BATTLE LOS ANGELES

Someone forgot to give Jonathan Liebesman the memo: “NB: Shaky cameras are played out and dated.” Set in August 2011, Battle Los Angeles (no colon in the screen title) feels like its release has been delayed since sometime in the previous decade. Its relentlessly unstable camera is translated fully intact from that bygone era (for which I can’t necessarily blame DP Lukas Ettlin, who has to take orders himself), and its vocabulary is likewise a vestige of the Iraq War.

Approximately the only interesting thing about Battle Los Angeles is that it is much better than Avatar at making the audience identify with the native resistance of a foreign invading force that TV analysts repeatedly insist is after local natural resources (in this case, water).

It does this rather simplistically but effectively by using all of the familiar cliches of American war movies to re-enact the insurgent exercises of the “other side.” One soldier is called John Wayne after resourcefully blowing up a gas station (the Gulf war’s Kuwaiti oil fires?) and another soldier heroically blows himself up — while in a bus, lest the point be too subtle.

With this subtext, the regular doses of Marine Corps hooah-ing, morale-raising speeches, and inspiring music are not so much ironic, as earnest employments of the familiar tropes of propaganda to inspire sympathy with the perspective of those usually considered to be fighting against the forces depicted.

RARE EXPORTS

The best children’s Christmas movie since 2004 and the best Christmas horror movie since 1974 adds up to the best Children’s Christmas Horror movie of all time! I think this is in my Top Ten of ’10 — best seen without reading anything about it!

Don’t let the horror label put you off: although it teases horrible things about to happen, it doesn’t actually show anything gruesome (unless multiple faraway shots of very old naked men count).

SKYLINE

Just saw this tonight. It’s basically a mashup of War of the Worlds (premise and creature design), Independence Day (anti-UFO violence), and Cloverfield (strict adherence to point of view), with a few sprinkles of The Matrix (creature design) and Starship Troopers (anti-alien violence) for good measure, not to mention Die Hard (unity of place) and District 9 (spoiler).

Even though it’s not as good as any of the movies to which it pays homage — except perhaps Independence Day (I haven’t seen that one in ages) — I still enjoyed it, and the 20-million-dollar special effects are virtually indistinguishable from the 200-million-dollar effects of its counterparts.

Unfortunately the characters have less personality than the ones in Cloverfield (and that’s including Turk from Scrubs). With better characters, dialogue, and actors, this could have been one of the more memorable alien invasion pics, but it is still a respectable contribution to the genre given its (relatively speaking) shoestring budget.

EASY A

Multiple reviews are hailing Easy A as the best high school comedy since Mean Girls (or Clueless, depending on the critic), adding up to a shocking 87% positive of 157 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, with a perfect 100% of Top Critics approving. I too thought that’s just crazy, so I decided to investigate for myself. After the unanimous praise I expected to be disappointed (Juno still smarts like a fresh wound), but within five minutes the movie was winning me over thanks to a montage of a musical birthday card providing the cheesy soundtrack for a stay-at-home weekend. By the end of the film I had laughed many times and couldn’t help but endorse the majority opinion.

Easy A is sort of the Kiss Kiss Bang Bang of the high school movie genre, likewise featuring a narrator who self-consciously comments on the conventions (and cliches) of the genre as the present film re-enacts or rejects them. Some of the film’s more illustrious predecessors are even shown in clips, distinctly shown in digitized form as if excerpted from low-quality uploads to YouTube. As the film also belongs to the subgenre of classic-literature-reset-in-high-school as epitomized by Clueless, other cinematic versions of The Scarlet Letter are both shown and discussed, with knowing reference to the looseness of their adaptations.

It’s not an insult to the rest of the movie to say that Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson absolutely steal the show whenever they appear as Emma Stone’s parents. A lot of the credit for these scenes does go to the script, which is not just funny but also refreshing to see a parent-child relationship that is not defined by embarrassment or resentment. (I’m trying to think of the last high school movie in which parents are not depicted as buffoons… help, anyone? Even the otherwise sophisticated An Education made this elementary blunder.) Tom Haden Church also deserves recognition as yet another sympathetic adult. (Something’s fishy here — almost as if this movie is not trying to patronize pre-teens!)

The movie’s not perfect: the usually resourceful Amanda Bynes (herself a veteran of the literature-adapted-to-high-school premise) is wasted, not given much to work with as the self-righteous Christian obligatory to the most recent iterations of the genre. Either her performance or the material (or both) lacks the depth of Mandy Moore’s character in Saved!, but Bynes’ role has more to do with the film’s appropriation of The Scarlet Letter than anti-Christian stereotyping. At one point Emma Stone actually opens a Bible in a rare non-sarcastic moment, though it feels a little like a CYA scene to pre-empt criticism that the film depicts religion negatively.

One of the film’s delightful touches is the unambiguous identity of its setting in Ojai, California, as opposed to a generic suburban Everytown. Even more unconventionally, it was filmed entirely on location there.

In any case, to classify Easy A as a “teen comedy” would be unfair, though the teens in my audience did enjoy it. Rather, it’s a worthy contribution to the Hollywood tradition in which the American high school is a microcosm of adult society, or its petri dish. Easy A has one thing in common The Expendables: the quality of each film is accurately indicated by its title.

THE EXPENDABLES

Before seeing this film I thought the brevity of Bruce and Arnie’s cameos was lame but after seeing it I realize they were the smartest actors in the film. By limiting their involvement to the bare minimum, they don’t escape unscathed — the worst script of 2010 is no respecter of persons — but they do limit the damage to their reputations.

When Arnie walks out of the scene (or walks out on it?) he shows how to make a gracious exit appropriate to one’s age, in stark contrast to Stallone, at 64 the oldest man in the film, whose plastic surgery has made him look more like his mother instead of younger. Behind his back Stallone jokes that Arnold wants to become president — a reprise of the same joke in Demolition Man — but the rest of the movie backfires in the face of the mocker, making Arnold’s third career look dignified by comparison.

In terms of the 80s Nostalgenre, The A-Team has everything The Expendables doesn’t: characters with actual personalities, dialogue that makes sense, jokes that are funny, inventive action scenarios, and the most delightfully detestable villain of the year.

Mercifully I had a 40%-off voucher for my ticket.

THE GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE

To say this movie resembles a made-for-TV thriller would be an insult to the quality of TV drama in the past decade. Also to the verb “thrill.”

Visually this film is lazy, and dramatically it is never suspenseful nor exciting. At least the first film in this trilogy, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, unspooled a moderately interesting mystery punctuated by some dramatic sequences of investigating, especially one of homemade cinematic detective work. Not to mention that it featured actual relationships between characters that developed over the course of the film! Daniel Afredson’s sequel contains no such elements.

The fact that Alfredson has also directed the third film does not bode well for the conclusion of this series. At least this time, the decision to remake the trilogy in English can credibly claim artistic integrity, and with David Fincher in charge, there’s no doubt it will be the superior product.

TRIANGLE (2009)

If Duplicity suggests what a romantic comedy might look like if Chris Nolan wrote it, then Triangle is a Nolanesque supernatural thriller.

Refreshingly, it does this without either looking like it was shot by Wally Pfister (it’s very bright and sunny, my favorite choice for “horror” movies, and finds inspiration from The Shining) or hiding its surprises by editing the narrative into an artificially structured order. That isn’t to say the narrative is perfectly linear, but it curves in a way that maintains perfect narrative continuity.

At the 43-minute mark there is a Twilight Zone-style reversal (accompanied by a most appropriate visual effect and musical metaphor) and the second half of the film is highly enjoyable as the ramifications unfold.

Triangle instantly became one of my favorites of 2009 and more successfully achieves the character development of The Perfect Getaway without dishonesty or self-conscious conversations about movie conventions.

TOY STORY 3

Each of the Toy Story movies seems to improve on its predecessor.

The first one implied, perhaps unintentionally, that a toy’s “real life” takes place when it is not being played with. Playtimes are inconvenient interruptions during which toys must play dead. The negativity of being handled by humans is reinforced by the fact that much more screen time is given to the toys being abused by Sid than being loved by Andy. The argument that the relative absence of Andy is a necessary consequence of these early digital animators’ hesitance to show humans due to technological limitations is belied by the quantity of Sid’s scenes.

The second film provided a mild corrective by criticising the adult pathology of collecting toys without taking them out of the box, and claimed (in word if not deed) that toys are meant to be played with rather than kept pristine. But this assertion was not really backed up with screen time.

This third film has finally paid off the claims of the second film and fully corrected the first movie’s distorted picture of the Double Life of Being a Toy. The opening sequence exquisitely shows us, for the first time in these films (it shocks me that it took 15 years), what toy life is like in the imagination of a child during playtime. The revelation — totally revolutionary for the Toy Story films — is that the adventures toys have when they are being played with far surpass the adventures we have seen them have in their so-called real life when humans aren’t looking.

The rest of the movie is motivated by a confession that the toys seemed to forget, or not yet realize, in the first movie: that a toy’s chief end is to be loyal to his owner and be enjoyed BY him forever. Part of the film’s penance for the franchise’s past sins is its introduction of the Anti-Sid, a young girl who is the ideal player with toys because she has the best imagination of any child in the neighborhood.

If the film’s early camcorder biography of Andy’s relationship with his toys feels like a feeble encore of the similar montage that began Up, don’t be disappointed if it doesn’t jerk your tears like it did in Pixar’s previous film. In Toy Story 3 the tearjerking tour de force for a final sequence that is one of the most beautiful Acts of Grace ever depicted on film. It’s making me cry right now in this library just thinking about it so I’m going to quit writing about it. Just see the movie.

THE GHOST WRITER

I keep getting confused about what to call this movie, because in the UK the “Writer” is left off, and I think I prefer it that way — it’s not only more evocative of the previous ghost writer but also more consistent with the way the term is used in the film.

The ghostly presence of McGregor’s predecessor is also accentuated by the wise decision never to show his face in a photograph or flashback — indeed the circumstances of his demise are communicated in an efficient sequence of no more than six shots: ferry approaching dock, cars being directed out, single car left abandoned on ferry, tow truck extracting it from ferry, police inspecting it on dock, and a body washed ashore. After that discreet prologue, the rest of the film is exclusively from the point of view of the corpse’s replacement.

It starts off a little disappointingly, with a cartoonish but mercifully short performance by Tim Preece as a London editor. The scripted dialogue could bear some responsibility but otherwise the screenplay has so many nice touches: for example, I didn’t realise that the protagonist had never been named until five or ten minutes into the movie, when he signs three documents and his signature is conspicuously blocked by his arm (indeed he remains anonymous throughout the film).

The architecture of the waterfront compound set on the sand dunes of Martha’s Vineyard (in fact Northern Germany) is so suited to Panavision composition that it feels like a purpose-built set. Pierce Brosnan’s acting seems all over the place, drifting in and out of accents, but I’m not sure if this was supposed to be indicative of the character’s theatrical background. It is Tom Wilkinson in a brief but effective scene and Olivia Williams, finally redeemed from her unfair role in An Education, who emerge as the best of a good bunch. I did not even recognize Eli Wallach until his name was credited for the first time (along with everyone else) at the end.

Specific sequences stick in the mind. One of the most memorable depicts the suspenseful 21st-century equivalent of finding a map with a marked trail leading to buried treasure. It is complemented by a car chase that remains distinguished but is no less dangerous.

Another shot departs from McGregor’s point of view only to follow the audience’s interest in a document invested with great import as it is passed from one hand to another under close-up scrutiny. This single lateral tracking shot is a short film unto itself in which the personalities of a dozen characters — revealed by initial reaction, brief consideration, decision, and action — are expressed with only the hands of actors.

The final shot, reminiscent of Chinatown, felt too easy to me until I remembered that McGregor had not (only) been retracing the steps of the previous ghost writer: since the beginning of the film it was his client’s biography he had been recapitulating personally besides just textually:

SPOILERS

As someone trained to imitate others’ voices the Ghost is an “actor” who does not follow politics until he is plucked from obscurity to impersonate a Prime Minister, which he does not just in the autobiography but also in the form of public political statements; midway through the film he observes “finally something we have in common” about their mutual distaste for white wine, while he is actually wearing the PM’s clothes (presumably — where else did they come from?); it is Ruth who actually chose him for the job in the first place and becomes his confidante; and his ultimate fate is not the result of anyone’s political machinations (like the previous Ghost) but in fact the unexpected intervention of forces outside the control of the conspiracy.

LA DOUBLE VIE DE VERONIQUE (1991)

Is this the most beautiful film ever photographed? I’m trying to think of a more ravishing film but coming up short.

Admittedly I haven’t seen any of Kieslowski’s other films for comparison (until now they were, with Kurosawa’s, my most embarrassing directorial lacunae) but next up is Camera Buff which has been sitting my shelf for two years waiting for the “right moment.” But back to the film at hand:

Double Life is the most visually warm movie I’ve ever seen. Every shot, regardless of color, seems to be lit by a fireplace’s glow. The visual approach brings together two elements I don’t think I’ve ever seen combined before: the extreme color saturation — golds, greens, reds — that feel more typical of stationary- and tracking-shot formalists like Jeunet, coupled with hand-held camera work typical of the spontaneity aesthetic. Since both the hues and movement emphasize the subjectivity of the viewer’s perspective, I’m surprised it never occurred to me how complementary they would be together.

Unlike the faux-documentary style of Greengrass et al, the hand-held camera here is not used to evoke confusion but instead imitates the freedom of a disembodied spirit — unrestricted yet under control. Never shaky, the camera is so steady in the hand of Slowomir Idziak that it is astonishing he never uses a stabilizer system.

It can’t really be surprising that this film jets straight into my personal Top Ten since it ticks so many of my boxes: doppelgangers, female protagonist(s), ghost POVs, golden lighting, Dante; it’s a Lynchian psycho-noir interpreted as a musical painting.

Visually (and thematically) it would make a great double-bill with De Palma’s Obsession or Glazer’s Birth. It might also interest some people to note that Amelie seems to have drawn from inspiration from more than one element, though the films themselves differ in tone.