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New films: Alita: Battle Angel and 5 current moviebriefs

Alita: Battle Angel
Directed by Robert Rodriguez

“Alita: Battle Angel” is directed by Robert Rodriguez (“Sin City,” “Planet Terror”) from a screenplay co-written by Rodriquez, Laeta Kalogridis (“Altered Carbon,” “Shutter Island”) and James Cameron (“Avatar,” “Titanic”) (adapted from a Japanese Manga by Yukita Kishiro). Not surprisingly, expectations or hopes have been high as a result, and this may be one of the film’s greatest weaknesses. Which is a shame because it’s a solid looking production that might well have been raved about if it had come from less well known filmmakers (think of the reaction to “District 9” for example).

Alita (Rosa Salazar in performance capture) is a young female cyborg rescued from a “Wall*E”-sized trash heap in the dystopian Iron City, where the citizenry toil in the shadow of Zalem, the last of the great floating cities. Rebuilt by Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz), a back street cyborg doctor, she has to learn who and where she is, and how to survive.

I haven’t read the Japanese source material but the film is still strange to watch because so much of it seems familiar or reminiscent of other films, from various eras. As those recollections flashed before my eyes, I was drawn primarily to an odd combination of “Pinocchio” and “Metropolis” and there was at least one scene where I half expected Alita to call Dr. Ido Geppetto. It’s also hard not to think of either version (1975 or 2002) of “Rollerball” given the similarity to Iron City’s cyborg gladiator-esque Motorball. But it’s a combination of themes that largely works, at least visually, and the film has a gritty robustness to it.

But it also has flaws. I enjoyed watching it, but as it unfolded, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it’s a setup to something bigger that’s intended to follow. And the characters don’t feel equally well written and, if one gave it enough thought along the way, you could probably predict deaths by how much depth a character has. Similarly, I’ve read criticism of Alita’s love interest Hugo (Keean Johnson), as poorly developed, but to be fair, it’s a character who is probably better developed then the girlfriend character would be in an action movie with a male lead. And the film does throw away a potentially fascinating opportunity to consider ability/disability and the use of prosthetics.

Overall, “Alita: Battle Angel” is fun to look at and is pleasantly coherent and solid, especially for a film with so many effects and a digital lead character. But it suffers from feeling like a fragment of something bigger. It would have been more satisfying, even if intended as the start of a franchise as it so obviously is, if it had felt more complete or if it had had a sense of closure, however temporary. And a character reveal at the end manages to be both a teaser and disappointing in the same moment – rather than simply building excitement, it reminds you that you’ve just spent two hours watching a prologue – something that perhaps wouldn’t matter as much with a more mainstream and well known source.


Happy Death Day 2U” falls victim to the often obnoxious trend of working sequel numbers into more involved titles, rather than simply being “Happy Death Day 2.” Which is a shame in a way because if it makes people not realize it’s a sequel, or miss out on “Happy Death Day” as I almost did, then not only will the new film make far less sense but they’ll also miss out on a pretty funny original. Billed as thriller/mystery/horror, both films are essentially slasher comedies, with the original being a self-referential masked killer version of “Groundhog Day” and the sequel being similar but with the repetition aspect cleverly amplified through a deeper time travel theme. Where the first treats the replaying of one day and the need to identify a killer as a cosmic glitch, the second explores the cause of the glitch while managing to maintain the humor and style. It was interesting watching this while half-way through the somewhat similarly themed “Russian Doll” on Netflix and I would recommend all of them if you like your comedies dark and deadly.

If you like your dark and deadly without the comedy, you might enjoy “Arctic” playing exclusively at the Tower Theatre. Not to be confused with the awful “John Wick” wannabe Netflix movie “Polar” – despite both having easily confused titles and starring Mads Mikkelsen. Arctic is a classic account of survival, like a snowbound version of Robert Redford’s sailboat disaster “All is Lost,” or a solo version of “Alive” with a more palatable menu. The lead performance and the photography are both pretty great and it’s one of those films that starts with you wondering if you could manage as well in similar circumstances but ends with you having a pretty well formed mental list of all the moments when you would have given up or made the less noble choice.

Getting back to dark/deadly/comedic as inseparable elements, “Cold Pursuit” starring Liam Neeson is a remarkably faithful remake of “Kraftidioten” (also released as “In Order of Disappearance”) starring Stellan Skarsgård. With the action shifted from Norway to an equally snowy stretch of Colorado, Neeson reprises the role of a snowplough driver who has just won citizen of the year for his dedicated service when he discovers that his son is the victim of a drug-related murder. The humor here is more in the dark delivery than in the content although the second film does suffer slightly from the fact that Neeson’s recent career has been typified by roles such as this one and so the remake loses a little surprise value as the violence escalates. I had been ready to dismiss this as another unnecessary and weak remake of a better film (as with the recent “The Upside”) but it’s surprisingly well done. And if you’d want to watch a pretty neat Norwegian dark comedy if only you didn’t have to read it too, then “Cold Pursuit” is likely for you. And the irony is that you’ll still have to read to really appreciate some of the humor.

Rebel Wilson stars in the light take down of romantic comedies “Isn’t it Romantic?” Natalie (Wilson) was raised to hate romantic comedies and the idea of perfect happy endings by her mother and is only too happy to explain their flaws to her far more glass half full assistant Whitney. Relying on the old bump on the head gimmick, the film drops Natalie back into a version of her world filled with the clichés of such films and, much to her chagrin, lacking any activities that wouldn’t get clearance under a PG-13 banner. It’s a well conceived parody that manages to lampoon the genre while existing squarely within it in a self-aware and effective manner.

Another slightly complicated sequel title (see also “Happy Death Day 2U” above) is found in “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part,” except that here there is greater justification. The title is an attempt to make sure you realize it’s a sequel specifically to 2014’s “The Lego Movie” and not the more recent Lego action themed movies (“The Lego Batman Movie,” “The Lego Ninjago Movie”). We’re back in the world of mild mannered construction worker Emmet Brickowski, except that everything isn’t quite as awesome this time around. At the end of the first movie, it’s revealed that the Lego world exists in a family basement, where a young son has been influencing his father’s creation. Now, five years later, the boy is older and the boy’s creation, and Emmet’s internal world, has taken on a “Mad Max: Fury Road” milieu, while his younger sister is somewhat stereotypically inclined more towards princesses and ponies. And as they struggle over who gets to play with the toys, the world of the toys themselves is thrown into turmoil. All of which manages to make sense but it’s too quick to remind us, too frequently, of the parallel worlds we’re watching – the world of the kids and the world of the toys. A little less continual revealing and a little more faith in the audience would have made for a better film and a better sequel.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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