by Steve Habrat
Let it be known to the world that I sat through all two hours and eleven minutes of Battleship, the blockbuster based on the board game of the same name, and I actually had a little bit of fun. Yes, I admit that I had an enjoyable time watching the empty headed Transformers knock-off but it was an enjoyment that didn’t come easy at first. Sure, the dialogue is awful and the film is just relentless explosions but it sort of felt like seeing Transformers for the first time. It appealed to the little kid in me while the guy with the film degree rolled his eyes and fought back gagging. The little kid beat out the inner film snob here. Yes, I walked in to Battleship with little interest in it and kind of wanting to quickly duck into theater that was playing The Avengers, questioning whether I could actually make it through this film that was sure to be a monstrosity. Like many of you out there, I was stuck on the fact that, yes, this is a film based off of a friggin’ board game, but if you can make it over that aspect of it, you may find yourself having a bit of fun in all the slow-motion shots of rockets cutting through the air, close-ups of dripping wet faces, and pompous jingoism. Just make double sure your brain is switched off.
Battleship begins with NASA discovering an extrasolar planet that has conditions similar to Earth. NASA quickly begins trying to make contact with the planet, hoping to communicate with intelligent life. The film then takes us to the RIMPAC naval exercises in Hawaii where we get to know unruly but witty Lieutenant Alex Hooper (Played by Taylor Kitsch) and his brother, Commander Stone Hooper (Played by Alexander Skarsgard). As the exercises continue between the U.S. and Japan, strange ships crash into the Pacific and begin setting up an impenetrable force field that jams the Navy’s radar and splits the fleets up. The alien ships then begin attacking a small handful of Japanese and U.S. destroyers and launching assaults on Hong Kong and Hawaii. The small handful of ships trapped within the force field retaliate against the alien invaders but the aliens are also trying to establish communication systems on the shores of Hawaii, which if established, would allow the aliens to bring in reinforcements that will wipe out the human race.
Battleship is the furthest thing from a perfect movie but I can think of a handful of science-fiction/alien invasion blockbusters that are a hell of a lot worse than Battleship. My experience did throw me off because I walked in ready to absolutely hate this movie, under the impression that it would be devoid of any authentic human emotion. Credit director Peter Berg and writers Jon and Erich Hoeber, who have the good sense to inject some unexpected humanity into Battleship. I found myself impressed by the sequences where Kitsch’s Alex, who finds himself in command of one of the destroyers after the death of the senior officer, has to make some seriously tough decisions. Get a load of the scene where the reluctant Alex rescues the sailors of a sunken Japanese destroyer, pulling the terrified and the injured up onto the decks. Berg’s camera floats around the gruesome scene, putting us right in the middle of the disorder and giving us goosebumps from the painful screams of the wounded. We see Alex, filled with quivering rage, screaming out reckless orders to charge one of the alien ships as the hysterical crew pleads with him to reconsider their plan of attack. The crew flits around the boat, trying to get a hold of themselves while sailors cry out to other sailors, “I didn’t sign up for this!” It’s within these scenes that Battleship packs its devastating punch, where we see real humans grieving and attempting to comprehend their terrible situation.
For all of these unexpected emotional wallops, Battleship springs a perplexing plot point that is never explained. Take for instance the scenes in which the aliens, who are capable of pinpointing immediate threats, spare the lives of some of the sailors they stumble across. You’d think that if an alien race were hell-bent of overtaking us, they would be wiping out all of these men so they couldn’t strike back. There is also a scene where the alien ships launch ferocious steel balls that are capable of astonishing devastation into heavily populated downtown areas of Hawaii and begin laying waste to everything in their paths. When these mysterious balls of destruction come across children, they do not attack. You will also find yourself chuckling over the weakness of the dreaded aliens, all who resemble Master Chief from Halo (They actually look pretty cool). Luckily, Berg makes the smart choice to not reveal anything more about these mysterious invaders.
Another plus of Battleship is the handful of likable characters at its core, mostly Kitch’s wild-child Alex. He’s a real terror in the opening moments as he drunkenly tries to find a chicken burrito for his future gal pal, Sam (Played by Brooklyn Decker). Skarsgard’s Stone is the typical no-bullshit type, the one who forces Alex to get his life on track and stay there (He is met with a ton of resistance from Alex). Decker’s Sam, who is a physical therapist, gets some touching moments with the Army veteran and amputee Mick Canales (Played by real life Army veteran and amputee Gregory D. Gadson), both who get moments to be heroes on land. Berg and his crew do everything in their power to get Decker in a bikini but you won’t be complaining. Liam Neeson, who just can’t resist jumping in to a tough-as-nails role, does a fine job as Admiral Shane, who also happens to be Sam’s father. We don’t see much of Neeson, but when we do, he is good and intimidating. Tadanobu Asano shows up as Captain Yugi Nagata, the man who comes up with the grind that uses wave-detection buoys to track and attack the aliens in the dark. Hamish Linklater as the jumpy scientist Cal Zapata delivers some surprisingly effective comic relief without ever being too cheesy. Pop superstar Rihanna shows up as Petty Officer Raikes, a cliché tough gal who likes big weapons. As more people see Battleship, I don’t think I will be alone in my thought that she should stick to music.
Battleship ultimately won me over with its thunderous action sequences that also happened to be consistently inventive. A final showdown that uses the real life ship U.S.S. Missouri was an absolutely blast despite the fact that it also features Alex calling upon a crew of elderly veterans to help man the battleship. Much like the Transformers films, Battleship emphasizes the magnificent CGI but thankfully, it is not in 3D (Hey! Another reason not to absolutely HATE Battleship!). When the film leaves the battles at sea and focuses on the land action, the film looses some of the momentum it gained. The sequence that shows us the destruction of Hong Kong doesn’t serve much of a purpose besides adding another action sequence to keep kiddies interested. The grind-tracking sequence that pays tribute to the board game is the standout portion of Battleship, a scene that will have you on the edge of your seat and hanging on every second (I caught myself holding my breath for one of the characters to yell “HIT!”). While there is plenty of middling and bad aspects of the rowdily patriotic Battleship, there are still enough thrills to keep this leaky vessel afloat.
Straw Dogs (2011)
by Steve Habrat
Since Hollywood is insistent on remaking every classic horror film under the sun, is it too much to ask that they DO NOT do a shot for shot remake of the film they are redoing? Honestly, if the viewer has already seen the original film and the filmmakers have done absolutely nothing to tell an innovative or different story from the original, why should the viewer even bother? The Psycho remake was laughable and grossly miscast (Seriously, Vince Vaughn?!). It seems that Gus Van Sant and Universal thought that people would take it better if they deemed it an experiment. My question is what exactly is the experiment? They added color and a few morons out there scream brilliant. It’s not. Look at 2006’s The Omen, another shot for shot remake of a tour de force demonic horror film that appeared senseless. They knew there was a built in audience for it so it was easy green for the studio. The remakes that have done something different have gotten some respect, mostly 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, which just amped up everything (gore, action, pace, etc.). It was a good remake and I enjoyed it, but I still prefer the 1978 Romero original. I also thought the re-envisioning of The Hills Have Eyes is pretty bracing. It was a nasty film that refused to cater to the uptight Hollywood rating system. It pushes its hard R rating to the very edge, especially when it puts an infant child at the dangerous end of a revolver. It’s scary as hell, but was largely waved off as torture porn. And yet some intellectuals applaud Gus Van Sant’s sluggish Psycho. Hmmm.
Now we have the remake of Sam Peckinpah’s little seen 1971 classic horror film Straw Dogs, which takes the route of Psycho and The Omen, but to better effect. There is, thankfully, a brain in this one and resists being a petty money grab. I can’t say the same about Psycho and The Omen. My worst fears were confirmed early on and I’ll admit it was a tough pill to swallow. The only difference you will find in this Straw Dogs is the setting of the film and the actors that inhabit the screen. And possibly a few camera angles. This version is completely overstated and acts as nothing but a highlighter to the point Peckinpah made so unsettling in his terrifying original. It just adds a dark underline. I did start to enjoy myself after the first twenty minutes and stopped grousing about the similarities to my gung-ho chums sitting next to me. The major rough patch is the casting of James Mardsen as David Sumner, the mild mannered liberal intellectual who “will not allow violence against this house”. He can’t match the gusto of Dustin Hoffman, who’s tacit slip from timid to deranged is so distressing in the original, his wild eyed glare will appear in your nightmares.
This Straw Dogs moves from the English countryside to the swampy Blackwater, Mississippi, where everyone looks like they stepped out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Many of the sets look like leftovers from said film too. When the hometown darling Amy (Played by miscast and talentless Kate Bosworth) and her skittish writer husband David (Mardsen) move into her old home, they return to the old hometown heroes who never left the beloved settlement. David is currently working on a Hollywood script about the battle of Stalingrad, which is supposed to act as a heavy-handed comparison to the bloody climax. The locals still hang on to their glory days and all meet up at a local bar to hit on the chicks and listen to their beloved Coach (Played by the welcome James Woods, in one hell of a sadistic turn) Tom Heddon tell the same old stories. The merry gang of beady-eyed rednecks find a leader in Charlie (Played by True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard), who is constantly shirtless and oiled up with a layer of sweat. He’s seems harmless enough, especially when compared to the blatant intensity of Charlie in the original film. This time around, it’s David who seems to be the judgmental one when it was the other way around in 1971. David has hired Charlie to restore the roof on their barn, and soon, the beer chugging rednecks begin to pick at David and Amy. They hound Amy with their dagger stares as she goes for a jog without a bra. They invite themselves in and swipe David’s beer from the fridge. As tensions mount, an inevitable confrontation brews, especially when Amy is raped by two of the hicks. Also, we once again have the side story of Jeremy Niles (Played awkwardly by Dominic Purcell), a supposed local pedophile who wanders the hot streets with his dog. After an accidental murder of Tom’s daughter, the rednecks set out to kill the loathed local creep. The paths of Jeremy and David cross and it all adds up to a siege on David and Amy’s home that ends in a fury of slaughter and turmoil.
This revved up Straw Dogs is consistently playing with the idea of conservatism versus liberal thinking. It places us on the sideline as the two opposing forces collide and challenge. It’s intriguing to watch the bible thumping, violence-craving southerners challenge the beliefs of the liberal pacifist and atheist twerp David. They are supposedly God fearing people, yet the will rape and murder without a second thought. We are also left asking why David refuses to do a thing about the abuse aimed at Amy and him. The film suggests that we should inhabit the middle ground, and stray from the far left or far right. We fair better in the middle. It’s also the only new idea the film brings to the table. The original hinted at it, but never really elaborated upon it. The film haphazardly abandons this idea at the end and then tries to cover the territorial battle that Peckinpah staged to much better effect in the preferred original. It never takes on an original identity, which will turn some fans off.
The film’s appearance is spiffed up and loaded with pretty actors and actresses of the moment. I can’t say I enjoyed Mardsen’s performance, but I suppose it could have been worse. I have never really cared for Bosworth and here she does nothing with her character. She can barely convey emotion at the appropriate time. She retreats to simply trying to look sexy for the camera. Skarsgard’s Charlie is surprisingly likable and we do pity him in a peculiar way. It seems that he had potential early in life and ended up stuck in the blistering heat of his podunk town. James Woods takes control of the project and seems like he is on cloud nine playing a loose cannon drunk itching for a fight. The film’s acting is not the true issue though. The disappointing aspect of the film is it ends up being indistinguishable from other hillbilly horror flicks. Yes, we know the south can be a scary place, but did we need to be reminded again? Yes, we know people are scared by isolated Middle America, but must it be used again? What happened to filling us with fear of the characters? No one seems daunting because, well, they all look like movie stars.
The new Straw Dogs does pack a few scenes that will make your pulse race and may even give you a goose bump or two. But the film never holds a candle to Peckinpah’s, a problem that leaves the viewer asking why a remake was necessary. It’s sharply made and does have some showy cinematography, but the film is often all jazz and little else. The film’s climax is a little too bloodthirsty and there is plenty of the red stuff splashed about. There are a few nasty deaths including the returning death by mantrap. I don’t want to write this film off all together because it’s smarter than most films that Hollywood dumps on us, but I wouldn’t consider it genius. I did groan when the film offered up a definition of a straw dog. I wish the film wasn’t so eager to explain everything and make it so literal. A little sophistication never hurt anyone and audiences today should be introduced to some. Straw Dogs 2011 is still worthy of your time. Grade: B-