RED RIDING HOOD
The idea of combining a werewolf tale with a whodunit is an interesting one, and the notion of adding layers of Freud and feminism onto the wolfman saga is positively genius. These angles have been tackled before (the Peter Cushing vehicle The Beast Must Die and Neil Jordan's mesmerizing The Company of Wolves, respectively), but Red Riding Hood initially promises that it will ambitiously tackle the lycanthrope tale on both fronts. Unfortunately, it botches the assignment, resulting in a film that proves to be rather toothless.
Catherine Hardwicke's status as the director of Thirteen is a plus, but she's also the helmer of the first Twilight picture, and it's the overriding influence of that blockbuster that damages this film. A well-cast Amanda Seyfried plays Valerie, a young medieval maiden whose village has long been plagued by the presence of a werewolf. A visiting moral crusader (Gary Oldman, in camp mode) reveals that the wolfman is actually someone from the village, and this causes everyone to view their neighbors with suspicion and -- shades of The Crucible -- hurl accusations of witchcraft.
Had Hardwicke and scripter David Johnson buried themselves in the lore and atmosphere of their setting while accentuating the legend's leaps into sensuality, violence and the allure of latent desires, it could have worked beautifully. Instead, the focus is on the love triangle between Valerie and the village's two cutest boys, the smoldering Peter (Shiloh Fernandez) and the simpering Henry (Max Irons). The teen angst that Hardwicke brought to the original Twilight (still the best film in that series) was appropriate, but here, it creates a modernity that's at odds with the rest of the film. After all, it's hard to bury oneself in the picture's moody period setting when the central thrust remains that Valerie basically has to choose between Justin Bieber and a Jonas Brother.
Nicolas Cage's hilarious, split-second cameo as Fu Manchu in Grindhouse's Werewolf Women of the SS faux trailer must have whetted the actor's appetite for headlining feature-length throwbacks to the disreputable fare of yore, as evidenced by many of the movies he's accepted over the last few years. Despite its high-gloss 3-D presentation, Drive Angry is the most obvious example of his commitment, given its penchant for fast cars, hot women and bloody violence.
But whereas the recent Machete managed to both pay homage to its celluloid ancestors while emerging as an entertaining movie in its own right, this one ultimately proves to be a drag, getting off to a gleeful start before losing its way.
As if he didn't learn his lesson from Ghost Rider, Cage again plays a character who's a literal hellraiser -- here, he's Milton (presumably a nod to Paradise Lost scribe John Milton), who escapes Satan's lair to return to Earth for the sole purpose of saving his granddaughter from a murderous cult led by Jonah King (Billy Burke, aka Bella's dad in Twilight). Milton's assisted in his efforts by a tough beauty named Piper (Amber Heard) and pursued by Lucifer's most accomplished tracker, known simply as "The Accountant" (William Fichtner).
The opening half-hour, which relies heavily on the story's unusual characterizations as well as on some finely salted dialogue, promises more than the rest of the picture can deliver. Even by mindless drive-in standards, the action becomes rote long before the end, and Jonah King turns out to be a dull, one-note villain, a detriment in this sort of over-the-top fare.
Even Cage is restrained more than usual, leaving Fichtner to provide any pop to the proceedings. He's amusing in that quirky Christopher Walken way, and a more appropriately bug-eyed turn from Cage would have resulted in a more memorable face-off.
BATTLE: LOS ANGELES
It takes a special type of hack to make Roland Emmerich look like Orson Welles, but Jonathan Liebesman appears to be the right man for the job. The less said about most Emmerich movies (like 2012 and Matthew Broderick Meets Godzilla), the better, but he did helm Independence Day back in the mid-1990s, and for all that film's faults -- specifically, that it contained not a single idea it could rightfully call its own -- it knew how to milk the hell out of its H.G. Wells-by-way-of-Hollywood premise and, silly as it sounds, make us proud to be human.
Battle: Los Angeles, which mines the same territory as ID and countless other alien-invasion opuses that came before it, is so feeble that we really don't care who wins the global skirmish: the E.T.s or the earthlings. At least if the aliens win, we won't have to sit through any more movies like this one.
The constantly undervalued Aaron Eckhart, last seen doing terrific work in Rabbit Hole, and the exciting Michelle Rodriguez, once again relegated to grunt duty (she basically plays the same role here as in Avatar, S.W.A.T. and Resident Evil), are the closest things to "name" actors in this endeavor (added bonus: a "name" rapper in Ne-Yo!), but their welcome presence can only drag this up a smidgen. They're both cast as soldiers (he's a Marine sergeant, she's with the Air Force) who spring into action when Earth is invaded by creatures bent on wiping out all human life.
Most of the world's major cities -- London, Paris, New York, Gastonia, NC -- have already been decimated, leaving LA as the last great hope for humankind's survival. So it's up to Eckhart's Sgt. Nantz and his gang to rise to the occasion. "Retreat? Hell!" bark the Marines at regular intervals, as a sign that they'll never back down.
Battle: Los Angeles is such an ADD-afflicted action film that it's impossible to invest much emotion in it. There's a cursory attempt at the beginning to humanize its characters -- This one's getting married! This one's not combat-ready! This one can burp out the lyrics to "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida"! (OK, just joshing on the last one) -- but they're all so one-dimensional that once the fighting begins, it's difficult to keep track of who's who. "Where's Lenihan?" someone asks regarding a missing comrade, but they might as well have been asking, "Where's Waldo?" for all it ultimately matters.
The design of the alien critters is the usual blend of crunchy on the outside and squishy on the inside -- they resemble the monsters from Predator and Alien, to name but two of many -- but that's OK, since the camerawork and editing are executed at such dizzying paces that we never get a good look at most of the CGI work anyway.
"Retreat"? Yes, please. Where's the nearest exit?
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