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Alita: Battle Angel (2019)

James Cameron has been dreaming about making Alita: Battle Angel for decades. He bought the rights to the 90s manga and has been sitting on the property, having to continuously push it back because of technological demands and the demands of, at last count, a thousand Avatar sequels. Cameron co-wrote the screenplay and handed the directorial duties over to Robert Rodriguez (Sin City), a talented visual stylist who has been struggling of late. The marriage looks good and the final 122-minute feature is the closest a live-action film has ever gotten into replicating the look and feel of an anime, for better and worse.

Hundreds of years after the fall of civilization, a lonely scrapper and doctor, Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers the remains of a cyborg with a still beating heart. He puts her back together with a new body and names her Alita (Rosa Salazar). She’s special and learning about the big new world, trying to unlock her memories of the past, and we’re talking way way back into the past. She’s old technology, something that’s quite valuable for the street gangs that strip amputees for parts and for the global corporation whose emissary (Mahershala Ali) needs to reclaim the powerful tech. Alita falls in love, learns about her sense of humanity, and fights lots and lots of robotic villains.

This visual decadence of Battle Angel is the greatest reason to see it, especially on the big screen if able. The future setting is immediately visually engaging, with people walking around with mechanical limbs that look like they were literally cobbled together with whatever junk was lying around. There is a have/have not dichotomy between the huddled masses trying to eek out a living in a garbage city and the floating metropolis above that regularly dumps its trash onto the people below. It’s easy to see the influences of Battle Angel in other media, like Elysium, as well as its own cyberpunk influences, from the likes of Blade Runner to recycling the chief sport of Rollerball. The character design is to die for in this movie, with exceptionally assembled figures that stand out in memorable, dangerous, sometimes junky ways. There are a number of different robotic killers with colorful and unique weapons and personalities, and the larger world invites further scrutiny. There is a bustling post-apocalyptic life here and it’s plastered on a splashy, broad visual canvas with some spectacular special effects. Not all of the effects are at the highest level, from some compositing issues with faces to the big anime eyes (more on that later), but Battle Angel is an expensive movie that puts it all onscreen. The world is fun to watch and the action sequences feel ripped directly from the manga, with larger-than-life creatures fighting in vicious and frenetic ways. Even when the movie feels like it’s losing its momentum there’s always the visuals to enjoy.

The central idea of this post-apocalyptic junk town being populated with deadly bounty hunters who work for a mysterious conspiracy is a great starting point. There is a bevy of killers with different allegiances and different codes, and then you throw in a powerful new addition who doesn’t remember her hidden past and you’ve got a recipe for drama and conflict with some crazy characters. There are even little dark touches that I would have thought would have been clipped in the adaptation process. Battle Angel has so much going for it that it can get a little frustrating when it feels like it’s spending so long to stay in the same place. The plot revelations are fairly predictable but still effective, but the long delays between them are filled with numerous action set pieces that diminish a sense of progression. I liked the Alita character and her relationship with her surrogate human father, but I didn’t think enough of any other relationship she had in the film. I wasn’t that invested in uncovering her past, which was still a bit too vague for me as a non-reader of the source material. At the end of the story, Rodriguez has set up his audience for a continuing saga of strife that feels too incomplete. Alita has learned more about herself (though I’m still confused) and has a goal of vengeance (against a force that is left too vague) and a renewed sense of purpose (built upon a relationship that doesn’t feel that affecting). It’s a curious end point and a questionable decision for a movie this expensive to assume it would secure demand for a presumptive sequel.

Where Battle Angel began losing me was because its title character, Alita, became too overpowered for her own good, eliminating a sense of stakes early on. The battle calculus skewed far too quickly. After the first act, actually from her first fight onward, there is never any doubt whether Alita will triumph. She doesn’t undergo any training or any real learning curve when it comes to her superhuman defense. Right from the get-go she’s doing amazing acts of fight choreography and making it all look easy. She even defeats an enemy when she’s only a one-armed torso. That’s admittedly impressive but another indicator that there is no real threat that can be posed against her. No matter how huge the cyborg, or how many pointy appendages at their disposal, it’s only a matter of time before our little pint-sized warrior is eventually triumphant. There is really only one fight where she’s presented with any slight disadvantage, the aforementioned one-armed torso sequence, but this too is shortly rectified. She goes from having a nigh-invincible body to an even more nigh-invincible body, making her, you guessed it, even more powerful. This reality takes something away from the numerous cyborg-on-cyborg battles, and without greater variance on the scene-to-scene needs, the fights become somewhat stale. Visually they are still impressive with a sense of fun watching the manga pages come to startling life, but without stakes and variance, it’s all the same punches with less power.

Now Battle Angel isn’t the only story to deal with an overwhelmingly powerful protagonist (see: Neo, Superman, just about every character on Dragonball). The solution is usually a specifically applied weakness or, most often, the vulnerability of those closest to the hero. It’s the regular people that can be gotten to, that can be endangered, that approximate the “weakness” for the overpowered protagonist. However, for this to work, you need an emotional connection to the characters in order to feel their potential loss. This cannot work if the characters are stuck in archetypal mode and add little help. That’s the problem with Battle Angel; I didn’t really care about any of the other characters. They had points of interest, a tragic shared back-story, a dream to escape their earthbound poverty, some secrets they don’t want getting out, but it’s never enough to make them feel that much more refined than the secondary background players. The film doesn’t even go the route of really threatening the more vulnerable people in Alita’s life, which is a strange miscalculation. What we’re left with is a very kickass robot woman doing her thing and taking down the big bad cyborgs. It’s entertaining and there’s enough of an interest in bullies being beaten by the underdog, but Alita isn’t really the underdog and so the many action sequences become a tad tedious.

Salazar (The Maze Runner: The Death Cure) gives an expressive performance and enables her superhuman cyborg to find a semblance of her humanity. Because of the character design the degree of performance capture relies much on the micro expressions of Salazar, so if she overdoes it then Alita can lose that tenuous sense of reality. She finds a balance that makes her feel real, at least real enough to exist in this world. Waltz (Downsizing) is enjoyably paternal with a few dark secrets of his own. His rocket-powered pickax thingy falls under my category of something that’s futuristic but not exactly practical. This wouldn’t present much of a problem except his character is an expert at using the parts he can scrounge up to get the job done. Skrein (Deadpool) has found a real career for being sneering villains with oh-so punchable faces, and he succeeds yet again. Ali (Green Book) and Jennifer Connelly (Only the Brave) deliver enough with so little that you wish the screenplay asked more of them than the occasional in-shadows skulking. It’s interesting to look at this cast, which has four Oscars to their names (possibly another one for Ali), and an additional nominee with Jackie Earl Haley.

Let’s talk about those eyes. The film is based upon a popular manga and anime and James Cameron was determined, from the earliest point, to recreate that stylized big-eyed look famous to Japanese art. It’s one thing on the page and another brought into real life, and the response has been all over the place. Some cite the uncanny valley and cringe while others argue it makes Alita more vulnerable, the eyes being the window to the soul and all. It does set her apart from the crowd, which is supposed to befit her character and where she came from, so to that end it works. It’s not as distracting as I feared and you do grow accustomed to them. However, was any of it necessary? Would we feel any different for Alita if she had more human-sized eyes? I doubt it. The costly effect of a very costly movie ($200 million reported) made me think of a similar quirk with the 2011 Green Lantern film where Ryan Reynolds’ suit was a CGI effect. Rather than simply wearing a costume the filmmakers spent millions applying one in post-production, and in the end what of value did it offer to the experience?

It’s hard for me to watch Alita: Battle Angel and understand why this was a property that James Cameron set aside for almost two decades. What about this makes it special or at least separates it from the pack of imitators? It’s a world with points of interest and characters that could be interesting, though many stop short at the design phase. The live-action version is entertaining and visually sumptuous, but I was finding myself grow tired of the film’s loose stakes, predictable plotting, simplistic themes, and archetypal characterization. The action can be pretty fun but even as Alita lines up more obstacles and more enemies we never feel threatened or concerned. Without a larger sense of danger and plot development the many fights start to grow monotonous. The special effects are wild but they service a story that seems ordinary genre. Alita: Battle Angel ought to please fans of the source material but it short-circuited for my attention.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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Welcome to Marwen (2018)

When I saw the trailer for Welcome to Marwen my first response was pained wincing. Robert Zemeckis is one of the most daring, inventive, and imaginative filmmakers working today, but this movie just looked misguided with its approach. Welcome to Marwen is so fascinating, so tonally off, that I might almost recommend people watch it.

Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell) was a war illustrator until the day he was attacked by a gang of neo Nazis. In the ensuring months, Mark has lost portions of his memory, is unable to use his hands to illustrate any longer, and has become something of a shut-in. He has gained notoriety through his new artistic outlet. Mark has created a WWII era Belgian town called Marwen with a group of dolls fighting evil Nazis. We escape into fantasy sequences where Mark imagines himself as Cap’N Hogie and his gang of supportive ladies. Nicol (Leslie Mann) moves in next door to Mark and he takes an immediate interest in her (she even appears in Marwen in doll form). Mark must grapple with his feelings and work up the courage to attend the court hearing to make sure the men who hurt him stay in prison.

I was amazed at how miscalculated Welcome to Marwen plays out. It feels like Steve Carell’s Patch Adams, a sentimental movie where every step seems strange, mistaken, maudlin, and false. Firstly, this is the second documentary that Zemeckis has taken and adapted into a live-action film, as if the man is spending the wee hours of his nights pouring over award-winning documentaries of the past and determining which he can add a little razzle dazzle to with visual whimsy. Look out The Cove because maybe an undersea realm of talking dolphins will open up that horrifying Oscar-winner to a whole new mainstream audience. I’d have less of an issue with Zemeckis remaking the documentary if it didn’t seem like his entire rationale was the fantasy interludes.

The original documentary is about one man and his unique brand of healing through art. He is becoming further whole by building an intricate world through his imagination. By visualizing the fantasy worlds, Zemeckis is turning the doll segments into literal escapism that becomes tedious, obvious, and often redundant. The doll segments are about his gang of girls supporting him, expressing his interest in his kind new neighbor, and tackling the Nazis in a safe space where he can win. Every time we cut to the doll sequences it feels like the movie is spinning its wheels with these ill advised fantasy cut scenes. It gets boring watching the doll segments without any sense of stakes. The special effects are creepy and there are aspects that amplify this, like one doll’s penchant for having her top ripped off in combat, revealing her stout, rounded chest. Keep in mind that the female dolls, with the exception of one, are all analogues for people in his life, so then Mark is consistently indulging in stripping one woman of her clothes. Even though the movie sets this character up to be a potential love interest, it’s still not a good choice. Zemeckis intends to literalize Mark’s struggles and fears so that he can triumph over them, but it feels like it’s minimizing the complexity of trauma into digestible whimsy. With every trip to Marwen, I was eager to return back to the land of human beings where they might still be over-the-top but at least I wouldn’t have to watch creepy doll CGI.

The most significant doll is the blue-haired Deja Thoris (Diane Kruger) who is meant to represent Mark’s suicidal impulses. He keeps her atop his wall so that she can watch over him, and in his sleep he dreams about her whispering in his ear, “Nobody will ever love you like I do. You should just end it now.” Oh man, that’s heavy, but when applied through the prism of a talking Barbie doll it loses its sense of seriousness. If you don’t lose yourself in the central conceit and take the dolls seriously, the movie will fall flat. Take for instance the cross-dressing aspect of Mark, which is what lead to his brutal beating. It’s a delicate subject and something easy to get muddled, and that’s exactly what happens in the presentation of this movie. The shoe fetish is initially portrayed as wacky and then becomes serious and then becomes like an artifact of horror. It’s another sign that the tone for this movie is mismatched. These things require a delicate touch with some ambiguity and sensitivity. Welcome to Marwen turns these into a loud, noisy cartoon that bumbles into its messages. Things that are meant to be charming or endearing or emotional can come across as goofy or campy or even uncomfortable.

I felt bad for so many of the actors. Carell (Vice) is trying to maintain his character’s sense of dignity throughout, but the story often goes into contrived contortions to force him into dramatic confrontations. It turns out the court appearance is rescheduled to be the same day of Mark’s photographic exhibit. Will he be able to triumph over these forces to stand up for himself? Carell is a capable dramatic actor but he’s struggling here to find stable footing because of the mish mashing tones. The development of Mark makes him come across as a creep in some moments, like his one-sided advances for Nicol, and a simpleton at other moments, where he might have sustained brain damage. Mann (Blockers) is sweet and gentle but strangely the movie hides her most interesting character aspects, like the prospect of a deceased child. You would think overcoming tragedy would be a tool for Nicol and Mark to bond. Merritt Wever (Godless) is another sweet and gentle woman in a world that seems overstocked with them. It feels like everyone in this small town exists just to be nice to Mark. She’s clearly romantically interested in Mark but he doesn’t care until the very end. She deserves better than being someone’s runner-up choice, especially only after he was turned down.

A movie that deals with delicate issues through fantasy escapism can work, but it requires a precise hand with tone and with its storytelling detours. Guillermo del Toro has been able to prove he can tell rich, adult stories with the assistance of whimsical, weird fantasy elements. Charlie Kaufman has been able to weird the mundane and the fantastic. It can be done and Zemeckis has done it himself before, best evidenced by the masterpiece, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. However, Welcome to Marwen is a sizeable tonal misfire. The serious elements don’t blend well with the fantasy elements, and even worse, they are made less serious and approach the realm of camp. The fun, fantasy elements are given bizarre and unsettling contexts that make them creepy and inappropriate. Escaping into Mark’s imagination winds up stripping him of much of his agency, and literalizing his psychological push-and-pull feels like a misguided examination on depression. I left my theater in a daze, trying to make sense of what I had just witnessed. The filmmakers and cast certainly mean well and want the film to be a triumph of the human spirit. I found it to be two meandering hours of watching somebody play with their disused toys.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Baby Driver (2017)

Car chases are one of the greatest things in movie history. The visceral sensation, the speed, the urgency, the thrills, the syncopation of edits to carry out the escalating collateral damage and stakes, it all works to seamlessly create one of the pinnacles of the moving pictures. If you’re going to create a musical where car chases are the chief instrument, then you could do no better than having director Edgar Wright as the maestro. Baby Driver is being hailed by critics as a blast of fresh air, an eclectic wild ride of an action movie with style to spare. That’s true. Unfortunately, this is the first movie of Wright’s career where it feels like the gimmick is all there is to be had.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is the getaway driver for Doc (Kevin Spacey) and his crews. Baby was in a car accident that killed his parents when he was a child and he was left with tinnitus (a “hum in the drum” as Doc dubs it). To drown out the ringing, he listens to music at all times, including during those high-speed getaway chases. In his downtime, Baby romances Debora (Lily James) a diner waitress eager to hit the road without a map. Pulled into one more job, Baby is paired with a hotheaded group of dangerous criminals (Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez) that could threaten his future plans with Debora.

Baby Driver is a gimmick movie, but this isn’t exactly unheard of from Wright. Each of his movies has a strong genre angle that can tip over into gimmicky, so a gimmick by itself is not an indictment. This is, by far, the least substantial film of Wright’s career. Let’s study his previous film, 2013’s The World’s End. Like the other entries in the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), that film has a clear adoration for a certain genre and its styling, in this case alien invasion/pod person sci-fi. It didn’t just emulate the style and expected plot trappings of its genre. It spun them in a new direction while telling an engaging story on the strains of friendship over addiction and stalled maturity. It’s the heaviest and most emotionally grounded film in the trilogy. Every single moment in that movie adds up, every line, every joke, every plot beat, it all connects to form an inter-locked puzzle that would make Christopher Nolan whistle in appreciation. It wasn’t just clever plot machinations of genre parody. It was a layered and heartfelt story. It all mattered. With Baby Driver, what you see is pretty much what you get.

It’s a car chase musical, a novelty that certainly entertains with Wright’s visual inventiveness and ear for music. The film has that alluring quality of wondering what will happen next, especially with its extensive collection of songs on the soundtrack. A trip to get coffee can become a long take perfectly timed so that graffiti and prop placement along street windows lines up with lyric progressions in the song. Some sonic standouts include “Bellbottoms” and Queen’s “Brighton Rock” during the climax. There’s a fun sense of discovery with the movie and each new song presents a new opportunity to see what Wright and his stunt performers do. The car chases are impressively staged and the stuntwork has dynamism to go along with Wright’s high-level energy output. The emphasis on physical production goes a long way to add genuine excitement. This isn’t the ricocheting CGI car chase cartoons of the Fast and Furious franchise. As far as gimmicks go, it’s at least an amusing one. Perhaps I’m just a musical philistine, or more likely my brain just isn’t as accustomed to sound design idiosyncrasies, but I actually wish Wright had done more with his central gimmick. I’m fairly certain I missed half of the connections with the music. If this is the film’s calling card then it needs not be subtle; rub my face in all the clever edits and how the gunshots equal the percussion, etc.

The ceiling imposed upon Baby Driver is because of its characters. Wright and his collaborators have done effective work shading depth to genre characters in the past, even Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which examined unhealthy usury relationships and entitlement. The characters in Baby Driver are defined by their archetype designations and often behave in unbelievable ways just because the plot necessitates them. The worst offender is Baby’s love interest, Debora. Her initial scenes with Baby are sweet and work on their own, but when she’s ready to abandon her life for a guy she met days ago, Debora comes across like one of those people who write engagement proposals to incarcerated felons. Her decision-making leaps don’t feel plausible. I don’t think she’s acknowledged her lingering co-dependency issues. The problems are magnified when so much of the second half involves Debora being put in harm’s way or needing to be rescued. Then there’s Baby, a kid with a conscience who uses music as an escape figuratively and literally. He’s too bland and uncomplicated for the lead. Baby takes care of a deaf foster father. He surreptitiously records conversations to remix them into Auto-Tune cassettes. Yes that really is as dumb as it sounds especially when those conversations involve criminals. All we know about Baby is he’s nice, he wants out, and he’s good at driving. Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) doesn’t have the space to do anything but look cool and springy. The supporting characters are assorted hardasses and nincompoops. Foxx (Django Unchained) seems like he’s there always to push contrived conflict.

As a genre movie with above-average execution, Baby Driver is going to be a suitably enjoyable time at the movies for most. Wright couldn’t make a boring movie if he tried. However, it doesn’t feel like he tried hard enough with Baby Driver, at least to make a full-fledged movie. It’s an admirable assemblage of music and visuals but after a while it feels like a collection of music videos, albeit with highly impressive stuntwork. The movie suffers from overblown hype because it doesn’t have the characters or story to balance the action. There isn’t much of an attachment to what’s going on beyond the surface-level thrills of Wright’s central gimmick. As a result, you may get restless waiting for the next song selection to kick into high gear to provide another pert distraction. It feels like the gimmick has swallowed the movie whole and Wright was too busy timing his precise edits to notice the absence of appealing, multi-dimensional characters. Baby Driver is a fun movie with plenty of sweet treats for your senses but it’s too devoid of substance to be anything other than a rapidly dissipating sugar rush.

Nate’s Grade: B

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