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Friday
Jun072013

The East

Everyone’s had that thought when bad things happen to bad people: they deserved it. For instance, would anyone really feel sadness if some faulty wiring caused Kansas’ infamous Westboro Baptist Church to burn down? Probably not. It’s not that we’re hopeful these things will happen, but when they do, it’s hard not to feel like some type of poetic justice has been served. A similar public mindset exists on the discussion of supposed “eco-terrorists,” groups that target corporations and big oil businesses that don’t play by the rules. What these groups do is illegal, but when the actions of those companies have undoubtedly impacted us in a negative way, can we justify ignoring it?

That complex question is at the heart of “The East.” When the titular group breaks into an oil magnate’s home in the opening moments of the film and spreads oil all over his house in response to the dumping of untold amounts of oil in the ocean, one can’t help but feel conflicted. They are clearly breaking the law, but is their greater message important enough to overshadow that fact? There’s no easy answer to this question and it’s why the film, as silly as it can sometimes be, works, even if only slightly.

The East consists of a ragtag group of people who aim to attack a number of large corporations in the coming months. The leader is Benji (Alexander Skarsgard) and he runs the operation. With him are Izzy (Ellen Page), Luca (Shiloh Fernandez) and Sarah (Brit Marling), the latter of whom is actually an undercover operative from a private intelligence firm tasked with infiltrating the group and digging up enough information to eventually bring them down.

The film begins as one might expect, with Sarah eager to prove her worth to her firm and jump in the fray, but what she doesn’t expect is to find is a group of people she can actually connect with. She begins to understand why the East does what they do and quickly realizes that these aren’t bad people; they’re just people, with beliefs and opinions just like the rest of us, but unlike the rest of us, when they see something they consider unjust, they do something about it. One of the film’s greatest strengths is that, for the majority of its runtime, it treats its characters fairly. Despite some strange moments, the East isn’t treated like a group of deranged terrorists, but rather people with a passion, however misguided it may arguably be.

As the film goes along, Sarah begins to feel the emotional and mental confliction anyone would. She knows they’re doing wrong, but the wrong they’re doing is merely in the eyes of the law. The real question is, what is considered truly wrong? How can one define it when perceptions of it vary between different people? This internal battle rages inside Sarah and Marling does a wonderful job bringing it out. Her emotional cues are subtle, but you can feel the pang of uneasiness that lies just beneath her pleasant veneer. She embodies the complex feelings one can have towards issues like this that aren’t so black and white.

Where “The East” falters is in its lousy, anti-climactic ending that takes many of these difficult questions and answers them rather bluntly. The entire movie is spent exploring these characters and showing them as the complex human beings they are, only to scrap the idea in the end. It’s an all too common cinematic case of a screenplay that loses faith in itself. A movie with ideas, provocative questions and intelligent themes suddenly turns into your typical Hollywood thriller and the conflicting emotions you may feel of certain characters while watching suddenly turns to disgust with their actions, all confliction thrown out the window. It’s no longer a question of, is what they’re doing and the motivation behind it right or wrong? The answer becomes all too clear.

With a different ending, “The East” could have been something special. Instead, it’s merely a movie that teases you with the possibility of intellectualism before stripping itself of the notion entirely. Although the performances are good and the direction is competent, it’s ultimately the story and the themes that make or break it. In that regard, it’s like a giant crack in a car’s windshield. It still serves its purpose, but all you can see when look at it is its obvious flaw.

The East receives 3/5

Thursday
May242012

Battleship

A movie based on a board game with no real discernible story is clearly the last sign of desperation from Hollywood studios that are bankrupt of ideas. With Candy Land, Monopoly and even a Ouija Board game on the horizon, cinema lovers can’t help but feel like their passion is on a decline. When I first heard of this week’s board game turned movie adaptation, Battleship, I, like so many others, thought, “There’s no way this will be good.” But I never imagined it would be this bad. There isn’t a single moment of Battleship that works the way it’s intended to. It’s an aggressively loud, utterly incompetent film without a single redeeming factor. If the film isn’t a stone cold lock for a Worst Picture Razzie nomination (along with a handful of other equally deserving category nominations), then I don’t know what is.

The film, in as far as a departure from its source material as it could possibly go, follows Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch), a former slacker who was coasting by on the generosity of his brother, Commander Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgard). However, after meeting and falling in love with Samantha Shane (Brooklyn Decker), daughter of Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson), he cleaned up his act and joined the Navy. Old habits are hard to break, however, and his rambunctious behavior eventually gets him in hot water. He has just head out to sea to participate in the Naval War Games, but because of his transgressions, he is told that once he arrives back on shore, he’s going to be kicked out of the Navy. While out there, though, the participants in the game see a fleet of spaceships crash into the ocean. Upon closer examination, the ships fire upon them and the planned war games turns into an all too real war against intergalactic space travelers who are planning on wiping out the human species.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because this same exact story has been told so many times, it’s practically ingrained in our heads. Only the most cinematically ignorant will be unable to map out what’s going to happen far before it actually does. But the derivative path it takes to the post-movie credits is so clumsy, hokey and nonsensical that other similar (arguably terrible) films suddenly look like picturesque masterpieces, including Michael Bay’s Transformers series. Yes folks, the definition of “suck” has been redefined.

Battleship is a movie that doesn’t just fail in what it’s trying to do, however; it actually manages to achieve the exact opposite of its intention. For instance, when it attempts to be funny, it fails and when it attempts to be serious, it’s funny. Any and all laughs to be had in this void of mental bankruptcy are of the unintentional type, but they make the film no more enjoyable. Its staggering inaptitude isn’t isolated, though, and spreads throughout every facet of its production, including the performances. Taylor Kitsch, in his second bomb in only a little over two months, is lifeless and boring, completely incapable of carrying a film. Liam Neeson, who’s barely in the thing in the first place, looks bored. One can only imagine he received the offer for the part after a long night of drinking and was coaxed into accepting. The most egregious offender, though, is first time actor Gregory D. Gadson. A real life soldier who lost both his legs to a roadside bomb in Baghdad, he plays Lieutenant Colonel Mick Canales, a war veteran who is struggling to cope with his disability. And boy is he awful. While certainly worthy of praise for his selfless actions and sacrifice for our country, he nevertheless has no business starring in movies. Despite the cornball dialogue he’s forced to recite, his performance is one of the worst (starring or supporting) I’ve seen in a big Hollywood movie in a very long time, maybe ever.

The film, perhaps because it felt obligated to, forces in some nods to the classic game. The most obvious comes in a scene where the characters measure water displacement from computer monitored buoys to determine where the ships are. Shaped like a “Battleship” grid and marked with letter and number coordinates, the characters stare at a screen and fire missiles at the most likely location of the ships (“E-11!” someone shouts at one point, to which a response comes, “It’s a miss!”). It’s both clever and contrived; clever because it actually pertains to the story at hand, but contrived because there’s no logical reason to keep the alien invaders tied to the ocean. If you’ll remember, these are spaceships that crash into Earth, not marine vessels. They can fly wherever they want, but instead “jump” from buoy to buoy. It’s a gap in rationality that simply can’t be overlooked.

Then of course there’s the alien species’ motivation. Despite their supposed desire to destroy all life (which is helpfully and unnecessarily deemed an “extinction event” through expositional dialogue), they tend to attack manmade structures more often than they do actual men, which includes bridges, cars, ships and more. When they have the chance to dispose of one of us, like in a scene where a scientist wanders directly into the middle of their camp and comes face to face with one of them, they instead leave us alone. The reason behind their actions is left hazy, not that you’ll care one way or the other while watching. They could kill all humans or the humans could discover their weakness and bring them down; whatever will end the movie quicker. Battleship is a waste of money, resources and theater screens. Watching it is a waste of life. It’s lose-lose no matter how you cut it.

Battleship receives 0/5

Friday
Sep162011

Straw Dogs

Although I, unfortunately, have never seen Sam Peckinpah’s original Straw Dogs, I’ve heard plenty about it. I was told about its uncomfortable rape scenes, off-putting violence and general nihilism. The more I heard, the more it sounded like a spiritual companion to Last House on the Left, a film (or two if you include the remake) that I simply cannot handle. That movie is sick, twisted and it disguises evil as good, looking at the world from a pessimistic, animalistic viewpoint. I wasn’t exactly a fan of that film and the trailers for the remake of Straw Dogs, which looked so similar to that movie, didn’t get me particularly excited, but after seeing it, the contrast between the two is clear. Straw Dogs isn’t sensationalism. It may get a rise out of its viewers, but that’s not its goal. It aims to tell a story, albeit a dark and violent one, and it does it well. If you can stomach it, it’s well worth seeing.

David (James Marsden) and Amy (Kate Bosworth) are a happily married couple. They both work in show business, David a writer and Amy an actress, where they met one day while working on the same television program. Now, they are getting away from the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood lifestyle and heading to Blackwater, Mississippi, Amy’s hometown. Upon arriving, they run into Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard), Amy’s high school boyfriend. He and his buddies have a contracting business and they are employed by David and Amy to fix their shed, which lost some of its roof thanks to a recent hurricane. As time goes on and Charlie begins to manipulate David, tension mounts, inevitably leading to a violent confrontation.

Straw Dogs is a smart movie that doesn’t feel gratuitous like many other similar films, including the aforementioned Last House on the Left. It doesn’t jump right into the abyss, eager to get to the bloodshed. No, it takes the time to build its characters up before killing them off. The tension builds not through attempts at excessive style or moody music or jump scares; it slowly percolates through dialogue and character interaction, which is no small feat. By the time the bloody end rolls around, you’ve invested yourself in what’s going on and it’s practically guaranteed to get your heart pumping like you just ran a marathon.

What disappoints, however, is how we end up reaching that bloody end. Throughout the film, there’s a bout of wits between Charlie and David. Neither likes the other, David aware of Charlie’s lust for his wife and Charlie seeing David as an unworthy companion to the girl he used to love. There’s also an odd sexual connection between Charlie and Amy; some of Amy’s bizarre actions are evidence enough of that. The way these are presented in the film is more than enough to make us believe violence could erupt, but the film instead relies on its B story to get us there. It involves an autistic man and a 15 year old cheerleader that goes nowhere fast, other than to set up a narrative contrivance that will lead the man into David and Amy’s home while the cheerleader’s father, alongside Charlie and his goons, stands outside with weapons demanding his head.

The way the film ultimately gets there is unsatisfactory, but at the same time, that route gives it a moral compass. David refuses to give up the man because he knows the guys outside will severely harm or even kill him. He knows keeping him in the house will lead to violence, but he doesn’t have it in him to turn over a man who is unable to comprehend what he did. Unlike Last House on the Left, where the “heroes” sought out their victims in the middle of the night and killed them in cold blood, David is protecting someone. He only kills because he has to.

If nothing else, that is what sets Straw Dogs apart from the rest of the pack, a likable main character who doesn’t try to justify his actions with flimsy reasoning. The film doesn’t romanticize the violence he inflicts on his attackers and it treats an earlier rape scene as it is, as an awful, soul crushing event. It’s not the most technically accomplished film ever made, but it knows what it’s doing. It works in its own crazy way and, though it’s certainly not for everybody, it’s one to keep your eye on.

Straw Dogs receives 3.5/5