Battle: Los Angeles (One and a Half Stars)
U. S.: Jonathan Liebesman, 2011
This is the way the world ends: Not with a bang but a turkey.
Every profession has its hazards. Seeing Battle: Los Angeles — definitely not my idea of a good time — was a bit like being stuck at a mediocre video game for a couple of hours, while Marine recruiting ads come screaming out of nearby loudspeakers, idiotic conversations drone monotonously, and you’re forced to simultaneously watch, on big TV screens covered with grit, War of the Worlds and Black Hawk Down being mashed to a pulp.
Bad beyond belief, ear-splittingly loud and mind-numbingly dumb, jam-packed with gung ho war movie clichés that suggest John Wayne on a toot, and jittery camerawork that suggests The Hurt Locker on crystal meth, stuffed with pseudo sci-fi drivel, and even somewhat dubiously titled (this movie is set mostly not in Los Angeles but in Santa Monica, a different city), Battle: Santa Monica — excuse me, Battle: Los Angeles — never really justifies its sometimes impressive carnage-and-destruction visual effects (by Everett Burrell). It just stays a big, dumb, loud, clichéd, empty-headed, obnoxious movie all the way to the end.
The show starts out in Camp Pendleton, a Marine training ground, where we learn that the brooding Sgt. Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) had some tragic foul-up in Iraq, and intends to retire. Fat chance, Nantz. Soon reports start blasting in about monsters from outer space — the same space hooligans responsible, we’re eventually told, for almost every UFO sighting since the earlier WW2 “Battle of Los Angeles” immortalized by Steven Spielberg, John Milius and Robert Zemeckis in their grand folly 1941 — a movie that I really wished I was watching instead of this one.
According to director Jonathan Liebesman and writer Chris Bertolini, who have ripped off H. G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” and its various radio and movie versions in the most inane ways imaginable, Earth is being attacked by horrible, icky, goo-covered reptilian monsters who first invade the oceans of the world, wreak havoc everywhere, and then encase themselves in sub-Transformer robot outfits, and start marching around and firing on the cities of the world, driving the populace into flight and the TV newscasters into frenzies.
The reason? These damned aliens want to steal all our water, which is their primary energy source. (Why didn’t they just hire somebody like Chinatown’s Noah Cross and have him float a bond issue? Or hook up with Ned Beatty in Rango?) Anyway, they had enough H2O to fly here all the way from wherever they came from, Alpha Centauri or whatever, and to keep reconnoitering Earth for the past half century or so, waiting to strike. How are they going to get it back? In canteens? Are they going to depopulate earth and turn it into a reservoir? What they really need is a water conservation manager.
But, I just as you must have figured, Nantz now has a chance to redeem himself, and he’s pulled back into action, with the famous Second Battalion, Fifth Marines (the “Retreat Hell!“ battalion) and teamed up with young, competitive Second Lieutenant Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez). Their rainbow platoon is sent off to Lincoln Boulevard to rescue some kids trapped in a school, then somehow make it back to, I guess, the Santa Monica Pier area, and incidentally to show these bastards from outer space what “Semper Fi” really means.
By the time we and they get to the kids, along with a tearful dad played by Michael Pena and a knockout animal doctor played by Bridget Moynihan, we’ve seen what an awful mess these outer space invaders have made. Rubble is piled up all along what was once the 10th street area, the buildings are empty and askew, and the freeway ramps have been sliced and sheared off as if they were fireplace logs being chopped. Haze and dirt are everywhere. Meanwhile extraterrestrial monsters, those disgusting buggy-looking marauders in their sub-Tranformers robot outfits, roam around what might have been the Third Street Promenade, somewhere near the Interactive Café maybe, blasting humans and looking for God knows what. (The water’s out by the pier, fellas.)
Cleverly, the filmmakers cut us all off from the outside world, by messing up the platoon’s radios and cellphones. (They’re too easily tracked.) So, though we learn briefly about invasions going on everywhere, from Paris to Ireland, we only see that one lone platoon, led by mysteriously disgraced but possibly soon-to-be-heroic and redeemed Sgt. Nantz, whom his men will eventually repeatedly compare to John Wayne. I could tell you what happens next, but I’ll bet you‘re already way past me, all the way to this movie’s last scene, and deep into its sequels, if any. (How about “Battle: Pasadena?”)
“Battle” director Liebesman and cinematographer Lukas Ettlin are both veterans of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning (2006) and their new movie often made me feel as if someone with a chainsaw was after me. It never lets you relax for a second, which is why you inevitably get tired of it. And although this show certainly and convincingly beats the crap out of Santa Monica, or somebody‘s idea of Santa Monica, unfortunately — one of many bad strategies here — we never see the pre-invasion city, so we never have a sense of normality being disrupted.
For all some isolationists in the Southeast might know, the town sarcastically called “The People’s Republic of Santa Monica” (for its left wing politics) was always a bombed-out mess that looked like a war zone. (That’s what happens, maybe, when you let property taxes soar.) Except for a little exposition and the setup, this movie is all chaos, all the time.
But why spend so much time decimating Santa Monica if you don’t have a good (or sometimes even coherent) story to tell? Battle: Los Angeles wastes a good cast (headed by Eckhart and also including Michelle Rodriguez as the token hard-ass babe, Air Force Tech Sgt. Elena Santos) just as it’s ludicrous story seemingly wastes much of the earth’s frantic populace, and just as the whole sorry enterprise colossally wastes our time.
I can’t say some audiences won’t enjoy this — some people will enjoy anything, including staring into the toilet, maybe waiting for little green men to pop up and start water-skiing — but I feel duty bound to report that Battle: Los Angeles, despite its overwhelming effects, despite Eckhart, despite the Rodriguezes, depite every tear duct Pena can open up, lacks sense, point, logic, psychology, raison d’etre, good dialogue and the Third Street Promenade, where at least we could have gotten a pizza slice. It’s a video game movie, done almost in the style of a video game, which this movie may eventually become, if the sequels don’t work out.
Anyway, don’t worry about Santa Monica, a least until the tsunami hits. Don’t worry about Sergeant Nantz. He and his platoon are drawing a bead on every slimy robot alien trying to sneak or blast their way in from anywhere, from Tiajuana to Alpha Centauri. Don’t worry about John Wayne. His reputation will survive everything. (Eat your heart out, Coen Brothers.)
And don’t worry about the movies. If somebody will invest millions and kajillions of dollars into making a movie like this, then they’ll finance anything — including maybe a picture about those little green men on water-skis.
Red Riding Hood (One and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Catherine Hardwicke, 2011
They’ll even finance something like this, a fairytale picture about a blonde girl in the snow in a red hood: A big plush studio movie about Little Red Riding Hood, shaped (supposedly) as a sophisticated, erotic fairytale/romance/horror story, targeted for girls and young women, directed by Catherine Hardwicke, who made the first Twilight movie.
The star is the supernaturally beautiful if recently undemanding (part-wise) Amanda Seyfreid as Valerie a.k.a. Red Riding Hood, a girl we can well believe is the daughter of Virginia Madsen, and the granddaughter of Julie Christie. Val/Red is torn here Twilight-style, between two hunky guys named Peter and Henry (Shiloh Fernandez and Max Irons).
Meanwhile Red’s father (Twilight’s dad Billy Burke, looking a bit like Stephen King) drinks like mad, and a giant clunky-looking wolf prowls around and kills villagers, and Wolfbuster and Witchfinder General Gary Oldman (called Solomon but playing it more like Sheba) spreads a Crucible-like reign of terror. Snow falls throughout the film, but not fast enough to bury anything.
I like Hardwicke’s Thirteen. But, after ten minutes I didn’t think there was a chance in hell this would be a good movie. The only thing I thought could possibly save Red Riding Hood, would have been if Paul Giamatti had shown up as a rival wolfbuster, and he turned out to be the wolf, and Julie Christie killed him, and he died in her arms, saying sadly “Grandma, what big teeth you have!” NO SPOILER ALERT NECESSARY. Or if maybe the villagers had gotten together, and somebody had shown Tex Avery‘s cartoon Red Hot Riding Hood in the town square. But Paul Giamatti can’t play everything, and neither unfortunately, can Julie Christie, or the late, great Tex Avery.
Or Neil Jordan. The crazy thing about all this is that back in 1985, Jordan made a movie, an adult version of “Little Red Riding Hood,” which was shaped as a sophisticated, erotic fairytale/romance/horror story. It was called The Company of Wolves and it was wonderful. It was written, wonderfully, by Jordan from a story by the late, great Angela Carter. It had more ideas, more tension, more stunning imagery every five minutes or so than all of Red Riding Hood. But, though The Company of Wolves won a number of international festival prizes, it got mixed reviews (a rave from me) and I guess it’s been at least partly forgotten. It’s on Henstooth Video, and you should try to find it.
Red Riding Hood you can skip. And give that wolf a hook.
Mars Needs Moms (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Simon Wells, 2011
I’ve got limited time on this one — maybe I’ll return to it later — but I want to mention if for a few things. Mars Needs Moms which takes its title from the infamous 1968 Mars Needs Women, starring Tommy Kirk, is a pretty good feature cartoon, pointing up again how generally better, and smarter, animated features are these days. It’s about an adventurous boy (voiced by Seth Green), who hitches a ride to Mars, when his mom (Joan Cusack, who’s very, very good) is kidnapped by the Martians. These Marsmen run a regimented society, bossed by the tyrannical Supervisor (Mindy Sterling, of “Austin Power“ land) and they need to steal a mom every once in a while, to maternally help their divided sexes grow up.
The movie was directed and co-written (with wife Wendy Wells) by Simon Wells, great grand-son of H. G. Wells, and the diretor of the 2002 film of his great grand-dad’s The Time Machine. Robert Zemeckis was one of the producers, and the movie was done in the motion capture process (refined here to something called “emotion capture”) that Zemeckis he used for The Polar Express and the Jim Carrey A Christmas Carol — which means the actors supplied some movements and expressions as well the voices for their characters.
It’s an okay movie. Cusack, as I say is gangbusters as the movie’s mom. But there’s another performance that really is incredible, fantastic: Dan Fogler as a chubby Erathling faddist, enthusiast and gimmick-guy on Mars called Gribble. Fogler has been in a handful of movies including some bad ones (where he was good) like the current Take Me Home Tonight, which I reviewed (badly) last week. He usually plays overweight sidekicks, awash in pop culture shtick, which is what he is here. “Awesome” and “totally” are two of Gribble’s favorite words.
But Gribble has more: a spontaneity, wild humor and a sweet, flakey quality that makes this role really shine, creates a star-making turn. At first, as I was watching him, I was convinced he was a much chubbier and younger cartoon version of my old L. A. Weekly pal, movie critic F. X. Feeney, maybe even voiced by F. X., and I almost called out to him. (Just kidding.) He also reminded me of an old chum of mine at the University of Wisconsin, the late Don “Sluggo” Carlson. At any rate, I was totally convinced Gribble was a real person. And that’s what acting totally is. Awesome.
It’s easy, or at any rate easier, to look great with a great, well-written part, with something like, say, The King’s Speech, The Social Network or True Grit. It’s harder to be superb in schlock or flawed movies like Fanboys, Take Me Home Tonight and even “Mars Needs Moms.“ Or when you‘re making some of it up yourself. (Some of “Mars” seems improvised.) But Fogler, whom I had ignorantly sort of dismissed as a mini-Jack Black, has the stuff, totally. Gribble is a great job. Even though Mars Needs Moms is a cartoon sci-fi fantasy, you laugh and feel for this crazy irrepressible tubbo babble-mouth shlump-a-clump.
I’m sure other people and critics are noticing this part, and that Fogler has been noticed lots of times before, for his Spelling Bee play, and others. But now I can say you heard it here. Not necessarily first. But you heard it.
Certified Copy (Four Stars)
France/Italy/Iran: Abbas Kiarostami, 2010\
Abbas Kiarostami’s first non-Iranian production is a jewel of that director‘s special brand of stylized cinema realism, and a meditation (like Orson Welles‘ F for Fake on artistry and fakery.
Shot in Italy (seedbed of neo-realism, homeland of Rossellini and De Sica), starring a French leading lady (Juliette Binoche) and an English leading man (William Shimell), this splendidly shot (by Luca Bigazzi) European/Iranian co-production is partly one of Kiarostami’s chamber road movies — one of those Kiarostami pictures in which much of the action and dialogue transpire in a traveling car’s front seat between characters on the driver and passenger sides — and partly a pastiche of Rossellini’s great but controversial 1953 romantic travelogue drama Voyage in Italy (or Strangers), with Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders as a couple on vacation whose marriage is crumbling.
The setting, as with the arty George Clooney thriller The American, is on the roads and in the mountain villages of provincial Italy. Shimell (an opera star) plays James Miller, an opinionated and somewhat self-absorbed best-selling author, who has just written a best-seller on the validity of artistic or painterly copying. Binoche is an unnamed single mother who takes Miller on a day date and drive in the country, and who likes to argue and provoke and meet new people. Somewhere along the way the two begin impersonating a married couple (with problems, like Bergman and Sanders), and they slide into their roles with strange, unexplained fullness.
The movie is enigmatic, and full of talk and ideas, but it also feels as natural as breathing. Japan’s Akira Kurosawa, expressing his sorrow at the death of India’s Satyajit Ray, named Iran’s Kiarostami as Ray’s obvious successor, and Certified Copy does recall some late Ray (The Home and the World), in its beauty, precision and psychology. Kiarostami though, is one of a kind. He‘s really like no one else, even when he makes a certified copy of someone like Rossellini. (In Italian, French and English with English subtitles.)
Uncle Boonmee, Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Three and a Half Stars)
Thailand; Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2010
“Call me Joe,” Apichatpong Weerasethakul told me when I met him at a dinner at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, and I couldn’t have guessed then that, within a few years, this trail-blazing, friendly young Thai filmmaker would have won the Cannes Palme d’Or — as he did this year with Uncle Boonmee… I’m happy for Thailand, and I’m happy for Joe, who’s now made the kind of international breakthrough Akira Kurosawa once made for Japanese cinema, Satyajit Ray once made for India, Zhang Yimou for China, and Tran Anh Hung for Vietnam. He’s put his country on the cinematic map.
“Uncle Boonmee” is a beautiful little film about what it means to die, or to watch a family member die. The central character, Boonmee (Yukantorn Mingmongkan) is a farmer in the Thai countryside, slowly failing from kidney disease. His family gathers around him. So do his ghosts, including the spirit of his dead wife and his son, who has become a “monkey ghost.” No one is too shocked or unsettled by the appearance of these spooks; they’re just another part of the family. And death, the film says quietly and touchingly, is just another part of life.
Much of “Uncle Boonmee…” is shot at night, in the gentle enveloping dark, or in the day, in the hazy green brightness of daylight, or in a cave where the family wanders, or the church where Boonmee gets his last farewell. Before he dies, he tries to make peace with everyone, even worrying about “all the Communists” he killed for the government. Then he’s gone. So will we all pass on, and all those we love or hate or simply know.
I don’t know that I would have given Uncle Boonmee, Who Can recell His Past Lives the Palme d‘Or. Joe’s visual style is a little rough and hazy for me, though maybe that’s Thailand. But Joe is a devotee of the American underground (Warhol, Baillie) and he’s not trying for the visual sophistication of either American mainstream movies or of a Kurosawa, a Ray, a Zhang, or even of a Tran Anh Hung. He’s trying for something simpler, purer. He’s telling his story, a Thai family’s story, a tale of life and death and how they interpenetrate each other. And, as we watch, a world opens up. This is life, this is cinema. (In Thai and French, with English subtitles.)