POSTED ON MARCH 16, 2011:
Battle: Los Angles loses the war and Red Riding Hood re-hashes Twilight
Alien invasion movies are sort of like catnip to me, despite so few of them being particularly good. I guess I just like the idea of slimy, interstellar mutants indiscriminately vaporizing of millions of people. Invasion of the Body Snatchers was never my speed. Those aliens just made humans more prone to groupthink instead of wisely thinning the herd.
Spielberg got it right a few years ago with his War of the Worlds adaptation, a truly dark and unnerving film that ultimately hamstrings itself with an overly happy ending (it's The 'Berg, after all) Ironically, Battle: Los Angeles borrows liberally from Saving Private Ryan -- and Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down -- to craft an alien invasion movie that's a visual pastiche of those film makers signatures while having little of the tension generated by their actual films.
Aaron Eckhart portrays Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz, a decorated combat vet on the verge of retiring from the service when strange little meteors begin dropping out of the sky into the oceans around eight of the world's major cities. Turns out the meteors aren't really meteors at all. Instead, they are the drop ships for a massive alien attack force that quickly gets to work killing the shit out of everyone while the military tries to get a handle on what they are up against. Nantz's retirement lasts all of 10 minutes.
Nantz comes under the command of a younger officer, Lt. William Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez), a well-trained but untested officer, in a platoon consisting of archetypal tough guys including Corporal Jason Lockett (Cory Hardrict), a soldier whose brother was killed under Nantz's command in an incident that earned him a Silver Star. Lockett still holds a grudge. The unlikely trio gets a mission to go into the war zone with their comrades to rescue civilians holed up in the L.A. Sherriff's Office.
Battle: Los Angeles director Jonathan Liebesman (Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning) adopts a handheld, documentary-style of shoothing that feels generic during the character moments while it apes Private Ryan during the battle sequences, which never feel particularly visually grounded or well edited.
They have to get in and out quickly because the military already has a plan to level the entire city, so the platoon works their way though miles of devastated, corpse-littered, streets that are teaming with bio-suited extraterrestrials sporting weaponry that is more advanced (though, oddly, not as much as you'd think) and deadly than anything our heroes are packing. Along the way, they meet Technical Sergeant, Elena Santos (Michelle Rodriguez), a wayward communications officer who just might know the secret to disrupting the merciless enemy advance.
I wanted to like Battle: Los Angeles. The marketing campaign was gangbusters but there was the sneaking suspicion that there was no way the flick could deliver on the promise of its great trailer. It doesn't. Director Jonathan Liebesman (Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning) adopts a handheld, documentary-style of shooting that feels generic during the character moments while it apes Private Ryan during the battle sequences, which never feel particularly visually grounded or well edited. He directs it like a small film, rarely getting the sense of helpless grandeur one would feel when faced with something as surreal as a massive extraterrestrial attack, while the script by Christopher Bertolini (The General's Daughter), who somewhat based it on a real-life false alarm air raid over L.A. after Pearl Harbor (as chronicled in another slice of 'Berg, 1941), drains tension through a combination of predictability, thin characterizations (Eckhart excluded) and a fairly nonsensical basis for the actual invasion.
Here be the Spoilers, I suppose. You've been warned.
The alien forces are on earth to steal our water as they need it to stay alive and run their technology (hey, they discovered hydropower! How advanced is that?). For one thing, if they have the technology to traverse the massive gulfs of deep space, then why do they need liquid water? There's plenty of water locked in the ice of millions of planets that are uninhabited. They can't melt ice? Wouldn't that be preferable to fucking with a planet teeming with billions of inhabitants who have lots of guns? Not to mention that their weaponry, while more advanced, is really only slightly more deadly, while our weapons seem to work on them just fine. With all the arms in this world, and the people to use them, combined with the fact that water is in a lot of places in the universe, the cost-benefit analysis of coming to Earth seems less than strategically sound. If there was a specific reason why they needed our water the script glosses over it.
Whatever, as long as it looks cool, right? Well ... the ship designs leave a lot to be desired, looking like a bunch of poorly designed junkers and equipment made from spare parts. The actual compositing of the elements was ok but, again, the shaky photography hides more than it shows which is fine for Cloverfield's big beast but only mucks up more the more complex visual requirements here and cheats the spectacle of Battle: Los Angeles.
Performances are what you'd expect. Nothing special, though Eckhart is clearly a standout, really breathing life and believability into Nantz even when he's pulling "some real John Wayne shit." Michael Peña turns in a typically good performance as Joe, one of the trapped civilians. Rodriguez is a tough chick who squints most of the time so nothing new there. She's able. Ne-Yo is another of the soldiers and he kind of stood out if only because I thought he was actually Tunde Adebimpe, the lead singer of TV on the Radio, until I got home and checked. I think it was the glasses that threw me.
Battle: Los Angeles was a nice try that falls far short, with its rote execution and the non-ending of Starship Troopers with none of the fun before it. The 'Berg (or even Verhoeven) can't get back in the alien invasion business soon enough.
Red Riding Hood
Just about the last item on my List of Things I Needed Today was another goddamn Twilight movie. I've got two more of those things on the way, as it is. Maybe director Catherine Hardwicke was stung by getting booted off that cash cow franchise and felt the need to carve her niche out of that same insipid audience. With Red Riding Hood, it certainly feels like it, though at least Amanda Seyfried's Valerie isn't nearly as detestable, indecisive and worthless a character as Bella Swan.
The medieval village of Daggerhorn, on the edge of a dark forest, is the home of Valerie, the gorgeous daughter of a woodcutter father, Cesaire (Billy Burke, adding one of many Twilight layers to the affair) and her mother, Suzette (Virginia Madsen). Valerie's sister is killed by a werewolf, an unusual occurrence since the town makes sacrificial offerings of livestock to placate the beast, and she's equally distraught at the idea of her arranged marriage to Henry (Max Irons) due to his station as a metal smith. Her real love, Peter (Shiloh Fernandez) a lowly woodcutter, like her father, is forced to feign indifference after Valerie's mother asks him to step aside for the betterment of Valerie's future. It's all the drama a 14-year old girl could want. Extended shots of longing, desperate eyes filled with unmet desires.
Catherine Hardwicke is trying really hard to re-board the Twilight train here--her v isuals, the way she shoots the terrain, the forest, captures the wet chill that recalls her work on Twilight, though with a medieval production design twist. Of course, there's nothing gritty or real about it.
The townsfolk go on a wolf hunt that gets Peter's father killed, though they believe they have the head of the beast. They are disabused of that notion with the arrival of a witch hunter, Father Solomon (the impeccable Gary Oldman), who tells them it's a mere wolf they've killed and the werewolf that's stalked them all these years still lives amongst them. So the villagers eye each other suspiciously as Father Solomon uses good, old-fashioned Roman Inquisitor tactics to root out the identity of the lupine murderer, while Valerie discovers the wolf has a strange connection to her that brings her in the crosshairs of the holy man.
I would need to have a vagina for Red Riding Hood to be aimed at me. Hardwicke is trying really hard to re-board the Twilight train here -- her visuals, the way she shoots the terrain, the forest, captures the wet chill that recalls her work on Twilight, though with a medieval production design twist. That design work is fairly solid, if small in scale, at least in the architecture and artwork. Of course, there's nothing gritty or real about it. Everyone's clothes look like they came straight off the costume designers rack and apparently hair gel was a thing back in the witch-burning days. The villagers are all immaculately attractive. It's a storybook tale and it looks like one. I suppose that's a plus.
But the Twilight grab extends beyond Hardwicke's visual sense and the casting of Billy Burke. Screenwriter David Johnson (Orphan) replaces Stephanie Meyer's themes of necrophilia and bestiality (she just thought she was promoting abstinence, but she's terrible and dumb) with incest ... and bestiality. Valerie is the object of two boy's affections and she begins to waver between them even though she knows who she really wants just like a certain awful, boring, whimsical female icon. One of the boys even leaves Valerie to protect her from himself, just like a certain caterpillar-browed, sparkly vampire. The werewolf looks like it was rendered by the same sub-par FX team.
But I didn't hate Red Riding Hood as much as Twilight. Gary Oldman's performance was like an oasis of gravitas amongst the twee romanticism, while Julie Christie's presence, as Valerie's grandmother, cements some of the solid casting (though she's put to the task to bring off a silly dream sequence that tags the original folk tale's most famous scene). Seyfried is fine as well, though I'm more interested in seeing her in something less syrupy. She's a talent that deserves a break out role. Lukas Haas, as the town priest, seems to be in the film for no other reason but to push a guy off a scaffold and get stabbed. The mystery's ultimate reveal was a surprise, at least, though its unpredictability is due in large part to the film not showing its hand.
Perhaps, if you are of the intended audience, Red Riding Hood will make a nice palate cleanser while you wait for the double shot of New Moon. For me, it's a grim reminder of what I have to look forward too.
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