Battle: Los Angeles

Is this what I’ve been missing? After a year of watching from the sidelines as dozens of major studio movies have come and gone—a cleansing tonic highly recommended for any critic too long in the trenches—with this column (and the nascent blog on which it appears), I step trepidatiously back into the waters of weekly film reviewing, and find myself immediately questioning the sanity of that decision. For it is still the first quarter of the year, that time when studios, basking in the warm glow of Oscar, go back to doing what they do best—assailing moviegoers with junk. And from the looks of it, these days even the junk isn’t what it used to be.

Case in point: Battle: Los Angeles, an alien-invasion disasterpiece so loud, ham-fisted and joyless—so aggressively lousy—that its only real usefulness is to make one better appreciate the deft touch of a Roland Emmerich. Set in a not-too-distant future (August 2011) where the world finds itself at war against some extremely unfriendly E.T.s, the movie seems to have been conceived as a feature-length version of those bombastic U.S. Military recruitment ads that play before the coming attractions at your local multiplex: the few, the proud, the Sunday-circular G.I. Joes doing battle against some badly animated CGI dragon. Here, our granite-jawed savior comes in the form of Aaron Eckhart’s Marine Staff Sergeant Michael Nantz, a 20-year vet with the obligatory traumatic incident in his recent past, whose last day on the job happens to coincide with a coordinated alien assault against the world’s major cities.

The aliens want our water, we’re told, which would indicate that these are not the same aliens from M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, who took to water rather like the Wicked Witch of the West. Soon, Lincoln Boulevard in Santa Monica has become the last line of defense between them and the good people of Los Angeles. The strategic solution: bomb the shit out of Dogtown. Ooh-rah!

A highly malleable metaphor for real and imagined external threats of all sorts, the alien-invasion drama flourished during the Red Scare Fifties (Invaders From Mars, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and has, unsurprisingly, returned with a vengeance during the War on Terror. Yet only two films have managed to truly distinguish themselves from the slimy crowd: Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worldswhich repurposed H.G. Wells as a reverse chronology of 20th- and 21st-century atrocities, from 9/11 to Auschwitz; and Neill Blomkamp’s ingenious District 9, the first alien-invasion movie in memory to consider the plight of the aliens themselves, and to suggest that they might be the real heroes of the story.

Markedly less ambitious, Battle: Los Angeles features the least memorable aliens this side of the rubber-suited creatures in some of Roger Corman’s worst productions and, despite its title, scarcely a recognizable L.A. location to be found. (It could just as soon be called Battle: Redondo Beach.) The plot, such as it is, consists of an endless series of standoffs between the aliens and the grunts under Eckhart’s command—a videogame scenario far surpassed by many actual videogames. Lo, what a John Carpenter or a Joe Dante might have made of this, instead of the leaden mess rendered by director Jonathan Liebesman and screenwriter Chris Bertolini.

Did Aaron Eckhart need the down payment for a new house, as Michael Caine once offered by way of explaining his starring role in the lamentable Jaws: The Revenge? Can anything else explain the unwaveringly straight face he manages to maintain throughout, even when telling an imperiled young boy, “I need you to be my little Marine, because Marines don’t quit.” At the preview screening I attended, that line tipped the heretofore silent audience into waves of unintended laughter (though perhaps, somewhere, the Tea Party was cheering). A bit later, remembering the men lost under his command on a previous mission, Eckhart declaims, “They’re dead. I’m here. The punch line to some bad joke.” At two full hours, Battle: Los Angeles is some kind of war crime.

Red Riding Hood

This weekend’s other big opener, Red Riding Hood, is not (alas) French director Catherine Breillat’s latest in her planned trilogy of revisionist fairytale movies adapted from the iconic stories of author Charles Perrault. (That would be the erotically charged Sleeping Beauty, due for an American release later this year.) Rather, the director is Catherine Hardwicke, who helmed the inaugural entry in the Twilight franchise, and who here brings a similar approach. Cue foggy lighting, unconsummated teen sexuality, and cheesy werewolf effects.

It’s very hard to get past the atrocious look of this movie, which unfolds in a small mountain village in a time period best described as late Renaissance Faire. From the very first frames, Red Riding Hood has the airless, studio-bound atmosphere of some lesser musicals and Westerns, where every exterior looks like an interior, every costume like it just came off the loom, and every snowflake like it fell out of the detergent box. The freshly scrubbed actors, who are supposed to be playing hardy mountain folk, could pass for the cast of a special Halloween edition of the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog.

Like many a classic fairytale, the Red Riding Hood story has been much revised and revisited over the years, perhaps most notably by the late British author Angela Carter, whose 1979 short story collection The Bloody Chamber (the basis for Neil Jordan’s 1984 The Company of Wolves) offered three distinctive variations, including one in which little Red cuddled up with the Big Bad Wolf himself—and in Granny’s bed no less! The specter of Carter hovers over Red Riding Hood now and again, but Hardwicke and screenwriter David Leslie Johnson seem to have spent more time studying the work of Agatha Christie, and so most of the film plays out as a wan whodunit in which one character after another is made plausibly suspect as the werewolf who wants to abscond with the eponymous teenage sprite (here called Valerie and played by Amanda Seyfried, she of the azure, saucer-sized bedroom eyes).

Certainly, this Red descends from good stock. Mom is Virginia Madsen, and Granny is Julie Christie no less, still girlish and radiant, still one of the cinema’s incandescent beauties. At one point, Gary Oldman shows up as a celebrated werewolf slayer, tended to by an entourage of multiethnic Chippendales dancers and spewing fearmongering rhetoric in an unidentifiable accent—and when even the indefatigable Oldman can do nothing to elevate the material, you know you’re in real trouble. “Beware the wolf,” warn Red Riding Hood’s posters and television ads. Be even warier of this movie.

Desert of Forbidden Art

As a student at USC in the mid-1990s, I had the privilege of studying Russian art history as taught by one of the world’s leading experts, the British-born John Bowlt. So I was hardly surprised to see Bowlt turn up as an expert witness in fellow USC professor Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev’s remarkable new documentary, The Desert of Forbidden Art. The desert in question is Karakalpakstan, an autonomous republic tucked away in the northwest corner of Uzbekistan. The art is an astonishing collection of some 40,000 canvases, crafts and other cultural artifacts banned by Soviet authorities and saved by one Igor Savitsky, an art-world Indiana Jones who used a combination of luck and incredible guile to recover these works and display them anew, 1700 miles away from Moscow’s prying eyes.

Savitsky’s Nukus Museum—opened in 1966 but largely unknown to the outside world until a 1998 New York Times feature by Stephen Kinzer—is a monument to artists with names like Volkov, Kurzin and Rybnikov, who found themselves and their boldly expressive, politically subversive paintings at odds with the Thirties Soviet mania for Socialist Realism. Some, like the Uzbek master painter Ural Tansykbaev, changed their style and began producing the proletariat-glorifying works craved by the authorities. Many others retreated into obscurity, their proscribed paintings hidden in attics or under beds, or locked away in Zagorsk monastery, a government “prison for artworks” that once held more than 30,000 verboten objects. Today, their work sells for hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction.

The Desert of Forbidden Art has the pull of a great thriller, as Savitsky, a failed painter of aristocratic lineage, ingratiates himself with censored artists and government apparatchiks alike, builds his collection on little more than promissory notes, and even secures the money for his museum from the very agencies charged with suppressing its contents. He is an obsessive, trekking from Nukus to Moscow and back again dozens of times, neglecting his own well-being in the name of art. (Toxic vapors from the formaldehyde solution Savitsky used to restore canvases are blamed for his untimely death, in 1984.) Then there are the paintings themselves, which are breathtaking in their brilliant colors, and their hybrid influences of the Russian avant-garde and Central Asian folk culture.

The movie ends on a melancholic note, with the revelation that only three percent of the Nukus Museum’s collection is currently on display, with thousands of objects in desperate need of restoration. But it is hard not to leave feeling elated by the knowledge that there is indeed great art in the desert—just not in the Hollywood one.

Battle: Los Angeles and Red Riding Hood now playing nationwide. The Desert of Forbidden Art now playing in New York City, opens March 18 in Los Angeles.