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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

It feels like writer-director Robert Rodriguez delivered the first Sin City a million years ago.

However, it was just nine years ago, back in 2005. Rodriguez was reaching the apex of his creative strengths, making good movies for relatively small budgets and doing much of the work himself. Sin City was truly groundbreaking; it was preceded by fine films like Once Upon a Time in Mexico, the first three Spy Kids movies (two of which were really good) and, my personal favorite, From Dusk Till Dawn.

Since Sin City, a lot of people have been making good-looking films on reasonable budgets. Rodriguez, in the meantime, has been losing steam, with misfires like The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lavagirl 3-D, Shorts, the fourth (and truly awful) Spy Kids film and Machete Kills. Yes, he did good work with his Grindhouse segment, Planet Terror and the first Machete—but the bad has far outweighed the good.

Now comes Rodriguez’s long-in-development Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. It’s a batch of shorts based on the musings of Frank Miller—and not one of them offers anything better than the original film. It’s a tedious, worthless film from a director who seems to be running out of original ideas.

Much of the cast returns, including Mickey Rourke and Bruce Willis, even though their characters died in the first movie. In the case of Rourke, his Marv segments are prequels, based on graphic novels that took place before his character got the electric chair. As for Willis … think The Sixth Sense.

Jessica Alba returns to dance provocatively (although she keeps her clothes on) as stripper Nancy, and Powers Boothe is back as the evil Senator Roark. Dennis Haysbert replaces the late Michael Clarke Duncan, and Josh Brolin steps in for Clive Owen as Dwight. Also new to the cast are Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Johnny, and Eva Green as Ava.

There are a whole lot of people driving around in black-and-white, doing those deliberately paced, film-noir voiceovers. What was once visually breathtaking has become visually blah, and none of the stories in A Dame to Kill For merit interest. The film plays like a batch of outtakes from the first movie that were slapped together and put on display.

It’s also the second time this year that Eva Green has given a spectacular, villainous performance in a film adapted from a Miller graphic novel that sucks around her (the first one being 300: Rise of an Empire). Green is the only reason to see this movie; her Ava is far more terrifying than Boothe’s deranged senator.

Gordon-Levitt seems out of place in this film; he’s way too cool and popular to be hanging around such a subpar undertaking. It’s sort of like when Bill Murray lent his voice to the Garfield movies, or Tom Hanks took a paycheck for The Da Vinci Code. It just feels wrong. Gordon-Levitt was in the running for Guardians of the Galaxy and Godzilla … and he winds up in this? The agent firings must commence.

For the first time in a long time, Rodriguez doesn’t have any films listed in development. Perhaps this is a good thing; maybe he needs a break. He’s better than Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill for is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

Robert Rodriguez brings back Danny Trejo for another round of violent B-movie action—and the joke has grown tired.

I was a big fan of the 2010 original (and the fake Grindhouse trailer), but Machete Kills gets dumb to the point of annoyance. Trejo, 69, is starting to look a little tired in the title role.

Charlie Sheen (billed under his real name, Carlos Estevez) is actually pretty funny as the president of the United States, but he only has a few scenes. The same can’t be said for Mel Gibson, who mugs his way through a bad-guy role in a manner that reveals how desperate he is to be taken seriously again. Props go to Amber Heard, who gets the film’s best part as a beauty queen/secret agent—but Sofia Vergara annoys as she screams her way through her role as a villain with machine-gun breasts, a direct, gimmicky rip-off of the girl with machine-gun legs from Rodriguez’s Planet Terror.

Rodriguez seems to be losing it to some degree—and that’s a shame.

Machete Kills is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews