Review- Battle: Los Angeles

Aaron Eckhart in Battle: Los Angeles (Columbia Pictures)

As is sometimes the case I will lead with the few negatives I have to say about a film to accentuate the positives afterward. This is what I will do for Battle: Los Angeles because I did walk away very pleased and rather impressed in the end, my tweet reaction being: “An enjoyable theatrical double feature today. Say what? Battle: LA revives invasion films with moments of symphonic brilliance.”

I have found that tweeting a knee-jerk reaction to a film can be quite helpful to the review process it allows you to encapsulate your overall view of the film and then explore why you feel as such later on. It also illuminates that this film ends rather strongly after a rather plain start.

First, this one of the rare films wherein a frame doesn’t really serve the story well. The film starts with footage which is in medias res of the alien invasion and then backtracks to a day before. This does a disservice to the film by dulling some good foreshadowing that is done prior to the attack. The foreshadowing is left without impact due to the fact that the table has been set likely for the impatient audience member.

The other thing that needs saying is that there are a fair amount of cliché used to construct it. There is the character who is handing in his resignation and we view his “I’m getting too old for this crap” scene, there are young soldiers, a teased virgin, one who lost his brother, the tough broad aptly played by Michelle Rodriguez as always. As with anything, however, it all boils down to execution. Cliché without execution in insufferable, cliché that gets stripped down, that eventually leads to individualized characters that you can identify with in a vehicle that works is a whole other story.

What I’m talking about in my tweet is the synergy that exists when the battle really gets underway, a synergy of the cinematic elements such as the edit, the cinematography and score to make the stakes of the tale hit home. One of the traps of the invasion and/or apocalyptic film is that the stakes couldn’t be higher but at times we could care less. This story is one of a more hand-to-hand combat, a more guerrilla style, which lends an immediacy to the tale. Also lending to the atmosphere is that, as much as it can be, this film is a microcosmic tale. You get a sense of the larger destruction around the world and how many major metropolitan areas are in the same boat but the film only shows you glimpses of it. You are watching this small battlefield and invested in these characters and it does affect you viscerally first and foremost.

It being a war movie in essence makes it one of the few cases when wildly flailing handheld camerawork is preferable but in trying to lend this film a modicum of reality it never forgets its intended audience and makes everything visually intelligible, which is no small feat or backhanded compliment, it truly is something to communicate chaos with clarity.

What is also good to see is that the battle is ultimately decided by perseverance and human intuition and there’s no fortuitous break that salvages mankind as there in the granddaddy of invasion stories War of the Worlds. The film also ends on a realistic and level plane. There is the exaltation of victory but no happily ever after moment. Merely we see the characters who survive moving on and we have the knowledge that other cities now have a blueprint to get through this but we don’t see that.

Michelle Rodriguez in another great action performance already got her due in this review, and she seems to get more great turns in the genre than most these days, however, what really carries this film is Aaron Eckhart. Eckhart who if he was an athlete would likely be referred to as sneaky good. He’s the kind who tends to get overlooked but then you see him in something you weren’t expecting him to do and are blown away all over again. This is different than him in The Dark Knight, Thank You for Smoking or Erin Brockovich. This film also has something a little different than Stunt Casting, for lack of anything better to call it let’s refer to it as Diamond Casting, which means when you spot someone you recognize some one from a long ago film (there’s that glimmer) but you can’t put your finger on a name. Here it happened in a few cases and that would be with Noel Fisher, Will Rothaar, Taylor Handley and Lucas Till. There are also two fantastic performances by young supporting actors namely Bryce Cass and Joey King.

At times it can seem like any alien invasion film coming out can seem most tired but every once and a while one of these films will surprise you. In my estimation Battle: Los Angeles is such a film. It is most definitely worthy of your viewership.

9/10

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Two for Tuesday #1

OK, first of all I realize it’s Wednesday. I may find a way to write and post in anticipation of the day but in order to truly get started I want to watch films on the day of and identify my theme properly and then post. Yesterday it was just too late by the time I would’ve gotten around to it.

Anyway, the idea for Two for Tuesday is just to watch two films, no matter how different they may be. Yesterday’s choices were disparate indeed: they were Mrs. Miniver and the aforementioned feature film cut of Blake of Scotland Yard.

Mrs. Miniver

Mrs. Miniver (MGM)

This is another film I watched for 31 Days of Oscar. What was frustrating to learn was that this was during a Greer Garson block on TCM wherein her five consecutive best Actress nominations were shown. This is a feat that was only matched once, by Bette Davis. It makes sense to feature Garson, however, because I, like most, am underexposed to her. With Robert Osborne doing the introduction there was much to be learned. First being that the role of Mrs. Miniver was originally offered to Norma Shearer. Shearer didn’t want to play the mother of a fully grown son, as there’s a stigma of being an aged actress attached and thus it was offered to Greer Garson who at the time didn’t want to do it either but didn’t have the clout to turn it down. The age concern was such that Garson according to the studio was 34 but in actuality was 37 at the time. Thankfully she did it and it worked out wonderfully.

This film swept away quite a few Oscars and it’s not a wonder. Suffice it to say I just thought myself brash in guessing it was nominated for 10 Oscars, I underestimated it. It was up for 12 and won six. This film also bears a stamp this time is that of William Wyler. Wyler, who despite winning three Oscars and the Irving G. Thalberg Award doesn’t seem to get as much recognition as a man who has a similar name to him, Billy Wilder. Wyler’s film’s are always well-shot and moreover beautifully framed. This film also has a quiet realistic tension to when Mrs. Miniver (Garson) is held captive in her own house by a wounded German soldier there is no scoring it’s all quite realistically handled. Then there is shockingly good sound design that also makes you flinch as you see the quiet, simple village life disturbed by air raids.

It’s also not a wonder that there was pressure on MGM to get this film released to show the American public what life in Europe was like during the war. It’s also no surprise that this film was added to the National Film Registry in 2009.

There was also the wonderfully woven in subplot of the flower show. This not only demonstrated class differences and stasis in society but as things developed came to symbolize the solidarity of a nation. As Mr. Ballard says “There’ll always be roses.” A beautifully deft and understated way of saying the world will go on and life will persist despite what may try to ravage it. I could go on elaborating the naturalistic-humanistic symbolism of the film ad nauseum but you get the idea.

However, the poetics of the film do not halt there. During one of the first air raids the Mr. (Walter Pidgeon) stay awake as their young children do manage to fall asleep and they discuss their love for, and recite the ending of, Alice in Wonderland. The words made far more haunting and beautiful due to the backdrop and wonderful example of artistic re-appropriation of material.

Christopher Severn, Walter Pidgeon and Calre Sandars in Mrs. Miniver (MGM)


There were also some notable long take and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Wyler allowed the camera to roll a bit to see what his actors did. One example of this, and the genesis of this idea for me, is when Mr. Miniver and his young son Toby (Christopher Severn) and young daughter (Clare Sandars) are looking into one of the rooms of their house after an air raid taking in the damage. they look for quite a bit of time such that it feels like the scene should end but then Toby kicks a piece of rubble over the step and laughs, forcing a smile from his father. Whether improvised or whether this long pause was dictated kudos are still in store for Wyler.

Mrs. Miniver (MGM)

The very ending is also remarkable without giving too much away. There is a great reveal of the roof of the church most of which is missing. Through the hole in the roof can be seen bombers off to another battle as the congregation sings “Onward Christian Soldiers.” You can protest as much as you like about the propagandist nature of this ending or of mixing religion and war but without even involving politics it’s a great piece of cinema that ending.

In the interest of not spoiling too much I avoided the plotline of Vin (Richard Ney) and Carol (Teresa Wright, who also won an Oscar for her role) it is a major component of the story as it is a love affair that springs from a subplot and becomes quite an important and poignant part of the film. One interesting note was that the part was originally offered to Montgomery Clift who turned it down because it came with the stipulation that he sign with MGM for seven years. Clift, and the industry apparently, felt his time would come and he stayed on Broadway in the meantime.

This movie slowly and steadily rolls itself along picking up meaning and creating a tense environment in the characters. There is no real resolution within the narrative, as they are still in the midst of war but life goes on and “There will always be roses.”

Blake of Scotland Yard (1937; theatrical cut)

One thing that could’ve been added to my manifesto is that I want to try not to be redundant. I realize that I just posted about this here but yesterday I saw this version mostly for lack of something better to do and time. I will try not to over-elaborate but merely convey how utterly gutted I found this film.

The main thing that’s off when you lop 75% off a story is pace. There are moments that are far too slow or protracted and then some that whiz by in a blur, the film ends up being shorter than it feels because of that. There are far too many characters involved in this tale for it to only run 71 minutes and taking out so much you lose clues, speculation and discovery of facts and are left with basically an inciting incident, a long chase which becomes tiresome and a final reveal that is still a surprise because you had little time to wonder who the scorpion could be and were busy trying to figure out what’s up. I had issues following it and I’ve seen the longer version twice I can’t imagine the uninitiated confusion upon viewing this mess.

The intent of this piece is to honor the original film as it was made. There were some notable players involved in this such as Ralph Byrd who played Dick Tracy in more than one incarnation, Joan Barclay who starred alongside Douglas Fairbanks in The Gaucho and Dickie Jones who later went on to voice Pinocchio. There’s also a lot of good story cut out: There is a big arc with the false beggar that here seems pointless, there is Baron Polinka who is oft suspected and one of his catchphrases that cracked me up (“But I’m Baron Polinka”) is missing from this, even the tertiary involvement of Scotland Yard, which is in the title here seems unnecessary.

The only thing I liked is that it made me nostalgic for the original version. This one also gave you a virtually muted soundtrack as the theme rarely played within scenes but was always played in titles which, of course, you only see once here. Due to the desire there are some weird and bad cuts including a very awkward “If you can’t solve it, dissolve it.”

As a DVD presentation it is also a failure: it looks like there are VHS tracking lines at the bottom as if this was a dub and there’s no resume play option so when I stopped I had to find a spot within the chapter.

Ultimately, this proved it’s a failed concept as you see a long but simply-told tale diluted into a short confused mess. I hope other distributors stick to full-length serials.