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.
Set during the Spanish Civil War of the 1940s—a favorite area of exploration for writer-director Guillermo del Toro—the story follows dreamy 11-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) as she’s uprooted and relocated to a remote military outpost when her sickly mother (Ariadna Gil) marries the wantonly cruel camp commander Captain Vidal (Sergei Lopez). With the compassionate but secretive housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) as the closest thing to a friend she has in the oppressive environment Ofelia escapes into a richly textured fantasy world. She follows a dragonfly she believes is a fairy into a landscaped but neglected garden maze she recasts as the lair of the goatish godling Pan (Doug Jones). He tells her she’s the last heir to a magical otherworldly kingdom and charges her with several tasks to help her reclaim her birthright. As her personal world grows more and more grim—the impending birth of her half-brother threatens her mother’s health her step-father grows colder and colder in his bid to crush the resistance and Mercedes’ hidden agenda places her in jeopardy as well—Ofelia soon finds herself tangling with hideous monsters both imagined and all too real often having difficulty distinguishing which is the more dangerous. The astonishingly real performance of the amazing young Spanish actress Baquero as Ofelia anchors the film firmly in both its real world and fantasy environments as only the convincing imagination of a child could. Lopez is an equally compelling discovery as the callous Vidal pitiless vicious and malevolent while still remaining believably human throughout. He’s unblinking in his depiction of a thoroughly vile and cruel man but avoids any aspect of cartoonish evil. And Verdu (Y Tu Mama Tambien) as Mercedes is a wonder as well with her remarkably expressive face unlimited by the film’s Spanish language barriers. Kudos too to Doug Jones a whisper-thin actor who specializes in “creature” roles (he’s played Abe Sapien in del Toro’s Hellboy and will be the Silver Surfer in the Fantastic Four sequel) who somehow magically delivers fully-formed performances as both the faun Pan and the freakish Pale Man through layers and layers of latex. Pan's Labyrinth is unquestionably Guillermo del Toro’s finest film work to date as pure an artistic vision as is likely to be committed to celluloid. He wisely worked outside the Hollywood system in his native Spain to bring his dark tale to life. The story exists in that shadowy netherworld between childhood and adulthood innocence and awareness of the world’s more sinister nature and its characters and themes are explored in ways that no mainstream film would ever allow. On the surface the trappings are Tim Burton-esque but the dark corners Pan's Labyrinth peers into are grim and gloomy indeed; del Toro is never afraid to delve into the murkiest of directions that to audiences used to more conventional movies are heart-wrenching even gut-churning but ultimately emotionally honest and in unexpected ways as immensely satisfying as they are haunting. The film is the announcement of the complete arrival of a major filmmaker and we can only hope that the qualities del Toro brings to this work do not get lost in the maze of Hollywood for future films.
Ignacio (Jack Black) has never been particularly adept at anything but he has great passion for the things that matter to him: cooking and wrestling. Growing up in a Mexican orphanage ‘Nacho’ always dreamt of becoming a “luchador”--the term for a Mexican wrestler--and he even had the paunch to boot but alas it was highly forbidden by the religious orphanage. Now grown up he works as a chef for the only home he has ever known. He’s subjected to constant criticism at the hands of monks for the slop he calls food but claims he isn’t paid enough for quality ingredients. So as he sees it his only solution for more money is to pursue the forbidden fruit of becoming a luchador. He picks up a rail-thin peasant (Hector Jimenez) along the way to form a tag-team duo. Together they’re so horrendous that fans line up just for a laugh. But that makes them underdogs and we all know the fate of underdog characters in movies.
Jack Black maybe the best comedic actor of his extraordinarily gifted generation is a sight to behold. In Nacho Libre his mere pose which invariably sees him showcasing his belly as if a trophy is enough to arouse laughter. But once he opens his mouth forget it! Nacho’s broken English-and-Spanish dialect is tailor-made for Black as is his character’s penchant to break into Tenacious D-style song to profess his love for a nun (Ana de la Reguera). The problems with Black are due to his improper utilization at times (see “direction”) not his performance which is about as flawlessly inane as verbal/physical comedy gets. He taps into mania with an ease that hasn’t been seen since John Belushi. As Nacho’s equally hopeless sidekick Esqueleto Jimenez garners his fair share of laughs thanks mostly to the wrestling scenes. But his high-pitched yelps forced ineptitude and blank expressions grow old quickly.
Director Jared Hess should’ve quit after his first feature Napoleon Dynamite. Only because expectations for his follow-up in this case Libre simply cannot be met. That said he doesn’t only make sophomore mistakes; there is promise and talent on full display here. For instance Hess again exhibits an ability to find and/or create the most outlandish characters from the star all the way down to the unknown Mexican extras. But even at just over 90 minutes long the film drags and seems like a hilarious skit stretched way too far. That’s because although conceptually hilarious the story (which Hess co-wrote with wife Jerusha and veteran Mike White) is as thin as Nacho is portly. And as Hess has learned the hard way with bigger budgets come bigger constraints such as not-so-subtle humor (fart jokes pratfalls) to appease the teen masses. Hess’ fatal flaw however despite what will again be an underrated offbeat effort was to not stray further from his trademark movie thus keeping the animal that is Black caged--albeit in a large cage.