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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.

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While Tom Holland’s live-action Spider-Man character remains in limbo due to that infamous Thanos finger snap (even though we know another Spider-Man film starring Holland is being released next year, which is a bit of a giveaway), Sony Pictures has upped the ante on the Spidey franchise with the eye-popping, all-around-ingenious Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, one of 2018’s greatest cinematic surprises.

While there have been awesome superhero movies, and terrific movies based on comic books, this might be the best “comic-book movie” ever made. No movie has ever captured the rush of reading a great comic book like this blast from directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman. They go for broke with a mixture of visual styles—hand-drawn and computer-animated—that magically splash across the scene. The story is pretty great, too.

Miles Morales (the voice of Shameik Moore) is trying to adjust to a new, upscale school after winning a scholarship. He’s away from his big-city friends and getting some guff from his well-meaning police-officer dad (Brian Tyree Henry), who wants him to appreciate the chance he’s been given. Miles’ uncle (the ever-busy Mahershala Ali) keeps him grounded, encouraging him to continue as a graffiti artist. On one of their painting excursions, Miles is bitten by a strange spider and then, well, you know.

He eventually crosses paths with the original Spider-Man, Peter Parker (Chris Pine). As the plot would have it, parallel-universe portals open and allow in a whole fleet of different Spider-Men, Spider-Women, Spider-Pigs and Spider-Robots. That group includes Peter B. Parker (the invaluable Jake Johnson), Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Ham (a mishmash of Spidey and Porky Pig voiced by John Mulaney), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and her robot—and, best of all, Nicolas Cage as the black-and-white Spider-Man Noir.

So Miles is one of many Spider entities on hand to go up against Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin (Liev Schreiber), whose corporation is responsible for the time-hole rip. The reasons why are convoluted but discernible if you pay close attention. As with any good comic book, the movie is stacked with action, plot threads and many twists and turns.

I’m not a big comic-book collector, but I did go through a phase where I was reading graphic novels (often compilations of a comic series), and a few artists really grabbed me. I loved the artwork of Bill Sienkiewicz in an Elektra: Assassin series he did. Much of the art in Into the Spider-Verse reminds me of the work of Sienkiewicz and those like him; it’s comic art with a nice level of depth. Spider-Verse, to me, plays like every frame is a page out of those awesome graphic novels, edited together into a movie. There’s a slight jaggedness to the flow of the film; there’s almost a stop-motion feel to it at times. The film nothing anywhere close to a boring visual moment.

The movie is also very funny, poking fun at past Spider-Man movies and taking advantage of Johnson’s comic timing. Lily Tomlin voices a very different Aunt May, who is like Batman’s Alfred with a little more edge. Yes, there’s a Stan Lee cameo. When this is coupled with his animated cameo in this year’s Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, it’s clear Lee made some pretty great, unusual cameos in the year he left the planet.

While I enjoy Tom Holland as the live action Spider-Man, this sort of animated offering is more up my alley. I want more Spider-Verse. This is surely one of the best movies of the year, and the best Spider-Man movie to date. In fact, it’s one of the best animated films ever made. Yeah, it’s that good.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is now playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

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One of the directors of Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary goes solo for Green Book, his first “serious” feature effort.

Director Peter Farrelly, sans little brother Bobby, gives us a film that’s essentially a remake of Driving Miss Daisy with the roles reversed, starring Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) and the Academy Award-winning actor from Moonlight (Mahershala Ali). It’s a feel-good movie about race relations that goes light on the grit and heavy on the sentiment.

The film is based on a true story. Mortensen plays Tony Lip, an Italian bouncer at the Copacabana who finds himself temporarily without a job as the club is getting renovated. His next gig installs him as a driver and bodyguard for Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), an African-American classical pianist who is touring with a jazz trio in the early 1960s deep South.

This is a road movie, with Tony driving and Don sitting in the back. As they venture south, they talk about fried chicken, Chubby Checker and letter-writing. There is nothing in their dialogue that is remotely original or surprising, but Farrelly wisely has these two guys in the car. Without them, this film would be a total slog. The duo is, at times, fun to watch, even when the movie around them isn’t.

The titular Green Book is a guide for African Americans, listing safe havens where Don can eat and find shelter. The deeper into the South the tour goes, the lousier the accommodations for Don become. A rich man up north, Don is reduced to skeevy rooms and nothing but a bottle of Cutty Sark to get him through the night.

Segregation rears its ugly head as Don tries to do things such as buy a suit or eat in a restaurant where he’s been hired to play. This is where Tony becomes the hero, stepping in for his boss and occasionally cracking a few skulls. Yes, Tony is Dr. Don’s white knight, a man who will learn to love just a little bit more, regardless of the color of somebody’s skin; he may even use a few fewer racial slurs before the credits roll.

The film doesn’t feel like it was made today. It has the sensibility of a movie made somewhere around the late ’80s to mid ’90s. It’s a little too safe and predictable for its own good. A movie about racism should be uglier; this one tries a little too hard to not upset anybody. I have no problem with an optimistic viewpoint and a happy ending, but something about this movie, even though the characters are based on real people, rings a little false and shallow.

That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable to some degree. Mortensen, best known for dramatic and action roles, gets a chance to show off some comedic timing. He also put on more than 40 pounds for the role. That, coupled with a typical Italian accent, makes him OK in the type of role that used to go to the likes of Danny Aiello or the late Dennis Farina.

Mahershala is good as Shirley—so good you’ll wish the script matched the majesty of his work. Seamless special effects make it look like he can play a mean piano. (Kris Bowers, the film’s score composer, is also Ali’s piano double.)

Green Book is the sort of movie that has “Oscar” written all over it, but I won’t be trumpeting it when it’s time for the golden boys to be passed out. The movie is average at best, and I expect a little more heft from a movie with this subject matter.

Green Book is playing at theaters across the valley.

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Moonlight is the little film that could. It basically came out of nowhere to upset La La Land at this year’s Oscars and take the Best Picture award. Did Moonlight deserve it?

Well, no. It’s a very good movie, but La La Land, Manchester by the Sea and even The Witch were better films. That’s not to say it wasn’t deserving of the nominations for Best Picture and in some acting categories.

The sophomore feature from director Barry Jenkins is indeed a thing of beauty. A young boy grows into a man in the film’s three parts, and Jenkins cast the roles perfectly. Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes all play the central character at different ages, and they are all spectacular. The movie had one of 2016’s best ensemble casts. It’s also a very good-looking movie, beautifully shot and edited.

Mahershala Ali, the Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actor, plays a drug dealer who winds up being a mentor to the young boy; he’s the ultimate in conflicted characters. Ali brings an unexpected warmth to the role. Naomie Harris, also nominated for an Oscar, is memorable as the boy’s drug-addicted mother.

Moonlight is certainly one of 2016’s best and important films—just not the best. It doesn’t really matter what I think; it got the award, even if it had a weird time getting it. (Poor Warren Beatty.)

Special Features: A director’s audio commentary, interviews with the cast and a doc on the music round out the features.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

Katherine Johnson, one of the most brilliant mathematicians of the last century (and still going at age 98), gets the movie she deserves with Hidden Figures, an entertaining, enlightening and educational look at the contributions she and her cohorts made to NASA and space flight in the late 1950s and beyond.

Johnson was part of a segregated division at NASA in the 1950s, a wing of mathematicians who did the work that computers do today. The movie depicts the humiliation she and two other African-American women (Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson) went through while solving equations that helped put men safely into space—and got them back home to their families.

The women had to put up with a lot of racist bullshit, and the film shows their hardships, albeit in PG fashion. There was a stretch when Johnson was making monumental calculations for the likes of Alan Shepard, yet she wasn’t allowed to use the bathrooms in her building or drink from the same coffee pot as her white counterparts.

Taraji P. Henson plays Johnson, the “smart one” who John Glenn personally demanded check the coordinates before his historical flight launched. Henson is perfection in the role, depicting Johnson as the super-awesome nerd she is. She has a scene in which she takes her fellow mathematicians at NASA to task for their racist ways, and it’s a stunner. Henson gives the film, and Johnson, the true sense of majesty they deserve.

Octavia Spencer is her usual great self as Vaughan, doing the work of a supervisor without the title; she’s also curious about that new IBM thing they just installed down the hall. Vaughan would become crucial to the implementation of computers at NASA, and became the agency’s first African-American supervisor.

As Jackson, NASA’s first female African-American aeronautical engineer, singer Janelle Monae is so good that it’s easy to forget that this is just her second movie role. (She was also excellent in 2016’s Moonlight.) Monae acts with the confidence of somebody who has been at it for decades. She is undoubtedly one of 2016’s great acting discoveries.

As a composite, fictional character named Al Harrison, Kevin Costner does some of his best acting in years. He shows America’s drive to reach space before the Russians, while realistically depicting the kind of progressive change men like him would have to make in the name of civil rights. He’s also one of very few actors who can chew gum onscreen without annoying the hell out of me.

Not only is Hidden Figures a movie you can put alongside The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 as an authentic, captivating depiction of the space race; it stands alongside 2016’s The Birth of a Nation and Loving as an important cinematic time capsule regarding the Civil Rights Movement. I suspect this movie doesn’t even scratch the surface of what Johnson, Vaughan and Jackson accomplished and endured, but it does bring their historical significance to light.

Director Theodore Melfi’s sophomore effort (after the likable St. Vincent) is a large step forward in scope and significance. He treats the subject respectfully, finding moments for humor while not letting up on the injustices showered upon the trio. His movie looks good—it’s a convincing simulation of what the inner workings of NASA must’ve looked like back in the day. Hans Zimmer contributes one of the 2016’s most rousing and satisfying scores.

Kirsten Dunst, Jim Parsons and Mahershala Ali (Monae’s co-star in Moonlight) all contribute admirably in supporting roles. Ali plays Johnson’s second husband, Col. Jim Johnson, who is still alive and living with Katherine in Hampton, Va. Katherine and Jim are proof that math power is better than broccoli!

Going into Hidden Figures, I had no knowledge of these three women and what they meant to the space race. Learning about them and, consequently, appreciating them makes this film worthwhile. The three leads and Costner make the whole thing tremendously entertaining, too.

Hidden Figures opens Friday, Jan. 6, at theaters across the valley.

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Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a Confederate army medic, decides he’s had enough—and deserts. He returns to Mississippi, where his people are being harassed by looting soldiers. He winds up in the swamps with escaped slaves, where they form a pact—and eventually create a militia to rebel against the Confederacy.

Free State of Jones is based on a true story, and director Gary Ross definitely shows the brutality and terrors of the Civil War. McConaughey is powerful in the central role, as is Mahershala Ali as Moses, leader of the escaped slaves.

However, the film stumbles a bit when it tries to do a little too much: There are courtroom scenes taking place 85 years after the Civil War, when a relative of Knight’s is in a civil rights dispute. These scenes feel completely out of place, and they sort of muck up the film’s ending; things just come to an awkward stop. It’s too bad, because the movie winds up being merely good instead of great.

The battle scenes are harrowing; the tensions are frightening and real; and there’s not a bad performance in the lot. Yet because Ross has overstuffed the film, aspects like the rise of the KKK are almost glossed over.

This project, with its dual storylines and many plot points, probably would’ve worked better as an extended series on HBO. Still, it’s worth seeing for McConaughey and Ali.

Free State of Jones is playing at theaters across the valley.

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Director Derek Cianfrance, who helmed the devastatingly brilliant Blue Valentine, raises his ambitions for The Place Beyond the Pines, a gripping film experiment that works on every level.

Cianfrance makes a lot of unconventional moves this time out. There are many stories in this movie, with a strong emphasis on many characters. Cianfrance finds a way to focus on these characters in an efficient way that doesn’t have viewers jumping from one story to another from scene to scene. The stories progress chronologically over a period of about 16 years, with some characters fading away as others take over. The result is long, but never boring.

The film starts with a lengthy tracking shot that follows Ryan Gosling’s Luke, a stunt-motorcycle driver, as he leaves his trailer and heads for his evening gig. The shot establishes that although Luke is a semi-celebrity on the carnival circuit, he’s undeniably lonely and isolated.

Luke gets some surprising news from ex-lover Romina (Eva Mendes), and his life trajectory takes a drastic shift. He moves from doing stunts to robbing banks, a decision that will bring him face to face with Avery (Bradley Cooper), a rookie cop with a terrible haircut. Avery finds himself thrust into upstate New York law enforcement with the big boys, which includes being around a lot of corruption. (Ray Liotta is one of the cops, so there you go. Bad stuff always goes down when Liotta is in the mix.)

Both Luke and Avery have 1-year-old sons, and the film ultimately deals with their stories when the kids hit the age of 17. AJ (Emory Cohen) is Avery’s son, a neglected product of divorce who has a marble-mouth, a taste for drugs and a violent temper. Jason (Dane DeHaan) is Luke’s son, a mild-mannered loner who knows little about his father and who gets high a lot. The two sons cross paths and become friends, and the film becomes a startling look at the results of bad fathering.

The movie is always good, but it is perhaps at its best when Gosling occupies the story. Gosling got off to bad start this year with his turn in the lousy Gangster Squad, but his performance here puts him back on track. Luke has similarities to the dark, brooding Driver from Drive (and like Driver, Luke is prone to violent outbursts). Gosling brings out sensitivity in Luke that makes him all the more tragic when his crime spree spirals out of control.

Cooper, recently Oscar-nominated for Silver Linings Playbook, is Gosling’s equal in this film, making Avery virtuous at first, but prone to devious leanings. Avery’s ambitions lead to broken marriages and a miserable kid, canceling out any heroic deeds from years before. His work here is just as strong as his work in Playbook.

As for Cohen and DeHaan, they provide Pines with an absorbing final act. It’s usually a good thing when you get a movie with a couple of memorable characters in it. Well, this film has a whole cast’s worth of memorable characters, and all of the actors get the screen time they deserve.

Mendes heads the supporting cast with an authority that she has never shown before. She’s nothing short of terrific, and it’s a performance that should open some new doors for the veteran actress. The ever-reliable Ben Mendelsohn (so good in Killing Them Softly) gives a wonderfully quirky performance as Robin, Luke’s only true friend and confidant. Liotta, Mahershala Ali, Rose Byrne and Bruce Greenwood round out the cast with powerful work.

Cianfrance has made a beautiful movie, from the lush camerawork by Sean Bobbitt, to the haunting, excellent piano based soundtrack by Mike Patton (yes, THAT Mike Patton, from Faith No More). The film has something beautiful to boast in every frame. It’s a true work of art.

It’s also good for a few doses of adrenaline, something that was absent from the somber Blue Valentine. The bank robberies and subsequent chases are uncomfortable, fast and tense. Luke’s showdown with Avery after a memorable foot chase is a great movie moment.

Anybody thinking The Place Beyond the Pines is just a movie about a dude on a motorcycle robbing banks (as commercials have implied) will be in for a big surprise. It’s a sprawling work about the sins of the father—and it’s one of the year’s best films so far.

The Place Beyond the Pines is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6588; www.camelottheatres.com); and the Cinemas Palme d'Or (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-779-0730; www.thepalme.com).

Published in Reviews