Monday, October 8, 2012

The Catch-Up: Battleship, Bernie, The Raid: Redemption, American Reunion

Most movies I see in theaters, either in press screenings or by plunking down my cash at the multiplex. But some films inevitably slip through the cracks. Here a few that I've caught up with recently...

Battleship (2012)
Dir. Peter Berg

2.5 out of 5

When Battleship bombed at the box office this past summer, the narrative was that people were rightfully rejecting Peter Berg's inane Transformers clone that promised little beyond loud, dumb spectacle. That's partially accurate - Battleship is indeed the most ear-splitting, migrane-inducing film you'll see all year - but the movie is by no means irredeemable. You at least have to admire Berg's chutzpah. He turns in what's essentially a feature-length recruiting ad for the armed forces that includes a ham-handed tribute to disabled vets, goofy tongue-in-cheek humor (courtesy of Hamish Linklater and a charismatic Taylor Kitsch), and an ending that plays like fevered military fan fiction. In fact, Battleship is worth seeing for the last 30 minutes alone, if only to affirm that Hollywood can still push the suspension of disbelief past any and all reasonable limits.

Bernie (2012)
Dir. Richard Linklater

4 out of 5

Jack Black turns in a career-best performance in Bernie, a dark comedy based on the true story of Bernie Tiede, an East Texas mortician who murdered his 81-year-old companion, the roundly disliked oil heiress Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). But when Bernie admits to committing the crime – citing the years of emotional abuse he received as Nugent’s business manager and sole friend in the close-knit town of Carthage, Texas – his status as a beloved pillar of the community makes it difficult for a grandstanding district attorney (Matthew McConaughey, on a roll) to conduct a fair trial. Black thrives in his second collaboration with School of Rock director Richard Linklater, who bends the film to fit the actor’s specific talents (particularly his singing ability). However, the setting is the real star of the show. Linkater slips into a comfortable groove, returning to his Texan roots and combining his fictionalized account of the Tiede case with documentary-style interviews that record the opinions and recollections of actual Carthage residents. Bernie is ultimately biased toward the funniest version of the story – Linklater doesn’t spend much time exploring what makes Marjorie tick – but the film’s perfectly deadpan sense of humor and matter-of-fact tone indicate a real affinity for the place it portrays, no histrionics necessary.

Dir. Gareth Evans

3.5 out of 5

The Raid: Redemption is the best movie Jason Statham never made, an adrenaline-pumping showcase for an Indonesian martial art known as pencak silat, combined with a nifty plot about a SWAT team trapped in a high rise owned by the notorious drug lord they've come to apprehend.  Any similarities to Dredd are superficial: The Raid has a much stronger narrative throughline in Rama (Iko Uwais) - a rank-and-file cop who quickly takes on greater responsibility after he and his comrades are ambushed by armed thugs - and offers a refreshing variety in its action setpieces, which mostly eschew gunplay for impressively choreographed fisticuffs.  Welsh director Gareth Evans forgoes rapid cuts for longer shots that allow the camera to pivot and swing around the action like a participant in the film's relentlessly brutal hand-to-hand combat.  It's a wise decision given the talent Evans has at his disposal, particularly Yayan Ruhian as the diminutive badass "Mad Dog" who takes on two enemies simultaneously, a standout amidst The Raid's nonstop assault of bravura action sequences.  

American Reunion (2012)
Dir. John Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg

1.5 out of 5

Proving that there is still life after multiple direct-to-DVD installments, American Reunion musters the original American Pie cast for another weekend of raunchy comedic hijinks and sexual humiliation.  Thirteen years after high school, everyone is dealing with adult problems.  Jim (Jason Biggs) and Michelle (Alyson Hannigan) are struggling to keep the passion in their marriage with a 2-year old son to care for; Oz (Chris Klein) is unfulfilled as a semi-famous sportscaster with a model girlfriend; Finch (Eddie Kaye Thomas) is a lonely vagabond keeping a big stupid secret from his friends; and Kevin (Thomas Ian Nicholas), um, grew a beard and has a wife that makes him watch a lot of emasculating television.  Whatever potential exists in visiting these characters at a stage far removed from their hedonistic teenage years is squandered by a bloated parade of gross-out gags and endless maudlin speechifying.  And franchise stalwart Eugene Levy is criminally misused, first as a depressed widower, then in a hoary "old man does drugs" subplot that pairs him with the ever-immature Stifler (Seann William Scott), yielding results vastly inferior to 2012's other Levy-Scott collaboration.  American Reunion is essentially the Fast and Furious of the series, trumpeting the return of familiar faces but neglecting to give them interesting things to do.  Hopefully the next gathering of the Class of 1999 is more exciting - might I suggest an international bank heist?

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