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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Alita: Battle Angel is a project that’s been on James Cameron’s plate for almost two decades.

Then the whole Avatar thing happened, and Cameron, the director, got lost in Pandora speaking Navi and doing strange things with horse-like creatures. He went from directing Alita to producing and screenplay contributions only. Directing chores went to Robert Rodriguez (Spy Kids, From Dusk Till Dawn)—and after substantial delays, the movie has finally arrived.

The first time I saw the character of Alita in previews (played, in motion captures, by Rosa Salazar), I found her super-creepy, with her big eyes and ghostly smile. After seeing her in 3-D IMAX, I have to say: Something about adding that third dimension makes her more visually accessible. She really is an impressive special-effects feat, blending in just fine with the 100 percent humans and special-effects backdrops.

The movie itself is rather absorbing for a while, telling a decent story about a 300-year-old android trying to fit into a dystopian society, even if she does have the dullest boyfriend in cinematic history (Keean Johnson).

Looking through a garbage heap (that looks uncannily like the garbage heaps from Idiocracy, a film for which Robert Rodriguez, uncredited, did some special effects), Dr. Dyson Ido (a superb Christoph Waltz) finds the upper half of a strikingly beautiful android. He takes some readings, discovers she still has brain activity and takes her home. He meshes her upper parts with a robot body which was intended for his late daughter. He brings the android back to life, dubs her Alita (his deceased daughter’s name) and starts feeding her oranges.

Alita can’t remember a thing, but it all comes back to her in flashes. She’s a big-time former warrior, so, naturally, her talents take her toward a career in … killer roller derbies. That’s where the movie really starts to lose it. It’s an interesting movie about a young girl in an old android’s body looking for her sense of self, and even becoming a bounty hunter. Then, in a snap decision, she decides to go for fame and money in roller derby. Huh?

It’s as if the filmmakers had no idea where to go. The film is based on an original graphic novel that probably birthed the roller-derby angle, but that’s an element Rodriguez and Cameron could’ve easily jettisoned. It comes off as a tech geek’s kind of Quidditch—a lame attempt to instill the Harry Potter universe in the world of Alita. Every second of this movie during which Alita is skating around feels like a distraction.

There are many other killer cyborg characters with familiar faces, played by Jackie Earle Haley, Jai Courtney, Jeff Fahey and Casper Van Dien. The cyborg characters are pulled off with varying degrees of success, from impressive (Haley) to downright silly-looking (Courtney). While Alita herself is a surprisingly well-integrated visual figure, some of the other characters come off as badly cartoonish.

A subplot involving persons named Vector and Chiren (Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly) is supposed to provide the film with two super-villains, but I never really got a handle on what the pair was actually doing. They weren’t very scary.

Now that Cameron’s little Alita diversion is out of the way, he can get back to dawdling with his funky smurfs in Pandora for future boring installments of his CGI wasteland. Alita: Battle Angel feels like a decent idea that didn’t get his full attention—and suffered as a result.

Alita: Battle Angel is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

Published in Reviews

The Daniel Craig-led James Bond movies have represented the franchise’s high point.

The films starring Craig have included a little thing called “genuine emotion.” The series peaked with 2012’s Skyfall, directed by Sam Mendes and featuring Javier Bardem as a classic Bond villain.

Mendes has returned for the latest installment, and this time out, the action is amped up. Spectre has some terrific set pieces, including a dizzying helicopter sequence to open things up, as well as a nasty fight on a train. That’s what’s good about the movie.

What’s bad? Regrettably, a good chunk of it is bad. After the full experience that was Skyfall, Spectre feels incomplete and shallow.

During a layover in Italy, Bond finds out a few hard truths about his origins, and that much of the pain he’s gone through in his last few chapters is attributable to one man. Christoph Waltz shows up (barely) as Oberhauser, a past acquaintance of Bond who is now leading a dark society called Spectre—responsible for terrorist attacks worldwide.

Of course, Bond will get a girl along the way. This time out, it’s Madeleine Swann, played by Léa Seydoux of Blue Is the Warmest Color. Not only does she fall for Bond; she falls for Bond in a way that kind of makes her look like an idiot.

Throughout the film, there’s a sense that Craig is getting a little tired of the Bond shtick. He just doesn’t seem fully committed at this point. Also—and this is a rather strange observation, but I’m going to just put it out there—he looks totally gross when he’s kissing women. I’m going to go ahead and call him the worst Bond kisser ever. (Yes, worse than Roger Moore!) He looks like he’s out to eat somebody’s face. Seydoux probably had to check for her lower lip after takes.

Waltz is fun in his few scenes, but saying his villain is underdeveloped would be an understatement. He barely gets a chance to register. Ralph Fiennes returns as M, and his portion of the story—regarding the Secret Intelligence Service being in danger of getting shut down—is actually interesting. It’s a bad thing when the subplot is more interesting than what Bond is actually doing.

At 148 minutes long, with a price tag in the $250 million range, Spectre suffers from some serious bloat. For all of that money, couldn’t the art department come up with a better-looking staged photo of Bond during his youth? This movie has one of those photos in which young pictures of the actual actors are Photoshopped together to make it look like the characters co-existed in a past moment. The staged photo looks like somebody used scissors and Scotch tape.

I have no complaints about the action sequences. Dave Bautista shows up as a Spectre goon named Hinx; he’s the one who dukes it out with Bond on the train. He makes for a good Bond monster. In addition to the aforementioned excellent action sequences, the film includes a building collapse in which Bond narrowly escapes. It’s good stuff.

It’s the emotional stuff that drags the movie down. Yes, it was welcomed in Skyfall, but this film feels like it is trying too hard. There are certain things we don’t need to know about James Bond and his past. The past the film paints is completely unnecessary.

Craig is under contract for one more picture, but something feels final about Spectre. If he should return for another go, somebody needs to find a way for Bond to have fun again—because Spectre is a drag.

Spectre is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Tim Burton’s odd and fun Big Eyes tells the story of Margaret Keane (Amy Adams), the painter behind the “big eyes” portraits of the 1960s, and her loser husband, Walter (Christoph Waltz), who took credit for her work.

The story begins with Margaret leaving her first husband and winding up in San Francisco, where she eventually runs into alleged artist Walter. They have a quick courtship and get married; before long, Walter is claiming her work as his own. The two eventually wind up in a legal battle, with Walter defending himself.

The movie oscillates back and forth between serious drama and outrageous comedy. The comedy angle definitely plays out in the courtroom scenes, where Waltz becomes a full-blown clown.

The look of the film has Burton’s characteristic exaggerated colors; the palette reminds at times of his Edward Scissorhands. Adams is mostly fine, but seems a bit lost at times, as if she’s not quite sure how Burton wants to tell the story. Waltz delivers a somewhat crazed performance that makes the film’s tone a bit uneven at times. However, the movie remains enjoyable.

Big Eyes is now playing at the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342) and the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0430).

Published in Reviews

While the first Horrible Bosses got by on the charms of its three main stars, the second one falls a bit short.

Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) and Dale (Charlie Day) have decided to go into business for themselves after the events of the first film. They wind up on TV pitching a stupid idea called the Shower Buddy, where they are seen by Rex (Chris Pine), the son of billionaire businessman Bert Hanson (Christoph Waltz). This leads to that, and the boys wind up in a kidnapping scheme involving Rex trying to double-cross his dad.

The screenplay strains to bring back Jennifer Aniston as the naughty dentist and Kevin Spacey as the embittered ex-boss. It also doesn’t help that Day and Sudeikis are a bit overwrought this time out; their acts are getting a little tired.

Bateman is easily the funniest thing about this movie—effortlessly smarmy, as always. I laughed a fair amount of times, but these characters would be better-served with all-new material and a new premise. I like seeing them together, but they need a new place to play.

Horrible Bosses 2 is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

In the latest from director Terry Gilliam, The Zero Theorem, Christoph Waltz plays a computer hacker “crunching entities” on a mission to prove that mankind essentially came from nothing—and will return to nothing.

I won’t say that Gilliam’s movie adds up to nothing in the end, but it becomes nonsensical, meandering mush after a promising, eye-catching beginning.

The movie has all of the watermarks of classic Gilliam films like Brazil and 12 Monkeys. The future is a claustrophobic place in which fluorescent colors replace the browns and grays of Brazil. There are also hoses and wires—lots and lots of hoses and wires.

There’s also another Big Brother-like corporation in the form of Mancom, for which Qohen Leth (Waltz) finds himself hopelessly employed. Forever sitting at a flashy computer console and manipulating numbers with what looks like a glorified PlayStation 4 controller, Qohen constantly complains to his supervisor, Joby (David Thewlis), that “we,” meaning he, is dying, and his work would be done better in the confines of his own, burned-out church home.

After a meeting with Management (Matt Damon in a funny white wig) at a party, Qohen’s wish is granted, and he’s allowed to work at home on the company’s Zero Theorem project—a project that has burned out many programmers before. As Qohen slowly goes crazy, he’s visited by Bainsley (Mélanie Thierry) and Management’s son, Bob (Lucas Hedges), in some sort of strange effort by Management to distract him.

Of course, Qohen falls in love with Bainsley, who gives him a strange virtual suit that allows them to visit a beachfront virtual world where they can eat whatever they want—and make out, too.

The film’s settings—from the bombed out church co-inhabited by pigeons, to the multicolored streets where digital billboards follow people and converse with them as they walk by—give Gilliam a chance to play in his masterful visual sandbox. He’s still got it when it comes to presenting strange worlds, even if it is obvious that some of his visions are a few special-effects dollars short. (Gilliam doesn’t command the budgets he once did.)

What he doesn’t have is a script that amounts to much. The screenplay, by Pat Rushin (his first feature, according to IMDb), has grand ideas, but it cops out in the end—and this is a movie in which the end really, really matters. What happens is actually very reminiscent of Brazil’s dark ending—Gilliam’s original cut, that is, and not that “Happily Ever After” mess that aired on TV.

Waltz is good here, acting hard with a script that abandons him slowly. It’s a fully dedicated performance that deserved a better movie. Thewlis has funny moments; his repairman “field trip” to Qohen’s home is reminiscent of the visits paid to Jonathan Pryce by Robert De Niro in Brazil.

Yes, The Zero Theorem is one of those films in which a great director rips himself off shamelessly, and almost gets away with it. It’s Gilliam’s best film since Fear and Loathing Las Vegas, although that’s not saying much, seeing as the interim has included stuff like the awful Tideland and mediocre The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.

Gilliam is trying to mount The Man Who Killed Don Quixote yet again, and I’m hoping the project finally comes to fruition. Perhaps a chance to revisit this subject—something he is so passionate about—will allow him to put together another masterpiece. He’s due for another one, and I think he’s got it in him.

The Zero Theorem represents a great director starting to warm up again. It’s a miss, but it’s a step in the right direction.

The Zero Theorem is available on demand and via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com. It also opens Friday, Sept. 19, at the Cinémas Palme d’Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0730).

Published in Reviews

Django Unchained, out today (Tuesday, April 16) on Blu-Ray, is still my least-favorite Tarantino movie—but it’s growing on me. I liked it the first time I saw it, but I wanted to love it. When watching it on Blu-ray, I was more relaxed, and it went up a notch in my book.

This is the first Tarantino film not to be edited by the great Sally Menke, who recently passed away. The first time I watched it, I really felt her absence in the beat of the film. However, on the second go-round, I allowed myself to take in the movie on its own terms. It’s a little clunky in spots, and a little long, but with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson propelling the story, some lags are forgivable.

Waltz got an Oscar for his portrayal of the bounty hunter with a heart of gold. His performance was great work, but if anybody in this movie deserved an Oscar, it was DiCaprio, as he went well beyond his safety zone, playing one of last year’s greatest scumbags. Tarantino got a screenplay Oscar; he won the same award for Pulp Fiction.

The plot involving a revisionist history/fantasy of pre-Civil War America has a similar vibe to the revisionist history of Inglourious Basterds. It feels a little bit like Tarantino is repeating himself. But Tarantino makes good movies, repeating himself or not. Still, I’m hoping his next film is a change of pace like Kill Bill was.

Tarantino has never made a movie I haven’t liked; he’s a master. Django is his weakest, but it’s still good.

I would love it if somebody gave him a superhero franchise. He would do some amazing things with something like the Fantastic Four.

Special Features: A few short behind-the-scenes docs. Tarantino doesn’t do commentaries (although I do remember that he did one for From Dusk Till Dawn with Robert Rodriguez). The supplements are underwhelming. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Quentin Tarantino is repeating himself a bit when it comes to his latest, Django Unchained.

Tarantino got off on revisionist history with Inglourious Basterds, changing the events of World War II for entertainment’s sake. He got away with it, because the movie was stylistically awesome, and Eli Roth wowed with his baseball bat.

This time, Tarantino has taken his crazy pen to the subject of slavery, and the result is an uncomfortable yet somewhat entertaining mixed bag.

The movie has all of the Tarantino-isms (super violence, awesome music choices, cutesy monologues), but it gave me that “been there, done that” feeling. For the first time ever during a Tarantino movie, I found myself a little bored at times.

Christoph Waltz, who played the evil Jew-hunter Nazi in Basterds, returns to Tarantino Land as Dr. King Schultz, a German bounty hunter wandering around the South two years before the Civil War. He has the same ingenuity and flare for words that the Jew-hunter had, but he’s a much nicer human being. That is, unless you are one of his targets—then he will shoot you down like a dog in a spray of brains and intestine.

His character despises slavery, but purchases a slave named Django (Jamie Foxx), because he heard Django has seen some men he needs to shoot. As it turns out, Django is a crack shot; the two become partners; and lots of evil crackers are going to die violent deaths.

Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), has been sold to an evil slave owner named Calvin Candie (a slithery Leonardo DiCaprio), and Schultz agrees to accompany Django on a mission to rescue her.

When DiCaprio enters the fray, the movie hits its highest heights. Tarantino allows the usually virtuous actor a chance to be truly disgusting, and DiCaprio jumps at the opportunity.

The movie is long (two hours and 45 minutes), as are some other Tarantino films. However, this is the first Tarantino film that felt long. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that this is the first Tarantino film not to be edited by the late Sally Menke. Menke was a big part of the Tarantino universe, and her cuts were magical. Perhaps Menke would’ve made this gun-and-pony show fly by effortlessly, as she did with all of her other Tarantino projects.

Django Unchained is a sporadically entertaining film that feels a little off. It is also Tarantino’s most-sadistic film to date, and I say this while remembering the “Bring out the gimp!” scene from Pulp Fiction. Again, maybe Menke had a way of presenting Tarantino’s crazed visions that his current editor can’t summon up. The sort of stuff that is just plain nauseating here was actually kind of funny in past Tarantino efforts.

Waltz is terrific, and it’s refreshing to see him playing a crazy guy with a big heart. He’s usually such a prick in his movies, so it’s nice to see him in a heroic role. DiCaprio gives his part of the film a funny and sinister edge, although his monologue about the inner workings of a slave’s skull is a bit much. Foxx makes for a decent-enough hero.

Django Unchained is mediocre Tarantino at best, and I can only give the slightest of recommendations. See it for Waltz and DiCaprio.

I’m hoping this signifies the end of Tarantino’s revisionist-history and exploitation/grindhouse phase. Unfortunately, I just read a story where he teased an idea for a sequel to Basterds—so new and innovative ideas from Tarantino might be far away.

Django Unchained is playing in theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews