IR Film Review: ALITA – BATTLE ANGEL [20th Century Fox]

The mixture of James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez definitely has a great angle to it. “Alita: Battle Angel” was a title heard years ago and moved around as myth actually for a time. Harrison Ford was attached per se at one point. This story of stories that Cameron had developed for years actually was something Rodriguez told Inside Reel in a Fest Track interview at SxSW in March 2018. Reading the first 3 volumes before talking with producer Jon Landau as well as leads Rosa Salazar & Keaan Johnson in Austin (see their Fest Track interview here), gave a good perception of the structure but what is one to say between an anime/graphic novel that was written many years ago versus the ideals of the actual script (which having been co-written by James Cameron definitely should retain his story sense). What “Alita: Battle Angel” does very well is keep itself focused. The one true balance that stays pretty crisp and clear throughout the film is Rosa Salazar as Alita. Many may think that it is simply a computer performance but that could not put the sense of innocence, anger and breathe in what is seen here. Granted it is not Andy Serkis but who can compete on that level. What Rosa brings is a soul to this girl who was originally built as a killing machine. Salazar has been missing in part from many of the media rounds per se (in large part) but that might be better so the character simply exists on her own. Rodriguez’s touch is here for sure but it is sometimes lost in the bigger sequences. Oddly enough, this reviewer kept seeing “Speed Racer” in the race sequences per se. They are good but at a certain point are more video game oriented.

The character build even though it takes a while in the beginning does the film correctly but there is no “a-ha” moment. The scene though where Alita first tries her new body with fighting moves shows a path to identity and the sequence inside a bar (a very visceral scene in the graphic novel) definitely comes to life. The reason why is that all the characters in there are so unique. It makes one think of “From Dusk Till Dawn”. What seems to be missing is some of Robert’s camera tricks and stylistic touches although to be fair Rodriguez did mention in that same interview that this was not him doing a Robert Rodriguez film but instead doing a Jim Cameron film. So in that respect it does work, the script is tight, the visuals are fluid and it does its job. It is fun to watch but it is not spectacular. There is never quite a moment where Alita becomes the chosen one or that her love against her own life will ring out. One scene inside the apartment of Hugo (played by Johnson) comes close and really makes the CG of Rosa as a cyborg really key into the story. The climax, like most, has to serve a story point and that is understandable. Christoph Waltz does an admirable job as the Doc and Jennifer Connelly & Mahershala Ali do their part within the structure but Ed Skrein as a competitor is the only one who brings an edge to the proceedings. Here is hoping “Alita” connects to the audience because unlike many recent popcorn films, it understands the concept of a beginning, middle and end within a true story arc. But it is in the silent moments, when you can hear the acting, that make the most impact. One simple act of Alita laying her head on her father’s shoulder has almost more power than a large action sequence. But that said, one does not exist in the large scale, big budget film without the other.

B

By Tim Wassberg

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IR Film Review: THE LEGO MOVIE 2 – THE SECOND PART [Warner Brothers]

As franchises evolve, so do their storylines. Simple is better but when dealing with mythology (and, even more daringly, pop culture), time is very finite but it is also finding the balance of two worlds, between demographics, between ages, sometimes even between genders. “Lego Movie 2: The Second Part” uses the essence of playtime as a perception for the travels of Emmett through the essence of his human counterpart. While it is an interesting construct, sometimes the interplay can be a little haphazard. The key might have been never showing the live action faces. That jarring perception between reality and animation can be tricky. Here, the essence of the plot, unlike the first one is not just welcoming a new person into the world but also growing up and learning to share. That definitely supplants an interesting tone since one side of the coin is male (think apocalypse) and the other side is female (outer space, filled with the notion of love with a bit of darkness). This texture again can work well but there is never a brilliant moment despite the overarching structure.

Chris Pratt, as always, brings his game, but what is real great as the secondary character Rex Dangervest is that Pratt infers a pretty dead on impression of Kurt Russell/Jack Burton into the mix. Granted the lines aren’t anywhere near as sarcastic or funny as “Big Trouble In Little China” but there is that sense of connection (to “Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2” anyway). This part of the story is the most engaging because it is the story of the Id and unfurls a slightly darker tone. On the reverse, Tiffany Haddish as the alien queen brings a sort of sass, though the musical sequences can be a bit schmaltzy even in their attempt at being sardonic. With a darker texture, there were little glimpses of “Audrey II” in “Little Shop Of Horrors”. Will Arnett continues his disassemblage of Batman, whose lines land the most laughs, likely because of improv at times. Alison Brie as Unkitty is fun but limited in her scope. Nick Offerman as Metalbeard fares a little better but because the film needs to move at a brisk pace sometimes character development gets less priority than the next sequence. The eventual resolution plays at nostalgia but the build at the pinnacle of the second act is a tricky essence to write out of. It uses 80s strategy in terms of balance despite plot holes. Ultimately “Lego Movie 2: The Second Part” is fun but not very transformative.

C+

By Tim Wassberg

Fest Track On Sirk TV Film Review: SANTA BARBARA INTL FILM FESTIVAL [Santa Barbara, California]

The texture of Santa Barbara in terms of its film festival has transitioned over the years. The essence of genre and the programming has transitioned over the years but keying into the awards season fervor always remains the same but finding the right balance of films for the viewer’s taste is key.

Betrayal (Traición) This story of a woman searching for the texture of who her mother is begins very simply and allegorically before it becomes a metaphor for the essence of being. While the set up is structured more in an idea of action-based life vs. death, its eventual thrust unfolds too slowly. While the progression of what creates her life (out of a whorehouse tryst) almost carries a beholden wistfulness to it despite the surroundings, the inherent solution reveres itself in an idealism of the passing of the baton (maybe with an ode to “Queen Of The South”). However the resolution leaves the intentions and ultimately the struggle of power resolutely inert.

Outstanding Performer Of The Year: Rami Malek No performance has garnered as much respectability or indeed as much fervor as Malek’s turn as the legendary Queen frontman this year. Malek’s journey as indicated in his conversation on stage in nearly as frought in overcoming obstacles as Mercury himself. Though he was born and raised in Sherman Oaks, California, Malek himself is Egyptian, not far from Mercury’s Zanzibar in Tanzania. But it is taking that background and fighting against stereotypes that allowed Mercury to transcend in London and Malek thereby in Hollywood. The turning point, according to his conversation, seemingly happened with HBO’s “The Pacific” where at one point, Steven Spielberg was taping his scene audition across from Joseph Mazzello (who beyond playing John Deacon in “Bohemian Rhapsody” also played the grandson of John Hammond in the first “Jurassic Park”). That series led to other roles including “The Master” (which this reviewer totally forgot he was in). He pushed Paul Thomas Anderson in the audition with Joaquin [Phoenix] there saying “I want this”. His remembrance that there was an essence of acceptance from Phoenix he says spurred him on. “Mr. Robot” of course broke him through into the zeitgeist but it was because he says of show runner Sam Esmail’s prescience on the texture of the hacker. “Bohemian Rhapsody” came to him through that perception. He signed on with producer Graham King as soon as he was asked but then realized he had to deliver. He went to London and connected with a very specific movement coach. The one aspect not addressed was the aspect of Malek singing as Freddie which is one of the big questions since no one could really be able to do that. His texture of the man is undeniable although some story elements have been, to many, skewed a little bit to make the story more palpable for mainstream audiences. This seems to have worked as the film has performed admirably despite “the elephant in the room” as the moderator indicated which Malek finally addressed after being asked directly despite the apparent uncomfortability of the subject for him. This point was in regards to the aspect of ousted director Bryan Singer who has come under fire even more so in recent days for sexual harassment allegations despite the fact that it is his name still on the film and not Dexter Fletcher who completed the final two weeks of shooting. Malek finally did address this subject saying that working with Singer was “not pleasant…at all” and that Singer “was fired”.

Fly By Night This film, also part of the Crime Scenes sidebar (of which “Betrayal” is also part), focuses on small time crime on the outskirt of Kuala Lumpur. The tonal shifts in the scenes are both interesting and disjointed at times. The film starts off as a stylish character piece before moving into family drama before settling on an action hybrid/gangster film. While the strategy of the chess game between the police, the small time crooks and the local mafia interweaves nicely, the secondary plots including a jilted mistress seem to wash by the wayside. A particularly brutal end to a key ransom figurehead seems to simply occur and disappear. While the lead character per se: an egotistical young brother seemingly keeps falling down the same path, it is two adjacent characters. The first is that of the loyal combatant who takes a screwdriver into his own hands at one point. He has the most intensity and breathe of character. By comparison, the local head of the mafia is portrayed with such theatricality that it is hard to look away, even when he brutally goes off the rails. The resolution is finite and true to form but nonetheless solves none of the bigger problems of the plot.

Tell It To The Bees Anna Paquin always has the ability to inhabit and contextualize the aspect of the outsider while always inferring compassion in her performances. While Paquin balances this structure, she always at times can seem to be like she is acting per se thereby making it hard to see her disappear into her roles. Holliday Grainger (whom IR talked to for “Bonnie & Clyde” back in 2013) seems incessantly natural by comparison as the wife/woman scorned who falls into the arms of Paquin’s loving doctor. Granted this tome is set in the 1950s so the gist of the narrative focuses around the social and psychological tensions placed on the couple from the outside. Obviously the most biting satire or sense of understanding comes from the 10 year old child of Grainger’s character who is also dealing with an absentee father who is suffering after the war (but does his best to make everyone else miserable at the same time). The metaphor of the bees is keyed to listening and how to survive suffering. Ultimately the movie is a parable and a cautionary tale bathed with a sense of redemption and hope. Even though it tries a bit too hard, when it is carefree, it understands the balance of life is acceptance. Otherwise. it shows that darkness can consume even inside the impetus of family.

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: GLASS [Universal]

The essence of the texture of something like “Glass” is taking something that can be so mythic and break it down to its most essential. For the most part of the film, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan captures much of what he found in “Unbreakable”. While not as revelatory as that film and on a significantly lower budget, “Glass” accomplishes much of what it sets out to do. Anchored by a brilliant James McAvoy who more than keeps balance with his older and more seasoned co-stars in Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson, the film paces itself well without losing the pathos of the characters. But what seems as a construct (or even more just as an exercise in narrative) can be more seen as a parable of hiding in plain sight of what the general populace can be allowed or trusted to understand.

“Glass” takes place in a much different time than “Unbreakable” but the characters, like many people, are the same. Elijah (aka Mr. Glass) is fascinated by superheroes but knows what role he plays. The Beast that lives within Kevin, McAvoy’s character, is there to protect him, no matter what the damage. And David Dunn is trying to protect the rest of all is us around him. Shyamalan’s direction is the best he has been in years simply because he knows exactly how to pitch these characters but also how to build that story at its bones. If one simply reflects back on the basis of his story which Shyamalan does here, he likely realizes that the simplest progression and thereby resolution can be the truth that sets the characters free. The McGuffin itself, in true Shyamalan fashion, which won’t be revealed here is a little flimsily constructed and needed a bit more exposition but its impact and Night’s ability to push it in this direction under a very restricted budget seems to have reignited what he is capable of (as “Split” obviously showed). Jason Blum, who also produced this film, needs to be given credit as well as he is known for low budget films but also known for making filmmakers think creatively by limiting them. Leigh Whammel said similar when he showed “Upgrade” at SxSW in 2018.

A greater feat was getting Disney to allow Shyamalan to use footage from “Unbreakable” which Night seems to have brokered himself in terms of reaching out. The importance of this undeniably works because there is congruence allowing motion of time and pertinence between 2000 (when “Unbreakable” was made) and 2019. It is no small deal and allows for a sense of connection and depth which might not otherwise be possible (especially since secondary characters from the other two films in the trilogy do play a part). All this said, while not an event film by any means, “Glass” is both forceful and confident without being too egotistical. Many film students can look at this transmutation of a filmmaker and see an interesting path and how inevitably it affects specific decisions both for the better but also at times, against expectation.

In an age of superheroes that, at worst, are simply CG enhanced constructs overarching with myth or, at the best, grand textures of the essence of humanity (yet costing hundreds of millions of dollars to make), it is interesting to see the sequel to a film that started the high concept notion of a superhero do so without the extensive or blown up budgets to accomplish the basic premise. Interesting enough before Night, to give him credit, the one constant is the one and only: Samuel L. Jackson who has found a way to exist in both these kinds worlds from the beginning chords to the present day. The accomplishment of “Glass” is knowing its own true identity which, if one sees the characters as they truly are, is all they could be and more, with an intended impact and meaning.

B+

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB [Sony/Columbia]

The essence of Lisbeth Salander is in her ability to be almost detached from her emotional state. Her effectiveness is based on her coldness. “The Girl With A Dragon Tattoo” operated in this world in an almost uncomfortable way, as is the nature of David Fincher’s approach in many of his films to human behavior. “The Girl In The Spider’s Web” is a much more mainstream approach and, while not as starkly original as the previous entry, is nevertheless very effective in its point. Claire Foy, mostly known recently for her work on “The Crown”, obviously does a 180 pivot but her Salander never feels as lived in as Rooney Mara’s version. She is nonetheless again very specific and effective in the role but in a more mainstream way. The triggers of the script especially in the logistics of certain sequences are quite good. Even though this film was made for a price versus “Dragon Tattoo” including lesser known actors, the script doesn’t betray that. Like the vastly inferior “Snowman”, “Web” does capture Stockholm & Scandinavia quite well. The only idea that has a little bit to move on is the assumption that most of the audience knows some of the story with Mikael Blomquist (played by Daniel Craig in the previous version) which came before.

The focus here is family and a NSA defense mechanism that offers a good amount of power to whoever possesses it. The mechanics of how that is revealed and tested is both sloppy and oddly consistent at the same time. Director Fede Alvarez, who directed the “Evil Dead” remake and “Don’t Breathe” has a steady hand and doesn’t move away from the grotesque but also plays for the most part within the lines which should provide some response from audiences. The stand out simply because she can disappear so well is Sylvia Hoeks who was undeniably luminous in her darkness within “Blade Runner 2049”. Here she plays the sister of Lisbeth: Camilla through which there is undeniable pain and darkness which makes itself known as the story progresses (while also being its framing mechanism). Hoeks will eventually be given her own platform in the next couple years because her character work can be stunning. “The Girl In The Spider’s Web” is effective and offers a more accessible vision into the Lisbeth Salander universe with a paced and detailed story and some good character turns despite some lapses in progression.

B-

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: THE PREDATOR [20th Century Fox]

The essence of “The Predator” is edified within the sense of its relevance to pop culture tendencies versus creating a sense of fear and elation. While this inclination does improve and rank itself as the best in the past decades, it still pales to the original “Predator” and, in some senses, “Predator II”. The one aspect that definitely gives it the best structure since the original is the poppy dialogue which is obviously a Shane Black trademark. The irony is that those quips that were great in the 80s almost ride the line too much today causing readings at times to be more awkward than funny. In a way, this outing becomes more of a sardonic reflection of itself. The characters are big and the misfit dream team led by Boyd Holbrook does have its moments but there is never a sense of stake at all. There is some loss with some of the members but nothing as edgy as Carl Weathers or Bill Duke in the original.

Writer/Director Shane Black was in the original so he understands that texture of balance but John McTiernan had a sense of the real within the gallows. “The Hunt For Red October” ran in a similar vibe. This is not those films. The tone here is all over the place with certain moments playing better than others. Sequences like the initial one inside a medical lab or a face off on top of an RV have a playful sense to them but feel, almost in effect, like a TV movie version of “Predator” with the profanity setting turned on. In all shapes and sizes despite respect for trying to give a new audience a “Predator” for its time, this outing, while definitely fun at times, still feels remarkably flat. Even the resolution requires a plot suspension that doesn’t connect. While ending up creating a concept in essence that gives the story an interesting dilemma to behold for a continuation yet no reason for its actual intention, “The Predator”, despite its best attempt, does not fit the bill.

D

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: THE MEG [Warner Brothers]

“The MEG” is a monster movie in perception of what it might be. The book it is based on, by local South Florida writer Steve Alten, works in many structures as a quick read with a pulpy sort of feel. The tricky aspect is finding the tone. Like “Sahara” and its protagonist before, it is taking larger-than-life situations and making them both fun and with stakes. “The MEG” was originally labeled to be an R-rated romp probably playing more to its cousin: “Deep Blue Sea”. Granted it would be a different movie but the ideal is the story is about a huge shark. The tone rings closer to a movie like “The Core” which is superior in many ways simply because the stakes feel higher. The characterizations here are not bad but played way up on the cheesiness factor, specifically with the Chinese characters. Granted the sentimentality is more akin to the tone of Chinese cinema. That is the interesting perception here of the film. Since it was financed heavily by Chinese investment, it needs to reflect that ideal. This is the changing economics of the movie business. The movie is also set on the cusp of Asia and its main female protagonist and center of what is the film’s heart is Chinese.  This is not originally how the book was conceived. It was set near San Diego even though the money of the big investor was Chinese (even though the big money here is shown by an American billionaire). While an interesting experiment, the film definitely loses a lot of what edge it could have had but then it would be a different monster.

The interesting business question, just to make the point, is that the film could have been made for less and thereby not have to make as much to break even. This is an interesting quandary. Star Jason Stathan has stated in the press that the script they made was completely different than the movie he originally signed on for. Some of the scenes are really thrilling to be honest but never scary. It almost feels like a lower budget serial of old. Acting is fairly broad but soft in many ways since the dialogue is so matter-of-fact. It tries to be witty but most times falls flat. Granted many in the audience seemed to enjoy this aspect. It is always a tricky thing between criticism of what a movie can be and what an audience actually responds to. The situations in the movie are mostly implausible but that can be suspended from the early scenes. An interesting comparison comes in when looking “The Abyss” (1989, dir. James Cameron) since some of the scene points in “The MEG” have parallels. Even though something similar happens here, nothing can compare to the resuscitation scene in that former movie. Some of the best acting in a would-be summer blockbuster ever was in that scene. Here, in the beginning (post opening credits), there is a sacrifice that works well (but on a smaller scale) but then goes by the wayside. Greater mythology is sacrificed and the movie, while a fun romp at times, feels emptier of a bigger world. Maybe that is an alright resolution and expectation though.

C-

By Tim Wassberg