Power producer Neal Moritz’ (Green Hornet Fast & Furious) company is called Original Film which is ironic because he hasn’t made a truly unique motion picture in some time. His latest effort Battle: Los Angeles isn’t groundbreaking by any stretch of the imagination but packs enough punch to leave you saying “Thank you sir may I have another?”
Jonathan Liebesman (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning) directs this massive movie about a race of aliens colonizing our planet but as the title suggests the action is centered on the City of Angels. Instead of watching the world at war we witness the American military’s last stand on the West Coast by following a single squad of soldiers on the ground as they fight their way through the city to pick up scattered civilians before the Air Force levels Los Angeles. 2nd Lt. William Martinez (Ramon Rodriguez) leads the troop but is too young to be calling the shots in a cataclysmic event like this. Thank heavens Squad Sgt. Michael Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) was called back in for one last mission because it doesn’t take long for the rest of the battalion to realize that the reluctant hero is their best chance for survival.
It’s a good thing that Liebesman and his technical crew are on the top of their game in Battle: LA because most of the other aspects of the production are just downright foolish. Writer Chris Bertolini took the framework from a handful of classic war movies and applied them to his script resulting in highly predictable scenarios and a pace that marches to the beat of past genre entries like Independence Day and Black Hawk Down. His dialogue filled with military jargon and 5th grade humor is quite literally laughable at some points while the thinly crafted characters are all token “team members” that you’ve seen before in films like Jarhead from the soon-to-be-father who’s not sure if he’s going to make it back to his wife to the new recruit/virgin who’s too young to die to the guy with the chip on his shoulder. We get brief glimpses of their back-stories in the first twenty minutes of the movie but as Nantz says during his Bill Pullman moment when the tide begins to turn “none of that matters now.”
What does matter is that Battle: Los Angeles is a roaring thrill ride that barely lets up from start to finish. From the moment the soldiers hit the streets they’re thrust into a tense and gritty survival situation that vaguely mirrors the urban environments in which our Marines are currently engaged in the Middle East. Liebesman uses handheld cameras and close-ups to capture the calamity of combat giving the picture a documentary quality that helps it find some semblance of individuality. Though his actors aren’t required to do much acting (save for Michael Pena whose small role as a dedicated father stands out) and the script as stated is noticeably sub-par capturing their facial expressions as hovercrafts blow fighter jets out of the sky brings out emotion that most of them wouldn’t be able convey in a more traditional performance.
As I continue to heap praise upon the film’s technical achievements I must also note editor Christian Wagner’s chaotic cuts that heighten the soldier’s state of paranoia and the overall sound design of the picture. Until we get up close and personal with one of the aliens Liebesman doesn’t show us much; we have a hard time seeing them because they move so fast but we can hear their quick movements and the affect is quite unsettling much like the performances from Michelle Rodriguez Ne-Yo and a slew of the films co-stars.
Whether or not the filmmakers originally intended on making a movie that was more than the average alien invasion flick is neither here nor there. Is it a rehash of the most exciting moments in War of the Worlds or Red Dawn? Sure it is but it’s also an electrifying film that manages to be engrossing and entertaining in spite of its flaws.
Based on Toby Young’s 2001 memoir of the same name How to Lose Friends and Alienate People is perhaps this year’s most refreshing comic surprise especially since we had no expectations that a book like this could ever be made into a successful movie much less a romantic comedy. The film like the book charts Young’s (now renamed Sidney and played by Simon Pegg) move from London to New York to become a contributing editor at Vanity Fair magazine (now called Sharps). The movie’s plotline details the absolute knack this guy has for saying just the wrong thing at the wrong time. Sidney finds he is in way over his head but the magazine’s owner Clayton Harding (Jeff Bridges) discovers something in him worth keeping. Since Young had written the counter-cultural polar opposite type of material in England it’s odd that he suddenly is thrust into the world of American celebrity where he manages to befriend and become a confidante of Hollywood starlet Sophie Maes (Megan Fox) and strike up a romantic interest in co-worker Alison Olsen (Kirsten Dunst). We watch as Sidney balances his new professional and personal life living precariously on the edge of imminent disaster in both. Pegg somehow sets up this loser (at least initially) for audience sympathy. It’s no small achievement but he’s alternately obnoxious and endearing--just the way we love to see him. Sidney manages to insult just about everyone with his complete social ineptness yet Pegg never sails off the edge and keeps him grounded comedically. You can imagine what might have happened had someone like Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler gotten their hands on this script. Pegg is almost a throwback to the Chaplin era a comic buffoon with heart we can’t help but like. In fact the whole cast is terrific. Dunst can be annoying but not this time. She’s absolutely winning and the perfect foil for Pegg. Their budding romance is believable even though on the surface they couldn’t be more different. Bridges with long graying hair does his best Graydon Carter impression as the sly owner of the glossy gossip magazine. The stunning Fox lives up to her name and she happens to be very funny too as a vapid starlet obsessed with creating an image. The main cast is rounded out by Danny Huston as Young’s immediate boss and Gillian Anderson delicious as the grand dame of PR in New York. Robert Weide won an Emmy directed HBO’s hilarious sitcom Curb Your Enthusiasm which he shepherded for five seasons. Certainly if he can handle Larry David’s almost entirely improvised style of comedy he’s a cinch to make this thing sing--and he does in style. At every step of the way this is the kind of movie that could have gone broadly overboard but sticks smartly and faithfully to character instead. Sure there are missteps but mostly it all goes down like a fine glass of chardonnay. The movie shot largely in London--which doubled for New York in many scenes--looks great and the superb cast is clearly in the hands of a man who knows his way around a nifty comic premise. There’s even a running homage to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita that cineastes are gonna love particularly a scene at a celebrity party where Fox gets the paparazzi’s attention by walking fully clothed across a shallow pool. Weide cleverly scores it with Nino Rota’s gorgeous Dolce Vita theme a wry moment in a fun movie worth checking out.
Attempting to delve into one of Tinseltown’s most curious scandals--the mysterious suicide (or was it?) of the original TV Superman actor George Reeves--the story begins after Reeves (Ben Affleck) is found dead of a seemingly self-inflicted gunshot wound during a late night party in his Benedict Canyon home. The case then unfolds through the eyes of Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) a street-smart publicity hungry private dick hired by Reeves’ grieving mother. As Simo slowly peels back the layers of Reeves’ seemingly glamorous life he discovers an actor of charm talent and sophistication whose every opportunity for a big break fizzled forcing him to lead a frustrated existence slumming in the superhero show he deemed beneath him. Gradually identifying with Reeves’ failed expectations for himself Simo discovers a host of candidates who may have actually pulled the trigger on the actor including his young party girl paramour (Robin Tunney) his longtime lover and patron (Diane Lane) and his lover’s husband a powerfully connected studio “fixer” (Bob Hoskins). It is Brody not Affleck who carries the bulk of the film on his shoulders and the Oscar winner delivers a finely etched turn as Simo who’s fractured potential mirrors Reeves’ but quite simply Simo’s story isn’t nearly as dark or engaging as Reeves’ life or the mystery surrounding his death. Affleck an actor who has had his share of ups downs duds and disappointments in Hollywood delivers one of his most charming and fully realized performances to date even if his spot-on recreation of Reeves’ speech pattern is a bit distracting. The luminous Lane’s acting talents remain in full blossom in a character she’s well-suited to play—the aging beauty fearing the road ahead—and she commands every scene she’s in. Unfortunately there should have been many many more of them. She’s almost criminally underused. Hoskins more menacing then ever and the reliable stable of supporting players like Joe Spano are all top-notch as well; only Tunney apparently trying to channel both Betty Boop and Bette Davis simultaneously seems a bit off her game as the wannabe femme fatale. Best known for his strong turns helming many of the best episodes of television series such as The Sopranos Sex and the City and Six Feet Under first time feature director Allen Coulter’s cool assured hand and meticulous recreation of Cold War Los Angeles are major bonuses here. Even when Simo’s story sags in comparison to Reeves’ Coulter keeps us interested particularly when staging the Rashomon-like sequences depicting the various theories behind Reeves’ demise. But by skimping on Reeves’ story in favor of a less compelling fictional framework built around a private detective investigating the case we never see one key suspect’s possible murder scenario enacted visually and it comes off as a glaring omission.
Let's give a big hand to the two newest members of the Mile High Club. Yes total strangers Oliver (Ashton Kutcher) and Emily (Amanda Peet) hook up during an otherwise quiet flight from L.A. to New York City. Heck the two don't say a word until they bump into each other at the baggage claim. "Blah blah it's ruined " Emily moans the second Oliver opens his big mouth. How sweet. How could they not be soul mates? So what if they share nothing in common aside from a mutual attraction? The bashful Oliver's an aspiring Internet entrepreneur eager to marry the perfect woman live in a beautiful house and drive the flashiest car. The outgoing Emily's an actress with less talent than Paris Hilton and a thing for lousy musicians and writers. So why do director Nigel Cole and screenwriter Colin Patrick Lynch insist on making this lousy love match? They even drag this dead-end romance from the late 1990s to today as Oliver bets Emily $50 that he will have the life he desires in just seven years. Predictably absence makes the heart grow fonder and whenever they cross paths--from a day in New York City or a night in L.A.--they fall more in love with each other. Of course there's always something preventing them from making a commitment. Yawn. By the time Oliver and Emily decide it's now or never they've grown so whiny and wearisome you won't care whether they spend the rest of their lives together or apart.
Kutcher promises to slip on his tighty whities and model again for Calvin Klein if A Lot Like Love reigns supreme at the box office. Sorry girls that won't happen. But Kutcher does flash a little flesh when he drops his drawers for Peet. Otherwise he doesn't display much of anything else in his most wretched offering since My Boss's Daughter. If ever Kutcher wanted to prove he can inject a little charisma or personality into an underwritten role A Lot Like Love offers him his greatest opportunity. But he blows it. Or maybe he's not capable of doing anything other than getting so flustered he can barely spit out his words as he does in all his witless comedies. Kutcher's Oliver Martin is as bland as his name and as dull as his line of business. This makes it tough to believe Emily--in the form of the spunky Peet--would even think twice about pursuing a relationship with this drip. Then again the relentlessly grating Emily isn't exactly a prize catch negating Peet's efforts to give A Lot Like Love a little pungency. You have to pity Peet: she so willingly participates in one farcical flop after another--from Whipped to Saving Silverman to The Whole Ten Yards--that she's dangerously close to ruining what was never really a particularly promising career.
Ever cleaned out the back of your car and found a soundtrack CD you forgot you bought? Those CDs always boast great pop songs that you never hear on the radio anymore. But no matter how many times you listen to the songs you can't remember the film that accompanied the soundtrack. That's A Lot Like Love: terrific soundtrack lousy movie. To lazily evoke a sense of time and place director Nigel Cole leans heavily on well-worn hits from the late 1990s and early 2000s by Smash Mouth and Third Eye Blind. That would be all well and dandy if Cole at least injected A Lot Like Love with some comic pizzazz. For a film told over the course of seven years A Lot Like Love moves slowly awkwardly and uneventfully. Perhaps Cole left his sense of humor back in England where he directed the screwy Saving Grace and the plucky Calendar Girls. Or maybe he's more comfortable chronicling the misadventures of middle-aged women than the bed-hopping antics of self-involved twentysomethings. He gets so desperate for laughs that he makes Kutcher and Peet spit water at each other during a dinner eaten in silence. But the most grating moment sadly recalls Say Anything's sweet and touching climax: rather than blast Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes from a boom box a guitar-strumming Kutcher instead serenades Peet with an unfunny off-key rendition of Bon Jovi's "I'll be There For You." OK so maybe not every song on the soundtrack deserves another spin.
Disney, Miramax Take Spat Outside
Miramax Films and parent company The Walt Disney Co. have made it clear they are looking to renegotiate their contract, The Associated Press reports. Miramax's current deal expires in 2009, but an option in the contract allows Disney to renegotiate the relationship in 2005. At issue, according to AP sources, is Disney's desire to pay Miramax founders, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, less money and to impose caps on exploding budgets at Miramax. Last week, Eisner said Disney has no plans to sell Miramax, but he added that the studio had been unprofitable in three of the past five years. AP reports this prompted a strong denial from Miramax spokesman Matthew Hiltzik, who said the studio was making money, as evidenced by Disney paying a bonus to the Weinsteins that was predicated on Miramax turning a profit. "If Disney thinks Miramax is so unprofitable, Bob and Harvey would be happy to buy it back if Disney names the price," Hiltzik told AP.
Gibson Sues Over Passion Box Office Gross
Mel Gibson's company, Icon Distribution Inc., has sued movie theater chain Regal Entertainment Group for more than $40 million, claiming Regal failed to pay Icon its fair share of box office receipts for The Passion of the Christ, Reuters reports. In the suit, filed on Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court, Icon said its agreement with Regal called for the companies to share receipts on "studio terms," which Icon defined as 55 percent of gross ticket sales paid to it and 45 percent retained by Regal. Icon claims Regal has reneged on that deal and offered to pay Icon only 34 percent, instead, Reuters reports. The Passion has grossed nearly $370 million domestically.
Bootlegged Soul Plane Blamed for Poor Box Office
The critically panned comedy Soul Plane may have bombed at the box office but the film hit big on the black market. Variety reports that as early as April, illegal and very high quality DVD and VHS copies of the film were so widely available among street vendors that some involved with the film blame its poor box office performance on bootleggers. "We're the first movie that can demonstrate a direct relationship between digital piracy and box office sales," Plane's producer David Scott Rubin told Variety. "Even if the movie isn't any good, if a movie is out on the streets for two months with your core audience, the word of mouth works against you." The FBI is said to be investigating how Soul Plane was hijacked, though the agency, citing normal policy, would not confirm or deny a probe, Variety reports.
Date With Bridget Sequel Changed
Universal Pictures and Miramax Films, which co-financed the sequel Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason, have changed the release date and distributor of the film. Universal will now distribute the film, in which Renee Zellweger, Hugh Grant and Colin Firth reprise their roles, and will open the film Nov. 19. Variety reports both studios attributed the distribution shift to the fact that Universal had more opportunities, while Miramax's slate got full suddenly with Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
FCC Settles With Clear Channel
The Federal Communications Commission has reached a $1.75 million settlement with Clear Channel Communications to resolve a number of indecency complaints against radio shock jock Howard Stern and other radio personalities, the AP reports. The agreement settles fines proposed by the agency against Clear Channel for sexually explicit remarks Stern made on New York City-based radio in an April 2003 broadcast. A source told the AP the deal also covers 10 open investigations and some 25 pending cases stemming from listener complaints lodged against shows on Clear Channel stations. Clear Channel has since removed Stern from the six of its 1,200-plus stations.
Role Call: Mortensen Gets Lesson on Violence, Vanilla Sky Sequel in Works, Final Destination 3 On the Way
Viggo Mortensen is in negotiations to star in New Line Cinema's A History of Violence for director David Cronenberg. The film, based on John Wagner and Vince Locke's graphic novel of the same name, is about an ordinary family's life after the father receives unwanted national attention for a seemingly vigilante-style self-defense killing at his diner. Mortensen would play the father … Judy Greer and Paul Schneider have signed on for roles in Cameron Crowe's follow-up to 2001's Vanilla Sky, Elizabethtown. The Paramount Pictures project already stars Orlando Bloom, Kirsten Dunst, Susan Sarandon and Jessica Biel … New Line Cinema has greenlighted Final Destination 3, reuniting the studio with franchise creators Glen Morgan and James Wong. Wong directed the original film, which he wrote with Morgan and Jeffrey Reddick, in 2000. While the third installment is expected to continue in a similar vein as its two predecessors, Morgan and Wong have not yet revealed their take on this sequel.
Guylaine Cadorette contributed to this report.
December 18, 2003 12:55pm EST
Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts) a novice professor from UCLA lands a job in the art history department at Wellesley College in the fall of 1953 and she's thrilled at the prospect of educating some of the brightest young women in the country. But her lofty image of Wellesley quickly fizzles when she discovers that despite its academic reputation the school fosters an environment where success is measured by the size of a girl's engagement ring. Besides learning about fresco techniques and physics the women take classes in the art of serving tea to their husband's bosses something that doesn't sit well with the forward-thinking Katherine who openly encourages her students to strive for goals other than marriage. Katherine inspires a group of students specifically Joan (Julia Stiles) and Giselle (Maggie Gyllenhaal) but newlywed Betty (Kirsten Dunst) feels Katherine looks down on her for choosing a husband over a career. Betty goes on the offensive and uses her column in the school paper to drive a wedge between the professor and the stuffy faculty. But while Betty puts on a happily married face her hostility towards Katherine is actually misplaced anger stemming from her miserable marriage to a cheating charlatan.
Katherine is Mona Lisa Smile's most complex and intriguing character and Roberts is a fitting choice for the part. Like an old soul the actress has a depth that's perfect for a character like Katherine who's enlightened and ahead of her time. But Katherine never emotionally connects with any of her students which isn't surprising since they're so bitchy and self-absorbed. Perhaps more time should have been spent developing the young women's characters and building their relationships with Katherine sooner but as it is the underdeveloped friendships between the women will leave viewers feeling indifferent rather than inspired. The worst of the bunch is Dunst's character Betty who is intent on making everyone around her feel unworthy. She has her reasons of course but they're revealed so late in the story that it's hard to suddenly empathize with her after having spent three-quarters of the film hating her guts. Stiles' character Joan is perhaps the most congenial but like Betty she never develops a strong bond with her teacher. The most "liberal" of the girls is Giselle played by Gyllenhaal but the character suffers the same burden as the rest: She's unlikable. Giselle's penchant for sleeping with professors and married men is so odious that not even her 11th hour broken-home story can salvage her character.
While Mona Lisa's smile in Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting has often been described as subtle director Mike Newell's star-studded drama is anything but that; Mona Lisa Smile is so heavy-handed that unlike the painting for which it was named there is nothing left for moviegoers to ponder or debate. The film plays like a montage of '50s ideological iconography: A school nurse gets fired for dispensing birth control; a teacher refers to Lucille Ball as a "communist"; Betty's prayers are answered when she gets what every woman dreams of--a washer and dryer. But the film's critical insight into '50s culture isn't as shocking as it thinks it is and the way it highlights feminist issues is as uninspired as trivial as a fine-art reproduction. Newell also spends too much time basking in the aura of the '50s era focusing on countless parties dances and weddings sequences that while visually ambitious are superfluous. The film may be historically accurate but its characters story and message will leave moviegoers feeling empty. A climactic scene for example in which Katherine's students ride their bikes alongside her car as a show of support comes across as a tool to evoke sentiment that just doesn't exist.