31 May 2012

MATRIXIDE, PART 2: EX MACHINA

The conventional wisdom is that The Matrix Revolutions, the last of its trilogy, is weaker than its immediate forebear, The Matrix Reloaded, regardless of whether either of them is "good"; and I am proud to break with this convention. Not because I think that Revolutions is really good, or a successful return to the level of the original Matrix; it is neither of those. It has, however, two very important points of distinction that separate it from Reloaded, and they are both strongly in its favor:

-It is nine minutes shorter;

-It has much, much less talking.

Admittedly, the rather exceptional heights of the freeway chase scene in Reloaded isn't remotely matched by anything anywhere in Revolutions; even the only decent-sized fight scene in Reloaded, the famous Neo vs. Army of Smiths sequence, is better than its companion moment in the finale, when the entire arc of this grand, vasty saga culminates in a fight sequence that is, honestly, kind of boring; while Reloaded mostly held its own despite how much the wire-fu aesthetic that The Matrix so effectively popularised had become old hat even as early as 2003, just four years later, Revolutions runs splat into the issue that by the end of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there pretty much wasn't anywhere else to take the style, and from there it was all so many people hanging about in the sky, zapping towards each other at high speeds with arms and legs in photogenically poised combat positions.

The point being, Revolutions averages out to be a mildly better film than Reloaded, mostly on account of being neither as good nor as bad in its peaks and valleys. As reasons to see a movie go, that's not a very good one, so let me try again: in the history of loud, messy movies with way over-the-top CGI excess, Revolutions is particularly lovely to look at: its effects have aged considerably better than a great many other films from around the same time, including, weirdly, its own immediate predecessor, which I take to have something to do with a slightly longer time in post-production.

Now, Revolutions, being as it was conceived and produced right at the same time as Reloaded, and meant to be viewed as the second half of a single grand arc, doesn't function as a stand-alone story all that well. In essence, it's the payoff from the situation presented at the end of the second film: the underground city of Zion, last human enclave in a ghastly future world ruled by machines, us about to be overrun by the armies of those same robots; the only hope, and it is thin and nobody even knows why they're meant to be hopeful, is if Neo (Keanu Reeves), "The One", can use his extraordinary control of the artificial world called the Matrix to find some means of stopping them. The only problem is that the closing moments of Reloaded, in which Neo learned a great deal about his own powers and many discomfiting things about the Matrix and the real world, left him in an indescribable fugue state, almost like he has found a way to bridge the world of flesh and computer in his own body. So before anything else can happen, his close allies Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) must find him within the Matrix - or within a place that is not quite the Matrix itself, as it turns out and the new insights we get into how this simulation works doesn't make any rational sense if we're still thinking in terms of science fiction, which is why I'm content to say that this film is where the franchise enters the world of outright fantasy - and bring him back to life, in time for him to head right to the heart of the machine's enclave while the Zion citizenry prepares for a desperate pitched battle that has the merit of being big and massive even if it is rather too kinetic for it to be 100% easy to follow the action in any more specific sense than, "it is good when the squid-looking robots blow up".

The massive central war sequence, which resembles nothing else in the Matrix universe, is certainly the most diverting part of the film; it's not, I should hasten to point out, nearly as entetaining as the freeway sequence in Reloaded - though it is longer - by the simple virtue of being less original: in 2003 there were already a fair number of sci-fi battle sequences that resembled this passage in the abstract, and certainly there have been a great many more since then, while the particular physics on display in the freeway chase have still not been copied or even referenced.

On the other hand, the war sequence involves none of the three principals, just the many assorted minor figures who were introduced rather blandly in Reloaded, with the the hope that we'll thus be invested in their fate when this moment roles around. I didn't find this gambit to work out, personally: it's hard enough to feel much empathy for a blank slate like Neo or Trinity, given a huge chunk of screentime and several big emotional scenes, let alone people like Jada Pinkett Smith sleepwalking through what feels like a particularly long cameo. But that is the exact opposite of the point I was making, which is that by virtue of keeping us separate from the central trio, this battle sequence also keeps us separate from the arch symbolism that hangs around them like a cloud.

Because, in case you managed to miss the little hints, Revolutions makes it undeniably clear that Neo is a messianic figure, echoing though not directly mapping onto the ascension and transcendence of Christ. How this hangs together with the philosophical worldview of the first two movies isn't entirely clear to me, though I assume I could read one of the many books or websites that get all excited by the Wachowski's musings if I really wanted to know. But the overt religiosity of this finale doesn't seem to gel with the broader spiritualism of the first two; it remains the case, however, that the primary moral force in these films is neither Christan nor the vague Buddhism of the first movie, but an emphasis on the freedom of the individual to choose their own actions, which isn't incompatible with either. I am saying, I guess, that the films end up being a grab-bag of philosophical impulse and not a coherent system of thought at all, and this is very much in keeping with how the first two functioned, but given the intense focus on Christ imagery in the last third of the movie, it feels like it should be more consistent than it is.

What I will say in the film's favor is that, however much all of this sucks the narrative energy away (just like in Reloaded), I admire the Wachowskis's commitment to their bloviations - whatever else is true of the Matrix trilogy, it cannot be accused of selling out or compromising. It's as urgently personal as any other blockbuster property of the 21st Century, and while the movie the siblings made is not remotely the film I'm interested in watching - a climactic battle with the psychotic Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) that was more of an ingenious, boundary-smashing setpiece like the first film had and less of an allegory would have been nice, for starters - but it's certainly the movie they wanted it to be. That's a special thing, even if the results are powerfully foggy, and far more invested in undernourished philsophy student games than in science-fiction, world-building, or action storytelling. By which I mean, I might actively dislike Revolutions, but at least it's because the film's ambition went so far awry, and not - emphatically not - because it was as shy on ambition as just about everything else with a budget that size made in America.

MATRIXIDE, PART 1: A STEAMING LOAD

My thanks to everyone who voted in my recent "Fill In My Blockbuster Gaps" poll. Because nature and my OCD abhor a vacuum, before I review the film that won, I'm going to start out by reviewing the film that came before it, or else I'd have a gap in my review index that would itch like a rash till I filled it.

Many, many people love The Matrix. I am not one of them - I enjoy it well enough, but it doesn't loom very large in my memory - nor was I in 2003, which is where our story begins. For it was in that year that two of the most heavily-anticipated movies of the 2000s were released, having been shot together as a single production, in the grand tradition of Back to the Future, Part II and Part III. I refer, of course, to The Matrix Reloaded from summer, and The Matrix Revolutions from autumn, undoubtedly the biggest sequels of that year outside of the mammoth The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - yet another "sequel" that was shot as part of a single, multi-film year of production. Things were more barbaric then; now, of course, we enjoy the elegant simplicity of Marvel Studios always making movies all the time without a pause.

But back to The Matrices. If you were of a certain age in 2003 - and I happen to have been at exactly that age - the sheer volume of hype in the first third of the year is almost impossible to describe; The Matrix Reloaded was The Event Movie of the summer. On the other hand, the vacuum of anti-hype in the months separating it from its sequel is almost as impressive: The Matrix Revolutions had gone from being one of the big movies of the fourth quarter to being, instead, something of an obligation: and while I know many people who dutifully went to see it opening weekend (it was a great big hit, though smaller than Reloaded), I don't recall a single one of them actually looking forward to it in anything other than a utilitarian, "I have to see how it ends" sense, kind of like people going back to a show they stopped watching just to see the series finale.

The difference, of course, is Reloaded itself: not, I guess, one of the worst sequels that has ever been put in movie theaters, and not, for me, one of the most disappointing - like I said, I wasn't the biggest Matrix fan in the first place, so my own expectations were fairly muted. But damn, is it ever a grind.

The Matrix, it is assumed you will remember - another tradition of sequels in the '00s it fulfills is to not bother with even a single sentence of recap - is the computer simulation where most of humanity resides some 200 years in the future, enslaved as sentient batteries for the uncountable number of machines that have long since taken over the Earth. Only a small population of homo sapiens is free of the Matrix, living in a subterranean city called Zion, doing all they can to free as many other humans as possible; this, in effect, was the entire plot of the first movie. The situation in Reloaded finds the machines having just about finally run out of patience for the Zionites, and thus launching a major attack to destroy the human enclave once and for all. And so it falls to the heroic crew of the Nebuchadnezzar, one of the ships in the armada fighting for human liberation in the metal caves under Earth's surface, to find a way to stop it: the mysterious, sagelike Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), love interest Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss), and especially Neo (Keanu Reeves), who Morpheus believes to be "The One", the human being whose ability to manipulated the Matrix from within is so profound that he along can save humanity from its doom. That, anyway, is the short version.

The long version would probably set my keyboard on fire. Because, as everybody knows, Reloaded is the talky, plotty Matrix film, the one that takes the relatively stripped-down scenario of the first picture (a man whose world is a computer simulation can fight like a batshit crazy wire-fu motherfucker) and lards it up with so much mythology, philosophy, and crazed world-building that you don't even know what to do with it. The standard line is thus that it is the movie that spoils all the fun of the first Matrix film, by bogging down the slick, action-heavy narrative of that movie with lots and lots and lots of exposition that is inordinately dense, according to both definitions of the word "dense".

I'm not about to break with the standard line. What is elegant and interesting about The Matrix is that its structure is, in effect, a video game tutorial turned into a feature film: the plot entirely overlaps with Neo's leaning how to manipulate the Matrix, meaning that exposition is the story, and since Neo learns by doing, all of the action in the film is exposition, and the whole two-and-a-quarter hours is an extended information dump disguised in technologically innovative fight slow-motion fight choreography. That's a pretty darn nifty way to build a movie, from where I'm standing, and it would seem like the sensible thing to do with a sequel would be to use the fact that we now understand the way things work - we've learned the game mechanic, if you will - the Wachowskis, the sibling pair whose very personal baby The Matrix is and always was, could just treat themselves and us to an explosion of ever-heightened and crazily inventive fights that go out of their way not to be bound by the rules of physics.

But that's just not what the Wachowskis found interesting. Instead, they latched onto Morpheus's vague spiritualisms from the first movie, and expanded them into a massive worldview that symbolically reflects several spiritual systems in our own reality, and has them spelled out in exhaustive, miserable detail. This is why I hate Reloaded more than it probably deserves, much like I turned on Michael Haneke after Funny Game U.S.: it's a lot easier to stomach willfully cryptic, half-baked (emphasis, in this case, on "baked") philosophisin' when you assume that the filmmakers are just having you on and using it as goofy filigree; the moment it becomes clear that, no, that's actually what they mean, and what they want you to take away from their movie, tha's when it becomes quite vexing. Say what you will about how thoroughly George Lucas destroyed his universe with the prequels, but at least he didn't try to make Jedism a coherent, layered philosophical system whose explication is the sole point of the movies (instead, he just pissed all over himself by inventing psychic space germs).

That's it, really: I do not object to Reloaded being so fucking full of talking, scene after scene after scene (criminally, the film's great big climax is: something like 10 minutes Neo chatting with a grumpy old white dude with a beard, about inscrutable esoterica). There are plenty of talky movies that are just great. It's that everything they talk about it so insipid, the kind of "life, man, what's it mean?" stuff that is fine for propping up your gaudy sci-fi action thriller but surely not deep enough to actively replace the action, which is precisely what has happened here.

Oh, and there's also one of the most wildly misconceived sequences in 2000s cinema, in which Morpheus gives an inspirational speech to the people of Zion that culminates in a momentum-slaughtering five-minute long rave intercut with a deliriously awkward sex scene staged and shot by people whose interest as filmmakers has never had anything to do with human sexuality

The damnable thing is that, scattered throughout the agonisingly long slog, there are some truly excellent moments: Neo's fight with a small army of Agent Smiths (Hugo Weaving and several CGI Weaving clones) - Agent Smith being the sentient program who, after the events of the last movie, has developed a self-guided will and a really nasty mean streak - is a terrifically fun bit of wire-fu, maybe the last truly great fight scene in that style that so very quickly wore out its welcome in the early '00s; and then there is an epic-length car chase that involves some of the most crazily ambitious camerawork and choreography of any fight scene in the modern era, including the one moment in all of Reloaded that's as wildly creative as the first movie was most of the time, imagining what it would be like to have physical fights in a simulated environment: choreographing a pair of fighters who have the ability to become immaterial in the blink of an eye; though being immaterial doesn't just mean that the good guys can't hit them, they also can't hit the good guys, or stand on solid ground. There are some jaw-dropping moments playing around with that idea. And then the whole thing culminates in the very best bullet-time shot in the picture, as two giant trucks slam into each other. And it is good.

But moments that are aggressively cool like that, even in the tawdry, shallow way of popcorn adventure movies, are exceedingly rare: mostly, this is a film of self-serious ideas presented at great length, and that seriousness infects every inch of the film, from the acting (Fishburne is particularly unbearable in his way of Stating every line rather than delivering it) to things like the imperious cinematography and brooding sound design: this is a movie that has journeyed exceedingly far into its own ass, and is delighted to be there. More power to the Wachowskis for trying to do something serious and thoughtful within the limitations of populist cinema, but surely it could have been watchable in the process? Christopher Nolan wasn't really a thing yet, but his 2010 Inception is everything Reloaded needs to be: confusing, and far less intelligent than it's convinced that it is, and obsessed to distraction with exposition, and fun. Fun, apparently, is too much to expect from a Keanu Reeves movie about fistfights.

30 May 2012

UKRAIN'T ALWAYS GET WHAT YOU WANT

You don't get to be a horror fan without developing a strong defense against crappy filmmaking, but holy hell, Chernobyl Diaries is absolutely not a satisfying viewing experience. Not that it was going to be great, or anything. But the intense, overriding degree to which it is not-great and in fact anti-great is still surprising: the film is a uniquely deadly combination of the poorly-conceived and poorly-executed all whipped up into a zesty cocktail of awful. It's frustrating in basically every way it could be.

The pitch: three young Americans are in Europe - Chris (Jesse McCartney), his girlfriend Natalie (Olivia Taylor Dudley), and her recently-dumped BFF Amanda (Devin Kelley). In what is, unquestionably, the film's most effective sequence - sneakily, it's the very first thing that happens - we see these three tourist their way around great cities of that continent, shooting themselves having fun on their smart phones and thereby obliquely pointing out that despite its pedigree, Chernobyl Diaries isn't technically a first-person, found-footage movie, and that it could in fact look worse than it does if it had been (though Jesus, it looks bad). It is a light, trivial, smallish sequence, and it captures in charming detail the feverish energy of being enthusiastic and young and just a bit stupid - Natalie at one point declares to the folks back home, with great joy, "We're at the Tower of London!" while standing in front of what is quite unambiguously the Tower Bridge, but maybe that's a forgivable mistake, and I have no idea if we're supposed to notice it or not.

Anyway, it's enough to make the gang pretty easy to like right from the get-go, and that turns out to be useful since it's the last time we're apt to like any of them. The story properly begins when they arrive in Kiev, where Chris's older brother Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) has been living the flippant life of an ex-pat for some time now. It's he who comes up with the rather poorly-received idea that instead of heading right to Moscow (where Chris plans to propose to Natalie, because there ain't nothing so romantic as the Kremlin), they should go on an "extreme tour" to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster site - or rather, the abandoned town of Prypiat, just outside of Chernobyl, but given how much energy the film has to spend defining for its audience what happened at Chernobyl, I suspect that a film called Prypiat Diaries wouldn't have attracted an audience outside of hardcore Ukrainian documentary fans, and they would end up being disappointed.

Paul, you see, knows this spectacularly colorful fellow named Uri (Dimitri Diatchenko), who has been doing Chernobyl tours for five years now, so the four Americans, plus another couple - Australian Michael (Nathan Phillips) and Norwegian Zoe (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal) - all pack into Uri's military surplus van for what is meant to be a quick trip in and out. Only, the Ukrainian government has apparently decided to crack down on these little radiation playdates, for Reasons That Are Mysteriously Kept Secret, and by the time Uri has snuck everyone in through the totally undefended back road, there's just enough daylight left for a short tour followed by a return to the friendly, radioactively stable confines of Kiev, and if something awful happened e.g. a mysterious Something destroying their engine, that would be awfully bad for everybody. And so it happens, and so it is.

To be fair, Chernobyl Diaries never quite makes it clear what is the exact nature of the beings lurking around - well, duh, there are beings lurking around - they're heavily implied to be former Prypiat residents turned into cannibalistic mutants from the fallout, but that's never clarfied. So the good news is, you aren't obligated to view the movie as a tremendously offensive trivialisation of one of the all-time worst nuclear disasters in human history. Just encouraged to do so.

That said, tasteless is by no means the worst thing about the movie: almost every single element puts in at least a fighting argument for that title, in fact. The characters, who are stupid beyond belief, and also largely shitty, especially Paul (whose arc consists of bullying everyone into doing what he wants, and then feeling bad that he did so - we are allowed to assume that this exact dynamic has happened throughout his and Chris's whole life, which is not called "character development" so much as "chronic sociopathic behavior") suck; the acting sucks, though not as bad as the characters; the production values really, spectacularly suck, because Chernobyl Diaries is some kind of asinine hybrid of cheap digital horror of the Paranormal Activity breed - for as has been heavily mentioned in the marketing, PA auteur Oren Peli is this film's co-writer and producer - with, y'know, actual narrative filmmaking. This is a singularly unfortunate choice, because part of the appeal of the found-footage subgenre is that it's an excuse for having dodgy lighting and worse cinematography in a place that makes narrative sense. But when all the visual shortcuts of that style, including whiplash-inducing POV camerawork and forced, awkward editing (so many fades to black, and none of them work) are used in the service of a movie with normal shot set-ups and scene construction, it just looks cheap. Maybe good enough that if it were a DTV picture, we could overlook it, or at least only snark about it a tiny bit, but as a significant release in proper movie theaters, it's simply unforgivable for anything to look this bad without any purpose other than, "I'm Oren Peli, and this is what I do". Not that Peli directed; that honor falls to visual effects artist Bradley Parker, who has absolutely no interesting ideas at all, though he stages the one really effective jump scare - a new and intriguing number called the Spring-Loaded Bear - well enough, I suppose.

But this is all routine "lit with flashlights and boosted gain on the camera" low-budget stuff, and the result isn't atmospheric so much as it is muddy and illegible. It's about as scary as trying to read a book with your cell phone as a flashlight.

So, in addition to looking like hell, Chernobyl Diaries presents us with a slow build (good) to a lot of running around and screaming (bad), with absolutely no rules governing the creatures' behavior other than that they should be wherever it will cause the actors to jump and be shocked. The rules governing the protagonists' behavior, meanwhile, seems to consist of "determine which is the absolute most stupid direction you could possibly head in, and then head there", over and over again. And this is also something that the seasoned horror fan has to start ignoring or suffer forever, but it's such a massive problem in this film, from the second that Uri decides on absolutely no logic at all to go chasing wolves in the middle of the night, abandoning the relative safety of the van, up to the final chase scene, where the dwindling survivors invariably head down and into the dark patches because... the cannibal mutants don't know their own home turf well enough to find them, maybe? Because it is better to fight strange, inexplicable humanoid beasts in tight, gloomy corridors than out in the open with moonlight? Frankly, I don't know, and that's probably a good thing: if I did, then I'd be as intelligent as a character from Chernobyl Diaries, and if that were the case I'd deserve every bit of what I had coming.

2/10

JUNE 2012 MOVIE PREVIEW

Honestly, doesn't it kind of feel like this whole summer is just going to be on protracted anticlimax? Not necessarily in terms of quality - I'm tempted to say, probably not in terms of quality - June and July always looked better than May to me - but there simply isn't going to be another Avengers, not in terms of box office and not in terms of how much it dominates the cultural dialogue for so many weeks in a row. And I say that as a Batman partisan.

No, the summer and the year, most likely, have peaked; and this is both disappointing (having the race for 2012's highest grossing movie at the U.S. box office and likely the international box office as well over by Memorial Day is boring), but also kind of a relief: since nothing can hit that level, nothing is obliged to, and it will perhaps be easier to just settle down and enjoy the movies for what they are. And that is, after all, the reason we're all here. So let's see what June has to offer.

1.6.2012
For starters, the second of 2012's dueling Snow White pictures, Snow White and the Huntsman, and for a long time the one I was marginally more excited for; it struck me that this movie had only one thing to offer, and that was Charlize Theron looking all malevolent ice bitch as the Wicked Queen, and Mirror, Mirror also had only one thing to offer, and that was Eiko Ishioka's costumes; and all things considered, a bravura, operatic villain performance > costumes in my book. But then Mirror, Mirror turned out not to suck completely, or even mostly, and that made it easier to focus on how SWatH also stars Kristen Stewart and Chris Hemsworth, two people that I like, basically, not at all. Hard for me to get a bead on this one.

Easier to get a bead: Piranha 3DD. I am expecting large breasts and copious gore, both of them in 3-D. And even if the gore doesn't pan out (Alexandre Aja having bowed out of the director's chair, it will certainly not be as excessively brutal as Piranha 3D), there's always the most awesomely stupid title of the year to hold on to.


8.6.2012

Finally, we get to one of the movies of the summer I - and, to judge from the internet, a lot of other people - have been waiting on for months: Prometheus, Ridley Scott's return to science fiction, the genre that produced his two greatest films way back at the start of his career (I refer to Alien and Blade Runner, if you just got DSL wired up at your cave). Truth be told, as we get closer to the film, it becomes easier and easier to think up the many ways this could go bad, but you know what? Ridley Scott, sci-fi. Ridley Scott, Alien universe. I'm going to keep the faith.

Over there, incidentally, is Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, in case you have children in your life, and they hate you.


15.6.2012

A few paragraphs ago, I mentioned thinking that June was going to be good, and I'm starting to forget why. Certainly, the reason is not That's My Boy, in which Adam Sandler plays a jerk who reconnects with his adult son, Andy Samberg, because it looks fucking goddamn terrible from the trailers, which suggest that Sandler will be doing that thing he does with his voice, that sort of slurring, braying thing, a lot. Also because it's an Adam Sandler vehicle.

It's not Rock of Ages either, becaues who the hell wants to see a jukebox musical about hair metal? But at least it's got Catherine Zeta-Jones singing and dancing and, by the looks of it, having a magnificent time - I concede that the movie will blow, but I am unashamedly looking forward to her.


22.6.2012

And, here we are: Brave, the new Pixar film, and Cars 2 notwithstanding, I see no reason not to trust that studio with my very soul. Certainly, it is possible that the notorious production history of the film - which saw Brenda Chapman pour her heart into the project and get the job as Pixar's first woman director, only to have John Lasseter snatch her off when she didn't take the story in the direction he wanted - means that the end result will be a hobbled, commercial compromise. But even if it is, it's also going to be gorgeous, I mean just so unbelievably attractive and lush and picturesque that even just thinking about it makes me want to be violently ill. So that's something to look forward to, at least.

Jockeying for second place, we have Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, an apocalypse-themed buddy comedy with Steve Carrell and Keira Knightley, and every word I just typed makes me happier than I should be. Also, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which is shaping up to be significantly less fun than that title would apparently require.

Limited release: To Rome with Love, Woody Allen's latest movie, with a typically great cast and an unbelievably bad title.


29.6.2012

A vacuum! With G.I. Joe: Retaliation getting unceremoniously ditched to March, there aren't really any big releases on the last Friday of the month. Instead, a bunch of counter-programming will be knocked about and likely leaving Brave as the first film since The Avengers to snag a second weekend at #1, though my box-office prognosticating is notoriously awful, so don't hold me to that.

In descending order of how enthusiastic I am:

-Magic Mike, a male stripper dramedy which has a seriously bland and pointless trailer, but Steven Soderbergh could direct an adaptation of a microwave oven owner's manual, and I'd be there opening weekend;

-People Like Us, a family drama with a number of actresses I like and sadly, Chris Pine in the lead role;

-Madea's Witness Protection, which is a Madea film;

-Ted, in which Seth MacFarlane is finally given an opportunity to bring his ghastly brand of stringently unfunny comedy to the cinema, giving Mark Whalberg an opportunity to act against a CGI teddy bear that curses.

29 May 2012

YEAR OF BLOOD: MEMENTO MORI

Ironically, because there is no mail on U.S. Memorial Day, I didn't get Memorial Day in time for a Memorial Day review. But what's one day between friends, especially when the net result is celebrating the sacrifice of our brave men and women of uniform with fucking and killing, just the way they'd have wanted it.

Let us start by conceding the reality of the situation: the reason Memorial Day exists is that no horror film with that title had yet been produced, and since the raison d'être of both the U.S. Memorial Day holiday and the slasher film subgenre is to send young people into the woods to get drunk, this was an oversight that could not be stomached. It is shocking that it made it so far into the direct-to-video horror boom as it did without one smart filmmaker realising that he (or she; it would be possible, but I think, wildly unlikely) could get plenty of free attention just for giving his movie that title; that, for example, some time in the future, he might be able to sucker a film blogger into reviewing the movie on the last Monday in May just because there was no other option.

Second concession: I don't know how far into the direct-to-video horror boom Memorial Day was made. The IMDb page, and I am certain that it refers to the same feature, every single name is correct - tells us that it was 1999, but the copyright date in the end credits is 2004, and every single reference I can find to it begins in 2005. This doesn't sound like much of a controversy at all, then, except that for the IMDb to be off by five or six years in the case of a movie less than 15 years old, wherein the filmmakers would presumably be keen on having the most accurate possible information out there, seems at least a bit unlikely. Presumably there is a story behind all of this. Presumably, it is not very interesting. It's still probably more interesting than the story presented within Memorial Day itself.

What we have here, is director Christopher Alender and writer Marcos Gabriel (both of whom did multiple other things to get the movie made, including editing) making the most unabashedly typical slasher movie that they possibly could manage, perhaps as a way of showing off nothing more than the fact that they were able to, sort of like writing a spec script for a television sitcom entirely because it shows that you can work entirely within somebody else's very strict rules. If that's the case, I regret the wasted effort.

Memorial Day begins with (sit down, I don't want to shock you), a young couple fooling around - Trevor (John Haydon) and Tyra (Martine Shandles), though we won't know their names until after they're dead. Both of them are shirtless, giving us the obligatory boob shot for the feature (and at the risk of sound just awful, Ms. Shandles has unusually photogenic breasts), and just before they're about to Do It, Trevor realises that he has no condom on his person. Tyra makes him go to the car and get one - and yes, I think little safe sex PSAs never hurt anybody in a movie aimed at teens, particularly the undiscerning ones likeliest to enjoy Memorial Day - and there, naturally, he ends up dead. Tyra, waiting for him, doesn't observe that the figure in black who arrives is of a rather different build, and since he - it? - he almost immediately blindfolds her (the couple had been arguing about getting into light BDSM just before, so she views this as her victory), and binds her to the bed, and then waits a bit, feeding her pieces of fruit for what feels like several hours, before shoving a knife down her throat. And here we have, by the eight-minute mark, one of the most distinctive things about Memorial Day: while it does not do very much to challenge any of the common horror tropes, the one it is absolutely head-over-heels in love with is "Boys die in shock cuts, girls get stalked". At the risk of giving anything away - though I am genuinely sure that anybody who would give a shit could pick out exactly who lives and dies long before the living and dying starts - eight people die before the Final Girl sequence starts, three of them women and five of them men, and all three of the women die in protracted, three or four sequences that just linger and are agonising and one of them in particular feels very much like a torture film sequence (a hot iron bar and crawling over razor blades are involved), which is part of why the question of when, exactly, this movie was made seems so important to me. Meanwhile, three of the five men die in the amount of time it takes to snap your fingers, without even knowing they're in imminent danger; one dies pretty suddenly; only one is given any kind of lingering death at all. Boys die in shock cuts, girls get stalked and tortured a bit first. Lovely sexual politic, and present in just about every slasher film worthy of the name; but Memorial Day is so extraordinarily forthright about it, and it's enough to make what was already a rough, hard-to-like movie just vicious enough for me to vaguely hate it.

But hating Memorial Day is more work than it's worth. Picking up after the opening titles end: there are nine college-age friends all headed to Memorial Lake for the first time in three years, to reconnect and get hugely drunk. These are, in the order we meet them, Reagan (Jasmine Trice), a snippy complainer, and her boyfriend Seth (Derek Nieves), who has bleach-blond hair and the worst attitude imaginable; Leo (writer Marcos Gabriel! Hi, Marcos! Nice star role you made for yourself!), who is kind of affable and also kind of bullying, and seems to be the prime mover of this trip; his cousin, Rachel (Therese Fretwell), whose brother died at Memorial Lake three years ago, leaving her with a hefty case of survivor's guilt; Mickey (Andrew Williams), who waggles his hands in the air and shouts at odd moments and acts in general like Quentin Tarantino's kid brother; his girlfriend Cindy (Erin Gallagher), who gets to be the inevitable person in a cast this size who was looking the other way when they handed out personality traits; and Jeremy (Adam Sterritt), Mickey's friend, who has never met any of these other people and thus permits Cindy to give us a much-welcome exposition dump in which she just straight-up rattles off character names without even pretending it's for any other reason than so we in the audience can keep track of everyone. Sadly, since she and Jeremy already know each other, she never has cause to say, "And I'm Cindy!" and that is why we don't hear her name until about ten minutes before the end of the movie. Tyra and Trevor are meant to be the last of their group, but nobody knows where Trevor and Tyra are...

So they all end up in a cabin in the woods that doesn't really look the part - large red EXIT signs are quite prominent, and the whole thing has a distinctly civic center vibe - and Someone is stalking around, and at the 36-minute mark, just less than half of the 80-minute movie's running time, He She Or It starts killing the kids, and this has to do with Rachel's dead brother. Eventually, everyone is dead except for Rachel and the killer - I have spoiled nothing, it's obvious before Rachel even appears onscreen that she's the Final Girl - and we learn what's going on. As it turns out, what's going on requires that the most obvious choice be the killer, because of how the first death scene was blocked (they all but say, "Hey why isn't [Character] here, where all the rest of us are watching our friend bleed to death?", so Gabriel and Alender are obliged to fabricate a secondary twist ending which is much harder to predict, on account of making absolutely not even the slightest hint of sense.

The best parts of the film anyway, are not the slasher bits, but the various attempts to stretch the running time as far as it will go: a length argument about how Seth won't stop to let Reagan pee, or Seth's short, pointless story about passing a kidney stone, or Mickey's long, pointless joke about picking up a hitchhiker. And by "best", I certainly don't mean "best". "Strangest" and "Most atypical", maybe, and that has to make do. I mean, when was the last time a slasher film came out with a fixation on urine? Answer: not long enough.

This is, at the risk of being too hard on a movie clearly made for very little money, a bitterly unimaginative slasher film; not a single story beat and not a single death scene and not a single character detail is playing by any rule that hadn't been set in stone by, oh, 1983. And frankly, if I were counseling microbudget filmmakers on how they could best raise their profile, "make a shlocky genre movie in the least imaginative way you can" would not be my advice. Isn't the whole point of a tiny crew making a tiny movie to do things that are imaginative enough to draw attention? Or is that why the whole Memorial Day title gambit was conceived? Because obviously, from the fact that I watched it and you're reading this essay, it worked.

That said, there's nothing out-and-out bad about the movie, though Williams and Nieves are truly awful actors who should never have gotten out of the rehearsal stage without their aggressively douche tics heavily stamped down. It was shot on prosumer video, and that puts a very definite ceiling on how competent the cinematography and audio can be; I suppose there was little time for multiple takes or re-shoots, and this probably why things like the giant fly buzzing right by the camera lens during the requisite campfire scene was allowed to stay in there, despite being more energetic and interesting than any of the performances. The makeup is solid enough, and there are a handful of shots that work better than the "this is the angle things like this are shot from" mentality throughout most of it (a particularly nifty example: a handgun on a bedspring, looking down at Rachel fumbling with a door; not John Ford or anything, but it's a nice example of driving the narrative through focal depth).

It's just so hells boring - indistinguishable in any meaningful way from a thousand other crummy horror movies in the woods, except this one looks like it was made for $5, and they frequently look to have cost $20 or even $30. That's enough to buy Memorial Day a tiny bit of an excuse; but not at all enough to justify anyone but the most deranged and desperate slasher buff ever seeking it out and wasting even just 80 minutes on the thing.

Body Count: 9, as has previously been discussed.

28 May 2012

IN THE BLACK

The best part about Men in Black 3 - I doubt anybody would be violently driven to disagree, and I also doubt anybody would be terribly surprised - is Josh Brolin giving a performance that is at once a parody of Tommy Lee Jones, and an homage to Tommy Lee Jones, and a sincere attempt to find what he can make his own with a character that has already been given life by another actor, in this case Tommy Lee Jones. I suppose by now you've also heard that Brolin is not the only good thing in MIB3, and this did come as a surprise, to me at least, given what might have been.

In fact, yes, I think I misspoke somewhat: the actual best part about MIB3 is that it isn't Men in Black II (and now's as good a time as any to point it out: they did very definitely switch from Roman to Arabic numerals in the title, and I have no idea why). This is a very low bar to clear, and it's maybe not fair to give the new film points just for not being even remotely as bad as its 10-year-old predecessor, because literally thousands of movies meet that definition. Incidentally, I'm not going to what I'd expected to, and slag on MIB3 for coming out after a decade-long break; MIBII itself came out five years after the generally lively, playful, creative, and all-round quality '90s blockbuster Men in Black, and if having twice as long a gestation period is the reason that MIB3 does not suck so hard, then I hope they put off Men in Black 4 for a solid 20 years, and maybe we'll really have a movie going.

But back to matters at hand: the new film requires very little knowledge of the first two in order to get going, and that's awfully decent of it. What we have is, Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Jones) of the shadow government group Men in Black, that tracks the lives of all extraterrestrials living on Earth, have been partners for years and years and years now, and J is getting old enough himself that he cannot fathom how old K must be, given that K was already ancient when they met; and he's also getting frustrated by his partner's refusal in 14 years to share even one detail of his personal life. K is doing some stock-taking of his own: his dear friend, MIB chief Zed, has just passed on, leaving control of the group to K's old flame O (Emma Thompson), and one of his first big cases as a Man in Black has just come back up, as the insane alien criminal Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement, unrecognisable behind latex and channeling Tim Curry's voice) has just managed to escape from a high-security lunar prison with revenge on his mind against the man who put him there.

This revenge takes the form of going back in time to kill K before any of this happened; for reasons that are too-foggily explained, J is the only person who realises that he's living in an alternate timeline, and soon he zips back, too; all the way to July, 1969, when Boris first surfaced, and a much younger though still shockingly craggy K (Brolin) was just an up-and-coming agent, and there's a plot involved in all of this but the vast majority of what makes the film appealing is that Smith and Brolin just get to hang out and toss barbs at each other, just the way that Smith and Lee did in the first movie way back in 1997, only this time there's a lot of meta-humor as well. Eventually, it all culminates in an action sequence set against the backdrop of the Apollo 11 launch, for reasons that actually make a fair amount of sense given the parameters the story has set up for itself, and does not in any way whatsoever make a complete mockery of the Apollo program or NASA itself, unlike some other recent summer movies involving Apollo 11 that I could name.

But again, the main draw is the hanging out and goofing around, something Smith does really, exceedingly well, and hasn't gotten a chance to do recently - primarily because he hasn't made a movie since 2008, and secondarily since he last film at that time was the dour, irritating drama Seven Pounds. In fact, I should say that Smith hasn't been having this much obvious fun since at least 2003's Bad Boys II, if not the original '97 edition MIB itself. And it is good to be reminded why one of our few great contemporary movie stars is so invaluable, so the film is doing the Lord's work on that front, at any rate.

What this does mean, though, is that it's the middle part of the movie that is far and away the best, and thankfully it is also an extended middle; but the opening and closing sequences are not nearly so good. The film is just straight-up death until J jumps to 1969, some 25 or 30 minutes in, owing in great part to how obviously Jones is not having fun making one of these (correct my memory, but wasn't one of the big issues with MIBII the amount of negotiating and compromising it took to get him back in the suit at all?), and somewhat less to director Barry Sonnenfeld's apparent rustiness at directing light action: the 1990s, when he made fun, fizzy pictures like Get Shorty and The Addams Family and Men in Black itself, were a very long time ago, and he hasn't made a feature since RV in 2006. It is merely natural that he should have become a bit rusty in all of that time, and so it is: even when MIB3 clicks, it has a lot more to do with the acting than the directing, which is a bit brittle at all points. Though, to give the man credit, it's also shockingly slow, in a good way: as comedies and action movies have gotten so much more hectic since Sonnenfeld's heyday, it's easy to forget how damn laconic even big tentpole movies used to be, with nice, decently long takes and stretched-out dialogue moments, and that the filmmaker doesn't see fit to rush us through any of this is a real pleasure.

But yes, there's still a lot of deadweight, and while I liked that screenwriter Etan Cohen takes the mechanics of his plot so seriously, I would not have minded at all if he'd maybe figured out a way to have those mechanics work faster. The new film suffers the exact same problem as the first, which is that the third act becomes so plotty and so concerned with action and incident it stops being funny (the second film also suffered from this, but it was the entire feature, not just the climax), and the attempt to resolve all of the emotional material from the early going absolutely dies in the face of logic and plot coherence and, for that matter, chronology (though chronology is not a strong suit here: after I don't know how many references to "over 40 years ago", J claims to have traveled 39 years - 25 plus 14, specifically).

Still, despite all of that, MIB3 is a fun, blithe summer romp of the old school, with lots of terrific Rick Baker make-up work, and better-than-average CG, and plenty of reasonably witty moments that don't assume the audience is too smart and, importantly, doesn't assume we're too dumb, either (there's an extended sequence at The Factor, with Bill Hader putting in a fine cameo as Andy Warhol, that requires far more specific knowledge of '60s culture than I would expected a big studio film to assume of its audience, and I suppose its partially for this reason that it's arguably the film's highlight). It's not nearly as good on any level as the first movie was, but a 15-years-later sequel doesn't have any right to be involved in that kind of conversation at all, and the mere fact that I feel comfortable saying that MIB3 is merely "not as good as Men in Black" is quite an achievement, all things considered.

6/10

27 May 2012

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: UNWANTED THREEQUELS

Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: it took 10 long years of nobody anywhere giving much of a shit one way or the other, but now Men in Black 3 exists. And to the surprise of most of us, it actually turns out to be something other than a worthless waste of time. Alas, not all years-later sequels are so lucky.

The great Terminator 2: Judgment Day was, in 1991 and for many years thereafter, the highest grossing R-rated film ever, an award-winning cultural touchstone that represents a high-water mark for a certain kind of commercial action filmmaking. And not least of the reasons why is that director and co-writer James Cameron gave it such a profound sense of finality, not resolving his story in anyway - the opposite of it, in fact - but resolving the emotions and themes with such grandeur and passion that no future Terminator picture could possibly do anything but degrade itself and its wonderful forebears. Hell, there are two separate endings for T2, completely incompatible with one another, of wildly differing quality, and both of them offer no basis for future sequels: the worse one by telling us in momentum-crushing detail how very much it is the case that nothing else bad ever happened in that movie universe, the better one by insisting with grave intent that the future being absolutely unknowable and plastic, there's no point in wondering what "really" happens after that closing moment, because any future is as likely as another and all that matters is plugging through the day-to-day. Neither path leaves an opening: one is absolutely certain and one is absolutely ambiguous, and trying to smuggle a sequel in there would be so obviously, inherently dumb, violating everything that T2 claims about destiny and fate simply by existing.

To the credit of everybody involved, it too the best part of a decade before they finally figured out how to make a third movie happen regardless, and it wasn't until July, 2003, one day shy of twelve years after T2 was released, that Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines perpetrated itself all over the world's movie screens. It took a lot of people a lot of false starts to get to that point, but the final team that ended up succeeding - according to a bastardly new definition of "success", anyway - included director Jonathan Mostow, whose big film prior to 2003 was the dismal submarine picture U-571, and the writing team of John D. Brancato & Michael Ferris, whose very next project was the legendarily unendurable Catwoman. But hey, in 1984, James Cameron had only ever made Piranha II: The Spawning, and he still managed to do pretty much all right by the first Terminator. But Jonathan Mostow, I am afraid, is no James Cameron.

T3 lets us know very much from the beginning how anxious it is to piss off anyone who holds T2 in any sort of regard: the first words, spoken in narration over a black screen, directly refutes the message of the last speech of the previous film, and the second shot references and reverses the last image, mirroring T2's famous road at night rushing towards us with a shot of a road rolling away from us. It's pretty impressive that both the narration and the visuals are explicitly "reversing" the end of Judgment Day; impressive, and very, very dumb.

But, to the plot: in the summer of 2004, 23-year-old John Connor (Nick Stahl) - who, if we are going to be real bitches about series continuity, should actually be 20, but this is the internet, and that's not the sort of thing we like to make an issue about here - is living as a desperate, homeless drifter, trying to live as far off the grid as he possibly can; for as we know, or at least, as we have absolutely no reason not to know, John has been hunted since before he was even born by assassin robots from the future, where he is the leader of the human resistance against the evil artificial intelligence Skynet and its machine army. At this time, John is in southern California, and because there has to be a movie, two of those terminator robots have just come back in time: one is in the form of a beautiful blonde woman, and is of the model line designated T-X (Kristanna Loken) - sadly, yes, we are meant to make the jump to "terminatrix", because after the magnificent female character that was Sarah Connor in Cameron's films, women are reduced to being props and eye candy in T3, like in every other damn American tentpole movie - and a much less advanced T-800 model (Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his last pre-government starring role); the T-X has come to kill Connor and his future associates, while the T-800, as was the case last time, has been reprogrammed by the reistance and sent to protect Connor and Kate Brewster (Claire Danes), a junior high classmate who has become, in the future, one of the most important members of his inner circle.

It's sort of exactly the same thing as T2: a shiny new terminator model that can shape shift is the villain, the lumbering, unstoppable Schwarzenegger bot is the only thing that can stop it, and Connor and a female companion begin by running like scared animals and end by trying to stop the coming of Judgment Day, the moment that Skynet becomes active and makes the evil and self-aware decision to wipe out humankind. Not as good, of course; not even vaguely as good, though the gaunt, terror-wracked John Connor played by Stahl is at least not the insufferable quipping kid from the last movie. Stahl does not, mind you, do a good job - of the four leads, he is the least interesting, I'd say, and this is desperately unfortunate because he has by a significant margin the most screentime. But he doesn't make me die inside, and that is more than Eddie Furlong could claim.

The problems here are many: despite my anger at how badly the film spoils the thematic development of the first two movies, which I'd summarise as "a heroic woman convinced that the universe is essentially fatalistic finds the inner strength to prove that a sufficiently driven human can create her own future", by reverting to a plot that explicitly and repeatedly claims "nevermind, it's a fatalistic, predetermined universe after all", that's not really the worst of them. Sure, it's the reason that T3 is a terrible sequel, but there are bad sequels that still work as movies, basically. T3 doesn't even do that: it isn't a good action film, and isn't a good science fiction film, or anything else you might want to be. The first Terminator was a mercilessly tight exercise in raw momentum, neither smart nor stupid, just purely kinetic; the second is at times lumpy and overreaching, but has some of the most grandly-conceived action sequences in any major American film ever made, and revolutionary special effects that still hold up after entire generations of newer, glossier, bigger CGI have aged into embarrassment.

T3 is basically the exact opposite of all that: it attempts to be a pulsating, non-stop chase like the first film (they are, structurally, very similar) but Mostow's direction is the very opposite of merciless and kinetic: even the film's most generally successful setpiece, a car chase involving a busted old truck, several remote-controlled police cars (a detail that is rather more "oh how stupid" than "oh how cool!"), a construction crane, and a motorcycle, has long since overstayed its welcome and indulged in a few too many moments that are too stretched out, and all the hectic pace that the sequence starts with simply wears itself into oblivion. And that's the best setpiece - the ones that don't work are just so much shooting and overly busy editing and visual effects that almost, but not quite, hold together. Meanwhile, its attempts to attain the same sheer scope of T2 - hell, the very title just about promises us the apocalypse before the picture ends - run afoul of too few characters, too few locations, and frankly, no interesting ideas at all: while the earlier film is almost dizzily obsessed with the ramifications of its time travel plot, there is one and only one scene in T3 - where we learn how the T-800 was captured and sent back in time - that works on anything approaching that level, and its severely under-acted, so it's not any good, anyway.

The acting, aye... Stahl, I already mentioned, so let me just finish him off: he hits one note and only one note in the whole movie, "hunted animal", and while he does it fine, there's no real character there. And Danes, struggling to find more humanity in her role than that, isn't good enough to overcome the inherent limitations of the part: in the first movie, Linda Hamilton was able to be a person who was screaming and running, but Danes is never more than damsel who gets teary eyed when she isn't demanding to Know What's Going On.

Leaving the terminators themselves: and I'll say this much, if T3 has an unabashed bright spot, it's Kristanna Loken. This is weird, because the T-X isn't much of a part and she isn't really an actress. But still, once she is no longer required to speak words, and that happens fairly early, she is an awesome machine: she manages the nifty trick of looking desperately hungry and yet completely without emotion, like a snake; I do not think this is an accident, either, because there's a certain serpentine smoothness to all of her movements. Also - this has nothing to do with the actress at all - but the T-X is a fantastic killbot; I will be so heretical as to say, in fact, that it is better than the T-1000 from T2, or at the very least, it's more technologically comprehensible, existing as a combination of actual machinery and magic futuretech, where the T-1000, however great it is as a villain, doesn't really make a whole lot of sense as a machine. Anyway, yes, kudos to Loken: she is terrifying and she is gorgeous and she is relentless, and these are the only things that anybody involved in the film's production wanted her to be.

As for Arnold, in his temporary farewell to acting and his last waltz with the character that made him a superstar (sort of; of course, the three movies feature three different T-800s): he sucks. I'm not happy saying that. Outside of maybe Conan of Cimmeria, there is no role better suited to the exact limitations of Schwarzenegger's talents than the terminator, and he was flawlessly perfect in both of his previous outings. But in this third picture, perhaps as a means of expressing hiss dislike for the material and perhaps because he was criminally mismanaged by his director, he keeps lapsing into- I don't know what to call it. "Mugging" isn't the right word - I've seen Batman & Robin, I damn well know what it looks like when Schwarzenegger is mugging. This is more like, if you imagine the T-800 in this case learning how to behave like a human from watching '70s sitcoms: lots of bug-eyed reaction shots and self-conscious quipping, but still done as a robot would do it. It's peculiar, and hard to explain; but it sends the movie hurtling into fatal, self-parodying camp, and there is really no call whatsoever for a Terminator movie to be campy. Especially when that campiness comes from the one exact place that you would assume to be the rock 'pon which the whole movie is founded.

But no, it is not to be: and in a whirlwind of terribly-mounted action scenes and vile discontinuities with the rest of the series and unlikable protagonists and a general noisy blandness that makes the film with its exquisite pedigree virtually indistinguishable from any other R-rated action film of the '00s, it is certainly Schwarzenegger's limp, silly performance that is the most depressing part. This was never going to be better than a crappy cash-in and dumb guilty pleasure; but the one thing guaranteed to remove the pleasure and just leave the guiltiness was fucking up the T-800. Well, they did it, and as a result made one of the definitively bad sequels of all time. I admire, at least, that the film is thus able to distinguish: any hack franchise picture can be pointless and bad, but it takes a special disregard for all that makes the material unique to make one this all-out rancid.

26 May 2012

BOND FOR GLORY

A guide to this blog's James Bond marathon can be found right here.

DR. NO
Directed by Terence Young
Written by Richard Maibaum & Johanna Harwood & Berkely Mather
Premiered 5 October, 1962

PRE-TITLE SEQUENCE
NA - the only Eon Productions Bond film without a pre-title sequence.


TITLE SONG
This being the first-ever James Bond film and all, some of the kinks were still to be worked out, and one of those is the title sequence: instead of a pop song using the title as an inexplicable lyric (which I imagine would have included the refrain "Dr. No! Dr. No! Dr. No! Dr... Yesssss!", Dr. No makes do with one of the most insanely iconic pieces of film scoring in history: the James Bond Theme, composed by Monty Norman and arranged and performed by John Barry. You know it: "DUH-duh duhduh DUH-duh duhduh DUH-duh-DUH-duhduh." And so forth. Not hardly a better way to introduce world cinema to one of its most enduring heroes than to launch into his ecstatically '60s leitmotif, incorporating a sort of brassy jazzy sound with surf rock guitars.

The only problem, though, and it's a biggie: there comes a point where it sort of drifts away to be replaced by a bright but largely anonymous bit of calypso, that then shades into another calypso song, a cover of "Three Blind Mice", unimaginatively setting up the three blind assassins who start the plot off. None of it sounds wrong, as such, but it doesn't flow worth a damn.

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Rating: 4 Shirley Basseys


TITLE SEQUENCE
The first of Maurice Binder's many wonderful title sequences is largely centered around circles and lines - beginning, of course, with that instantly-recongnisable line of white dots sliding across the screen before transforming into a gun barrel, through which we watch stuntman Bob Simmons shoot us dead as our blood trickles down the screen.

From then it's on to a cavalcade of primary-colored shapes, an marvelous abstract Pop-influenced animation that suggests in a vague way computers, or a sound mixing board, or God knows what - but my word, is it ever the early 1960s. Then, as the James Bond Theme disappears, we get the series' very first dancing girl silhouettes! And even these are primary-colored and Poppy, and all in all it is just about as terrifically sleek in its graphic cleanness as you could conceivably want. It's not the best of the title sequences, but it's one of the most distinctive, and it set the tone not just for the series, but for dozens of other credit sequences in films for years and years to come.

title_5
Rating: 5 Silhouetted Women


THE PLOT
Adapted from Ian Fleming's 1958 novel - his sixth James Bond adventure - Dr. No strikes a good balance as an adaptation, leaving most of the book intact (far more than the bulk of its sequels, anyway) without strangling itself with fidelity. Herein, Bond (Sean Connery) is sent to Jamaica to investigate the death of another MI6 agent; as he pokes around, Bond quickly discovers that the agent was investigating the peculiarities surrounding Crab Key, a private island some miles away. Recreating the information that his predecessor was killed over, Bond eventually arrives on the island to find that it is the centerpiece of a plan perpetrated by SPECTRE - the Special Executive for Counterintelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion, an international crime organisation - to knock American manned space flights out of the sky and thus rule the world. The details are a bit foggy, as is pretty much the entirety of the finale, at least to me: other than "it is evil and must be stopped before they destroy the Mercury Program", I've never quite followed what's happening in the evil control room or how, exactly, SPECTRE intends to rule the world by dicking around with NASA. And, while the low-key mystery plot and the resolutely human-sized drama of it all makes this one of the sanest of all Bond pictures and thus guarantees it a fair number of partisans, I invariably find myself wishing for a few more crazy flights of fancy whenever I watch it.

plot_3
Rating: 3 Stolen Nukes


THE VILLAIN
Dr. No is meant to be a half-Chinese, half-German engineering of an icily precise demeanor and impeccable taste, and Joseph Wiseman manages half of this balance flawlessly; but he looks about as half-Chinese as Scott Baio. This is not necessarily a slam against the villain or the performer, but against the low-boiling racism present throughout the movie; Fleming's novels were all rather, as it were, colorful in their dismissal of people who skin color came in any other hue than pasty English pink, and Dr. No is one of the two films produced by Eon Productions where this unsavory element of the source material was carried over the most.

That being said, Dr. No still isn't very much of a bad guy. This does have something to do with our ability to read forward to the excessive cartoon villainy that will start showing up in the very next picture - as a genre film villain, Dr. No doesn't have much besides his mysterious black-gloved hands to distinguish himself - but there's more to it than that. From the title of the film itself on down to the many conversations where his name is spoken in a sort of half-hush, Dr. No is set up throughout the movie as a kind of menacing puppetmaster, and the payoff for that needed to be superb - Harry Lime in The Third Man superb, I mean. And he's just not. I do not blame Wiseman for this, who did what he could, and was certainly terrific at the refined, strangling sense of intellectual superiority that the bad doctor displays during his only major scene. But there simply wasn't much to work with: a tacky, trite back story and a crazy expensive aquarium and a pleasant, very nice dinner simply cannot impart the menace the character is stated to have elsewhere in the film.

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Rating: 2.5 Evil Cats


THE GIRL
Not even James Bond himself got such an iconic introduction as Honey Ryder, portrayed by Swiss sexpot Ursual Andress and the distinctly non-Swiss voice of Nikki Van der Zyl: Andress, sauntering out of the Caribbean in a white bikini is such a famous moment that it hasn't just been parodied God knows how many times, it was even re-done twice in future Bond movies (once with a future Bond Girl, and then with Bond himself). You can't argue with that kind of legendary status, except, well: Andress isn't that great an actress.

Which, obviously. The reason we call them "Bond Girls" and not "Bond's Sophisticated, Sexually Independent Women" is because they represent the series' male fantasy element at its most unadorned and anachronistic. They are objects to be seduced, protected, and fucked, though the order changes from film to film. And in that regard, at least, Andress is a perfect fit: it wouldn't take much to make the argument that she's the single most physically attractive woman of the Connery pictures, and one of the top 3 or 4 overall.

But then, even within the straitjacket of the franchise's reflexive sexism, there are many actresses who were both ridiculously attractive and able to to meet Bond on his own terms, at least briefly: ones with spice and personality and wit all their own. Andress's Honey Ryder - one of the less beat-you-on-the-head sexual puns that these characters will be saddled with - is just one vacant stare after another: I don't doubt the language barrier was a problem, but there's still a profound deer-in-the-headlights quality to most of her time onscreen that makes the objectification of her undeniably fine figure all the more queasy-making in its borderline misogyny. Still, since I am trying to meet the Bond tropes on their own ground, I have to give her some bonus points for being that immensely hot.

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Rating: 2.5 White Bikinis


THE HENCHMEN
One could argue that there isn't one; Bond goes a-detectiving and survives a few attempts on his life, but there's not that one thug he keeps crossing paths with over and over again. There are, however, two "featured" minor bad guys, at least one of whom gets more screentime than Dr. No himself: and that would be Professor Dent (Anthony Dawson), the craven geologist who was part of the conspiracy to kill the last agent and is tasked with killing Bond (he fails). There's also the first of the Bond femmes fatales in the form of Miss Taro (Zena Marshall), who allows Bond to have sex with her even though she already knows that he's outwitted her plot to kill him. They're both fairly thin characters whose narrative function is almost solely to be bad at their jobs, and that is just not the stuff of great thriller-making.

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Rating: 1 set of Metal-Plated Teeth


THE SECONDARY GIRL WHO ENDS UP DEAD
We meet Bond at a fancy casino playing some obscure card game - it's not called baccarat, but it sure looks like it, not that I'm a baccarat expert - against the beautiful Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson), whom he invites to his room in the most presumptuous way possible. Fulfilling her narrative duty to be not absolutely hot, Sylvia has weirdly-shaped eyebrows; and she serves literally no purpose other than to demonstrate that James Bond is such a rugged slice of condensed testosterone that he can have any woman with absolutely no effort. She doesn't even get killed by the bad guys, hoping to get to Bond himself - she's not around that long. And yet, in the casually sexy moment where she's chilling Bond's hotel room by herself, hitting golf balls across the floor, she manages to have so much more autonomy and charisma that Andress manages, oddly. So there's that.

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Rating: 2 Golden Corpses


ACTION SEQUENCES
The Bond movies very quickly stopped being anything resembling spy stories; the novels didn't until they started to be influenced by the movies. But at the time of Dr. No, the emphasis was still much heavier on intelligence gathering than on adventuresome exploits, and there is, I do not doubt, less action by volume in this film than in any other. And of that, only the film-ending explosion of Dr. No's lab really works on any particularly exciting level. Other than that, it's a few curt, efficient fistfights, and one dodgily-executed car chase. Oh, and a scene - it's not "action", but close enough - where Bond is menaced by a tarantula, and it is the absolute worst scene in any Connery film: it could not possibly be any more obvious that a glass pane separates him from the spider, and the cutting to the stuntman who has the tarantula on his shoulder does not match the geometry of the shots of Connery at all.

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Rating: 1.5 Walther PPKs


GADGETRY
Very much a product of the later, more absurd films, the closest we come here is when Major Boothroyd (Peter Burton) of what is not yet called Q Division, informs Bond that all agents are to start carrying the Walther PPK 7.65mm handgun. And since that gun is as much Bond as vodka martinis, it is a good choice; but not really what this Bond trope really means. Rating not appropriate.


THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
This film and its immediate successor are, to put it bluntly, the "cheap" Bond films: since they had not yet come out and changed the entire world market for action cinema, it wasn't clear yet that they were going to make enough money to justify spending a lot. This means that Ken Adam, who would later create some of the most ridiculous sets in all the movies, couldn't play around as much as he would later; and thus I am compelled to grade on a curve. But even so, Dr. No's island lair is a fascinating place: all imposing concrete walls and support pillars with inexplicable touches like a bookshelf carved right into the cement, or halfhearted attempts to give the monstrous place a homey feel with delicate Asian touches. And Dr. No's office/dining room, while cramped, is a really clever way to get the most mileage from a small number of elements; sleek and futurist while also being grim and industrial. It's a dry run for what is to come later, but it still works damn well: too bad about the chintzy control room with its glowing nuclear pool and spinning wheels of High Tech Doom everywhere.

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Rating: 3 Volcano Fortresses


ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
Fleming's books presented a Bond who liked the good things but was also a bit of a rough animal plucked up from the working class because of his usefulness as a "blunt instrument"; but Terence Young, the director of three of the first four movies, didn't just like the good things, but viewed them as the very reason life existed, and he made sure to emphasise that element of the movie. Not for nothing are we introduced to Bond being glamorous in eveningwear at a classy casino; and there are moments that creep in through the cracks all throughout Dr. No that make it clear that while he might be a spy, and a good one, he enjoys things like food and drink more: the quintessential moment for Connery's version of the character in any of his films is, to me, when he has been stopped from clubbing one of Dr. No's henchmen with a bottle of wine. The doctor informs him it was a '55 Dom Perignon, at which Bond pauses, gently and very deliberately slides it back into the ice bucket, and idly comments that he prefers the '53 - not to bait Dr. No, nor to prove his superiority, but with the airy smugness of a connoisseur who suddenly realises that he has met a kindred soul. There would unquestionably be Bond films with more elegance than this one, but arguably, none where it was so surprising or pervasive.

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Rating: 3.5 Vodka Martinis


APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
What we know: MI6 needs to send "James Bond" to Jamaica to deal with this situation. Cut to a casino, where we deliberately are not allowed to see the face of a man dealing some sophisticated and dull game. His opponent continues playing in defiance of the pile of money she's losing, and he compliments her courage in a thick Scottish burr. She gives her name - Sylvia Trench - and compliments "your luck, Mr...?" The camera jumps straight to Connery's face, blandly lighting a cigarette and clearly aware that he is the most impressive man in the room. "Bond. James Bond" he responds, hardly looking at her.
Forced or Badass? It can hardly be anything but badass, this being the first movie and all, but as a character-defining moment - this man is ice-cold, suave, and does not have a shred of genuine empathy for other humans - it is so flawless that it would be, regardless.


BEST QUIP
Though the film has a certain cool humor to it, Bond isn't the jokester he'd become yet. So even though this is kind of weak sauce, it will have to do:
MONEYPENNY: "You've never taken me to dinner."
BOND: "I would, you know. Only M would have me court-martialed for illegal use of government property."


ADDITIONAL COMMENTS
Dr. No is a first movie, and you can feel that over the whole thing: the obvious cheapness of the whole affair, with its small number of ambitious sets, minimal action setpieces, and single location - in fact, it was because the novel would suit itself to a relatively small-scale production that Eon Productions head and series mastermind Albert R. "Cubby" Broccoli selected it for the first Bond movie.

50 years on, it's awfully damn hard to judge the film on its own merits: there are both big things and small that are just far enough from what they'd become to be distracting. For example, Bernard Lee's M and Lois Maxwell's Moneypenny aren't the fleshed-out people they'd become: M is just Bond's crisp boss, and Moneypenny is just the boss's flirtatious secretary. And Connery, though I am certain this is reading things in that were not there yet, simply isn't as comfortable as he'd be later on: I can't quite bring myself to call it his worst performance in the role, but the insouciance that, for me anyway, makes Bond Bond hasn't completely gelled, though in certain scenes - the casino, his banter with Moneypenny, his interrogation of a fake driver and would-be assassin - it's so close as to not matter.

Mostly, though, Dr. No is primarily notable for how shockingly low-key it is; and this was very much not how it was received in 1962, which is what I mean about it being hard to judge it on the merits. "Low-key" is not bad, and "more of a real spy movie than an action thriller" is not bad - the very next movie in the series, From Russia with Love, is more of the same, and it's my favorite entry of them all. But it's not tentative in the way that Dr. No sometimes can be.And there are the other things keeping it from really rising above itself: the slightly horrifying way that non-white characters are depicted, the general incoherence of the third act, the lack of any characters besides Bond we can hang onto until well past the halfway point.

That said, there's still a whole lot to enjoy about the film, much of it because even more than the rest of the Connery films, it's a real time capsule - were I less of a fan, I'd say that it's the most dated of the '60s Bond movies. And, of course, there's the simple fact of Connery himself, who is not the best all-around actor to play James Bond - I can't imagine anybody denying that honor to Daniel Craig - and is not the closest to to the James Bond that Ian Fleming wrote - I remain somewhat uncertain where I'd land on that question, and it will come up again before this retrospective is over - nor the most glamorous, smartest, breeziest, or whatever - though he is probably the best of them all at action, in later films than this one.

What Connery did that separates him from the rest of the Bonds, and makes him, unquestionably in my estimation, the best of them, is that he's the only one ever make James Bond a movie star turn: not only because it is literally the film that made the minor actor a movie star, but because of how he inhabits the iconic side of the character; we might say that he asserts Bond rather than performs him. The later Bonds were all obliged, owing to Connery's ownership of the role, to play variations of Bond, self-conscious attempts to highlight this or that element of the character; Connery isn't playing anything, just inhabiting the character and erasing the distinction between Bond's presence in the film's world, and his own presence on the movie screen. Even in this not-quite-there version of the character, Connery is wholly magnetic, and it's this X factor of watching a new star who feels completely formed already, and not the undernourished plot or the thin ensemble or the lax action, that lends Dr. No its unmistakable but undefinable potency. Even after generations of Connery being Connery, there's something that feels raw and new about his work here, and as many of the individual elements of the film feel limp and flat, the whole thing is anything but.


OVERALL SCORE
28/50 [eq. 33.6/60]
I should hasten to point out that this is artificially low: that score is relative only to how I would judge it as it fits the Bond formula, and that formula not yet existing, Dr. No can hardly be expected to exemplify it.

BOND BY RULES

Tonight, the Antagony & Ecstasy James Bond Marathon & Retrospective begins in earnest (the 1954 television Casino Royale being more of an amuse bouche than a real James Bond picture). And before that starts, I would like to take a moment to explain what's going to happen.

Here's the issue: after the third film - the fourth, if we want to be exceedingly generous - the Bond franchise had become so beholden to formula that if I were to attempt to write just a straight-up review of the films, week after week, we would run the risk of you, my readers, becoming bored. More importantly, I'm absolutely positive that I would get bored.

So instead, the Bond reviews for the next six months are going to take the form a catalogue, if that's the word, scoring the movies not according to how good they are as films, but how good they are as Bond films, in several different areas prescribed by the Eon Bond movie formula.

These areas will be as follows:

PRE-TITLE SEQUENCE
In almost every case but the first movie, The first thing we see is Bond fighting in some exciting setpiece that ends up having little or nothing to do with the rest of the movie. This event sets up the mood, gets us warmed up for the adventure to follow, and more than once has been the best part of the entire picture.

The degree to which the pre-title sequence gets one worked up and enthusiastic will be rated on a scale of:

1-5 Union Jack Parachutes
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TITLE SONG
Almost as iconic as the spy himself is the music that accompanies him on his adventures, of which nothing matters more than the song underneath the opening credits. Some of these are classic songs completely independent of the film they accompany; some of them are "All Time High". "All Time What"? Exactly.

The sonic intensity of the title song will be rated on a scale of:

1-5 Shirley Basseys
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TITLE SEQUENCE
Just as important as the song is the imagery underneath it: mostly created by the legendary Maurice Binder, the best of them are practically short films that can be enjoyed completely independent of the feature.

The visual ingenuity of the title sequence will be rated on a scale of:

1-5 Silhouetted Women
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THE PLOT
Invariably, Bond must save the entire Western world from some terrifying plan that will destroy everything and everyone. But these plots run the gamut from the serious to the absurd, from threatening to laughable

The quality of the plot that Bond must stop will be rated on a scale of:

1-5 Stolen Nukes
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THE VILLAIN
Just as those plots are generally larger than life and exotic, the men (it's virtually always a man) who concoct them are themselves bold cartoon characters, some of them captivating and fascinating in their operatic villainy, some of them are just dumb and overly gimmick, like a third-string comic book baddie.

The colorful menace of the Bondian supervillains will be rated on a scale of:

1-5 Evil Cats
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THE GIRL
Let us not mince words: the Bond films are vigorously heterosexual. That primarily includes Bond's legendary track record bedding gorgeous women. These range from daft floozies to brilliant soldiers and intellectuals.

The physically beauty and depth of character (such as it is) of the Bond Girls will be rated on a scale of:

1-5 White Bikinis
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THE HENCHMAN
Many, though not all, of Bond's adversaries are assisted by a thuggish second-in-command even more colorful and ridiculous. Some of these are still more of a genuine threat to Agent 007 than the actual villain. Some of these are barely good enough for target practice.

The threat presented by the henchmen, and the peculiar flourishes of the presentations, will be rated on a scale of:

1-5 Metal-Plated Teeth
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THE SECONDARY GIRL WHO ENDS UP DEAD
Most of the time, before he meets his actual sexual conquest for the movie, Bond will bed a somewhat less beautiful but still pretty damn hot young woman who is thereafter targeted by the villain as way of sending a message to Bond.

The value presented to the story by the secondary girl who ends up dead, beyond the fact that she ends up dead, will be rated on a scale of:

1-5 Golden Corpses
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ACTION SEQUENCES
Some of Bond's escapades are legendary masterpiece of stunt choreography, editing, and scale, among the best action sequence in cinema. Many of them are not that at all. Depends a lot on who was playing Bond, and how much money they had left in the budget that day.

The thrills and consequence-free violence of the action will be rated on a scale of:

1-5 Walther PPKs
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GADGETRY
One of the essential scenes in any Bond adventure is when he meets with the irascible Q and gets his cache of bizarre new weapons for this trip into unknown dangers, though given how every single one of them is used exactly one time, for a purpose that nothing else could duplicate, it would seem that Q took a peek at the screenplay before designing them. These can be as simple and elegant as a tube that lets you breath underwater, or they can be an invisible car.

The creativity and applicability of Bond's gadgets will be rated on a scale of:

1-5 Easily-Riled Welshmen
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THE FIENDISH LAIR (and other sets)
No Bond villain with any self-respect would live anywhere besides one of the impossible spaces conceived by the master production designer Ken Adam and his successors. The locations in a good Bond film are like the panels in a really well-designed comic book: unrealistic in a way that makes you absolutely believe in every inch of it.

The spectacle and visual grandeur of the sets will be rated on a scale of:

1-5 Volcano Fortresses
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ELEGANT LIFESTYLE PORN
One of the most noteworthy things the movies changed from the books was in making Bond the next best thing to a GQ cover model, wearing the best clothes, drinking the best alcohol, and driving the best cars. And this, more than anything else, is what keys us in to the reality that the Bond films are ultimately neither action nor spy thrillers; they are fantasies.

The desirability of Bond's bon vivant lifestyle in any given picture will be rated on a scale of:

1-5 Vodka Martinis
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APPEARANCE OF "BOND. JAMES BOND."
Agent 007 doesn't just introduce himself, he announces himself: "Bond. James Bond." It is the obligatory line in every film, even more important than "Vodka martini, shaken, not stirred". As such, some screenwriters have to work harder to make sure it gets there than others. In each case, I will use my best judgment to decide whether the line's appearance is forced, or if it makes Bond sound like an ice-cold badass.


BEST QUIP
Self-explanatory. Bond is a witty man, and says many cutting things to the people he kills or sleeps with, and I will offer my pick for the best.


ADDITIONAL COMMENTS
The "review" part of the review: a quick attempt to synthesise all of the above into a unified opinion, as well as make note of anything else that didn't fit. Looking for my thoughts on each of the six actors to play Bond? This is where you'll find it.


OVERALL SCORE
With twelve categories worth 1-5 points each, a film can theoretically hit anywhere from 12-60 points; some of the films do not fit into every category, and will therefore have both a score given both as a fraction of their own potential high, as well as the equivalent score out of 60, e.g. 42/50 = 84% = 50.4/60. I do this largely for myself, because I am crazy damn anal retentive.

24 May 2012

YOU SUNK MY WILL TO LIVE!

I spent some time trying to massage "Blandleship" and "Baddleship" into a form that didn't just hurt to look at it, and as you can tell, I failed. Anyone who has an idea for how to get to the pun I have in mind without such a grating neologism would be thanked.

So, anyway, Battleship. Since I really enjoy kicking a loser when it's down, allow me to be the latest to sputter, incoherently: aliens? Somebody decided that the right way to adapt the classic board game of randomly guessing where on a 10x10 grid their opponent has placed five plastic ships of varying lengths was to add aliens? Do you know how many goddamn Navy movies they made in World War II that did not feel the need to bring in aliens? All of them. All of the Navy movies they made in World War II.

The aliens, mind you, don't show up for a really long time, and until that point Battleship honestly does play a lot by the rulebook established by the Navy pictures of the '30s and '40. Incompetently, I should hasten to point out: hilarious in its incompetence, at points. There are two brothers, see, Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) and Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgård), and when the film begins, Stone is a U.S. Navy officer, and Alex is a dissolute, unemployed 26-year-old who would undoubtedly have died in a drunken stupor on the streets if not for Stone's incredible generosity in letting him sleep on the couch. On the night of his birthday, Alex ends up committing a number of crimes while drunkenly attempting to secure a frozen chicken burrito for a hot blonde, Samantha (Brooklyn Decker), and the only way out is if he joins the Navy himself. Some number of years go by sufficient for Alex to be a lieutenant and third-in-command of a top-of-the-line destroyer during an international war games event, during which time he has persisted in keeping Samantha sufficiently charmed that they are very much in love and thinking about marriage, though since her dad is fleet leader Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson), and Alex is a colossal fuckup at everything naval, despite being an officer with a not-inconsiderable position, it is unlikely in the extreme that he'll be able to charm the old man anytime soon, especially after he gets in a fistfight with Captain Nagata (Asano Tadanobu), a member of the Japanese delegation to these international war games.

And so this situation plays out for a while in various ways, and it is spectacularly dumb - dumb enough, that I found myself wondering why the film was bombing so hard. It was a hoot and a half, I thought to myself, in which moments are cranked through with a kind of active desperation, like nobody had made this film a thousand times already; product placement is executed with a clumsiness that I can't recall having seen since Michael Bay's exquisitely flatfooted The Island; Taylor Kitsch steadfastly remains grungy and unemotive and absolutely nothing that we want our movie stars to be - he is pretty darn great at being an embarrassing drunk in the opening seqeunce - though whereas John Carter surrounded him with mostly effective co-stars, Battleship can only offer horror shows like Brooklyn Decker's total disconnect from every emotional beat going on around her, and Rihanna's movie debut in a role that could not possibly flag its intentions any more blatantly that it requires nothing but the ability to look at objects and say short declarative sentence; and Neeson just absolutely not trying to do anything at all except growl and even that he sometimes forgets to do and just kind of blabs his threats to emasculate Alex without any conviction at all.

Then, when it could not possibly be any sillier, the aliens show up and it hops on the bullet train to Boringville Heights. The aliens, mind you, are foreshadowed in an opening scene, that posits in 2006 (or 2005? I can't remember and I don't actually care), NASA built a transmitter on Oahu for the single purpose of blasting broadcasts at a single Earthlike planet because, why the hell not, right? And then the plot happens. Incidentally, I haven't mentioned, but the plot skips around hectically, and the way scenes are put together, especially toward the beginning, is relentlessly busy and distracted, with big shiny computer readouts dancing past and editing so flurried that it creates the impression of moments rather than actual cohesive events that you can pin down. It is rather a film to enjoy with handfuls of Ritalin than with popcorn.

Eventually, of course, the aliens show, with an advance force of five vessels come to destroy and colonise, only the communication ship breaks entering out atmosphere and takes out a huge portion of Hong Kong, so the others have to start by taking over Hawai'i to get to the satellite relay and contact the homeworld. This involves shutting the island chain off from the rest of the world with a giant shield dome - and guess where the war games were taking place. This naturally gives Alex a chance to redeem himself, and it is suggested that this makes the deaths of hundreds of sailors and thousands of Hong Kong residents perfectly okay, because we are meant to like him better than them.

So it's destroyers vs. aliens, and then destroyer, singular, vs. aliens, and finally, obviously, vintage WWII battleship vs. aliens. And it is dull as hell: the CGI looks as good as it ought to given the criminally large budget, but the action is perfunctory and unimaginative (the closest we get to an exception are the giant death spheres the aliens use to eliminate local military threats, with a surprisingly large number of POV shots; the number of apparent plot holes this raises is considerable - the spheres' decisions as to what constitutes a present threat is awfully convenient for the plot - but at least it's weird), and the execution of it all is so noisome that the running and shouting and exploding very quickly become white noise. After a good long while, the filmmakers - director Peter Berg, writers Erich and Jon Hoeber, and I am certain many script doctors and executives, because it's that kind of film - actually manage to figure out a way to make a navy vs. CGI alien death fleet movie involve a protracted sequence that a) is set on a grid, and b) involves taking blind potshots at grid coordinates and hoping you hit the other guy. I will admit to being impressed by the inanity of it, anyway. The statement "You sunk my battleship!" is not ever spoken, and this is the second-most disappointing thing about the film, and here is the first: a small boychild, who is wearing a cap though I think we can rest assured that if we saw his hair, he would prove to be tow-headed, asks at one point, "what's the difference between a battleship and a destroyer?" and Alex ruins my entire week by not replying "one red peg".

This is such a crappy, dumb, by-the-numbers piece of filmmaking as product, that some people have become absolutely convinced that it is a satire; there's no actual reason to suppose this other than the fact that Berg hasn't directed anything that really suggests he's interested in making science-fiction action movies, and his last project, the sarcastic superhero picture Hancock, suggests that satire is at least on his radar. If it were true, this would actual make the film's problems worse, not better: at best, it's the kind of nihilistically hip satire that acts as dumb as it possibly can and then is smug about how only somebody smart would know how dumb that was. Starship Troopers it ain't.

But I don't really think that's the point. I think it really was just Hasbro's attempt to turn every brand name they own into a movie running into the implacable brick wall where even the rawest Hollywood mercenary product needs to have some intelligence or artistry; Battleship attains neither the idiot poetry of Michael Bay nor even the relative enthusiasm of a Roland Emmerich picture. It feels like a movie that nobody believed in at all, and made it because this kind of thing is usually profitable. Usually.

3/10