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: ‘Bumblebee’ is Retro Fun and Mercifully Economical

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures

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

Starring: Hailee Steinfeld, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Cena, Pamela Adlon, John Ortiz, Stephen Schneider, Jason Drucker, Dylan O’Brien, Angela Bassett, Justin Theroux, Peter Cullen

Director: Travis Knight

Running Time: 114 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Deadly Alien Technology That Vaporizes Blood and Guts

Release Date: December 21, 2018

The Transformers series is addicted to origin stories and secret histories. Bumblebee does not break that spell, but it does present it in a much more palatable package than usual. The 2007 franchise starter supposedly presented the first time that the Autobots and Decepticons made themselves known on Earth in a major way. But as the series has rattled on, it’s been revealed that the bots have actually been around on this planet in some capacity for thousands of years, which sounds exhausting to hear about, and is even more exhausting to watch. I checked out after 2011’s Dark of the Moon, but I’ve heard horror stories from folks who stuck around for 2014’s Age of Extinction and 2017’s The Last Knight.

The spinoff nature of Bumblebee offers the potential to go in a fresh direction, but its elevator pitch does not exactly inspire confidence. “What if a teenager finds a beat-up old car that turns out to be a Transformer?” is pretty much the exact same starting point as the first Transformers. But while the setup is familiar, the details are unique and mercifully leaner compared to what’s come before. Wisely, only four Transformers play significant roles. There’s the title little fellow, opting for a modest Volkswagen Beetle disguise instead of his typical Camaro look. On his tail are the Decepticons Shatter and Dropkick, voiced with nasty verve by Angela Bassett and Justin Theroux. And Optimus Prime shows up occasionally to keep Bumblebee’s spirits up, mostly in Princess Leia-to-Obi-Wan Kenobi-style pre-recorded message form. Metal clanking against metal is still no more aesthetically pleasing than it’s ever been, but there’s thankfully a lot less of it this time around.

As for the humans, Hailee Steinfeld is a natural in coming-of-age mode. She plays Charlie Watson, a teenager in 1987 San Francisco who would much rather spend her time fixing up cars (like she used to always do with her dad before he passed away) rather than hang out with her family or classmates. There are plenty of hallmarks of the genre: an awkward neighbor with a huge crush (Jorge Lendeborg, Jr.), an overbearing mom and stepdad (the delightful pair of Pamela Adlon and Stephen Schneider) who try and fail to get Charlie to smile more often, an annoying younger brother, and bitchy classmates. Bumblebee slots into her universe as a sort of wounded animal that she nurses back to health and also as the only one who really understands Charlie. Bumblebee hardly reinvents the wheel, but it’s a perfectly fun and satisfying addition to the girl-and-her-bot genre.

Bumblebee is Recommended If You Like: The first Transformers movie but not the Michael Bay excess, The Smiths, ’80s-set coming-of-age flicks

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Volkswagen Bugs

This Is a Movie Review: With ‘Brigsby Bear,’ Kyle Mooney Applies His One-of-a-Kind Style to a Rescued Kidnapping Victim

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This review was originally posted on News Cult in July 2017.

Starring: Kyle Mooney, Greg Kinnear, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins, Ryan Simpkins, Claire Danes, Mark Hamill

Director: Dave McCary

Running Time: 97 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for First Times: First Time Doing Hand Stuff, First Time Tripping, First Time Making Dynamite

Release Date: July 28, 2017 (Limited)

It is certainly possible for a film about an escape from kidnapping to be about the triumph of the human spirit. But is it also possible to also make one in which the spirit was never really beaten down in the first place, just slightly confused? Brigsby Bear sure seems to think so. It’s basically what Room would have been if it were a quirky, offbeat comedy. If you’re a fan of writer/star Kyle Mooney, then you have already bought your tickets. If you’re unfamiliar, then let me explain a little more.

Like a lot of young adults who spend most of their time at home, James Pope (Mooney) is obsessed with his favorite TV show. But unlike most TV fanatics, he stays indoors because he has been led to believe that the outside air is toxic, and also unusually, his particular favorite show, “Brigsby Bear Adventures” (a sort of charmingly low-budget live-action spacefaring Saturday morning cartoon) is produced for an audience of one. Because, as it turns out, the people James thinks are his parents actually abducted him when he was a baby. When the authorities track down the compound and return James to his real family, he struggles to move forward in this strange new world. He is able to accept that these people are who they say are, and his social adjustment is relatively smooth, but what really bothers him is the astounding realization that he will never know how the story of Brigsby Bear concludes.

But wait – there is a solution to be had! James decides to put together his own amateur production of a Brigsby Bear film, and the result is a paean to the stirring power of filmmaking. Although… is it perhaps irresponsible to present the story of a kidnapping victim whose recovery consists mainly of a major element from the time of his captivity? It is acceptable that the pull of the familiar, however distorted it may be, cannot be denied (James revisits the bunker in a moment that plays exactly like the return to the shed in Room). And to be fair, every individual captive’s experience is unique. So it is ultimately inspiring to see James’ family and entire community embrace his Brigsby Bear obsession, because they recognize that as strange and as risky as it may be, this is his best chance to recover and flourish. There are certainly discomforting moments (especially in the case of Mark Hamill, who, as James’ impostor father and the man behind Brigsby, toes a tricky line between detestable and genuinely human), but they are among the intrinsic elements that make this story as heartwarming as it is.

Brigsby Bear is Recommended If You Like: Room, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Kyle Mooney’s YouTube/SNL videos

Grade: 4 out of 5 Giant Costume Heads