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Battleship (2012)

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.

Grade: B-

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

by Steve Habrat

Michael Bay’s 2007 Transformers was no doubt a huge guilty pleasure. It was far from intelligent but at least it was entertaining and that is really all we could ask of it. I can’t really say that I was dying for a sequel but you knew it was inevitable given the success of the first installment. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the 2009 sequel, never even remotely justifies its own existence. Revenge of the Fallen is lumbering, loud, stupid, and downright obnoxious from the first frame all the way to the last. It’s almost as if the first film shot up with a bunch of steroids, downed a whole case of Red Bull, and then was let loose to wreck havoc on society. Part of the problem is that returning executive producer Steven Spielberg has obviously cut the short leash that he had director Bay on and allowed him to bolt right for the TNT stash. I swear that Bay can’t go ten minutes without blowing something up and he sculpts his film all the fireballs.

In the opening moments of Revenge of the Fallen, it is revealed that ancient race of Transformers called the Dynasty of Primes was searching the galaxy for energon sources. The Dynasty of Primes used energon to power their mighty AllSpark, the device that caused all the ruckus in the first film. They decide that if the planets they visit have life forms residing on them, they will not harm the planet. When one brother who is dubbed “The Fallen” breaks away, he lands on earth and builds a Sun Harvester, which drains stars of their energy. The other Primes sacrifice themselves to stop “The Fallen” before he wipes out the human race and to hide the Matrix of Leadership, which is the key to operating the Sun Harvester (I hope I have all of that straight…). In present day, the Autobots are working with an elite group of soldiers lead by Captain Lennox (Played by Josh Duhamel) to seek out and destroy the remaining Decepticons. Meanwhile, Sam Witwicky (Played by Shia LaBeouf) is getting ready to go off to college and start a life of his own away from his goofy parents (Played by Kevin Dunn and Julie Alice White). He is also grappling with leaving his super hot girlfriend, Mikaela Barnes (Played by Megan Fox), who wants Sam to say the L word (LOVE). After Sam discovers a small piece of the AllSpark stuck in his jacket, the Decepticons begin to regroup and launch an even more powerful strike on earth. Autobots leader Optimus Prime calls on Sam and Mikaela to once again aid him in his protection on earth, but Optimus discovers that he is facing a far more powerful villain than he ever could have imagined.

The small synopsis that I have provided in this review is only the tip of the iceberg that is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. This movie has so much going on in it, you will be in utter disbelief (Seriously, go look at the synopsis on RottenTomatoes. It’s unreal how long it is!) and actually feel your brain melting from overload. Upon my first viewing of the film, I actually started getting a headache from all of the longwinded explanations and teeth-rattling explosions. The first film didn’t bog itself down with complex back-story and sub plot silliness, which made it an easier pill to swallow. It appears that Bay and his screenwriters overcompensate for the simplicity of the first film, which is what made it so likeable in the first place. If that isn’t bad enough, the film features more pointless action sequences that are stuck in simply to show off how much the CGI has improved in the past two years. A sequence in the middle of the film that features an army of Decepticons raining down on earth, smashing into U.S. Naval ships, cities, and everything else you can think of is the final word in extreme and meaningless, a continuous string of explosions, CGI destruction, and incomprehensible aliens.

In addition to all the inane action and story, Revenge of the Fallen further irritates with the horribly misguided acting that Bay proudly displays. LaBeouf’s Sam was once a relatable teen who was caught in the middle of something larger than life. In Revenge of the Fallen, you want to kick him in the face. I couldn’t believe how unbearable he was this time. Bay throws him in with a slew of other aggravating teens, which makes things even worse on the viewer. Fox is given absolutely nothing to do except look hot in a tank top and run away from multiple explosions. Duhamel is still wooden and cliché yelling orders at Tyrese Gibson’s equally useless Sergeant Epps. John Turturro returns as the disgraced Sector 7 agent Simmons, who once again appears to be having fun but he fails to cast his spell on us this time. Ramon Rodriguez joins the insanity as the Sam’s college roommate Leo, who is even more aggravating than Sam. Blonde bombshell Isabel Lucas also is on board as the mysterious Alice, who has an attraction to Sam and wishes to break up his relationship with jealous Mikaela. I still don’t buy these two girls battling over LaBeouf. Sorry, Bay.

What was once sort of cute has become a revolting spawn of Satan, a film that is shockingly racist (get a load of the Twins), unintelligible, and just plain irresponsible. It could be one of the worst written sequels I have ever seen, one that was spit out to suck more money out of the pockets of those who enjoyed the first film. Sadly, we were all suckers and flocked right to it opening weekend. If I were a bigger fan of the Transformers franchise, I would be absolutely furious at Bay for what he has done to this material. He is so concerned with staging an action sequence that he throws lucidity right out the window, napalms it, and the proceeds to piss on the ashes. What Bay fails to understand is that story is more important than action and respect for the material is key to winning the hearts of fans. These characters mean so much to people and to see Bay more concerned with how much of Fox’s cleavage he can capture is just despicable. Furthermore, Spielberg should be ashamed of himself for allowing this film to be made and being okay with his name stamped in the credits. If you have not seen Revenge of the Fallen, trust me when I say that you will not believe your eyes or your ears. With Transformers, Bay earned a smidgeon of my respect and showed the world that he could make a film that was watchable. With Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, he lives up to his reputation for being one of the worst directors currently working in Hollywood.

Grade: F

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Transformers (2007)

by Steve Habrat

Michael Bay’s 2007 live action interpretation of Transformers, the immensely popular Hasbro toy line is infinitely better than it should be. I can still remember seeing trailer for the Bay vehicle and thinking that it would be the biggest piece of junk ever spit out by both Bay and Hollywood. It turns out that Transformers was more than meets the eye (I couldn’t resist!). While I admit that I had more fun than I should have at Transformers, it is nowhere near a perfect movie. Transformers has some of the worst dialogue that you are likely to hear in a motion picture, bizarre lapses in time, and some truly awful acting yet astonishingly, the film remains watchable and surprisingly entertaining when it really shouldn’t. The first Transformers film works because it shows us something we can all honestly say we have never seen before. Despite all the twisting and turning metal that fills the picture, executive producer Steven Spielberg slyly inserts a human heart in all of the nonsense and keeps Bay on a short leash, giving it a yank whenever the action on screen gets too out of control.

After their home planet is destroyed by war, the Transformers are split into two groups. There are the Autobots, who are lead by the courageous Optimus Prime and there is the evil Decepticons, who rally behind the dreaded Megatron. The two groups are after the AllSpark, which could allow the Autobots to rebuild their home planet and allow the Decepticons to wipe the Autobots out and take control of the universe. Their quest to find the AllSpark brings both groups to earth where they meet nerdy teenager Sam Witwicky (Played by Shia LaBeouf), who unknowingly holds the key to locating the AllSpark. It turns out that Sam’s new beater car also happens to be the gentle Transformer named Bumblebee, who has to protect him from the Decepticons that are closing in on him. In between attempts to woo the girl of his dreams, Mikaela Barnes (Played by Megan Fox), Sam is dragged into vicious war between the Autobots and the Decepticons, who fully plan on using earth as their new battleground. Sam and Mikaela are reluctantly paired with a small group of humans who have to battle beside the Autobots in order to save the human race from being wiped out.

Transformers is a must-see for the mind boggling special effects and earth shaking action sequences that Bay is noted for. The end battle in the streets of Los Angeles ranks as one of the most satisfying and adrenaline-pumping action sequences in a summer blockbuster. This one is truly one of those films that leaves you asking, “How did they do THAT?!” Being a Bay film, you are never really required to use your brain outside of keeping all the Transformers’ and secondary character’s names straight. Credit has to be given to Bay because he knows why we are watching this film and it certainly isn’t for a beefy plot. He fills the screen with hot chicks, explosion porn, and enough showdowns to drive Transformers fans up the wall. It’s all eye candy here but it is eye candy that we have never seen before and that will give your eyes cavities. I dare someone to name me another film where you see a Camaro convincingly morph into a towering robot, go leaping through the air, and clash with another robot that just morphed out of a police car. Go ahead, I’ll wait…

While the fiery battles are quite a bit of fun, they also happen to be one of the many flaws that wound Transformers. Clarity is sacrificed as Bay’s camera shakes around violently and his editor jumps from one side of the action to the other. He doesn’t really go out of his way to really distinguish the secondary Transformers, as he has them all done up in gunmetal gray and earth tones. When it is only two of them trading punches, rockets, and bullets, you can easily distinguish who is the bad guy and who is fighting for good but when the climax arrives, Bay frantically throws every single robot at us, causing Transformers to loose control here and there. And while the climax is rousing, the earlier battles are a bit more fun because we are able to actually see who is winning the showdown. A confrontation on the highway between Optimus Prime and Bonecrusher is stunningly realistic and easy to distinguish. Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, and Megatron are really the only Transformers that we are able to identify in all the mayhem, as they are the ones with the most color and personality.

Transformers ultimately belongs to Shia LaBeouf, who salvages crummy dialogue and creates a multidimensional teenager who other teenage boys can relate to. He also happens to be relentlessly hilarious and a real charmer. He’s just a goofball trying to fit in and win over the beauty, who appears to be way out of his league. It’s through extraordinary events that LaBeouf’s Sam gets what he wants and sees his suburban ennui shattered into a million little pieces. He works well with Fox, who has very little personality but LaBeouf knows how to coax what little she does have to the surface. Fox ends up being likable enough even if she is aware why Bay has his camera pointed at her. LaBeouf and Fox are paired with a slew of other pretty faces including Rachel Taylor as smoking computer analyst Maggie, Josh Duhamel as Captain Lennox, Tyrese Gibson Tech Sergeant Epps, Anthony Anderson as overweight nerd Glen, Jon Voight as Defense Secretary John Keller, and John Turturro as weirdo Sector 7 agent Simmons. They all get their chance to ham it up for the camera, mostly Turturro as Simmons, who seems to be having a ball slumming it. Tyrese and Duhamel are handed some of the worst dialogue to work with and their characters are lumbering clichés for the girls to drool over. Kevin Dunn and Julie White memorably show up as Sam’s TMI parents who walk a fine line between funny and downright annoying. Luckily, they fall more into funny.

Given the problems with dialogue, clarity issues, and everything else that Bay does wrong, Transformers morphs into a fairly memorable adrenaline rush that represents why we flock to summer blockbusters. It never attempts to be anything more than a mindless diversion from the humid weather outside and give us an excuse to munch on a gigantic bowl of popcorn. If you go in to Transformers with extremely low expectations, you will emerge from it a little winded and pleasantly surprised. This uber-expensive B-movie works because Spielberg keeps a watchful eye on Bay, as I’m sure he is fully aware of the work that Bay churns out. Spielberg seemed to demand warm and fuzzy moments, ones where he underlines the idea that there is something extraordinary happening right in our own backyard. It’s a bit naive but it works here. So, if you’re willing to let yourself go for two and a half hours, Transformers is just the escape that you are looking for. It may not change your life but not every movie has to.

Grade: B

Transformers is available on Blu-ray and DVD.