Bad Movie Night — Battleship/John Carter

bmn john battleship

As I noted recently, it’s been a long time since our household made the proper commitment to a good ol’ fashioned Bad Movie Night. Our tradition is long and honored: a double feature, preferably with some sort of link and heavy encouragement to merciless mock all that plays out on the screen. When we settled down for the night atypically early, we took our shared commitment to whittling down the material on our overstuffed DVR as impetus to dive into some of the material we’d collected specifically because we thought it might suit our more malicious, misanthropic, and misogynistic cinematic habits. Beer at the ready, we dove in.

And what better place to start than with Battleship (Peter Berg, 2012), one of the more notable bombs of the past few years. Part of the increasingly absurd notion that every recognizable brand should be fodder for big screen mayhem, this sci-fi actioner supposedly takes its inspiration from the classic board game. Yes, there are battleships in it, and some of the explosive weapons hurtling through the air vaguely resemble the pegs that were shoved into either plastic sea vessels of embedded cubes of blue, but it mostly seems like a generic riff on Transformers shoved into a different package from the next aisle over in the toy section.

I’m tempted to argue that the plot makes no sense, but it’s actually too simplistic to be confusing in the slightest. There are navy guys, including the obligatory rebellious rule-breaker (Taylor Kitsch), out on maneuvers. Then aliens attack as big robot monsters from the sky. And that’s about it. Yeah, there are subplots, including the rebel’s hope to marry the hot daughter (Brooklyn Decker) of the gravel-voiced and boulder-brained Commander of the U.S. Fleet (Liam Neeson, further away than ever from his Oscar-contending days) and, well, I’m sure there’s another subplot in there somewhere. Maybe not, though, given that most of what comes out of the mouths of other characters is so inconsequential that one website volunteered for the task of cataloguing every line of dialogue uttered by Rihanna as a crew member. Only five of the sixty-eight lines contains more than a total of ten words.

The original plan called for making it a Hasbro night, since G.I. Joe: Retaliation is just sitting out there. Instead, we realized we had the opportunity to experience the totality of Kitsch’s very bad year of attempted blockbuster stardom (he also appeared in Oliver Stone’s Savages in 2012, which also doesn’t look good, but ultimately belongs in a very different category). So we opted for John Carter (Andrew Stanton, 2012), maybe the year’s most notorious attempt to launch a franchise and a potent argument against giving skilled Pixar filmmakers the keys to live-action vehicles.

The notion of adapting the adventures of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s planetary-displaced warrior had been kicking around for a while. It was reportedly Stanton’s passion for the product that finally brought it to expensive fruition, with Kitsch burdened with the title role. Stanton certainly directs the film like a true believer. Indeed his zealotry is so complete that it is evidently beyond his ken that anyone might find the material completely ridiculous. It doesn’t help that his collaborators in the art and costume departments deliver work that recalls the campy nonsense of 1980’s Flash Gordon. The goofiness packed into the frame accentuates the worst elements of the script, including the dopey framing sequence conceit that Burroughs himself is learning about all this from a journal left to him by his late Uncle John. The most problematic aspect of the storytelling, though, is that its dreadfully boring. Even on a Bad Movie Night — maybe especially on a Bad Movie Night — that remains the worst sin a film and a filmmaker can commit.

Arzner, Byrkit, Hitchcock, Pakula, Tartakovsky

Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943). Though he would sometimes demure at the question, this was typically the title Hitchcock offered up as his default answer when asked about his personal favorite among his hefty, dazzling oeuvre. I can’t really back him up on that, even though I can completely understand how this one would loom large for the Master. He’d made great films before this (The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, and Suspicion among them), but there’s something about this one that feels like the Hitchcock cinematic voice locked in for good. The film follows Charlie Newton (Joseph Cotten), a fellow who oozes menace simply lying in a tenement apartment bed. He tried to elude some unwelcome attention by venturing out to small town California to stay with his sister’s family, including his adoring niece (Teresa Wright) who’s named after him. The niece’s persistent interest in enlivening her humdrum, middle class life leads her to suspect that her uncle is guilty of some pronounced malfeasance, an instinct that is sound, which Hitchcock makes evident from the beginning. It’s a prime example of the director developing a film’s scariness not through jolts, but instead by making the danger abundantly clear and leaving the audience to twist with worry as to when the metaphorical bomb is going to go off. The film is greatly enhanced by the authorial touch of Thornton Wilder, whose Our Town Pulitzer still has some shine on it. He invests the characters with delicate, homespun touches, allowing for just a bit of devilish weirdness around the edges, such as the mundane neighbors (one of whom is played by Hume Cronyn in his feature debut) whose shared penchant for crime stories leads them to openly speculate about the methodology they’d use to off the other.

Dance, Girl, Dance (Dorothy Arzner, 1940). This showbiz drama betrays a lurking protofeminist heart as it unfolds its tale of competing showgirls, one of whom sashays her way to lucrative fame, bringing the other along to be humiliated on stage every night as a central part of the act. Lucille Ball plays the star who uses her sex appeal callously in pursuit of the limelight. It doesn’t necessarily stand with her best film performances, but it is another fascinating entry showing the contrast between the big screen persona she worked with and the daffy, wailing role that later made her a television legend. Maureen O’Hara is the “good girl,” and she’s fairly wooden until the moment when she unloads on a jeering audience with a shaming diatribe demanding respect, an especially jolting development given the era in which the film was made. Arzner, by some reckoning the only woman employed as a director by the Hollywood studios at the time, is more perfunctory than stylish in her filmmaking, but surely some of the film’s sharp, progressive undercurrent can be attributed directly to her.

Klute (Alan J. Pakula, 1971). There are a lot of familiar beats in Pakula’s thriller about a cop-playing-detective (the title character, played by Donald Sutherland) who befriends and romances a call girl (Jane Fonda) during his investigation into the disappearance of a friend. It clings tight to the trappings of detective fiction without having the audacity to unsettle its structure in the manner of other offerings from the era, such as The Long Goodbye and Chinatown. Years later, that can make it seem a little soft, a film being pushed forward and out of the way by a grand cinematic transformation rather than one leading the charge. Two aspects of the film distinguish it as vital. One is the remarkable cinematography by Gordon Willis, which includes shots of exquisite framing and striking images, proving that vivid beauty can be captured in garment factories and rundown apartments just as assuredly as on the open plain or some other vast landscape. The other is Jane Fonda’s justly-awarded performance as the call girl, combining wells of shrouded vulnerability with a brittle authority that consistently fascinates.

Coherence (James Ward Byrkit, 2014). It’s not exactly the sort of film that Rod Serling might write if he were around today, but I’d like to think he’d be leading the standing ovation at its premiere. Byrkit’s feature debut centers on a dinner party. The relationships between the different attendees are laid out simply and clearly, especially those dented by troubled histories. There’s some idle talk about a passing comet in the night sky that’s brought out the metaphysical theorists. Then the lights go out. Sharing anything specific that happens beyond that point is borderline criminal. I will note that what follows is crafty, wise, playful, and often grimly funny. The film spurred from me the sort of giggles that only rise when I’m watching something I find to be brilliantly audacious. I’m convinced this is on of the best movies of the year.

Hotel Transylvania (Genndy Tartakovsky, 2012). The feature film debut of Tartakovsky, whose fingerprints spot some widely-adored cartoon television series (his involvement in “Just Another Manic Mojo” is enough cause to venerate him, as far as I’m concerned), is enjoyable enough, even if it winds up locked into the same predictable rut that has practically made “computer animated feature” a genre instead of means of storytelling. The conceit is at least clever, with Dracula responding to the threat of persistent angry villagers by retreating to construct a castle hotel where he can raise his daughter in isolated peace while also provided a safe haven for fellow monsters. The voice cast is populated by Adam Sandler and his usually band of marginally funny cronies (including Kevin James and David Spade), which does provide the pleasure of Steve Buscemi as a rhombus-shaped werewolf. Truthfully, I must concede this may be the best Sandler has ever been (and, yes, that includes his stabs at respectability in the likes of Punch Drunk Love and Funny People). He plays the character with conviction and consistency. Clearly, he should be locked alone in a recording studio more often.

Allen, Assonitis, Korda, Stromberg, Tetzlaff

Maleficent (Robert Stromberg, 2014). This piece of fairy tale revisionism might be more affecting if it didn’t arrive on the heels of the same studio’s Frozen, which pulled off basically the same switcheroo (including the subversion of the “true love’s kiss” trope) with more spirit. Judging from what’s onscreen, not much thought went into this project after the dream casting of Angelina Jolie was secured. The certainty that her presence as one of the most iconic villains in the annals of Disney Animated Classics would be enough to make the film compelling comes tantalizing close to becoming a proven truth. It’s fun to watch her play around devilishly with the role, even if there’s also a prevailing sense that a turn like this is desperately easy for her, and she has only the slightest inclination to dig deeper. Problems abound elsewhere, especially with the cheaply precious comedy of three fairies charged with protecting the cursed princess (Elle Fanning, gamely beaming but with nothing much to do) and the drastically overheated performance by Sharlto Copley as the evil royalty who set Maleficent on her unpleasant course. Copley may be striving for the same sort of knowing parody that Jolie coolly suggests, but he comes across as shrill, manic, and amateurish. A first-time director, Stromberg merely holds on for dear life.

To Rome with Love (Woody Allen, 2012). This delivers four different stories set in Rome, loosely bundled, which gives the film the feeling of paging back and forth between offerings in one of Allen’s old collections, like Without Feathers or Side Effects. Alternating between the different stories may be meant to give the film more cohesion, but it severely undercuts the effectiveness of the film, especially as it accentuates the wildly varying quality of the different segments. The most interesting by far is one that casts Alec Baldwin as a sort of one-man Greek chorus to his younger self (Jesse Eisenberg) as he ponders an affair. That’s the only piece that develops enough creative and structural wit to make it worthwhile. There’s also a surprisingly nice performance by Roberto Benigni in an otherwise drab one-joke segment about a man who gets sudden, unexplained fame. Allen’s late career has been desperately hit-or-miss. To Rome with Love at least has the efficiency to handle both extremes in a single film.

Tentacles (Ovidio G. Assonitis, 1977). The runaway success of Jaws led to a bevy of watery ripoffs. It would take a remarkable amount of effort to find one both cheaper and loopier than this tale of a powerful octopus, driven to murderous rage by the noises created by an underwater drilling company. Directed by Egyptian-born Assonitis (who later returned to the depths by co-writing James Cameron’s feature film debut, Piranha II: The Spawning), the movie is notably pedestrian, enlivened only by the combination of awkward European unknown actors and old movie stars picking up one of those sad late-career paychecks. The latter group includes two-time Academy Award-winner Shelley Winters, who caps off her first scene by making a Bloody Mary comprise of nothing more than vodka and room-temperature tomato juice. It’s far sadder to see Henry Fonda creaking his way through the film, looking miserable throughout.

The Macomber Affair (Zoltan Korda, 1947). This adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway novel casts Gregory Peck as a hunter-for-hire in Kenya who is enlisted by a traveling couple (Joan Bennett and Robert Preston) on an excursion meant to mend their ailing marriage. Things go desperately wrong, sending the husband home in a body bag, and most of the film is the slow unfolding of how the ill turn came to pass. The performances are all solid enough, but Korda’s direction is a little too vanilla to pull out the florid melodrama of the work. Instead, the delusional machismo that represents the worst of Hemingway is presented as unquestioned fact, even as the story itself can be read as an exposure of the deadly folly of the mindset. The film ultimately has too much surface emotion and not enough nuance to be effective.

Riff-Raff (Ted Tetzlaff, 1947). I can pay no higher compliment to this noirish detective drama than to say it plays like the seedling from which the vast garden of the Coen brothers oeuvre sprung. Pat O’Brien plays a private dick in Panama who is enlisted by multiple shady characters trying to retrieve a lost map, a tangle of allegiances that he largely surveys with lackadaisical amusement. The plot is incidental to pleasure of barbed dialogue and characters connecting like sparklers setting each other ablaze. Tetzlaff was making his directorial debut following a distinguished career as a cinematographer, including the previous year’s Alfred Hitchcock wonder Notorious. He brings that skill at shooting a movie to creating a stylish work that never lets technique swamp the necessity of clearly, smartly telling a story. It’s a terrific film that a smart filmmaker could use as the foundation for a stellar remake.

Bayona, Lang, Moore, Sturges, Webb

The Impossible (Juan Antonio Bayona, 2012). At the very core of The Impossible is the commonplace sin of depicting a real-life tragedy in an Asian land through the experience of well-to-do, white, European travelers. The devastating tsunami that struck countries on the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004 killed approximately a quarter of a million people in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, and Thailand, but its obviously rich vacationers played by Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor whose story whose story needs to be told. This could be acceptable–albeit begrudgingly so–if the film still carried the sort of emotional weight that should be easy to come by given the situation. Instead, it feels as phony as can be, even when some of the shards of detail have a faint aura of authenticity. Director Juan Antonio Bayona stages individual scenes with a inquisitive respect for the power of the storm and the ragged mayhem of its aftermath. It’s the human elements that apparently bore him. Watts brings a game physical commitment to her performance, but, as with almost everyone else, she’s given a hollowed-out character to play. She strains and crumples convincingly, which doesn’t adequately compensate for the simple humanity that’s missing.

Wreck It Ralph (Rich Moore, 2012). Another stepping stone in John Lasseter’s Frogger-style hopping path to bringing some of the Pixar storytelling skill to the previously staid Disney Animation group, a process that arguably finally started banging out a steady fountain of gold coins with last year’s Frozen. This tale of the title character, a video game villain voiced by John C. Reilly, who finds redemption through an epic adventure across a different video game platform is funny enough and marked by just enough charm. It doesn’t take full advantage of the possibilities of the video game, settling for a clever, melancholy, passing use of the Q*Bert cast as the best exploitation of the source inspiration. The film is otherwise fairly conventional, complete with some obvious plot points. Rich Moore brings an admirable energy to the directing, perhaps thanks to his experience presiding over some of the very best episodes of The Simpsons.

The Great McGinty (Preston Sturges, 1940). The directorial debut of Preston Sturges, undertaken after he agreed to sell the script for a highly discounted rate (reportedly one measly dollar) if the studio would allow him to literally call the shots. He’d been dissatisfied with how others had handled his earlier efforts. While he lacks the panache evident in subsequent films, he certainly commits to the comic cynicism of his story. The title character (Brian Donlevy) begins the story as a vagrant making a quick buck with prolific participation in voter fraud. His ambition gets him invited into the inner circle of the crooked politicians, and his crooked star swells from there. As bold as The Great McGinty is, it’s just shaky enough that it’s main appeal is as a foundational work for a filmmaker who was about to become absolutely masterful, doing so with uncommon speed and clarity.

The Woman in the Window (Fritz Lang, 1944). This twisty film noir from Fritz Lang amusingly taps into the paranoid certainty that any dalliance with moral malfeasance is likely to lead to a tar pit of trouble. To put it another way, if the gorgeous, glamorous woman who inspires obsessive thoughts is coming on to a regular schmo, it’s probably not going to end well for the schmo. Edward G. Robinson plays a college professor who is enjoying a night out when his family is away, encountering a lovely woman (Joan Bennett) who he’d previously spotted in a portrait hanging in a storefront. He accompanies her home, which leads to accidental involvement in a major crime. The rest of the film is largely comprised of the professor squirming as his district attorney pal edges closer to figuring out the mystery. Based on a novel by J.H. Wallis, the screenplay (credited to Nunnally Johnson, also the producer) cleverly depicts all the small ways that the professor trips up, revealing a more intimate knowledge of the crime than he could have possibly gleaned from newspaper reports. Robinson is highly enjoyable in the role, and Lang directs with his trademark sense of dark style. The film contains a final twist, the hoariest of narrative escape hatches, that doesn’t quite eradicate the goodwill the rest of the film builds up, but it comes remarkably close.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (Marc Webb, 2014). The lackluster reboot gets its inevitable sequel. In Sam Raimi’s second outing with the web-slinger during the first go-round of Marvel’s most famous comic book character as a modern studio tentpole, the director excelled in large part by shrewdly correcting the flaws of the first installment. Marc Webb as his collaborators have no such instinct, basically doubling down on all the weakest elements of The Amazing Spider-Man while also adhering to the apparent necessity to load the film with ever more, more, more. Even the little kid in front of us at the theater was grousing. “Another bad guy?” she incredulously asked at one point. Andrew Garfield remains game and enthusiastic as Peter Parker, but the screenplay is pat rather than clever, robbing the character of the whip-smart sense of humor that helps define him on the colorful page. The rapport between Garfield and Emma Stone (as Gwen Stacy) is so light and lovely that it inspires dreams of better material for them to share.

Faxon and Rash, Kasdan, Lloyd, Lord and Miller, Snyder

Darling Companion (Lawrence Kasdan, 2012). I’ve got loads of residual affection for writer-director Lawrence Kasdan, but he sure doesn’t make it easy to be one of his defenders these days. Darling Companion was his first film in nearly decade, following the appallingly bad Stephen King adaptation Dreamcatcher. It doesn’t make an argument that he used his creative downtime wisely. As wispy of a film concept as anyone’s likely to come across, Kasdan’s story (co-written with his wife, Meg Kasdan) concerns an older couple who adopt a stray dog and then lose that new furry family member in the woods around their Colorado vacation cabin. And that’s about it. There are different personal conflicts and evolving relationships at play among the extended group of family and friends staying with them at the cabin, mildly heightened by the stress of the absent pet, but they have no depth or bite. Kasdan assembles a stacked cast that includes Kevin Kline, Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest, Richard Jenkins, and, in a dinky part that could heave been written in its entirety on the back of a PetSmart receipt, Elisabeth Moss, causing my partner-in-all-things to refer to the movie as “interesting actors doing uninteresting things.” She’s spot-on.

Man of Steel (Zack Snyder, 2013). The kindest thing I can say about Zack Snyder’s reboot of Bryan Singer’s reboot of the adventures of the original superhero and the last son of Krypton is the director’s worst tics, the stuff that makes other entries in his filmography downright unwatchable, are largely tamed. The oppressive slo-mo and fetishistic sexualization of everything in sight may be gone, but Snyder still has an evident love of the garishly bombastic. By all evidence, he values cool shots over all else, which could be acceptable if his version of striking visuals wasn’t mired in some bizarre arrested development version of thought and creativity. Everything across the film’s overlong running time comes across as the very first idea presented that made Snyder helplessly mutter, “Killer.” It’s a rough draft of awesomeness. It’s also incredibly boring, proof that bigger sometimes leads to nothing more than bludgeoning excess. No one in the cast distinguishes themselves, but special scorn is necessary for Russell Crowe’s amateurish shouting as Jor-El, Superman’s pop from across the universe.

The Iron Lady (Phyllida Lloyd, 2011). I read recently that Phyllida Lloyd maintains she was being completely deliberate with the hacky, cheesy elements of her directing job on the dreadful big-screen jukebox musical Mamma Mia! I wonder, then, what her excuse for the same bumbling, ham-fisted approach to staging and developing insight that crops up in her presumably serious attempt at making a biopic of legendary, controversial U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Played by Meryl Streep (and, for a surprisingly amount of time, Alexandra Roach), Thatcher is ultimately more of a witness to history than she is a shaper of it. Her vaunted steeliness–which gives the film it’s very title–is in evidence in only the most facile way, in scenes that play like weak tea drama. Streep finally won her third Oscar for her performance here, but the work was basically incidental. With far more nominations than any other actor, she was going to get rewarded again, and the time had simply come. It’s not a bad performance, but nothing really distinguishes it from boilerplate docudrama either.

The Way Way Back (Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, 2013). The writing team that got to stand near Alexander Payne as he gave a speech when they all won the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for The Descendants may have been obscured in his heavy auteur shadow, but at least they got to leverage that experience into making their directorial debut. Supposedly pulled somewhat from the youthful experiences of co-director Jim Rash, the film is a fairly standard-issue slice-of-life, coming-of-age movie, settling into a crummy water park to help give it some added flavor. The film has its moments, many directly attributable to Sam Rockwell doing his Sam Rockwell thing as a mentor of mild ill repute the youthful protagonist (Liam James) gravitates to at the park. Rash and Nat Faxon pull the whole thing together with a reasonable skill and an eye for the occasional telling moment or side detail. It could use some more storytelling meat to make it seem like it has a real reason for being as a film.

The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, 2014). I think some of the heady praise doled out to The Lego Movie is an indication that a lot of critics were rounding up, but it’s hard to deny that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller spun up art from the unlikeliest clay. Or, rather, plastic. Just as they’ve done in the Jump Street films, the pair sidestep the pitfalls of crassly conceived material by calling attention to the shallowness of it all, creating by explicitly pointing out how they’re creating it, cheekily mocking all the inherent contradictions and compromises along the way. It’s remarkable that a condemnation of Lego’s current business model of ready-made construction kits is one of the less subversive elements of the film. It’s occasionally a little sloppy and the pathos of the very weird third act twist sits a little awkwardly against the rest of the movie’s wild energy, but the filmmakers deserve credit for seeing their vision through to its logical endpoint. I wonder how deep they got into the filmmaking process before they were sure–really, really sure–no one was going to take it away from them.

Black, Buck and Lee, Emmerich, Frankel, Wells

Frozen (Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, 2013). The most successful animated feature in the traditional Disney mold (fairy tale structure, a bevy of Broadway-esque songs) since the studio’s nineteen-nineties heyday, Frozen is charming enough if a little flat. Like a lot of modern Disney fables, it’s more interesting for the ways it compulsively upends the legacy tropes–the “true love” with a man, the oversimplified villainy–than for the actual merits of what winds up onscreen freed from meta examinations. The songbook provided by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez may have launched a thousand (or more) YouTube videos on the strength of “Let It Go” alone (and the song admittedly is catchy enough to automatically lodge in my brain any time I hear those three words in succession), but it doesn’t stand up to the Alan Menken-Howard Ashman feats from back in the day. Besides, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman” is the real winner from the song score. Anyone should be able to hear that. I also don’t fine the human characters as ravishing as some, although I’m prepared to defend the Josh Gad-voiced snowman Olaf as one of the great comic relief characters in Disney’s formidable canon.

August: Osage County (John Wells, 2013). Surely a Pulitzer Prize-winning epic of a play deserves a better cinematic fate than this, even with the original playwright on board to pen the screenplay. I see so sins in condensing the material, nor does that writing suddenly ring false. Instead, it’s the borderline inept directing by John Wells that seems to be the culprit, especially his absolutely inability to develop a consistent tone or to stabilize the wildly varying quality of the performances of his all-star cast. He’s hardly the first filmmaker to display reticence in asking Meryl Streep to temper her worst tendencies (snapping off pieces of scenery like candy cane stalks as the malicious matriarch of the film’s dysfunctional clan), but he could have noticed that Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Abigail Breslin, and Dermot Mulroney weren’t pulling their weight. The Oscar-nominated performance by Julia Roberts is solid and appealing (despite the “America’s Sweetheart” tag that accompanied her rise to stardom, she’s always been at her best when she’s been able to be a little mean and disagreeable onscreen), but the best work comes from the Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale, playing out a far more honest melodrama around the fringes of the story.

Hope Springs (David Frankel, 2012). Hope Springs makes an admirable attempt to wryly address the sort of late-in-life romantic problems that modern movies would rather do without. Well-meaning as the film may be, it can’t quite decided what it is. Is it a thoughtful consideration of the strain that develops in any relationship, especially one that has endured for years? Is it a light-hearted, semi-satiric romp about late-in-life sexuality? Is it a spiky comedy about a combative couple. Before it’s done, Hope Springs even betrays some of the tired crow’s feet of the modern rom-com. In not settling, the film winds up being a whole lot of nothing. As far as the performances go, Streep has some nice moments but her acting choices are all too obvious much of the time, and Steve Carell simply tries too hard to signal that he’s being serious now as a counselor who tries to help the central couple. Tommy Lee Jones fares best, mostly because he seems to grow more and more incapable of unnatural moments as he ages.

White House Down (Roland Emmerich, 2013). Maybe it’s the film’s happy, unashamed embrace of its own absurdity, but damned if Roland Emmerich’s woefully high concept DieHard-in-the-White-House doesn’t spring to delectable life like a popcorn kernel that’s spent just the right amount of time sizzling in oil. Channing Tatum is the everyman who winds up protecting the U.S. President (Jamie Foxx, thankfully lacking the embedded action hero knowhow that Harrison Ford conveniently possessed in Air Force One) when the White House is the target of fiendishly effective terrorist attack. The movie is enjoyably old fashioned (to the degree that eighties and nineties action movies are in the distant enough past to be termed old fashioned), right down to the obviously telegraphed “secret” bad guys peppered throughout the cast. It’s not high art, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

Iron Man 3 (Shane Black, 2013). In the always surprising land of Marvel movies, the third offering with the armored avenger as central star is notable for the ways in which it’s the unlikeliest elements–those that smack of cheap pandering–that are the unabashed highlights. Accordingly, I suppose, the pieces that should work like gangbusters are drab and muddled. There are cool ideas behind the various action set pieces, but the direction of Shane Black (presumably hired at the behest of Robert Downey, Jr, who worked with him on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) leaves them as largely incoherent mash. And yet the scenes in which a momentarily grounded Tony Stark (Downey) grouchily bonds with a Tennessee youth named Harley (Ty Simpkins) are as witty and winning as anything that’s been issued under the Marvel cinematic banner. Downey’s characterization of Stark is so spot on that even his hints of boredom with the role work for the character, and he does an interesting job with the character’s posttraumatic stress disorder following events in The Avengers. Like an unfortunate number of the Marvel movies, it seems apparent there’s a far better version that could be made with about twenty minutes carved out of it.

Daldry, Eastwood, Moore, Sirk, Soderbergh

Pitch Perfect (Jason Moore, 2012). Much as I can understand how this film turned into a stealth hit–it has the musical liveliness of early Glee combined with the knowing spunk of Bring It On–it’s a fairly clumsy endeavor, with strained jokes and haphazard structure that would almost count as daring anti-narrative if it were done intentionally. It’s also one of those films that has absolutely no idea how college works, not just taking liberties for the sake of the storytelling but completely ignoring any attempt to depict its setting in a way that’s at all plausible. It does have Anna Kendrick, though, and that’s very nearly enough. She’s charming and grounded in the lead role, flashing an effortless star presence that doesn’t compromise her attention to the truth of her characterization.

J. Edgar (Clint Eastwood, 2011). A lumpy, desperately old-fashioned biopic from Clint Eastwood, who doesn’t even prosper with the pulpier elements of the story. That’s usually the part in his wheelhouse, showing off the enduring influence of his old collaborator Don Siegel. Oscar-winning Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black wrote the film according to standard issue progressions and leaden conflicts. Given Black’s involvement, many probably expected FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s alleged homosexuality would be a more pressing concern, but it’s simply not that sort of film, less due to skittishness than a general disinterest to dig for anything but the most facile facts. Leonardo DiCaprio is fine in the title role, but neither is he doing anything all that special. Other actors are either stranded with practically nothing to do (Naomi Watts) or obviously out of their depth (Armie Hammer).

Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh, 2013). Steven Soderbergh’s string of utterly implausible entertainments continues (and I guess concludes, given the director’s insistence that this will be his last feature-length project) with a beautifully oddball dramatization of the relationship between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and Scott Thorson (Matt Damon), the hunky animal trainer who was the entertainer’s conquest, possession and ultimately adversary when the cast-aside lover sued for palimony. Soderbergh and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese extract deadpan humor out of Liberace’s sunny decadence and the sense of bratty entitlement that came with his celebrity. Douglas is a wonder as Liberace, looking more at ease that he ever has on screen, even if he doesn’t exactly disappear into the role. I never lost sight of the fact that this was Douglas playing Liberace, but I sometimes forgot that none of the mannerisms he flashes actually belong to the actor naturally. There’s also a fantastically funny supporting performance by Rob Lowe as a doped-up plastic surgeon who’s clearly given himself over to the scientific advances of his trade, his face reformed into a rictus of glamor.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close (Stephen Daldry, 2011). Stephen Daldry received Best Director Oscar nomination for each of his first three films, a streak that stopped with this adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2005 novel, although the expanded Best Picture category made for it, meaning he can still boast of starting his career with nothing but highly honored films. I liked Foer’s novel quite a bit, but Daldry’s film transfers the details while completely missing the spirit of it, becoming a sanctimonious slog. To be fair, nine-year-old Oskar Schell is a probably a character better suited for the page, where his quirks and sideways thinking are more likely to come across as endearing. Realizing the same qualities onscreen is more likely to be aggravating, especially when portrayed by a neophyte actor (Jeopardy! winner Thomas Horn) three significant years too old for the role. Foer grappled with unthinkable tragedy by heightening the confusion in the search for answers. Daldry takes the same story and lathers it with sanctimony.

Lured (Douglas Sirk, 1947). This bizarrely chipper film noir casts Lucille Ball as Sandra, an American working as a taxi dancer in London who’s recruited by Scotland Yard to be an undercover operative in their efforts to catch a serial killer using the classified to find his victims. While Ball was defined by her pratfall daffiness in her hugely success television career, before that she had a way with a sharp wisecrack in her film efforts. That’s certainly the case here, as she brings noteworthy sharpness to her performance. Douglas Sirk provides lively directing, but the plot is ultimately not all that engaging or interesting, even with the involvement of George Sanders, droll as ever as a famous producer smitten with Ball’s ball of fire. The best bits are the digressions, including one very, very strange sequence with Boris Karloff as a deeply unbalanced man who briefly lures Sandra character to his flat overstuffed with creepy belongings.