The Films of Peter Berg
Very Bad Things (September 21/07)
Written and directed by Peter Berg, Very Bad Things follows a group of friends - including Christian Slater's Robert, Jeremy Piven's Michael, and Jon Favreau's Kyle - as they find themselves in a whole mess of trouble after a bachelor party goes horribly wrong. Berg has infused the proceedings with an exceedingly dark sensibility that's admittedly a lot of fun for a while, and there's certainly no denying the effectiveness of some of these plot twists (particularly as the filmmaker places the protagonists in increasingly horrific situations). But there does come a point at which the various characters, riddled with guilt and paranoia, begin to ceaselessly argue with one another, ensuring that the film adopts a fairly unpleasant sort of vibe. That being said, Very Bad Things is ultimately redeemed by a finale that's just jaw-dropping in its cruelty towards the remaining survivors - thus clinching the movie's status as one of the more effective black comedies to come around in quite some time.
Friday Night Lights
The Kingdom (November 12/07)
The Kingdom follows a ragtag group of FBI agents - including Jamie Foxx's Ronald Fleury, Chris Cooper's Grant Sykes, and Jason Bateman's Adam Leavitt - as they surreptitiously arrive in Saudi Arabia to solve a terrorist act against American soldiers, with the bulk of the movie essentially playing out like an overlong and overwrought episode of CSI. There's exceedingly little within The Kingdom that's been designed to capture (and hold) the viewer's interest, as director Peter Berg and screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan consistently place the emphasis on the agents' increasingly banal investigation. And because the film's various characters are left undeveloped beyond their most superficial attributes - ie Foxx's Fleury is the gruff leader, Bateman's Leavitt is the wacky sidekick, etc - it's virtually impossible to care about their efforts at solving the crime (it's even more difficult to muster up any concern for their well-being once things start to get dangerous). Such problems are exacerbated by Berg's uniformly questionable directorial choices, with his relentless and thoroughly distracting use of shaky camerawork easily the film's most egregious failing (the needlessly overlapping dialogue comes in at a close second, however). The relatively thrilling third-act action sequence isn't quite strong enough to excuse the ineffectiveness of everything that's come before it, and there's little doubt that The Kingdom ultimately comes off as nothing less than a total misfire.
While it's hard to deny the ineffectiveness of both Peter Berg's directorial choices and the film's final half hour, Hancock primarily comes off as an engaging and thoroughly innovative spin on the superhero genre - with Will Smith's admittedly impressive performance certainly ranking high on the movie's list of positive attributes. The storyline - which follows alcoholic superhero John Hancock (Smith) as he reluctantly allows a struggling public-relations expert (Jason Bateman's Ray) to mold him into a traditionally heroic figure - has essentially been crafted to act as an origin story for the central character, yet screenwriters Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan brilliantly ensure that Hancock rarely apes the conventions and tropes that one has come to expect with such a tale (ie one doesn't entirely realize that they're watching an origin story until everything's been said and done). It's subsequently not surprising to note that the inherently fascinating premise effectively compensates for the relentlessly unappealing visuals, with Berg's reliance on shaky camerawork and rapid-fire editing testing one's patience virtually from the minute go and ultimately lending certain sequences an all-but-unintelligible sort of vibe. The uniformly strong performances and inclusion of several darkly comedic interludes only cements Hancock's initial place as a far better-than-expected big-budget endeavor, although there's little doubt that the film's momentum takes an almost catastrophic hit following an out-of-left-field twist that occurs at the 54-minute mark. The unpredictable nature of Hancock's third act is rendered moot by its comparatively uninvolving modus operandi, as Ngo and Gilligan essentially transform the proceedings into an entirely different animal - one that is, unfortunately, not even remotely as compelling as its precursor. The end result is an uneven piece of work that's at its best in its opening hour, which is as thrilling and engrossing as anything the superhero genre has cranked out in recent years.
Epically bad in virtually every way imaginable, Battleship follows several one-dimensional characters as they attempt to defeat a squadron of heavily-armed aliens - with the film, impressively (and laughably), incorporating elements from the eponymous children's game. There's little doubt that Battleship establishes its pervasive incompetence right from the get-go, as the movie kicks off with a surprisingly tedious opening stretch detailing the exploits of reluctant hero Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) - with the character's rote, by-the-numbers arc exacerbated by Kitsch's bland and hopelessly uncharismatic performance. (It doesn't help, either, that Kitsch has been surrounded by non-actors, with Brooklyn Decker and Rihanna's less-than-stellar work perpetuating the movie's decidedly lackluster atmosphere.) It's not until the film segues into its action-heavy midsection that Battleship truly becomes an unwatchable piece of work, as director Peter Berg has infused such moments with an unreasonably over-the-top sensibility that immediately proves both disastrous and exhausting (ie it's all just so meaningless). The overuse of generic computer-generated special effects - ie this stuff feels like leftovers from the Transformers series - ensures that the myriad of battle sequences are akin to video game cut scenes, with the resulting absence of context or excitement playing an integral role in the movie's astonishing (and palpable) downfall. By the time the interminable, seemingly endless climax rolls around, Battleship has definitively established itself as nothing less than an intolerable and flat-out reprehensible waste of time - which is surprising, certainly, given the presence of Berg behind the camera (ie the filmmaker is, after all, responsible for such entertaining fare as Hancock and Very Bad Things).
Though clearly an improvement over the despicable Battleship, Lone Survivor is nevertheless a disappointing, underwhelming actioner from Peter Berg - with the movie's riveting true-life story generally employed to bland and far-from-thrilling effect. The movie, which follows four marines (Mark Wahlberg's Marcus, Taylor Kitsch's Michael, Emile Hirsch's Danny, and Ben Foster's Matt) as they get trapped behind enemy lines during a risky mission, certainly opens with a fair amount of promise, as Berg does a nice job of initially drawing the viewer into the familiar proceedings - although, by that same token, it's clear that the film would've benefited from a more in-depth look at the individual protagonists (ie the four men are, to an increasingly distressing degree, basically interchangeable). The promising atmosphere is perpetuated by an engrossing early sequence in which the central foursome debate the fates of three seemingly innocent bystanders, and yet it's equally clear that the movie begins to peter out almost immediately following that electrifying interlude - as writer/director Berg's less-than-cinematic visual choices result in a lack of thrills that grows more and more problematic as time progresses. (And it doesn't help, either, that it becomes increasingly difficult to discern which characters are where in terms of the movie's poorly-established geography.) The inclusion of a handful of compelling moments within the film's second half - ie one of the soldiers moves higher and higher on the mountain to hopefully get a radio signal - are rendered moot by the otherwise uninvolving, bland atmosphere, while the needlessly padded-out final stretch, which just seems to go on forever, is sure to test the resolve of even the most patient viewer (and this is to say nothing of the seemingly endless closing credits). The end result is a well-intentioned yet hopelessly ineffective thriller that would've been better off with a more talented filmmaker at the helm, as it's becoming all-too-obvious that Berg simply doesn't have the chops to handle big-budget action fare.