Movie Review: ‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Features Visionary Effects and a Convoluted Story

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CREDIT: Twentieth Century Fox

Starring: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Keean Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Eiza González, Lana Condor, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Idara Victor

Director: Robert Rodriguez

Running Time: 122 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Cyborg Limbs Flying All Over the Place

Release Date: February 14, 2019

Can slightly-larger-than-normal human eyes in a motion capture performance exist anywhere other than the Uncanny Valley? That is the conundrum at the heart of Alita: Battle Angel‘s box office prospects, but from where I’m sitting, they’re clearly the best part of the film. Yeah, those peepers might be creepy, but they are also a deep wellspring of an infectious personality. Rosa Salazar may have given her performance while dressed up in a bodysuit with a camera mounted on her head, but her enthusiasm to be part of groundbreaking cinema is consistently palpable.

Based on the manga series Gunnm, Alita: Battle Angel was co-written and co-produced by James Cameron, but presumably because he’s busy with all those Avatar sequels, directing duties fell to Robert Rodriguez. This could have been a clash of auteurs, as both men are enamored with creating digitally rendered, visually rich fantasy worlds, but Rodriguez has never really worked on the same scale as Cameron. (To be fair, nobody works on quite the same scale as Cameron.) But the steampunk metropolis of Iron City in 2563 is a sight to behold, and its array of cyborg citizens are correspondingly fascinating. Rodriguez has mostly realized Cameron’s vision without putting his own unique stamp on the project, but even so, on a technical level, this is the best James Cameron movie that Cameron never directed.

Too bad the plot is incomprehensible. A bunch of sci-fi tropes about the dangers of creating and living alongside artificial life are thrown out there, but none of them amount to anything. There is some talk about how Alita resembles the deceased daughter of her scientist caretaker (Christoph Waltz), but that does not lead to any of the expected emotional confusion. Alita is also being hunted down by other cyborgs, but it is never clear what threat she actually poses to anyone. Also, she is centuries old and the last of her kind, which could mean that she is a sort of Rosetta stone to the past, and people treat her that way, but nobody ever clearly explains why that matters. With all the empty dialogue in Alita, it makes me wish that someone in 2019 would be bold enough to make a $200 million sci-fi extravaganza as a silent film.

Alita: Battle Angel is Recommended If You Like: James Cameron’s Brand of 3D Visual Effects, Overly Busy Impenetrable Screenplays

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Big Eyes

This Is a Movie Review: If Beale Street Could Talk

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CREDIT: Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures

This post was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, Bryan Tyree Henry, Ed Skrein, Emily Rios, Finn Wittrock

Director: Barry Jenkins

Running Time: 117 Minutes

Rating: R for Longtime Friends Becoming Lovers and Their Families Yelling Awful Things at Each Other

Release Date: December 14, 2018 (Limited)

One of the strength of Barry Jenkins’ films is that they work much like how the human brain works. They process their stories from a clear beginning to end, but along the way they take detours, often expressionistic and dreamlike, because in their associative natures they have tendencies to temporarily disassociate. The narrative focus in If Beale Street Could Talk is on the effort to free Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) from jail after he has been (obviously and egregiously) falsely been accused of rape. We stay close with his family and pregnant girlfriend Tish (KiKi Layne) as the weeks tick by and they do whatever they possibly can for a young black man in 1970s America. Interspersed with this steady passage of time are flashes of Fonny and KiKi’s memories, hopes, and nightmares. The images in these moments are often idyllic and tranquil, but there is an undercurrent of imprisonment demonstrating that the worst of reality cannot be fully escaped as it infects our psyches.

If On Beale Street Could Talk is based on James Baldwin’s novel of the same name, and Jenkins’ smooth hand ensures that Baldwin’s conception of Harlem is brought to tactile, contemporary life. Layne’s sweet, mischievous, and unapologetic narration; Nicholas Britell’s smooth score; and James Laxton’s crisp cinematography make for a sensuous feast that altogether works to achieve a remarkable feat of empathy generation. All films that are worth their weight put us in their characters’ headspaces and let us discover what they were all about, but Beale Street is a special case. Every moment is especially intimate and familial, and it is thus an honor to be invited in. Like most stories about false accusations and systemic discrimination, this one is frustrating to anyone who cares about justice, but amidst all that there is to be angry at, Jenkins somehow manages to achieve an odd sort of peace by the end. Everything is far from perfect, but the love between Tish and Fonny is real and worth celebrating.

If Beale Street Could Talk is Recommended If You Like: Moonlight, The Harlem Renaissance, Love & Basketball

Grade: 3.75 out of 5 People Who Love Each Other