Movie Review: Alita: Battle Angel

Battle Angel Alita did for cyberpunk what Berserk did for fantasy after it was published in 1990. While it had limited success and an OVA in its home country, like everything 90s and Japanese, the manga gained a rather large following in the US. Through director Guillermo Del Toro, James Cameron learned of Alita and set about making his own live action adaptation in 2000. Cameron’s short-lived TV show Dark Angel drew inspiration from the manga, vowing to start production after the show was cancelled in 2002. 15 years later we finally got a trailer and after another delay Alita: Battle Angel was finally released.

Where I am an Effects Nazi that can spot blatant mistakes a mile away, Cameron is an Effects Fuhrer. While Robert Rodriguez sat in the director’s chair, the visual effects in Battle Angel were definitely all Cameron. The man is utterly ambitious when it comes to effects work. Since his early days with Terminator he as pushed the bounds of what is possible on screen, mixing mediums, and making advancements we take for granted. Our use of 3D filmmaking and performance capture would not have been possible until Cameron perfected it in Avatar. He is like Robert Zemeckis without his head permanently affixed up his own asshole.

To that end, it is rare for Cameron to make a movie and not try to innovate. Avatar was nine years ago and 12 years before that was Titanic. For a working director that is not normal, but I would not consider Cameron a working director. The man is a perfectionist and an inventor that will not direct unless he can try something new and different. At the same time, how he approaches new projects depends on the material in question. Avatar had ideas and concepts that would have look awful when it was first conceived and Cameron shelved it until the technology caught up.

Having read the manga it is very clear why Battle Angel took 19 years to make. The character Alita is just a head and the other 90% mechanical with anime-eyes and a small mouth. On the one had, you could use prosthetics to make the actress look like a robot from the neck down. However, latex is not solid and any movements will wrinkle the material. Maybe you could cover her up to hide it, but it would not look good on screen or accurate to the manga. Then there are other cyborg characters with diverse appearances that require the same treatment.

The final product is flawless to say the least. If you are expecting photo-realism, give it another decade or two, but what Battle Angel achieves is a level of quality to rival the MCU. The animation and textures of the cyborg characters is realistic enough that it just works on screen. Movements are fluid and very easy to follow when things get very fast during action sequences. Between action, the cyborgs and general VFX elements look great. Alita and a minor villain named Zapan standout the most, but they blend in so well. The backgrounds and some of the props also fit the overall presentation without looking too fake.

On the practical front the production quality was superb. There are more real sets than computer generator from what I could see. The setting of Iron City comes alive at the street level with anachronistic architecture, stonework, and an Arabic bazaar look touched up with cyborgs of all shapes and sizes. Battle Angel is totally loyal to the aesthetic of the manga with the exception of a lack of clutter and squalor. Iron City, or Scrapyard as it was called in the books, was built under the waste pipe of a floating city. That waste became the city’s treasure and resource for everything, which is why furniture, gadgets, and such are made of scrap. The movie retains some of the look from the manga, but not enough to really standout.

Another aspect of note is the tone. Rodriguez always applies an air of levity to his work, even when dealing with relatively serious subject matter. You can tell he meant for Battle Angel to be an adventure of Alita discovering who she was and figuring out who she wants to be. She is intensely naïve and the biggest chunk of the film is spent finding her own way and coming to understand how complicated people can be. When things get very serious, Alita has more or less matured at the same time. That levity at the beginning was a perfect set-up because we could feel what Alita was feeling after waking up in a new body and no memory. It also helps that Rosa Salazar was the perfect casting choice.

As for the action, to elaborate on my previous statement, get ready to have fun. Combat is based entirely in melee because guns are forbidden in the film’s setting. Alita was always partly a kung-fu story with graceful and elaborate choreography in manga form. This comes through very well on screen with a handful of fantastic fight scenes and the story’s emphasis on Alita’s hand-to-hand prowess. One sequence involved a sport called motorball that could be a major plot point in a sequel. That being said, sometimes the choreography is stilted, where the actors hesitate like they are expecting a cut or waiting for their costar to make their move. When the fights are fully animated it looks fine because the motions are perfectly timed. Christoph Waltz, for example, is so awkward trying to swing around a giant rocket-sledge.

Another issue is how Battle Angel conveys information. Alita is a great audience surrogate who needs everything explained to her, but it never comes naturally. There is always an instance where characters outright tell her exposition like they are tour guides. Granted, this happens more than once in the manga, but the great thing about film is you do not have to say anything to convey information. What works in one medium fails in another. This does not just happen with Alita, but other characters talk to each other like they are also amnesiac newcomers.

This issue is tied to the film’s best quality in terms of adaptation. Battle Angel takes the first three volumes of the manga, and combines them in much the same way as the OVA back in 1993. There are also additional story elements that set-up future installments like motorball and the series’ main villain. Unlike 2017’s Ghost in the Shell, Battle Angel mixes its inspirations in a fluid blend that does not hurt pacing, and retains the substance of the source material. That being said, those first three volumes of the manga were packed to brim is mountains of information that the film struggled to convey. For fans like myself, I could not be more pleased. For moviegoers, you will find the excess information and how it is dished out hard to digest.

That last sentence epitomizes how I would recommend Alita: Battle Angel. If you are a fan or someone that has been waiting for a great anime movie adaptation, this is the best you are ever going to get. For everyone else, if you like superhero films and want something different, this is for you. Battle Angel is a fun little experience with a nice story about growing up. The mound of exposition is awkward, but it does not take away from the overall presentation. I recommend giving Battle Angel your attention because how many movies spend 19 years in development and come out this good?

Advertisements

Binge Review 9: Marvel’s The Punisher: Season 2

Here we go again.

With Frank’s revenge well and truly gotten, the season that followed was in a great place for introspection. Instead of regurgitating the same “being a killer is wrong” and “why can’t you stop killing” dreck that permeates the Walking Dead from episode to episode, season two of Punisher got into the actual motivation behind Frank’s vigilantism. I would rather not spoil how the show approaches the subject, but if you have read my other Punisher related posts, it would not be hard to imagine.

Season two is a remarkable improvement in quality. The narrative is not convoluted with five different plots happening at the same time and settles for the standard three. First you have Frank’s story, then Jigsaw’s, and a new character named Amy, a teenage con artist on the run from a mysterious hitman. Each episode devotes an equal amount of time to each plot without feeling too bloated, but not as often as anyone would like.

I understand the demand to fill time in 13 one-hour episodes. In school, I was taught you need to not only write complete stories, but also space them out between commercial breaks. All entertainment is based around a blueprint that has worked since Man learned to draw on cave walls. Everyone follows this blueprint, but like all the Marvel Netflix shows, there is a consistent issue of each show having too much space to fill.

While the story is not convoluted, the show spends so much time on its three plotlines that it becomes a slog. Rather than compartmentalize the plots with Frank’s character exploration as a framing device in a comfortable nine episode run, we get thirteen where different elements of each plot tag-teams converge. What you get is a season that flows about as well as bowels packed with concrete. The show is still better than before, but it is a chore to watch.

Jon Bernthal remains the best incarnation of the character since Ray Stevenson. His signature intensity has made his take on Frank wholly his own and I could not be happier. However, Ben Barnes’ version of Jigsaw took me completely by surprise. Instead of a villain that is a little more deranged than your average goodfella, Jigsaw is extremely traumatized from what happened to him last season. He has no recollection why Frank slashed his face and cannot remember events up until the maiming. Jigsaw lashes out at his therapist, has constant mood swings, and endures spats of pain. He is in pieces, but as he puts it all together, he develops into a great foil for Frank’s own journey.

The action scenes received a well-deserved upgrade with more brutal, close-quarters combat. Almost every episode Frank is stabbing or smashing someone and bathing in their blood. He also never walks away unscathed, either sliced or plugged with a hole or two. It is really a credit to the character as a hero that does not care about personal injury or that he is vulnerable. Frank wants to get loud and nasty.

The downside is relegated to the gunfights. As you probably know, I am a gun owner and an Effects Nazi, and I can tell when real blanks and squibs are being used. It is hard to fake unless you have a great VFX team. On the subject of bad gun effects, the Walking Dead does not hide the fact they use fake guns because, somehow, the production could not get real guns and blanks in RURAL FUCKING GEORGIA! There are airsoft weapons that simulate blowback and/or recoil and they could not have bothered buying just a few for less than grand of budget.

Jesus Christ.

Taking into account Punisher was shot in a New York, it is understandable that the best practical weapon effects could not be utilized and the show made due in both seasons. The issue with the gunfights is they are poorly choreographed. Early on no one acts like they know what they are doing. They just stand around holding rifles poorly before getting shot. Then there are scenes where muzzle flashes and accompanying sound effects are out of synch or poorly timed. Actors fall over before they are supposed to be shot or they are shot and do not fall down at the right time. Chalk it up to poor editing, but if maybe the guns functioned in a way the actors could see and hear them go off, you would not have much of a problem to begin with.

I also have a personal problem with how Frank is portrayed in the gunfights. 80% of the time he uses the same pistol over and over in a C.A.R. stance, where he is holding the gun to his face. This method works in the John Wick movies, but it looks stupid and everyone in the show does it. How about hold the gun like you are not trying to give yourself permanent hearing damage? When Frank is given a rifle it is a breath of fresh-air and adds a little diversity. In the comics he uses a variety of weapons depending on the situation, but all he has on the show is a pistol.

Lastly, and this is something I intentionally neglected to mention in my review of the first season, the Punisher costume sucks. In fact, it has sucked since its introduction in Daredevil. Nobody makes body armor like that. Not because it does not look practical, but because it looks stupid. There are exposed adjustable straps at the front, some shell loops that are not big enough for any caliber of ammunition, and there is no webbing for attachments like modern body armor.

This is kind of unfair, but if you look at this shot from the Edmondson/Gerads run of Punisher, Frank is wearing gear that works for his job.

imageproxy

He has a plate carrier with ammo pouches painted with his signature skull and a hitcoat to protect his arms. The man is dressed practically and it looks cool because Frank makes it look cool. He is a military man that does not need fancy high-tech crap that looks like it was made by a cross-eyed cosplayer. He needs something that will keep working in hazardous situations and there is nothing more practical and foolproof than genuine military gear. I apologize to the costume designers, but if my own Punisher vest looks better than the one you made for big budget show, it is time to go back to the drawing board.

I thought about going in depth into the pre-release controversy, where people promoting season 2 were saying one of the characters is Alt-Right, but I decided otherwise. I will say, however, the character in question played by Josh Stewart is a reformed Neo-Nazi and born again Christian. That is not Alt-Right. The Alt-Right does not give a shit about Christianity, most of them are Pagans or Atheists, and they care even less for Neo-Nazis, a catchall for gang-bangers that hate each other more than non-whites. This controversy was just manufactured outrage to drum up viewers from a demographic that do not watch these shows in the first place.

Despite the pacing issues and bloated runtime, Punisher season two is a great watch. The lapse in better action takes away from the appeal, but seeing Frank and Jigsaw’s dueling progression into who they really are was better than the best gunfights last season. If you can make it through the slog, the show is worth your time. Oh and be sure to skip over the parts with Madani because they still suck.

Binge Review 8: Bodyguard

In a world of Mary Sues entertainment media is going through a draught of flawed protagonists. What I mean is characters that are damaged, not ones that can take damage like John Wick or Marvel heroes. There is nothing more relatable than a character that is a little broken, not a perfect Adonis with everything going right in life that knows all the right answers. Real people feel fear and anxiety and there are not a whole lot of protagonists that contemporary writer’s are brave enough to bend and break. David Budd from Netflix’s Bodyguard is who we have been looking for.

About the same time I am writing this, actor Richard Madden just received a Golden Globe for his performance as Budd. To say it is totally deserved would be an understatement. Those six episodes had some of the finest examples of acting in recent memory. Madden went from a very run-of-the-mill part on Game of Thrones to a deeply complex and harrowing role. The range on display throughout Bodyguard is a credit not only to him, but the writer that put Budd on paper.

What you get is a character with a long history of trauma from his service in the military that destroyed his marriage. Instead of his experience making him an expert like we see all too often, it actively hinders his ability to function. That is not to say he fails constantly, but his anxiety affects how he responds to various situations. Each episode he struggles to maintain the appearance of composure, even as he is panicking and the odds are stacked against him.

Wrapped around the complexity of Budd is one of the best political/action thrillers out there. For any otaku reading this, imagine Jin-Roh if it were set in modern day Britain, and involved Muslim terrorists. It is not just a show about a guy protecting a VIP from would-be conspirators, but a layered narrative of intrigue. One way or another, everyone involved has something to do with something, and maybe not in the ways you think. The whole affair is surprisingly easy to follow as the show goes on.

There is also a consistent feeling of satisfaction from episode to episode. It is hard to explain, but you feel so fulfilled by what happens because you learn so much about the mystery, and Budd’s character. There is never a dull moment with scenes of tension replacing potential action sequences. Bodyguard could have been a procedural action show, but miraculous makes scenes of dialog and intrigue easily consumable and intense. For me personally, it was also satisfying to see a Scotsman surpasses Englishmen in competence despite his issues. It is like Braveheart, but with a smaller body count.

If you watched the Golden Globes and wondered who and why Richard Madden won Best Actor in a Drama Series, you owe it to yourself to check out Bodyguard. There are many movies and shows that do the same thing, but thanks to one fantastic performance and a very well written narrative, this show is stands above the rest. If you have a subscription to Netflix, you have no excuse to not look it up.

Editorial 41: Frank Castle, Ubermensch 2

So, the site in which this article was posted disappeared and all its contributor’s work with it. Thankfully, I have the original final drafts of what I wrote, including my favorite Punisher-related article. Enjoy.

* * *

Any time I have the opportunity to talk about Punisher I go all out. Of the Marvel Pantheon, he is the most interesting character with great depth that many readers overlook. Garth Ennis was the first to delve into Frank Castle’s psychology in Punisher MAX, exploring his transformation during the Vietnam War and time as a vigilante. After reading so many comics, I have come to the conclusion that Frank is a Nietzschean Superman.

To the uninitiated, Fredrick Nietzsche was a philosopher that pioneered the concept of nihilism, the belief that morality means nothing because they are ideas adopted on the basis of human ignorance. He really spoke to me growing up and influenced how I see the world today. My knowledge of Nietzsche is cursory to say the least, so I recommend doing your own research.

One of his more famous concepts is the Superman or Ubermensch, introduced in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The Superman is an individual that can transcend the bounds of common belief and operate on his or her own terms. They are completely independent and function on logic alone, forming a set of values that supersede those of the majority, and shaping their destiny.

In fiction and history there are positive and negative examples of the Ubermensch. The Founding Fathers, Napoleon, and Hitler overcame society and did what they wanted. Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now discarded morality for instinct to fight the Vietcong. The Emperor from Warhammer 40k developed the logic based Imperial Truth to unite disparate human worlds across the galaxy. The Brotherhood of Steel from Fallout worshiped technology because it means salvation for the Wasteland.

The Superman concept fits right in with the pseudo-objectivism of superheroes. A hero using their powers to save people could be a form of showing how much better they are. Does Clark Kent really care about humanity or does he enjoy being revered? Why else would Batman enforce his own justice if not to assert his values? Does Captain America use his inherent symbolism as a way to show others how to act and behave? Though cynical, it is hard to deny the underlining motivations of vigilantes. What really drives someone to take up a symbol, a set of principles, and enforce it upon the people they do not like?

Castle’s transformation into a Nietzschean character happened in Vietnam. Overtime, he could not live without war because he loved fighting. In the story Born, America was pulling out and Frank actively prevented his unit from leaving their post. Later his war ended, but when he returned home, the incident that killed his wife and children forced him back into the mindset of a soldier.

He is driven by a bloodlust resulting from PTSD. Usually soldiers at home will want to go back to the front because that was the last place they felt normal. You spend a year in place where everyday could be your last and when you transition into a whole other environment, it can be difficult to accept the change. Hunting Vietcong was Castle’s normal and after his family was murdered, he saw the gangsters, murderers, and child molesters as Vietcong. Even after getting revenge he kept going because he believes he is fighting a war and does not want to stop.

Frank’s set of values as an Ubermensch is based on basic justice and pure instinct. His motivation is very simple: If you are evil, you die. He has no problem murdering someone for even associating with people connected to a major crime. He killed his partner Microchip because he worked for a heroin kingpin and executed a thug that helped him infiltrate a gang hideout.

He sees the world in a black and white moral spectrum. Castle thinks you are either totally bad or totally good with no in-between. When dealing with good, he acts with a compassion that penetrates his stoic demeanor. He was once a family man and when reminded of that life, he regresses into a father or husband. Frank is selective about what he cares about, but he actually cares and feels emotion. Mother Russia has the strongest example where he rescues a little girl from a missile silo and prevents her from seeing the worst of him. When fighting off waves of Russians, he made sure the girl was nowhere in sight of the violence and safe.

Castle holds so close to his values that there is no room for hesitation. He is a practical man, using his training as a soldier to function in all aspects of life besides work. If he owes someone a favor or they have something he needs, Frank is willing to play nice, which happened a lot in Punisher MAX. He is dismissive about working with others and moves on once he gets what he wants.

There is also no feeling behind his need to punish because to him it is normal. It takes a very specific event to really compromise Castle’s cold exterior. One time was a mobster filming himself defiling the corpses of his family. Another was a prostitute telling her story about being a victim of human trafficking. In those instances, Frank’s stoic bearing broke and he was a different man all together. After the deed was done he returned to a state of calm.

We idolize heroic figures because they transcend our notions of humanity. Inside us is the power to be something more and all it takes is the will to do so. Fredrick Nietzsche believed that the Ubermensch was the next step in human evolution as we drift further away from our primordial roots. Frank Castle is just one of many possibilities if we are to realize our potential. He may not be the most ideal, but even damaged of individuals have the capacity to become heroes.

The Books Are Better: The Walking Dead (1)

I was at military school when the first season of The Walking Dead (TWD) premiered. No one had access to cable, but on Thanksgiving break I used my sister’s Hulu account to watch the first episode. Later I bought the season on DVD. Before then I was a fan of the comics the show is based on. It was 2010 and in the comics, Rick and company were about to enter Alexandria, which did not happen until Season 5. I knew what to expect, but Season 1 was a fantastic adaptation of Volume 1. A year later came the trailer for Season 2 and I hoped for another exceptional bit of television… until I sat down and watched it.

I touched on the subject of show versus comics on a friend’s blog some time ago. I got into the broader differences, but here I want to get into the minutia of each season and the volume it follows. I would like to try and analyze the whole series, maybe two or three per new post. It will give me something comic-related outside of Punisher to write about and give you new stuff to read.

Here we go

Scan

Themes

If you look at the front covers of TWD book collections there is the subtitle “A continuing story of survival horror.” That one sentence epitomizes what the comics are all about. It takes ideas from the original Dawn of the Dead from George A. Romero and takes them to their logical extreme. What if a zombie apocalypse actually happened and how would it affect real people, who have never known starvation or been in a survival situation? That is and has been TWD since its publishing 15 years ago.

Being real people means the characters have emotional baggage. They find love, lose it, move on, and go crazy. All the while the characters are in a constant fight against the elements, starvation, and hordes of undead. How they cope with this new reality informs who they become and how they act towards fellow survivors. To quote the comic’s tagline, “In a world ruled by the dead, we are forced to finally start living.”

Being character oriented and set in a hostile world, TWD does not shy away from putting survivors in danger. While zombies are slow and easy to kill, they are never taken lightly. The same can be said for other survivors. More often than not characters are killed or horribly maimed, no matter how long they have been around or how much you like them. Everyone is expendable in TWD. This is not the Mad Max apocalypse; it is The Road with zombies.

Scan 1

TWD Season 1/Volume 1

This is the only case where the show is better than the comics. Unlike most new shows TV-TWD started out very well with film-quality production values. Thanks to director Frank Darabont and his crew, there is an atmosphere of widespread catastrophe that a lot of zombie movies fail to nail down. The world is quiet and empty where the dead have replaced the living. The sense of isolation even following live characters is so prevalent. Episode 1 alone has this feeling of hopelessness bearing down on you as Rick wanders the desolation in a daze.

On top of that, the first season is actually scary. Like a good monster movie there is an escalation to the threat. We do get a zombie in the cold open, but we do not understand the extent of their presence until later. After Rick wakes up, there is a great scene where he comes to a pair of chained doors and hands start reaching out from the opening, the sound of moaning growing louder behind them. This does take away from a great moment in the comics, but is very well utilized in the show.

The rest of the season’s frightening moments center on claustrophobia and how even open spaces contain veiled threats. Taking place in and around Atlanta, Rick and company contend with tight streets and alleys packed with zombies. Add on the scarcity of resources and vulnerability of most of the characters, even small encounters are dangerous. The zombies are a very real threat and you feel it from start to finish.

Scan 5

The atmosphere and horror is where TV-TWD surpasses the comics. Unless you are Junji Ito, it can be difficult to scare readers with static images or convey a feeling a constant dread. What author Robert Kirkman does is show horrific and disgusting things and puts the characters in dangerous situations. Granted, the art is beautifully disgusting, but it is hard to feel real horror and tension in drawn pictures.

The writing of the comics is also very technical aside from dramatic moments. Take the dialog from the original Dawn of the Dead about the characters trying to secure the mall and that is 60% of the comics. After all, it is a survival horror. This is where the show decides to balance the drama and the technical equally with neither overshadowing the other. This is the first and last time TV-TWD gets it right.

Where the comics were superior is in the characters Shane and Lori. In the show Shane is the archetypical bad-boy that was a perfect fit for actor Jon Bernthal. Lori, played by Sarah Wayne Callies, is a headstrong matriarch looking out for not only her son Carl, but also everyone in camp. Both fall flat compared to the comics in ways indicative of the series core themes.

Comics-Shane is basically Rick with darker hair and a larger build. There is nothing much in the way of personality that differentiates the two until after the zombie apocalypse. As mentioned before these are real people forced into a survival situation where everyone is on constant alert. Under these conditions, people will show you who they really are, and Shane shows himself to be jealous and envious of Rick. He’s a husband and a father who has all the right answers when it comes to leadership, something Shane knows he does not have, and he wants it all.

In the show, Shane does not seem concerned about leading and differs to Rick more often than not. The jealously is still there, but the actual shift from normal Shane to envious psychopath is fast in the comics, like it would be for real people. He wants what Rick has and Shane had it until Rick miraculously showed up at camp. Shane’s change in personality was so immediate that when he tried to kill Rick in Issue 6, a very young Carl blew his neck out without hesitation. In the show, Shane does not get what is coming until Season 2 after the remains of his character was butchered.

Scan 4

With Lori’s character in the comics, she is still a devoted mother and wife, but what is missing is the vulnerability. Call me sexist all you like, but when you’ve spent a chuck of your life growing up in a stable world and become a mother mere years before a zombie apocalypse, you are going to need help. Comics-Lori is focused on taking care of Carl and nothing else. She cares so much about him that because Carl is just 9 years old, she does not want him anywhere near guns, despite being the most useful tool at the moment. And when zombies eventually attack the camp, Carl has to save her.

Now, I am not saying it is a bad thing that TV-Lori is not dependent on men, but it makes more sense that she needs help while taking care of her son. And this may sound offensive to some people, but men usually do not expect anything of women because men tend to do the heavy lifting on their own. We do our part and women do theirs. That is just logic and TWD comics are very logical. In the show, it doesn’t feel right at all. TV-Lori strikes me as just another character that “don’t need no man” and does her own thing, including ignoring her son.

More on that when I cover Season 2.

The last issue with TV-TWD is the ending. On the season finale, Shane is still alive before Rick and company go to the CDC to find answers. They do not get their answers beyond things they already knew before the building self-destructs and the group moves on to find shelter. In the comics the CDC is never mentioned and once Carl kills Shane, the group moves on.

Honestly, I do not find anything wrong with the group going to the CDC. In fact, it makes a lot of sense if you are trying to figure out how to stop the zombies by scientific means. The group does not know if they are dealing with a virus or something biblical. They have no idea and the best place to find answers would be one that specializes in civilization-killing diseases. It is not a bad idea, but the way it happens in TV-TWD is rather corny given the tone of the show. Other than that, the first season is still great.

Scan 2

And that was the best start to a new show probably ever. Performances were great, especially Andrew Lincoln, and the effects are to die for. All of the zombies are wonderfully gross with make-up on par with Tom Savini’s work on Day of the Dead. They look like actual dead people undergoing necrosis like the comics. As days go by on the page, zombies appear more and more rotten. The earliest issues have zombies with color still in their eyes before it goes cloudy with time. Season 1 of The Walking Dead was truly the best the show was ever going to get…