Mladen and Del review ‘Battle: Los Angeles’

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

“Battle: Los Angeles” Starring Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, Bridget Moynahan. Directed by Jonathan Liebesman. 116 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Mladen’s take

Del and I exited the movie theater wondering why the flip no one in the American film industry can produce a good, original product anymore.

“Battle: Los Angeles,” a PG-13–rated sci-fi horror war film, is no exception.

A confession, first, though. I pledged some time ago to never again see a PG-13 movie. They trend toward sucking.

Then, a few weeks ago, I watched “Iron Man 2.” It was an entertaining film, so the PG-13 rating had at least temporarily redeemed itself in my eyes. But, answer one question for me. What happened to Mickey Rourke? No misunderstanding, please. Rourke did a fine job portraying a deranged, avenging Russian physicist in IM2. His appearance worried me, though. The actor’s aged body looked like it was sculpted by Donatello, but his face appeared to be the victim of a botched botox treatment.

Botoxicity might also be the cause of the shape of the heads of the aliens in “Battle for LA.” Their heads look like partially inflated pancakes suspended above elongated arms, legs, and torsos with the sheen of mercury.

“Battle,” Blair Witch Project-like, shadows a Marine squad fighting alien soldiers.

The heavily armed ETs invaded Earth to tap its substantial reserve of water in liquid state. Water is to the aliens what oil is to us, an energy source powering machinery.

“Battle” suffers many terminal flaws, among them:

– Incessant peril interrupted by spasms of unwarranted and unnecessary sentimentality or story backfill.

– Incessant violence that goes undeveloped because of PG-13’s ban on gruesome details in movies with adolescent boys as the target audience.

– An incessantly unoriginal plot, and …

– Incessant duration. “Battle” is 30 minutes too long, assuming it should have been made at all.

The film resurrected itself weakly very late into the story when two alien soldiers appeared aboard a floating gun platform that resembled something dear to my heart, the Wraith of “Halo” video game fame.

In fact, the visual and sound effects in “Battle” are the movie’s only plus.

It was clear that the water-dependent aliens cared nothing about ergonomics or aerodynamics while developing their ordnance and command, control, communication, and computer nodes. The alien arsenal looked primitive, almost gerrymandered, but offered hypersophisticated performance.

The water suckers punctured men, women, and children and toppled buildings with shrieking kinetic energy projectiles or booming chemical explosive warheads, just like mankind will do when it infests outer space. In the fight for LA, there’s no room for sissy laser guns or nukes, which would have contaminated everything.

Unfortunately, there was no room for provocative or consequential storytelling, either.

PG-13 movies are on my crap-list again. I just hope that I learned my lesson this time, once and for all.

Del’s take

Mladen, need I remind you the title of this feature is “Movie Faceoff”? How can we “face off” if we keep agreeing on everything?

To address your question about the American film industry’s inability to produce an original story I would answer: money. If you’re going to spend $70 million on a picture, the reputed budget for “Battle: Los Angeles,” you want assurances you’ll recoup that investment. In “Battle” those assurances amount to: known quantities.

I was expecting much of “Battle.” It would be the next “Dr. Zhivago,” a gritty telling of a society in transition and how the human spirit often transcends larger forces arrayed against it … ahem. Right. What I really expected was a kick-butt alien invasion movie that would hold me on the edge of my seat. For the most part “Battle” delivers on that expectation, but I’m troubled by its flaws, which are numerous and annoying.

The premise of the movie is fascinating – meteor swarms are crashing into the waters off large coastal cities to disgorge invading E.T. armies. The unfolding drama is revealed through televised news clips (though in “Battle’s” world social media don’t play much of a role … do “Battle’s” writers not tweet?). As Los Angeles retreats under the alien onslaught (a scene creepily reminiscent of tsunami footage from Japan) a squad of marines is sent to rescue a group of civilians stranded behind enemy lines.

Visual and sound effects are outstanding. The actors do their best with a script that lurches between predictability and ingenious levity (a Marine is called upon to hotwire a bus. Why him? Because he’s from New Jersey). Pacing is uneven as high-wire action scenes give way to slow, sleepy reflections on the human condition – which is not what I would be doing if alien jarheads were gunning their way into my little corner of the Starbucks fallout shelter.

The problems include what I would call logic flaws – the aliens are nearly impervious to gunfire until our band of brothers catches a live one and discovers its Achilles heel, a kind of heart that, when punctured by a bullet, sends E.T. to his great reward. Suddenly all the Marines – and even civilians – become crack shots and by movie’s end the aliens are falling to the stinkeye.

Also, this business of liquid water is pure and simple nonsense. We’ve known for years water is plentiful in the universe. Several moons in our own solar system are awash with water, both liquid and frozen. And if the aliens prefer their water in a liquid state, could they not grab a hunk of ice and … melt it? Agreed, watching ice melt is no fun. As every evil rancher knows, stealing somebody else’s water is so much more interesting. …

Which leads me to “Battle’s” greatest flaw: Its horrible cliches.

Early on as I struggled with “Battle’s” cinema verite shaky cam footage I decided I was watching “Saving Private Ryan” retold as “Black Hawk Down” with aliens. The visual storytelling technique Ridley Scott used in “Black Hawk” is duplicated here, and the story mirrors Steven Spielberg’s “Ryan” down to the climactic battle against German troops and tanks. In “Battle” we see otherworldly folk lurking on rooftops taking potshots at our squabbling squad, whose members struggle with the questionable leadership of their sergeant. C’mon, guys. “Known quantities” doesn’t mean “ripoff.”

And the ending, which I will not reveal, is just too corny for words.

“Battle: Los Angeles” would make a fine video game but as a movie it falls short in many fatal ways. If I had to rate it on a scale of A to F, I would give it a C-plus.

Save this one for Netflix streaming.

Mladen Rudman is a former journalist and technical editor. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.

Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.

“The Hurt Locker” Starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty. directed by Kathryn Bigelow.  131 minutes. Rated R.

Mladen’s take

It hurt me a couple of weeks ago when “The Hurt Locker” won the best picture Oscar. That’s two of the past three years that the wrong film took the most important Academy Award.

Director Kathryn Bigelow has created, at best, a mediocre product. “The Hurt Locker” lacks emotion. Its tension is contrived because it results from poor choices by the movie’s leading character.

The film also lacks charisma despite Bigelow mimicking the formula used by Oliver Stone in “Platoon,” which did deserve the best picture Oscar for its depiction of the Vietnam war.

“The Hurt Locker” follows a three-man Army explosive ordnance disposal team through the dusty, brown streets of some Iraqi city.

Jeremy Renner, as William James, plays the role of the reckless, uncompromising staff sergeant commanding the EOD unit. Second-in-charge Sgt. J.T. Sanborn, portrayed by Anthony Mackie, is sensible and risk-aversive.

Sanborn prefers sending robots to defuse IEDs. James, on the other extreme, enjoys tinkering face-to-face with a trunk full of 152-mm rounds wired to blow.

Caught between the two stereotypical soldiers is the trio’s third man, Brian Geraghty, playing Specialist Owen Eldridge.

Eldridge, uncomfortable with the idea of killing and jittery in combat, is the equivalent of Charlie Sheen’s character in “Platoon.” James and Sanborn are hybrids of the two squad leaders in “Platoon” played by Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe.

Berenger, Dafoe, and Sheen, in that order, made “Platoon” a potent movie very effectively summarizing the absurdity of a war that also was domestically unpopular.

In “The Hurt Locker,” all Bigelow managed to do was create unlikable characters who failed to provoke sympathy. To me, it would have matter almost nothing if James, Sanborn, or Eldridge died, though it was the fault of an inept presidency and rubber-stamp Congress that they were fighting in Iraq.

The movie’s most bitter disappointment happens about halfway through its 131 minutes.

While trying to help mercenaries change a flat tire, the trio unexpectedly finds itself in a sniper’s duel. James and Sanford, though trained as bomb disposers, are stunningly capable as a shooter and spotter, respectively.

They calmly, coolly, expertly, take up prone positions behind a .50-caliber sniper rifle to start searching for targets.

At one point, Sanford, deftly coached by James, nails an insurgent with a headshot at 850 yards (2,550 feet) through a desert haze. Oh, the insurgent was running across Sanford’s field of view when he took the 1-ounce slug. Oh, moments earlier, Sanford had missed the very same insurgent while he was lying on the ground and not moving.

“The Hurt Locker” offers nothing that hasn’t been provided by other war movies. And, it sheds no fresh or thought-provoking perspective on the Iraq war or its affect on American soldiers.

I want a recount. “District 9” must have been the real winner of the Oscar for best picture.

Del’s take

I take it from Mladen’s review “The Hurt Locker” was an OK movie that didn’t deserve a best picture Oscar.

No arguments there. Well … a few.

I liked the movie better than Mladen but agree it was flawed. The quibbles include fakey explosions that never seem to match the ferocity of IED blasts depicted in actual footage, and fakey combat scenarios that allow a guy with a sniper rifle to pick off a running man at a thousand yards. I can’t suspend my disbelief.

I thought the movie’s biggest weakness, however, lay in its structure. The viewpoint character, played by Renner, craves the adrenaline cocktail of ordnance disposal and the risk of death his job presents. We see a brief glimpse of his other life back home – he’s confounded and ultimately bored by the cereal selections at a supermarket – and discover he’s a bonafide war addict. To appreciate the yin and the yang of his lust we must experience both sides equally, yet nine-tenths of “The Hurt Locker” takes place in Iraq, depriving the audience of any feel for the character and his conflicts.

Still, “The Hurt Locker” is a good movie, and Renner absolutely deserved the Oscar nomination he received for best actor.

But was “The Hurt Locker” the best movie of 2009?

No, no and no.

Instead of re-treading ground already covered by Mladen I’d like to talk about the possible machinations that led to “The Hurt Locker’s” ordination as best picture.

Machination No. 1: the award.

For a creator, winning an award is money in the bank. You win an award and people who haven’t seen your product want to see it. They rent it, they buy it, and sometimes they steal it. But to win that award you must do something we writers call “campaigning.” You woo the support of those who nominate your product, trade favors, advertise, and send out e-mails – which notoriously backfired with “The Hurt Locker.”

I did this as a writer in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Campaigning is an ugly mess, one of the reasons I dropped my memberships with groups like the Science Fiction Writers of America and the Horror Writers Association. It made me feel dishonest. After all, shouldn’t the best product win?

That’s the theory, but in reality the product most effectively campaigned often wins.

Machination No. 2: politics.

Groups that hand out awards, like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, keep a close eye on political expediency. They want to be seen as forward-thinking and progressive, and at the same time they want to reward fealty to their artistic vision … with a wee eye kept on the bottom line. How else to explain John Wayne’s Oscar score for “True Grit”?

When rumblings were heard that no woman had won an Academy Award for best director, and that maybe the Academy wasn’t as forward-thinking as it wanted to be known, along comes Kathryn Bigelow with “The Hurt Locker.” Coincidence? I think not.

Which leads me to Machination No. 3: the snub.

No individual can be bigger than the machinery supporting that individual … unless you’re George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, or James Cameron. But even those pillars of the moviemaking community must have their noses tweaked ever so often just to let them know who’s boss.

Cameron has produced the two biggest movie blockbusters of the past 11 years – “Avatar” and “Titanic.” In 1998 Cameron declared himself “king of the world” during his Oscar acceptance speech for best director of “Titanic.”

Word on Hollywood Boulevard is that Cameron is an ass to work for. He’s egocentric, abusive and dismissive of the Tinsel Town Machine, qualities that might endear him to ordinary Americans but would not play well with the rarefied and elitist company of Hollywood movers and shakers. What better way to bring Cameron down a notch than to give the best director award to his former wife, Kathryn Bigelow, who directed a movie at a tiny fraction of Cameron’s “Avatar” budget?

Obviously I can’t know what really happened. But having played the game for so many years I suspect merit had little to do with the outcome. A combination of politics, ego-mashing and campaigning resulted in “The Hurt Locker” being named the best picture of 2009.

There might be a fourth reason – plain old disdain for that which is popular. The publishing industry is particularly notorious for supporting obscure, obtuse products over those which pay the bills. John Grisham won’t win a Pulitzer Prize but he allows the college professor who does a fighting chance to claim a mainstream audience.

My definition of “best movie” consists of a simple rubric: the film that sold the most tickets. “The Hurt Locker” didn’t do that and frankly I don’t trust the judgment of those who say it was better than its box-office performance.

By all means rent “The Hurt Locker.” But don’t expect any epiphanies. On a five-star scale it rates a 3½ – not a waste of your money but certainly not best picture of 2009.

Mladen Rudman is a former journalist and technical editor. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.

“Casshern” Directed by Kazuaki Kiriya. Starring Yusuke Iseya, Akira Terao, Kanako Higuchi. 142 minutes. Unrated.

Mladen’s take

A confession.

Without Del explaining between sets of kicking my butt in tennis what “Casshern” was about, I’d still be scratching my head.

The plot, as it turns out, is semi-unoriginal.

Corrupt politicians of a militaristic superstate collude with malignant corporation bosses to create a dystopian wonderland of carnage where healthy humans are involuntarily used as tissue donors.

Meanwhile, the leader of a small cell of mutants created by a bolt from the Universe that pierced the occluded sky of Earth and hit a vat of artificially growing human limbs promises to avenge the mistreatment he suffered at the hands of government security forces.

Then, from same vat that birthed the mutants, arises a hero.

And, he shall be called Casshern.

Casshern, with his body armor-integrated George Jetson-like rocket pack and morphing helmet tries his dangedest to keep the superstate and mutants from destroying everything, but fails.

Or something like that.

The convoluted plot of “Casshern” is tough to follow but the Japanese movie held me captive for no other reason than background details. They were gloriously presented with cinematography resembling a blend of “Brazil,” “Sin City,” and the “Kill Bills.”

In the movie, the society spoke Japanese but wrote in Russian, I think.

Tanks and flying machines are clunky, mechanical beasts as pragmatic and ugly as the imploded society that created them.

The army of robots organized by the mutant leader from leftovers of an earlier conflict march lockstep, their heads adorned with helmets that look like Kraut head gear of World War I.

The landscape, baked by industrial waste, is brown-red-gray. Only the rich enjoy green grass and gardens filled with blooming flowers.

Most striking is the intermodal concentration camp.

Spanning several sets of rails, the prison train pulls cars loaded with shipping containers. The containers are placed aboard by multiple rotor helicopters. Inside the containers are healthy humans.

The train set is used by the cabal that runs the superstate to store and process the healthies. They’re used as DNA feedstock for a covert genetic engineering program designed to keep the aging rulers alive.

“Casshern” is no fairy tale. It’s bleak from beginning to end. People are nothing more than a commodity to be exploited. The compelling film brims with treachery. And, maybe someday, after I’ve watched it again and again, I’ll understand the plot and its half-dozen subplots.

Del’s take

I came across “Casshern” in the $3 bin at Big Lots and decided to take a chance. I don’t have a problem with anime-inspired stories and I love Japanese horror movies including Hideo Nakata’s “Ring” and Takashi Shimizu’s “Ju-on.”

I won’t reproduce Mladen’s summary of the plot because I think it’s pretty well spot-on. Like Mladen, I had a tough time following the plot – especially with the rapid-fire pacing that meant subtitles appeared and disappeared so quickly I found myself reading more than wallowing in the lush visuals.

And they are lush. Americans aren’t quite acclimated to the look of anime. I can think of only one American director – Ridley Scott – who imbues at least some of his films with a similar attention to visual detail (“Blade Runner” and “Legend”). The intermixing of high-power CGI with live action to produce a poetic vision is something Japanese directors expect the audience to accept. In America it’s CGI made to resemble live action. In Japan it’s CGI that makes no apologies for itself.

Like many anime-inspired stories “Casshern” is a bit heavy-handed with the subtext. Running throughout is a not-so-subtle criticism of science, the stifling hand of cultural authority, the loss of environmental sanctity, and the violence to which humanity seems perpetually addicted.

But there were surprises. The role of parents as enforcers of cultural authority, the impotence of love vs. that authority – these are strange notions to a Westernized society that has been taught the individual trumps the collective.

More than likely “Casshern” is a standard and perhaps cliched statement movie about the triumph of the will … and the hubris of the willful. But if you can get past the convoluted plot, the sometimes unintentionally humorous dialogue (perhaps resulting from a less-than-perfect translation) and the cultural differences that divide East and West, you might enjoy the movie.

What you will enjoy is the “look” of the movie. Almost every frame produced a sense of awe, masterfully crafted by music video director Kiriya. While some may argue “Casshern” delivers empty calories, think of all the empty calories in your life, from french fries to text messages.

I recently watched “Predators” at the movie theater. I spent $9 on a ticket and $6 on a small bag of popcorn. For the journalists among us that’s $15, or five movies from the $3 bin at Big Lots.

I would much rather have spent that $15 on five movies like “Casshern.”

Mladen Rudman is a former journalist and technical editor. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.