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?

Movie Review: First Man

This is going to sound stupid, but I think the Moon is the most under appreciated celestial body in the Solar System. I like Mars and all, but it is years away, and we have a perfectly decent planetoid less than a week from us. It is too bad NASA did not bother sending more missions and establishing a settlement after a handful of successful landings. What no one realizes, what we often take for granted, is how far we had to go to before getting off the ground. And First Man is about that prelude.

While working as a test pilot Neil, played by Ryan Gosling, signs up to work on NASA’s mission to the Moon. As the years go by, Neil and his crew get closer and closer to reaching their goal.

Gosling is one of those actors that has one mode, but plays it very well. Keanu Reaves, for example, is very reserved and keeps a lot of his energy bottled up for when it is appropriate. Not to harp on the man’s talent, but outside of John Wick and The Matrix, Reaves is not suited for many divergent roles. Gosling, with the exception of Nice Guys, is also reserved and methodical in 90% of his performances, even when he has to be outgoing. If you have ever heard the guy scream, it sounds like he never raises his voice outside of acting.

This made him the perfect choice for the lead. Neil Armstrong was notoriously private, refusing interviews and keeping out of the public spotlight before and after the Moon landing. A lot is not known about the guy, but given his intense reclusion you can glean what Neil was like as a person. Being a character study more than a historical piece, Gosling could not have sold the part better.

Taking note from his performance in Drive, Gosling was almost robotic. He comes off very driven in his goal to reach the Moon, but uses it to cover a ton of emotional baggage. He immerses himself in his work to avoid dwelling on the past. The very beginning of First Man starts with the loss of Neil’s daughter, an event that informs his entire character. He emotionally confines himself, becomes erratic when something triggers the memory, and never expresses his feelings. You can feel and see it on Gosling’s face with no breaks in character.

The other part of First Man is the program leading up to the landing. It does not go terribly in depth, but enough that you understand we started from square one. So much went into just figuring out how to dock in orbit. The struggle for progress further informs Gosling’s character as people are killed in accidents and equipment is destroyed. The more NASA fails, the more Neil is determined to reach the Moon, furthering the dedication to his work and emotional reclusion.

Another great aspect of the program side is the effects. I would say almost all of them are practical with CG enhancement. Given the cinematography, that was the only way to go. The camera is centered around Neil and what he is doing, creating an air of claustrophobia when it comes to perspective. Any out of place effect or fakery would have looked obvious. For the flight sequences, Gosling is shot from inside real cockpits with real exteriors captured from whatever vehicle he is flying. For added realism, the backgrounds are the result of rear screen projection with quality on par with Interstellar. The only bad effect was a shot of Apollo 11 lifting off at the end.

Being a month late I cannot imagine this review will sway you to see First Man. It is very good, but came and went like most historical films. What I think separates it from the norm is not only the subject, but also how it is presented. What Neil Armstrong was like is a mystery to many and here we get a personal view of the man from his humble beginnings to the moment that made him a legend. It is really one of the few historical movies that bucks the formula and I think you should give it a second glance before it is gone from theaters.

 

Movie Review Catch-Up

So, it’s been a while since I wrote a review. On the one hand, I wanted to devote most of my time to polishing the first volume of Neon Oldie so I could put it up all at once. And between Deadpool 2 and the time of this posting, I have seen half a dozen movies. It has been four months and there were only six films that caught my interest. Call me a snob, but 2018 has not been great to say the least.

Anyway, here is a list of short summaries for the movies I neglected to review on time:

 

Soldado

A lot was lost with Villeneuve’s absence, but director Stefano Sollima did a good job creating an air of tension in what is ostensibly an action film. The nihilism of Sicario in regards to the Drug War is brought back and applied in small doses to the War on Terror, making a note to shed light on the people who pull the strings.

The only issue was the marketing team that decided to scrap the original name Soldado for Sicario: Day of the Soldado. It is about as retarded as Rise of the Tomb Raider or Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, which is why I am using the original title in this section. Lose your job forever, guys.

 

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

If you liked the first one, might want to skip this. I am fully aware that the Jurassic movies have become schlock and I am fine with that. The problem with World 2 is there is not an original bone in its body. Other than the first half, the second is Lost World with a fraction of the budget. It is a regurgitation of what we have already seen, but more outrageous, and less interesting. The moment the villains took the dinosaurs off the island, I checked out. Why bother making a sequel and not try anything original?

 

Ant-Man and the Wasp

It is no Winter Soldier, but pretty good overall. Unfocused as a comedy, but somehow works as an unorganized mess. A shame Edgar Wright was not there to make it work properly. If you want more Ant-Man with the addition of a sidekick and more size-shifting action, look no further.

 

Unfriended: Dark Web

Never saw the first one, but watched a long-form review online, and it looked dumber than hell. I saw Dark Web with some friends and it was surprisingly fine. I find the idea of hacking very interesting, especially in terms of hardware, and the movie got me hooked in a lot of ways. Of course, I am biased in that regard and there are elements people will find as dumb as the first. Still, I thought it was harmless and pretty fun if you want to see Internet autists kill idiots.

 

Mission Impossible: Fallout

While I am not a fan of spy movies, Mission Impossible is the exception in many ways. For one thing, it is not boring with an emphasis on action where the characters actually do cool stuff, rather than meander around acting cool. Fallout is definitely one of the better action films I have seen in recent memory.

 

Operation Finale

Many are not aware that after World War 2, Israel scoured the globe for Nazis that escaped justice at Nuremburg. Finale is about their most infamous capture, Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Holocaust. Rather than focus on the operation, the movie highlights the motivation behind people like Eichmann. From his point of view, he was following orders and upholding the values of the Third Reich. He knew what he did was evil, but to him it was for a good cause.

This makes the character a tad sympathetic and drains momentum from the subject. The man who organized the deportation of Jews to death camps was a glorified bureaucrat that did most of his work behind a desk. Compared to Dirlewanger, Mengele, and Heydrich, Eichmann comes off rather plane. Ben Kingsley played him well, but I found it very hard to hate his character or find him compelling. It would have been better if we could see the results of his actions to give him weight as a villain, but it was not there in any substantial way.

 

From here onward I am getting back into regular posts. Neon Oldie Vol. 2 will premiere in six months on March 17, 2019, I have something big for my international readers in the pipeline, and there are a handful of small projects I want to get off the ground.

See you soon.

Movie Review: Deadpool 2

I have said before that Deadpool in the comics is a joke that got old really fast. After about six issues of in-jokes and 4th Wall gags, it becomes clear there is nothing else to him. I am sure die-hard fans will correct me, but I do not care. I went into the Deadpool movie expecting to see the same humor, but in the context of film and was pleasantly surprised. Instead of talking about how aware he is of being in a movie every other scene, Deadpool had a mix of real jokes with hints of 4th Wall breaks scattered throughout. It turned out to be a great comedy thanks to Ryan Reynolds and I could not wait for a sequel. Was DP2 an improvement or has film-Deadpool gone the way of his comic book progenitor?

After getting mixed up with the X-Men, Deadpool finds himself caught in the middle of a temporal battle between a young mutant named Russell, played by Julian Dennison, and Cable, played by Josh Brolin, who comes back from the future to kill him.

To put it simply, imagine the first Deadpool, but more and you get DP2. Seriously, there is no other way to put it. There is more action, more gore, more jokes, and it does not feel bloated or derivate in the slightest. Everything that made the first great is also improved in quality with the self-aware humor utilized in a variety of clever ways. One of the best moments happens after the first set of end-credits and it was amazing.

The standard humor is enhanced by the introduction of a larger, more involved cast. Colossus has more to do, Russell has a sizeable role, and then you have Domino and Cable putting in their two cents. Each has their own ticks and personality that juxtapose Deadpool’s unique humor. Cable is the straight man, Russell a naïve kid, and Domino the closest DP2 gets to a real person. This allows Deadpool to bounce his jokes off others like a live audience, giving the humor a ton of added flavor. It could have turned into a reaction-fest like a Paul Feig movie, but thankfully, the cast is not made up of hacks.

After the departure of Tim Miller, David Leitch took over as director. Having past experience with John Wick and Atomic Blonde, he brought his eye for action to DP2. Given the powers of each character and ridiculous tone, he had a lot of room to be as creative as possible. I do not want to explain further because you should see for yourself, but get ready to enjoy yourself. I will say, as a fan of the Domino, her sequences could not have been more fitting.

As for issues, they are small, but not enough to really hurt the film. There is awkward dialogue in some places and certain lines I could barely understand because the score was so overwhelming. Not much, but I had to point them because you will notice them.

So, Deadpool 2 was great. I would not say it is better than the first because it stands its equal. Everything that made the first exceptional was pushed to the limit and carefully refined for maximum quality. It is better than most comedies and just happens to feature action to rival some of the classics. Definitely go see it and pay very close attention to everything because there are a ton of cameos from other actors.

Movie Review: Avengers: Infinity War

10 years ago I saw the first Iron Man in theaters with my dad. I was 15 years old, but the proceeding films had a massive influence on my late formative years. I got into comics thanks to MCU, opening up a whole new world of storytelling that changed me as a writer. Some of the most impactful books I have ever read are comics and the movie franchise that started it all is about to reach its ultimate climax.

While on the hunt for the Infinity Stones, the Mad Titan Thanos, played by Josh Brolin, travels to Earth to recover the last of the stones. His arrival signals all the heroes to come together to stop him.

Infinity War is technically the first of two parts, but it feels like the MCU’s greatest experiment. These films have been coming out for a decade with dozens of characters and continuity threads brought together into one movie. I cannot fathom the mental gymnastics required to pull off such an immense feat. It is not just a question of juggling an ensemble, but an ensemble with layers of continuity that influence the shared world.

As a comics reader Infinity War has a lot in common with an event story, a one-shot arc where most of the characters in the Marvel Pantheon assemble for a universe-changing story. A few notable events include Civil War, Secret Invasion, and AvX. The Avengers films are also event stories, but on a smaller scale in the context they bring together whoever showed up in the last few movies. With Infinity War, it is more appropriate to think of it as an event, taking in the whole of the MCU for one half of an epic story.

Not unlike Star Trek: Beyond, the film takes control of the ensemble by pairing up characters into different groups, and setting them off on their own adventures. Thor joins the Guardians, Iron Man with Dr. Strange, and Captain America teams with Black Panther. Then the groups splinter into smaller teams to achieve their own objectives, sometimes running into others along the way. This is where Infinity War shines because you have characters with years’ worth of development bouncing off of each other. Their interactions are rife with clever banter, emotional intensity, and arguments on how to approach an objective. It is the essence of the MCU taken to its logical extreme without feeling overwhelming.

While Infinity War has everything we have seen before, it is the first time we get to know Thanos. In the comics he was one in a long line of villains that love Death and/or want to die. To achieve this goal he decided to be a genocidal maniac. I never liked him, but Brolin’s Thanos is rich in depth. His motives go far beyond being bad to be bad or that he wants to die. He has a grand vision and the sacrifices he makes take a very clear toll on him as a person. Despite the character being entirely CG, this is Brolin’s best performance since No Country for Old Men. Not even kidding. Thanos is the best part of Infinity War and the reason to see it.

There is one hang up that may be a problem. Being so dense with characters and tons of great action to rival Winter Soldier, there is a lot to digest. Get ready for the longest 160 minutes of your life. However, it is probably for the best because Infinity War could have (should have) been much longer. It was the correct choice to focus on Thanos, but he has a quartet of minions that are visually distinct and nothing else. I read the story that the film takes its name and those minions have unique names and reasons for joining Thanos. In their cinematic incarnation, we hear only one of their names and no more character development beyond they serve Thanos. If you see the movie and want more, check out Jonathan Hickman’s event story of the same name.

Like always I am keeping this short because Infinity War is good. Why give everything away when it would hurt the experience? It is the culmination of 10 years of movies full of characters and continuity brought together in a single film and it is just the first half to an epic climax. Go see it immediately.

Muh book:

http://a.co/0KBwIxA

Movie Review: Isle of Dogs

Wes Anderson. Dogs. Stop-motion. That is all you need.

After the dog population in the city of Megasaki reaches its peak, the mayor orders the deportation of all dogs to a waste disposal island. Desperate to see his dog Spots again Atari, the adoptive son of the mayor, flies to the island to get him back.

I have said before that execution informs originality. We have reached a point in storytelling where all narratives are essentially repeats of each other. The way we are able to differentiate one story from another is how we tell them. Christopher Nolan put a realistic crime-drama spin on Batman. Son of Saul was a Holocaust story shot entirely from behind a man in Auschwitz. Sicario was a Drug War thriller in the guise of a suspenseful horror movie. All these stories have been told before, but we remember them because of how they were told.

It is impossible to forget a Wes Anderson film. Even if you hate the guy, his work will remain at the back of your mind because his style is so unique. His precision and attention to detail is unparalleled. The sets, cinematography, and editing have this character that defines Anderson as an artist, and it has been there since his rise to notoriety. Moonrise Kingdom, Royal Tenenbaums, and Grand Budapest are wholly distinct and you will never forget them.

Isle of Dogs is Anderson on steroids. Given the medium, he has complete control of how everything looks including the props, characters, and sets. His technical signatures make the transition with plenty of tableaus, wide static shots, and humorous editing all present and accounted for. Isle is pure auteur cinema and the only limit was Anderson’s imagination.

More importantly, the movie is entirely handcrafted. Stop-motion is the pinnacle of cinematic art. One minute of footage can take hours of coordination and posing by animators and Isle is 101 minutes long. The faces of the characters, which were hand sculpted, had to be changed for every expression and the individual strands of dog hair had to be pressed in. The art form alone makes Isle worth your consideration, as well as any other stop-motion film. Seriously, give these movies your attention.

Again: Wes Anderson. Dogs. Stop-motion. Go see it. However, Yoko Ono voices a minor character. If you like the Beatles, that may be a problem.

Muh book:

http://a.co/0KBwIxA

Movie Review: 7 Days in Entebbe

When it comes to modern warrior cultures, Israel is right up their with Russia and the US. Since the country’s birth in 1948, it has been in constant conflict with neighbors, and enemies from within. Israel is small and outnumbered and yet its people remain to this day. They never start fights, but when enemies act up, they are punished with expert precision. Like its contemporaries, Israel also has the capacity to build bridges. It made peace with Jordon, ceded the Sinai Peninsula back to Egypt, and gave up the West Bank and Gaza Strip to Palestine. There are many historical examples of the country’s resilience and 7 Days in Entebbe is about the most well known.

After terrorists hijack an airplane full of Israeli citizens, the IDF plans a high-risk operation to rescue them. At the same time, the government contemplates resorting to peaceful negotiation.

With a subject like Operation Entebbe there was only one way the filmmakers could have gone about it. You have the actual raid on the airport, but there are the broader ideological elements that tie everything together. The Palestinians hate the Israelis, they hate the Palestinians, and the German Antifa think Israel is a fascist state (irony is too small a word). There are a lot of moving parts and regardless of your stance on the issue, it is important to give both sides their due.

7 Days has a lot in common with Spielberg’s Munich. Both films take into account the underlining ideological conflict and show where both sides are coming from. Israel is defending itself because it wants to exist, whereas Palestine is on the offensive to regain what they lost. 7 Days takes this idea and devotes most of the runtime to fleshing out both sides of the conflict through the characters. By the twenty-minute mark you know where everyone is coming from and why.

The problem is the movie does not stop reminding you where they stand. Between both sides negotiating and planning for the inevitable raid, we are told over and over that Palestinians are oppressed, Antifa are hypocrites, and Jews are people too. We get it, but instead of exploring these ideas to their logical extreme, nothing changes and all we learn is “Don’t fuck with Israel.” I do not disagree with this sentiment, but the filmmakers missed a huge opportunity to say something interesting.

The cinematography of 7 Days puts you on the level of the characters, up close and personal in the anxiety of the situation. Thanks to great performances, you feel like you are right there with the characters. This is where the film plays to its strengths. Everyone feels real and human with clearly defined motivations that are made all the more personal by how close you are to their struggle.

Where 7 Days falters with its style is the raid scene. The actual engagement was about an hour long with more layers beyond what was shown. All we get is about ten minutes of action before it cuts to the end. Given the style and the raid, there was more than enough opportunity for intense action. Apparently, the director has the experience, but from what I saw, I am not convinced. It was an even bigger disappointment because we spend so much time on the planning phase of the operation and see only a small part of it. The church battle at the end of Anthropoid was an ordinary shoot out, but it is one of the best new action scenes in recent memory.

Divisive though it may be for some people, 7 Days in Entebbe is a good example how to handle a subject like the Arab-Israel Conflict. It presents both sides of the argument using an event that was a microcosm of the political/ideological war that’s been going on since 1948. If you like Munich and want something similar, go see it while it is still in theaters. Nobody else did.

Muh book:

http://a.co/0KBwIxA (amazon)

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/805662 (smashwords)