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Of wolves and squid: 'Red Riding Hood' and 'Battle: Los Angeles'

"Red Riding Hood," the new film by director Catherine Hardwicke, who is behind those "Twilight" movies, is a sort of medieval take on "Peyton Place." As in the book by Grace Metalious, "Red Riding Hood" is about a small community with shame and scandal hidden behind every door. Except, in this case, one of those secrets is that somebody is a werewolf.

Amanda Seyfried in "Red Riding Hood"
Warner Bros.
Amanda Seyfried in "Red Riding Hood"

This is not the first film to get the idea of taking this particular nursery tale and turning it into a werewolf story, which, if you think about it, with its climactic presentation of lupis grandmotheris, was already sort of wolfman-ish. No, there was a 1984 film, the second by the extraordinary Irish filmmaker Niel Jordan, called "The Company of Wolves." The whole of that film was shot through with a sense that it was a product of a gibbering Jungian unconscious, in which any man, if stimulated enough, might suddenly open his mouth, lean his head back, and have a rampaging wolf suddenly leap out of his gullet.

Hardwicke's film isn't far removed from Jordan's, especially in its set design, which seems less inspired by any actual medieval village and more a product of a terrified unconscious. This is a village in which every building is fortified, with angular spikes jutting out from the rooftops, surrounded by an inhospitable forest, in which every tree likewise has long spikes jutting out from it; the whole set bristles with danger, as though any misstep could leave a character impaled.

About half of the population of the village seems to be made of woodsmen, who are forever out there chopping at trees, and yet the forest never seems to get any smaller. Beyond that? A frozen lake and a craggy, snow-topped mountain, where the werewolf is supposed to live. I'd ask why the characters in the film chose to live in such a harsh, uncompromising environment, but there is a risk they would respond by asking why I live in Minnesota.

In such a small community, you have the choice of either never misbehaving or getting very good at covering it up; human nature being what it is, they have chosen the latter. They are a people haunted by a wolf, whom they appease by sacrificing livestock every full moon. But then the wolf starts killing humans again. Further, during one of his murderous rampages, he finds the heart-faced and wet-eyed Amanda Seyfried and demands she join him in the woods — if not, he'll kill everyone in the vollage.

And suddenly, everybody's secrets come out. This is especially prompted by the arrival of wolf-hunter Gary Oldman in priest vestments, silver fingernails, and thick Eastern European accent, who brings with him a retinue of African soldiers and an enormous brazen bull-style torture device, an elephant made of metal, which is put over a fire and then filled with sinners. He gathers the town and declares, like a 1930s detective, that the killer is among them.

Far outside of town there is a grandmother, and of course there is, and they very cleverly cast Julie Christie. I suspect the target audience for "Red Riding Hood" will not have seen many of Miss Christie's films from when she was young, but in the '60s she was the poster girl for films about strong-willed and sexually adventurous young women and the troubles they faced. Admittedly, she never had to date a lycanthrope, but, then, she was Warren Beatty's girlfriend for quite a while, so she certainly has some experience with wolves. She'd be the perfect person for Seyfried to run to, either for romantic advice (Seyfried's character is in a rather throwaway romance with two equally pleasant and good-looking young men), or for questions about wolfmen. Except that Christie always seems to be dressed in animal furs and is always cooking some sort of suspicious stew. Is she the werewolf? Well, maybe — but almost anybody in town could be. They're all equally suspicious. I sort of expected it to turn out like Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express," and have it come out at the end that everybody is a werewolf.

This is the sort of film that is likely to do poorly with critics and well with audiences, which has come to be director Hardwicke's speciality. And, unlike the director's previous "Twilight" films, which were burdened by the schizophrenic desire for and fear of sexuality of author Stephenie Meyer, this film stars a character who really, genuinely wants to have sex, so it's likely to appeal to a more daring audience. I'd say file it under guilty pleasures, but I think that one should never feel guilty about art that gives one pleasure. And, oddly enough, this seems to be the same case that the film is making: That we can live with hidden shame, and it will eventually come back to murder us, or we can choose to live without shame, and discover unanticipated pleasures as a result.

There is no such subtlety in "Battle: Los Angeles," the most recent in a long series of films in which aliens invade and immediately look to destroy the Entertainment Capitol of the World, perhaps as the result of having received a transmission of one too many Adam Sandler films.

Storming the beaches at Santa Monica: "Battle: Los Angeles"
Columbia Pictures
Storming the beaches at Santa Monica: "Battle: Los Angeles"

The film couples the hoariest military clichés with a fairly credible cinéma vérité style, and it's a bit discombobulating. Hollywood has learned a lot of lessons from documentaries such as "Restrepo," which followed 15 months in the lives of soldiers deployed to Afghanistan's Korengal Valley. "Battle: Los Angeles" effectively borrows the single-camera, man-on-the-ground looks of those documentaries, where everything is engulfed in smoke and enemies are only visible by the tracers their bullets leave through the air. I don't know what it would actually look like to follow a machine gun detachment of Marines on a mission to find survivors of an alien invasion of Santa Monica, but I suspect it would look very much like this.

Somehow, this particular detachment seems to have managed to get made up of refugees from every World War II movie ever made, including the naif virgin, the affable fellow who is about to get married, the staff sergeant who suspiciously lost men in a previous engagement, and the training-academy lieutenant who has never seen combat before and immediately panics. Perhaps knowing their clichés are sort of outdated, the filmmakers eventually throw Michelle Rodriguez in to play the Michelle Rodriguez character.

But whatever. We came to see Marines and squid-headed aliens engaged in protracted gun battles on the Santa Monica Freeway, and that's what the film gives us. Complaining that a film like this is full of clichés is like complaining that a Berliner pastry is full of jelly — of course it is! What did you expect them to fill it with? Nuance? There's no time for that when the Hippodrome has been leveled, squid have established a command point on Ocean Avenue, and they're pounding the bluffs with air support. Now lock and load, soldier, we're airborne in 20. Do you want to live forever? Oorah!

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