastiche. His career is studded with expensive stinkers like Sleepy Hollow, a woeful Planet of the Apes reboot, Mars Attacks! and Sweeney Todd, yet it lumbers ever onward, refusing to die. Burton mangled Alice in Wonderland, turning a delightful piece of literary whimsy into something even more “Narnian” than those bloodless, overblown Chronicles of Narnia movies; watch his 1985 Batman today, and his vaunted visual flair provokes little more than yawns. For the record, I liked Ed Wood, and I laughed now and then at Beetlejuice. But after a dozen misses in fifteen or so tries, it’s time to say it: Tim Burton is the most successful over-rated filmmaker in Hollywood.
            The story is much the same with his latest, Dark Shadows. Based loosely on the 1966-1971 spooky soap opera, Shadows promised to be a gothic fish-of-water story, with 18th century vampire Barnabas Collins (Johnny Depp)  reanimated in the ungodly year of 1972. The comic possibilities are rich: screenwriters Seth Grahame-Smith and John August get to give Barnabas a strange fascination with Erich Segal and the Steve Miller Band, and he gets to call Alice Cooper “the ugliest woman I ever saw.” Conveniently, all these laughs are in the trailer for us.
            Yet as happens so often in Burton’s films, Shadows can’t decide whether it wants to involve us, repulse us, or join us down in the audience for a laugh. Where the writers are content only to check off the required elements demanded by their screenwriting classes, the players seem lost in different movies. Chloë Grace Moretz, as the troubled teen, seems to enacting some kind of zombie bedroom farce; Jonny Lee Miller, as the creepy uncle, is not so much creepy as faintly unctuous. Depp, of course, is just the usual Depp, which is good enough for his kick-lines of fans, while the ravishing Eva Green (Vesper from Casino Royale) is in full Cruella de Vil mode. Mostly, it seems as if the actors received no direction at all. Burton appears to have been more interested in indulging his visual obsessions—think the Haunted House ride at Disney World, except more self-serious—than in little matters like script and performance.
            Not that there wasn’t a certain topicality to the premise. This summer not only Dark Shadows but Men in Black 3 will take us back to the first Nixon Administration. There’s a Jimi Hendrix bio-pic in the works, and Mad Men seems bound inevitably to end in the decade of earth shoes and wide lapels. It’s hard to explain the nostalgia, except that perhaps one of the most contentious decades in the 20th century now seems appealingly quaint. But Tim Burton isn’t interested in any of that either. So little time, so many cobwebs to drape!
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Trouble With Superheroes

The gang wonders why Spider Man isn't in The Avengers.

* * * The Avengers. Written by Joss Whedon & Zak Penn. Directed by Joss Whedon.

Fanboy Christmas has come early this year, as Joss Whedon’s The Avengers arrives bearing two tons o’ fun and a titanic $200 million gross in its first weekend. If you recall, this is the movie its studio has been building up since forever, as Avengers honcho Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has been making cameos in other movies (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America) to recruit superheroes for his All-Star team. Forgetting living torches and X-ray vision: living up to this kind of monstrous anticipation is a pretty neat trick.
            Nobody cares what critics say about these kinds of blockbusting crowd-pleasers. For what it’s worth, this writer enjoyed Avengers about as much as anything from the summer silly season can be enjoyed. Writer-director Whedon, the mind behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the über cool Firefly, deserves all the credit for pulling off an interesting challenge: in one script, to give half a dozen characters, leads in tent-pole movies of their own, their own back-stories and their own special “moments”, stir up some conflict between them, then pull it all together into a coherent, compelling whole. Where most comic book movies are swan dives into a pool of shallow expectations, Whedon pulls off a quadruple somersault with reverse twist into a pool of shallow expectations.
            To be sure, some of these heroes—especially Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Captain America (Chris Evans)—are still clunky customers. With his particular flair for combining humor with action, Whedon actually makes these guys more likeable than in their “solo” movies. Avengers passes the most important test for an ensemble story: it adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
            It ain’t perfect, though. The biggest problem is the lack of a truly compelling villain. In the original Thor, the hammer guy’s lesser-achieving brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) was a passably cunning, fey foil to Hemsworth’s brawn. Here, Whedon can’t figure out whether to make Loki scary-crazy, or just a diva in platform shoes throwing a cosmic tantrum. Hiddleston ends up trying to be both, and therefore neither. Forget the hype: a villain as riveting as, say, Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight would have turned a good romp into a great one.             
            Fortunately, the whole reason for assembling The Avengers is not really to defeat the bad guy, but to see them enact hypothetical match-ups fan-boys have posed at school bus stops for generations. Could Captain America stand up to Iron Man? Can the Hulk smack down Thor? Whedon delivers the goods there, and not just in terms of action: it doesn’t get much better than when Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) cuts the blond, stilted Thor down to size by calling him “Point Break”. 
           Much as there is to like about The Avengers, it has one troubling implication. In the ultimate battle over Manhattan, when the heroes take on Loki’s trans-dimensional army of goons of jet-skis, our conventional avengers—you know, the Army, Air Force, Marines and Navy—barely show up. Indeed, it’s striking how nobody other than the superheroes do much more than passively observe. So here it is, in comic-book microcosm: we envision military conflict in modern America as something we view from a distance, as others do the actual fighting. Unlike the big wars of the twentieth century, which were won by ordinary mortals doing extraordinary things, now we depend on the fewer than 1% of Americans who volunteer for service. The downside of superheroes, caped or in camo, is that they give the rest of us the luxury to be super-spuds. 
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Quoth the Raven, "Nope"

* * The Raven. Written by Ben Livingston & Hannah Shakespeare. Directed by James McTeigue.

John Cusack and friend in The Raven.
By any sane standard, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) led a remarkable life. Recognized in his time mostly as a literary critic, lauded as a poet, he was also a key figure in the development of whole genres of prose fiction, including horror, sci-fi, and detective stories. He was one of the first American authors to attempt to earn his living entirely from his pen. Alas, he published in the dark days before international copyright, and Poe was literally “pirated” to death.  As unauthorized British editions of his works flooded the market, earning royalties for other people, Poe wandered New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore, begging for low-paid jobs at literary journals. His classic poem, “The Raven”, earned him just $9. He died at the age of forty after turning up on the streets, weak and weary, wearing somebody else’s clothes.
            Fascination with all things Poe is obviously at the heart of James McTeigue’s The Raven. Unfortunately, just as Poe chose a bad time to become a full-time writer, the filmmakers have chosen a bad time to produce anything like an historical bio-pic. By any sane standard the literal facts of his life are remarkable, but those aren’t the prevailing standards. It’s all well and good, for instance, that the real Abe Lincoln won the Civil War and freed millions of slaves, that he had a singular mind and met a tragic end. But what if he was also a vampire killer, as in the upcoming preposto-thriller Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter? Now that’s a movie! And sure, Poe revolutionized an art form, mourned a dead love, and lost his family as he led a hand-to-mouth existence in a cold, indifferent world. Those stakes sound pretty low. But imagine he was on the trail of a vicious serial killer, as in McTeigue’s (V for Vendetta) fantasy, and the Hollywood suits might pause over their Cobb salads at lunch.
            The Raven isn’t especially terrible. The script by Ben Livingstone and Hannah (“this ain’t”) Shakespeare, concerning a killer in old Baltimore who draws Poe (John Cusack) into the investigation by patterning his crimes after Poe’s stories, is marginally more plausible than vampire hunting. It’s supposed to feel like a period version of Seven, with the killer taunting his pursuers by leaving mordant clues to his next horror. There’s a liberal sprinkling of gratuitous gore for the post-Saw generation. For every bad line (“She’s so worldly, so full of life!”), there’s a pretty good one (as when Poe declares, “If I knew my work would have such an effect on people, I’d have devoted more time to eroticism!”) Cusack, a professional, soldiers through the proceedings with fair commitment, showing off his graduate-student level of knowledge of Poe as the character attempts to poetize his way to free drinks at his local tavern.
            The Raven isn’t terrible as much unimaginative and, in the end, uninvolving. Post-Seven, the premise just looks and feels tired; indeed, Seven itself, with the killer patterning his crimes after the Seven Deadly Sins, actually had a more Poe-ish ring than this. Even when he was writing about homicidal pendulums and tell-tale hearts, Poe always brought forth a certain style, a poetry in macabre things. Where “The Raven” is poetry, The Raven is prosaic. Nobody should die on a park bench for the sake of this.
 © 2012 Nicholas Nicastro