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Posts Tagged ‘Peter Berg’

Well, it’s time for another installment of our very irregular and even more pointless feature, New Cinema Review (that’s ‘new’ as in ‘new to me’, not as in ‘freshly constructed’). On this occasion, the venue in question is the Octagon Theatre, Market Harborough. As you may have surmised, this is not one of your actual cinema chain outlets but a legitimate theatre which occasionally puts on a film on a slow night. Well, it’s always nice to go somewhere where the bottom line of the refreshments stand doesn’t appear to be the sine qua non of the whole operation, and the fact this is a proper theatre guarantees a decent rake and line-of-sight to the screen. No adverts (yay), no trailers (boo), no BBFC certificate (hmmm), and some interesting films on their coming soon list (Mustang, Captain Fantastic, Elle, and Headhunters all due in the next few months) – I’ve been to worse places, that’s for sure.

On this occasion I had turned up to watch Peter Berg’s Deepwater Horizon, a film from last year which I didn’t bother going to see at the time, because, well, it looked like the whole thing had been in the trailer (not to mention on the rolling news back in 2010, though I missed it myself due to being incommunicado in Sri Lanka). This is a movie based on a fairly well-known event from the recent past, so I was a bit surprised to find myself being flapped and hissed at for predicting what we were in for, in the bar before the film: about forty-five minutes of all-American character-building and then an hour or so of stuff blowing up, quite possibly with a billowing US flag at some point. Does this really constitute a spoiler? It’s like being told off for revealing that the boat sinks at the end of Titanic.

Well, anyway. Chief point of audience identification is Mike (Mark Wahlberg), top electrical bloke on the Deepwater Horizon, an oil exploration rig in the Gulf of Mexico. (The name Deepwater Horizon is really a gift to film-makers, being exciting and ominous in just the right blend – I bet if they’d called the thing Riggy McRigface it would all have turned out very differently.) As things get going, Mike is about to head back to the rig for another tour of duty, leaving behind his lovely wife Felicia (played by Kate Hudson) and winsome young daughter (played by a winsome young child actor). As this is a mainstream movie not solely aimed at experts in oil extraction procedure, the winsome daughter gets a sequence where she explains what Mike does for a living in language a ten-year-old child could understand, which means most of the average cinema audience can probably cope with it too. This comes with visual aids, as well – never before has shaken-up cola frothing out of a can been such a portent of doom.

Mike flies off to the rig with his boss Mr Jimmy (Kurt Russell in a fine moustache) and co-worker Andrea (Gina Rodriguez). Needless to say, all is not well as they arrive, as visits by the camera to the sea bed beneath the rig make clear: ominous bubbles leak from around the drill head. It transpires that the preparation of the oil shaft for an actual extraction rig is far behind schedule, rather to the chagrin of the project’s paymasters at BP. They are pressuring the rig workers to accelerate their operations, even if this means cutting corners on things like safety.

You know what happens next: ambiguous results on safety tests are interpreted by the money-grubbing BP suits in the most optimistic manner, things go creak, things go bubble, things go whoosh, and then things – a lot of things – go boom (honestly, the really impressive takeaway from this movie is not the spectacle of this rig exploding, but the fact that these things don’t go bang more often). Mike, Jimmy, and Andrea find themselves initially trying to get the situation aboard the stricken rig under control, before eventually realising it’s all basically terminal and their main concern should be getting off in one piece…

I don’t mean to be especially glib or flippant about what happened to the Deepwater Black, not least because eleven men died in horrible circumstances. That’s a tragedy, a dreadful loss – no question about it, no argument from me. But given it’s such a tragedy, the question must always be, what are we doing making drama-entertainment films about it? Are we not just complicit in satisfying our own suspect urges, in the same way that we do when we rubberneck at a road accident? With, of course, the complicity of the film-makers, who are fully aware of this, but happy because it allows them to use all their pyrotechnical virtuosity in a film the critics are virtually obliged to treat respectfully, as it is about Real Life Heroism – in other words, they get to blow things up but still be taken seriously!

I rather suspect we have a case to answer, because Deepwater Horizon is structured just a bit too much like a crowd-pleasing thriller for comfort. The technical details of what specifically went wrong on the rig are never really gone into, and the first half of the film does feel more like the opening of a disaster movie than anything else – characters are established, warning signs overlooked, the experience and instincts of decent working men is ignored by contemptible guys in suits, and so on. We are told that virtually every scene in this movie is based on eyewitness testimony, which at least allows for some moments you wouldn’t accept in an actual piece of fiction – Mr Jimmy receives an award for his outstanding safety record about an hour before his oil rig literally explodes – but, even so, the film has clearly delineated good guys and bad guys in a way real life generally doesn’t. Chief bad guy is a BP exec played by John Malkovich, who is in form which I can only describe as very John Malkovich. It’s an idiosyncratic turn quite at odds with the studied naturalism of everyone else, but I did enjoy it, inasmuch this is a film you can honestly enjoy in a guilt-free way.

Technically, this is a very proficient film, and the performances are fine, too – Wahlberg can play this kind of Everyman in his sleep – and the big bangs and flashes, when they come, are as accomplished as you might expect. You could argue that a lot of the dialogue is unintelligible, not least because it’s technical drilling jargon, but you don’t need to understand every note to grasp the tune on this occasion. It’s all very capably done and exciting, and yet come the end you are still reading a list of the names of real people who died, and seeing their photos, and how are you supposed to handle the cognitive dissonance there?

I suppose you could make the same argument about many other ‘based on true events’ type movies, some of which I have said quite positive things about in the past – Everest leaps to mind as one, and I’m sure there are others. Perhaps it’s simply the approach that Deepwater Horizon takes – it’s a lot less interested in why it happened (and what happened next) than it is in how big the explosions were, and who a convenient scapegoat might be. On a technical level this film is impressive, but I think the memory of those lost in the disaster might have been better served by a less simplistic film.

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I can still recall with great clarity the mixture of dumbfounded incredulity and creeping foreboding I felt when I learned, a couple of years ago, that Peter Berg – hitherto reliable director of knockabout fluff like The Rundown and Hancock – was hard at work on a big screen version of the venerable board game Battleship. This did not strike me as immediately obvious source material for a blockbuster movie, but what I was not taking into account was the monumental cash cow that the Transformers franchise was proving to be for the toy company Hasbro. Why shouldn’t they try to make even more money by releasing a string of blockbusters based on famous toys and games? And, for that matter, why shouldn’t they cast pint-sized popstrel Rihanna in it?

For, yea, such is the nature of this film: Battleship, the movie, directed by Peter Berg and prominently featuring RiRi. Probably because this is just her first movie, Rihanna is not allowed to be the captain of the battleship. Supreme commander of the naval forces in this film is the increasingly hopeless Liam Neeson (I’m sympathetic to the guy’s personal situation, but come on – if doing films like this and The A-Team don’t count as letting yourself go, I’m not sure what does – someone organise an intervention), but he’s not in it much and most of the square-jawed heroing is the responsibility of Taylor Kitsch.

The film opens indicatively enough with some reasonable astronomy followed by some dreadful physics, as scientists in Hawaii apparently shoot giant lasers into space as part of an attempt to contact an alien planet. (What has this got to do with battleships? Good question. Keep reading.) From here we proceed to a bar, where we meet feckless waster Hopper (Kitsch, still in his John Carter haircut). Grindingly unfunny and implausible plot- and character-establishing stuff ensues, as, in an attempt to pick up a girl (Brooklyn Decker), he attempts to burgle a local store to get her a burrito and ends up getting tasered by the cops. His straight-arrow brother is not impressed, announcing that there’s only one option for a lazy, reckless, impulsive goon like Hopper –  he’s going to join the US Navy!

Yup, that’s right – to judge by this film, they want a few good men, but an absolute crowd of really mediocre ones. Nevertheless, a while later Hopper has become a senior officer on the USS John Paul Jones (the USS Jimmy Page, the USS Robert Plant, and the USS John Bonham will presumably be in the sequels), and – even more inexplicably – is on the point of getting engaged to the same girl. The problem is that her dad (Neeson) is the admiral of the fleet, who thoroughly disapproves of our hero. Cue lots of toothgrindingly grim romantic scenes and ‘comic relief’ demonstrating what a  goof Hopper remains.

My jaw was hanging open by this point and I was having flashbacks, for fairly obvious reasons, to Pearl Harbor (the movie, not the… oh, you figured that out). Ten minutes into that movie I was praying for the Japanese to arrive and start bombing, and ten minutes into this one I was impatiently awaiting the alien invasion.

Oh, yeah – forgot to mention that. There’s an alien invasion in this one, as some extraterrestrial rude boys turn up, possibly to complain about scientists shooting giant lasers at their planet. Disrupting some rather convenient naval manouevers most of the characters are engaged in, they stick up a giant invisible space umbrella (…ella, ella, ella) over Hawaii to keep most of the fleet out and set about calling home for reinforcements (sadly for the purposes of this rather weak running gag, not an SOS). The task of stopping them is, needless to say, up to Hopper and his crew (which includes a Barbadian singer, none of whose song titles I could crowbar into this sentence).

Hang on, Awix, you may be saying, I don’t remember there being aliens in the game of Battleship. This is true, but neither is there anything else you can really hang a story on – there’s a sequence at one point in this film which goes to slightly absurd lengths to recreate the experience of playing the game, but the rest of it is new, if by new you mean ‘blatantly ripped off from the Transformers movies’.

This is most obviously clear in the whole aesthetic of the aliens and their technology, which is based around extremely complicated devices that spend ages clicking, sliding, hinging, rotating, unfolding, folding, clunking and hissing before actually doing anything notable. But it’s also there in the continual, unfunny comic relief in the opening section of the film, the general lack of narrative coherence, and the fetishising of military hardware of all kinds.

The film practically canonises anyone who’s served in the US armed forces, too, especially veterans. Now I’m not saying that these people haven’t done significant deeds and made great sacrifices, and they’re not unworthy of our remembrance and praise, but crowbarring all of that into a fundamentally stupid film like this one makes the sentiment seem as crass and overblown as the rest of the story: it all seems so earnest and glib and schmaltzy at the same time. Most prominently, Gregory D Gadson plays a soldier who’s lost both his legs in combat, and is having psychological issues as a result. Needless to say, by the final reel he has got his mojo back and is (literally) using his prosthetic legs to kick alien butt. It would seem incredibly tasteless were it not so absurd.

It would be remiss of me to suggest that Battleship is all bad. Hamish Linklater, an amiable actor who on recent evidence (this, The Future) should change his agent, is quite good as a boffin – he even gets a line complaining about how ludicrous everyone else’s dialogue is. The visual effects are, not surprisingly for a film with a $200m budget, good. And Peter Berg, though clearly under instructions to copy Michael Bay’s style, can’t quite force himself down to the arch-fiend’s level – as a result, you can tell what’s going on most of the time, and there’s relatively little sign of inappropriate intimacy between the director and the frame. And some of the early action with the navy fighting the aliens is actually quite involving and thrilling – but then Rihanna goes past in a dinghy firing a machine-gun, and you’re smacked round the head by how silly it all really is.

Told you so.

It made me long for Roland Emmerich, apparently the only director who can make this sort of big, daft, epic without the whole thing becoming stodgy or ostentatiously stupid. Still, massive box office success and world domination no doubt await (not to mention the 2014 release of Scrabble: the Movie, with Nicki Minaj saving the world from vowel-hating alien mnstrs). Nevertheless, while this movie certainly resembles an inelegant object often to be found floating in water, the object in question is not a battleship.

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