Welcome to my second-ever illustrious column, "Tudor's Twitchin' Travel Tours". I'll admit it up front: As satisfied as I was with my debut entry last week, I don't think it exactly set the world on fire in terms of must-read popularity. In retrospect, maybe it was a tactical error to devote the first column to nothing but hazy childhood memories and WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN YOU'RE EXPECTING. But, whatever. This week, I'll attempt to right the ship by doing what was suggested of me when the Powers That Be pitched me on doing this: Capsule reviews. Yes, those preferred, shortened, and sawed-off evaluations of movies, distributed in an easy-to-digest dissolving gel-caps.
Having never been known for writing capsule reviews, I admit I was a little taken aback by the suggestion. This is a catch-all territory, all my own, where I can post my musings on the films that other (more important? Better plugged-in?) ScreenAnarchy critics have already covered, but I'm inclined to talk about anyway. Also, when news is slow, I can post whatever other malarkey I feel like sharing. Naturally I jumped at the offer. I'm still not sure whether I'm being relegated or rewarded, but in either case, I'll take it!
So on with the show. This week I'll be talking briefly about BERNIE, starring Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine, and BATTLESHIP, starring... errr... a battleship...? And some... giant pegs...? One film won't sit still, and other won't get going. Welcome to summer...
*******Review: BATTLESHIP! (Insert Obligatory 'You Sunk My Battleship' Joke Here)
As the global mass audience is served their most grotesque feasts of current multiplex junk food, TRANSFORMERS sits at the big kid table, while BATTLESHIP's relegated off to the side, desperately hopping and squealing "Me too! Me too!" Perhaps Hollywood's most transparent attempt to date at manufacturing a product with broad worldwide reach, BATTLESHIP is dumbed down but not quite actually dumb. Granted, no stretch of dialogue is longer than one sentence, and to call the storyline simple is an understatement. The whole thing is nothing but a patchwork assemblage of more popular parts: The aliens look like "Halo", the score sounds like THE DARK KNIGHT. And the whole thing is meant to evoke Michael Bay's glossy frenticism. (Bay, for his many regrettable qualities, can at the very least boast a trademark aesthetic. Perhaps the only thing worse than that aesthetic? That aesthetic ripped off.) However, unlike Bay's films, BATTLESHIP does not come across as a bullying jock. It's more of a Frankenstein's monster: An improper abomination to be sure, and certain to inflict harm onto others. But it can't help it, for it was built that way.
And so, I can't stay mad at BATTLESHIP. For whatever reason, director Peter Berg saw fit to adapt the classic board game into a monosyllabic cookie-cutter alien invasion spectacle starring the guy who played John Carter. (Taylor Kitsch, you are truly on a roll.) Squint and you can almost see faint camp aspirations. The only thing bigger than the visual effects budget is its degree of immediate forgetability. And the effects are indeed cool - they'd better be, since that's the absolute only reason anyone would go see BATTLESHIP. Unlike its toyetic cousin TRANSFORMERS, there's no established characters or mythology to mine. Even the inherent coolness of vehicles changing into robots is gone. That grants the filmmakers a blank slate - most of which remains glaringly visible throughout.
Liam Neeson cashes a paycheck for only five scenes worth of work, and international audiences are serviced with a multi-racial convergence of heroes even while middle America is shamelessly pandered to (a classic Michael Bay edict) via flag waving admiration of wartime veterans. (Which I admit is kind of a nice touch.) One posits there may've been a halfway decent naval cat-and-mouse period piece to be had from a more faithful adaptation of the Battleship board game (good grief, what am I typing?!?!?), but this, alas, is not that movie. Every move is far too calculated to call it dumb; the audience that makes this a hit, on the other hand, has no excuse.
*******Review: BERNIE Burns Out Early In Wacky Small-town Texas
Jack Black shuffles off to Texas to reteam with indie luminary Richard Linklater for BERNIE, a dark comedy based on a true story about a friendly funeral director who momentarily breaks character to commit a crime of passion, and lives to dodge the rap as long as possible. So no, this is not exactly THE SCHOOL OF ROCK 2, although maybe that would've been more satisfying. BERNIE, as you may've guessed, is a character study of one Bernie Tiede - a man so good at being good to people, he utterly sucked at being bad when he had to be. Linklater makes his quirky depiction of rigid traditional Lone Star State culture and its life-withered inhabitants feel effortless, as does Black in this much-needed bona fide acting showcase. For perhaps the first time, the star shirks off his shtick, clearly out to prove that there's more to him than interdependent eyebrow control and the need to rawk!
But speaking of his need to rock, it just so happened that I received a copy of Black's brand new Tenacious D album as I was leaving for this screening. Make no mistake, JB and KG are back with a vengeance, and ready to shred!!! Whether that machismo-induced vengeance is actually wrapped in comedic closeted gay insecurities is up to the listener to deduce, although BERNIE is much less cagey about the issue. Bernie is, on numerous occasions, described as most certainly being a celibate homosexual, that alone perhaps provoking the unencumbered legal wrath of lawman Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey, incognito with straight hair, a big hat, dad glasses and a shirt on). Also provoked is an altogether new kind of hammy Black performance, as he spends the entire film prancing, trotting, and speaking with vague nasal affect. Whether he's doing a verbal impression of the real life Bernie or half-channeling the film's production designer, I don't know for certain, but I do know this - a little bit ends up going a long way, particularly as the film meanders to nearly two hours in length.
(Full Disclosure: I was part of said production designer's crew on a highly unpleasant film shoot in the summer of 2006. Old wounds...)
Like I was saying, it may not be SCHOOL OF ROCK 2, but BERNIE never lacks for musical performance, with Black and the film's soundtrack unapologetically belting out numerous protestant hymns of the faith and even a rip-roaring presentation of "76 Trombones". This, along with the laughing-with-them-not-at-them approach to the hayseed interviews peppered throughout the film, lead me to conclude that Linklater is not out to mock aspects of his home state, even if BERNIE is no unabashed love letter, either. Black essentially proves that he can clean up nice and be a real actor when he wants to be, and hey, silver screen legend Shirley MacLaine is in this, too! That's something, but is it enough to save BERNIE's troubled soul? Nosirrie.
- Jim Tudor