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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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

Fest Track On Sirk TV Film Review: IFFAM 2018 [Macao, China]

The texture of a film festival is based on the aspect of identity. The location and breathe of Macao, a former Portuguese colony off the coast of Hong Kong and literally right next to Mainland China gives it an undeniable influence but diversity of ideas which is refreshing. Add into play the aspect of religious history keyed into Catholicism on the roughly 30km territory as well as the Vegas sized (and at times slightly bigger) breath of the casino properties, it creates a unique dynamic. The programming at the International Film Festival & Awards Macao [IFFAM] reflects this sense of dynamic quality in some of the films experienced as well as a masterclass by the undeniable Nicolas Cage.

Masterclass – Nicolas Cage Cage was designated the talent ambassador for the IFFAM this year which makes undeniable sense since he is interestingly poised with a great dynamic lure creatively to this part of the world. While he has not made a full fledged descent into the Asian cinema market (China included), that would seem the most logical next step. He cites “Face Off” as one of his favorite movies to make since he is always seeing how to push the boundaries of naturalism in acting and, by essence, surrealism which he counts director Hong Kong director John Woo as a pinnacle of. It would be great to see Cage and Woo collaborate again. Cage gave many interesting perceptions in his discussion. He talked about advice Martin Sheen gave him when he used to hang out with Charlie Sheen at the Sheen household in Malibu when they were kids. This makes total sense since the elder Sheen made “Apocalypse Now” with Cage’s uncle Francis Ford Coppola. Cage also instills that his approach to naturalism was instilled in him by his aunt Talia Shire (known for her roles in “The Godfather” and “Rocky”). There is also the aspect that he shared regarding that Cher really wanted him for the “Moonstruck” role but he didn’t want to do it interestingly. This was very interesting in its candor. Cage said his agent Ed Limato convinced him that he could do “Vampire’s Kiss” if he did “Moonstruck” and he admits it worked out well. He cites “Vampire” as one of his other favorite movies he has made as well as “Bad Lieutenant – Port Of Call – New Orleans”.

In an unusual approach, Cage spoke about making “Wild At Heart” and that he had found that snakeskin jacket at a thrift store before they filmed. His spot on David Lynch impression saying “Nikky” (also Cher’s nickname for him) really gave ideal credence to the storytelling. Cage spoke about going to the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles as a kid to see James Dean movies (Tarantino now owns and operates the New Beverly). That is where he said he fell in love with movies since he grew up in LA and not San Francisco. He also spoke to his new embrace of VOD where people can see many of his movies now. He says that rather than turn away from it, he has leaned into it since the films that he initially made at the beginning of his career were small independent films and this is the arena you can make those types films now. The studio movies offered him a way to experiment with character structure and development on a grand scale. These new films from “Mandy” to “Mom & Dad” to the upcoming “Prince Of Ghostland” which he says by far will be the most “out there” film he has made yet (he has yet to film it) allows him to push the style of film performance in an age where it is harder to do so in a large film. He credits Jerry Bruckheimer for giving him the ability to experiment but, on those types of films starting with “The Rock, he explained that Bruckheimer told him he could play between the lines as long as it didn’t impact the story beats that needed to be hit. And that is how the Beatles and vinyl loving Stanley Feelgood in that movie came to be. Cage, a long time resident of Las Vegas, did his master class in the grand ballroom at the Wynn Macau which more than nicely gave an undeniable nod to his roots.

Loro This loose biopic of the recent Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi is lurid at times in its approach but distinctly and delightfully schizophrenic in its texture. This festival cut was initially a two part film, the first being from the perspective of a pimp/business operator trying to get to Silvio and then the second from the breakdown of the leader himself and how the two worlds collided. Director Paolo Sorrentino is sometimes known for his visual excess and the first half of the film is like the “Boogie Nights” of the political bribery world. The excess is meant to show the irony but sometimes passes over into self-satire especially with a doctor coming on camera to explain a drug fueled party involving MDNA. When the film switches over to the political leader’s machinations as he moves back to office, it becomes a different film entirely…not a bad one mind you…but different. But when it tries to engage across the board it is interesting yet clanky. Silvio always wins yet always loses. It is as if he is lost in the essence of what power means in comparison with the act governance though there is an aspect of ambition as well as the dream. Riccardo Scarmarcio plays Sergio the pimp. He brings both a humanity and a darkness that was also present in last summer’s “Euphoria” (which played Cannes) for director Valeria Golino. His journey and star power is undeniable so it will be interesting to see the progression of his ongoing career. Toni Servillo plays Berlusconi as a twirling vision of masks to the point that the performance is a perception of how far down the leader could bury himself from himself.

Jesus In a place like Macao, this kind of movie has particular resonance because of the Portuguese and Christianity influence. Made in Japan, the story here follows a boy who, after the death of his grandfather, comes with his parents to a small town outside Tokyo to take care of his grandmother. He is enrolled in a Christian school and begins his journey within this new space with no friends. The story of Yura is an existential one as he questions the essence of God and specifically what religion adheres in him. Out of the blue, a thumb sized Jesus (who doesn’t speak) appears out of nowhere and seemingly begins to grant wishes, although in abstract way. After Yura has finally makes a friend at school, the essence of tragedy strikes which gives him the perspective of what prayer might really mean. The movie is shot starkly and quietly in the 1:33 format (like the recent “Cold War”). Using reflexive nature and parallel scenes structure, director Hiroshi Okuyama creates a simple and clear but also eccentric portrait of a boy trying to come to terms both with life and death.

Happy New Year Colin Burnstead This dysfunctional family diatribe from BBC Films brings to mind such elements of drama and comedy as the film “Peter’s Friends”, a small piece Kenneth Branagh made as a director between projects like “Dead Again” and “Hamlet”. The main gist of the story here reflects in Colin, the supposed alpha male of a British family who picks up the pieces of his clan after his father has dropped the ball financially. Colin faces off against his would be deadbeat brother David who, in his mind, defiled everything of what it means to be “family”. David ran off on his wife and child and did not come back to see his family (blood or not) for 5 years. While this might sound sort of like a downer, like the ensemble volleys on screen before in this genre, there are enough sub stories with all the other characters to keep the pace moving. While not slapstick or laugh out loud in its texture, the slights and jokes continue to jab until they reach a pinnacle. As with most protagonists in these stories, no one is inherently bad or good per se but actions speaks louder than words especially when characters don’t listen to each other. The ultimate resolution works because like with all self confident movies, it knows not to spell out to the audience exactly what will happen after the credits close.

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

IR Film Review: THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME [Lionsgate]

The balance of a buddy movie and a spy thriller can work in tandem if the tone and the script are right on point. The pitch of “The Spy Who Dumped Me” has potential and the pairing of Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon definitely has resonance depending on the improvisational nature given but also the reigning in of specific gags depending on the possibilities. That is where unfortunately this would-be romp falters. Despite some good set ups and action pieces, the delivery falters in much the same way but, distinctly, in more ways, than the similarly affected “Spy” movie did starring Melissa McCarthy. This interrelates to the tone. It is both dark and light at the same time. McKinnon seems to be having fun but her improvs seem not directed at all. An entire sequence near the end of the film featuring her solo seems completely unscripted but not reigned in or directed, and thereby off rails. Kunis seems to be in one movie and McKinnon in another. The film distinctly was made for a price which is understandable but the pace and structure for the most part doesn’t gel. It is only in the final moments when it truly pays tribute to some of the spy structure in almost tongue-in-cheek form does it start to have potential and move. Alas it is the last 3 minutes.

“Lethal Weapon” worked, as a comparison, because you understood how dangerous Martin Riggs (as played by Mel Gibson) was so his humor worked and thereby the tone when his character did more unhinged and unsavory things.. McKinnon’s character needed that edge instead of trying to mug for the camera as much. Her performance in “Ghostbusters” was great simply because it was wild, but honed in its improv. Kunis can play bad ass but the little balances in between are a little more difficult it seems for her. Film acting requires a different kind of structure than television (ditto for McKinnon) but it is scaling up or back. In all specificity, it has to do with direction and tight script. Adding to this point is the almost nihilistic vicious violence which if done right is thrilling but in many ways comes off as brutal.

The movie, as a result, seems stuck in a netherworld where it is neither funny nor inventive, action packed or droll. As far as other characters, the two male co-stars (Sam Hueghan & Justin Theroux) are simply plot devices, which is fine but their inclusion (because neither of them are comedians) makes them invisible at best, grating at worst. Gillian Anderson (again wasted in many considerations within the film) has so much possibility as well. “The Spy Who Dumped Me” is the movie that could have been and, in the final moments, realizes what it needed to be. Too late unfortunately.

F

By Tim Wassberg

IR Film Review: THE DARKEST MINDS [20th Century Fox]

The search of identity or the strength within it plays to the crux of most YA novels, especially those set in an almost apocalyptic world. “The Darkest Minds” in its marketing seemed to play to more of an “X-Men” vibe but it is quite the opposite. It is more a romance mixed with a coming-of-age drama. That is not to say it isn’t sure of itself. It owes more to elements of “Hunger Games” and “Maze Runner” than to “X-Men”. The storyline and, by extent, the acting, considering it is all young actors, comes from more of a place of maturity than one would expect. This obviously comes from the grounding of Alexandra Bracken’s novel. Having spoke to her for this interview earlier in the week, the idea of “The Darkest Minds”, she explained, came after 9/11 when she was in high school, that idea of what is the right path to take, what action is possible. Amandla Stenberg plays Ruby, the reluctant hero of “Minds” and, like Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss, finds her power through sacrifice. Stenberg achieves in a way what “A Wrinkle In Time” could not. “The Darkest Minds” is about the power of youth but not, by pretending, they are the true leads. Certain actors like Mandy Moore here as a doctor with a fringe outfit called “The League” has just enough presence to make it work as does Gwendolyn Christie as a bounty hunter. They provide moral and psychological choices for the protagonist which allow her to grow as a character.

What the film itself owes to more than anything, without spoiling anything, is to “Superman”, specifically “II” simply in Clark Kent/Superman understanding the need for a greater good within elements of pain. Two scenes, including one in foreshadowing, give Ruby’s journey a weight that many of the other YA adaptations have lacked. Now granted, this can go awry as the series (should this one be successful) goes on. The smart idea, like the first “Maze Runner”, is that this movie was made for a price which allows it to breathe a bit while not sacrificing its pacing. It is not a perfect movie by any means. The villain quotient pays more than an interesting parallel in certain ways to “The Hunger Games”. However the elegant, if that word can be used, aspect of this kind of storytelling is that it takes into case bigger themes and archetypes at play. While mind control plays a part, there are no cell phones anywhere in this movie which is an interesting observation overall as well. The only red herring of the film is inherent in its set up which is the “why” aspect in terms of what causes the children to change. This suspension of disbelief is necessary and inherent to make the movie work but its structure and basis is nonetheless elusive creating a slight hole is what is otherwise a solidly made film.

C+

By Tim Wassberg