Playing Catch-Up With The Films of 2017: Megan Leavey (dir by Gabriela Cowperthwaite)


One of the best (and, in my opinion, overlooked) films of 2017 was Megan Leavey.

Based on a true story, Megan Leavey tells the true story of … well, Megan Leavey.  When the film starts, Megan (played, in one of the best performances of 2017, by Kate Mara) is living a somewhat directionless life in upstate New York.  Her parents are divorced and she’s closer to her father (Bradley Whitford) even though she has more contact (and shares a much more strained relationship) with her mother (Edie Falco).  Speaking as a child of divorce, the scenes of Megan trying to navigate the mine field between her parents rang painfully true at times. I spent the entire movie waiting for Megan and her parents to have some sort of big moment where, in typical artificial movie fashion, all conflicts would be solved and everything would suddenly be okay.  To the film’s credit, that moment never comes.

Instead, Megan enlists in the Marines.  She finds herself assigned as a Military Police K9 handler.  What that means is that Megan finds herself in Iraq, working with a dog named Rex.  Rex’s job is to sniff out explosives and other threats.  One wrong move by either Megan or Rex will result in not only their deaths but also the deaths of everyone around them.  Remember how tense some of the scenes in The Hurt Locker were?  Well, that’s nothing compared to the intensity of the bomb-sniffing scenes in Megan Leavey.  After all, in The Hurt Locker, we only had Jeremy Renner to worry about.  Megan Leavey, however, features a truly adorable dog.

When Megan returns home from serving two tours in Iraq, she struggles with PTSD and the adjustment to civilian life.  Rex is assigned to a different handler and continues his duties, leaving Megan without the one creature that she felt she could trust.  And again, Megan Leavey deserves a lot of credit for not offering up any easy or pat solutions for Megan’s difficulties to adjusting to life back in the States.  It’s too honest a film and has too much respect for it audience to cheapen its narrative with easy or manipulative sentiment.

When Rex develops facial paralysis, he is retired from active duty.  With the help of her U.S. Senator, Megan adopted Rex and gave him a home until he passed away in 2012.  That senator was Chuck Schumer and thankfully, Megan Leavey resisted the temptation to cast Chuck Schumer as himself.  Instead, when Megan approaches her Senator on the Capitol steps, the senator is played by a professional-looking character actor who looks and sounds absolutely nothing like Chuck Schumer.  By making this simple casting decision, the film keeps the focus off of the politicians and on Megan and Rex, where it belongs.

Did Megan Leavey make me cry?  You better believe it did.  However, it earned every one of these tears.  This is a wonderfully sweet and moving film, one that works largely because it refuses to overemphasize the sentimental aspects of the story.  Instead, Megan Leavey always remains rooted in reality.  It’s a gritty film about a dog and a soldier who survived being sent to one of the most dangerous places n the world.  It’s the story of how Rex saved Megan’s life and how Megan returned the favor by saving Rex’s.  It’s a sweet, straight forward story that can be appreciated even by people, like me, who prefer cats.

Quick Review: Need for Speed (dir. by Scott Waugh)


Need_For_Speed_New_Oficial_Poster_JPostersMy Short Take on Need for Speed –

Reasons to see it:

+ Fast cars doing interesting stunts that don’t feel like a CGI stunt reel. Take the Mustang chase from Drive and stretch it out.

+ It’s a tightly shot film. The chances of saying “Come on, go somewhere.” Are small and the driving camera work does its best to invoke a sense of being in the scene.

+ Imogen Poots steals practically every scene she’s in, and the cast overall seemed to enjoy themselves. Michael Keaton may be the most animated he’s been since Beetlejuice. Aaron Paul sounds like a mix between Charlie Hunnam and Solid Snake.

Reasons to hold off for now:

– It’s not the tightest story in the world. You’ll probably be able to easily call out plot angles as the movie progresses. There is also one scene in the film that never connects to anything after it, leaving something of a hole there. Overall, the film gives you just enough to understand why everyone’s doing what they’re doing, but don’t search for a whole lot of character growth here.

– The Air support moments seem a little implausible, given air traffic rules and what not.

The Long Take: 

Ever since The Fast and The Furious hit the big screen in 2001, you’ve had a number of race related movies. I think the worst I can recall was 2007’s Redline, which tried to throw some wild extortion theme into the mix. The movie adaptation for Need for Speed may actually be a better movie than some of Electronic Arts’ games. It may not be Hamlet, but it handles itself just fine.

The premise for Need for Speed is very simple. A young racer (Aaron Paul, whose voice sounds he’s channelling Sons of Anarchy’s Jax Teller) seeks vengeance against a former business partner (Dominic Cooper, Howard Stark from the Marvel Cinematic Universe) by way of a dangerous high speed race known as the Deleon. He assembles a team of friends, and goes about trying to reach his goal. There you go, all you need. It might sound as bad as this year’s Robocop, but at least the audience laughed along with this one.

Although many know Aaron Paul from his Emmy winning run on Breaking Bad, but he isn’t new to movies. He’s had a great turn in Smashed with Mary Elizabeth Winstead and worked previously with co-star Imogen Poots on The Long Way Down. Here in Need for Speed, I felt he did really well with what was given as racer Tobey Marshall, granted that it wasn’t a whole lot. Still, he sells it as best he can. Poots, on the other hand is as much the bright light in the film as Hayley Atwell was in Captain America: The First Avenger. Overall, the casting was okay here. Dominic Cooper plays the rival role well, though doesn’t come off as sinister in any way and Michael Keaton seems to enjoy himself in this as the host of the Deleon, a high stakes private race. He channels his inner Beetlejuice and is one of the high points of the film. Between he and Scott Mescudi (Kid Cudi to those who know him musically), they have the best scenes apart from the main cast.

The car scenes themselves are okay. You may find yourself leaning back in your seat in some instances, but they don’t quite have the tight feel of say Ronin. Still, you won’t see anything happen in these cars that go beyond the extreme. Truth be told, it’s almost similar to the first Fast and the Furious, save for all the wavy speed lines in the high speed chases. One of the remarkable things about Need for Speed is that it tries its best to avoid throwing too many CGI driving moments. It has a feel that’s similar to Tarantino’s Death Proof or, as the film highlights in the beginning of the movie, Bullitt. This being only his second major film (Act of Valor being the first), Director Scott Waugh gets away with making the racing moments as intense as they can be without getting too crazy…well, almost. It’s cut quick, and there are very few lag scenes as far as I could notice.

If the movie has any bad points, it’s that almost everything happens in a bubble. The plot has someone who is effectively on the run, and yet I would have imagined there’d be more of a police presence, especially given the exposure. Then again, this is Need for Speed, where you only need to avoid the cops or 2 minutes before being given the chance to hide in a cooldown zone (in NFS: Most Wanted, anyway). Fans of the games will see some of those elements in play during the film and they are functional here, if not realistic.

Additionally, there’s one other scene that involves the recruiting of a reluctant team member that goes almost no where. The reason for bringing the person along (having to do with a car issue) never appears to be addressed either visually or verbally. This left me asking, “Well, was it fixed?” and then shaking my head later on. It’s not a terrible mistake to have while munching on popcorn ( you won’t choke for not getting an answer), but someone really could have taken the time to dot that particular “i” on George Gatins’ script.

Overall, Need for Speed is a fun ride. It’s predictable in a lot of ways, and you’ll see some of it coming, but you may also find yourself smiling and swerving in your seats with the traffic.

Review: Battle: Los Angeles (dir. by Jonathan Liebesman)


The last couple years have seen the return of an old trend from the 50’s and and 60’s. Those decades were what one would call the Golden Age of alien invasion films and stories. We had alien invasion films both serious and comedic. They ranged from classics like The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing to the awful like Plan 9 From Outer Space and tons of titles I could barely put down. In 2009 we had an alien-themed film which one could call the return of the genre back to the forefront. District 9 by South African filmmaker Neil Blompkamp was universally hailed as one of the best scifi films of the decade and even got nominated for an Academy Best Picture.

Then there’s the other alien-invasion film from 2010 which covers the low-end of the equation. The Strause Brothers’ own Skyline was universally panned by critics and audiences alike. While some did enjoy the film for it’s “so bad, it’s good” quality (I use that term as loosely as redlight hooker). This film was everything that was opposite of District 9. While I did enjoy that film because it was bad I don’t look back at it too fondly.

The latest film in this alien-invasion resurgence is from another South African filmmaker and one whose body of work is mostly genre films of the low-budget variety. Jonathan Liebesman’s own entry into this scifi genre is Battle: Los Angeles and it lands smack  dab between District 9 and Skyline in regards to overall execution. It’s a workman-like film which takes an epic alien invasion war and brings it down into the pavement. We see the film through the eyes of a rifle squad of Marines and that’s where the film really becomes a really fun experience.

Battle: Los Angeles begins in medias rea with the war between the unknown alien invaders already having made their initial surprise landings and the U.S. military making it’s countermoves. We learn from a hasty news conference held by a military commander that the alien forces have landed at over a dozen or so coastal cities around the world have begun to move inland. I was somewhat discouraged to find out that San Francisco didn’t even last half a day and was lost. With Los Angeles the last major coastal city on the west coast that still had a viable military presence we hear one of the film’s tagline in that they cannot lose Los Angeles.

After this brief intro we go back 24 hours before the battle begins to get the character introductions sorted out. We see the Marines who will make up the squad the audience will follow through the rest of the film get their brief time to get introduced with some basic backstory to give them some personality. The one which stood out from all the war film archetype characters was Aaron Eckhart’s grizzled and retiring Staff Sgt. Nantz. He becomes the anchor that holds all the players into a cohesive unit and who also keeps the film from spiraling out into Skyline territory. Some of the cookie-cutter characters we meet would be the commanding officer straight out of Officer Training School who has never seen combat but is eager to lead his men and sees the combat-experienced SSgt. Nantz as someone who might usurp his authority. We also get the Marine whose previous combat tour has left him psychologically damaged and tries to earn his mind back into fighting state. We even get the young Marine who everyone sees as the little brother and who also happens to be a virgin.

To say that the characters in Battle: Los Angeles looked like they came out of old-school World War 2 war film casting call would be an understatement. The film just gives these characters (outside of Eckhart’s veteran noncom) enough personality that we’re able to distinguish one jarhead from another. Characterization is not one of this film’s strong suit, but once the bullets and alien stuff begin to start flying the need to get more character moments from these individuals really go out the window and the audience just holds on as they follow this Marine rifle squad into combat with an enemy force better equipped.

The film borrows much from battle sequences from Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down and Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan as director Liebesman opts to use a cinema verite style to give the audience a documentary, imbedded reporter look to the whole proceeding. The shaky cam look this filmmaking style uses may turn off some people, but the way the action sequences (which pretty much takes up close to 3/5’s of the film’s running time) were edited actually keeps the shaky cam from becoming too overwhelming. The film actually does a very good job of showing the confusing nature of battle, but also the fog of war for the grunts on the ground.

Before I get to what about this film really worked for me I will have to admit that the film’s screenplay is it’s biggest weakness. It’s a major weakness that for some viewers will sink the whole film no matter whatever bright points it might have. The film’s core story was actually pretty good. A story about an alien invasion told from the point of view of human soldiers on the ground trying to repel the invaders was a concept that hasn’t really been explored in this type of film. While that foundation for the film is strong the dialogue and how the characters were written left much to be desired. I put the onus on the flimsiness of most of the characters on the screenplay more than the characters themselves. Spielberg and Scott were able to use the very same war film character archetypes and make them work in their film, but that was possible due to much stronger screenplays.

In this film the dialogue’s very hokeyness doesn’t inspire as much as it makes for some wince inducing moments. I can’t say that all of the dialogue was bad. They’re no worse than most war films both good and bad. The dialogue just didn’t seem to have any energy to them and sounded as if it was still being read from an earlier and much rougher draft. I do believe that if the screenplay had been given a couple of doctoring by competent, veteran screenwriters the film would’ve benefitted greatly from it. Instead, the film ended up having to have a strong veteran actor in Aaron Eckhart deliver these average lines with enough conviction and gravitas to keep the film from becoming a parody of a war film. The fact that the film still manages to hold together despite the weaknesses in the screenplay is a testament to one actor performing the hell out of that script. I won’t even go into some people’s issues about the science or battle tactics in the film since I believe the film was consciously built to keep those vague. The film is not about the who or what about this invasion and why the aliens are here, but about that rifle squad from the 2/5 Marines.

Now, what really worked for me about this film is the battle itself. For a fan of both alien invasion and war films this one combined the two and succeeding in delivering what the filmmakers promised. Battle: Los Angeles gave a visceral look into the trials and tribulations of a squad of Marines as they do their part on the ground to fight off a much more advanced enemy. There’s a scene when the Marines are flying over Santa Monica on their way to their Forward Operation Base and we see a running battle on the gorund below between human defenders and the aliens who have moved up from the beach. Even the firefights Nantz and his squad were in once they entered the battle behind enemy lines looked to be influenced with the many battle footage of American forces conducting ground war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The special effects both CGI and practical to make Los Angeles look like a wartorn urban battleground was done very well. The aliens and their machines were given a look that wasn’t sleek and shiny but utilitarian and efficient. Some have said that the design of the aliens and their machines looked lazy, but I actually believe that if the filmmakers had fallen back on traditional advanced futuristic designs that would have been lazy. These aliens looked like they were design with only one thing in mind and that was to wage war on a people.

The score to the film by Brian Tyler was good and serviceable as his own modern riff on the old-school World War 2 film score, but I thought what this film needed was a veteran composer who knows how to bring out the machismo, gung-ho and esprit de corps of the Marines the audience followed throughout the film. It’s a shame that film composer passed away several years ago because he definitely would’ve given Battle: Los Angeles the kind of score which would’ve elevated the film from a thrilling war film into an epic one.

In the end, Jonathan Liebesman’s first foray into a bigger budget production hit more than it miss though one of those misses many of it’s detractors have seen as a fatal flaw in the film. Battle: Los Angeles doesn’t reinvent the alien invasion film, but just takes a new angle on the whole proceedings. It’s a film that shows influences from better war films by better filmmakers, but also gives hints that this young South African filmmaker has shown glimpses of talent that could take him places that his compatriot Neil Blompkamp has reached with his own alien-themed film. Battle: Los Angeles is just an old-school war film dressed up with modern fatigues and arrived onto the screen with all the positives and negatives of those very same traditional war films people love and hate since film as entertainment was created. It’s not on the same level as District 9 but it is definitely heads and shoulders above the very laughable Skyline of 2010.

As an aside, while I was watching the film I was struck by how this film looked like a preview of what Blompkamp’s potential sequel to his District 9 would look if and when Christopher Johnson came back to Earth with an armada of very pissed off Prawns…and speaking of pissed off Prawn: pig cannon.

Battle: Los Angeles (Super Bowl TV Spot)


This site has been pushing the upcoming alien invasion film, Battle: Los Angeles since the first trailer started coming out several months ago. Sony Pictures has just released the latest one and this Super Bowl tv spot is shorter than the usual trailers, but it definitely shows the potential for this film’s awesomeness.

It pretty much uses some of the same footage from the previous trailers, but shows new ones of the soldiers’ reaction to the initial stages of the invasion and how they’ll be the one’s to have to fight the big fight.

The film comes out on March 11, 2011.

Battle: Los Angeles (Trailer 3)


There’s not much else I can say about this upcoming alien invasion film coming out on 3-11-2011. I shall be there on Day One to see it in all it’s big-screen glory. This third trailer show’s a bit more of the alien race doing the invading and the unit of U.S. Marines set to repel and fight them off. I will say that final scene in the trailer with what looked like a massive construct made out of the rubble of Los Angeles just whetted my appetite to see this film even more. Talk about a moneyshot.

Below are the two other official trailer released for Battle: Los Angeles.

Battle: Los Angeles (International Teaser Trailer)

Battle: Los Angeles (Official Trailer)

 

Battle: Los Angeles (International Teaser Trailer)


Funny how certain films in the US get a change in how they’re titled for the overseas market.

A couple weeks ago the first trailer for Jonathan Liebesman’s alien invasion film, Battle: Los Angeles, was posted and it certainly looked a tad better than this year’s big alien invasion flick, Skyline. They share not just the type of film it wants to be but the location as well. Both are set in Los Angeles and both seem to be CGI-heavy affairs. Where the Brother Strause’s film was so bad that it was good this film from Liebesman looks to marry alien invasion with Black Hawk Down for a much more down in the ground action.

This new teaser trailer is the international version and it shows a bit more of the action we’ll be seeing in this film. There is one little change which I find more than just a tad bit amusing. When the teaser finally ends we don’t see the title as Battle: Los Angeles, but instead we get the more international sounding World Invasion: Los Angeles. I guess the studio thinks the film will do better overseas by making it sound like the invasion is global instead of local the way the original title has it.

Fret not fellow Americans! The voiceover does say, after listing cities both in the US and around the globe, that we cannot lose Los Angeles thus….USA! USA! USA!