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RED DAWN

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You might have thought it a foolish idea to make a contemporary version of John Milius’ campy 1984 movie about a bunch of kids who forge a resistance movement against a Russian takeover of the U.S. On the evidence of Dan Bradley’s “Red Dawn,” you’d have been right.

The world has changed over the past twenty-eight years, of course, and the thought of Soviet tanks and missiles no longer has quite the same fearful effect. So Bradley and screenwriters Carl Ellsworth and Jeremy Passmore preface their treatment with a montage of fake news reports detailing how international affairs have become increasingly chaotic and dangerous. None of it makes much sense, but it provides the basis for that fearful day when Spokane, Washington suddenly finds itself being taken over by paratroopers and other forces carrying the flag of North Korea—something else that doesn’t make much sense. Anyway, while most of the population is cowed into submission, a ragtag group of teens led by the police chief’s two sons, Jed Eckert (Chris Hemsworth), an ex-Marine, and his younger brother Matt (Josh Peck), repair to a mountain cabin to form a resistance group they name after their high school football team, the Wolverines.

Before long our band of plucky fighters—which include callow Robert (Josh Hutcherson), the collaborationist mayor’s son Daryl (Connor Cruise) and Tori (Adrianne Palicki), who becomes Jed’s love interest—are killing North Korean occupiers, blowing up buildings, and taking aim at quislings, becoming local heroes who get help from courageous residents. There’s a subplot involving Matt’s eagerness to free his girlfriend Erica (Isabel Lucas), who was taken prisoner in the original assault, from her captors—which puts the whole crew in jeopardy—and a soap operatic thread involving Matt’s simmering anger toward Jed, who he believes abandoned him by joining the Corps right after their mother’s death, as well as a tragic moment involving their father (Brett Cullen).

But all that is just padding to the action sequences, which are relatively small-scaled due to the obviously meager budget but are given a kick by Mitchell Amundsen’s handheld camerawork and Richard Pearson’s hyperactive editing. In the last reel the plot deteriorates when an outside resistance fighter (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) shows up to enlist the group in an assault on the North Korean headquarters to steal what becomes the plot’s MacGuffin—a suitcase containing some sort of radio code for the device that’s inhibiting the electrical grid and thereby preventing effective action against the invaders (or something like that). That leads to a shootout in hallways and control rooms that involves self-sacrifice and, at long last, a direct confrontation with Captain Cho (Will Yun Lee), the North Korean commander who’s long been bedeviled by the Wolverines.

“Red Dawn” isn’t much different from the numerous television shows that have been made on similar subjects, whether the idea involved invaders (either earthlings or aliens) or post-apocalyptic fascist locals—things like “V,” “Jericho” or the current “Revolution.” The acting is rudimentary, the dialogue flat, the dramatic situations banal and jingoistic. There is one interesting moment when Jed tells his fighters that their motivation is stronger than that of the occupiers, because they’re defending their homeland while the North Koreans are outsiders with no real stake in the place—a curious sentiment from a fellow supposedly just back from Iraq (and one which you have to wonder whether gung-ho viewers, who will certainly appreciate the script’s allusions to video games, will ruminate on). But basically this is straight-up action fare that never asks any questions beyond where the next round of ammunition is coming from, based on a premise even sillier today than it was a quarter-century ago.

The behind-the-scenes backdrop to “Red Dawn” is an interesting moviemaking footnote: the picture was actually shot three years ago, and then the invaders were depicted as Chinese. The bankruptcy of the original distributor, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, put the picture on the shelf, and the makers decided to render it more marketable in today’s global environment by converting the Chinese to North Koreans—which required some reshooting but mostly dubbing dialogue and digitally altering such things as flags and uniforms. (The Russian advisors who are briefly glimpsed have been left untouched.) That background story, with its motivation not to antagonize the potential Chinese market, would actually make a better movie than the one that’s being released. But no such luck.

HOLY MOTORS

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Anything goes in “Holy Motors,” which is both the strength and the weakness of Leos Carax’s film. On the one hand, the picture’s sheer variety keeps one intrigued, if often morbidly so. On the other, the unpleasantness of many of the component episodes and the incoherence of the whole makes it a chore to sit through. It’s easy to imagine viewers finding it difficult to turn away from the screen, but difficult to imagine them enjoying the experience much.

What’s the movie about? Well, on the surface it shows a fellow named Oliver (Denis Lavant) who’s driven around in a white stretch limo through the night, being given “assignments” that oblige him to dress up in various guises and play different characters, mostly in street-theatre scenes but sometimes apparently in mock movies. It would be tedious to go through all the dozen or so episodes, but a few can be given as examples. One involves his putting on a “motion-capture” suit and engaging in, first, an action scene with a machine gun, and then a steamy sexual encounter with a female figure similarly costumed, though in a red suit. Another has him becoming a grotesque sewer-dweller who, after biting off the fingers of a photographer’s assistant, kidnaps the gorgeous model appearing in the shoot, taking her to his lair, where he dresses her in a burka and then strips to lie on her lap (among other things). Then there’s a scene in which he puts on a mask, brandishes guns on the street and is apparently shot to death. One segment links him with a woman with whom he does a musical number, and in the middle of the picture room is made for an interlude in which he takes up accordion and does a tune with a backup band. At the close a garage-full of identical limos bicker about their prospective obsolescence.

None of this makes literal sense, of course, but it’s not supposed to. The movie is structured as a sort of movie-dream, which “explains” the initial sequence, in which a man in pajamas (Carax himsef) unlocks a hidden door in his bedroom and enters a nightmarish theatre in which a mannequin-like audience watches the screen (showing King Vidor’s “The Crowd,” which of course is a portrait of regimentation) while a dog wanders through the aisles. The various sequences that follow refer repeatedly to the fear of death. And there’s a strain that suggests the dissociative impact of the modern cyberworld on human existence. The two themes are integrated in the sewer-dweller sequence, when the character makes his way through a cemetery in which all the tombstones carry the message “Visit My Website.” You can also read the film as an anthology of movie-genre spoofs, from film noir to musicals to contemporary special-effects extravaganzas, and as a commentary on modern man’s disconnectedness, an absence of real human contact in a web-centered world.

But one can’t impose too much structure or meaning on “Holy Motors”—which is, incidentally, the name of the garage where the limos congregate at the end of their shift. It’s basically a sort of Dada-esque cinematic exercise that reflect the writer-director’s fragmentary dreams and nightmares in their non-linear form. It has some visual impact, courtesy of the cinematography of Caroline Champetier and Yves Cape, and one has to admire Lavant’s commitment to his myriad “roles.” There are also isolated in-jokes that will bring smiles to movie buffs’ faces, like the use of the score, unless my ears are playing tricks, of the 1956 “Godzilla” in the sewer-dweller sequence.

Over the long haul, however, the picture’s innovation pales and it becomes increasingly to feel banal and random. Surrealism has its place, and Canax certainly indulges his taste for it. But by the time those gabbing cars turn up, you’ll probably be thinking that it’s an exercise in overindulgence.