Movie Review ~ Alita: Battle Angel

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The Facts
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Synopsis: An action-packed story of one young woman’s journey to discover the truth of who she is and her fight to change the world.

Stars: Rosa Salazar, Keean Johnson, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Eiza Gonzalez

Director: Robert Rodriguez

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: The journey of Alita: Battle Angel to the screen has been an adventure almost three decades in the making. Originally a Japanese manga series created by Yukito Kishiro, it caught the attention of director James Cameron (The Abyss) and became one of those passion projects that followed the director over the ensuing years. With his attention focused on other films, documentary projects, pioneering technological advances in filmmaking, and talking about his Avatar sequels ad nauseum, Cameron eventually realized that he’d have to abdicate the director’s chair if the film were ever to get off the ground. That’s where director Robert Rodriguez (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For) comes in and how we have arrived at this strange 2019 release.

It’s been several weeks since I’ve seen the film and I honestly can’t decide whether it’s glorious or garbage. I can fully see where the effects extravaganza will be overpowering and maybe even off-putting but at the same time there’s a piece of me that silently was cheering on the never-ending barrage of bizarre your ticket purchase will provide.  I can tell you this, I was never, not even for one minute, bored.  If the film community and audiences decide to pass judgment that Alita: Battle Angel is a failure, it will have gone out swinging because it doesn’t seem to be afraid to embrace its oddity.

Five hundred years in the future the Earth has suffered a series of cataclysmic events, culminating with “The Fall” which separated cities of the sky from the junk-laden wastelands on the ground. Only the most elite live in that last surviving sky city, Zalem, while the rest of Earth’s inhabitants scrape by a living where they can. Some have turned to bounty hunting to earn enough money to travel up up and away and there are certainly enough sundry individuals roaming the streets for people to make a buck or two eliminating dangerous threats.

Scouring a junkyard for spare parts to aid in his robotic repair practice, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz, Big Eyes) finds the remnants of a female cyborg and rebuilds her, giving her the name Alita. When Alita (Rosa Salazar) comes back online and eventually falls in love with a local teenager (Keean Johnson), she begins to piece together her history as she discovers new strength and agility that seem to come naturally. At the same time, a killer is on the loose and Alita becomes a Hunter-Killer bounty hunter to track down who is harvesting people for their spare parts.  In doing so, she raises the ire of a punk bounty hunter (Ed Skrein, Deadpool) who doesn’t appreciate the competition from the supposed teenage girl.  When her mysterious past is revealed, it will put all who come in contact with her in danger as she’s revealed to be an important weapon and the only one that can stop the evil Nova (played in an uncredited cameo by an Oscar-nominated actor) from keeping bigger truths about Zalem from the public.

As you can probably tell, there’s a whole lot going on in the movie (I didn’t even bother to describe a sport called Motorball that figures heavily into the action) and Cameron’s script (co-written by Laeta Kalogridis, Terminator Genisys) is his usual mish-mash of overly syrupy dialogue intermixed with made-up jargon. Usually, this works against the film but here the script manages to serve things quite well as it prompts numerous set-ups for eye-popping special effects (see it in IMAX 3D, if possible) and nicely crafts a new world for our characters to explore.

Rodriguez has always had a way with making his films rock and roll even on a minuscule budget but here he’s given the keys to the bank vault and has cleaned out the coffers. It’s all rather lovely to look at, especially in an underwater sequence when Alita finds a crashed spaceship that holds a clue to her origins. Where things don’t go quite as swimmingly are in the character arcs, with several A-list actors left to fend for themselves with roles that are underwritten and underdeveloped. Oscar winners Jennifer Connelly (Only the Brave) and Mahershala Ali (Green Book) treat the material as high art, which leads to their performances taking on a camp factor that is surely unintentional. Salazar, digitized in post-production, turns in the most realistic performance – there were times I actually forgot she was an animation.

Not being familiar with the source material, I can’t say how close Cameron and Kalogridis stuck to the original story but there’s a definite energy injected throughout that’s hard to deny. It may be overstuffed and too effects-heavy but there’s an admirable bit of workmanship that has gone into the look of the film, even if the more dramatic pieces don’t quite gel correctly. This being a Cameron property, there’s a romance subplot that isn’t fully satisfying and Rodriguez has tacked on maybe two finales too many, but it ends on a high enough note that I’m curious to see if another installment might get the go-ahead now that Disney owns 20th Century Fox and could benefit from this property with international appeal.

Movie Review ~ Green Book


The Facts
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Synopsis: A working-class Italian-American bouncer becomes the driver of an African-American classical pianist on a tour of venues through the 1960s American South.

Stars: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Don Stark, P.J. Byrne, Sebastian Maniscalco

Director: Peter Farrelly

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Sometimes when reviewing a movie it’s hard to wear two hats.  I know that one part of me needs to retain a critical eye and hold a film accountable for its strengths and weaknesses but then there’s also a personal side that speaks to me as that movie-goer who has just come to be entertained.  Green Book represents an odd mix of conflicts in both sectors; it’s not a movie without it’s missteps or passages that work like gangbusters but there’s a undercurrent in the way it guilelessly aims to entertain that, considering its subject matter, didn’t ultimately sit well with me.  It’s a movie I enjoyed but also has me questioning if I shouldn’t be holding it more accountable to be more than it was.

In 1962 New York City, Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen, A Dangerous Method) is about to start a layoff from his job at the Copacabana while the famed nightclub undergoes renovation.  Looking for a job to support his wife (Linda Cardellini, Daddy’s Home) and children as the holidays approach, he’s called in by Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali, Moonlight) a famed black jazz pianist who needs a driver for his tour of the Deep South.  While Don could easily stay in the North and make a good living playing concerts far from the danger of the Jim Crow South, he chooses to take his trio (there’s two other white men traveling separately) to a place where segregation and racism runs rampant.

Essentially a road-trip movie, screenwriters Nick Vallelonga  (Tony’s son), Brian Hayes Currie , Peter Farrelly (who also directed), fill the film with vignettes that illustrate over and over the differences between how the North and South treated black people.  As expected in this type of formula, tough, street-wise Italian-American Tony and the refined, buttoned-up Don mix like oil and water at first with both men taking time and many miles to adjust to the others way of thinking.  Both contain certain prejudices about the other (not always presented in the way you’d expect) and over the next eight weeks through the Christmas holiday the men will have their eyes opened to seeing more of the world they are living in.

Let’s start with the bad news first, and that is that this 2018 film seems awfully like the kind of movie you’d have seen the ‘90s where racism, segregation, and overall prejudice is seemingly solved in two hours.  Many of the characters onscreen are stock character stereotypes of the people you’d expect to see in a film about the south in the ‘60s.  You have your obvious redneck racists the deeper south Tony and Don travel, you have your affluent members of society that harbor whispered racism behind closed doors, and you have the people like Tony and some members of his extended family who have just never taken the time to get to know any person of color but when they do find out that they aren’t so bad.  Then there’s Tony himself who is the epitome of every Italian goombah you’ve seen, never without a cigarette in his mouth or chowing down on some messy red sauce-d dish.  Everyone is drawn with such exaggerated, bold lines that it’s a credit to the actors who have taken the time to find different ways to shade their roles with characteristics that are more human and less cartoon…though wait until you see Tony fold an entire pizza in half and try to eat it.

The good news here is most of our time is spent with Mortensen and Ali and this absolutely makes the film worth your time.  Though Mortensen is constantly battling with the major constraints of his tough-guy (the accent and the potbelly physicality), he’s never mean-spirited and seems open-minded enough to be able to look within himself when challenged.  Whatever racism he may harbor feels like it was something he was brought up to never question because he hasn’t had exposure to another race and the more time he spends with Don gives him a different perspective.  While I still raise my eyebrows a bit at the speed of Tony’s reconsideration, recognizing that we’re looking at a Hollywood take on a true life story I appreciated that Mortensen at least shows us how he got there.

The most complex role is Ali’s as a pianist bravely venturing into the territory of his enemy as a way to experience something his life in NYC hasn’t afforded him.  Surrounding himself with mostly white culture up until that point, the trip down south is an eye opening experience for Don as well, mostly reconfirming his beliefs of the hatred and injustices that were present (and in some cases still are) in that part of America.  There is more to Don than meets the eye, giving Ali yet another layer of prejudice to play with and he does masterful work here.  There’s talk that Ali will net his second Oscar for the film and with a performance as strong as his, I can see why.  (Though, it must be said he’s absolutely a lead of the film with Mortensen and for him to campaign in Best Supporting Actor is total category fraud).

After spending his career in comedy and turning in work like Dumb and Dumber To and The Three Stooges, director Farrelly takes his first stab at drama and has made a more than serviceable movie.  While the script has some questionable areas to it, it’s a finely made film with all the period elements (costumes, sets, cars, props) all fitting well into the mix.  Though the film was an entertaining watch and I liked the performances of our two lead actors, I do wish it had something more to say about the overall tone of that era.  When the credits rolled it felt like the filmmakers were saying “and they lived happily ever after” and that just rang false to me.

Movie Review ~ Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse


The Facts
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Synopsis: Miles Morales becomes the Spider-Man of his reality and crosses paths with his counterparts from other dimensions to stop a threat to all reality.

Stars: Shameik Moore, Liev Schreiber, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld

Director: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman

Rated: PG

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: With a seemingly never-ending supply of super-hero movies either in theaters or being hyped for release, a sense of same-ness has set in.  Even if the movie is entertaining when it arrives, audiences are getting hip to the fact that most of these big budget action adventures featuring various iterations of comic book heroes and heroines brought to life are just basic retreads of the same formula at their core.  Every once in a while, though, a film comes along with a new vision that raises the bar for its genre, pushing against the boundaries of the typical and setting its sights on the extraordinary.  In 2018, that film is surely Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

In this Spider-Man tale, Peter Parker (Chris Pine, Star Trek) takes a back seat to newcomer Miles Morales (Shameik Moore, Joyful Noise), a teen just starting in a new boarding school that finds his life changing in a major way when he’s bitten by a radioactive spider.  At the same time, he becomes embroiled in a conspiracy plot by Wilson Fisk aka Kingpin (Live Schreiber, Spotlight) that fractures his reality and brings together other characters with similar spidey-senses from different dimensions.  Now working with Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage, Valley Girl), Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson, The Mummy), Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld, Pitch Perfect 3), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and even Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), Miles will have to stop Kingpin’s nefarious plot and get his fellow Spider Men, Women, and Pigs back to their own individual universe.

Working with a script from a team that included Phil Lord (The LEGO Movie) and is filled with deep Easter eggs for hardcore devotees, directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman bring an animation style to the screen that’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.  The first few times I saw the preview for this movie I thought I must have been missing 3D glasses because the backgrounds tended to be so blurred while the action at the forefront was so clearly defined.  Turns out that’s the intended look and while it took me a bit to adjust to this bit of visual ingenuity, when my eyes settled in they were open wide so I could take in all the splendor of the action on screen.

Much like 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, Sony has done a brilliant job at resetting our expectations when it comes to our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.  A dazzling animated accomplishment, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the movie that will sway you if you’ve all but written off finding anything new under the superhero sun.  It’s wildly creative, savvy without limiting itself by being too specifically timely, and moves like a locomotive that’s doubled down on its coal intake.  In short, it’s the best animated film I’ve seen all year and will likely find itself staying in the conversation when people speak of the cream of the comic book crop.

The Silver Bullet ~ Hidden Figures

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Synopsis: A team of African-American women provide NASA with important mathematical data needed to launch the program’s first successful space missions.

Release Date: December 25, 2016

Thoughts: Who’s ready for a history lesson? I certainly am after catching the trailer for Hidden Figures, a period drama which looks equal parts comedy and drama and represents a strong showcase for its trio of appealing leads.  Oscar-nominee Taraji P. Henson (Top Five) stars as a NASA employee during the space race fighting to combat the inherent racism and sexism she and her colleagues (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, Zootopia, and Grammy winner Janelle Monáe) face. Joined by Kevin Costner (Draft Day), Glen Powell (Everybody Wants Some!!), and Kirsten Dunst (Midnight Special), this one is sneaking it right at the end of the year before the Oscar deadline.  Could 20th Century Fox be counting on this becoming the sleeper hit it has the potential to be? 

Movie Review ~ The Place Beyond the Pines

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A motorcycle stunt rider turns to robbing banks as a way to provide for his lover and their newborn child, a decision that puts him on a collision course with an ambitious rookie cop navigating a department ruled by a corrupt detective.

Stars: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ray Liotta, Rose Byrne, Mahershala Ali, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Ben Mendelsohn

Director: Derek Cianfrance

Rated: R

Running Length: 141 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  The ads for The Place Beyond the Pines would have you believe that Gosling is the star of the show and I’d say that’s about 1/3 right.  In actuality, Gosling is just one part of a film that is essentially a three act saga that winds up feeling a little Scorcese/Coppola-lite.  It’s not that director Cianfrance’s second narrative feature doesn’t have its good moments, because when you factor in some hard hitting corruption mixed with cops and robbers mayhem it certainly does.  No, what keeps the movie from being fully satisfying is its hesitation to move toward completion in the face of a slightly saggy running time.

Reteaming with his Blue Valentine star (and I’ll say again that Gosling was unjustly overlooked for an Oscar nomination for his work in that tough love movie), Cianfrance decides to go big or go home as he follows the lives of two different men across fifteen years – both are men trying to do good from different angles so the movie really emerges from the Venn Diagram this creates.

Opening with Gosling as a tattooed cyclist faced with finding a way to support a child he didn’t know he had, the film gets off to a rough start with a soundtrack that drowns out our actors and asks us to strain to hear what Gosling and co-star Mendes are softly murmuring about.  Director Robert Altman made overlapping dialogue his calling card and I’m hoping that Cianfrance isn’t taking it a step further with a film where you may need the benefit of closed captioning to figure out what people are saying.  It really doesn’t matter all that much because the basic thrust of this slice of life is the standard “man turns to crime to support family” set-up.

Don’t get me wrong, Gosling plays this troubled guy like a pro and the further he ventures away from the right side of the law (with the help of a slightly askew but nevertheless fascinating performance from Mendelsohn) the more we fear for his future.  That future collides with rookie cop Cooper (fresh from his Oscar nominated work in Silver Linings Playbook and before May’s The Hangover Part III) and that’s when the film takes its first of many turns.  Cooper’s cop is a do-gooder, unfazed by the temptation of corruption and naïve to the danger this poses to his career and family.  With a new son of his own and a wife (Byrne, Bridesmaids) who just may wear the pants in the family, Cooper doesn’t let himself get pushed around by his comrades headed up by Liotta who hasn’t yet met a scumbag he can’t play like a harp.

It’s from Cooper’s story that the film takes another jump and I think I’ll leave where that leads to your discovery.  I will say that it’s in this third act where the  movie will either seal the deal or leave you cold – the more I ponder the film the more unhappy I grow with it because of this section that feels too on-the-nose, too pre-destined to really be believable.  One interesting thing about the final section is that it features Cohen (TV’s Smash) and DeHaan (Lawless, Chronicle), both of whom may remind you of A-Listers Channing Tatum and Leonardo DiCaprio, respectively.

Cianfrance and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt keep the movie going at breakneck speed but when it drags during its 141 minute run time the film struggles to right itself with a conclusion that satiates.  I’m not a person that needs all the questions answered by a film and actually prefer that not everything is explained but The Place Beyond the Pines feels like it never knew the answers to begin with.  Instead of creating characters and situations that feel new, Cianfrance and co-screenwriters Ben Coccio and Darius Marder look back at any number of crime archetypes found in film.

A trip to The Place Beyond the Pines may not be essential or necessary but the movie’s not a total wash so I don’t want to outright discourage a viewing of it should the interest be there on your part.  Despite the dialogue problems I mentioned above, the film has an unobtrusive score from Mike Patton that works with the sparse world Cianfrance has created.  Aside from a make-up design that ages all the women but seems to make the men younger, performances are sound and the movie does have several scenes with a decent amount of payoff.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Place Beyond the Pines

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Synopsis: A motorcycle stunt rider considers committing a crime in order to provide for his wife and child, an act that puts him on a collision course with a cop-turned-politician.

Release Date:  March 29, 2013

Thoughts: Reteaming with his Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance, star Ryan Gosling throws himself into yet another troubled character seeking some sort of redemption from the people he loves.  Gosling was majorly snubbed by Oscar voters for his work in Blue Valentine and continues to be a star that rightfully earns his solid reputation with each film he makes.  I’m also looking forward to seeing what Bradley Cooper does with his role coming off of the strong showing he made in Silver Linings Playbook.  Clocking in at 2 hours and 20 minutes, The Place Beyond the Pines will hopefully be as entertaining and interesting as its stars.