Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Alita: Battle Angel

Spoiler-free!

Alita, the girl, is a cyborg -- a sophisticated robot with a human brain, made 300 years before she is found in a garbage heap by Dr. Ido (Christoph Waltz) and reconstructed. She is a relic of a time past when things were made with care. And so is her movie.

They just don't make 'em like they used to anymore.

Alita is directed by Robert Rodriguez and written by James Cameron and Laeta Kalogridis. It's based on a manga, so this cyberpunk scifi adventure (I can't even type those words without smiling) starts out with established and already well-loved characters ready for adaptation. I can't speak as to accuracy, but I get a strong impression that it was done with buckets full of TLC, based on the results. There are beautifully minute details, expert pacing, clever turns and subtle foreshadowing, and I didn't except almost anything it does. And it retains a distinct Japanese feel, from the world, to plot points, to tone, and right down to characterization; the heart and soul of the story.

The greatest of its characters is its protagonist, played through motion-capture by Rosa Salazar. I only knew her from The Maze Runner series where she was fine, though those movies are certainly not for showing off acting chops. And after watching the Alita trailer I had doubts over believability, characterization, and the design that made her eyes so big. Then the movie proved all those doubts unfounded one by one. At times I tried to imagine the mo-cap pajamas, but the standard was that my brain believed what it saw, and I had to try and twist it to see it as fake. Especially when live-action characters touch her casually and you can see the weight and existence of her. Motion-capture has always been fascinating to me, and it continues to make impressive advancements.

You can see Salazar in her effortlessly. And she is charm itself. 

But even then, characterization is where I was most wowed. I wish I was thirteen again, or that I could send this movie back in time to thirteen-year-old me, because she would have fallen hard for this movie, and the girl who powers it. Alita is naive, charming, tenacious, confident, totally unflappable, and as weird a moment as it was, my favorite part of her became clear when she declared that she gives all or nothing. She loves people with everything she has, or she fights them, and there's no in between. And she makes wise decisions over who falls in which category. She has faults and obstacles to overcome, and a spectacular origin story arc to do it in.

I was entranced by the balance of her; her sweet smiles and open heart (sometimes literally) countered by her ferocious and ruthless power, and her unwavering decisiveness. Thirteen-year-old me could've used a decisive fictional role-model. And after all that, the eyes that I raised an eyebrow at in the trailer... well they became as essential part of her. And with that realization I began to understand the care that must have gone into this film. She and her film weren't just haphazardly chopped together, but whoever made the decision to include her appearance so accurately must have known her well enough to understand how vital it was. It wasn't some lame excuse to use more mo-cap; it was the backbone of the whole story.

There's life behind those animated eyes. And that's the magic of motion-capture; it's made to capture motion, and somehow captures the soul too. 

The characters that surround Alita are there to support her, and it's within that role that they feel full and engaging. I've never liked a Christoph Waltz character more (though I do usually see him play bad guys) and I was eternally impressed by the love interest not being there only to be a love interest. Often the fate of female love interests but now feminism has only flip-flopped the problem; but this is a rare case. Hugo (Keean Johnson) doesn't cease to exist when he's not by Alita's side, is important to the plot beyond being a thing to fall in love with, has character, and to my gleeful surprise, even has good chemistry with her. Their side of the story is cheesy, sweet, compelling, and even has real stakes.

Alita's relationship with Dr. Ido is also compelling, has some neat twists to it, and some real-feeling moments of conflict. Rebellious teenager and everything. Those three make up the center of the movie. On the outside is people like Mahershala Ali and Jennifer Connelly, who you could say were underused, but they work within their confides and do a good job. There's also Jorge Lendeborg Jr. who was totally normal (why oh why couldn't he have been like that in Bumblebee??) and Lana Candor who I think should pop up in more random movies. Ed Skrein made an extremely fun and uber cool villain, and Jackie Earle Haley was the big physical villain for fighting. Oh, an Eliza González of Baby Driver was there for a hot second too.

I honestly expected the romance to be an eye-roller. And it kinda was. But I fell for it anyway. It was a good eye-roller.

Even the naysaying grumpy old bores who don't like this film readily admit that it's an impressive feat concerning visuals and action sequences. I honestly expected there to be full-blown battles in this somehow, but wound up loving how static and small-scale it was. The biggest action was this hardcore sport called Motorball, that's like a roller derby mixed with basketball on a NASCAR track from hell. It's exactly as awesome as it sounds, and reminded me a bit of Speed Racer. The combat fights were typically one-on-one which is exactly my speed. They were small, and get personal fast. And brutal even faster. The PG-13-level violence shocked me every time, and the movie makes serious choices that it can't take back. And it makes them boldly.

It did things that I didn't want it to do and made me deal with it, and with that earned my full respect. I have a few complaints that boil down to personal taste rather than anything actually flawed, but can be summed up in that I wanted more. It seemed like Alita herself soaked up a lot of the budget, and while I am glad of the more intimate plot, the scale could've gone bigger visually for my money. The look of it was neat and certainly cyberpunk, but a clearer style and cleaner, more striking cinematography could've turned this compelling story populated by lovable character into an absolute trifecta of science fiction. Still, if budget was what prevented that, they made the cuts in the right place.

I love high aesthetic in my scifi, but character and story should and do come first. Anyway, there's slow-mo shots like this so who's to complain? 

I also want more in that I hope a sequel gets made. I'm tired of movies that only exist to sequel-bait, but I'll readily defend this, as that's not at all the case here. This movie was an origin story, and couldn't have existed without this first chapter. Though it leaves us with the impression that bigger things are to come, it stands on its own with a whole, completed plot; builds itself up carefully through emotional journeys, and developing characters and relationships; and doesn't leave anything unexplored in order to tease.

A beautifully versatile movie, it perfectly mirrors Alita's personality, hitting beats of silly camp, then melodrama; one second it's sweet and cute, and the next unexpectedly, disturbingly dark. It takes itself seriously, but is fun and unafraid to play around. Like its amazing and unique heroine, it's made with care of craftsmanship; and like its heroine, it works hard to discover what exactly it is, and then it is that, exactly, with undeterrable passion, and a heart that will never fail.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Dark

Spoiler-free!

When Jonas Kahnwald returns to school in the quiet town of Widen, Germany on November the 4th, 2019, all his schoolmates think he spent the last two months in France, but that isn't true. Really, he spent the time in a psychiatric hospital trying to recover from the trauma of his father hanging himself in the attic that August. All he missed was a local boy, Erik, going missing -- oh, and his best friend Bartosz is now dating the girl he likes, Martha. Things don't seem to be looking up, but at least they know where Erik kept his drug stash -- out by Widen Caves. A group of them go out there after dark, and some strange sounds and a wild sprint back to safety later, another of their number is missing. This time, Martha's younger brother Mikkel.

A German-language Netflix show, directed by Baran bo Odar, co-created with Jantje Friese.

What follows for the next nine episodes is a breathtaking downward spiral of ever-increasing complexity and interweaving madness that will leave your head spinning. There are so many elements going on in this show that I can't possibly hope to cover all of them. I'll stay away from plot for no spoilers, and unfortunately can't talk much about the characters either for the same reason -- plus there are just plain too many of them. Nearly 20 could easily count as main characters, and they all have their motivations, secrets, and conflicts with each other. At the center is always Jonas (Louis Hofmann), but even he doesn't appear in two of the ten episodes, so wide is this show's scope. Ulrich Nielsen (Oliver Masucci), Mikkel's father and a detective looking for the missing kids, is the only person in all ten.

So, it's down to quality, technique, tone, and vibe then -- and I could talk about the latter two all day, but let's start at the top. I'm not sure how big a production this was in Germany, but it was either impressively big or incredibly efficient with what it had, because it comes across as massive. It opts for practical effects over digital whenever possible, and invests strongly in what it has. The casting director (Simone Bär) deserves a medal; you rarely see such obvious care put into the amassing of a cast, let alone one this big and this capable. And the score caught my notice by being so strange and mood-setting with odd percussion sounds, and weird airy hoots and screeches. Then the soundtrack is occasionally obscure and always to die for.

Some German, some English, some 80's classics, and some strange to amazing modern stuff.

Writing is clearly exceptional. I am amazed at how masterfully this complex plot was doled out for a steady build of wonderment. Every reveal has maximum impact. And I have to say I loved hearing the German language spoken by normal people. More often I hear it in WWII pics where it's made to sound as harsh as possible, but here it's so laid back and beautiful. Rich, with an edge, just like the show itself. Though I'm sure at least a little is lost in translation, the lines are smart but not showy, and nicely cryptic, forgoing blatant exposition, so many connections in the plot are made in reverse, which is a remarkably satisfying thing to accomplish.

The scifi elements are presented with such realism, and the character's reactions to them are the perfect level of confusion and acceptance that things never come too easily, but no one's annoyingly obtuse in understanding either. Objectively the show is paced slowly, but as you watch it, it feels relentless, like if you don't keep up, you'll be left behind. No serving things up on a platter here; we must dive in with the characters to discover and piece things together. Nicely, the show does give us the required information to solve a mystery before the character does, and this slow accumulation of clues helps. The first time I watched it, I was on the verge of being lost the whole time, and the mental challenge it presented was thrilling.

Even just keeping track of who is in who's family was a fun challenge!

One of my favorite things this show does is probably at least partially meant to provide a break from the mental strain, and it is that in the 3/4 mark of every episode (or nearly every) the plot will pause, and the soundtrack will gear up to a thousand and play a moody piece of licensed music while the show casually checks in on its characters -- usually not doing anything particular except being moody. The show does have consistent style throughout, but it's these moments that really leave an impact as to how incredibly beautiful this show gets. It lays it on thick, and without an ounce irony; and it's mesmerizing. This show doesn't hold back, doesn't apologize, and doesn't need to. It's fascinating, and richly decadent.

My other favorite thing is how well the characters are handled. We get to know them all deeply, and whether our knowledge leads to love or hate for them, it's always done with subtlety -- with sympathy for the bad ones and flaws for the good. I found it wonderfully satisfying to harbor hate for one particular character, but it doesn't lack in villains. And I naturally invested with Jonas' story most, but there's no lack of lovable, sympathetic, and fascinating characters either. Character arcs are a strange thing, and often are completed out of order, so that the journey is only perfectly clear in retrospect. Theme is remarkable, and remarkably well done: I almost wish I could explain, but even with spoilers I'm not sure I could do it justice. It seems to go deeper than I could find the words or the time to describe. Suffice to say, it left an impact.

"What we know is a drop; what we don't, an ocean."

Dark is streaming on Netflix. I recommend it as a science fiction mystery and drama; bleak, but determined to entertain with every moment. Comparable to Stranger Things, but with less pop-culture and comedy, and for more mature audiences. Its relaxed pace and dark tone won't be for everyone, nor its complex puzzle of characters and rare mature content; but another season is on its way, so now's the time to catch up if it at all appeals to your sensibilities. For me, I'm excited to see where these characters will lead us next -- with new interweaving mysteries, a fresh bounty of mind-blowing twists, that sweet, sweet mood-setting soundtrack, and patent German style -- eager to discover what the future holds for this magnificent treasure of a show.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Velvet Buzzsaw

Spoilers are marked.

This movie is literally a critique of critics who are too pretentious to approve of anything released by Netflix, simply because of the casual, readily-available nature of Netflix automatically denotes them as low art, whether they're well-made or not. And the irony is, this movie is getting exactly the kind of criticism it condemns.

Written and directed by Dan Gilroy.

It's about the art world -- much like film art world -- run by the rich and influenced by the pretentious. Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllanhaal) is a critic and one such influencer. His reviews can make or destroy. He makes pretentiousness his signature style. Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) runs an art gallery. Josephina (Zawe Ashton) is her assistant. Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge) runs another gallery. and Gretchen (Toni Collette) represents collectors who lend their pieces to the galleries. Piers (John Malkovich) and Damrish (Daveed Diggs) are artists. Coco (Natalia Dyer) is a low-level assistant/receptionist, and Bryson (Billy Magnussen) is a technical repair guy.

One day, Josephina goes home to find her neighbor has died suddenly, and that his possessions are to be destroyed per his request. She happens to get a look inside his apartment and find that he was an artist -- and that his eerie work is exceptional. She takes it and hatches a plan with Rhodora to claim ownership and sell and show the work. Morf loves it. Everyone loves it. But the art is possessed with something. It moves; it burns itself; it infects other art and kills, Final Destination-style. It is, perhaps, possessed by the restless spirit of its creator, who wished it to be destroyed, not fawned over and sold for exorbitant prices by people who only care for it as a new, marketable commodity.

Just a couple artists appreciating some art...

On surface-level it is a fairly standard horror flick. Characters do bad things, and die in some kind of harsh justice or retribution exacted by the supernatural entity. Their interactions are mostly to establish what cold, backstabbing thing they're doing. Twists come along in their due time, and there is the natural, expected ebb and flow of drama and mystery. Pacing is exact; cinematography purposeful but not overly-showy or experimental -- it gives moments of simple subtle beauty. Death scenes are practically announced as they open, and then are played out in interesting but not particularly disturbing or overly-gory ways. The overlay of comedy these scenes take diffuses the horror too.

But then, dialogue is brilliantly hilarious, as everyone speaks in an artsy, highbrow way, so much so that I had to become accustomed to the way they spoke in order to understand what they were saying. Fortunately, the opening sequence is used to introduce characters and establish this hyper-language, so that once exposition is given through it, we've hopefully gained an ear for it, and don't get lost in extravagant articulations. This then flows into line delivery, which is every bit as brilliant, especially coming from Gyllanhaal, who continually made me laugh with his exact timing and detailed mannerisms. Meticulous, but relaxed. And Collette was almost equally good with far less time to work with.

"Kisses!"

Not everyone can be such extremes, but they were all excellent bits of casting, from the simple look that screams "douche" the moment you lay eyes on Jon Dondon (even the name is all you need!), to the subtle blank soullessness of Josephina. And they all have such unexpected moments of hilarity when they embody these caricatures of art world inhabitants. On this surface level, the film is odd, yet plays by the rules. The poking fun at stereotypes and absurdity of modern art has a dark humor flavor; yet the plot plays out by the numbers. You could almost say it doesn't take risks. But its point wasn't to be a risk-taking plot, or to break new ground within the horror tropes it uses, but to make a commentary using the medium, if you will.

See, this movie is very competent, and does exactly what it wanted to do, then it released through Netflix. I've long held the opinion that some critics tend to frown on any Netflix film simply because of its nature, and in the film Rhodora comments that they don't sell eternally viable commodities, but a mere perception. Netflix is a taboo that decreases the value of the art is distributes. In the film, they lie about how many pieces exist because the price rises if there are less. Netflix distributes to all; exclusivity increases value. And the film punishes characters who value the art only by what it's worth instead of what it means to them -- as art.

It deliberately sacrifices creativity to become the thing it is defending. It practically invites shallow criticism. It's kind of brilliant. 

At the end of the film -- mild spoiler here -- these paintings that had been fought and fawned over are being sold on the street for $5 a pop. But the fact remains: if it was good art before, it still is then. A lady and her man come by, are impressed by one, and very willingly fork over the few bucks for it; and you get the impression that they will suffer nothing for having it hang in their house, to appreciate as they walk by, day by day. Because that's what art is for.

As a horror flick, or even as a satire of the art world, this movie can't reach the standard expected of it. It perfectly well made, paced, filmed, and acted; but lacks that new, fresh quality that might denote it as Worthy Art. As a commentary on critical prejudices and defense of film as artful entertainment rather than something to own, boast of, and give prestigious awards to, it transcends itself. No, it's not Worthy Art -- for that is exactly what it despises.

Friday, February 1, 2019

Upcoming Movie Roundup - February

First month of 2019: done. I saw: Escape Room (review) and it was good! As I hoped, fun, involving, neat characters. Nothing groundbreaking but I had a fantastic time with it. And Io (review), which was a Netflix release, and that's the only reason I watched it, and it wasn't a total waste of time, but you know, I watch too much scifi anyway.

I didn't get to Glass because I never found a reasonable way to watch Split, so I guess I'm waiting on both of them. And I still do want to see the Kid Who Would Be King, but it seems only borderline worth a theater trip so I dunno.

Here's what looks good to me this month. Nothing I'm extremely excited for, but we'll see how it goes! Hope y'all's 2019 is off to a great start!


Velvet Buzzsaw
Feb 1st(netflix); R
I'm not sure I'm ready for another horror movie that has Toni Collette in it. Even if it is also a dark comedy and I definitely like those. I expect I'll get around to this one soon enough... but... not today. The cast is a big part of the appeal -- Toni, plus Jake Gyllanhaal, John Malkovich, Natalia Dyer of Stranger Things, Billy Magnussen... and the trailer at least has great style. Plus I'm always down for a movie that pokes fun at modern art.




The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part
Feb 8th; PG
No way I'm not seeing this, but I'd be shocked beyond belief if it has the same huge heart of the first one. It probably won't even be as original or as funny, but it can be comparatively lacking and still be an awesome movie, because the original left a ton of room below it! Whether they're great standalone films or just a fun Lego time, I'm glad to participate. The best part is probably going to be Chris Pratt also playing an amalgamation character of Star-Lord, Owen, and... Indiana Jones for some reason? That, or Lego Batman, cause he's the greatest.




The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then The Bigfoot
Feb 8th; NR
This is so strange yet it really looks like a genuinely good movie. Almost like it's ridiculous camp, but played ultra cool and seriously. Like a hardcore version of Big Fish. I dunno, I mostly want to see it just to see how it works! Sam Elliott and Aidan Turner play the man, and Ron Livingston is also there.




Cold Pursuit
Feb 8th(limited); R
Look I'm sure this movie will be fine -- in fact I'd bet it's going to be a ton better than most of what Liam Neeson has been putting out recently, but I would like to take this opportunity to do a PSA: That this movie is based on a Norwegian film called In Order of Disappearance, and it stars Stellan Skarsgård, and it's available for streaming on Netflix... and it was pretty darn good. But this'll probably be worth watching too. It's got good visual style and is keeping the dark comedy tone which is, ah, cool.




Happy Death Day 2U
Feb 13th; PG-13
Haha, well I haven't seen the first one yet, but now that they've made a sequel, and given it THAT title, I think I'm gonna have to watch both at some point. Looks like a fun time anyway. And it's got Josh from To All the Boys I've Loved Before in it! Was he in the first one too? I guess he had to be.




Isn't it Romantic
Feb 13th; PG-13
Rebel Wilson, who I pretty often find funny is a girl who hates rom-coms, hits her head (classic) and wakes up in a rom-com. This is the perfect movie for the rebirth of the rom-com we're witnessing right now. What I'd love to happen is for it to play out like a classic rom-com right through the end. She ends up with Adam Devine instead of Liam Hemsworth of course, but doesn't see it coming because she hates rom-coms so she doesn't understand the tropes well enough. So it's meta and can make fun of rom-com silliness, but ultimately embraces the light, sweet romance aspect that makes rom-coms great. If it does that, I'm there. I'm kinda there already anyway.




Alita: Battle Angel
Feb 14th; PG-13
I don't want to pass this one by just because the girl's face looks weird -- though it is very distracting in the trailer and inexpressive -- because I really, really, like scifi worlds like this one appears to have, and the whole movie kinda feels like a throwback to the best scifi actioners the early 2000's had, and I don't know, but it's all kind of appealing to me. Rosa Salazar leads, with Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, and Mahershala Ali. Kinda an old-school style cast too.




Mega Time Squad
Feb 15th(limited); NR
New Zealand sure does put out a special brand of comedy. It's like they relish how incredibly dorky they can be, and it makes everything cool for some unexplainable reason. In this one a guy is cursed with a time travel device, accidentally meets himself, and then keeps meeting himself until there's a whole bunch of them... and then they team up to fight the bad guys or whatever. I'm in. (Language warning for this trailer.)




How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
Feb 22nd; PG
Love the first one, second one's okay; this one's getting just as good reviews than the second so maybe it'll end satisfyingly. I'm kinda tired of watching the trailer which isn't a good sign, but the animation is as beautiful as ever, and if they story is good I'll be happy. I don't think anything could match the first one -- and it seems like they agree with me, since they put that bit from the first one in the beginning of the trailer.