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Dear Rodger Ebert, March 14, 2011

Posted by criticaluniverse in Uncategorized.
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Alright, I’ve been excited for this movie for about a year now. If you know me at all you will know that I am a major military science fiction buff. From the premise of the movie, trailers, and interviews with directors and actors I assumed this was going to be a major hit. Then I started looking around at reviews yesterday and had my mind blown. It seemed all the critics had some nasty thing to say about Battle: LA. And among those critics one stood out the most. Rodger Ebert. Well I went and watched the movie last night and instead of just doing a review for Battle: LA I decided to review Ebert’s review of it. So here it goes.

(Ebert’s words are in quotes, my reply is in bold lettering)

“Battle: Los Angeles” is noisy, violent, ugly and stupid. Its manufacture is a reflection of appalling cynicism on the part of its makers, who don’t even try to make it more than senseless chaos.”

Battle: Los Angeles IS noisy, violent, and ugly. It is anything but stupid. If you go into a war movie expecting quiet, peaceful, and pretty you are probably French. And as for Battle: LA being stupid? I have to say that it is anything but. There are plenty of scenes that involve a little intuitive problem solving on the part of the marines. It was nice to see soldiers displayed as something more than beefed up killers.

“Here’s a science-fiction film that’s an insult to the words “science” and “fiction,” and the hyphen in between them. You want to cut it up to clean under your fingernails.”

This movie was science fiction in the sense that it involved aliens invading Earth. This is certainly a trope of the sci-fi genre but I believe a more accurate description of the movie would be “military fiction with aliens.” Here’s a question, do you remember the last time you saw a science fiction movie in theaters that had truly solid science? Unlikely.

“Meteors fall to Earth near the coasts of the world’s major cities (and in Ireland’s Dingle Bay — that meteor must have strayed off course). They contain alien troops, which march up from the beach with their weapons of war and attack mankind. No reason is given for this, although it’s mentioned they may want our water.”

Well the aliens certainly don’t exit their spaceships and say, “Take us to your leader.” Of course no reason is given as to the reason behind the invasion though it is hinted at. This isn’t that kind of story. Battle: Los Angeles is about marines trying to survive in an urban environment against an enemy that they don’t understand.

“We meet the members of a Marine platoon, and its battle-scarred Staff Sgt. Nantz (Aaron Eckhart). They’re helicoptered into Santa Monica and apparently defeat the aliens. Since all of Los Angeles is frequently seen in flames, it’s not entirely clear how the Santa Monica action is crucial, but apparently it is.”

Santa Monica is crucial because you want to deny the enemy as much land as possible.

“The aliens are hilarious. Do they give Razzies for special effects? They seem to be animal/machine hybrids with automatic weapons growing from their arms, which must make it hard to change the baby.”

The aliens were actually one of the coolest parts of the movie. I loved the design behind them, they are definitely unique. Their technology is also extremely cool. My only regret is that we didn’t get to see more of the aliens up close. As for being animal/machine hybrids? What is wrong with that? The fact that the soldier caste of an alien race may cybernetically enhance their combat-making prowess? Regardless I’m sure the biggest concern of alien soldiers is changing the baby.

“As the Marines use their combat knives to carve into the aliens, they find one layer after another of icky gelatinous pus-filled goo. Luckily, the other aliens are mostly seen in long shot, where they look like stick figures whipped up by apprentice animators.”

Right. Stick figures. That could rip you apart limb from limb. The aliens were certainly slender but when you see any bipedal humanoid from a distance they will most likely appear to be stick figures.

“Aaron Eckhart stars as Staff Sgt. Nantz, a 20-year veteran who has something shady in his record, which people keep referring to, although screenwriter Christopher Bertolini is too cagey to come right out and describe it. Never mind. Eckhart is perfectly cast, and let the word go forth that he makes one hell of a great-looking action hero. He is also a fine actor, but acting skills are not required from anyone in this movie.”

Too cagey to come right out and describe? Usually people don’t come forward and bludgeon you with traumatic past mistakes. Oh and acting skills are very very very necessary in any war movie. War amplifies emotions far beyond normal levels, if an actor can’t successfully display that then no one will believe the peril of the movie.

“The dialogue consists almost entirely of terse screams: Watch it! Incoming! Move! Look out! Fire! Move! The only characters I re member having four sentences in a row are the anchors on cable news. Although the platoon includes the usual buffet of ethnicities, including Latinos, Asians and a Nigerian surgeon, none of them get much more than a word or two in a row, so as characters, they’re all placeholders.”

Yes, I too have a complaint about the dialogue. Seriously can’t these guys have more deep conversations while they are being shot at and their buddies are dying all around them? What the hell guys. Not realistic at all. Where’s the small talk? Where’s all the political commentary? Ridiculous! Oh and the reason the platoon has a buffet of ethnicities? Maybe the Marine Corps has a buffet of ethnicities…

“You gotta see the alien battleships in this movie. They seem to have been assembled by the proverbial tornado blowing through a junkyard. They’re aggressively ugly and cluttered, the product of a planet where design has not been discovered and even the Coke bottles must look like pincushions. Although these ships presumably arrived inside the meteors, one in particular exhibits uncanny versatility, by rising up from the Earth before the very eyes of the startled Marines. How, you may ask, did it tunnel for 10 or 12 blocks under Santa Monica to the battle lines at Lincoln Boulevard?”

No alien battleships are in this movie. There is a Command and Control Center, but no battleships. It seems to me that Mr. Ebert can’t accept the art design for the aliens. In one of the interviews with Eckhart he mentions that the director wanted all the alien weapons and vehicles to look like they have been used before. It’s not brand new, off the assembly line gear. These aliens have obviously done this whole invasion thing before.

“There is a lazy editing style in action movies these days that assumes nothing need make any sense visually. In a good movie, we understand where the heroes are, and where their opponents are, and why, and when they fire on each other, we understand the geometry. In a mess like this, the frame is filled with flashes and explosions and shots so brief that nothing makes sense. From time to time, there’ll be a closeup of Aaron Eckhart screaming something, for example, and on either side of that shot, there will be unrelated shots of incomprehensible action.”

The camera angle is shaky for a reason. The director wanted to mimic the footage of urban combat in places like Fallujah. It is messy for a reason, it is chaotic for a reason. In urban combat it is very difficult to place where the heroes are and where the enemies are. It can be a bit confusing, the two sides certainly don’t assemble in lines on an open field and march in front of each other and fire in sequence. I guess Ebert’s mind is a little too small to comprehend this. There are some genuine complaints about the camera angle and I can understand those but there is definitely a geometry to each of the action sequences.

“When I think of the elegant construction of something like “Gunfight at the OK Corral,” I want to rend the hair from my head and weep bitter tears of despair. Generations of filmmakers devoted their lives to perfecting techniques that a director like Jonathan Liebesman is either ignorant of, or indifferent to. Yet he is given millions of dollars to produce this assault on the attention span of a generation.”

Battle: Los Angeles is not, nor was it ever meant to be Gunfight at the OK Corral. The types of combat are completely different, the stakes are completely different, therefor the construction is completely different. Battle: LA is not supposed to be elegant and perfect. It is supposed to be rough and brutal and jagged. When our soldiers were fighting street to street in Iraq do you think the fighting was elegant? Hell no.

“Young men: If you attend this crap with friends who admire it, tactfully inform them they are idiots. Young women: If your date likes this movie, tell him you’ve been thinking it over, and you think you should consider spending some time apart.”

Mr. Ebert, it’s okay that you are too dense and narrow minded to understand or appreciate this movie. I suspect that if there ever is an alien invasion our first line of defense will be to round up all the critics and offer them as a sacrifice. We can only hope that the aliens will accept this offering and give you a thorough probing while leaving the rest of humanity alone.


Dear Paranormal Activity, February 5, 2010

Posted by criticaluniverse in Movies.
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As a child I was subjected to horror movies pretty early on. Sometimes after watching these movies I wouldn’t be able to get to sleep hours after I went to bed. I would lie under the covers thinking of all the possible loose ends that were never tied up and more than once I soaked my pillow with tears. Needless to say I had an overactive imagination and I still do. One particular movie haunted me above all others and that movie was Frailty starring Bill Paxton and Matthew McConaughey. Something about the religious nature of the film scared me more than any hockey-mask wearing slasher ever could. To this date I have not seen a horror film that could measure up to my high standards of fear. 

Granted half of horror films of the last decade have been American versions of Japanese movies featuring pale young women with damp hair covering their faces crawling on ceilings and walls. The other half has been tedious remakes of American classics like Halloween and Amityville Horror. Oh and then there is the torture porn of the Saw series and the two Hostel films. It has not been a Golden Age of Fear. But then I saw the preview for Paranormal Activity and even my jaded skepticism was briefly diminished. Paranormal Activity takes a hint from movies such as The Blair Witch Project, Last Broadcast, Cannibal Holocaust, and Quarantine. In my opinion all of these movies are several degrees better than Paranormal Activity. 

And then I actually watched Paranormal Activity. I watched all 92 minutes of Paranormal Activity. After weeks of being told just how scary and refreshing it was I spent my dollar at Red Box and rented this horrible excuse for cinema. Paranormal Activity was filmed on a $15,000 budget with a 7-day shooting schedule. In this aspect I have to salute Oren Peli, the film’s director. For such success on his first attempt he definitely should be watched closely. Now for the criticism. I am extremely thankful for the movie’s short run time. Had I not been obligated to watch it or admit a completely wasted dollar, I would have hit power on the DVD player around minute 32. Luckily Peli must have decided a movie about doors slamming could only last so long. 

The two main character’s acting wasn’t particularly dreadful. They reacted reasonably enough. But then there is the psychic. I hope that no one ever mistakenly hires Mark Fredrichs for an acting gig because of the success of Paranormal Activity. The first time Mr. Fredrichs appears in the film his acting is passable, granted psychics can be somewhat looney. But when Mr. Fredrichs shows up later in the film to tell the woman being haunted that he couldn’t help her I fell off the couch laughing. I may have seen a worse performance at some point in my life but if I have then I lack all recollection of it. 

The thing is Paranormal Activity wants to be scary. With “reality” shows like Paranormal State and Ghost Hunters on TV it was only a matter of time before someone made a movie with the concept. Oren Peli was obviously reaching for a sense of reality with this, and for good reason. Reality, sometimes stranger than fiction, can also be scarier. But this is not the case. This is one circumstance that is quite the opposite. If I was interested in slamming doors I would rewatch the State of the Union address and take out my frustration on my bedroom entryway. There is one moment I found genuinely creepy, the scene where Katie is dragged out of her bed and down the stairs by an invisible “demon”. Word is that there is a sequel planned but this time I will be sure to conserve my one hundred pennies wisely.

Dear Halo Franchise, February 5, 2010

Posted by criticaluniverse in Video Games.
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Let me start by saying that I myself am an X-Box 360 owner, and I have played every Halo iteration to date. The first in the series, Halo: Combat Evolved was the second game I purchased for my original X-Box and to this day I still have very fond memories of t he experience. The fact that my brother and I could both play co-op split screen was a major bonus, fighting off alien invaders is always better with a partner. Now let me say that as an avid science fiction reader I consider a lot of the Haloverse trash.

Space Marines have been done in military sci-fi a hundred times before, and a hundred times better than in Halo. I feel like the games are specifically dumbed down to be accessible to average people who don’t share an interest in sci-fi. I can understand, Bungie and Microsoft have to market this game to a larger demographic than sci-fi geeks in order to make money. The thing is Halo just isn’t very original. The main story takes place approximately 500 years in the future. In that time mankind has spread to the stars under the watchful gaze of the United Nations Space Command (more on the UNSC later). However despite significant leaps in space travel technology humans are still using extremely out of date weapons.

For example. The MA5B Assault rifle is a fully automatic, gas operated, magazine fed, 7.62mm personal combat weapon. In comparison the AK-47 is a selective fire, gas operated, magazine fed, 7.62mm personal combat weapon that has been in service since 1949. So in about 550 years assault rifle technology has not advanced…at all. One more example. Here we have the M808B Main Battle Tank which features a 90mm cannon that fires tungsten armor piercing ballistic capped rounds, a 7.62mm machine gun, a whopping maximum acceleration of 5.6 mph, and weighs in at 66 metric tons. In comparison the M1A1 Abrams has a 120mm smoothbore cannon which fires depleted uranium armor piercing rounds or HE rounds, a 50mm machine gun and two 7.62 mm machine guns, with an off-road speed of 30 mph, and weighs in at 67 tons. The original variant of the M1 has been around since 1980. Once again, modern weapons tech beats out future weapons tech.

Not only is Halo unimaginative but it is completely lacking military strategy. I have never served in the Armed Forces, though I wish I could, but I have read enough history and military sci-fi by authors who have served to know that Halo misses the mark for accuracy. Which is fine. It doesn’t have to be accurate. It is a game geared toward casual gamers and people who don’t care for all the details. What bugs me is that while reading Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising I couldn’t help but feel that NATO and Russia would have been far better suited to fight the Covenant than the UNSC. The only thing they would lack would have been the space ships. But seriously. Red Storm Rising was written about 20 years ago and is a book about the Cold War heating up. It is fiction but not science fiction. It is about humans fighting humans. And I still think the military forces in that book could have easily trumped the Covenant. It seems that the only tactic in the Spartan handbook is overload the fusion reactor on any UNSC ship in the vicinity and make a daring escape.

 It just seems to me that instead of doing their research, which is essential in sci-fi, Bungie just took a couple modern day weapons and gave them different names. Of course the weapons aren’t the only thing important to sci-fi, not by far, but in a sci-fi first person shooter they do have a degree of importance. It is a wonder that the UNSC was able to fight the Covenant at all with such out dated weapons. This brings me to the UNSC.

Here on Earth the United Nations is an inefficient bureaucracy, a compilation of countries committed to maintaining international peace and security. A job that the UN fails at most admirably. Things like the Rwandan Genocide, Srebrenica Massacre, Somalia, Iran, Sudan, and Darfur come to mind. Killing off an entire ethnicity? We, the United Nations, will write you a letter with fancy wording and threaten to put sanctions on you! Continuing with plans to create nuclear weapons? We, the United Nations, will blah blah blah. Regardless of real life Halo is fiction, set in a future 500 years down the road. Who knows? Maybe the UN got its act together and conquered space so that the assembly members could sit around a camp fire on Harvest and sing “Kumbaya”. Or maybe not. Apparently there were 23 billion civilian casualties during the Human-Covenant War. My guess is that these were the result of the UNSC’s failure to act. Or they may have been right on the ball, sending a very gruff letter and threatening sanctions on the Covenant.

The truth about Halo is that it is 85% style and 15% substance. I won’t deny that there were moments when, playing the Halo games, I got a sense of something epic. But the truth is that what Bungie created is a hype machine with sci-fi themes and a lack of military knowledge and research. Were any fanboy to read this I guarantee they would be outraged. That sort of things is a guilty pleasure of mine. Here soon I may write up a criticism on Halo 3: ODST which I find to be the absolute worst entry in the series. But for now I’m content to sit back and watch the sparks fly.

Dear Word Press, January 26, 2010

Posted by criticaluniverse in Uncategorized.
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I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for my free blog. Cheers!