ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019) – Tale of Teen Cyborg Lifted By Impressive Effects

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alita battle angel

I have to admit. I wasn’t overly excited about seeing ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL (2019), even with such heavy hitters as James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez on board.

Its plot about a teenage female cyborg trying to find her identity and purpose in life didn’t exactly entice me. I mean, there have been a lot of movies that have covered similar ground, most of them starring Scarlet Johansson!  Seriously, Johansson could have her own boxed set of these films!  From GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)— the only one in which she actually played a cyborg— to LUCY (2014) — synthetically enhanced human, to HER (2013)— artificial intelligent entity,  to UNDER THE SKIN (2013) — alien— in each of these films she’s played an enigmatic character searching for answers about her identity.

And there have been plenty of these without Johansson.

Yet, guess what? ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL was better than I expected, so much so that I really enjoyed it.

ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is based on a series of manga books by Yukito Kishiro. It takes place in the future, in a world once ravaged by war. Its cities are inhabited by humans, robots, and cyborgs. As the film opens, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the discarded head and shoulders of a cyborg in a scrap heap. Ido makes his living attaching robotic limbs to people who need them, and he uses his skills to attach the cyborg’s upper body to a main frame body he had built years earlier for his daughter who was killed before he had a chance to give her the new body.

The cyborg awakes, a wide-eyed 14 year-old girl eager to learn about both life now and who she once was, and Ido promptly names her Alita, after his deceased daughter. While Ido tries to shield Alita (Rosa Salazar) from life’s dangers, it’s not so easy as she is a teenager who is intent on carving her own path. She befriends a group of teens, learns about the most popular sport in her day, “motorball,” and once she discovers she possesses the skills of a warrior, joins the group of “Hunter-Warriors” to help combat the seedier side of life, as there are murderers on the loose and people who harvest body parts for the black market.

Alita also learns more about her past, as she finds out just who she is and why it is she possesses superior fighting skills and strength.

Speaking of strength, as much as I enjoyed ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL, the strength of this movie is not its story. Very little of what happens in ALITA is all that original, and the film offers little or no insight into the topic of cyborgs and artificial intelligence.

What drives ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL is its special effects and its performances, especially Rosa Salazar’s lead performance as Alita.

As you would expect in a movie produced by James Cameron and directed by Robert Rodriguez, the special effects are second to none. The film is visually stunning throughout.

Without doubt, the most impressive effect is Alita herself. A combination of motion capture, CGI, and live performance by Rosa Salazar brings Alita to life. Visually, her look is flawless. She looks exceedingly real. But Alita is more than that, thanks to Salazar’s performance. Salazar captures personality, nuances, and emotions, and she gives Alita spunk, vivacity, and humanity. Salazar’s performance is up there with Andy Serkis’ work as Gollum in the LORD OF THE RINGS movies and Caesar in the PLANET OF THE APES movies.

Salazar has starred in AMERICAN HORROR STORY (2011), the MAZE RUNNER movies, and most recently in Netflix’ BIRD BOX (2018) along side Sandra Bullock. She’s supported here in ALITA by a fine cast of veterans.

Christoph Waltz does his thing as Dr. Ido. I like Waltz, but truthfully, it’s been a while since he’s taken on a role that has impressed me. Both Jennifer Connolly and Mahershala Ali are on hand as villains here, although neither one really gets to show off their full potential.

And this is certainly a weakness in the film. It doesn’t have a decent villain.

Keean Johnson is enjoyable as Hugo, the young man who befriends Alita and eventually becomes her boyfriend.

James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis, and Robert Rodriguez wrote the screenplay, again based on the manga series by Yukito Kishiro. In creating the character Alita, the script is very successful, but as for the rest, meh. Its story simply did not wow me.

Its main plot is average at best. Alita’s past isn’t hard to figure out, and what she is fighting for, other than to protect her friends and family, isn’t all that grand or exciting. The villain is never clearly defined, and as a result it’s never clear why this shadowy figure wants to destroy Alita.

For most of the movie, Alita was a fascinating enough character to overcome these flaws in the plot, but towards the end, the story starts to run out of gas, and the pace drags.

This is James Cameron’s first script since AVATAR (2009).  Remember that movie? That remains such an odd story. I loved AVATAR when it came out. Sequels were announced, and here we are ten years later and the sequels still haven’t happened. It seems they’ve been in pre-production forever. Supposedly, AVATAR 2 is set for release in 2020.  And that’s the reason Cameron didn’t direct ALITA. He’s been too busy with the AVATAR movies.

Laeta Kalogridis also wrote the screenplay for SHUTTER ISLAND (2010) and TERMINATOR GENISYS (2015).  I know a lot of people hated GENISYS but I really liked that one.

I’ve been a fan of Robert Rodriguez since his fun vampire flick FROM DUSK TO DAWN (1996) which starred George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino. I’ve also really enjoyed his SIN CITY films and MACHETE movies. And he also made the SPY KIDS movies.

Rodriguez always brings an energy and oomph to his movies, and his work here with ALITA is no exception. From the dark look of the film, to its exciting action sequences, like the motorball race, Rodriguez’ signature style is on full display throughout.

I liked ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL a lot, mostly because of its phenomenal technological achievement in creating such a life-like character in Alita. And a huge part of this success is the human element, the motion-capture performance by Rosa Salazar. The combination of acting and special effects create a wonderfully impressive and memorable character.

Alita is worth the price of admission alone, even if her story isn’t.

—END—

 

 

 

 

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GREEN BOOK (2018) – Oscar Contender Worth A Trip to the Theater

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Green-Book

It took a while for GREEN BOOK (2018) to make it to the theaters in my neck of the woods, and so I was only able to see it recently.

This Oscar contender, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Original Screenplay is both worthy of these nominations and a trip to the theater. Had I seen this movie before I had comprised my List of Top 10 movies for 2018, it most certainly would have made the cut.

GREEN BOOK (2018), based on a true story, takes place in 1962 and chronicles the unlikely friendship between an eccentric African-American classical pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and a rough and tough Italian bouncer from Brooklyn, Tony LIp (Viggo Mortensen) who are brought together when Shirley hires Tony to be his personal driver on a concert tour which will take him into the Deep South.

In terms of story construct, the one told in GREEN BOOK is one you’ve seen many times before. Yes, it’s a “buddy story,” that plot where two very different characters spend time together, especially on the road, and eventually they form an unlikely friendship.  It’s been done a million times, from classics back in the day like MIDNIGHT RUN (1988) and PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES (1987) to more recent fare like DUE DATE (2010) and THE HEAT (2013).

But what makes GREEN BOOK different and a cut above the standard “buddy movie” is its dueling themes of racism and racial acceptance.

Shirley’s concert tour is bringing him to the Deep South, as far as Mississippi, not a safe place for a black man in 1962. And that’s where the titular “Green Book” comes in, as it refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a publication which listed places which were safe for blacks to visit. Hence, on the road in the south, Shirley and Tony stay at separate hotels, as Shirley has to stay at hotels which accept Negroes, and these are usually poor decrepit places.

And when Shirley is performing inside the elegant establishments of the wealthy white audiences, who give him rousing applause, he is not allowed to use the bathroom inside these places, nor can he dine there.

Tony Lip, while not from the south, initially holds views that are just as racist. He and his fellow Bronx Italians use racial slurs when speaking of blacks, and when his wife hires two black repairmen, and Tony observes  her giving them something to drink after they’ve finished their job, he takes the empty glasses they drank from and tosses them into the trash.

Yet, when asked by Shirley if he would have trouble working for a black man, Tony says no, and since Tony is a man of his word, it turns out to be true, and as the story goes along, and he observes the way Shirley is treated, he becomes more and more protective of his employer.

The story also takes things a step further. Don Shirley is a man alone. He’s wealthy and educated, and he doesn’t identify with what he sees as his fellow black brethren. He’s more similar in class to the wealthy whites he plays music for, but he certainly doesn’t identify with them.  And then there’s his sexual orientation. By all accounts, Shirley is alone and he’s miserable, and in one of the movie’s best scenes, he breaks down and laments to Tony that he hasn’t been able to find any community that wants him in it.

The script, nominated for an Oscar, by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, and Peter Farrelly does a masterful job at showing not only the racism Don Shirley faced but also the pain he felt at being so isolated from seemingly all walks of life. It also makes Tony Lip the face of white acceptance. At first, Tony may have suppressed any racist feelings just so he could take the job, but later, he truly comes to like and accept Shirley as a person, and his words and actions back that up.

The script also gives Tony the best moments in the film, especially the laugh out loud ones. Indeed, why this movie is also listed as a comedy has to do entirely with Tony. He’s got the best lines in the film, such as when he tries to quote JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you—” speech, but completely botches it and finishes with “Ask what you do for yourself,” and he has the funniest scenes, like when he introduces Shirley to Kentucky Fried Chicken.

The best part of the script is that none of it comes off as superficial or preachy. It makes its points on race simply by allowing its story to unfold. Likewise, the bond between Shirley and Tony is not forced or phony. It’s convincing and natural. The whole story works.

As I said, Mahershala Ali has been nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Dr. Don Shirley, and it’s certainly a powerful performance.

However, GREEN BOOK belongs more to Viggo Mortensen and his portrayal of Tony Lip. Tony is the larger role, and the story mainly focuses on his reaction to racism. In terms of acting, it’s one of the best performances I’ve seen Mortensen give. He plays the Bronx bouncer so effortlessly. And like Ali, Mortensen has also been nominated, for Best Actor.

GREEN BOOK has also been nominated for Best Picture, although it’s not expected to win. Of its four major nominations, according to the experts, Mahershala Ali has the best chance of winning Best Supporting Actor.

GREEN BOOK was directed by Peter Farrelly, of Farrelly Brothers fame. He successfully captures the 1962 setting. There’s a nice contrast of colors, between the bright and opulent upper class white southern establishments and the dark and dreary poverty-laden black establishments.

And one of my favorite scenes brings both worlds together, when Shirley takes Tony into a black friendly restaurant, and Shirley is invited to play piano and ends up jamming with the jazz musicians there. It’s one of the liveliest scenes in the movie, and it allows Shirley for the first time to feel some camaraderie with a culture he had thus far felt alienated from.

I really enjoyed GREEN BOOK. It has a lot to say about racism, using the south in 1962 as its canvas, and it makes its point while not always being heavy-handed. In fact, its tone is quite the opposite. For most of the movie, thanks to Viggo Mortensen’s performance as Tony Lip, you’ll be laughing. Tony is a likeable character who may not be as skilled and as polished as Dr. Don Shirley, but his heart is in the right place, as is his head. He befriends Shirley not only because he likes him but also because deep down he knows that the color of Shirley’s skin has no bearing on what kind of person he is.

GREEN BOOK is a thoroughly satisfying movie that speaks on racism and entertains at the same time. It’s not to be missed.

—END—

 

 

 

 

 

 

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (2018) – Animated Spidey Feature Decent, Not Outstanding

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spider man into the spider universe

So, I went to see SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (2018), a new animated Marvel superhero movie, because the initial reviews were off the charts wild.

Best animated movie of the year! Best Spider-Man movie ever!

That’s some high praise, and so while I don’t usually catch animated films at the theater (I save those for Netflix) I decided to see this one to judge for myself: best Spider-Man movie ever?

I’ll save you the suspense: Nope!

While I enjoyed  SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, to call it the best Spider-Man movie ever is an overstatement.  SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017) with Tom Holland was a better movie, as was Tobey Maguire’s SPIDER-MAN (2002) way back when.

The theme of SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE is that Spider-Man is not the only game in town. We are all superheroes. We all have value. It’s a message of inclusion that resonates, not only because these days promoting messages like this seem to be an uphill battle, but also because it was an ongoing theme in the work of Marvel giant Stan Lee, who just recently passed away.

Speaking of Stan Lee, he lent his voice to this one before he passed away, and so yes, there is yet another Stan Lee cameo in this movie, albeit an animated one.

When the movie opens, Spider-Man boasts that he’s the one and only Spider-Man. But then young Miles Morales is bitten by a radioactive spider, and soon he finds that he too possesses Spider-Man’s abilities. Then, when Wilson Fisk’s secret weapon opens up portals to different dimensions, other versions of Spider-Man enter our present reality. Together, they have to fight Wilson Fisk and also find a way to return the other Spider-Beings back to their proper realities.

As stories go, it’s ambitious but handled in a way that made me cognizant that I was watching an animated feature. The pace was nonstop, which for some folks is a good thing, but for me I just wanted it to slow down a bit. It simply never resonated as well with me as it would have had it been a live action flick.

Regarding the boast that it’s the best animated film of the year, while I haven’t seen enough animated films to comment on the suggestion, I will say that the animation didn’t impress me. Again, maybe I’m showing my age.  Things moved so fast, especially the action scenes, that I found them difficult to follow. The animation also appeared blurry at times, and I felt as if I were watching a 3D movie without 3D glasses.

I actually enjoyed the personal story of Miles Morales more than the Spider-Man plot and the battles with Wilson Fisk. Miles is in a deeply troubled relationship with his dad Jefferson Davis, who wants the best for his son but can never seem to say the right thing, constantly coming down too hard on the teen. To further complicate matters, Miles relates much better to his uncle Aaron, his dad’s brother who is viewed by Miles’ dad as not being a very good role model, and for good reason. This story works well and for me was the best part of the movie.

The voice work is pretty impressive throughout.  Shameik Moore is excellent as young Miles, making the teen likable and sympathetic.

Mahershala Ali knocks it out of the park as Uncle Aaron, which comes as no surprise. Ali is one of my favorite actors working today, and he show here that he can even dominate a movie just by using his voice.

Also lending their talents to this one are Hailee Steinfeld as Gwen Stacy, Brian Tyree Henry as Jefferson Davis Morales, Lily Tomlin as Aunt May, Jake Johnson as Peter B. Parker, Nicholas Cage as Spider-Man Noir, Liev Schreiber as Wilson Fisk, and Chris Pine as Peter Parker.

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE was directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman. Rothman also co-wrote the screenplay with Phil Lord.

And like most other Marvel superhero movies, there is an after-credits scene, and you have to wait until the very end to see it. As after credit scenes go, I found this one a head scratcher. Don’t expect to see Thanos turning anyone to dust.

SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE is a decent enough Spider-Man movie, and is sufficiently satisfying to make it a solid animated film.

But the best Spider-Man movie ever?

Not even close.

—END—

 

HIDDEN FIGURES (2017) – Powerful Movie Has A lot To Say About Race Relations, Gender Roles, NASA.

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I finished 2016 with two terrific movies, LA LA LAND (2016) and MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016).  Now, to begin 2017, I’ve seen a movie equally as good as those two.

HIDDEN FIGURES is an exceptional movie, even better than some critics are giving it credit for.

HIDDEN FIGURES is the true story of three African-American women who worked for NASA as mathematicians in the early 1960s and were instrumental in launching the space campaign, specifically the first orbiting flight by astronaut John Glenn.

It’s  the early 1960s, and Katherine Johnson (Taraji P.Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) all work for NASA as “human computers,” toiling in the background, working nonstop to verify the math for their white male superiors.

Katherine’s big break comes when she goes to work for Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) who’s leading a frustrated group of NASA scientists and mathematicians, fighting a losing battle against a Soviet space program which seems to celebrate one success after another, while NASA is stuck in failure.

At one point in the film, Harrison says he refuses to believe that the Soviets are smarter and better than his people, and he interprets this to mean they’re not working hard enough, and so he puts his team on notice that they will work nonstop and through weekends until they get the job done.

Katherine’s math skills soon become noticeable not only to Harrison but also to astronaut John Glenn (Glen Powell) who after meeting her is so impressed he later personally requests her expertise to validate the math before he makes his historic flight into space.

Katherine’s achievements are all the more impressive because she has to overcome both racial and gender prejudices to accomplish them.  For instance, she has to suffer through the indignity of having a separate coffee pot labeled “colored” which no one will even touch.  There’s also no “colored” bathrooms in the building, so in order to use the bathroom she has to run nearly six blocks in her heels and back, something that is not noticed until Harrison chews her out for being missing from her desk for so long.  When he asks her where she goes, she tells him the bathroom, to which he snaps at her about what the heck takes her so long.  Which sets up one of the best scenes in the movie where she lets loose in an emotional tirade where she finally explains the whole bathroom situation.

An equally powerful scene follows where we see Harrison take a sledge-hammer to the “colored” bathroom sign, declaring “No more segregated bathrooms.  We all pee the same color at NASA.”

Meanwhile, Dorothy finds herself working as a supervisor to the “computers” but without the title or the pay which the position warrants.  Later, when an IBM computer is installed at NASA, with plans on replacing the human computers, Dorothy takes the initiative to read up on the device, and she self-teaches herself to the point where she can operate the machine better than the IBM technicians.  She use this new knowledge to keep her “girls” employed, as she trains them how to operate the IBM computers.

And Mary Jackson, inspired by her superior, a  Jewish man who tells her not to give up, that twenty years earlier he was in a Nazi concentration camp, and now he’s sending rockets to the moon, attempts to earn a college degree so she can join her fellow mathematicians and not simply be a human computer.  But to do so she will need to attend an all white school, which means she needs a judge to give her special permission.

HIDDEN FIGURES is an inspiring movie that works on multiple levels.  It has a lot to say about race relations and overcoming prejudices, as well as what it took to make NASA’s early space flights a success.  It’s SELMA (2014) meets APOLLO 13 (1995).

The acting is wonderful.

Taraji P. Henson shines as Katherine G. Johnson.  Henson makes Katherine a strong-willed woman who is both a single mother and a brilliant mathematician.  She also shows off the character’s vulnerabilities, and we get to see her softer side in a romance subplot where she becomes involved with a handsome military man, Colonel Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali).  She also makes Katherine, in spite of her nerdiness, adorable and sexy .

Henson currently stars in the TV show EMPIRE, and she previously starred in the show PERSON OF INTEREST (2011-2015).  I last saw her in the movie NO GOOD DEED (2014), a thriller in which she co-starred with Idris Elba, a film that I didn’t like very much.  She didn’t wow me at all in that movie, but here in HIDDEN FIGURES she’s brilliant.

Octavia Spencer is nearly as good as Dorothy Vaughan, who is probably the strongest of the three women and is seen as the glue which holds them together.  Spencer won an Oscar for her supporting role in THE HELP (2011), and while she probably won’t win an Oscar here, she’s still very good.

Equally as powerful as Henson and Spencer is Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson.  As Jackson, Monae gets some of the best lines in the movie.  Her scene in court as she attempts to convince a white judge to rule in her favor, to allow her to attend class at an all-white school, is also one of the more powerful scenes in the film.

Kevin Costner adds strong support as hard-nosed NASA man Al Harrison. He’s abrupt, no-nonsense, and heartless, and so later when even he is won over by Katherine, it’s all the more impressive.

Jim Parson, Sheldon on the TV show THE BIG BANG THEORY, plays it straight here as Paul Stafford, a white mathematician working for Al Harrison who feels jealous and threatened by Katherine.  He does a nice job in the role. Glen Powell also enjoys some fine moments as young astronaut John Glenn, a performance made even more touching since Glenn just passed away on December 8, 2016.

And Mahershala Ali who seems to be popping up everywhere these days also adds distinguished support as Colonel Jim Johnson, the man who falls in love with Katherine. Ali has been equally impressive on the TV shows HOUSE OF CARDS as Remy Danton, and as the villain “Cottonmouth” on the stylish Marvel TV show LUKE CAGE.  Of course, Ali is also starring in the highly touted and critically acclaimed movie MOONLIGHT (2016) a film which is expected to compete for Best Picture this year.  It’s a film I missed, because sadly, it did not play near me for very long.

Kirsten Dunst also shows up as Vivien Mitchell, the woman who Dorothy and her “human computers” have to report to, and she’s not too sympathetic to their plight, at least not at first.  Dunst is in her thirties now.  It seems like only yesterday she was Mary Jane in the Tobey Maguire SPIDERMAN movies. Time flies.

Theodore Melfi does a fine job directing this one.  It looks good as a 1960s period piece, and Melfi makes full use of some vivid colors here.  He also does a nice job balancing the stories of the three women. Melfi’s previous film was ST. VINCENT (2014), a comedy-drama starring Bill Murray, a film I liked a lot.  I enjoyed HIDDEN FIGURES even more.

Melfi also co-wrote the screenplay to HIDDEN FIGURES, along with Allison Schroeder, based on the book by Margot Lee Shetterly.  It’s a strong script which strikes a nice balance between a story about race relations, prejudice, against both race and gender, and an exciting tale about the early space program. It also works as a character study of the three women in the story, as we really get to know and like these women a lot.

Some critics have complained that this movie doesn’t get dark enough, that the race issues are glossed over and sugar-coated to earn the film’s PG rating.  I disagree.  The sequence, for example, involving Katherine’s having to use a “colored” bathroom in a building located six blocks from where she works is powerful as is.  You don’t need bloodshed and strong language to get the point.

As such, with a PG rating, the important message that HIDDEN FIGURES presents can also be viewed by those younger than 13 years old.

HIDDEN FIGURES is a powerful movie, with a lot to say about race relations.  It also delivers a positive and much-needed message to the world today,  a world where race still divides rather than unites.

2017 has just begun.  There are a lot more movies to go, but HIDDEN FIGURES was the first movie I saw this year, and it’s instantly one of my favorites.

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Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.