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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

Director Nate Parker’s biographical film about Nat Turner plays out like the scariest of horror shows—as it very well should.

The Birth of a Nation scarily portrays Turner’s slave rebellion in the South, one that resulted in many African Americans being slaughtered in retaliation. It’s bloody; it’s heartbreaking; and it’s the two-by-four to the face the subject warrants.

Parker plays Turner, a slave raised as a preacher and exploited for money by his plantation owner (Armie Hammer, in a most scary performance); Parker’s performance is a powerful one. As for his directing, he portrays white plantation and slave owners and preachers as hissing, hateful, almost-cartoonish demons … and I say amen to that.

Some of the history might not be 100 percent accurate, but the portrayal of the hatred and the disgusting state of affairs that led to Turner’s uprising is vivid and on target. Jackie Earle Haley, aka Kelly Leak of The Bad News Bears, successfully portrays one of the most repugnant, irredeemable characters ever put to screen.

Stylistically, the film gets a little strange in a few moments, but the end results and impressions are long lasting and very meaningful.

The Birth of a Nation is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

A slew of 1980s remakes are getting thrown at us right now. For example, Endless Love and About Last Night both got re-dos, just in time for Valentine’s Day.

Also released on that day of candy and heart-shaped cards: a remake of Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 ultra-violent satiric masterpiece, RoboCop.

The idea to reboot RoboCop has been around for years. The last RoboCop film, the remarkably awful RoboCop 3, came out more than 20 years ago. At one point, director Darren Aronofsky (The Fountain, Requiem for a Dream) was attached, and that gave geeks and fanboys a reason to rejoice. Alas, Aronofsky dropped out to make Black Swan instead. A chance for legendary coolness was squandered.

In stepped Brazilian director José Padilha (Elite Squad), who received a mandate to produce a PG-13 RoboCop (as opposed to the hard-R original), so that more money could be made. After a tumultuous production, we have the result.

And that result? It’s not that bad … not bad at all.

Padilha and writer Joshua Zetumer wisely go for something very different this time out. The new RoboCop is still subversive, and a bit satirical when it comes to its presentation of the media. Conversely, this one has a little more heart and emotion than the nasty original. Normally, I’d cry foul at this sort of thing, but a strong cast and a visually sound presentation result in a movie that is at least worth watching, even if it pales in comparison to Verhoeven’s insane incarnation.

Joel Kinnaman steps into the role of Alex Murphy, a Detroit cop in the year 2028 who gets himself blown up after causing too much trouble for a criminal kingpin. Murphy, with the permission of his wife (Abbie Cornish), has his life saved by being placed into an armored endoskeleton—with the purpose of making him a law-enforcement superhero.

In the original, Murphy (well played by Peter Weller) started his crusade while not really knowing who he was, or having any memories. He eventually figured out his identity and solved his own murder. The new film drastically diverts here, having its Murphy freak out upon waking up as a robot—fully cognizant of his identity. It’s only when his emotional stability comes into question that his doctor (Gary Oldman) decides to mess with his brain and shoot him full of dopamine, turning him into a robot zombie.

I heard about this twist in advance, and I didn’t like the idea. However, the plot change is handled well. Murphy’s wife and kid play a bigger part in this story, and that turns out to be fine.

This is still, very much, a RoboCop movie, even with more emotion and less violence. Michael Keaton represents the evil corporation that creates RoboCop; his Raymond Sellars is evil in a more understated way than Ronny Cox’s Dick Jones from the ’87 film—but he’s just as sinister. Michael K. Williams essentially takes over the role of the loyal partner, played by Nancy Allen in the original.

Jackie Earle Haley (Kelly Leak!) gets one of his funniest roles ever as a militaristic policeman, while Samuel L. Jackson gets to scream as a sensationalistic talk-show host. I guess Jackson is essentially taking over the role played by Leeza Gibbons in the original.

The movie also contains some clever winks to the original, including an army of ED-209s (the cumbersome war machine that fell down the stairs, squealing, in the original), and a nod to the first RoboCop suit.

This film is rewritten in a way that won’t piss off the original’s legions of fans. Still, if a hundred years from now, anybody is watching RoboCop movies, the Verhoeven film will still be the one most in favor. The new one amounts to a decent-enough curio, but it’s not a classic.

RoboCop is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews