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Column Fri Mar 11 2011

Battle: Los Angeles, Red Riding Hood, happythankyoumoreplease, Mars Needs Moms & Of Gods and Men

Battle: Los Angeles

In a way, I guess I understand some of the initial negative response to this big, loud summer movie released in mid-March, but I don't necessarily agree with most of it. As an alien-invasion exercise, it works pretty successfully at creating a real-world scenario where aliens suddenly land on the shores of our world and begin a brutal campaign to extinguish human life (or at least enough human life to get done what they came to do). The story is told from the vantage point of a Marine staff sergeant (Aaron Eckhart), who has seen his fair share of action, most recently in Afghanistan, and he's ready to call it quits after 20 years in the service.

Taking advantage of the proliferation of documentaries in the last few years having to do with military men and women in the Middle East, director Jonathan Liebesman takes a gritty, hand-held approach to Battle: Los Angeles, although this is not meant to be a faux doc. But our heightened familiarity with how troops act in combat thanks to those films gave a level of authenticity to the way the Marines behave, deduce, and strategize in this film (minus the swearing; this is a PG-13 affair).

Perfect as both a war-torn vet and an action hero, Eckhart is pulled back into duty just as he's handing in his resignation. At first the world thinks these mysterious objects dropping from the sky are meteors, so the military is brought in for crowd control. When when the true nature of the threat is revealed, they find themselves on U.S. soil, fighting a full-on war against an enemy that is better equipped and looks like aliens.

As is usually pretty common in these kinds of movies, the aliens have a weakness--actually they have a couple--but I actually liked the way the Marines find the bodily weakness of both the aliens they fight in more direct skirmishes and the flying crafts that swoop in and decimate a battle zone. The aliens have some cool weapons that look clunky, manufactured, and highly dangerous. This is not the slick, precision equipment we've seen before, and I dug that aspect of Battle: Los Angeles.

Make no mistake; more than this is a science-fiction story, Battle: Los Angeles is first and foremost a war film. It's ear-bleeding loud (I guess that may depend on how cool the theater you see this in is willing to be), messy, packed with fire bombs, and eager to bleed for your entertainment. It's like the film was shot on explosive film. That aspect of the film, I loved. Where the film falters is when civilians are brought into the mix, because then the focus of the film goes from Fight Kill Die, to women and children and feelings and bullshit. I love Michael Peña as an actor, but he adds very little to the proceedings as a father trying to make sure his young son survives this experience.

The Marine platoon is sent into the city to save group of civilians--including Peña, Bridget Moynahan and kids--from a bombed-out police headquarters. As bizarre as it may sound to some, the introduction of lesser fighters, crying kids, and sentimentality into this film weakens it at every turn. Thankfully, Michelle Rodriguez's late entry into the film as a communications expert for the Air Force adds an extra layer of toughness to the story.

Still, I think if the filmmakers and/or studio had any guts, they could have made Battle: Los Angeles a solid film about combat soldiers versus aliens. The inclusion of weaklings brings nothing (certainly not heart) to the table and distracts us from what we care the most about: killing some aliens, dammit. This one is a closer call than I think a lot of people are giving it credit for, but in the end, it's another watered-down specimen.

Red Riding Hood

I don't look at press notes too often, but I happened to see on the notes for this adaptation of the classic story Red Riding Hood, that those who made it call it a "Fantasy Thriller," which is funny because there's nothing fantastical or thrilling about this ill-conceived work from director Catherine Hardwicke, the director of Twilight. But the real reason to hate this movie is that it has a mystery at its core (Who in the village of Daggerhorn is the werewolf?) that is impossible for the audience to solve with any actual clues, of which there are none given.

Before I dive into this pile of dung, let me ask a question that was bugging me for my entire viewing of Red Riding Hood. If a person can be safe from a wolf by standing on "sacred ground," like church for example, why don't the villagers make the entire village sacred ground? Or, why don't they build nothing but churches to live in? There actually are answers to these and many other obvious questions that will pop into a viewer's brain, but the filmmakers (including writer David Leslie Johnson) apparently don't care enough about their own story to think of these conundrums.

Young Valerie (Amanda Seyfried) is ready to run away with her secret sweetheart, the woodcutter Peter (Shiloh Fernandez). But Valerie's parents have arranged for her to marry the more financially secure Henry (Max Irons), who's a bit of a coward. But just as Valerie and Peter contemplate running away together, her sister is killed by a wolf that has plagued the village for decades. The townsfolk have had an understanding with the wolf that if they sacrifice their finest livestock during the full moon, it won't kill people. But something has set the wolf off, and humans begin dying. The town weirdo (and there are several to choose from), Lukas Haas, summons famed werewolf hunter Father Soloman (Gary Oldman, pouring a little hot sauce on the scenery before chewing it) to help them solve their canine issues.

Soloman begins his own brand of witch hunting, where everyone is a suspect and some fall victim to his ultimate torture device, a big metal elephant with a door that opens up into its empty belly. He tosses his suspects into the elephant's belly, locks them in, and lights a fire under their ass. Why he doesn't just pull out fingernails or force them to dance the ridiculous pagan dance the villagers do at one point in the film is beyond me. Dragging that elephant around all over creation has got to be a real hassle.

What the film turns into is a laughable love triangle on top of a mystery that no one cares about, with a side dish of what some may mistake as bad acting, but is actually actors coping with one of the worst scripts this side of Beastly. The presence of such notables as Billy Burke (who plays Bella's father in the Twilight films) and Virginia Madsen as Valerie's parents, or the still-lovely Julie Christie as her hot grandmother only serves to underscore the wasted talent on display. Each character takes turns played the leading werewolf suspect, but in the end the identity of the actual wolf makes no difference. It could have been any one of a dozen people, and I wouldn't have liked Red Riding Hood an iota more.

Even the production value looks half-baked. I never once believed these people were outdoors. The lighting and snow look manmade, and the mountainous backgrounds look completely artificial. What I find most troubling about Red Riding Hood is that one of the executive producers is Leonardo DiCaprio--a person, who as an actor, aligns himself time and again with quality projects. So what the hell is he doing with his name on this fluffy disaster?

In the end, I never cared who lived or died, who the wolf was, who ended up with Valerie, or why Gary Oldman's entire posse is made up of muscular black men. All I cared about was getting Julie Christie's phone number and finding out if she likes younger men. Please allow me to be embarrassed on behalf of everyone involved in making Red Riding Hood.


Winner of the 2010 Audience Award at Sundance, writer-director-star Josh Radnor's happythankyoumoreplease is a story of a misguided attempt a man in his early 30s makes to do good by bringing a runaway young boy into his home. He doesn't adopt him or become a foster dad; no, he just finds the kid and decides to bring him home. And the film spends the rest of its running time trying to convince us that there's nothing creepy about that, oh no. Best known for his role on "How I Met Your Mother" Radnor is a pleasant enough presence on screen, but he has this weird way of making every word that comes out of his mouth sound like either a joke or an attempt at sounding profound. After a while, both started to annoy me.

Radnor plays a writer Sam Wexler (or should I call him a wanna-be writer), who actually had ulterior motives for bringing Rasheen (Michael Algieri) into his home. The boy's tragic tale is a wealth of potential material for a book. Around this same time, Sam meets a singer named Mississippi (Kate Mara, recently seen in 127 Hours), who has sworn off one-night stands. In a moment of drunken desperation that passes for romance in this movie, Sam proposes they live together for three days, but then he spends most of that time avoiding her because he's afraid of commitment. You're loving this guy more and more, right?

Believe it or not, Sam has friends, including Annie (Malin Akerman), who has a disorder that makes her hairless. That's right, the stunning Akerman is bald and without eyebrows. She also has a habit of getting into terrible relationships with asshole men, so when she finally does meet a man who is clearly a good guy, she does everything in her power to push him and his public declarations of love away. Then there's Sam's other friend Mary-Catherine (Zoe Kazan), whose long-term boyfriend Charlie (Pablo Schreiber) may be moving from New York to Los Angeles, right when she gets some news that makes her scared to death to be alone.

So basically what we have is a group of 20-somethings (and one or two around 30) that are just figuring out that they have to grow up and start acing like adults. That's original. What I found most frustrating about happythankyoumoreplease is that most of the conversations feel more like two people talking at each other rather than to each other. It's a subtle difference, I know, but the first is about trading quips versus having an actual back-and-forth dialogue. I'm not even saying Radnor hasn't perfectly captured the way 20-somethings actually do communicate; he actually has to a degree, and it's a frustrating trait in many conversations I have with younger people. But that doesn't mean I have to enjoy listening to it in a movie.

Some of the performers fare better than others. Mara and Kazan have some nice moments of vulnerability and genuine emotion. And Schreiber plays Charlie as an actual human being who doesn't feel the need to make speeches or jokes every other minute. He's the only male character I would have any interest getting to know in the real world. Probably the most annoying actor in the film is Ackerman, who simply isn't capable of handling even material as lightweight as this. Radnor gives her a couple of passages that are meant to inspire his character, and they simply come across as a flat recital.

There are worse films out in the world that resemble happythankyoumoreplease (the title refers to human being's inherent inability to be grateful when something nice happens to them), so if you feel driven to see this, you'll probably survive. But I found the entire production amateurish and emotionally vapid and empty. However, it did teach me to be more grateful, which I absolutely was when the film was done. The other lesson this movie taught me was that young people need to find out who they are before they start bordering 30. I know life expectancy is increasing these days, but that's no excuse. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

Cold Weather

It was actually kind of refreshing to watch a movie about youth culture that didn't involve characters sitting around talking about, well, stuff. It is essentially a more polished version of a mumblecore film. Director Aaron (Quiet City) Katz's Cold Weather is actually a plot-driven story about Doug (Cris Lankenau), who has just moved back to Portland, Oregon, to live with his sister Gail (Trieste Kelly Dunn). Almost without realizing it, we are sucked into a fairly tense mystery when Doug's friend Carlos (Raul Castillo) alerts us to the fact that Doug's ex-girlfriend Rachel (Robyn Rikoon) has gone missing, and because they have nothing else going on, the group of friends decide to investigate.

The mystery angle is a bit of a ruse--more of an excuse to get the brother and sister to spend more time together and have some pretty fun and enlightening conversations. But the sleuthing does result in some surprising discoveries about Rachel and who she's mixed up with. There's nothing slick or polished about Cold Weather; it's a gritty little number that is rough around the edges with dialogue that feels improvised a great deal of the time. But Katz is smart and talented enough to work with impressive actors and have enough of a plot to keep things moving forward. I'm not sure I'm as impressed as some are with the film, but it's a worthy distraction and something a bit out of ordinary from the indie film world. More than anything, it makes me interested to see what Katz and his cast of regulars have in store for us with their next outing, because I like the direction he's headed. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

Mars Needs Moms

Harmless enough as a story (adapted from the book by Bloom County creator Berkley Breathed), but far more interesting on a technical level, the latest 3D animated work Mars Needs Moms is a science fiction adventure built around the premise that Martian moms (and their "nanny bots") are no good at taking care of their own children (men are dispensed with for reasons and by means that I won't ruin). As a result, Martians come to earth to steal the essence of motherhood from a select few moms to inject into the robots raising Martian children.

What's cool about the film is how lost you'll get in the weirdly lifelike animation (courtesy of some great motion-capture technology), especially in the faces. It should come as no surprise that the film was produced by Robert Zemeckis, who seems to do nothing but mo-cap animation lately (Beowulf, The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol), and directed by animation veteran Simon Wells (The Prince of Egypt, Balto), who also adapted the book with Wendy Wells.

It just so happens that nine-year-old Milo (Seth Green, whose voice was altered to sound more childlike) wasn't getting along much with his mom (Joan Cusack), when she is taken by aliens. Milo manages to stow away on the Martian ship and is transported to the red planet in the hope of saving her with the help of fellow human Gribble (Dan Fogler) and a sympathetic Martian, Ki (Elisabeth Harnois). She's rebelling against the evil leader of the Martians, known as the Supervisor, who bears a weird resemblance to E.T. and is voiced by Mindy Sterling.

Mars Needs Moms certainly has a peculiar charm, even if it does feel a bit simplified (or even dumbed down) for younger audiences. But there's an admirable spirit of adventure and fun that borders on infectious most of the time. I don't know how much of author Breathed's dark humor was in the original book, but the movie could have used some of it either way. The film also reeks a bit of people trying maybe a little too hard to entertain us, due to the story being pretty thin. Fogler is guilty of this in his live-action roles on a regular basis, but he clearly inspired others to perform the same. There's a lot of yelling, action, destruction, and bright lights that all attempt to distract us from the fact that this is a silly film with a message about how great moms are. Nothing wrong with that sentiment at all, but I'm guessing there might have been more interesting ways of conveying that without involving goofy-looking Martians. The movie isn't bad, but it's not especially worthwhile either. A closer call than I thought, but I still can't quite recommend you spend the extra money (it's in 3D, y'all!) to see it.

Of Gods and Men

An unusual but deeply moving and tense exercise in religious conviction versus self preservation, the award-winning French film (and France's official selection for Best Foreign Language Film consideration) Of Gods and Men is the tale of eight French Trappist monks living in a monastery in a Muslim area of Algeria. The locals don't really seek spiritual guidance from the monks, but that doesn't mean they aren't grateful for their presence, friendship, and access to medicines. It's a peaceful relationship until a group of Islamic extremists, who are gaining power, begins killing foreigners in the region and those that associate with them. The local government and military offer the monks protection, but they refuse both that and the chance to leave the area and destroy what they have spent decades building.

Each monk weighs his spiritual strength against his fear, a process that is remarkably different and fascinating for each one. Director Xavier Beauvois (Le petit lieutenant) has gathered an impressive cast to tell his harrowing story. Followers of French cinema will probably recognize Lambert Wilson as Brother Christian and the legendary Michael Lonsdale as Brother Luc. The reason Of Gods and Men works so well is that, while is dramatic core is strong, there's a slowing burning tension at work here that is downright unsettling. The monks aren't just making the choice whether to stand their ground and take a chance; they are clearly choosing whether to live or die. The story is loosely based on a group of monks in Algeria circa the mid-1990s, and that face alone makes the events in this film all the more desperate and nerve wracking.

The film is at times quite graphic in its depiction of the violence against foreigners by the fundamentalists, but our fear wouldn't be as great without it being so. Of Gods and Men gains a great deal of its power and passion from simply watching the monks go through their daily rituals. On one day, simply being able to go through a particular routine seems dull; on another day, it seems like a blessing, because it means they lived another day. So much of the story of these monks is told by their faces, loaded with angst, fear and a profound belief that they are doing the right thing, despite the risk. This is a quietly devastating work that deserves your attention. It opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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