“Battleship” technically competent yet unexciting

I firmly believe that a great piece of art can come from any source, any inspiration. But where exactly that inspiration comes from, and the reason for its selection, is up for quite a bit more skepticism in my eyes. Enter “Battleship”, a $209 million film whose primary inspiration is a plastic game in which little pegs and ships are the sources of excitement and tension. It certainly goes without saying that “Battleship” was created out of executive laziness and creative bankruptcy, alongside numerous other greenlit Hasbro projects (I believe at one point, a “Candyland” film was a reality). But the fact remains that, while it’s certainly a cynical, contrived exercise of financial gambling, “Battleship” is a competently made film.

While certainly assembled from a checklist reading “beginning, middle, end, action, boobs, humor, etc.”, a coherent narrative has been assembled. The Hopper brothers are both naval officers with distinct styles: Alex a brilliant slacker and Stone a straight-laced, disciplinary figure. As all the world’s major naval powers are assembled for a series of exercises, several hulking metal objects come crashing down to the Pacific ocean — revealed to be highly sophisticated alien ships, with damn-near the only thing equipped to handle it being the ships at sea. Alex juggles this with his desire to marry the gorgeous Samantha, whose father is also the Commander of the entire Pacific fleet. Melodrama and explosive rounds abound.

It should come as no surprise that “Battleship” is a hollow shell of a narrative with muscle where brain should be, noise where heart should be. Its attempts at counter-balancing this (with its comedic/romantic subplots) are as ineffective as they are harmless. But it finds pathos in the dynamic between the two brother protagonists: actors Taylor Kitsch & Alexander Skarsgard find a relationship with genuine heart — humor at some points, and when tragedy strikes one, even a degree of sadness.

Further acting efforts come with mixed results. Liam Neeson, who seems to be making a habit of elevating mediocre blockbusters’ credibility, has an enjoyable cameo as the Hoppers’ military superior. Conversely, Rihanna gives a performance whose every quip gets progressively more laughable. Brooklyn Decker, too, is a prime example of model-turned-actresses who should have stuck with their first profession.

“Battleship”s greatest evidence of unoriginality lies with its action sequences — in essence, the only reason the damn thing exists in the first place. Where many films have momentum and pacing in their sequences, “Battleship” has noise, clanging and fury. Director Peter Berg certainly demonstrates visual clarity and skill, it’s just that what he’s filming has very little of interest.

The inherit purpose of writing a review is to explore things about a film that aren’t necessarily self-evident, which presents a problem for “Battleship”: it’s all at face value. There’s nothing one can say about “Battleship” that it will not proudly, loudly demonstrate for itself. There’s certainly admirable qualities in that, but also the sort of shamelessness that begetted the project in the first place. D+

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“The Dictator” a shallow if amusing Cohen picture

It’s not the average Hollywood comedy that desires to lampoon American democratic policies, consumptive habits, perception of foreign powers, collectively “independent” sub-cultures, and Megan Fox. Then again, not much about the career of Sacha Baron Cohen has been terribly typical. A mild-mannered Cambridge graduate, Cohen has somehow become the face of contemporary crude comedy, mainly through his half-documentary, half-narrative films (“Ali G Indahouse”, “Bruno”, “Borat”). His newest effort, “The Dictator”, represents a segue into purely fictional material, and it lands with more of a thud than its incendiary predecessors.

“The Dictator” stars Baron Cohen as Admiral General Aladeen, the all-powerful ruler of the fictional North African province Wadiya. He is a dedicated, passionate man — however, that passion tends to be dedicated to the suppression of free speech and action. In the midst of a visit to New York City, Aladeen is betrayed by his radical advisor, Tamir (Ben Kingsley in an embarrassingly marginal role), who represents the outrageous cause of democracy. Aladeen, now replaced by a hysterically unintelligent double (also Cohen), is cast out into the city, only taken in by a hyper-“organic” activist type, played by Anna Faris. The couple, although radical opposites, seem to bond closely over their shared running of a yuppie trade-market, to say nothing of their plentiful body hair.

“The Dictator”, running at a taut 83 minutes, still manages to overstay its welcome and then some. But what almost always takes precedent in “The Dictator” is the need to squeeze out jokes whenever possible, which is both a curse and a huge blessing. One thing has not changed about Cohen here — he remains among the funniest people working today. His humor is as impossibly fast and furious as ever, often resulting in hysterical quips. But the down-side of this is its effect on the film’s narrative momentum: the pacing is lumpy and misguided, occasionally giving great length to marginal gags, and then condensing sequences of significant events into two-minute montages. It’s simply impossible to get a grip on this film emotionally; one is left breathless at the gags yet greatly underwhelmed by the actual context in which they’re presented. In essence: there’s nothing to this movie than what one receives at face-value, which wouldn’t be so large a problem were it not presented in a context of allegedly serious social commentary. C+

“Dark Shadows” a soulless Depp vehicle

Say you pick up a shovel, and with this shovel, you begin to dig a hole. At first, this task requires great effort and physical exertion, requiring great concentration, passion even. You continue to hammer away in its pursuit. But after a while, you are no longer digging the hole to dig the hole, or even facing great difficulty in it anymore. You are digging the hole for the sake of itself. Herein lies the tragedy of Tim Burton’s career.

A proud promoter in his three-decade filmography of the strange and the gothic, Burton has always garnered my respect for his refusal to compromise his vision and integrity, whatever it may be. He’s not an artist in pursuit of theme or message, so much as rhythm and character. But this de-emphasis on confined storytelling has swollen to nightmarish proportions with Burton’s last two films, 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland” and the subject of the paragraphs subsequent: “Dark Shadows”.

With this duo, Burton’s concern for storytelling has gone right out of the window, replaced instead with an overriding desire to make the characters sound goofy and the sets look poppy. Thankfully, the characters sound goofy and the sets look poppy. Burton seems to have no desire to tell a coherent story, marked with organic people wielding motivations and subtleties. Most oddly of all he has no desire to round out Barnabas Collins, the protagonist played by Johnny Depp, whose passion for the source-material ’60s soap opera is what drove the film into production anyway.

Barnabas is an 18th-century gentleman, among many who have come to the New World in pursuit of wealth and love. He has securely found both, but in accomplishing the latter, he angers a witch, Angelique, who madly lusts for Barnabas. Angelique condemns him to two centuries in a coffin, emerging as a vampire into the radical, unstable time that is 1972. His once-prosperous fish-canning business has lost its luster, his expansive Maine mansion is now occupied only by his (thoroughly dysfunctional) family, and Angelique, still around, is adored by the town. Collins clearly has his work cut out for him. His lust for Victoria, a new housemaid eerily resembling his fallen wife 200 years prior, is another factor.

Burton certainly conveys the story here, he simply does nothing with that story. Watching the film bob from scene to scene carries about as much emotional impact as it would have, had I simply read the film’s Wikipedia summary and called it a day. So far as the supporting cast, there’s a very lively group here (Michelle Pfieffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Jackie Earle Haley, the best young actress of this generation, Chloe Moretz) but “Dark Shadows” simply has no humanistic, organic use for them. They’re here to show up in a handful of scenes and deliver bizarre one-liners that, instead of driving the characters forward, serve as perhaps the film’s only narrative momentum. Moretz in particular, on a hot-streak if there’s ever been one, disappoints, caving finally into the “angry teenager” archetype she’s done so well at avoiding thus far in her career.

Perhaps the greatest crime of “Dark Shadows” is its inability to render Johnny Depp, one of the most elastic, evocative actors we have, as a one-dimensional caricature. It’s a trend that’s been occurring with disturbing frequency lately (his track record lately, with “The Tourist”, the new “Pirates of the Caribbean” flick, as well as the aforementioned “Alice in Wonderland” reboot), but Johnny Depp just isn’t being used properly. The fact that this is what Tim Burton opted to get out of him, after eight collaborative efforts together, is a shock. Depp’s character, Barnabas, is very simply, not likable. He’s a cut-and-paste mishmash from other, better Depp characters, save for the sense of personality and morality we got from those guys. Collins, a vampire, is prone to slaughtering a dozen civilians at a time, a fact conveniently overlooked by the film in the pursuit of finding a cut-and-dry “good guy”. I’m not buying it.

With “Dark Shadows”, Tim Burton, a man whose early-to-middle work has haunted my cinematic psyche since the first time I viewed “Edward Scissorhands” as a six-year-old, may have finally lost the essence that infused even his bloodiest, quirkiest films with humanity and depth. “Dark Shadows” is a $150 million declaration that even the best of us run out of ideas eventually. D

“The Avengers” fully developed package of action, character and spectacle.

“The Avengers” is a freaking hard movie to review. Every time I type a word, I pause and fantasize about the next time I’ll be able to see it and – pun intended – marvel at it all. This film is the culmination of many years of preparation, giving this superhero dream-team their own individual films — Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America, and so on. Each film had its own set of attributes and faults, but none were the revisionist take of the genre that some clearly aimed for. “The Avengers” may not just be the superhero film of the year, it may be THE superhero film. End-all, be-all. It deftly weaves all of the best parts of each film, bringing it together to make a whole that is not only cohesive, but improving upon everything that came before it.

The driving force and pulsing personality behind “The Avengers” is writer-director Joss Whedon. Here is a man who has made his career on character-driven, snappily-written geek fodder: in essence, the perfect man to handle this material. His personal imprint can be found in every moment of the film — the film’s banter that constantly provokes laughter while further developing its characters, the visually cohesive, no-nonsense style, the frequent double-checking of genre trappings and cliches. It is, however, (also in Whedon tradition), not a wholly original story.

The film’s plot is set into motion somewhat awkwardly. With all the exposition and character re-introductions, the first hour can often be a shaky one, bouncing between dozens of characters and villains and galaxies. The villainous Loki (last seen as “Thor”‘s brother in his own film) has come to Earth to claim ownership over every inferior one of us. Here is where the “Avengers Initiative” comes into play — where Samuel L. Jackson’s eye-patched Nick Fury assembles his all-star squad of worldly defenders.

One of the more interesting aspects of “The Avengers” is very simply, that it GETS that these people shouldn’t be together. These are six people who have little-to-nothing in common, from personalities, to fighting styles, even species. Honestly, save for the 45-minute climatic set-piece (in which New York is destroyed and my fanboy giggling hits a high), “Avengers”‘ most enjoyable aspect is the interplay between these guys. Although they, evidently, must learn to get along for world-saving purposes, for the first 100 minutes it’s a volatile, tempestuous dynamic between them. In other words, distinctly human. And very very witty.

“The Avengers” is a film that, for all of its glitz, glamour, pyrotechnics and Scarlett Johansson donning skin-tight suits, is all about character. There’s so many satisfactory character beats here. So fleshed out are these people that it actually retroactively adds depth to them, in a way their past films failed to do.

Speaking of Johansson, her character, Black Widow, is a perfect example. Debuting in “Iron Man 2” as one-note eye candy, she here is given a sense of purpose, depth even. Playing master assassin alongside Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, they’re both given their own set-pieces, just as bad-ass as the ones for characters triple their size.

All of the characters in “The Avengers” have been in films of their own. This much I have already covered, both in this review and in those films’ respective critiques. But given the sheer pleasure of watching these dissimilar yet totally awesome characters fight together, I’m not sure I ever want to see them just by themselves ever again. These characters have been given the proper care to allow for satisfying individual arcs and moments, but very simply, WORK together. That’s all I want to convey to you. This shit works. And it’s a miracle. If not for that, go for the biggest single action sequence since “Lord of the Rings” wrapped up in 2003. A-

(Here is where I awkwardly shovel in all manners of nitpicks I couldn’t fluidly discuss in the main body paragraph. There’s some logic holes the size of Bill O’Reilly’s ego at play here. As I said earlier, the first hour feels clunky in editing, given all the information needed to convey. The converted 3-D adds nothing except a slight sense of murkiness. Samuel L. Jackson is underutilized. Why? Dude’s got an eyepatch, come on!)