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+
The movie going experience isn’t what it used to be, and Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez want to do something about it. There?s no denying that the joy of seeing a movie has been watered down a bit; there’s soaring ticket prices, floundering product, and let’s not forget the influx of teenagers with cell phones. Rodriguez and Tarantino grew up gorging upon the exploitation films at their neighborhood grindhouse, where they could see kung-fu, blaxploitation, gory Italian zombie movies, and nearly anything that promised to be titillating and shocking. These movies dealt in copious amounts of sex and violence on a shoestring budget and teenagers lapped it up. Grindhouse was designed to be a double feature with Rodriguez and Tarantino each writing and directing an 80-minute movie. This three-hour plus movie is stuffed to the gills with 70s reverence, right down to cheesy retro clips telling us the film rating via an animated cat. If Rodriguez and Tarantino could, they probably would make the floors stickier just to round out the experience. But that’s the marvelous thing about Grindhouse –– it turns the filmgoing experience into an event once again.
First on the bill is Rodriguez’s Planet Terror. An outbreak is about to sweep across a small Texas town. A toxic green gas is causing people to break out in festering wounds that are spreading rapidly. Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan) is a go go dancer who runs into an old flame, Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), a badass drifter with a dark past. They get attacked by a group of “sickos” who take Cherry’s leg as a chew toy. At the hospital we’re introduced in rapid succession to Dr. Block (Mary Shelton) and her creepy husband (Josh Brolin) she plans on leaving for the lovingly massive cleavage of Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas (she gets eaten and can, one assumes, be described as being Fergilicious). The sheriff (Michael Biehn) has an unsettled score with Wray and refuses to trust him, even though the town is slowly being overrun by what appear to be zombies. The survivors take refuge at a Bar-B-Q joint, run by the sheriff’s brother J.T. (Jeff Fahey), located only two miles away from the military outpost that released the gas.
Planet Terror is a great blast of fun, a perfect ode to schlocky B-movies. Rodriguez creates action movies closer to cartoons, and the more over-the-top and crazy things get the more joyous his films generally turn out. This is a gonzo world cranked up to a wonderfully weird wavelength, where Cherry can have a machine gun leg without any nagging question on how she even gets it to fire let alone why it would be more accurate. It doesn’t matter because this movie is all about 80-minutes of awesome, twisted, gloriously gory fun. Planet Terror isn’t the first zombie comedy, and its inspirations are quite plain, but the film establishes a wide-range of colorful characters effectively and then ramps up the chaos. Rodriguez amuses with even small touches, like a woman trying to operate a car with a anesthetized hands, a pair of skimpy babysitters who clobber a car with baseball bats, and a bio-chemical scientist (Naveen Andrews) that has a penchant for collecting and bottling the testicles of the men who fail him (hey, we all need hobbies). Even amongst an exaggerated canvas there’s still plenty of humor and adoration for the grindhouse experience, like when the beginning of a sex scene is interrupted with a “reel missing” sign. Rodriguez also intentionally downgrades the look of his film, adding hairs and scratches and pops in the film to look like it had been dragged across the floor. Planet Terror even has a dreadfully dated synth score to compliment the full-tilt celebration of splattery schlock.
Tarantino’s Death Proof is going to sharply divide audiences. The action in Planet Terror is relentlessly paced, which makes the adjustment to Tarantino?s half all the more hard. Rodriguez is all about genre relevance and making a film that would excel in the grindhouse era; Tarantino, on the other hand, is all about taking the genre and catapulting it into something ambitious and different and greater.
Death Proof is Tarantino’s take on the slasher horror genre, with the unique twist being that Tarantino?s roving killer takes out his prey with his car. Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell) is a stuntman of the old guard. The youth of the day have no idea of the TV shows he worked on or the celebrities he rubbed elbows with. The only lasting visages he has from those removed days are a long scar decorating the side of his face and his stunt car. The vehicle has been outfitted to be death proof, meaning that Stuntman Mike can get into any wreck and come out alive. A group of women are visiting Tennessee for a film shoot. Abernathy (Rosario Dawson) is a makeup artist, Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is an actress, and Zoe Bell (herself) and Kim (Tracie Thoms) are professional stuntwomen. The stunt ladies are interested in test-driving a Dodge Charger, the same iconic car used in Vanishing Point. Zoe wants to play a dangerous game known as “Ship’s Mast,” which entails strapping herself to the hood of the car as it speeds along. This is when Stuntman Mike comes roaring with his death proof material and plays an extreme game of chicken.
The narrative structure of Death Proof is deliberately slow. The focus is on a group of Texas girls (including Sydney Poitier’s daughter named, rather unoriginally, Sydney Poitier). They dance to jukebox jams and drink. And they talk, and talk, and talk, and talk. The dialogue is clever but you worry Tarantino has been hypnotized by his own pithy writing. The movie drags a bit but mostly because it follows a film that had the pace of a runaway train. The slow buildup is an intentional correlation to slasher films, which would spend their first half hour setting up characters for the eventual slaughter. I liked how Stuntman Mike was seen playing with his prey and interacting with them. The wait is worth it, though, but then Tarantino turns around and repeats this same setup with a new batch of girls. Many will grow impatient going through the same process all over again and become irritated that they have to endure another round of talky pop culture diatribes in order to get to some more vehicular manslaughter. And at this point, the only character the audience has any affinity for is Stuntman Mike, so it’s a little tough to wait so long for his reappearance. When he does appear, the movie takes some unexpected turns and transforms into a female revenge thriller that left my audience cheering by its conclusion. My wife loved it. I married the right woman.
The makeup work is outstanding. Most of the effect work gets its spotlight during Rodriguez’s half, and Greg Nicotero and KNB have created the most gut churning, sickeningly inventive makeup work since John Carpenter’s The Thing. Rodriguez’s Planet Terror is dripping in blood, and the gore is heightened to such an unrealistic, comical degree that it becomes more tolerable and, in the end, another element in the overall outrageous vibe of the film. Some memorable gore work includes makeup pioneer Tom Savini being ripped apart like a child’s jigsaw puzzle, soldiers whose faces undulate and bubble until they look like close relatives of the Elephant Man, and a truck smashing against bodies like they were made of paper and filled to the brim with Kool-Aid. This is the kind of movie where entire hoses of blood explode from single gun shot wounds. It is a gory, gruesome, sticky icky movie but that?s part of the fun.
Whereas the makeup work shines in Planet Terror, the stunt work in Death Proof is stupendous. Bell was Uma Thurman’s stunt double in the Kill Bill tandem, so by writing a part specifically for her Tarantino knew he could get up close and personal during the scary moments. Seeing Bell struggling to stay atop the hood of a car zooming at 80 miles per hour is nerve-racking and exhilarating, and you know there isn’t any computer trickery given how Tarantino’s own characters bemoan how computers have blunted action cinema output. That really is Bell and even though it’s all a movie a part of you does think, “Oh my God, this woman is going to die for real.” This killer bumper-car sequence in Death Proof will have you holding your breath. It takes much longer for Tarantino to rev up his action, but when he does he puts the pedal to the mettle.
But don’t get up for pee breaks once Planet Terror is over, because you may miss some of the best parts of Grindhouse. In between the feature films are three fake trailers directed by friends of Tarantino and Rodriguez, who made a fake trailer himself for Machete, about a Federale (Danny Trejo) out for revenge. The Machete trailer gave me the everlasting gift of a line, “They f***ed with the wrong Mexican.”
The best trailer, hands down, is Shaun of the Dead director Edgar Wright?s trailer for Don’t, a Dario Argento style horror film where a narrator instructs the audience lots of items not to do (“If you are thinking about turning this door… DON’T! If you think about going into the basement… DON’T!”). What makes Don’t so wonderful is that the trailer builds a thick head of steam, to the point where all wee see are bizarre rapid-fire images and the announcing repeating the message, “DON’T!” The momentum builds to a great comic high that left me giggling.
Eli Roth, who gave us Hostel and Cabin Fever, one of my all-time favorite filmgoing experiences, runs a close second with his slasher trailer for Thanksgiving. The concept is rather straightforward, a person dressed as a Pilgrim picks off residents around Turkey Day, and a great showcase for Roth’s sense of tongue-in-cheek homage and his warped sense of humor. This trailer has some gasp-inducing moments, chiefly among them a topless cheerleader who performs the splits right onto a knife blade. Wow. Then there’s a guy humping a stuffed turkey with a human head attached. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Roth is one sick bastard but he’s my kind of bastard.
Rob Zombie’s trailer for Werewolf Women of the S.S. sounds better on paper than how it turns out. There’s a subgenre of Naziploitation films (did you know you could add “-sploitation” to damn near any word?), most famously popularized by Ilsa, She-Wolf of the S.S. Zombie?s trailer has got hairy wolf boobs, Nazis, shiny fetish outfits and S&M, but it feels too new and doesn’t work on the same vibe of Grindhouse. It feels too polished and too happy with itself; it spends more time telling you who’s in this fake movie than delivering anything juicy. The trailer is saved by a brilliant cameo by an actor whom I will not spoil, but suffice to say that I was left in stitches.
Honestly, I cannot say another movie released this year that provides more bang for your buck than Grindhouse. Tarantino and Rodriguez’s double bill will leave you giddy. This is the fastest 3 hours and 10 minutes of your life, folks. Unfortunately, the film hasn’t been doing as well at the box-office and this has caused the Weinsteins to contemplate splitting the films into two to make the most of their investment. I suppose Grindhouse was never going to have a 300-sized audience, since the idea of making a sloppy three-hour love letter to trashy cinema seems destined for a limited appeal. This is a high-art tribute to high camp, and you really do feel you get more than your money’s worth even if you pay, like I do, 10 bucks a pop for a show. I can’t imagine having a better time at the movies this year than the one I had during Grindhouse.
Nate’s Grade: A
Like film noir on steroids. Director Robert Rodriguez has made the most faithful comics adaptation ever; giving life to Frank Miller’s striking black and white art. The visuals are sumptuous but the storytelling is just as involving, a perfect mix of noir/detective elements and subversive, highly memorable characters. Sin City may be the most violent studio film … ever, but the over-the-top tone keeps the proceedings from becoming too nauseating, even after limbs are lost, heads roll (and talk), and dogs pick away at living bodies. This is a very ball-unfriendly movie; lots of castrations. The blood even looks like fluorescent bird crap. The stories become somewhat repetitious (anti-hero saves distressed woman), but Miller and Rodriguez keep their tales tight, pulpy, comic, and unpredictable. My girlfriend turned to me after it was done and said, “That was a great movie.” I could not argue.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Robert Rodriguez (From Dusk Till Dawn, The Faculty) wrote, directed, produced, photographed, edited, and scored Once Upon a Time in Mexico. I’m sure if you look further this jack-of-all-trades also provided coffee and donuts. Coming off his third Spy Kids feature, Rodriguez seems like the hardest working man in showbiz. Mexico, a sequel to 1995’s Desperado, is one tasty burrito of stylish action, vigorous energy and the immensely appealing Johnny Depp.
Depp stars as Sands, an amoral CIA agent who calls Mexico his beat. Through the help of a one-eyed flunky (Cheech Marin), he recruits a mysterious gunman, El Mariachi (Antonio Banderas), to thwart a coup being lead by Marquez, a military general, and paid for by a drug cartel run by Barillo (Willem Dafoe, a.k.a. the Creepiest Man Alive). Then theres also a retired FBI Agent (Ruben Blades) looking to settle a personal score with Barillo, a Federale (Eva Mendes) looking for some action, a nasty hired gun (Danny Trejo) itching to off a certain Mariachi, Mickey Rourke with a Chihuahua, Enrique Iglesias with a mole, and also the fact that Marquez, who Banderas has been assigned to kill, murdered Banderas wife (Salma Hayek) and daughter. Ill stop so you can catch your breath. Ready? Okay.
You better think ahead and bring a second pair of pants because Depp will charm them right off as he plays yet another oddball. We are delighted with Sands and his multitude of fake mustaches, tacky T-shirts (one actually says CIA) and method of paying people through cash-filled nostalgic lunch boxes. Despite plotting near a Machiavellian level and shooting innocent chefs, the character settles into a lovable anti-hero that transforms into a blind reaper of vengeance. Depp is one of the best, if not the best, actors on the planet. Once again as he did in Pirates of the Caribbean, Depp gives life to a character and nourishes the film every time hes onscreen. This is Depp’s show. Mexico does have a noticeable lull whenever Depp is absent. I don’t know anyone else that could actually become cooler AFTER what he goes through. Possession is nine-tenths of the law, and Depp totally owns this movie and the 2003 year.
Banderas is smooth and has never looked better than playing the role of the silent-but-deadly musician. Hayeks role amounts to little more than a cameo. Shes witnessed through flashbacks, but she still has a healthy smolder to her. Blades has the most integrity of all the characters. Most of the actors have fun with their roles, especially the ones that are bad (which accounts for most everyone), but you can’t help but get the feeling that theyre being wasted for the most part.
Rodriguez’s overstuffed film is so delightfully over-the top and loopy that it crackles with an infectious kind of energy. Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a wild and lively cartoon of an action movie with a very healthy sense of humor. Its action relies low on CGI and high on inventive, if slightly self-aware, camera angles and furious gun fights. A sequence involving Banderas and Hayek chained to the wrist and swinging one-by-one down the levels of a building is breathtaking.
What this spaghetti western below the border could have used is a little less of its myriad of twists, double-crosses, triple-crosses, and character subplots. By the time the Day of the Dead rolls on, you might need note cards to keep everything straight. Rodriguez’s earlier Mariachi films were lean on plots which allowed for fun and grandiose action sequences. Perhaps Mexico could have shaved some of these needless characters (cough, Eva Mendes, cough) from its convoluted plot and drawn out its sometimes too quick bursts of stellar action.
Once Upon a Time in Mexico is a bloody good time. Depp amazes yet again in this bombastically silly yet undeniably fun south o the border shoot-em-up. If Rodriguez has any plans for an additional sequel (and he might given his insane work ethic) I’d recommend following Depp’s Sands character wherever the sands take him. To witness this incredibly cool, whip-smart character cut up in any land would certainly be music to my ears.
Nate’s Grade: B