CVIndependent

Mon01272020

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

After a slow start, Only the Brave rallies to become a solid tribute to the Granite Mountain Hotshots, 19 of whom died battling the massive Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013.

The Hotshots were an elite Prescott, Ariz., crew led by veteran firefighter Eric Marsh, played here by Josh Brolin. This performance ranks among Brolin’s best, as he shows us a passionate man presiding over his crew like a father to his sons.

Marsh takes a risk on Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a former drug-user seeking redemption and a decent living to provide for his newborn daughter. The always-reliable Teller matches Brolin’s acting triumph every step of the way, making both Marsh and McDonough fleshed-out, complicated characters. The two seem right at home with each other onscreen.

Director Joseph Kosinski takes a solid step beyond his prior sci-fi blunders (Oblivion, TRON: Legacy) to deliver a movie that is technically sound and emotionally powerful, if a little hokey and overlong in spots. The movie is never bad, but it does drone on a bit during some of the melodramatic build up. It never goes wrong when the team is on the job and fighting fires; it just gets a little sleepy when folks are sitting around talking or bickering.

We see the team containing numerous fires throughout the film, giving us the sense that these guys were in full command of their trade. Of course, nature is an awesome and awful beast—and when the wind shifts and sends the Yarnell blaze toward the unsuspecting men, you get a true sense of how random and crazy the event was. These guys were the best of the best, and even they couldn’t predict what was going to happen.

Kosinski has assembled a cast that includes Brolin’s True Grit cast mate Jeff Bridges as Duane Steinbrink, Marsh’s supervisor. You can’t go wrong with Bridges; he delivers good humor, at one point busts out a guitar, and ultimately provides the movie with a solid emotional punch during the finale. Taylor Kitsch gets some good laughs as troublemaker Christopher MacKenzie; he gripes about handing over his new Vans to trainee Brendan, but winds up becoming his best friend over time.

As Amanda Marsh—Eric’s wife who takes care of injured horses when he’s away—Jennifer Connelly gets a chance to shine. Like Eric, Amanda has had a rough past, and problems bubble to the surface during some of his stop-ins between fires. Connelly does well with material that could seem played out in the hands of others. She adds angst to the mix with Amanda, and it works.

Knowing nothing about the art of firefighting, I can’t vouch for the authenticity of this film, but it sure does feel realistic. The Hotshots do controlled burns to protect landscapes, save historic trees and rescue neighborhoods. Additional supporting cast members, like James Badge Dale as Jesse Steed, Marsh’s second in command, give you a sense that the actors did a lot of ride-alongs for their roles.

Even though the fate of the men in the film is well-known, the depiction of the Yarnell Fire still blindsides you. Brolin’s Marsh figures it will be an easily contained fire, with the men home for dinner. Kosinski portrays the shock of the whole situation effectively; the men were working a situation which seemed to be completely under control.

The final sequences in the movie are so well done that you’ll feel kind of bad for groaning during the film’s more lumbering parts. By the time Kosinski shows the real-life firefighters alongside their Hollywood counterparts, the film has become a nice homage to these great, unselfish, all-giving men.

Parts of the country are going through some of the worst fire seasons in modern history. It’s not surprising this film didn’t have a big opening weekend; it’s a subject very close to home and truly painful for many. It’s a movie that will gain an audience over time.

Only the Brave is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

I did my share of Bible-reading when I was a kid. In fact, I read it multiple times from cover to cover.

I was also reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy and a bunch of Stephen King books—and of all the literature I read as an impressionable youth, nothing was more violent and more insane than the Bible. Actually, the Bible may be the sickest book ever written when it comes to death and destruction. If you count the apocalypse, the whole world dies more than once in that particular piece of literature. That’s a huge body count!

Whether you are religious or not, the Bible is, no doubt, a pretty sweet platform for over-the-top cinema. With Noah, director Darren Aronofsky has concocted a crazy, dark and nasty disaster film befitting those few pages in the book of Genesis.

In what is surely his best performance to date, Russell Crowe plays the title character, a good, passionate man in a not-particularly-good time. The people outside of Noah’s family circle have turned Earth into a place of carnivorous debauchery, and “The Creator” (this film’s go-to name for God) intends to wipe all humanity off the face of the Earth with a great flood. Noah is tasked with saving the innocent animals on a huge ship that he is to build, with the help of large rock monsters.

That’s right—I said large rock monsters. This movie has rock monsters in it. They are Aronofsky’s version of fallen angels. I don’t remember reading about rock monsters in the Bible, but I will tell you that they come in quite handy when one is tasked with building a huge boat to house two of every animal on the planet. (That’s minus the sea-faring animals, of course. There were no aquariums on the ark. Dolphins and angelfish and whatnot probably just camped out under the stormy surface, while the sharks went to town on people clinging to mountain peaks and treetops in the rising waters. Sharks eating the biblically doomed as they scampered atop Mount Everest are not depicted in this film, but I reckon “Shark-Flood-Oh” could be coming soon to a cable channel near you.)

The supporting cast includes Jennifer Connelly as Noah’s wife; Emma Watson as his adopted daughter; and Anthony Hopkins as the Yoda-like, mountain-dwelling grandfather. Logan Lerman delivers notably good work as Ham, the son of Noah who eventually gets banished for seeing his dad all drunk and naked.

The movie, as a spectacle, is quite good, although its CGI does have a few moments of weakness. The flood itself is a frightening sequence, with a horrifying moment involving screaming people outside of the ark getting washed off a big rock by waves. I’m actually surprised this movie garnered a PG-13 rating. It struck me, very much, as an R-rated film due to its violence.

Noah is also a beautiful, inspiring story about survival, freewill, blind faith, killing in the name of religion and, above all, the virtues of veganism. It comes as no surprise that Aronofsky, who also co-wrote the script, is a vegan. It also comes as no surprise that the film’s main villain (Ray Winstone) bites the heads off of live animals for evil energy.

Yes, I had a blast with this movie. I imagine it will enrage a few pastors and preachers who bring their Sunday-school classes to a matinee, only to discover the rock monsters.

Noah is not a deeply religious film; it’s a big, bold disaster movie with a super-intelligent and compassionate core. Like the best of movies, it will inspire many long, perhaps fiery conversations for years to come.

Noah is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews