Review: Alita Battle Angel is a Lovable Mess
Passion projects can be quite a tortuous labor for filmmakers, spending years revising and ruminating on how best to put a fascinating idea or story your adapting on a film reel. James Cameron, I suspect, is fully aware of the effort involved with Alita: Battle Angel, an adaptation of Yukito Kishiro’s 1990s cyberpunk manga Gunnm. An adaptation nearly three decades in the making by the ambitious filmmaker and whose motion-capturing techniques developed for the project debuted earlier in Avatar, it is impossible to deny the labor that went into this project. Yet sometimes a long development period is an equivalent to over-cooking, and unfortunately this holds true for Alita. It is a mess, but a lovable one at that.
In a edgy riff on the premise of Astro Boy, Alita takes place in a dystopian Earth where, in the aftermath of a war that bombed the world into a classism metaphor, bioengineer Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) discovers in the landfill deposited from the last floating city Zalem the remains of Alita (Rosa Salazar), a relic of this past conflict. After rebuilding her, Alita strives to find a place in this strange world she finds herself in while also reconnecting to her lost past; a search that brings her into conflict with the class system of the setting.
The film oscillates between two distinct modes that fail to coalesce into a whole. The first is as a brash, cgi-fueled, action movie with a heroine who moves elegantly thru the chaos. It is here that Robert Rodriguez skills as an action director truly comes into play, translating the black and white manga panels to the screen in a way that never feels uncanny while also ensuring the characters never get lost in the mist of smoke, blood, spikes, and swords. The other mode, however, is where you’ll find the James Cameron who directed Titanic; a meticulously crafted teen melodrama that details the budding romance between Alita and Keean Johnson’s Hugo and the troubled father-daughter dynamic between her and Dr. Ido. And the melodrama is quite tender, facilitating an emotional narrative that I was endeared to and one that I feel that teenage girls, who would more readily relate to the ongoings on screen, would absolutely love.
But as the film alternates between these modes is where it begins to fall apart. Often the actions scenes are over-blown, with sequences like the deadly version of roller derby going on so long that the initial drama that informed it is lost. Subsequently, the focus on teen melodrama can leave this action blockbuster with long periods without so much as a single punch thrown or just one measly back-flip. Compounding this issue is a screenplay with multiple false endings where the main conflict is seemingly resolved only for a new one to begin until film ends not on a resolution, but on a conflict that just started. The film at times feels less like the cohesive whole it’s trying to be, but merely an abridged version of the serialized manga it’s based on.
Yet despite these faults, I can’t say that I disliked the film. In fact, at points, I loved it. While all the actors handle the material well, Rosa Salazar in particular crafts the character of Alita in such a way that she is believable when she goes from an emphatic teenager to an action heroine, allowing the audience to at least focus on her while the rest of the film meanders. And while the film may violently ricochet between a teen melodrama, an action blockbuster, and a sci-fi dystopia in such a way that it loses focus, when it does decide to linger it does so very well. Funnily enough, much like how Alita is a mixture of organic, mechanical, to downright alien elements in the setting, the film itself is a hodgepodge of disparate elements that might be inefficient when put together but nevertheless deliver on a good time. Frankly, I rather view an ambitious miss than a safe hit, and if you feel the same then by all means strap on a pair of skates and enter the gun dream.
Rating: 3 / 5
After Trauma: How Halloween (2018) Relays the Experience of Victims
As a whole, I am a bit ambivalent about the recent Halloween sequel. The film certainly has an interesting first and third acts; facts that I feel mask an underwhelming middle that bridges the two. Yet what exists in those two exhilarating endpoints is what causes my thoughts to linger on the film; this rumination focused on how the film communicates Laurie’s (played by Jamie Lee Curtis) trauma and the setting’s reactions to it.
When the film first introduces it’s new rendition of Jamie Lee Curtis’s debut role, any naivety that existed in her original incarnation had been extinguished in the 40 years since her assault by Michael Myers. Isolating herself from the suburban Haddonfield, Laurie has constructed a literal fortress as her dwelling. Fencing surrounds the perimeter of the property, windows are barred, doors have several layers of locks, and the kitchen is furnished with a safe room holding enough firearms to supply a militia. If Fort Knox is the most secure place in the States, this might be a close second!
Hyperbole aside, the way Laurie’s introduction visually demonstrates her emotional state very poignantly communicates her paranoia and desire for retribution. Having become painfully aware of the suburban terror embodied by Michael Myers, Laurie has deliberately isolated from Haddonfield to secure herself from repeating said experience. Yet her possession and training with firearms indicates a desire for retribution against her assaulter, as if retribution for that initial incident never came to pass. She even confesses to such a desire to officer Hawkins, saying that she wished that one day Michael would break out so that she would get to kill him.
While these feelings are presented as warranted to the audience, they nevertheless engender negative reactions from the people in Laurie’s life. Raised by a traumatized Laurie, Karen was raised harshly by an emotionally distant mother figure who was eventually deemed unfit for parenting by child services. Now an adult, Karen actively to keep her mother away from herself and her daughter in attempt to not engender the same anxieties her mother attempted to pass on to her. Allyson (Karen’s Daughter), though she tries to bring her Grandmother into the fold by inviting her to her honors enrollment dinner and comforting her during panic attacks, lacks the ability to nurse Laurie that stems from a deficit in similar experience of trauma.
Though Karen and Allyson’s naivety is inevitably broken when Michael Myers returns to his hometown of Haddonfield. Much has been said on the anxieties that Michael Myers embodies, but for the purposes of this analysis he primarily represents two:
- The fear of evil forming from within suburbia itself, given he was raised in Haddonfield and assumed to have been brought up in a normal suburban life for a white boy.
- The fear of violence towards women by men given that the victims of Michael the film places the most significance on are women (Judith Myers, Laurie and her family, etc.)
With this in mind, the state that Michael is seen in when the film introduces him is rather interesting. Captured that harrowing Halloween night in 1978, the authorities, prompted by Dr. Loomis, chose to not kill Michael and instead simply return him to the asylum for further psychological evaluation. Despite Dr. Loomis’s pleas to kill Michael later in his life, the state’s study continues under Dr. Sartain. In short, Michael is confined to his previous arrangement, his latest crimes against Laurie and others not inspiring any new conviction or sentence. Instead the state and other powers seem more interested in empathizing with Michael rather than his victims, as seen through the actions several representatives of these institutions.
Dr. Sartain is obsessed with understanding what type of satisfaction Michael gets when killing. He reminds the police and Laurie that Michael is an asset to the state that must not be harmed. The severity of this decree is made clear after the doctor stabs officer Hawkins in the neck for trying to kill Michael. The aftermath of the murder of Hawkins illuminates the Doctor’s intent to empathize with Michael. Adorning the iconic mask, the doctor drags Michael into the squad car to see him confront Laurie for the purposes of seeing “the metaphysical divide between killer and victim blur”. Sartain’s priorities are evident; he rather empathize with Michael and preserve the anxieties he represents than prevent further harm by his hands.
This desire to empathize with the shape is shared, albeit to a lesser degree, by the journalists Dana and Aaron. Concerned with uncovering any hidden truths of the 1978 killing spree, the pair interviews the mute Michael and the annoyed Laurie. With Michael, their approach is to coax him to tell his version of events via kind words and showing the stain William Shatner mask he used during the murders. Despite Michael’s silence, the interviewers are eager to simply listen to his perspective. When interviewing Laurie however, their approach becomes more confrontational. Aaron is dismissive of Laurie’s comparisons to the bogeyman and Dana brings up Laurie’s failures as a parent in an attempt to make her question the validity of her perspective. They gaslight her in other words; for the purpose of presenting a story more sympathetic to Michael.
It’s this response, trivialization, that also representative of the perspectives of minor characters in the story. Officer Hawkins partner Barker is dismissive of the threat posed by Michael Myers, saying they “can’t cancel Halloween” with a naive smile, and Allyson’s friend Dave questions the significance of a few murders given all the problems in the world.
What all these responses and reactions of state and media actors indicate is a societal complicity towards the actions of Michael Myers which serve to trivialize Laurie’s experiences. Characters of societal power tend to treat Michael as a man to empathize with, up to the point of their ultimate rejection via brutal murders at the hands of the killer, over a woman like Laurie; or act to trivialize Laurie’s experiences. This in turn fuels Laurie’s desire to seek retribution on her own accord, which isolates her from a society that is complicit in Michael’s actions and trivializes her experiences.
Towards the end of the movie, Laurie gets her chance at retribution in a confrontation with Michael, and we get Sartain’s promised blurring of the line between victim and killer. In Laurie’s fortress, the killer Michael is disempowered. Laurie is privy to his tricks and make sure to check closets and lock the rooms she visits. Meanwhile, Laurie becomes the hunter, tracking the hidden Michael to enact her revenge. In doing so she becomes akin to him in some respects. After being thrown of the balcony of her house, she disappears much like Michael did in 1978 and even appears from the shadows much like Michael. Even the rest of Laurie’s family gets in on the appropriation, with Karen feigning helplessness in order to lure Michael to face the barrel of her rifle and Allyson using Michaels iconic butcher knife to stab the killer. This blurring of the lines, this usage of Michael’s tactics by the family serves a crucial expression; for Laurie and the rest to communicate to whatever shred of actual character exists in the shape of Michael the trauma they experienced before sending him to his death. A death by pyre as Laurie and her family burn Michael along with her house, a monument of her isolation and trauma that she hopes to put behind her.
Yet, despite the cathartic finale, the film concludes with uncertainty much like the original Halloween. In the fire, Michael cannot be seen and the film cuts to credits on a sweep of the family ending on a shot of a solemn Allyson still clutching the titular killer’s knife. As the trio return to normalcy in Haddonfield, they are still returning to a society that produced a killer like Michael and was complicit in his actions. For Michael was merely a shape, a vessel for that society’s underlying violent tendencies aimed at woman. The anxieties still exist, ready to be embodied by a new shape.
It this theme, of communicating the trauma of a victim and see her confront her assaulter for retribution, that makes Halloween very poignant in the present. With ascendence of figures like Donald Trump and Brett Kavanaugh into positions of power despite their respective records of accusations of sexual assault, many survivors, particularly women, reasonably feel that their traumas are being trivialized and ignored by a society complicit enough to give these people favor. For such audiences, I can imagine Halloween would be a very cathartic experience, for it will provide them with chance to experience a justice they are deprived of. A chance to look their tormentor in the eye and, in the words of Laurie, wish them “Happy Halloween”.
Review: Mission Impossible: Fallout is a Masterstroke of Action Filmmaking
The Mission Impossible franchise is a bit of an oddball compared to it’s peers. It places emphasis on practical stunt-work rather than cgi-effects for it’s action set pieces and it shows little regard to it’s own continuity beyond some reoccurring elements. Yet with Fallout, returning Director Christopher McQuarrie and Lead Tom Cruise have delivered a statement as to why it’s oddities make the films under it’s brand a joy to watch, and in doing so made what could be considered their best film yet.
The plot, as expected, is standard fare for this series. Ethan Hunt and his IMF team are once again attempting to save the world by recovering three cases of plutonium from the straw-man anarchist organization, The Apostles, who desire to make and use nuclear bombs with said plutonium. Like the other plots in the series, it only serves facilitate the action scenes and character interactions. And it is the latter that especially rises to the occasion, with Simon Pegg’s Benji providing some wonderful comedic moments as his tech-savvy is stressed under the action around him and Ving Rhames Luther delivering a heart-warming demeanor. This dynamic between these is best highlighted by a classical spy-movie double cross scene towards the midpoint and a bomb diffusion scene near the end, the latter which deftly balancing moments of light banter with the tension inherent to the situation. The returning Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust also equips herself well as the feminine counterpart of Ethan Hunt and newcomer Henry Cavill’s Walker also instills a great feeling of intimidation.
Of course, all these actors efforts goes to facilitating the actions of Tom Cruises famous role, Ethan Hunt. The movie revolves around him, and it is in this focus that Christopher McQuarrie continues his exploration of Ethan Hunt’s character. In Rogue Nation, Hunt’s obsessiveness towards his job and the harm it brings others and himself was on full display. Fallout however concludes that the reason Ethan continues to do this is a sense of grandiose responsibility towards others given his abilities, exemplified in the film by repeatedly refusing to sacrifice a teammate or innocent to accomplish his goals. This makes his rivalry with Walker much more poignant while also giving the audience reassurance of Ethan’s inherent goodness.
This reassurance invites the audience to be swept up in the marvelous action on screen, which is the film’s primary concern. This film contains Cruise’s best stunt work to date, including such sequences as a H.A.L.O jump, free running through the rooftops of Paris, and hanging off of a helicopter in flight. Being an actor, Cruise is once again able to give these sequences a sense of stress and emotion, allowing the cinematographers to capturing his emoting face. When accompanied by Christopher McQuarrie tendencies towards cinematic realism, it grounds the action scenes and makes the intense acts on screen seem all the more remarkable.
Strung together my excellent pacing and light character banter, MI:Fallout distinctly understands the core appeal of an action film; it’s potential to sweep an audience into it’s cinematic flow and awe them with death-defying acts of heroism thats sates our internal desires towards grandiosity. It’s may be a simple aim, but it doesn’t make it any less masterful when it is done well. MI:Fallout is such an accomplishment, making it a mission you should choose to accept.
Rating: 5 / 5
Review: Sorry to Bother You is a Poignant Satire of Capitalism
As the house lights turned back on and I exited my local theatre into the bright night sky, my mind kept lingering on one question.
“How in god’s name does this film exist?”
Taken literally, the answer is quite easy to find. Prolific rapper Boots Riley finished the screenplay for this passion project in 2012 and after searching for the means of production, began filming in June 2017. But when I ask this question, I mean it more figuratively. For what we have in Sorry to Bother You is a film that is unabashedly anti-capitalist, anti-racist, and ultimately leftist; something more often seen in the indie scene rather than a mainline Hollywood production with a wide release.
Broadly speaking, the film is a sci-fi satire set in a dystopian Oakland, California which sees a down on his luck Cassius Green, played by Lakeith Stanfield, move up the Regalview company ladder after discovering his elusive ‘white voice’ which makes him the company’s premier telemarketer. Yet his rags-to-riches fantasy is interrupted as he is tasked to sell weaponry and modern day slavery rebranded as ‘uber for labor’ for the company WorryFree, run by the delectably evil Steve Lift, played by Armie Hammer. This puts Cassius at odds with his union organizing friends at Regalview, his artist girlfriend Detroit, played by the wonderful Tessa Thompson, and his own conscience.
How Boots Riley depicts Cassius Green journey is quite well-thought out in terms of cinematography. The director chooses, wisely, to depict Cassius rugged beginnings, his friends at Regalview, and their interpersonal interactions in the lens of cinematic realism. The camera tends to linger during dialogue, sets lack extravagance, and their are an abundance of wide shots. Yet as Cassius Green ascends up the hierarchy and walks the halls of avarice, the cinematography matches the transition with more formalistic qualities. Sets and costumes become more extravagent, the camera loses the wide shots in favor of close-ups and particular angles, and the more sci-fi dystopian elements of this setting take center stage. As these formalistic elements are injected into the film and encroach on the pieces more realistic beginnings, they might appear to some as jarring, perhaps even threatening. But this deliberate, as the engulfing of realism by formalism mirrors how the logic of capitalism threatens to consume Cassius Green and others.
And what a destructive logic it turns out to be. Though the efforts of Steve Lift and others try to mask it under a veil of voluntarism, this is ultimately revealed to be a facade. Cassius uncle, played by Terry Crews, only considers WorryFree’s labor program under the threat of homelessness, while others characters make choices to sell or atomize themselves under similar threats of structural violence. These choices in the film are accompanied by devastating consequences to both the characters and their relationships to their loved ones. This is exemplified best by Cassius’s arc, who by climbing the corporate ladder privatizes himself from others. Yet as Cassius is welcomed into the arms of the rich and powerful, as portrayed by scenes set at Steve Lift’s party, he quickly realizes that all his efforts have meant to his bosses was to communicate that he was a useful tool, or even, in the film’s most race-sensitive moment where Cassius is forced to rap in front of all the party’s attendees, a source of amusement. An entertainment to be enjoyed by the white, capitalist class alongside the pain of those who struggle against them. What this dressing down of capitalism the film performs then is the revelation of the cognitive dissonance required for man to claim to offer a voluntary choice while holding a gun.
Yet because of Sorry to Bother You‘s grand ambitions, the film can at times stumble under the weight of it all. While the dubbed in ‘white voice’ is suppose to be jarring to some degree, it occasionally fails to match the actor’s body language in such a way as to be distracting. In addition, while Detroit is played well by Tessa Thompson and she bounces off of Lakeith Stanfield wonderfully as Cassius’s voice of reason, her side plot is a source of confusion. It seems that Boots Riley is trying to explore with Detroit’s character whether or not art can serve as an critique of capitalism when it is supported by it, with Tessa Thompson imitating a ‘white voice’ via a British accent and offering herself up to public harassment as part of her radical art exhibit casting doubt. However the arc never comes to a resolution in a way that feels satisfying, which makes me suspect that scenes related to Detroit’s side-plot were edited out during post production. As the only significant feminine perspective in the movie, the lack of resolution for her own side-plot is unfortunate.
Yet try as I might, I can’t hold the film’s flaws against it in a significant way; a result of clear passion the cast and crew put into it. It’s like Boots Riley and company snuck into Hollywood to make a film under everyone noses, knowing that they’ll never get to do this again and endeavoring to throw everything into it. While the end product is occasionally messy, it is also incredibly funny and offering a perspective rarely seen in a mainline Hollywood production. Thus I encourage you to go to your closest theatre and let this film bother you like it did me. You won’t regret it!
Rating: 4 / 5
Review: Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom is a Mediocre Set-up Banking on a More Interesting Future
Let me be honest right up front; the Jurassic Park sequels, despite some thrilling moments, are bad. The original, which represented the coming together of the Spielberg who directed Close Encounters and the Spielberg who directed Jaws, struck such unique balance between beauty and horror that is rarely seen. It’s why the film is remembered as a classic of the 90s, but it is also why it’s sequels fail. The momentary awe an audience can experience upon seeing such a vivid image of a dinosaur on-screen only works once. Without the beauty, all the sequels were left to work with was the horror. A horror that was compromised by both vain attempts to capture the awe of the original as well as forcing returns to the island which made the cast who willingly went there and knew about what transpired in the original seem dense to the point of harming the audiences empathy towards them.
With this in mind, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom might just be the best of sequels, despite that statement not exactly being high-praise. The film, which sees the return of the Jurassic world’s Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and Claire Dearing (Bryce Howard), takes strides in moving the series into more interesting pastures. Yet despite the shift in status-quo toward the end, the movie that preceded it is still rather dull elevated only by fantastic cinematography.
I do not make that praise lightly, the film is shot well. Director J.A. Bayona, known for his work on The Orphanage and A Monster Calls, really brings a vibrant intensity to all of the scenes. The epitome of this is a moment after the Isla Nublar volcano erupts and two of the main party are trapped in a sinking spherical transport. The scene is shot in what appears to be one take, allowing the focus to linger on the characters entrapment as water slowly fills the sphere. It evokes a horrifying sense of claustrophobia, a feeling that is echoed through-out the film. The more dramatic scenes also benefit from this direction, with J.A. Bayona delivering scenes where the characters are shot depicting visible signs of emotional vulnerability that were lacking in the original Jurassic World. With shots depicting taller characters getting down to eye-level and shifting from confrontational stances to more open ones, the Bayona directed sequel attempts something the original Jurassic World lacked the courage to try; make its thinly veiled archetypes appear human.
Yet solid direction can not cover the problems of the script. While Chris Pratt, Bryce Howard, the new Isabella Sermon, and the rest of the cast perform well with what is given to them, what was given to them was another Colin Trevorrow script that plays to his worst tendencies as a writer. The characters are archetypical to the point of shallowness; more befitting a parody of an action blockbuster rather than a sincere attempt. The dinosaurs, much like the first Jurassic world, are muddled in their representation. The film can’t decide whether their representations of natures indifference and human folly or misunderstood gentle giants deserving of protection and sympathy. Are they friend, foe, or indifferent? The film doesn’t know and this leads to inconsistency that muddles the attempted catharsis toward its conclusion.
Speaking of that conclusion, with the shift in status-quo it brings, it makes me wish this movie, rather than show the shift, left it to back story and progressed from the new, more interesting, status-quo. Perhaps there was a perceived need from the writers to explain this shift in cinematic detail, but I frankly don’t recognize that concern’s validity. Better to work with the new premise than to restrain yourself to a tired one that has proven its self as a failure under obligation. Merely banking on a more interesting future doesn’t disguise the faults of the present, of Fallen Kingdom, as promises are a dime a dozen. All Fallen Kingdom accomplishes in of itself is a betrayal of its finer elements, enslaving them to the failures of the past sequels.
Rating: 2 / 5