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: ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ Weaves 50-Plus Years of Superhero History Into One Neat Little Package

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CREDIT: Sony Pictures Entertainment

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

Starring: Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Liev Schreiber, Bryan Tyree Henry, Luna Lauren Velez, Lily Tomlin, Nicolas Cage, Kimiko Glenn, John Mulaney, Kathryn Hahn, Chris Pine, Zoë Kravitz

Directors: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman

Running Time: 117 Minutes

Rating: PG for Superhero Bumps and Bruises and Dimension-Altering Explosions

Release Date: December 14, 2018

Even if you prefer Tom Holland or Andrew Garfield’s versions of Peter Parker, it is fundamentally outrageous that the cinematic Spider-Man has been rebooted multiple times so soon after the massively successful Tobey Maguire chapters. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse avoids this pitfall by forgoing the same old Peter Parker origin story, or even the same old Peter Parker himself. Instead, the focus this time is on Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), a Puerto Rican and African-American teenager who inherits the Spider-Man mantle after he too is bitten by a radioactive arachnid. Additionally, while Miles is the primary protagonist, room is also made for just about every parallel universe version of Spider-Man that has ever existed in the comics (including noir, manga, and porcine iterations). I would love it if the live-action Marvel action movies were similarly diverse, but there is more space to be bold within animation (at least according to how the blockbuster industry currently operates).

A running gag throughout Spider-Verse is each version of Spider-Man giving us the rundown on his (or her) origin story. The film assumes that the audience is significantly familiar with the web-crawler’s mythos, and thus we get shout-outs to iconic moments from both the panel and the screen, like the murdered uncle and the upside-down kiss in the rain. These moments could play as cheap nostalgia, but instead they are far from it because there is so much visual information to digest. The effect is more one of self-awareness and reinterpretation.

Spider-Verse follows in a line of recent animated franchise films like The Lego Movie and Teen Titans Go! To the Movies that benefit from their deep wealth of knowledge about their own histories. They all comment on their own pasts, avoiding snark in the name of favoring celebration while also managing to craft new adventures that stand on their own. Spider-Verse takes its unique place as one of the most visually vibrant entries in the history of CG-animated cinema, with a cornucopia of expressive and energetic styles. Add to that a sterling voice cast, and this is one of the witties (vocally and visually), and just plain most satisfying, experiences you’ll have in all of 2018.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is Recommended If You Like: Every Spider-Man Comic Ever, Teen Titans Go! To the Movies, The Lego Movie

Grade: 4 out of 5 Alternate Dimensions

 

This Is a Movie Review: In ‘Green Book,’ Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali Forge Friendship Amidst Ignorance and Segregation

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CREDIT: Patti Perret/Universal Studios

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

Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini

Director: Peter Farrelly

Running Time: 130 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Racist Encounters, But Not So Intense That They Require an R Rating

Release Date: November 16, 2018 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide November 21, 2018

Is there any real living person with an appetite like that of Frank Vallelonga, aka “Tony Lip”? This is a character who has taken to heart the advice to always do everything 100%, which when it comes to food, means to devour whatever he’s eating like it’s his last meal. Tony Lip was a real person who worked at the Copacabana in his early days and went on to be an actor in the likes of Goodfellas, Donnie Brasco, and The Sopranos. When we meet a fictionalized version of Tony in the 1960s in Peter Farrelly’s Green Book, he’s eating 26 hot dogs in one sitting to win a $50 bet and getting ready to be the personal driver to a black jazz musician who is going on a tour that will take him through the Deep South. I don’t know if the real Tony ate everything in sight the way that Viggo Mortensen-as-Tony does, but if this characteristic were not based at least somewhat in reality, it would be plainly outrageous. But for as over-the-top as Mortensen plays Tony, I can recognize something familiar in his joie de vivre, as I, for one, am pretty shameless. But even for me, folding an entire pizza pie in half to eat the whole thing at once is a bridge too far. (Although now that I think about it, I might do that if someone dared me.)

Much more universally relatable, despite being a much more idiosyncratic character, is Tony’s passenger, Doctor Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali). He is stuck between so many worlds, uncertain of where he really fits in, but he does his best to project a true version of himself. In other words, he is like all of us. A classically trained pianist who would much rather be playing Bach and Beethoven, he accepts that he must rely on jazz to find himself an audience. But he is hardly a part of the mainstream, as he is barely aware of the work of contemporary black pop musicians like Little Richard, Sam Cooke, and Aretha Franklin. Having been born in Jamaica and spent a good portion of his childhood training in Russia, he can barely relate to his fellow black Americans. And as much as he shares cultural tastes with his high society white audiences, they do not exactly consider him a peer, considering that institutionalized segregation means that he cannot eat alongside them even when he is their guest of honor. On top of all that, he is estranged from his family, leaving him precious little in the way of emotional stability.

The story of Green Book is how these two men find something fulfilling in each other over the course of miles on the road. But as heartwarming as it is, theirs is only one small tale in the face of the massive hatred that they lived through and that continues to exist today. Farrelly and his actors do not ignore this context (this context being “life on Earth”). That means that Tony and Don must contend with institutionalized racism and racist thoughtlessness and general thoughtlessness on their way to genuine friendship. Will telling their story make a difference in this misbegotten world? Who’s to say, but what is more certain is that it resonates in the moment, and honest companionship and open-heartedness is valuable wherever you can find it.

Green Book is Recommended If You Like: The friendships of Men in Black, Shrek, Lethal Weapon, etc.

Grade: 4 out of 5 KFC Buckets

This Is a Movie Review: Hidden Figures

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This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2016.

Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst

Director: Theodore Melfi

Running Time: 126 Minutes

Rating: PG for the Everyday Realities of Racism

Release Date: December 25, 2016 (Limited), Expands Nationwide January 6, 2017

Hidden Figures tells the true stories of African-American mathematicians Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, who were essential employees to NASA during the Space Race. Let me reiterate: this is a TRUE story, but somehow these ladies are not an iconic part of the fabric of American history. Surely, there is institutional sexism and racism at play here, but less insidiously, there is also the fact that most workers at NASA who remained on the ground are not household names. But also, come on! – Katherine Johnson was John Glenn’s trusty confidant, relying on her for accurate calculations during his time in the stars.

As Hidden Figures kicks off, we know we are in good hands. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monáe (Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson, respectively) are stuck on the side of the road due to a broken-down car while on their way to work. I think I speak for most of humanity when I say I would happily watch these ladies just hang out and do anything. The white Virginia traffic cop who pulls up to inspect their situation apparently feels the same way. This scene looks like it is about to play out like a typical example of civil rights-era Southern racism, but instead the officer is impressed that these ladies know their science and offers them an escort service.

This is how much of the film plays out. The racism and sexism these “hidden figures” experience are institutional and not personal except insofar as any instance of discrimination is personal. Everyone in this story wants to see America succeed above the clouds, and these women meet resistance only when their efforts get in the way of standard practice. For Henson, that means a hilarious/heartbreaking routine of racing 20 minutes each way across the NASA campus to the nearest colored restroom. Indignities like these are eventually beaten into submission, and the crowd-pleasing meter is constantly at its highest level.

I would be remiss not to mention the wholesome and sweet love story between Katherine, a single mother widower, and her second husband Jim. I don’t know if the real-life Johnsons are as gorgeous as Taraji P. Henson and Mahershala Ali, but I am convinced that they must have been. Otherwise, Henson and Ali are miracle workers.

Hidden Figures is the sort of movie that you take your mother to see because you know she is going to love it. It is also the type of movie whose relatively unambitious filmmaking techniques you might criticize, or at least excuse. But in the case of a story as inspiring as this one, that feels unnecessarily petty. Hidden Figures does not gussy itself up, because it will be inspiring even without all the frills. Besides, putting on such airs would be anathema to its humble origins.

Hidden Figures is Recommended If You LikeApollo 13A League of Their OwnThe Help

Grade: 3.75 out 5 Hammers to Racism

 

This Is a Movie Review: Moonlight

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What sticks with me from Moonlight? Mostly, it is the small, intimate moments: Juan (Mahershala Ali) holding Little (Alex Hibbert) in the water – an image that has already become iconic. Teresa (Janelle Monáe) setting the table and doing all the talking for her and Chiron (Ashton Sanders). Black (Trevante Rhodes) admitting to Kevin (André Holland) that he’s the only man who’s ever touched him. And I can’t go this whole review without singling out Naomie Harris (miles away from Moneypenny) for giving her all as Chiron’s mom Paula. Moonlight deserves plenty of credit for allowing black and gay voices to be heard, but more than that, the storytelling is right on as well.

I give Moonlight 18 Gold Grills out of 20 Evasive Facial Expressions.